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


Aubrey de Grey on the Harvard Mouse News

On Facebook, Aubrey de Grey said:

Stari is right. Spectacularly oversold. The mice are broken in one very well-understood way (no telomerase, so eventually over-short telomeres), and they have been constructed so that that problem can be fixed with a drug, and lo, lots of the downstream consequences of the problem are also fixed. Duh.

Michael: the cancer issue is not really relevant here, no, because mice have lots of telomerase normally and don't use telomerase thrift as an anti-cancer tactic.

Prior to that, I had said:

I'm surprised this happened so soon. Nothing like this has been achieved before. The lack of increased cancer risk is the key point.

Again, even if this is fixing something deliberately broken, I wasn't aware of rejuvenation like this being achieved before. I must admit that in this field I generally just follow the popular science material and don't delve too much into the literature, though. The only blog I really read that goes into the science is Fight Aging. Still, I'm waiting to hear of a prior example of rejuvenation on this scale being demonstrated as a proof of concept.


Taking Short-Lived Mice and Making Them Live Average Lives — Not News?

Reason at Fight Aging is not impressed by the recent Harvard news.

Reason said:

You might look back into the Fight Aging! archives for a primer on the intersection of telomeres, telomerase, and aging. It's interesting stuff, but unfortunately this present research is being headlined as "scientists reverse aging in mice" - which is absolutely not what was accomplished. Reversing an artificially created accelerating aging condition by removing its cause is not the same thing as intervening in normal aging, and it will rarely have any relevance to normal aging. The study results are teaching us something about the way in which telomerase works in mouse metabolism, but I - and other, more qualified folk - are dubious as to the relevance to human aging:

Even if it was reversing an artificially accelerated aging condition, has whole-body rejuvenation of this sort been demonstrated before? Not that I had heard of.


Partial Reversal of Aging Achieved in Mice

Here's the big news from yesterday. Wow! Regeneration of cells, no higher incidence of cancer. Rejuvenation of the brain and testes was achieved as well:

"When we flipped the telomerase switch on and looked a month later, the brains had largely returned to normal," said DePinho. More newborn nerve cells were observed, and the fatty myelin sheaths around nerve cells -- which had become thinned in the aged animals -- increased in diameter. In addition, the increase in telomerase revitalized slumbering brain stem cells so they could produce new neurons.

To show that all this new activity actually caused functional improvements, the scientists tested the mice's ability to avoid a certain area where they detected unpleasant odors that they associated with danger, such as scents of predators or rotten food. They had lost that survival skill as their olfactory nerve cells atrophied, but after the telomerase boost, those nerves regenerated and the mice regained their crucial sense of smell.

"One of the most amazing changes was in the animals' testes, which were essentially barren as aging caused the death and elimination of sperm cells," recounted DePinho. "When we restored telomerase, the testes produced new sperm cells, and the animals'  fecundity was improved -- their mates gave birth to larger litters.

I wonder if there will be any critics out there that still think radical human life extension is infeasible after reading about this.


2013 Solar Maximum Resources

2008 report from US National Academies of Sciences' Space Studies Board:

Severe Space Weather Events -- Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report

NASA Science News, June 4, 2010, "As the Sun Awakens, NASA Keeps a Wary Eye on Space Weather"

Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, explains what it's all about:

"The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we're getting together to discuss."

The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled "Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts." It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

(Hurricane Katrina caused $81 billion in damage, so 20 times that would be $1.6 trillion in damage.)

Media articles

It is difficult to come to any conclusion because the experts disagree.

Discovery: Is a Devastating Solar Flare Coming to a City Near You? -- pessimistic analysis from an astrophysicist:

In the case of space weather, wouldn't it be great if, as a civilization, we could look at the sun and get advanced notice of a solar eruption? All we'd need is a few hours lead-time and we could reduce the output of national power grids (to avoid overload) and switch our satellites into "safe mode." Once the storm has passed, we'd continue our lives as normal. Disaster averted.

Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster to teach us to prepare better in the future. I just hope the next solar maximum doesn't teach us a lesson we can't recover from.

A lot of drama and ink spilled in this post, but ultimately this astrophysicist sounds just as uncertain and confused as your average dude.

Counterpoint to the above: Expert rubbishes solar storm claims:

One report quotes an Australian astronomer as saying "the storm is likely to come sooner rather than later".

But Dr Phil Wilkinson, the assistant director of the Bureau of Meteorology's Ionospheric Prediction Service, says claims that this coming solar maximum will be the most violent in 100 years are not factual.

"All this talk about gloom and doom has selling power, but I'm certain it's overstated," he said.

"[It's] going far beyond what's realistic and could be worrying or concerning for people who don't really understand the underlying science behind it all.

"The real message should be that the coming solar maximum period could be equally as hazardous as any other solar maximum."

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of explanation as to why this expert believes there isn't a major risk, or what exactly he means by "regional".

Space Weather Enterprise Forum has been meeting for four years to discuss the solar maximum risk.

The Register: NASA: Civilization will end in 2013 (possibly)

Searching for "solar maximum", "power grid" on Google Scholar reveals 13 results. Either this means I'm using the wrong search terms, there's only a minority of scientists qualified to write on this topic and barely any do, or something else disappointing given the scale of the risk. Here's one article from Science:

Are We Ready for the Next Solar Maximum? No Way, Say Scientists
Richard A. Kerr

If the once-in-500-years "solar superstorm" that crippled telegraph systems for a day or two across the United States and Europe in 1859 but otherwise was mainly remembered for its dramatic light show were to happen today, the charged-particle radiation and electromagnetic fury would fry satellites, degrade GPS navigation, disrupt radio communications, and trigger continent-wide blackouts lasting weeks or longer. Even a storm of the century would wreak havoc. That's why space physicists are so anxious to forecast space weather storms accurately. If predicting a hurricane a few days ahead can help people prepare for a terrestrial storm's onslaught, they reason, predicting solar storms should help operators of susceptible systems prepare for an electromagnetic storm. And space weather forecasters' next challenge is coming up soon. The next peak in the 11-year sunspot cycle of solar activity looms in 2012 or 2013. A space weather symposium last month asked, "Are we ready for Solar Max?" The unanimous answer from participants was "No."

So far, the balance of scientific opinion seems to be on the side of very serious concern.

My response to the above abstract is mostly -- in this context, who cares about fried satellites, degraded GPS navigation, and disrupted radio communications in comparison to week-long blackouts? Translated into risks affecting personal health, in my mind that line would read something like this: "the risk could cause a broken toenail, difficulty hearing, an itchy back, and cancer".

Filed under: risks, science 40 Comments

Contrasting Views on the Stability of the US Power Grid

"Why it's hard to crash the electric grid" from Eurekalert:

Last March, the U.S. Congress heard testimony about a scientific study in the journal Safety Science. A military analyst worried that the paper presented a model of how an attack on a small, unimportant part of the U.S. power grid might, like dominoes, bring the whole grid down.

Members of Congress were, of course, concerned. Then, a similar paper came out in the journal Nature the next month that presented a model of how a cascade of failing interconnected networks led to a blackout that covered Italy in 2003.

These two papers are part of a growing reliance on a particular kind of mathematical model -- a so-called topological model -- for understanding complex systems, including the power grid.

And this has University of Vermont power-system expert Paul Hines concerned.

"Some modelers have gotten so fascinated with these abstract networks that they've ignored the physics of how things actually work -- like electricity infrastructure," Hines says, "and this can lead you grossly astray."

For example, the Safety Science paper came to the "highly counter-intuitive conclusion," Hines says, that the smallest, lowest-flow parts of the electrical system -- say a minor substation in a neighborhood -- were likely to be the most effective spots for a targeted attack to bring down the U.S. grid.

"That's a bunch of hooey," says Seth Blumsack, Hines's colleague at Penn State.

Related news: U.S. electricity blackouts skyrocketing from CNN, "US power grid easy prey for hackers" from Homeland Security Newswire, reporting on a story in MIT's Technology Review.

Filed under: risks No Comments

Future Superintelligences Indistinguishable from Today’s Financial Markets?

It seems obvious that Singularity Institute-supporting transhumanists and other groups of transhumanists speak completely different languages when it comes to AI. Supporters of SIAI actually fear what AI can do, and other transhumanists apparently don't. It's as if SL3 transhumanists view smarter-than-human AI with advanced manufacturing as some kind of toy, whereas we actually take it seriously. I thought a recent post by Marcelo Rinesi at the IEET website, "The Care and Feeding of Your AI Overlord", would provide a good illustration of the difference:

It's 2010 -- our 2010 -- and an artificial intelligence is one of the most powerful entities on Earth. It manages trillions of dollars in resources, governments shape their policies according to its reactions, and, while some people revere it as literally incapable of error and others despise it as a catastrophic tyrant, everybody is keenly aware of its existence and power.

I'm talking, of course, of the financial markets.

The opening paragraph was not metaphorical. Financial markets might not match pop culture expectations of what an AI should look like -- there are no red unblinking eyes, nor mechanically enunciated discourses about the obsolesence of organic life -- and they might not be self-aware (although that would make an interesting premise for a SF story), but they are the largest, most complex, and most powerful (in both the computer science and political senses of the word) resource allocation system known to history, and inarguably a first-order actor in contemporary civilization.

If you are worried about the impact of future vast and powerful non-human intelligences, this might give you some ease: we are still here. Societies connected in useful ways to "The Market" (an imprecise and excessively anthropomorphic construct) or subsections thereof are generally wealthier and happier than those than aren't. Adam Smith's model of massively distributed economic calculations based on individual self-interest has more often than not surpassed in effectivity competing models of centralized resource allocation.

This post is mind-blowing to me because I consider it fundamentally un-transhumanist. It essentially says, "don't worry about future non-human intelligences, because they won't be so powerful that they aren't indistinguishable from the present day aggregations of humans".

Isn't the fundamental idea of transhumanism that augmented intelligences and beings can be qualitatively different and more powerful than humans and human aggregations? If not, what's the point?

If a so-called transhumanist thinks that all future non-human intelligences will basically be the same as what we're seen so far, then why do they even bother to call themselves "transhumanists"? I don't understand.

Recursively self-improving artificial intelligence with human-surpassing intelligence seems likely to lead to an intelligence explosion, not more of the same. An intelligence explosion would be an event unlike anything that has ever happened before on Earth -- intelligence building more intelligence. Intelligence in some form has existed for at least 550 million years, but it has never been able to directly enhance itself or construct copies rapidly from raw materials. Artificial Intelligence will. Therefore, we ought to ensure that AI has humans in mind, or we will be exterminated when its power inevitably surges.

If there are any other transhumanists who agree that future superintelligences will be directly comparable to present-day financial markets, please step forward. I'd love to see a plausible argument for that one.


Alcor Receives $7 Million

Congratulations to Alcor. I am A-2458, and happy to be part of the Alcor community. My total fees to be part of cryonics are less than $1000/year, including membership fees and the cost of life insurance. My life insurance is especially cheap, something like $25/month. The payout is a full $250,000, which is $100,000 more than the minimum level of $150,000 for full body suspension. So, Alcor will actually get a windfall from my metabolic death, if that ever happens.

I find it rather interesting that Alcor received a $7 million bequest, as so few people have gone into cryostasis recently.

Filed under: cryonics 7 Comments

AGI-2010 Videos Online

Here's the lot of them. Speakers include Marcus Hutter, Ben Goertzel, Moshe Looks, Randal Koene, and many new faces. I'm starting with Randal Koene on "Neural Mechanisms in Reinforcement Learning":

Randal A. Koene - Neural Mechanisms of Reinforcement Learning from Raj Dye on Vimeo.

Filed under: AI, videos 2 Comments

Louie Helm: What I Learned From Less Wrong

For those curious about what all the fuss over Less Wrong is about, Louie Helm, formerly a Singularity Institute Visiting Fellow, has a post up on what he's learned from reading the core sequences and following it up with participation.

Filed under: rationality 6 Comments

500 Pictures of Singularity Summit 2010 Available

Photo by A. Jolly 2010.

My Flickr account contains almost 500 photos of Singularity Summit 2010, more than you could ever want. I mentioned this before in the Singularity Institute newsletter but not here. A special thanks to our photographers, A. Jolly and Anthony Scatchell. Please get in touch with me if you are interested in volunteering for photography next year.

Steven Mann is so cool!

The videos are currently being edited, they'll be completed over the next few weeks. Sorry for the delay, one of our initial editors backed out of the project. Watch the Vimeo channel for updates. I'll announce it officially on SIAI blog when some go online.

Total attendance at Singularity Summit 2010 was approximately 620.

For any new readers: the Singularity Summit is put on by the Singularity Institute, which I work for. I co-organize Singularity Summit, assisting our President, Michael Vassar. Everyone at the Singularity Institute cooperates to make the Singularity Summit happen. The Singularity Summit MC is Sean McCabe, previously a close assistant to James Randi.


Obama’s Bioethics Panel and the Transitory Nature of Presidential Bioethics Panels

I've been reading some of the public material on the new President's Council on Bioethics, because I can't for the life of me figure out what they do. I do know that they're called the "Presidential Council for the Study of Bioethical Issues" now. Same domain name, different panel. It seems as if Obama was so against the old commission that he had to destroy it and create a new one from scratch, which highlights the transitory and low-power nature of the body.

Checking out the background materials section of their website, I was compelled to click on the first presentation at meeting two, "Oversight of Emerging Technologies". It outlines important overall characteristics of this panel. Their mission is as follows:

1. To monitor scientific/medical developments (“advances”) and identify the issues they will raise for society
2. To bridge divide between science and society
3. To articulate the range of views on controversial subjects, To inform the political process & policymaking
4. To provide guidance to individuals & healthcare professionals
5. To provide recommendations to policymakers

Another important part, under "mode of work", is this:

Not asked to invent new philosophical theories but to offer conclusions & recommendations based on multidisciplinary analysis of issues facing policy makers, healthcare professionals, scientists, patients & families

I love this part. It seems to be a nod to the theological conservative philosophy underlying Bush's panel, and backing away from that attitude. Some of the panel members are no doubt aware of transhumanism as well, so the statement might be seen as a reassurance that the panel won't take sides and align with any particular philosophy.

The problem with not inventing or using existing philosophical theories is that you disempower yourself. Philosophical theories often dictate the course of history. The Presidential panel's decision not to embrace philosophies for guiding bioethical decisions (as if that's even possible) creates a power vacuum for transhumanists and bioconservatives to fight over.

Because the panels are so transitory and ephemeral anyway, they lack stability and power. Transhumanism, in contrast, is an ongoing, capable, increasingly higher-profile community that was more or less founded with the launch of the extropians mailing list in 1991. Bioconservatives, meanwhile, mostly focus on near-term issues like abortion, outlawing marijuana, and assorted anti-gay bigotry. With regard to future issues, the issues that will determine the trajectory of the 21st century, they are mostly highly disorganized or silent. The New Atlantis, the bioconservative journal, has received barely any external coverage in its seven years of existence. Surprisingly, sometimes the editor's column in the Wall Street Journal more closely resembles transhumanist articles than anything written by Leon Kass.

As far as I can tell, the main function of Obama's panel seems to be to assess the potential risks of synthetic biology, which is fantastic. The phrase "life extension" does not appear anywhere on the site.


Superior Retinal Prosthesis Developed for Mice

From Science Daily: A new retinal prosthetic creates an image (middle) that more accurately reconstructs a baby's face (left) than the standard approach (right).

Researchers have developed an artificial retina that has the capacity to reproduce normal vision in mice. While other prosthetic strategies mainly increase the number of electrodes in an eye to capture more information, this study concentrated on incorporating the eye's neural "code" that converts pictures into signals the brain can understand.

Degenerative diseases of the retina -- nerve cells in the eye that send visual information to the brain -- have caused more than 25 million people worldwide to become partially or totally blind. Although medicine may slow degeneration, there is no known cure. Existing retinal prosthetic devices restore partial vision; however, the sight is limited. Efforts to improve the devices have so far largely focused on increasing the number of cells that are re- activated in the damaged retina.

This is a major BCI advance. Prior visual reconstruction implants had a much lower resolution. Within a couple decades it could become possible to use implants like this to generate and share complex virtual realities just "beamed" into one another's heads. Ramez Naam's More Than Human describes a similar technology and examines how it could be used to enhance human collaboration and the creative process.

If you can reconstruct a real scene and beam it to the brain, then you can also produce fake scenes if you have the right programming.

Filed under: BCI 7 Comments