Monthly Archives: juni 2017

Architecture in the spirit of times

By | Algemeen | No Comments

The human being is a complex organism with a discriminating consciousness capable of abstract thought, language, and a high degree of technical manipulation of our physical surroundings. These abilities, along with limitless ambition and imagination, have led to a condition of alienation from our instincts and environment. Our science, technologies, political systems, belief systems, and patterns of consumption have all evolved to reinforce a duality between self and object, figure and ground, man and nature.

More than 2000 years ago, the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, was the author of De architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture, a treatise written in Latin and Greek on architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. This work is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity. Vitruvius is famous for asserting in this book that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas—that is, it must be strong or durable, useful, and beautiful.

Nature themes can be found in the earliest human structures: Stylized animals characteristic of the Neolithic Gobekli Tepe ; the Egyptian sphinx, or the acanthus leaves adorning Greek temples and their Vitruvian origin story; from the primitive hut to the delicate, leafy filigrees of Rococo design. Representations of animals and plants have long been used for decorative and symbolic ornamentation. Beyond representation, cultures around the world have long brought nature into homes and public spaces. Classic examples include the garden courtyards of the Alhambra in Spain, porcelain fish bowls in ancient China, the aviary in Teotihuacan (ancient Mexico City), or the elusive hanging gardens of Babylon.

Western attitudes toward nature were shifting in the mid-19th century; natural landscapes became valid art subjects, as seen in the Hudson River School and the Barbizon School in France. Inspiration from nature was in full view in the Art Nouveau designs of the late 19th Century. Exuberant plant tendrils lacing through buildings in Belgium, the lush flowers that are Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps, and the explicitly biomorphic forms of Antonio Gaudi’s buildings all remain strong examples. In Chicago, Louis Sullivan created elaborate ornamentation with leaves and cornices that represent tree branches.

The values that have been embodied in mainstream western architecture since the Renaissance are principally expressive of Humanist beliefs regarding the relationship of the human being to the universe. Modernism, which celebrated rationality and the machine, was a clear attempt to expunge completely all reference to transpersonal forces that did not fit neatly into the humanist worldview. Post-modernism, was an attempt to reintroduce the elements of decoration and symbolic reference into the architectural vocabulary, in recognition of the necessity of a fuller human psychological engagement with our built environment.

This human psychological engagement has the potential to yield important insights into the factors informing our affect and behavior with regard to both the natural and the man-made spheres. Taken together affect and behavior are sometimes insufficiently articulated or only partially acknowledged. Architecture is and always has, as pointed out above, given expression to our relationship with the world around us, emotions and perceptions of life. The psychological dynamics of this expression deserve our respectful attention. The consistency of natural themes in historic structures and places suggests that natural inspired design is not a new phenomenon; rather, as a field of applied science, it is the codification of history, human intuition and neural sciences demonstrates that connections with nature are vital to maintaining a healthful and vibrant existence as an urban species. The last decade has seen a steady growth in work around and the intersections of neuroscience and architecture, both in research and in practice; even green building standards have begun to incorporate biophilia, predominantly for its contribution to indoor environmental quality and connection to place. For the purpose of understanding the context of Biophilic Design, nature is defined as living organisms and non-living components of an ecosystem – inclusive of everything from the sun and moon and seasonal arroyos, to managed forests and urban raingardens,

So, architecture is more than aesthetics. In architecture, new awareness of the complexity of cognitive and emotional processes involved in the daily experience of designed environments has rapidly grown. Design studies and life sciences have been continuously inspiring each other, but only recently have they started to truly share interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological perspectives. The contribution of life- and neuroscientists is actively influencing the architectural debate. According to this perspective, distinct elements of form and space in architectural perception may be processed and represented in highly specialized brain regions in a sensory modality-independent manner.

For our built environment to express and reflect the psychological zeitgeist those who shape this environment must be in tune with the spirit of the times. But we live at the end of a period of nationalism, secularism, and materialism that appears to be dissolving in a cycle of conflicts and ideological backlashes of an increasingly destructive nature. Dominant belief systems are either in decline or rigidifying, transforming into fundamentalist dogma or two-dimensional caricatures. Violence is omnipresent in mass media. Culture, the context for development of identity and community around articulated values in art, architecture and religion, is rapidly becoming an obsolete notion. Nature is imperiled. We live, it seems, in a period of transition.

 

The spirit of the times is principally found in a renewed appreciation for the dynamic interplay of energy in living systems, and of our place in these systems. The informing content of ecopsychology is biophilia, the love of life in all of its manifestations, a key instinctual force that is finding physical expression from green roofs and healing gardens to regenerative and nature inspired design. Although ecology and nature inspired design have introduced the study of our place in the world, the dynamic identity of organism and environment, and psychology has drawn back the veil on the workings of our inner mental processes, we have yet to begin a systematic investigation of our psychological relationship to the world. Ecopsychology provides a means of inquiry into the interplay of spirit and meaning in our connection to our world, a dynamic that requires our immediate and undivided attention.

We don’t know when to stop

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Civilization has come a long way, and our understanding of the world and the advancements we have achieved deserve admiration. After nearly four billion years of Darwinian evolution, we have created a separate and independent evolutionary logic. Whereas what lived and died used to depend only on natural selection and random mutation, now at least half of what lives and dies is due to human selection.

One of the benefits of our evolution is intelligence. In its varied forms powers every opportunity we pursue and every problem we seek to solve. Intelligence is what allows us to create forms of governance, cure disease, create art and music, discover, dream and love. Intelligence is also what decides that these things, rather than other things, are worth doing, by translating discoveries into meanings, experiences into values and values into decisions. And at the same time, the world remains in great peril and abysmal disparity. The potential for conflict between (or within) some societies seems omnipresent, or at the brink of eruption. Seemingly we have to step up our own evolution a bit more.

A seemingly simple change 2.5 million years ago — using stone tools to butcher animals — led early hominids down the path to becoming modern humans. From that modest starting point, throughout human history, we created tools that increased our individual and collective intelligence and became extensions of our natural selves. Both our shift to agrarian lifestyles and the Industrial Revolution were marked by major shifts in diet, exposure to infectious disease, and risks of chronic disease.

Culture (agriculture, medicine, technology) now changes much faster than genes and traits can evolve. Have we therefore entered an era in which we are going to be permanently mismatched to a rapidly changing science and technology for as long as we can foresee? Naively, yes one would expect the rate of advance of machine intelligence to outstrip that of biological intelligence. Tinkering with AI and smart machines seems easier than modifying a living species, one generation at a time. But advances in genomics—both in our ability to relate complex traits to the underlying genetic codes, and the ability to make direct edits to genomes—will allow rapid advances in biologically-based cognition.

We are poised for an explosive, generative epoch of massively increased human capability through an explosion of possibilities represented by the simple equation: HI (human intelligence) + AI (artificial intelligence). When HI combines with AI, we will have the most significant advancement to our capabilities of thought, creativity and intelligence that we will have ever had in history.

The biggest bottleneck in opening up this powerful new future is that we humans are currently highly limited in how we can participate in these possibilities. Our connection with our new creations of intelligence is limited by screens, keyboards, gestural interfaces and voice commands — constrained input/output modalities. We have very little access to our own brains, limiting our ability to co-evolve with silicon-based machines in powerful ways. The frontier machine intelligence architecture of the moment uses deep neural nets: multilayered networks of simulated neurons inspired by their biological counterparts. Silicon brains of this kind, running on huge clusters of GPUs (graphical processor units made cheap by research and development and economies of scale in the video game industry), have recently surpassed human performance on a number of narrowly defined tasks, such as image or character recognition. We are learning how to tune deep neural nets using large samples of training data, but the resulting structures are mysterious to us.

Neuroprosthetics. In recent years, research labs around the world have made enormous strides in understanding how the brain works, how to connect it to outside sources and how we might tap more deeply into its potential. The most immediate need for these devices is apparent in the growing number of people living longer lives while suffering from neurodegenerative disorders. These devices — by directly extending HI, including our memory and other cognitive capabilities — could lead to unprecedented longevity of the mind and body.

There is more.

HI -enhancement-. Another rapidly evolving and advancing intelligence besides that of AI and smart machines: our own brain. Unraveling the genetic architecture of complex traits such as human cognitive ability. Recent advances allow highly targeted editing of genomes, and will eventually find their uses in human reproduction. The potential for improved human intelligence is enormous. Cognitive ability is influenced by thousands of genetic loci, each of small effect. If all were simultaneously improved, we can’t imagine what capabilities this level of intelligence represents, but we can be sure it is far beyond our own. Cognitive engineering, via direct edits to embryonic human DNA, will eventually produce individuals who are well beyond all historical figures in cognitive ability. Now our newfound powers take the randomness out of genetics and ensure directed evolution. To modify our own gene code such that we are fundamentally redesigning our species and a vast number of other species. We are redesigning life itself. Will we have better minds, be nicer, lovable, emphatic or just more effective and efficient?

These two threads—HI- enhancement- and AI—will inevitably intersect. Just as AI will be much smarter in 2050, we can expect that the humans who design, build, and program them will also be smarter. Perhaps we will experience a positive feedback loop: better human minds invent better machine learning methods, which in turn accelerate our ability to improve human DNA and create even better minds. Also, once machines reach human levels of our enhanced intelligence, our ability to tinker starts to be limited by ethical considerations. Rebooting an operating system is one thing, but what about a sentient being with memories and a sense of free will?

Does society need time to research, understand, and discuss the consequences, both intended and unintended.

The potential benefits of HI- enhancement- and AI are undeniable. What becomes the new norm as we try to improve ourselves? Who sets the bar, and what does enhancement mean? You might enhance people to make them smarter, but does smarter equal better or happier? Should we be enhancing morality? And what does that mean? But we are the species that never knows when to stop.

 

 

We are amazing!

By | Algemeen | No Comments

The human being presents a paradox. Yes, fragile and vulnerable on one side but capable of development and evolution on the other. We are not entirely at the mercy of our fate but we are also capable of shaping our fate both individually and collectively. This potential for freedom and initiative lives in all of us regardless of our status, socially, racially, cognitively.

The human race is amazing. We have created the technology to process zettabytes of information and print in three dimensions. Paraplegics can walk again with the aid of robotic suits, and deaf toddlers can hear for the first time, thanks to cochlear implants—and we can watch it all on YouTube. Humans are closer than ever to mastery over the physical world. We have become experts at making the challenges in our lives, from illness to food supply to manual labor, less challenging.

Exciting developments in the life sciences and their application in biotechnology are helping to provide pioneering cures and therapies for inherited and degenerative diseases. Consider genomics and genetic based therapies, neuroscience and neuropharmacology, ICT implants and prosthetics, nanomedicine and the required socio–cultural accommodations to ageing and you will see how the way in which we perceive ourselves and those around us is slowly being recast. As our knowledge and its application continues to grow and expand, the range, scope and magnitude of what we are able to achieve seems to be limitless.

Thanks to recent scientific developments in areas such as biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology, humanity may be on the cusp of an enhancement revolution. Advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology as an enabling technology opens up further opportunities when combined with other technologies. This convergence of new emerging technologies therefore becomes a matter of great debate. This is seen, for example, when advances in nanoscience converge with developments in biotechnology, which also utilize developments in information technology to capture and simulate human abilities using artificial intelligence systems and, more controversially, cognitive science. It is plain to see the increasing growth of human power over nature in all of its forms including traditional and contemporary understanding about human nature itself. More than just speculative science fiction, talk of brain implants and neural imaging, cyborg enhancement, transhumanism and virtual reality simulation is suddenly becoming a pressing reality.

In the next two or three decades, people may have the option to change themselves and their children in ways that, up to now, have existed largely in the minds of science fiction writers and creators of comic book superheroes.

Both advocates for and opponents of human enhancement spin a number of possible scenarios. Some talk about what might be called humanity plus – people who are still recognizably human, but much smarter, stronger and healthier. Others speak of post-humanity, and predict that dramatic advances in genetic engineering and machine technology may ultimately allow people to become conscious machines – not recognizably human, at least on the outside.

The science and technology is impressive, but there is no guarantee that it will create the means to make super-smart or super-strong people. Questions remain about the feasibility of radically changing human physiology, in part because scientists do not yet completely understand our bodies and minds. For instance, researchers still do not fully comprehend how people age or fully understand the source of human consciousness.

We are no longer living in a time when we can say we either want to enhance or we don’t. We are already living in an age of enhancement.

How is it that with all the advances we’ve made, we are no closer to solving the age-old issues: terrorism, poverty, racism, education, or the ecological crisis? In a time when we have more resources than ever that allow us to approach problems from a technical, scientific, purely rational standpoint, why does it feel like we are getting further away from solving the most human problems that face the human race? There also is significant philosophical, ethical and religious implications. Many thinkers from different disciplines and faith traditions worry that radical changes will lead to people who are no longer either physically or psychologically human.

At this time we are faced with a key question: what does it mean to be human in the 21st Century? A series of identity crises emerge. Against the backdrop of developments we are keen to ensure that our identities are protected and can be authenticated appropriately, without fear of them being reconstructed by others. As genetic and neuroscience technologies evolve, they provoke and unsettle some of our traditional perceptions of who and what we are.

Perhaps, in our excitement over our technological progress, we have trained ourselves to worship a false idol. We have gone so far in the direction of being obsessed with technology, robotics, big data—the cold, calculated, and rational— that we have forgotten that the most valuable asset we have in solving human problems is, in fact, our humanity.

The irony is that our belief that science and emotionality can exist separately is no longer scientific at all. Since Plato’s time (and probably before) we have known that emotions can affect our decisions. But in the last few decades, science has shown exactly how our emotions work, what they do… and why trying to separate ourselves from them is a Sisyphean task. Our ability to think and our ability to feel are hard-wired together in our brain.

The human race is amazing. We have an unbelievable power to innovate, to create, and to improve the world around us, and to solve the problems that stand in our way. But first, we need to accept that technology alone will not cause people to change. People cause people to change. We are not computers, and that should be a point of pride. It is time for us to take a fresh approach to solving the biggest issues in humanity, by starting from the core of that humanity itself.

O sh.. there is none

By | Algemeen | No Comments

Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) is likely to accelerate global warming, which may smash the agreed Paris target of 1.5°C by as early as 2026. And, the amount of dissolved oxygen contained in the water has been declining for more than 20 years.

The break through the 1.5°C barrier negotiated at the Paris conference as early as 2026 if a slow-moving, natural climate driver known as the IPO has, as suspected, moved into a positive phase.

The phase of the IPO regulates the rate at which mean temperature approaches the 1.5°C level. A transition to the positive phase would lead to a projected exceedance of the target centered around 2026. The IPO is characterized by sea surface temperature fluctuations and sea level pressure changes in the north and south Pacific Ocean that occur on a 15-30 year cycle. During positive phases, ocean temperatures are warmer in the tropical Pacific, but cooler than average in the north Pacific. During negative phases of the IPO, Pacific Ocean temperatures are cooler than average in the tropical regions and warmer than average in the northern regions.

The IPO has a profound impact on our climate because it is a powerful natural climate lever with a lot of momentum that changes very slowly over periods of 10-30 years.

If the Pacific Ocean remains in its negative decadal phase, the target will be reached around 5 years later, in 2031. Given the temporary slowdown in global warming between 2000 and 2014, and recent initialized decadal predictions suggestive of a turnaround in the IPO, a sustained period of rapid temperature rise might be underway. In that case, the world will reach the 1.5°C level of warming several years sooner than if the negative IPO phase persists. Although the Earth has continued to warm during the temporary slowdown since around 2000, the reduced rate of warming in that period may have lulled us into a false sense of security. The positive phase of the IPO will likely correct this slowdown. If so, we can expect an acceleration in global warming in the coming decades.

Although it remains a significant challenge to reliably predict long-term variations in ocean circulation, due to data limitations and the inherently chaotic nature of the ocean-atmosphere system, I find it worrying enough.

Here is an another troubling thought: oxygen decline in oceans

Analysis of decades of data on oceans across the globe has revealed that the amount of dissolved oxygen contained in the water – an important measure of ocean health – has been declining for more than 20 years. Falling oxygen levels in water have the potential to impact the habitat of marine organisms worldwide and in recent years led to more frequent hypoxic events that killed or displaced populations of fish, crabs and many other organisms.

For years it has been anticipated that rising water temperatures would affect the amount of oxygen in the oceans, since warmer water is capable of holding less dissolved gas than colder water. But the data showed that ocean oxygen was falling more rapidly than the corresponding rise in water temperature. The majority of the oxygen in the ocean is absorbed from the atmosphere at the surface or created by photosynthesizing phytoplankton. Ocean currents then mix that more highly oxygenated water with subsurface water. But rising ocean water temperatures near the surface have made it more buoyant and harder for the warmer surface waters to mix downward with the cooler subsurface waters. Melting polar ice has added more freshwater to the ocean surface – another factor that hampers the natural mixing and leads to increased ocean stratification.

If the world is to have any hope of meeting the Paris target, governments will need to pursue policies that not only reduce emissions but remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Should we overshoot the 1.5°C limit, we must still aim to bring global temperatures back down and stabilize them at that level or lower.