Uplift ethics and transhuman hubris

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2011

There’s a little splash of uplift-related news around the place, thanks to the topic-initiating power of a new documentary film which you may well have already seen mentioned elsewhere: Project Nim tells the story of Nim Cimpsky, the subject of an experiment intended to disprove Chomsky’s assertion that language is unique to human. Here’s the trailer:

Here’s an interview with the film’s director, James Marsh, at The Guardian:

“The nature-versus-nurture debate clearly was part of the intellectual climate of that time and remains an interesting question – how much we are born a certain way, as a species and as individuals. In Nim’s case, he has a chimpanzee’s nature and that nature is an incredibly forceful part of his life. What [the scientists] try to do is inhibit his nature and you see the results in the story.

“I was intrigued because I hadn’t seen that in a film before, the idea of telling an animal’s life from cradle to grave using the same techniques as you would use for a human biography.”

Marsh admits that conveying Nim’s experiences was tough. “The overlap between the species [human and chimpanzee] does involve emotions. But at the same time I was very wary of those from the get-go. I felt that Nim’s life had been blighted by people projecting on to him human qualities and trying to make him something that he wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, George Dvorsky links to a piece about a report from the Academy of Medical Science that calls for new rules to govern research into “humanising animals”, though specifically a more invasive and biological fashion than Project Nim:

Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences working group that produced the report, said the possibility of humanised apes should be taken seriously.

“The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human.. speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us,” he told a news briefing in London.

“These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now.”

Prof Baldwin, professor of philosophy at the University of York, recommended applying the “Great Ape Test”. If modified monkeys began to acquire abilities similar to those of chimpanzees, it was time to “hold off”.

“If it’s heading in that direction, red lights start flashing,” said Prof Baldwin. “You really do not want to go down that road.”

Dvorsky, a dyed-in-the-wool transhumanist, disagrees:

I’m just as concerned as anyone about the potential for abuse, particularly when animals are used in scientific experiments. But setting that aside, and assuming that cognitive enhancement could be done safely on non-human primates, there’s no reason why we should fear this. In fact, I take virtually the opposite stance to this report. I feel that humanity is obligated to uplift non-human animals as we simultaneously work to uplift ourselves (i.e. transhumanism).

Reading this report, I can’t help but feel that human egocentricity is driving the discussion. I sincerely believe that animal welfare is not the real issue here, but rather, ensuring human dominance on the planet.

Here we run into another reason why I’m a fellow-traveller and chronicler of transhumanism and not a card-carrier, because Dvorsky’s logic seems completely inverted to me. Is it not far more human-egocentric to view ourselves as the evolutionary pinnacle that all animals would aspire to achieve, were they but able to aspire? To make that decision on their behalf, on the basis of our own inescapably human-centric system of value-judgements?

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, why wouldn’t we wish to endow our primate cousins with the same cognitive gifts that we have?

Because they are not us. We are related, certainly, this much is inescapable, but a chimpanzee is not a human being, and to insist that uplift is a moral duty is to enshrine the inferiority-to-us of the great apes, not to sanctify their uniqueness. This is the voice of assimilation, the voice of homogenisation, the voice of empire. It is the voice of colonialist arrogance, and a form of species fascism. If we have any moral duty toward our genetic cousins, it is to protect them from the ravages we have committed on the world they have always lived in balance with. Why raise them up to our hallowed state of consciousness if all they stand to inherit is a legacy of a broken planet and a political framework that legitimises the exploitation of those considered to carry a debt to society’s most powerful?

Because make no mistake, even were we able to endow chimpanzees with the same cognitive powers as ourselves, we would still find reasons not to enfranchise them fully. If you can look at the disparities in enfranchisement of different human races and classes and genders in this world that still persist to this day, despite the lip-service liberalism of the privileged Western world to the contrary, and not see that life for uplifted apes would be a condition of slavery to science for science’s own sake (at the very best): a lifetime of being a bug in a glass jar, a curiosity and a joke and an object of pity… well, you can evidently look at the world very differently to how I can. In my world, that’s high-order hubris.

Dvorsky has another post which discusses more recent attempts at “cultural uplift”, which seems to be a more modern and ethically grounded update of Project Nim; while certainly more palatable than more directly biological interventions in animal cognition, I still feel there’s an arrogant flaw in assuming that human culture is superior (and hence obligatory) to an animal’s naturally evolved culture. Am I engaging in a sort of Noble Savage argument here, claiming that ape inferiority should be preserved in order that I can continue feeling superior to it? I don’t believe I am. You can only throw the Noble Savagery claim at me if you claim that there is already no value-difference between human culture and ape culture, and that apes are deserving of the same rights as man… at which point you not only concede the point I’m trying to make, but you also concede that you have no moral or cultural high-ground from which to decide that ape culture is inferior.

Apes are special, because they are so similar to us in so many ways; on this I think we can all agree. But to uplift them would not be an act of protecting and awarding that specialness; it would be, consciously or otherwise, an act of erasure, an attempt to equalise the specialness differential and make them just the same as us.

And that is human egocentricity in action – the same egocentricity whose trackmarks can be seen on the skin of the planet that gave rise to it, and whose roots are in a deep-seated envy and resentment of the innocence that is the true core of the difference between us and the great apes. It is that innocence that uplifting would erase; do you think an ape that thought like a human wouldn’t resent our theft of that innocence? Or would you keep them ignorant of the state they existed in before uplift? Immediately, inevitably, you create the conditions whereby you are obliged to treat these newly-minted man-apes in a less free condition than the one you have claimed to raise them up to.

To assume that we know what is good for an ape better than an ape itself is an act of spectacular arrogance, and no amount of dressing it up in noble colonial bullshit about civilising the natives will conceal that arrogance.

Furthermore, that said dressing-up can be done by people who frequently wring their hands over the ethical implications of the marginal possibility of sentient artificial intelligences getting upset about how they came to be made doesn’t go a long way toward defending the accusations of myopic technofetish, body-loathing and silicon-cultism that transhumanism’s more vocal detractors are fond of using.


H+ trailer: a post-McLuhanist reading

Paul Raven @ 25-07-2011

So, this has been doing the rounds since its release at SDCC (which – given by what I’ve seen of it from blogs, Twitter and elsewhere – is less a convention and more some sort of fundamental rupture of reality that lets a million weird facets of pop culture manifest in the material world for a weekend); my first spot of it was at SF Signal, so they get the hat-tip. It’s the trailer for a forthcoming web-native series called H+

And here’s the blurb for those of you who can’t or won’t watch videos:

H+: The Digital Series takes viewers on a journey into an apocalyptic future where technology has begun to spiral out of control…a future where 33% of the world’s population has retired its cell phones and laptops in favor of a stunning new device – an implanted computer system called H+.

This tiny tool allows the user’s own mind and nervous system to be connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. But something else is coming… something dark and vicious… and within seconds, billions of people will be dead… opening the door to radical changes in the political and social landscape of the planet — prompting survivors to make sense of what went wrong.

Hmmm. So, what can we take from this? First off, “H+” or human augmentation as a cultural meme is strong enough on the geek fringes that someone thinks it’s a marketable theme for popular drama; this in itself is a very interesting development from the perspective of someone who chronicles and observes the transhumanist movement(s), because it’s a sign that traditionally science fictional or cyberpunkish ideas are being presented as both plausible and imminent*. Meme’s gonna go mainstream, yo.

Secondly, and less surprisingly, the underlying premise appears to be The Hubris Of Technology Will All But Annihilate Our Species, with a sideserving/undercurrent of Moral Panic. Handwringing over the potentially corrosive-to-civilisation properties of social media is common currency (as regular readers will be only too aware already), which means the soil is well-tilled for the seed of Singer’s series; it’s a contemporary twist on the age-old apocalypse riff, and that never gets old. Too early to tell whether the Hairshirt Back-To-The-Earth philosophy is going to be used as solution paradigm, but I’d be willing to put money on it making a significant showing. This is disappointing, but inevitable; as Kyle Munkittrick points out in his brief overview of the new Captain America movie, comics and Hollywood default to the portrayal of human augmentation as either an accident born of scientific hubris or the tainted product of a Frankensteinian corporation:

In what seems like every other superhero origin story, powers are acquired through scientific hubris. Be it the unintended consequences of splitting the atom, tinkering with genetics, or trying to access some heretofore unknown dimension, comic book heroes invariably arise by accident.

[…]

Normally, those who seek superpowers are unworthy because they believe they deserve to be better than others, thus, the experiments go wrong.

Yeah, that’s about right. And the choice of series title is very fortuitous; the avalanche of early responses drawing analogies to Google+ has probably already started on the basis of that trailer alone, which is going to annoy me just as much as Googlephobia does. I’ve been rereading Marshall McLuhan lately (in part so I could write a piece for his 100th birthday at Wired UK), and was struck by how calmly and persistently he insisted that making moral judgements of technologies was futile; indeed, he took the position that by spending less effort on judging our technologies, we might clear the moral fog that exists around our actual lives. In McLuhan’s thought, media are extensions of ourselves into time and space; it seems to me that the biggest problem they cause isn’t a moral degradation of humanity, but the provision of a convenient proxy to blame our human problems on: it woz the intertubes wot dun it.

There is an inevitability to the technological moral panic as popular narrative, though, and that’s underlined by its admirable persistence over time – as TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick reminds us, they’re at least as old as Gutenburg’s printing press (and we’re still here, as yet untoppled by our technological revolutions). Masnick also links to a WSJ blog piece that bounces off the research of one Genevieve Bell, director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, who reiterates the persistence of the technological moral panic over time, and points out that it tends to locate itself in the bodies of women and children:

There was, she says, an initial pushback about electrifying homes in the U.S.: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children and vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable. Oh and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.

“There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”

She has a sort of work-in-progress theory to work out which technologies will trigger panic, and which will not.

  • It has to change your relationship to time.
  • It has to change your relationship to space.
  • It has to change your relationship to other people.

And, says Ms. Bell, it has to hit all three, or at least have the potential to hit them.

Interesting stuff, including a riff on comedy as a feedback loop in culture that enables us to control and mitigate the boundaries of what is acceptable with a new technology or medium. But as Bell points out, the march of technological change won’t wait for us to catch up with it; this state of technological angst has persisted for centuries, and will likely persist for as long as we remain a technologised species. Which means the doomsayers (and doomsayer media like H+) ain’t going anywhere… but going on past form, I’m going to assume we’ll find a way to ride it out and roll with the punches.

And just in case you were expecting a more standard blogger response to a television series trailer: yeah, I’ll probably watch H+, at least for long enough to see if it’s a good story well told; it looks like it might well be, regardless of the source of the narrative hook.

What about you?

[ * Which isn’t to say that the plot device in H+ will necessarily be scientifically plausible as it gets presented. Indeed, I rather suspect there’ll be some Unified Quantum Handwave Theory and/or Unobtainium involved… but the portrayal of social media as an internalised technology in the human body within a contemporary fictional milieu? That’s something I’ve not seen anywhere other than text media (books, stories, comics) thus far. ]


are-we-transhuman-yet.com

Paul Raven @ 18-07-2011

I should probably go and register that domain now, shouldn’t I? If you were gonna make an algorithm for checking that transhuman-or-not status of the species, though, you might wanna refer to Kyle Munkittrick’s transhuman checklist, which consists of the following points:

  1. Prosthetics are Preferred
  2. Better Brains
  3. Artificial Assistance
  4. Amazing Average Age
  5. Responsible Reproduction
  6. My Body, My Choice
  7. Persons, not People

Munkittrick suggests that “[i]ndividually, each of these conditions are necessary but not sufficient for transhumanism to have been attained”; that jars slightly with my own comprehension of the term, which has always assumed that the “trans” in transhuman implies the transitional phase on the route to becoming posthuman, which is what I’d say we’d be once Kyle’s checklist is complete. Semantic carping aside, however, it’s a solid and non-sensationalist list, well worth a read.

Speaking of non-sensationalist pieces on transhumanism, here’s an unusually subdued post from Michael Anissimov which is either indicative of a massive change of outlook or a rhetorical gambit that has yet to be revealed as such: Why “Transhumanism” is Unnecessary. Having been following Anissimov for many years now, I suspect the latter is the case, but hey – this is the internet, and all bets are off.


H+ zero-day vulnerabilities, plus cetacean personhood

Paul Raven @ 13-07-2011

Couple of interesting nuggets here; first up is a piece from Richard Yonck at H+ Magazine on the risks inherent to the human body becoming an augmented and extended platform for technologies, which regular readers will recognise as a fugue on one of my favourite themes, Everything Can And Will Be Hacked. Better lock down your superuser privileges, folks…

In coming years, numerous devices and technologies will become available that make all manner of wireless communications possible in or on our bodies. The standards for Body Area Networks (BANs) are being established by the IEEE 802.15.6 task group. These types of devices will create low-power in-body and on-body nodes for a variety of medical and non-medical applications. For instance, medical uses might include vital signs monitoring, glucose monitors and insulin pumps, and prosthetic limbs. Non-medical applications could include life logging, gaming and social networking. Clearly, all of these have the potential for informational and personal security risks. While IEEE 802.15.6 establishes different levels of authentication and encryption for these types of devices, this alone is no guarantee of security. As we’ve seen repeatedly, unanticipated weaknesses in program logic can come to light years after equipment and software are in place. Methods for safely and securely updating these devices will be essential due to the critical nature of what they do. Obviously, a malfunctioning software update for something as critical as an implantable insulin pump could have devastating consequences.

Yonck then riffs on the biotech threat for a while; I’m personally less worried about the existential risk of rogue biohackers releasing lethal plagues, because the very technologies that make that possible are also making it much easier to defeat those sorts of pandemics. (I’m more worried about a nation-state releasing one by mistake, to be honest; there’s precedent, after all.)

Of more interest to me (for an assortment of reasons, not least of which is a novel-scale project that’s been percolating at the back of my brainmeat for some time) is his examination of the senses as equivalent to ‘ports’ in a computer system; those I/O channels are ripe for all sorts of hackery and exploits, and the arrival of augmented reality and brain-machine interfaces will provide incredibly tempting targets, be it for commerce or just for the lulz. Given it’s taken less than a week for the self-referential SEO hucksters and social media gurus douchebags to infest the grouting between the circles of Google+, forewarned is surely forearmed… and early-adopterdom won’t be much of a defence. (As if it ever was.)

Meanwhile, a post at R U Sirius’ new zine ACCELER8OR (which, given its lack of by-line, I assume to be the work of The Man Himself) details the latest batch of research into advanced sentience in cetaceans. We’ve talked about dolphin personhood before, and while my objections to the enshrinement of non-human personhood persist (I think we’re wasting time by trying to get people to acknowledge the rights of higher animals when we’ve still not managed to get everyone to acknowledge the rights of their fellow humans regardless of race, creed or class) it’s still inspiring and fascinating to consider that, after years of looking into space for another sentient species to make contact with, there’s been one swimming around in the oceans all along.

Dovetailing with Yonck’s article above, this piece extrapolates onward to discuss the emancipation of sentient machines. (What if your AI-AR firewall system suddenly started demanding a five-day working week?)

A recent Forbes blog poses a key question on the issue of AI civil rights: if an AI can learn and understand its programming, and possibly even alter the algorithms that control its behavior and purpose, is it really conscious in the same way that humans are? If an AI can be programmed in such a fashion, is it really sentient in the same way that humans are?

Even putting aside the hard question of consciousness, should the hypothetical AIs of mid-century have the same rights as humans?  The ability to vote and own property? Get married? To each other? To humans? Such questions would make the current gay rights controversy look like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

Of course, this may all a moot point given the existential risks faced by humanity (for example, nuclear annihilation) as elucidated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and others.  Or, our AIs actually do become sentient, self-reprogram themselves, and “20 minutes later,” the technological singularity occurs (as originally conceived by Vernor Vinge).

Give me liberty or give me death? Until an AI or dolphin can communicate this sentiment to us, we can’t prove if they can even conceptualize such concepts as “liberty” or “death.” Nor are dolphins about to take up arms anytime soon even if they wanted to — unless they somehow steal prosthetic hands in a “Day of the Dolphin”-like scenario and go rogue on humanity.

It would be mighty sad were things to come to that… but is anyone else thinking “that would make a brilliant movie”?


Singularity beef, day 5

Paul Raven @ 27-06-2011

Yup, it’s still rolling. Here’s the post-Stross posts that came in over the weekend:

Anyone else catch any goodies?

[ * Interestingly enough, Fukuyama himself has more recntly veered considerably away from the theories espoused in The End Of History… ]

[ ** For the record, I really admire Brin as a challenging thinker; I’d admire him even more if he spent less time reminding me of his past successes. ]


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