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May 31, 2007

The Drake Equation is obsolete

Copyright Lynette Cook


I'm surprised how often the Drake Equation is still mentioned when people discuss such things as the search for extra terrestrial intelligence (SETI), astrobiology and problems like the Fermi Paradox.

Fairly recent insights in such fields as cosmology, astrobiology and various future studies have changed our perception of the cosmos and the ways in which advanced life might develop.

Frank Drake's equation, which he developed back in 1961, leaves much to be desired in terms of what it's supposed to tell us about both the nature and predominance of extraterrestrial life in our Galaxy.

The Drake Equation

The Drake equation states that:

where:

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate and:
R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
Arbitrary at best

The integers that are plugged into this equation are often subject to wide interpretation and can differ significantly from scientist to scientist. Even the slightest change can result in vastly different answers. Part of the problem is that our understanding of cosmology and astrobiology is rapidly changing and there is often very little consensus among specialists as to what the variables might be.

Consequently, the Drake formula relies on 'stabs in the dark.' This makes it highly imprecise and unscientific. The margin of error is far beyond what should be considered acceptable or meaningful.

No accounting for cosmological development or time

Another major problem of the Drake Equation is that it does not account for two rather important variables: cosmological developmental phases and time (see Cirkovic, "The Temporal Aspect of the Drake Equation and SETI").

More specifically, it does not take into consideration such factors as the age of the Galaxy, the time at which intelligence first emerged, or the presence of physiochemical variables necessary for the presence of life (such as metallicity required to form planets). The equation assumes a sort of cosmological uniformity rather than a dynamic and ever changing universe.

For example, the equation asks us to guess the number of Earth-like planets, but it does not ask us when there were Earth-like planets. And intelligence itself may have been present as long as 2 to 4.5 billion years ago.

The Galaxy's extreme age and the potential for intelligence to have emerged at disparate points in time leaves an absurdly narrow window for detecting radio signals. The distances and time-scales in question are mind-boggingly vast. SETI, under its current model, is conducting an incredibly futile search.

Detecting ETI's

Which leads to the next problem, that of quantifying the number of radio emitting civilizations. I'm sure that back in the 1960's it made a lot of sense to think of radio capability as a fairly advanced and ubiquitous means of communication, and by consequence, an excellent way to detect the presence and frequency of extraterrestrial civilizations.

But time has proven this assumption wrong. Our radio window is quickly closing and it will only be a matter of time before Earth stops transmitting these types of signals -- at least unintentionally (active SETI is a proactive attempt to contact ETI's with radio signals).

Due to this revelation, the entire equation as a means to both classify and quantify certain types of civilizations becomes quite meaningless and arbitrary. At best, it's a way of searching for a very narrow class of civilizations under very specific and constrained conditions.

Rather, SETI should continue to redefine the ways in which ETI's could be detected. They should try to predict future means of communication (like quantum communication schemes) and ways to identify these signals. They should also look for artificial objects such as megascale engineering and artificial calling cards (see Arnold, "Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects").

The future of advanced intelligence

Although possibly outside the auspices of this discussion, the Drake Equation does not account for the presence of post-radio capable civilizations, particularly post-Singularity machine intelligences. This is a problem because of what these types of civilizations might be capable of.

The equation is used to determine the number of radio capable civilizations as they conduct their business on their home planet. Again, this is a vary narrow view of ETI's and the space of all possible advanced civilizational types. Moreover, it does not account for any migratory tendency that advanced civs may have.

The Drake Equation does not tell us about exponential civilizational growth on account of Von Neumann probe disbursement. It does not tell us where advanced ETI's may be dwelling or what they're up to (e.g. Are they outside the Galaxy? Do they live inside Jupiter Brains? Do they phase shift outside of what we regard as habitable space? etc.). This is a serious shortcoming because the answers to these questions should help us determine not just where we should be looking, but they can also provide us with insight as to the makeup of advanced intelligence life and our own potential trajectory.

In other words, post-Singularity ETI's may represent the most common mode of existence for late-stage civilizations. And that's who we should be looking for rather than radio transmitting civs.

Are we alone?

Michael Crichton once put out a very weak argument against the Drake Equation. He claimed that SETI was a religious endeavor because it was a search for imaginary entities. He is wrong, of course; we should most certainly search for data where we think we might find it. I believe, despite the low odds, that it is reasonable to assume that our search for life on other planets is warranted. Even a negative result can be meaningful.

Consequently, SETI should keep listening, but expect to hear nothing. If we should suddenly hear something from the depths of space, then we will have to seriously re-evaluate our assumptions.

At the same time we should find better ways to detect advanced life and tweak the Drake Equation in such a way as to account for the missing variables and factors I mentioned earlier.

Again, and more generally, we should probably adopt the contact pessimist's frame. Back in the 60's and 70's, when the contact optimists like Sagan, Shklovskii and Drake ruled the Earth, it was not uncommon to think that N in the equation fell somewhere between 10x6 to 10x9.

These days, in the post Tipler and Hart era of astrosociobiology, cosmologists and astrobiologists have to take such factors into consideration as Von Neumann probes, the Fermi Paradox, the Rare Earth Hypothesis, stronger variants of the anthropic principle and catastrophism.

Put another way, as we continue to search for advanced ETI's, and as we come to discover the absurdity of our isolation here on Earth, we may have no choice but to accept the hypothesis that advanced life does not venture out into space for whatever reason (the most likely being self-destruction).

Our other option is to cross our fingers and hope that something radical and completely unpredictable lies on the other side of the technological Singularity.

Modest Mouse: Missed the Boat (video)

I don't think this is what Hans Moravec meant when he described our 'Mind Children.'

The Drake Equation is obsolete

Copyright Lynette Cook


I'm surprised how often the Drake Equation is cited when discussing such things as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), astrobiology, and such problems as the Fermi Paradox. Frank Drake's famous equation, which he developed back in 1961, leaves much to be desired in terms of what it's supposed to tell us about both the nature and predominance of extraterrestrial life in our Galaxy.

Fairly recent insights in the fields of cosmology, astrobiology and various future studies have revealed a number of weaknesses in Drake's equation. Ultimately, the equation tells us very little about life on other planets and how we should conduct our searches for signs of the presence of extraterrestrial life.

The Drake Equation

The Drake equation states that:

where:

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy, with which we might hope to be able to communicate and:
R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
Arbitrary at best

The integers that are plugged into this equation are often subject to wide interpretation and can vary greatly from scientist to scientist. Even the slightest change in the equation can result in vastly different answers. Part of the problem is that our understanding of cosmology and astrobiology is changing rapidly and there is often very little consensus among specialists as to what the variables should be.

Consequently, the it is a formula that relies on 'stabs in the dark.' This makes it highly imprecise and unscientific. The margin of error is far beyond what should be considered acceptable or meaningful.

No accounting for cosmological development and time

Another major problem of the Drake Equation is that it does not account for two rather important variables: cosmological developmental phases and time (see Cirkovic, "The Temporal Aspect of the Drake Equation and SETI").

More specifically, it does not take into consideration such factors as the age of the Galaxy, when intelligence first emerged, or the presence of physiochemical variables necessary for the presence of life (such as metallicity required to form planets). Intelligence, for example, may have been present as early as 2 to 4.5 billion years ago. The equation assumes a sort of cosmological uniformity rather a dynamic and ever changing universe that is the case.

For example, the equation asks us to guess the number of Earth-like planets, but it does not ask us when they were Earth-like.

A consequence of the age of the Galaxy and the potential for life to have emerged at disparate points in time leaves an absurdly narrow window for detecting radio signals. The distances and time-scales in question are mind-boggingly vast. SETI, under its current model, is conducting an incredibly futile search.

Detecting ETI's

Which leads to the next problem, that of quantifying the number of radio emitting civilizations. I'm sure that back in the 1960's it made a lot of sense to think of radio capability as a fairly advanced and ubiquitous means of communication, and as a result, an excellent way to detect the presence and number of extraterrestrial intelligences.

But time has proven that assumption wrong. Our radio window is quickly closing and it will only be a matter of time before Earth stops transmitting these types of signals -- at least unintentionally (Active SETI is an attempt to deliberately contact ETI's with radio signals).

Due to this revelation, the entire equation as a means to both classify and quantify certain types of civilizations is rather meaningless and arbitrary. At best, it's a way of searching for a very narrow class of civilizations under very specific and constrained conditions.

Instead, SETI should continue to redefine the ways in which ETI's could be detected. They should try to predict future means of communication (like quantum communication schemes) and ways to identify these signals. They should also look for artificial objects such a megaprojects and artificial calling cards (see Arnold, "Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects."

The future of advanced intelligence

Although this could be considered outside the auspices of the Drake Equation, it does not account for the presence of post-radio capable civilizations, particularly post-Singularity machine intelligences. This is a problem because of what these types of civilizations will be capable of.

The equation is a metric of sorts that is used to determine the number of radio capable civilizations as they conduct their business on their home planet. Again, this is a vary narrow view of ETI's and the space of all possible advanced civilization types. Moreover, it does not account for the migratory tendencies of advanced civs.

The Drake Equation does not tell us about exponential civilizational growth on account of Von Neumann probe disbursement. It does not tell us where advanced ETI's may be dwelling or what they're up to (e.g. Are they outside the Galaxy? Do they live inside Jupiter Brains? Do they phase shift outside of what we regard as habitable space? etc.). This is a serious shortcoming because the answers to these questions should help us determine not just where we should be looking, but it will also provide us with insight as to the makeup of advanced intelligence life and our own trajectory. In other words, post-Singularity ETI's may represent the most common mode of existence of late-stage civilizations rather than radio emitting civilizations.

Are we alone?

Michael Crichton once put out a very weak argument against the Drake Equation. He claimed that SETI was a religious endeavor in search of entities that we had no way of knowing exist. He was wrong of course; we should most certainly search for data we think might exist. I believe there is more than fair grounds to assume that by virtue of our existence that our search for life on other planets is warranted. Even a negative result can be meaningful.

Consequently, SETI should keep listening, but expect to hear nothing. If we should suddently hear something from the depths of space, then we will have to seriously re-evaluate our assumptions. At the same time we should find ways to detect advanced life and tweak the Drake Equation in such a way as to account for the missing variables and factors I mentioned.

Again, as I've harped on before, we should probably adopt the contact pessimist's frame. Back in the 60's and 70's when the contact optimists like Sagan, Shklovskii and Drake ruled the Earth it was not uncommon to think that N in the equation equaled 10x6 to 10x9.

These days, in the post Tiper and Hart era of astrosociobiology, cosmologists and astrobiologists have to take such things into consideration as Von Neumann probes, the Fermi Paradox, the Rare Earth Hypothesis, stronger variants of the anthropic principle and catastrophism.

Put another way, as we continue to search for advanced ETI's, and as we come to discover the absurdity of our isolation here on Earth, we may have no choice but to accept the hypothesis that human civilization will not survive this century.

Our other option is to cross our fingers and hope that something radical and completely unpredictable lies on the other side of the technological Singularity.

Comments moderation

Sorry, gang, but I have to start moderating comments again. Too many spammers and trolls are ruining it for everyone else.

Basically, your comment will get posted if you're on topic and have something interesting to say (btw, contradiction is not an argument unless you're backing it up; please take the time to make your case). I may not always respond to your comments, but I read every one.

My thanks go out to anyone who has ever contributed a comment to this site -- and I'm sorry that I have to start moderating again.

May 30, 2007

Male, Female: David C. Geary

Currently reading:

Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences
by David C. Geary

This is the most thorough and wide-ranging book on the issue of human sex differences that I've seen. Geary covers sexual selection, paternal investment, evolution, development of the mind, and the manifestations of sex differences in modern life.

May 27, 2007

My Longevity Symposium and TransVision 2007 presentations


This coming July I will be giving presentations at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies' Longevity Symposium and the World Transhumanist Association's TransVision 2007 conference.

For the Longevity Symposium, an event titled "Securing the Longevity Dividend: Building the Campaign for Anti-Aging Science," I will be addressing and reconciling the most popular arguments both for and against radical life extension. Other speakers at this event will include S. Jay Olshansky, David O. Meltzer, Aubrey de Grey, James Hughes, Nick Bostrom, Ronald Bailey, and Anders Sandberg.

For TransVision 2007 I will making the case for postgenderism -- the idea that gender should be eliminated in the next iteration of the human species. My presentation is tentatively titled, "The Best of Both Worlds," and I will argue that posthumans should not abandon all gendered traits, but integrate the best that males and females have to offer. This will be my first opportunity to present these ideas in public and I'm very much looking forward to it.

Other speakers at TV07 will include Ray Kurzweil, William Shatner, and Max More.

Register now for TV07 and look for me there.

May 25, 2007

How will our Universe die?

An interesting theory has emerged which predicts that trillions of years into the future, the information that currently allows us to understand how the universe expands will have disappeared over the visible horizon. All that will remain will be "an island universe" made from the Milky Way and its nearby galactic Local Group neighbors. What's left will be a dark and lonely void.

The theory was put out by physicists Lawrence Krauss from Case Western Reserve University and Robert J. Scherrer from Vanderbilt University. Their research article, titled, "The Return of the Static Universe and the End of Cosmology," will be published in the October issue of the Journal of Relativity and Gravitation.

This brings to mind a number of different theories in the field of cosmological eschatology.

The Big Crunch

The work of Krauss and Scherrer stands in sharp contrast to another end-state theory, namely the Big Crunch. In this model, the momentum of the Big Ban will eventually wane causing the Universe to collapse in on itself. But due to the recent revelation that the Universe is not just expanding but that its expansion is speeding up, newer theories have suggested that the Universe will continue to expand forever.

The Big Rip

This has lead to some rather bizarre conclusions, including the emergence of a theory known as the Big Rip. According to this theory, the Universe will start to expand at such a rapid rate that all its elements, from galaxies to atoms, will be torn apart by the extreme expansion rate of the Universe. This is scheduled to happen about 20 billion years from now.

The force that is causing the Universe's matter to push outwards is what's known as dark energy. This is why galaxies are moving away from each other -- and why they will continue to do so until gravity will be too weak to hold them together.

Eventually, in the final months of the Universe, our solar system will be gravitationally unbound. In the last minutes, stars and planets will be torn apart. And in the Universe's final spastic salvo all atoms will be destroyed.

Heat Death

Another possibility is the Heat Death of the Universe, also known as The Big Freeze. In this model the Universe would continue to expand forever, but it would enter into a state of maximum entropy in which all matter and energy is evenly distributed; consequently, there would be no 'gradient' to the Universe -- a characteristic that is needed to sustain information processing, including life.

Other theories

Other possibilities include the False Vacuum, where the laws and constants of the Universe are subject to radical change, and various multiverse theories in which the cosmos is expressed in a infinite number of iterations for an infinity.

Another more radical possibility is that the future of the Universe will be influenced by intelligent life. Theories already exist in regards to stellar engineering -- where a local sun could be tweaked in such a way as to extend its lifespan. Future civilizations may eventually figure out how to re-engineer the Universe itself (such as re-working the constants) or create an escape hatch to basement universes.

Thinkers who have explored this possibility include Milan Cirkovic, John Smart, Ray Kurzweil, Alan Guth and James N. Gardner.

Read more here.

May 18, 2007

Sentient Developments Retrospective: Part V

This week marks the 5th anniversary of Sentient Developments. This will be the final day of my retrospective. Today's entry reviews the best of November 2006 through to the present.
  • The Ashley X story hit prime time in January 2007 and I found myself embroiled in the controversy. Back on November 6, 2006 I published the article, Helping Families Care for the Helpless, in which I defended the actions of Ashley's parents. They in turn cited the article to help explain their actions. Among the many interviews I did that week I appeared on the BBC.

  • Also in January I appeared on the CBC's 'The Hour' and discussed the future of humans.

  • I came up with 30 must-know terms for the 21st century intellectual. This article went completely viral and is undoubtedly my most popular post.

  • Beliefnet offered me the opportunity to respond to Nigel Cameron's bioconservative concerns. In the interview, titled "Nanotechnology Will Reshape Humanity," I discussed such things as security, privacy, nanotech and the ethics of enhancement.

  • The Blogisattva Awards were announced earlier this year and my blog was the winner of two awards: Best Achievement Blogging on Matters Philosophical or Scientific and Best Achievement in Wonderful, Remarkable, Elegant Design.

  • I wrote about cheating vs. enhancement in chess and the future of chess.

  • I railed against the prospect of giving up sleep.

  • I hated , I declared that Star Trek's 'Prime Directive' was stupid (which pissed off a number of Trekkies -- just check out the comments), and wrote about

  • I wondered if the world was ready for cyborg athletes and the New York Times quoted my 'sober' opinion.

  • I wanted to have nothing to do with mind controlling parasites.

  • I argued that there there should be an X Prize for an artificial biosphere.

  • I worried about our pending authoritarian neugenic nation.

  • I defended the right to be wrong and tolerated Holocaust deniers and global warming skeptics.

  • I discovered that Second Life was a dangerous place where perils abound and terrorists struggle for their digital rights. I also joined Facebook and paid witness to the the ongoing demise of anonymity.

  • I argued that British Columbia was right to seize Jehovah's Witnesses babies.

  • I struggled to manage my 50,000 daily thoughts. I wrote about synesthetic art and interpretation.

  • I felt that resistance was futile and that we should not even bother to prepare for an alien invasion.

  • I wondered if non-human animal uplift was imperialistic.
  • A heart-felt thanks goes out to all my regular readers! I deeply appreciate the support you've given me over the years!

    Interviewed by Radio Free Europe

    I was interviewed by Radio Free Europe this afternoon. This was in light of the New York Times article about Oscar Pistorius in which I was quoted.

    We talked about the future of enhancement in sport and the enhanced human of the future. I'll post a link should anything come out of the interview.

    May 17, 2007

    Dean Kamen's robotic arm

    Prepare to be amazed: Dean Kamen of DARPA is developing the next generation of prosthetic arms.

    Well, this sucks

    I can no longer access Pandora from Canada. This blows. Pandora was forced to cease service outside of USA.

    Scientology critic back in jail

    Keith Henson, an outspoken critic of Scientology, is back in jail. Updates to his situation can be found here.

    Sentient Developments Retrospective: Part IV

    This week marks the 5th anniversary of Sentient Developments. Over the next few days I will be reflecting on some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years. Today's retrospective reviews the best of May to October 2006.
  • Last year I speculated about death and the brain and wondered if there can be awareness in the vegetative state.

  • I blogged about miraculous memory for mere mortals and protopanpsychism and consciousness uploading. I wondered if the brain taps into the future and if we could fight back against mind hacks.

  • I wrote about eating ethically and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on the welfare of apes in captivity.

  • We constructed the case for enhancement at Stanford. I argued that we are ethically obligated to uplift non-human animals. James Hughes interviewed me about this, and then the Church of the Subgenius remixed our conversation. I also argued that humans crave uplift.

  • I wrote about Peter Singer and the fear of genetic inequality.

  • I wrote film reviews for Avalon, Superman Returns, Minority Report, Code 46, Darren Aronofsky’s "π", Fight Club, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

  • I wondered if philanthrocapitalism was actually philanthrobabble.

  • I tried to figure out when intelligence first emerged in the universe. I also went on a rant about unidentified flying idiots.

  • I scrutinized SENS.

  • The Toronto Transhumanists attended the World Future Society Conference in Toronto.

  • I worried that global warming would put an end to human freedom.

  • I wondered if there was such a thing as universal phenotypes.

  • I argued that radical Islam could be considered fascistic, and that we had entered the Age of Weapons Containment. I worried about the ongoing threat of nuclear apocalypse and the the U.S. plan for a 21st century nuclear blitzkrieg.

  • I tried to protect our children from the god delusion.
  • Stelarc's third ear

    Stelarc has been talking about this for years, and now I see that he's actually done it:




    Marcelo (aka k0re) writes: "Stelarc [is] going to implant a mic that will connect to a bluetooth transmitter to connect the ear to the internet! and another surgery to give the ear more definition."

    May 16, 2007

    Sentient Developments Retrospective: Part III

    This week marks the 5th anniversary of Sentient Developments. Over the next several days I will be reflecting on some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years (note: these hi-lites won't include my Transitory Human columns written for Betterhumans; that's a different retrospective altogether). Today's retrospective reviews the best of 2005 and the first several months of 2006.
  • Early last year Spanish socialists wanted to give apes human rights prompting me to write about the myth of our exalted human place. I also proclaimed that cows are people, too and predicted the end of livestock.

  • I wondered if active SETI was imperiling humanity and if science fiction was bad for bioethics. I looked deep into my crystal ball and saw a very bald future.

  • I wondered if we live in a non-arbitrary universe.

  • I wrote about James Lovelock's Gaian despair and his thoughts about environmentalist sabotage.

  • I tolerated David Irving's bullshit.

  • The future of warfare was on my mind, including cyber warfare and the "blogger threat", neurohacking, and the perils of miniaturization on the battlefield. I also worried that the anthropic principle did not imply future gain.

  • I wrote about the end of gender.

  • Consciousness and brains: I wrote about how you could think faster by altering your perception of time, , and the phenomenon of blindsight.

  • And finally, I wrote about how pop art will gets proletarianized, or how technology will enable anyone to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen.
  • May 15, 2007

    Sentient Developments Retrospective: Part II

    This week marks the 5th anniversary of Sentient Developments. Over the next several days I will be reflecting on some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years (note: these hi-lites won't include my Transitory Human columns written for Betterhumans; that's a different retrospective altogether). Today's retrospective reviews the best of 2004.

  • In January 2004 I had an amazing 3-way conversation with John Smart & Milan Cirkovic where we discussed the Fermi Paradox, megascale engineering projects and the Singularity.

  • In March 2004 I co-developed the Panspermia Equation, an attempt to determine how many solar systems the Earth has 'infected' with its bio-ejecta.

  • Damien Broderick and I debated vegetarianism and personhood back in March 2004.

  • Peter Pasarro talked to me about AI, the Brain, and Techlepathy in April 2004.

  • In May 2004 I posted the first draft of my astrosociobiology concept. Compare that version to the one that now resides on Wikipedia.

  • In September 2004 I blogged about Nick Bostrom's rebuttal to Francis Fukuyama and the claim that transhumanism is the world's most dangerous idea.

  • Anders Sandberg and I talked about antimatter weapons and the possibility of deliberately engineering NEO impacts.

  • After watching Contact I felt that building a machine designed by ET was not a very good idea.

  • In November 2004 we launched the IEET.

  • I blogged about how we have a very special sun.

  • After the East Asia tsunami disaster in December 2004 I wrote about our extremely dangerous universe.
  • IEET featured in NY Times article on disabled sprinter

    I was quoted today in a New York Times article about disabled sprinter Oscar Pistorius. The piece is titled, "An Amputee Sprinter: Is He Disabled or Too-Abled?" Excerpt:
    "A sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. 'Given the arms race nature of competition,' will technological advantages cause "athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?" wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute's board of directors. 'Is it self-mutilation when you're getting a better limb?'"
    The quote was sourced from my article, "Is the world ready for cyborg athletes?"

    May 14, 2007

    Conceptualization beyond human capacity: mapping a 248-dimensional structure

    It's been said -- somewhat infamously -- that science is all but finished. The claim is that all the great scientific breakthroughs have already been made and now it's just a matter of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Worse, others have speculated that we puny humans, due to our limited cognitive capacities, cannot advance our science much further; we simply lack the wiring to comprehend truly advanced concepts [Brian Greene has used the analogy that you can't teach physics to a dog].

    I'm not sure I buy into either assertion. There is still plenty of terra incognita for us to discover. Moreover, because our technologies are steadily advancing, we will have new tools that will help us to better see and understand our Universe.

    Take supercomputers, for example. These number crunching monsters can process horrific amounts of data and reveal aspects of our world that were previously invisible to us.

    Such a discovery was recently made by mathematicians who successfully mapped a 248-dimensional structure. Called a Lie group E8, it took a team of 19 mathematicians four years to develop. They produced almost 100 times more data than the Human Genome Project. There are 205,263,363,600 entries on the matrix, many of them vastly more complicated than a straightforward number; some are complex equations. If all the numbers were written out in small type, they would cover an area the size of Manhattan.

    None of this would have been possible without supercomputers. The basic idea was conceived over 120 years ago by Norwegian math genius Sophus Lie -- but he didn't have a Sage supercomputer. It wasn't until now that such a process could be executed.

    Why is this a big deal?

    Because mathematicians have mapped out the most complex abstract structure ever conceived -- a structure that could conceivably help with work in string theory and provide a clue in the struggle for unification.

    According to the standard model, all particles and forces can be represented by Lie groups. Consequently, their study has become an integral tool for understanding the laws of nature.

    As computers get more and more powerful, one can reasonably assume that they will continue to act as assistive devices and help us better conceptualize and comprehend concepts, patterns and phenomenon beyond the limits of our biological minds. Many things exist which we as yet cannot see.

    As Carl Sagan once said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

    Sentient Developments Retrospective: Part I

    This week marks the 5th anniversary of Sentient Developments. Over the next several days I will be reflecting on some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years (note: these hi-lites won't include my Transitory Human columns written for Betterhumans; that's a different retrospective altogether).

    Quantum Consciousness and Telepathy?

    Back in August of 2002 I began to dabble in quantum consciousness theory and the treacherous realms of parapsychology. It was during this time that I became fairly convinced that something like telepathy actually exists (a claim I now tend to be more wary of). I was fairly convinced that the interplay between consciousness and quantum effects had something to do with it. I wrote the following,
    My consciousness is tied to both the physical and quantum realms. As I observe and measure the universe, it falls perfectly into place just for me (i.e. the observer forces the collapse of the wave function). The same thing happens to you, independent of my observations. We are all living in our own 'worlds,' and these 'worlds' are being revealed only to the specific observer; our personal-worlds are only as large as our observational field, and anything not observed is in a state of indeterminancy. For example, if we have a face to face conversation, everything behind me in my 'world' is in a state of unobserved indeterminancy, so it's not really there. But in your personal-universe, because you're looking at me and the world behind me, it has collapsed into a perceptually coherent world. Yet, I can interact with you. When we communicate, we are truly interfacing, but it only appears that we are in the same physical environment (or world). Thus, even though we can interact in the same room together, we are actually in our own physical worlds. So, the physical world is an illusion of sorts, or at the very least, it is one of our two environments. The other place we reside is the quantum dimension. Thus, by virtue of the fact that we can communicate and interact in the physical world (our interaction is not an illusion), our consciousness must be linked in the quantum environment...

    ...One way of looking at it is that a consciousness has tunneled through the quantum maze to get to another consciousness. It has tuned into the proper frequency.
    I was so excited about this revelation that I contacted quantum mind theorist Stuart Hameroff and asked him about it. He responded by informing me that at the Quantum Mind Conference in 2003 there would be "compelling" evidence in favour of "telepathy."

    These days, while I'm not so much interested in the parapsychological aspects of quantum consciousness, I am still very much intrigued by notions of consciousness and how it relates to reality, as well as such philosophical propositions as panprotopsychism.

    The TTA rails against Kass, Raelians

    In late 2002 the newly founded Toronto Transhumanist Association began to express itself as an activist organization. Leon Kass, chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics at the time, was scheduled to speak at the University of Toronto in December 2002.

    Kass, a notorious bioconservative and so-called deathist, was bad news as far as we were concerned. We used his Toronto visit as an opportunity to declare that 'Bush Bioethicist Thinks Canadians Should Die.' We issued a statement to the press to this effect. Here's an excerpt,
    What’s worse, while claiming to be a defender of human dignity, Kass has essentially declared that not all people are equal when it comes to the care they can come to expect. “Kass represents an affront to the rights of the elderly,” says TTA vice-president George Dvorsky. “The aging Baby Boomer population needs to take heed of this man and his stance against progressive health technologies, particularly as they apply to medical practices that can extend life and the treatment of suffering and aging itself. Kass is trying to convince all elderly people that they should complacently accept and deal with all aging-related diseases and simply shut up and die. As a result, he has not only revealed a discriminatory stance that targets the elderly and the kind of care they are legally entitled to, but he has also exposed his pro-death agenda.”
    One month later the Raelian cult announced the birth of a human clone. This proved to be a hoax, but we didn't know it at the time. Concerned that the Raelians would give transhumanists a bad name, the TTA issued a statement in condemnation of the experiment. We stated that,
    In their haste to produce the first human clone, the Raelians and their renegade Clonaid biologists exposed babies to these sorts of risks. Yes, critics should be directing their disgust at the Raelians and the maverick scientists who helped them clone a human before the procedure was safe. But they should be careful about saying that all scientists and ethicists are against reproductive cloning, or that the act itself is evil.
    At the same time, we wanted to re-frame the prospect of human cloning in a positive light,
    “Human cloning will someday be a good thing,” says TTA vice-president George Dvorsky. “For infertile couples who cannot make babies with sperm and eggs, cloning is a medical breakthrough that will provide them children of their own. Similarly, it will help gay and lesbian couples produce genetically related offspring. And for those individuals with inheritable genetic diseases, reproductive cloning will give them an increased chance of having a healthy child."

    “Transhumanists believe that humans deserve the right to clone themselves should they choose, so long as the process isn’t harmful to others," says Dvorsky. "It is hard to imagine parents of clones being any less loving and caring than parents of regular children. Clones are nothing more than delayed twins, and are just as human and as deserving of rights and respect as anyone.”
    Measuring Scientific Progress

    When attending TransVision 2003 at Yale University I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Vassar. We immediately hit it off and have continued to correspond since that time.

    One of the projects we embarked upon was to test the assertion that breakthroughs in science were continuing to happen at a steady, if not accelerating, pace. We both felt that major scientific progress was actually slowing down despite the rapid rate of technological progress.

    To test the theory we created a list of humanity's most important scientific breakthroughs and noted how much time had elapsed since each development:

    • Advent of religion as primitive metaphysics (100,000 to 45,000 years ago)
    • Meditation Pantojoli, Forest Vedas (1000 BC)
    • Advent of science in Ancient Greece (350 BC)
    • Arabic Mathematics (800 AD)
    • Revival of Ptolemaic Astronomy (early 1500s)
    • Copernican Astronomy/Heliocentrism (1543)
    • Advent of Mechanistic Dynamics (17th century)
    • Statistics & Probability Bayes, Pascal, Fermat, etc. (17th century)
    • Calculus Huygens, Newton & Leibniz (late 17th century)
    • Newtonian Dynamics (1680s)
    • Optics Newton, etc. (1680s)
    • Idea of Progress/Enlightenment (18th century)
    • Thermodynamics (early 19th century)
    • Biochemistry (early 19th century)
    • Non-Euclidean Geometry Lobachevsky, Bolyai, Gauss, Riemann, etc. (early 19th century)
    • Electro-Magnetic Induction Faraday (1821)
    • Natural Selection Darwin (1858)
    • Geological Uniformitarianism (mid to late 19th century)
    • Mendelian Inheritance (1866)
    • Maxwell's Equations (1884)
    • Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements (mid to late 19th century)
    • Microeconomics (mid to late 19th century)
    • Germ Theory of Disease Pasteur (late 19th century)
    • Advent of Speculative Science Fiction, Futurology (late 19th century)
    • Unification of Chemistry and Physics (late 19th, early 20th century)
    • Experimental Psychology (early 20th century)
    • Undecidability (early 20th century)
    • Einsteinian Relativity (1905)
    • Quantum Physics (1909) Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schr?dinger
    • Universal Computing Turing, G?del, Hilbert (1928)
    • Advent of Cosmology (early to mid 20th century)
    • Idea of force carrier Einstein, Bose, Higgs (mid 20th century)
    • Standard Model of Particle Physics (mid to late 20th century)
    • Neo-Darwinian synthesis with Mendelian Genetics Williams, Dawkins, etc. (mid to late 20th century)
    • Chaos Theory or Complex Systems Theory (1960s)
    • Memetics/Semiotics Dawkins, Eco (1970s)
    • Sociobiology Wilson (1970s)
    Based on this list we concluded that science had experienced a 'golden age' of sorts from the 17th through to the 19th century, and that major breakthroughs were becoming less and less frequent.

    Conversation with John Smart

    I had an excellent conversation with John Smart back in July 2003 where we discussed the developmental Singularity:
    GD: "The system you describe cannot be a perfectly deterministic system - any evolved system needs at least some dynamism built in to it to guarantee a certain degree of mutatability. Therefore, nothing is "guaranteed" in this universe, nor any universe for that matter, especially if one wants to introduce the infinite spectra of variable quantum worlds and multiverses."

    JS: "Certainly. An 'evolutionary developmental' system (see singularitywatch.com for more on that concept, or put this word into any biological textbook search) is not perfectly deterministic. It is developmentally (not evolutionarily), highly statistically determined however, in standard development environments. And I don't need to tell you this looks like a very standard development environment."

    GD: "Obviously, if you're right, intelligences (like ourselves right now) become self-aware of their deterministic drive towards a developmental singularity. Thus, one could argue that the drive to the singularity may be a conscious one, or even a self-directed one."

    JS: "Yes, yes. Rationality being the latest emergent tool for searching the evolutionary phase space, etc. Kind of an interesting and humbling realization, isn't it? Certainly keeps reductionist materialist and rationalist philosophers from sleeping too soundly at night, I'd bet."

    GD: "Aren't you really applying the same kind of pre-Copernican human-centric arrogance to assume that we're special? How are we less epiphenomenon than ants or other cosmic phenomenon?"

    JS: "This perspective isn't anthropomorphic, its infopomorphic, as you point out below. Either the universe is a very efficient massively parallel evolutionary developmental learning system, or there's something major wrong with the model."
    More from this conversation here.

    May 13, 2007

    Sentient Developments 5th Anniversary

    This week marks the 5th anniversary of my blog, Sentient Developments.

    Back in 2002, as I immersed myself in all things transhumanist, I launched this blog as a way to help me think out loud and better articulate my thoughts and concerns. It was also a good way to vent some frustrations and do a bit of shouting (something I still do from time to time).

    Soon after the creation of Sentient Developments I joined Simon Smith over at Betterhumans and became its deputy editor. Around the same time we co-founded the Toronto Transhumanist Association. Over the course of the next 5 years I joined the World Transhumanist Association, served on its board of directors from 2004-06, did some editing work for the Journal of Ethics and Technology, organized TransVision 04, and now sit on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

    During this time Sentient Developments has served as my "home base." It's been a labour of love.

    Starting tomorrow I will be revisiting some of my favourite blog posts from the past 5 years.

    William Crawley interviews Peter Singer





    May 12, 2007

    When hypergiants go hypernova

    Scientists predicted that something like this could happen, and now they have actually observed it: a hypergiant star went nova.

    About 238 million years ago a star in galaxy NGC 1260 ended its life. To say that it was a powerful explosion would be a gross understatement; the amount of explosive energy expelled by supernova SN 2006gy defies human comprehension.

    Prior to its dramatic death, the hypergiant star, which was 150 times larger than our own, suffered a sudden and violent collapse. Extremely high levels of gamma radiation from the star's core caused its energy to transform to matter, and the drop in energy in turn caused the star to collapse. This resulted in a dramatic increase in the thermonuclear reactions that was burning within it. All this added energy overpowered the gravitational attraction causing the star to explode.

    And explode it did.

    Scientists claim that the supernova was over 150 times more powerful than any other observed to date. Physical models suggested that such a supernova was theoretically possible, but astronomers believed that such events were limited to the early Universe when stars tended to be hypergiant.

    A hypernova like SN 2006gy can instantly expel about 10X46 joules. This is more energy than our sun produces over a period of 10 billion years.

    According to the Astroprof blog,
    At discovery, it was already as bright as a Type Ia supernova at its peak. But, instead of getting dimmer, SN 2006gy continued to get brighter for several weeks. The peak brightness seldom comes much more than a week after the explosion. Theoretical models suggest that SN 2006gy gets its light from both the expanding cloud of gas and a shock front as the cloud of gas expands into very dense gasses surrounding the progenitor star. But, the expanding gas cloud is so bright that it requires substantially more radioactive decay to heat it that would be present in almost any other supernova. The best way to get that much radioactive material, according to the model that the theorists have come up with, is for basically the whole core to be thrown out into the supernova, leaving little or nothing behind to form a neutron star or black hole. So much material is thrown out, that the supernova continues to be heated long after the explosion itself. In fact, even months later, SN 2006gy has faded in brightness only to as bright as the peak brightness of a Type Ia supernova!
    In fact, astronomers were able to observe the hypernova's peak brightness for an astounding 70 days.

    Supernovas can wreak tremendous havoc in its local area, effectively sterilizing the region. These explosions produce highly collimated beams of hard gamma rays that extend outward from the exploding star. Any unfortunate life-bearing planet that should come into contact with those beams would suffer a mass extinction (if not total extinction depending on its proximity to the supernova). Gamma rays would eat up the ozone layer and indirectly cause the onset of an ice age due to the prevalence of NO2 molecules.

    Supernovas can shoot out directed beams of gamma rays to a distance of 100 light years, while hypernovas and gamma ray bursts can impact areas as far as 500 light years away.

    Thankfully, hypergiant Eta Carinae, which is on the verge of going nova, is well over 7,500 light years away from Earth. We'll be safe when it goes off, but you'll be able to read by its light at night-time.

    May 7, 2007

    Dilbert's ethicist

    Zizek!



    Chris Burden's extreme performance art

    Chris Burden took performance art to unprecedented extremes during the 1970s. During his performances he would often put himself directly in harm's way; the point of his art, in addition to making political and social statements, was to illicit discomfort in the audience/observers.

    His first performance was
    Five Day Locker Piece (1971). He spent 5 days locked in a two-foot by two-foot locker. Immeidately above Burden was a 5-gallon supply of water, while the locker below him contained an empty 5-gallon jug. He remained crammed in this space for the entire 5 days without food.

    His best-known performance, called Shoot, came a year later when he had a friend shoot him with a .22 rifle from a distance of 5 meters. Burden wanted the bullet to graze his bicep, but he flinched when the rifle went off and the bullet went right into his arm. Interpretations of Shoot often relate the piece to the Vietnam war, the political assassinations of the 1960s, and the frightening realization that anyone could be shot at any time -- and most likely by a familiar person.

    In 1974 Burden performed Transfixed in which his body was stretched along the roof of a Volkswagen Bug while a friend drove spikes through his hands nailing him to the car. The vehicle was then driven out into the street where it obstructed traffic. Aside from the strange religious connotations of this piece, the point of Transfixed might have been merely to shock and disturb.

    But is it art?

    In a word, yes. The fact that the artist makes the claim that it is art and that there are observers who experience the performance are criteria enough -- never mind the fact that these pieces evoke extreme reactions in the audience.
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