Saturday, 28 June 2008

Just Another Death?

Page 9, somewhere in between another problem with public services and the latest celebrity gossip, is usually where I’ll find today’s horrific murder story. A teenager is brutally beaten and then “accidentally” killed when his attackers take it too far. They get a few months inside for man-slaughter; his family gets a lifetime of heartache. Consequently, the world balance between peaceful, loving, value creators and destructive, sadistic losers is shifted yet a little further in favour of idiocy. Yet, taking another sip of coffee, we turn the page.

We think to ourselves, “There’s nothing we can do”, and continue with our daily lives. "It doesn't really affect me or anyone I know". We blame "fate", or, most fundamentally, we think "Everyone dies, he was just taken before his time".

As a society, we still see death as inevitable. As a result, there is just no respect for human life. This, I believe, is why we have a situation where killing somebody can carry a lower sentence than stealing money from a bank.

Not only do the killers have no respect (another topic!), but neither do those handing out the pathetic sentences. Nor do the beauracrats who create the laws. Nor do the media, who report on deaths with a cold objectivity. As such, nor do the public, whose attitudes shape the decisions of authority. So we live in a world where the consequences of our actions are severely depreciated, a world where a mindless violent killing just isn’t important enough to get more than a passing mention.

When you know about Actuarial escape velocity and the potential for people alive today to live forever - this attitude is incredibly significant. Life suddenly gains a lot more significance when people are presented with the possibility of an increased or even indefinate biological life span. And not just on a personal level, people living longer has many implications to society. Centuries of training, knowledge, and wisdom could bring us an entire generation of Einsteins, Da Vincis, and Hendrixes. (Another topic!)

Our attitude to death must change. Every human life is sacred, deserving far more respect and recognition than we currently give. The concept of radical Life Extension simply must be introduced into the public conciousness, because every day, we're seeing more and more mindless killings of valuable, potentially immortal members of society.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Blogger of the Week!

I'm extremely proud to announce that I've been awarded "Blogger of the week" at FutureBlogger ( The articles mentioned were the ones I'm currently most proud of; "Virtual Unreality" and "How to Destroy Humanity", but "Science & Serendipity" has a high ranking there too. Needless to say I'm very pleased to be noticed so early in the blog's life.

Now for the difficult part: maintaining the standard...

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Virtual Unreality

Imagine, a life fully immersed inside a computer game where our every desire is fulfilled, and the suffering of reality is absent.  

One day, we may decide that a virtual existence is a more appealing option than the real world of pain and limitations. Perhaps we could create such an amazing alternative, that reality itself becomes obsolete.

Even today, without the "fully immersed" aspect, there are thousands of people who already spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one. As virtual environments improve, this will only increase.

Since the early 21st century, the residents of the virtual world Second Life have been working hard to recreate real "life" as accurately as possible. Despite the virtual platform giving occupants the ability to fly and teleport, they still prefer to meticulously create staircases to walk their avatar up and down. At discos, people require the coolest dance animations and best looking clothes. In meetings, virtual characters sit down to rest their virtual legs. It seems the confines of "reality" provide a comfortable and familiar environment. 

But virtual worlds are created by us – so why limit ourselves to reality? We could create entirely new realities. By realising that we are free of the rules of real life, the doors are open to incredible new possibilities. In many ways, virtual worlds already provide us with glimpses of alternate realities. We should take notice of these instrumental differences.

In Second Life specifically, we are introduced to many “virtual concepts”. These ideas exist only in the virtual world and they provide us with an insight into a possible future, exposing us to their possible implications.

Virtual Concepts

In Second Life, you cannot die. Your avatar may still exist (although it won’t be “physically” present) in the virtual world even after your real body has passed away. Although it is possible to harm you by the use of scripts, you will always exist unless you are deleted by the administrators. People can always view your legend whether you are personally online or not. 

Perfect History
It is entirely possible to record every action you perform in your virtual life (although, as far as we know, this feature has not yet been implemented into Second Life). All of your memories can be put into the virtual world by means of screen grabs, videos and saved conversations. One can only imagine this becoming more and more sophisticated, recording thoughts, movements, emotions, desires, preferences, and more, onto a central server to be accessed at any time. Perhaps with this kind of in depth recording in place, prediction of alternate futures within the virtual world might not be far behind. 

Distance is not a real concept in virtual worlds, so can easily be circumvented. Transporting instantly from one place to another is easy. This is because everything’s location is catalogued, and then referenced in a more human way, via context. Just like the Internet, we don’t care where a website is hosted, we just care about the content. In the same way, communication is not affected by physical distance.

Nanotechnology and the non-existence of the laws of thermodynamics
In the future, we may have desktop devices that can create any object instantly from a few basic raw materials. It promises to change the economy and the way we think about possessions.
In Second Life, it is possible to build anything you want, instantly, on the spot, from nothing. Providing you know how to build, it is a simple matter of putting together the polygons you require to create a new “physical” object in the virtual world. More sophisticated items require programming, bringing life to inanimate objects. 

One of the most fun things in Second Life is flying. Humankind has long looked up to the skies, wishing we could join the birds and see the world from another perspective. In virtual reality, this is not a problem. You can even use scripts to fly higher and faster. This is a showcase of an ability that doesn't exist in the "real" world. What other abilities could we attain in Virtual Reality?

Astral Projection
There is a technique that exists in Second Life called “Cam Scanning”, which involves manipulating the camera any way you wish. This allows you to “scan” the surrounding area, even seeing into private rooms, while your avatar is somewhere else. The people being observed cannot tell that they’re being watched, and people around your avatar can’t tell that you’re doing it. This feature completely undermines privacy and brings up some important social questions. Should it be programmed out of virtual worlds? Or should we just accept that our previous perceptions of body language, proximity, and presence, are obsolete? 

Obsolete Concepts

In addition to exposing us to new concepts that do not exist in real life, virtual worlds also reveal some real world concepts that are made obsolete by the Virtual Reality paradigm.

Physical Pain
Although your avatar can experience harassment and “physical” effects such as “bumping” and being propelled by programmed projectiles, feeling physical pain is something that needn't exist in Virtual Reality. This is profound in that those who enjoy hurting people no longer have any way to satisfy their desires and demonstrates the primitive nature of physical pain. Could suffering be completely eliminated in Virtual Reality?

Obviously whilst still in possession of a physical body, we will always need fuel to keep us alive. But could this be achieved by powering the "Matrix" of VR users with vast solar farms?

Going further, we may be able to upload our minds completely to a virtual reality environment. In this case there will be no need for food, other than virtual food for our enjoyment. Of course, the machines running the Virtual Reality interfaces would require fuel, but in the virtual world itself, we may have no concept of starvation or even eating.

Most aspects of biology aren’t relevant in virtual worlds at present. However, as the programming of these worlds is improved, it may be possible to incorporate biological aspects. Sex is a biological element we would almost certainly want to retain in a virtual environment, as would other positive physical sensations such as the benefits of exercise. However, none of these would be necessary, just desirable options for virtual living. Certainly, biological limitations and problems such as illness do not need to be present in a virtual world. 

Real Concepts

On the other side, there are many concepts that we do not (yet) escape from in virtual worlds. Mostly related to the human element, these concepts illustrate what is important in life. Whatever “reality” we decide to live in, there may be no escape from our core humanity. Or is there?

In Second Life, there are rules to adhere to. The company who runs the servers create the guidelines and control the economy. There is no voting for new leadership. It is essentially a dictatorship. However, in the future, we may decide that we prefer a virtual world that is entirely open source, created by the public and run by the public, with no overall leadership. Could this demonstrate that liberty is a perfectly viable and highly desirable system once concepts such as sadism are nullified and energy abundance is realised, or would it lead to anarchy on the virtual streets? Or most profoundly, would we be able to program out any chances of wrongdoing, thus creating (in the eyes of the creators) a perfectly behaved society – the dream of autocratic leaders?

Social Interaction, Emotions, Humour
In a virtual world, we are still ourselves. We still have to talk to people as we would in real life. Our personalities aren’t changed by the fact we look like Spongebob Squarepants with a machine gun. All the vital elements of personal interaction, timing, humour, affecting other people’s emotions, debate and relationships, are impossible to escape from, no matter how the reality is programmed. 

Art and Entertainment
No matter what the environment, art and entertainment will always be a vital part of humanity. People will always want to be entertained, and there will always be people that want to be creative. Creativity is a vital aspect of humanity that I see transcending all transformations of our environments, entities and existences. With infinite life spans, what else can hold our interest but an infinite array of possibilities? 

The difference with virtual reality though is that the reality we know no longer confines these possibilities. Art no longer needs to represent reality, in a virtual world, art itself opens up a whole new world of possibilities. For instance, in today’s world, art is represented by a picture on a wall, a movie, a piece of music. But in a virtual world, it could be an experience, a highly abstract representation of a situation, or something else entirely. 

In a virtual world where every fantasy and desire can be fulfilled, will there be any need for people to use trade to get things they want? Surely the point of a “Better than Life” simulation is to obsolete the need for money, work and business? Will enterprise will continue to have a place in a Utopian reality, virtual or otherwise.
Creativity is something that we all possess, but everyone is different, so there will always be new ideas, new art, and new ways to entertain. This continuing need for entertainment, and the fact that there will always be those who want to create, could keep some form of enterprise alive. Perhaps creative ideas themselves will become the new currency in a virtual society.

Cause and Effect
If you’re dealing with real people, you’re always going to have an effect on them with the interactions you have. There will be no way of turning back the clock on other people’s minds. 

However, if you were dealing only with Artificial Intelligences, their memories could be erased and you would be able to re-live situations, essentially going back in time. Which of these two alternatives you wish to live in could perhaps be a choice.

It may even be possible, in the case of the virtual world dictatorship, that the actions and memories of real people are undone for the benefit of elites within the world, thus giving a select few complete control over their lives at the expense of the rest of the population. 

Virtually Human

The move to a virtual existence would have all sorts of implications on our humanity.

As humans, we are motivated and driven by our needs. Our primary needs are physiological; food, sex, and comfort. At the current state of society, these needs are quite often not met, leading to all kinds of consequences.

In fully realised virtual immersion, satisfying these needs is as simple as programming the environment. The implications of this are profound, and will change the fabric of society.

Even now we see the impact of desires being met with virtual reality. Millions of online gamers are able to live virtual lives that are better than real lives, having adventures, being different people, and fulfilling their fantasies, albeit via a keyboard and monitor. This changes our very essence of our psyches.

In realising that these fantasies are possible, our general expectations in life are altered. Our priorities are distorted.

Our morals and ethics are altered by the alternative environments we occupy - we are a product of our environments after all. If our environment provides us with all we need, we remove many aspects of our humanity in an instant, both positive and negative.

As well as our environments, we are defined by our bio-chemistry. Testosterone changes men's personality as oestrogen does women's. What happens when we can control the brain more intimately and more precisely by artificial means, in a similar way to hormones?

Without food, where do we focus our efforts? With ultimate sex, what impact does this have on relationships, sexuality, love, friendship, reproduction, and sex itself? What will become of violence without anything to cause it? Without suffering, will we retain the concept of good with nothing to contrast?

What will we become without the primitive animal urges that made us human in the first place?


As you have seen, the idea of a virtual world goes far deeper than a 3D chat room. Looking from the perspective of a futuristic, perfect virtual reality, we are forced to question the very essence of our existence. What is the point of living if a utopia is provided for us? Once the superficial shell of reality is peeled from us, what is left of the human soul? What are the common denominators of our existence? 

The virtual world paradigm opens up our eyes to the limitations of reality, and shows us the true essence of what it means to be human.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Alien Immortality

  • Imagine we learn to read human brains down to the most intricate details.
  • Imagine we learn to record, in detail, every action that occurs within the brain, every synapse firing, every cell interaction, every memory.
  • Imagine if all of this data could then be stored on a computer and used to re-engineer a new, identical brain.
  • Imagine this brain could then be put into a new body, thus creating a new version of us when we die.
  • Imagine we knew for a fact that there was nothing after death.
  • Imagine we live forever using this, or some other mind transfer technique.
  • Imagine then we discover another civilisation on another planet, who is still too primitive to save minds, and who still believes that death is natural and essential.
  • Imagine we then engineer a situation, for example we send swarms of microscopic probes to their planet to monitor, transmit via microscopic satellites, and then record their minds on our computers.
  • Imagine we use this data to re-engineer the brains of these people back on our planet when they die.
Would we?

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

How to Destroy Humanity

Nuclear weapons are so 20th century. If you want to bring annihilation to the planet for not conforming to whatever depraved idealism you aspire to, there will soon be many much more interesting ways to do it. Unlike nukes, these technologies won’t be reserved for elite governments.



Nanotechnology presents many interesting possibilities. How about using self replicating nanoscopic robots to turn everything on the planet into grey goo? This kind of destruction would be so effective that nothing would remain of the present world. Perhaps this kind of disaster has already happened in our history? As there would be no evidence, we would never know! However, for many supervillians or religious fanatics, disassembling us to our core molecules just wouldn’t be fulfilling enough.

Fear not, the destructive power of nanotechnology is limited only by our imaginations. What about swarms of predatory nanobots, programmed to hunt down and kill “non-believers” and kill them in any manner of ways – asphyxiation, crushing, burning, or simply tearing them apart? Having a non-solid physical presence they would be virtually impossible to catch and destroy. Nano-assemblers, machines capable of manufacturing anything with atomic precision out of basic molecules such as carbon, look set to change the entire world as we know it. They would put an end to world hunger, propel the entire world into luxury, and have untold effects on the economy.

Or, they could be used to undermine security measures, creating weapons in volatile scenarios, thus reversing power balances in an instant. Imagine terrorists gaining access to the Whitehouse unarmed, only to fabricate guns once inside. Or an entire country arming every citizen within hours before going on a worldwide rampage? With nano-assemblers, the rules of supply, laws of transportation, and manufacturing limitations are turned on their head. As such, any controls put in place to limit armourment are undermined in an instant.

Of course, these kinds of scenarios are purely speculation, in a world full of nano-assemblers, the playing field would be severely levelled. Who knows what scenarios would present themselves? Nanotechnology itself paves the way for unimaginable abuse. At its most basic, it could provide means to simply and barbarically destroy human bodies, at its most advanced, it could turn every one of us into powerful gods, able to truly manipulate our environments and bodies.

At the moment though, nanotechnology in these forms is not yet a reality. In fact, due to the differences in basic mechanics at the atomic level, the dream of nanoscopic robots able to manipulate molecules could remain just that – a dream.


Mutant Army

So what other options does a would-be evil tyrant have? Well, blasphemous scientists are always looking for ways to play god, providing a few more ways to wreak havoc on society. Potentially there is nothing to stop corrupt governments or corporations creating an array of superhuman, cybernetic, or mutant monsters reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. Creating “The Hulk” isn’t too far off, there is much research going on in the field of increased strength.

Many other superpowers are around the corner, and cybernetics could allow any manner of weapons to be incorporated into the body, such as a cannon for an arm. Once we have mastered biology, the limits are again set by our imaginations. My favourite cartoon character of all time, Hordak from He-Man/She-ra, was modifying bodies to create an army of elite evil warriors back in the early 80s. A real life Hordak needn’t be far away.


Existential Evil

The very fabric of our existence could become an attractive target for all you destruction merchants, if time travel ever becomes possible, and it’s looking like, in some form at least, it will. But forget about “Terminator-esque” scenarios, any evil time travellers would be ruthlessly efficient, there would be no Hollywood happy endings in real life.

The Chinese controlled the weather to prevent rain during the 2008 Olympics. This was just the first step in controlling the world around us. Controlling hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes and the like are not outside the realms of possibility, and many speculate that it's already happening.


A Moral Dilemna

All of these powerful technologies have one thing in common, they involve manipulation. Manipulation of matter, biology, the weather, or even time itself. It seems we are on the verge of mastering the universe in the most intricate fashion. And unlike nuclear weapons, these new God-like powers will be in the hands of the majority, corporations and individuals. What a scary thought. How can the general population which is riddled with wrongdoers, do-gooders and just plain irrationals, remain responsible with such awesome and destructive power? Should we restrict technology and not allow society down this dark and blasphemous path?

Well, taking such a stance is naïve. The fact is, even if such advances are banned, someone will still do it. Legislation, as always, is not the answer. Not only does it give unfair advantage to those who want to break the law, but the legislation itself is usually extremely narrow scoped. It will restrict an action deemed to have negative consequences without taking into account that it may also have good implications. Take the legislation against stem cells as a prime example. Holding back on science and progress with legislation is not just pointless, it is highly immoral. Any leader who does so, either by political power or religious manipulation, has the blood of future generations on their hands.

Whatever their reason, restricting knowledge equates to deliberate neglect. The power to manipulate the universe is the destiny of conscious life. Since we first picked up a stick and used it as a tool, humanity has been on a journey, a journey of discovery and creation. These new powers are no more than an extension of building an aeroplane, performing a heart bypass, or planting a tree. They may well be abused to the point where they threaten our entire existence, but without them, we stagnate, or even regress.

Considering, for a second, the human spirit, I really don’t think that’s an option.

“One kills a man, one is an assassin; one kills millions, one is a conqueror; one kills everybody, one is a god.” ~ Jean Rostand

Sunday, 8 June 2008

The Galactic Internet

We all know how the internet has changed our lives. It's not souly because of the information it can fill our minds with, but because of the applications that it brings us. We can go shopping, check flights, make money, network with people, form movements, archive entertainment, connect businesses, and lots more.

There's no knowing where the internet will take us in the next 10-20 years. What if, we were to look far further into the future?

This century we are closer than we have ever been to discovering alien life. If it exists, we may well discover it in the next few decades. Far more significant however, will be the discovery of intelligent life. The implications of discovering an extra terrestrial conscious life form are immense. It will shake the entire foundations of our society. It will give us new perspectives on both the problems and pleasures of human life.

Given the vastness of the universe, and the unimaginable timescales it presents us, the discovery of alien life will no doubt give us the opportunity to see not only a totally different race, but a totally different time. The chances of finding a civilisation that has come into fruition in the past few thousand years like we have are extremely improbable. So the likelihood is that any civilisation we discover will be far, far in advance of our own.

Look at the way the world has changed in the past decade, just because of the internet. This century is expected to bring such medical and technological breakthroughs that mankind will soon become unrecognisable to its ancestors. Combine this exponential, accellerating rate of change, with the massive timescales of space. Can you imagine, what any race intelligent enough not to succumb to existential risk would become?

Now imagine what such a civilisation's internet would have evolved into. For an interstellar civilisation, an interstellar communications system would be essential. Vast amounts of data would need to be shared between star systems. Entire planets or stars would need to be used for data storage and computation.

Transfer of data would provide the biggest obstacle, given the speed limit of the universe and the vast distances presented. Sci-fi solutions such as wormholes or time travel could solve these problems. With wormholes, data could simply be sent through tears in space, with time travel, data could be sent via traditional methods, only to be sent back in time once it arrived at its destination, giving the illusion of an instantaneous transfer. Von Neumann communication probes could provide the infrastructure.

Discovering the transfer method used for such a galactic internet could enable us to at least detect its presence. It is possible though, that advanced civilisations protect themselves from "non-enlightened species" by hiding or securing the network. Perhaps, discovery of the network requires enlightenment, for example the singularity itself could provide discovery and connection methods that we would never have discovered without it. Alternatively, discovery may be extremely easy, which would almost certainly be a deliberate scenario designed to uplift us once we find it. (If an advanced civilisation doesn't want us to find it, it's highly unlikely we'll be able to.)

What applications and knowledge could such a powerful internet that spreads across the galaxy, or even the universe, bring us?

Friday, 6 June 2008

Warren Ellis: Singularity 'Rapture for Nerds'

Science Fiction Author Warren Ellis has written a short blog attacking supporters of the Singularity idea which has caused some ripples in Transhumanist circles. The blog "The NerdGod Delusion" is misinformed and full of non-sequiturs (comparison to scientology illustrates a distinct lack of understanding of both the Singularity and Scientology), but, I believe it is important to take note of his comments.

The fact is, there are similarities between believing in the Singularity and believing in religious faith, and opponents are always going to pick up on this. This blog has shown just how easy it is for the general population to jump to irrational conclusions and generalize ideas.

So how is supporting the Singularity similar to religious faith? Obviously nowadays it has developed into a community, bringing with it the sense of belonging that goes with faith, bringing together people with similar ideals and morals. Also, it gives hope of a utopian future – just like some prophecy.

However, what is making “Singularitarianism” worryingly comparable to religion in recent years is the growing dogmatic sense that surrounds it, and the fact that it is, for many believers, a closed belief system. There are no alternatives. Many followers believe that it is inevitable and what it brings is definitely going to happen. Many followers believe the projections of visionaries like Kurzweil and DeGrey without question, which, regardless of their integrity, is irresponsible.

The Singularity, taking into account the Law of Accelerating Returns, seems logical, even within the timeframe – but it is a prediction that is fundamentally flawed. It may not be possible. Real Artificial General Intelligence may never be possible due to the nature of how intelligence evolved, nanotechnology may never be possible due to the unpredictable behaviour of particles in the atomic world, and immortality may never be possible if there are underlying complications to the way the brain stores consciousness that we are yet to discover. That said, if any of them are possible, then they really are reasonable predictions and there is no need to attach religious connotations to them. We just have to show caution in our commitment to them until their feasibility is confirmed.

I commend George Dvorsky’s suggestions for normalizing the Singularity debate. However one thing this reaction has taught us is that we must be careful how we expose people to Future shock if we want the Singularity idea to keep its credibility. Alternatively, we could play off the shock value and the idea of it being a religion. The shock value itself is a great selling point and the majority of people still want to belong to something, still want to have a faith. Promoting the Singularity in this way could have its merits.

Personally, I am against this principal because it goes against the very essence of my beliefs – the essence of this blog. We should not endorse closed belief systems and should be evolving into more open, innovative mindsets. Expect, expecting humanity to take this step is the battle I find myself in on a daily basis.

Ellis’s comments, misinformed as they are, are a wake up call to Singularity supporters. More effort must be made to question and debate the Singularity, to ensure its supporters are not being represented as a single group, and to improve its credibility through provable results.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Science and Serendipity

In the past, many scientific discoveries and technological solutions have come from a non related source of information. From Archimedes’ realisation in the bath, to the accidental discovery of penicillin, history is full of occasions where going outside the subject in question has provided answers to scientific problems. When you really think about it, in many ways humankind, technology, and scientific understanding have been propelled forward, significantly, by luck alone. 
Many great individuals have been personally responsible for some of the most important discoveries of all time. Often, their discoveries were the result of sharing information with a friend or colleague from another field, who was able to introduce a new angle to the problem, opening up the eyes of both parties to new possibilities. Or, someone will change their field, bringing knowledge and experience from a previous career into the new subject and then approaching problems from a unique perspective. Today’s prime example of this is Aubrey DeGrey’s computing background giving a new perspective to the concept of aging. 
Many major breakthroughs have been created this way, by going outside the realms of the problem itself, drawing upon the knowledge of something else to find a solution. It’s often something that is not done purposefully, so, more often than not, it doesn’t happen. Chemists might plug away at a problem for years, not realising that the answer lies in zoology. The solutions to nanotechnology might lie in quantum physics, or perhaps just mathematics. There are so many possible avenues that perhaps there are problems that we will never solve, due to us never taking the correct path to their discovery. 
This is obviously not acceptable. Relying on chance meetings of elites from different fields coming up with solutions will likely keep human progress to the speed of the 1800s, whilst working on problems for which solutions already exist is a ridiculous waste of time, especially if you want to stay ahead of Actuarial Escape Velocity. Thankfully, the internet brings a lot of information together and keeps the relevant people informed on progress. With the advent of huge, web based amateur communities and special interest groups, much news and information is shared amongst those with common goals, helping the spread of information. 
However, the spread of information alone is not enough to ensure efficient solution development. We need intelligence to process the information, bright human beings to integrate concepts, related and otherwise. Even then it is a case of trial and error, relying on the ingenuity of the brightest and best to chance upon solutions from their usually random integrations. This is still not really ideal. 

What is needed is a system to solve this problem. The system may not be fully efficient until the creation of the first AI, which will be able to integrate any number or combination of concepts at lightning speed. Before then, however, it is certainly possible to improve on the current system of chance. We drastically need something to aid the thinkers of our world in coming up with new discoveries. 
Wikipedia has so far come as close as I’ve seen to such a system, bringing together information that is linked together, and constantly kept up to date by human beings. However, the information is linked together by relevance, so discovery and development that can be credited to non-related concepts are still only going to be from human intervention. It’s unknown if we’ll ever be able to make a system that organises information in a way that finds the missing links of relevance, but perhaps something can be created to assist humans in doing it.