Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Revolution! — Within Reason

What a difference a day makes! On Tuesday, Michael Anissimov posted a plea to his readers to aid the Existential Risk Reduction Career Network — either by “[joining] an elite group of far-sighted individuals by contributing at least 5% of your income” or, “for those who wish to make their lives actually mean something,” by finding a job through the network. Who’d have thought you could make your life mean something by becoming an existentialist?

At any rate, he took something a beating in the comments (“Harold Camping called, he wants his crazy back,” said one), but I think people might as well put their money where their mouths are. That’s how interest-group politics works in American liberal democracy; it’s part of the give and take of public debate and the way in which decisions get made. Why existential risk reduction would not include a healthy dose of criticism of transhumanism is another matter, but I was happy to see Mr. Anissimov seeming to be sensible with respect to one of the routes for how the transhumanist cause is going to have to get ahead in the public arena.

Just shows how wrong a guy can be. On Wednesday, Mr. Anissimov published a brief critique of a rather thoughtful essay by Charles Stross, one of the great writers of Singularity-themed science fiction. Mr. Stross expresses some skepticism about the possibility of the Singularity, but Mr. Anissimov would have none of it, particularly when Mr. Stross dares to suggest that there might be reasons to heavily regulate AI research. Mr. Anissimov thunders:

We are willing to do whatever it takes, within reason, to get a positive Singularity. Governments are not going to stop us. If one country shuts us down, we go to another country.

(Now I understand why Bond movie villains end up somewhere in mid-ocean.) He continues:

WE want AIs that do “try to bootstrap [themselves]” to a “higher level”. Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it. [Emphases in original.]

Take that, Charles Stross: just you try to stop us!! Mr. Anissimov makes the Singularity look a lot like Marx’s communism. We don’t know quite what it’s going to look like, but we know we have to get there. And we will do anything “within reason” to get there. Of course, what defines the parameters of “within reason” is the alleged necessity of reaching the goal; as the Communists found out, under this assumption “within reason” quickly comes to signify “by any means necessary.” Welcome to the logic of crusading totalitarianism.

Carving Whiteness into Asian Faces: A Step Back for Progressivism

One of the central beliefs of liberalism, as it is popularly formulated today, is that we should strive to tolerate people who are very different from us — even (intermingling with a much older formulation of this belief) that we should learn to appreciate and love people who are very different from us, just for who they are. This is indeed a noble aspiration, if forever elusive — and to that end, liberals stridently oppose various forms of discrimination. Transhumanists generally tend to position themselves as liberals or progressives, and accordingly, spend a lot of time wagging their fingers at racism and discrimination.

Take Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger who last month posted an essay from The New Yorker on his blog, condemning racism against Asian Americans. (Blogger Miss Self-Important had a great post on this essay.) In the post, titled, “Asian Like Me: The Race That Isn’t There,” Mr. Munkittrick notes that “Superstars and top-performers [are] being ignored because they aren’t boastful or brash,” and quotes an excerpt from the article, which claims that Asian Americans suffer in our culture for their inability to conform to American modes of behavior.

Yet just two weeks earlier, Mr. Munkittrick posted a New York Times article on the boom in plastic surgery among Chinese. The excerpt he posted concludes:

The youthful patients include job applicants hoping to enhance their prospects in the work force, teenagers who received cosmetic surgery as a high school graduation present and even middle school students, most of whom want eye jobs, surgeons say.

Mr. Munkittrick affirmatively responded to the trend that the article describes: “I love China and the Chinese. Their success improves the world.” Strangely enough, Mr. Munkittrick cut off the excerpt just before it describes the unregulated, nearly meatball-surgery status of the industry as it stands in that country.

Setting aside for now Mr. Munkittrick’s apparent uninterest in the immediate public health dangers of this situation, there is something more deeply perverse about his celebration. It is hardly an obscure fact that East Asian cultures in general tend to subvert the autonomy of the individual to the needs of the society. That tendency is clearly at work in the case of these surgeries. For example, the Times article notes that in China, “The No. 1 [cosmetic] operation is designed to make eyes appear larger by adding a crease in the eyelid, forming what is called a double eyelid.” The reason for this practice is explored in this related post on the blog Analyfe, discussing a chapter from the reader Sex, Self, and Society:

the scars [from the double-eyelid procedure] take over a year to heal, and there are several risks involved....

In nearly every case, the women claim to have pursued the surgery to overcome stereotypes based on their features (such as sleepy, nerdy, and no fun). They opt for cosmetic surgery in hopes of becoming more employable, more well-liked, and more successful.

Doctors often agree to perform the procedure without question. Disturbingly, the doctors often describe the Asian features as abnormal and perpetuate the link between those characteristics and negative stereotypes when talking to their clients....

The standards of Western beauty are strong and influential, often making minorities — in this example Asians — feel inferior and less attractive than the American ideal. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the “success” Mr. Munkittrick is celebrating is that of Chinese kids getting their faces carved up to look Western, so that they can be accepted in a world that values Western faces over Asian.


In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a widespread practice among black men called conking, in which they would undergo a painful, potentially dangerous process to chemically straighten their naturally kinky hair, so as to better fit in in a white world — especially so as to appear more humble, and, well, less black to potential white employers. Malcolm X noted in his Autobiography that when he got his hair conked, it was

my first really big step toward self-degradation.... I admire any Negro man who has never had himself conked, or who has had the sense to get rid of it — as I finally did.

It was a small but symbolic achievement of the civil rights era that the practice of conking came to be recognized and rejected as an instance of endemic racism playing out in the free choices of individuals in a minority group.

One can only hope that, decades hence, we will look back with just as much sadness and regret on the practice of nonwhite people cutting up their faces and bodies to conform to Western standards. If the subjects of those surgeries do decide they’ve made a mistake, it will not be nearly as easy, cheap, or safe to reverse what they’ve done (if it is possible at all) as it was for Malcolm X to grow out his hair. And if we do reach that wiser age, it will have been in repudiation of the work of transhumanists, who, despite their self-proclaimed progressivism, represent a true step backwards from those admirable aims of modern liberalism.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Futuristic Kissing

You might have seen this video in the last month or so:

In case you don’t make it through the video, the guy also talks about making recordings of celebrities’, um, kissing patterns on the devices, and the likelihood that people would pay for those recordings so they could, um, make out with their favorite celebrities.

My first inclination when I saw this was to attempt to articulate what is so wrong with it, and to post that on this blog. Then I thought, what’s the use? Not because kissing over the Internet has already won or somesuch, but because I suspect people divide pretty definitely into two instant reactions to this video — reactions that aren’t likely to be altered by argument (at least not about this particular thing).

Those two reactions are basically the same two that people have to transhumanism in general: whuuut? and sweeeet.

For example, my reaction upon seeing this video is a bit of fascination and horror at the nonstop train of weirdness chugging out of Japanese culture, following by laughter, followed by sadness and pity. (My guess is that most of the nearly-two-million viewership of the video derives from some similar morbid curiosity.)

On the other side, for those who eagerly await having sex with robots or with a million people at once in virtual space, I imagine this video must be greeted with admiration and excitement. For that crowd, the apparent crudity must seem excusable as something akin to witnessing the ape in 2001 pick up that bone that becomes the first tool and hurl it triumphantly up into the air, and (from our cinematic/future vantage) watching it transform in just a few technological generations into a satellite.

Although both of those two immediate reactions are manifestations of larger modes of reasoning that are subject to argumentation and so to change, they seem to be the usual starting points. Question: Are there transhumanists who greet developments like the ones we see in this video with anything other than praise? If so, then on what grounds can they reject stuff like this as bizarre? What resources do transhumanists have, consistent to their avowed beliefs, for criticizing it — without calling upon standards of common sense and weirdness that they are supposed to heroically scoff at?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Irony Alert: Brave New World

For addition to the annals of dazzlingly weird and unself-aware bioethical writing: IEET last month put up a blog post by Nikki Olson and Hank Pellissier (a.k.a. “Hank Hyena”) entitled “Artificial Wombs Will Spawn New Freedoms.” Olson and Pellissier try to make a case, on several grounds, for growing human babies in artificial outside-the-mother wombs.

The main things to keep in mind about this idea, from a practical standpoint, are all of the concerns over “reengineering” a profoundly complicated natural phenomenon about which there is an enormous amount we don’t know. (Consider, for example, the relatively modest and increasingly widespread practice of elective Caesarean sections: even with the great knowledge and powers of modern medical science, an NIH conference recently concluded that “There is insufficient evidence to evaluate fully the benefits and risks of cesarean delivery on maternal request compared with planned vaginal delivery.”)

But let’s set that aside, and set aside how intimately pregnancy and birth (not incubation and hatching) are tied up in who we are, and just note what a totally weird argument the authors put forward. The post begins:

Eggs were first. Millions of years before mammals, eggs existed, their hard shells protecting the incubating embryo inside. Egg Mom wanders mobile, light in her anatomy — unlike her mammalian sister that waddles around, heavily crippled with the burden of her womb. Eggs were an evolutionar[il]y smart idea.

The post goes on to detail all of the ways that eggs are advantageous and wombs comparatively quite problematic. These are true as far as they go — certainly eggs have their benefits and wombs their problems. But the authors seem to be suggesting that eggs are somehow actually more evolutionarily advantageous. There’s a certain logic to this, I guess: eggs have been around longer and so are more “tried and true.” Of course, there are also enormous relative advantages to wombs over eggs, which is why they evolved and permitted the flourishing of many more advanced species. It’s not as if the authors are comparing two species of finches, one of which uses eggs and the other wombs. They’re making an argument about evolutionary advancement by describing just a few traits of whole biological systems in entirely different families, without mentioning how those fit into the much more significant criterion of the relative overall advancement of two families.

In effect, it sounds like they’re saying that evolution works backwards. Put it this way: why stop with eggs? Why not extol the virtues of spores or mitosis, and suggest we reproduce like slime molds? Olson and Pellisier are not simply looking to nature for ideas for an engineering project, which engineers commonly do; it sounds rather like saying that biofuels are good because horses were way better for getting around than cars.

Lady Gaga [Photo credit: Getty Images]

But the best part of the post is when the authors cite, as though it helps their case, the depiction of artificial wombs in Brave New World:

In February at the Grammy Awards, Lady Gaga crawled out of an artificial womb to sing her hit, “Born This Way.” Synthetic uteri have been featured in numerous books and films, from Brave New World to Avatar. We believe eggs are destined to return, to hatch our young, and that we will embrace them.

You can probably imagine how the rest goes.

(Back in 2003, The New Atlantis published a lovely and smart essay about artificial wombs by our senior editor Christine Rosen. It’s well worth reading. Check out “Why Not Artificial Wombs?”)

Monday, June 20, 2011

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Self-proclaimed futurologist Ian Pearson has produced a report for Travelodge, the British hotel chain, about the future of sleep and hotel rooms: The 2030 Future of Sleep Report. Despite the date referenced in the title, the report actually speaks consistently about what to expect by 2035. You’d think that one of the first lessons for the contemporary futurologist would be that a lot can happen in five years. I guess futurologists need copy editors, just like the rest of us.

Among the things Mr. Pearson expects is the presence of more smart surfaces, including fabrics. Bed sheets will produce calming scents as they sense they are necessary for us.

Edward Hopper, Hotel by a Railroad, 1952.
We will fall into carefully medically monitored sleep while checking e-mail or watching TV via contact lenses that will work with our eyes closed. (And if that is not your idea of hell...) Or those same lenses will facilitate virtual sex, including the chance to alter the appearance of a partner without the partner knowing about it. (Score one for intimacy there.) Recorded dreams will ease our sleep, or help to educate us while we sleep. Rooms will be very spare, with most of the decorative elements extensively customizable because they will be provided by virtual imaging technology. People will be able to shop in their rooms by calling up a virtual store, or hold meetings by calling up a virtual meeting room. If all this is what Travelodge has to prepare for, imagine what will be going on at the high-end hotels.

Oddly enough, Mr. Pearson does not mention things like bedbug-proof rooms or any cleanliness-related issues beyond expecting robots to clean rooms. No mention of showers with adequate water pressure. No mention of alarm clocks with obvious and unambiguous methods of setting them. No mention of dynamic ambient noise cancellation so that guests don’t have to overhear to the virtual sex going on next door. No mention of air conditioners that do not wake you every time they cycle on or off, or keep you up by blowing directly on you. (To be fair, it’s possible that the latter two are implied in Pearson’s prediction that guests will be able to create any kind of sound/temperature/visual environment they want in their rooms — so, for example, you can arrange the room to simulate a forest if you want to feel like you’re camping out.)

In the end, I have to give Mr. Pearson credit for going out on a limb and predicting that we will still need to sleep away a third of our lives in 2035, and even sometimes still have trouble getting to sleep. Maybe he is even quietly implying that in some of the real ways that motels and hotels fall short today that I noted above, they will continue to fall short in the future. That’s my kind of futurology. And yet one has to wonder about the big topic that Pearson prudently fails to mention: if all these virtual wonders are available, why am I traveling at all? Maybe Travelodge should diversify by investing in the holodeck business.