Transhumanist science clash! Kurzweil vs. Myers

Paul Raven @ 18-08-2010

Say what you will about transhumanism, but one thing’s for certain: it really polarises opinion, and nowhere more so than in the halls of academia and scientific research. Observe: Wired/Gizmodo had a chat with Singularitarian-in-chief Ray Kurzweil, who restated his theory (considered unrealistically optimistic by some transhumanists) that we’ll be able to reverse-engineer the human brain and simulate it with computers within a decade or so.

Here’s how that math works, Kurzweil explains: The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.

About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code.

Now enter PZ Myers, prominent atheism advocate (I like to think of him as “Dawkins’ Bulldog”, though I’m not sure Dawkins really needs a bulldog in the way that Darwin did) and vigorous debunker of fringe science. Broad claims in the Kurzweil vein are like a red rag to Myers, especially on his home turf of genetic biology, and he’s not afraid of mixing in a little ad hominem disparagement with his rejoinders, either:

Kurzweil knows nothing about how the brain works. It’s design is not encoded in the genome: what’s in the genome is a collection of molecular tools wrapped up in bits of conditional logic, the regulatory part of the genome, that makes cells responsive to interactions with a complex environment. The brain unfolds during development, by means of essential cell:cell interactions, of which we understand only a tiny fraction. The end result is a brain that is much, much more than simply the sum of the nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. He has to simulate all of development from his codebase in order to generate a brain simulator, and he isn’t even aware of the magnitude of that problem.


To simplify it so a computer science guy can get it, Kurzweil has everything completely wrong. The genome is not the program; it’s the data. The program is the ontogeny of the organism, which is an emergent property of interactions between the regulatory components of the genome and the environment, which uses that data to build species-specific properties of the organism. He doesn’t even comprehend the nature of the problem, and here he is pontificating on magic solutions completely free of facts and reason.

Now, I’m not taking sides here*; I don’t know enough computer science or evolutionary biology to cut into either interpretation. But a high-minded slapfight like this is always of interest, because it highlights just how seriously some very intelligent people take the issue. Kurzweil has more than a tinge of the evangelist about him, which is (I suspect) a large part of what bothers Myers about him, but there’s obviously something powerful about the idea (the meme?) of transhumanism/singularitarianism that he feels makes it worth fighting.

Ideas that get people arguing are important ideas. I consider myself a fellow traveller of transhumanism for this very reason; the ways we imagine tomorrow says a lot about where we are today, and vice versa. There’s a lot to learn by listening to both sides, I think.

[ * Yeah, yeah, I know, I’ve got marks on my ass from sitting on the fence. That’s just how I roll, baby; you want clenched-fist advocacy of anything but the right to think for yourself, you’re gonna need to read a different blog. ]

World of Statecraft

Paul Raven @ 09-08-2010

I try to avoid reusing the headlines of articles I link to, but in this case I just had to let The Guardian‘s choice carry through, because it’s just too good to improve upon. The story: there’s an MMORPG in the pipeline that essentially models and recreates the European Parliament.

The game will allow players to gain points and move up levels by proposing legislation, amending laws, writing articles for an online newspaper and other tasks. The developers are in discussions with journalism schools and secondary school teachers to incorporate the game into teaching modules.

The game will allow for fictional pieces of legislation to be crafted and track real bills making their way through the European legislative machine. The game’s developers, the European Service Network, a Brussels communications agency that until now has mostly been responsible for producing EU brochures and websites, saw the popularity of online games such as World of Warcraft and thought they could make a sort of legislative Middle Earth out of the European parliament.

“It’s completely out of the box. It’s an experiment as a means of bringing together the best trends in the internet to stimulate discussion about Europe,” said ESN’s manager of the project, Ahmed ElAmin.

“World of Warcraft was one of the inspirations. It’s the biggest online role-playing game there is. It shows there is a huge audience for 3D online worlds.”

Well, yes, there is a huge audience for online 3D RPGs… but most of them involve goals and rewards of a more visceral kind than ramming through (or blocking) some obscure but important chunk of legislature. And I’m docking you ten points, Mr ElAmin, for your use of “out of the box”. Tsk..

Snark aside, it’s an interesting attempt to open up the mechanics of European democracy to the layman, and I think I’ll be giving it a look at some point (time permitting, natch). But it rather begs the question: once we reach a point where we can simulate a large-scale consensus democracy online, why the hell don’t we abandon the pretense of simulation and let it run that way for real?

Living Earth Simulator: super-detailed simulation of environment, economies, societies, kitchen sinks

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2010

I badly wanted a copy of SimEarth when it was released, but the clunky old 8086 passed down to me by my father (who’d recently splashed out on a 386DX with math co-processor, no less) couldn’t run it.

I’m pretty positive that no machine I (or anyone else unattached to a well-funded research organisation) could afford will be able to run the Living Earth Simulator, either [via MetaFilter]:

In the past, supercomputers have been used mainly in physics or biology, or for difficult engineering problems such as the construction of new aircrafts. But now they are increasingly being used for social and economic analyses, even of the most fundamental human processes. At the CCSS, for example, Lars-Erik Cederman uses large-scale computer models to study the origin of international conflict, and is creating a large database documenting the geographic interdependencies of civil violence and wars in countries such as the former Yugoslavia or Iraq. In sociology, simulations at the CCSS have explored the conditions under which cooperation and solidarity can thrive in societies. They show that the crust of civilization is disturbingly vulnerable. These simulations reveal common patterns behind breakdowns of social order in events as diverse as the war in former Yugoslavia, lootings after earthquakes or other natural disasters, or the recent violent demonstrations in Greece.


Complementary to large-scale computer simulations, the FuturIcT project also aims to gather and organise data on social, economic and environmental processes on an unprecedented scale, especially by augmenting the results of field studies and laboratory experiments with the overwhelming flood of data now resulting from the world wide web or massive multi-player online worlds such as Second Life. Furthermore, the rapid emergence of vast networks of distributed sensors will make data available on an almost unimaginable scale for direct use in computer simulations. At the same time, an ethics committee and targeted research will ensure that these data will be explored in privacy-respecting ways and not misused. The goal is to identify statistical interdependencies when many people interact, but not to track or predict individual behaviour.

In plain English: these people want to build a simulation of the entire planet that takes into account almost every type of data we can shove into it, in the hope that we can use said data to foresee (and perhaps forestall) the next big disaster on the timeline – be it environmental, economic, biological (ZOMFG bird/pig flu!) or social. No idea if it’s feasible (though it doesn’t sound too ridiculous), but it’s surely ambitious, and more than a little bit awesome.

The rational part of me understands that such a simulation would consist of billions of complex calculations running through an array of supercomputer processors (or maybe networked desktop machines running something like the SETI@home software), and wouldn’t be very exciting to simply sit and watch. The less rational part of me that grew up watching James Bond movies really hopes that – somewhere – there’ll be a big interface screen with a spinning globe on it, with which I could spend the rest of my life fiddling around, cackling like some insane minor Moorcockean deity.

Of course, it’s always worth remembering that we could actually be living in an incredibly complex computer simulation already

Feel it in your fingers, feel it in your toes: haptic flooring

Paul Raven @ 29-04-2010

Via Chairman Bruce, here’s an interior design concept for those of you who find carpets or exposed boards a little pedestrian (arf!) – augmented reality floor tiles. SRSLY.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada have developed floor tiles that can simulate the look, sound and feel of snow, grass or pebbles underfoot. Such a tool could perhaps be used for augmented reality applications, tele-presence, training, rehabilitation or even as virtual foot controllers.

The modular “haptic” floor tiling system is made up of a deformable plate suspended on a platform. Between the plate and platform are sensors that detect forces from the user’s foot. And the plate can give off vibrations that mimic the feeling of stepping on different materials. A top-down projection and speakers add visual and audio feedback.

A long-distant precursor of an essential component for the the StarTrek holodeck, perhaps?

How to make two million bucks in a day legally

Paul Raven @ 16-04-2010

It’s easy: all you do is sell a sparkly horse upgrade to your MMO client base.

… this morning Blizzard announced the online sale of a new “celestial steed” for use in WoW.    These mounts cost $25 (on top of the retail price plus $15 monthly subscription).  So in a world of free games and virtual items selling for a dollar or two, how popular could a $25 sparkly flying pony be?

Well, the queue for their purchase was at least up to over 91,000 people waiting in the queue earlier today.  When I took a screen shot, it had fallen to “only” about 85,000.

90,000 X $25 = $2,250,000.

In one day.  From one item.  In a game that isn’t free to play anyway.

Also note that the horse in question doesn’t actually do anything different to a regular WoW horse except look pretty. So, there’s money to be made from virtual, intangible and functionless goods… provided you’ve got that client base there with money to spare, natch.

Speaking of mad things you can do in virtual worlds, how about building a Turing-complete 8 bit computer within the game Dwarf Fortress [via MetaFilter]?

All of a sudden the simulation hypothesis doesn’t seem quite so insane…

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