Tuesday, September 19, 2006


After thinking about Ray Kurzweil’s ideas, and reading Permutation City Greg Egan I’m coming to the conclusion that – from a theological standpoint – what is key to who we are as people is indeed the pattern rather than the material.

The pattern has nothing to do with the soul (if such a thing exists, which I doubt, and as such is essentially irrelevent) as the pattern it is not necessarily immortal. It needs a substrate in which to exist, and most substrates are finite (with the exception of the pocket universe Egan explores in PS).

The idea of a “gradual submersion” into a cybernetic substrate is one I’m very comfortable with (the idea of an abrupt “ending” of one pattern and the beginning of another on a different substrate, though consistent with my belief in the importance of the pattern, goes against my instincts. These are flawed, of course, but are nevertheless part of who I am).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Permutation City and the New Mind

Permutation City is extraordinary. Egan never relies on techno-babble BS to create convincing worlds. All his alternate realities are rooted in a totally feasible (sounding) model of real-world physics. He doesn’t rely on magic or demons to make things work. Because of my studies of physics and maths I actually understand enough for it to be engaging, though the fact that Egan is such a good writer means even if I hadn’t studied these subjects I’d still enjoy the story. I’m still a little confused about something to do with layers of reality used in the book. But as the whole story deals – very skillfully and insightfully – with the nature of virtual reality and the virtual mind, it is not surprising that there are some weird cogito ergo sum moments and a lot of Cartesian uncertainty.

The likes of Stross and MacLeod often use backups and “digital people” as plot devices and characters, but Egan really gets into the concept: discussing the identity and self-perception of the virtual humans, and how they all relate to virtual minds in virtual realities. As always Egan’s view of the future is highly realistic. A key part of the plot involves the fact that “copies” of humans can only “run” at 1/19th the rate of normal flesh-and-blood human beings. This turns the usual belief that virtual human minds will run faster than normal humans on its head, and makes for some interesting observations.

There is also the usual philosophical debate: if someone is an indentical virtual copy of someone else are they that person? From my Kurzweil-oriented point of view, I believe that what is key in this situation is the pattern of information. From the millisecond the copy and the original data construct (say: a flesh and blood human) diverge then they become two different people. What is key is the pattern of data, not the substrate in which that data (or information) exists, hence a digital person, a virtual person, an “analogue” F&B person, or a person that is described by the actions of a weak Turing-complete system (i.e. a machine or computer that can perform any computational task).

Terry Pratchett explores these ideas in The Fifth Elephant. At the end of the book Sam Vimes is presented with an axe by the dwarf King. The dwarf observes that if Vimes’ ancestors were to replace the blade, and then their ancestors were to replace the handle – then could it be said to be the same axe?

It is a widely-believed fact that every atom in the human body is replaced every seven years, and the atoms of the material we think of as being most intimately “us” – the brain, CNS, nerves etc – are replaced every few months. This demonstrates that it is not the lumpen matter that matters when it comes to defining a person (without unnecessarily invoking supernatural irrelevences like the “soul”, or weird quantum “stuff” a la Roger Penrose). It also demonstrates that people are dynamic: I wasn’t the same person I was a few seconds ago. I’m not the same person I’ll be in a year.

I feel I can be forgiven for being squeamish: when the technology to upload your brain or a part of your brain into software (and run it at = to or > baseline speeds) becomes available I would rather tip-toe into the swimming pool, rather than dive in all at once.

By this I mean I would choose to model a small area of my brain, then devise an item of hardware that can respond in exactly the same way to stimuli as the area I have scanned does. The item would contain a computer running a simulation of the area of the brain it is designed to replace, and sufficient hardware to interact with the surrounding areas of the brain in the same manner as the original area.

This “hardware” is likely to require extremel complex devices. I don’t know enough neurobiology to be specific, though I imagine that simulating hormones, neurons, and the intricacies of the human brain are likely to be difficult. From this point of view it would be much easier to simply render the entire structure in virtual reality. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about the interface problem.

Over time I would gradually “build up” the area of my brain running in synthetic substrates, until the whole thing is wholly synthetic. Assuming, of course, that such a state does not compromise my health, mental or otherwise. The likely benefits: including the ability to “learn” new skills by reinforcing the appropriate mental pathways and speeding up my perception of time will hopefully, eventually outweigh the possibly downsides.


My visit to UCL went well. I saw the Jeremy Bentham auto-icon. He seemed like a stand up guy, and the whole place seemed fairly good. It's definitely in my top three unis.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Girl with a One Track Mind

As I mentioned before, whilst camping in Wales I read several Guardians. In one of them there was an interview with “Abby Lee”, the pseudonym of a woman whose name I can’t remember.

Anyway, for the last two years she has been writing a sex blog. Recently she had it published as a book, and she was also “outed” by The Telegraph. She seems an interesting person, and considers herself a socialist.

Today in The Week I read an article that claimed that George W Bush’s Republicans had lost the approval of the South Park Republicans. As much as I like South Park, and agree with their general sentiment, I disagree with the specific “…I hate conservatives, but I really hate fucking liberals…” where their general sentiment is the idea that you’re either a bible-bashing redneck or a self-righteous liberal activist like Michael Moore. I feel sympathy with my fellow disaffected youth across the pond, but why don’t the Americans realise that everything that underpins America is liberal.

For Americans it seems that “liberal” has become synonymous with soft, self-serving (in the sense of personal image, rather than the financial selfishness of conservatives), smug, celebrity driven causes. In some cases it seems that “liberal” is almost seen as being …shudder… socialist!

I know there are probably millions of USAmericans that are liberal and also aware that Michael Moore is the worst sort of propagandist (the ones we all feel we have to agree with anyway), but my overwhelming impression of America is of blindingly stupid (and inevitably old and decrepit) politicians, largely ignorant masses, a healthcare system like something out of the 19th century, and of course George W Bush.

OK. Here’s the problem. Every day people go out into the world in whatever country they live in and try to earn enough money to pay the bills, feed the kids, and maybe generate a little surplus for enjoying the finer things in life. However if we’re going to do this effectively we need to compartmentalise our lives a little. Those of us who read newspapers regularly, watch TV, read blogs, and generally try and retain a feel for the world around us have to build walls between “real life” and “news life” in order to function.

By this I mean that if we were to suddenly realise exactly how lucky we are, and also realise the the existence of and the depth of the suffering and hard work of people in other countries are required to undergo to ensure we have eight different types of coffee to choose from, or innumerate plastic toys shoved into our semi-recycled child's portion meals we know damn well we shouldn't be buying but feel oddly compelled to anyway.

I don't know what we'd do if the repressed masses abroad decided they'd had enough of selfish fiscal policies and corporate-based economic repression, but I doubt it would be very pleasant for us.

Stereotypes are a neat way of compressing all the information that streams into our consciousness (or would if we paid any attention to it) into a nice, clear little labels that mean we can get on with the business of living without having to worry. This kind of mental compartmentalisation is quite important, but can be a problem as well.

The problem is stereotypes are such a damn-fine brain tool that we’re always a little reluctant to give them up.

Somewhat tortuously, this brings me back to Abby Lee. For me, the key flaw in socialism is that is replaces economic tyranny (e.g. the wage slave or the inhabitants of 19th century workhouses) with a different type of control (as in Stalinist Russia or North Korea). I think key to any reasonable socialist state is democracy which, for some reason, always seems to be lacking in radically socialist (i.e. communist) countries.

I would probably describe my own political position as secular, humanist, liberal-socialist democratic. In terms of the less-than-perfect "political spectrum" I'd say I was ever so slightly left of centre.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Tired of Life

I'm going down to London on Wednesday for a tour of UCL campus and general U of L Open Day infodumping event. Incidentally, Senate House, the central office for the Federal University of London was the home of the Ministry of (for?) Information during WWII.

It was here that George Orwell worked as a humble clerk before writing 1984, in which "The Ministiry of Truth" plays a major role as the workplace of the protagonist. Senate House contains the office that was the inspiration for the infamous "Room 101" and features as the HQ of the Ministry of Truth in the film of the book.

Friday, September 08, 2006


Sometimes I feel angry about the stupidity of our politicians and our foreign policy. I also feel angry at the stupidity and casual cruelty that seems so common in world affairs, and the general lack of any kind of meaningful liberal resistance to the tabloid-promoted moral hysteria that seems so pernicious at the moment. Nothing is quite as distasteful as reaidng some of the frenzied red-top headlines that preach for a justice that any decent person will leave in the middle ages.

Another cause for alarm is the simultaneously disquieting and ineffective initiatives of our government when it comes to combating terrorism. TJ is going to die in a mangled auto or a hospital bed: I’m not going to die in a terrorist attack. I will probably be affronted or annoyed at some point by the measures put in place to combat terrorism, but apart from the harm from that, I am statistically more likely to suffer by having myself and several members of my family killed or maimed by a freak lightening storm than I am by a terrorist outrage.

When it comes to terrorism, the objective of the terrorists is very clear. Terror. Now the fact that 52 people died on the 7th of July last year in London is shocking, awful, and horrifying. But it doesn’t exactly have me quaking in my shoes, largely because of the aforesaid improbability that the terrorists will actually get me, but also because I know that the correct response to such a (literally) self-destructive ideology is quiet pity and positive action.

What I mean by positive action is this: stop invading other countries. Apologise for the immense harms rendered on the Arabic world by Western Powers collectively, and by the British specifically (witness the “Great Game of the 19th century, and most of the 20th century). Dissacociate ourselves from TGWoT, admitting that it is essentially an excuse to wail on whoever the hell we feel like (if you’re Russian, the Chechens, if you’re Turkish, the Kurds, if you’re Israeli, the Palestinians, if you’re Indian, the Tamil Tigers…). And generally try to behave as a responsible, progressive, liberal and democratic nation should.

This is not capitulating to the terrorists. Capitulating to the terrorists would involve acting like they want us to act: big and bad and evil. We could do this by invading a bunch of other nations, or locking up a bunch of innocent people, or clamping down on our own freedoms and exposing the hypocrisy at the core of corrupt Western society. Oh wait...