Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Anything is possible: The Singularitarian's trump card

In response to the previous post here, asking what humanity might be like today if transhumanists had remade man in the 1950s, Michael Anissimov asks, “if we modified ourselves into this based on the ideology of the 50s, couldn't we just then change it again if we didn't like it?” This comment merits some attention because it exhibits one of the most common transhumanist tropes — a supposed discussion-ender.

Sure, one can claim that all such morphological decisions will eventually be completely reversible. One can claim that we will be able to change our forms just as easily as flipping a light switch. One can claim that people will be able to make choices without the slightest effect on other people, and that each generation can make choices that don’t impinge on the next.

But what reason is there to believe any of these things are possible? And even if they were possible, what are we to do in the meantime with a world in which they are not? And more to the point, why bother discussing futurism at all if we can supposedly do anything we want without any necessary consequences or limitations?

A defining feature of Singularitarianism is its basis in a fantasy world in which anything is possible (or at least, in which we have no way knowing for sure what isn't). This gives Singularitarians a way of wriggling out of any argument by saying that no matter what the potential problem, we'll be able to find a way around it (or at least, we don't know for sure that we won't).

I'm not sure if this is an argument from eventual omniscience/omnipotence that is tantamount to an argument from present infallibility, or if it is just an argument from the impossibility of proving a universal negative. One way or another, this is something to the effect of: Hey, why not jump off this cliff? I can't see the bottom, but it sure looks great, and if we see any problems we can course-correct in mid-air. Which doesn't make for great conversation.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent point, Ari. You've put your finger on one reason these debates are so slippery.

    I seem to recall that our Futurisms colleague Charlie Rubin, at a conference a few years ago, presented a paper arguing that this is precisely why it is so helpful to draw on fiction, including science fiction, when discussing the future. Debating specific scenarios, whatever their flaws, is preferable to debating everything at once.

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  2. There is another reason why the whole singularity think is bunk, particularly with regards to A.I. and uploading. Moore's Law applies only to the hardware. It does not and has never applied to software, which has always been buggy and kudgy. I am reminded of this fact everytime I wrestle with the Vista OS on my computer, I am reminded of what POS software is, in general. This is also true with regards to design. The design of semiconductor devices experienced radical improvements starting in the mid 80's. Software, on the other hand, is still based on hand coding and X number of lines of code written.

    The singulatarians like to point out how semiconductor hardware performance will exceed human brain capability by 2030 or 2040 or something like that. This is certainly true. However, they never like to talk about how dodgy and buggy software is. I find this particularly hilarious given that almost all singulatarians are software/IT people. Given the rate at which software progresses, it will be at least 2-3 centuries before we get A.I.

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