Disclaimer: The views expressed here are mine alone, and not necessarily those of my employer or any organization with which I am affiliated. These views are not intended to advertise or offer legal services to the reader, or to be relied on as practical advice in any respect. Apparent statement of facts may or may not have been specifically researched beforehand. Unless I expressly indicate to the contrary, the material appearing here is original work, subject to copyright protection. Any reference in the text to specific individuals or companies who are not explicitly named is unintended and purely coincidental.
Comments? You can (try to) contact me at admin (at) limitsofknowledge (dot) com. Keep in mind that I'm still learning the technical aspects of blogging, and do have a demanding job, so don't be offended if it takes me a while to respond.

Friday, June 1, 2007 -- 9:32 pm

I wonder how long it will be before genetic engineering has reached the point when people can program life forms--working genomes--from scratch. I imagine there are some ethical considerations associated with playing God in this way, but it does sound like a fascinating topic. It would be an enormous undertaking, of course -- programming intelligence, embryological development, metabolism, and the like, along with all the technical details of bring such a genome to life in the first place. Training for the task would require quite the university curriculum.

Friday, June 1, 2007 -- 9:20 pm

There's an article in today's NY Times about a company that sequenced James Watson's genome, apparently as a proof-of-principle demonstration. I found it extremely curious, though, that the sequencing project merely identified potential diseases for which Dr. Watson apparently has various propensities; the reports are silent, I assume because the sequencing company was as well, on what Dr. Watson's genome says about his personality traits, talents, and other predilections. I wonder why this is.

I suppose the most straightforward answer is that scientists really haven't been studying that, and there's just not enough information out there at this point to identify which genes are responsible for musical talent (say) at all, let alone to tell tone-deafness from the next untapped Mozart. It is, of course, easiest to study genes by studying genetic diseases, but that seems to create a paradigm in which all deviations are regarded as aberrations, when some of them may represent innate talent.

But even if we could identify those sorts of traits from someone's genome at this point, that seems to open up a pandora's box. Do I want people to see (if it's true) that I suffer a genetic impediment to economic reasoning? Does recognizing such talents in a child impose any special obligations on the parent, or guilt? Does it help us quantify damages in medical malpractice and lead poisoning cases? Does it impose any expectations or requirements on the possessor of the genome, who may not want to pursue the career that their genome says they were born for? Does it serve as a social bar on pursuing things for which one lacks certified talent? Does it pave the way for cut-and-paste designer children, and invent a new caste system in an already stratifying society?

Perhaps. And there's part of me that wonders that a genomic forecast of this type is exactly the sort of thing that kills hope and the possibility of real self-knowledge -- the type that arises through reflection and experience.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007 -- 9:01 pm

One of my long-standing interests being how to preserve and pass on our accumulated cultural knowledge (in the event, say, of some global cataclysm, a deep-space voyage, and the like), I often think about a notion of the word technology that I came across at some point in a book on Mayan archaeology. I think the point was that we tend to think of technology in terms of gadgets, but that there are other, less tangible cultural artifacts that are just as useful: things like modern financial vehicles; publicly owned corporations; legal paradigms such as the rules of evidence, constitutional rights, civil procedure, and bodies of law; the scientific method; rules of parliamentary debate; even-tempered musical tuning; calculus; symbolic logic; recipes; advertising strategies; and so on. This also reminds me of the translator's introduction to an edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which commented that Tibetan culture celebrated the feats of great meditators, who had explored the recesses of consciousness and existence through feats of concentration and visualization, much as Western culture celebrated explorers, scientists, and astronauts.

I suppose that this interest, combined with my archival tendencies, classifies me as an encyclopedist, and a quick perusal of the Wikipedia entry for that term confirms that yes, encyclopedias have indeed been intended throughout history to summarize all acquired knowledge. Here I have to voice my reservation with such a classification, though. Although it's been a long time since I holed up with a print encyclopedia intent on absorbing All Knowledge, I distinctly remember being dissatisfied with the cursory nature of the entries in even the most-respected publications. They didn't communicate anything more than what should already have been common knowledge on the subject, whereas I demanded a specialist's expertise. So is it time for a new encyclopedia? I should think so. But who would undertake this, and who would be qualified to carry it out? Each time it's been attempted in the past has taken whole lifetimes.

It seems to me that this would be an ideal task for artificial intelligence. An army of intelligent machines could peruse the world's libraries, sifting and collating the data, organizing it into a coherent and systematic regime, and distilling portions of it for our daily consumption. Artifical intelligence isn't quite ready for this, though. And why not? I think a lot of it has to do with language processing and the difficulties associated with programming the computer to weigh evidence and the reliability of various sources, and then automating the composition of original material that concisely and accurately restates what it's learned. Actually, if a machine could do that already, I'd likely be out of a job-- but it might still be worth it.