Archive for April, 2008

When Atheists Come Out of the Closet – the Right Not to Believe

April 27, 2008

A few months ago, Wired magazine wrote about “The Church of the Non-Believers.” In their article they wrote about Atheists like Richard Dawkins who actively were stating that religion is evil. I personally find that to be far too intolerant.

While being a Non-Theist ( think of that as a non-practicing Atheist, mainly for the holidays), I think that tolerance of different religious opinions is important when it comes to having a reasonable civilization.

Sadly, many religious establishments and members of religions, while espousing the same notion, have little tolerance for those who say they are Atheists. In fact, can you think of one American politician who has , or could, claim to be an atheist and still win office? Instead, we get obvious phonies who claim to have religious affiliations (attending churches during campaign season and praying when we have hurricanes) but who obviously do not live honest lives.

This is probably what drives many atheists to adopt that belief.

Recently, there was a story about a soldier, Jeremy Hall, in Iraq who admitted to be being an atheist. Apparently, if he had admitted to being a child molester , he would have gotten better treatment at the hadns of his fellows in the military.

He eventually came out of the religious closet in Iraq in 2007, when he was in a firefight.The soldier was a gunner on a Humvee, which took several bullets in its protective shield. Later, his commander asked whether he believed in God, Hall said.”No, but I believe in Plexiglas.” He further said, “I’ve never believed I was going to a happy place. You get one life. When I die, I’m worm food.”

Apparently this was worse that being asked and telling. He was even threatened with having charges brought against him for organizing a meeting of Atheists (how horrible!). An allegation which Hall denies.

The soldier has gotten to the point where he felt he needs to sue the Military and even names Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a defendant.

if we are to have a truly civil society, we need to get to a place where someone’s religious opinions or doctrines are not the basis on which we judge them.

Recently, we saw the issue raised with a first time Mormon running for president. We have seen the issue raised with Senator Grassley who is investigating churches that espouse an doctrine and version of Christianity different from his doctrine. We hear of talk of culture war against Islam and of Islamic extremsiss who want everyone to live under Sharia law.

America deserves better.

We need to be able to judge our neighbors and officials on the content of their character not their affiliation to one group or another; a lofty idea once proposed by a baptist minister who was eventually put to death for such radical concepts.

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Fiddling with your Genes, Google or Government?

April 24, 2008

A few days ago, the senate, following the lead of the house, has offered the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination act.

In a nutshell, they wish to make it illegal to discriminate in the work place against someone based on their genetic make up. While I can see why they are pursing this path (you would not want to have DNA tests preclude you from getting a job because you had a statistically higher chance of developing an infirmity that could cost your employer in raised health insurance premiums), I believe it may be a little short sighted.

One of the predicates seems to be that your DNA, your genetic make up so to speak, is an immutable part of whom you are. But as we keep hearing of near breakthroughs in eventual genetic medicine, what will happen as people begin to cure conditions or alter themselves with the addition of new DNA? If your Lyme disease can be cured by the introduction of a gene pattern from someone else that allows your body to handle it differently, well, which set of DNA is really you after that?

The issue comes down to the fact that DNA is information and information has value and information can change.

In a previous segment I wrote about designer genes and even coined the term LSDNA for what may eventually be recreational genetics. The new laws notion of genetic immutability may indeed wind up in the Supreme Court when some baseball player has genetically modified his eyesight to be able to improve is visual reaction time and allow him to up his batting average.

We have all seen that the senate and the media are ready to stop focusing on war, foreign policy, the economy and general state of the planet in order to investigate any possible method that baseball players may use to gain some slight advantage. So obviously a serious national issue.

I can just see some centerfielder testifying before congress about how he is being discriminated against due to his new genetic make up.: “Genetic information Discrimination law , yer Lordship. That’s my story an ah’m stickin’ to it.”

In the mean time, folks in the information business are beginning to sniff out the fact that DNA is mostly about information. Lat year, Google invested over $4 million in 23andme , a company that will test your genes and tell you if your ancestors were more likely to have been the invaders or the invadees in the glorious past written deep in your chromosomes. Since this company is all about accessing and organizing genetic data, it stands to reason that Google would invest based on their mission: organizing the worlds information and making it universally accessible and useful while stuffing as much money in our pockets as we possibly can until we can get our ourselves more, bigger pockets.

More recently, Google quietly invested an undisclosed amount in Navigenics. This company has a different approach. They too function with the cotton Q-Tip method (remind me to invest in the companies that make these cotton swabs) but their goal is to let you know if are likely or not to develop cancer or Alzheimer’s the heartbreak of psoriasis and give you the tools to alert your doctor and have both his accountant and lawyer respond to this new situation.

This all leads me to the issue at hand which is, who owns that information (yes, that again)?

After all, if the data gets published then is it then public domain? This may be important for privacy issues but will really become important when we begin to discover that some of us may hold certain genetic patterns that could have real value.

Imagine dear reader, that you are one of the fortunate who possesses the genetic make up that would allow you to smoke two packs of lucky strikes a day without any predisposition toward lung cancer. There seems to be some proof that certain people are more susceptible to cigarette smoke than others (the luck of the draw , so to speak).

Now, if this gene combination that your blessed ancestors have so carefully selected for arrives in your body, how would you feel about some company exploiting that for gain.

Wouldn’t you feel that you have a right to be remunerated for this DNA that is your own?

And how will it stand with you if Google, who is out there making the data available (monetized in some God-knows what pay-per-chromosome auction model) without ever letting you in on the bounty celebrated from the wonderful cure springing from deep in your cells?

Which brings me back to the new senatorial initiative, it seems to predicate that not only will your DNA be immutable, but that the data will be easily available to those who may want to type you.

If a day at the motor vehicle bureau never frightened you about nationalized health care, this one should scare the be-geneses out of you.

The Dancing Bees of the Hive Mind

April 15, 2008

Much Digital ink is beginning to be spilled about Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web.

The entire notion is that more information about data will lead to better understanding and exploitation of data (maybe that is why information wants to be free?).

Recently, I came across a few articles describing sprocket technology or twining.

The idea is that you have this cool little sprocket running on your machine and learning about your habits. Then this device can talk to other similar devices within your particular network. AS the devices learn more, they can enrich your experience by alerting you of information you would probably be interested in. Of course, advertisiers would love to interrupt you in the middle of what you consider important information for you to have with what they consider important information for you to have.

In any case, these little intelligent agents (now isn’t that term a blast from the past) remind me of dancing bees. I know, I know, I keep going back to the hive mind, but think about how dancing bees inform the hive of where they can find lovely flowers in bloom, ripe with all the pollen they can carry.

Sadly, it seems the little apians have been suffering lately and despite our best efforts to blame cell phone towers, we are still not sure what has been causing this bee blight.

So what if the real culprit is advertising? Some devious virus that is giving the bees false steps in their dance with the stars and that is leading bees to leave the hive en masse in search of fields flowers that never were; a Pleasantville of insects sold on the “better life”?

If we want to find the bees, we’ll need to follow the money. Isn’t it always that way?

If Artificially Intelligent Machines Were Here, How Would We Know?

April 6, 2008

In his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” , mathematician Alan Turing described a test of a machines ability to achieve intelligence. This has been popularly named the Turing Test. Essentially, it asks a human judge to have a conversation (in written text and real time) with another human and a machine. If the judging human cannot distinguish between the human and the machine, the machine is said to have passed the test and at least mimicked intelligence. This has spawned a whole school of research about “natural language dialogue systems”.

We all know that unless there is a good financial reason to build such machines, the exercise of doing so will remain just an exercise. So what I am curious about is that when machines successfully pass the test and can imitate human conversations, what are the applications that may be applied?

Of course, one of them would be sex and the other crime.

A Russian program called CyberLover conducts fully automated flirtatious conversations in a bid to collect personal data from unsuspecting real humans behaving all too humanly. The program can be found in dating chat sites and is designed to lure victims into sharing their identities or get them to visit web sites that provoke malware infestations. It can do so with up to 10 simultaneous partners making it quite an efficient machine as well.

With the rapid expansion of social networks and websites focused on conversation and discussion, this type of approach leads one to think that there may soon be a plethora of intelligent machines conversing with online denizens with the goal of gathering their personal data or zombifying their machines (and perhaps thus replicating themselves).

This leads me to the title of this missive. If artificially intelligent machines were here, how would we know? After all, the purpose of the Turing test is to have the machine fool the human into thinking it isn’t a machine. So, by Turing’s early definition, fooling a human is how one detects artificial intelligence. But if the human is fooled, who does the detecting?

Now, while I do subscribe to the notion that even paranoids can have real enemies, I don’t think this calls for panic just yet. But it does bring me back to my notion of the hive mind.

If we were indeed developing a larger, collective intelligence, how would we know? Perhaps that intelligence would be of a nature that we would not recognize it as not us. Or perhaps it would contain so much of us that we would not recognize its whole.

If we were made up of intelligent cells, would the cells know they belonged to a greater mind? Would we know that we were made up of intelligent cells?

Could we be creating an intelligent design and not know it?