Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rudolph, the Racism Reindeer

My apologies if this puts some coal in your stocking on Christmas Eve, but among the many wonderful tunes sung and played at Christmastime (the beautiful, transportive instrumental album Dulcimer Christmas comes highly recommended by yours truly), there is one that has never sat well with me: the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There have been various versions of it over the years — most notably the original 1939 booklet produced by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward, and the 1964 stop-motion animation film (Snopes has a great overview of the history) — but if you recall, the most famous version of all is of course the 1949 Johnny Marks song, sung since by millions and millions of children.

The song leaves a lot of important questions unanswered, but what is there paints a pretty unsettling picture. Rudolph is a physically deformed young buck who is mocked and ostracized by his reindeer peers for looking different. They never let him join in any of their reindeer games; alack, poor Rudolph.

Eventually, it turns out that Rudolph’s deformity, a shiny red nose — so shiny, in fact, that one could even describe it as luminous — comes in handy (nosey?) during a particularly low-visibility Christmas Eve. Santa calls upon our snubbed protagonist, who, owing to his unique feature, is able to save the day. It is then (only then!) that all the reindeer love him.

I ask you, gentle reader: what kind of message is this sending to our children?

Rudolph’s predicament of feeling different, excluded, and unable to fit in is something many kids must be able to relate to — and I think many parents assume the story has a positive message to tell them. But what are we to take away from the way Rudolph’s predicament is resolved?

The conclusion to the story is ostensibly redemptive; but is it because the young reindeer come to empathize with the suffering they have inflicted on Rudolph, accepting him into society when they realize the inherent wrongness of their bigotry? No. At least in the song — I understand that the 1964 movie version tells the story quite differently — things only turn around for Rudolph when the thing that makes him abnormal happens to be also very valuable, and moreover, valuable in a way that is recognized as valuable by others.

Rudolph, in other words, becomes accepted because he is lucky. There is an optimistic way we can read the story: Rudolph’s shiny nose stands for the inner light that shines in each of us, through each of our unique and special attributes, waiting for the proper opportunity to finally become visible to others. Rudolph gains acceptance when his fellows realize not only that he is excellent in spite of being different, but excellent because of his difference. So, too, can each of us find ways to make the things that make us different become recognizable to others as displaying our unique worth. Perhaps there is even an excellence — a process of, in the parlance of our times, actualization or of finding the self — in learning how to make our unique worth recognizable to others.

This question about the wisdom of the message of “Rudolph” points to a larger tension in our culture — one that was probably at its most apparent at the height of the P.C. era of the 1980s and 1990s, but that has been with us as long as we have been struggling to achieve civil rights and secure liberal democracy: are we supposed to rally around the motto that “everybody’s equal,” or is it that “everybody’s different”? Égalité or diversity? The former is very easily warped into the ludicrous and harmful “everybody’s the same” (a suggestion that has been brilliantly spoofed by Stephen Colbert’s repeated insistence that he literally “can’t see race”). And the latter is a notoriously tricky, somewhat fuzzy, and often challenged concept.

One problem with the notion that “everybody’s the same” is that it papers over the great diversity of ways that people can be excellent and valuable. There is a potential wisdom in the message of “Rudolph” worth underlining: it teaches us that excellence often must be demonstrated in deeds. It celebrates that there are many ways we can be remarkable, and teaches us the virtue in striving to find them and show them. In other words, it tells kids that if they are different and don’t fit in, then they just need to find ways to prove everyone wrong by showing just how great they can be in their difference.

But the problem with this message is that many of the things that make us different from each other are not easily recognizable as great, particularly by the people we want to accept us. When the next mutant reindeer comes along, perhaps with a lump of coal for a nose instead of a light bulb, will the other reindeer have learned their lesson about acceptance and immediately let him join their reindeer games? I suspect that the coal-nosed reindeer too will have to struggle to show the specialness of his difference, and may well never find a way to fit in as well as Rudolph has.

For better or worse, the “Rudolph” song paints an honest picture of how equality and acceptance tends to be won in our own society. Black civil rights probably gained as much from the achievements of jazz, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson as from philosophical appeals to inherent human equality — as much, even, from the personages and deeds of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were making those philosophical appeals, as from their words.

Of course, the notions of diversity and equality are bound up with one another. Our acceptance of people’s differences is tied to our expansion of equality — the realization that a person who is different from us is still equally a human being, and equally deserving of the rights and respect accorded to human beings. We still, that is, believe that equality comes not from what a person can do but from what he or she is.

And this is where the transhumanists come in. Transhumanists call for the proliferation of new posthuman forms; they celebrate diversity and tolerance; and they seek to smash such “-isms” as “speciesism,” acting, as we have noted, as if they are in fact the modern successors to the civil rights movement. But in avowedly rejecting the human, the transhumanists also reject, at least implicitly, our underlying human equality. And once we refuse to recognize our underlying equality, as poor Rudolph discovered, the best way we have left to get at what we are is through what we do.

Yet there are many people who already cannot do as much as most — the very young, the very old, the sick, and the disabled — who thus cannot easily demonstrate their worth in deeds. Consequently, philosophers like Peter Singer already declare that many of these groups should not be treated or defended as people at all. (It is not an accident or a quirky footnote of utilitarian belief that Singer defends killing infants and Alzheimer’s patients — including perhaps even his own mother.) And transhumanists, for all of their self-congratulatory tolerance, are either indifferent to or repulsed by these groups. (Or perhaps, charitably, they are repulsed for them, on their behalf.)

If these obviously human groups are already having trouble being recognized as people, how will they — and the rest of us — fare in the posthuman age? For while Rudolph was lucky to have his difference make him excellent in a way that was recognizable to others, the posthuman age will be defined by the dissolution of any shared notions of who we are and what is valuable about us. One of the new sorts of beings may be great in some way that is totally unrecognizable to the many other new sorts of beings. It may no longer be just the weakest human beings who will have trouble making the case for their worth in a way that others will understand.

“Rights,” “equality,” and “tolerance” may well lose their meaning in such a world. If that happens, you’d better make sure your bright-red nose can shoot lasers beams too.

[Images: The 1964 stop-motion film; diversity according to Fairfax County; Frederick Douglass; "speciesism" according to Flickr user thinkvegan; the 1998 animated film.]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A vision of the future

I think I have mentioned before in this space that I’d be more than happy if mankind can achieve a Firefly-style future. Here, via Gizmodo, is another vision of things to come that I would happily endorse:

[Video permalink here.]

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Progress in Robotics and AI: The Coming Demise of “Jeopardy”

With some irony, I expect, Gizmodo gave the following headline to a story this week about a rudimentary sprinting robot: “Someday, this robot will run faster than us all.” This week also brings the news that in a couple of months we will have a chance to see if IBM has made a champion artificially-intelligent Jeopardy player. I for one do not doubt that eventually, robots — maybe even the same robot — will be able to run faster than us all and win at Jeopardy and cook my dinner or at least provide me with a recipe that will use all the stray leftovers in my refrigerator. And then what will AI and robotics researchers do?

A hint to answering this question can be found by going to the IBM Research home page and putting in the search term “Deep Blue,” the name of the company’s chess-playing computer that famously beat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. The first results take you to what seem to be orphaned Web pages from 1997. Eventually you reach a page that acknowledges that the team has moved on to other projects. So too with the MIT Media Lab Personal Robotics Group which abounds in aspirational descriptions and videos, but seems short on actual results that conform to those aspirations. Has the teddy-bear robot called “Huggable” in fact been turned, as its makers expected, into a communication avatar, an early education companion, or a therapeutic companion? One would be hard-pressed to know.

My guess is that graduate students graduate and funding opportunities change. And some questions get answered, or perhaps not; in either case researchers move on, maybe building on what they have done, maybe moving in a new direction entirely. Doubtless, as in any other kind of research, there are times when the results have a nearly immediate impact in the wider world, or eventually get filtered into products and processes that we come to take for granted. But in these academic fields, as in all others, it looks to me like a good deal of what gets done amounts to lines, sometimes very expensive lines, on a C.V.

For those of us who observe this world from the outside, knowing it works this way provides two cautionary lessons. First, there is not necessarily a great idea or accomplishment behind every great-sounding press release or polished website. No surprise there, I hope. Second, it usually takes some time to judge the full impact of the new knowledge and abilities that we gain in these kinds of research programs. If IBM’s “Watson” program wins its Jeopardy match, we will doubtless be treated to a good deal of speculation about what it means — I might be tempted to engage in some myself. But the best response will still probably be that we can only wait and see. That’s good, because time is a useful thing for us slow-thinking humans. But it is also problematic, as the frog in the slowly warming pan of water eventually finds out.

[Photo via MGM Television via Curt Alliaume.]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"What it Means for Society to Drastically Prolong Life" (panel two)

The second panel at today's conference was called "Happily Ever After? What it Means for Society to Drastically Prolong Life." The first speaker was Ted Fishman, author of the concisely-titled book Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation. The title actually tells you a lot about his talk, which seemed remarkably level-headed and even-handed for this conference.

Fishman didn't seem to have a dog in this fight, but just noted that life extension could play out a number of different ways, some rather good and others quite horrific. He worries in particular about social engineering projects, noting in particular that the Chinese went from encouraging families to have ten children under Mao to the notorious one-child policy. Fishman made this observation about global conflict: "If we think about the fight people are already willing to put up over the life they have, imagine if we were fighting to preserve much longer lives." I haven't read Fishman's book, but after his brief talk, I'm very interested to do so.

Many of the conference speakers commented on how the population is aging at a staggering rate, with the fraction of the population over age 65 increasing from less than a tenth a few decades ago to the territory of a quarter or a third in the near future. Which reminds me of a perennial, basic problem for transhumanists and proponents of radical life extension: ostensibly, they should be celebrating this great gain in long life. Yet their ideology is, almost without exception, based upon a fetishization of youth and a loathing of old age. There's a weird sense in which getting closer to their goal actually gets them further away. Which may be part of why today, at the greatest point for longevity in human history, we have a conference panel that refers to a "war on dying" and a "battle against aging." As I've noted before, transhumanists paradoxically are only likely to feel more desperate and more martial as they get more of what they want. One wonders what they are liable to do as that sense of desperation increases.

Ted Fishman and Jason Furman.

Speaking next was Jason Furman, Deputy Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. He gave a wonky, mile-high analysis, and noted among other things that the Obama administration's entire contingency plans for what we would do if the population started living to 150 or 200 consists entirely of Furman's own thoughts on this in preparing for the conference over the last few days. I think I actually find this more reassuring than not.

Next up was S. Jay Olshansky, a demographer, frequent commentator on aging issues, and professor of epidemiology at UI-Chicago. Olshansky said that with life expectancy, you reach a point of diminishing returns: when you keep putting in the same amount of effort, you get less and less for it, which is why we've been stuck with life expectancy in the 75/80 range for a while. He noted that even if we completely cure cancer, we would only gain 3-3.5 years in life expectancy; for heart disease, 4 years; for both together, less than the combined 7 years.

Life extension should not be our goal, Olshansky argued; health extension should be. If we radically extend life, we may push into the region of life spans where we see types of ailments and degenerative diseases that are far worse than we've seen today. We may get to a point, that is, where the tradeoff is worse. But if we delay the aging mechanisms entirely, our situation could be much better: a three-year delay in the biological onset of aging would be the equivalent to curing cancer. And he thinks a seven-year delay is possible. Olshansky's presentation seemed to be the most sensible, levelheaded, practical-minded one here — although I am skeptical about the notion that we will find horrible new degenerative diseases if we push up the life span, unless it's well past the range that many people are already living now.

After Olshansky, Arizona State University professor Jason Robert (pronounced ro-BAIR) gave a weirdly rambling exposé of how he recently lost a hundred pounds, won $4,000 at a slot machine, and bought a sweet bike. (I'm not making this up. I have no idea what the connection to anything was, though he tried to explain it later.) Robert offered a whirlwind tour of the potential ethical issues related to radical life extension — changes in the social structure chiefly, changes in distributive justice, and changes in human flourishing. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have time enough to really go into any of these issues.

In his presentation, Robert divided the bioethics world into shiny-eyed bio-libertarians, naming Ron Bailey as an example, and set up quite a pair of straw men in Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass as bio-Luddites who don't like any technology. These are caricatures of all three men. But Robert offered these caricatures so he could set himself up as the reasonable moderate, offering a "liberal" approach, whereby people can get together to discuss different understandings of the good, and how those understandings should lead us to develop new technologies. Which is in fact just the idea behind Leon Kass's approach (and, I think, is implicit in Fukuyama's and Bailey's expressions of their own ideas of the good).

The Q&A session following this panel was mostly unremarkable, except for one speech by Jay Olshansky. He said he was very disturbed by a conversation he was part of the evening before the conference — a conversation among the panelists over dinner last night. As Olshansky related it, talk of life extension and aging populations very quickly gave way to talk of health-care rationing and killing off the elderly to make way for the young. He didn't name names, and nobody stepped up to confirm or refute what he said — in fact, it wasn't mentioned again.

NIH director Francis Collins had to go testify on Capitol Hill, so the keynote presentation was canceled. So that's all she wrote. For some alternate coverage, delivered with more of an air of neutrality and picking up on various details I missed, check out James Hughes's post on the conference.

The War on Dying, the Battle Against Aging (panel one)

The first panel today is on the science of life extension, with a typically crisis-laden title, "The War on Dying, the Battle Against Aging." (And a heated exchange ensues toward the end of the panel — don't flip that dial.) The first two speakers, Cynthia Kenyon of UCSF (revealingly profiled here) and Ana Maria Cuervo of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, are researchers. They share some familiar anecdotes about the biology of aging: tapeworms whose lifespans were extended several times over by flipping a couple genes, and so forth.

Aubrey de Grey and Ana Maria Cuervo.

One interesting experimental result I hadn't heard before is that if you attach an old, infirm mouse to a young, healthy mouse and then inflict a bruise on the healthy mouse (it must be something to sit around thinking up the idea to do this sort of thing), the old mouse will heal much faster than if the young mouse didn't have the wound. The panelist describing this says that this shows that "external interventions can have a great effect on the body." This seems like a strange way of putting it, since the "external" intervention is in fact the internal workings of another organism's body.

Stephen Johnston of Arizona State's Biodesign Institute seems at first to be the voice of reason in this setting: he talks about approaching aging from the standpoint of disease and detecting and treating early chronic diseases. He offers have a practical, clinical perspective on life extension, noting his initial trepidation about the title of the conference, because "I've known a lot of radicals that I'm not sure I'd want to extend their life." (Um, don't look to your left, Mr. Johnston, where Aubrey de Grey sits.)

But soon enough Johnston starts heading into transhumanist territory, saying we'll be melding with robots and computers and increasingly turning ourselves into them. After all, he says, we already have mechanical implants, and "computers already have the computing capacity of our brains." Ooof. I imagine quite a few people here will believe that because he's speaking with an air of scientific authority, but let me just note that this claim is well outside his field. Indeed, let me go further, and knock it down outright: we don't know how to define the whole function of the brain as a computer, and so we can't define the brain's "computing capacity" generally. All we can do is compare its performance on particular computational tasks, like adding. This is why computers can perform many sorts of tasks billions of times faster than us, but there are many other tasks we can do that they can't even perform at all, because we don't know how to define them computationally. Apples and oranges, folks, certainly for the time being.

Next up, and given the largest speaking slot, is Aubrey de Grey, the aging researcher and activist. He says that radical life extension is a turn-off to a lot of people, "especially people on Capitol Hill," because they imagine it as people getting old and extending the frail and infirmed portion of their life indefinitely. This is a pretty old understanding of radical life extension (Jonathan Swift depicts it this way in Gulliver's Travels), though I think he's also alluding to the problems life extension would potentially pose (and has already posed) for our social and health care systems. De Grey is right, of course, to push back against the idea that life extension would have to occur that way. But it doesn't seem at all apparent that it necessarily wouldn't; he's just saying that it won't because life-extensionists are trying to prevent that outcome. But the current explosion of chronic and degenerative diseases as life spans increase isn't hugely supportive of his assertion. Radical life extension, as de Grey well knows, will have to take a form very different from just continuing the life extension we've seen so far.

At the end of the panel, Cynthia Kenyon throws some cold water on the anecdotes from the beginning about tapeworms, noting that the same interventions have not produced nearly as dramatic results in mice, and seem to be even less powerful in more complex organisms such as humans — though Kenyon seems also to be setting up how little we know and have tried as reason for optimism about what new interventions we could find. Aubrey de Grey agrees that "the combinatorial approach [flipping genes] rapidly approaches diminishing returns."

From left to right, Cynthia Kenyon, Stephen Johnston, a questioner (obscuring Ana Maria Cuervo), and moderator Emily Yoffe.

And now for the juicy, tabloid coverage of the conference you've all been waiting for: Near the end of the Q&A session, a little spat broke out between Stephen Johnston and Cynthia Kenyon over NIH funding and whether research projects need to have a specific, practical, and easily politically justifiable aim, or whether open and "pure" research should remain funded. Kenyon placed herself on the moral high ground of defending pure research, comparing Johnston to the infamous head of the U.S. Patent Office in the nineteenth century who supposedly declared that everything that could be invented had been (actually an apocryphal story). But it wasn't clear to me that Johnston was making the point Kenyon imputed to him. I'll have to watch the video again later, but it was a weird, rude little spat.

(Dear Prudence: I'm moderating a national conference and two of my panelists keep yelling at each other and accusing each other of philistinism. Do I let them duke it out over a live feed? Signed, Moderately Befuddled. [Actually, moderator Emily Yoffe, Slate's "Dear Prudence" columnist, wisely and adroitly headed off the exchange and moved on to the next question.])

Fireworks aside, it's been pointed out to me that the most entertaining part of this panel is watching Aubrey de Grey play with his beard — and watching the other panelists watch him.

Never Say Die! (an event)

Today I'm at a conference in Washington, DC, called "Never Say Die: A Future Tense Event," held at the New America Foundation (NAF) and hosted by NAF and Arizona State University, with Slate as a media partner. (The link above has a live feed of the conference.) Among the speakers and panelists scheduled today are Aubrey de Grey, the life-extension researcher and advocate, Ted Fishman, author of Shock of Gray, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Slate is providing two moderators, in the persons of Will Saletan and Emily Yoffe (a.k.a. Dear Prudence). I'll be providing bloggy coverage.

Here's the description of the conference:

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

Calling All Monoliths

Back in the eighteenth century, there was a good deal of interest in creating automata, and, like today, it signaled a shifting understanding of the human. Two major tech blogs have recently featured a couple of such projects coming out of Japan. I know between little and nothing about the technical strengths and weaknesses of these robots, or the purposes they are designed to serve. But as an outside observer, I found the contrast between them, and the reactions to them, instructive.

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!

Or perhaps, on that ever-so-desirable third hand, these robots represent transitional forms in a process of making us comfortable working with our evolutionary successors. If transhumanists think we can climb out of the uncanny valley and create robots only an expert can appreciate as such (as in Blade Runner), they might consider those robots to be something like our monolith-transformed hominid ancestors in the opening sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like those apes who haven’t seen the monolith, the humans living among these familiar looking beings may not appreciate the extent to which they are witnessing the dawn of some very new age — and as a result might soon get their heads bashed in. But I forgot — we will develop friendly AI.

The Dawn of Man

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Immortality: timeless truths, or enshrined experiences?

I’m a little surprised that in their big-tent quest for legitimacy, transhumanists have not claimed Aristotle as one of their own. Towards the end of his Nichomachean Ethics he writes (in Joe Sachs’s translation): “But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view to living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself.” Take that, anthropocentric Futurisms bloggers!

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer [Wikimedia Commons]
In fact, the difference between what Aristotle and our modern-day advocates have in mind by “being immortal” is instructive. For Aristotle, the philosopher aspires to immortality through thinking the eternal verities that make the world, otherwise a world of flux, what it is. For the transhumanist, the scientist and the engineer are asked to extend our ability to experience flux, to become for ever longer intervals, and to become what we have never before been. For Aristotle, the human being who uses his reason to “be immortal” in his sense is employing to the greatest possible extent the special ability that makes him human. For the transhumanist, reason makes us immortal by abandonment of our humanity.

What these otherwise contrary visions of immortality share is that in both of them, the I that so desperately does not wish to die is lost, but I rather think that in Aristotle there is less bait and switch on this point. Ur-transhumanist Hans Moravec acknowledged long ago that, contrary to the appearance of uploading a mind into some more durable instantiation, the consequent ability to upgrade would mean that the original I would not persist with machine immortality, except perhaps as some long-irrelevant backup copy. Since Moravec first made that argument, this near necessity has been turned into a virtue — so that transhumanism, as my previous post suggested, promises a succession of new me’s endlessly riding new waves of technological possibility. The Aristotelian lover of wisdom, on the other hand, is successful to the extent that he can overcome the din of just such passionate and restless desires, so the quest for such immortality as we can have and the taming of the ego go hand in hand.

To put the difference another way, I associate Aristotelian immortality with an attempt to achieve a life of coherent and rational meaning, whereas transhumanism is looking to extend indefinitely the ability to have whatever experiences are desired. Perhaps that quest helps explain the growing fascination among our techno-elite (by no means all transhumanists) with finding ways to record and preserve the minutiae of everyday life. These are mere details if one sees life as having a meaningful pattern, direction or purpose. Without this perception, the transitory is all there is, and immortality is enshrinement of one damn thing after another.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

“What were we thinking?”

Largely adopting the same tone of shocked superiority, both Gizmodo and Boing Boing have featured the following picture of a Victorian/Edwardian-era prosthetic arm:

A century or so is not so long even in the scheme of human history, and in that short space of time there have surely been huge changes in design ability and sensibility across a wide range of technologies, with fashion and capacity alike playing roles. Yet while we certainly can understand the material constraints that would have led to creating a prosthesis along these lines, we are apparently still left with a sense of “what were they thinking”?

Now consider the following portraits from the same era by the great John Singer Sargent. The first, from 1897, is of Mrs. George Swinton:

Nobody may dress like this anymore, but the sense of bored or slightly impatient, self-satisfied superiority in the language of her body and her face is instantly recognizable. Or consider this later portrait (1906) of Maud Coats, no less than the Duchess of Wellington:

It’s reasonably obvious to me, anyway, that she must have been quite a hoot: the ironic but not unfriendly smile on her lips and in her eyes, the determined conformation of her left hand and arm. She can barely bring herself to grasp the clichéd white rose she has been given.

We might not all see exactly the same thing when we look at Singer’s portraits, but they are not oddly mysterious in the way that the prosthetic arm is. Which suggests to me one of the great problems hidden within transhumanist aspirations: If our minds and bodies are to be increasingly technological artifacts, then should we not expect that transhumans will have as little understanding for each other, and for their own pasts — both collective and personal — as we have for that arm? Human solidarity can extend back for hundreds, even thousands of years, based on the continuities of human nature; but in a fast-paced world hurtling towards the Singularity, a world in which the fads of fashion and design seek to replace the unvarying aspects of human nature, it seems likely that transhumans will much more regularly find themselves saying, “What were we thinking?”

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Blending of Humans and Robots

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

Destroying Civilization in Order to Save It

Mark Walker recently wrote an interesting piece over at The Global Spiral suggesting that when it comes to preventing the extinction of civilization, transhumanism is the best of the bad options we have. He frames the problem in a familiar way: the democratization of existential risks. As things are going now, more and more people will become capable of doing greater and greater harm, particularly via biotechnology. But if business as usual is in effect the problem, relinquishment of the knowledge and tools to do such harm would require draconian measures that hardly seem plausible. Transhumanism, while risky, is less risky than either of these courses of action because “posthumans probably won’t have much more capacity for evil than we have, or are likely to have shortly.” That is to say, once you can already destroy civilization, how much worse can it get? Creating beings who are “smarter and more virtuous than we are” has a greater chance for an upside, as “the brightest and most virtuous” would be “the best candidates amongst us to lead civilization through such perilous times.”

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

Link roundup

(h/t: Caitrin Nicol, Elana Clift-Reaves)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brain Scans and Broken Hearts

Over at Boing Boing, Lisa Katayama reports on the latest neuroscience on romantic breakups. I’m not going to comment on the report itself, but rather her take on it:

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?

Tea Partying Transhumanists?

The New York Times published last month an intriguing exploration by New School professor J. M. Bernstein of the philosophical underpinnings of the Tea Party movement. Does this analysis remind you of any other movement?:

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

Are "Hostile Wives" Too Cool Toward Science?

I recently reviewed Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. I note the shallowness of those science-policy arguments that pretend that the issues — like embryo-destructive stem cell research, or proposals to mitigate climate change — are purely scientific and that disagreement over them results chiefly from differing literacy in and enthusiasm for science.

Transhumanism, of course, has inherited much from the ideologies that spawned this scientism, and so falls prey to it as well. Consider a recent example from that reliably credulous disseminator of scientistic tropes, Michael Anissimov.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a feature article on the men who want their heads chopped off and frozen when they die, the women who love them, and the marital strife that results when they both keep at it. Attacks of spousal common sense are, of course, a barrier to icy immortality, and so cryonicists safely package them up and stick them on a shelf with the label “hostile-wife phenomenon.” The article explores the bizarre and often sad features of romantic relationships of cryonicists, and focuses on one couple in particular, prominent transhumanist Robin Hanson and his wife Peggy Jackson, who happens to be a hospice worker.

Anissimov, writing about the Times article, bundles up “hostile-wife phenomenon” even more neatly: “My explanation for the phenomenon is pretty simple: gender differences in enthusiasm towards science.” Okay, but “enthusiasm for science” — if we do truly just mean science — means enthusiasm for empirical facts and the discovery and understanding of them. But the article makes it sound as if Ms. Jackson is as curious and intelligent as her husband, and as well-informed of the empirical facts of cryonics. How can her differing enthusiasm for cryonics then be a matter of differing enthusiasm for science? Might there be something else at stake?

As the article notes, her hostility to the idea is “rooted less in scientific skepticism than in her personal judgments about the quest for immortality.” It continues, “Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness.” “[T]o be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning.” Indeed, lending some support to her judgment, the article notes that Robert Ettinger, the father of cryonics, advised his followers in the late 1960s, “Divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.”

Ms. Jackson’s level of enthusiasm for science itself can’t explain her differing judgment from her husband on the good and bad of cryonics.

(In fact, notably and rather hilariously, the first commenter on Anissimov’s post was Robin Hanson himself, and, though he falls for the same trope, he does so by way of succinctly countering Anissimov’s argument: “Women are actually more enthusiastic about most medicine than men. Women go to the doc more often, and push men to go more often than men push women. So this isn’t about women not being as pro science.”)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Transhumanist Resentment Watch II: Breathing, Ctd.

[A continuation of our Resentment Watch series.]

In my last post, I described the anti-humanism of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, who more than rhetorically ask the question of whether humans should exist. While I don’t believe (as, say, Wesley J. Smith does) that Singer’s anti-humanism is now characteristic of the West in general, Singer’s apparent loathing of human existence in all of its supposed misery is at least shared by many transhumanists.

The discussion thread for a recent post here exploring the full human phenomenon of breathing illuminates the point. Commenter IronKlara says,
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.
It’s hard to see how we could contrive new good things outside our “cages” if all we know is inside them and all that’s inside them is bad.

Similarly, commenter Jonathan is concerned about “the loss of life (particularly infant life) that cerebral hypoxia causes each year,” invoking a utilitarian calculus to claim that “the good of preventing an infant death outweighs the good of those joys of breathing to which Schulman refers.” Commenter tlcraig, whose comments on this thread are smart and funny, aptly asks, “How does this help me to decide whether being without breathing would be a better way for me to be?” Not only does it evade the central question, but if you tease out Jonathan’s comment, it amounts to claiming that if I like breathing, I support allowing infants to die, which veers into South Park farcical political ad territory (“If you support this, you hate children. You don’t hate children ... do you?”).

To put it mildly, of course, the “breathing versus dead infants” idea is what they call a “false choice,” and one that, aside from its odiousness, manages to put the problem precisely backwards. If there are infants with cerebral hypoxia, or anyone with any sort of hypoxia for that matter, the problem is that they have a fundamental need they are unable to meet, and that we should focus our medical efforts on helping them meet it. The commenter seems to be saying, however, that if someone has trouble breathing, then instead of eliminating the trouble, we should eliminate the breathing.

Okay, but what’s left over once we do — particularly if we consistently apply this standard of eliminating rather than fulfilling needs? One would have to say we should do away with arms because some babies are born without them, and do away with sight to accommodate the blind. For that matter, if this idea is really fully and consistently applied, one would have to say we should eliminate all needs, and do away with life, because so much death results from it. And so at the root of this utilitarian transhumanist argument we find the same anti-humanism as we did at the core of Singer’s: the ostensible concern for eliminating suffering hollows out our understanding for why we should even be alive. Rather than maintaining aspects of our humanity like breathing, it’s the whittling away of everything that is essentially human from our self-understanding that poses the real threat to our existence.

Peter Singer's utilitarianism increases human suffering

They told you life is hard, Misery from the start, It's dull, it's slow, it's painful. But I tell you life is sweet In spite of the misery There's so much more, be grateful. -Natalie Merchant
Peter Singer recently published a New York Times blog post seriously posing the question of whether the human race should allow itself to go extinct. Most of the post is built around the arguments of philosophy professor David Benatar, author of the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Singer writes:
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.
There is a simple riposte, of course, to anyone seriously claiming we should not exist: one simply need note that no rational being is capable of posing such a claim, for once he believes it, if he is fully consistent in his conclusions and convictions, he should immediately kill himself, and so never have the opportunity to communicate the argument. Of course, I’m not suggesting that extreme utilitarian philosophers should kill themselves (though one could consider their existence as a special sort of suffering), and the fact that they don’t do so should be the first indication that something is amiss in their arguments. They live, like the rest of us, based on the notion that their lives are worth living, even though they are uniquely incapable of understanding that they are and why.

Even the most hardcore of evolutionary psychologists can agree with the notion that an organism that has lost the will and drive to continue its own existence is deeply sick — indeed, not just sick, but suffering from sickness. And it is a sickness of the highest degree, overwhelming as it does the most fundamental imperative of any organism or rational being: to exist, to maintain the prior condition for any state of goodness, joy, or wellbeing. We consider this true for animals so ill they have ceased to eat; and we consider it even truer for human beings who are suicidal: over and above whatever suffering has caused their state, we understand the state of not wanting to live to be itself a profound form of suffering — literally, the deepest form of existential despair.

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.

What we risk suffering from most deeply is not the physical anguish that concerns the utilitarians, but the very existential despair they so eagerly prescribe. By defining the value of our lives as simply the absence of physical suffering, philosophers like Singer may actually markedly increase human suffering. Not only does their philosophy provide an active reason for people to be suicidal, but it commits extreme utilitarians to arguing that the profound suffering of being suicidal is itself good reason for the suicidal to go ahead and commit suicide. (Notably, I know of no utilitarian philosophers who have had sufficient confidence in their convictions to openly advance such an argument.)

It is indeed a profound loathing for most of human existence that undergirds Singer’s philosophy. At the end of his post, he poses the question to the readers, “Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?” Though Singer allows, both here and in the conclusion to his post, that life is under the right circumstances worth living — presumably, under circumstances similar to his own — it is apparently taken for granted in this question that life is not worth living for people in undeveloped nations. And it must be even more taken for granted that life was not worth living for the thousands of generations of ancestors to whom we owe our own (at last potentially worthwhile) existences. Posterity, then — the accumulated infliction of the suffering of existence by each generation on the next — must be an injustice of unthinkable proportions.

It is in this understanding of the meaning of posterity, of course, that Singer most profoundly misses the worth of life, as available to today’s poor and to our impoverished ancestors as it is to affluent college professors. As a commenter on the Singer post, Pierce Moffett, puts it:
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

The Singularity is Near the New York Times

In case you missed it, the New York Times recently published a front-page (ask your parents) business-section article on the Singularity. The article is actually remarkably unremarkable. It narrowly explores Kurzweil and the Singularity University, but it's pretty credulous and uninformative. Science writer John Horgan more or less accurately characterizes it as an "enormous puff piece." It's notable mostly just because it's a lengthy piece in such a prominent venue; conferencegoers mentioned it frequently and with excitement at the recent H+ Summit at Harvard, just because it was a piece in the Times.

But there were a couple wonderful anecdotes in the article, such as:
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.”
Macaulay Culkin had better luck with this sort of thing in Home Alone with a VCR (ask your parents again).

And here's one that's just sad on several levels:
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.
Sunset indeed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Humanity’s Last Breath

In Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 tome The Singularity is Near, he has a section rebutting what he calls “the criticism from holism” — the idea that “machines are organized as rigidly structured hierarchies of modules, whereas biology is based on holistically organized elements in which every element affects every other.” His response is that “It’s true that biological design represents a profound set of principles ... [but] there is nothing that restricts nonbiological systems from harnessing the emergent properties of the patterns found in the biological world.”

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Kurzweil is correct in claiming that all of the phenomena of the human being can be replicated on machines. Let’s instead consider a different proposition: that the transhumanist understanding of humans is by its nature shallow and incomplete — in particular, its methodology blinds them to aspects of human nature only apparent when the human being is considered as a whole, and in relation to society, culture, and environment. If so, then transhumanists are not able to recognize many of the defining characteristics of that “pattern” known as the human being, and so by their approach won’t be able to fully replicate and modify us — even if such a feat is in principle possible.

Kurzweil’s description of the replacement of the human circulatory and respiratory systems perfectly exemplifies this myopic methodology. Kurzweil notes what impressive “machines” the heart and lungs are but highlights their vulnerability to failure, and argues that we can replace them with machines that perform the same functions but with much greater efficiency and reliability. Soon a runner might only need to take a single breath to sprint a mile, and
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.

This argument gets to the heart (a phrase that may lose its meaning if this scheme is carried out) of the transhumanist approach to the human being as a sort primitive production economy just waiting for its own Henry Ford to break it into processes fit for assembly lines. At first blush (another phrase that draws its meaning from human respiration and circulation) the approach seems sensible enough, particularly in a case like this: breathing is simply a bodily function for providing oxygen for respiration, with the apparent epiphenomenon of a pleasurable sensation. Why not separate the two, maximizing both by making the respiratory function more efficient, and the respiratory sensation more pure and not dependent on the function?

But since Kurzweil here at least implicitly claims to be interested in replicating and improving all of the “patterns” of human existence, his scheme for replicating breathing should capture all of its goods before it sets about improving them. So let’s take a look at how his ostensibly complete account of breathing stacks up against other commonly available accounts.

Just to name a few:
  • 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.”
Just to name a few.

One may dismiss some of these understandings of breathing as unreal or unimportant. But if any of these aspects are deemed integral to our experience, it must be noted that none will survive the transhumanist decomposition of the human in general and breathing in particular into function and sensation. Just in the attempt to isolate the respiratory function of breathing, the place of breathing within the whole human body — its autonomic connections to other bodily functions — will make the task of decomposition far more practically difficult than its proponents suggest. But that’s only part of the picture.

In the basic act of breathing, there is not simply a feeling of pleasure and a co-incidental act of sustenance, but a feeling of pleasure as an act of sustenance. The sensation of rhythmed breathing during a long jog, or gasping for breath after surfacing from the bottom of a river, is not simply a feeling of pleasure as pleasure, like eating a sweet dessert, but the feeling that comes from the being’s act of sustaining its own life. No matter how accurate a virtual simulation of breathing, the sensation when divorced from function can never be the full phenomenon, the phenomenon of breathing as the act of a being working for its existence from the surrounding world. None of the other aspects of breathing — its connection to love, to spirit, to nature, to the experience of being — could survive either.

Transhumanists find the relationships between the various components of human existence quixotic, and best to ignore. It’s easy to pick us apart, and so, they assume, it must be to put us together — so even when it comes to a feature of our existence as basic as breathing, they cannot grasp that there might be some purposeful relationship worth preserving between what it is, what it is like, and what it is for. Transhumanists may succeed in making us into some new being, but it will be one bereft of all the everyday depths of experience to which they are now so blind.

[Image credit: "breathe" by deviantart user sibayak.]

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Futurisms and ideas of goodness and human excellence

In a recent post over on his Pop Transhumanism blog, Kyle Munkittrick makes four points against what we do here at Futurisms. A few quick responses:

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

Final thoughts on the H+ Summit

Well, so much for liveblogging, but I wanted to share some final thoughts on the H+ Summit at Harvard that I recently attended.

A rushed conference

The lineup at the summit included several dozen presenters over the course of two days, most given only ten minutes to speak. As a result, almost all of the talks felt rushed. Also, most of the speakers seemed rather unpracticed, and few were very focused or informative. There didn’t seem to be much of an overarching structure or purpose to the conference, and its “citizen scientist” theme ended up barely a footnote. There was both too much and too little going on to really engage the audience’s attention.

Whereas last year’s Singularity Summit had a clear eye towards grandeur and popularization, with better organization, longer, more focused lectures and a stronger sense of audience-presenter relationship, the H+ Summit had a very collegiate feel. While this could have worked to its advantage, it mostly didn’t. The conference was held in a college lecture hall, where the presenters stood almost directly beneath the slide screen and had to crane over their shoulders awkwardly to appear engaged with their slides. The lack of a stage further diminished the presenters. These factors combined with the overall lack of a focus made the proceedings feel rather like sitting through a series of informal college lectures by teaching assistants whom the students haven’t been given much reason to respect or pay attention to.

Moreover, because the proceedings were constantly running about twenty minutes late, every scheduled Q&A session was skipped. Every single one. The organizers had decided to have attendees submit questions solely via Twitter (a strange idea to begin with, considering that the conference was held in person and that some people had traveled quite a distance to attend) but even all of those Twitter questions went unasked and unanswered. Instead, audience members often took to shouting out comments at the presenters as they talked. This was mainly instigated by the person who did the most shouting — who, weirdly, I believe was Alex Lightman, the executive director of Humanity+ (I might be wrong that it was him, but it was definitely one of the organizers). He clearly meant it to be friendly, but given how rushed the presenters already were, these shouted interjections mostly had the effect of throwing them further off rather than creating a sense of audience participation, and I felt it led the audience to take the talks less seriously.

Organization of the talks

Among the other reasons for my sense that the audience didn’t take the proceedings entirely seriously was the large number of low-level presenters. A remarkable number of them gave talks plugging some small project or product of theirs, but attempting because of the context to force some sheen of larger significance on it. I talked to Kevin Jain, a conference presenter, and founding president of the Harvard College Future Society. He claimed that his group handled much of the organizing for the conference. If that’s true, the conference was actually quite an impressive logistical accomplishment for such a small organization (though it’s strange that the Humanity+ organization would put their name on it without doing the work themselves).

Jain said that the idea had been to try to open up the conference to include a wide variety of presenters, instead of just the usual luminaries. That’s a worthy goal, but in the future, the conference would benefit greatly from emphasizing quality over quantity, by choosing presenters and the lengths of their talks based on substance rather than the speakers’ reputations, and by more clearly separating big-picture talks from low-level project and research presentations. I would have liked to see a lot more time given to the likes of James Hughes, George Dvorsky, Patrick Lin, and Lauren Silbert to develop their ideas, whereas Stephen Wolfram and Ray Kurzweil would have benefited greatly from shorter time slots that forced them to focus their talks. Without naming any names, several of the other talks might have been safely left off the schedule until they were more well-developed.

Transhumanist Kegger

One way that the collegiate feel actually improved the proceedings was in the planned extra-conference activities. The most heavily promoted was a party held after the first day of the conference at a private off-site location, what appeared to be a converted-garage workspace for a small company. The place was a sort of paradise for a particular species of tech nerd of the Radio Shack variety, complete with a wide variety of electronics equipment for designing circuits, and whiteboards with diagrams of circuits and finite-state machines. And, best of all, there was a keg and plenty of cans and pitchers of beer, and, as David Brent would say, el vino did flow.

The party was packed with all manner of conference attendees, organizers, and presenters. I saw Ben Goertzel, Natasha Vita-More, Jessica Scorpio, and Patrick Lin hanging around. I talked to young Harvard undergraduates in the Future Society, who seemed to have joined more out of curiosity and excitement than a dead-set belief in a posthuman vision. (One fellow I talked to, wearing a Zildjian cymbals shirt, had handled the sound equipment at the conference, and between the shirt and his constant running about on stage, he looked a bit like an H+ roadie.) I asked Aubrey de Grey how long it took him to grow his beard. Two years, he said, though that was a long time ago, and he fidgets with it enough that it’s reached an equilibrium where he doesn’t have to trim it.

I spent much of that party in long conversations with a few people — presenter Ramez Naam and a smattering of other attendees who may not want to be named. (Naam amiably pointed out to me that I mischaracterized his talk in my post; see my update to it.) There seems to be so little common ground and so much mutual suspicion that these conversations can be difficult at first. But once I made it clear that not everything I say is a front for a secret desire to pass laws and regulations restricting other peoples’ freedom, I found that the conversations opened up remarkably.

Of course, it was still slow going in interrogating each other’s ideas and getting to basics, much less basics on which we might agree. I did arrive at two tangible if somewhat random agreements with two separate interlocutors. One converser and I came to agree that there might be value in not living in permanent pharmacologically-induced bliss. Another (Naam) and I came to agree that there are higher and lower ways of living, and in particular, that the life of Albert Einstein is a better sort of life to lead than the life of a person who simply eats ice cream, even if Einstein’s work had never been shared with society and so never benefited any other people. Hey, common ground! As Carl Sagan put it: small moves.

The human transhumanist

As struck me at last year’s Singularity Summit, all of these conversations reminded me of just how human are the transhumanists and their proceedings. Throughout all of this, I was struck by the contrasts between their pristine vision and the earthliness of their lives. There was, first of all, the mundanity of the conference itself. There was running into Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey in the men’s room. There was Kurzweil, spry and ruddy, his face part anticipatory, part fatigued, distractedly checking his e-mail as he stood a few feet away from me waiting to take the stage and deliver a speech that has clearly become routine. There was a conference organizer plugging his iPod into the sound system during a break and playing, of all lofty things, Fleetwood Mac.

There was sharing burritos, salads, sandwiches, and conversation at an Au Bon Pain over the lunch break with several conference presenters and organizers. When I noted how funny it was that we still had to take time at a transhumanist conference to eat, there was an organizer who agreed that, indeed, we still haven’t solved the problem of sustenance. (Don’t you like eating?, I asked. Yeah, he said, but I like learning and improving myself more, and I could be spending my time doing that.) There was watching conference presenters mingle about the beer party, looking with a hint of nervousness for someone to talk to. There was the sheer enjoyment everyone clearly took in interacting face-to-face with members of a movement usually connected only online, with hanging around someone’s cool workspace garage, munching barbecue and glugging beer and getting to talk to luminaries and leaders, and even being pleasantly surprised to discover that people they disagree with are nice and personable but just have different ideas.

Of course, these are all very ordinary human aspects of just about any conference. But the strange thing is that this particular conference and its attendees are devoted to doing away with this sort of humanity. Perhaps not all the conferencegoers — maybe some of them endorse only intermediate stages of enhancement. But the posthuman world of beings who don’t need to eat, drink, travel, engage in the trials of conversation, experience the peculiar anxieties and joys of attempting to know another person, or participate in anything that at all stinks of the everyday — that world is not one in which any of the experiences had at the conference could occur, or in which the concepts we use to understand them could even retain any coherence or meaning.

It’s hard to believe the conferencegoers and I could both inhabit the same world, both seem to discern the same pleasures in it, and yet they want it to end. There are greater joys to be had, I know they will say, over the horizon — a grab-bag of every fulfilled wish you could dream of. But it’s hard to believe they really understand clearly what those are, and just what it would and wouldn’t be like if they got them.