05.13.14

Where is my mind

Posted in Society at 16:04 by RjZ

[inspired by Daniel Dennett and considered by several such as Susan Schnieder, but hopefully this version is unique]

After a few thought experiments, the question of where is my mind becomes harder to answer than it might seem at first, and it may not speak well for all the effort placed in trans-humanism and its notions of how to preserve us humans (well, at least our minds) on into the future.

Consider the transport of the Star Trek universe. This nifty device is supposed to somehow take apart our molecules move them to a remote location and then reassemble them. Well, that’s not too much trouble for consciousness. For the dualist it’s easy to think that one’s soul or mind moved along on its ethereal plane or whatever to where the new body is. But even the materialist has little trouble here. After all, I am in this new place and identical in every way to the how I was in the old place. The only weird thing is the disassembly reassembly and where I was in the meantime, but it’s easy to ignore that. Fair enough, right?

Imagine a new inventor in the Star Trek universe comes along and notices that one of the challenges of the transporter is sneaking all those molecules into certain places or over great distances. He knows he could send information faster, easier, and further so, he assembles great jars of goo with every possible molecule you could find in a human at one end of a transporter. He takes the transporter signal and instead of reassembling your exact molecules, he pulls new ones from these jars. One by one every molecule is place in the identical relationship it would be with the original transporter. The dualist is wondering if the new body is really the right one, but the materialist isn’t too worried yet. After all, it’s not like our personalities are contained in the actual impersonal molecules! Surely it’s the organization of those untold billions of molecules that matter and the inventor has assured us that this uses the same technology as the transporters, but instead of the original molecules it uses ones from these jars. Clearly, if the organization is key and then where those molecules came from can’t matter. We are who we are, even though our own molecules are changing over time!

But now we’re running into to trouble. What if another inventor has a look at the latest non-molecular transporter and realizes that the disassembly process isn’t exactly necessary. He could, simply transport you to a room next door, but siphon off the signal for the non-molecular transporter. Or, he implements a scanner that foregoes the need to disassemble at all. When our latest inventor tries out the modification, the result is two of “you.”

Which one is the real “you?” It definitely impossible for anyone else to tell. The new “you” and the one that didn’t move very far really are “you” in every possible way going forward and no one could ask you a question to convince themselves otherwise. Worse, even you can’t tell! The new “you” in the remote location remembers stepping on the transporter pad and finding him or herself in a new location, but memories, sensations, everything is perfectly identical…there’s no way to feel any different.

Except there is a difference in some way. One of you has the same molecules she or he had a minute ago and the other doesn’t. That’s got to count for something, right? Even if we admit we’ve created a perfect duplicate, without error, doesn’t it mean something that one is a copy while the other is the original?

What if the invention worked out so that we were obliged to eliminate one of the duplicates. You’re still around, so it doesn’t matter, or does it? And isn’t this what’s going on in the first revision of the non-molecular transporter (which disassembled to scan? Didn’t we, well, kill that person, or that person’s personality, or consciousness? Consciousness got reassembled somewhere else, sure, but did it some how move there too? Because it’s not sure where to go when we don’t destroy the original. Don’t we all at least intuitively see consciousness as some contiguous flow over time. Because in one case the timeline stopped and in another it doesn’t (even if there is a hiccup).

It seems to me at least, that while we can’t tell from an interview, that a personality ends if we destroy the original. That the me in there is eliminated; ceases to existdies. Sure anyone who chats with the new copy, including the copy and his own introspection, is perfectly happy with the procedure, but the me that didn’t move is gone, that timeline is ended.

If you accept that, well, what happened in the original transporter? Sure the new Spock is happy to have been transported, but how is the transported Spock different than just a copy would be? Didn’t, then, the original cease to exist? And what would it mean to upload my brain into something other than my own molecules or copies of my molecules, but rather a computer as trans-humanists propose? Sure the new computer consciousness is happy about it, but am I not dead anyway?

Is there anyway to move my conscious out of my own head? And how or why is it stuck there? That seems rather odd if the mind really is only the organization of molecules in my body. Don’t we at least have to add over time to that concept? Is locality important here at all.

Your comments, as usual, welcome!
This was posted on Google+ if you wish to find comments on it there.

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03.02.14

Do we know what’s happening in the Crimea?

Posted in Society at 16:38 by RjZ

“Amid signs of Russian military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Russian generals led their troops to three bases in the region Sunday, demanding Ukrainian forces surrender and hand over their weapons, Vladislav Seleznyov, spokesman for the Crimean Media Center of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, told CNN.

In response U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry said Russia’s actions were “unacceptable” and could bring “serious repercussions”

Seleznyov went on to say “There is no open confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian military forces in Crimea”

Let’s read Selezyov carefully. What do we know from his quote?

  • We know that Russian generals led troops to the region of the Ukraine which is, itself, pro-Russian.
  • We know that Ukrainian forces handed over their weapons and that there was likely no violence.
  • The quote is from a pro-Ukrainian government official.

Is it possible that Kerry and the U.S. are over-reacting?

The Crimean peninsula has long been a pro-Russian enclave in Ukraine. Isn’t it feasible that they have been watching the events in Kiev with trepidation and concern? Is it conceivable that the pro-Russian Crimeans, both seeing an opportunity in the upheaval in Kiev and simultaneously fearing a new nationalistic Ukrainian government would turn to Russians not so far to the north and ask them to come to their aide? That the Ukrainian troops stationed there might not have laid down their weapons in response to Russian demands, but instead welcomed their Russian brothers? What motivation does Seleznyov have to support this view and potentially watch the Crimean peninsula fall away as part of his country?

It remains an invasion if Russian troops are there, even if they turn out to have been invited by pro-Russian Crimean separatists. But we’ll need more reports from both sides of the potential conflict to justify sabre rattling. Let’s not let one sided-media reports blind us to a more complex situation!

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02.07.14

Observation and historical science: a distinction without a difference

Posted in Society at 17:58 by RjZ

Modern scientists make a giant assumption about the nature of the universe while almost never giving it a second thought. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s nearly the same assumption that religious proponents claim is the origin of modern science itself. Apologists (here’s one at random), remind us that modern science was fostered by religious institutions. Modern science and the scientific method that began around the enlightenment is founded on the fundamental premise that the laws of logic and nature are constant and ubiquitous (or nearly so). Scientists make take this for granted, but the devout have a more detailed answer: a perfect God created a perfect, consistent, universe.

During the recent debate between popular science proponent Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis.org and the Creation Museum, Ham wanted to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Ham defended the compatibility of science and evolution by noting the achievements scientists and engineers who share his beliefs in young earth creationism. He insisted that understanding the Bible is necessary in understanding the laws of the universe, telling us that the laws of nature are consistent because God created the universe this way as the Bible tells us.

Meanwhile, much of Ham’s debate centered around novel categorization of observational science as opposed to historical science. The exact same observational evidence is available to Nye and Ham. It’s only when we move from what we can actually see to things we can never see, such as the past, that we must use historical science and, he explains we can’t assume it’s always been the same. Here’s an example. Ham refutes plate-tectonics as evidence of an earth older than 6000 years, suggesting that the rate of movement of the plates could change over time. “To assume it’s always been like that in the past, that’s historical science.” Throughout his presentation, Ham readily admits that his source for historical science is the Bible. Nye, he claims, has no where to turn for his justification.

If you’ve never heard of this observational vs. historical distinction before, you shouldn’t be surprised, it’s really only verbal sleight-of-hand. It may sound like a compelling difference between the two methods of inquiry, but suggesting there are two kinds of science isn’t even self-consistent with the rest of Ham’s claims, and “were you there?” certainly isn’t a very effective rebuttal, just because he uses it so often.

Plate tectonics wasn’t the only time Ham used a variation of his “were you there” argument. According to him creation scientists accept radioactivity because we can observe it, but we can’t assume that radio-dating works because the decay rates might not have always been the same. Hmmm. If God created a perfect world with constant laws of nature and the decay rates of strontium and rubidium haven’t changed for as long as we’ve been observing them, why should we think they were different in the past?

We weren’t there to watch sediment collect in ancient lakes and rivers but we can observe (with observational science) how fast it happens today. What reason do we have to think there were different deposition rates in the past? Trees we plant and cut down in our lifetimes build up a new ring for each year of their lives. What reason do we have to think that Swedish trees with 8000 rings spent a part of their lives laying down two, or three rings per year? Ham offered this possibility questioning whether we must “… assume one layer a year…” to explain why these rings falsely date the trees as living longer than God’s creation. We weren’t there, but doesn’t Ham also think that God isn’t changing the rules over time and that there was only one summer per year 6000 years ago just like there is today?

Ham is hoping we won’t notice that he’s both taking credit for the consistency of natural laws; citing them as justification for studying the Bible to become a better scientist, while at the same time rejecting Nye’s dependance on scientific discoveries to date rocks and fossils. We won’t be fooled so easily.

Nye pressed Ham over and over again about predictions. It’s easy enough, as Ham did many times, to suggest that the Bible correctly predicts things we all discover are true after the fact. In Jeremiah 51:15 we read “He made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.” 6000 years later Ham tells us this vague description is a prediction about the expanding universe. Even if we are impressed by this sort of cherry picking, isn’t science’s track record for predictions dramatically better?

Ham is cooking up yet another controversy where there isn’t one, like macro- vs. micro-evolution, but do we have to rely on the Bible to justify the consistency of natural laws? Why is Nye, and with him virtually every scientist, so convinced that the laws of nature can be trusted to behave in the past as they appear to now? Simple. The assumption is built into every hypothesis and if things work out well, we can accept it until we find a contradiction. A complete hypothesis might go like this: An apple and the earth will fall toward each other as a result of gravity [and they'll do so here, there, yesterday and tomorrow]. It is is tiresome to have to restate that bit in the brackets every single time, but every successful hypothesis is evidence for the bracketed assumption.

Science is just darn effective. The predictive power of science that Nye pressed Ham to compare his creationism against is, in itself, tremendous evidence that this, often unspoken, unconsidered, assumption really is valid. There is no new controversy, no real distinction between observable and historical science. We do make a leap of faith when we make observations about the past without seeing it with our own eyes. The real question is whether we believe that occasional cherry picking or repeated explanatory power is a better justification for that faith.

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10.29.13

Have they killed craft beer?

Posted in , Society at 13:44 by RjZ

For a while there was micro-brewed beer. Back in the bad old days when American beer was brewed almost exclusively by a few big industrial breweries a some brave entrepreneurs set out to brew full-flavored beer with hops and malt that you could taste and they started a revolution in American beer. Some of them, like Sam Adams even got really big and the original name for these upstarts, micro-breweries, just didn’t seem to fit any more. Somebody, probably in marketing, decided that there must be a better name to capture the brewers and the full-flavored results and the term craft beer was born.

The Brewer’s Association is the primary U.S. trade group representing “craft beer.” Today, they’re the ‘somebody, probably in marketing’ who argues what gets to be called a craft beer at what doesn’t. Craft brewers are “small, independent, and traditional,” according to the group’s definition. That means they produce fewer than 6 million barrels a year—it used to be 2 million until Samuel Adams maker Boston Beer (SAM) got too big to qualify.

What do consumers think when they hear “craft beer?” If they’re like me, they want a beer that’s brewed with quality from authentic, honest ingredients. If the brewer wants to make a case why he’s adding rice adjuncts to the beer and cold filtering and whatever else, well, it may end up tasting like an old-school American beer, that is bland and uninteresting, but, well, isn’t it still a craft beer…an honest recipe and intent? It’s not like craft beer has to mean hoppy, or strong, or big, or malty, or flavored, or spiced, or even tasty. Craft beer means something different to consumers as it does to those who brew it. The the brewers it means small brewery, because most of them are and it’s a competitive market where they need all the help they can get. To consumers, it’s most likely meant to distinguish it in flavor and character from bland beers of the American 1970s. Of course, what do you do with a craft beer that tastes like a bland 1970s American lager, or a ‘macro-brewer’ who turns around and makes a great “craft beer?”

As you can read from the link above, “craft beer” has really become a protectionist label used to discourage good beer simply because the brewer has the foolishness to take a paycheck from a big brewery. This is just wrong. Back when Anchor Steam, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and Redhook were all but alone fighting against the juggernaut of Mill-coors-weiser, they weren’t just fighting for their survival in the market place, they were fighting for the survival of good beer and all that can mean. If Miller Coors is now helping to support that cause by brewing tasty beer under the name “Blue Moon” instead of Coors, haven’t they actually won that battle?

Beer consumers need a new name to distinguish their desire for a delicious, flavorful beer. And when that name is co-opted by folks who want to use it as a false armor against competition, well, we’ll just have to think of a yet another name. The great news, judging by both the number and variety of full-flavored beers at this year’s Great American Beer Festival, whether they were from traditional craft brewers, or the latest entrants into the category: Coors, and Budweiser, is that we’ve finally won this battle for good beer!

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10.02.13

My first disaster

Posted in Society at 12:50 by RjZ

I wonder if I am a typical disaster victim.

Only three weeks after moving into my home in Boulder, we we’re fighting back the seepage from the Boulder flood in the basement. It’s a little scary, but surely, some wet corners in the room isn’t going to be a problem. Then, water started coming in through a window. That’s a much bigger deal, but still, towels were keeping pace. When the drain in the basement started going the wrong way is when the real trouble started.

The sump pump tried to keep pace with the drains turned into bubbling water features, and it did an admirable job, but they kept flowing the wrong way for nearly 24 hours and when it was over, the floors had been ruined and a bit of furniture as well. Compared to so many neighbors right in the new neighborhood and all across Colorado’s front range, I got off easy.

I got started right away with the clean-up. While water was still coming in I started calling folks to help with the mitigation–I figured I’d have to get in a long line and they’d take a day or two even to come by and make an estimate. My insurance agent called me! and I filed a claim. Then I started ripping the carpet out.

It’s hard work to remove soaking wet carpet, and I really wasn’t sure what I had to do, but it turns out doing it myself saved thousands of dollars, and above all, it allowed the basement to be dried out in a couple of days and the chance of damage or the dreaded mold dropped dramatically. A week later, when the insurance adjuster stopped by he told me that others still had two feet of water in their homes, waiting for him, the home owners say, to ensure he witnesses the damage. Waiting only increased the costs, and don’t forget the smell those folks were living with.

I contacted FIMA while the news of damage others were facing was coming in. Houses just a few doors down were nearly destroyed. Hundreds of people couldn’t get into their homes and water was still flowing over the banks in creeks down the street. The FIMA agent visited and assessed the damage but by this point I already realized how minimal the upheaval in my world would be compared to many. And a few days later a small, but substantial check arrived from FIMA. Enough that I actually felt a little bad about it…do I deserve anything when many are really suffering?

In the end it’s an unplanned, under-insured expense of around $10,000 but the bigger problem seems to be just getting anyone to even provide an estimate for work–they’re all so busy fixing bigger damage elsewhere. For me, it’s just an inconvenience, really; nothing more. But it’s an inconvenience with some serious cost and it feels pretty crazy to be have your heart sink just because it started raining again and the ground is still wet. I bet that’s typical.

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06.20.13

Finally, an honest ex-gay minister

Posted in Society at 17:01 by RjZ

I couldn’t understand why she kept insisting it was a choice. And it’s Alan Chambers’ fault.

Turns out, there’s another thing Alan Chambers can add to his sincere list of apologies. Exodus Ministries’ reparative therapy to “pray the gay away” has been such a loud voice for so long, they’re distorted logic even for those who never thought it was anything more than nonsense in the first place. Not only is this idea hurtful and harmful to real people, this nasty notion has warped the debate for both sides so much that we spoke right past each other.

The person I was arguing with kept infuriatingly insisting that homosexuality is a choice. What kind of nonsense was this? It’s the third millennium for heaven’s sake; who, outside of Exodus Ministries even believes this sort of thing any more? (Well, now, not even Exodus does!) Back and forth we went: “when did you choose to be straight?” I interrogated. “They choose to have sex with people of the same gender!” she retorted, “and it’s against God’s law!”

There’s a good chance you’re getting riled up too, hearing the same old argument played out over and over again. What I am here to tell you is that this isn’t the argument you think you’re having. Alan Chambers, the apologetic ex-president of Exodus International, the United State’s largest, probably oldest ex-gay ministries, is happily married. He’s no longer living the lie, for he’s now admitted that he retains same-sex attraction.

With his admission, this brave man has done much to fix a rather absurd argument between gay right’s advocates and Christian fundamentalists. The outcome may not be very satisfying for either side, but it’s a much more honest discussion. What I missed in my frustrating debate was what the choice we’re talking about really was.

Now, let’s be honest, thanks to these abhorrent ex-gay ministries, both sides of this discussion have been mislead. Emboldened by ex-gay propaganda, Christians (and, many other religious groups as well) have insisted that people choose this path of life and they can choose a different path.

Meanwhile, the gay-advocates have trotted out scientific evidence that homosexuality is not some sort of salacious lifestyle that people are attracted to. Instead it’s genetically programmed preference and no amount of prayer or wishful thinking will take it way.

Unfortunately, there absolutely is a choice, it’s just not a fair one. Homosexuals can choose not to have sex. That’s it. No sex for gays. At least not with someone they desire. Ever. Sure, it’s not a choice that even the celibate make with great success. It’s not the kind of choice that many anti-homosexual bigots would be up to the challenge of making themselves (pre-marital sex is against God’s will, but few manage to keep apart before marriage). But sex, if not your preference for whom, is a choice. So much for romance, and even the eHarmony, God’s partner plan. For gay’s, God has deemed they shall have joyless sex if any at all.

The argument that few Christians knew they were making should go something like this: If you believe that God’s love is more important than anything in this world. If you believe that a life free of as much sin you can manage is the only way to honor that love and be by His side for eternity then isn’t giving up sex worth it? Some suffering now vs. a lake of fire forever? Passing on sex in trade for an eternity with your savior? Easy choice!

Gay-advocates rarely considered that this was choice being argued about. I know I didn’t. But, Alan Chambers has been living this life, a gay man as president of an ex-gay ministry, because, he was able to make this choice. And his wife, was willing to make that it with him. You can mock and joke about how many straight sexless marriages there are; that maybe they weren’t giving up too much, but Mr. Chambers could be simply ranking his salvation higher than his sexual gratification. Sure, he was being a hateful bastard for putting this on everyone else, but surely in his pursuit of joyless sex, he’s entitled to his view.

Now that Mr. Chambers is out. Now that he admits how horrible and damaging Exodus International and other such ministries have been, we can finally get past this silly argument about choosing to be gay. Unfortunately, the real discussion is far from over. Many interpret the Bible (or Qu’ran) as warning that having homosexual sex is sinful, Well, being gay doesn’t force you to have sex any more than being straight ensures that every pick-up line will end in bed. It’s the having sex part that’s a choice, not your preferences. If you choose to have sex in accordance with your actual preferences, well, that’d be a sin.

Most of us learned while we were young that sometimes you have to put off instant gratification for greater joy later. The fundamentalist argument against homosexual sex comes down to demanding gays to put off their whole life, just in case they’re right about their interpretation of the Bible and what happens at death. I understand this position better now. It’s a mean spirited prohibition on one of the simplest, yet most meaningful forms of human contact and bonding, but hey, they’re just trying to save an eternal soul. That makes it all better, doesn’t it?

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05.28.13

Ideas not worth spreading

Posted in Society at 14:01 by RjZ

Every now and again, it’s a good idea to question your premises. That’s why there’s nothing wrong with the idea behind Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘banned’ TED talk. Dr. Sheldrake’s presentation is about scientific dogma; unquestioned premises of science that turn the scientific method into scientism, a religion of science, where any doubt of the dogmatic beliefs is met with scorn.

Many see the TED board of directors decision to remove his talk from the their website (it’s back, but relegated to a discussion of this very topic–see the link above) as evidence that Dr. Sheldrake is on to something. The problem, though, is that Sheldrake is attacking a strawman. It’s not that dogmatism shouldn’t be avoided, it’s that it isn’t dogmatism when busy scientists don’t feel like they have to address every hypothesis ever raised by anyone. Must Sheldrake himself respond to every critic? (Will I get a comment from him on this blog; or should I assume that since this post went unanswered that there’s a pro-Sheldrake conspiracy against me?)

Sheldrake claims that scientists put a range of things outside of question, from the constancy of physical constants to efficacy of Western medicine. Here are the ten dogmas from his talk:

  1. Nature is mechanical or machine like
  2. All matter is unconscious
  3. The laws or constants of nature are fixed
  4. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
  5. Nature is purposeless
  6. Biological heredity is material
  7. Memories are stored inside your brain
  8. Your mind is inside your head
  9. Psychic phenomena like telepathy is not possible
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works

How do we know if some measurement is accurate? Nowadays, we compare it to a known standard, but what if you’re measuring something that hasn’t been measured before? We validate measurements the same way people did when they first decided to use rulers. Compare the results to nature. Back then, if merchant wanted to sell me a length of rope or planks of wood, he might measure them in els (an el is the length between an elbow and wrist). If you ordered 20 els of rope and got what seemed to be 20 els of rope, that’s a happy transaction. If the merchant’s idea of an el based on his very small arms was much smaller than mine, I’d object and eventually, we’d arrive on a standard el, often attached to the city hall, that we could agree upon. We validate the measurement by finding something that represents what we see in nature, and if works, we keep using it.

Measurements like the el or the meter are also premises just like several of Sheldrake’s ten dogmas. The reason we don’t constantly take our meter stick to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST is the U.S.’s modern equivalent of hanging a standard el on the city hall) is because it works. The results of measuring for shelves at home and then using those numbers to buy wood at the hardware store is proof enough that we don’t need to question the meter stick.

The reason these so-called dogmas aren’t questioned and proved anew in every scientific paper is because assuming they are true is handy, like trusting the meter stick. It’s right to calibrate once and while, to take a step back and ask, if constants of nature really constant, but just because this isn’t done all the time isn’t evidence of the dogmatic nature of scientists.

What Sheldrake is calling dogma is just the convenience of not questioning the foundation each time we endeavor to learn something new. Sadly, this attack is common among many in the fringe. (which is not to say Sheldrake’s on the fringe–so help me!) ‘Why won’t the establishment listen to me when I tell them I have proof of a perpetual motion machine / telekinesis / pink unicorns? They’ve clearly got something against me!’ In reality, every claim doesn’t deserve the same attention. The farther the claim is from already established knowledge, the more firmly the onus falls to the claimant to demonstrate it’s worth checking into in the first place.

Cold Fusion turned out to be cul-de-sac, but that didn’t stop my university physics department from investigating it. It was outside the accepted dogma, but it seemed plausible enough to check on. Perhaps Sheldrake get’s little attention for his theories on scopaesthesia
(the sense that someone is staring at you from behind) because he has offered little justification for the mechanism of this phenomenon, and not because the establishment is too dogmatic.

Meanwhile, Sheldrake’s TED talk accuses scientists of treating these premises as unquestionable dogmas. That is plainly untrue. Journals regularly feature articles testing the efficacy of “non-mechanistic medicine” or seeking to measure changes in physical constants. Immaterial effects of consciousness and even prayer are reviewed over and over again simply because no matter how many times it is shown that matter is unconscious, energy is conserved, and brains are material, not everyone is convinced. The unconvinced perform experiments trying to prove their point of view and sometimes their efforts are rewarded with new insight into how nature works. The rest of the time, these dogmas are simply premises that seem to work, over and over again, in experiment after again.

If I assume that nature is machine-like and, that assumption in mind perform an experiment only to achieve the expected results, then not only is that evidence of whatever phenomenon I was trying to observe, it’s also support for my assumption—no dogma required, just convenience.

In the end then, this comes down to a controversy as to whether the TED committee should have removed Sheldrake’s talk. While it is a good idea to revisit your assumptions now and again, Sheldrake’s talk goes further than just raising this issue. He gives the impression that scientists are unwilling to budge on their premises, accusing them of being dogmatic. The numerous papers (included Sheldrake’s own) exploring topics from his ten dogmas are each examples of the freedom of the scientific method. Sheldrake is not banned for having unconventional ideas. He’s making an unsubstantiated claim that these are unmovable dogmas in the first place. Is an unproven undermining attack on science really an idea worth spreading?

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05.27.13

The baby filter

Posted in , Society at 16:17 by RjZ

It’s not obvious to users what Facebook’s business model is, but it’s likely something to do with advertising. Facebook knows a great deal about their users and can target advertisements to them in a way that even Google’s knowledge of users’ searches can’t get close to.

Facebook has a couple of things it must do to ensure that users keep using it’s social networking services though. The more people link with each other and share the more data there is for all of us to sort through. Not only does the mountain of data grow, bogging down server farms, but users are forced to filter it all and they don’t have their own server farms to help. At some point sorting it all becomes a pain and you wind up blocking your more chatty friends.

One simple solution would be to allow users to add tags to their pictures, status updates, and posts. Just think of it, your friends add a new picture of their lovely baby, and naturally they choose some tags, like “baby”, “boy”, “our treasure”. They’re making the search easier for Facebook, but their enabling their friends and family to create albums, of all of their favorite pictures or news items. While grandparents will quickly want to create a filter showing baby pictures of all of their grandparents, their childless friends, sick to death of pictures of someone’s naked child with spaghetti sauce all over his face can safely filter them out and still catch updates from their friends.

This simple, well tested feature, is likely fairly easy to implement and offers incredible functionality to the social media platform, including much more targeted advertising, which is exactly what Facebook’s customers, not the users, but the people buying ads and paying the bills, really need.

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02.28.13

Robot series 6: robot redux

Posted in Society at 9:52 by RjZ

A couple of readers offered some excellent insights on my final robot economy post.

Will robots really be able to automate everything?

Well, not everything, but it is already remarkable how many craftsman quality tasks can be broken down and chunked into menial subtask. My point is that even if there is a little labor left, it won’t change that this automation will have tremendous impact.

There are plenty of jobs remaining: designing, marketing, selling, finance.

That’s heartening. I agree and frankly, I over simplified. Still, these are all knowledge worker jobs and that’s fine, but isn’t it possible that a great many people just aren’t cut out for any of those jobs? Even if, as we have seen historically, the amount of free time simply gets redistributed, at some point there will be a great inequality; the knowledge workers will still have to work and the laborers won’t have any work. I wonder how we will deal with this problem.

The market system will accommodate for this, after all, if there are fewer consumers out there, then there is little justification to keep investing in robotics; especially after the costs of welfare.

The problem our current system has, then, is that there is little connection between social costs and business costs. In other words, if my business puts people out of work and the government starts paying for them. Well, they still have money to by my goods and services and I win. There are many ways to address this disconnect ranging from ending welfare to forcing businesses to pay for it, but as it currently stands, market forces will only encourage widespread automation.

Won’t useful robots have AI?

I don’t see why that will be necessary for much of the change I’ve proposed. AI still requires invention, probably lots of it. That is why I believe it could be far off (it might not be…that’s just it, invention is unpredictable). AI throws a serious ethical wrench in the works. Sentient robots, it can be argued, ought not be used as slaves. (What if they’re programmed to like the work? hard stuff!)

It doesn’t matter though. A tremendous amount of work can be accomplished by robots with simple routines and nature is already our model for this. Just the flight of an insect is tremendously complicated and is accomplished with a mere 100,000 neurons. Yet, we fear little about offending the sentience of a fly when we swat one. To suggest that an ethically difficult amount of intelligence will be required for robots to accomplish complex tasks is to ignore how much can be done by clever programmers, or even simple nature.

The only constant is change.

I hoped to bring this issue up so that we would start thinking about it now, and perhaps notice this trend as it starts to occur. However, I agree, we’ll all work through this; especially if we recognize that the way things are, sure isn’t going to be the way things will be in the future. Robots are just one of many perturbations to the status quo…not to mention all those unpredictable inventions!

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02.27.13

Robot Series 5: Sweeping change

Posted in Society at 12:04 by RjZ

What would you do if you never had to work? What if no one works? It is entirely conceivable that at some point in the not so distant future there will be absolutely no labor for humans to do.

Robots, equipped with 3D vision, can automate more than just production and maid service. They will be able to take over farming, food service and health care. It’s a ways off because every problem from harvesting wheat to washing dishes will take some serious engineering effort to solve, but none of it is necessarily the stuff of science fiction; it’s more a matter of how to justify all that effort it takes to design. (One could make a dishwashing robot with today’s technology, but it would take so much time and effort to solve all the simple little problems that no one has stepped up the challenge. Vacuuming yes, you still have to load your own dishwasher). Still, dishwashing robots are unlike quantum computers or artificial intelligence. No new developments need to take place to make one; we already know what we need to know. And, if you can make a dishwashing robot, you can make another one that repairs it and keeps the rest of the robots running.

Already we have an idea how automation effects society and our understanding of economics. In the last hundred years humans have migrated away from farms and into cities, while farms have increased production for us all (admittedly, we may not be better off, but perhaps it will take some adjustment. I bet we’ll still have far fewer farmers per capita). This reduction of labor has dramatically increased free-time for us all and it is thanks to many forms of automation (and a large dose of cheap energy from petroleum).

Communism may have been invented as a response to the abuses of labor, (another name for workers—people), by those with access to capital. But what are the abuses when the labor in question is not sentient and will gladly work, 24 hours per day, in whatever conditions it takes to get the job done? Robots won’t complain about hot factories or cold ones and they’ll never ask for vacations or better health care. Communism may be a bad word for many, but avoiding abuses isn’t a terrible goal.

Slavery ended not only because human came to realize it was bad to treat fellow humans in this way, but also because it is cheaper to send workers home with a pay check then to feed them, care for them, and house them. In the robot economy, as long as these new servants have no artificial intelligence, there is no moral dilemma, and no care and feeding (beyond regular maintenance). Cheap labor without the suffering.

What about all those folks who actually work for living? People who primarily trade their labor for money to buy goods and services they desire will have little of value to offer when robots are doing all the work. Unfortunately, for the capitalists filling automated warehouses with products, they won’t be able to sell them without able customers. What will they do if laborers have no value and no money?

What does all this leave for you? Often when you newly meet someone one of the first questions asked is: “What do you do?” In the future, that question might seem a bit silly. There may well be room for artists, poets, and musicians. There will be some opportunity to think of new ideas, innovations and applications of the technology around us, but labor will be by choice alone, like artisan cheese and Amish furniture. Society’s current plan is to distribute all the free time to as many as possible, but things might not be so easy to manage when scientists, artists, and the Amish are busy, while the rest of us are watching tv (created by the artists).

From compliant robots to automated nurses, the future of robotics isn’t so far off any more. The biggest hurdles to a labor free society are really only the time it takes to build and design all these new devices and perhaps the energy to power them (although, we’ll likely save enough on heating factories and driving to work that, at least in the short term, it’s a wash). The robot economy is another type of singularity; everything changes and it’s difficult to predict just how things look when there is no labor for anyone.

Pixar’s Wall-E offered one potential future of a world where robots do absolutely everything: humans become permanent couch potatoes. Is that it, or do you have a better idea what will happen? Let me know in the comments.

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