The future of neuroscience and understanding the complexity of the human mind – Brains and Computers

Two of the world’s leading brain researchers will come together to discuss some of the latest international efforts to understand the brain. They will discuss two massive initiatives – the US based Allen Institute for Brain Science and European Human Brain Project. By combining neuroscience with the power of computing both projects are harnessing the efforts of hundreds of neuroscientists in unprecedented collaborations aimed at unravelling the mysteries of the human brain.

This unique FREE public event, hosted by ABC Radio and TV personality Bernie Hobbs, will feature two presentations by each brain researcher followed by an interactive discussion with the audience.

This is your chance to ask the big brain questions.

[Event Registration Page] | [Meetup Event Page]

ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function

Monday, 3 April 2017 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm (AEST)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
2 Clarendon Street
enter via the main Exhibition Centre entrance, opposite Crown Casino
South Wharf, VIC 3006 Australia

Professor Christof Koch
President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science, USA

Professor Koch leads a large scale, 10-year effort to build brain observatories to map, analyse and understand the mouse and human cerebral cortex. His work integrates theoretical, computational and experimental neuroscience. Professor Koch pioneered the scientific study of consciousness with his long-time collaborator, the late Nobel laureate Francis Crick. Learn more about the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Christof Koch.

Professor Karlheinz Meier
Co-Director and Vice Chair of the Human Brain Project
Professor of Physics, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Professor Meier is a physicist working on unravelling theoretical principles of brain information processing and transferring them to novel computer architectures. He has led major European initiatives that combine neuroscience with information science. Professor Meier is a co-founder of the European Human Brain Project where he leads the research to create brain-inspired computing paradigms. Learn more about the Human Brain Project and Karlheinz Meier.



This event is brought to you by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.

Discovering how the brain interacts with the world.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function is supported by the Australian Research Council.

Consciousness in Biological and Artificial Brains – Prof Christof Koch

Event Description: Human and non-human animals not only act in the world but are capable of conscious experience. That is, it feels like something to have a brain and be cold, angry or see red. I will discuss the scientific progress that has been achieved over the past decades in characterizing the behavioral and the neuronal correlates of consciousness, based on clinical case studies as well as laboratory experiments. I will introduce the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) that explains in a principled manner which physical systems are capable of conscious, subjective experience. The theory explains many biological and medical facts about consciousness and its pathologies in humans, can be extrapolated to more difficult cases, such as fetuses, mice, or non-mammalian brains and has been used to assess the presence of consciousness in individual patients in the clinic. IIT also explains why consciousness evolved by natural selection. The theory predicts that deep convolutional networks and von Neumann computers would experience next to nothing, even if they perform tasks that in humans would be associated with conscious experience and even if they were to run software faithfully simulating the human brain.

[Meetup Event Page]

Supported by The Florey Institute of Neuroscience & Mental Health, the University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.



Who: Prof Christof Koch, President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Sciences, Seattle, USA

Venue: Melbourne Brain Centre, Ian Potter Auditorium, Ground Floor, Kenneth Myer Building (Building 144), Genetics Lane, 30 Royal Parade, University of Melbourne, Parkville

This will be of particular interest to those who know of David Pearce, Andreas Gomez, Mike Johnson and Brian Tomasik’s works – see this online panel:

Marching for Science with John Wilkins – a perspective from Philosophy of Science

Recent video interview with John Wilkins!

  • What should marchers for science advocate for (if anything)? Which way would you try to bias the economy of attention to science?
  • Should scientists (as individuals) be advocates for particular causes – and should the scientific enterprise advocate for particular causes?
  • The popular hashtag #AlternativeFacts and Epistemic Relativism – How about an #AlternativeHypotheses hashtag (#AltHype for short 😀 ?)
  • Some scientists have concerns for being involved directly – other scientists say they should have a voice and be heard on issues that matter and stand up and complain when public policy is based on erroneous logic and/or faulty assumptions, bad science. What’s your view? What are the risks?

John Wilkins is a historian and philosopher of science, especially biology. Apple tragic. Pratchett fan. Curmudgeon.

We will cover scientific realism vs structuralism in another video in the near future!
Topics will include:

  • Scientific Realism vs Scientific Structuralism (or Structuralism for short)
  • Ontic (OSR) vs Epistemic (ESR)
  • Does the claim that one can know only the abstract structure of the world trivialize scientific knowledge? (Epistemic Structural Realism and Ontic Structural Realism)
  • If we are in principle happy to accept scientific models (especially those that have graduated form hypothesis to theory) as structurally real – then does this give us reasons never to be overconfident about our assumptions?

Come to the Science March in Melbourne on April 22nd 2017 – bring your friends too 😀

March for Science! Interview with Michael Shermer

Adam Ford: G’day everybody – we’ve got Michael Shermer here today and we’re going to discuss science advocacy as well as the up and coming ‘March for Science’ which is happening on the 22nd of April. And I’m helping out with the Melbourne March for Science here in Australia.
Michael is in California. Michael is an American science writer, a historian of science and is the founder of the Skeptics Society – which I believe has about 55-60 thousand members at the moment – right?
Michael Shermer: That’s right yes.   All over the world!
Adam Ford: He has largely devoted his time at the Skeptics Society investigating pseudoscience and super natural claims – and things that rub up against the scientific view of the world. Shermer has been well known for engaging in debate on the topic of pseudoscience and religion .. and emphasizes scientific skepticism – and a famous one I think was with you and Sam Harris a while ago with Deepak Chopra – I thought that was hilarious to watch.. it was very good on your part.
We met about a year ago at a Think Inc conference focusing on Transhumanism and the Singularity and Skepticism – it’s interesting that more recently Sam Harris has covered a lot of the AI stuff recently and become sort of a vocal advocate for cautionary development of artificial intelligence there – but we might cover that later.
But in terms of the March for Science, to begin with – it may not be obvious to everybody that there exists a connection… what relationship do you see between skepticism and science?
Michael Shermer: Well I think really they are one and the same – I mean most scientists are skeptics by nature; they doubt claims until there is evidence for it.. they start with the Null Hypothesis – that your claim is not true until proven otherwise. You know, and so, and skeptics have a deep interest in science – probably if there was overlapping venn diagrams the part that is not overlapping on the skeptics side is the fact that we take a deep interest in a lot of these fringe, marginalized, borderland type claims that most scientists don’t have time to deal with. (Sorry I have a barking dog here – his name is Hitch!)
You know skeptics deal with things like ESP and psychics and UFOs and alien abductions and these sorts of things that mainstream scientists don’t have time to deal with.. or things like creationism and holocaust denial, the anti-vaccination movement, you know ‘the birthers’, ‘the truthers’… these are all claims that are being made that should be challenged – facts should be checked, evidence should be evaluated. But scientists don’t have time to do that so that’s kind of our specialty – so you might think of it as a branch of science – it’s like people that study alternative medicine, most of them are doctors, but are doctors that specialize in this because most doctors don’t have time – you know they are just busy doing their own work and research – so you know our focus is on those areas.. and really its necessary; it’s important; it’s needed – because most scientists don’t know how to respond. And some scientists have tried to face-off with creationists (for example) – and they don’t fare well because they think all they need is the science – but that’s not enough; you need to know what the arguments are that the creationists are making; why are they making those arguments? what the context is, and how to respond to that particular argument – which is not just countering with the scientific data, it has to do with the type of argument that they are making and what they really after there.. so you have to kind of know that and now you know, skepticism has been around for decades (modern skepticism) and so skeptic magazine and there are a number of other skeptic magazines around the world and groups and conferences and so it’s a whole literature and tons of books, 100s of books specializing in topics – so we had a really good literature now of skepticism that brings value to science.

Adam Ford: Yeah – and there’s going to be a Science March – I think skeptics should come along and help support this! Now this is happening not only in Washington – but there are groups all over the world who are getting involved. And it seems as though it’s going to be quite large – in terms of how large science marches can get – it may be the largest one yet – we’ll see ok!
Yes so I’m just wondering – there’s been quite a lot of controversy in the media of what counts as real facts and what counts as knowledge that can be trusted, policies that can trusted – so when people are going to this march for science – what do you think they should be listening for? How can they get the most out of it and make it the best possible science march?
Michael Shermer: Well know one knows because we’ve never done done this before! There was a Reason Rally in Washington DC that I participated in – that’s more of an Atheism type march. This (the march for science) is pure science – it’s not an atheism thing; religion has nothing to do with it; we just love science – and I think it’s really more instead of what happens at the march – it’s the idea that people are interested in that, and they care about that – and passionately enough to send a signal to Washington and politicians and really everybody – that we live in an age of science! There’s nothing more important the scientific method for determining what’s true – and so in an age of #alternativeFacts and ‘fake news’ stories and that sort of thing, we need science more than ever! And yes we have to get past this idea of science as guys in lab coats with beakers or particle accelerators – you know I mean all of us should be reasoning scientifically – that is it’s science and reason, it’s logic, it’s critical thinking, it’s just evaluating any claim whether it’s made by a politician or an economist or a religious leader .. anybody – if it’s a factual claim, its fair game for skeptical evaluation by anyone. I would like to think that we live in an age of science – we are all scientists in a sense that we should all be training how to think scientifically.
Adam Ford: Certainly! Alan Adler who was one of the stars of M.A.S.H. going years back (I used to watch that when I was a kid) said like science is a meticulous expression of human curiosity – so in a sense like we innately we are “proto-scientists” you know – sticking things in our mouths, tasting them and trying out new things in the world – some of the theory of science is a little bit unintuitive though – and I don’t think we are natural born scientists in the extreme sense…
Michael Shermer: Ahh yeah – that’s true! A couple of things – I have a new born, so it’s been kind of fun watching little Vinnie run experiments (Adam: Congratulations!) Thankyou! He’s a cute little guy – but they put stuff in their mouths, they drop things , they pick things up, they’re touching things – what they are doing is – the theory of Alison Gopnik (the developmental psychologist) – is that they’re like little scientists running experiments. Okay if I pick this up and drop it, what does it do? Where does it go? It’s called ‘object permanence’ – they’re little scientists. They also intuit the way the world works – figuring out how gravity (and things like that) which does not always turn out to be right. So our intuitions about the world (for example) – if you go outside it looks like the sun is rising, the sun is setting – the stars are stars are rising, the stars are setting – you don’t feel the earth move, you see the sky move. It feels like the earth is flat and stationary – everything goes around it – well we know that’s wrong – but that’s an intuitive idea. Same thing with evolution – it’s not intuitive; you don’t see species change – what you see is species staying the same in a human lifetime. So, it’s an inferential science – you have to infer from the fossils, from DNA, and so on – that evolution happened over long stretches of time – but in terms of the way our minds work from out senses, it’s counter intuitive – same thing with most of quantum physics – a lot of the esoteric sciences, you know, they are counter-intuitive. So that does take effort and training and practice, schooling and so on – there is a reason you should get a degree in science – because we learn something about these things over the centuries.
Adam Ford: Not everybody has a degree in science, not everybody has the time or the inclination to go through a degree in science – how can people, without a very mature scientific understanding of the world – still combat things like ‘alternate facts’ – how can find a position to stand in where they are in a position to judge the veracity of ‘alternate facts’?
Michael Shermer: It’s not hard, it’s not difficult at all – you just have to ask a few probing questions like ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘how do you know that’s true?’, ‘who said that?’, ‘what were their sources?’, ‘have their sources been double checked?’, ‘have they been fact checked?’ – you know these are just really basic like journalism type questions that any first year journalism student learns – that you can’t just read the newspaper and expect that that’s the truth – you got to know ‘what are the other sources?’, ‘what’s the source of that fact, and that fact?’ You’ve got to have more than one source, and cross check and fact check and things like that – so in fact its really just a matter of thinking critically in terms of asking questions; critical questions – just like ‘well that’s interesting – how do you know?’, ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘what’s the site?’ – ‘well you know I read it on the interweb’ – well most of the stuff is not fact checked on the interweb – Alex Jones’ ‘Info Wars’ – he talks about the aliens are running the government – you know whatever – down the rabbit hole you go with some of these websites – particularly the conspiratorial minded ones – you don’t have to have a degree in science that there’s something fishy going on there – you’ve just have to ask ‘come on, does that really work?’, ‘does that really fit with the way we know the world works?’ – its basically questions like that – we call it a baloney detection – Carl Sagan called it ‘the baloney detection kit’ – we’ve since published something along those lines called ‘the baloney detection kit’ at – Carl stated in his great book ‘Demon Haunted World’ just asking questions, you know – kicking the tires before you buy the car – just asking really basic questions like the ones I just said – so that – just start right there – by challenging the authority. ‘How do you know?’
Adam Ford: Absolutely! So – I might ask – sometimes I think it’s a bit counter productive to get too political in some of the interviews I do, because I’m not a political scientist – but.. what are your views on the current state of politics in America and Britain – do you see a promising horizon in the future?
Michael Shermer: Well, yeah – I’m an optimist – you know despite the last year of political upheaval; and everyone is all panicky and worrying – just calm down everybody – tranquillo; everything is going to be ok – we have spent centuries building civil societies – no one person can destroy it all; it’s not the end of the world – for all these things: artificial intelligence, terrorism – you know, these are not existential threats – I don’t think there are any (with the possible exception of nuclear weapons) anything that can destroy civilization – so you know just carry on in an optimistic way – continue making progress no matter who’s in power. I think there’s enough checks and balances in place to keep things stable.
Adam Ford: Well there are a certain amount of checks and balances to keep things stable. But you know, I can’t avoid the possibility that things could go pear shaped – so biasing the odds of achieving the kinds of futures we want is something that I think is worth doing – but also on that topic – we can use science to help us shape our understandings of how to do the most good in the world. Some people call this ‘science philanthropy’ – there has been successes in medicine in improving lives a lot over the years – and successes in other areas of science has had huge impacts. What areas of science and engineering do you think are both under-funded and under-populated and worth throwing resources at?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think that Social Sciences dealing with human problems like crime, racism, conflicts, civil wars – the kinds of things that kill people I think should be right up there with medicine. With public health we should have economic public health and political public health and conflict and peace studies – there are people that do this but I think they are under funded compared to say some of the medical professions or physics – which is all great – I don’t want to take any money from anybody just put more money into the social sciences, particularly the psychological sciences that study these kinds of human problems that we still need to work on. I mean we’ve wrote this book ‘The Moral Arc’ about moral progress over the last 500 years – I document there has been a lot of moral progress – we have a long ways to go – yeah so we need to keep working on it, and figure it out what it is we’ve been doing that is right and do more of that; and what it is we’ve been doing wrong and do less of that – and really that’s what social scientists do for a living – they try to figure out the cause of different things that we want to study – it’s not just a correlation but maybe there’s a causation there as well. There’s techniques to determine that – so I’d say more funding for that.
Adam Ford: Ok, what’s your view on funding basic fundamental science as opposed to applied scientific research?
Micheal Shermer: I think it’s both – I don’t think it’s fair to say one is more important than the other – I mean most of the applied research comes out of theoretical science – you have to have the theories first – you have to have the fundamental understanding of the laws and principles of nature that you then later manipulate through applied technologies and so we need both – so that’s why all the big companies: IBM, Google, Apple – they have their own research labs too; they have their professional scientists working there; all the pharmaceutical companies – they have their own professional scientists and their own laboratories – they know we have to make discoveries before we make products.
Adam Ford: The Effective Altruism movement has grown in popularity over the years. Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker … Peter Singer has definitely been involved, Stephen Pinker said it was one of the world’s best ideas. Have you any thoughts on the Effective Altruism movement?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think it’s great – I’m totally behind it – that and the animal rights movement and the application of the moral principles we have developed over the centuries: civil rights, civil liberties and so fourth – protections for those who can’t protect themselves, like animals – I think all of that’s important and the current movement that Peter Singer is pushing for, and I support it – mostly when I make my end of year donations, if there’s so many good charities I don’t know which one to pick – I just go to his website and he has a list – these are the ones we’ve spent years studying that we think save the most lives – or your dollar will go the farthest – and I just give my money to him – well his org (Adam: is it ‘The Life You Can Save’) – yeah the Life You Can Save – yep and it’s also a consciousness raising effort, which is the kinds of things that Gandhi did and Dr King did of just making people aware that we should be even thinking about those sorts of things – like what’s the value of life – how much money do you have to spend to save one life? Well it depends well if you talk about mosquito nets to prevent Malaria – it’s pretty cheap – a couple of bucks goes a long ways – you know, vitamins, water, just basic needs – that’s why I very much respect the Gates Foundation; they’re really going after to be solved which can be solved like within 6 months a year, a couple of years, 10 years, thirty years – you know, not pie in the sky stuff, like we’re going to build libraries for everybody – you know that was great – you know Carnegie did that, Rockefeller Foundation and all the things they did they’ve done over the last century – they are all good – but you know I like the idea – well let’s just save some lives right now
Adam Ford: Like pulling glass out of feet that are getting harmed today rather than worry about the long term future?
Michael Shermer: Yeah that’s right – well I mean both is good but you know if you want some bang for your buck that’s the best way to do it – to go for that – Effective Altruism – those kinds of moves that they make that are immediate and measurable – that’s why Gates is so good – he’s a scientist – well he is a technologist – he likes to measure things – you know I want quantitative measurements. So if we spend 100 million dollars in Africa on this problem, can I see a difference next year? I want to see the graph, I want to see the pie chart, I want to see the slice of the problem getting smaller – they’re projecting the end of poverty as the UN has defined it – $1.25 a day or less for extreme poverty, $2.50 a day or less for regular poverty – they are projecting the end of that – it will be zero percent by 2030 – that’s only 13 years from now – that’s unbelievable! Thousands of years of ‘we’ve always had the poor with us’ – before 1900 it was about 80% of the worlds population was poor, was living in poverty – now it’s about 10% – that’s a huge, huge improvement – and it’s almost, I wouldn’t say it’s unnoticed, but you know the activists who hew and cry that things are bad and getting worse – I think it’s good to have people like myself and Stephen Pinker, Peter Singer and others that are more optimistic say ‘Hey wait a minute – we have a lot of work to do but we’ve come a long ways’.
Adam Ford: Absolutely yeah – it’s good to report that achievements have been made. Unfortunately in the news people like to watch horror and they seem to not necessarily like – but if it bleeds it leads they say – and people are attracted to.. are paying attention to news snippets that have something to do with something that’s wrong in the world. And it’s unfortunate that people loose track of what’s going right – because what’s going right in the world helps reinforce us to work in the direction of made what’s right in the world happen – okay so yeah I think people miss out on a lot when they have this constant negativity bias in selecting the type of news that one sees.
So what do you think the most exciting thing is in developments in STEM is? What do you think think is the most exciting news in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or engineering (as some people like to say)?
Michael Shermer: Oh well I think it’s definitely the application of technologies through smart phones, and iPads and laptops through the internet and reversing the classroom; essentially you can get your classroom lectures online for free! Not just the MOOC courses – the online video recordings of professors giving lectures (you know there’s 1000s of them now) but like the Khan Academy videos – these are short little 5 minute, 8 minute tutorials on very specific things, you know, math, algebra, english literature history, there’s 1000s of them now – I think the Gates Foundation is backing them too – that is getting beyond the idea that you have to have a brick and mortar building with kids sitting in rows – like little soldiers – because the fact that the original classroom was designed in a way to impose order on children and teach them to be good citizens and soldiers for the nation. I mean it was really Nationalism kind of movement – it’s not that I’m against having classrooms – I’m a professor, I have a class where I will be lecturing for hours in a classroom with 25 students sitting there taking notes – that’s fine, that’s good – it’s not the only thing – you can get any kind of education you want now, right now! I can too – I take teaching company courses when I’m out riding my bike or commuting the LA traffic – I listen to lectures – they are about 30 minutes – by the best professors in the world that go to the studio and this company, record these lectures professionally and they’re great – you know I take stuff on Shakespeare, taking courses on ancient history – there’s 100s of courses like that – I would never have the time otherwise to just sit down and take a class.. but if you’re just driving, or if you’re out walking, hiking, working out or cycling (in my case) why not get information – and it’s super cheap, it’s unbelievably cheap (Adam: Yes some are for free, it’s incredible!) – even podcasts! You know I’m a latecomer to doing podcasts thing as a guest being interviewed but folks are listening to it – and it turns out there are some really good podcasts – they’re totally free – and they’re unscripted conversations, like you and I are having – they just talk – and I learn a lot from people I’ve either never heard of or have heard of and have always wanted to read their book or whatever – or just didn’t have time – and here he is, he is just talking for the next hour and a half – in the case of Joe Rogan – 40 hours on a particular topic – you know it’s great – and it’s free! Again one of those projections in the future – at some point person on the planet will have access to the internet and virtually all knowledge will be free and immediately accessible on a hand held device – that’s gotta change the world!
Adam Ford: Yeah I know – I mean the more rationally and I guess informed people are, the more likely I think people will be able to make better informed decisions (Michael: Hopefully!) – I suspect it will be the case but there are still a lot of ideas on the internet that don’t have a lot of basis in proof so my next question is – what kinds of ideas that some people loosely define as ‘scientific’ are ready to be thrown out, retired, or put to rest? and why the hell are they still in currency?
Michael Shermer: First of all the internet is like the printing press – we don’t want to ban certain sites, just like we don’t want to ban books – it’s a bad idea. The new technologies bring side effects that are unwanted – in this case non-fact checked sites that just spew, not just spewing hate but false information – which in many ways is even worse – I mean the hate, the bigotry stuff you can see it – it’s obvious and anybody that has a brain and a heart can ignore it – but the information that’s not quite true – not crazy stuff like ‘Aliens are running the world.. lizards living in Mexico…’ you know – no one believes that – it’s more of the stuff that you know ‘I heard that whatever..’ is some political thing – we get back to the problem of baloney detection, we have to have certain critical questions that we ask before we accept things as true – and that’s what we’re here for – that’s what you do, that’s what I do – we’re all out there pushing back, push back, push back – and that there is many people who are aware that there you can’t just believe everything that you read on the internet.
Adam Ford: Okay – on the theme of being scientifically minded – in what ways have you personally updated your belief based on new evidence – what have you changed your mind about? (it could be something that happened yonks ago, or recently)
Michael Shermer: Well both, I used to be a born again Christian and a creationist and I abandoned both of those beliefs when I saw the facts didn’t support it. More recently, I used to be always in favor of the death penalty – mainly out of sympathy for the victims families – but then that always kind of went against my libertarian beliefs because I’m always hesitant about having the state having too much power; I was always slightly conflicted about that. Then when I was writing ‘The Moral Arc’ I really looked into the literature on ‘does it deter crime?’ – no, ‘does it deter homicides?’ – no. Because most of these crimes and homicides are committed in acts of emotional outbursts – usually there’s some moralistic component to it – it’s not a thought through rational calculation by a rational agent saying ‘okay I can get the Rolex watch, I can steal the car but I might face the death penalty’ – there’s no calculations like that anyway. And worst of all the corruption of the criminal justice system and too many people have very likely been put to death and are sitting on death row who don’t belong there – we know that for sure 100% over 200 have been exonerated through DNA alone – these are mostly rape homicide cases where there’s a rape case still in the archives that can be tested using DNA introduced in the 90s and that’s changed everything. And it’s come out that not only that but also a lot of police departments and criminal justice systems are not very efficient – not just corruption but also relying on things like eye-witness testimony which is not reliable. I’d like to air on the side of keeping too much power from the state – the power to kill people – the death penalty, also I’m sympathetic to the victims families yes but prison is a pretty rotten place to be and maybe there’s some satisfaction in knowing that the person who killed your loved one is at least rotting away on one of these hell holes – maybe it would feel better … I don’t know, there’s just too many problems with the death penalty. Gun control – I think we should have some gun control – some background checks – just basic stuff that most people think is reasonable – I used to be against those, now I’m for those. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things.
Adam Ford: Awesome! Well next question would be: what invention or idea do you think will change ‘everything’?
Michael Shermer: Yeah – that was one the Brockman questions – I can’t remember what my answer was now – but I think it was the scientific method – the way of science – it’s already been invented but just keep doing more of it. Obviously some big ones like the internet a game changer for sure. But the problem is I don’t even know what we don’t know – if you asked that question of Homo Erectus 2 million years ago, it would be ‘oh I think better stone tools are going to change everything’ – they’re not thinking ‘I need more bandwidth’ for my internet – they don’t even know what they don’t know – we didn’t even know about the internet say 25 years ago – 50 years ago, whatever. There was no such thing.. yeah well you know if in 50 years 125 – I don’t know, I really don’t – I think that one big thing would be .. you know my next book is called ‘Heavens on earth – the quest for immortality’ – I’ve been reading a lot about radical life extension, cryonics..
Adam Ford: You know that’s an interest of mine – I don’t believe in immortality – but I certainly think that radical life extension is possible in theory, in principle, it’s just that I don’t think we have any clear signs of it happening within our lifetimes – but it might happen in our lifetimes – and I’m open to that and I’ll certainly be all for it. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews with Aubrey de Grey and a number of other people – that have pretty concrete predefined testable theories about whether this will work or not.. so lets see.
Michael Shermer: So I mean in terms of what would be a break through – it’s not getting people to live 200 years, 500 years or whatever – I think it’s getting more people to live quality lives into their 80s, 90s and even into their 100s – the maximum life span is about 125 – no one’s ever going to make it past that and there are genetic reasons for that – that we can’t yet solve involving the telomeres and all that – but instead of worrying about that, let’s just link certain problems like alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease – the things that take you out or make you miserable at the end of your life, you know.. (Adam: Extending health-span) yes.. instead of living from 80-90 or 90-100 bed ridden, miserable and unable to walk – that’s not living – so that would be a goal for people that do that kind of research to aim for – you know I mean people I interviewed for my book say ‘sure, don’t you want to live to be 500?’ – my response is just get me to 100 without being senile, bed ridden with tubes in my stomach and just completely out of it – I don’t want to live like that – I’m not worried about 500 years – I just want to get to 100 and have a good healthy life…
Adam Ford: See how you feel when you get to 100, and the new generations of medicine are out and about then – then you can decide whether you want to continue to live – if you’re miserable and sad you may not want to continue – and that’s the thing, it’s a useful technology to give people choice about whether they want to continue to exist or not – and I think that’s interesting.
Micheal Shermer: Yeah well the polls on it show that most people say that they would not want to live beyond usually about 80 to 85 years – and you know, I think they are just not thinking this through carefully – they are thinking they are going to be bed ridden or whatever – of course, no one wants to live like that – but in fact if you were healthy and said well ‘you have a death sentence, you are going to die a week from tomorrow – but if you take this pill you will live an extra year – would you like to do that?’ – ‘Oh, yeah of course’ – yeah and so take it forward another year and make the same offer ‘yeah, I’ll take one more year’… and one more year, and one more year! As long as you’re healthy and reasonably happy .. of course we can see if we can op that – no ones going to go ‘no, I’m done’ – well unless your suicidal – the average healthy, happy person is not going to say ‘I’m done now’ – because of some philosophical, metaphysical notion of ‘we should only live as long as is normal or natural’ – well what that means is most of us would have been dead long ago anyway because there is very little natural in modern medicine – the whole point of medicine is to overcome those natural problems that disease and just entropy – just the assault on the body and brain that we are learning to reverse or avoid.
Adam Ford: Have you interviewed Liz Parrish at all? (Michael: no, I don’t know Liz) – well this is something interesting – there are a number of people who are interested in rejuvenating the telomeres (with the aid of telomerase) without causing cancer – there are some people who seem to be making some in-roads – but I don’t know what kind of test need to be done to justify whether they have made any success – and whether they will take 30 years to do the test or not. But it is interesting that there are people working on that problem knowing that if you just do it in a hap-hazard way you might end up causing disease – like causing cancer.
Michael Shermer: That’s right pleiotropy .. (Adam: Antagonistic pleiotropy?) .. yeah that’s right – so you have to be careful about that – but I was encouraged to see that it looks like drinking beer might be good for oneself so maybe Aubrey de Grey is on to something there – you know he loves beer (Adam: he certainly does) – and so do I so hey okay!
Adam Ford: Well the last joint question is: What are you most concerned about and what are you most optimistic about with reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine or mathematics)?
Michael Shermer: Well, I guess more broadly – first, concern about Islamic terrorism, and fundamentalist religion and in general and Islamic terrorism in particular – I don’t think it’s an existential threat – they’re not going to take over the western world – that’s not going to happen – you know but it can cause a lot of carnage and that’s a concern. The continued reduction of nuclear weapons I think is important – I want to look forward to more of that. In terms of STEM and continuing to promote science – is just we don’t want any setbacks. This idea that political ideology or economic ideology or religious beliefs trump scientific facts… no, no, no, no, no! We have to change our beliefs to fit the facts and not vice versa – that’s a deep rooted human problem within our nature to want to be right regardless of the facts, in the teeth of counter evidence – it’s called cognitive dissonance, the more you commit to a particular belief and you confront facts that contradict it the more likely you are to spin doctor the facts rather than your beliefs and that’s a very human problem – every body does it – you know so I think that’s an area we need more work on – not just understanding how it works, we know how cognitive dissonance works, but what to do about it – so long as we’re working on that. So that’s what I’m optimistic about!
Adam Ford: And I’m optimistic about the Science March!
Michael Shermer: Yes right I’m not it – lets go, let’s do it!
Adam Ford: So I hope people get involved and show to the world just how interested people are in science. It’s been fantastic having you on the show again! So I hope we cross paths again!
Michael Shermer: Oh we will, well definitely when my book comes out next January we’ll do another conversation.
Alright take care, cheers!

March for Science – 22nd April 2017!

March for Science Melbourne

March for Science RallyJoin us in Melbourne on April 22nd to champion science as a pillar of human prosperity!  This will be huge – invite everyone to come – yes, everyone!

WHEN: EARTH DAY, 22nd April 2017
WHERE: Melbourne (Schedule & Location TBA)
WHY: Among other things, a global event bringing together people from all walks of life who believe we need more evidence and reason in our political process.

“The March for Science champions publicly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good, and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.”

The March for Science in Melbourne will be on the 22nd of April.  Please join the meetup group and tweet about it – push it out on social media!



Recent world events have inspired us to march in our cities to ask our leaders to use science to make decisions through evidence, not ignorance, and to ensure science and scientific literacy is accessible and achievable to all.


Robert S. Young thinks it’s a bad idea – what do you think?



Check out the main facebook page (connected to the March in Washington DC). And the Main Website!

Extending Life is Not Enough

Dr Randal Koene covers the motivation for human technological augmentation and reasons to go beyond biological life extension.

randal_koene_squareCompetition is an inescapable occurrence in the animate and even in the inanimate universe. To give our minds the flexibility to transfer and to operate in different substrates bestows upon our species the most important competitive advantage.” I am a neuroscientist and neuroengineer who is currently the Science Director at Foundation 2045, and the Lead Scientist at Kernel, and I head the organization, which is the outreach and roadmapping organization for the development of substrate-independent minds (SIM) and also previously participated in the ambitious and fascinating efforts of the nanotechnology startup Halcyon Molecular in Silicon Valley.

Slides of talk online here
Video of Talk:

Points discussed in the talk:
1. Biological Life-Extension is Not Enough Randal A. Koene
3. No one wants to live longer just to live longer. Motivation informs Method.
4. Having an Objective, a Goal, requires that you have some notion of success.
5. Creating (intelligent) machines that have the capabilities we do not — is not as good as being able to experience them ourselves… Imagine… creating/playing music. Imagine… being the kayak.Imagine… perceiving the background radiation of the universe.
6. Is being out of the loop really your goal?
7. Near-term goals: Extended lives without expanded minds are in conflict with creative development.
8. Social
9. Gene survival is extremely dependent on an environment — it is unlikely to survive many changes.Worse… gene replication does not sustain that which we care most about!
10. Is CTGGAGTAC better than GTTGACTGAC? We are vessels for that game — but for the last10,000 years something has been happening!
11. Certain future experiences are desirable, others are not — these are your perspectives, the memes you champion…Death keeps stealing our champions, our experts.
12. Too early to do uploading? – No! The big perspective is relevant now. We don’t like myopic thinking in our politicians, lets not be myopic about world issues ourselves.
14. Life-extension in biology may increase the fragility of our species & civilization… More people? – Resources. Less births? – Fewer novel perspectives. Expansion? – Environmental limitation.
15. Biological life-extension within the same evolutionary niche = further specialization to the same performance “over-training” in conflict with generalization
16. Aubrey de Grey: Ultimately, desires “uploading”
18. Significant biological life-extension is incredibly difficult and beset by threats. Reality vs. popular perception.
19. Life-extension and Substrate-Independence are two different objectives
20. Developing out of a “catchment area” (S. Gildert) may demand iterations of exploration — and exploration involves risk.Hard-wired delusions and drives. What would an AGI do? Which types of AGI would exist in the long run?
21. “Uploading” is just one step of many — but a necessary step — for a truly advanced species
22. Thank You

There is a short promo-interview for the Singularity Summit AU 2012 conference that Adam Ford did with Dr. Koene, though unfortunately the connection was a bit unreliable, which is noticeable in the video:

Most of those videos are available through the SciFuture YouTube channel:


Review of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari – Steve Fuller

Sapiens, a breif history of humankind - Yuval Noah HarariMy sociology of knowledge students read Yuval Harari’s bestselling first book, Sapiens, to think about the right frame of reference for understanding the overall trajectory of the human condition. Homo Deus follows the example of Sapiens, using contemporary events to launch into what nowadays is called ‘big history’ but has been also called ‘deep history’ and ‘long history’. Whatever you call it, the orientation sees the human condition as subject to multiple overlapping rhythms of change which generate the sorts of ‘events’ that are the stuff of history lessons. But Harari’s history is nothing like the version you half remember from school.

In school historical events were explained in terms more or less recognizable to the agents involved. In contrast, Harari reaches for accounts that scientifically update the idea of ‘perennial philosophy’. Aldous Huxley popularized this phrase in his quest to seek common patterns of thought in the great world religions which could be leveraged as a global ethic in the aftermath of the Second World War. Harari similarly leverages bits of genetics, ecology, neuroscience and cognitive science to advance a broadly evolutionary narrative. But unlike Darwin’s version, Harari’s points towards the incipient apotheosis of our species; hence, the book’s title.

This invariably means that events are treated as symptoms if not omens of the shape of things to come. Harari’s central thesis is that whereas in the past we cowered in the face of impersonal natural forces beyond our control, nowadays our biggest enemy is the one that faces us in the mirror, which may or may not be able within our control. Thus, the sort of deity into which we are evolving is one whose superhuman powers may well result in self-destruction. Harari’s attitude towards this prospect is one of slightly awestruck bemusement.

Here Harari equivocates where his predecessors dared to distinguish. Writing with the bracing clarity afforded by the Existentialist horizons of the Cold War, cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener declared that humanity’s survival depends on knowing whether what we don’t know is actually trying to hurt us. If so, then any apparent advance in knowledge will always be illusory. As for Harari, he does not seem to see humanity in some never-ending diabolical chess match against an implacable foe, as in The Seventh Seal. Instead he takes refuge in the so-called law of unintended consequences. So while the shape of our ignorance does indeed shift as our knowledge advances, it does so in ways that keep Harari at a comfortable distance from passing judgement on our long term prognosis.

Homo Deus YuvalThis semi-detachment makes Homo Deus a suave but perhaps not deep read of the human condition. Consider his choice of religious precedents to illustrate that we may be approaching divinity, a thesis with which I am broadly sympathetic. Instead of the Abrahamic God, Harari tends towards the ancient Greek and Hindu deities, who enjoy both superhuman powers and all too human foibles. The implication is that to enhance the one is by no means to diminish the other. If anything, it may simply make the overall result worse than had both our intellects and our passions been weaker. Such an observation, a familiar pretext for comedy, wears well with those who are inclined to read a book like this only once.

One figure who is conspicuous by his absence from Harari’s theology is Faust, the legendary rogue Christian scholar who epitomized the version of Homo Deus at play a hundred years ago in Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. What distinguishes Faustian failings from those of the Greek and Hindu deities is that Faust’s result from his being neither as clever nor as loving as he thought. The theology at work is transcendental, perhaps even Platonic.

In such a world, Harari’s ironic thesis that future humans might possess virtually perfect intellects yet also retain quite undisciplined appetites is a non-starter. If anything, Faust’s undisciplined appetites point to a fundamental intellectual deficiency that prevents him from exercising a ‘rational will’, which is the mark of a truly supreme being. Faust’s sense of his own superiority simply leads him down a path of ever more frustrated and destructive desire. Only the one true God can put him out of his misery in the end.

In contrast, if there is ‘one true God’ in Harari’s theology, it goes by the name of ‘Efficiency’ and its religion is called ‘Dataism’. Efficiency is familiar as the dimension along which technological progress is made. It amounts to discovering how to do more with less. To recall Marshall McLuhan, the ‘less’ is the ‘medium’ and the ‘more’ is the ‘message’. However, the metaphysics of efficiency matters. Are we talking about spending less money, less time and/or less energy?

It is telling that the sort of efficiency which most animates Harari’s account is the conversion of brain power to computer power. To be sure, computers can outperform humans on an increasing range of specialised tasks. Moreover, computers are getting better at integrating the operations of other technologies, each of which also typically replaces one or more human functions. The result is the so-called Internet of Things. But does this mean that the brain is on the verge of becoming redundant?

Those who say yes, most notably the ‘Singularitarians’ whose spiritual home is Silicon Valley, want to translate the brain’s software into a silicon base that will enable it to survive and expand indefinitely in a cosmic Internet of Things. Let’s suppose that such a translation becomes feasible. The energy requirements of such scaled up silicon platforms might still be prohibitive. For all its liabilities and mysteries, the brain remains the most energy efficient medium for encoding and executing intelligence. Indeed, forward facing ecologists might consider investing in a high-tech agronomy dedicated to cultivating neurons to function as organic computers – ‘Stem Cell 2.0’, if you will.

However, Harari does not see this possible future because he remains captive to Silicon Valley’s version of determinism, which prescribes a migration from carbon to silicon for anything worth preserving indefinitely. It is against this backdrop that he flirts with the idea that a computer-based ‘superintelligence’ might eventually find humans surplus to requirements in a rationally organized world. Like other Singularitarians, Harari approaches the matter in the style of a 1950s B-movie fan who sees the normative universe divided between ‘us’ (the humans) and ‘them’ (the non-humans).

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

The bravest face to put on this intuition is that computers will transition to superintelligence so soon – ‘exponentially’ as the faithful say — that ‘us vs. them’ becomes an operative organizing principle. More likely and messier for Harari is that this process will be dragged out. And during that time Homo sapiens will divide between those who identify with their emerging machine overlords, who are entitled to human-like rights, and those who cling to the new acceptable face of racism, a ‘carbonist’ ideology which would privilege organic life above any silicon-based translations or hybridizations. Maybe Harari will live long enough to write a sequel to Homo Deus to explain how this battle might pan out.

NOTE ON PUBLICATION: Homo Deus is published in September 2016 by Harvil Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Fuller would like to thank The Literary Review for originally commissioning this review. It will appear in a subsequent edition of the magazine and is published here with permission.

Video Interview with Steve Fuller covering the Homo Deus book

Steve fuller discusses the new book Homo Deus, how it relates to the general transhumanist philosophy and movementfactors around the success of these ideas going mainstream, Yuval Noah Harari’s writing style, why there has been a bias within academia (esp sociology) to steer away from ideas which are less well established in history (and this is important because our successfully navigating the future will require a lot of new ideas), existential risk, and we contrast a posthuman future with a future dominated by an AI superintelligence.

Yuval Harari’s books

– ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’:

– ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’:

Discussion on the Coursera course ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ (which I took a few years ago):

NASA Provides Free Access to All Published Research

nasaLogo-570x450NASA recently announced that it is providing free open access to all its published research – “Public access to NASA-funded research data now is just a click away, with the launch of a new agency public access portal. The creation of the NASA-Funded Research Results portal on reflects the agency’s ongoing commitment to providing broad public access to science data.”

Science Alert stated “The free online archive comes in response to a new NASA policy, which requires that any NASA-funded research articles in peer-reviewed journals be publicly accessible within one year of publication.”

That’s pretty exciting stuff!
“At NASA, we are celebrating this opportunity to extend access to our extensive portfolio of scientific and technical publications,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. “Through open access and innovation we invite the global community to join us in exploring Earth, air, and space.”

NASA now requires articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and papers in juried conference proceedings be publicly accessible via the agency’s PubSpace:

“Making our research data easier to access will greatly magnify the impact of our research,” said NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan. “As scientists and engineers, we work by building upon a foundation laid by others.”

Dwayne Brown at NASA headquaters in Washington writes “The NASA-Funded Research Results portal is in response to a 2013 request from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, directing science-funding agencies to develop plans to increase access to the results of federally-funded research. NASA’s public access plan was developed in coordination with the science and technology research community across the agency. NASA will continue to consult with the scientific community, academic institutions, publishers and other federal agencies to implement this plan and increase access to research results.”

“Making our research data easier to access will greatly magnify the impact of our research,” said NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan. “As scientists and engineers, we work by building upon a foundation laid by others.”

For more information, please visit:

Nasa GlobeReferences:

Science alert:

Application Driven Science vs Curiosity Inspired Science

Given that it’s hard to know what will be found through scientific discovery should commercial application be the only reason to do scientific research?
In this video Sheila Patek* said “Discovery-based research is most useful when new knowledge is sought for its own sake” – yes I agree with this [1], but fundamental scientific discovery-basted research± is one aspect of the scientific enterprise.
If you, as I do, buy into well researched notions that we are facing environmental, social, economic and technological risks – facing problems that directed science and engineering could provide answers to, it seems that at least in principle there should be a _balance_ between application-directed research for the sake of solving immediate known problems and novelty-oriented discovery research for the sake of new-knowledge (that once understood could actually help solve ‘real-world’ problems)[2].

Why knowledge for the pure sake of knowing is good enough to justify scientific research

[1] I’ve argued elsewhere that fundamental scientific discovery-based research is culturally useful µ (as a source of awe & wonder etc), as well as being very useful in that historically it has enabled putting to purpose ‘unknown unknowns’, transforming them into very useful real world applications – applications which seem difficult or impossible to anticipate until we get up close.

[2] The question then becomes understanding and refining this balance. Science is underfunded everywhere – it shouldn’t be the case that huge funding trade-offs should have to be made between goal oriented and novelty-based scientific research while we live in a world where there are huge piles of resources being spent on other wasteful enterprises.

*1 Duke University biologist Sheila Patek has faced criticism from lawmakers over her research into mantis shrimp and trap-jaw ants, with some calling her government-funded studies a waste of taxpayer money. But according to Patek, not only do her findings have important practical applications, but scientific inquiry is most fruitful when knowledge is sought for its own sake, not to justify budgets.

± Here I have treated ‘Discovery Science‘ in a similar sense to ‘fundamental scientific research‘.

µ Science focused on curiosity may – in the far future, be an imperative – we may never want an end to novelty, we may wish to mine for ever more effective axiologies, search for new & interesting models of value as opposed to being satisfied with current conceptions of what counts as valuable.

Brian Greene on Artificial Intelligence, the Importance of Fundamental Physics, Alien Life, and the Possible Future of Our Civilization

March 14th was Albert Einstein’s birthday, and also PI day, so it was a fitting day to be interviewing well known theoretical physicist and string theorist Brian Greene – the author of a number of books including, The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality!
Think-Inc-logo2Many thanks to Suzi and Desh at THINKINC for helping organize this interview & for bringing Brian Greene to Australia for a number of shows (March 16 in Perth, March 18 in Sydney and March 19 in Melbourne) – check out for more info!

Audio recording of the interview:

About the Interview with Brian Greene

Brian Greene discusses implications Artificial Intelligence and news of DeepMind AI (AlphaGo) beating the world grand champion in the board game Go.  He then discusses physics string theory, the territory of opinion on grand unifying theories of physics, the importance of supporting fundamental science, the possibility of alien life, the possible future of our space-faring civilization and of course gravitational waves!

In answer to the question on the importance of supporting fundamental research in science, Brain Greene said:

I tell them to wake up! Wake up and recognize that fundamental science has radically changed the way they live their lives today. If any of these individuals have a cell phone, or a personal computer, or perhaps they themselves or loved ones has been saved by an MRI machine.. I mean any of these devices rely on integrated circuits, which they themselves rely on quantum physics – so IF those folks who were in charge in the 1920s had have said, ‘hey you guys working on quantum physics, that doesn’t seem to be relevant to anything in the world around as so were going to cut your funding – well those people would have short circuited on of the greatest revolutions that our species has gone through – the information age, the technological age – so the bottom line is we need to support fundamental research because we know historically that when you gain a deep understanding of how things work – we can often leverage that to then manipulate the world around us in spectacular ways! And that needs to be where our fundamental focus remains – in science!


Layered art of Brian Greene, background and series titleBrian Randolph Greene is an American theoretical physicist and string theorist. He has been a professor at Columbia University since 1996 and chairman of the World Science Festival since co-founding it in 2008. Greene has worked on mirror symmetry, relating two different Calabi–Yau manifolds (concretely, relating the conifold to one of its orbifolds). He also described the flop transition, a mild form of topology change, showing that topology in string theory can change at the conifold point.

Greene has become known to a wider audience through his books for the general public, The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Hidden Reality, and related PBS television specials. He also appeared on The Big Bang Theory episode “The Herb Garden Germination“, as well as the films Frequency and The Last Mimzy. He is currently a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


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