• Speaking of fraught transhumanist imperatives, Andrew Hessel’s talk reminds me that it’s really quite silly that transhumanists still adopt the pretense of being environmentalists. Modern-day environmentalism owes a huge debt to Romantic thinkers, who elevated sublime experiences of nature above the scientific hyper-rationalist view of nature prevalent in their day. Transhumanists, of course, can mount no such defense of nature. Their core views are either indifferent to nature in their focus on virtuality, or else revolted by nature in its original sins of death and suffering.
The best defense they can mount of nature consistent with their ideology is to talk vaguely about “preserving our biological heritage,” which calls to mind the Joni Mitchell lyrics: “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum, then they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them.”
• Melanie Swan asked the audience how many of them have gotten genetic tests; to my eye, about a quarter of the conferencegoers raised their hands.
• In his talk at the conference, Reason magazine science writer Ron Bailey used a common transhumanist trope, comparing the end of laws discriminating against racial minorities to the end of laws discriminating against another supposed minority — the enhanced. Bailey only does this implicitly, but it’s funny how often criticism of transhumanism gets explicitly compared to chauvinism for white males, since most transhumanists are, as most of the attendees at this conference were, males and predominantly white.
Aside from Bailey’s disdain for democracy, it’s worth pointing out that he also groups legal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research under the umbrella of “democratic tyranny,” yet evinces no concern for exercising tyranny over the rights of these beings.
• Speaking of the dominant male representation among transhumanists, it’s worth pointing out that there were many women speakers at this conference — far more than the lone one at the last Singularity Summit.
• Millie Ray gave a brief overview of embryonic stem cells versus induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. She gave only the slightest mention in passing to the fact that “a lot of the ethical concerns” are bypassed via iPS cells — but, typical of the focus of this conference, didn’t mention at all what those concerns might be.
• Much of this conference was just a hodgepodge of people presenting whatever random research or project they’re working on, and attempting to puff it up in significance. One of the worst/best examples of this is Morris Johnson, one of the first presenters on Day 2. He was plugging some project of his, but seemed to have no idea of what it was or how it worked. Tweeters described it as “unwitting comedy,” asked “What is this?,” and wondered “wtf Morris Johnson is saying to us at #hplus: is this an ISO-9001 process talk? An AmWay presentation? Hemp advocacy? Don’t get it.”
When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Doré, I saw the Lord God standing on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious…. In the second century, the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma by claiming that Jesus “ate and drank, but did not defecate.”
As for Kurzweil, well, I am sure I am not the first to observe this, but given the number of vitamins he takes every day, he must have the world’s most expensive urine.
[A few more posts about last weekend’s H+ Summit at Harvard.]
In introducing him, the organizers noted that he flew into town that morning from Colorado, where he was filming his movie, and that he would be zipping out from the conference right after his talk to catch a flight to Los Angeles. This little detail is pretty emblematic of the conference in general: whereas Kurzweil hovered around last year’s Singularity Summit and descended intermittently to comment upon it like the head priest issuing edicts to his votaries, here he attended none of the conference and just stopped by to deliver his stump speech and head back out.
Given that this is the main event, I should probably try to outline it in detail, but just like his talk at SingSum, there was neither any core message to this talk nor anything remotely new about it. He hits all of his standard talking points. And I don’t just mean the same themes, but the very same details he lays out in The Singularity Is Near: the same graphs about Moore’s Law and about the exponential progress of technology in general and various technologies in specific. The main reason for his being here is his celebrity, it seems. Though he does have the shiniest slides of anyone here; his presentation is polished, if not new or focused.
In keeping with Kurzweil’s own unfocused approach, here are a few random notes about the talk and follow-up Q&A:
- — I wasn’t the only one underwhelmed by Ray the K’s presentation. George Dvorsky, a conference presenter, tweeted about how it was all boilerplate. Tweeter Samuel H. Kenyon complained about the warm reception: “Seriously people, why does Kurzweil deserve a standing ovation but the other presenters don’t? Idol worshiping is not my bag.” The best tweet was a tweak, joking about Kurzweil’s obsession with exponential curves: “Why is this talk now not 5 minutes long and 1000 times as interesting as it was 5 years ago?”
- — Here’s Kurzweil on human DNA: “We’re walking around with software — and this is not a metaphor, it’s very literal — that we’ve had for thousands or millions of years.” My jaw was on the floor. Literally, not metaphorically.
- — Kurzweil is working on a book about reverse-engineering the brain, called How the Mind Works and How to Build One (see the Singularity Hub’s recent article on this). Someone alert Steven Pinker that he’s been one-upped. Also, this literal/metaphorical biological software business doesn’t bode well for the metaphysical clarity of this book.
- — He makes an important admission, which is that there is no scientific test we can conceive of to determine whether an entity is conscious — and this means in particular that the Turing Test does not definitively demonstrate consciousness. His conclusion is that consciousness may continue to elude our philosophical understanding, and we should just set those questions aside and focus on what we can practically do.
- — He claims that we are “not going to be transcending our humanity, we’re going to be transcending our biology.” Uh oh, they’re going to need to add a few items to the agenda for the next staff meeting:
- (1) Time to change the name to “transbiologism”? And “H+” to “B+”?
(2) Figure out how in the world humanity is separate from its biology.
(3) Come up with a plan to deal with some very put-out materialists.
- — As part of the great transhumanist benevolence outreach, Kurzweil makes the bold claim that “old people are people too.” Of course, what this really means — aside from “if you at all question the wisdom of extreme longevity, then you hate old people” — is “we should turn our revulsion for getting old into pity for the elderly.” Somehow I don’t think respecting the dignity of the elderly as we do the young and able-bodied is really what he’s getting at here.
And that’s it for the last presentation of the 2010 H+ Summit. Stay tuned for a couple of wrap-up posts.
[A few more posts about last weekend’s H+ Summit at Harvard.]
Another of the transhumanist movement’s more prominent figures, David Pearce (bio, slides), spoke at the conference about what he considers a moral imperative: the abolition of “suffering in all sentient life.” As with much of the rest of the conference, this was another rehashing of ideas already widely discussed, with little new added.
The first big project that Pearce has in mind to unsuffer the world is ending the slaughter of farm animals. The problem of our continuing taste for meat is supposed to be solved not by making all of us into vegetarians but rather, at least in the short-term, by creating artificial meat in a laboratory without slaughtering animals. My biggest concern here is that with the need for fresh, real meat removed, the plots of future Jurassic Park films would be ruined, and that is a horror we can never allow. (Except, as Dr. Grant knows, T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt.)
I kid, but the other big project Pearce mentions is ending predation, and one of the ways he suggests doing this actually is by feeding animals artificially-produced meats. This, he thinks, will be inadequate for the whole problem, and what we’ll really need to do is to redesign predators themselves so as not to be predatory — a notion we have discussed here on Futurisms before. This is one of the most striking illustrations of the heart of the transhumanist attitude, for make no mistake about it: Pearce here is calling for the destruction of Earth’s biosphere, as surely as if he were to call for animals to be re-engineered so as not to emit carbon dioxide.
Among the highlights from this little bit of sort-of well-intentioned lunacy was an assertion from Pearce that lions are the same thing as serial killers, and so we have just as much obligation to stop them. Does it need saying that lions, unlike serial killers, lack the capacities for empathy, understanding right and wrong, and choosing whether or not to kill, and so are amoral rather than immoral creatures? Apparently it does.
It shows, again, the radicalism characteristic of this movement that the call for such a project is greeted with so many yawns at this conference.
[Continuing coverage of the 2010 H+ Summit at Harvard.]
After James Hughes came Patrick Lin (bio). Lin noted correctly that something that’s gone basically unremarked at this conference so far is how much of the push towards futuristic technologies and human enhancement is driven by the military. The military has strong reasons to try to engineer soldiers with superhuman strength, who can climb walls, who don’t need to eat and sleep, and so forth.
Instead of “Be All You Can Be,” he says, the Army’s recruiting slogan might become “Be More Than You Can Be.” Nice line. Though I wonder what this would do to the Army’s two more recent slogans, “Army of One” and “Army Strong.”
Lin notes that the primacy of military interests in human enhancement raises all sorts of ethical issues. For instance, he wonders whether society might become more warlike and wars become more frequent. Lin doesn’t have time to go into a lot more detail about these questions given the cramped ten-minute time slot, but it’s good to hear them raised. Needless to say, military technology — today’s and tomorrow’s — is a subject often broached in the pages of The New Atlantis, including P.W. Singer’s recent essay “Military Robots and the Laws of War.” And the future of military technology was also the focus of a big conference in D.C. three weeks ago.
Whatever the ethical implications, the current fronts of military innovation seem to give us glimpse into our technological future. It may be true, as Robert Wright argued at the conference just mentioned (skip to about 41:50 in this video) that DARPA, the military’s advanced-research group, really only creates things that would have come along soon anyway. But by and large, war (understood to include preparation and deterrence) is, as it always has been, a tremendous catalyst of technological innovation.
[Continuing coverage of the 2010 H+ Summit at Harvard.]
James Hughes had the morning talk after Patrick Hopkins. He basically did a rapidfire ten-minute version of a mini-essay he published earlier this year on transhumanism’s inheritance of Enlightenment problems. That mini-essay was supposed to be part of a seven-essay series, although it looks like only five have been published. We have discussed a few of these essays on this blog (here, here, here, and here).
Because of the short time slot, Hughes compressed his talk into a thesis with which I’m generally in agreement: that transhumanists don’t usually realize that very many of their debates recapitulate Enlightenment debates, and they have a responsibility to learn about and engage with those arguments. We part ways with Hughes on the details, though (as evidenced by our series of responses), and in particular I’m skeptical about the idea that transhumanism’s fractured Enlightenment inheritance spells positive things for its coherence and goodness, even when that inheritance is recognized and engaged with.
Here’s just one example. Hughes notes that continental Enlightenment thinkers laid the foundations for the utopianism we find alive today in transhumanism. In particular, they pioneered the idea that pure reason would liberate us from the shackles of death and tyranny, a notion that Hughes more or less embraces (albeit with a huge caveat).
Hughes calls particular attention to the Marquis de Condorcet, who “wrote one of the most remarkably utopian essays in the history of the Enlightenment, which proposed that reason would eventually liberate us all from the church and the state, that there would be women’s suffrage eventually, that we would get rid of slavery eventually, and that we would get rid of unnecessary involuntary death.” He’s referring here to the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit.
Although Hughes notes the difficult conditions under which Condorcet wrote his Sketch — he “was part of the French Revolution but was being hunted down by the Jacobins” when he wrote it — Hughes misses the significance of that fact. As Charles Taylor explains in his book Sources of the Self:
Certainly the greatest and fullest statement of the philosophy of history of the unbelieving Enlightenment is Condorcet’s Esquisse [Sketch], taking us through ten ages of human existence, the tenth being the anticipated radiant future of mankind…. This passage takes on an additional poignancy when one reflects that it was written in 1793, when its author was in hiding in Paris, with a warrant for his arrest by the Jacobin-controlled Committee of Public Safety as a suspected Girondin, and that he in fact had only a few months more to live. There were, indeed, “errors, crimes, injustices” for which he needed consolation. And it adds to our awe before his unshaken revolutionary faith when we reflect that these crimes were no longer those of an ancien régime, but of the forces who themselves claimed to be building the radiant future. [Emphasis added.]
One can only hope that transhumanists will heed the darker lessons of the Enlightenment in their call for a radiant future incomprehensibly brighter than that dreamed of by the Jacobins. But that would require levels of responsibility and restraint that are not only not in evidence among transhumanists, but are basically inimical to its goals.
[NOTE: I’ll have a few more posts tonight or tomorrow, catching up on other presentations from the conference, along with some more pictures and a few concluding thoughts.]
Up next is Brian Malow (bio), self-described “transhumorist.” I think that means he transcends the boundaries of what’s humorous, because yowza:
— “We are going to die, and that is a spoiler.”
— (after a joke bombs) “That was an endothermic joke. It required the addition of a little energy from you.”
— “I’m not saying I don’t have hair, it’s just outside the visible spectrum.”
This guy just flew in, and boy are his surgically-implanted wings tired. But it’s okay, I think the guy is sort of an entertainer first, informer second, like the transhumanist version of Michael Scott.
Sorry, I’m obliged to heckle. The bestiality-and-transhumanism jokes actually weren’t bad. Well, you know, they were bad, but they weren’t bad. Don’t forget to tip your waiters, folks.
[Continuing coverage of the 2010 H+ Summit at Harvard.]
As Gubrud described, Hopkins looks at the language used to describe mind uploading. What are the metaphors we use when speaking about it? The first is location: the mind is “in” or “within” a brain, and can be put “onto” a computer. The second is motion: the mind can be “moved,” “transferred,” “put” into a computer. And the third is substance: the mind is a thing that can be moved from one “receptacle” to another. But, Hopkins asks, do these metaphors really work? Is the mind truly an object that is housed “inside” a brain and can be “moved” to another “receptacle”? According to naturalist theories of mind, no. The positions that do think this, Hopkins says, are basically religious, relying on notions of souls, spirits, and ghosts.
Hopkins tries to absolve uploading advocates from blame; he says that they have just inherited this language from religion. I think it’s far more likely that they’re inheriting language and concepts from the discipline that gives rise to the notion of “uploading” in the first place: computer science. Computers are heavily dualistic systems, and transhumanists think the mind/brain is a computer, so they treat it as dualistic too.
Hopkins anticipates the rebuttal that this language is just metaphorical. But, he says, central to the idea of uploading is that personal identity is preserved. So the question is, does copying preserve identity? Is copying the same thing as transferring, as literally moving a mind? He sas no: copying creates something that is exactly structurally and behaviorally similar to the original, but that is not the same as identity. The copied mind has a different history, and is made of different matter; we can metaphysically tell the difference (as usual, see SMBC). If you want to believe that the mind is a pattern, he says, then it’s important to know that a pattern is not an object that can be plucked out and moved; it’s a way of organizing matter.
He describes a familiar scenario from the philosophy of mind: You’re sitting in a room and someone holds a gun to your head and says he’s about to shoot you, but before he does that he’s going to copy your mind into the other room. You’d still be unsettled, but maybe you’d be okay because you’d think that you would just go to sleep in one room and wake up in another. But what if the gunman then said “just kidding, I’m not going to shoot you, but I still made the copy.” It couldn’t be you in the other room, then, could it? Well your relationship to the mind in the other room is no different than it was a moment earlier; the only difference is that the gun is no longer at your temple. Mind uploading, Hopkins concludes, will not work as we like to think it will. (He doesn’t say it explicitly, but basically what he’s demonstrated is that psychological continuity is not all that is required for personal identity.)
Patrick Hopkins provides what is easily the best talk of the conference so far — he manages to convey sophisticated ideas effectively and concisely in a ten-minute slot that few other speakers have been able to own. And his message is convincing. Again, I wish the conference had put far more emphasis on talks of this level of thoughtfulness and speakers who were this effective.
I do have a few quibbles, though. First, Hopkins either misrepresents or misunderstands the significance of the argument he presents. To say that “uploading won’t work” makes it sound like he’s presenting a philosophical case for why we couldn’t have machines that are conscious, and whose consciousness very closely resembles that of existing persons. But his argument is based on the premise that we could. His conclusion is just that the results wouldn’t be as clean and transparent as everyone assumes.
So Hopkins’s claim is that a mind cannot be separated from a body and continued. But that is not quite the same as claiming that a mind cannot be copied. What if it could — what if a duplication were possible? Hopkins offers no consideration to the huge moral dilemmas that would arise if such beings were somehow created. If it were somehow technically possible, such duplicate beings might well consider themselves to have a continuous personal identity, complete with memories, thoughts, and feelings — only their memories, thoughts, and feelings about their own history of self would be false. The identity of the original being would be thrown into chaos just by the fact of its duplicate’s existence. How then would we treat such beings? Could we hold the copy responsible for crimes that it remembers having committed, but did not? Could we deny it credit for accomplishments it thinks it made but did not? These questions would become impossible to answer, and we would find many of the bases for our legal and social order similarly thrown into chaos, and impossible to resolve.
Maintaining continuous personal identity (and other really fundamental aspects of consciousness and mind) is not simply a philosophical matter of recognizing the necessary components, but a practical matter of maintaining them, socially and as lived lives. The conclusion Hopkins should arrive at by the end of his talk is not “this is why uploading won’t work” but “this is why we shouldn’t do it.”