Wednesday, May 27, 2015

No really. We were actually going to do it.

Pic from Popular Science. Link provided below.

I recently finished reading a compelling book about manned space exploration.

Or Mrs. ESE and I listened to it on audiobook, anyway (narrated by Bronson Pinchot. Balki!) That counts, right?

It is called Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux. It's about development of the spacesuits worn by NASA astronauts of the 1960s. Believe it or not, the true story actually has a few significant ties to transhumanism.

You see, dressing astronauts in suits was not the only option for protecting them against the wretched conditions of space. At least not initially. Another idea on the table was modifying these men into cyborgs. Mathematician and computer expert Manfred Clines worked with psychopharmacologist Nathan Kline (both pictured above on the right) to propose an approach that was steeped very much in the concepts of cybernetics. The idea was that it was quite cumbersome and impractical to have men carry their livable habitat with them into space. It would be far more efficient to modify humans through technology in order to adapt it to space travel.

The logic is dead on correct. The practical implementation of the project, however, proved problematic after deep study. Gainsays within the NASA system forced the project's inevitable abandonment in 1966.

It seems to me though that science fiction later covered this ground. It's been a long time since I read the book in question, but io9 recently reminded me of it. Frederik Pohl wrote the novel Man Plus in which astronauts absolutely must "get their asses to Mars" to quote Total Recall. Only as we all know, Mars is quite inhospitable to humans otherwise we would have colonized it already (or perhaps not. It's all a question of gumption.) Anyway, the astronaut of the titular Man Plus project is completely remade through transhuman means. The majority of his internal organs are removed and replaced with cybernetics, his mushy human eyes are replaced with stimuli receptors, and his brain is augmented with a computer to process all of the enhanced data said receptors will bring it.

Sure, all that is great, but how would all of these onboard systems be powered? Well, solar is the obvious choice but the necessary panels would have to be big. I mean big. So they graft two giant panels to his back that grant the appearance of giving him wings. When I read the book, I imagined him as winged but entirely cyborg in appearance. Apparently, the cover artist for one of the earlier editions didn't share my interpretation.

Sort of looks like Man-Bat, doesn't he? Yes, I took that description from the io9 article but it's spot-on.

Though it's all engaging, I realize that it is quite speculative. Still, I wonder if prolonged occupation of space will require cybernetic measures. I mean, humans were never meant to be out there, at least not biologically. To completely obviate that fact, we may need to one day drastically change a great many things.

Including us.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Green, wooden, and made by robots

There have been a few stories in the past weeks that show promise, converging the disciplines of technology and architecture with an emphasis on bettering our environment.

Imagine asking an architect this question: what hot new material do you we will build skyscrapers out of in the coming years? "Wood" is probably not the answer that you would expect.

But that's exactly what Vancouver architect Michael Green proposes. Green said recently:

“We grow trees in British Columbia that are 35 stories tall, so why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?”

To demonstrate his thesis, Green has not only written a book titled Tall Wood, demonstrating the benefits of designing and building tall buildings out of wood, but also helped establish the Wood Innovation and Design Center at the University of North British Columbia which, at 29.25 meters (effectively eight stories), is currently lauded as the tallest modern timber building in North America. There are aims to build higher timber structures than that, however. Just one example being a fourteen story apartment building was just completed in Bergen, Norway. How is this happening with timber?

As outlined on the previous link at Discover, 2009 was the year that thoughts really began to change. That year marked the development of cross-laminated solid wood panels. This allowed for far higher structural integrity but also the ability to lock in carbon dioxide. Which leads us to the benefits for the environment. The use of concrete is already accounts for 5% of the world's CO2 emissions. Providing building materials that serve as an alternative to concrete would certainly go a long way to help. I wonder though if this type of building could be teamed with another development.

A technology has been manufactured in South Korea that can turn discarded cigarette butts into electrical storage. If you've ever smoked...or just looked down at the asphalt outside a bar, strip club, fast food joint, hell any city sidewalk...then you know that cigarette butts are filters made out of densely packed fibers. These fibers can be quite useful to supercapacitors. When burned in nitrogen-rich chambers, pores form on the surfaces of the filters, thus increasing the filters' surface areas. Tests have shown that these pores can store far more energy than other materials previously used in supercapacitors, You know me, I'm always a quidnunc  for new technology but I must admit I did not see this coming. So imagine an eco-friendly, wooden building that is powered by one of the most disgusting forms of trash there is?

But wait! There's more!

What if the whole building were built by robots?

I came across this article about robots repairing gas pipelines beneath the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. Don't scoff. Read the link. It's not the craziest thing you've read about with robots lately. At least if you're a regular at ESE. But I digress...

Remote-controlled robots moved to pre-programmed locations along the piping and inject sealants into the cracks and fissures. As one member of the robot project said:

“The use of robotics technology will enable us to complete our work more quickly than ever before with less traffic disruption. The robot refurbishes the gas mains from inside the pipe. The use of robotic repairs means that we can substantially reduce the amount of time we’re working in the road."

Granted that's not the same thing as construction but is it really all that far of a leap to make?

So put all that together. A building. Brought about from an innovative design. Powered by a new technology. All of it eco-friendly...and built by robots. Does it get any cooler? ESE endorses.

In all honesty, the innovation is cool but it's the environmentally-friendly aspects of this kind of building that really get me sitting up to take notice.  As news about climate change keeps getting all the more dire, our course of action grows clearer.

Unless we just plain don't care, that is.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Manual of Evasion

So imagine a trippy cyberpunk/transhuman film that features Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Rudy Rucker.

Well imagine it no more as I've got it for you right here:

It's called "Manual of Evasion." It was made in 1994 by Portuguese filmmaker, Edgar Pera. Rudy Rucker, who plays Lord Chaos in the film, wrote a piece for it on his site. It's a somewhat melancholy reflection as both McKenna and Wilson have of course passed on, leaving Rucker the only one left. He calls the video a "dadaistic movie."

Me? I just wish I could have been a fly on the wall while the film was made. Those three deep thinkers in one place? Bouncing and riffing ideas off of one another? Extraordinary. I'll wager that whatever didn't make the cut was just as fascinating as what remained.

McKenna offers us his musings on time over hypnotic pulses. Wilson calls for caution and awareness over the insidious "Time Flies." "They're the worst," he says. They eat the arrow of time. The only way to evade the time flies is to "remain in a state of continuous attention and astonishment."

Different species will emerge from between the cracks in realities.

Wow. Watching this makes we want to reread my Rudy Rucker books. I'll admit, his cyberpunk takes on these matters were a bit off-putting to me at first, but sure did grow on me.

I won't pretend to understand everything I heard while watching this film. I just let it wash over me and suggest that you do the same. Let flow over you. Listen to what Robert Anton Wilson says about the distortion of time and especially to what McKenna says about consciousness and controlling the rhythm of time. He really was trying to get the world to evolve to a higher state of consciousness and we would quite probably have been so much the better had we listened.

Sorry. I'm babbling on this post. But I'm just trying to sort out everything I just saw.

"You are the cutting edge of a thirteen billion year old process of defining novelty. Your acts matter. Your thoughts matter. Your purpose? To add to the complexity. Your enemy? Disorder, entropy, stupidity, and tastelessness.”

- Terence McKenna

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What is the source of synesthesia?

Mrs. ESE once had an experience with the neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia.

Granted it was when she was rather young and it was due to an experiment with a mild altering substance, but the concept was relatively the same. She claimed she could "taste yellow." Many other people have similar experiences without drugs of any kid. It just kind of happens. The schism between senses evaporates and they cross. Synesthetes claim to "see" smells or "hear" numbers. Or they may "see" music as in the case of artist Melissa McCraken. She "sees" songs as colors and textures and then paints what she sees. Here's a gallery of her impressive synthesetic work, but of course I'm going to single out her image for "Life on Mars":

I've written about synesthesia before, citing my own small bit of it. Up until recently, I saw the days of the week as fuzzy, gauzy gradations of black to gray. David countered that I likely just saw a calendar of one sort or another as a small child and that somehow established this visualization of a "week" in my head. I wish that I could accurately describe how I visualize days because it's unlike any calendar I can ever remember seeing. Still, David's cynical skeptical viewpoint is not unique. In fact, it appears to be the stance that at least a few neuroscientists take.

In fact, a recently published study calls synesthesia a brain disorder. As the study says:

"We did not find any clear evidence of structural brain alterations in synesthetes, either local differences or differences in connectivity, at least when considering the data with no a priori…"

This conclusion came from the comparison of MRIs of 19 synesthetes against control. The authors suggest more prosaic origins for condition, somewhat along the lines of David's argument. For example, if you associate colors with letters, that may simply be due to blocks you saw as a kid. While that may surely be the source of a many cases, I'm not so sure about others.

I just know that I would love to experience synesthesia and the creative boost that often appears to accompany it. Here's to hoping that there might one day be a transhuman solution. Perhaps, as Kurzweil posits in The Singularity is Near, implants or nanotech in the brain's synapses well help make the virtual into concrete, at least in the brain's experience. This might allow me to one day "smell" a letter or "taste" a color. For right now, however, I'm going to categorize synesthesia as a "brain disorder I wish I had."

Can I swap depression for it?

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Transhumanism goes back to campus

Their reaction was one of shock mixed with an apprehension for the years ahead of them. Certainly not my intent and I was fortunately able to bring the discourse back around to one of balance and even, dare I say, optimism. These students were, however, first semester freshmen. While they were indeed a generation of digital natives, they were also doe-eyed and tatterdemalion in the face of that daunting experience that is the first few months of college. It was a gamble that they had any sleep the night before and could remember what building the lecture hall was. And there I was talking to them about concepts like cybernetics.

Surely, I thought, I would not have the same reception teaching my semester-long course on transhumanism to second semester seniors. These would be seasoned veterans after all. Tempered and forged in four (three and one half, anyway) years of critical thinking, they would at least be aware of how technology is changing the human experience, if not humanity itself. They would be able to entertain a concept while disagreeing with it. Certainly they would receive the notion of the Singularity with an at least measured response.

No, it was pretty much the same...only with a bit less crying.

I exaggerate. A little. Let me back up a bit.

The class started last January. It did indeed cover the technical aspects of transhumanism but the focal point of the entire course was ethics. Should we or shouldn’t we be doing these things? What are the benefits? What are the consequences? What do you think?

The text for the class was Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. In order to foster critical thinking, I encouraged the class to disagree with Kurzweil’s writings if they chose to. “Goodness knows a great many people already do,” I told them. We held discussions over the reading and peppered them with what’s been happening since the publication of Kurzweil’s book, such as Watson’s victory on Jeopardy! and the warnings from Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk over artificial intelligence. The students then wrote a 20 page capstone paper on an ethical question of their choosing and presented that paper to the class. 

When we met for the last time two weeks ago, I asked the class for a few final thoughts on transhumanism. These were their responses with names changed to protect privacy.

“I never even knew any of this stuff existed,” said Alyssa, a 22 year-old majoring in athletic training.

I expressed shocked. They’ve never known a world without an Internet and they have only the dimmest of memories of life without mobile devices. Why is something like artificial intelligence such a fear leap?

“But computers that can think for themselves? That’s different,” she responded. “And I never even knew what nanotechnology was before taking this class.”

“There were so many times where I left this class having an existential crisis,” said Veronica, a soon-to-be school social worker. “Where are things like artificial intelligence taking us? What does it even mean to be human anymore?”

As is the case with many people, not simply college students, it is sometimes easiest to express things in pop culture terms. Lance, a graduating senior who had just accepted a position with a marketing firm, put his change of thoughts this way:

“When I would hear about robots or ‘machines that can think,’ R2-D2 and C-3PO were the first things that would come to my mind,” he said. “I never considered that there might one day be an Ultron.”

“There are no strings on me...” I answered, doing my best James Spader and getting a collective shudder from the class.

“Who needs the meatbags?” Lance responded through a laugh, imitating Bender from Futurama.

“I don’t know. I feel hopeful.”

That came from Jessica. She’s a psychology student on her way to grad school.

“If I...god forbid...get in a car wreck sometime in the future and lose a limb or something, there may be cybernetics that can help me still live the life that I want to,” she said. “If I get cancer, there may be nanotech that will help me get better.”

“At first, my reaction was to reject all of this and say it’s wrong. But this is happening,” said Kate, a major in mass communications. “We’re going to have devices that are autonomous and self-aware. We need to deal with it.”

My interest piqued, I asked Kate just what she was proposing.

“Education,” she answered simply. “People need to know about things like AI. And as we develop super AI, we need to do so with our own sense of ethics in mind. We need to give it a moral compass.”

One student named Matt reminded us of a discussion in the months previous. Rev. Christopher Benek, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote an op/ed piece about AI. Benek asserted that AI could “participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes” and “help to make the world a better place.”

“But I don’t believe in god and neither do a lot of other folks,” Veronica said. “So I have to place my faith in people. And I don’t know if we can make the right decisions with this stuff.”

“Then we will need education in ethics just as much as our devices will,” Kate said. “None of the technology that we’ve talked about is really good or bad. It’s all going to be in what we decide to do with it.”

Kate stole my closing line. She really did. While there were undoubtedly students from the class who 
will be just fine if they never hear the terms “nanotechnology” or “genetic engineering” again, Kate got the takeaway if there indeed was any single one. Whether transhumanism results in a utopia, a dystopia, or the more likely muddy middle, it will not be due to the technology itself but rather it will result from our choices as a species.

After seeing the work of my students, I am left with a bit of hope those choices will be good ones.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Brave New World comes to TV

I enjoy many aspects of being a professor. Getting to occasionally teach science fiction is one of them.

Among the science fiction texts in the curriculum is Brave New World. The reasons I enjoy this book by Aldous Huxley number in the thousands but I presume many of said reasons are those shared by bibliophiles everywhere. It describes a utopia that is actually quite a dystopia beneath the surface. It's a cautionary tale.

It's a story about our current world...even though it was written in the 1930s.

In Brave New World, humans are created in labs called "hatcheries." They are then psychologically conditioned as to how to live in society, engaging in a veritable paradise of pleasure. People have constant sex and go shopping to buy products that they don't really need. If emotions such as fear, sadness, or doubt ever creep into their existence, they take a drug called "soma" and everything is right once more. Beyond any of that, people gorge themselves on TV and movies, staying as far away as they can from books.

That last point is the most resonant with me. I could turn this post into a diatribe about how my students "just don't read these days" but that really is the low hanging fruit here. What really gets me is when I see close friends revere TV and movies as sacrosanct. The viewing of this mostly empty drivel becomes something of an act of communion with their families and there's just something wrong with you if you don't share that set of values or have the modicum of self respect to set aside time for your dear sweet TV. My view of the world sinks just a bit more every time I get a request of "Hey! Wanna come over and watch (title of drivel goes here)?"

Which is why I find supreme irony in the fact that Brave New World is about to become a TV miniseries in the SyFy network. 

That's right. This book, one consistently ranked among the top ten novels of the English language, one that warned of a future where everyone would watch movies and stop reading, is coming to TV. And headed up by Steven Spielberg no less. If nothing else, that lends the production a rather impressive pedigree and lessens the chances of added "splodey action scenes" as Bay basically did to Brave New World with his abominable The Island.

Now here's the kicker: after bemoaning television, will I watch this miniseries? Will I become like the central character of Bernard in the book? Will return from the reservation (I am going to New Mexico this summer) and then bathe deeply amid all with which I once held with contempt? Then again, social media may allow me to rubberneck my way around the show, sniffing about to determine if I will ultimately give it a watch.

Until it airs, you can download for free an audiobook version of Brave New World that is read by Huxley himself. Can't beat that.

I mean, unless you wanted to do something really crazy like read the book.

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