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Ray Kurzweil & Co. have been getting a lot of attention from everyone from Sergey Brin & Larry Page to astronaut Dan Barry.  For those of you who haven’t heard, Kurzweil is a self-proclaimed techno-prophet who heralds the arrival of the singularity: the moment in time when technological progress gets so fast that machines overtake humans in the brains department.

I miss cupcakesOf course, artificial intelligence is a common sci-fi theme.  Kurzweil’s cadre takes it a step further, predicting that this intelligence explosion means immortality for us meat-bags.  By downloading our personalities into computers and/or building nanobots to repair our aging cells, we will reach a level of mastery of science that will enable us to extend our lives indefinitely.

But Kurzweil has no monopoly on the future.  Some versions of the singularity include unpredictability as a core feature.  Like a black hole’s event horizon, the singularity represents a point in history about which no information can be gathered.  It is a unique event that will shred our way of life in ways we cannot prognosticate.

Sci-fi authors frequently foretell a more dystopian version, like in Asimov’s I, Robot, or The Matrix, where the machines turn on us.  As Roger Scruton points out, by sponsoring technology we might be rooting against ourselves.

But predictions of technological calamity rest on even shakier ground than runaway progress.  iRobot (not I, Robot) is the status quo in the real world of technology.  Human beings seem to be more or less on course for continued progress, and immortality and extinction are opposite, extreme ends of the speculative spectrum.

The real problem with Singuphoria is that it is just another false promise, like religion.  We all want to believe we will live forever, and Ray’s got the immortal soul snake-oil of the information age.

Ray Kurzweil says in his health book Transcend:

"Death gives meaning to life” is an age-old adage, but in our view death does exactly the opposite.  It is a great robber of relationships, knowledg,e wisdom and skill, all the things that make life worth living.

But he’s wrong.  Death is what allows evolution to occur, and therefore what undergirds all progress.  Think about the idea of “technology natives” versus “technology immigrants.”  Kids who grew up with cellphones and computers are much more fluent in their use than those who had to learn after their brains got hard and brittle.  Every generation refreshes the world, to put a marketing slogan to better use.

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Are we losing touch with nature? How could we, when we and everything we create, are part of nature?

With so much of life based on electronic representations of reality, humans risk losing touch with nature, says University of Washington psychologist Peter Kahn.

From web cams that offer views of wildlife to virtual tours of the Grand Canyon to robotic pets, modern technology increasingly is encroaching into human connections with the natural world. Kahn and his colleagues believe this intrusion may emerge as one of the central psychological problems of our times.

It's true that the environment that we live in now, the “manmade” environment, is different than the environment we used to live in, the “natural” environment. But if we are part of nature, then it seems to be a mistake to chalk these differences up to human meddling. If nature meddles with nature, it's all natural. As a scientific naturalist who believes that humans are part of an evolutionary chain, it's hard to define the difference between natural and artificial. If beaver dams are natural why isn't the Hoover Dam?

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An article in today's LiveScience.com posits the theory, oft repeated in science fiction, that humans will become lazy from technology. This laziness, Dave Brody argues, will keep us Earth-bound forever, and is the reason why we don't see extraterrestrials.

Why don't we see intelligent extraterrestrials, when the galaxy should be chock full of them? Hubot Roboman tells us the answer: Every technological civilization gets to this point. If you have virtually limitless entertainment everywhere you are, why would you ever go anywhere at all? Any parent whose child plays a game involving a screen and a microprocessor knows this devil all too well. So the number of intelligent species who can kick their addiction to The Too-Easy Life is obviously vanishingly small.

But the author underestimates life's potential to convert diversity into success. Some humans will like living outside the technological bubble. The descendants of those humans will spread to the stars.

Any successor technology to life will demonstrate diversity as a necessary result of complexity. No worry is necessary about robots being unable to pursue survival: if they fail to evolve, they will be a dead end, easily replacable by the next generation of life. If they are successful enough to supplant life, they will need to evolve, and thus will find and exploit all available niches, including space.


Science fiction authors have been predicting for years the day when humanoid robots will roam the earth, and when mankind will be faced with a host of associated ethical issues. We still don't have C3PO, Data, The Terminator, Johnny 5 or Wall-E. But unlike the doomed flying car, scientists still believe that intelligent, man-made beings are in our future. Hans Moravec, chief scientist at Seegrid, a company that develops industrial robots capable of navigating on their own, believes that the fantastic robots of sci-fi will become reality within his lifetime.

The human retina is a patch of nervous tissue in the back of the eyeball half a millimeter thick and approximately two centimeters across. It consists mostly of light-sensing cells, but one tenth of a millimeter of its thickness is populated by image-processing circuitry that is capable of detecting edges (boundaries between light and dark) and motion for about a million tiny image regions. Each of these regions is associated with its own fiber in the optic nerve, and each performs about 10 detections of an edge or a motion each second. The results flow deeper into the brain along the associated fiber.

From long experience working on robot vision systems, I know that similar edge or motion detection, if performed by efficient software, requires the execution of at least 100 computer instructions. Therefore, to accomplish the retina’s 10 million detections per second would necessitate at least 1,000 MIPS.

The entire human brain is about 75,000 times heavier than the 0.02 gram of processing circuitry in the retina, which implies that it would take, in round numbers, 100 million MIPS (100 trillion instructions per second) to emulate the 1,500-gram human brain. Personal computers in 2008 are just about a match for the 0.1-gram brain of a guppy, but a typical PC would have to be at least 10,000 times more powerful to perform like a human brain.

Though dispiriting to artificial-intelligence experts, the huge deficit does not mean that the goal of a humanlike artificial brain is unreachable. Computer power for a given price doubled each year in the 1990s, after doubling every 18 months in the 1980s and every two years before that. Prior to 1990 this progress made possible a great decrease in the cost and size of robot-controlling computers. Cost went from many millions of dollars to a few thousand, and size went from room-filling to handheld. Power, meanwhile, held steady at about 1 MIPS. Since 1990 cost and size reductions have abated, but power has risen to about 10,000 MIPS for a home computer. At the present pace, only about 20 or 30 years will be needed to close the gap.

Of course, Mr. Moravec's logic is subject to argument. Scientists have long known that brain mass is not the best way to measure processing capability. Smaller people have smaller brains, and yet physical size is not a good predictor of intelligence. Whales have the largest brains of any animal on Earth, and yet humans like to consider themselves the most intelligent species.

Nevertheless, his conclusion that the processing power threshold for an artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence will eventually be reached is unimpeachable. As long as humans survive and prosper, technological progress will continue, which will ultimately lead to the creation of artificial intelligence. The only question is when. His answer, like many others in the field, is soon.

That brings us to the question that concerns us here: will these robots need or want something like religion?

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Lord Winston of Imperial College, London, said recently that he believes pig organs will be available for human transplant within ten years. Porcine valves are already widely used for human heart patients, but this kind of experimentation often provokes revulsion and ethical outrage, despite its potential to save lives. Why?

The argument made by those who oppose interspecies transplant is that humans are sacred and that we ought not play God. Further, genetic experimentation is dangerous because gene modifications could have unintended consequences. And for many of us who do not oppose stem-cell research or other research avenues, porcine organs just seems revolting.

And there may be another motivation for opposing research into life-extending therapies. Religions serve their interests when they oppose medical research, because they prevent progress that has the potential to increase lifespan. If medical science can provide immortality, that’s one less perk of signing up for a religion that promises eternal bliss and salvation.

If human beings are chemical concoctions lacking free will then the ethical objections to interspecies transplant and genetic modification melt away, except to the extent that these practices harm either our survival prospects or harm ideas which promote survival.

Of course, if all of the ideas that compose our intuitive ethic arose through evolutionary processes, it could be argued that revulsion with mixing our genetic material with that of animals must confer an evolutionary benefit.

The trick in tackling controversial ethical propositions using an evolutionary ethic is sometimes teasing out which aspects of the intuition, or socially or biologically conditioned ethical feeling, actually produce the survival benefit, and which aspects are mere side effects. Evolutionary biologists who believe that all traits produce survival benefits are “adaptationist,” but the non-adapationists have strong arguments; so many human behaviors seem like they are just side-effects.

Why do men wear neckties? I cannot imagine even the beginnings of a theory to explain how this behavior confers some evolutionary advantage over wearing some other attire or wearing no neckwear at all. Wearing neckties must be a behavioral consequence of some other general behaviors and preferences which increase our chances for survival. The necktie-wearing behavior is just a side effect.

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