Thursday, April 26, 2007

Virtual Mice Brains

Just as a series of articles(2) in various papers concerning the (un)likelihood of AI robots had left me feeling sorry that I might never live to have my skull split open and an exact replica of my mind and CNS instantiated on a supercomputer some wonderful news from researchers at IBM has shown that there is hope on the horizon.

The researchers have created a "simulation of a cortical network with the size, link complexity and signal activity of a mouse brain, but without the structure". So we know now that there is certainly no theoretical reason why a mouse brain couldn't by instantiated within a synthetic computer.

The next obvious step, presumably, is to find some way of scanning the brain of a mouse or similar creature so that we can create a virtual mouse brain. Here's a pdf write-up of the experiment.

According to the article at Open the Future by comparing the complexity of a human brain to that of a mouse we see that if Moore's Law continues we will be looking at hardware capable of running human minds within 20 years or so.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Dependency Principle

The dependency principle is an idea borrowed from Iain M. Banks' novels about the Culture. The Culture are anarchistic socialists. Their technologies allow for distributed manufacturing and a lack of scarcity.

The closest thing the Culture has to a ruling class are the superhuman "Minds" that control the numerous habitats, ships, and other infrastructure that underpins the Culture's advanced civilization.

The Minds spend a lot of their time in abstract, mathematical, pondering. They refer to the "idea space" they conjure in their imaginations as "infinite fun space". Infinite fun space is, as the name suggests, fun. Minds can lose themselves in the sheer beauty of their own imaginings.

And here the dependency principle becomes important. You can have the most marvelous virtual world imaginable, but the crucial point to remember is that it is a virtual world and is reliant on real hardware.

Something similar to the dependency principle needs to applied to civilization. Many of the things people associate most intimately with "civilization" are not, in fact, the things that are most important.

The States, the Laws, the written language, the libraries and Churches, and shops and banks - all these owe their existence to something more basic. What many of us imagine to be the yardstick of civilized societies are in fact ephemeral concepts emerging from a deeper layer of stuff (not that they are worth any less for it).

This, to paraphrase Morpheus in The Matrix, is the world that has been pulled over our eyes. As recent events in Australia have shown, the undoing of all of our wonderful structures of the mind can be something as simple as a drought. The drought damages our subsistence agriculture, and this problem gradually permeates up through the layers of our society.

If the terrible things happening in Australia were to happen worldwide, as many believe is a possibility, it would mean a drastic downsizing for our civilization. It is difficult to predict precisely what effect this would have on individuals.

A lecturer I met when I went to Manchester University's open day commented that grain is fundamental to civilization. Without grain for bread, and food for meat-animals, we could not live as we do.

Another obvious example is oil. Oil permeates every corner of our society and technical civilization. The plastics in the keyboard I am typing on will have been derived from oil. The power for the electricity that is running this PC probably came from oil or gas. Everything comes back to oil. And oil is a limited resource.

It is necessary to use our current oil-wealth to bootstrap ourselves to another level of existence. This does not mean changing any laws or states or companies. It means changing the underlying fabric of our lives, consciously deciding to change the parts of the engine that powers our civilization.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Predictions for 2100

There is a fascinating set of predictions I read, via boingboing, concerning the year 2000, originally published in the year 1900 in The Ladies Home Journal. It is interesting to see what they got wrong and what they got right. That Nicaragua, Mexico and Brazil would ask to join the USA seems a little strange now, but I don’t know the politics of the time.

I like the sound of delivering mail by pneumatic tube, though this has been made redundant by electronic communication. There is also the usual nineteenth century obsession with the “iron cavalry”. I think the way the Victorian-era intelligentsia saw “war in the air” and “the iron cavalry” in a way similar to how we see “nanotechnological grey goo” and “wirehead meat-puppets”.

I have decided to write my own list. It is inspired by the article from the December 1900 issue of The Ladies Home Journal and is based on what little I know of current developments in science and technology. I have tried to capture the same certainty and enthusiasm of the writer of that article (a Mr Watkins) when I write of the developments in fields similar to those described in The Ladies Home Journal. Enjoy:

These prophecies are based on my own thoughts and on what I have read:

Prediction #1: The population of the Earth will exceed 10 billion by the end of the 21st century. The primary axes of political power will have shifted away from the USA. China, Malaysia, India, Russia, the EU, and a powerful “African Union” will be important global players. A social problem in the EU and Japan will be an absence of young people. The loss of oil to the Middle East will not have reduced the region’s importance in global affairs, as the meeting place of the EU, Africa, and Asia, but it remains a battle ground, rather than anywhere anyone would actually want to live. There will be more than a million people in space, in near Earth orbit, the Lagrange points, and on the Moon. The industrial exploitation of the asteroids and comets will have started, and there will be permanent colonies on Mars. Human beings will have walked on Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter).

Prediction #2: The average human being will have much greater personal choice about their appearance, intelligence, skill-set, mood, strengths, and lifestyle. Advances in cyborg technology, molecular nanotechnology, genetic engineering, neurosurgery, nootropics, and biomedical engineering will allow people to purchase personal body- and neural-upgrades. Global life expectancy will be well into the 100’s, and may be pushing 200. At some point before 2100 the majority of new children will be born via artificial methods. It will be normal to have regular and frequent back-ups of a person’s neural structures to insure against sudden, accidental death.

Prediction #3: Education will be considered a public commons, given free of charge as an inalienable human right to everyone. With improved understanding of individual psychologies, nootropics (“smart drugs”) and neural augmentation people will be able to learn more, remember more, and train faster. It will be possible to “download” different skill-sets depending on what it is you have to do. Actual work may be much closer to what we today would see as “fun”. The barrier between work and play will have almost disappeared. Access to a fairly luxurious lifestyle, with access to a certain amount of power, computing-resources, clothes, accommodation, education, information, and sustenance will also be seen as an inalienable right. Lotus-eating is frowned upon by most, and those that perform the essential and important jobs are respected, and even envied, for their importance.

Prediction #4: Transport will have become heavily integrated, with no clear distinction given between “aircraft”, “ship”, “car” or “train”. A small pod about the size of a 20th century luxury sedan, immersed within a utility-fog-style gel, will automatically transport anyone wherever they wish to go on the surface of the Earth. If they want to travel a short distance the pod will be impelled through a translucent gel that will cover most of the roads and motorways. For intra-continental distances the pod will be transferred to a maglev-style railway system. For crossing between continents the pod will rendezvous with and attach to diamantine, solar-powered airships (for a relaxing cruise), or to hypersonic jet-aircraft for a faster transfer. Despite this level of integration, there is no all-controlling system that instructs each pod on how most efficiently to travel, rather the order is emergent from the actions of individual pod AI-systems.

Prediction #5: The crisis in power-sources will have been resolved by a combination of things. Machinery will have become more efficient generally, through the widespread application of molecular nanotechnology to the manufacture of materials, and in more subtle methods of cleaning clothes and houses, and transporting people. Nuclear fission will have been used “to plug the gap” between the end of fossil-fuel-based power generation and the start of extensive nanotechnological solar-based power generation and nuclear fission. Areas where nuclear waste has been stored have, ironically, become nature reserves.

Prediction #6: Valuable materials and substances will be manufactured by plant-like organisms/devices that are farmed similarly to how crops are farmed today. These plant-like organisms/devices will be a combination of the organic and the artificial, and will produce already-refined products for use in industry and at home.

Prediction #7: Over the course of the 21st century runaway military-industrial complexes will have created horrific weapons. “Wireheaded” troops will have been used by military dictators and others. These soldiers will have drug-drips and electrical charge-generators installed in their brains so that they are supernaturally loyal to their commanders. High precision manufacture of poisons and biological viruses will mean the threat of “biological terrorism” remains as high as ever. With increased general use of molecular nanotechnology, “viruses” will be designed to target nanotechnological infrastructure. These viruses will be a combination of biological viruses and computer viruses. By the end of the 21st century it will have become much easier for a small group to exert influence and control over the majority. “Meme warfare” (propaganda) will become increasingly important, as how a conflict appears to the public becomes nearly as important as the conflict itself.

Prediction #8: Several space elevators will have been built. One will have its base in Malaysia, another will have its base in equatorial Africa, and another will have its base in South America. These areas will become increasingly important economically and politically as they offer the easiest access to space. Meanwhile extremely light, safe, and efficient laser-launched spacecraft will have been built and used. These will compete with the space elevators for spacebound traffic.

Prediction #9: Surveillance will have become almost total. Because of a plethora of extremely cheap, extremely small, and extremely versatile sensory devices, including cameras, artificial olfactory sensors, and “smart dust”, privacy will have become an extremely valuable commodity. Many people will barricade their homes against outside intrusion. Some people will embrace the all-seeing panopticon, and others will campaign vigorously against it. Panopticonism and antipanopticonism will become key political standpoints. The panopticon is not created solely by any one state, but is rather composed of many overlapping interests. Businesses and corporations seek to understand the behaviour of consumers more accurately. Neighbourhood-watch groups and vigilantes, private detectives, jealous lovers, concerned parents, employers, employees, government workers, journalists, and voyeurs will all contribute to the mass of observation devices.

Prediction #10: More manufacturing will be done at the local level. Distant descendants of today’s 3D printers and CAM machines will have developed to the point where anyone with a blueprint, a computer, a source of power, and a gas-supply can build anything they want. These devices will be able to manufacture food and drink, artificial organs, drugs, tools, bicycles, books, and even whole living organisms, including people. Initially there will be several different devices that produce different types of product, but towards the end of the 21st century these will all be combined into one device. A lot of manufacturing will still occur in relatively centralised factories, but these will be much closer to the consumer than before, as manufacturing will have been made more efficient and less bad for the environment. These facilities will more closely resemble organic forests than artificial factories as we know them today. The plant-like organisms/devices will also contribute a lot to the needs of industry and individuals. The lines between agriculture, manufacturing, and refining will be blurred. There will be certain items, like very large quantities of materials, products requiring exotic isotopes, and potentially dangerous devices, that will still be produced in manufacturing facilities a long way from human habitation.

Prediction #11: Biological diseases and pests will have become less prominent, but as I mentioned earlier there are still terrorists who sometimes purposefully release harmful materials into the technosphere. Many of these are harmless or annoying, like spam-email today. Others are more potentially harmful, but can generally be avoided through good sense, like phishing emails. There are analogues to today’s computer viruses and today’s biological viruses, there are also hybrid viruses that attack the neural implants and artificial organs people use. Many people are forced to maintain an artificial immune-system on top of their natural defences, and a computational firewall on top of that.

Prediction #12: At least one permanent space-based human colony will have been created, hollowed out of asteroidal rock. This colony will be powered by vast sheets of cheaply-manufactured solar collectors. The colony will be independent and self-sufficient. “Space lanes” will be mapped across the solar system. These are regions in space that are particularly conducive to the transport of people (as most goods are manufactured on site) due to the interaction of gravitational fields. These space lanes are dynamic and constantly shifting as the planets orbit the Sun.

Prediction # 13: Small probes, propelled through space by reflective sails and lasers based in the solar system, will have been launched towards Alpha Centauri and a handful of nearby star-systems. Rather than transport large amounts of sensors and bulky communications equipment between stars, the probes are designed to latch on to small asteroids or comets in the destination system. They then manufacture communications infrastructure and larger probes for exploring the destination system. These automatic outposts also serve as observatories, enabling the creation of massive-baseline telescopes when combined with observatories in the home system.

Prediction #14: Extensive use of genetic engineering will lead to the creation of several unique species of artificial animals. These animals will be designed to human specifications. There is some controversy surrounding this practice, as it is argued that the creation of creatures that cannot live healthy lives is cruel. There will be even more controversy surrounding the creation of chimeras, or human-animal hybrids. Some animals will have their intelligence dramatically increased, even to the point where they can converse with people. This will also apply to plants, with many new and colourful species created for a variety of purposes, including in industry (see above).

I have attempted to recreate the tone and attitude of the original text. It will be interesting, if anyone is still reading weblogs in 93 years time, to see wgat they have to say about what will happen in 2200, and precisely how what I've written has been proved off-the-mark, or just wrong

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Materialist Viewpoint

I sometimes think it would be nice to strip away all the ideologies, the seemingly solid sets of mutually contradictory arguments that people latch onto because they provide a framework with which they can define themselves, and a group that they can ally themselves with.

It would be nice if we looked at things from as objective a viewpoint as possible. It is lazy to say that people can never be objective. However it is difficult to be objective, so on this occasion I won’t even try to be objective, but I will try to be sensible.

Call it the materialist viewpoint.

There are six and a half billion people in this world. Each individual is made of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and several other elements. And yet each one is more intricate and wonderful than any of the other things we can see in the universe.

The human brain is the most complex object we have yet discovered. If any one of us were given the choice between meeting Aristotle, Newton, or Shakespeare, and the opportunity to explore an entire lifeless galaxy, it is likely we would choose one of the three human beings over the galaxy.

Of these six and a half billion people many do not have the luxury of being able to consider matters of ethics, philosophy, mathematics, science, art, or culture. They live lives that we would consider to be nasty, brutish, and short.

This simply isn’t acceptable. A recent psychological survey I read claimed people were more ready to feel emotionally about the plight of individuals, rather than simply being told that a certain number of thousands of people had died for whatever reason.

This lack of emotion concerning the many people currently living in poverty may go some way to explaining why something hasn’t been done.

Some claim that western capitalist countries have influenced the global free market, through the IMF and World Bank, in order to protect their own prosperity over that of poorer countries.

I don’t know enough about economics to be able to give an opinion on this. If asked, I would say I enjoy the privilege of living in a liberal western democracy, and I would certainly agree that the state of the state I find myself living in is pretty good and I would agree that it is desirable that this state of affairs continues.

I would have expected, if it were not that I have learnt a little about human nature since I was born, that some system would be devised that would distribute the vast wealth of humanity; including all our knowledge, the resources of the Earth, and our own minds and skills, as widely as possible.

I am given to understand that inequality is rising in the developed world, and is already rampant on a global scale, and has been for centuries. That a few should have proportionally more than the many is a fact that I find very difficult to be angry about. Perhaps a few of those wealthy people did something truly useful that means they earned their fortune, many of them seem to give charitably, if perhaps not as much as I’d like them to.

But the problem is not with a few rich people. The problem is that there are a vast number of people who don’t even enjoy the standard of living I enjoy, with access to reasonable healthcare that I don’t have to pay for immediately, with effective public transport, free education, and a welfare safety net. I am also given the opportunity to do pretty much anything I’m capable of.

I am not advocating a socialist world government. The necessary extent and power of such an institution would invite corruption and mishandling. Applying democracy on a global scale, even with extensive federalisation, would be difficult. With so many diverse concerns and competing interests, no single person could reasonably be elected to a “world senate”, let alone a world presidency.

I am not especially libertarian in outlook. If you read this document closely you will notice that I mention that I consider my political views to be “liberal socialist secular humanist democratic”, roughly in that order of precedence. But again, it is necessary to put aside these tribalistic labels we apply to ourselves and simply consider the basic conditions of humanity.

I dislike pain and hunger; both of the physical, emotional, and mental variety (although I haven’t actually experienced anything I’d describe as mental pain, I suppose mental hunger would be an unsated sense of curiosity). I can model my own behaviour well enough to consider myself, as an entity. I can also model the universe around me and the people within that universe. I can project my own feelings of pain and hunger onto my model of another individual. This allows me to empathise with people.

I find it disagreeable that there are so many people experiencing pain and hunger, and that there does not seem to be any fundamental reason. There is no physical law that prevents everyone from having the chance to lead a long, healthy, and happy life. I also find it disagreeable that all those billions of unhappy people exist in my conscious as only a vague blur. I can’t really identify with any number of people over about three or four at any one time. Beyond that I use abstract tricks to deal with the immensity. Orders of magnitude and logarithms and so on, but you can’t apply a logarithm to human suffering.

It is clear that Something Needs to be Done. I'm not yet sure what It is. I suspect I will know It when I see It. It may be a slightly different way of running the global economy. It might be an invention. It might just be a way of looking at the world. Perhaps the trick is to simply allow things to carry on as they are, but constantly keep nudging events towards more favourable outcomes. It will probably take quite a long time, but I suspect we will get there eventually.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Global Warming Debate

I was interested to read this article in The Guardian on Saturday. The article is probably a spoof. If it is, then the subject does not really need to be satirised. There are some very serious problems with the way global warming is reported and discussed. The fictional writer appears glib and unfeeling of the potential human misery that climate change may cause, but nevertheless makes a few points that are worth considering:

1) "We have reliable weather statistics for only four centuries - far too short a period to make overarching judgments" - this is true. The information is from many different sources and with something like temperature (which changes locally and frequently) there are understandable problems with measurements based on secondary data from several hundred years ago (i.e. before we started measuring temperature directly).

2) "Geological evidence shows there have been violent shifts in the Earth's temperature in the distant past, so man can't be held solely responsible for dramatic changes in life. Scaremongers posit the ideal of a changeless world, but nothing stays the same" - true, but it still possible that humankind produced a small change that was unprecedented, and as such will have unprecedented consequences.

One of the problems with the current global warming debate is the combination of environmentalist ideologies and ideas of serious global warming amelioration. By this I mean whenever someone comes up with more evidence that global warming is happening and is a serious issue, they have to shout over the eschatologists, doom-mongers, green fundamentalists and other riff-raff who pollute the debate.

It is good that politicians are finally taking part in the debate, but it does rather seem that appearing "green" is more of a career move as opposed to a deeply-held conviction (c.f. David Cameron).

Then you have someone like Freeman Dyson, whose credentials as an actual scientist as opposed to a politician or commentator are impeccable. His recent comments on the paucity of real-world, as opposed to computer model, data to support the current "consensus" (not a word we should be comfortable with when concerned with something as potentially problematic as rapid climate change) of anthropogenic global warming.

Dyson could almost be the individual being satirised (I'm sure it is a spoof, [irony] the thought that a quick Google search of the man's purported name, institution, website, and book could yield no result is unthinkable [/irony]). Dyson has a theory of "A Principle of Maximum Diversity". To quote the source:

"My optimism about the long-term survival of life comes mainly from imagining what will happen when life escapes from this planet and becomes adapted to living in vacuum. There is then no real barrier to stop life from spreading through the universe. Hopping from one world to another will be about as easy as hopping from one island in the Pacific to another. And then life will diversify to fill the infinite variety of ecological niches in the universe, as it has done already on this planet."

This ties into my point that once we create a stable, self-sustaining, self-repairing, and (hopefully) benign technosphere it will evolve independently of basic homo-sapiens. It will then spread across the universe, bringing life, wonder, joy and happiness. If and when such a thing does happen it will probably be a little different, but it will still be worth watching.

Dyson goes on to comment on global warming:

"Concerning the climate models, I know enough of the details to be sure that they are unreliable. They are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behavior in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere."

This seems to be the underlying argument of most people who deny that anthropogenic global warming is a significant factor in the current trend. I am not qualified to comment on any of the issues concerned, but I do so anyway. What other use has blogging?

This issue bugs me because there seems to be so much controversy and politicking surrounding a simple question: "are human activities the cause of global warming?" It has reached the point where I'm less and less confident in expressing any opinion. I'm almost inclined to just sit back and wait for confirmation either way, but that would be lazy and thoughtless.

Maybe one day I'll know enough to know the answer. Sooner or later we'll find out. Right now we need to be concerned for the lives and livelihoods of those who will suffer because the of direct and indirect consequences of this global temperature rise, regardless of whether it is caused by people or not.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Geophysical Warning System

A while ago I mentioned that it would be a good idea to " a comprehensive network of subterranean detectors that can warn people in advance of earthquakes and other traumas..." partly because until we build a reasonable space habitat most of us will have to live on the surface of the Earth.

Fortunately it seems someone in on-task to build a solution, at least on the North American continent. The EarthScope project intends to "...
track faint tremors, measure crustal deformation and make three-dimensional maps of the earth's interior from crust to core..."

This came to my attention today through an article on BoingBoing concerning a robotic jumping flea. The robotic flea is the next step on the road to Smartdust that will be capable of moving independently, like this.

The concept of "smart dust" is astonishing enough, and is itself likely to develop into "utility fog" style systems.

The fact that this technology will ("will" with the usual requirement that civilization remain intact) become ubiquitous, cheap, and easy to use makes me a little bored with the current surveillance hysteria.

The sad fact is that we're all going to have to give our privacy an uncomfortable and self-aware handshake goodbye when Smartdust becomes an everyday part of life. There will be an enormous market for countermeasures and demands for extensive regulation for this potentially disruptive technology.

Ho-hum. But at least we'll have a geophysical warning system.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Ferrofluid Sculpture and Steven Pinker

This video of a pair of towers manipulating a magnetic fluid into extraordinary and beautiful shapes puts me in mind of how a utility fog construct might look, combining elements of solidity and fluidity in a fractal and hypnotic object.

More optimistic opinions from Steven Pinker, who comments in that deaths due to violence as a proportion of deaths overall has been decreasing over the past several decades and centuries.

Nuked-up Chinese Moon Rover

In other news from science, it seems the Chinese are planning on building a nuclear-powered remote-controlled Moon-rover.

It will be interesting to see how the USA and Europe react to the idea of the Chinese government transporting nuclear material into space.

Calorie Restriction

In order to live longer - eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and cut back on the red meat. It is reassuring to know that we won't have to starve ourselves in order to live longer, as researchers are looking for drugs that imitate the positive effects of calorie-restriction, from

"Physiological changes associated with ageing include cell damage and the emergence of cancer cells. The most important effects of low calorie diets and longevity therapeutics given late in life may not be to prevent this damage, but instead to stimulate the body to eliminate damaged cells that may become cancerous, and to stimulate repair in damaged cells like neurons and heart cells. Low calorie diets drive the body to replace and repair damaged cells. This process usually slows down as we age, but low calorie diets make the body re-synthesise and turn over more cells – a situation associated with youth and good health. Dr. Spindler and his colleagues used their screening method to search for drugs which cause pre-cancerous and cancerous cells to commit suicide and to replace those cells with new, healthy cells. It is thought that the body does this because it normally kills some cells like damaged and rogue cancer cells to provide energy when it is starving. Then it replaces these cells when a meal is eaten."

It occurs to me that a drug that made you feel less hungry would do essentially the same thing, although this could have rather unpleasant side-effects.

It also seems that you should eat a very nutritious diet on top of the calorie-restriction.