January 30, 2009

Anissimov on the benefits of mind uploading

Transhumanist and Accelerating Future blogger Michael Anissimov has posted a thought-provoking article about universal mind uploading and the potential benefits it may bring.

Mind uploading
, sometimes called whole brain emulation, refers to the hypothetical transfer of a human mind to a substrate different from a biological brain, such as a detailed computer simulation of an individual human brain. Given the (likely) functionalist nature of the human brain, and given steady advances across a number of scientific disciplines, mind transfer may eventualy become reality; this is not just idle fantasy.

And as Anissimov notes, even if this technology doesn't arrive for a hundred years, it's still something worth speculating about and working towards; the ramifications would be, quite obviously, profound for the human species.

Indeed, as Anissimov notes, there are at least 7 benefits to mind uploading:
  1. Massive economic growth
  2. Intelligence enhancements
  3. Greater subjective well-being
  4. Complete environmental recovery
  5. Escape from direct governance by the laws of physics
  6. Closer connections with other human beings
  7. Indefinite lifespans
Mind uploading, which may or may not be possible, would clearly represent an existential gamechanger. As Anissimov concludes,
From a utilitarian perspective, it practically blows everything else away besides global risk mitigation, as the number of new minds leading worthwhile lives that could be created using the technology would be astronomical. The number of digital minds we could create using the matter on Earth alone would likely be over a quadrillion, more than 10,000 people for every star in the 400 billion star Milky Way. We could make a “Galactic Civilization”, right here on Earth in the late 21st or 22nd century. I can scarcely imagine such a thing, but I can imagine that we’ll be guffawing heartily as how unambitious most human goals were in the year 2009.
Read the entire article.

January 29, 2009

Come on ride Toronto's atheist bus!

This is the ad that is currently appearing on some Toronto buses.

Congratulations go out to the Toronto Transhumanist Association's very own Justin Trottier for helping to make it happen.

According to the group's website:
This campaign was created as a rebuttal to the multitude of religious advertisements on city buses, subways, and roadsides. When taking a ride on the TTC here in Toronto it is not uncommon to sit down and look up only to realize someone has posted an advert of a bible quote. Usually something that tries preaching about a God whom supposedly sent his son to save us, somehow inferring that all of us need to be saved or we’re going to hell. The CABC (Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign) wants to advertise inspiring and thought provoking ads that let transit riders know that it’s OK not to believe in a God and that you do not need to be ’saved’. We want to encourage people to look at the facts and evidence before making decisions throughout life, especially when it comes to religion.

Rethinking IQ: The rise of 'rational intelligence'

Our conceptions of intelligence certainly aren't what they used to be -- and they're continuing to evolve. Prior to the advent of computers it was thought that number crunching and pure logic was the penultimate measure of intelligence. But after the invention of the calculator, which could suddenly do math thousands of times better than we ever could, we were forced to shift our definitions of intelligence to other seemingly more intractable cognitive functions.

These days a number of psychologists have gone even further by de-emphasizing the importance of IQ tests altogether. Instead, they talk about "supracognitive" characteristics -- theories about emotional and social intelligence, which weigh interpersonal skills and the ability to empathize. These cognitive abilities are now typically placed alongside other 'harder' measures of intelligence.

Now add to this list what Keith E. Stanovich calls 'rational intelligence.' Stanovich, author of What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, believes that the concept of intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, fails to capture key aspects of mental ability.

That said, he doesn't discount the tests' credibility: "Readers might well expect me to say that IQ tests do not measure anything important, or that there are many kinds of intelligence, or that all people are intelligent in their own way," he writes.

Rather, Stanovich suggests that IQ tests should be adjusted to focus on valuable qualities and capacities that are highly relevant to our daily lives. He argues that IQ tests would be far more effective if they took into account not only mental "brightness" but also rationality — including such abilities as "judicious decision making, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization ... [and] the proper calibration of evidence."

Stanovich believes that our conceptions of intelligence are confused and that we've conflated the whole idea of "smarts." IQ tests, he argues, do not measure the rationality required to abstain from dumb decisions. But in practical life, we define intelligence more broadly and look out for these kinds of rational weaknesses: "Blatantly irrational acts committed by people of obvious intelligence ... shock and surprise us and call out for explanation."

And as long as we continue to worship IQ tests that do not assess rational thought processes, warns Stanovich, we will continue to misjudge our own and others' cognitive abilities.


January 28, 2009

Self-assembling and shape shifting modular robot

A robot developed by roboticists at the University of Pennsylvania is comprised of modules that can recognize each other. This video shows how the modules reassemble themselves after the robot has been kicked apart.

But this is just the beginning.

DARPA programme manager Mitch Zakin is pursuing what he calls "programmable matter" -- so-called "mesoscale" mini-machines, a millimetre to a centimetre in size, that can arrange themselves to form whatever shape is desired.

Initially, he expects the outcome to be devices the size of small Lego pieces, but as the technology improves the modules and the machines could be scaled down even further.

Just how much further?

Ultimately, says Zakin, you could tell a sack of "smart sand" what to do, and the grains would assemble themselves into a hammer, a wrench or even a morphing robotic aircraft.

"It's making machines more like materials, and materials more like machines," says Daniela Rus, a robotics researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Read more.

Celebrating 150 years of Charles Darwin

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. This piece was put together by the boys at Mondolithic Studios and used on the cover of Le Scienze Magazine in Italy and on the table of contents of the US Edition of Scientific American magazine.

What a fitting and dignified portrait of this literary and scientific giant.

January 27, 2009

PETA's banned Superbowl ad

'Veggie Love': PETA's Banned Super Bowl Ad
PETA's ad—which features a bevy of beauties who are powerless to resist the temptation of veggie love—was deemed too hot for the Super Bowl. NBC rejected the video because of concerns over "rubbing pelvic region with pumpkin," a woman "screwing herself with broccoli," and more! Read NBC's complete list of concerns.
As the green LA girl notes, "Continuing its long tradition of objectifying women to promote going vegan, PETA proudly brags that its ad showing mostly naked women rubbing themselves with veggies got banned by the Superbowl."

Most parents not quite ready to have 'designer babies' -- but demand exists

A new study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center indicates that consumers are more interested in using genetic technologies to screen for life threatening diseases than in using the technologies to screen offspring for enhanced traits.

Specifically, consumers appear ready to use biotechnologies to test for life altering and threatening medical conditions like mental retardation, blindness, deafness, cancer, heart disease, dwarfism and shortened lifespan from death by 5 years of age -- but what they're not interested in is prenatal genetic testing to screen for traits like tall stature, superior athletic ability and superior intelligence.

"Our research has discovered that although the media portrays a desire for 'designer babies', this does not appear to be true among consumers of genetic testing services," said Feighanne Hathaway, a certified genetic counselor at the NYU Cancer Institute.

Some demand is still demand

Indeed, one way of reading these results is to conclude that most people today are not in favor or ready to screen their offspring for enhanced traits. But that's not the entire story, nor is it a justification for failing to develop these technologies or denying prospective parents access to them. What these survey results indicate is that there is some demand for these sorts of interventions, just in small doses.

Let's look at the results of this report a bit more closely. The majority of respondents (52.2%) indicated that there were no conditions for which genetic testing should never be offered. What this tells me is that more than half of respondents are receptive to using genetic technologies for assisted reproduction in some form. That's significant and telling.

In addition, a minority of respondents indicated that they would like to use genetic testing for enhancements such as athletic ability (10%) or superior intelligence (12.6%). While these figures may seem small, they seem less so when considering the entire population. In a country like the United States, where there are about 4 million babies born each year, and assuming that these respondents would use these technologies to screen for higher intelligence, that would represent about 400,000 births per year. That's more babies born each year than through IVF.

We have to be careful when assessing the results of these kinds of surveys. When it comes to ensuring equal and fair access to medical technologies, it's not like voting for the president. Having control over one's reproductive processes is a very important thing -- even if 90% of the population has no intention of using it for themselves. It's important to remain respectful and responsive to any kind of demand for reproductive technologies.

Not the norm. Yet.

The authors of the report noted that, "it seems unlikely that the 'Age of Designer Babies' is near at-hand." While majority consumer buy-in doesn't appear imminent, that doesn't mean it's not going to happen.

As the authors of the report noted, respondents may have been following their own personal values or belief systems when assessing choices for genetic tests. Consequently, genetic counselors may want to develop a policy statement about new genetic tests that are becoming available and the ethical concerns regarding prenatal testing for life altering conditions.

Yes, but these policy statements will have to carefully and fairly worded. An anti-enhancement bias is most certainly embedded in our society. It's very likely that many of the respondents were answering the survey in accordance to their social conditioning and what they thought was expected of them from an 'ethical' perspective.

It's very safe, for example, to state that you're willing to use genetic technologies to screen for cancer and heart disease. But it's not socially correct to say that you'd like to screen for intelligence. I'm sure many pencils wavered above that survey question for a while as the cognitive dissonance kicked in.

Wait a minute, isn't intelligence a good thing?....

Indeed, the genetic counselors' policy statement better be clear on a number of things -- like explaining how people with higher intelligence are more likely to experience educational and occupational success and lower rates of morbidity and mortality. Smarter people live longer. It would seem, therefore, that ensuring higher rates of intelligence should be a priority and considered en par with the prevention of diseases.

And a similar thing can be said for athletic and physical endowments. Enhanced kinesthetic wiring and and a body type suited to athletics are strong indicators of both health and attractiveness. Like high intelligence, these are good things, and we shouldn't lose sight of that.

What we're talking about here is endowing our children with all the tools we can give them so that they may live an enriched, open-ended and fulfilling life. By denying them these benefits we are closing doors and potentially reducing the quality of their lives.

As for the Langone Medical Center report, I'm actually quite encouraged by their findings. Not only is there a great willingness to use genetic technologies to assist in reproduction, but there is growing awareness about it. The debate is happening and people are thinking and talking about the issues.

This is a very necessary step for the normalization of these important and life-improving technologies.

The myth of our exalted human place - A SentDev Classic

I'm still stewing about Spiked Online and their misguided mission to malign the animal rights movement. In particular, I'm upset at Chris Pile's assertion that animal rights activists are acting misanthropically by putting the welfare of animals on par with those of humans.

It's similar to Wesley Smith's argument that transhumanists, like animal rights advocates, are demeaning humans by ascribing personhood characteristics to non-humans.

In the case of transhumanists, they're anticipating existence outside of the evolved human form and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine minds, whereas animal rights folks are acknowledging the personhood of gorillas, elephants, whales and dolphins. Ultimately, however, transhumanists and animal rights advocates are on the same wavelength in that they support the idea of non-anthropocentric personhood.

In his article, “The Transhumanists: The Next Great Threat to Human Dignity,” Smith declares that humans “are not just another animal in the forest,” and that “human life has ultimate value simply and merely because it is human.”

Of course, the argument that humans have value because they're human is not really an argument at all. Rather, it's a rhetorical tautology devoid of any substance – except for what it reveals about the person making the argument.

Like Pile, Smith believes that humans occupy a special metaphysical or exalted space somewhere between the beasts and gods. Even when framed in secular language, the allusion to religious sensibilities is inescapable and one that informs an indelible part of this ideology. Along similar lines, the whole idea of 'dignity' itself arose during the time of aristocracy, a period when the nobility accredited their 'blue blood' as the essence which separated them from the lesser members of humanity.

Consequently, those arguments that bemoan the demise of human dignity are conspicuously promoted by those who steadfastly cling to these notions as they have been reconstituted and manifested by 21st century concerns. I'm speaking, of course, of inhibitions against ascribing personhood to non-humans. This speciesism, or what James Hughes refers to as human-racism, is one of the worst prejudices of our time.

Today, our gods and kings have been replaced by reason and liberal democracies. As a society, we have grown increasingly tolerant and accommodating of minority groups and those without power. We no longer enslave the 'other' and relegate our women to second class citizenry for fear of undermining human dignity. Similarly, as we are coming to recognize the psychological and emotional workings of non-human animals, we stand to take our morality and ethical commitments to the next level.

At the very core, though, what the speciests cannot bear is when an animal's life is 'put ahead' of a human's. More accurately, what they find repugnant is the thought of a human death when a cure could have been developed through animal experimentation -- the underlying assumption being that an animal's life does not have the same value as a human's. To the speciest, the animal's suffering is either not really happening (i.e. the misconception that animals don't really feel things the way people do), or that its suffering is a justifiable sacrifice in the name of science or in helping more 'worthy' human lives.

These rationalizations are the result of human arrogance and a mass hallucination among those who condone and perform the work; they operate in total denial, deliberately choosing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that animals get frightened and can experience pain the same way we do. There's also the 'blame the victim' mentality. In 2004, for example, PETA recorded the conversations of Covance technicians as they were restraining monkeys: "Goddamn...I'm gonna knock you out...you little bitch...you little hateful ass, you."

There is no doubt that much scientific and medical advancement has occurred as a result of animal experimentation. But this is tainted knowledge, much like the tainted knowledge acquired by the Nazi doctors who tested on human subjects. Nazi doctors weren't so much sadistic as they felt their work was justified. Much like we have devalued the life and well-being of non-human animals, the Nazis de-valued an entire race of people.

Without a doubt many lives could be saved today if we allowed the inhumane testing of human subjects. But what a repulsive and abhorrent idea! It for this exact same sense of repulsion and abhorrence that we cannot continue to allow cruel experimentation on animals deserving of personhood status and moral consideration. Denying the psychological experience of each and every animal that is experimented upon is a gross breach of our reason and moral sensibilities.

And contrary to what Spiked Online, Chris Pile and Wesley Smith believe, animal rights activists are not misanthropic. In fact, they're quite the opposite. It's not just animals whose well-being they consider, it's a concern for all creatures capable of conscious experience and complex emotion.

Consequently, it is when we consider the well-being of both human and non-human animals that we become truly humane.

This article was originally published on April 25, 2006.

January 25, 2009

As the U.S. moves forward, Canada risks losing its scientific edge

Fantastic news hit the wire this past Friday: the United States became the first country in the world to approve a clinical trial of embryonic stem cells in human patients. Less than one week into the Obama presidency and the country is already looking to overturn nearly a decade of regressive bioethical policies.

But what looks to be the USA's gain may turn out to be Canada's loss.

Now, I've written before about the recent parallels between Canada and the U.S. and their recent efforts to stall scientific advancement. With Obama entering the picture, however, the U.S. is looking to emerge from its Dark Age. Meanwhile, here in Canada, we continue to dawdle under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While once a prime example of how the funding and organization of scientific research can and should be done, Canada is now drifting into a second class country in terms of its commitment to science, technology and the future. Unless Canada takes inspiration from the U.S., the negative repercussions could be disastrous and longstanding.

The problems in Canada are starting to mount and run deep. The Prime Minister, for example, has no official science adviser, nor does he plan on reinstating the position -- and this despite calls from the scientific community to implement an office of science and technology at the cabinet level.

Instead we get a patronage appointment of the Creationist Preston Manning to the toothless and stunningly useless scientific advisory board.

Obama, meanwhile, has appointed leading scientists as advisors in his inner circle, such as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as his secretary of energy, and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus and MIT genome biologist Eric Lander as chairs of the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

And it gets worse: half of Canada's 500 biotech firms are expected to run out of cash within the year. This grim possibility has prompted calls for the commercialization its top-notch research by offering tax and investment incentives to spur industry. Research leaders want the feds to treat science as an industry that is as vital to economic recovery as propping up the auto sector and building roads.

Even worse yet is the threatening brain drain. Canada could lose its competitive edge owing to the Obama advantage -- not to mention the ethical implications of knowingly failing to develop lifesaving and life improving biotechnologies like regenerative medicine.

Under Harper's Tories, research funding to Canadian universities has declined appreciably. The reasons for this change are undeniably ideological; the Conservative Party has expressed skepticism on the science of climate change, while their religious sensibilities have crept their way into legislation (a number of Conservative Parliamentarians are evangelical Christians, including Harper). In addition, the Conservatives' overruling of the Nuclear Safety Commission, the firing of the commission's president and their decision to abolish the office of the independent national science advisor have brought international criticism.

Canadian scientists and researchers have been keeping a close eye on the election happenings in the U.S. and the kind of science policies that Obama will put into place. Knowing that Stephen Harper is unlikely to invoke similar changes, they are biding their time and waiting for an excuse to bail on Canada.

This kind of brain drain is exactly what Canada does not need right now. We are already losing physicians to the U.S. at an alarming rate. The number of Canadians without a doctor is currently at unacceptable levels.

The Conservative government should take pause over the possibility that our best research minds are poised to leave the country. Moreover, if Canada is going to compete in the global market and provide its citizens with the best medical technologies that science has to offer, it had better rekindle its commitment to medical research.

January 24, 2009

Thanks, Russell!

Many thanks go out to Russell Blackford for guest blogging here last week. I'm sure my visitors enjoyed his contributions as much as I did.

This was an interesting and valuable experience for me. Russell will go down as the first person other than myself to contribute content to this blog. And I have to admit -- it was a strange feeling seeing someone else's work appearing alongside my own.

But this turned out to be a very good and healthy thing. It was an opportunity for me to offer my readers some new 'transhumanist' perspectives, and it helped me re-contextualize my own writing and the type of content I plan to post in the future.

Again, sincerest thanks to Russell. It was a delight having him here last week.

Here's the listing of Dr. Blackford's posts:
And as promised, I plan on having a new guest blogger appear here next month. I've already got a writer booked for February, so stay tuned for more.

January 23, 2009

Guest blogger: Russell Blackford: So long for now.

This will be my final post here. I've enjoyed the experience, and I hope the benefit has been mutual. I'll just thank George Dvorsky, once again, and sign off. As I said earlier, this is a very classy blog, and it's a privilege to have posted here as a guest.

Best wishes to all, Russell.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

Guest blogger: Russell Blackford: The position statement by the Order of Cosmic Engineers.

Until today I was unfamiliar with a group called "The Order of Cosmic Engineers". I'd heard mention of the name in passing, but could have told you nothing about what it was or who its members might be.

Apparently it's a recently-formed group of transhumanists who are mainly focused on activities in virtual reality worlds (such as World of Warcraft and Second Life). The governing body of the group includes a veritable who's who of notable transhumanist thinkers, though of course other well-known names are missing for whatever reason(s). Several of the individuals on the list are folks whom I consider allies or even friends, so what I'm going to say in this post should (please) be read in that context.

At the end of December/start of January, they issued a "Position Statement" - in fact, a kind of manifesto - entitled "YES! to Transhumanism". Before I comment, it's worth quoting the manifesto in full:

YES! to Transhumanism

Transhumanism is both a reason-based worldview and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability, for those who choose it, of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.

Visionary, bold and fun. That is what transhumanism has always been.

Transhumanists have always sought personal improvement; to free themselves from all the limitations of biology; to radically upgrade their mental and physical faculties; and to beat a path to the stars.

This is what transhumanism is. What it has always been. This is what transhumanism ought to continue to be.

With due concern, we fully and deeply realize that there are, have always been and will continue to be complex scientific, technical, cultural, moral, societal and political challenges to deal with. They require careful assessment, planning, and leadership. These challenges need to be met head on with due courage, forbearance, focused attention, rationality, compassion, empathy and wisdom.

We must and will continue to do our best to overcome them. We will persevere to mitigate their potential and actual dangers, while safeguarding the maximizing of their potential and actual benefits.

Some however are advancing that transhumanists should abandon their efforts at realizing - or even promoting - their radical futurist worldview... in favor of exclusively - or at least primarily - focusing on today's world issues. Transhumanist organizations should, in their view, become nothing more than nice, soft spoken, moderate, ethical, responsible and politically correct quasi-mainstream social clubs.

To such suggestions and proposals, we unequivocally say: NO!

As citizens, we have to and will do our best to play an active and positive role in today's world.

But that is not what transhumanism at its origin and core is about. There are numerous suitable organizations within which transhumanist citizens can and should play an active and positive role in today's world, including organizations in the environmental movement, political parties and movements, philanthropic organizations, research institutes, commercial enterprises.

We however categorically refuse to abandon our core original transhumanist vision of a radically better future for our species and ourselves.

We say YES to transhumanism. To the undiluted, unadulterated, uncompromising original core of transhumanism, that is.

I should quickly say that I hadn't read this document when I posted this morning (my time) on a topic to do with the "baggage" of transhumanism, and my own concept of transhumanism's core idea. Indeed, I adapted some material about the essential, or core, idea of transhumanism that I originally wrote last year for a different purpose that I've described elsewhere on this blog. Hopefully, no one has read my recent post in the context of the Cosmic Engineers' manifesto, but if my own post turns out to be more controversial than imagined ... well so be it, I suppose.

All that now said, what should we make of the manifesto itself? I actually think it's timely that it's issued now, presumably in response to the many strands of recent debate about the nature of transhumanism as a movement, the future direction of the movement, and particularly the branding and mission of the WTA/Humanity+. Although the Order of Cosmic Engineers is obviously devoted to some extent to having fun in virtual realities - and even its name sounds rather lighthearted - the Position Statement is a serious contribution to ongoing debates about what transhumanism is, or should be.

For myself, I should note that I am not one of the people who argue that "Transhumanist organizations should ...become nothing more than nice, soft spoken, moderate, ethical, responsible and politically correct quasi-mainstream social clubs." I agree that transhumanist organisations should not try to become anything quite like that.

To be honest, I'm not sure who argues that they should, but I won't dispute that there are such people. Maybe I can guess who this sentence is aimed at, but maybe not. Frankly, I find it slightly mysterious.

My own attitude is that no one should feel constrained to be "politically correct", if this means subscribing to whichever ideas are currently fashionable with the academic Left. Many of my own views would not go down well in that ambience. For a start, I am a fiscal conservative; for another thing, I am a forthright atheist and a ferocious critic of major religious organisations, whereas most humanities academics "believe in belief" (per Daniel Dennett) and are unwilling to rock the boat about religion; for yet another, I'm a strong defender of freedom of speech, even to the point of being a lonely voice arguing against politically-correct religious vilification laws (and I've even suggested scaling back laws against racial vilification to something much narrower than exists in my own country); and for yet another, I believe that the state should get out of the marriage business (though I do favour allowing for gay marriage in the meanwhile), that there's nothing much wrong with so-called "raunch culture", and that the institution of strict monogamy is outdated and the cause of great harms; I also think we place far too much emphasis on "respect" for the (sometimes absurd) ideas of others and are too willing to defer to some people's feelings of "offence" when their ideas are criticised or satirised. I'm a fan of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker. I'm not a fan of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, or Stanley Fish. I'm more a Gayle Rubin kind of guy than an Andrea Dworkin kind of guy. So to speak.

Importantly, I don't subscribe to the various kinds of epistemic relativism that are fashionable on the Left, nor its crude cultural relativism (though there are some sophisticated meta-ethical positions that could be labelled as "cultural relativist" which I consider intellectually respectable).

I could go and on. None of my views on these important issues are currently fashionable in academic Left circles. Quite the opposite.

I don't want anyone to be politically correct or moderate, or soft spoken (if this means being reticent about putting forward your ideas; I'm not a fan of people who are loud-mouths in their social interaction). I intend to put unpopular views - unpopular with the academic Left as well as the general public - as fearlessly as I can. I hope that everyone else will do the same, whether or not they identify as transhumanists. I do hope we can all be ethical, but there's no need to be too "responsible" (which is often a euphemism for timid and self-censoring).

Most of all, I don't want to be beholden to what is fashionable, from time to time, among the ranks of the academic Left, and I don't want any other individual to be. I also don't see the need for transhumanist organisations to be beholden to the academic Left or notions of political correctness. Let them speak the truth as they see it, with their own emphases - emphases that may not suit anyone else's current agenda.

But at the same time, I'd prefer that the largest transhumanist organisations not adopt such a narrow view of transhumanism that nobody is welcome unless they subscribe to a body of doctrine - perhaps some kind of libertarianism or libertopianism. I'd hate to see transhumanism turn into something much closer to a theological system than it has been so far. The transhumanist movement will only thrive if it is broad and inclusive, with plenty of intellectual ferment and a concern for the welfare of all human beings (whether it goes even wider is open to debate). If it takes some other path, a less inclusive one, then (a) it will have no influence on the real world, but just be a kind of cultural epiphenomenon and (b) many of us will simply have to do our work independently of it.

However this debate turns out, I will always be looking for avenues to argue as strongly and effectively as I can for what I believe - which includes the idea that technology can improve the human situation and enhance human capacities. In doing so, I'll be making alliances with like-minded people wherever I can find them, whether they are inside and outside the transhumanist movement. As stated in my earlier post, I am more interested in arguing alongside somebody like John Harris for a more rational approach to bioethics, than I am in projecting scenarios of cosmic engineering.

But that's just me. I have no wish that someone who disagrees with me be ostracised for it or that anyone's ideas be censored. I hope I'm not alone in this.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

January 22, 2009

Guest blogger: Russell Blackford: Deriving "ought" from "is".

I've been referring viewers from my home blog to some of my longer posts on Sentient Developments. Just for once, I'll do it in reverse. So go here for discussion of Hume's Law, after an interesting discussion came up on Facebook - and I couldn't resist chipping in.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/

You might have to re-subscribe to the Sentient Developments RSS feed

I recently migrated my Feedburner account to Google -- not because I wanted to, but because I had to. It was with little surprise that I learned a few days later that I've lost about 400 subscribers. So, if you've suddenly stopped receiving posts, you may have to re-subscribe.

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: On the baggage of transhumanism.

The core idea of transhumanism

Although there is no universally agreed definition of the word "transhumanism", it seems to me that the core idea is rather simple: within certain limits, it is desirable to use emerging technologies to enhance human physical and cognitive capacities, and to make other beneficial alterations to human traits. Furthermore, transhumanists argue that technological intervention in the capacities of the human body and mind will (sooner or later) lead to alterations so dramatic that it will make intuitive sense to call the deeply-altered people of the near or not-so-near future posthuman: they will be continuous with us but unlike us in many ways.

On this understanding, contemporary human beings are approaching a point of transition in history, since the technologies required for transhumanist aspirations are being developed, though they are still at an early stage. We are not posthuman yet, and the technologies do not yet exist to make us so, but we are transitional humans. (The "trans" in "transhuman" refers to this process of historical transition, not to something transcendent.) Note that this will not necessarily involve enormously swift technological change that will create posthumans in the next few decades; nor does it necessarily include anything as apocalyptic as a technological Singularity. While transhumanists are open to discussion of such possibilities, their acceptance is not essential to the idea of transhumanism.

When its essential idea is stated so broadly, I believe that transhumanism is defensible. Arguably, that is enough to make me a transhumanist. I certainly find myself on the same side as transhumanists in many debates about ethical and political issues. At the same time, I am a sceptic about some of the theories or proposals that are discussed within the transhumanist movement, whether it be the aforementioned technological Singularity, the inevitable directionality of biological evolution (which many transhumanists seem to accept), or the proposal for "uplifting" non-human animals (which my host, George Dvorsky, has argued for here). If I do count as a transhumanist, because I think the essential idea is sound, I am a very conservative one as transhumanists go.

Still, there is enormous scope for discussion and debate among people who accept the essential idea that I've identified. In practice, many positions are taken, and I see the resulting intellectual ferment as a sign of the transhumanist movement's health.

Which leads to one more point that I must emphasise - transhumanism is not a body of dogma that must be accepted for admission to something like a transhumanist church; it is not something analogous to a theological system.

Rather, it is a broadly-based intellectual and cultural movement. It's a movement of philosophers, scientists and engineers, artists and writers, activists, and many others who find something positive in their partipation.

Too much baggage?

For all that, do the words "transhumanism", and its cognates such as "transhumanist", etc., carry too much baggage? Do these words connote something too detailed, specific, and intellectually dubious? So much so, perhaps, that applying the "transhumanist" label to oneself is bad PR (unless you really want to carry all that baggage), and using it of organisations is bad branding?

There's been much discussion of this issue over the last few years. I've brought it up, with variations, here in 2008 - and in an earlier piece published in 2004 (which I republished with the 2008 piece).

My 2008 post at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club led to an extraordinary debate in which Greg Egan, for example, argued from a worldview very close to mine, but strongly discouraged use of the word "transhumanism". His initial comment is very trenchant, indeed, including such remarks as: at this stage, quite frankly, to first order I consider a self-description of "Transhumanist" to be a useful filter to identify crackpots. While this might be unfair on a tiny proportion of people, I'm afraid anyone who doesn't want to sink with the whole drooling sub-Nietzschean mob really ought to think of a better name for their philosophy -- or perhaps even eschew labels altogether.

Eventually, the discussion petered out, but only after earnest contributions by the likes of James Hughes, PJ Manney, and other high-profile transhumanist thinkers. Many of the comments were long enough to be posts in their own right, and similar debates were triggered elsewhere, including the venerable Extropians listserve.

This debate goes on. It is now history that the World Transhumanist Association has decided to trade as "Humanity+", given its own concern about the public understanding of the word "transhumanism", and a wish to be seen as more inclusive (and, I think it's fair to say, more respectable in the eyes of potential sponsors). Whether the rebranding will assist the association's cause remains to be seen - but for what it's worth, I support it.

But the debate is inconclusive. On the one hand, I see radical hardcore transhumanists who wish to defend a sweeping vision of mega-brains, computronium, and cosmic-scale engineering. On the other hand, I am actually more interested in building alliances with people who are involved in more immediate debates about such topics as therapeutic cloning. I.e., I am more interested in working alongside someone as influential as John Harris than in someone who, unlike Harris, happens to call herself a "transhumanist" - and who wants to evolve into a Jupiter-brain somewhere in the outer reaches of our solar system (which will have been converted to computronium).

I suppose this locates me in a certain position within the transhumanist movement, insofar as I am part of it. That doesn't necessarily make me hostile to the more radical viewpoints - even if I am a sceptic about some of them. Indeed, as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, I am very interested in receiving articles that defend radical transhumanist visions in detail, and present them in their strongest form, with the highest level of argumentative rigour (as I also outline here). Let's get all these ideas on the table in the strongest form possible, so we can continue to raise the level of the debates. My own writing, however, will continue to have more modest goals, focused on a defence of freedom and reason, including the freedom to use science and technology, in more immediate ways, to better the human condition.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

Libertarian reactions to Marshal Brain's automated economy

Considerable buzz emerged at last year's Singularity Summit after the talk given by IEET Fellow Marshall Brain who spoke on the inevitable structural unemployment that automation and artificial intelligence will create.

IEET Executive Director James Hughes offered this commentary:
The astonishing thing about Marshall’s talk was the amount of outrage from the libertopians in the audience who were all perfectly content to imagine that we would soon have super-robots doing things a gazillion times better than humans, and that that transition might wipe humans out or bring about a utopian society, but they couldn’t accept that such a transition might cause unemployment and require any redistribution of the wealth. History apparently shows that the market solves all structural unemployment, even after an historical discontinuity so radical that we make up a word for it - Singularity - which precisely means that we can’t predict anything after that point. Libertopians would be funny if they hadn’t just ruined the world economy.
Like Dr. J, I was shocked by the largely negative and skeptical response to Brain's suggestion. I had largely assumed -- and now I'm guessing quite wrongly -- that most forward-looking people were in favor of mass-automation and the introduction of permanent human retirement (if I can borrow Hans Moravec's phrase).

But now that I think about it, this response actually makes sense: such an outcome is an affront to libertarian minarchism. They know that you can't have mass unemployment and a weak state apparatus. Unlike us lefty futurists who have been anticipating a work-free future for some time now, libertarians aren't too happy about the idea of having to institute a guaranteed universal income to deal with massive unemployment. But then again, their predecessors weren't very happy with the introduction of the welfare state in the early part of the 20th century, either -- a rather necessary government solution to growing problems that were caused by the maturing nation state and industrial economy.

Anyway, be sure to read Hughes's thoughts on the matter.

Guest blogger: Russell Blackford: A short course in Geek Philosophy

What have we here? A couple of anthologies of essays sent to me for review by Science Fiction Studies. One is entitled Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Fracked Up?, the other Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant. These should be amusing, I hope. I'll try to get to them soon.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

January 21, 2009


Via io9.

U.S. now truly in the 21st Century

Via Defective Yeti.

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: Update on Voices of Disbelief

While I'm here, allow me to fill you in on the current state of play with Voices of Disbelief (working title), the book that Udo Schuklenk and I are co-editing.

We provided the complete manuscript to the publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, in early December 2008. There are long lead times in publishing ... as books go through various phases of copyediting, proofing, indexing (a surprisingly difficult and time-consuming job that I'm not looking forward to), and organising pre-publication publicity. A book like this will keep me occupied, one way or another, all through 2009, with publication currently planned for September.

Udo and I think we have a winner here. We have wonderful contributors and a great diversity of essays. The fifty-odd high-profile non-believers who have contributed to the book have tackled varied subject matter, written at anything from about 500 words to about 6000 words, and taken a range of stances towards religion: from uncompromising hostility to the wish that religion might adapt to modern ways of thinking, to willingness to find common ground with liberal theologians. From the viewpoint of the editors, all of these "voices" provide reasonable alternatives to traditional religious belief.

Without further ado, here's what the table of contents looks like:

Introduction: Now More Important than Ever – Voices of Reason — Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

Unbelievable! — Russell Blackford

My "Bye Bull" Story — Margaret Downey

How benevolent is God? – An argument from suffering to atheism — Nicholas Everitt

A Deal-breaker — Ophelia Benson

Why Am I a Nonbeliever? – I Wonder... — J. L. Schellenberg

Wicked or Dead? Reflections on the moral character and existential status of God — John Harris

Religious Belief and Self-Deception — Adèle Mercier

The Coming of Disbelief — J.J.C. Smart

What I Believe — Graham Oppy

Too Good to Be True, Too Obscure to Explain: The Cognitive Shortcomings of Belief in God — Thomas W. Clark

How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science — Michael Shermer

A Magician Looks at Religion — James Randi

Confessions of a Kindergarten Leper — Emma Tom

Beyond Disbelief — Philip Kitcher

An ambivalent nonbelief — Taner Edis

Why Not? — Sean M. Carroll

Godless Cosmology — Victor J. Stenger

Unanswered Prayers — Christine Overall

Beyond Faith and Opinion — Damien Broderick

Could it be pretty obvious there’s no God? — Stephen Law

Atheist, obviously — Julian Baggini

Why I am Not a Believer — A.C. Grayling

Evil and Me — Gregory Benford

Who’s Unhappy? — Lori Lipman Brown

Reasons to be Faithless — Sheila A.M. McLean

Three Stages of Disbelief — Julian Savulescu

Born Again, Briefly — Greg Egan

Cold Comfort — Ross Upshur

The Accidental Exorcist — Austin Dacey

Atheist Out of the Foxhole — Joe Haldeman

The Unconditional Love of Reality — Dale McGowan

Antinomies — Jack Dann

Giving up ghosts and gods — Susan Blackmore

Some thoughts on why I am an atheist — Tamas Pataki

No Gods, Please! — Laura Purdy

Welcome Me Back to the World of the Thinking — Kelly O'Connor

Kicking Religion Goodbye … — Peter Adegoke

On credenda — Miguel Kottow

"Not even start to ignore those questions!" A voice of disbelief in a different key — Frieder Otto Wolf

Imagine No Religion — Edgar Dahl

Humanism as Religion: An Indian Alternative — Sumitra Padmanabhan

Why I am NOT a theist — Prabir Ghosh

When the Hezbollah came to my school — Maryam Namazie

Evolutionary Noise, not Signal from Above — Athena Andreadis

Gods Inside — Michael R. Rose and John P. Phelan

Why Morality Doesn’t Need Religion — Peter Singer and Marc Hauser

Doctor Who and the Legacy of Rationalism — Sean Williams

My non-religious life: A journey from superstition to rationalism — Peter Tatchell

Helping People to Think Critically About Their Religious Beliefs — Michael Tooley

Human Self-Determination, Biomedical Progress, and God — Udo Schuklenk

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: How to avoid a spiral of nonsense; or, the transhumanists strike back.

In June last year, a high-profile online journal, The Gobal Spiral, published a special issue about transhumanism. This was guest edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, and included articles by Tirosh-Samuelson, Don Ihde, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Katherine Hayles, Andrew Pickering, and Ted Peters.

This was part of an project devised to investigate the merits and implications of transhumanism, funded heavily by the Metanexus Institute and administered by Arizona State University (ASU). Large amounts of Templeton Foundation money were ploughed into two series of lectures that were highly critical of transhumanism, and ASU then ran a two-day workshop in April 2008. The Global Spiral special issue was based on the papers presented at the April workshop. Although large amounts of money were thrown at all of this, it is notable that no self-described transhumanists or thinkers otherwise associated with transhumanist movement were flown to Arizona at any stage, or otherwise invited to take part. It was very much a matter of intellectuals who are (to varying degrees) hostile to the transhumanist movement coming together to examine it from the outside.

I've had my say about the separate papers here, here, here, here, here, and here. Perhaps I would respond to some of these individual pieces somewhat differently, if I were now to review them all one by one. I've had time for further reflection, and I doubtless learned a fair bit from the heat of last year's debate. In any event, I'm not going to go over each one in this post.

Still, this project is a prestigious one, and likely to be influential (at least in certain circles). It was certainly worth engaging with. All the more so because there was so much hostility expressed towards transhumanism - or what the scholars concerned imagined transhumanism to be. Notably, not one of the authors involved was able to offer a clear and plausible account of what transhumanism is.

In fairness, this may be because transhumanism is very diverse. It's a phenomenon that may well look different in Italy (say) from how it looks in (say) California or Nairobi. Not only that, there may be considerable debate about the essence of transhumanism, or what is important to it, among different thinkers in Italy (or in California, or Nairobi, or wherever). Transhumanism is a cultural, social, and political movement with much internal variety and debate.

But is too much to ask of the people involved in the Templeton/Metanexus/ASU/Global Spiral project that they at least realise that much? With the amount of cash flying around, someone should have been able to hire a competent research assistant to figure it out.

All too often, I had the impression of unsympathetic people attacking a parody of transhumanism, something synthesised from a few books or articles by Ray Kurzweil (who does not even call himself a transhumanist) and a few others, while missing out on what the transhumanist movement is really all about. Sure, there may be some actual transhumanists whose views correspond fairly closely to the vulgar, simplistic synthesis which the Global Spiral authors decided to attack. But transhumanism is a far more variegated and subtle phenomenon.

The transhumanists strike back: avoiding a spiral of nonsense

To the credit of The Global Spiral's editorship, however, it has permitted a sort of right of reply. We need to thank Natasha Vita-More for making contact, and getting the editors to agree to a further special issue - but this time with essays from leading transhumanist thinkers, or thinkers associated with the transhumanist movement, all asked to respond to specific pieces in the original issue. Natasha asked me to consider the piece by Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, in particular.

Ten thinkers will appear in the forthcoming issue: apart from Natasha Vita-More and Russell Blackford, whom I've already mentioned, there will be Max More, Aubrey de Grey, Amara Graps, Mark Walker, Martine Rothblatt, Mike LaTorra, Nick Bostrom, and Sky Marsen. This is enough intellectual firepower to show that "our" side is quite capable of critiqueing the critiques. (I must put scare quotes around "our side", as I did, because much of the point is that there is no "our side" in any simple sense; the transhumanist movement is simply too diverse for that, with many complex positions on offer, and with thinkers who continue to reflect ... and to refine their views.)

I'm pleased to have been asked to contribute this project. I'm sure it will be successful, and I expect a body of writing that is far more fresh and subtle than the rather tired criticisms of a vulgar parody of transhumanism.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

(With apologies to George for stealing his Ghost in the Shell image. I couldn't resist it for the purpose of this post.)

January 20, 2009

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: We interrupt transmission.

My thoughts on Barack Obama's inauguration are over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

But let me add this as a small treat. The American Humanist Association is running an ad congratulating Obama, and emphasising his non-religious upbringing.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: Freedom of religion (belief, conscience, and worship). Part 3.

In Part 2. of this series, I concluded that freedom of religion, despite its undeniable importance, has significant limits to what it can, or should, achieve. In particular, it is not a free pass to break laws that could be decribed as "religion blind": laws with some legitimate secular justification, such as the need for state power to protect us from acts of violence or theft.

Abridging freedom of religion – compelling justification?

Could there be situations where the state must enact laws that are not religion blind or are not of general application, with the effect of suppressing religious organisations or doctrines, or associated practices? We're not talking here about a law that applies to everybody, such as the prohibition of murder; quintessentially, I mean a law that, for example, prohibits attendance at religious services conducted by the Roman Catholic Church.

In pinciple, the answer must be that no political freedom is absolute, so there could be some situation where a compelling justification is made out. In practice, however, I expect that this would be extremely rare. Any situation that actually arises is likely to be one where the law proposed is not justified … or else it will at least arguably be a law of general application if it's looked at fairly.

The only more-or-less clear situations I can imagine are where specific laws might have to be made to constrain the actions of religious groups that attempt to coerce individuals not to leave, or in some other way exercise power over individuals that causes them serious harms that they cannot realistically be said to have consented to freely. In such a case, the Millian harm principle could be invoked in an effort to protect individuals from private power (bearing in mind the obvious fact that the relationship between the state and its citizens is not the only power relationship in modern societies). But even here, whatever action the state takes must have a narrow aim and be appropriately tailored and confined to it.

Locke proposed that the state should tolerate almost all religions, including all sects of Protestant Christianity ... plus Judaism, Islam, and pretty much the range of religions outside the Abrahamic tradition. But he did not think that atheists or Roman Catholics could be tolerated. Note, however, that he gave secular reasons as to why. Atheists, he thought could not be trusted to keep their oaths (lacking belief in divine retribution). If he'd been right about that, tolerating atheism would (maybe ironically?) do secular harm. Roman Catholics were beyond the pale, according to Locke, for another reason: he saw them as undermining loyalty to the nation because they maintained a higher loyalty to the hierarchs of the Vatican. While these are not actually great examples, as we now know, the important point is that Locke offered what he thought were compelling secular justifications.

The lesson I draw from Locke's examples is that we should be sceptical when someone offers what they consider a compelling secular justification for abridging freedom of religion, rather than merely requiring everyone to obey the general law (which should be constrained by principles such as the Millian harm principle).

Accommodating religion?

Finally, nothing that I've said rules out offering religious believers some accommodation in cases where this can be done without undermining the secular purpose of a law. This may be wise in order to avoid tensions, or to express some understanding and acceptance of other ways of thinking. However, where the state does this it is more the extension of a concession than something it is bound to do in order to grant freedom of religion.

After all, think of case like this. We might have defensible secular laws of general application setting health standards for cheese manufactured in our local jurisdiction or imported into it. Those rules might balance many interests, including bureaucratic simplicity. While the law is probably a legitimate one (let's assume this), does it matter if everyone obeys it strictly with no exceptions? Perhaps not, if the exceptions are defined clearly and narrowly. What if a cheese importer tells the government that it has been importing cheese that does not meet the standards – but does meet an alternative set of standards that has been used successfully in France? I think there's then a good case to amend the legislation to allow the importation of cheese from France that meets the relevant French standards.

Often the law, quite legitimately, has a degree of wiggle room; if it does, there may be scope to accommodate people who'd be badly affected by it if it were applied with no exceptions. In those cases, I don't mind religious (or cultural) groups asking for some kind of well-defined accommodation. E.g., it might be possible to give some exemptions to Muslim communities or groups of Australian Aboriginal if general standards for burials cut across the practices of those groups, and if the particular exceptions/exemptions can be made without substantial harm.

But accommodating people is a two-way street. For a start, it might not be possible for them to be accommodated totally. That might create too great a cost. Or the people being accommodated might have to make some contribution towards the state's policy, even if full compliance is not demanded of them. And there may be other factors.

There's an excellent chapter on this kind of issue in Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas, by Ronald A. Lindsay - a book that I recommend to all readers of this blog. Lindsay is writing in the context of religious claims for a right of "conscientious objection" in the field of health and medicine. He argues that we often have good reasons to resist claims for conscientious objection in that field.

Whatever the merit of individual situations, my main point here is that freedom of belief, conscience, and worship does not give you an automatic ticket to have your scruples accommodated every time they clash with the requirements of the general law.

That's not freedom of religion – it's something else entirely. Considered by itself, it falls far short of the sweeping freedom to believe in even the most bizarre or illiberal doctrines without being persecuted by the state (but not necessarily to act on them). Considered as added extra, it goes well beyond freedom of religion as Locke understood it, and as I believe we should understand today.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: Now that we know each other a little bit better ...

... let me stop for a bit to thank George Dvorsky publicly for inviting me as a guest blogger here at Sentient Developments. It's an honour to be writing for such a classy and highly-regarded blog, and I'm certainly enjoying the experience so far.

I have quite few more topics to get to before they shoo me out of here. Among them, there's an update on the situation with The Global Spiral, which published a special issue last year, devoted to transhumanism. I discussed this at the time in a series of posts in June/July 2008, over on my own blog, starting with this one. But things have now moved along.

It's also, I think, worth saying a bit about a related topic, what might be called "The baggage of transhumanism" - an issue that clearly affected the rebadging of the World Transhumanist Association when it moved to "Humanity+" as its "trading as" name - a move that I approve of, by the way. But how much baggage does the word "transhumanism" carry, right now? Far too much to be worth using, according to Greg Egan, who took part with some other heavyweight intellects in a spirited debate over here (I've linked to a post that has far and away my record for number of comments in reply ... 185 of them in all).

Also, I still owe Part 3. of my series of posts on the philosophy of religious freedom. That will be coming up soon.

Stay tuned: there's some good discussion ahead of us over the next few days, I hope.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

January 19, 2009

Towards a 'largely robotic' battlefield

A new book will hit store shelves later this week that will be of interest to those concerned about the ongoing roboticization and de-humanizing of military technology. The book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, is authored by P. W. Singer, the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He has also published Children at War (2005) and Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (2003).

In a recent Wilson Quarterly article, Singer makes the claim that Pentagon planners are already provisioning for battlefields that will be, as they put it, "largely robotic." It's no secret that the U.S. military is developing a variety of unmanned weapons and seemingly futuristic technologies -- everything from automated machine guns and robotic ­stretcher ­bearers to tiny but lethal robots the size of insects.

As these weapons gain more and more autonomy, deeper questions arise. Singer poses difficult questions: "Can the new armaments reliably separate friend from foe? What laws and ethical codes apply? What are we saying when we send out unmanned ma­chines to fight for us? What is the “message” that those on the other side receive?" And ultimately, asks Singer, how will we remain masters of weapons that are immeasurably faster and more "intelligent" than we are?

Proxy killing

A fundamental problem as Singer sees it is the ease with which killing can now take place. He cites the example of the Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs). This propeller-­powered drone is 27 feet in length, can spend up to 24 hours in the air and flies at a height of 26,000 feet. Predators are flown by "reach-back" or "remote-split" operators -- military personnel who are 7,500 miles away and who fly the planes via satellite from a set of converted ­single-­wide trailers located mostly at Nellis and Creech Air Force bases in Nevada.

This type of operation has created a rather novel situation where "pilots" experience the psychological disconnect of being "at war" while dealing with their daily domestic routines. Singer notes the words of one Predator pilot, “You see Americans killed in front of your eyes and then have to go to a PTA meeting.” Says another, “You are going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants, and then you get in the car, drive home, and within 20 minutes you are sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework."

These days there are more than 5,300 drones in the U.S. military’s total arsenal and not a single mission happens without them. The Pentagon predicts future conflicts involving tens of thousands.

Better than humans

The appeal of robots is obvious. They don't need to be returned home in body bags after they've shot down. Moreover, robots don't come with typical human frailties and foibles. "They don’t get hungry," says Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command. "They’re not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes." Johnson's comments sound eerily like the script from a Terminator movie.

And as these technologies improve, human capabilities are being increasingly pushed to their limits. Today's F-16 fighter jet can maneuver so fast and hard that its pilots black out. As a DARPA official has noted, "the human is becoming the weakest link in defense systems." Moving forward, autonomous weaponry will be increasingly used in place of humans. Eventually it will be robot versus robot -- especially when the theater of operations starts to function at technologic speed. The Pentagon is aware of this possibility, noting that "As the loop gets shorter and shorter, there won’t be any time in it for humans."

Failure to override

The inevitable question arises: Who will control robots that work autonomously and at suprahuman 'technologic' speed? There are already disturbing examples of 'failure to override' incidences -- when machines function outside of human control and can't be shut down. Today's Navy ships use the Aegis computer system which enters into "casualty" mode when all the humans onboard are dead. In this situation the guns go into a kind of berserker mode and the computer does its best to ensure that the ship doesn't get hit. As Singer notes, "Humans can override the Aegis system in any of its modes, but experience shows that this capability is often beside the point, since people hesitate to use this power. Sometimes the consequences are ­tragic."

Part of the problem is that humans are starting to give intelligent systems the benefit of doubt. In many cases the human power "in the loop" was actually only veto power -- but even that is a power that military personnel are often unwilling to use against the quicker (and what they viewed as superior) judgment of a ­computer.

The next step in this trend is to give robots the ability to fire back on their own. As Johnson notes:
Anyone who would shoot at our forces would die. Before he can drop that weapon and run, he’s probably already dead. Well now, these cowards in Baghdad would have to pay with blood and guts every time they shot at one of our folks. The costs of poker went up significantly. The enemy, are they going to give up blood and guts to kill machines? I’m guessing not.
Johnson in particular views this as not only logical but quite attractive.

Removing the human factor

Retired Army colonel Thomas Adams believes that the speed, confusion, and information overload of modern-day war will soon move the whole process outside "human space." He predicts that future weapons will be too fast, too small and too numerous; they will create an environment that's simply too complex for humans to direct.

The Joint Forces Command is very aware of this possibility, noting that autonomous robots on the battlefield will be the norm within 20 years. Military and robotics developers predict that robots as fully capable as human soldiers will start to appear on the battlefield sometime between the years 2025 to 2035. This will undoubtedly mark a pivotal point in human history. The next war, claims Singer, could be fought partly by robots that respond to spoken commands in plain English and then figure out on their own how to get the job done.

When war becomes too easy

War is hell -- well, at least it's been that way in the past. Democratic governments and their citizens have had to be extremely careful about entering into costly and emotionally wrenching conflicts. But Singer now worries that unmanned systems represent the ultimate break between the public and its military:
With no draft, no need for congressional approval (the last formal declaration of war was in 1941), no tax or war bonds, and now the knowledge that the Americans at risk are mainly just American machines, the already falling bars to war may well hit the ground. A leader won’t need to do the kind of consensus building that is normally required before a war, and won’t even need to unite the country behind the effort. In turn, the public truly will become the equivalent of sports fans watching war, rather than citizens sharing in its ­importance.
Given this kind of scenario, cheap and costless unmanned wars would significantly lessen political repercussions. Singer argues that this is a frightening prospect and that it would "pervert the whole idea of the democratic process and citizenship as they relate to war." His fear is that, when a citizenry has no sense of the horrors and true cost of war, they will choose to go to war like any other policy decision, "weighed by the same calculus used to determine whether to raise bridge tolls." Public engagement will turn to indifference and titillation over all the war-porn on YouTube.

Singer's prognosis is grim:
When technology turns war into something merely to be watched, and not weighed with great seriousness, the checks and balances that ­undergird democracy go by the wayside. This could well mean the end of any idea of democratic peace that supposedly sets our foreign-policy ­decision ­making ­apart.
We're heading down a very strange and treacherous path.

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: Freedom of religion (belief, conscience, and worship). Part 2.

In the circles where I "move" on the internet, there is much celebration of the fact that this year is Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. I hope there are other circles where they're celebrating a book that's almost as important and was published in the same year: On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. Mill still has a lot to teach us.

Before I get to that, allow me to recap from last time. In Part 1., I offered an account of what freedom of religion does and what it is — at its core. It has two limbs:

(1) The state will not attempt to impose religion, including religious doctrines, ceremonies or other practices of worship, or religious moral teachings, on those who do not accept the religion concerned; and

(2) The state will not attempt to suppress any religion, including its doctrines, practices, etc.

What the freedom doesn't do: recap

Where left off, I made the point that there are limits to what is provided by the two limbs of freedom of religion. There is no requirement that the adherents of one religion should cease to regard the doctrines of other religions as pernicious (or worse). Mardukites may have a doctrine that Zeusism is a lie and deception spread in the service of an evil spirit — and they are perfectly free to think this and express it, so long as they don't resort to violence or otherwise break the general law.

Nothing about freedom of religion suggests that religious sects or their adherents are "nice", or that they must become so.

Laws of general application

In relation to limb (2), as above, I must also add this. Everyone must obey the general law. Even religious organisations are bound by laws of general effect that are enacted for legitimate secular reasons, rather than for the purpose, or with a primary effect, of suppressing a religion. If such "religion-blind" laws are otherwise justified (e.g. because they are necessary for some larger economic purpose or to prevent people harming each other), they are not illegitimate merely because they have an incidental effect of hindering the practice of a religion's ceremonies or morality.

John Locke would have had no difficulty with this. In writing about religious toleration when the idea was new, he gave as an example that the the state may not, in pursuit of its own religious doctrine or its wish to suppress a religion, forbid the sacrifice of calves. (Compare the outcome in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). If you've never read this fascinating case, you really must.) The state may, however, forbid the slaughter of all cattle if there is some independent secular reason:

But if peradventure such were the state of things, that the Interest of the Commonwealth required all slaughter of Beasts should be forborn for some while, in order to the increasing the stock of Cattel, that had been destroyed by some extraordinary Murrain; Who sees not that the Magistrate, in such a case, may forbid all his Subjects to kill any Calves for any use whatsoever? Only 'tis to be observed, that in this case the Law is not made about a Religious, but a Political matter: nor is the Sacrifice, but the Slaughter of Calves thereby prohibited.

Well said, Mr Locke! But here it's worth noting that Locke may not have been completely consistent. He evidently saw no difficulty in laws that banned certain (allegedly) immoral conduct such as sexual promiscuity, though he did not support banning whatever might be described by religion as a sin. He didn't inquire as to whether this was entirely consistent, or whether the imputation of immorality might itself be based on contestable religious doctrines. Perhaps, however, he thought that rules relating to sexual morality were necessary for social survival (which may have been more plausible in his time than today). If we look at it that way, his position wasn't very far from Mill's.

In any event, the range of laws that are likely to have such unwanted incidental effects on the practice of religion will be relatively small, provided the state takes the Millian harm principle seriously. So much public policy goes wrong because Mill's principle is ignored, then people look for ways of putting the blame elsewhere. Without invoking anything as strong as the harm principle, Locke made a similar point. It won't, he said, be often that a law with a legitimate, religion-blind secular purpose will actually harm anyone's religious practices: "if Government be faithfully administered, and the Counsel of the Magistrate be indeed directed to the publick Good, this will seldom happen."

Unfortunately, the analysis I've just given is controversial. It is often not accepted by religious organisations, which misinterpret the idea of freedom of religion to include a special right for religion to be free of legitimate, religion-blind general laws that apply to everyone else. This can be observed in the furore that followed a leading American case, Employment Div., Ore. Dept. of Human Res. v. Smith (494 U.S. 872 (1990)), in which the Supreme Court adopted the same view as Locke, in holding that it was not lawful for the banned drug peyote to be used in Native American religious ceremonies. I submit that the case was correctly decided in principle.

Much outrage followed this case, and it is fashionable to criticise it. And indeed, I don't support every comment that was made by Justice Scalia. But, once again, this is a case that I want everyone to be familiar with because the issues are currently so important. How should religion, society, and the law relate to each other? What was seldom noticed in the row that followed Smith was that the law was a bad one, not because it violated the concept of religious freedom but because it violated the harm principle. If the law concerned had banned a harmful practice (harmful in Mill's sense, which does not count self-induced harms), such as murder, it would be freaking obvious that no religious organisation had grounds for complaint (freedom of religion would not give a neo-Aztec cult permission to engage in the practice of human sacrifice).

Thus, the state may forbid such activities as human sacrifice and honour killings by enforcing religion-blind laws that forbid murder. The law against human sacrifice may have the incidental effect of impairing the exercise of, say, a neo-Aztec cult. But no one can complain: if the Act has a good, secular, religion-blind justification (applying, say, the Millian harm principle), then the state can require that religious devotees conform with it, along with everyone else.

If, in addition to enforcing the general law against murder, the state wishes to suppress the cult itself, or certain doctrines or practices that can't be controlled by religion-blind laws of general application, it will need to provide some compelling justification. But that's never ruled out. Even the most important freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, are not absolute. We should think very long and hard, indeed, before we introduce laws that abridge these freedoms, but in the end it may sometimes be necessary for an even more fundamental purpose such as to prevent substantial secular harms that can't be prevented in other practical way.

There's still a bit more to say, so I'm going to change plans and put some of it off for a Part 3. See you soon.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.