Life is Good; Awareness is Better

(This article was originally written in 2005.  I’m reposting it as part of decommissioning my old website – although I don’t think it’s particularly well written, I find it still aligns with my current thinking surprisingly well.)

Executive summary: Wow, minds are really freaking nifty things. Let’s do everything we can to continue them forever.

Written April 17, 2005. Thanks to Frink for suggestions and corrections.

The universe is big and expensive, and right now it doesn’t seem to be doing anything terribly useful. Indications are that the universe has a finite useful lifetime, and a good portion of that lifetime has already passed. Also, most of the visible universe appears to be really dumb, in that it’s not doing anything intelligent. I propose we do something about both situations..

Let’s back up a bit and look at how (we think) we got to where we are now.

The Past

At some point the universe started existing. We’re not sure exactly how, but it did. Unless I’m imagining it, which would raise all sorts of hairy questions. Let’s assume for the same of discussion that I’m not imagining it.

Theory projects that at first the universe was fairly uniform and didn’t have much structure, let alone useful things like particles out of which to build matter. After expanding and cooling for a while, matter started to condense and form structures. Because of the physical behaviors peculiar to this universe, it formed atoms with many distinct structures and interesting properties, like the ability to combine with other atoms to create larger structures, and the ability to change configurations under the influence of energy. Oh, and that little bit about warping space in large quantities, too – that weak but useful effect we call gravity.

Mainly thanks to gravity and the strong force, all that matter settled down into the familiar forms we know today: galaxies, stars, planets, asteroids, comets and so on. Our best guess is that it has now been 13 billion years or so since the universe first blinked on.

But all that matter out there that we can see is dumb. Even the kind that burns in stars and spews energy out all over the place. It all just sits there flying around in boring, repetitive paths dictated by gravity and occasionally bumping into other matter. Let’s call all this dumb stuff passive matter. Passive because it takes no initiative; it just reacts to its situation in ways that can be easily predicted with the methods we call the laws of physics.

A little while back – just a few billion years by current reckoning – something interesting started happening on this here mud-ball we call Earth. A bunch of complex molecules were sitting around in the plentiful water, and started getting all excited by the energy coming from the local star. These chemicals got busy with each other in all sorts of different combinations, and after trying an astronomical number of different configurations they hit on something truly remarkable: self-replicating molecule-machines. Well, self-replicating machines will tend to replicate themselves and spread, and before you knew it they were all over the place.

Out of all this random, unguided chemical experimentation came the first cells. These amazing little structures are a nanotechnologist’s wet dream. They’re programmable molecule factories that are programmed by molecules, and can be set up to generate copies of themselves as well as to perform actions that are useful on a scale larger than that of the cell itself. Like change shape or transmit electrical or chemical signals to other cells. Nanotechnologists love cells because their existence proves that nanotechnology can be an extremely fruitful pursuit. After all, it’s thanks to these naturally evolved molecule factories that life is so common on Earth today – quite an accomplishment for something that arose naturally. The remarkable thing about cells is that they can exist at all – evidently this universe is well-suited to complex small-scale interactions, which is great for us because without that we couldn’t think.

Anyway, once cells became popular things started moving pretty quickly. Cells started to clump together and exploit their ability to take on different properties by differentiating to form co-dependent communities where individuals were poorly suited to survival on their own but had abilities that helped the whole group survive. That idea took off too, and led to the enormously complex collections of cells we call plants and animals. Again, it’s marvellous that the universe allows this sort of self-organisation, even if it’s entirely driven by chance and the ability to survive.

Somewhere along the way some cells became specialized for mobility and some for sensing, and others connected the two so that what the sensors detected could affect what the motors did. That caused yet another sensation, and before you know it critters were evolving eyes, ears, complex nerve bundles and all sorts of muscle-powered contraptions for chasing, evading and eating each other. All in the name of better enabling their cells to replicate and spread, of course.

These nerve complexes – what eventually became brains – are of great importance. Here’s a particular physical configuration of matter – the neuron – that can make very simple decisions. Here is the first appearance of what I’ll call active matter. Neurons enable matter to take actions not dictated by brute force physics and chemistry. Although neurons (and their much simpler cousins, transistors) operate entirely within the constraints of physics and thus can be said to be purely reactive, they add something that isn’t part of what we consider normal physics: the ability to compute. They can perform integrations over time and cooperate with other computing elements in complex networks to produce reactions that are extremely difficult to predict. It’s always true that if we knew the exact state of every neuron in a brain at a given instant in time, we could calculate what the next decision would be. However, we’re still so far from being able to do that that we still see the process as voodoo, and even if we do eventually understand it that won’t change the fact that it happens and is useful.

Somewhere along the way the brains developed even more useful abilities like short-term and long-term memory recording, reason and communication with other brains. Remember that all this was driven by the sieve of evolution, which is a blind process without any end purpose or goal. If it weren’t the case that brains were useful for survival in the environment they arose in, they wouldn’t have got very far. Similarly, enhanced brain powers like reason exist because they enabled creatures that had them to survive and reproduce more effectively. It’s important to remember that nature doesn’t give a fig about big brains; the only reason we have them now is because they have enabled us to survive up to this point in time.

The Present

At some point, brains seem to have gone beyond the needs of survival though. The lineage that eventually became confused little Homo Sapiens, despite its relative physical uselessness, survived by developing more and more brainpower. It got to the point where those brains were able to reason recursively – ie to think about thinking, and to realize that they existed. It went even further than that – these brains, hosts to the new phenomenon of mind were able to imagine things – to internally create symbolic realities for the purpose of testing ideas – something that would have been very useful for hunting and defense, and eventually became a form of entertainment as well.

Brains that host minds are the next step beyond merely active matter. They’re proactive matter. Matter that can make plans for the future that have nothing to do with the immediate needs of survival.

This is where it gets really interesting for me. The thing we call mind is still beyond our understanding, but a few things are clear: it arises out of sufficiently complex and correctly configured arrangements of active matter, and it’s a very special phenomenon because it creates what is effectively spontaneous action of matter. Matter that contains mind is proactive in that it can direct its own action and although constrained by the laws of physics does not always have to take the simplest route offered by physics.

Let’s pause for a moment to look at a few details I skipped over in that last paragraph.

That phrase “correctly configured” is interesting. Not all arrangements of matter that can switch signals result in mind. It’s difficult to recognize when an object contains a mind or doesn’t, but we generally agree that more complex behavior indicates a greater likelihood of a mind being present. We consider ourselves (well, most of our species anyway) to all have minds. It’s not unreasonable to consider certain other animals, such as simians, cetaceans, elephants, dogs etc to have minds of a sort, since they do display some ability to learn and reason. Whether or not they contain that essential spark of self-awareness is open to debate and will be so for a long time yet.

Computers demonstrate very complex behavior, but we don’t consider them to have minds. Why not? Because we know exactly how they work and we can predict their actions with perfect accuracy. We consider the actions of computers to be driven by the simplest brute-force laws of physics, even though they do use active matter in the form of transistors. The catch here is that, in part because we don’t have an adequate understanding of how our own minds work, we haven’t figured out how to give computers the critical structures necessary to generate minds.

Our own critical structures arose out of chance. By fortuitous accident, individuals with brains capable of handling greater abstractions appeared and were better able to survive and reproduce than their dullard cousins. Two of our most important abilities – the ability to learn and the ability to remember – work by physically rewiring our brains in response to complex stimuli. That doesn’t happen automatically when you make a big brain. You can’t just create a random arrangement of neurons and expect it to spontaneously perform useful functions. Those abilities appeared piece by piece by chance, and by an even more fortuitous chance the neurological structures that make learning possible became encoded into the complex molecular programs that cause those little molecule factories we call cells to generate babies. Once babies with the ability to learn and reason from memory started to be born, their offspring inherited that ability and there was no more getting rid of it.

It follows that we if we try hard enough we will eventually discover (though perhaps by accident) a way to make either computer hardware or software self-programming in an analogous way. Some minimum initial configuration will be needed to generate an electronic mind, but once the process is started it will become as difficult for us to predict its actions as it is for us to predict the actions of other humans.

It’s also reasonable to assume that it will eventually be possible to copy a mind from a meat-based brain to a semiconductor-based one. If it is possible to perfectly reproduce the behavior of meat brains at the cellular level, which I believe is an entirely reasonable assumption, then it is definitely possible to reproduce a meat-based mind inside a digital simulation.

And yes, the statement that minds are unpredictable can be countered by arguing that if you know the entire state of a mind, you can predict its actions by cranking through the physics. Similarly if you know the entire state of a digital mind you can predict its next action by cranking through the logical equations. Even if we do become able to make such accurate predictions of behavior, the fact remains that the behavior of minds is very complex and definitely in a different class from passive matter and from simpler forms of active matter. Proactive matter (matter that contains minds) takes action that depends not just on the immediate physical circumstances, but on everything that has happened since that piece of matter first gained a mind.

Now, back to our story.

I’ve established that it is my belief that mind arose from the series of fortuitous events we call evolution, and although the rules of this universe permit mind to exist, mind is not a necessary consequence of this universe. It is also my belief that matter containing mind (proactive matter) is qualitatively different from mindless matter. Of course, that difference is only valuable to mind itself, since the universe doesn’t care, and so it falls to us minds to care about it and preserve it.

As yet we have no idea how common mind is in the universe, and therefore it behooves us to work hard to preserve and enhance what mind we have. It is our most valuable attribute.

We are only just beginning to devote a significant amount of thought to considering mind itself rather than the simpler problems of existing. We are still subject to the whims of evolution and could conceivable erase our own capacity for advanced reason through misguided reproduction. However, mind and understanding give us the ability to seize control of our own evolution. Our minds have enabled us to subdue the environment to the point where it poses little threat to our survival, and that removes the evolutionary incentive to become smarter. As far as survival goes, we only need to remain smart enough to maintain our security.

I say that’s not enough. Our recent curiosity-directed exploration of the universe beyond what affects our daily lives has revealed that our survival is governed at a coarse scale by things that we cannot control as long as we remain on this planet. We are in constant danger of being crippled or wiped out by a collision with a stray chunk of passive matter. It’s a small risk, to be sure, but it’s a risk that is always there and that means it’s likely to get us one day. Furthermore, we know that the star we depend on for energy won’t last forever; it’s already in its middle age. We’ve recently become aware that there are deadly wavefronts of energy out there that can kill us all from many light years away, and unlike asteroids not only can we not see them coming, we can’t do much to stop them anyway. And we are aware that there many things and many potential dangers that we don’t yet perceive or understand.

To me all of this mandates not only increasing our powers of mind but spreading mind as far and wide as possible to ensure its survival. We need to take an active role in developing and spreading mind, and that means pushing hard on understanding ourselves, trying to enhance ourselves and to create new forms of mind. Preferably ones that don’t depend on meat so heavily, so that they’re easier to disperse through space and protect against the rigors of the universe.

Barring our premature extinction, I am certain that one day most of the minds in this corner of the universe will be things descended from human, but which our present selves would barely recognize as being human. Many people seem to object to such thoughts. Does it really matter? Would our protohuman ancestors consider us the same as them? Probably not. To me, all this lip-flapping about how important it is to be human is pointless; isn’t it enough to be a mind? Being a sentient, intelligent, self-aware self is far more important than being the particular ill-defined flavor of mind we call human. The difference between mind and mindless is far, far more important than the difference between human mind and nonhuman mind. Ensuring the survival of mind takes precedence over ensuring the primacy of the quirky thing we call the human mind, though it would certainly be nice to at least remember what it means to be human.

By the way, what does it mean to be human? I often see people spouting off about how important it is to be human, but they never give any specific reasons why it’s better than the (as yet unknown) alternatives. You can’t very well say it’s better to be a human mind than a nonhuman mind until you have a selection of nonhuman minds and a way to make meaningful comparisons between them. And how can you compare minds without being able to experience alternate states of mind?

The Future

Now, there is a lot we don’t know about the universe yet. We don’t know how galaxies get their striking spiral structures, which by what we do know should get smeared out due to different rotational speeds at different radii from the center. We’re certain the universe is still expanding, but we don’t know for sure whether it will continue expanding forever or eventually reverse and collapse.

Either outcome spells death for us as we are now. If the universe expands forever without somehow rejuvenating itself (which pretty much requires importing energy from other universes), it will eventually become a uniform void with no matter and a constant, very cold, temperature. It’s impossible for mind in any form we can conceive of to exist without either matter or energy differentials, preferably both. And if the universe eventually contracts, we’ll be crushed.

Therefore, the long-term goal of mind must be to find a way to either preserve the universe in a useful form forever, or to escape into another universe – possibly one created by mind for that purpose.

An interesting offshoot of that thought is that mind may become the means by which universes communicate with each other, or even reproduce. Universes themselves might evolve through the action of mind.


It’s pretty much all covered above. We have to find a way to preserve mind past the natural end of the universe. That end requires thorough understanding of both the universe and of all the forms of mind. Those goals in turn require more and better minds, and protection from extinction by the often forceful interactions of passive matter.

I suggest we start with these simultaneous avenues of attack:

  1. Improve our understanding of our bodies and minds so that we can enhance both.
  2. Work to try and create artificial minds and/or translate human minds to operate in sturdier, more efficient non-meat brains.
  3. Work to improve all technologies that enable exploration and travel through space.

Fortunately we’ve already started on all three, but there are problems. For bizarre reasons that I think must be rooted in unthinking superstition carried over from our animal ancestry, many people oppose medical research and development vital to the first goal. Achieving better understanding of mind is vital to the second goal, and so far we haven’t had much luck although we’ve only just started. Finally, we were doing well at the third goal for a while, but after going to the moon it all fell apart and got mired in the irrelevant muck of politics and economics. Development of space has to be opened up to everyone – governmental regulation will only smother it.

And what am I doing to promote mind? Well, writing this for starters. As for more affirmative action, give me time. I’m just getting started in this life, and hopefully those medical advances will enable me to live long enough to accomplish something worthwhile. Our mayfly lifespans have been a major hindrance to long-term development until recently.

Accomplishments for 2012

I don’t make New Year resolutions – why set myself up for failure?  Instead I think it’s more positive to review what I’ve accomplished in the previous year, and it serves as encouragement to do more in the coming year without having to specify what in advance.

1) The most personally important thing I did in 2012 was to get my wisdom teeth removed – all four of them.  They were impossible to clean and had been poisoning me and thwarting progress towards fixing my dental situation.  This was a big step for me, because when I was a teenager a dentist told me my lower wisdom teeth were impacted and I would have to go for jaw surgery to get them removed.  He described it as having my jaw broken on both sides and then having my mouth wired shut for a couple of months while it healed.  For some reason that put me off dentists for a while.  More than ten years, in fact.  Finally I couldn’t ignore the problem any longer so I went for more opinions.  It turned out they were no longer impacted as badly and could be pulled without surgery.  I had it done under IV sedation (because I’m a severe gagger) in March.  It was miraculous – my only experience of the operation was a strange dream, and there was no swelling or any other complication afterwards.  I’m so glad that part is over with.

2) I took my first overseas trip this year, visiting Hawaii for a week, getting a grand tour of the Big Island from my friend Phloem, and watching the rare transit of Venus from up on Mauna Kea.  On the way back I visited San Francisco, also for the first time.  My trip included several other firsts: Swimming in the ocean, snorkelling, visiting a volcano, banyan trees, malasadas and burritos.

3) I took an online design course to gain some breadth, and designed a built a piece of furniture for myself.  While it may not seem remarkable in itself, it was an accomplishment for me because I’ve never done anything significant with wood and woodworking tools before, and it turned out better than I had hoped.  I’m proud of both the design and the construction of this artifact.

4) Finally, I continued to make incremental progress in my ongoing life cleanup process.  I digitized some more of my film (now up to 60/250 rolls done), eliminated a dozen boxes of old computer hardware and other junk from storage, grabbed a bunch of my vanity domain names (except my dot-name, which is blocked by an illegal registration) and started putting together a new personal website.

I’m happy to have accomplished stuff this year, and look forward to doing more in future.


What I’ve been reading

The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil – Wherein the author argues from 60 years of historical data about increases in computing power that commodity computers will exceed not only the processing power of the human brain but that of all living humans by the end of the 21st century.

Coupled with advances in sensing technologies such as MRI, we should soon be able to (either destructively or not) transfer human minds into computer simulations of working brains. Eventually the majority of human civilization will be in digital form and a staggering array of new kinds of interaction will become possible.

Naturally I hope he’s right, but I think his predictions are a little too optimistic in terms of timing.


S. Andrew Swann: The Hostile Takeover trilogy (Profiteer, Partisan and Revolutionary) – Pretty good as political science fiction goes. An eclectic cast of non-stereotypical characters, set in an interesting universe that makes me want to check out some of his other books in the same setting. There are a couple of places between the halfway point and the end where things get a little too deus ex for my taste, but thankfully all that gets out of the way in time for the more conventional resolution.


The Grand Design by Leonard Mlodinow (with Stephen Hawking’s name on the cover to boost sales).  Basically it’s a science popularization book specifically about quantum theory, what it does and doesn’t do, and what we’ve learned from it.  Short and easy to understand.


The Complete Maus – My long relationship with this book has finally come to a close.  I first noticed the series in the the college library when I was in my mid-teens.  Leafing through it, I could tell that it contained good storytelling and told an important tale, but at the time I had little interest in history, so I shelved it with a note to read it through later.  More than 20 years later, that “later” has finally arrived thanks to someone at work selling the compilation at a good price.  Well, having read it, I have to say it was rewarding.  It’s riveting in the way all tales told by survivors of major events are riveting.  Not much more to say than that; go read it.


Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham – How rare, a pro-immortalism story with a happy ending.  It’s a short and easy read, and well done.  It mostly concerns means of manipulating the masses into accepting longevity advances, something individuals are strangely resistant to and institutions actively resistant to.  Recommended.


Fleet of Worlds by Edward M. Lerner and Larry Niven – a very enjoyable Known Space story that reads like a classic Niven.  There are a couple of flaws with the setup and teardown; the ending, first off, seems to conflict timing-wise with established canon about the fleet in other Known Space stories.  Secondly, I have trouble reconciling the setting for the story (a human colony on the fleet) with known behavior of the Puppeteers – it’d be a real stretch for them to do what the backstory claims they did.


Year Million edited by Damien Broderick.  It’s a collection of essays by a variety of authors, most of them scientists, ostensibly about what they think our destiny over the next million years is likely to be like.  Many of them go straight for the big picture though and talk about all of the future.

My favorite part is this quote by Steven B. Harris, who articulates something I sort of unconsciously knew all along but am excited to see revealed clearly: “Homo Sapiens Sapiens is now largely a software species, perhaps the first, governed mainly by epigenic factors (outside the genome), some of which are extrasomatic (outside the body).  Much of what makes us special as a species is stored not in genes or brains, but in libraries, laws, traditions, and songs.”

This is so true.  Obviously our genes are somewhat important because they give us the hardware capable of running the minds we’re so proud of, but the hardware by itself is useless; a child by itself does not grow into a human being, nor can it be made into one after it has grown on its own past a certain point (as I believe is demonstrated by studies of feral children).  Everything we consider important about ourselves as individuals and as a species is programmed into us after we’re born by those who teach us.  And the continual improvement of that programming is what has enabled us to improve our lot at an exponential rate.

The rest of the book I found rather depressing though, for two reasons.

First, many of the authors keep coming back to Matrioshka Brains, and collectively they make the case that building such devices is the logical way to squeeze the most living out of the universe in its present form (ie while there are still stars), and that the drive to maximize life will ultimately compel all sentients to build such things.  I can’t disagree, but I don’t like it either – it’ll make the universe a boring place.  Suppose we were to build an M-Brain for ourselves.  We could have trillions and trillions of humans living it in happily for billions of years or more, but to build it we’d have to disassemble the rest of the solar system – there’d be no other places to live or to explore.  We would basically turn inward, living in simulated universes of our own devising instead.  That’s not for me – I want to explore the real universe.  So we’d probably end up with an expanding shell of people like me, moving outward to explore real places while they still exist, and behind us the stars would be going dark as more and more of them are wrapped in minds or their energy redirected to power minds elsewhere.

But then again, stars (and matter itself) won’t last for ever, which brings me to the second depressing part.  Recent discoveries suggest that not only is the universe expanding, not only is it not likely to contract again, but the rate of expansion is actually accelerating.  These measurements still need to be confirmed, and the baffling question of how this can be happening could use a good answer, but for now let’s assume it’s true.

One consequence of this is that the observable universe will shrink over time – the furthest galaxies will fade away as they accelerate to the point where even the light they shine directly at us isn’t fast enough to outrace the expansion of the space in between.  Superclusters of galaxies may stick together, but the gulfs between them will get larger, and that means the limit of the amount of interesting places we can explore gets smaller with time, even though the universe itself is getting larger.

Another is that the majority of time in this universe – basically all of it – will be spent in an uninsteresting state where there is no matter and almost no energy, and less energy all the time.  We’re living on the slope of an exponential downward curve in the abundance of energy gradients (which are necessary for any kind of thought).  Eventually the stars will go out and stop being born.  Then the black holes will evaporate.  Then, assuming we’re correct in our belief that protons can decay, all matter will evaporate into subatomic particles and the universe will contain only energy, radiating out in all directions and thus becoming more diffuse.  The temperature of the universe will become more and more uniform and will continue to drop towards absolute zero – but will never actually get there.  It’s impossible.  So there will always be some energy gradient around – always less and less, but some.  And this process will continue for ever.

Imagine then that we can devise some way to survive the death of matter – say we can create a cloud of particles that can compute thought and do so using any available energy gradient (though of course it’ll have to compute more slowly as less energy becomes available).  Now we could live forever, but it would be, to me, a very claustrophobic existence because there would be nothing to do but live in simulations – navel-gazing in our memories, or trying out randomized simulations for all eternity.  (Perhaps we’re actually living in one of these right now and have deliberately forgotten, to make it interesting).  Because this environment would have to compute more slowly as the available energy dissipated, the ratio of real time to simulation time would increase.  At first perhaps we might think faster than real time, but after a time it would get to the point where the components of our immaterial computer might only exchange a photon of information every trillion years, because there isn’t that much to go around.  A hypothetical person inside the simulation watching a clock count off the real-time years would see the number rising faster and faster all the time, then the number of digits in the year would start rising faster and faster, and so on.  But other than that one indication, the rest of us would never know.

I find this depressing and really hope we can engineer a better solution for our long-term destiny, though in a way this is still better than a Big Crunch because it means an infinite existence of a sort is possible.

But, all of this is still a ways off.  We’ve got half a billion years or more to enjoy Earth, then perhaps five billion years with the solar system in its current form, and hundreds of billions until the stars in general start to fade.  I hope that’s enough time to come up with some answers to these pressing problems.


TED round 3

More interesting talks:


Kwabena Boahen on a computer that works like the brain – Detailed comparison between transistors and neural ion channels, with application to brain enhancement.

Julian Treasure: The 4 ways sound affects us – Hell yes. More awareness like this please!


Mike Rowe celebrates dirty jobs – Basically a rant about American laziness, but the story is interesting.  There is some truth to his conclusion but I think he’s over-romanticizing.

Ian Dunbar on dog-friendly dog training – Magical truth-saying! I’m glad to see some progress in the science of dog training.

Deb Roy: The birth of a word – Some really interesting data visualizations here, and he makes me envy (somewhat) kids growing up today in the world of ubiquitous digital photography.  While it means having evidence to suppress, it also means having great memory aids.

Christopher “moot” Poole: The case for anonymity online – I don’t think he really makes much of a case for anything – indeed he talks about some things that could be called invasion of privacy. But it is interesting to hear the back-story of a little-understood web phenomenon.

Malcolm McLaren: Authentic creativity vs. karaoke culture – Long but good.  At first it’s not clear where he’s going, but it comes together when he gets to his art school story.  He’s on about one of the things that really bothers me about western pop culture.

Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now – I love her visualization of the mass of the data we carry around with us.


James Balog: Time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss – Standard-issue environmental message aside, the time-lapse movies of glaciers moving are worth watching.

Michael Pollan gives a plant’s-eye view – A nice counterpoint to the typical view of man exploiting nature.


David Pogue on cool phone tricks – Grab bag of useful clues about cell phone services.


Aaron O’Connell: Making sense of a visible quantum object – Science!


Angela Belcher: Using nature to grow batteries – Progress!


Philip K. Howard: Four ways to fix a broken legal system – “You can’t run a society by the lowest common denominator.” HELL YEAH!

Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity – Basically about remix culture versus IP law.

Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom – A great rant about how mindless rule-following and poorly constructed incentives have led to some of the social and legal insanity we suffer today.


Benjamin Wallace on the price of happiness – Gets to my problem with a lot of “gourmet” culture, namely mistaking attributes like rare, special and expensive for the attribute “good”.


TED second helping

Some more TED talks I’ve enjoyed recently.


Ray Kurzweil on how technology will transform us – Basically a reiteration of the first part of his book The Age of Spiritual Machines.  He lays out his case for the evolution of technology having always been an exponential process, and the near-future implications of that.

Kevin Kelly on how technology evolves – A good follow-on to Kurzweil’s talk.  Here the case is made (something Kurzweil also claimed) that machines are on their way to becoming the 7th kingdom of life, and the progress of technology is actually us bootstrapping the next “meta” layer of evolution.


Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself – Aha.  I always suspected something like this might be true, and I’ve seen the effects in myself.  Good to know.  My world domination plans are now extra-secret.

Michael Shermer on strange beliefs – Hillarious!

Srikumar Rao: Plug into your hard-wired happiness – A better restatement of happiness advice I’ve heard before.

Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice – Some interesting insight into the glut of similar products we have today and why it might be going a little overboard.

Jeff Bezos: What matters more than your talents – Mostly the standard exhortation to do what you love, but his story about his grandmother really hit home for me.  Being clever instead of kind is one of my major failings that I feel has been getting worse lately.

Diane Benscoter on how cults rewire the brain – In talking about her experiences with the Moonies she makes the interesting point that many humans, especially young ones, have weak memetic immune systems.  This is something we can fix and, I think, are fixing.

Robert Sapolsky: The uniqueness of humans – Some really interesting discussion about behavioral similarities and differences between humans and other animals.


Tan Le: A headset that reads your brainwaves – This stuff has come a long way.  I remember one of my classmates when I was taking electronics in college was trying to develop something like this, but filtering out environmental EM noise was a major problem for him.  That makes these recent developments more impressive for me.

Al Seckel says our brains are mis-wired – A bunch of new optical illusions I hadn’t seen before, as well as some old favorites.

Arianna Huffington: How to succeed? Get more sleep – Yup yup.  I also discovered the hard way that sleep is grossly underrated.

Jeff Hawkins on how brain science will change computing – Damn! This is probably the most personally relevant of all the talks I’ve watched.  This guy just saved me a bunch of time in my line of thinking about the nature of mind.  Plus, I want to work on what he’s doing.


Miru Kim’s underground art – She seems shy on stage, but obviously she’s got some guts to do what she does.  Great idea though, and I’m not liking it just because of the nudity – I also like urban archaeology photos.


Dean Kamen: The emotion behind invention – A bit drawn out and touchy-feely, but the video really drives home the point that cyborgism is here today.  Not sure why Rose Tyler’s father is sitting on the stage though.


Paul Root Wolpe: It’s time to question bio-engineering – Wow, lots of stuff here I didn’t realize was going on.  Interesting questions come out of this, as well as fantastic possibilities.

Anthony Atala: Printing a human kidney – Cool! If this ends up working, no more need to grow clones to cannibalize for replacement parts!


Stewart Brand proclaims 4 environmental ‘heresies’ – Tons of clue in here, especially about nuclear power.  He also changed my position on GM foods a good bit, though Monsanto is still the face of evil.

Richard Preston on the giant trees – I’ve always liked giant trees, and this talk adds some new information I didn’t know about the redwoods.


Brian Greene on string theory – Good general introduction, with visualizations.


Pranav Mistry: The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology – Impressive prototype demos, but these things never seem to materialize in production – I think there are still some major problems needing to be solved.

Seth Godin: This is broken – A rant about an older form of defective-by-design.


Becky Blanton: The year I was homeless – A short but interesting recount of a personal experience.

Gever Tulley teaches life lessons through tinkering – I’m glad someone still cares about teaching children useful stuff.

Stewart Brand on the Long Now – Interesting discussion of the search for the location to place their 10,000-year clock.

George Dyson at the birth of the computer – Some amusing computer history anecdotes I hadn’t heard before.



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