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Review: Meat Planet (2019) by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

In the words of the book’s author, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (2019) is “not an attempt at prediction but rather a study of cultured meat as a special case of speculation on the future of food, and as a lens through which to view the predictions we make about how technology changes the world.” While not serving as some crystal ball to tell us the future of food, Wurgaft’s book certainly does serve as a kind of lens.

Our very appetites are questioned quite a bit in the book. Wondering about the ever-changing history of food, the author asks, “Will it be an effort to reproduce the industrial meat forms we know, albeit on a novel, and more ethical and sustainable, foundation?” Questioning why hamburgers are automatically the default goal, he points out cultured meat advocates should carefully consider “the question of which human appetite for meat, in historical terms, they wish to satisfy.”

Wurgaft’s question of “which human appetite” – past, present, or future – is an excellent one. If we use his book as a lens to observe other emerging technologies, the question extends well beyond our choices of food. It could even have direct implications for such endeavours as radical life extension. Will we, if we extend our lifetimes, be satisfactory to future people? We already know the kind of clash that persists between different generations, and the blame we often place on previous generations for current social ills, without there also being a group of people who simply refuse to die. We should be wary of basing our future on the present – of attempting to preserve present tastes as somehow immutable and deserving immortality. This may be a problem such futurists as Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near (2005) need to respond to.

If we are to justify the singularity at which we or our appetites are immortalized, we should remember technology changes “morality’s horizon”, as Wurgaft observes. If, for example, a new technology arises that can entirely eliminate suffering, our choice to allow suffering is an immoral one. If further technologies then emerge that can eliminate not just suffering but death, it will become immoral on that day to permit someone’s natural death – at least to the extent it is like the crime of manslaughter. I argued in my own book that it will be immoral to withhold novel biotechnologies from impoverished countries, if we know such direct action will increase their economic independence or improve their health. Put simply, our inaction in a situation can become an immoral deed if we have the necessary tools to stop suffering.

Beyond the way they alter our moral structures and expectations, Wurgaft notes that much fear over emerging technologies stems from the belief “technology might introduce a new plasticity into our concept of what it is to be human.” This is already expected to be the case with potential transhuman technologies, which critics of transhumanism find greatly troubling. Fully respecting the sanctity of animal life may ultimately coincide with respecting the same for all sentient beings, such as artificial and posthuman beings. Alternatively, the plasticity being described may ultimately undermine all our rights, leaving sentient life open to a whole new range of abuses, which certainly is the outcome critics of transhumanism fear. The fear of human rights being only more easily degraded and devalued by technology, or the notion technology will broaden the scope of all things morally wrong, is frequently expressed in the British dystopian Netflix series Black Mirror.

The moral appetite of the advocates of cultured meat is clear. They seek increased animal protection primarily, followed by environmental protection, but much rarer are their appeals to food security and human health. Wurgaft points out there is no apparent compelling philosophical defence or apologetic for the eating of animals. Perhaps the aforementioned plasticity of our morals to align with our species’ technological abilities, however, means most of us will remain unable to develop an acceptance of the sanctity of animal life until it becomes more broadly convenient to do so.

A chapter of Meat Planet addresses promises, noting how hopeful expectations often reinforce each other. The author also discusses “hype”, noting it is both necessary to the success of, and yet also a component leading to eventual (in Wurgaft’s view inevitable) disillusionment with any emerging technology. Such lessons may seem dissatisfying to those of us who are more enthusiastic about the future, but they seem necessary. Those of us who write science fiction know it is still fiction, and at best can only inspire some small part of the real future.

Wurgaft acknowledges “physical technologies (in energy, in transport, in medicine, in manufacturing) have lagged behind our digital ones”. This is regrettably true. Far too much effort in the tech sectors goes into software and smarter approaches to old problems rather than achieving real breakthroughs or actually inventing something. This only adds to the disappointment many feel. Rather than entering a sci-fi world filled with new domains of advanced technology, we are striding into a world only filled with new gimmicky apps and ever more efficient ways of doing whatever we already did.

Staying on the issue of technological disappointment, many problems are especially frustrating because they are the result of our culture rather than hurdles in engineering itself. Wurgaft makes a good point that privately funded labs don’t share their research and are “at risk of reinventing the wheel”. If we are to imagine a solution, it may be that governments should purchase the research of failed biotech start-ups, then hand it out freely with a goal to reduce any duplicated work and accelerate research.

It is my own observation that states are often capable of a significant amount of heavy lifting on the way to new technologies where private companies were not willing to take risks. Companies focused on new experimental technologies often leave it to engineers to solve the problem of scaling – work that too often simply doesn’t get done, as was the case with a lab-tested fuel production method using bacteria. It is possible that a state could learn best when to step in and could compensate both for the poor communication between innovators and the lack of engineering expertise and funding necessary for scaling.

On the topic of cultured meat specifically, maybe the focus should not currently be on replacing the most desired forms of meat (e.g., burgers and steaks) with cultured meat but in replacing at least a substantial percentage of lower-quality meat products with cultured meat. This, of course, depends on government adopting an agenda of phasing out industrial animal slaughter in much the same way carbon reduction targets were adopted.

A final consideration, for me, is that there may be alternative ways of achieving the same goals as cultured meat proponents. If genetic engineering could produce animals that efficiently yield greater quantities of meat, and of better quality, this may result in fewer individual animals suffering. Better yet, if synthetic biology is what it claims to be, it may eventually be possible to remake our favourite meats using the body of some wholly engineered or cognitively suppressed animal that does not experience suffering and exists its whole life as a steak.

To conclude, Wurgaft’s Meat Planet is quite nutritious food for thought. Beyond directly addressing and critically examining the hopes behind cultured meat, it raises a number of questions that should be asked of the advocates of other emerging technologies. The most important lesson is that we should not view new technology as morally neutral. It is almost certain to reconfigure our morality, whether it is for better or worse. I like to think technology only better supports us to make good moral choices in the long-term, even if there are short-term instances of abuse, as can be seen by looking at the overall course of human history.

More from me: Catalyst: A Techno-Liberation Thesis

What is the ultimate goal of Artificial General Intelligence?

In this video series, the Galactic Public Archives takes bite-sized looks at a variety of terms, technologies, and ideas that are likely to be prominent in the future. Terms are regularly changing and being redefined with the passing of time. With constant breakthroughs and the development of new technology and other resources, we seek to define what these things are and how they will impact our future.

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Originally published at h+ Magazine

Ray Kurzweil’s well-received book, The Singularity is Near, is perhaps the best known book related to transhumanism and presents a view of inevitable technological evolution that closely resembles the claim in the later (2010) book What Technology Wants by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly.

Kurzweil describes six epochs in the history of information. Each significant form of information is superseded by another in a series of stepping stones, exposing a universal will at work within technology towards extropy (this is seen by Kevin Kelly as intelligence and complexity attaining their maximum state possible). The first epoch is physics and chemistry, and is succeeded by biology, brains, technology, the merger of technology and human intelligence and finally the epoch in which the universe “wakes up”. The final epoch achieves what could be called godhood for the universe’s surviving intelligences (p. 15).

Artificial intelligence, which Kurzweil predicts to compete with and soon after overtake the human brain, will mean reverse-engineering the human brain as a direct offshoot of developing higher resolution when scanning the brain (much as genome synthesis was the offshoot of being able to sequence a complete genome) (p. 25–29, 111–198). This is a source of particular excitement to many, because of Kurzweil and Google’s genuine efforts to make it a reality.

An interest in abundance and a read of J. Craig Venter’s Life at the Speed of Light will make Chapter 5 of Kurzweil’s book of particular interest, as it discusses genetics and its relationship to the singularity. Genetics, nanotechnology and robotics are seen as overlapping revolutions that are set to characterize the first half of the Twenty-First Century (p.205). Kurzweil addresses the full understanding of genetics, e.g. knowing exactly how to program and hack our DNA as in J. Craig Venter’s synthetic biology revolution (p. 205–212).

Kurzweil predicts “radical life-extension” on top of the elimination of disease and expansion of human potential through the genetics advancements of teams like J. Craig Venter’s. J. Craig Venter covered life extension and human enhancement in his 2013 book, but also drew special attention to the ongoing engineering of beneficial microbes for purposes of making renewable resources and cleaning the environment. Another prospect for abundance noted by Kurzweil is the idea of cloning meat and other protein sources in a factory (this being an offshoot of medical cloning advances). Far from simply offering life extension to the privileged few, Kurzweil notes that such a development may have the potential to solve world hunger.

To cover the nanotechnology revolution, Kurzweil visits nanotechnology father K. Eric Drexler’s assessments of the pros and cons in this field. In some ways, Kurzweil could be faulted for expecting too much from nanotechnology, since his treatment of the subject contrasts sharply with Drexler’s characterization of it as simply being “atomically precise manufacturing” (APM) and primarily having industrial ramifications. In Radical Abundance, Drexler specifically discourages the view echoed by Kurzweil of “nanobots” swimming in our body in the near future and delivering miracle cures, seeing such expectations as the product of sci-fi stories and media hype.

On the subject of artificial intelligence, there can be no doubt that Kurzweil is ahead of all of us because of his personal background. In his estimate, artificial intelligence reverse-engineered from the human brain will immediately “exceed human intelligence” for a number of reasons even if we only design it to be on par with our intelligence. For example, computers are able to “pool their resources in ways that humans cannot” (p. 259–298). In addition, Kurzweil forecasts:

The advent of strong AI is the most important transformation this century will see. Indeed, it is comparable in importance to the advent of biology itself. It will mean the creation of biology that has finally mastered its own intelligence and discovered means to overcome its limitations. (p. 296)

From our viewpoint in 2014, some of Kurzweil’s predictions could be criticized for being too optimistic. For example, “computers arriving at the beginning of the next decade will become essentially invisible, woven into our clothing, embedded in our furniture and environment”, as well as providing unlimited Wi-Fi everywhere (p. 312). While no doubt some places and instruments exist that might fit this description, they are certainly not in widespread use at this time, nor is there any particular need among society for this to become widespread (except perhaps the Wi-Fi).

Another likely over-optimistic prediction is the view that “full-immersion virtual reality” will be ready for our use by the late 2020s and it will be “indistinguishable from reality” (p. 341). In Kurzweil’s prediction, by 2029 nanobots in our bodies will be able to hack our nervous systems and trick us into believing a false reality every bit as convincing as the life we knew. We are in 2014. There is no full-immersion virtual reality system based on nanotechnology set to be on the market in 2020. A few dedicated gamers have the Oculus Rift (of which there will no doubt be a constant stream of successors ever reducing weight, trying to look “sexier”, and expanding the resolution and frame-rate over at least one decade), while there is no sign whatsoever of the nanotechnology-based neural interface technology predicted by Kurzweil. If nanotech-based full-immersion virtual reality is going to be possible in the 2020s at all, there ought to at least be some rudimentary prototype already in development, but (unless it is a secret military project) time is running out for the prediction to come true.

Part of the book addresses the exciting possibilities of advanced, futuristic warfare. The idea of soldiers who operate robotic platforms, aided by swarms of drones and focused on disrupting the enemy ability to communicate is truly compelling – all the more so because of the unique inside view that Kurzweil had of DARPA. Kurzweil sees a form of warfare in which commanders engage one another in virtual and physical battlefields from opposite sides of the globe, experiencing conflicts in which cyber-attack and communication disruption are every bit as crippling to armies as physical destruction (p. 330–335). Then again, this trend (like the idea of building missile-defense shields) may ultimately lead to complacency and false assumptions that our security is “complete”, while that foreign suppliers like Russia and China are also modernizing and have many systems that are thought to be on par with the US. A lot of US military success may be down to picking on vulnerable countries, rather than perfecting a safe and clean form of warfare (most of Saddam’s deadliest weapons were destroyed or used up in the First Gulf War, which alone could account for the US having so few casualties in the 2003 war.)

Although saying that the singularity will eliminate the distinction between work and play by making information so easily accessible in our lives, Kurzweil predicts that information will gain more value, making intellectual property more important to protect (p. 339–340). This sentiment is hard to agree with at a time when piracy and (illegally) streaming video without paying is already increasingly a fact of everyone’s life. If all thought and play is going to qualify as a creative act as a result of our eventual integration with machines, it only becomes ever harder to believe that such creative acts are going to need monetary incentives.

The book discusses at length how to balance the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. Of particular resilience is Kurzweil’s view that relinquishing or restraining developments can itself expose us to existential risks (e.g. asteroids). I myself would take this argument further. Failing to create abundance when one has the ability to do so is negligent, and even more morally questionable than triggering a nanotech or biotech disaster that must be overcome in the course of helping people.

Kurzweil goes through what seems like an exhaustive list of criticisms, arming singularitarians with an effective defense of their position. Of interest to me, as a result of penning a response to it myself, was how Kurzweil rebuts the “Criticism from the Rich-Poor Divide” by arguing that poverty is overwhelmingly being reduced and benefits of digital technology for the poor are undeniable. Indeed, among the world’s poor, there is no doubt that digital technology is good and that it empowers people. Anyone who argues this revolution is bad for the poor are just plainly ignoring the opinions of the actual poor people they claim to be defending. There has been no credible connection between digital technology and the supply of disproportionate benefits to wealthy elites. If anything, digital technology has made the world more equal and can even be regarded as part of a global liberation struggle.

Unfortunately, there is a major argument absent from the book. Kurzweil’s book precedes the revelations of mass surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. As a result, it fails to answer the most important criticism of an imminent singularity I can think of. I would have to call this the “Argument from Civil and Political Rights”. It takes into account the fact that greedy and cruel nation-states (the US being the most dangerous) tend to seek the monopoly of power in the current world order, including technological power. By bridging the gap between ourselves and computers before we create a more benevolent political and social order with less hegemony and less cruelty, we will simply be turning every fiber of our existence over to state agencies and giving up our liberty.

Suppose PRISM or some program like it exists, and my mind can be read by it. In that case, my uploaded existence would be no different from a Gitmo detainee. In fact, just interfacing with such a system for a moment would be equivalent to being sent to Gitmo, if the US government and its agencies exist. It does not matter how benevolent the operators even are. The fact that I am vulnerable to the operators means I am being subjected to a constant and ongoing violation of my civil rights. I could be subjected to any form of cruelty or oppression, and the perpetrator would never be stopped or held accountable.

It gets worse. With reality and virtual reality becoming indistinguishable (as predicted in this book), a new sort of sadist may even emerge that does not know the difference between the two or does not care. History has shown that such sadists are most likely to be the ones who have had more experience with and thus have obtained more power over the system. It is this political or social concern that should be deterring people from uploading themselves right now. If we were uploaded, what followed could never evolve beyond being a constant reflection of the flawed social order at the time when the upload occurred. Do we want to immortalize an abusive and cruel superpower, corporate lobbyists, secret police, or a prison? Are these things actually worth saving for all eternity and disseminating across the universe when we reach the singularity?

Despite the questions I have tried to raise in this review, I am still convinced by the broad idea of the singularity, and Kurzweil articulates it well. The idea, as promoted by Max More and quoted by Kurzweil (p. 373) that our view of our role in the universe should be like Nietzche’s “rope over an abyss” trying to reach for a greater existence, with technology playing a key role, helps encourage us to take noble risks. However, I believe the noble risks are not risks taken out of desperation to extend our lives and escape death, or risks taken to make ourselves look nice or something else petty. Noble risks are taken to ensure our future or the future of humanity, often at the expense of the present.

I would discourage people from trying to hasten the singularity because of a personal fear of their own death, as this would probably lead to irrational behavior (as occurs with the traditions that promote transcending death by supernatural means). Complications from society and unforeseen abuses, especially by our deeply paranoid and controlling states that are far too primitive to react responsibly to the singularity, are likely to slow everything down.


Editors note: concerns about virtual imprisonment or torture are not entirely unfounded, see for example this older article as well as this recent development.

One more step has been taken toward making whole body cryopreservation a practical reality. An understanding of the properties of water allows the temperature of the human body to be lowered without damaging cell structures.

Just as the microchip revolution was unforeseen the societal effects of suspending death have been overlooked completely.

The first successful procedure to freeze a human being and then revive that person without damage at a later date will be the most important single event in human history. When that person is revived he or she will awaken to a completely different world.

It will be a mad rush to build storage facilities for the critically ill so their lives can be saved. The very old and those in the terminal stages of disease will be rescued from imminent death. Vast resources will be turned toward the life sciences as the race to repair the effects of old age and cure disease begins. Hundreds of millions may eventually be awakened once aging is reversed. Life will become far more valuable overnight and activities such as automobile and air travel will be viewed in a new light. War will end because no one will desire to hasten the death of another human being.

It will not be immortality, just parole from the death row we all share. Get ready.

The Nature of Identity Part 3
(Drawings not reproduced here — contact the author for copies)
We have seen how the identity is defined by the 0,0 point – the centroid or locus of perception.

The main problem we have is finding out how neural signals translate into sensory signals – how neural information is translated into the language we understand – that of perception. How does one neural pattern become Red and another the Scent of coffee. Neurons do not emit any color nor any scent.

As in physics, so in cognitive science, some long cherished theories and explanations are having to change.

Perception, and the concept of an Observer (the 0,0 point), are intimately related to the idea of Identity.

Many years ago I was a member of what was called the Artorga Research Group – a group including some of the early cyberneticists – who were focussed on Artificial Organisms.

One of the main areas of concern was, of course, Memory.

One of our group was a young German engineer who suggested that perhaps memories were in fact re-synthesised in accordance with remembered rules, as opposed to storing huge amounts of data.

Since then similar ideas have arisen in such areas as computer graphics.

Here is an example,

It shows a simple picture on a computer screen. We want to store (memorize) this information.

One way is to store the information about each pixel on the screen – is it white or is it black. With a typical screen resolution that could mean over 2.5 million bits of information

But there is another way….

In this process one simply specifies the start point (A) in terms of its co-ordinates (300 Vertically, 100 Horizontally); and its end point (B) (600 Vertically, 800 Horizontally); and simply instructs – “Draw a line of thickness w between them”.

The whole picture is specified in just a few bits..

The first method, specifying bit by bit, known as the Bit Mapped Protocol (.BMP), uses up lots of memory space.

The other method, based on re-synthesising according to stored instructions, is used in some data reduction formats; and is, essentially, just what that young engineer suggested, many years before.

On your computer you will have a screen saver –almost certainly a colorful scene – and of course that is stored, so that if you are away from the computer for a time it can automatically come on to replace what was showing, and in this way “save” your screen.

So – where are those colors in your screensaver stored, where are the shapes shown in it stored? Is there in the computer a Color Storage Place? Is there a Shape Storage Place?

Of course not.

Yet these are the sort of old, sodden concepts that are sometimes still applied in thinking about the brain and memories.

Patterned streams of binary bits, not unlike neural signals , (but about 70 times larger), are fed to a computer screen. And then the screen takes these patterns of bits as instructions to re-synthesise glowing colors and shapes.

We cannot actually perceive the binary signals, and so they are translated by the screen into a language that we can understand. The screen is a translator – that is its sole function.

This is exactly analogous to the point made earlier about perception and neural signals.

The main point here, though, is that what is stored in the computer memory are not colors and shapes but instructions.

And inherent in these instructions as a whole, there must exist a “map”.

Each instruction must not only tell its bit of the screen what color to glow – but it must also specify the co-ordinates of that bit. If the picture is the head of a black panther with green eyes, we don’t want to see a green head and black eyes. The map has to be right. It is important.

Looking at it in another way the map can be seen as a connectivity table – specifying what goes where. Just two different ways of describing the same thing.

As well as simple perception there are derivatives of what has been perceived that have to be taken into account, for example, the factor called movement.

Movement is not in itself perceptible (as we shall presently show); it is a computation.

Take for example, the following two pictures shown side-by-side.

I would like to suggest that one of these balls is moving. And to ask — which one is moving?

If movement had a visual attribute then one could see which one it was – but movement has no visual attributes – it is a computation.

To determine the speed of something, one has to observe its current position, compare that with the record (memory) of its previous position; check the clock to determine the interval between the two observations; and then divide the distance between the two positions, s; by the elapsed time, t; to determine the speed, v,

s/t = v.

This process is carried out automatically, (subconsciously), in more elaborate organisms by having two eyes spaced apart by a known distance and having light receptors – the retina – where each has a fast turn-on and a slow (about 40 ms) turn off, all followed by a bit of straightforward neural circuitry.

Because of this system, one can look at a TV screen and see someone in a position A, near the left hand edge, and then very rapidly, a series of other still pictures in which the person is seen being closer and closer to B, at the right hand edge.

If the stills are shown fast enough – more than 25 a second — then we will see the person walking across the screen from left to right. What you see is movement – except you don’t actually see anything extra on the screen. Being aware of movement as an aid to survival is very old in evolutionary terms. Even the incredibly old fish, the coelacanth, has two eyes.

The information provided is a derivate of the information provided by the receptors.

And now we ought to look at information in a more mathematical way – as in the concept of Information Space (I-space).

For those who are familiar with the term, it is a Hilbert Space.

Information Space is not “real” space – it is not distance space – it is not measurable in metres and centimetres.

As an example, consider Temperature Space. Take the temperature of the air going in to an air-conditioning (a/c) system; the temperature of the air coming out of the a/c system; and the temperature of the room. These three provide the three dimensions of a Temperature Space. Every point in that space correlates to an outside air temperature, an a/c output temperature and the temperature of the room. No distances are involved – just temperatures.

This is an illustration of what it would look like if we re-mapped it into a drawing.

The drawing shows the concept of a 3-dimensional Temperature Space (T-space). The darkly outlined loop is shown here as a way of indicating the “mapping” of a part of T-space.

But what we are interested in here is I-space. And I-space will have many more dimensions than T-space.

In I-space each location is a different item of information, and the fundamental rule of I-space – indeed of any Hilbert space – is,

Similarity equals Proximity.

This would mean that the region concerned with Taste, for example, would be close to the area concerned with Smell, since the two are closely related.

Pale Red would be closer to Medium Red than to Dark Red.

Perception then would be a matter of connectivity.

An interconnected group we could refer to as a Composition or Feature.

Connect 4 & legs & fur & tail & bark & the word dog & the sound of the word dog – and we have a familiar feature.

Features are patterns of interconnections; and it is these features that determine what a thing or person is seen as. What they are seen as is taken as their identity. It is the identity as seen from outside.

To oneself one is here and now, a 0,0 reference point. To someone else one is not the 0,0 point – one is there — not here, and to that person it is they who are the 0,0 point.

This 0,0 or reference point is crucially important. One could upload a huge mass of data, but if there was no 0,0 point that is all it would be – a huge mass of data.

The way forward towards this evolutionary goal, is not to concentrate on being able to upload more and more data, faster and faster – but instead to concentrate on being able to identify the 0.0 point; and to be able to translate from neural code to the language of perception.

The vulnerability of the bio body is the source of most threats to its existence.

We have looked at the question of uploading the identity by uploading the memory contents, on the assumption that the identity is contained in the memories. I believe this assumption has been proved to be almost certainly wrong.

What we are concentrating on is the identity as the viewer of its perceptions, the centroid or locus of perception.

It is the fixed reference point. And the locus of perception is always Here, and it is always Now. This is abbreviated here to 0,0.

What more logical place to find the identity than where it considers Here and Now – its residence in Space Time.

It would surely be illogical to start searching for the identity where it considers to be Somewhere Else or in Another Time.

We considered the fact that the human being accesses the outside world through its senses, and that its information processing system is able to present that information as being “external.” A hand is pricked with a pin. The sensory information – a stream of neural impulses, all essentially identical — progress to the upper brain where the pattern is read and the sensation of pain is felt. That sensation, however, is projected or mapped onto the exact point it originated from.

One feels the pain at the place the neural disturbance came from. It is an illusion — a very useful illusion.

In the long slow progress of evolution from a single cell to the human organism, and to the logical next step — the “android” (we must find a better word) – this mapping function must be one of the most vital survival strategies. If the predator is gnawing at your tail, it’s smart to know where the pain is coming from.

It wasn’t just structure that evolved, but “smarts” too… smarter systems.

Each sensory channel conveys not just sensory information but information regarding where it came from. Like a set of outgoing information vectors. But there is also a complementary set of incoming vectors. The array of sensory vectors from visual, audible, tactile, and so on, all converge on one location – a locus of perception. And the channels cross-correlate. The hand is pricked – we immediately look at the place the pain came from. And… one can “follow one’s nose” to see where the barbecue is.

Dr Shu can use both his left hand and arm; and his right hand and arm in coordination to lift up the $22M Ming vase he is in the process of stealing.

Left/right coordination — so obvious and simple it gets overlooked.

A condition known as Synesthesia [ ] provides an example of how two channels can get confused — for example, being able to see sounds or hear movement.

Perhaps the most interesting example is the rubber hand experiment from UC Riverside. In this the subject places their hands palm down on a table. The left arm and hand are screened off, and a substitute left “arm” and rubber hand are installed. After a while, the subject reacts as though the substitute was their real hand.

It is on Youtube at

This phenomenon has been attributed to neuroplasticity.

A simpler explanation would be changed coordinates — something that people who row or who ride bicycles are familiar with — even if they have never analysed it. The vehicle becomes part of oneself. It becomes a part of the system, an extension. What about applying the same sense on a grander scale? Such a simple and common observation may have just as much relevance to the next step in evolution as the number of teraflops per second.

So, we can get the sensory vectors to be re-deployed. But one of the fundamental questions would be – can we get the 0,0 locus, the centroid of perception, to shift to another place?

Our environment, the environment we live in, is made of perception. Outside there may be rocks and rivers and rain and wind and thunder… but not in the head. Outside this “theater in the head,” there is a world of photons and particles and energy and radiation — reality — but what we see is what is visible, what we hear is what is audible, what we feel is what is tangible … that is our environment, that is where we live.

However, neurones do not emit any light, neurons do not make any sound, they are not a source of pressure or temperature so what the diddly are we watching and listening to?

We live in a world of perception. Thanks to powerful instrumentation and a great deal of scientific research we know that behind this world of perception there are neurons, unknown to us all the time working away providing us with colors and tones and scents….

But they do not emit colors or tones or scents – the neuronal language is binary – fired or not fired.

Somewhere the neuronal binary (Fired/Not Fired) language has to be translated into the language of perception – the range of colors, the range of tones, the range of smells … these are each continuous variables; not two-state variables as in the language of neurons.

There has been a great flurry of research activity in the area of neurons, and what was considered to be “Gospel” 10 years ago, is no longer so.

IBM and ARM in the UK have (summer 2011) announced prototype brains with hyper-connectivity – a step in the right direction but the fundamental question of interpretation/translation is side-stepped.

I hope someone will prove me wrong, but I am not aware of anyone doing any work on the translator question. This is a grievous error.

(To be continued)

I have been asked to mention the following.
The Nature of The Identity — with Reference to Androids

The nature of the identity is intimately related to information and information processing.

The importance and the real nature of information is only now being gradually realised.

But the history of the subject goes back a long way.

In ancient Greece, those who studied Nature – the predecessors of our scientists – considered that what they studied – material reality – Nature – had two aspects – form and substance.

Until recent times all the emphasis was on substance — what substance(s) subjected to sufficient stress would transmute into gold; what substances in combination could be triggered into releasing vast amounts of energy – money and weapons – the usual Homo Sap stuff.

You take a block of marble – that is substance. You have a sculptor create a beautiful statue from it – that is form.

The form consists of the shapes imposed by the sculptor; and the shapes consist of information. Now, if you were an unfeeling materialistic bastard you could describe the shapes in terms of equations. And if you were an utterly depraved unfeeling materialistic bastard you could have a computer compare the sets of equations from many examples to find out what is considered to be beauty.

Dr Foxglove – the Great Maestro of Leipzig, is seated at the concert grand — playing on a Steinway (of course) with great verve, (as one would expect). In front of him, under a low light, there is a sheet of paper with black marks – information of some kind – the music for Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, no. 2.

Aahh! Wonderful.


But … all is not as it seems….

Herr Doktor Foxglove thinks he is playing music.

A grand illusion my friend! You see, the music – it is, how you say — all in the heads of the listeners.

What the Good Doktor is doing, and doing manfully — is operating a wooden acoustic-wave generator – albeit very skilfully, and not just any old wooden acoustic-wave generator – but a Steinway wooden acoustic-wave generator.

There is no music in the physical world. The acoustic waves are not music. They are just pressure waves in the atmosphere. The pressure waves actuate the eardrum. And that in turn actuates a part of the inner ear called the cochlea. And that in turn causes streams of neural impulses to progress up into the higher brain.

Dr Foxglove hits a key on the piano corresponding to 440 acoustic waves per second; this is replicated in a slightly different form within the inner ear, until it becomes a stream of neural impulses….

But what the listener hears is not 440 waves or 440 neural impulses or 440 anything – what the listener hears is one thing – a single tone.

The tone is an exact derivative of the pattern of neural impulses. There are no tones in physical reality.

Tones exist only in the experience of the listener – only in the experience of the observer.

And thanks to some fancy processing not only will the listener get the illusion that 440 cycles per second is actually a “tone” – but a further illusion is perpetrated – that the tone is coming from a particular direction, that what one is hearing is Dr. Foxglove at the Steinway, over there, under the lights – that is where the sound is.

But no, my friend….

What the listener is actually listening to is his eardrums. He is listening to a derivative of a derivative … of his eardrums rattling.

His eardrums are rattling because someone is operating an acoustic wave generator in the vicinity.

But what he is hearing is pure information.

And as for the music ….

A single note – a tone – is neither harmonious nor disharmonious in itself. It is only harmonious or disharmonious in relation to another note.

Music is derived from ratios – a still further derivative — and ratios are pure information.

Take for example the ratio of 20 Kg to 10 Kg.

The ratio of 20 Kg to 10 Kg is not 2 Kg.

The ratio of 20 Kg to 10 Kg is 2 – just 2 – pure information.

20 kg/10 kg = 2.

Similarly, we can also show that there is no colour in reality, there are no shapes in reality; depth perception is a derivative – and just as what one is listening to is the rattling of one’s eardrums – so what one is watching is the inside of one’s eyeballs – one is watching the shuddering impact of photons on one’s retina.

The sensations of sound, of light and colour and shapes are all in one’s mind – as decodings of neural messages – which in turn are derivatives of physical processes.

The wonderful aroma coming from the barbecue is all in one’s head.

There are no aromas or tastes in reality – all are conjurations of the mind.

Like the Old Guy said, all is maya, baby….

The only point that is being made here is that Information is too important a subject to be so neglected.

What you are doing here is at the leading edge beyond the leading edge and in that future Information will be a significant factor.

What we away back in the dim, distant and bewildered early 21st Century called Information Technology (I.T.) will be seen as Computer Technology (CT) which is all it ever was – but there will be a real IT in the future.

Similarly what has been referred to for too long as Information Science will be seen for what it is — Library Technology.

Now – down to work.

One of the options – the android – is to upload all stored data from a smelly old bio body to a cool Designer Body (DB).

This strategy is based on the unproven but popular belief that one’s identity is contained by one’s memory.

There are two critical points that need to be addressed.

The observer is the cameraman — not the picture. Unless you are looking in a mirror or at a film of yourself, then you are the one person who will not appear in your memory.

There will be memories of that favourite holiday place, of your favorite tunes, of the emotions that you felt when … but you will only “appear” in your memories as the point of observation.

You are the cameraman – not the picture.

So, we should view with skepticism ideas that uploading the memory will take the identity with it.

If somebody loses their memory – they do not become someone else – hopping and skipping down the street,

‘Hi – I’m Tad Furlong, I’m new in town….’

If somebody loses their memory – they may well say – ‘I do not know my name….’

That does not mean they have become someone else – what they mean is ‘I cannot remember my name….’

The fact that this perplexes them indicates that it is still the same person – it is someone who has lost their name.

If a person changes their name they do not become someone else; nor do they become someone else if they can’t remember their name – or as it is more commonly, and more dramatically, and more loosely put – “cannot remember who they are”.

So, what is the identity?

There is the observer – whatever that is – and there are observations.

There are different forms of information – visual, audible, tactile, olfactory … which together form the environment of the observer. By “projection” the environment is observed as being external. The visual image from one eye is compared with that of the other eye to give depth perception. The sound from one ear is compared with that from the other ear to give surround sound. You are touched on the arm and immediately the tactile sensation – which actually occurs in the mind, is mapped as though coming from that exact spot on your arm.

You live and have your being in a world of sensation.

This is not to say that the external world does not exist – only that our world is the world “inside” – the place where we hear, and see, and feel, and taste….

And all those projections are like “vectors” leading out from a projection spot – a locus of projection – the 0,0 spot – the point which is me seeing and me tasting and me hearing and me scenting even though through the magic of projection I have the idea that the barbeque smells, that there is music in the piano, that the world is full of color, and that my feet feel cold.

This locus of projection is the “me” –it is the point of observation, the 0,0 reference point. This, the observer not the observation, is the identity … the me, the 0,0.

And that 0,0 may be a lot easier to shift than a ton and a half of squashed memories. Memories of being sick; of being tired; of the garden; of your dog; of the sound of chalk on the blackboard, of the humourless assistant bank manager; of the 1982 Olympics; of Sadie Trenton; of Fred’s tow bar; and so on and on and on –

So – if memory ain’t the thing — how do we do it … upload the identity?
(To be continued)