Thursday, December 23, 2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
[Video permalink here.]
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Will 250 be the new 100 in the foreseeable future? Human life expectancy has made steady gains over the last two centuries, and anti-aging scientists seeking to spare human cells and DNA from the corrosion once deemed inevitable are eager to trigger a radical extension in our life spans. How likely is such a spike? And how desirable is it to live to be a quarter of a millennium? Will life-extending scientific breakthroughs translate into an interminable twilight for many, or will they also postpone aging?Please join us to learn about the state of life-extending research, and to ponder some of the wrenching philosophical, societal and actuarial (et tu, Social Security?) questions raised by the efforts to radically grow life expectancy.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Take the first project, HRP-4C. It was gutsy of its creators to surround it with real-if-not-very-good dancers — but it was right on the line between gutsy and foolhardy, and I thought it stayed mostly on the foolhardy side. The Gizmodo blogger, on the other hand, found it “pretty amazing.” I’m not sure what they are seeing: its movements seem wooden and jerky, not that far advanced over the Disney audio-animatronics that I recall from my youth. And its voice? If we start from the fact that most pop music these days seems designed to make the singer sound synthetic in one way or another, it sounds great. But in any case, “amazing” suggests a pretty low bar.
Actroid-F is a different kettle of fish. Its abilities are more limited than HRP-4C’s, to be sure. But there are a few moments in the video where, if you had isolated them and told me it was an actress pretending to be a robot and not doing that well, I think I would have believed you. That Engadget headlined its post “Actroid-F: the angel of death robot coming to a hospital near you” makes me think that maybe there is something to the “uncanny valley” after all. (Full disclosure: I’m still rooting for some robotic version of Emily.)
It is only to be expected that in the not-so-distant future, these efforts will look as quaint as do the automata of the eighteenth century. But why, exactly? I can only imagine that our transhumanist friends must be somewhat conflicted about these humanoid robots. On one hand, they represent useful progress in areas that will help open doors to human redesign. But on the other hand, how shortsighted it must seem to spend so much effort on replicating those poorly designed meat machines we want to get rid of!
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Monday, August 9, 2010
David Gelernter has written a characteristically thought-provoking essay about what guidance might be gleaned from Judaism for how human beings ought to treat “sophisticated anthropoid robots” with artificial intelligence powerful enough to allow them to respond to the world in a manner that makes them seem exactly like us. Taking his cue from Biblical and rabbinic strictures concerning cruelty to animals, he argues that because these robots “will seem human,” we should avoid treating them badly lest we become “more oblivious of cruelty to human beings.”
This conclusion, which one might draw as well on Aristotelian as Biblical grounds, is a powerful one — and in a world of demolition derbies and “Will It Blend?,” where even a video of a washing machine being destroyed can go viral, it is hard to deny that Gelernter has identified a potentially serious issue. It was raised with great force in the “Flesh Fair” scenes of the 2001 movie A.I., where we see robots being hunted down, herded together, and subjected to various kinds of creative destruction in front of howling fans. Meanwhile, the robots look on quietly with what I have always found to be heartbreaking incomprehension.
And yet, it also seems to me that the ringleader at the Flesh Fair, vicious though he is, is not entirely wrong when he harangues the crowd about the need to find a way to assert the difference between humans and robots in a world where it is becoming increasingly easy to confuse the two. And it is in this connection that I wonder whether Gelernter’s argument has sufficiently acknowledged the challenge to Jewish thought that is being posed by at least some of the advocates of the advanced artificial intelligence he is describing.
Gelernter knows full well the “sanctity and ineffable value” that Judaism puts on human life, which is to say he knows that in Jewish thinking human beings are unique within creation. In such a framework, it is understandable why the main concern with animal (or robot) cruelty should be the harm it might do to “our own moral standing” or “the moral stature and dignity of human beings.” But the moral dignity of human beings and our uniqueness in creation is precisely what is coming under attack from transhumanists, as well as the less potent but more widespread forms of scientism and technophilia in our culture. Gelernter is certain that the robot will feel no pain; but what of those who would reply that they will “process” an electrical signal from some part of their bodies that will trigger certain kinds of functions — which is after all what pain “really” is? Gelernter is certain that these anthropoid robots will have no inner life, but what of those, such as Tor Nørretranders and Daniel Dennett, who are busy arguing that what we call consciousness is just “user illusion”?
I don’t doubt that Gelernter could answer these questions. But I do doubt that his answers would put an end to all the efforts to convince us that after all we are simply “meat machines.” And if more and more we think of ourselves as “meat machines,” then what Gelernter calls the “pernicious incrementalism” of cruelty to robots that he is reasonably concerned about points in another direction as well: not that we start treating “thous” as “its,” but that in transforming “its” into “thous” we take all the moral meaning out of “human.”
It probably should not surprise us that there are dangers of kindness to robots as well as cruelty, but the fact that it is so might prompt us to wonder about the reasons that seem to make going down this road so compelling. Speaking Jewishly, Gelernter might recall the lesson from the pre-twentieth-century accounts of the golem, the legends of pious men creating an artificial anthropoid that go back to the Talmud. Nearly from the start two things are clear about the golem: only the wisest and most pious could ever hope to make one, but the greatest wisdom would be to know how and not to do so.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
At one level, Walker’s essay might appear as mere tautology. If the transhumanist project works out as advertised (smarter and more virtuous beings), then the transhumanist project will have worked out as advertised (smarter and more virtuous beings will do smarter and more virtuous things). But more interestingly, Walker nicely encapsulates a number of issues that transhumanists regularly seek to avoid thinking seriously about. For example:
1) What is the relationship between human and posthuman civilization? If proponents of “the Singularity” are correct, then the rise of posthumans would likely be just another way of destroying human civilization. Our civilization will not be “led through perilous times,” it will be replaced by something new and radically different. One could say that at least then human civilization would have led to something better, rather than simply lying in ruins. But then the next question arises.
2) What makes Walker think that posthuman wisdom and virtue will look like wisdom and virtue to humans? Leaving aside the fact that humans already don’t always agree about what virtue is, we label the things we label virtues because we are the kinds of beings we are. By definition, posthumans will be different kinds of beings. At the very least, why should we expect that we will understand their beneficent intent as such any better than my cat understands I am doing her a favor by not feeding her as much as she would like?
3) Walker suggests we have “almost hit the wall in our capacity for evil.” I hope he is right, but I fear he simply lacks imagination. The existing trajectory of neuroscience, not to speak of how it might be redirected by deliberate efforts to create posthumans, seems to me to open exciting new avenues for pain and degradation along with its helping hand. But be that as it may, I wonder if “destruction of human civilization” is really as bad as it gets. As is clear from discussions that have taken place on Futurisms, for some transhumanists that would hardly be enough: nature itself will have to come under the knife. That kind of deliberate ambition makes an accidental oil spill, or knocking down a few redwood groves, look like shoplifting from a dollar store.
So: human beings have made a hash of things, but since we can imagine godlike beings who might save us we should go ahead and try to create them. We might make a hash of that project, but doing anything else would be as bad or worse. That’s what you call doubling down.
Friday, July 30, 2010
- An article from Reuters on the predictive power of brain scans contains this unintentional gem of a quote: "We are trying to figure out whether there is hidden wisdom that the brain contains."
- Some sobering news for proponents of the view that parents should have the right to engineer their children as they please: The Hastings Center reports that some doctors have begun giving pregnant women steroids that will prevent "abnormalities" in female fetuses — specifically, lesbianism and excessive interest in men's occupations and games.
- Continuing their recent raft of Singularity-related material, The New York Times is publishing a series of articles on artificial intelligence and robotics.
- Wired notes a recent press release on a "thought-controlled in-flight entertainment system" that is unintentionally hilarious in about eight different ways besides just the subject.
- Singularity Hub reports on the premiere in New York of Ray Kurzweil's long-awaited and much-delayed movie, The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future. Shocking revelations: "certain elements created the feel of a cheesy straight-to-DVD movie."
- Echoing a different version of a point I alluded to in my recent Tea Party post, Twitter user jcmmannuel says, "Transhumanism (enhancement of humans through technology) is the delusion of those who gave up on love as the true engine of transformation."
- Update: One more: Slate's Emily Yoffe (aka Dear Prudence) has an informative review of Jonathan Weiner's Long for the World: The Strange Science of Immortality and David Stipp's The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
I think most of us have experienced this feeling at one point in our lives, but it’s interesting to know it can be backed up by science.
How interesting that anyone should think that it is important for one’s feelings to be “validated” in this peculiar way. In the wake of a failed romance, lacking this latest information, would I otherwise be in some kind of doubt that I was miserable? Does a scan of my brain tell me what I am really feeling?
Where do such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs come from?...
Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions. The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state.
...[H]uman subjectivity only emerges through intersubjective relations, and hence how practices of independence, of freedom and autonomy, are held in place and made possible by complementary structures of dependence....
All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved....
The Tea Party rhetoric of taking back the country is no accident: since they repudiate the conditions of dependency that have made their and our lives possible, they can only imagine freedom as a new beginning, starting from scratch.
The whole post is fascinating and, even if it's overwrought, it's worth reading at the level it was intended. But try reading it too as about a certain other movement.
Monday, July 26, 2010
Friday, July 2, 2010
You sound like you actually *like* being trapped in these meat cages. And like you think it’s bad to want to escape a cage that does pretty much nothing except find new ways to hurt and malfunction.
We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.
Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So, also, he who has no why to live cannot bear with almost any how. Walker Percy claims that postmodern man “has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and ... finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.” Singer et al. turn this problem into the explicit question of why we shouldn’t, and when it exposes the gaping vortex of nihilism at the center of their philosophy, they attempt to divert our gaze with posturing of bold discovery and heroic honesty.
Maybe most normal people enjoy their lives to a greater extent than the typical philosopher does. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here. I have unfulfilled desires, but I have also had a great deal of enjoyment. I experience a few minutes of profound joy every morning when my 5 year old gets out of bed, comes to my office, and crawls up into my lap for a still-sleepy hug — and by having her, I’ve made it possible for her to have that joy herself someday if she has a child of her own. This sort of utilitarian, weigh-everything-on-the-scales approach is the worst sort of academic pseudo-philosophical nonsense.
As a philosopher, Dr. Singer is surely aware that the notion that [the] world is getting worse every year has been around among philosophers for a very long time. But out in the real world, people do the millions of things they like to do — from roller skating to playing computer games to solving differential equations to flying hang-gliders ... and many of these things we love to do involve our children.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
One executive sullenly declines to participate in another robot design exercise because no one in his group will consider making a sexbot.
Daniel T. Barry, a Singularity University professor, gives a lecture about the falling cost of robotics technology and how these types of systems are close to entering the home. Dr. Barry, a former astronaut and “Survivor” contestant with an M.D. and a Ph. D., has put his ideas into action. He has a robot at home that can take a pizza from the delivery person, pay for it and carry it into the kitchen. “You have the robot say, ‘Take the 20 and leave the pizza on top of me,’” Dr. Barry says. “I get the pizza about a third of the time.”
Sonia Arrison, a founder of Singularity University and the wife of one of Google’s first employees [and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an H+ board member], spends her days writing a book about longevity, tentatively titled “100 Plus.” It outlines changes that people can expect as life expectancies increase, like 20-year marriages with sunset clauses.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Eventually... there will be no reason to continue with the complications of actual breathing and the burdensome requirement of breathable air everywhere we go. If we find breathing itself pleasurable, we can develop virtual ways of having this sensual experience.
- A quick look at the scientific literature shows that breathing is not simply a respiratory process but, as a function of the autonomic nervous system, is integrally connected to other bodily processes. For example, as yoga instructors have long known, proper breathing is strongly correlated with overall physical wellbeing: labored breathing can contribute to and breathing therapy can alleviate stress and stress-related diseases such as hypertension and blood pressure.
- In a New Atlantis essay from last year, Alan Rubenstein notes that “The activity of breathing demonstrates very nicely how action on the world can be initiated by an organism either deliberately, as in conscious breathing (think yoga, or simply ‘take a deep breath’) or ‘unconscious’ breathing (think breathing while we sleep or, in fact, most of the time that we are awake and not paying attention).”
Further, he writes, “Breathing is an activity of the whole organism, an action taken by the organism, toward the world, and spurred by the organism’s felt need. The body of an animal needs what the world has to give and works constantly in its own interests to obtain it.”
Rubenstein suggests that the absence of an organism’s impulse to breathe, its drive to continue its existence through a basic engagement with its environment, ought to be considered alongside the absence of heartbeat, brain activity, and awareness as one of the basic markers of death.
- For Alexi Murdoch and Radiohead, to remember to breathe is to remember to be grounded in the world, to maintain sense and clarity in the face of confusion, alienation, and suffering. For R.E.M., to stop breathing is to surrender to these forces.
- For Laika, breathing signifies a connection to wind and the seasons, the breath of nature.
- For The Prodigy, Frou Frou, and The Police, to feel the breath of another is to have one’s being wrapped up in theirs. For Telepopmusik, to breathe is to be grounded in the world or taken out of it through another.
- For The Corrs (among many others), to be in awe is to be breathless.
- For Margaret Atwood, to love and be loved, to live for another, is to wish “to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only...to be that unnoticed & that necessary.”
- For Roger Ebert, the feelings we have towards other human beings — as equal or lesser beings — are something we breathe.
- For Geography professor Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, “The real is the familiar daily round, unobtrusive like breathing.”
- For Lydia Peelle, the Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing include a rootedness in existence that allows us the possibility of catching “a glimpse of the infinite.”
- For Walker Percy, breathing is the first force of gravity that grounds a person in his own existence when he attempts to fly away from it entirely through scientific detachment: “I stood outside of the universe and sought to understand it.... The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.”
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
1) The ideas of goodness of the sort we profess to be interested in change over time. This point is undeniable but trivial, unless one adheres dogmatically to the historicism upon which Mr. Munkittrick's chosen areas of study (feminism, science studies, and critical theory) are largely founded.
2) Ideas of goodness have tended to focus on goodness in relation to intelligent, rational adults, and transhumanism merely extends the boundary conditions for these traits, already an ongoing historical tendency. As a claim about the history of moral ideas the first part of this assertion is a simplification, but the characterization of transhumanism in relation to that simplification is, as far as I am concerned, hardly controversial. That is to say, transhumanism reifies some simplified moral ideas. Congratulations!
3) We could debate what is good about Audrey Hepburn. Mr. Munkittrick is writing in response to this post of mine showing a picture of Audrey Hepburn, and the lively comment thread it provoked. About Ms. Hepburn, he writes: “She was a fantastic human being and remains iconic, but why? Is it because she is beautiful? Smart? Kind? A humanitarian? Because she was a great actress? Her fashion sense? She was a smoker, is that good? She had miscarriages, would remedying that situation lessen her? Not only would there be a debate over what actually makes her good, any agreement (say, her fashion) would lead to debates over someone who is better at that aspect (Jackie O, Gaga, Coco Chanel).” While my interest in fashion is minimal, I would enjoy having the kind of debate about what makes a good human being that these questions point to — that’s why I’m blogging at Futurisms. But, as I will note below, I’m not convinced Mr. Munkittrick really wants to join me.
4) Futurisms privileges a “late 20th century version of humanism” and in so doing is “willfully ignorant.” This claim is at least refreshing in comparison with Michael Anissimov’s ongoing effort to winkle out the hidden theological agenda behind this blog. But speaking only for myself, while I admire much of late twentieth-century humanism (mostly those aspects of it rooted in the eighteenth century), I think it could learn a great deal from humanists like Thomas More or Montaigne or Plato. As could transhumanists.
Back to point three. I posted the Hepburn picture to see if it would prompt debate, and it did. Mr. Munkittrick found the result “largely uninteresting.” That’s odd, because the responses in the comments thread certainly touched on the question of “what made her good.” So my speculation is that when Mr. Munkittrick presents a list of questions about “what makes her good,” he is suggesting they have no rational answers, and that when he speaks of debate what he really means is something like: “we could debate it, but what would be the point?” I think that he, like a great many transhumanists, has little interest in understanding human excellence for two reasons. First, because increasing human power — celebration of which is at the core of such “humanism” as transhumanism can reasonably claim — means that human excellence is on its way to being passé. Second, all ideas about human excellence are in any case little more than historically conditioned opinions, also to be molded by increasing human power as we take hold of our own evolution.
In short, wishing that Audrey Hepburn had no miscarriages and hadn’t died might make Mr. Munkittrick a nice guy, but it is hardly evidence that transhumanists are in any serious sense humanists.
Monday, June 21, 2010
A rushed conference
Organization of the talks
The human transhumanist
Charles T. Rubin, New Atlantis contributing editor.
Adam Keiper, New Atlantis editor.
Ari N. Schulman, New Atlantis senior editor.
Brendan Foht, New Atlantis assistant editor.
Mark Gubrud, Futurisms contributor.
- Machine Morality and Human Responsibility
- Beyond Mankind
- Why Be Human?
- Our Bodies, Ourselves
- The Rhetoric of Extinction
- Man or Machine?
- Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature
by Adam Keiper and Ari N. Schulman
- Humanism and Transhumanism (Fred Baumann)
- The Trouble with the Turing Test (Mark Halpern)
- Disenchanting Determinism (Caitrin Nicol)
- The Anti-Theology of the Body (David B. Hart)
- Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls (Leon R. Kass)
- Transitional Humanity (Gilbert Meilaender)
- Till Malfunction Do Us Part (Caitrin Nicol)
- Methuselah and Us (Diana Schaub)
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