Category Archives: Transhumanism

The Rise of Ironic Physics and/or Machine Physicists?

CONTENT ADVISORY: old-fashioned blog snarkery about broad trends in physics.

Over on his blog, Peter Woit quotes a scene from the imagination of John Horgan, whose The End of Science (1996) visualized physics falling into a twilight:

A few diehards dedicated to truth rather than practicality will practice physics in a nonempirical, ironic mode, plumbing the magical realm of superstrings and other esoterica and fret­ting about the meaning of quantum mechanics. The conferences of these ironic physicists, whose disputes cannot be experimentally resolved, will become more and more like those of that bastion of literary criticism, the Modern Language Association.

OK (*cracks knuckles*), a few points. First, “fretting about the meaning of quantum mechanics” has, historically, been damn important. A lot of quantum information theory came out of people doing exactly that, just with equations. The productive way of “fretting” involves plumbing the meaning of quantum mechanics by finding what new capabilities quantum mechanics can give you. Let’s take one of the least blue-sky applications of quantum information science: securing communications with quantum key distribution. Why trust the security of quantum key distribution? There’s a whole theory behind the idea, one which depends upon the quantum de Finetti theorem. Why is there a quantum de Finetti theorem in a form that physicists could understand and care about? Because Caves, Fuchs and Schack wanted to prove that the phrase “unknown quantum state” has a well-defined meaning for personalist Bayesians.

This example could be augmented with many others. (I selfishly picked one where I could cite my own collaborator.)

It’s illuminating to quote the passage from Horgan’s book just before the one that Woit did:

This is the fate of physics. The vast majority of physicists, those employed in industry and even academia, will continue to apply the knowledge they already have in hand—inventing more versatile lasers and superconductors and computing devices—without worrying about any underlying philosophical issues.

But there just isn’t a clean dividing line between “underlying philosophical issues” and “more versatile computing devices”! In fact, the foundational question of what the nature of “quantum states” really are overlaps with the question of which quantum computations can be emulated on a classical computer, and how some preparations are better resources for quantum computers than others. Flagrantly disregarding attempts to draw a boundary line between “foundations” and “applications” is my day job now, but quantum information was already getting going in earnest during the mid-1990s, so this isn’t a matter of hindsight. (Feynman wasn’t the first to talk about quantum computing, but he was certainly influential, and the motivations he spelled out were pretty explicitly foundational. Benioff, who preceded Feynman, was also interested in foundational matters, and even said as much while building quantum Hamiltonians for Turing machines.) And since Woit’s post was about judging whether a prediction held up or not, I feel pretty OK applying a present-day standard anyway.

In short: Meaning matters.

But then, Horgan’s book gets the Einstein–Podolsky—Rosen thought-experiment completely wrong, and I should know better than to engage with what any book like that on the subject of what quantum mechanics might mean.

To be honest, Horgan is unfair to the Modern Language Association. Their convention program for January 2019 indicates a community that is actively engaged in the world, with sessions about the changing role of journalism, how the Internet has enabled a new kind of “public intellectuals”, how to bring African-American literature into summer reading, the dynamics of organized fandoms, etc. In addition, they plainly advertise sessions as open to the public, which I can only barely imagine a physics conference doing more than a nominal jab at. Their public sessions include a film screening of a documentary about the South African writer and activist Peter Abrahams, as well as workshops on practical skills like how to cite sources. That’s not just valuable training, but also a topic that is actively evolving: How do you cite a tweet, or an archived version of a Wikipedia page, or a post on a decentralized social network like Mastodon?

Dragging the sciences for supposedly resembling the humanities has not grown more endearing since 1996.
Continue reading The Rise of Ironic Physics and/or Machine Physicists?

Here’s a Question for You

Did any futurologists from last century predict online harassment? All I remember is VR, full-body haptic interfaces, video-telephones that would translate as you talked…. It was all this kind of thing:

  • “Unused computes on the Internet are harvested, creating … human brain hardware capacity.”
  • “The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments…with full visual realism.”
  • “Interactive brain-generated music … is another popular genre.”
  • “the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high level of affluence”
  • “Diagnosis almost always involves collaboration between a human physician and a … expert system.”
  • “Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle.”
  • “Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion”
  • “Cables are disappearing.”
  • “grammar checkers are now actually useful”
  • “Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel.”
  • “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) software”
  • “Autonomous nanoengineered machines … have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls.”

All of these are from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), specifically its list of predictions for 2009.

The most insightful-in-retrospect predictions I recall were from Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication (1993), but that book was about honest errors and confusion, not venom and spite. Surely someone speculated about the Net enabling new ways of making people’s lives miserable, but I’m having a hard time recalling examples which are really pertinent. I can’t help thinking that the downsides which people had in mind weren’t the ones we face now.


Contraception? Evil. Kids getting their hands on Daddy’s guns and blowing holes in each other? The price of Freedom. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Transhuman Science Begins Today?

A while back, we noted an interesting exchange which Neil Shubin had with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.

COLBERT: If I used to be a fish, and then I was a monkey, and now I’m a man, then what’ll be next?

SHUBIN: That’s a good question, ’cause we humans are actually now controlling our own evolution. So, if you’re worried about steroids in baseball now, come back in twenty-five years, because our technologies are fundamentally going to change our bodies. It’s gonna change how we work; medications are going to change how our bodies actually function and so forth. So really I think if you come back, we’re going to be sort of a product of technology and biology.

COLBERT: So you’re saying we’re wresting the steering wheel away from Darwin?

SHUBIN: I’m afraid with our ability to generate new technologies, essentially we are.

COLBERT: Can we turn ourselves back into fish? ‘Cause I’d love to be a shark.

These things have a way of becoming relevant sooner than we’d think. Bora Zivkovic and Jonathan Eisen report on an interesting and, for some, disturbing development from the National Institutes of Health:
Continue reading Transhuman Science Begins Today?



Waves of pain ratcheting up through the fading numbness of ebbing anaesthesia, pain strong enough to trigger my synaesthetic response, becoming a camera flare of magnesium light radiating out of my jawbone. Suddenly, it occurs to me that the odd array of mechanical noises I’d heard emanating from inside my mouth whilst I reclined in the endodontist’s chair really did denote the removal of matter from my head.

But, one filled prescription later. . . Mmmm, delicious hydrocodone.

While I indulge in painkillers and a modest dinner of very soft foods, here are links to some interesting things happening in my local cluster of Network nodes:

First, Brian Switek is growing old! Everyone should congratulate him on making it this far, and warn him that he’d better retain his youthful enthusiasm.

Russell Blackford has a couple thought-provoking posts, the first on transhumanism and atheism, and the second on Francisco Ayala’s book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (2007), an entry in the Templeton genre which Blackford has reviewed for Cosmos magazine. Meanwhile, Ben Allen reports about computer science ideas spreading into other areas of science, such as an interesting result on the computational difficulty of finding equilibrium points in exchange markets.

Next stop on this random walk: both Abbie Smith (1, 2) and TR Gregory have weighed in on some recent remarks by microbiologist Carl Woese, who seems to have looked at the poor state of high-school biology education and given up hope that evolution could ever be taught at the high-school level. I can only guess at the frustration which could drive a man to the philosophy that the cure for bad education is no education; in the end, I agree with Prof. Gregory:
Continue reading Happenings

Kurzweil’s Predictions for 2009

Apropos an announcement from the AAAS annual meeting, Steve Novella ponders the task of reverse-engineering the human brain. For those of us who share a materialistic view of the brain — i.e., for people who subscribe to actual science instead of woo — this task is likely to seem possible in principle, although daunting in practice. If the mind is the activity of the brain, and a finite number of genes can direct the growth of a brain in a finite amount of time, and the molecules which make up the brain are being exchanged in and out all the time anyway, it’s reasonable to speculate that we’ll be able to mimic the process in another medium. Novella argues that the “software” part of this task will be harder than the “hardware” side:

Sure, we may run into unexpected technological hurdles, but so far we have been able to develop new approaches to computing technology to keep blasting through all hurdles and keep Moore’s Law on track. So while there is always uncertainty in predicting future technology, predicting this level of computer advancement at the least can be considered highly probable.

The software extrapolation I think is more difficult to do, as conceptual hurdles may be more difficult to solve and may stall progress for a undetermined amount of time.

Broadly speaking, I agree. The exact amount of processing power needed to implement the brain in a Linux box is as yet unknown; it depends on things like the complexity of an individual synapse, and how much data is required to represent the state of a neuron. Then, too, for every hardware advance on Moore’s side of the ledger, Gates is there to bloat the software by a corresponding amount, and the applications of computer technology which have most radically affected life in recent years have depended not on raw cycles-per-second, but on networking and mass storage, neither of which necessarily improves at the same rate as processor speed.

Ray Kurzweil may be the most famous evangelist of the view that explosive increases in computer power will give us artificial intelligence on a par with our own in the near future. He has elaborated upon this idea in several books, a couple of which I used to have on my shelf; a commenter at NeuroLogica, Sciolist, still has The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) close at hand.

Kurzweil claims that man’s merger with machine is inevitable, because the pace of evolution has been increasing exponentially — when we reach the edge of biological evolution, we must transition into artificial substrates so that can continue traveling up that exponential curve into binary godliness. This, he predicts, is inevitable. That’s at least a misreading of the theory of evolution; I’d argue it’s also a bit kooky.

Indeed, Kurzweil’s attempts to anchor his “Law of Accelerating Returns” in geological deep time are singularly silly, to steal PZ Myers’ phrase. They rely upon condensing multiple historical events into single data points to get a pretty curve, and instead of reflecting any deep truth about evolutionary processes, the curve you get reveals a recentist bias — the “proximity of the familiar.”

I recall that bothering me when I read the book, eight or so years ago, but eight years have gone by since then, making my memory only slightly more reliable than that of a HAL 9000 unit being fed a tapeworm. Thus it was with surprise and glee that I read Sciolist’s recounting of the predictions Kurzweil makes for one decade after the book’s publication, 2009:
Continue reading Kurzweil’s Predictions for 2009


The Internet is making me feisty and argumentative (exhibit A). In my current mood, I’d be apt to fill this space with spite; fortunately, other people blag so I don’t have to.

First in a random ordering, Ben Allen asks, “How complex is a human?” Entertaining arithmetic ensues in the comments. Next, our friend gg kicks off a series of posts on Einstein’s relativity. Oddly enough, relativity has also showed up in Steven Novella’s latest debunking of Michael Egnor.

Finally, Russell Blackford has saved me the trouble of blagging about an odd story concerning religion and nanotechnology.

I’m currently supposed to be writing two different journal articles at my day job, but I’ll see if I can eke out the time to continue my supersymmetry series. There’s no better way to get myself a little peace and quiet than to post lots of equations!

Status Update

You’re listening to Radio Sunclipse, first on your RSS dial! It’s currently oh-jesus degrees in the Greater MIT Metropolitan Area, with a wind-chill factor of “Why is the nitrogen freezing?” And I managed to lose my gloves on the subway.

So, the endodontist tells me that my decrepitude is in an intermediate state, on the borderline between merely needing elaborate work and requiring the complete excavation and subsequent cyberization of my aching tooth. Man, when the technology arrives to upload ourselves into pure AI form — I figure it’ll be about when Ubuntu reaches the “zesty zebra” release — I’ll be the first in line. apt-get install blake, all the way.

Won’t those be wonderful times? Geek culture will coincide with athletics, because your performance will depend on how much you can overclock yourself, and it’ll all be about leveling-up as quickly as possible. Hipster sophisticates will be angling for the android bodies Designed In California; meanwhile, Cosmo Girl will be touting the new iHuman Air. It won’t have an optical drive or an Ethernet port, but as long as the damsels still have a place for a USB plug, their boyfriends will be happy. Your mind will be able to spawn any sort of sub-process you want, from a simple arithmetic program to a full-fledged molecular dynamics simulation, so math teachers won’t have to worry about calculators eroding manual mathematics skills anymore, and the computerized proof of the four-color mapping theorem will be fully intuitive! Best of all, because they use so few mental faculties, professional creationists will be kept as the new virtual pets.

Anyway, thanks to my tooth problem and the small matter of having to do some science-type research this week, it’s time for playing some “golden oldies.” I’ll be converting a pedagogical paper I wrote a few years ago into blag form, which should yield two or possibly three posts on pushing the supersymmetric quantum mechanics I’ve described recently into the relativistic regime.

Spraying Habits of Pop Science

OK, my fellow specimens, it’s time for a rant. This subject came up at lunch today, and I noticed it again at Terra Sigillata; the second occurrence managed to ruin the good mood I’d achieved by reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish (2008), which is a great book that everybody should buy.

The subject of this rant is the role economics plays in debates on science education, and more broadly, on a meta-level of rantery, the way people are deciding the roles which different tactics should have in science education. To illustrate the problem, let’s have a story. You’re a scientist, I’m a concerned parent, and we’re at a PTA meeting. You say, “We have to teach evolution in our schools, because evolution is the central concept in biology, and the biotech sector is a big part of our economy.” You’ve got my attention — that’s step zero! Job well done. Isn’t the appeal to the pocketbook — and the “think of the children” ploy — an effective tactic?
Continue reading Spraying Habits of Pop Science

Glum in the Bookstore

Over at the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford has been writing 15,000 words on American science fiction for a big zarkin’ literary encyclopedia. Part of his job seems to be the invention of history: he gets to write about “contemporary” science fiction, the writing on which judgments have not yet been made. And while talking about books is always fun, saying things which have never been said before about them is even better.

(Yo, transhumanists: is there any market which will pay me to discourse on how the practice of “tubing” fetuses in the Honorverse, and particularly in the novel At All Costs (2005), is the science-fictional antithesis of Brave New World (1932)? )

Anyway, having this freshly in mind put me into a bit of a melancholy mood last night, while I was wandering through the local Barnes-and-Borders-A-Million. (I’m visiting family in a town where there’s not much else to do.) From the looks of their science-fiction section, the surest way to get published is to write a Star Wars or Star Trek novel. To paraphrase Mr. Spock, that’s a situation which calls for a colorful metaphor. I mean, do we really want the New Jedi Order to be the public face of contemporary SF?

Happy Fun Movie Time

Neil Gaiman quotes a bit of a report about the forthcoming Beowulf movie, and asks us to spot the typo. At first, I thought it was “embarrassed,” because I can never remember how to allocate the Rs and Ses in that word anyway.

Angelina Jolie has admitted she was got a little shy when she saw her nude scenes in her latest film “Beowulf.” The actress says although the nude scenes were stimulated, she was still a little embarrassed. “I was a little shy,” she says. “I was really surprised that I felt that exposed. There were certain moments where I actually felt shy — and called home, just to explain that the fun movie that I had done that was digital animation was, in fact, a little different than we expected.”

Suddenly, I’m feeling the urge to go see Beowulf.

Also, the Coolidge Corner Theatre will be showing the “final cut” of Blade Runner (1982) starting the sixteenth of this month. For the proper ambiance, they should have chosen a venue in Chinatown, of course — but hell, it’s Boston in November. We’re going to have to walk from a half-broken subway through a construction zone in the sleet. All you need to add is a giant speaker on the Hood blimp telling us, “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. . . .”

At one point, during a film-studies class, I made a chart comparing the profusion of versions then known of Blade Runner. Nowadays, alternate or unused footage is a little easier to come by. For example, there was filmed a scene where Deckard meets Holden in the hospital, and they talk about hunting replicants. Watching the clip, I think I concur with the choice to leave it on the cutting-room floor:

It’s entirely the wrong feel for Blade Runner. It conveys no information not present in Rachel’s Voight-Kampff interrogation scene, and it undercuts the severity of Captain Bryant’s line, “He can breathe all right, so long as nobody unplugs him.”

On the other hand, this deleted scene from Terminator 3 (2003) is no worse than the rest of the movie (cough, cough).
Continue reading Happy Fun Movie Time

Sing the Cuttlefish Electric

“Cuttlefish” was recently inducted into the Order of the Molly, joining the nice folks (Kristine, Scott, Zeno, Kseniya, Torbjörn, etc.) and the ill-tempered illiterates (me) in the most elect group of Pharyngula commenters. Whoever this “Cuttlefish” might be, they’ve showered the Pharyngulans with delightful verse, each poem a fitting anti-prayer for the hymnal of Atheist Pope Richard I.

And, of course, Cuttlefish has a blog.

One of my favorite Cuttlefishsticks so far has been “Version 2.7,” the poem which dares to answer the question, “Will humans marry robots in fifty years?” Eat yer heart out, Kurzweil:
Continue reading Sing the Cuttlefish Electric

Psychedelic Bibliographies

Advances in the History of Psychology, a blog operated out of York University, has posted annotated bibliographies of psychedelic research, both on general psychological research and on studies focusing specifically on LSD.

(Hah! And you thought I was just trying to make a strange juxtaposition in my title.)

The AHP folks note something which I find interesting but not wholly unexpected: while plenty of papers have been written about LSD and marijuana, the academic literature doesn’t appear to have histories dedicated to the two-carbon phenethylamines like 2C-B or other significant drugs like DMT, DOM or mescaline. These remarkable little molecules sometimes get mentioned in general discussions or in studies of other drugs, but they don’t appear to have peer-reviewed literature of their own. PiHKAL (1991) and TiHKAL (1997) seem to be the end of the line.

One unfortunate consequence of this lack is our inability to judge the universality of neurological reactions to chemical stimuli. In this context, I’d like to bring up the paper by Bressloff, Cowan, Golubitsky and Thomas in Neural Computation (2002), “What geometric visual hallucinations tell us about the visual cortex.”
Continue reading Psychedelic Bibliographies

Don’t Make Baby Gauss Cry

Cosma Shalizi writes of “Power-Law Distributions in Empirical Data“:

Because this is, of course, what everyone ought to do with a computational paper, we’ve put our code online, so you can check our calculations, or use these methods on your own data, without having to implement them from scratch. I trust that I will no longer have to referee papers where people use GnuPlot to draw lines on log-log graphs, as though that meant something, and that in five to ten years even science journalists and editors of Wired will begin to get the message.

Mark Liberman is not optimistic (we’ve got a long way to go).

Among several important take-home points, I found the following particularly amusing:
Continue reading Don’t Make Baby Gauss Cry