Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mannequinned space travel

According to NASA, a humanoid robot will be sent into space for the first time later this year. Perhaps fittingly enough, it will be on STS-133, the last manned space mission to be launched directly by NASA for the planned future. Wired magazine writes:

James Hughes, who studies emerging technologies at Trinity University [College], suggested that humanoid robots may provide a nice middle ground between hardcore human spaceflight evangelists and those who would rather see robotic missions. Most space watchers feel that the human programs are what drives interest and funding in exploration, while scientific investigation will be driven by robots.

“A humanoid robot splits the difference. You get some of the advantages of both and hopefully it will be a nice compromise between the two,” said Hughes. “But it may not satisfy either side.”

The article also points out that humanoid robots might fulfill some useful functional gaps. That part is reasonable if true. But to say that humanoid robots split the difference between the cases for manned and robotic space travel is rather like looking at the debate over whether to travel to Mars and saying we can split the difference by going halfway there and back. (Don't insult my intelligence, Kirk.)

To get a full sense of the folly of socialized robotics — that is, robots that are designed to elicit responses from humans as if they were human, without actually being human — read Caitrin Nicol's "Till Malfunction Do Us Part." And don't miss Robert Zubrin's case for manned space travel in the new issue of The New Atlantis.

(hat tip: Brian Boyd)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Other Paradox of Choice

Should we regulate?
In a recent post here on Futurisms responding to a CNN interview about the pending “gamepocalypse,” I described some common moves that futurists make, including a kind of predictive overreach. But the CNN interview demonstrates another futurist trope. The basic formula of “this new thing will come, and it’ll change everything” must be followed by “but there will be some inevitable downsides,” which must in turn be followed by ... well, in the case of the CNN interview, this exchange follows:
CNN: Should we create regulations to keep [those downsides] from happening?

[Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell:] That’s hard for me to imagine. These things are going to creep up on us one by one, and it’s going to be up to what can people take, and what can people tolerate?
Schell also notes that “We all have choices to make about what aspects of our privacy we want to give away.”

Its use in the context of gaming shows just how inadequate (even silly) is the rights-versus-regulation framework into which so many people want to force many of our most important public ethical discussions. We’re talking about computer games, folks. Blood or money would have to be flowing in the streets before any sensible defenders of liberal democracy would call for governmental regulation (and predictions of such dire consequences are usually bandied about when people do call for regulation). But once the question of regulation has been raised and dismissed, that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. Thereafter, the assumption is libertarian: If government isn’t the way to go, everything else is just a matter of unrestrained personal preference.

The Other Paradox of Choice
What’s missing from this picture is what the next step should really be. Once we’ve all agreed that some particular activity is basically within the realm of individual rights and beyond the realm of governmental regulation, the debate should shift away from the legal and turn to the good and bad of the activity itself. This is a blessing of liberal democracy: we’re free to decide what choices we want to make, and so discussing which ones are good or bad for us becomes our privilege and our responsibility.

And yet the self-avowed defenders of choices, rights, and freedom all too often ignore (or even shout down) any serious discussion about how we should make those choices and exercise those freedoms. They tend to pooh-pooh moral considerations.

There’s a well-known “paradox of choice” in which the more we have to choose from, the harder it is to make a choice or be satisfied with it. But there seems to be another odd paradox of choice: the more vigorously someone preaches about rights and choices, the more tyrannical that person will consider any public conversation about how best to exercise those rights and make those choices.

Yeah, Well, You Know, That’s Just Like, Uh, Your Opinion, Man
Perhaps another example is in order. In a recent post here, Adam Keiper noted the shallowness of some recent discussion about the issue of cloning. In particular, he noted the question posed by libertarian blogger Tyler Cowen to his readers: “If you don’t like [Bryan Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.” As Adam noted, this quantitative distillation is preposterously reductive. But it isn’t just that.

The phrase “preferred degree” here is derogative, even sneering: pity (maybe fear) the fool who thinks his choices are right. Such choices, as mere preferences, come to seem completely arbitrary and weightless. The paradox lies in the libertarian’s simultaneous belief that choice is of utmost importance — even that it is constitutive of our identities as free agents.

Just at the level of attitude, this dismissiveness comes across as a less easygoing version of The Dude. But in the realm of serious discussion, it reveals a tension about the natures of agency, individuality, freedom, and choice that is inherent to libertarianism, and unfortunately present in too many of our public debates about matters of great ethical import.

Two Brief Notes on the Obama Bioethics Commission

President Obama recently announced the members of his new bioethics commission. We noted a few months ago that the new commission seems likely to focus on a few low-key policy questions, given the focus of its charter and the fact that both its chairman and vice chairman are busy university presidents. Nothing about its announced membership suggests otherwise. It is nice to see Daniel Sulmasy, an occasional New Atlantis contributor, among the appointees, and we look forward to seeing what this new commission decides to discuss and what approach it takes.

There are two minor points about the new commission that perhaps deserve comment. The first is that the new bioethics commission, like the bioethics council that President Bush appointed, has not drawn its members from the mainstream of professional bioethicists. Please notice the names that are absent from the commission — prominent mainstream bioethicists like George Annas, Tom Beauchamp, Dan Brock, Arthur Caplan, Alexander Capron, Alta Charo, James Childress, Ruth Faden, Hank Greely, Patricia King, Ruth Macklin, David Magnus, Glenn McGee, Jonathan Moreno, Thomas Murray, Erik Parens, Robert Veatch, LeRoy Walters, Susan Wolf, and Paul Root Wolpe.

Perhaps some of these bioethicists were invited onto the commission and declined. Perhaps some will participate in its work in other capacities, as staffers or consultants. But it is striking that, with the arguable exception of Anita Allen, the commission will have no members from the bioethics mainstream, and certainly none of its most prominent figures. There has already been some embittered complaining about this cold shoulder on one of the big bioethics blogs:

The most obvious question one must ask when reading the membership list of the commission is, “Where are the bioethicists?”

An excellent question. Professional bioethicists would do well ask themselves why two administrations have now declined to bring aboard the biggest names in mainstream bioethics.

One other minor point is worth mentioning because of what it reveals about politics and the press. Back in 2002, just before the first meeting of the Bush bioethics council, the Washington Post ran an article — not an opinion piece, mind you; a news article — that gratuitously drew a comparison between the Bush council and the Taliban. The article was called “Bush Unveils Bioethics Council”:

In November, researchers announced that they had made the first human embryo clones, giving immediacy to warnings by religious conservatives and others that science is no longer serving the nation’s moral will. At the same time, the United States was fighting a war to free a faraway nation from the grip of religious conservatives who were denounced for imposing their moral code on others.

In the pages of one of the nation’s leading newspapers, this is an indefensible smear — but it would even be an embarrassing analogy if it came from a partisan press-release office. As it happens, the reporter who wrote that article, Rick Weiss, is now working in just such a capacity. Weiss left journalism to join the liberal Center for American Progress and then the Obama administration. Now his name appears atop a White House press release/blog post called “President Announces Choices for New Bioethics Commission.” So eight years ago he was sliming the Bush administration’s bioethics council from within the world of journalism, and today he helps announce the Obama administration’s bioethics commission from within that administration. Draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Life of the Clone (and the Narcissism of the Cloner)

Bryan Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University and a contributor to a group blog about economics. He and his co-bloggers are intelligent libertarian economists, and their blog is often clarifying on important questions of policy and economic theory. It is deservedly popular for its erudition and wit.

On moral matters, though, Mr. Caplan sometimes muddles things. Like a few other prominent libertarian econobloggers, Mr. Caplan is interested in futuristic technologies, and he has written several posts about bioethical questions, including a handful in the past few months that misunderstand and misrepresent essays by Leon Kass. (I may revisit those in a future post here.) Mr. Caplan was apparently reading those Kass essays to bone up on arguments about cloning, a subject he addresses in a forthcoming book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Yesterday, Mr. Caplan invited his readers to tell him whether or not he should include the following passage in the book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

Before examining Mr. Caplan’s confession directly, let’s look at some of the reactions it provoked. Below his post are some six dozen responses; a few say that the paragraph makes Mr. Caplan sound “crazy,” but several defend and even praise it. (There’s also an amusing comment from Will Wilkinson.) Tyler Cowen, the libertarian über-econoblogger (and another George Mason prof), invited his own readers to comment, and introduced his own spin:

If you don’t like [Mr. Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.

In a follow-up today, Cowen chastised his own readers for the content of their comments about Caplan, and Mr. Caplan briefly responded. Meanwhile, Brad DeLong charged Mr. Caplan with misogyny (a frivolous accusation that Mr. DeLong’s own commenters shot down), and Steve Sailer chimed in with some provocative questions in his inimitable way.

Let’s examine what Mr. Caplan wrote. He begins by saying that he takes “anti-cloning arguments personally,” in part because “they insult the identical twin sons I already have.”

Without having seen the rest of Mr. Caplan’s book, we cannot know just what “anti-cloning arguments” he is referring to. But from context, we can infer that he has in mind an argument that human clones would somehow be lesser beings simply because their genetic duplicates exist. Certainly no one responsible or thoughtful has made so crude an argument. I invite Mr. Caplan to state plainly whose arguments he has in mind — specifically which “anti-cloning arguments” insult his twin sons — but until he does, I suggest he’s invoking a straw man.

Perhaps Mr. Caplan simply misunderstands some of the arguments that opponents of cloning actually make, like this objection that appeared in a thorough and balanced report on cloning from the President’s Council on Bioethics eight years ago:

Of course, our genetic makeup does not by itself determine our identities. But our genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves. It is an emblem of independence and individuality. It endows us with a sense of life as a never-before-enacted possibility. Knowing and feeling that nobody has previously possessed our particular gift of natural characteristics, we go forward as genetically unique individuals into relatively indeterminate futures.

These new and unique genetic identities are rooted in the natural procreative process. A cloned child, by contrast, is at risk of living out a life overshadowed in important ways by the life of the “original” — general appearance being only the most obvious. Indeed, one of the reasons some people are interested in cloning is that the technique promises to produce in each case a particular individual whose traits and characteristics are already known. And however much or little one’s genotype actually shapes one’s natural capacities, it could mean a great deal to an individual’s experience of life and the expectations that those who cloned him or her might have. The cloned child may be constantly compared to “the original,” and may consciously or unconsciously hold himself or herself up to the genetic twin that came before. If the two individuals turned out to lead similar lives, the cloned person’s achievements may be seen as derivative. If, as is perhaps more likely, the cloned person departed from the life of his or her progenitor, this very fact could be a source of constant scrutiny, especially in circumstances in which parents produced their cloned child to become something in particular. Living up to parental hopes and expectations is frequently a burden for children; it could be a far greater burden for a cloned individual. The shadow of the cloned child’s “original” might be hard for the child to escape, as would parental attitudes that sought in the child's very existence to replicate, imitate, or replace the “original.”

The Council’s report then specifically addresses the question of twins. The following points are pretty obvious, but Mr. Caplan seems to think that opponents of cloning don’t understand them (while it is not clear that he appreciates them himself):

It may reasonably be argued that genetic individuality is not an indispensable human good, since identical twins share a common genotype and seem not to be harmed by it. But this argument misses the context and environment into which even a single human clone would be born. Identical twins have as progenitors two biological parents and are born together, before either one has developed and shown what his or her potential — natural or otherwise — may be. Each is largely free of the burden of measuring up to or even knowing in advance the genetic traits of the other, because both begin life together and neither is yet known to the world. But a clone is a genetic near-copy of a person who is already living or has already lived. This might constrain the clone’s sense of self in ways that differ in kind from the experience of identical twins. Everything about the predecessor — from physical height and facial appearance, balding patterns and inherited diseases, to temperament and native talents, to shape of life and length of days, and even cause of death — will appear before the expectant eyes of the cloned person, always with at least the nagging concern that there, notwithstanding the grace of God, go I. The crucial matter, again, is not simply the truth regarding the extent to which genetic identity actually shapes us — though it surely does shape us to some extent. What matters is the cloned individual’s perception of the significance of the “precedent life” and the way that perception cramps and limits a sense of self and independence.

Those passages also offer a fairly firm reply to Tyler Cowen’s challenge. Mr. Cowen asks why one “degree of genetic similarity” is preferable to another. But that reductive abstraction — thinking about this question in terms of percentages of genes — is downright bizarre. As the Council passages makes clear, the debate over cloning isn’t fundamentally about genes; it is about human beings, about complicated family and generational relationships, about selfhood, identity, and social contexts.

What, in the end, are we to make of Mr. Caplan’s desire? He says that he has two reasons for wishing “to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.” The first is selfish: “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.” His certitude that the bond would be “sublime” is nothing more than an assumption elevated to faith.

His second reason for wanting to clone himself poses as a kind of generosity:

I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sentence is a gem. Its logic is dubious (just because today’s Mr. Caplan says he would wish to have himself as a parent doesn’t mean that a clone born decades later would enjoy the professor’s parenting) and it reveals tremendous self-regard (Mr. Caplan considers his parenting talents so excellent that he knows he would enjoy being on the receiving end of them if it were but possible).

And there you have it. The staunchest public advocates of cloning-to-produce-children have argued that it might someday help infertile couples produce biologically related children. But Mr. Caplan’s example shows us that there are people who desire to clone themselves for the shallowest of reasons — the sheer pleasure of interacting with a duplicate, and the somewhat paradoxical belief that a person could have raised himself better than his parents did. It is hard to know which is more breathtaking: the callous disregard for the independently lived life of the cloned child, or the extreme narcissism so unabashedly on display.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The "Gamepocalypse" and Why We Don't Heed "1984"

CNN has a rather silly (what else?) piece up called “Why games will take over our lives,” interviewing Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell. Among other things, it speculates that within the next five years, “toothbrushes will be hooked-up with Wi-Fi Internet connections,” so that when others know how often we brush, we will have an incentive to brush more often. From this, the piece moves in short order to the central thesis:
Schell says dental hygiene — and, really, just about everything else — will become a game. He thinks the “gamepocalypse,” the moment when everything in our lives becomes a game, is coming soon — if it’s not already here.
The article usefully illustrates what seem to be two recurrent features of futurism. The first is one of the most basic moves of futurists celebratory and alarmist alike: take some techno-social trend, blur its boundaries to near-dilution, and thereby extrapolate to everything, so that in just a few short years all of society will be defined by it. (Speaking of which, remind me to write about the looming portmantocalypse.)

This move is particularly evident in fictional futurism of the self-consciously “cautionary what-if” variety: think Repo Men and Surrogates, just to name two recent cinematic examples. And all transhumanists seem to have some rapturous vision of the future as defined by their favorite technology. But this move is also evident in much futurism of less extreme varieties, both contemporary and historical.

All this is obvious enough, but there is something of an equal but opposite problem that is much more subtle: it seems that the combined popularity, fervency, and specificity of futuristic speculation winds up blinding us to how basically correct much of it turns out to be. When we (legitimately) dismiss the “gamepocalypse” scenario, it becomes that much easier to shrug off the extent to which gaming, virtuality, and digital immersion really are altering our lives. The extreme predictions end up functioning like a disinformation campaign.

The problem of futuristic specificity is particularly acute in fiction (which all speculation is to some extent). This is because much of the power of fiction is aesthetic: For example, we aren’t just repelled by Orwell’s 1984 as a philosophical response to its narrative, but also because we are drawn into its world, imagining ourselves in it and experiencing the dread of what it feels like to live in its dystopia. But the moral repulsion that 1984 teaches us to recognize then becomes linked to our aesthetic sense of it. Rather counterintuitively, because our own world still feels like our plain old everyday world and not like what we read, 1984 remains emotionally hypothetical, numbing us to how our society has come to resemble that of the novel in some ways (e.g., especially, surveillance). Even if we might recognize it on an intellectual level, it’s hard to find the resemblance nearly as worrisome with reference to the book — not because we’re unfamiliar with the book, but rather, in a way, because we’re too familiar with it.

(hat tip: Ann Kilzer)

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Superintelligent Despot (Still Another Response to James Hughes)

All hail King HAL
As in the other essays in his series on the problems of transhumanism, in “Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism” James Hughes wants to make the case that the family quarrels within transhumanism reflect family quarrels within the Enlightenment itself. In this case, Prof. Hughes writes as a lukewarm defender of what he takes to be liberal democracy (freedom to pursue one’s own interests, free speech, political empowerment) against transhumanists who anxiously await being governed by superintelligent machines.

Prof. Hughes begins by explaining the non-democratic elements of Enlightenment thinking, then spends a fair amount of time telling us about enlightened despots, and those among Enlightenment thinkers who seem to approve of them. It seems to me that in attempting to establish a tradition of liberal/Enlightenment despotism, he rather misses the point. That when living under a despot a liberally-minded thinker might praise an enlightened despot over an unenlightened despot does not mark liberalism (as such) as favoring despotism (as such). The founders of modern liberalism had to play the hand dealt them, and so they had no choice but to direct their arguments to those holding the power to reform. But in fact, the political principles articulated by the likes of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke have been remarkably successful at undermining despotism, and if there were once upon a time despots who attempted to implement some portion those principles, one can only commend their disinterestedness or note their shortsightedness. History surely teaches that enlightened despotic rulers can institute liberal reforms, but so doing makes their own positions increasingly untenable.

Almost by definition, the same situation would not be true with respect to rule by superintelligence. Prof. Hughes seems to understand that were it to prove possible at all, the despotism that some transhumanists yearn for would be universal and permanent by design. About this future he has qualms; he would rather see one in which “cognitive enhancement, assistive artificial intelligence, and electronic communication all would strengthen the ability of the average citizen to know and pursue their own interests and would make liberal democracy increasingly robust.” But there are two problems here. First, it seems likely that by a more “robust” liberal democracy Prof. Hughes has in mind a more democratic liberal democracy. Second, he still sees that robust liberal democracy in instrumental terms as an advantageous staging area for transhuman and posthuman transformation. Put these two problems together and it becomes impossible not to quote Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on the distinctive form despotism might take in the democratic world:

Above these [men] an immense and tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principle affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

“Yes, please,” would seem to be the answer that many transhumanists would give to the last question; what Tocqueville is describing as a problem is almost precisely their definition of progress. Sharing so much of that definition, Prof. Hughes himself is not immune to this siren song: “If I could convince myself that turning our fate over to the enlightened despotism of HAL or Khan Noonien Singh was the only way forward I also would be tempted.” In the face of so much human folly, it is almost as if Prof. Hughes is yearning to be convinced. I wonder if his openly despotic transhumanist confreres have not seen the political consequences of their illiberalism more clearly.