25 November 2009

'The Fallen' are just plain dead

Despite the techno-warfare predictions of countless sci-fi novels and questionable computer games, militarism has no place in the future of humanity. Why not? Because if warfare survives then we won't. Militarism will become increasingly old-hat, and so will its language.

It is not logical to posit a medium to distant future of nanotech-based weaponry with soldiers clad in robotic exoskeletons blasting each other to smithereens by disrupting each others bodies at the molecular level, or other exotic and hideous means. This is an example of the lack of scope in much of science fiction, and part of the tacit assumption that the future will be just like now - only more so. Civilian technologies have emerged from death-tech in the past but if we are to survive then it will be partly as a result of the availability of technology to all rendering militarism redundant.

Nanotech could be taken as a case in point. Let's assume that some sizable percentage of all wars fought are over some kind of resource. What would be the point of fighting a war about oil, for example, if molecular manufacturing means that any citizen can make whatever they need from the comfort of their own home?

On a wider scale the planet will increasingly face existential risks. Troublemakers could easily construct world-killing devices in small and secret labs. We would never know what hit us. Not even time to get one of your exoskeletal socks on.

Every advance affects every other advance and the effect is exponential. Either you find a way to arrest war at the root, even memetic, level or there is no future to flounce about in with your implausible gun.

I find war euphemisms incredibly ugly. I hear much of 'The Fallen'. What happens if we deconstruct this particular euphemism? Let's find out:

It is likely that I am a person of limited financial means. I may not have done particularly well at school and, if tested, it is likely that my IQ is average to low. I may have a family member in the military, a brother perhaps, who I look up to. I do my training for warfare and quickly become institutionalised. I fit in here. During my second month in Afghanistan a bullet fired from a Type 56 rifle enters the back of my cranium, at the occipital bone, causing it to explode due to hydrostatic shock. When the headless body arrives back in the motherland it appears that it has 'fallen'. The type of falling involved is unclear but unquestioned. Most do not surmise that it is the type of falling where, after a short twitching delay, a headless body slumps into the sand. Most assume that it is a more poetic type of 'falling', where a valiant and idealistic young man sacrifices his short life for his country and, sort of, 'falls' from life into gallant death.

Just to say that he is dead would, surely, be less of an insult. His consciousness no longer exists but how can his family bear this sickly verbiage?

This is just one example of many I could choose. Deconstruct away at your leisure but do deconstruct. The 'Fallen' euphemism is an example of an insidious class of 'heroic death' memes which abound in militarised societies like ours. The general populace are infected with the meme via the vector of easily accessible and highly-compliant media channels. The pomp, the ceremony, the ageing and complicit royalty. All very predictable, and very very familiar.

But it's not just about bad judgement of the hierarchies and the complicity of the citizenry. It's the soldiers themselves. They are the most complicit. They are the most infected with the meme, and it will ultimately kill some proportion of them. We also have to face the ugly truth that some percentage of them, it would be interesting but tricky to found out how high a percentage, go to war because they want to be involved in chaos and carnage. This being the case it means that their brains are malfunctioning.

This is where we are now but I'm an optimist and I don't think that this can persist. I'd like to use language to de-glamorise war. We'd have to input this language early in the life of a child. The language would be clear and stark. Wars kill people. Guns and tanks are tedious. Soldiering is for failures.

War is about as un-futuristic as it gets.

18 November 2009

My Placebo

The effects of placebo are fascinating. But are they really that surprising?

If we accept the highly plastic properties of the brain then it seems to follow that a patient's brain structure can be physically altered by the perception that they are taking something that is good for them. The effect is heightened by the fact that the pill is being prescribed by a professional in the field of medicine, who must know what he/she is doing.

The placebo effect gets a bad press. The beneficial effects of placebo appear to be treated as a negative because the patient was 'fooled' into getting better. Does this actually matter? This is just semantics. If it is the case that your mind 'fools' your body into getting better then there must be a myriad ways in which your mind does this all the time without placebo. Is this 'conned' wellness inferior to 'real' wellness?

I have also come across this attitude from people who have used placebo-centred treatment such as homeopathy. Obviously they think that homeopathy is not placebo but when I explain that it is, and why it is, they can feel embarrassed. Why should they feel that way? If they went to see a nice person who listened to them and who spoke sympathetically about their condition, then gave them some harmless pills, and then they got better, surely they should be delighted. I would be. This is a wonderful beneficial effect of neurobiological processes, not a cause for embarrassment.

I have read that the placebo effect can work even in cases where the patient is told that he/she is being given a placebo in the form of a sugar pill. The doctor speaks calmly and sympathetically to the patient, explaining that there is scientific evidence which shows that these pills can have a beneficial effect in some cases. Why would this work? How can the patient be fooled if the sham is revealed to them before they even start the treatment? Well, all the other elements of the system are still in place - the sympathetic health professional, the thrice daily pill-taking ritual, the follow-up visits to the professional to talk about the condition, and so on. I would venture that, as a result of this, other crucial 'hidden' elements are still in place - the health professional as de-facto psychotherapist, the pill ritual as regular trigger for mood, appetite and sleep-affecting neurotransmitters such as serotonin, the ongoing care as a longer-term enabler/consolidator of neuroplastic change via increased levels of plastic change associated (speculative) neuromodulators such as oxytocin.

Maybe we should be more positive and up-front about the placebo effect. Towards this end I have made up my own placebo, Abcepol (made by Hedmed), and put it up for sale on Ebay. It's just a bit of fun really but there is a serious point. I want to see if people are prepared to pay for a placebo when it clearly states that that's exactly what it is. If anyone buys it I'll give the proceeds to a neuroscience-related charity.

04 November 2009

Psychological Continuity

If you were to be duplicated just before you died and the duplicate survived, would it be you?

This can be seen as a deep philosophical question with a myriad differently nuanced answers. But I'm not much of a philosopher so my answer is simply "no". A duplicate of your entire person or a perfect molecular copy of your brain, could be just like you for some period time but it would not be you.

The soul-mongers may be rubbing their hands with glee at this point but this has nothing to do with them or their fantastical constructs. Their agenda is to promote the notion of a unique ethereal part that "lives on" somehow after you die. By their definition the duplicate person would have no soul - one person one soul - that's all that God hands out (then takes back). What a quaint and morbid idea.

We cannot make such a copy at present so you can think of this as a thought experiment. In the relatively near future we will be able to make such copies and there will be various ways of doing this. The copying will not be the problem, the method of the state/substrate transfer process may be.

Let's say that the scientists doing the copying decide to conceal who is the "original" and whom the "duplicate", even from themselves. Immediately after completion of the copy process both entities would insist that they are the "real" version of the person and both would be correct. If you dispute this then, in what sense would they not both be correct? Let's not get hung up on which of them would be composed of the most recently rearranged atomic material. But that is all it really comes down to. Then divergence sets in.

When does the divergence between the two entities set in? How much do they diverge? Pretty much immediately or somewhat later. A little or vastly. What does it matter? They diverge, they are not the same person. This could be an excellent moral thought experiment for the religious if they were a little more imaginative - they could have a 'soul dilution' construct with each duplicate being, in comparison to the pre-duplication 'original', a kind of watery orange squash in the soul department.

There is, of course, no dilution. Both versions are valid entities ready to go back out into the cosmos on their own divergent paths, no matter how closely they stick together. But weren't we talking about the death of the "original"? This kind of duplication wouldn't save you, so what would? Well, we know that we are constantly in the process of being rebuilt at the molecular level and that, every few years, every atom in our bodies will have been replaced. So in what sense are we the "same person" as a few years previously? The key is that we feel the same because of our memories and the continuous "psychological flow" of our being. When we think back we don't usually detect vast gaps prior to which we suspect that we may have been somebody else. The psychological continuity of the self is an illusion but a very useful one, and one that we feel we must maintain in order for "me" to mean anything. So if there is to be any kind of 'movement' of our 'selves' from one state/substrate to another there must be a transition process which maintains psychological continuity.

I have imagined that this could be done with a future perfected version of a virtual brain akin to the Blue Brain project. A perfect human/virtual brain interface would also be required. The neocortical columns of the dying person are wired to the virtual brain and data communication begins at whatever level of resolution/fidelity is required. At first the 'generic' virtual brain is acting only as a relay so that the patient's columns can adjust to the new environment. Gradually some of the less-active columns in the bio brain could begin to 'share' some thought/memory structures with the virtual, allowing the virtual brain to 'learn' the bio brain's structure and patterns. The virtual columns gradually take on more and more responsibility until the virtual brain is handling entire neocortical areas, and the virtual and bio are operating as one entity. The process continues until only some autonomic functions, such as regulation of blood oxygenation, are being handled by the bio brain. The virtual brain does not strictly require autonomic functions but some simulation of those functions would be required in order to prevent the patient from suffering a kind of ontological shock brought on by the realisation of the substrate transfer. If required the biological body and brain stem can continue to function in tandem with the virtual brain indefinitely but the transfer of the 'self' to the new substrate is now complete.

I don't think it's looking good for teleportation. A teleport would be a kind of duplicator/destroyer device. Let the duplicates live. Anything else would be unthinkable. But this isn't about duplication, it's about transfer. And here's where it does get philosophical. Have you ever felt like you have, even for a short while, become "one" with another person? It can be joyful, unsettling or both. I think it's a realisation that our boundaries are mutable and that we could, ultimately, accept a new substrate as home.