Sunday, January 29, 2006

There is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering

There is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering

Rapid evolution is on display. Is it? Transhumanism will change the face of humanity, human rights. That is the stance of many "bio-conservatives" like Francisco Fukuyama and others. On the other side, there are plenty of enthusiasts who foresee a better world with sci-fi like advancement in science and technology where the longevity of human population far exceed our contemporary imagination with quality of life many times more enhanced with much better controlled or eradicated disease, genetic manipulation subjugating those hard to fathom anomalies in the far reaches of our cellular structure, creating faster, cleverer, robust human beings for whom sky may not be the limit of their opportunistic dreams.

Perhaps there is no way of turning back from the on going trend of fierce scientific progresses. However, a coherent global public debate, as Madeline Bunting points out in her article attached below, would ensure that these new innovations, technological advancements in various fields can truly be directed for the betterment of the global human population, not only for the selected powerful few and their golden spooned descendants.

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There is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering

Science will soon give some of us the tools to make ourselves cleverer and stronger. What will it mean for our humanity?

Madeleine Bunting
Monday January 30, 2006
The Guardian

My daughter is 10. Fast forward 25 years, and she is having her first child - early by the standards of all her friends, but she's keen on "natural". Of course, she did pre- implementation genetic diagnosis, and she and her husband (yes, very old fashioned, they married) had some agonising days deciding on whether to modify a genetic predisposition to depression and whether to splice in a gene for enhanced intelligence. In the end, they felt they had no option but to give their baby the best possible start in life.

Five years later, my little grand-daughter is starting school. Again her parents have talked over the pros and cons of cognitive enhancement. A pharmcogenetic package is now routinely offered on the NHS after the government decided that, given international competition in the global knowledge economy, there was no option but to ensure the nation's schoolchildren had better powers of memory and concentration. I had my doubts, but I have to admit that my little granddaughter is proving a wonderfully clever creature - a constant source of amazement to me.

My doubts were in part assuaged by the fact that I had already started stronger doses of the same cognitive enhancement drugs. They've helped hugely with my forgetfulness (I'm just hitting my 70s). They are part of a cocktail of drugs I'm now taking to postpone many of the effects of ageing. I dithered a bit but in the end there was no option. I'm doing the childcare for all my five grandchildren and I need to be strong and fit for them. My age expectancy is now 110, so the plan is that I can help out a bit with the great grandchildren too.

What we've been unhappy about is that my daughter has been very tired trying to hold down her job and be a mum, and she's come under a lot of pressure from her boss to get help. What they mean is that she should go on to Provigil. They point out that if she was taking it, she could miss several nights of sleep without any problem. Her colleagues call her a bio-Luddite for refusing. She's already the only one not to have taken her company's early diagnosis - she said she didn't want to know whether she was going to get Alzheimer's disease in 30 years' time.

The other thing that concerns us is that many of the children in my grandchild's school have had much better enhancement programmes. The cleverest went to China for the latest technology. I can see that my grand-child is never going to keep up. At the moment, she doesn't mind that she's bottom of her class, but she'll be lucky to get to a good university. The one hope I've got is that they might introduce quotas for "naturals" or "near-naturals" like her. Anyway, to cheer her up I bought her the equivalent of what we called iPods in the old days - the chip inserted behind her ear gives her 24/7 access to stories and music. She downloaded a book I loved when I was her age, Little House on the Prairie. She thinks it's magical.

Sound far-fetched? It's anything but. This is the most conservative of a range of scenarios about the possibilities of "human enhancement" that have prompted fierce debate in the US and are exercising many a scientist's mind around the world. The pace of development in four distinct disciplines - neuroscience, biotechnology such as genetics, computing and nanoscience - is such that many envisage dramatic breakthroughs in how we can modify ourselves, our physical and mental capabilities. We could live much longer and be much stronger and cleverer - even be much happier. A whole new meaning to "Be all you can be".

The Washington Post journalist and author of Radical Evolution, Joel Garreau, argues that we are at a pivotal point in human development. Having directed our technological ingenuity on the world around us, human beings are now turning it on to their own bodies and minds. From here on in, we will have the tools to engineer our own evolution.

To the real enthusiasts - they call themselves transhumanists - humanity is on the point of being liberated from its biology. In their advocacy of our "technological rights", they believe that human beings are on the brink of a huge leap in development, leaving behind the sick, quarrelsome, weak, fallible creatures we have been up to now. We will be, as their slogan goes, "better than well".

This is the prospect that horrifies the so-called "bio-conservatives" such as Francis Fukuyama, who argues that transhumanism is the most dangerous ideology of our time. There are plenty who share his concerns, pointing out that the implications for human rights, indeed for our understanding of what it is to be human, are huge. What place will equality have in this brave new world? What place will privacy have when brain imaging can read our thoughts and transcranial magnetic stimulation can manipulate our thoughts? What powers over our brains will the state demand in the war against terror?

It's time we got our heads around this debate on this side of the Atlantic so that we can influence what technologies are developed, rather than leaving it to the scientists and the pharmaceutical and military interests who sponsor their research. There's a growing sense of urgency to get the public debate up to speed with what's at stake.

Last week, a remarkable exercise in public consultation in Brussels, Meeting of Minds, drew people from across the EU together to discuss the subject. Next week, the thinktank Demos launches a pamphlet, Better Humans. Oxford University's Said Business School is hosting a big international conference, Tomorrow's People, in March - at which Garreau is a keynote speaker.

The point well made by Better Humans is how far advanced public acceptance is of many of the principles that underlie these technologies. So we're not talking about radical new steps, only an acceleration of existing trends. For example, if you can have Viagra for an enhanced sexual life, why not a Viagra for the mind? Is there a meaningful difference? If we show such enthusiasm for "improving" our noses and breasts with cosmetic surgery, why not also improve our brains? As computers continue to increase in power and shrink in size, why shouldn't we come to use them as prostheses, a kind of artificial limb for the brain? If we have successfully lengthened life expectancy with good sanitation and diet, why can't we lengthen it with new drugs? Ritalin is already being traded in the classroom by US students to help improve their concentration.

There's no stop button available. Much of the research that could be ultimately used for human enhancement is urgently needed to counter such neuro-degenerative diseases as Alzheimer's. But it's all too possible to envisage how fast, in a competitive, unequal world, we could hurtle towards some horrible futures. The one I outlined above for my descendants was the most benign I could imagine. There's no point in sci-fi style panic. The best hope lies in the strength and quality of public debate and democratic institutions to regulate and direct the use of these powerful technologies.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Using Our Fear

Terrorism is real. From the humid corner of Bangladesh to Indonesia's various regions, from London's immigrant districts to Spain's busiest morning rush hour, hot to cold, rain to drought, terrorism has striked the world again and again. This meandering problem can not be solved with narrow political or religious agenda by any extremist groups. Terrorism thrives where there are growing discontent among the populace due to massive economic gap between the have and have-nots, where the governments either actively or indirectly foster corruption and bullyism. Terrorism can also go shoulder to shoulder with budding fascism. They compliment one another, for their thriving survival and hideous prosperity.


Using Our Fear

By Eugene Robinson

Once upon a time we had a great wartime president who told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Now we have George W. Bush, who uses fear as a tool of executive power and as a political weapon against his opponents.

Franklin D. Roosevelt tried his best to allay his nation's fears in the midst of an epic struggle against fascism. Bush, as he leads the country in a war whose nature he is constantly redefining, keeps fear alive because it has been so useful. His political grand vizier, Karl Rove, was perfectly transparent the other day when he emerged from wherever he's been hiding the past few months -- consulting omens, reading entrails -- and gave the Republican National Committee its positioning statement for the fall elections: Vote for us or die.

Democrats "have a pre-9/11 worldview" of national security that is "deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong," Rove said. The clear subtext was that Americans would court mortal danger by electing Democrats. Go forth and scare the bejesus out of them, Rove was telling his party, because the more frightened they are, the better our chances.

To cultivate fear for partisan gain is never a political tactic to be proud of, but Rove's prescription of naked fearmongering is just plain reprehensible when the nation faces a shifting array of genuine, serious threats. This is a moment for ethical politicians -- and, yes, these days that seems like an oxymoron -- to speak honestly about what dangers have receded, what new dangers have emerged, and how the imperatives of liberty and security can be balanced.

From the likes of Rove, I guess, we shouldn't expect anything more noble than win-at-all-costs. But we do have the right to expect more from the president of the United States, and while Bush gives off none of Rove's Sith-lord menace, he has made the cultivation of fear a hallmark of his governance.

At his news conference yesterday, Bush was asked again about the domestic surveillance he has ordered the National Security Agency to conduct without seeking warrants -- a program that seems to violate the law. In his meandering answer, the president kept throwing in the phrase "to protect the American people." I suspect that's a line that tests well in focus groups, but it doesn't really say anything. The fact that we expect any president to protect us does not obviate the fact that we expect any president to obey the law.

Bush mentioned the new tape from Osama bin Laden that surfaced the other day, calling it a reminder that we face "an enemy that wants to hit us again." That's certainly true, but the warning would carry more gravitas if Bush and his administration didn't brag so much about how thoroughly al Qaeda has been routed and decimated. Is anybody keeping track of how many "No. 3" or "No. 4" al Qaeda lieutenants U.S. forces claim to have eliminated?

And Americans would be better able to measure the threat from bin Laden if Bush and the rest of his administration didn't argue -- when it gives them an edge -- that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terrorism." If Iraq is the main event, then bin Laden, huddled in some cave in northern Pakistan, must be just a sideshow, right? But of course he's not a sideshow, he's the author of the Sept. 11 attacks, so what does that make Iraq? The answer seems to depend on whether, at any given time, Bush believes that cultivating fear of bin Laden or stoking fear of a terrorist spawning ground in Iraq would better help his administration achieve its ends.

The thing is, fear works. The administration successfully invoked the fear of "mushroom clouds" to win support, or at least acquiescence, for the invasion of Iraq. By the time it was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction, the fear of losing to terrorists on the "central front" had been given primacy. We stopped hearing the name bin Laden so often -- no need to bring attention to the fact that he remained at large -- until reports emerged of secret CIA prisons, torture and domestic spying.

Bin Laden does remain a threat. He would hit the United States again if he could. We do expect the president to protect us. But a great wartime leader rallies his citizens by informing them and inspiring them. He certainly doesn't use threats to our national security for political gain. He doesn't just point at a map and say "Boo."

Friday, January 27, 2006

A Truce with Muslims

I find the following article quite fair, without the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as they are done by many in the West in recent years. Bin Laden's purported tape with the offering of "truce" with the West has stirred American and European nations, albeit in negative way due to Bin Laden's alleged involvement with the notorious atrocity a few years ago in America. The author Mark Levine states rightfully, "A truce does not equal capitulation to terrorists or letting Muslims off the hook for crimes committed in the name of religion. Criminals such as bin Laden and his terrorist colleagues can no more offer a truce than could Al Capone or Pablo Escobar; they are murderers whom the world community must bring to justice."

The world community must bring to justice other criminals as well. These criminals remain behind the mockeries of modern nations, their governments, stylish political parties and wealthy corporations or "pious" monarchs. In this brutally unfair world of ours, this perhaps is too much to ask for at this present time of growing turmoil.


A truce with Muslims

THE NEWLY RELEASED tape of Osama bin Laden marks the second time in two years that the Al Qaeda leader has offered a ''truce" to the West in the war on terror in return for various changes in policy toward the Muslim world, particularly in Iraq, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia.

Quite rightly, bin Laden's truce offers have been rejected by European and American leaders alike. But while rejecting the messenger, Americans would be wrong to dismiss the idea of a truce with the Muslim world, even with radical Islam.

A truce does not equal capitulation to terrorists or letting Muslims off the hook for crimes committed in the name of religion. Criminals such as bin Laden and his terrorist colleagues can no more offer a truce than could Al Capone or Pablo Escobar; they are murderers whom the world community must bring to justice.

But states, and even communities and cultures, can make truces. And in so doing they can make demands of the other side that are crucial to resolving the conflicts that spawned the violence a truce is meant to stop.

There is ample precedent for this kind of truce in Islam. The prophet Mohammed agreed to the first Muslim truce in 628. Known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, it was between the nascent Muslim community and the Meccan pagans, and lasted for two years before being broken by the Meccans.

More recently, during the past three decades, an increasingly permanent Muslim presence in Europe has led Muslims to consider that region not as dar al-harb (the Abode of War, the traditional Muslim categorization of all non-Muslim lands), but rather as dar al-hudna, a land of truce, and even dar al-Islam, a land of peace. Despite the growing sense of alienation among many young Muslims, religiously inspired violence is still the rare exception among Europe's 12 million Muslims.

What would a Muslim-American truce consist of? On the American side, it must begin with an admission of how much US policies have violated our country's founding ideals. For Muslims, the psychological impact of hearing us own up to the significant pain our policies have caused to their societies would be hard to overestimate.

Second, the United States and NATO should halt all offensive military actions in the Muslim world and outline a plan for the removal of troops from all Muslim countries. We may be trying to kill Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, but it's hard to argue with his claim that ''there will never be peace" as long as the United States occupies Muslim countries and supports corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

Third, the hunt for bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and related terror networks must be transformed from a perpetual state of war into what it always should have been: a vigorous international effort to apprehend, prosecute, and punish those involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and similar assaults.

Finally, military and nonhumanitarian aid to all Middle Eastern countries that are not democratic or don't respect the rights of the people under their control should be suspended. Yes, this means Israel; but also Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other so-called ''moderate" American allies. Such a step is crucial to stopping the regional arms race, systematic oppression, and cycle of violence that together make peace and democratic reform impossible.

As the weaker party, the Muslim world might have less to offer, but its obligations would be no less important than those of the other side. They would include, first, owning up to the incredible damage that terrorism has done to its victims, and a commitment to use nonviolent methods to pursue the often well-justified opposition to policies of their own and other governments. Second, Muslim leaders must recognize that the continual Israel-, Jew- and US-bashing that defines much of the political discourse in the Muslim world is as ugly and immoral as it is inaccurate and unhelpful.

Finally, both sides must commit to making the Middle East a nuclear-free region as the cornerstone of any commitment to stop the violence.

Sadly, neither the Bush administration, with its Manichaean world view, unwillingness to admit mistakes or compromise, and commitment to ''full-spectrum dominance" of the region, nor most autocratic and corrupt Muslim leaders have an interest in calling a truce in a war that is the foundation of their power. That means it's up to the millions of citizens of the US and Muslim world to call our own truce and begin a much-needed discussion about how to heal our increasingly fragile planet. The alternative is a long and ultimately catastrophic conflict between the West and the Muslim world, exactly what Osama bin Laden had in mind on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mark LeVine, who teaches modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of ''Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Why Tragedy Struck the Hajj

Why Tragedy Struck the Hajj

The Saudi government and their press are putting the blames on "unruly" pilgrims' dead cold shoulders for the latest tragedy in Makkah. They say that these "unobedient", "indisciplined" pilgrims carried their bags with them, built tents on the roads, pushed the others, threw larger stones, etc., etc. The classic example of shifting authorities' solemn responsibilities to the victims themselves. Cast the dead, stone the poor and the "devil", they won't be talking back to you. How convenient!

Each year millions of devoted Muslims travel to the heart of Saudi Arabia to perform one of the ancient rituals of human kind. Even in pre-Islamic Arabia, pilgrims used to flock the same area performing religious rituals. Now that oil has made the nomadic Arabs rich beyond normal imagination for many of us mortals, and when it remains to be a near certainty that millions of Muslims would be performing Haj every year, the recurrence of horrific tragedies like the stampede yesterday, and the collapse of an entire hotel killing and maiming more make the eager washing off ones' hands from taking any responsibilities of these present and past tragedies unconscionable.

And let's not forget that interesting "fatwa" given by strict Saudi Wahabist, stone the "devil" in mid-day, rush to Al-Jamarat in dying frenzy. Who would stone that "fatwa"? Who would stone that "devil"?


Why Tragedy Struck the Hajj

The pilgrimage requires millions of Muslims to perform the same rituals in a limited space

The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, was again marred by death and chaos this year as thousands of pilgrims rushed to perform its final ritual: the symbolic stoning of the devil. Saudi officials have confirmed 345 dead so far and hundreds more injured in a stampede as pilgrims rushed to complete the ritual before sunset. Eyewitness reports describe a horrific scene with dead bodies being carried away in refrigerated ambulances, while others lay covered by blankets in the streets amid the injured receiving treatment.

The tragedy occurred despite Saudi efforts to organize and accommodate the more than 2 million people who descend on Mecca every year to perform the Hajj—an obligation for every Muslim who is physically and financially able to fulfill at least once in a lifetime. Every year the Saudis expand their facilities and increase security at the sites of the Hajj, but still stampedes and deaths occur. In 2004 about 255 people were killed in a similar incident, and the worst stampede on record occured in 1990, when 1,426 people were killed.

The site of the stampede, al-Jamarat, is a classic bottleneck point—three pillars representing the devil located on a bridge that stretches over the desert of Mina, outside Mecca. Pilgrims are required to cast stones at the pillars to complete the Hajj, and tens of thousands may rush to do so at the same time.

The Saudis have built four ramps that take pilgrims up to the bridge and have recently replaced the four pillars with four walls in order to expand the target area for the stones and pebbles cast by the pilgrims. Veterans of the Hajj describe this ritual as the most treacherous of the pilgrimage, where the overzealous sometimes throw larger stones that often injure fellow pilgrims. In recent years Muslim clerics have given women the license to commission a male relative to carry out the devil stoning in an attempt to lessen their chances of injury.

This year, Shiite clerics encouraged their groups to carry out the ritual early in the morning to be ahead of the crowds, but Sunni clerics urged their pilgrims to stick to the strict instructions of pelting the devil at midday and to be finished before sunset.

Explanations for Thursday's tragedy differ, and many accuse the Saudi authorities of being slow to intervene. The Saudis, on the other hand, complain that their best efforts are nullified by the ignorance of many pilgrims about the rituals of the Hajj. Some nationalities insist on moving in huge lines with linked arms, and trample on anyone who is in their way, brushing past those who fall in front of them. Other pilgrims camp on the sidewalks hindering the overcrowded passage ways, which are further cramped by merchandise spread by street vendors. Some reports suggest that Thursday's tragedy was when some pilgrims dropped baggage they were carrying, tripping those behind them, many of whom were crushed by the onrushing crowd.

Hoping to curtail the ever increasing number of pilgrims that descend on the Kingdom each year, Saudi authorities have used their control over visas to discourage pilgrims from performing the ritual in consecutive years in order to make space for others , but many find a way around that by going on business visas or coming for the Omra, the mini pilgrimage a couple of months before the Hajj, and then staying on with an expired visas.

This year's hajj was also marred by the collapse of a Mecca hotel on January 5, where 76 pilgrims were killed. The reason for the hotel collapse remains unknown. The latest disaster is expected to prompt the Saudis to enforce stricter controls, in order to do a better job of ensuring the safety of the millions of the faithful who arrive for the Hajj each year.