Reconstructing a brain


Every once in a while, I get some glib story from believers in the Singularity and transhumanism that all we have to do to upload a brain into a computer is make lots of really thin sections and reconstruct every single cell and every single connection, put that data into a machine with a sufficiently robust simulator that executes all the things that a living brain does, and presto! You’ve got a virtual simulation of the person! I’ve explained before how that overly trivializes and reduces the problem to an absurd degree, but guess what? Real scientists, not the ridiculous acolytes of Ray Kurzweil, have been working at this problem realistically. The results are interesting, but also reveal why this work has a long, long way to go.

In a paper from Jeff Lichtman’s group with many authors, they revealed the results of taking many ultrathin sections of a tiny dot of tissue from mouse cortex, scanned them, and then made 3-D reconstructions. There was a time in my life when I was doing this sort of thing: long hours at the ultramicrotome, using glass knives to slice sequential sections from tissue imbedded in an epoxy block, and then collecting them on delicate copper grids, a few at a time, to put on the electron microscope. One of the very cool things about this paper was reading about all the ways they automated this tedious process. It was impressive that they managed to get a complete record of 1500 µm3 of the brain, with a complete map of all the cells and synapses.

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Reality constrains the possibilities

Gary Marcus, the psychologist who wrote that most excellent book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, has written a nice essay that tears into that most annoying concept that some skeptics and atheists love: that without a proof, we’re incapable of dismissing certain especially vague ideas. It’s a mindset that effectively promotes foundation-free ideas — by providing an escape hatch from criticism, it allows kooks and delusional thinkers, who are not necessarily stupid at all, to shape their claims to specifically avoid that limited version of scientific inquiry.

Marcus goes after two representatives of this fuzzy-thinking concept. Schmidhuber is an acolyte of Kurzweil who argues for a “computational theology” that claims that there is no evidence against his idea, therefore the universe could be a giant software engine written by a great god-programmer. Eagleman is a neuroscientist who has gotten some press for Possibilianism, the idea that because the universe is so vast, we should acknowledge that there could be all kinds of weird possibilities out there — even god-like beings. “Could be” is not a synonym for “is”, however, and science actually demands a little more rigor.

Some people love to claim that an absence of a single definitive test against an idea means that it is perfectly reasonable to continue believing in it. Marcus will have none of that.

In particular, Eagleman, who drapes himself in science by declaring to “have devoted my life to scientific pursuit,” might think of each extant religion as an experiment. Followers of many religions have looked for direct evidence of their beliefs, but (by Eagleman’s own assessment) systematically come up dry. And, crucially, statisticians have shown decisively that a collection of failed efforts weighs more heavily than any single failed effort on its own. The same thing happened, of course, when scientists looked for phlogiston, and cold fusion, too. Nobody has proven cold fusion doesn’t exist, but most scientists would assign a low probability to it because so many attempts at replicating the original have failed. Any agnostic is free to believe that his favorite religion has not yet been completely disproven. But anyone who wishes to bring science into the argument must acknowledge that the evidence thus far is weak, especially when it is combined statistically, in the fashion of a meta-analysis. To emphasize the qualitative conclusion (X has not been absolutely proven to be false) while ignoring the collective weight of the quantitative data (i.e., that most evidence points away from X) is a fallacy, akin to holding out a belief in flying reindeer on the grounds that there could yet be sleighs that we have not yet seen.

That’s why I’m an atheist. Not just because there is no evidence for any god, but because all the available evidence points towards natural processes and undirected causes for the entirety of space and time. I wish people could get that into their heads. When we atheist-scientists go off to meetings and stand up for an hour talking about something or other, we generally aren’t reciting a religious litany and saying there’s no evidence for each assertion; rather, we go talk about cool stuff in science, how the world actually works, what the universe really looks like…and our explanations are sufficient without quoting a single Bible verse.

Will Smith must be stopped

He has a new movie coming out this summer, After Earth. It looks awful, but then, that’s what I’ve come to expect from Will Smith’s Sci-Fi outings.

Jebus. Anyone remember that abomination, I, Robot? How about I Am Legend? I steer clear of these movies with a high concept and a big name star, because usually what you find is that the story is a concoction by committee with an agenda solely to recoup the costs and make lots of money…so we get buzzwords and nods to high-minded causes and the usual action-adventure pap. Just looking at the trailer, I’m getting pissed off: it’s supposed to be a pro-environmentalism movie, and what’s it about? A guy running around in the wilderness fighting off the hostile wildlife.

Anyway, I got one of those generic invitations to help reassure the world that it’s a good science movie. Here’s part of what I was sent:

On May 31st, Columbia Pictures is releasing what is perhaps the biggest movie of the summer, After Earth, starring Will Smith, directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

No. Just no. Shyamalan is a hack. Why do people keep handing him big money and big projects?

There are a lot of science parallels to this film, and I write to see if you or a colleague might be interested in interviewing one of After Earth’s top filmmakers and or a scientist associated herein.

Famous futurist Ray Kurzweil

Jesus fuck. Kurzweil is a consultant? Pill-popping techno-geek with an immortality fetish and no understanding of biology at all is the consultant on a movie with a supposed environmental message? WHY?

explored with Will, his son Jaden Smith, and Elon Musk, how science fact meets science fiction in After Earth, and tghis can be seen here As well, XPRIZE has teamed up with Sony to launch an unprecedented robotics challenge (information attached). What’s more, NASA plans to disseminate a lesson plan to teachers based on the scientific implications of After Earth, as seen here

OK, I checked out the lesson plan. It’s not bad, but it has nothing to do with the movie — it’s all about biodiversity and cycles and climate change and that sort of thing, by a respectable author of biology textbooks. It’s a merkin to cover the toxic crap that will be in the movie.

In After Earth, earth has devolved, in a sense, to a more primordial state, forcing mankind to leave. One thousand years after this exodus, the planet has built up defense mechanisms so as to prevent the return of its previous human inhabitants. It might be said that nature reacted this way because it perceived humans as a threat to its survival.

“Devolved”? “Primordial state”? Look at the trailer. It’s a lush planet thick with plant and animal life, nothing to force people out. Except, of course, the bizarre hint that there are rapid — really rapid — weather changes (I won’t call it “climate”), in which you can be running through a temperate forest and suddenly a tree will freeze. Yeah, right. As for the teleological rationale, just gag it, goofballs.

Given the backing behind it, the extravagantly expensive Will Smith, the fact that he’s using it as a vehicle to give his son star billing, the horrible director, and the hints of bad science in the trailer, I’m going to call this one right now: it’s going to suck. It will be shiny and glossy and have lots of CGI, but it will suck hard.

I saw Iron Man 3 last night, and let me just say…I am so tired of SF movies that resolve all of their conflicts with a big battle with the baddies, preferably featuring huge explosions and impossible physics. This one is going to up the ante with idiot biology added to the profit-making mix.

They asked if I wanted to interview any of the scientists or writers involved. I don’t think so.

Although a conversation with Ray Kurzweil could be…fun.

Skeptech: help me!

Miri is justifiably enthused about Skeptech, which has just announced their schedule. It’s full of cool stuff and lots of interesting people — you should go if you’re anywhere near the Twin Cities. It’s free on 5-7 April — I’ll be there the whole weekend.

But I have a sad admission. I’m on the schedule. Look at my name. Look at my topic. TBD. Oh, sure, I’m in good company: Maggie Koerth-Baker is also TBD. But I have to fix that, and I’m planning to do that this week, since I’m staying home for Spring Break. So help me out, people! What should I talk about?

I’m also working up my Seattle talk, which is slowly congealing. I’m going to talk about scientific and atheistic ethics there, and the message isn’t hopeful: I’m going to discuss our woeful failures, and suggest that morality ain’t gonna be found in a test tube. But there’ll also be some optimism for how broadening our foundations to encompass humanist values can compensate.

Now I could do that talk at Skeptech, too, which would simplify things. But I’ve also been considering some other possibilities. Let me bounce a few ideas around here, you can tell me what sucks and what sounds fun.

  • A realistic look at transhumanism. What biology and the evidence of evolutionary history says about it (with some swipes at that clueless hack, Kurzweil, but also some talk about the neglect of developmental ideas by most transhumanists.)

  • Science and the internet. What scientists really ought to do with blogs, social media, open source publishing — where we’re going wrong, where we’re falling down on the job, where we’re succeeding.

  • The coming apocalypse. It’s not likely to be a sudden catastrophe, and it will make a lousy movie. It will be death by a thousand little cuts…but that means a thousand little band-aids might be the best strategy for staving it off. (A related panel is already on the schedule.)

  • The biology century. The 19th century was all about chemistry; the 20th was physics. The 21st will see a surge of biological innovation. What will the equivalent of the atom bomb be? What will be our flying car?

  • Or something completely different.

As you can tell, I looked at the schedule and noticed a dearth of science talks so far (Jen McCreight is also TBD, maybe she’ll help fill the gap), so I’m leaning sciencey, sort of science-fictioney even. If you’re going, or even if you aren’t, tell me what you think would be interesting and relevant.

What’s the matter with TED?

I enjoy many TED talks. I especially enjoy them because I only watch them when someone else recommends one to me — I’ve got filters in place. The one time I tried to sit down and go through a couple of random TED talks, I was terribly disappointed.

Carl Zimmer explains the problem with TED.

The problem, I think, lies in TED's basic format. In effect, you're meant to feel as if you're receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they're only talking about mushrooms.

So the talks have to feel new, and they have to sound as if they have huge implications. A speaker can achieve these goals in the 18 minutes afforded by TED, but there isn't much time left over to actually make a case–to present a coherent argument, to offer persuasive evidence, to address the questions that any skeptical audience should ask. In the best TED talks, it just so happens that the speaker is the sort of person you can trust to deliver a talk that comports with the actual science. But the system can easily be gamed.

In some cases, people get invited to talk about science thanks to their sudden appearance in the news, accompanied by flashy headlines. Exhibit A, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed in late 2010 to have discovered bacteria that could live on arsenic and promised that the discovery would change textbooks forever. When challenged by scientific critics, she announced to reporters like myself that she would only discuss her work in peer reviewed journals. Three months later, she was talking at TED.

The problem can get even more serious in TED's new franchise, TEDx, which is popping up in cities around the world. Again, some TEDx talks are great. Caltech physicist (and DtU editor) Sean Carroll talking about cosmology? Whatever you've got, I'll take. But some guy ranting about his grand unified theory that he promises will be a source of  unlimited energy to fuel the planet? Well, just see how far you can get through this TEDx talk before you get loaded into an amublance with an aneurysm.

So there’s the problem: audiences pay a shocking amount of money to attend a TED session, and what they expect is an epiphany delivered every 20 minutes. That’s not how science works. You know that every excellent talk at TED is backed by 10 or 20 years of incremental work, distilled down to just the conclusion. Most of the bad talks at TED are people trying to distort the methodical approach of science into a flash of genius, and failing. Some of the bad talks are simply cranks babbling; the example Zimmer gives is a perfect illustration of that. Cranks are really good at making grandiose claims, and in a setting in which no data has to be shown and no questions can be asked, pseudoscience shines (and by the way, what is it with kooks and swirling donuts?)

Another odd connection: I wonder if this tendency to inflate the baby steps of science into grand world-changing leaps contributes to or is fueled by Kurzweilian transhumanism and an exaggerated sense of progress in science?

I get email – Singularity edition

The major cataclysm that struck my inbox was, of course, that silly incident with a cracker. I still get hate mail from Catholics, and intermittently still receive politely horrified regular mail from little old Catholic ladies who want to pray for me.

But the second biggest outrage I ever perpetrated may not have caught the attention of most readers: I criticized Ray Kurzweil! I still get angry email from people who stumble across this post I originally wrote in 2005, and are really pissed off that I think Saint Kurzweil is a charlatan.

“Singularly silly singularity” – You have much in common with the creationist you so despise.

For a PhD and self-proclaimed intellectual you show an utterly remarkable incapability to understand what the Singularity even is, though this does not stop you from attacking it in the cocksure fashion of the creationist attacking evolution as what he believes is the direct conversion of ape into man.

The Singularity, though inextricably related to the increasing rate of technological advancement, IS NOT a statement that this acceleration alone will lead to the sorts of things Kurzweil proposes. The Singularity is describing what occurs after the creation of a smarter-than-human artificial intelligence. By it’s very nature the workings of this AI’s ‘mind’ will be unintelligible to us. This incapability of understanding, which will compound upon itself as the AI makes advances and improvements of it’s own, acts as an ‘event horizon,’ (I should take this moment to point out that you would do well to learn what a gravitational singularity is, as it may help you understand why you are so off the mark in your incorrect understanding of the Singularity) obscuring the ability to make predictions about what course the future will take.

I’ll even grant you the underlying argument of your article opposing Kurzweil’s “Countdown to Singularity” graph (even though you clearly do not understand log vs. log graphs, which cannot be extended into the future). Stating that there is no trend of the acceleration of the rate of technological advancement DOES NOTHING to disprove the existence of the Singularity as the Singularity is a statement about what happens AFTER the creation of faster-than-human AI and not about what happens before it.

You should perhaps try thinking rather than just knowing.


You know, I appreciate the fact that there is an increasing pattern of technological change — I’ve lived through the last 50 years, where we’ve gone from computers being vast arcane artifacts that cost millions of dollars to plod through mundane calculations, to being stupid little machines that let us play pong on our televisions, to becoming the routine miracle that we now use to process all our media and communicate with our friends. I get that. I do expect to be dazzled over the next few decades (if I live that long) as new technologies emerge.

But predictions of incremental advances on the basis of past experience are routine; predictions of a single, species-defining moment of radical transformation for which there are no predecessors is a data-free assumption. It can’t be justified.

Despite my correspondent’s claim that the source for the claim of a singularity is not accelerating technological advancement, that’s all Kurzweil talks about: the entire first third of The Singularity is Near (yes, I have a copy…it’s even a signed copy that he sent to me!) is a repetitive drumbeat of graphs, graphs, graphs, all showing an inexorable trend: per capita GDP, education expenditures, nanotechnology patents, price-performance for wireless data devices, on and on. That really is the foundation of his whole argument: technology advancement is accelerating, therefore we’re going to get immortality before we die. All you have to do is hang on until 2029.

What really bugs me about Kurzweil is that he blatantly fudges his data. I picked on this chart before: the data is nonsense, comparing all kinds of events that don’t really compare at all — speciation is equivalent to Jobs and Wozniak building a computer in a garage? Really? — and arbitrarily lumps together some events and omits others to create points that fit on his curve. Why does the Industrial Revolution get a single point, condensing all the technological events (steam engines, jacquard looms, iron and steel processing, architecture, coal mining machinery, canal building, railroads) into one lump, while the Information Revolution gets a finer-grained dissection into its component bits? Because that makes them fit into his pattern.

He also shows this linear plot of the same data, which I think makes the problem clear.

It’s familiarity and recency. If a man in 1900 of Kurzweil’s bent had sat down and made a plot of technological innovation, he’d have said the same thing: why, look at all the amazing things I can think of that have occurred in my lifetime, the telegraph and telephone, machine guns and ironclad battleships, automobiles and typewriters, organic chemistry and evolution. Compared to those stodgy old fellows in the 18th century, we’re just whizzing along! And then he would have drawn a little chart, and the line would have gone plummeting downward at an awesome rate as it approached his time, and he would have said, “By Jove! The King of England will rule the whole planet by 1930, and we’ll be mining coal on Mars to power our flying velocipedes!”

I would also suggest to my correspondent that if he thinks extrapolating from graphs is not appropriate, he look a little more closely at Kurzweil’s writings and wonder why he’s extrapolating from graphs so much. I didn’t create those charts I mock; Kurzweil did.

Why I am an atheist – Gribble the Munchkin

I am an atheist.

I guess i became an atheist when i was still in primary school (for the non-Brits out there, thats ages 5 to 11). I used to be christian. My parents had helped re-open a run down Church of England church and my family and a few others became the first parishioners there. I carried a big candle during mass, wore a robe and had a wooden crucifix on a leather cord and generally helped out with the little chores during the service along with a bunch of other kids. Its safe to say that i had absolutely no understanding of the religion of which i actively partook. To me Jesus was a lovely man with a beard who nice dead people went to live with. God was a kindly father figure. All of the atheist arguements and objections to faith with which I am now very familiar were utterly unknown to me. I was perhaps aware of a place called hell but that was reserved for murderers and Hitler.

I can no longer remember my exact age or my exact reasons but one day i decided that i should read the bible. That pretty much did in any faith I once held. I had foolishly neglected to get a recommended list of chapters from my priest and had started at the start. The first thing that struck my mind was that the bible was clearly wrong. Even back then i knew the universe was some 14 billion years old and the earth some 4.5 billion. My paltry science education was wildly at odds with God doing the whole thing in seven days and breathing life into clay men. But what really got me was how poorly written it was. Have you ever tried to read the bible sequentially, start to finish? Its incredibly dull.

I’m blessed (lol) in that i have fantastic parents who encouraged me from a very young age to read. I devoured books with a pace that put my classmates to shame and although i was hardly a critic, i could very rapidly spot that this book was crap. During primary school I read the Hobbit many times and even the Lord of the Rings and those I found to be good books. The bible could not hold a candle to them. It was clearly the same genre, there were wizards and monsters, magic and battles, heroes and villains (more on them in a second), all it really lacked was a likeable character to emphasise with, through whom we could enjoy the story (C3PO or a hobbit for instance). It clearly wasn’t real. More than that, it struck me that some of the passages i was reading really made God out to be somewhat of an arsehole.

Example: In church and from snippets of conversation here and there I was aware that Moses led the Jews out of Egypt and that Pharaoh did not agree with this and chased the fleeing Jews. God foiled nasty ol’ Pharaoh by allowing the jews to escape though the red sea, parting it before them and crushing the pursuing Egyptians. That was exodus as far as i was concerned. What the bible actually says is that when Moses asks Pharaoh to let his people go, Pharaoh actually agrees! But then God changes his mind. Why? Why would a sane person do that? Wasn’t that exactly what God had asked Moses to do? Why change Pharaohs mind when you just got what you wanted? It just got worse from there. God acts like a spoilt bully, demanding obedience and frequently making the lives of his followers miserable with arbitrary rules or freak punishments. I realised that not only did i no longer like god, i also recognised him as a poorly written villain.

I’ve always been a nerd and into my fantasy and sci-fi. I know how heroes and villains act in literature. Heroes protect the weak, fight evil, sacrifice themselves to protect others and try to make the world a better place. Villains demand loyalty, punish failure harshly and brutalise their foes. After reading the bible, it was clear to me. God was nothing but a fantasy setting villain. Even Jesus doesn’t cut the hero grade (although he might make a suitable naive sidekick for a real hero). Dying on the cross seems like little sacrifice when you are the son of god and know that you’ll be ending up in paradise as a god just as soon as you shed your mortal flesh. Hell, i’d be willing to suffer six hours of crucifixion for super powers, let alone full godhood. Only 6 hours too. Crucifixion was supposed to be a long drawn out death from thirst, heat or starvation, sometimes lasting days. He got off a bit light.
No, it was clear to me. Gandalf and Aragorn were far superior heroes to God and Christ. And all of them were fiction.

After losing my faith i pretty much ignored religion until university. It’s easy to do here in the UK. At university i began to look around for a religion, i wasn’t really looking for big answers. Science had pretty much beaten religion to them for me. I just wanted to see if any of the faiths out there actually made sense to me. I looked at Christianity again very briefly, then paganism, Satanism (of the Anton Le Vay type), various occult groups (OTO, etc) and Buddhism. All of it transparent claptrap. One day i found transhumanism and realised that this was it. This was what i already believed, this made sense to me. This is what i was.
The great thing about Transhumanism is that its not a faith. Its a philosophy. Basically it couples humanism with an urge to improve the human condition. Because it isn’t a faith it has all kinds of viewpoints within it. You have your Kurzweilian singularitarians sure, but even in that group, you have a huge range of opinion on when, to what degree, how, where, etc. Its a conversation, rather than a commandment.

I’ve since found skepticism and joined the Greater Manchester Skeptics. Skeptism i see as a filter to my transhumanism. One keeps me inspired, the other keeps me grounded in reality. My atheism now is very much a side effect of the skepticism and Transhumanism. My skeptic side tells me there is no good evidence for a god, that there are thousands of gods from all kinds of cultures and that the big faiths got big from very real world reasons (Roman empire adopting christianity, incredibly muslim military successes, etc). My transhumanism tells me that gods are old news. An antiquated way of looking at the world and something that holds mankind back from being better than it is and should hence be removed.

Atheism is not enough. It is a necessary state, but not the end of the journey by any means.

Gribble the Munchkin
United Kingdom

Imaginary lesbians and the sexual singularity

Manboobz blows my mind again. He’s got quotes from MRAs denying the existence of lesbians. Apparently, in their privileged little brains, women can’t possibly be interested in sex, because if they were, they’d be having sex with them. They aren’t, QED.

I was enchanted by one fellow’s vision of a future paradise, though. He’s anxiously awaiting the technology that will allow him to put on some goggles, strap a widget onto his genitals, and let Ray Kurzweil diddle him.

It will be very interesting to see how much sex men have vs. how much sex women have with their virtual reality computer generated men and women in the year 2020. I bet most men get laid everyday while women try it a few times and not bother with sex anymore when she realizes there’s no money in it. Women will use VR men for his virtual money while men will be with virtual women for virtual sex.

I like that future. I see an end to the MRAs and PUAs, when they’ll all mind-meld with their Macs and immerse themselves in World of Whorecraft, where their fantasies of servile mindless females with large breasts can come true. The rest of us will have normal human lives with each other.

It’s the world most of us are already living in, of course.

On Source Code and the ethics of the modern technological era

[I am totally confused. I have not seen the movie Source Code, although it will be playing in Morris next week, yet I have now seen an explanation of the time-travel paradox in the movie by the physicist James Kakalios, and now here is an explanation by an English professor. You guys sort it out. I’m not going to try to read either of them carefully, until I see the movie. Which is already giving me a headache.–pzm]

“On Source Code and the ethics of the modern technological era”

By Brendan Riley

Spoiler Alert: this essay assumes you’ve seen Source Code or don’t mind having the plot revealed.

“Make Every Second Count.” “What Would You Do If You Knew You Only Had A Minute To Live?” These purport to be the dramatic underpinning of the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller, Source Code. But underneath the big-studio whiz-bang lies a story teasing out several ethical questions that haunt the technology we’re just now inventing. The film follows Colter Stevens, an Army pilot who finds himself on a doomed train in someone else’s body with only eight minutes to find and stop the mad bomber. After only a brief respite to speak with his superiors, he goes back and tries again, and again, and again. It’s 12 Monkeys and Quantum Leap meet Groundhog Day, without the piano lessons. Source Code uses a relatively familiar gimmick to tell an exciting story, but under the explosions and Gyllenhaalian studliness, it also prods us to think a bit more about how we should grapple with the new possibilities of the modern era.

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Problem diagnosed

We’ve finally received some information from the overlords about the recent problems. We’re being attacked.

We have been forwarding reports from bloggers and users to our hosting service, Rackspace, over the past few days. After monitoring our traffic and these reports, Rackspace has determined that ScienceBlogs is experiencing a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack and has blocked a range of IP addresses involved. While this means that ScienceBlogs is now loading correctly for most users, the attack is still ongoing and other users may still encounter sporadic loading problems, or be blocked entirely if they were incorrectly included in these preventative measures.

We’re still working with Rackspace to determine how and why this has occurred, and to get the site 100% accessible again, but in the meantime, we’d like to collect IP addresses from users who are still experiencing problems. Please ask anyone who has brought this problem to your attention to send their IP address to If they have trouble locating their IP address, you can send them to this site:

Who did I annoy now? Crazy astrobiologists? Fans of Ray Kurzweil? David Brooks? Every Christian, Jew, and Muslim on the planet?