07 May 2008

Debating transhumanism

Last week I had an e-mail discussion with blogger Chell about transhumanism, which I thought was interesting enough to adapt into a posting. Her comments are in italics, mine are in regular print.

Isn't human intelligence just what it is? It's like kids going to school. They gain an education, but it does not increase their intelligence. Neither does each passing year. A person's intelligence, regardless of eduction or life experiences is at a pretty set level, is it not?

Human intelligence has been creeping upward for a long time -- I think the average IQ in the US has risen 18 points since 1950 or something like that. It's the result of things like improved health and nutrition, healthier mothers having healthier babies with healthier brains, which is cumulative from generation to genera-tion, the way each generation of children is growing up a little taller than their parents. What I was referring to for the future is more fundamental. Based on the current rates of improvement of our scanning technology and computer processing power, the functioning of the brain should be thoroughly understood by about 30 years from now at the latest, and we'll be able to start integrating nanocircuitry into it to enhance its abilities (we're already enhancing the brain with artificial processors in very crude ways, as with the implants for Parkinson's disease). By around 2045, machine intelligence (that which we now think of as "computers", though it will be far more sophisticated by then) will be fully integrated into the human mind. Imagine being able to access all the information on the internet in exactly the same way that you can recall facts or images in your own memory, being able to "think" with the same speed and precision with which computers can process information, etc., while still having your normal human abilities and personality. Organic brains are very good at certain things, but they do have their limitations. We need to overcome those in order to reach our full potential. As Vernor Vinge (one of the first proponents of the concept) said, we today can no more imagine the cultural and technological flowering that will follow the Singularity than a flatworm can imagine an opera.

Have been thinking about how you said each generation is more intelligent than the last, like each is taller. I can only wonder how many new generations there would be, if people were able to live forever. We couldn't go on endlessly multiplying, packing our-selves on this planet (or even others we might make habitable) like sardines. So there would eventually be no new, more intelligent generations.

On this I'll fall back on Aubrey de Grey's formulation: certainly a cure for aging would create problems, but it would not create any problems as bad as forty million people a year dying of a ghastly, wasting disease, which is the current situation. Birth rates are declining all over the world anyway; they're below replacement level in most advanced countries. Once molecular manufacturing becomes widespread in another two decades or so, we'll see an explosion of material wealth which will dwarf that produced by the industrial revolution. We'll be able to accommodate any population growth resulting from the end of aging very easily, while eliminating most of the damage our industries now do to the environment.

Before we have the technology to do real machine-mind integra-tion, we'll have widespread full-immersion virtual reality (that is, computer-generated environments indistinguishable from reality to all the senses), and I think that after the Singularity, most human activity will migrate into virtual reality quite rapidly. Billions of people will be able to live like Louis XIV if they feel like it, without occupying any physical space in the "real world" or using any resources except computer processing power. So I'm not worried about overpopulation. As for continuing to produce new generations, that will be a matter of individual choice, as it is now.

Sure, we could add computers to our brains (those of us who would be willing, anyway). We make artificial hearts and limbs for people who need them now. In my opinion, there's a difference between heart failure or loss of limb and having a normally functioning human brain. Who or what would make these computers/chips/wires that would "enhance" our brains? If humans made them, there would be human error and glitches. Would you like to be happily zipping around in a Jetson's style saucer, and all of a sudden have your brain freeze except for a box that has "continue" and "cancel" buttons, both of which do nothing? And we still wouldn't be more intelligent. We'd just have an artificial something placed in our heads.

Adding the capabilities of computers (much more advanced than present-day computers, remember) to our existing human intelli-gence would greatly increase our intelligence by any reasonable definition, it seems to me. There's very little anatomical difference between a human brain and a chimpanzee brain except that the human brain is about three times bigger -- it has more neurons, more synapses, more processing power. That's what accounts for the fact that humans are more intelligent than chimpanzees. Mind-machine integration would increase the processing power of the mind far more -- not just three times, but ultimately by however much any given individual wanted for any given purpose.

We're already using machines to enhance our thinking -- consider how much faster and more accurately we can get information on the internet or do complex calculations on a computer than we could if we relied purely on our own brains. The problem is that we're still stuck with accessing that computer intelligence through slow, clumsy interfaces of keyboards and monitors, instead of directly. That's what will change.

By the way, I'm not primarily talking about surgically implanting electronics (more likely nanocircuitry, by then) in people's heads, though I suppose that might happen as an intermediate stage. Machine-mind integration will ultimately take the form of mind uploading. If you haven't read it already, this (rather long) posting explains that.

As for reliability, the question to me is not whether using nanocir-cuitry as the physical substrate for a human mind would be abso-lutely reliable, but whether it would be more reliable than the organic substrate (the brain) that the mind is dependent on right now. The organic brain has many reliability problems -- it's made of fragile material, it's ill-designed for backing up information so it can be restored if lost, its efficiency depends on a constant supply of various nutrients, something as trivial as five minutes' oxygen deprivation can cause an irreversible total system crash, etc. Computer systems with extremely important functions can be made very reliable. Systems which had our own selves "running" on them would be made the most reliable of all -- certainly far more reliable than the brains we have now.

Maybe most of the world will be like that someday. To me, it's sounds like the most frightening situation imaginable. It sounds like people would attempt to cast aside their humanity to become robots. I would rather not be here for that.

I've never understood this reaction, unless it's the cumulative product of endless unimaginative treatment of such themes in science fiction. There's no reason why increasing human intelli-gence would make us less human -- less emotionally sensitive, humane, or whatever other attribute one might consider to be part of that "humanity" to be "cast aside". Just the opposite. I think our emotional and aesthetic lives are much richer and subtler than those of chimpanzees, because of our increased intelligence. I don't think we've lost anything by becoming three times as intelligent as chimpanzees. That's how we gained our humanity. Becoming even more intelligent will enhance our humanity, not cause us to lose it.

The only thing we stand to "lose" by achieving the Singularity is our limitations -- being limited to a certain maximum life span or a certain maximum range of mental capabilities allocated by the blind processes of evolution. The idea of defining the essence of "humanity" by its limitations seems awfully -- well -- limiting.

Paganism is such a blanket term. All sorts of Pagans have all sorts of views on life and an afterlife, and on immortality. I believe we are all immortal already. Even looking at it in the most basic way, when we die, our bodies decompose. But we don't just disappear. Our bodies merge back with the elements of Earth. We continue in this way, at least. If I believed that's all there was, that would be fine. But I believe something must also become of our spirits. That energy must go somewhere. I do believe in reincarnation, but I also think we don't all come back to the world we can most easily see right now. As far as a man-made immortality, I think that's up to each individual, if he wants to attempt that or to live that way. The progress of science shouldn't be held back, since facts are not "bad" things.

Well, of course, I don't believe I have a "spirit", so that's a moot point. The physical material my body is composed of is not the essence of me either; every molecule that was in my body 20 years ago has been replaced by now, but I'm still the same person. So if I die, I don't much care what happens to the organic material -- I'm still dead, regardless. As for reincarnation, if I die and another entity is born somewhere which is supposed to be a continuation of me, but that entity doesn't remember being me, then it isn't me. I'm still dead.

I do find it curious that many people who say they would not want to live forever find the idea of an afterlife attractive. They think they would be bored in an ever-changing, ever-advancing civiliza-tion whose culture we today (as I said) can no more imagine than a flatworm could imagine an opera, but they would be just fine "living" forever in a static Heaven.

I think deep down almost everyone actually wants to survive. Look how eagerly the mass public mind laps up stories like Bridey Murphy which supposedly provide evidence for reincarnation, even though reincarnation is a heresy from a Christian viewpoint. They want to believe existence can go on. It's just that the idea of achieving this through technological means in the real world is so new and unfamiliar.

There may well be people who want nothing to do with life exten-sion or virtual reality or intelligence enhancement or whatever -- though I don't think there will be many, once it becomes clearer what it all actually means. We have people like the Amish right now. Nobody bothers them, but there aren't many of them, and they win few recruits from the mainstream society.

Evolution has produced many remarkable things, but it is a very cruel process. In a sense, what humans are starting to do is to take charge of that process, to start directing it consciously rather than merely being the victims of its blind operations. I hope you can see it that way.

Through evolution the mindless universe has finally produced something greater than itself: the mind. Now the mind will take charge, and ultimately spread itself throughout the universe, remaking the universe as it sees fit.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous handmaiden said...

I find the whole idea fascinating.

Living forever in the Christian sense has never appealed to me even when I was a Christian. It always seemed quit unbelivable anyway no matter how many Christian mystics claimed to have had visions of it & not all that attractive. neither are any of the other religions ideas of an afterlife, IMO

What I like about your idea is that like religion it also gives hope for human kinds future but, it is based on the here & now reality of human science. Even those of us who lean toward existentialism can wrap our minds around this one.

08 May, 2008 08:51  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

Gosh, I started out reading this and it's looks fascinating. Unfortunately, it's late, I'm exhausted and my brain is fried. I'll take a look at it sometime this weekend. I have a lot of blog visits to catch up on. Sorry...but I think I can safely say, "great post!"

Check you out later, kiddo. ;-)

09 May, 2008 21:19  
Blogger Chell said...

Many people on the planet, many views, like:
"Well, of course, I don't believe I have a "spirit", so that's a moot point."
Others believe they have a spirit. And again:
"There may well be people who want nothing to do with life exten-sion or virtual reality or intelligence enhancement or whatever"
Yep. There are. But it's important that we each let others live as they will. Learning through science shouldn't be hobbled. At the same time, people shouldn't ever be forced to apply theories or discoveries to their own lives. That choice needs to be preserved.

People probably won't be more intelligent with computers/nanocircuitry aiding their brains. It sounds like the main difference in how computers help us now and how they might in the future is in accessing that help in the future without a keyboard or a mouse. A desktop computer in the here and now doesn't make its user more intelligent, and this is quite obvious on some message boards. ;) Take away whatever artificial "help," and it will leave the brain with the same intelligence as before. At least, I hope it would leave that.

As far as using computers to scan and preserve our memories, I can see that being possible. Do you think it will preserve anything of us but snapshots and sound clips?

On where we would all physically exist if we were made to never die, you said "We'll be able to accommodate any population growth resulting from the end of aging very easily, while eliminating most of the damage our industries now do to the environment." Is the plan, then, for us to enlarge our planet? And to create enough food and water, we would not damage the environment? Because it seems that we would have to create a whole new environment to sustain such a population growth.

I, and many others, simply don't fear death, as I don't fear the fact that our species may evolve in order to survive. Fixing things that aren't broken doesn't make sense, and to me (different view than yours, remember), the cycle of life and evolution are not broken.

10 May, 2008 08:59  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary Ellen -- welcome back.

Hi Chell -- I think I responded to most of these points fairly well in the original posting, but as for this:

At the same time, people shouldn't ever be forced to apply theories or discoveries to their own lives. That choice needs to be preserved.

I never understand why this keeps coming up. No one has ever suggested that making use of such new technology would be imposed on people. I mentioned the Amish, and people like Jehovah's witnesses are free right now to refuse life-saving medical interventions they disapprove of.

As far as using computers to scan and preserve our memories, I can see that being possible. Do you think it will preserve anything of us but snapshots and sound clips?

I see that I've failed to accurately convey the nature of machine-mind integration -- perhaps not surprising when trying to distill a two-inch-thick and somewhat technical book (for starters) down into something the length of a blog posting.

Even with a cure for aging, world population will probably end up no higher than ten billion before the Singularity. With molecular manufacturing the world could easily accommodate several times that many with far less harm to the environment than our relatively primitive industrial system causes now.

I, and many others, simply don't fear death, as I don't fear the fact that our species may evolve in order to survive. Fixing things that aren't broken doesn't make sense, and to me (different view than yours, remember), the cycle of life and evolution are not broken.

By this argument we should never have tried to cure smallpox or bubonic plague. The natural world isn't "broken" or "not broken", it's just whatever situation evolution happens to have produced at any given moment in the Earth's history. Human intelligence is part of that, just as much as the traits any other animal has to protect its existence.

Evolution will continue -- but in the forms chosen by human intelligence, not as an insensate and pitiless mechanism as it always has been.

Thanks for stopping by. More later (probably) -- I'm not at home right now and can't type at length.

10 May, 2008 10:59  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

No one has ever suggested that making use of such new technology would be imposed on people.

Just to clarify my point in saying this, remember that there are people who want to prevent the development of life-extension technology (the Leon Kass types). It's only the pro-death side which is trying to force its view of how things ought to be on those who have different views.

10 May, 2008 11:02  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

I do find it curious that many people who say they would not want to live forever find the idea of an afterlife attractive. They think they would be bored in an ever-changing, ever-advancing civiliza-tion whose culture we today (as I said) can no more imagine than a flatworm could imagine an opera, but they would be just fine "living" forever in a static Heaven.

But how do you know that heaven is "static"? The belief in life after death doesn't need to entail life as we know it on earth, after death, but life in a more pure form---something we can't achieve while bound in our earthly bodies. Who is to say that intelligence doesn't evolve after death. Heck, there is so little we know about the human brain, so many things that have not been able to be explained. For instance, there are some people who seem to be able to have a psychic gift, a gift for knowing the future or being able to find out what happened to someone after they died through different forms of psychic abilities. Police departments often use this type of person to help solve crimes that have gone unsolved because all the clues have gone cold. I think this happens more than many realize and just isn't discussed in the open.

The same thing goes for After Death Experiences, where people are able to be "outside" of their bodies while watching a doctor work on them to bring them back to life. All of this could be do to having a spirit that leaves the body, but can go back to the body...or it could be a function of our brain that scientists haven't discovered as of yet.

I've often thought that it would be so great if science could figure out a way to put a chip in our brain to help us regain knowledge that we've lost. Just think of the implications for patients with Alzheimer's.

Like I said, a great post! So much to cover! I need a brain chip to help me out here. ;-)

11 May, 2008 00:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

But how do you know that heaven is "static"?

Heaven is usually described as perfect, which implies unchanging. Most descriptions of Heaven also sound incredibly boring.

More to the point, I don't believe that there is any such thing as Heaven or an afterlife of any kind (unless you count this), and there's certainly no evidence of it. Renouncing immortality in the real world in the hopes of an afterlife for which no evidence exists is one heck of a long-shot gamble.

(As for out-of-body experiences, those are pretty well established to be just hallucinations.)

No, thanks. I'll stick with what's real, or can be made real.

Thanks for commenting.

11 May, 2008 08:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

No offense intended to individual commenters, but I'm removing comments on out-of-body experiences. I hate to do it, but I did say in the comments policy that discussions being dragged off topic are one of the things I intend to avoid. The subject of the posting is technological enhancement of human intelligence. OBEs and other such claims of supernatural (or religious or "spiritual") phenomena are clearly off topic.

12 May, 2008 18:55  
Blogger Hrafnkell said...

Interesting discussion, Infidel. Enhancement of human intelligence comes up quite often in speculative fiction. Elizabeth Moon, for example, in her Vatta's War series, had implants that provide access to data the human mind could never hope to cope with, from personnel files to shipping manifests, etc. Sort of like a filing cabinet for the brain. That idea I can find uses for and I don't think it would turn somebody into something less (or more) than human. It's simply a data pad in the brain instead of in your hand (they are apparently sunk into one of your temples).

Armageddon Reef, a novel by David Weber, talks about a PICA, or Personality-Integrated Cybernetic Avatar, a robotic vehicle which looks like you and into which you can download your own personality matrix. You can send it off on adventures, to do things you're not physically capable of doing (or afraid to do) and then upload its experiences as memories into your own brain. I don't think something like that would alter your humanity either, though it's a little strange.

It is becoming easier to see a world in which our computers become more integrated with our minds. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing but it seems like a natural progression. I don't think I would personally like such a thing and they say even now people aren't getting the downtime they need to be truly creative. We live in a world in which we're never alone - cell phones, laptops, etc. All at our fingertips around the clock, everywhere we go.

And here I am, not worried about not being plugged in, but worried about where in the world I would find some solitude.

13 May, 2008 04:42  
Blogger Mauigirl said...

Fascinating post, Infidel. I see no reason not to use computer technology to enhance the brain or to lengthen life. As long as we don't end up like the Borg! We would need to ensure no one could "hack into" our brains to take over. That said, from what you are talking about with nanotechnology, it would not be something that would be likely to happen.

I agree, I've always thought Heaven sounded remarkably dull and reincarnation appealed to me as well. I think the only way "heaven" would be of interest is if there were some kind of library where you could just go experience different time periods and see what they were like, both past and future. (a la that one Star Trek episode where they all escape into the past through this "library" of time travel disks). I think the main thing I hate to contemplate about death is, not knowing what happens next! Will mankind every progress? Will we get to other planets, other galaxies? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Will we find it? What happens next? The longer I can hang around here the happier it would make me.

13 May, 2008 05:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Hrafnkell -- I'd be interested in how Paganism influences reactions to transhumanist ideas. Obviously there isn't only one perspective; individual Pagans seem to have wildly differing views of the subject.

Wicca's adaptability stands it in good stead. Unencumbered by holy books or fixed dogma, it has the potential to grow and change with the Aquarian Age. Provided humanity keeps its nerve, the new millennium could see us fulfilling our wildest dreams: Space travel, longevity stretching out to virtual immortality, time travel, and freedom from disease could all be within our grasp. Wiccans, believing as they do that the divine is within us, are unfazed by the prospect of human beings becoming like gods and goddesses. -- Tony & Aileen Grist, The Illustrated Guide to Wicca (2000), p. 123

Of course I know that your form of Paganism is completely different from Wicca, though I'm less familiar with it.

And here I am, not worried about not being plugged in, but worried about where in the world I would find some solitude.

I feel the same way; I think most people do. I do believe that enhancing our intelligence will enhance our indiviuality, and that making each individual more independent will allow for more solitude.

13 May, 2008 05:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mauigirl -- Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity Is Near (which is really the essential reading on this subject) has some discussion of the problem of hacking and computer viruses in this context. Obviously only an extremely high level of security will be acceptable -- but it will also be attainable, since it will be so important to us that we will invest whatever resources are necessary to develop it.

Experiencing different time periods (or completely imaginary worlds, for that matter) will be possible using virtual reality. It's one of the things I look forward to.

I agree with you about wanting to see what the future holds. It's one of the reasons I don't ever want to die.

13 May, 2008 05:46  

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