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Apr 09 2013

Here comes the transhumanist hate mail!

My talk at Skeptech is now available on youtube. I am not kind to Transhumanism.

65 comments

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  1. 1
    PZ Myers

    I’ve already got a Mormon Transhumanist doing that glassy-eyed mormon schtick at me on Twitter, so it could get bad.

  2. 2
    Jadehawk

    mormon transhumanist?

    why would a mormon want to upload themself into a computer? won’t they get their planet quicker by just dying?

  3. 3
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    A what now? How the hell does that work?

  4. 4
    consciousness razor

    You can’t blame them. If they don’t send you hate mail, the Singularity could easily punish them for not having done everything they can to make the Singularity exist sooner. If it’s relatively nice, maybe they’ll just get coal in their stockings.

  5. 5
    leftwingfox

    Maybe they want to be a cylon?

  6. 6
    John Morales

    The sound quality execrable. :|

  7. 7
    PZ Myers

    Here: The Mormon Transhumanist Association. It’s a real thing.

  8. 8
    mildlymagnificent

    Hah. I just love any reminder at all of one of the world’s great book titles.

    Great Mambo Chicken And The Transhuman Condition was fun to read at the time. And any reminder since always brings a smile.

  9. 9
    Jadehawk

    Here: The Mormon Transhumanist Association. It’s a real thing.

    huh. fascinating. But I guess you’re right that transhumanism and the Mormon afterlife are oddly similar anyway.

    So I guess maybe transhumanism is the Mormon version of Rapture: the afterlife, but without having to die first.

  10. 10
    steve oberski

    So do transhumanist mormons still get their own planet and a stable full of wives ?

  11. 11
    Marcus Ranum

    So do transhumanist mormons still get their own planet and a stable full of wives ?

    Since it’s all in virt, they just get spun up new instances of their current wives. I guess you can have as many as you want, that way.

  12. 12
    Jadehawk

    So do transhumanist mormons still get their own planet and a stable full of wives ?

    I’m a horrible person. The first thing I thought when seeing that comment was this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag1EbxYKh_4&feature=player_detailpage#t=78s
    *flees thread before the femistasi finds her and takes her feminist card away*

  13. 13
    leftwingfox

    I hadn’t heard about the “slicing the brain” bit before. Wow. It’s brilliant!

    I’ll be right back. I’m going to douse my computer in acetone, fill it full of plaster, then slice it into micrometer thin wedges to examine it under an electron microscope. I’ll be able to figure out the source code for windows in no time!

  14. 14
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I’ve been watching the Mormon Transhumanist thing on Twitter… high-larious!

  15. 15
    Shplane, Spess Alium

    Two minutes in, so far I’ve been able to discern ~five words said.

    Guess I’m waiting for a transcript.

  16. 16
    Mobius

    Here: The Mormon Transhumanist Association. It’s a real thing.

    From what little I know of Mormonism, this does make sense, though not in the “upload to a computer” way. I recall that part of the Mormon beliefs is that Mormons will ascend upon dying and become some sort of god themselves.

  17. 17
    Akira MacKenzie

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that Transhumanism (or, at least its more “optimistic” versions) is becoming a sciencey-sounding religion-surrogate like $cientology, the Venus Project, or the Raelians. It comes complete with a prophet (Kurzwell), an afterlife (uploading and resleeving), and great revelationary event (the Singularity) and all built around faith; faitht hat science works the way they hope it will rather than how it actually works. It also comes with strident fanatics who will defend it to the end despite what evidence tells them.

    There is only one Omega-Point and Kurzwell is its prophet.

  18. 18
    pseudonymus

    Half my dominion to the person to deliver me sound unfettered. Why don’t conferences prepare for this better, are these videos not big enough deals, is this the punishment I get for not attending? Cruel and unusual!

  19. 19
    ck

    Since it’s all in virt, they just get spun up new instances of their current wives. I guess you can have as many as you want, that way.

    I suppose so. Just gotta convince her to fork.

    Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

    More seriously, do these transhumanists not know anything about computers? I mean your average magnetic disk with have an unrecoverable read error every 10E14 bits read. Solid state drives increase that to one error per 10E16 bits. That translates to one error per 12.5 TB or 1250 TB worth of data read. If they’re talking about reproducing a mind in software, then they really should know that software is not tolerant of bit errors. There is research being done on “self healing” software, but that technology isn’t likely to be mature soon, and I’m not sure much research is being done with the premise that the software itself will become corrupt and need healing.

    Also, producing software that supports life control systems is an extremely rigorous process, and can involve things like formal verification. For devices that have a very small number of inputs and a limited number of states, this can take a lot of time and effort. Just imagine what it would take for an artificial brain, unless your fine with the idea of 5% of the population just dropping dead for no good reason.

  20. 20
    liokae

    So.. watched through the whole thing, and just to try and clarify: You don’t have any disagreement with transhumanism *itself*, just with some of the specific ideas proposed by individuals? Because I couldn’t spot anything in there against the philosophy itself, just (fully justified) takedowns of the misuse of “evolution” and the attempts to explain favored possible pathways with current technology.

  21. 21
    PZ Myers

    Transhumanism is inevitable, with the only other alternative being extinction.

    However, the technofetishist/libertarian version of transhumanism is bogus. It’s also weirdly counterproductive for members of our species to be cheering on our replacement!

  22. 22
    satanaugustine

    Any possibility of a transcript of your talk, PZ? I cannot make out the majority of what you’re saying in the video. Is this an “official” recording of your talk or just one done by an audience member? The acoustics of wherever Skeptech was held are abominable.

  23. 23
    PZ Myers

    The recording gear was at the back of the room, I had no audio mic for it, either — they were just picking up the sound with a remote mic. Sorry.

    Also, no transcript. I had cursory notes for some of the slides, but otherwise, that’s almost all just me winging it. Sorry again.

    I’ll probably give this talk somewhere else some other time, maybe we’ll get a clearer recording then.

  24. 24
    chigau (違う)

    evolution is extinction

  25. 25
    satanaugustine

    Thanks for the response, PZ!

  26. 26
    chigau (違う)

    So I googles “portable voice recorder” and this was first:
    http://www.thespystore.ca/
    they have some waaay cool stuff.

  27. 27
    danielbjorkman

    The best thing I can say for transhumanism is this – at least when people are drooling over the thought of living forever in a perfect android body, they’re not just throwing their hands up and accepting the end of civilisation as inevitable. That, to me, is a step in the right direction.

    But it’d be really nice if we could have some optimism for making a better world through improvement of social institutions and individual morals (both of which has happened in some very drastic ways before, after all, no matter how much short-sighted cynics claim it is completely impossible!) instead of expecting technology to save us.

  28. 28
    dingojack

    Transhumanism? Trans-huu-man-is-im?!? Exterminate, exterminate, EXTERMINAAATE!!!
    Dingo the Dalek. :)

  29. 29
    michaelbusch

    Good stuff! And, iffy sound or not, thanks to the SkepTech organizers for archiving the talks!

    [shares talk elsewhere]

  30. 30
    Muz

    I kinda like Transhumanism I have to admit. The basis for it is quite cheerful. It’s when people try to bring it about technologically it becomes fairly silly. As the talk essentially put forward, it’s putting the cart before the horse.

    Cory Doctorow is an interesting fellow on the subject. He arguably loves it too, since he’s written a few bits of sci-fi along those lines, but he thinks its nonsense at the same time.
    One thing he said on the notion of uploading your mind to the computer so you can live forever is, we don’t even really know who ‘you’ is. There’s a temporal and sensory component to your identity; inputs and constant flow of things from hormones and nerves of immense complexity. Even if you could take someone’s brain and simulate it in software, it wouldn’t be you anymore one second later. Are they going to simulate the entirety of experience or try to make this simulation ‘live’ in the world as you did? Are you going to have to “verify the integrity of the backup”? It’s going to be different. No two complex turbulent systems react to small factors the same. They don’t really say how this could work. Mostly it’s a lot of hand-wavey appeals to Moore’s law instead.

    But still fun to think about from time to time, which I think is its only real use.

  31. 31
    Robert B.

    See, this is why I was interested when I heard what your talk was about. I’m a transhumanist, and would dearly like to keep that house clean of bad science and political dipshittery. I’m still surprised that anyone thinks we could achieve any of the major goals of transhumanism without first going through a major overhaul of societal institutions and individual morals. If someone invented a death vaccine today, can you imagine the political clusterfuck as everyone tried to stop the “wrong people” (poor, brown, gay, foreign, etc.) from getting it?

    Unfortunately, I don’t have 56 minutes to spare just now. I’ll try to watch the video tomorrow.

  32. 32
    =8)-DX

    Mormons? I thought it was called Unitology. And the goal of transhumanism was to become one with the marker in the event called convergence?

  33. 33
    richcon

    Thanks for posting that talk, I just finished watching it and very much enjoyed it.

    Did the people getting their disembodied heads cryogenically frozen watch too much Futurama?

  34. 34
    Mickey Mortimer

    While I agree some(most?) transhumanists have an unrealistic timeframe for when advances could occur, in part due to the ignorance of biology you pointed out, nothing you said really addresses the liklihood of these advances occuring say… hundreds or thousands of years from now. And not by natural evolution as you note is inevitable, but via technological and biological manipulation. But my main question is why you think it’s so counterproductive to want to replace ourselves as a species. Do you really have any investment in whether the Earth’s civilization is Homo sapiens a few thousand years from now instead of something partially created by us?

  35. 35
    billyeager

    tl;dw

    Gotta ask though, would someone be so kind and post the key issues against transhumansim, please?

    Personally, I don’t see what the big hoo-ha is about being ‘human’. Being ‘sentient’, sure, that’s a big deal, but for that sentience to be ‘stuck’ inside this incredibly flawed biological container, considerably less so.

    Unless the argument against transhumanism is one based on the notion that we ‘should’ remain in these crappy bodies because our tenuous existence is what gives our lives that ‘spark’ that joie de vivre, I struggle to understand what rationale is employed in being ‘unkind’ to the topic.

    Perhaps it’s a Biologist thing.

  36. 36
    haitied

    Really, has no one heard of a sub mix? assign mic to aux “x” and plug in recorder. . . . if there is a PA system there is a mixing board, if there is a mixing board there is an aux output, if there is an aux output we don’t need to suffer with squealing barely discernible audio. /endrant

  37. 37
    sawells

    @35 : short version, the idea of “uploading” yourself by some kind of brain scan is about as practical as flying to the moon by flapping your arms really hard. There are physical limitations which no amount of bicep exercises are going to overcome.

    Being sympathetic or otherwise to the goal is completely irrelevant to the critique of the proposed method, and saying “you guys look really dumb flapping your arms like that” does not mean we disapprove of the idea of going to the moon.

  38. 38
    jesse

    The only spot I thought you might be being a bit unkind to the trasnhumanists was with cryonics. You pointed out that certain bits of it do work — the rabbit experiments and sperm being two.

    I was thinking that the problems you outlined (it was hard to hear, so forgive me if I missed it) aren’t completely insoluble, at least in principle. That is, one could conceive of well-vitrified bodies coming back if there was a way to repair some of the inherent cell damage you talk about, post-revival. That isn’t a technology I see being available anytime soon tho. And it leaves aside the whole problem of brains, which are much more delicate than kidneys and can’t be transplanted. I don’t know what the actual results of the kidney experiment were or if that makes any sense. Maybe try it with some individual nerve cells…

    The experiments with fish sounded interesting. Does anyone (on the more serious science side) think suspended animation might be possible? (Where you are alive going in and coming out). Not without tweaking some of our own genes, perhaps. But a way to get humans to “sleep” for a while would be a really big help on long space missions. And you’d still age of course, if slowly. The most “realistic” depiction was by Stephen Baxter and he posited that the people involved had genes added from certain species of polar fish.

    But other than that… yes, the transhumanist crowd a la Kurzweil bugs me because their techno-optimism — no bad thing in itself — starts sounding ridiculous pretty quickly. And there is an unfortunate right wing / libertarian streak. Kurzweil seems to have a real fear of death. I mean, I do too. But he seems to simply not understand that Moore’s law, for instance, has real physical limits. Even quantum computing wouldn’t necessarily offer a solution, unless you think that human brains are quantum systems. (I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra).

  39. 39
    glodson

    tl;dw

    And then you spent the rest of the post showing why you should have watched it.

  40. 40
    Ing

    I’m good with the ideas of improving humans and all. its the “and be free of our filthy flawed meat prisons” I hate.

  41. 41
    alkisvonidas

    I’ve only watched the first 15 minutes of your talk so far, so I can’t yet comment on the whole. But comparing cryonics to Pascal’s Wager was extremely unfair (I don’t mind you being unkind, that’s a matter of style).

    Pascal’s Wager fails to account for the cost of belief: Truly following a dogma entails a great deal of devotion and obligations, closing your mind to many potentially intellectually fulfilling ideas and basing your morality on a premise that in all probability is bogus. In short, you will be squandering this one life.

    Cryonics entails one cost only, the cost of being frozen, and having someone look after your, er, human popsicle. Whether or not this cost is forbidding is something you can decide fully rationally. For my part, I’m definitely not having my body cryogenically preserved, because a) I don’t want to outlive my generation and b)I don’t plan spending my life making the kind of money it would take to have myself frozen. But, I don’t see why someone could not choose differently. Their body, their choice, right?

  42. 42
    chigau (違う)

    Ing #40
    But then we will be free of Sin®.
    halelujah halleluyah yay!

  43. 43
    birgerjohansson

    Robert B.
    “I’m a transhumanist, and would dearly like to keep that house clean of bad science and political dipshittery.”

    Can we come up with a good name for this? Grown-up transhumanism? Transhumanism 2.0? Transhumanism/r (for realism) ?

    — — — — — — — — — — — —
    Making brains robust enough to survive freezing and thawing out may almost certainly require human germline GM, introducing genes that has evolved in species like the Siberian newts.

  44. 44
    WharGarbl

    @leftwingfox
    #40

    I hadn’t heard about the “slicing the brain” bit before. Wow. It’s brilliant!

    I’ll be right back. I’m going to douse my computer in acetone, fill it full of plaster, then slice it into micrometer thin wedges to examine it under an electron microscope. I’ll be able to figure out the source code for windows in no time!

    Um…
    http://www.ial-fa.com/blog/pcb-cross-section-analysis-finding-buried-defects.htm
    We do something like that already. Maybe not the fill it with plaster part. That’s one of the way to “debug” circuit boards.
    You can also do it with CPU chips (or microprocessors). Cut and polish to expose the slice you want, and stick it in an electron microscope.
    The following Youtube video shows a deconstruction of a microprocessor using SEM.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEY7CvajR6Y

    Obviously, you cannot use this to get the software code.
    However, the slicing of brain studies can be useful in figuring out, at least, the hardware part of how brain work (and study mechanical defect that occurs in certain brain diseases). I’m not confident on the “brain-upload” part, but this kind of study could help pave way to better machine-brain interface.
    Possible application could be better prosthetic (prosthetic eyes, limbs, etc).

  45. 45
    Akira MacKenzie

    Transhumanism+, perhaps?

    (Ducks and runs.)

  46. 46
    ragarth

    Add me to the list of people who are sad they can’t hear this talk.

    Hopefully pertinent: I despise Kurzweil with a passion for turning Transhumanism into some kind of newfangled saft-brained religious thing. I’m a transhumanist, and I’m constantly having to specify ‘no, not a Kurzweilian one…’ because everyone assumes transhumanism == brain mush.

  47. 47
    WharGarbl

    Transhumanism is sort of happening already.
    Obviously, we already have technology that correct some of human-body’s failings.
    Glasses/surgery that correct imperfect vision.
    Motorized wheel-chair to correct the problem of “not being able to walk”.
    Pacemaker to correct defective heart.
    Automated insulin pumps to correct bad pancreas.
    Portable dialysis machines to correct bad kidneys.

    In addition, we already have technology that help enhance “human limitations”.
    Cellphones enhances your ability to communicate (you can certainly communicate further than you could by shouting).
    Smartphone + Wifi/Cellular Net enhances your ability to acquire needed informations.
    The much aligned Google Glass would enhance your ability to archive stuff (in short, a sort of secondary memory).

    Of course, some of the more… idealistic idea seems a bit far-fetched (brain upload, immortality, etc). Some rudimentary “learning” AI that helps us process data (for example, the IBM Watson) may be possible in our lifetime.

    Also obviously, all this enhancement raise several fairly visible issues.
    1. Rich/Poor divide.
    2. Privacy/Rights issues.

  48. 48
    ragarth

    @43

    I tend to call myself a classical transhumanist. I believe that the core concepts of non-kurzweillian transhumanism will occur so long as we don’t kill ourselves off, but many of them will not occur within our lifetime. Believing that mind uploading, designer genetics in adults, and effective immortality will come about in our lifetimes is as realistic as believing that we’ll be colonizing another star system within our lifetimes.

    That said, I do believe we’ll be seeing indicators of transhumanism within our lifetime. Specifically in the realm of improving cybernetics, and tighter integration of communication and processing technology into our lives. We may even see the body mod culture push a few cosmetic ideals of transhumanism forward, but nothing ground breaking. These would all be conservative mind you: No cyborg soldiers that can crush cars like tin cans, more like better control mechanisms and more natural capacity in limb replacements, and coverings that look increasingly realistic.

  49. 49
    bodach

    Finally, an answer to the question about the necklace I see all the time: “What’s the ‘t’ stand for?”
    Transhumanism.

  50. 50
    leftwingfox

    Obviously, you cannot use this to get the software code.

    Which is the major point, but we also don’t douse computers in acetone and plaster before slicing them; brains need to be chemically processed before they can be sliced, which is pretty devastating to a biochemical structure of networked receptors.

    It’s useful for understanding the larger structures, but PZ was pointing out that transhumanists believed this was a key development, not a distant first step. It’s a far cry from understanding the “source code” of brain activity, let alone the active running state of a conscious individual.

  51. 51
    nonzero

    Transhumanism isn’t a new idea, it is as old as history. Both religious and secular utopian extrapolations of the future always had the same undercurrent of transcending the human condition. The difference is that modern transhumanists purport to base their ideas upon solid scientific grounds, but the reality is much more messy than they like to admit and the details are far from understood.

    PZ is right in saying that either transhumanism in some form or extinction is inevitable. What I don’t agree with is basing the extrapolation of the future evolution of humanity purely on biological natural selection. Cultural and technological evolution soon will supersede the slower biological changes to our genomes, and that is a very novel and unprecedented event in the history of life on earth.

    What I wish the talk focused more on is the erroneous ideas of Kurzweil that all the dynamics of the brain can be compressed into the information of the genome, which as he put it, is smaller than Microsoft Word in bit length. This is really wrong, and PZ posted a response to this on his blog, just wish he would have talked about it in the presentation.

  52. 52
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Since it’s all in virt, they just get spun up new instances of their current wives. I guess you can have as many as you want, that way.

    Well, as long as you don’t run out of RAM. At worst you can swap some on the HD, but you’ll find those are kinda slow.

    I mean your average magnetic disk with have an unrecoverable read error every 10E14 bits read. Solid state drives increase that to one error per 10E16 bits. That translates to one error per 12.5 TB or 1250 TB worth of data read. If they’re talking about reproducing a mind in software, then they really should know that software is not tolerant of bit errors.

    Meh. Just install the whole thing on a RAID array.

    But seriously, I’d worry about read error after I’d figure out what a mind and a consciousness actually are and whether these can actually be transferred from an analog to a digital system and keep their attributes.

    We may do all this work to find out that we can download and upload huge swathes of memory from brain to non-organic support, but aren’t any closer to replicating consciousness.

  53. 53
    WharGarbl

    @leftwingfox
    #50
    I understand what you’re saying.
    Although one more nitpicking.

    Which is the major point, but we also don’t douse computers in acetone and plaster before slicing them; brains need to be chemically processed before they can be sliced, which is pretty devastating to a biochemical structure of networked receptors.

    They don’t douse computers in acetone and plaster, but they do have to coat the microprocessor in silver atoms for SEM.

  54. 54
    JJ831

    Somewhat OT, @CK @19

    There is research being done on “self healing” software

    RAID RAID RAID RAID. Not too mention that there is self-healing devices out there – FusionIO cards have a self healing ability on their NANDs (or so it is claimed) . VM snapshots, could images, all that jazz.

    We’ve been dealing with bit errors for a long time and we know how to deal with it.

    OK, so you might BSoD every now and then. Maybe you have to be spun up from the most recent image of ‘you’.

  55. 55
    JJ831

    VM snapshots, could images, all that jazz.
    Should read:
    VM snapshots, cloud images, all that jazz.

  56. 56
    Marcus Ranum

    You pointed out that certain bits of it do work — the rabbit experiments and sperm being two.

    No, you missed the part where PZ explained that they don’t actually work. Sperm work as a mass because of their highly redundant and parallel nature – it doesn’t matter if half the frozen sperm are dead; you’ll still get a pregnancy from one of the others, and it’s OK because sperm don’t work as a unit, they work as individual cells.

    Now, take your brain and randomly freeze-explode half the neurons in it. Because your brain works as a unit the results are – not so good.

  57. 57
    screechymonkey

    Bodach@49:

    Finally, an answer to the question about the necklace I see all the time: “What’s the ‘t’ stand for?”
    Transhumanism.

    “I pity the fool who don’t upload his consciousness!” — Mr. T(ranshumanism)

    Sorry, the reference to necklaces made me do it.

  58. 58
  59. 59
    =8)-DX

    Bodach@49:

    Finally, an answer to the question about the necklace I see all the time: “What’s the ‘t’ stand for?”
    Transhumanism.

    A “T” symbol is just a cross with the top knocked off and stands for “Our Ford”. =P

  60. 60
    im

    ” And there is an unfortunate right wing / libertarian streak. ”

    It’s worth noting that many of the libertarians in the transhumanist communities are much better than the normal ones, and tend to be aware of both costs and benefits rather than being self-serving or just blanking out on freedom, and may generally have a much healthier, less ideological, less narrow-minded view of politics in general than either PZ or most libertarians.

    I used to think that singularitarians expected stuff to come WAY too soon. Now I just think moderately too soon. I’d say it’s 50-50 that the world starts changing in the next 200 years that makes the Industrial Revolution look like the change from cassette tapes to CDs.

  61. 61
    davehooke

    @im #60,

    I’d say it’s 50-50 that the world starts changing in the next 200 years that makes the Industrial Revolution look like the change from cassette tapes to CDs.

    Just to be pedantic, that didn’t quite happen. The vinyl record predates the cassette tape for music by over a hundred years.

  62. 62
    John Morales

    [OT]

    davehooke, the wax cylinder predates the vinyl record by many decades, and the significance of CDs over cassette tapes (or vinyl or wax) is that the recording is digital and not analog.

  63. 63
    Ichthyic

    Lincoln, I read your screed.

    all i can do in response is roll my eyes and laugh.

    you buggers are NUTZ.

  64. 64
    davehooke

    John Morales,

    In terms of wide use, yes. Again to be pedantic, the innovation of the CD is not digital recording though. Nor is it digital encoding.

  65. 65
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    Apologies for necrotising the thread to add this very late afterthought; I finally got around to watching this video during the last week (I somewhat loathe listening to stuff on YouTube and avoid it completely if there is a transcript available), and it spurred me to go on a bit of a rant on my own blog (I’ll get the blogwhoring over and done with: my response is entitled, Transhumanist silliness), but I’ve a few comments to make specifically about the talk:

    • The sound isn’t unlistenable, and PZ is quite audible from the recording point at the back of the lecture theatre, provided you listen with headphones. Ambient playback on built-in speakers on computer or mobile devices simply isn’t going to cut it.
    • The talk is wickedly funny at times – the use of Pascal’s wager in the section on cryonics was definitely my favourite gag, though I was laughing so much that I didn’t pay quite enough attention when the display changed (to show the religious and extra-terrestrial versions of the same risk matrix), and almost missed that.
    • Education in the year 2000, as imagined in Paris in the year 1900; well, yes. Predicting the future is a vexed subject!
    • Obviously a better sound recording of this lecture would be preferable at some later point when you have an opportunity to talk on the same subject; but I’d prefer the pacing to be a little bit more even: I felt the criticisms of the later topics – the 2045 Initiative’s Avatar Project, and the Singulitarianist witterings of Ray Kurzweil – suffered from being rushed, when the presentation of say, the cryonics section was relaxed, or slightly sprawled in comparison.
    • Overall, I really liked it! Awesome talk, and a pity the running over time prevented a Q&A from the audience, which could have gone in interesting tangents given the subject matter.

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