Cognition all the way down | Aeon

Source: Cognition all the way down | Aeon, by Michael Levin and Daniel C Dennett, edited by Nigel Warburton

Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas (even if unthinking ones)

Isaac Newton’s laws are great for predicting the path of a ball placed at the top of a hill, but they’re useless for understanding what a mouse at the top of a hill will do. So, the other way to make a mistake is to fail to attribute goal-directedness to a system that has it; this kind of teleophobia significantly holds back the ability to predict and control complex systems because it prevents discovery of their most efficient internal controls or pressure points.

In a phrase that will need careful unpacking, individual cells are not just building blocks, like the basic parts of a ratchet or pump; they have extra competences that turn them into (unthinking) agents that, thanks to information they have on board, can assist in their own assembly into larger structures, and in other large-scale projects that they needn’t understand.

Agents, in this carefully limited perspective, need not be conscious, need not understand, need not have minds, but they do need to be structured to exploit physical regularities that enable them to use information (following the laws of computation) to perform tasks, beginning with the fundamental task of self-preservation, which involves not just providing themselves with the energy needed to wield their tools, but the ability to adjust to their local environments in ways that advance their prospects.

the point is not to anthropomorphise morphogenesis – the point is to naturalise cognition. There is nothing magic that humans (or other smart animals) do that doesn’t have a phylogenetic history. Taking evolution seriously means asking what cognition looked like all the way back. Modern data in the field of basal cognition makes it impossible to maintain an artificial dichotomy of ‘real’ and ‘as-if’ cognition. There is one continuum along which all living systems (and many nonliving ones) can be placed, with respect to how much thinking they can do.

It’s all about goals: single cells’ homeostatic goals are roughly the size of one cell, and have limited memory and anticipation capacity. Tissues, organs, brains, animals and swarms (like anthills) form various kinds of minds that can represent, remember and reach for bigger goals. This conceptual scheme enables us to look past irrelevant details of the materials or backstory of their construction, and to focus on what’s important for being a cognitive agent with some degree of sophistication: the scale of its goals. Agents can combine into networks, scaling their tiny, local goals into more grandiose ones belonging to a larger, unified self. And of course, any cognitive agent can be made up of smaller agents, each with their own limits on the size and complexity of what they’re working towards.

@jichikawa Twitter thread by Jonathan Ichikawa

Source: @jichikawa Twitter thread, by Jonathan Ichikawa

something a little bit interesting about how conventions arise. Sometimes they actually create the rules; other times they attempt to capture rules already implicitly in place. Some feel weirdly in-between. But adhering too strongly to one’s systematisation of a norm can be a mistake — sometimes what look like surprising or counterintuitive results actually just show that one just didn’t systematise things right in the first case.

A whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled | National Geographic

Source: A whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled | National Geographic, by Laura Parker

Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated so rapidly that it has created 8.3 billion metric tons

Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form. Only 12 percent has been incinerated.

6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled | NPR

Source: How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled | NPR, Laura Sullivan

An NPR and PBS Frontline investigation reveals how the oil and gas industry used the promise of recycling to sell more plastic, even when they knew it would never work on a large scale.

Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.

Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic.

These commercials carried a distinct message: Plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it.

It may have sounded like an environmentalist’s message, but the ads were paid for by the plastics industry, made up of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont and their lobbying and trade organizations in Washington.

Industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on these ads and ran them for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean.

Documents show industry officials knew this reality about recycling plastic as far back as the 1970s.

For The First Time, World Learns Truth About Risk Of Nuclear | Medium

Source: For The First Time, World Learns Truth About Risk Of Nuclear | Medium, by David Watson

Originally published in the UK Nuclear Institute’s Nuclear Future magazine in July 2020.

RE: Coping with a big nuclear accident; Closing papers from the NREFS project | Process Safety and Environmental Protection (Volume 112, Part A, Pages 1-198 (November 2017))

  • Remediation and food bans are good value for money
  • The presumption that long term relocations are a good policy tool needs re-evaluating

While accidents at nuclear plants are very rare, it is impossible to say that they will never occur. As Prof Thomas says, “I’ve often met with the reaction that we should make sure accidents don’t happen. And that’s fine. But accidents do happen, they have happened — and what do you do then?” The NREFS project sought to measure objectively the effectiveness of actions (usually referred to as ‘countermeasures’) a government could take following an accident, principally evacuation, sheltering (staying indoors for a period of hours to days), bans on the consumption of locally grown foods, remediation (cleaning of buildings and soils to remove contamination) and long-term relocation.