Transcendent Men: is transhumanism ready for its close-up?

Paul Raven @ 06-04-2011

So, here’s a little reminder for UK people (plus anyone rockin’ the transAtlantic jet-set lifestyle who has nothing else planned for the weekend) that yours truly is appearing on a panel discussion being held by the UK branch of Humanity+ in London on Saturday. The kick-off topic is Ray Kurzweil’s infomercialmoviebiopic, Transcendent Man, though I expect the focus will wander somewhat. (When you put me on a discussion panel, digression comes as standard… and if I’m still as fuzzed-out with a headcold as I am right now, I may struggle to recall my own name, let alone the subject under discussion. Selah.)

I actually watched Transcendent Man a few weeks back; it wasn’t what I was expecting, to be quite honest. I assumed we’d get a lot of flash-bang technowonder footage running through a ticklist of transhuman ideals, spangly visuals and a trendy post-Noughties electronica soundtrack pumping away underneath; instead, Transcendent Man is surprisingly calm and restrained, focussing as much on Kurzweil himself as it does the movement he’s implicitly placing himself at the vanguard of, if not more. I was pleased to see plenty of dissenting opinions from futurist figureheads like Ben Goertzel (novelty hats!) and Kevin Kelly (novelty beard!), but disappointed that these weren’t addressed more thoroughly – though given the restraints of the feature-film format and the underlying propagandist purpose of the movie, I’m not entirely surprised.

But the big takeaway for me was the framing of Kurzweil as a man chasing immortality technology because he wants to reincarnate his father, a talented composer and musician who died an untimely death; to some extent this humanises Kurzweil and his transhuman yearnings, but also (subtly but quite deliberately, I expect) gives him a kind of Christ-like subtext. Sacrifice and resurrection, the father and the son, the transcendence of base human existence, giving sight to the blind, healing the sick… all very Biblical, in a secular kind of way. Given Kurzweil’s undeniable intelligence and focus on long-term goals, I’m reading Transcendent Man as a very literal text; I think it only reasonable to assume that there’s nothing in there that the man himself didn’t want included. He’s a shrewd publicist, and understands the power of narrative; the narrative here is much more about Kurzweil himself than H+ as a movement, but it also seeks to make the connection between the two an explicit one: Kurzweil sees himself as instigator and leader of a crusade to conquer death itself.

Of course, that’s my reading of it, which is – quite naturally – informed by my own sceptical-fellow-traveller status, and I look forward to finding out what confirmed H+ adherents have taken from it. An early taster can be found over at H+ Magazine from none other than R U Sirius:

Transcendent Man is not exactly a portrait of Ray Kurzweil, although there is some of that. And it’s not exactly an exploration of his ideas, although there is some of that too. It’s a portrait of a man on a mission — the person and the message inextricably linked together — and it leaves a viewer with the strong impression that the man is the mission. The film carries, over all, a rather somber ambiance, a feeling that is helped along by a disquieting original soundtrack by Philip Glass. There are lots of shots of Ray popping vitamin and nutrient pills; speaking in public, pontificating on his theories. All this is coupled with his — and his mother’s — memories about the death of his father, which seems to be a mission-defining trauma at the heart of his quest. And there are a fair number of talking heads supporting or criticizing Ray’s visions, including Kevin Kelly characterizing Ray as a prophet… “but wrong.” In a quiet moment, Ray appears to be deeply and sadly reflecting on something as he gazes out at the ocean. A voice off camera asks him what he’s thinking about. He hesitates for quite a few beats before saying (I’m paraphrasing) that he was thinking about the computational complexity of the natural world. A few seconds later, he says something that rings more true — that he always finds the ocean soothing. (So do I.)

(Interestingly enough, the scene Sirius mentions there was the one that felt to me the most staged and false, as if Kurzweil knew he needed to expose his emotional core but struggled to do so with authenticity… which isn’t to suggest he was faking it so much as he was perhaps struggling to let go of the incredible degree of self-control he imposes – by necessity – upon himself.)

The film will probably not leave most viewers with a visceral impression of an energized life full of joy and companionship — the one exception is toward the end of the film when Ray is part of a group that gets to experience zero gravity. We see an expression of pure happiness wash over Ray’s face and notice a real sense of bonhomie among all the participants. But on the whole, a cynic might see in this film a portrait of a life lived in pursuit of more life.

Sirius hits it on the nose for me, here; I came away from Transcendent Man with an image of Kurzweil as a man so driven that he can no longer extricate his life from his desire to extend said life, a kind of tragic Sisyphean figure. I fully expect someone more convinced by the Singularitarian schedule would read his character very differently, though; how the everyman public reads it remains to be seen (assuming it makes enough of a splash that anyone who isn’t already H+-curious bothers to check it out – it doesn’t exactly drip with box-office blockbuster potential).

Indeed, the reason I expected a more dynamic and exciting experience from Transcendent Man is that I assumed it was intended as a vehicle for popularising the H+ movement beyond its current main catchment zone (which is predominantly affluent white Western males with technological backgrounds). I’ve spent the last four or five years watching H+ memes pop up in pop-culture niches, and I’m now beginning to wonder if Transcendent Man is designed to publicly define the core ideals of an concept that has already started to metastasise and mutate its way through the body politic – not just a statement of ownership, but an attempt to build a canonical “party line”, if you like. What I’m certain of is that the H+/Singularitarian memes are spreading, and that these troubled times are rich loam for the seeds of any transcendent philosophy. Furthermore, it’s a philosophy that can easily be hijacked, remixed and radicalised (transhuman separatism, anyone?), and I suspect Kurzweil can see that coming, too; whether he’ll succeed in becoming the official figurehead for the “classical” core of the movement (and whether that will be an enviable position to be in) remains an open question.

Transhumanism has already won

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

So claims Nikola “Socrates” Danaylov of, anyhow [via Mike Anissimov]. His argument is that transhumanist/Singularitarian topics and pundits (especially the ubiquitous Ray Kurzweil, who has a movie to promote) are cropping up regularly in mainstream news outlets (TIME Magazine, The Daily Show, so on and so forth).

I can see where Danaylov and Anissimov are coming from, here; transhumanism is definitely breaking the surface of the media ocean, but much like an iceberg, only a small part of it is visible to Josephine Average thus far. Sure, the internet is full of deep engagement with the technological and philosophical questions raised by transhumanism, and some of the more serious journalism attempts to grapple with the big issues, too. But I think Danaylov is caught in a kind of subcultural myopia; you could come to the same conclusion about the ubiquity of transhumanism as a discussion topic just by looking through my own RSS reader’s XML file, but there’s a big selection bias going on there. Perhaps it’s different in the US, but over here in the UK I’d be surprised if one in ten randomly selected folk-on-the-street would recognise the words transhumanism, singularity or Kurzweil. (The latter might ring a bell for veteran synthesiser collectors, of course, but they’re an even smaller demographic than transhumanists… )

Of course, if Kurzweil’s movie makes a big enough splash, that may change, but I think transhumanists could do with taking a cautionary lesson from the science fiction community which might be best summed up as “when everyone’s talking about your thing, they may not talk about it in the ways you’d have liked”. The cost of that increased media profile will be paid in pillory: rather than being a unified political movement, transhumanism is a loose collection of politely (or sometimes not so politely) warring factions, a rhizomatic network rather than a hierarchy. When the mainstream media goes out to research a story, it looks for the folk at the top of the pyramid, and it treats their take on things as representative of the collective… which means that while Kurzweil’s movie is surely going to raise the profile of transhumanism as a concept, it will do so at the price of enthroning Kurzweil as the figurehead of the entire movement.

(Yes, yes; I know he isn’t, and so do most other folk with an interest in the field. But beware the simplifying and polarising impulse of mainstream journalism: movements must be capped with a leader and placed on the political spectrum, and they’ll do both on your behalf even if you’re leaderless and disconnected from the tired Left-Right axis. Just ask your nearest anarchist.)

As a fellow-traveller (the less charitable might say camp follower) of transhumanism, this is where things start to look really interesting; the most exciting phase of any subculture is when the mainstream discovers it. My concern is that many transhumanists, being generally smart and intellectual types, are fatally underestimating the general public’s capacity for fear, disgust and ridicule; the spotlight of publicity can get pretty hot, especially when your core ideology questions deeply held cultural values. (I’m put in mind of the reaction of British culture to the punk rock explosion back in the late seventies; the politico-economic climate is similar, for a start, and transhumanism’s core interests just as transgressive of body/identity politics, if not more so.) It’s all very well to claim that you see transhumanism as a platform for a secular examination of mortality and the afterlife, but once the Daily Mail (or FOX News, or whoever) has painted you as mad scientists who want to stuff yourselves full of silicon and live forever, you’ll have a hard time getting that philosophical nuance across to the public. Visibility leads to demonisation; if you think the mainstream techgeek scene can be disparaging of transhumanism, just wait until the America’s Got Talent demographic gets a smell of blood in the water.

As an observer of culture (and as a writer of stories), this is the moment when transhumanism comes into its own for me; its internal conflicts are intellectually interesting, but it’s as it rubs up against the belief systems of the majority that sparks will start to fly, and I suspect that a lot of transhumanist advocates are going to get a pretty rude political awakening – not just from media misrepresentation, but from co-opting and branding efforts by bandwaggoning corporations, and schismatic clades of oddballs and outsiders glomming on to the parts of the ideology they like while throwing out the more troubling philosophical questions.

Luckily I have a decent excuse to be pondering such matters; I’ve been invited to be part of a panel discussing the impact of transhumanism (and Kurzweil’s movie in particular) at a Humanity+ UK meeting in London on Sunday 9th April. Given that the other panellists are likely to be proper boffins and theorists (I see Dr. Anders Sandberg is already on the list with me, which means I’m already outclassed on IQ and knowledge by at least an order of magnitude), I’m going to focus on the cultural bow wave that will form as transhumanism plows its way into the Zeitgeist. I fully expect to learn a great deal more than I teach, but I’m hoping that my fence-sitter status gives me a usefully different perspective on things.

If not, it should be an entertaining couple of hours of being made to feel incredibly stupid. 🙂

Shonky futurism: debunking Kurzweil

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

This one should set the transhumanist blogosphere alight for a week or so; IEEE Spectrum has an article that carefully picks apart the futurist predictions of Ray Kurzweil, prophet of the Technological Singularity. In summary: the best way to make successful predictions is to couch them vaguely enough that you can argue for their veracity after the point [via SlashDot].

Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil’s brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books, and to have cofounded Singularity University, where executives and others are paying quite handsomely to learn how to plan for the not-too-distant day when those disappearing computers will make humans both obsolete and immortal.

I have to admit to having a soft spot for Kurzweil and his geek-Barnum schtick, but as time has gone by (and with thanks to the readership of this very blog, who are very good at making me question my assumptions and reassess my ideas) I’ve increasingly seen him as a shrewd businessman rather than a visionary prophet.

That said, I think there’s a social value in his popularisation of transhumanist tropes – it takes real charisma to sell ideas that speculative to folk enmired in the corporatist mindset, and I think he reaches audiences who are resistant to the sort of speculative thinking that informs good science fiction. And as to his exorbitant speaking fees, well, that’s the marketplace at work. Can’t blame the guy for taking the money if it’s available, can you? After all, those diet supplements probably cost a fair bit… 😉

Singularity slapfight: yet more Kurzweil vs. Myers

Paul Raven @ 23-08-2010

In the interests of following up on my earlier post about PZ Myers’ take-down of Ray Kurzweil’s claims about reverse engineering the human brain, and of displaying a lack of bias (I really don’t have a horse in this race, but I still enjoy watching them run, if that makes any sense), here’s some aftermath linkage.

Kurzweil himself responds [via SentientDevelopments]:

Myers, who apparently based his second-hand comments on erroneous press reports (he wasn’t at my talk), goes on to claim that my thesis is that we will reverse-engineer the brain from the genome. This is not at all what I said in my presentation to the Singularity Summit. I explicitly said that our quest to understand the principles of operation of the brain is based on many types of studies — from detailed molecular studies of individual neurons, to scans of neural connection patterns, to studies of the function of neural clusters, and many other approaches. I did not present studying the genome as even part of the strategy for reverse-engineering the brain.

Al Fin declares that neither Kurzweil or Myers understand the brain [via AcceleratingFuture]:

But is that clear fact of mutual brain ignorance relevant to the underlying issue — Kurzweil’s claim that science will be able to “reverse-engineer” the human brain within 20 years? In other words, Ray Kurzweil expects humans to build a brain-functional machine in the next 2 decades based largely upon concepts learned from studying how brains/minds think.

Clearly Kurzweil is not claiming that he will be able to understand human brains down to the most intricate detail, nor is he claiming that his new machine brain will emulate the brain down to its cell signaling proteins, receptors, gene expression, and organelles. Myers seems to become a bit bogged down in the details of his own objections to his misconceptions of what Kurzweil is claiming, and loses the thread of his argument — which can be summed up by Myers’ claim that Kurzweil is a “kook.”

But Kurzweil’s amazing body of thought and invention testifies to the fact that Kurzweil is probably no more a kook than any other genius inventor/visionary. Calling someone a “kook” is apparently considered clever in the intellectual circles which Mr. Myers’ and the commenters on his blog travel, but in the thinking world such accusations provide too little information to be of much use.

Zing! Now, back to Myers:

In short, here’s Kurzweil’s claim: the brain is simpler than we think, and thanks to the accelerating rate of technological change, we will understand it’s basic principles of operation completely within a few decades. My counterargument, which he hasn’t addressed at all, is that 1) his argument for that simplicity is deeply flawed and irrelevant, 2) he has made no quantifiable argument about how much we know about the brain right now, and I argue that we’ve only scratched the surface in the last several decades of research, 3) “exponential” is not a magic word that solves all problems (if I put a penny in the bank today, it does not mean I will have a million dollars in my retirement fund in 20 years), and 4) Kurzweil has provided no explanation for how we’ll be ‘reverse engineering’ the human brain. He’s now at least clearly stating that decoding the genome does not generate the necessary information — it’s just an argument that the brain isn’t as complex as we thought, which I’ve already said is bogus — but left dangling is the question of methodology. I suggest that we need to have a combined strategy of digging into the brain from the perspectives of physiology, molecular biology, genetics, and development, and in all of those fields I see a long hard slog ahead. I also don’t see that noisemakers like Kurzweil, who know nothing of those fields, will be making any contribution at all.

And, a little later still, after linking to some (fairly insubstantial) snark:

There are other, perhaps somewhat more serious, rebuttals at Rennie’s Last Nerve and A Fistful of Science.

Now run along, little obsessive Kurzweilians, there are many other blogs out there that regard your hero with derision, demanding your earnestly clueless rebuttals.

Smacks a little of “this is beneath me”, doesn’t it… or possibly even “can’t win, won’t fight”. Maybe I’m being unfair to Myers, but he’s certainly never backed off this easily when it comes to atheism and Darwin, and just a few days ago he was full of piss and vinegar. (Which isn’t to say I think he’s definitely wrong, of course; just that I expected a rather more determined attack…. not to mention less ad hominem and othering from someone who – quite rightfully – deplores such tactics when used by his usual opponents.)

Finally, George Dvorsky has a sort of condensed and sensationalism-free roadmap for AI from reverse engineering of the brain:

While I believe that reverse engineering the human brain is the right approach, I admit that it’s not going to be easy. Nor is it going to be quick. This will be a multi-disciplinary endeavor that will require decades of data collection and the use of technologies that don’t exist yet. And importantly, success won’t come about all at once. This will be an incremental process in which individual developments will provide the foundation for overcoming the next conceptual hurdle.


Inevitably the question as to ‘when’ crops up. Personally, I could care less. I’m more interested in viability than timelines. But, if pressed for an answer, my feeling is that we are still quite a ways off. Kurzweil’s prediction of 2030 is uncomfortably short in my opinion; his analogies to the human genome project are unsatisfying. This is a project of much greater magnitude, not to mention that we’re still likely heading down some blind alleys.

My own feeling is that we’ll likely be able to emulate the human brain in about 50 to 75 years. I will admit that I’m pulling this figure out of my butt as I really have no idea. It’s more a feeling than a scientifically-backed estimate.

That’s pretty much why Dvorsky is one of my main go-to sources for transhumanist commentary; he’s one of the few self-identified members of the movement (of those that I’ve discovered, at least) who’s honest enough to admit when he doesn’t know something for certain.

I suspect that with Myers’ withdrawal from the field, that’s probably the end of this round. But as I said before, the greater intellectual battle is yet to be fought out, and this is probably just one early ideological skirmish.

Be sure to stock up on popcorn. 😉

Transhumanist science clash! Kurzweil vs. Myers

Paul Raven @ 18-08-2010

Say what you will about transhumanism, but one thing’s for certain: it really polarises opinion, and nowhere more so than in the halls of academia and scientific research. Observe: Wired/Gizmodo had a chat with Singularitarian-in-chief Ray Kurzweil, who restated his theory (considered unrealistically optimistic by some transhumanists) that we’ll be able to reverse-engineer the human brain and simulate it with computers within a decade or so.

Here’s how that math works, Kurzweil explains: The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.

About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code.

Now enter PZ Myers, prominent atheism advocate (I like to think of him as “Dawkins’ Bulldog”, though I’m not sure Dawkins really needs a bulldog in the way that Darwin did) and vigorous debunker of fringe science. Broad claims in the Kurzweil vein are like a red rag to Myers, especially on his home turf of genetic biology, and he’s not afraid of mixing in a little ad hominem disparagement with his rejoinders, either:

Kurzweil knows nothing about how the brain works. It’s design is not encoded in the genome: what’s in the genome is a collection of molecular tools wrapped up in bits of conditional logic, the regulatory part of the genome, that makes cells responsive to interactions with a complex environment. The brain unfolds during development, by means of essential cell:cell interactions, of which we understand only a tiny fraction. The end result is a brain that is much, much more than simply the sum of the nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. He has to simulate all of development from his codebase in order to generate a brain simulator, and he isn’t even aware of the magnitude of that problem.


To simplify it so a computer science guy can get it, Kurzweil has everything completely wrong. The genome is not the program; it’s the data. The program is the ontogeny of the organism, which is an emergent property of interactions between the regulatory components of the genome and the environment, which uses that data to build species-specific properties of the organism. He doesn’t even comprehend the nature of the problem, and here he is pontificating on magic solutions completely free of facts and reason.

Now, I’m not taking sides here*; I don’t know enough computer science or evolutionary biology to cut into either interpretation. But a high-minded slapfight like this is always of interest, because it highlights just how seriously some very intelligent people take the issue. Kurzweil has more than a tinge of the evangelist about him, which is (I suspect) a large part of what bothers Myers about him, but there’s obviously something powerful about the idea (the meme?) of transhumanism/singularitarianism that he feels makes it worth fighting.

Ideas that get people arguing are important ideas. I consider myself a fellow traveller of transhumanism for this very reason; the ways we imagine tomorrow says a lot about where we are today, and vice versa. There’s a lot to learn by listening to both sides, I think.

[ * Yeah, yeah, I know, I’ve got marks on my ass from sitting on the fence. That’s just how I roll, baby; you want clenched-fist advocacy of anything but the right to think for yourself, you’re gonna need to read a different blog. ]

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