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December 31, 2004

Happy New Year

Don't feel much like celebrating tonight given the situation in South Asia. Rob Cockerham has compared the death count from the Tsunami to the deaths at the World Trade Center. Here are some videos of the tsunami.

Today's links:

Managing Care Through the Air
Growing old in a wireless world will mean not just keeping your body healthy but keeping it online.

The New and Improved SETI
SETI's Seth Shostak reveals the latest technology and techniques used in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Robots and Emotion: Tetchy the Turtle Meets Sonny and HAL
Affective Media is planning for a future in which it will be important that machines are able to understand the different states of their human colleagues.

Small Wonders
Nanotechnology will give humans greater control of matter at tiny scales. That is a good thing, says Natasha Loder

Is Mechanosynthesis Feasible?
The nanotechnology debate moves up a gear.

December 29, 2004

Conversation with Dale Carrico on denaturalization


I've been corresponding with Betterhumans columnist and Amor Mundi blogger Dale Carrico about his latest set of articles, The Trouble with Transhumanism Parts I and II.

Dale's been engaging the fine people at WorldChanging about enviro related issues, particularly the issue of humanity's tenancy to denaturalize itself and its environment. In Part II of his BH column, Carrico made the very astute observation that both bioconservative and tech-progressive sensibilities, positions and politics have arisen and exert their force uniquely in consequence of what he describes as the ongoing denaturalization of human life in this historical moment. "This denaturalization is a broad social and cultural tendency," writes Carrico, "roughly analogous to and even structurally related to other broad tendencies such as, say, secularization and industrialization." He continues:
It consists essentially of two trends: First, it names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, sometimes in hyperbolic forms) of the normative and ideological force of claims made in the name of "nature" and especially "human nature," inspired by a recognition of the destabilizing impact of technological developments on given capacities and social norms. Second, it consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technological development, and the distribution of its costs, risks and benefits, is emerging ever more conspicuously as the primary space of social struggle around the globe.

It is a truism that the technical means to eliminate poverty and illiteracy for every human being on Earth have existed since the 18th century, but that social forms and political will have consistently frustrated these ends. The focus for most tech-progressives remains to use emerging technologies to transform the administration of social needs, to provide shelter, nutrition, health care and education for all, as well as to remedy the damaging and destabilizing impact of technology itself on complex, imperfectly understood environmental and social orders on which we depend for survival. To these ends, a deepening and widening of democratic participation in development and accountability of governance through emerging networked information and communication technologies is also crucial. Beyond this, many tech-progressives also champion the idea of morphological freedom, or consensual practices of genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification considered as personal practices of self-creation rather than as the technological imposition of social conformity figured questionably as "health."
A couple of days ago I wrote to Dale to congratulate him on his articles. Here's the conversation that ensued:

George:
Dale, what an excellent set of articles! Your second one was particularly strong. Your notion that denaturalization follows along such trends as secularization and industrialization is a zinger.
Dale:
I agree with you that the discussion of "denaturalization" is especially promising, but maybe you can help me think through some of the quandaries of the term.

I have heard some criticisms among environmentalists I respect about this “anti-nature” aspect of my argument. I can see the point of arguments that would say that technology is the *form* human "nature" takes, and I can see the point of arguments that say we depend for our survival on complex systems we imperfectly understand (which seems to be what some people mean by "nature") even if we impact them with our own activity and this must make us especially careful.

But I can't for the life of me figure out a way to weave these insights into the point I was making myself about technological destabilization as a risky but promisingly emancipatory force, and "nature" as a word people mostly use just to defend customs that have outlived their usefulness. I want to say culture trumps nature, and human dignity must come from critical freedom not uncritical customs from now on -- but I don't want to deny there is some sense in these objections.
George:
Another way of describing denaturalization is the steady encroachment of intelligent interventions in what are normally autonomic processes; consequently, we must be wary of the motives that underlie these interventions. But we must also be wary of those arguments that take a non-interventionist approach, which can sometimes be an indifferent hands-off approach for merely romantic reasons, or sentiments that arise from the fear that we might make the situation worse (and that certain systems are optimized before intelligence intervenes -- a hard argument to sell).

Once thing I don't buy, however, is that the complexity found in natural systems are ineffable and/or intractable. Because complexity is often merely a data or mapping problem, it's just a matter of time and diligence.

Another angle would be to include practical applications of personhood ethics in consideration of how it applies to utilitarianism. A trick will be to show a kind of cost/benefit analysis of non-intervention versus intervention in terms of its impact on all living, emotional, and experiential creatures. To do so, the value of say, maintaining a certain biological function for aesthetic (romantic) reasons, would have to be qualitatively determined, and then set against what we value through intervening in the process.

Non-interventionists need to be careful, however, in that they risk applying Darwinianism to their ethical worldview, which is not IMO tied into our collective set of values as thinking and compassionate creatures; rather, we need to be Lamarckian as we apply non-anthropocentric personhood values in our dealings with living creatures and systems.
Dale:
I agree with all of this! When I tell people culture should trump nature I've been trying to say in a sloppy too-intuitive way what you are saying here, I think. It's funny, once "culture" is set in motion "hands-off" is always a *kind* of intervention itself, there is no way to not "intervene," the process of intervention has already begun. The question becomes where and how one intervenes, and non-intervention is always non-intervention in processes stamped by ongoing interventions. That's why I agree with you that the very notion of non-intervention is always a romantic mystification, pure ideology.

This stuff speaks to the Precautionary Principle discussion too (another topic on which I seem to swim against the tide) -- though for me the key thing with the Principle is not whether it generally recommends stagnation or development but *who* gets to participate in the decision-making about what forms intervention takes.

Ain't nature grand?


It's looking like 100,000 dead, with prospects for even more than that. Unreal. This is emotionally affecting me. I feel helpless and I wish I could be out there helping these people dig themselves out. I made a small donation today to the relief efforts in an attempt to assuage my anxieties and feelings of helplessness. I read that Canada gave a paltry $4-million. Our government should be ashamed of itself. [Canada has upped its aid donation to $40-million dollars--much better.]

NASA speculates that the megathrust earthquake may have shifted the Earth's axis, causing the Earth to wobble by an inch or so. The quake altered regional geography by a few meters and cut the length of the day by a few millionths of a second. The tsunami itself was felt as far as Mexico and right on into the Pacific.

And for all the nature worshipers out there, the deep ecologists and gaianists, this should serve as a reminder of just how much Mother Nature cares for the Earth's inhabitants. Here are some examples of how ant-like we truly are when confronted with the elements:

- Bangladesh was hit by a cyclone in 1970 killing 500,000 people. Winds of up to 230 km/h whipped up massive waves that took away entire villages.

- An 8.3 earthquake obliterated the Chinese city of Tangshan in 1976. The official number of people killed was put at around 250,000, although some said the figure was more like 750,000.

- Chinese provinces Shanxi and Henan lost more than 800,000 people when hit by a quake in 1556.

- In 1887, about 900,000 people died when China's Yellow River burst its banks in the worst-ever recorded flooding.

And if you think all this is bad, that's nothing. Of course, the Earth's creatures have suffered through phases of mass extinctions, many of them facilitated by catastrophic events like celestial object impacts. But worse still is what's happening across the Universe on a near daily basis as the result of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs).


A gamma ray burst, the single most powerful cataclysmic force known to us, occurs at a rate of about 1 per minute across the entire Universe. That's a rather terrifying figure considering the terrible punch that these explosions pack.

Likely the result of a black hole being created from a dying star, a GRB radiation blast spreads out evenly, with the gamma-ray energy released by the burst being equivalent to that which would be produced by converting the entire mass of a star 1.3 times the mass of our Sun completely into gamma radiation. Put into perspective, if a GRB were to happen as far away as 2,000 light years, it would shine twice as bright in our night sky as the Sun does during the day. Given a GRB close enough to Earth, it would rip apart our ozone layer and likely extinguish life on our planet.

Consequently, it is speculated that GRBs are a major factor in regulating the presence of extraterrestrial civilizations across galaxies. Some believe that a GRB can sterilize as much as a quarter of an entire galaxy. Given even modest guesses about the number of extraterrestrial civilizations per galaxy, and given that a GRB happens at a rate of 1/minute across the Universe, it's safe to assume that mass civilization extinctions are happening across the Universe on a daily basis.

The Universe, it appears, is a very dangerous and indifferent place. What's not indifferent, however, are the sentiments and actions of its intelligent inhabitants.

December 28, 2004

Tsunami from hell


At least 56,000 dead. My puny paleolithic brain is having a hard time comprehending the totality and humanity of this natural disaster. Time for a prayer:

Dear God,
as we marvel at Thy creation,
this tiny planet Earth on which we dwell,
we stand in awe and reverence in the Universe's unfolding.
As we continue to stand by You and worship Thee,
and as You in turn answer our prayers and watch over us, Your blessed children,
we remain in blissful ignorance as to Thine divine plan.
But far be it for us to question the motives of God,
for You have blessed us with brains too small and weak to comprehend Thine divine logic.
Surely there is great wisdom in sweeping 56,000 souls out to sea, 18,000 of them children.
For certain Thou has shown great mercy by granting these people a life of poverty and their subsequent reward of death by tsunami.
And absolutely must there be kindness in the disease and strife that will inevitably ensue.
And in addition to this holy earthquake,
we thank You for rectal cancer, male nipples, and for all the hopeful mothers who get to live through a miscarriage.
We welcome our ignorance and confusion, and pray that you continue to bless us with Thy merciful bounty and guardianship.
Amen.

December 27, 2004

Hapgood: More Than Human


Fred Hapgood has an interesting article about the transhumanist potential in Bio-IT World. Called More Than Human, the article describes numerous posthuman possibilities, particularly as they pertain to neural enhancements and integration with IT. Says Hapgood:
Transhumanism might be described as the technology of advanced individual enhancement. While it includes physical modifications (diamondoid teeth, self-styling hair, autocleaning ears, nanotube bones, lipid metabolizers, polymer muscles), most of the interest in the technology focuses on the integration of brains and computers — especially brains and networks. Sample transhumanist apps could include cell phone implants (which would allow virtual telepathy), memory backups and augmenters, thought recorders, reflex accelerators, collaborative consciousness (whiteboarding in the brain), and a very long list of thought-controlled actuators. Ultimately, the technology could extend to the uploading and downloading of entire minds in and out of host bodies, providing a self-consciousness that, theoretically, would have no definitive nor necessary end. That is, immortality, of a sort.
He also cautions against the blanket condemnation of enhancement technologies, complaining about the impracticality of enforcing such a policy of restraint:
Still, it's not clear that boycotting neurotech will be a realistic option. When the people around you — competitors, colleagues, partners — can run Google searches in their brains during conversations; or read documents upside down on a desk 30 feet away; or remember exactly who said what, when and where; or coordinate meeting tactics telepathically; or work forever without sleep; or control every device on a production line with thought alone, your only probable alternative is to join them or retire. No corporation could ignore the competitive potential of a neurotech-enhanced workforce for long.


And as a CIO, Hapgood also offers some practical solutions to mind violations of the kind depicted in Ghost in the Shell:
One possible approach to neurosecurity might be to implant a public-key infrastructure in our brains so that every neural region can sign and authenticate requests and replies from any other region. A second might be maintaining a master list of approved mental activities and blocking any mental operations not on that list. (Concerns about whether the list itself was corrupted might be addressed by refreshing the list constantly from implanted and presumably unhackable ROM chips.) It might also be necessary to outsource significant portions of our neural processing to highly secure computing sites. In theory, such measures might improve on the neurosecurity system imposed on us by evolution, making us less vulnerable to catchy tunes and empty political slogans.
Definitely give this article a read.

December 25, 2004

Favourite albums of 2004

In no particular order, here are my favorite albums of 2004:

Wilco: A Ghost is Born
Air: Talkie Walkie
Ghost: Hypnotic Underworld
Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender
The Beta Band: Heroes to Zeros
Ron Sexsmith: Retriever
Feist: Let it Die
The Black Keys: Rubber Factory
Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat
Interpol: Antics
Madvillain: Madvillainy
Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News
PJ Harvey: Uh Huh Her
Probot: Probot
Beastie Boys: To the Five Boroughs
Loretta Lynn; Van Lear Rose
The Streets: A Grand Doesn't Come for Free
Freescha: Casino Versus Japan

[Oh, forgot another good one, Arcade Fire: Funeral (revision 01/16/05)]

Jared Diamond: Collapse


Jared Diamond's latest book: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Description:
"In his million-copy bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. Now in this brilliant companion volume, Diamond probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?

As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Moving from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe. Environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of these societies, but other societies found solutions and persisted. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.

Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?"

December 24, 2004

...in the palm of our hands


I like this image--the idea that our genetic constitutions will soon be within our very grasp. Very transhumanist.

The End of the World


This week's Economist has a cover article on humanity's propensity for conjuring up doomsday scenarios. In the article A Brief History, the Economist discusses a number of historial scenarios and antecedents, including such things as the religious underpinnings of apocalyptic scenarios and the recent Raelian phenomenon:
The Raelians' claim to be atheists who belong to the secular world must come as no surprise to Mr Cohn, who has long detected patterns of religious apocalyptic thought in what is supposedly rational, secular belief. He has traced “egalitarian and communistic fantasies” to the ancient-world idea of an ideal state of nature, in which all men are genuinely equal and none is persecuted. As Mr Cohn has put it, “The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious. For it is the simple truth that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still.”
The Economist also notes the contributions from political science, including Hegel and Fukuyama:
Hegel saw history as an evolution of ideas that would culminate in the ideal liberal-democratic state. Since liberal democracy satisfies the basic need for recognition that animates political struggle, thought Hegel, its advent heralds a sort of end of history—another suspiciously apocalyptic claim. More recently, Francis Fukuyama has echoed Hegel's theme. Mr Fukuyama began his book, “The End of History”, with a claim that the world had arrived at “the gates of the Promised Land of liberal democracy”. Mr Fukuyama's pulpit oratory suited the spirit of the 1990s, with its transformative “new economy” and free-world triumphs. In the disorientating disconfirmation of September 11th and the coincident stockmarket collapse, however, his religion has lost favour.
And in a refreshing surprise, the article also brings up the contributions of Kurzweil and Moravec:
Noting an exponential acceleration in the pace of technological change, futurologists like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil think the world inhabits the “knee of the curve”—a sort of last-days set of circumstances in which, in the near future, the pace of technological change runs quickly away towards an infinite “singularity” as intelligent machines learn to build themselves. From this point, thinks Mr Moravec, transformative “mind fire” will spread in a flash across the cosmos. Britain's astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, relegates Mr Kurzweil and those like him to the “visionary fringe”. But Mr Rees's own darkly apocalyptic book, “Our Final Hour”, outdoes the most colourful of America's televangelists in earthquakes, plagues and other sorts of fire and brimstone.

Cosmetic Extraocular Implant


Check out this cool ocular mod:
The Cosmetic Extraocular Implant (JewelEyeTM) was developed by the Netherlands Institute for Innovative Ocular Surgery. The device can be implanted within the superficial, interpalpebral conjunctiva. The implant does not interfere with the ocular functions, ie the visual performance and ocular motility. The implant is made of a specially designed material that can be molded in all kinds of desired shapes and sizes.

The JewelEyeTM device is 3.5 mm in diameter and available in the following shapes: ring, heart, star. ring. The devices are packaged in a box with 10 sterile devices and the guidelines for use.

In the Netherlands, a Cosmetic Extraocular Implant is not considered a medical device.

Patent applications for the Cosmetic Extraocular Implant are pending.

December 23, 2004

Links

Holy light blogging, batman. Sorry about the lack of posts. Very busy. Here are some cool links I've discovered lately:

Brain versus Machine Control: Dr. Octopus, the villain of the movie Spiderman 2, is a fusion of man and machine. Neuroscientist Jose Carmena examines the facts behind this fictional account of a brain-machine interface

Religion and Science: Buddhism on the Brain: Many religious leaders find themselves at odds with science, but the head of Tibetan Buddhism is a notable exception. Jonathan Knight meets a neurologist whose audience with the Dalai Lama helped to explain why.

You, Robot: He says humans will download their minds into computers one day. With a new robotics firm, Hans Moravec begins the journey from warehouse drones to robo sapiens.

Natural Selection Acts on the Quantum World: Objective reality may owe its existence to a 'darwinian' process that advertises certain quantum states.

Betterhumans columnist Dale Carrico's The Trouble with "Transhumanism": Part One and The Trouble with "Transhumanism": Part Two.

Does Transhumanism Suck?: Annalee Newitz In Conversation With R.U. Sirius

Robots Suffer for Art's Sake: Through his art, Fernando Orellana is turning the public fear of robots and future technology on its head by creating fearful and shy robots.

How About Not 'Curing' Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading: "We don't have a disease," said Jack, echoing the opinion of the other 15 boys at the experimental Aspie school here in the Catskills. "So we can't be 'cured.' This is just the way we are." (NYT registration required)

November 30, 2004

Recent European bioethics breakthroughs

A couple of reminders about our bioconservative proclivities here in North America:

Netherlands proposes euthanasia for newborns in agony: A hospital in the Netherlands — the first nation to permit euthanasia — recently proposed guidelines for mercy killings of terminally ill newborns, and then made a startling revelation: It has already begun carrying out such procedures, which include administering a lethal dose of sedatives.

Mother carrying "designer baby": A woman who was given permission to have embryo screening treatment in a bid to save her son is carrying the UK's first "designer baby;" Stem cells from the new baby could save its brother's life.

November 11, 2004

Engineering deliberate NEO impacts


Anders Sandberg and I have been having a conversation about the possibility for a deliberately engineered NEO (near Earth object) attack. The possibility of such a thing was brought to my attention in a recent Astrobiology article called "Tugboat as Lifeboat?" In this article, Russell Schweikart, a former Apollo 9 astronaut and the current Chairman of the B612 Foundation (an advocacy group endorsing 'a gentle push' approach to asteroid risk mitigation), had this to say about the prospect:
It takes little imagination to visualize the extreme political and social controversy if we wait for a specific impact to become known before developing the path deviation criteria.

The opportunity for abuse and the underlying human characteristics that concerned Carl Sagan (when he reflected in 1992 on potential "negligence, fanaticism or madness") still remain a challenge while the instantaneous impact point is slowly guided off the Earth. This deflection dilemma arises in the recognition that if one can deflect an incoming NEO such that it misses the Earth, one can as well deflect a NEO that would otherwise miss the Earth such that it now hits the Earth, presumably in a particular location.

This is clearly a challenging task since the few space faring nations of the world are powerful, and such intrusive oversight will not be easily negotiated. It is crucial to realize that the appropriate time-window to negotiate these international agreements is not the time available until an impact occurs, but rather the time available until an impact is predicted.
I wrote transhumanist polymath Anders Sandberg about the potential problem and a conversation ensued. Here's the thread:

Me: Here's another consideration for a nihilistic human extinction scenario:
The deliberate engineering of an asteroidal impact: "Tugboat as Lifeboat?"

Anders: As my gaming group remarked as they debated asteroid braking and mining strategies in one of our games: "Don't even think of it! Aerobraking asteroids easily becomes lithobraking!" :-)

Like weather control attempts, asteroid deflection attempts may be subject to huge risks of liability claims - if the defelction does not work 100% somebody is still going to be hurt, and survivors may claim that they suffered because of the attempt. This might actually reduce the incentive to deal with lesser impactors (preventing extinction level events will likely be accepted by everyone, even if a few small pieces are likely to drop on someone). It would be interesting to make a probabilistic analysis of the defense schemes published so far and see in which regimes (size-warning time - method) there are liability problems.

As a strategic weapon asteroids are rather bad - you put your mass driver on a NEO, and it will be in the vicinity of Earth every 10-20 years rather than all the time. Also, it is hard to discreetly send a spacecraft to an asteroid, so everybody will know you did it. Unless of course there are already plenty of space traffic, but then the deadliness of impacts may be blunted.

As for nihilistic kills, asteroids do have a certain charm. Smiting the world from the sky and all that. But I have not seen much evidence for nihilism as motivation on large scales. If you look at various atrocities and the effort that went into them, most seem to be fairly direct projects with fairly non-nihilistic (if nasty) goals. Hence I would worry more about somebody thinking the world would be a better place with a thoroughly smashed America/Europe/Asia/wherever than someone trying for extinction - specific rather than general malevolence.

Smaller asteroids could of course be used instead of nukes, but they appear somewhat unwieldy (as described above). Hence warfare with smaller asteroids is unlikely to kill off mankind, just to make us very sorry. One could imagine automated second-strike systems launching asteroids if one's home nation is destroyed causing some form of chain reaction bombing the Earth into a crater wasteland, but again that seems to be using slow and inefficient means to achieve what lots of nukes (or bioweapons) likely can do more cheaply.

Replicating asteroid mining stations building mass drivers and sending off new stations to other asteroids could set up a very dangerous system. This in addition to the *huge* arms race incentives - if you launch one of these a few weeks before me, I may end up with an immense disadvantage, so I better launch first. Even if all we do is peaceful resource extraction, we still are likely to compete for free asteroids. But such robotization of the solar system is a separate threat from asteroid impacts. The asteroids become mere tools and raw materials to the replicating infrastructure rather than the threat in themselves.

Me: One concern I have is, with all the mass movers working out there, and given the potential for someone to hack into its system, this kind of attack could be instigated remotely and even somewhat clandestinely.

Anders: Yes, if you have automated robofacs across the solar system the system can become a tremendous danger if it is insecure. It ought to be possible to make a fairly secure system: each robofac only accepts commands with the right crypto-authentification, copies are prevented from running if their multiply redundant checksums do not work out, tamperproofing of various kinds etc. But then the owner goes on a coffee break, leaving the master password written on a post-it next to his computer...

Of course, one could also use the fruits of such an infrastructure to set up asteroid defenses fairly easily. Make a few of the robofacs build interception missions, and you will have lots and lots of interceptors distributed across the solar system waiting for an emergency. But even that solution can become a problem if badly implemented (imagine a mistaken command making the interceptors attack anything leaving from Earth, and no easy way to get rid of them: a bit of a whimper).

In general, the greater the amount of mass/energy people can throw around, the greater the risks to isolated or concentrated targets.

November 9, 2004

Looming influenza pandemic


According to a number of infectious diseases experts, the human population is on the verge of another influenza pandemic--this one being the H5N1 avian strain from Asia:
“We're very limited in what we can do for this virus,” Dr. David Heymann of the World Health Organization told participants at the two-day conference, organized by the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital's Centre for Global Health Research.

“This virus is rapidly spreading around the world, the fear of course being that H5N1 from chickens will enter a human and . . . reassort to form a human influenza virus which will then have genetic characteristics of a human virus, spread rapidly around the world and cause deaths,” said Dr. Heymann, executive director of the WHO's communicable diseases division.

The process Dr. Heymann was referring to would mark the start of a new influenza pandemic, an event most flu researchers believe is both inevitable and overdue.

In the 400 years of recorded influenza history, pandemics have occurred on a regular if sporadic basis. The longest period between pandemics has been 30 to 40 years, noted Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.
Assuming that it does indeed infiltrate the human population as expected, I would predict that 1) due to countermeasures and other health interventions, the effects will not be as devastating as previous outbreaks, and 2) if it does wreak considerable havoc, it's the kind of thing that will force people's head out of the sand in regards to the potential and need for further research and development into novel medical interventions and health technologies--including the potential for such things as the ability to decode a virus's genome and develop counter-phages and immunizations.

November 8, 2004

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies launched

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies was officially launched today. With the mandate of "promoting the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities," the IEET is an organization that is closely associated with the World Transhumanist Association and is the brainchild of Nick Bostrom and James Hughes (who is the Executive Director). I currently serve on the IEET Board of Directors along with Bostrom, Giulio Prisco, Mike LaTorra and Mark Walker.

Here's the press release that was released today:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
James Hughes Ph.D.
Executive Director
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
http://ieet.org
56 Daleville School Rd.
Willington CT 06279 USA
(office) 860-297-2376
director@ieet.org

New Institute to Provide Balanced Views on Human Enhancement Technologies

Willington, CT, USA -- November 8, 2004 -- When should parents be permitted to genetically enhance their children? How can we regulate psychoactive drugs in ways that respect cognitive liberty? How can we avoid exacerbating inequality as human enhancement technologies spread?

The IEET's mission is to become a center for responsible, constructive approaches to emerging human enhancement technologies. We believe that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development so long as we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed.

As yet there has been no institutional home for the consideration of the ethical challenges of emerging human enhancement technologies free from both anti-regulatory dogmas that deny the legitimacy of democratic public policy, and technophobic red herrings such as anxieties about transgressing the boundaries of humanness. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies intends to fill that gap.

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies will be directed by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who will chair the Board of Directors, and bioethicist James J. Hughes, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut USA and who will serve as Executive Director. The IEET is incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the United States. The IEET's Board of Directors currently come from Spain, Canada, the UK and the United States. The IEET will also be served by a Board of Advisors, which is now being formed.

The IEET has appointed six 2004-2005 Fellows: nano-policy thinker Mike Treder; development policy futurists Jose Cordeiro and Jamais Cascio; biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey; human rights writer Dale Carrico; and philosopher, and science fiction author and critic, Russell Blackford. The work of the IEET will also be served by student interns. Applications for internships are now being accepted.

The Fellowships, internships and work of the IEET is structured around six programs of action: Global Health; Relationships, Community and Technology; Consequences and Ethics of Emerging Technologies; Self-Determination and Human Rights; Longer, Better Lives; and Visions of Utopia and Dystopia.

Specific activities of the IEET include placing essays in newspapers and journals, underwriting selected research and analysis, promoting leading thinkers through events and publicity campaigns, and producing publications, journals and audio-visual materials. In particular the IEET has assumed management of the Journal of Evolution and Technology which has published academic research on questions of human enhancement and technological futurism since 1998.

The Institute will organize several events per year in Europe and North America. In July 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference in Caracas Venezuela, focusing on human enhancement technologies and the developing world, with the World Transhumanist Association. (The IEET will work closely with the World Transhumanist Association, which is also chaired by Dr. Bostrom and served by Dr. Hughes as its Executive Director.) In September 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference on Human Rights and Human Enhancement with the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics.

For more information: http://ieet.org or Contact:
director@ieet.org
Phone: 860-297-2376

November 5, 2004

November 4, 2004

Signs of the coming apocalypse

More signs that the coming apocalypse is near:

- A lion attacked a man who jumped into its enclosure and shouted at it: "Jesus will save you!" at a zoo in Taiwan's capital.

- Blood sucking monkeys lurking at an ancient Hindu temple in India's northeast have attacked as many as 300 children in the past 3 weeks; "They hide in trees and swoop on unsuspecting children loitering about in the temple premises or walking by, clawing them and even sucking a bit of blood," Bani Kumar Sharma, a priest at the Kamakhya temple in Assam state, said Tuesday.

- George Bush wins the 2004 US presidential election

....the end is near my friends...

November 3, 2004

Fool's Paradise

Rather than hear me groan on about the US election results, here are some thoughtful entries from around the blogosphere:

Dale Carrico: It's all over 'cept for the cryin'
Chris Mooney: Another Possible Consequence of Bush's Victory
Paul Hughes: Wake Up Call!
Alan AtKisson: What if Kerry had Won?

Some article links


Some interesting articles I found today:

Marketing to the Mothership
Astrobiology Magazine

Summary: It is sometimes said that the best form of advertising is education. But what products would our global marketplace tolerate at the borders of an encounter with another, perhaps far different civilization? To get some perspective, an expert entertains the question of how to advertise our presence to a more universal demographic.

Three Newly Discovered Exoplanets Have Masses Comparable to Neptune's
Physics Today

Summary: Unlike Neptune and Uranus, the ice giants of our solar system, the new planets may be rocky "super−earths."

In the past 10 years, some 120 planets have been discovered outside the solar system. With the exception of three lightweight oddballs orbiting a millisecond pulsar—the dead remnant of a supernova—all of these exoplanets have been at least two orders of magnitude heavier than Earth. Though observational biases clearly favor the discovery of such giants, astronomers couldn't help wondering whether, for some unknown reason, lighter exoplanets might in fact be much rarer than gas giants like our own Jupiter and Saturn.

Now the catalog of known exoplanets has suddenly become more diverse. Three teams of planet searchers recently announced the discovery of three exoplanets with masses on the order of Neptune's. The masses of Neptune and Uranus, the so−called ice giants of the solar system, are 17.2 and 14.6 M♁ (where M♁ is Earth's mass). By contrast, the masses of Jupiter and Saturn are 318 and 95 M♁.

Ancient Supernova Sparked Humanity?
Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Summary: A stellar blast might have helped initiate human evolution three million years ago, according to German scientists who have found clear traces of an ancient supernova explosion deep beneath the Pacific Ocean.

Sifting through dust on the ocean floor at a depth of 15,750 feet, Gunther Korschinek and colleagues at the Technical University of Munich in Germany found 28 layers of iron-60, a radioactive isotope of iron which experts believe is unlikely to have come from anything other than the heat, pressure and nuclear activity of a supernova.

U.S. Air Force Takes a Look at Teleportation

Space.com
Bill Christensen, Space.com

Summary: It seems that mere stealth technology is not enough; the United States Air Force wants to get from here to there without even traversing the space in between.

November 1, 2004

Special Sun


[Note: this is not the original version of this post. I had to correct some math errors, so this version is more accurate]

Here are some interesting facts about our sun--facts that have a direct bearing on such things as the Drake Equation and the Rare Earth hypothesis:
- The Milky Way is 130,000 light years across, but only 5,000 light years thick (it's shaped like a pancake)

- There are 3 trillion (or 300,000 million) stars in the Milky Way

- Our sun is roughly half-way from the centre of the core of the galaxy and half-way through its lifespan at 4.5 billion years old

- it takes our sun 250 million years to orbit the centre of the galaxy

- Every second, our sun converts about 5 million tons of mass into energy; Earth intercepts only a billionth of this energy

- Stars that are larger than our sun burn out at a much quicker rate; a star with twice the mass as ours will burn out in only 1 billion years (it's likely that any orbiting planet could not ignite and sustain complex life given that short time-frame); further, these larger stars emit high levels of life-threatening ultraviolet radiation

- stars that are smaller than our sun can last well over 10 billion years and comprise as much as 95% of all stars in the Milky Way, leaving only 150 billion stars either the same or larger than our own (the so-called G class of yellow suns)

- M red dwarf stars are the most common of the small stars (they represent 80% of all stars in the galaxy); they burn their fuel more slowly and are quite dim--in fact, when you look into the sky at night, you cannot see any of these stars

- small stars have a significantly smaller habitable zone for any potential life-bearing planets; moreover, the habitable zone would have to be quite close to the sun, causing gravitational effects that would likely prevent the formation of life (including orbital "lock" so that only one side is facing the sun at any given time); finally, smaller stars are less stable and produce flares with great frequency

- our sun is situated in the galactic habitable zone, which boasts two major characteristics: i) a region fairly devoid of interstellar matter, and ii) a region rich in metallicity (the outer stars lack critical heavier elements which assist in the creation of life)

- 60% of yellow G class stars like ours exist in binary pairs or triplets; multiple star systems tend to sweep-up nearby material making it difficult for planets to form, and any planet that does form will be in a highly eccentric orbit--not good for life; thus, out of all the galaxy's stars, no more than 90 billion stars are of the solitary yellow G class

- it's appearing more and more that our solar system's composition is unique; most stars have so-called "Hot Jupiters" orbiting around them--gas giants that orbit very closely to the star; again, it's highly unlikely that a life-bearing planet could exist in such a system; and to make it even more difficult for life-bearing planets to exist, most outer solar system gas giants tend to be in eccentric orbits (unlike Jupiter which is in a near-circular orbit), which again would cause great instability to the solar system

- statistics that I'd like to know: of the 150 billion solitary G class stars, how many are in the galactic habitable zone (my guess is 10%, or 15 billion stars), and how many of them have Jupiters in a circular and outer orbit (my guess is 5%, bringing our total down to 750 million potentially habitable solar systems at our current time); how many of these 750 million solar systems have an Earth-like planet in its habitable zone (my guess, another 5%, bringing us down to 37.5 million)? How many of these 37.5 million planets developed life? Let's say 0.5%, which bring us to 18.75 million. How many of these developed complex life? Let's say 0.05%, bring us down to 937,500. How many of these developed industrial age intelligent societies (my guess, 0.05, bringing the total down to 46,880)?


So using this rather armchair approach to the Drake Equation we get a figure of N=46,880 or so. Of course, this doesn't speak to how long life has been able to get going in the Galaxy, so there may have been many other civilizations throughout its history--but again, I don't think this window has been open for very long, possibly only within the last 750 million to 1,000 million years. Also, my estimates may be quite liberal. My figure of 0.05 for industrial age societies may be significantly exaggerated.

BTW, many of these statistics were taken from William C. Burger's excellent book, "Perfect Planet, Clever Species."

October 27, 2004

Human dwarf species uncovered


"It is arguably the most significant discovery concerning our own genus in my lifetime." -- Bernard Wood, George Washington University.

It now appears that the Neanderthals weren't the only human-like species to co-habit the planet with modern humans in recent evolutionary terms. In fact, a completely different hominid species survived longer than the Neanderthals did (they died out about 28,000 years ago).

Indeed, the discovery of a human dwarf species that lived as recently as 18,000 years ago on the island of Flores is a breathtaking discovery.

The species, named Homo floresiensis, lived marooned for eons on the island of Flores while Homo sapiens rapidly colonized the rest of the planet. Flores was a kind of tropical world populated by giant lizards and miniature elephants.

Homo floresiensis had a grapefruit-sized brain about one-quarter the size of the brain of modern man; it is closer in size with the brains of transitional prehuman species in Africa more than three million years ago. However, evidence suggests that Flores man made stone tools, lit fires and organized group hunts for meat.

It is uncertain if this species ever crossed paths with modern humans. And geologic evidence suggests a massive volcanic eruption sealed its fate 12,000 years ago, along with other unusual species on the island.

October 24, 2004

Did Cybercity Radio show yesterday

I did my first ever live radio interview last night as I was Jack Landman's guest on Cybercity Radio. I believe the show is based out of San Antonio, Texas. The show is reminiscent of Coast to Coast AM with George Noory, and like Coast to Coast has an unhealthy attachment to UFO culture. That being said, Cybercity has its share of credible science. Past guests include Seth Shostak (SETI Astronomer), Alan Guth (Cosmologist), Kary Mullis (Nobel Prize Winner), Neil deGrasse Tyson (Astrophysicist), and Paul Kurtz (Philosophy - Founder CSICOP).

I had a great time doing the interview. Jack opened the show with the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I found quite appropriate and dramatic. Consequently, we were immediately engaged in some serious discussions about posthuman possibilities. Other topics we covered included indefinite lifespans, the global brain, technologically enabled telepathy, stem cells and therapeutic cloning, Betterhumans, the World Transhumanist Association, potential dangers in the 21st century (including artificial superintelligence) and molecular nanotechnology.

At the close of the show Jack asked if I would come back to do future shows, an offer to which I graciously accepted.

October 13, 2004

New Transitory Human Column: Death Vs. Hope


My latest column for Betterhumans has been published:

Death vs. Hope
The pace of medical progress should give patients and doctors pause when considering assisted suicide
Clearly, there is an issue here in desperate need of attention. The Canadian government, with its blanket refusal to allow and monitor assisted suicide, has forced desperate people to take desperate measures. Furthermore, the idea that our government can force us to stay alive—regardless of the particulars of our unique situation—is quite frightening and repugnant, especially when we consider how grossly underfunded health care is for the elderly and for palliative care units across the country.

But just because I defend the right to assisted suicide doesn't mean I have to like it. Given the primitiveness of today's technologies relative to what's on the horizon, I have to concede that in some cases it's a necessary evil. But there is the prospect of significantly advanced medical interventions arriving in the near future—interventions that may impact directly on people living with diseases or irreparable injuries today, and particularly those contemplating suicide. So for healthcare practitioners in countries where voluntary euthanasia is legal, and for those considering its legalization, it's time to act accordingly, including full disclosure to patients. Failing to inform patients of all their options is not only irresponsible, it could also mean the difference between someone choosing to live or die.

October 11, 2004

Conversation with Anders Sandberg on antimatter weapons


News that the US Airforce is pursuing an antimatter weapons program hit the media last week. Concerned that this theoretical technology could represent a new existential risk to our species, I opened a dialogue with Anders Sandberg to get his opinions on the subject. Here's our conversation:

Anders:
I wonder how serious this risk is. I have played around with antimatter weapon scenarios a bit, and they do not seem to be much worse than nuclear weapons. They still ought to be beside them on the list, but they do not seem to do anything truly new.

In the near future they are utterly too expensive to be useful, and they require major installations to build. This places them in the same fairly easily controlled category as nuclear weapons. Since containment is also active, proliferation is unlikely - simply too hard to keep stable.

Things change a bit if we move to space. There one can build "antimatter distilleries" orbiting the sun, accumulating antimatter or producing it through solar-powered accelerators. Everything scales up, and now one can make sizeable amounts. Production is still very visible, and fairly easily disrupted.

Antimatter becomes a serious problem if a stable (especially a passive) containment is constructed (or it can be produced in such a form). Penning traps are too small to be a threat, but once you have stably magnetically levitated anti-hydrogen or heavier, you have a potential problem with proliferation. Amat bombs could (if the containment is small) be sneaked around relatively easily and be hard to keep track of. Again, I don't think this is worse than suitcase nuclear proliferation. You get a very unstable and risky situation, but not the end of the world (Charles Stross description of the situation on the post-singularity Earth in his latest novels comes to mind).

Big antimatter detonations could be used to sterlize planetary surfaces if spread across the atmosphere. The ambiplasma fireball is going to radiate a very nasty blackbody spectrum over a sustained amount of time (minutes?) and likely produce lots of short-lived biologically active isotopes. But this kind of sterilization seems to require plenty of preparation (making the antimatter in significant amounts) and deliberate use, not just accidents. Most likely a Shriek rather than an accidental Bang.

Just some thoughts.
Me:
Thanks for the clarification and insight, Anders. It certainly doesn't seem like the kind of weapon that would be utilized by nihilist groups/individuals or even aggressive state actors.
Anders:
Maybe aggressive states would find uses for it, but beyond a certain size bigger explosions are not more destructive (most of the explosive power ends up in space). Maybe antimatter would be good for secretive space warfare or redirecting asteroids at enemies, but that seems a relatively low-level nastiness.
Me:
That being said, could a catastrophic accident arise from the development of such a weapon or fuel source (e.g. antimatter catalyzed nuclear pulse propulsion)?
Anders:
I'm thinking possibly, but only in the form a localized disaster. A Shriek at Worst.

Hmm, to accelerate a starship to 0.3 c you need about 2.5% antimatter if you have perfect conversion of energy into kinetic energy. A million ton ship would need 25,000 ton antimatter, which would indeed be a bad day if it all blew up. About 976,000 gigatons bad. (assuming I calculated right). This kind of space opera starship would indeed be a dinosaur killer.

Going down to a mere 0.1 c gives a requirement of just 0.25% antimatter, and 0.01 c 2.5e-3% - much safer.
Me:
Although, how do you know how long the ambiplasma burst will linger? It's my understanding that they can be relatively long-lived, as the component particles and antiparticles are too hot and too low-density to annihilate with each other rapidly. If the ambiplasma fireball lingered for a protracted period, that could be bad.
Anders:
I tried to calculate this during my recent trip to Brussels, as I thought my earlier answer was a bit too handwavy, but the exact answer seems hard. The mean free path depends on the density, but the density will depend on how the initial fireball expands. This will in turn depend on how opaque to gamma rays the air is and how it is heated; my general impression is that there will be a high density shockwave accelerating outwards with much antimatter reactions (as fast moving antimatter reaches it from inside) and driven by internal gamma-rays and a low density ambiplasma with more antimatter inside. Given that average particle speeds will be hundreds of km/s scattering will be very intense unless the gas is very dilute. See this article.

But to do this correctly I would likely need a nuclear fireball simulator. Maybe we should ask Sandia labs :-)

Given these ponderings, I'm revising my estimates of ambiplasma longevity in an atmosphere downwards. You get a nasty fireball, but it won't last *much* longer than a nuclear one.
Me:
Don't antimatter explosions produce copious amounts of gamma rays?
Anders:
Yup. That is the primary effect of quark-antiquark and lepton-antilepton interactions. But don't forget that the reactions also cause cascades of very hot nuclei, protons, neutrons and leptons - you get all kinds of rays.
Me:
Gamma rays are very dangerous and are the primary source of the radioactive fallout of nuclear weapons. I recognize that the effects would be immediate (unlike radioactive isotopes which persist), but I wonder what the effect of that would be on biological organisms.
Anders:
Gamma rays in themselves do not cause fallout. They just hurt organic matter, but have to be very strong to disrupt atomic nuclei. In this case they will mainly heat up the fireball, and get scattered into (still dangerous) x-rays.

Actually, an antimatter bomb would be dirty since any atom getting hit by the antimatter would be transmuted. In air that would likely mean that you got lots of light nuclei. This isn't that bad, because most of them decay fairly quickly before they can get integrated into an organism - but *lots* of C14 and tritium could be troublesome. Unfortunately, a lot of highly accelerated alpha particles and others will slam into heavier nuclei and leave behind nastier isotopes, especially if it is a ground-burst.
Me:
Oh, one final thought, is there any connection between gamma ray bursters and antimatter explosions? Do antimatter explosions happen naturally in the Universe?
Anders:
Not to my knowledge. Antimatter detonations would have a characteristic spectrum (like at 0.5 MeV for electron-positron annihilation), and it is not seen in GRBs or elsewhere. No risk for antimatter rocks hitting us.

October 7, 2004

New book about Fermi


Fermi acceleration. Fermi liquid. Fermi pressure. Fermi gas. The Fermi paradox. Fermi questions. The Fermi-Thomas model of the atom. The Fermi-Turkevich gap. Fermium and fermions. Enrico Fermi High School in Enfield. Conn. The Fermi National Accelerator in Batavia, Ill. The Enrico Fermi Institute at the University.

Okay, so this guy did something with his life.

James W. Cronin, a University of Chicago physicist and Nobel laureate, has brought together an impressive array of writers and scientists in a tribute to one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century, Enrico Fermi. The book, titled Fermi Remembered, describes the multi-faceted scientific legacy of Fermi, who made significant contributions to 20th-century physics.

In a review of the book, Steve Koppes writes:
Albert Einstein’s relativity theory and the quantum mechanics developed by Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger are often cited as milestones in 20th-century physics. But for sheer breadth of achievement, Fermi left a unique signature on modern physics.

“He gave to science all he had, and with him disappeared the last universal physicist in the tradition of the great men of the 19th century, when it was still possible for a single person to reach the highest summits, both in theory and experiment, and to dominate all fields of physics,” wrote the late Nobel laureate Emilio Segre of Fermi in 1962.

Although not a biography, the book contains reminiscences of Fermi from 25 scientists who knew him, as well as material from his research notebooks, correspondence, speech outlines and teaching.

Among Fermi’s early accomplishments was to apply quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, to the physics of solids and gases, Cronin said. In the 1920s, he built on quantum theory by formulating concepts called Fermi energy and, with Paul Dirac, Fermi-Dirac statistics. These concepts later became vital to the development of semiconductors and other electronic devices.

Fermi went on to earn the Nobel Prize in 1938 for his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by the addition of neutrons to the cores of other atoms, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slowly moving neutrons. He also directed construction of the first nuclear reactor at the University during World War II as part of the effort to develop the atomic bomb. But he turned his attention to an entirely new topic after the war.

While researching the book, Cronin discovered a 1945 letter from Fermi outlining his vision for the newly formed research institute that now bears his name at the University. “That was to do high-energy physics, not nuclear physics, not following up what he had done with the bomb,” Cronin said. “He was looking far, far ahead of that.”
In addition to his remarkable work as a physicist, Fermi also contributed to cosmological and metaphysical discussions by introducing the (in)famous Fermi Paradox, in which he contemplated the unexplained 'Great Silence' from other possible intelligent life-forms in the Universe.

October 5, 2004

Caplan: Stem-cell research a pawn in election politics


The more I read Art Caplan's work the more I like him.

His recent OpEd, "Stem-cell research a pawn in election politics," is an excellent critique of Bush's confused and misguided stem cell policy. Bush's policy, says Caplan, makes a mockery of the moral issues involved:
Not only is the president’s compromise nothing of the sort, his moral reasoning, and that of his defenders, is at best obtuse. Consider these points:

* The president says that embryo destruction is wrong, but still allows research on embryos destroyed before August 2001. Huh?

* The president says that embryo destruction is wrong, but does absolutely nothing to prevent the daily destruction of embryos in fertility clinics across the United States. What?

* The president says that embryo destruction is wrong, but fails to tell us whether he really believes that an embryo destined to be destroyed at a fertility clinic but now residing in a Petri dish is morally on par with a child suffering from juvenile diabetes or a person who cannot walk due to a spinal-cord injury. Huh?

* And the president says that embryo destruction is wrong, but does not tell us what he proposes to do about American scientists heading overseas to conduct embryonic stem-cell research in South Korea, Britain, China or Singapore, and then publishing the results in American journals and seeking American patents. Why?

Furthermore, consider Bush's position on cloning for stem-cell research. Using the techniques involved in creating Dolly the sheep, it is possible to create cloned human embryos for use as a source of embryonic stem cells. But the president has done nothing but vigorously try to ban this method for getting stem cells. While it otherwise has little time for the United Nations, the Bush administration is currently devoting much energy to trying to persuade the world body to ban cloning for the purposes of stem-cell research.
Caplan concludes by arguing that the Bush administration has painted themselves into a corner:
So what is really going on here? What's going on is that the president’s defenders are in a political pickle that they themselves created.

Bush believes that human life and human rights begin at conception even if conception occurs in a Petri dish. The president and his operatives know that their core base of supporters fervently opposes all forms of abortion and agrees that embryos are people from the moment of conception. They also know that the vast majority of American people do not agree with these views.

So, the Bush administration made a political calculation to use opposition to stem-cell research and cloning as a low-risk stalking horse to advance its anti-abortion agenda and secure support among its most avid anti-abortion constituents.
Interestingly, Caplan ends the piece with a moderately partisan outro in which he says, "Whatever your views about the upcoming presidential election, have no doubt about where the candidates stand on this issue — Bush is opposed to stem-cell research, Sen. John Kerry is not."

Hmmmm. I wonder if he has his sights set on the Chair position for the . Even from here in Canada, I'd love to see Caplan replace Leon Kass. We can only hope.

October 3, 2004

Building a machine designed by ET: not a good idea


I recently re-watched "Carl Sagan's novel of the same name.

In this film, extra terrestrial contact is made, with the ET's transmitting the blueprints to a massive engineering project—supposedly for us to build. After studying the schematics it is determined that it is the outline for some sort of transportation device for a lone passenger. The exact means of transportation is unknown, as is much of the science behind the radically advanced technology.

There is some debate about the safety of embarking upon such a project, including worries about it being a possible Trojan horse or doomsday device, but ultimately the fears are set aside and the device is built at a cost of a quarter of a trillion dollars. [spoiler follows]Of course, the machine is a success, and our heroine gets to go on the thrill ride of a lifetime [end spoiler].

As I reflect on this film, however, I believe the decision to construct the device was the wrong one. Rather, the precautionary principle should have been invoked big time. In general I'm not a big fan of the PP, but in this case I think it would have been warranted.

Without knowing the nature of the transmitting ETs themselves, or even if conscious entities were actually transmitting the signal, there's no way we could predicted ET's true intentions. It very well could have been a Trojan horse; the device could have been deliberately designed to look like a transportation device to fool us into building it, only to turn out to be something far more nefarious instead—like a doomsday device, for example.

Why would ETs do such a thing? Well, the transmission could have been viral. Imagine a malevolent or paranoid civilization (or group or individual) determined to wipe out intelligent life across the Galaxy. They set up a bunch of beacons across the Galaxy that transmit the evil code.

As precedent that intelligences are capable of such a thing, people write viruses here on Earth for no good reason. Perhaps signals such as these are the ultimate manifestation of computer viruses—one information system finding memetic compatibility with another and infecting it. The trouble with such a scenario, however, is that such a code wouldn't replicate and re-transmit. But if the source transmitter remains intact, it would be the Typhoid Mary of civilizations.

So, rather than build the device on sheer blind faith alone (i.e. Not knowing how the technology works, not knowing exactly what the device is supposed to do, not knowing who transmitted it, not knowing why it was transmitted....), I would have suggested that the extra terrestrial schematics be studied, reverse engineered, and modeled to the point were we felt comfortable enough to predict as much of its effects as possible.

And then we could build it.

Maybe.

September 29, 2004

The art of Kenn Brown


Is this a transhumanist picture or what?

I found this magnificent illustration by Kenn Brown while reading the Wired article, "The Crusade Against Evolution."

Brown has done some pretty amazing work, typically showcasing various themes in science and technology. His illustration of the DNA helix was featured in the March 15th edition of New Scientist Magazine--it runs over 8.5 feet from start to finish and spans 7 sections outlining our accrued knowledge of DNA to date.

September 28, 2004

Economist on Earth-like planets and cognitive enhancers

The Economist has recently published a couple of very good articles worth checking out:

In search of the Earth mark II: Earth-sized exoplanets should soon be discovered.

Supercharging the brain: New drugs promise to improve memory and sharpen mental response. Who should be allowed to take them?

G&M Poll: legalize merciful euthanasia

Latest Globe & Mail poll: Should Canada legalize merciful euthanasia if the patient wants to die and the process takes place under a doctor's supervision?

Yes: 83%
11361 votes

No: 17%
2280 votes

Total Votes: 13641

September 27, 2004

Getting down with MC Hawking


My evil brother recently introduced me to MC Hawking, a twisted merger of Stephen Hawking computer's voice set to rap music. MC Hawking's albums to date include A Brief History of Rhyme and Fear of a Black Hole.

This stuff has to be heard to be believed (there are some MP3s available). It's actually very well done, and all set to themes about science, cosmology, and, uh, gangsta rap. Here are the lyrics to the track, "Entropy" (done to Naughty By Nature's "O.P.P."):
Verse 1
Entropy, how can I explain it? I'll take it frame by frame it,
to have you all jumping, shouting saying it.
Let's just say that it's a measure of disorder,
in a system that is closed, like with a border.
It's sorta, like a, well a measurement of randomness,
proposed in 1850 by a German, but wait I digress.
"What the fuck is entropy?", I here the people still exclaiming,
it seems I gotta start the explaining.

You ever drop an egg and on the floor you see it break?
You go and get a mop so you can clean up your mistake.
But did you ever stop to ponder why we know it's true,
if you drop a broken egg you will not get an egg that's new.

That's entropy or E-N-T-R-O to the P to the Y,
the reason why the sun will one day all burn out and die.
Order from disorder is a scientific rarity,
allow me to explain it with a little bit more clarity.
Did I say rarity? I meant impossibility,
at least in a closed system there will always be more entropy.
That's entropy and I hope that you're all down with it,
if you are here's your membership.

Chorus
You down with entropy?
Yeah, you know me! (x3)
Who's down with entropy?
Every last homey!

Verse 2
Defining entropy as disorder's not complete,
'cause disorder as a definition doesn't cover heat.
So my first definition I would now like to withdraw,
and offer one that fits thermodynamics second law.
First we need to understand that entropy is energy,
energy that can't be used to state it more specifically.
In a closed system entropy always goes up,
that's the second law, now you know what's up.

You can't win, you can't break even, you can't leave the game,
'cause entropy will take it all 'though it seems a shame.
The second law, as we now know, is quite clear to state,
that entropy must increase and not dissipate.

Creationists always try to use the second law,
to disprove evolution, but their theory has a flaw.
The second law is quite precise about where it applies,
only in a closed system must the entropy count rise.
The earth's not a closed system' it's powered by the sun,
so fuck the damn creationists, Doomsday get my gun!
That, in a nutshell, is what entropy's about,
you're now down with a discount.
Be sure to check out the lyrics to F*uck the Creationists :-)

Life expectancy gap narrowing between sexes

Good news, guys: .

Life expectancy in Canada increased for men in 2002 while holding steady for women, according to a new Statistics Canada report. Specifically, men born in 2002 can expect to live 77.2 years, up 0.2 years from 2001. Life expectancy for girls born that year remained the same at 82.1 years.

Statistics Canada said it is part of a trend that shows a continued narrowing of life expectancy between men and women over the past two decades. The gap had narrowed to just 4.9 years in Canada by 2002, from 7.4 years in 1979.

Researchers are not sure why the gap is narrowing, but I'd be willing to bet that some factors include safer and healthier jobs for men (ie less exposure to toxins at the workplace and less physical labour), and that men are starting to take better care of themselves, particularly in terms of better eating habits and through avoiding smoking.

September 26, 2004

G&M poll on ovarian tissue implants

Here's a recent poll posted in the Globe and Mail:

A Belgian woman regained her fertility through an ovarian tissue implant developed for sterility caused by disease such as cancer. Should women be able to use this advancement to delay motherhood past menopause and have a child at any age they choose?

Yes 4434 votes (56 %)
No 3493 votes (44 %)
Total Votes: 7927

September 25, 2004

Toronto's Da Vinci team delays launch


Canada's top contending Ansari X-Prize team, the Da Vinci project, has delayed their launch citing equipment deficiencies:
"It's very simple," [Brian] Feeney said in a telephone interview Friday morning. "We have some pieces of equipment that haven't arrived." Specifically, he said the da Vinci team needed a four-axis filament winder -- a device used in fabricating fiberglass and carbon-fiber parts -- to complete work on a key spaceship component.
Well, from what I understand, Feeney is not being entirely honest. A friend of mine close to X-Prize happenings recently told me that the Da Vinci project is all hype, and that any attempt to beat any time soon would be "suicide." They're simply not ready.

And besides, a rocket that brings back its passengers with a hard landing in the Canadian prairies is not viable space tourism venture to begin with.

Catholic Register on transhumanism, TV04

Bernard Daly has published his report of TransVision 2004 in The Catholic Register. Called "Opening religion up to the 'brave new world' of science and technology," he comments both critically and in support of the transhumanist mission. Ultimately, Daly doesn't dismiss human enhancement out of hand, and instead calls Catholics to open a dialogue with transhumanists. Daly writes:
Besides optimistic and even utopian reports, there was also some questioning and debate with, for example, both scornful criticism and tentative support of the US President's Council on Bioethics and its cautionary stance. One WTA member identified as a Catholic was Tihamer Toth-Fejel, a US research engineer. In his view, "enhancements that degrade our humanity are not good for us because they contradict who we are as persons and, therefore, should be prohibited and discouraged. Our difficulty is in recognizing which enhancements are degrading us, discovering how this degradation occurs, and finally, finding the strength to resist the alluring promises they make," - an opinion he wrote for the Summer 2004 issue of The National Catholic Bioethics
Quarterly.
Daly continues,
Perhaps because the transhumanist message is largely disseminated by the Internet, and perhaps also because of their call for total freedom in scientific exploration and technical engineering, many of the non-member participants in the Toronto weekend were university students preparing for high-tech careers. This conference made the faith views of the transhumanists easily accessible to these students. As they move their 2005 conference to Caracas, Venezuela, the tiny band of transhumanists will continue to challenge all larger faith communities to review what they have to say to such groups, and how best to say it.

One post-Vatican II challenge for Catholics, especially lay specialists in science and technology, is to enter "interfaith dialogue" with transhumanists, perhaps especially via the Internet, searching for "those seeds of the Word which lie hidden among them," while rejecting "nothing that is true and holy" in what they have to say.

September 24, 2004

Arch-BioLuddite Richard Hayes defines CybDem Mission

[via James Hughes/Cyborg Democracy] In the transcript of the conference on Inequality, Democracy and the New Human Biotechnologies (July 15, 2004 - New York) Richard Hayes, the Co-Director of the Center for Genetics and Society with Marcy Darnovsky said:"...the most well organized constituencies active on human genetic issues are in fact the biotech interests on the one hand and the religious conservatives on the other. In that sense, the polarized framing adopted by the press is accurate. The terrible consequence of this is that if these two polarized constituencies or points of view remain the only choices available then liberal and progressive voices, when compelled to enter the policy arena, if forced to choose between the two, are going to go with the biotechnology industry....

...so it is imperative that third voice enter the fate. This is a voice that isn't necessarily opposed to all human genetic technologies, nor necessarily opposed to human embryo research in any absolutist sense, but is very concerned about the social, economic and political implications of these technologies and would certainly not want to trust genetic future of the human species to research scientists and biotechnology companies.

So what is to be done? We need new initiatives within existing liberal and progressive organizations and we need new organizations to take these issues and put them on the public agenda in a new and compelling way. We need visionaries in the philanthropic community to support such efforts. Domestically and internationally we need new levels awareness, commitment, and engagement - in short, a new social movement - to ensure that the new human biotechnologies support rather then subvert deeply held commitments to equality, democracy and social justice. The hour is late. There's no greater challenge. Golly - couldn't agree with you more. So if any of those visionaries in the philanthropic community, who aren't already underwriting CGS' $800,000 annual budget, wanna gimme a call. The WTA budget is precisely 1% the size of CGS'. Or maybe we should have lunch Richard?

Simulation recursion


How cool is this?

This is a screenshot taken from "The Sims 2" video game in which a Sim is playing the original "The Sims."

It's turtles all the way down, folks....

Eventually, given more processing power and enhanced parallelism, I can imagine that Sims will start to play actual games (ie. sub-programs within the larger program).

If you're interested in this concept, check out my Betterhumans column, "Welcome to the Unreal World" A must read on this topic is Barry Dainton's "Innocence Lost: Simulation Scenarios: Prospects and Consequences," in which he attempts to describe and categorize possible simulation types and varieties of virtual life. And of course there's Dr. Nick's seminal "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?"

September 23, 2004

The longevity gene


Researchers have discovered a gene that releases stored fat--a possible key to longer life:
Scientists have known for nearly 70 years that calorie restriction extends the life spans of mammals by as much as 50 percent, but just how it works has remained a mystery. Guarente believes he has found the answer, and that it could potentially lead to extended life spans for people, too. For more than a decade, Guarente has been gradually solving the puzzle with the ambitious goal of discovering how to slow the aging process in humans without imposing a thousand-calorie-a-day diet. In 1999, he came to the surprising conclusion that manipulating just one gene, SIR2, could affect longevity. Guarente became so convinced that his findings could lead to antiaging pills that in 1999 he cofounded Cambridge-based Elixir Pharmaceuticals to commercialize them. In June, Guarente and his colleagues published a paper in the scientific journal Nature that detailed how a version of the SIR2 gene in mice releases fat from storage tissue, which seems to have a direct effect on how fast the animals age. Although Guarente’s lab has yet to determine exactly why a reduction in fat allows animals to live longer, he’s confident that medicines that cause the mechanism to spring into action aren’t too far around the corner. “I think there’s going to be an ever growing clamor to take advantage of this,” Guarente says. And he believes life-span-lengthening medicines will be available within a decade.

Stealth dinosaur


Dinocephalosaurus orientalis, a long-necked sea reptile that probably preyed on fish and squid in a shallow sea in present-day southeastern China more than 230 million years ago, may have been Earth's first stealth hunter:
The strike would have come out of nowhere: One second, the fish was swimming placidly, no danger in sight, a moment later it was lunch.

Scientists have discovered what may have been one of the first stealth hunters, a long-necked swimming dinosaur that could sneak up on prey and attack without warning.

“The long neck would allow it to approach prey without the whole body becoming visible,” said Olivier Rieppel of the Field Museum in Chicago, co-author of a new report in Thursday's issue of the journal, Science.

September 22, 2004

Pinkerton: Future Shock for America


James Pinkerton has written an excellent OpEd for Tech Central Stupid in which he contrasts the differences between futurist visions of the West and East by considering their recent film contributions. Specifically, he looks at Hollywood's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence:
If, as many suspect, the 21st century ends up being the Asian Century, two movies from 2004 will be remembered as early auguries. The first film bodes poorly for the US; the second film bodes well for Asia. In watching "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," Americans thrill to the simple comic-book glories of 1939. At the same time, the Japanese, watching "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," think ahead to the cyber-future of 2032, pondering its potentialities and pitfalls.

A culture which prefers the languorous comfort of a quasi-mythic past to the rigors of confronting the hard-edged future is complacent, maybe even decadent -- and out of decadence comes defeat.
Pinkerton continues:
So is "Ghost" director Mamoru Oshii guilty, after all, of the same retro-mindedness as "Sky Captain" director Conran?

No, not at all. "Ghost" director Oshii is on a mission to instruct. In an interview with The Washington Post, he observed, "People are very different from animals. We don't accept our original bodies. Humans wear clothes, have earrings and tattoos, do cosmetic surgery, take vitamins. If they are sick, they get organ transplants. And now we have radios, telephones, microphones, watches, computers, microchips outside the body now, but soon we will utilize these machines inside our bodies and then we will be part cyborg. This is inevitable. The process has already begun."

Dig that: It's inevitable. The process has already begun. Welcome to the machine, as Pink Floyd would say.

Going further, Oshii predicted, in terms not entirely complimentary to his countrymen, that the pioneers of body mechanization "will probably be Japanese. That, and human cloning… because we do not have the same taboos." He added, "Japan is a really weird country without any religion. We take ideas from everywhere. We don't really care about what is lost and what is acquired."

It's worth pausing over Oshii's "no religion" point. Most Americans probably think that the dominant faith in the US, Protestantism, has been an asset -- the upwardly mobile "Protestant Ethic," and all that. Yet some citizens, in the name of faith and morality, are seeking to put stumbling blocks in the path of their progress. The Bush administration seems perfectly prepared, for instance, to say "sayonara" to rivals across the Pacific, as the Asian Tigers pull ahead in the Great Game of Human Techno-Destiny.
There are many other very good insights, and the entire article can be read here.
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