Friday, September 28, 2018

Anti-aging molecule produced during fasting.

Diet trends like intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets are popular for their weight-loss effects. Han et al. now show that the β-hydroxybutyrate generated under these regimes slows aging of the vascular system, which is tied to overall body aging. It promotes vascular cell quiescence and inhibits cell senescence that accelerate aging. Here is the technical abstract:

Highlights
-β-hydroxybutyrate prevents the vascular cell senescence 
-β-hydroxybutyrate upregulates Oct4 expression via interacting with hnRNP A1 
-Oct4-mediated quiescence is able to attenuate hallmarks of senescenc 
-Circulating β-hydroxybutyrate alleviates the senescence of mouse aorta
Summary
β-hydroxybutyrate (β-HB) elevation during fasting or caloric restriction is believed to induce anti-aging effects and alleviate aging-related neurodegeneration. However, whether β-HB alters the senescence pathway in vascular cells remains unknown. Here we report that β-HB promotes vascular cell quiescence, which significantly inhibits both stress-induced premature senescence and replicative senescence through p53-independent mechanisms. Further, we identify heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein A1 (hnRNP A1) as a direct binding target of β-HB. β-HB binding to hnRNP A1 markedly enhances hnRNP A1 binding with Octamer-binding transcriptional factor (Oct) 4 mRNA, which stabilizes Oct4 mRNA and Oct4 expression. Oct4 increases Lamin B1, a key factor against DNA damage-induced senescence. Finally, fasting and intraperitoneal injection of β-HB upregulate Oct4 and Lamin B1 in both vascular smooth muscle and endothelial cells in mice in vivo. We conclude that β-HB exerts anti-aging effects in vascular cells by upregulating an hnRNP A1-induced Oct4-mediated Lamin B1 pathway.
Graphical Abstract


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Is Democracy Dying? - Irrelevance of most humans in a technocratic future...

I want to point to the October issue of the Atlantic Magazine, which carries out the manifesto published in its first issue, in 1857, to “endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” Editor Jeffrey Goldberg has solicited a series of articles on the current state of the U.S. The Anchor article is Jeffrey Rosen's "Madison vs. the Mob." Some comments by Rosen:
The goal in America today is to resurrect the primacy of reason over passion—what we are watching now is the struggle between logos and pathos. The central question in our democratic age is this: Is it possible to slow down the direct expression of popular passion? The answer to this question is not obvious...Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare.
I find the article by Yuval Noah Harari (author of "Sapiens" and "Homo Deus") titled "Why Technology Favors Tyranny" most sobersing and compelling. Echoing the arguments in his second book, he asserts that
...together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.
He points to the coming irrelevance of most humans beings, except for a small elite caste that runs the whole show.
Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. We might willingly give up more and more authority over our lives because we will learn from experience to trust the algorithms more than our own feelings, eventually losing our ability to make many decisions for ourselves. Just think of the way that, within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust Google’s search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: finding relevant and trustworthy information...What will happen to this view of life as we rely on AI to make ever more decisions for us? Even now we trust Netflix to recommend movies and Spotify to pick music we’ll like. But why should AI’s helpfulness stop there?...
It’s not so hard to see how AI could one day make better decisions than we do about careers, and perhaps even about relationships. But once we begin to count on AI to decide what to study, where to work, and whom to date or even marry, human life will cease to be a drama of decision making, and our conception of life will need to change. Democratic elections and free markets might cease to make sense. So might most religions and works of art. Imagine Anna Karenina taking out her smartphone and asking Siri whether she should stay married to Karenin or elope with the dashing Count Vronsky.
Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.
If you find these prospects alarming—if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similarly degraded form of society—then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy.

I insert here a clip from the end of Harari's "Homo Deus" book:
…if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:
1.​Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
2.​Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
3.​Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.
These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:
1.​Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2.​What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
3.​What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Flow Genome Project - modern snake oil? con?

I thought I would point MindBlog readers to comments made on my post of 11/7/2017, where I offered a scathing review of a book, "Stealing Fire" which purports to describe how the Flow Genome Project (for a considerable amount of money) will take you to the next level of human performance. The comments include an exchange between a very dissatisfied customer/student and a staff member in the first two classes offered ("Flow Fundamentals" and "Flow Performance.").   

Comment:
I read your commentary on the Flow Genome Project (FGP) with great interest. Your suspicions about this "effort" are spot on, and I wish that I had your insight before taking two of these classes from the FGP...The first class (Flow Fundamentals) was a great community of people, and I learned much from them, and nothing from the FGP personnel. The second class (Flow Performance) was pseudo-profound BS (PPBS.) There is a great paper that won an Ig Nobel Prize titled "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit."...The paper perfectly described every aspect of this class!! The instructor - Jamie Wheal - is more interested in impressing people with PPBS than realaying any useful information. Also, each class is prefaced with the promise that "All the secrets of Stealing Fire will be revealed in this next class." I stopped when this promise was not delivered in Flow Performance; but, was promised for private coaching (at an extremely high price).
Response from Flow Genome Project:
We're actually re-launching our new website in the coming month or so to address and make more transparent the research we're working on. As for the links, that was a frustrating mistake with them being published without confirmation on the back end. The correct working links are:  
http://stealingfirebook.com/downloads
http://stealingfirebook.com/research 
[note inserted at this point by Bownds...the corrected links now actually work, but the web page /research contains no research,  and the web page /downloads is simply a sales pitch for buying the book "Stealing Fire"....their "correct working links" yield no relevant information!.].. continuing:
  
Sorry to hear Mike that you're still not satisfied with your experience in the course. Those marketing criticisms are puzzling as we unpacked quite a lot of information in Flow Performance with respect to that topic. The private coaching is not promising to deliver hidden information that Flow Performance does not, but rather the personal 1:1 time with a coach.
Response to the last sentence by commenter:
Here is an excerpt from an email from Jamie Wheal announcing the availability of private coaching to all members of the Flow Performance Class: 
"I’ve only ever done this with CEOs and military leaders, never before to the general public. We’re going to combine deep dive coaching, direct facilitation through some of our highest octane tools and a behind the curtain look at what we covered in Stealing Fire. No filter. Gloves off. The most potent tools and techniques we’ve learned in over a decade of working with the best in the world, and seeing what actually sticks." 
The VERY same promise made for Flow Performance. A promise that was never kept. I rest my case!!
Further comment:
During the Flow Performance Class, Jamie Wheal made the statement multiple times that "Stealing Fire [the book that he co-authored and the foundation for FGP training] is a complete fiction; a Promethean Prank." Taking him at his word, how can such a document have any scientific validity and/or application at all?! In addition, whenever a topic came up - in Flow Performance - in which certain class members had experience and deep understanding (e.g. Breathwork, DNA testing, Microdosing), the lack of knowledge/depth of understanding on the part of the FGP was blindingly obvious given the FGP's responses to deeper inquiries by those experts in the class. It is very telling when one starts addressing questions and concerns about their work with statements about their credentials, listing members of their network/inner circle, and engaging in character assassination against those who question; rather than addressing the questions directly. This was a constant problem during Flow Performance. It was the worst, but not the only, source of pseudo profound bullshit in the Flow Performance class.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The war for our attention - an existential threat.

I want to pass on some edited clips from an article by Casey Schwartz on fundamental threats to individual and societal well-being posed by the new “attention economy.”
Earlier this month, Facebook and Instagram announced new tools for users to set time limits on their platforms, and a dashboard to monitor one’s daily use, following Google’s introduction of Digital Well Being features…In doing so the companies seemed to suggest that spending time on the internet is not a desirable, healthy habit, but a pleasurable vice: one that if left uncontrolled may slip into unappealing addiction.
James Williams, a technologist turned philosopher has written a new book, “Stand Out of Our Light.” During a decade-long tenure at Google, he worked on search advertising, helping perfect a powerful, data-driven advertising model...Mr. Williams compares the current design of our technology to “an entire army of jets and tanks” aimed at capturing and keeping our attention. And the army is winning...This is us: eyes glazed, mouth open, neck crooked, trapped in dopamine loops and filter bubbles. Our attention is sold to advertisers, along with our data, and handed back to us tattered and piecemeal.
”In the same way that you pull out a phone to do something and you get distracted, and 30 minutes later you find that you’ve done 10 other things except the thing that you pulled out the phone to do — there’s fragmentation and distraction at that level,” he said. “But I felt like there’s something on a longer-term level that’s harder to keep in view: that longitudinal sense of what you’re about.”
The constant pull on our attention from technology is no longer just about losing too many hours of our so-called real lives to the diversions of the web. Now, they are telling us, we are at risk of fundamentally losing our moral purpose.
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google…has been playing the role of whistle-blower since he quit Google five years ago…he notes that the constant pull on our attention from technology…is changing our ability to make sense of what’s true, so we have less and less idea of a shared fabric of truth, of a shared narrative that we all subscribe to…Without shared truth or shared facts, you get chaos — and people can take control.
…a whole industry has sprung up to combat tech creep…HabitLab, developed at Stanford, stages aggressive interventions whenever you enter one of your self-declared danger zones of internet consumption…Like Moment, an app that monitors screen time and sends you or loved ones embarrassing notifications detailing exactly how much time has been frittered away on Instagram today, HabitLab gets to know your patterns uncomfortably well in order to do its job. Apparently, we now need our phones to save us from our phones. 
Researchers have known for years that there’s a difference between “top-down" attention (the voluntary, effortful decisions we make to pay attention to something of our choice) and “bottom-up” attention, which is when our attention is involuntarily captured by whatever is going on around us: a thunderclap, gunshot or merely the inviting bleep that announces another Twitter notification.
At Tufts University, Nick Seaver, an anthropology professor, just finished his second year of teaching a class he designed called How to Pay Attention…Dr...Seaver, 32, is no Luddite… “Information overload is something that always feels very new but is actually very old..It is the 16th century, and there are so many books; or it is late antiquity and there is so much writing...It can’t be that there are too many things to pay attention to: That doesn’t follow...But it could be that there are more things that are trying to actively demand your attention.”
Sherry Turtle, M.I.T. sociologist and psychologist:…there is not only the attention we pay to consider, but also the attention we receive…Rather than compete with their siblings for their parents’ attention, children are up against iPhones and iPads, Siri and Alexa, Apple watches and computer screens…A generation has grown up that has lived a very unsatisfying youth and really does not associate their phones with any kind of glamour, but rather with a sense of deprivation.
We’re starting to see people inching their way toward ‘time well spent,’ Apple inching its way toward a mea culpa…And the culture itself turning toward a recognition that this can’t go on.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Infants distinguish between leaders and bullies

From Margoni et al:
We examined whether 21-month-old infants could distinguish between two broad types of social power: respect-based power exerted by a leader (who might be an authority figure with legitimate power, a prestigious individual with merited power, or some combination thereof) and fear-based power exerted by a bully. Infants first saw three protagonists interact with a character who was either a leader (leader condition) or a bully (bully condition). Next, the character gave an order to the protagonists, who initially obeyed; the character then left the scene, and the protagonists either continued to obey (obey event) or no longer did so (disobey event). Infants in the leader condition looked significantly longer at the disobey than at the obey event, suggesting that they expected the protagonists to continue to obey the leader in her absence. In contrast, infants in the bully condition looked equally at the two events, suggesting that they viewed both outcomes as plausible: The protagonists might continue to obey the absent bully to prevent further harm, or they might disobey her because her power over them weakened in her absence. Additional results supported these interpretations: Infants expected obedience when the bully remained in the scene and could harm the protagonists if defied, but they expected disobedience when the order was given by a character with little or no power over the protagonists. Together, these results indicate that by 21 months of age, infants already hold different expectations for subordinates’ responses to individuals with respect-based as opposed to fear-based power.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Giving Ecstasy to Octopuses

Edsinger and Dölen have found out how to make the normally shy and retiring octopus into a party animal. They found that MDMA (phenethylamine (+/−)-3,4-methylendioxymethamphetamine, also known as Ecstasy) has prosocial effects, just as it does in humans. The indicates that the role of the serotonergic neurotransmission (that MDMA acts on) in regulating social behaviors has been evolutionarily conserved over 500 million years.
Human and octopus lineages are separated by over 500 million years of evolution and show divergent anatomical patterns of brain organization. Despite these differences, growing evidence suggests that ancient neurotransmitter systems are shared across vertebrate and invertebrate species and in many cases enable overlapping functions. Sociality is widespread across the animal kingdom, with numerous examples in both invertebrate (e.g., bees, ants, termites, and shrimps) and vertebrate (e.g., fishes, birds, rodents, and primates) lineages [6]. Serotonin is an evolutionarily ancient molecule that has been implicated in regulating both invertebrate and vertebrate social behaviors, raising the possibility that this neurotransmitter’s prosocial functions may be conserved across evolution. Members of the order Octopoda are predominantly asocial and solitary. Although at this time it is unknown whether serotonergic signaling systems are functionally conserved in octopuses, ethological studies indicate that agonistic behaviors are suspended during mating, suggesting that neural mechanisms subserving social behaviors exist in octopuses but are suppressed outside the reproductive period. Here we provide evidence that, as in humans, the phenethylamine (+/−)-3,4-methylendioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) enhances acute prosocial behaviors in Octopus bimaculoides. This finding is paralleled by the evolutionary conservation of the serotonin transporter (SERT, encoded by the Slc6A4 gene) binding site of MDMA in the O. bimaculoides genome. Taken together, these data provide evidence that the neural mechanisms subserving social behaviors exist in O. bimaculoides and indicate that the role of serotonergic neurotransmission in regulating social behaviors is evolutionarily conserved.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Building molecular machines.

In an open source PNAS news article, Stephen Ornes describes efforts to build molecular machines modeled on our own biochemical processes - possibly artificial muscles or molecular electronics. It makes a fascinating read. A few clips:
Some of the smallest, most useful machines known to science are the biological molecules that keep living things living. The protein myosin drives the contraction and relaxation of muscle. Kinesin drags cellular cargo around the cell. Motor enzymes unwind, rewind, and maintain DNA, and bacteria use a molecular motor to rotate their whip-like flagella up to 100,000 times per minute, propelling them forward. These machines turn chemical energy into motion. They’re very efficient at their jobs.
The idea of using molecules to build minuscule machines that perform useful tasks dates back at least to a lecture given in 1959 by physicist Richard Feynman titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”* More recently, demonstrations of artificial molecular machines offer good reasons to think that such devices are feasible. Researchers have forged motors, shuttles, elevators, walkers, and pumps out of molecules, and powered them with electrical energy, chemical reactions, or light. Tiny motor by tiny motor, these demonstrations are inching toward future applications that could range from molecular electronics to artificial muscles.
...molecular machines are by nature floppy, like the soft matter that makes up the human body, whereas macroscopic machines are typically made from rigid materials such as metal. But it’s also a consequence of scale. Although the laws of physics don’t change in the nanoworld, their relative influences do. Concepts such as inertia and momentum—critical to the design of machines like cars and planes—become irrelevant. So does gravity, because molecules have such a small mass. Movement at the nanoscale is dominated instead by viscosity and Brownian motion, the random bumbling of individual molecules caused by thermal fluctuations...Katsonis calls this molecular environment a “Brownian storm.” In a 2007 article on the physics of nanoscale machines, physicist R. Dean Astumian at the University of Maine in Orono, ME, likened the challenges to swimming in molasses and walking in a hurricane.
The article gives numerous examples of efforts to develop nanoscale motors driven by electrical energy, chemical energy, or light.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Mapping our subjective feelings.

Nummenmaa et al.  do a massive job of data gathering whose purpose left me scratching my head on first sight...wondering why such an effort is useful.  But then, if someone asked me how I would describe my subjective experience  I wouldn't know where to start.  In the introduction to their open source article they "use the word feeling to simply refer to the current, subjectively accessible phenomenological state of an individual...Despite the centrality of subjective feelings to ourselves and our conscious well-being, the relative organization and determinants of different feelings have remained poorly understood. "  I pass on their abstract and a summary graphic from the article.

Significance
Subjective feelings are a central feature of human life, yet their relative organization has remained elusive. We mapped the “human feeling space” for 100 core feelings ranging from cognitive and affective processes to somatic sensations; in the analysis, we combined basic dimension rating, similarity mapping, bodily sensation mapping, and neuroimaging meta-analysis. All feelings were emotionally loaded, and saliencies of bodily and mental experiences were correlated. Feelings formed five groups: positive emotions, negative emotions, cognitive processes, somatic states, and homeostatic states. Feeling space was best explained by emotionality, mental experience, and bodily sensation topographies. Subjectively felt similarity of feelings was associated with basic feeling dimensions and the bodily sensation maps. This shows that subjective feelings are categorical, emotional, and embodied.
 Abstract
Subjective feelings are a central feature of human life. We defined the organization and determinants of a feeling space involving 100 core feelings that ranged from cognitive and affective processes to somatic sensations and common illnesses. The feeling space was determined by a combination of basic dimension rating, similarity mapping, bodily sensation mapping, and neuroimaging meta-analysis. A total of 1,026 participants took part in online surveys where we assessed (i) for each feeling, the intensity of four hypothesized basic dimensions (mental experience, bodily sensation, emotion, and controllability), (ii) subjectively experienced similarity of the 100 feelings, and (iii) topography of bodily sensations associated with each feeling. Neural similarity between a subset of the feeling states was derived from the NeuroSynth meta-analysis database based on the data from 9,821 brain-imaging studies. All feelings were emotionally valenced and the saliency of bodily sensations correlated with the saliency of mental experiences associated with each feeling. Nonlinear dimensionality reduction revealed five feeling clusters: positive emotions, negative emotions, cognitive processes, somatic states and illnesses, and homeostatic states. Organization of the feeling space was best explained by basic dimensions of emotional valence, mental experiences, and bodily sensations. Subjectively felt similarity of feelings was associated with basic feeling dimensions and the topography of the corresponding bodily sensations. These findings reveal a map of subjective feelings that are categorical, emotional, and embodied.
Here is their two dimensional map of feeling space (click to enlarge, or better, click link to original open source article.)


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Details of how a fear response is unlearned.

Learning requires the formation of new nerve connections. When that learning is extinguished are those connections inhibited or lost? Wan Lai et al. provide evidence for the latter:

Significance
Whether learning-induced changes in neuronal circuits are inhibited or erased during the process of unlearning remains unclear. In this study, we examined the impact of auditory-cued fear conditioning and extinction on the remodeling of synaptic connections in the living mouse auditory cortex. We found that fear conditioning leads to cue-specific formation of new postsynaptic dendritic spines, whereas fear extinction preferentially eliminates these new spines in a cue-specific manner. Our findings suggest that learning-related changes of synaptic connections in the cortex are at least partially reversed after unlearning.
Abstract
Fear conditioning-induced behavioral responses can be extinguished after fear extinction. While fear extinction is generally thought to be a form of new learning, several lines of evidence suggest that neuronal changes associated with fear conditioning could be reversed after fear extinction. To better understand how fear conditioning and extinction modify synaptic circuits, we examined changes of postsynaptic dendritic spines of layer V pyramidal neurons in the mouse auditory cortex over time using transcranial two-photon microscopy. We found that auditory-cued fear conditioning induced the formation of new dendritic spines within 2 days. The survived new spines induced by fear conditioning with one auditory cue were clustered within dendritic branch segments and spatially segregated from new spines induced by fear conditioning with a different auditory cue. Importantly, fear extinction preferentially caused the elimination of newly formed spines induced by fear conditioning in an auditory cue-specific manner. Furthermore, after fear extinction, fear reconditioning induced reformation of new dendritic spines in close proximity to the sites of new spine formation induced by previous fear conditioning. These results show that fear conditioning, extinction, and reconditioning induce cue- and location-specific dendritic spine remodeling in the auditory cortex. They also suggest that changes of synaptic connections induced by fear conditioning are reversed after fear extinction.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarization.

A sobering study by Bail et al. (open source) shows that just getting us out of our tribes' social media echo chambers does not have the palliative softening effect commonly supposed, but rather increases political polarization:

Significance
Social media sites are often blamed for exacerbating political polarization by creating “echo chambers” that prevent people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. We conducted a field experiment that offered a large group of Democrats and Republicans financial compensation to follow bots that retweeted messages by elected officials and opinion leaders with opposing political views. Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot—although this effect was not statistically significant. Despite several limitations, this study has important implications for the emerging field of computational social science and ongoing efforts to reduce political polarization online.
Abstract
There is mounting concern that social media sites contribute to political polarization by creating “echo chambers” that insulate people from opposing views about current events. We surveyed a large sample of Democrats and Republicans who visit Twitter at least three times each week about a range of social policy issues. One week later, we randomly assigned respondents to a treatment condition in which they were offered financial incentives to follow a Twitter bot for 1 month that exposed them to messages from those with opposing political ideologies (e.g., elected officials, opinion leaders, media organizations, and nonprofit groups). Respondents were resurveyed at the end of the month to measure the effect of this treatment, and at regular intervals throughout the study period to monitor treatment compliance. We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative posttreatment. Democrats exhibited slight increases in liberal attitudes after following a conservative Twitter bot, although these effects are not statistically significant. Notwithstanding important limitations of our study, these findings have significant implications for the interdisciplinary literature on political polarization and the emerging field of computational social science.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

How exercise slows Alzheimer’s disease.

Wow…if I ever needed more encouragement to keep up my exercise routines (mainly swimming, biking, and a few weights) Choi et al. provide it by demonstrating that in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease, exercise improves memory through a combination of encouraging the generation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus and increasing the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that supports neuronal growth and survival. Their abstract:
Adult hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN) is impaired before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathology. We found that exercise provided cognitive benefit to 5×FAD mice, a mouse model of AD, by inducing AHN and elevating levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Neither stimulation of AHN alone, nor exercise, in the absence of increased AHN, ameliorated cognition. We successfully mimicked the beneficial effects of exercise on AD mice by genetically and pharmacologically inducing AHN in combination with elevating BDNF levels. Suppressing AHN later led to worsened cognitive performance and loss of preexisting dentate neurons. Thus, pharmacological mimetics of exercise, enhancing AHN and elevating BDNF levels, may improve cognition in AD. Furthermore, applied at early stages of AD, these mimetics may protect against subsequent neuronal cell death.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Robots R Us

Two recent NYTimes pieces - one by Sherry Turtle (professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T.) and the other by Andy Clark (professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh) - lay out starkly opposing views of the desirability of humans moving toward increased interactions with, and possible enhancements by, robots. You should read both. Turtle sees a potential diminution of our humanity:
The narrative begins with the idea that companionate robots would be “better than nothing,” better because there aren’t enough people to teach, love and tend to people. But that idea quickly shifts into another: robots would be better than most anything. Unlike people, they would not abandon you or get sick and die. They might not be capable of love, but they won’t break your heart. From better than nothing to better than anything. These are stations on our voyage to forgetting what it means to be human. But the forgetting begins long before we have a robot companion in place; it begins when we even think of putting one in place. To build the robots, we must first rebuild ourselves as people ready to be their companions.
Clark looks towards a glorious enhancement of what it means to be human. He begins with a list that includes improving normal mental functioning and generating a wide spectrum of ways of being:
We now glimpse the next steps in human cultural and cognitive evolution, continuing the trend that started with the arrival of human language and the (much later) invention of writing and the external storage and transmission of ideas. The new steps herald an age of fluidity and demand answers to a host of questions…The two most important such questions are simply: How should we negotiate this dauntingly large space of human possibility? And what costs are we willing to tolerate along the way?
The first is a question of practice, the second of ethics. Practically speaking, it will not be easy to decide in a world of so many possible ways of being, so many enhancements and augmentations, and so many social practices, which ones are for us. 
Ethically speaking, we need to ask what new costs and inequalities the freedoms and augmentations of some may mean for others. We need to ask if we are willing to tolerate some inequality as part of the rollout process for a more fluid and interconnected world. Issues of privacy and the right to control (including to trade or sell) our personal information are vividly with us. Not knowing quite where we as protected selves stop and the world around us begins, law and policy struggle to decide if (for example) information stored on our phones is enough like information stored in our heads to warrant the same protections. Law, education and social policy currently lag behind many interacting waves of change. What is up for grabs is what we humans are, and what we will become.
(Note,