All posts tagged transhumanism

I was somewhat disappointed by the latest Accelerating Change Conference, which might have been great for people who have never been to that kind of conference before, but didn’t manage enough novelty to be terribly valuable to those who attended the first one. Here are a few disorganized tidbits I got from it.
Bruno Olshausen described our understanding of the neuron as pre-newtonian, and said a neuron might be as complex as a pentium.
Joichi Ito convinced me that Wikipedia has a wider range of uses than my stereotype of it as a dictionary/encyclopedia suggested. For example, its entry on Katrina seems to be a better summary of the news than what I can get via the traditional news media.
Cory Ondrejka pointed out the negative correlation between the availability of violent video games and some broad measure of U.S. crime. He hinted this might say something about causation, but reminded people of the appropriate skepticism by noting the correlation between the decline in pirates and global warming.
Someone reported that Second Life is growing at an impressive pace. I’ve tried it a little over a somewhat flaky wireless connection and wasn’t too excited; I’ll try to get my iBook connected to my dsl line and see if a more reliable connection makes it nicer.
Tom Malone talked about how declining communications costs first enabled the creation of large companies with centralized hierarchies and are now decentralizing companies. His view of Ebay was interesting – he pointed out that it could be considered a retailer with one of the largest number of employees, except that it has outsourced most of its employees (i.e. the people who make a living selling through Ebay). He also mentioned that Intel has some internal markets for resources such as manufacturing capacity.
Daniel Amen criticized modern psychiatry for failing to look at the brain for signs of physical damage. He provided strong anecdotal evidence that the brain imaging services he sell can sometimes tell people how to fix mental problems that standard psychiatry can’t diagnose, but left plenty of doubt as to whether his successes are frequent enough to justify his fees.
T. Colin Campbell described some evidence that eating animal protein is unhealthy. He didn’t convince me that he was a very reliable source of information, but his evidence against casein (a milk protein) sounded fairly strong.
One odd comment from Robin Raskin (amidst an annoying amount of thoughtless sensationalism) was that kids don’t use email anymore. They send about two emails per day [i.e. they’ve switch to IM]. The idea that sending two emails per day amounts to abandoning email makes me wonder to what extent I’m out of touch with modern communication habits.
An amusing joke, attributed to Eric Drexler:
Q: Why did Douglas Hofstadter cross the road?
A: To make this joke possible.

Book Review: Nanofuture: What’s Next For Nanotechnology by J. Storrs Hall
This book provides some rather well informed insights into what molecular engineering will be able to do in a few decades. It isn’t as thoughtful as Drexler’s Engines of Creation, but it has many ideas that seem new to this reader who has been reading similar essays for many years, such as a solar energy collector that looks and feels like grass.
The book is somewhat eccentric in it’s choice of what to emphasize, devoting three pages to the history of the steam engine, but describing the efficiency of nanotech batteries in a footnote that is a bit too cryptic to be convincing.
The chapter on economics is better than I expected, but I’m still not satisfied. The prediction that interest rates will be much higher sounds correct for the period in which we transition to widespread use of general purpose assemblers, since investing capital in producing more machines will be very productive. But once the technology is widespread and mature, the value of additional manufacturing will decline rapidly to the point where it ceases to put upward pressure on interest rates.
The chapter on AI is disappointing, implying that the main risks of AI are to the human ego. For some better clues about the risks of AI, see Yudkowsky’s essay on Creating Friendly AI.

The 2004 Accelerating Change Conference focused much more on current changes than last year’s attempts at providing long-term visions led me to expect.

The one topic that excited me was a virtual world called Second Life. While it might sound superficially like just a virtual Burning Man, the designers are serious enough about their nationbuilding to encourage commerce, both within the system and via currency exchanges such as The Gaming Open Market with other worlds. Their VP of Product Development Cory Ondrejka described Hernando de Soto’s book The Mystery of Capital as "must reading". They have been careful to insure that people have few incentives to take disputes arising in the virtual world to meatspace courts. For instance, they once banned a vandal from the game who owned a fair amount of land; they auctioned off the land and sent him a check for most of the proceeds – $1600.

Some of their customers are doing well enough in the virtual world that the company that runs Second Life has trouble offering them a salary good enough to compete with what they’re making in virtual life.

They don’t seem as concerned about the highly deflationary effects of their monetary policy as I expect they ought to be. Why will people buy their land (the sale of which seems to be their main source of income) if they can earn a safe and sure return by just holding the local currency?

The responsiveness of the company to citizen complaints (e.g. simplifying and later abolishing taxes in response to tax revolts) is fairly strong evidence that a non-monopolistic dictator is better than a democracy with monopoly power.