Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Covering the conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry

I’ve been attending two conferences this week. First was the Tarrytown Meeting, organized by the Center for Genetics and Society and held in Tarrytown, NY. For the next few days, I’ll be at the conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry (ISME), held at Providence College in Providence, RI.

My original aim was to have my coverage of these conferences balance each other out: the Tarrytown Meeting was a conference of progressive bioethicists, while the ISME conference is heavily traditionalist — though an odd confluence or split between Marxists, Catholics, pro-lifers, feminists, and a variety of other groups (often all of them coinciding in the same individuals). It turned out that the Tarrytown Meeting was closed, so I did not live-blog it, but I may have some posts about it, and post my own talk from it, in a few days. But I’ll be blogging the ISME conference for the next few days.

This will be something of a departure from my previous conference coverage. For one, this is primarily an academic rather than a popular conference, and is not particularly aimed at being easily comprehensible by people outside the field. More importantly, of course, this conference is not about transhumanism or even specifically bioethics, and the connection between the topics I’ll be covering at this conference and the subject of this blog may at times seem tenuous (though Ill aim to focus on the talks that are most relevant). So this coverage will also be something of an experiment.


The main reason we have for writing about transhumanism is not so much the movement itself (because probably most of what it prophesies will never come to pass) as what it represents — the set of attitudes, ideas, and aspirations that are already present in our society, that in transhumanism we see boiled away from all moderation and taken to their logical ends. And what we find at those ends is (among other things) the profound incoherence of the transhumanist movement, its thousand conflicted, ultimately irreconcilable aims.

It is because transhumanism is just a continuation of aspirations already present in our society that the fragmentary nature of the one points to the fragmentary nature of the other. Among the things that looking at transhumanism makes plain is the total lack in our Enlightenment tradition of a coherent conception of human good (much less a conception of the good that is actually good for humans).

There is no philosopher who has better articulated that conceptual incoherence, and its sources, than Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work is the subject of this conference. His seminal work is After Virtue (1981), of which Wikipedia has a decent summary. That book is absolutely indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the philosophical underpinnings of modernity.

MacIntyrean theory, which is bound up with the movements known as neo-Aristotelianism and virtue ethics, offers a powerful means of coming back from the corrosions in our self-understanding that have led us to such a point that transhumanism does seem the logical next step. My hope is that covering this conference will offer at least a glimpse into why that is so. Stay tuned to find out whether I, and the minions of Prof. MacIntyre, can deliver.

(Also, as a procedural caveat to any conference attendees, please note proper coverage of the subject matter here will require some special work, so there may be a delay of a day or two between presentations and posts on them. Update: Ive changed the title of this post to reflect that this will not quite be live-blogging.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Robert Ettinger (1918-2011)

Robert Ettinger, whose 1962 book The Prospect of Immortality kicked off the cryonics movement, has died at the age of 92. His remains have reportedly been frozen, along with those of his mother and two wives, at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan.

We will eventually have more to say in the journal about Ettinger, the feasibility of cryonics, and the movement's true believers. For now, though, readers interested in learning more about Ettinger's claims and his life — including his service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War — can consult his Wikipedia entry, this obituary by cryonics supporter Mike Darwin, and these memorials by bloggers Mark Plus and Giulio Prisco. The London Telegraph has also just posted an obituary.

Readers wishing for more background on cryonics might consult the two most recent high-profile articles on the subject in the popular press, both from last year: the New York Times Magazine story focusing on Robin Hanson, "Till Cryonics Do Us Part" (which we discussed here), and Jill Lepore's excellent New Yorker piece, featuring probably the last substantial interview Ettinger ever gave, "The Iceman" (alas, behind a paywall). Also, Ed Regis has an excellent chapter on Ettinger and cryonics in his book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition.

I hope Ettinger's admirers will take it as a sign of respect and not as a backhanded criticism of cryonics if I close simply with R.I.P.

UPDATES (oldest on top):
  • KurzweilAI has a short post up, including a statement from Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute, confirming that Ettinger "had an ice bath sitting by his bedside" when he died, and his body "is now in the cooling box." [Actually, Best would later clarify that the ice bath was in the next room; see below.] The post also includes a statement from Max More, the prominent transhumanist who recently became president and CEO of the other big cryonics outfit, Alcor. (Quick side note: Until Ettinger's death, the Cryonics Institute claimed to have the bodies of 105 of its customers stored in its facilities while Alcor claimed to have the bodies or at least the heads of 106. Now, with Ettinger's body becoming, as Best puts it, the Cryonics Institute's "106th patient," the Cryonics Institute and Alcor are tied.) (One other side note, in case you're curious about their one-syllable heroic-sounding names: Max More chose that name for himself, having been born Max T. O'Connor, while Ben Best was really born with that name.)

  • Ben Best's statement was also posted on the Cryonet mailing list, a discussion forum well known in cryonics circles. If you scroll down on that Cryonet post, you'll see several replies and remembrances, including this comment from Mark Plus: "[Ettinger] anticipated a lot of today's 'transhumanism,' yet today's H+ youngsters think they've just invented many of the ideas [he] discussed nearly 40 years ago."

  • The Cryonics Society has posted a statement (cribbed in part from Wikipedia and other blogs).

  • I haven't asked Ettinger's family and colleagues to confirm this, but it seems possible that the final recorded interview he ever gave was one to Ioannis Papadopoulos in 2010. It's on YouTube here, and Papadopoulos has posted further information and pictures here. (The page is in Greek, but here's a translated version via Google.) In the interview, Ettinger says that he "was not by any means the first person to think of these things. There have been lots of others, there've been many others, some of them thousands of years ago. But, as it happens, I was the first one to put it together in a coherent way in book-length form." Another fairly recent recorded interview with Ettinger, conducted by filmmaker Jeph Porter, can be found in his short 2007 documentary "Dying for Immortality." (Ettinger first appears around 7 minutes and 30 seconds.) Both videos include tours of cryonics facilities, although neither tour is led by Ettinger.

  • Washington Post obituarist Emma Brown quotes Ettinger's son David: "We're obviously sad" but "we were able to freeze him under optimum conditions, so he's got another chance." She also quotes an interview Ettinger apparently gave the Detroit News last year: "If both of my wives are revived ... that will be a high class problem." She also quotes a short letter by Ettinger published almost exactly one year ago in the New York Times Magazine: "the tide of history is with us."

  • In a short post over on his blog, economist Tyler Cowen notes that few newspapers have printed an obituary for Ettinger so far, jokingly adding that he doubts the silence "is an intended tribute to Ettinger's ideas."

  • The Cryonics Institute, which Ettinger founded and which now stores his body, has just put out a press release: "Founder of Cryonics Movement Dies, is Frozen at Cryonics Institute."

  • Michigan reporter Jonathan Oosting interviewed Ettinger's son David this morning (July 25, 2011): "I never had a conversation about how he would be remembered.... Memorial services and funerals didn't interest him. He was interested in practically preserving his life."

  • Another obituary, this time from the Detroit News's Kim Kozlowski, who notes that David Ettinger "said there was discussion about having" a memorial service for his father, even though his father "didn't want" one. In January 2010, Kozlowski published an interview with Ettinger (unfortunately behind a paywall) that was the source of Ettinger's remark that, if he and both of his late wives were someday reanimated, he would face "a high class problem." Out of context, it sounds like a joke. But in Kozlowski's original 2010 article, Ettinger goes on to discuss the possibility more seriously: "I would be lucky if they both wanted to be with me. But maybe neither one of them will want me." Ettinger also told Kozlowski that he was sad that his brother had given up on cryonics before dying in 1998: "That was one of my major sorrows.... He was my brother. I had hoped to save him from death."

  • The only thing worth mentioning about this short Ettinger notice on io9 is the picture they chose to put at the top. It shows Ettinger standing with Bob Nelson, who is an extremely controversial figure in the cryonics movement. Nelson played a part in some of the earliest cryonic freezings, but was also involved in a scandal that resulted in several decomposed bodies. To learn more about Nelson, you can see these stories that Google brings up, or you can listen to this 2008 episode of the radio show This American Life, which is reportedly being adapted into a movie starring Paul Rudd (presumably as Nelson).

  • Here are two short newswire obituaries, from the Associated Press and Agence France-Press.

  • "Pursuing Immortality, He Followed a Frozen Path": Stephen Miller's obituary of Ettinger in the Wall Street Journal includes at least one item I hadn't seen mentioned elsewhere: Ettinger "rejected cloning as an alternative route to immortality, because 'all it does is get you a twin.'"

  • From Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute, more details about Ettinger's death and the freezing of his body. Best says that he had personally been present for every cryopreservation since mid-2005 (that's more than thirty bodies), but he happened to be traveling when Ettinger died. Best says that he participated a bit by telephone, and that Ettinger's cryopreservation "went well without me." He also offers this detail about the moments after Ettinger's death (correcting an earlier statement Best made over the weekend): "His head was placed in a cube full of ice within 30 seconds of pronouncement [of death], and the ice bath was brought from the next room ... and set up within the next minute" rather than instantly.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

There Is No ‘Undo’ Button for the Singularity

As a matter of clearing up the record, I’d like to point out a recent post by Michael Anissimov in which he points out that his blog’s server is still infested with malware. The post concludes:

I don’t know jack about viruses or how they come about. I suppose The New Atlantis will next be using that as evidence that a Singularity will never happen. Oh wait — they already did.

[UPDATE: Mr. Anissimov edited the post without noting it several times, including removing this snarky comment, and apparently, within the last hour or two, deleting the post entirely; see below.]

Mr. Anissimov is referring to two posts of mine, “Transhumanist Tech Failures” and “The Disinformation Campaign of Transhumanist ‘Caution’.” But even a passing glance at either of these posts will show that I never used this incident as evidence that the Singularity will never happen. Instead, it should be clear that I used it, rather opportunistically, to point out the embarrassing fact that the hacking of his site ironically reveals the deep foolhardiness of Mr. Anissimov’s aspirations. Shameless, I know.

It’s not of mere passing significance that Mr. Anissimov admits here that he “[doesn’t] know jack about viruses or how they come about”! You would think someone who is trying to make his name on being the “responsible” transhumanist, the one who shows up the need to make sure AI is “friendly” instead of “unfriendly,” would realize that, if ever there comes into existence such a thing as unfriendly AI — particularly AI intentionally designed to be malicious — computer viruses will have been its primordial ancestor, or at least its forerunner. Also, you would think he would be not just interested in but actually in possession of a deep and growing knowledge of the practical aspects of artificial intelligence and computer security, those subjects whose mastery are meant to be so vital to our future.

I know we Futurisms guys are supposedly Luddites, but (although I prefer to avoid trotting this out) I did in fact graduate from a reputable academic computer science program, and in it studied AI, computer security, and software verification. Anyone who properly understands even the basics of the technical side of these subjects would laugh at the notion of creating highly complex software that is guaranteed to behave in any particular way, particularly a way as sophisticated as being “friendly.” This is why we haven’t figured out how to definitively eradicate incomparably more simple problems — like, for example, ridding malware from servers running simple blogs.

The thing is, it’s perfectly fine for Mr. Anissimov or anyone else who is excited by technology not to really know how the technology works. The problem comes in their utter lack of humility — their total failure to recognize that, when one begins to tackle immensely complex “engineering problems” like the human mind, the human body, or the Earth’s biosphere, little errors and tweaks in the mind, gaps in your knowledge that you weren’t even aware of, can translate into chaos and catastrophe when they are actually applied. Reversing an ill-advised alteration to the atmosphere or the human body or anything else isn’t as easy as deleting content from a blog. It’s true that Mr. Anissimov regularly points out the need to act with caution, but that makes it all the more reprehensible that he seems so totally disinclined to actually so act.


Speaking of deleting content from a blog: there was for a while a comment on Mr. Anissimov’s post critical of his swipe at us, and supportive of our approach if not our ideas. But he deleted it (as well as another comment referring to it). He later deleted his own jab at our blog. And sometime in the last hour or two, he deleted the post entirely. All of these changes were done without making any note of them, as if he hopes his bad ideas can just slide down the memory hole.

We can only assume that he has seen the error of his ways, and now wants to elevate the debate and stick to fair characterizations of the things we are saying. That’s welcome news, if it’s true. But, to put it mildly, silent censorship is a fraught way to conduct debate. So, for the sake of posterity, we have preserved his post here exactly as it appeared before the changes and its eventual deletion. (You can verify this version for yourself in Yahoo’s cache until it updates.)


A final point of clarification: We here on Futurisms are actually divided on the question of whether the Singularity will happen. I think it’s fair to say that Adam finds many of the broad predictions of transhumanism basically implausible, while Charlie finds many and I find a lot of them at least theoretically possible in some form or another.

But one thing we all agree on is that the Singularity is not inevitable — that, in the words of the late computer science professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum, “The myth of technological and political and social inevitability is a powerful tranquilizer of the conscience. Its service is to remove responsibility from the shoulders of everyone who truly believes in it.”

Rather, the future is always a matter of human choices; and the point of this blog is that we think the possibility of humans choosing to bring about the Singularity would be a pretty bad one. Why? We’ve discussed that at some length, and we will go on doing so. But a central reason has to be practical: if we can’t keep malware off of a blog, how can we possibly expect to be able to maintain the control we want when our minds, and every aspect of our society, is so subject to the illusion of technical mastery?

With that in mind, we have much, much more planned to say in the days, weeks, and months ahead, and we look forward to getting back to a schedule of more frequent posting now that we’re clearing a few major deadlines off our plates.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A boon for pick-up artists?

As someone who is not exactly a touchstone for the feelings of others, I am intrigued by a New Scientist story by Sally Adee about technologies being developed by MIT Media Lab that can assist people at reading the emotions of others. These devices include a set of goggles that gives cues about the meaning of facial expressions, a badge that monitors voice quality for aggressiveness (called originally a “jerk-o-meter”), and a glove that tests skin galvanic response for stress.

Although some of this research has been spurred by efforts to assist the autistic, it may also have some commercial appeal because it turns out that many of us are not that good at picking up the more or less subtle cues about feelings that all of us are providing to others all the time. One could imagine how such tools could be used for exploitative purposes — although with the possible exception of the glove, they pick out information that is already being publicly broadcast, as it were, and probably is what skilled salespeople, gamblers, and seducers are already adept at noticing. So one could also say that as consumer goods, these devices might level the emotional playing field a bit.

In times and places where people’s social circles were more constrained and more hierarchical than today, my guess is that there was a greater tendency to notice the visible and vocal cues these technologies are designed to pick up, because the rewards for noticing and the punishments for failing to notice would have been greater. Today, we can more readily skim along at the emotional surface of our interactions, should we feel the need to pay attention to them at all.

We’ve documented the result of this emotional superficiality and how it makes life easier for transhumanists often enough on this blog, but two more recent examples are worth noting. The first is a story about ‘lovotics,’ “the new science of engineering human-robot love,” as reported with a straight face on Ray Kurzweil’s blog (though not by the master himself). The video of a project from National University of Singapore shows a little crochet ball flashing colors, making annoying noises and moving mysteriously:

We are supposed to believe that, somehow, its actions are based on modeling human endocrine responses and that this in turn is what it will take to allow robots and humans to “love each other.”

The second and even sadder example is one of those confessional blogs that you almost feel bad about reading. In this one, the writer, Sam Biddle, reads an unfavorable evaluation of his performance as a boyfriend by someone he met through the online dating service OK Cupid. He is, to say the least, chagrined by what he finds, but not exactly repentant, as his remarkable concluding paragraphs suggest:

This is a weird way to find out you’ve hurt someone. But why should it be surprising? OK Cupid (and the rest of the bunch) abstract the human element away from love and sex. And that’s fine! Desirable at times, even. We’re living in an abstracted age, where conversations are condensed and pictures are cropped and feelings often don’t matter. The crevasse between someone’s decent OK Cupid profile and caring about an actual human being is a wide one — and the simplicity of dating sites doesn’t prepare you for the leap. Of the online dates I used to go on, their terminuses weren’t some shouting match or personality clash. It was just apathy. Meeting people in real life is tough! That’s why dating sites make money. We don’t like tough. But these flings disintegrate as easily as they form, victims of their own convenience.

And they make it easier to hurt someone, because, truthfully, you never cared that much to begin with. When canceling a date is as easy as canceling an Amazon shipment, what are we to expect from each other? People come off as bitchy and rude and careless because the internet lets us be this way — because we demand it! Is this good? Is it even sustainable? I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure that I never [as she claims] sexted that girl. Really. I mean come on.

Meeting people is tough these days, I suppose, but I would have hoped that caring about them was sort of the point of the enterprise. If that is not the goal, then, if we don’t just turn the task over to computers, maybe the MIT Media Lab’s new emotionally assistive technologies could improve what we now hope to get out of our interactions with one another. Their good effect would be enhanced if it turns out that they help people read other people even when the technologies are no longer being used — as one researcher suggests is somewhat the case for autistic users. But then, mightn’t this ability be something that we could teach and learn just through paying attention to other people, and learning to be genuinely interested in them, if we were so inclined?