Category Archives: science philosophy

Frugal science, foldable microscopes, and curiosity: a talk on June 3, 2019 at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, Canada) … it’s in Metro Vancouver

This is the second frugal science item* I’m publishing today (May 29, 2019) which means that I’ve gone from complete ignorance on the topic to collecting news items about it. Manu Prakash, the developer behind a usable paper microscope than can be folded and kept in your pocket, is going to be giving a talk locally according to a May 28, 2019 announcement (received via email) from Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Faculty of Science,

On June 3rd [2019], at 7:30 pmManu Prakash from Stanford University will give the Herzberg Public Lecture in conjunction with this year’s Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) conference that the department is hosting. Dr. Prakash’s lecture is entitled “Frugal Science in the Age of Curiosity”. Tickets are free and can be obtained through Eventbrite: https://t.co/WNrPh9fop5 . 

This presentation will be held at the Shrum Science Centre Chemistry C9001 Lecture Theatre, Burnaby campus (instead of the Diamond Family Auditorium).

There’s a synopsis of the talk on the Herzbergy Public Lecture: Frugal Science in the Age of Curiosity webpage,

Science faces an accessibility challenge. Although information/knowledge is fast becoming available to everyone around the world, the experience of science is significantly limited. One approach to solving this challenge is to democratize access to scientific tools. Manu Prakash believes this can be achieved via “Frugal science”; a philosophy that inspires design, development, and deployment of ultra-affordable yet powerful scientific tools for the masses. Using examples from his own work (Foldscope: one-dollar origami microscope, Paperfuge: a twenty-cent high-speed centrifuge), Dr. Prakash will describe the process of identifying challenges, designing solutions, and deploying these tools globally to enable open ended scientific curiosity/inquiries in communities around the world. By connecting the dots between science education, global health and environmental monitoring, he will explore the role of “simple” tools in advancing access to better human and planetary health in a resource limited world.

If you’re curious there is a Foldscope website where you can find out more and/or get a Foldscope for yourself.

In addition to the talk, there is a day-long workshop for teachers (as part of the 2019 CAP Congress) with Dr. Donna Strickland the University of Waterloo researcher who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for physics. If you want to learn how to make a Foldscope, t here is also a one hour session for which you can register separately from the day-long event,. (I featured Strickland and her win in an October 3, 2018 posting.)

Getting back to the main event. Dr. Prakash’s evening talk, you can register here.

*ETA May 29, 2019 at 1120 hours PDT: My first posting on frugal science is Frugal science: ancient toys for state-of-the-art science. It’s about a 3D printable centrifuge based on a toy known (in English) as a whirligig.

Sexbots, sexbot ethics, families, and marriage

Setting the stage

Can we? Should we? Is this really a good idea? I believe those ships have sailed where sexbots are concerned since the issue is no longer whether we can or should but rather what to do now that we have them. My Oct. 17, 2017 posting: ‘Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (one of two)’ features Harmony, the first (I believe) commercial AI (artificial intelligence)-enhanced sex robot n the US. They were getting ready to start shipping the bot either for Christmas 2017 or in early 2018.

Ethical quandaries?

Things have moved a little more quickly that I would have expected had I thought ahead. An April 5, 2018 essay  (h/t phys.org) by Victoria Brooks, lecturer in law at the University of Westminster (UK) for The Conversation lays out some of ethical issues (Note: Links have been removed),

Late in 2017 at a tech fair in Austria, a sex robot was reportedly “molested” repeatedly and left in a “filthy” state. The robot, named Samantha, received a barrage of male attention, which resulted in her sustaining two broken fingers. This incident confirms worries that the possibility of fully functioning sex robots raises both tantalising possibilities for human desire (by mirroring human/sex-worker relationships), as well as serious ethical questions.

So what should be done? The campaign to “ban” sex robots, as the computer scientist Kate Devlin has argued, is only likely to lead to a lack of discussion. Instead, she hypothesises that many ways of sexual and social inclusivity could be explored as a result of human-robot relationships.

To be sure, there are certain elements of relationships between humans and sex workers that we may not wish to repeat. But to me, it is the ethical aspects of the way we think about human-robot desire that are particularly key.

Why? Because we do not even agree yet on what sex is. Sex can mean lots of different things for different bodies – and the types of joys and sufferings associated with it are radically different for each individual body. We are only just beginning to understand and know these stories. But with Europe’s first sex robot brothel open in Barcelona and the building of “Harmony”, a talking sex robot in California, it is clear that humans are already contemplating imposing our barely understood sexual ethic upon machines.

I think that most of us will experience some discomfort on hearing Samantha’s story. And it’s important that, just because she’s a machine, we do not let ourselves “off the hook” by making her yet another victim and heroine who survived an encounter, only for it to be repeated. Yes, she is a machine, but does this mean it is justifiable to act destructively towards her? Surely the fact that she is in a human form makes her a surface on which human sexuality is projected, and symbolic of a futuristic human sexuality. If this is the case, then Samatha’s [sic] case is especially sad.

It is Devlin who has asked the crucial question: whether sex robots will have rights. “Should we build in the idea of consent,” she asks? In legal terms, this would mean having to recognise the robot as human – such is the limitation of a law made by and for humans.

Suffering is a way of knowing that you, as a body, have come out on the “wrong” side of an ethical dilemma. [emphasis mine] This idea of an “embodied” ethic understood through suffering has been developed on the basis of the work of the famous philosopher Spinoza and is of particular use for legal thinkers. It is useful as it allows us to judge rightness by virtue of the real and personal experience of the body itself, rather than judging by virtue of what we “think” is right in connection with what we assume to be true about their identity.

This helps us with Samantha’s case, since it tells us that in accordance with human desire, it is clear she would not have wanted what she got. The contact Samantha received was distinctly human in the sense that this case mirrors some of the most violent sexual offences cases. While human concepts such as “law” and “ethics” are flawed, we know we don’t want to make others suffer. We are making these robot lovers in our image and we ought not pick and choose whether to be kind to our sexual partners, even when we choose to have relationships outside of the “norm”, or with beings that have a supposedly limited consciousness, or even no (humanly detectable) consciousness.

Brooks makes many interesting points not all of them in the excerpts seen here but one question not raised in the essay is whether or not the bot itself suffered. It’s a point that I imagine proponents of ‘treating your sex bot however you like’ are certain to raise. It’s also a question Canadians may need to answer sooner rather than later now that a ‘sex doll brothel’ is about to open Toronto. However, before getting to that news bit, there’s an interview with a man, his sexbot, and his wife.

The sexbot at home

In fact, I have two interviews the first I’m including here was with CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio and it originally aired October 29, 2017. Here’s a part of the transcript (Note: A link has been removed),

“She’s [Samantha] quite an elegant kind of girl,” says Arran Lee Squire, who is sales director for the company that makes her and also owns one himself.

And unlike other dolls like her, she’ll resist sex if she isn’t in the mood.

“If you touch her, say, on her sensitive spots on the breasts, for example, straight away, and you don’t touch her hands or kiss her, she might say, ‘Oh, I’m not ready for that,'” Arran says.

He says she’ll even synchronize her orgasm to the user’s.

But Arran emphasized that her functions go beyond the bedroom.

Samantha has a “family mode,” in which she can can talk about science, animals and philosophy. She’ll give you motivational quotes if you’re feeling down.

At Arran’s house, Samantha interacts with his two kids. And when they’ve gone to bed, she’ll have sex with him, but only with his wife involved.

There’s also this Sept. 12, 2017 ITV This Morning with Phillip & Holly broadcast interview  (running time: 6 mins. 19 secs.),

I can imagine that if I were a child in that household I’d be tempted to put the sexbot into ‘sexy mode’, preferably unsupervised by my parents. Also, will the parents be using it, at some point, for sex education?

Canadian perspective 1: Sure, it could be good for your marriage

Prior to the potential sex doll brothel in Toronto (more about that coming up), there was a flurry of interest in Marina Adshade’s contribution to the book, Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, from an April 18, 2018 news item on The Tyee,

Sex robots may soon be a reality. However, little research has been done on the social, philosophical, moral and legal implications of robots specifically designed for sexual gratification.

In a chapter written for the book Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, Marina Adshade, professor in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, argues that sex robots could improve marriage by making it less about sex and more about love.

In this Q&A, Adshade discusses her predictions.

Could sex robots really be a viable replacement for marriage with a human? Can you love a robot?

I don’t see sex robots as substitutes for human companionship but rather as complements to human companionship. Just because we might enjoy the company of robots doesn’t mean that we cannot also enjoy the company of humans, or that having robots won’t enhance our relationships with humans. I see them as very different things — just as one woman (or one man) is not a perfect substitute for another woman (or man).

Is there a need for modern marriage to improve?

We have become increasingly demanding in what we want from the people that we marry. There was a time when women were happy to have a husband that supported the family and men were happy to have a caring mother to his children. Today we still want those things, but we also want so much more — we want lasting sexual compatibility, intense romance, and someone who is an amazing co-parent. That is a lot to ask of one person. …

Adshade adapted part of her text  “Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective” in Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur for an August 14, 2018 essay on Slate.com,

Technological change invariably brings social change. We know this to be true, but rarely can we make accurate predictions about how social behavior will evolve when new technologies are introduced. …we should expect that the proliferation of robots designed specifically for human sexual gratification means that sexbot-induced social change is on the horizon.

Some elements of that social change might be easier to anticipate than others. For example, the share of the young adult population that chooses to remain single (with their sexual needs met by robots) is very likely to increase. Because social change is organic, however, adaptations in other social norms and behaviors are much more difficult to predict. But this is not virgin territory [I suspect this was an unintended pun]. New technologies completely transformed sexual behavior and marital norms over the second half of the 20th century. Although getting any of these predictions right will surely involve some luck, we have decades of technology-induced social change to guide our predictions about the future of a world confronted with wholesale access to sexbots.

The reality is that marriage has always evolved alongside changes in technology. Between the mid-1700s and the early 2000s, the role of marriage between a man and a woman was predominately to encourage the efficient production of market goods and services (by men) and household goods and services (by women), since the social capacity to earn a wage was almost always higher for husbands than it was for wives. But starting as early as the end of the 19th century, marriage began to evolve as electrification in the home made women’s work less time-consuming, and new technologies in the workplace started to decrease the gender wage gap. Between 1890 and 1940, the share of married women working in the labor force tripled, and over the course of the century, that share continued to grow as new technologies arrived that replaced the labor of women in the home. By the early 1970s, the arrival of microwave ovens and frozen foods meant that a family could easily be fed at the end of a long workday, even when the mother worked outside of the home.

Some elements of that social change might be easier to anticipate than others. For example, the share of the young adult population that chooses to remain single (with their sexual needs met by robots) is very likely to increase. Because social change is organic, however, adaptations in other social norms and behaviors are much more difficult to predict. But this is not virgin territory. New technologies completely transformed sexual behavior and marital norms over the second half of the 20th century. Although getting any of these predictions right will surely involve some luck, we have decades of technology-induced social change to guide our predictions about the future of a world confronted with wholesale access to sexbots.

The reality is that marriage has always evolved alongside changes in technology. Between the mid-1700s and the early 2000s, the role of marriage between a man and a woman was predominately to encourage the efficient production of market goods and services (by men) and household goods and services (by women), since the social capacity to earn a wage was almost always higher for husbands than it was for wives. But starting as early as the end of the 19th century, marriage began to evolve as electrification in the home made women’s work less time-consuming, and new technologies in the workplace started to decrease the gender wage gap. Between 1890 and 1940, the share of married women working in the labor force tripled, and over the course of the century, that share continued to grow as new technologies arrived that replaced the labor of women in the home. By the early 1970s, the arrival of microwave ovens and frozen foods meant that a family could easily be fed at the end of a long workday, even when the mother worked outside of the home.

There are those who argue that men only “assume the burden” of marriage because marriage allows men easy sexual access, and that if men can find sex elsewhere they won’t marry. We hear this prediction now being made in reference to sexbots, but the same argument was given a century ago when the invention of the latex condom (1912) and the intrauterine device (1909) significantly increased people’s freedom to have sex without risking pregnancy and (importantly, in an era in which syphilis was rampant) sexually transmitted disease. Cosmopolitan magazine ran a piece at the time by John B. Watson that asked the blunt question, will men marry 50 years from now? Watson’s answer was a resounding no, writing that “we don’t want helpmates anymore, we want playmates.” Social commentators warned that birth control technologies would destroy marriage by removing the incentives women had to remain chaste and encourage them to flood the market with nonmarital sex. Men would have no incentive to marry, and women, whose only asset is sexual access, would be left destitute.

Fascinating, non? Should you be interested, “Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective” by Marina Adshade  can be found in Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications (link to Amazon) edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur. © 2017 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reprinted courtesy of the MIT Press

Canadian perspective 2: What is a sex doll brothel doing in Toronto?

Sometimes known as Toronto the Good (although not recently; find out more about Toronto and its nicknames here) and once a byword for stodginess, the city is about to welcome a sex doll brothel according to an August 28, 2018 CBC Radio news item by Katie Geleff and John McGill,

On their website, Aura Dolls claims to be, “North America’s first known brothel that offers sexual services with the world’s most beautiful silicone ladies.”

Nestled between a massage parlour, nail salon and dry cleaner, Aura Dolls is slated to open on Sept. 8 [2018] in an otherwise nondescript plaza in Toronto’s north end.

The company plans to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will offer customers six different silicone dolls. The website describes the life-like dolls as, “classy, sophisticated, and adventurous ladies.” …

They add that, “the dolls are thoroughly sanitized to meet your expectations.” But that condoms are still “highly recommended.”

Toronto city councillor John Filion says people in his community are concerned about the proposed business.

Filion spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. Here is part of their conversation.

Councillor Filion, Aura Dolls is urging people to have “an open mind” about their business plan. Would you say that you have one?

Well, I have an open mind about what sort of behaviours people want to do, as long as they don’t harm anybody else. It’s a totally different matter once you bring that out to the public. So I think I have a fairly closed mind about where people should be having sex with [silicone] dolls.

So, what’s wrong with a sex doll brothel?

It’s where it is located, for one thing. Where it’s being proposed happens to be near an intersection where about 25,000 people live, all kinds of families, four elementary schools are very near by. And you know, people shouldn’t really need to be out on a walk with their families and try to explain to their kids why someone is having sex with a [silicone] doll.

But Aura Dolls says that they are going to be doing this very discreetly, that they won’t have explicit signage, and that they therefore won’t be bothering anyone.

They’ve hardly been discreet. They were putting illegal posters all over the neighbourhood. They’ve probably had a couple of hundred of thousands of dollars of free publicity already. I don’t think there’s anything at all discreet about what they are doing. They’re trying to be indiscreet to drum up business.

Can you be sure that there aren’t constituents in your area that think this is a great idea?

I can’t be sure that there aren’t some people who might think, “Oh great, it’s just down the street from me. Let me go there.” I would say that might be a fraction of one per cent of my constituents. Most people are appalled by this.

And it’s not a narrow-minded neighbourhood. Whatever somebody does in their home, I don’t think we’re going to pass moral judgment on it, again, as long as it’s not harming anyone else. But this is just kind of scuzzy. ..

….

Aura Dolls says that it’s doing nothing illegal. They say that they are being very clear that the dolls they are using represent adult women and that they are actually providing a service. Do you agree that they are doing this legally?

No, they’re not at all legal. It’s an illegal use. And if there’s any confusion about that, they will be getting a letter from the city very soon. It is clearly not a legal use. It’s not permitted under the zoning bylaw and it fits the definition of adult entertainment parlour, for which you require a license — and they certainly would not get one. They would not get a license in this neighbourhood because it’s not a permitted use.

The audio portion runs for 5 mins. 31 secs.

I believe these dolls are in fact sexbots, likely enhanced with AI. An August 29, 2018 article by Karlton Jahmal for hotnewhiphop.com describes the dolls as ‘fembots’ and provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Toronto has seen the future, and apparently, it has to do with sex dolls. The Six [another Toronto nickname] is about to get blessed with the first legal sex doll brothel, and the fembots look too good to be true. If you head over to Aura Dolls website, detailed biographies for the six available sex dolls are on full display. You can check out the doll’s height, physical dimensions, heritage and more.

Aura plans to introduce more dolls in the future, according to a statement in the Toronto Star by Claire Lee, a representative for the compnay. At the moment, the ethnicities of the sex dolls feature Japanese, Caucasian American, French Canadian, Irish Canadian, Colombian, and Korean girls. Male dolls will be added in the near future. The sex dolls look remarkably realistic. Aura’s website writes, “Our dolls are made from the highest quality of TPE silicone which mimics the feeling of natural human skin, pores, texture and movement giving the user a virtually identical experience as being with a real partner.”

There are a few more details about the proposed brothel and more comments from Toronto city councillor John Filion in an August 28, 2018 article by Claire Floody and Jenna Moon with Alexandra Jones and Melanie Green for thestar.com,

Toronto will soon be home to North America’s [this should include Canada, US, and Mexico] first known sex doll brothel, offering sexual services with six silicone-made dolls.

According to the website for Aura Dolls, the company behind the brothel, the vision is to bring a new way to achieve sexual needs “without the many restrictions and limitations that a real partner may come with.”

The brothel is expected to open in a shopping plaza on Yonge St., south of Sheppard Ave., on Sept. 8 [2018]. The company doesn’t give the exact location on its website, stating it’s announced upon booking.

Spending half an hour with one doll costs $80, with two dolls running $160. For an hour, the cost is $120 with one doll. The maximum listed time is four hours for $480 per doll.

Doors at the new brothel for separate entry and exit will be used to ensure “maximum privacy for customers.” While the business does plan on having staff on-site, they “should not have any interaction,” Lee said.

“The reason why we do that is to make sure that everyone feels comfortable coming in and exiting,” she said, noting that people may feel shy or awkward about visiting the site.

… Lee said that the business is operating within the law. “The only law stating with anything to do with the dolls is that it has to meet a height requirement. It can’t resemble a child,” she said. …

Councillor John Filion, Ward 23 Willowdale, said his staff will be “throwing the book at (Aura Dolls) for everything they can.”

“I’ve still got people studying to see what’s legal and what isn’t,” Filion said. He noted that a bylaw introduced in North York in the ’90s prevents retail sex shops operating outside of industrial areas. Filion said his office is still confirming that the bylaw is active following harmonization, which condensed the six boroughs’ bylaws after amalgamation in 1998.

“If the bylaw that I brought in 20 years ago still exists, it would prohibit this,” Filion said.

“There’s legal issues,” he said, suggesting that people interested in using the sex dolls might consider doing so at home, rather than at a brothel.

The councillor said he’s received complaints from constituents about the business. “The phone’s ringing off the hook today,” Filion said.

It should be an interesting first week at school for everyone involved. I wonder what Ontario Premier, Doug Ford who recently rolled back the sex education curriculum for the province by 20 years will make of these developments.

As for sexbots/fembots/sex dolls or whatever you want to call them, they are here and it’s about time Canadians had a frank discussion on the matter. Also, I’ve been waiting for quite some time for any mention of male sexbots (malebots?). Personally, I don’t think we’ll be seeing male sexbots appear in either brothels or homes anytime soon.

CRISPR/Cas9 as a tool for artists (Art/sci Salon January 2018 events in Toronto, Canada) and an event in Winnipeg, Canada

The Art/Sci Salon in Toronto, Canada is offering a workshop and a panel discussion (I think) on the topic of CRISPR( (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas9.

CRISPR Cas9 Workshop with Marta De Menezes

From its Art/Sci Salon event page (on Eventbrite),

This is a two day intensive workshop on

Jan. 24 5:00-9:00 pm
and
Jan. 25 5:00-9:00 pm

This workshop will address issues pertaining to the uses, ethics, and representations of CRISPR-cas9 genome editing system; and the evolution of bioart as a cultural phenomenon . The workshop will focus on:

1. Scientific strategies and ethical issues related to the modification of organisms through the most advanced technology;

2. Techniques and biological materials to develop and express complex concepts into art objects.

This workshop will introduce knowledge, methods and living material from the life sciences to the participants. The class will apply that novel information to the creation of art. Finally, the key concepts, processes and knowledge from the arts will be discussed and related to scientific research. The studio-­‐lab portion of the course will focus on the mastering and understanding of the CRISPR – Cas9 technology and its revolutionary applications. The unparalleled potential of CRISPR ‐ Cas9 for genome editing will be directly assessed as the participants will use the method to make artworks and generate meaning through such a technique. The participants will be expected to complete one small project by the end of the course. In developing and completing these projects, participants will be asked to present their ideas/work to the instructors and fellow participants. As part of the course, participants are expected to document their work/methodology/process by keeping a record of processes, outcomes, and explorations.

This is a free event. Go here to register.

Do CRISPR monsters dream of synthetic futures?

This second event in Toronto seems to be a panel discussion; here’s more from its Art/Sci Salon event page (on Eventbrite),

The term CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) refers to a range of novel gene editing systems which can be programmed to edit DNA at precise locations. It allows the permanent modification of the genes in cells of living organisms. CRISPR enables novel basic research and promises a wide range of possible applications from biomedicine and agriculture to environmental challenges.

The surprising simplicity of CRISPR and its potentials have led to a wide range of reactions. While some welcome it as a gene editing revolution able to cure diseases that are currently fatal, others urge for a worldwide moratorium, especially when it comes to human germline modifications. The possibility that CRISPR may allow us to intervene in the evolution of organisms has generated particularly divisive thoughts: is gene editing going to cure us all? Or is it opening up a new era of designer babies and new types of privileges measured at the level of genes? Could the relative easiness of the technique allow individuals to modify bodies, identities, sexuality, to create new species and races? will it create new monsters? [emphasis mine] These are all topics that need to be discussed. With this panel/discussion, we wish to address technical, ethical, and creative issues arising from the futuristic scenarios promised by CRISPR.

Our Guests:

Marta De Menezes, Director, Cultivamos Cultura

Dalila Honorato, Assistant Professor, Ionian University

Mark Lipton, Professor, University of Guelph

Date: January 26, 2018

Time: 6:00-8:00 pm

Location: The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
222 College Street, Toronto, ON

Events Facilitators: Roberta Buiani and Stephen Morris (ArtSci Salon) and Nina Czegledy (Leonardo Network)

Bios:

Marta de Menezes is a Portuguese artist (b. Lisbon, 1975) with a degree in Fine Arts by the University in Lisbon, a MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture by the University of Oxford, and a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden. She has been exploring the intersection between Art and Biology, working in research laboratories demonstrating that new biological technologies can be used as new art medium. Her work has been presented internationally in exhibitions, articles and lectures. She is currently the artistic director of Ectopia, an experimental art laboratory in Lisbon, and Director of Cultivamos Cultura in the South of Portugal. http://martademenezes.com

Dalila Honorato, Ph.D., is currently Assistant Professor in Media Aesthetics and Semiotics at the Ionian University in Greece where she is one of the founding members of the Interactive Arts Lab. She is the head of the organizing committee of the conference “Taboo-Transgression-Transcendence in Art & Science” and developer of the studies program concept of the Summer School in Hybrid Arts. She is a guest faculty at the PhD studies program of the Institutum Studiorum Humanitatis in Alma Mater Europaea, Slovenia, and a guest member of the Science Art Philosophy Lab integrated in the Center of Philosophy of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Portugal. Her research focus is on embodiment in the intersection of performing arts and new media.

Mark Lipton works in the College of Arts; in the School of English and Theatre Studies, and Guelph’s Program in Media Studies. Currently, his work focuses on queering media ecological perspectives of technology’s role in education, with emerging questions about haptics and the body in performance contexts, and political outcomes of neo-liberal economics within Higher Education.

ArtSci Salon thanks the Fields Institute and the Bonham Center for Sexual Diversity Studies (U of T), and the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology for their support. We are grateful to the members of DIYBio Toronto and Hacklab for hosting Marta’s workshop.

This series of event is promoted and facilitated as part of FACTT Toronto

LASER – Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous is a project of Leonardo® /ISAST (International Society for the Arts Sciences and Technology)

Go here to click on the Register button.

For anyone who didn’t recognize (or, like me, barely remembers what it means) the title’s reference is to a famous science fiction story by Philip K. Dick. Here’s more from the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (retitled Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in some later printings) is a science fiction novel by American writer Philip K. Dick, first published in 1968. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where Earth’s life has been greatly damaged by nuclear global war. Most animal species are endangered or extinct from extreme radiation poisoning, so that owning an animal is now a sign of status and empathy, an attitude encouraged towards animals. The book served as the primary basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner, and many elements and themes from it were used in its 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049.

The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is tasked with “retiring” (i.e. killing) six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard’s mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids are said to possess no sense of empathy.

I wonder why they didn’t try to reference Orphan Black (its Wikipedia entry)? That television series was all about biotechnology. If not Orphan Black, what about a Frankenstein reference? It’s the 200th anniversary this year (2018) of the publication of the book which is the forerunner to all the cautionary tales that have come after.

Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature (a three year Canadian project nearing its end date)

Working on a grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the  Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature project has been establishing a ‘cosmopolitanism’ research network that critiques the eurocentric approach so beloved of Canadian academics and has set up nodes across Canada and in India and Southeast Asia.

I first wrote about the project in a Dec. 12, 2014 posting which also featured a job listing. It seems I was there for the beginning and now for the end. For one of the project’s blog postings in its final months, they’re profiling one of their researchers (Dr. Letitia Meynell, Sept. 6, 2017 posting),

1. What is your current place of research?

I am an associate professor in philosophy at Dalhousie University, cross appointed with gender and women studies.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

My 1st degree was in Theater, which I did at York University. I did, however, minor in Philosophy and I have always had a particular interest in philosophy of science. So, my minor was perhaps a little anomalous, comprising courses on philosophy of physics, philosophy of nature, and the philosophy of Karl Popper along with courses on aesthetics and existentialism. After taking a few more courses in philosophy at the University of Calgary, I enrolled there for a Master’s degree, writing a thesis on conceptualization, with a view to its role in aesthetics and epistemology. From there I moved to the University of Western Ontario where I brought these three interests together, writing a thesis on the epistemology of pictures in science. Throughout these studies I maintained a keen interest in feminist philosophy, especially the politics of knowledge, and I have always seen my work on pictures in science as fitting into broader feminist commitments.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

5. How do you relate your work to the broader topic of ‘cosmopolitanism and the local’?

As feminist philosophers have long realized, having perspectives on a topic that are quite different to your own is incredibly powerful for critically assessing both your own views and those of others. So, for instance, if you want to address the exploitation of nonhuman animals in our society it is incredibly powerful to consider how people from, say, South Asian traditions have thought about the differences, similarities, and relationships between humans and other animals. Keeping non-western perspectives in mind, even as one works in a western philosophical tradition, helps one to be both more rigorous in one’s analyses and less dogmatic. Rigor and critical openness are, in my opinion, central virtues of philosophy and, indeed, science.

Dr. Maynell will be speaking at the ‘Bridging the Gap: Scientific Imagination Meets Aesthetic Imagination‘ conference Oct. 5-6, 2017 at the London School of Economics,

On 5–6 October, this 2-day conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play.

Why, how, and when do scientists imagine, and what epistemological roles does the imagination play in scientific progress? Over the past few years, many philosophical accounts have emerged that are relevant to these questions. Roman Frigg, Arnon Levy, and Adam Toon have developed theories of scientific models that place imagination at the heart of modelling practice. And James R. Brown, Tamar Gendler, James McAllister, Letitia Meynell, and Nancy Nersessian have developed theories that recognize the indispensable role of the imagination in the performance of thought experiments. On the other hand, philosophers like Michael Weisberg dismiss imagination-based views of scientific modelling as mere “folk ontology”, and John D. Norton seems to claim that thought experiments are arguments whose imaginary components are epistemologically irrelevant.

In this conference we turn to aesthetics for help in addressing issues concerning scientific imagination-use. Aesthetics is said to have begun in 1717 with an essay called “The Pleasures of the Imagination” by Joseph Addison, and ever since imagination has been what Michael Polyani called “the cornerstone of aesthetic theory”. In recent years Kendall Walton has fruitfully explored the fundamental relevance of imagination for understanding literary, visual and auditory fictions. And many others have been inspired to do the same, including Greg Currie, David Davies, Peter Lamarque, Stein Olsen, and Kathleen Stock.

This conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play. Specific topics may include:

  • What kinds of imagination are involved in science?
  • What is the relation between scientific imagination and aesthetic imagination?
  • What are the structure and limits of knowledge and understanding acquired through imagination?
  • From a methodological point of view, how can aesthetic considerations about imagination play a role in philosophical accounts of scientific reasoning?
  • What can considerations about scientific imagination contribute to our understanding of aesthetic imagination?

The conference will include eight invited talks and four contributed papers. Two of the four slots for contributed papers are being reserved for graduate students, each of whom will receive a travel bursary of £100.

Invited speakers

Margherita Arcangeli (Humboldt University, Berlin)

Andrej Bicanski (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London)

Gregory Currie (University of York)

Jim Faeder (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Tim de Mey (Erasmus University of Rotterdam)

Laetitia Meynell (Dalhousie University, Canada)

Adam Toon (University of Exeter)

Margot Strohminger (Humboldt University, Berlin)

This event is organised by LSE’s Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and it is co-sponsored by the British Society of Aesthetics, the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 654034.

I wonder if they’ll be rubbing shoulders with Angelina Jolie? She is slated to be teaching there in Fall 2017 according to a May 23, 2016 news item in the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

The Hollywood actor and director has been appointed a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, teaching a course on the impact of war on women.

From 2017, Jolie will join the former foreign secretary William Hague as a “professor in practice”, the university announced on Monday, as part of a new MSc course on women, peace and security, which LSE says is the first of its kind in the world.

The course, it says, is intended to “[develop] strategies to promote gender equality and enhance women’s economic, social and political participation and security”, with visiting professors playing an active part in giving lectures, participating in workshops and undertaking their own research.

Getting back to ‘Cosmopolitanism’, some of the principals organized a summer 2017 event (from a Sept. 6, 2017 posting titled: Summer Events – 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology),

CosmoLocal partners Lesley Cormack (University of Alberta, Canada), Gordon McOuat (University of King’s College, Halifax, Canada), and Dhruv Raina (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India) organized a symposium “Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature” as part of the 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology.  The conference was held July 23-29, 2017, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The abstract of the CosmoLocal symposium is below, and a pdf version can be found here.

Science, and its associated technologies, is typically viewed as “universal”. At the same time we were also assured that science can trace its genealogy to Europe in a period of rising European intellectual and imperial global force, ‘going outwards’ towards the periphery. As such, it is strikingly parochial. In a kind of sad irony, the ‘subaltern’ was left to retell that tale as one of centre-universalism dominating a traditionalist periphery. Self-described ‘modernity’ and ‘the west’ (two intertwined concepts of recent and mutually self-supporting origin) have erased much of the local engagement and as such represent science as emerging sui generis, moving in one direction. This story is now being challenged within sociology, political theory and history.

… Significantly, scholars who study the history of science in Asia and India have been examining different trajectories for the origin and meaning of science. It is now time for a dialogue between these approaches. Grounding the dialogue is the notion of a “cosmopolitical” science. “Cosmopolitics” is a term borrowed from Kant’s notion of perpetual peace and modern civil society, imagining shared political, moral and economic spaces within which trade, politics and reason get conducted.  …

The abstract is a little ‘high falutin’ but I’m glad to see more efforts being made in  Canada to understand science and its history as a global affair.

Multi-level thinking in science—the art of seeing systems

I’ve quickly read Michael Edgeworth McIntyre’s paper on multi-level thinking and find it provides fascinating insight and some good writing style (I’ve provided a few excerpts from the paper further down in the posting).

Here’s more about the paper from an Aug. 17, 2017 Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences press release on EurekAlert,

An unusual paper “On multi-level thinking and scientific understanding” appears in the October issue of Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. The author is Professor Michael Edgeworth McIntyre from University of Cambridge, whose work in atmospheric dynamics is well known. He has also had longstanding interests in astrophysics, music, perception psychology, and biological evolution.

The paper touches on a range of deep questions within and outside the atmospheric sciences. They include insights into the nature of science itself, and of scientific understanding — what it means to understand a scientific problem in depth — and into the communication skills necessary to convey that understanding and to mediate collaboration across specialist disciplines.

The paper appears in a Special Issue arising from last year’s Symposium held in Nanjing to commemorate the life of Professor Duzheng YE, who was well known as a national and international scientific leader and for his own wide range of interests, within and outside the atmospheric sciences. The symposium was organized by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP), Chinese Academy of Sciences, where Prof. YE had worked nearly 70 years before he passed away. Upon the invitation of Prof. Jiang ZHU, the Director General of IAP, also the Editor-in-Chief of Advances in Atmospheric Sciences (AAS), Prof. McIntyre agreed to contribute a review paper to an AAS special issue commemorating the centenary of Duzheng YE’s birth. Prof. YE was also the founding Editor-in-Chief of this journal.

One of Professor McIntyre’s themes is that we all have unconscious mathematics, including Euclidean geometry and the calculus of variations. This is easy to demonstrate and is key to understanding not only how science works but also, for instance, how music works. Indeed, it reveals some of the deepest connections between music and mathematics, going beyond the usual remarks about number-patterns. All this revolves around the biological significance of what Professor McIntyre calls the “organic-change principle”.

Further themes include the scientific value of looking at a problem from more than one viewpoint, and the need to use more than one level of description. Many scientific and philosophical controversies stem from confusing one level of description with another, for instance applying arguments to one level that belong on another. This confusion can be especially troublesome when it comes to questions about human biology and human nature, and about what Professor YE called multi-level “orderly human activities”.

Related to all these points are the contrasting modes of perception and understanding offered by the brain’s left and right hemispheres. Our knowledge of their functioning has progressed far beyond the narrow clichés of popular culture, thanks to recent work in the neurosciences. The two hemispheres automatically give us different levels of description, and complementary views of a problem. Good science takes advantage of this. When the two hemispheres cooperate, with each playing to its own strengths, our problem-solving is at its most powerful.

The paper ends with three examples of unconscious assumptions that have impeded scientific progress in the past. Two of them are taken from Professor McIntyre’s main areas of research. A third is from biology.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

On multi-level thinking and scientific understanding by Michael Edgeworth McIntyre. Advances in Atmospheric Sciences October 2017, Volume 34, Issue 10, pp 1150–1158 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00376-017-6283-3

This paper is open access.

To give you a sense of his writing and imagination, I’ve excerpted a few paragraphs from p. 1153 but first you need to see this .gif (he provides a number of ways to watch the .gif in his text but I think it’s easier to watch the copy of the one he has on his website),

Now for the excerpt,

Here is an example to show what I mean. It is a classic in experimental psychology, from the work of Professor Gunnar JOHANSSON in the 1970s. …

As soon as the twelve dots start moving, everyone with normal vision sees a person walking. This immediately illustrates several things. First, it illustrates that we all make unconscious assumptions. Here, we unconsciously assume a particular kind of three-dimensional motion. In this case the unconscious assumption is completely involuntary. We cannot help seeing a person walking, despite knowing that it is only twelve moving dots.

The animation also shows that we have unconscious mathematics, Euclidean geometry in this case. In order to generate the percept of a person walking, your brain has to fit a mathematical model to the incoming visual data, in this case a mathematical model based on Euclidean geometry. (And the model-fitting process is an active, and highly complex, predictive process most of which is inaccessible to conscious introspection.)

This brings me to the most central point in our discussion. Science does essentially the same thing. It fits models to data. So science is, in the most fundamental possible sense, an extension of ordinary perception. That is a simple way of saying what was said many decades ago by great thinkers such as Professor Sir Karl POPPER….

I love that phase “unconscious mathematics” for the way it includes even those of us who would never dream of thinking we had any kind of mathematics. I encourage you to read his paper in its entirety, which does include a little technical language in a few spots but the overall thesis is clear and easily understood.

A question of consciousness: Facebotlish (a new language); a July 5, 2017 rap guide performance in Vancouver, Canada; Tom Stoppard’s play; and a little more

This would usually be a simple event announcement but with the advent of a new, related (in my mind if no one else’s) development on Facebook, this has become a roundup of sorts.

Facebotlish (Facebook’s chatbots create their own language)

The language created by Facebook’s chatbots, Facebotlish, was an unintended consequence—that’s right Facebook’s developers did not design a language for the chatbots or anticipate its independent development, apparently.  Adrienne LaFrance’s June 20, 2017 article for theatlantic.com explores the development and the question further,

Something unexpected happened recently at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research lab. Researchers who had been training bots to negotiate with one another realized that the bots, left to their own devices, started communicating in a non-human language.

In order to actually follow what the bots were saying, the researchers had to tweak their model, limiting the machines to a conversation humans could understand. (They want bots to stick to human languages because eventually they want those bots to be able to converse with human Facebook users.) …

Here’s what the language looks like (from LaFrance article),

Here’s an example of one of the bot negotiations that Facebook observed:Bob: i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i i can i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have 0 to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

It is incomprehensible to humans even after being tweaked, even so, some successful negotiations can ensue.

Facebook’s researchers aren’t the only one to come across the phenomenon (from LaFrance’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

Other AI researchers, too, say they’ve observed machines that can develop their own languages, including languages with a coherent structure, and defined vocabulary and syntax—though not always actual meaningful, by human standards.

In one preprint paper added earlier this year [2017] to the research repository arXiv, a pair of computer scientists from the non-profit AI research firm OpenAI wrote about how bots learned to communicate in an abstract language—and how those bots turned to non-verbal communication, the equivalent of human gesturing or pointing, when language communication was unavailable. (Bots don’t need to have corporeal form to engage in non-verbal communication; they just engage with what’s called a visual sensory modality.) Another recent preprint paper, from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Virginia Tech, describes an experiment in which two bots invent their own communication protocol by discussing and assigning values to colors and shapes—in other words, the researchers write, they witnessed the “automatic emergence of grounded language and communication … no human supervision!”

The implications of this kind of work are dizzying. Not only are researchers beginning to see how bots could communicate with one another, they may be scratching the surface of how syntax and compositional structure emerged among humans in the first place.

LaFrance’s article is well worth reading in its entirety especially since the speculation is focused on whether or not the chatbots’ creation is in fact language. There is no mention of consciousness and perhaps this is just a crazy idea but is it possible that these chatbots have consciousness? The question is particularly intriguing in light of some of philosopher David Chalmers’ work (see his 2014 TED talk in Vancouver, Canada: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_chalmers_how_do_you_explain_consciousness/transcript?language=en runs roughly 18 mins.); a text transcript is also featured. There’s a condensed version of Chalmers’ TED talk offered in a roughly 9 minute NPR (US National Public Radio) interview by Gus Raz. Here are some highlights from the text transcript,

So we’ve been hearing from brain scientists who are asking how a bunch of neurons and synaptic connections in the brain add up to us, to who we are. But it’s consciousness, the subjective experience of the mind, that allows us to ask the question in the first place. And where consciousness comes from – that is an entirely separate question.

DAVID CHALMERS: Well, I like to distinguish between the easy problems of consciousness and the hard problem.

RAZ: This is David Chalmers. He’s a philosopher who coined this term, the hard problem of consciousness.

CHALMERS: Well, the easy problems are ultimately a matter of explaining behavior – things we do. And I think brain science is great at problems like that. It can isolate a neural circuit and show how it enables you to see a red object, to respondent and say, that’s red. But the hard problem of consciousness is subjective experience. Why, when all that happens in this circuit, does it feel like something? How does a bunch of – 86 billion neurons interacting inside the brain, coming together – how does that produce the subjective experience of a mind and of the world?

RAZ: Here’s how David Chalmers begins his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHALMERS: Right now, you have a movie playing inside your head. It has 3-D vision and surround sound for what you’re seeing and hearing right now. Your movie has smell and taste and touch. It has a sense of your body, pain, hunger, orgasms. It has emotions, anger and happiness. It has memories, like scenes from your childhood, playing before you. This movie is your stream of consciousness. If we weren’t conscious, nothing in our lives would have meaning or value. But at the same time, it’s the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe. Why are we conscious?

RAZ: Why is consciousness more than just the sum of the brain’s parts?

CHALMERS: Well, the question is, you know, what is the brain? It’s this giant complex computer, a bunch of interacting parts with great complexity. What does all that explain? That explains objective mechanism. Consciousness is subjective by its nature. It’s a matter of subjective experience. And it seems that we can imagine all of that stuff going on in the brain without consciousness. And the question is, where is the consciousness from there? It’s like, if someone could do that, they’d get a Nobel Prize, you know?

RAZ: Right.

CHALMERS: So here’s the mapping from this circuit to this state of consciousness. But underneath that is always going be the question, why and how does the brain give you consciousness in the first place?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHALMERS: Right now, nobody knows the answers to those questions. So we may need one or two ideas that initially seem crazy before we can come to grips with consciousness, scientifically. The first crazy idea is that consciousness is fundamental. Physicists sometimes take some aspects of the universe as fundamental building blocks – space and time and mass – and you build up the world from there. Well, I think that’s the situation we’re in. If you can’t explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals – space, time – the natural thing to do is to postulate consciousness itself as something fundamental – a fundamental building block of nature. The second crazy idea is that consciousness might be universal. This view is sometimes called panpsychism – pan, for all – psych, for mind. Every system is conscious. Not just humans, dogs, mice, flies, but even microbes. Even a photon has some degree of consciousness. The idea is not that photons are intelligent or thinking. You know, it’s not that a photon is wracked with angst because it’s thinking, oh, I’m always buzzing around near the speed of light. I never get to slow down and smell the roses. No, not like that. But the thought is, maybe photons might have some element of raw subjective feeling, some primitive precursor to consciousness.

RAZ: So this is a pretty big idea – right? – like, that not just flies, but microbes or photons all have consciousness. And I mean we, like, as humans, we want to believe that our consciousness is what makes us special, right – like, different from anything else.

CHALMERS: Well, I would say yes and no. I’d say the fact of consciousness does not make us special. But maybe we’ve a special type of consciousness ’cause you know, consciousness is not on and off. It comes in all these rich and amazing varieties. There’s vision. There’s hearing. There’s thinking. There’s emotion and so on. So our consciousness is far richer, I think, than the consciousness, say, of a mouse or a fly. But if you want to look for what makes us distinct, don’t look for just our being conscious, look for the kind of consciousness we have. …

Intriguing, non?

Vancouver premiere of Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness

Baba Brinkman, former Vancouverite and current denizen of New York City, is back in town offering a new performance at the Rio Theatre (1680 E. Broadway, near Commercial Drive). From a July 5, 2017 Rio Theatre event page and ticket portal,

Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness

Wednesday, July 5 [2017] at 6:30pm PDT

Baba Brinkman’s new hip-hop theatre show “Rap Guide to Consciousness” is all about the neuroscience of consciousness. See it in Vancouver at the Rio Theatre before it goes to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August [2017].

This event also features a performance of “Off the Top” with Dr. Heather Berlin (cognitive neuroscientist, TV host, and Baba’s wife), which is also going to Edinburgh.

Wednesday, July 5
Doors 6:00 pm | Show 6:30 pm

Advance tickets $12 | $15 at the door

*All ages welcome!
*Sorry, Groupons and passes not accepted for this event.

“Utterly unique… both brilliantly entertaining and hugely informative” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – Broadway Baby

“An education, inspiring, and wonderfully entertaining show from beginning to end” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – Mumble Comedy

There’s quite the poster for this rap guide performance,

In addition to  the Vancouver and Edinburgh performance (the show was premiered at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May 2017; see Simon Topping’s very brief review in this May 10, 2017 posting on the reviewshub.com), Brinkman is raising money (goal is $12,000US; he has raised a little over $3,000 with approximately one month before the deadline) to produce a CD. Here’s more from the Rap Guide to Consciousness campaign page on Indiegogo,

Brinkman has been working with neuroscientists, Dr. Anil Seth (professor and co-director of Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science) and Dr. Heather Berlin (Brinkman’s wife as noted earlier; see her Wikipedia entry or her website).

There’s a bit more information about the rap project and Anil Seth in a May 3, 2017 news item by James Hakner for the University of Sussex,

The research frontiers of consciousness science find an unusual outlet in an exciting new Rap Guide to Consciousness, premiering at this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival.

Professor Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, has teamed up with New York-based ‘peer-reviewed rapper’ Baba Brinkman, to explore the latest findings from the neuroscience and cognitive psychology of subjective experience.

What is it like to be a baby? We might have to take LSD to find out. What is it like to be an octopus? Imagine most of your brain was actually built into your fingertips. What is it like to be a rapper kicking some of the world’s most complex lyrics for amused fringe audiences? Surreal.

In this new production, Baba brings his signature mix of rap comedy storytelling to the how and why behind your thoughts and perceptions. Mixing cutting-edge research with lyrical performance and projected visuals, Baba takes you through the twists and turns of the only organ it’s better to donate than receive: the human brain. Discover how the various subsystems of your brain come together to create your own rich experience of the world, including the sights and sounds of a scientifically peer-reviewed rapper dropping knowledge.

The result is a truly mind-blowing multimedia hip-hop theatre performance – the perfect meta-medium through which to communicate the dazzling science of consciousness.

Baba comments: “This topic is endlessly fascinating because it underlies everything we do pretty much all the time, which is probably why it remains one of the toughest ideas to get your head around. The first challenge with this show is just to get people to accept the (scientifically uncontroversial) idea that their brains and minds are actually the same thing viewed from different angles. But that’s just the starting point, after that the details get truly amazing.”

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist and award-winning playwright, best known for his “Rap Guide” series of plays and albums. Baba has toured the world and enjoyed successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and off-Broadway in New York. The Rap Guide to Religion was nominated for a 2015 Drama Desk Award for “Unique Theatrical Experience” and The Rap Guide to Evolution (“Astonishing and brilliant” NY Times), won a Scotsman Fringe First Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination for “Outstanding Solo Performance”. The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos premiered in Edinburgh in 2015, followed by a six-month off-Broadway run in 2016.

Baba is also a pioneer in the genre of “lit-hop” or literary hip-hop, known for his adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh. He is a recent recipient of the National Center for Science Education’s “Friend of Darwin Award” for his efforts to improve the public understanding of evolutionary biology.

Anil Seth is an internationally renowned researcher into the biological basis of consciousness, with more than 100 (peer-reviewed!) academic journal papers on the subject. Alongside science he is equally committed to innovative public communication. A Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow (from 2016) and the 2017 British Science Association President (Psychology), Professor Seth has co-conceived and consulted on many science-art projects including drama (Donmar Warehouse), dance (Siobhan Davies dance company), and the visual arts (with artist Lindsay Seers). He has also given popular public talks on consciousness at the Royal Institution (Friday Discourse) and at the main TED conference in Vancouver. He is a regular presence in print and on the radio and is the recipient of awards including the BBC Audio Award for Best Single Drama (for ‘The Sky is Wider’) and the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize (for EyeBenders). This is his first venture into rap.

Professor Seth said: “There is nothing more familiar, and at the same time more mysterious than consciousness, but research is finally starting to shed light on this most central aspect of human existence. Modern neuroscience can be incredibly arcane and complex, posing challenges to us as public communicators.

“It’s been a real pleasure and privilege to work with Baba on this project over the last year. I never thought I’d get involved with a rap artist – but hearing Baba perform his ‘peer reviewed’ breakdowns of other scientific topics I realized here was an opportunity not to be missed.”

Interestingly, Seth has another Canadian connection; he’s a Senior Fellow of the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR; Wikipedia entry). By the way, the institute  was promised $93.7M in the 2017 Canadian federal government budget for the establishment of a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy (see my March 24, 2017 posting; scroll down about 25% of the way and look for the highlighted dollar amount). You can find out more about the Azrieli programme here and about CIFAR on its website.

The Hard Problem (a Tom Stoppard play)

Brinkman isn’t the only performance-based artist to be querying the concept of consciousness, Tom Stoppard has written a play about consciousness titled ‘The Hard Problem’, which debuted at the National Theatre (UK) in January 2015 (see BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] news online’s Jan. 29, 2015 roundup of reviews). A May 25, 2017 commentary by Andrew Brown for the Guardian offers some insight into the play and the issues (Note: Links have been removed),

There is a lovely exchange in Tom Stoppard’s play about consciousness, The Hard Problem, when an atheist has been sneering at his girlfriend for praying. It is, he says, an utterly meaningless activity. Right, she says, then do one thing for me: pray! I can’t do that, he replies. It would betray all I believe in.

So prayer can have meanings, and enormously important ones, even for people who are certain that it doesn’t have the meaning it is meant to have. In that sense, your really convinced atheist is much more religious than someone who goes along with all the prayers just because that’s what everyone does, without for a moment supposing the action means anything more than asking about the weather.

The Hard Problem of the play’s title is a phrase coined by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers to describe the way in which consciousness arises from a physical world. What makes it hard is that we don’t understand it. What makes it a problem is slightly different. It isn’t the fact of consciousness, but our representations of consciousness, that give rise to most of the difficulties. We don’t know how to fit the first-person perspective into the third-person world that science describes and explores. But this isn’t because they don’t fit: it’s because we don’t understand how they fit. For some people, this becomes a question of consuming interest.

There are also a couple of video of Tom Stoppard, the playwright, discussing his play with various interested parties, the first being the director at the National Theatre who tackled the debut run, Nicolas Hytner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7J8rWu6HJg (it runs approximately 40 mins.). Then, there’s the chat Stoppard has with previously mentioned philosopher, David Chalmers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BPY2c_CiwA (this runs approximately 1 hr. 32 mins.).

I gather ‘consciousness’ is a hot topic these days and, in the venacular of the 1960s, I guess you could describe all of this as ‘expanding our consciousness’. Have a nice weekend!

Ishiguro’s robots and Swiss scientist question artificial intelligence at SXSW (South by Southwest) 2017

It seems unexpected to stumble across presentations on robots and on artificial intelligence at an entertainment conference such as South by South West (SXSW). Here’s why I thought so, from the SXSW Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

South by Southwest (abbreviated as SXSW) is an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March in Austin, Texas, United States. It began in 1987, and has continued to grow in both scope and size every year. In 2011, the conference lasted for 10 days with SXSW Interactive lasting for 5 days, Music for 6 days, and Film running concurrently for 9 days.

Lifelike robots

The 2017 SXSW Interactive featured separate presentations by Japanese roboticist, Hiroshi Ishiguro (mentioned here a few times), and EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne; Switzerland) artificial intelligence expert, Marcel Salathé.

Ishiguro’s work is the subject of Harry McCracken’s March 14, 2017 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

I’m sitting in the Japan Factory pavilion at SXSW in Austin, Texas, talking to two other attendees about whether human beings are more valuable than robots. I say that I believe human life to be uniquely precious, whereupon one of the others rebuts me by stating that humans allow cars to exist even though they kill humans.

It’s a reasonable point. But my fellow conventioneer has a bias: It’s a robot itself, with an ivory-colored, mask-like face and visible innards. So is the third participant in the conversation, a much more human automaton modeled on a Japanese woman and wearing a black-and-white blouse and a blue scarf.

We’re chatting as part of a demo of technologies developed by the robotics lab of Hiroshi Ishiguro, based at Osaka University, and Japanese telecommunications company NTT. Ishiguro has gained fame in the field by creating increasingly humanlike robots—that is, androids—with the ultimate goal of eliminating the uncanny valley that exists between people and robotic people.

I also caught up with Ishiguro himself at the conference—his second SXSW—to talk about his work. He’s a champion of the notion that people will respond best to robots who simulate humanity, thereby creating “a feeling of presence,” as he describes it. That gives him and his researchers a challenge that encompasses everything from technology to psychology. “Our approach is quite interdisciplinary,” he says, which is what prompted him to bring his work to SXSW.

A SXSW attendee talks about robots with two robots.

If you have the time, do read McCracken’t piece in its entirety.

You can find out more about the ‘uncanny valley’ in my March 10, 2011 posting about Ishiguro’s work if you scroll down about 70% of the way to find the ‘uncanny valley’ diagram and Masahiro Mori’s description of the concept he developed.

You can read more about Ishiguro and his colleague, Ryuichiro Higashinaka, on their SXSW biography page.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

In a March 15, 2017 EPFL press release by Hilary Sanctuary, scientist Marcel Salathé poses the question: Is Reliable Artificial Intelligence Possible?,

In the quest for reliable artificial intelligence, EPFL scientist Marcel Salathé argues that AI technology should be openly available. He will be discussing the topic at this year’s edition of South by South West on March 14th in Austin, Texas.

Will artificial intelligence (AI) change the nature of work? For EPFL theoretical biologist Marcel Salathé, the answer is invariably yes. To him, a more fundamental question that needs to be addressed is who owns that artificial intelligence?

“We have to hold AI accountable, and the only way to do this is to verify it for biases and make sure there is no deliberate misinformation,” says Salathé. “This is not possible if the AI is privatized.”

AI is both the algorithm and the data

So what exactly is AI? It is generally regarded as “intelligence exhibited by machines”. Today, it is highly task specific, specially designed to beat humans at strategic games like Chess and Go, or diagnose skin disease on par with doctors’ skills.

On a practical level, AI is implemented through what scientists call “machine learning”, which means using a computer to run specifically designed software that can be “trained”, i.e. process data with the help of algorithms and to correctly identify certain features from that data set. Like human cognition, AI learns by trial and error. Unlike humans, however, AI can process and recall large quantities of data, giving it a tremendous advantage over us.

Crucial to AI learning, therefore, is the underlying data. For Salathé, AI is defined by both the algorithm and the data, and as such, both should be publicly available.

Deep learning algorithms can be perturbed

Last year, Salathé created an algorithm to recognize plant diseases. With more than 50,000 photos of healthy and diseased plants in the database, the algorithm uses artificial intelligence to diagnose plant diseases with the help of your smartphone. As for human disease, a recent study by a Stanford Group on cancer showed that AI can be trained to recognize skin cancer slightly better than a group of doctors. The consequences are far-reaching: AI may one day diagnose our diseases instead of doctors. If so, will we really be able to trust its diagnosis?

These diagnostic tools use data sets of images to train and learn. But visual data sets can be perturbed that prevent deep learning algorithms from correctly classifying images. Deep neural networks are highly vulnerable to visual perturbations that are practically impossible to detect with the naked eye, yet causing the AI to misclassify images.

In future implementations of AI-assisted medical diagnostic tools, these perturbations pose a serious threat. More generally, the perturbations are real and may already be affecting the filtered information that reaches us every day. These vulnerabilities underscore the importance of certifying AI technology and monitoring its reliability.

h/t phys.org March 15, 2017 news item

As I noted earlier, these are not the kind of presentations you’d expect at an ‘entertainment’ festival.

Revisiting the scientific past for new breakthroughs

A March 2, 2017 article on phys.org features a thought-provoking (and, for some of us, confirming) take on scientific progress  (Note: Links have been removed),

The idea that science isn’t a process of constant progress might make some modern scientists feel a bit twitchy. Surely we know more now than we did 100 years ago? We’ve sequenced the genome, explored space and considerably lengthened the average human lifespan. We’ve invented aircraft, computers and nuclear energy. We’ve developed theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to explain how the universe works.

However, treating the history of science as a linear story of progression doesn’t reflect wholly how ideas emerge and are adapted, forgotten, rediscovered or ignored. While we are happy with the notion that the arts can return to old ideas, for example in neoclassicism, this idea is not commonly recognised in science. Is this constraint really present in principle? Or is it more a comment on received practice or, worse, on the general ignorance of the scientific community of its own intellectual history?

For one thing, not all lines of scientific enquiry are pursued to conclusion. For example, a few years ago, historian of science Hasok Chang undertook a careful examination of notebooks from scientists working in the 19th century. He unearthed notes from experiments in electrochemistry whose results received no explanation at the time. After repeating the experiments himself, Chang showed the results still don’t have a full explanation today. These research programmes had not been completed, simply put to one side and forgotten.

A March 1, 2017 essay by Giles Gasper (Durham University), Hannah Smithson (University of Oxford) and Tom Mcleish (Durham University) for The Conversation, which originated the article, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

… looping back into forgotten scientific history might also provide an alternative, regenerative way of thinking that doesn’t rely on what has come immediately before it.

Collaborating with an international team of colleagues, we have taken this hypothesis further by bringing scientists into close contact with scientific treatises from the early 13th century. The treatises were composed by the English polymath Robert Grosseteste – who later became Bishop of Lincoln – between 1195 and 1230. They cover a wide range of topics we would recognise as key to modern physics, including sound, light, colour, comets, the planets, the origin of the cosmos and more.

We have worked with paleographers (handwriting experts) and Latinists to decipher Grosseteste’s manuscripts, and with philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to provide intellectual interpretation and context to his work. As a result, we’ve discovered that scientific and mathematical minds today still resonate with Grosseteste’s deeply physical and structured thinking.

Our first intuition and hope was that the scientists might bring a new analytic perspective to these very technical texts. And so it proved: the deep mathematical structure of a small treatise on colour, the De colore, was shown to describe what we would now call a three-dimensional abstract co-ordinate space for colour.

But more was true. During the examination of each treatise, at some point one of the group would say: “Did anyone ever try doing …?” or “What would happen if we followed through with this calculation, supposing he meant …”. Responding to this thinker from eight centuries ago has, to our delight and surprise, inspired new scientific work of a rather fresh cut. It isn’t connected in a linear way to current research programmes, but sheds light on them from new directions.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety.

Science as a post-truth concept

The word of 2016, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, is ‘post-truth’ and Steve Fuller, a professor from the University of Warwick (UK), has written an intriguing Dec. 15, 2016 essay  for the Guardian tracing the origins of post-truth as it relates to the sciences (Note: Links have been removed),

Even today, more than fifty years after its first edition, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions remains the first port of call to learn about the history, philosophy or sociology of science. This is the book famous for talking about science as governed by ‘paradigms’ until overtaken by ‘revolutions’.

Kuhn argued that the way that both scientists and the general public need to understand the history of science is Orwellian. He is alluding to 1984, in which the protagonist’s job is to rewrite newspapers from the past to make it seem as though the government’s current policy is where it had been heading all along. In this perpetually airbrushed version of history, the public never sees the U-turns, switches of allegiance and errors of judgement that might cause them to question the state’s progressive narrative. Confidence in the status quo is maintained and new recruits are inspired to follow in its lead. Kuhn claimed that what applies to totalitarian 1984 also applies to science united under the spell of a paradigm.
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What makes Kuhn’s account of science ‘post-truth’ is that truth is no longer the arbiter of legitimate power but rather the mask of legitimacy that is worn by everyone in pursuit of power. Truth is just one more – albeit perhaps the most important – resource in a power game without end. In this respect, science differs from politics only in that the masks of its players rarely drop.

The explanation for what happens behind the masks lies in the work of the Italian political economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), devotee of Machiavelli, admired by Mussolini and one of sociology’s forgotten founders. Kuhn spent his formative years at Harvard in the late 1930s when the local kingmaker, biochemist Lawrence Henderson, not only taught the first history of science courses but also convened an interdisciplinary ‘Pareto Circle’ to get the university’s rising stars acquainted with the person he regarded as Marx’s only true rival.

For Pareto, what passes for social order is the result of the interplay of two sorts of elites, which he called, following Machiavelli, ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’. The lions acquire legitimacy from tradition, which in science is based on expertise rather than lineage or custom. Yet, like these earlier forms of legitimacy, expertise derives its authority from the cumulative weight of intergenerational experience. This is exactly what Kuhn meant by a ‘paradigm’ in science – a set of conventions by which knowledge builds in an orderly fashion to complete a certain world-view established by a founding figure – say, Newton or Darwin. Each new piece of knowledge is anointed by a process of ‘peer review’.
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As in 1984, the lions normally dictate the historical narrative. But on the cutting room floor lies the activities of the other set of elites, the foxes. In today’s politics of science, they are known by a variety of names, ranging from ‘mavericks’ to ‘social constructivists’ to ‘pseudoscientists’. Foxes are characterised by dissent and unrest, thriving in a world of openness and opportunity.

Foxes stress the present as an ecstatic moment in which there is everything to play for. This includes a decisive break with ‘the past’, which they know has been fictionalized anyway, as in 1984. Self-styled visionaries present themselves, like Galileo, as the first to see what is in plain sight. Expertise appears as a repository of corrupt judgement designed to suppress promising alternatives to already bankrupt positions. For Kuhn, the scientific foxes get the upper hand whenever cracks appear in the lions’ smooth narrative, the persistent ‘anomalies’ that can’t be explained by the ruling paradigm.

But the foxes have their own Achilles Heel: They are strong in opposition but divisively self-critical in office. …

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety although I don’t necessarily subscribe to the some of the statements. For example, I wouldn’t lump ‘mavericks’, ‘social constructivists’, and ‘pseudoscientists’ together without some discussion about ‘pseudoscience’. It’s true that an accusation of ‘pseudoscience’ is often leveled at people who are challenging the status quo but there are also situations where people use science as a mask to legitimate some fairly hinky work.