Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life in the Machine

About a month ago, before the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Feynman’s “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” talk, I re-read Ed Regis’s 1995 book Nano, still the only good narrative history of the origins of the idea of nanotechnology. Yesterday, I read for the first time Regis’s previous book: Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, first published in 1990.
Anyone interested in the history and sociology of today’s transhumanist movement should read it. Regis describes the network of futurists and activists whose ideas laid the groundwork for many of today’s strains of far-out futurism, with descriptions of Alcor and the old L5 Society, as well as profiles of Eric Drexler (of nanotechnology fame), Keith Henson (the impresario who co-founded L5 and was involved in many other projects), Jim Bennett (best known in political circles for writing about the Anglosphere, but deeply involved in the private-space movement), Ralph Merkle (cryonics and nanotech), Dave Criswell (dabbler in distant-future space speculations), Hans Moravec (known for robotics and posthumanism), Robert Ettinger (the father of cryonics), and many others. Regis, who describes himself as a “half-baked philosophy professor,” writes with a wit and verve that suggests the influence of Tom Wolfe — indeed, the book’s first chapter, describing rocketeer Bob Truax’s cooperation with Evel Knievel, could have appeared in the pages of The Right Stuff — and, like Wolfe, Regis is broadly sympathetic to his subjects even as he gently exposes their obsessions and foibles. He allows a few pages here and there for serious criticism of the futurists’ excesses, but not much.

One section of the book describes those researchers who believed in the 1980s that computerized simulations of life might actually have been alive. Explaining the thinking of one such researcher, Regis writes:

So if computer programs could do all these things — if they could replicate, mutate, interact with an environment, and learn — then why couldn’t they be considered in some sense alive? Why, in fact, couldn’t a certain, specific bunch of programs be considered animals of a sort?... “I would not hestitate to say that a program can be ‘alive,’” [Dave Jefferson] wrote. “Whatever reasonable definition one gives of ‘life’ (e.g., an energetically open system that adapts to its environment and produces variant copies of itself), there will be programs that satisfy the definition. Any claim that a program cannot be alive reflects either too narrow a definition of ‘life,’ or too impoverished a vision of the richness and variety of computation.... I would NOT claim that the Foxes, Rabbits, and Grass [in his programs] are alive at the individual level.... But the population of artificial rabbits surely exhibits all of the qualities of a living population. It grows, adapts, reproduces, and evolves. I can see no reason to deny that this population of artificial rabbits is alive at that level of organization.” [pages 199 and 204]

Jefferson was not alone; Regis describes several other researchers, including a goodly number of the participants in a big 1987 conference on the subject of artificial life at Los Alamos, who believed that their programs were, in some important sense, alive. You might consider that a funny contention since the programs under discussion were rather less advanced than are some free screensavers today. But many researchers continue to make the same claims today — in fact, the study of this kind of “artificial life” has become an accepted subfield of biological research. A couple of years ago, our contributing editor Steve Talbott explained and critiqued this line of thought in the pages of The New Atlantis:

The digital organism enthusiasts certainly think they are talking about something of real substance. The most direct conclusion to draw is that they have simply reified in their minds a set of computations and data structures. Having calculated certain ideal relationships expressed in program logic, they allow these relationships to condense, specter-like, into dim, vaguely imagined physical objects—objects that are, as a result, gratifyingly well-behaved in a logical sense. They then herald these ghostly compactions of logic as powerful demonstrations of how actual physical organisms evolve in obedience to the now perfectly displayed logic of their evolution.

There is something stunningly backward and tautological in all this. What these researchers are really doing is exploring certain possibilities of mathematical and algorithmic logic. It’s a legitimate thing to do. Throughout the history of science the elaboration of mathematical formulae has often led, at least in the physical sciences, to subsequent discovery of application for these formulae. But this doesn’t alter an obvious truth: the discovery always needs to be made, and it can be made only through observation of the world. Many of those who speak about artificial life seem strikingly casual about the role of observation.

As always with Steve Talbott, the entire essay is well worth reading. So, too, is his subsequent exchange of letters with one of this field’s leading proponents.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why So Unserious? (Thoughts on Transhumanism and Politics)

A few days ago here on Futurisms, commenter Kurt9 made an interesting point: “The idea that our cutting-edge science, particularly radical life extension, is incompatible with current social regimes comes from you guys, not from us transhumanists.” In one sense his statement is not true at all; plainly, for all he might disagree with their vision of the future, there are transhumanists (and no few of them) who are talking about global changes that would render current society and politics as obsolete as the human beings that constitute them. If, as many transhumanists believe, we are Singularity-bound, it is no stretch to conclude that current society and politics would disappear — after all, do human beings today organize our lives like our lemur-like ancestors? Yet some advocates of hyperintelligence would say that the gap between humanity and posthumanity will be even greater than that one.

Still, Kurt9’s point is true in the sense that it reminds us that relatively few transhumanists have bothered to think very deeply about the political consequences of the changes they advocate. They may, as per the above, lay out the premises, but indeed leave their critics to draw the conclusions. Nick Bostrom says a few soothing words in the “Transhumanist FAQ,” and James Hughes makes some very near-term policy recommendations in Citizen Cyborg. There are some ongoing discussions of the rights of sentient beings, and Simon Young takes a stab at a “neuropolitics,” but barely achieves a flesh wound. I’d welcome being shown otherwise — please feel free to make suggestions in the comments — but so far as I can tell, transhumanism awaits its John Locke, its James Madison, its Herbert Croly, or even its E. J. Dionne.

I don’t think that is an accident. First, it would be perfectly consistent for the kind of transhumanist that Kurt9 disagrees with to think it the height of folly and presumption for us to think we could imagine a good or even adequate organization for a world that mere humans will find increasingly hard to understand. Second, it is consistent with the rather superficial libertarianism which guides so much of transhumanism, a quasi-political theory that leads to the now fashionable contempt for mere politics. Third, it is consistent with the moralism of transhumanism, which amounts to “if you will it, it is no dream.” Thinking too hard about all the ramifications of one’s dreams is not necessarily going to make it easier to follow them. Fourth, this apolitical tendency is consistent with one of the most powerful arguments transhumanists can make against at least some of their critics. If their goals appear utopian, they can point out how many things once thought difficult or impossible to do are now commonplace. To look at all the tradeoffs, compromises, side effects, and unintended consequences of these success stories — which is to say, to look at them politically — would weaken the appeal of this argument. Finally, even if not all transhumanists believe that the future they desire is, strictly speaking, inevitable, a great many seem to feel that history is on their side. Theirs is not a revolution that needs to be made politically, it just needs to be born.

But sooner or later, transhumanists will have to face up to politics. The tensions within their own movement suggested by the likes of Kurt9 will require it, not to speak of external critics. As the followers of Marx found out, you can only hide behind the direction of history for so long; sooner or later somebody has to start thinking about who is going to take out the trash.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Nanotechnology, Past and Future

Following up on my post from a few days ago about the golden jubilee of Richard Feynman’s “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” lecture, I have a short piece in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal saying a bit more about the lecture’s importance to nanotechnology.

In the piece, I outline the differences between “nanotechnology” as the term is often used nowadays and as it was first used, back when Eric Drexler brought the word to public attention.

These two understandings of nanotechnology are regularly conflated in the press—a fact that vexes mainstream researchers, in part because Mr. Drexler's more ambitious take on nanotech is cherished by several colorful futurist movements (transhumanism, cryonics, and so forth). Worse, for all the fantastical speculation that Drexlerian nanotechnology invites, it has also driven critics, like the late novelist Michael Crichton and the software entrepreneur Bill Joy, to warn of nanotech nightmares.

I end with a modest recommendation:

If this dispute over nano-nomenclature only involved some sniping scientists and a few historians watching over a tiny corner of Feynman's legacy, it would be of little consequence. But hundreds of companies and universities are teeming with nanotech researchers, and the U.S. government has been pouring billions of dollars into its multiagency National Nanotechnology Initiative.

So far, none of that federal R&D funding has gone toward the kind of nanotechnology that Drexler proposed, not even toward the basic exploratory experiments that the National Research Council called for in 2006. If Drexler's revolutionary vision of nanotechnology is feasible, we should pursue it for its potential for good, while mindful of the dangers it may pose to human being and society. And if Drexler's ideas are fundamentally flawed, we should find out—and establish just how much room there is at the bottom after all.

On his own blog, Mr. Drexler today wrote a post about the 2006 National Research Council report I mentioned. Here’s how Drexler summarizes the parts of the NRC report concerning molecular manufacturing:

The committee examined the concept of advanced molecular manufacturing, and found that the analysis of its physical principles is based on accepted scientific knowledge, and that it addresses the major technical questions. However, in the committee’s view, theoretical calculations are insufficient: Only experimental research can reliably answer the critical questions and move the technology toward implementation. Research in this direction deserves support.

That seems a fair summary of the NRC report. And, as I’ve explained elsewhere, members of Congress certainly seemed to have Drexlerian nanotechnology in mind when they decided to lavish billions on federal nanotech research.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bionics and cats

In light of our lengthy recent discussion about the desire of some transhumanists to eliminate predation in the wild, I’d just like to note a mildly amusing juxtaposition. The cover article in the latest issue of National Geographic is on “Merging Man and Machine.” It focuses on several developments in bionics (although for therapeutic purposes, not enhancement). Meanwhile, a few pages earlier, the magazine has a short article about an effort to protect “the world’s top felines” from extinction. That little article is here — and you can read much more about the Big Cats Initiative elsewhere on the magazine’s website, since the magazine’s publisher, the National Geographic Society, is behind the project.