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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Reader Comments

Over in the Moot, Richard Jones comments:
[N]anotechnology… draws together so many disparate fields, but [superlative futurologists] are quite wrong if you think that transhumanists have a monopoly on trying to see the big picture -- on the contrary, many nanoscientists spend a great deal of time reading the primary literature from these other fields and engaging with scientists from those fields in person. But the need to engage across many fields doesn't mean that engagement can be superficial or at second-hand. It's significant that you tell us that we should be looking at science websites and blogs. Indeed, these are the main sources for transhumanist oriented blogs like Nanodot and CRN. Valuable though sites like are, the source of most of their stories are press releases, not the primary literature at all [emphasis added -- d]. You shouldn't need a rhetorician to tell you that if you want to find reliable sources in any area, press releases are the last place you should look; they've inevitably got something to sell, and they're written by people who certainly aren't experts in science. Add to this the tendency of people with strongly held beliefs about the future trajectory of science to select those stories which seem to them to support those beliefs and you have a recipe for a grossly distorted picture of what's actually happening in science.

Kurzweil (or, more probably, his research assistants) is himself a prime culprit in this sort of distortion. It's an interesting exercise to compare what "The Singularity is Near" says about some piece of research with what is actually contained in the research papers being cited -- for an example, see my analysis of his claims about brain scanning.

And, elsewhere in the Moot, he continues:
[T]o be a convincing generalist it isn't enough to have some superficial impression of large areas of science that you've picked up from popular science books and science reports; you do have to demonstrate to the specialists you interact with that you understand, perhaps not the technical details of their current work, but the basics of their field at the level, say, of a graduate in that area. So, as a physicist, I'm not going to be impressed by people who, say, don't understand the Carnot limit on heat engine efficiency, or how you do a normal mode analysis of vibrations in a solid, or who don't seem able actually to read and understand the papers they cite.

Of course, the place your line of argument is leading is to say that technical knowledge isn't important in deciding the plausibility of the claims of the transhumanists. In which case, it's not a scientist that we need to examine the claims, but someone trained in critically dissecting the hidden assumptions underlying these arguments. Over to you again, Dale.


Anonymous said...

Nail this one to the wall! :)

Anonymous said...

The economic motives which spur innovation may realize longevity, abundance and machine intelligence, should we continue to progress scientifically.
The death of a person who embodies critical skills and experience of value to society represents a major economic loss. Hence, the economic need to continue the existence of such persons will continue to motivate research and innovation in longevity, if for no other reason than the profit motive. However, the development of information systems that could embody this lifetime of learning and experience after the person has died might negate the need to purse longevity as an economic goal, and would be part of the driving force for the development of artificial intelligence systems and mind uploading. Again, the profit motive of capitalism would be the invisible hand behind the technological solution, not the desires of “superlative futurologists.”
An economic system beyond the framework of capitalism could achieve abundance, as capitalism artificially maintains scarcity in many markets by not producing at full capacity in order to keep prices high, and the stifling of new technology which could threaten incumbent interests. Should humanity be able to transcend the current economic framework, greater scientific effort would be directed at producing goods and services to satisfy human needs. We can argue that even today a form of abundance is possible with current technology, if resources were no longer channeled to military expenditures but spent on food production and distribution to the people that need it, education and health care.
As the human population grows, society increases in complexity. The point has already been reached where human minds are not able to fully grasp all aspects of the functioning of the system, and we have come to increasingly rely on information technology. As society grows in complexity, so will our information systems which manage society's production and distribution, until the point is reached where humanity is in effect totally dependent on an information system that has become so complex and networked that to unplug it would mean catastrophe for society. This system could eventually reach a level of complexity that parallels consciousness and intelligence, but not of the human kind. This system would be the basis for an automated society.
So the technologies to achieve longevity, abundance and machine intelligence are influenced by economic forces, and impact on each other.

Dale Carrico said...

Ah, the libertopian Randroidal branch of the Robot Cult rears its ugly head. You guys have been a bit quieter lately since everybody noticed that people who talk like you turned the world to shit with your ponzi schemes over the last thirty years or so. I like to call your special branch of Robot Cultists the Ayn Raelians, since you add another layer of market fundamentalist faith to your already faithful superlative futurology. Of course the connection of neoliberal developmental discourse and corporate-military futurological discourse is already pretty tight -- it stands to reason there would be a higher order variation at the full-on superlative/libertopian extreme. Sorry, though, the self-appointed elite "talent"-investor class fountainheads of "innovation" won't deploy magic market forces that will "spontaneously order" you your ponies either.

Robin said...

I wish I could remember what conference I attended where one of the delegates (who was a really nice guy) explained to me his argument that google made experts of us all, literally, and there was no further need for academic/technical specialization.


Extropia DaSilva said...

Richard Jones has given me some rather interesting experiences regarding the response my fellow transhumanists give to information that does not sit comfortably with their dreams.

Jones wrote a criticism of Drexlerian nanotechnology for IEEE Spectrum. Among other things, he pointed out that the images of cogs and gears constructed from atoms and molecules have 'questionable chemical properties' designed using modelling software that work on principles he calls 'problematic'.

Whenever I mention 'Rupturing The Nanotech Rapture' as something people should read, nearly everyone assumes Richard Smalley wrote it, even when I cite Jones as the author. It is as if a belief has risen that Smalley was the one and only critic of Drexler, so anything questioning Drexlerian technology must have come from him.

Secondly, the objections he raised tend to be dismissed as invalid- too readily in my opinion. But then, what would I know? I do not have the expertise to judge the validity of Drexler's claims, nor do I have the knowledge to know for sure that Jones's criticisms spell doom for any possibility of us reaching Stage 4 in Mihail C. Roco's vision of the development of nanotech-based products.

But even laypeople can look out for experiments that look like steps towards validating Drexler. Back in 1992, Ed Regis posted the following statement on the sci.nanotech newsgroup:

"Why don't we have even one scanning tunnelling microscope chemically joining one molecule to another molecule, thereby offering a proof of concept of mechanochemistry? The only time this reaction has ever been tried (by Don Eigler, of IBM Almaden), it failed".

Any success since then? If not, why should I believe Richard Jones is wrong?

jimf said...

Robin wrote:

> I wish I could remember what conference I attended where one of the
> delegates (who was a really nice guy) explained to me his argument
> that google made experts of us all, literally, and there was no further
> need for academic/technical specialization.

Sounds like Glenn Reynolds. ;->

Extropia DaSilva wrote:

> Richard Jones has given me some rather interesting experiences
> regarding the response my fellow transhumanists give to information
> that does not sit comfortably with their dreams. . .
> Whenever I mention [Jones] as something people should read, nearly
> everyone assumes Richard Smalley wrote it. . . It is as if a belief
> has risen that Smalley was the one and only critic of Drexler. . .
> [T]he objections he raised tend to be dismissed as invalid -- too
> readily in my opinion. . .
> Back in 1992, Ed Regis posted the following statement. . .
> Any success since then? If not, why should I believe Richard Jones
> is wrong?

Why don't you ask Michael Anissimov (and he'll ask Eliezer for you)?

jimf said...

> > . . .the response my fellow transhumanists give to information
> that does not sit comfortably with their dreams. . .
> >
> > [W]hy should I believe Richard Jones
> > is wrong?
> Why don't you ask. . . ?

Look, it's difficult, when you throw in remarks like this, to
figure out just which side of the fence you're arguing on (and why).

As you point out, the response of a self-identified group of
people "to information that does not sit comfortably with their
dreams" can be a warning sign that all is not as "rational"
and above-board as the PR front-folks for the group would
like you to believe.

From _On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When
You're Not_ by Robert A. Burton
p. 12:

"In 1957, Stanford professor of social psychology Leon Festinger
introduced the term **cognitive dissonance** to describe the
distressing mental state in which people 'find themselves doing
things that don't fit with what they know, or having opinions
that do not fit with other opinions they hold.' . . .

Festinger's seminal observation: The more committed we are to
a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of
overwhelming contradictory evidence. Instead of acknowledging
an error in judgment and abandoning the opinion, we tend to
develop a new attitude or belief that will justify retaining
it. . .

It is easy to dismiss such behavior in cult members and others
'on the fringe,' but what about those of us who presume
ourselves to be less flaky, those of us who pride ourselves
on being levelheaded and reasonable?

Kurt Wise, with a B.A. in geophysics from the University of
Chicago, a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard, where he studied
under Stephen Jay Gould, and a professorship at Bryan College
in Dayton, Tennessee, writes of his personal conflict between
science and religion.

'I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture.
Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or
evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. . . It
was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and
rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution.
With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my
dreams and hopes in science. . . **If all the evidence in
the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first
to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that
is what the Word of God seems to indicate**' [**italics** Burton's]."

My advice to you: take a step back from the breathless
gee-whizzery, the conferences, the Web sites, the Second Life
fantasies; take a step back from the (would-be) technical
arguments for or against nanorobot-based Star Trek replicators,
rejuvenation machines, and AI "superintelligences", and take
a page from Dale's book about the sociological and psychological
context and function of these (interlocking) beliefs.

Extropia DaSilva said...

'Look, it's difficult, when you throw in remarks like this, to
figure out just which side of the fence you're arguing on (and why)'.

As I said before, I am 'with' the transhumanists more than I am 'against' them. However, facts are facts and one should not shy away from pointing out evidence or asking questions that run contrary to the beliefs of whoever one supports.

One great problem with determining the extent to which these hypothetical technologies are feasible, is that you seem to get such mixed messages. In the case of molecular nanotechnology, on one hand you have Richard Jones basically rubbishing the very idea of molecular-scale cogs and gears.

On the other hand, Rob Frietas's 'Nanomedicine Vol:1' is packed full of references like 'K. Mislow, "Molecular Machinery in Organic Chemistry," Chemtracts-Org. Chem. 2', and passages quoted (I assume) directly from it that read, [molecular gear systems synthesized using the methods of traditional solution chemistry] "resemble to an astonishing degree the coupled rotations of macroscopic mechanical gears...It is possible to imagine a role for these and similar mechanical devices, molecules with tiny gears, motors, levers, etc., in the nanotechnology of the future."

And there is a reference to J.K. Gimzewski, C. Joachim, R.R. Schlittler, V. Langlais, H. Tang, I. Johannsen, "Rotation of a Single Molecule Within a Supramolecular Bearing," Science 281(24 July 1998):531-533, which, so Frietas assures us, "Gimzewski's experimental work confirms Drexler's calculations that van der Waals bearings can operate in molecular systems, that multiatomic bearing surfaces with higher load capacities than sigma bond bearings can be built, that these bearings can run with no lubricants, and that such bearings have sufficiently low energy barriers to allow turning by thermal vibrations alone".

So, who do you believe? Should we trust in Jones's expert opinion that molecular-scale cogs and gears can't be built, or do we put faith in Rob Frietas's claims that, not only CAN they be built, they HAVE been built and they confirm Drexler's calculations?

It is no use saying "check the papers out for youself and proofread them for errors" because I am not qualified to do any such thing. I am not an expert in mechanical engineering, chemistry, materials science, computer science, physics and who-knows-what-else one needs qualifications in to study books like 'Nanosystems'.

However, if someone (expert or otherwise) shows me proof that I can clearly see undermines a belief I held, I aught to abandon or modify that belief. In the case of Ray Kurzweil, I assumed he was accurately portraying the R+D he cites as proof-of-principle. Richard Jones has shown that is not necessarily true. I would not go as far to say this rubbishes the whole book (Hoffstadter, after all, said parts of it were "ideas that are solid and good"). But I would say my faith in Kurzweil has been shaken.

Anonymous said...

That might be a valid activity for persons like Dale and yourself, and would help to keep religious tendencies, which is innate in all of us, in check.

But that is not the focus of so called "Transhumanist" Organisations or their advocates.

As I understand it, the purpose is to make the public more aware of possible impending technological developments, in the medium term to long term, and to try to steer public policy in a progressive direction.

I think we should endeavour to support such a cause, because incumbent interests will develop new technologies as our scientific knowledge progresses to entrench their position to the detriment of the rest of society.

Dale Carrico said...

"Anonymous," you are mistaking idealized technodevelopmental outcomes with which you have identified personally for reasonable consensus science and progressive activism. These idealized outcomes are the ones you are describing as "impending" and as "new."

I absolutely will not ever allow these discussion to become distracted from the fact that the technodevelopmental focus of superlative futurology is always with imaginary and idealized technodevelopmental outcomes that answer to superpredicated aspirations -- superintelligence, superlongevity, superabundance.

The transhumanists, extropians, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, and the rest spend the majority of their time discussing the "impending" and "new" development of techniques for "migrating" their embodied brains without loss into cyberspace or robot bodies thereby achieving a radical longevization as good as immortality, to be spent in immersive virtualities or nanobotic treasure utopias, under the gaze of history-ending superintelligent post-biological Robot Gods.

There is no sense in which any of this is "impending" or "new." While it is true that there are innumerable problems for secular democratic progressive politics to be found in ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle, there is no contribution to be found in this work by turning to the deranged and deranging discourse of superlativity and its various faith-based initiatives.

It is actually quite ludicrous to say, as you do, that transhumanism (a would be -ism and marginal movement of all things, members of which evangelize their faith in "The Future" rather than engaging in any of the processes through which technodevelopment actually takes place) is essentially an "educational" and "policy-making" enterprise. Transhumanism is a marginal sub(cult)ure whose membership organizations seek to acquire legitimacy (and therefore attention and money) by selling themselves as "educational" and "policy-making" eneterprises. There is no need to join a Robot Cult to facilitate technodevelopmental progress at the level of research or policy, and there is every reason not to do so.

Progressive activism certainly includes activism [1] to facilitate consensus science through public funding, regulation, and education and also [2] to facilitate progressive distributions of the costs, risks, and benefits of technodevelopment to all the stakeholders to those developments, and [3] to democratize the processes through those stakeholders have a say in these technodevelopmental decisions that affect them, and [4] consensualize to the greatest possible extent the terms on the basis of which technodevelopmental change is incorporated into people's lives.

Taking this sort of progressive technodevelopmental activism seriously looks nothing like indulging in superlative futurological discourses or investing you identity in marginal defensive sub(cult)ureal superlative futurological membership organizations.