Monday, November 22, 2010

Thinking Through Transhumanism

While it's still flying well below the radar, in my opinion the transhuman question is set to cause a great deal of dislocation and social upheaval when it finally gets to a state where it lets people do more than just talk about it; probably toward mid-century is my guess. The confluence of genetic technologies, cognitive technologies, and perhaps others that haven't got off the ground yet are set to upend what it means to be human, by providing us the tools to "improve" or "upgrade" ourselves - frequently upgrade, as if a hundred thousand years of slow development from the hot savannah is no more extraordinary than a buggy software release.

Yesterday Randy McDonald over at A Bit More Detail posted about the existential risks of first-generation transhumanism, peppered with quotes from other articles that have addressed the issue of transhumanism and the future. In particular, he quotes a post from Kyle Munkittrick at Science Not Ficton - a blog that, incidentally, I've never read before - arguing that improvement of the human mind is a necessity for the survival of our species: "to prevent SkyNet and global warming," in Munkittrick's words.

My view? Bullshit. Transhumanists may argue that a radical reengineering of the self is necessary to plow through the problems we've made for ourselves, but that's the key issue - they're problems we made for ourselves. The issue of climate change isn't one that people can't understand (frequently they don't want to understand, but that's neither here nor there), and the solutions aren't unfathomable. We know exactly what we'd have to do to combat climate change; the real problem is that no one, or at least no one in a truly meaningful position, is willing to do these things. Demolishing every last coal power plant in the world and salting their ruins would do a lot to keep those billions upon billions of tons of noxious shit from being spewed into the atmosphere, but no one is going to make a move that radical in my lifetime. Coal is cheap, and people expect electricity, and so China is building new coal power plants every goddamn week. We've done some great things with unupgraded hands and unimproved know-how; to start claiming that we need cognitive enhancement, in my mind, cheapens those accomplishments.

"you can't stop us. we can do anything we want because we can Think!" For a creature without opposable thumbs, this crow is surprisingly accurate.

I cannot stand by the argument that we need to reengineer humanity to survive. I cannot because I cannot abide by the implications of that argument; that we are so stuck in our rut, so unwilling to look at the consequences of our actions and take remedial actions, that we need to rebuild ourselves from the ground up in order to climb out of the muck we're in. Honestly, some of these arguments strike me as coming from a worldview even more cynical than my own - if you're suggesting that you need to genetically engineer ultra-ethical folks from the womb in order to produce a more capable and worthy politician, as Munkittrick does, then why the hell are we maintaining a political system where genetic engineering is necessary to get more than a handful of people into positions of power who are capable of looking beyond their own noses, who don't see politics as a damn game? If things are so bad, so unsalvageable, we shouldn't be rewriting genetic codes, we should be storming Parliament!

Now that I think about it - this reminds me a lot about growing up. When you're young you're a rebel, full of piss and vinegar and distaste for the established order and perhaps reading the Socialist Worker, certain that you're never going to work with the Man, that you're never going to join the Establishment... and yet, twenty years later, you find yourself with carefully-maintained hair in a nice suit in an office downtown. It seems to me that this concept of transhumanism springs from the same pool; that ordinary people would be absorbed by the Establishment, that we need to first make ourselves Extraordinary - that reengineering ourselves is a necessary prerequisite to reengineering our surroundings.

Personally, I can't abide that. That sounds far too much like surrender - like admitting the average person can't do a thing to change the course of the world, that we must be dependent on a few elevated folks, the best of us, to seize the wheel and turn the rudder. We created these problems; we can solve them with the tools we already have. It's just a matter of wanting to.

As for Skynet... there's an easy solution to that. Don't create artificial intelligences. But that's an argument for another day.


  1. Why not ask us just not to create computers?

  2. A more thoughtful person once said:

    "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

    Einstein is still right.

    By the way, the AGW hoax is not a significant problem. Human enhancement cannot 'solve' it. But it just might be required to recognize the waste of effort in trying to solve it.

  3. Michael: Because computers don't think. And I have to say I don't appreciate being filed away in your "retards" section.

    Oh, yes, of course, I forgot. What brilliant scientist are you going to quote who says that carbon dioxide isn't really a heat-trapping gas? Or is there some genius I've never heard of who says that greenhouse gases magically puff away into nothingness as soon as they're spat out of the smokestacks?