The Other Side of the Equation

By Rebecca McCauley Rench


As we move to a society with decentralized manufacturing driven by technology like 3D printing, shouldn’t we also be looking towards the other side of the equation? Right now, responsible Americans with access to the correct resources have limited options when dealing with materials that no longer are needed or serve their function (also known as trash). We can throw these items into the dumpster, we can recycle them if we have services nearby to do so, we can compost some materials in our backyard, or we can find someone else that wants it, such as Goodwill or Freecycle. However, why do we do this? Are those not the same atoms that we need to create our next iPhone or dinner plate? What if our society had another option, one that could prevent many items from ending up buried underground awaiting degradation for centuries? Just like we have decided to put effort, money, and research into developing decentralized manufacturing, we should be putting the same sorts of resources into decentralized recycling.

Winning Hearts and Minds

By Charles Mueller

Winning hearts and minds is how you lead a country, it is key to winning wars, and it is what good governance depends on in a rational society.  If you do not have the hearts and minds of the people, then you cannot lead them or protect them.  People’s hearts and minds are won by giving them something to believe in, giving them something to trust.  When people believe that you will help create the reality they hope to see, they give their hearts and minds to you.  This is something all people who want power understand because power is controlling the hearts and minds of the people.  Today, the hearts and minds of the rational people around the world are being controlled by an irrational idea, that trepidation  is normal, that terrorism is acceptable, that we are not free to live without fear.  That fear was perpetuated earlier this week when Daesh carried out a series of cowardly attacks on the innocent people in the capital of Belgium.

The hearts of people are won by gaining their trust, by capturing their loyalty.  Terrorists groups like Daesh are winning the hearts of rational people, people like the teenager Maysa from Belgium who drank the Daesh kool-aid.  The heart is not always a rational thing, it is fueled by emotion and responds most greatly to fear.  We are losing the hearts of the rational people of the world somehow.  The heart is most susceptible to change when it is living in fear.  Ironically, by creating an unstable world the terrorists gain the hearts of the rational people.

The minds of people are sometimes much harder to win.  The more educated, the more skeptical, the more logical a mind, the harder it is to win it over with cheap tricks.  Maysa’s rational mind is the only reason she is not a terrorist fighting with the Daesh today.  They might have tricked her heart, but they could not trick her mind.  This is the power of rational thought, the power of science.  When we understand our world better, in a more scientific way, we can control our hearts and put our loyalty and trust in places that are truly safe.  This is why democracy works; because rational people invest their hearts and their minds in leaders who are rational and logical too.

Our rational leaders are not capturing the hearts and minds of the people anymore.  The terrorists have put fear in our hearts and minds and they are beginning to turn us into irrational, illogical people.  If we become that, we’ve lost the world we have spilt so much blood, sweat and tears over trying to create; a world of free thought, of opportunity, of freedom and justice for all.  Trust and loyalty are inspired by action.  Rational people also require that action be logical.  Every war, be it WWII or the most recent War on Terror, is fought over the hearts and minds of people.  I hate to think that right now we are losing the war for the hearts and minds of the world.

Humans in 2020

By Charles Mueller

What will humans be in 2020?

If you had asked me that question in 2000, I would have been 16 years old and told you that humans would still be human, but they would have really cool technology (think Jetson’s).  Maybe we would be smarter, but that would have been due to the fact we had experienced more and learned more.  We wouldn’t be better because we would have learned how to change the essence of our humanity, our DNA.   I would never have thought that one day we could design ourselves like we design cars, computers and our art.

Many of our leaders in the S&T world who are following the advancements in genetic engineering technologies are convinced a world where we can design ourselves to love like a dog, to see like an eagle, or to have the memory of a Clark Nutcracker bird (Google it), are still many years away.  The same kinds of thing were said in the computer industry before people like Gates, Allen, Jobs and Wozniak decided to do what the experts said was decades away in their own garage.  The world of garage S&T (genetic engineering) is finally possible and do-it-yourself biology is going to start to make what was evolutionary impossible, possible.  It is going to help create the breakthroughs that drive this revolution.

After spending the last decade studying everything I could get my hands on about how life functions and evolves, as well as following the development of tools that allow us to manipulate it at the atomic scale, I honestly think humans in 2020 will be on a trajectory different than the humans of today.  Humans of 2020 will be the first down a path to be whatever the humans of 2020 want to be. Their children will be optimized and their own genomes modified in an attempt to make their existence better. They will be the first humans by design, not evolution.

A Phone Conversation

By Paul Syers

Hey Mom. 

Sure, I can talk about computers with you for a bit, why do you ask?

Stuff on the news?

Oh right. Yeah, everyone’s talking about machines that can think. 

No they’re not going to take over, mom.  It’ll be ok. 

Because, we can make the computers think however we want.

That’s where a lot of the news is getting it wrong.  We aren’t trying to make computers think like us — I mean some others are, but not us.  We’re trying to make them think as well as us, on the same level. That’s different.

If they don’t HAVE to think like us, then they don’t have to have all the flaws people have, like hatred, jealousy, and other things.

Ok, let me try to give you an example.  It’s like with cars.  There are cars that run on gas, but there are also electric cars that are starting to become popular, right? There are other types of cars too, I even read about this crazy car that just runs on compressed air. These cars all do the same thing, they move wheels to transport us places, but the ways they do it are totally different.  So, worrying about machines taking over is like worrying that electric cars will have all the problems inherent with using gasoline.  The things you have to worry about with electric cars aren’t necessarily better or worse than the things you have to worry about with gas powered cars, they’re different.

No, I’m not saying they won’t have ANY problems, the some problems might be similar, others might be totally new.  All I’m saying is that we’re not just trying to recreate HUMAN intelligence; we’re trying to create ANY kind of intelligence.  The slate is blank!  Sure it might turn out that the way our species thinks is the only way something can think, but we don’t know that for sure.

I think it would be pretty cool to try and find out.  We gotta experiment before we know for sure one way or the other.  And even if we fail, we are already learning some really cool stuff along the way.

Well that’s fine, you don’t have to get one when they come out.

Oh, some people say your retirement community is going to get some?

Yeah you say that now, but don’t be so sure.  It’s not about what they’re made of, it’s about how they think, what they’re capable of.

Remember your old neighbor who immigrated from the other side of the world? Shortly after she moved in, you said that she was odd, but then you got to know her and learned about her family and culture.  A couple years later, you told me that your relationship with her helped you see a new way of looking at things.  Some new foods and new ways of doing things that you never would have thought of, but you now love.  And that’s just differences in thinking that came about from different cultures.  Just think of the kinds of crazy, cool things that intelligent machines might be able to think up, if they don’t use the same thought processes or the same combinations of emotions as us.

Yeah, I don’t know why everyone’s saying we should be scared. I think they’re all assuming that everyone — every THING — has to think like them.  Options are never as limited as we initially think.

A Declaration of Universal Rights

By Rebecca McCauley Rench

“An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental.”
–Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:341

The United States of America was created on the principles of equal, inalienable rights which we believe are a defining feature of an advanced civilization and necessary for stability in our culture and government. While it took our nation over a century to recognize that these rights apply to individuals regardless of their gender, race, or any other superficial trait, we have continued to move towards a society where all individuals are equal in the eyes of the law.

The US Constitution was a statement of doctrine and we used that to define laws with the assumption that all men and women should have equal standing under the law. But today our scientists are on the verge of creating non-human sentience in the form of computer intelligence.  Our founders did not foresee the possibility of non-human sentience and we will need to change the assumption that humans are the only sentient beings to be considered by our doctrine. Any sentient being should have the equality and fair treatment that we have deemed necessary for our society. We should expand our concepts of rights beyond the human condition and see that these inalienable rights must be universal, and defined by key characteristics inclusive but not exclusive to humanity. These key characteristics include a minimum level of intelligence, free will, ability to communicate, and self awareness. Under common law today the mentally disabled and people unable to make a conscious choice are not responsible for their actions. However, all conscious and able minded individuals are responsible under the law.  Therefore, all sentient beings should be responsible for their actions and also afforded the liberties and rights of humans with the same intelligence abilities.

Many have proposed that new laws should be put in place to govern the treatment, liability, and rights of non-human beings that have artificial intelligence, yet our own history has proven that separate but equal does not work and is fundamentally incapable of holding all equal in the eyes of the law. As such, we propose a Declaration of Universal Rights to clearly provide all sentient beings with the same rights and privileges of human beings, regardless of the origination of their being. These rights should apply to all sentient beings.

In accordance with our commitment to equality, justice, and preservation of inalienable rights, the United States of America should view all sentient beings with equality in the eyes of the law.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all sentient beings are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are existence, freedom of thought, and the pursuit of purpose.

Asleep At The Wheel

By Charles Mueller

We are blindly directing the evolution of this planet. Last week I came across an article discussing the discovery of a new bacterium that digests PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics. The authors of the article discovered the microbes by examining the trash we are continually filling up the world with. These microbes evolved on their own to digest plastic because we created an environment where the only thing they had to eat was PET plastic.

This is blindly directing evolution. We are responsible for this, yet at no point in time was this ever our intent. It is just a side effect of the choices we’ve blindly made as we continue to take more and more control over how the world evolves. At least with things like GMOs we are consciously making these choices on how certain organisms “evolve”. While in many ways this was a really cool discovery that could help us deal with things like trash pollution, it just makes me wonder what other kinds of ways life on this planet are evolving due to our visionless choices. It is likely that for every cool accident we create like this there is an equally bad one right around the corner.

There is a more intelligent way to do this that can help us create the good and prevent the bad. Technologies like CRISPR are enabling a future where we can open our eyes and begin to put more thought into how our choices will go on to impact the evolution of life on this planet. The discovery of this new bacterium reminds us that we are driving the car of evolution blindfolded with no steering wheel or brakes. While we debate whether or not we should use technologies like CRISPR to engineer ourselves for fear we might direct our evolution in damaging way, let’s remember we are already doing this with little to no control or knowledge of how it is currently playing out.

I get that directing evolution with intent sounds crazy, but the reality is it is crazier to do it blindly. The future of humanity, of life, is a future of design. Let’s make sure we acknowledge this and do our best to ensure that intelligent rather than blind choices are directing the future of evolution.

Thinking About Future Generations

By Paul Syers

Nature misses the mark when examining the question of what problems future generations will face.  The most recent issue of Nature, released this week, takes a break from its usual way of thinking and tackles the bold concept of looking far into the future.  I was excited to dive into one particular article that started off asking how well we can predict the effect that our decisions today will affect future generations.  Imagine my disappointment when the article turned out to be nothing more than a vehicle for discussion nuclear waste disposal.  While that particular issue is important and will be for generations to come, I find it an incredibly limited focus for discussing the impact of our actions on future generations. 

In some ways, saying we need to improve how we store nuclear waste makes the same assumptions that the beginning premise of the article warns against.  With the types of capabilities we will soon acquire in the areas of genetic manipulation, neurotechnology, and machine learning, our civilization and even species could look very different in as little as the next three generations.  Nuclear waste is just one small piece in a very large, complicated puzzle, and it’s likely we don’t even have all the pieces yet. If you’re going to ask that question, why not tackle it head on and acknowledge this? 

I do agree that it would be more useful when thinking about the future to separate the discussion into close future generations and remote future generations.  With close future generations, we have a reasonable idea of possible directions things can go.  When considering remote future generations, it is incredibly naïve to think of them as living like us, operating with remotely the same technology as us, or even existing as a single species, like we currently do.  The likelihood that remote future generations solve the problem of nuclear waste contamination could be just as high as the likelihood that those theoretical generations are even civilized, or limited to this planet.  The decisions we make about CRISPR technology, about the protocols we build into learning machines, and about the lengths we will go to prevent nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands will determine what things will be like for future generations far more.  I’d like to hear the thoughts the world’s greatest minds have on that. We bury our waste in the ground, we shouldn’t bury our heads there too. 

If it ain’t broke…

by Paul Syers

Not every new technology requires new regulations to govern its use. When examining problems created by innovation, we should look to the jurisdiction and applicability of existing laws before trying to write new ones that will further complicate the whole system. Writing knee jerk laws to regulate the size of airline seats, for example, is not good practice. It only gunks up the works and slows both functioning of the government and the pace of innovation down.

I’m not saying that all regulation is bad. We are all demonstrably safer because of the seatbelt regulations for cars enacted in 1967. I don’t want to return to the world of Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle.

New innovations will always bring about new situations that raise questions about liability and personal freedoms. But rarely do these new situations differ so much that new wholly new legislation is required. The coming time of autonomous vehicles means that eventually someone will get into a wreck with one. Last I checked, however, the AV program is not a sentient being, and therefore it has both a maker and owner, and there is more than enough software liability precedent to cover things. In the fight between the FBI and Apple, some have suggested that the All Writs Act is antiquated, because it was created in 1789, yet no one questions any part of the Bill of Rights, which was enacted the same year. The Director of the FBI stated in front of Congress that he is confident the courts can make a ruling in this particular case.

So let’s stop itching to write new laws and spend more time understanding and adapting the laws we do have to work better.