February 29, 2012

The Helsinki Group's Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans

Following their 2010 conference on Cetacean Rights, the Helsinki Group put together a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans (which includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises). Their ten point declaration goes like this:

Based on the principle of the equal treatment of all persons; Recognizing that scientific research gives us deeper insights into the complexities of cetacean minds, societies and cultures; Noting that the progressive development of international law manifests an entitlement to life by cetaceans; We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing. We conclude that:
  1. Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  2. No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
  3. All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.
  4. No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.
  5. Cetaceans have the right to the protection of their natural environment.
  6. Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.
  7. The rights, freedoms and norms set forth in this Declaration should be protected under international and domestic law.
  8. Cetaceans are entitled to an international order in which these rights, freedoms and norms can be fully realized.
  9. No State, corporation, human group or individual should engage in any activity that undermines these rights, freedoms and norms.
  10. Nothing in this Declaration shall prevent a State from enacting stricter provisions for the protection of cetacean rights.
Excellent. Now all we need to do is include all the great apes and elephants.

You can formalize your support of the Helsinki Declaration here.

February 27, 2012

Online Paleo Summit, February 26 to March 6

The Paleo Summit is underway. It's a free online event that will run from February 26 through to March 6. You can register here. The Summit, which will run for eight days, features a number of prominent thinkers from the movement and consists of 23 talks. You can see the schedule and list of presenters here.

Technology Review's Patient of the Future

Internet pioneer Larry Smarr's quest to quantify everything about his health led him to a startling discovery, an unusual partnership with his doctor, and more control over his life.

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2012.02.27

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of February 27, 2012.

Topics discussed in this week's episode: PETA's lost case against SeaWorld and their next steps, addressing the potential perils of radical memory enhancement, the increasing role of AI in healthcare and medicine, and rethinking cosmetic enhancements.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Cloud Nothings: "Separation"
  • Ulrich Schnauss & Mark Peters: "Long Distance Call"
  • Burial: "Loner"
  • Porcelain Raft: "Drifting in and Out"
Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

February 24, 2012

My apperance on Singularity 1 on 1: Specialization is for Insects

I recently made my second appearance on Nikola Danaylov's excellent Singularity 1 on 1 podcast. You watch and/or listen to it here. Nikola writes:
The first time I had George on Singularity 1 on 1 we ended up talking for 1h 14 minutes. I am afraid that I enjoy his company so much that this time we talked for almost 1h 40min.

During our conversation we discuss issues such as: Dvorsky’s agonizing decision to stop being vegetarian and embrace the Paleo diet; cross-fit training, organic farming and the cost of food; the seeming contradiction between transhumanism and paleo/cross-fitness; animal enhancement (aka animal uplift), human-equivalent non-person rights and the list of candidate species; mass extinction and the Fermi paradox; SETI and the Dysonian approach that George and co are suggesting for it; the potential and implications of friendly and unfriendly alien intelligences.

This interview is long but if you are interested in the above topics, then, it is very much worth watching.

The main point that I will take from it is a brilliant Robert Heinlein quote that Dvorsky brought to my attention:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” - Robert A. Heinlein

February 21, 2012

Guardian: Whales and dolphins 'should have legal rights'

The Guardian is reporting on how a group of scientists and ethicists are making the case that sufficient evidence exists showing that whales and dolphins have the requisite intelligence, self-awareness and complex behaviour required for their rights to be enshrined in legislation:
Under the declaration of rights for cetaceans, a term that includes dolphins, whales and porpoises, the animals would be protected as "non-human persons" and have a legally enforceable right to life.

If incorporated into law, the declaration would bring legal force to bear on whale hunters, and marine parks, aquariums and other entertainment venues would be barred from keeping dolphins, whales or porpoises in captivity.

"We're saying the science has shown that individuality, consciousness and self-awareness are no longer unique human properties. That poses all kinds of challenges," said Tom White, director of the Centre for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

"Dolphins are non-human persons. A person needs to be an individual. And if individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being. The captivity of beings of this sort, particularly in conditions that would not allow for a decent life, is ethically unacceptable, and commercial whaling is ethically unacceptable," White said.
The group spoke at an annual meeting in Vancouver of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to raise support for the declaration among scientists and the visiting public. They presented a 10-point declaration which set out a framework to protect cetaceans' "life, liberty and wellbeing." The declaration included their rights to freedom of movement and residence in their natural environment, and protection against "disruption of their cultures".

"The next step is taking the science and advocating for law in different places, from a regional point of view, from a national point of view, and eventually from a multinational and international view," said Chris Butler-Stroud of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

I like this, and it should be applied to not just marine mammals, but to the Great Apes and elephants as well.


February 20, 2012

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2012.02.20

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of February 20, 2012.

Topics discussed in this week's episode: Moral enhancement and cognitive enhancement (featuring insights from Peter Singer and Allen Buchanen), progressivism and the potential for transhumanism (featuring clips from James Hughes and Robert Sawyer), and an update on PETA's case against SeaWorld.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Air: "Sonic Armada"
  • Zammuto: "F U C-3PO"
  • Shinsuke Matsumoto: "Kou"
Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

February 19, 2012

Frank Fenner: "DOOM!"

Back in June 2010, eminent Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner, who helped to wipe out smallpox, predicted that humans will probably be extinct within 100 years on account of overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change.

I think he may be right that we'll be extinct in 100 years, but for literally none of the reasons he has given. It's arguable if "overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change" are existential threats. They may certainly send civilization back to the Dark Ages, but I'm not so sure they would wipe us out completely.

On the other hand, full-scale nuclear war, molecular nanotechnological warfare, or Singularity-gone-horribly-wrong do qualify as existential threats.

Rights of nonhuman persons is not about animal enhancement

It's becoming increasingly evident to me that a surprising number of people think the IEET's Rights of Nonhuman Persons Program is about animal uplift, also known as animal enhancement.

This is probably on account of the work I've done to promote and support the concept of animal uplift.

But I want to stress that nonhuman personhood and animal enhancement are two different things. While eventually the two concepts may start to carry some interplay, they are two mutually exclusive ideas as far as the IEET's program goes.

The case we are making at the IEET is that a number of highly sapient animals are already endowed with those traits and characteristics sufficient for personhood consideration. Animals like the great apes, cetaceans, and elephants don't need to be enhanced. They are already full-blown persons as far as I'm concerned.

Now eventually we may use enhancement technologies to bring other species into the personhood spectrum, but that's speculative.

For now, the priority is for us to ensure that all persons today, human or otherwise, need be protected by human-equivalent rights.

Robots and AI are not the same thing

I'm starting to become a bit sensitive to the frequency with which people conflate robotics with artificial intelligence. I often hear people talking about "robot rights" and "robot ethics" as if they were interchangeable terms.

They are not.

The former addresses the eventuality that robots will be endowed by AI (thus deserving of rights), while the latter refers to the ways in which humans choose to use robots in such settings as the workplace or the battlefield.

A robot, no matter how sophisticated, will never have any moral worth so long as it is devoid of subjective experience. Even the most complex robot will be no more valuable from an ethical perspective than an automobile or a rock.

An AI, on the other hand, has the potential for moral consideration. It is quite possible that in the not-too-distant future we will develop an AI that has subjectivity, a sense of self, and emotional capacities. Once that happens, a piece of source code will cease to be a mere object and will instead be regarded as a subject.

It does not matter where the AI resides or what its external manifestation looks like. If an AI is uploaded to a robot, and has control over its body, then it can be said that the robot carries moral worth as a complete entity—in the same way a human, with mind and body, is afforded rights. In addition, a conscious AI that exists in non-corporeal form (e.g. an artificial intellect living in a computer simulated environment) is also deserving of rights. Substrate doesn't matter; presence of mind does.

David Pearce: Five ways transhumanism can help reduce suffering

Philosopher David Pearce says there are five ways that transhumanism can eliminate suffering:

  1. We Shall Soon Be Able To Choose Our Own Level Of Pain-Sensitivity
  2. We Can Soon Choose How Rewarding We Want Our Daily Life To Be
  3. Steak Lovers and Vegans Alike Can Soon Eat Cruelty-Free Diets
  4. Carnivorous Nonhuman Predators Can Be Phased Out Too
  5. We May Be On The Eve Of An “Intelligence Explosion”

Details here.

February 18, 2012

SETI stuff

Surprising article about SETI and the Fermi Paradox in Psychology Today: Where are all the Aliens? by Robert Lanza. He writes:
Perhaps across space, more advanced intelligences have taken the next evolutionary step. Perhaps they've evolved beyond the three dimensions we vertebrates know. Such advanced civilizations would certainly have changed the algorithms so that instead of being trapped in the linear dimensions we find ourselves in, their consciousness moves through the multiverse and beyond. Why would Aliens build massive ships and spend thousands of years to colonize planetary systems (most of which are probably useless and barren), when they could simply tinker with the algorithms and get whatever they want?
Meanwhile over at Next Nature, they're making the case that any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.
The apparent science fictional nature of ecological-scale projects has prompted science fiction author Karl Schroeder to observe that the large-scale harnessing of ecologies might explain our current lack of success in encountering advanced alien civilizations. Schroeder explains the Fermi Paradox – the apparent contradiction between the likelihood that extraterrestrial civilizations exist and the lack of evidence for them – by speculating that we have not yet encountered our cosmic neighbors because they are indistinguishable from their native ecology.

Despite our visions and desires for a more ecologically integrated kind of technology, the scientific paradigm, which underpins technological development, considers the world to be a machine. Ecologist Fern Wickson argues that humans are intertwined in a complex web of biological systems and cannot be included within a definition of nature where “an atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill” and wonders whether there is a better definition of nature.
And for those of you inclined to attend such things, SETICon 2012 will be held from June 22-24 at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, California.

Patrick Lin tackles the 'big robot questions'

Writing in Slate, Patrick Lin addresses the social, legal, and ethical problems posed by the coming robotics revolution.
If a robot does make a mistake, it may be unclear who is responsible for any resulting harm. Product liability laws are largely untested in robotics and, anyway, continue to evolve in a direction that releases manufacturers from responsibility. With military robots, for instance, there is a list of characters throughout the supply chain who may be held accountable: the programmer, the manufacturer, the weapons legal-review team, the military procurement officer, the field commander, the robot’s handler, and even the president of the United States.

As robots become more autonomous, it may be plausible to assign responsibility to the robot itself, if it is able to exhibit enough of the features that typically define personhood. If this seems too far-fetched, consider that there is ongoing work in integrating computers and robotics with biological brains. A conscious human brain (and its body) presumably has human rights, and if we can replace parts of the brain with something else and not impair its critical functions, then we could continue those rights in something that is not fully human. We may come to a point where more than half of the brain or body is artificial, making the organism more robotic than human, which makes the issue of robot rights more plausible.

One natural way to think about minimizing risk of robotic harm is to program them to obey our laws or follow a code of ethics. Of course, this is much easier said than done, since laws can be too vague and context-sensitive for robots to understand, at least in the foreseeable future. Even the three (or four) laws of robotics in Isaac Asimov’s stories, as elegant and adequate as they first appear to be, fail to close many loopholes that result in harm.

Programming aside, the use of robots must also comply with existing law and ethics. And again, those rules and norms may be unclear or untested with respect to robots. For instance, the use of military robots may raise legal and ethical questions that we have yet to fully consider and that, in retrospect, may seem obviously unethical or unlawful.

PETA loses its case against SeaWorld

PETA may have lost its case against SeaWorld, but it marks an important step forward in the struggle to recognize highly sapient animals as persons. This is not going to happen overnight, and it's through cases like these that the idea of nonhuman persons will be normalized in society.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller recently dismissed the lawsuit that sought constitutional protection against alleged slavery of orcas. But PETA isn't backing down yet.

"We're going to continue to pursue every available avenue to fight for these animals," said Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA. "We're looking at all options."

The lawsuit filed by PETA last October sought constitutional protection against slavery for three orca whales in San Diego and two in Orlando. The suit claimed that SeaWorld is violating the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by holding whales in captivity.

Judge Miller took the case under advisement following a hearing on February 7. Ultimately he noted animals are not people, and dismissed the case the next day. "As 'slavery' and 'involuntary servitude' are uniquely human activities, as those terms have been historically and contemporaneously applied, there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans," Miller wrote in his ruling.

As frustrating as it is to hear Miller say that animals are not people, it's slightly encouraging to even hear this articulated in the court room. We're passed the "first they ignore you" phase, and they're engaging in the conversation. The next step, I predict, will be to contest this exact clam as articulated by Miller.

PETA does not plan to give up their fight. The group argues the orcas are slaves who would normally swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild but instead are contained in small concrete tanks at SeaWorld where they swim in circles.

Kerr said PETA plans to regroup and determine their next plan of action, but did not offer specifics. He noted that there has been overwhelming media attention to the case and that PETA has received positive public feedback.

February 14, 2012

A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents [book]

Ooh, I needs to read this: A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents by Samir Chopra and Laurence F. White. It's a book that essentially asks, "What legal status should be granted to artificial agents?" Book description and promotional quotes:
As corporations and government agencies replace human employees with online customer service and automated phone systems, we become accustomed to doing business with nonhuman agents. If artificial intelligence (AI) technology advances as today's leading researchers predict, these agents may soon function with such limited human input that they appear to act independently. When they achieve that level of autonomy, what legal status should they have?

Samir Chopra and Laurence F. White present a carefully reasoned discussion of how existing philosophy and legal theory can accommodate increasingly sophisticated AI technology. Arguing for the legal personhood of an artificial agent, the authors discuss what it means to say it has "knowledge" and the ability to make a decision. They consider key questions such as who must take responsibility for an agent's actions, whom the agent serves, and whether it could face a conflict of interest.

"Chopra and White have produced an important and fascinating book on the emerging law of artificial agents. Their work combines a sophisticated understanding of technology with a deep insight about the law. The result is a magisterial survey that ranges over topics from tort liability for bots to the possibility that artificially intelligent agents might acquire legal personhood."
—Lawrence B. Solum, University of Illinois

"In this rigorous and enlightening analysis, Chopra and White . . . effortlessly move from profound examinations of the philosophy of artificial intelligence to practical legal responses to current problems. . . . Chopra and White are indispensable guides to the legal dilemmas of an increasingly automated world."
—Frank A. Pasquale, Seton Hall University and Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy

"An extraordinarily good synthesis from an amazing range of philosophical, legal, and technological sources."
—Kevin Ashley, University of Pittsburgh School of Law

Samir Chopra is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

Laurence F. White is a lawyer and policymaker specializing in law and technology and financial markets regulation.

Mick Mountz: The hidden world of box-packing #TED

I find this topic fascinating. Things that this talk brought to mind:
  • This is Fordism for the 21st Century
  • This is a prime example of the robotics and automation revolution in full swing
  • The pending implications to massive unemployment (the box-packers are next)
  • The amazing and unpredictable effects of emergence
  • The macroscale parallel processing allusion and its potential to inspire the creation of other systems for different applications and at different scales
  • The incredible potential for massive scalability
  • And lastly, I'm imagining what a poorly programmed SAI would do with this kind of system at its disposal...

February 13, 2012

Slate on enhancing memory

Evan Selinger of Slate asks, "How will life change if we can’t forget anything?" Selinger quotes me as an advocate for enhanced memories:
Transhumanists like George Dvorsky are holding out for perfect memories, or total recall: “Count me in for when perfect memory finally becomes medically possible,” he has written. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but this sounds terrible. The ability to forget allows us to forgive (“time heals all wounds”) as the pain of memories fades. It also allows us to make difficult, but important life-altering decisions. Ethicist Justin Weinberg suggests perfect recall of the pain of childbirth and the tortures of new-parent sleep deprivation could impact reproduction. More than a century ago, Nietzsche speculated that active forgetting is the key to living a life unencumbered by resentment. Today, scientists concur. Memory is seen as a creative “means for endlessly rewriting the self.”

Luckily for me (but not Dvorsky), perfect recollection isn’t close to being feasible. Drugs and surgery aren’t there yet, nor are digital means.
Here's the full quote from my article:
Given the choice I would still say yes.

I find the limitations of human memory infuriating. Not having control over which memories are stored and how they are recalled is an upsetting cognitive limitation. It's as if our subconscious mind is writing our own personal history in spite of us.

Our memories often present a narrative of events that may not be objectively accurate; most of our memories are lost, and those that are retained tend to have the subjective taint of some kind of emotional association (mostly negative). In other words, we can't have complete confidence in how we interpret our memories.

As for the emotional baggage, my feeling is that this concern is overstated. We involuntarily choose to remember the negative over the positive anyway, so I'm not convinced that a whole lot would change. Personally, I'd love to be able to recall some of the more thrilling and meaningful moments of my life with greater clarity.

And the point about not being able to leave our 'past selves' behind, again I have a feeling this is exaggerated. For me, maturation and personal development comes with the accumulation of experiences, not from any sense of distance from our previous selves.

So count me in for when perfect memory finally becomes medically possible.

Allen Buchanan: Better than Human [book]

Check out Allen Buchanan's latest book, Better than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves:
Is it right to use biomedical technologies to make us better than well or even perhaps better than human? Should we view our biology as fixed or should we try to improve on it? College students are already taking cognitive enhancement drugs. The U.S. army is already working to develop drugs and technologies to produce "super soldiers." Scientists already know how to use genetic engineering techniques to enhance the strength and memories of mice and the application of such technologies to humans is on the horizon.

In Better Than Human, philosopher-bioethicist Allen Buchanan grapples with the ethical dilemmas of the biomedical enhancement revolution. Biomedical enhancements can make us smarter, have better memories, be stronger, quicker, have more stamina, live much longer, avoid the frailties of aging, and enjoy richer emotional lives. In spite of the benefits that biomedical enhancements may bring, many people instinctively reject them. Some worry that we will lose something important-our appreciation for what we have or what makes human beings distinctively valuable. Others assume that biomedical enhancements will only be available to the rich, with the result that social inequalities will worsen.

Buchanan shows that the debate over enhancement has been distorted by false assumptions and misleading rhetoric. To think clearly about enhancement, we have to acknowledge that human nature is a mixed bag and that our species has many "design flaws." We should be open be open to the possibility of becoming better than human, while never underestimating the risks that our attempts to improve may back-fire.
And be sure to check out this feature interview of Buchanan in The Atlantic. Clip:
It's interesting you mentioned both Gattaca and Limitless because they're quite different. Gattaca is, in a way, representative of the majority of films that tackle these topics, which tend to be very dark. They tend to play on the anxieties people have about these technologies, and they tend to take a very negative view of their social consequences. Gattaca, for instance, paints a fairly grim picture, because it looks at the effects of genetic engineering on human beings simply in terms of its potential for creating a caste system, and I just think there's more to it than that. Limitless on the other hand, at least as I saw it, seemed to be much more positive and seemed to convey that people could have quite legitimate interests in cognitive enhancement technologies, and that the people who desire these technologies aren't just cranks or people who have inappropriate desires.

US bioethics commission to consider anthrax vaccine

The U.S. administration will weigh the potential risks and benefits surrounding ways to shield children from bioterrorism and methods to treat them after an attack. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is set to tackle the issue in the spring, after a request from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

James Hughes and others talk transhumanism on The Agenda

Madeline Ashby, Jesse Hirsch, Robert J. Sawyer, and the IEET's James Hughes recently appeared on The Agenda with Steve Paikin. They talk about the current state of optimism, futurism, and transhumanism.

February 8, 2012

PETA names plaintiffs in their suit against SeaWorld: Five orca whales

Back in October I covered the story of PETA's intent to sue SeaWorld under U.S. slavery laws. Well, it appears that they're going to be able to go through with it thanks to U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller who is considering their complaint.

PETA has named five killer whales as plaintiffs in their lawsuit; they are making the case that the whales deserve the same constitutional protection from slavery as humans. The five wild-captured orca plaintiffs in question are Tilikum and Katina, at SeaWorld Orlando; and Kasatka, Corky, and Ulises, at SeaWorld San Diego.

This is the first time a U.S. court will hear legal arguments over whether animals should enjoy the same constitutional protections as humans. The lawsuit invokes the 13th Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which abolished "slavery or involuntary servitude" in that country.

Unsurprisingly, SeaWorld is dismissing the case as waste of time and resources. Their lawyer has stated that, "Neither orcas nor any other animal were included in the 'We the people'... when the Constitution was adopted." SeaWorld's fear and contention is that, if successful, the precident could have legal implications on not just how zoos and marine centers operate, but on such practices as police sniffer dogs who detect bombs and drugs.

PETA, on the other hand, argue that SeaWorld is coercing orca whales, forcing them to live in tanks and perform daily at their parks in California and Florida. My own personal experience and opinions mirror those of PETA's.

Experts believe that PETA will not win the suit. That said, the campaigners were pleased that the case has made it this far.

According to the lawyer who is representing the five whales, Jeffrey Kerr, "For the first time in our nation's history, a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human. By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here."

Hearing the arguments for about an hour, Judge Miller raised concerns over whether animals could be represented as plaintiffs in a lawsuit and said he will issue a ruling at a later date.

Stay tuned for more as this fascinating story unfolds.

February 6, 2012

Changizi: Humans, Version 3.0

The next giant leap in human evolution may not come from new fields like genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, writes Mark Changizi, but rather from appreciating our ancient brains:
Simply put, none of these scenarios are plausible for the immediate future. If there is something next, some imminently arriving transformative development for human capabilities, then the key will not be improved genes or cortical plug-ins. But what other way forward could humans possibly have? With genetic and cyborg enhancement off the table for many years, it would seem we are presently stuck as-is, sans upgrades.

There is, however, another avenue for human evolution, one mostly unappreciated in both science and fiction. It is this unheralded mechanism that will usher in the next stage of human, giving future people exquisite powers we do not currently possess, powers worthy of natural selection itself. And, importantly, it doesn’t require us to transform into cyborgs or bio-engineered lab rats. It merely relies on our natural bodies and brains functioning as they have for millions of years.

This mystery mechanism of human transformation is neuronal recycling, coined by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, wherein the brain’s innate capabilities are harnessed for altogether novel functions.

This view of the future of humankind is grounded in an appreciation of the biologically innate powers bestowed upon us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This deep respect for our powers is sometimes lacking in the sciences, where many are taught to believe that our brains and bodies are taped-together, far-from-optimal kluges. In this view, natural selection is so riddled by accidents and saddled with developmental constraints that the resultant biological hardware and software should be described as a “just good enough” solution rather than as a “fine-tuned machine.”

So it is no wonder that, when many envisage the future, they posit that human invention—whether via genetic engineering or cybernetic AI-related enhancement—will be able to out-do what evolution gave us, and so bootstrap our species to a new level. This rampant overoptimism about the power of human invention is also found among many of those expecting salvation through a technological singularity, and among those who fancy that the Web may some day become smart.
Read the entire article.

February 3, 2012

Researchers: Sugar Should Be Regulated As Toxin

The work of Gary Taubes, including his NYT article, Is Sugar a Toxin?, is having a rather profound effect in the dietary zeitgeist. And now this: Researchers say sugar should be regulated as a toxin:
A spoonful of sugar might make the medicine go down. But it also makes blood pressure and cholesterol go up, along with your risk for liver failure, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Sugar and other sweeteners are, in fact, so toxic to the human body that they should be regulated as strictly as alcohol by governments worldwide, according to a commentary in the current issue of the journal Nature by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

The researchers propose regulations such as taxing all foods and drinks that include added sugar, banning sales in or near schools and placing age limits on purchases.

Although the commentary might seem straight out of the Journal of Ideas That Will Never Fly, the researchers cite numerous studies and statistics to make their case that added sugar — or, more specifically, sucrose, an even mix of glucose and fructose found in high-fructose corn syrup and in table sugar made from sugar cane and sugar beets — has been as detrimental to society as alcohol and tobacco.
Read the entire article.

February 1, 2012

Boosting the brains of animals

Avatar Polymorph has penned a neat article for H+ Magazine: The Ethics of Boosting Animals from Sentience to Self-Aware Consciousness.On the question of why:
What would be the arguments used in favour of such a radical realignment of life, with immortal (by choice) AIs, humans, hybrids and animals?

Secondarily, is it legitimate to use the Homo sapiens, mammalian template as a model for creating self-aware consciousness, culture and language?

In addressing these questions I take the brain as the seat of consciousness, and ignore any religious belief in a ‘soul’.

The first argument is reciprocity. Our example is important in terms of teaching the first AI or AIs while it or they are very briefly children.

If we expect a superintelligent AI to provide us with timely provision of the mechanisms of superintelligence, immortality and perhaps even the theory of everything of physics, then we must have lead by example, even if it is regarding something which we have only been able to support in principle, while lacking the immediate means to achieve it.

We may already possess what might be termed ‘superintelligence of the imagination’ – as a science fiction writer I have read much of this amazing breadth of thought. Amongst my earliest reading material was the famous 1944 novel by Olaf Stapledon, Sirius, concerning a dog whose intelligence was boosted. However, as we can all attest, outside of our imaginations we have limitations of the mundane.

The most everyday languages we can learn is about sixty, the most faces we can remember (an this is one of our key strengths) is about ten thousand. Only about thirty thousand logic trees go into each thought or action.

Even with advanced computational nanomachines embedded in our cerebrospinal fluid – according to TIME magazine, perhaps the equivalent of two hundred thousand human brains – we would still require further superintelligence to make a workable and permanent system quickly. In other words, if we expect to fix ourselves up within a century or less, we will need the assistance of Artificial Intelligence.

The second argument is empathy. While many of us may not feel we have much empathy with a leech, quite a few have empathy with social animals and pets, and indeed love for them.

The third argument is responsibility. If diversity and potential diversity is a positive feature of mortal life, one we now look for in our children as reflections of ourselves, then it should be reflected in immortal life.

Unlike Peter Singer, the popularizer of Animal Liberation, I believe that continuity is important. That a human baby is no different from a dog for some months is no grounds to ignore its future state. Similarly, with the potential abilities of the near future, we could regard a dog as a gestating ‘super-dog’.

The fourth argument is that it is fun to have more immortal beings around, with which we can interact.

The fifth argument is that it is fun to have more kids to raise.

The sixth argument is that under future conditions such as full automation, distributed production, individuated design, robotics, 3D printers and eventually nanotechnological assemblers (a much more advanced form of 3D printers, also known as nanofactories or molecular manufacturing) it will not cost us anything.

While I am not advocating megascale solar sytem engineering I also note that 1990s estimates of the maximum number of beings capable of being supported by all the material of the solar system as about 600 billion and certainly there is a lot of scope for all the current inhabitants of the planetary biosphere.

The seventh and final argument is that by making a current adult human the minimum requirement for a neural map for a birthed consciousness (along with the normal developmental period of adolescence) we have a reasonable sliding scale that involves no moral guilt for failed help.

Why Dyson Spheres make the Fermi Paradox worse

Anders Sandberg and Stuart Armstrong are currently putting together a paper explaining why the presence of Dyson Spheres would actually deepen the mystery that is the Fermi Paradox. Armstrong recently gave a talk on the subject, titled "von Neumann probes, Dyson spheres, exploratory engineering and the Fermi paradox."

Sandberg writes:
It is based on a paper we are writing together that analyses how much harder the Fermi question (because it is not really a paradox, just a question with answers we tend to dislike/disagree on) becomes once you take modern ideas about self replication and exploratory engineering into account. The main finding is that intergalactic expansion is likely doable using local resources and a very high branching factor, and that makes the solar neighbourhood accessible to at least millions of times more potential alien civilizations. So either alien civilizations have to be even rarer than we think, they have to approach some non-visible behavioural attractor with very high fidelity, or they are here and hiding efficiently (in this case likely because the first expanding civilization used its probes to enforce some set of rules for everybody else).