Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Uploading, Self-Transformation & Sexual Engineering

What is the lossiness of the uploading process? Physically, are we uploading the function of hormones along with that of the neurons, neurotransmitters, etc? What about the thymus, pituitary, testes or ovaries, pancreas, digestive tract, sexual organs, etc.?

The point where psychology leaves off and irrelevant physical detail begins is not clear, and even the most intellectually motivated person may be irrevocably disoriented if these kind of biological processes and motivations are removed suddenly.

If we upload our neurons, and leave behind the hormones, does that give us 90% of our previous identity, or 10%? I don't think the answer is at all clear. Much as we take pride in our intellect most humans spend most of our time at the dictates of our hormones: eating, sleeping, seeking sex.

We might call the loss of biological substrate upon uploading the problem of dangling sexuality (so to speak :-), or more generally phantom biology, or phantom motivation. I refer to the phenomenon of "phantom limbs" in which pain etc. are felt in a limb even after it has been lost.

The big problem here is that an uploader may be left with no motivation at all. Why expand memory or CPU? Why search for better algorithms? Why explore the universe and put it to use?

Why not commit suicide or go hide in some archive until the universe ends? Without extropian motivations, there is no clear reason for or against doing any of these. And it's not just a matter if abstractly wanting to do these things; it's a matter of being hungry for them, of lusting after them, of falling head over heals in love with them.

Uploaders will likely face stiff competition: military/hacking competition from mature a-life and/or experienced uploaders, economic competition from evolving trader bots, etc.

If the uploader spends excessive CPU cycles simulating glands and hormones, recreating 3D landscapes and living out old sexual fantasies, etc. they may quickly go bankrupt. Depending on the rules of the uploader PPL, they may have their memory garbage collected and be filed away into a museum archive, may be merged into other consciousness (cf. proposal to auction off organs of bankrupt people in biological PPL), etc.

So even if the capability exists to simulate sexuality, hunger, taste for music, and other old dominant motivations in a minimally lossy way, competition may require these quickly be dumped overboard in favor of motivations that allow the agent to survive and grow in the new environment.

By the same token we can step back and examine what is valuable in our own environment, here today. We seem to live in an environment that is very forgiving wrt our forebears, and perhaps may be very forgiving compared to the world of a-life and uploader.

But is our own environment really that forgiving? Isn't it an incredibly great great loss when people die, for good, because they lack money for life extension and cryonic suspension, and do not make what might be called "semi-connected backups" (children, long-lived memes)?

Our current decisions and motivations are quite important, and even in today's environment biology may lead us astray. Consider the time we spend on work, recreation, entertainment, sexuality, eating, listening to music, etc. Do we do what is most extropic, or do we do what biology and culture have led us to want to do?

How can we transform ourselves into a more extropian state?

So, we see that the impedance of biology is not unique to uploaders; even today we can start the task of self-transformation from biological motivations suitable for a hunter-gatherer tribe, to extropian motivations suitable for today. Taking this a step further, this leads us to ways of avoiding a sudden change in connectedness upon uploading.

Well before we begin the physical process of uploading, we can begin the psychological process of uploading. This requires that we anticipate the uploader environment, and what it will take for us to succeed there, and transform ourselves in that direction even as we remain in our biological bodies. By the time we upload, we should be already well-transformed; psychologically prepared to do combat in cyberspace. Such transformation might include:

Fetish engineering: moving our sexuality away from biological and towards economic or information-resource triggers. We may be able learn from precedents (eg monks), but mostly we will be breaking new ground. Anti-aphrodisiacs or training on fetish objects with aphrodisiacs may help here.

Finding fetishes that suitably motivate abstract goals such as learning, life extension, child bearing and raising, expansion of the bank account, etc. may not be easy. Fetish engineering may be the most important and productive form of self-transformation, if we can pull it off.

Aesthetic shift: retrain ourselves to get aesthetic pleasure from technological or economic accomplishment, eg hacking good code or making a good deal in the market, and less from similar but less useful aesthetic pastimes like music or good cooking.

It may be necessary to develop very sophisticated tastes in music, cooking, etc. before such transformation is possible; or perhaps the opposite is true, that sophistication in music or cooking detracts from technological or economic sophistication.

It's important that we resolve these issues; otherwise we won't know whether we're transforming towards or away from a consciousness suited to our environment, or ready for uploading.

Thirst, hunger, satiation, and taste: In the uploader, these need to be linked to new resources: taste buds to sense, and software to respond to memory and CPU cycles and power sources instead of fats and proteins and carbohydrates. Today, many of us already find these biological motivations excessive, to the point of distracting us from intellectual tasks and even being downright unhealthy (eg overweight lowers life expectancy).

This suggests also empirical benchmarks, telling us how far we've progressed on the road from human to transhuman to posthuman. How much of our motivational energy, or more measurably how many hours per day, are spent chasing obsolete biological ends? How much are spent in ways that would be beneficial to an uploader? If we spend more of our time at the latter, we might truly call ourselves transhuman; if our schedule is dominated by what would also concern the uploader, then we have reached posthumanity.

All this may sound very cold & dry: trying to turn sophisticated biological & culture tastes into cold & abstract mechanisms. Far from it! The fact that we find the machines cold & abstract is a problem endemic to humans; the transhuman task is developing tastes for the new resources that not only rival our current _haute cuisine_, sexual skills and romantic subtleties, but go beyond them in both sophisticated elegance and raw powerful lust.

It may also sound quite perverted, engineering fetishes in place of "normal, healthy" sexuality. But we already live in a world where the genetic goal of sex is short-circuited by birth control, sex is perverted by pornography, brood-care perverted by pets and dolls, etc. Yesterday's perversion can be tommorrow's route to success or failure.

Political correctness, social norms, and our current personal tastes bear no relation to the outcome unless they have either emerged to a state of rationality, or been designed rationally -- and even then are subject to continual obsolescence as culture evolves around us. Putting these genies back in the bottle is futile.

The idea here is to sort out our perversions, to figure out which are extropic and which entropic, and use both perversions and self-discipline to transform ourselves into ever greater heights of extropy.

Nick Szabo

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Humanity's close shave with Extinction

It was a very close call.

If a devastating drought that gripped Africa had lasted just a little longer, or been a little worse, we would not be here today.

There would be no humans, no cities, no art and no science. There would be no wars and no human-induced climate change. The world would belong to the animals.

An international genetics project has found that modern humans almost became extinct 70,000 years ago.

The Genographic Project, led by American and Israeli researchers, made the discovery after undertaking the most extensive mitochondrial DNA survey ever undertaken in Africa.In 1987 a study of mitochondrial DNA, passed down the generations via the maternal line, revealed that every person alive today is descended from one woman who lived in Africa 200,000 years ago.

The latest study shows that after the birth of humanity in eastern Africa, people quickly split into separate communities.

About 150,000 years ago humans, possibly pursuing animal herds, moved to settle throughout Africa. The number of people soared, peaking somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000.

But before the first person could venture out of Africa, the population suddenly crashed to just 2000.

"It could have been even fewer," said Spencer Wells, the Genographic Project director. "We were, in effect, hanging on by our fingertips."That's fewer people than there are Sumatra orang-utans today, and they are classified as extremely endangered and will probably go extinct in 20 years."

The crisis was probably caused by climate change. About 130,000 years ago the world started cooling and drying as it neared another ice age."There were massive droughts in Africa ... mega-droughts," Dr Wells said. With much of the continent barren and hostile, the tiny human settlements became isolated from each other.

As humanity hovered on the edge of extinction "a shift in culture began. People began making the better hunting tools they needed to survive the drought. Art makes its appearance. There is abstract thought," he said.

Then the drought broke. Isolated communities migrated and merged. With better skills and a friendlier climate, the population boomed again and people finally left Africa, spreading along the Asian coast, towards Australia.

Backed by National Geographic and IBM, the researchers, who have published their findings in The American Journal Of Human Genetics, identified humans' near demise after studying DNA mutation rates.

"By sampling people alive today, estimating how much genetic variation they have ... and knowing the rate at which variation accumulates we can say how long it took to accumulate the observed level of variation, and the size of the starting population," Dr Wells said.

The project aimed to discover what humans were doing before leaving Africa.

"Three quarters of our history is virtually unknown," Dr Wells said. The research showed "there was lots going on".

He believes humanity's close shave should send a message to the 6.6 billion people alive today. "We should start to see ourselves as the lucky survivors."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Probability of Advanced Life Forms in our Galaxy

It is almost an article of faith among many ufologists that, of course, the ufos are piloted by beings from distant star systems.

Some go further and make sweeping statements about Pleiadean beamships and Sirian motherships.Sirius and all the stars in the Pleiades cluster are, by the way, only a fraction of the age of our Earth and Sun.

But let us address two questions. Is there anyone out there, and, if so, could they come here? The answer to the first question, of course, is that we don't know for sure, and, while it seems likely in such a vast universe that someone is out there, there are reasons to believe that technological civilizations are few and far between.

As to the second question, most certainly they could come here, if they exist and have sufficient wealth (interstellar flight is likely to be an expensive undertaking) and are sufficiently advanced.

As discussed in another article, even if faster than light speeds or "warp drive" prove impossible, and even if the tenuous interstellar medium, composed mainly of hydrogen, makes near light speed travel impossible, immense "space arks," rotating to produce artificial gravity and containing entire ecosystems, with cities and farms, would allow "manned" interstellar flight, although such voyages could take centuries or even millions of years, and generations would be born and die on the way.

But the first question is more difficult. Are they out there? Astronomers estimate the number of stars in our galaxy at 100 to 400 billion, say 200 billion, and they estimate that there may be 100 billion other galaxies in our universe. Bear in mind that without some kind of "warp drive" intergalactic voyages are problematic at best.

Our galaxy is believed to have a dense nucleus and six spiral arms, with a halo of dense globular star clusters surrounding the nucleus. We are thought to be about a third of the way out on what is called the Orion Arm, and our galaxy is believed to be about 100,000 light years across. So, at first glance, you would expect us to have plenty of company.

Not so fast. Most of the stars are packed into the globular clusters and the dense central regions of the galaxy. Most of these are so closely surrounded by other stars that their planets would have no night, so bright would the starlight be.

Even if they were not too hot from all that energy, any life forms there, or at least advanced life forms, would be periodically wiped out by nearby supernovae. These are hostile environments.

In addition, our Sun is a second generation population one star, with enough of the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, or enough "metallicity" as astronomers put it, to have solid planets like the Earth end elements like carbon and oxygen for life as we know it. The first stars, population three, apparently no longer exist, and the later population two stars are still so poor in heavier elements that they could not have solid planets or carbon based life forms.

So out of our 200 billion stars, we have perhaps 20 billion that might have advanced life forms. Bear in mind that this is just an educated guessing game, an updated version of Drake's Equation, formulated in 1961 by Dr. Frank Drake.Stars much more massive than our Sun fuse their hydrogen more rapidly and go off the Hertzsprung Russell diagram's main sequence sooner; that is, they become unstable, and, depending on their mass, either swell up into red giants or explode as supernovae.

Either way, their planets are destroyed and any life is wiped out. It has taken us four point six billion years to "evolve," and, while as an advocate of intelligent design I can't say it is impossible for civilizations to develop in only one or two billion years or less, it seems unlikely. Stars much less massive than our Sun, red dwarves, are unstable.

To receive enough light and warmth for life, a planet would have to orbit very close to its star (one such system has recently been discovered) where it would periodically be blasted by solar flares.

Also, the steep tidal gradient would probably induce heating of the planet's interior (like Jupiter's moon Io), which, added to the heat already generated in the interior of any near Earth sized planet, would cause too much vulcanism for anything to survive.

Eventually the planet would become tide locked, like our own Moon, with one side always burned by its parent star and the other side frozen in eternal night. Being very generous, we are now down to about two billion stars with the right luminosity.

Most stars are multiples, with two or three or (rarely) more stars orbiting a common center of gravity. If the two stars of a binary system are either very close together or very far apart, one or both might have a planet with a stable orbit receiving the right amount of energy.Otherwise, no dice.

This brings us down to perhaps a billion stars. But it turns out that, far from us being the new kids on the block, our Sun is one of the oldest population one stars. So now we are down to perhaps a hundred million stars with habitable planets old enough for civilizations to have developed.

Since our Sun, like all stars, slowly gets hotter as it ages, it will destroy all life long before it goes off the main sequence.Also, the craters we see on every solid world in our Solar System show that we are in a shooting gallery, and it is just pure luck (or Divine Providence) that we have not been destroyed by asteroid or cometary impacts, and that we "evolved" before our Sun became too hot.

So now we are down to maybe ten million stars suitable for advanced life forms. If a tenth of those have advanced civilizations on their planets, we would have the company of one million worlds out of a galaxy of 200 billion stars.

That is one in 200 thousand.

Bear in mind that most of the solar systems we have yet discovered are very different from our own, with gas giants orbiting very close to their stars, and that many astronomers believe that our Moon, formed by Earth's freakish and improbable collision with a large planetismal, may be essential to keeping our axial inclination stable enough for us to live here.

Still, a million is not bad. But where are they?

The SETI people, who mock us ufologists who have nothing but radar and visual sightings and videotape, have been listening for radio messages from other planets for decades. They have checked hundreds of stars on many wave lengths, and have never yet detected a single message.

Consider this.

If only one star in a million in our galaxy, or 200,000, had a planet with a technological culture, and only one in a hundred of those was broadcasting radio, that would be 2,000 message senders.

If only one in ten of those was within radio range, we should be listening to 200 other civilizations.

So where are they?

It is beginning to look as though we don't have very much company out there after all. Perhaps the ufos come from much, much closer to home.

William B Stoecker

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bruce Effect

The Bruce effect is a form of pregnancy disruption in mammals in which exposure of a female to an unknown male results in pre- (Bruce 1959) or postimplantation failure.

Some form of pregnancy block or disruption has been reported in the laboratory for at least 12 species of rodents, including domestic mice, Mus musculus; deer mice, Peromyscus; and voles, Microtus.

The basic design of these experiments is that a recently inseminated female is exposed directly to an unfamiliar, nonsire male or to its urine or soiled bedding, which in turn causes her to prevent implantation or to abort or reabsorb her embryos. Pregnancy disruption may occur at any time from conception to 17 days postmating, depending on the species and experimental conditions.

Variables such as length of exposure, timing of exposure to a strange male, sexual experience, and behavior of strange males may all influence the degree of pregnancy failure. The overall implication is that some level of exposure to strange males disrupts normal pregnancy in female rodents. This response supposedly is adaptive for the male, in that termination of pregnancy results in the female coming into estrus within 1 to 4 days, providing the male with a mating opportunity.

The benefit to the female is less clear, but if the strange male were to commit infanticide and kill her offspring after parturition, a female could conserve reproductive effort by aborting her current litter and mating with the new male. Thus, pregnancy block, or termination of pregnancy, supposedly evolved as a female counterstrategy to infanticide by males.

The Bruce effect has not been demonstrated outside the laboratory, and does not occur in wild grey voles, so it might be a laboratory artifact.

Bateman's Principle

In biology, Bateman's principle is the theory that females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males, and therefore in most species females are a limiting resource over which the other sex will compete.

Typically it is the females who have a relatively larger investment in producing each offspring. A single male can easily fertilize all a female's eggs: she will not produce more offspring by mating with more than one male. A male is capable of fathering more offspring than any (one) female can bear, if he mates with several females.

By and large, a male's reproductive success increases with each female he mates with, whereas a female's reproductive success is not increased nearly as much by mating with more males. This results in sexual selection, in which males compete with each other, and females become choosy in which males to mate with.

Bateman's observations came from his empirical work on mating behaviour in fruit flies. He attributed the origin of the unequal investment to the differences in the production of gametes: sperm are cheaper than eggs. Animals are therefore fundamentally polygynous, as a result of being anisogamous.

"A female can have only a limited number of offspring, whereas a male can have a virtually unlimited number, provided that he can find females willing to mate with him. Thus females generally need to be much choosier about who they mate with." --Caspar Hewett, 2003

"A male can easily produce sperm in excess of what it would take to fertilize all the females that could conceivably be available. Hence the development of the masculine emphasis on courtship and territoriality or other forms of conflict with competing males." --Williams, 1966.
"in most animals the fertility of the female is limited by egg production which causes a severe strain on their nutrition.

In mammals the corresponding limiting factors are uterine nutrition and milk production, which together may be termed the capacity for rearing young. In the male, however, fertility is seldom likely to be limited by sperm production but rather by the number of inseminations or the number of females available to him...

In general, then, the fertility of an individual female will be much more limited than the fertility of a male... This would explain why in unisexual organisms there is nearly always a combination of an undiscriminating eagerness in the males and a discriminating passivity in the females." --Bateman, 1948.

"among polygynous species, the variance in male reproductive success is likely to be greater than the variance in female reproductive success." --Huxley, 1938.

"The female, with the rarest exceptions, is less eager than the male... she is coy, and may often be seen endeavouring for a long time to escape." --Darwin, 1871.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Study dampens hopes of finding E.T.

Advanced ground and space-based telescopes are discovering new planets around other stars almost daily, but an environmental scientist from England believes that even if some of those planets turn out to be Earthlike, the odds are very low they'll have intelligent inhabitants.

In a recent paper published in the journal Astrobiology, Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia describes an improved mathematical model for the evolution of intelligent life as the result of a small number of discrete steps.

Evolutionary step models have been used before, but Watson (a Fellow of England's Royal Society who studied under James Lovelock, inventor of the "Gaia hypothesis") sees a limiting factor: The habitability of Earth (and presumably, other living worlds) will end as the sun brightens.

Like most stars, as it progresses along the main sequence, the sun's output increases (it is believed to be about 25 percent brighter now than when Earth formed). Within at most 1 billion years, this will raise Earth's average temperature to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius), rendering the planet uninhabitable.

Four major stepsApplying the limited lifespan to a stepwise model, Watson finds that approximately four major evolutionary steps were required before an intelligent civilization could develop on Earth.

These steps probably included the emergence of single-celled life about half a billion years after the Earth was formed, multicellular life about a billion and a half years later, specialized cells allowing complex life forms with functional organs a billion years after that, and human language a billion years later still.

Several of these steps agree with major transitions that have been observed in the geological record.

Watson estimates the overall probability that intelligent life will evolve as the product of the probabilities of each of the necessary steps.

In his model, the probability of each evolutionary step occurring in any given epoch is 10 percent or less, so the total probability that intelligent life will emerge is quite low (less than 0.01 percent over 4 billion years). Even if intelligent life eventually emerges, the model suggests its persistence will be relatively short by comparison to the lifespan of the planet on which it developed.

The mathematical methods Watson used assume that each evolutionary step is independent of the others, though they must occur in sequence. Watson considers this "a reasonable first approximation for what is, after all, a very idealized sort of model, deliberately simplified enough that the math can be solved analytically."

Watson also suggests that some of the critical steps may have changed the biosphere irreversibly.

The development of photosynthetic plants, for example, led to an oxygen atmosphere, which was a necessary precursor to the development of complex land animals. Once this transition occurred, any further evolutionary step would have to take place in an oxygen atmosphere, which may have limited opportunities for non oxygen-breathing life to evolve.

Watson says in the conclusion to his paper: " ... only on those rare planets on which complex creatures happen to evolve can there exist observers who ask questions about evolution and care about the answers."

Asked if an advanced, space-faring civilization might be able to survive the brightening of its star by migrating off the planet where it evolved, Watson agrees that's possible: "the model predicts only when 'intelligence' can arise based on the time available. Once the observers exist, they might do all manner of things to find new places to live."

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, had this comment on Watson's work: "We have, of course, only one example of intelligent life (indeed, of life of any type). That means we cannot possibly estimate from this single instance what is the probability of life on other worlds unless we are completely confident we understand all the relevant evolutionary processes.

Watson argues that intelligent life will be dismayingly rare: There is no way to prove that is true. On the other hand, if the converse is the case — if the galaxy is home to many intelligences — that is amenable to proof. We should do the experiment."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Real Matrix

By Glenn Campbell

In the movie The Matrix, we discover that life as we know it is a computer generated virtual reality illusion. The "real" reality is something much bleaker and more desperate, where a few escaped humans are fighting an oppressive machine that is using people as an energy source. The illusion itself is called "the Matrix," and once you escape from it, you can never go back, at least with the same naive perceptions.

This is the perfect metaphor for life as we know it. Most of us are still living in the Matrix, being fed soothing illusions by our social environment and mass media. The Matrix gives us distorted information about life and tries to make us believe that the world is happy place. When we break out of the Matrix, we see a much darker universe where hardly anything is going right. Once we see our delusions for what they are, it is hard to go back to believing in them.

The true requirements of life are simple: food, health, self-regulation and meaningful interaction with others. The social Matrix we are living in piles all sorts of useless products on top of this, like fashion that doesn't make you attractive, entertainment that doesn't entertain, and illusions of a perfect life that can never be attained. The Matrix sets you up with goals and assumptions that may be entirely out of line with how the world really works and what really makes you happy.

All of this serves the needs of the machine but not necessarily our own needs.

It serves the goals of the machine to create an illusion of normative happiness. Social and Capitalist forces want you to believe that life is basically good and wholesome, with only a few minor problems, like underarm odor and an absence of full-flavored taste in your beer or cigarettes. Lo and behold, most of the problems identified by the machine can be solved by purchasing the right product: a new car, perhaps, or even a religion.

The Matrix is a very trivial place, obsessed with insignificant things like sports, sitcoms and the scandals of celebrities. The Matrix gives us Martha Stewart, fly fishing and a million different ways you can waste time before you die. The Matrix encourages you to fiddle while Rome burns.

If you aren't personally happy, then it must be your fault. You must not have purchased the right product. The illusion of normative happiness make us feel even worse when misfortune befalls us. "This isn't supposed to happen," we say, yet tragedy does happen, and nothing in the Matrix has prepared us for it. When you suffer, you usually have to do it alone, because no one else within the matrix has been trained to deal with it.

If we encounter a problem that isn't readily solvable, like mental illness, crime or world hunger, the Matrix tell us that this is an anomaly. Ninety-nine percent of life is fine, we think; it is only this one percent that doesn't seem to working out so well.

Naturally, we start looking around for some sort of simple product to solve that nagging one percent. Maybe we need more Capitalism to solve the world hunger problem, and maybe we should to put a gun into every citizen's hand to take care of crime. Life is happy, you understand, and all that is bothering us is a few solvable problems.

Once you break out of the Matrix, you see the opposite: Ninety-nine percent of the world is painful and desperate, wasting human resources on a huge scale. There are only a few little islands of happiness, where people are working well with each other and individual potential is close to being achieved. Everyone else is enslaved.

We don't take much notice of the true bleakness of the world because routine tragedy doesn't get much press. Pessimism doesn't sell commercial products, only false optimism does. Even our parents gave us sugar-coated fairy tales about the world because it was much easier to raise us that way. People who are fed a steady stream of pleasant delusions and simplistic goals are easier to manage. It is like giving them drugs to keep them subdued.

In the real world, human lives are wasted on a massive, production scale. Nearly every baby starts out with great promise, but very few adults fulfill it. Somewhere between infancy and adulthood, the spirit and creativity of most people on Earth are crushed. Instead of attaining something approaching their potential, most people are turned into Soylent Green—dumb food for other people.

You don't have to go to industrial China to find broken, exploited and wasted humanity. It is all around us. Maybe we are one of the wasted. Maybe we are not achieving our own potential because of the social situation we have found ourselves in or because of our own unachievable delusions of what life should be.

Given the option, which are we going to seek: real internal satisfaction based on our own experience or the product-based delusion of satisfaction as fed to us by the machine? Usually, the machine wins.

Breaking out of the Matrix, we discover that the problems of the world are massive and essentially unsolvable, at least by any power that we personally possess. Most people, even close to us, are living lives of either acute pain, numbing servitude or mindless delusion.

The family next door, we may know full well, is psychologically abusing their child and will turn him into a screwed up adult, but we may also recognize that there is little we can do about it. There is little we can do about most of the suffering of the world, because there is so much of it and our own powers are so limited.

Breaking out of the Matrix means seeing, for the first time, all of the rich, polychromatic suffering of the world and not flinching from it. This planet is a horrible place, and we have landed in the middle of it. It is like the science fiction story about the psychic who can read people's minds but can't turn it off. He feels all of the suffering of millions and often wishes that he didn't have that power.

Seeing all of the pain of the world doesn't mean you have to go mad. It just requires a different perspective. If there is far more suffering than you can do anything about, this can actually be liberating.

When you were locked in the Matrix and you saw on TV that some family or group was suffering, you felt compelled to help, because that suffering was seen as an unusual event—a disruption of your happy view of the world.

If you now recognize that suffering is everywhere, most of it never seen on TV, then you also have to realize that you can't address all of it. You have to be selective and intelligent in the way that you help and not just blindly donate to the number on your screen.

Breaking out of the Matrix lifts a veil from your eyes and gives you vision. You can now recognize social delusions for what they are: sales messages to serve the needs of others. You can now see that tragedy is everywhere and that there is little you can do about most of it, so you help where you can and sleep comfortably when you can't.

Without your delusions, you see that your own place in the world is very weak and fragile. All you really have is a few little slivers of discretion. With them, you can try to build your own tentative happiness and rescue that tiny portion of the world that you have some control over.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Simulated Reality- An Interesting Perspective


Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.

You couldn’t, as in “The Matrix,” unplug your brain and escape from your vat to see the physical world. You couldn’t see through the illusion except by using the sort of logic employed by Dr. Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.

There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a virtual world.

The math and the logic are inexorable once you assume that lots of simulations are being run. But there are a couple of alternative hypotheses, as Dr. Bostrom points out. One is that civilization never attains the technology to run simulations (perhaps because it self-destructs before reaching that stage). The other hypothesis is that posthumans decide not to run the simulations.

“This kind of posthuman might have other ways of having fun, like stimulating their pleasure centers directly,” Dr. Bostrom says. “Maybe they wouldn’t need to do simulations for scientific reasons because they’d have better methodologies for understanding their past. It’s quite possible they would have moral prohibitions against simulating people, although the fact that something is immoral doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. “My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”

My gut feeling is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even. I think it’s highly likely that civilization could endure to produce those supercomputers. And if owners of the computers were anything like the millions of people immersed in virtual worlds like Second Life, SimCity and World of Warcraft, they’d be running simulations just to get a chance to control history — or maybe give themselves virtual roles as Cleopatra or Napoleon.

It’s unsettling to think of the world being run by a futuristic computer geek, although we might at last dispose of that of classic theological question: How could God allow so much evil in the world? For the same reason there are plagues and earthquakes and battles in games like World of Warcraft. Peace is boring, Dude.

A more practical question is how to behave in a computer simulation. Your first impulse might be to say nothing matters anymore because nothing’s real. But just because your neural circuits are made of silicon (or whatever posthumans would use in their computers) instead of carbon doesn’t mean your feelings are any less real.

David J. Chalmers, a philosopher at the Australian National University, says Dr. Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis isn’t a cause for skepticism, but simply a different metaphysical explanation of our world. Whatever you’re touching now — a sheet of paper, a keyboard, a coffee mug — is real to you even if it’s created on a computer circuit rather than fashioned out of wood, plastic or clay.

You still have the desire to live as long as you can in this virtual world — and in any simulated afterlife that the designer of this world might bestow on you. Maybe that means following traditional moral principles, if you think the posthuman designer shares those morals and would reward you for being a good person.

Or maybe, as suggested by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, you should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation.

Of course, it’s tough to guess what the designer would be like. He or she might have a body made of flesh or plastic, but the designer might also be a virtual being living inside the computer of a still more advanced form of intelligence. There could be layer upon layer of simulations until you finally reached the architect of the first simulation — the Prime Designer, let’s call him or her (or it).

Then again, maybe the Prime Designer wouldn’t allow any of his or her creations to start simulating their own worlds. Once they got smart enough to do so, they’d presumably realize, by Dr. Bostrom’s logic, that they themselves were probably simulations. Would that ruin the fun for the Prime Designer?

If simulations stop once the simulated inhabitants understand what’s going on, then I really shouldn’t be spreading Dr. Bostrom’s ideas. But if you’re still around to read this, I guess the Prime Designer is reasonably tolerant, or maybe curious to see how we react once we start figuring out the situation.

It’s also possible that there would be logistical problems in creating layer upon layer of simulations. There might not be enough computing power to continue the simulation if billions of inhabitants of a virtual world started creating their own virtual worlds with billions of inhabitants apiece.

If that’s true, it’s bad news for the futurists who think we’ll have a computer this century with the power to simulate all the inhabitants on earth. We’d start our simulation, expecting to observe a new virtual world, but instead our own world might end — not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a message on the Prime Designer’s computer.

It might be something clunky like “Insufficient Memory to Continue Simulation.” But I like to think it would be simple and familiar: “Game Over.”