For those unfamiliar with the full goals of The Singularity Movement, it is valuable to visit the website 2045 -- the theoretical date when computer intelligence surpasses that of humanity, thus establishing a new form of social and economic contract.
Just a short while ago -- more or less yesterday -- a "Rise of the Robots" scenario was being debated for its potential Utopian and Dystopian outcomes. Then the movie Avatar supplanted Terminator to reflect an entirely new possibility.
It didn't take very long: the Avatar has now arrived, and scientists are beginning to study the effects of how virtual reality can impact one's perception of themselves and those around them in the real world. Early conclusions are troubling.
The Avatar Project has very clear milestones as documented on the 2045 website. They are as follows:
A roadmap also illustrates the progression:
New Scientist announced in July of last year a significant step in merging reality with virtual reality. The model avatar took the body of a four-year-old child. It's was a tentative step, as would be the case with any four-year-old, but suggested that the mind can begin to merge with any body it wishes inside the digital landscape:
Mel Slater of the University of Barcelona in Spain and colleagues put 30 people in a virtual reality (VR) environment in the body of a 4-year-old child or a scaled-down adult the same height as the child. The virtual body, which moved in sync with movements of the real body, could be viewed from a first-person perspective and in a mirror in the VR environment.
Studies are underway to take into account the two-way nature of this information/perception transfer.
Concurrently, it appears that similar to one's preconceptions in the real world impacting the virtual experience, actions taken in the virtual world are being shown to impact the primary reality:
Things we experience in a virtual landscape can also have profound effects on our behaviour in the real world: in a separate study by researchers at Stanford University in California, giving people superhero powers in a virtual environment made them behave in a more helpful manner in real life.
The researchers say that brain imaging studies would help them to understand the reorganisation that occurs when assimilating a new body. The motivation springs from a project looking at how to embody people in child-sized robots. "We thought we ought to look at the consequences of that first," says Slater.
A more recent study published in the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology - Psychological Science - drew similar conclusions about how the virtual world can impact the real, and gives further insight into how easily a "player" can become programmed. This would seem to lend credence to those who assert that violent video games, for example, can lead to aberrant behavior that models the role one has assumed in the game. As the study illustrates, one does not necessarily need to identify with the character, which would rule out the argument that people with violent tendencies who play violent video games are prone to violent action later. With the added immersion of virtual reality, this potential is likely amplified.
"Our results indicate that just five minutes of role-play in virtual environments as either a hero or villain can easily cause people to reward or punish anonymous strangers," says lead researcher Gunwoo Yoon of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As Yoon and co-author Patrick Vargas note, virtual environments afford people the opportunity to take on identities and experience circumstances that they otherwise can't in real life, providing "a vehicle for observation, imitation, and modeling."
They wondered whether these virtual experiences — specifically, the experiences of taking on heroic or villainous avatars — might carry over into everyday behavior.
The researchers recruited 194 undergraduates to participate in two supposedly unrelated studies. The participants were randomly assigned to play as Superman (a heroic avatar), Voldemort (a villainous avatar), or a circle (a neutral avatar). They played a game for 5 minutes in which they, as their avatars, were tasked with fighting enemies. Then, in a presumably unrelated study, they participated in a blind taste test. They were asked to taste and then give either chocolate or chili sauce to a future participant. They were told to pour the chosen food item into a plastic dish and that the future participant would consume all of the food provided.
The results were revealing: Participants who played as Superman poured, on average, nearly twice as much chocolate as chili sauce for the "future participant." And they poured significantly more chocolate than those who played as either of the other avatars.
Participants who played as Voldemort, on the other hand, poured out nearly twice as much of the spicy chili sauce than they did chocolate, and they poured significantly more chili sauce compared to the other participants.
A second experiment with 125 undergraduates confirmed these findings and showed that actually playing as an avatar yielded stronger effects on subsequent behavior than just watching someone else play as the avatar.
Interestingly, the degree to which participants actually identified with their avatar didn't seem to play a role:
"These behaviors occur despite modest, equivalent levels of self-reported identification with heroic and villainous avatars, alike," Yoon and Vargas note. "People are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioral responses."
The researchers hypothesize that that arousal, the degree to which participants are 'keyed into' the game, might be an important factor driving the behavioral effects they observed.
The findings, though preliminary, may have implications for social behavior, the researchers argue:
"In virtual environments, people can freely choose avatars that allow them to opt into or opt out of a certain entity, group, or situation," says Yoon. "Consumers and practitioners should remember that powerful imitative effects can occur when people put on virtual masks." (Source) [emphasis added]
Gennady Stolyarov is afraid to die, and not afraid to say so. He also strongly believes that human beings don't have to die, or at least, will live much, much longer in the future. A writer and transhumanist activist, Stolyarov sees death as something that can be "solved" by technology and science, and one day it will possible to extend life indefinitely. To that end, he's trying to buck the cultural perception that mortality is inevitable, and he’s starting with kids.
Stolyarov published the children’s book Death Is Wrong in November, and Zoltan Istvan, author of The Transhumanist Wager, unearthed the story in a post on Psychology Today. Now Stolyarov is promoting the book with an Indiegogo campaign, trying to crowdfund $5,000 to print and distribute 1,000 copies of the book and get the anti-death word out. (Hat tip to "The mainstream of society remains pervaded by the old death-acceptance arguments," the campaign page explains. To get rid of these "pro-death prejudices," the book gives an overview of the major reasons that life extension is feasible and desirable. It makes the case for immortality—for ages eight and up.
The life-extension movement is one faction of the transhumanism creed—the idea that we can transcend the limitations of being a human being by embracing technological progress. Both radical ideas are certainly gaining traction, thanks in no small part to Google's Calico moonshot project announced last fall, an initiative to study and defeat aging, and eventually even mortality itself.
Google, which also raised eyebrows by hiring renowned futurist and AI expert Ray Kurzweil as its director of engineering, has breathed new life into the H+ movement. So much so in fact that just this week, a handful of transhumanist activists gathered outside the Googleplex with signs saying ‘Immortality now,’ ‘Viva Calico,’ and ‘Google, please, solve Death.’”
"This is merely the beginning," wrote the blog the Proactionary Transhumanist about the “protest.” "This was the first ever street action to occur for Transhumanism in the US, which will soon turn into a stepping stone for future actions. Transhumanism is a growing international social movement, gaining speed as more and more people begin realizing the full potential of scientific and technological advancements toward humanity’s next evolutionary steps."
But Stolyarov's strategy to groom the next generation to grow up thinking they might not have to die is unique—and more than a little bit creepy. The way he sees it, the biggest hurdle to conquering death isn't that it's physically impossible—biotech is working on taking care of that—but rather a pervasive cultural perception that it's not natural, not "right."
The book makes a philosophical case for why death is the enemy. (The front cover shows a boy telling off the grim reaper.) It weaves in anecdotes from the author’s own childhood in Belarus, which seems to have been distinctly fatalist. Stolyarov also bucks the idea that aging inevitably means inching closer to death. He and other life-extension advocates make a point to differentiate between "aging," the passage of time, and "senescence," the biological breakdown of the body.
For a lot of people, tampering with the human body and brain is a line that shouldn't be crossed, but the transhumanist movement is going strong. Stolyarov will speak about his book at the Transhuman Visions 2.0 conference in California tomorrow, which also happens to be "Future Day." The attendees at the event, some 150 futurists, AI experts, immortalists, techno-optimists, transfigurists, and others will meet to discuss the "deep future."
They'll be tackling topics like nanotech, bioethics, nootropics, artificial intelligence, radical life extension, existential risks, bioethics, cryonics, the singularity, nanotechnology, and robotics, and 450 attendees will get a free dose of the popular CILTEP “smart drug," which is believed to enhance the brain function.
“Ultimately, there is an evolutionary dynamic in there,” Stolyarov told FastCo. “The people who choose not to terminate their own lives … are the ones who are going to determine the course of our culture, our philosophy, everyone else's attitudes.” Wacky as this still all sounds, he may have a point.
Crimea hopeful of referendum, ready to join Russia ‘by end March’
Children wave Russian flags during a mass pro-Russian rally in the center of Sevastopol, on March 8, 2014.(AFP Photo / Viktor Drachev)
Crimea has fast-tracked preparations for the republic's referendum and for its possible joining with Russia, statements from the autonomy’s leaders reveal. Though no decision has been made by Moscow, they say Crimea may be part of Russia by late March.
Amid the ongoing media hysteria on the alleged Russian “invasion” of Crimea, the region’s pro-Russian leaders are staying calm, if not jubilant. Following claims that the Ukrainian hryvna may soon be swapped for the Russian ruble, and that the result of the March 16 referendum on the future of the Autonomous Republic is “easily predictable” by the mood of the majority of Crimea’s population, they are now saying that joining Russia could take place this month.
“The transition from one jurisdiction to the other is a complicated process, but I think in the case of favorable outcome of the referendum, the Crimeans will be able to feel as citizens of another country within one month – within March,” the speaker of the region’s Supreme Council, Vladimir Konstantinov, said, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
Konstantinov then announced that if Crimea becomes Russian, the autonomy’s budget will become larger than under the Ukrainian standards. According to the speaker, the Crimean authorities “did not count on that” but the Russian side gave “guarantees” of budget enlargement.
Pro-Russian demonstrators raise their hands as they shout slogans during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 8, 2014.(AFP Photo / Alexander Khudoteply)
There was no immediate reaction from Moscow on statements coming from Simferopol, but earlier the State Duma – Russia's parliament – said it would debate the issue of Crimea joining Russia only after the referendum takes place.
Earlier on Friday, Grigory Ioffe, first deputy chair of the region’s parliament, said that Crimea is not looking for any “privileges” from Russia if it joins the country, and that the Crimean authorities are certain the regional economy will prosper after getting rid of Ukrainian corruption.
Ioffe stressed that the “historic” referendum will be “very democratic and open” and will be held “in full compliance” with both the Ukrainian constitution and the international treaties that Ukraine had adopted. International observers, including those from the OSCE, as well as media and NGO representatives are “most welcome” to observe the referendum, he told journalists.
Crimea’s Central Election Committee is indeed expecting that some international observers will come to inspect the March 16 referendum, the committee’s head, Mikhail Malyshev, told Interfax on Saturday. About 1,250 voting stations will be set up for the event and over 2.2 million ballot papers printed. The autonomy’s population was just under two million people as of 2013, with Russians making up 58.5 percent of it, Ukrainians comprising 24.3 percent, and Crimean Tatars constituting an important minority of 12.1 percent.
While the Russian-speaking majority has for years been in favor of separating from Ukraine – at least by obtaining a broader autonomy and returning to the 1992 constitution – the Tatars have been divided on the issue. Many Tatars strongly reject the idea of Crimea joining Russia, as they have themselves been pushing for the creation of a national autonomy within the Ukrainian state.
Self-defense squads swear in
Thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators rallied in Sevastopol on Saturday, calling on everyone to cast their votes at the March 16 All-Crimean referendum. The city has a special status, and is officially not part of Crimean Autonomous Republic, but will nevertheless join the referendum and vote whether they want to become part of the Russian Federation.
Pro-Russia supporters attend a rally in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol March 8, 2014.(Reuters / Baz Ratner)
Organizers of the event displayed a huge banner with the words of famous Russian Admiral PavelNakhimov, who was killed in the Crimean War:
“Protect Sevastopol to the last!” Speaking at the rally, city administration officials promised that new, larger social security benefits are being readied for the residents of Sevastopol.
Pro-Russian activists have also announced a flashmob in support of the peninsular region joining Russia. They plan to gather at least 5,000 people to form a “living flag” of Russia on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the first batch of the so-called self-defense squads swore allegiance to Crimean authorities in Simferopol on Saturday.
Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov called the swearing-in ceremony a “historic event,” stating that Crimea’s own Armed Forces are being formed.
Ukraine: Self-defence unit volunteers swear allegiance to Crimea
A group of self-defence unit volunteers swore the oath of allegiance to the people of Crimea in Simferopol on Saturday, with 50 people taking the pledge.
Speaking to journalists, Aksyonov said the forces will ensure that the referendum is held in a peaceful manner. He stressed that “the Armed Forces of the Republic of Crimea have been created for defense, not for offense.”
So far, the self-defense squads keeping peace and order across the peninsula have been mostly quiet when asked about their origins and command, but many maintained that they are Crimean citizens who joined the improvised militia as vigilantes to prevent the violent events of Kiev’s Maidan from engulfing Crimea. Others said they are from Russia, sparking media speculations that all these forces are in fact Russian military in disguise – something Russian President Vladimir Putin has categorically denied.
In eastern Ukraine, the weekend also started with mass pro-Russian demonstrations. A crowd of anti-Maidan demonstrators gathered to rally in the city of Donetsk, where the “People’s Governor” Pavel Gubarev was arrested along with dozens of pro-Russian protesters earlier on Thursday. Thick police presence was reported from the scene of the rally, which took place in front of the regional administration building, with at least 500 law enforcers, some unidentified armed men, and police vehicles maintaining order, according to Interfax.
In Kharkov, about 6,000 people rallied in protest of the coup-imposed Kiev authorities on the central Freedom Square. Some of the demonstrators later formed an anti-fascist march, in which some 1,500 people with Russian flags marched to the city’s Constitution Square.
The Kharkov, protesters demanded that coup-imposed regional heads show up and speak with them, but none of the authorities came out. The police did not attempt to block the rally. The demonstrators gave officers white tulips and tied St. George’s ribbons on riot shields.