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

27Feb/087 Site of the Week: Accelerating Future

From here:

"Transhumanism" is, according to Accelerating Future, a philosophy that assumes that humanity's current form may not be its ultimate one—that nanotechnology, biological engineering and other scientific achievements may allow us to enhance our lifespans, increase our intelligence and alter our abilities beyond the limits set down by nature and already stretched by our medical capabilities.

Visitors dissatisfied with that definition can choose from six others that are posted on this site, a thought-provoking blog that focuses not only on humanity's next evolutionary stage but on the technologies likely to trigger it. The brainchild of science writer Michael Anissimov, Accelerating Future offers the curious a wealth of intriguing links, reviews and interviews. Web surfers interested in everything from the feasibility of developing sentient machines to the prospect of genetically engineering humans who can thrive at the north and south poles can read about these concepts here.

Lest this all sound far-fetched—more the stuff of fiction than of science—another area of the site is devoted to quotes and speeches by well-known individuals who have taken the prospect of a transhumanist future seriously enough to speak on the topic publicly. Among these notables are Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and scientist Stephen Hawking.

Anissimov's posts, be they on bioethics, robotics or religion, draw healthy discussion from readers, and the site walks a fine balance between being overly credulous and entirely skeptical. Recent posts explain "supers" in physics (superconductivity, supercriticality, superfluidity and others), briefly discuss an upcoming movie on Vernor Vinge's idea of the Singularity and consider the possible upsides of global warming. Packed with nerdishly offbeat ideas, Accelerating Future is informative, challenging and more than a little controversial."

Filed under: meta 7 Comments

Nokia “Morph” Concept


Taking Global Risk and WWIII Seriously

I have realized that the best way for people around the world to take catastrophic global risk seriously would be to stage a localized demonstration of a very powerful post-nuclear weapon. Other methods are of course worth pursuing (and far less expensive), but too abstract. The weapon would be tested in an entirely unpopulated area, of course. The Sahara and areas of northeast Siberia would be two good targets.

In this context, "post-nuclear" means a weapon with more destructive power than a nuclear weapon, in terms of destruction of ground targets. Matching the energy output of a nuclear weapon might be difficult without using nuclear energy as the source, however. (Yet, a large orbital mirror could exceed the power output of nuclear weapons.)

In Missouri, they have a saying: "show me". Unless leaders and citizens alike are shown the power of the next generation of destructive technology, it will continue to be "science fiction" to the vast majority of people. After a test, it becomes real overnight, even if thousands of scientists already knew it was possible decades in advance and were constantly trying to warn everyone about it, but were ignored.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) is making some serious progress against the risk of nuclear terorrism, by inviting high-profile arms control wonks with influence in the US government, for instance, Dr. Jefferey Lewis, to international conferences on non-proliferation. Arguing against the risk of nuclear bombs is more plausible because we've seen them in action. Arguing against the risk of militarized synthetic life is not, even though the destructive potential of synthetic life is many times greater than any nuke.

Speaking of nukes, the threat of nuclear winter is still real. The science is solid. A 2007 study found that a war involving the entire nuclear arsenal would result in:

A global average surface cooling of –7°C to –8°C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4°C (Fig. 2). Considering that the global average cooling at the depth of the last ice age 18,000 yr ago was about –5°C, this would be a climate change unprecedented in speed and amplitude in the history of the human race. The temperature changes are largest over land ... Cooling of more than –20°C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than –30°C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.

A cooling of –7 °C to -8 °C means a cooling of about 12 °F to 14 °F globally. The continental interiors, lacking the thermal moderating effects of the oceans, would experience a –20 °C to –30 °C (36 °F to 54 °F) temperature drop. Basically, the United States and most of Europe get covered in permafrost for a few years. For more on a mini-version of this, see Year Without a Summer.

Meanwhile, Putin is saying there is a new arms race triggered by US imperialism, China is building up their military at a mind-boggling rate, and presidential candidate John McCain has said about Putin, "I looked into his eyes and saw three letters K-G-B." This simplistic, dismissive rhetoric won't help instill democracy in Russia, or anywhere else. It will do little beyond ignite a Third World War. Words matter.

Iran's leader wants to exterminate Israel. Israel is strong allies with NATO. Iran is allies with much of the Muslim world, China, and Russia. Russian generals have harshly warned the US not to attack Iran. But Iran may be building nuclear bombs to use against Israel. What do we do?

Israel + USA + UK vs. Iran + Russia + Syria. Could it happen? Yes, today or tomorrow. One Israeli airstrike on Iran nuclear facilities is all it would take. Occasionally I look at CNN and half-expect to see it beginning.

Should we be happy that there's a potential of war today, when our greatest weapon is the nuclear bomb, instead of tomorrow, when we have weapons that self-replicate and consume nations? You tell me.

Filed under: risks 38 Comments

Virgin Galactic Promo Starring Richard Branson

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Ralph Merkle on Diamondoid Mechanosynthesis

Filed under: nanotechnology 5 Comments

Nanotech: Yay or Nay?

At the Los Angeles Times, Aatish Salvi and George Kimbrell will be discussing the promises and ethics of nanotechnology all week. An excerpt from today's article:

"A common misconception about nanotech is that it is a single technology. Unlike biotechnology (which focuses on genes and DNA) or information technology (which focuses on microchips and software), nanotechnology encompasses a collection of methods and tools for dealing with all matter at the nano scale. It is best thought of as a new approach to building things. Working at the nano scale allows us to manufacture with unparalleled precision and efficiency. Rather than mining tons of ore at a great cost to the environment to find a handful of diamonds, nanotechnologists can start with carbon and build a flawless diamond one atom at a time. Because they are so precise, nanotech processes waste less material, consume less energy and produce better results."

(Emphasis added.) My point here is that while some may argue that today's nanotechnologists dismiss Drexlerian molecular manufacturing, it simply isn't so. References to molecular manufacturing pop up in regularly in mainstream discussions of nanotechnology, and only scientists meticulously reliant upon biological approaches put much effort into snuffing it out. Diamondoid mechanosynthesis is very likely to be developed -- it's just a matter of time.

Of course, nothing is 100%, and diamondoid mechanosynthesis could fail, or prove impossible to adapt to industrial manufacturing. But if it is successful, the likely impact is far larger than anything any typical futurist has dreamed of -- diamondoid spires 10 km tall being built in weeks, 100m barrel cannons capable of using active camouflage to hide their positions, personal aircars that travel at hypersonic speeds. None of these structures would be an engineering challenge -- any talented team of engineers could get the job done. The main limitation is our manufacturing processes, a limitation which would be lifted by the introduction of diamondoid mechanosynthesis for industrial applications.


Human Arrogance

Humanity. We think we're the shit. The other day my gf Sarah Rose mentioned a story about a classmate that admitted his reasoning for why humanity is superior: "we're capable of wiping out other species en masse". Maybe so, but it's a pretty sad reason for why we're the best. If you have a problem with that, why not ask the passenger pigeon... oh wait, it's extinct.

Humanity is the first species on Earth capable of bending the entire environment to its will in a complex fashion. Wait -- detect the human bias -- a "complex fashion"? According to a superintelligence, the fashion in which we have manipulated our external environment might be quite simple, reminiscent of the Oxygen Catastrophe initiated by cyanobacteria 2.7 billion years ago. Manipulations orders of magnitude more complex should be possible.

Anyone can admit humanity is the most successful species on the planet, in terms of its ability to understand its surroundings, reproduce exponentially, improve its quality of life, and, well, I don't know, be the first organism since the dawn of life to make it to the Moon. What I am skeptical about is that humanity is the most successful species theoretically possible, defined by any standard you care to use -- the only standard that puts humans at the top is one explicitly tailored for human-centrism.

In a way, every species is at the "top". If you believe all species existing today have sacred value and deserve to be preserved from extinction by humanity, then I support you fully. There is enough room in the universe for quadrillions of species, never mind the petty millions we have here. The problem isn't that I'm not an environmentalist, it's that I'm an environmentalist beyond what most others can imagine.

What just ticks me off is hyperbolic human arrogance. We think we're in some club that includes humans and no other species at all, including potential future cyborgs or new species of Homo created through genetic engineering. That's why so many of us experience not a drop of remorse when we eat meat. Other animals are put there for us to exploit and enjoy -- right?

Well, no. Like the Roman Empire, Homo sapiens will not be #1 forever. Time to toss out your club card that says "Homo sapiens" and exchange it in for one that says "intelligence in general". Intelligence in general is a great thing. Humans are just a case study of the potential of intelligence.

I know some people who will berate me for encouraging a guarded disidentification with the human species. It's even worse than preaching global federalism. But the human species is just tiny dot in a vast sea of possibility space, so why obsess over it? Dismissing the infallibility of humanity is not nihilistic (there are other possibilities!), nor does it imply I want humans to be wiped out, nor does it imply I favor some definition of optimality I want to impose on you.

Stop being so defensive and nervous, and start opening your mind to a future that belongs to more than just traditional humans.

Filed under: transhumanism 99 Comments

Max More and Natasha Vita-More

I was originally inspired to formally join the transhumanist movement in 2001 by Max More, the true founder, and his multi-talented wife Natasha Vita-More. They are pictured above chatting up William Shatner at Transvision 2007 in Chicago.

Basically, Max and Natasha demonstrated to me that discussing futuristic technologies is not necessarily a nerdy endeavor limited to the hacker in the basement. Other inspiring figures were Anders and Eliezer, but I'll leave that to another post.

In my opinion, the writings of Max and Natasha are quite significant, and every geek should have exposure to the ideas.

Max More: "The Extropian Principles: a Transhumanist Declaration"
Natasha Vita-More: Nanofactory or AGI: Which technology could cure humanity's many problems?

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AI & Society 2008

Read Jeriaska's coverage of Eliezer Yudkowsky's talk at the Artificial Intelligence and Society event at Santa Clara University. (Pictured: Ben Goertzel, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Melanie Swan.) This is similar to a talk he gave at the Singularity Summit. Excerpt:

"This is “The Human Importance of the Intelligence Explosion.” The term “intelligence explosion” was invented by I.J. Good, who is a fairly famous mathematician. The core idea goes something like this: suppose you could invent brain-computer interfaces that would substantially augment human intelligence. What might these augmented humans do with their newfound intelligence? Medical research? Play the stock market? One fairly good guess is that they would turn their intelligence toward designing the next generation of brain-computer interfaces. Then, having become even smarter the next generation, they could invent the third generation of brain-computer interfaces. Lather, rinse, repeat."


Filed under: AI 1 Comment

Christianity and Advanced Technologies

Here we go with another Christianity-related post. This one solicits Christian responses to issues brought up by technological advancement. Atheists, I know you might think there's no point in asking these questions, and if so, there's really no point in you commenting in this thread. Let me ask my questions without dismissive or bitter comments.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this post is meant to be pro-Christian or anti-Christian. I am just asking hypothetical questions. The views expressed in this post, if any, are not necessarily the position of any organization or individual associated with the author.


1) If man was created in God's image, would it be blasphemous for people to radically alter their body and brain as it becomes technologically possible, through genetic engineering or nanotechnology? (See "What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud" by J. Storrs Hall.)

2) Would it be a sin to extend someone's lifespan indefinitely using anti-aging therapies, because that would forever prevent them from getting into Heaven? Or would indefinite life extension merely be God's will, because if he wanted us to die anyway, he could easily make it happen at any time?

3) Say that a brain chip is invented that makes its user more morally sophisticated and theologically insightful. Would this contradict the notion that good comes from God, and show that the "soul" is actually rooted in the biochemistry of the brain? Or would this signify the brain implant is somehow better tapping into the power of God? How would we tell the difference?

4) Say that humans develop a technology to bring someone "back to life" a few hours after brain activity ceases. Could this be used to research possible visions of Heaven, such as those in "light at the end of the tunnel" and other near-death experience accounts? How would we distinguish between genuine visions of Heaven and hallucinations caused by neurological trauma?

5) Recently it was reported that the Vatican was encouraging local churches to hire more clergy adept at performing exorcisms. When a high-level Vatican official was interviewed on the topic by CNN and asked how he knew the difference between a possessed subject and one suffering from psychological problems. The priest responded, "you can see it in their eyes". If this is true, could we determine this by taking pictures of different types of eyes and discovering distinguishing characteristics associated with possession?

Filed under: philosophy 19 Comments

World Transhumanist Association Feb. 2008 Update

Recently I was voted onto the Board of Directors of one of the coolest organizations around, the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). To everyone who voted for me -- thank you! To everyone who didn't, you will pay! Or maybe not. Whatever.

This is especially exciting because the WTA recently raised actual money... in excess of $50,000. All that money could be used to buy a lot of candy, or a fine automobile, but instead of that, it's going towards something far more worthwhile -- boosting transhumanism. So, as the Board of Directors, we get to decide how to spend that money.

As advertised on the fundraising page, the money will go towards four main objectives:

  • Student Outreach
  • Identity & Website Update
  • Transvision 2008
  • H+ Digital Magazine

The digital magazine project will be helmed by cyberculture icon RU Sirius, who happens to be a member of our very own local transhumanist chapter, BA-Trans. RU Sirius can be described vaguely as a cross between Timothy Leary and Howard Stern, although this certainly doesn't do the unique man justice. I am very excited about him taking his involvement with transhumanism to the next level. Just to hop on the memory train all the way back to May 2007, here's my interview with RU, "Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death!"

As for student outreach, we got a great idea from transhumanist Todd Huffman -- the same guy who implanted magnets in his fingers so he could sense magnetic fields. Huffman thinks a select group should do a "transhumanist road show" to various colleges in the US, as a way of inspiring students to think about transhumanism. This is fantastic. There's nothing like being there in the flesh to rile up people. In the extremely near future, Huffman will be attending the free BIL conference, to be held alongside the very expensive TED. Of course, BIL is brand new and was his idea.

Transvision 2008! I'll be keeping you up to date on this as plans unfold. Expect an announcement in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully we can bring the price down this time, so that everyone can attend. The attendance for Transvision 2007 in Chicago was disappointing (only around 100 people showed up), and I think the fee was the main reason.

Identity & Website Update -- this is another one of those things being discussed behind closed doors, but as always, I'll keep you up to date as things become public.

If you want to support the WTA, please join us, either as a paying member or basic member. We're pushing 5000 basic members, which is a significant milestone. What I'd especially like to see are more women joining us, as men currently outnumber women in the WTA 9:1. See my post on women in transhumanism for some inspiration. (There are many other women in transhumanism besides the three I listed, including some very active ones, but I wanted to focus on the three I knew best on a personal level.)

Anyway, join join join. We're sort of like a WoW guild, but we raid the forces of bioconservatism instead of digitized monsters that don't really exist.

Filed under: transhumanism 13 Comments

A New Age of Torture

In my opinion, the most despicable thing in the world is physical torture. Not death, nor disease, nor eating junk food for breakfast. Torture, that fearful spectre that's been haunting humanity since the dawn of time.

Torture makes me so angry that I believe national sovereignty is worth overruling to prevent it. For instance, North Korea is running a network of gulags observable by spy satellites. Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering there, with at least a few tens of thousands undergoing actual torture every year, if not many more. Punishment cells, and worse.

Why not march soldiers right into North Korea, free people from the camps, and set up a government that doesn't imprison and torture its own people for political reasons? Well, as we've seen with Iraq, it's not so easy. But if we had the money, the manpower, and reason to believe we could set up a stable government after the invasion, would it be worth it? It warrants thinking about. My answer is yes. (Assume we did actually have reason to believe we could set up a stable government, even if you believe that's impossible. If it is impossible for an invading force to ever set up a stable government, under any circumstances, then obviously the plan wouldn't work.)

Technological advances in the next few decades are going to make unimaginably horrible torture possible. Much worse than we've seen already. For one, there's the "pain beam", a laser pulse tuned perfectly to stimulate human pain receptors. I won't say anything more about high-tech torture, because I don't even want to risk the minute chance a torturer sees this page in coming decades and gets any ideas. For instance, an Iraqi citizen commented, "the day Uday Hussein discovered the Internet was a dark day for Iraq". This is because Uday used the Internet as a source of inspiration for torture.

For me, the issue of high-tech torture is sufficient to legitimize the prospect of a trans-national body capable of violating the sovereignty of states to intervene in cases of state-sponsored torture. Police are the world's number one torturers. Of course, this is a step towards world government, and I'm perfectly comfortable with that. I love my country, the United States of America, but I think some causes are so important they transcend statehood. Preventing torture is one of those causes.

People used to think that torture is one of those things that only bad people do. Not so. Under the right circumstances, practically anyone could become a torturer. The long-term solution is overwhelmingly obvious -- modify the human genome so that we no longer have the desire to torture, no matter the circumstances. This is a case study for the generalized argument that reengineering the human species is a moral imperative. It might make some people squirmy, but because humanity isn't perfect, there are some major possibilities for improvement. When the potential benefits become obvious, the polity will welcome them wholeheartedly.

When proposing modification of the human species, note that I advocate leadership by example, and never obligatory eugenics a la all the scaremongering sci-fi out there.

Filed under: philosophy 67 Comments