Robin Hanson recently posted about The Road and cannibals, which is great, because I think about this stuff all the time, and it's good not to be alone.
The Road is a movie/book about a man and his son traveling south to reach the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in a post-apocalyptic world where the Sun is blocked out by huge dust clouds, and there are no plants or other life except for a few refugees and murderous cannibals. I thought the book was OK because it gave a sneak preview at what daily life could be like when or if the United States gets hit by a massive EMP attack. (The human conflict and desperate lack of food part, not the blocking out the Sun part.)
Prof. Hanson remarks how some reviewers called the movie "realistic", when it absolutely is not. The story takes place more than seven years after apocalypse, but there are a couple occasions where the characters stumble on stored food supplies, which doesn't make sense to Hanson. Second, he points out that traveling in such a world would be totally suicidal. Third, the pair doesn't try to ally with others to boost their strength. They run across neutral people throughout the story, but never team up with them. Fourth, if the apocalypse really destroyed the biosphere and most food sources, Hanson considers it unrealistic that people living primarily on cannibalism could last more than the seven years it takes for the child character to grow up. According to his calculations, you'd have to eat about a person every 47 days to get adequate nutrition.
Shockingly, many of Hanson's commenters don't agree with his points.
A particular comment concerned me a bit, about another post-apocalyptic book that is popular right now, One Second After:
I recently finished the book One Second After which took place in a small town after a nuclear bomb releasing electromagnetism is set off in the United States. They somewhat resorted to cannibalism in the book, at one point choosing to use all stray dogs as the next food source, and moving on to humans who had died. In this case, I found the book to be pretty realistic and very well thought out.
I find this comment problematic because the book isn't realistic. As far as I can tell, the only contemporary author that gets the basics of a post-apocalypse or economic disaster scenario right is James Wesley Rawles. For all I know, he may be the only storyteller that ever even tries to get it right, because the other popular ones -- On the Beach, Mad Max, Terminator IV, Lucifer's Hammer, The Matrix, and all your other post-apocalyptic favorites -- are just terribly unrealistic. The common thread in all of them is that life after the so-called apocalypse is unrealistically easy. This even includes the non-Hollywood tales that are ostensibly trying to be grittier and more realistic, like The Road. (The movie is mostly a faithful rendition of the book.)
If you're looking for post-apocalyptic fiction, the only book that made any sense to me was Patriots by James Wesley Rawles. Perhaps because Rawles is actually a genuine survivalist, he cares to put the thought towards what a post-collapse society would really be like, while many other authors address it from more of a detached position. Thankfully, Patriots is extremely popular, and is doing a great deal to sew the seeds of resilience so that at least 50% of the population might survive an EMP attack. To quote John Robb, "Localize production. Virtualize everything else."
I'd like to write a full review of One Second After, but it will take me a second.
Anti-Transhumanist Wesley J. Smith Argues that Yogi Claims of Living Without Food/Water are Evidence Against Scientific Materialism and in Favor of Human Exceptionalism
Mr. Smith, perhaps for your next citation against scientific materialism and in favor of mystical, metaphysical human exceptionalism, you should go through back issues of Weekly World News.
Does Mr. Smith also believe in the mystical powers of holy Catholic relics such as the bones of saints or fragments of the "True Cross"?
For those who suggest that Smith is a marginal figure, be assured that he is not. He has debated Peter Singer on the issue of robot ethics, and co-authored books with Ralph Nader. My theory is that Mr. Smith would not really mind transhumanism and artificial intelligence so long as they did not inherently mock and contradict the religious view of Homo sapiens as a god-favored being. This is in contrast to some others who seem to detest the prospect of morphological freedom for its own sake.
Checking Wikipedia, apparently there is a connection between Catholic tradition and Hindu claims of inedia. It's funny how the actions of deceptive people from over a thousand years ago now force a modern theo-pundit to dance an odd dance defending the phenomenon.
Like amor mundi, Mr. Smith's Secondhand Smoke blog is a popular watering hole for anti-transhumanists. Here is one choice comment from a recent post:
Well i respect you highly wesley for standing up to the lies and criminal acts of transhumanism. You can consider me a loyal ally in this war against ray kurweil and his army of idiots. Anyone who believes immortality is a good idea or thinks we should do non-medical enhancement is my enemy. These people will destroy the world simply because they are afraid of death. Get ready for the transhuman eugenics war wesley its coming.
Sure sounds menacing to me! Aren't eyeglasses, scopes, and caffeine non-medical enhancement?
New Paper: Optimal Tooltip Trajectories in a Hydrogen Abstraction Tool Recharge Reaction Sequence for Positionally Controlled Diamond Mechanosynthesis
Denis Tarasov, Natalia Akberova, Ekaterina Izotova, Diana Alisheva, Maksim Astafiev, Robert A. Freitas Jr., â€œOptimal Tooltip Trajectories in a Hydrogen Abstraction Tool Recharge Reaction Sequence for Positionally Controlled Diamond Mechanosynthesis,â€ J. Comput. Theor. Nanosci. 7(February 2010):325-353 [29 pages]
It is our first published paper with our Russian collaborators and is now available online. This paper represents the first extensive DMS (Diamond Mechno-Synthesis) tooltip trajectory analysis, examining a wide range of viable multiple degrees-of-freedom tooltip motions in 3D space that could be employed to recharge the hydrogen abstraction tool, a key reaction set in DMS.
The use of precisely applied mechanical forces to induce site-specific chemical transformations is called positional mechanosynthesis, and diamond is an important early target for achieving mechanosynthesis experimentally. A key step in diamond mechanosynthesis (DMS) employs an ethynyl-based hydrogen abstraction tool (HAbst) for the site-specific mechanical dehydrogenation of H-passivated diamond surfaces, creating an isolated radical site that can accept adatoms via radical-radical coupling in a subsequent positionally controlled reaction step. The abstraction tool, once used (HAbstH), must be recharged by removing the abstracted hydrogen atom from the tooltip, before the tool can be used again. This paper presents the first theoretical study of DMS tool-workpiece operating envelopes and optimal tooltip trajectories for any positionally controlled reaction sequence â€“ and more specifically, one that may be used to recharge a spent hydrogen abstraction tool â€“ during scanning-probe based ultrahigh-vacuum diamond mechanosynthesis. Trajectories were analyzed using Density Functional Theory (DFT) in PC-GAMESS at the B3LYP/6-311G(d,p) // B3LYP/3-21G(2d,p) level of theory. The results of this study help to define equipment and tooltip motion requirements that may be needed to execute the proposed reaction sequence experimentally and provide support for early developmental targets as part of a comprehensive near-term DMS implementation program.
So, what does it mean? Well, in the Freitas-Merkle mechanosynthetic tooltip design, there are three primary tasks for three primary tools -- 1) abstracting (removing) hydrogen from a carbon surface (carbon surfaces tend to have a monoatomic layer of hydrogen), 2) placing a carbon dimer (C=C) on a hydrogen-free carbon surface, then 3) putting down a hydrogen to cover up the surface and prevent it from spontaneously rearranging itself or otherwise engaging in unwanted reactions. This paper zooms in on a specific part of tool #1, the "recharge sequence" portion, where the abstraction tool gets rid of the hydrogen it just grabbed from a surface and gets ready to grab again.
The New Atlantis Futurisms blog posted a picture of Audrey Hepburn with the title, "Does Anybody Seriously Think We Can Do Better than This?" Here's my response. You may have to read the comments thread to gain some background.
The reason that Hepburn seems so great to us is that we're humans. If lizards could speak, then hundreds of millions of years before humanity, a lizard would be similarly impressed by an image of another, attractive lizard. Does that mean that Creation should have stopped at lizards?
Our evaluations of "goodness" are not objective truths, just subjective facts about the structure of our own minds. The opportunity to modify and enhance those minds will vastly increase the space of things we can understand and appreciate. This will allow us to create new forms of attractiveness and wonder that we lack the facilities to appreciate now.
I disagree with my colleague Eliezer Yudkowsky that civilizations elsewhere in the universe are doing "better" in any absolute sense because evaluations of "better" are necessarily mind-structure-contingent. Humans can arbitrarily define the status quo as the best there is, and who could argue with them? That's their personal opinion.
However, for the vast majority of people, "better" would indeed include more than the species or technological status quo. Maybe Hepburn would have embraced transhumanism if she lived in a time when safe and beneficial body and brain self-modification and self-improvement were possible. Of course, even though I'm favor of morphological freedom (rather than the morphological fascism that I have to look and think a certain specific way, the way it's been for over 200K years) doesn't mean that I discourage people from rejecting transhumanism entirely and living only among other humans. (I do, however, think that children should be able to do what they want with themselves after a certain age, and I doubt that Christian conservative parents will be able to stop their curious and neophilic children from embracing transhumanist technologies.) Today, for instance, there are some people that only choose to live among their own race, for fear that race-mixing leads to irrevocable societal chaos. It is only natural to fear that species-mixing in a society could lead to problems, but I'll bet that some combinations of species could lead to a harmonious equilibrium.
Yes, I went there, in comparing fear of intelligent-species-mixing with fear of race-mixing. I don't mean to be demagogic by doing so, just to illustrate the point that there will always be a mix of people who are more into mixing with those unlike themselves and those less into it. We can push everyone to try and accept everyone, but in practice it doesn't always work. Sometimes people just don't like each other. This phenomenon can occur between two twins, two tribes, or two or more intelligent species. Conservatives seem to often believe in the hypothesis that we more we're alike, the better we can get along. Liberals argue that we can get along despite our diversity. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.
There is a story on Martine Rothblatt, a prominent transhumanist, in the most recent issue of Forbes magazine. It tells the story of how Martine transitioned from being a satellite company executive to a pharmaceutical executive to save her daughter from a rare disease.
Some of you may recall my liveblogging coverage from the 3rd annual Terasem Colloquium on the Law of Transbeman Persons and the 4th annual Terasem Colloquium on the Law of Futuristic Persons, which were hosted in Satellite Beach, Florida, by Martine and her wife Bina. These intimate gatherings gave me the opportunity to speak one-on-one with memorable characters such as Wendell Wallach, Marvin Minsky, and many others.
H/t to Robert Freitas for the link.
Research Fellow Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Philosophy Professor Massimo Pigliucci of the City University of New York debate the meaning of intelligence and the possible limits of AI.
The Singularity and the outer limits of physical possibility (08:38)
Do human brains run software? (09:58)
Consciousness, intelligence, and computation (03:14)
What could minds be made of? (13:08)
Is mind-uploading a dualist dream? (19:18)
Would the Singularity be a Vonnegut-style catastrophe? (10:56)
From Science Saturday at BloggingHeads, which features a lot of familiar faces, including Mike Treder, Razib Khan, Jamais Cascio, etc.
Eliezer (in response to Pigliucci invoking the idea of "limits"): "Just because there are physical limits doesn't mean that those physical limits are low. There is a limit to the power output of a supernova, but you wouldn't want to jump into one wearing only a flame-retardant jumpsuit."
At 10:00, Pigliucci appears to claim that the distinction between hardware and software in the brain means nothing, and that the hardware the human brain runs on is irrelevant.
I recently read a review of Pigliucci's recent book at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
"Intelligence is producing correct answers and is good as gold however you get it." -- EY
Pigliucci first jumped into the Singularity argument most aggressively with this article.
"It's extremely difficult to see how you can carry the argument that understanding and predicting reality is like sugar... that you could get the same answers, written on a different kind of paper, and they would not be useful. Because that's the same kind of answer you're getting in the photosynthesis example."
Pigliucci seems to acknowledge that other forms of consciousness besides human should be possible, but is apparently skeptical of the feasibility of AI..?
Around 20:00, Pigliucci pulls the ridiculous "self-awareness" card, essentially saying it is so special it can never be implemented in a computer. Excuse me, but even a camera filming itself in a mirror is "self-aware" -- it holds an internal representation of its own state. "Self-awareness" is trivial. If what he actually means is "phenomenological consciousness" (why not say so?) then that's more tricky, but to assert that other aspects of thinking can be simulated but this cannot is simply an arbitrary statement borne of apparent deep reverence for consciousness. It may be that consciousness requires certain complex structural elements to emerge (which may even require chemical simulations in a computer, though I doubt it), but our reverence and sentimentality for it have no sway in the matter, in the same way that our reverence and sentimentality for life didn't end up proving that life is powered by an irreproducible vital force.
At 22:00, Pigliucci says that a special substrate may be necessary for self-awareness. At this point, I like to invoke a comment from Eliezer circa 1998 (may no longer represent his current opinions):
"Can we really program human-equivalent AIs?" Yes. The objections fail to consider this: We can cheat. First and foremost, seed AIs don't have to be human-equivalent. An acorn is not a tree. Second, we're allowed to steal code from DNA, observe developing brains... even build AIs out of human neurons if there's a fundamental Penrosian gap. Third, if unmodified humans don't rise to the challenge, that doesn't rule out transhumans or neurosurgically produced specialists.
Coding an AI isn't an ideological argument. If a method works, we'll use it.
At 22:45, Eliezer points out that Pigliucci's argument implies that zombies are possible -- accurate simulations that aren't conscious. Pugliucci fervently disagrees, but as far as I can tell Eliezer is correct.
Why do people think we can simulate every physical object in the known universe but miraculously not the human brain? Isn't it obvious how this argument is a repeat of vitalist-materialist arguments from a hundred years ago?
The act of jumping is encoded in biology, but no one claims we can't build a jumping robot. Why do people see intelligence as qualitatively different than jumping, when the same simple process evolved them both?
Remember, the 2010 H+ Summit is coming up on June 12-13... here is a blurb.
The 2010 H+ Summit: Rise of the Citizen Scientist (hplussummit.com) is an important 2-day conference that imagines the role of technology in developing the future, with consideration of various emerging technologies and transhumanist ideas.
This innovative summit, to be hosted on June 12-13th, 2010 at Harvard University Science Center by the Harvard College Future Society, with assistance from Humanity+, will feature over 60 incredible speakers, including futurist Ray Kurzweil, inventor Stephen Wolfram, and scientist Aubrey De Grey among many others.
Topics considered will include Human Enhancement, Artificial (General) Intelligence, Longevity, Whole Brain Emulation ("Mind Uploading"), Technology and Democracy, Bioethics, Science Fiction and Science, and Neuroscience among many others.
To learn more and register, visit hplussummit.com. Registration fees are structured to reward early adopters.
Aubrey de Grey at Singularity Summit 2009: The Singularity and the Methuselarity: Similarities and Differences
Phil Bowermaster Responds to Annalee Newitz: “Five Arguments Against Four Arguments Against Immortaility”
Phil Bowermaster responds here. Me, I can appreciate the io9 post as a masterpiece of generalization from fictional evidence; including images, I count eleven specific appeals to fictional evidence. This appears to be an early form of co-processing, where content from an external device (in this case, poor television shows) heavily intertwines itself with the thinking processes of the writer, to the point where reality cannot be distinguished from fiction.
Annalee Newitz apparently thinks cryonics is creepy.
Her favorite comment on the photo collection of dewars (scary!) was this articulate one:
Question: is cryonics any more "creepy" than what we already do with bodies where metabolism has ceased?
Human beings are largely unaware about the gruesome nature of â€œdeathâ€.
Humans also shy away from the mutilation that occurs during hospital surgery.
Hollywood films portray cryonics in a glamorous high-tech manner that makes it appear that one's body can easily be placed into a capsule and frozen for future revival.
Reality is that cryopreservation involves complex surgery whereby tubes are inserted into major arteries and veins in order to deliver special anti-freeze solutions into the brain. The purpose is to reduce or eliminate freezing damage and other types of damage to brain cells. The process involves introducing stabilizing drugs and a special solution in the field and a major procedure in an operating room.
There's nothing pretty about human cryopreservation, but as you'll read, the alternatives are truly ghastly--and every alternative involves the head eventually separating from the body.
We deceive ourselves
When I worked as a licensed embalmer, I was quite talented at taking horrific human remains and making them look good temporarily. In order to do this, a tremendous amount of mutilation was done to each corpse.
First step is to wire or sew their mouths shut. Incisions are made in the neck, groin and other areas to access arteries to insert tubes that were used to force formaldehyde in. Veins are accessed (raised) to push blood out.
While formaldehyde delivered through blood vessels preserves tissues of the body, it does little to keep cavities (such as the stomach, bowels, lungs and cranium) from putrefying. To keep the body from decomposing before burial, we used a device that resembles a thick hollow sword to repeatedly penetrate the body cavities to vacuum out as much of the liquid contents as possible. We would then reverse the process by pouring formaldehyde directly into the thoracic and abdominal cavities and sometimes the brain. Sometimes the same sword (trocar) used to evacuate the bowels was shoved up the nose through the sinuses to suck out cerebral-spinal fluid in the cranium.
When I learned how to do this in mortuary school, I thought how undignified the entire process is. Without embalming, however, the outcome is even worse.
You know what's creepier than cryonics dewars? That the editor-in-chief of an ostensibly progressive, futurist blog could be so explicitly anti-transhumanist, anti-Singularity, and anti-life extension.
Consider the other side of the story before you condemn cryonics along with Ms. Newitz.