Monday, April 28, 2008

Fun with cloning

Biology in Science Fiction has a post on the depiction of cloning in movies. Sadly, they left out The Sixth Day (spoilers upcoming), arguably the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about evil clones Robert Duvall has ever had a supporting role in. Okay, the science is absolutely ridiculous, with full-grown human clones whipped up in minutes and a doohickey that record the complete contents of your brain in seconds by blinking into your eyes. Still, there were parts I liked, silly or no.

The villainous henchmen of CloneCo. (A Division of EvilCorp) all get killed repeatedly by the Arnolds, only to be brought back, since their DNA and memory records are both on file back at CloneCo. It becomes darkly humorous after a while, especially as the henchman start to find the prospect of another violent death at Arnold’s hands more annoying than terrifying. The main villain, Amoral Corporate Prick, ends up being killed by his own clone- after all, the clone is an Amoral Corporate Prick, too.

My favorite part is the way the Arnolds were handled. I’m disobeying all those PLEASE DO NOT REVEAL THE INCREDIBLE SECRET OF THE SIXTH DAY signs that were in the lobby, but here goes anyway. In the story, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is cloned without his knowledge- including his memories and personality, thanks to the aforementioned doohickey. So you’ve got two Arnolds, Arnold Classic and Arnold II, running around fighting the bad guys together.

As the movie approached its climax with both Arnolds still in action, I suddenly became certain of what was going to happen. Arnold Classic has a wife and son. Arnold II has exactly the same memories, personality, and emotions as Arnold Classic, but they can’t both be married to Mrs. Arnold. Therefore, I assumed that Arnold II would die heroically in the final confrontation with the bad guy, allowing the movie to milk the pathos of Arnold II’s death while still having a happy ending as Arnold Classic returns to his family.

They didn’t do that. Instead, both Arnolds survive. Arnold Classic returns to his family, of course. Without a place of his own in the world, Arnold II decides to travel the globe on his own for a while, so that he can have experiences Arnold Classic has never had and thus grow into a unique individual. I really liked that, and it was especially nice since it was such a surprise.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ironically, Laplace's demon foresaw that I would post this

First caught wind of this at Roderick Long’s blog.

There’s been some discussion here and there about a recent study announced by the Max Planck Society on human consciousness. To quote from the press release I’ve linked:

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not at what happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.

This unprecedented prediction of a free decision was made possible by sophisticated computer programs that were trained to recognize typical brain activity patterns preceding each of the two choices. Micropatterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex were predictive of the choices even before participants knew which option they were going to choose. The decision could not be predicted perfectly, but prediction was clearly above chance. This suggests that the decision is unconsciously prepared ahead of time but the final decision might still be reversible.

This is being heralded as a confirmation of the results of the famous experiments on people’s subjective experience of choice done by Benjamin Libet, which were widely claimed (though not by Libet) as proof that free will was illusory, due to the fact that electrical activity in the motor cortex of the brain (the “readiness potential”) appeared before the subject was conscious of choosing to act. I want to talk about Libet a little, because this study appears to have the same limitations, in terms of what conclusions we can draw about its implications.

First, however, there’s an elementary point of logic that needs to pointed out, which is this: Even accepting for the sake of argument that this research shows all actions are actually decided at the unconscious level and merely rationalized by the conscious mind afterwards, which I’m going to question in a minute, that would not prove determinism. As commenter Laura J. points out in the comments of Long’s post, the claim that this would prove determinism hinges on the unstated assumption that the unconscious processes running in the background of my conscious mind are not really “me,” that the self is only the fully conscious mind, and that unconscious influence on or control of it is an enslaving outside force, rather than an equally true part of my self. If you reject this assumption, the determinist would also need to prove that the unconscious mind is fully determined by something before he could claim to have shown that I- that is, the complete “I”- have no free will.

It should also be noted that, at best, this would refute only incompatiblist free will, and has nothing to say about compatibilism versus incompatibilist determinism. I don’t consider that distinction very meaningful, frankly- I’ve never heard an explanation of compatibilism that didn’t boil down to determinism with some of the terminology of free will thrown in- but many people would consider it important.

So, Libet. The first problem with a determinist interpretation of Libet’s work was, as Benjamin Libet pointed out, that his subjects would occasionally show the usual electrical activity in the motor center, the “readiness potential,” and then choose not to act. So it's a jump to assume that the electrical buildup demonstrates that the act is truly predetermined, and not merely an indication of a strong disposition to act. The press release for the new Planck study says that the accuracy of their predictions was imperfect but “clearly above chance,” with the precise percentage unspecified. The fact that modern scientists can make predictions of people’s movements seven seconds in advance with above-chance accuracy in this situation is extremely cool, but it’s pretty poor as a knockdown argument for determinism. A skilled bookie can predict the winner of a sporting event at a rate well above chance, but that hardly demonstrates that the competition is rigged. (Unless it’s boxing, of course.) It merely shows that the outcome of the game was affected by conditions in place before the game began. Unless, as some people do, you redefine “free will” to mean that choices are just random and completely unaffected by conditions in the physical world, such as electrical activity in the agent’s own brain, this doesn’t demonstrate much philosophically, however intriguing it might be as science.

There are some other problems, which wouldn’t go away even if the prediction in the experiment was never wrong. The actions taken by Libet's subjects were consciously preplanned. In Libet’s work, the subjects watched a timer, and were instructed to choose a random moment to hit a button, then report the time they perceived themselves willing to hit the button. The problem there is that the intention "hit the button" was, in an important sense, already consciously formed and chosen before the clock had even started. The subject had already decided to hit the button, already knew they were going to hit the button, and the only intention not yet consciously formed was the exact moment. In that sort of case, it's hardly surprising that the motor center was lighting up before the actual final decision, regardless of whether the subject actually had free will or not.

Another issue is that the action being taken- hitting the button- is completely random and meaningless, and the decision of what moment to hit the button is thus completely arbitrary. Thus, it is precisely the sort of thing that I would expect to be decided at an unconscious level, since there’s absolutely no reason for the conscious mind to care about the particular moment the button is hit, and thus no reason to deliberate about it at the conscious level, except perhaps to ratify a conclusion already reached unconsciously. We simply don’t know if the results are applicable to all experiences of choice, including those we have more reason to consciously deliberate on, and we have been given no reason to think that they are.

Based on the way the experiment is described, both problems seem to be present here as well. The press release says, “In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind.” So, again, the subject had already decided to hit the button, and he knew that, barring some sudden freak occurrence that forced him to flee the room, he would carry out that decision. So, once again, the brain gearing itself up to act before the final moment of decision is to be expected with or without free will. The only new wrinkle appears to be having a choice of two buttons. The fact that they could predict which would be chosen is neat, but not terribly decisive, since it's not at all hard to imagine a free-willed person starting with a strong predisposition for one button over another without consciously realizing it. As in the choice of timing, the choice of buttons is completely meaningless and thus gives the conscious mind no reason to bother to make the decision itself, though it might will the actual execution of the decision.

Theses sorts of experiments are limited by the limitations of human focus. Since the subject has to concentrate on precisely monitoring and reporting his own mental state, he can’t really engage in any acts that aren’t tainted by a lengthy gap between resolving to act and actually acting, since a situation where he had to make a quick decision in response to something unexpected would occupy too much of his attention. Likewise, he can’t make any decisions that he actually has a reason to care about and consciously think through, while simultaneously closely monitoring and reporting the precise moment he became aware of his choice. If genetic engineering really takes off, we should see if we can crank out some posthumans with huge heads and extra brain lobes who can maintain multiple trains of thought at once. Short of that, the philosophical implications of this are limited.

For maximum effect, you should now reread this post, but this time do so aloud by shrieking out the entire thing in your best Geddy Lee impression. Actually, henceforth, I want everybody to read everything I write that way.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Essential concepts

John C. Wright offers an invaluable lexicon of science fictional terms for the uninitiated. My personal favorite:

Rishathra is sexual congress, without the benefit of marriage, between two mutually sterile intelligent hominids, usually for the purpose of solemnizing a treaty or somesuch. So if your girlfriend has left you for a Neanderthal or a Slan, this is the word for it.

Ah,The Ringworld Throne. How on Earth did the Ringworld series go from “thrilling adventure and mind-blowing concepts” to “nonstop interspecies ape sex?” I still wonder what got into the usually reliable Niven when he wrote that one. (I almost wrote that as “I’d really like to know what…,” but then it occurred to me I really, really don’t.)

He also provides what is simultaneously the most succinct and the most accurate summary of the Star Trek film franchise I have ever heard, with his reference to, “[O]ne of those lame STAR TREK movies that was not WRATH OF KHAN.” Well-said. Talking whale-alien spaceship, my ass. Okay, Undiscovered Country was pretty good.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, April 21, 2008

An intermittently updated science fiction blog by any other name…

The blog is reborn! Or, more accurately, the name of the blog is reborn. The name only just occurred to me recently, and I was never intensely attached to the old one. It’s not as if I’m losing a huge amount of accumulated name recognition here. When I’m seventy, I don’t want to look back wistfully and wonder what might have been, if only my blog had a cooler name.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

And they said I was mad to build a robot out of bacon!

Peter Watts has an interesting post about some of the work being done in robot design which suggests the possibility that machines of the future may have more “lifelike” attributes than people usually think. For instance, mucous is apparently an important aid in the acuity of human smell, and mechanical olfactory sensors can be made much more effective by covering them with a polymer snot substitute. Watts has more, including artificial sweat. (Watt’s post has stuff about artificial sweat, I mean; Watts himself does not. Presumably.)

It’s interesting to speculate on how people’s attitudes towards technology will be affected if some machines really do start to do more to imitate the attributes of living beings. I suspect that a lot of people who are otherwise comfortable with new technology would find the idea of a machine with characteristics of a living thing- and especially the “earthier” attributes of life, like body fluids- somewhat disturbing, even if a lot of them couldn’t articulate why.

I was looking at his blog because I actually just read Watts’ work for the first time, thanks to the inclusion of his story “The Eyes of God” in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2. If you haven’t grabbed that one yet, get it. “The Eyes of God” was one of the most exciting introductions to an author I’ve had in years. It’s got speculative technologies for the manipulation of the human nervous system, crushing religious guilt, and the best sense of unease and creepiness a story has given me in some time. It’s as if he wrote it by consulting a focus group of John Markley clones. I usually fail to keep up with the newest book releases because I’m so mired in my huge pile of old out-of-print books that I’ve accumulated, but I’ve bumped Watts up in the queue and expect to have read Blindsight by no later than 2017.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Curse you, Gregory XIII!

I hate April Fool’s Day. I'm absent-minded and often have only a vague idea of the current date, and so the same pattern repeats every year. I’ll be wandering the internet, and come across some sort of wonderful news. “Square-Enix announces Final Fantasy VII remake for Playsation 3," “Entire staff of The New Republic devoured by timber wolves,” “Mayo Clinic study proves 87% of foxy brunettes secretly long for introverted, bearded science fiction geeks; Degree of insatiable lust directly correlated with number of Poul Anderson books owned, researchers say,” or whatever. I’ll feel a moment of exhilaration, then confusion as I realize something’s not right here, and then realization dawns and I come crashing back to earth. You’d think I would have learned by now, but no.

Stumble Upon Toolbar