Friday, March 10, 2006

Cascio's Reversibility Principle

Unsatisfied with both the Precautionary Principle and its bipolar cousin, the Proactionary Principle, World Changing's Jamais Cascio has come up with what he considers a reasonable compromise: the Reversibility Principle:
"When considering the development or deployment of beneficial technologies with uncertain, but potentially significant, negative results, any decision should be made with a strong bias towards the ability to step back and reverse the decision should harmful outcomes become more likely. The determination of possible harmful results must be grounded in science but recognize the potential for people to use the technology in unintended ways, must include a consideration of benefits lost by choosing not to move forward with the technology, and must address the possibility of serious problems coming from the interaction of the new technology with existing systems and conditions. This consideration of reversibility should not cease upon the initial decision to go forward to hold back, but should be revisited as additional relevant information emerges."
One obvious candidate for reversibility analysis, says Cascio, is biotechnology. Cascio finds reasonableness in both the Precautionary and Proactionary stances, and comes up with a third way.

"GMOs should be engineered in a way to make it possible to remove them from the environment if unexpected or low-probability problems emerge," writes Cascio, "Issues of human consumption of GMOs would be handled on a case-by-case basis, with a bias towards holding off on products that demonstrate a possibility of serious or irreversible problems."

But even Cascio admits that there are two major issues in regards to the Reversibility Principle: is "reversibility" even possible, and can we predict the various possible outcomes, both good and bad?

Ultimately, says Cascio, the Reversibility Principle should be a heuristic, "a prism through which we look at the world and make our decisions." We may not always choose the path with the simplest way back, says Cascio, it may not always be the right choice, "but it would encourage us to consider the issue for all of our options." Reversibility will force people to think in terms of more than immediate gratification, and to consider how the choice connects to other choices we and the people around us have made and will make. "In the end," writes Cascio, "it may even be a good first-order approximation of wisdom."

While laudable, and even potentially practical, there's a certain idealism to Cascio's Reversibility Principle that I question.

First, Cascio makes the assumption that there are rational decision-makers at play who will willingly pull back on those projects that are proving to be harmful. Much of the world today is de facto corporatist, and corporations have proven to be insane. Yes, human civilization narrowly dodged the bullet on the depleting ozone layer issue, but it doesn't appear even remotely close to dealing with the global warming catastrophe. It may be naive to believe that enough co-operation can happen globally to stem the tide of burgeoning but harmful technological trends--particularly if those trends are proving profitable.

Second, controlling the development of technologies and how they will be used will not be easy, if not impossible. Technological contraband will result in the creation of basement labs and the rise of black markets. Where there's demand, there's a way.

And finally, while the Reversibility Principle might work for the environment and biotechnology, it most certainly will not work for the military. There is no precedent yet in human history where the pursuit of certain weapons technologies have been abandoned due to their potential risks. It is the nature of the military to be in a perpetual search for the most sophisticated technologies.

Worse, once a military force gains possession of a weapon, it will never relinquish it. Global nuclear disarmament is a pipe dream. As the U2 album cover sarcastically asks, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb?" -- the answer is you can't. Some things just can't be un-invented. Because of the devastating potential for biotech, cybernetics, robotics, nano-weapons and AI on the battlefield, you can bet that these technologies will be developed. And like many things that are developed by the military, the technologies will eventually trickle down to society.

Today, during the Information Age, the risk of proliferation has heightened dramatically. The world is dealing with this right now as Iran threatens to become nuclear capable. And with non-state actors increasingly threatening to acquire dangerous weapons, societies are increasingly become more police-like in their approach to surveillance and control. Our social and legal infrastructure is being moulded by technological and geopolitical pressures -- something that is clearly beyond reversibility.

Hopefully Cascio is right, and the Reversibility Principle can be applied to such realms as biotechnology and the environment. Change management is clearly an important issue, one that might even help us avoid preventable disasters. But pulling back on the reigns during this time of globalization, powerful corporations, and accelerating change will be a truly difficult task indeed.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Olshansky wants you live an astounding 7 years longer!

Direct from the 'lack of vision' department comes S. Jay Olshanksky's latest offering to the great life extension debate. In collaboration with Daniel Perry, Richard A. Miller and Robert N. Butler, Olshansky has published a piece for The Scientist in which he comes out in favour of life extending interventions.

But typical of Olshansky, his limited vision for the potentials of life extension is at the point of laughability. He once told me that it is his expectation to see life expectancy decrease this century rather than increase, citing such things as the spread of diseases.

Olshansky, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois, and go-to boy for the press when they need an anti-life extension sound-bite, argues that it is in society's best interest to work at alleviating the effects of aging. To this end he suggests that US congress invest $3 billion annually to life extension with the hopes of prolonging lives by a factor of -- drum roll please -- an astounding 7 years.

Yep, 7 years.

In the words of the article’s authors, "What we have in mind is not the unrealistic pursuit of dramatic increases in life expectancy, let alone the kind of biological immortality best left to science fiction novels. Rather, we envision a goal that is realistically achievable: a modest deceleration in the rate of aging sufficient to delay all aging-related diseases and disorders by about seven years."

This target was chosen, say the authors, because the risk of death and most other negative attributes of aging tends to rise exponentially throughout the adult lifespan with a doubling time of approximately seven years. "Such a delay would yield health and longevity benefits greater than what would be achieved with the elimination of cancer or heart disease," they write, "And we believe it can be achieved for generations now alive."

Thankfully, Olshansky and the other authors are in agreement that life extension is possible. "The belief that aging is an immutable process, programmed by evolution, is now known to be wrong," they write, "In recent decades, our knowledge of how, why, and when aging processes take place has progressed so much that many scientists now believe that this line of research, if sufficiently promoted, could benefit people alive today."

In terms of benefits, they consider the aging baby boomers and hope that life extension will help alleviate the fiscal and social pressures of having a large elderly population. And simply put, health and longevity create wealth.

Olshansky et al are clearly trying to appear as reasonable and mainstream as possible to curry favour with US congress. It's conceivable that they may have more daring personal predictions for life extension, some of which may even come in line with biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey who is working to eliminate aging altogether (but that's just speculation on my part).

Yet, as the authors of this article note, life extension is real and we need to work collectively to help bring it about in the most expedient manner possible.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World

From Publishers Weekly: ""The monolithic ideology of economic truisms is fading away," writes John Ralston Saul in this ominously titled elegy to globalism, an equally revered and reviled economic philosophy in which world markets would supplant nation-states. At least that was the plan thirty years ago. Throughout the book, Saul shows how the plan has failed-even as it succeeded-by increasing GDP or individual wealth in some countries while allowing the paralyzing accumulation of debt in the third world. In the meantime, economies have artificially inflated and imploded, much like the belief that technology, business and communications could overcome cultural differences or the emergent flexing of nationalism that has resulted from the end of the cold war.

The author also faults a system where multinational corporations attempt to replace government infrastructure and "overly complex" management is mistaken for leadership. A thoughtful and intellectually rigorous study of globalism's rise and, if Saul is correct, imminent fall, the book carries a foreboding tone throughout. Yet, Saul asserts, the economic future may be brighter now that "the idea of choice is back," itself a result of what he deems "positive nationalism." Needless to say, Saul will have no fans among the tax cutters and free trade proselytizers, but his salient analysis is as accessible and relevant to the small shop owner as it is to the CEO of a multinational corporation."

Spreading the meme of God

I was shocked to find out recently that Pentecostalism is the world's fastest growing religion.

What started off in 1901 as a small bible college in Topeka, Kansas, is now a religion that has as many as 500 million followers worldwide. There are more than 140,000 American missionaries around the world and American-style mega-churches are beginning to appear in Europe.

Missions expert David Barrett estimated in a Christianity Today article that the Pentecostal and charismatic church is growing by 19 million per year. About 25% of the world's Christians are Pentecostal or charismatic, according to historian Vinson Synan.

The Pentecostal movement within Protestant Christianity places special emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as shown in the Biblical account of the Day of Pentecost. It is similar to the Charismatic Movement, but developed earlier and separated from the mainstream church. The Charismatic Movement began with the adoption of certain Pentecostal beliefs, specifically what are known as the bibilical charisms of Christianity (ie speaking in tongues, prophesying, etc.) within mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. Over time, many Charismatic Christians formed their own churches and denominations.

Why the sudden surge in Pentecostalism and religion in general?

Globalization and the so-called "clash of civilizations" has in part caused the recent global religious resurgence. Also, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the bipolar geopolitical structure has unleashed an explosion of the long oppressed ethnic, religious, and social movements. And as Majid Tehranian argues, modernization has been mobilizing and fragmenting traditional societies to such a degrees that identity insecurities and anxieties have become a permanent feature of the modern world. "Mass nationalist, ethnic, and religious movements have emerged to provide a cultural and political home to the teeming millions of uprooted individuals stranded in the congested cities and countryside," writes Tehranian.

But these explanations seem suspiciously focused around the spread of Islam, and not that good ol' time religion comin' out of the USA. It seems to me that the spread of Pentecostalism is only partly explained by these suggestions.

Yes, human psychologies ripe for religion are in abundance today. But the memes require a vector, and in the case of Pentecostalism, its missionaries are its greatest asset. It's an aggressive religion that's excellent at perpetuating itself. And it doesn't help that Americans, and now Europeans, are fixated on mega-churches, or what I like to call factory churches (there's a brand new one just down the road from me).

What I'm having a hard time getting over, however, is why Asians and Africans are eating it up. I can only suppose that the human psyche is particularly prone to Christian memes and that the evangelizing Pentecostals are doing one heck of a job spreading the meme of God.

Too bad there's no such thing as evangelical atheists.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Customizing the flesh

Quinn Norton has published an article in Wired called Body Artists Customize Your Flesh in which he describes one of the more radical trends in body modification, namely subdermal implants.

The article features an interview with body modification expert Shannon Larratt. A self-described transhumanist, Larratt runs BMEzine, a webzine devoted to the body modification community.

Bodymodders like Larratt tend to have an ear to the ground when it comes to new medical technologies. Always on the lookout for novel forms of morphological manipulation, the body mod community has been traditionally sympathetic to transhumanism, envisioning the day when such things as transgenics, cybernetics, and glow-in-the-dark skin are technically feasible.

Consequently, it came as little surprise to me when, during TransVision 2004 (the World Transhumanist Association's annual conference), a good size continigent of bodymodders were present at the event.

Today, in addition to tattoos, piercings, and scarification, body modifiers can now go about getting subdermal implants, which is essentially a raised area on the skin in a shape of the artist's choosing. As Norton notes in his Wired article, implants can be any form you can think of, from Star Trek ridges and small horns, to little stars and hearts sprayed across the chest. "Many people with body modifications have combined their implants with tattoos to create often beautiful or terrible effects," writes Norton.

Larratt estimates that at least 50,000 people worldwide have artistic implants. But with this high number comes considerable concern, as the procedure is, for all intents and purposes, surgery. There are far too many unqualified individuals performing the work, claims Norton, heighening the risk of infection and damage to the nerve and lymphatic system. In some cases, the implants cannot be removed. And needless to say, malpractice insurance doesn't cover these types of procedures.

As a result, there is a call for artists to get a higher education before they pull out their cutting implements. But as Norton notes, the procedure is unlikely to be adopted by the most qualified people to do it anytime soon, namely plastic surgeons.

Most medical professionals reject it on ethical grounds. They claim that it is nothing more than ritualistic scarification and self-mutilation. They argue that it is no place for a doctor that has "taken the Hippocratic Oath and wants to serve mankind."

Undaunted, the body modification community continues to move forward and innovate despite the lack of acceptance and the risks.

Some bodymodders are currently working with optical-grade silicone, trying to create implants that literally glow underneath the skin. Larratt says the next step is to make implants functional in some way. "There's crossover with people doing RFID work," he says, "there's a large number of people that want to build active implants." And with cybernetics, genomics and transgenics on the horizon, bodymodders will undoubtedly exploit those possibilities to the fullest.

Given their penchant for experimentation, and given the extreme potential for body modification technologies, it's likely that ain't seen nothin' yet.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Monday, March 06, 2006

South Dakota bans most abortions

"South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed a bill Monday that bans nearly all abortions in the state -- legislation in direct conflict with the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. The law will make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless it is necessary to save the woman's life -- but there are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Planned Parenthood said it would fight the law to "ensure that women... continue to be able to make personal health care decisions without government interference."" (Read full story on

And so it begins...

Blurring distinctions between the real and virtual worlds

There's an excellent blog entry on 3quarksdaily about how virtual worlds are increasingly coming to resemble reality.

MMORPG, or massive multiplayer online role-playing games, are starting to become extremely popular, and by consequence, extremely sophisticated. Virtual worlds can boast of having such things as retailers, thieves, prostitutes, married couples, and even genocidal war criminals. With some MMORPG's having as many as 6 million subscribers [wow!], academics are starting to study the economics and psychology of virtual worlds, while the IRS is even thinking about eventual taxation.

Not surprisingly, computer addiction is starting to become a real problem; last fall, a Chinese girl died after playing for several days straight and neglecting her health. Others are staying home from work, or devoting far too much of their time to their adventures.

Clearly MMORPG's are here to stay, and one can only marvel at how an entirely new realm of existence has emerged as a result of computer technology. In a sense, computers have spawned an alternate dimension of being.

Thinking into the future, I wonder how far virtual worlds will go and what role virtual reality will play in all this. I can imagine future MMORPG's that are fully immersive and involve both active and passive personalities (ie characters with real people controlling them and those that are completely computer generated). I also have to think that the line dividing simulations and MMORPG will eventually start to blur.

Given the potential of man-machine interfaces and the future of computing, perhaps future existence will be entirely entailed by persons living multiple existences across many different virtual worlds. Given that the virtual world will eventually meet the real world in terms of realism and intricacy, it's possible that what we regard as individuality today will become a thing of the past. There won't be one you so much as there will be multiple you's -- and all of them legitimate existences in their own right.

This has me thinking of Barry Dainton's essay, "Innocence Lost: Simulation Scenarios: Prospects and Consequences," where he describes potential simulation types. You may also want to check out my column, Welcome to the Unreal World.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.