August 26, 2004

Species Enemy Number One

Reason: Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea?

It feels good to belong to a view that is being denounced as the most "the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity". First, it dispells any notion that I'm a mild-mannered milquetoast: I'm actually dangerous. Quite a few youngsters do very stupid things to prove it, and I just have to read Foreign Policy. Second, given that someone that actually has evidenced noticeable brain use is so upset about the view shows that it has at least some chance of being right or at least interestingly wrong.

As always, Ron picks apart Fukuyama's arguments clearly and efficiently. But I have noted that the equality concern crops up more and more often. Ten years ago transhumanism was viewed as mere dreaming; a few glowing mice, cloned sheeps and neural implants have changed all that. The view that it would be inherently unpleasant (and hard work) to go posthuman has also weakened as we get nicely packaged pills: Prozac, Xenical, Modafinil, ... - people are starting to view many aspects of going transhuman as tempting. But the old equality argument still remains, and perhaps grows stronger as many people see transformative technologies more closely linked to everyday life.

To a large degree the equality concern builds on the assumption that others - those not part of our group - cannot be trusted to be nice. As Ron points out, we have solved the problem to an extent using the enlightenment gifts of rule of law, liberal democracy and free markets: they help support institutions and behavior that are independent of who or what you are, and allow soft control over individual freedom without undue coercion. Hardly perfect, but that does not matter: they work.

The key to preventing posthumans (or AI)
from misbehaving against their fellow entities is to embed them within this kind of framework. If there are sanctions against treating others with contempt (be it legal sanctions, the cost of not hiring someone or not being invited to the garden party) there will be less of it. And if it is otherwise far more profitable to be a part of the system than to stand outside it, it will not just entice outsiders to join, but it will also gain the wealth and diversity needed to withstand the occasional attack from the outside.

Still, just polishing belowed institutions is not enough. If we want to make transhumanism a respectable intellectual edifice we need to consider where the current institutions do indeed break down in the presence of human modification, and how to update them beyond that.

Neuroscience might challenge our views of agency, and that has plenty of implications for law and democracy. It might also help us understand the neuroscience of altruism and social behavior, bringing up the interesting question of whether social contracts of the future might stipulate some pro-social motivational structures (despite being a limitation of cognitive liberty, it could also be necessary to guarantee it, a bit like how we give governments monopolies of force to reduce perceived intra-society conflicts).

Does differences in cognitive ability lead to new ethical levels? To some extent all rational adult humans are assumed to reach the same ethical conclusions given the same values and facts, we are "ethically Turing-equivalent". But could there exist a class of minds with greater "ethical computational power", not just a quantitatively but a qualitatively larger space of ethical consideration? If so, this might imply that such minds would be subjected to rights and duties beyond those enjoyed by normal humans. Analysing whether this is true, and how a society could accomodate beings of different ethical orders, might be a fascinating research project. It is the other side of the animal rights debate, where supporters of animal rights seek to include animals as limited ethics members of society. It is not just enough to delineate the conditions of personhood and make them species-independent, we need to figure out how to make the inter-species tolerance great enough to work.

Being humble about human nature and ability has never produced any enlightened institutions. Democracy, public education, rule of law and even free markets all build on the idea that humans are fairly smart, can get smarter and more informed, know what they want and can get better at it. They do not assume we are wretched and have to stay that way. In the same way I think the institutions of the future will be based on false humility for the human nature anno 2004, but in the ambitious hope that it can be extended.

Posted by Anders at 07:23 AM | Comments (5)

August 13, 2004

Memories of the future

hippocrates.jpgThe TransVision 2004 conference show the evolution of the transhumanist movement. From the tiny gang of people who had met through the internet that started it in a small hotel on the outskirts of Amsterdam 1998 to the 150+ crowd filling the lecture halls of University of Toronto, listening to internationally known experts (or themselves becoming internationally known experts). Transhumanism is growing up and learning how to address the big issues.

TransVision 2003 was to some extent a reaction to the new criticism from Joy, Fukuyama and Kass. The sudden appearance of well-argued (or at least powerfully argued) opposition energized many transhumanists into formulating their own positions and counterarguments. This trend continued this year, when many of the key speakers elaborated on far more detailled answers and rebuttals against the anti-posthumans. The realization that one need not just have the technology but the philosophy to direct it is sinking in.

The keynote addresses by Steve Mann on "Glogging: Sousveillance, Cyborglogs, and the right to self-modification” and Stelarc formed an interestingly balanced pair with the keynotes of Max More and Nick Bostrom. The former were technology- and art-driven, showing how they could drive exploration leading in a transhumanist direction. The latter were philosophy-driven, showing how philosophical themes can move one towards transhumanism.

In all these cases there were a core dynamist perspective: cyborgization led Steve to criticise the surveillance society and try to formulate humanistic technology. Stelarc's radical postmodern view of the body and self might be an all-dissolving alcaest for social projects, but at the same time his search for ways of medical self-expression brings home morphological freedom. Max's talk sketched a set of individualistic virtues for managing self-transformation and change. Nick's talk essentially boiled down to a plea for why exploration of the posthuman realm might be a very good thing. All in all, the goal is an open future, where people are free to explore and change to the furthest extent possible. We are far indeed from many of the centrally managed ideas suggested by Haldane and Wells.

Perhaps the most major theme of the conference (in the sense of reporting real progress) was fixing ageing. Aubrey de Grey's initial speech laid out the plan and showed some recent progress on fixing mitochondrial mutations by moving the genes to the nucleus. That was followed by another talks sketching a possible way of finding enzymes that break down lysozomal gunk using bioremediation as an inspiration: since graveyards are not overflowing with the substances the body cannot break down, there must be bacteria that can do it. These can be isolated, and the relevant enzymes gathered. Very elegant, but rather early to tell how useful it will be.

As for elegance, Rafal Smigrodzki had an even more exciting approach: using protofection, a new form of gene therapy, mitochondrial DNA can be replaced. This is promising as a treatment of mitochondrial disease, but of course also against some aspects of ageing. And if the method was as powerful as he implied, it may be a great vehicle for gene therapy too. Which makes the other approaches more plausible as treatments too, since most seem to rely on the presence of suitable genes rather than small molecules. João Pedro de Magalhães has built a database of genes involved or implied in ageing. The network is tangled, but it is not that impossible to start to deal with using the powerful tools of modern genomics and proteomics.

Transhumanism also has a side of truly wild cosmological and eschatological speculation. I moderated a session on "Big Theory" where Travis Garrett did a nice presentation of why, if we live in a Tegmark level 4 multiverse, most of the "objects" would be superbeing observers. The omega points outnumber the rocks, so to say. I'm not entirely sure his reasoning holds against equally complex "noise" objects, but it was a wonderful talk. Similarly broad speculation occured in the uploading session, where Allen Randall expanded the old quantum suicide/immortality thought-experiment to show that only minor (like lottery wins), but not major (like resurrections), miracles could be expected to happen. Also, being "resurrected" as a dreamlike virtual simulation is far more probable than being resurrected in any useful sense of the word. So we better ensure immortality more proactively than just to hope for the best.

The final theme I paid attention to was ethics. I already mentioned the ethical defenses of transhumanism made by Max and Nick. Tihamer (Tee) Toth-Fejel presented a very nice scheme for judging the morality of various enhancements using natural law and a Aristotelian-Thomist approach. Starting out with discovering the essential nature of an entity (and here different readings can of course get different conclusions: Fukuyama makes an essentialist static reading of human nature while I prefer a dynamist, Mirandolian one - but these different assumptions can at least be made clear!) one looks at how the enhancement can produce good while acting on the entity. Overall, the tools discussed (ends/means/circumstances, seeing existence as better than parasitic opposites, aiming for more being, truth and love) are not that strange, but most people in the bioethics field shun looking at such fearful medieval contraptions. Which is a shame, since they correspond more closely (once applied and freed of terminology) to human experience than the cool lines of modernist abstractions.

Another ethical talk of interest was Mark Walker's talk about genetic enhancements to promote virtue. Again, I got a nice fuzzy Aristotelian feel (and a postmodernist in the audience wondered why we were clinging to such outmoded stuff; but existential freedom aside, it is rather hard to be normative and postmodernist). There are clearly genes that affect moral reasoning, for example through temperament and personality. Certain aspects of personality such as sociability promote certain virtues - they do not control them, but it is easier to achieve friendship with the right kind of personality, and autonomy by being somewhat out-going. The genes are a foundation, not a program, and not really controlling the eventual development and expression of virtue, but they can perhaps help. A very counterintuitive idea to current bioethics where random genes are somehow seen as a guarantee of freedom, but not very strange to virtue ethics where the important thing is the good habits we set up for ourselves (and Mark did discuss how one could rebel against unwanted "help" from one's parents - just because I have the genes of a nice personality doesn't mean I can't change it).

Conferences are not the real thing, just a place for us to meet, slap backs and exclaim about how big each other's project has grown. But TransVision helps the transhumanist community hold together by showing that there are shared interests between mitochondrial cell biologists and philosophizing physicists. There is one world (modulo Tegmark :-) to explore and improve, and we are all doing it together.

Next year in Caracas!

Posted by Anders at 05:43 PM | Comments (2)

August 11, 2004

Sacred Airports

airportpalm.jpgAirports are initiatory quests. The traveller approaches the airport using mundane means, from everyday life. But as he enters the complex he becomes a pilgrim seeking ascension.

Just like the labyrinths in medieval churches where one follows a meandering path towards the centre, so does the pilgrims move in meandering queues towards the first initiation: check in. Their patience and endurance is tested, both by the queuing and sometimes by initiatory guides – airport personnel giving them sometimes useful, sometimes misleading information. Incantations are heard over the loudspeaker system, unintelligible to outsiders of the airport mystery cult.

As check in is achieved, the pilgrim divests himself of the symbol of his material wealth: his luggage. He trusts it to the initiates, who send it on its own journey through the underworld hopefully to emerge at the destination. The pilgrim states his true name (passport) and destination, as well as his willingness to undertake the challenges of the journey. The pilgrim – if successful - is given a boarding card, a symbolic token of his first initiation, a secret word enabling him to pass the guardians of the second initiation: the security check.

Access to the security check initiation requires the pilgrim again to state his true name and the password of the first degree. Then he moves into the higher mysteries, protected from mundane eyes by strongly worded signs forbidding photography, study or description of the security checkpoint. Now the initiate is ritually cleansed, both by again divesting himself of symbols of worldly power (shoes, bags, coats) and by being tested for uncleanness – ”insecurity”. In the initiatory system of the airport there is the world of the clean, those who have proven themselves secure through initiation or being employed as airport initiates, and the outside world of the unclean. These are kept isolated from each other like in the most rigorous Jewish or Shinto ceremonies. As the pilgrim endures his symbolic repetition of the divestment of Innanna’s regalia when visiting the underworld, he becomes one of the cleansed. Sometimes the initiates perform a ritual where a wand is passed over the body as the pilgrim makes the sign of crucifixion: again a reference to being cleansed and reborn.

Beyond the second degree initiation comes the worldly paradise. In the world of tax-free shops anything can be bought: sensual pleasures such as chocolate, food and liquor, knowledge and wisdom such as language courses and books, symbols of wealth such as electronics, jewellery and clocks as well as symbols of achievement as t-shirts and coffee mugs. The pilgrim must pass these pleasant diversions while performing the third leg on the quest, the search for the gate.

After interpreting the arcane signs and finding the gate after a long journey into the terminal fingers (the descent into the cave of the Mithraistic mysteries) the pilgrim must wait until the proper time (airport mysticism places a great important on both timeliness and patience; a bit like the Zen ideal of perfect passivity springing into perfect action at the right moment). Near the gate the pilgrim must pass the fearsome Bull of Heaven APIS and show his acceptance of the All-Knowing Powers That Be. Finally the third initiation: the encounter with the Guardian of the Gate. Here the true name, password from the first initiation, cleansing of the second initiation and sign from APIS are required to pass the test. The password boarding card is divided, and the pilgrim gets the true essence: a slip guaranteeing him a seat in the heavens.

Beyond the airport the final ordeal begins, as the now thrice initiated pilgrim prepares for his ascension. A binding seatbelt signifies his initiatory status and willingness to obey the demands imposed by the initiation (similar to bands worn in most Indo-European initiations). By placing hand luggage beneath the chair in front of him, he shows his willingness to abandon his worldly goods in the service of fellow people. By turning off all electronics he isolates himself from his past. The high priestess shows the signs and symbols of safety. Finally he has given over all aspects of his life to the high pilot initiate, a symbol of the unseen god controlling the world from the sealed cockpit.

As the pilgrim ascends into the heavens he is given symbolic gifts of reading, food and drink signifying his new status as passenger-initiate. For a time he lives a life of ascetism in a small chair, surrounded by constraints. The initiatory quest is complete, and the pilgrim moves to another world. Here the steps are reversed as the pilgrim returns to the normal world (in some cases a final initiation occurs, as the pilgrim must pass the dreaded immigration desk where his virtue is judged and the customs control where his ability to withstand temptation is judged). But as magi always say, ”every day is an initiation”. There will be at least a return-leg of the journey, corresponding to the end of the Hero’s Journey: the return to home and family with the gifts and stories of the quest.

Posted by Anders at 03:17 PM | Comments (2)

Faith in Transhumanism

The Faith, Transhumanism and Hope Symposium at Trinity College, Toronto brought up a sensitive issue: what is the relationship between religion and transhumanism?

According to a survey of the views of members, 75% described themselves as non-religious. Just bringing up religion on a transhumanist forum tends to start fierce denounciations of it as an evil, death-bringing meme. On the other hand, transhumanism certainly deals with issues traditional religion and spirituality are interested in: the perfectibility of humans, immortality and eschatology. Who can deny there is a certain millennialism in some of the writings about the Singularity?

Jende Huang of the American Humanist Association pointed out that while there are a lot of similarities between transhumanism and humanism, transhumanism does seem to be qualitatively different and complementary in outlook. Tihamer Toth-Fejel demonstrated that it is possible to combine Catholicism with transhumanism. In many ways both seek to achieve more of being, truth and love, although the means may differ (and sometimes get into conflict, like embryonic stem cell research).

Patrick Hopkins presented a very nice taxonomy (I like his taxonomies; he had one at TransVision 2003 of posthuman bodies) of worldviews based on how one reacts to the minimalist account of humans as mere animals. One can either be satisfied with this and not see any reason to transcend it (such materialists often see transcendence attempts as harmful). Or one can be dissatisfied and want to be more. In this case one may believe it is impossible to actually transcend it, leading to coping strategies and attempts to accept the sad situation - some forms of romanticism, postmodernism, existentialism and to some extend buddhism (where perfect coping leads to transcendence). Another approach is hoping: maybe there is more to life, there may be transcendence but it is not part of ordinary life. Then there is the working approaches, where transcendence either already exist (we have immortal souls) or can be achieved somehow. Both transhumanism (achievement) and Christianity (already transcendent, just need to brush up our spiritual side from sin) fall into this category.

I found these three initial talks very rewarding because they mapped out the field. Transhumanism sits in the uneasy middle ground between humanism and religion, sufficiently similar to both to annoy them but still different in many cruicial aspects. It is not a religion (especially since there are so many potential variants), nor is it a pure humanism. It may be both complementary and compatible in some respects, but also incompatible and opposed in other.

Peter Addy and Mike LaTorra discussed other approaches to spirituality, not really seeing any fundamental problem with combining materialism and a spiritual outlook - one can be spiritual without the spirits.

Mark Walker demonstrated a fun way of solving the theodice problem approaching the Irenaean view that God wants us to become more god-like. This meshed interestingly with James Hughes talk about self-perfection from a Buddhist standpoint, where one question was whether pills making us (say) more compassionate without doing a long quest of personal overcoming would be moral or not. The overall transhumanist position is likely that they would be moral and desirable (Mark held a talk about genetic enhancements of morality later at the conference), since these virtues are good in themselves (and of course good for others too) regardless of how they are aquired. But maybe there is an advantage in slow aquisition of morality since that will produce a more valuable form, an individually created qualitatively unique way of expressing each of the virtues (my generosity is different from your generosity). That still doesn't rule out the desirability of a morality pill to help us on our way, just as antidepressants can be combined with therapy to produce a synergetic effect.

Santiago Miguel Ochoa Parra presented an account of evolution suggesting that immortality was the goal of life. Life can be defined as a behavior that prevents the environment from ending the behavior (very similar to the autopoiesis ideas of Maturana and Varela). Reproduction is a way of achieving this, since individual cells are at best just metastable. As evolution continued, these reproducing cells in turn sought to remain by reproducing as organisms. The next step in this perspective is the formation of metaorganisms where we repeat the process at higher levels. This was perhaps the most overtly teleological and transhumanism as religion talk at the meeting. I found it a fun complement to John Smart's talk at WFS. In some sense it does not justify immortalism or even the deliberate metaorganisation of people since it just describes them as natural outcomes of a sweeping evolutionary trend (natural does, as always, not equal good).

Finally we discussed the theoretical and practical links between religion and transhumanism. There are many areas were we can work together; religion and transhumanism both find the unknown a valuable topic, both are interested in introducing a broader discussion of goals in the bioethics (and other) debates, and in many cases support a tolerant pluralistic society. Overall, the issue of what to tolerate and what not to tolerate took much time. At the same time the reason we have transhumanism in the west but not (say) in Japan might be that the tension between a promethean movement and a not quite sympathetic society makes it easier to form a distinct group; transhumanism might not be necessary in modern China or Japan. I guess the litmus test of this idea will be how transhumanism develops in India.

Posted by Anders at 01:58 PM | Comments (3)

August 04, 2004

I Love Monday Mornings in the Future

OK, what about the monday part of the World Futures Meeting?

I started with John Smart's talk about understanding evolutionary development. The core idea is that evolution has no real direction; it is a random exploration of possibilities. But development has a direction, and moves from an undifferentiated or random state towards a certain outcome. The interplay between these two processes produces a complex history. Plenty of interesting history of the concept of progress and a look at broad patterns in the history of life and technology. The core pattern seems to be an ongoing acceleration, an acceleration that appears to be very robust against outside disruptions (asteroid impacts, the black plague) and more surprisingly, inside disruptions (fall of roman empire, dotcom crash). John's suggestion is that there is indeed a strong developmental factor of some kind here, smoothing out the random evolutionary developments into an amazing exponential. Part of it is definitely driven by MEST (mass-energy-space-time) optimization among competing agents, but is that enough to explain it?

I found the talk enormously stimulating, because it went outside the teleology that it could so easily become (there were far too many new age talks about the impending spiritual evolution of mankind at the conference for my taste). It was rather posed as an intriging research issue: does this pattern really exist (after all, it could just be sampling bias), what causes it and what are the implications?

I'm not sure I buy the whole idea, at least not in the fairly strong form John seems to like. Part of it is just general scepticism, I want better data and I want a way to measure the strength of the convergent and divergent factors of history. Part of it is my faith in freedom: if history is largely convergent we might be individually free but all end up in the same place anyway due to the overall development. Also, I cherish the vision on unbounded growth of complexity and the creativity of going in new directions. However, it is not impossible to both have the cake and eat it: we might have strongly convergent factors in some directions (MEST optimization) while this enables strong divergence in others (cultural expression, whose range is increased by the technological efficiencies). In the end we might all end up physically as Matrioshka Brains while on the inside culture is diverging wildly; this would explain the Fermi paradox, but the developmental factors better be extremeley strong to prevent wildfires (this is especially interesting since John's talk discussed how this kind of resource-depleting expansion on Earth might actually be the bootstrap phase for the singularity, but then contended that it was unlikely that we would see off-world expansion).

Sonia Miller talked about converging NBIC and the social implications, although the talk was mostly about the legal challenges. Perhaps not even challenges, because right now most of the issues brought up remain unasked in the legal system. We have hardly begun to look at brain fingerprinting, genetic discrimination, nanotech employment law or financing of enhancing medicine. Overall a very good talk that brought up the need for the legal profession to be part of the public and technical debate, as well as the reverse.

Steven C. Bankes talked about the method of doing long-term policy analysis presented in the RAND report Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis (Robert J. Lempert, Steven Popper, and Steven C. Bankes). The basic problem with quantitative predictions is that they tend to be quite wrong, which is embarrasing and undermines confidence in the assumptions. But qualitative models like scenarios are often just as wrong, mere recastings of the present into the future. But can one make a policy analysis ("what should we do?) without doing a prediction? The model from the study group approches this by looking at entire ensembles of future scenarios (generated using a computer varying different parameters) and then look at how well different strategies do. These strategies can be quite complex and change during the simulation. But what seems great to us in the present might be bad in the future (our stoneage ancestors would probably regard the obesity epidemic as a world of beautiful, rich people, a real heaven), so instead of looking at how good the outcomes are in terms of absolute utility, they are compared with the best possible strategy from the perspective of the final future state: one minimizes the regret. This makes the strategies robust, especially since the final steps of the method involves changing assumptions, stress testing strategies and building new strategies from the previously best ones. The methodology is a combination of quantitative simulation, experimentation and scenario planning to create policies that are likely to minimize future regret. They used the Wonderland model (a toy Club of Rome-style model of economy, pollution and population) to demonstrate how it could be used to set up more clever policies than just fixed Kyoto-like goals. One of the nicest things was that one could look at outcomes using several different utility evaluations, such as pure "only the environment counts" and "only the economy of the North counts" views as well as all possible mixtures, and use the combined information to build policies as well as convince mixed, multigoal audiences about the possibilities.

This is the kind of future studies that I like: creative, but attempting stringency and making the most out of our computational abilities. The main drawback is likely that many interesting issues are hard to turn ino the kind of quantitative models this approach needs.

Raj Bawa talked about nanomedicine. Again, no more surprises than usual... i.e., the field is advancing really, really fast and it is already amazing the stuff we can do with current "bulk nanotechnology". The problem is more about uncertainty about regulation, public opinion and business structure than technology. If things advance as fast as many of us think, then these factors will be the main costs of development.

Timothy C. Mack talked about proactive computing. It is the next step beyond interactive computing, where the user or computer is waiting for the other. In proactive computing the system appreciates needs and acts on them. Lots of fun applications were demonstrated, ranging from motes with accelerometers that formed ad hoc networks for seisimic detection to applications in smart agriculture. The key enablers are machine learning (based on various forms of soft computing and statistics; Mack said he didn't like neural networks so he was glad the ANN conferences all have become statistics conferences), and ubiquitious computing and networking. One of the best points was that wasting labor is wrong in an ageing society: most of the things these systems are doing is replacing using humans to walk around with notebooks, taking down numbers for entering into computers in the office for further processing. It is much better to have them do something more creative with the numbers instead. Another point is that this kind of technology enables massive data collection: instead of looking at an earthquake from a few stations every building (or part of building) will be measuring it and respond to it. The idea of every bolt in a spaceship having its own little processor (that I used in a past sf game) seems to be getting closer.

Finally Richard C. Lamm talked about the brave new world of health care. This was a talk very much rooted in the present administrative and economic system looking forward towards anticipiable challenges and trying to deal with them. We all know the litany about the elderly boom and the rising expense of the health care system. His approach was based on the assumption that any new technology would not change anything except make people live longer and hence be even more expensive (both in treatment and through the new cronic diseases they would get instead of cancer or Alzheimer). He advocated a "new moral geography" based on contributive justive: one should suboptimize the health care given to individuals in order to optimize it to the population. If people don't get quite as much intensive but eventually futile treatment at the end of life or quite as many expensive treatments during life more people will get treatments, hence this is a good thing and should be accepted. This is a good example of the logic of public health care systems; they become a struggle between all different groups. Lamm didn't seem concerned with the possibility that the large greying population might not find this system in their best interest and might vote against adding age considerations in health care. Still, his proposed system is still far more free than the current Swedish system: a tax based health care system for everybody (likely running strict rationing), group based systems with their own internal rules, and finally freedom for individuals to pay for their own treatments if they desire and can afford it.

The discussion of the same issue in Peter Schwartz's Inevitable Surprises is much more optimistic, especially since he also takes into account that people will not just passively accept a handed down solution but take it into their own hands to get health. But maybe the risk is that the health altruism and paternalism that is so widespread (maybe for evolutionary reasons) will try to inhibit these ways out of the challenge.

That concluded the conference. Overall very stimulating, but maybe people agreed with each other too much. There were the transhumanist/technoacceleration crowd, the personal growth/consciousness/spiritual evolution crowd, the management/corporate adaptation crowd and the energy/environment crowd. Overlap seemed to be small, and it was too easy to just go to talks that fitted one's preconceptions (this is why I hate parallel sessions - better a week long conference with some challenging surprises than a weekend of rushing between one's friends' talks). Maybe this is a case of experts coordinating to give coordinated answers to their customers (as some readers can probably tell, I have spent the last two weeks reading and pondering Robin Hanson's marvellous ideas - staying at his place for two nights was a futurist conference on its own).

Monday evening was concluded by a dinner with friends, where wolf sociology, the gender/personality correlates of cat and dog ownership, new forms of vegetarianism and other matters were discussed. But that is material for its own blog.

Posted by Anders at 05:23 PM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2004

A Brainy, Sexy, Insecure Future

The feeling that the WFS meeting has turned into a transhumanist meeting continues. Maybe it is just because I frequented the wrong seminars and missed all the down to earth stuff.

Here are some notes from some seminars I attended during Sunday:

The first seminar was "That's Enterbrainment", moderated by Arnold Brown and with Edith Weiner and Ian Pearson. The theme was brain enhancement possibilities, and lots of fun ideas were thrown around by Ian: shared enhanced dreaming, using minds as palettes for artistic expression, GPS & pain-signal based virtual prisons, print-on skin circuitry and recreational telepathy. Arnold invoked a more somber mood by asking for neuroethics and listing potential worries. Edith described some of the potential implications of the differences between male and female brains.

Overall, a somewhat mixed seminar. The possibilities mentioned by Ian were interesting, in some cases feasible but often hard to judge as feasible or not, they were simply too radical or presupposed too radical technologies. Edith's talk was intriguing and made much sense, but my sceptic side wanted to see more support for her assertions - are the gender differences in the brain really that strong, and do they have so powerful effects? One of the most interesting conjectures was that the richly stimulating environment we allow toddlers to grow up in makes the brain adapt to multitasking and strong sensory input, making a lot of male children unsuitable for the slow and sensory deprived school system, in turn leading to ritalin usage to pacify them. Not sure I buy the whole argument, but given that enriched environments do make brains change it would be strange if the increasingly rich rearing environments would not have some effect on the children.

Next seminar was "Revolution in security affaris", by Grant T. Hammond. This was an excellent discussion of the implications of the ongoing evolutionary changes in globalization, non-state actors and accelerating technology that lead to a qualitative revolutionary shift in the nature of security and conflict. It is no longer wars of conquest state-to-state, but contest actor-to-actor, where the actors may be both bigger and smaller than states. The growing interdependence of economies has made it hard to limit the diffusion of information and technology, both between states and within states. The military relies more and more on commercial off-the-shelf technology, which means that the tech differential might be more about having money and efficient production lines than keeping "nuclear secrets". There are about 200 states, but around 5000 inter-governmental organisations and 30,000 NGOs - and the number is rising, and who knows how much informal stuff there is out there. The lowered cost of coordination makes it possible to create more and more sub- and supernational groups with different interests. And the problems now exist on many different scales for which the state scale organisations are unsuitable. Advances in military technology enables both very fast forms of action (short warning and decision times) and variable lethality. If conquest is not the goal, the denial of service, disinformation, manipulation or the spread of pain are just as useful as oldfashioned violence.

The implications are among other things that the US emphasis on technological leadership might give smaller returns than expected (stuff diffuse too fast, and other means can be used), bureaucracies do not cope well with agile networks, traditional military is becoming increasingly irrelevant to security (it protects the territory and citizens, but not infrastructure, internet and cultural networks; security becomes everybody's business, and of course many will strive to fill the market), since states are optimized for wars they need to change (new forms of governance, alternative affiliation communities gain prominence). It is an ongoing contest, where the goal is not losing rather than winning.

The world sketched in the talk is a world where diplomacy, resiliency and the ability to adapt are paramount. One thought that struck me was that the ability to get many different coordinations (be they governments, NGOs, military branches or the IETF) to coordinate may be a key factor in being successful. Those who cannot coordinate the groups on their side will not be able to do the in-depth defense this new situation demands. The military, business and computer people might do fine jobs on their own during a crisis, but cruicial information and help does not flow between them making the entire nation insecure. If they can coordinate themselves, then the result is a much stronger system that can also meet threats on different scales. The same of course goes for aggressors; if several terrorist groups strike while there is a lot of information noise due to spam and worms, that might aid both sides (mail worms propagate better when people are insecure and desperate after information).

One problem with the discussion was that everybody was talking about terrorists (wonder why? ;-) but the issue of these complex and dangerous groups applies for many other groups: losers who don't like the current system or blames other groups, bad forms of self organisation (stock market bubbles and spam), irrational groups and groups with values strongly deviant from their surrounding culture. All of them can be threats, but in their eagerness to create security many people suggest one-size-fits-all solutions, usually focussed on what is believed to be good for fighting terrorists (and even there all problems are nails to the people with hammers). But we might need entirely different approaches to deal with the different kinds of threats, both larger and smaller than the nation scale.

The Future of Sex, Politics and Religion with Amy Oberg and Ian Pearson was fun but again so wild, so filled with exciting possibilities that may become possible someday that it might be more inspirational science fiction than actual future studies - the term after all implies that there should be some epistemic stringence around.

In any case, various technological ways of challenging gender, who/what we have sex with in what ways, as well as radical new forms of procreation of families were discussed. Some things were old hat like cybersex and net gender bending, but the panel managed to add some interesting new quirks to them like discussing sampling and remixing of sex, the impact of synthetic personalities on virtual partners and the levelling of the sexual playing field as augmented reality, virtuality and other techniques makes appearance and body form less important. Much time was spent discussing generating babies ("e-bay-bies") digitally from digital mixes of DNA followed by embryogenesis simulations, simulated childhood and perhaps eventual humanhood and embodiment. That strand however presupposes extremely powerful simulations well on par with uploading, making the discussions about the legal status of these babies somewhat moot: by that time there will be enough legal precendent about uploads, partial uploads and xoxes to handle virtual children.

The politics and religion parts were weaker, with some ideas about digital democracy (so mid-90's, isn't it? :-), AI politicians and some interesting reasonin g by Ian about the risks of getting feedback loops in the Maslowian self-actualization step where there are so many possibilities that people become stressed and uncertain, undermining the whole pyramid of needs and possibly fuelling anti-tech backlashes. Not sure I understood it right or if it makes any sense, but points at a concern I have pondered quite often: more advanced and powerful societies might produce self-limiting effects such as obsesity (too much of a good thing) or becoming spoiled (getting used to the safeguards, lowers resistance to crisis) that undermines them.

The religion part was very loose, with some speculations about internet cults (how stable would they be? internet communities seldom have much cohesion and effectiveness in the real world), religion for AIs and robots, and of course general apotheosis of AIs. My own suspicion is that we are going to end up married to superintelligences. First they are virtual sex partners and assistance software. Then they become social partners and guides too, and eventually they (and maybe we) become posthuman/postAI. Maybe one should aim for a hieros gamos with the Seed AI?

After that José Cordeiro presented transhumanism. Very fun, but of course not very new to me. I was used as Exhibit A, a real living Swedish transhumanist. The most interesting part of the discussion was the observation that humans are a scarce resource: we are willing to pay more and more for human services, we seem to value them more highly now than in the past. This fits in nicely with Robin's analysis of what happens when humans can be made plentiful.

Finally Kurzweil did his talk on uploading, life extension and possible threats. He is an impressively self-made man, and I especially liked his descriptions of how he methodically found an optimal diet and supplement regimen for himself. Many good points about various threats like epidemics, designer viruses, gray goo and evil AI. I just wonder if the "intelligence trump" assumption (more highly intelligent beings always trumps less intelligent beings) that he brought up actually holds. Brute force, evolution and using unknown information can do quite a bit to challenge a good mind.

Overall, a fun day but in the end I was a bit tired of exponential acceleration towards godlike intelligence. Thank heaven for The grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.

Posted by Anders at 06:06 AM | Comments (0)

August 01, 2004

Posthuman Cricket

Towards a posthuman sport, or a better world?. A nice blog about genetic modifications in sport from Cricinfo.

I'm actually sceptical of the idea that third world nations would be at a disadvantage in sports that allow biotech doping. Given how much good biotech is being done in India right now I hardly think their cricket players would be behind. Biotech might be very suitable for development even in poorer countries since it requires less material investment than many hardtech fields and could rely more on local creativity and genetic resources.

But more generally, many poorer nations appear to spend inordinate amounts of capital on their sportsmen in order to promote their national self image (OK, I'm not much of a sports person :-) Hence it would be plausible that unless genetic enhancement are very expensive they would be accessible even for their sportsmen. From an equity standpoint there is still a problem, but that would now be that taxpayer money were spent on projects that might be less relevant than others.

Posted by Anders at 07:51 AM | Comments (0)

The Hydrogen Boon

A good futurist conference should surprise, and I got a major surprise tonight by actually finding myself agreeing with Jeremy Rifkin.

Wait a minute, isn't he the guy with entropy and the anti-biotech crusade? Yep. And I think we would seriously disagree if we had a longer conversation (we certainly didn't agree in the few words we exchanged after the talk). But his talk was about the hydrogen economy, and here I think he might be largely right.

His basic argument is that we are approaching a hydrogen rather than oil based economy and that this will be a Good Thing in many ways. First, he blames the fossil fuel economy of being the cause of the Mid-East crisis, excessive greenhouse warming and global inequality. I would buy maybe one or two of those, but let's not quibble. Second, fossil fuel reserves are running out... someday. Again, the exact decade is debatable, but the overall argument holds: eventually it will become really expensive to use fossil fuels, whether due to depletion, indirect costs through greenhouse effects or political costs by supporting governments like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Norway. At the same time renewable energy sources are low-density and variable, and nuclear power is made expensive through cultural means (my view, he didn't go into it). The solution: a distributed hydrogen economy.

The core here is that fuel cells are becoming cheap and efficient, and once they become more widely adopted we can expect further price decreases and efficiency increases - I have no doubt that Ray Kurzweil could show a nice exponential graph of present improvements. Storing energy as hydrogen turns the renewable energy sources into all-day, all-year sources. Hydrogen based cars would not just be clean, but could double as generators for the house or sell power onto the grid if the prize grew favourable. Overall, hydrogen power would fit with the new distributed paradigms of the Internet age, give the world a non-hegemonic energy source, fix the greenhouse effect and maybe even the Mid-East.

I found the core argument fairly convincing.

As I see it, the main stumbling blocks might be:

  • Good hydrogen storage. Hydrogen gas is dangerous, tricky to store and still low density, we need a good storage medium be it inside metal hydrides, borohydride or as methanol.

  • Bootstrapping problems. Nobody wants a hydrogen car today because there isn't a gas station. Presumably this could change as the petrol giants get involved (from their perspective a hydrogen economy isn't necessarily a bad thing; they could still make huge profits from selling oil to the chemical industry as well as using their sales infrastructure to sell hydrogen - if they chose to keep it, as it is not earning that much in itself). One possibility is that the hydrogen economy starts out with fuel cell refills for laptops and electronics, then moves on to refills for portable or stationary home fuel cells and then finally to cars.

  • Centralisation due to legislation, economies of scale or intellectual property. Selling power back to the grid is technically feasible but would require quite a bit of engineering and political support, which is not always forthcoming. Economies of scale might promote huge centralised hydrogen production systems rather than the distributed ones envisioned by Rifkin, supporting the hegemonic powers of the oil economy as they move over to become hydrogen powers. Intellectual property rules might both make fuel cells and hydrogen storage too costly for the third world, or worse, make it tethered to certain producers. Imagine that GM cars only run on GM hydrogen cartridges (and woe to anybody trying to reverse engineer them!).

  • Hydrogen makes a wonderful terrorist toy. This is another possibility that might strangle the hydrogen economy: if it is seen as too enabling for dangerous people, authorities might impose costly security restrictions on hydrogen, centralising it or making it too expensive.

But these problems are not insurmountable, just as the apparent threat from Big Oil and the car industry has not proven insurmountable. In many cases the apparent enemies of hydrogen power are not the true enemies, since they also stand the best chance of being major players (thanks to their infrastructure, experience, engineers etc) of a hydrogen economy. I did think Rifkin was a bit too convinced about the inevitability of hydrogen, but in the long run I can't see any other energy transport economy than hydrogen (unless we count more remote nanotech approaches like ultra-high energy molecules, diamond springs or nanoflywheels). It might not be the political panacea he makes it sound like (no technology comes with a built-in ideology or society), but it appears to make some good distributed systems possible. I also think it might be a good early application area for mesoscale and nanoscale structures, there may be some very neat synergies between the industries here.

One of the problems of making hydrogen from renewables is that you convert ambient energy into electricity and then hydrogen and then back to electricity, losing quite a bit on the way. One approach I guess Rifkin isn't so keen on is to circumvent this altogether by using photosynthetic hydrogen producing bacteria in solar ponds. This idea, developed by Robert Bradbury, is simply to use engineered bacteria (or bacterial mixtures) to convert solar power into methane or hydrogen directly. It has many advantages over electrolysis in that it avoids electric re-conversion, it can replicate making the bacterial soup very cheap, the ponds work well in the tropics and can likely be maintained in the third world more easily than hardtech. It is indeed a very green solution.

Apropos Robert. At the end of the Extro 3 conference Robert held a wonderful lecture. The schedule was by then seriously shot, the room had to be evacuated soon and in the neighbouring meeting room a wedding was taking place complete with insane jingles from what sounded like a hockey organ. Robert started out slow with various trends, then moving onwards to deal with energy (I don't think hydrogen was on his mind then), then to nanotechnology, then to uploading and then to Dyson spheres and what he later dubbed Matrioshka brains. It was wild. The tempo and scope just rose and rose as time got shorter and shorter. In the end the assembled transhumanist rose to a future shocked applause.

The fun thing is that most of the things Robert discussed were mentioned by Ray Kurzweil at his keynote speech tonight (or will be tomorrow; as always there are more slides than minutes to lecture). Taken together Rifkin and Kurzweil show that the wild ideas of transhumanists in 1997 are acceptable for keynote speeches at a futurist conference 2004. I look forward to see at Transvision what will become futurist mainstream by 2011.

Posted by Anders at 07:36 AM | Comments (7)