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

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Techno-Immortalist Robot Cultist Throws Tantrum

Robot Cultist Giulio Prisco says a whole lot of fantastically idiotic things in his latest futurological screed, Slow Progress of Fast McSingularity? provoked by Annalee Newitz's sensible Slow Future editorial published last week.

In that piece, which I discussed last week much more sympathetically, Newitz reminded techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasists like Giulio Prisco, "You will not live to be 200 years old. I repeat: You will not live to be 200 years old."

Absolutely predictably, Prisco's reaction to this reality-check is literal denialism: "But Yes We Can," he pouts and stamps his foot.

Prisco reminds us that, like many other Robot Cultists,
I plan to be frozen or have my brain chemically preserved for a couple of centuries, and I look forward to seeing the far future with my eyes. I support Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, and I have great hope in the plan of the Brain Preservation Foundation to develop modern, uploading-friendly brain preservation options.
Of course, our scientific grasp of the phenomenon of consciousness remains conspicuously incomplete in many key and quite fundamental respects, but what we think we know already offers plenty of reason strongly to suspect that the brain structure "chemically preserved" by the cryonics Prisco supports does not preserve the ongoing electro-chemical (?) processes and dispositions of which consciousness actually likely (at least in part) materially consists.

This recognition is not so much the conclusion at which the proper skeptic of techno-immortalism eventually arrives, but is really just a point of departure from which that skepticism proceeds. Because, of course, concepts like consciousness, intelligence, subjecthood, identity are all profoundly fraught, as are their relations not only to the brain but also to the nervous system but also to the whole organism, as a living system, as a phenomenologically experienced being, as an object of analysis at many levels, as a subject participating in interpersonal relations and historical struggle, and so on.

All of these registers are indispensable to a proper materialist accounting of selfhood, all are susceptible of empirical analysis -- and the fraught, fragmentary character of such analysis, the conceptual confusions that bedevil these formulations, the prevalence of metaphor in the rhetoric defending strong assertions in these areas all bespeak the highly preliminary character of our scientific grasp of the subject at hand. Although Prisco pretends the relation of the preservable brain and graspable information and subjectively as well as objectively and intersubjectively legible selfhood are all perfectly transparent in his techno-immortalist rhetoric, he is forever tripping up in the telling to expose the deep confusions that not only fatally undermine his project but probably also drive it.

Even in the brief passage I quoted above Prisco suggests that he is chemically preserving his brain, not his eyes, and yet speaks of "looking forward to seeing the far future with my eyes." Quite apart from the real question of just what are supposed to be materially counting here as Prisco's "eyes," notice the collapse in this expression into the simple metaphor of "seeing" not only of the visual perception he is experiencing at that moment, but of his fanciful visualization of the future as well, by means of which the act of speculating itself, at the very moment Prisco is testifying to his baseless hopes, figuratively provides a pseudo-base in experience in which those hopes can apparently plausibly lodge.

From these initial assertions of identity between a partially preserved dead brain and a presumably eternalizable "information-self" Prisco goes on to make further leaps from the desperate techno-immortalism of the cryonics enthusiast who expects to be "repaired" by probably impossible swarms of reliably robust self-replicating programmable nanobots that can construct nearly anything from nearly anything else, to the no less desperate but also conceptually incoherent techno-immortalism of the "uploading" enthusiast who believes that a sufficiently robust scan of a brain is the same thing as the self whose brain has been scanned with the key difference that the scan is immortal -- even though nobody in their right mind really thinks a picture of you is the same thing as you, even if it is a really good picture of you, and even though nobody in their right mind really thinks an imposter who manages to kill and then replace you without anybody noticing isn't a murderer, and even though nobody in their right mind thinks that software and digitally accessible information is in any sense immortal, since it is constantly crashing and degrading and vanishing from our grasp in our actually lived material experience of it.

Prisco writes:
I have no doubts of the feasibility of real, conscious, smarter than human AI: intelligence and consciousness are not mystical but physical, and sooner or later they will be replicated and improved upon. There are promising developments, but (as it uses to happen in reality) I expect all sorts of unforeseen roadblocks with forced detours.
That Prisco's utterance here is an unambiguous statement of faith could not be plainer, even though he goes on to accuse skeptics and critics of his vision (like me) of being mystics. Needless to say, it is the actual existing material forms that intelligence and consciousness takes in the world (to the extent that we know something about these forms), that leads one to the strongest skepticism and criticism about visions like Prisco's that seem to view the actual organismic embodiment of consciousness and the actual social incarnation of intelligence as utterly dispensable.

And although Prisco may be oblivious to such things, it actually matters that we don't know enough about what "smartness" consists of in the first place to go on to glibly assert as he does that we could confidently expect "smarter than human AI" to arrive in twenty years (the usual prediction), or sooner, or later, or what have you. And, of course, launching as soon as possible into supposedly "technical" debates about the plausibility of various predictive timelines about the arrival of AI function primarily to distract our attention from that basic and disqualifying conceptual failure at the heart of the discourse.

So, too, does it actually matter that questions about what intelligence is good for in the first place and for whom and under what circumstances are radically under contest in our culture, as they usually have been, and hence glibly asserting as Prisco has done that intelligence can be "improved upon" actually pretends he and his fellow techno-"enhancers" already have answers to questions over which no single view has managed to prevail and which the amplifications he pines for could only actually exacerbate.

Prisco tries to sanewash his views by conceding the observations by most scientifically and developmentally literate skeptics of techno-transcendentalism that the evident state of neither human knowledge nor political will permit within the lifetimes of anybody now or soon living most of even the most modest of the superlative technodevelopmental outcomes Robot Cultists spend so much of their time pining for and planning for. But it simply isn't a real concession that roadblocks exist to insist that all such roadblocks are temporary. It simply isn't a real concession of ignorance to declare that ignorance will inevitably be replaced with capacity.

There is no reason in the world to believe that there will not always be things humans cannot do, even if there is plenty of reason to believe that we will be able to do some things we cannot now do. There is no reason to believe that humans will be able to do things that cannot even be coherently formulated -- like techno-immortalist "uploading" schemes. There is no reason to believe humans will be able to do things in defiance of the best consensus understanding of all the relevant phenomena in all the relevant fields -- like techno-immortalist schemes to revive the inadequately preserved dead, whether frozen, vitrified, mummified, embalmed, published, scanned, or what have you. There is no reason to pretend that there is anything scientific about the faith of a person who expects these outcomes are on the horizon.

Prisco complains that
Many anti-transhumanist rants do not address real transhumanism but a demonized, caricatural strawman of transhumanism, which some intellectually dishonest critics wish to sell to their readers, which I find very annoying.
He links to this blog as evidence of his point. I welcome Prisco to publish evidence of my supposed dishonesty. I do not believe that the techno-transcendental aspirations of Robot Cultists stand up to the least critical scrutiny and it is not surprising that Prisco finds such scrutiny annoying. That I can expose the underlying ridiculousness of futurological assumptions and formulations through the easy exposure of the more palpable ridiculousness of the form they take in the especially careless and extreme writings by Robot Cultists like Prisco is no doubt annoying to more than just Prisco himself. I attribute to this annoyance Prisco's accusation in the piece that I am (again, he directly links to me as evidence of what he means by the accusation) one of what he calls "bigot luddites who condemn imagination in name of the dullest PC (PoliPathetically Correct) nanny-statism typical of the modern pseudo-left."

Again, I welcome Prisco to publish evidence of my "bigotry" (even strongly disagreeing with published assertions inviting public scrutiny is not enough to justify an accusation of bigotry or hate speech, which is a serious charge to direct against somebody who has devoted much of his life to activism and teaching and writing against racism, sexism, and anti-bigotry), or my "luddi[sm]" (quite apart from the fact that the historical Luddites were protesting the reactionary political form a particular technodevelopmental change took in their lives rather than protesting "technology in general," this is a serious charge to direct against somebody who has written an MA Thesis on technocultural theory and a PhD Dissertation on digital networks and teaches at the University level on science and technology, environmental justice, and network formations, and who strives to be technoscientifically literate and remains profoundly technodevelopmentally concerned), or my "condemn[ations of] imagination" (to distinguish science practice from science fiction is not enough to justify an accusation of hostility to imagination, which is a serious charge to direct against somebody who has been a performing artist and creative writer and lifelong supporter of arts and fighter for individual expressivity and teaches in an art school). I would be curious to know from what vantage Prisco presumably adjudicates the "real" from the "pseudo" left, especially when he does so in a passage in which he fulminates against "PC"-ness and "nanny-statism" like the most ridiculous FOX-news viewer and especially when he concludes that a democratic socialist feminist anti-racist anti-corporatist anti-militarist multicultural green advocate of non-violent civil disobedience like me is to be consigned to the ranks of the "pseudo-left." Before Prisco rants against my intellectual dishonesty and rails against the outrageous "straw man" I have erected and torched in this paragraph, he would do well to remember that the words in the quotations here are really quotations, and that they are all quotations from him, in a passage already quoted in full right there in the paragraph before I read them here in the more careful way that exposes their ugliness and madness to plain view in that annoying way I have of doing.

That Prisco's pseudo-scientific views are as nonsensical as his political ones really goes without saying, after all, and so I must conclude as I always do after devoting actual time to the least serious scrutiny to such nonsense by reminding my readers that Giulio Prisco is not some random anonymous completely marginal kook (well, I mean, sure, he is that) but is a very widely read and widely respected figure in the transhumanoid "movement" and "sub(cult)ure," elected officer and sometimes founder of futurological membership organizations that attract respectful attention from presumably serious people, institutions, and media outlets that really should know better.


joe said...

"I plan to be frozen or have my brain chemically preserved for a couple of centuries"

Whateveer else he has said, this alone is bullshit...

As an Italian/European he should have the basic grasp of what can happen in centuries of time.

We managed two devestating wars in just over 20 years, we saw the USSR rise and fall in about 70 alot of which was spent waiting for a war to kick off that may have ended up with huge mushrooms sprouting up.
The black death took out up to 55-60% of Europes population in 4 years.

My own country lost a million+ people in less then a decade to the famine.

The British empire barely lasted a century at it's height.

and Prisco is confidently predicting he'll be around in centuries...I have doubts our species will be around.

Pandemics, warfare, asteroid strike, climate change (I don't think he believes thats happening or maybe he is one of those "we'll magically fix it" types)...

Some nutter with a biological contagion who wants to see the World name it there are plenty of ways to die in large numbers.

I don't mind and do find it interesting the technology developments happening in the World....but I can't stand bullshit passing for intectual discussion..

PS what he wrote does come across as a faith based thing whether he thinks it does or not.

Wolf said...

Dale, have you ever read Mark Gubrud "Bursting the Ballon" and "Why transhumanism won't work"?

It's really interesting.