Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Memento mori

I don't understand people when they say they're okay with death.

"When my time is up, it's up."

Oh really? I'll believe that when you're facing death and saying it.

I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to want death (or, if you're a Spinozist, at least good prima facie reasons). If you're hopelessly trapped or in unceasing agony, I could see preferring death to life.

What I doubt is that anyone gets to some point in their life and says, "Gee, you know, I've experienced enough. I've loved enough and shared enough with other people. There's really nothing else I wanna see. I think now is a good time to stop."

I've never even heard of someone saying anything even like that. In fact, I can't even think of a fictional character who said something like that.

I guess it's different if you believe in an after-life. Then you do go on living, loving, learning, etc., just in a different place. But that puts the cart before the horse, because the whole reason people believe in an after-life is because they fear death in the first place.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The future of sex

It's old news, but SETI is on the lookout for artificial intelligence.
"If you look at the timescales for the development of technology, at some point you invent radio and then you go on the air and then we have a chance of finding you," he told BBC News.

"But within a few hundred years of inventing radio - at least if we're any example - you invent thinking machines; we're probably going to do that in this century.

"So you've invented your successors and only for a few hundred years are you... a 'biological' intelligence."

From a probability point of view, if such thinking machines ever evolved, we would be more likely to spot signals from them than from the "biological" life that invented them.
As a singularitarian and a transhumanist, I'm generally in agreement with this. I believe the non-biological portion of our intelligence will outstrip the biological portion within decades, not centuries. But without biological bodies, what becomes of sex and sexual difference?

From one point of view, there's just no way of knowing. Humans will not only become a new species. The very rules of evolution will change. Intelligence will go off in many new, unpredictable directions. There's nothing we can say about it from our current perspective.

Another point of view says intelligence will have non-biological instantiation, so things like sexual difference will no longer matter. Algorithms will evolve, not males and females. On this view there might be little to worry about when it comes to the relations between the sexes, since sexes won't exist in a few decades anyway.

I think both positions are naive. The first position forgets that there is continuity in life, despite the radical changes it has undergone in transitioning from matter to cells with DNA to eukaryotes and all the way up to talking apes. The superintelligent civilization will still be a human civilization insofar as it is created by us. We can make intelligible predictions about it.

The second position leaves out the tremendous gains that were made by the invention of sexual difference. If what Miller says about sexual selection is true, then it is the source not only of all the variety we see around us; it is also the reason evolution has exhibited accelerating returns over the past 535 million years.

While I wouldn't necessarily put money on it, I'm willing to guess that something analogous to sexual difference will persist after intelligence has made the leap to a non-biological substratum. It's too successful a strategy to abandon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mad Men

I started watching Mad Men. It's a delightful and entertaining show and very well written. It's inspired me to start drinking Old Fashioneds and to wear pocket squares. It's not inspiring me to smoke. Nothing has inspired me to smoke since I quit four and a half years ago.

It's also one of the most interesting shows I've ever watched. It depicts an America arguably at the zenith of its power. The show starts at the end of the early 60s recession when the country was about to move into a period of unprecedented economic growth (which would only be surpassed by that in the 90s). The American middle class was stronger than it has been since, due to (not despite) strong unions and high taxes. Median household income was growing faster than at any other time in history before or since then.

Ideologically things were simpler. There were enemies within and without. Yet this was before the country was shaken by the assassination of the President, and it was before the oppressed and the marginalized rose up and rightfully demanded a fair share in the prosperity enjoyed by white, male America. It was a less self-conscious, more self-assured nation. Or so it seems.

It takes place in a time before the critique of consumerism was widespread. We take consumerism so much for granted now that it's hard to recognize that it represented a revolution in the way capitalism operated. Before the 1950s, capitalism was mostly production-focused. The good factory or company was the one that operated the most efficiently. The Ford factory was the paradigm of this efficiency, though it only produced the Model T in one color. Things like marketing and advertising were almost an after-thought, a way to make sure the thing gets bought and used.

All this changes in the 50s, and there's a big shift. Companies like Proctor & Gamble move from a "production orientation" to a "marketing orientation". Marketing and advertising are no longer an after-thought to production. Connecting with the consumer becomes the goal of production, not merely a way of getting rid of product, and doing so creates astronomical profits. The focus is no longer production. Production matters insofar as it contributes to consumer satisfaction.

Nothing like it had ever been done before, and society arguably became wealthier, in both the broad and the narrow sense, because of it. It led to tremendous economic prosperity. It set the United States on a path which was arguably different (finally) from the Soviet Union, leading to Khruschev threatening to "bury" us—in consumer goods (it never happened, because central planning is comparatively bad at consumer-focused production).

Commodities became more than a mere means to surviving. High wages and rapidly growing income created the economic space for a more leisurely existence in which only one "bread winner" per family was necessary, and in which children could stay in school and enjoy their youth beyond the age of 10 or 11 (when they would usually have to work on the farm). Consumer products filled this space of leisure, giving Americans more ways to discriminate and explore their tastes and subjectivities. There were suddenly more kinds of cars to drive, more kinds of music to listen to, more ways to define oneself and be in the world.

This is the world Mad Men takes place in. And it doesn't take place just anywhere in that world. The show is about ad men. They're the magicians at the center of this entirely new form of capitalism. It's remarkable, because it's probably the first time in all of human history that artistic creativity came to the center of the production process. Artistic creation and aesthetic appraisal are no longer on the side-lines of economic life. They're now the life's blood of it, the center from which it emanates and returns.

I know, Adorno would puke. But I think it's true. And I don't think you can understand the course American history took in the second half of the 20th century unless you also understand why this move toward a consumer-based approach really was a revolution and why it had to happen. It really was a new thing, and it was a better thing.

It's not just "false consciousness" or a colonization of the human psyche by the "culture industry". And I think this comes across beautifully in the show. I've only watched the first two seasons, but one of my favorite parts so far is the presentation Don Draper gives on the Kodak Carousel. The product is initially called the "wheel", and Draper's team initially tries to do some word play on "reinventing the wheel". He eventually comes up with this.

There are a lot of things to love about this scene. The otherwise inscrutable Don Draper's deep love for his family finally surfaces. There's a direct appeal to this desire that most human beings have to be able to return to the beginning, to do things right, to really be there, to have a chance to say "I love you." But what's really twisted about this—at least from our perspective—is that it's done through a commercial! We've all seen and laughed at a hundred stupid coffee or long-distance commercials that try the same trick. But what's brilliant about the carousel scene is that you're able to see that move with fresh eyes.

And I would argue that it's not a trick. You're not being fooled into believing that your identity and self-understanding are tied up with a product. That link really exists. It didn't always exist, but capitalism created it.

And it's not entirely a bad thing. The movement toward machine production in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed women (and children) to move on to the shop floor. As you can see in the show, the movement toward the market orientation brought women and youth in the boardroom. Why? Because their unique perspectives became a sine qua non of moving the product and making a profit. In order to sell, you need to know who you're selling to. In order to know who you're selling to, you need to solicit their perspective, their particular subjectivity. Voices that were initially marginalized began to play a larger role in the mainstream of society. I think it's no accident that the zenith of the marketing and advertising revolution in capitalism coincides with the start of the period of social unrest. This is frequently adumbrated in the show.

The mind as a courtship ornament

Right now I'm reading The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller. The author's thesis is that the human mind evolved for the purpose of courtship. The reason we're able to tell jokes, build monuments, compose sonatas, and follow fashion is the same reason peacocks are able to grow such magnificent tails and beetles have such elaborate markings on their bodies.

Central to the author's argument is his distinction between natural selection and sexual selection. Miller uses natural selection to denote "changes in the gene pool of a species due to differences in the ability of individuals to survive and reproduce." By contrast, sexual selection is "evolutionary change due to heritable differences in the ability to attract sexual partners, repel sexual rivals, or do anything else that promotes reproduction." While recognizing this is not the way biologists typically use these terms, he points out that Darwin himself used the terms this way, and that conflating them led to errors in the first 150 years of evolutionary science which we are only beginning to dig our way out of.

According to Miller, evolutionary psychologists have made the mistake of viewing the mind only in terms of what it contributes to our survival, treating it like a "swiss army knife" (Pinker) that evolved to deal with a harsh environment. There are several problems with this view, according to the author, amongst them: If large brains and complex minds are so essential to survival, then why did they arise so late in evolution? Why do so few species have them? Claws, wings, and eyes have evolved separately in many species; yet we're the only species that tells jokes and writes sonatas. Why is there such a long lag between the brain's expansion and its survival payoffs? We seem to have reaped the vast majority of them in only the last few thousand years.

We spend a gross number of our calories every day supporting a giant organ with no immediate survival benefits. Yet while natural selection is rather poor at explaining all the brain's abilities, sexual selection is very good at it. Like the peacock's tail, it's a large, wasteful display. And like the courting behaviors of many animals, our abilities to converse, socialize, get along, treat people with respect, charm, flatter, and know what is appropriate are all good fitness indicators. Sure, we reproduce with people who are nasty and uncouth, and we spread those genes through the population, but it's not like we go out looking to do that. People with normally functioning brains are generally socialized, and we prefer that.

I don't know if I'm wholly convinced by his argument. I read a few reviews of the book, and they repeated some concerns I have with the project. What's gotten my attention in this book is that he proposes a new way to understand evolution generally over the last half billion years.
If many innovations originate through sexual selection, we would expect most micro-innovations that distinguish one species from another to be sexual ornaments. This contradicts some traditional views of how species split apart, but, surprisingly, this is pretty much what biologists see. The vast majority of species-defining innovations seem inconsequential for survival. Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, disparaged the seemingly pointless variety of plants and animals, calling them "the mere Sport of Nature." Darwin was equally perplexed, often wondering why there was so much variety but so little real novelty. If innovations spread through populations because of their survival benefits, why do so few innovations show the survival improvements associated with major innovations and adaptive radiation?
We tend to think of evolution as a series of mechanical "pushes" without any "pulls". Mutations arise each generation because of random copying errors at the molecular level. Most mutations are deleterious to the organism, and if they were allowed to proliferate, species would quickly go extinct. But the environment imposes pressure on organisms. Certain mutations make the organism unable to survive in the environment long enough to reproduce and pass its genes on. Rarely, a mutation will confer some extra survival benefit on an individual, and that new gene may proliferate through the population, creating many individuals who have this gene. When individuals with the new genes are no longer able to reproduce with individuals without them or with different genes, there is a new species.

In place of this purely mechanical view of the history of life where mutations arise by accident, and the environment either favors or rejects them, Miller is suggesting a story in which choice plays a much larger role in the direction of evolution. Novelties arise and survive in species, not for the purposes of survival, but for the purposes of attracting mates.
Sexually selected novelties of this sort could be called "courtship innovations." Most will be nothing more than a slightly novel design for a penis, a minor variation in mating coloration, or a different style of courtship dance. But from these humble origins, a small proportion of courtship innovations and their side-effects may turn out to have some survival benefits in addition to their courtship benefits. They may then become favored by natural as well as sexual selection. Of these survival adaptations, a small proportion may prove significant enough to allow a species to invade many new environmental niches. They produce adaptive radiations, proving themselves over time as major innovations. The ecological success of major innovations may hide the fact that many of them originated as courtship innovations.
And then he goes on to tell a story in which wings may have originated, not for the purposes of flying and evading predators, but as sexual displays for dinosaurs. There is a similar story to tell about the evolution of large brains in hominids.

If this is true, it explains just as much as natural selection does and more. It explains why there is so much novelty in nature, and it explains why this novelty first arises with the invention of sexual difference. For the majority of its time on Earth, life has consisted in single-celled organisms no larger than a millimeter across. We're still outnumbered by them. There are at least 10 times as many bacterial cells in your body as human cells.

But there probably aren't as many species of bacteria as there are of more complex creatures. Considering how few in number more complex creatures are relative to single-celled organisms, it's amazing how much difference we exhibit. Most of the macro-level differences are color of fins, facial hair, feathers, or other sexual displays that confer no obvious survival benefit. Indeed, there appears to be a sublime abundance of types of life above and beyond what mere necessity would predict but which we would expect if sexual selection takes the lead over from natural selection.

The "pushes" (natural selection) may have the final say, but only if the "pull" (sexual choice) egregiously contradicts the demands of the environment. Between what life whimsically craves and what the environment unconsciously rebukes, there appears to be a lot of wiggle room.

And of course sexual selection involves choice. It's minimal with a pair of earthworms, but it becomes quite complex when you get up to insects. Is there something that it's like for a female beetle to be excited by the colorful display of a male beetle? We'll never know, though that display, which is wasteful and dangerous because it attracts predators, plays a function in beetle courtship.

As one moves to more complex forms of life, the choices are also more complex. It's doubtful a male bird of paradise is just exciting a female. I don't think it's excessively anthropomorphic to say he's trying to impress her. There may be no difference between those two things from a purely physical point of view. It's all just neurons firing. But the courtship ritual is more complex and has greater texture of meaning, and the female has to take more things into consideration, so her act of choosing is more complex.

I wrote earlier about Teilhard's law of complexity/consciousness, according to which "mind" is present in all matter, but it increases proportional to the complexity of the arrangement of matter. I think what Miller is arguing might add some depth to that idea. The invention of sexual difference allows choice (a proto-subjective state) to arise for the first time, and it allows for the evolution of greater complexity (and hence more complex and varied distinctions between "inside" and "outside"). That's why life really takes off half a billion years ago.

Did this revolution—call it the original Sexual Revolution—have to take place? Would any planet with life on it have to eventually invent sexual difference? I don't know. However, it's intriguing to think that, given the Sexual Revolution, complex minds had eventually to evolve.

I have to think about this and develop it more, but I'll end with this quote from Miller:
We can see that, once sexually reproducing animals evolved the capacity for mate choice, every animal species would then evolve some sort of fitness indicator; and that some indicators might be costly, exaggerated body parts, and others would be costly, ritualized courtship behaviors. But we could not have predicted that courtship behavior would reach an especially high degree of sophistication exactly 535 million years after the Cambrian explosion (when multicellular animals proliferated) in our particular species of bipedal ape. Nor could we have predicted that the courtship behavior would take the precise form of interactive conversations using arbitrary acoustic signals (words) arranged in three-second bursts (sentences) according to recursive syntactic rules. Perhaps it could have happened in an octopus, a dinosaur, or a dolphin. Perhaps it was likely that it would happen sometime, in some species of large-brained social animal. Rewind the tape of evolution, and the human mind would probably not have evolved, because sexual selection would have taken a different contingent route in our lineage of primates. But I suspect that in any replay of evolution on Earth, sexual selection would sooner or later have discovered that intelligent minds similar to ours make good courtship ornaments and good fitness indicators.
Emphasis mine.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sexual Revolution

When you think about it, the idea of a sexual revolution is bizarre. Most animal species are distinguished by their sexual displays: courting behaviors, feathers, facial hair, markings on carapace, etc. There are plenty of species which would be indistinguishable except on a molecular level were it not for their sexual displays. In the world of biological evolution, a sexual revolution usually means the genesis of a new species.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The singularity is not in our past

I think this person is absolutely right about the significance of the industrial revolution but also misses the point about the technological singularity.

There can be no doubt that the industrial revolution represented a profound break in human history. Adding to what Mr. Shalizi states in his post, we can also include massive movements of population, unprecedented increases in worker productivity and accumulation of wealth, an almost 50% increase in human life expectancy in as little as a century, a radical transformation of the cost and therefore the meaning of war, to say nothing of all the impressive and interesting intellectual advances. Of course the seeds of the industrial revolution can be traced back to the middle ages, even back to Roman times. But there can be no doubt that a large, qualitative shift took place in the 19th century which left virtually no aspect of human existence untouched.

Now, the singularity can mean a lot of things, depending on the author you read. Vernor Vinge's early paper on the subject deals mostly with superhuman intelligence, as did I.J. Good's. J├╝rgen Schmidhuber places emphasis on the acceleration of paradigm shifts in computing, starting back in the 17th century and going to the present. Raymond Kurzweil thinks there will hardly be a single area of life that will not be revolutionized by the singularity.

In no case, though, is the singularity simply about "unpredictable growth of technology", a "profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity", "distributed systems of information-processing", or any of the other things Mr. Shalizi correctly states belong to the present and past of humanity. If that's what is meant by a singularity, then Mr. Shalizi is being conservative. The singularity really took place some time in the early 16th century. Schmidhuber makes this claim somewhere, but I can't find it on his byzantine web page. Basically he argues that, since historians think the European arrival in the New World and the Protestant Reformation were the two most important events of the last 1,000 years, this proves an acceleration of events that should have culminated some time around the middle of the 16th century.

But if you think about it, that's again somewhat conservative. Why not bring it back to the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago? After all, that resulted in civilization: population increase, stratification, science, religion, art, and abstract thought. Isn't everything else a mere footnote to that?

Of course a technological singularity will disrupt history, and of course its effects are unpredictable. And when we look at the past, of course we tend to downplay the disruption and impose necessity, even though, if you lived back then, you would have found events to be neither predictable nor smooth. But I don't think that's the point. Or at least it's not the only point.

What's unique about the singularity is that it represents an exponential increase in the ratio between non-biological and biological intelligence. Merely pointing out that the rate of change in history is increasing doesn't make one a singularitarian. After all, it's easy to point out that it's been increasing for a long time. Merely pointing out that some day non-biological, superhuman intelligence will replace biological intelligence isn't distinctive, either. What makes a person singularitarian is that they believe this transformation will take place on the order of decades, not centuries. On this interpretation, it makes little difference whether you think a machine will pass the Turning Test in 2020, 2030, 2040, or 2080. Most people, if they give the issue thought at all, think it won't happen until 2100 or 2200 or never.

The same goes for the application of information technology to other fields like medicine. It's easy to grasp that life expectancy (and quality of life) have increased drastically in the last 200 years for everyone on earth. And if you read U.S. Department of Health and Human Services papers, you know the government is preparing for a population where people routinely live beyond 100 years of age. What most people do not think about—and what singularitarians do think about—is the inevitability of living indefinitely and what this means for human civilization and for the meaning of an individual life. Since a singularitarian believes this will be achievable in decades rather than centuries, it's a practical problem, not a mere theoretical problem.

So the question isn't whether there have been paradigm shifts which have thrown everything up in the air and have changed everything humans took for granted. There have been many such shifts. (And before humans, there were many such "game-changing" shifts with regard to the rules of life generally.) It's more a question of how close together those paradigm shifts are occurring now. It's a question of the time-scale you're talking about. Are the changes depicted in the wildest science fiction going to occur by the year 2500, or are they going to occur by 2050 or 2100? The scale of 102 is too large to make a difference to an individual human life (as we know it so far). But the 101 scale, well, that's a different story. That's why people who read about the singularity get so excited about it. That believe they'll live to see it and benefit from it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

New discovery is not "alien"

The announcement today from NASA that they had discovered a form of life that uses arsenic rather than phosphorus has many implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists don't have to limit their search to areas that only have carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur now. It's at least as important as the discovery of archaea in the 1970s.

But I think the significance of the discovery has been somewhat misconstrued as well, especially leading up to the announcement. The life form Felisa Wolfe-Simon discovered, called GFAJ-1, is not an entirely new form of life. It's a branch of life as we know it. In fact, it is a bacteria. But it's a form of life which has evolved the ability to swap potassium for arsenic. It's a weird form of life, but it is still descended from the last universal ancestor, the parent of every living thing we see around us.

So to say it's an alien form of life is wrong. But it has profound implications in the search for alien life in places other than earth, since it expands the concept of what we mean when we say "life".
This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”
I would say this has few if any implications for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, since if we find intelligence in the universe, it will likely not even be biologically based.