March 24, 2009

Uplifting animals? Yes we should


Definitely feeling an anti-uplift vibe in the comments section and in personal emails; at the very least it seems people are a bit 'meh' about the whole thing.

Funny -- for my leftie, vegetarian, animal rights leaning transhumanist comrades this is somewhat of a no-brainer. Makes me wonder what kind of ideological underpinnings exist that can predetermine one's position on the matter...

But what's with the animal exclusionism?

Why should only human persons be uplifted to a postbiological condition? Assuming we get to a posthuman, post-Singularity state, does it really make sense to leave the natural world exactly as it is? I thought the whole point of this futurist exercise was to figure out ways to rework the entire ecosystem such that we can finally retire the autonomous process of artificial selection and all the pointless suffering therein. Given the advent of postbiological space, what would be the point of continuing to allow the existence of biological creatures who have to wallow and struggle through the slime?

Moreover, I've never suggested that we augment dolphins and elephants so they become post-dolphins and post-elephants. I make it very clear in my paper (which it appears most people haven't bothered to read) that the uplift exercise is more radical than people think:
A future world in which humans co-exist with uplifted whales, elephants and apes certainly sounds bizarre. The idea of a United Nations in which there is a table for the dolphin delegate seems more fantasy than reality. Such a future, however, even when considering the presence of uplifted animals, may not turn out just quite the way we think it will.

Intelligence on the planet Earth is set to undergo a sea change. Post-Singularity minds will either be manifest as cybernetic organisms, or more likely, as uploaded beings. Given the robust nature of computational substrate, intelligence is set to expand and diversify in ways that we cannot yet grasp, suffice to say that postbiological beings will scarcely resemble our current incarnation.

In this sense, “postbiological” is a more appropriate term than “posthuman”. The suggestion that posthumans will live amongst post-apes and post-elephants misses the point that a convergence of intelligences awaits us in our future. Our biological heritage may only likely play a very minor part in our larger postbiological constitution – much like the reptilian part of our brain does today in terms of our larger neurological functioning.

And like the other sapient animals who share the planet with us, and with whom we can claim a common genetic lineage, we will one day look back in awe as to what was once our shared biological heritage.
I hope this clarifies things and sets a more expansive vision of what I have in mind when I say uplift. And what is meant by a post-Singularity ecosystem.

As for the morality of the whole thing and the issue of obligations, again I would direct readers to my paper. But in summary, uplift technologies represent a primary good in the Rawlsian sense. So it becomes an issue of social justice once all persons are included -- human or otherwise (and if you can't accept the fact that not all persons are humans, well then I'm surprised you find any value to my blog). Nonhuman persons have a right to these technologies and it is our obligation as the most capable and informed members of the larger social community to make them available.

And by using Rawl's notion of original position, we can assume consent; as a thought experiment, if you had the choice of being born as a radically advanced postbiological entity or a bonobo in the jungle, you would undoubtedly choose the former.

Animal uplift is an important issue -- one that touches upon everything from animal welfare and social justice right through to our most fantastical futurist visions. It may be a highly philosophical and speculative line of inquiry today, but the day is fast coming when this will become a very relevant issue.

13 comments:

ZarPaulus said...

I personally think that we should at least attempt biological uplift, in small groups at first and if all goes well then entire species. It seems to me that an uplifted bonobo would seem more familiar than a completely artificial intelligence, and less human-like species might be good "practice" for when we make contact with sapient extraterrestrials (or uplift them).

Michael Anissimov said...

Leftie, vegetarian, animal rights leaning transhumanist here. Whether or not we upload animals should, in my opinion, have to do if they are conscious and experiencing interesting lives. If not, they might not have the necessary "personality seed" to grow it into anything interesting. What's the good if 1% of the cognitive content is the original dolphin and the 99% is just some stuff we added in to make it smart enough to know how the hell to make interesting choices for itself?

We don't know whether or not animals are thoroughly conscious yet. You don't know, I don't know. I think that this will strongly influence folks' opinions. The only way to test whether they do have consciousness, is, in my opinion, to stepwise modify a human to a dolphin-like state and back, giving them amplified communication abilities, allowing them to report the experience. If the public got such an "experience report" and it felt compelling, I think they'd be far more inclined to promote animal uplifting -- as would I.

Michael Kirkland said...

I don't see anything wrong, per se, with creating dolphins that can talk, but I do think we have an obligation not to displace the existing species with our creation. Personally, given a supply of singularity pixie dust, I'd rather augment myself to communicate with dolphins than to create something almost, but not entirely unlike a dolphin that could talk to me.

We can assume consent of a theoretical uplifted dolphin to create it, but we cannot assume consent to preempt future standard issue dolphins.

I don't think burning our cradle is a good idea. Rather I think we should leave the Earth when we're able, and let evolution take her where it may. We can make our talking dolphins and catgirls or whatever elsewhere and let evolution do its thing. Maybe the catgirls will want to come back in an eon or two and do their own uplifting.

I'm a centrist omnivore, and I don't agree with you about non-human personhood (or even the concept of personhood as a binary quality), but I don't read exclusively people I agree with.

Ryan said...

I'm not convinced that a bonobo is capable of having a preference in the question of uplift. I tend to think this type of self reflection is one of the things that only shows up at or above the human level intelligence.

That said I don't object to 'uplift' even if as Michael A. suggested it would be 99% stuff added by us. I would just say its not a moral obligation given the current evidence.

Anonymous said...

"We don't know whether or not animals are thoroughly conscious yet. You don't know, I don't know."

Actually, we probably do know. Findings from the study of human cognition tell us our own consciousness is little more than smoke in the wind.

Almost all of the sensory input our brains receive gets filtered out of our awareness. Only something in the range of 0,0001% gets through. And it's not just the external world that barely exists to us; we can't really see inside our own minds either.

In other words, what we have is consciousness version 0.1 alpha. We don't really experience the world in the form it really exists. We don't know what we are, or why we think and behave the way we do. All we have is a confused, vague dream.

If "I" barely exist, then it seems reasonable to conclude that animals with their simpler brains are most definitely not "thoroughly conscious".

XiXiDu said...

That it would render human racism even more ridiculous than it already is now is one of the promises that I see in animal uplifting.

There could come a time of huge diversity in intelligence and awareness. The prevailing human-centric behavior will then ultimately lead to problems, if not by war then by a corruption of moral handling towards beings deemed less worthy.

Vegetarians and animal rights activists are already there. But they are often faced with this argument: There are only humans. Indeed, it's easy to suppress from a position of strength and a sense of absolute sovereignty. But even now, in our pre-singularity era, this stance already causes problems:

Should Chimpanzee's gain human rights? What rights do mentally handicapped have? Are some races as worthy as others? Do we have to cure autism?

With modern means of data mining we could even discover that behavioral differences between racial and ethnic groups have some genetic basis.

The answer? We have to broaden our concept of morality to include a wide range of intelligence, awareness and perception!

Uplifting animals may help us getting there before it is too late.

But we shouldn't forget another benefit. Uplifts will enrich the intellectual diversity and will be able to tackle problems from a alien perspective. Indeed, we'll create the aliens that we're collectively missing for so long.

XiXiDu said...

And about awareness, don't you think we'd be better off not to set the bar too high? After all baseline humans could be seen as merely conscious by some theoretical beings?

"What is it that should trace the insuperable line? …The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” – Jeremy Bentham

Roko said...

Echoing Michael: "Whether or not we upload animals should, in my opinion, have to do if they are conscious and experiencing interesting lives."

Would you uplift a cuckoo clock or a lawnmower or your laptop? If not, why not? Can you be sure that there's more going on upstairs for (say) a squirrel than the above?

Most animals may be dumber than we think. Most of them might not have the necessary seed for personality.

Dolphins and Chimps are probably marginal cases. I think I would support uplift for them, on humanitarian grounds.

Wildcat said...

First allow me to applaud both David Brin (of which I am a great fan, read the whole uplift series) and G.Dvorsky for the invitation to write on sentient developments.

To the issue itself: I believe that the uplift concept as envisioned by D.Brin is one of the most important conceptual moves proposed on the smorgasbord of ideas & philosophies humanity has generated for a long while now. The concept of uplift may be observed from another perspective though, the perspective of emergence or co-emergence.
The ‘co’ standing for cooperation in a fundamentally interdependent ecosphere, existing and co-habiting the same ‘life’ niche in this universe, at present on this planet.

Without getting into the complex and highly complicated issue of definitions of sentiency & sapience it is my view that beside the ethical considerations the very point of having a singularity is to allow it to be a fully unknown quantity. Fully unknown in that all parties involved in the ecosphere/infoverse where said singularity occurs need take part and be uplifted/ augmented in the same sense that we as a species will and are. Given this simultaneous co-emergence in which all parties evolve, the result promises to be a surprising re-mapping of the phase space of intelligence, hence a fully unknown quantity/reality will emerge.

In one of the possible scenarios, human intelligence loses its centric position (self-described as such) towards a post singularity reality in which species co-mingle and integrate into a larger cross-fertilizing pan-galactic intelligent and diversified life spreading culture.

As I see it, life is a co-emergent phenomenon that carries within it the seed of self-amplification via intelligent bridging of gaps between species. Uplift, augmentation, sentiency, elimination of suffering, compassion, morality & ethics and so on are only a few terms that we will need to re-evaluate in the coming post singularity reality.

I respect any human that utilizes the gift of intelligence to increase intelligence; in this respect uplifting is just an extension of the same principle.

A truly intelligent life-form has no need whatsoever to cling to its old habits of thought and form, sense of modalities or be afraid to be supplanted by the next intelligence evolving simultaneously. It gives me much pleasure to see these issues (fantastic as they may appear) tackled in such a serious and considered manner.

Finally I don’t see the issues of right or wrong having anything to do with uplift, intelligence simply implies it, uplift of another (be it human or dolphin) is as natural as bootstrapping our own intelligence, we cannot not do it, it’s life unadulterated.

spaceweaver said...

The idea of uplifting nonhuman animals and integrating them into a futuristic sentient society is both fascinating and courageous. There is no doubt that on the technological aspect the issue is still highly speculative, and on the ethical aspect it opens more riddles than it resolves. Nevertheless, Dvorsky describes an important and interesting trend: "humans are widening both their moral and social circles". It seems that this widening is indicative to a more general evolutionary motion of minding. The more the sphere of human knowledge is expanded, human conscious awareness expands in scope and depth. The more conscious awareness expands, the sphere of moral deliberation and moral responsibility expands, which finds its culmination in the expansion of empathy towards that which is increasingly different from us. It is this profound sense of empathy that will eventually drive human civilization towards a perpetual motion of overreaching its own borders, and expansion of identity by embracing widening spheres of intelligent lifeforms.

The idea of uplift as described in Dvorsky's article can and should be taken further. If we leave for a moment the technological aspects that are involved, I do not see why uplift should stop with , by now, obvious candidates such as the great apes, dolphins, whales and others. Uplift, it seems, is an imperative of conscious intelligent life to expand.Though we do not have the capacity to uplift other lifeforms as yet, there is quite a strong argument we can already figure, why it will be ethical to exercise such a capacity if and when we will realize it. But then, following Dvorsky's arguments to their logical end, I can see no place where a line can be drawn marking the limits of the application of such capabilities. That is to say that if we consider the great apes, dolphins and such for uplift, we have to go as far as it goes, to all life forms at all stages of evolution that is.

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This is an excerpt from an article "The Emerging Uplift Principle" originally published in my blog in response to Dvorsky's article.

Larry said...

It would be convenient to have smart dolphins to farm the ocean, not as servants, but as trading partners.

But the real deal is that uplift is just one of a host of genetic modifications that await all species, including our own. Remember, we're not talking about your beloved Fido here, suddenly "waking up" and starting to talk to you. Uplifted animals would be born that way, and likely wouldn't have any interest in you cooing at them.

Joshua said...

"And by using Rawl's notion of original position, we can assume consent; as a thought experiment, if you had the choice of being born as a radically advanced postbiological entity or a bonobo in the jungle, you would undoubtedly choose the former."

By the same logic, if we had the choice between choosing to live as a bonobo or choosing to be a potato, we would choose the bonobo. So, to paraphrase your own comment:

What's with the vegetable exclusionism?

Brian Tarbox said...

I used to belong to a Unitarian church, that said "respect for all beings". When Akeakamai died I asked that they speak her name during the service, and they refused saying that she was just an animal. If even the Unitarians don't get it I think we have a long way to go before we're ready to treat 'animals' as full partners. Nevertheless it is a Good Goal.