Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, February 26, 2010

“The Visible Mark of Earthly Imperfection”

Pucker up
A while back, Boing Boing featured photographer Philip Toledano’s portraits of “extreme” plastic surgery, “A New Kind of Beauty.” After posing some stock questions about the nature of beauty in his introduction to his portraits, Mr. Toledano asks, “Perhaps we are creating a new kind of beauty. An amalgam of surgery, art, and popular culture? And if so, are the results the vanguard of human induced evolution?”

A look at the portraits suggests that if the answer to this last question is “yes,” women will evolve in the direction of having very large, perhaps in some cases enormous, breasts and very poofy lips. Men will evolve to have poofy lips, elfin looks, and/or enormous pecs. If Toledano is indeed portraying a “vanguard,” his photos are just one more reason to wonder what transhumanism’s promise to liberate us all to be just what we want to be will really mean. As a group, his subjects portray but a tiny fraction of the multiplicity of forms of human beauty that the so-called “natural lottery” already produces on a daily basis. On the other hand, maybe the extraordinary lack of imagination, diversity, and creativity shown by those Toledano has chosen to portray is really the fault of mainstream plastic surgeons, who are just too hidebound to try anything really interesting. We await the Giacometti or Brâncuşi of the human body.

But taken as a whole, the portfolio brings to mind a point made many times on this blog and well summarized by despair.com’s classic “Conformity” demotivational poster picturing a herd of zebras with this caption: “When people are free to do as they please, they generally imitate each other.”

Olympics in Space

Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'Space Race'
I recently mentioned Ed Regis’s lively Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition in a couple of posts here on Futurisms, and I thought I’d mention one final item from the book — a very minor one. One of the people Regis profiles is Dave Criswell, who as a child became enamored of a vision of civilization in space. By the 1980s, Criswell was promoting “star lifting,” the sort of project that makes geoengineering look like Tinkertoys. But Criswell didn’t stop there. In 1988, Regis reports, Criswell dreamed up something new:

He proposed holding the 2008 Olympic Games in space.

Criswell first presented the concept at a meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; later, both Omni and the Smithsonian Institution’s Air & Space magazine ran stories about the scheme. [Note: Regis himself wrote the Omni article.] The idea was to build a two-mile-wide space station up in orbit, a structure big enough to hold ten thousand people.

Criswell had everything figured out: once around the ring would equal a ten-kilometer run; new zero-gravity sports events could be developed. He even invented a type of aircraft — a swing-wing space plane — that could get sports fans up there and back for the price of a typical ocean crossing....

Robert Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, was actually quite impressed by the Olympics-in-Space concept. “It’s a fantastic idea, very creative,” he said. “The Olympic Games have a universal appeal throughout the world, and I think it would be great to hold them in space and for there to be some visible insignia up there that everyone could see.” [pages 287-88]

Cynics and curmudgeons might say that the Olympics and human spaceflight are perfectly paired since both involve exorbitantly expensive spectacles that, although tremendously impressive, seem to leave many people bored.

More seriously, I’m confident that human beings will someday settle other worlds, and that the old sports and games they bring with them will be complemented by new ones suited for their new civilizational footholds. But Criswell’s proposal was for the year 2008. It wasn’t just an open-ended aspiration — someday, the Olympics should be in space! Since he chose a specific year, we can assume that he truly believed that we could have a two-mile-wide space station capable of holding thousands of people and hosting a major sporting event. Mind you, he proposed this in 1988 — more than fifteen years after the last man had walked on the moon, and a decade before assembly of the real-life International Space Station began. (By way of comparison, the longest dimension of the delay-plagued ISS is today 0.067 miles.) How wonderfully and optimistically out of touch with reality.

Now, if Criswell had suggested Space Olympics in the year 3022, that would be a different story:

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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

If Sterling Cooper remade man

Think for a moment of the common critiques of 1950s American culture — of the era’s conformism and repressiveness, its denial of brewing social discontent, its spiritual emptiness and shallow view of human good, and the gosh-golly attitude toward social life that led one astute commentator to dub it “the sunny synthetic fifties.” Much as those critiques can be prone to lapse into Pleasantville-style caricature, there is surely still something to them. Now imagine if scientists had attempted, in the era of all those peculiar neuroses, to biologically remake man.

A 1956 article in Mechanix Illustrated asked scientists and engineers to propose redesigns of the human body. Among the offerings were:
  • Making the spine a solid column.
  • Placing the brain in the chest cavity, because “Nearness to fuel supply is a fundamental principle in industry.”
  • Replacing the rib cage with a sort of giant clamshell easily opened for surgical purposes.
  • A wider pelvis to decrease the risk of hernia and make childbearing easier.
  • Extra eyes in the back of the head or the end of a finger (a very Guillermo del Toro image).
  • Antennae on the head, like a grasshopper’s.
  • Making the nose a long snout to reduce sinus troubles.
  • Elimination of the toenails and the little toe.
  • Pockets like a kangaroo’s or a food storage compartment like a camel’s.
  • Hooks on the head for straphangers on subways.
  • Detachable arms for comfort while sleeping.
  • Baldness to eliminate the cost of maintaining hair. (Note that this proposal came from a dermatologist.)
  • Folding ears like an old-fashioned ear trumpet, for catching low-pitched sounds. (This one came from a radio engineer.)

In the previous post here, I wrote of the danger of tinkering with complex systems we did not create due to the impossibility of controlling and predicting the outcome. But there is an additional cost in tinkering with some of these systems. At the dawn of the age in which the Mechanix Illustrated article was written, C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man:

In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.

When examining transhumanism, we need not go nearly as far as Lewis in describing the power one generation asserts at the expense of its descendents. We can accept that each generation has some limited power to correct, through changes in theories and institutions, the errors of their predecessors.

But the transhumanist form of change is of quite a different kind. Whereas before successive generations remade their understanding of a human nature that itself remained effectively constant, the transhumanist project is to remake human nature itself to match its novel understanding. The effects will be immensely more difficult for successor generations to change — if they can be changed at all — than the previous process of change at the social level, itself a very brittle process.

Put another way: You might foresee a freer and better future if transhuman powers come to pass within your lifetime — but would you be freer and better off today if transhumanism had begun reshaping human biology in the 1950s? (I wonder in particular what transhumanist feminists would say to such a question. Would women today come with rocket-cone breasts and built-in kitchen appliances?) Gizmodo blogger Wilson Rothman says that “if 1950s men redesigned the human form, we’d be horrors.”

One might object that our cultural ideas today are better than those of the 1950s, but this objection only makes the point. We could not alter our culture nearly as easily had a previous one remade human nature to match its own. The “freedom” promised by transhumanism is in fact the license to grab power for our generation at the expense of future ones. As Lewis says:

There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Transhuman Ambitions and the Lesson of Global Warming

Anyone who believes in the science of man-made global warming must admit the important lesson it reveals: humans can easily alter complex systems not of their own cohesive design but cannot easily predict or control them. Let’s call this (just for kicks) the Malcolm Principle. Our knowledge is little but our power is great, and so we must wield it with caution. Much of the continued denial of a human cause for global warming — beyond the skepticism merited by science — is due to a refusal to accept the truth of this principle and the responsibility it entails.



Lake Hamoun, 1976-2001,
courtesy UNEP
And yet a similar rejection of the Malcolm Principle is evident even among some of those who accept man’s role in causing global warming. This can be seen in the great overconfidence of climate scientists in their ability to understand and predict the climate. But it is far more evident in the emerging support for “geoengineering” — the notion that not only can we accurately predict the climate, but we can engineer it with sufficient control and precision to reverse warming.

It is unsurprising to find transhumanist support for geoengineering. Some advocates even support geoengineering to increase global warming — for instance, Tim Tyler advocates intentionally warming the planet to produce various allegedly beneficial effects. Here the hubris of rejecting the Malcolm Principle is taken to its logical conclusion: Once we start fiddling with the climate intentionally, why not subject it to the whims of whatever we now think might best suit our purposes? Call it transenvironmentalism.

In fact, name any of the most complex systems you can think of that were not created from the start as engineering projects, and there is likely to be a similar transhumanist argument for making it one. For example:
  • The climate, as noted, and thus implicitly also the environment, ecosystem, etc.
  • The animal kingdom, see e.g. our recent lengthy discussion on ending predation.
  • The human nutritional system, see e.g. Kurzweil.
  • The human body, a definitional tenet for transhumanists.
  • The human mind, similarly.
Transhumanist blogger Michael Anissimov (who earlier argued in favor of reengineering the animal kingdom) initially voiced support for intentional global warming, but later deleted the post. He defended his initial support with reference to Singularitarian Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality,” particularly that of “lightness,” which Yudkowsky defines as: “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.” Yudkowsky’s list also acknowledges potential limits of rationality implicit in its virtues of “simplicity” and “humility”: “A chain of a thousand links will arrive at a correct conclusion if every step is correct, but if one step is wrong it may carry you anywhere,” and the humble are “Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans.” Yet in addition to the “leaf in the wind” virtue, the list also contains “relinquishment”: “Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs.”

Putting aside the Gödelian contradiction inherent even in “relinquishment” alone (if one should not hesitate to relinquish one’s beliefs, then one should also not hesitate to relinquish one’s belief in relinquishment), it doesn’t seem that one can coherently exercise all of these virtues at once. We live our lives interacting with systems too complex for us to ever fully comprehend, systems that have come into near-equilibrium as the result of thousands or billions of years of evolution. To take “lightness” and “relinquishment” as guides for action is not simply to be rationally open-minded; rather, it is to choose to reflexively reject the wisdom and stability inherent in that evolution, preferring instead the instability of Yudkowsky’s “leaf in the wind” and the brash belief that what we look at most eagerly now is all there is to see.

Imagine if, in accordance with “lightness” and “relinquishment,” we had undertaken a transhumanist project in the 19th century to reshape human heads based on the fad of phrenology, or a transenvironmentalist project in the 1970s to release massive amounts of carbon dioxide on the hypothesis of global cooling. Such proposals for systemic engineering would have been foolish not merely because of their basis in particular mistaken ideas, but because they would have proceeded on the pretense of comprehensively understanding systems they in fact could barely fathom. The gaps in our understanding mean that mistaken ideas are inevitable. But the inherent opacity of complex systems still eludes those who make similar proposals today: Anissimov, even in acknowledging the global-warming project’s irresponsibility, still cites but a single knowable mechanism of failure (“catastrophic global warming through methane clathrate release”), as if the essential impediment to the plan will be cleared as soon as some antidote to methane clathrate release is devised.

Other transhumanist evaluations of risk similarly focus on what transhumanism is best able to see — namely threats to existence and security, particularly those associated with its own potential creations — which is fine except that this doesn’t make everything else go away. There are numerous “catastrophic errors” wrought already by our failures to act with simplicity and humility — such as our failure to anticipate that technological change might have systemic consequences, as in the climate, environment, and ecosystem; and our tremendous and now clearly exaggerated confidence in rationalist powers exercised directly at the systemic level, as evident in the current financial crisis (see Paul Cella), in food and nutrition (see Michael Pollan and John Schwenkler), and in politics and culture (see Alasdair MacIntyre among many others), just for starters. But among transhumanists there is little serious contemplation of the implications of these errors for their project. (As usual, commenters, please provide me with any counterexamples.)

Perhaps Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality” are not themselves to be taken as guides to action. But transhumanism aspires to action — indeed, to revolution. To recognize the consequences of hubris and overreach is not to reject reason in favor of simpleminded tradition or arbitrary givenness, but rather to recognize that there might be purpose and perhaps even unspoken wisdom inherent in existing stable arrangements — and so to acknowledge the danger and instability inherent in the particular hyper-rationalist project to which transhumanists are committed.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Our Doppelgängered Future?


David Foster Wallace → Russell Crowe?
The gentle Facebooking reader will likely have noticed the news-feed trend of last week. No, it’s not posting the color of your bra in ostensible support of breast-cancer awareness (older readers will remember that one). I first noticed it myself when the faces on my news feed seemed both more familiar and more attractive. It turns out that it was all due to the latest Facebook fad: updating your profile picture to match your “celebrity doppelgänger.”

One friend’s doppelgängered profile picture was accompanied by a comment that she suspected the trend to be a product of “wishful thinking.” And how. David Foster Wallace’s words from the dawn of the 1990s seem truer than ever:

Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing.... When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day [of TV watching] is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with.... This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences.... The boom in diet aids, health and fitness clubs, neighborhood tanning parlors, cosmetic surgery, anorexia, bulimia, steroid-use among boys, girls throwing acid at each other because one girl’s hair looks more like Farrah Fawcett’s than another ... are these supposed to be unrelated to each other? to the apotheosis of prettiness in a televisual culture?

One wonders how the transhumanist is to contend with such a problem. The libertarian transhumanist, especially, admits into his moral vocabulary little beyond the individual will. It is the locus of all human action; any collective action is only properly constituted contractually.

What then of the influence of popular culture — whether in average people’s everyday anxiety over the gulf between their looks and the looks of the pretty people they almost could be but are not, or in their actual efforts to bridge that gulf? The libertarian can deny such anxiety by proudly affirming that the individual will exercises itself autonomously, but as Wallace indicates, this is a woefully inadequate account of the way people think and make choices about their appearances (see: Nadya Suleman/Angelina Jolie).

The only other option is to affirm the supreme rights of the individual will in exercising its personal choices of expression, irrespective of whether those choices are truly autonomous. Every person can and should make himself — including his body — into whatever he freely chooses to be. This is the mantra behind morphological freedom. The numbers of people who go to drastic measures, starving themselves, going under the knife, etc., are surely then by virtue of their expressiveness the freest of all, and cosmetic technology a force for their liberation. Jocelyn Wildenstein is to be heralded as the Frederick Douglass of the morphological emancipators.

Because the libertarian transhumanist view admits of no normativity, neither can it admit of pathology. Libertarian transhumanists must claim to celebrate all morphological choices equally. In practice, of course, they do not celebrate them equally, for their ideology has its own qualitative distinction in the virtue of choice: It favors those “expressions” that seem to be freer — that is, those that have departed more from the given. Libertarian transhumanists seem vaguely aware of and mostly fine with this internal contradiction. But there is a deep irony in the fact that their embrace of morphological autonomy as liberation from cultural conformity commits them to celebrating choices that are so transparently made by unhealthy wills succumbing to the grip of cultural norms.

(See also this wonderfully-titled post by blogger Miss Self-Important: Your radicalism bores me and your liberation weighs me down.)

Resurrecting the Dead

Posting has been light lately because we’ve been busy working on several projects, but we’re kicking things back into gear now.

Picking up on my last post, I want to comment on another passage from Ed Regis’s Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. Regis explains how Hans Moravec imagined bringing back to life people who have been long gone:

It ought to be possible, Moravec thought, to resurrect past history, or at least to resurrect some of the important historical figures — Isaac Newton, for example. In fact, Moravec had already figured out how to do this by the time he’d written Mind Children. He’d worked out a whole scenario whereby a powerful enough supercomputer would be able to resurrect long-dead minds from the information that still survived. You might be able to get Isaac Newton back from an edition of Principia Mathematica, plus what flimsy disturbances might remain in the air from the words Newton had actually spoken during his lifetime.

This was a bit of a stretch, admittedly, but nothing absolutely impossible, at least not in Hans Moravec’s view. After all, plenty of archaeologists had made a living by reconstructing entire cultures from pottery shards, scraps of ancient documents, X-ray scans of mummified remains, and so on, so why shouldn’t the superintelligences of the future be able to go far beyond this, to the point “where long-dead people can be reconstructed in near-perfect detail at any stage of their life,” as Moravec put it? [pages 262-3]

Let’s clear something up right away: It would not be possible to learn anything about anyone who lived before the age of audio recording technology by literally reconstructing the “flimsy disturbances” that “might remain in the air” from words that person had actually spoken. (While people have half-seriously talked about this sort of thing for decades, anyone with a basic understanding of physics will understand why it isn’t possible. A decade ago, there was an X-Files episode about some drying pottery that had been in the room when Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave; supposedly, the soundwaves from His voice had been recorded on a bowl and could be played back like a vinyl record. A similar idea, minus the resurrection, was at the heart of an April Fool’s joke that got lots of people talking back in 2006, inspiring the Mythbusters TV show to attempt an experiment.)

But it isn’t clear that Moravec was actually considering anything along these lines. The “flimsy disturbances” that Regis refers to were probably figurative, and the relevant section of Moravec’s book Mind Children doesn’t mention centuries-old sound waves. If you want to accurately simulate a historical figure, here are the sources of information that Moravec suggests consulting to make your simulation more accurate:

the person’s genetic code, for instance, or filmstrips of the person in life, samples of handwriting, medical records, memories of associates, and so on....

But what if no tape [that is, no recording of a person’s “pattern-identity”] existed at all? Archaeologists today make plausible inferences about historical figures from scraps of old documents, pottery shards, x-ray scans of mummified bodies, other known historical facts, general knowledge about human nature, and whatever else they can find.... Superintelligent archaeologists armed with wonder-instruments (that might, for instance, make atomic-scale measurements of deeply buried objects) should be able to carry this process to a point where long-dead people can be reconstructed in near-perfect detail at any stage of their life. [pages 122-3]

Moravec overreaches so often in Mind Children that stuff like this seems pretty tame in contrast to his trippier ideas. But it’s still worth pointing out just how preposterous even this stuff is.

Let’s work through it. Moravec proposes that the essence of who you are as a person is your “pattern-identity,” which, he imagines, can be digitally stored for future retrieval and even uploaded into robot.

In Moravec’s future, for any given pattern-identity, there are three logical possibilities: either it is preserved as a program entirely, partially, or not at all.

If yours is preserved entirely, you’re in luck — you can be popped into a robo-body and live indefinitely.

If yours is preserved partially, perhaps the missing parts — just “temporarily diffused in the environment,” as Moravec puts it — can be reconstructed from filmstrips, handwriting, and so forth.
And if yours is not at all digitally stored, well, a computer will have to make everything up based on whatever clues are available, just as “creators of historical fiction” gin up fictional accounts of the past. Isn’t it obvious, though, that a simulation of a long-dead person like Isaac Newton cannot be reconstructed in “near-perfect detail,” as Moravec claims? Such a simulation might be fun for educational or recreational purposes (click the picture at right) but the information underlying it would have such enormous gaps that the simulation would be more a caricature of Newton than an accurate representation. And even the extant information could be interpreted lots of different ways; the raw facts of history take us only so far, which is why historians (and authors of historical fiction) are forever debating. This is why there are so many biographies of, for example, Abraham Lincoln: not because new facts are discovered that necessitate new accounts of his life, but because there are so very many ways of interpreting the facts already known. And for more obscure historical figures, of course, the historical record would be so thin that the guesswork would be even greater: imagine trying to simulate, say, Newton’s mother.

More importantly, the historical record available for reconstructing a person is mostly a collection of external facts about a life — which is to say, it leaves out crucial internal aspects of human being. To understand what I mean, watch this clip from the new TV series Caprica. In the pilot episode, the following conversation takes place between a simulation of the late Zoe Graystone and an avatar of her father (while another girl’s avatar looks on).
[If the video does not play for you correctly, click here to open it in a separate window: Permalink.]
The flesh-and-blood Zoe Graystone is dead, but this simulation claims to be accurate because it, the simulation, is based on so many sources of data.

But what do those sources of data reveal? Some might tell you a bit about the health and appearance of the body. (“DNA profiles” and “genetic typings” are both mentioned, which seems repetitious, as does “medical scans” and “CAT scans.”) Some might tell you about physical appearance, mannerisms, and sound. (“Recording — video, audio” and “security cameras.”) But what do movie tickets reveal about you? Only that you might have attended particular movies — not why you attended or what you thought of the movies. What do your e-mails reveal? Only what you wanted other people to read, which might or might not reflect what you actually think or feel. And so on. With the possible exception of “synaptic records,” which don’t exist in real life (and even if they did would not be translatable into mental states), everything on Zoe’s list offers only fragmentary, potentially misleading, external information. Using all that data, it might be possible to develop an interesting psychological profile of a person, and perhaps even very crudely to ape a person. But excluded would be everything that is internal and not reducible to data: the varied intensity of authentic feeling; the creative spark; the ever-shifting web of relations with others; the ever-present secrets of pride, shame, and love; and the potential of growth of the inner-directed consciousness.