Saturday, September 29, 2012

Censorship, Indignation, and our Hopes for Freedom

Banned Books Week (September 30 – October 6) celebrates the freedom to read and to express ideas…even those that others might find objectionable. Classics that have been banned or challenged over the years include:

The Jungle, Catch-22, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Satanic Verses, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Just in the last decade, campaigns have been waged against The Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter, The Giver, and The Golden Compass. And, ironically... Ray Bradbury’s powerfully evocative Fahrenheit 451. 

On a broader scale, censorship is an issue both topical and redolent, given President Obama's recent United Nations address about free speech and global turmoil over an amateurish, but provocative anti-Islam video. That YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims” that has provoked riots and violence in Libya and 
many other Muslim lands, leading to calls for governments to block access to the website. Meanwhile, YouTube issued a statement, 
"This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video -- which is widely available on the Web -- is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube." 

No issue better illustrates what I consider to be the real “war” going on, over the future of Planet Earth. And so let me offer an aside: Despite shrill rhetoric from the extremes, it is not about “Islam” at all, any more than the Cold War was about differeng models of economic theory. The great propellant of the Cold War was a personality trait called Russian Paranoia that dominated thinking in the Soviet Union no less – and very little different – than during the era of the Czars, and that only started to fade (somewhat) when a generation of Russians finally rose to power who had never known war. Likewise, it is not Islam, per se, that opposes the Western Enlightenment.

 Rather, it is a deeper worldview or zeitgeist whose core features are machismo, romanticism and the assumption set that’s called the Zero Sum Game.  

In the words of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us." True enough. And opponents of the Western Enlightenment know this. They know that if they can scare us into repressing open information flows, enlightenment processes will wither and fester and fail. 

The top four of those processes – democracy, markets, science and justice – all flourish and succeed in direct proportion to how well most of the participants can know most of what’s going on, most of the time.  This core truth is the reason why I wrote The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 

Freedom of speech is not a gift from on high. It was not declared by God. It is not holy, or even natural. No other human society ever practiced it. Even we, who are loony enough to consider it sacred, don't practice it very well. Yet, although it runs against every tyrannical impulse of human nature... impulses to suppress whatever that loudmouth fool over there is saying... the fact is that we try to live by it. 

Not because free speech is holy, or natural, but because it works. Because it is pragmatic. Because it allows the rapid generation of a multitude of ideas, most of which are chaff, and then allows those notions to be criticized by other egotistical people, so that a fair percentage of the best ideas rise, and most garbage eventually sinks.

In other words, free speech encourages criticism, like a human body's immune system, to seek out and attack possibly cancerous or fatal ideas. Those which survive open debate are (at least in theory) those which deserve to thrive.

The biggest reasons to support it aren’t idealistic, but practical! Because the processes that brought us vastly more wealth, progress, knowledge, peace and human happiness than all other societies combined can only remain fecund and productive in a transparent, open, freely competitive and egalitarian world. The second part of the irony? That we can only defend freedom of speech with adequate vigor if we treat it as if it were a platonic ideal. And fundamental.

Naturally, any attempt by leaders or public institutions to pre-judge or pre-approve concepts will be self-defeating. Decrees by aristocrats or intellectuals or demagogues will always be less efficient than the free interplay of ideas. If you doubt this, try picking and choosing which antibodies your immune system should produce!

Now, all of this obviously applies to the future of the information network. Like the sun, the earth, and the human body, in the long run, stability is achieved not by laws or rules, but through self-regulating, adaptive systems that allow large forces to balance each other out. In this case, in the World Information Net, this balance will be driven by the power of ten billion voices, ten trillion ideas.

Such a system cannot be designed in detail, but the right mix of basic elements can be planned in advance, to keep it healthy so that this maelstrom of ideas and myths will be fecund in its creation of vast quantities of metaphors, but also sane enough to ultimately reject bad notions in a fair market, clearing the way for new ones to take their place.
One principal element must be openness. In the human body, nutrients must flow, and white blood cells have to reach their targets. In the Net of tomorrow, the light of criticism must shine everywhere, or secrets which lay hidden will fester into new crises, new weapons, new errors.

In an information society, secrecy is the equivalent of cancer.

== The great enemy of reason == 

Some say the foe of thought and reason is fear. You have seen me inveigh that the ancient bane of freedom and markets – (and Adam Smith agreed) -- has always been oligarchy.  

Only when you dig deeper, the clear thing at fault lies deep within human nature. Our propensity for addiction. 

Others are catching on. Gary Longsine and Peter Boghossian, in Indignation is Not Righteous: The Twin Fallacies of Appeal to Righteous Indignation and Appeal to Sanctity ( in Skeptical Inquirer) appraise the difficulty we face, when trying to use evidence or reason in the face of strongly-held and emotionally supported beliefs.  Taken from among the long list of logical fallacies, two in particular stand out as empowering a person to absolutely refuse to consider opposing evidence or arguments: Appeal to righteous indignation (argumentum ad probus indignatio); and Appeal to sanctity (argumentum ad sanctimonia).  

"An Appeal to Righteous Indignation is a logical fallacy in which a person claims to be offended, insulted, or hurt by criticism of a proposition they hold, or by the advancement of a proposition with which they disagree. The expected consequence of the demonstration of the verbal or physical behavior associated with righteous indignation is that no further discussion or criticism is allowed.

An Appeal to Sanctity is a logical fallacy in which a person attempts to deflect criticism of an idea by claiming that the idea or argument is holy, sacred, sacrosanct, or otherwise privileged and immune from critique."

This very interesting appraisal: Indignation is Not Righteous! cites Jonathan Haidt and other major researchers exploring an exciting and promising new field, using fMRI and other methods to follow both logical and illogical thought in real brains.  It even cites my own paper, delivered to the National Institutes on Drugs and Addiction, concerning the way indignation all too often becomes a cycle of self-doping addiction, reinforced by regular "highs" of dopamine and other self-secreted psychotopics. Indeed, it is probably the most abused drug of choice in America today, helping to propel our current, deeply counter-productive civil war.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why the Candidates Should (But Won’t) Stipulate

Stipulate-electionIt's been said that a politician gets to be perfectly honest just once in a long career -- at its end. Refreshing candor sometimes pours after an old pol has faced the last campaign. No more fund raisers or flattering voters. One chance to tell the truth.

All right, it’s rare. Many politicians hurry through a revolving door, into fat directorships and lobbying firms. Still, it can be colorful when a few spill their hearts.

Take the day in 1992 when both Republican Senator Warren Rudman and Democrat Paul Tsongas made headlines declaring that everybody was at fault for the country's fiscal condition at the time, from then-President Bush to the democrat-controlled Congress, to the American people. Responsible economists later credited Rudman and Tsongas for spurring reforms that helped lead to the Clinton era surpluses.

Around the same time, retired senator and conservative eminence gris Barry Goldwater denounced the followers of √©migr√© philosopher Leo Strauss – so-called “neocons” – for hijacking Goldwater’s beloved movement over cliffs of romantic delusion. A more recent example of post retirement candor came When G.W. Bush’s ex-Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, revealed a swamp of backroom dealings and ineptitude, explaining that he was "old and rich" and unafraid to speak his mind. On the other side, some claim that Senator Joe Lieberman really came into his own when he ran as an independent, shrugging off party discipline (if such a thing exists, among democrats.)

Alas, under our electoral system candor is punished. Folks on both sides of the lamentably oversimplifying “left-right axis” yearn for the best and most sincere people on the other side to wise up!  To eject radicals from control over the other party’s agenda. Too bad we rarely ponder the way crimes like gerrymandering have been used by our own side, with terrible effects upon the radicalization of politics.    (Elsewhere I describe one time that party self-reform actually happened.)

== A Modest Proposal ==

Let me offer here a proposal that I've made every presidential election for decades. Throughout the campaign we’ll learn how the candidates disagree on a myriad issues. And platitudes, what they think voters want to hear.

Logically, there must be a third category -- areas where these well-informed professionals agree with each other, but fear to speak  first.  But consider: there’s no political cost to telling voters what you really believe... if your opponent has agreed, in advance, to say the same thing.

What's wrong with two leaders finding patches of consensus amid a sea of discord? It has a name - stipulation... as when attorneys in a case agree to agree about a set of points, so the trial can focus on areas where they disagree.

What does stipulation have to do with politics? Given the intensity of partisanship in recent American political life, can we dream? Bear with me for a “what-if” thought experiment.

Suppose, amidst the 2012 campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama were to suspend their mutual attacks just long enough to meet for an afternoon. Staffs would cover debate rules, and maybe how to prevent spirals of mudslinging and people would applaud just seeing them talk to each other like adults.

Only then -- they go for a walk, alone. During this quiet moment before the rough and tumble resumes, they seek just a few points of consensus.

Don’t dismiss it too readily. For all his faults, the last GOP nominee – John McCain did this sort of thing before. So did Senators Clinton and Obama, amid their primary fights in 2008.  In fact, the only ones to object would be extremes in both parties.

Oh, neither candidate will change the other's mind concerning major divisions. But here we have two knowledgeable public persons, presumably concerned about America's future. Surely there’d be some overlap? Things that both of them feel that we, as a nation, should do.

Imagine a joint statement. Though reiterating a myriad points of disagreement, they make public simultaneously their shared belief that America should, for its own good, pass law "X", or repeal restriction "Y". Further, they agree - neither will attack the other for taking this stand.

No longer pandered to, folks might say -- "Gosh, if both say the country needs this strong medicine, let's give it thought."

This would not free candidates completely from the stifling effects of mass-politics. But it could let them display something rarely seen... leadership. Even statesmanship. Setting aside self-interest in favor of hard truth, telling the people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.

=== Is This Impossible? ===

Well, it happened before, during the Presidential campaign of 1940. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, he approached Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie, to negotiate just such a stipulated agreement in the area of foreign policy. Britain badly needed escort vessels for the North Atlantic and the U.S. had over-age destroyers to spare. But Roosevelt feared political repercussions during a campaign in which he was already under attack for breaking neutrality. Wilkie agreed to FDR's request, and declared that lend-lease would be his policy too, if he were elected.

Everyone benefited -- Wilkie rose in stature. FDR got his policy implemented, and the world was better off because political advantage was briefly put aside for the common good. On other issues, Roosevelt and Wilkie battled as fiercely as ever. Yet, that historical act of stipulation shines in memory.

How might today's politics differ if two adults -- each the standard bearer of a major party -- agreed to let it be known how they agree? Might they take on some of our most politically impossible subjects? Perhaps a cow as sacred as the Social Security retirement age, a compromise on gun control, some campaign finance reform…

… or the biggest candidate for such a declaration?  The obvious of course. The topic that neither side dares to raise first.  The failed Drug War.

== How it could happen ==

Is this quixotic proposal too much to ask of today's opportunistic brand of politician? Perhaps. Indeed, I have little hope that it has a chance of happening during the 2012 election cycle, while partisanship towers foremost in the minds of the partisan attack dogs who have turned America into a silly place for two decades, overshadowing any national good.

Still, our politics can evolve. Only during the most recent generation has the tradition of Presidential debates become so entrenched that no front-runner can now duck them. Ancient hurdles of age, race, and gender are falling. And note, there are millions of Americans who deeply yearn for a more mature approach to politics. If a candidate offered this kind of stipulation process, and the other refused... well, there might be benefits there, as well.

Indeed, imagine if a third party candidate – say the Libertarian Party’s unusually reasonable/interesting Gary Johnson – were to join one of this year’s presidential debates. (Okay, so I think that would devastate one of the major candidates, offering sane, libertarian-minded conservatives a place to escape their party’s current madness.)  Johnson’s natural move would be to pounce on obvious things like the drug war. Ironically, this could offer one of the other guys cover to step forward, partially agreeing with Johnson while remaining moderate/skeptical. Good positioning, politically speaking.  And as a result, we all benefit when the topic itself (changing the drug war) moves up in peoples’ minds.

All right.  It won’t happen. Not this time around. But it could.  And maybe someday it will.

Shatter the barriers against candor!

Once upon a time, it was just a glimmer in a few eyes to imagine that debates would be standard in elections.  Now it’s normal.

Might the Candidates' Post-Convention Summit and Letter of Stipulation also become traditional, like doldrums in July and mudslinging in October?

Someday, the whole nation may look forward to the occasion, once every four years, with a sort of delicious, nervous anticipation -- awaiting the one day when two eminent politicians will say not what is politically savvy, but what is simply wise.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Crowd-sourcing "citizen science," new products and ideas

Citizen engagement is essential to our fast-changing civilization. Politics could certainly use more empowerment of common citizens. So could innovative commerce, and even national defense relies on a robust citizenry. But one area with especially bright prospects, is crowd-sourced -- or individual participation in -- inventiveness and science.

It's a topic I've discussed many times. As a teenager, growing up in Los Angeles, I participated in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), gathering mountains of data for professional astronomers, one of countless such groups that you might learn about via the Society of Amateur Scientists. In my new novel Existence, I portray this trend accelerating as individuals and small groups become ever more agile at sleuthing, data collection and analysis -- and forming very very smart, ad-hoc, problem-solving "smart mobs." But even in the months since that book was published, reality seems to be catching up with fiction.

For example, as funding dollars for science are increasingly under threat, a number of groups are offering opportunities for crowd-funded basic research, enabling citizens to interact directly with teams at the cutting edge of some topic. Envision a kind of KickStarter for science research. Dr. Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge, asks "What would this world look like if every scientist touched a thousand people each year with their science message? How would science-related policy decisions be different if every citizen had a scientist that they personally knew? One thing is for sure: a world with closer connections between scientists and the public would be a better world. And crowdfunding might just help to get us there."

Backers receive periodic updates on their chosen projects and direct communication with researchers. They may also receive souvenirs, acknowledgment in journal articles, invitations to private seminars, visits to laboratories or field sites, and occasionally, naming rights to new discoveries or species. One advantage to researchers is that they can receive funding in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

Current projects on the science funding site Petridish include: saving the Samaki fish in the world’s largest desert lake, monitoring glacial lakes, and tracking sharks with satellites. Or on Microryza, you can contribute to tracking Magellenic Penguins, or exploring the stability of neural networks. iAMscientist offers opportunities as diverse as monitoring Diamondback Terrapins with new tracking technologies, and robotic hand rehabilitation for stroke victims. Recent projects on RocketHub's SciFund Challenge include projects to identify new drug candidates to treat Alzheimer's disease, developing artificial photosynthesis, or saving stressed coral reefs on Kiribati. Or you can donate to specific projects, like LiftPort, which aims to build a space elevator. 

If you're looking for more active involvement in research projects, you might try SciStarter, Scientific American's Citizen Science, or Zooniverse, which offers a compilation of projects for citizen involvement, such as studying how solar storms affect conditions on earth at Solar Stormwatch and identifying exoplanets at PlanetHunters. Volunteers can help classify galaxies at Galaxy Zoo, learn to map retinal connections at EyeWire, map the age of Lunar rocks with MoonZoo, or analyze extraterrestrial signals with SETILive. You can donate your home computer's processing power to SETI@Home to help analyze data from radio telescopes such as Arecibo.

Indeed, one worthy project that could help in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence more effectively than the sadly obsolete program at the Seti Institute would be to re-ignite Project Argus, the alternative endeavor of the Seti League, that envisions setting up 5000 radio telescopes in back yards across the planet, keeping the entire sky under observation, all the time, instead of peering through a super-narrow soda straw at distant specks of space, one at a time.  A system far more likely to catch the rare blip of an alien race "pinging" us, which recent calculations show to be more plausible than the imagined tutorial "beacons."  In any event, this is where one millionaire could help thousands of eager (and tech savvy) amateurs to become key members of a worldwide smart mob, hunting ol' ET down!

Citizens have long participated in regional bird counts, as well as monitoring butterfly migrationwildlife, and local water quality. Technology has enabled high quality data collection and recording tools to be widely available to amateurs. You can even do science without leaving your home...the online game Foldit allows gamers to compete to fold protein structures to achieve the best scoring (lowest energy) configuration.

Whatever your level of involvement, you can have the satisfaction of participating in humanity's greatest endeavor. In an era when political factions and media empires are waging relentless "war on science" this trend toward active participation -- or providing some financial support -- is the surest way to help support an active, vigorous, future hungry and scientific civilization.

Well... and vote, of course.   And show your crazy uncle the melting of the arctic...

==Crowd Sourcing Ideas and Innovation! ==

Then there's tinkering and creating new products, new services, the sort of thing that Adam Smith (and anyone with sense) proclaimed as the heart and soul of productive enterprise. Sure, good things have happened to help stimulate creativity.  Patent law was (believe it or not) a huge advance over what came before.  Venture capitalists tend to have the imagination of Galapagos finches, but they, too, were somewhat of a step forward. Only, now, as we finally creep out of the dullard doldrums of the Naughty Oughts, there arrive dozens of new approaches that may do a lot of good, stimulating our creative juices.

Unused inventions get crowd-sourced sparkMarblar is the latest in a string of “open innovation” sites that attempt, in one way or another, to encourage inventiveness online.  It does this by crowdsourcing a simple request:find new uses for under-exploited patents.

Related endeavors? ArticleOne asks its community of users to find “prior art” – published documents that show an invention existed before it was patented – to quash patents that firms have been accused of infringing.  (It also helps good/original patents to thrive!)

Or take: Innocentive, where companies and NGOs present problems that they feel need solving – such as how to develop a portable rainwater storage system for the developing world. On the flipside, IBridgeNetwork and post university and corporate research in a bid to find people who’ll license their technology to commercialize it.

== Then build it! ==

And the Maker Trend builds momentum!  Read about new companies that will bring 3D printing to the home. Letting you take a downloaded or self-made template and order up a physical version. Even a sculpture made from your head-scan. Commercial 3-D printing works with only a few dozen types of materials, mostly metals and plastics, but more are in the works. Researchers are experimenting with exotic “inks” that range from wood pulp to sugar. (And stem cells! But that's a different story...)  Some devices can extrude liquid foods, like icing and melted chocolate. Soon we’ll be able to print everything from birthday cakes to electric circuits, potentially making complex electronics from scratch.

"When 3-D printers make an object, they use an “additive” technology, which is to say they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up. (By contrast, other computer-controlled machines, such as the CNC router and CNC mill, are “subtractive”; they use a spinning tool to cut or grind away material.)"

Yes yes.  But will you (gentle reader) forgive me if I add a perhaps mysterious parenthetical? Both methods miss the real deal.  I know how to do it -- create 3D objects -- by actual random access of individual points in space!  But I ain’t telling.

==Programming for Everyone==

While we’re on the burgeoning topic of crowd-sourcing…  Inform the world about Raspberry Pi!  Can a $35 computer persuade kids to put down their smartphones and try their hands at programming?   Or at least explore the guts that make things work? Another part of the new Maker Movemen.

Long before I keynoted a recent Maker Faire, I was trying to throw incendiaries about this matter.  For example in the Salon Magazine article “Why Johnny Can’t Code,” which complained about the lack of a common – very basic – programming language in all computers. Something simple, reliable and universal -- remember when ALL "home" computers had such a lingua franca language that all kids could fool with?  One so common that textbook publishers used to include try-it-at-home exercises in all the math and science books. Yes that language sucked.  But millions of kids got a taste of what made the pixel move -- (an algorithm!) -- and that does not happen anymore.

(Incidentally, that article brought me more hate mail than even my pieces dissing Star wars!)

Perhaps Raspberry Pi will help to change that, yet again.Tomorrow’s kids may know more about the “guts” of their technological world than the video-game generation does.  In part thanks to great efforts like this.

== And finally... some sci-miscellany ==

Physics wonks Uncertainty over the Uncertainty Principle? Canadian researchers have cleverly used "weak measurement" methods to glimpse the polarization of a light wave before it enters a strong measurement device, in order to appraise whether the effects of measurement are as predicted by the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle.  If verified, the results might indicate that Uncertainty caused by measurement may be but smaller and more complex than we thought.  Maybe.

Random science thought...Is science a one-man enterprise?  Diametrically opposite to fantasy's romantic images of wizards, the best scientists publish and share as quickly as they can.  And even when they have towering egos, they know they aren't doing it alone. The Poster Boy is a good example. Galileo is credited with a number of discoveries during the Gosh-Wow-Look! era of astronomy.  Yet very few were uniquely his.  As one of you commented recently: "Marius concluded that Jupiter had moons one day later than Galileo.  David Fabricius published a pamphlet several months before Scheiner made his meticulously documented series of observations, which in turn was a month or two ahead of Galileo.  Harriot as usual was ahead of everyone, and as usual never published.  Sure, he deserved attention as the sun around which science revolved in his era." (See my short story about Galileo at Harvard!) "But take Galileo out of the equation, and all the same discoveries are made.  We'd be talking about Scheiner's sunspots, Fabricius' lunar mountains, Marius' moons of Jupiter, or Lembo's phases of Venus!"

== Final Notes ==

Sexiest job of the 21st CenturyData Scientist, according to The Harvard Business Review.

Should our 8 hours of sleep be divided into "firste sleep" and seconde sleep"?

Is it really about to be 2025... the home time of the Jetsons?  Here's a contemplation of the Jetsons, and how they influenced our attitudes (and expectations) of the Future. Even more chilling, it will soon be 2015, the (back to the) Future of Marty McFly... and where's my Mr. Fusion?

Yes, I know... this was a long posting.  But it's about the really important stuff!  Alas, next time we'll return to the aggravating irritation known as politics.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Intelligence, Uplift, and Our Place in a Big Cosmos

"A balanced and well-researched Wired article by Jason Kehe reveals the latest "yoo-hoo transmission to aliens" stunt.  Of course I consider these things to be at-best dopey, with a small but significant chance of being thoughtlessly dangerous for all of humanity.  Above all, to cast such noises outward, based on untested assumptions, without at least offering to discuss it first with our planet's population and its greatest
sages? That is simply rude. Arrogant rudeness on an unprecedented scale.   See my article for the Lifeboat Foundation, Shouting at the Cosmos: how SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory.

Put it in perspective?  A cute interactive graphic lets you test out four different assumptions in the Drake Equation to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy. (I've seen better... but still, this one is fun and a good introduction.)  

Also: a collection of my articles on SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.)

== Gettin Smarter all the time... ==

But I promised to appraise one of those Drake Equation factors today -- intelligence. Is it rare? Can it be enhanced? Or possibly bestowed upon others?

Let's start with a recent science news item. By placing a neural device in the brains of monkeys with disrupted cognitive function, researchers were able to recover and even improve the monkeys' ability to make decisions,  overcoming the effects of cocaine in select regions of the brain. Moreover, when duplicating the experiment under normal conditions, the monkeys' performance improved beyond their previous 75% proficiency level. In other words, a kind of cognitive enhancement appears to have happened.

This got big play in the press. But, now let's not get carried away. The prosthesis was designed to bypass a very specific type of temporary chemical debilitation in a specific region. That’s a far cry from the general brain boost proclaimed by florid news reports. Still...

... that raises the possible prospect someday of brain boosting some of the critters around us. A topic we have discussed here several times before. Now an excellent iO9 article by George Dvorsky indicates we may be at the dawn of the Uplift Era. Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals?

From Pierre Boule to H.G. Wells, nearly all tales about ‘uplift’ of other species (to our level of intelligence) assumed that it would be done stupidly – because stupidity leads to errors and conflict, which transform any concept into an action plot! Mistakes create peril, so those authors portrayed the uplifters being callous, unwise, even vicious slave-masters. When writers do this, the plot almost writes itself.

What's more challenging is to write a story that shows humanity doing something well, or at least openly, with good intentions — and yet still crafting a story filled with action and excitement, where Crichtonian errors can get discovered through vibrant criticism.

 That was the premise behind my popular series of six novels in the "Uplift Universe"... soon to be re-issued in two omnibus volumes by Orbit Books. And yes, I am aiming to re-enter that cosmos in a big way, with that long-awaited "progenitors" tale. Pretty soon I reckon. See a new page devoted to The Uplift Universe.

 == The Mental Ecology of Intelligence and Uplift ==

These issues are (at long last) getting serious (if rather shallow) attention from the scientific community.  For example, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Caltech's Christof Koch.   It declares the following:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

The authors go on to imply that they do not perceive a stark, decisive, qualitative difference between the consciousness of humans and of many higher animal species.  Their implication is that we should consider new proposals for vesting such creatures with some level of sapient rights and respecting their current mental achievements as different, but of equivalent value to our own.

Alas, while I lean toward their general side of the spectrum, wanting more empathy toward the natural world, I find how they express that empathy to be fantastically myopic. Overblown, their declaration says nothing new. The threshold abilities of cetaceans, simians... and yes  parrots, corvids, pinnipeds, even cephalopods... have all been investigated recently and we’ve been delightfully astonished by evidence showing how many animals possess impressive-if-basic mental skills.

Fascinating, indeed! Nevertheless dwelling on this positive trend is to miss the starkly deeper significance of all this.

What's interesting is not how many somewhat-smart species there are on this planet, but how they cluster! With some variation (dolphins and chimps seem to be ahead by a margin) these dozens or so of elite "pre-sapient" species all bump against roughly the same glass ceiling of commonly shared capabilities -- at problem solving, tool use, linguistic comprehension, and so on.  The more you watch crows, sea lions, parrots, octopi -- and dolphins and apes -- the more this confluence of similar abilities comes across as the striking salient feature.

That ceiling is what's interesting!  It's as if Darwin himself stepped up and told all these diverse species and genuses: "this high you may climb, because it helped you to be agile and clever in your natural environment.  But no higher! The reproductive and survival rewards for getting much smarter than that simply aren't sufficient to drive selection across an expensive and dangerous gap. You may not cross."

What a fascinating topic for research! Comparing creatures across such a wide range and mapping the breadth and depth and nature of that ceiling. And possibly thereby shedding light on the greatest puzzle of all. Why are we the one exception? The one breakthrough to a whole 'nother level? We sappy sapiens?

201817627023139656_bN7Q5bvS_cWas it a confluence of experiences, trials and selections endured by bands of gregarious apes, squeezing through evolutionary bottlenecks, one after another?  Or our bipedal gait, freeing hands for full time manipulation? Our complex mating and alliance habits? Or was it something like my own hypothetical process, Neoteny and two-way sexual selection?  

Could some rare fluke -- in one factor of the Drake Equation -- explain us... and thereby help shine light on our apparent loneliness in the cosmos?

Even more thought-provoking; suppose it truly was a fluke that let just one race of bright sub-sapients crash through the ceiling. Well, in that case, what kind of horrible bastards would we be, if we then refused to share our good fortune? If we churlishly disdained to turn around and help others make it across the gap?  

Oh, both the left and the right will come up with rationalizations not to even try. Either because Uplift would insult other species or stomp into the creative realm of God.  But in the end, these will simply be excuses for selfishness.

== A longer life through self-starvations? ==

Oh but what about ourselves?  Can we make ourselves smarter? Perhaps even becoming bright and wise enough to solve our vexing problems? Brilliant enough to turn this internet thing into a blessing, instead of a lobotomizing curse?  Well, it's a topic we've covered before and will do so again! (One tracking tool?  What fraction of humanity reads this blog? Clearly we could be smarter (in aggregate) than we currently are!) 

See my article: The Flynn Effect: Are We Getting Smarter?

One route to transcendence might be to live longer. After all, doesn’t experience make you wiser?

But how? Calorie restriction (CR), a 10–40% reduced intake of a nutritious diet, is often reported as the most robust non-genetic mechanism to extend lifespan and healthspan. Effects on bacteria, fruit flies and even mice have encouraged many in the Life-Extension or Transhumanism movements to embrace CR as a personal lifestyle, hoping for the doubling effect they perceive in animal studies.  You can recognize the type, at conferences, by their "lean and hungry look."

dowereallywantimmortalityI have been a skeptic; not only because humans are already the Methuselahs of the mammalian order, having picked all the longevity low-hanging fruit in order to get three times the average number of heartbeats used by most mammals… but also because caloric restriction has been practiced in hundreds of ascetic monasteries across the last 4000 years. (Do you see any 300 year old monks capering around?) See my essay: Do We Really Want Immortality?

I portray all of this a bit in my new novel EXISTENCE.

Now news from a study of CR done for the first time on a primate species. "A CR regimen implemented in young and older age rhesus monkeys at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) has not improved survival outcomes."  Oops.  Did I call that? Sorry fellows.  

== More Problems With “Intelligence” ==

Certainly, in order to get smarter, we’ll not only have to process information faster and better.  We'll also be behooved to overcome or toss out lots of baggage we picked up during those epochs in the caves. "The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others." (From Evolutionary Psychology Primer, by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby).

People who ordinarily cannot detect violations of if-then rules can do so easily and accurately when that violation represents cheating in a situation of social exchange. 

"Everywhere it has been tested (adults in the US, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Hong-Kong; schoolchildren in Ecuador, Shiwiar hunter-horticulturalists in the Ecuadorian Amazon), people do not treat social exchange problems as equivalent to other kinds of reasoning problems. Moreover, they do not behave as if they were designed to detect logical violations per se; instead, they prompt choices that track what would be useful for detecting cheaters."

Well, well, were we speaking of getting rid of excess baggage? And did I mention “sexual selection?” Then consider this, published in The New York Times: Men, Who Needs Them? An amusing (I hope) rumination on how unnecessary the male half of the human race is becoming.  A pondering that has long been mused-upon in both radical feminist science fiction and more moderate versions, like my own novel Glory Season.

Or might the new “Maker Movement” lead to building replicants, even better than we near-perfect natural specimens?

How to create cyborg flesh. According to Harvard researchers, you start with a three-dimensional scaffold that encourages cells to grow around them. These scaffolds are generally made of collagen, which makes up the connective tissue in almost every animal. (Elsewhere I describe recent advances in re-growing complex tissues like a whole esophagus.) The Harvard engineers basically took normal collagen, and wove nanowires and transistors into the matrix to create nanoelectric scaffolds (nanoES). The neurons, heart cells, muscle, and blood vessels were then grown as normal, creating cyborg tissue with a built-in sensor network.  Next? Go beyond sensing to communicate 2-way with the cells. ALL the cells.  Directly.  Yipe.

== Intelligence in the Future? ==

Hailed as the biggest breakthrough in genomics in a decade, swathes of DNA once thought to have no purpose, actually form a complex “control panel” for our genes. Turns out the “junk DNA” had some purposes, after all! The non-gene sections are regulatory, and crucially important.

Oh but then it gets mind-blowing. Big Brain futurist singularity guy John Smart has just posted a 45 min video about Chemical Brain Preservation, which might challenge cryonics among those looking for a better storage medium, to wait out the temporary hiatus between "death" and -- er -- a second life. That is, if it gets validated by neuroscience in coming years.

Will this make post-death preservation less expensive, less environmentally wasteful and more within plausible reach of those who have been skeptical, till now? I guess I'd prefer being a pickled-plasticized brain on my grandkids' mantel to using up kilogallons of liquid nitrogen in a fragile, frozen ossuary, never being talked about (as you would be, now and then, as a plasticized keepsake on the mantel!)  After all, isn't that just a step removed from traditional embalming?

Emplace the brain/head in a unit with holo display and simple voice-response unit. (“Hey you kids!  It’s getting dusty over here!") Add some oracular statements that get released by time (a la Hari Seldon).  Fun for the whole (extended) family.  You can leave comments at John's blog.

Oh, John added the following personal note: "I will do my best to get the price down to where the mantlepiece fossil is an irresistible choice for the Brin household. Then if the Universe allows me a bit more longevity than you (cross fingers), I'll come by and pay my respects. I hope to see a holoBrin pop out, identify me biometrically, and then ask me if I'm working sufficiently hard to get you back out!!"

Hrm.  I will have more fierce ways of haunting than just that!

And finally, the ultimate theory… OUR LIFE AS AVATARS.... My friend Rich Terrille is interviewed about the now familiar notion that we all dwell within a simulation.  Rich is a very bright guy. We've discussed his version of this concept and I consider it a step forward.  Earlier versions by Hans Moravec in the 1990s and Stanislaw Lem in the 1970s, are of interest along the way, going back to Lao Tse's parable of the butterfly and the Emperor.  My own contributions include an essay, Could our Universe be a Fake? and a novelette from the 1990s called "Stones of Significance" which folks might find both amusing and boggling.  (A Hugo nominee.)

Evidence for this notion includes the fact that we have a minimum temperature and a maximum speed and a limit to how finely you can sub-divide nature.  All of those “universal traits” strike one as attempts to skimp on computational needs by the stingy owners of this simulation... I mean the handsome, intelligent, generous, kind and wonderful owners who would never think of reaching over and flicking the switch that says reboo...