Saturday, January 10, 2004

Talibanism in Technology

Deepa Kandaswamy explores why the contemporary and historical contributions of women to technology are systematically undervalued and ignored, as a cross-cultural phenomenon, and why women might choose to stay away from technical fields.

Professor Lives Life as a Cyborg

An in-depth AP article on Professor Steve Mann, who chooses to regularly wear a wearable computer, complete with head-mounted eyepiece and mini-video camera, "so much so that going without the apparatus often leaves him feeling nauseous, unsteady, naked" (allegedly).

ad astra per aspera

Transhumanists, like legislators, greeted Bush space bid cautiously. Although nearly all of them support space exploration, few trust the words of this "duplicitous, scheming, cynical, election year President" (the description is Mike Treder's). Here are some reasons for skepticism:

  • the project has an estimated cost of one trillion dollars
  • the US is already under a half trillion-dollar deficit
  • Bush senior made a similar proposal back in 1989 --which never materialized
  • the announcement serves Bush junior to divert attention both from the disastrous occupation of Iraq and from the recently published Nature paper that predicts the extinction of between 15 percent and 37 percent of the species by 2050 (regarding this alarming finding, see the excellent MediaLens alert by David Edwards and David Cromwell).

    Less known, but more significant, is the fact that in September 2003, just a few months ago, Rep. Nick Lampson introduced the Space Exploration Act. The bill sets to carry out the following goals:
  • Within 8 years develop and demonstrate a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying people, from low Earth orbit, to the L1 and L2 Earth-Sun libration points and back, to the Earth-Moon libration points and back, and to Lunar orbit and back.
  • Within 10 years develop and demonstrate a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying people from low Earth orbit to and from an Earth-orbit crossing asteroid and rendezvousing with it.
  • Within 15 years develop and demonstrate a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying people from Lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back, as well as the deployment of a human-tended habitation and research facility on the Lunar surface.
  • Within 20 years develop and demonstrate a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans to and from Martian orbit, deploy a human tended habitation and research facility on the surface of a Martian moon, and develop and demonstrate a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from Martian orbit to the surface of Mars and back.
  • Interestingly enough, the bill has 30 cosponsors --none of whom are Republican. Moreover, the bill establishes a "$450 billion price tag to be an upper bound" for its expected cost.

    A curious feature of the bill is the fact that it counts as its signatories Dennis Kucinich. Arguably the most progressive of the presidential candidates --and certainly far more progressive than Howard Dean-- Kucinich has been a consistent opponent of the Iraq war, which has already cost the American taxpayer 95 billion dollars (that is, between a fifth and a tenth of the expected cost of the space programs). Kucinich and Bush's views about space, in fact, couldn't be farther from each other: one advocates, and has passed legislation for, the complete abolition of the so-called "star wars" missile defense that the other actively, and alarmingly, promotes.
  • Friday, January 09, 2004

    Mentally Ill Inmate Put to Death after Medical “Treatment” Prepares Execution

    From the website for the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics.

    By Kate Randall, 8 January 2004. View orginal.

    [CCLE is opposed to government agents forcing a nondangerous person to take a psychoactive drug. In this case, the government forcibly injected Mr. Singleton with an "anti-psychotic" drug and then gave him a lethal injection to administer the death penalty. To learn more about the CCLE's thoughts on the Singleton case, please see the first article in 4:1 Jnl of Cognitive Liberties, (168 Kb PDF) written by CCLE legal counsel Richard Glen Boire.]

    Death row inmate Charles Singleton, 44, died by lethal injection at the Cummins Unit Prison near Varner, Arkansas on Tuesday, January 6. Singleton was convicted of the 1979 stabbing death of Mary Lou York, and had spent 23 years on death row....

    Singleton, who was also known as Victor Ra Hakim, had been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. A 1986 Supreme Court decision, Ford v. Wainwright, bars execution of the mentally insane—those who cannot understand the reality of, or reason for, their punishment. In Singleton’s case, authorities got around this prohibition by obtaining a court order to forcibly medicate him to render him temporarily mentally competent—in order to be put to death....

    The United States is one of the few industrialized countries which continue to permit the barbaric practice of capital punishment. Not only does it allow the death penalty, but it allows the ultimate punishment to be meted out against foreign nationals, those convicted for crimes committed as juveniles and—as demonstrated by Charles Singleton’s case—the mentally ill.

    Execution of the mentally ill is the most extreme manifestation of a system in which US jails and prisons are teeming with inmates with psychological problems. As psychiatric institutions in recent decades have shut down, throwing patients into the streets, more and more of these individuals have found themselves arrested, prosecuted by an increasingly punitive judicial system and incarcerated. Experts estimate that somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 persons with mental illnesses are confined in US prisons.

    An estimated 5 percent of the general US population suffers from mental illness. However, a National Commission on Correctional Health Care report to Congress in March 2002 presented these shocking estimates of the prevalence of mental illness among prisoners on any given day:

    * 2.3-3.9 percent of inmates suffer schizophrenia or other psychotic disorder;
    * 13.1-18.6 percent have major depression;
    * 2.1-4.3 percent are suffering bipolar disorder (manic episode);
    * 8.4-13.4 percent have dysthymia (mild depression);
    * 22.0-30.1 percent suffer from an anxiety disorder;
    * 6.2-11.7 percent are victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

    These are indices of a virtual epidemic of mental illness, calling for a crisis intervention of medical and psychological professionals. They are also an expression of the tragic impact of a complex combination of social and economic factors—in no small way exacerbated by the stresses pervading American life.

    However, the response on the part of police and judicial authorities to this crisis is to increasingly criminalize the mentally ill. Those who find their way to prison are often misdiagnosed and untreated. In a cruel twist, in Charles Singleton’s case, the authorities pushed for his “treatment” in order to send him to his death.

    Thursday, January 08, 2004

    Atrocity, At-A-Glance

    Grinspoon Advocates Cautious Mars Colonization in Slate

    Grinspoon's article "Is Mars Ours? - The logistics and ethics of colonizing the red planet" is politically remarkable because Slate is so tuned to the concerns of the Democratic Party.
    Is Mars ours for the taking? Do we have a right to it? Not to be too Clintonian, but the answer may depend on what we mean by 'we.' Mars does not belong to 'America,' nor to Earth, nor to human beings. But if by 'we,' we mean 'life,' then yes, Mars belongs to us because this universe belongs to life. I mean, without us, what's the point? But before we go there and set up greenhouses, dance clubs, and falafel stands, let's make sure that, in some subtle form that could be harmed by the human hubbub, life does not already exist there. If not, then by all means build cities, plant forests and fill lakes and streams with trout—bring life to Mars and Mars to life. We'll then be the Martians we've been dreaming about for all these years.

    Wednesday, January 07, 2004

    Hopeful Ice Once More

    Just saw on boingboing that the Cryonics Institute has resolved the legal issues that have recently bedeviled it. Apparently, the cryonics facility has now been licensed as a cemetery. Of course, should the Pascalian Wager that is cryonics actually succeed then a cemetery is precisely the opposite of what that facility is. But, when in Rome, I suppose... Although the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growth (DLEG) Bureau of Commercial Services allowed the Cryonics Institute to preserve the bodies currently in its care while their recent dispute continued, CI has all the while been unable to accept new contracts or patients. But now that CI has been licensed, the cease and desist orders have been withdrawn. "We are pleased that CI can now become a licensed facility, permitting state oversight of its operations," said David C. Hollister, Director of DLEG. "We believe that it's licensure as a cemetery provides additional protections to the people of the State of Michigan." The boingboing piece seemed to imply that baseball great (so they tell me) Ted Williams was at the CI facility -- but my own understanding is that the PR hoo-hah around the Williams suspension provided the occasion for the trouble at CI but that his body is in fact in Arizona.

    Tuesday, January 06, 2004

    Center for Genetics and Society Reviews Cloning and Genemod Policies Worldwide

    Nice survey by the left-wing bioLuddite lobby group Center for Genetics and Society, "National Polices Governing New Technologies of Human Genetic Modification: A Preliminary Survey". It summarizes policies toward reproductive and therapeutic cloning, and inheritable genetic modification, in every country around the world:
    Reproductive Cloning
    Research Cloning
    Africa 53 1 2% 1 2% 0 0% 1 2%
    Middle East 23 1 4% 0 0% 0 0% 1 4%
    South Asia / East Asia / Pacific 33 6 18% 3 9% 2 6% 5 15%
    Europe - Eastern 24 14 58% 8 33% 0 0% 9 38%
    Europe - Western 24 16 67% 13 54% 2 8% 8 33%
    Americas & Caribbean 35 8 23% 5 14% 2 6% 3 9%
    World 192 46 23% 30 16% 6 3% 27 14%

    Lanier’s Laws

    A radically progressive political sensitivity conjoined to a pragmatically conservative engineering sensibility makes for a rare but powerfully incisive combination, as witness the latest provocation from Jaron Lanier, from a recent Symposium: “The following are Lanier's Laws for Putting Machines in their Place, distilled from comments [he’s] posted on Edge over the years. They are all stolen from earlier laws that predate the appearance of computers by decades or centuries.

    Lanier's First Law

    Humans change themselves through technology.

    Example: Lanier's Law of Eternal Improvement for Virtual Reality: Average human sensory perception will gain acuity over successive generations in tandem with the improving qualities of pervasive media technology.

    Lanier's Second Law

    Even though human nature is dynamic, you must find a way to think of it as being distinct from the rest of nature.

    You can't have a categorical imperative without categories. Or, You can't have a golden rule without gold. You have to draw a Circle of Empathy around yourself and others in order to be moral. If you include too much in the circle, you become incompetent, while if you include too little you become cruel. This is the "Normal form" of the eternal liberal/conservative dichotomy.

    Lanier's Third Law

    You can't rely completely on the level of rationality humans are able to achieve to decide what to put inside the circle. People are demonstrably insane when it comes to attributing nonhuman sentience, as can be seen at any dog show.

    Lanier's Fourth Law

    Lanier's Law of AI Unrecognizability.

    You can't rely on experiment alone to decide what to put in the circle. A Turing Test-like experiment can't be designed to distinguish whether a computer has gotten smarter or a person interacting with that computer has gotten stupider (usually by lowering or narrowing standards of human excellence in some way.)

    Lanier's Fifth Law

    If you're inclined to put machines inside your circle, you can't rely on metrics of technological sophistication to decide which machines to choose. These metrics have no objectivity.

    For just one example, consider Lanier's retelling of Parkinson's Law for the Post-dot-com Era: Software inefficiency and inelegance will always expand to the level made tolerable by Moore's Law. Put another way, Lanier's corrolary to Brand's Laws: Whether Small Information wants to be free or expensive, Big Information wants to be meaningless.

    Lanier's Sixth Law

    When one must make a choice despite almost but not quite total uncertainty, work hard to make your best guess.

    Best guess for Circle of Empathy: Danger of increasing human stupidity is probably greater than potential reality of machine sentience. Therefore choose not to place machines in Circle of Empathy."

    Templeton prize for dialogue between science and religion

    From the Ledger Online: Every March, the winner of the most lucrative award on Earth -- about $1 million -- is announced. The Templeton Prize is given not to artists or peace activists but to "entrepreneurs" who have contributed to the dialogue between science and religion, working to "expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity," In 2003, the prize was given to the Rev. Holmes Rolston, a pioneer in the field of religion and ecology.
    Not everyone admires what the foundation -- and its benefactor -- are trying to accomplish. Sir John Templeton believes that humans should endeavor through scientific study to learn more about God. He also advocates what he calls "humility theology," which disregards doctrine in favor of a complete openness to ideas about God. Some Templeton Prize winners, such as Freeman Dyson, have proposed concepts long considered heretical to monotheistic traditions.
    The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science through a rigorous, open-minded and empirically focused methodology, drawing together talented representatives from a wide spectrum of fields of expertise. Using "the humble approach," the Foundation typically seeks to focus the methods and resources of scientific inquiry on topical areas which have spiritual and theological significance ranging across the disciplines from cosmology to healthcare.

    CS Monitor interviews Kass

    CS Monitor: Does the debate boil down to those who oppose biotechnology because it's 'playing God' versus those who think we ought to pursue any scientific advances open to us, thus using the intelligence that God or nature gave us?

    Leon Kass: The environmental movement has taught us that one intervenes in the product of eons and eons of evolution at one's peril, and that it's not so much the hubris of usurping God's powers as it's the hubris of having God's powers without God-like knowledge - going in there making transformations without a complete understanding of what you're doing. It's an ancient tension between, on the one hand, wanting to savor the world as it is and, on the other hand, wanting to improve on the world as given.

    There is a danger that the freedom to transform everything embraces the freedom to transform our own nature and even to destroy that very freedom itself. So some kind of limits have to be set on how far one can simply use the ... cleverness that we have to make changes.... I'm not making an argument for a static world, and I'm certainly not making an argument that an old world is better than this one. One should simply proceed with caution. We may simply not be wise enough to do some of the kinds of engineering things that people are talking about doing.

    Extropy Institute Organizes "Vital Progress Summit"

    The latest Extropy Institute newsletter announces:
    To counter Kass and his Council, The New Atlantis, and the seductive Precautionary Principle, Extropy Institute has initiated a Summit in several phases. The first phase will take place in mid-late February. This collaborative, multi-disciplinary online event will bring together not only all kinds of transhumanists and future- friendly folks, but also advocacy groups such as the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation who need advanced biotech research to fix devastating biological problems. As Reeve has said, "I never thought politics would get in the way of hope."
    The Vital Progress Summit aims to achieve real, practical results. These will come in stages as the project progresses, but early deliverables expected from the February summit include a pithy response to the Precautionary Principle, a policy and values statement to counter Beyond Therapy, and a comprehensive collection of links to pro-advancement groups, journalists, publications, and educational groups.

    The Vital Progress Summit fits perfectly with and realizes Extropy Institute's mission. The February Summit will see the start of a continuing effort to build a broad alliance sharing the goal of the continued progress of fundamental knowledge of the human condition and how to modify it for the better. We can counter the bioconservatives by catalyzing the development of a "party of life".

    You'll find more details of the workings of the Summit in the next update just a week from now. The core of the two-week online event will be a focused blog by invited keynote bloggers. Others will be able to participate in related forums and by commenting on the blog-project work as well as by helping develop associated resources.

    Kudos on recent articles and books by Cyborg Democrats

    • George Dvorsky's Betterhumans article "Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy" got referenced by SciTech Daily, and picked up a couple thousand extra eyeballs.

    • Dale Carrico's Betterhumans article "Technology's Making Queers of us All" fabulously makes the case for the queerness of the transhuman project:
    • For queers who are bored with a vision of politics limited to the provision of rights to marry, adopt children and do battle, I will recommend to your attention the fledgling movement of transhumanism, which unites technological development with human self-creation in the hope of unleashing varieties of desire queers themselves have rarely (but sometimes) dreamt of. For transhumanists who are looking for wider cultural contexts and connections for your struggles, I will recommend to your attention a century or so of radical queer writing and activism, which helped carve the way for your efforts and provide you with probable allies you need now.
    • Cyborg Democracy friend Chris Mooney has a great article reviewing anti-aging progress, "Looking Back, Looking Forward," in the Sage CrossRoads series

    • My Betterhumans article discussing human-racism in the popular media, "Monsters in the Media," turned out to be a successful hit magnet - I mention about a hundred different pop culture search terms, from Lord of the Rings to Mork and Mindy.

    • I just finished Engine City, the third novel in Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light series (1 - Cosmonaut Keep, 2 - Dark Light). It was, as usual, friggin brilliant. The story spans across the entire galaxy, more than 100,000 years, and makes very funny and insightful reference to the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of Communism, the vagaries of liberal democracy, and the political dimensions of the posthuman transition. Highly recommended.

      Kudos to Ken also for his fascinating initiative with the Demos think-tank, Scotland 2020, to produce a series of scenarios for Scotland in 2020. The project summary has a nice review of the use of narrative as a futures scenario-building method, which you can whip out to your transhumanist friends the next time they challenge the role of a science fiction reference in a futurist argument.

    Visual Thesaurus

    Visual Thesaurus is a graphical representation of the swiling mess of associations between words that might exist in the brain of someone with a very complete vocabulary.

    Monday, January 05, 2004

    The Free Software Community After 20 Years

    20 years ago today, Richard Stallman began work on the Free Software operating system known as GNU/Linux (or often just "Linux"). In this article he reflects on the extraordinary growth of the Free Software community, and priorities for the future.

    As a Free Software developer myself I have a special interest in this - however, I believe Free Software is an important meme to watch for all democratic transhumanists, for three key reasons:

    - It not only promises but delivers a new mode of production, made possible by near-zero replication costs.

    - This mode of production, even whilst it is presently embedded in capitalism, still advances humane goals such as co-operation, sharing, and the optional reduction of unnecessary labour

    (Note that, just with craftsmen and craftswomen choosing to expend labour on manufacturing which has been commoditised - labour which is therefore in a crude sense "unnecessary" - programmers are of course quite free to "reimplement the wheel" for whatever reasons - special needs, educational possibilities, or even just for fun! All of which are legitimate reasons. Indeed this happens a lot in the free software world, which paints a picture of the leisure society which nanotech could make possible. Some Linux users wail and gnash their teeth at the sheer number of choices on offer, strangely, but I feel this just exposes the lopsidedness of the community. Rather than savagely killing off competing projects to enforce a conformist and Microsoftian notion of "uniformity", which is an absurd suggestion made by some people who don't seem to understand the community, more effort should be directed towards guiding new users in making sensible choices so that they don't feel lost at the range on offer - and the indecipherability of some of the Free Software project websites!)

    - The low replication costs of many of today's "everyday" objects engendered by advanced molecular manufacturing will extend the domain of "free software" to encompass "free hardware designs" - barring extremely authoritarian restrictions on nano. (By the way, to advance the causes of free software and free hardware designs in molecular manufacturing, I have purchased the domain name, which is presently undeveloped - anyone wishing to develop it or even set up a nonprofit to run it, please get in contact)

    Got Gene Expression Kicked Off of Scientists for Dean and Boy Am I Proud!

    Speaking of intelligence, James, I've been making some noise over at Scientists for Dean. They had linked to Gene Expression, which is run by a mostly nameless and cowardly crew of neo eugenicists who spend most of their time worshipping at the altar of the Bell Curve. Despite my relatively low IQ, I managed to get them thrown off the site's blogroll. Who knew.

    I used to debate them over at their own site but I was banned. So, now I get to pick apart their arguments in neutral corners of the web so to speak. My favorite neo eugenicist of the lot is Godless Capitalist, who's working on something called a haplotype map or a hap map as I call it, because it's simple to remember and I'm a proud member of one of the mongrel classes. (I vote Democratic.) I was told this by a red haired man who's also in the field and not only wants to out Godless, but do him serious physical damage. I have argued against this, afterall, William Shockley did some good work, but to no avail.

    Occasionally, when Godless steps out of his Gene Expression confines, either at Max Sawicky's site or at Big Media Matt's I tend to like to mock him through a doppelganger I've created called Atheist Imperialist. He's a parallel version of Godless but he's white and British, which somehow makes him more sinister. Godless claims he's a brown skinned Indian Brahmin but how do we know? I don't.

    Anyway, Atheist made an appearance and commented on Godless' weird offhand endorsement of known idiot Bush who he said he would probably vote for. He's a fictional character, not quite in the Stross/MacLeod range but I try to make an effort sometimes.

    Read the whole thing here. Scroll down and find Atheist here:

    Good show brother Godless! I was happily and gleefully contemplating the American incarceration rates of black males (poverty has nothing to do with it we can both agree)when I stumbled upon your latest missives.

    I must say, though, as a fellow Bright and Richard Dawkins groupie, that I can't quite get your endorsement of Mr. Bush for president. He is the stupid one isn't he? He's not like our parallel Earth Mr. Blair. Tony talks quite well don't you know and makes modern imperialism look quite smashing! There's nothing like robbing those brown people of their oil and their sovreignity and then proclaiming it noble and just with a finely decanted British accent I do say...But, I mean, isn't Dean the smart one? He did graduate from med school where the Bush father didn't even pull strings to get junior into, hah, law school. I mean, law school, really. Surely, with your work at creating a hap map and my work here in Britain working on genetically based lethal viruses with the Israelis (I must confess I truly enjoy my work)wouldn't you support the high IQ man every time? What, intelligence isn't an important trait for the leader of the free world? I mean, it's not like basketball or sports or quarterbacking the Eagles to yet another winning season...And Dean of course supports scientific inquiry and stem cell research. Are we elitist research scientists who are quite comfortable with the ethics of the film Gattaca or aren't we? Harumph I say.

    I find your presidential pick troubling and not at all reductionist. IQ is everything afterall. You won't resort to, imaginary gods help us, other factors? Perish the thought.

    Posted by: Atheist Imperialist at December 23, 2003 11:02 AM

    PS: If you're looking for a comments section, then please consider using mine at this link:

    I also want to openly endorse a two hour Changesurfer radio show featuring a Steven Den Beste vs. Ken MacLeod death match. Winner take all. Opening question: the future of the new Europe. I'll be rooting for Ken. Just a suggestion...

    Sunday, January 04, 2004

    Spirit Lives!

    NASA's Deep Space Network has received a signal confirming that Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is alive after rolling to a stop on the surface of Mars.

    Wahey! Heartfelt congratulations to the people and artificial intelligences of the United States!