July 11, 2004

Re: Cyborgs in the City

Justice wasn't entirely happy with the Mirror article and had this rebuttal:
Transhumanist technicalities

I just read the "Cyborgs in the city" article by Kristian Gravenor about myself and NEXUS: The Montreal Transhumanist Association [July 1]. I want to thank the entire staff of the Mirror for your interest in our movement. However, due to the massive amount of data I provided your reporter, I'm not surprised to find a few mistakes. Please allow me the opportunity to make the proper corrections:

(1) Although some transhumanists are "hardcore techno-utopians," NEXUS is comprised of techno-realists who assess the social implications of new technologies so that people might all have more control over the shape of their future. This approach involves a continuous critical examination of how these technologies might help or hinder people in the struggle to improve the quality of their lives and their communities.

(2) Although the NEXUS vice-president studies the potential of brain-computer interface technology as a precursor to mind uploading, he is very much a down-to-earth fellow who keeps an archive of audio recordings of his life as a memory aid only.

(3) I do not foresee people using germline engineering to give themselves "animal feathers" or "changing the colour of one's skin"! I was only musing about the possibility that body modification could lead to animal-like features such as night vision or having one's skin and hair automatically adapt to weather changes. However, I do envision the coming of the "hybrid man" - an individual enhanced with both gene therapy and cybernetic implants.

(4) The visual phone and the Segway are not examples of ubiquitous integrated technology, but a single mother putting a radio frequency ID chip in her child's clothing in order to better track him for his safety is.

(5) There is much debate among scientists about whether or not an artificial intelligence explosion known as the Singularity will ever happen. However, there would be nothing "magical" about this event if it did.

(6) Finally, transhumanists may have different interests, but we all share the value of rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, democracy and concern for our fellow human beings.

Due to my respect for Margaret Somerville, rather than responding to her alarmist vitriol (which reminded me of the control voice from a bad episode of the Outer Limits) I invite her, and anyone else interested, to read the Transhumanist FAQ at http://transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/faq/

» Justice De Th├ęzier, NEXUS: The Montreal Transhumanist Association

1 comment:

De Thezier said...

Here is my real and complete rebuttal to the Mirror article:

TRANSHUMANIST TECHNICALITIES

Due to the reporter's preconceived notions and deadline-fuelled haste, 'Cyborgs in the City' is a well-meaning but botched article filled with mistakes and misrepresentations. The following are the necessary corrections:

(1) NEXUS: the Montreal Transhumanist Association is non-profit organization devoted to encouraging the ethical and responsible use of technology to transcend limitations of the human body. Although some transhumanists are "hardcore techno-utopians," NEXUS is only comprised of techno-realists who assess all possible implications of new technologies so that people might all have more control over the shape of their future. This approach involves a continuous critical examination of how these technologies might help or hinder people in the struggle to improve the quality of their lives and their communities.

(2) Although the acting NEXUS vice-president studies the potential of brain-computer interface technology as a precursor to mind uploading, he is very much a down-to-earth fellow who keeps an archive of audio recordings of his life as a memory aid only.

(3) I did not say that I foresee people using germline engineering to give themselves "animal feathers" or "changing the colour of one's skin"! I was only musing about the possibility that body modification could lead to animal-like features such as night vision or having one's skin and hair automatically adapt to weather changes. However, I do foresee people in the near- to far-future using a combination of new technologies to remove predispositions to disease, boost their immune system, stop aging at 25 or 30 (or be rejuvenated to that age), and have regenerating limbs.

(4) The visual phone and the Segway are not examples of the kind of ubiquitous integrated technology I was referring to. A single mother putting a radio frequency ID chip in her child's clothing in order to better track him for his safety is.

(5) There is much debate among transhumanist and non-transhumanist scientists about whether or not an artificial intelligence explosion known as the Singularity will ever happen. However, such an event is not expected to happen before the middle of the century and there would be nothing "magical" about it if it did.

(6) There is an improved method of cryogenic preservation using vitrification, which involves injecting 'anti-freeze' substances that make water in the body harden like glass thereby reducing tissue damage significantly.

(7) Finally, transhumanists may have different interests, but we all share the value of rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, democracy and concern for our fellow human beings.

The following would have been my real response to the alarmist vitriol of Margaret Somerville, who obviously has a mediocre understanding of transhumanism and how emerging technologies would be used:

< "One of the things I'm interested in researching is the importance of the basic presumption in favour of the natural. It doesn't mean you can't change nature, but you must be sure that you are justified when doing it. The transhumanists have the opposite presumption. They think its fine to do what you can." >

Since there is no evidence supporting a basic presumption in favour of the natural, transhumanists insist that whether something is natural or not is irrelevant to whether it is good or desirable.

< "I feel that they've got an unbalanced optimism about what they can use science for," she says. >

As I said before, transhumanist optimism is tempered with technorealism, which is an attempt to expand the middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism by assessing all possible implications of new technologies so that people might all have more control over the shape of their future. This approach involves a continuous critical examination of how these technologies might help or hinder people in the struggle to improve the quality of their lives and their communities.

< Somerville says she's concerned that two tiers of humanity could evolve from techno-tinkering. "They think they will engineer the transition from human to post-human, to make a vastly superior model. In fact it would be so different from what we know as human, that what we consider human would be so inferior that it'd be a subspecies." >

From the Transhumanist FAQ: Human society is always at risk from some group deciding to view another group of humans as [inferior and even] fit for slavery or slaughter. To counteract such tendencies, modern societies have created laws and institutions, and endowed them with powers of enforcement, that act to prevent groups of citizens from assaulting one another. The efficacy of these institutions does not depend on all citizens having equal capacities. Modern, peaceful societies have large numbers of people with diminished physical or mental capacities along with many other people who may be exceptionally physically strong or healthy or intellectually talented in various ways. Adding people with technologically enhanced capacities to this already broad distribution of ability would not necessarily rip society apart or trigger [genetic cleansing] or enslavement.

< "The stated goal is to create humans that have superintelligence, superemotions, that you won't have to worry about wars and conflict because we'll be so well-programmed. That has an ultra-humanist base but I think it fails to understand the complexities and values of what we are." >

On the contrary, behaviour geneticists and evolutionary psychologists - two of the strongest proponents of genetic influentialism - demonstrate in their research precisely how environments interact with heredity to shape behaviour and personality. This interactionism starts when genes code for biochemical reactions, which regulate physiological changes, which govern biological systems, which impact neurological actions, which induce psychological states, which cause behaviours; these behaviours, in turn, interact with the environment, which change the behaviours, which influence psychological states, which alter neurological actions, which transform biological systems, which modify physiological changes, which transfigure biochemical reactions. And all of this happens in a complex interactive feedback loop between genes and environment throughout development and into adulthood.

It is because of this greater understanding of human cognition and behaviour that post-Darwinian leftists like Peter Singer can argue that there is a biologically rooted tendency towards selfishness and hierarchy, which has defeated attempts at egalitarian social reform. If the Left program of social reform is to succeed, Singer proposes that we must employ the new bio- and neuro-technologies to identify and modify aspects of human nature that cause conflict and competition. Singer therefore embraces a program of socially subsidized, but voluntary, genetic improvement while rejecting coercive reproductive policies and eugenic pseudo-science.

< Somerville also believes that efforts at immortality are also a dodgy goal. "We won't be wear-out able, they say, because we'll be made of replaceable computer bits. But once you start talking about immortality you're getting close to advocating a secular religion because that's what religions deal with - why we're here, what we're doing and how long we'll be here." >

From the Transhumanist FAQ: While not a religion, transhumanism might serve a few of the same functions that people have traditionally sought in religion. It offers a sense of direction and purpose and suggests a vision that humans can achieve something greater than our present condition. Unlike most religious believers, however, transhumanists seek to make their dreams come true in this world, by relying not on supernatural powers or divine intervention but on rational thinking and empiricism, through continued scientific, technological, economic, and human development. Some of the prospects that used to be the exclusive [monopoly] of the religious institutions, such as very long lifespan, unfading bliss, and godlike intelligence, are being discussed by transhumanists as hypothetical future engineering achievements.

< Somerville also worries about the vaunted germ line engineering that would simply deprogram unwanted traits in an embryo. "That's really designing humans. The basis of democracy is that we are all free and equal and what that would mean is that the designed person is not free because they've been designed. It's not a free thing that happened to them, it's the ultimate form of slavery - genetic slavery." >

This is absurd. If we follow this fallacy to its logical conclusion, it would mean that people who choose to give birth to, or adopt, and raise children without their prior consent are engaging in parental slavery.

Although all human beings are and should always be treated equally under the laws of a democracy, it doesn’t change the reality that people are born with genetic advantages or disabilities that others do not.

Transhumanists uphold the principles of bodily autonomy and procreative liberty. Parents must be allowed to choose for themselves whether to reproduce, how to reproduce, and what technological methods they use in their reproduction. The use of genetic medicine or embryonic screening to increase the probability of a healthy, happy, and multiply talented child is a responsible and justifiable application of parental reproductive freedom.

Therefore, parents should be discouraged or forbidden to modify their children in ways that reduce their powers of self-determination (by imposing on them a tendency towards subservience for instance), but they should be encouraged to increase their children's self-determination powers (by gifting them with a tendency towards higher social intelligence).

< Nor is she persuaded by the idea that once somebody does it, it's full-speed ahead for the rest. "It's like using drugs in the Olympics. You're supposed to work out whether that's what you really should be doing in the first place." >

Actually, there is a growing number of sports ethicists who argue that there are good reasons to encourage the use of performance-enhancing drugs: It would level the playing field by increasing equality between athletes with varying genetic and environmental advantages but, more importantly, it would stimulate more research to ensure the safety of those drugs.

< One scenario Somerville suggests might come involves slowed ageing. "You go into the embryo and alter the ageing gene, so you wouldn't reach puberty until 25 or 30, you'd hit middle age at 60 and wouldn't actually get old until you were like 150. Is it acceptable to do that? Who will be the first to make their kid go through that?" >

(Laughter) As far as I know, no one since it would make more sense to simply modify our children’s genes so that their normal aging process simply stops at 25 or 30. Who wouldn’t thank their parents everyday for having blessed them with such a gift?