May 16, 2009

If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!

(incorrectly but fittingly ascribed to Emma Goldman, feminist, activist, trouble-maker)

Athena Andreadis is guest blogging this month.

Those who know my outermost layer would consider me a science geek. I’m a proponent of genetic engineering, an advocate of space exploration, a reader and writer of science fiction. However, I found myself unable to warm to either transhumanism or its literary sidekick, cyberpunk. I ascribed this to the decrease of flexibility that comes with middle age and resumed reading Le Guin’s latest story cycle.

But the back of my mind gnawed over the discrepancy. After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades of… and then it hit me… gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that don’t involve VR.

And I finally rea
lized why I balk at cyberpunk and transhumanism like an unruly horse. Both are deeply anhedonic, hostile to physicality and the pleasures of the body, from enjoying wine to playing in an orchestra. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure this out. After all, many transhumanists use the repulsive (and misleading) term “meat cage” to describe the human body, which they deem a stumbling block, an obstacle in the way of the mind.

This is hoary dualism disguised as futuristic thinking, augmented by healthy doses of queasiness and power fantasies. Ascetics of other eras tried to diminish the body by fasting, flagellating, abstaining from all physical gratification from washing to sex. Techno-monks want to discard it altogether. The goal is a disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream. If a body is tolerated at all, the ideal is a mixture of metal and ceramic, hairless and poreless, though it still retains the hyper-gendered configurations possible only in cartoons.

Is abandonment of the body such a bad thing? As anyone who lost a limb or went through a major illness can attest, it’s a marvelous instrument
whose astonishing abilities become obvious only when it malfunctions. On the other hand, it’s undeniably fragile and humans have lost patience with its shortcomings as technology has overtaken nature. Transhumanists extol such prospects as anti-aging medicine; advanced prosthetics; radical cosmetic surgery, including sex changes; nootropic drugs; and carbon-silicon interfaces, from cyborgs to immersive VR.

I don’t know a single woman who, given the choice, would opt to retain menstruation, pregnancy or menopause (though few would admit it openly). And very few people, no matter how stoic, can face the depradations of chronic disease or age with equanimity. The neo-Rupturists who prophesy the coming
of the Singularity can hardly wait to exchange their bodies with versions that will never experience memory lapses or fail to achieve erections at will.

I’m no Luddite, bio or otherwise. I am glad that technology has enabled us to lead lives that are comfortable, leisured and long enough that we can explore the upper echelons of the hierarchy of needs. However, we demean the body at our peril. It’s not the passive container of our mind; it is its major shaper and inseparable partner. If we discard our bodies we run the danger of losing context to our lasting detriment – as we have already done by successive compartmentalizations and sunderings.

Humans are inherently social animals that developed in response to feedback loops between the environment and their own evolving form. Like all lifeforms, we’re jury-rigged. Furthermore, humans are mediocre across the entire spectrum of physical prowess, from range of vision to maximum running speed. Yet this mediocrity probably enabled us to occupy many environmental niches successfully before technology allowed us to impose our wishes on our environment. Optimizing in any direction may push us into dead-end corners, something that has happened to many species we engineered extensively.

This also holds true for our
brains. It’s a transhumanist article of faith that intelligence can and must be augmented – but there are many kinds of intelligence. A lot of learning is mediated through the body, from using a screwdriver properly to gauging complex social interactions. Short-circuiting this type of learning results in shallow knowledge that may not become integrated into long-term memory. There is a real reason for apprenticeships, despite their feudal overtones: people who use Photoshop, CAD and laboratory kits without prior “traditional” training frequently make significant errors and often cannot critically evaluate their results. Furthermore, without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination or madness, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain.

Another feedback loop is provided by the cortical emotions, which enable us to make decisions. Two prominent side effects of many nootropic drugs are flattening of the emotions and suppression of creativity. Far from fine-tuning perception, the drugs act as blunting hammers. Finally, if we evade our bodies by uploading into a silicon frame (biologically impossible, but let’s grant it as a hypothesis), we may lose the capacity for empathy, as shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.

I do believe that our bodies can be improved. Nor does everything have to remain as it is now. I wouldn’t mind having wings t
hat could truly lift me; even less would I mind living without fear of cancer or diabetes. Yet I’m fairly certain that we have to stick with carbon if we want seamless form and function. When I hear talk of "upgrading" to silicon or to ether, I get a strong whiff of cubicleers imagining themselves as Iron Man or Neo. Being alone inside a room used to be a punishment. Being imprisoned inside one’s head is a recipe for insanity. Without our bodies, we bid fair to become not exalted intellects but mad(wo)men in the attic.


Starship Reckless
It's All in Your Head
The Left Hand of Light


George said...

Awesome post, Athena -- I'm glad you brought up this topic. In my all my years studying transhumanism and meeting with transhumanists, I have to admit that I've come across my fair share of the body loathers. But it's a sentiment that I personally don't subscribe to. Moreover, I think it's an inaccurate characterization of the potential capabilities of the posthuman mind.

The vision of the uploaded posthuman as nothing more than pure intellect is regrettable -- one that fails to take into account exactly what you describe above, that consciousness is more than pure thought and reason.

Rather, from our own experience we know it is the synthesis of incoming environmental stimuli (introduced to the mind via the senses -- touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, balance) with our cognitive-driving brain functions. The result is a rich conscious experience that places us firmly in our environment.

In my posthuman future it is not just intelligence that is augmented, but all our sensory faculties as well (including a few novel ones). This would include higher sensory reception bandwidth and the requisite cognitive capacity to interpret and translate that data into a rich qualitative experience.

Aside from having a profound effect on the robustness of our conscious experience, this will result in a subjective -- and dare I day corporeal -- experience far richer and more intimate than anything that can experienced by unaugmented humans today. And given the right programming -- there's no reason this couldn't be experienced virtually.

Dustin said...

You've presented some valid points to consider for those who would implement uploading.

However, you fail to explain why any of these things are insurmountable obstacles. For example, why can't the whole of the body be simulated?

Michael Anissimov said...

This article is silly. The point of uploading and moving away from biology is to upgrade and expand our somatic experiences, not discard them.

I am sort of confused at what you are imagining. How would it even be possible to exist completely without a body, as an upload or otherwise? Aren't you aware that the point of uploading would be to exchange a physical body for a virtual one, a virtual body which would still have feedback from the (virtual) environment and so on?

The misconceptions about uploading you present here are not at all new. I have read them dozens of times in hearing bioconservatives and bio-Luddites who imagine that transhumanists want to totally discard their bodies, without realizing that no one could possibly want to discard their body (interface with the world) entirely. That would be like living in a black box.

I also find it very weird that a non-transhumanist (in fact, anti-transhumanist) would be guest blogging on a transhumanist blog.

Michael Anissimov said...

Here's a little more on the topic:

"What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud" by J. Storrs Hall

Athena Andreadis said...

George, your vision is a rich, integrated one, although it will be hard to achieve. We will have to make choices and we may end up with a mosaic based partly on social structures, partly on availability of resources. The latter is pertinent to the point Dustin raised.

Michael, you will find my brief opinion of self-anointed biology experts in the middle of this essay: On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks.

More specifically, I'm not against transhumanism, as long as its applications are humane and fueled by facts. As a researcher, I'm doing my own small part in the struggle against dementia.

I regard "predictive" transhumanism as I do the anthropic principle. The weak version is a tautology -- we're already transhuman by virtue of our technology and will continue along that path as long as our technology can support it. The strong version, with its (post)apocalyptic thrust, is religious dogma with all the humorlessless, rigidity and disregard of reality that the term connotes.

George said...

@Michael: I plan on bringing in an assortment of guest bloggers in the coming months, including those with alternative perspectives on transhumanism (like Athena's) and perhaps even all-out opponents.

Michaela said...

I agree with Michael. Athena's ideological purity comes into question, which calls George's ideological purity into question for allowing her to voice her ideas on this forum.

Anonymous said...

I loved your article Athena, but I'm not entirely sure I agree with the position that few women would choose pregnancy if they didn't have to. No doubt in the future medical technology will make pregnancy and labour much easier and safer. Whatever degree of enhancements become possible in the future, we are sure to retain biology vestiges for sentimental reasons. George has made it clear that he's not going to give up sleep, and I'm sure most people will still eat and have sex in the future. There is an emotional aspect to pregnancy. I'm sure many mother's experience an intimate connection with the child growing inside them, and there are men who wish they could experience that too. You may envy a man's status as a passive observer during pregnancy, but it has its downsides. If a man wants to keep a child, but the woman decides to abort it, he's powerless to stop her. Likewise, if she decides she wants a child she can go off her contraceptive without telling her man and get pregnant without his conscent.In practice, women (in the developed world)have more control over their reproduction than men. I don't think many women would want to give this up or share it with men. I think that in the future many women will keep the advantages of pregnancy while using technology to negate the disadvantages.

Athena Andreadis said...

To Michaela: Burning of heretics scheduled for 2 pm EST! (*laughs*)

To Anonymous: I've given a lot of thought to the point you discuss. If time and energy allow, I plan to write about it soon.

Russell Blackford said...

I sort of disagree with Athena's post. I don't think that transhumanism is necessarily like that, and I think it's misleading to talk about "dualism" in this context. I've been critical of similar views in the past. But my disagreement is only "sort of", because it's complicated; because (above all) transhumanism has suffered from a relative scarcity of high-profile women in the movement, which has tended to limit its perspectives on the world of the senses; and because what Athena is saying does contain more than a grain of truth.

But in any event, what's with the call for ideological purity? Is George really supposed to ask only those people who agree with him (or Michael) on everything to come here as guest bloggers? By those standards, I shouldn't have been a guest blogger here, either. Surely the whole point is to get a different perspective.

Mark Walker said...

Is transhumanism without costs? I doubt it. Once upon a time there was a most magnificent revolution in human history: the human mind burst out of the human brain in the form of the written word. Prior to the invention of the alphabet, culture had to be transmitted by rote, mostly orally, from generation to generation. The best poets of old—the Einstiens of their age—could remember about two books worth of knowledge, e.g., the Iliad and the Odyssey. Was there a loss in the transmutation from traditional societies to literate societies? Absolutely. Was the cost worth it? Absolutely. Every revolution has its costs: from the agricultural and literacy revolution to women’s emancipation. Any transhumanist who denies this is panglossian; any critic who thinks the fact that there may be some costs to the transhumanist revolution is a decisive refutation ought to rewind the clock to our Homo erectus brethren, and work backward from there.
Transhumanism, in its most basic form says this: we can and ought to remake human biology. The rest is details. To the extent that we can make sense of the distinction, transhumanism is about enhancing rather than merely repairing human biology. Should we keep our carbon bodies but change our biology to make ourselves smarter, longer-lived, happier and more virtuous, or should we migrate to a robotic or perhaps computer platform? These three options are in-house disputes. They are all transhumanist options.
The transhumanist argument is brutally simple. Consider every feature of humanity, e.g., our intelligence, lifespan, happiness, virtue, etc., and ask of it: are they, all things considered, configured to provide us with the best possible lives? If so, then, all things considered, they are perfect. If not, then we should enhance them to make them perfect. I don’t see an anti-transhumanist argument in the post, for the author does not preclude the possibility of enhancing biology in pursuit of good lives. This sounds more like an in-house debate, for there is no sacrosanct line drawn at human nature.
My vote is for more posts like Athena’s.

heresiarch said...

Michael Anissimov: "Aren't you aware that the point of uploading would be to exchange a physical body for a virtual one, a virtual body which would still have feedback from the (virtual) environment and so on?"But the bandwidth, sophistication, and most importantly, relevance of virtual sensations is necessarily limited: you can't simulate reality to a higher degree than it already exists, and you can't possibly make it more relevant. At any given technological level, the sensory input available from reality will exceed the sensory input we can manufacture on every metric but agreeability.

heresiarch said...

Also, ideological purity? What? You think the future consists of everyone agreeing? Hell no--the future is about disagreeing better.

Athena Andreadis said...

The 2 pm burning was postponed, perhaps due to those who pointed out that demanding lockstep conformity turns a movement into a cult. If transhumanism wants to achieve escape velocity, it needs to recognize and take into account biological facts about the brain (which is still very incompletely known). Wishes can come true only if they have some basis in reality.

Russ, you don't specify what you disagree with. In this case, dualism means assuming that the brain and the mind can be separated, which is an issue with several augmenting proposals. Also, I'm not sure that women are more in touch with their senses than men, that sounds very... classical Greek to me! As for transhumanism needing more women, the moment we can switch genders (or have artificial wombs) I suspect that women will vanish. It will be interesting to see who will then be designated as the Other -- let alone the problems I foresee with picking up socks!

Mark, heresiarch, thanks for bringing into focus some points I went over quickly for the sake of brevity. In particular, the fact that in biology "the devil's in the details" -- which will have an impact on the methodologies of any directed self-improvement.

Anonymous said...

Hi Athena, same anonymous as above.
Can you explain your belief about the upcoming extinction of women. It sounds like you're saying that most women would chose to be men if they could. I feel I should point out that male-to-female transexuals are far more common than female-to-male transexuals. Breast augmentation is one of the most popular cosmetic surgeries in existence. Women expend a lot of time, effort and money making themselves more feminine, not less. Artificial wombs and an ample supply of banked eggs could potentially enable an all male society, but as a male, I have to say that sounds awful. I don't believe that most men would want to live without women, or that most women actually want to be men. Are you a Freudian? I can understand wanting women to have the same social standing as men, and alleviating menstruation and so forth, but I do not believe that most women would actually want to be men. Mike treder wrote a piece on IEET not too long ago called "If you're a man, you're a sucker,". He seems to feel that men are the doomed ones. I think that his views and yours are a case of "the grass looks greener on the other side,". I believe that most people consider their gender (whatever it is) as an essential part of their identity, and that gender will be a biological vestiage we choose to keep largely in tact in the future. George will disagree of course.

Russell Blackford said...

Not more in touch with their senses, but much more likely (for whatever reason) to raise issues such as you've raised. The reasons are likely to be cultural rather than some idea that women are essentially more sensual or whatever. I'm really not that big on gender essentialism.

I've written about my criticisms of "dualism" in this context at length elsewhere, so I'll try to track some of it down again. Maybe I'll blog about it or something. I do more or less agree with Michael's arguments on that point: i.e. there's always some sort of body involved somewhere in transhumanist scenarios. No Cartesians around here. But I obviously don't agree with his view that you've committed some sort of anti-transhumanist act for which you should be driven out of George's blog and off a cliff, or whatever the implication was.

Athena Andreadis said...

Russ, I agree with you that such distinctions are largely cultural. I'm not a gender essentialist either, especially because it's rather apparent that variations within each gender are greater than variations between genders.

Anonymous, I read Mike's article in IEET and commented on it. Part of my comment pointed out that, moaning aside, men still control almost all of the planet's resources, including access to reproductive technologies.

So, no, I'm not a Freudian. I don't envy penises, I just envy the privileges they universally and automatically confer. As for women enlarging their breasts -- I think it's a mixture of survival mechanism and preening. The two are hard to tease apart at that level.

Once the article that I promised on this topic germinates, it will address some issues that Mike's IEET post touched upon (ominous music swells!).

Hervé Musseau said...

To go back to the original article and its criticism, certainly the enhancements that we already have (which Athena called weak transhumanism) like glasses or hearing aids increased our senses, not reduced them. Advanced transhumanism, even the most disembodied ones, still retain a lot of physical activity, either through VR, enhanced body & senses, experiencing other bodies, including non-human bodies (animals, robots, swarms, ...).
I'm surprised by heresiarch's statement. Maybe I'm misreading you, but there are a lot of things that can't be done in reality that could be done in virtual. Or that you can't experience naturally, eg you can't smell or hear like a dog, see like a cat, fly like a bird, run like a tiger. The brain is mostly here to filter out what comes at you, or you'd be overwhelmed; so obviously there is a lot more than "reality". Maybe you should explain what you meant.

heresiarch said...

Hervé Musseau: "Maybe I'm misreading you, but there are a lot of things that can't be done in reality that could be done in virtual."In virtual reality one could fly across a rainbow on a unicorn's back, but that experience will never be as rich in detail or as authentic as the experience of riding a real horse in reality. Someday we'll be able to simulate virtual worlds in as much detail as we can now perceive, but by that time the technology will likely also exist to perceive the world at an even higher level of detail. Our ability to simulate will never match our ability to perceive.

I don't have anything against fantasy of any sort, but there's a hard limit to what it can offer. In a reality you create yourself, emipiricism and all its subdisciplines--including science--are meaningless. Such a world has no surprises to offer: by definition, everything in it is there because you understand it well enough to simulate it. It is with a radical engagement with reality that knowledge will be forwarded most effectively.

Giulio Prisco said...

My comment to the same post on the IEET blog, expanded:

The article is very good because it goes straight to the core issue: Athena understands well that transhumanism is not about living 20 or 50 years longer, or about tech gadgets - transhumanism is about leaving biology behind. Mind uploading is not a msrginal element of transhumanism, but the essence of transhumanism.

Some people like the idea, some don't. Athena doesn't, and I do.

Many people in this comment thread have the same objection that I raise in the IEET port below. Why are you assuming that change is _in principle_ bad? I think it can also be good. Of all comments, I especially agree with Mark Walker's, measured and reasonable as usual.

Heresiarch: "you can't simulate reality to a higher degree than it already exists, and you can't possibly make it more relevant.". I disagree, and I think Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso proved my point,


Original: Athena, I think you are kind of assuming your conclusions: you start assuming that transhumanism is grey, and conclude that it is grey. I think it is not grey, but an explosion of beautiful colors.

I am one of those who see the body as a meat cage and, if the option were already available, I would cheerfully choose to upload to silicon or cyberspace. But then I would want MORE color, sound, scent and sex, not less.

Why can't a "disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream" feel much MORE empathy, friendship, and love (or hate) for others that we do today? Why can't they enjoy art, love flowers and be compassionate and supportive of other sentient beings? Why can't they laugh at a good joke or cry at a sad story? Why can't they enjoy a virtual beer with good friends in a simulated pub?

These are indeed assumptions, in my opinion questionable. I don't see any reason why a disembodied mind cannot _in principle_ have a inner and social life much richer than ours. Of course everything depends on the actual implementation of these yet to be developed options, but there is no reason to assume the worst. Let experiment decide: someday we will be able to _ask_ disembodied minds how they actually feel.

Giulio Prisco said...

Athena: "In this case, dualism means assuming that the brain and the mind can be separated".

Oh, but they can. It depends on definitions of course. I tend to define the mind as "the mind is what the brain does", which leaves open the possibility of finding something else that does it equally well, or better. Like, in most practical cases email is better than paper mail.

Athena Andreadis said...

Giulio, the mind cannot be separated from the brain and still function. Your definition sounds like that of the soul. Whether the mind/brain can do more than it does now is totally distinct from whether it can function outside its frame. The paper mail/email analogy is invalid: the two are a case of convergent evolution.

Ditto for "leaving biology behind". We may be able to create other minds, very different from ours (silicon, animal uplift, what have you). But our own minds go where our brains go. Mind uploading is an article of faith for believers. As a biologist, all I can tell you is that it cannot be done.

Go Democrats said...

Giulio, I don't see how you can both agree with Mark--who calls the disposition of bodies a matter of in-house disagreement--and at the same time assert that transhumanism is "all about uploading." If one were to draw a Venn diagram representing both of your views, yours would be just a small circle inside his much larger circle.

Athena Andreadis said...

As for having disembodied fun in VR: it will be an extended hallucination regardless of its quality, unlike dreaming which affects reality by influencing synaptic configuration.

And if we ever create novel minds in silicon, they won't be disembodied. Their chips (or equivalent) will be indispensable parts of themselves, even if their intelligence is distributed over networks. Or are we in "pure energy" creature territory?

Giulio Prisco said...

Go Democrats: I agree with Mark that mind uploading is one of several transhumanist options, together with less radical ways to remake human biology. At the same time, I think it is the central issue in the frequent debates between transhumanists and non-transhumanist technoprogressives.

Athena: "As for having disembodied fun in VR: it will be an extended hallucination regardless of its quality, unlike dreaming which affects reality by influencing synaptic configuration.No, because as you say in the following paragraph, disembodied minds will run on physical hardware that will play an equivalent role. Or does carbon have soma magic property that cannot be emulated in other computational substrates? Sure you don't mean that?

Their chips (or equivalent) will be indispensable parts of themselves, even if their intelligence is distributed over networks.Indispensable in the sense that they perform an indispensable function, not in the sense that they cannot be replaced. The wheels are an indispensable part of my car in the sense that it would not work without wheels, but I can replace them easily.

heresiarch said...

Giulio Prisco: "transhumanism is about leaving biology behind"To echo Athena's point, you can't escape biology-as-substrate. No matter where your consciousness is, or what physical media houses it, it will be housed on something, and that something will matter whether or not you acknowledge it. By splitting your perception of existence from your physical existence you're just ignoring the physical, not making it disappear.

"I disagree, and I think Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso proved my point,"They taught us a great deal about ourselves, and I gladly acknowledge that virtual--i.e. constructed--realities have a lot to offer us in that vein. They can't teach us anything about rest of the world, though.

(that's a weird comma there--did your comment get chopped?)

"Indispensable in the sense that they perform an indispensable function, not in the sense that they cannot be replaced."And this is different from biology how? We can already replace knees and hips, and if stem cells prove as fruitful as we hope we'll soon be able to replace anything we please--even grey matter. No matter how you slice it, there's still a there there, and it still matters.

Stefano Vaj said...

In fact, coming from "wet" transhumanism, the name of the game has always been physical (brain, and thus "mental", included) enhancement, better-than-well, longevity, etc., to me.

Uploading, downloading, migrating from one support to another while maintaining well enough the illusion of "identity" to make such events socially seamless, as well as getting in and out of VR worlds which end up being indistinguishable from "real reality", certainly come as a natural and ultimate development of all that.

But the idea of "merging with a computer", in particular computers as we know them today, sounds little more than bad sci-fi, just a notch above that where my soul gets automagically transferred in a purely mechanical automa.

And I think an effort should be made not to have transhumanism perceived as the rationalisation of such fantasies...

Toni P said...

I must say I've enjoyed this comment thread so far. The best discussions really are sparked when contending views are expressed and I don't think h+ has already amassed such a store of infallible knowledge that it couldn't profit from continually reexamining its underlying assumptions, especially the ones that are heavily dependent on very far future technologies (far future meant measured in terms of scientific and technological advancement, not necessarily standard human time passage).

Athena, I think you have some very good points, and at the same time I think you have perhaps a too narrow view of what transhumanism encompasses, as you seem to equate it with only some of the myriad "schools" that exist under the umbrella term of transhumanism. I agree that we are already "transhuman" in the sense you have mentioned - being continually transformed by out tools/technology/knowledge since the first advent of primitive tool and technique use - but I think that's the reason why Nick Bostrom and others have conceptualized the category of "posthuman" as well. And as with enhancement and therapy, I think it's going to be continually harder to make a clear distinction as to what sort of modification counts as mainstream, transhuman or even posthuman.

Although I don't take it for granted that whole brain emulation will be possible, I'd like to know why you think that it cannot be done. I've seen you make that statement in a number of your posts, but I haven't seen any explanation for that assumption. Can you go into more detail about that, or at least point me to where you have already written about it?

Further, as I've read through some of the comments, I've started to wonder whether we're using the same terms, but very different underlying ideas, when discussing "mind uploading". You seem to be making the point that the brain and the mind cannot be separated, in the sense that you need the "material" computational machine from whose workings the "immaterial" mind emerges. I agree completely, if you destroy the brain, the mind is no more. I also agree that the mind is in the brain, and in this sense inseparable from it. But the idea behind mind uploading, at least as I understand it, is to simulate or at least emulate the brain as software on a sufficiently powerful computational machine, not to somehow magically take hold of the immaterial mind and push it into a computer. The potential roadmap has been discussed in Bostrom and Sandberg's Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap (, where they also speculate at which scale level the elements comprising the brain would need to be emulated in software to get the same functional mind that is currently generated by the biological brain (at the atomic, molecular, cellular, etc, level). Such requirements would then dictate the hardware power and the software necessary to create a functional "mind upload".

Toni P said...

So I agree, that where our brains go, our minds go. But if the brain is thus emulated as software on a "material" computational machine, and the emulation is detailed enough in regard to the workings of the biological brain, generating a functionally equivalent mind, we have an upload. As you have stated that you think we will be able to make "silicon minds", I would assume you think the above mentioned process is, at least theoretically, possible?
And if we speculate on what we can do with the emulated brain, we could imagine that if we have all its parts as software, we could edit that software, thus changing the structure of the brain/mind and seeing whether we could change it further.

And heresiarch, you said that you cannot escape biology-as-substrate, but in the next sentence you claim that you can - that consciousness could be (theoretically) housed on different physical media.
Leaving biology behind, in these discussions (I think) refers to the point that the emulated brain/mind would no longer be housed in a physically biological structure (although cells, neurotransmitters,etc) would be emulated as such (but as code, not actual biological molecules).
The emulated brain/mind would be different from the biological at least in one other respect, namely that it could be edited and that its components would not need to undergo the degradation processes associated with aging, disease and injury.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but
I think you're saying you can't escape the "material" computational engine that generates the mind, regardless of whether it's made of cells, chips, sticks or whatever, not that you can't escape biology as a computational platform.

Just to make it clear - I'm not certain that brain emulation can be achieved, but I do not see any a priori arguments that it's impossible, at least not thus far. Experimentation will settle it in the end...

Athena Andreadis said...

Tony, I'll try to get to your points later today, you raise important issues.

Giulio, there is nothing mystical about the privileged position of carbon: like all elements on the 4th column of the periodic table, it can be both electron donor and acceptor. However, unlike all the other elements on that same column (which include silicon, right below carbon), the atomic radius of carbon is such that it can form stable bonds with both itself and an enormous number of other elements. The number of carbon-based compounds exceeds that of all other possible molecules by all other elements combined -- by a large margin.

Silicon does not have that property, which makes it a poor candidate for complex molecule building. It cannot make large homomeric chains like carbon and defaults to bonding with oxygen (aka glass). For this reason (and a few others), it's almost certain that complex life beyond earth will be based on carbon.

Which takes us to your car analogy. Analogies and metaphors are great for sound bites, but they're misleading precisely because they're reductive. Even if you follow the analogy: you can substitute the wheels on your car but the substitution will work only if it falls within narrow parameters. You may wish to have flying lizards or oxen instead of wheels. Except that the car will either not go at all or lurch along at a fraction of its speed.

This last point, incidentally, applies to the re-invention of nanotechnology in silico, so to speak. Bio-nanotechnology already exists and has been tested by millions of years of evolution: its tools are enzymes, miRNAs... etc. So instead of re-inventing the wheel along the lines of using oxen, it would be far more efficient to hone working tools that are already available.

Which brings me to an even larger point. I have noticed that the ranks of transhumanism are made up primarily of computer experts, secondarily by philosophers or social scientists (economists, lawyers...). Very few biologists. You would imagine that the items in transhumanism's agenda would make inclusion of biologists a necessity. Otherwise, many of these discussions degenerate into wish-fulfillment fantasy.

heresiarch said...

Toni P: "Correct me if I'm wrong, but
I think you're saying you can't escape the "material" computational engine that generates the mind, regardless of whether it's made of cells, chips, sticks or whatever, not that you can't escape biology as a computational platform."
Right. Whatever the mind runs on, it will have its own limitations and advantages that will shape our experiences in similar ways to how organic limitations and advantages shape our experiences now. We can't transcend physical limitations, only push the boundaries.

Given that limitation, it makes more sense to me to push the boundaries of the highly engineered, stable sentience platform that we have, rather than to try messing about in an entirely new one.

Giulio Prisco said...

"Whatever the mind runs on, it will have its own limitations and advantages that will shape our experiences in similar ways to how organic limitations and advantages shape our experiences now. We can't transcend physical limitations, only push the boundaries.I agree with this. It does not rule out mind uploading though. Uploads implemented on any physical substrate may spend all their time in VR and have a lot of fun there, but they are still dependent in a fundamental way on the hardware they run on. Well, there may be backups if something goes seriuously wrong.

Of course, everything has its own limitation. Mark also says that, and I think we all agree on this point. This is about pushing the boundaries, bot about engineering a ready-to-use turnkey heaven.

Giulio Prisco said...

Athena: "I have noticed that the ranks of transhumanism are made up primarily of computer experts, secondarily by philosophers or social scientists (economists, lawyers...). Very few biologists."

Computer esperts are used to software systems that can be moved from one physical layer to another and still work more or less like themselves. This generates a bias of course, but I think also biologists have their own biases, don't you?

"the privileged position of carbon: like all elements on the 4th column of the periodic table, it can be both electron donor and acceptor..."

But this shows that carbon has a privileged position as far as its ability to form biological systems is concerned. It does not show that biological systems are a privileged substrate for thought. Once sentient AI is developed, and I consider it as almost self-evident that sooner or later it will be (others differ of course), it will show that biology is not a necessary condition for mentality.

Coming back to biologists' biases: today there is a certain PC tendency to say that fluffy wet biology is Good and dry computer circuits are Bad, but I don't take PCness seriously. I was actually trained as a theoretical physicist and learned a couple of things about computer science along the way. Physicists' bias is thinking that nature is understandable and tweakable in principle.

Athena Andreadis said...

Ah, yes. When people run out of arguments, they fall back to schoolyard tactics. For example, using words like "mystical" and "fluffy" as tags denoting both physical and mental softness -- as opposed to hard, manly adjectives and objectives.

Carbon may not be the sole possible substrate for thought. This pertains to AI, and you already know that I consider this possible, although I'm also certain that the emerging sentience will be totally distinct from ours. Shifting sentient carbon into silicon is another matter. This pertains to mind uploading and the presumed joys of VR existence.

I don't expect to convince anyone or change minds one iota. However, if transhumanists hope to achieve even a fraction of their goals, they will have to take biological facts into account. Otherwise, transhumanism will get labeled a fringe cult, and lose its chance to make a real difference.

Dustin said...

However, if transhumanists hope to achieve even a fraction of their goals, they will have to take biological facts into account.I guess that's my problem with your position. I don't recall you presenting any biological facts that dispute the ideas you rail against. Many opinions, yes. Perhaps these opinions are backed by facts, but I don't know what they are.

you can't simulate reality to a higher degree than it already exists, and you can't possibly make it more relevant. At any given technological level, the sensory input available from reality will exceed the sensory input we can manufacture on every metric but agreeability.This assumes that we can or will be able to perceive reality at a greater resolution/bandwidth than it is possible to simulate. I see no reason to think this is a forgone conclusion. If it's trivially true, please explain.

Khani said...

Athena Andreadis said...

I'm flattered to be the subject of thesis-length dissections, though it's easier to take them seriously when they don't hide behind avatars (or black hoods). But hey, as they say, all publicity is good as long as they don't misspell your name!

Athena Andreadis said...

I promised Tony P an answer: I agree that it's important to ensure that a term means the same thing to participants in a discussion.

As I touched upon in previous responses, mind uploading is different from mind simulation. You can have a mind simulation (kinda) without understanding or recreating the mind -- all you are looking for is some endpoint behavior, like John Searle's Chinese room experiment.

Uploading a mind requires understanding the brain completely, a significantly taller order than programming a computer to play outstanding chess. Even if we were ever able to "upload" a mind -- which, to me at least, means recreating it exactly -- we would have a copy. If the copy is as good as the original, it will start diverging from the original the moment it becomes conscious. It's the brain equivalent of a biological clone. If the upload is destructive, the "copy" may feel it's the original, but the original will still feel the fear and pain of death.

In short, I don't think you can upload an original and retain continuity of identity. You can at best make a perfect copy, and if you succeed in doing that, you will have a distinct entity.

Dustin said...

In short, I don't think you can upload an original and retain continuity of identity. You can at best make a perfect copy, and if you succeed in doing that, you will have a distinct entity.Not that I'm the keeper of the transhumanist zeitgeist, but I'm pretty sure your point here is a mainstream transhumanist view that most everyone who has thought about it accepts as true. Am I wrong here, people?

Athena Andreadis said...

And on that note of congruence I will end my replies, since I plan to move on. If anyone is dying to continue the conversation, you can contact me off-list.

heresiarch said...

Dustin: "If it's trivially true, please explain."

It's trivially true that we will be able to record what exists in higher fidelity than we can simulate it, because we already can: I can snap a picture with a digital camera that would take thousands of hours to simulate, and even then my snapshot would still be more realistic. There's no reason to think that gap will ever narrow--as our ability to simulate increases, so will our ability to record.

The point of contention is really our perceptual bandwidth and whether/how fast it will increase. I can't say for certain that it will increase faster than our ability to simulate, but it seems at least possible: we already use technology to process datasets that would otherwise be impossibly vast. As that technology moves from being a tool we use (image enhancement software) to a part of ourselves (eagle's optic nerves), it seems to me quite likely that our standards for realism will increase drastically. Increased perceptual bandwidth seems to me to be very close to the heart of the transhumanist enterprise.