Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Future technological advances may allow us to instantiate high-resolution models of our mindbrains on machine substrate, or even create de novo persons.  Critics point out, quite rightly, that machines are digital while mindbrains are analog.  From this insight, they conclude that machines won’t be able to recreate the detailed processing of neural wetware.

However, the critics miss the fundamental fact that we can approximate analog processing with high resolution digital processing.  Nature already does it.

Genes are discrete (digital) while phenotypes are continuous (analog).  Continuous traits can be approximated with a large number of genes that each contribute a small amount to the outcome, or by one gene with a large number of alleles that each tweak the outcome by a small amount.  A continuous phenotype, such as the spectrum of adult human heights, is determined by a set of discrete genes.  Even if we controlled for all other influences on human height and looked at a single hypothetical gene that controls growth hormone output, we can see that, by implementing a large number of alleles, each one resulting in slightly more or less growth hormone output, a continuous spectrum can be approximated.   If adult human height ranges over, say, one meter, and our gene has 1000 alleles, than we can specify height with millimeter precision.  If our gene has a million alleles, than we can specify height with micrometer precision, and so on.  (Of course, in reality, genes merely produce organisms whose traits are differentially influenced by environment, and environmental influence is analog.)

The brain is actually analog and digital.  Synaptic firing is digital, and synaptic organization allows for signal processing through logical operations much the same way that transistors do.  But the events that aggregate to induce synapse firing are continuously additive or subtractive.  They are analog.  This is what the critics are talking about.

If approximating analog events is possible with digital events, then we only need to achieve a sufficently high resolution digital model of pre-synaptic events to produce accurate models of neural processing at any arbitrary level of organization.  Nothing makes this physically impossible.  It’s all a matter of having the technology and money to do it.

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“If climate change is a hoax, it’s the greatest hoax ever perpetrated, because everything we do to respond will make us more efficient, more productive, more entrepreneurial, more competitive, [and] more respected [in the world].”

— David Friedman, author of The World is Flat, and Hot, Flat and Crowded.

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Robin Hanson on the Overcoming Bias blog links to Scott Aaronson’s review of The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil (which I’ve read, and whom I watched deliver a speech at the first Singularity Summit).

There’s a lot I could say about that review, and I will, but right now I just want to point out one thing that Aaronson writes:

Secondly, there’s nothing bad about overcoming nature through technology.  Humans have been in that business for at least 10,000 years.  Now, it’s true that fanatical devotion to particular technologies—such as the internal combustion engine—might well cause the collapse of human civilization and the permanent degradation of life on Earth.

Aaronson understands something that I was arguing with transhumanists years ago.  The future is not about seeding the oceans with nitrogen or spraying the atmosphere with carbon-fixing nanobots.  Those programs treat the symptoms, not the disease.  The future is about a world without carbon dioxide production to begin with.  It is a world without fossil fuels.

The combustion of reduced hydrocarbons is 1830s technology — it goes all the way back to whale oil, and we all know how good that was for whales.  It’s time to make a fundamental shift in energy, and in that respect, our whole civilization.  Clean, renewable energy is the way of the future, and transhumanists need to understand and promote it.  Transhumanism must be a green philosophy.

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The interwebs are abuzz over a controversy regarding the ages of several Chinese women gymnasts.  Critics point to several news reports, and even an official Chinese government web site, which listed Chinese gymnast He Kexin’s birthday as 1 January 1994 instead of the “official” date of 1 January 1992.  That would make her 14 years old and not qualified to compete in the Beijing Olympics.

The problem is that the only official and accepted documents for age — birth certificates and passports — are printed by the very entity that is accused of engaging in fraud.  It would be trivially easy for the Chinese government to forge such documents.

Is there another way to ascertain her age?  Well, there are age- and development-related changes in hormone levels and other physiological markers.  However, these always distribute on a normal curve, and it’s entirely possible for a 16-year-old at the tail end of the distribution to have the developmental and physiological profile of your average 14-year-old.  Some girls simply develop more slowly.

(Of course, it’s also possible that the gymnasts’ development was retarded with drugs, which violates IOC rules, and while the IOC is cracking down on other forms of doping, they seem to be turning a blind eye to the possibility of doping for developmental retardation.)

So physiological profiles won’t yield a precise age.  Another option is developmental markers such as growth plates in the long bones.  Once again, however, the presence of growth plates of a certain size could merely indicate that He is a slow developer.  It wouldn’t be proof positive that she is underage.  However, the presence of growth plates that indicate a 16-year-old in development would dispel the rumors once and for all.

Another option is amino acid racemization.  All amino acids produced in living systems, including humans, are in the L stereochemical configuration.   Over time they racemize to the R enantiomer until they reach stereochemical equilibrium, and each amino acid does this at a precise and measurable rate.  By comparing the ratio of L and R enantiomers, a time since the deposition of the protein can be determined.  One common technique utilizes aspartate racemization.  The problem is that the assay must be performed on tissues that are formed at or before birth, and that become essentially biochemically inactive.  The most common sources are myelin proteins that line the axons of neurons in the brain, and proteins from certain layers of the lens of the eye.  As you might imagine, a biochemical assay of this sort is too invasive to be performed on living subjects.

So there is no good biological aging assay for living human subjects.  We are stuck with having to take the word of the Chinese government.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government has a dubious track record on such matters.  Chinese gymnast Yang Yun earned a bronze in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and later admitted that she had been underage during the competition.

Of course, nobody is denying that these gymnasts are talented.  He Kexin and her teammates are the best gymnasts at the Beijing Olympics.  But if we’re going to have rules, they must be followed.  Otherwise, China gains an unfair advantage by being the only team not handicapped by the rules.  After all, there may be plenty of 14-year-olds in other countries who are more talented than the gymnasts chosen to represent those countries in Beijing.

Ultimately, this controversy isn’t about gymnastics.  It’s about government fraud and government censorship.  The damage that could be inflicted on the reputation of the Chinese government, which is working feverishly to orchestrate a positive image of itself during these games, would be far worse than the loss of a few medals.  I guess it’s no wonder they are working just as feverishly to cover their tracks.

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Like many people, I was excited when I first heard about netbooks.  Most of my computing experience revolves around the Internet, so a low-cost machine for that purpose would be useful to me, and it would lower the barrier to entry for many people who still aren’t on the net.  Then I found out how small the screens are.  Sorry, but the Web is a visual experience, and the most important part of the machine is the display.  How can you view web pages on a seven inch screen?

Well, it looks like a solution is in development.  TechCrunchIT has announced that they want to build a “web tablet” that does nothing more than boot into an instance of Firefox.  It could run on 512 MB RAM and a 4 GB SSD.  In my mind, as long as it has a 15.4″ or 17″ screen with 1440×900 resolution or higher, and sells for around $200, I’m sold!

Here’s a mock up of their web tablet:

With the latest and best wireless networking, this would be a marvelous gadget for many use cases: traveling on business, going on vacation, attending conferences, browsing at the coffee shop, or sitting on the bus.

The most interesting part is that they want to build it completely open-source, and they’ve received an overwhelming response on their blog from people who want to help (here, here, and here).  Hopefully they will accomplish their goals.

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Cquestrate is an “open source” inititiative to develop a system for the production of lime, which can be dumped into the ocean to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.  The brains behind the project believe that atmospheric carbon dioxide can be reduced to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.  That plan looks feasible in theory.  I just wonder how much lime needs to be produced, and in what reasonable time frame this can be accomplished.

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The benefits of piracy?

Slashdot has an intersting post today:

The Economist has an article detailing how numerous companies are finding piracy’s silver lining: ‘Statistics about the traffic on file-sharing networks can be useful. They can reveal, for example, the countries where a new singer is most popular, even before his album has been released there. Having initially been reluctant to be seen exploiting this information, record companies are now making use of it. This month BigChampagne, the main music-data analyser, is extending its monitoring service to pirated video, too.’ The kicker is Microsoft’s tacit endorsement of Windows piracy in developing markets, namely China. The big man himself, Bill Gates, says it best in an interview with Fortune last year: ‘It’s easier for our software to compete with Linux when there’s piracy than when there’s not.’

I love the last line.

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