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

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Robot Cultists Have Won?

When did that happen?

In something of a surprise move, Singularitarian Transhumanist Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov has declared victory. Apparently, the superlative futurologists have "won." The Robot Cult, it would seem, has prevailed over the ends of the earth.

Usually, when palpable losers declare victory in this manner, the declaration is followed by an exit, either graceful or grumbling, from the stage. But I suspect we will not be so lucky when it comes to Anissimov and his fellow victorious would-be techno-transcendentalizers.

Neither can we expect them "to take their toys and go home," as is usual in such scenes. After all, none of their toys -- none of their shiny robot bodies, none of their sentient devices, none of their immortality pills, none of their immersive holodecks, none of their desktop nanofactories, none of their utility fogs, none of their comic book body or brain enhancement packages, none of their kindly or vengeful superintelligent postbiological Robot Gods -- none of them exist now for them to go home with any more than they ever did, they exist only as they always have done, as wish-fulfillment fancies in their own minds.

Nevertheless, writes Mr. Anissimov:
It’s 2010, and transhumanism has already won. Billions of people around the world would love to upgrade their bodies, extend their youth, and amplify their powers of perception, thought, and action with the assistance of safe and tested technologies. The urge to be something more, to go beyond, is the norm rather than the exception.

I've got news for Mr. Anissimov, but nobody needed a klatch of white guys who can't distinguish science from science fiction and think that this confusion somehow constitutes a coherent "worldview" of all things to come along to call our attention to the fact that most people, as a general matter, ceteris paribus, prefer, you know, being healthy to being unhealthy, being young and vigorous to being stiff and short of breath, being perceptive to being dull, and so on.

Even before Mr. Anissimov's preferred sect of the Robot Cult existed most people daydreamed here and there about how nice it would be to live longer, be younger longer, be comparatively conventionally attractive, and so on. Some folks even spoiled parts of their lives pining after these things, like so many Robot Cultists seem to do, despite their final impossibility and despite the fact that plenty of folks can manage a real measure of meaning, pleasure, satisfaction in life even once youth and easy vigor are gone, after all, if they are sensible and lucky.

So, too, the idea that it is desirable to make recourse to actually safe and actually tested techniques to overcome disease and infirmity is hardly something silly Robot Cultists can take credit for.

The word, Mr. Anissimov, is medicine. Medicine.

Nobody ever joined a Robot Cult to grasp the commonplace notion that medical science is a fine idea. And nobody in their right mind would ever turn to members of Robot Cults if they wanted actual medical advice or sought mainstream organizations educating and agitating for, say, universal access to healthcare, access to treatments for neglected diseases in overexploited regions of the world, patients rights to more reliable information about costs, risks, and benefits of treatments so that their decisions are more informed, and so on.

As for "the urge to be something more, to go beyond," one wonders what it is like to be really so deluded that you might think even for an instant that a few thousand white guys pining for nanobotic genies-in-a-bottle and a Robot God to solve all their problems for them invented or consummated human striving? Can Anissimov and his fellow futurological numbskulls really think there is any sense at all in which they are somehow the first folks to hit upon the notion of excellence or nonconformism? Google "Athens," dood, and get back to me in a decade. This kind of flabbergasting ignorance is what comes of a neglected basic humanistic education, I fear.

Anissimov continues:
At their base, the world’s major two largest religions -- Christianity and Islam -- are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman -- the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self-modification. Then, even angels will get bored of being angels, and expand outwards in a million new directions, resulting in an explosion of species never before seen -- exceeding in magnitude and variation even the Cambrian Explosion of 530 million years ago.

I daresay the Pope and the Ayatollah might have a thing or two to say about Anissimov's honorary induction of their eminences into the Robot Cult. But far be it from me to deny the force of Anissimov's point here. It is, after all, a point I endlessly flog myself in discussing superlative futurology. I have long insisted that the various sects of the Robot Cult -- the transhumanists, the extropians, the singularitarians, the techno-immortalists, the cybernetic-totalists, the nano-cornucopiasts -- are all essentially faith-based initiatives, organized indulgences in wish-fulfillment fantasizing. Giulio Prisco, for example, is a comparatively influential Robot Cultist with whom I have regularly and delightfully sparred on Amor Mundi (for example, here and here and here and here and here), but he has long been far more honest than is usual for a Robot Cultist about the techno-transcendentalizing impulse of the various superlative futurological sects as straightforwardly religious, as witness, for example, his beloved, Order of Cosmic Engineers.

I am an atheist myself, of cheerfully long and resolute standing, and can't say that this sort of enterprise holds much appeal to me. However, I am a pervert and an aesthete and am quite ready to celebrate the paths of private perfection of those who have a more spiritual or mystical bent than my own for the same reasons I dare to hope they can celebrate my own path of private perfection.

Needless to say, I only disapprove of religiosity when its doctrines demand to be treated as proper competitors to warranted scientific descriptions or when its practices take on the coloration of authoritarian moralizing misconstrued as proper politics. Exactly the same goes for the utterances of Robot Cultists.

I have never begrudged the Robot Cultists their geek enthusiasms (I am a big ol' queergeek myself, after all, although, as a rule, I prefer far more playful and plural sf fandoms than the ones Robot Cultists have on offer) or even their techno-transcendentalizing wish-fulfillment fantasies as such (my own aspirations differ, but let a bazillion flowers bloom, I always say). What I disapprove is their pretense that theirs is a scientific enterprise in any relevant sense of the word, that their organizations connect in more than an incidental fashion to serious scientific research or developmental policy-making, that their faith-based initiatives represent identity-based political movements in some serious sense.

All such claims seem to me to be palpably ridiculous and always have done.

Michael Anissimov, in inching toward a recognition of the essentially faith-based substance of his discourse as a superlative futurologist scarcely realizes, I'm sure, the difficulties that beset his effort to pretend to scientific or political seriousness or mainstream legibility once this step is taken. Far be it from me to stop him, however.
Humanity, as it stands today, is a seed, a bridge. We will plant flowers and trees across the universe. All we have to do is survive our embryonic stage, stay in control of our own destiny, and expand outwards in every direction at the speed of light. Ray Kurzweil makes this point in The Singularity is Near, a book that was #1 in the Science & Technology section on Amazon and on the NYT bestsellers list for a reason.

I daresay Kurzweil's pop-futurology sells for the same reason pop-psychology literature sells or pop-investment literature sells: It tells people stuff they desperately want to hear, it oversimplifies complex and demanding subjects, it sells slick prophesies and loose handwaving, it reassures pampered privileged narcissists that they are on a roller coaster to consumer heaven rather than on the road to nowhere.

I quite agree with Anissimov that humanity needs to educate, agitate, and organize to collectively address our shared problems in this moment of unprecedented human-caused distress in the midst of arms proliferation, mass-mediated awareness of injustice, climate catastrophe, and resource descent.

But I humbly propose that there is not a single thing that has ever been said by a futurologist that provides any actual usefulness in any of the efforts of actually serious people struggling to address these problems, or in democratizing the processes through which these problems are addressed. I mean, I don't believe any futurologist ever said anything useful as a futurologist, that is to say, uniquely as a result of being a futurologist, since I daresay even futurologists are able to make sense or repeat sensible things others have said or done as a matter incidental to the futurology they fancy is their real contribution to the world.

As I have said many times, I believe mainstream futurological discourses are essentially marketing and promotional discourses, that they provide the quintessential expression of neoliberal ideological discourse, while I believe that the more extreme superlative futurological discourses that I lampoon in the Robot Cultists reveal in their extremity the essentially faith-based and immaterialist character lodged at the heart of this neoliberal ideology.

Anissimov continues:
The mainstream has embraced transhumanism.

How many people identify as "transhumanists"? Yeah, I thought so.
A movie about using a brain-computer interface to become what is essentially a transhuman being, Avatar, is the highest-grossing box office hit of all time, pulling in $2.7 billion. This movie was made with hard-core science fiction enthusiasts in mind. About them, James Cameron said, “If I can just get ‘em in the damn theater, the film will act on them in the way it’s supposed to, in terms of taking them on an amazing journey and giving them this rich emotional experience.” A solid SL2 film, becoming the world’s #1 film of all time? It would be hard for the world to give transhumanism a firmer endorsement than that.

Notice that James Cameron didn't endorse something called "transhumanism" in this quotation. So it is in fact quite easy to say that this has nothing to do with providing "transhumanism" with an endorsement at all. Quite apart from the fact that here we have a transhumanist, Michael Anissimov, straightforwardly demonstrating that he can't distinguish science from science-fiction, precisely as I say of Robot Cultists all the time, to which accusation they inevitably sputter and pout and stamp in outrage despite endlessly doing it over and over and over again -- but here, for some reason, Anissimov seems to think "transhumanism" is one and the same thing as "science fiction."

Does Anissimov fancy that his small circle of mostly white mostly North Atlantic fanboys invented science fiction? Does he fancy that science fiction would wither without the invigorating breath of life infused in it by Singularitarian Robot Cultists?

I actually find Cameron's narrative too leaden and predictable to provide a "rich emotional experience," however I do find it an enjoyable enough romp to be worth the price of the ticket and the likely eventual purchase of the Director's Cut DVD -- and I appreciate that Cameron has lodged his narrative via a rather flat-footed analogy into some broadly appealing environmentalist and anti-colonialist politics. I could say almost exactly the same sorts of things about the leaden and predictable "emotional experience" of Cameron's Titanic, and about my mild appreciation of the broad-brushstrokes class politics it exhibited. Does Anissimov regard Titanic's prior unprecedented success as a comparable endorsement of his little Robot Cult?

Anissimov says it again:
Mainstream culture around the world has already embraced transhumanism and transhumanist ideals. The question is not whether humanity will move towards a transhumanist future (it will), but how that power is channeled. It’s not hard to convince people to become stronger and healthier if it truly is within their grasp. What we need to worry about is massive power in the hands of individuals with selfish or truly alien and abstract morals.

One is confronted again and again with this curious claim among transhumanist-types. Nothing that Anissimov adduces in support of the claim of an "embrace of transhumanism" is ever an embrace of anything originating in or unique to or in any sense definitive of "transhumanism."

Meanwhile, there actually palpably are discernible describable topics and preoccupations and conventional figures and arguments that are indeed quite characteristic of superlative futurology and Robot Cultists on offer -- among them, in my considered view, reductionism about intelligence, scientism mistaken for science more generally, often a disdain of aspects of physical embodiment, denials or disavowals of the guises under which we confront human finitude, indulgences in hyperbole, wish-fulfillment fantasies about personal transcendence, personal invulnerability or superintelligence, treatments of science fictional tropes and comic book scenarios as predictions rather than fictions, disdain of democratic politics expressed in the form of declarations of faith in spontaneous orders or technocratic-elite decision making all presumably impaired by democratic meddling.

While it is true that many (and I hope voting majorities) of folks in relatively secular multicultural democratic orders do embrace regulated consensus science and its application to our shared problems, it is hard to see this embrace as anything like the endorsement of the marginal and confused ideas that actually characterize superlative futurological discourses and the organizational archipelago of folks devoted to these superlative futurological discourses.

It is true, of course, that "[i]t’s not hard to convince people to become stronger and healthier if it truly is within their grasp." But it is also true that there is nothing a transhumanist has ever said or done that has ever put greater strength or health into the grasp of anybody on earth, or ever will do so, at least not anything they could provide whether or not they ever heard of "transhumanism" of all things.

I do think that superlative futurological discourses have deranged the terms of serious technodevelopmental deliberation, lodging the vicissitudes of technoscientific change into hyperbolic wish-fulfillment fantasies of omnipotence and apocalypse, into terms of optimalities and enhancements and extrapolations and reductions accepted altogether uncritically whatever their problems and disputed stakes, and that in so doing these media-ready incumbent-friendly narratives and frames have managed in the real world to actively diminish access to more equitable distributions of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits to the diversity of its actual stakeholders.

By commandeering commonsense and common cause, superlative futurology has made people less sensible, less secure, less strong, less healthy than they would have been had commonsense and common cause better prevailed instead.

One need only observe the ongoing dissemination of perniciously vapid futurological discourses of "geoengineering" among otherwise serious environmentalists to see how futurological marketing and hyperbole deranges deliberation to the cost of sense and equitable outcomes and at the too-probable cost of planetary catastrophe, or recall the impact on foreign policy in Southeast Asia and Central and South America of futurologists unthinkingly "thinking the unthinkable" in postwar corporate-militarist think-tanks to see how reductionism and rationalization trumped democratic deliberation at the certain cost of generational atrocity.

The last thing we need to be distracted with in an emerging era of non-normalizing genetic, prosthetic, cognitive therapeutic interventions are the suave eugenicists of the transhumanist sect of the Robot Cult calculating the "optimalities" for us and convincing us that this despicable nonsense is what serious health policy looks like. The last thing we need to be distracted with in an emerging era of networked-infowarfare are the dead-enders for GOFAI in the singularitarian sect of the Robot Cult calculating the "Robot God odds" for us and convincing us that this facile nonsense is what serious security policy looks like. The techno-immortalists want to "migrate" their meat brains into cyberspatial immortalization, and they don't even seem to grasp that the word "migrate" in this sentence is a metaphor rather than a policy program or scientific mechanism. The nano-cornucopiasts want to talk about whether robust programmable desktop nanofactories will eliminate scarcity and inaugurate a post-political paradise or reduce the planet in the blink of an eye to goo, all this despite the fact that nobody seriously thinks that is what our actually enormously significant nanoscale interventions are about in the real world. Honestly, to take these discourses seriously on their own terms is to debauch the notion of seriousness, it is to not take seriously the very domains of endeavor, the very scientific vocabularies, the very public initiatives with which these futurological discourse fancy themselves to be preoccupied -- and, even more hilariously, fancy themselves to be some sort of pinnacle of enlightenment.

Anissimov ends his missive on a blandly sensible note, declaring his worry that the technodevelopmental aspirations of "the soldiers, fighters, gangsters, and porn stars lead the way."

I would insist again as I always have done that it is only through the democratization of technodevelopmental deliberation, that is to say the democratization of the procedures through which the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes are assessed, regulated, funded, researched, published, tested, grasped, distributed and so on that we can do our best to accomplish the more equitable, diverse, consensual, democratic outcomes we rightly prefer.

I believe that this requires more funding of education, not just science education but literacy and critical thinking skills and basic civics. I believe that we must spread awareness of the diversity of flourishing human lifeways in the world and in our history and in the cultural imagination. I believe we must strive for a political order in which everybody can organize and vote and run for elected office in the service of their aspirations. I believe we must ensure that people are nonduressed in their contracts and in their cultural/prosthetic decision-making, and that the creation and maintenance of such a scene of consent requires considerably greater security in health, nourishment, income, and shelter than are presently available to most people as well as far more reliable access to knowledge to protect most people from misinformation and fraud.

I believe that the efforts to achieve the outcomes Anissimov claims to care about are taking place almost entirely within the field of completely conventional democratic and progressive politics across the world.

Again, I fail to see how Robot Cultists have contributed the least measure to any of these efforts in the world, certainly there is nothing originating in, unique to, or definitive of any superlative futurological discourse that is making or has ever made any contribution to these efforts in my view.

Given this, I continue to fail to see how vapid protests to the contrary are remotely serious on the part of Robot Cultists. You can claim to "care a lot" about goodness and hope and light, but so long as you demonstrably spend your time mostly talking about the proximate arrival of sooper-parental Robot Gods, or sooper-enhanced hardbodies, or sooper-paradise nano-genies and virtual brothels, and sooper-hardon apocalypse missiles, and all the rest it, is quite clear what you are really all about.

Anyone who claims to care about inequitable or exploitative technodevopmental outcomes (especially anyone pretending to be Green) should drop the bullshit about geo-engineering and nano-bots and thousand-year lifespans and super-AI and direct their attention to the many resources and formulations available through environmental justice discourse (EJ), and anyone who claims to care about the history and sociology of technoscientific change should drop the bullshit about protecting Science from the relativist menace of the humanities departments and direct their attention to the many resources and formulations available through science and technology studies (STS).

Nobody ever joined a Robot Cult because they were serious about the world's problems and that is never going to change.

I am here to say that neither will I ever stop pointing out that fact.

I take technodevelopmental problems far too seriously to concede the least bit of the field to superlative futurological derangement, wish-fulfillment fantasizing, and self-promotional and marketing bull-shit artistry.


jimf said...

> Anissimov continues:
> > At their base, the world’s major two largest religions. . . are transhumanistic.
> > After all, they promise. . . being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman --
> > the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand
> > our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self-modification.

"Man's final destiny is to become what he imagined in the beginning, when he first
learned the idea of the angels."

"Gwyllm Griffiths", in the original (1963) _Outer Limits_ episode
"The Sixth Finger" (screenplay by Ellis St. Joseph, borrowing
heavily from G. B. Shaw's _Back to Methuselah_).

> > Humanity, as it stands today, is a seed, a bridge.

What an Übermensch! (Is there an echo in here?)

"Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman--a rope over an abyss...
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can
be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under..."

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, _Thus Spoke Zarathustra_
(quoted at )

I just happen to be rereading Bob Seidensticker's _Future Hype_.
I wonder if he's been converted too.

Martin said...

Great post.

Martin said...

I should note that the interaction between society and technology is becoming more evident as the Internet becomes fully socialized.

A Facebook Like-ranking algorithm may one day supplant Google's page-ranking algorithm as the dominant way to find information on the web.

The power of the technology is being *created* by our social interaction.

Impertinent Weasel said...

One of the symptoms of delusive beliefs is that you see confirmation of them everywhere. This guy is a textbook case. But at least he tells you what he's up to:

When people write an article about a problem, it’s usually because they have a ready-made answer they want to sell you.

Yes, Mr. Anissimov, nobody would know that better than you.

jimf said...

> the interaction between society and technology is becoming
> more evident as the Internet becomes fully socialized.

Not that, uh, clothes and houses and cars and telephones
and toasters and trains weren't already "evidence" of the "interaction
between society and technology".

Maybe some people who don't get out much, or who don't think
much about history, needed the Internet to point these things out to them.

Boy, talk about making Seidensticker's point for him! He says that once
people get fully used to a technology -- however revolutionary
it was when it was introduced (like the automobile,
say, or the flush toilet) -- it just fades into the background
and only enters consciousness when it misbehaves or isn't
there when needed. It's the **new** stuff, like the home computer and
the Internet, that people think of as "technology" (even if
it's not nearly as big a deal as what came before, like the
electric sockets the new toys expect to be plugged into).
Everything else is BORING. (The printing press? Cheap
paper? The electric-powered high-speed web-fed printng press?
**Newspapers**? Hey man, who reads newspapers? Show me some
**technology**, man!)

Impertinent Weasel said...

I just noticed that the post immediately preceding the one where Anissimov declares transhumanist victory is this one entitled 'Nine Reasons I'm Interested in Survivalism'.

Not that we needed another way to connect transhumanism to reactionary ideologies, but the ease with which Anissimov connects his transhumanist singularitarian beliefs to the activities of the survivalists may be ripe for critique.

jimf said...

> Not that we needed another way to connect transhumanism to
> reactionary ideologies, but the ease with which Anissimov connects
> his transhumanist singularitarian beliefs to the activities of
> the survivalists. . .

Yeah, this has been evident for some time.

There's a big overlap between the "transhumanists", so-called, and the
cryonics enthusiasts. In fact, around the turn of the century,
the "Singularitarian" philosophy (defined for my purpose as the stuff that
started coming out of Eliezer Yudkowsky's keyboard around 1996, though the
term "Singularitarian" is credited to cryonics enthusiast "Mark Plus"
[Mark Potts], and the notion of the technological "Singularity" is credited
to Vernor Vinge) took a sharp detour toward the obsession with
personal immortality characteristic of the cryonicists. Before that,
Yudkowsky's view, which I personally found much more congenial
(or at least less narcissistic) was that the "purpose" of the human
race is to give birth to its intelligent machine successors,
after which humanity can die off like a salmon that has successfully
spawned while the march of intelligence in the universe goes on
without it. I guess this "Cosmist" (as Hugo de Garis calls it)
view didn't sit well with the cryonicists (or with Ted Kaczynski
or Bill Joy, for that matter).

And the cryonicists have a definite Wac[k]o streak. Larry Johnson,
in _Frozen_, talks about the Venturists (a hard-core cryonics "club")
and their property at the Creekside Lodge in Arizona:

(p. 150)

"[David] Pizer was one of those prominent Alcorians who believed
some sort of Armageddon was coming. Pizer, however, was actively
preparing for it, building a survivalist community of cryonicists
that was remote and secluded, yet only an hour and a half away
from Alcor's dewars.

From what I gathered that weekend, Pizer's Creekside Lodge was
one part survivalist camp, one part religious cult compound, and
one part travel motel. . .

Pizer and his followers, though, referred to the compound as
Ventureville, which was in itself pretty creepy. Pizer lived there
with his wife and John Grigg, his most dedicated disciple. Grigg
was the manager of the Creekside Lodge, but his main function,
as far as I could tell, was to worship the ground Pizer walked
on. . .

Pizer had formed his own religion, originally called the Church
of Venturism, then renamed the Society for Venturism (though it
remained, on the books, a religion). . .

Spending time with them on their own turf, so to speak, I realized
that they considered themselves frontiersmen. More than just the
outdoor types, they were survivalists. I saw cases upon cases of
canned food and water stored around Ventureville, and vast
amounts of medical supplies. . .

Being on David Pizer's property gave me the creeps. There was
a real quaint, rustic, log-cabin feel to the place but at
the same time there were the stores of food, water, and
medical supplies that pointed to some darker preparedness.
When I mentioned the cases of food and water, Charles [Platt] raised
his eyebrows and said, "Have you seen the weapons?"

These were the hardest-core true believers of the entire
hard-core cryonicist bunch. After seeing them fawn over El Patron,
I believe that to say they worshipped Pizer would not be
an exaggeration. . . When I dealt personally with the Branch
Davidians in Waco, I saw people under the control of a charismatic
leader, ready to kill or die for him. I saw that same look
in the eyes of the Venturists. . .

When that weekend training session finished, I was relieved
to get the hell out of Ventureville."

jimf said...

> Anissimov continues:
> . . .
> [E]ven angels will get bored of being angels, and expand outwards
> in a million new directions, resulting in an explosion of species
> never before seen -- exceeding in magnitude and variation even the
> Cambrian Explosion of 530 million years ago. . .

Anissimov is waxing mystical. Since he's co-opted
Christianity into the transhumanist fold (something of which
some Mormons would no doubt approve, but which might
well give other transhumanists a belly-ache, though the
echoes of the Christian Rapture in transhumanist thought -- especially
the Singularitarian variety -- have long been apparent),
maybe a quote from C. S. Lewis's science-fictional
treatment of Christianity (or Lewisianity, as his
detractors call it) might be appropriate.

"And is the whole story of my race no more
than this?" said Ransom.

"I see no more than beginnings in the history
of the Low Worlds [Venus, Earth, and Mars],"
said Tor the King. "And in yours a failure
to begin. You talk of evenings before the
day has dawned. I set forth even now on
ten thousand years of preparation -- I, the
first of my race, my race the first of races,
to begin. I tell you that when the last
of my children has ripened and ripeness has
spread from them to all the Low Worlds, it
willl be whispered that the morning is at

"I am full of doubts and ignorance," said
Ransom. . . "To what is all driving? What
is the morning you speak of?"

"The beginning of the Great Game, of the Great
Dance," said Tor. "I know little of it as
yet. Let the eldila [angels] speak."

. . .

"We would not talk of it like that. . .
The Great Dance does not wait
to be perfect until the peoples of the Low
Worlds are gathered into it. We speak not
of when it will begin. It has begun from
always. . ."

And by now the thing must have passed altogether
out of the region of sight as we understand it.
For he says that the whole solid figure of these enamoured
and inter-animated circlings was suddenly revealed
as the mere superfices of a far vaster pattern
in four dimensions, and that figure as the
boundary of yet others in other worlds: till
suddenly as the movement grew yet swifter,
the interweaving yet more ecstatic, the
relevance of all to all yet more intense,
as dimension was added to dimension and that
part of him which could reason and remember
was dropped farther and farther behind that
part of him which saw, even then, at the very
zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten
up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into
the hard blue burning of the sky, and a
simplicity beyond all comprehension. . .

-- Lewis, _Perelandra_

Michael Anissimov said...

Impertinent Weasel, can you tell me where you personally see the delusion?

Also, it's improper to suggest that the Singularity Institute is mostly composed of white men. 3/7 of our staff is composed of women.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that human striving began with transhumanists. However, transhumanists have the ambition to take it to a level that goes beyond human. If you wish to critique this, there are two possible ways: lack of technological feasibility, and/or non-tech-based critiques. You seem to use both critiques in the same breath, but the fact is that you are familiar with so little science (not to say that the rest of your knowledge is useless -- not at all) that you really can't say. This is important because technological feasibility matters.

Dale Carrico said...

It really is awfully cute, Michael, when you Robot Cultists pretend that techno-immortalization schemes and handwaving about superintelligent Robot Gods and Nano-Santa are, you know: Science!

You say that transhumanists have the "ambition to take [striving] to a level that goes beyond human." Striving -- to the Extreme, Man! I mean, er, Sooper-Man!

I submit that your utterance is either an awkwardly phrased commonplace if I am reading it aright, or else something outright nonsensical. Quite apart from opening yourselves up to ridicule given how blandly drearily lamely human you guys incessantly remain while in the midst of endlessly trumpeting your sooper-human striving all the time...

How do you adjudicate between that statement of yours and one that would declare your ambition instead to be "beneath human" (I would find that just as silly as yours) or "human, all too human" (a more apt description in my view)?

What if all striving contains an element of such "beyondness," what if "mere" humanity is already defined precisely by that dimension of striving around the customary?

What if as usual you are just saying something utterly commonplace -- like, culture is important -- and that you fancy to be original just because of, well, your flabbergasting ignorance. Or else what if you are saying something that isn't commonplace but instead makes no sense whatsoever? I have noticed that futurologists often exhibit this vacuity-or-insanity, you decide problem.

Do you think, by the way, that there is something supremely scientific about throwing these epic self-promotional slogans around? Are you going to tell me how mush-minded I am for failing to talk to you about the technical feasability of your ambitious techno-transcedentalization program?

Don't make me laugh... even more.

jimf said...

The finest expression of the Myth in English does not come from Bridges,
nor from Shaw, nor from Wells, nor from Olaf Stapledon. It is

> As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
> Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs:
> And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
> In form and shape compact and beautiful,
> In will, in action free, companionship,
> And thousand other signs of purer life;
> So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
> A power more strong in beauty, born of us
> And fated to excel us, as we pass
> In glory that old Darkness. (II 206-215)

Thus Ocean, in Keats' _Hyperion_, nearly forty years before _The Origin
of Species_. And on the Continent we have the _Ring of the Nibelungs_. . .
[Wagner] may, for all I know, have been a bad man. . . But as a mythopoeic
poet he is incomparable. The tragedy of the Evolutionary Myth has never been
more nobly expressed than in his Wotan. . . That he himself knew quite well what he
was writing about can be seen from his letter to August Rockel of 1854.
"The progress of the whole drama shows the necessity of recognizing and
submitting to the change, the diversity, and multiplicity, the
eternal novelty of the Real. Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing
his own downfall. This is all we have to learn from the history of Man --
to will what is necessary and to bring it ourselves to pass."

If Shaw's _Back to Methuselah_ were really, as he supposed, the work of
a prophet or a pioneer ushering in a new Myth, its predominantly comic
tone and its generally low emotional temperature would be inexplicable. . .
[But] the ease with which he plays with the Myth shows that the Myth is
fully digested and already senile. Shaw is the Lucian or the Snorri
of this mythology; to find its Aeschylus or its Elder Edda you must
go back to Keats and Wagner.

This, then, is the first proof that popular Evolution is a Myth. In making
it, Imagination runs ahead of scientific evidence. . . [I]f science had
not met the imaginative need, science would not have been so popular.
But probably every age gets, within certain limits, the science it

In the second place, we have internal evidence. Popular Evolutionism
or Developmentalism differs **in content** from the Evolution of the
real biologists. . .

In the science, Evolution is a theory about **changes**: in the Myth, it
is a fact about **improvements**. Thus a real scientist like Professor
J. B. S. Haldane is at pains to point out that popular ideas of Evolution
lay a wholly unjustified emphasis on those changes which have rendered
creatures (by human standards) 'better' or more interesting. He adds,
'We are therefore inclined to regard progress as the rule in evolution.
Actually, it is the exception, and for every case of it there are ten
of degeneration.' ("Darwinism Today", _Possible Worlds_, p. 28). . .
In the popular mind the word 'Evolution' conjures up a picture of things
moving 'onwards and upwards', and of nothing else whatsoever. . .
Already, before science had spoken, the mythical imagination knew the kind
of 'Evolution' it wanted. It wanted the Keatsian and Wagnerian kind:
the gods superseding the Titans, and the young, joyous, careless, amorous
Siegfried superseding the care-worn, anxious, treaty-entangled Wotan.
If science offers any instances to satisfy that demand, they will be
eagerly accepted. If it offers any instances that frustrate it, they
will simply be ignored.

Again, for the scientist Evolution is purely a biological theorem. . .
It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological
statements. . .

(quoted in full at )

jimf said...

> I daresay the Pope and the Ayatollah might have a thing or two
> to say about Anissimov's honorary induction of their eminences
> into the Robot Cult.

One of the sticking points, of course, is that however similar
might be the >Hists' mystical hope of transcendence, Christianity (at least)
says that you can't get there within space and time as we know
them ("within the Circles of the World", as Tolkien says).
You have to die first, and be reborn into the eternal realm.

As far as hopes of perfectibility **within** the material universe,
Lewis (for example) is, in contrast to the lyricism at the end
of _Perelandra_, a bit of a wet blanket here. But his sober
analysis is quite on the mark:

(from C. S. Lewis's "The Funeral of a Great Myth")

The great Myth of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. . .
[is] that picture of reality which resulted. . ., not logically
but imaginatively, from some of the most striking and (so to speak)
marketable theories of the real scientists. I have heard this
myth called 'Wellsianity'. The name is a good one in so far as it
does justice to the share which a great imaginative writer bore
in building it up. . . [but]. . . [i]t suggests. . . an error about
the date at which the Myth became dominant; and it also suggests
that the Myth affected only the 'middle-brow' mind. In fact it is
as much behind Bridges' _Testament of Beauty_ as it is behind
the work of Wells. It dominates minds as different as those
of Professor Alexander and Walt Disney. It is implicit in nearly
every modern article on politics, sociology, and ethics.

I call it a myth because it is, as I have said, the imaginative
and not the logical result of what is vaguely called 'modern science'. . .
What the Myth uses is a selection from the scientific theories --
a selection made at first, and modified afterwards, in obedience
to imaginative and emotional needs. . . It therefore treats its
**data** with great freedom -- selecting, slurring, expurgating,
and adding at will.

The central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call 'Evolution'
or 'Development' or 'Emergence'. . . I do not mean that the doctrine
of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. . . It is
a genuine scientific hypothesis. But we must sharply distinguish between
Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or
Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth. . .

The clearest and finest poetical expressions of the Myth come before
_The Origin of Species_ was published (1859) and long before it had
established itself as scientific orthodoxy. . . Almost before the
scientists spoke, certainly before they spoke clearly, imagination
was ripe for it.

Athena Andreadis said...

My policy is not to waste time on marginal stuff at the flat-earth intellectual level. But Michael Anissimov is like a wind-up toy (or a Republican senator): when you point out facts, he repeats vapid talking points without a single change -- such as that three of the SIAI staff (read: unpaid or barely paid interns, but none of the officers, directors, board members, etc) are female. Regarding transhumorist demographics:

Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Incidentally, Giulio Prisco has come to the conclusion that "I joined the bioluddite camp". I'm not a joiner, especially of religious groups that willfully conflate wet dreams with reality. Still, even someone with his disingenuousness (or is it blunted faculties?) must realize how silly he sounds when he tries to stick this label on a molecular neurobiologist who's conducting basic research in mental retardation and dementia -- and is in favor of careful, informed genetic engineering, to boot.

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

jimf said...

> I'm not a joiner, especially of religious groups that willfully
> conflate wet dreams with reality.

I was browsing in SF author Charlie Stross's blog the other day,
and I came across his rather saturnine (no pun intended ;-> )
analysis from three years ago of the prospects for interstellar
travel and of colonization within our own solar system.

The article generated over 800 replies, mostly of shrieking protest
of the kind familiar from the responses of >Hists to Dale's blog.

Here's a thumbnail of the article:
The High Frontier, Redux

. . .I write SF for a living. Possibly because of this, folks seem to think
I ought to be an enthusiastic proponent of space exploration and space
colonization. . .

The long and the short of what I'm trying to get across is quite simply that,
in the absence of technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that,
furthermore, does things that from today's perspective appear to play fast
and loose with the laws of physics — interstellar travel for human beings
is near-as-dammit a non-starter. . .

What about our own solar system?

After contemplating the vastness of interstellar space, our own solar
system looks almost comfortingly accessible at first. . .

But when we start examining the prospects for interplanetary colonization
things turn gloomy again. . .

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get
back to me about the rest of the solar system!

and here's a characteristic response by Stross:

Charlie Stross | June 17, 2007 17:30


Matt @105:

> I was quite disappointed with your latest rant, it seems you must
> have had a very bad week and perhaps a brain tumor. How else to
> imagine why a science fiction author would so publicly, stridently
> and logically tear to shreds the hopes of anyone in space travel
> that you yourself have helped to kindle? And with such... zest?

... Because I dislike willful ignorance and I hate being told
comforting lies.

In a nutshell -- and my third [non-introductory] paragraph should
have been a honking great flashing neon Time Square sized sign --
the space settler enthusiasts have basically swallowed a cartload
of ideologically weighted propaganda, cunningly combined with emotive
appeals to abstract (and thus unfalsifiable) ideals. Your use of
the phrase "the high frontier" is itself a telling one -- and you
use the term "frontier" repeatedly. Then you start going on about
indoctrinating impressionable young minds to "absorb vast perspectives
and faith in humanity and science" as if you think I've got some
quasi-mystical **duty** to teach Ideologically Correct
Gerard K. O'Neil Thought, and by implication, any kid who **doesn't**
buy what is effectively a collectivist pie-in-the-sky daydream is
deficient, unimaginative, and foolish, and any SF writer who
refuses to pander to this political creed is evil and wrong.

I don't like being told what thoughts I'm allowed to hint. I like to
**question assumptions**. And this is just the result of my interrogating
some of the assumptions underlying space opera, using the toolkit of
Hard Science Fiction -- i.e., trust the numbers. You can take it as a
default likely outcome. . .

Michael @110: the sad thing is, I think a whole lot of them really
believe it. As in, they **believe**. It's not rationally grounded
optimism with an underpinning of facts, it's religion in disguise.

Martin said...

Athena, in your H+ Magazine article "Ghost in the Shell", you write:

Unless the transfer of a mind retains the brain, there will be no continuity of consciousness. Regardless of what the post-transfer identity may think, the original mind with its associated brain and body will still die

Are you aware of Eliezer Yudkowsky's rather detailed account of quantum mechanics and how it bears on this problem?

You probably should read the full Quantum Physics Sequence here if you're not familiar with QM, but the relevant post is "Quantum Mechanics and Personal Identity".

Yudkowsky writes: "If you read through the introduction.. to basic quantum mechanics, you will be able to see that the naive concept of personal identity - the notion that you are made up of tiny pieces with individual identities that persist through time, and that your identity follows the "same" tiny pieces - is physical nonsense. The universe just doesn't work in a way which would let us make that interpretation...

"Mind you, my audacious claim is not that uploading preserves identity - this audacious claim has been made many times before. I am claiming that once you grasp modern physics, you can actually see this as obvious, even if it would not be obvious to someone thinking in terms of Newtonian billiard balls in classical physics [emphasis mine]. This is much more audacious, and I am well aware of how unlikely that sounds; but I believe that I have fully supported that claim... if you read all the way [through the Quantum Physics Sequence] the end."

Athena Andreadis said...

Martin, I know QM quite well, having graduated two courses short of a second degree in physics (though my ability to solve Hamiltonians has rusted). I'm also familiar with the truly silly ideas about quantum consciousness floated by Penrose and Hameroff, among others, and discussed them in my book, To Seek Out New Life.

Bottom line 1: QM is not a complete theory yet, because it hasn't incorporated gravity. Anyone who claims to "understand" how the universe works is either deluded or a charlatan, particularly since the human mind is poor at parsing some things (not just "exotic" ones at the very large or very small ends of the spectrum -- we are terrible at statistics, for example).

That does not mean that anything in the universe, including our brain/mind, is unknowable. It just means we don't know everything yet; it also means that these are bona fide complex phenomena not amenable to soundbite concepts -- including the lines you posted, which show that Yudkowsky's description of "identity particles" is either a straw man or a primitive bone(headed) hammer.

Bottom line 2: all biological processes are rather firmly in the macro domain: even molecules are several orders of magnitude larger than elementary particles and all quantum effects have long decohered by the time we reach the level of a mind and its consciousness.

Bottom line 3: I have a full-time job as a scientist in addition to my writing, so I have to be picky about what I read in terms of intrinsic value. So I won't be reading Yudkowsky -- ever.

Dale Carrico said...

I heart Athena!

Impertinent Weasel said...

Impertinent Weasel, can you tell me where you personally see the delusion?

Nothing against you in particular, but the self-reinforcing dreamworlds of the deluded are notoriously difficult to puncture. There's nothing I could point out to you that Dale hasn't already.

RadicalCoolDude said...

Carrico: I heart Athena!

Seriously! Whenever a transhumorist (don't you love that moniker!) gets interviewed by a mainstream journalist, Athena Andreadis should be their go-to person for a witty rebuttal. :)

Martin said...

Athena: I have to be picky about what I read in terms of intrinsic value. So I won't be reading Yudkowsky -- ever.

You really should, since you completely misunderstood Yudkowsky's point. Granted, the point was not well explained in the "sound bite" that I quoted. That was merely the conclusion. However I did suggest you read the background material to fully understand it.

Yudkowsky's claims have nothing to do with Penrose's quantum speculations on mind (that is, Y. has never suggested in writing (to my knowledge) that consciousness is created by quantum events). It has to do with the idea that particles don't have unique identities.

Imagine two particles (of the same type) in a container at specific locations. The state of the system can be described by its wavefunction. Now imagine switching the particles into each other's locations. The wavefunction would not change. The state of the system would be identical, which means the particles themselves have no unique identity (this point is elaborated in posts like Join Configurations and No Individual Particles.

It is from this that Yudkowsky argues that there's nothing special about a particular brain, and that making a perfect or near-perfect copy would create a mind that is indistinguishable from the original -- not just indistinguishable to us because we can't tell the difference, but indistinguishable in terms of any quantum physical description of the system.

Michael Anissimov said...

Athena, your statement about the women in SIAI is not true at all. For last year's Summit, Aruna did a tremendous amount of work, and will be doing a huge amount of work for this year's Summit as well. She organized all the volunteers and worked as our head of donor relations.

SIAI does not have "officers". The board of directors is based primarily on those who have donated the most to our organization.

Amy is our Chief Operating Officer and is certainly not a low-paid intern. She is paid a competitive salary, in line with the fact that she is a law school graduate.

Anna S. is an "officer" in SIAI if there ever was one -- she was in charge of the 2008, 2009, and 2010 SIAI Visiting Fellow programs. She is the primary person who screens applicants to our Visiting Fellow program, and we gave her talks top billing at the Singularity Summit 2009. She is not a low-paid intern either.

I feel sort of ridiculous spelling this all out explicitly like this, but I have to respond to slander and attacks. The reason I keep repeating myself is that you keep making statements that are demonstrably false and contradict my daily experience. My primary co-workers are Michael, Amy, Anna, and Aruna, all of whom are very important to the organization, so it is ridiculous when you imply that women are not involved or are put in second place.

Athena, are you against every group that primarily consists of men? How can a group that primarily consists of men ever become inclusive if women like you write articles that basically imply that all transhumanists are sexist? Like some other critics of transhumanism, your primary hangup seems to be the idea of mind uploading: it unnerves you so greatly that you will grasp for any tool available to destroy the philosophical movement where it is discussed.

Athena Andreadis said...

Oh, hey, are there mosquitoes whining in this e-room?

And thanks for the hearts, guys! *smile*

jimf said...

> there's nothing special about a particular brain, and that making a perfect
> or near-perfect copy would create a mind that is indistinguishable from
> the original

Michael Anissimov said...

Athena, I truly hope I never reach the point of being so self-righteous that I call another human being a mosquito.

jimf said...

> I truly hope I never reach the point of being so self-righteous
> that I call another human being a mosquito.

"Mosquito" is actually a rather charming thing to be called.

The epithets used by by Ayn Rand (beloved of so many transhumanists)
and her followers is rather worse.

"Letters to the editor in defense of Ayn Rand dismiss her critics not
just as 'hoodlums' and 'thugs,' but as cockroaches.' Rand herself deploys
'vermin' in one letter and her orthodox heirs would dismiss Barbara Branden,
until late 1968 ranked number three in the Objectivist movement, as 'lice.'
Considering that lice and cockroaches are owed no moral consideration,
and that in any case, as Nathaniel Branden put it, 'once somebody is
declared an *enemy* of Ayn Rand, all morality is suspended,' one shudders
at what *some* literal-minded Objectivists might do to an enemy they
saw as posing a threat to the future of the Objectivist movement and
hence of civilization."

_The Ayn Rand Cult_ by Jeff Walker, p. 18 said...


I would just like to add that although you are mostly correct when
you say "After all, none of their toys --... -- none of them exist now"

One could say that we have just seen the great grand dad of one
of the technologies you mention come to market. I admit that you
need quite a bit of imagination, but it is clear, at least to me that,
that the Cubelets from Modular Robotics (
is a first step on the road to utility fog, or Self-reconfiguring
modular robotics (SRCMR) which is the name of the actual research area that
works on developing this.

And I know that there are more advanced versions coming reasonably
soon, so utility fog, or SRCMR might not be that far away, although
the resolution to do a holodeck is still ways off I am certain that even
with larger modules we will be able to do amazing things.

All my best,

This Guy said...

Truly lovely attitudes in here. Athena didn't even address Micheal's points, instead choosing to dismiss a proper answer and calling him a mosquito.

Dale Carrico said...

Hi, "Guy," Sometimes calling Michael a mosquito is the proper answer. (I keed! I keed!) For those special times when it is not, however, you will be pleased to discover I have devoted many thousands of words to his points over the years, some silly, some serious, some sublime, some acerbic. The sidebar addresses many futurological and technoscientific topic, organized chronologically by theme. By all means, explore the world of a knowledgeable critic of superlative futurology... if you dare! (dun dun DUN)

Dale Carrico said...

Dear "Envelope" -- it is indeed true that futurologists are usually less interested in the discussion of the proximate terms (especially social and political ones) articulating the emergence, circulation, and distribution of actual effects of technoscientific discoveries and applications in the real world, than in treating them instead as burning bushes out of which the Robot God speaks reassuring words to True Believers that they are one more step closer to the arrival of The Future whereupon they will all be techno-transcendentalized into superintelligence, superabundance, and superlongevity and so on and so forth. While you are right to point out that such attitudes involve "imagination," you would be wrong to propose that they are the only ones that do so. It takes a certain "imagination" to confuse marketing packages and press releases (such as the one to which you have pointed me in your comment) as science rather than sales, for example, but that is hardly the only thing to which one might usefully or delightfully devote one's imagination.