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Will we uplift other species to sapience?

Contrary Brin - Thu, 09/25/2014 - 15:32
This time, let's veer into an area wherein I actually know a thing or two!  The matter of whether humanity might someday... or even should... meddle in other creatures on this planet and bestow upon them the debatable "gift" of full sapience -- the ability to argue, ponder, store information, appraise, discuss, create, express and manipulate tools, so that they might join us in the problematic task of being worthy planetary managers.These scribbles were created (as you might guess) as part of an interview.What first inspired you to write about uplifting?Some other authors (e.g. H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelley, and Cordwainer Smith) dealt with this general concept before, but always by assuming the process would be abused -- that the humans bestowing this boon would spoil things by enslaving their clients of creations. Of course that is one possible (and despicable) outcome. Those were good "warning" stories with wholesome messages.
But that vein is overworked, so I wondered -- what if we someday begin modifying higher animals -- and I think we clearly will -- guided by the morality of modern liberal society?  Filled with hyper-tolerance and eager for diversity? My uplift novels portray a future in which sapient dolphins and apes serve on our councils, offer their own styles of wisdom, art and insight, enriching an Earth civilization that is no longer only human.  It's an attractive outcome......but the path to get there is fraught with dangers and moral hazards.How close do you think we genuinely are, scientifically, to being able to uplift certain species? And is there a scientific imperative to do so?We are rapidly tracing the genetic mutations that empowered a sub-population of Homo erectus to transform into something theretofore never seen on Planet Earth - or possibly anywhere in the galaxy.  It appears that only a few dozen protein and regulatory genes made the crucial difference.  Already, some of these alterations are being tried in laboratory mice, so we can better understand some tragic human ailments.  There are - at present - rules against doing such insertion experiments on higher creatures like apes. But when the prospect looms closer, can you doubt trials will begin? If it isn't allowed in the open, western scientific community, then it will happen in secret, elsewhere.  Frankly, I'd rather see this realm explored in the open, under relentless transparency and scrutiny, than let it turn into some secret, Michael-Crichton-style excuse for I-Told-You-so regrets.A recent article in Popular Mechanics: If You Give a Mouse a Human Speech Gene, It Learns Faster. Mice that receive a human version of a speech and language gene display accelerated learning! Don't expect these findings to lead to a rush of smarter, "uplifted" animals—though they might just reveal something new and fascinating about the evolution of human speech and language."What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal's behavior rather than messing up the system," says behavioral neuroscientist Kyle Smith. Science writer Charles Q. Choi notes,  “The gene for the protein called FOXP2 has been firmly linked to human speech and language. Humans with just one functional copy of this gene experience difficulties in learning and struggle with spoken and written language. The gene itself is not unique—chimps have a version of it. But because the human and chimpanzee lineages diverged roughly 6 million years ago, they don't have two key changes in amino acids that humans have evolved."And so, it begins.

Will "uplift" include resurrecting ancient - extinct species?

I portray this happening with Neanderthals, in my recent novel EXISTENCE.  Now that we have a Neanderthal genome, what's to stop someone from doing this?  Especially doing it in stages?  I am at this moment involved in a research group hoping to insert Neanderthal genes into tiny clusters of neurons to see how differently they behave.  It is a small step, but it might shed light on why our cousins were so conservative in their lifestyles and too change-resistant to adapt.

Likewise, I think we'll see mammoths restored in stages, with maybe just ten genes at a time inserted into elephant embryos.  There will be protests!  The work will be driven underground!  (As I portray in Existence.) But someone will do it.You talk about how 'many other species on Earth appear to be stuck under a firm glass ceiling' - can you expand on this?  A while back, we were told that only humans used symbolic speech and tools.  Later, it was only dolphins and chimpanzees who could parse simple sentences.  In recent years, both rudimentary language skills and tool use have been documented in grey parrots, corvids (ravens), sea lions, elephants, every variety of ape, and even prairie dogs! Some people -- admirably empathic folks -- have declared that "this means we humans aren't so special, after all." And yes, in a sense it does mean that. Certainly, it is right that we expand our respect for Nature's other wonders and fight to preserve them.But there is another way to look at this. If so many species -- all coming from different directions -- appear to have plateaued at about the same level, then it implies that both Darwin and Mother Nature are generous, but only up to a point. "This far, you may rise easily, many of you! But no higher.  There is a glass ceiling through which you may not pass!"Think about it.  If so many species achieved rudimentary linguistics and tool use today, would it not have been equally likely for the top-brainy dinosaurs?  Were velociraptors equally endowed? Can we ever know? Alas, because none of them managed to put together a space program, all dinosaurs helplessly perished.No, the lesson from all this is to be even more amazed that humanity pushed through this glass ceiling.  Smashed through it, actually, by orders of magnitude! Which then demands of us not to feel overweening pride, but a sense of duty and obligation.  To use our titanic brains to benefit the planet, not just ourselves.But it goes beyond that. If getting past the barrier is rare, then don't we owe it to our neighbors and cousins to turn around and offer a helping hand?What are your takes on ethical arguments against uplifting?  Those arguments are strong and persuasive and perhaps compelling!  For example, here's one: "Other species have their own honor and dignity and beauty and styles of intelligence!"Yes, I agree on all counts.  And if commencing a program of uplift on, say, Tursiops dolphins would cause all of those things to vanish, then I would say stop.  But that is zero-sum thinking. And it is fallacious.We must preserve and help the bright dolphins and elephants and parrots and sea lions foremost by restoring and expanding their habitats and natural populations.  But any uplift project would work only with a small, selected sub-population that would soon be a new and different species, on its own path of destiny. All the richness of the old root stock would be preserved. You can retain the old -- and everything worthy of respect -- while creating the new.Likewise, the proclamations that uplift would be typical "human arrogance, playing god," seem easy to answer.  How about typical "human generosity"? Lending a hand to others across nature's chasm, so they might then join us building starships?Or so their ingrate teenagers might eloquently blame us for their adolescent angst, sneering "Hey!  I didn't ASK to be this smart!"The one argument against uplift that I find most compelling is the simplest. Yes, the goal is a beautiful one, to vastly expand the diversity of Earth's sapience, with dolphin and chimp and bonobo and gorilla and even elephant sages sitting on our councils and sharing unique insights? Great. I portray them having problems, in my novels, but the product is still a lovely dream. (To be clear, while artificial intelligence might be possible, uplifted sapience is demonstrably beyond plausible, even very likely.)All of that sounds fine. Only... in order to get there, the chosen sub-populations will have to go through generations of awkward fits and starts. No matter how carefully and lovingly we move ahead, there will be some pain. And I can understand folks who declare that they would - on that account alone - oppose uplift, no matter how wondrous the final outcome might be.In the end?  I (very) respectfully disagree. All generations are built for one purpose... the one fine goal that Jonas Salk spoke-of... to be good ancestors.  To suffer what we must, for our grandchildren. I can think of no greater function than to sow, so that those descendants may reap.Dolphin parents make similar choices every day.  If they could envision what their heirs might become... the earthly and alien seas they might explore... I think they would volunteer. Aside from the ethical reasons you've presented, what would be the benefits - commercially or scientifically - in doing so?The oceans of planet Earth are a vast mystery, filled with both physical wealth and unique treasures to preserve.  We are trying to learn to be good planetary managers (often stymied by other members of our own, short-sighted species.) But I doubt we could fill that role all by ourselves, anywhere near as well as if sapient dolphin partners (and critics) were by our side.  The same holds for countless other opportunities for both profit and wisdom.  (I believe that -- and portray in stories -- descendants of elephants might be the perfect living inhabitants of asteroidal colonies!)Our biggest danger is not the one preached by Michael Crichton and so many others -- human ambition and hubristic pride.  No, our biggest danger comes from zero sum thinking. Proclaiming that we cannot seek - and sometimes achieve - the win-win. Doing well while doing good. What measures can be taken to protect the rights of animals if uplifting as a practice is pursued?  I've been a little unkind to Michael Crichton in this interview.  But in fact, every single one of his dire-danger scenarios preaches a single valuable lesson, and it is not "don't do new things."  If you read the books and watch the movies, you soon realize that the true lesson is: "don't do new things in SECRET."The only possible way that uplift, or any other grand project, can be done well is if it is performed in the open, subjected to relentless criticism by opponents who seek out every flaw, every danger and mistake.  Only then, ironically, will the project move ahead with some strong chance of minimizing the pain... and maximizing the benefits for all.Anything else you'd like to say on the matter? I think you'll like my novella "Aficionado."  It takes a while to get to the uplift part.See a page dedicated to the Uplift Universeand my article Intelligence, Uplift and Our Place in a Big Cosmos.Above all, let's not paint our kids in a corner, binding them to our vows, based on this generation's obsessions.  Those kids will be smarter and better than us.  If we make a civilization of decency, tolerance, maturity, thoughtfulness and fun... then they will answer all of these questions better than we slightly advanced cavemen ever could.. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

I Strongly Believe That If My Cat Had an Author Photo It Would Look Like This

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 09/24/2014 - 17:58
Yup, I’d buy a book from that cat. I leave the title of said book for you to muse over in the comments.

For Those Who Missed Me On Tour: Video!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 09/24/2014 - 14:39
Wanted to see me on tour but missed me because I was inconveniently not in your city? Fortunately, there is video of me at various stops, and you can watch me do my thing. It’s just like being there, except with no personalized book from me at the end (sorry). The readings are generally the […]

A drunkard's walk amid silly people... Left and Right

Contrary Brin - Tue, 09/23/2014 - 18:24
Okay, this blog entry is going to be a bit rambling and angry... somewhat of a drunkard's walk, while ranting at the lamp posts! Hope it at least entertains. Here goes.

We’ve all known this and said it for a long time. I laid it out in explicit detail in my Disputations Arenas. Still, it’s nice to see a cogent naming of the phenomenon -- Brandolini’s law - or, as Alberto Brandolini suggests, the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle:"The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it."== Heading for war? ==On the left side of the spectrum, and in some places on the right, folks are asking whether "Obama is playing into Bush's bad policies. Now he's taking the U.S. back into Iraq with more bombing."Sorry, this is a wrongheaded reflex. Back in 2002 - 2003, the issue was never "should Saddam Hussein be toppled and replaced?" Nor was it "should the Taliban - who supported and helped bin Laden to attack us be toppled and replaced?" 

We needed to do both things. (Though in Saddam's case it deserved genuine policy debate and not a festival of Bushite lies.)No, the real issue, re U.S. involvement/meddling over there, is and was "should it be done in the stupidest and most expensive ways possible? In a calamitous, gruesomely thuggish methodology that would cost us trillions, damn-near ruin our military and our reputations and leave only two winners: Iran and Haliburton?"If you actually (astonishingly) think that there will be any resemblance between the coming Obama-led engagement and the Bushite quagmires, you really need to read about the diametrically opposite ways that democrats and republicans wage war.==Decaying Infrastructure== And so the drunkard turns and veers in another direct, to rant that --

America's transportation infrastructure, once a continental engine of mobility, productivity and opportunity, has fallen into such disrepair that it's become an economic albatross. Consumers shell out billions of dollars for extra car repairs every year. Insufficient and poorly maintained roads mean costly bottlenecks for businesses, which discourage expansion and hobble American companies competing in the global economy. We all have heard of 60,000 bridges in desperate need of maintenance. Why is almost nothing being done?At a time of steeply declining budget deficits (always true during democratic administrations and never true during GOP ones) it might seem simple to put middle class blokes back to work, stimulating the economy with high velocity cash while fixing the damaged streets and bridges and getting tons of benefits. One obstacle though. The do-nothing US House of Representatives… the laziest and least accomplished in the history of the republic… has refused to fund infrastructure repairs.Moreover, several gopper congressfolk have openly admitted their reason — that the resulting improvements and economic boost might help democrats at the polls. It is the Hastert Rule. Never cooperate or negotiate in good faith with democrats, ever. (The last GOP leader who did negotiate - Newt Gingrich - managed to put together with Bill Clinton both the highly successful Welfare Reform Bill and the Budget Bill that led to several years of fiscal surpluses. But Gingrich was dumped and jettisoned for that very reason by Hastert, DeLay, Boehner and other leaders of the madness that has taken over today’s Republican Party.)Anyone who continues to support this mutant betrayal of true conservatism/libertarianism is a rationalizing fool.

Let's see... any other lamp-posts to yell at?  Oh yes.... ==War against Nerds==Salon runs a fun article eviscerating how explicit has become the mad-right’s Assault on Nerds. It has got so clear and full-pitch that even William F. Buckley’s once-intellectual National Review has joined the War Against All Smartypants. Scientists and members of every knowledge caste have been driven out of today’s hijacked version of conservatism. God help us if this relentless campaign drives them all the way across -- past moderate liberalism -- all the way to the opposite madness on the far left.I doubt that will happen. All we want is a sensible society where adults negotiate with each other mixed-pragmatic solutions to problems, aiming for a future that will be vastly better than the past that nostalgic loonies (of both the far-left and the entire-right) yearn for. Is that too much to ask?More evidence?  In late May, the Republicans in the House put an amendment in the Defense Spending Authorization Bill that forbids the Defense Department from spending any money preparing for the consequences of climate change. This article -- House Votes to Deny Climate Science and Ties Pentagon's Hands on Climate Change - on an admittedly liberal site - nevertheless lays this latest lunacy bare and lists an impressive array of serving and retired officers and military contractors who are deeply concerned.

 

The Bill is now in the Senate.One of you in the community commented: “Our military wargames all kinds of scenarios. Preparedness is part of the job of our military planners, and having a plan prepared is the first step to winning a fight. I expect that somewhere the US military has a plan to deal with a threat from just about any conceivable direction. Oh, but not waves of hungry and thirsty refugees from all over the world, not that. We cannot plan for that contingency.”

To be clear, as we speak both the Canadian and US navies are struggling as fast as they can, to build capabilities to match the twelve  new military bases the Russians are building around the Arctic Sea, now that it is ice-free or navigable for much of the year. Denialism is a cult that borders on treason.
Ah... but now the drunkard does one of his patented veers... and aims some of his ire in the other direction!==Divisive Politics==Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have thrown another grenade. “Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity-particularly diversity of viewpoints-for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity.”Read that between the lines.  It is an indictment of the political correctness that rules in several hundred university soft studies departments.  Along with San Francisco, Berkeley and Illinois, these are the places where you get to see the reason why moderate liberals are rightfully wary of their lefty allies.  And I will not be squelched in reminding you folks that there is danger there!  I remember campus lefty bullies.  I remember the Soviet evil empire (that was fought so effectively by George Soros.)  Just because the US right is currently more dangerous and crazy, that does not mean we can ignore warnings like the one issued by Haight.

But again... a few hundred university soft studies departments are a far cry from the worst danger to our republic and freedoms and planet. True, they hate and persecute science fiction!  That is one good reason to glance, askance at those allies of ours.I am wary of that direction. But I am bloody furious at the New Confederates who are (at present) vastly more damaging and lethally dangerous to civilization.  For example...==  Where are the Chicken Littles hiding, all of a sudden? ==

I predicted that, once the tepid and minimal “healthcare reform” called “Obamacare” kicked in, it would start applying market forces that would work fairly well, reducing both the ranks of the uninsured and the rates of increase of US medical costs… all of which is happening.  At which point (I also predicted) GOP pundits  - who had been proclaiming the sky would fall and America would collapse into the stone age - would simply DROP the subject, hoping that their viewers would forget their chicken little end-of-the-world ravings. (And given their viewership, that amnesia is pretty much guaranteed.)

 Indeed, I said that after using this “issue” to lock down and destroy all political processes in the United States of America, that suddenly GOP politicians would start pragmatically adapting to the ACA and even… claiming it as their own.

Which… they are somewhat justified to do!  Since “Obamacare” was cloned from “Romneycare” and “Gingrich-care” and the standard, Heritage-Foundation-designed Republican Healthcare proposal on every GOP platform for ten years.  Watch as that fact is suddenly remembered!  But do not let them forget the hell they put us through, the hysterics and frozen American political life.  The screeching.

== Ironies abound ==

My sci fi author colleague John Shirley dissects “sovereign citizen”… a cult-like movement among those who take the anti-government wing of our widely shared Suspicion of Authority ethos to an extreme that denies any legitimacy of common bonds with three hundred million fellow Americans. While I agree with John, on many levels, I believe his approach is more left-versus-right than it needs to be, regarding this matter. (Indeed, while they are fewer - today - there ARE would be tyrants whose metaphors of outrage and hate come from (shall we say) the opposite direction. Surfaces can be misleading.)In fact, it can be dissected very simply. Those who deny any validity to shared institutions that derive their legitimacy from the electoral political processes... institutions that in-turn reflect consensus of a great and educated nation ... are not simply asserting autonomy — (while hypocritically depending on that nation, utterly). They are either ignoring 6000 years of brutal feudal rule by armed thugs, or else deeply committed to becoming precisely those same armed thugs and feudal lords.I attempted to portray this in The Postman, way back in the 1980s… and it is one part of the book that Kevin Costner translated to the film with utter accuracy! Especially Will Patton’s delightful General Bethlehem, who conveyed where all this would inevitably lead.Indeed, I wrote The Postman specifically as a direct answer to these fellows. How average folks would not just cower before these would-be lords, but instead might (if properly inspired) rise up to restore that gracious consensus nation, once again.Having tasted civilization, many of us will fight to the death, to keep it.In an impromptu interview at a Portland restaurant, I gave a six minute run down of why I think the American political process has so broken down that we are effectively in phase eight of the US Civil War. Not one of the factors that I mention has a scintilla to do with so-called “left-versus-right” or any of the matters that you are being told to hate-over.==The Tea Party and the Confederacy==And finally...

Here’s a somewhat too-radical but interesting essay about how the Confederacy lost phase four of the Civil War, in 1865, then won phase five with the collapse of Reconstruction and minority rights, in 1877. Indeed, things have swung back and forth, ever since, including the Civil Rights phase that was won by Blue America - finally crushing the vileness of segregation - but at a cost that resulted in the complete flip-reversal of the two US political parties. In that light, today’s raging “culture war” is only the latest phase.Clearly the Tea Party is not heir to the 1776 Founders. Their romantic delusions about that Revolution are dissected elsewhere…… but the crux is clear; instead of wearing three-cornered hats, our Tea Party neighbors should wear gray, for they are the neo-confederate party. In fact, more and more of them are realizing this. Their devotion to the rising, worldwide oligarchy is identical to the feudal loyalty that their forebears gave to plantation lords. (Yesss Massa Koch an' Marse Rupert.) The aim - to tear down the future-oriented, change-welcoming, scientific and pragmatic Blue America, in order to replace it with classic nostalgia and feudal hierarchy - is identical to that of the southern tories who rode with Cornwallis and Tarleton.I trace out the phases of the Civil War, from 1776 to today, here.

Which phase was the most important?  My own, earlier take: The crucial phase of the Civil War, phase three, started in 1852, when waves of southern irregular cavalry began 8 years of violent raids into Northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. This was never the “war of northern aggression.” It was the diametric opposite. And it is time to re-learn the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Picture the drunkard now, careening off into the dim night shadows, crashing into trash cans and - hoarsely - singing at the top of his lungs...

"... He hath trampled out the "newsroom" where the Fox of wrath has whored..."

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

The Big Idea: William Alexander

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 09/23/2014 - 08:27
Who would you want as the first speaker to an alien civilization? National Book Award winner William Alexander proposes an intriguing candidate in his middle-grade novel Ambassador, and after reading his Big Idea piece, I can’t say I entirely disagree with him. WILLIAM ALEXANDER: I love the word “ambassador.” I remember rolling it around in […]

This is the 9,000th Post on Whatever

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 09/22/2014 - 22:39
That is all. Thank you for your attention.

In Which Tor.com Reveals a Thing I Did With Lock In + Lock In Spoiler Thread

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 09/22/2014 - 14:00
And it involves the book’s protagonist, Chris Shane.  What is it? 1. It may be a spoiler for those of you who have not read the novel already, so don’t click the link below unless you’ve read the book and/or don’t car if the book is spoiled in a sense (note the information does not […]

The Case of the Missing Cat Who Wasn’t

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 09/22/2014 - 08:30
When I came back from the book tour, I was greeted with hugs and kisses, which was very nice, but also with some potentially bad news, which was that Lopsided Cat, the Scalzi Compound’s most senior cat, had gone missing for two whole days, and that when last he was seen, he was wondering toward […]

Ruining Science Fiction With Glitter: The Scalzi Chronicles

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 09/21/2014 - 18:54
Was informed I have ruined science fiction by being all social justice warrior-y. Responded by say BWA HA HA YES I DID SUCK ON IT LOSERS. — John Scalzi (@scalzi) September 21, 2014 AND I AM ABOUT TO RUIN TELEVISION TOO. AND VIDEO GAMES. THERE WILL BE NOTHING BUT RUIN IN MY WAKE BWA HA […]

Peering into the Future: AI and Robot brains

Contrary Brin - Sun, 09/21/2014 - 15:20
In Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future? on Slate, Zoltan Istvan writes, "The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don't like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don't like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don't like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs." 

See what the proponents of these words mean by them......and why the old talmudic rabbis and jesuits are probably laughing their socks off.==Progress toward AI?== Baby X, a 3D-simulated human child is getting smarter day by day. Researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory for Animate Technologies in New Zealand interact with the simulated toddler, reading, teaching, smiling, playing games, even singing into the computer's microphone and webcam. The blonde youngster mimics facial expressions, laughs, reads words, even cries when he is left alone."An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively "teaching" the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction," writes Becket Mufson, in the Creators Project.This is precisely the sixth approach to developing AI that is least discussed by “experts” in the field… and that I have long believed to be essential, in several ways. Above all, by raising them as our children – even fostering them to homes in small robot bodies – we will gain many crucial advantages – that I lay out (somewhat) in Existence.Meanwhile, Cornell's Robo Brain is currently learning from the internet -- downloading and processing about 1 billion images, 120,000 YouTube videos, and 100 million how-to documents and appliance manuals, all being translated and stored in a robot-friendly format, accessible to 'helper' robots who will function in our factories, homes, and offices. “If a robot encounters a situation it hasn’t seen before it can query Robo Brain in the cloud,” said one researcher. Follow its progress on the Robobrain website.

It's coming. "You can call it a Virtual Personal Assistant, an Intelligent Agent, an Intelligent Interface or whatever you wish. We call it inevitable," writes Dag Kitlaus in A Cambrian Explosion in AI is Coming in TechCrunch. An interesting assessment of the era of the digital assistant and the likely tsunami of new variations, building upon variations.Meet Jibo, advertised as "the world's first family robot." Kinda creepy but attractive too…Ever hear of “neuromorphic architecture?” Silicon chip design that uses transistors — (5 billion of them in the latest IBM chip) - to create analogues of the nonlinear response patterns of biological neurons. The latest version, from IBM, is called “True North” and it is simply spectacular. Its prodigious pattern recognition capabilities are only matched by its stunning (by four orders of magnitude(!)) power efficiency. This is where Moore’s Law, augmented by new neuronal and parallelism software, may truly start delivering.Now… How to keep what we produce sane? And where on the chip - pray tell - do the Three Laws reside?Ah, well… I have explored the implications (yin and yang) of the Asimovian laws in my sequel which tied up all the loose ends in Isaac’s universe – Foundation's Triumph. Meanwhile, serious minds are grappling with the problem of “how to keep them loyal." For example…==Creating Superintelligence==Nick Bostrom has published the book "Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies," that is well-reviewed by Andrew Leonard in Salon."Risks that are especially difficult to control have three characteristics: autonomy, self-replication and self-modification. Infectious diseases have these characteristics, and have killed more people than any other class of events, including war. Some computer malware has these characteristics, and can do a lot of damage..."But microbes and malware cannot intelligently self-modify, so countermeasures can catch up. A superintelligent system [as outlined by Bostrom would be much harder to control if it were able to intelligently self-modify." writes Bostrom.Nick Bostrom makes a persuasive case that the future impact of AI is perhaps the most important issue the human race has ever faced. Instead of passively drifting, we need to steer a course. Still, his litany of “be careful what you wish for” parables is taken straight from the pages of a century of science fictional “what-if” scenarios. Geeky sci fi archivists need to be present, during the programming, to point out: “you may want to rephrase that… cause way back in 1947 Leigh Brackett showed that it could be misconstrued as...”== and more on "intelligence..." ==

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization." Interesting article! In fact the mystery of the First Great Renaissance... the burst of human creativity around 45,000 years ago... is discussed in EXISTENCE!But -- if I may mention it -- the real correlation with this notion… that sexual selection resulted in gentler, more “feminized” males, was presaged by this paper of mine… Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution.==Developing Brains==Researcher Talma Hendler has found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. One type she calls mental empathy, which requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. Parts of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex that make up this network. The other type she calls embodied empathy; this is the more visceral in-the-moment empathy you might feel when you see someone get punched in the guts. Very cogent and thought provoking.This interesting article in Wired explores how movies exploit both of these networks to make you identify with the characters. Only the manipulation is now going scientific!And veering a bit... When did modern humans arrive in Europe, and by how much did they overlap with our fading cousins, the Neandertals? New studies suggest it all happened earlier than most had assumed, perhaps around ...45,000 years ago.Now throw in.... Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development.Hmmmmm.==and organs==Scientists have for the first time grown a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting cells that were originally created in a laboratory to form a replacement thymus, a vital organ of the immune system.By deciphering the detailed gene expressions by which a lizard regrows its tail, scientists hope to re-ignite regrowth processes in mammals like us, that have been dormant for 200 million years.

 Both of these stories are straight from my story “Chrysalis” in this month’s ANALOG! Have a look and see where all this may lead!==Miscellanea==Scientists report using laser light in ultrafast pulses to control the quantum state of electrons contained inside nanoscale defects located in a diamond, and also observe changes in that electron over a period of time. The findings could be an important milestone on the road to quantum computing.Another team has devised a way to make microscopes magnify 20 times more than usual. This magnification allows scientists to see and identify substances and matter as minuscule as or even smaller than a virus.Direct synthesis of ammonia from air and water? At low temperatures and pressures? If this membrane method can bypass the usual harsh processes, the news can be significant for liberating poor farmers everywhere to make their own fertilizer.Looks plausible… if amazing! A transparent luminescent solar concentrator developed in Michigan can be used to cover anything that has a flat, clear surface. Visible light passes through. But organic molecules absorb invisible wavelengths of sunlight such as ultraviolet and near infrared, guiding those packets to the edge of the solar panel, where thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells pick it up and convert it into energy. Fascinating… another potential game changer.Stanford scientists develop water splitter that runs on ordinary AAA battery.Recommended: what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (of the brilliant xkcd).Researchers from UC San Diego's structural engineering department are using drones to capture unique views of the earthquake damage to Napa's historic landmarks. Our own Falko Kuester explains how this new tech is helping.


How to tell if a Chelyabinsk style meteorite came from an asteroid? Here's the basic rule of thumb. “The speed of whatever collides with Earth’s atmosphere depends on its orbit, which in turn depends on its source. The impactor’s entry at 19 km/s means that it came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not from a ballistically launched missile, whose speed is less than 11.2 km/s; a short-period comet, with an average speed of 35 km/s; or a long-period comet with an average speed of 55 km/s. As investigators began retracing the path of the meteor that blazed across the sky, their reconstructed orbit bore out that provenance.”  Oh, anything much faster than 60 kps either fall naturally from outside the solar system... or was accelerated by someone with boojum powers and maybe ill intent!And finally:Don’t bogart that puffer, my friend. Dolphins pass around a puffer fish — apparently to get high off its toxins. After a few chomps, you no longer give a fugu.  . . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Further Comments On Comments

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 09/21/2014 - 11:33
While I was on tour with Lock In, I turned off the comments here at Whatever, opening them for Big Idea posts and the occasional post when I was able to spend a little time babysitting the thread. Among other things I was curious to see what, if any, effect turning the comment off would […]

German Heritage Days in Fort Loramie: A Photo Set

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 09/21/2014 - 10:22
Fort Loramie, a town just up the road from me, celebrates its German Heritage Days (on pretty much the same days as traditional Oktoberfest begins, incidentally) with a big tent, ruben bites (think a ruben sandwich, in nugget form), and of course, lots of beer. We went last night, and I took photos. If you’re […]

Housekeeping Regarding Comments and Email

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 09/21/2014 - 09:18
A quick post for a couple of technical matters. One, as I have returned from the tour, full commenting has returned to Whatever: Comments are turned on by default, and all posts whose comment threads are not otherwise turned off are now open. I’ll have more thoughts a bit later on what I learned about […]

(Not the) View From the Hotel Window, 9/20/14: Bradford, OH

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 09/20/2014 - 14:56
And now I am home again. Save for a couple of one-off events in October, the Lock In tour has come to a close. It was a lovely time and it was lovely seeing so many of you out there on the road, but it’s nice to be able to come back home and not […]

Homeland wins Copper Cylinder award for best Canadian YA sf novel

Craphound (Cory Doctorow) - Sat, 09/20/2014 - 12:17


The Copper Cylinder Prize, voted on by members of the Sunburst Award Society awarded best YA novel to Homeland; best adult novel went to Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars.

It's a fantastic honour, in some ways even better than winning the juried Sunburst Award, because popular awards are given to books that have wide appeal to the whole voter pool. I'm incredibly grateful to the Sunburst Award Society, and also offer congrats to Guy for his well-deserved honour.


Sunburst Award Society Announces the Winners of Its Third Annual Copper Cylinder Awards

And Of Course There Was a Lightsaber Duel at Last Night’s Tour Stop

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 09/20/2014 - 09:57
Because why wouldn’t there be? Also, it’s well past time I came out of the closet as a Sith Lord, evidenced by my red lightsaber. Frankly, I’m relieved it’s out there. Now I don’t have to pretend I’m not Force Choking all who oppose me. Heading home.

Phases of the American Civil War

Contrary Brin - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 20:00
I frequently refer to our current era of American politics as the latest phase of the U.S. Civil War… in part because the political maps so blatantly copy a pattern that goes back almost 200 years. 

Cyclically, we find ourselves mired in dogma, instead of pragmatism, intransigent hatred instead of negotiation, nostalgia and romanticism, instead of belief that we can craft a better tomorrow.Illustrating that others see this same breakdown, New York Magazine carried this article, A Southern GOP Can't Be the Party of Lincoln, decrypting how - politically - there seem always to have been two Americas. The Nixonian “Southern Strategy” flip changed the banners of the two sides, and Blue-vs-Gray has become Blue-vs-Red. Still, Jonathan Chait does a fair job of showing how consistent the political map has been.This article, while mostly true and overall correct, misses a couple of key points.  First, the social movement called the "confederacy" has been at this for a long time.Phase one of the American Civil War took place in the South, during the Revolution, when the British found their strongest support among Loyalist/Tory militias in Georgia and the Carolinas.  It was Scots-Irish hill settlers, fighting for Daniel Morgan, who tipped the balance in that struggle, toward what would become the American Experiment.Phase two featured a period when southern politicians grew ever stronger in control of the U.S. federal government.  True, Andrew Jackson clamped down on John C. Calhoun's secessionism, in the 1830s, and kept the nation together. But Mr. Chait is correct that Jackson's overall sentiments were what we might call "confederate." Indeed, southern control over levers of power only grew until, by 1860, five of nine Supreme Court justices were slave-owners.This extended through the next phase, starting in 1852, when the Fugitive Slave Act turned the division violent.  Swarms of small units of southern irregular cavalry commenced rampaging across northern states, seizing anyone they wanted as an "escaped slave." These raider squadrons had the support of U.S. Marshals who were appointed by mostly-southern presidents. When outraged northerners started forming posses to defend their neighbors, those marshals called in federal troops.In other words, the "confederate" social movement is not always anti-central-government!  It is only opposed to federal government when it does not control those levers of power.  Witness the tepidness of anti-government proclamations during the tenure of GW Bush.  Indeed, it is a wrathful unwillingness to let the electoral winners have their legitimate turn that was behind the hysterical reaction to Lincoln's election... and (one might argue) Obama's.By the way, those rampaging bands of southern cavalry were self-defeating.  They radicalized northerners, causing them to arm themselves, revive their dormant militias and (eventually) vote for the abolitionist Lincoln. An effect that - were eyes open - one can clearly see happening across Blue America, today. (This is why Gun Control is such a pathetic hot button on the right.  No one is seeking more than tweaks.  Indeed, under Bush, many liberals started arming themselves.)Up to this point, the Confederacy Society (CS) had lost phase one (allowing the establishment of a true federal republic), played for a draw in the Calhoun-Jackson era, and won phase three — in that its agendas controlled the national government and processes.But finally, Blue America got fed up. And what ensued was phase four — the one we normally think of as “The Civil War.” Unable to stomach their opponents ever even having a brief tenancy in just one branch of the government, CS did not bother trying to send even one delegation to negotiate with president-elect Lincoln, thus eliminating all right to refer to the Justifications for separation found in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence… that secession can be justified, but only when all other negotiations and redress have been exhausted. Anything short of that is oathbreaking and damnable treason.We all know Phase Four very well. (If not, watch Ken Burns portray it magnificently, in his PBS series.) Hence, tra la I will bypass it and speed through the others:Phase 5- The 1870s early end of Reconstruction... when the South bargained to let Rutherford Hayes and the Republicans into the White House, in exchange for what they really wanted. The “confederacy” won this phase, big time, when they dickered their way into an end of Civil Rights protections and a surge of Jim Crow laws that ripped from freed slaves the right to vote. The real losers, though? Not just minorities, but in every pragmatic sense the entire South, which thereupon slumped into a backwater of economic retardation and romantic, old-timey hatred of progress.(You'd deny this?  Then explain how China in just 30 years went from poverty to economic superpower... when the US South has had 150 years and still blames its backwardness on Sherman.)Phase 6 . The 1880s… this phase is not entirely associated with “confederate society” though it was part and parcel of the Democratic Party of those days. It featured William Jennings Bryan's white-christian populism, Free Silver and a rebuke to the steamroller effects of consolidated northern corporations. And for the first time, the states of the Great Plains began edging toward alliance with the Olde South. Northern oligarchs won phase six… unfortunately, in this case! (The one time the confederacy wing of our ongoing civil war had some real, moral justification on their side.)(What spun off from this phase was the Progressive Movement, which manifested all over America and was taken up by Theodore Roosevelt, whose family specialized in saving the wealthy in America from the inevitable price of limitless greed. If only today’s oligarchs understood that their greatest need, right now, is another Roosevelt! Without gentle, moderate reforms, our current momentum can only lead to tumbrels and guillotines. Watch Ken Burns's wonderful PBS series "The Roosevelts" which is being broadcast as we speak.)Phase 7 - The 1940s through 1970s … the civil rights movement, started with Harry Truman’s bold desegregation of the military, then Dwight Eisenhower’s firm support of school desegregation. The essential and too-long delayed resumption of Reconstruction… which also included Lyndon Johnson’s effort to re-industrialize and re-invigorate the South. This phase was clearly won by Blue America (though the South benefited prodigiously, economically), but at a cost — which was….Phase 8 - …the Nixonian, southern-strategy “flip" leads ultimately to today's full scale New Confederacy effort to finally destroy the United States of America. 

Not by force of arms, but by ending the effectiveness of politics as a pragmatic, open-minded process by which undogmatic citizens negotiate a mix of experiments and find out what works -- the methodology behind all of our successes. Replacing all of that with dogma more intense than communism ever was.Pragmatism and science and re-evaluation are now portrayed to half our neighbors as enemies. A conviction of moral superiority that cannot be shaken by facts. Run through a long list of social ills: teen sex ages and rates, teen pregnancies, STDs, domestic violence, divorce rates, bankruptcy and debt default rates, economic productivity, net tax parasitism…even obesity rates… tell us clearly that outcome metrics do not support any claims that salt-of-the-earth types are better at life or raising kids than 'decadent' university-city-folk. Indeed, by all of those measures... and countless more... they get spectacularly worse outcomes.

So? The response is to utterly ignore statistics. Truthiness is all that matters.I could go on, but the point is clear: this rebellion against the American Experiment is both ancient and culturally deeply rooted.  We are in its eighth phase (at least).Does it even have anything to do with the metaphor pushed by both Fox and MSNBC?  The hoary-stupid-lobotomizing so-called "left right political axis?"  Looking at all eight phases, that would seem to map poorly onto our civil war, which seems to be far more emotional and cultural -- a clash of two immiscible strains of American utopianism.

 In Ted Turner's wonderful film GETTYSBURG, one character opines that blue and gray America sang the same songs... but dreamed different dreams. Mark Twain commented that the confederacy side's relentlessly recurring rage is far more psychological than anything else, a deep romanticism and obsession with nostalgia that he blamed on Sir Walter Scott!  Certainly you can gain insight by tracing which regions sell more science fiction.Where is it all heading?

Today's neo-confederacy is smart enough not to secede.  This time, it is working from within to slash the things that it always hated. Especially science, which is the enemy of nostalgia. But also any chance of American pragmatism prevailing in the kind of experiment-by-politics that has always been our national genius.And yes, that campaign now includes seeking to ensure that "government of/by/for the people" SHALL perish from the Earth.. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

View From the Hotel Window, 9/19/14: Philadelphia

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 17:35
Look! History right out of the window! Tonight: Last night of the tour! Barnes & Noble! Rittenhouse Square! 7pm! Be there and bring every one you know! Tomorrow: Nothing! Because, again, it’s the last night of tour tonight! Yay!

Cover Reveal: The End of All Things

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 09:20
I saw this popping up the Twitters and the webs last night as I was heading back to the hotel, so I might as well give it a proper debut here on Whatever: The title and cover of the book formerly known as The Human Division 2: The Divisioning, taken, I assume, from the Tor […]

(Not the) View From the Hotel Window, 9/18/14: New York

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 14:27
My hotel room wasn’t ready, and my schedule is such that I won’t be getting back there until after my event tonight, so here: Madison Square Park, for your delight. Right to the left of me, some dudes are having an al fresco meeting about television advertising. I feel like I’m getting the full New […]
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