June 28, 2009
One of the many useful terms that George has popularized is "Gainism" -- "reverential desperatism and misanthropism that is now the all too familiar opium promoted by the deep ecologists." I love the environment, but I think that the insipid SWPL, New York Times-inspired environmentalism held so dear by the farmers market crowd is the wrong way to go about helping our planet.
The reason why is that individual conservation is ultimately a losing game and improving our industrial manufacturing, energy, and agricultural processes are the only ways to avoid spewing garbage all over our pristine verdant globe. The global population is doubling about every 40 years, and any conservation efforts undertaken by the First World (less than a third of humanity) are ultimately dwarfed by exponential population increase worldwide. It hasn't been since the 70s that the world has taken a serious look at the population issue. Why? It's simply become too large to handle, so people ignore it.
First, let's take a look at manufacturing. All manufacturing is tremendously wasteful. This means that the best way to be environmentalist is to be poor -- have a small house, drive a small car, buy few products, don't travel in an airplane or to another country. That isn't a sexy, yuppie, New York Times-worthy lifestyle, now is it? The poor college student that lives in a dorm and bikes everywhere is doing ten times more for the environment than the rich yuppie that has a big house with good insulation, a veggie garden, drives a Prius, and goes on "eco-tours" to Fiji. One has the accessories of environmentalism -- one is actually helping the environment by being poor. Not going on an eco-tour to Fiji has a much smaller carbon footprint than going on one. Using a bike has a much smaller carbon footprint than driving a Prius.
The way to be a good environmentalist is to talk about and invest in strategies that impact the environment less whatever people believe -- I'd rather have a planet of people who don't explicitly care about the environment but have little impact on it due to the structure of their society than people who profess care but still drive cars and take airplanes everywhere. For manufacturing, that means investing in molecular manufacturing, synthetic biology, renewable building materials, new materials in general, and other potential routes to cheap, low-waste manufacturing, not buying endless trendy electronic gadgets that deposit heavy metals into our landfills.
Look at energy. Even the biggest environmentalists are starting to acknowledge that nuclear is the way to go. The waste generated by nuclear power plants is very low per kilowatt-hour produced, and burying it deeply underground in secure canisters really is a solution, whether it invokes positive emotional affect or not. Eventually, we will be able to shoot it off into space, but I have the feeling that we will develop the infrastructure to bury it securely underground instead. The anti-nuclear environmentalists are living in a fantasy world where they want us to go back to "nature" (the Pleistocene), neglecting the fact that billions would starve and go cold without modern industrial infrastructure. We have to choose the least damaging path -- not pretend that we can meet all our energy needs through solar and wind in the near future.
Consider agriculture. As Jamais Cascio and others have pointed out, meat consumption has a tremendous carbon footprint. I have pointed out to animal rights ethics professors at leading universities that we can never, ever get any substantial majority of the population to stop eating meat, because it's directly connected to feelings of masculinity and dominance, and besides, it tastes good. However, whether meat eaters like it or not, soy products are starting to approach the taste of meat, and the ultimate long-term solution is in vitro meat, pioneered by Jason Matheny and his non-profit, New Harvest. Eventually, everyone will be eating in vitro meat, because it will be healthier and cheaper, and macho meat-lovers who desire the experience of snuffing out the life of another animal to add to their own life force (a primitive desire grounded in sympathetic magic) will just have to whine about it until they get exhausted.
Deep ecology reaches an unjustifiable fever pitch when it advocates things like "keeping Antarctica pristine" -- the entire continent is nothing but a frozen wasteland populated by microbes and nematodes, if anything. Only a miniscule percentage, the coasts, is occupied by any form of complex life. Why not cover the whole damn thing with heated domes powered by' solar satellites? If the continent could be covered in billions of happy people leading fulfilling lives, wouldn't that be a lot better than a featureless ice sheet? Speaking of which, environmentalists should be the foremost advocates of space colonization, because there are millions of totally dead planets out there that we could be seeding with trees and life.
Well, I think you get my gist. Environmentalism is cool, but the way that people are going about it is all wrong. Now, I'm off to watch Fern Gully.
Michael's blog: Accelerating Future.
I finally caught the two-hour pilot and was quite impressed with the new direction. If this first episode is any indication, this is going to be a provocative and fascinating series -- one that will touch upon many topics near and dear to transhumanists, including artificial intelligence, whole brain emulation, consciousness transfer, virtual reality and even immortality.
Set 58 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica, the Caprica series will primarily chronicle the events behind the rise of the Cylons. The show will explain how they were created and why the Cylons attempted to destroy the Twelve Colonies. Caprica, which is dark and filled with foreboding, takes place in a civilization not too far removed from our very own; this is a futuristic society at its peak, but one that's self-absorbed, hedonistic, and fully distracted by its dazzling array of advanced technologies.
Caprica takes place in a pre-Singularity civilization, so unlike the previous series it speaks more directly to a number of issues soon to be faced by our very own. Set within a drama involving two families and their hopeful attempt to resurrect loved-ones lost in an act of terror, Caprica explores the ethical and philosophical implications of emerging and disruptive technologies -- many of which will soon be within our reach.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
Fully immersive virtual reality
A technology that's prominently featured in Caprica is virtual reality. By using the "holoband", a device that's worn like a pair of glasses, users are transported into a fully realized virtual reality world. How the holoband works is not made entirely clear (there must be something to those cheesy colored flashing lights), but unlike the brain-jacks of The Matrix, these devices bring conscious awareness to a simulated world in a non-invasive way.
Interestingly, the specific VR world that's portrayed in Caprica is an illegal one developed by hackers. It features a teen club complete with girl on girl sex, human sacrifice and gunplay. This is commentary that's clearly directed at Second Life, but the debauched nature of the club is also important to the story; this is a world of extreme excess and withering values -- one that's headed in a bad way.
Whole brain emulation
But there's more to the virtual reality than just that. The developer of the holoband, Daniel Graystone, only intended for it to be a soft simulation (meaning the user has a corporeal body outside the VR -- see my article on Simulation Taxonomy for more info). But his daughter Zoe, a genius in her own right, figured out a way to copy her own mind in the simulation and create a virtual clone of herself.
Virtual Zoe is able to live and function within the simulation, but because she has no body in the real world she cannot leave; her mind resides completely within the simulation's architecture.
This is what transhumanists refer to as whole brain emulation. While grossly over-simplified in Caprica, it's the concept that's interesting (hey, television science fiction refuses to go hard so we'll take what we can get). Whole brain emulation involves the complete scanning and mapping of a biological brain in detail and copying its state into a computer system or other computational device. In this hypothesized scenario, the 'simulation model' that's run by the computer is faithful to the source, and the agent behaves in essentially the same way as the original.
Virtual Zoe's existence sparks considerable debate and suspicion among those who meet her -- including her father. He initially refuses to believe that an emulated version of his daughter could actually be 'real' and worthy of serious consideration. Discussions ensue as to what is real and natural -- and whether or not there is such a thing as the human soul.
Daniel eventually changes his mind, however, and learns to accept that she is just as real as the original Zoe; as the motto of his own company proclaims, "The difference that makes no difference is no difference."
Mind transference (aka mind 'uploading')
Something I didn't mention in the previous section was that the original Zoe died at the beginning of the pilot episode. Her grieving father was shocked to discover that she had copied herself in the virtual world and that he could still interact with a representation of her.
Not content to leave virtual Zoe in cyberspace, and true to his role as the show's 'mad scientist', Graystone decides to upload her consciousness into a military robot that his company is developing -- what he's dubbed a cybernetic lifeform node, or Cylon.
You can see where this is going.
But while Graystone has the requisite robotic hardware for the task, he and his company have yet to develop a 'metacognitive device' -- a platform that can hold and express an artificial intelligence. Undaunted, he does the next best thing: he steals it from a rival company who has developed it.
So, Graystone now has all the pieces he needs: a robotic body, an artificially intelligent agent in the form of virtual Zoe and the cybernetic brain to house it. He then does something that transhumanists refer to as mind uploading or consciousness transfer -- he transfers (or copies, depending on your persuasion) Zoe's mind from the VR to the metacognitive device. The experiment proves to be a limited success, but for a fleeting moment Zoe has corporeal form. Before suffering some sort of malfunction, Zoe moves the cylon's body and tries to speak. The proto-cylon is born (for what it's worth, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end during this scene).
This is interesting for a number of reasons. First, based on where we know the series and the Cylons are headed, this is a suggestion that artificial superintelligence won't be coded from a discreet source, but that it will emerge from an existing human mind (a highly controversial topic among transhumanists and AI theorists). Second, it hints at something that roboticist Hans Moravec has said, namely that humanity will spawn its own mind children. Moravec has suggested that we'll eventually create our own successors through our technologies -- the next giant leap in the evolution of intelligent life -- and that these 'mind children' will allow humanity to go on permanent vacation.
And of course, the entire idea of mind transference is profound unto itself. It calls into question issues of the permanent and immutable self, and the broader philosophical and scientific quandaries about how such a technological feat could ever be accomplished.
Resurrection and immortality
Another theme explored by Caprica that's near and dear to transhumanists is immortality. The pilot episode suggests that people can be resurrected after their deaths by piecing them back together from all the artifacts that made up their life. Zoe, for example, didn't create a replica of herself by mapping her entire brain from the original (as I may have suggested above), but instead created an amalgam of herself by recompiling all the data bits of her life.
Personally, I believe this is a load of rubbish, but others take this possibility more seriously. One such thinker is the transhumanist Martine Rothblatt. She argues that in our cybernetic and virtual world of the future, genes are not going to matter so much. Instead, we’ll be concerned about ‘bemes' -- a fundamental, transmissible, unit of beingness. This will give rise to what she calls the 'transbeman person.'
Bemes will eventually become the currency of the future – the stuff that will help prospective persons restore their memories and sense of identity. She believes that people should create digital ‘mindfiles’ that chronicle their lives; eventually, after death, persons could be revived by means of ‘mindware’ transfer when the requisite technology is powerful enough (namely the advent of artificial intelligence).
According to Rothblatt, bemes can be virtually anything that could later be used to restore a person’s history, identity and tendencies. Bemetic mindfiles could be comprised of old photos, blogs, transcripts, diaries, and so on; these artifacts could later be used to restore and re-define a person’s personality (including mannerisms, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values). Most importantly, these files could restore a person's memory.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, there is much more to resurrecting a brain and a person than just piecing together 'mindfiles.' But the suggestion does bring to mind some provocative issues as they pertain to memory, the continuity of self and who we think we are.
Bring on Caprica!
All of these themes were explored in the pilot to Caprica, so it'll be interesting to see where they go from here. But clearly the writers have set an excellent precedent in the first episode; spaceships and laser beams have been replaced by cyberpunk, and that's a good thing.
Additionally, one of the strengths of Caprica will be the proximity of its timeline to our very own. Unlike the previous series, these issues are a bit more tangible and within reach (especially the commentary on the extended self and simulated worlds).
And as already mentioned, the science behind the science fiction may be a bit sketchy and pedestrian, but it's the broader philosophical and social themes that are worth discussing. This is the part that the writer's have gotten right, and that's why I have high hopes for this series.
Look for me to post more articles about Caprica as the show unfolds.
June 25, 2009
Shane Hope: Your Mom Is Open Source
June 26 – August 1, 2009
Opening: Friday, June 26, 6-8 PM
Winkleman Gallery, 637 West 27th Street, New York
From the website:
Winkleman Gallery is very pleased to present “Your Mom Is Open Source,” our first solo exhibition by New York-based artist Shane Hope. In his latest suite of Molecular Modeling prints (“Mol Mods”) and “Compile-a-Child" drawings, Hope collapses possible futures like technoprogressive child's play. Foreseeable advances in neuro-, cyber-, gene-, and nano-technologies will likely snowball our transition into “posthumans,” beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards. Molecular manufacturing, artificial general intelligence, and life extension technologies may make possible the printing of printers, inventing inventors, as well as the expansion of ontological wiggle-room into and across novel substrates.
"Yes, but [grey goo] will be our children"
Asserting that art can provide key pictorial explorations into the ramifications of more precise manipulations of the smaller basic building blocks, Hope's "Mol Mods" playfully unravel the world at these scales by foreshadowing newly fantastical conflations of building and growing. Rendered and built with customized versions of user-sponsored open-source molecular visualization systems, these hyper-detailed monotypes anticipate their own actualization by way of nanofacture and picture junk sculptures, seashell crafts, among other molecularly doodled composited chimeras each developing from an embryonic stage; animals fashioned from flowchart cells woven into food webs connected by arrows that hitherto indicated the folds and twists of proteins; carbon nanotube moths flapping amidst balloon animal monkey molecules and less definitive evolutures with buckyballs in their eyes.
June 24, 2009
Trouble is, she's 16 years old.
Brooke Greenberg hasn't aged in the conventional sense. Her physician, Dr. Richard Walker of the University of South Florida College of Medicine, in Tampa, says Brooke's body is not developing as a coordinated unit, but instead as independent parts that are out of sync. She has never been diagnosed with any known genetic syndrome or chromosomal abnormality that would help explain why.
In a recent paper for the journal "Mechanisms of Ageing and Development," Walker and his co-authors chronicled a baffling range of inconsistencies in Brooke's aging process, including the observation that her bone age is like that of a 10 year old.
Walker and his team have studied samples of Brooke's cells and DNA to look for what they think may be an undiscovered genetic mutation that has affected the way she ages. He believes that if the gene can be isolated, it may provide clues to questions about why we age and die. If the gene -- or complex of genes -- is identified, he plans to test laboratory animals to determine whether the gene can be switched off and, if so, whether it will cause the animal's aging to slow.
"Without being sensational, I'd say this is an opportunity for us to answer the question, why we're mortal, or at least to test it," Walker said. "And if we're wrong, we can discard it. But if we're right, we've got the golden ring."
And when I say power I don't just mean the capacity to destroy or wreak havoc, though that's an important criteria. A force should also be considered powerful if it can profoundly reorganize or manipulate its environment in a coherent or constructive way.
Albert Einstein once quipped that the most powerful force in the Universe was compound interest. While he does have a point, and with all due respect to the Master, I present to you my list of the four most powerful phenomenon currently making an impact in the Universe:
4. Supermassive Black Holes
There's no question that black holes are scary; it's the only part of the Universe that can truly destroy itself.
Indeed, Einstein himself, whose Theory of Relativity opened the door to the modern study of black holes, noted that "they are where God has divided by zero." And it's been said that the gravitational singularity, where the laws of physics collapse, is the most complex mystery of science that still defies human knowledge.
Somewhat counterintuitively, black holes take the weakest of the four basic forces, gravity, to create a region of space with a gravitational field so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape its pull. They're called "black" because they absorb all the light that hits them and reflect nothing. They have a one-way surface, the event horizon, into which objects can fall, but out of which nothing (save for Hawking Radiation) can escape.
Black holes can also vary in size and gravitational intensity. Supermassive black holes are a million to a billion times the mass of a typical black hole. Most galaxies, if not all, are believed to contain supermassive black holes at their centers (including the Milky Way).
And recent studies are now suggesting that they are much larger than previously thought. Computer models reveal that the supermassive black hole at the heart of the giant galaxy M87 weighs the same as 6.4 billion suns—two to three times heavier than previous estimates.
That's a lot of pull.
Indeed, should anything have the misfortune of getting close enough to a supermassive black hole, whether it be gas, stars or entire solar systems, it would be sucked into oblivion. Its gravitational pull would be so overwhelming that it would hurl gas and stars around it at almost the speed of light; the violent clashing would heat the gas up to over a million degrees.
Some have suggested that the supermassive black hole is the most powerful force in the Universe. While its ability to destroy the very fabric of space and time itself is undeniably impressive (to say the least), its localized and limited nature prevent it from being ranked any higher than fourth on my list. A black hole would never subsume an entire Galaxy, for example, at least not within cosmologically long time frames.
3. Gamma-Ray Bursts
The power of gamma-ray bursts (GRB) defies human comprehension.
Imagine a hypergiant star at the end of its life, a massive object that's 150 times larger than our own. Extremely high levels of gamma radiation from its core is causing its energy to transform to matter. The resultant drop in energy causes the star to collapse. This results in a dramatic increase in the thermonuclear reactions that was burning within it. All this added energy overpowers the gravitational attraction and it explodes in a fury of energy -- the hypergiant has gone hypernova.
This is not the stuff of fiction or theory -- explosions like this have been observed. Hypernovas of this size can instantly expel about 10X46 joules. This is more energy than our sun produces over a period of 10 billion years. 10 billion years! In one cataclysmic explosion!
Hypernovas can wreak tremendous havoc in its local area, effectively sterilizing the region. These explosions produce highly collimated beams of hard gamma-rays that extend outward from the exploding star. Any unfortunate life-bearing planet that should come into contact with those beams would suffer a mass extinction (if not total extinction depending on its proximity to the supernova). Gamma-rays would eat up the ozone layer and indirectly cause the onset of an ice age due to the prevalence of NO2 molecules.
Supernovas can shoot out directed beams of gamma-rays to a distance of 100 light years, while hypernovas disburse gamma ray bursts as far as 500 to 1,000 light years away.
We are currently able to detect an average of about one gamma-ray burst per day. Because gamma-ray bursts are visible to distances encompassing most of the observable Universe -- a volume encompassing many billions of galaxies -- this suggests that gamma-ray bursts are exceedingly rare events per galaxy. Determining an exact rate is difficult, but for a galaxy of approximately the same size as the Milky Way, the expected rate (for hypernova-type events) is about one burst every 100,000 to 1,000,000 years.
Thankfully, hypergiant Eta Carinae, which is on the verge of going nova, is well over 7,500 light years away from Earth. We'll be safe when it goes off, but you'll be able to read by its light at night-time.
But not so fast -- our safety may not be guaranteed. Some scientists believe that gamma-ray busters may be responsible for sterilizing giagantic swaths of the galaxy -- in some cases as much as a quarter of the galaxy. Such speculation has given rise to the theory that gamma-ray bursters are the reason for the Fermi Paradox; exploding stars are continually stunting the potential for life to advance, making it the 3rd most powerful force in the Universe.
A funny thing started to happen about 8 billion years ago: pieces of the Universe started to make copies of itself. This in turn kindled another phenomena: natural selection.
While this might not seem so impressive or powerful in its own right, it's the complexification and the emergent effects of this process that's interesting; what began as fairly straight forward cellular replication, at least on Earth, eventually progressed into viruses, dinosaurs, and human beings.
Self-replicating RNA/DNA has completely reshaped the planet, its surface and atmosphere molded by the processes of life. And it's a process that has proven to be remarkably resilient. The Earth has been witness to some extremely calamitous events over its history, namely the Big Five Mass Extinctions, but life has picked itself up, dusted off, and started anew.
Now, what makes self-replication all the more powerful is that it is not limited to biological substrate. Computer viruses and memes provide other examples of how self-replication can work. Replicators can also be categorized according to the kind material support they require in order to go about self-assembly. In addition to natural replicators, which have all or most of their design from nonhuman sources (i.e. natural selection), there's also the potential for:
- Autotrophic replicators: Devices that could reproduce themselves in the wild and mine their own materials. It's thought that non-biological autotrophic replicators could be designed by humans and could easily accept specifications for human products.
- Self-reproductive systems: Systems that could produce copies of itself from industrial feedstocks such as metal bar and wire.
- Self-assembling systems: Systems that could assemble copies of themselves from finished and delivered parts. Simple examples of such systems have been demonstrated at the macro scale.
Microscopic self-replicating nanobots may not sound particularly powerful or scary, but what is scary is the prospect for unchecked exponential growth. A fear exists that nanomechanical robots could self-replicate using naturally occurring materials and consume the entire planet in their hunger for raw materials. Alternately they could simply crowd out natural life, outcompeting it for energy. This is what has been referred to as the grey goo or ecophagy scenario. Some estimates show, for example, that the Earth's atmosphere could be destroyed by such devices in a little under two years.
Self-replication is also powerful in terms of what it could mean for interstellar exploration and colonization. By using exponentially self-replicating Von Neumann probes, for example, the Galaxy could be colonized in as little as one to ten million years.
And of course, if you can build you can destroy; the same technology could be used to sterilize the Galaxy in the same amount of time [for more on this topic read my article, "Seven ways to control the Galaxy with self-replicating probes"].
Consequently, self-replication sits at #2 on my list; its remarkable ability to reshape matter, adapt, grow, consume, build and destroy make it a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Without a doubt the most powerful force in the universe is intelligence.
The capacity to collect, share, reorganize and act on information is unlike anything else in this universe. Intelligent beings can build tools, adapt to and radically change their environment, create complex systems and act with reasoned intention. Intelligent beings can plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas, use language and learn.
In addition, intelligence can reflect on itself, predict outcomes and avoid peril; autonomous systems, for the most part, are incapable of such action.
Humanity, a particularly intelligent bunch owing to a few fortuitous evolutionary traits, has -- for better or worse -- become a force of nature on Earth. Our species has reworked the surface of the planet to meet its needs, significantly impacting on virtually every other species (bringing many to extinction) and irrevocably altering the condition of the atmosphere itself. Not content to stay at home, we have even sent our artifacts into space and visited our very own moon.
While some cynics may scoff at so-called human 'intelligence', there's no denying that it has made a significant impact on the biosphere.
Moreover, what we think of as intelligence today may be a far cry from what's possible. The advent of artificial superintelligence is poised to be a game-changer. A superintelligent agent, which may or may not have conscious or subjective experiences, is an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including problem solving, brute calculation, scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills. Such entities may function as super-expert systems that work to execute on any goal it is given so long as it falls within the laws of physics and it has access to the requisite resources.
That's power. And that's why it's called the Technological Singularity; we have no idea how such an agent will behave once we get past the horizon.
Another more radical possibility (if that's not radical enough) is that the future of the Universe itself will be influenced by intelligent life. The nature of intelligence and its presence in the Universe must always be called into question. There exists only one of two possibilities: intelligence is either 1) cosmological epiphenomenon, or 2) an intrinsic part of the Universe's inner workings. If it's the latter, perhaps we have some work to do in the future to ensure the Universe's survival or to take part in its reproductive strategy.
Theories already exist in regards to stellar engineering -- where a local sun could be tweaked in such a way to extend its lifespan. Future civilizations may eventually figure out how to re-engineer the Universe itself (such as re-working the constants) or create an escape hatch to basement universes. Thinkers who have explored these possibilities include Milan Cirkovic, John Smart, Ray Kurzweil, Alan Guth and James N. Gardner (for example, see Gardner's book Biocosm: The New Scientific Theory of Evolution: Intelligent Life is the Architect of the Universe).
Intelligence as a force may not be particularly impressive today when considered alongside supermassive black holes, gamma-ray bursts and exponential self-replication. But it may be someday. The ability of intelligence to re-engineer its environment and work towards growth, refinement and self-preservation give it the potential to become the most powerful force in the Universe.
June 22, 2009
"In sorting priorities, I adopt what I term the central principle of cultural evolution, which I refer to as the Intelligence Principle: the maintenance, improvement and perpetuation of knowledge and intelligence is the central driving force of cultural evolution, and that to the extent intelligence can be improved, it will be improved." -- Stephen J. DickTranshumanists are in the business of speculating about the degree to which we can and will refine the human species. A central assumption among us is that there's significant potential for the re-engineering of humanity; in modern practice we have scarcely begun to scratch the surface, but our visions of what may be possible in terms of modification and enhancement is startlingly vast.
Indeed, for most transhumanists, the notion that the human species is forever destined to remain a purely biological entity is both absurd and facile. Taking a step back, can we seriously argue that the apex of intelligent life is the state at which it was last crafted by the processes of natural selection? Given the current developmental state of biotechnology, cybernetics and information technologies, combined with the potential for molecular nanotechnology, can we reasonably refrain from suggesting that humanity is poised to under go a transformation that will be nothing short of radical and profound?
And this isn't some airy-fairy gee-whiz futurism talking, either. Rather, it's a fair assessment of where we are at as self-modifying species that has yet to meaningfully integrate technology with biology.
Take a step back and look at the big picture
For the dissenters and skeptics, what often gets lost in the discussion is the '40 foot perspective.' Discussions often regress to cultural/ethical/moral inhibitions, yuck factor ethics, and sheer incredulousness; it's hard for many of us to imagine anything other than our current state of being.
But this isn't good enough. We need to start thinking more philosophically and broadly about the potential for intelligent life and the impacts that will come through steady technological progress.
To assume, for example, that our current social, scientific, technological and biological condition is at or near an end-state is in its own way a violation of the Copernican Principle; it would be folly to assume that we observe ourselves at a particularly special point in history -- especially when it appears that our rate of progress is accelerating. Instead, we should apply a developmental view to our situation and acknowledge the fact that we still have a huge space of possibilities to work within.
The 'Intelligence Principle'
A similar sentiment was articulated by the distinguished historian of science Stephen J. Dick, in his 2003 paper "Cultural Evolution, the Postbiological Universe and SETI," where he argued that there is a disconnect between much of our current thinking and the prospects following exponential growth of technology as perceived in recent times. Dick's critique was primarily directed at SETI, but it's one that can applied to those who are complacent about our current existential mode.
In his paper, Dick makes the case that we may become (or spawn) a postbiological species, one that has "evolved beyond flesh and blood intelligence to artificial intelligence" and is a "product of cultural rather than biological evolution." He believes that this possibility hasn't been given the attention it's due, nor has it been carried to its logical conclusion. Consequently, Dick argues that we need to apply more long-term thinking when contemplating the problem of our future and that of intelligence in the universe.
To that end, Dick suggests that we apply the 'Intelligence Principle' (quoted above) to our long-term thinking about humanity's potential. His central contention is that we should readjust our thinking and consider a postbiological universe -- an argument powered by the likely age and lifetimes of technological civilizations and the overriding importance of cultural evolution as an element of cosmic evolution.
A will and a way
And it's important to note that the timelines don't matter (well, they do matter, but let's set that aside for the moment). A significant number of people dismiss transhumanists on account of our overly optimistic time frames. For the sake of argument let's assume that technological progress continues to plod along at a linear rate. Well, that's still progress: given enough time, incentive and access to resources, there's no reason to believe that humanity cannot come to realize many of the futuristic visions espoused by the transhumanists. As long as something is scientifically viable, and there's a perceived need for it, it will be developed.
This the crux of the intelligence principle: "...to the extent intelligence can be improved, it will be improved."
And overcoming the limitations of human biology would certain seem to be on the agenda. Among other things, the transhumanist 'to do list' typically includes the eradication of infirmity, aging, and suffering. We don't imply that solving these problems is going to be easy, but we do suggest that these problems are not intractable.
There is a will, and there will be a way.
June 21, 2009
- Be careful what you wish for [Bioethics.net article featuring the Lifeboat Foundation's Tihamer Toth-Fejel] #nanotechnology
- Michael Moorcock doesn't care for transhumanist science fiction [The Early Days of a Better Nation]
- Why minds are not like computers [The New Atlantis]
- Healthy people should be able to take the anti-hyperactivity drug Ritalin to boost brain power [BBC]
- Does language shape the way we think? [Edge]
- Are we in control of our own decisions? Dan Ariely's TED Talk
- How to Make Decisions Outside Your Repertoire [Business Week]
- Peter Singer: Putting ethics before profits [GuardianUK]
I'm skirting the line with the 'reto-futurism' here, but this video, which was posted on YouTube in 2006, feels like it's much older (early to mid 90's? -- if you know, please let me know). The video itself is actually pretty cool -- I love the music and cheesy sound effects.
June 20, 2009
June 18, 2009
- Rare Earth Hypothesis FAIL: Life may have emerged in the Universe as much as 12 billion years ago [Space] HT: Velcro City Tourist Board; my take on this topic here and here.
- Obama plans to replace Bush’s Bioethics Panel: The council was disbanded because it was designed by the Bush administration to be “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus [NYT]
- Empire State will pay for human eggs for research use [Women's Bioethics Blog]
- Lung-on-a-chip could replace countless lab rats: Artificially grown microlungs to improve pulmonary therapy development [New Scientist]
- Device stimulates paralyzed hands, arms to move again [CBC]
- Heroic 9/11 search and rescue dog cloned [WCBSTV]
- Is Buddhism masochistic? [The Buddhist Blog]
- Why motivation doesn't really matter [Zen Habits]
One of the most fascinating and ambitious of transhumanist ideas is the "Hedonistic Imperative", articulated by David Pearce, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity Plus) with Nick Bostrom. To quote the site:
The Hedonistic Imperative, which I like to call "eliminating all pain, forever", seems to me to be the logical conclusion of the simple belief that pain is bad. Our lives are filled with so much unnecessary pain, much of which doesn't even serve any operative function. For instance, if someone initiates a confrontation with me, even someone who I will never see again and whose opinion I shouldn't logically care about, I feel bad about it for a while, longer than I should. There's a reason for this -- in the ancestral environment, all humans lived in small tribes of just 100-200 individuals (Dunbar's number). If I had a confrontation with someone, it could be a really big deal, because I'm practically guaranteed to see them or their associates again. But I live in a city with almost a million people, so why should I have to deal with this?
The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.
The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.
The confrontation example is actually a very superficial one. Consider something more serious -- the mechanism of lethality behind the 1918 plague. Scientists think that the virus killed via cytokine storms, overreactions of the human immune system to the virus. The very bodily functions that were supposed to save us caused our doom. That's why the virus killed the healthiest human beings, not the very young or old, like typical flu. "Healthier" human beings had stronger immune systems, which went even more haywire when attacked by the virus, leading to their tissues being clogged up with excess fluids and macrophages, causing death.
Nature can be a cruel thing. There are endless examples. One of the most radical positions of many transhumanists is that the entire ecosystem should be reshaped to eliminate cruelty. Transhumanists have many "radical" positions, but this is one that even "moderate" transhumanists are prone to adopting, and for good reason. If human beings have no right to murder each other, then why should conscious animals have the same right? If a wolf kills a cat or a lamb that can feel pain, that represents negative utility. Yes, predators must eat prey to survive, but what if we could reengineer predators to eat "meat trees" or exclusively non-conscious animals?
Like many radical areas of transhumanism, these ideas are left insufficiently explored, for fear of being thought of as having our heads in the clouds. But why should academic philosophers have all the fun? Besides attracting thinkers to transhumanism with common sense ideas like "life shouldn't have to end at 120", why not give a try with more radical ideas, like "all of pain is reprehensible and it ought to be eliminated for all eternity"? There is little harm in pursuing simple moral ideas to their logical conclusions. From an information-theoretic standpoint, it's much simpler.
Though some people regard transhumanism as a complex philosophy, it is ultimately more mundane and simple than almost every other religious or secular worldview.
Michael's blog: Accelerating Future.
June 16, 2009
- Get Smarter (Jamais Cascio) [The Atlantic]
- Misconceptions of cryonics in popular culture [IEET]
- Top scientists predict the future of science [New Scientist]
- Some black holes may be as big as 6 billion suns [Daily Galaxy]
- World's first augmented reality browser: Layar
- New study contends that fish feel pain [Slate]
- Abercrombie "banishes" girl with prosthetic arm to storeroom because she doesn't fit the "Look Policy" [Jezebel]
June 15, 2009
Into the great debate over intelligence and instinct -- over what makes us human -- Susan Savage-Rumbaugh has thrown a monkey wrench. Her work with apes has forced a new way of looking at what traits are truly and distinctly human, and new questions about whether some abilities we attribute to "species" are in fact due to an animal's social environment. She believes culture and tradition, in many cases more than biology, can account for differences between humans and other primates.More: Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on the welfare of apes in captivity.
Her bonobo apes, including a superstar named Kanzi, understand spoken English, interact, and have learned to execute tasks once believed limited to humans -- such as starting and controlling a fire. They aren't trained in classic human-animal fashion. Like human children, the apes learn by watching. "Parents really don't know how they teach their children language," she has said. "Why should I have to know how I teach Kanzi language? I just act normal around him, and he learns it."
June 14, 2009
In the conversation that followed, one of the festival attendees brought Reactable to my attention -- a device that brings music interface design to another level entirely.
From the Reactable website:
The Reactable is a revolutionary new electronic musical instrument designed to create and perform the music of today and tomorrow. It combines state of the art technologies with a simple and intuitive design, which enables musicians to experiment with sound, change its structure, control its parameters and be creative in a direct and refreshing way, unlike anything you have ever known before.
The Reactable uses a so called tangible interface, where the musician controls the system by manipulating tangible objects. The instrument is based on a translucent and luminous round table, and by putting these pucks on the Reactable surface, by turning them and connecting them to each other, performers can combine different elements like synthesizers, effects, sample loops or control elements in order to create a unique and flexible composition.
As soon as any puck is placed on the surface, it is illuminated and starts to interact with the other neighboring pucks, according to their positions and proximity. These interactions are visible on the table surface which acts as a screen, giving instant feedback about what is currently going on in the Reactable turning music into something visible and tangible.
Additionally, performers can also change the behavior of the objects by touching and interacting with the table surface, and because the Reactable technology is “multi-touch”, there is not limit to the number of fingers that can be used simultaneously. As a matter of fact, the Reactable was specially designed so that it could also be used by several performers at the same time, thus opening up a whole new universe of pedagogical, entertaining and creative possibilities with its collaborative and multi-user capabilities.
June 12, 2009
Alan Sokal was a teaching assistant in my quantum mechanics (QM) course. I still recall vividly the day he came with a graph showing the spike of the first-ever observed strange particle. I remember, too, the playful twinkle in his eye. Thirteen years ago, Alan (at this point a physics professor at NYU) submitted a paper to the prominent cultural studies journal Social Text, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.
On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks
As a side note, I wish more transhumanists would take a note of point #7 and all that it entails -- no matter how inconvenient.
(1) Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.Find out more about transhumanism at Humanity+.
(2) We believe that humanity's potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
(3) We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some ofthese scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
(4) Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
(5) Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
(6) Policymaking ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
(7) We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
(8) We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.
Heidi Taillefer is a Canadian artist living in Montreal. Her work is an original creative fusion of classical figurative painting, surrealism, contemporary realism and mythology combined with popular figurative traditions ranging from Victorian romanticism to science fiction. Her artwork is consonant with some early 20th century surrealists, such as Max Ernst and Giorgio DeChirco.
In her work she attempts to marry primordial human essence with the explosive expansion of the machine, as a new paradigm looms close on the horizon and promises a redefinition of what it means to be human.
June 11, 2009
The following article was written by Natasha Vita-More in response to Athena Andreadis’ article, "If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!"
“Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?” (Nietzsche)
It is a breezy summer evening, as I sip a glass of wine after tending to the garden, romping in play with my dog, meditation, exercise, and finally engaging in the lusciousness of flirting with my husband, I am alone at last in my study.
How ironic it is that Athena Andreadis views transhumanism as “… deeply anhedonic, hostile to physicality and the pleasures of the body, from enjoying wine to playing in an orchestra …” in her article “If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!” posted on on the Sentient Developments blog.
This response to Andreadis’ article is a well-intended and heart-felt defense of transhumanism in its appreciation and concern for human body and its activism toward human enhancement.
In that we are human with a biology, it makes sense to be biologically healthy, largely because transhumanism is, and always has been, closely linked to the field of life extension. With this said, it is true that transhumanism is more widely known for its vision of a posthuman future—the technological singularity, superintelligences, uploading, distributed existence, etc. Transhumanism is also known for its critical thinking about the future—including human rights, the Proactionary Principle, overcoming bias, environmental and ecological issues, techno-democracy, friendly AI, etc. Nonetheless, I wonder why there is less public attention directed toward the vitality and intelligence behind transhumanists’ emphasis on health and well-being. If one were to scan the most recent publications, topics on health and fitness seem to be missing. It was not always this way.
Transhumanism Health & Body
“Flex the mind, flex the body” at one time (probably around 1997) was one of many transhumanist mottos. We were devoted to regenerative medicine and thought that if a person were physically fit, intellectually disciplined, and spiritually alert; we would be practicing a type of “Zen in the art of superlongevity.” Like Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), we tried to encapsulate a perception of the world that embraces the rationale and the dream. As an underlying tenet of transhumanism—health and well-being as logical and as an ideal are indispensable. How could it be otherwise?
Two well-known computer scientists, Ben Goertzel and Peter Voss, agreed. In 1996, Voss writes: “It [extropy/transhumanism] comprises long term physical and emotional health, fulfillment, and happiness; not wasting our lives on irrelevant or unpleasant tasks.” Over ten years later in 2008, Goertzel states: “… the Extropian Ubermensch ‘will exude benevolence, emanating its excess of health and self-confidence.’
Unlike Andreadis’ view that transhumanists harbor disdain for the human body, in the mid-1990s transhumanists were criticized for being too body conscious—too focused on health—too physical, too sexy: Let me gently poke a little fun at ourselves by quoting some journalistic comments:
“… even as a youth, More sought longevity, starting a vitamin regimen at age 11; at 15, he started meditating and lifting weights …”(Icon Magazine 1998)
“Certainly Max looks fit … he has just been through an extensive program of physiological testing at the Kronos Clinic …. Both are muscular and voluptuous, Natasha’s body certainly makes an impressive advertisement for longevity.” (LA Weekly 2001)
“So journalists played up the looniness of their ideas … Max and Natasha’s body building, supplements, antiaging routines.” (Rapture 2003)
“Vita More bodybuilding guru …”(Wired 1997)
“Natasha’s case age seems to have become blurred, confused, to some extent even vanquished.” (LA Weekly 2001)
“... superhuman object of desire …” (The Atlantic 1998)
We did not ask to be reflected with admiration, exaggeration, or disdain. We, like many transhumanists, simply enjoy working out. Of course we also want to enhance our minds and bodies to extend our lives.
What could be more valuable for superlongevity than knowing about what our bodies need to be healthy? Nothing, at least for the time being, later we will have other issues to contend with—in a posthuman world. We can hypothesize about it all we want, but the game is all about staying alive. It always has been about survival.
In 2000 I presented a paper at Longevity Bootcamp, sponsored by the Maximum Life Foundation, a transhumanist organization. The paper revealed The American Council on Exercise (ACE) report from the Surgeon General’s office, which stated that: 60% of American adults exercise only once in a while; 25% never exercise; six out of ten resort to medications to feel better; one-third are overweight; 14% suffer from depression; and two out of five will die of heart disease. In a call for awareness, my paper set out to suggest that by 2050 there will be one million people over 100 years old, a notable increase from the 40,000 centurions alive in 1998. This longevity is even more striking when compared to the normal life expectancy at the turn of the last century (1900s)—which was just 49. Further the paper presented a forecast that of those who are 65 then: 75% will reach 80; 60% will reach 85; 41% will reach 90; 3% will reach 100 and 2% will reach 105.
Transhumanism, in its socio-political understanding of the baby boomer generation approaching an old age and the health needs for such a growing segment of the world’s population, actually was and continues to be realistic about the need for public awareness of health and fitness.
At the inception of the modern philosophy transhuman members of Extropy Institute, and later some members of WTA, were highly proactive about health and fitness.
Roy Walford’s books Maximum Life Span and Beyond the 120 Year Diet were required reading for many transhumanists. But it was not just Dr. Walford’s books that were inspiring, Roy, until he could no longer exercise, worked out at World Gym in Venice, was a unique combination of scientist and artist—his home exhibited images of bodies engaged in dance, yoga and sex alongside scientific research. Chris Heward, formerly Chief Scientist at Kronos Lab in Scottsdale Arizona, was a long-time health enthusiast as well, especially the Gracie style of Jiu-Jitsu.
There are a number of transhumanist writings on pro-body exercise, fitness and sexual freedom. Martine Rothblatt’s The Apartheid of Sex not only discusses the freedom of gender, she also provides a source of knowledge about our sexuality. Ray Kurzweil’s Fantastic Voyage provides a health consciousness and valuable source of information nutrition and supplements. One on One Fitness, which I co-wrote with Leigh Christian, my collage as a personal trainer and sports nutritionist, is a personalized exercise and nutrition routine.
Yet, it almost frightens me that I would have to resort to naming those who are athletic, but I feel I need in stressing the reality of transhumanism and enjoyment of exercise, sports, and dance.
Speaking of dance, and in reflection for a moment—it was so many years ago that I did dance with the Birmingham Dance ensemble in the Opera Tannhäuser. I was not really very disciplined and favored an interpretive movement—like dancing to the sunrise at the rim of Haleakala, dancing in harmony with the waves in the South Atlantic Ocean or to the desert-blown sands of Monument valley. I have never stopped dancing, it simply has taken on different rhythms and steps. And we need to dance with our ideas, words and pen—which transhumanists do take seriously.
Cyborg vs. Transhuman
Perhaps here is a point in my thinking that needs to be acknowledge—the different rhythms and steps of human evolution and bodily enhancement. We might discuss the issue of the transhuman vs. the cyborg. Even though most authors and academics have not carefully addressed the distinctions between the two, there is a clear distinction between the “cyborg” and the “transhuman”. Simply put, the cyborg is a cybernetic machine-man. The transhuman is a transitional stage of transformation of human enhancement. Cyborg = a fixed semi-mental cybernetic being with no destination; transhuman = an unfixed semi-bio enhanced being actively extending life and evolving. But perhaps I am incorrect here. James Hughes’ Citizen Cyborg and his writings on the notion of a “cyborg Buddha” may contradict me. Nonetheless, I believe we are in sync of the transhumanist vision of neurological enhancement, be it cyborg or transhuman.
For over twenty years, my practice and theory, while transdisciplinary in scope, have been located precisely and resolutely within the field of transhumanism. I have tried my best to listen to and understand the different flavors of transhumanism and to identity the rhizome growth of interconnected interests and beliefs, which push and pull transhumanism in varied directions. Nonetheless, rooted firmly in the philosophy of transhumanism, the idea of well-being in body and mind is, and continues to be, essential to the core of transhumanism. Whether or not specific individuals who call themselves transhuman or transhumanist represent this understanding is their choice. Yet, if not, they are not responsive to the fullness of the philosophy.
The fact that journalists often select images for their publications which are more cyborg-terminator in scope than transhuman, and therefore often lacking in sensuality, warmth, wellness, and well—lovely, ought to be taken seriously. Even if asked to, why would a journalist generally represent a transhumanism as happy, loving, and nurturing? Journalists and their editors will do as they please to sell their publication, and that visual is often dystopic and fearful. One bad image equals a thousand copies of that same bad image. The same circumstance applies to quotes taken out of context in interviews, articles and essays, and even academic papers.
Alas, I agree with Andreadis in that I do not want to go into the future without being able to move to the music. I would like to address specific claims that Andreadis makes:
Andreadis writes: “Their words 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.”
Rather than taking this claim apart statement by statement, which I could do, I would rather focus in on one particular issue—that “almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement has atrophied …”
Looking into transhumanist arts and sciences, I can easily identify numerous examples of vibrant color and evoking sounds. The Exemplar collection of visuals, notably “DNA Breakout”, is a prime example of rich colors depicting a transhumanist future. The piece “Walkabout”, which takes place in a rose garden and microscopically it draws parallels between molecular infestation of microbes, but the visuals of the entire project is encompassed soft pinks and brilliant orange colors, and “The Aesthetics of Memetic Evolution”, graphical narrative animation, etc.
While some of these examples do pertain to human enhancement in one form or another, transhumanism is not so limited in its visual scope. Media arts involve the mediums of visual art of sculpture, graphic arts, filmmaking, videography, and interactive gaming, installations, immersive design, dance and theatre, for example. The storylines are not exclusive to science fiction, but even if there were—they revolved around all our human emotions, no matter the biology or synthetic form.
Andreadis further claims, “If a body is tolerated at all, the ideal is a mixture of metal and ceramic ….” Fair enough. Many images do depict a modern, streamlined figure. However some do not. The dvd “Bone Density” shows a transhumanist form which is covered with hair follicles and there is no sign of metal or ceramic particles.
Aesthetics of an Enhanced Existence
It is not that the times have changed for transhsumanism, it is that now the medicine, science and technology that we dared to dream about many years ago are actualizing. The idea of human enhancement is here.
The acronym NBIC has become fairly mainstream. Does that mean that we will be cyborgized terminators of a Noosphere’s conglomerate mindthink? No. It does not. It means that we will continue expanding our human, biological senses to further explore and interact with the universe around us. Whatever shape or form emerges will be more than a machine with wires—it will be the creation of the new interpretations of the visions of Leonardo, Matisse, Chanel, Versace, and whose media will emerge from the nano-bio-info-cogno and become more—an evolving NBIC+. Critics ought not to be so stern in nature and attitude to assume that the artists, designers and engineers of our future selves will be limited by the 20th century sketches of a cyborg future. We must have a little respect for the creative multi-media and transdisciplinary fields that will emerge as the medicine, science and technologies advance.
No matter the bodily or substrate style, sensorial pleasures are aesthetic characteristics relative to a posthuman future. Aesthetics of radically enhanced existence seeks to elucidate both the nature of experience itself, and the essential moments of our multi-selves’ perceptions of experience.
Umberto Eco asked,“is beauty something ontologically self-subsistent, which gives pleasure when it is apprehended? Or is it rather the case that a thing appears beautiful only when someone apprehends it in such a way as to experience a certain type of pleasure?” Beauty can be one, the other, or both ways—taking it into state of multiplicity. The idea that historically theories had to be located in one field, one argument, one result changes to the proactive prospect that it is not an either or scenario, but an array of possibilities that removes the tension of contradictions.
Works of art which will help determine our future also affect our perceptions and how we build forms, environments within which to exist. No doubt this will affect our values which govern our own sense of life, dignity and social circumstances. They also invite art works which will engage the enhanced existence media for semi/non-bio bodies, and further sustain our sense of style.
Andreadis further claims that “It’s a transhumanist article of faith that intelligence can and must be augmented – but there are many kinds of intelligences.” Here I pause. First, it is true that transhumanist support the idea of augmenting intelligence, as a fact, not an article of faith. Second, transhumanists are fully aware of the different types of intelligence. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ has been on the transhumanist reading lists since for over a decade, along with Flow Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. My own paper “Ageless Thinking” presented at the Resources for Independent Thinking in 1996 discusses intelligence, the body and sexuality, and which proposes a very different view of transhumanist body and attitudes than what Andreadis suggests in her article.
Like Andreadis, I too believe that our bodies can be improved. Where we obviously differ is Andreadis’ belief that the carbon body is essential to be empathic and loving. My thinking is that we do not have to be sequestered to one body, be it carbon/biological or otherwise. Why limit our choices? It is true that today many humans do not exist in one bodily form. Many co-reside in virtual habitats in avatars. While this venue is currently anything but seamless, the odds that the alternatives for co-existing in multiple bodies in multiple environments is more than high.
I thank Athena Andreadis for her honest appraisal and provoking article, which represents what many others assume to be a characterization of transhumanism. Nonetheless, it has never been my own, nor the vision of those I know and have worked with for decades and with whom I pioneered the cultural/social movement of transhumanism. The dance of improvisation: requires skill, diversity, flexibility and stamina—much like life itself.
“Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery.” (Martha Graham)
“The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people
is the greatest and only safety in a sane society.” (Emma Goldman)
Natasha Vita-More is a fellow of the IEET, a media designer and futurist.
June 9, 2009
In considering a possible transhumanist future where cybernetic implants and other enhancements must be designed for the use of billions of people, I worry about an associated slaughter -- that of all the animals that must be used as test subjects for the enhancements before they can be made to work. Considering that some modifications will surely involve replacing the limbs, organs, and just about every part of the body, and always be accompanied by the risk of immune rejection, it seems heartless to subject millions of test animals to excruciating death by torture.
This aspect of technological progress is almost never discussed by transhumanists, yet it is so important.
The situation gets even worse with the application of robotics. To meet the increased demand for the design and testing of implantable devices, what if vivariums (animal testing facilities) are greatly expanded and automated? That could make them even worse than they already are -- tiny sterile cages in overlit rooms with bleach-white walls. Today, just as many "environmentally conscious" people happily (but at comfortable removal) subject intelligent animals like pigs to inhumane treatment in the world's factory farms, "nice people" in the future will have no compunctions to condemning millions of animals to death by torture if it will help the next cybernetic implant get designed. Why?
In advocating for transhumanism, is one in fact also inadvertently advocating for the mass mutilation of innocent and defenseless animals, who belong out in the field, not in the laboratory torture chamber, where they never see the light of day?
To a certain degree, yes.
Is there another way? Thankfully so. In discussing this issue with George, he pointed me to a Times Online article titled, "Animal experiments could end in a generation". This is some of the best news I have ever heard. My father, who works at Genentech, tells me all about how vivariums for major biotech companies are often in out-of-the-way neighborhoods with a complete absence of signs identifying the owner or purpose. If what they are doing is ethical, then why do they have to hide it so conspicuously? From the Times article:
Can you imagine that, for many decades, the standard practice has been to administer toxicants directly to the lungs of test animals such as rabbits and rats? Although these animals may be dumber than humans, they clearly can feel pain, and much of the physiology in the brains of rabbits and rats is similar to human brains. It seems extremely likely to me that they have conscious experiences. We will have an opportunity to learn more about this when we can create brains at will and combine primitive brains with more advanced knowledge sets or intelligent agents that can reflect on the details of their mental experience.
The use of animal experiments could be replaced by research on “virtual human beings” and tests on banks of living cells within a generation, scientists say.
Computer modelling and advances in cell biology will allow researchers to assess new drugs far more precisely and without the involvement of animals. One innovation is the development of “micro-lungs” — lung cells extracted from transplant tissue, grown in a laboratory culture and then tested with drops of toxicants such as cosmetics to assess the response.
Michael's blog: Accelerating Future.