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Notes & Queries 10/23/09

On Perfect Mornings

Stan Getz’ version of ‘Early Autumn’ is to me the definitive take on this standard, though so many fine musicians have attempted it that I’m sure to draw an argument from jazz buffs. But every year when the leaves have just begun to turn, the Getz interpretation runs through my mind on my morning walk, as it did today. A fine breeze was in the air and it carried the scent of approaching rain. The leaves wrapped the scene in muted gold and vermilion, not as bright as in some years, but lovely just the same.

So perfect was the moment that it called up a quote from J.B Priestley that I only imperfectly remembered. When I got back to my desk, I looked up the exact wording:

I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.

Early CoRoT Results Available

Early results from CoRoT are now appearing in a special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics (Vol. 506 No. 1), running this week with over fifty papers made available online. Launched in late 2006, CoRoT has detected seven planets that have been confirmed by ground-based follow-up observations, a challenging process that has produced such interesting places as CoRoT-7b, whose discovery is recounted and mass discussed in these papers (Didier Queloz and team calculate the mass at about five times that of Earth).

Based on density calculations, CoRoT-7b should be a rocky planet, the first confirmed to date, and it was subsequently joined by a second planet in the same system, a super-Earth of about eight Earth masses. The range of papers here extends beyond exoplanet hunting to astroseismology, a primary goal of mission planners. Detecting and quantifying oscillations in red giants and other stellar types shows how complicated these processes can be. It’s heartening to note that CoRoT is slated to operate until 2013.

The Mind in the Machine

Wouldn’t a human brain translated somehow into a computer environment simply go mad, being a consciousness evolved for an environment so radically different in terms of its inputs that adaptation outside a physical body would be impossible? Athena Andreadis considers the matter in Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix, published last week at h+ Magazine. Her essay is an elegant reminder that biological systems and engineered technologies are not necessarily compatible:

A human is not born as a tabula rasa, but with a brain that’s already wired and functioning as a mind. Furthermore, the brain forms as the embryo develops. It cannot be inserted after the fact, like an engine in a car chassis or software programs in an empty computer box.

An uploaded brain could, the thinking goes, cope with the immense times and distances involved in interstellar travel, thus opening up the stars to our electronically adapted selves. But while we may be able to tweak the brain to stay sharp beyond the conventional human lifespan, Athena will have none of the notion that uploading a consciousness will be the way to immortality.

Large portions of the brain process and interpret signals from the body and the environment. Without a body, these functions will flail around and can result in the brain… well, losing its mind. Without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia. Additionally, processing at light speed will probably result in madness, as everything will appear to happen simultaneously or will change order arbitrarily.

Just as seriously, the University of Massachusetts biologist speculates that without the physical context, we are endangering our sense of empathy, without which we are “at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.” Andreadis considers the mind an emergent property, an artifact of its brain. Transferring it demands the brain that houses it, without which continuity of consciousness is lost. No immortality there — the original mind still faces death no matter what the uploaded one does.

But what about replacing a brain in a living person, renewing our minds even as we rebuild our 100 billion neuronal processors? Even using embryonic stem cells, the take here is that cell replacement will be slow and small-scale in order to make continuous consciousness possible and to preserve existing neuronal and synaptic networks. Thus renewing a single human brain could be such a lengthy process that it never catches up with the aging of the body. Such efforts, though, may well pay off in specific areas, such as the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Long lifespans could lead to long-term crewed space expeditions, but this essay notes we’ll need tools to repair mutations caused by cosmic radiation if we plan to spend long periods in environments outside the Solar System. Andreadis doesn’t rule out keeping a brain functional for periods longer than our current lifespan, but her doubts about mind transfers are pungent reading for those pondering a Matrix-like future inside the machine.

Re-Experiencing Spacetime

Have a look at the Pleiades the next time viewing conditions are good. When the light you’re seeing left these stars, Copernicus had just published De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (1543), giving the Sun rather than the Earth primacy of place in the universe. Now look at the Orion Nebula, whose light left as the Roman Empire was crumbling. Each astronomical vista takes us on a chronological journey, as SEED Magazine shows us in a slide show based on Michael Benson’s new book Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle (Abrams, 2009).

The images are lovely, and by the time you’ve worked through to the Hercules Cluster, you’re dealing with light that left when the most complex life Earth had to offer was the trilobite. That would be 485,000,000 years ago, and the connection of Earthly chronology with celestial spectacle refreshes our perception of time and space as entwined. That’s something we take intellectually for granted but sometimes need to experience in new ways. Like the dazzling departure from the Solar System in the film version of Contact, these images give the jaded a much needed ‘sense of wonder’ boost.

Rosetta Swingby in November

Keep an eye on the Rosetta Blog as the ESA comet-investigating spacecraft swings by the Earth to gain a gravity assist that will begin the final leg of its ten-year journey to comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is the last of Rosetta’s four gravity assists and the third Earth swingby, during which Rosetta will study the Earth-Moon system from its unusual perspective. Closest approach is 0745 UTC on November 13, with a trajectory correction burn just completed. More on the Rosetta mission site.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Adam October 23, 2009, 20:37

    On “uploading” I think it’s going to require some kind of android body for our mind to transfer to or a sufficiently detailed body emulation in a virtual environment. We can’t go from whole bodied to effective quadruplegia without major issues. But I don’t see anything inherently unphysical – or unbiological – about the basic concept of re-embodiment.

    However Athena does raise a major unresolved issue in the philosophy of mind which I think needs more exploration – is mind & consciousness a result of the pattern of activity of the flow of information & energy in the brain or are they something produced from more directly physical processes occurring in the brain? One study which I find intriguing is the finding from C-14 dating of cadavers that cortical neurones are as old as the body. Hippocampal neurones are continually produced, but not our outer brain layers – once neurogenesis is completed those neurones are what we have for life. What does that say about possible underlying physical processes that generate consciousness and our sense of identity?

    Another piece of the puzzle is the presence of large numbers of magnetite crystals in the brain and the way changing magnetic fields alter consciousness – is there a connection? Inquiring minds want to know…

  • Paul October 23, 2009, 21:07

    While I’m far from being a transhumanist or consider uploading a personally desirable state, I have to say that if Athena Andreadis waves her hands any faster she’ll take off and fly around the room. Quadriplegics are quite capable of living sane lives without the bodily inputs she considers essential. If it does become possible to run a brain in a computer there’s probably no reason the inputs couldn’t also be simulated. And her final point about “processing at light speed” is just word salad, I’ve got no idea what she’s on about there or why she considers it an inescapable consequence of uploading.

  • Athena Andreadis October 24, 2009, 12:43

    I want to thank Paul Gilster for showcasing my work at his site. Brave man — given some of the mindsets showcased by the comments.

    Adam, I don’t think magnetic fields alter consciousness directly. If they’re exceedingly strong, they may alter perception somewhat. Some bacteria do contain magnetic inclusions that allow them to sense magnetic fields — but they constitute a significant portion of their mass.

    Paul, it looks like your mind wasn’t exactly connected to your brain when you wrote your comment. Quadriplegics have four of their senses plus part of the fifth intact, and get feedback through them. The sometimes severe issues arising from brain neurons misinterpreting cues are very well known, from phantom pain to a peculiar syndrome in which people consider one of their limbs not belonging to them and want it amputated. There was a good general article on this topic in a recent New Yorker that highlighted the pioneering work of Ramachandran at UCSD. I addressed the point of simulated input in the article.

    As for processing at light speed, I know my Lorentzian equations even if you don’t. Processing at light speed would collapse time. So there would be no causality. If you translate that into English, it means things could happen in any order. A couple of physicists read this article (among them Greg Benford, a frequenter of the Centauri site) and guess what, it wasn’t word salad to them.

    In the Internet, everyone can hear you scream and everyone can attempt to present themselves as instant experts. But it’s also a medium where stupidities remain forever on record.

  • Ron S October 24, 2009, 14:21

    Perhaps we’re only talking about a mild exaggeration since no process occurs in zero time. This is pretty much by definition since a process is change over time. There is a reason why movement at c is not a valid reference frame: all those zeroes and infinities that show up in the equations. A photon (or any massless particle) must travel at c, but when it interacts with matter, the resulting interaction process takes time. It can of course be very very fast, but the time will always exceed zero. It’s a bit of a peculiar fact that there is a maximum theoretical processing capacity for any given quantity of matter.

  • george scaglione October 24, 2009, 14:24

    athena i am glad that i got the opportunity to read up on some of your good ideas.i know concepts like this stuff we are currently discussing have been kicking around since probably before the first “rotate the pod hal” in,guess which book/movie.hope alot more can be said before we are finished.alot of philosophy involved here that boarders very strongly on almost the religious! (?) hope we talk again soon.very respectfully your friend george

  • Adam October 24, 2009, 15:28

    Hi Athena

    Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation alters consciousness quite effectively as you surely know. And of course I know of magnetotactic bacteria – the same researcher who found magnetite in human brains also researches magnetotactic bacteria. My point is that there seems to be some relationship that’s contrary to the naive functionalist dogma that specific physics don’t matter. Brain physics does matter.

  • Athena Andreadis October 24, 2009, 17:09

    TMS is more commonly used as an observational/exploratory technique, often in combination with fMRI (to map what brain areas are associated with specific tasks or roles, although these studies establish correlative relationships, not causative ones).

    Very few therapeutic TMS studies pass the test of rigor so far, and their effects are as “good” as placebo. For treating brain mismappings and imbalances, from chronic pain to intractable mood disorders, TMS is certainly gentler than either existent psychoactive drugs or ECT, which I think we will eventually come to view the way we now think of the methods of medieval barber-surgeons.

  • Tulse October 24, 2009, 17:32

    Athena, perhaps the summary Paul provides is too brief to explain your notion fully, but I really don’t understand why you think that a consciousness in a computer couldn’t be attached to affectors and effectors, to essentially be “embodied” in some sense. Indeed, it’s not clear to me that such connections to the “external” world couldn’t themselves be virtual in some sense, and thus one have a virtual “body” completely contained in a computer.

  • Athena Andreadis October 24, 2009, 18:46

    Tulse, we can reconvene if/when you’ve read the article. Some of your questions are answered there, though briefly due to length constraints.

  • James M. Essig October 25, 2009, 0:37

    Hi Folks;

    This is a great discussion. Many thanks to the well argued points made on all sides of the debate here, and especially many thanks to Athena for offering her insights into psycho-neural-physiology and to George for his unwaving enthusiasm and promotion of the cause of manned interstellar travel.

    The life time of the proton has seemingly been demonstated to be greater than about 10 EXP 35 years. Perhaps the human body in some very remote future time can be completely and periodically restocked with the most stable isotopal forms of the elements comprising it.

    Systems that harness zero point energy fields, or that electrodynamically collect extraordinarilly low frequency red-shifted CMBR and star light and use this energy to produce new stocks of stable life-giving elements after even the most stable one would have decayed may eventuallly permit essential human immortality for those born in the cosmically remote future.

    However, given that we current humans live in the 21st century, I will except another 50 or 60 years beyond my current age of 47 years. I heard on the ABC News over the past week of reports that conclude that children born today have a 50 percent chance of living longer than 1oo years due to aggressive and more extensive health condition treatments that are currently available and anticipated to be developed.

    Truely, increasing the human life expectancy can and will likely be a driver for widespread public exceptence of near term human travel to other star systems, and eventually throughout the Milky
    Way and beyond, even if we are limited to mildly relativistic travel velocities for the next 100 years or so. High gamma factor and extreme gamma factor travel can open up the entire visible universe for manned travel at least for the crew members on such vehicles.

    The expansion of the human race ever further out into the cosmos is inevitable in my opinion, and FTL travel, wormhole travel, warp drive, electromagnetic teleportation, higher space dimension short cuts, and the like, I hope and pray will become reality.

  • Adam October 25, 2009, 2:30

    One issue for virtual people is how to avoid parasitism – rogue ‘persons’ might remove large chunks of whatever makes a virtual person ‘human’ for the sake of speed and merely become a malicious replicator setting out to flood collective ‘cyberspace’ with their own code. Ken Macleod, in several stories, has this fate in store for anyone presumptuous enough to trade flesh for digital bytes. I find his ‘argument’ rather compelling/worrying depending on how I feel about ‘uploading’ on the day.

    What do you think of the prospects for some kind of ‘biostasis’ Athena? Could we emulate brine shrimp and tardigrades?

  • Bernd Henschenmacher October 25, 2009, 8:10

    What I do not grasp is how identity is tied to a particular body. Where is the difference between copy and self? What makes the self? Being enbodied in a certain body or just processing information about being in a body. I do not deny that nerve systems and bodies depend upon each other, neurons evolved to control bodies and to help them interact with their environments, but the fact that some people feel in parts of their bodies, that have been removed, could indicate the information processing is more important than real physical bodies. I am well aware that information processing depends on material or physical systems but whether these systems need to be connected to other systems which we would call bodies is something I find not very convincing. I think it is a more or less philosophical question. Dr. Andreadis seems to favor the identity hypothesis, that consciousness is a feature of our brains and bodies and only of our brains and bodies and that mental events are in fact just neurons firing in a certain pattern. This could be true, but I have never come across an persuasive argument for this hypothesis, except the fact that in humans consciousness is tied to brains and brains process signals from the body and the environment. The transhumanists and many advocates of artificial intelligence seem to prefer the functionalist position. According to this view the structural organisation of the brain is important, not the material it is made of. Here more focus is laid on abstract information processing, not so much on what carriers allows for information processing. Alas this view does not deny the importance of brains and bodies, alas neurons act more flexible and dynamical than the processors in most of our computers and they are more interconnected. Nevertheless in a very limited way so far artificial neuronal nets are able to perform analogous to natural brains. While classical functionalism, where the brain is a rigid hardware and consciousness is a kind of software is not true, because the wet hardware of the brain is much more dynamical and changes with time, newer models of functionalism could still be true and allow for uploading in principle. In practice the brain might just be too complicated and dynamical to be copied. But that is just my opinion,though I study biotechnology and have some background in cell biology I am lightyears behind Dr. Andreadis’ skills and knowledge. But still after reading her article and I do not get her point, what so special about bodies?

  • Zen Blade October 25, 2009, 11:31


    Given your scientific background, are there any authors (fiction or otherwise) that you would recommend reading who address (in a “realistic” manner) some of the issues–specifics or generalities– that you address. I think there are a lot of potential avenues to mentally explore with regards to mind/body/brain and the distinctions or interconnections of each. However, unless a person has a basic grounding in what is biological fact and what limitations exist, any exploration into what is possible carries very little weight.

    -Zen Blade

  • Paul October 25, 2009, 11:42

    Flame much, Andrea?

    The specific “pingbacks” you mentioned are those that quadriplegics prove are not irredeemably sanity destroying. If you choose to provide only one example rather than cast your net wider, then you can hardly complain when people point out that the example you use isn’t a showstopper. Quadriplegics lose one input. Helen Keller and other deafblinds more than one. The fact that complete sensory shutoff would be disastrous isn’t in dispute. But the way you chose to phrase it lacked rigor. Could a digital mind stay sane with, for example, just vision and hearing, and could those senses be provided with sufficient verisimilitude given we are already assuming that the brain itself can be? There are a very large number of unknowns here that you breeze straight past.

    As for addressing simulated input, did it amount to anything more in the article than the point that someone could flick a switch to shut off the virtual world and the mind along with it? How does that relate to the point about lack of sensory input? Somebody could shut me down with a bullet to the head, but it wouldn’t prove anything about consciousness or phantom limbs. Questions about vulnerability are rather distinct to the assertion that digital minds would go mad in the dark.

    I’d be interested to hear exactly what Benford said about the “processing at lightspeed” point. Did he specifically comment on that, or on the article as a whole? Because it still isn’t clear to me what you mean by it, ad hominems about my knowledge of physics aside. What is being processed at light speed? Why is it inevitable? If it’s a problem, why can’t it be engineered around? You give no detail as to what you really mean, you just toss it out as if it’s a given.

    If the final paragraph of your response to me is indicative of how you handle criticism (your lack of repsonse to Jake Cannell being another) , then perhaps you need to grow a thicker hide. Disproportionate flames last just as long on the internet as any other utterances.

  • Zen Blade October 25, 2009, 11:52


    My take is that humans, our mind, our body, our brain, our actions, everything… behaviors, etc… is derived from the fact that we evolved under a set of conditions. The organism that we are now, is called human. When you wrote, “structural organisation of the brain is important, not the material it is made of”, you forget to mention that the structural organization derives from the material it is made of; different brains (even different human brains) function differently. Taking that into consideration, it goes to reason that MOST if not ALL of what we are derives from the biological entity we are and the environment around us. Our decisions/actions are easily influenced by outside events/stimuli. Thus, when thinking solely in terms of the natural world, your mind must be derived from your body/brain.

    You might be able to create something without biological parts, but it would not be human, and there is no reason to expect it to behave like a human.

    I would be rather skeptical that a human mind would ever be successfully transferred into a different vessel while retaining it’s previous identity (both in terms of original vs. copy and in terms of human/non-human). But then again, I don’t fully understand what each of our own identities/minds really are…

    -Zen Blade

  • Athena Andreadis October 25, 2009, 12:14

    Adam, the pertinent point about most species that undergo true biostasis is how small they are. The two you mention are in the millimeter range. Freezing and thawing such small entities intact is not as hard as freezing large ones — because of the highly increased surface area/volume ratio, there’s much less internal change. We have no trouble doing so with small things in the lab either, although our techniques still lead to about 50% survival even with vitrification agents (DMSO, glycerol, etc). 50% survival is ok for cells or embryos — decidedly not ok for our cortices.

    Bernd, the point of the article is not that the materials of brains are important: it’s quite possible that we may get intelligence in another substrate (say, silicon) if the substrate becomes complex enough. The point of the article is that our individual sense of identity is tied to our individual physical brain and its dynamic neurons. Even if we were able to reproduce it, the reproduction would be a distinct person, not us.

    The pain or cramping of a missing limb arises from the takeover of the now-empty sensory slot by brain neurons that normally sense another part of the body. As a result, they report back that the limb is still there and is cramped or in pain. This crucial insight comes from Villyanur Ramachandran at UCSD and imaging techniques have confirmed it. It’s a mismapping by the brain neurons, not a sensing of an “ethereal” limb.

    People with such types of mismapping conditions often suffer successive additional amputations or are given heavy-duty medication with awful side effects because many older doctors haven’t bothered to read this work. Simple tricks like viewing one’s limbs through angled mirrors relieve the pain significantly, because the apparatus that integrates visual and tactile cues finally perceives things as congruent. The mirror therapy is taught routinely to medical students and is being increasingly used to treat amputees.

  • Athena Andreadis October 25, 2009, 14:15

    Paul, the tone of my reply matched that of your comment. I have handled enough reviews of my manuscripts, grants, articles and book over 30 plus years to know that my skin is strong and resilient enough to deal with everything, including trolls. The only other thing I will add is that I’m under no obligation to engage in “dialogues” that neither instruct nor entertain me.

    Zen Blade, what you said about human biology hits several nails on the head. We are completely the product of our very specific circumstances, from our retinas being most sensitive to yellow light to the length of our circadian rhythms, plus chance outcomes that evolved after each decision fork. I have no doubt that an intelligence arising in another solar/planetary system (let alone one not based on carbon) will be radically different — which brings up the perennial question of communication and mutual understanding.

    Your question about writings that address these issues is equally interesting. The problem is that I can’t easily think of an introductory biology textbook that encompasses all of these issues, and that science fiction is more of a gedanken experiment tool — you don’t necessarily care how accurate its science is, as long as it provokes thinking.

    A very good and easily digestible molecular biology primer is a cartoon book whose author’s name escapes me right now (he did several books — someone else here may know his name). I’m reluctant to toot my own horn, but I discussed all these topics in my book (which is currently available at a price less than its shipping cost). Naturally, there have been advances since then, but the general premises and many details are still valid. Another excellent source is Peggy Kolm’s web site, Biology in Science Fiction.

  • Tulse October 25, 2009, 14:16

    “our individual sense of identity is tied to our individual physical brain and its dynamic neurons. Even if we were able to reproduce it, the reproduction would be a distinct person, not us.”

    I think that view depends on a philosophically simplistic view of personal identity. A copy of me that has all my memories, beliefs, attitudes, and other psychological states is me in all relevant ways. The fact that there may be two entities in the world that have identical psychological states doesn’t change this.

    Put another way, if you accept that Captain Kirk is still Captain Kirk when he steps out of the transporter, then you should accept that copying psychological states is sufficient to convey personal identity.

  • Athena Andreadis October 25, 2009, 15:46

    Tulse, did you read the article? It addresses the issues you raised. I dismiss the Star Trek transporters very briefly in the article, but dissect them thoroughly in my book.

  • Bernd Henschenmacher October 25, 2009, 16:14

    To Zen Blade and Dr. Andreadis,

    I do not deny that our particular environment and the evolutionary history that led to the human specis is important to what makes us, what we are, but lets assume (only for the sake of the argument I do not view this to be realistic), that we somehow can scan the brain and rebuild it with artifical neurons. Furthermore let us assume that we can monitor all the signals that the brain receives from its environment and its body and let it be duplicated, would not the person being transfered still think , that he/she is the same person, he/she was before the uploading? Okay I am talking about a carbon copy of the human brain in a computer, so I somehow I admit you are right. Moreover I think you are right if you state that different body will lead to different sensations and that this will affecht your sense of identity, Iam not sure if it will really destory your sense of “I”, if and only if the new system is flexible enough. To Dr. Andreadis: Thanks for the update on pain in missing body parts. Nevertheless the fact that even if it is a sensory mistake of certain neurons, I hope we agree on the fact that the neurons cause use to feel this pain,and that If I somehow send artifical signals to neurons, which resemble the signals normally transmitted from our body , we would feel being enbodied, so in principle and only in principle a very sophisticated computer could fool our brain. (That leaves open the difficulties in creating artifical brains and I know that if it is not possible to simulate the electrical signals of our body, my thesis collapses.) To Zen Blade: You are right about that our individuality is tied to the particular arrangements of your individual neural circuits and the way our bodies are organised. My point is: the brain receives information about the body and its environment through electrical signals and if I could duplicate these signals, wouldn’t the brain think it is in a body if it was placed in some artifical nurturing environment. (If brain can survive in artifical environments, this could very well be quite impossible.) Finally: I am more or less convinced that Dr. Andreadis is right with her objections about uploaded travelers, but not because I think it is impossible to do in principle but because it might to prove so difficult that people will spend more time on building warp drives and the like. Moreover there is certainly a reason why minds exist in complex and fragile systems and even if we could transfer it to artifical systems, these systems might be as fragile and complex as the old ones. If the point is that the whole uploading idea is base on an oversimplification of biology and mixing up terms from computer science (software/hardware) with neurobiology/psychology (brain/mind), I can not but agree YES that is the point..

  • Zen Blade October 25, 2009, 16:39


    Actually, I am actually a biochemist. I was just wondering if there had been any science-based writing talking about related issues. Basically, using science to postulate hypotheses of what is or is not possible and what outcomes by be derivable…

    -Zen Blade

  • Tulse October 25, 2009, 17:29

    Athena, I did indeed read the article, and I don’t understand your one-sentence dismissal of the transporter. You seem to argue against it in terms of its technical risk, but that doesn’t appear to me to be a philosophical objection. Sure, the transporter may fail and someone may unplug the Matrix, but someone may also fly a jetliner into the skyscraper where you work. I don’t see an argument against the possibility of such technologies, or even a philosophical objection that such don’t preserve some reasonable definition of personal identity. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you.

  • Athena Andreadis October 25, 2009, 19:33

    A fellow biologist? Very nice to “meet you”, Dr. Blade. Perhaps UK or Australia, judging by the greeting? Send me word off-list if you would, I’m curious. Let me ponder your question further, now that I know more about you. I still recommend Peggy’s site as a resource.

    Tulse, I’m not dismissing transporters because of possible technical risks. My point is that “uploading” a brain would not recreate the original mind — and that this is true regardless of the level of technology. The business about simulating an entire universe around an uploaded brain/mind (and that this could be aborted by someone simply pulling the plug) was jocular, given the semi-infinite amount of resources such an effort would require. You must have garnered that there a lot of playfulness in that article, no?

  • Tulse October 25, 2009, 22:14

    “I’m not dismissing transporters because of possible technical risks.”

    Then I’m definitely not clear as to why you are. Or, rather, I’m not clear why you don’t seem to feel that such an example, even if wildly improbably technically, doesn’t speak to the issue of personal identity.

    “My point is that “uploading” a brain would not recreate the original mind — and that this is true regardless of the level of technology.”

    And that is an assertion, and one that functionalists and Star Trek fans would dispute. For a mind in a computer, as I suggested above, it is certainly possible to add connections to the “outside world”, or even to simulate such a world. A simulation would not completely reproduce the entire universe, that it true, but it would presumably not be necessary to do so in order to give a mind useful stimulation — the goal isn’t to deceive the person to think they are actually living the material universe, but simply to prevent the person from “losing his mind”, which likely could be done with a relatively simple simulation (I imagine there are plenty of World of Warcraft players who already live something like this existence for many hours at time without ill effects).

    “You must have garnered that there a lot of playfulness in that article, no?”

    I may very well have been deaf to the tone of the piece. I was trying to parse what I interpreted to be serious arguments about the nature of personal identity and future technology, but I admit I may have missed when the claims were more jocular and not intended to be taken at face value.

  • tacitus October 26, 2009, 0:08

    Athena, the effects of “light-speed” processing are a red herring. There is absolutely no reason to expect that there would not be some sort of clock or timing device in an artificial brain in order to regulate its functional processes, just as there is in all CPUs today. Indeed, I would think it’s highly likely that such a timing device would be necessary in order to simulate the brain’s biological functionality close enough for it to work in the first place. If a biological substrate is used instead of silicon (or the equivalent) then the materials science would likely include the same types of signal delays neurons have.

  • Paul October 26, 2009, 0:50

    I think that using words like “stupid” and snidely imputing ignorance is hardly taking the moral high ground, Athena. Perhaps if we can both refrain from childish behaviour we can find common ground for more civil discourse.

    I confess to finding your explanation of the simulated input question a little confusing. You tell people that you have addressed the issue in the article, but then state that the only clear reference to it is “jocular”. If so, then you haven’t really addressed the issue that may render your concerns about sensory deprivation moot. Your comment on jocularity introduces a new line of reasoning that I can’t see being addressed in the article, that being that it would take a “semi infinite” amount of processing to simulate a virtual world. I accept that in the limited space available in the article you haven’t got room to explore concepts you probably flesh out more fully in your book, but it then hardly seems fair to direct people responding to the article to arguments you claim are addressed there but that are in fact in the book.

    I’d be interested to see your reasoning that the amount of processing required to simulate sensory input would be unmanageably large. Your “semi infinite” statement seems at first glance to be about simulating an entire world rather than just the sensory input to keep a mind sane, which seems to not quite address the original issue. I would also take issue with your quantitative assessment for a virtual world in general. It hardly seems necessary for much of the virtual world to be produced in quantum, atomic or even conceivably molecular precision – a virtual wall is still a wall regardless of whether it is rendered as simple planes or atoms. Perhaps the virtual space is limited in extent, say to the size of a house. I fail to see how this new objection addresses the sensory deprivation issue. If inputs can be provided with sufficient verisimilitude to fool the artifical neurons, then your point about inevitable madness seems baseless. I also think that it’s worth mentioning that there need not be an unbreachable barrier between the real world and a solipsist virtual realm – you can conceive of a digital mind provided with simulated sensory input mimicing a comfortably human existence, and that they could then interact with the real world via a virtual “control room” complete with monitors being fed input from real world cameras, or perhaps even a set of piloting controls to navigate a robot.

    I still fail to understand your point about light speed processing. Again, I’m sure that you address this in greater depth in the book, but the sentence regarding this objection appended to the end of a paragraph on the sensory issue does seem on the face of it to be something of a non sequitur. Are you talking about the processing speed of the computing substrate that the digital mind is running on? If so, then it’s far from “light speed”, and I can’t see why the processing would be compelled to proceed at a rate or in a manner that would lead to these problems. Could you please explain a bit more about what you meant by this statement?

    It seems to me that I would be in a fair amount of agreement with you if you stated a number of your points as serious problems and issues that would need to be addressed in order to make uploading work, rather than as showstoppers as you seem to. I certainly agree that many uploading scenarios would seem to be creating copies rather than a continuation, although I’d be interested to hear your take on the progressive replacement scenario outlined by Jake Cannell in the comments to the article. To restate for the record, I’m not a huge fan of transhumanists and uploaders. I think that they (Kurzweil in particular) engage in far too much handwaving about the ease with which the huge technical obstacles are to be overcome, the timeframe in which this will be done, and the desireability of doing so. But that doesn’t mean that counterarguments shouldn’t be subjected to close scrutiny.

  • ljk October 26, 2009, 2:29

    Douglas Hofstadter: Musing rationally about the Singularity

    Sun, 10/25/2009 – 04:22 – NLN

    The idea that humanity is racing toward a technological “singularity” has gained near cult status, and very few educated and articulate people have voiced their skepticism about this possible fate of the human species. Douglas Hofstader is one who has.


  • Athena Andreadis October 26, 2009, 10:22

    Tulse, being playful does not mean the arguments are not serious. A tone of an article needs to be adjusted to the venue. H+ magazine is not a scholarly tome. And surely you must recognize that the argument that Star Trek fans wouldn’t agree with me about the transporters doesn’t hold much water. It’s like scolding me because I explained why there is no Santa Claus.

    To all who keep asking why a particular argument isn’t more detailed, articles in H+ have to be 1,400 words or less, and this one is close to 1,700. I wanted it to cover much ground and give a sense of the complexity of the issue, rather than bang relentlessly on one or two nails.

    I have been reflecting on these matters literally for decades because I very much want humanity to gain the ability to travel in space. You must also understand that the reservations I list in the article are not mine alone. They are shared by practically all biologists, given what we know of biological systems. In fact, I can say with reasonable certainty that I’m on the optimistic end. Most biologists consider the vast majority of goals on the transhumanist list as delusional wet dreams combined with a heavy dose of fear of death. And one of the reasons why I suggested my book as a source once or twice is because I’m one of the very few biologists who have taken these issues seriously enough to write about them in any length whatsoever.

    There’s no denying that we humans have gone far by defying limitations. But we must also acknowledge limitations if we are to put our effort into successful ventures. Raging against special relativity won’t remove the light speed limit, raging against gravity won’t enable us to jump out of airplanes without parachutes — and raging against mortality won’t make us capable of living entirely within WoW, let alone the Matrix.

  • Tulse October 26, 2009, 12:05

    “And surely you must recognize that the argument that Star Trek fans wouldn’t agree with me about the transporters doesn’t hold much water. It’s like scolding me because I explained why there is no Santa Claus.”

    Not at all — thought experiments like the transporter have long played a vital role in philosophy of personal identity, as a way of helping us unpack our intuitions and test our assumptions. And I haven’t read any specific, concrete objection from you as to why the Captain Kirk that steps out of the transporter doesn’t share the same personal identity of the Captain Kirk that steps into it. Simply dismissing that belief as analogous to Santa Claus is not an argument.

  • Matt October 26, 2009, 12:28

    Re: transhuman article, “Saturn’s Children” – excellent post-human novel with sub-plot of propulsion and “practical” in-system travels.

  • Ron S October 26, 2009, 15:30

    “At the age I am now, there is probably not a single molecule of my body that I had when born.” –Diderot

    There is also an old joke about someone’s grandfather who got a new eye, heart, hip, teeth, etc., and … at what point is he no longer my grandfather?

    Identity is in the patterns, not any one collection of particles. If in some remote future it is, somehow, possible to transfer a person’s mind to a different substrate (including whatever low-level “drivers” to make it feel at home), there is little question that it would be a distinct entity, but it could still have the same identity.

  • Athena Andreadis October 26, 2009, 16:34

    Only quick, partial answers this round, I have much to do in the lab today.

    Tulse: The Star Trek transporter mechanism is identical to “destructive” uploading. The originals died the first time they stepped into one, the entities are consecutive clones. Ignoring the fact that the transporters seem to create energy out of nowhere to rebuild the clones, who are fully corporeal.

    Ron S: Your grandfather stopped being your grandfather the moment he lost enough brain neurons that pattern integrity began to degrade. The pattern you mention is that of axons and synapses, it doesn’t hover like a halo or aura above/around the brain. The term “particles” is a (quantum) red herring.

  • Tulse October 26, 2009, 18:18

    “The Star Trek transporter mechanism is identical to “destructive” uploading. The originals died the first time they stepped into one, the entities are consecutive clones.”

    Of course, but that doesn’t answer the question of their personal identity. Surely Captain Kirk feels like he’s still Captain Kirk, and everyone else recognizes that he has the same psychological states as Captain Kirk. Are you saying that when he beams back aboard the ship, he should be sent to the brig as an impostor?

    Or let’s say that you’re due to inherit a big fortune, so the person next in line in the will kidnaps you and shoves you through the transporter. They then go before a judge and say “Your Honor, this person is NOT Athena, and so should not inherit!” From your perspective, you were kidnapped, placed in a transporter, and then showed up at the other end — nothing has changed for you, you still feel like the person who was kidnapped. Are you saying you should be disinherited?

    I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of philosopher Derek Parfit, who takes the view that what is important in personal identity is continuity of psychological states, and that thus we can have (science-fiction) cases where more than one physical entity has the same continuity of psychological states. While this approach may not allow for a classical view of identity, nonetheless I think it is the only view that makes sense of these kind of transhumanist cases.

  • Bounty October 26, 2009, 18:20

    “We are completely the product of our very specific circumstances” – Agree

    So if I’m a human brain to robot brain, that is my specific circumstance.

    Sure, you can keep a copy in the fleshy, that mind will evlove different than the robot mind. They will be 2 minds. The lights will be on in both places. It doesn’t matter though, my mind in this moment is not my mind from moments ago. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mind, or that I’m not who I say I am. They will both be me, and different.

  • Ron S October 26, 2009, 19:44

    Athena, you weren’t paying attention. I said none of the things you have attributed to me, and neither was I criticizing you.

  • Athena Andreadis October 26, 2009, 21:07

    Ron, I wasn’t criticizing you either. I used your comment as a springboard to emphasize a crucial point: Diderot was wrong. Your neurons are born and die with you.

  • ljk October 27, 2009, 10:21

    Personally I am most interested in the work on creating a truly conscious system separate from the human brain. Not that a hybrid setup may not eventually be the easiest way to achieve this, but I have often wondered if humans are just the latest stepping stone towards a much higher and more efficient (and more survivable) intelligent species.

    If we think we are the end all of existence, we just need to look back at the 15 other human and humanoid species that have evolved on this planet in the last 6 million years or so, all of which – except for us – are now extinct.

    Life’s big prerogatives are to survive and reproduce. Honestly I think we have just been very lucky so far. Something that can do even better and truly make it in this dangerous Universe may be waiting in the wings, waiting for us to being it to life. We may not be the only ones to have done this, either.

    How this relates to interstellar vessels is this: Any starship we send out without a human crew is going to need a “smart” artificial intelligence system to deal with issues that must be solved in real time. Waiting years and decades for humans back on Earth to help is not a viable solution. Even the relatively primitive Voyagers were designed to handle mission parameters on their own if they lost contact with Earth, which was light hours away by the time of Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.

    So if we design smart and aware AI systems for our starships, will they simply obey commands from Earth? Or will they decide that they are free beings capable of traveling to other parts of the galaxy and do pretty much whatever they want? What would YOU do if you could travel among the stars?

    This is an issue that has not been addressed much outside of science fiction, but those working on real interstellar ship plans should be aware of this key factor. I have brought this up before in the discussion threads on the Icarus starship design.

  • Athena Andreadis October 27, 2009, 17:28

    Larry, you bring up a slew of issues which are crucial both to our long-term survival and our ability to explore beyond earth. I discussed them all in my series Making Aliens, but here’s a précis:

    — We’re not the end of evolution, and space travel will accelerate speciation processes.
    — The creation of an artificial or hybrid intelligence is far likelier than uploading, but genetic engineering at several levels is likeliest.

    As to your last point, I think that any sentience that displays judgment and initiative will be unlikely to obey commands from a source that cannot enforce them, especially one that is so distant that it cannot have a true picture of local conditions.

  • ljk October 27, 2009, 21:34

    Athena, funny you bring up speciation now…

    Researchers discover mechanism that prevents two species from reproducing:


  • Athena Andreadis October 28, 2009, 10:31

    Yes, chromosomal misalignment is among the primary barriers for generation of viable zygotes. And noncoding DNA does drift, although it plays a role in chromosomal compaction. Any separation of members of one species for a length of space and time will eventually bring speciation — interstellar distances and radically different planetary habitats will do so for us and whatever species we bring with us.

  • James M. Essig October 28, 2009, 12:09

    Hi Folks;

    I agree with Athena’s notion of speciation.

    Say a distant galaxy is eventually colonized by humans, or at least some favorable planets on such a galaxy, and the distance to the galaxy is 100 million LY to 1 billion LY from Earth. In the event that super-luminal travel proves impossible or impractical for all but the smallest craft, we could expect that the colonies on each habitat so distantly located to evolve at the very least by natural selection and random genetic drift provided that countermeasures would not be used in a time dependent specific manner in a preplanned way to ensure genetic unity of the human species accross the spatial limits of a future human star faring civilization.

    I saw a special on TV, a National Geographic program-I not quite sure, about three weeks ago that discussed the speciation of hominids, and the simple fact is that the various branches of the hominid tree are in at least some instances, trace-able or seem to be, to single lineages.

    If the present day humans are but one branch of the historical tree of hominids, it is overwhelmingly likely, that the human body and brain evolved by natural selection, any species specifc sexual mores regarding who can breed, and genetic drift. There is no reason why such evolutionary phenomenon could not occur in distant human populations with respect to local ones in the event that no artificial corrective actions are taken to promote homogeniety.

  • Ronald October 28, 2009, 14:37

    Athena, James,

    yes, speciation driven by adaptation is a very strong and even inevitable force. There is a fair chance that a considerable proportion of future aliens is going to be us (or rather our descendants) !

    Likewise, I like the thought of our future us seeding the galaxy (that is, presently uninhabited, but inhabitable or terraformable planets, of which there must be countless, many more than already inhabited ones) with adapted and adaptable lifeforms.

    In this fashion, the sciences of the future will be planetary engineering combined with genetic engineering.

  • James M. Essig October 28, 2009, 15:34

    Hi Ronald;

    The cool thing about populating the Milky Way Galaxy, and other distant galaxies over the coming 10 million to 100 billion years is that the only thing needed is the ability to do low gamma factor interstellar and intergalactic travel, at velocities easily obtainable by fusion powered space craft. Once we can reach commensurately high velocities to overcome the escape velocity of super clusters and to bridge the growing gaps between non-gravitationally bound galaxies as a result of the expansion of space time, the universe is pretty much the limit even for very mildy relativistic ship velocities.

    My hope is that the current increase in the rate of the expansion of the universe that seems to be much on cosmologists’ minds as of late is only temporary and that some other dynamical mechanism which is now somewhat screened will become kinematically dominant tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of years from now to slow the rate of cosmic expansion. Even if the universe expands for ever, but at some point begins to slow to a limiting value of zero expansion rate in the temporal limit of infinity, such as in the classical marginally open models, I would not mind at all because such would imply potentially unlimited terretory for we humans to colonize.

    Huge fusion powered galaxy hopping world ships may be usefull in this regard, especially if suitable thermodynamic gradients can be maintained within the world ships while at the same time, radiant energy loss to space can be kept at a minimum.

    Planetary science and terraforming I think, indeed, are going to have a very big future for our civilization. As someone who has worked in the inventive field of portable low cost in-situ resource harnessing technology, I have a keener mental awaremess of going green relative to what I might have had otherwise, and green and sustainable can and should be a mantra for future terraforming of planets and the construction of world ships. The possibilities for developing off world utopias seem as limitless as the expanse of the universe.

  • Athena Andreadis October 28, 2009, 15:46

    Ronald, exactly! Here are a few sentences from the final part of my Making Aliens series that mirror your conclusions:

    “From our very beginnings, we tended to consider ourselves the jewel in the crown of creation. We believed that at least some of us had been created in the image of the local deity. Yet by considering our germ line sacrosanct, we have painted ourselves in a biological corner. Each terrestrial species has a finite lifespan. Moreover, most successful species branch, whereas we humans are down from a half dozen relatives to a single representative — Homo Sapiens sapiens. If we insist in remaining unchanged, without evolving or radiating, we may degenerate and disappear without intervention of a great catastrophe either from something home-brewed like war or from a random event, such as the impact of a rogue comet. We’ll blink out not with a bang, but with a whimper.
    In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving picnic trash on an uninhabited planet. Our first alien encounter, beyond earth just as it was on earth, will be with ourselves as seen through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.
    This prospect is one of the scariest aspects of venturing into space, yet at the same time one of the most exciting. It’s also a development that will guarantee the survival if not of our species, then certainly of our legacy.”

  • Ronald October 29, 2009, 5:28

    Athena Andreadis October 28, 2009 at 15:46=;

    Nice quotes, I could hardly agree more!

    People often mention the necessity to become a multi-planet species for our survival. However, in doing so, we are likely to become a multi-species intelligence in the process.

    With regard to seeding the galaxy with our (adapted) earthly lifeforms; just as it is likely that there are many more living planets with only relatively primitive lifeforms (single-celled, non-specialized multi-celled colonies, etc.) than with higher (specialized organs) lifeforms, it is even much more likely that there are many more planets, which are still lifeless, but potentially habitable (or terraformable) for forms of earthly life.
    To be potentially habitable it is enough for a planet to be terrestrial, inside a star’s HZ (not even CHZ), i.e. of the right temperature, with water and a more or less suitable (even if primitive) atmosphere. To be terraformable, even the temperature may be somewhat off as long as there is some form of water, and there is a transformable atmosphere.

    Near-future research will tell how common planets of each of these categories are (living, habitable, terraformable).

    It is to be hoped that we will treat living planets more reverendly than we have often done with life on earth, and mainly leave them undisturbed as ‘biosphere reserves’. Even the introduction of our earthly life on still lifeless planets may raise some ethical questions.

    It is a fascinating thought that, as we disseminate throughout the galaxy (and maybe others), spreading and seeding our adapted and adaptable life on myriads of planets, we will actually jumpstart the processes of evolutionary biogenesis, adaptation and diversification, reminiscent of the great Cambrian life explosion, through the aeons eventually resulting in uniquely adapted biospheres on each of them, with just a common biochemical reminder of earthly origin.

    Just remains the pesky detail of getting there.

  • Ronald October 29, 2009, 5:39

    Which brings me to the following thought: if the spreading of its life is one of the predominant characteristics and desires of an intelligence and civilization, could it perhaps be, that a (localized) abundance of planets with a spectral biosignature in (part of) the galaxy, and/or a very specific kind of biosignature, even on planets where this was not to be readily expected on the basis of physical characteristics, could be a sign of the workings of an ETI?

    After all, such planetary bio-legacies could also last much longer than the direct technological signs of an ETI.

  • ljk October 29, 2009, 10:15

    It is probably much cheaper and easier to genetically engineer humans to
    be adaptable to the wide variety of environments found in our Sol system
    than to terraform an entire world.

    We are quite different from our distant ancestors of several million years
    ago, but I don’t think anyone really misses being like them or having to
    endure their living conditions. So too with our descendants once we get
    past the view that we are the final peak of evolution.

    If we want our species to survive, we will have to tune ourselves to the
    celestial environment, not the other way around. Once we or our evolutionary
    offspring have developed sufficiently, then they may change the actual worlds
    around them to suit their needs as a galactic species and culture.

    See the Web site Orion’s Arm for one possible way things may go.

  • Athena Andreadis October 29, 2009, 14:02

    The issue of preserving other biospheres is a thorny one, given our record on earth. Read the Making Aliens 6-part series if you have time, it goes through all the points you touched upon in your posts here.

    Your idea about bio-legacies is fascinating. I think you may have hit on a good alternative way to search for ETI: localized concentration of specific biosignatures. We can already detect such things as methane, chlorophyll… I wonder if they consider this at NASA, SETI or the various Astrobiology academic programs.

  • Ronald October 29, 2009, 14:24

    ljk: “It is probably much cheaper and easier to genetically engineer humans to be adaptable to the wide variety of environments found in our Sol system
    than to terraform an entire world.”

    Probably a combination of both. Drastically adapting one species genetically is one thing, adapting hosts of species quite another. Furthermore, there are biochemical limits to physical adaptation, or at least to that of an intelligent higher organism. And as we are eternal gardeners, we humans (or our descendants) may also like adapting planets to earthly lifeforms.

  • Athena Andreadis October 29, 2009, 14:57

    Larry is generally right. For one, we’re good at genetic engineering, having done it since we cultivated our first handful of seeds, whereas we’re lousy at terraforming even Earth, let alone an unknown planet. The time scales and required resources are radically different for the two enterprises, with genetic engineering having a decisive advantage. Finally, terraforming a planet is a failure of the imagination: it’s like insisting on eating hamburgers while visiting Paris. We will have to adapt beyond just the obvious atmosphere, etc issues. Circadian rhythms are an obvious example among myriads: a planet with day/night lengths that don’t jibe with our pre-wired bioclocks will wreak havoc with our bodies and brains.