Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Human rights for intelligent machines?

January 19, 2009

If, as so many who are awating the coming singularity with byted breath, it comes to pass that machines become intelligent enough that we recognize them as self aware (this may already be the case – see my missive on “if intelligent machines where here, how would we know?”), will there not be a time when we begin to debate as to whter they are to have individual “human rights” or at least some equivalent form?

Human history is filled with humans not recognizing other humans as equal both under the law and under the accepted mpores of the time. We have a habit of subjecting other intelligences of even our own kind simply by labeling them as being different . Who knows if wiping out the Neanderthals wasn’t our first exercise in genocide?

In any case, it seems likely that one day there will be a discussion that may even turn to whether machines will have a right to vote and, by extensions, a right to riun for and maintain political office.

If you Google “machines and voting”, you will get close to 7 million pages , a majority of which seem to be concerned with how votes are miscounted.  This leads me to wonder if the machines, themselves would not be in the perfect position to elect one of their own.

Tom Stoppard once said, “In Democracy, it’s not the voting, it’s the counting.”

Of course the upside might be rational, logical politicians who are devoid of all forms of human frailties when it comes to corruption, But oops! i forgot. It isn’t so much that power corrupts as that it attracts whose who are susceptible to being corrupt. It’s probably much more likely that if machines are so wont as to seek power, they will simply take it rather than to seek an equal level of citizenship.


When Life Imitates Virtual Reality

June 17, 2008

A few days ago, I had the priviledge of getting a live demo of Cisco’s new Telepresence technology.

A few words about that first: Far be it from me to tout just how great a new product may be but this one knocked my socks off. The call was initiated with one tap of a touch screen. The connection between New York and San Jose was instantaneous. I mean really instantaneous. The three 65 inch HD plasma screens lit up with the folks at San Jose speaking on them in less than a second. Faster than I have seen any connection made. There was no lag, no buffering, so streaming issues. It was just live people on ethe other end.

Now what makes the experience even better is how they orchestrate it. The screens are set in a room with the same colors on both ends: a drab place with chocolate colored walls, plain surfaced table and very regular shaped, simple chairs. The screens are placed in such a way that the people you see are displayed at the same size as if they were sitting across a table in the same room with you. The illusion is completed with widely diffused lighting that softens and blends all shadows making for an experience in which you feel as if you are actually in the same room and you can reach out and touch the other person.

After 2 minutes of marveling at the impact of the technology, we fell into a normal meeting with all the in room dynamics of body language and the nuances of expression that only live can bring. The technology no longer existed. That was what made it magic.

And then, it hit me. The walls, the lighting, the surfaces, they all looked drab and plain and smooth. Just like in virtual reality applications that are dependent on low computing power in order to render images like that in real time. Cicso has taken a page from virtual realities lesson book and applied that to the real world in order to digitize it. It was an observation that surprised me. I had often wondered on how we can better make a virtual, artificial world look more real and never how we can make the real world mimic the artificial ones in order to benefit what we have learned about data compaction and transfer.

Kudos to Cisco for thinking this through and making this happen.

The sad part is that the costs are horribly prohibitive for all but large companies at this point. I do hope that the costs can continue to drop rapidly and we can all soon be speaking on the vidi-phones we first discovered on the Jetsons, at Epcot, Star Trek and even in the early scenes of Total Recall.

The future is here. It just isn’t widely distributed.

The National ID Card in Your Genes

May 7, 2008

Sections of the law also make it clear that DNA may be used in genetic experiments and tests.

You can read the entire law here.

As I previously wrote when the senate passed a law preventing discrimination on the grounds of your genetic makeup, it was to be assumed that your genetic information would either be public knowledge or government property.

I think we should all look at this with a great deal of scrutiny. Government has a terrible history of keeping our privacy or not using our personal information for political ends.

I am not just referring the dreams of eugenics and master race creating that Hitler thought about. The US government was quick to inter our own citizens in World War II based on their genetic heritage.

That may have been a long time ago. But let us not forget that under the guise of the misnamed ”Patriot act” the government had no problem suspending the right of habeus corpus as well as several other personal rights we previously took for granted. That should serve as a lesson that, with the proper spin, we readily give the government power that our founding fathers would have instantly rejected.

In our current system where officials are regularly elected by purchasing and manipulating popular opinion, what are the safeguards against, someday, a government that decides that we no longer wish to have citizens that carry the diabetes gene, or suffer from ADHD because they create budgetary overruns in our society.

Many Americans have opposed the notion of a national ID card because of the fear of how that could be abused by local officials on grounds of race or creed or nation of origin. If you don’t think the government happily goes after certain faith, you should read about what Senator Grassley is up to.

How much more information about you can they have if they have tagged your DNA?

The Citizens Council on Healthcare has published a very cogent analysis of the privacy concerns that this law brings up.

I am surprised that so few media outlets have not recognized this chilling legislation for what it could be.

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.

Make my brain more plastic fantastic please

March 11, 2008

In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire offers one word of advice to
Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock: “Plastics”

Now-a-days, one can hardly tune into a PBS television channel without running into what is primaily an infomercial about exercising your brain in a brain gym.

The show, interestingly, explains the concept of brain plasticity, essentially the changes that occur in the organization of the brain as a result of experience.

We used to believe that once you achieved adulthood, large portions of your brain were set forever and that when portions were lost due to an accident, aging or abundant cheap vodka, these portions and their functions were irretrievably lost. Brain plasticity says, “uh-uh we have seen different functions move to different parts of the brain depending on environmental effects.”

The idea behind brain exercise is that you can keep your brain more plastic (able to change and adapt) by lifting mental dumbbells.

And now, a new article published in BMC Neuroscience seems to claim that injecting human umbilical cord  blood intravenously can actually increase neurogenesis in the brain.

This means an adult brain could begin acting like a growing brain once again. The first tests have been conducted on aging rats.  Rejuvenating an aging rats brain and making note of a change in behavior must have been a thrilling assignment (Wow! My rat has stopped playing dominoes and is hitting on the females again!).

A Google search of “umbilical cord blood” comes up with no less than 7 sponsored links touting the benefits of banking your newborns umbilical cord blood for later use. You can even get a kit for the collection of menstrual blood stem cells (did you ever imagine there was value there?). And special combo-packages can save you hundreds of dollars.

Who could have imagined that the fountain of youth and the birth canal could have been one and the same?

Thank you for joining the Hive Mind. You are not a number, you are a free man.

March 7, 2008

Yes, Virginia, you are an individual, just like everybody else.

As our more and more connected community of human thought continues to evolve and change, I am wondering whether or not we are finally moving towards a true hive mind.

Late night bad science fiction television and heart pounding video games teach us that the hive mind engulfs individuals and makes them subject to the “uber –needs” of our glorious collective culture. Rarely does it really explore the true experience of the drone.

Does the drone actually see themselves as such, or does it see itself as a somewhat empowered individual deftly navigating the slings and arrows of outrageous marketing attempts at influencing its desires, thoughts, needs and snacking peccadillo’s?

Do you, dear reader, feel that the hive mind has begun to take over yet?

Have you been taken in by the conscious collective? Are you a happy-go-lucky member of the Culture?

Have you become a drone despite yourself?

I can almost see you recoil from the screen in horror. “What, me? Heaven forfend!”

But not so fast. Not so fast.

Perhaps it is human destiny to build this wonderful cyber brain?  Perhaps we should be embracing this for the “common good?” After all, life seems to make successful organisms from a sum of many parts.

Maybe this is the path that will give us the way to dominate the universe (if not us, then who?)? or at least the next step in our “explorevolution” of who we are, why we are and when will the pizza get here?

Drones may be a lot happier than rogue elements or exploring individuals. Sheep are happier in a herd since it tends to make it easier for them to survive, find a breeding mate and reduces stress. You just have to watch out for that Good Shepherd.

You know, the one who eats mutton and wears lambskin.

Surviving Darwin – The Biology of God

March 7, 2008

 The case has been argued previously that humans have bred themselves through natural selection for belief in God  because it had survival value to the individual. Has the time come for us to begin looking at the religious experience as a biological function?  

Over the last 50 years many have written and documented on the similarities of religious experience and chemical experiences on the mind. Most recently Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in the Time and Mind journal of philosophy that Moses may have seen a “burning bush” based on consumption of a concoction based on bark of the acacia tree which is used for curing premature ejaculation or rabies in some parts of the world (you suspected all along that there was a connection between the two conditions, didn’t you?). 

If we do begin to address religious experience in this way, does that then pave the way for a more studied approach and a less shamanistic one? Much has changed in the treatment of other biological aspects over the last few centuries. And despite the fact that some may claim that modern medicine has moved us away from a “more, better natural” approach to treating biological infirmities, one can hardly deny that the discoveries and practices have overall led to healthier lives with longer life spans and far better interventions.Remember that as little as 200 years ago, we new nothing about germs and ascribed the human condition to a balance among the humors.  You did not want to be a surgery patient at a time when puss from others was applied to your wound in an effort to see a “natural result.” 

Like other biological management methods, of course, this too would fall victim to people taking advantage of others.

But is this not the case with religious experience today? History does not come to us short of all types of strange religious experiences designed to de-robe people of their money, land and even their lives in the name of this possibly biological experience. 

Still the approach might be worth it. There has been much study as the impact on the brain of prayer or meditation. How practical would it be if we could get all that from a pill?  

“Forget the Lithium, Ms Borden. I want you to try this new pill: Graceetra. It’s like manna from heaven.” 

Oh, and for the Atheists who get all excited about the notion that we may be biologically bred for the religious experience, maybe you just have a failed gene and there may be a therapy developed for that. 

Of course you could always fake it and plan on converting to Atheism on your death bed.