I remember once while on a trip to Arizona asking a long-time resident of Phoenix why anyone would want to live in such a godforsaken place. I wasn’t at all fooled by the green lawns and the swimming pools and knew that we were standing in the middle of a desert over the bones of the Hohokam Indians whose civilization had shriveled up under the brutality of the Sonora sun. The person I was speaking to had a quick retort to my east coast skepticism.
Algorithms increasingly guide our daily life: Google’s ranking algorithm pretty much decides which pages we visit, and therefore which information we access; Amazon’s algorithm influences which books we read; dating algorithms decide your sexual life and possibly your marriage; the smartphone’s navigation algorithm decides which streets we take; Yelp’s algorithm decides where we eat (and it is a simple average!)
Four years ago I wrote a trio of essays that generated a barrage of hate mail. The feedback I received wasn’t 100% venomous, but it was more than 50% negative, with one essay getting a thumbs-down 80% of the time.
Last Thursday was launch day for Pope Francis’s historic anticapitalist revolution, a multitargeted global revolution against out-of-control free-market capitalism driven by consumerism, against destruction of the planet’s environment, climate and natural resources for personal profits and against the greediest science deniers.
Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich has been studying extinction for decades; he published Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of Disappearing Species in 1981. Since that time Ehrlich has seen numbers that indicate the rate of extinction - of vertebrates, including mammals - is increasing.
There’s a graph making rounds lately showing the comparative EROIs of different electricity production methods. (EROI is Energy Return On Investment – how much energy we get back if we spend 1 unit of energy. For solar this means – how much more energy does a solar panel generate in its lifetime than is used to create it?)
This EROI graph that is making the rounds is being used to claim that solar and wind can’t support an industrialized society like ours.
In the wake of news that scientists in China modified the DNA of human embryos, a number of scientists and bioethicists have called for a global moratorium on experiments that could alter the human germline. The White House has come out in support of such a ban — for now.
Anyone who has the scientific tenacity to question “common truths” and come to a valid conclusion outside of the confines of popular opinion are destined to be heralded as someone working in the pocket of some agency. Conspiracy theories run amok throughout society, believing any large corporation to be intrinsically “evil”. One corporation in particular stands out the most: Monsanto!
A worry that is not yet on the scientific or cultural agenda is neural data privacy rights. Not even biometric data privacy rights are in purview yet which is surprising given the personal data streams that are amassing from quantified self-tracking activities. There are several reasons why neural data privacy rights could become an important concern.
As William Gibson always reminds us the real role of science-fiction isn’t so much to predict the future as to astound us with the future’s possible weirdness. It almost never happens that science-fiction writers get core or essential features of this future weirdness right, and when they do, according to Gibson, it’s almost entirely by accident. Nevertheless, someone writing about the future can sometimes, and even deliberately, play the role of Old Testament prophet, seeing some danger to which the rest of us are oblivious and guess at traps and dangers into which we later fall. (Though let’s not forget about the predictions of opportunity.)
Frank Herbert’s Dune certainly wasn’t intended to predict the future, but he was certainly trying to give us a warning.
Sometimes, if you want to see something in the present clearly it’s best to go back to its origins. This is especially true when dealing with some monumental historical change, a phase transition from one stage to the next. The reason I think this is helpful is that those lucky enough to live at the beginning of such events have no historical or cultural baggage to obscure their forward view. When you live in the middle, or at the end of an era, you find yourself surrounded, sometimes suffocated, by all the good and bad that has come as a result. As a consequence, understanding the true contours of your surroundings or ultimate destination is almost impossible, your nose is stuck to the glass.
Question is, are we ourselves in the beginning of such an era, in the middle, or at an end? How would we even know?
The final frontier of digital technology is integrating into your own brain. DARPA wants to go there. Scientists want to go there. Entrepreneurs want to go there. And increasingly, it looks like it’s possible.
You’ve probably read bits and pieces about brain implants and prostheses. Let me give you the big picture.
Read on if you don’t mind some relatively minor spoilers about Avengers: Age of Ultron. I won’t be giving away any big surprises or major plot points, but nor can I promise to reveal nothing new about the content of the movie. So, the choice is yours!
For the first time in U.S. history, a supreme court has granted a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two lab chimpanzees, effectively recognizing them as legal persons. While the future of the chimps has not yet been decided, it’s a huge step forward in establishing personhood status for highly sapient animals.
Recently the journal Nature published a paper arguing that the year in which the Anthropocene, the proposed geological era in which the collective actions of the human species started to trump other natural processes in terms of their impact, began in the year 1610 AD. If that year leaves you, like it did me, scratching your head and wondering what your missed while you dozed off in your 10th grade history class, don’t worry, because 1610 is a year in which nothing much happened at all. In fact, that’s why the author’s chose it.
Recently, I tuned in to watch a 60 Minutes television story on a experimental cancer treatment being tested that was being hailed as near miraculous. As I saw the face of one white patient after another white patient who was cured by injecting the polio virus into a brain tumor, I started to wonder: where are all the black people? Or Hispanics or Asians? It brought to mind the popular campaign and twitter hashtag, Black Lives Matter
Many readers here have no doubt spent at least some time thinking about the Singularity, whether in a spirit of hope or fear, or perhaps more reasonably some admixture of both. For my part, though, I am much less worried about a coming Singularity than I am about a Sofalarity in which our ability to create realistic illusions of achievement and adventure convinces the majority of humans that reality isn’t really worth all the trouble after all. Let me run through the evidence of an approaching Sofalarity. I hope you’re sitting down… well… actually I hope you’re not.
Every book on torture that i have browsed is mainly devoted to methods of torture and then to three topics: Ethical arguments against torture, Utilitarian arguments against torture, and History of the rejection of torture. I cannot find a neuroscientist or psychologist who thought of writing about the exact opposite: What were the ethical justifications for torture?, What were the utilitarian arguments for torture? and What is the history of the widespread adoption of torture?
Should prospective parents have to apply for parental licences? The argument seems obvious. Having children is a serious business. Negligent or irresponsible parents risk causing long-term harms to their offspring, harms that often have spillover effects on the rest of society. A licensing system should help us to filter out such parents. Therefore, a licensing system would benefit children and society at large. QED
“At Death’s End”, written by James Blish (1921-1975), was published in the May 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Surprisingly, this short story is still only accessible in hard copy, within the original Astounding Science Fiction edition. Apart from a brief review by Robert W. Franson, who introduced me to this work, there is today surprisingly little literary analysis devoted to “At Death’s End” – even though it offers a fascinating glimpse into how a science-fiction writer from an earlier era perceived the prospects for indefinite human longevity, from the vantage point of the scientific knowledge available at the time.
Unwanted pregnancy is contributing to a new “caste system” in America. Is that about to get worse? When new and better technologies become available only to people who are already privileged, the rich get richer and opportunity gaps get wider. That’s exactly what’s happening with family planning—and unless trends change, a recent revolution in contraceptive technology may deepen America’s economic divide. Many factors intersect to create poverty or keep people mired there: racism, sexism, untreated illness and mental illness, hopelessness created by lack of opportunity, structural barriers between social classes, and more.
Position Paper: The Critical Need to Promote Research of Aging Below is the position paper on the Critical Need to Promote Research of Aging of the International Society on Aging and Disease (ISOAD). This paper briefly details the rationales, the technologies and the policies that are needed to promote this research. Thus it can serve as a generally applicable advocacy or lobbying paper in different countries. Please help spread it. Please contribute to the widest possible recognition and support of biological research of aging and aging-related diseases. We welcome the readers to circulate this position paper, share it in your social networks, forward it to politicians, potential donors and media, organize discussion groups to debate the topics raised (that may later grow into grassroots longevity research and activism groups in different countries), translate this position paper into your language, reference and link to it, even republish it in part or in full (for example, the policy recommendations can fit on a single page flyer), join the ISOAD or other aging and longevity research and advocacy organizations.
Opposition to IUD’s, like opposition to vaccines, is putting American families at risk—and a Colorado controversy shows that misguided faith and scientific ignorance are to blame. When a pilot program in Colorado offered teens state-of-the-art long acting contraceptives—IUD’s and implants—teen births plummeted by 40%, along with a drop in abortions. The program saved the state 42.5 million dollars in a single year, over five times what it cost. But rather than extending or expanding the program, some Colorado Republicans are trying to kill it—even if this stacks the odds against Colorado families.
Yesterday, I posted a piece examining the oft-quoted mortality rate for measles of one to two deaths per thousand cases of infection. Today, I want to look at what can be learned from more recent and more comprehensive dataset – this one from the 2008-2011 measles outbreak in France.
Back in 1973, Bernard Williams published an article about the desirability of immortality. The article was entitled “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”. The article used the story of Elina Makropulos — from Janacek’s opera The Makropulos Affair — to argue that immortality would not be desirable. According to the story, Elina Makropulos is given the elixir of life by her father. The elixir allows Elina to live for three hundred years at her current biological age. After this period has elapsed, she has to choose whether to take the elixir again and live for another three hundred. She takes it once, lives her three hundred years, and then chooses to die rather than live another three hundred. Why? Because she has become bored with her existence.
A woman who values fertilized eggs or who believes her deity does should use the most highly effective contraceptive available. Most fertilized eggs spontaneously abort during the first weeks of life. Estimates of death before implantation range as high as 80 percent and bottom out around 45.