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Bill Belichick’s win-at-all-costs reputation has taken a hit

Emily walpole

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Bill Belichick’s win-at-all-costs reputation has taken a hit in the last week or so.

And that’s actually a good thing for the man who is unquestionably one of the greatest coaches of his or any generation in any sport.

An eight-time Super Bowl winner, Belichick has navigated a mini COVID-19 outbreak in New England seemingly as well as any leader possibly could. Fingers crossed, he and his team have come out the other side galvanized, Belichick with as strong a bond with his players as maybe at any time in his two decades in New England. All without winning a single game and barely taking to the practice field.

When the going gets tough, Belichick has always seemingly done the right thing over his years in Foxborough, on and off the field. He’s apparently done so yet again to earn maybe the most unified support inside his locker room that he’s ever had.

ESPN’s Tom Jackson once erroneously said of the Belichick-led 2003 Patriots, “they hate their coach.”

Today it’s probably more accurate to say of the 2020 Patriots that they love, respect and trust their coach.

It’s all thanks to the way Belichick has gone about the “day by day, hour by hour” process of dealing with COVID-19 juxtaposed to the perceived lack of leadership the players have gotten from outside the organization.

When Jason McCourty articulated Oct. 10 that he and his teammates couldn’t really put much faith or trust in the NFL or the NFLPA less than a week after the coronavirus-compromised Patriots had been crammed into planes for a round-trip Monday night meeting with the Chiefs, Belichick had already done enough to hold it all together in what could have been a team-fracturing moment.

While the league was seemingly flying by the seat of its coronavirus pants in the wake of Stephon Gilmore’s positive COVID-19 test, Belichick was shutting down his facility above and beyond what the NFL wanted, bringing in experts to address the situation and answer questions and utilizing the NFL’s ineptitude to embolden his own powerful leadership hold.

With apologies to both The Swami and the Buffalo Bills, nobody circles the proverbial wagons through a pandemic like Belichick.

Nobody.

“I think the main thing you want to see from your coach is that you’re not just a player. You’re a human being. You have family. You have feelings. Certain situations might make you react a certain way,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “Seeing that coach actually — he actually notices that. He cares about the family and tries to make it as much family-oriented as he can and let’s his players have a voice. It’s encouraging to see. When you have a person who tests positive on the team, it doesn’t matter who it is. He just says: ‘OK we’re fitting to shut the whole thing down.’ That shows he cares about you as a person and not about just the wins and the losses.”

“He’s been great,” running back Rex Burkhead added. “He really has just put our safety, our family’s safety first, and he’s been in constant communication with us on doing whatever he can or whatever the team can to put in things in place to keep us safe. And, you know, that’s great, just knowing he has our back in these situations and these times.”

It’s always been said that part of Belichick’s greatness is that he puts players into a position to succeed. Magnifies their strengths and covers up their weaknesses. Asks them to do their job in a simple fashion with clear expectations.

All of those had always been interpreted in terms of on-field circumstances inside the world of football.

But, this time, to get the best out of his players on the field the master manager of men Belichick knew that he had to deal with the real world, the facts, anxieties and protocols necessary to play football in a pandemic.

And he didn’t hesitate.

Belichick didn’t use COVID-19 as an excuse, but rather gave his players the information, guidance and structure to take on the unique challenges of the world in this 2020 season. Make no mistake, he wants to win in 2020 just as much as he did previously. Maybe more in the first year post-Tom Brady in Foxborough.

But not at all costs. Not at the risk of the health of his players and their families.

“I will say from the outside, it did look like it was win at all costs,” the first-year Patriot Phillips said of his past views of Belichick compared to the man he’s encountered during the most unique season in NFL history. “Even when you get here — everyone wants to win, all 32 teams — but it’s just: what are you willing to do to get your team to that W. With the whole COVID situation, you can tell that coach isn’t willing to sell out his whole team or put his whole team at risk just to get a win. We’re people. We have families, so it’s definitely the mindset that we’re going to do what we have to do to win, but we’re going to do it safe. We’re not going to be out here reckless. We follow the guidelines. We’re doing everything right. We don’t want to be the team that breaks the rules. It is win at all costs, but it’s do it the right way.”

The right way. AKA the Belichick way. Even — or maybe especially — during a pandemic.

 

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Integrating information in the brain’s EM field: the cemi field theory of consciousness

Mish Boyka

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Abstract

A key aspect of consciousness is that it represents bound or integrated information, prompting an increasing conviction that the physical substrate of consciousness must be capable of encoding integrated information in the brain. However, as Ralph Landauer insisted, ‘information is physical’ so integrated information must be physically integrated. I argue here that nearly all examples of so-called ‘integrated information’, including neuronal information processing and conventional computing, are only temporally integrated in the sense that outputs are correlated with multiple inputs: the information integration is implemented in time, rather than space, and thereby cannot correspond to physically integrated information. I point out that only energy fields are capable of integrating information in space. I describe the conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field theory which has proposed that consciousness is physically integrated and causally active, information encoded in the brain’s global electromagnetic (EM) field. I here extend the theory to argue that consciousness implements algorithms in space, rather than time, within the brain’s EM field. I describe how the cemi field theory accounts for most observed features of consciousness and describe recent experimental support for the theory. I also describe several untested predictions of the theory and discuss its implications for the design of artificial consciousness. The cemi field theory proposes a scientific dualism that is rooted in the difference between matter and energy, rather than matter and spirit.

Introduction

‘Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs’

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

‘What’s the best way to fix a bicycle that has a rope caught in its spokes?’

Gary Marcus ‘Deep Learning: A Critical Appraisal’ (Marcus 2018)

The ‘binding problem’ is that of understanding ‘our capacity to integrate information across time, space, attributes, and ideas’ (Treisman 1999) within a conscious mind. The problem is often posed in terms of understanding how the disparate components of a visual scene—colors, textures, lines, motion, etc.—that are processed in distinct regions of the brain are yet brought together to form a unified conscious percept. However, binding is a general feature of consciousness in all its modes. The first text quotation above contains four discordant nouns, one denoting an emotion, the second a dark vapor, the third a noxious smell, and the fourth, an utterance. Yet, Shakespeare’s genius bound each word into a single line of poetry that effortlessly evokes, in the conscious mind of the reader or listener, a singular, integrated, yet complex insight into the most tender of human emotions. In the second quotation, artificial intelligence (AI) researcher and pioneer of Deep Learning, Gary Marcus, laments the fact that AI currently lacks this ability, as illustrated by the intractability of problems, such as untangling a rope from the wheel of a bicycle that is, nevertheless, grasped and solved by an infant on her first exposure to the task.

Our subjective experience is that this kind of problem, which involves planning and executing several sequential steps, is nonetheless instantly grasped and solved in its entirety, as integrated information. This intuition is borne out by many studies that demonstrate that the binding provided by consciousness is indeed required to solve general intelligence problems, particularly sequential tasks that require working memory, such as memory trace conditioning (Carter et al. 2006), multi-step calculations (Dehaene and Cohen 2007), goal-directed behavior and strategic planning (Dehaene and Naccache 2001), learning over time (Fuster 1991), language (but not word) comprehension (Hagoort and Indefrey 2014), social intelligence and interactions (Dunbar et al. 2010; Lieberman 2012) and creativity (Kaufman et al. 2010). As has been pointed out by several researchers (Tononi and Edelman 1998; Treisman 1999; Edelman and Tononi 2008), conscious binding requires the integration of complex information in the brain. The problem is to understand how the brain achieves this integration.

Results

What do we mean by physically integrated information?

‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language’. Wittgenstein (2009, p. 109).

What do we mean by ‘integrated information’? To answer this question, we must first agree on a definition of information. I will here use that described by Claude Shannon and known as ‘Shannon information’ (Shannon 1948); which is essentially a measure of the correlation between the degrees of freedom of a sender and receiver of a message, measured in bits. Neuronal firing rates thereby encode information about the outside world because some of its degrees of freedom are correlated with degrees of freedom of the outside world. I note that, in some theories of consciousness, causation is required in addition to correlation (Landauer 1991; Tononi et al. 1998).

Next, we must agree on how to distinguish conscious from non-conscious mental activity. I will follow the approach pioneered by Dehaene and colleagues who insisted that ‘subjective reports are the key phenomena that a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness purport to study’ (Dehaene and Naccache 2001). So, bringing these two definitions together, then conscious neuronal information (the sender) is that information encoded in the brain that correlates with the information encoded in the subjective reports (the receiver) of a conscious observer.

However, a great deal of information, as degrees of freedom in the brain, maybe correlated with subjectively reported information, including the motion of ions through the neuronal membrane, the motion of neurotransmitters within the synaptic cleft, the opening and closing of ion channels, blood flow or electromagnetic (EM) field perturbations generated by the motion of electrically charged particles. Each of these neuronal microstates knows, in the Shannon sense of its state being correlated with, some aspect(s) of the visual scene or subjective reports of that scene. Which is a likely physical substrate for the integrated information that must be encoded by conscious minds?

Before answering this question, it is first necessary to define what we mean by integrated information. This might appear to be an easy task as the term is widely used, so much so that there is evidenced by the United Nations Expert Group on the Integration of Statistical and Geospatial Information (http://ggim.un.org/UNGGIM-expert-group/), the International Society of Information Fusion (http://isif.org/), Information Integration Theory (Anderson 2014), data integration systems (Genesereth et al. 1997), numerous statistical and data mining methods that seek to integrate information from multiple sources (Maimon and Rokach 2005), as well as the integrated circuits of computers. However, like the physicist, Rolf Landauer, famously insisted, ‘information is physical’ (Landauer 1991) so integrated information, if it exists at all, must be encoded by a physically integrated substrate. Moreover, if it is to have an output then it needs to be causally competent (Pawłowski et al. 2009): the integrated information must, as an integrated unit, change something physical. Yet, none of the above examples of integrated information are physically integrated. Their information is causally integrated in time, rather than physically integrated into space, as I will now illustrate with a familiar problem from philosophy.

Ryle (2009) insisted that it is a category error to suppose that structures, such as the University of Oxford, have material existence. To make his point, he imagined a visitor to Oxford who visits the library and colleges but then asks ‘But where is the University?’ The visitor’s error is to assume that the university is a member of the category of material objects, rather than an institution which exists causally only in the minds of the students, staff, and visitors to the university. Ryle calls this kind of mistake a ‘category error’. An analogous argument can be made for integrated information. University institutions, such as registry, finance, the libraries, exam boards, colleges, or executives, integrate and process vast amounts of varied information ranging from student entry criteria, applicant qualifications, book catalogs, exam performance, timetables, or salaries. However, this integration, like the institution itself, is causal, rather than physical, in the sense that downstream effects, such as the posting of offers of university places, depending on a multiplicity of upstream informational causes, such as the arrival of application forms and their scrutiny by academics and administrators. The integration is via a causal chain of operations in time, rather than physical integration in space.

This form of temporal integrated information is also a universal feature of computation, such as those performed by Boolean logic gates and instantiated in Turing machines, such as modern computers. For example, the single-bit output of an AND logic gate integrates the two bits of information encoded in its two inputs (Fig. 1a) to output a single bit that represents an integration of the gate’s inputs. In reality, the integration is causal in the sense that the state of the output bit at time t2 is dependent on both input bits at time t1. Of course, the single output bit cannot encode both input bits: it is not physically integrated information. Note also that, once a signal has been transmitted from input to output via, for example, a current or voltage change, then the inputs are free to accept new data. So, by the time the signal has reached the output (t2), its state may no longer be correlated with the inputs. There is therefore no physical state that corresponds to the integration of information performed by the gate. This does not, of course, prevent the gate from participating in any complex algorithmic operation that can be considered to integrate information in the sense of the conventional temporal use of the term. Consider, for example, a computer connected to a camera and running an image recognition program whose job is to identify photographs of the actress Jennifer Anniston amongst hundreds of electronic images presented to the camera. By the time the complex series of computations that analyze and integrate features such as hair color, eye color, the shape of the nose, chin, complexion, orientation of the image, etc., have reached a gate that finally commits the program to deliver an audio output of ‘this is Jennifer Aniston’, the input logic gates may have gone on to the next photograph. There can therefore be no physical state that corresponds to the integrated information at any single point in time. The integration exists as a correlation in time, not as a physical integration in space.

Figure 1

(a) Illustration of how the single bit output of an AND logic gate integrates the two bits of information encoded in its two inputs to output a single bit that represents an integration of the gate's inputs. In reality, the integration is causal in the sense that the state of the output bit at time t2 is dependent on both input bits at time t1. (b) Illustration of how dynamic EM field information can integrate information and function as a logic gate. An AND gate is shown with two inputs and a single output, each encoded either a zero or one all at time t1. The inputs are dipoles that act as electromagnetic field (EMF) transmitters that oscillate between two states either firing (oscillating corresponding to input = 1) or non-firing (not oscillating, input = 0) states. The output is then an EMF receiver that implements the AND rule to output a signal.

(a) Illustration of how the single-bit output of an AND logic gate integrates the two bits of information encoded in its two inputs to output a single bit that represents an integration of the gate’s inputs. In reality, the integration is causal in the sense that the state of the output bit at time t2 is dependent on both input bits at time t1. (b) Illustration of how dynamic EM field information can integrate information and function as a logic gate. An AND gate is shown with two inputs and a single output, each encoded either a zero or one all at time t1. The inputs are dipoles that act as electromagnetic field (EMF) transmitters that oscillate between two states either firing (oscillating corresponding to input = 1) or non-firing (not oscillating, input = 0) states. The output is then an EMF receiver that implements the AND rule to output a signal.

Figure 1

(a) Illustration of how the single bit output of an AND logic gate integrates the two bits of information encoded in its two inputs to output a single bit that represents an integration of the gate's inputs. In reality, the integration is causal in the sense that the state of the output bit at time t2 is dependent on both input bits at time t1. (b) Illustration of how dynamic EM field information can integrate information and function as a logic gate. An AND gate is shown with two inputs and a single output, each encoded either a zero or one all at time t1. The inputs are dipoles that act as electromagnetic field (EMF) transmitters that oscillate between two states either firing (oscillating corresponding to input = 1) or non-firing (not oscillating, input = 0) states. The output is then an EMF receiver that implements the AND rule to output a signal.

(a) Illustration of how the single-bit output of an AND logic gate integrates the two bits of information encoded in its two inputs to output a single bit that represents an integration of the gate’s inputs. In reality, the integration is causal in the sense that the state of the output bit at time t2 is dependent on both input bits at time t1. (b) Illustration of how dynamic EM field information can integrate information and function as a logic gate. An AND gate is shown with two inputs and a single output, each encoded either a zero or one all at time t1. The inputs are dipoles that act as electromagnetic field (EMF) transmitters that oscillate between two states either firing (oscillating corresponding to input = 1) or non-firing (not oscillating, input = 0) states. The output is then an EMF receiver that implements the AND rule to output a signal.

Do neurons integrate information?

It is important to stress that no EM field theory of consciousness denies that much or most brain information processing proceeds via conventional neuron/synapse transmission. However, the same argument described above for integrated circuits applies to the processing of complex information along complex neuronal pathways. They, like logic gates, input sensory information, such as photographs, and process that information along chains of neuronal networks until they reach a group of neurons or even a single neuron that fires to generate a verbal output of ‘this is Jennifer Aniston’. Nevertheless, just as for logic gates, once a neuron has done its job of processing its many inputs to generate the single output of a firing rate, it is free to accept new data. Downstream neurons involved in the triggering motor output need not be correlated with the simultaneous state of input neurons or neurons involved in the processing of that sensory information by the time the output signal is generated. A hypothetical neuron that prompts the final output of a verbal report is also no more physically linked to its sensory inputs such, as in the retina or ear than it is to a subject’s digestive system or skull. And even neurons that respond to highly processed and integrated information, such as the famous Jennifer Aniston neuron (Quiroga et al. 2005), only encode a single firing rate that cannot represent anything more than a tiny fraction of the information present in the conscious percept. Its firing rate is, of course, all that any single neuron can know. Neurons integrate information but, as for logic gates, the integration is temporal, not physical, as the information to be integrated is separated in both space and time. Also, the so-called integrated information is far more complex than a single neuron’s coding capacity. This kind of temporal integration cannot correspond to ‘our capacity to integrate information across time, space, attributes, and ideas’ (Treisman 1999).

Of course, a huge number of firing neurons may fire in response to Jennifer Aniston’s face or some other potentially integrated conscious percept. It may be that each of these firing neurons encodes different aspects of the conscious percept—perhaps the particular color of the actress’s eyes, the shape of her nose, or the texture of her hair. One could imagine a network of such neurons that, together, encode and ‘integrate’ the conscious percept. But how do the firing neurons integrate their information? From the perspective of functionality, they need not even be physically connected so long as they, collectively, deliver their signals to a motor neuron(s) that execute(s) the verbal report ‘that is Jennifer Anniston’s face’. In reality, they need to be no more physically connected to each other than are the different colleges of the University of Oxford. All that is required is a causal chain.

Nevertheless, nerves are, of course, physically connected, but, in the example, those encoding Jennifer Anniston’s face is no more physically connected to each other than they are to any other neurons or even cells of the body, particularly as matter-based signals, such as hormones, neurotransmitters or action potentials, do not attenuate with distance. If physical connectedness was sufficient for consciousness, then we would be aware of all of the information encoded in our entire body at all times. Neural networks, on their own, cannot be responsible for physically integrating conscious information because, like integrated circuits, they integrate information only temporally, not physically.

Integrating information in space, rather than in the time

There are, however, physical systems that encode information integrated over space in a single moment of time. We know this form of information as force fields. The most obvious is the gravitational field that, at any point on the Earth’s surface, provides a force that effectively integrates the magnitude and distribution of local masses such as those of the Earth, Moon, and Sun. Similarly, the EM field at any point in space represents an integration of information concerning the type, distribution, and motion of local charges. In contrast to the temporal integration described above, force fields physically integrate complex information that may be simultaneously downloaded from any point in the field. This is apparent to anyone who views a TV show that has been transmitted from a single transmitter to their smartphone, alongside a thousand other people who may simultaneously view the same program on their phones in a thousand different locations. Moreover, an EM field can, like an integrated circuit, compute.

Consider, for example, the arrangement of iron filings sprinkled over a magnet. A conventional computer could calculate their configuration by inputting the initial random configurations of the filings into an algorithm that implements either Maxwell’s equations or the equations of quantum electrodynamics to output their final equilibrium configuration. Yet the EM field at each point in space, generated by the electron spin of iron atoms within the magnet, instantly computes this solution. In this sense, the field represents an algorithm in space, rather than the algorithms in time that are implemented by Turing machines. And, most importantly, the information involved in the computation is simultaneously available in the space of the magnet and its surroundings. It is spatially, rather than temporarily, integrated information. The EM field’s information is complex information that is physically bound.

Magnets can also encode visual information. The artist, Andrzej Lenard, paints magnetic pictures, such as the portrait of Robert Downey Jr (Fig. 2 from https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=PHzz81yapcc). Note that the magnetic field-encoded information would be present whether the iron filings were there or not. The coding of the image would exist in space as invisible integrated information. This kind of coding is, I argue, much closer to the physical reality of our thoughts than a firing neuron. However, it is static, rather than dynamic, and, unlike the signal from a WIFI router, the visual information is locally discrete rather than distributed throughout the space of the image.

Figure 2.

Magnetic portrait of the actor Robert Downey Jr by the artist, Andrzej Lenard.

Magnetic portrait of the actor Robert Downey Jr by the artist, Andrzej Lenard.

 

Figure 3.

(a) Schematic of the two hemispheres of the brain connected by the corpus collosum bundle of nerve fibres (double-headed arrow). Each hemisphere has its own neuronal/synaptic connections represented by straight lines and closed circle arrows representing recurrent neuronal pathways whose synchronously firing networks generate conscious EM field perturbations represented by curved arrows. By recruiting adjacent neurons into oscillations, waves of synchronously firing neuronal networks—and thereby conscious thoughts—can travel large distances through the brain, for example, from the right hemisphere, via the corpus callosum, to speech centres (speech bubble) in the left hemisphere. This allows conscious thoughts (‘hello world’) originating in the right hemisphere to communicate to the outside world through speech. In contrast, being subject to an inverse cube law, EM field perturbations are highly local so are incapable of transmitting across long distances unless reinforced by relays of synchronized neurons forming recurrent networks. (b) Severing the corpus callosum prevents transmission of conscious thoughts from the right to the left hemisphere since they can no longer be transmitted, via recurrent networks of neuronal oscillations, through the corpus callosum.

(a) Schematic of the two hemispheres of the brain connected by the corpus callosum bundle of nerve fibers (double-headed arrow). Each hemisphere has its own neuronal/synaptic connections represented by straight lines and closed circle arrows representing recurrent neuronal pathways whose synchronously firing networks generate conscious EM field perturbations represented by curved arrows. By recruiting adjacent neurons into oscillations, waves of synchronously firing neuronal networks—and thereby conscious thoughts—can travel large distances through the brain, for example, from the right hemisphere, via the corpus callosum, to speech centers (speech bubble) in the left hemisphere. This allows conscious thoughts (‘hello world’) originating in the right hemisphere to communicate to the outside world through speech. In contrast, being subject to an inverse cube law, EM field perturbations are highly local so are incapable of transmitting across long distances unless reinforced by relays of synchronized neurons forming recurrent networks. (b) Severing the corpus callosum prevents transmission of conscious thoughts from the right to the left hemisphere since they can no longer be transmitted, via recurrent networks of neuronal oscillations, through the corpus callosum.

Combinations of EMF transmitters and receivers that implement different logical functions could, in principle, implement any complex algorithm, for example, an algorithm that recognizes images of Jennifer Aniston. In contrast to the above static magnetic image of Robert Downey Jr, this EM field algorithm would be distributed throughout the space of the field; such that, like a WIFI signal, it could be downloaded from any point in the space of the field. In this sense, the field possesses features in common with holograms that similarly store distributed information. But in the case of the cemi field, the information exists as an algorithm in space, rather than time. It is physically integrated information. Field-implemented algorithms such as these, but in the brain, are, I argue, the physical substrate of conscious thoughts.

It is, however, important to recognize that, although EM fields are maximally connected—the universe has a single EM field EM – waves travel at the speed of light across huge distances. However, their strength is subject to an inverse square (electric component) or cube (magnetic component) law so that the EM field perturbation of a single neuron rapidly falls off with distance. In my earlier paper, I estimated that the EM field electrical perturbation from the firing of a single neuron extends into a volume of only about 80 µm encompassing a maximum of about 200 neurons (McFadden 2002a). So, in contrast to matter-based signals that do not attenuate with distance, signals passing through the cemi field will tend to act only locally, unless boosted by chains of synchronization (see below).

Note, however, and very importantly, that, in contrast to temporally integrated information, an algorithm in space can function only when its computational nodes fire synchronously so that their inputs are simultaneously available to all the components of the network. Therefore, a key prediction of the proposal that consciousness is distributed EM field-based algorithms is that conscious information will be correlated with synchronously firing neurons.

EMF transmitters and receivers in the brain

It has been known since the 19th century that the brain generates its own EM field, which can be detected by electrodes inserted into the brain. Its source is electrical dipoles within the neuronal membranes caused by the motion of ions in and out of those membranes during action potentials and synaptic potentials. The periodic discharge of neurons—firing or action potentials—generates EMF waves that propagate out of the neuron and into the surrounding inter-neuronal spaces where they overlap and combine to generate the brain’s global EM field that is routinely measured by brain scanning techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG). The human brain, therefore, possesses around 100 billion EMF transmitters.

The human brain also possesses at least 100 billion EMF receivers as each neuron is bounded by a membrane-embedded with thousands of voltage-gated ion channels whose firing is triggered by EM field fluctuation across the membrane. Although these channels are generally assumed to respond only to large fluctuations of tens of millivolts across the membrane, much larger than the global EM field strength, EM field potential changes of less than 1 mV across the neuronal membrane are nevertheless capable of modulating neuronal firing (Schmitt et al. 1976). Moreover, for neurons poised close to the critical firing potential, the opening of just a single ion channel may be sufficient to trigger firing (Arhem and Johansson 1996). This degree of sensitivity suggests that very tiny changes in membrane potential, of similar strength to spontaneous fluctuations in the brain’s endogenous EM field, may influence the firing of neurons that are already close to firing.

The cemi field theory of consciousness

The conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field theory claims that the brain’s EM field is the physical substrate of consciousness. It was first outlined in a book published in 2000 in which I proposed that the brain’s ‘EM field … integrate[s] information from all of the calculations … performed by … [its] logic gates (McFadden 2000). The theory was further developed in two papers published in 2002 (McFadden 2002a,b). Similar theories were proposed around the same time by neurobiologist Pockett (2000, 2002), the neurophysiologist John (2001, 2002), and the neurophysiologists Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts (2008) and Fingelkurts et al. (2001). In 2013, I provided an update on the cemi field theory incorporating more recent experimental evidence (McFadden 2013a) as well as arguing that the theory accounts for the gestalt properties of meaning, in an accompanying paper (McFadden 2013b). In 2014, Adam Barrett similarly argued that the brain’s EM field integrates neuronal information to provide the substrate of consciousness (Barrett 2014).

The idea that the seat of consciousness is simply the brain’s EM field may initially sound outlandish but is no more extraordinary than the claim that the seat of consciousness is the matter of the brain. All it involves is going from the right to the left-hand side of Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2 thereby replacing the notion that consciousness is encoded by the matter of the brain, with that of proposing that it is encoded by the energy of the EM fields generated by the motions of its charged matter. (Note that, by illustrating this idea with Einstein’s equation, I am not, of course, proposing any interconversion of matter and energy in the brain.) Matter and energy are equally physical; but, instead of being composed of material, the cemi field theory proposes that our thoughts are composed of the brain’s EM field energy. This is a kind of dualism, but it is scientific dualism based on the physical difference between matter and energy, rather than a metaphysical distinction between matter and spirit.

Although, as I have argued, shifting from matter to energy of the brain is conceptually trivial, when searching for an appropriate substrate in the brain that can physically integrate complex information, the move draws an immediate payoff, as it effortlessly solves the binding problem. Whereas information encoded in the matter of neurons is, as I have argued, always localized and discrete both in space and time, the information in the field, as illustrated in Fig. 1b, is always integrated yet distributed, in the sense that it may be downloaded from any point within the field. Since, in this case, ‘the field’ is the brain’s global EM field, it also provides a feasible physical substrate for the notions of working memory and/or the global workspace that has been proposed in many other theories of conscious (Baars 2005). And, as illustrated in Fig. 1(b) EM fields may also implement algorithms. This capacity, known as ‘field computing’ (MacLennan 1999) sometimes as quantum-like computing (Khrennikov 2011), has several features in common with quantum computing such as ease of implementation of mathematical functions such as Fourier transforms, compared to digital computers. Moreover, as illustrated in Fig. 1b, this form of field computing—algorithms in space rather than in time—could only be implemented by neurons (either EMF transmitters or receivers) that fire synchronously. So, the theory predicts that, if consciousness is implementing field computing, then consciousness should be highly correlated with the synchrony of neural firing rather than firing rates.

Several decades ago, work conducted by Wolf Singer and colleagues demonstrated that neurons in the monkey brain fire synchronously when the animal attends to the stimulus (Kreiter and Singer 1996). Many additional studies confirmed and extended these findings to many different experimental systems. For example, work in David Leopold’s laboratory at Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, in Tubingen, Germany (Wilke et al. 2006) investigated awake monkeys trained to respond to a visual stimulus—the removal of a red dot from a target area—by pulling a lever (to receive their fruit juice reward). The researchers monitored both neuron spiking and changes in local EM field potentials in V1, V2, and V4 regions of the monkey’s visual cortex. They demonstrated that spiking of neurons in cortical areas V1 and V2 was totally uncorrelated with the monkey’s perception of the target; however, low frequency (alpha range, particularly 9–30 Hz) modulation of local field potentials—presumed to be generated by synchronously firing neurons—in these same regions did correlate with perception. It seems that though the neuron firing rate in the primary visual cortex does not see the stimulus, the synchronicity of neuron firing does indeed see the target.

Many subsequent studies have also demonstrated that neural synchrony also correlates with conscious perception in humans. For example, neural synchrony patterns were found to correlate with conscious recognition by subjects exposed to optical illusions (Lutz et al. 2002). More recent work has demonstrated that conscious auditory perception is correlated with long-range synchrony of gamma oscillations (Steinmann et al. 2014). Synchronization between the anterior and posterior cortex has been shown to correlate with the consciousness levels of patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (Leon-Carrion et al. 2012).

Of course, there may be several different and often contradictory signals being simultaneously projected into the cemi field by networks or clusters of synchronizing neurons. Even so, what is distinctive about the cemi field in contrast to many other theories of consciousness is that, because EM fields are always unified, there is only ever one EM field in the brain. The dominant information in consciousness will then be the one that is associated with the strongest EM field perturbation capable of modulating neural firing within that singular field. This has been demonstrated in numerous studies, for example, this 2005 study (Doesburg et al. 2005) demonstrated that increased gamma-band synchrony predicts switching of conscious perceptual objects in classic binocular rivalry. Similar switches in EEG or MEG patterns have been shown to predict conscious percepts in numerous studies (Sterzer et al. 2009) opening the possibility of ‘mind-reading’ by decoding brain EM field signals. In nearly all of these studies, the conscious percept corresponds to the dominant EM field signal suggesting that competition between rival percepts is resolved through positive feeding back loops within re-entrant circuits leading to what Dehaene calls a ‘global ignition’ or ‘avalanche’ of the dominant signal (Dehaene 2014). Therefore, in contrast to other theories of consciousness, such as a global workspace or Integrated Information Theory (IIT), that use arbitrary or ill-defined thresholds for access to consciousness, the cemi field relies on a measurable physical parameter—the strength of EM field perturbations that are capable of modulating neural firing—to differentiate between conscious and non-conscious brain information.

From a neuronal perspective, there appears to be no obvious reason why synchrony should make a difference to neural processing: neurons deliver the same information and perform the same informational processing, whether or not they are firing synchronously. Of course, many theories of consciousness do incorporate neural synchrony by, for example, viewing it as a sign of the re-entrant neural connectivity characteristic of globally distributed neuronal circuits that are proposed to underpin consciousness (Tononi and Edelman 1998; Seth et al. 2004), or a consequence of coincidence detection within neurons involved in conscious thoughts. Yet neurons need not fire synchronously to distribute information globally and re-entrant circuits need not, necessarily, fire synchronously. Similarly, there seems to be no obvious reason why conscious neural processing requires coincidence detection any more than non-conscious neural processing as they both perform temporal information integration. So, synchrony, per se, is neither a necessary nor sufficient requirement for consciousness in matter-based neuronal models of consciousness. As far as I am aware, it is only in the EM field theories that synchrony plays an obligatory role in consciousness information processing.

Note however that the EM field theories of consciousness are entirely compatible with the observation that highly synchronized brain activity, such as is typical for epileptic seizures, disrupt consciousness. Conscious brain states necessarily encode complex information that correlates with features of the outside world. Widespread neuronal synchrony—such as experienced during an epileptic seizure—is empty of informational content that correlates with the outside world and is thereby only consistent with a non-conscious state.

‘Free will’ as the output node of the cemi field

The cemi field theory differs from some other field theories of consciousness (Pockett 2000, 2002) in that it proposes that consciousness—as the brain’s EM field—has outputs as well as inputs. In the theory, the brain’s endogenous EM field influences brain activity in a feedback loop (note that, despite its ‘free’ adjective, the cemi field’s proposed influence is entirely causal (McFadden 2002a)) acting on voltage-gated ion channels in neuronal membranes to trigger neural firing. This assertion is supported by abundant theoretical work and experimental data. Experimental evidence for the brain’s endogenous EM field influencing neural firing was scanty when I first described the theory in 2000 (McFadden 2000) and 2002 (McFadden 2002a,b), but included evidence that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which generate EM fields in the brain of similar magnitude to the brain’s endogenous EM fields can influence behavior (Beckers and Hömberg 1992; Amassian et al. 1998; Hallett 2000; McFadden 2002a). In 2013 (McFadden 2013a), I summarized more recent experimental evidence obtained from several labs demonstrating that artificially generated external EM fields, of similar strength to those of endogenous brain EM fields, do indeed change firing patterns in whole animals, brain tissue slices, and neuronal cells (Fujisawa et al. 2004; Frohlich and McCormick 2010; Anastassiou et al. 2011). Since then, a wealth of additional experimental evidence has accumulated which clearly demonstrates that the brain’s endogenous EM fields do indeed play a role in communicating between brain neurons (Qiu et al. 2015; Anastassiou and Koch 2015; Han et al. 2018); prompting some researchers to propose ‘that our visual experience may at least some times be coming through in waves.’ (Mathewson et al. 2011).

In summary, there is now, at the very least, abundant evidence that, as well as standard synaptic transmission, brain neurons also communicate through endogenous EM fields. It is a small step from this realization to the cemi field theory, which proposes that the action of the brain’s (conscious) endogenous EM field on neural firing rates is experienced as conscious thoughts that influence our actions. Curiously, the kind of influence proposed for the brain’s EM field in the cemi field theory is very similar to the role proposed for consciousness by William James more than a century ago. James proposed that the cortex is delicately balanced with a ‘hair-trigger’ such that the slightest jar or accident could set it firing erratically, yet ‘if consciousness can load the dice, can exert a constant pressure in the right direction, can feel what nerve processes are leading to the goal, can reinforce and strengthen these and at the same time inhibit those that threaten to lead astray, why, consciousness will be of invaluable service.’ (James 1988, p. 26).

I now discuss how the cemi field theory solves most of the puzzling features of consciousness.

The difference between conscious and non-conscious brain states

One of the most profoundly puzzling features of the brain is that it operates simultaneously in both conscious and non-conscious streams, at least in man. Most theories of consciousness attempt to account for this difference in terms of some arbitrary critical threshold in the degree of complexity (Seth et al. 2006), integration (Tononi and Edelman 1998; Tononi et al. 1998; Srinivasan et al. 1999), selection (Edelman and Tononi 2008), long-distance integration (Dehaene et al. 2014) or access to some kind of hypothetical global workspace (Baars 1988; Dehaene et al. 1998), that is necessary for conscious awareness. Yet these theories have difficulty accounting for why some highly complex and integrated neuronal activities, such as those involved in decoding grammatical rules within a sentence, are performed without awareness; whereas others that should be much simpler, such as those involved in long multiplication, can only be performed consciously.

In contrast to the threshold models above, once it is accepted that EM fields influence neural firing patterns (as evidenced in TMS and external EM field studies, described above) then the evolutionary emergence of both conscious and non-conscious mental streams becomes inevitable. This follows because the impact of the brain’s endogenous EM field on neuronal computations is likely to be both positive and negative. Positive influences could result from phase-locking of multiple downstream EM field-sensitive neurons to the same stimulus, or rapid distribution of EM-field-encoded information to many regions of the brain (as in the global workspace model). Also, as argued above, ‘field computing’ may provide computation capabilities that are hard to emulate in the neuronal brain. Negative influences of EM fields would include all the varieties of undesirable ‘feedback’ familiar to both sound and electrical engineers. Having both positive and negative influences on brain function, then the brain’s EM field would have become visible to natural selection. Mutations in genes that enhanced sensitivity, perhaps by increasing synchronous firing, in neuronal circuits in which EM fields enhance fitness would have been positively selected; as would genes that decrease EM field sensitivity in neuronal circuits in which EM fields decreased fitness. The brain would then have inevitably evolved into an EM field-sensitive and conscious stream associated with synchronous neural firing; together with and an EM field-insensitive but non-conscious stream associated with asynchronously firing neurons. This is of course precisely what we find in the human mind. Indeed, once it is accepted that EM fields influence fitness both positively and negatively through their impact on neural firing rates—as seems evident from the evidence outlined above—the theory of natural selection predicts that brains will evolve in precisely this way.

The cemi field theory also naturally accounts for the fact that the non-conscious mind appears to operate as a parallel processor that can perform several tasks simultaneously, such as whistling a tune whilst riding a bicycle; whereas the conscious mind appears to operate as a serial computer incapable of, for example, reading whilst simultaneously engaging in a conversation. That the non-conscious mind can operate in parallel is not problematic. With 100 billion neurons at its disposal, it is easy to see how the brain can partition operations amongst them. The puzzle is to understand why conscious tasks always interfere with one another. As far as I am aware, this is not accounted for by any matter-based neuronal theory of consciousness but is easily accounted for in the cemi field theory as the brain’s conscious EM field, as already pointed out, is always singular. Just as tossing two stones into the same still pond will generate waves that interfere with each other; so two thoughts emerging within a brain’s global EM field will always interfere with one another. So, within the cemi field theory, the brain naturally divides into a non-conscious neuronal parallel processor capable of implementing lots of independent tasks without interference; and a conscious EM field-based serial processor that can only do one thing at a time.

I should also point out that, in contrast to other theories of consciousness, such as IIT, although information integration is central to the cemi field theory, the theory does not predict that, as understood in its usual temporal or computational sense, information integration is either exclusive to, or maximal in, consciousness. In fact, it is perfectly possible that the simplest thoughts may sometimes dominate consciousness, consistent with the finding that meditative states are often associated with slower and more rhythmic patterns in EEG (Banquet 1973) and MEG (Dor-Ziderman et al. 2013). Conversely, the theory is also consistent with the finding that tasks that require a considerable degree of information integration, such as recognizing words, or whether one number is greater or less than another, maybe performed without awareness; whereas more complex operations, such as multiplication or natural language understanding appear to require consciousness (Dehaene et al. 2006). The lack of correlation between the complexity of information integration and conscious thought is also apparent in the commonplace observation that tasks that must surely require a massive degree of information integration, such as the locomotory actions needed to run across rugged terrain, may be performed without awareness but simple sensory inputs, such as stubbing your toe, will over-ride your conscious thoughts. The cemi field theory proposes that the non-conscious neural processing involves temporal (computational) integration whereas operations, such as natural language comprehension, require the simultaneous spatial integration provided by the cemi field. The theory is also consistent with the finding that non-conscious neural processing may be more robust to disruption by external EM fields than conscious processing as is evidenced by, for example, the finding that TMS to V1 induces blindsight (Dehaene et al. 2006).

Signatures of consciousness

Dehaene (2014) has recently described four key signatures of consciousness: (i) a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits; (ii) a slow P3 wave in EEG; (iii) a late and sudden burst of high-frequency oscillations; and (iv) exchange of bidirectional and synchronized messages over long distances in the cortex.

It is notable that the only feature common to each of these signatures—aspects of what Dehaene calls a ‘global ignition’ or ‘avalanche’—is large endogenous EM field perturbations in the brain, entirely consistent with the cemi field theory. It is also interesting to consider how EM fields may play a causal role in generating these signatures. Firstly, as has been recognized in many studies, conscious neuronal processing tends to be associated with re-entrant circuits, essentially closed loops of neuronal activity whereby neuronal outputs are fed back into input neurons. The function of these re-entrant circuits remains controversial, but they could be analogous to amplifier circuits in electronics that boost and phase-lock oscillations by feeding outputs back into inputs. However, in standard electronics, amplifier circuits respond linearly; whereas, as Dehaene and others have shown, consciousness demonstrates a non-linear all-or-nothing response in which increasing signal strength leads to a sudden transition from non-conscious to conscious perception. This is precisely the kind of behavior—more like a phase transition—that would be expected for EM field-sensitive neuronal circuits that are acting as both transmitters and receivers of EM field information. If only a few neurons are firing synchronously then the EM fields generated by their firing will be too weak to influence firing. However, as more neurons are recruited into the re-entrant synchronously firing amplifier circuits then a threshold will be reached when the output EM field will be sufficiently strong to stimulate the firing of multiple receiver neurons and thereby recruit more neurons into the amplifier network in a positive feedback loop. This EM field loop will rapidly amplify and expand the network of synchronous oscillations to create the kind of global ignition or neuronal avalanche that, by Dehaene and others, has described as a key signature of consciousness.

The role of consciousness in learning and memory

It is well established that conscious awareness or attention appears to be a prerequisite to laying down long-term memories and for learning complex tasks (Baars and Gage 2010), but the mechanism remains obscure. Most theories account for this fact by simply incorporating a requirement for consciousness in laying down memories, without any physical justification for that rule. However, in the cemi field theory, a role for consciousness in memory and learning emerges as a natural consequence of the theory. For example, when learning a new motor skill, such as playing the piano, the small conscious pushes and pulls towards or away from neural firing (as anticipated by William James) provided by the brain’s endogenous EM field may be essential for delivering the fine motor control needed to hit the right notes at the right times. However, if the target neurons for EM augmentation are connected by Hebbian synapses then the influence of the brain’s EM field will tend to either increase [long-term potentiation (LTP)] or decreased [long-term depression (LTD)] neural connectivity: networks that deliver the skill will become hard-wired. After repeated augmentation by the brain’s EM field, conscious motor actions will become increasingly independent of EM field influences. The motor activity will be ‘learned’ in the sense that it will thereafter be capable of being performed without (conscious) EM field input. Indeed, because the networks will then be hard-wired into their optimal configuration, conscious EM field inputs will then tend to perturb the learned skill, exactly as we experience.

With only the recognition that EM fields influence neuron firing and the rule ‘neurons that fire together wire together’, a role for consciousness in memory thereby becomes inevitable. This proposed mechanism makes a clear prediction, that external EM fields will tend to interfere—positively or negatively—with memory and learning; which has been demonstrated in many TMS studies (Gagnon et al. 2011; Morgan et al. 2013).

Objections to EM field theories of consciousness

I dealt with many of the most obvious objections to the cemi field theory in my earlier papers (McFadden 2002a,b), and Susan Pockett has reviewed most within an informative curated Scholarpedia page dedicated to EM field theories of consciousness (http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Field_theories_of_consciousness). For example, it is often claimed that external EM fields incorrectly predict that external EM fields perturb our thoughts. As Pockett points out, this is easily refuted by the routine observation that they do not significantly influence EEG signals from the brain, presumably because their frequencies and strength do not couple with brain waves. The, by now, well-established neurophysiological (Pell et al. 2011) and cognitive (Guse et al. 2010; Rounis et al. 2010) effects of TMS do however provide strong evidence that appropriately structured, external EM fields do indeed influence our thoughts. Nevertheless, whereas both evolution and development have, according to the cemi field theory, tuned the brain to both encode and decode EM field-based information to form coherent ideas, external EM fields from, say, TMS or MRI scanners, will, from the perspective of the brain, be incoherent signals, perhaps capable of disrupting, but not forming coherent thoughts.

Another common objection to EM field theories of consciousness is that ‘split-brain’ patients with severed corpus callosum appear to possess two separated consciousnesses, despite, presumably, retaining a single intact brain EM field. However, although EM waves can indeed travel huge distances, their strength is subject to an inverse or cube law so that, as outlined above, EM field perturbations rapidly fall off with distance. For consciousness to be global, conscious information in EM fields thereby must be amplified and transmitted by relays in recurrent oscillations of synchronously firing neurons. It is these recurrent neuronal networks that are severed by the cutting of the corpus callosum in split-brain patients, thereby preventing conscious EM field information in the right hemisphere from reaching speech centers in the left hemisphere (Fig. 3) and vice versa. Without the unification provided by networks of synchronously firing neurons, EM field information in each hemisphere will remain locked in each hemisphere.

Finally, there is the question of why only some EM fields—those found inside brains—are conscious; whereas other EM fields, such as those generated by a toaster, are presumed to be non-conscious. Yet, just as people and toasters are made of matter but not all matter is alive, similarly, though consciousness may be made of EM fields, not all EM fields are conscious. Only a subset of systems made out of matter is alive; similarly, only a subset of EM fields are likely to be conscious. The minimal characteristic of an EM field to qualify as conscious must surely be that it possesses sufficient complexity to encode complex computations together with causal power capable of transferring thoughts to another conscious being. Neither of these conditions is satisfied by the EM fields of a toaster or any other EM field, other than those inside brains. The cemi field theory thereby does not predict panpsychism for such objects.

Testing the cemi field theory

Many of the predictions of the cemi field theory, such as that appropriately structured external EM fields will influence neural firing patterns and thoughts, have already been confirmed, as described above. The recent development of brain-computer interfaces (Mashat et al. 2017; Lazarou et al. 2018; Nuyujukian et al. 2018) that measure EEG signals and analyze those signals to generate limb motor outputs via TMS, effectively operates the same informational loop from neuron to neuron via the brain’s EM fields, as is proposed in the cemi field theory. Patients trained to use these devices experience EM field mediated motor control as their conscious actions. The cemi field theory merely proposes that the same information loop exists in all of us: we call it free will.

However, the cemi field theory also makes predictions that have yet to be tested, such as the possibility of inhibiting specific responses through specific external EM field perturbations. For example, it is well established that stimulus-provoked decision-making is accompanied by characteristic event-related potentials (ERPs), such as the P300 (P3) wave that is associated with higher-level processing of incoming sensory information. The cemi field theory predicts that appropriately shaped artificial radiofrequency or microwave EM fields that penetrate brain tissue should either reinforce or inhibit the motor response normally associated with the ERPs in a frequency and phase-dependent manner.

The cemi theory also has potentially transformative implications for the engineering of artificial consciousness. It accounts for why conventional computers, despite their undoubted computational skills, have not exhibited the slightest spark of consciousness, nor any signs of the general intelligence endowed by conscious minds. Many AI enthusiasts argue that artificial consciousness will emerge when computers eventually overtake the computational speed of the brain. The cemi theory predicts instead that no computer that computes solely through matter will ever be conscious, irrespective of its complexity, architecture, or computational speed. The human brain is estimated to operate at about 1 exaFLOP capable of performing a billion billion calculations per second, about 20 times faster than the world’s fastest (in 2019) computer, the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit, or OLCF-4 supercomputer. With computer speed continuing to follow Moore’s law, this prediction of the cemi field theory is likely to be tested within a decade or so.

However, although the cemi field theory insists that conventional computers will never be conscious, it does provide a route towards artificial consciousness through designing an EM field-sensitive computer. In fact, one may already have been constructed, albeit accidentally. I previously described (McFadden 2002a) experiments performed by the School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences (COGS) group at the University of Sussex (Thompson et al. 1996; Davidson 1997), that group appears to have evolved an electronic circuit that computes through EM field interactions. The team used a silicon chip known as a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), comprised of an array of cells and software-configurable switches. Starting from a population of random configurations, the team selected those better able to solve the toy task of distinguishing between two musical tones. After 5000 generations of this artificial selection, they succeeded in evolving a chip that could efficiently perform this task. However, when they examined its circuit diagram they discovered that some of its components which, if removed, impaired function, yet were not connected by wires to either inputs or outputs. Also, the performance of the chip was erratic and tended to work best at night. The solution to both these puzzles came from their realization that they had evolved the chip during experiments performed mostly at night when the researchers tended to listen to the radio. They concluded that their evolutionary process had not only optimized the wired connection of the chip but also harnessed EMF coupling between the FPGA chip and the radio: they had evolved an algorithm in space, rather than time. I previously proposed (McFadden 2002a) that an analogous, though the natural process, led to the evolution of consciousness in the human lineage. As far as I know, the approach of the COGS group has not been explored further; but, if the cemi field theory is correct, it provides a possible route towards building an artificial conscious mind.

The physics of consciousness

Further insights into why we need EM fields to encode integrated conscious information can be gained directly from consideration of the physics of matter and energy. The matter is particulate whereas EM energy, such as light, is composed of waves. Nevertheless, the foundational experiments of quantum mechanics demonstrated that particles have wave-like properties and waves have associated particle properties. The information encoded in a particle is then also encoded in the wave associated with the particle. Physically unified integrated information could then potentially be encoded in the matter if their associated matter waves overlap. The wave-like properties of matter particles are however limited by their de Broglie wavelength, which is inversely proportional to their momentum (product of mass × velocity). So, an electron with a rest mass energy of 0.511 MeV and kinetic energy of 1 eV will have an associated de Broglie wavelength of 1.23 nm. This is larger than the typical size of atoms, so electrons are delocalized in atomic orbitals of molecules such as benzene whose three pi electrons are delocalized across all six carbon atoms in the molecule. The electronic information encoded in the matter of electrons is thereby physically unified within molecules. However, the proton is about 1800 times more massive than an electron so its de Broglie wavelength and thereby its wave-like properties, when traveling at the same speed as the electron, is 1800 times smaller. The matter of protons is thereby localized entirely within the nucleus of each atom of a molecule such as benzene. Imagine writing either a 1 or 0 on each of three protons or each of three pi electrons, in a single benzene molecule. To examine the three proton bits, it would be necessary to interrogate all three atoms within the molecule because each bit is locked within the de Broglie wavelength of each particle: their information is discrete and localized, not integrated. Yet all three electrons bits could be recovered by examining the pi-electron configuration at any of the six atoms within the benzene ring: their information is delocalized and thereby integrated and unified across each of the atoms within the molecule. Essentially, each pi-electron behaves like a wave within each benzene molecule: the information of all three electrons is bound within the molecule. Yet, this electron particle information molecule would not be available from an adjacent benzene molecule in, say, a crystal of benzene; unless the crystal is cooled to close to absolute zero so that the kinetic energy and thereby momentum of each particle is drastically reduced thereby lengthening its de Broglie wavelength and its wave-like properties, beyond individual molecules.

Since de Broglie wavelength is inversely proportionally to mass, molecules become more and more particle-like as they become more massive and detection of their wave nature, and thereby their ability to encode physically integrated information, becomes correspondingly difficult. Hence, although the wave properties of electrons were demonstrated in 1927, detecting the wave properties of a molecule consisting of up to 2000 atoms with de Broglie wavelengths of around 53 FM, five orders of magnitude smaller than the diameter of the molecule, was achieved only in 2019 in a stunning tour de force of interferometry (Fein et al. 2019).

However, under normal circumstances, the information encoded within matter particles is integrated only within atoms and molecules, not between them (Fig. 4). This is what we mean by ‘matter’. So, information encoded in the matter particles of neurons, their ions, neurotransmitters, or other biomolecules, is always discrete and localized within each molecule. This kind of information, although perfectly functional for temporal information processing, cannot be the substrate of physically integrated, unified, and bound conscious information.

Figure 4

Particles, waves and integrated information. The wave-like behaviour of particles (black circles) is restricted to within their de Broglie wavelength which is illustrated (not to scale) for large mass particles, such as protons, atoms and molecules (bottom row), smaller mass particles, such as electrons (middle row), and massless particles, such as photons (top row, although, strictly, photons don’t really have a de Broglie wavelength or, if they do, it stretches to infinity). The areas of overlapping particle information, where information can be considered to be physically integrated, are indicated by grey shading.

Particles, waves, and integrated information. The wave-like behavior of particles (black circles) is restricted to within their de Broglie wavelength which is illustrated (not to scale) for large mass particles, such as protons, atoms, and molecules (bottom row), smaller mass particles, such as electrons (middle row), and massless particles, such as photons (top row, although, strictly, photons don’t really have a de Broglie wavelength or, if they do, it stretches to infinity). The areas of overlapping particle information, where information can be considered to be physically integrated, are indicated by grey shading.

Figure 4

Particles, waves and integrated information. The wave-like behaviour of particles (black circles) is restricted to within their de Broglie wavelength which is illustrated (not to scale) for large mass particles, such as protons, atoms and molecules (bottom row), smaller mass particles, such as electrons (middle row), and massless particles, such as photons (top row, although, strictly, photons don’t really have a de Broglie wavelength or, if they do, it stretches to infinity). The areas of overlapping particle information, where information can be considered to be physically integrated, are indicated by grey shading.

Particles, waves, and integrated information. The wave-like behavior of particles (black circles) is restricted to within their de Broglie wavelength which is illustrated (not to scale) for large mass particles, such as protons, atoms, and molecules (bottom row), smaller mass particles, such as electrons (middle row), and massless particles, such as photons (top row, although, strictly, photons don’t really have a de Broglie wavelength or, if they do, it stretches to infinity). The areas of overlapping particle information, where information can be considered to be physically integrated, are indicated by grey shading.

However, the situation is very different if, instead of the particles themselves, we consider the EM fields generated by charged particles, such as electrons. The EM field particle, the photon, has zero mass (photons do possess ‘relativistic mass’ but this is irrelevant to this argument.) so has no de Broglie wavelength. Instead, its wave potentially extends to infinity. The EM field of charged particles consists of virtual photons whose waves similarly extend to infinity, though decreasing in intensity according to inverse square and cube laws (Fig. 4). Therefore, information encoded in charged particles of the brain, such as the ions involved in generating action potentials, is integrated, unified, and bound within the overlapping EM fields generated by their motion. The brain’s EM field, rather than its matter, is thereby the only feasible physical substrate for conscious integrated information. Consciousness is what physically integrated information feels like, from the frame of the photons encoding that information.

Discussion and Conclusions

Nagel famously asked us to imagine what it is like being a bat and insisted that we never can. The cemi field theory asks us to imagine what it would be like to be an EM field with inputs from oscillating electrons in neuronal membranes and outputs to oscillating electrons in neuronal membranes. Our tendency is to view this from a third-person perspective looking down on the EM field and asking what its properties are. However, we must instead imagine moving to the frame of the brain’s EM field. This will be very different, analogous to how an EM field may be experienced as magnetic, from a stationary frame, but electric, from a moving frame, and vice versa. Einstein came up with special relativity through his Gedankenexperiment of considering what the universe would look like from the frame of a photon. Understanding awareness requires a similar shift to the frame of the EM field of the brain. We can, for example, consider what it would be like to be one photon in the cloud of photons (the cemi field) that travels from emitting to receiving electrons in neuronal membranes of the brain. From their frame, since they are massless particles that travel at the speed of light, they experience neither space nor time between emission and reception. Between these points, they may carry, say, up to 10 bits of information encoded in the photon’s energy, spin, and direction (Tentrup et al. 2017). However, between emission and absorption, photons are more properly considered as delocalized waves that obey Maxwell’s laws. The cemi field is then the superposition of trillions of photon waves whose information is encoded in their ensuing pattern of constructive and destructive interference. That information is present at all points in the field, in the sense that the information encoded in a single photon emitted by an oscillating electron, say in the hypothalamus, can materialize—be absorbed by—any charged particle in its light cone, though with probability subject to the inverse square law and attenuation due to absorption events between emitter and receiver.

Nevertheless, within the brain, the light cones of all the trillions of emitted photons will almost entirely overlap. Any charged particle in the brain (or outside, but with rapidly diminishing probability) can potentially be the receiver of any of the trillions of emitted 10-bit packages of information available in the entire field. So, each point in the field represents the integrations of trillions of bits of physically encoded information instantaneously present at each point in the field. I previously proposed that ‘Nearly all qualia—the sound of C minor, the meaning of the number seven, the image of a triangle, the concept of a motor car, the feeling of anger, etc.—are similarly complex … conscious states [that] integrate parallel information streams to form a model that is both complex and physically unified within the cemi field.’ That is, the qualia associated with hearing the musical note middle C is what and EM field perturbation in the brain that correlates with the sensory input of middle C feels like, from the inside. IIT theory has also proposed that qualia are the experience of integrated information (Balduzzi and Tononi 2009); although Barrett argued that IIT cannot capture intrinsic (independent of an observer’s frame of reference) integrated information yet that could be captured by an EM field-based consciousness (Barrett 2014).

In this sense, the cemi theory incorporates Chalmers’ (Chalmers 1995) ‘double-aspect’ principle that information has both a physical and a phenomenal or experiential aspect. At the particulate level, a molecule of the neurotransmitter glutamate encodes bond energies, angles, etc. but nothing extrinsic to itself. Awareness makes no sense for this kind of matter-encoded information: what can glutamate be aware of except itself? Conversely, at the wave level, information encoded in physical fields is physically unified and can encode extrinsic information, as utilized in TV and radio signals. This EM field-based information will, according to the double-aspect principle, be a suitable substrate for the experience. As proposed in my earlier paper (McFadden 2002a) ‘awareness will be a property of any system in which information is integrated into an information field that is complex enough to encode representations of real objects in the outside world (such as a face)’. Nevertheless, awareness is meaningless unless it can communicate so only fields that have access to a motor system, such as the cemi field, are candidates for any scientific notion of consciousness.

I previously proposed (McFadden 2013b), that complex information acquires its meaning, in the sense of binding of all of the varied aspects of a mental object, in the brain’s EM field. Here, I extend this idea to propose that meaning is an algorithm experienced, in its entirety from problem to its solution, as a single percept in the global workspace of the brain’s EM field. This is where distributed information encoded in millions of physically separated neurons comes together. It is where Shakespeare’s words are turned into his poetry. It is also, where problems and solutions, such as how to untangle a rope from the wheels of a bicycle, are grasped in their entirety.

There are of course many unanswered questions, such as the degree and extent of synchrony required to encode conscious thoughts, the influence of drugs or anesthetics on the cemi field, or whether cemi fields are causally active in animal brains. Yet the cemi theory provides a new paradigm in which consciousness is rooted in an entirely physical, measurable, and artificially malleable physical structure and is amenable to experimental testing. The cemi field theory thereby delivers a kind of dualism, but it is a scientific dualism built on the distinction between matter and energy, rather than matter and spirit. Consciousness is what algorithms that exist simultaneously in the space of the brain’s EM field, feel like.

Conflict of interest statement. None declared.

Acknowledgments

John Jacob Astor Charitable Trust.

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Continue Reading

Latest

The coming civil war over general purpose computing

Mish Boyka

Published

on

Even if we win the right to own and control our computers, a dilemma remains: what rights do owners owe users?

This talk was delivered at Google in August, and for The Long Now Foundation in July 2012. A transcript of the notes follows.

I gave a talk in late 2011 at 28C3 in Berlin called “The Coming War on General Purpose Computing”

In a nutshell, its hypothesis was this:

• Computers and the Internet are everywhere and the world is increasingly made of them.

• We used to have separate categories of devices: washing machines, VCRs, phones, cars, but now we just have computers in different cases. For example, modern cars are computers we put our bodies in and Boeing 747s are flying Solaris boxes, whereas hearing aids and pacemakers are computers we put in our bodies.

[[VCR, washing machine] [[747]] [[Hearing aid]]

• This means that all of our sociopolitical problems in the future will have a computer inside them, too—and a would-be regulator saying stuff like this:

“Make it so that self-driving cars can’t be programmed to drag race”

“Make it so that bioscale 3D printers can’t make harmful organisms or restricted compounds”

Which is to say: “Make me a general-purpose computer that runs all programs except for one program that freaks me out.”

[[Turing – 1]]

But there’s a problem. We don’t know how to make a computer that can run all the programs we can compile except for whichever one pisses off a regulator, or disrupts a business model, or abets a criminal.

The closest approximation we have for such a device is a computer with spyware on it— a computer that, if you do the wrong thing, can intercede and say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”

[[Hal]]

Such a computer runs programs designed to be hidden from the owner of the device, and which the owner can’t override or kill. In other words: DRM. Digital Rights Management.

[Defective by design]

These computers are a bad idea for two significant reasons. First, they won’t solve problems. Breaking DRM isn’t hard for bad guys. The copyright wars’ lesson is that DRM is always broken with near-immediacy.

DRM only works if the “I can’t let you do that, Dave” program stays a secret. Once the most sophisticated attackers in the world liberate that secret, it will be available to everyone else, too.

[[AACS key]]

Second, DRM has inherently weak security, which thereby makes overall security weaker.

Certainty about what software is on your computer is fundamental to good computer security, and you can’t know if your computer’s software is secure unless you know what software it is running.

Designing “I can’t let you do that, Dave” into computers creates an enormous security vulnerability: anyone who hijacks that facility can do things to your computer that you can’t find out about.

Moreover, once a government thinks it has “solved” a problem with DRM—with all its inherent weaknesses—that creates a perverse incentive to make it illegal to tell people things that might undermine the DRM.

[[cf felten, huang, geohot]

You know, things like how the DRM works. Or “here’s a flaw in the DRM which lets an attacker secretly watch through your webcam or listen through your mic.”

I’ve had a lot of feedback from various distinguished computer scientists, technologists, civil libertarians, and security researchers after 28C3. Within those fields, there is a widespread consensus that all other things being equal, computers are more secure and society is better served when owners of computers can control what software runs on them.

Let’s examine for a moment what that would mean.

Most computers today are fitted with a Trusted Platform Module. This is a secure co-processor mounted on the motherboard. The specification of TPMs is published, and an industry body certifies compliance with those specifications.

To the extent that the spec is good (and the industry body is diligent), it’s possible to be reasonably certain that you’ve got a real, functional, TPM in your computer that faithfully implements the spec.

How is the TPM secure? It contains secrets: cryptographic keys. But it’s also secure in that it’s designed to be tamper-evident. If you try to extract the keys from a TPM, or remove the TPM from a computer and replace it with a gimmicked one, it will be very obvious to the computer’s owner.

One threat to TPM is that a crook (or a government, police force, or another adversary) might try to compromise your computer — tamper-evidence is what lets you know when your TPM has been fiddled with.

Another TPM threat-model is that a piece of malicious software will infect your computer

Now, once your computer is compromised this way, you could be in great trouble. All of the sensors attached to the computer—mic, camera, accelerometer, fingerprint reader, GPS—might be switched on without your knowledge. Off goes the data to the bad guys.

All the data on your computer (sensitive files, stored passwords, and web history)? Off it goes to the bad guys—or erased.

All the keystrokes into your computer—your passwords!—might be logged. All the peripherals attached to your computer—printers, scanners, SCADA controllers, MRI machines, 3D printers— might be covertly operated or subtly altered.

Imagine if those “other peripherals” included cars or avionics. Or your optic nerve, your cochlea, the stumps of your legs.

When your computer boots up, the TPM can ask the bootloader for a signed hash of itself and verify that the signature on the hash comes from a trusted party. Once you trust the bootloader to faithfully perform its duties, you can ask it to check the signatures on the operating system, which, once verified, can check the signatures on the programs that run on it.

This ensures that you know which programs are running on your computer—and that any programs running in secret have managed the trick by leveraging a defect in the bootloader, operating system, or other components, and not because a new defect has been inserted into your system to create a facility for hiding things from you.

This always reminds me of Descartes: he starts off by saying that he can’t tell what’s true and what’s not true, because he’s not sure if he really exists.

[descartes]

He finds a way of proving that he exists and that he can trust his senses and his faculty for a reason.

Having found a tiny nub of stable certainty on which to stand, he builds a scaffold of logic that he affixes to it until he builds up an entire edifice.

Likewise, a TPM is a nub of stable certainty: if it’s there, it can reliably inform you about the code on your computer.

[crazy]

Now, you may find it weird to hear someone like me talking warmly about TPMs. After all, these are the technologies that make it possible to lock down phones, tablets, consoles, and even some PCs so that they can’t run software of the owner’s choosing.

Jailbreaking” usually means finding some way to defeat a TPM or TPM-like technology. So why on earth would I want a TPM on my computer?

As with everything important, the devil is in the details.

Imagine for a moment two different ways of implementing a TPM:

1. Lockdown

[LOCKDOWN]

Your TPM comes with a set of signing keys it trusts, and unless your bootloader is signed by a TPM-trusted party, you can’t run it. Moreover, since the bootloader determines which OS launches, you don’t get to control the software in your machine.

2. Certainty

[CERTAINTY]

You tell your TPM which signing keys you trust—say, Ubuntu, EFF, ACLU, and Wikileaks—and it tells you whether the bootloaders it can find on your disk have been signed by any of those parties. It can faithfully report the signature on any other bootloader it finds, and it lets you make up your own damn mind about whether you want to trust any or all of the above.

Approximately speaking, these two scenarios correspond to the way that iOS and Android work: iOS only lets you run Apple-approved code; Android lets you tick a box to run any code you want. Critically, however, Android lacks the facility to do some crypto work on the software before boot-time and tell you whether the code you think you’re about to run is actually what you’re about to run.

It’s freedom, but not a certainty.

In a world where the computers we’re discussing can see and hear you, where we insert our bodies into them, where they are surgically implanted into us, and where they fly our planes and drive our cars, certainty is a big deal.

This is why I like the idea of a TPM, assuming it is implemented in the “certainty” mode and not the “lockdown” mode.

If that’s not clear, think of it this way: a “war on general-purpose computing” is what happens when the control freaks in government and industry demand the ability to remotely control your computers

[1984]

The defenders against that attack also control freaks—like me—but they happen to believe that device-owners should have control over their computers

[De Niro in Brazil]

Both sides want to control, but differ on which side should have control.

Control requires knowledge. If you want to be sure that songs can only move onto an iPod, but not off of an iPod, the iPod needs to know that the instructions being given to it by the PC (to which it is tethered) are emanating from an Apple-approved iTunes. It needs to know they’re not from something that impersonates iTunes in order to get the iPod to give it access to those files.

[Roach Motel]

If you want to be sure that my PVR won’t record the watch-once video-on-demand movie that I’ve just paid for, you need to be able to ensure that the tuner receiving the video will only talk to approved devices whose manufacturers have promised to honor “do-not-record” flags in the programs.

[TiVo error]

If I want to be sure that you aren’t watching me through my webcam, I need to know what the drivers are and whether they honor the convention that the little green activity light is always switched on when my camera is running.

[Green light]

If I want to be sure that you aren’t capturing my passwords through my keyboard, I need to know that the OS isn’t lying when it says there aren’t any keyloggers on my system.

Whether you want to be free—or want to enslave—you need control. And for that, you need this knowledge.

That’s the coming war on general-purpose computing. But now I want to investigate what happens if we win it.

We could face an interesting prospect. This I call the coming civil war over general-purpose computing.

Let’s stipulate that a victory for the “freedom side” in the war on general-purpose computing would result in computers that let their owners know what was running on them. Computers would faithfully report the hash and associated signatures for any bootloaders they found, control what was running on computers, and allow their owners to specify who was allowed to sign their bootloaders, operating systems, and so on.

[Revolutionary war victory image]

There are two arguments that we can make for this:

1. Human rights

If your world is made of computers, then designing computers to override their owners’ decisions has significant human rights implications. Today we worry that the Iranian government might demand import controls on computers so that only those capable of undetectable surveillance are operable within its borders. Tomorrow we might worry about whether the British government would demand that NHS-funded cochlear implants be designed to block reception of “extremist” language, to log and report it, or both.

2. Property rights

The doctrine of the first sale is an important piece of consumer law. It says that once you buy something, it belongs to you, and you should have the freedom to do anything you want with it, even if that hurts the vendor’s income. Opponents of DRM like the slogan, “You bought it, you own it.”

Property rights are an incredibly powerful argument. This goes double in America, where strong property rights enforcement is seen as the foundation of all social remedies.

[private property]

This goes triple for Silicon Valley, where you can’t swing a cat without hitting a libertarian who believes that the major — or only — legitimate function of a state is to enforce property rights and contracts around them.

Which is to say that if you want to win a nerd fight, property rights are a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal. And not just nerd fights!

That’s why copyfighters are so touchy about the term “Intellectual Property”. This synthetic, ideologically-loaded term was popularized in the 1970s as a replacement for “regulatory monopolies” or “creators’ monopolies” — because it’s a lot easier to get Congress to help you police your property than it is to get them to help enforce your monopoly.

[Human rights fist]

Here is where the civil war part comes in.

Human rights and property rights both demand that computers not be designed for remote control by governments, corporations, or other outside institutions. Both ensure that owners be allowed to specify what software they’re going to run. To freely choose the nub of certainty from which they will suspend the scaffold of their computer’s security.

Remember that security is relative: you are secured from attacks on your ability to freely use your music if you can control your computing environment. This, however, erodes the music industry’s own security to charge you some kind of rent, on a use-by-use basis, for your purchased music.

If you get to choose the nub from which the scaffold will dangle, you get control and the power to secure yourself against attackers. If the government, the RIAA, or Monsanto chooses the nub, they get control and the power to secure themselves against you.

In this dilemma, we know what side we fall on. We agree that at the very least, owners should be allowed to know and control their computers.

But what about users?

Users of computers don’t always have the same interests as the owners of computers— and, increasingly, we will be users of computers that we don’t own.

Where you come down on conflicts between owners and users is going to be one of the most meaningful ideological questions in technology’s history. There’s no easy answer that I know about for guiding these decisions.

[Blackstone on property]

Let’s start with a total pro-owner position: “property maximalism”.

• If it’s my computer, I should have the absolute right to dictate the terms of use to anyone who wants to use it. If you don’t like it, find someone else’s computer to use.

How would that work in practice? Through some combination of an initialization routine, tamper evidence, law, and physical control. For example, when you turn on your computer for the first time, you initialize a good secret password, possibly signed by your private key.

[Random number]

Without that key, no-one is allowed to change the list of trusted parties from which your computer’s TPM will accept bootloaders. We could make it illegal to subvert this system for the purpose of booting an operating system that the device’s owner has not approved. Such as law would make spyware really illegal, even more so than now, and would also ban the secret installation of DRM.

We could design the TPM so that if you remove it, or tamper with it, it’s really obvious — give it a fragile housing, for example, which is hard to replace after the time of manufacture, so it’s really obvious to a computer’s owner that someone has modified the device, possibly putting it in an unknown and untrustworthy state. We could even put a lock on the case.

[computer that has had its lid ripped off]

I can see a lot of benefits to this, but their downsides, too.

[Self-driving car]

Consider self-driving cars. There’s a lot of these around already, of course, designed by Google and others. It’s easy to understand, how, on the one hand, self-driving cars are an incredibly great development. We are terrible drivers, and cars kill the shit out of us. It’s the number 1 cause of death in America for people aged 5-34.

[Mortality chart]

I’ve been hit by a car. I’ve cracked up a car. I’m willing to stipulate that humans have no business driving at all.

It’s also easy to understand how we might be nervous about people being able to homebrew their own car firmware. On one hand, we’d want the source to cars to be open because we’d want to subject it to wide scrutiny. On the other hand, it will be plausible to say, “Cars are safer if they use a locked bootloader that only trusts government-certified firmware”.

And now we’re back to whether you get to decide what your computer is doing.

But there are two problems with this solution:

First, it won’t work. As the copyright wars have shown up, firmware locks aren’t very effective against dedicated attackers. People who want to spread mayhem with custom firmware will be able to just that.

What’s more, it’s not a good security approach: if vehicular security models depend on all the other vehicles being well-behaved and the unexpected never arising, we are dead meat.

Self-driving cars must be conservative in their approach to their own conduct, and liberal in their expectations of others’ conduct.

[Defensive driving driver’s ed sign/scan]

This is the same advice you get on your first day of driver’s ed, and it remains good advice even if the car is driving itself.

Second, it invites some pretty sticky parallels. Remember the “information superhighway”?

Say we try to secure our physical roads by demanding that the state (or a state-like entity) gets to certify the firmware of the devices that cruise its lanes. How would we articulate a policy addressing the devices on our (equally vital) metaphorical roads—with comparable firmware locks for PCs, phones, tablets, and other devices?

After all, the general-purpose network means that MRIs, space-ships, and air-traffic control systems share the “information superhighway” with game consoles, Arduino-linked fart machines, and dodgy voyeur cams sold by spammers from the Pearl River Delta.

And consider avionics and power-station automation.

[Nuclear towers]

This is a much trickier one. If the FAA mandates a certain firmware for 747s, it’s probably going to want those 747s designed so that it and it alone controls the signing keys for their bootloaders. Likewise, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will want the final say on the firmware for the reactor piles.

This may be a problem for the same reason that a ban on modifying car firmware is: it establishes the idea that a good way to solve problems is to let “the authorities” control your software.

But it may be that airplanes and nukes are already so regulated that an additional layer of regulation wouldn’t leak out into other areas of daily life — nukes and planes are subject to an extraordinary amount of no-notice inspection and reporting requirements that are unique to their industries.

Second, there’s a bigger problem with “owner controls”: what about people who use computers, but don’t own them?

This is not a group of people that the IT industry has a lot of sympathy for, on the whole.

[Encrufted desktop]

An enormous amount of energy has been devoted to stopping non-owning users from inadvertently breaking the computers they are using, downloading menu-bars, typing random crap they find on the Internet into the terminal, inserting malware-infected USB sticks, installing plugins or untrustworthy certificates, or punching holes in the network perimeter.

Energy is also spent stopping users from doing deliberately bad things, too. They install keyloggers and spyware to ensnare future users, misappropriate secrets, snoop on network traffic, break their machines and disable the firewalls.

There’s an asymmetry here. DRM and its cousins are deployed by people who believe you can’t and shouldn’t be trusted to set policy on the computer you own. Likewise, IT systems are deployed by computer owners who believe that computer users can’t be trusted to set policies on the computers they use.

As a former sysadmin and CIO, I’m not going to pretend that users aren’t a challenge. But there are good reasons to treat users as having the right to set policies on computers they don’t own.

Let’s start with the business case.

When we demand freedom for owners, we do so for lots of reasons, but an important one is that computer programmers can’t anticipate all the contingencies that their code might run up against — that when the computer says yes, you might need to still say no.

This is the idea that owners possess local situational awareness that can’t be perfectly captured by a series of nested if/then statements.

It’s also where communist and libertarianism principles converge:

[Hayek]

• Friedrich Hayek thought that expertise was a diffuse thing and that you were more likely to find the situational awareness necessary for good decision-making very close to the decision itself — devolution gives better results than centralization.

• Karl Marx believed in the legitimacy of workers’ claims over their working environment, saying that the contribution of labor was just as important as the contribution of capital, and demanded that workers be treated as the rightful “owners” of their workplace, with the power to set policy.

[Coalface]

For totally opposite reasons, they both believed that the people at the coalface should be given as much power as possible.

The death of mainframes was attended by an awful lot of concern over users and what they might do to the enterprise. In those days, users were even more constrained than they are today. They could only see the screens the mainframe let them see, and only undertake the operations the mainframe let them undertake.

When the PC and Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3 appeared, employees risked termination by bringing those machines into the office— or by taking home office data to use with those machines.

Workers developed computing needs that couldn’t be met within the constraints set by the firm and its IT department, and didn’t think that the legitimacy of their needs would be recognized.

The standard responses would involve some combination of the following:

• Our regulatory compliance prohibits the thing that will help you do your job better.

• If you do your job that way, we won’t know if your results are correct.

• You only think you want to do that.

• It is impossible to make a computer do what you want it to do.

• Corporate policy prohibits this.

These may be true. But often they aren’t, and even when they are, they’re the kind of “truths” that we give bright young geeks millions of dollars in venture capital to falsify—even as middle-aged admin assistants get written up by HR for trying to do the same thing.

The personal computer arrived in the enterprise by the back door, over the objections of IT, without the knowledge of management, at the risk of censure and termination. Then it made the companies that fought it billions. Trillions.

Giving workers powerful, flexible tools was good for firms because people are generally smart and want to do their jobs well. They know stuff their bosses don’t know.

So, as an owner, you don’t want the devices you buy to be locked because you might want to do something the designer didn’t anticipate.

And employees don’t want the devices they use all day locked because they might want to do something useful that the IT dept didn’t anticipate.

This is the soul of Hayekism — we’re smarter at the edge than we are in the middle.

The business world pays a lot of lip service to Hayek’s 1940s ideas about free markets. But when it comes to freedom within the companies they run, they’re stuck a good 50 years earlier, mired in the ideology of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his “scientific management”. In this way of seeing things, workers are just an unreliable type of machine whose movements and actions should be scripted by an all-knowing management consultant, who would work with the equally-wise company bosses to determine the one true way to do your job. It’s about as “scientific” as trepanation or Myers-Briggs personality tests; it’s the ideology that let Toyota cream Detroit’s big three.

[GM v Toyota earnings]

So, letting enterprise users do the stuff they think will allow them to make more money for their companies will sometimes make their companies more money.

That’s the business case for user rights. It’s a good one, but really I just wanted to get it out of the way so that I could get down to the real meat: Human rights.

[Another Human Rights Now fist]

This may seem a little weird on its face but bear with me.

Earlier this year, I saw a talk by Hugh Herr, Director of the Biomechatronics group at The MIT Media Lab. Herr’s talks are electrifying. He starts out with a bunch of slides of cool prostheses: Legs and feet, hands and arms, and even a device that uses focused magnetism to suppress activity in the brains of people with severe, untreatable depression, to amazing effect.

Then he shows this slide of him climbing a mountain. He’s buff, he’s clinging to the rock like a gecko. And he doesn’t have any legs: just these cool mountain climbing prostheses.

Herr looks at the audience from where he’s standing, and he says, “Oh yeah, didn’t I mention it? I don’t have any legs, I lost them to frostbite.”

He rolls up his trouser legs to show off these amazing robotic gams and proceeds to run up and down the stage like a mountain goat.

The first question anyone asked was, “How much did they cost?”

He named a sum that would buy you a nice brownstone in central Manhattan or a terraced Victorian in zone one in London.

The second question asked was, “Well, who will be able to afford these?

To which Herr answered “Everyone. If you have to choose between a 40-year mortgage on a house and a 40-year mortgage on legs, you’re going to choose legs”

So it’s easy to consider the possibility that there are going to be people — potentially a lot of people — who are “users” of computers that they don’t own, and where those computers are part of their bodies.

[Cochlear implant]

Most of the tech world understands why you, as the owner of your cochlear implants, should be legally allowed to choose the firmware for them. After all, when you own a device that is surgically implanted in your skull, it makes a lot of sense that you have the freedom to change software vendors.

Maybe the company that made your implant has the very best signal processing algorithm right now, but if a competitor patents a superior algorithm next year, should you be doomed to inferior hearing for the rest of your life?

And what if the company that made your ears went bankrupt? What if sloppy or sneaky code let bad guys do bad things to your hearing?

These problems can only be overcome by the unambiguous right to change the software, even if the company that made your implants is still a going concern.

That will help owners. But what about users?

Consider some of the following scenarios:

• You are a minor child and your deeply religious parents pay for your cochlear implants, and ask for the software that makes it impossible for you to hear blasphemy.

• You are broke, and a commercial company wants to sell you ad-supported implants that listen in on your conversations and insert “discussions about the brands you love”.

• Your government is willing to install cochlear implants, but they will archive everything you hear and review it without your knowledge or consent.

Far-fetched? The Canadian border agency was just forced to abandon a plan to fill the nation’s airports with hidden high-sensitivity mics that were intended to record everyone’s conversations.

Will the Iranian government, or the Chinese government, take advantage of this if they get the chance?

Speaking of Iran and China, there are plenty of human rights activists who believe that boot-locking is the start of a human rights disaster. It’s no secret that high-tech companies have been happy to build “lawful intercept” back-doors into their equipment to allow for warrantless, secret access to communications. As these backdoors are now standard, the capability is still there even if your country doesn’t want it.

In Greece, there is no legal requirement for a lawful intercept on telecoms equipment.

During the 2004/5 Olympic bidding process, an unknown person or agency switched on the dormant capability, harvested an unknown quantity of private communications from the highest level, and switched it off again

Surveillance in the middle of the network is nowhere near as interesting as surveillance at the edge. As the ghosts of Messrs Hayek and Marx will tell you, there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening at the coal-face that never makes it back to the central office.

Even “democratic” governments know this. That’s why the Bavarian government was illegally installing the “bundestrojan” — literally, state-trojan — on peoples’ computers, gaining access to their files and keystrokes and much else besides. So it’s a safe bet that the totalitarian governments will happily take advantage of boot-locking and move the surveillance right into the box.

You may not import a computer into Iran unless you limit its trust-model so that it only boots up operating systems with lawful intercept backdoors built into it.

Now, with an owner-control model, the first person to use a machine gets to initialize the list of trusted keys and then lock it with a secret or other authorization token. What this means is that the state customs authority must initialize each machine before it passes into the country.

Maybe you’ll be able to do something to override the trust model. But by design, such a system will be heavily tamper-evident, meaning that a secret policeman or informant can tell at a glance whether you’ve locked the state out of your computer. And it’s not just repressive states, of course, who will be interested in this.

Remember that there are four major customers for the existing censorware/spyware/lock ware industry: repressive governments, large corporations, schools, and paranoid parents.

[Kid-tracking software]

The technical needs of helicopter mums, school systems, and enterprises are convergent with those of the governments of Syria and China. They may not share ideological ends, but they have awfully similar technical means to those ends.

We are very forgiving of these institutions as they pursue their ends; you can do almost anything if you’re protecting shareholders or children.

For example, remember the widespread indignation, from all sides, when it was revealed that some companies were requiring prospective employees to hand over their Facebook login credentials as a condition of employment?

These employers argued that they needed to review your lists of friends, and what you said to them in private, before determining whether you were suitable for employment.

[Urine-tests]

Facebook checks are the workplace urine test of the 21st century. They’re a means of ensuring that your private life doesn’t have any unsavory secrets lurking in it, secrets that might compromise your work.

The nation didn’t buy this. From senate hearings to newspaper editorials, the country rose up against the practice.

But no one seems to mind that many employers routinely insert their own intermediate keys into their employees’ devices — phones, tablets, and computers. This allows them to spy on your Internet traffic, even when it is “secure”, with a lock showing in the browser.

It gives your employer access to any sensitive site you access on the job, from your union’s message board to your bank to Gmail to your HMO or doctor’s private patient repository. And, of course, to everything on your Facebook page.

There’s a wide consensus that this is OK, because the laptop, phone, and tablet your employer issues to you are not your property. They are company property.

And yet, the reason employers give us these mobile devices is that there is no longer any meaningful distinction between work and home.

Corporate sociologists who study the way that we use our devices find the time and again that employees are not capable of maintaining strict divisions between “work” and “personal” accounts and devices.

[Desktop covered in mobile devices]

America is the land of the 55-hour work-week, a country where few professionals take any meaningful vacation time, and when they do get away for a day or two, take their work-issued devices with them.

Even in traditional workplaces, we recognized human rights. We don’t put cameras in the toilets to curtail employee theft. If your spouse came by the office on your lunch break and the two of you went into the parking lot so that she or he could tell you that the doctor says the cancer is terminal, you’d be aghast and furious to discover that your employer had been spying on you with a hidden mic.

But if you used your company laptop to access Facebook on your lunch break, wherein your spouse conveys to you that the cancer is terminal, you’re supposed to be OK with the fact that your employer has been running a man-in-the-middle attack on your machine and now knows the most intimate details of your life.

There are plenty of instances in which rich and powerful people — not just workers and children and prisoners — will be users instead of owners.

Every car-rental agency would love to be able to lo-jack the cars they rent to you; remember, an automobile is just a computer you put your body into. They’d love to log all the places you drive to for “marketing” purposes and analytics.

There’s money to be made in finagling the firmware on the rental car’s GPS to ensure that your routes always take you past certain billboards or fast-food restaurants.

[burger]

But in general, the poorer and younger you are, the more likely you are to be a tenant farmer in some feudal lord’s computational lands. The poorer and younger you are, the more likely it’ll be that your legs will cease to walk if you get behind on payments.

What this means is that any thug who buys your debts from a payday lender could literally — and legally — threaten to take your legs (or eyes, or ears, or arms, or insulin, or pacemaker) away if you failed to come up with the next installment.

[Slimy collection notice]

Earlier, I discussed how an owner override would work. It would involve some combination of physical access-control and tamper-evidence, designed to give owners of computers the power to know and control what bootloader and OS were running on their machine.

How would a user-override work? An effective user-override would have to leave the underlying computer intact so that when the owner took it back, she could be sure that it was in the state she believed it to be in. In other words, we need to protect users from owners and owners from users.

Here’s one model for that:

Imagine that there is a bootloader that can reliably and accurately report on the kernels and OSes it finds on the drive. This is the prerequisite for state/corporate-controlled systems, owner-controlled systems, and user-controlled systems.

Now, give the bootloader the power to suspend any running OS to disk, encrypting all its threads and parking them, and the power to select another OS from the network or an external drive.

[Internet cafe]

Say I walk into an Internet cafe, and there’s an OS running that I can verify. It has a lawful interception back-door for the police, storing all my keystrokes, files, and screens in an encrypted blob which the state can decrypt.

I’m an attorney, doctor, corporate executive, or merely a human who doesn’t like the idea of his private stuff being available to anyone who is friends with a dirty cop.

So, at this point, I give the three-finger salute with the F-keys. This drops the computer into a minimal bootloader shell, one that invites me to give the net-address of an alternative OS or to insert my own thumb-drive and boot into an operating system there instead.

[Three finger salute]

The cafe owner’s OS is parked and I can’t see inside it. But the bootloader can assure me that it is dormant and not spying on me as my OS fires up. When it’s done, all my working files are trashed, and the minimal bootloader confirms it.

This keeps the computer’s owner from spying on me and keeps me from leaving malware on the computer to attack its owner.

There will be technological means of subverting this, but there is a world of difference between starting from a design spec that aims to protect users from owners (and vice-versa) than one that says that users must always be vulnerable to owners’ dictates.

Fundamentally, this is the difference between freedom and openness — between free software and open source.

Now, human rights and property rights often come into conflict with one another. For example, landlords aren’t allowed to enter your home without adequate notice. In many places, hotels can’t throw you out if you overstay your reservation, provided that you pay the rack rate for the rooms — that’s why you often see these posted on the back of the room door

Repossession of leased goods — cars, for example — are limited by procedures that require notice and the opportunity to rebut claims of delinquent payments.

When these laws are “streamlined” to make them easier for property holders, we often see human rights abuses. Consider Robo-signing eviction mills, which used fraudulent declarations to evict homeowners who were up to date on their mortgages—and even some who didn’t have mortgages.

The potential for abuse in a world made of computers is much greater: your car drives itself to the repo yard. Your high-rise apartment building switches off its elevators and climate systems, stranding thousands of people until a disputed license payment is settled.

Sounds fanciful? This has already happened with multi-level parking garages.

Back in 2006, a 314-car Robotic Parking model RPS1000 garage in Hoboken, New Jersey, took all the cars in its guts hostage, locking down the software until the garage’s owners paid a licensing bill that they disputed.

They had to pay it, even as they maintained that they didn’t owe anything. What the hell else were they going to do?

And what will

you

do when your dispute with a vendor means that you go blind, or deaf, or lose the ability to walk or become suicidally depressed?

[Phrenology bust]

The negotiating leverage that accrues to owners over users is total and terrifying.

Users will be strongly incentivized to settle quickly, rather than face the dreadful penalties that could be visited on them in the event of a dispute. And when the owner of the device is the state or a state-sized corporate actor, the potential for human rights abuses skyrockets.

This is not to say that the owner override is an unmitigated evil. Think of smart meters that can override your thermostat at peak loads.

[Smart meter]

Such meters allow us to switch off coal and other dirty power sources that can be varied up at peak times.

[Dirty coal]

But they work best if users — homeowners who have allowed the power company to install a smart-meter — can’t override the meters. What happens when griefers, crooks, or governments trying to quell popular rebellion use this to turn the heat off during a hundred-year storm? Or to crank the heat to the maximum during a heat-wave?

The HVAC in your house can hold the power of life and death over you — do we really want it designed to allow remote parties to do stuff with it even if you disagree?

The question is simple. Once we create a design norm of devices that users can’t override, how far will that creep?

Especially risky would be the use of owner override to offer payday loan-style services to vulnerable people: Can’t afford artificial eyes for your kids? We’ll subsidize them if you let us redirect their focus to sponsored toys and sugar-snacks at the store.

Foreclosing on owner override, however, has its own downside. It probably means that there will be poor people who will not be offered some technology at all.

If I can lo-jack your legs, I can lease them to you with the confidence of my power to repo them if you default on payments. If I can’t, I may not lease your legs unless you’ve got a lot of money, to begin with.

But if your legs can decide to walk to the repo-depot without your consent, you will be totally screwed the day that muggers, rapists, griefers, or the secret police figure out how to hijack that facility.

[TV remote, labelled “legs” “arms” etc]

It gets even more complicated, too, because you are the “user” of many systems in the most transitory ways: subway turnstiles, elevators, the blood-pressure cuff at the doctor’s office, public buses, or airplanes. It’s going to be hard to figure out how to create “user overrides” that isn’t nonsensical. We can start, though, by saying a “user” is someone who is the

sole

the user of a device for a certain amount of time.

This isn’t a problem I know how to solve. Unlike the War on General Purpose Computers, the Civil War over them presents a series of conundra without (to me) any obvious solutions.

These problems are a way off, and they only arise if we win the war over general-purpose computing first

But come victory day, when we start planning the constitutional congress for a world where regulating computers is acknowledged as the wrong way to solve problems, let’s not paper over the division between property rights and human rights.

This is the sort of division that, while it festers, puts the most vulnerable people in our society in harm’s way. Agreeing to disagree on this one isn’t good enough. We need to start thinking now about the principles we’ll apply when the day comes.

If we don’t start now, it’ll be too late.

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Earth911 Reader: This Week’s Sustainability, Recycling, Business and Science News Summarized

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The Earth911 team combs news and research for interesting ideas and stories about the challenges of creating a sustainable world. We pick the science, sustainability, recycling, and business stories to give you a summary of the week’s changes, along with ideas you can act on to support the environment and Earth-friendly initiatives. Sometimes it is good news we can all celebrate, sometimes it is bad news or a seemingly intractable challenge that should make us double-down on finding new solutions. We call it the Earth911 Reader and we hope you find it useful.

IN SCIENCE

California’s Catastrophic Wildfire Season Is 20 Years Early

Scientific American delivers a chilling report on the surprise among fire and climate researchers at the scale of California’s wildfires during 2020. Fires that burn up to 4.1 million acres in a single year were not forecast to happen until 2050. While one fire season does not constitute a trend, the massive Australian and Amazon wildfires during the past year confirm that there are real reasons for concern. Researchers predict that fires could burn 77% more land each year by 2100. California’s 2012 to 2015 drought, the worst in 1,200 in the region, and continued human migration into fire zones exacerbate the problem. In related news, NPR reports that 32 million homes were built in the “woodland-urban interface” between 199 and 2015, many of which are now at risk from annual wildfires.

Antarctic Weddell Sea Warming Five Times Faster Than Other Deep Ocean Areas

A new study from the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research reports that the deeper parts of the Antarctic Weddell Sea below 2000 meters (6,561 feet) are warming five times faster than other deepwater regions in the world’s oceans. “By using the temperature rise to calculate the warming rate in watts per square meter, you can see that over the past 30 years, at depths of over 2,000 meters the Weddell Sea has absorbed five times as much heat as the rest of the ocean on average,” Wade Crowfoot of the California Natural Resources Agency told Phys.org. The warming is caused by changing wind and sea current patterns in the Southern Ocean. The transition could disrupt currents worldwide, as the region is the setting for 15 percent of sea-current overturning globally. As oceans absorbed heat from the warming atmosphere, which has dampened the impact of climate change until now, the currents have shifted, and more warm water is flowing into the depths of the Weddell Sea. More warm water is forced into the area by shifting currents, raising the deepwater temperature by about 0.0024 degrees Celsius per year. Warming waters will accelerate Antarctic ice loss and atmospheric warming, fueling more global warming.

Less Disinfectant In Water Could Improve Quality, Reduce Pollution

Every water pipe in the world is lined with a biofilm of living organisms. For decades, water systems have used chlorine to disinfect water and pipes. A new study from the University of Sheffield (U.K.) found that reduced chlorine use improves water quality without increasing water-borne illness risk. “Drinking water is not sterile, and you wouldn’t want to drink it if it was as it would taste horrible. It’s the minerals and good bacteria in water that gives it the taste that we expect when we turn on our taps at home,” study co-author Professor of Water Infrastructure Engineering Joby Boxall told Phys.org. In fact, humans have used too much chlorine, killing organisms that enhance the quality and flow of water inside pipes. Leaving biofilms intact by lowering chlorine levels to kill only “free-living” microorganisms will produce cleaner water at home and when it is returned to rivers, lakes, or the seas.

 

IN SUSTAINABILITY

Achieving 100% Renewable Energy In the U.S. Could Save $321 Billion

Rewiring America, an energy policy organization, estimates that “If done right, [renewable energy deployment] would create millions of new, good-paying jobs in every zip code, save each household on average between $1,050 to $2,585 per year on its energy bills.”  The report explains that besides reducing energy-related CO2 emissions, the total savings across the entire country up to $321 billion annually. “If we electrify everything, the savings are more than enough to return money to households,” Adam Zurofsky, executive director of Rewiring America, told The Guardian.

Urban Sharing Can Reshape Cities, Sustainability, and Society

A five-year study of urban sharing organizations in Amsterdam, Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai, and Toronto just reported its first findings. Sharing programs must be carefully defined to ensure sustainable results. Conducted by Lund University in Sweden, the research explores how the creation, growth, and governance of urban sharing programs perform in different cultures, Shareable reports. The five cities under study provide clothing, car, commute, and community-based toy libraries, among other projects. Researchers found that developing the basis for trust, individual and group empowerment, inclusive decisions, and social justice is essential to success. The Shareable article links to many useful resources, examples, and research. Start your sharing journey using the lessons provided by author Yuliya Voytenko Palgan.

China’s Aggressive Decarbonization Plan Is Doable

The journal Nature summarizes a collection of research about the viability of China’s promise to become a net-zero emissions society by 2060. The verdict is that the country can keep its promise if it makes “hard decisions” about retiring coal, adopting nuclear power, and aggressive investment in wind and solar power generation. Currently, coal is burned to produce 65% of China’s electricity. During the next four decades, China’s power requirements are expected to double. Still, renewable sources can step in to keep the economy growing. China will need 16 times today’s solar generation capacity and nine times its current wind-driven electric capacity. He Gang of Stony Brook University in New York told Nature that China could produce up to 60% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources, including nuclear power, by 2030. The U.S. needs to recognize that the first economy to achieve net-zero emissions will become a role model for the rest of the planet. Now is the time to accelerate our investment in renewables to lead the world.

Air Pollution Contributed to 6.6 Million Deaths In 2020

The State of Global Air 2020 report released by a global collection of academic and nonprofit organizations found that air pollution contributed to 6.67 million early deaths, including the loss of 500,000 infants. A newly developed method for tracking infant deaths due to air pollution propelled dirty air to the #4 position among premature death causes. Only high blood pressure, tobacco, and dietary causes kill more people each year, EcoWatch reports. It also confirms that COVID-19 lockdowns did result in lower levels of some greenhouse gases (GHG), but only temporarily. The most-polluted countries this year include India, Nepal, Niger, Qatar, and Nigeria. Emerging economies that rely on fossil fuels for energy generation are getting dirtier. However, Egypt, Thailand, Vietnam, and China all made progress on GHG reductions. The report is packed with useful information.

France Introduces Repairability Rating Product Labels

Resource Recycling reports that the French government will introduce a “compulsory rating system” for the repairability of smartphones, T.V.s, laptops, and appliances on New Year’s Day in 2021. It will be a simple score, from one to 10, on a sticker placed on the product packaging. More product categories will be added in the future. The right to repair movement in the U.S. lags behind Europe, so we will be watching closely to see how French consumers respond to this new rating system.

 

IN BUSINESS

Leading Banks Face Extreme Exposure To Climate Damage Risks

Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit that works with investors and companies to introduce climate- and human-friendly practices, released an GFN of the climate risk facing major banks. The news isn’t pretty. Over half of the current syndicated lending portfolios of the largest U.S. banks are exposed to one or more climate risks. The loans support industries that are not preparing for disruptions or have not set out goals to avoid climate-related losses. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Well Fargo are the most exposed money center banks. As much as 18% of loans at U.S. banks could face “wide impact” losses due to secondary climate-related problems, such as economic and agricultural disruptions that change consumer spending. If you are an investor, the Ceres report is an essential read.

PepsiCo’s Green Bond Spending On Recycled PET Plastic Makes Minor Impact

After raising $1 billion in “green bonds” in October 2019, PepsiCo has poured approximately $200 million of the money to buy recycled PET (RPET) #1 plastic for use in packaging, Resource Recycling reports. Additionally, it spent another $227 million on fleet and operational efficiency improvements. The recycled content in its beverage packaging increased from just 3% to 4% during 2019. Pepsi plans to achieve 25% RPET content in beverage packaging by 2025. The company reports that supplies of RPET are not sufficient to meet demand, which is promising news. Plastic recyclers can count on selling as much RPET as they can make. PepsiCo will focus its RPET inventory on making its Naked juice, Tazo Chilled tea, and LIFEWTR packaging 100%-recycled before 2025.

IKEA Launches Furniture Buyback Program

Swedish home products retailer IKEA will start buying back used furniture from customers on November 27, TriplePundit reports. U.S. customers will have to wait to participate but the program will eventually reach 27 countries. IKEA’s commitment to circular thinking is impressive and aggressive. It will make all its products recyclable, reusable (including resalable through the buyback program) by 2030. IKEA will open its first second-hand store in Eskilstuna, Sweden, by the end of 2020. The concept requires a comprehensive rethinking of IKEAs product design, materials choices, and logistics to support convenient and profitable reuse. IKEA’s experience could teach retailers everywhere a great deal about circular strategies. The first beneficiaries will be customers who get new, lower-priced access to refurbished IKEA products.

Post-Secondary Sustainability Education Must Evolve, National Academies Urge

Solving sustainability problems requires cross-disciplinary thinking and deep emotional intelligence about a broad spectrum of issues, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine argues. “[S]ustainability students and graduates need a common baseline understanding of content areas that include the history of sustainability, ethics and social justice, data analytics, business administration, sustainability science, diversity and justice, and Indigenous knowledge and culture,” the report suggests. Thinking across disciplinary boundaries — or, rather, based on my conversations with young innovator Adarsh Ambati, not seeing the boundaries as barriers — is essential to solving climate change’s systemic issues. You can download the report for free by registering with the National Academies publishing site.

Sustainable Tech Startups Among Most-Fundable Companies

Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School recently announced its most-fundable companies selections for 2020, and several sustainability-related firms were recognized. Keep an eye on Lawrence, New York-based Flower Turbines, a maker of small wind turbines that can be used in and around cities, suburbs and other populated areas. It can also augment large-scale wind generation by filling in spaces under large turbines. AgTools Inc. is an Irvine, Calif-based maker of market intelligence and supply chain management software. It helps move meat and produce to market more efficiently and reduce food waste. Global Thermostat, a New York-based maker of CO2 capture and sequestration, was also recognized. Listen to our interview with Global Thermostat cofounder Graciela Chichilnisky to learn about raw company’s low-energy direct-air capture technology.

 

IN RECYCLING

Waste Management Reports Record Recycling Volume In 2019

The nation’s largest waste hauler, Waste Management, collected and processed 1.9% more recyclable material in 2019 than the year earlier, Resource Recycling reports. The notable change, in our GFN, is that Waste Management customers improved their recycling sorting practices. The company said that its materials were contaminated at a 17% rate, about five percent lower than the national average. Lower contamination rates mean more material will be successfully processed and used in new products. Waste Management invested approximately $100 million in 2019 to progress toward achieving 10% contamination rates by 2025.

Explore What Canadian Producer Responsibility Programs Can Teach the U.S.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws require the makers of products and packaging materials to collect, process, and recycle what they make. Resource Recycling provides a comprehensive assessment of the rules that govern these programs in Canada, where EPR laws are already in place. Depending on how directly responsible a producer is held to recover materials, the intervening collection and sorting infrastructure must be more or less tuned to identify individual items as a specific company’s responsibility. But consider a pie tin, as the authors suggest. It may be packaging for a pie or could have been sold in a box of pie tins — which company, the pie maker or the pan manufacturer, is responsible. The fee and incentive structure can take many forms. For example, a deposit fee could be applied to all items sold to pre-collect revenue. Conversely, payments could be collected from producers based on the volume of material they produce and recapture. And there are many other variables, such as the value of the recycled material or environmental impact of capturing the material, that can be factored into EPR fees. A deep, long, and valuable read.

Florida City Offers Personalized Recycling Feedback To Citizens

Apopka, Florida, is taking recycling to the street. It will deliver feedback to citizens about how well they sorted and cleaned their recyclables, Recycling Today reports. The Recycling Partnership Feet on the Street program is working with Apopka’s government to deliver “real-time personalized recycling feedback.” It is designed to help residents learn how to recycle, which can lead to reduced contamination. Earth911 experimented with at-hone recycling feedback last year, and we found people loved it. Contamination rates decreased during the four-month project. Partly funded by Coca-Cola and How2Recycle, the recyclable products labeling system, the Apopka program has already improved recycling results. Ultimately, suppose citizens don’t take the first steps in the recycling process. In that case, the rest of the system cannot succeed without massive investments in sorting and cleaning technology. So, you can recycle well at the expense of a little time each week now or pay later for expensive technology that will do the job for you.

New Jersey Follows California’s Recycled Content Lead

SB 2515, New Jersey’s minimum recycled content legislation, will be revised to be similar to California’s recently introducing recycling law. It appears to be poised for passage in 2021. The bill aims for 50% recycled material in products by 2030. Senator Bob Smith, who sponsored the bill, told Waste Dive that the new version will be “much more towards the California model than the way we started.” It will be introduced with a 25% recycled content requirement for rigid plastic containers and 15% in beverage containers. These levels would be raised by 5% a year until it reaches 50%.

Polypropylene Recycling Gaining Traction

While Plastic #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) plastic is widely recycled at the curb in the United States, polypropylene (PP), or Plastic #5, is picked up at only 60% to 65% of homes. PP is used in bottle caps, medicine bottles, food containers, and other everyday items. Now the material is getting attention from recyclers, Scrap Magazine reports. The Recycling Partnership recently launched the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition to raise $35 million from industry partners. Waste Management has spent as much as $200 million to increase, among other things, its PP identification and sorting capacities. Additionally, manufacturers are starting to buy recycled PP, and that demand will fund more recycling investment. What can you do? First, check that your recycling program accepts PP. Learn to recognize PP, wash and sort it, then place it in the bin. And ask whether the PP packaging you buy is made with recycled material.

 

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE

Make Your School An Earth Day School

After the 50th anniversary of Earth Day was disrupted by COVID-19, the Earth Day Foundation aims to make next April 22 a global event. Consider registering your school or your children’s school to participate in Earth Day activities in 2021, and get involved as a volunteer. Visit EarthDay.org to join the Earth Day Schools program and find climate literacy material or connect with other volunteers to create local events and community clean-ups. Let’s bring one billion people out to participate in the 51st Earth Day.

Support Ceres, the Sustainability Nonprofit That Changes Business Priorities

Research and advocacy are essential to chaning minds. Consider supporting Ceres, a nonprofit that educates and advises investors and companies about making the transition to sustainable practices. The organization’s research, including the report about U.S. banks’ loan portfolios exposure to climate risk, impacts policy and business decisions. In particular, Ceres has captured the financial industry’s attention and is helping to reshape priorities in the energy, food, insurance, and transportation industries. Ceres’ annual fundraising campaign in two weeks, and now is the time to act to support next year’s research agenda. Visit Ceres.org to make a tax-deductible contribution. Few organizations have developed business and policy influence as broad and effective as Ceres. Together, we can amplify Ceres’ impact in 2021.

 

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