April 30, 2004

DNA 2.0

It's the hardware/software system that manages the contruction and ongoing maintenance of the human body. Now some genius wants to upgrade it — actually, replace it with a whole new system.

And I mean that quite sincerely. The genius is none other than Ray Kurzweil:

Ray Kurzweil has proposed a nanobiotechnology research program to replace the cell nucleus and ribosome machinery with a nanocomputer and nanobot to prevent diseases and aging and another program to create defensive technologies against rogue designer viruses.

Kurzweil presented the ideas in a keynote at the recent "Breakthrough Technologies for the World's Biggest Problems" conference on April 28, sponsored by the Arlington Institute.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 12:48 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The Singularity and Convergence

One working definition of the Technological Singularity is "that point in time when our ability to meaningfully predict the future falls to zero." This definition has a negative connotation. It emphasizes the scariest aspect of the Singularity rather than the benefits of accelerating change. Many other definitions have been offered:
[The Singularity has been] defined by Vernor Vinge as the postulated point or short period in our future when our self-guided evolutionary development accelerates enormously (powered by nanotechnology, neuroscience, AI, and perhaps uploading) so that nothing beyond that time can reliably be conceived. …usually the Singularity is meant as a future time when societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we cannot even imagine what will happen from our present perspective, and when humanity will become posthumanity. Another definition is the singular time when technological development will be at its fastest.
Here's Kurzweil's explanation:
I think that once a nonbiological intelligence (i.e., a machine) reaches human intelligence in its diverse dimensions, it will necessarily soar past it because (i) computational and communication power will continue to grow exponentially, (ii) machines can master information with far greater capacity and accuracy already and most importantly, machines can share their knowledge. We don't have quick downloading ports on our neurotransmitter concentration patterns, or interneuronal connection patterns. Machines will.

We have hundreds of examples of "narrow AI" today, and I believe we'll have "strong AI" (capable of passing the Turing test) and thereby soaring past human intelligence for the reasons I stated above by 2029. But that's not the Singularity. This is "merely" the means by which technology will continue to grow exponentially in its power.

…If we can combine strong AI, nanotechnology and other exponential trends, technology will appear to tear the fabric of human understanding by around the mid 2040s by my estimation. However, the event horizon of the Singularity can be compared to the concept of Singularity in physics. As one gets near a black hole, what appears to be an event horizon from outside the black hole appears differently from inside. The same will be true of this historical Singularity.

Once we get there, if one is not crushed by it (which will require merging with the technology), then it will not appear to be a rip in the fabric; one will be able to keep up with it.
I don't know if what I'm about to write is a symptom of an upcoming Singularity or an alternate definition. You be the judge.

As time goes by all lines of scientific inquiry are converging. The distinctions between various branches of science are breaking down. Nanotechnology, for example, is a convergence of biology, chemistry, physics, and electronics. Consider this:
DNA computer could fight cancer

New computers made of biological molecules that react to DNA hold the promise to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer by operating like doctors inside the body, Israeli scientists said.

The devices, used in test-tube experiments, already have demonstrated the ability to identify and then destroy prostate and lung cancer cells…
You might argue that these molecules are not really computers, that these scientists are just using the word "computer" as a metaphor. They would disagree.
Shapiro's team originally designed biological computers to compete against electronic computers. The field began in 1994, when computer scientist Len Adleman at the University of Southern California proposed how DNA could be used in solving certain important mathematical calculations, such as the so-called "traveling salesman problem," critical in planning any kind of deliveries in a complex network, from shipping freight to scheduling airline flights to transmitting data packets on the Internet.

The problem is that although a single drop of water can have trillions of biological computers working on a single problem, they moved slowly compared with electronics "and unreliably also," Bennett explained. Because the biological computer concept did not look as if it could vie with electronics on general computing and win, Shapiro said he decided to "go back and do something useful with it."
You know, something mildly productive like curing cancer. O.K., so when do we get it?
their creators cautioned it could be decades before such biological computers find their way into medicine…
Decades? Really?
Had you asked me a year ago when we started how long it would take to reach the milestone we reached today, I'd have said 10 to 15 years," Shapiro said. "We are still overwhelmed by what we achieved. It took us less time than we thought."
Here's a thought experiment. Let's assume that Israel delivers a comprehensive cure for cancer in a few years. Can the world remain anti-Semitic? I hate to be pessimistic, but I'm betting it can. Discuss.

Back on topic: if all lines of scientific inquiry are converging, can an alternate definition of the Singularity be "that point in time when all questions are reduced to one?" I really don't think so. The lines of inquiry may be converging, but the number of questions seem to be expanding.

More Singularity reading.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:05 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 29, 2004

Who is This "Stephen" Guy

Stephen Gordon is an attorney who has been practicing law in Shreveport, Louisiana for seven years.

He was born in 1969 in the country of Panama to his father, a U.S. Airforce Captain, and to his mother, a Mathematics instructor. He returned with his family to the United States as a baby and attended grades K-12 in Shreveport.

Stephen was always a mediocre student in school until he was forced to take a 10th grade English correspondence course. Through that experience he learned the joy of active learning. No longer content to sit passively absorbing information in the classroom, his grades improved and he entered college hungry for success.

Stephen finished a Bachelor of Science degree in three years from East Texas Baptist University in Marshal, Texas; then he obtained an MBA degree from Milsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi; and finally he law degree from Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, Mississippi.

In 1992 he married his college sweetheart Sheralyn McFaul. Stephen and Sheralyn are the proud parents of three sons aged six, four, and < 1.

In 1991 Stephen had a brush with national infamy when he and his brothers thought they saw a small black bear perched in a tall tree near their home. Being good citizens, they called the authorities. Numerous sheriff's deputies, game wardens, and a wildlife biologist rushed to the scene to try to capture the bear. As night fell spotlights, nets, and tranquilizer darts were deployed. When the tranqed bear did not fall, desperate agents cut the tree down and discovered a heavily sedated black garbage bag. Stephen had hoped to keep the whole thing quiet. It didn't stay quiet. He looks back now and realizes this experience gave him much needed humility.

Stephen had another important formative experience when he took a college field trip to a sedentary rock outcrop near Waco, Texas. During that trip he saw and helped excavate fossils from the rock that showed progressive biological complexity. Coming to accept the theory of evolution as "the way it happened" challenged Stephen's Christian faith, but did not destroy it.

Stephen has been interested in science since early childhood. Today, he hopes to be a life-long scholar and amateur speculist throughout an extended lifespan.

Stephen's optimism about our technological future is a reflection of Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws:

  1. "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

  2. "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."

  3. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Whatever the future holds, Stephen hopes to "live to see it."

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Accelerating Change is Everywhere

The Technology Singularity may be a ways off yet, but I wonder if we aren't heading to some kind of Communications Singularity. Media and public reaction to events is speeding up along what appears to be a geometric curve.

Let's compare that to a space-time singularity (such as is created by a black hole). At the black hole's event horizon, time comes to a standstill. Beyond the event horizon, within the singularity, space and time as we know them cease to exist. What does that mean? Can time flow backwards? Can effects precede causes? Maybe.

Consider, then, this snippet from Andrew Sullivan:

KREEPING KAUSISM: Mickey - "The Sky Is Falling!" - Kaus has been hyperventilating (most entertainingly) for months about the execrable nature of the Kerry candidacy. Now we have the Village Voice and New York Observer piling on. What do you call post-election recriminations six months before an election?

I'd say that it's proof of one or more of the following:

  1. The early bird catches the worm.

  2. Events unfold a lot faster than they used to.

  3. Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws. *

Discuss.

Speculist University Shield.JPG


* Douglas Adams via Kathy Hanson.

Posted by Phil at 10:10 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 28, 2004

Glenn Reynolds on Nanotech's first IPO

Don't miss Glenn's Tech Central Station column: "Beyond the Nano-Hype."

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Here Comes the Drain Again

I finished reading Atkinson's Nanocosm last night. It is a great read for anybody who has an interest in the state of the art (well, last year's state of the art – this industry moves quickly) in nanotechnology.

I'm even beginning to understand some of Atkinson's criticisms of Drexler. He saved his best anti-Drexler bombshell for the last chapter, "Nano-Pitfalls." Still, my one criticism of the book is the repetitive and tiresome attacks on Drexler:
K. Eric Drex, K. Eric Drex / The man who dispensed with reality checks
I'm not kidding. That's an actual quote from page 145. I can just imagine Drexler responding, "Oh yeah? I'm rubber and you're glue…"

Any good book needs both protagonists and antagonists. Atkinson's book is filled with worthy protagonists from around the world, but he settled for just the one antagonist. There were better choices. He came close to finding one in this conversation with Dr. Tsunenori Sakamoto, "deputy director of international affairs for AIST, Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology":
"[Japanese] revenue from semiconductor chips peaked in 1987, when Japan had 50 percent of theworld market and the U.S. had 35 percent or so…since then the U.S. has had a steady gain and Japan a study decline. Our latest figures show the U.S. with 57 percent of the world market, more than we had fifteen years ago. Japan's share is down to 29 percent and apparently, still falling… [said Sakamoto]"

…I strongly suspect that the sales curves he's showing me are capital-investment curves, shifted five years to the right… I ask him about this…

"What is there to say? In the 1970's, when money was much more scarce, Japan somehow found nearly $600 million U.S. to capitalize its semiconductor R&D. That subsequently paid off twenty times over. But we got complacent…

[From page 221]
Atkinson should have targeted as antagonists (as Phil did yesterday) those who have become complacent about R&D spending in the U.S. and elsewhere. We are cutting back in many areas of research and simultaneously making it more difficult for foreign brainpower to come to our country. I understand our need for defense in this dangerous time, but this doesn't bode well for the U.S. in the next five to ten years.

And what are Japan's goals?
Dr. Tsunenori Sakamoto showed me an AIST chart that divided nanotechnology into various areas-electronics, smart structures, materials, pharmaceuticals. Each area fell into one of three categories. The first was Japan Dominates in Three Years. The second was Japan Dominates in Ten Years. The third was Japan Dominates in Twenty Years. No area whatsoever was allotted a category for second place.

[from page 254]
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April 27, 2004

Research Losing Funding

FuturePundit Randall Parker comments on the many cuts in scientific research spending that the Bush administration has proposed:

Why does Bush think the US can not afford to spend more on science? Lots of reasons. Bush has signed into law a prescription drug benefit that is going to cost $534 billion over the next decade (and that estimate is probably low if past Medicare entitlement spending estimates are indicative). This is especially worrisome because as government spending on drugs increases the pressure to implement drug price controls will increase as well. By reducing the profitability of new drug development and price controls would lead to a drop in private sector funding of medical research. Other entitlements for the elderly are set to grow. The Iraq war and occupation are adding hundreds of billions of more costs. Bush is effectively robbing the future to pay for more immediate demands of various interest groups and for his expensive foreign policy pursuits.

I know my libertarian friends will argue that these cuts are a good thing, that research is best funded through private channels, etc. I'm inclined to agree with these arguments in principle, but the reality seems to be that a lot of valuable research will go unfunded if the government doesn't back it.

And maybe it should.

On the other hand, as Randall deftly points out, maybe the government needs to recognize that some research that is currently being cut might just hold the key to its own future solvency:

Biological research can lengthen our lives, make us healthier, smarter, and generally more capable. The biological research will eventually produce treatments that will extend youth and middle age. This will increase the length of time that people can work and therefore would allow us to entirely avoid the financial catastrophe of tens of billions of dollars of unfunded liabilties for care for the elderly that is looming as a growing fraction of the population becomes too old to work. The acceleration of anti-aging and rejuvenation research is the best way to solve the demographic problem of aging populations. See Aubrey de Grey's writings on strategies of engineered negligible senescence for a roadmap of the types of research we ought to be pursuing that could save us tens of trillions of dollars in money that will otherwise have to be spent on the aged. The ability to reverse aging will also unleash huge increases in productivity and economic growth that would produce orders of magnitude more wealth than the cost of the research spent to make it possible.

Energy research in another area which can pay itself back many times over. Newer energy technologies will reduce trade deficits, make our air healthier to breathe, and reduce the threat of terrorism by reducing the financial flows to the Middle East. Another benefit will be greatly reduced defense costs. Instead of cutting energy research we ought to launch a major effort at an additional $10 billion dollars per year aimed at obsolescing oil by pursuing research into a number of alternatives. While Bush purports to be big on national defense he misses the obvious point that energy policy is an essential element of national security policy and energy policy is going to become more important for national security in the future.

If we're going to have a government that spends lavishly anyhow, is it too much to ask them to invest some money in areas that will save us in the long run? I'm aware of the argument that says that if we just cut all the lavish government spending, there would be plenty of money in the private sector to fund anti-aging, oil obsolescence, etc. But I also recognize the fact that that isn't going to happen. Not any time soon, anyhow. Meanwhile, we're racking up debt and ignoring the approaches we might take to mitigate that debt.

Why?

Posted by Phil at 10:41 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 26, 2004

ITF #134

In the Future...

...mice will live forever.


Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.


UPDATE: Reason has more on Yoda's long-delayed and yet untimely passing over on Fight Aging.

Posted by Phil at 04:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Rocky Mountain Bloggers

Our good friend Zombyboy is hosting the seventh edition of the Rocky Mountain Blogger Round-up over at ResurrectionSong. High-altitude blogging: potential X Games event or lifestyle choice? You be the judge.

Posted by Phil at 08:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Academic Freedom is Only Skin Deep

If that.

GeekPress has the scoop on a Boston University dermatologist who has been fired for daring to suggest that a few minutes of unprotected sun exposure every once in a while might not kill you outright, that in fact it might be good for you:

Holick cites a number of benefits to such moderate sunlight exposure, including prevention of osteoporosis, decreased levels of depression, and some new work indicating decreased risk of breast and prostate cancers.

Both the department head who fired him and the head of the professional association who was asked to comment on the matter used the words "irresponsible" and "dangerous" in justifying the decision to fire the man. There have also been suggestions that Holick has some unwholesome connections with the tanning bed industry. He denies that there was any influence. I tend to wonder whether the tanning guys didn't seek him out after they learned what his views were.

There are three possibilities, here:

  1. He has a point.
  2. He's wrong, but he's honestly mistaken.
  3. He's deliberately misleading the public for financial gain.

The Department of Dermatology and the American Academy of Dermatology both seem to hold the opinion that either (2) or (3) are grounds for termination. Actually, it's unclear to me whether they even care whether (1) might be true. Apparently they have sufficient and final knowledge on the dangers of UV raditation. New, controversial opinions — whether based on research or not — will not be entertained or tolerated.

Of course, they're right about (3), but the other two? How much free inquiry will take place when scholars know that their research had better lead to the "correct" conclusions or else? If doing sound research is no excuse, the answer is "very little." If being right is no excuse, the answer is "none."

Posted by Phil at 08:17 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

April 23, 2004

Failure to Communicate

Right now I'm working on four books – and that's a bad habit. I should start a book and finish it before taking up another. I end up getting the ideas from different books jumbled up together. Is it really true that President Taft broke the four minute mile? That just doesn't seem right. Anyway, the current books are: All of these books are, so far, very interesting and I recommend them all. Oryx and Crake is a very dark dystopian novel that's not for everyone. It's a weird and depressing cross between Frankenstein, Mad Max, and the book of Genesis.

Nanocosm is interesting combination of breathless anticipation of the future of nanotechnology and utter disdain for Drexler. At several points in the book the writer, William Atkinson, is not at all shy about expressing his low opinion of Eric Drexler.

I wanted to dislike Atkinson's book (he and Modzelewski would probably get along great), but at the same time I got caught up in his enthusiasm for nanotech's possibilities. For example, Atkinson has no problem with the concept of molecular self-assembly. I found myself wondering why he dislikes Drexler's ideas so much.

I can't help but think that Atkinson would hate Drexler's ideas less if he understood them better. Atkinson's problem is that he envisions Drexler's nanobot as an atom-sized R2D2. If that is what Drexler really has in mind, I would agree. If you had to make R2D2 the size of an atom, what exactly would R2D2 be made of?

Drexler's vision of nano is not macroengineering made small. Perhaps part of the problem here is the term "nanobot." The "bot" suffix obviously is short for "robot." Nanobots, obviously, will not look like R2D2. They will be more like viruses, bacteria, or a protein.

A good example is the work being done at Sandia National Laboratories. (Newsweek via KurzweilAI):
Called a motor protein, it has two little feet on one end and a tail that can grab things on the other. Once a special chemical is added to the solution in which it resides, the protein begins moving along strands of fiber that are one-fifth the width of a human hair, says Bruce Bunker, a Sandia researcher who's in charge of the project.

He's betting that his experiment could play a part in heralding the arrival of a new era in manufacturing…

…scientists recently have made so much headway in designing artificial molecules that self-assemble in a predictable pattern -- an outgrowth of steady increases in research funding for such projects worldwide.

About one-quarter of the 2,000 or so nanotechnology projects the National Science Foundation now sponsors involve self-assembly -- and funding for nanotechnology should grow about 20% year-over-year, to $305 million, in fiscal 2005, says Roco. Total federal nanotech funding through a program called the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which Roco helps coordinate, should reach nearly $1 billion next year.

…Even that figure is likely to be overshadowed by private funding.
The big dream of nanotech is to develop self-assembling molecules that work at our direction. This is what Drexler and Atkinson both envision. What we've got here is... failure to communicate.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:47 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 22, 2004

The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

Yesterday Reason from "FightAging.Org" pointed to the remarkable allegorical tale, "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant," that is about to be published in The Journal of Medical Ethics.

There is no need for me to annotate this tale. The writer, Nick Bostrom, does a fine job of this himself after the tale.
It matters which stories we tell ourselves. Narrative templates structure our knowledge of the world and help us make sense of the situations we find ourselves in...

Traditionally, stories about aging have typically focused on the need for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to diminishing vigor and impending death was resignation coupled with an effort to achieve closure in our personal relationships and in our practical affairs. Given that there was nothing that anybody could do to prevent or retard aging, this focus made sense. Rather than fretting about the inevitable, it was wiser to concentrate on wrapping things up and aim for peace of mind.

Today, our situation is different... Stories and ideologies that council passive acceptance of aging are now no longer harmless sources of consolation. They are reckless and dangerous impediments to urgently needed action.
This fable clarifies the issues and ethics of life extension. Don't miss this.

Here's my comments on these issues back in February.

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April 21, 2004

Engineering Space Warships

The eminent engineer blogger, Steven Den Beste, considers the "critical characteristics of space warships."

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:54 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A Meme is Born

After 130 plus outings here in the Speculist (provided by some of the finest minds in the blogosphere), In the Future has sprouted up in a new and different blog. There are some wonderful predictions, here -- some touching on subjects that we've been dealing with extensively, others about items of interest that I've meant to write about but haven't yet. (Homestarrunner, for example. "And the Trogdor comes in the NIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!!!!!")

And many that I don't think any of us would have ever thought of -- the Goodnight Moon and pet predictions, for example.

Great stuff, Mary. Keep 'em coming.

Posted by Phil at 11:46 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 20, 2004

Affordable Beauty

Randall Parker comments on some interesting recent research on fat metabolism in sheep which suggests that powerful new treatments for obesity may be on the horizon:

Think about what the future will look like once weight control becomes possible by use of safe pharmaceuticals. Obesity will become rare. Given that substantial advances are being made in our understanding of both appetite and fat cell operation and also given that the rate of advance in biotechnology as a whole is accelerating it seems most likely that 20 years from now obesity will be a rare condition and mostly will be found either in people who want to be fat for some reason (e.g. for a movie role or for an extreme cold weather sport) or who have some unusual desire to be fat.

Before obesity becomes a rare condition I expect we will first witness the near total disappearance of both corrective glasses and contact lenses. While LASIK and other technologies for reshaping lenses are making some in-roads in fixing eyesight problems the real promising advances are coming from the ability to replace aged hard lenses with soft and flexible lenses. See my previous posts on this here and here.

Stephen wrote something similar to this a while back

A once-a-day oral medication that limits absorption from the digestive tract aids the battle against obesity. It quickly becomes the most prescribed medication in the history of the country. Some predict that exercise will be abandoned in favor of pill-popping. The opposite happens as Americans get out and enjoy their healthier bodies.

Health considerations aside, the elimination of obesity and any need for corrective eyeware strikes down two of the five factors contributing to "ugliness," going by the old schoolyard definition. For those who can't remember those days, I believe a person could be branded as "ugly" for possessing any of the following characteristics:

  1. Disproportionate height-to-weight ratio

  2. Eyeglasses

  3. Buck teeth, irregular teeth, dental work

  4. Skin blemishes

  5. Unusually large nose or ears

No doubt there were others. Any facial or physiological assymetry ran the risk of being branded ugly. But I think the five listed above capture the vital 80%. For the record, I have (over the years) met four of those five criteria.

Eyeglasses were an endangered species before Lasik. From the time contact lenses were introduced, they've been on the way out. Tremendous strides in dermatology, orthodonture, and plastic surgery have brought items 3-5 under control, although still at a substantial cost. Obesity remains a tough nut to crack, addressed generally through behavorial changes, which are difficult to implement and maintain; or radical surgery, which most people would be inclined to avoid.

Nonetheless, we seem to be moving rapdily towards an age when all of these "conditions" will be "curable." Moreover, the cures promise to become decreasingly expensive and traumatic. The Age of Affordable Beauty looms. How will we distinguish ourselves in such an age? Will smaller differences become more important? Or will looks cease to matter as much to us as they have in the past?

Maybe ugly will make a comeback. Consider this passage from William Gibson's Neuromancer (from whence I appropriated the phrase "affordable beauty"):

The bartender's smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it.

Hang on to those physical imperfections, folks. They may be the stuff of tomorrow's hip, retro look.


Posted by Phil at 10:17 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

ITF #133

In the Future...

...only those of us clever enough to be registered Independents will be able to elude the brain scans.


Futurist: M104 member and Speculist co-blogger Stephen Gordon, by way of InstaPundit.

Posted by Phil at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 19, 2004

ITF #132

In the Future...

...all of Philip K. Dick's short stories will come true.


Futurist: M104 member Chris Hall (our all-time favorite Rocket Scientist), who is back blogging up a storm. Pay him a visit!

Posted by Phil at 10:02 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

ITF #131

In the Future...

...robots will be buried with full military honours.


Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.

Posted by Phil at 09:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Another Path for Ramona

One problem that is obvious to anyone who has had a conversation with chatbots is their limited general knowledge. They are often programmed to steer the conversation in certain predictable patterns – toward those areas in which they have some knowledge. Perhaps if the chatbot knew more, it could let the user lead the conversation – perhaps like a conversational version of "Ask Jeeves." Even if the chatbot took the lead, it would be much more interesting if it had wide general knowledge.

Late last month I suggested that the Ramona chatbot could be enhanced by distributed computation and training. The idea was to give Ramona the spare computation of each computer in which she is installed. Also, each user could become a trainer. This would allow Ramona to grow more sophisticated over time (because her available processing power will grow and because she will be learning continually) while serving each user as an intelligent agent.

Kurzweil A.I. published an article this morning about another way of enhancing Ramona and other chatbots - a way that has the virtue of being immediately obtainable.

Two valuable tools for A.I. researchers and enthusiasts are AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language) and the OpenCyc inference engine. Before now there was no good way for AIML programmers to utilized OpenCyc. That is now changing.
The AIML-OpenCyc combination made possible by CyN (CYc + program N) "allows one of the largest, continuous AI projects to be accessed by one of the largest chatbot development communities," says Daxtron Laboratories chief scientist Kino H. Coursey. That means that "hundreds of person-years of Cycorp commonsense research is now accessible through an easy-to-use scripting front-end, and chatbots now have access to logic and inference. The lack of logic has been one of the big criticisms of chatbots.
Is this the Promontory Point between general knowledge and machine intelligence? Time will tell, but the combination of an easy to use A.I. programming language and "the world's largest and most complete general knowledge base and commonsense reasoning engine" has to be an important development for the field.

UPDATE: More from Future Norway

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April 14, 2004

Kass Interview is Available

The Leon Kass interview I wrote about Monday is now available "on demand" at Sage Crossroads.

The transcript is also ready.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:42 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

No Matter What, He's Wrong

Let's file this one under what might have been. This is required reading.


via GeekPress

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April 13, 2004

Respecting Life

M104 Posse member Kathy claims to be afflicted by "BiPolar Political Affective Disorder." You might be suffering from BiPPAD if...
You volunteer at Birthright International and you're keeping an open mind about stem cell research."

People that share these viewpoints are rare, but they shouldn't be. Both viewpoints show a respect for life. The vast majority of Americans would give some legal protection to the unborn at some point in the pregnancy. For example, most Americans were troubled by the partial-birth abortion procedure.

The key battleground is where society says that human life begins.

Clearly, both the sperm and egg are alive and they have the potential of being part of a new human, but few would offer legal protection to gametes. The crude and hilarious "Every Sperm is Sacred" song is effective satire because almost nobody would adopt that thinking.

Most pro-lifers would say that human life begins at conception. The famous stem cell researcher Dr. Michael West is sympathetic to the pro-life position, but in his book The Immortal Cell he argues for a different starting point for human life. Human life, he says, begins at differentiation.

Before differentiation a fertilized egg might fail to develop (as occurs when the fertilized egg is unsuccessful in attaching to the uterine wall - this happens about half of the time). Or the fertilized egg might become a single human. It could become two humans in the case of identical twins. A fertilized egg might even become part of a human in the rare case of a chimera – where two fertilized eggs develop together into a single embryo.

If a fertilized egg has the potential in nature of being no human, part of a human, one human, or two humans, the destiny of a fertilized egg is objectively undetermined – much like the undetermined nature of the gametes that formed it.

Once differentiation has occurred the destiny is fixed. The fertilized egg is now one human, two humans, or part of a human. After that point Dr. West argues that the embryo(s) have crossed a medical threshold – the beginning of individual human life.

If you accept Dr. West's argument, then you can be a rare thing - a pro-lifer that supports embryonic stem cell research. Why? Because the most valuable stem cells must be harvested before differentiation - before human life begins.

A pro-lifer's respect for human life should not end at birth. Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to alleviate the pain of those suffering from disease. It could even led to treatment for the universal condition of aging. These noble goals demand careful consideration of when human life begins.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:35 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 12, 2004

Kass Alone At The Crossroads

I caught bits and pieces of the Sage Crossroads webcast today. Since it will probably be a few days before this interview is posted in the Sage archive, I thought I'd share some highlights of what I heard.

Normally Sage Crossroads webcasts are set up as debates. Today was a simple interview, but it was an interview of Dr. Leon Kass, the chairman of the Presidents Council on Bioethics. When I "tuned in" Kass was arguing that life extension could retard full maturation of young people - a Seinfeld effect (yes, he brought up Seinfeld television show). Young people could become disinclined to take full responsibility for their lives - living in a semi-adolescence that goes on and on.

This might happen. So what? If the older generation is living and working longer, why not have a 40-year adolescence? In fact, this additional maturation time might aid society in a number of ways. If the preceding generation is still at the height of its capabilities and is not relinquishing control, wouldn't it be best for the younger generation to be living like Seinfeld? I'd prefer Seinfeld to revolutionaries.

Once this extended adolescence has ended, presumably these younger people will have greater experience and will be more mature than when the prior generation took charge at an earlier age.

The interviewer, Morton Kondracke, asked whether Kass is concerned about whether an indifinite lifespan could cause society to stagnate, to become "set in it's ways."

Kass mentioned some examples of older people being creative but added that people after age 50 rarely change their way of looking at the world. Stagnation, would, therefore, become a problem.

Not to be too cute, but Kass himself is a good example of this problem. It would seem that he would like to get back to the days when the barren died childless rather than have a test tube baby. And he would like to get back to those golden days (that never existed) when sex was had solely to procreate. To those days when ice cream was consumed in the privacy of one's own home.

I believe people get "set in their ways" because of the specter of death. As people get older they are both less likely to pursue further education (what's the point?) and they become further removed from the education they have obtained. As they begin to retire from society, they will often become nostalgic for old ideas.

These tendencies will be postponed by life extension, not eliminated and not prolonged. This argument against life extension is a variation on the "I don't want to live for twenty years decaying in an nursing home" idea. Obviously the goal of life extension is not to prolong decay, but to provide additional healthy years.

I think it’s illogical for Kass to argue on one hand that life extension will prolong adolescence and, on the other hand, that those over fifty will be just as "set in their ways" as in the past. Am I to believe that Jerry Seinfeld is moving strait from the Manhattan apartment with the hanging bicycle to a Florida retirment village and early-bird dinners? I don't buy it. Instead, I would expect a prolonged adolescence, followed by prolonged middle years and then a slow decline.

It was shortly after this that Kass got spooky. He said, in essence that there is no question that longer life would be fulfilling for many. But this may be a situation where society as a whole suffers more than individuals benefit.

In other words, because society might be inconvenienced if our lives are prolonged, we should all accept our fate and die with a little dignity for crying out loud! I find this point of view to be abhorrent – particularly in a public servant who is responsible for setting policy.

Our country is set up to protect the individual (who has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) from undue demands from society. Americans are not big on protecting society from change. If the U.S. is pulled from the life extension race, it will postpone the arrival of life extension, but it will come. And if it came under those circumstances, it might be controlled by elites. If THEY can decide we shouldn't have it, by the same logic why shouldn't THEY decide who can have it when it gets here?

Morton asked whether he, Kass, would eliminate life extension research if he could. Kass began by saying he couldn't eliminate this research even if he wanted to. This is no lie. He can't eliminate it. But he can retard its development and drive some of this research overseas. If life extension is possible, delay could kill millions.

Kass mentioned that he was against therapeutic cloning because it could lead to reproductive cloning. Yes, and driving could lead to drive-by shootings. Kass seems to actually be against our learning the techniques of therapeutic cloning – as if the knowledge itself could be dangerous.

Kass then descended into psycho-babble saying that we don't know what the elimination of sorrow will do to the human spirit. Does anyone think that a prolonged life will eliminate sorrow? If anything you will have more opportunity to experience sorrow. In fact, if you eliminate aging as a cause of death, a larger percentage of the population will die violently than before. You are, in effect, trading a peaceful death soon, for the chance of being offed by a jealous lover in a couple of centuries.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:51 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 09, 2004

The Space Age Begins

No, not 47 years ago with Sputnik.

Yesterday, a pilot named Peter Siebold flew a rocket-powered craft to a height of 105,000 feet, reaching a speed of just over Mach 2. It sounds like one of the daring rocket plane test flights that the Air Force conducted in the 50's and 60's, but there's a difference.

A huge difference.

The flight was not funded by any government. It was approved by the US government — specifically, the FAA. In fact, it was the first sub-orbital rocket flight ever to be licensed by the FAA. In a few days, I'll be flying from Denver to New York. The flight I'm booked on is also FAA-approved.

Of course, these two flights are pretty different. But they have something in common with each other that Siebold's flight does not have with the aforementioned rocket test flights of years gone by. Both are private ventures, activities that the government may regulate, but that private citizens and private industry create and manage.

Space travel is no longer a government monopoly.

I reiterate: the Space Age has begun.

Posted by Phil at 11:47 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

April 08, 2004

He's no Captain Picard

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

Still, if Glenn is going to talk the talk, he needs to get his terminology straight. The phrase is not "let it be so."

It's make it so.

Okay, Glenn? Got it? Good.

Engage.

Posted by Phil at 11:45 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

DNA Error Checking Evolves

Matt and George's debate about mutation brought an idea to mind. Here it is for you guys to shoot down if I'm "out to lunch."

During times that the environment is stable - the climate is stable and and a particular species' niche is well-defended and other niches are unavailable, there is selective pressure to improve error checking within that species so as to decrease mutations. This slows evolution to a crawl.

When the environment is unstable there is selective pressure to decrease DNA error checking. This will speed evolution.

This is how the selective pressure is brought to bear:

Let's say two individuals, A and B, are born into a species that is well-adapted to a niche within a stable climate and other niches are unavailable. A is born with DNA error checking efficiency of 95% and B has DNA error checking efficiency of 97%. Other than this difference let's assume that A and B are identical. Let's also assume that both A and B are successful at having children and that their children inherit the DNA error checking efficiency of their respective fore-bearers.

As time passes B's descendents will be marginally more successful than A's descendents. Why? Because B's family will have fewer mutants. And a mutation is not likely to be beneficial when the climate is stable and the niche is well-defended and other niches are unavailable. Under these circumstances greater error checking efficiency is a positive adaptation. B's family prospers as A's family begins to lose ground to B.

But then something happens. The climate changes, the dinosaurs are wiped out, whatever. Both the population of family A and family B plummet. But after a long time it is A's family that rebounds while family B flirts with extinction. Why? Family A is in a better position to quickly adapt to the changing environment. Family A has more mutants than B and any given mutation has a greater chance of being beneficial in this new environment. The old adaptations no longer serve in the new environment. Both A and B must change, but A is better able to do so.

In times of crisis niches will open up. Family A will also be in a better position to exploit the new ground.

This idea is almost certainly old news. Could someone point me to more information on it?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:39 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 07, 2004

ITF #131

In the Future...

...Final Fantasy XVII will be part of the curriculum at all the top medical schools.


via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 08:54 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 06, 2004

Life Extension Soon

Last month I posted some speculations about the next ten years. Here's what I wrote about life extension:
[Before 2014] the first tentative steps are taken toward life extension. By 2014, life extension enthusiasts have reason to believe that "escape velocity" has been reached in this field – each year brings more than a year's improvement in life expectancy. Nevertheless, age reversal remains elusive.
Michael West's book, The Immortal Cell, gives me reason to hope for some form of life extension - something less than escape velocity - within the next ten years. Dr. West is a pioneer in the field of therapeutic cloning. His studies have shown that when the genetic material of an adult somatic cell is used in cloning, infant stem cell results. Our aging is reversed in the "time machine" of conception.

It's not difficult for Dr. West to imagine effective life extension therapies resulting from this and related technology:
…I am particularly intrigued about the possibilities of making young bone marrow stem cells. These cells normally reside inside our largest bones…and give rise to all of our blood cells. As we age, these cells progressively lose their telomeres and become dysfunctional. As a result, the elderly have greater difficulty mounting immune responses to the flu and other infections…

…young bone marrow stem cells made by therapeutic cloning would be indistinguishable from those that you and I had when we were born. And these cells are relatively easy to transfer back into the body of an older patient. They can be simply infused into the blood vessel in the arm, and they will migrate through the blood and eventually take up residence in the bone marrow to make young blood cells instead of the old ones. This single application of therapeutic cloning in geriatric medicine could improve the lives of millions. If so, it would be the first time in history that geriatric medicine applied scientific knowledge of the aging process in such a profound manner.
Dr. West also speculates that a similar process would allow us infuse the bones of elderly patients with endothelial precursor stem cells. These cells are involved in replacing the cell linings of blood vessels. Aging of these cells is thought to be a cause of coronary artery disease.
The impact of such an exciting new therapy [infusion of endothelial precursor stem cells] could extend beyond atherosclerosis to heart failure, geriatric skin ulcers, and many other manifestations of the aging process.
The Korean achievement occurred after Dr. West published The Immortal Cell. Otherwise he would no doubt have spent a chapter explaining the achievement and it's implications. To recap: A South Korean team of scientists announced in February 2004 that they have obtained a new embryonic stem cell line by cloning an adult woman.

All that remains to achieve Dr. West's vision is for the Korean team to coax these stem cells into becoming bone marrow stem cells and endothelial precursor stem cells that can be injected into the blood stream of the patient. This could mean newborn blood and newborn vessel lining for the female patient who donated the original somatic cell.

This will be far simpler than growing organs in a vat. And if this sort of treatment is made available to all, perhaps the need for replacement organs would be reduced anyway.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:31 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

April 05, 2004

Evolution: We Ignore It At Our Peril

Matt of mattandnancy.org wrote the following in a comment to "It's Life Jim:"
Evolutionary theory has the same problem [it cannot be observed or subjected to experiment]. We have NEVER witnessed an organism going from simple to more complex, i.e., the generation of new DNA information, we have only witnessed speciation (Darwin's finches). We witness destructive evolution, not creative evolution. In thermodynamics would be called entropy...

It takes as much faith (I would argue that it takes more) to believe in evolution as it takes to believe in creationism.
I disagree. Scientists today can actually watch evolution take place in front of them. There are experimenting with its mechanisms everyday in the lab.

When Darwin first published his theory he assumed that it would always be impossible to watch evolution take place. He assumed that evolution occurred at such a slow pace that it was the biological equivalent of geology - that it was such a slow process that it could only be appreciated by examining the fossil record.

Even back then there were some famous examples of quick change though. There was a species of moth in England that was a light gray that matched the brick of homes and buildings. As the industrial revolution piped black soot into the atmosphere (and blackened the buildings), the moth became dark as well. It turns out that the moth was depending upon camouflage to allude their predators – birds. As the buildings darkened, those moths that were born a little darker had a better chance of surviving to reproduce – thus passing along the darker trait. This way each generation (and the generations come very fast with moths) quickly became darker.

As fast as generations come with moths, they are nothing in comparison to bacteria. Now, biologist who examine microscopic life can watch evolution take place very quickly in their laboratories. Everyone is familiar with how flu changes every year – thereby alluding last year's flu shot. And crops that were once protected by certain pesticides now require more pesticide (both in quantity and in toxicity) to provide the same protection.

One benefit of accepting evolution and coming to understand how it works will be in finding better solutions to these arms races (the disease v. vaccine or antibiotic race; and the crop pests v. pesticide race). Carl Zimmer gives the following example in his book "Evolution." There is a group of ant species that are fungus farmers. These ants have been farming fungus for millennia. Scientists know this has been going on a long time because the original fungus-farming ant has now split into several fungus-farming subspecies.

Here's the point – some of these species protect their fungus crop with their version of a pesticide – a bacteria which is carried on the ant's legs. This bacterial pesticide has provided protection of fungal crops for millennia (enough generations for the fugal farming ant to split into different species that all use the same bacteria). The ant's bacteria is still providing crop protection after all these years while we humans are having problems with pesticide resistance after a single human generation. What gives?

Well, unlike a toxin, bacteria are alive. The bacterial pesticide is evolving along with the pest. If the pest adapts to the bacteria, the bacteria adapt to the pest. Around and around it goes.

We should protect our crops with a similar strategy. Of course moving to this sort of crop protection will require a general acceptance of the rationale behind the move – evolution. The alternative is bleak. The alternative is to continue to lose more crops every season to pests while using more and more toxins against them.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:46 AM | Comments (36) | TrackBack

Flunking Lessig's Class

Writing in the April issue of Wired Magazine, Lawrence Lessig describes the convergence of WMD and P2P technologies to allow for IDDs, or insanely destructive devices. Imagine a new version of smallpox, re-engineered to achieve a 100% kill rate, unleashed from some sociopath's garage or basement lab — that's an IDD.

Lessig organized a course to explore issues surrounding IDDs, but he wasn't pleased with the inital answers his students came up with:

The first reaction of some in the class was positively Soviet. Science must be controlled. Publications must be reviewed before being printed. Communications generally may have to be surveilled - how else can we track down the enemy? And, of course, we must build a Star Wars-like shield to protect us, and issue to every American one of those space suits that CDC workers wear. ("Dear American: You may not have health insurance, but in case of a biological attack, please use the enclosed space suit.")

Lessig is quick to point out the futility of these kinds of approaches, although a different, more out-of-the-box means of fighting IDDs quickly emerges

GNR science doesn't require huge labs. You might not be able to conceal the work in Manhattan, but you could easily hide it in the vast wilds of, say, Montana. Moreover, a great deal of important work would be lost if the government filtered everything - as would the essence of a free society. However comforting the Star Wars-like Virus Defense Initiative might be, engineered diseases would spread long before anyone could don a space suit.

Then one student suggested a very different approach. If we can't defend against an attack, perhaps the rational response is to reduce the incentives to attack. Rather than designing space suits, maybe we should focus on ways to eliminate the reasons to annihilate us. Rather than stirring up a hornet's nest and then hiding behind a bush, maybe the solution is to avoid the causes of rage. Crazies, of course, can't be reasoned with. But we can reduce the incentives to become a crazy. We could reduce the reasonableness - from a certain perspective - for finding ways to destroy us.

I suppose that in the case of Al Qaeda, we could eliminate the reasons they want to annihilate us by converting to Wahabbist Islam en masse. We could close down all the bars. Take away women's drivers licenses and their right to vote. Convert all the public schools to Madrasses. That would surely make them less enraged with us, would it not?

Oh, wait, I see — Al Qaeda would probably be counted among the "crazies who can't be reasoned with." That's a relief. We wouldn't have to take any of those extreme measures on their account.

So what exactly do we do to reduce the "incentives to become crazy?" Unfortunately, that part isn't specifically spelled out. Lessig concludes with these thoughts:

If you can't control the supply of IDDs, then the right response is to reduce the demand for IDDs. Yet as everyone in the class understood, in the four years since Joy wrote his Wired piece, we've done precisely the opposite. Our present course of unilateral cowboyism will continue to produce generations of angry souls seeking revenge on us.

We've not yet fully understood Joy. In the future there most certainly will be IDDs. Abolishing freedom, issuing space suits, and launching wars only increases the danger that they will be used. We had better learn that soon.

Ah, so that's it. End the "unilateral cowboyism" and reduce the number of angry souls looking for revenge. Unfortunately, the "unilateral cowboyism" is the only thing standing between civilization and crazies wielding the current generation of wepons of mass destruction. And as for "launching wars"... well, how about fighting back when wars are launched against us? How about concluding wars that have been dragging on for a decade or more? I guess it's all out.

And if we take this advice — if we lay down our arms and let the French and the UN instruct us on how to play nice with the other kids — what do we get out of the deal? We reduce the potential number of IDD-wielding psychos out to get us.

We don't eliminate. We reduce. And how many IDDWP (insanely destructive device weilding psychos) does it take to wipe us out? How many?

I don't pretened to know what the right answer is, here. But as much as I respect Lawrence Lessig, I'm afraid that (for this assignment, anway) I'm going to have to give his students a great big, fat F.

Posted by Phil at 06:33 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

ITF #130

In the Future...

...chainsaw-wielding robot submarines will prowl lake beds, harvesting hundreds of millions of forgotten trees.


Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.

Posted by Phil at 06:15 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack