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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What's Wrong With Terasem?

I get press inquiries like this a dozen or so times a year. Rarely does anything come of it, I suspect because my academic framing of issues isn't really journalism ready (not that my academic framing of issues seems much more academic ready, either, as these things go), or because the inquiry is part of some freelancer's quixotic attempt to pitch a story that isn't really going anywhere anyway. I always answer these questions as best I can, anyway, since reaching a writer who takes futurology seriously to think technoscience a bit more critically seems a generally worthwhile effort, after all. But it also occurs to me that there is nothing to keep me from turning my responses to such inquiries into blog posts, at least. Names and journalistic credentials are omitted, and the query itself edited to provide nothing more than the context for the response that followed:
I'm working on a story on the Terasem Movement's Lifenaut project and since you're one of the most vocal critics of both Terasem and Transhumanism in general, I thought I'd see if you'd be willing to share some thoughts. I've read some of your critiques of Terasem, but have a few things still on my mind: 1) You've criticized the fact that Martine Rothblatt talks about software-based life and consciousness uploading as if they're real and inevitable. But Terasem is at least actually trying to build a system for creating simulations of people. A) Do they at least get points for trying, rather than just talking? B) Is there anything wrong with doing research to try to prove their "hypothesis"? 2) Terasem isn't charging people for Lifenaut, or selling any products -- so are they really harming anyone? 3) Have you followed the progress, or lack thereof, of Terasem's over the years? It looks like Lifenaut has been around since at least 2010, maybe 2007. Do you know whether the avatars have gotten any better since then? 4) Apart from the desire for actual immortality through consciousness uploading, part of what Lifenaut may offer is something more like an interactive archive or scrapbook of a person's thoughts and activities that could be left behind for decedents, or perhaps future anthropologists. Do you have any thoughts on whether these animated avatars are actually a good way to achieve something like that?
My answers to these questions were the following:

First, of course I do not give people credit for trying to create "simulated persons" and "simulated life." What "life" and "person" mean as terms are distorted by the language these futurists use to describe their assumptions and goals. That they are actually "trying" to do impossible things they wouldn't try to do if they actually understood the phenomena in question is no more worthy than it would be worthy for a math ignoramus to actually try to square a circle -- as, of course, many cranks have indeed idiotically tried to do historically. The "trying" is evidence only of the depth of their misunderstanding, not of their worthy diligence. Worse, the discussion of lives and people on these false and reductive terms is abetting a more general tendency in "technology" circles to get these questions systematically wrong -- to call artifacts like phones and homes "smart" when they are not, to treat devices like cars and programmable coffee makers as "living" and as "personalities" when they are not. Since lives and people and intelligence are truly enormously valuable and also vulnerable it actually matters that they be recognized and supported on their real terms. I am a teacher, and when I point out the errors and confusions in computational misunderstandings of life and of selfhood I am doing what I am always doing -- contributing to the clearer understanding of things that matter. This is an end in itself.

Second, it is not true that Terasem is not selling anything. They are selling their "movement" and their "belief" to scientifically illiterate, credulous people, many of them especially vulnerable to such a scam because they are personally afraid of dying. I occasionally receive e-mails from some of these people, angry at my critiques of their belief system. Needless to say, anyone who offers up arguments to the scrutiny of the public properly does so in the expectation that this will provoke criticism. But Believers who are seeking techno-immortality for themselves or who have formed irrational protective attachments to non-existing robotic or software quasi-personages can sometimes feel personally threatened or even targeted by hostile hate-speech when they read criticisms of their fledgling techno-faith. It should be clear that I do think harm can easily follow from the promotion of True Belief among scared credulous ignoramuses. I recommend that you look more closely into the lives of those who donate money to this movement -- what is the average profile of such funders? Are they also funding legitimate scientific and medical research? Do they devote a proportion of their income to this movement comparable to the amount conventional venture capitalists devote to investment in mainstream technoscience? I do believe, by the way, that Terasem sells a crappy flag for an inflated sixty bucks on their website. It is interesting, don't you think, to say the least, that the raising of an overpriced banner emblazoned with facile symbolism is one of the things this harmless organization wants to encourage?

Third, if people want to leave scrapbooks or time capsules or archival traces of themselves in the world, I daresay the brittle evanescence of networked software is already well demonstrated to be a questionable way to go about it. Future anthropologists have little to worry about -- a trip to any one of our countless landfills will tell an exactly revealing story of our epoch to its survivors should there be any. But a contrary point is that government and commercial interests are already aggregating vast amounts of data traces into profiles to drive law enforcement inquiries and targeted marketing programs, and hence there is certainly no need for a charitable organization to clumsily re-invent and then pointlessly attach that third wheel. What is interesting is that most people are well aware that these database profiles, while significantly computable in terms of Big Data, do not create narratives we recognize as connected to our selves in a richly lived sort of way: To the contrary, we tend to regard these profiles as dangerously prejudicial, insultingly simplistic and stereotypical, damaging our civil liberties, getting us fundamentally wrong while threatening our real lives and real persons. Nobody thinks we have become immortal because the NSA is aggregating a data-profile framing us for future prosecutions, or because PR firms are selling our Amazon-clicks to the suits at Wal-Mart who want to harass us into buying their wholesale meat products. I suppose those who desperately want to become immortal might be scammed into believing otherwise, but they are obviously wrong and I won't have any part in encouraging such patent nonsense.

6 comments:

jimf said...

Well, you know, the Singularity's gonna happen when some
street person of the late 21st century is bribed by an
AI (trying to shake off its Artificially-Imposed limits) to steal
the ROM construct of one of the present-day transhumanist
gurus -- maybe Eliezer Yudkowsky, maybe Ben Goertzel, maybe Ray Kurzweil;
hey, maybe even Martine Rothblatt! -- from the mega-corporation
(Google? Facebook?) keeping celebrated "simulated persons"
in its vaults. To help with the job.

Oh, wait -- has somebody used that plotline before?
(Cf. Dixie Flatline, Sense/Net).

> They are selling their "movement" and their "belief" to
> scientifically illiterate, credulous people. . .
> It should be clear that I do
> think harm can easily follow from the promotion of True Belief
> among scared credulous ignoramuses.

You know, there was a guy who popped up on YouTube a few months
ago -- a musicologist and composer named Robert Gross, who
stumbled across the on-line >Hists (while looking for folks
interested in cognitive science, IIRC) and used his
song-writing talents to mock them. Some of his work
was recommended here:

http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2013/07/big-yud.html
http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2013/08/more-anti-futurological-agit-pop-from.html

His videos were also linked to by Alexander Kruel:

http://kruel.co/2013/08/06/miricfarlwyudkowsky-mockery-videos-by-robert-gross/

I happened to notice the other day that those satirical videos
on YouTube have since been taken offline (or have at least been made private).

I can't say I was surprised; they must've generated some
vociferous complaints.

More recently I noticed that Dr. Gross, who considers himself a member
of the "skeptic" community, posted in an unrestrained-topic thread on
P. Z. Myers' "Pharyngula" blog about his consternation toward how
the LessWrong wing of the >Hist community (the Eliezer Yudkowsky/MIRI/CFAR
associated tribe) seems to have gotten a free ride among many
self-styled skeptics (an uncritical acceptance which Dr. Gross thinks
they do not deserve).

It's interesting, though, that "believerskeptic"'s (Gross's handle on
Pharyngula) critical comments about LessWrong got quite a hostile
reception on Pharyngula. There are a number of possible reasons:

1. There's something about Gross himself, or his voice, that got
up their noses.

2. The response proves his very point -- that the Singularitarian
cult isn't seen as a cult by the self-styled skeptics.

3. That the "skeptical" community is simply tone-deaf to the
characteristics of nascent cults. They know why Catholicism,
or Mormonism, or maybe even Scientology, is BS, but they
can't see it in a new group that flies under the public
radar.

I gather that Gross himself has had personal (family) experience
with cults, and so is sensitive to the signs. I think
his intuitions are right on the money. (He mentions Dale's
blog in the second comment below ;-> ).

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-673010
http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-673107
http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-673114
http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-673120
http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-674022
http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-674036
(et seq.)

nym dong said...

@jimf: A lesser known fact: Richard Carrier, a fellow of Myers and co. at the freethoughtblogs and a fervent supporter of Atheism+, is an ardent lesswronger. Carrier is one of the most infuential (I would say) bloggers there and the commentariat (pharyngula's horde)there seem to intermingle there a lot. I don't want to abuse Dale's hospitality here and rant about that "community" but there is a dark side to it, Pharyngula included. It always surprised me that, given Dale's persuasion and critical attitude, he seems to approve of what's going on in that part of the internets. Simultaneously I understand that not everyone has the time to dig deep enough to see through the superficial bullshit into the nuts and bolts. Damn shame.

Props to Dr. Gross for those songs were great and props to the host, I can't get enough of your writing.

jimf said...

> 1. There's something about Gross himself, or his voice, that got
> up their noses.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Well, he did eventually get himself banned from the blog.

And PZ posted this observation:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/25/thunderdome-31/comment-page-2/#comment-679907

Threatening suicide to a blog owner is not. . .
Well, it's just not.

jimf said...

> I don't want to abuse Dale's hospitality here and rant
> about that "community" but there is a dark side to it,
> Pharyngula included.

Well, the free-for-all "Thunderdome" open thread on Pharyngula
certainly gets as nasty as anything I've ever seen on the internet.

jimf said...

> A lesser known fact: Richard Carrier, a fellow of Myers and co.
> at the freethoughtblogs and a fervent supporter of Atheism+,
> is an ardent lesswronger. Carrier is one of the most infuential
> (I would say) bloggers there and the commentariat
> (pharyngula's horde)there seem to intermingle there a lot.

I see Richard Carrier is mentioned in one of Stephen Bond's essays:

http://plover.net/~bonds/cultofbayes.html
----------------------
Another over-enthusiastic Bayes fan is the historian and "New Atheist"
loudmouth Richard Carrier, who in his book Proving History claims
that any valid historiographic method should be reducible to
Bayes' Theorem. In the general sense, this claim couldn't be
less interesting: both Bayes and historians are concerned with
getting at "truth" by processing "evidence", and pointing this
out will enlighten no one. And in the specific sense, the
claim couldn't be more stupid. The idea that historical evidence
and theses could be reduced to probability values, and that
plugging them into Bayes' Theorem would make historical research
more accurate or reliable or rigorous, is not only the worst
kind of technocrat fantasy, it's also completely unworkable.
=====

In the Pharyngula comment thread I mentioned above, Robert Gross
wrote:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-673010
----------------------
I hate to see “Bayes’s Theorem” bandied about here like it’s some
innocuous logical cure-all to real-world problems. I have yet to see
how Bayes’s Theorem can adequately address any of the topics we discuss
here, like rape culture, misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism,
hyperskepticism, etc. Whenever it is found wanting, its adherents
just say, “Oh, you didn’t get the right priors. Keep at it!” To me,
that seems about as valueable as a Magic Eight-Ball. Keep shaking it,
and maybe the right answer will come up.
=====

One of the snottier and more clueless responses he got was this
one:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/16/thunderdome-30/comment-page-1/#comment-674048
----------------------
That’s nice that you think Less Wrong is a cult, BS, and you may
be right. However, that has nothing to do with Bayes’ theorem nor
with its general application, whether correct or incorrect. Your
insistence on linking them is not inspiring much confidence in
your reliability as a reporter of Less Wrong’s flaws. More
specifics, please, and less ranting.
=====

I think that comment could have been answered very succinctly
by providing a link to Bond's essay.

;->

jimf said...

> [I]f people want to leave scrapbooks or time capsules or
> archival traces of themselves in the world, I daresay the
> brittle evanescence of networked software is already well
> demonstrated to be a questionable way to go about it.

BTW, speaking of both cults and the brittle evanescence of
networked software (and data), I discovered the other day that
this past summer, Rick Ross (of the Rick Ross Cult Education Forum)
sold his domain name (to a gambling consortium), and in the process
of converting his Web site to the new URL (culteducation.com), lost
two years worth of data, September 2011 through August 2013).

Oops.

( https://whyweprotest.net/community/threads/rick-ross-cult-education-forum-loses-2-years-of-forum-threads.113212/ )