December 27, 2013

Top 100 Songs of 2013

There were so many great songs this year. Here are the top 100:

1. Arcade Fire: Reflektor

2. Disclosure: White Noise (feat. Aluna George)

3. Chvrches: Lies

4. Savages: She Will

5. Braids: In Kind

6. Vampire: Weekend: Ya Hey

7. Fuck Buttons: Sentients

8. Kurt Vile: Wakin On A Pretty Day

9. Darkside: Golden Arrow

10. Pharmakon: Crawling on Bruised Knees

11. Boards of Canada: Palace Posy

12. Thee Oh Sees: No Spell

13. Courtney Barnett: Avant Gardener

14. Low: Plastic Cup

15. Junip: Line of Fire

16. Neko Case: Night Still Comes

17. Vampire Weekend: Step

18. Disclosure: Latch (feat. Sam Smith)

19. Washed Out: Great Escape

20. Rhye: Open

Here's the complete list:

  1. Arcade Fire: Reflektor
  2. Disclosure: White Noise (feat. Aluna George)
  3. Chvrches: Lies
  4. Savages: She Will
  5. Braids: In Kind
  6. Vampire: Weekend Ya Hey
  7. Fuck Buttons: Sentients
  8. Kurt Vile Wakin: On A Pretty Day
  9. Darkside: Golden Arrow
  10. Pharmakon: Crawling on Bruised Knees
  11. Boards of Canada: Palace Posy
  12. Thee Oh Sees: No Spell
  13. Courtney Barnett: Avant Gardener
  14. Low: Plastic Cup
  15. Junip: Line of Fire
  16. Neko Case: Night Still Comes
  17. Vampire Weekend: Step
  18. Disclosure: Latch (feat. Sam Smith)
  19. Washed Out: Great Escape
  20. Rhye: Open
  21. Doldrums: Egypt
  22. Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia
  23. Foals: Inhaler
  24. Chvrches: The Mother We Share
  25. Arcade Fire: We Exist
  26. Jon Hopkins: Open Eye Signal
  27. James Blake: Retrograde
  28. Parquet Courts: Master of My Craft/Light Up Gold
  29. Deafheaven: Dream House
  30. Danny Brown: Kush Coma Feat. A$AP Rocky & Zelooperz
  31. Darkside: The Only Shrine I've Seen
  32. Thee Oh Sees: Minotaur
  33. Bill Callahan: Javelin Unlanding
  34. Low: Clarence White
  35. Waxahatchee: Peace and Quiet
  36. James Blake: Digital Lion
  37. Disclosure: Help Me Lose My Mind (feat. London Grammar)
  38. The Knife: Full of Fire
  39. Kurt Vile: Goldtone
  40. Death Grips: Feels like a wheel
  41. Ty Segall: She Don't Care
  42. Smith Westerns: 3am Spiritual
  43. Phosphorescent: Song for Zula
  44. Blood Orange: You're Not Good Enough
  45. Run The Jewels: Banana Clipper feat. Big Boi
  46. Kanye West: Blood On The Leaves
  47. Alice In Chains: Hollow
  48. Foxygen: San Francisco
  49. Nine Inch Nails: Copy of A
  50. Charli XCX: You (Ha Ha Ha)
  51. The Flaming Lips: You Lust (feat. Phantogram)
  52. Lorde: Royals
  53. Waxahatchee: Swan Dive
  54. Savages: Hit Me
  55. Foxygen: No Destruction
  56. Ty Segall: Sleeper
  57. Forest Swords: Thor's Stone
  58. Daft Punk: Doin' it right
  59. Kanye West: Bound 2
  60. Arcade Fire: Here Comes the Night
  61. FKA twigs: Water Me
  62. Fuck Buttons: The Red Wing
  63. Death Grips: Whatever I want (Fuck who's watching)
  64. Boards of Canada: Reach For The Dead
  65. Majical Cloudz: Bugs Don't Buzz
  66. Chvuches: Recover
  67. Majical Cloudz: Childhood's End
  68. Prurient: You Show Great Spirit
  69. Drake: Hold On, We're Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)
  70. Vampire Weekend: Hannah Hunt
  71. Danny Brown: Side B (Dope Song)
  72. Mikal Cronin: Weight
  73. Youth Lagoon: Dropla
  74. The Knife: Tooth For An Eye
  75. These New Puritans: Fragment Two
  76. Daft Punk: Get lucky
  77. Perfect Pussy: I
  78. Ty Segall: The West
  79. The National: Sea Of Love
  80. Chance The Rapper: Chain Smoker
  81. Parquet Courts : Stoned and Starving
  82. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds: Mermaids
  83. Mutual Benefit: Golden Wake
  84. Haim: Falling
  85. Thee Oh Sees: Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster
  86. Forest Swords: The Weight Of Gold
  87. Drake: Worst Behavior
  88. M.I.A.: Come Walk With Me
  89. Chvrches: Gun
  90. Local Natives: Colombia
  91. Low: Just Make It Stop
  92. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Sacrilege
  93. FKA twigs: Papi Pacify
  94. Deerhunter: Monomania
  95. Inter Arma: Sblood
  96. Earl Sweatshirt: Sunday (ft. Frank Ocean)
  97. Torres: Honey
  98. Savages: Shut Up
  99. Fuck Buttons: Brainfreeze
  100. Neko Case: Man

December 21, 2013

Best Albums of 2013

Another year, another amazing batch of albums. Here's the year's best.

1. Disclosure: Settle

2. Arcade Fire: Reflektor

3. Savages: Silence Yourself

4. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
5. Chvrches: The Bones of What You Believe

6. Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia

7. Parquet Courts: Light Up Gold

8. Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest

9. Fuck Buttons: Slow Focus

10. Kurt Vile: Walkin On A Pretty Daze

11. Thee Oh Sees: Floating Coffin

12. Jon Hopkins: Immunity

13. Darkside: Psychic

14. James Blake: Overgrown

15. Rhye: Woman

16. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse

17. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels

18. Deafheaven: Sunbather

19. Washed Out: Paracosm

20. Death Grips: Government Plates

Albums 21 to 50:

21. Youth Lagoon: Wondrous Bughouse
22. Ty Segall: Sleeper
23. Low: The Invisible Way
24. Speedy Ortiz: Major Arcana
25. Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven
26. Foxygen: We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
27. Phosphorescent: Muchacho
28. Danny Brown: Old
29. The Flaming Lips: The Terror
30. The Haxan Cloak: Excavation
31. Inter Arma: Sky Burial
32. Alice in Chains: The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
33. Carcass: Surgical Steel
34. FKA Twigs: EP2
35. Deerhunter: Monomania
36. Kanye West: Yeezus
37. Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt
38. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual
39. Volcano Choir: Repave
40. Forest Swords: Engravings
41. Pharmakon: Abandon
42. Haim: Days Are Gone
43. Drake: Nothing Was the Same
44. Doldrums: Lesser Evil
45. Gorguts: Colored Sands
46. Of Montreal: Lousy With Sylvianbriar
47. Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe
48. These New Puritans: Field of Reeds
49. Fuzz: Fuzz
50. Perfect Pussy: I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling

Honorable mention:

The National: Trouble Will Find Me
The Field: Cupid’s Head
Tim Hecker: Virgins
Grouper: The Man Who Died in His Boat
Charli XCX: True Romance
Autre New Veut: Anxiety
Local Natives: Hummingbird
The Naked and Famous: In Rolling Waves
Mutual Benefit: Love’s Crushing Diamond
Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
Foals: Holy Fire
Smith Westerns: Soft Will
Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap
Prurient: Through the Window
Soft Metals: Lenses
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Push the Sky Away
Toro Y Moi: Anything in Return
Russian Circles: Memorial
Iceage: You’re Nothing
Kirin J Callinan
My Bloody Valentine: MBV
Mikal Cronin: Mcii
Kylesa: Ultraviolet
Janelle MonĂ¡e: The Electric Lady
Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight…
Torres: Torres
Earl Sweathshirt: Doris
Julia Holter: Loud City Song
Lorde: Pure Heroine
The Men: New Moon
Ulrich Schnauss: A Long Way to Fall
Sigur Ros: Kveikur
Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks
Junip: Junip
David Bowie: The Next Day
Cult of Luna: Vertikal
Gold Panda: Half of Where You Live
White Fence: Cyclops Reap
Baths: Obsidian
Cass McCombs: Big Wheel and Others
Pelican: Forever Becoming
Arctic Monkeys: AM

December 14, 2013

Yes, One Person Could Actually Destroy the World

Apocalyptic weapons are currently the domain of world powers. But this is set to change. Within a few decades, small groups — and even single individuals — will be able to get their hands on any number of extinction-inducing technologies. As shocking as it sounds, the world could be destroyed by a small team or a person acting alone. Here's how.
To learn more about this grim possibility, I spoke to two experts who have given this subject considerable thought. Philippe van Nedervelde is a reserves officer with the Belgian Army's ACOS Strat unit who's trained in Nuclear-Biological-Chemical defense. He's a futurist and security expert with a specialization in existential risks, sousveillance, surveillance, and privacy-issues and is currently involved with, among others, the P2P Foundation. James Barrat is the author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era — a new book concerned with the risks posed by the advent of super-powerful machine intelligence.
Both van Nedervelde and Barrat are concerned that we're not taking this possibility seriously enough.
"The vast majority of humanity today seems blissfully unaware of the fact that we actually are in real danger," said van Nedervelde. "While it is important to stay well clear of any fear mongering and undue alarmism, the naked facts do tell us that we are, jointly and severally, in 'clear and present' mortal danger. What is worse is that a kind of 'perfect storm' of coinciding and converging existential risks is brewing."
If we're going to survive the next few millennia, he says, we are going to need to get through the next few critical decades as unscathed as we can.

Weapons of Choice

As a species living in an indifferent universe, we face both cosmic and human-made existential risks.
According to van Nedervelde, the most serious human-made risks include a bio-attack pandemic, a global exchange of thermonuclear bombs, the emergence of an artificial superintelligence that's unfriendly to humans, and the spectre of nanotechnology-enabled weapons of mass destruction.
"The threat of a bio-attack or malicious man-made pandemic is potentially particularly dangerous in the relatively short term," he says.
Indeed, a still fairly recent 20th century precedent showed us how serious it could be, even though in that case it was 'just' a natural pandemic: the 1918 Spanish flu which killed between 50 and 100 million people. That was between 2.5% and 5% of the entire global population at that time.
"Humanity has developed the technology needed to design effective and efficient pathogens," he told io9. "We dispose of the know-how needed to optimize their functioning and combine them for potency. If developed for that purpose, weaponized pathogens may ultimately succeed in killing nearly all and possibly even all of humanity."
With regard to predictable future forms of weaponized nanotechnology, nanomedicine theorist Robert Freitas has distinguished between 'aerovores' a.k.a. 'grey dust', 'grey plankton', 'grey lichens', and so-called 'biomass killers'. These are variations on the grey goo threat — a hellish scenario in which self-replicating molecular robots completely consume the Earth or resources critical for human survival, like the atmosphere.
Aeorovores would blot out all sunlight. Grey plankton would consist of seabed-grown replicators that eat up land-based carbon-rich ecology, grey lichens could destroy land-based geology, and biomass killers would attack various organisms.
And lastly, as Barrat explained to me, there's the threat of artificial superintelligence. Within a few decades, AI could surpass human intelligence by an order of magnitude. Once unleashed, it could have survival drives much like our own, or it could be poorly programmed. We may be forced to compete with a rival that exceeds our capacities in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Destroying More With Less

Obviously, many, if not all, of these technologies will be developed by either highly-funded and highly-motivated government agencies and corporations. But that doesn't mean the blueprints for these things won't eventually make their way into the hands of nefarious groups, or that they won't be able to figure many of these things out for themselves.
It's a prospect that's not lost on the Pentagon. Speaking back in 1995, Admiral David E. Jeremiah of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had this to say:
Somewhere in the back of my mind I still have this picture of five smart guys from Somalia or some other non-developed nation who see the opportunity to change the world. To turn the world upside down. Military applications of molecular manufacturing have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of powers.
And as the White House US National Security Council has stated, "We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few."
In this context, van Nedervelde talked to me about 'Asymmetric Destructive Capability' (ADC).
"It means that with advancing technology there is ever less needed to destroy ever more," he told me. "Large-scale destruction becomes ever more possible with ever fewer resources. Predictably, the NBIC convergence exacerbates and accelerates the possible exponential increase of this asymmetry."
By NBIC, van Nedervelde is referring to the convergent effects of four critical technology sectors, namely nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter at the molecular scale, including the advent of radically advanced materials, medicines, and robotics), biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science.
For example, and in an estimation verified by explorative nanorobotics engineer Robert Freitas and others, the resources needed to develop and deploy a nanoweapon of mass destruction could be realized as soon as 2040, give or take 10 years.
"To pull it off, a small, determined team seeking massive destruction would need the following soon-to-be-relatively-modest resources: off-the-shelf nanofacturing equipment capable of creating seed 'replibots'; four mediocre nano-engineering PhDs; four off-the-shelf supercomputers; four — possibly less — months of development time; and four dispersion points optimized for global prevailing wind patterns," explained van Nedervelde.
He described it as 'ADC on steroids': "Compared to technologically mature, future nanotech weapons of mass destruction — nukes are small fry."

Massively Destructive Single Individuals

van Nedervelde also warned me about SIMADs, short for 'Single Individual, MAssively Destructive'.
"If you think ADC through to its logical conclusions, we have actually less to fear from a terrorist organization, small as it is, as Al-Qaeda or such, than from smart individuals who have developed a deep-seated, bitterly violent grudge against human society or the human species," he says.
The Unabomber case provides a telling example. Now imagine a Unabomber on science-enabled steroids, empowered by NBIC-converged technologies. Such an individual would conceivably have the potential to wreak destruction and cause death at massive scales: think whole cities, regions, continents, possibly even the entire planet.
"SIMAD is one of the risks that I worry about the most," he says. "I have lost sleep over this one."
I asked Barrat if a single individual could actually have what it takes to create a massively destructive AI.
"I don't think a single individual could come up with AI strong enough to go catastrophically rogue," he responded. "The software and hardware challenges of creating Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), the stepping stone to more volatile ASI — artificial superintelligence — is closer in scale and complexity to the Manhattan Project to make an atomic bomb (which cost $26 billion, at today's valuation) than it is to the kind of insights 'lone geniuses' like Tesla, Edison, and Einstein periodically rack up in other fields."
He's also skeptical that a small team could do it.
"With deep pocketed contestants in the race like IBM, Google, the Blue Brain Project, DARPA, and the NSA, I also doubt a small group will achieve AGI, and certainly not first."
The reason, says Barrat, is that all contenders — large, small, stealth, and spook— are fueled by the knowledge that commoditized AGI — or human level intelligence at computer prices — will be the most lucrative and disruptive technology in the history of the world. Imagine banks of thousands of PhD quality "brains" cracking cancer research, climate modeling, weapons development.
"In AGI, ultimate financial enticement meets ultimate existential threat," says Barrat.
Barrat says that in this race, and for investors especially, the impressive real world achievements of corporate giants resonate.
"Small groups with little history, not so much," he says. "IBM's team Watson had just 15 core members, but it also had contributions from nine universities and IBM's backing. Plus IBM's nascent cognitive computing architecture is persuasive — who's seen a PBS NOVA or read even 1,000 words about anyone else's? Small groups have growth potential, but little of this leverage. I expect IBM to take on the Turing Test in the early 2020's, probably with a computer named, yup, Turing. "
Regrettably, this doesn't preclude the possibility that, eventually, a malevolent terrorist group couldn't get their hands on some sophisticated code, make the required tweaks, and then unleash it onto the world's digital infrastructure. It might not be apocalyptic in scope, but it could still be potentially destructive.
There's also the possibility that a crafty team or individual could use more rudimentary instantiations of AI to develop powerful machine intelligence. It's conceivable that an SAI could be developed indirectly by humans, with AI doing the lion's share of the work. Or it could come into being through some other, unknown channel. Personally, I think a small team could unleash a rogue ASI onto the world, though not for a very, very long time.

Protecting Ourselves

Not content to just discuss gloom-and-doom, we also talked about preventative measures. Now, one way we could protect ourselves from these threats is to turn all of society into a totalitarian police state. But no one wants that. So I asked both van Nedervelde and Barrat if there's anything else we could do.
"The good news is that we are not totally defenseless against these threats," said van Nedervelde. "Precautions, prevention, early warning and effective defensive countermeasuresare possible. Most of these are not even 'draconian' ones, but they do require a sustained resolve for prophylaxis."
He envisions the psychological monitoring of people displaying sustained and significantly deviant behavior within education systems and other institutions.
"Basically something like a humanity-wide psychological immune system: on-going screening to spot those SIMAD Unabombers when they are young and hopefully long before they turn to carrying out malicious plans," he told io9. "To that end, there could be mental behavior monitoring within existing security systems and mental health monitoring and improvement within public health systems."
He also thinks that global governance could be improved so that "organizations like the UN and other transnational organizations can be credibly effective at rapidly reacting suitably whenever an existential threat rears its ugly head."
He says we can also anticipate ADC or SIMAD attacks in order to counter them as they are happening. To defend ourselves against weaponized nanotechnology, we could deploy emergency defenses such as utility fog, solar shades, EMP bursts, and targeted radiation.
As for protecting ourselves against a rogue AI, Barrat says the question presumes that small organizations are more unstable and in need of oversight than large ones.
"But look again," he warns. "Right now the NSA with its $50 billion black budget represents a far greater threat to the US constitution than Al-Qaeda and all the AGI wannabes put together. We instinctively know they won't be less wayward with AGI should they achieve it first."
Barrat suggests two one-size-fits-all stop gaps:
"Create a global public-private partnership to ride herd on those with AGI ambitions, something like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Until that organization is created, form a consortium with deep pockets to recruit the world's top AGI researchers. Convince them of the dangers of unrestricted AGI development, and help them proceed with utmost caution. Or compensate them for abandoning AGI dreams."

The Surveillance State

More radically, van Nedervelde has come up with the concept of the 4 E's: "Everyone has Eyes and Ears Everywhere," an idea that could become reality via another acronym that he coined: Panoptic Smart Dust Sousveillance (PSDS).
"Today, 'smart dust' refers to tiny MEMS devices nicknamed 'motes' measuring one cubic millimeter or smaller capable of autonomous sensing, computation and communication in wireless ad-hoc mesh networks," he explained. "In the not too far future, NEMS will enable quite literal 'smart dust' motes so small — 50 cubic microns or smaller — that they will be able to float in the air just like 'dumb dust' particles of similar size and create solar-powered mobile sensing 'smart clouds'."
He imagines the lower levels of the Earth's atmosphere filled with smart dust motes at an average density of three motes per cubic yard of air. If engineered, deployed, maintained and operated by the global citizenry for the global citizenry, this would create a 'Panoptic Smart Dust Sousveillance' (PSDS) system — essentially a citizen's sousveillance network effectively giving Everyone Eyes and Ears Everywhere, and thereby effectively and efficiently realizing — or at least enabling in the sense of making possible — so-called 'reciprocal accountability' throughout civilized society.
"Assuming that most of the actual sousveillance would not be done by humans but by pattern-spotting machines instead, this would indeed be the end of what I have called 'absolute privacy' — still leaving most with, in my view acceptable, 'relative privacy' — but most probably also the end of SIMAD or other terrorist attacks as well as, for instance, the end of violence and other forms of abuse against children, women, the elderly and other victims of domestic violence and other abuse."
He claims it would likely also bring most forms of corruption and other crimes to a screeching halt. It would create the ultimate form of what David Brin has called the Transparent Society, or what ethical futurist Jamais Cascio has referred to as the Participatory Panopticon.
"We would finally have an answer to Juvenal's question from Roman antiquity "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' (Who watches the watchers?)," said van Nedervelde. "And the answer will be: We, the people, the citizenry, ourselves — which would be wholly appropriate, in my view."
Follow me on Twitter: @dvorsky
This article originally appeared at io9. 

Talking to The Current about nonhuman persons

This past Thursday December 12 I made an appearance on CBC Radio's The Current with Anna-Maria Tremonti. Listen to it here.

Experts Gather at Yale to Discuss Whether Animals Are People

This past weekend, the IEET hosted the world's first conference dedicated to the topic of nonhuman animal personhood. Energized by the NhRP's recent initiative to have captive chimpanzees legally recognized as persons and not property, the event brought together legal experts, scientists, philosophers, and futurists from around the world. Here's a recap.
Called Personhood Beyond the Human, the event was co-sponsored by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, the Yale Technology and Ethics Working Group, and the Yale Animal Ethics Group. The conference was held at Yale University from December 6 to 8. The Nonhuman Rights Project was an official endorser, and several of its members attended and spoke at the conference, including the group's founder, Steven Wise.

Law Informed by Science

And indeed, the NhRP was the big hit of the conference. While the group failed in its first attempt to secure human-equivalent protections for several chimpanzees, the NhRP considers this the beginning of what will most assuredly be a long and difficult process.
During his talk at the Yale conference, Wise described how virtually all human societies have denied other-than-human animals the right to bodily liberty — a concept known as habeas corpus in legal circles. "By virtue of this," declared Wise, "we've put animals into an ever-lasting jail." His hope is for legal transubstantiation — the moving of animals from 'thinghood' to personhood.
​Experts Gather at Yale to Discuss Whether Animals Are People
Wise, when speaking to the judges last week, presented two primary legal arguments supported by common law language, namely the notion that certain animals have capacities, like autonomy, that qualify them for the right to liberty and that they should subsequently be seen as equal under the law. The NhRP is only arguing for negative rights; it's strictly a matter of protecting these animals from undue harm while respecting their autonomy.
"I don't agree that with rights come responsibilities," said Wise. "Animals do not have a 'claim right' and cannot enter into a contract." He compared their situation to those of children or the severely disabled. "Children have lots of rights," he noted, "but without the responsibilities."
Wise is pressing the case now because the science, law, and zeitgeist are finally in place to support it. Fascinatingly, while all judges dismissed the suits, one encouraged Wise to carry on with the work saying, "What a great argument. You lose!"
To support the case for animal autonomy, Wise was accompanied by his science advisor, Lori Marino. She held up a stack of papers the size of a phone book containing affidavits from numerous scientists — all used as evidence to support the claim that chimpanzees have critical capacities required for legal personhood designation, including the sense of self, awareness of others, mental time travel, and complex problem solving. Marino stressed that the NhRP isn't biased towards chimps, it's just that the evidence rests with the "lowest hanging fruit," and that "we've got to go where the evidence is."

Sentience and Suffering

Wesleyan University's Lori Gruen also spoke at the conference.
"To be consistent and fair, we ought to extend our concern towards others with similar capacities," she told the Yale audience. "But there can't be scientific proof that personhood exists in great apes, because that's a concept that's normative." Instead, Gruen said it's more important they have the capacity to suffer than any other special ability or trait.
Somewhat similarly, animal rights activist Karen Davis argued that most criteria-based arguments reduce our conceptions of animals. She also complained about the tendency to compare animal capacities to children or disabled humans.
"You do not compare the incompetent capacities of one species with the competent capacities of another species," she said. "It is neither logical or just, it demeans them in many possible ways." A hen, she said, has the mind of being a competent mother. "There is absolutely no comparison to a human child."
Like Gruen, Cal State's Robert C. Jones agreed that sentience matters — especially the capacity for pain.
Saskia Stucki, who came to Yale from the University of Basel in Switzerland, said, "Sentience is probably a good delineator of animal personhood as it implies a certain degree of vulnerability."
Bioethicist Peter Singer kickstarted the conference with his keynote address on Friday.
​Experts Gather at Yale to Discuss Whether Animals Are People
Likewise, keynote speaker Peter Singer — the founder of the modern animal rights movement — noted that, "Animals are an end unto themselves because their suffering matters." Like so many other speakers this past weekend, Singer dismantled notions of human exceptionalism. Animals are simply not for us to use and abuse.
Andrew Fenton from Cal State gave a provocative talk in which he addressed the issue of animal experimentation. Taking inspiration from pediatric ethics, he made the fascinating claim that animals can express dissent.
"Pressure is mounting to recognize the demands made by captive other-than-human animals on their captors — and demands made by free-living other-than-human animals on conspecifics — in relevantly similar ways to what we see falling under discussions of respect for persons in human bioethics," he noted. Consequently, it's important that we not destroy an animal's ability to dissent to experimentation.
Some speakers presented more difficult criteria for personhood, including Harvard's Wynn Schwartz. Drawing from Goffman's dramaturgical viewpoint, he argued that persons should have the capacity for hedonics, prudence, aesthetics, and ethics. "The life that's observed should tell a story," he said.

The Potential for Machine Persons

Some speakers considered the potential for personhood rights to be ascribed to future machine minds. Indeed, there's already concern that we may harm AI when it first emerges. To that end, Samir Chopra, author of A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, argued that some AI will be deserving of moral and legal consideration.
"By regarding animals as 'not-persons' we are able to continually mistreat and exploit them," he said. The same danger awaits artificial agents, which is why we have to look at personhood as a pragmatic notion.
As for me, I spoke about the consequences of legal nonhuman animal personhood, including potential impacts to our social, political, and legal spheres (full details to come in a future io9 post!).
Finally, futurist and scifi author David Brin closed the conference by making the case for animal uplift. As the most successful intelligent species on the planet, we owe it to the animals to help them "crash through the evolutionary glass ceiling." He says that we shouldn't just assume that animals, in their natural state, are living a kind of ideal existence — a claim that ruffled the feathers of many conference attendees.
The IEET team: George Dvorsky, James Hughes, Kris Notaro
​Experts Gather at Yale to Discuss Whether Animals Are People
I've organized conferences before, but this was easily the most personal. It was extremely affirming for me to see these topics discussed in such a matter-of-fact and sophisticated way. It was also encouraging to see so many people make the case for personhood outside the usual suspects (i.e. great apes, cetaceans, and elephants).
And as pointed out to me during the conference, and as I made very clear in my talk, we have moved past the first two phases of social reform. We are no longer being laughed at and we are certainly no longer being ignored. We are now truly in the midst of a fight to have legal personhood rights ascribed to nonhuman animals.
Quite appropriately, Steven Wise quoted Winston Churchill when assessing the current situation: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Image: Top: MarclSchauer | All other images IEET
Follow me on Twitter: @dvorsky

November 23, 2013

Peter Singer and David Brin to speak at animal personhood conference

The final list of speakers has been announced for Personhood Beyond the Human, a conference devoted to the issue of granting human-like legal protections to a select group of highly sapient nonhuman animals.
The idea that some animals should be designated legal persons — and not just property — is starting to gain some serious traction. Already today, India has, at least in principle, named dolphins as persons and banned their inclusion into aquatic theme parks. The IEET's Rights of the Nonhuman Persons program — a program that I founded and currently chair — seeks to do much more. We'd like to see not just dolphins, but whales, elephants, and all great apes given the same consideration — and not just in principle; the only way to truly protect highly sapient animals from such things as undue confinement and experimentation is to grant them the status that they truly deserve, which is that of the person.
But we're not only interested in animal welfare — we're also looking ahead to the future when artificial intelligence and robots will need to be granted personhood status as well lest they be abused, exploited, and left unaccountable.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about using supercomputers to simulate the human brain. But as scientists get progressively closer to achieving.
To that end, we've organized the Personhood Beyond the Human conference, which will be held at Yale University from December 6-8. We're bringing together a number of leading experts to discuss the prospect.
Philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer will be keynoting, the man who practically founded the modern animal rights movement, and who I listed as one of the most important futurists of the past 50 years. Also keynoting will be Steven M. Wise, the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (seperate from the IEET). Wise's group is set to name a captive chimp as a plaintiff in what will surely be an historic case.
Also speaking will be marine biologist Lori Marino, scifi author David Brin, attorney-entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, bioethicist Linda MacDonald Glenn, IEET executive director James Hughes, robot ethicist Wendell Wallach, and many, many more. Including me.
You can register for the conference here. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if you'd like to schedule an interview.
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