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Transhumanist Media: The Transhumanist Wager June 9, 2013

Posted by Metabiological in Social Media, Transhumanism.
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The Transhumanist Wager reads like Atlas Shrugged, if Ayn Rand had been a transhumanist and not as good a writer. Let that sink into your mind for a moment.  I just compared Ayn Rand’s writing ability favorably to another author’s.  That’s usually not a good sign, but here it proves to be the least of this book’s problems.

With my summary of the book’s quality already complete, allow me to back up a bit.  The Transhumanist Wager, written by Zoltan Istvan, first came to my attention several weeks ago.  I heard through the grape vine that a new book had been released with transhumanism as it’s central theme and that it was getting a surprising amount of press.  This in and of itself wasn’t big news since transhumanism has already been used as theme in several other works of much higher profile (e.g. the Deus Ex Series or Dan Brown’s new book Inferno).  But the word of mouth was that this was less a book and more of a rallying cry, a declaration of war on the forces of the Luddite status quo which, in retrospect, is not unlike the one the main character gives at the end of the book.  That and the fact that it was on sale for 99 cents on Amazon made me decide to give it a try.

The Transhumanist Wager belongs to the long, though not necessarily distinguished, genre known as utopian fiction.  Though it has never been more than a niche genre, most of us can probably name a few titles.  Atlas Shrugged, Ecotopia, Looking Backwards are some of the more notable examples.  What unites all utopian fiction is that the main purpose of the narrative is not so much to present a compelling story but to serve as the frame work for  philosophical argument, usually a defense of the authors idea of an ideal society.  Unfortunately, what that often results in is a weak and scattershot narrative with characters who aren’t so much characters as they are plot devices.  Sadly, this book did not buck that trend.

Let’s get this out of the way early; this is a bad book.  The prose is awful and the dialogue does not sound like any human being I have ever heard speak.  The characters fall into two groups; noble, brilliant and at times impossibly virtuous good guys, and black hat evil or incompetent bad guys who are only there to serve as metaphorical punching bags for the book’s philosophical opponents.   The only character who moves beyond the one dimensional is the protagonist, and that’s primarily due to the fact that he’s little more than an author insert.  Nobody undergoes a character arc, their motivations (for those who have them) are usually dealt with in the space of a couple paragraphs, and the book’s message is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

And you know what, I could have forgiven all of that.  After all, wooden dialogue and one dimensional author inserts are sort part and parcel with utopian fiction.  When the point of your story is to set forth a defense of your philosophy it’s not hard to see why little things like plot and characterization often fall by the wayside.  What this means is that I could have overlooked the rather amateurish writing had the philosophy been an interesting or well-defended one.  Instead, well…

I suppose now is as good a time as any to summarize the plot.  The story shifts between the perspectives of several characters but the protagonist is a young philosophy student by the name of Jethro Knight (feel free to laugh at that name, I sure as hell did).  A staunch and passionate transhumanist, he is disgusted both by the Luddite tendencies he sees in so many of his peers and the timidity within the contemporary transhumanist movement.  The story begins with him sailing around the world, ostensibly due to his career as a journalist but mainly as a sort vision quest to flesh out his own personal philosophy.  Along the way he meet his future wife, a woman by the name of Zoe Bach who like most females in this genre exists only to die around halfway through and fulfill her one purpose by giving the hero a cause to fight for.  Oh don’t look at me like that, that wasn’t a spoiler.  If you don’t see her death coming a mile away you don’t read enough books.  In addition, Jethro tangles with the various antagonistic forces and men, including a cartoonishly evil preacher who reads like Jerry Falwel by way of Joseph Goerbels, who will stop at nothing to thwart his quest for immortality.

Transhumanism therefore forms the central conflict of the story, and don’t worry about forgetting that because he uses that word every other paragraph just to remind you, along with every variation of it.  Transhuman, transhumanity, Transhumania, transhumanicide (no, really).  As I said, subtlety isn’t exactly in his vocabulary.  What’s more interesting is what form Jethro’s particular brand of transhumanism takes.  At first he seems like an early nineties Extropian, with his libertarian leanings and constant talk about the omnipotender, the hypothetical being we should all be striving to be.  The omnipotender is a person who seeks power for themselves, as much power as possible, to achieve immortality and perpetuate their existence forever.  What of everyone else in the world, you ask?  What place do they have?  As Jethro so delicately puts it in his multi-page rant near the end, “If you don’t add value to our lives, we’ll destroy you.” (paraphrased, but that is the jist of it)

I didn’t make that Ayn Rand comparison earlier lightly.  Between the hyper-individualism, Jethro’s interminably long radio address to the world explaining  his philosophy, and even the floating city he constructs half-way through the book to serve as his own personal Galt’s Gulch, The Transhumanist Wager really comes across like an attempt to create Atlas Shrugged for the transhumanist movement. But you know, funny thing.  By the time Jethros’ pre-Bioshock Rapture is up and running and the war with humanity has been decisively won, the world he’s created has lost any resemblance it might have had with what usually passes for libertarian transhumanism.  Instead, what we’re left with is a corporate state which restricts freedom of speech, pay’s lip service to the free market while actively determining what business can make and how they can advertise, and uses an army of robotic minions to crush any and all dissent.  Like most utopian dreamers, what Jethro delivered was quite different from what he advertised.

So what effect will this book ultimately have?  It’s clear from the authors own statements that he envisions his book as a way to both guide bright young men and women into the sciences, and to plant the seeds of the transhumanist revolution in the fertile soil that is the undergraduate’s mind.  As you might be able to guess, I don’t see that happening.  While it is nice to see transhuman philosophy presented in a positive light, in opposition to the countless examples of the opposite, it is deeply disturbing that for many people said philosophy will now be associated with a book who’s central theme is “The future is coming.  Join us or die.”

Will biotech disconnect us from nature – or reconnect us? June 3, 2013

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Among certain segments of the population a common fear of biotechnology, and indeed a common fear of emerging technologies in general, is that it will reduce nature to just another commodity.  With the potential to control the very most inner workings of living organisms soon to be in our grasps, what will stop us from treating life in the same way we have historically treated most of the resources at our disposal?

This is not an argument without merit and more than enough words have been spent elsewhere on it.  However, I would like to invite you, for just a moment, to consider an alternative possibility.  What if, instead of separating us even further from our connections with the rest of the biosphere, biotechnology instead reminds us of our position as simply one species among many, merely one (albeit important) part of the greater fabric of life?

At first glance this probably sounds ludicrous and I don’t blame anyone who thinks that.  After all, the general trend of human thought throughout history has been one of placing ourselves higher and higher atop the pyramid of life.  From religious ideas of man made in the image of God to secular myths of a vast tree of life culminating in humanity, our position towards the rest of the world has not been one of humility.  Furthermore, technology has seemingly only ever exacerbated this problem, putting nature more and more under our control and reinforcing our self image as masters of the world with “dominion over all the beasts of the fields.”

How might biotechnology change this?  As a though experiment, let us think of a house.  As currently constructed, a house usually requires wood for its frame, metal for plumbing and electricity, a water supply to support both the human inhabitants and the inevitable pustule that marks the faces of most modern homes, the front lawn.  All of these things come from somewhere else.  When they break, they are replaced by parts that are also from somewhere.  Virtually nothing within a modern house actually originates in its immediate environment.  Instead, a modern house (indeed, a modern life style) requires a supply chain stretching in many cases thousands of miles to supply the necessary raw materials to build and sustain itself.

How might a house constructed through biotechnology be different.  Imagine for a moment a house grown from a seed (or multiple seeds, the specifics aren’t important).  What would it require?  If it were anything like a normal tree, it would need nutrients, a water supply and light.  Light for the most part is freely available everywhere.  Every second the earth is bombarded by free energy, far more than is currently used by the entirety of human civilization.  A house would require only the smallest portion of that to grow, and once grown an even smaller amount to sustain it’s own basal metabolism.  Nutrients could be acquired through composting of vegetable matter or, for the less squeamish among you, diluting human urine for use as fertilizer.  Depending on the location, water would be the most difficult resources to come across but there is hope.  Numerous plants have evolved novel mechanisms for dealing with arid conditions, mechanisms which could be adapted for our use.

All this is merely details.  The important thing to take away is that a biohouse would be reliant, not on the current monstrosity that is the global supply chain, but on the local ecosystem surrounding it.  It would require care and attention, as all living things do.  It would require an understanding of the place of the house, and the people living in it, with the wider world.  It could (and of course this is only a could) reconnect us to Gaia, to the greater whole of which we are a part.

Boy Attends School Using Robot September 24, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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This is the kind of story I enjoy reading.  Technology unequivocally making someone’s life better.

When Devon Carrow was a baby, a cookie-coated kiss from his mom made him break out in hives. An accidental encounter with peanuts at his godparents’ home three months later landed him in the hospital, under an oxygen tent. His food allergies are so severe that he doesn’t even have to eat something in order to have a life-threatening reaction — just breathing in trace amounts of an allergen is enough to send him into anaphylactic shock.

But thanks to technology, the home-bound boy is finally able to attend school in person — so to speak. He sits in his classroom, runs small errands for his teacher, and participates in group projects all thanks to a $6,000 robot from Nashua, N.H.-based VGo Communications.

His mom converted a room in their home for use as a classroom, and two teachers help him manipulate his computer equipment from there. Thanks to the VGo, which he started using in January, Devon can walk the halls of Winchester Elementary with his classmates, check books out of the library, join other kids on the carpet for circle time, and participate on stage during assembly. The only things he can’t do are attend gym and lunch, but once the school’s wireless system is upgraded, he should be able to hang out in the cafeteria with his buddies while he eats his lunch at home.

Heartwarming.  And that’s not something I say often unironically.

First Transhumanist Polititian Elected In Italy September 21, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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I’ve sat on this story for awhile because I honestly didn’t know how I felt about it.  For those that don’t know a little while ago Giuseppe Vatinno, a politician for the Alleanza per l’Italia (Alliance for Italy) party,  became the first self-identified transhumanist to be elected to a national government or indeed a government of any kind.  He recently gave an interview to NewScientist.  Some excerpts below.

What is transhumanism?
Transhumanism is a philosophical doctrine that aims to continuously improve humanity. It promotes science and technology but with people at its centre. Ultimately, it aims to free humanity from its biological limitations, overcoming natural evolution to make us more than human.

Is there a danger that transhumanism could actually make us less human?
Becoming less human is not necessarily a negative thing, because it could mean we are less subject to the whims of nature, such as illness or climate extremes. A beautiful sunset is positive, but the black death that struck Europe in the 14th century was not. We want to retain the positive aspects of nature and reduce the negative ones.

Is transhumanism more allied with left- or right-wing politics?
In the UK and the US recently, it has been closer to the left, probably because left-wing themes such as bioethics are important to transhumanists at the moment. But economically, the movement probably leans slightly more to the right. Freedom is very important in transhumanism, leading to a focus on individuals and free enterprise.

Interesting.  While I can’t deny that it is way cool to see transhumanism enter the realm of politics I also have some reservations.  On the one hand I wonder what it actually means for Vatinno to be a transhumanist politician as opposed to a politician who happens to be a transhumanist.  To put it another way how will his transhumanist beliefs affect his actual policy decisions?  Will he vote for greater funding for anti-aging research?  Will he seek to spread the use of synthetic intelligence in government decision making?  Will he govern as more of a technocrat then a populist and if so how will he balance serving his non-transhumanist constituents while at the same time supporting goals many of those constituents will likely see as pie-in-the-sky nonesense?

A second reservation, though not as strong as the first, is how this might open up the transhumanist movement to attacks from those opposed to it.  If we’re perfectly honest with ourselves I think most transhumanists can admit that the movement is currently what we might call an elite one in that it tends to appeal to and draw it’s membership from the highly educated and the upper income earners.  While that’s fine for what it still largely a philosophical movement if transhumanism ever wants to truly break into the mainstream as an ideology it will have to appeal to the masses.  Electing transhumanists to positions of power without also building a solid base of transhumanist voters is a recipe for cultural backlash (i.e. look at those out of touch elites trying to steal power from the people!)

So in short while I repeat that it is very cool to see a transhumanist actually elected as a transhumanist I would like to temper the enthusiasm just a little bit.  Without a solid base to draw from don’t expect transhumanists to take over government any time soon.

Transhumanist Media: Human 2.0 September 12, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Interesting trailer for Human 2.0, which incidentally was the name of my first blog, what appears to be a massive documentary (the link promises 12 hours of film) about seemingly every aspect of modern transhumanism.  The dialogue seems to be in English but the narration and subtitles are in German so I’m not quite sure what the release schedule of this movie is.  Also the link on Kurzweil AI is from a few days ago but the Youtube video is from 2010.   Still, looks pretty cool.  Take a look below.

My favorite line.  “I think we can get pretty far by faking emotion as a human being in real life so I suppose robots will probably be able to benefit from that as well.”

DARPA Unveils New Robotic “Mule” September 10, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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Like it or not the military has been behind some of the biggest technological breakthroughs in history (no surprise given the amount of money spent on it).  The US military has been sinking a lot of money into robotics in recent years in an effort to automate their forces.  Predator drones are probably the most well-known example of this but they have also been working on ground based robots to assist infantry.  DARPA has recently put out a new video demonstrating their newest creation; the LS3.

Not exactly the Terminator but pretty cool none-the-less.  Sure it’s got a funny gait and it’s “running” probably couldn’t outpace a twelve year old but the technology has been steadily improving since the days of Big Dog (which was cool in it’s own right).  While it’s something we take for granted maneuvering on uneven terrain, even very slowly,  is actually an incredibly complicated skill that requires a great amount of agility and balance, things that up until recently robots just haven’t been able to do.  Life has had millions of years to get the process down so it’s no big shock that robots are taking a little while to get it right.

 

P.S.  Anyone more knowledgeable about the subject know what happened to Big Dog?  Looking at those old videos again makes me remember what a seriously impressive technology that was/is.  It’s still amazing, and somewhat eerie even for me, to see it slip on an ice patch and stumble about in such a “life like” manner.

Happy Trails Voyager! September 9, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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35 years in space and still chugging along.  You are the first, and hopefully not the last, emissary of humanity to the stars.

 

Junk DNA Not Junk After All September 9, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Genetics.
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A big new study out of the Human Genome Research Group has just been released to the public.  This is probably the biggest study in genetics since the Human Genome project a decade ago and the results coming out seem to be just as fascinating.

“The ENCODE project not only generated an enormous body of data about our genome, but it also analyzed many issues to better understand how the genome functions in different types of cells. These insights from integrative analyses are really stories about how molecular machines interact with each other and work on DNA to produce the proteins and RNAs needed for each cell to function within our bodies,” explains Ross Hardison of Pennsylvania State University, one of the JBC authors…

The human genome consists of about 3 billion DNA base pairs, but only a small percentage of DNA actually codes for proteins. The roles and functions of the remaining genetic information were unclear to scientists and even referred to as “junk DNA.” But the results of the ENCODE project is filling this knowledge gap. The findings revealed that more than 80 percent of the human genome is associated with biological function.

The status of junk DNA has been a thorn in biology’s side for a while now so it’s nice to have that question at least somewhat resolved.  What’s most interesting for me is how this changes our view of the complexity of the human body.

It’s been becoming apparent for some time now that while what genes an organism possess are very important in determining organism functioning how those genes are activated and deactivated is just as (or possibly more) important.  The field of epigenetics has been hot in recent years as scientists have begun to examine how regulation of gene expression rather then the actual structure of DNA determines the phenotype of individuals.  If what this study tells us is correct it would seem that the vast majority of DNA is devoted to this regulation and while I’m not one to say that size always matters the sheer amount of this non-coding DNA speaks volumes about it’s likely importance.

It also makes the job of predicting the development of phenotypes a bit more tricky.  “Junk DNA” may regulate gene expression but many other factors, including environmental, can affect junk DNA.  Furthermore there is some evidence that changes in gene expression can actually be passed on to descendents, a form of non-Darwinian evolution.  Will Lamark make a comeback?  Hard to say but we do seem to be on the edge of a major shift in our understanding of the basics of life.

First Successful Bionic Eye Implanted September 2, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As I’ve said previously on this blog modern prosthetics are no where near ready to allow us the possibility of cyborg humans.  At best they restore a limited set of the functions that a biological limb possess while lacking important features like the ability of flesh to self repair.  But like all technology they are improving and a little while ago we marked a big milestone in the progress of prosthetics: the implantation of the first bionic eye.

After years of hard work and planning, Ms Ashworth’s implant was switched on last month at the Bionics Institute, while researchers held their breaths in the next room, observing via video link.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but all of a sudden, I could see a little flash…it was amazing. Every time there was stimulation there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye,” Ms Ashworth said.

This early prototype consists of a retinal implant with 24 electrodes. A small lead wire extends from the back of the eye to a connector behind the ear. An external system is connected to this unit in the laboratory, allowing researchers to stimulate the implant in a controlled manner in order to study the flashes of light. Feedback from Ms Ashworth will allow researchers to develop a vision processor so that images can be built using flashes of light. This early prototype does not incorporate an external camera — yet. This is planned for the next stage of development and testing.

Obviously we are long way from allowing  a previously blind person to see let alone enhancing normal human vision but it’s an encouraging step none-the-less.

Neil Armstrong Dies At 82 August 25, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Goodbye Mr. Armstrong.  Thank you for leading us forward one small step at a time.

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