Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

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.”


  1. > First of all, the desire for biological enhancement is more
    > common and definitive of transhumanists than is the desire
    > for robots and AI.

    Is it, though?

    It seems to me that at least since the end of the 80's, transhumanists (and cryonicists among them) have been pinning their hopes on self-enhancing smarter-than-human artificial intelligence (as described by Marvin Minsky in the 60's and later by SF author Vernor Vinge, who coined the term "Singularity" for the resulting "intelligence explosion") as the **means** to all sorts of transcendent technological ends (resurrecting cryonically-preserved bodies, or maybe even ordinarily dead ones; biological enhancement, cyborg enhancement, or even "mind uploading"; effortless control of matter via "molecular nanotechnology"; etc.) Stuff that ordinary human brains may not be capable of pulling off.

    Moore's Law, the seemingly exponential recent increase in computational capacity, and the assumption that this will lead to artificial intelligence at the human level and beyond, have given a big jolt to the techno-enthusiasts who now call themselves "transhumanists".

    I certainly got a kick out of Hans Moravec's 1988 _Mind Children_, and the 90's SF by the likes of Vinge, Greg Egan, and Iain Banks that capitalized further on these ideas.

    "Robot Cult" is a catchier phrase than "Mind-boggling Technology By Means of Smarter-Than-Human Self-Improving Artifical Intelligence Cult".

    But that is what virtually all of the on-line transhumanists are about. AI is basic to the project. Without it, the party is over.

  2. >But that is what virtually all of the on-line transhumanists are about. AI is basic to the project. Without it, the party is over.

    You don't speak for this cryonicist. The AI delusion, like god-beliefs, SETI and having "conversations" with the Siri app on your iPhone, derives from bugs in our evolved theory of mind.

    And I don't see why we even need to postulate AI's as our "saviors," though of course progress in software like IBM's Watson can come in handy for finding nonobvious solutions to problems. If you could have sent an iPad back in time to, say, the researchers in Bell Labs in 1952, rather like the famous "Interocitor" scene in the film "This Island Earth," they could have wrongly inferred from the difficulties in trying to reverse-engineer it that it must have come from a society of vastly superior minds in the future. But we know that the minds of our geeks resemble the minds of their geeks; our geeks just have the advantage of knowing a lot more. The minds of our better-quality geeks in the future could similarly know how to do even more amazing things which don't require the fantasy AI's of transhumanism.

    1. > > AI is basic to the project. Without it, the party is over.
      > You don't speak for this cryonicist. The AI delusion. . .
      > derives from bugs in our evolved theory of mind. . .
      > The minds of. . . geeks in the future could. . .
      > know how to do. . . amazing things which don't require
      > the fantasy AI's of transhumanism.

      I'm well aware that I don't speak for you, Mr. Potts.

      However, I'm sure that you would admit that, apart from your continued hopes for cryonics (and despite your being recognized by Wikipedia as having coined the term "singularitarian"), you might well be considered by the transhumanist mainstream as something of a heretic, if not an apostate. ;->

    2. > You don't speak for this cryonicist.

      And see, e.g.,

      [Mike Darwin, April 19, 2011]

      Over the past few years there has been increasing friction between a subset of cryonicists, and people in the Transhumanist (TH) and Technological Singularity communities, most notably those who follow the capital N, Nanotechnology doctrine.[1, 2] Or perhaps more accurately, there has been an increasing amount of anger and discontent on the part of some in cryonics over the perceived effects these “alternate” approaches to and views of the future have had on the progress of cryonics. . .

      If nanotechnology had stayed nanotechnology, instead of becoming Nanotechnology, then it would all have been to the good. . .

      Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. . ., and a clique of people emerged who were heavily emotionally invested in a 19th century mechanical approach to achieving a “technological singularity.”. . .

      [I]t isn’t the ideas of accelerating technological advance, nanotechnology, or any combination of these ideas per se that have been so pernicious; rather, it is the adoption of a utopian (all positive) framework which is socially **enforced** as the mandatory context in which these ideas must be viewed, that has been so destructive [to cryonics]. . . I would go so far as to argue that it was at least as much the responsibility of the cryonics organizations that systematically purged people who didn’t adhere to this party line for (among many reasons) the simple fact that failure to project this idealized and easily grasped view of the future was not good for sales. These ideas, presented in an inevitably utopian framework, do in fact get **customers**. And customers were exactly what every then (and now) extant cryonics organization wanted, and still want: not members, not people to join in the task at hand, but **customers**. Customers pay their money, get their goods and services, and that’s it. . .

      1. Plus M: Editor’s Blog March 8, 2011:
      Is Transhuman Militance a Threat to H+?
      In: Humanity +.

      2. deWolf A: Cryonics and transhumanism:
      Depressed Metabolism February 11th, 2009


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