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Saturday, 13 September 2014

What Living in a Computer Might Feel Like

What is the relationship between consciousness and sensory input?

Consider this: you are on a beach sipping a cocktail while the sun sets over the horizon. There is significant information which may be considered fresh, or renewed, which is being drilled into your perception of the surroundings - the breeze, sight, sound, taste, smell, gravity, balance, etc.

The continuous transfer of information into your brain is defining your conscious experience which feels unmistakeably "real".

Now consider the exact same scenario on the beach, but as a dream. Your subjective experience may feel quite identical, as long as you don't spontaneously realise within the dream that it's a dream (lucid dreaming). Even then, the sensations simulated - without a doubt, they are simulated because there is no beach, there is no breeze, etc. - you are after all sedated in your bed with your body under paralysis; those sensations still feel pretty convincing, and only upon waking are they deemed lesser than "reality".

Nonetheless, there must be a clear line dividing the dreaming consciousness and the awake consciousness if lucid dreaming is even possible, which it is.

I suggest that dreaming consciousness is supported by old information potentially being recycled in various ways, rather than intercepted live through sensory pathways. In a scenario where a mind is isolated from sensory input, for example as existing in a computer interface, and presumably pre-packed with information or programmed, the playing out of thoughts may end up feeling more like a dream than reality, due to the lack of live sensory input.

The scenarios played out in the mind soon after fainting also feel like dreams, despite not actually occurring in the same sequence as that leading up to sleeping dreams. It would appear that the backstage processing of information is actually ongoing regardless of an awake or asleep state.

So each night when you go to sleep, ponder for a second the sheer uniqueness of this experience: your body is sedated slowly and consciousness fades, only to resurrect itself back again intermittently in a dream world composed entirely of simulated imagery that nonetheless feels real, or almost real.

Ultimately, only experiencing reality can provide the backdrop to concluding the dream experience is inferior, and who's to say that if we were wandering through dreams for long enough, we wouldn't get a better sense of ourselves and learn to control the situations encountered rather than let them happen to us, much like a toddler explores a brand new world and slowly learns their way around?

And last but not least: if living in a computer that resembled continuous lucid dreaming i.e. being in control of the simulated environment and yourself to the point where you may be able to change anything and everything, essentially doing whatever you want to the full extent of the meaning, were possible for you - would you be tempted?

Friday, 8 August 2014

Death by Hunger, Death by Ageing

People die of hunger all the time. You can't make food out of nothing, right? No, people around you don't die of hunger at all, it may even seem a laughable, ridiculously unlikely event. But they do, people in the world die of hunger. Because you can't make food out of nothing. Our food? It comes from the sun - ultimately the energy from the sun. In a way, so does electricity and everything else. Because now, more than ever, we can transform types of energy from chemical to electrical and so on.

That's why you and I - we don't die of hunger. The punchline: why is our compulsive urge to avoid death by hunger - to seek out food - accepted by ourselves so obviously, since it is merely an extension of our urge to stay alive? Food is just to stay alive, not a purpose of its own.

Why is it that while hunger for food is a legitimate goal to pursue as a human being and as a civilization, hunger for what ultimately food is for - staying alive - is seen as illegitimate? Defeating ageing is seen as impossible. Just like making food out of nothing, or flying used to be. Why? If sunlight can sustain us, and air propel us, through time and through space, then why give up at another hurdle?

Think about it.

www.sens.org

The Long, Long, Cycle of Life

I remember a time when I was a child and wasn't aware of what happens as we get older and older. I asked mum what happens afterwards, and she said we stop getting older and older, and start getting younger and younger until we are children again. Then we get older and the cycle continues. I thought it was a beautiful thing and looked forward to my "second" childhood.

Today I acquired a unique perspective on how the above metaphor is exactly what happens with our germ (egg and sperm) cells. In the lineage traced back to the beginning of time, one cell never died. It grew forwards and specialised into the cells that make up a new individual, including that one germ cell that was passed on. At fertilisation, the cell started going backwards and turning into a totipotent stem cell that could once more grow forwards and specialise again. To germ, back to stem cell, to germ and back again. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Never dying. This cell has been alive for all of time, and is now alive within you.

So when you think what a "long" life should be, think of how long this little fella has been around.

What Young Scientists Should Do

“A Fred Sanger would not survive today’s world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977. He would be labelled as unproductive, and his modest personal support would be denied. We no longer have a culture that allows individuals to embark on long-term—and what would be considered today extremely risky—projects.”

"Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it."

Long and captivating read http://kingsreview.co.uk/magazine/blog/2014/02/24/how-academia-and-publishing-are-destroying-scientific-innovation-a-conversation-with-sydney-brenner/

Changing the Building Blocks of Life

"The history of science shows several changes to our worldviews, altering our folk-based narratives to more scientifically inspired (semi-)rational approaches. In this context, science has inflicted a series of disappointments and disillusions to our folk-based beliefs, such as: the earth is not the center of the Universe, men and apes share the same ancestors, or that emotions and thinking is correlated to a neurological substrate. The promoters of these ideas were often attacked by those trying to keep the intellectual status quo.

Xenobiology could easily trigger the next paradigm change in the way we understand nature and life. Just as the Earth lost its place as the center of the universe, or men lost its unique status in the animal world, our natural world could lose its unique status as being synonymous with “life.” But as with all other paradigm changes, concepts that better explain the world around us cannot be ignored for long."

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2909387/

Are there limits to what you can do in a dream?

Researchers are very interested in figuring out how memory works, as well as what consciousness is. In order to gather more insight into these areas, they are studying the phenomenon of lucid dreaming in which people are aware, within a dream, that they are within a dream. Lucid dreaming can be accompanied by the ability to alter the dreaming environment at will.

I'm not yet one of the people who can control how often they have lucid dreams, yet last night I had one. After the initial testing to check if it was indeed a dream (poking a hard surface and seeing it bend around my finger), and the inevitable playing out of certain "quick scenarios that could not happen in real life" (leave that to the imagination), I proceeded to do a few in-dream experiments.

I tried to see just how much I can alter within the dream, and what the limitations are.

1. After continuously altering everything in the environment for a few seconds, it became too difficult to continue. I got fatigued and changing things because more difficult.
2. Arbitrary elements persisted in the environment unless I specifically removed them - i.e. there is a stock background. It is easier to put things in than isolate them and take them out.
3. Just like in The Matrix, you have to believe in what you are attempting to create. If you doubt yourself it takes longer to change a chair for example into an armchair.

Pending question: are the experiences perceived in dreams purely replicas of experiences already lived, or can they be generated anew, and therefore stay unique to the dream world?

Where did our Moon come from?

Recently new evidence came to light that supported the long-held hypothesis regarding the formation of our Moon. Where did the Moon come from? Scientists believed that a very, very, very long time ago (4.5 billion years) a planetary body called Theia, the size of Mars, indirectly collided with Earth and formed a lot of debris. 

Photo: Recently new evidence came to light that supported the long-held hypothesis regarding the formation of our Moon. Where did the Moon come from? Scientists believed that a very, very, very long time ago (4.5 billion years) a planetary body called Theia, the size of Mars, indirectly collided with Earth and formed a lot of debris. 

The Moon formed over time from this remainder, and ever since has been orbiting out planet like clockwork. In 2 days, we'll have a full Moon as seen from Earth. The phases of the Moon have been calculated with extreme precision for every single day gone, and every single day yet to come. 

Many associate the Moon with emotional depth, a hidden yet powerful force - the kind that makes the oceans move. And they do, they move, in tides. Whenever two people meet, a collision takes place. Most of what happens bounces off into deep space, just like the debris from Theia. Yet sometimes, a little something stays with you, becomes intertwined with your inner workings in a way beyond your comprehension, gives way to a silent force that likes to come out at night, and for a very long time will dance with you. Just like the Moon stayed with the Earth.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theia_(planet)

The Moon formed over time from this remainder, and ever since has been orbiting out planet like clockwork. In 2 days, we'll have a full Moon as seen from Earth. The phases of the Moon have been calculated with extreme precision for every single day gone, and every single day yet to come. 

Many associate the Moon with emotional depth, a hidden yet powerful force - the kind that makes the oceans move. And they do, they move, in tides. Whenever two people meet, a collision takes place. Most of what happens bounces off into deep space, just like the debris from Theia. Yet sometimes, a little something stays with you, becomes intertwined with your inner workings in a way beyond your comprehension, gives way to a silent force that likes to come out at night, and for a very long time will dance with you. Just like the Moon stayed with the Earth.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theia_(planet)

Genetic Selection Guidelines on Babies

Should people be able to choose their baby's sex, skin colour, intelligence, etc.? I propose a guideline that has the following foundation: the limitations of direct genetic engineering on babies should be the same as those of indirect selection through choosing who to have the baby with. 

Guidelines are important here because there is a fine line between the inalienable human right to reproduce by choice with whomever, and outright eugenics (creating a human "superior master" race).

I don't believe eugenics would be the main issue. After all, how many people would choose to have a child not genetically theirs because they objectively assess themselves as ugly and stupid (chuckle)?

I believe the main issue would be an amplification of the already existing set of expectations parents lay on their children before they are born.

A baby's general appearance can be selected indirectly by mate selection, therefore to that extent it should be available in genetic engineering. Thankfully, our genome is not as discerning as we are, and most features are not monogenic.

You could select your baby's rough height, skin/hair colour, rough facial features, but you could not select the precise nose-mouth size ratio. Eye colour itself is a combo of around 16 genes.

You can't select your baby's sex by choosing different partners - and so you shouldn't have that option through genetic engineering (again, not because there's something wrong or dangerous with that; there isn't; but because it would inflate parent expectations in a harmful way).

Many attractive features such as sense of humour, occupation, and appearance are not inheritable e.g. make up, exercise, so in fact any genetic engineering should be focused on optimising health; any remaining subjective features should be put through the "if I chose a partner" test.

If a feature could not be chosen indirectly through the partner, it should not be available directly via genetic engineering.

Can Artificial Intelligence Become "Alive"?

Re: AI (Artificial Intelligence) et al.: The direction of all things which seem a result of human intelligence is not determined by this intelligence. AI in itself is just this intelligence; our intelligence is the means - not the cause or the purpose. 

Both cause and purpose are the driving forces behind all humans do, and AI is not inherently endowed with either. Both cause and purpose in quality are constant tracing back to the first cell. It is what separates living from dead matter.

The Sun is great and powerful. Yet it has no intent to survive and reproduce - to take over the world, to own, to expand. These are living matter properties that are not breathed into intelligent dead matter.

Our consciousness is not suspended by intelligence. It is suspended by instinct. Our condition not logical. Even our inferior intelligence ultimately realises the nonsense condition life is. Superior AI does not doubt it.

Without an illogical drive, which may or may not be tainted into the AI, the dead will not come to life. And just as our 'natural' intelligence, AI would only be another continuation and branching point in the tree of life that serves as a tool to fulfill ends.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Rejected Post on the Pro-Aging Trance

A while back my university magazine approached me to write a scientific article for a well-educated but non-specialist audience i.e. my fellow students.

After submitting it multiple times and trying to get in touch, I abandoned the whole thing (they didn't seem to be interested; or bother letting me know that they weren't interested anymore). I've just found the Word file and thought - hey, might as well share this with the world. Please take into consideration that some of the circumstantial aspects of this piece are now out of date.

Do you believe in aging?

 

You’re lying down on a soft, lush green lawn, staring at the crisp blue sky, watching clouds fly by. Could it be that you could fly beside them one day? This isn’t the thought of someone who has ever been on a plane. This is the thought of the millions of people before us who didn’t. Imagine being them - it makes perfect sense, after all, that humans don’t have wings and can’t fly. Full stop. Yet people fly, they fly everyday beneath the clouds, above the clouds, and beside the clouds. A small fraction of people made that possible. It could be argued that without the wild belief that somehow a wingless human might find themselves beside clouds, the achievement would never have happened. Discoveries and research are driven by people’s vehement belief that there is more around us that we don’t know of yet. So how come certain topics more than others stir up disbelief among many, despite the experiences of the past, and a base of crude empirical evidence?

 

London, 16th century - the average life expectancy is 30 years. The same place in the 21st century sees the average life expectancy rocket to an average of 80 years and rising. Past experiences show that it is possible for life expectancy to triple in the space of 500 years, with people not really making a big deal out of it. Improving sanitation and healthcare may seem like easy things to have done in the past which resulted in increased lifespan. Yet nothing is ever easy before it is done, much like creating an aircraft is only commonplace once the very first one has safely taken off and landed. The idea that it is possible to reverse the process which results in the most deaths worldwide – aging – is seen as an untouchable fantasy, and has been all along. Wasn’t flying an untouchable fantasy?

The more big leaps are turned into small steps, the more fathomable such breakthroughs become. Stopping aging has a very high rating of impossible indeed, yet stopping the specific biological processes which may cause aging (mutant mitochondria and death-resistant cells among others) has a much better rating, close to very much possible. The number of people who believe aging will eventually be reversed at some point in the future is much higher than the number of people who believe aging will be reversed closer to our time. Will humans meet alien life? Why not? Will humans meet alien life this year? A resounding no might be the answer. Imagine for a minute that a group of people believe they will meet alien life within the year, despite there being no chance of it happening. Aren’t their efforts going to significantly increase that chance? Aren’t their actions the sole variable that determines just how likely such breakthrough would be? If no one at all even considered creating an airplane, how would it even be possible for one to have been made?

I am currently taking part in a project about the so-called pro-aging trance.  It’s a bit like looking back on the people who thought flying was never going to happen, and trying to find out the reasons behind it. Why did some people believe and others disbelieve? Could those answers apply to people today and their beliefs about aging? Although aging is biological in nature, studying people’s beliefs and profiling their more general outlook requires a psychological approach. Faced with the apparent certainty of death, people seek reassurance which can soften the thought of something that is negative in essence. There is a continuum of perceived control over one’s life, which runs between an internal locus of control and an external locus of control. People who find themselves at the end of the spectrum on the side of the internal locus of control tend to attribute life’s events to their own actions, therefore blaming themselves more for how things turn out, and even how the wider world turns out. At the other end, people with an external locus of control see the world as greater than them, and are likely to explain things in terms of luck and other forces out of their reach.

The pro-aging trance is a term used to describe the state of mind associated with accepting aging as an inevitable constant, therefore going along with the prospect of aging and death. Strictly speaking, aging is an inevitable constant, but not any more than us being wingless is. Many inevitable constants of nature have had their effects nullified by our intelligent actions.

It is common to assume something as a fact of life when it has been the case for a very long time, unchanged. Think of the monkey experiment where several caged monkeys would be faced with a hanging banana, yet each time they tried to reach for it, all monkeys were sprayed with water (which they hate). The monkeys were replaced one by one with other monkeys unaware of the water spraying. When the new monkeys tried to reach for the banana, the other monkeys would stop them in a quite violent fashion. When faced with the unavoidable, what can you do but accept it? People have been accepting aging and death since our beginning. The premise behind the pro-aging trance is that people with an internal locus of control are likely to believe in reversing aging, and either oppose it on moral grounds, or attempt to join efforts to achieve it. On the other hand, people with an external locus of control would reject the idea altogether, or deem it so far-fetched that it deserves no attention from the people alive today. The pro-aging trance project aims to discover if these associations stand.

The project was started by Kelsey Moody and his team at SUNY Plattsburgh, and is being contributed to by Stuart Calimport of Aston University, Kemal Akman of Munich University, Barry Bentley of Cambridge University and myself. The initial motivation behind starting this project was, in Kelsey’s words:

“Like many immortalists, I couldn't figure out why the heck everyone in the world wasn't getting involved with age-related research.  Being a psychology student at the time (I completed a major in psychology before declaring a second in biochemistry), I had the training necessary to study the PAT.  I recruited three undergraduates to work for me and we completed a rather comprehensive literature review on the topic, ultimately implicating TMT (Terror Management Theory) and LH (Learned Helplessness) as major players in what we call the PAT.”

TMT states that most human behaviour is caused by the fear of death, while learned helplessness is a state of a person or an animal that has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity arises for it to help itself. This is caused by a constant avoiding of an unpleasant circumstance to which that person or animal has been subjected.


The results of this project will help understand people’s attitudes towards rejuvenation biotechnologies, and that understanding is needed to bring together the resources to advance the future of anti-aging research into the present.