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From so many posts about the future, here’s one about the past…

I’ve been watching and listening a lot to material regarding the American civil war lately. It is a part of history which perhaps does not receive that much attention outside the States, but is absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective: militarily, politically, concerning human rights and the very nature of America, which indeed went on to determine the course of the 20th century.

The magnitude of this war; the staggering losses inflicted on both sides; the clear direction and standing with which the US came out of it, propelled forward towards the coming 20th century as a world power; the fate of Lincoln and many other factors make it a highly interesting subject, with many lessons which are still relevant in our times.

A few interesting points to mention:

  • It is a testament to the period that many men on both sides found little trouble with the common military attack tactics – walking line abreast towards the enemy lines while being shot at by artillery and muskets (the most extreme and well know example of which is of course Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, but there having been too many examples of senseless frontal assaults by both sides). Flanking movements aside (and there were plenty of those), it’s just baffling how people did not flinch at certain death.
  • Even more astounding are the numerous  instances of blatant indifferent and incompetent field command by officers, which sent thousands and thousands to their death and serve as an eerie prelude to the horrors of the catastrophic World War I no-mans’-land frontal assaults.
  • As in any war, the “what ifs” are easy to fall into.
    • How many lives would have been saved if George Mclellan had been as good a field commander as he was an organizer and/or possessed some more will to actually put his army to use? It is quite ironic that he was hesitant in being more aggressive with his forces “out of concern for their well-being”, in that if perhaps he had used his overwhelming numerical superiority the war may have been shortened saving many lives, notably from the Army of the Potomac.


    • There seem to have been so many pivotal points in the war, in which had a certain battle not gone one way the war would have ended otherwise, that it makes you wonder how things did come out as they did. A few notable examples are the near breakthrough which the Confederate army neared on the second day at Gettyburg; how Lincoln’s re-election looked exceedingly unlikely until Mobile, and then Atlanta fell several weeks before the election; how close were the European powers to recognizing the Confederacy; and so on and so forth. History.
  • It is really striking to me how long the Confederacy managed to last in the face of overwhelming hardships and an inherent inferiority in industrial production and manpower. While Union military command ineptitude coupled with Confederate military brilliance in the East seems to have contributed to this prolonged time span, the part which staunch resistance to the threat of a dramatic imposed change to a society and way of life (as misguided and abusive as it was) is clearly major and impressively so at that, especially when contrasted with the large mood swings and wavering in the North.

However, in the end history went the way it did: the South surrendered, reconstruction begun with all its problems, and of course Lincoln was assasinated. A dark and terrible portion of American history was done, one that can teach a lesson or two to any country in which the values and ideals of a minority become so detached from the majority to lead to talk of separation (…).

And to wrap up, a great on-topic song from the Band:

If you’ve read my previous posts and the two singularity articles I’ve added to the site, you will know that in my opinion (and many others) there are two main avenues through which the singularity will emerge, when it does.

The first, and most widely considered (both scientifically and in the public/media view), will follow the development of what is known as “Strong AI” or “artificial general intelligence”. That is, the generation of an artificial intelligence which exceeds human intelligence,  coupled with this entity acquiring the ability to improve itself or develop an improved iteration of strong AI.

singularityThe route generally postulated in this case is that this AI and the ones it begets recursively improve themselves, rapidly reaching levels of intelligence ungraspable by us one-human-brain-power beings. Following this Singularity event, they either vanish into another dimension, build killer robots and destroy humanity, harvest humans as batteries and employ multiple copies of Hugo Weaving as unsuccessful agents or perhaps other realistic scenarios.

The slightly less well-covered route, though, is that prior to machines achieving supra-human intelligence, a way is found to link the human brain to machine components, followed by integrating the two – machines in the human body and multitudes of bodies and minds in a global cyborg consciousness. Thus, effectively rendering “us” and “them” inseparable. As a result, when strong AI does emerge, any advance made in intelligence levels will directly affect humans too. In effect, we will become part of the machine, able ultimately to transfer our consciousness to digital form and achieve the same leaps in intelligence levels as they emerge from the self-improving machines, or indeed be part of these improvements.

So which of these two possibilities (which are by no means categorically the only way things are set to pan out – there could be many variations in between, or completely different outcomes – remember, this is conjecture!)  is more likely? Which is better for humanity’s future?singluarity

Unfortunately, the advance rate in the bio and medical sciences naturally lags that in AI and related fields, due to the inherent restrictions on research in humans. Thus, one is forced to take a pessimistic outlook with regard to the likely sequence of events.  Ultimately an effective permanent link between man and machine will be made, but the question is whether it will still be relevant by the time it is established.

It must be remembered, though, that technological breakthroughs do happen. Should the field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and the multitude of technologies which comprise and surround it receive sufficient attention and funding, the chances of a beneficial sequence can increase profoundly, increasing the chance of the survival of humanity…or should I say, post-humanity.

It is clear, though, that making the connection to machine intelligences will radically change humanity. Thus, the question of which route is more preferable depends on your outlook: do you want to see humanity evolve, or are you content with us staying just the way we are, even if this renders us evolutionarily irrelevant? Are bacteria disappointed not to have evolved?

So, if you are of the belief that we must and will evolve – make a contribution: donate, write to your congressman, or just become a researcher! The future is almost here… 🙂


1 year birthday

It’s been a year since Romi was born. Amazing how quickly, and at the same time how slowly, this year went by…

So what have we had over the last 12 months?

A very steep learning curve.

Months of sleep deprivation and chronic tiredness.

Diapers, poo and all that.

Much less free time. So much added responsibility.

…and on the other hand…

Watching her grow from a 3 kilo, totally helpless baby into a toddler who can almost walk on her own.

Real enjoyment of seeing a personality form: great curiosity, humor, sadness, joy and grumpiness.

The wonderful, unfiltered and completely honest smile that greets you when she sees you first in the morning or after picking her up from the nanny.

The wonderful laugh. Sometimes spontaneous, even better when you bring it about.

Peaceful, beautiful moments of closeness when she rests her head on your chest and gently falls asleep.

Watching her charm the pants off people with a single smile.

The great interaction with family, friends and even strangers….

…what’s the balance?

In the early months it was pretty torturous, and I have many friends who are now becoming parents for the first time from whom I hear the same sounds of suffering we made when suddenly arriving in baby-land. However, the emergence of a wonderful, adventurous little person from the cocoon of the baby (and, of course, a steadily improving sleep cycle) has turned it to a great experience. Not an easy one, not a comfortable one, but still one that I wouldn’t miss if I went back 21 months ago.

From a very good movie I saw the other day:

“The irony of religion is that because of its power to divert man to destructive courses, the world actually could come to an end.

“Plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge and have key decisions made by religious people, by irrationalists; By those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. […] And those who preach faith and enable and elevate it, are our intellectual slaveholders – keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.


“Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think that it is wonderful when someone says, “I am willing Lord, I will do what ever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no Gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people, with their own corruptions, and limitations, and agendas. […]

“The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that is what man needs to be considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.

“This is why rational people – anti-religionists – must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves, and those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price. If you belong to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler – a mafia wife, with the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travellers.

“If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, lets remember what the real problem was: that we learned how to precipitate mass death, before we got pass the neurological disorder of wishing for it.

“That’s it. Grow up, or die.”

From Bill Maher’s Religulous

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