In Defense of Life: Alan Turing, the Original Hacker.

Jaron Lanier: One of the many aspects of the tragedy of Turing's death is that he wasn't able to tell us more about how he was thinking about his last communications.  So I have to tread on very delicate and uncertain territory because I don't want to put words in his mouth or assume. So....

Alan Turing invented computers and he was the first hacker.  He broke Nazi secret code using computers, and no one had done anything like that before.  And he was in a remarkable strange historical position because his invention of computing made him one of the unquestionable heroes of World War II.  However, he emerged from it as somebody who was living illegally in his own society because he was gay at a time when it was illegal to be gay in Britain.

At a certain point, without going into all the details, he was put under house arrest and subjected to a torturous medical regime that was supposed to change his sexual orientation so that he would become straight, and it involved forcing him to accept massive doses of female hormones.  And he generated breasts and other female characteristics and became very depressed, and he killed himself in front of his computer using a very strange ritual, sort of like . . . I mean who can know what he was thinking, but he laced an apple with cyanide and ate it.

The reason to tell this horrible story is just to point out that the invention of the artificial intelligence idea, the invention of the idea that the computer is doing something on its own and that it's not just being programmed came out of Turing's mind during this last, very last period of his life in the weeks before his death, and he wrote a couple of notes about it in this argument that is known as the Turing Test.  He proposed that a computer that could answer questions and be indistinguishable to a judge from a real person perhaps should be treated as a real person because who are we deny it moral rights?  

And I think if you look at the argument in the abstract it looks like an argument for computationalism--that computers and people are fundamentally the same, that we are building a big entity in the internet and all that--, but if you look at it in the context of Turing's life a completely different picture appears, which is you realize, here is this person who is being murdered for who he is after having been one of the heroes of liberating people who were being murdered for who they were.  When you realize the absolute and thunderous irony of his situation and then you think about his having created this thought experiment where he's saying, should this weird creature have rights?, I think it puts it in a very different light.  And I think the right way to understand Turing is to understand that this whole thought began in the mind of somebody who was in a deeply, deeply uncomfortable, the most uncomfortable possible situation very close to suicide, and that it amounted to a flight from life, but also a defense of life. 

It could have been a lot of things.  It could have been a "reductio ad absurdum."  If you're telling me that I don't deserve to be a human as I am, well, then make this machine human.  It could have been that sort of thing.  And I think it's very possibly what it was.  It could also have been, "My God, what would it take for you people to give anybody respect?  What's the secret?"  You know, sort of a desperate cry of, like, "What is the secret code to get some respect as a person around here?"  I don't really know, but the point I want to make is that the wrong interpretation is surely the one that has taken hold, which is, oh yeah, let's treat the computers as people, you know?  

So Turing invented this whole thing.  He made up computers and the whole came out of his head pretty much.  Von Neumann also did part of it, of course, but the basic track that we're all still grooving in was laid down by this guy who was murdered by his own government for being gay. And we shouldn't forget that.  That's our origin.  That's the real, you know . . . I think when you really delve into the truth to the human stories you start to discover things that are quite different from the abstractions and the generalities.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

According to Jaron Lanier, the right way to understand Alan Turing's famous "Turing Test" is to understand that it "began in the mind of somebody who was in a deeply, deeply uncomfortable possible situation, who was very close to suicide, and that it amounted to a flight from life, but also a defense of life."

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.