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New Planet Discovered…Made Of Diamond August 26, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Uncategorized.
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Awesome.  That is all.

Genetic Discrimination Bill Closer To Passing August 25, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Little late on this one but worth re-posting nonetheless.

The California State Senate has passed a bill that would provide broader protections from genetic discrimination than does the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008, by extending into areas such as life insurance, housing, and employment.

Following closely after the State Assembly, which approved the bill late last week, the Senate passed State Sen. Alex Padilla’s (D – Pacoima) SB 559 bill on a (24 – 10) vote.

If it is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, the bill would amend two anti-discrimination laws already on the California books to prohibit genetic discrimination in the areas of health and life insurance coverage, housing, mortgage lending, employment, education, public accommodations, and elections.

A good bill and one that will likely become important in ways it’s backers haven’t even thought about in the near future.  The legislators obviously are thinking of issues like preventing health insurance companies from labeling genetic problems a “pre-existing condition” or employers discriminating based on genomic data a la Gattaca.

That being said I do wonder what effect this will have once genetic engineering starts to become more common place.  I haven’t read the bill and I’m not a lawyer so I can’t say that it isn’t worded in such a way to consider “modifications” to genetic code an exception to the rule.  I certainly hope not.

IBM Produces Computer Chip That Acts Like A Brain August 19, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Synthetic Intelligence.
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One of the more interesting aspects of the human brain is its ability to rewire itself.  Indeed the ability of our neurons to form new connections with each other is the basis of both our memory and our ability to learn new skills.  Its also something that separates us from current machine intelligence.  Well IBM may have taken a step closer to bridging that gap with the development of a microprocessor which behaves like a human brain.

In humans and animals, synaptic connections between brain cells physically connect themselves depending on our experience of the world. The process of learning is essentially the forming and strengthening of connections.

A machine cannot solder and de-solder its electrical tracks. However, it can simulate such a system by “turning up the volume” on important input signals, and paying less attention to others…

Instead of stronger and weaker links, such a system would simply remember how much “attention” to pay to each signal and alter that depending on new experiences.

Interesting certainly, but let’s keep things in perspective.  This does not signal the development of a “machine brain”.  While coming closer to the hardware is a nice step the real challenge is going to be figuring out the software (i.e. consciousness) which still presents a host of both engineering and philosophical problems.

The other issue of course is that not everyone agrees that building a machine in the likeness of the human brain is the best way to achieve synthetic intelligence.  More than a few actually think that reverse engineering the brain is precisely the wrong way to go about, being difficult, time-consuming and in their view unnecessary.  I admit to being only an interested observer in the realm of machine intelligence and therefore have to rely on what the experts in the field tell me.  That being said it strikes me as intuitive that an intelligence that is built on the same foundations as our own, with thoughts and information exchanged in a similar thought obviously not identical manner, might be easier for us to relate to and understand (and perhaps more importantly predict) than an intelligence whose very structure is totally alien to our own.

That’s merely a personal opinion but the question may be an important one.  A similar situation can be found in the realm of animal intelligence, specifically the intelligence of creatures like cephalopods whose evolution and brain structure is vastly different from our own.  Whether or not such things matter in how w being perceives and acts is an open question, one I’m sure will be answered sooner than we think.

Further Evidence Of Genetic Link To Intelligence August 16, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Talking about genetic links to intelligence always manages to set people’s blood boiling.  Personally, I blame the Nazis.  Like toothbrush moustaches and trenchcoats the Nazis managed to take somethings that wasn’t inherently evil, that genetic variation within the human population can explain some of the variation we see in intelligence, and forever tarnish it by being associated with them.  Thanks a lot assholes.

Unfortunately for those who wish to deny it evidence keeps accumulating that IQ is at least partially genetically determined.  Just this week a new study out of the University of Manchester demonstrates a clear link between biology and intelligence.

Previous studies on twins and adopted people suggested that there is a substantial genetic contribution to thinking skills, but this new study — published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry — is the first to find a genetic contribution by testing people’s DNA for genetic variations.

The team studied two types of intelligence in more than 3,500 people from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Newcastle and Manchester. The paper, by Dr Neil Pendleton and colleagues, found that 40% to 50% of people’s differences in these abilities could be traced to genetic differences.

40% to 50% are pretty big numbers.  Of course the other 50%-60% is likely accounted for by environmental factors (education, health, etc) so this doesn’t put a nail in the coffin of the nature vs. nurture debate.  As well it shouldn’t since the nature side never suggested nuture played no role in the development of intelligence (the same cannot be said for the nuture side).

The next step of course will be to determine which genes actually encode for intelligence.  This is likely to be a lot harder than it sounds, and it sounds plenty hard already, given the fact that there is more than one type of intelligence and multiple, different genes are likely to encode for each type.  It also cannot be ruled out that improvements in one type of intelligence (e.g. fluid) could come at the expense of another (e.g. crystalline).  Still, gotta start somewhere.

Lifestyle Habits Of Long Lived Just As Bad As Everyone Else August 7, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Choose your ancestors well.  That seems to be the message of a new study coming out of the Einstein’s Longevity Genes Project and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet. For example, 27 percent of the elderly women and an equal percentage of women in the general population attempted to eat a low-calorie diet. Among long-living men, 24 percent consumed alcohol daily, compared with 22 percent of the general population. And only 43 percent of male centenarians reported engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity, compared with 57 percent of men in the comparison group.

“In previous studies of our centenarians, we’ve identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol,” said Dr. Barzilai, who is also professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein. “This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Of course currently there is no way to know whether or not you are one of the lucky ones so for the vast majority of us lifestyle choices still matter quite a bit.

Is The World As We Know It An Illusion? August 2, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Metaphysics is probably the branch of philosophy that annoys lay people the most.  It’s easy enough to understand the importance of ethics or aesthetics but when philosophers start asking questions like, “is this chair really here”, most people tend to mentally check out.  The reason is obvious; to most of us it is a ridiculous question.  Of course the chair is here.  I can touch it, see it, taste it (if so inclined) and generally perceive it as existing.  So why do philosophers continue to grapple with such things?

The question boils down to whether or not we can trust our perceptions to give us an accurate glimpse of the real world.  To illustrate this point, think of schizophrenics who believe they hear voices that aren’t really there.  Alternatively, just go watch The Matrix again.  The idea that the “real” world may not actually be there, or that we simply are unable to perceive it for one reason or another, has a long history in philosophy.  It can be found in such disparate works as the writings of Plato, the Gnostics, Idealism, all the way up to it’s modern incarnation in the simulation hypothesis.  I have neither the time nor the expertise to delve into all of these topics but I encourage those who are interested to delve deeper.

It’s not just the field of philosophy that tackles the issue however.  Neuroscience and psychology have begun to look at the question in a more quantitative manner and ask how much things like the structure of our brain influence our perception of reality.  That seems to be the subject of a series of lectures soon to occur in Great Britain:

Professor Bruce Hood will explore the limits of the human mind in a series of prestigious lectures for the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the oldest independent research body in the world, it was announced yesterday.

The psychologist plans to induce false memories in audience members and use pickpockets to demonstrate how easily people are distracted, in a bid to prove how we have less control over our own decisions and perceptions than we like to imagine.

“A lot of the world is make-believe. We’re only aware of a fraction of what’s going on,” Prof Hood told The (London) Times. “We have this impression of an expansive panorama in front of our eyes, but all we are ever seeing is an area the size of our thumbs at an arm’s distance. The rest is filled in, as the brain creates a stable environment.”

While I’m sure it will be thought provoking I doubt the Prof. will manage to bring about any sort of consensus on the issue.  That is a shame because the answer to that question has some interesting ramifications for transhumanism.

On of the most talked about potentialities of human enhancement technology is the ability to not simply enhance our current abilities but to give us new ones.  Inspiration for this can be found easily in the natural world.  Insects can see into the ultraviolet, an ability which allows them to perceive differences in color completely hidden to us.  Similarly, vipers can see further into the infrared.  There is some evidence that certain species possess the ability to sense electromagnetic fields.  Even the structure of the brain is different among different lineages; a feature which, as stated above, is likely to play a major role in what we actually perceive the real world to be.

Do these creatures experience reality in an utterly different way?  Do they experience a different reality all together?  As we not only heighten but expand our perceptive ability is it possible that we will approach a more accurate picture of reality?