Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Transhumanist Brain Trust, Ladies and Gentlemen

I made the following completely uncontroversial and in fact so obviously true as to be utterly uninteresting claims:
Your personal consciousness will never be "uploaded" into a computer.

You will never be made immortal by medical technique.

Neither of those things are going to happen for you.


To which Michael Anissimov of the World Transhumanist Association, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation, responded:
YES WE CAN!

Uh… no, you can't.

People aren't mortal just because they lack the "can do" spirit of you transhumanists.

Hype isn't hope, it's fraud and self-delusion.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

At least they have a lifeboat for when their high hopes sink.

Nick Tarleton said...

I assumed he was following Obama channeling Cesar Chavez. Or just ridiculing the ridiculous, which at least the claim that your first claim is "obvious" is.

So, how would uploading fail?

Jamais Cascio said...

To clarify: when you say "you" (and "your), do you mean the people reading your words, or anyone at any time?

That is, when you say that X will never happen, are you saying that "these technologies are so far beyond us that they simply won't be possible within your lifetime" or "these technologies are impossible"?

jfehlinger said...

Jamais Cascio asked (Dale, but I'm butting in here anyway):

> [W]hen you say that X will never happen, are you saying that
> "these technologies are so far beyond us that they simply
> won't be possible within your lifetime" . . .

My take is he's certainly saying that.

> or "these technologies are impossible"?

He may well be suggesting that they're likely to be impossible
in the "superlative" garb in which they are clothed (at least
entre eux) by some of more enthusiastic (but **not** more imaginative,
alas) >Hists.

That's not to say that stuff won't happen.

But it's not likely to be much like present-day SF authors imagine
it (is that so shocking, really?), or much like present-day
>Hists (who tend to be much less sophisticated about such
things than the SF authors) imagine it, and, well, not likely to seem
quite as transcendental once we've seen it.

Dale Carrico said...

Immortality and a "migration" of consciousness via "uploading" are impossible in my view.

Unprecedented longevity for some through interventions in processes and conditions hitherto associated with "aging" seems to me possible, and given political, cultural, and historical developmental vicissitudes, likely and -- if it were developed and distributed democratically and fairly -- more desirable than not (other things equal).

Entitative nonbiological intelligence seems to me logically possible, not likely in either the near or middle term, and also not necessarily desirable, especially given non-entitative and networked facilitations of collaborative problem-solving.

The last two paragraphs should provide no reassurances at all, though, for those who would make claims about either techno-immortalization or "uploading" in my view, both of which are incoherent at a really basic level so far as I can see.

Dale Carrico said...

At least they have a lifeboat for when their high hopes sink.

Their lifeboat's full o' holes.

Dale Carrico said...

I assumed he was following Obama channeling Cesar Chavez. Or just ridiculing the ridiculous, which at least the claim that your first claim is "obvious" is.

Oh, I knew what he was doing. The problem for Michael and for you is that Obama is palpably not ridiculous (whatever his faults, about which I talk here on Amor Mundi despite my support of his candidacy), but transhumanists are ridiculous.

Nice to find yet another data-point, though, confirming the anti-democratizing anti-progressive drift of default transhumanist and singularitarian culture. Of course I know the score already, but it's a good thing to point out to those who are bamboozled by reassuring PR to the contrary by certain transhumanists who can feel the way the political wind is blowing right about now and are trying to closet their reactionaries for the time being else they get burned. (My assessment of that strategy, by the way? Too late.)

So, how would uploading fail?

Try it and see.

Jamais Cascio said...

It's precisely because we still have major gaps in our understanding of consciousness and cognition that I'm unwilling to say "uploading" is flatly impossible at any time under any technosocial conditions. I'd happily go with "highly unlikely" and certainly "if it happens, it won't be anything like what today's proponents imagine." But I won't rule it out -- then again, my job is to think about the implications of things outside of the conventional worldview.

"Unprecedented longevity" (or, as I've referred to it in the past, "radical longevity") leading eventually to the indefinite stay of death-by-senescence is not even close to a dictionary definition of "immortality." However, I'd suspect that many (most?) everyday citizens would describe unprecedented longevity with no set age limit as immortality. It's more than a little moot, however; the social upheaval coming from a (say) 250 year life span (double maximum current) won't differ much from the upheaval from a 2500 year or 25,000 year lifespan, at least for the first few decades (or centuries).

Jamais Cascio said...

As for "entitative nonbiological intelligence," I suspect that it will come into being once it becomes possible, simply because of the strategic advantages (political or corporate) such a technology would likely confer. (Or more precisely, such a technology would be expected to confer, whether or not it actually does.) How soon? I'd be as unsurprised by a 15 year emergence as by a 75 year emergence. The field's still filled with unknowns and dead-ends, but also with the potential for surprising breakthroughs..

Dale Carrico said...

I'm willing to concede the gaps you are talking about, of course, but I'm not willing to fill them with techno-utopian, techno-immortalist, or cybernetic totalist faiths. People go from gaps to transcendentalizing slippery-slopes not because this is reasonable but because they so desperately want to go there. What is interesting isn't the uncertainty that enables such moves but the irrational fears and fantasies that mobilize them, in my view.

Nick Tarleton said...

Oh, I knew what he was doing. The problem for Michael and for you is that Obama is palpably not ridiculous (whatever his faults, about which I talk here on Amor Mundi despite my support of his candidacy), but transhumanists are ridiculous.

I wasn't saying Obama is ridiculous (I strongly support him, in fact), but that the claim that it is obvious that uploading is impossible is.

Try it and see.

Way to miss the point! Transhumanists assert that if X (a brain is modeled on a computer) is done, then Y (the computer will have that brain's consciousness, or at least display human behavior) will happen. You assert otherwise. If your opinion is based in reality, you should be able to answer the basic scientific question "what do you think will happen?" rather than continue to seize on single words of my argument or something similarly peripheral.

Dale Carrico said...

As for "entitative nonbiological intelligence," I suspect that it will come into being once it becomes possible, simply because of the strategic advantages (political or corporate) such a technology would likely confer.

If you are right, it is bad news.

Dale Carrico said...

Way to miss the point!

Yes, Nick, I am going to continue systematically to miss the transhumanist point here, and in missing it remain in the world. Don't make the mistake of thinking I don't know exactly what you're up to, though.

Dale Carrico said...

I wasn't saying Obama is ridiculous

Oh, good. Sorry for the misattribution then.

jfehlinger said...

Jamais Cascio wrote:

> It's precisely because we still have major gaps in our understanding
> of consciousness and cognition that I'm unwilling to say "uploading"
> is flatly impossible at any time under any technosocial conditions.

Hey, I can suspend disbelief enough to be entertained (or even frightened)
by movies and TV shows containing bulldozers, Plymouths, floor lamps,
or hotels[*] possessed by Evil Spirits.

[*] Killdozer, Christine, Amityville: The Evil Escapes, The Shining.

> I'd happily go with "highly unlikely" and certainly "if it happens,
> it won't be anything like what today's proponents imagine."

I'm reading Banks' latest, _Matter_. pp. 178 - 179:

"'Farewell, Djan Seriy,' Batra said. . . Just make sure you
do come back.'

'I shall endeavour to,' she said.

'You have backed up?'

'Last night,' Anaplian confirmed. They were both being polite;
Batra would know very well that she had backed herself up.
The platform had taken a reading of her mind state the evening
before. Should she fail to return -- whether due to death
or in theory any other reason -- a clone of her could be grown
and all her personality and memories implanted into it,
creating a new her almost indistinguishable from the person
she was now. It did not do to forget that, in a disquietingly
real sense, to be an SC agent was to be owned by SC. The
compensation was that even death was just a temporary
operational glitch, soon overcome. Again though, only in a
sense."

Love that last sentence.

AnneC said...

Jamais said: It's precisely because we still have major gaps in our understanding of consciousness and cognition that I'm unwilling to say "uploading" is flatly impossible at any time under any technosocial conditions. I'd happily go with "highly unlikely" and certainly "if it happens, it won't be anything like what today's proponents imagine."

Yeah, that's about where I stand on that particular issue as well. I'm perfectly capable of grasping that "for all practical purposes" it often makes sense to live as if certain weird(?) things will most likely never happen, least not to you.

But the ability to grasp practicalities does not mean that I am not, at my core, a very literal being. I am literally unable to claim emphatically that something is, and always will be, impossible in any form whatsoever throughout all eternity -- particularly when that thing isn't even very well-defined to begin with. In some respects I guess I just don't understand what people are asking when they ask, "Is 'consciousness uploading' plausible?" And I don't understand neuroscience or cognition to the point where I'm willing to state absolutes about the infinitely distant future when it comes to this kind of thing.

Dale Carrico said...

[T]he ability to grasp practicalities does not mean that I am not, at my core, a very literal being. I am literally unable to claim emphatically that something is, and always will be, impossible in any form whatsoever throughout all eternity -- particularly when that thing isn't even very well-defined to begin with. In some respects I guess I just don't understand what people are asking when they ask, "Is 'consciousness uploading' plausible?" And I don't understand neuroscience or cognition to the point where I'm willing to state absolutes about the infinitely distant future when it comes to this kind of thing.

And yet things actually mean things. Surely, a literal minded person grasps that this is something that imposes costs on us?

Ask yourself if what you have always meant by intelligence is something that can survive disembodiment, ask if what you have always meant by life is something that can survive eternalization.

It is true that there is much that we do not know, that there is much that I personally do not know, and it is also true that there is much that is changing and will continue to change... But it is also true that sometimes language must grow to accommodate the new and that sometimes the language available to us now cannot cope with what is coming without distorting it. Don't be too quick to think you know what an honest openness to novelty demands of you. These are difficult and painful truths we must all be equal to if we would be honest with ourselves and our fellows.

Pay close attention to just who it is that is seizing upon such uncertainties at hand as logic demands of us, but go on to propose from these derangements of given plausibilities, and in the service of what actual ends that play out in the world as it palpably before us.

I lodge my own politics not in any parochial vision of "the future" vouchsafed by its passionate partisans in the present by our formal inability to discount it -- or any other eventuality -- precisely because we are free and creative beings, but grasping that freedom and actually cherishing it I lodge my politics in the defense of open futurity, the most fragile and ephemeral thing of all, and in the faith in my fellows that we will collectively and consensually solve our shared problems and contribute through our personal creative expressivity to the sum of pleasure and danger from which everyone will go on to devote their own measure of private perfection.

I know very well how fundamentalism operates in the world, I know what it preys on, and I am not fooled by would-be priests in unearned labcoats any more than I am by the ones in vestments.

AnneC said...

Dale said:
And yet things actually mean things. Surely, a literal minded person grasps that this is something that imposes costs on us?

Of course.

Ask yourself if what you have always meant by intelligence is something that can survive disembodiment, ask if what you have always meant by life is something that can survive eternalization.

I haven't always meant the same thing by either "life" or "intelligence". My concept of these things is different now, certainly, than it was when I was a teenager. As far as "intelligence" goes, I am at the point of being fairly uncomfortable with the word. I think it's a heavily politicized word, regardless of how some insist on framing it as "neutral" and easily subject to scientific scrutiny and evaluation. To me, "intelligence" presently appears as something necessarily contextual and domain-specific: more to the point, I think "g" is silly.

So, no, I don't think my present concept of intelligence allows for "disembodiment". Different embodiment, perhaps, and maybe dynamic embodiment (as a person's "sense of self" follows them over time despite the fact of sub-molecular rearrangement and material replacement and repair), but not airy disconnection from all matter. What I do see as perhaps plausible is that some individuals -- perhaps those who receive implant modules meant to compensate for particular functions lost following, say, a traumatic brain injury -- might end up "incorporating" the implant modules into their self-concept, particularly if those modules have anything to do with bodily control, sensory mechanisms, or memory activation or storage.

It is common in sf at least to extend this concept to the state in which all parts of a person's brain are eventually replaced, which is where I suspect much of the "uploading" hype comes from. Personally, I would consider such a thing more of a gradual prostheticization of personhood than an "upload" scenario, I guess, but I certainly don't see even that as immanent or something that ought to drive present-day Important Policy Discourse.

And as far as "life" goes in reference to the concept of "eternalization" -- as near as I can tell, the universe itself is not going to be eternal. That's the theory I work under the assumption of, at least. If the universe is not eternal, then no life that exists in it can be regardless of how good it is at surviving IN this universe. And as far as what happens "after the universe", I don't think anyone can say -- we can speculate, for sure, and the religiously inclined can believe what they will, but the fact of the matter is that nobody knows for sure.

Still, though, I think I see what you mean -- any understanding any human can presently have of "life" that rooted in good, solid science (per what we presently know) cannot conceivably include "eternalization" as one of its potential attributes in the absence of religious faith of one brand or another. Is that about right?

Don't be too quick to think you know what an honest openness to novelty demands of you.

Huh? I'm not sure what you are suggesting here. I am well aware that I am open to novelty to a fault. This is something that people have lectured me on for years, and yes, it has on occasion gotten me into trouble (just ask my parents!). Despite whatever skill(?) I might display in certain kinds of thinking, I'm pretty sure that I am still shockingly naive for someone my age. I know this, and yet I can't get around it. I have to go through it, over and over again, and I have to learn lots of things for myself otherwise they simply don't feel "real".

I know enough to avoid cults and sociopaths, and I'm not susceptible to "marketing hype" (aside from a slight and vaguely embarrassing weakness for things involving cute kitten graphics), but I am a freaking amateur anthropologist-wannabe when it comes to "fringe culture" stuff. I can't help it...it's just too interesting to ignore! I will certainly disconnect from something once I figure out that it's actually destructive or counter to my goals, or empty enough to be a total waste of time, or harmful to others in some respect I hadn't anticipated prior to getting involved, but I'm well aware that I have very little aversion to getting my feet dirty in the process of finding out what something is actually like.

Other people might find me irritating for this reason, seeing as by showing public respect for me they might risk "tainting" themselves with the fruits of my naive mistakes and/or experiments, but I generally don't figure myself important enough to merit that kind of concern from anyone to begin with.

Basically, the rule I try to apply in order to temper the effects of this tendency on my part is: curiosity is fine, and learning about weird stuff is fine. However, if involvement with any given "weird thing" threatens to undermine efforts I am undertaking in other, more serious areas, then the "weird thing" has to go, at least as far as my willingness to invoke it in discussion about said serious areas.

These are difficult and painful truths we must all be equal to if we would be honest with ourselves and our fellows.

Yep. Though I think I'm past the point of considering the truths in question as "painful". They just are. And as my stepmother noted, living curled up in a cave waiting to die isn't really much of a life, is it?

Pay close attention to just who it is that is seizing upon such uncertainties at hand as logic demands of us, but go on to propose from these derangements of given plausibilities, and in the service of what actual ends that play out in the world as it palpably before us.

You mean the "Robot God of the Gaps" stuff?

I lodge my own politics not in any parochial vision of "the future" vouchsafed by its passionate partisans in the present by our formal inability to discount it -- or any other eventuality -- precisely because we are free and creative beings, but grasping that freedom and actually cherishing it I lodge my politics in the defense of open futurity, the most fragile and ephemeral thing of all, and in the faith in my fellows that we will collectively and consensually solve our shared problems and contribute through our personal creative expressivity to the sum of pleasure and danger from which everyone will go on to devote their own measure of private perfection.

I can't really argue with any of that, and surely you are not suggesting that my vision of the future (based on what you know of it) is in any way "parochial"!

Dale Carrico said...

Anne write: As far as "intelligence" goes, I am at the point of being fairly uncomfortable with the word. I think it's a heavily politicized word, regardless of how some insist on framing it as "neutral" and easily subject to scientific scrutiny and evaluation. To me, "intelligence" presently appears as something necessarily contextual and domain-specific

I definitely agree with you there, that's for sure.

"Robot God of the Gaps"

heeee!

surely you are not suggesting that my vision of the future (based on what you know of it) is in any way "parochial"

Actually, not at all. Certainly not more parochial than I am. The fact is that I was using your post and Jamais's before it as an occasion to work through a more general point out loud that helps explain (in part to myself) why I go through the trouble of arguing about all this stuff at all.

I don't seem to agree with anybody as far as I can tell, but you and Jamais are two people who seem to me to talk more sense than most people I can think of in general, if it comes to that!

AnneC said...

Doh...I realize I screwed up responding to the "vision of the future" bit. While I do, as I think everyone does, have a "vision of the future" I would like to see (and believe me, it is not all crystal spires and togas), I do not base my present expressions regarding ethics and such on any kind of long-term future whiz-bang scenario.

Rather, I think in terms of people who already actually exist and what challenges and issues they/we face, and what threats and barriers to self-determination and acknowledgment of such things as inter-dependence and universal vulnerability exist. I do hope this comes through in my writing, but I'd certainly understand if it hasn't, seeing as I don't think I'll ever be done explaining myself. :/

Dale Carrico said...

crystal spires and togas

That does it! Tomorrow's "positive" clip simply will have to come from Xanadu!

AnneC said...

OMG! I think I have the *LP album* for Xanadu somewhere. I was obsessed with that movie when I was around five years old...it was so positively sparkly!

giulio said...

Re: "transhumanists are ridiculous"

Broken disk time.

My friend: YOU are ridiculous, and this is becoming more than evident.

Michael Anissimov said...

Yes I can infinity.

jfehlinger said...

Talented Michael Anissimov wrote:

> Yes I can infinity.

Oh.

Is it anything like doing the Macarena?

Dale Carrico said...

Michael wrote: Yes I can infinity.

Actually, this literally infantile narcissistic reflex captures Superlative Technocentricity in a nutshell. And I do mean "nut."

Lincoln Cannon said...

It seems quite as nutty (if nutty at all) to insist on Michael's finitude.

jfehlinger said...

Lincoln Cannon wrote:

> It seems quite as nutty (if nutty at all) to insist on Michael's finitude.

Well, if Michael is going to be defended by annexing universes of discourse
in which insisting on finititude is not nutty, then I'm going to have to
insist that we've crossed the border from Science into Religion.

That's not particularly surprising. I twigged the similarities long
ago (though, of course, in their attempts to be "sensible", the >Hists
will vociferously repudiate the kinship).

And that's fine, as long as it remains (as Dale has said before),
a personal, esthetic choice. When it becomes a fundamentalist,
apocalyptic (or paradisal -- usually both), public bandwagon
(with political tie-ins), then watch out, Will, Edward G.,
and all the other Robinsons.

"It may be possible for each to think too
much of his own potential glory hereafter;
it is hardly possible for him to think too
often or too deeply about that of his neighbour...
It is a serious thing to live in a society of
possible gods and goddesses, to remember that
the dullest and most uninteresting person you
can talk to may one day be a creature which, if
you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted
to worship, or else a horror and a corruption
such as you now meet, if at all, only in a
nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree,
helping each other to one or other of these
destinations. It is in the light of these
overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe
and the circumspection proper to them, that
we should conduct all our dealings with one
another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all
politics. There are no **ordinary** people. You have
never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts,
civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is
to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals
whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and
exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting
splendors."

-- C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory"

jfehlinger said...

To be fair, though, I don't think it'd be appropriate to read much
more into Michael's use of the word "infinity" than that it's
being used as a school-yard intensifier that he thought was an
appropriate gloss on the unelucidated petulance of a recent exchange:

"Yes, I can."

"No, you can't."

"YES, I CAN."

"NO, YOU CAN'T."

"Yes I can infinity. Nyaa nyaa nyaa."

(When you're accusing people of being too literal-minded,
it doesn't do to be too literal-minded yourself. ;-> )