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

Monday, March 19, 2012

Futurologists Are Mortal, But Faith-Based Futurology Is A Zombie That Cannot Be Killed

One of the first things I noticed when I took a look at the World Future Society website where I have been invited to post occasional critical pieces of mine was this kicky little number, When Death Becomes Optional by Thomas Frey ("Google's top rated futurist!" he tells me), hyperventilating about how immortality is around the corner via the usual futurological magicks.

It is all bleakly familiar. "It is the year 2032" intones the usual dead-pan omniscient narrator to set the scene. "You" are invited into "The Future." (The "Amazing" Criswell: "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives"!) Miracle cures abound for every disease, cloned replacement bodies are in the icebox awaiting every contingency, even that recent futurological fetish the 3D printer makes an appearance, "printing" up bones and arteries in a jiff should you need them. Frey literally proposes, with perfectly robotic predictability, that all this will be yours, wait for it… in three… two… one… "in just 20 years." Twenty years, of course! You honestly cannot parody these people. Yesterday, Alex Knapp pointed out a few of the reasons why this particular bit of techno-immortalist moonshine isn't remotely in the cards: "This is simply absurd," exclaims an exasperated Knapp, earnestly trying to introduce a little sense into this wish-fulfillment fantasy. "Thinking that in 20 years, the technology will exist to 'switch bodies' into a younger clone will be a possibility is to completely ignore the state of technology today…. [and t]hat’s the easy part."

Knapp should thank his stars the techno-immortalist in question didn't go on to enthuse about "uploading" his "self" – misconstrued as "data" "encoded" in his brain in a way that can be "migrated" (that's a metaphor not a hypothesis, fellows) without loss onto some other material substrate and thereby (why? who knows?) "immortalized" in a shiny comic book robot body or in a virtual reality sex cave or some other presumably somehow non-buggy non-spammy non-finite cyber-heaven. No, futurologists, you are not a picture of you. No, futurologists, you cannot pretend to be a strict materialist about consciousness all the while proceeding as if the actual materialization of consciousness in organismic brains is somehow irrelevant. As Knapp is keenly aware, that's where futurologists tend to go when they get in a real techno-immortalist lather.

As is, Knapp's modest demurral against the techno-immortalist nonsense already in evidence in the piece in question has the futurological knitting circle in a snit -– shaking their fists at Knapp's "deathism," grr! One of the Big Guns of Very Serious Superlative Futurology (big, you know, in a big fish small pond kinda sorta way), Ben Goertzel, accuses Knapp of not having the sooper-brain to interpret the "evidence" as objectively as futurologists do, and then accuses Knapp of pseudo-science and phony journalism because he won't get in the techno-immortalist clown car with Aubrey de Grey and Raymond Kurzweil and the other Usual Suspects who deny with him what might amount to one of the most overabundantly tested and perfectly consensus attaining scientific conclusions we have, namely that human beings are mortal and that there is nothing remotely in evidence to suggest that anybody now living will not die. Goertzel has the nerve to decry as "bombastic" Knapp's acceptance of human mortality, the denial of which in defiance of evidence, history, sense, scientific consensus has to be one of the most flabbergastingly overblown exercises in bombast imaginable. (You may remember Mr. Goertzel, by the way, from the rather hilarious Nauru Needs Futurologists! episode a couple of years ago.)

When I say that Frey's little exercise in techno-immortalist futurology is bleakly familiar, I do not mean though simply to point out the hackneyed futurological furniture in his sad scenario. It is true that one of the many paradoxes of futurological discourse is that while futurologists seem forever to imagine themselves to be conjuring up breathtaking vistas and offering up to an astonished world shattering possibilities of unprecedented disruption and accelerating change, oddly enough the specific claims they make and the shiny gizmos they twirl before our eyes to seduce the rubes haven't really changed much in decades, the same tired genetic digital virtual cybernetic robotic sexbotic nanobotic promises and visions get re-packaged again and again and again and trotted out for the cameras, a sleepwalking pseudo-imaginary for the unimaginative. (Indeed, for writing this bad one really should look not to literature -- not even to the crappiest kitsch with literary pretensions -- but to advertising and PR practices.) The endless surprises of real scientific practice are incomparably more dramatic, the endless inventions of real science fiction are incomparably more provocative than the stale stasis of the futurological fraudsters.

Again, it is not only this which makes Frey's piece so predictable, nor the hysterical reaction of futurologists to a critic so predictable. I think what makes Frey's piece worthy of contemplation is the way in which it exhibits so many of the generic conventions of futurology otherwise. I already pointed out some of that when I snickered at the kitschy drama of the opening sequence, the futurological citation of the worst kind of hackneyed science fiction to whomp up a little drama. But there are other characteristic gestures in evidence throughout the piece. Frey begins by declaring imminent what is not even remotely plausible, then distracting from this obvious implausibility by indulging in wish-fulfillment fantasising the fervency of which yields a "reality-effect" that substitutes for plausibility (wouldn't it be awesome if magic was real!), then immediately throwing the reader into a rapid fire laundry list of scattered concerns (how would immortality change the face of criminal justice? poverty? war? religious faith?) all of which take as their point of departure the treatment of the implausible futurological pronouncement with which we began (twenty years to immortality!) as precisely the accepted datum it absolutely is not, and then insisting in conclusion: "These may seem like distant concerns. But change is coming – this time, at lightning speed. We don’t have the luxury of mulling such matters for decades." Notice that this move first seems to concede the implausibility of techno-immortality ("distant concerns") but then utterly denies it (it's "coming… at lightning speed"), concluding that it would be the most frivolous unserious unscientific attitude imaginable to "luxuriate" in the belief that we may be mortal for "decades." Decades! Pause, do, for a moment and contemplate, I mean really drink in, just how batshit crazy, just how idiotic, just how flagrantly fraudulent this utterance from "Google's top rated futurist" really is.

Let us make it plain. Thomas Frey is going to die. Ben Goertzel is going to die. Ray Kurzweil is going to die. Aubrey de Grey is going to die. Every techno-immortalist is going to die, every futurist is going to die. There is nothing happening in any laboratory anywhere to suggest anything remotely to contrary. There is nothing efficacious about the fervency of death-denialism that will stave off mortality. There is nothing scientific about cleaving to the pseudo-scientific margins of scientific consensus in field after field after field in a quest for superpowers, superabundance, superintelligence that looks like nothing so much as faithly transcendence. The hysterical death-denialism of techno-immortalists does not derive from the maverick courage of their convictions but from the crass, craven opportunism of hucksters -- whether they are hawking anti-aging skin creams, life-extension treatments, cryonics scams, priestly promises of heaven to True Believers in techno- or the various judeochrislamic heavens. It comes from the ignorance and credulity of rubes, of scared, scarred, stupid people, people made marks by the most imbecilic sort of sloth, greed, and appetite. It comes from the desperation of people who have not come to terms with mortality and who, in consequence, are not only still going to die but already a little more dead in life than they have to be even before they die.

We are not rocketing toward immortality. To call techno-immortality a "distant concern" is like calling the colonization of extrasolar planets via traversable wormholes and terraforming robot armies a "distant concern." Tragically, or perhaps farcically, many futurologists would agree with me, and then declare the latter an urgent and immediate concern as well, in utter defiance of sense. You know, there is nothing wrong with daydreaming: Stringing some interesting plot twists and characters along such conceits sometimes provides for swell entertainments and even provocatively skewed allegorical takes on real human quandaries. But there is everything wrong with pretending that daydreaming, on its own, is a scientific activity or provides the occasion for serious policy making or even literature that sustains our attention. Every second privileged educated citizens waste in indulgent techno-immortalist death denialism is another second denied to the shared problem solving demanded of and by billions of vulnerable mortal beings constrained by injustice, violated by exploitation, dying in educable ignorance and of treatable diseases without recourse to law in a shared world convulsed by problems susceptible of collaborative redress.

Ultimately, futurologists like Frey are taking us to an imaginary "The Future" the better to lodge us more deeply and helplessly into a parochial and problematic Present, offering at best vapid hackneyed escapist entertainments and at worst providing marketing rationalizations for the perpetual rule of elite incumbent corporate-militarist powers on familiar, and usually amplified, terms. Futurology is serious -– as a heart attack. But it is the farthest thing from serious science, serious policy making, or serious imaginative literature.

Of course, this ain't my first or even my thousandth trip to the techno-immortalism rodeo, as witness, practically at random: Mortality, All Humans Are Mortal, Rebel Rebel: Death Denialism As "Utopian Politics", Why Can't More People Just Indulge in Insane Denialism About The Fact of Their Mortality Like the Robot Cultists Do?, Loss, Connection, Transformation, Follow the Bouncing Ball, Techno-Immortalism in a Nutshell, Jim, He's Dead, Take Your Vitamins and You'll Meet the Robot God, Cyborg Angels Live Forever And Never Have to Poop. As you can see, though futurologists are all mortal, faith-based futurology is a zombie that cannot be killed.


jollyspaniard said...

There was a lot of bloviating about robots there were able to make other robots in the 50s and 60s. If memory serves they were referred to as Von Neuman machines and there was concern about overabundance. You won't hear anyone mention that stuff anymore, it's been out of fashion for nearly half a century. Then it was Drexler style nanotech which is already going out of fashion. Now it's 3D printing's turn to be the messiah technology.

In other news Swing music has made a big comeback. So perhaps the Von Neuman robots might come back in fashion in 20 or 30 years.

Dale Carrico said...

Indeed. It is interesting to note the ways in which mid-century irrational exuberance about plastic anticipated the tropes of digital-utopianism in much the same way.

jimf said...

> There was a lot of bloviating about robots there were
> able to make other robots in the 50s and 60s. If memory
> serves they were referred to as Von Neuman[n] machines
> and there was concern about overabundance. You won't
> hear anyone mention that stuff anymore, it's been out
> of fashion for nearly half a century.

Hm... You may be confusing two things here. Von Neumann **machines**
are a kind of computational architecture where both the data
and the program instructions are stored in electronic memory.
**Those** became commercial in the 50s of course,
and certainly never went away!

The (hypothetical) self-replicating Von Neumann **space probes**
that you're probably thinking of were a new idea
in the 70's and 80's (and never in fact went out of fashion).
_Star Trek_ (original series) didn't have 'em, but the Wikipedia entry
mentions that the monolith in _2001_ was
intended to be an example of such a thing, though the scene
that would've explained it was cut.

jimf said...

Remember your friend-of-blog "Summerspeaker"?

Ve wrote (in "Nick Bostrom makes me wonder whether I’m really a transhumanist"
May 3, 2011 --
which you, in fact, responded to in )

"I find Bostrom’s insistence on global security by any means necessary
as one of the core elements of the ideology quite troubling. Folks who
talk of security in such terms scare me far more than the the bogeymen
they invoke. Particularly combined with Bostrom’s embrace of the
progress narrative, eir global security sounds suspiciously like security
for transnational capital and the world industrial system. At least
it lends itself too readily to such ends. Avoiding species extinction
has obvious merit, but focusing on the paradigm of security holds strictly
negative political implications. Michael Anissimov of the Singularity Institute
for Artificial Intelligence recently channeled Thomas Hobbes and preached
the need for security through force. Ey invokes the notion that the luxury
we supposedly enjoy here in the West comes as result of the macho violence
of earlier generation and the current guards. . .

The constructed fear of wildness conditions people to accept masters.
Though not completely satisfying, one response involves embracing uncertainty.

As Shevek says in Ursula Le Guin’s novel _The Dispossessed_,
'Freedom is never very safe.' . . .

Dale Carrico, on the other hand, inspires me to wear the transhumanist
identity proudly. Though to be fair ey has encouraged me to rethink my engagement
with the Singularity scene, eir utter disdain for ambitious social transformation
convinces me of the revolutionary potential in transhumanism."

And the commenters remarked:

AnonymousCoward - May 3, 2011

Why did Carrico start that exactly? Why does Dale
say those things? I don’t get his writings.
And I find it weird Anissimov is a political conservative.

Summerspeaker - May 3, 2011

Many struggle to understand Dale Carrico. Ey has a long
history of involvement with transhumanist/Singularitarians/Robot Cultists.
Anissimov self-describes as a Bill Clinton/Tony Blair moderate.

jose garcia - May 6, 2011

The fact that Singularitarians are politically conservative
shouldn’t surprise, it makes perfect sense. Some of them are
practically Neo Nazi. Stay the course, keep the empire going,
keep destroying the environment, we’ll solve all our problems
in the future. Don’t worry about the people oppressed by our
puppet dictators, we’ll upload their grandchildren... maybe.

Summerspeaker - May 6, 2011

Indeed. That’s the obvious implication of Kurzweil’s thought
in particular. It’s the same old progress story. Shut up and keep
working, you’ll get to heaven/get rich soon enough.

jimf said...

Of course, the above reservations (about the conservative/reactionary
tendencies of >Hism -- even tending towards totalitarian
rigidity, the longing to be parented by a Robot God;
together with >Hism's amenability to exploitation by
incumbent political and economic interests -- don't let big
bad government regulate away our shot at the Singularity:
vote Republican!) are **precisely** your own primary objections
to >Hism as an "ideology".

Poor "Summerspeaker" just can't get past your insistence that
the certainty that ve (and everybody else currently alive on
the planet) is going to die, is in fact the current scientific consensus,
and that that consensus is unlikely to change any time soon,
whatever Ray Kurzweil & Terry Gross, Aubrey de Grey, or
any other self-identified >Hists may wish to believe.

But apparently, to promote common sense about such questions
is nothing more than expressing an "utter disdain for ambitious social transformation."

It's the pernicious reliance on faith that Bertrand Russell once objected to:
"I think [it] a complete moral heresy [to claim] that it is **right**
to believe certain things, and **wrong** to believe certain
others, apart from the question whether the things in
question are true or false." (Woodrow Wyatt interview,

I guess for some people, encouraging belief in fairy tales
is a necessary part of bringing about "ambitious social transformation".

Luke said...

"No, futurologists, you are not a picture of you."

Pictures are static, so this is a kind of bad analogy. You'd have to include all the infrastructure of a dynamic entity. Or you could posit that the person being compared is in a corpselike state. "A cryopreserved person is not a detailed scan of a cryopreserved person" (assume perfect cryopreservation tech, not cryonics) would be valid. However you would differentiate them mostly based on the presence or lack of infrastructure with which to think for themselves in the event of restoring normal function.

So you're objecting to the notion of good-enough physics simulations perhaps? But we would have to broaden that to include good-enough workarounds and clever solutions as well. To me that sort of thing (absent some bending of physical law or extreme resource requirement like e.g. making wormholes and moving stars around) deserves heavy qualifications, e.g. "the next 50 years are not enough time to invent X" and so forth.

But to rule out cryonics being feasible (which is really important, obviously) you would have to have the number of years be very high. Even thousands of years worth of development time requirements would just motivate people to create self-contained bunkers with uber-low failure rates.

Really it would be better if you could find some absolute principle / logical contradiction to rule it out on. That's the only way to kill that particular zombie.

"No, futurologists, you cannot pretend to be a strict materialist about consciousness all the while proceeding as if the actual materialization of consciousness in organismic brains is somehow irrelevant."

Why wouldn't it be? It isn't as if the proposed replacements for brains are proposed to be non-material in nature. Sounds in keeping with materialism to me.

The only thing being "transferred" in the scenario is the information pattern, and that "transfer" is just a metaphor really, it means there is a process by which the computer is being made brain-like on the logical level (which all boils down to physics at some point). You do the same thing when you download a web browser. No breach of materialism there.

So where?

Dale Carrico said...

Your first objection demands I go down the rabbit hole with you, which of course I won't do.

The "dynamism" you attribute to the (non-existing) scan which presumably makes my quip disanalogous is entirely in your head. You want to nudge me into a debate about the number of inches and the quality of branch which yields the optimally magical Ollivander wand, while I am obviously pointing out that a person is not the same thing as a representation of a person.

It's true that an outside observer might not be able to distinguish -- at any rate for a moment -- a person and a wax figure copy of that person, but that occasion for error no more renders a person immortal than the fact that a child who resembles a parent very closely might be mistaken for the parent by someone who knew them.

You say I need some more absolute principle to dissuade you -- but of course there are few people who are the least bit persuaded about the "feasibility of uploading" (which involves too many non-existing things for us to speak of "feasibility" at all, in my view) in the first place, you have already demonstrated yourself to be absolutely more credulous than others are which suggests in turn your standards of reasonableness are skewed. There is good reason to doubt you would accept as a contradiction any evidenciary observation or logical conclusion or figurative critique that undermined your faith.

Notice the way you concede in your second objection that "transfer" is a metaphor and then go on to suggest precisely to the contrary that it "all boils down to physics." No, Luke, when it comes to techno-immortalization it begins and ends in bad poetry. You are not a web browser -- that's just an dumb metaphor too.

You speak of "information" as if it were spirit stuff indifferent to its material carrier -- but you cannot have it both ways and still boast of your superior materialism to those of us who know better than Robot Cultists. To say it matters, as I do, that all the intelligence we have empirically encountered has been organismically incarnated is the furthest imaginable thing from positing a supernatural dimension of consciousness. I respect the materialization of consciousness, you do not.

I suspect all this irrationality of yours may arise because you are desperate to believe you don't have to be vulnerable, error-prone, subject to chance, ageing, mortal and all the rest, which is the usual difficulty with religionists.

Butcha are mortal, Blanche, y'are. I think you should try therapy rather than True Belief at the feet of some futurological guru.

Nato said...

I'm often perplexed why people constantly think Dale is attempted to predict the future by describing the present. He's criticizing futurologists; why do they always think he's trying to be one?

When he says "You're going to die," he's talking about how we all ARE - present tense - vulnerable, mortal, subject to collapse and decay. I suppose one could be easily mislead by the future tense of the statement itself (on second thought, I suppose there's a subtle difference between that and "You WILL die.").

Sure, scientists and engineers can imagine and work toward ways to change this fact of the present, but the pudding surrounding this proof just isn't on the table, in the present.

But what perplexes me is why people constantly read Dale's simple pronouncement as a prediction of "the future", as if he's a scientist, doctor, or engineer in the field of research in question, and telling us all that there's somehow somehow some //technical// reason that all this cryonics or brain emulation business is going to come up fruitless.

It's the first sign that someone has totally missed his point.

Luke said...

"I'm often perplexed why people constantly think Dale is attempted to predict the future by describing the present. He's criticizing futurologists; why do they always think he's trying to be one?"

I think you're accurately describing what Dale is trying to do (and thinks he does well), but honestly there is no way to read "cryonics is a scam" without coming away with the implied premise that "cryonics actually won't work in the future". Well, I will admit that the thesis "cryonics would not provide what cryonics buyers actually want even if it were to succeed" also works as an alternate or complementary basis for that statement.

Regardless of which one of these you choose to pound on, you are going to have to go down the rabbit hole a little ways to find the justification for it. The first (cryonics won't work) is empirical speculation about the future, so that's futurology, and is frequently confounded by all kinds of commonplace misunderstandings of empirically tested science (for example, many people think that an interruption of electrical activity in the brain represents death, or that crystalline ice formation in the brain cells is inevitable in cryopreservation).

The second (cryonics wouldn't give us what we want) is grounded in philosophical conundrums regarding what kinds of survival we actually want and care about. That's why I challenged Dale on this particular point, as it seems much more likely the determining factor in why he thinks cryonics is, and can in principle be no more than, a stinky fraud, than that he actually has an opinion that he stands by on the empirical questions like how much information survives, how far nanotech will progress, and so forth.

What is kind of ironic is that Robert Ettinger also thinks (or rather thought) that uploading is a bunch of cuckoo nonsense, and fed me some rather similar lines about pictures not being really the thing you took a picture of and so forth. He had no trouble reconciling that perspective with cryonics, wherein he held the hope that the same organismic brain responsible for his original intelligence would eventually be repaired at a future date.

Dale Carrico said...

Nobody has to join you in your rabbit hole just because you dug it. It is the extraordinary claim that demands the extraordinary justification, Luke. And, sorry, sweetheart, that would be the techno-immortalist's burden, not mine, and the extraordinary justification has yet to arrive (it isn't enough that the faith based futurologists declare the usual handwaving to be sound science from their marginal pews).

Anyway, you don't need to be a futurologist making predictions to point out a snake oil salesman is engaged in a scam. And promising folks whose brains have been hamburgerized in dewars are going to wake up in shiny new sooper-bodies strikes me as no more scientific as claims go than comparable claims from preachers at their pulpits.

Further, I don't think that the kinds of confusions that lead techno-immortalists to pretend that pictures of you are the same thing as you or that what we specifically mean by intelligence need not happen in brains even though it always has or that one can claim to be a materialist about mind while at once declaring an organismically incarnated mind can be "migrated" (a metaphor, not a mechanism) onto a completely different material substrate without any impact on it, hence suggesting its materiality is at once absolutely essential and absolutely incidental to it, are frankly too obviously idiotic to deserve the moniker "conundra" at all let alone "philosophical." Take it from somebody trained in philosophy who teaches philosophy at the university level -- futurological sales pitches aren't a form of doing philosophy.

Dale Carrico said...

Welcome newcomers to this post! I have noticed that Reddit has glommed onto this little number and it has attracted some comment there, to wit:

"smartalbert" declares: "Carrico got some ok points but it seems he is overdoing it. he gets almost hysterical and it makes his criticism sloppy."

I propose that if "smartalbert" re-imagines the tone of the piece as one of withering amusement rather than hysteria he might find the thrust of the piece somewhat clarified.

"BaronVonDonut" announces "Wow, it took him 10 paragraphs to say: 'I disagree. My friends are smart, and they too disagree.'"

I submit that in between donuts the Baron might try a closer reading than one that discerns among dozens of observations, assertions, and conclusions only a claim about "my smart friends" which happens not to appear anywhere in the piece at hand.

"Toktyn" makes what seems to me the most bewildering claim, namely: "The way he argues against futurist ideas and projections reminds me of a Christian arguing against evolution. The writing is overly biased and so harshly written as to detract from its credibility, he doesn't support his claims well, and many of the claims are just plain wrong."

Notice that in this scenario it is the one who is dismissively skeptical about Robot Cultists promising techno-immortalism via Robot Bodies and Genetic Sooper Medicine and mind-uploading into cyber-heaven who is being compared to a faith-based Christian, and I am imagined to reside in the position of one who argued against evolution not because I am defying scientific consensus but precisely because I am in accord with it.

I will add that there is a heavy dose of sarcastic humor in this piece, hard won after decades spent exposing critiquing and ridiculing the pseudo-science and deranging hyperbole of pop tech and faith-based futurology. I have written plenty more that is not humorous and might evade the worries about "tone" and "bias" that seem to concern the critics of this piece -- but I honestly don't think the nonsense against which I am reacting in this piece really deserves that serious a hearing for anyone who is actually concerned about actual medical science or policy or who knows anything about the state of the art where any of these actual sciences and techniques are concerned.