Saturday, April 08, 2006

The anthropic principle does not imply future gain

A growing suspicion is coalescing among some transhumanists, futurists and cosmologists about how the finely tuned aspects of the universe seem to implying that something great awaits humanity in the future. The sense of there being a cosmologically prescribed mission for intelligences is derived from the eerie results coming out of virtually all the sciences which show how absurdly specific the laws of the universe actually are. Further, technosociological observations like Moore's Law make it appear as if even humanity's inventions are part of some cosmologically divined plan.

I blogged about this idea a few weeks ago, and noted how such thinkers as Ray Kurzweil, John Smart, John Wheeler, and James N. Gardner suspect that intelligence plays a pivotal role in the life cycle of the universe. Essentially, using Gardner's terminology, they argue that advanced intelligences act as Von Neumann controllers within the universe which is a Von Neumann duplicator. In other words, intelligences help the universe to replicate.

Of course, the only evidence for this is purely conjectural and based exclusively on the circumstantial cosmological parameters that we observe.

I say circumstantial because the anthropic principle is in effect only insofar as it tautologically "explains" how observers have come to exist only at this particular place and time. The anthropic principle and the fine tuning argument do not imply or guarantee future gain. It explains the here and now and makes no predictions about our ongoing presence into the future.

Because of the growing feeling that humanity has a built-in modus operandi for the future, a certain aloofness has arisen among some futurists and intellectuals about our existential chances in the coming decades. Should the idea that we are a 'chosen species' disseminate into public opinion, we may run the risk of becoming even more complacent and unconcerned in the face of catastrophic risks than we already are.

And worse, the trouble with this theory, it would seem, is that it is likely wrong.

I would argue that we are already in possession of a data point that offers counter-evidence to the claim that humanity is cosmologically ordained for a higher purpose: our acquisition of apocalyptic weapons. We have been living on borrowed time since 1945. With the Cold War quickly becoming an historical curiosity, the sense of there being a looming and viable apocalyptic threat has waned considerably. The truth of the matter is that our civilization could have very easily destroyed itself many times over by now.

The idea that all-out nuclear war is impossible in consideration of the presence of rational self-preserving actors is tenuous at best (the old mutually assured destruction (MAD) theory). It has been a sheer fluke of history that an erratic leader or error hasn't ended it all.

For example, Richard Nixon was dissuaded by Kissinger to use the nuclear bomb to end the war in Vietnam (oh, what a row that would have created with the Soviets), and he even used the threat of nuclear war as a ploy against the Soviets to end the war in Vietnam. Che Guevara, who was instrumental in instigating the Cuban Missile Crisis, admitted that if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them against major U.S. cities (not quite the sweetheart he's portrayed to be in pop culture, right?). In recent times, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has openly admitted that he wants to "wipe Israel off the map." And then there's Korea.

Moreover, there's no reason to believe that a global ideological rift couldn't once again emerge resulting in a geopolitically stratified planet and a renewed cold war (or even all-out war).

These situations are set to get worse as more and more state actors come into possession of nuclear weapons. The primary problem with nuclear weapons proliferation is that the bombs will most assuredly be used in the event that conventional war breaks out between two nuclear capable nations. Rather than capitulate, the side that starts to find itself irrevocably losing will resort to nuclear warfare. Consequently, the onset of conventional war between two diverse powers will almost assuredly end with globally catastrophic, if not apocalyptic, results.

So, this is our fine tuned universe, one in which the Doomsday Clock sits at 7 minutes to midnight?

To my mind, a finely tuned universe in which advanced intelligences play an integral cosmological role would preclude the intelligences from becoming self-destructive before their mission was safely under way. If some sort of cosmological eschatology were in effect in which we are responsible for spawning baby universes, we would be in a place right now where our ongoing existence would not be hanging by a thread and getting worse by the minute (mature nanotechnology, SAI and advanced bioweapons come to mind).

Consequently, those who argue that we are headed for cosmological greatness are welcome to keep making their case, but not at the expense of perpetuating the sense that humanity is invincible.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Democracy Deficit

Juan Gonzalez: I would like to ask you, in terms of this whole issue of democracy -- in your book, "Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy," you talk about the democracy deficit. Obviously, the Bush administration is having all kinds of problems with their -- even their model of democracy around the world, given the election results in the Palestinian territories, the situation now in Iraq, where the president is trying to force out the prime minister of the winning coalition there, in Venezuela, even in Iran. Your concept of the democracy deficit, and why this administration is able to hold on in the United States itself?

Noam Chomsky: Well, there are two aspects of that. One is, the democracy deficit internal to the United States; that is, the enormous and growing gap between public opinion and public policy. Second is their so-called democracy-promotion mission elsewhere in the world. The latter is just pure fraud. The only evidence that they're interested in promoting democracy is that they say so. The evidence against it is just overwhelming, including the cases you mentioned and many others. I mean, the very fact that people are even willing to talk about this shows that we're kind of insisting on being North Koreans: If the dear leader has spoken, that establishes the truth; it doesn't matter what the facts are. I go into that in some detail in the book.

The democracy deficit at home is another matter. They have an extremely narrow hold on political power. Their policies are strongly opposed by most of the population. How do they carry this off? Well, that's been through an intriguing mixture of deceit, lying, fabrication, public relations. There's actually a pretty good study of it by two good political scientists, Hacker and Pearson, who just run through the tactics and how it works. And they have barely managed to hold on to political power and are attempting to use it to dismantle the institutional structure that has been built up over many years with enormous popular support -- the limited benefits system. They're trying to dismantle Social Security and are actually making progress on that. The tax cuts, overwhelmingly for the rich, are purposely creating a future situation -- first of all, a kind of fiscal train wreck in the future -- but also a situation in which it will be virtually impossible to carry out the kinds of social policies that the public overwhelmingly supports.

And to manage to carry this off has been an impressive feat of manipulation, deceit, lying and so on. No time to talk about it here, but actually my book gives a pretty good account. I do discuss it in the book. That's a democratic deficit at home and an extremely serious one. The problems of nuclear war, environmental disaster, those are issues of survival, the top issues and the highest priority for anyone sensible. Third issue is that the U.S. government is enhancing those threats. And a fourth issue is that the U.S. population is opposed, but is excluded from the political system. That's a democratic deficit. It's one we can deal with, too. (AlterNet)

Wikocracy: democratizing law-making

On an AlterNet Blog, Deanna Zandt wrote: "Reader Gene Gurkoff sent in his very interesting concept project yesterday, called Wikocracy. It's only been up for a week, so it's still quite nascent, but the idea of the project is that they have created a wiki (a community-edited and -run website) containing the laws of the land. Everyone is encouraged to go to the site and change what they think ought to be changed about the laws:

To see what happens when everyone can write and revise the law. It may sound like a free-for-all. But that's exactly the point-- to make the process of law-making free for all.

On this platform, you can freely edit the USA PATRIOT Act, The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, your State's law on gay marriage, your city's zoning ordinances. If you'd like to change a law that is not yet on this platform, you can easily create a page and import the text you want to change. You can also write your own laws, post blogs, collaborate and spar with other users. Check out our FAQ if you have specific questions.

Although there are some suggested guidelines and tips that will facilitate this experiment, there are no rules. Nothing on this platform is legally binding. One person's changes can be revised or reversed by the next. Over time, this platform could reflect a collaborative statement of what we think the law should be. Or it could reflect a moment-by-moment statement of the most recent editor's views. This will be as bloody or as civil as you make it...
While it's laden with legalese (you law geeks out there will love this!), and its free-for-all nature ensures that at least a few silly laws make their way onto its "books," it's still an interesting use of the community-based information gathering tools out there on the market right now. It's based on MediaWiki, which is the same engine that the Wikipedia is based on, making it familiar and friendly to many.

Have a go at some good new-fashioned law-editing, and let us know how your experience was in the comments!"

Monday, April 03, 2006

Thinking faster by altering your perception of time

People who undergo extreme short-term psychological stress often claim that time slowed down for them during the experience. Traumatic events like car accidents or lengthy falls often appear in slow motion to the person experiencing it.

Is this just a recall error? Or are people literally experiencing these events at an altered subjective time rate? If so, how could such a psychological phenomenon be accounted for? Obviously, time is not really slowing down -- but something is happening to the psychological interpretation of time.

One possible answer is to compare the human brain's "clockspeed" to that of a computer's. Some scientists now suspect that slowed time elapsement is an evolved defence mechanism similar to our fight-or-flight response. When time appears to have slowed down, we have more subjective time in which to deal with a crisis situation. Put another way, extreme stress helps us to think faster.

One scientist looking into this phenomenon is David Eagleman from the University of Texas at Houston. At his 'Laboratory for Perception and Action' Eagleman is attempting to understand the neural mechanisms of time perception. His team combines psychophysical, behavioural, and computational approaches to address the relationship between the timing of perception and the timing of neural signals.

At the experimental level, Eagleman is engaged in exploring temporal encoding, time warping, manipulations of the perception of causality, and time perception in high-adrenaline situations. Ultimately, he hopes to use this data to explore how neural signals processed by different brain regions come together for a temporally unified picture of the world.

In one of his experiments, Eagleman had volunteers perform a backwards bungee jump freefall while he transmitted a rapid succession of numbers to an LED on their wrists. He found that during the fall they were successfully able to read the numbers, which under normal conditions would have appeared too fast. [I have to say, that is one of the most interesting and original experiments I've heard of in quite time some]

Thinking about Eagleman's research at a practical level, it is thought that a better understanding of these mechanisms will result in interventions that will help people process information at higher rates. This kind of 'think faster' augmentation would slow time down in a subjective sense, which would enable an individual to operate at a higher level of cognitive efficiency.

This theme has been explored in a number of science fiction stories. In Frank Herbert's Chapterhouse: Dune, the ghola Miles Teg was able to engage in extremely fast physical combat due to his ability to rapidly process information. Teg was able to subjectively experience time in extreme slow motion. Similarly, Neo in The Matrix was able to dodge bullets by altering his perception of time elapsement. And in Greg Egan's Diaspora, uploaded posthumans had to drastically slow down their internal clockspeeds when conversing with biological humans; clockspeeds in the real world varied dramatically from the clockspeed utilized in supercomputer 'polises.' Also in Diaspora, a group of posthumans altered their perception of time to such a slow rate that they could perceive the rising and fallings of geological structures such as mountains.

Here in the real world, such neural enhancements are rare, but not entirely impossible. It is thought, for example, that hockey ultrastar Wayne Gretzky was able to perceive the flow of the game at a slower pace than his competitors, giving him more subjective time to plan his attack. This may in fact be the case. At the height of his career, Gretzky was not just a 'little better' than other players, he was dominating to a degree never before seen in sport, breaking records by extreme margins. And this from a player who was physically unremarkable--in fact, below average.

Just what kinds of interventions could enable humans to 'warp time' is a topic of some speculation. A recent Discover article titled "The Mind in Overdrive" offers some possible solutions. Psychotropic substances are one possible answer, as drugs like cocaine and amphetamines have been known to alter subjective time for users. Also, meditating Buddhist monks claim to be able to perceive time differently; through their mental discipline, they may be recreating the same effect that Eagleman is documenting.

I'm certainly hoping that something like this will eventually become accessible. It will be interesting to see how much more productive and "aware" one might be with the benefit of these sorts of interventions. It may even create an alternative sense of subjective reality.

And it would surely come in handy the next time you need to dodge bullets.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.