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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fun With Robot Cultists

Upgraded and adapted from a couple of exchanges on the Moot: High Holy Pontifex of the Order of Cosmic Engineers Giulio Prisco declares fellow Robot Cultist "Extropia" to be "quite reasonable" in his disapproval of my critique of superlative futurology in what must be regarded as a stunning endorsement, and goes on to imply that I am a "stalinist mind cop." Needless to say, guilty as charged! Bow, bow futurologists! Bow down in your brains!

His point? I quote: "personal incredulity is NOT proof." That is to say, my skepticism about Robot Cultist claims does not constitute proof of their unworthiness.

Of course, it is the extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary proofs and patient elaborations.

Just to be clear, the beliefs we are talking about here in respect to the Robot Cultists are that their organismic intelligences might be "migrated" onto software thereby "immortalizing" (or "superlongevizing" or "indefinitely prolonging") "them" so that they can "live" in a virtual and/or nanobotic slave swarming treasure cave in the Presence of a history ending "superintelligent" post-biological Robot God.

These claims are indeed extraordinary enough that the burden of proof and patient elaboration on the terms of the skeptics and of scientific consensus and not the preferred terms of faithful falls to the Robot Cultists themselves.

To this Prisco responds: "this [sic] extraordinary claims have been formulated by several domain experts much more qualified, respected, and intelligent than you."

Note that he does not dispute the actual beliefs I attribute to him, not the mind migration, not the techno-immortalization, not the the nanobotic slave swarm, not the history-shattering Robot God, but only my lack of qualifications, respectability, and intelligence for declaring them extraordinary enough to bear the burden of proof on terms other than those preferred by the Robot Cultists themselves.

Of course, as Prisco points out, my "incredulity" doesn't constitute a "disproof" that the Robot Cultists are indeed building a toypile to Heaven.

I do think it is fair to point out that Robot Cultists are using words and concepts like "life," "self," "intelligence," "emancipation," and "progress" in ways that are readily shown to be far enough afield from their conventional understanding and proper entailments as to risk outright incoherence. And I have said so on countless occasions. For those reasons, as well as because Robot Cultists are conspicuously indulging in faith-based wish-fulfillment fantasies for which reasonableness and proofs aren't really much in point in any case, I can't say that I see Prisco or the rest of his futurological cosmic cohort arriving yet at the place from which they can demand "disproofs" in the first place. To indulge such demands looks to me to concede them a coherence and reasonableness they have never yet earned.

17 comments:

jimf said...

BTW, the Immortality Institute gets a mention in _The New Yorker_
this week (April 27, 2009 issue), in the article with the cover
blurb "Brave New Brains: More and more people are taking potent
drugs to boost intelligence. Soon, 'neuroenhancers' may change the
way we work. Margaret Talbot reports."

p. 34

"Recently, an advice column in _Wired_ featured a question from a
reader worried about 'a rising star at the firm' who was 'using
unprescribed modafinil to work crazy hours. Our boss has started
getting on my case for not being as productive.' And on Internet
forums such as ImmInst, whose members share a nerdy passion for
tweaking their cognitive function through drugs and supplements,
people trade advice about dosages and 'stacks' -- improvised
combinations -- of neuroenhancers. ('Cut a tablet into fourths
and took 25 mg every four hours, 4 times today, and had a great
and productive day -- with no side effects.') In one recent post,
a fifty-two-year-old -- who was working full time, studying for
an advanced degree at night, and 'married, etc.' -- wrote that
after experimenting with modafinil he had settled on two daily
doses of a hundred milligrams each. He believed that he was
'performing a little better,' adding, 'I also feel slightly more
animated when in discussion.'"


Hey, I guzzle fish oil. Does that count? ;->

jimf said...

> These claims are indeed extraordinary enough that the burden
> of proof and patient elaboration on the terms of the skeptics
> and of scientific consensus and not the preferred terms of faithful
> falls to the Robot Cultists themselves.
>
> To this Prisco responds: "this [sic] extraordinary claims have been
> formulated by several domain experts much more qualified, respected,
> and intelligent than you."

Yeah, Dale, just who the hell do you think **you** are, anyway?

Don't you know that:

"Eliezer Yudkowsky [is] the sixth smartest person to have lived
in the last 100 years, after Turing, Von Neumann, Einstein, Witten
and Tao."

So sez
http://arvindn.livejournal.com/tag/math

jimf said...

> I am a "stalinist mind cop." . . .
> Bow, bow futurologists! Bow down in your **brains!**


http://www.locusmag.com/2006/Features/Westfahl_HomoAspergerus.html

I am now prepared to argue that Asperger's Syndrome should not
be regarded as a handicap or as a debilitating condition; rather,
it is a tremendous asset, a set of beneficial traits that may
someday be recognized as the characteristics of a new, and
superior, form of humanity.

In mounting this argument, as I am uncomfortably aware, I am
recalling the views of the infamous Claude Degler, who announced
to the science fiction community of the 1940s that "fans are slans":
readers of science fiction, as evidenced by their high intelligence
and keen interest in science fiction, are the early representatives
of an emerging new species, homo superior, destined to overcome
and supplant those merely human persons who do not like science fiction.
(For some contemporary readers, I suppose I must explain that
"slans," as depicted in A. E. van Vogt's 1940 novel Slan, are a race
of hyperintelligent mutants with psychic powers who live among,
and are persecuted by, "normal" human beings.) Much about Degler's
life remains mysterious, but it seems that whenever he was not
traveling across the country expressing these opinions to any
fans he encountered, he was confined at a mental institution,
and many who listened to him would probably agree it was exactly
where he belonged. However, people with Asperger's Syndrome do
not think the way the rest of the world thinks, and they do
not care what the rest of the world thinks, and hence they may
discern hidden truths in the ravings of a lunatic, and they may
have no qualms about expressing such views.

jimf said...

> [T]he infamous Claude Degler. . . announced to the science fiction community
> of the 1940s that. . . readers of science fiction. . . are the early
> representatives of an emerging new species. . .

http://www.efanzines.com/AOY/AOY-27.htm

All Our Yesterdays 27
by Harry Warner Jr.
The Cosmic Circle

. . .

Perhaps the most famous of the titles Degler published was Cosmic Circle Commentator.
Its first issue, dated September 1943, contained in its four legal length pages a
summary of the Cosmic Circle as Degler then imagined it to be. It listed ten local
CC organizations, 22 state CC organizations, 15 sectional CC federations, and
an ll point programme for fandom. Excerpts from this programme include:

“To work toward the attainment of such an increase in membership publicity,
prestige, influence, and public recognition, so that Cosmic Fandom will actually
be some sort of power or influence in the post-war world of the near future. . ."

But that was just the start. Later in this issue Degler-Rogers explained:

“We have created a fannationalism, a United World Fandom. Someday soon we will
have our own apartment building, then our own land, our own city of Cosmen,
schools, teachers, radio programme — later; our own laws, country perhaps! Our
children shall inherit not only this earth — but this universe! Today we carry
22 states, tomorrow, nine planets! We can and will help to make a better world
of the future — have influence and be an active force in the furtherance of
scientific democracy in the post-war world! — attempt to conquer space travel
and see another world — in our own lifetimes — while we of the council are alive!
Our children will carry on this organization after we are gone — The Cosmic Circle
now exists for all eternity.”

. . .

Degler was a fan whose enthusiasm exceeded his judgement, who took literally
the high-sounding nonsense that is published in fanzine editorials and spoken in
worldcon speeches. When a fan or a pro speculated that fans were different
because of their interest in the future, Claude assumed he could count on them
to rule the future: when he read about a feud between two fans and then got
angry at someone, he threatened a feud far beyond the poor capacity of the
Hatfields and the McCoys. His Cosmic Circle caused at least one heart attack,
engulfed prozine editors and the most obscure fans, caused chaos in staid groups. . .

When in the mood, Degler could write as calmly and as well as the average
good fan. Rarely but often enough to show that it was no accident, the hysteria,
obvious hyperbole, and near illiterate syntax disappeared from a Degler publication. . .

So where’s the real truth? Was Degler a fan with a sort of manic-depressive
fanac [fannish activity], who ran the Cosmic Circle during an unusually long
dominance of the hectic phase? . . . Did he take his own claims about fandom
and the CC at face value? Or at some point in his fannish career, did he realize
that fandom was taking something seriously he was doing for a lark, and then
proceeded to pull fandom’s leg out of sadistic delight in seeing fans hop around
and howl in anguish? I wish I could promise the answer in my fan history,
but I can’t.

Extropia DaSilva said...

You obviously dismiss the idea of people ever becoming immortal; of nanobots providing all material wish fulfillment free of charge, and of the creation- by technology- of a god.

But futurists have predicted the development of other things which, while not quite as way-out as all that, do have a rather 'science-fictiony' feel about them. I wonder how you would rate those predictions?

So, here is a list. You choose the option you think best describes the timescale in which each is likely to be achieved, OK?

Medical science will have advanced to the point where average life expectancy is 250 years:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.

Medical science will have advanced to the point where average life expectancy is 500 years:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.


Medical science will have advanced to the point where average life expectancy is 1000 years+:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.

We will have the technology and knowhow to model a person's brain in a suitable computer, with the model detailed enough to be a copy of that person's mind and consciousness:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.

Robots sophisticated enough to learn any task a person is capable of learning will be available:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.

The technology to build any physical object by positioning the requisite atoms or molecules ie molecular nanotech will be available:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.

We create superhuman artificial intelligence (AI) in computers:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.


We enhance human intelligence through human-to-computer interfaces—that is, we achieve intelligence amplification (IA):

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.


We directly increase our intelligence by improving the neurological operation of our brains:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.


Humanity, its networks, computers, and databases become sufficiently effective to be considered a superhuman being:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.


The network of embedded microprocessors becomes sufficiently effective to be considered a superhuman being:

Within this century.
Within this millenium.
At some indeterminate point in the future.
Never.

Go Democrats said...

Hey Dale:

I have assigned the Transhumanist Manifesto (2003 ed) for my graduate-level seminar on modernity for Monday, and I notice that in Nick Bostrom's credits he says you edited the first half of it.

I just wonder--how much of it did you really believe at the time you were editing it? It's chock full of the kind of leaps to the unproven that you like to point out in your blog.

Thanks for any info

Dale Carrico said...

You still "identify" as a "member" of a "movement" most of whose members believe in the superlative outcomes I critique, indeed it is the superlative outcomes that define the thrust of the sub(cult)ure qua sub(cult)ure, it is the superlative claims that are unique to it.

But you simply don't have to join a Robot Cult to think about or work on software security problems or bioethical quandaries or nanoscale materials science, so the question is why on earth would you so marginalize yourself if your interests after all are legible in consensus scientific and prevailing progressive terms after all?

If you just want to geek out and indulge futurological blue-skying just join an sf fanclub, there's no need to fancy yourself part of an identity-movement with the Keys to History.

But quite apart from all that, I disagree with you that there is really more than a dime-thin difference between a techno-immortalist and somebody who goes to the techno-immortalist church but who, in polite company at any rate, declares his faith to consist of one in "indefinite lifespans" rather than "immortality" to weasel out of some of the conspicuous conceptual difficulties of the latter while still indulging in the substance of its wish-fulfillment.

Superlativity according to the terms of my critique isn't just the idea that some technoscience may indeed involve many of us in enormous sociocultural changes -- few people doubt that sort of thing after all -- superlativity is the idea that a hyperbolic construal of accelerating technoscientific changes will yield personally transcendentalizing outcomes with which people in the present identify at the cost of a dis-identification with their peers and at a cost of self-marginalization from the very science of which they sell themselves as exemplars.

Of course the Robot Cultists don't see it that way, but that doesn't make my analysis less apt, any more than my analysis as an atheist of a fundamentalist Christian's authoritarianism is inapt just because they don't see it that way.

As for your talk of timescales for various not-quite-superlative futurological outcomes (setting aside the usual conceptual confusions you try to shoehorn into your more modest formulations) -- look, you can't trick me into pretending your pony can be found in actual science or foresight. To the only actually relevant question you didn't ask me, when will science build a toypile to Heaven, within this century? within this millenium? at some indeterminate point in the future? never? the only proper answer is, take it to a psychiatrist, a priest, or a bartender where that sort of talk properly belongs. Superlativity isn't science or foresight or policy -- it is a discourse that selectively and opportunistically takes up these forms to mobilize sub(cult)ural identification and personal transcendentalizing wish-fulfillment fantasies. Your efforts to distract me onto "technical" tracks more congenial to your discourse are perfectly predictable and a bit sad.

Dale Carrico said...

I just wonder--how much of it did you really believe at the time you were editing it? It's chock full of the kind of leaps to the unproven that you like to point out in your blog.The editing of that document involved an e-mail exchange in which I raised incredibly in depth objections to and questions about various claims Nick made and some of those objections provided the basis for qualifications and reformulations of the arguments he was making. The exchanges were quite intense and actually very enjoyable. I think Nick told me he had never before adapted his writing for an editor as much as he did for me. This may be because I really didn't much see it as a matter of copyediting so much as a critical close reading and exchange of views. I had a comparable role in his letter in answer to some awful bioconservative or other years ago, perhaps it was Fukuyama. I wouldn't say I endorsed anything in the eventual documents particularly. Back in those days I didn't feel that my critiques of transhumanists demanded outright disassociation with transhumanist-identified individuals, but then I had not yet gotten caught up in the weirdness of organizational affiliations construed as endorsements as happened later with the unpleasantnesses with IEET.

I will say that Nick is in my view considerably more interesting as an idiosyncratic thinker than the awful Robot Cultists who use his writings (with which I usually disagree but some of which interest me quite a lot) as a hat-hook to hang their faith-based wish-fulfillment fantasies on.

Although you're not asking about this, I do get questions about it, so I will say that I still feel a friendly disposition toward Nick, and I still like most of the political things James Hughes says when he isn't being a eugenicist. Frankly, I think both of them would be better off by far if they disassociated themselves from the Robot Cult.

But I suspect Nick enjoys the intellectual stimulation of the odd ducks it puts him in contact with and doesn't care much for the sub(cult)al politics, and James foolishly fancies he can somehow transform a irrationalist klatch of libertopian technofetishists into a newfangled Fabian Society. They're both wrong, but everybody's wrong about things now and then, me included. Whatcha gonna do?

jimf said...

From the author of the Golden Transcendence books, once feted
on the Extropians' mailing list.

My, my, how religious conversion does change one.


http://johncwright.livejournal.com/243016.html#cutid1
---------------------------------
Ancient Gnosticism shares a contempt for the Benighted that modern
Darwinians share for those races of mankind fated to fail the test of
the survival of the fittest. After the destruction of Nazism in the
Second World War, the ideal of Eugenics was disgraced, and institutions
like Planned Parenthood rapidly shoved in the Memory Hole any reference
to their doubleplusungood origins. Oceania has always been at war
with Eastasia. Nonetheless, traces of old Eugenics still crop up in
the writing and thinking of anyone who acts as if Darwin were a moralist
rather than a naturalist: and a contempt for the human race, particularly
the desire to see the Superman sweep aside the Untermensch, is an
inevitable mental growth from the seed of a Darwinian, rather than
religious, view of human transcendence.

You would think science fiction writers, more than anyone, would know
science is for investigating nature, and not for idolizing and worshipping.
Science, real science, does not even pretend to promise transcendence,
superhumanism, godhead, power or salvation. It promises us more
and shinier toys. But now and again one comes across a science fiction
book that seems to promise a scientific version of the Rapture and the
Last Judgment.

As an answer to [C. S. Lewis's] THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, I personally find
[Arthur C. Clarke's] CHILDHOOD’S END to offer answers that are na├»ve, even
dangerously so. C.S. Lewis predicted the outcome of attempting to rule mankind
with a scientifically organized state with remarkable prescience. In
contrast, the visions of Arthur C. Clarke of some transcendence ushered
in by UFO people seems childish and unserious.

Anonymous said...

I will say that I still feel a friendly disposition toward Nick, and I still like most of the political things James Hughes says when he isn't being a eugenicist. Frankly, I think both of them would be better off by far if they disassociated themselves from the Robot Cult.I think both men have invested themselves so much in the promotion of transhumanism, and their names are so associated with transhumanism, that they will forever try to appear as the moderate faces and voices of transhumanism rather than disassociate themselves from it completely. In other words, they are stuck...

Extropia DaSilva said...

'it is the extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary proofs'.

At first glance, this is a reasonable demand. But it can all too easily turn into an impenetrable barrier of doubt that NO reasoning, NO argument, NO evidence can ever overcome.

The problem is this. What, precisely, would constitute proof that is extraordinary enough? Dale could dismiss anything on the basis that it does not meet his standards.

Creationists use much the same tactic. Anybody gathering up the abundance of evidence that points to evolution by natural selection is wasting their time. These people will simply dismiss it all on the grounds that 'it is not persuasive enough. Where is your EXTRAORDINARY proof?'.

I fully acknowledge that there is room for doubt. It is reasonable to be skeptical with regards to claims that aging can be stopped or reversed; that the brain can be fully reverse-engineered; that prosthetic limbs and organs will one day be superior to the biological parts they mimic; that robots will be recognised as sentient beings. We obviously do not have all the answers needed to achieve those goals and we may wonder if we ever will.

But the doubt runs both ways. Can we be absolutely certain that no therapies for preventing the slide into senesence exists? No. Can we be assured that any and every endeavour to understand the brain well enough to recreate its powers in functionally-equivilent machinery will fail forever? No. Do we have absolute, irrefutable proof that the artificial limbs and organs must remain, for all time, inferior to biological limbs and organs? No.

The only evidence that Dale can offer to justify his unshakable belief that such things are not possible, is that they are not possible TODAY. But one could have said that about ANYTHING at some point. Paperclips, for example. There must have been a point in the past where we had no idea how to make a paperclip, or even the ability to CONCEIVE of such a thing. We make them now, though, so there must be something wrong with the argument 'we don't know how to do X today, so therefore we never will'. Right?

Someone once said, "to never harbour doubt is poison for the soul". Dale comes across as someone who has taken an insufficient understanding of incomplete facts and used that to construct a belief-system in which there is no room for anyone to be free of its all-consuming, all-explaining logic. Accept everything Dale says, completely; reject everything H+ advocates say, absolutely. Well I am very sorry but Dale is NOT smart enough to be completely correct and nobody is smart enough to be completely wrong.

jimf said...

"Extropia DaSilva" wrote:

> [N]obody is smart enough to be completely wrong.

Actually, you're making a pretty good case for the inverse
of that statement.

> Can we be absolutely certain. . . Can we be assured. . .
> Do we have absolute, irrefutable proof. . .
> . . . unshakable belief. . .
> . . .we never will. . . to never harbour doubt. . .
> Accept everything... completely; reject everything... absolutely. . .
> completely correct. . . completely wrong

This is where I typically give up hope (if I ever had any hope)
of talking **to** somebody, as opposed to simply talking
**at** somebody (or just firing across the barricades, as
pretty much all the exchanges between Dale and Anissimov,
Prisco, "Roko", "peco", John Howard, and now Ms. DaSilva --
together with sundry anonymous contributors -- have
degenerated into).

What do you say to somebody who talks in these terms? Or who insists
on hearing **you** in these terms?

Such a person is not likely to want to read anything by
Susan Haack.
( http://www.amazon.com/Defending-Science-Within-Reason-Scientism-Cynicism/dp/1591021170 )

Nevertheless, even firing across the barricades can be useful.
It is not going to alter the beliefs of the participants. It may, however,
contain something edifying for any observers who happen to stumble
across (or go looking for) these exchanges.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't claim to be completely correct in life, I'm not that sort of person at all. I'm a pragmatist by conviction and temperament both, and have no truck with certainties. I do hold strong opinions and delight in testifying to them and am well pleased to own up to the consequences. That is the substance of freedom in my view.

Among these opinions of mine, I am quite confident in declaring Robot Cultism a constellation of faith-based initiatives connected in only the most superficial way to the secular democracy of sensible educated enlightened people. The various branches of superlative futurology and their organizational life in the various Robot Cults are marginal both to consensus science and to prevailing progressivity.

Do I need to recite those views again for the peanut gallery, the preoccupation with "migrating" organismic intelligence into cyberspace thereby to "immortalize" or super-longevize it to "live" in a virtual or nanobotic-slave Heaven under the beneficent eye of the history-shattering superintelligent Robot God?

Deny the obvious reality of the marginality of these beliefs all you want, you simply expose yourself instantly thereby as a loon (though the beliefs themselves have gone a long way in preparing us for that possibility already). No "arguments" are necessary on this score and to indulge them is actually to concede you ground you could not earn on your own batshit crazy terms.

Once we are clear that it is you who are making the extraordinary claims (and, to be fair, it matters that extraordinary claims have often contributed their measure to human progress and delight, especially as aesthetic matters) then we should be agreed that yours are not the terms that define these debates, it is the skeptics you need to convince on our own terms, with evidences that pass muster on the terms of consensus science, with patient elaborations rather than impatient declarations of your superiority and certainty.

Unfortunately, I you will find that once you engage in a good-faith effort to translate your project into such terms all that will be left is fairly mainstream secular progressive support of well-funded well-regulated equitably-distributed open technoscience in the service of solving shared problems. All the insubstantial hyperbolic superlativity vanishes straight away.

Nobody needs to join a Robot Cult to work on actual software security, or actual healthcare, or actual materials science The deeper needs that are truly the ones the Robot Cult answers to for the overabundant majority of you will have to met by a good therapist, a big bottle, a good book of poetry, some modest non-moralizing faith-practice, a good sound occasional fuck or the like. Just like the rest of us.

Hell, you can still indulge in sf fandom and futurological daydreams for all I care -- you just shouldn't pretend that what you're doing is science or policy or progressive politics in any sense of the word. Once all that is cleared up you're just silly people following your idiosyncratic bliss and doing nobody any harm but yourselves. Who cares? Let your freak flag fly, as I will mine, for all the world to see.

It is your derangement of public technodevelopmental deliberation, it is your anti-democratizing politics, it is the deeper more prevailing anti-democratic futurology you symptomize in your extremity that are the real dangers and problems that interest me. Sure, nothing you say makes sense, either, but that's true of lots of other people and viewpoints that I don't devote my energy to critiquing.

Go Democrats said...

Dale--

Have you read this article?

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/magazine/19town-t.html

I was curious about what you'd think.

jimf said...

Dale--

Have you seen the wonderful picture on this Facebook page?

http://www.facebook.com/people/Dale-Carrico/38303530

I was curious if you could identify what MST3K-like BBC
sci-fi show that's from.

Dale Carrico said...

I was also born in Louisville, KY, interestingly enough, where one finds both more Dales in general and Carricos in general than elsewhere in the US. That's probably a relative, weirdly enough.

Dale Carrico said...

As for the long-emergency folks, I hadn't read the article, tho' I've read many like it, and I often read such things critically in courses on environmental politics and green design culture courses, and I only skimmed it so I may have formed the wrong impression of the piece. I must say I don't find congenial those who see an "up side" in genocidal civilizational collapse any more than I do those who see an "up side" in genocidal civilizational maintenance. And I abhor the authoritarian sub(cult)ural Would-be Guru/True Believer circuit wherever it appears, even when it is mobilized in the service of green theories and practices with which I share some agreement.