Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.


What is SIAI?

SIAI stands for "Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence", a educational and research group centered around the concept of the "Singularity". The term Singularity is used to describe a distinct event - the creation of an intelligence smarter than Homo sapiens. Basically, an intelligence significantly smarter than any human genius, past or present. The Singularity Institute is attempting to trigger this event by serving as a magnet for people interested in contributing money to pay people to work full-time on the task of constructing a true Artificial Intelligence capable of improving its own source code in an open-ended way, without help from programmers.

All humans are members of the same species, with the same basic mental hardware. Our panhuman set of mental hardware is comparable to the panhuman set of physical hardware - arms, legs, muscles, organs, etc. These pieces of hardware may be larger or smaller, slightly faster or slightly slower, but share the same basic features and characteristics. Our ability to imagine and solve problems is fundamentally limited by our mental hardware. For example, it is impossible to hold more than 8 or so items in our working memory while solving a problem. We simply do not have the capacity. It is impossible for us to intuitively imagine complex, interconnected relationships beyond a maximum number of nodes. And the list goes on.

Homo sapiens is the first species capable of building a complex civilization. But it doesn't mean we are the smartest type of mind that could potentially exist. In the possibility space, there must exist minds smarter than us as we are smarter than chimps. Problems which seem impossible to the smartest human geniuses might appear utterly simple to these smarter intelligences. A chimp genius is no match for an average human, and a human genius is no match for a genuinely smarter species.

Smartness is the quality that makes it impossible to write a story containing a character smarter than you are. You are truly incapable of imagining what they'd do. You can use crude literary devices like saying they're capable of learning dozens of languages in a year, or memorizing 1000 digits of pi, but imagining the more subtle consequences of heightened intelligence is impossible.

Where do we find an intelligence smarter than humans? We could evolve one, by forbidding humans below a certain IQ level to have children. However this would take many thousands of years and would curtail fundamental human freedoms. We could wait for smarter-than-human aliens to arrive on this planet... but there is no evidence of aliens visiting this planet in its multi-billion year history and it doesn't seem likely that they'll be stopping by our neighborhood anytime soon. So the next best option is to create one with technology.

All of the above is very difficult for a lot of people to process. Imagining something smarter than us is truly difficult. We tend to think that human geniuses represent the upper ceiling of what is theoretically possible. And when we imagine smarter-than-human intelligences, we are liable to underestimate the true novelty of the prospect. Understanding our particular human type of intelligence requires exposure to some amount of cognitive science.

The Singularity Institute is attempting to build an intelligence entirely outside the human realm, through the route of Artificial Intelligence. There are a few reasons why building an AI is likely to be simpler than commonly thought. First, an AI needn't duplicate the full complexity of the human brain. Human intelligence evolved relatively recently, and most neurological complexity exists to facilitate all the survival instincts of animals we evolved from. Secondly, human intelligence is just a particular implementation of intelligence, designed blindly by evolution rather than purposefully by an intelligent designer. A plane is not as complicated as a bird. Thirdly, the underlying hardware - silicon - is inherently more flexible, reprogrammable, and rapid than neurons.

Greater intelligence, coupled together with the right initial motivations, could help humanity more than we can help ourselves. Some would argue that any smarter intelligence would inevitably see us as inferior. The Singularity Institute argues that this is a misconception based on the way humans are programmed by evolution to interact with each other.

Compared to the posts below, this is the longest and most confusing. That's because the topic is so difficult to discuss because there are so many facets to it. However, I believe that working towards the creation of human-friendly, superhuman intelligence represents a humanitarian cause greater than any other. And I believe that the creation of a human-unfriendly superhuman intelligence represents a risk greater than any other. For more information, see the Singularity Institute's website.


The Opportunity Cost of Undeveloped Technology

The Haber-Bosch process, mastered in the First World War, is a chemical method for the mass synthesis of fixed nitrogen - the kind plants can use as fertilizer - from the nitrogen in the air and readily available hydrogen. Before this technique was developed, massive amounts of nitrate (mostly bat dung) from Chile was shipped to farms everywhere in the world to meet fertilizer demand. As demand overwhelmed supply, scientists began to search for a way to mass produce fixed nitrogen, and the Haber-Bosch process was invented. Today, the Haber-Bosch process is used to produce more than 500 million tons (453 billion kilograms) of artificial fertilizer per year; roughly 1% of the world's energy is used for it, and it sustains about 40% of Earth's population.

Without the Haber-Bosch process, over a billion people, the vast majority presumably leading lives worth living, would simply not exist. Food would be too expensive. This process, however, enabled the mass production of cheap food which is foundational for population growth and health, which in turn leads to economic development. If the Haber-Bosch process were invented a couple decades later, today's 2005 might more closely resemble the technology and prosperity level of 1995. The inverse is also true - if the process were invented before the turn of the century, we would be a lot further along by now.

The Haber-Bosch process was initially developed because the First World War made it impossible for Germany to get nitrates from Chile. At this time, the German government began to generously fund Fritz Haber's laboratory. Haber (with the later help of Carl Bosch) solved the government's nitrate problem.

When the telephone became widespread, it saved companies many billions of dollars per year in courier costs. The invention of the automobile allowed the expansion of society and personal freedom on an unprecedented scale. The benefits of the Internet and email are massive and difficult to quantify. Certain vaccines have saved millions.

There are technologies right around the corner, that, if their development were specifically accelerated, the benefits would greatly exceed any of the immediate costs. These are technologies that, if correctly administered, would vastly improve quality of life for everyone.

The costs and benefits curve of a revolutionary technology generally looks like the following:

The first step occurs when a genius realizes the feasibility of the technology and starts envisioning the prerequisites for its realization. The genius is then joined by many others - fellow collaborators, investors, supporters, funding apparatus. There is a snowball effect of investment, until that magical moment when the technology is deployed and the payoff begins. The near-term benefits can be enormous. Compare the initial investment in Google to its market capital today. The technology provides profound benefit, undergoes several rounds of improvement, and the level of usefulness it confers ultimately levels off - but can remain high indefinitely. (We still use the light bulb even though it hasn't undergone any huge improvements lately.)

So which technology should we be investing in today, in order to reach the greatest possible benefit in the shortest amount of time? In rough order:

1. seed AI
2. molecular manufacturing
3. space beanstalk
4. solar towers
5. orbital solar satellites
4. space elevators
5. fusion reactors
6. germline engineering
7. handheld water purification
8. $1000 genome
9. $100 laptop
10. hydrogen fuel cells

Further information on all the above can be found on Google. The order is determined by a combination of cost, development time, and potential benefit. Seed AI totally outscores all the others, because there is no other technology on the list that itself can produce further technology, or assist in ameliorating technological risk.


Superskycrapers – Burj Dubai

The above is an artists' rendering of Burj Dubai, a tower that will measure 700 - 900m in height (the tallest on Earth) upon its completion in 2008. Its location is the city of Dubai in United Arab Emirates, home to several other artificial wonders. Construction began only recently, with around 20 floors completed so far. The exact height is being kept a secret by developers. The cost is approximately $8 billion.

Why build towers so tall? Because we have the technology! The top will sway back and forth up to about a dozen feet, which is typical for buildings of this size, but unnoticeable because it's so gradual. Not only will Burj Dubai will be the tallest occupied building on Earth, it will be the tallest manmade structure of any kind (including radio towers). It will not even be beaten by the proposal for a Solar Tower in Australia, because recent developments have reduced its planned height from 1000m to 650m.

700m above the ground, the distance to the horizon is approximately 65 miles, compared to 3 miles to the horizon at ground level. The field of view increases from 5 square miles to 100 square miles.

Skyscrapers have appeal besides the wow factor. Making use of vertical expansion allows us to condense a lot of activity, services, and interactions within a smaller space. China has considered building a 1228m "Bionic Tower" to house 100,000 people. The cost estimates for such a structure are in the range of $20 billion.

A Space Elevator, the type that would lift packages and passengers to geosynchronous orbit, would be about 100,000 km in height. Liftport ambitiously claims one could be built by 2018, through the use of automated robotic builders using buckytubes (buckminsterfullene) as a building material. (A buckytube is a molecule made of long chains of covalently bonded carbon atoms.) Buckytube towers would be able to easily withstand airplane impacts, or even indirect nuclear attacks.

It could take a while, but once the first orbit-reaching structure is created, there will be more to follow. The convenience of reaching space by climbing rather than launching independently will bring the cost of space travel down to affordability. The political and economic reasons for building such towers will be pursuasive to many countries and groups in the years after they become technologically feasible. We'd better get used to these towers, because we'll be seeing a lot of them!

Filed under: futurism 46 Comments

The Future Might Look Like the Past… at First.

As humanity moves into the future, our ability to control our surroundings tends to increase. Unless we blow ourselves up first, this trend is likely to continue. Eventually we shall even obtain control of processes and structures on the atomic level, through nanotechnology. Artificial Intelligence and Brain-Computer Interfacing will permit our thoughts to be instantiated as reality rapidly (within certain bounds, hopefully). The shape of the world will closely reflect our deepest desires. And what are those desires?

99% of human evolution occurred on the African savannas. Our genetically inborn preferences are those which contributed the most to survival in this context. As our technology and culture evolved, our preferences did as well - but in ways pre-established by our basic genetic template. For example, humans like flowers. That's because flowers signified a lush environment, with ample quantities of fresh water and fruit. When humanity discovered watercolors and printing, one of the first things we created were images flowers. So we like it when we see paintings of flowers, or girls wearing dresses with floral patterns.

Human males like the idea of triumph in combat. Us males love to defeat wild animals, our rivals, and anything else that deserves smashing. Smashing makes us safe and gives us access to the best females. First we used our fists, then rocks, then throwing sticks with sharpened points. Eventually we created metalworking, and began to wield a tool often more effective than all of these - the sword. The sword is an amplified archetype in the category "tool used to achieve victory". (The lightsaber is an example of an even more greatly amplified archetype.)

When we gain the ability to manipulate reality easily, most people will probably not choose to live within the sanitized white hallways of science fiction or the boring monoliths of The Jetsons. We will create more forests, rolling grasslands, huge gardens, splendid castles, and other things we can't yet imagine. We're all human, and most humans foster a romantic yearning to recreate some idealistic past. The true past was a place of disease and suffering, but we love the pleasant outlines transmitted to us through stories and our imaginations. When high control over nature is achieved, I predict that the world which shall be created will not be closely associated with "science fiction", or the cities of the modern age, but the moderately populated, calm worlds of the past - minus the diseases and medieval torture.

And the world will remain that way until we get bored of it. Some people would get bored in hours, others weeks, but I think that most will enjoy a romantic recreation of our past for decades if not centuries. Only when the majority of us tire of this idealistic world shall something genuinely new be created. And that's fine by me! Humanity deserves what it truly wants, not what futurists or science fiction declare is most likely to happen.


Putting Your Eggs in Multiple Baskets

An organization that has been displaying some activity lately is the Lifeboat Foundation. I've been asked to join their advisory board. My reply was yes, because I think it's a good cause, the niche was bound to be filled eventually, and I'd like to be involved. The main focus of the organization, which is currently run part-time by a single individual supported by dozens of big names, is to build a space ark as an insurance policy against global technological disaster. The idea is to start with an orbital space station, then create improved versions incrementally more distant from the source of potential trouble (orbiting the Earth, then the Moon, then Mars).

My perspective on the issue is that most disasters can be avoided by simply going underground in an isolated area. Going into space seems somewhat too excessive and expensive to be realistically attainable in the short term (5-10 years). However, the organization will sponsor research in self-sustaining habitats, a technology with useful applications for underground living as well. But if it's a disaster that a 5-stories-underground self-sustaining habitat in Antarctica can't handle, then I doubt a space ark will help much. The primary concerns:

Nuclear war: famous studies have shown that many millions would survive.
Killer virus: extremely unlikely to wipe out literally everyone.
Grey goo: this is an implausible risk, sensationalized by clueless journalists.
Nano-dictator: if they have nanotech and you don't, you're finished.
Unfriendly AI: there's nowhere to hide from a self-improving superintelligence.

How would an orbital lifeboat be useful? Perhaps in some kinds of nanotech arms races, or possibly other risks we haven't considered yet. Certain people will work towards self-sustaining space habitats no matter what, so they might as well be organized. The Lifeboat Foundation is a wise initiative in this direction.


What is SENS?

SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, a detailed plan for reversing human aging. It is an engineering approach that seeks to slow and then halt aging processes that are the side effects of our body's metabolic cycles. The proposal originates with Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge biogerontologist who has appeared in CNN, the New York Times, New Scientist, Popular Science, MIT's Technology Review, Fortune magazine, BBC News, etc. De Grey's Methuselah Institute has raised $3M in donation committments towards the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which rewards researchers who achieve breakthroughs in substantially extending the lifespan of middle-aged laboratory mice. After reliable life extension is achieved with mice, therapies for humans would follow.

The SENS website lists the seven causes of pathogenic damage underlying aging:

1) cell depletion
2) chromosomal mutations (cancer)
3) mitochrondrial mutations
4) unwanted cells that won't die
5) extracellular crosslinks
6) extracellular junk
7) intracellular junk

These seven sources of damage are treated as comprehensive because they were all discovered over 20 years ago, and our tools for detecting sources of pathology has improved so greatly over this time, that if there were others to be found, they would be obvious by now. De Grey proposes the following solutions which respectively correspond to the seven causes of aging:

1) Stem cells, growth factors, exercise
2) WILT (Whole-body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres)
3) Allotopic expression of 13 proteins
4) Cell ablation, reprogramming
5) AGE-breaking molecules/enzymes
6) Phagocytosis; beta-breakers
7) Transgenic microbial hydrolases

De Grey proposes a 50/50 chance that within twenty to thirty years, our implementations of the above countermeasures will become sophisticated enough to lower the rate of aging to negligibility. After that point, the only threats to life which would remain are disease, war, accidents, and technological or natural disasters. Of course, success in this endeavor will require adequate funding. And the old guard biogerontologists and skeptics are coming around, bit by bit, as they realize the scientific feasibility of de Grey's proposals.

A quick run-down of the problems and proposed solutions.

As we grow older, certain cells die without being replaced. This happens in critical organs such as the heart and brain. To fix this problem, we must encourage exercise, artificially stimulate cell growth, and apply stem cell therapy. This will ensure that cells are being reliably replaced at the same rate as they perish.

Cells need telomeres of a certain length to reproduce. As a safeguard against unconstrained cellular division (cancer), human cells have a limited quantity of telomerase (the enzyme that extends telomeres). In cancer, chromosomes mutate such that excess telomerase is produced and the cell can divide indefinitely (leading to a tumor). As a solution, we deactivate the genes that code for telomerase. No more telomere lengthening, no more cancer. The only condition is that fresh stem cells must be introduced every decade or so, because the ability of the body's cells to divide independently is curtailed - for a worthy cause.

Mitochrondria are organelles within the cell which take oxygen and nutrients and turn them into carbon dioxide and ATP to power the cell. This is the process of breathing. Mitochrondria have their own DNA, which are susceptible to pathogenic mutations. Although mitochrondria are made up of over a thousand proteins, only 13 are manufactured within the mitochrondia itself - the rest are manufactured in the nucleus of the cell are delivered from the outside. To ensure that these 13 proteins are continuously restocked, we must modify the cellular DNA to produce these new proteins and deliver them to the mitochrondria. That way, if the mitochrondrial DNA mutates and these proteins stop being manufactured locally, it won't matter.

As we age, certain unwanted cells start building up. Fat cells, senescent cells, and certain immune system cells. We eliminate these either through destroying them physically (by injecting something which makes only those cells commit suicide) or by programming the immune system to take them out. The latter will require some stem cell reprogramming, which has to be done anyway.

The last three categories have to do with certain types of molecular junk inside and outside the cell. Certain proteins hang around without getting recycled, and start forming unwanted bonds with each other, producing plaque. Luckily these bonds are biologically unusual so drugs have already been created which identify them and break the bonds. Other junk include lipids making up arterial plaque and amyloids, which are especially abundant in the brains of Alzheimer's sufferers. Again, the primary approach being proposed to address this is the stimulation of the immune system to dissolve the material.

Junk also builds up inside the cell. The proposal for getting rid of this is a bit more exotic. It involves isolating enzymes within microorganisms in the soil adapted to consuming these specific proteins from the insides of cadavers. It could take work to find the right, non-toxic enzymes, but we have no reason to believe it can't be done. Ironic that the products of death could contribute to extending the lives of the living.

So that's it. A proposal for eliminating aging. Quite a project, but this framework gives us an abundance of starting points. And people are beginning to take it more seriously.

SENS is an effort I encourage people to give to that surpasses the humanitarian value of the vast majority of conventional charities. Following SENS are two additional efforts whose value is more difficult to explain and justify, but whose importance I consider even greater. The benefits that would flow from the success of these other two efforts are supersets of the benefits which would flow from SENS. I will cover these efforts tomorrow and the next day.


What are Productive Nanosystems?

Nanotechnology is a hypothesized future manufacturing technology which would employ tremendous numbers of tiny robotic arms working together to construct human-scale products. This would come about via planar assembly, where each tiny nanorobot (consisting of perhaps a few million atoms) manufactures a tiny piece of the product, adding it to a main body bit by bit, until something macro-scale is created (for example, a laptop). For a visual example, see the film Productive Nanosystems: from Molecules to Superproducts (warning: file is 86.1MB in size).

How can we make huge numbers of nanorobotic arms? We'd need a reprogrammable nanorobotic arm capable of self-replicating using readily available materials. This will be difficult - at the macro-scale, we've made limited progress with such robotic arms. But if we could create such a self-replicator successfully, then we could instruct it to produce many trillions of copies of itself, and then reprogram those copies to work together to make human-sized products. A full "nanofactory" would require quite a bit of internal complexity. As listed by Eric Drexler, parts required would include:

  • a casing to protect its interior from air, moisture, and dirt
  • inlets for liquid feedstocks to supply molecules for processing
  • molecular sorting mechanisms to purify inputs
  • alignment and binding mechanisms to organize streams of molecules
  • mechanosynthetic devices to process inputs into reactive tools
  • mechanosynthetic devices to apply tools to workpieces
  • mill-style mechanisms to join workpieces into larger blocks
  • programmable mechanisms to join blocks into complex products
  • a port to deliver finished products while protecting the interior space
  • motors to drive moving parts
  • computers to control material flows and assembly mechanisms
  • stored data and programs to direct the computers
  • data communication channels to coordination actions
  • electrical systems to distribute power
  • a cooling system to dissipate waste heat
  • a structural framework to support the casing and internal components
  • How can we possibly build and control robotic arms and other components at this miniscule scale? Using molecular dynamics, we have accurately modeled tiny motors, shafts, gears, bearings, and more. Scientists have already constructed DNA "walkers", "nanocars", molecular circuits, and other basic nanodevices. But putting these components together into something as complex as a nanofactory will take work. Chris Phoenix, Director of Research for CRN, has described some ideas "Design of a Primitive Nanofactory", a breakthrough paper in the field.

    Because of scaling laws, nanofactories will be tremendously productive. Large products, like automobiles, will be fabricated over the course of days or even hours. Large products, like buildings and aircraft carriers, will be built in weeks rather than years. Here is a visual explanation:

    © 2004 Eric Drexler.

    Smaller robotic arms move faster than larger arms. A product constructed by many tiny arms working together will be built much faster than a product constructed by a single, large robotic arm. This is the advantage of greatly improving the functionality per kilogram of tool. Another advantage of nanotech is atomic precision - you can put each atom exactly where you want it. For example, you can cheaply place carbon atoms in a 3-dimensional matrix of covalent bonds. This is called diamond. Because nanomachines would need to be very rigid to operate effectively, most preliminary designs call for diamond. The first nanofactories will likely be capable of building only diamond products, which will be quite effective for many purposes. These nanofactories will probably be desktop-sized, and theoretically capable of manufacturing their own weight in product in a few hours. (The main limitation is heat dissipation.)

    Once you have a reprogrammable nanofactory that builds diamondoid products, you are in business. The blueprints for many common products will be reworked to accommodate all-diamondoid designs, which will be radically more effective than the originals. Stronger, more durable, and so on. This will be of particular interest in military applications, and therein lies the risk. A nanotechnological arms race could lead to our collective demise, or the creation of a global dictatorship. The technological advantage conferred by a successful implementation of nanotechnology would be massive. This technological advantage could be used to greatly expand human freedom or to limit it.

    The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology explains these incredibly complex issues in very clear terms. Safe Utilization of Advanced Nanotechnology is a good place to start. For further exploration, there is the CRN blog, "Thirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies", and Wise-Nano, a collaborative wiki project. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people have had their awareness of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology increased in the past three years due to the actions of CRN. This will increase the probability that the technology is wisely administrated and distributed when it arrives. If you find CRN's work valuable, consider donating.

    The safe implementation of molecular nanotechnology would throw our entire technological and scientific base so far into the future that the quick and effective implementation of SENS would only qualify as a minor subcategory of the potential benefits. Other benefits would include extremely cheap energy, personal transport, manufacturing capabilities, pure water, massively improved agriculture, computing, communications technology... and the list goes on. Conversely, the malicious application of advanced nanotechnology could lead to wars with millions or even billions of deaths.


    Researchers Model Salience and Attention

    Working from first principles in Bayesian probability theory and Shannon's theory of communication, two Southern California researchers have developed a mathematical theory of surprise - and how the brain perceives novelty, importance, or noteworthiness. Pierre Baldi of UC Irvine and Laurent Itti of the University of Southern California developed the theory working with agents in a digital environment, and confirmed their findings with eye-tracking experiments using human subjects viewing dynamic stimuli in a variety of contexts.

    The theory was so successful that Baldi and Itti were recently awarded a $600,000 NSF grant to test its validity further.

    Itti hails from a computational neuroscience lab which seeks not only to model the human brain (specifically, how it delegates attention), but develop mathematically optimal algorithms with problem-solving applications in "automatic target detection in cluttered natural scenes, video compression, autonomous robotic nagivation on land or under water, or animation of virtual agents". The result are algorithms that give a better bang-for-your-bit on certain attention tasks than the human brain does. Applied to vision compression, the attention delegation model was able to cut filesize in half by preserving only the information in the video judged to be salient.

    Bayesian probability theory may be used in a context-independent way to judge the extent to which an incoming piece of information forces a rational agent to change his or her beliefs. Applied to attention studies, Bayesian models showed superior performance to artificially constructed models of salience or computations of Shannon entropy.

    The ambitious goal of the project is to develop a model that naturally breaks down a pure information stream (like the sequence of bits comprising a video file) into "feature channels" which isolate salient features in the information such as color or shape. This has obvious applications in machine vision and other areas.

    The researchers state: "At the foundation of our model is a simple theory which describes a principled approach to computing surprise in data streams. While surprise is not a new concept it had lacked a formal definition, broad enough to capture the intuitive meaning of the term, yet quantitative and computable… Beyond vision, computable surprise could guide the development of data mining, as it can in principle be applied to any type of data, including visual, auditory or text."

    In news articles the theory is portrayed as a model of human brain activity, but in actuality it goes beyond being a model. By working from first principles, the theory offers a recipe for attention-delegation that surpasses the capabilities of the human brain. Early applications might be the integration of "computable surprise" algorithms into a heads-up-display for soldiers on the field. Scanning a cluttered scene more rapidly than a human would be capable, such a system could alert the soldier to potential threats in advance of their noticing independently. Further applications would be in advanced Artificial Intelligence capable of formulating plans and accomplishing real-world goals.

    Filed under: AI, brain No Comments

    The Self-Sampling Assumption

    The self-sampling assumption (SSA) is a philosophical tool which follows from basic principles. It suggests that we should reason as if we are typical observers in a suitable reference class. The SSA is part of a larger class of phenomena known as observer selection effects.

    For example, say you're participating in a psychology experiment where there is a reward for guessing the correct answer to a given problem posed to you by an experimenter. The scenario is this - you join 99 other people in front of a large building. All 100 persons, including yourself, are blindfolded and equipped with noise-cancelling headphones. You are all led inside the building. The 100 persons are split into two different groups. 95 persons are led into room A, 5 persons are led into room B (everyone is informed this). Without removing the blindfold or headphones, it is your task to guess whether you have been led into room A or B. If you guess correctly, you are rewarded $100, otherwise nothing. Given no other information, which room should you assume you were led into? A, of course, at odds of 19:1.

    The self-sampling assumption suggests that we should assume we are typical observers out of the class of all observers. (Or, more accurately, that the observer-moment we are experiencing is a typical example selected from the class of all observer-moments.) It is possible that our specific situation is an exotic or rare one, but relatively unlikely. It's possible that there is a planet somewhere with a quadrillion intelligent observers living on it, but if so, we have to ask ourselves: why were we born on this planet, rather than that one? The probability of any given observer being born on the planet with a quadrillion observers is much higher than being born on the planet with so much fewer persons.

    Many thinkers' first reflex is to challenge the idea of the self-sampling assumption, because it can lead to counterintuitive conclusions. Many may feel uncomfortable with the idea that we can get so much theoretical firepower from a method largely independent from empirical testing. But it seems like observer selection effects are just something we just have to deal with - justifying their existence requires far fewer assumptions than those required by many other beliefs people frequently argue for.

    Perhaps the most unsettling conclusions followed by this line of reasoning are those represented by the Doomsday Argument. If we are typical persons, then it's likely we were born at a time where most persons are born. In other words, the height of our civilization is likely to be occurring right now. If there are many generations in the future, then why weren't we born then...?


    Aliens – There Are None

    People have been talking about the extraterrestrials again. The former Canadian minister of defense is arguing for public hearings on "exopolitics" and a "Decade of Contact", delegating public monies to education regarding our unearthly bretheren. Meanwhile, a particle physicist at the US Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is worried that alien signals received by SETI could contain viruses bent on taking over the world's computer networks.

    The latter speculation is original thinking, I must admit. Thinking "outside the box" in this way is helpful in recognizing and addressing genuine future risks, even though I think this particular concern is off-base. It's also consoling that the mainstream media is willing to cover it, because some of the most truly serious risks to our well-being as a civilization will indeed sound "fringe" before they make headlines (nuclear weapons, chimera virii, others you haven't heard of).

    But there are no aliens. Not around here, anyway. Why not? Because if there were, they'd already be here by now.

    Radio has been in use for almost a hundred years. The Earth is surrounded by a sphere of intense electromagnetic activity almost 200 light years in diameter. It only gets more intense as time elapses. Short of bending space, there is no way we can ever take that information back. It's on its way out to the cosmos, in every direction at the speed of light.

    You can't miss it. Natural phenomena, like supernovae and the cosmic microwave background radiation, have a characteristic signature that could never be confused with the orderly pulses of language and images. Information-theoretically, apples and oranges.

    Radio is easy to invent, once you get to a certain stage as a civilization. You can't afford not to invent it. Harnessing electromagnetic waves to facilitate near-light-speed communication among the members of a civilization is as natural as constructing shelter or combating disease.

    The Milky Way galaxy is about ten billion years old. Yet it's only a hundred thousand light years across. That's a ratio of a hundred thousand to one. If there were aliens about, we'd be bathed in radio signals continuously. Maybe they showed up so recently that their radio waves haven't hit us yet? Implausible. If life were to evolve in this galaxy, it would have done so already, and they'd be blasting us with their television dramas.

    Perhaps alien civilizations have evolved to a medium of communication beyond electromagnetism? That could be the case, but then they'd be colonizing other worlds. Even moving at a tenth of the speed of light, saturating the galaxy with their presence would only take a mere million years, tops. But where are they?

    Our solar system is appealing. We have a stable, mild star capable of providing billions of exawatts of free power to any alien race interested enough to set up shop here. There is no reason to pass us up. But our neighborhood is silent.

    An advanced extraterrestrial civilization couldn't be missed. Life is constructed to flourish and reproduce. At no point will it collectively say, "we've had enough". Individual beings must explore, travel, and consume. Barring dictatorial control forbidding space travel, it's bound to happen. Not as a trickle, but a flood. Once a form of travel becomes technologically feasible, it becomes progressively easier until millions can do it.

    The fact of the matter is simply that life is rare. Scientists believe there are a multitude of universes in existence, probably an infinite number. Presumably there are also an infinite number of intelligent civilizations. They are just separated by vast distances. The Self-Sampling Assumption compels us to treat ourselves as typical observers. If we're typical, then typical intelligent civilizations are separated by such vast distances that for most practical purposes they are alone.

    The lack of alien presence is also evidence that FTL (faster-than-light) travel is impossible. Either that, or we are the only intelligent species with a civilization in the universe. (Or, faster-than-light travel exists, but is sufficiently weak that it only permits travel at a few times the speed of light - unlikely.)

    The popular obsession with aliens and UFOs closely reflects the obsession with fairies in the early 1800s, and the fixation on angels and demons before that, and beliefs in the presence of spirits throughout history. We just want to believe it because the possibility is so exciting. This article from The Onion does a great job poking fun at this human tendency. Also see this Tech Central Station article ("Internet Killed the Alien Star") on how the Internet has helped us realize that alien visitation is make-believe.

    If we want to witness bizarre new forms of life, or different types of intelligence, we'll just have to create it. You might say that creating it isn't the same thing as discovering, but this concern can be sidestepped by creating new forms of intelligence randomly, or constructing forms of intelligence that give rise to further forms in an unpredictable fashion. Both will happen, we just have to stick it out until the technology is here. You'll get your aliens soon, star-gazers!

    Filed under: space 55 Comments

    138th Cryonics Patient Suspended

    Early last August, the 138th cryonics patient in history underwent cryogenic suspension, thanks to the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute. The patient was pronounced dead at 6AM on August 12, 2005. By that evening the patient had arrived in Michigan and was intravenously administered a vitrification solution which would allow the patient to be cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen without fear of damage to the neurons. After 105 hours of cooling at the Cryonics Institute facility, the patient was transferred to a cryostat where she will remain indefinitely, along with 68 others who have been preserved the same way.

    Our memories, personality, likes, dislikes, loves, and dreams are all encoded in the neural network of our brain. When our heart stops beating, the flow of oxygen to the brain is cut off, and neurological deterioration begins to occur. The information that constitutes who we are begins to be lost. But complete loss is not certain. If the body is quickly transferred to a cryonics facility and cooled to very low temperatures, the connections between the brain's neurons stay pretty much the same. In some cases, the difference between the two cannot even be detected with a microscope.

    In the future, it should become possible to do light repair on a cryosuspended body, heat it back up to room temperature, and reboot the metabolism and vital organs by restoring the chemical and thermodynamic environment of the body to that as it was before death. This will require advanced technology capable of extreme precision and care - most likely medical nanotechnology. But it will be done. And if a civilization has the desire and means to revive cryonics patients, it's overwhelmingly likely that it would be a fascinating place to live - for a very long time.

    This leads to the conclusion that we have an obligation to consider the possibility of making cryonics arrangements for ourselves and loved ones. An action as simple as freezing the body after death could lead to a very long-lasting and fulfilling life, a life that extends beyond what would have otherwise been our ultimate end. Cryonics arrangements are very affordable - the Cryonics Institute offers contracts for a low annual fee of $120 and possession of a life insurance contract which names the Cryonics Institute as a beneficiary (also about $100/year). Something you should consider!

    Filed under: cryonics 10 Comments