Philosophy Feed

December 07, 2008

5 Inventions We Owe to Science Fiction

In more ways than one can probably imagine, science fiction has helped generate ideas for investors dating back centuries. Human imagination generally has preceded ingenuity, which is increasingly catching up as technology accelerates, making ideas that were once solely in the realm of sci-fi more feasible in the real world. Over the past few decades, many literary concepts have entered the real world, including:

Electronic Book Readers

Say what you will about the level of sophistication of devices such as the Kindle, Electronic books are a growing segment today in large part due to the vision put forth by Douglas Adams. His classic 1979 work "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" used a self-reference to the novel to describe the process of how "you push this button here, you see, and the screen lights up, giving you the index.."

Wireless Tracking Monitor Bracelets

Using wireless technology to transmit the location of a person, tracking bracelets are used to keep tabs on house-arrest criminals as well as honing in on the location of various VIPs, for security purposes, using wireless technology. First mentioned in the 1990 novel "Shadowspeer" by Patricia Jo Clayton, in the context of government officials keeping track of inter-stellar travelers, the bracelets gained widespread use beginning in the late 1990s.

Light Sculptures

While Science Fiction has brought us its share of operational innovations, there are also a number of breakthroughs in technical art that can be attributed to the genre. In 1973, Isaac Asimov's "Light Verse" foretold light sculptures as means of creative expression. Asimov described them as "a new symphony of light...crystalline effects that bathed every guest in wonder..."

Networked Electronic Voting Machines

Although some might argue that we're still waiting for reliable electronic voting, John Brunner envisioned electronic voting in his 1975 novel "The Shockwave Rider". Interestingly, the novel is based on the premise of a network which had shifted the powers to the elites and a hacker who uses a program to help democratize society once again. While others foresaw electronic voting, none of them saw a full, decentralized network of voting the way Brunner did.

Computerized Language Translation Software

Since Adams' novel broke a lot of technical ground, we return to "Hitchhiker's" for our final invention reference. Not only did the novel foretell computerized language translation, but it would even lend the term "Babel Fish" to the web site that would make computerized translation available to the general public.

This guest post comes from Maya Richard (@ who writes on the subject of high speed internet.


October 05, 2008

Daniel C. Dennett and The Awesome Power of Memes

Daniel C. Dennett is a philosopher who co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter. In this video from a TED conference, he expands on Richard Dawkins' concept of memes - ideas that survive by their ability to replicate in a manner analogous to genes.

His secret to happiness: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.


September 28, 2008

Quantum Suicide and The Large Hadron Collider

Stern-Gerlach Experiment
Stern-Gerlach experiment. Source: Wikipedia Commons. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2.

Quantum mechanics is a theory that describes the behavior of objects at the atomic scale. The effects of quantum mechanics are typically observable only at this small scale, and not at larger ones, except in unusual or contrived situations.

Electron Spin

Electrons have a property called spin that may be measured in relation to an arbitrary axis. The name is somewhat misleading. It's not quite the same concept as a ball rotating around an axis but there are some useful similarities. Since an electron has an electric charge, its spin causes it to interact with a magnetic field, deflecting the electron's path in a manner similar to the way a charged sphere's course would be altered. An electron can have its spin measured by passing it through a magnetic field. If electrons were truly spinning spheres, a beam of electrons would spread out smoothly when passed through a shaped magnetic field since each rotating sphere would take on an arbitrary spin alignment.

However, what is actually observed is amazing and counter-intuitive. The 1922 Stern-Gerlach experiment showed that spin is quantized and only two values are observed - denoted up and down.

Standard Interpretation

In the standard Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, the electron does not have a definite spin until a measurement is made, and the quantum wave function collapses to a definite value. Schrödinger's Cat is a famous thought experiment which was originally conceived by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger as a critique of the Copenhagen interpretation. In a variation of this thought experiment, one imagines that a cat is placed in a box with a flask of poison and a device that can measure electron spin.

If a single electron that is passed through the device is measured with spin up, the flask of poison is released and the cat expires. If the spin is down, the cat survives. There is a 50 percent chance of either outcome. If the box is sealed so that it is impossible to determine the state of the experiment from outside, the cat will exist in a superposition of states to the outside world with equal probability of it being alive and dead. It's not that the cat actually exists in one state or another according to the Copenhagen interpretation. The cat has become entangled in the quantum wave function describing the contents of the box and truly exists in a superposition of both states.

Quantum Suicide; Many Worlds
iStockphoto / Sirin Buse.

Quantum Suicide

However, in the Many-Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, two different worlds exist - one in which the cat remains alive, and another in which the cat has perished.

A thought experiment called Quantum Suicide has been crafted as a hypothetical test of the Many-Worlds interpretation. In this experiment, an observer takes the place of the cat and the experiment is performed many times. In some worlds, the observer perishes, but his conscious experience continues in the worlds in which he survives. He will never observe his own death. The observer perishes in half of the worlds, but it does not appear that way from his point of view. After repeating the experiment as many times as necessary to satisfy his curiosity, the observer concludes that the Many-Worlds interpretation is correct.

With the Large Hadron Collider shut down for two months due to a malfunction, some have suggested with tongue-in-cheek that the Quantum Suicide experiment is being conducted in real time with our own world. In some parallel universes, the LHC creates stable black holes which destroy the Earth. We only remain conscious to observe this in universes where that doesn't happen. In those universes, events happen that prevent the LHC from creating those kinds of black holes.

While the LHC's troubles are more likely explained by mundane problems, the idea behind the Quantum Suicide thought experiment is still an intriguing one.


August 29, 2008

The Singularity Summit 2008

The Singularity Summit 2008

The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has issued a press release with details of The Singularity Summit 2008: Opportunity, Risk, Leadership. The event will be held October 25, 2008 at the Montgomery Theater in San Jose, California. Previous summits have featured Nick Bostrom, Eric Drexler, Douglas Hofstadter, Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Thiel.

Keynote speakers include Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, and Justin Rattner, CTO of Intel. At the Intel Developer Forum on August 21, 2008, Rattner explained why he thinks the gap between humans and machines will close by 2050. "Rather than look back, we're going to look forward 40 years," said Rattner. "It's in that future where many people think that machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence."

Other featured speakers include:

  • Dr. Ben Goertzel, CEO of Novamente, director of research at SIAI
  • Dr. Marvin Minsky
  • Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks, creator of
  • Dr. Vernor Vinge
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

To register for The Singularity Summit 2008, click here. You can find a comprehensive list of other upcoming worldwide Singularity and Artificial Intelligence events here.

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April 15, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor: Brain Scientist Studies Her Own Stroke

Fermi Paradox
© / Vasiliy Yakobchuk

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist. At the 2008 TED conference in Monterey, she talked about an amazing experience of being able to observe changes in her own consciousness and perceptions as she was having a stroke. This experience forever changed her outlook on life in a positive way.

Chris K. Haley, Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here. 

March 13, 2008

The Singularity Effect

The Singularity Effect
© / Konstantin Inozemtsev

The A.I. Effect describes a human cognitive bias to discount improvements made in the science of Artificial Intelligence. Problems that in the past that were seen as extremely difficult, or intractable, are now seen in retrospect as having obvious solutions which no longer need to be described in terms of artificial intelligence.

Similarly, I believe that a "Singularity Effect" describes the discounting of advances in other technology areas such robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, etc. Consider how some of these technologies would have appeared to an observer from even 50 years ago:

  • A camera which can detect and focus on faces, wait for people to smile before taking a picture and (soon) associate individual faces with names for indexing and future searching.
  • A neckband that translates silent vocalizations into speech. Although this device does not directly read human thoughts, two people using this device coupled with wireless capabilities would essentially appear to be telepathic - certainly to observers from decades past.
  • A computer operating system which achieves continuous speech recognition at normal speech rates and with high accuracy. It continually improves its accuracy by training itself on the speaker.
  • A neuroheadset which gives a computer a limited ability to read a game player's thoughts and emotions.
  • A tool accessible from anywhere for free which can generally search the most important areas of human knowledge and translate it to and from the most widely used languages, all within seconds.

Welcome to the Singularity!

February 13, 2008

Boltzmann Brain Paradox

Digital Brain
© Sebastian Kaulitzk

Random Fluctuation Created Universe

Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann was an Austrian physicist who made important contributions to the area of statistical thermodynamics. He lived in the last half of the 19th century and proposed that the low-entropy (high order) universe that we live in is the result of a random fluctuation in a larger, higher entropy (lower order) metaverse.

Quantum Fluctuations

Although Boltzmann's proposal was made in advance of quantum mechanics, his idea is similar to modern day theories that the universe arose from a quantum vacuum fluctuation. Quantum mechanics predicts that particles can spontaneously arise from the vacuum if they are short-lived. Even in a perfect vacuum, pairs of particles and anti-particles are constantly being created and destroyed. This is possible because the total energy of the particle anti-particle pairs is zero.

In fact, the total energy of the universe appears to be zero [Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, chapter 8]. Particles have positive energy, and the negative energy represented by the gravitational field of the entire universe appears to be exactly enough to cancel out the positive energy of the particles.


This idea leads to the Boltzmann Brain Paradox. In a metaverse that is larger than ours, random fluctuations of the size to create a universe such as our own will happen. Due to the size and number of particles in such a universe, these fluctuations will be exceedingly rare. The anthropic principal - the fact universes will only be observed when they are hospitable to observers - makes the amount of time between such fluctuations meaningless. These fluctuations could be happening every quadrillion years, or once every googolplex number of years. Fluctuations of a much smaller magnitude that simply create one fully formed brain for a brief amount of time should be happening with enormously higher frequency than universe-creating fluctuations. Such brains would be the smallest possible creations that would give rise to a sentient observer and are called Boltzmann Brains. The fact that such brains do not appear to exist is called the Boltzmann Brain Paradox.

There are a number of ways out of this paradox. One of the base assumptions could be false. Perhaps there is no metaverse or such quantum fluctuations do not happen on large scales.

Or, it possible that the concept of the Boltzmann Brain is true and you are the only sentient observer in the universe right now, complete with false memories of a life which did not exist. False inputs to your brain only make it appear that there are other observers with you. If true, it's possible that you will cease to exist in just a ...

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January 27, 2008

The Feminist Bank Teller

Michael Graham Richard has a great post about a cognitive reasoning bias called the conjunction fallacy. He cites an example from the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more likely?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Take a moment to think about this question and your response before reading further to see the correct answer. Which do you think is more likely? The representativeness heuristic has its hand in helping us make the erroneous choice. From the Wikipedia entry:

The representativeness heuristic is a heuristic wherein commonality between objects of similar appearance is assumed. While often very useful in everyday life, it can also result in neglect of relevant base rates and other errors.

One way to think about the question more logically is to replace the propositions in the question with simple variables:

Which is more likely?

   1. A
   2. A and B

It can never be possible for statement 2 to have a higher probability than statement 1 because statement 2 makes an additional requirement. For example, if there is a 10% probability that Linda is a bank teller, and a 90% probability that Linda is active in the feminist movement, then the combined probability of Linda being a feminist bank teller - is 10% multiplied by 90%, or 9%. So statement 1 has a 10% probability of being true, and statement 2 has a 9% probability of being true. Since we can't have a probability that is greater than 100%, there is no condition that could be combined with A that would be able to make the combined probability of A and B being true greater than the probability of A being true alone.

January 11, 2008

Addressing Existential Risks Associated With The Singularity

Ryan's comments on my Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence article were very thought provoking for me. Some of the technological advances coming have existential risks and I wanted to solidify my strategy in addressing those risks.

I have tried to be careful about which organizations I have associated with based on my philosophy of actively enabling the Singularity in a safe manner. The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has a goal of promoting the development of friendly Artificial General Intelligence. The Lifeboat Foundation is a think tank which contemplates the risks associated with the Singularity and acts as a voice of reason in promoting a balanced approach to these technologies.

You can see a thought experiment going on right now at the Lifeboat Foundation with this poll assessing specific existential risks (runaway nanotech, unfriendly artificial intelligence, asteroid impacts, etc) and my thoughts on how to allocate a hypothetical $100M budget.

The Lifeboat Foundation has six active programs (plus a number of planned programs):

To protect against devastating asteroid strikes.

To protect against bioweapons and pandemics.

As the Internet grows in importance, an attack on it could cause physical as well as informational damage. An attack today on hospital systems or electric utilities could lead to deaths. In the future an attack could be used to alter the output that is produced by nanofactories worldwide leading to massive deaths.

LifeShield Bunkers
Developing fallback positions on Earth in case programs such as our BioShield and NanoShield fail globally or locally.

To protect against ecophages and nonreplicating nanoweapons.

To prevent nuclear, biological, and nanotechnological attacks from occurring by using surveillance and sousveillance to identify terrorists before they are able to launch their attacks.

Space Habitats
To build fail-safes against global existential risks by encouraging the spread of sustainable human civilization beyond Earth.

As with anything that has the power to be used in inappropriate ways, I believe that these technologies will try to be exploited by undesirable entities no matter what we do, so it is paramount that we stay ahead by developing these technologies first and develop ways to protect ourselves against their misuse.

Only a small minority of the general public has knowledge of these ideas at this point because of relatively low media coverage. Over the next few years, as the time horizon for deploying them shortens, the general public will begin calling for more regulation, and it's organizations like the SIAI and the Lifeboat Foundation that they will turn to for guidance.

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January 08, 2008

First Impressions

I was engaged in a conversation the other day with someone about my new association with the Lifeboat Foundation and the opportunity that was presented to me to sit on one of the scientific advisory boards. Let me first point out that the person I was talking with is extremely intelligent, but has a lay person's knowledge of scientific topics, and is generally unfamiliar with Singularity related concepts in particular.

I immediately realized the opportunity in associating with the organization, but still did some reasonable due diligence research before joining it. During the course of the conversation, I explained the goals of the Lifeboat Foundation. I also showed some of the current work that it is doing, and some of the people associated with it by randomly showing some of their biographies. However, when I presented leading biomedical gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey's biography, I was confronted with what was essentially an ad hominem argument regarding his trademark beard. I refer to this as an ad hominem argument because this person believed, without having previously seen or met Dr. de Grey, that his long beard was the sign of a large ego and that he was doing his cause a disservice by conveying a negative image to the public.

I do not personally know Dr. de Grey, nor do I know the reasons why he chooses to have a long beard. To me, the issue of his beard length has no bearing on the value of his work, and although I do not choose to wear a beard at the present time, I thrive on living in a world of diversity where one can do so. What I have gathered about Dr. de Grey is that he is a highly respected member of this community who has many important things to say. The situation was ironic because Dr. de Grey does research that relates to a medical condition affecting a member of this person's family.

I know the point that the person I was speaking with was honestly felt, and that she believed Dr. de Grey could better serve his cause by changing his appearance. But unconscious bias is something that affects all of us to some degree, and it is a subtle, but insidious error in reasoning. Fifty years ago, in the United States, with a different person, this discussion might have been about the color of someone's skin. Twenty-five years ago, it could have been about someone's sexual orientation. It's easy to see the errors in rational thinking of others looking in retrospect, but it's much harder to find our own biases. I long to know what errors in thinking style and biases that I myself harbor now, and which will only be evident with a clearer perspective in the future. As such, I will continue to follow the Overcoming Bias web site to help me in my journey.

I believe that Dr. de Grey reaches an even larger audience by making them take a second look at him. If he had a more common appearance, my debate partner would not have noticed him, and would not have engaged me in a lengthy conversation about his work. If this helps get our message out, then I implore Dr. de Grey to grow his beard even longer!

I eventually resorted to an appeal to authority to plead my case regarding the Lifeboat Foundation by creating a list of some of the more prominent people associated with the Foundation, their professions, and academic credentials. At first I regretted doing this. I am a student of Bayesian reasoning (thanks to Eliezer Yudkowsky) who would like to master the art and I know perfectly well that a person's title or degree can't prove their ideas. Ideas must be judged on their own merit. However, in this particular discussion, it made sense to use the appeal. It wasn't about an appeal to authority being a valid debating technique or not. It was about using the right tool to persuade one person to open their mind to a new idea.

I, for one, am no longer ashamed to have this tool in my bag of tricks, and will use it whenever I need to get one more person to consider a new idea, even for a brief moment.

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