An agency without agency

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2011

Yours truly, 28th January:

Egypt tweet, 28th January 2011 - Paul Graham Raven

Wired‘s Danger Room, 10th February (yesterday):

Twitter and the mainstream press are filled with rumors that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak may be forced to step down as early as Thursday night. What does CIA Director Leon Panetta think? All he could tell a congressional panel on Thursday morning is that he, like them, is relying on the media for his info.

And how did that work out for you, folks?

Posted not for self-aggrandizement (well, maybe just a little bit), but to highlight the fact that professional intelligence gathering appears not to have caught up with the world it’s supposed to watch; another symptom of the declining reach of the nation-state in general, and the interventionist impulse in the US in particular.

You can’t control what you don’t understand; time to stop trying and start listening, maybe?


Why we should clone a Neanderthal

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2010

Earlier in the year, there was some discussion over the possibility of cloning Neanderthals from archaeological remains. Now Kyle Munkittrick of Discover Magazine‘s Science Not Fiction blog speaks out in favour of the idea:

Knowing where Neanderthals fit, however, also creates a problem. What do we do if what makes humans “human” isn’t from a “human” at all? How do we justify “human rights” in light of evidence that our rational and moral minds are in no small part the result of prehistoric crossbreeding? In short: if human rights are based on being human, what rights would a cloned Neanderthal have?

The problem is, of course, that we don’t have a cloned Neanderthal. Which is why we need to make one.

[…]

To assert that the Neanderthal is between human and animal and is therefore an impossible fit for our world simply not true. The line between human and animal is blurred. Dolphins, whales, chimps, great apes, and other species are already changing the way we think about intelligence and rights; perhaps a Neanderthal, fully developed but so mentally different as to be incompatible with our way of living is the very example our society needs to change our perception of intelligent non-humans. When the technology is safe and the ability to nurture and care for her in place, we owe it to humanity as a whole to clone a Neanderthal and see what wonders she might teach us about ourselves.

There’s no simple answer, of course. Much as a cloned Neanderthal might teach us a great deal about ourselves, responsibility for his or her happiness and well-being would have to come first: to do otherwise would be to derail the essentially humanist thrust of Munkittrick’s argument. Human or not, a Neanderthal would be a sapient being, and quite likely more than capable of understanding that they were created for the sake of science… a lab rat that knew it was a lab rat, in other words. It’s a fascinating intellectual exercise to imagine how it might work out, but to actually do it?

All I can say is that as much as I’d love to learn how much of what we call being human is a cultural artefact as opposed to a biological phenomenon, I don’t know that I’d be able to take responsibility for the decision to create a living creature that might never feel it was living a life that made sense.


Maybe it doesn’t matter that the internet is “making us stupid”

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2010

High-profile internet-nay-sayer and technology curmudgeon Nick Carr is cropping up all over the place; these things happen when one has a new book in the offing, y’know*. He’s the guy who claims that Google is making us stupid, that links embedded in HTML sap our ability to read and understand written content (cognitive penalties – a penalty that even the British can do properly, AMIRITE?), and much much more.

The conclusions of Carr’s new book, The Shallows – that, in essence, we’re acquiring a sort of attention deficit problem from being constantly immersed in a sea of bite-sized and interconnected info – have been given a few polite kickings, such as this one from Jonah Lehrer at the New York Times. I’ve not read The Shallows yet, though I plan to; nonetheless, from the quotes and reviews I’ve seen so far, it sounds to me like Carr is mapping the age-related degradation of his own mental faculties onto the world as a whole, and looking for something to blame.

I should add at this point that, although I disagree with a great number of Carr’s ideas, he’s a lucid thinker, and well worth reading. As Bruce Sterling points out, grumpy gadfly pundits like Carr are useful and necessary for a healthy scene, because the urge to prove them wrong drives further innovation, thinking, research and development. He’s at least as important and worth reading as the big-name webvangelists… who all naturally zapped back at Carr’s delinkification post with righteous wrath and snark. The joy of being a mere mortal is, surely, to watch from a safe point of vantage while the gods do battle… 😉

But back to the original point: there’s always a trade-off when we humans acquire new technologies or skills, and what’s missing from commentators decrying these apparent losses is any suggestion that we might be gaining something else – maybe something better – as part of the deal; technological symbiosis is not a zero-sum game, in other words. Peripherally illustrating the point, George Dvorsky points to some research that suggests that too good a memory is actually an evolutionary dead end, at least for foraging mammals:

These guys have created one of the first computer models to take into account a creature’s ability to remember the locations of past foraging successes and revisit them.

Their model shows that in a changing environment, revisiting old haunts on a regular basis is not the best strategy for a forager.

It turns out instead that a better approach strategy is to inject an element of randomness into a regular foraging pattern. This improves foraging efficiency by a factor of up to 7, say Boyer and Walsh.

Clearly, creatures of habit are not as successful as their opportunistic cousins.

That makes sense. If you rely on that same set of fruit trees for sustenance, then you are in trouble if these trees die or are stripped by rivals. So the constant search for new sources food pays off, even if it consumes large amounts of resources. “The model forager typically spends half of its traveling time revisiting previous places in an orderly way, an activity which is reminiscent of the travel routes used by real animals, ” say Boyer and Walsh.

They conclude that memory is useful because it allows foragers to find food without the effort of searching. “But excessive memory use prevents the forager from updating its knowledge in rapidly changing environments,” they say.

This reminds me of the central idea behind Peter Watts’ Blindsight – the implication that intelligence itself, which we tend to think of as the inevitable high pinnacle of evolutionary success, is actually a hideously inefficient means to genetic survival, and that as such, we’re something of an evolutionary dead end ourselves. Which reminds me in turn of me mentioning evolutionary “arms races” the other day; perhaps, instead of being in an arms race against our own cultural and technological output as a species, we’re entering a sort of counterbalancing symbiosis with it. Should we start considering technology as a part of ourselves rather than a separate thing? Are we not merely a species of cyborgs, but a cyborg species?

[ * The irony here being that almost all the discussion and promotion of Carr’s work that does him any good occurs… guess where? Hint: not in brick’n’mortar bookstores. ]


Aliens might be just like us… greedy, violent and short on resources

Paul Raven @ 26-01-2010

If you’re waiting patiently for saintly extraterrestrials to come and rescue us from our civilisational follies, you might want to reassess your hopes.

Simon ­Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary ­paleobiology at Cambridge University, suggests that aliens (should they ever arrive on Planet Earth, the likelihood of which is another question entirely) may well turn out to be more like us than we’d have thought… warts and all. [image by Markusram]

[…] while aliens could come in peace they are quite as likely to be searching for somewhere to live, and to help themselves to water, minerals and fuel, Conway Morris will tell a conference at the Royal Society in London tomorrow.

His lecture is part of a two-day conference at which experts will discuss how we might detect life on distant planets and what that could mean for society. “Extra-terrestrials … won’t be splodges of glue … they could be disturbingly like us, and that might not be a good thing – we don’t have a great record.

And here’s some soundbite action from Albert Harrison of the University of California, appearing at the same conference:

I do think there’s a risk in active searches for extra-terrestrials. The attitude seems to be they’re friendly, they’re a long way away, and they can’t get here. But if you wake up one morning and an armada of extra-terrestrial spaceships are circling Earth, that prediction won’t necessarily hold,” Harrison said.

If life has evolved elsewhere in our cosmic neighbourhood, we should find out by detecting their waste gases in the atmosphere of their planet or by discovering remnants of extra-terrestrial microbes in meteorites or alien soil samples, he said.

Harrison dismisses fears of public panic if alien life is discovered, of the kind which reportedly followed Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938.

“The public reaction was overstated. Most people who thought the broadcast was real took sensible actions to protect themselves,” Harrison said. “Surveys suggest most people think they will be fine, but they worry about others freaking out.”

Yeah, that makes sense. Or it will do, right up until the point when the aliens deploy their HUGE FRICKIN’ LASERS.

Given that the SETI people are somewhat emboldened by the flood of newly-discovered exoplanets [via Mark Chadbourn], perhaps we should keep a contingency plan on the back burner? “Git ’em afore they git ye”, as the saying goes…


What Are The Animals Becoming?

Brenda Cooper @ 16-12-2009

Since I went for things made of metal skins and electrical guts last month when I wrote about weird robots, I decided to opt for warm-blooded carbon-based life forms this time around – so welcome to the December column on smart animals!

Now, we’re a dog family, and we have a golden retriever and two border collies.  My partner just bought a puzzle for the dogs. It’s a wooden base with cups for treats, and sliding doors that move and hide the treats.  The object is for the dog to slide the doors out of the way and get the treats inside.  One of the stated purposes of the toy is to increase animal intelligence.  Mind you, if the border collies get much smarter we’re in trouble.  The golden?  Well, that’s another story. Continue reading “What Are The Animals Becoming?”


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