Paul Raven @ 18-07-2011

I should probably go and register that domain now, shouldn’t I? If you were gonna make an algorithm for checking that transhuman-or-not status of the species, though, you might wanna refer to Kyle Munkittrick’s transhuman checklist, which consists of the following points:

  1. Prosthetics are Preferred
  2. Better Brains
  3. Artificial Assistance
  4. Amazing Average Age
  5. Responsible Reproduction
  6. My Body, My Choice
  7. Persons, not People

Munkittrick suggests that “[i]ndividually, each of these conditions are necessary but not sufficient for transhumanism to have been attained”; that jars slightly with my own comprehension of the term, which has always assumed that the “trans” in transhuman implies the transitional phase on the route to becoming posthuman, which is what I’d say we’d be once Kyle’s checklist is complete. Semantic carping aside, however, it’s a solid and non-sensationalist list, well worth a read.

Speaking of non-sensationalist pieces on transhumanism, here’s an unusually subdued post from Michael Anissimov which is either indicative of a massive change of outlook or a rhetorical gambit that has yet to be revealed as such: Why “Transhumanism” is Unnecessary. Having been following Anissimov for many years now, I suspect the latter is the case, but hey – this is the internet, and all bets are off.

Singularity beef, day 5

Paul Raven @ 27-06-2011

Yup, it’s still rolling. Here’s the post-Stross posts that came in over the weekend:

Anyone else catch any goodies?

[ * Interestingly enough, Fukuyama himself has more recntly veered considerably away from the theories espoused in The End Of History… ]

[ ** For the record, I really admire Brin as a challenging thinker; I’d admire him even more if he spent less time reminding me of his past successes. ]

[$mind]!=[$computer]: why uploading your brain probably won’t happen

Paul Raven @ 18-01-2011

Via Science Not Fiction, here’s one Timothy B Lee taking down that cornerstone of Singularitarianism, the uploading of minds to digital substrates. How can we hope to reverse-engineer something that wasn’t engineered in the first place?

You can’t emulate a natural system because natural systems don’t have designers, and therefore weren’t built to conform to any particular mathematical model. Modeling natural systems is much more difficult—indeed, so difficult that we use a different word, “simulation” to describe the process. Creating a simulation of a natural system inherently means means making judgment calls about which aspects of a physical system are the most important. And because there’s no underlying blueprint, these guesses are never perfect: it will always be necessary to leave out some details that affect the behavior of the overall system, which means that simulations are never more than approximately right. Weather simulations, for example, are never going to be able to predict precisely where each raindrop will fall, they only predict general large-scale trends, and only for a limited period of time. This is different than an emulator, which (if implemented well) can be expected to behave exactly like the system it is emulating, for as long as you care to run it.

Hanson’s fundamental mistake is to treat the brain like a human-designed system we could conceivably reverse-engineer rather than a natural system we can only simulate. We may have relatively good models for the operation of nerves, but these models are simplifications, and therefore they will differ in subtle ways from the operation of actual nerves. And these subtle micro-level inaccuracies will snowball into large-scale errors when we try to simulate an entire brain, in precisely the same way that small micro-level imperfections in weather models accumulate to make accurate long-range forecasting inaccurate.

As discussed before, I rather think that mind simulation – much like its related discipline, general artificial intelligence – is one of those things whose possibility will only be resolved by its achievement (or lack thereof). Which, come to think of it, might explain the somewhat theological flavour of the discourse around it…

Reasons not to commercialise space

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2010

1) Marx wouldn’t approve! And anyway, we can learn about our relationship to the wider cosmos just as effectively from the surface of the Earth:

So outer space technology can be used for tackling a number of immediate social and political issues. But these strategies do not add up to a philosophy toward outer space and the form humanization should take. Here again, the focus should be on the development of humanity as a whole, rather than sectional interests. First, outer space, its exploration and colonization, should be in the service of some general public good. Toward this end, the original intentions of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty should be restored. Outer space should not be owned or controlled by any economic, social, and political vested interest. The cosmos should not, in other words, be treated as an extension of the global environment, one to be owned and exploited. We have seen enough of this attitude and its outcomes to know what the result would be. Spreading private ownership to outer space would only reproduce social and environmental crises on a cosmic scale.

I’d agree that space shouldn’t be owned or controlled by vested interests, but I rather suspect that it won’t be very amenable to such any control, by dint of its, well, space; territorial disputes are a function of limited room for expansion, and it’ll take us a long while to run out of lebensraum at the top of the gravity well. Why fight for territory when it’s less effort to strike out for an unclaimed patch? Indeed, I suspect conflicts in space are more likely to retain the ideological character of those currently popular on Earth’s surface… viz. Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series, Sterling’s Schismatrix. Is that a reason to avoid going there? I’m not so sure; I don’t think we’re any more likely to solve those problems by simply staying put.

Frankly, I’m right behind George Dvorsky on this one, who says “… I couldn’t help but think that Marxist analyses are growing increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic […] Economic determinism ain’t what it used to be.” Marxism is a useful critical framework when used alongside others (especially in literature), but on its own it seems hopelessly idealistic, ignorant of (or uncaring for) post-modern networked global culture, and soundly lodged in the craw of Victorian industrialisation. Cue brickbats from my more radical left-wing readers… but the world has changed a lot since Marx, while Marxism hasn’t changed at all. YMMV. 🙂

2) We can’t survive out there! We’re designed to be planet-dwellers!

What is of greatest concern here is that, unlike muscle loss which levels off with time, bone loss seems to continue at a steady rate of 1 to 2 per cent for every month of weightlessness. During a three-year mission to Mars, space travellers could lose around 50 per cent of their bone material, which would make it extremely difficult to return to Earth and its gravitational forces. Bone loss during space travel certainly brings home the maxim “use it or lose it”.


The impossibility of an escape to space is just one of many examples of how our bodies, and those of our fellow organisms, are inseparable from the environments in which we live. In our futuristic ambitions we should not forget that our minds and bodies are connected to Earth as by an umbilical cord.

Well, yes, but umbilical cords can be cut and tied off; indeed, to extend the metaphor, cutting the cord is an essential step toward independence from one’s mother. And if our bodies are inseparable from our environments, we can hack one or both of them; if Human1.0 with default settings can’t live in space, we can upgrade her and her environmental surroundings. The biological status quo is not a cage, it’s a room with a door whose lock requires dexterous but doable picking.

There are concepts in development for spacecraft with artificial gravity, but nobody even knows what gravitational force is needed to avoid the problems.

Oh, I’d have guessed something approaching 10m/s² would do it… call it intuition. Anyway, Karl Schroeder’s done a better job than I can of deflating the long-standing “it’s too dangerous!” hand-wringing about space travel; of course there are challenges, but they’re far from insurmountable. Where there’s a will, and all that.

And as a wee bonus, here’s a new twist on an old fandom favourite:

So far, boneless creatures such as jellyfish are much more likely than people to be able to return safely to Earth after multi-year space trips.

Intelligent jellyfish in spaaaaaaaace… why should squid get all the glory, eh? 🙂

Looking back on Cyborg Month

Paul Raven @ 01-10-2010

When Tim Maly invited me to contribute to the 50 Posts About Cyborgs project, I had a nagging suspicion that I’d have a run-in with impostor syndrome… and I was right. The nearly complete run of posts (49 of them linked from the Tumblr above as I type this) contains some of the smartest and most brain-expanding material I’ve read in a long, long time, from some incredibly erudite writers and thinkers. If you have any interest whatsoever in the post-modern human condition in a technology-saturated world, in where we came from as a species and where we’re going, or in what being (post?)human actually means, then there’ll be something there for you to enjoy – so go read.

And many thanks Tim for inviting me to take part; I’m one proud impostor. 🙂

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