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


Next Big Future’s Roundup of Tech Items

Read Next Big Future's overview of technological advancements in weeks 7-12 of 2009.

To my mind, what is most interesting here? The nuclear space cannon, an original invention of the blog's author, Brian Wang. This idea has changed the way I think about space, but I still think that the political obstacles to nuclear explosions of any kind are too great for it to be viable.

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The Danger of Space

Lots of people are into the idea of space travel, but as I've remarked before, space is relatively boring and dangerous. Many have an irrational emotional attachment to space, due to Star Trek and other fictional material which many have over-consumed. A glance at the Lifeboat Foundation's website makes it look like the organization's primary goal is to create space arks, but this would cost billions of dollars, which I can fairly say our organization will never raise. Instead, the LF's primary value consists in networking together scientists and thought leaders concerned about extinction risk and occasionally getting them to publish reports.

I was reminded of the great danger of space yesterday when I read about Charles Simonyi, that creepy software developer who recently married someone 32 years younger than him (my age) after his 15-year relationship with Martha Stewart disintegrated, and his latest exploits visiting the International Space Station. What happened?

Officials said the crew, a US astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut, had overridden the spacecraft's automatic pilots to dock manually after a glitch in an engine caused the Soyuz's computer to stop the process.

"One of the engines had a fault which the computer considered was serious and it began to move the Soyuz away from the ISS at a rate of one metre per second," mission control official Vladimir Sovlov told RIA-Novosti news agency.

"We decided not to allow that and asked the crew to intervene. The commander judged the engine was working normally and we authorised him to approach in manual mode, which was carried out successfully."

The crew checked to ensure there were no leaks in the airlock between the capsule and the space station before the crews of the two vessels joined up, spokesman Valery Lyndin told Interfax news agency.

Um, yeah. This "little issue" reminds me of the sad death of the entire crew of Soyuz 11 in 1971. Looking back at the history of space exploration, 5% of people to launch into space have died from the experience.

I'm not saying that space colonization is a bad idea in general, just that we need radically better safety technology. Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) could offer this, but there are tens of thousands of people wasting their time working on incrementally better space technology instead of working on basic research for MNT that would make space colonization actually viable. That incrementally better space technology they're working on will still have high error rates that cause our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters to perish when they try to launch into orbit.

It is important to remember that space colonization will not solve the "problem" of overpopulation (which isn't a problem of too many people so much as lack of vertical farming, nuclear fusion, and clean manufacturing processes combined with an observer selection effect of most people living in crowded cities), nor will it solve the problem of extinction risk -- deadly microbes could spread into space stations through aid of launches, and superintelligence could easily reach up into space to kill any unwanted challengers. Much of the glamor of space colonization is entirely unwarranted, because the Earth (and our virtual realities) have much room for hundreds of billions more people before things genuinely get overcrowded. (We will carve out sunny worlds underground, for one thing.)

Another appeal of space, I think, is the libertarian fantasy that people would be able to escape the politics and governments of Earth if they went to the Moon. This is silly -- the influence of Earth will still extend there, probably more there than to obscure places on the Earth -- space will always get tons of media coverage, which attracts political attention in large amounts. Obscurity is achieved through blending in with the environment, which is nigh impossible in space, where the ambient background temperature is extremely low and humans stand out like nuclear explosions on an Antarctic ice sheet.

I predict there will be 3 negative knee-jerk comments to my criticism of juvenile space fantasies based on non-MNT technology. (Adult space fantasies involve sophisticated MNT.) No more, no less.

Filed under: space 45 Comments

The Daily Mail Tackles Cryonics

The Daily Mail, a UK tabloid legendary on the Internet for its dense celebrity reporting, has finally taken on the coolest topic of all -- cryonics. Like many articles about freezing yourself solid to be revived in the future, this one is negative, and the question is not what exactly they will say (I've heard all the criticisms a hundred times), but whether there will be any funny/juicy quotes along the lines of Smalley's "You and people around you have scared our children" (directed towards Eric Drexler) or from that time Aubrey went on some talk show and the hosts were worried about Christmas being ruined by life extension. The Daily Mail has frequently proven itself to be one of the most giggle-worthy tabloids on the Internet in the last decade, so I hope they don't let us down.

The first thing I notice with this article is a good thing -- they point out that cryonics costs no more than a slice of pizza per day! The title of the article is, "Please freeze me! How scores of middle-class British couples are hoping to buy immortality for just £10 a week". The intro sentence then says, "It sounds like the loopiest science fiction, but - like Simon Cowell - scores of middle-class couples are paying £10 a week for their bodies to be frozen when they die. So can you really buy immortality for the price of a pizza?"

No Daily Mail article about an edgy international phenomenon would be complete without a dig at the Americans, and we predictably find that here:

"The Americans, unsurprisingly, have been doing it for years, setting up the first 'storage facility' for frozen corpses in the Seventies. Over here, the notion has taken a bit longer to catch on, but while no British firm offers the technology to store bodies, a growing number of Britons have made arrangements to be flown to the U.S. when they die to await the next leg of their eternal journey."

Interestingly, even Russia has founded a cryonics company before the UK.

Then, they review the concept a little more:

Quite what they are signing up for still makes for mind-boggling reading. The process involves cooling, and then maintaining, a dead body in liquid nitrogen in the hope future scientific procedures will be able to revive the corpse and restore it to youth and good health.

It all sounds a bit terrifying, not to mention slightly gruesome - although not to Adele. As a full-time science-fiction writer, she has long dabbled in the boundaries of human possibility, and believes it to be no more sinister than any other life-saving medical procedure.

What I am slightly surprised about is -- are there really people out there who haven't heard of cryonics at all yet? I mean, there's Austin Powers, the rumor of Disney getting his head frozen, the Ted Williams saga being covered by all the major networks... maybe it's just the shock of this article writer finding it for the first time, and cryonics isn't as well known in England as it is in the United States?

Next is something quite heart-warming -- the story of Mark Walker, a friend of mine, convincing his fiance to get signed up:

At least Karen Marshall knows her fiancè is in her corner on the issue. Mark Walker, 47, is a cryonics old-hand, having signed up with the Cryonics Institute in Michigan nine years ago.

Today, he is one of the founders of Cryonics UK, a British support group for those interested in the process, which also offers facilities to be temporarily 'suspended' over here pending transfer across the Atlantic.

He has certainly persuaded his 38-year-old fiancèe, who is in the final stages of sorting out her own cryonics contract. She probably didn't stand a chance, given they even spent their first date discussing it.

'Mark and I had worked together for a computer company in Leicester for a few months before we started seeing each other romantically. During our first date we chatted about everything from work to the weather,' she recalls.

'Then talk turned to hobbies, and as I wittered on about my love of football and motorsports I noticed Mark was starting to look a little bit edgy. I must admit I started to get nervous and was imagining all sorts. I honestly thought he was about to tell me he liked dressing in women's clothing. Instead, he told me about his interest in cryonics.'

Some might have preferred cross-dressing to a desire to be suspended in liquid nitrogen, but Karen wasn't put off.

'It actually wasn't half as scary as the other possibilities I had been imagining,' she says. 'And after that, I didn't really think about it again - we continued dating and then, about six months into our relationship, Mark asked if I wanted to go along to one of the quarterly Cryonics UK meetings in Brighton.

'I agreed, although I had no idea what to expect and was fully prepared to be a bit bored for the day.'

Instead, she found a number of 'normal' like-minded people - and the more she discussed things with them the more she was won over.

Some cryonics fans are more "normal" than others -- but I'm happy that the people she found were sufficiently normal as to inspire her to sign up! Whether or not people who are involved in cryonics are normal, there's a major difference between letting your neurological patterns getting eaten by worms or preserving them in ice.

Next in the article is a cute photo of two young Brits who want to be frozen, and how they think about what to tell their children. Then, there's a pic of another couple, the woman being a sci-fi writer who wants to be frozen and says "cryogenics [is] no more sinister than any other life-saving medical procedure".

I'm at the end of the article, and there has been no weird negative quotes aside from a few at the beginning -- the main thing I take away from it is that cute couples in the UK are signing up to be frozen at Alcor or the Cryonics Institute. Definitely a market in the UK for cryonics if someone wants to start a company!

Filed under: cryonics 17 Comments

James Martin Mentions Singularity as a Reason for his £36m Donation to Oxford

This is from an article in the Guardian reporting on the donation, which is among the top 5 largest that Oxford has ever received:

"My view is that while we may be distracted by today's credit crunch, we must not forget the bigger picture," he said.

"We need to safeguard a future for the generations that follow us. We urgently have to work towards solutions to critical global challenges like climate change, world population growth and the impact of the singularity in computing."

Singularity is when machines surpass human intellect.

"That's why I want to inspire further financial support and new kinds of collaboration with my offer of matching funds," Martin said.

John Hood, the vice-chancellor of Oxford, said Martin's generosity showed that "despite the global economic downturn, there are philanthropists willing to support the world's leading universities".

I do hope that he inspires further financial support for Singularity efforts, and not just at Oxford!

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Technological Singularity Overview for Journalists

I wrote a Technological Singularity Overview for Journalists. It reviews the Singularity concept, the Singularity Institute, Singularity Summit, Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute, Conference on AGI, and Ray Kurzweil. All in short summary form for journalists on the run.

Articles on the Singularity idea have a proven history of getting people interested and prompting mass feedback. When the IEEE Spectrum did a special issue on the Singularity, this got them more than twice the feedback from a typical issue. Also witness the recent media attention and blog buzz around Singularity University.

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Anissimov on Pirate Cat Radio

I'm going to be on the radio in San Francisco tonight, at 2-3AM on Pirate Cat Radio 87.9fm to talk about the Singularity. The show also broadcasts in the Los Angeles basin. Tune in if you want to hear me chop it up with Will, "the Stranger".

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First Live Action Movie of Individual Carbon Atoms

The world's most powerful transmission electron microscope, TEAM 0.5, is being put to awesome use! Via Nanowerk, the article says, "Viewers can observe how chemical bonds break and form as the suddenly volatile atoms are driven to find a stable configuration. This is the first ever live recording of the dynamics of carbon atoms in graphene."

Next, we do the most obvious thing one can do while reading an article on Nanowerk: look at the pictures.

Caption: This 3D rendering of a graphene hole imaged on TEAM 0.5 shows that the carbon atoms along the edge assume either a zigzag or an armchair configuration. The zigzag is the more stable configuration and shows promise for future spintronic technologies.

And now, the video itself:

They look like blobby little cells, but they're about 100,000 times smaller.

Filed under: nanotechnology 8 Comments

Obama’s Just the Beginning

Some day, probably sooner than you think, someone will figure out (with the aid of experimental cognitive psychology and advanced computer modeling) what charisma is and learn how to custom-tune their behavioral outputs to be super-charismatic to a given target audience. Custom-tuning the outputs alone would likely require some advanced form of brain self-control, perhaps possible with the assistance of brain-computer interfacing. A very good actor wouldn't be enough because they'd actually need knowledge, spontaneity, and genuineness.

When we have a "grand unified theory of charima" we'll be able to figure out roughly how charismatic certain historical figures were relative to their reference audiences. Cognitive psychology has already borne out that we empathize with certain faces, like that of Ronald Reagan's, whether we like him or not. He smiles, we feel slightly happier. He's angry, we feel a little ticked. The first major internet meme of 2009, boxxy, also demonstrates how certain faces induce strong empathic effects.

I like to call such fascinating investigations "techno-philosophy".


Submissions to Futurist Magazine Wide Open

Just to let you know, the print magazine The Futurist, published by the World Future Society, which has a circulation of about 16,000, is open to accepting articles from anyone who feels qualified.

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Reviewing 20 Months of Daily Yudkowsky Posting on Overcoming Bias

Blogging daily from August 2007 to March 2009, Eliezer Yudkowsky essentially wrote a book on Overcoming Bias about rationality, value, quantum physics, decision theory, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and lots of other interesting and enlightening topics. Now that book is pretty much done, catalogued via Andrew Hay's auto-generated post list and the accompanying dependency map, which is amusingly huge. Since everything is pretty much done, now is a good time to go back and explore select sequences, especially if you haven't before.

The posts are very interconnected and if you start randomly with one's it's likely you'll find it interesting or find easy links to another useful post. (I wish that more posts linked to posts that are dependent on them or follow them in the sequence.) The question, though, is: is there a unified list of the major sequences anywhere? I know there's Hay's graph, but the largest dependency cluster is more than one sequence. It has to be pulled apart and classified for getting readers started on sequences they find interesting more easily. I know that there are a few OB posts that list some of the main sequences -- which were these again?

I'll post them here as we put together links.

The Quantum Physics Sequence (66 posts)
April 9th, 2008 - June 10, 2008

: looking closely at the dependency graph, most everything is so tangled that it is very difficult to pick out specific sequences. I'm curious to see how this will work out if processed into book form.


Progress Towards Haptic Suits

On this blog I've written about haptic suits before. Particularly, I think that people will use them for cybersex with bots and other people as soon as they are technologically possible. They'll make martial arts less painful by lowering the strength of impacts via cyber-fighting. Users of advanced haptic suits be able to engage in martial arts tournaments for as long as their stamina holds out, or participate in online RPGs where magic and virtual swords "exist" and can be felt. As I said in the linked post, "I predict that convincing haptic suits will arrive by 2020." Haptic suits will never be perfect, though. You can't genuinely simulate getting hit with 100 lbs of weight if the suit itself doesn't weigh 100 lbs.

Today I saw a press release on a primitive haptic jacket, that "can enable movie viewers to feel movies through a sense of touch, in an attempt to provide full emotional immersion in a film". This was presented at the IEEE-sponsored World Haptics Conference 2009, in Salt Lake City. Here's the program if you're interested in browsing.

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The Brain’s Virtual Reality

The human brain has a fuzzy virtual reality module, which kicks into action during dreams and serious drug trips like LSD and DMT. This VR module can render color 3D scenes, often with physically unrealistic characteristics (unless you're alexithymic, as we discovered in Ian's comment in the last post), with objects that can morph and rapidly appear and disappear. It does seem to be difficult to focus on small details in these alternate scenes, however, especially the reading of text, whether real or in a dream.

My guess is that these "VR scenes" are just perturbations of the usual virtual scene which our brain creates that we call "reality". Based on evolutionary conservation of complexity, this seems like the most likely possibility.

In the future, it might become possible to hijack the way this "personal VR" works with brain-computer interfacing. That's what I mentioned in the post about brain-computer interfaces for manipulating dreams and what Kurzweil calls "experience beaming" in his books.

From our current vantage point, we call dreams and hallucinogen trips "weird" because they reflect external reality less accurately than sober awareness, and introduce unlawful and odd complexity that doesn't help the observer manipulate or understand the true external environment. (It does give them another unique cognitive reference point which may have its own special benefits, but nothing too useful. Some people claim to have lucid dreams, and people have come to legitimate epiphanies about their lives or the world while on certain drugs.)

From the perspective of a posthuman with a different "experiential palette", or own daily experience may seem like a silly drug trip, a drunken blur. For instance, distant objects look small and undetailed to us. A posthuman with direct experiential connections to sensors throughout the environment might be able to behold the full features of the distant object via a light-speed connection to remote sensors. Isn't it more natural to behold as many things as possible in their full size and detail, rather than be restricted to objects immediately around oneself and in one's line of sight?

If there are such major perceptual shortcomings that we have, then isn't it possible that they might be accompanied by cognitive or imaginative shortcomings that we lack even the self-reflection to perceive?