Joe Transhumanist

Accelerating technological change is affecting every aspect of your life. You're going to live longer. You're going to see amazing technologies. Things you took for granted for decades are shifting under your feet. It's impossible to chart these changes out past a couple years. Eventually, it'll be down to months. So how does a regular joe, a non-scientist, embrace this while living a so-called "normal" life? Is it even possible? Herein is my approach.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cochlear Implant Article at H+ Magazine

Here is a link to a great article about a real issue: cochlear implants and the deaf community.  Many of us take for granted that the deaf suffer from a disability, but this is not at all the mindset of many in the deaf community, who see deafness as a social identity.

As I mention in a comment below the article, to many in the deaf community, deafness is no more a disability than my inability to see infrared.  Where we differ is that if I had the ability to expand my sensory abilities, I would do so.

In the Transhumanist world we find ourselves building, any type of sensory absence is going to be an evolutionary disadvantage.  That's not a statement of emotion or belief, I believe it's just a statement of fact.  Although I understand the deaf community's fear of losing its social identity, I don't see it as relevant.  These changes are coming regardless.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To Paleo or not to Paleo?

A pretty interesting article about the Paleo diet can be found here.

I personally have not gone 100% in this direction, but the science and data are telling, especially as related to gluten.  As I detail in my H+ article, "My H+ Reboot", my dietary changes have revolved around consuming more dark fruits and vegetables and fiber, minimizing salt, and eliminating processed sugar.  I do tend to eat a fair amount of gluten-rich foods (pastas and breads), and I do also consume dairy products, but don't seem to notice any adverse health effects from these things.  Indeed, the other changes I've affected have pretty obviously had a positive health impact.

If I had to describe my lifestyle concisely, here it is:  Avoid sugar.  Avoid processed foods and chemicals.  Exercise intensively and regularly.

Monday, June 4, 2012

My H+ Reboot

My post on how I used Transhumanist philosophy to hack my biology and change my mental outlook is on H+ Magazine this month:

Wander on over and while you're there have a gander at the other great articles and insights at H+.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Obsolescence of SF

Don't get me wrong - I grew up on the classics.  I was especially fond of the "hard" Science Fiction guys.  I devoured novels like Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" and Niven's "Ringworld".  I was drawn to their vision of a future where Mankind had spread across the galaxy and uncovered the mysteries of the cosmos not through magic transporter beams and warp drives, but using their wits and the laws of science.  The idea that we were just a small part of this interstellar community thrilled me.  Later, authors like Greg Bear, David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Walter Jon Williams drew me in with their more hardcore, sleek, techno-futures.  A bit darker, sure, but no less wondrous.  For a geeky teenager who hadn't really grown into himself yet, these were the greatest of escapes.

Then something started to happen.  It became harder and harder to crystallize that sense of wonder, harder to find believable futures, harder to take these tales of galactic civilizations seriously. The problem was easy to identify:  The present was gaining on the future, and the future it was gaining on was not one filled with interstellar warfare, interplanetary colonies, aliens, and ancient relics of long lost civilizations.  It was a future of data transmission and biological augmentation, of infinite information and mind-numbing computing power.  In the early 80s not everyone could see this yet, but certain writers did. One in particular, a mathematician named Vernor Vinge, coined a term that we Transhumanists and former sci-fi fans have admittedly overused:  The Singularity.  Vinge, like his contemporaries, kept writing books and coming up against a problem:  Technology was moving so fast that he could not create realistic far-future scenarios.  Long before humans could venture to the stars and engage in building ringworlds and exploring cylindrical alien space arks, their technology was going to make such things unimportant.  Man was becoming more and more attuned to his machines, augmenting his intelligence with ever more complex computer systems and software routines.  Eventually - and not too far in the future if one really looked at the trends - the pace of technology was going to outpace the very pace of technology itself. Beyond this point, nobody could predict what would happen.  Like the enigma existing behind the event horizon of a black hole, Mankind would reach a technological singularity.

Not a very sexy idea to a guy who loved chasing Niven and Clarke across the solar system.

Some authors just said "screw it" and wrote (mostly bad) space opera anyway, stories about 20th century men and women that happened to be set in spaceships.  I called it the Star Trek scenario, with a fair amount of derision.  I was never a big Trek fan.  But there were those who took on this challenge and tried to create futures where a Singularity either didn't exist, or could somehow be avoided or limited in its effect.  And some of these attempts were fantastic.  Dan Simmons created incredibly engaging scenarios in his Hyperion and Illium series of novels.  A new wave of younger authors - Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross spring to mind - did equally mind-blowing work finding a way to get a fictional Humanity out there among the stars.  But Vinge was the godfather of the "Singularity" authors.  Everything he wrote dealt with it.  And his magnum opus, my vote for the finest pure science fiction novel ever written, was "A Fire Upon the Deep", a galaxy-spanning space opera in the grandest sense, where space and the laws of physics themselves dictate the extent to which a species can "get around" the Singularity.

Can we "get around" a technological singularity?  I personally doubt it.  The minute man creates an intelligence greater than his own - or augments his own intelligence to the point where the unaugmented cannot compete - then the entire game changes.  History has not been kind to those who try to avoid what I will simply call, without any positive or negative connotation, "progress".  I hope that our future will be inclusive, that a rising technological tide will raise all boats.  I have more hope for that each day as humanity becomes more networked and the importance of and reliance on old-style tribalism begins to fade.  Whatever happens, though, the next three decades or so are going to be interesting.

In the meantime, I am still drawn to the Science Fiction section of every bookstore.  I still peruse the new arrivals, hoping for some great and original upstart writers to ping that sense of wonder that has become so rare these days.  And I still have copies of the books that set me on this path so many years ago.  Ringworld and Rama and 2001 and dozens of others are no less important for being technically obsolete.  Because the memories of these books and the stories they told still resonate, still take me back to a time when excitement was made of alien worlds and interstellar exploration, not cloud servers and stem cells and virtual reality.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Blockbuster Bubble

As a Transhumanist, I tend to spend much of my time pondering high-tech gadgetry, the implications of vastly expanded life expectancy, mind-machine interfaces, and the like.  But in my travels through the intertubes, I occasionally come across subjects that, although not quite as cerebral, do fire my imagination enough to pen a short missive.

Today’s trigger was the performance of Battleship, which had a disastrous (if $30 million dollars is a disaster) opening weekend.
Apparently, “Battleship” (which The Accessible Transhumanist has not seen and does not intend to see until it reaches a smaller screen) has taken a few torpedoes.  Financially, over the long haul, it may repair the damage.  But for now, it appears, like John Carter before it, to be a flop.

Which begs the question:  How long will Hollywood (and the investors who sink hundreds of millions into big-budget blockbusters) continue taking these gambles?  In a world where a smart dude with a high-end GPU can create effects that stand on par with the best Pixar and Lucasfilm have to offer, aren’t we just about ready for the conventional Hollywood blockbuster bubble to pop?

When rendering software can create artificial actors as realistic as, well, the real ones (see Jeff Bridges’ 25-year age reduction in Tron: Legacy), when you can create a setpiece battle scene with rendering software, when you can blue-screen any environment, when a camera that fits in your hand can shoot at resolutions as high or higher than any Panavision rig - and when those cameras interface directly to software that can clean up the mistakes... why do companies continue to spend $100+ million on film production?  

We’re already seeing private companies like Hulu and Netflix create their own content.  We see independent videos hit YouTube with quality approaching multi-million dollar studio productions.  Anyone with a camera, a flair for design, and an ability to render and edit can create visual entertainment that would hold up to anything short of Avatar

My point is that sometimes you don’t need to look very far for the next disruption.  While everyone argues over whether the Education bubble is about to pop, we have a huge disruption looming in the way we get our entertainment.  The fragmented state of content acquisition and delivery are just a piece of this.  The actual creation of the content itself is about to change.  

Now sure, I’m not talking about Academy-Award-Winning acting talent being generated by basement talent agencies.  I’m not saying that thoughtful, low- and mid-range budget films will be displaced by the programmers and renderers out there.  At least not yet.  I mean, there is no real point in rendering “The Hangover” on a PC or Mac.  At least not yet.  I’m talking about the big movies, the ones that blow most of their coin on FX and bank on selling a lot of popcorn.  As far as I’m concerned, these flicks are an endangered species, and no amount of 3D magic and surround sound will save them.

If The Accessible Transhumanist was a studio executive, he would be looking to cash in, while the investors are still lining up to fund the next mega-trilogy or Marvel franchise.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

SETI's Problem: The Fermi Paradox

I have always considered SETI a noble yet misguided pursuit.  On the one hand, the upside is huge:  the discovery of intelligences outside our own solar system.  On the other hand, the odds of success are statistically almost non-existent.  But as long as private individuals and corporations were looking for a project to throw a relatively small amount of money at, I considered the exercise valuable if for no other reason than we were getting really good at scanning the RF spectrum.

I mean no disrespect to the legion of scientists and technicians who gave their careers to the project, and I certainly don’t want to come off as kicking these scientists and technicians when they’re down, but now that the cold water has been splashed on SETI’s plans, it’s probably a good time to explain why I believe SETI was a noble waste of resources from the start.

You see, SETI’s biggest problem is not funding, or technical ability, or public support.  SETI’s biggest problem is The Fermi Paradox.  This paradox, first presented by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, makes a very good point:  If intelligent life is common in our galaxy, then we should see signs of it everywhere.  Now, that sounds simplistic, and the common rebuttal argues that space is huge, so even a large number of intelligent species would be separated by massive distances.

The problem is that this counter-argument, though it takes into account the hugeness of space, completely ignores the hugeness of Deep Time.  The galaxy - heck, the universe - is ancient.  Humans are not wired to completely grasp the timescales involved.  Intelligent species would not only have to exist across space, but they would also have to exist across time.  And the odds of multiple intelligent species existing relatively simultaneously in the same general volume of space during the same general time does not appear to be statistically possible.  Let’s run some numbers.

Geologic Time

The Earth is 4 billion years old, more or less.  For 3.999 billion of those years, not a single intelligent, tool-using, technologically-capable creature evolved.  Then, along came some smarter-than-average apes who started manipulating their environment.  A few hundred thousand years later came language.  Art.  Agriculture.  And then, about 100 years ago, radio.  100 years.  4 billion years.  If you took a human lifetime and divided it into seconds, you’d come out with about 2 billion.  That means if the history of the world were compressed into a human lifetime, humans have been using radio for about as long as it took you to read this paragraph.

So, let’s define “intelligent life” by SETI’s requirements.  For SETI to identify an intelligent species, that species would have to be at least radio-capable.  Humans have been inside this window for a bare 100 years.  Now, the other big question, and one we really can’t answer, is how long a species remains radio-capable?  How long, in essence, is an intelligent species around?  I submit that this may seem like an important question, but it really is irrelevant, because the answers are all mutually exclusive.  If an intelligent species sticks around only for a thousand years or so, that is such a tiny sliver of cosmic Deep Time that it is unlikely in the extreme that two species would exist inside that 1000-year window in a volume of space small enough for them to be detected by each other.  On the other hand, if intelligent species exist for eons, then we should see evidence of them everywhere.  The RF spectrum should be screaming with intelligence.  Everywhere we point telescopes we should see evidence of intelligent civilizations.   Life has invaded every niche on Earth, and it’s safe to assume that intelligent life should invade every niche in space.  For it to be long-lived and successful, it would have to!

As Humans,  we have evolved to be explorers, to search out others like us, to make connections.  We are a social species, and there’s something deep inside all of us that want to believe that there are other species not too different from us populating the stars.  But we are also a logical species.  We are engineers, mathematicians.  Our challenge is that these two sides compete with one-another.  And it is our constant struggle to filter our wishes and fantasies, to remain rational in the face of emotion.  

Our logical side looks at the cosmos and sees nothing but a completely indifferent universe. That is a lonely thought.  It triggers that part of us that wants to belong.  But wanting something does not make it reality.  A part of me will miss SETI and the ideological vigor with which it pursued its goal.  But the logical, rational side of me must accept that it’s time to move on.

The universe may be empty of intelligence, but it is filled to the brim with mysteries.  I take solace in that, in the idea that, in the words of Carl Sagan, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”