17 December 2013

Reimagining Old Age: A Christmas Thought Experiment

Old man from Amsterdam
Image ©Vince Garcia
At Christmas, differences between ourselves and our elderly relatives can be shoved into garish spotlight – our backgrounds; our upbringings; our educations; our politics and social outlooks; our attitudes towards religion, ‘authority’, life and death, money, health, gender issues, race, tradition, relationships; and so on. Note that one difference I have not mentioned in the list is age; I have not mentioned it, because it is not, per se, a relevant difference.

Enlightened views clash with entrenched prejudices. Modern flexibility slumps uncomfortably in its dining-chair beside stiff-backed ‘Victorian values’ of ‘work ethic’, ‘sense of duty’, belief in all-powerful deity, distrust of things ‘foreign’. Bitten tongue and knotted stomach conspire to block the passage of dry turkey, until copious wine comes to the rescue.

Aging is a wonderful thing. A life spent learning, open to new experiences, experimenting, thinking, laughing, loving, and caring will create a vibrant mind of untold complexity. The problem with it – as we are all too aware – is that it tears at the mind and body. As the brain falls prey to structure-wrecking illness, such as Alzheimer’s, the mind begins to wander and fade. Impoverished by the ailing body, sensory input to the brain stutters. And when that happens, we the cognitively intact must confront the threadbare consciousnesses of our ailing relatives. To a large extent, what remains is governed by what went before; a flexible, optimistic mind may well outlast an entrenched one. Neurons well ‘attuned’ to making new connections may find ways to circumvent some of the damage as it progresses. The mental macrocosm inhabited by the sufferer will certainly shrink, so it pays to have a lot of cognitive ‘reality estate’ to spare.

So to the thought experiment: What if the capabilities of the brain and body were not looted by aging? What new, lucent complexity would those time-honed minds begin to exhibit? As we have no experience of such persons, this is difficult to answer. Nevertheless, it may be easier to imagine loving, vibrant elderly people developing into super-wise ancients than to imagine the curmudgeons doing so. Stuck in the past and embittered by long-held prejudices, the curmudgeon’s limited macrocosm has reduced to a dot. But what if we had time to shore it up, stretch out its walls, and fill it with enlightened wonder?

Some of us are slow starters. For some, enlightenment takes only time; for others, it takes therapy, drugs, or neurosurgery. In a world without aging, very long-lived individuals would be expected to play a full part in society; ‘old age’ would no longer be an excuse for fixed, discriminatory attitudes. Though some brains may be ‘wired’ for prejudice and dysphoria, society would need to find humane ways to mitigate this. However, I think that the chance to begin again as rejuvenated, valued citizens would, in most cases, be enough to bring about epiphany.

If we find ourselves struggling with our elderly relatives this Christmas, we could perhaps try to bear this in mind. When tempers fray and boundaries are crossed, when stereotyping rears its ugly head, when disdain sours the fragrant atmosphere, when nothing we do is thought well of; we could try to bear in mind not what they once were, but what they could – given a new chance at life and a heady draught of wonder – become.

03 December 2013

Sex on the Brain: Are Male and Female Brains Fundamentally Different?

Image ©yum9me
You have heard it in the shrill media. The science is in. It’s connectomically done and dusted: men’s brains are wired for spatial tasks like map-reading, women’s brains are wired for those ‘soft skills’ like empathising with jilted friends at the water-cooler.

Recent headlines on this subject arose from a press release issued by Penn Medicine about a new study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences[i] that shows, in the words of the press release, ‘striking differences in the neural wiring of men and women that’s lending credence to some commonly-held beliefs about their behavior.’

Though given a quick veneer of sobriety, the take on the study published in The Guardian was fairly typical of the kind of schematic-obsessed journalism spawned: ‘Maps of neural circuitry show women's brains are suited to social skills and memory, men's perception and co-ordination’, asserted its strapline. The Independent went with, ‘The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading'’, followed, sotto voce, by, ‘And women are 'better at remembering a conversation'’.

Neither the abstract of the study paper nor the Penn Medicine press release actually mention ‘hardwiring’, so I was slightly surprised to note one of the paper’s contributors, Ragini Verma PhD, using the term. She is quoted in The Guardian as saying, ‘If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there's a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better.’

The study used a technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to map the diffusion paths of water molecules within the brains of 428 males and 521 females aged between 8 and 22 years. The technique reveals the main fibre pathways, allowing the inference of major connections between brain regions. (I have used the word ‘inference’ to stress that DTI cannot reveal full connectomic maps. In the words of the press release, it is ‘laying the foundation for a structural connectome or network of the whole brain.’) The results showed that the main fibre bundles in the male brains tended to run from front to back of each hemisphere, whereas in the females there tended to be a higher degree of interconnection between left and right hemispheres. The study also showed only slight differences between male and female connectomes in children younger that 13 years, but differences becoming markedly more pronounced in adolescents over the age of 14.

Don’t get me wrong, connectomes fascinate me. And understanding that we are the wiring of our brains is essential to the wider task of clearing away residual dualism, allowing us to build better systems of justice, a healthier citizenry, and fairer societies based upon biological facts, not upon ‘gut instincts’. However, these connectome-based studies are only an initial foray into this extremely complex field. We must always consider the fact of brain plasticity when looking at studies that show differences in connectivity. If male and female connectomes tend to be quite different, how do they get that way? Just how closely do the connectomic differences map to actual differences in cognitive function? Another contributor to the study, Dr. Ruben Gur, seems a little more circumspect about where we are now: ‘Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex related.’

Other factors to take into account are, as usual, the makeup of the sample and the strength of the correlations found. In any human study, we need to know that the sample is representative of the group in question. In this case, the group is the entire human race, so it is vital that the genetic and cultural diversity of that group is reflected in the study. As to correlation strength, whenever we are told that X means Y we need to know to what extent X suggests Y and vice versa (the correlation coefficient). Here we are being told that differences between the pathways of the main fibre bundles in the brains of males and females mean that there are major differences in the specialisation of cognitive skills in men and women; we can learn something about X with diffusion tensor imaging, but Y involves testing and measurement of cognitive skills, which is fraught with problems. Neither the abstract nor the press release (and certainly not the newspaper articles) provide us with such a correlation coefficient.

The media tends to treat scientific studies as if they trump each other. Unless we take into account the results of other properly-conducted studies designed to address the same kinds of questions, we run the risk of seeing each new result as the definitive one. Overview-type papers taking into account the results of various studies and experiments can help us to appreciate the subtlety of scientific discourse. In ‘Male or Female? Brains are Intersex[ii], for example, Joel argues that, because of the myriad genetic and environmental factors involved, ‘we cannot predict the particular array of “male/female” brain characteristics of an individual on the basis of her/his sex.’

If you now feel that this issue has become a bit of a fudge, then perhaps that’s a reasonable analogy. There are various ingredients in the mix, including the sugar of genetics, the milk of environment, and the butter of random connectomic change. I’ll admit that, as a transhumanist, I am drawn to explanations that allow us the most degrees of freedom about what we may become and what skills we can learn. Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that the science to date does not prove that sex trumps plasticity when it comes to choosing our paths.

It may turn out that connectomes do indeed specialise and 'hardwire' into rigidly or semi-rigidly male or female configurations during adolescence, under all normal circumstances. But the data is not yet conclusive. Even if that does prove to be the case, the plasticity of our brains will always allow room for manoeuvre. Spend time reading maps each day and you will become better than average at reading maps. Listen sympathetically to people every day and you will become better than average at listening sympathetically to people. Even in older brains, the default-mode network (DMN) the 'resting state' configuration of neural connections – can be altered through practicing skills such as mindfulness.[iii] Despite this, most people would more readily attack the idea that we can learn to be more empathetic than the idea that we can learn better spatial skills, but is there a fundamental difference between such skills? Many responses to that question would include the word ‘natural’, but in this tangle of wiring, that will get us nowhere. We are certainly all wired (feel free to use a more naturalistic and less mechanistic word here) but we do not yet know to what extent we are either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ wired.

It is difficult for us to shake our stereotypes, but they really are out of date. Neuroscience will unearth differences and commonalities in male and female brains, but it is up to us which we choose to focus upon. Do we wish to overlap, striving as human beings to be flexible, smart, logical, caring, tolerant, and likeable? Or do we wish to entrench ourselves, fearing the loss of stereotypical skills that we have considered important for the demarcation of our sexes?

Personally, I will focus on the overlaps between male and female cognition. 3-D empathy orienteering sounds like many hours of scary fun.

[i]    Madhura Ingalhalikar and others, ‘Sex Differences in the Structural Connectome of the Human Brain’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013, 201316909 .
[ii]    Daphna Joel, ‘Male or Female? Brains Are Intersex’, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 5 (2011) .
[iii]   Ruchika Shaurya Prakash and others, ‘Mindfulness Disposition and Default-Mode Network Connectivity in Older Adults’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8 (2013), 112–117.

04 November 2013

Wirehead Bliss vs. Eudaemonic Happiness

Keys to Happiness
Image ©elycefeliz
Among transhumanists, there are many proponents of hedonism. Pleasure is immersive. Captivated by the prospect of enhanced, futuristic forms of stimulation, some posit the push-button variety as the ultimate fix.

Wireheading – direct electrical stimulation of the brain's reward centres via wires inserted through the skull – cuts out the dealer; this transaction requires no intermediary. With no diffuse, unpredictable drug reactions to muddy the euphoric flow, it's a clean, precise high. And why not? Let us not be prudish about the attractions of instant turn-on; humans have always sought ways to better achieve this, and now it's within our sweaty grasp.

Experiments such as the ones performed on rats by Olds and Milner in the early 1950s demonstrated the addictiveness of brain stimulation reward (BSR). In those experiments, rats wired to experience pleasure via deep brain regions whenever they pressed a lever would stimulate themselves to exhaustion, leading eventually to starvation. The rats were getting an enormous, easily-repeatable high from the release of dopamine triggered by the electrical stimulation.

At around the same time, Robert Heath was performing similar experiments on humans. And the results were evidently similar; reporting ‘an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation’, the human subjects did not want to be disconnected from Heath’s thrill-inducing apparatus. While it would have been unethical for Heath to allow this intracranial self-stimulation (ICSS) to continue to the point where the subjects’ health began to suffer, it is reasonable to assume that at least some humans, given the opportunity, would self-stimulate to the point of collapse.

Many futurists welcome the possibility of easily-available wireheading. Crude forms, such as those I mentioned above, have been superseded by the kinds of subtle techniques used to treat Parkinson’s tremors, and depression. And indeed, there is ample evidence that scientists can develop forms of BSR that provide an intense high without ‘wirehead junkie’ side effects. I can go along with that, but only so far. We should have the freedom to choose, just as we should have the freedom to choose which recreational drugs we ingest. And it’s right that we should be able to choose highs that are safe for us; ICSS may sound dangerous, but compared to drug taking with its risks of substance contamination, dirty needles, overdose, and so on, it’s a less harmful alternative. (And potentially a lot less harmful than the addictive, complex, contaminant-laden chemical cosh that we call alcohol.)

Philosophically speaking, pleasure is a problem. Sometimes it is synonymous with happiness; sometimes, as in the case of a drug-addict’s euphoria, it’s almost impossible to see how we could describe the sensation involved as happiness. However, if we clean up that type of euphoria by providing it direct, without the nasty side effects, can we then call it happiness? And if we can all achieve such instant happiness at the press of a button, what is the point in sorting out the wider problems of our world to make it a better, happier place? And what about scope? How can we conceive of the breadth and depth – the raw scope – of the realm of all possible pleasures? Perhaps what we think of as the ultimate pleasure amounts to almost nothing – maybe a slice the size of a fraction of one percent – of this indescribably delicious pie chart. In short, we really don’t know how good things can get.

To circumvent this problem, we can separate happiness into two quite different forms. One form is the pleasurable kind that we get from drugs, sex, adrenalin rushes, etc. The other form is eudaemonic – it is a higher order sort of happiness that is selfless, moral, mutual, and timeless, but one to which, unfortunately, there are no self-stimulatory shortcuts. You may, of course, argue that, with the right technology, even this form of happiness could be simulated. But, its proponents would counter, eudaemonia is just not like that – it exists independently of all such methods.

Some linguists think that ‘human flourishing’ is a better translation of eudaemonia than is ‘happiness’. If we go along with this translation, we can see that self-stimulation – no matter how sophisticated – cannot produce such a condition. We can rubbish this idea by inventing a Brave New World type scenario where the people do not know that they are not truly experiencing eudaemonia, or by imagining a Matrix type simulation of some utopia taking place within individual minds. Nevertheless, I prefer not to rubbish it, for it has utility. You can, like me, choose to accept that utility, or you can reject it in favour of a definition of happiness that relies solely upon how happy you happen to feel.

We can alleviate suffering with wireheading.  The philosopher David Pearce sees this as a form of ‘paradise-engineering’. Modifying the ‘ground-state’ of human cognition to become one where the emotions and sensations associated with pain and suffering simply do not exist is certainly one path we could take, but would it be the right one? I prefer to think of paradise as a place where suffering has been abolished via the expedient of a phase transition in human ethics; utopia is a shared enterprise. We can go round in circles arguing about what triggers that phase transition. As an optimist, albeit an angry one, I think it is not only underway but also accelerating.

Perhaps someday I, too, will be a wirehead. That’s OK; sometimes I could use a quick fix – red wine is such a histamine sledgehammer. If I have a choice, however, I will also hang onto the concept of eudaemonia. It’s a welcome island in an otherwise featureless ocean of bliss. It’s a vantage point. It’s a place, perhaps, where we can come together, unplug, and truly engineer a paradise.

25 October 2013

The Squirrels and the Rats of AI

Hazelnuts reDone
Image ©Mark Tomlinson
Concerned about viruses, porn, and spam choking up the internet? Just wait until the AI rats get to work.

As bioethicist James Hughes has pointed out, we should not assume that malign forms of artificial intelligence that may emerge would be of the UFAI (unfriendly artificial intelligence) variety. ‘Unfriendliness’ implies ill will, which in turn implies human-level or greater intelligence. In contrast, AI rats would be neither friendly nor unfriendly, but they could do a great deal of damage with their relentless digital scavenging.

Don’t such rats already plague us? Aren’t viruses gnawing at and infecting our IT systems now? Yes, but computer viruses are not intelligent. Rat-level AI is still some way off. The problem-solving capabilities of even the tiniest of rodents are a source of both inspiration and frustration to neuroscientists and AI researchers; rats have drives, and like us, they employ sophisticated behaviours to satisfy those drives. In contrast, computer viruses are mere algorithms lacking any form of desire or intent.

How would AI rats emerge? ‘Weak AI’ systems already abound: air-traffic control systems, vehicle engine-management systems, big-data language translation systems, ‘expert systems’, and so on. It is possible that weak AIs augmented to perform ever-more specialised roles could be elevated, accidentally (or maliciously), to a semi-sentient or sentient – but not sapient – level. Without sapient cognition, these entities would have no reasons or ability to attempt to communicate with us. Initially, they would perform the roles for which they were originally designed; multiplying geometrically, however, they might soon run out of target tasks and become ‘hungry’ for more. An engine-management system in frenzied competition with itself and with other such systems may not make for a pleasant driving experience. Rat infestation in an air-traffic control system could spell disaster.

Fortunately, others have different ideas about AI rodent scenarios. The roboticist and AI-developer Steve Grand opts for the rather cuter analogy of squirrels. In his book Creation: Life and How to Make It, he suggests that even squirrel-level intelligence could be extremely useful to us:
But imagine putting squirrel brains into, let us say, a set of traffic lights. …If the mind of a rodent was placed into each signal, and the signals were rewarded for how well they managed to smooth the flow of traffic in their local area, then it seems plausible that it could work.
Note that reward is vital to this kind of scenario. These ‘squirrels’ would have to be intelligent enough to be able to seek reward, and they would have to be able to learn that they would find that reward in the harmonious and efficient performance of their appointed tasks. It may be hard for us to imagine smooth traffic flow as the ‘nuts’ of such a setup, but just try to think about how a sapient or transapient strong AI might view our motivations.

I find implausible the idea of a Singularity where we suddenly leap from where we are now directly to strong AI. More likely, and I agree with Hughes on this, is one where intermediate-level AIs begin to spring up and multiply as scientists press on towards ever-stronger artificial intelligence. Refining our AI ethics to cover the kinds of capabilities with which we might accidentally or purposely endow weak AIs may allow us to benefit from harmonious (and quite cuddly) traffic systems while avoiding the need for drastic pest control.

26 September 2013

Scotland: An Abstracted State of Potential Grace

A wide-eyed Merida.
Image ©Alice the Photo Ninja
I used to be political; now I’m just politic.

Following on from my recent article Neuro with Everything, where I raised the vexatious issue of so-called neuropolitics, I will now take a deeper refractory look at our psychological blocks against things constitutional. Why are we uncomfortable about the mechanics of nationhood? Because we don’t really know what ‘nations’ are. Why is this relevant? Because, in Scotland, we are in a process of building a new one. Now, pass me that torque wrench.

Nations (yawn), how un-futuristic. Not so fast, there. While futurists tend to look forward to a time when all humankind will live in harmony, perhaps even under the auspices of a benevolent form of world government, some of us ponder what is the most expedient way to get there. Nations can be desperately un-futuristic, especially when they are cobbled together from the zombie vestiges of dead empires. Alternatively, they can be dynamic, paradigm-shifting agents in this world of exploding complexity.

Nations don’t exist. Countries don’t exist. Landmasses do exist, at least in the ordinary physical sense. People exist, living on landmasses. No, that’s not right. Roving biomasses exist on landmasses. Better. Some of these roving biological entities (us) are self-aware. These self-aware entities tend to group together with others whom they feel are like them – they are social entities. This can cause problems. These entities tend to argue with, fight with, and sometimes kill others whom they feel are dissimilar to them. Nations form. ‘In-groups’ delineate their territories using convenient geological boundaries, and then call these nation/territory constructs ‘countries’.

The term statist is often used as an insult, these days, against people who think that nation states can be effective vehicles for delivering on the needs and aspirations of individuals. You might expect such an attitude from capitalists (even the modern anarcho-capitalist variety) and ‘libertarians’, but why do many technoprogressive leftists also take this stance? I think it is because they assume that all nations, both existing and emerging, have been and will be built using the same failed templates that past nations used.

People are ‘agents’ within nations; neurons can be thought of as ‘agents’ within persons. Yet, perhaps because nations are seen as ‘not natural’ and ‘manufactured’ whereas persons are seen as wholly natural, we tend to dismiss the fact that they are both types of abstraction.[i] There are many ways in which neurons in their communicative context of human brains are different from humans in their communicative context of nations; I am not claiming that they produce the same types of abstraction, only that both can be seen as abstraction-generating agents of sorts.

Nations may behave unpredictably, but they each seem to have a unique ‘character’. They can be calm or aggressive, colourful or dour, outgoing or reclusive. They may form intimate relationships with other nations. Sometimes those relationships become strained, or abusively one-sided.

Scotland has a ‘character’. It is often identified as female. Some persons tend to think of her as traditional, wise, and cautious, but others see the growing scintilla in her eye. She craves.

We represent ourselves in myriad different ways. We change ourselves. We think. We act. Those of us who spend time pondering the future of the human race should not pretend that we can leap from here to utopia in a single bound. The Singularity might happen, but, then again, it might not. We need to interrogate our world, and engage with it. We cannot sit around waiting for some kind of ‘hard takeoff’.[ii]

The elevation of morality is important to me. I want to live in a morally-elevated world. On this trajectory, I choose the expedient of personal agency; I also find that I must choose the expedient of the fair, diverse, creative, forward-looking, independent nation state that I think we have an opportunity to create here. This may be unfashionable in futurist circles, but what should a futurist care for fashion?

Empires – and bloated nations that act like empires – shrink persons. They reduce us to mere ‘subjects’ with little more agency than synaptically-weak neurons in a conflicted brain. But consensual nations, chosen freely and fairly, can connect us together in fascinatingly teleodynamic ways. They can bring us together and help us to reach out. They can give us a clear voice in the growing din. Under the right circumstances, they can grant us citizenship within a well-adjusted, constantly-questioning, fully-functioning, enlightened ‘national consciousness’.

[i]     D. Parfit. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
[ii]    Inspired by a talk, in 2013, by James Hughes Ph.D., of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

20 September 2013

Quantum Consciousness: The Ultimate Gap-filler

wanderer between the worlds
Image ©Cornelia Kopp
When Daniel Dennett coined the term ‘greedy reductionism’, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), he may not have fully realised just how byzantinely gluttonous some ‘high tech’ forms of such reductionism could become.

Dennett was taking aim at the false type of reductionism; the kind that ‘gobbles up’ entire layers of complexity warranting scientific investigation in its haste to get to some imagined seed of perfect truth. I think he primarily had religion in mind, because of its obvious zeal to dig for gods at the slightest opportunity, and to brand everything unexplained as proofs of ‘intelligent design’. There is another kind of greedy reductionism, however, that is more of a closet bulimic than an out-and-out hog.

In my sights right now is the so-called orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR) hypothesis devised by mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, and anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Here, the gods of consciousness are squeezed into such tiny gaps that the gaps aren’t really gaps at all, but quantum states.

Orch-OR holds that human consciousness depends on exotic quantum-mechanical phenomena such as Bose-Einstein condensates. When, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind (1989), Penrose posited the idea of consciousness as a quantum phenomenon, he lacked an explanatory framework for it. Penrose utilised the counter-intuitive mathematics of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in claiming that thought must be non-computable, but he did not propose any substantive alternative to classical-physics theories of the ways that neurons and synapses work.

What is unusual about Orch-OR, compared with the various other ‘quantum soul’ notions, is that it has an ostensibly scientific basis; quantum superpositions, Bose-Einstein condensates, macroscopic quantum effects, quantum entanglement, and so on are all real phenomena. It seems, then, reasonable to look at an apparently very strange and inexplicable outcome of a biological substrate – consciousness – and explain it wholly in terms of quantum strangeness. So why are other scientists so keen to attack this hypothesis?

There is another ‘why?’ that we should first ask ourselves: why ignore all the other possible explanations that have still to be fully explored, and go straight for the quantum one? Investigation of nanoscale components of neurites in the brain, such as microtubules and neurofilaments, requires an electron microscope. The potential information-bearing capacity of these ‘components’ is unimaginably huge. And it is highly likely that they are capable of performing their role without the influence of quantum effects. Granted, as holistic reductionists we should not assume that, say, microtubules are bearers of discrete pieces of information, such as memories. But we should be prepared to accept that they contribute to the substrate of the brain, allowing – in highly-convolved combination with all the other levels of material processes – a kind of computation to happen in the system as a whole.

Now we’re getting down to it: computability versus non-computability. If we are going to insist that computation is ‘made’ of numbers, then we open ourselves up to attack by non-reductionists (and by so-called greedy reductionists). But, the way I like to think of it, computation isn’t made of numbers any more than money is made of paper. Computation can be represented in numerical form, and money can be represented in paper form; that doesn’t mean that those representations are what those things are.

Physicists such as Max Tegmark have rebutted Orch-OR, citing experiments indicating that the quantum states claimed for it by Hameroff would not arise and/or would not last long enough to play a role in consciousness. We should also bear in mind that Hameroff believes in ghosts. In an interview for the website of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, he stated: ‘I think consciousness is actually fundamental and intrinsic to the universe, that it’s built into the universe.’ This, of course, is animistic; Hameroff clearly believes in some type of ‘animating life force’ permeating the Universe. So his agenda is clear – he wants to find a way to scientise his belief in what really amounts to a ‘quantum soul’.

Our universe is quantum. It is probabilistic all the way up and all the way down. But if we allow non-reductionists masquerading as hungry reductionists to gobble up all the classical levels in between, we will have no classical matter left to interact with. We will be giving up on our place in the Universe, kicking back, shrugging our shoulders, munching on the junk food of bad science, and saying, ‘Wow, you know, it’s all like... energy, man.’ We will be making ourselves inexplicable, when there is absolutely no need to do so.

We are well used to hearing this kind of line from the religious. Now we also have to be constantly on our guard against plausible-sounding quantum hucksters (see Deepak Chopra, among others). We reductionists may cause you discomfort, by breaking you down into smaller and smaller parts. But these greedy reductionists and non-reductionists will swallow you whole as soon as look at you.

10 September 2013

Neuro with Everything

My brainIt seems like you can’t switch on your TV or open a web browser these days without bumping into brains. Neuroscientific discoveries are beginning to impact on areas of our lives that we had thought were set in sociocultural aspic, not in grey and white matter.

One that particularly interests me is so-called neuropolitics – ‘the interplay between the brain and politics.’ Using the word ‘interplay’ (as the Wikipedia definition does) is something of a cop-out, for we need to face up to the fact that politics happens inside brains, and the societies we live in are largely created by the repercussions of the actions that stem from those neural ruminations.

Tempting though it is to brand the examination of such linkages as pointless ‘neurobollocks’, we cannot continue to view the outcomes of policies as somehow removed from their sources in the biological brains of those in positions of power. Obviously, many of us are uncomfortable with the notion that we might be governed by ‘bad apples’ who, in some cases, we may have helped to rise to the top. More uncomfortable, though, is the realisation that all political ideologies are patterns of electrical signals running through the accrued pathways of their gelatinous substrates.

Does that matter? Couldn’t we say the same about all human experience? Yes, we could; the key point here is that the impact on us of the cognitive activity of our leaders in disproportionate and asymmetrical. They can think us into prosperity, poverty, or oblivion, but we, as individuals, cannot do the same to them.

I have suggested in a previous article that we should implement some form of neurological testing of political candidates, to try, as best we can, to tease out their true motivations. Saying that you are fit to run a country is an extraordinary claim – one that, in my opinion, requires extraordinary evidence.

And talking of evidence, what is all the fuss around neurolaw? As well as writing fascinating science and philosophy-of-science books such as Sum: Tales from the Afterlives and Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman spends a good deal of his time writing papers and speaking on this subject. The truth of whether or not a person has committed a crime is in the brain. The idea of trying to extract that truth by means other that the traditional question-and-answer method is, however, ethically problematic to say the least.

Rather than raising the distressing prospect of courtroom psychosurgery, Eagleman tends to concentrate on the neuroscientifc facts behind our concepts of blame and punishment: If we have little choice in the ways our brains turn out, can we really be blamed and punished when our actions cross the line, stepping from socially acceptable to socially proscribed? In Incognito, he comes across as optimistic about the future: ‘The upshot will be that we can have an evidence-based legal system in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but we will change our reasons for punishment and our opportunities for rehabilitation.’ He also admits, however, that there are and will still be criminals for whom neither punishment nor rehabilitation will succeed.

I have certain sympathies with those who cry ‘neurobollocks!’ when writers and broadcasters attempt to dress up thinly-informed neuron-gazing as true scientific insight. For example, although I enjoyed it at the time, I now take Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink with a hefty pinch of incredulity. Now what was his hypothesis again? That we are really smart and usually right when we don’t think things through, and instead just go with our ‘instincts’? Ponder the merit of that claim next time you end up in a police cell after punching somebody in the face. It is perhaps not the kind of self-help you were looking for.

It is also fair to say that the bright lights of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have dazzled many. Nuanced interpretations of what are, in reality, maps of blood flow in the brain don’t make for exciting news stories.

But let us not be too hard on those who try to frame every element of the human condition in cognitive terms. It can be good for us to think that way. It can be truly humbling. In the introduction to his book Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, Sebastian Seung puts it this way: ‘It is all of these things. Indeed, sometimes I think it is everything.’ The wistful sentiment bundled with that otherwise-austere statement touches me. Seung is not circumscribing our potential; he is rejoicing in it, while acknowledging its intricately fragile, self-referencing roots.

The blizzard of neuro- neologisms will blow harder yet in the years to come. Some of its fall will melt away; some will chill us to the cores of our being. An open mind does not have to be a suggestible one. A healthy dose of scepticism may serve us well during the great, surging neurostorm [sic] ahead.

06 September 2013

Figure-Ground Reversal

‘Consciousness is irreducible,’ proclaimed John Searle in a recent TED talk. This was just after telling us that we need to learn to think of it as a wholly biological process.

So, let me get this straight – it’s an irreducible biological process. I like John Searle’s manner – the irritable, baggy-trousered old philosopher thing works well for him. He is best known for his Chinese room thought experiment: an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence (AI). He used an elaborate metaphor involving Chinese characters written on bits of paper being passed into a locked room where they are interpreted, using a set of logical rules, by a person who does not speak the language. The set of rules also enables the person in the room to respond in kind.

The argument, as you can see, is to do with ‘actual’ understanding. Searle was claiming that there would be no understanding of the language going on within the locked room; ergo, there would be no understanding going on inside even the most sophisticated AI subjected to the Turing test. I’ll admit that I’m a little biased against Searle’s argument, having seen it systematically disassembled by Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained, but I don’t think it would be unfair to say that some of Searle’s claims about the nature of consciousness seem to be somewhat lacking in levels.

We know that the phenomenon of consciousness arises from the biological substrate of the brain. It’s a dualistic waste of time to argue otherwise. Searle is clearly frustrated by the endless philosophical debates over its real or illusory nature, and I’m with him on that, but not because I think we must unequivocally brand it as real; I’m frustrated by that debate because I think both words are wrong.

We often forget that there is a vast range of phenomena in the Universe for which we have no semantic classifications: What do you call that feeling of rocks changing shape by the process of erosion? What do you call that sense of thirsty tree root seeking water? You may argue that these examples have nothing to do with human consciousness. Nevertheless, there are all kinds of micro-processes going on inside you that you don’t ‘experience’ directly but which have some kind of teleonomic ‘direction’ to them.

Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature has most recently influenced my thoughts on this. The book is hard going sometimes, but I’m excited by his formalisation of the idea of a kind of ‘figure-ground reversal’ – what may be important about phenomena like consciousness is not what is present but what is absent. It is a theory of constraints: a whirlpool is a phenomenon produced by the constraining of water molecules to follow a range of downward-spiralling trajectories; perhaps consciousness is an inevitable result of constraint of molecules into a very specific biological configuration. What is absent, in both these cases, is the near-infinite range of trajectories and configurations that those molecules might otherwise have followed or taken on.

Deacon’s ‘essential absences’ – ‘absentials’ – resonate with me. I think it is partly because they demonstrate just how inadequate our semantic modes in the consciousness debate have been. It’s also because I like the idea of being an absential rend in the fabric of the not-me Universe. For many, though, talk of essential absence induces a kind of existential trypophobia – an irrational fear of holes – rendering them confused, frightened, or even disgusted by the notion.

So what about the Chinese room? Well, you just fill it with a vast number of people who don’t understand the symbols, give them the correct rules, and set them to work. If it is correctly set up, the room will produce the correct answer. But, surely, the understanding is still missing. Exactly. There are many things missing from this setup – understanding is an essential one of them. It is a kind of phenomenon that is being generated despite its absence as a specific phenomenon. That is why it looks irreducible.

Strange? Yes, very. But cogito ergo sum! I suppose it’s a good enough shorthand for this: something is producing a phenomenon that other somethings producing this phenomenon and the something producing the phenomenon call ‘thinking’. Constraint steers that clumsy definition towards an essentially useful I.

As I am an inveterate reductionist, you might think I should be more concerned about the biological mechanisms that make this possible. Certainly, the mechanisms fascinate me. However, that does not mean that I expect to be able to tap my finger on a screen and say, ‘Look, that’s consciousness right there.’ I may be able to say, ‘Those are the structures from which the state of consciousness emerges’, but that’s not quite the same. Phenomenal states emerge, and they have many different characteristics. Try pinpointing the vorticity in a whirlpool.

Before I am dragged under, I’d better round this off. If this were a letter, I think it would be pleasing to sign it off with a warmly heartfelt...

...absentially, consciously yours,

19 August 2013

The Myths of 5-A-Day and Other Arbitrary Health Targets

Eat five ‘portions’ of fruit and veg per day, walk 10,000 steps per day, eat no more than 30 grams of saturated fat per day: health targets; I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of them. But where do they come from, and what do they actually mean?

I am not about to knock the benefits of a ‘healthy lifestyle’. A healthy lifestyle sounds great, a healthy life sounds even better. It’s just that neither I, nor you, nor anyone else can pinpoint what that means. Do you really think that the delicate homeostatic and hormetic balance of your specific biology can be properly regulated by following a motley assortment of arbitrary ‘targets’?

It seems like a sensible idea to follow such government (and health-related NGO) set maximums and minimums. Government bodies have the benefit of access to a great deal of current and historical research on the outcomes of diet and exercise regimes; we, as individuals, appear to have far less expertise, scope, and data-mining capability to wield in our battles against bulges, heart problems, diabetes, and ill-health in general. The ‘common sense’ approach, then, must surely be to pay close attention to the resulting ‘advice’ issuing forth from the likes of the US Public Health Service and the UK National Health Service. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with the principle of worldwide and national health bodies giving out such advice; it’s in the practice that the problem lies.

Let us take the NHS-issued ‘five portions of fruit and vegetables per day’ target, which is the focus of this article and the main focus for my scorn. It appears that this one was cooked up (or, better still, served raw) in California around 1988, after public health representatives and fruit and veg growers got together and decided that such a campaign would be mutually beneficial. The campaign was launched in the UK in 2003 to what was, at the time, a desperate and suggestible public; the ‘obesity epidemic’ was grabbing headlines, and according to Professor Tim Lang who had earlier advised the UK Department of Health on such issues, ‘We needed something.’

And ‘something’ was exactly what they got: the UK government got to look like it was doing something in the midst of what newspapers were branding a crisis; fruit and veg growers got a boost in sales; unfortunately, the public got only a new, shrill, guilt-inducing, and generally annoying piece of arbitrary marketing-speak.

It would be difficult (to say the least) to find out whether this campaign has brought any health benefits whatsoever to UK citizens following its advice. I would guess that it has actually made things worse. Take the advice on fruit juice, for example. The NHS tells us, in the ‘Change4Life’ section of its website, ‘If you drink juice, a 150ml glass of unsweetened 100% fruit or vegetable juice counts as one portion – but it doesn’t matter how much more you drink, it’s still one portion.’ Although the information then goes on to add that, ‘Juice can contain quite a lot of fruit sugar, so it’s best to limit the amount you drink’, even the ‘150ml’ makes no sense given that that amount of ‘unsweetened’ orange juice can contain 3-4 teaspoons of sugar. There’s less sugar in Coca Cola. I wouldn’t take 3-4 teaspoons of sugar in an entire day, never mind in one ‘portion’.

I have here in front of me a tin of Heinz baked beans that proudly proclaims in large lettering on the front of its label, ‘1 of your 5 a day’. Really? This product contains 20 grams of sugar per tin – almost all of it artificially added to the disgusting ‘rich tomato sauce’ enveloping the sorely-abused beans. The tin is marked off into four 100-gram measurements to show you just how much health benefit you are gaining with each portion of the product you eat. Nonsense.

Five-a-day is easy to shoot down because it seems too ridiculous to be true, yet the NHS and UK government have allowed it to stand for ten years. And, unbelievably, it’s still running. It is dished out to us daily, along with extra dollops of smiling wellness and spangly, colourful, childish graphics.

We have a problem here. It is one of credulity and of lag. We must be far more vigilant and far less credulous in our consumption of this kind of ‘health advice’, otherwise we end up in the kind of situation we are in – one where opportunistic food companies start using public health advice to punt their often-highly-suspect products. The ‘lag’ is to do with health advice more generally: we are discussing a relatively new and hypothetical field of study; consensus on human exercise and nutrition has not yet been reached, so a good deal of the advice given out is based upon speculation and is issued to the public before it has been properly tested (in effect, using us as experimental guinea pigs).

I will not be eating my ‘5-a-day’ today. This is not because I am thrawn (although I can be) but because the message is unscientific: it is neat, tidy, easy-to-follow hokum. I will eat some vegetables, I might even eat some fruit; I will also eat some other foods containing high percentages of protein and fat. My brain and body will receive adequate fuel. I will question, I will rail, I will think before I swallow. I might even take some steps once this cup of coffee has made it to my bladder; they will not number 10,000.

That is my front-of-the-can message. It isn’t neat, it isn’t sweet, may well be hard to stomach, and may not amount to a hill of beans. Why not ask some pertinent questions, and then design one of your own? The spangly graphics are optional.

07 July 2013

The Art of the Archivist

My friend’s approach to dealing with the accrued data of his life is different to mine: He treats his with reverence; I treat much of mine with cold pragmatism.

This makes little sense. I have experienced the trauma of losing personal-meaning-suffused data when, many years ago, a lightning strike fried my PC and, along with it, the hard-drive containing the sole copies of songs I had written. Losing such data feels a lot like grief, probably because it is grief. You can see such grief in the expressions of those who have lost all their possessions to fire or flood. The rationalist in us may shrug and say, ‘Well, nobody died’; clearly, however, something died – the part of the person that was implicit in their now-destroyed archive.

To a large extent, we take our personal data for granted. It has become easy for us to create (and back-up) vast amounts of it. For some, physical things that cannot be converted into easily-storable binary data have become a burden; for others, an MP3 file could never substitute for a cherished disc of grooved vinyl. But consider, for a moment, the burdens (both physical and metaphorical) of earlier archivists: inscribed stone tablets; purport-laden sheets of carefully-prepared Cyperus papyrus; symbol-etched tree bark, bamboo, bone; ‘illuminated’ codices on parchment of goat skin; and, of course, delicate and easily-corrupted networks of interconnected neurons (present in the brain of the skilled storyteller – in effect, an oral archivist – charged with memorising and relating the history of his/her people).

Ancient archive disasters such as the destruction (by various fires, spaced over hundreds of years) of the Library of Alexandria demonstrate the vulnerability of some of those early systems. Though less vulnerable to complete destruction, well managed modern-day digital archives are still burdensome and, regrettably, still prone to corruption.

For cryonicists like me, the understanding of self as potentially-preservable pattern demands a practical/radical approach to archival. I am my own medium, so my approach to the storage of this particular archive has been to choose a method by which the important parts of the pattern might just survive my death: the cold, radical pragmatism of cryonic suspension. The other practical strand of the required approach (which I have not yet fully addressed) is to do with the archival of the externalised parts of myself – the valued data that I have acquired, created, and sometimes stored, that constitutes my distributed avatar-halo.

An article by Mike Anzis in the April 2013 issue of Cryonics magazine goes into the issues of ‘very long-term storage of personal information and materials’ at length. It’s all delightfully practical. I already knew that the head would be going in the liquid nitrogen ‘box’, but Anzis has the other bases covered too: the physical possessions go in the Alcor storage box; the data archives go onto a Millenniata M-Disc (‘a DVD made out of stone that lasts 1,000 years’), or up to cloud storage services such as Google Drive or SkyDrive. None of this sounds much like encapsulation of an avatar-halo, until, that is, we get to ‘mind files’. LifeNaut and CyBeRev are secure, cloud-based services that allow the user to create a central hub linking together their various online presences, to upload files for secure storage, and to generate (from photos) an avatar that can relay stored information to those granted access to their profile.

My friend already has part of my mind file. Whereas I have misplaced much of the music we created together and the photos taken when we were in a band together, he has kept it all. And he knows where to find it: it is all neatly stored and clearly labelled. Because of his diligence, parts of my life have been preserved that would otherwise have been lost. I admit that I have been careless with my own past, but, paradoxically, that’s not because I don’t care about it; I think it has to do with the fact that the connections to it that remain are painfully tenuous. That’s no excuse, though. I care deeply about the preservation of life, so I should also care deeply about the preservation of the stacked or scattered elements that go together to make a whole one.

Perhaps what is missing from my attitude to archival is the art. My friend feels and knows how to enhance the significance of the objectified data in his hands. For him, a cassette tape containing old songs is more than just that; the spine and the song titles have been inscribed – in his inimitable jagged-pen style – with care, with love, and with moment. He, like other archivists through the ages, makes the object itself, not just the data, radiate significance. This ability to capture meaning and moment is an integral part of his personality. It is what makes him both artist and archivist.

Today is his molybdenum birthday. This piece of writing is my cheapskate gift to him. Happy birthday, Scott. Keep on caring. And keep on keepin’.

27 March 2013

The Sapiens and the Sea Urchin

Echinus esculentus – the species of sea urchin I sometimes find on the shore in front of my house at a very low tide – can live for up to sixteen years. Kim Suozzi, of Homo sapiens, got twenty-three. What shall we make of this?

Kim was undoubtedly more complex than a sea urchin, so the cancer that killed her had a much greater bulk of DNA from which to emerge as random mutation. Her complexity was also manifest in a quick and pragmatic mind; a mind booted up from a brain equipped for vastly greater outreach than the simple boundary definitions of our spiny Echinus.

The last dead sea urchin I saw had been killed by a seagull. A powerful, expertly-aimed peck to the top-mounted gonads, and the sea urchin’s cells were off on a new helter-skelter branch of the carbon cycle, beginning in the digestive tract of a Larus argentatus. Some of the seagull’s far-flung excrement may have lodged in a receptive crack in a rock, there to nourish new life – pretty sea-pinks, daisies, bacteria.

The Echinus cells that entered my own digestive tract the last (and only) time I ate one, fed back into the cycle far less efficiently; putrefying in the base of a septic tank for several months prior to removal to a processing plant by a big yellow tanker.

Don’t you find that the idea of dead Echinus gonad cells processed through the digestive systems of Chordata makes for a poetic illustration of the majesty of the cycle of life? No? Why not? What about the prosaic old one about the tree planted over a buried dead body. Better, yes?

If you are the sort of person that insists on trotting out such Pagan banalities then you’re going to have to learn to take the rough with the smooth.

Without such cycles there would be no life. That is true. But our response to this truth is entirely open to revision. If it is not open to revision then we are thinking in a primitive and simplistic way, ignoring the burgeoning complexity thrown up by the strange state of self-awareness birthed, in us, by the cycle of life, feeding and filth.

Despite her youth, Kim grasped the complexity. She removed her outreach/inreach organ – her brain – from the accidental tyranny of the cycle. It has been cryopreserved.

If you choose to behave like Echinus esculentus, you’ll find a myriad ways to surrender to the whims of the chain of endless, dumb, recycling. But no poetry. If you choose to really think like a sapiens you’ll take the truth of the cycle on board; then, after weighing up your slim options, you’ll do your damnedest to break free of it.