Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, September 30, 2011

Manufacturing Freedom

Scientists claim they have discovered the brain mechanism responsible for susceptibility to group pressure — and a way to control it. Dr. Vasily Klucharev, the lead researcher, says, “People can try to reduce conformity in certain situations, especially when they know about negative consequences of group pressure such as criminal behavior, propaganda or aggressive marketing,” and suggests a drug that could accomplish this. Transhumanist Rachel Haywire finds this development “extremely inspiring to me as someone who views groupthink as the major problem with Humanity 1.0.”

However, the article notes that “such drugs would be controversial ... as they could be used by companies hoping to make their employees more reliable or to help control rebellious individuals.” I don’t know what the fuss is about — I, for one, can hardly think of a better way to encourage individualism than a mass program to chemically control peoples’ brains.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Posthuman Art Exhibit

The New York Times reports on an exhibition at The National Art Museum of China called “Translife,” a collection of works about the supposedly imminent post-human future.

“Brain Station,” WU Juehui

The exhibition’s organizers (and the article’s author) speak in breathless tones of the various boundaries they’re crossing, and how the exhibit “ring[s] the death knell for ‘representational’ art.” Apparently they haven’t heard of the last hundred years of art history — though they’ve at least managed to rediscover its penchant for passing off uncreativity as bold transgression. (This is not to indict most modern art, but let’s be honest.)

As an added bonus, the article contains this wonderfully ironic jewel for a transhumanist exhibit (emphasis added): “ ‘Humanity objectifies nature as a source of income, as a pure utilitarian relationship,’ said [curator Zhang Ga]. ‘This is the essential root of our current crisis. How do we deal with it?’ ”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

IBM’s New “Cognitive Computing” Processor

IBM recently unveiled a new “cognitive computing” chip that is said to function like the human brain. These sorts of claims are made all the time, and are, as a rule, grossly exaggerated or outright false. But from everything I’ve read, this breakthrough sounds legitimate: if the researchers have done what they claim, this may be a significant break from the integrated, highly linear Von Neumann architecture that has been at the heart of computer processors for over sixty years.

The reports I’ve read, though, have all mostly failed to emphasize the likely fact that this new architecture can only be taken full advantage of by tasks like pattern recognition that are already amenable to being processed in parallel, or all at once, rather than in a sequence of steps.

Also, reports of the brain’s demise are greatly exaggerated: this architecture is a lot more like the brain than current architecture, but it’s still not remotely similar enough to produce consciousness, thought, or strong AI.

UPDATE: See also Alex Knapp’s two highly informative posts on the IBM research: “Is IBM Building a Computer That Thinks Like a Human?” and “How IBM’s Cognitive Computer Works.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Link Roundup: The Singularity, Friendly AI, and Text-Messaging Contact Lenses

Hello out there, all you hard-workin’ cowboys and cowgirls and species-liberated cow-human persons! Here are some links you might find interesting if you read this here blog:

On the Singularity

Hank Campbell argues, in so many words, that Singularitarianism is a fraud conceived to line the pockets of several prominent figures with speaking fees and book deals. He’s right about at least half of this.

• On a related note: is the Singularity here yet? (Be sure to check out the HTML source code too.)

• Notice anything funny about the academic tracks offered by the Singularity University? (hat tip: Spencer McFarlane and Emily Smith Beitiks of the Center for Genetics and Society)


On Chatbots and AI

A video of two chatbots talking to each other has been making the rounds. XKCD has the definitive response (see Mark Halpern’s “The Trouble with the Turing Test” for a longer consideration of a similar argument):

• The same chatbot has almost passed the Turing Test, but apparently even transhumanists now realize what an unreliable gauge of intelligence that is.

• After many months of sitting depressed on the couch, IBM’s Watson is finally out of the unemployment line and back to work.

• Michael Anissimov reveals in a comment that he corrected a post because he didn’t know the difference between functionalism and reductionism. I wouldn’t expect most people to know this, of course — unless, that is, they happen to have read something about psychology, philosophy of mind, or anything remotely technical about artificial intelligence. And we’re supposed to take seriously his work on “friendly AI”?

• Speaking of friendly AI: Ben Goertzel takes the concept and advocates instead an “AI nanny” for humanity. Sort of like friendly AI, only with an emphasis on saving us from ourselves instead of saving us from the AI itself. Yet, somehow, this idea seems a little less — well, friendly. Good luck selling that one. (Goertzel does suggest, though, that it would be programmed with “A mandate to be open-minded toward suggestions by intelligent, thoughtful humans about the possibility that it may be misinterpreting its initial, preprogrammed goals.” You know, something along the lines of: “Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.”)


Potpourri

• A short, informative post by Michael Cooney examines a recent report by the Government Accountability Office on the current state of climate-engineering science and technology. (via Slashdot)

Mark Frauenfelder reviews the new novel The Postmortal by Drew Magary, in which society suddenly invents a cure that halts aging (but does not reverse it, or prevent accidental death or diseases).

The New York Times reports on advances in neural implants that can control computers — making its subjects the first cyborgs, it claims. (As Adam Keiper has noted in his lengthy article on neuroelectronics, reports beginning this way have been around for a long time.)

• The webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has had a couple of hilarious and brilliant transhumanism-related strips recently: one on psychological engineering, another on genetic engineering.

• Among the list of preposterous business ideas mentioned with great enthusiasm by the character Tom Haverford on a recent episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation was a transhumanist favorite:

Contact lenses that display text messages!

• Finally, from the benighted realm of the real world and meatspace, an image of Saturn from Cassini:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Computerized Translation and Resurrecting the Dead

Tim Carmody wrote a fascinating article recently on the future of computerized translation, noting that Google recently shut down its Translate interface for programmers (and later reopened it, but now as a paid service).
Apparently more and more of the data Google were using to refine its translation technology were drawn from pages that had themselves been generated by being run through Google Translate. As James Fallows put it:
The more of this auto-translated material floods onto the world’s websites, the smaller the proportion of good translations the computers can learn from. In engineering terms, the signal-to-noise ratio is getting worse.
One wonders what implications this has for the project suggested by the likes of Ray Kurzweil and David Chalmers to resurrect the dead by recreating minds from their artifacts, such as letters, video recordings, and so forth: if the mind is a “fractal,” as Kurzweil likes to claim, would such a project be magnifying more the signal or the noise?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Robin Hanson on Why We Should “Forget 9/11”

A few days ago, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack, George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson, who is influential among transhumanists, wrote a blog post arguing that we should “Forget 9/11.” Why? Well, partly because of cryonics:

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration. And cryonics might have saved most of them.

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Hanson’s post may have been “flamebait” — but we should assume that he sincerely means what he has written, and read it as charitably as possible. His concern about matters of public health is admirable (although one wonders how much more public attention could be paid to the importance of exercising and not smoking, and whether paying attention to 9/11 was really a significant blow to those efforts). And many would agree that our government could have better allocated its money to save, lengthen, and improve lives (although one wonders when this is ever not the case, and what is the foolproof way to avoid misallocation).

Still, one has to marvel at Hanson’s insistence that there is no meaningful difference between the ways people die. He implies that all deaths are equally tragic — so there is no difference, apparently, between a peaceful death and a violent one, or between a death in old age and one greatly premature. In a weird version of “blaming the victim,” Hanson implies that many of the people who have died since 9/11 are to blame for their own deaths, because they could have made choices like exercising, not smoking, and undergoing cryonic preservation. But of course, people who are murdered never get the chance to make or have these choices matter at all.

This is part of the larger point Hanson misses: One certainly can doubt the severity of the threat posed by terrorism, and the wisdom of the U.S. response to it. But the September 11th attack was animated by ideas, and Hanson willfully ignores the implications of those ideas: The lives he would have us forget were lost in an attack against the very liberal order that allows Hanson to share his ideas so freely. It’s hard to imagine transhumanist discourse flourishing under the theocratic tyranny of sharia law. And if the planners of that attack had their way, that liberal order would be extinguished, as would the lives of many who now live under it — which would certainly alter even the calculus admitted by Hanson’s myopic utilitarianism.

Thus the true backwardness of Hanson’s argument. While he may think he is making a trenchantly pro-humanist case for how insensitive and outrageous it is that we focus our emotions on some deaths much more than others, one wonders whether dulling our sensitivity to the deaths of the few can really be the best way to make us care about the deaths of the many. If we cannot feel outrage at what is shocking, can we still be moved by what is commonplace? If we do not mourn the loss of those who are close to us, how can we ever mourn the loss of those who are far?

Parental Goodness versus Efficiency

Speaking of good versus efficient, the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has a gem today (click to see the whole thing):


I love the expression on the father’s face: truly efficient love.

(P.S. Don’t forget the button.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Aren’t Transhumanists More Successful at Love?

A lovestruck Romeo sings the streets a serenade

At H+ Magazine, Katja Grace asks whether we are getting “better at romance,” or, more precisely, “more romantically efficient.” In case you’re wondering about the definition:

A romantically efficient person gets more affection and orgasms for the same input of searching and pining, just as an efficient farmer gets more grain and pigs for the same amount of land and dirt.

So much for, well, romance.

Incidentally, Grace claims without apparent irony that “oddballs and pornography enthusiasts” are the people who have contributed the most to our romantic efficiency. This means that, basically, the Comic Book Guy is her ideal of the most romantically efficient, and presumably, happy and satisfied, person in our society:

UPDATE: See also Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal on efficiency.

Monday, September 12, 2011

History, 9/11 Relics, and “Technological Superstition”

Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together.
—Niels Bohr, to Werner Heisenberg, at Kronborg Castle

Kevin Kelly recently declared that most of the value we place on historical artifacts is a matter of mere “technological superstition.” Beginning with artifacts from the September 11 attack sites, and continuing to Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter, home-run baseballs, and the pen used to sign the Declaration of Independence, Kelly claims that we preserve, collect, and pay great sums for these objects because we believe they are akin to religious relics that confer supernatural or magical powers.

(flickr/aturkus)Now, I could see Kelly’s point if people were preserving 9/11 rubble because they thought that tossing it over one’s shoulder would ward off evil spirits, or were buying Hemingway’s typewriter because they thought rubbing one’s temples upon it would help one get a story into McSweeney’s. But as far as I know, no one believes, or is saying, any such thing. In fact, Kelly’s own argument suggests something rather different.

The main elements of Kelly’s argument seem to be: (1) The supposed “specialness” of an artifact does not reside in the artifact itself, cannot be measured by scientific instrumentation; it is thus superstitious. (2) An artifact’s supposed “specialness originates in the same way as an ancient relic — because someone says so.” This is why people who value artifacts are so interested in provenance — documentation or evidence to establish that the artifact actually has the historical connection it is supposed to. (3) There are only two legitimate, non-superstitious reasons to value particular historical objects: age and rarity. (Kelly makes parts of this last point in the comments section beneath his original post.)

Hemingway’s typewriter and binoculars, at his home in Ketchum, Idaho (US Plan B)

A variety of immediate problems arise. The idea that an artifact’s uniqueness cannot be measured empirically is simply not true in the examples Kelly has provided. His prime example is Hemingway’s typewriter, which is supposedly physically identical to every other typewriter of the same model. Except it isn’t. Hemingway owned it, so, for example, it presumably has bits of his skin cells and hair lodged in it. It is chemically unique: a forensic scientist needing to obtain Hemingway’s DNA might examine this typewriter, but would not examine any other instance of that model.

Kelly’s point (2) is trying desperately to eat its own tail — more on that in a moment. And on point (3), age is not a property that resides in an object (even if evidence of it sometimes does) and rarity most certainly does not reside in an object. If a home-run baseball becomes sufficiently old, or other baseballs of the same model are destroyed so that it becomes rare, why can we now value it? Nothing residing in the ball itself has changed.


Putting these problems aside for now, it seems that Kelly wants us to value objects only inasmuch as they yield information, in particular scientific information. Scientific theories are interested in universals and types, not particulars and instances. A lab rat is useful because we can manipulate it and perform tests upon it to verify or falsify theories. But the particular rat has no scientific value beyond its membership in a class. This is because science is especially interested in studying repeatable events — events whose existence is, paradoxically, not bound to a particular time or place. It would be superstitious to scientifically value any particular rat, because the future will always yield more rats.

The problem is that the reason people value historical artifacts is quite different from the reason they value objects that are useful for forming and validating scientific theories. In both cases, the central task (if not the ultimate goal) involves learning empirical facts about the world. But where scientific facts are repeatable, available for verification by anyone anywhere, a historical event happens only once, and then is gone. (The two qualities that Kelly concedes might make an artifact legitimately valuable — age and rarity — are in fact only valuable in a historical sense; their value seems scientific simply because it can be quantified.)

This is the rub of history: we can’t go back and see it again for ourselves, because it already happened. So we tell stories, and we remember. But we worry that we will forget; and we worry that the next generation will not believe us — or that they will believe, but not feel, because it didn’t exist for them as it did for us. Perhaps we worry that, after enough time, even things that happened to us, and people we knew, will begin to seem less real — because even for us they don’t exist now as they once did.

World Trade Center rubble (via Daily Mail)

And so we demand tangible, physical evidence that history actually happened. Ernest Hemingway is just a name on a book; the closest we can come to experiencing and verifying the real existence of the historical person is standing in his study, touching his typewriter. It becomes easy for those of us who were not living in New York or D.C. or Shanksville, and especially for the children too young to remember, to disbelieve the events of 9/11 on some level — to think it really was just a movie that played out on TV. Left, the wedding ring worn by Bryan Jack, a passenger on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Right, his wife’s ring. (From a New York Times story on 9/11 relics.)It is easier to believe and feel the weight of it when one sees the hole in the ground, or holds a piece of twisted metal.

Kelly notes in a comment that we may value a watch that belonged to our father or a necklace that belonged to our mother because it has some “intangible, spiritual, ineffable quality that would be absent in another unit.” But there is nothing ineffable about it: the watch belonged to our father, the necklace to our mother, while the others did not. These are hard, empirical facts — nothing superstitious or supernatural about them. And the objection that a historical fact does not reside in an object is backwards: the whole point is that it was the object that resided in history.

But the curious thing about artifacts is not just that they reside in events, but that they also reside outside of events, becoming altered by them but persisting beyond them. Artifacts are the precipitations of history. They form a bridge between the past and the present in a way that our own transience and finitude cannot. This is why we are interested in artifacts, and especially in their provenance: not because we value authority as proof of history, but just the opposite, so that we can step beyond taking other peoples’ word, and get as close as possible to personal knowledge of history — of events that happened and people that lived, but are forever gone.


The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.
—Walker Percy

At Ground Zero in New York now stands the National September 11 Memorial, built around the footprints of the Twin Towers. If we are to take Kelly’s argument seriously, then the design, even existence of this memorial is a travesty, a voodoo incantation to nothing. Why does it preserve the footprints of the towers — the space around objects that do not exist, in which nothing now resides because they reside in nothing? Why, indeed, is the memorial located at Ground Zero — which is not especially old, and surely cannot, especially now that the memorial is built over it, yield much new empirical information? Why is it built where the events actually happened and not in some other part of Manhattan — or, for that matter, in Trenton or Boise or São Paulo? Why do we remember at all?

Beware what is afoot when someone comes crying that he has shined the brightest of lights on human affairs, and found that he cannot see in it something everyone else does. There is a good chance he has simply blinded himself.


The footprint of one of the World Trade Center buildings (Mary Altaffer/AP, via The New York Times)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Transhumanists: The Once and Future Christians?

Charles Stross recently claimed that he had found some roots for transhumanism in the relatively obscure Russian Orthodox writing of the idiosyncratic Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov. Stross provocatively asks:

So. Transhumanism: rationalist progressive secular theory, or bizarre off-shoot of Russian Orthodox Christianity? And should this affect our evaluation of its validity? You decide!

I would be more cautious than Stross seems to be about claiming any discernible intellectual influence here. But, influence or not, there are indeed interesting likenesses, and those (along with the striking differences) can illuminate some of the perennial aspirations that transhumanism builds on, at the very least turning our attention away from questions of mere technological feasibility.

In that vein, I just finished a novel from 1884 that contained the following passages:

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius. Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes ... what a monotonous store of meadows and trees, what a commonplace display of mountains and seas!

In fact, there is not a single one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and sublime, that human ingenuity cannot manufacture....

There can be no shadow of doubt that with her never-ending platitudes the old crone has by now exhausted the good-humored admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely come for artifice to take her place whenever possible.

The book is Joris-Karl Huysman’s à Rebours, translated (not very literally) in the English version from which the above quote is taken as Against Nature. It is considered one of the minor classics of French Decadence. I’d be surprised if any transhumanist luminaries had actually been influenced by this book, or by the Decadents in any fashion, but the underlying similarities hardly need to be belabored. Nor do I think they are intellectually accidental.

The Decadents, like transhumanists, seem to have believed in the unrelieved grimness of human life. Where the Decadents thought culture was at a standstill, the transhumanists care not a whit for it, that battle having been lost. In a decaying world where everything was permitted, the Decadents found it hard to find anything worth doing (including eating, drinking and being merry).

Transhumanists have a more crusading mentality, but it points in the same direction as Against Nature. For the fictional Des Esseintes abandons civilization (that is, Paris) and undertakes a series of strange and refined aesthetic experiments on the assumptions articulated above. (Seasteading, anyone?) He works hard, and not without technological assistance, to achieve the ideals he has set for himself, just as transhumanists would have us work hard to be the very best we can imagine ourselves (if we have selves) to be.

Here’s the bad news from the transhumanist point of view. Des Esseintes is a broken man by the end of the book. Worse yet, eight years after writing this minor classic of the Decadent genre, Huysman found himself, rather more to his own surprise than not, a devout Catholic. Contempt for nature can lead in unexpected directions. Who knows what is in store for our transhumanist friends?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Immortality, pro and con

Two popular articles on radical life extension have recently been making the rounds — dueling articles, in a sense, in dueling publications.


Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life

First, Sonia Arrison, H+/World Transhumanist Association board member and one of the founders of Singularity University, has an article in the Wall Street Journal on longevity, presumably a snippetized version of her upcoming book 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith. The article is a lengthy litany of the same basic longevity claims that have been made for years — worms, rats, and monkeys on restricted diets, social-science data about changes in marriage and Social Security if lifespans were greatly extended, etc. — followed by an ethical analysis on the subject. The analysis does not consider whether any of the aforementioned potential social changes — for instance, increased divorce rates (perhaps intentionally facilitated by “sunset clauses” in marriages) and periods of living alone, which even social scientists acknowledge as harmful to individual and social metrics of wellbeing — could be disruptive or otherwise bad. In fact, the crux of the ethical analysis at the end seems to be: “Arguments against life extension are often simply an appeal to the status quo.” Hmm. Could arguments for life extension then often simply be an appeal against the status quo? Perhaps, then, an ethical analysis either way deserves a bit more fleshing out than the 105 words of meditation Arrison expends upon it here. Maybe that is in her book, but I wouldn’t say this article promises much for it.

On the other side, a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Stephen Cave (also author of the forthcoming book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization) discusses the premise of the TV show Torchwood: Miracle Day (the new fourth season of the British TV show Torchwood), in which all of humanity suddenly becomes immortal. This piece is much more philosophically serious. But it makes an old and on its own rather inadequate argument: “our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality,” and so we need death to motivate our value systems and our personal drives to action. Cave also adds in a novel sprinkling of social-scientific research to his article to give it a sheen of scientific authority. Still, the force of his argument is tantamount to trying to make lemonade out of existential despair. At any rate, as wild as immortality premises inherently go, this one is particularly outlandish; a more serious inquiry would look at a gradual scenario like the one in Arrison’s article, in which we can watch the social fabric progressively unweaving (or uplifting — your mileage may vary).

UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that Torchwood: Miracle Day is not a new TV series in its own right, but a new season of the existing British TV show Torchwood.