Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

As part of a Washington Post series this week about transhumanism, our own Charles T. Rubin offers some thoughts on why transhumanists are so optimistic when the pop-culture depictions of transhumanism nearly always seem to be dark and gloomy:

What accounts for this gap between how transhumanists see themselves — as rational proponents of a cause, who seek little more than to speed humanity along a path it already follows — and how they are seen in popular culture — as dangerous conspirators against human welfare? Movies and TV need drama and conflict, and it is possible that transhumanists just make trendy villains. And yet the transhumanists and the show writers are alike operating in the realm of imagination, of possible futures. In this case, I believe the TV writers have the richer and more nuanced imaginations that more closely resemble reality.

You can read the entire article here.

Who Speaks for Earth?

A recent not-very-good article in The Independent presents as news what is really an ongoing debate within the relatively small community of scientists interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The issue is whether or under what circumstances SETI should become “METI” — that is, Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. We have been listening for messages; should we start deliberately broadcasting them?

Image via Wikimedia

Actually, we have been doing this deliberately but hardly systematically for some decades now: think of the justly famous Pioneer plaques of 1972–73 and the Voyager Golden Record of 1977. David Brin, the noted science fiction author and admittedly a partisan of one side in this debate, provides an excellent background discussion, which I hope he will update again in light of the more recent events The Independent alludes to.

Like all discussions about SETI, the merits of this one depend heavily on our assumptions about the nature and existence of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence, a topic that reasonable people are very free to disagree on because we know absolutely nothing about it. For example, the whole question of sending messages to planetary systems that we have newly identified as good targets for having life at all (which discoveries seem to be spurring the current round of METI interest) presupposes not only that we have some solid understanding of all the conditions under which life can emerge. It also presupposes what some would regard as a rather old-fashioned SETI model of interplanetary communication between intelligences more or less advanced yet bound to their planets. For those transhumanists like Hans Moravec who see the future on our planet as artificial intelligences greedily transforming matter into computational substrates and spreading out in a wave of expansion traveling at not much less than the speed of light (think Borgs without bodies) the notion that we should just send messages over to other planets can only look quaint. Or if intelligent self-replicating nanomachines are in our future, then we may already be sending messages to ETI without even knowing it because such machines created by super-intelligent aliens may already be here among us. And so on. Transhumanist responses to SETI have shown how the sky is the limit when it comes to our imagination of not-implausible ETI scenarios (indeed, what defines “plausible”?). And imagination will be all we have to go on, until well after we have had some comprehensible first contact.

I admit to finding both sides of the METI debate unsatisfying. Those who advocate sending messages are counting either on a dogmatic belief in the benevolent nature of alien life or on the vastness of cosmic distances to act as a quarantine effect. These are both dubious assumptions; I discuss them critically at some length in my new book Eclipse of Man.

And there is certainly something to David Brin’s concern that the advocates of sending messages are taking a great deal on themselves by proceeding along these lines without a more thorough consideration of the merits of the case. Yet Brin’s own desire for international consultation, or, as he puts it on his website, getting “input from humanity’s best and wisest sages … while laying all the issues before a fascinated general public,” does not conform to the sensible reservations he expresses elsewhere about the wisdom of individuals and seems pretty thin gruel if indeed the fate of all of humanity is at stake. It is a wonderful thing “to open up broader, more eclectic and ecumenical discussions.” But we still have to wonder about their results, if indeed they reach any conclusions at all, when there is no framework of authority for actually shepherding such a discussion to a presumptively globally legitimate and enforceable conclusion — which is almost certainly just as well when you stop and think about the way so many of the global political institutions we do have actually work. We may not know anything about extraterrestrial intelligence, but we do know the answer to the question, “Who speaks for Earth?” So far: nobody, thank goodness.

A World without Weakness

Aside from the opportunity to watch the ever-delightful Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man may not be one of the great superhero reboots. But it is an interesting movie nevertheless for what seems like some thoughtful consideration of transhumanist themes.

“A world without weakness” may not be the explicit motto of any transhumanist group, as it is of the villainous Oscorp and Dr. Curt Connors. But it certainly encapsulates as well as any four-word slogan could an essential transhumanist aspiration. Nature has created us with all kinds of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, transhumanists believe, and we would be far better off without them. Dr. Connors’s effort to achieve that goal may not make much scientific sense, but making better humans by using DNA from other animals reflects another not uncommon transhuman trope: think Catman and Lizardman and morphological freedom, or Hans Moravec’s interest in melding uploaded human minds with uploaded animal minds.

So it is noteworthy that these transhumanist aspirations ultimately combine to produce the movie’s dangerous monster. It is perhaps even more interesting that behind Oscorp stands a wealthy, shadowy figure who is using its ostensibly philanthropic program to create a world without weakness as a cover for a quest for personal immortality — just the sort of detail of real-world motivation that transhumanists tend to want to gloss over.

Of course, I may seem to be ignoring that Peter Parker is himself also a transhuman of sorts, and indeed that Connors is like him in at first using his powers in an attempt to prevent harm from coming to others. But the writers give us ample grounds on which to distinguish the two cases.

Peter’s life is just plain messy, full of conflicting inclinations and obligations. From what we see of it, Connors’s home is as sterile as his lab, and the backstory suggests a man who avoids emotional entanglements. Peter remains an all-too-human teenager after his transformation, struggling to try to understand what it means to do the right thing in the face of an unsought-for transformation that, like growing up itself, presents him with unanticipated problems and opportunities.

As he grows into an intelligent reptile, Connors, on the other hand, merely becomes clearer on the implications of the ideology that had driven his deliberate quest all along. His ostensibly compassionate desire to eliminate human weakness when he himself was missing an arm becomes contempt for human weakness when his serum “works.” Eliminating human weakness thus becomes eliminating weak human beings. This same contempt is rarely far below the surface of transhumanism, whose own charitable impulse is founded on avoiding entanglements with what human beings really are.

Why Transhumanism Won’t Work

[NOTE: From time to time, we invite guest contributors to Futurisms. This post is from Mark A. Gubrud, who has written widely on new and emerging technologies — including especially their implications for war, peace, and international security.]

* * *

This weekend, a philosophy professor will step up to the podium at Harvard University’s Science Center and drop a bomb on the audience gathered for the annual transhumanist showcase now called the “H+ Summit.” Although he shares their aspirations and even tells me that he “would love to be uploaded,” he will explain to the assembled devotees of transhumanism exactly “Why Uploading Will Not Work.”

I’ve seen a preview, and it’s a devastating critique — although it isn’t really new. Others have made essentially the same argument before, including me. In 2003, after years of debating this with transhumanists, I even presented a paper making very similar points at one of the previous transhumanist conferences in this series.

To understand why this is important, we first have to understand what “uploading” is and why it matters to the transhumanist movement. Put simply, uploading is the proposition that, by means of some future technology, it may be possible to “transfer” or “migrate” a mind from its brain into some new “embodiment” (in the same way one “migrates” a computer file or application from one machine to another). That may mean transferring the mind into a new cloned human body and brain, or into some other computational “substrate,” such as a future supercomputer with the horsepower to emulate a human brain.

From the latter stage of this transfiguration, the path would be clear to ascend beyond human physical and intellectual limitations simply by upgrading the hardware and software — adding more memory, faster processors, more efficient algorithms, etc. The mind (or consciousness, identity — or, shall we say, soul) could then become a being of pure information, immortal, flying freely in cyberspace, traveling interplanetary distances as bits encoded in beams of light, assuming any desired physical form by linking to the appropriate robot. One could copy oneself, disperse and later re-merge the copies. One could grow into a gigantic computerized brain (sometimes called a “Jupiter brain”) of immense power, able to contemplate the deepest mysteries of mathematics, physics, and the Meaning of It All. One could become as a god, even literally the creator of new universes, whose inhabitants would wonder who or what put them there. And one could have an awful lot of sex.

That’s the Promised Land of such transhumanist prophets as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil. The latter predicted, in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, that “nonbiological intelligence” will vastly exceed the collective brainpower of Homo sapiens within this century, and that the human race will voluntarily “merge with technology,” so that by 2100 there basically won’t be any of our kind left.

Why Uploading is Impossible

Now comes Patrick Hopkins, a transhumanist and professor of philosophy at Millsaps College in Mississippi, to break the bad news: Uploading just won’t work. As he explains in his abstract for the upcoming H+ conference, uploading

will not preserve personal identity. Transhumanist hopes for such transfer ironically rely on treating the mind dualistically — and inconsistently with materialism — as the functional equivalent of a soul, as is evidenced by a carefully examination [sic] of the language used to describe and defend uploading. In this sense, transhumanist thought unwittingly contains remnants of dualistic and religious categories.

Or, as I put it in my 2003 paper:

Arguments for identity transfer cannot be stated without invoking nonphysical entities, and lead to absurdities that cannot be avoided without introducing arbitrary rules…. Dualism is built into the language that Moravec uses throughout, and that we use on a daily basis, “my brain, my body,” as if brain and body were distinguishable from “me,” the true “me” — the soul…. Moravec does not use the word “soul,” but he uses words which are effectively synonymous.

Transhumanists maintain that they do not believe in anything supernatural; they usually abjure belief in God and in an immortal soul. Yet every explanation of and argument for the idea of having your brain scanned and disassembled, bit by bit, so that some kind of copy can be made by some kind of Xerox machine, contains some word whose function and meaning, in this context, are the same as those of that venerable word, and the ancient idea it stands for: the soul.

In the traditional understanding, the soul — dual of the body, and separable from it — carries or constitutes the true identity of the human person. The soul is what we feel in a person’s presence, what we see when we look into a person’s eyes, and it remains steadily in place as a person’s body changes over the years — despite the constant exchange of mere atoms with the environment. The soul, not the brain, is what is conscious, as no mere material thing can be. It is connected to that transcendent world of pure spirit, where, perhaps, all will be understood. In some accounts, the soul endures after death and goes to Heaven, or to Hell, or else hangs around in graveyards and abandoned houses. A voodoo priest can capture a soul and imprison it in a doll — more or less what the proponents of uploading hope to do by means of technology.

Thus Moravec, in Mind Children (1988), argues that some future “robot surgeon” might have the ability to probe your brain a few neurons at a time, building up a detailed model of those cells, until a computer simulation is able to predict those neurons’ firing patterns exactly. Then it could override the output of those neurons, effectively replacing them with simulated neurons. The rest of the brain would go on working as normal, and since the rest of the brain can provide input to, and work with the output of, the simulation, just as well as it would with the real neurons, Moravec argues that “you should experience no difference.”

Continuing the process,

Eventually your skull is empty, and the surgeon’s hand rests deep in your brainstem. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind has been removed from the brain and transferred to a machine.

The premise that Moravec starts with — that you would not feel any different if some small number of your natural neurons were to be replaced by artificial neurons that provided the same input-output functions to the rest of the brain — might at first seem reasonable. Neurons die all the time, by the thousands every day, and you don’t notice any difference. If a few of them were replaced, how could you even tell?

But what if your brain cells all died at once, faster than the speed of neural transmission, say because a bomb exploded nearby? Would you notice then? No, you would be gone before you could feel anything. Death does not require our ability to perceive it; nor can we escape the Reaper by refusing to acknowledge him. In this we are unlike Wile E. Coyote, who can’t fall until he sees that he’s over the edge of the cliff.

Moravec claims that “you have not lost consciousness” at the completion of his process. This is powerful verbal magic, appealing to the sense that consciousness is an indivisible whole. Yet any number of experiments and observations from psychology show this to be an illusion. You are one body, leading one life, but your mind’s unity is a synthesis.

What is this thing, the “mind,” that Moravec claims can be “removed” and “transferred”? What exactly is it made of? Some say “information,” and that sounds appropriately scientific, but information has no existence, so far as we know, without the physical “substrate” used to “represent it.” When we speak of “information transfer” from one thing to another, we usually mean that some physical agent makes some physical measurement of the first thing and imposes related physical changes on the second thing. Pure information, completely separated from any physical matter or energy, would be something whose existence could not be distinguished from its nonexistence.

New Names for True Names

Even though transhumanists generally do not admit to believing in an immaterial “soul,” proponents of uploading continually invent or repurpose technical-sounding terms as stand-ins for that forbidden noun. Thus Moravec advances a theory of

pattern-identity … [which] defines the essence of a person, say myself, as the pattern and the process going on in my head and body, not the machinery supporting that process. If the process is preserved, I am preserved. The rest is mere jelly.

Not only has Moravec introduced “pattern” as a stand-in for “soul,” but in order to define it he has referred to another stand-in, “the essence of a person.” But he seems aware of the inadequacy of “pattern,” and tries to cover it up with another word, “process.” So now we have a pattern and a process, separable from the “mere jelly.” Is this some kind of trinity? Or is the “mere jelly,” once appropriately patterned and undergoing the processes of life, what real human beings are made of — that and nothing else that is known to science?

Similarly, Kurzweil argues that

we should not associate our fundamental identity with a specific set of particles, but rather the pattern of matter and energy that we represent.

If taken literally, this carelessly worded statement suggests that we are not our true selves, but mere representations of our true selves! But note again that Kurzweil points to the assumed existence of a “fundamental identity” which is distinct from the body. In other words, he is referencing the idea of the soul, and manipulating the dualism that is embedded in our way of thinking about people.

So it goes with every author who advocates the idea of uploading as a route to immortality and transcendence. They must always introduce some term as a stand-in for “the soul” and argue that by whatever process they propose, this object will be moved from the old brain to the new one. Otherwise, they would have to describe their proposal not as transferring “you” (your soul) to a new body, but as making some kind of copy — perhaps an “identical” copy, structured the same way at the molecular level, or perhaps a mere functional copy, “instantiated” in some different kind of “substrate” (as one might copy an Old Master’s painting to some pattern of ink dots on paperboard).

Having one’s brain copied, particularly if it requires, as any even remotely plausible technical scenario for uploading would require, the complete disassembly of the original, hardly sounds appealing, since having your brain disassembled will pretty clearly kill you.

Thus the conclusion: Uploading cannot work, if we define its “working” as a way for people to escape death and transcend to existence as a technological super-being.

This Really Isn’t News

To be sure, these arguments against uploading are not novel — they go back years. In my own case, I’ve been making these points for around a decade, including in the paper I presented at the 2003 conference. At that conference — it was called “Transvision,” the annual meeting of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), before the group was renamed H+ — I gave a talk in a session chaired by no less a transpersonage than WTA cofounder Nick Bostrom, who now heads his own well-endowed “Institute on the Future of Humanity” at Oxford University. (Note: The conference organizers enhanced my bio and awarded me an honorary doctorate for the occasion.) I also posted the paper on various listservs, provoking comments from another transhumanist luminary, Trinity College lecturer and past WTA president James Hughes, who accused me of shooting a dead horse (although I was unaware of anyone else making these arguments about uploading at that time). So two of the most important leaders of the transhumanist movement were among those familiar with these arguments against uploading.

Which raises a question: Why only now does the leadership of the transhumanist movement see fit to acknowledge the serious case against uploading? Why will this weekend’s H+ conference feature not only Professor Hopkins with his critique of uploading, but also WTA cofounder David Pearce arguing that uploading “involves some fairly radical metaphysical assumptions” and that Kurzweil’s vision of a voluntary mass exit for Homo sapiens “is sociologically implausible to say the least”?

A Turning Point for Transhumanism?

The answer may be connected to public relations. The transhumanist movement has begun to break the surface of public awareness, not only through the infiltration of its science-fiction visions and technophilic attitudes, but overtly as transhumanism. The further mainstreaming of transhumanism seems to require some P.R. maneuvering, including a rebranding (the glossy new name “H+”). It may also require a moderating of ambitions. The old “Extropian” dreams of uploading and wholesale replacement of humanity with technology may be too scary and weird for mass audiences. Perhaps more modest ambitions will have a broader public appeal: life extension and performance enhancement, cool new gadgets and drugs, and only minimal forms of cyborgization (implanting technological devices within the body). In other words, more Aubrey de Grey, less Hans Moravec; more public policy and less cyberpunk; more hipster geeks and fewer socially-impaired nerds. A kinder, gentler Singularity. Maybe even one with women in it.

Perhaps some of the transhumanist top guns recognized “uploading” all along for the ontological nonsense it is. Perhaps that’s why they now stand ready to throw it overboard like so much ballast threatening to drag down their balloon. It sounds too loony and it’s too easy a target, too obviously inconsistent with transhumanism’s claim to being a creed grounded in science and technology.

If so, distancing themselves from uploading is probably a smart move for the H+ leaders, but it risks a split with their base, and the formation of new, hard-core splinter groups still yearning for cyber-heaven, still committed to becoming something that is too obviously not at all human.

In the longer run, this strategy to divert attention away from transhumanism’s original and ultimate aims will not work — or, at least, I am hopeful that it will not. For transhumanism itself is uploading writ large. Not only is the idea of uploading one of the central dogmas of transhumanism, but the broader philosophy of transhumanism suffers from the same kind of mistaken dualism as uploading, a dualism applied not just to human beings but to humanity, collectively understood. Transhumanism posits that “the essence of humanity” is something that can be preserved through any degree of alteration of the human form. In other words, it posits that humanity has an essence that is wholly separable from living human beings, an essence that is transferable to the products of technology.

The early history of transhumanist writing helps emphasize this point. If you investigate the origins of the notion of uploading, you’ll find that initially, back in the 1980s and 90s, it was called “downloading.” Back in the days of green screens and floppy disks, far fewer people thought that existence as a computer program would somehow be a step up from being alive and human. The idea was just that it would be nice to have backup copies; in case of an accident, the atman file could be uploaded back to fresh-cloned flesh.

But as technology and the cult of technology co-evolved, “downloading” became “uploading” — a dream of ascension and transcendence that became a vision of rapture for the geeks. Transhumanism raises technology above humanity, and all but deifies it, at least making it an end in itself, and the end of humanity, rather than a tool to serve human ends. This seems a new low for philosophy, an upside-down morality, a grotesque distortion of the scientific rationality and enlightened humanism of which it claims to be a continuation.

The H+ leadership would like to hide this by underlining their own humanity and recasting their rampant technophilia as a human desire for betterment. But if the “H” stands for humanity, what is the “+”? If it is cyborg hybrids of man and machine instead of superhuman robots, is that so much better? Do we really want that to follow us, as the next step in “evolution”? Whatever the “+” may stand for, I am sure it’s not my kid.

– Mark Gubrud

Resurrecting the Dead

Posting has been light lately because we’ve been busy working on several projects, but we’re kicking things back into gear now.

Picking up on my last post, I want to comment on another passage from Ed Regis’s Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. Regis explains how Hans Moravec imagined bringing back to life people who have been long gone:

It ought to be possible, Moravec thought, to resurrect past history, or at least to resurrect some of the important historical figures — Isaac Newton, for example. In fact, Moravec had already figured out how to do this by the time he’d written Mind Children. He’d worked out a whole scenario whereby a powerful enough supercomputer would be able to resurrect long-dead minds from the information that still survived. You might be able to get Isaac Newton back from an edition of Principia Mathematica, plus what flimsy disturbances might remain in the air from the words Newton had actually spoken during his lifetime.

This was a bit of a stretch, admittedly, but nothing absolutely impossible, at least not in Hans Moravec’s view. After all, plenty of archaeologists had made a living by reconstructing entire cultures from pottery shards, scraps of ancient documents, X-ray scans of mummified remains, and so on, so why shouldn’t the superintelligences of the future be able to go far beyond this, to the point “where long-dead people can be reconstructed in near-perfect detail at any stage of their life,” as Moravec put it? [pages 262-3]

Let’s clear something up right away: It would not be possible to learn anything about anyone who lived before the age of audio recording technology by literally reconstructing the “flimsy disturbances” that “might remain in the air” from words that person had actually spoken. (While people have half-seriously talked about this sort of thing for decades, anyone with a basic understanding of physics will understand why it isn’t possible. A decade ago, there was an X-Files episode about some drying pottery that had been in the room when Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave; supposedly, the soundwaves from His voice had been recorded on a bowl and could be played back like a vinyl record. A similar idea, minus the resurrection, was at the heart of an April Fool’s joke that got lots of people talking back in 2006, inspiring the Mythbusters TV show to attempt an experiment.)

But it isn’t clear that Moravec was actually considering anything along these lines. The “flimsy disturbances” that Regis refers to were probably figurative, and the relevant section of Moravec’s book Mind Children doesn’t mention centuries-old sound waves. If you want to accurately simulate a historical figure, here are the sources of information that Moravec suggests consulting to make your simulation more accurate:

the person’s genetic code, for instance, or filmstrips of the person in life, samples of handwriting, medical records, memories of associates, and so on….

But what if no tape [that is, no recording of a person’s “pattern-identity”] existed at all? Archaeologists today make plausible inferences about historical figures from scraps of old documents, pottery shards, x-ray scans of mummified bodies, other known historical facts, general knowledge about human nature, and whatever else they can find…. Superintelligent archaeologists armed with wonder-instruments (that might, for instance, make atomic-scale measurements of deeply buried objects) should be able to carry this process to a point where long-dead people can be reconstructed in near-perfect detail at any stage of their life. [pages 122-3]

Moravec overreaches so often in Mind Children that stuff like this seems pretty tame in contrast to his trippier ideas. But it’s still worth pointing out just how preposterous even this stuff is.

Let’s work through it. Moravec proposes that the essence of who you are as a person is your “pattern-identity,” which, he imagines, can be digitally stored for future retrieval and even uploaded into robot.

In Moravec’s future, for any given pattern-identity, there are three logical possibilities: either it is preserved as a program entirely, partially, or not at all.

If yours is preserved entirely, you’re in luck — you can be popped into a robo-body and live indefinitely.

If yours is preserved partially, perhaps the missing parts — just “temporarily diffused in the environment,” as Moravec puts it — can be reconstructed from filmstrips, handwriting, and so forth.

And if yours is not at all digitally stored, well, a computer will have to make everything up based on whatever clues are available, just as “creators of historical fiction” gin up fictional accounts of the past. Isn’t it obvious, though, that a simulation of a long-dead person like Isaac Newton cannot be reconstructed in “near-perfect detail,” as Moravec claims? Such a simulation might be fun for educational or recreational purposes (click the picture at right) but the information underlying it would have such enormous gaps that the simulation would be more a caricature of Newton than an accurate representation. And even the extant information could be interpreted lots of different ways; the raw facts of history take us only so far, which is why historians (and authors of historical fiction) are forever debating. This is why there are so many biographies of, for example, Abraham Lincoln: not because new facts are discovered that necessitate new accounts of his life, but because there are so very many ways of interpreting the facts already known. And for more obscure historical figures, of course, the historical record would be so thin that the guesswork would be even greater: imagine trying to simulate, say, Newton’s mother.

More importantly, the historical record available for reconstructing a person is mostly a collection of external facts about a life — which is to say, it leaves out crucial internal aspects of human being. To understand what I mean, watch this clip from the new TV series Caprica. In the pilot episode, the following conversation takes place between a simulation of the late Zoe Graystone and an avatar of her father (while another girl’s avatar looks on).

[If the video does not play for you correctly, click here to open it in a separate window: Permalink.]

The flesh-and-blood Zoe Graystone is dead, but this simulation claims to be accurate because it, the simulation, is based on so many sources of data.

But what do those sources of data reveal? Some might tell you a bit about the health and appearance of the body. (“DNA profiles” and “genetic typings” are both mentioned, which seems repetitious, as does “medical scans” and “CAT scans.”) Some might tell you about physical appearance, mannerisms, and sound. (“Recording — video, audio” and “security cameras.”) But what do movie tickets reveal about you? Only that you might have attended particular movies — not why you attended or what you thought of the movies. What do your e-mails reveal? Only what you wanted other people to read, which might or might not reflect what you actually think or feel. And so on. With the possible exception of “synaptic records,” which don’t exist in real life (and even if they did would not be translatable into mental states), everything on Zoe’s list offers only fragmentary, potentially misleading, external information. Using all that data, it might be possible to develop an interesting psychological profile of a person, and perhaps even very crudely to ape a person. But excluded would be everything that is internal and not reducible to data: the varied intensity of authentic feeling; the creative spark; the ever-shifting web of relations with others; the ever-present secrets of pride, shame, and love; and the potential of growth of the inner-directed consciousness.