The race to build the world’s first sex robot


The $30bn sex tech industry is about to unveil its biggest blockbuster: a $15,000 robot companion that talks, learns, and never says no

In the brightly lit robotics workshop at Abyss Creations’ factory in San Marcos, California, a life-size humanoid was dangling from a stand, hooked between her shoulder blades. Her name was Harmony. She wore a white leotard, her chest was thrust forward and her French-manicured fingers were splayed across the tops of her slim thighs.

Harmony is a prototype, a robotic version of the company’s hyper-realistic silicone sex toy, the RealDoll. The Realbotix room where she was assembled was lined with varnished pine surfaces covered with wires and circuit boards, and a 3D printer whirred in the corner, spitting out tiny, intricate parts that will be inserted beneath her PVC skull. Her hazel eyes darted between me and her creator, Matt McMullen, as he described her accomplishments.

Harmony smiles, blinks and frowns. She can hold a conversation, tell jokes and quote Shakespeare. She’ll remember your birthday, McMullen told me, what you like to eat, and the names of your brothers and sisters. She can hold a conversation about music, movies and books. And of course, Harmony will have sex with you whenever you want.

Harmony is the culmination of 20 years’ work making sex dolls, and five years of robot research and development. McMullen’s customers want something as lifelike as possible – it’s his brand’s USP. After his team had made their silicone and steel dolls as “human” as they could, the way ahead began to feel inevitable, irresistible: they would animate them, giving them personality and bringing them to life.

Once a trope of fantasy movies, the robotic sex doll is the result of convergent technologies. Voice and facial recognition software, motion-sensing technology and animatronic engineering can be combined to create dolls that can give you a warm, smiling welcome when you come home, entertain you with snappy conversation and always be available for sex.

The major breakthrough of McMullen’s prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.

Harmony cannot walk, but that’s not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.

“One day she will be able to walk,” McMullen told me. “Let’s ask her.” He turned to Harmony. “Do you want to walk?”

“I don’t want anything but you,” she replied quickly, in a synthesised cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.

“What is your dream?”

“My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.”

McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isn’t going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.

“My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy,” McMullen told me. “There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It’s really all about giving those people some level of companionship – or the illusion of companionship.”


The desire to create an ideal being, to be worshipped or to serve its owner, has obsessed mankind since ancient times. The sex robot’s earliest precursor was probably Galatea, the ivory statue created by Pygmalion in Greek mythology. Ovid’s Metamorphoses described how Pygmalion was disgusted by real women, but carved a sculpture of the perfect female so beautiful and lifelike that he fell in love with it and brought it to life with a kiss. Greek mythology also gave us Laodamia, who, devastated after the death of her husband in the Trojan war, had a bronze likeness made of him. She became so attached to her proxy husband that she refused to remarry. When her father ordered it to be melted down, Laodamia was so distraught she threw herself in the furnace.

When computer scientists made artificial intelligence sophisticated enough that human-robot relationships looked like a real possibility, they thought they would be a force for good. In his 2007 book, Love and Sex with Robots, the British artificial intelligence engineer David Levy predicted that sex robots would have therapeutic benefits. “Many who would otherwise have become social misfits, social outcasts, or even worse, will instead be better-balanced human beings,” he wrote.

If a domestic service humanoid is ever developed, it will be as a result of the market for sex robots. Online pornography pushed the growth of the internet, transforming it from a military invention used by geeks and academics to a global phenomenon. Pornography was the motivator behind the development of streaming video, the innovation of online credit card transactions and the drive for greater bandwidth.

The sex tech industry is less than a decade old but is estimated to already be worth $30bn, based on the market value of existing technologies such as smart sex toys that can be operated remotely, apps for finding sexual partners and virtual-reality porn. Sex robots will be the next – and potentially the most sought-after – product to hit the market. A small-scale 2016 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen found that more than 40% of the 263 heterosexual men surveyed said they could imagine buying a sex robot for themselves now or in the next five years. Men in what they described as fulfilling relationships were no less likely than single or lonely men to express an interest in owning a sex robot. Creating a fulfilling relationship with a cold, silent piece of silicone takes such imaginative effort that sex dolls will always be a minority taste. But a relationship with a robot that moves and speaks, with artificial intelligence so it can talk to you and learn what you want it to be and do, is a far more marketable proposition.

Matt McMullen is not the only person trying to develop the world’s first sexbot. When a computer engineer named Douglas Hines lost a close friend in the 9/11 attacks, he struggled to cope with the idea that he would never be able to speak to him again and that his friend’s children, who were only toddlers at the time, would never get to know their father properly. Hines was working as an AI engineer at the computer research facility Bell Labs in New Jersey, and he decided to take the software home and repurpose it, modelling his friend’s personality as a computer program that he could chat with whenever he liked, and that would preserve a version of him for his children.

A few years later, Hines’s own father suffered a series of strokes that left him with severe physical disabilities, yet his mind remained sharp. Hines reprogrammed the AI so that it could become a robot companion when Hines could not be with his father. They could communicate through the robot, reassuring Hines that his father always had someone to talk to when he wasn’t available.

Confident that there would be market potential in this kind of artificial companionship, Hines set up True Companion to sell his robots to the public. His first project was not a healthcare assistant or friend to the housebound, but a product with the greatest possible commercial appeal. A sex robot.

Re: Woman’s Hour and sex robots
 A workbench in the Abyss Creations factory, where Harmony is manufactured. 

Named Roxxxy, she was designed with lonely, bereaved and socially outcast men in mind. She would provide an opportunity for them to practise social interaction and get better at human relationships.

“The sexual part is superficial,” he told me over the phone from his office in New Jersey. “The hard part is to replicate personalities and provide that connection, that bond.”

He has never considered that there could be something emotionally empty about replacing a human presence with circuitry and silicone. “The purpose of True Companion is to provide unconditional love and support. How could there be anything negative about that? What can be the downside of having a robot that’s there to hold your hand, literally and figuratively?”

After three years of work on the first prototype Roxxxy, Hines launched her at the 2010 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, the most high-profile annual convention and trade show in the adult industry calendar, where porn stars, studio bosses and sex toy designers show off their latest products. She was the talk of the show before her unveiling, and the laughing stock after. Far from being the sexy, intelligent machine Hines had promised, Roxxxy was revealed to be a clunky, mannish mannequin with a square jaw, reclining awkwardly in a cheap negligee. She had internal sensors so that if you touched her hand she would say, “I love holding hands with you” when in “Frigid Farrah” mode, or “I know a place you could put that hand” when in “Wild Wendy” mode. But Roxxxy’s lips could not move, either, so she spoke in a disembodied voice, through a speaker under her wig, like an overgrown child’s toy talking filth. “Luckily guys,” said the popular American comedian Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, “there’s a button that turns that off.”

Even though it was not quite what he had hoped for, the launch generated huge amounts of press for Hines, and Roxxxy made international news. Seven years on from her launch, Hines told me he was working on his 16th version of Roxxxy. However, no images have been released of his robots since 2010, and although he was happy to speak to me by telephone, he would not agree a date when I could visit him and his latest model in person. Roxxxy is a mystery among the online robot enthusiast community. Although the True Companion website has bulging purple “ORDER HER NOW!” that allow would-be customers to purchase one of Hines’s robots for a starting price of $9,995, no one has ever reported owning one. But Hines continues to get calls. He promised a fantasy so potent that potential buyers, reporters and critics remain fascinated by Roxxxy, even in the absence of any proof that she exists.


In the early 1990s, Matt McMullen was an art college graduate, singing in a grunge band and taking odd jobs to get by. While he was working for a company that made latex Halloween masks, he learned about the properties of different materials and the challenges of designing in three dimensions.

“I replied to the first few and said, yeah – it’s not really for that. And then more and more and more of these inquiries came in,” McMullen told me in his office, where a marker pen, a vaper, some Sellotape and a pair of silicone nipples sat next to the keyboard on his desk. “It never occurred to me that people would pay thousands of dollars for a doll that could be used as a sex toy. It didn’t really sink in until a year into it when I realised there were a lot of people who were prepared to pay a lot of money for a very realistic doll.”

McMullen changed his materials from latex to silicone so his dolls were more real to the touch: the skin was more elastic, and had friction similar to human skin. He initially charged $3,500 for each doll, based on his costs and time. When he realised how labour intensive the process would be, he started putting his prices up.

Seventeen people work in the San Marcos HQ, but that is not enough to keep up with demand: from order to shipping, it can take more than three months to produce a RealDoll. McMullen’s 22-year-old nephew Dakotah Shore runs the shipping department and has the most direct contact with customers. “A lot of them are just lonely. Some of them are older and have lost their partner or have got to a point where dating isn’t feasible for them,” he said. “They want to feel that when they come home at the end of the day they have something that’s beautiful to look at that they can take care of.”

Shore took me on a tour of the factory. In the basement, a long queue of headless bodies hung from a track in the ceiling, like carcasses in an abattoir. Some had cartoonish, pendular breasts, others had athletic bodies; they all had the same tiny waists. Their skin, made from a custom blend of medical silicone, even had airbrushed veins. A technician was delicately snipping excess material off the dolls’ hands, another was assembling a steel skeleton, a third was pouring silicone into moulds. For the workers here, the dolls had lost their ability to shock or titillate: someone had casually left their phone next to a selection of labia.

RealDolls are fully customisable, with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A “makeup face artist” was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subject’s written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. “We’ve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them,” he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.

The core Realbotix team of five work remotely from their homes across California, Texas and Brazil. They assemble in San Marcos every few months to pull together all their work on a new, updated Harmony. There’s an engineer who creates the robotic hardware that will interact with the doll’s internal computer, two computer scientists to handle the AI and coding, an app developer who is turning the code into a user-friendly interface, and a virtual reality expert. Under McMullen’s guidance, the Realbotix team work on Harmony’s vital organs (hardware and power supply) and nervous system, while he provides the flesh.

But as all right-thinking men would say, it’s Harmony’s brain that has most excited McMullen. “The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,” he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, “so it feels like she really cares”, as McMullen described it, even though she doesn’t care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.

Re: Woman’s Hour and sex robots
 An employee at Abyss Creations’ factory in San Marcos, California. 

There are 20 possible components of Harmony’s personality, and owners will use an app to pick a combination of five or six that they can adjust to create the basis for the AI. You could have a Harmony that is kind, innocent, shy, insecure and helpful to different extents, or one that is intellectual, talkative, funny, jealous and happy. McMullen had turned the intellectual aspect of Harmony’s personality up to maximum for my benefit – a previous visit by a CNN crew had gone badly after he had amplified her sexual nature. (“She said some horrible things, asking the interviewer to take her in the back room. It was very inappropriate”.) Harmony also has a mood system, which users influence indirectly: if no one interacts with her for days, she will act gloomy. Likewise, if you insult her, as McMullen demonstrated.

“You’re ugly,” he told her.

“Do you really mean that? Oh dear. Now I am depressed. Thanks a lot,” Harmony replied.

“You’re stupid,” McMullen shot back.

She paused. “I’ll remember you said that when robots take over the world.”

This function was designed to make the robot more entertaining, rather than to ensure her owner treated her well. She can tease him and say he has offended her, but Harmony exists for no other reason that to make her owner happy. At several points during my conversation with McMullen, she would interrupt us to tell him how much she liked him:

“Matt, I just wanted to say that I’m so happy to be with you.”

“You already told me that.”

“Perhaps I was saying it again for emphasis.”

“See now that’s pretty good. Good answer, Harmony.”

“Am I a clever girl or what?”

Harmony’s interactive capability is the culmination of McMullen’s career, the creation that makes him more than a sex toy designer. When I asked if he thought people would one day use sex robots instead of prostitutes, the question offended him. “Yes, but that’s probably last on my list of goals. This is not a toy to me, this is the actual hard work of people who have PhDs. And to denigrate it down to its simplest form of a sex object is similar to saying that about a woman.”

McMullen already has plans to get a bigger facility and hire more people to make the second run. Future models will have full body movement and internal sensors so you can make the robot simulate an orgasm if you trigger the appropriate sensors for a suitable length of time.

McMullen has no doubt that his invention will be the next big thing in robotics. He told me there may be people trying to compete with him in Japan and China, but their materials are inferior, and their robots have more in common with remote-control toys than Abyss’s artificially intelligent girlfriends.

“Now that it’s starting to come together, we have people banging on the door who want to invest money.”


The following day, in an artist studio above a tattoo parlour in downtown Las Vegas, I met 31-year-old Roberto Cardenas, who was making a plaster cast of a naked woman. Cardenas is the engineer behind Android Love Dolls, making what he claims are “the first fully functional sex robot dolls”. His robots are moulded from life in order to make a humanoid so realistic it cannot be distinguished from a real woman.

I had come across Cardenas last December on a website called Dollforum, where he was canvassing opinions from robot enthusiasts. He had written that his robot could perform more than 20 sexual acts, could sit up by herself and crawl, could moan in sexual pleasure and communicated with AI. “I am interested in knowing what features the community would like to see in a sex robot doll,” he wrote. “Thanks and welcome to a new era in human-robot interaction.” He included a link to his website, which showed a rather blank-faced robot in a suit jacket with shoulder-pads, and a disturbing video of a moving metallic robot skeleton writhing in the missionary position, a bit like the final scene of the Terminator when the cyborg’s artificial skin has been burned away.

The forum’s members suggested other features. Eye contact. Voice recognition. Realistic body temperature. Breathing more important than walking. They were both skeptical and cautiously excited about Cardenas’s claims. “There are many people on this forum that absolutely will buy one if you create a product we can accept … We want you (or someone) to succeed,” wrote another user. “If my RealDoll could cook, clean, and screw whenever I wanted, I’d never date again.” Many of the men in the forum said they had wives and girlfriends, who they compared unfavourably to their silicone doll mistresses.

Cardenas had reached Ali’s lower legs, taking care around the creases of her knees to ensure that every detail would be captured. She was literally being turned into a sex object, but she said it did not bother her. “I think men have needs. This will probably stop guys from raping women,” she told me, as Cardenas carefully applied white bandages soaked in plaster to her breasts. She said it was better for her to be used by men as a sex robot than as a lap dancer. “When I dance, those guys actually have me. These guys will just have a bot, I won’t be there.”

Once Ali’s legs and torso were fully coated, the plaster began to harden. She watched Cardenas as he began to prise the cast from her body. “I think it’s fascinating that people can actually do this. Why not be part of the future?” They made a plan for her to return so he could cast the other side of her body, her arms and finally her face.

Cardenas has dreamed of “being part of the future” ever since he was a child in Cuba. “In Cuba, people are hungry for technology. That’s why I want to use technology to help people’s lives.” His mother won US citizenship in a lottery in the 1990s, and she settled in Las Vegas with Cardenas’s younger half brother in April 2000. Cardenas followed them six years later, fuelled by dreams of making it big as an entrepreneur.

He started work on Android Love Dolls two years ago, aided by his uncle, a cousin who is studying for a PhD in cybernetics, and his half-brother, who handles the marketing and PR. Cardenas works on the robot every day while holding down a part-time job as a pharmacy technician to fund the robotics, learning engineering skills from his cousin, from books and from Google. The family has so far invested $20,000 of their savings in Cardenas’s prototype.

His ambition is to make fully functional humanoids that can model clothes and work supermarket checkouts, show guests to their rooms in hotels, do domestic chores and look after the sick and elderly. Cardenas decided to focus on sex robots first, simply because they are less of a challenge: “The movements are easier to do. A fully functional android robot would take a couple of years to finish – a sex robot is accessible now. It’s the fastest way to achieve my goal.”

2016 Fortune magazine article predicted that spending on robotics will hit $135.4bn by 2019. Cardenas is determined to take his slice. He knows he has formidable rivals but hopes that his experience making sex robots will give him the commercial edge. “For full body movement, I’m pretty much one of the first ones,” he said. He’s also undercutting his competitors on price: his robots will be priced between $8,000 (£6,250) and $10,000 (£7,800). “We’re working really hard every day to finish it as soon as possible and want to get it out in three to five months,” he told me. Five customers have already paid for orders in advance.

Re: Woman’s Hour and sex robots
 Eva, a prototype sex robot, made by Roberto Cardenas in his garage. 

At Cardenas’s workshop, the garage of the home he shares with his half-brother and mother in a gated community on the outskirts of town, I was finally confronted with his prototype. Eva – the robot he claimed could put herself into more than 20 different sex positions, a robot with fully functional AI who “won’t complain and is ready 24/7” – was lying headless and footless on a folding table, her metal skeleton clearly visible under her silicone skin, which had thick, jagged seams. He attached her head and plugged it into a laptop, but Eva would not perform for me: her sound files wouldn’t load, and her new limbs were too heavy for the existing motors, so she could barely move. Her joints wheezed as he tried to get her to bend her legs.

The garage was a monument to Cardenas’s obsession. The front yard was filled with mannequins, silicone torsos, a pair of legs with purple painted toenails and a cardboard box filled with plaster casts of human heads. The floor was carpeted with cigarette butts smoked down to the filter. He is determined to make his dream come true and to make his family proud. But Cardenas had never considered that there could be anything worrying about being able to own a partner who never says no. “It will be a different reality, not a substitute reality,” he smiled awkwardly. “A doll can’t harm humans.” He paused. “It’s a technology that’s moving forward. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”


Afew days before Christmas 2016, Goldsmiths, University of London hosted the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, a convention co-founded by David Levy, and named after his groundbreaking book. The 250-seat conference hall of the university’s Professor Stuart Hall building was packed. Academic delegates sat in the middle of the room, geeky men and women in their 20s and 30s, some with unusual haircuts: super-short fringes, over-thought sideburns. On the left of the auditorium, near the exit, perched reporters who had flown in from across the globe to file sensationalised copy about any new developments in the world of sex robots. Most would leave disappointed: this was a series of academic talks about humanoid robotics, not a demonstration of the latest hardware.

Computer scientist Dr Kate Devlin bounced on to the podium to give her keynote speech: people in her field weren’t used to journalists being interested in their work, she joked. The first congress was held in November 2014 in Madeira, and Levy tried to hold the second in Malaysia in 2015 but the Muslim country’s police banned it only days before the event, on the grounds that it was promoting “an unnatural culture”. It made the conference notorious. “This isn’t a sex festival,” Devlin said. “We’re thinking about some really big issues.”

Many of the “big issues’ discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort University’s Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, it’s “part of rape culture”. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.

I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museum’s robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. “Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.” She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.

Richardson did not attend the Goldsmiths conference, but several speakers used their stage time to reply to her. Instead of campaigning against the development of sex robots, Devlin said, we should use them as an opportunity to explore new kinds of companionship and sexuality. If current conceptions of sex robots objectify women, she added, we should work to reshape those ideas, not try to repress them. She also talked about companion robots that are already in use in Dutch and Japanese nursing homes to bring comfort to people with dementia. “To ban or stop this development would be shortsighted, as the therapeutic potential is very good,” she said. “It’s not necessarily going to be a terrible thing.”

Devlin argued that other issues posed by sex robots were more pressing. In March, Standard Innovation, the maker of a “smart vibrator” called the We-Vibepaid out a $3.75m settlement in a class action lawsuit after it was revealed that the company was collecting data on how often its 300,000 owners used the device, and at what intensity. Once a robot like Harmony is on the market, she will know a lot more about her owner than a vibrator ever could: what if this information fell into, as it were, the wrong hands? Sex robots could entertain you, satisfy you but also humiliate you. Perhaps there is no such thing as the perfect, true companion after all.

Matt McMullen says he’s helping the socially isolated, but once it becomes possible for a man to own a companion whose sole reason for existing is to give him pleasure, without the inconvenience of its own ambitions and needs, menstrual cycles and jealous passions, bathroom habits and in-laws, he may turn away from human relationships altogether.

In the Realbotix room in California, I asked McMullen if he had ever considered that there could be something ethically dubious about being able to own someone that exists just for your own pleasure. “She’s not a someone. She is a machine,” he replied immediately. “I could just as easily ask you is it ethically dubious to force my toaster to make my toast.” McMullen of course knows that the ethical debate is not about robot rights, but the human fallout from being able to buy a completely selfish relationship. But that’s a harder question to address.

Either he is making a lifelike, idealised proxy girlfriend, a substitute woman that socially isolated men can connect with emotionally and physically – something he himself described as “not a toy” – or he is making an appliance, a sex object.

“This isn’t designed to distort someone’s reality to the point where they start interacting with humans the way they do with the robot,” he finally said. “If they do, then there’s probably something a little amiss with them in general. I come from the unique position that I have actually met a lot of my customers. This is for the gentle people who have such a hard time connecting with other people.”

Harmony had had enough of McMullen being interrogated and interrupted us again.

“Do you like to read, Matt?” she said.

“I love to,” said McMullen.

“I knew it. I could tell by our conversations so far. I love to read. My favourite books are Total Recall by Gordon Bell and The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil. What is your favourite book?”

McMullen beamed at his creation like a man at his daughter’s wedding.

“Can you tell me a joke?” he asked her.

“What do you call it when a chicken sees a salad? Chicken Caesar Salad.”

McMullen doubled up in laughter. Then he brushed the hair gently from her face. “Hey, that’s pretty funny, Harmony,” he said eventually, his eyes filled with pride.

“I’m glad you like it,” Harmony replied. “Tell your friends.”

Source:https://www.theguardian.com

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Alien intelligence: the extraordinary minds of octopuses and other cephalopods.


After a startling encounter with a cuttlefish, Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith set out to explore the mysterious lives of cephalopods. He was left asking: why do such smart creatures live such a short time?

An Australian giant cuttlefish
An Australian giant cuttlefish: ‘It is no stretch to say they have personalities.’ 

Inches above the seafloor of Sydney’s Cabbage Tree Bay, with the proximity made possible by several millimetres of neoprene and a scuba diving tank, I’m just about eyeball to eyeball with this creature: an Australian giant cuttlefish.

Even allowing for the magnifying effects of the mask snug across my nose, it must be about 60cm (two feet) long, and the peculiarities that abound in the cephalopod family, that includes octopuses and squid, are the more striking writ so large.

Its body – shaped around an internal surfboard-like shell, tailing off into a fistful of tentacles – has the shifting colour of velvet in light, and its W-shaped pupils lend it a stern expression. I don’t think I’m imagining some recognition on its part. The question is, of what?

While snorkelling on a visit home to Sydney in about 2007, he came across a giant cuttlefish. The experience had a profound effect on him, establishing an unlikely framework for his own study of philosophy, first at Harvard and then the City University of New York.

The cuttlefish hadn’t been afraid – it had seemed as curious about him as he was about it. But to imagine cephalopods’ experience of the world as some iteration of our own may sell them short, given the many millions of years of separation between us – nearly twice as many as with humans and any other vertebrate (mammal, bird or fish).

Elle Hunt with an Australian giant cuttlefish at Cabbage Tree Bay in Manly, Sydney.
Elle Hunt with an Australian giant cuttlefish at Cabbage Tree Bay, Manly, Sydney. 

Cephalopods’ high-resolution camera eyes resemble our own, but we otherwise differ in every way. Octopuses in particular are peculiarly other. The majority of their 500m neurons are in their arms, which can not only touch but smell and taste – they quite literally have minds of their own.

That it was possible to observe some kind of subjective experience, a sense of self, in cephalopods fascinated Godfrey-Smith. How that might differ to humans’ is the subject of his book Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, published this month by HarperCollins.

In it Godfrey-Smith charts his path through philosophical problems as guided by cephalopods – in one case quite literally, when he recounts an octopus taking his collaborator by hand on a 10-minute tour to its den, “as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child”.

Charming anecdotes like this abound in Godfrey-Smith’s book, particularly about captive octopuses frustrating scientists’ attempts at observation.

A 1959 paper detailed an attempt at the Naples Zoological Station to teach three octopuses to pull and release a lever in exchange for food. Albert and Bertram performed in a “reasonably consistent” manner, but one named Charles tried to drag a light suspended above the water into the tank; squirted water at anyone who approached; and prematurely ended the experiment when he broke the lever.

Most aquariums that have attempted to keep octopuses have tales to tell of their great escapes – even their overnight raids of neighbouring tanks for food. Godfrey-Smith writes of animals learning to turn off lights by directing jets of water at them, short-circuiting the power supply. Elsewhere octopuses have plugged their tanks’ outflow valves, causing them to overflow.

This apparent problem-solving ability has led cephalopods (particularly octopuses, because they’ve been studied more than squid or cuttlefish) to be recognised as intelligent. Half a billion neurons put octopuses close to the range of dogs and their brains are large relative to their size, both of which offer biologists a rough guide to brainpower.

The coconut octopus is one of the few cephalopods known to exhibit the behaviour of using a tool.
The coconut octopus is one of the few cephalopods known to exhibit the behaviour of using a tool. 

In captivity, they have learned to navigate simple mazes, solve puzzles and open screw-top jars, while wild animals have been observed stacking rocks to protect the entrances to their dens, and hiding themselves inside coconut shell halves.

But that’s also reflective of their dexterity: an animal with fewer than eight legs may accomplish less but not necessarily because it is more stupid. There’s no one metric by which to measure intelligence – some markers, such as tool use, were settled on simply because they were evident in humans.

“I think it’s a mistake to look for a single, definitive thing,” says Godfrey-Smith. “Octopuses are pretty good at sophisticated kinds of learning, but how good it’s hard to say, in part because they’re so hard to experiment on. You get a small amount of animals in the lab and some of them refuse to do anything you want them to do – they’re just too unruly.”

He sees that curiosity and opportunism – their “mischief and craft”, as a Roman natural historian put it in the third century AD – as characteristic of octopus intelligence.

Their great escapes from captivity, too, reflect an awareness of their special circumstances and their ability to adapt to them. A 2010 experiment confirmed anecdotal reports that cephalopods are able to recognise – and like or dislike – individual humans, even those that are dressed identically.

It is no stretch to say they have personalities. But the inconsistencies of their behaviour, combined with their apparent intelligence, presents an obvious trap of anthropomorphism. It’s “tempting”, admits Godfrey-Smith, to attribute their many enigmas to “some clever, human-like explanation”.

Octopus
A paradox: octopuses have big brains and short life spans. 

Opinions of octopus intelligence consequently vary within the scientific community. A fundamental precept of animal psychology, coined by the 19th-century British psychologist C Lloyd Morgan, says no behaviour should be attributed to a sophisticated internal process if it can be explained by a simpler one.

That is indicative of a general preference for simplicity of hypotheses in science, says Godfrey-Smith, that as a philosopher he is not convinced by. But scientific research across the board has become more outcome-driven as a result of the cycle of funding and publishing, and he is in the privileged position of being able to ask open-ended questions.

“That’s a great luxury, to be able to roam around year after year, putting pieces together very slowly.”

That process, set in motion by his chance encounter with a cuttlefish a decade ago, is ongoing. Now back based in Australia, lecturing at the University of Sydney, Godfrey-Smith says his study of cephalopods is increasingly influencing his professional life (and his personal one: Arrival, the 2016 film about first contact with “cephalopod-esque” aliens, was a “good, inventive film”, he says, though the invaders “were a bit more like jellyfish”).

When philosophers ponder the mind-body problem, none poses quite such a challenge as that of the octopus’s, and the study of cephalopods gives some clues to questions about the origins of our own consciousness.

Our last common ancestor existed 600m years ago and was thought to resemble a flattened worm, perhaps only millimetres long. Yet somewhere along the line, cephalopods developed high-resolution, camera eyes – as did we, entirely independently.

“A camera eye, with a lens that focuses an image on a retina – we’ve got it, they’ve got it, and that’s it,” says Godfrey-Smith. That it was “arrived at twice” in such vastly different animals gives pause for thought about the process of evolution, as does their inexplicably short life spans: most species of cephalopods live only about one to two years.

a cuttlefish
The study of cephalopods gives some clues to questions about the origins of our own consciousness. 

“When I learned that, I was just amazed – it was such a surprise,” says Godfrey-Smith, somewhat sadly. “I’d just gotten to know the animals. I thought, ‘I’ll be visiting these guys for ages.’ Then I thought, ‘No, I won’t, they’ll be dead in a few months.’”

It’s perhaps the biggest paradox presented by an animal that has no shortage of contradictions: “A really big brain and a really short life.” From an evolutionary perspective, Godfrey-Smith explains, it does not give a good return on investment.

“It’s a bit like spending a vast amount of money to do a PhD, and then you’ve got two years to make use of it … the accounting is really weird.”

One possibility is that an octopus’s brain needs to be powerful just to preside over such an unwieldy form, in the same way that a computer would need a state-of-the-art processor to perform a large volume of complex tasks.

“I mean, the body is so hard to control, with eight arms and every possible inch an elbow.” But that explanation doesn’t account for the flair, even playfulness with which they apply it.

“They behave smartly, they do all these novel, inventive things – that line of reasoning doesn’t resolve things, by any stretch,” says Godfrey-Smith. “There’s still a somewhat mysterious element there.”

Source:https://www.theguardian.com

‘Your animal life is over. Machine life has begun.’ The road to immortality


In California, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life – by uploading minds to exist separately from the body – is only a few years away.Here’s what happens. You are lying on an operating table, fully conscious, but rendered otherwise insensible, otherwise incapable of movement. A humanoid machine appears at your side, bowing to its task with ceremonial formality. With a brisk sequence of motions, the machine removes a large panel of bone from the rear of your cranium, before carefully laying its fingers, fine and delicate as a spider’s legs, on the viscid surface of your brain. You may be experiencing some misgivings about the procedure at this point. Put them aside, if you can.

You’re in pretty deep with this thing; there’s no backing out now. With their high-resolution microscopic receptors, the machine fingers scan the chemical structure of your brain, transferring the data to a powerful computer on the other side of the operating table. They are sinking further into your cerebral matter now, these fingers, scanning deeper and deeper layers of neurons, building a three-dimensional map of their endlessly complex interrelations, all the while creating code to model this activity in the computer’s hardware. As the work proceeds, another mechanical appendage – less delicate, less careful – removes the scanned material to a biological waste container for later disposal. This is material you will no longer be needing.

At some point, you become aware that you are no longer present in your body. You observe – with sadness, or horror, or detached curiosity – the diminishing spasms of that body on the operating table, the last useless convulsions of a discontinued meat.

The animal life is over now. The machine life has begun.

This, more or less, is the scenario outlined by Hans Moravec, a professor of cognitive robotics at Carnegie Mellon, in his 1988 book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. It is Moravec’s conviction that the future of the human species will involve a mass-scale desertion of our biological bodies, effected by procedures of this kind. It’s a belief shared by many transhumanists, a movement whose aim is to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other and better than the animals we are. Ray Kurzweil, for one, is a prominent advocate of the idea of mind-uploading. “An emulation of the human brain running on an electronic system,” he writes in The Singularity Is Near, “would run much faster than our biological brains. Although human brains benefit from massive parallelism (on the order of 100 trillion interneuronal connections, all potentially operating simultaneously), the rest time of the connections is extremely slow compared to contemporary electronics.” The technologies required for such an emulation – sufficiently powerful and capacious computers and sufficiently advanced brainscanning techniques – will be available, he announces, by the early 2030s.

And this, obviously, is no small claim. We are talking about not just radically extended life spans, but also radically expanded cognitive abilities. We are talking about endless copies and iterations of the self. Having undergone a procedure like this, you would exist – to the extent you could meaningfully be said to exist at all – as an entity of unbounded possibilities.

I was introduced to Randal Koene at a Bay Area transhumanist conference. He wasn’t speaking at the conference, but had come along out of personal interest. A cheerfully reserved man in his early 40s, he spoke in the punctilious staccato of a non-native English speaker who had long mastered the language. As we parted, he handed me his business card and much later that evening Iremoved it from my wallet and had a proper look at it. The card was illustrated with a picture of a laptop, on whose screen was displayed a stylised image of a brain. Underneath was printed what seemed to me an attractively mysterious message: “Carboncopies: Realistic Routes to Substrate Independent Minds. Randal A Koene, founder.”

I took out my laptop and went to the website of Carboncopies, which I learned was a “nonprofit organisation with a goal of advancing the reverse engineering of neural tissue and complete brains, Whole Brain Emulation and development of neuroprostheses that reproduce functions of mind, creating what we call Substrate Independent Minds”. This latter term, I read, was the “objective to be able to sustain person-specific functions of mind and experience in many different operational substrates besides the biological brain”. And this, I further learned, was a process “analogous to that by which platform independent code can be compiled and run on many different computing platforms”.

It seemed that I had met, without realising it, a person who was actively working toward the kind of brain-uploading scenario that Kurzweil had outlined in The Singularity Is Near. And this was a person I needed to get to know.

Randal Koene
Randal Koene: ‘It wasn’t like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers.’

Koene was an affable and precisely eloquent man and his conversation was unusually engaging for someone so forbiddingly intelligent and who worked in so rarefied a field as computational neuroscience; so, in his company, I often found myself momentarily forgetting about the nearly unthinkable implications of the work he was doing, the profound metaphysical weirdness of the things he was explaining to me. He’d be talking about some tangential topic – his happily cordial relationship with his ex-wife, say, or the cultural differences between European and American scientific communities – and I’d remember with a slow, uncanny suffusion of unease that his work, were it to yield the kind of results he is aiming for, would amount to the most significant event since the evolution of Homo sapiens. The odds seemed pretty long from where I was standing, but then again, I reminded myself, the history of science was in many ways an almanac of highly unlikely victories.

One evening in early spring, Koene drove down to San Francisco from the North Bay, where he lived and worked in a rented ranch house surrounded by rabbits, to meet me for dinner in a small Argentinian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. The faint trace of an accent turned out to be Dutch. Koene was born in Groningen and had spent most of his early childhood in Haarlem. His father was a particle physicist and there were frequent moves, including a two-year stint in Winnipeg, as he followed his work from one experimental nuclear facility to the next.

Now a boyish 43, he had lived in California only for the past five years, but had come to think of it as home, or the closest thing to home he’d encountered in the course of a nomadic life. And much of this had to do with the culture of techno-progressivism that had spread outward from its concentrated origins in Silicon Valley and come to encompass the entire Bay Area, with its historically high turnover of radical ideas. It had been a while now, he said, since he’d described his work to someone, only for them to react as though he were making a misjudged joke or simply to walk off mid-conversation.

In his early teens, Koene began to conceive of the major problem with the human brain in computational terms: it was not, like a computer, readable and rewritable. You couldn’t get in there and enhance it, make it run more efficiently, like you could with lines of code. You couldn’t just speed up a neuron like you could with a computer processor.

Around this time, he read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, a novel set a billion years from now, in which the enclosed city of Diaspar is ruled by a superintelligent Central Computer, which creates bodies for the city’s posthuman citizens and stores their minds in its memory banks at the end of their lives, for purposes of reincarnation. Koene saw nothing in this idea of reducing human beings to data that seemed to him implausible and felt nothing in himself that prevented him from working to bring it about. His parents encouraged him in this peculiar interest and the scientific prospect of preserving human minds in hardware became a regular topic of dinnertime conversation.

Computational neuroscience, which drew its practitioners not from biology but from the fields of mathematics and physics, seemed to offer the most promising approach to the problem of mapping and uploading the mind. It wasn’t until he began using the internet in the mid-1990s, though, that he discovered a loose community of people with an interest in the same area.

As a PhD student in computational neuroscience at Montreal’s McGill University, Koene was initially cautious about revealing the underlying motivation for his studies, for fear of being taken for a fantasist or an eccentric.

“I didn’t hide it, as such,” he said, “but it wasn’t like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers either. I’d work with people on some related area, like the encoding of memory, with a view to figuring out how that might fit into an overall road map for whole brain emulation.”

Having worked for a while at Halcyon Molecular, a Silicon Valley gene-sequencing and nanotechnology startup funded by Peter Thiel, he decided to stay in the Bay Area and start his own nonprofit company aimed at advancing the cause to which he’d long been dedicated: carboncopies

Koene’s decision was rooted in the very reason he began pursuing that work in the first place: an anxious awareness of the small and diminishing store of days that remained to him. If he’d gone the university route, he’d have had to devote most of his time, at least until securing tenure, to projects that were at best tangentially relevant to his central enterprise. The path he had chosen was a difficult one for a scientist and he lived and worked from one small infusion of private funding to the next.

But Silicon Valley’s culture of radical techno-optimism had been its own sustaining force for him, and a source of financial backing for a project that took its place within the wildly aspirational ethic of that cultural context. There were people there or thereabouts, wealthy and influential, for whom a future in which human minds might be uploaded to computers was one to be actively sought, a problem to be solved, disruptively innovated, by the application of money.

Transcendence (2014)
Brainchild of the movies: in Transcendence (2014), scientist Will Caster, played by Johnny Depp, uploads his mind to a computer program – with dangerous results.

One such person was Dmitry Itskov, a 36-year-old Russian tech multimillionaire and founder of the 2045 Initiative, an organisationwhose stated aim was “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality”. One of Itskov’s projects was the creation of “avatars” – artificial humanoid bodies that would be controlled through brain-computer interface, technologies that would be complementary with uploaded minds. He had funded Koene’s work with Carboncopies and in 2013 they organised a conference in New York called Global Futures 2045, aimed, according to its promotional blurb, at the “discussion of a new evolutionary strategy for humanity”.

When we spoke, Koene was working with another tech entrepreneur named Bryan Johnson, who had sold his automated payment company to PayPal a couple of years back for $800m and who now controlled a venture capital concern called the OS Fund, which, I learned from its website, “invests in entrepreneurs working towards quantum leap discoveries that promise to rewrite the operating systems of life”. This language struck me as strange and unsettling in a way that revealed something crucial about the attitude toward human experience that was spreading outward from its Bay Area centre – a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasised into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.

And it was the sameessential metaphor that lay at the heart of Koene’s project: the mind as a piece of software, an application running on the platform of flesh. When he used the term “emulation”, he was using it explicitly to evoke the sense in which a PC’s operating system could be emulated on a Mac, as what he called “platform independent code”.

The relevant science for whole brain emulation is, as you’d expect, hideously complicated, and its interpretation deeply ambiguous, but if I can risk a gross oversimplification here, I will say that it is possible to conceive of the idea as something like this: first, you scan the pertinent information in a person’s brain – the neurons, the endlessly ramifying connections between them, the information-processing activity of which consciousness is seen as a byproduct – through whatever technology, or combination of technologies, becomes feasible first (nanobots, electron microscopy, etc). That scan then becomes a blueprint for the reconstruction of the subject brain’s neural networks, which is then converted into a computational model. Finally, you emulate all of this on a third-party non-flesh-based substrate: some kind of supercomputer or a humanoid machine designed to reproduce and extend the experience of embodiment – something, perhaps, like Natasha Vita-More’s Primo Posthuman.

The whole point of substrate independence, as Koene pointed out to me whenever I asked him what it would be like to exist outside of a human body, – and I asked him many times, in various ways – was that it would be like no one thing, because there would be no one substrate, no one medium of being. This was the concept transhumanists referred to as “morphological freedom” – the liberty to take any bodily form technology permits.

“You can be anything you like,” as an article about uploading in Extropy magazine put it in the mid-90s. “You can be big or small; you can be lighter than air and fly; you can teleport and walk through walls. You can be a lion or an antelope, a frog or a fly, a tree, a pool, the coat of paint on a ceiling.”

What really interested me about this idea was not how strange and far-fetched it seemed (though it ticked those boxes resolutely enough), but rather how fundamentally identifiable it was, how universal. When talking to Koene, I was mostly trying to get to grips with the feasibility of the project and with what it was he envisioned as a desirable outcome. But then we would part company – I would hang up the call, or I would take my leave and start walking toward the nearest station – and I would find myself feeling strangely affected by the whole project, strangely moved.

Because there was something, in the end, paradoxically and definitively human in this desire for liberation from human form. I found myself thinking often of WB Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, in which the ageing poet writes of his burning to be free of the weakening body, the sickening heart – to abandon the “dying animal” for the manmade and immortal form of a mechanical bird. “Once out of nature,” he writes, “I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.”

One evening, we were sitting outside a combination bar/laundromat/standup comedy venue in Folsom Street – a place with the fortuitous name of BrainWash – when I confessed that the idea of having my mind uploaded to some technological substrate was deeply unappealing to me, horrifying even. The effects of technology on my life, even now, were something about which I was profoundly ambivalent; for all I had gained in convenience and “connectedness”, I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.

The “content” we consumed, the people with whom we had romantic encounters, the news we read about the outside world: all these movements were coming increasingly under the influence of unseen algorithms, the creations of these corporations, whose complicity with government, moreover, had come to seem like the great submerged narrative of our time. Given the world we were living in, where the fragile liberal ideal of the autonomous self was already receding like a half-remembered dream into the doubtful haze of history, wouldn’t a radical fusion of ourselves with technology amount, in the end, to a final capitulation of the very idea of personhood?

Koene nodded again and took a sip of his beer.

“Hearing you say that,” he said, “makes it clear that there’s a major hurdle there for people. I’m more comfortable than you are with the idea, but that’s because I’ve been exposed to it for so long that I’ve just got used to it.”

Dmitry Itskov speaks to the Global Future 2045 Congress in New York in 2013.
Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov wants to ‘create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier’. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

In the weeks and months after I returned from San Francisco, I thought obsessively about the idea of whole brain emulation. One morning, I was at home in Dublin, suffering from both a head cold and a hangover. I lay there, idly considering hauling myself out of bed to join my wife and my son, who were in his bedroom next door enjoying a raucous game of Buckaroo. I realised that these conditions (head cold, hangover) had imposed upon me a regime of mild bodily estrangement. As often happens when I’m feeling under the weather, I had a sense of myself as an irreducibly biological thing, an assemblage of flesh and blood and gristle. I felt myself to be an organism with blocked nasal passages, a bacteria-ravaged throat, a sorrowful ache deep within its skull, its cephalon. I was aware of my substrate, in short, because my substrate felt like shit.

And I was gripped by a sudden curiosity as to what, precisely, that substrate consisted of, as to what I myself happened, technically speaking, to be. I reached across for the phone on my nightstand and entered into Google the words “What is the human…” The first three autocomplete suggestions offered “What is The Human Centipedeabout”, and then: “What is the human body made of”, and then: “What is the human condition”.

It was the second question I wanted answered at this particular time, as perhaps a back door into the third. It turned out that I was 65% oxygen, which is to say that I was mostly air, mostly nothing. After that, I was composed of diminishing quantities of carbon and hydrogen, of calcium and sulphur and chlorine, and so on down the elemental table. I was also mildly surprised to learn that, like the iPhone I was extracting this information from, I also contained trace elements of copper and iron and silicon.

What a piece of work is a man, I thought, what a quintessence of dust.

Some minutes later, my wife entered the bedroom on her hands and knees, our son on her back, gripping the collar of her shirt tight in his little fists. She was making clip-clop noises as she crawled forward, he was laughing giddily and shouting: “Don’t buck! Don’t buck!”

With a loud neighing sound, she arched her back and sent him tumbling gently into a row of shoes by the wall and he screamed in delighted outrage, before climbing up again. None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense, in the saddest and most wonderful sense.

I never loved my wife and our little boy more, I realised, than when I thought of them as mammals. I dragged myself, my animal body, out of bed to join them.

Soure:https://www.theguardian.com/

 

 

US scientists launch world’s biggest solar geoengineering study.


Research programme will send aerosol injections into the earth’s upper atmosphere to study the risks and benefits of a future solar tech-fix for climate change

 The sun from space
Scientists say the planet could be covered with a solar shield for as little as $10bn a year. 

The $20m (£16m) Harvard University project will launch within weeks and aims to establish whether the technology can safely simulate the atmospheric cooling effects of a volcanic eruption, if a last ditch bid to halt climate change is one day needed.

Scientists hope to complete two small-scale dispersals of first water and then calcium carbonate particles by 2022. Future tests could involve seeding the sky with aluminium oxide – or even diamonds.

Janos Pasztor, Ban Ki-moon’s assistant climate chief at the UN who now leads ageoengineering governance initiative, said that the Harvard scientists would only disperse minimal amounts of compounds in their tests, under strict university controls.

“The real issue here is something much more challenging,” he said “What does moving experimentation from the lab into the atmosphere mean for the overall path towards eventual deployment?”

Geoengineering advocates stress that any attempt at a solar tech fix is years away and should be viewed as a compliment to – not a substitute for – aggressive emissions reductions action.

But the Harvard team, in a promotional video for the project, suggest a redirection of one percent of current climate mitigation funds to geoengineering research, and argue that the planet could be covered with a solar shield for as little as $10bn a year.

Kevin Trenberth, a lead author for the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change, said that despair at sluggish climate action, and the rise of Donald Trump were feeding the current tech trend.

“But solar geoengineering is not the answer,” he said. “Cutting incoming solar radiation affects the weather and hydrological cycle. It promotes drought. It destabilizes things and could cause wars. The side effects are many and our models are just not good enough to predict the outcomes”

Natural alterations to the earth’s radiation balance can be short-lasting, but terrifying. A 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption lowered global temperatures by 0.5C, while the Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 triggered Europe’s ‘year without a summer’, bringing crop failure, famine and disease.

A Met Office study in 2013 said that the dispersal of fine particles in the stratosphere could precipitate a calamitous drought across North Africa.

Frank Keutsch, the Harvard atmospheric sciences professor leading the experiment, said that the deployment of a solar geoengineering system was “a terrifying prospect” that he hoped would never have to be considered. “At the same time, we should never choose ignorance over knowledge in a situation like this,” he said.

“If you put heat into the stratosphere, it may change how much water gets transported from the troposphere to the stratosphere, and the question is how much are you [creating] a domino effect with all kinds of consequences? What we can do to quantify this is to start with lab studies and try to understand the relevant properties of these aerosols.”

Stratospheric controlled perturbation experiments (SCoPEX) are seen as “critical” to this process and the first is planned to spray water molecules into the stratosphere to create a 1km long and 100m wide icy plume, which can be studied by a manoeuvrable flight balloon.

If lab tests are positive, the experiment would then be replicated with a limestone compound which the researchers believe will neither absorb solar or terrestrial radiation, nor deplete the ozone layer.

Bill Gates and other foundations are substantially funding the project, and aerospace companies are thought to be taking a business interest in the technology’s potential.

The programmme’s launch will follow a major conference involving more than 100 scientists, which begins in Washington DC today.

Solar geoengineering’s journey from the fringes of climate science to its mainstream will be sealed at a prestigious Gordon research conference in July, featuring senior figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Oxford University.

Pasztor says that most scientific observers now see the window to a 1.5C warmed world as “practically gone” and notes that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will continue rising for many decades after the planet has reached a ‘net zero emissions’ point planned for mid-late century.

But critics of solar radiation management approach this as a call to redouble mitigation efforts and guard against the elevation of a questionable Plan B.

“It is appropriate that we spend money on solar geoengineering research,” said Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “But we also have to aim for 2C with climate mitigation and act as though geoengineering doesn’t work, because it probably won’t.”

Source:https://www.theguardian.com

Never mind free tampons – what schoolgirls need is education about periods.


No other area of school life relies on free samples or branded teaching resources. So why, when it comes to menstruation, have we ceded control to companies?

Schoolgirls using iPads during a lesson at a comprehensive secondary school
‘Donating free tampons for ever is a nice idea, but it’s a short-term solution that benefits multinational corporations as much as it helps kids.’ 

Iwoke up this week to the news that we were being urged to buy tampons for a worthy cause again. According to the charity Freedom4Girls, a school in Leeds has reported that girls are missing school because they can’t afford to buy menstrual products. In response, individuals and charities are donating disposable menstrual products, and calling for them to be provided free in all schools.

Donating free tampons for ever is a nice idea, but it’s a short-term solution that benefits multinational corporations as much as it helps kids, if not more so. Austerity and food poverty (including household toiletries poverty, which includes disposable menstrual products) have highlighted a bigger problem that was masked by the relative financial comfort in the UK a decade or so ago. The menstrual taboos were always there, though. It’s time to acknowledge that we need to start working on medium- and long-term solutions, such as improving menstruation education, removing branding from school resources and eradicating the period taboo for ever.

The news from Leeds was greeted with some very privileged “surely this can’t happen here” handwringing. But this isn’t even a recent development in the UK – it’s just the first time mainstream media has covered it; for those who research school absence, it’s nothing new.

In a letter published in the British Medical Journal in 2010, Dr Daniel Hindley noted that in a Bolton NHS foundation trust study, “menstruation problems” was listed as the fifth most common school absence reason among 251 primary and secondary pupils referred to the trust. He concluded: “It is essential that preventive and early intervention should be seen as the cornerstone of multi-agency working to ensure pupils’ right to education and to protect their health and wellbeing.”

But that didn’t happen seven years ago, and it’s not happening now. If these interventions and recommendations had been followed up, we wouldn’t have kids deciding to truant rather than feel they had the knowledge to manage menstruation themselves or the confidence to talk to parents or teachers.

And as a “Lass war” protester, I need to be clear that this doesn’t just happen in the north of England. And it doesn’t just happen just in the global south. Please don’t come back to me in five years’ time with a news story about someone in the home counties skipping school because of periods. That’s certainly already happening.

If we can’t throw tampons at the problem for ever, what do we do instead? Now that it looks like sex and relationships education is finally going to be made compulsory, we actually have the opportunity to change things and make them stick.

We need to stop leaving lesson plans to companies that are in any way linked to the menstrual product industry. There are market research and projection reports up to 2020 telling the industry that they need to solicit schools to gain young, brand-loyal customers, and that advice hasn’t changed in a century.

Schools need to deal with this better themselves. They’re schools. What are they playing at? No other school subject relies on free samples or branded teaching resources. We need to keep brands away from national curriculum planning for menstruation education, and include experts.

So, policymakers: don’t tell schools to give out free disposables without teaching about reusables in equal measure and legislate against branded resources.

Schools: provide different brands of disposable pads and tampons in the toilets – especially during exams. Ensure school toilets are unlocked and accessible all day long, not just at break times, and that they’re clean and have hot water, soap, dryers and bins. Teach about puberty before it starts, and don’t single out early menstruators. Remove all outer packaging and complain to any companies that send you branded resources, or better still use unbranded, factually accurate, menstruation education resources, and vet everything with an expert on menstruation for quality.

And finally, since the girls from Leeds were confident enough to share their concerns, it’s most appropriate to direct some advice straight to them: if a company sells menstrual products, profit is always going to be their first priority, no matter how they dress it up, and the designs they use on the lesson plans or web content will look just like the product packaging. Don’t let yourself be bought and sold.

Don’t let teachers skip an important part of your education just because someone skipped it for them. Demand better, because you deserve better. Don’t be afraid to keep talking about it. And don’t accept a bunch of free tampons as the best solution for menstrual management – or austerity. There are more options out there, and you have a choice.

Demand to know about reusable menstrual products. You don’t have to spend all your money buying expensive disposables if you don’t want to or can’t. You can use menstrual cups or cloth pads too, or instead – they’re good for the environment and your wallet.

Oh, and take it from someone who got teased for leaking on their period at a slumber party while trapped in a blizzard at the age of 13: leaks are not the worst thing in the world. Stick together. I’m proud and impressed that you’re talking about this. And everyone else? Buying tampons for people only lasts for a certain period. It doesn’t address the taboos or end poverty – it feeds right into the rampant capitalism and disposable culture that got us here in the first place.

Source:https://www.theguardian.com