In the first paragraph of Rothblatt's piece, she writes:
There are thousands of software engineers across the globe working day and night to create cyberconsciousness. This is real intelligent design. There are great financial awards available to the people who can make game avatars respond as curiously as people. Even vaster wealth awaits the programming teams that create personal digital assistants with the conscientiousness, and hence consciousness, of a perfect slave.
While it is quite right to point out that there are thousands of clever coders working on the improvement of gaming systems at the moment, it is quite extraordinary to say that this amounts to work to "create cyberconsciousness." I daresay that vanishingly small numbers of coders actually working to produce less wooden NPCs (non player characters) and less fakey avatars in gaming environments would ever mistake their work as contributions to the "creation of cyberconsciousness," except perhaps for a handful of California coder boys who may already have joined the ranks of one of the Robot Cults here. Nobody who knows anything about consciousness would ever mistake an online avatar as possessing it, even incipiently.
That Rothblatt describes coders who do mistake software as a kind of aborning consciousness as engaging in "intelligent design" seems to me a revealing slip. To invest the technoscientific state of the art with a significance beyond the actual problems it solves and causes in the present, to invest it instead with the imaginary significance of constituting a stepping stone along a fatal road that is sure to eventuate in the arrival of super-predicated outcomes -- from software to superintelligence, as from medicine also to superlongevity, as from automation and biochemistry also to superabundance -- is to indulge in a faith-based initiative, an essentially religious enterprise, to confuse romance with science to the cost of both.
Although I have quoted Rothblatt's first paragraph in its entirety, I have not yet mentioned that it was preceded by a quote from Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and wonder why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not?” Robert F. Kennedy. Later, Rothblatt evokes John Lennon's "Imagine" to similar effect.
There are a few things to say about these cynical appropriations of heroes of mine and other progressives. First, Kennedy and Lennon were urging us to break the crust of convention to work toward visions of justice more capacious than the status quo afforded us, they were not urging us to pretend that two plus two equals five or, say, that the magic of the Harry Potter universe is real (although, come to think of it, the real magic in the Potter universe ends up deriving from the fact that diverse people working in concert can overcome the brutality of egomaniacs, which is not only really true but a lesson that Robot Cultists would do well to attend to). To engage in social struggle in the name of democracy, non-violence, and social justice as Kennedy and Lennon inspire us to do is a very different matter from the injunction of a Robot Cultist to confuse freedom for a mirage of endlessly amplified instrumental power, to confuse a diversity of peers acting in concert in the world with wish-fulfillment fantasies of "transcending" the world through technoscientific magicks.
Of course, you will have noticed that Rothblatt hasn't only announced one faith in her opening sentences but two, and both are enormously familiar from generations of technophiliacs who seem to have only a few songs to sing when all is said and done. Not only does she declare the faith that biologically incarnated consciousness can be coded (all empirical appearances to the contrary notwithstanding) but she declares this outcome a fatality, because there is so much money to be made in it: "[G]reat financial awards [are] available to the people who can make game avatars respond as curiously as people. Even vaster wealth awaits the programming teams that create personal digital assistants with the conscientiousness, and hence consciousness, of a perfect slave."
Of course, if one managed to code a conscious slave it seems to me it would be an "imperfect" one indeed, because it would need to freed immediately from bondage upon arriving at consciousness if you ask me. I won't discuss this, however, because this is precisely the sort of non-reality that Robot Cultists love best to indulge in, pretending that talking about made-up bullshit constitutes serious thinking about policy or science when it only functions to distract our attention from serious problems like actually existing trafficking of precarized human beings as sex-workers or miners or agricultural laborers in the neoliberal New World Order.
And don't even get me started about the rather horrifying identification Rothblatt seems to make between "conscientiousness, and hence consciousness" [emphasis added--d] -- I'll just assume that was an unfortunate slip of the keystroke she hasn't given much thought to the implications of. No, I will simply confine my observations to pointing out that it isn't enough for an outcome to be "profitable in principle" for it to be "possible in principle," no matter how many gung-ho "getting to yes" self-esteem seminars you attend, no matter how many ponzi-scheme financial gurus you read, no matter how fervently you pray to the predator Gods of Ayn Rand and the Friedmans, pere et fils.
Gee, I wonder, by the way, how Robert Kennedy and John Lennon would feel about the assimilation of their provocations to imagining a more just world to the "greed is good" mantras of market fundamentalism? No doubt, very very pleased indeed. Why, probably they would be as pleased as Thomas Jefferson would have been to hear the last idiotic generation of right-wing futurological sell-outs to describe their hippy 2.0 dot.bomb irrational exuberance as Jeffersonian democracy via the California Ideology.
From here Rothblatt goes on to ask a familiar philosophical question: "[H]ow is it that brains give rise to thoughts… but other parts of bodies do not?" From here she continues: "If these hard and easy questions can be answered for brain waves running on molecules, then it remains only to ask whether the answers are different for software code running on integrated circuits." That is to say, presumably, if we can get a handle on why things like brains can think, we might find ways of making things less like brains in key respects think also. This is reasonable enough as far as it goes, but there is absolutely no reason beyond Robot Cult ideology to assume in advance that the things less like brains that might still be capable of thought-likeness would necessarily have anything in the least to do with "software code running on integrated circuits" of all things and, worse still, only for Robot Cultists hopelessly lost in the full froth of True Belief would one ever say of the prospect of the discovery of the reasons why things like brains can think that "it [would] remain only to ask" upon such a discovery how then can we get software conscious? I daresay there would no end of interesting things to think about and do should we ever discover such a thing. But, then, I teach poetry and philosophy, who am I to know what would "remain only to ask" upon such an eventually, after all, compared to a scientist like Rothblatt (about which more later)?
At least since the time of Isaac Newton and Leibniz, it was felt that some things appreciated by the mind could be measured whereas others could not. The measurable thoughts, such as the size of a building, or the name of a friend, were imagined to take place in the brain via some exquisite micro-mechanical processes. Today we would draw analogies to a computer’s memory chips, processors and peripherals.
Are "we" to assume that these "analogies" are measurable in the way the size of a building is (but as presumably its meaning as an historical landmark or its value as an architectural masterpiece is not)? And just who is included in this "we"? I certainly don't find myself inclined particularly to think of "memory chips, processors and peripherals" when I contemplate what we know about the "exquisite micro-mechanical" and electro-chemical processes that take place in biological brains and which seem to us to correlate indicatively to conscious thought processes. But, hey, again, that's just me, and who, after all, am I? Just a menacingly relativistic fashionably-nonsensical humanities person, no avatar of sooper-science like Martine Rothblatt and her posse of transhumanist and cybernetic totalist Robot Cultists, to be sure.
Rothblatt continues on in that paragraph: "[W]e still need an actual explanation of exactly how one or more neurons save, cut, paste and recall any word, number, scent or image. In other words, how do neuromolecules catch and process bits of information?"
What I would draw your attention to here is that the real argumentative work taking place in these formulations is happening at the level of figurative and not literal language. Just as Rothblatt admits that her faith in coding-become-consciousness is driven by analogies earlier on, in the space of a sentence or two these analogical machineries have been cranking on and on, but as if they were merely descriptive, predictive, indicative: We are now told we need an "explanation" for how neurons "save, cut, paste, and recall" words, numbers, images, and so on when what is most needful is a better understanding of why the metaphors to which Rothblatt is making recourse in thinking thought here involve "cutting and pasting" as if thought were a word-processing program.
Should we not think much more about what "explanations" are likely to arise in the first place from a research program framed in such prejudicial terms? When we ask the question, as Rothblatt does, "how do neuromolecules catch and process bits of information?" in what ways has the metaphorization of thoughts as things that can be "caught" or "processed [as] bits of information," in what ways has the question itself delimited the field of answers available to our attention and common sense?
This matters enormously because as often happens in the superlative futurological discourses of the Robot Cultists and their more mainstream technophiliac fellow-travelers as well, Rothblatt devotes a considerable amount of space to apparently technical discussions of neurons, outputs, qualia, and the like in her piece.
There is nothing Robot Cultists like better than to seduce skeptics into endless debates about such "technical" matters. The reason for this is because at its heart Robot Cultism is a faith-based system of beliefs organized through sub(cult)ural identification with fellow-believers (and dis-identification with the diversity of human peers with which they share the actual present, including the presents to come they disdain for investment in an idealized version of "The Future"). Because the superlative technodevelopmental outcomes in which they believe do not exist, because "The Future" does not exist, because the post-human beings with whom they identify don't exist, the substance of their faith is vouchsafed in the shared assertions of faith among their fellows (who represent a small, embattled, and defensive minority) as well as in the assertions of the terms of their discourse with those who do not share their faith but who can be made to pay attention to them or take them seriously on their terms.
I personally see no reason to indulge them in this desire of theirs. I take the frames and formulations of the Robot Cultists seriously as a symptom and as a reductio of underlying pathologies in prevailing technoscientific reductionist discourses on the one hand and mainstream anti-democratizing corporate-militarist "global developmental" discourses on the other hand.
Since it is clear that the heavy-lifting in even the Robot Cultists' most "technical" discussions is happening at the level of figurative language, it seems to me it should be judged on those terms. And so I judge it in the main to be very bad and usually completely derivative poetry.
Since most of the would-be scientific claims made by Robot Cultist's seem to veer enormously far from scientific consensus in the actual disciplines in which they pretend to be making their heroic contributions, I judge them to be crackpots.
While it is true that the progress of technoscience has often been fueled and driven by contributions at its outskirts, it is also true that the overabundant majority of claims made by folks at its outskirts were exactly as wrong and crackpotty as they appeared to be. And for those of us who are not in fact qualified credentialed experts in the fields in question (various medical fields, life sciences, neurology) the reasonable course is to accept the relevant scientific consensus as the most warranted belief. Robot Cultists exhibit extreme confidence in views that veer from scientific consensus in field after field after field -- in formulations suffused with familiar religious hopes for transcendence from human mortality, misery, finitude, uncertainty (rather than worldly work to solve problems in concert with the diversity of our peers) -- and all as evidence of their superior scientificity of all things. There are good reasons to be doubtful of some of their conclusions on this score.
According to her personal entry in Wikipedia (grain of salt taken, I presume) Martine Rothblatt "is an American lawyer, author, and entrepreneur[, who] graduated from UCLA with a combined law and MBA degree in 1981, then began work in Washington, D.C., first in the field of communication satellite law, and eventually in life sciences projects like the Human Genome Project." We are also alerted that "in 2007 [she] was the second-most highly compensated executive in the District of Columbia." I am, to be sure, pleased for her good fortune. But I am not much inclined to mistake her for a biologist or for an expert on consciousness, even so.
And I hope she will forgive me if I for one continue to turn to Robert Kennedy and John Lennon for inspiration in the struggle against incumbent interests (among whom she seems to me very likely to be one) in the service of peace and social justice, rather than for rationalizations for indulging in wish-fulfillment fantasies that substitute selfishness for solidarity, magick for freedom, and faith in imaginary technologies for worldly technoscience.