Friday, March 03, 2006

Workers in Ohio tagged with RFID

Video surveillance company CitiWatcher has implanted RFID chips in two of its employees. This is the first known case of workers being electronically tagged by their company.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is an automatic identification method, relying on storing and remotely retrieving data using devices called RFID tags or transponders. An RFID tag is a small object that can be attached to or incorporated into a product, animal, or person. These tags contain silicon chips and antennas to enable them to receive and respond to radio-frequency queries from an RFID transceiver.

VeriChip, the company that manufacturers the technology, claim that around 70 people in the US have had the implants -- devices that have been approved by the FDA.

CitiWatcher stated that it was testing the chips on volunteers as a way of controlling access to a room where it holds security video footage for government agencies and the police.

Sean Darks, CEO of CityWatcher, likened the glass-encased chips to identity cards. They are planted in the upper right arm of the recipient, and read by a device similar to a cardreader. He says the chips do not pulse or emit a signal, nor do they have GPS capabilities.

RFID implants in humans is controversial mainly due to privacy concerns.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Software helps the illiterate find work

"Microsoft Corp.'s Office software and Windows operating system is typically associated with slick "information workers" on the go, using the latest technology to solve complex business problems.

At a company research and development lab in India, however, workers are grappling with a much different problem: How to use technology to help people who cannot read or write, let alone use a computer.

Working with a local advocacy group, Microsoft has developed a prototype of a system that would help connect illiterate domestic workers in India with families seeking their services. The goal is to help the women see how technology can make finding work more efficient, as the first step toward creating broader tools to allow illiterate people to benefit from technological advances." (CNN Tech)

Our non-arbitrary universe

As scientists delve deeper and deeper into the unsolved mysteries of the universe, they are discovering that a number of cosmological parameters are excruciatingly specific. So specific, in fact, that any minor alteration to key parameters would throw the entire universe off kilter and result in a system completely unfriendly to life.

Consequently, some have considered this as evidence for a designer, giving rise to teleological arguments like intelligent design. Others claim that the universe is spontaneously finely tuned.*

There are several theories that try to explain why the universe is so finely tuned: 1) anthropic observation in consideration of an ensemble of universes [Carter, Leslie], 2) the "participatory anthropic principle" which implies that observers force the universe into existence [Wheeler], and 3) that natural selection has endowed the universe with its particular characteristics [Smolin, Smart].

On the last point, that of natural selection, the obvious question is, if the universe is a replicating entity, and if its attributes are the result of natural selection, why must the universe also be so biophilic? In other words, couldn't the physics of the universe develop such that it was merely a replicating entity that didn't necessarily have to support life?

One possible answer is that there are many types of spontaneously replicating universes, some of which support life, and some of which do not. If this is the case, we happen to observe one such universe that supports life, and our existence is irrelevant to our universe's life cycle.

However, if we find that the universe we live in is the only feasible type of universe possible, and that it is a replicative system prone to selectional processes, then we might have to conclude that intelligent life plays a crucial role in the universe's life cycle. In other words, advanced intelligences help the universe to replicate.

As Freeman Dyson once wrote, "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming. There are some striking examples in the laws of nuclear physics of numerical accidents that seem to conspire to make the universe habitable."

I first encountered this argument via John Smart's developmental singularity hypothesis, where he suggests that advanced intelligences may spawn new baby universes soon after the technological singularity event. More recently, I discovered an article on KurzweilAI by James N. Gardner in which he argues for the selfish biocosm hypothesis.

Gardner's argument is quite interesting. He writes that two recent discoveries have imparted a renewed sense of urgency to investigations of the anthropic qualities of our cosmos, specifically 1) the value of dark energy density is exceedingly small but not quite zero, and 2) the number of different solutions permitted by M-theory is astronomical -- measured not in millions or billions but in googles or googleplexes. Again, what he's suggesting is that the universe is finely tuned to the point of absurdity.

According to Gardner's theory, "the laws and constants of physics function as the cosmic equivalent of DNA, guiding a cosmologically extended evolutionary process and providing a blueprint for the replication of new life-friendly progeny universes."

As Gardner notes, theories of cosmological eschatology have previously been articulated by Kurzweil, Wheeler and Dyson, all of whom have essentially predicted that, in Gardner's words, "the ongoing process of biological and technological evolution is sufficiently robust and unbounded that, in the far distant future, a cosmologically extended biosphere could conceivably exert a global influence on the physical state of the cosmos." Some cosmologists, like Milan Cirkovic, have argued that the universe's life cycle should not be studied without referrence to the influence of intelligent life.

Specifically, it is thought that intelligences, in conjunction with advancing technologies, will act as "von Neumann controllers" within a cosmologically extended biosphere and function as a "von Neumann duplicator" in a hypothesized process of cosmological replication.

I find this topic to be exceptionally interesting, and I hope that more consideration is given to it in the coming years, particularly the issue of cosmological eschatology and the role that intelligences may have in the life cycle of the universe.

*Browsing through Wikipedia, I found some examples of 'fine tuning':

- The nuclear strong force holds together the particles in the nucleus of an atom. If the strong nuclear force were slightly weaker, by as little as 2%, multi-proton nuclei would not hold together and hydrogen would be the only element in the universe. If the strong force were slightly stronger, by as little as 1%, hydrogen would be rare in the universe and elements heavier than iron (elements resulting from fusion during the explosion of supernovae) would also be rare.

- The nuclear weak force affects the behavior of leptons (e.g. neutrinos, electrons, and muons) that do not participate in strong nuclear reactions. If the weak force were slightly larger, neutrons would decay more readily, and therefore would be less available, and little or no helium would be produced from the big bang. Without the necessary helium, heavy elements sufficient for the constructing of life as we know it would not be made by the nuclear furnaces inside stars. If the weak force were slightly smaller, the big bang would burn most or all of the hydrogen into helium, with a subsequent over-abundance of heavy elements made by stars, and life as we know it would not be possible.

- The electromagnetic coupling constant binds electrons to protons in atoms. The characteristics of the orbits of electrons about atoms determines to what degree atoms will bond together to form molecules. If the electromagnetic coupling constant were different atoms and molecules would be different; maybe not even exist.

- The ratio of electron to proton mass also determines the characteristics of the orbits of electrons about nuclei. A proton is 1836 times more massive than an electron. If the electron to proton mass ratio were different, atoms and molecules would be different — or maybe not even exist.

- The entropy level of the universe affects the condensation of massive systems. The universe contains about one billion photons for every baryon. This makes the universe extremely entropic, i.e. a very efficient radiator and a very poor engine. If the entropy level for the universe were slightly larger, no galactic systems would form (and therefore no stars). If the entropy level were slightly smaller, the galactic systems that formed would effectively trap radiation and prevent any fragmentation of the systems into stars. In either case, the universe would be devoid of stars and solar systems.

- The force of gravity affects the interaction of particles. In order for life as we know it to form, the force of gravity must be 1040 (10 to the 40th power) times weaker than the force of electromagnetism. The relationship of gravity to electromagnetism as it currently exists is this: The positively charged particles must equal in charge the numbers negatively charged particles or else electromagnetism will dominate gravity, and stars, galaxies and planets will not form. The numbers of electrons must equal the numbers of protons to better than one part of 1037 (10 to the 37th power).

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Missouri to vote on constitutional ban on transhumanism

The Elliot Institute, directed by anti-abortion activist David Reardon, and the "Coalition to Regulate Human Engineering and Human-Animal Crossbreeding" (which is the Elliot Institute and the Life Issues Institute) have put an initiative on the November 2006 ballot to amend the Missouri constitution to ban transgenics, cloning and human genetic engineering. The initiative is called "Regulation of Human-Animal Crossbreeds, Cloning, Transhumanism, and Human Engineering Is Reserved to the People." As resources on the the "mad scientists" that they want to stop they link to the IEET, the IEET's Journal on Evolution and Technology, the World Transhumanist Association, Reason magazine, Peter Singer, and Nick Bostrom's Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.

Sections of the Text of the initiative (for Nov 2006) to amend the Missouri Constitution, titled:

Regulation of Human-Animal Crossbreeds, Cloning, Transhumansim, and Human Engineering Is Reserved to the People

Section 1. Findings Regarding the Threat of Unregulated Human Engineering

1. Scientific discoveries and advances in genetic engineering have now made it possible to clone human beings, to genetically alter human beings for the purpose of eliminating disease or adding new biological features, and to create genetic hybrids using both human and animal genes.

2. Proponents of transhumanism, neoeugenics, and human engineering have proposed ideas that would drastically alter society in known and unknown ways. Among other proposals, proponents of human engineering have suggested the following:
1. the cloning or creation of modified clones that would be mutilated or destroyed to secure organ transplants for the benefit of the original cell donor;
2. the genetic creation of a half-human slave race to serve humankind;
3. the genetic creation of specialized humans who would be designed to undertake dangerous environmental or combat situations;
4. the design of a genetically “superior” super-race with the concurrent elimination of genetically distinct groups of average or sub-average human beings whom proponents of human engineering would classify as genetically inferior.
3. The use of genetic manipulations for the purpose of human engineering would have a profound effect on the structure and nature of families and society.
1. The meaning of human being, person, parent, child, sibling, and family, both in the law and in social relationships, may be profoundly and permanently disturbed by advances in technology that may replace sexual reproduction with laboratory engineering of human beings with gestation in controlled environments.
2. Gene enhancements may lead to profound discrimination, or even interspecies warfare, between normally conceived and born humans and genetically engineered humans.
4. The biological risks and moral implications of human engineering have not been fully ascertained nor is there a consensus among the public regarding the forms of human engineering, if any, that would best benefit society.

5. Mistakes in human engineering can cause irreparable injury to individuals which may be propagated throughout the human species risking injury to untold future generations unless the genetically damaged children are forcibly sterilization or killed.

6. With an increase in the spread of infections from animals to humans and vice-versa, threatening the public health, both domestically and abroad, the creation of human-animal crossbreeds, or chimeras, present a particularly optimal and dangerous means of genetic transfers that could increase the efficiency of transmission and the virulence of diseases threatening both humans and animals.

7. Because scientific advances relevant to human engineering are occurring at a remarkable rate, public discussion of these complex issues cannot lead to a consensus in a time frame sufficient to establish voluntary rules of compliance that adequately protect the society. Without statutory regulations governing human engineering, individuals and corporations with access to this technology can freely engage in human engineering which may result in profound harms to individuals and society.

8. By use of animal and plant species, valuable scientific advances in the field of genetic engineering will continue to proceed at a rapid pace. Human lives and human genetic material are not necessary to the development of the general techniques of genetic engineering.

9. Because of the complex moral, social, legal, familial, and economic issues involved, the decision to use genetic engineering techniques on human beings should not be left to the individual discretion of those who develop or have access to these technologies. These issues, and the conditions under which these technologies can be used, must most properly be resolved in the electorate and in the legislative bodies of their elected representatives.

10. Based on the above findings, it is the purpose of this Article to erect a general prohibition against any genetic alteration of human beings, destructive experiments on human beings, and the artificial creation of life forms containing human genes with exceptions for specific technologies that are hereby specifically approved by the people of Missouri or may in the future be approved by means of amendments to this Article.

Section 2. Definitions.

"Fertilization" is that point in time when a male human sperm penetrates the zona pellucida of a female human ovum.

“Human being" is an individual living member of the species homo sapiens. The life of the individual human being begins at fertilization, but may also begin at the moment of monozygotic twinning or when artificial techniques are employed that result in totipotent cells that are substantially indistinguishable by experts in human embryology from sexually produced human life. A human being is a natural person under the law.

“Nascent human life” means an individual human being prior to birth.

“Human Engineering” means any intentional act that involves (a) the genetic alteration of human gamete material; or (b) a procedure that involves alteration of nascent human life, including but not limited to the alteration of cell structure, structures of cells, or genetic makeup, for any purpose other then the treatment of a known disease or injury of that individual nascent human life for the benefit of that individual human being.

Section 3. Prohibitions, penalties, and civil liability

(a) Except as specifically provided for in Section 4, human engineering is a crime against humanity and subject to appropriate criminal penalties that may be defined by the legislature and international law but shall in any case be not less than the penalties provided for aggravated homicide.

(b) Any human being whose gamete material or cells are used for human engineering in violation of this act shall be entitled to the greater of actual damages or $5,000,000 in statutory damages, plus attorney’s fees, and court costs.

(c) Any human being whose gamete material or cells are used as allowed in the exceptions provided for in Section 4, who did not give fully informed and free consent for the use of these cells or gamete materials for said purposes shall be allowed the greater of treble actual damages or $5,000,000 in statutory, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and court costs.

(d) Any human being, or his survivors, who was altered by an act of human engineering in violation of this Act shall be allowed the greater of treble actual damages or $10,000,000 in statutory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and court costs.

(e) In the event that the identity of the human being described in (b), (c), or (d) of this section can not be determined, any natural person may file the suit on behalf of the unidentified human being provided that 10% of any award of damages shall be paid to the person filing the suit and 90% shall be paid to the state’s treasury.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Doom soon?

Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that there is about a 50% chance that humankind will be annihilated this century.

Bostrom, who is currently working with Milan Ćirković on a book about existential risks, has given the topic of human extinction considerable attention, including his seminal 2001 paper, Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios.

Writing in Global Agenda magazine, Bostrom notes how potentially self-inflicted existential risks have only recently appeared in human history, namely the advent of the atomic bomb. Unfortunately, writes Bostrom, this is the first of many other new threats on the horizon. He lists such potential problems as a deliberately engineered pathogen, particle accelerator experiments, molecular nanotechnology run amok, and runaway superintelligence.

Bostrom also notes possible sociological catastrophes, such as the advent of a repressive totalitarian regime or a transhumanism that could "lead to stagnation and thorough debasement of human life."

While pessimistic of our chances, Bostrom is not defeatist, and he suggests that some serious foresight and energy be put into the problem. "The magnitude of existential risks is not a fixed quantity – it becomes larger or smaller depending on human action," he writes. He says that deliberate steps can be made to reduce many existential risks, noting such endeavors as the mapping of potentially dangerous asteroids. Moreover, some of the studies and countermeasures that would reduce existential risk would also be relevant for mitigating lesser hazards, argues Bostrom.

Ultimately, says Bostrom, the challenge is to neither ignore the risks nor to indulge in gloomy despondency but to "seek understanding and to take the most cost-effective steps to make the world safer."

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Period: The End of Menstruation

"Imagine the freedom to go swimming anytime," she says, "You can wear a skirt with no underwear. You can have sex without thinking about blood on the sheets. You never get anything stained. Every day your hormones are the same. Your breasts aren't tender, you don't feel ovulatory pains. It's a modern problem to have 13 periods a year for 35 years. I think the continuous pill is a modern solution to a modern problem," concludes Dr. Leslie Miller, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washing, who runs the pro-suppression website

Priests Challenge Vatican On Gays

From, America's most read gay news:

"Nineteen priests in Quebec have issued a stinging public rebuke of the Vatican position of gays and same-sex marriage.

In an open letter published in La Presse, the largest circulation newspaper in the province, they called on other Catholic clergy to join them in opposing the Vatican ban on gays in seminaries and same-sex marriage.

Under the headline "Enough is enough," the priests charge that by pronouncing homosexuality a "disorder," the church is fuelling homophobia.

The 980-word letter notes the church has been wrong before on "the mysteries of political, social, family and sexual life."

The letter also criticizes the Canadian bishops' conference which fought legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in Canada.

The bishops made a presentation before a Parliamentary committee studying the legislation and told MPs that allowing same-sex marriage weakened families and endangered children.

"Was there any trace of the compassion that marked Jesus's passage on Earth?" the letter asks. "Not a paragraph, not a sentence in your brief that takes into account the historical discrimination against homosexuals and the tragedy of their social and ecclesial exclusion."

Religious scholars in Quebec where most people consider themselves Catholic but where attendance at mass is lower than most other regions of Canada, called the letter and its tone surprising and suggested it could set a precedent.

The church has not responded to the letter."

Transhumanist webcomic

from the blog Neurofuture

Paperwork? What kind of transhumanist future is that?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Octavia Butler Is Gone

[via Amor Mundi] I have just heard that one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, has died in an accident. She was 58 years old.

This news is simply shattering to me. As were her books.

For now, I can only clumsily testify to the impact Butler's work has had on me since I first read her novel Wild Seed (still one of my very favorites) something like fifteen years ago. I have also taught her stories and novels in many of my courses, and I have been pleased to see how passionately students have responded to her vision, how there will always be a student or two who simply drop everything and then read everything they can find by Octavia Butler once they have found her. Since I discovered Octavia Butler's work, I have read and re-read all of her books many times. It is hard to say why I have found such solace and so much of the courage of my convictions in them, since I also have found them painful to read every single time.

Her science fiction is devoted to the application of human intelligence to the problems we confront, but unlike the Efficacious Men of so much science fiction Butler's characters apply their intelligence to social struggle, sometimes on a sweeping world-historical scale, sometimes at a painfully intimate scale. Science and technology and morphological variation are themes in so much sf, and yet they almost never have the heft or heartbreak that Butler imbued into these themes. Although oiled muscles strain the shirts the boys on the sf pulp covers wear, the characters inside usually come off as brains in vats anyway, somehow, to me -- but Butler's characters really have bodies.

History and struggle and technology leave them both scarred and skilled. They are imbedded in families and in the accidental individual variations of morphology, capacity, and culture, and in mammalian dominance hierarchies that tease at our ethical pronouncements and in a clash of deep, sometimes costly, desires against which they strain and in whose poetry they remain...

My lived sense of the way power and difference play out in the politics of futures our pasts propel us into easily owes as much to Octavia Butler as it does to Michel Foucault or to Donna Haraway or to Judith Butler, and that is saying something. It's hard to convey what it means to me to know there will be no more Octavia Butler books to look forward to, each one always sure to be so much her own, never like anybody else's, in a voice I felt I understood and came to crave, attesting to a world that seemed so painfully real and familiar to me, however alien.

Read her books.