May 29, 2009

Yesterday's tomorrow: Clothing of the year 2000

Full of 1930's futurist awesomeness: "Apparently in AD 2000 we shall be having a hair raising time!" Brother, you have no idea.

Minsh: Viewing Twitter as an underwater virtual world

Minsh, a start-up by PhD students at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, is a 3D visualisation of what Twitter users are writing about. It consists of an underwater navigable world where each fish represents a Twitter user.

The idea behind the virtual world is that the social behavior of fish will represent what people are talking about online. In the Minsh Twittersphere, people writing about a given subject will find themselves swimming in the same school. When a person updates their Twitter status, the fish swims away to join people with similar thoughts on their minds. Currently still in a very early Alpha phase, the website promises the Alpha 2 will be released on July 13th 2009, with more features and just 1,000 invitations.

Check the video:

Via Information Aesthetics.

Michael Anissimov guest blogging in June

I'm pleased to announce that Michael Anissimov will be guest blogging on Sentient Developments during the month of June. A science/technology writer and futurist, Michael produces the mind-bending Accelerating Future blog and plays a prominent role in a number of futurist and foresight related organizations.

I first met Michael in 2003 during a transhumanist conference at Yale and we've kept in touch ever since. Our visions of the future, both in terms of the risks and benefits, have always been very closely aligned -- whether it be in how we've come to define the perpetually amorphous Technological Singularity or what we envision as being the posthuman condition. We also share similar ethical sensibilities; both of us are outspoken advocates of animal welfare, vegetarianism and the abolitionist imperative.

A bit about Michael:

He is Media Director for the Singularity Institute and Fundraising Director, North America for the Lifeboat Foundation. He is the founder of the Immortality Institute, a grassroots life extension advocacy organization, and does fundraising work for the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, an organization devoted to research on safe artificial intelligence. He's also a prolific freelance science and technology writer; he has contributed over 1,600 short factual articles to WiseGeek.com, a website that promises “clear answers for common questions”. WiseGeek received over 62 million visitors last year.

Back in 2006, Michael expanded his capacity to hound others about the wonders of technology and its central significance to humanity’s future by starting his blog, Accelerating Future. Since its founding, the blog has received over 5 million visits and been featured on G4.TV’s Attack of the Show and SciFi.com. Posts of Michael’s have appeared on the front page of Digg and Reddit. Since appearing on the scene, Michael has received some light media coverage, being interviewed by Psychology Today in 2008. Since 2003, Michael has given talks on the risks and benefits of emerging technologies at conferences and seminars in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Palo Alto, and at Yale University.

The topics that Michael likes to focus on are artificial intelligence, molecular nanotechnology, transhumanism, intelligence enhancement and extinction risk. He believes that humanity could rise or fall in the 21st century depending on how we handle these technologies. His views on the dangers of advanced technology are very similar to those presented by Bill Joy in his WIRED article, “Why the future doesn’t need us”, except Michael believes that relinquishment is infeasible. Instead, he advocates selective development — the acceleration of beneficial technologies (especially intelligence enhancement and Friendly AI) so that their problem-solving capabilities can be brought to bear on the risks of other advanced technologies.

Michael is allied with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, to which he often contributes articles. The IEET’s mission is to become a center for voices arguing for a responsible, constructive approach to emerging human enhancement technologies. The organization believes that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development so long as we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed. The basic idea is that human enhancement technology should be cautiously embraced rather than ignored or rejected.

Michael has been a consultant for a variety of future-oriented non-profit organizations and for-profit companies including the Methuselah Foundation, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and Kurzweil Technologies. On behalf of the Lifeboat Foundation and the Singularity Institute, Michael has has consulted for organizations such as the US Navy and spoken informally with reporters at outlets such as The New York Times, New Scientist, Financial Times, The Guardian, and the offices of US senators and congressmen.

Look for Michael to blog throughout the month of June. Should make for a fascinating exchange of ideas.

Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

Athena Andreadis is guest-blogging this month. A slightly different version of this essay appeared in her blog on March 13, 2008.

"Mobilis in Mobile": Ellen Ripley/Alien Queen hybrid (Alien Resurrection)

Views of space travel have grown increasingly pessimistic in the last decade. This is not surprising: SETI still has received no unambiguous requests for more Chuck Berry from its listening posts, NASA is busy re-inventing flywheels and citizens even of first-world countries feel beleaguered in a world that seems increasingly hostile to any but the extraordinarily privileged. Always a weathervane of the present, speculative fiction has been gazing more and more inwardly -- either to a hazy gold-tinted past (fantasy, both literally and metaphorically) or to a smoggy rust-colored earthbound future (cyberpunk).

The philosophically inclined are slightly more optimistic. Transhumanists, the new utopians, extol the pleasures of a future when our bodies, particularly our brains/minds, will be optimized (or at least not mind that they're not optimized) by a combination of bioengineering, neurocognitive manipulation, nanotech and AI. Most transhumanists, especially those with a socially progressive agenda, are as decisively earthbound as cyberpunk authors. They consider space exploration a misguided waste of resources, a potentially dangerous distraction from here-and-now problems -- ecological collapse, inequality and poverty, incurable diseases among which transhumanists routinely count aging, not to mention variants of gray goo.

And yet, despite the uncoolness of space exploration, despite NASA's disastrous holding pattern, there are those of us who still stubbornly dream of going to the stars. We are not starry-eyed romantics. We recognize that the problems associated with spacefaring are formidable (as examined briefly in Making Aliens 1, 2 and 3). But I, at least, think that improving circumstances on earth and exploring space are not mutually exclusive, either philosophically or -- perhaps just as importantly -- financially. In fact, I consider this a false dilemma. I believe that both sides have a much greater likelihood to implement their plans if they coordinate their efforts, for a very simple reason: the attributes required for successful space exploration are also primary goals of transhumanism.

Consider the ingredients that would make an ideal crewmember of a space expedition: robust physical and mental health, biological and psychological adaptability, longevity, ability to interphase directly with components of the ship. In short, enhancements and augmentations eventually resulting in self-repairing quasi-immortals with extended senses and capabilities -- the loose working definition of transhuman.

Coordination of the two movements would give a real, concrete purpose to transhumanism beyond the uncompelling objective of giving everyone a semi-infinite life of leisure (without guarantees that either terrestrial resources or the human mental and social framework could accommodate such a shift). It would also turn the journey to the stars into a more hopeful proposition, since it might make it possible that those who started the journey could live to see planetfall.

Whereas spacefaring enthusiasts acknowledge the enormity of the undertaking they propose, most transhumanists take it as an article of faith that their ideas will be realized soon, though the goalposts keep receding into the future. As more soundbite than proof they invoke Moore's exponential law, equating stodgy silicon with complex, contrary carbon. However, despite such confident optimism, enhancements will be hellishly difficult to implement. This stems from a fundamental that cannot be short-circuited or evaded: no matter how many experiments are performed on mice or even primates, humans have enough unique characteristics that optimization will require people.

Contrary to the usual supposition that the rich will be the first to cross the transhuman threshold, it is virtually certain that the frontline will consist of the desperate and the disenfranchised: the terminally ill, the poor, prisoners and soldiers -- the same people who now try new chemotherapy or immunosuppression drugs, donate ova, become surrogate mothers, "agree" to undergo chemical castration or sleep deprivation. Yet another pool of early starfarers will be those whose beliefs require isolation to practice, whether they be Ra?lians or fundamentalist monotheists -- just as the Puritans had to brave the wilderness and brutal winters of Massachusetts to set up their Shining (though inevitably tarnished) City on the Hill.

So the first generation of humans adjusted to starship living are far likelier to resemble Peter Watts' marginalized Rifters or Jay Lake's rabid Armoricans, rather than the universe-striding, empowered citizens of Iain Banks' Culture. Such methods and outcomes will not reassure anyone, regardless of her/his position on the political spectrum, who considers augmentation hubristic, dehumanizing, or a threat to human identity, equality or morality. The slightly less fraught idea of uploading individuals into (ostensibly) more durable non-carbon frames is not achievable, because minds are inseparable from the neurons that create them. Even if technological advances eventually enable synapse-by synapse reconstructions, the results will be not transfers but copies.

Yet no matter how palatable the methods and outcomes are, it seems to me that changes to humans will be inevitable if we ever want to go beyond the orbit of Pluto within one lifetime. Successful implementation of transhumanist techniques will help overcome the immense distances and inhospitable conditions of the journey. The undertaking will also bring about something that naysayers tend to dread as a danger: speciation. Any significant changes to human physiology (whether genetic or epigenetic) will change the thought/emotion processes of those altered, which will in turn modify their cultural responses, including mating preferences and kinship patterns. Furthermore, long space journeys will recreate isolated breeding pools with divergent technology and social mores (as discussed in Making Aliens 4, 5 and 6).

On earth, all "separate but equal" doctrines have wrought untold misery and injustice, whether those segregated are genders in countries practicing sharia, races in the American or African South, or the underprivileged in any nation that lacks decent health policies, adequate wages and humane laws. Speciation of humanity on earth bids fair to replicate this pattern, with the ancestral species (us) becoming slaves, food, zoo specimens or practice targets to our evolved progeny, Neanderthals to their Cro-Magnons, Eloi to their Morlocks. On the other hand, speciation in space may well be a requirement for success. Generation of variants makes it likelier that at least one of our many future permutations will pass the stringent tests of space travel and alight on another habitable planet.

Despite their honorable intentions and progressive outlook, if the transhumanists insist on first establishing a utopia on earth before approving spacefaring, they will achieve either nothing or a dystopia as bleak as that depicted in Paolo Bacigalupi's unsparing stories. If they join forces with the space enthusiasts, they stand a chance to bring humanity through the Singularity some of them so fervently predict and expect -- except it may be a Plurality of sapiens species and inhabited worlds instead.


Starship Reckless

May 27, 2009

David Pearce: Post-Darwinian Ethics?

British philosopher David Pearce, who guest blogged here in April, has written a fascinating piece for H+ Magazine about post-Darwinian ethics and the principles of morals and legislation. Pearce writes:
Recent decades have witnessed a slowly expanding "circle of compassion". But it is a circle with one species at its absolute centre. Can Ethics ever aspire to be a rigorous academic discipline that delivers an impartial perspective embracing the interests of all sentient life: the well being of posthuman, human and non-human animals; hypothetical extra-terrestrial life, future "cyborgs", and artificial life alike? Or will Ethics always serve to rationalize the self-interest of the world's most powerful lifeforms?...

...Unfortunately, no such moral clarity was on display in the European Parliament earlier this month. An initial vote passed by EC legislators on May 5, 2009 sets guidelines on the "upper" limit of suffering that humans can lawfully inflict on non-human animals used in scientific experiments. Every year around 12 million non-human animals are used in scientific research in EU nations in the course of commercial product-testing, biomedical research, or open-ended scientific inquiry. Legally permissible levels of suffering inflicted can range from "up to mild" to "moderate" to "severe." Non-human animals are "reusable" if the testing entails up to "moderate" pain. The new EC regulations also cover our closest living relatives, non-human primates. Each year around 10,000 non-human primates are killed in European laboratories. The new parliamentary directive recommends phasing out wild-caught animals in favor of laboratory-bred animals over a 10-year period; and calls for an unspecified overall reduction in the number of non-human primates experimented on.
Be sure to read the entire article.

May 26, 2009

Yesterday's tomorrow: Just imagine...1980!

Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler, was a humorous science-fiction movie musical presented by Fox Film Corporation to cheer up audiences distressed by the Great Depression.

Set in the year 1980, it depicted the conventional expectations of technological progress associated with that 'distant future' date. A large dirigible hangar was used to house a huge, detailed, large-scale model of a modern city, complete with suspension bridges between towering skyscrapers, multi-lane elevated roadways, and a flock of flying machines flitting above the city as another level of traffic. To modern viewers, the city resembles an implausibly exaggerated version of 1930s New York City.

The plot involves a man from 1930 who is experimentally revived from the dead (hmmm, interestingly transhumanistic) by a team of physicians who have no interest whatsoever in him after he awakens (an obvious precursor to Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973)). Two young men who have observed the process as guests of one of the nurses kindly take him in hand and show him (and the audience) the wonders of 1980. He also gets to travel to Mars, which turns out to be inhabited by friendly humans, each of whom has an evil, otherwise-identical twin.

The i-Limb from Touch Bionics [video]

Hey, deep ecologists: the planet is not your nature preserve! - An SD Classic

In the absence of a Creator a number of people have taken to worshipping the next best thing, creation itself. This phenomenon has been exemplified by the rise of Gainism and the Gaianists. Given the poor state of the environment today this sentiment has mutated into the kind of reverential desperatism and misanthropism that is now the all too familiar opium promoted by the deep ecologists. God may be dead, but religious sensibilities that showcase the unworthiness of man have been retained by these radical environmentalists, resulting in a worldview that perpetuates defeatism, shamefulness and self-loathing.

The deep ecologists and Gainists ascribe divine status to nature—a kind of neo-pantheism--and like their religious forbearers, have insisted on keeping humanity outside the gates of heaven. In their view, man is dirty, irreverent, and profane. His sheer presence is an affront to the divine processes of nature, the very cause of paradise lost; terms like ‘biodiversity’, ‘symbiogenesis’, ‘biosphere’, and ‘homeostasis’ have replaced the old religious canons.

The Earth, they would argue, would be better off without the meddling of humanity and their omnipresent disruptive technologies. The deep ecologists are on a self-prescribed mission to recover paradise and turn the Earth into a giant nature preserve where the only observers would be those creatures trapped in endless cycles of mindless selection and procreation. Birth, life, death, birth, life, death—the perpetuation of the Darwinian cycle as an end unto itself, a cycle with no other purpose than to satiate the aesthetic sensibilities of the nature worshippers.

But there is a cure to the new quasi-religious environmentalist fervor: humanism. And it doesn’t matter what kind of humanism, be it secular humanism, Christian humanism, Buddhist humanism, or transhumanism. Even better are those humanistic codes, like Buddhism and transhumanism, which are nonanthropocentric and demand the respect of all life. Humanist sensibilities work to ensure that it is the quality of life that is maintained rather than pseudoscientific and quasi-religious abstractions.

One can be an environmentalist and a humanist. The key is to make this planet habitable, sustainable and humane. It is this last crucial point that the Gainists and deep ecologists have failed to grasp, and in so doing, have come to represent a dangerous and misguided ideology.

This article was originally published on June 14, 2006.

May 24, 2009

Equalizer or Terminator?

Athena Andreadis is guest-blogging this month.

Years ago, I saw a short in an animation festival. It showed earth inhabited by men who happily bopped each other and propagated by laying eggs. A starship crash interrupted the idyll. Presaging Battlestar Galactica, the newcomers proved miraculously interfertile with the men who handed them the job of propagation along with all other disagreeable chores. Things went swimmingly, at least for the men, until a rescue ship arrived. After the women left, the men were once again free to pursue manly things – until they realized they had forgotten how to lay eggs.

The short was a wry, science-fictional version of the animal wife tale. But it's interesting that we can program starships to ricochet from planet to planet and routinely use in vitro fertilization – yet if women want direct genetic descendants, they still have no alternative to pregnancy unless they are rich enough to hire a surrogate, an option burdened with ethical baggage.

Of course, a womb is much more than a warm sac of nutrients. The endocrine inputs alone would tax a medium-size factory, leaving aside those from the immune system. The complexities of its function have made an artificial womb remain a distant glimpse and attempts with mammalian embryos still fail at early stages. Yet cultural politics have been as decisive in this delay as biological challenges: think of the lightning speed with which Japanese officials approved Viagra versus their decades-long ban on oral contraceptives and you get the picture. And the upheaval brought about by contraception will be a mild breeze compared to the hurricane that will be unleashed if we ever succeed in creating an artificial uterus. Its repercussions may equal (and possibly reverse) those that accompanied the invention of agriculture.

Prior to agriculture, gatherer-hunters lived semi-nomadic lives in small groups of relatively flat hierarchies. Family configurations were fluid and quasi-egalitarian and children were few, spaced far apart and collectively raised. This persisted when the nomads first settled. The earliest agricultural communities show little social stratification: there are no ostentatious palaces or tombs. But with the ability to hoard food reserves, dynamics changed – and so did the status of women, now burdened with multiple children and deprived of mobility and the gathering skills and knowledge of their foremothers. Wombs became commodities and have remained so, with minor fluctuations, ever since.

If we succeed in creating functioning artificial wombs, they will remain luxury options (like surrogate motherhood) until/unless they become relatively cheap. At that point, it’s virtually certain that they’ll be heavily used for reasons outlined in many analyses elsewhere – primarily the sparing of both mother and child from the health problems associated with pregnancy and birth (1, 2). And if they’re used, they will have a predictable outcome: all parents will become fathers, biologically, psychologically and, possibly, culturally.

Women will be able to have as many children as men, even multiplets without the severe problems of extreme prematurity now inherent in such a choice. Additionally, women will not undergo the hormonal changes of pregnancy, which means they will be as much (or as little) emotionally invested in their offspring as men. And of course cheap working artificial wombs will also mean that women will become biologically redundant.

Having equally invested parents is standard in other species whose offspring have long periods of helplessness – birds are an obvious “nuclear” example, social insects an “extended” one. Adoptions in humans show that biological connections are not a prerequisite in forming kinship bonds, although adopted and step-children are often treated less well than biological ones.

If we go the friendly route, ending pregnancy may finally usher in true equality between the genders since women will no longer be penalized physically, psychologically, financially and socially for having children: many problems, from autism to bed wetting, will cease being automatically the mother’s responsibility or fault. Such a change may perhaps allow us to play with alternative family arrangements, from Ursula Le Guin’s Ki’O sedoretu to Poul Anderson’s Rogaviki polyandry.

If we go the other route, women could become extinct as soon as a decade after artificial wombs become widely available, except as trophies or zoo specimens. Those who think this is unlikely need only to be reminded that there are now regions of China and India where the ratio of boys to girls is two to one, courtesy of sex-selective abortion and infanticide. People may bemoan a potential world without women, but such pious thoughts didn’t stop us from extinguishing countless other species. Personally, I think that never getting born is preferable to a devalued life.

An all-male culture need not resemble a prison or an army barracks. Nevertheless, I suspect that such a society will have either slavery or indentured service even if it has advanced technology, as humans seem unable to avoid rank demarcations (although their natural ranking system is not the fixed rigid pyramid of canine bands). Their romantic Others may be transgendered men, or Wraeththu-like bishōnen boys in a revival of the erastes/eromenos scheme of Periclean Athens. But like the men in the cartoon short I described earlier, even with artificial wombs these guys will eventually bump into another wall: ovarian stocks.

Like wombs, ova are not passive nurturing chambers. For one, they select which sperm to let in when the hordes come knocking. Additionally, beyond transmitting half the nuclear and all the mitochondrial genes, eggs also contain organized spacetime gradients that direct correct formation and epigenetic imprinting of the embryo. Re-creating this kind of organized cytoplasm makes an artificial womb seem simple by comparison and if there are any trophy women left at that point their fate may be grim.

Wanting to hear another person’s views on this matter, I asked my partner, without any preamble or explanation, “What do you think will happen to women if we create working artificial wombs?” And he, proving yet again how much he deserves the title of snacho, replied without missing a beat, “Nothing. Women are the reason men want to get out of bed in the morning.” I couldn’t help smiling… and I reflected that, as long as even tiny pockets of such people continue to exist, we may get to travel to the stars, after all.

Starship Reckless

May 18, 2009

Assessing solipsist solutions to the Fermi Paradox

Milan M. Cirkovic is guest blogging this week.

Thanks to George Dvorsky for inviting me to blog this week on Sentient Developments.

The title of this post refers to a classic 1983 paper of Sagan and Newman criticizing Tipler's skepticism toward SETI studies based on Fermi's Paradox (FP) and strengthened by the idea of colonization via von Neumann probes. Here, however, I would like to talk about solipsist solutions to FP in a different – and closer to the usual – meaning.

Solipsist solutions reject the premise of FP, namely that there are no extraterrestrial civilizations either on Earth or detectable through our observations in the Solar System and the Milky Way thus far. On the contrary, they usually suggest that extraterrestrials are or have been present in our vicinity, but that the reasons for their apparent absence lie more with our observations and their limitations than with the real state-of-affairs.

Of course, this has been for so long the province of lunatic fringe of science (either in older forms of occultism or more modern guise of ufology) but to neglect some of these ideas for that reason is giving the quacks too much power. Instead, we need to consider all the alternatives, and these clearly form well-defined, albeit often provably wrong or undeveloped ideas. Some of the solipsist hypotheses discussed at least half-seriously in the literature are the following (listed in rough order from less to more serious ones):
It is difficult to objectively assess the value of solipsist hypotheses as solutions to FP. Most of them are either untestable in principle, or testable only in consideration of very long temporal and spatial scales; they do not belong to the realm of science as it is conventionally understood.

In other words, they violate a sort of naive realism which underlies practically the entire scientific endeavor. Their proponents are likely to retort that the issue is sufficiently distinct from other scientific problems to justify greater divergence of epistemological attitudes – but this is rather hard to justify when one could still pay a smaller price. For instance, one could choose to abandon Copernicanism, like the
Rare Earth theorists (although it might be particularly unpopular this year!) or – as I personally prefer – one might abandon gradualism (which has been thoroughly discredited in geo- and planetary sciences anyway) and end up with a sort of neocatastrophic hypothesis, like the phase-transition scenario.

Some of them, but not all, solipsist solutions violate the classical non-exclusivity (or “hardness”) requirement as well; in other words, they require an uncanny degree of cultural uniformity among the advanced technological civilizations. This is, for instance, obvious in zoo, interdict or planetarium scenarios, since they presume a large-scale cultural uniformity to maintain the isolation of either just us or any other Galactic newcomers, which is sufficiently improbable a priori.

This is not the case, however, with the simulation hypothesis, since the simulated reality is likely to be clearly designed and spatially and temporally limited. The directed panspermia has some additional problems – notably the absence of any further manifestations of our 'parent civilization', in spite of its immense age. If they became extinct in the meantime, what happened with other seeded planets (not to mention long-term astroengineering artifacts)? The Copernican reasoning suggests that we should expect evolution to occur faster at some places than on Earth (and, of course, slower at other sites as well); where are our interstellar siblings, then?

Usually, these hypotheses are mentioned (if at all) mostly for the sake of logical completeness, since they are in any case the council of despair. If and when all other avenues of research are exhausted, the conventional wisdom says, we could always turn toward these hypotheses. And, strangely enough, the conventional wisdom does seem on target here. Still, this neither means that they are all of equal value nor it should mislead us into thinking that they are necessarily improbable for the reason of desperation alone.

Bostrom's simulation hypothesis might, indeed, be quite probable, given some additional assumptions related to the increase in our computing power and decrease of information-processing cost. Directed panspermia could, in principle, get a strong boost if, for instance, the efforts of NASA and other human agencies aimed at preventing planetary contamination turn out to be unsuccessful. Finally, solipsist hypotheses need not worry about evolutionary contingency or generic probabilities of biogenesis or noogenesis, unlike practically all other proposed FP solutions.

Milan M. Cirkovic

May 16, 2009

Australian astrophysicist detects curious laser pulses from space

Radio SETI is pretty much doomed to failure, but that doesn't mean advanced extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) aren't transmitting other signatures that could potentially indicate their existence. Take laser pulses, for example. Unlike radio waves that suffer a dissipative effect the further out they travel, lasers can traverse extreme distances and still remain highly focused and detectable.

This is the assumption of a growing movement in SETI circles called optical SETI (OSETI). Rather than listen for incoming radio signals, these scientists are scanning the heavens in search of deliberate light patterns that may reveal the existence of ETIs.

And now news out of Australia indicates that an OSETI adherent may have actually found something. Astrophysicist Ragbir Bhathal from the University of Western Sydney recently detected a series of mysterious pulses that has him wondering if somebody isn't at the other end.

Bhathal picked up the signal in December 2008 and has been studying the data ever since. He wants to be sure that it's not natural phenomenon (similar to a pulstar) before he jumps to any conclusion. Moreover he hasn't been able to re-detect the signal despite his daily efforts to do so; he is methodically scanning the area in hopes of of finding it again.

But Bhathal has the initial data set and his hope is to put together a peer reviewed paper some day. He may be on a wild goose chase, but his efforts show that novel approaches to SETI are certainly in order.

"NASA is already using lasers for space communication and it's not unrealistic to imagine that an extraterrestrial intelligence might be using them as well," he says. "In terms of Earth technology today, we have achieved a maximum of 10x15 watts of laser power for a brief period, but an advanced civilization could have lasers with powers of 10x25."

He admits, however, that our failure to pick up any interstellar signals so far could mean that advanced civilizations are using a communications technique still not discovered on Earth. "It is risky to judge everything by our own technology," he says.


If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!

(incorrectly but fittingly ascribed to Emma Goldman, feminist, activist, trouble-maker)

Athena Andreadis is guest blogging this month.

Those who know my outermost layer would consider me a science geek. I’m a proponent of genetic engineering, an advocate of space exploration, a reader and writer of science fiction. However, I found myself unable to warm to either transhumanism or its literary sidekick, cyberpunk. I ascribed this to the decrease of flexibility that comes with middle age and resumed reading Le Guin’s latest story cycle.

But the back of my mind gnawed over the discrepancy. After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades of… and then it hit me… gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that don’t involve VR.

And I finally rea
lized why I balk at cyberpunk and transhumanism like an unruly horse. Both are deeply anhedonic, hostile to physicality and the pleasures of the body, from enjoying wine to playing in an orchestra. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure this out. After all, many transhumanists use the repulsive (and misleading) term “meat cage” to describe the human body, which they deem a stumbling block, an obstacle in the way of the mind.

This is hoary dualism disguised as futuristic thinking, augmented by healthy doses of queasiness and power fantasies. Ascetics of other eras tried to diminish the body by fasting, flagellating, abstaining from all physical gratification from washing to sex. Techno-monks want to discard it altogether. The goal is a disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream. If a body is tolerated at all, the ideal is a mixture of metal and ceramic, hairless and poreless, though it still retains the hyper-gendered configurations possible only in cartoons.

Is abandonment of the body such a bad thing? As anyone who lost a limb or went through a major illness can attest, it’s a marvelous instrument
whose astonishing abilities become obvious only when it malfunctions. On the other hand, it’s undeniably fragile and humans have lost patience with its shortcomings as technology has overtaken nature. Transhumanists extol such prospects as anti-aging medicine; advanced prosthetics; radical cosmetic surgery, including sex changes; nootropic drugs; and carbon-silicon interfaces, from cyborgs to immersive VR.

I don’t know a single woman who, given the choice, would opt to retain menstruation, pregnancy or menopause (though few would admit it openly). And very few people, no matter how stoic, can face the depradations of chronic disease or age with equanimity. The neo-Rupturists who prophesy the coming
of the Singularity can hardly wait to exchange their bodies with versions that will never experience memory lapses or fail to achieve erections at will.

I’m no Luddite, bio or otherwise. I am glad that technology has enabled us to lead lives that are comfortable, leisured and long enough that we can explore the upper echelons of the hierarchy of needs. However, we demean the body at our peril. It’s not the passive container of our mind; it is its major shaper and inseparable partner. If we discard our bodies we run the danger of losing context to our lasting detriment – as we have already done by successive compartmentalizations and sunderings.

Humans are inherently social animals that developed in response to feedback loops between the environment and their own evolving form. Like all lifeforms, we’re jury-rigged. Furthermore, humans are mediocre across the entire spectrum of physical prowess, from range of vision to maximum running speed. Yet this mediocrity probably enabled us to occupy many environmental niches successfully before technology allowed us to impose our wishes on our environment. Optimizing in any direction may push us into dead-end corners, something that has happened to many species we engineered extensively.

This also holds true for our
brains. It’s a transhumanist article of faith that intelligence can and must be augmented – but there are many kinds of intelligence. A lot of learning is mediated through the body, from using a screwdriver properly to gauging complex social interactions. Short-circuiting this type of learning results in shallow knowledge that may not become integrated into long-term memory. There is a real reason for apprenticeships, despite their feudal overtones: people who use Photoshop, CAD and laboratory kits without prior “traditional” training frequently make significant errors and often cannot critically evaluate their results. Furthermore, without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination or madness, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain.

Another feedback loop is provided by the cortical emotions, which enable us to make decisions. Two prominent side effects of many nootropic drugs are flattening of the emotions and suppression of creativity. Far from fine-tuning perception, the drugs act as blunting hammers. Finally, if we evade our bodies by uploading into a silicon frame (biologically impossible, but let’s grant it as a hypothesis), we may lose the capacity for empathy, as shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.

I do believe that our bodies can be improved. Nor does everything have to remain as it is now. I wouldn’t mind having wings t
hat could truly lift me; even less would I mind living without fear of cancer or diabetes. Yet I’m fairly certain that we have to stick with carbon if we want seamless form and function. When I hear talk of "upgrading" to silicon or to ether, I get a strong whiff of cubicleers imagining themselves as Iron Man or Neo. Being alone inside a room used to be a punishment. Being imprisoned inside one’s head is a recipe for insanity. Without our bodies, we bid fair to become not exalted intellects but mad(wo)men in the attic.


Starship Reckless

The Left Hand of Light

May 14, 2009

Cosmologist Milan Cirkovic guest blogging next week

I've got some exciting news for those interested in cosmology, SETI and transhumanism: Milan M. Cirkovic will be guest blogging on Sentient Developments next week starting on May 18. It's a great honor to have him contribute to the blog. His views on SETI, the Fermi Paradox and the ultimate manifestation of intelligent life have significantly influenced my own.

Milan is a senior researcher at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade, (Serbia) and the associate professor of Cosmology at Department of Physics, University of Novi Sad (Serbia). He received his Ph.D. in Physics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook (USA), M.S. in Earth and Space Sciences from the same university, and his B.Sc. in Theoretical Physics from the University of Belgrade.

His primary research interests are in the fields of astrophysical cosmology (baryonic dark matter, star formation, future of the universe), astrobiology (anthropic principles, SETI studies, catastrophic episodes in the history of life), as well as philosophy of science (risk analysis, observation selection effects, epistemology). A unifying theme in these fields is the nature of physical time, the relationship of time and complexity, and various aspects of entropy-increasing processes taking place throughout the universe.

Milan recently co-edited the anthology on Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford University Press, 2008) and translated several books, including titles by Richard P. Feynman and Sir Roger Penrose. In recent years, his research has been published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Physics Letters A, Astrobiology, New Astronomy, Origin of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, Foundations of Physics, Philosophical Quarterly and other major journals.

Look for Milan to blog from May 18 to May 22. While you wait, check out his excellent paper, "On the Importance of SETI for Transhumanism."

Link dump 2009.05.14

From the four corners of the web:

May 13, 2009

We Now Interrupt Our Regular Programming…

... so that you can set your transporter coordinates to Centauri Dreams, where my friend Paul Gilster is graciously hosting my more extended take on the new Star Trek film. I think that the mixed reactions are universal among those who loved the original Star Trek’s optimism and civility. Here is the closing paragraph of my essay, to whet your appetites:

ST|| is an odd-numbered film in the series, so I’ll give it a long space tether. However, if Uhura degenerates into the Angel in the House or if the certain-to-come sequels become more generic, I will put ST|| permanently in the same category as Star Wars. Those who have read my essay on Star Wars know how dire a fate this is. And though my wrath may not equal that of Khan, if enough of my ilk get disaffected we may abandon all the old lumbering dinosaurs and manage to relaunch the real McCoy — the Firefly-class starship Serenity, with its true love of endless skies and its persistent aim to misbehave.

Athena, guest blogger of this month

May 11, 2009

IEET's Susan Schneider on transhumanism: Will enhancement destroy the "real you"?

Dr. Susan Schneider, IEET fellow, assistant professor of philosophy and an affiliated faculty member with Penns Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, speaks at a UPenn Media Seminar on Neuroscience and Society on philosophical controversies surrounding cognitive enhancement.

In this video, Schneider wonders if radical enhancement, particularly cognitive enhancement that gives rise to superintelligence, will result in the destruction of the original person in favor of something categorically different. Schneider also discusses uploading and the continuity of experience -- including the apparent problem of destructive cloning/copying.

Via Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

May 10, 2009


The Digilegs aren't really practical, but they're an interesting 'modification' from a cosmetic perspective.

Link dump 2009.05.10

From the four corners of the Web:

Yesterday's tomorrow: 'Auto-tutor'

The 'auto-tutor' from the 1964 World's Fair.

Gregory Stock's 2003 TED talk: To ugprade is human

Gregory Stock, the author of Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future, speaks at TED about the current revolution in biology and the impetus behind human enhancement. "Humanity is going to go down this path… because we are human," says Stock, "the lines are going to blur, between therapy and enhancement. Between treatment and prevention and between need and desire."

The Shifgrethor of Changelings

Athena Andreadis is guest blogging this month.

A slightly different version of this essay appeared in her blog on April 17, 2008. Since then, Thomas Beatie and Nancy Roberts had a daughter and they are expecting a second child.

“Maybe there are only two sexes: men and mothers.
Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jr. to Joanna Russ


A year ago, I caught sight of a headline exclaiming “Pregnant Man!” Intrigued, I read on, only to become more puzzled. I couldn’t figure out the novelty: the future parent, Thomas Beatie, identified and was legally classified as male. However, s/he was chromosomally and somatically female, modified by breast surgery and testosterone injections. So Beatie’s fallopian tubes, ovaries and uterus were intact, making this a conventional pregnancy (and not the first of its kind, either).

For me, the real surprise was how reactions split. With few exceptions, women were positive, whether hetero- or homo-sexual. Most men (again, regardless of sexual orientation) were negative, many virulently so, resorting to utterances that could have emanated from fundamentalist tracts. The transgender community was ambivalent — and amazingly there, too, the division was along lines of gender identification. In essence, the men — born or made — were saying: Why would anyone calling himself a man go through this? That’s what women are for! Could this ever happen to me?? Some said this more or less verbatim. Beatie’s pregnancy pushed the buttons of this issue as forcefully as if the coming child had burst, Alien-like, from a male torso.

While I was pondering this, it dawned on me that unconventional biological and social human genders seem to be predominantly the domain of women in speculative fiction, from singletons (Le Guin’s androgynous Gethenians, Constantine’s hermaphroditic Wraeththu, Slonczewski’s parthenogenetic Sharers) to multiples (Scott’s five-gendered post-FTL humans) to bona fide male pregnancy (in Butler’s Bloodchild). Men tend to stick to dyadic genders and traditional family patterns, even when depicting otherwise exotic aliens.

Biologically, the two gametes of terrestrial lifeforms are a result of evolution once it went down the path of sexual reproduction. There is nothing pre-ordained about this outcome, nor does phenotype mirror genotype: many plants and several animals are unisexual or hermaphroditic, while other animals can switch sexes. Too, biomorphic and behavioral outcomes are not invariably binary. Humans are capable of an enormous repertoire of responses, and I cannot think of one that is completely gender-specific. The troubles start with the relative value assigned to the two genders — and to their behavior, conditioned and enforced by edicts throughout the ages that are as arbitrary as they are punitive.

I can understand the worries of the trans community, whose members are trying to gain acceptance as gay people did before them by adopting rigidly orthodox gender roles. Such stereotyped assignations also occurred in cultures that tolerated intersexes: the North American two-spirited, the Indian hijra. However, the men’s objections reminded me of the “eew” reaction of boys to girls, before the hormonal rise (or is it fall?) of puberty overcomes social conditioning. They highlight a profound and visceral male unease over blurred identities or breached boundaries — in bodies, gender roles, power; a wish to make an absolute, immovable distinction between penetrator and penetrated, implanter and implanted.

In most cultures, men are trained to compartmentalize and make a virtue out of this necessity. Additionally, surgery that accentuates sexual dimorphism draws surprisingly little criticism. Beatie’s biggest transgression was becoming a changeling, someone who cannot be easily pigeonholed. Shapeshifters, from Raven to Loki to Star Trek’s Odo, are never trusted even though all mythologies found it necessary to invent them. What set off the fuses was the perception that Beatie is claiming the perks of both genders — if pregnancy can be viewed as such, considering how dangerous it could be (both physically and socially) before the advent of reliable contraception.

In the last few decades, medical advances have made it possible for people to conceive and bear children by assisted reproduction: sperm banks, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood. Yet all these procedures kept one condition intact: women’s involvement and hence traditional gender roles. Schwarzenegger in Junior notwithstanding, there is no concerted effort to create artificial wombs, which would make childbearing optional for women and possible for men. With the continuing furor over embryonic stem cells, it is unlikely that such an endeavor will be pursued any time soon.

Childbearing and childrearing, even when greatly desired and welcome, take a toll on women individually and collectively, since their investment is much greater. As long as this dichotomy remains, all discussions of true equality (to say nothing of radical social engineering) will remain just vaporous talk. It is possible, of course, that once in vitro pregnancy becomes possible, women will disappear except for a few kept as trophies or specimens — and that humans will designate another group as the perpetual Other. However, I prefer to hope that this will bring true equality, and make everyone able to adopt fluid, flexible identities that, at their best, combine the gentle strength of the Gethenians with the passionate flair of the Wraeththu.

Shifgrethor: to cast a long shadow; prestige, face, social authority (language of Karhide; Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness).


Credits: Top, Shaman by Susan Seddon Boulet;
Bottom, Tilda Swinton as Gabriel in Constantine.


Starship Reckless

And Ain't I a Human?

May 8, 2009

SETI's Seth Shostak: Alien hunter

Seth Shostak is borderline absurd in this video. Bigger than a bread box? Jeez, SETI is 1) in serious denial about its chances of detecting extraterrestrial signals and 2) still about 20 to 30 years behind the times.

Now, to be fair, I know that Shostak knows better. He has said,
SETI searches are agnostic when it comes to the biochemistry of the aliens. After all, from our point of view, what makes them “intelligent” is their ability to build a radio transmitter or a powerful laser. The details of their construction are of no consequence for the search — except insofar as they might not be living on planets surrounding an ordinary star. If they are machine intelligence, they may have migrated away from their natal solar system, and of course that WOULD affect our search strategies.
Okay, then let's talk about those strategies. Dysonian SETI, perhaps? Scanning the outer galaxial rim for alternative habitable zones?

Shame that Shostak has to cloud SETI in the baggage of antiquated expectations of Spielbergesque visitors from another planet. Remember: Shostak's job is not to find signs of ETI, but to secure funding for SETI. Talk of post-Singularity colonization waves isn't likely going to win over converts...

Travel into a black hole

Don't try this at home, kids.

Gazing from the Orion Spiral Arm

Athena Andreadis is guest blogging this month.

I want to thank George for inviting me to contribute to his always interesting blog. When we were discussing specifics, I mentioned I favor story arcs rather than hopping around randomly or banging on a single nail. For this blog, the obvious nexus would be the promises and perils of transhumanism as viewed by a biologist -- since the vast majority of transhumanists still seem to come from the domains of either computer programming or the social sciences.

My views are refracted through the additional prisms of being a woman, a non-Anglosaxon from an ancient culture instrumental in shaping the Western world, a cultural half-breed… someone who falls between too many stools to avoid or count. Briefly, though, I believe that humans need to pay equal attention to the outer and inner world, just as stars remain stable by balancing gravity pressure against nuclear fusion tension. Too much action without introspection, and humans turn into stiff upper lips declaiming about manifest destiny. Too much of the reverse, and they become whining navel-gazers.

So, tentatively, I plan to explore the mind/body problem in transhumanism (and cyberpunk, the Watson to TH's Holmes), artificial wombs, neuroenhancers and conclude with a discussion of the false dilemma between transhumanism and space exploration. I may take sideroads along the way, if something particularly absorbing comes up. Join me for the roaming:

Let me set sail for open water,
With gun salutes and pealing bells!

Odysseus Elytis, from Sun the First

Starship Reckless
Forever Young

Image: Serenity starship, Firefly class

May 5, 2009

Athena Andreadis guest blogging in May

I'm pleased to announce that Athena Andreadis will be guest blogging on Sentient Developments during the month of May. Andreadis is a fellow of the IEET, Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek.

Athena arrived in the United States from Greece at 18 to pursue biochemistry and astrophysics as a scholarship student at Harvard and MIT. She narrowly chose the former discipline while never fully abandoning the latter, and now conducts basic research in molecular neurobiology. Among her academic endeavors she studies the gene regulatory mechanism known as alternative splicing. The long-term goal of her research is to understand how the brain works, and contribute to the struggle against mental retardation and dementia.

When not conjuring in the lab, Athena writes (and used to review) fiction, an unexpected benefit of chronic insomnia. She has always wondered about the possibility of life on other planets and the limits of the human body/mind in radically altered environments. Combining these interests, she wrote To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek (which I'm proud to say has a spot on my shelf) a stealth science book that explores biology, psychology and sociology through the lens of eponymous series. In the wake of the book, she got invited to give talks in venues ranging from NASA to the NIH and to write articles in such places as Astronomy Magazine and Strange Horizons.

In addition to these pursuits, Andreadis reads voraciously, collects original art and has traveled extensively.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing her contributions here on Sentient Developments.

In the meantime, be sure to check out her articles, "Why Science Needs Fiction," "E. T., Call Springer-Verlag!", and "We Must Love One Another or Die: A Critique of Star Wars."

May 4, 2009

Why is this bird dancing?

This remarkable video of a dancing parrot left me asking one question: why?

More specifically, I wondered why, from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, would parrots evolve a penchant (and clearly a talent) for dancing? Clearly this bird is dancing -- and if I'm not mistaken is totally getting into it -- but why?

Well, there are three theories that attempt to explain the origins of singing and dancing in human culture. Perhaps these theories could shed some light on the dancing parrot.

Two theories are functional, suggesting that singing and dancing either serves to attract mates or foster social cohesion and collaboration. The third, put forward recently by Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, suggests the whole thing is a "glorious accident," the by-product of an evolved capacity for mimicking vocal cues which we humans have evolved because that's how we learn to speak. Patel suggests that our capacity for vocalization is intertwined with the way we process and react to rhythms.

Further, Patel suspects that we should study animals who are known to be vocal mimics and see if they too exhibit behaviors that resemble dancing when exposed to rhythms.

Given the dancing prowess of Snowball, Patel may be on to something. And in fact, he has taken a great interest in the bird. Patel has concluded that Snowball is in fact dancing and believes it has the capacity to adjust to changing tempos. Further studies by his team have revealed that other vocalizing animals have similar capacities, including 14 different types of parrots and even elephants.

Now the only questions is, can we get Snowball to dance to something other than the Backstreet Boys?


May 1, 2009

A World Without Suffering?

David Pearce is guest blogging this week.

In November 2005, at the Society for Neuroscience Congress, the Dalai Lama observed: "If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode - without impairing intelligence and the critical mind - I would be the first patient."

Note that the Dalai Lama wasn't announcing his intention to queue-jump. Nor was he proposing that high-functioning bliss should be the privilege of one special group or species. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, but in common with classical utilitarianism, Buddhism is committed to the welfare of all sentient beings. Instead, the Dalai Lama was stressing that we should embrace the control of our reward circuitry that modern science is shortly going to deliver - and not disdain it as somehow un-spiritual.

Smart neurostimulation, long-acting mood-enhancers, genetically re-engineering our hedonic "set-point" (etc) aren't therapeutic strategies associated with Buddhist tradition. Yet if we are morally serious about securing the well-being of all sentient life, then we have to exploit advanced technology to the fullest possible extent. Nothing else will work (short of some exotic metaphysics that is hard to reconcile with the scientific world-picture). Non-biological strategies to enrich psychological well-being have been tried on a personal level over thousands of years - and proved inadequate at best.

This is because they don't subvert the brutally efficient negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill - a legacy of millions of years of natural selection. Nor is the well-being of all sentient life feasible in a Darwinian ecosystem where the welfare of some creatures depends on eating or exploiting others. The lion can lie down with the lamb; but only after both have been genetically tweaked. Any solution to the problem of suffering ultimately has to be global.

In the meantime, I think the greatest personal contribution to reducing suffering that an individual can make is both to:
  1. Abstain from eating meat
  2. Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable
Such plain speaking calls for moral courage that alas sometimes deserts me.

I know many readers of Sentient Developments are Buddhists. Not all of them will agree with the above analysis. Some readers may suspect that I'm just trying to cloak my techno-utopianism in the mantle of venerable Buddhist wisdom. (Heaven forbid!)

In fact the abolitionist project is just a blueprint for implementing the aspiration of Gautama Buddha two and a half millennia ago: "May all that have life be delivered from suffering". I hope other researchers will devise (much) better blueprints; and the project will one day be institutionalized, internationalized, properly funded, transformed into a field of rigorous academic scholarship, and eventually government-led.

I've glossed over a lot of potential pitfalls and technical challenges. Here I'll just say I think they are a price worth paying for a cruelty-free world.

Many thanks to George for inviting me to guest-blog this week. And many thanks to Sentient Developments readers for their critical feedback. It's much appreciated.

David Pearce

Image: Alex Grey