Thursday, February 19, 2004

Security Bytes

Some academic workshops look to the untrained eye as if they were the product of mashing together multiple tenuously-related topics, in an attempt to cater to the need for "interdisciplinarity", the 'in' thing (or perhaps just to render viable conferences about niche topics which would otherwise be economically unviable!) - without much effort put into drawing genuine connections between the topics.

From the brief description on its website, Security Bytes looks like just such a workshop - but it would be unfair to jump to such a conclusion without having read the papers or listened to the talks first.

At any rate, the description contains much to interest transhumanists:

"Security bites. Security identifies ‘life’ as that which needs securing. But what is the ‘life’ that is to be secured? And why is it that in ‘securing life’, life itself is always threatened? From the microbe to the machine to the machinegun, security breeds insecurity. By considering how security bytes, this colloquium focuses attention upon the increasing convergence of digital networks, images, and formats with biopolitical, post-biological, and subatomic ‘life’.The Department of Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University is hosting this interdisciplinary conference from July 17th-19th 2004 to address emerging debates at the nexus of securitization, digitialization, and molecularization [presumably this hints at nanotechnology] and their implications for a broad understanding of global politics and developmental life.

Confirmed speakers include:
Brian Massumi, author of Parables for the Virtual
Michael Shapiro, author of Violent Cartographies
Kathryn Hayles, author of How we became post-human
Richard Doyle, author of Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living

A Public Seminar on Nanotech

It seems that parts of UK academia are still at the very early stages of wrapping their heads around nanotechnology - judging by a recent public talk and discussion organised by Lancaster University and Cafe Scientifique.

Cafe Scientifique is a national network of informal public forums about science (sponsored by the wealthy medical research charity the Wellcome Trust), with analogues in other countries. In the case of the Lancaster one, although it is advertised as being open to the public, in my experience a majority contingent of the participants tend to be staff and students of Lancaster University. The intention to increase the public understanding of science is a laudable one - but a bigger venue might be necessary to really start to address that vision in Lancaster. Anyway, bear the demographics in mind when reading the following.

James Wilsdon, Head of Strategy at Blairite think-tank Demos, kicked off the evening by giving a rather short talk, grandly entitled Grey Goo: Will Nanotechnology be the Next GM?. (That's GM as in Genetically Modified Foods, by the way - which have been a political hot potato in Europe for longer and with much greater intensity than in the US.)

Unfortunately, his talk neglected to seriously address any substantive issues whatsoever, especially issues starting to come into the public consciousness such as (as suggested by his title) "grey goo". Not only that, he failed to clearly define what nanotechnology is! - leaving many in the audience in the ensuing discussion period to ponder how they were supposed to ask meaningful questions if the topic under discussion hadn't been adequately explained. Thus, many of the questions in the third and final section, the Q&A and debate period, displayed - explicitly or implicitly - a lack of understanding of what nanotechnology was and what it entailed.

So what did the talk cover? Well, Wilsdon went through a list of eight different perspectives on nanotechnology - some of which sounded highly overlapping. From chemists who claimed that nanotech was "just existing science and technology renamed", to the last perspective on his list - Drexler's advanced visions - I think he covered all the bases. (He claimed that Drexler was trying to fight back against the (venture) capitalist appropriation of the word "nanotechnology" - a word which Drexler himself coined - by trying to get his original molecular manufacturing concept renamed to "zettatechnology". That was a claim that I had not heard before, but which is kind of supported by this submission to the British Royal Society's working group on nanotechnology, written by Drexler.)

He also mentioned that Demos and Lancaster University were collaborating on a research project to investigate the political and ethical implications of nanotechnology.

Given this start, and given the direction of enquiry suggested by the title, one could be forgiven for suspecting that here was a PR man, pure and simple - a man whose job it was to first understand, and then massage, public opinion, in the interests of the powerful - thus, ironically, repeating the same fundamental mistake of the GM fiasco, the mistake of treating the public like small children.

However, that might be too cynical. Wilsdon's pre-Demos history indicates a consistent interest in sustainability, and in the Q&A period and in discussions at the bar afterwards, he did seem to display a real interest in the technologies themselves (not just the public's opinion of them). He also revealed that the study would involve not just an examination of the public response to nanotechology, but also a look at how those working in the field viewed their ethical obligations. Intriguing, and commendable, I thought.

As I mentioned above, the Q&A and debate period was hampered by what I perceived to be a low level of understanding of nanotechology amongst the audience - many of whom were academics or students, remember. Some of them followed the speaker's lead in asking questions about the debate about nanotechnology, rather than substantive questions about nanotechnology itself. It was also rather short for such an impossibly broad topic. One academic raised the question of hype, and asked Wilsdon pointedly if he thought that he might be himself contributing to hypsterism about nano in his talk. (Oddly enough, I'd found his talk the least hyped presentation of nanotech I'd ever encountered, but clearly even the mention of "affecting all areas of our lives" or "molecular manufacturing" was enough to set some people's "sci-fi BS" meters off the scale - and understandably so, given all the dubious hype that has come out of futurology since the 1960s.)

Shortly afterwards, I had my turn to speak from the floor and tried to respond to that by firstly establishing that the scientific jury was definitely "still out" on the question of whether Drexler was right. The speaker concurred - although he lent more weight to skeptical scientists - and recommended that people read the recent Smalley-Drexler debate online, in Chemical and Engineering News. (I second that recommendation - but be sure to read Foresight's final rejoinder, too!).

Secondly, I tried to give the audience a glimpse of the vast range of questions opened up by Drexlerian nanotech. For one thing, what might be called the "meta-question" - some of us may be skeptical about the feasibility of molecular manufacturing proposals, but even if there were only a small chance that Drexler might be right, wouldn't it behoove us to start discussing these things now - given the short timescales and enormous consequences that are said to be involved?

Then, because I had complained about the lack of debate on substantive questions, I put forward the (controversial) proposition that despite the enormous dangers opened up by molecular nanotechnology - such as new weapons of mass destruction - the potential for lifting millions of people out of poverty was so great that a moratorium would be ethically unconscionable.

After that, there was only time for one follow-up from the floor, which was from a student who elaborated on the anti-poverty potential of Drexlerian nanotech that I'd mentioned - a welcome supporting argument, but unfortunately the pro- and anti- debate never really got into full swing.

In general, I got the feeling that two completely different - and almost unrelated - things were just beginning to be discussed at this seminar: namely, nanoparticles on the one hand, and molecular manufacturing on the other. If I had not made my rather long-winded points about Drexlerian nanotechnology, the audience would have left with the impression that there were two main dangers of nanotechology:

- Unexpected (toxic and environmental) effects of nanoparticles,
- Research institutes like Qinetiq (the privatised former Ministry of Defence research arm) producing nanoparticles with apparent "disregard for basic health and safety". (When Wilsdon mentioned this, I had to supress the urge to call out "Well what do you expect, from the people who used to run, or still do run, Porton Down?")

Though important, these issues rather pale into insignificance when compared with threats like biovorous spore-producing nanobots, spybots compromising national security, or the collapse of capitalism-as-we-know-it and resulting social unrest. In regards to these sorts of threats, I think that for the time being, groups like the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology will have more of a contribution to make than Demos or Lancaster University.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Apocalytpicism, the Singularity and politics

While I am certain that we will see dramatic and abrupt social changes in this century as a consequence of technology, disasters, war and so on, I am very leery of the cultural and political effects of the transhumanist theory of the Singularity. Basically I see the Singularity as 10% serious futurism and 90% geek-boy sublimation of pancultural apocalypticism/millenialism into "I will become a godlike AI and rule the world" fantasies. The Christian Science Monitor has this article on the effect Christian apocalypticism on US politics which reinterates some of my issues.
...belief in this end-times prophecy sees a resurgence among Americans - partly because of the phenomenal success of the 'Left Behind' series of novels (58 million sold) and the disturbing 'signs' of terrorism and war ... Fundamentalists represent a minority of Christians - an estimated 25 million - but the interest in end-times prophecy has spread beyond their circles, and is not only shaping people's lives, but, say supporters and critics, even influencing US foreign policy. A 2002 survey showed that 59 percent of Americans believe that the events in the Bible book of Revelation will occur in the future....

The current "church age" will end with the rapture, when Jesus will take true Christians to heaven, and the rest of humanity will face the outpouring of God's wrath, designed to turn them to Him. Many insist it will occur within a generation. "I know people who have sold their houses and lived with relatives because they thought the world would soon come to an end," Currie says. "I know others who've cut their education short because they thought it more important to witness to people than to get their degree."...
Although imminent apocalypse/millenium can be motivate intense concentration, especially if there is something that you can do to ensure whether you will end up in apocalypse or millenium (something like trying to program the Good AI God before someone else programs the Bad AI God), the whole concept still, inevitably
...encourages fatalism and escapism. A prominent premillennialist, Dwight L. Moody, famously asked, "Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?"

Posadists: Trots in Space

I believe I saw reference to Posadism in various things Ken MacLeod has written. This article by Matt Salusbury for the Fortean Times details the history of this international Trotskyist sect that
believed that close encounters were evidence of superior socialist civilisations from Earth's future. Their bizarre belief in flying saucers was not channelled to them by some tackily-named space entity but "theoretically informed" by Marx and Trotsky, and was for them a logical extension of Marxist dialectical materialism. Posadas wrote: "We will travel to planets millions of light years away under a Socialist society."
Posadas argued in his classic 1968 pamphlet that ETs keep coming for a look, but will only really get interested in humanity when we get past infantile capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism and have a world socialist revolution. But we need to appeal for some help in getting the revolution under way: “We must call upon beings from other planets when they come to intervene, to collaborate with the inhabitants of the Earth to overcome misery. We must launch a call on them to use their resources to help us.” Apparently Posadas once put the headline on his party paper "Voz Proletaria", "BIENVENIDOS LOS PLATOS VOLADORES PORQUE VIENEN DE GALAXIAS SOCIALISTAS" (WE WELCOME FLYING SAUCERS BECAUSE THEY COME FROM SOCIALIST GALAXIES).

Posadas also commented on the human transition from human to post-human, and advocated HG Wells' line that devastating global war is a necessary dialectical step to world socialism. Posadists were planning to help lead the proletariat out of the bunkers and rubble. Hand in hand with our alien comrades.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Support for pro-choice Argentine judge

The Argentine populace (of which I'm part) has been witnessing for weeks a hysterical reaction over the Supreme Court nomination of Carmen Argibay. A prestigious lawyer, Argibay is being fiercely attacked by religious groups for being a "militant atheist" (as she described herself) and for her support of abortion, which is prohibited in this country.

Today's edition of La Nación --Argentina's main establishment newspaper-- runs a brief article commenting on a letter signed by intellectuals and academics in support of Argibay's nomination. Here's the translation, by one of its signatories:
Support for Argibay's Designation

A group of intellectuals and academics expressed their support for the designation of Carmen Argibay to occupy the vacancy left in the Nation’s Supreme Court of Justice.

“That because of her concern over the current situation of thousands of indigent women exposed to life-threatening dangers as a consequence of having clandestine abortions an irreproachable jurist and honest citizen as Dr. Carmen Argibay has to witness how her candidature to the Supreme Court is hindered belongs to a confessional state run by clerics, not one governed under the rule of law by representatives of an equal and pluralistic citizenship,” wrote Osvaldo Guariglia, María del Carmen Porrúa, Luis Alberto Romero, Lilia Ana Bertoni, Florencia Luna, María Isabel Santa Cruz, Graciela Vidiella, Leda Schiavo, Josefina Sartora, Samuel Cabanchik, Mariano Garreta Leclerq, Julio Montero and Pablo Stafforini.

“The abortion problem is a true moral and legal dilemma which, as such, should remain open to arguments based on good reasons,” they observed, and then went on to consider the principles that structure life in democratic societies.

“These principles are often ambiguous, and as such are left to a constant process of reinterpretation that should eventually be resolved by the Supreme Court. In order for this task to proceed in an impartial and neutral manner, it is essential that all opinions are admitted a priori and that no prohibition is set that puts a closure on the debate beforehand,” they requested.

Cancer-screened baby born in Australia

A piece that appeared today in Australian newspaper The Age reports that the first baby of that country screened to avoid a genetic mutation that causes cancer has been born in Melbourne.
Nathan Charles Runciman, created by in vitro fertilisation, was born on January 20. He was an eight-cell embryo last year when two of his cells were removed to test for the cancer gene carried by his mother, Kerrie.

Both tests showed the embryo was clear of familial adenomatous polyposis, or FAP, a gene that causes bowel cancer.

"I'm so happy he won't get the disease," said Mrs Runciman, whose colon was surgically removed at 19, a standard preventive measure for patients with FAP.
Some are not so happy, though. The bioconservative LifeSite, who sees "abortion, euthanasia, cloning, homosexuality" as part of an "international conflict" which affects "all nations," deems the practice as "eugenic" and laments the fate of three embryos which were found "unsuitable for transfer" -- a phrase it regards as "the only epitaph that will be written for these tiny human beings who were then discarded as useless."

In this light, the practice of screening for serious genetically transmitted diseases is not only commendable for avoiding the creation of life of inferior (first personal) quality, but also for contributing to undermine views of the sort embraced by LifeSite --which see "worth and dignity [in] every human life"--, thus helping to pave the road to more humane, yet less anthropocentric, ethical approaches. For few parents will be ready to endorse a moral outlook which implies that it is wrong for them to prevent their children from inheriting a painful and life-threatening illness.

Green Nanotechnology

Mike Treder provides an excellent summary of nanoecological applications at the CRN blog. If nanomanufacturing doesn't create its own toxic hazards.

Treat androids like Appalachians

Hey, I'm not PC, but I thought it was a curious metaphor chosen by Randy Pausch, codirector of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. Computing, to describe how we need to deal with the limited communication capabilities of emergeent virtual human AIs in a recent aerticle on virtual human computing in the Christian Science Monitor:
Studies have shown that expectations are higher for such virtual people than, say, a faceless search engine like Google. If it fails to return useful information, humans assume that they're at fault and have entered the wrong information. But if a human-like face answers with a non sequitur, people think it's dumb. Television and movies depicting futurist, human-like robots also may push some people's expectations sky high. Professor Pausch says we should think of virtual humans as akin to Jethro Bodine on the old 'Beverly Hillbillies' TV show. With Jethro, 'you realize you're not dealing with something that is very smart,' in common-sense ways, he says. Though Jethro is kindhearted, 'and he will help me in any way he can,' he must be asked for his help in careful, simple ways that he can understand.

Latest Changesurer program: Deviant Desires

For Valentine's Day I interviewed Katherine Gates, an artist, publisher and author of the catalog of sexual fetishes, Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex.We talk about the boundary between sexual variation and psychopathology, the political correctness of S&M, the market for erotic genetic engineering, and the joy of blowing up and popping balloons.

Conference on Humanness

Human, All Too Human
3 to 6 August 2004
San Diego, United States

This is an international, interdisciplinary conference on all things human--humanism, human rights, dualism, consciousness, human nature, morality. What is it that makes us human and how is the concept of humanity changing? How is the concept of humanity treated in scientific research, philosophical research, and popular culture?

Papers and alternative presentations from a wide range of disciplines are encouraged: Philosophy, Religion, Psychology, Biology, Neurology, Sociology, Anthropology, Visual Arts, and Literature.

General topics can include: Mind/body dualism; Consciousness; Morality; Individuality and personality; Social needs and obligations; Creative needs; Concepts of the self; Alienation and estrangement from the self; Cloning/genetics; and Cyborgs and other human-like constructions.

The deadline for abstracts/proposals is 30 April 2004.


Korean Cloner sees therapeutic cloning as consistent with his Buddhism

New York Times: What is the religious tradition you come from, Professor Hwang?

HWANG I am Buddhist, and I have no philosophical problem with cloning. And as you know, the basis of Buddhism is that life is recycled through reincarnation. In some ways, I think, therapeutic cloning restarts the circle of life.