Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, April 30, 2012

Don’t Waste Your Time

I just recently got around to seeing Andrew Niccol’s 2011 movie In Time. In the dystopian world the film depicts, people are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, but they will die by 26 unless they can earn enough time to keep living, with this living-time also serving as currency. Why and how this system was established are never explicitly spelled out; indeed, in the world of the movie, it seems as though things had ever been thus. No one expresses any nostalgia for a time before time was currency, and however resentful many of the characters may be of the inequality and injustice of the distribution of time, no one ever thinks to challenge the actual use of the anti-aging technology that underlies the whole system. As Emily Beitiks’s review over on the CGS website notes, the film’s central message is a critique of economic inequalities in our own time. A shadowy cartel of bankers controls the world’s time, with its members preserving their opulent lifestyle by oppressing the poor with exorbitant interest rates.
But beyond the movie’s cliché-riddled Robin-Hood steal-from-the-rich narrative, the fact that living-time was used as a currency gave the movie a few more thoughtful moments. Also, the theme of population control — one of the dark undercurrents running through such movements and ideologies as social Darwinism, eugenics, and neo-Malthusian environmentalism — was strongly implied throughout the film. As the despairing time-rich Henry Hamilton tells the movie’s protagonist, Will Salas:
For a few to be immortal, many must die.... Everyone can’t live forever; where would we put them?... The cost of living keeps rising to make sure people keep dying. How else could there be men with a million years while most live day to day? But the truth is, there’s more than enough. No one has to die before their time.
Hamilton, who is 105 years old, has grown tired with life, goes on to tell Will that “the day comes when you’ve had enough. Your mind can be spent even though your body’s not. We want to die. We need to.” Hamilton’s message has clear implications for those interested in radically extending the human lifespan: he reports that some people grow tired of living forever. The idea is not fully fleshed out in the film, and even in Hamilton’s own case we are given reasons to believe that it is guilt over the inequalities of society rather than mere exhaustion with living that drives him to despair. After all, Hamilton doesn’t kill himself in his own wealthy neighborhood; rather, he travels to the slums, spending his time-currency buying drinks for the destitute people his class had long oppressed, in a neighborhood where people with “too much time on their hands” are regularly robbed and murdered by gangsters. Just as these gangsters, called “Minutemen,” are about to “clean his clock” (sorry, but the movie is ham-handed with the punning), Will rescues the seemingly naïve rich man, taking him to an abandoned warehouse where they spend the night sitting in uncomfortable chairs, and Henry explains his intention to die to Will. The next morning, while Will is still sleeping, Henry gives our hero almost all of his time-currency. Hamilton leaves himself just enough time to walk to a nearby bridge and write as a suicide note what is perhaps the only decent play on words in the movie: “don’t waste my time.”
The characters in In Time are largely defined in terms of what their time and mortality mean to them. The strength of the film is the way it explores the meaning of mortality, poverty and oppression among the different classes. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the effect of social class leads the characters to be perhaps too sharply defined in terms of class roles — there’s the tired Robin Hood narrative again — making the film’s message about social justice feel heavy-handed and simplistic.
The poor, who wake up in the morning knowing that they will need to earn time-currency just to survive the day, are willing to take the kinds of risks necessary to really live life to the fullest — and despite their poverty and desperation, many of them show admirable generosity. In contrast, the rich, who could live forever if they “don’t do anything foolish,” are far more anxious about death. They are surrounded by bodyguards, they seem to live only indoors, and they never even take advantage of their beautiful beachfront properties by risking their lives with a swim in the water. Near the film’s climax, the disaffected daughter of a super-rich banker tells her father, “We’re not meant to live like this. We’re not meant to live forever. Although I do wonder, Father, if you’ve ever lived a day in your life.” Living in constant anxiety about death, and attempting to exert rational control over all the circumstances of life in order to unnaturally prolong it, leaves the immortal lives of the time-rich hollow and joyless.
In the movie, the rational control that the rich exert goes so far as draconian population control measures that kill millions of poor people. In the real world, without the time-as-currency conceit, the risk-averse people of today and tomorrow might well find themselves trying to secure their continued existence by controlling their circumstances in other, less evil ways that nonetheless may leave them leading empty, less fulfilling lives. As our ever-insightful New Atlantis colleague Peter Lawler imagines:
We might be looking forward to a future with people blessed by technology with indefinite longevity obsessing over their lack of immortality. Death, having become much less obviously necessary and much more seemingly accidental, might consume our lives. We’ll knock ourselves out like never before in accident-avoidance strategies — maybe spending our lives in in lead houses communicating with our virtual (and so non-threatening) friends with the most advanced forms of social media.
Niccol delivers a similar message with In Time, reflecting on how our technologically mediated mortality profoundly shapes our lives.
[Images © 20th Century Fox]

Friday, April 6, 2012

Alex Knapp Grades Ray Kurzweil’s Predictions

Over at Forbes, Alex Knapp has taken a look at Ray Kurzweil’s technological predictions for 2009 from his 1999 The Age of Spiritual Machines. This is something we were planning on doing last year here on Futurisms, but never got around to — so we’re glad now that we don’t have to, thanks to Mr. Knapp! He finds most of Kurzweil’s predictions to be wrong. Here’s my favorite item:

“Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which had been a reality in the computer field during the twentieth century, is now occurring outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply affected by the accelerating improvements in the price performance of computing.” Comment: Not only did the tech bubble burst shortly after this prediction was made, leading to a decade of economic stagnation, it’s arguable that more and better computing actually made the financial instruments that caused the financial collapse possible. Wrong in every way.

(See Paul J. Cella for more on how computational mindset in the financial sector can be dangerous.) Kurzweil makes a few good points in his rebuttal, which Knapp graciously posted on his blog — although one should take with a grain of salt Kurzweil’s citation of a detailed report showing his predictions to be highly accurate, given that he doesn’t mention that he himself was the author of the report.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

“Not Necessarily Abnormal, But Certainly Stupid”

I believe Dale Carrico is rather ill-advised to keep using the term “Robot Cultists” to dismissively refer to transhumanists. First of all, the desire for biological enhancement is more common and definitive of transhumanists than is the desire for robots and AI. Second, the cult comparison is not entirely wrong, but mostly. And third, and more to the point, repeatedly talking about “Robot Cultists” just makes him sound as insular as his targets.

Those objections aside, this recent rant of Carrico’s is classic and pretty much spot-on:

While transhumanists like to pretend that the real reason we don’t live in the science fiction fantasy land they pine for is because there are sinister forces abroad in the land who worship disease or are terrified of the idea of living for centuries in sexy model bodies wallowing around in piles of treasure, the truth is that almost nobody on earth doesn’t think it would be swell, caeteris paribus, to live in paradise but few people are idiotic enough to pretend that if they only clap louder this paradise will blossom into spontaneous existence, or, I must add, idiotic enough to join a Robot Cult and pretend that indulging in this kind of wish fulfillment fantasizing but then calling it Science! is somehow not idiotic anymore. Robot Cultists like to paint themselves as brave for devoting their adult lives to daydreaming about how awesome it would be if magic were real, then they like to paint themselves as progressive activists for pretending this daydreaming constitutes some kind of efficacious force for making daydreams real, then they like to rail against phantom armies of supremely powerful mortality-loving disease-loving luddites who presumably stand in the way of the spontaneous emergence of all the magic. Not to put too fine [a point] on it, all of this is quite palpably stupid.

Of course, there is plenty of greed and intolerance and superstition and fear holding back progress and there is plenty of work to be done solving our shared problems through scientific research and democratic reform, but none of that has anything to do with the magical thinking the Robot Cultists are peddling.

Hear, hear. Read the rest of the post here. The main thing I disagree with is the claim at the beginning about paradise: even if the longing is universal, I think very many people would not actually choose to live in utopia were they really given the chance — because they understand that it is an illusion, and not merely for reasons of technical infeasibility. For more on this, see our colleague Caitrin Nicol’s superb essay on utopias, in which she argues that “Seeking to escape chaos and suffering by idealizing the past or the future is, in the end, a rejection of our responsibility to the short bit of time that is ours.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Civil Rights, Eugenics, and Why It’s “Being a Good Human” to Kill Your Daughters

As Adam very kindly described, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream last week to talk about transhumanism with George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson. (Thanks to both the producers and my interlocutors for an enjoyable chat.) I’d like to expand upon a subject I mentioned on the show. Back in January, Prof. Hanson expressed support on his “Overcoming Bias” blog for sex selection — that is, selective abortion of female fetuses based on their gender. His reasoning was:

if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hanson about this on the air (my comments start around 14:45, and his response is at 16:30). Here is how he replied:

He’s right that that’s what I said, and I meant it. But we’re talking about individual private choice. We can think about parents choosing children, choosing high-IQ versus low-IQ children, choosing athletic versus less athletic children. I think it’s good if parents have the best interest of their children at heart, and choose children that they think will have better lives. I think that goes to the center of humanity; it goes to the center of being a good human — wanting the best for your children.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
YearSex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4

This sounds sensible and compassionate for about half a second, until one realizes what it means: “having the best interest of your child at heart” means not allowing her to exist or killing her because she’s a girl. Tempting though it is, however, there are more clarifying ways to understand this issue than through the abortion debate — or through the trivial extension of Hanson’s logic to justify killing girls long after birth.

Commentators on sex selection have been right to talk about the issue as in part one of women’s rights, since this is almost entirely a phenomenon directed against girls, with some 160 million worldwide barred from life due to being female. Whether you consider these to be actual lives or potential lives lost, the fact is that these societies are deeming women less worthy than men by increasingly preventing them from even entering into this world. Not in the least coincidentally, this happens overwhelmingly in countries where women are considered inferior to men, where they often lack basic rights like voting, driving, and full ownership of property, and where not only women but girls are frequently forced into labor, marriage, and prostitution. If nothing else, Hanson is right that, in these countries, women’s lives are generally a lot less pleasant than men’s.

Differing approaches to social uplift

Consider for a moment: what direction would Hanson’s arguments have pushed us in had they been made during past struggles for equality and civil rights? Women had to struggle for rights here in the United States, too — to gain the right to vote, and then later to gain equality in the workplace and in the broader culture. Women’s lives could have been considered a lot less “pleasant” than men’s at these times, too.

Had Hanson and sex-selective technology been around at the time, his prescription would have been not to change laws, attitudes, and culture to bring a class of people out of oppression — but to just get rid of those people. This is exactly what Hanson is prescribing and celebrating in countries where women are abused and oppressed today.

One can imagine how Hanson’s prescription would have applied to still other civil rights struggles from America’s past. And not just in imagination: the idea that certain classes of people had lives that were less worth living — either based on race, or, just as in Hanson’s criteria, strength and intelligence — was in fact the rationale behind eugenics programs that sought to eliminate those lives. Other practices recently proposed and praised by transhumanists include infanticide, compulsory drugging of populations to make them more “moral”, and massive programs of engineering the human race to control their greenhouse gas emissions.

The path of moral progress we moderns tell ourselves we have been forging is toward a society of ever greater justice and equality, in which the individual cannot be denied her place by the prejudices of others, in which the weak are protected from the strong. Transhumanists, utilitarians, and self-anointed rationalists insist that they are dedicated to pushing us further down the path of enlightenment — toward “Overcoming Bias.” They insist that their dreams, when realized, will be a vehicle of moral progress and individual empowerment — the repudiation rather than the continuation of the twentieth century’s programs of social coercion. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

The Taco-larity is Near

Folks, prepare yourselves for the yummy, inevitable, yummy taco-pocalypse. So said the news last week, anyway, which saw an exponential growth in taco-related headlines. Three items:

1. A new startup called TacoCopter has launched in the San Francisco area. It beats robotic swords into ploughshares, turning unmanned drones into airborne taco-delivery vehicles. Tacos are choppered in to your precise coordinates, having been ordered — yes — from your smartphone.

2. Google’s self-driving car is turning from project into practical reality. Google last week released a video of its car being used by a man with near-total vision loss to get around. His destinations? The dry cleaner and Taco Bell.

3. But beware: tacos may not always be used for good. In response to the arrest of four police officers in East Haven, Connecticut on charges of harassment and intimidation of Latino businesspeople, the mayor of the town was asked by a local reporter what he was going to do for the Latino community. His response: “I might have tacos when I go home; I’m not quite sure yet.” Watch the comment, followed by four minutes of exquisitely awkward backpedaling and attempts to celebrate all colors of the rainbow. It puts Michael Scott to shame.

Okay, so the last of those isn’t really about the future. Also, it turns out the taco-copter was a hoax. Well, phoo. Scientific progress goes boink.