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Stewart Brand
Works at The Long Now Foundation
Attended Stanford University
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Stewart Brand

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Enhancing Humans and Humanity (Ramez Naam talk)

Last week the author of the riveting technothriller Nexus trilogy, former Microsoft exec Ramez Naam, gave a Long Now  talk to a packed house in San Francisco.  Here’s my summary...

Beginning with the accelerating pace of biotech tools for human health and enhancement, Naam noted that health issues such as disease prevention will be drastically easier to implement than enhancement.  Preventing some hereditary diseases can be done with a single gene adjustment, whereas enhancement of traits like intelligence or longevity entails the fine tuning of hundreds of genes.  He favors moving ahead with human germline engineering to totally eliminate some of our most horrific diseases.

Over time he expects that human gene editing will lead in the opposite direction from the enforced conformity depicted in Brave New World and the film “Gattica.”  Instead people will relish exploring variety, and the plummeting costs of the technology will mean that the poor will benefit as well as the rich.

Naam’s brain discussion began with the Sergey Brin quote, “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”  Brain interface tools are proliferating.  There are already 200,000 successful cochlear implants which feed sound directly into the nervous system.  There is a digital eye that feeds pretty good visual data directly to the brain via a jack in the side of the user’s head.  There is a hippocampus chip that can restore brain function in a rat.  

Rat brains have been linked so that what one rat learns, the other rat knows.  The paper on that work was titled “Meta-organism of Two Rats on the Internet.”  Humans also have been linked brain to brain at a distance to share function.  Zebrafish have been lit up to show all their neurons firing in real time.  Coming soon is the deployment of “neural dust” that can provide ultrasonic communications with tens of thousands of neurons at a time.  

How profound are the ethical issues?  Naam observed that we already have many of the attributes of telepathy in our cell phones and smart phones.  They came so rapidly and cheaply that they erased most of the concerns about a “digital divide.”  Half of the world is now on the Internet, with the rest coming fast. And rather than a divider, the technology proved to be an equalizer and a connector, fostering economic growth and the rapid spread and sifting of ideas.

Digital connectivity, he argued, is widening everyone’s “circle of empathy.”  A viral video started the Arab Spring.  Viral videos are changing how everyone thinks about race in America.  These technologies, he concluded, are making humans more humane.

One question from the audience inquired about the origin of so much reference in the Nexus series to group meditation as the epitome of mind sharing.  Naam noted that Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, are highly interested in brain science, and his own experiences of the ecstacy of mind sharing were at a rave at Burning Man and a ten-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Thailand.

I asked if he agreed with the current round of panic about superintelligent artificial intelligence posing an existential threat to humanity.  He said no.  The dark scenarios imagine an AI so smart it implements new and grotesquely harmful pathways to solve a poorly contextualized problem.  Naam pointed out that “Software almost never does anything well by accident.” (A flock of Tweets burst from the theater with that line.)  And the dark scenarios imagine an isolated rogue super-capable AI.  In reality nothing really capable is developed in isolation.
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Slate goes deep on anti-GMO lies

GMOs have been ubiquitous for 20 years now.  All the early questions and arguments have long been settled. With every year the anti-GMO rhetoric gets more surreal.
Is genetically engineered food dangerous? Many people seem to think it is. In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms. Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon...
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zaf tak
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The right place for solar farms

Mineral desert!  No life forms affected.

Compare with green desert, such as Ivanpah in California, where the local ecology is devastated.
An increasing number of solar panels take advantage of the desert’s copious sunshine.
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I would opt for most of the Bible Belt and add Arizona +Kenneth Cummings, but hey that's just who I am. Troll away.
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Enabling dengue fever by opposing high tech mosquito abatement

One of the best online venues for environmental news and discussion is Environment 360 from Yale, edited by Roger Cohn.

The report on Oxitec’s mosquito project in Florida is exemplary.  Operative quote about the opponents to the tech:

“It’s hard to reason people out of a decision they didn’t reason themselves into.”
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The Infectious Disease Promotion movement aligns vaccine-haters and GMO-haters, sadly.
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De-extinction science (Beth Shapiro talk)

Beth Shapiro is the author of an excellent new book on de-extinction (HOW TO CLONE A MAMMOTH) and the leader of the effort to bring passenger pigeons back from extinction, working with Revive & Restore.  Honored as a MacArthur Fellow in 2009, she created and runs the Paleogenomics Lab at University of California Santa Cruz.  Here’s my summary of her SALT talk for Long Now last week:

De-extinction science

When people hear about “ancient DNA” in fossils, Shapiro began, the first question always is “Can we clone a dinosaur?” Dinosaurs died out so many millions of years ago, their fossils are nothing but rock (and by the way, there’s no workaround with mosquitoes in amber because amber totally destroys DNA). With no DNA, there’s no chance of cloning a dinosaur. (Sorry.)

The fossils of woolly mammoths, though, are not rock. They died out only thousands of years ago, and their remains are pretty well preserved in frozen tundra, which means there is recoverable DNA. So, Plan A, can we clone a mammoth? It would be like Dolly-the-sheep, where you take nuclear DNA from somewhere in the preserved mammoth body, inject it into the egg of a closely related species (Asian elephant), plant the mammoth embryo in a surrogate mother, and in two years, a newborn woolly mammoth! But as soon as any animal dies, unless it is cyropreserved with great care, all the DNA is attacked by gut bacteria, by water, by temperature change, and soon you have nothing but tiny fragments. Nobody has found any intact cells or intact DNA in frozen mammoth mummies, and probably they never will. So, you can’t clone a mammoth. (Sorry.)

Okay, Plan B, can you sequence a mammoth—reconstruct the entire genome through digital analysis_ and then rebuild it chemically and plant that in an elephant egg? Ancient DNA, even from the best specimens, is so badly fragmented and contaminated it’s hard to tell what bits are mammoth and how they go together. Using the elephant genome for comparison, though, you can do a pretty good job of approximating the original. Just last week the successful sequencing and assembly of the full woolly mammoth genome—4 billion base pairs—was announced. But all sequencing is incomplete, including the human genome, and maybe important elements got left out. A genome rebuilt from scratch won’t be functional, and you can’t create a mammoth with it. (Sorry.)

Alright, Plan C, can you engineer a mammoth? Take a living elephant genome and cut and paste important mammoth genes into it so you get all the mammoth traits you want. There is an incredibly powerful new tool for genome editing called CRISPR Cas 9 that can indeed swap synthetic mammoth genes into an elephant genome, and this has been done by George Church and his team at Harvard. They swapped in 14 genes governing mammoth traits for long hair, extra fat, and special cold-adapted blood cells. If you can figure out the right genes to swap, and you get them all working in an elephant genome, and you manage the difficult process of cross-species cloning and cross-species parenthood, then you may get mammoth-like Asian elephants capable of living in the cold.

(During the Q & A, Shapiro pointed out that with birds the process is different than with mammals. Instead of cloning, you take the edited genome and inject it into primordial germ cells of the embryo of a closely related bird. If all goes well, when the embryo grows up, it has the gonads of the extinct bird and will lay some eggs carrying the traits of the extinct animal.)

Why bring back extinct animals? Certainly not to live in zoos. But in the wild they could restore missing ecological interactions. Shapiro described Sergey Zimov’s “Pleistocene Park” in northern Siberia, where he proved that a dense herd of large herbivores can turn tundra into grassland—”the animals create and maintain their own grazing environment.” The woolly mammoth was a very large herbivore. Its return to the Arctic could provide new habitat for endangered species, help temper climate change, increase the population of elephants in the world, and bring excitement and a reframed sense of what is possible to conservation.

Furthermore, Shapiro concluded, the technology of de-extinction can be applied to endangered species. Revive & Restore is working on the black-footed ferret, which has inbreeding problems and extreme vulnerability to a disease called sylvatic plague. Gene variants that are now absent in the population might be recovered from the DNA of specimens in museums, and the living ferrets could get a booster shot from their ancestors.
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The “everything is dying!” lament

I wish I could add the following to my Aeon piece (at the link), for any who think I’m overstating the “panic and paralysis” effect of extinction exaggeration.  It’s from the Booker-Prize-runner-up A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, by Ruth Ozeki.  The young Japanese female narrator laments:

”…I hate the idea of the world without old Jiko.  She’s totally unique and special, like the last Galapagos tortoise or some other ancient animal hobbling aorund on the scorched earth, who is the only one left of its kind.  But please don’t get me going on the topic of species extinction because it’s totally depressing, and I’ll have to commit suicide right this second."

But in reality the Galapagos tortoises are doing well, up to a population of 19,000 from their 1974 low of 3,000.  And the real rate of extinction world-wide is not despair-worthy.  It’s get-to-work-worthy.
The idea that we are edging up to a mass extinction is not just wrong – it’s a recipe for panic and paralysis
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والله ما فاهم شئ
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Follow-on to "Pandora's Promise"

Before Robert Stone's movie about five environmentalists changing their mind to support nuclear energy (I was one) premiered at Sundance, he asked the audience their views about nuclear.  80% were opposed, 20% in favor.  After the film he asked again.  Now 20% were opposed and 80% were in favor.

What changed their minds?  In the 2 1/2 years since it premiered, Robert Stone has explored what made the film work so wall.  In this talk for the Thorium Energy Alliance last month, he spells out what has transpired in the world and in his mind as he becomes an ever stronger proponent for nuclear energy to head off climate change.
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+Stewart Brand Anyone wanting to shorten Robert's talk to meme-size segment(s) the 3.3 GB MP4 can be found here: ...right-click on the Robert file, download it to your hard drive, then use a desktop editing tool to extract your favorite moment. Shorter videos often propagate faster than long ones. (Be sure to include a link to Pandora's Promise itself in your description field!)
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Mark Lynas on the Ecomodernist vision

When I saw this talk live, I wished its text would be available online.  Now it is.

It’s a more accessible and eloquent version of The Ecomodernist Manifesto (q.v.).
Speech by Mark Lynas at the Breakthrough Dialogue 2015, Cavallo Point, San Francisco 8.30am, 22 June 2015 Ladies and gentlemen, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of … Read more...
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Great that Mark starts the expository part of the essay with the demographic transition and peak child. I always recommend Rosling as well as you, et al when introducing  ecomodernism to others.
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Neil Gaiman on how stories last through time

The full audio is now up at the link below for a remarkable talk that Neil Gaiman gave for The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco last week.  Here’s my summary...

Stories are alive. The ones that last, Gaiman said, outcompete other stories by changing over time. They make it from medium to medium—from oral to written to film and beyond. They lose uninteresting elements but hold on to the most compelling bits or even add some. The most popular version of the Cinderella story (which may have originated long ago in China) has kept the gloriously unlikely glass slipper introduced by a careless French telling.

“Stories,” Gaiman said, “teach us how the world is put together and the rules of living in the world, and they come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and want to help them propagate.” Northwest coast native Americans have a tale about a beautiful woman and young man whose forbidden love was punished by the earth shaking, and black ash on snow, and finally fire coming from a mountain, killing many people. It stopped only when the beautiful woman was thrown into the burning mountain.

That is important information– solid-seeming mountains can suddenly erupt, and early warnings of that are earthquakes and ash. As pure information it won’t last beyond three generations. But add in beauty and forbidden love and tragic death, and the story will be told as long as people live in the mountains.

The first emperor of China died 2,300 years ago. He was so powerful that he was able to totally conceal the location of his tomb, and all that was left was stories about the fabulous treasures buried with him. There was said to a whole army of terracotta warriors and ships floating on lakes of mercury. A few years ago a terracotta warrior was dug up in a field in China, and then a whole army of them. Archaeologists figured out where the emperor’s mausoleum must be buried, but first they did something not normally done at archeological digs. They checked if there might be any incredibly poisonous mercury around. There is.

Gaiman said he learned something important about stories from his cousin Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor who taught class in a Polish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Books were forbidden on pain of death, but Helen had a Polish translation of Gone With the Wind she read at night, and she told its story to her entranced students by day. “The magic of escapist fiction,” Gaiman said, “is that it can offer you escape from an otherwise intolerable situation, and it can furnish you with armor, knowledge, weapons, and other tools you can take back into your life to make it better.”

“‘Once upon a time,’ Gaiman said, “is code for ‘I’m lying to you.’ We experience stories as lies and truth at the same time. We learn to empathize with real people via made-up people. The most important thing that fiction does is it lets us look out through other eyes, and that teaches us empathy—that behind every pair of eyes is somebody like us.“

Stories have their own form of life, Gaiman concluded. “You can view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use for breeding and transmission. They are symbiotic with us. They are the thing that we have used since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person.“
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Ehrlich’s Population Bomb revisited

I feature in one of the great Retro Reports at the New York Times.  This one takes a hard look at Paul Ehrlich’s ferocious campaign in the 1970s to get everyone worried about overpopulation--in which he succeeded hugely.  In the video you’ll see me organizing in support of his campaign.

But Paul was hugely wrong.

In the video I regret it in detail.  Paul still says he wasn’t wrong.
In 1968, a book by a Stanford biologist predicted doom for the planet in coming decades. Whatever became of the population bomb?
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+Michael Coxe If they are selfish they are the very people who should NOT be having kids.  The most important factor in the healthy psychological, intellectual, cognitive and physical development of any infant/child/adolescent/adult, is the love they receive from those who are for them- especially in the first three years of life.  A person who is selfish should never be a parent.
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The Return of Nature - Jesse Ausubel’s landmark article

Peak farmland, peak timber.  Ever more land being spared for nature by efficient agriculture.  Ever dropping consumption of water, fuel, materials.

As a conservationist I’m thrilled that the most important things being done for conservation are NOT being done by conservationists, and not for conservation reasons.  They are a byproduct of civilization working on making civilization function better.

This article is based on the SALT talk that Jesse gave for Long Now in January.
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True that.
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*National Geographic on Chipotle’s anti-GMO stance”

“What Chipotle is doing isn’t science and it isn’t common sense.“

I just wish I was a regular customer, so I could now boycott the franchise, but my heart and stomach is with KFC chicken.
The popular Mexican chain's decision will likely fan the flames of an already burning controversy pitting science against public passion.
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I use GFP in my genetics lab-- for high school students. We transform bacteria to make them glow under UV. Our protection-- latex gloves. It's safe.
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Have him in circles
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  • The Long Now Foundation
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writer futurist environmentalist
  • Stanford University
    Biology, 1956 - 1960