Sunday, September 12, 2010

To 'borg or not to 'borg?

I would love to end up as the classic old man on the mountain with a robotic body, my virtually immortal brain and a high speed connection to the internet. I doubt the technology to make that happen will be invented at any point in my life, but it does make for an interesting fantasy.
But I don't think it's impossible. In fact, I think prostheses are actually making leaps and bounds (and allowing leaps and bounds that would otherwise be impossible) in this direction- still a long way off, to be sure, but far from the stuff of science fiction one would imagine when, say, the original Terminator came out.
What brought this all on was listening to a fantastic podcast called Rationally Speaking, specifically this episode, from Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef. Unfortunately, while they are consistently able to amaze me at how much information they can put into 30 minutes of audio, they didn't discuss my particular case, but I thought I'd take a look at it from the perspectives they did and see where it led me.
First, let's look at how feasible the technologies in question are.
Let's examine the successes first- they are pretty disappointing. Really. Legs hold a larger market share, and thus get more research dollars, but there are some promising, if disorganized, lines of research. I'm not going to cut my hand off a la Luke Skywalker in hoping for an improvement any time soon, but if it did happen to me, my life wouldn't completely suck. There is technology available that would help. Ironically, we have President Bush to thank, at least indirectly; one thing driving the research are the people who need the technology are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who were caught by roadside bombs. Legs, on the other hand, are actually doing very well- an Olympic runner was disqualified recently due to his artificial legs. That's actually really cool, if you think about it. People who lose the use of their legs due to something other than a spinal injury actually have a chance of having a significant advantage (at least in application in narrow fields)- and, one study at least says, the more of their legs replaced, the better! More leg lost, and thus, replaced, equals more leg function and less energy required.
Of course, none of the technology is across the line better than our mundane flesh and blood extremities. Yet. It may get there (again, probably not in our lifetimes), but there is a good chance that all we'll accomplish is making amputation somewhat less devastating. Also remember that we're only talking arms and legs here, not organs, which, at least right now, are completely useless for my old cyborg on the mountain dream (I'm just as well off hoping to become a vampire, werewolf, or swamp-thing analogue).
Organs are far more complex than arms and especially legs, and are proving much more difficult to simulate. So that doesn't look likely, at least not in the next century. A life support system for the brain? Maybe, but as Dr. Pigliucci eludes to in the podcast, the brain has this nasty happen of, well, dying really fast if you don't give it exactly what it needs. The blue screen of death would become a ghastly literal interpretation (I am experiencing joy and sadness simultaneously! SYSTEM ERROR)- life support systems would be costly, difficult to implement and incredibly dangerous. As death prone as our fleshy bodies are, at least they are relatively reliable, as long as you don't have a genetic disease that leads to an early demise, such as Tay- Sachs.
Well, since all of those are evidently quite a distance in the future, perhaps a better question is, should we try to get to the point where we can replace our squishy bits with superior, robotic replacements?
So, let's look at whether we should even consider it- e.g, is turning yourself into a cyborg a good idea? Here, a lot of the points that Dr. Pigliucci makes do apply. First, the haves and the have nots- would those with the money to afford this technology, or the insurance, turn themselves into gods, leaving the poor among us to grovel before their superior metallic forms? Personally, I doubt it. At least not when it was in the prostheses stage. I think this would be a case where a naturally growing technology eventually overtakes our natural, and hopefully the disparity, by that time, won't be quite as bad as it is now. But in terms of the life support systems? They would have to be costly. Think about it. You pay what, $100 for Windows? Let's be generous and say that works 99% of the time. If you want the server edition, you'll pay 5 times as much, but it works 99.9% of the time. If you want something better than that, such as something as reliable as a car's computer, or a commercial jet, or an F-16, you'll pay orders of magnitude more, and for diminishing returns in terms of reliability. But this is your life! It's worth it! And in this instance, at least, you will have the haves and the have-nots. Hopefully, though, the haves will be able to defeat any insurrections due to their superior mechanical forms, but even that is doubtful. Humans are notoriously tricky beasts, and we aren't improving the minds of the elite, only making them last longer and giving them more abilities. The same could be accomplished in other, more cost effective ways, but I'd be writing all night if I went into them.
Incidentally, I think this topic is probably the closest to the case of the "original" Pygmalion.
Suffice it to say, I think we're better off with minor implants that offer useful, affordable advantages (think of the Omni-tool in the Mass Effect series [Never played Mass Effect? Think of a Droid or an iPhone, only on steroids and embedded in your wrist {Like nested parenthetical statements? Me too}]) rather than full on, body replacing constructs. Perhaps, in many, many generations, our technology will get to the point where these questions, at least in this limited case of cyborg technology, are completely moot. Or not. The cool thing about the future is what we don't know. The mystery. And the hope.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Part 2

Continued from last time...
The idea that organisms evolve first according to their environs and second according to the competition is also what the HuffPo shockingly cried that Darwin got wrong. Of course, Darwin got plenty of stuff wrong. And yes, he did indeed "get this wrong", or at least, get the priority backwards. He was quite aware that the environment was a significant cause of selective pressures, but he mostly put it down to competition between species. That he was a brave man willing to risk everything to stand up against the status quo does not make him infallible, and certainly not a man to be worshiped (though, I suppose personal bravery is a much better qualification than political piety, and yet the Pope stands as an edifice to humans overinflated sense of importance). But besides brave, he was also tremendously careful. It was only after 20 years, vetting his ideas, researching, gathering as much evidence as he possibly could that he dared to publish. Careful, brave, and wrong? Certainly. The web of life is very complicated, and remember, this was 150 years ago: they had barely plumbed the mysteries of electricity. They had no computers, no electron microscopes. In the absence of the concept of DNA, Darwin got incredibly close in some ways, and very far off in others. The fossil record was very shallow at that time as well. A man, so concerned with self preservation that he didn't share his idea with anyone outside a circle of close confidants, with limited means and without the benefit of evidence gathered by thousands of scientists working to verify (or disprove) got some things wrong. Barely even worth commenting on, except for this bizarre tendency in the western world of assuming that smart people don't (or can't) make mistakes. What is amazing is how much he got right, without any of the advantages afforded our position. Then again, he did spend 20 years honing his theory.
The very sober abstract is specifically examining the relationship between tetrapods and their roles in nature, which is a general concept, as I detailed last time, that has been accepted for a long while, though it appears it is only recently being studied to get specific data.
The theory of evolution contained a dire warning, as well- a foreshadowing of the industrial revolution which was in full swing by the time he had published. The study of ecology led to the discovery of the peppered moth, a moth which evolved to be black simply because the trees had turned black from the soot, and it was harder to see than its white competition. This seemingly minor discovery showed that not only had humans discovered evolution, their actions would directly impact the rest of the web of life. One hundred years later, and we realize the implications of human caused global warming- and now, we find ourselves in the middle of a mass extinction. But that's another post entirely.
There was a chilling side to Darwin's discovery- specifically, the Survival of the Fittest: the weak die and the strong survive, as Bill Maher quipped (point 6 in this post). This led to the British, Americans, and finally the Germans coming up with some very disturbing ideas. The British, thankfully, didn't go too far. The Americans and Germans certainly did- for Americans, it was their Eugenics programs.
Eugenics led to travesties of human rights. Men and women were rounded up and sterilized, due to "feeble mindedness." While the thought of eliminating all the idiots might have a surface pleasure (particularly after being forced to suffer at the hands of a few), the idea of government funded practice of it is deeply disturbing. Minorities and others were taken as well, removed from their families and placed in foster homes with white people, in the hopes that they would escape the stigma of their past, and be absorbed into the "dominant culture". Evolution was used to justify terrible things. If you want to read about the Germans with their perfect Aryan race, and their breeding programs, I'm running out of room in this post. I can go into more detail if anyone's interested.
But that leads to a significant flaw in the thinking of that day. The flaw is that just because a law exists in nature that we should necessarily live our lives by it for the best. Consider gravity. The theory of gravity basically says that two objects will attract each other. Does this mean that we should go outside, find the most massive thing we can see, and rush over to it? Or simply lie on the ground, in fulfillment of some cosmic purpose? That's foolish on its face.
It is no different to assume that simply because in nature the best adapted survive, we should try to ensure this. Just as with gravity, the law will run its course in any case. It is a cruel, merciless world, run according to a law that tests every aspect of every living organism. The price for failure is death, and death for all your descendants. By the very fact that we are a part of nature we are subject to its laws- but just as we evolved to overcome the fetters of gravity to walk on the moon and explore the stars, we have matured culturally to the point where finally we might cast off the bestial chains of evolution. Evolution has also given us kindness, mercy, music, and dozens of things that make us quite capable of living our lives without ever needing to harm another. Our ability to understand evolution should encourage us to choose which traits that we, as a species, as animals, as individuals, will live by.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Part 1

There seems to be a great deal of evolution flavored stuff going around. In August, there was a story floating around the Huffington Post about Darwin being wrong (the horror! link to the perfectly reasonable abstract here). Some artificial life evolved a simple form of memory. Even Futurama recently did an episode with evolution vs. creationism.
On top of all that, I recently watched the three part BBC series titled Darwin's Dangerous Idea. I don't know if it was based on Dan Dennett's book of the same name (I've never had the opportunity to read it), but it was a fascinating journey through the history of the idea. It brought up some thought provoking points. First of all, a common misconception- the whole "Survival of the fittest" shtick. This actually wasn't coined by Darwin, but sums up his idea quite well. Well enough that by the third edition of Origin, it could actually be found. But there was a problem with it, too. Survival of the fittest implies, at face value, that the most fit, or strongest survive. This is wrong- the core point of natural selection is that the best adapted organism or species survive, not necessarily the strongest, or the smartest, or any other single trait. This simple misunderstanding changed the face of the world for the worse. More on that later.
First, "best adapted" begs the question, To what? Well, that very question led scientists to start examining the interactions between organisms and their environment. This led to the founding of a new school of thought- the science of ecology. Scientists shortly realized that it wasn't so much the competition between organisms that was the guiding force behind evolution, but rather that the diversity of species is a function of the myriad complexities of environment. After that is when species begin competing for dominance in whatever niche they fill. The artificial life program stumbled across the same phenomenon- only after adding incentive in the environment to do what they did before did the "Avidians" evolve the capacity to remember what they did. The environment alone pushed them to evolve. The more niches organisms can fill and thrive in, the more likely that evolution will occur.
That very fact explains the so called Cambrian explosion, and us as well. Immediately prior to the Cambrian period, there was a mass extinction. Evolution flourished- overnight, by geological standards (in other words, if night was some 100,000 years or so), life rushed to fill the gaps left by the cataclysm. And again after the dinosaurs- it was only after the meteor that the weak mammals, hiding in caves, were able to surge forth and dominate the planet- let alone birds and reptiles. If not for that meteor, evolution would have been sluggish indeed, and may never have resulted in intelligent life- at any rate, certainly not our life. I hope this helps Ann Coulter understand what I discussed in the last post(specifically point 1 which I left for later).
More next time since this post is nowhere near stopping.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why pundits should stick to politics.

I didn't think it was possible that I could lose any more respect for Ann Coulter. How does one reduce an absolute value below zero? I don't agree with her on a single thing, but now I've heard her views on evolution. Trick question. It raised, just a smidge, when she said, "Evolution is compatible with my religion." I actually thought, in my sleep deprived brain, "I might actually agree with Ann Coulter on something!" Then she said, "but it isn't true." This is an excerpt from a debate between she and Bill Maher. The quality is pretty bad, and granted, neither one is particularly qualified to debate THIS topic, but it bled over from some political things they talked about. And got my blood boiling at 3 in the morning. Then it got me thinking.
To sum up the clip (the interesting bits, [except for Ann's gaff about the earth being 500 billion years old] start around 2:15 or so and continue almost to the end), Bill Maher is grilling her on the differences between voodoo and Genesis. He mentions evolution, and after being given the go ahead by the mediator, they begin the talk. She wrote a book (Godless: The Church of Liberalism) that talked a lot about evolution, and so was glad to tackle this topic with Bill.
Here are the claims that she got wrong, in approximately the order they occurred.
1) The Cambrian period, where there are all sorts of fossils which don't seem to have good origins from before. A fair point, but see my next blog for a detailed examination of this topic.
2) She claims the fossil record disproves evolution, that paleontologists are the most vociferous opponents of 2b)what she continually refers to as "Darwinism".
3) She keeps claiming that Darwin's evolution cannot be disproved.
4) She claims that the death of one type of organism is not an example of evolution.
5) She cites Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, which refers to Irreducible Complexity.
Maher gets one wrong too, to be fair, though she did most of the talking.
6) Survival of the fittest = strong survive, weak die.
But back to Coulter,
7) Evolution is based on faith.

Fortunately, she's a very educated person, and she actually has at least a working knowledge of evolution. I'm putting her gaffs down to the point that her education is focused on art and law, and that she's probably not particularly interested in the natural sciences anyway. Medicine isn't that interesting to me, either. Bill Maher gave her an out, but she wouldn't take it, so we have to assume she has never heard of Punctuated Equilibrium. In spite of writing a book which dealt heavily with evolution, and having read at least one book about it, she is unaware of the mountain of evidence for evolution.

Points 1 and 6 will be dealt with heavily in my next blog post. There's a great deal there.
2) The fossil record was a problem, for Darwin, because there hadn't been thousands of scientists digging all over the world to find it. But now, the fossil record is actually one of the best proofs of evolution- it predicts transitional fossils, long before they were found. One of the things that makes or breaks a theory is it's predictive power- the ability to add new things to scientific knowledge. If a theory explains everything and predicts nothing, it is not a theory.
2b) This is a common claim by people trying to discredit evolution, but I wonder if it's not simply because they really think evolution hasn't changed since Darwin's day?
3)Now? Well, it seems increasingly unlikely. But, in the first 50 years or so, when lots of things were questionable? Sure. A dinosaur fossil in the Precambrian fossil record. A bat giving birth to a tomato. Poorly adapted organisms flourishing to the detriment of well adapted competing organisms. Any of these would disprove evolution, though the last would be the most shocking. As for the first, there are isolated instances where the layers of sediment may actually be jumbled up, due to some kind of cataclysm. If there were no evidence of that, just a fossil of, say, a leopluradon being eaten by trilobites, then sure. Evolution is bogus- or it has a LOT of explaining to do! The thing is, scientists flourish on disproving well established theories. The fastest way to become a rock star is publish something that flies in the face of an old theory. (2b) Because of this, evolution has already been modified, refined, and perfected over the years, as thousands of contributing scientists add to the global body of human knowledge.
4) She says that if we developed an antibiotic, that kills non-bald people, we wouldn't be evolving bald people. Obviously, a trivial and far fetched example, but lets set aside the details. No, we wouldn't. But, if we exposed this antibiotic to ALL humans, the humans who were resistant (ie., bald) would survive and reproduce. That's how evolution works, and she doesn't seem to get that. Killing a bunch of people with hair is not evolution. Killing ALL people with hair could be.
5) Irreducible complexity is, well, ignorant. It doesn't take into account how brilliant nature is at co-opting. The classic example is half an eye. Totally useless. But what about an eye that sees in black and white versus one that sees in low resolution? Or one that only detects light or darkness, without an image at all? And all of these would be preferable to no eyes at all.
7) Of course it is! In the same way that typing on a computer is based on faith, that turning on a light is based on faith, and that starting your car and hurtling down the highway at 75 mph is based on faith. In each instance, there are reinforcing experiences to give you a reason to believe that your reactions will be consistent in the future. The first time you get in a car to drive, you should probably be at least a bit nervous about getting on the highway with 2 tons of steel death surrounding you- but after practice and experience, it gets easier. If we didn't see lights come on every time we hit the switch, we probably wouldn't get annoyed when it doesn't work. If that's what she means by faith, then I agree. Of course, it isn't, and I don't. She means evolution is a religion. But at what point does it become more rational to not only believe in but expect miracles, which are, by definition, supposed to be extremely rare? It is not rational to believe that we will win the lottery if we by a single ticket. In the same way, belief in miracles can not be rational. It requires emotional support, in the lottery ticket's case, desperation. In religions case, faith. In evolution's case, neither- it is through the sweat and sacrifice of scientists, exhuming the evidence from long lost graves.
Finally, I ask you, Ann Coulter, if evolution is a religion, how is it compatible with yours?