Wild Green Yonder
Thursday, May 22, 2003
this freaks my shizz out

scientists in germany have combined long-term studies of female beauty with software that morphs and combines pictures to generate new faces to come up with - in a very short time - a face with a perfect beauty score. she doesn't exist, but i think i have a crush on her.

bruce sterling writes that in the future everyone will possess "the anonymous beauty of the reshaped". given how crazily effective cosmetic surgery and such are getting, and how effective scientists are becoming at telling what people find beautiful (and the well-documented advantages of being good looking) can that day really be far off?
Monday, May 19, 2003
"Up to now, one of the fixed features over all recorded history has been human nature and human physique; human beings themselves haven't changed, even though our environment and technology has. In this century, human beings are going to change because of genetic engineering, because of targeted drugs, perhaps even because of implants into their brain to increase our mental capacity. Much that now seems science fiction might, a century ahead, become science fact. Fundamental changes like that—plus the runaway development of biotech, possibly nanotechnology, possibly computers reaching superhuman intelligence—open up exciting prospects, but also all kinds of potential scenarios for societal disruption—even for devastation."

-Martin Rees

wish I had that quote when I was preparing the (now three months late - I wish they'd publish it!) Singularity issue of Whole Earth review.
There'll be more news soon.

So, I'm reading Martin Rees (Not Our Final Hour, of which I have an advance copy and which I plan to review once I feel I have more new things to say about species-extinction-level threats) on the nature of the Universe, and how the very laws of nature probably vary from Universe to Universe and how rare a Universe that allows life, much less intelligent life, to emerge is:

It always seemed to me a mystery why the universe was, as it were, 'biophilic'—why it had laws that allowed this amount of complexity. To give an analogy from mathematics, think of the Mandelbrot Set; there's a fairly simple formula, a simple recipe that you can write down, which describes this amazingly complicated pattern, with layer upon layer of structure. Now you could also write down other rather similar-looking recipes, similar algorithms, which describe a rather boring pattern. What has always seemed to me a mystery is why the recipe, or code, that determined our universe had these rich consequences, just as the algorithms of the Mandelbrot set rather than describing something rather boring, in which nothing as complicated as us could exist. ... Perhaps there were many Big Bangs which expanded in different ways, governed by different laws, and we are just in the one that has the right conditions."

That life emerged at all would then be a testament to the massive numbers of Universes at play:

"At first it was thought that there might be just one unique solution to the equations, just one possible three-dimensional universe with one possible 'vacuum state' and one set of laws. But it seems now, according to the experts, that there could be a huge number. In fact Lenny Susskind claims that there could be more possible types of universe than there are atoms in our universe—a quite colossal variety. The system of universes could be even more intricate and complex than the biosphere of our planet. This really is a mind-blowing concept, especially when we bear in mind that each of those universes could themselves be infinite."

A Universal Ecosystem! Which of course makes me think of Universal Ecologists. In fact, let's do a thought experiment. Maybe things aren't so random after all...

Elsewhere, Rees discusses his concern that it may be quite possible to slightly alter the rules governing our universe or neighboring universes, perhaps inadvertantly, perhaps inadvisedly, through experimentation with supercooled materials, dark matter, what have you.

Here's where the fun begins. Let's assume, as I do, that there is no afterlife or divine predestination for humanity. We are each here, we each die. Humanity goes on, muddling through...

Let's assume, too, that we muddle through the big Game Over scenarios facing us, that we don't destroy ourselves through terror, error or arrogance and that we manage to figure out a way to keep ourselves as a species alive for a very long time, avoiding asteroid impacts and coming up with a plan B when our sun goes dim and cold. Let's say that we become a really wise, extremely powerful, totally secular species that managed to make it to the end of the Universe. Imagine, then, that we're sitting there, facing the heat death of everything, or a gradual implosion, or whatever the end turns out to be.

One of the prime characteristics of humanity is our desire to leave positive legacies after us, to contribute to what Carse calls the Infinite Game (a characteristic shared by both the secular and religious, btw). Imagine, then, that these distant, wise, powerful decendents of ours understood the workings of the Universal Ecology quite well, and understood how to intelligently tinker with those workings. Imagine, too, that no amount of tinkering could let us survive the Death of our Universe.

Imagine in short that we had the power to change things (but not to save ourselves), and the desire to do so in a way which would contribute to the Infinite Game. What would we do?

I would think we'd try - within the limits of Universal Ecology - to change the laws of nature in as many emerging Universes as possible such that they'd have the greatest chance of developing life. We'd seed life through altering the fundamental nature of universes which followed our own. Our hope: that new species would arrive and do the same in their turn, until we reach a constantly-renewing steady-state of the maximum possible existance of life. Imagine that the Infinite Game is exactly that. Infinite in all directions, sustainably cyclical in its root essence, devoted to the maintenence and increase of life and life's possibilities.

Now imagine that it's already begun. Imagine that the Universe we've inherited is the product of the tinkering of a past alien species about whom we can learn almost nothing. (or might one send a message from the dead, coded somehow in the fabric of the universe - like Jaron's idea for a library in the DNA of cockroaches?)

What would that do to how we imagined ourselves?

Now imagine that we're the first to realize this is possible. Answer the same question.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003
"In broad strokes, there were hundreds of years after
Aristotle when
we didn't really understand a whole lot. Once Kepler,
Copernicus, and
Newton began explaining what they saw through math,
there was a great
era of understanding, through certain classes of math
problems that
could be solved. All the mathematics that let us
understand laws of
physics-Maxwell's equations, thermodynamics, on
through quantum
theory-all involve a certain class of math problems
that we know how
to solve completely and thoroughly: that is, linear
problems. It's
only in the past few decades that we've been banging
our heads on the
non-linear ones. Of those, we understand just the
smallest ones using
only three or four variables-that's chaos theory. As
soon as you have
hundreds, or millions, or billions of variables-like
in the brain-we
don't understand those problems at all. That's what
complex systems
is supposed to be about, but we're not even close to
them. We can simulate them in a computer, but that's
not really that
different from just watching. We still don't

-Steven Strogatz

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