Tag Archives: transhumanism

Paleotranshumanism

George Dvorsky muses on a more practical manifestation of the transhumanist urge: rather than wait for the ol’ silicon Rapture to take all the effort out of transcending the limitations of Meatbag Mk. 1, why not use what we already know about the body to get the best out of it? Dvorsky suggests that the latter is true to the spirit of the transhuman project, while the former is a sort of futurist hipsterdom – a lip-service gig, like carrying around unread Nietzsche books at college.

Indeed, there are a number of things we can do to extend our capacities and optimize our health in a way that’s consistent with transhumanist ideals—even if it doesn’t appear to be technologically sophisticated. While the effects of these interventions are admittedly low impact from a future-relativistic perspective, the quest for bodily and cognitive enhancement is part of the broader transhumanist aesthetic which places an emphasis on maximal performance, high quality of life, and longevity.

Consequently, anyone who professes to be a transhumanist, but does nothing to improve upon himself, is a poser. These are the people who are waiting for the magic to happen, and by consequence, are neglecting their full potential in the present moment. Transhumanism is something that’s applied in the here-and-now; it’s a recognition of the radical present and all that it has to offer.

Sure, part of being a transhumanist involves the bringing about of a radical future, including scientific research and cheerleading. But it’s also a lifestyle choice; transhumanists actively strive to exceed their body’s nascent capacities, or, at the very least, work to bring about its full potential. In addition to building a radical future, a transhumanist is someone who will, at any time in history, use the tools and techniques around them to maximize their biological well-being. And while there are a number of technological interventions at our disposal–things like pharmaceuticals, implants, and hand-held devices—there is an alternative and seemingly old-fashioned approach to bodily enhancement that’s gaining considerable currency in transhumanist sub-cultures.

Interesting for two reasons: firstly, it places transhumanism at the far end of a much longer and older tradition of physical and mental self-improvement (which, come to think of it, is a legitimising argument in favour of the transhumanist philosophy that does much to normalise it away from the utopian technotranscendence thing); secondly, Dvorsky seems to be subtly drawing a line in the sand between the dilettantism of what I’m starting to think of as “street-culture transhumanism” and the serious practice of those transhumanists whose real goals are longevity/immortality and a personal transcendence of corporeal human limitations.

This is another of those schismatic fractures that keep appearing as the H+ meme spreads and mutates through the global body politic; I suspect the Paleotranshumanists have realised that the philosophy is getting diluted, and are trying to fence off a set of core “pure” ideologies and practices with which to define themselves in opposition to (or to the outright exclusion of) the dilettantes. Or, to put it another way, Dvorsky is arguing for a concretisation of transhumanism’s narrative metaphor: an acting-out of stated principles in the best ways currently available, rather than a thumb-twiddling wait for the tools that will complete the job with one swift wave of the magic technowand.

As stated earlier, the primal approach is a stop-gap measure for transhumanists until something better comes along. Those looking to optimize their health and performance in the here-and-now should seriously consider adopting this lifestyle.

This approach is certainly a “soft” form of transhumanism and it’s definitely no match for what’s still to come. Our transition away from Homo sapiens will be accompanied by more impactful technologies—interventions like genomics, cybernetics, neuropharma, and molecular nanotechnology. Once we have access to these technologies we will truly be able invoke the “trans” in “transhumanism” as our species migrates into a posthuman and potentially post-biological condition.

Not quite “put up or shut up”, but a definite attempt to redefine transhumanism as a physical practice rather than a purely intellectual pursuit.

Pixar and the transhuman agenda

The intertubes are full of people who’ll try to convince you that [media organisation X] are trying to subversively promote [sinister civilisation-corroding sociopolitical agenda Y], and most of them are, to be frank, loonies. But you can make your own mind up about Kyle Munkittrick, who suggests that – deliberately or not – the Pixar animation house are preparing young minds for the ethical debate of the coming decades: that of non-human personhood.

Pixar has given those who would fight for personhood the narratives necessary to convince the world that non-humans that display characteristics of a person deserve the rights of a person. For every category there is a character: uplifted animals (Dug), naturally intelligent species (Remy and Kevin), A.I robots (WALL-E, EVE), and alien/monsters (Sully & Mike). Then there is the Incredible family, transhumans with superpowers. Through the films, these otherwise strange entities become  unmistakably familiar, so clearly akin to us.

The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

I think there’s an element of agent provocateur and tongue-in-cheekness going on there, though some gloriously curmudgeonly comments suggest that taking it at face value makes stupid people quite angry… which is something of an added bonus. 🙂

(If you ask me, it’s all part of Steve Jobs’ masterplan to make the whole world as user-friendly and cutesy-poo as a MacOS icon. Gimme the grim Linux meathook future any day…. )

The Singularity is the deus ex machina of the transhumanist narrative

The presumably pseudonymous Extropia DaSilva neatly sums up my problems with Kurzweil-branch Singularitarianism (and one of the major reasons I repeatedly identify as a fellow traveller of the transhuman project rather than a card-carrier) over at H+ Magazine; in a nutshell, the Singularity is the ultimate authorial handwave:

The ancient Greeks also gave us the phrase “deus ex machina,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” A deus ex machina makes audiences and readers roll their eyes when they encounter it in a play or a story, and we should likewise roll our eyes when we encounter a deus ex machina being used to resolve all questions regarding the feasibility of achieving transhuman goals within our lifetime. “The Singularity will fix it” is a deus ex machina.

It also turns transhumanism into an infinitely variable explanation. Just like the myth of Demeter, you can continue to believe in the swift and inevitable success of transhuman dreams if you can invoke a godlike power that can fix anything. Hell, you can even posit a total rewrite of the laws of physics, thanks to the Singularity hacking the program that runs the universe. So even if some of our dreams turn out to violate physical laws, there is no reason to abandon faith.

To me, there is something deeply troubling about using the Singularity as a kind of protective barrier against all skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving transhuman goals within a generation. It is difficult to reason with people who use the Singularity concept in this way, and even harder to have a logical debate with them. They have a deus ex machina to hand that can demolish any argument designed to show that transhuman dreams will not inevitably come true within our lifetime. This kind of reaction takes reasonable, scientific expectations of a brighter future and pushes them dangerously close to being an irrational pseudo-religion. And I find pseudo-religions boring.

I actually find pseudo-religions fascinating, but as subjects rather than objects; indeed, it’s the current schismatic/metastasising phase of transhumanism-as-pop-culture-meme that attracts my interest, far more than the promises of the technology on which it builds. The latter is pure speculation, which has its own intellectual rewards, but the former feels more like a chance for me to observe the way ideas spread and mutate in the antfarm of a networked global society.

(Now that I’ve typed that out, I realise it makes me sound like some sort of cultural peeping-tom. Ah, well. 🙂 )

However, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater here, I think the Singularity has a certain value in its ability to attract attention. From a personal perspective, I would probably never have discovered transhumanism if it weren’t for the rash of science fictional Singularities I encountered over the last decade or so. Compressing the transformative power of technological change (and our convergence with such) into a momentary timeframe makes the underlying point – that we change as our technologies change, and that the relationship is a positive feedback loop – much clearer to the uninitiated.

However, that same temporal compression chimes with the transcendent Final Trumps of apocalyptic religions, and there’s a very frustrating human tendency to read metaphorical truths as literal ones (which I claim no immunity from myself, I might add); explicitly reframing the Singularity as a rhetorical narrative device might make it a slightly more useful thing, but I suspect the real root of the problem is that we all secretly long for something to swoop in and fix everything for us (hence the 90s popularity of the alien intervention narrative – surely an extant intelligence greater than [or perhaps merely different to] our own offers hope of us surviving our imminent civilisational bottlenecks?).The Singularity’s seductiveness lies in its tendency to brush aside unanswerable questions.

I imagine anyone who’s written fiction knows the temptation of the deus ex machina; the only alternative to its deployment is to think hard and rationally about ways to overcome an obstacle. Religions – and their rationality-tinged descendents, like Singularitarianism – are an inevitable by-product of human intellectual laziness.

Transhumanism is a philosophy, but Singularitarianism is a cult.

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

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.

Forbes acquires cigar-chompin’ H+ blogger

They’re coming up like crocuses in the park: thanks to Mike Anissimov, we find that Forbes is the latest mainstream news outlet to hire on a blogger for the transhumanist/disruptive-tech/speculative-futures beat, in the form of Alex Knapp (who may not actually chomp cigars with any regularity at all, but hey: give yourself a masthead mugshot like that, and people are gonna jump to conclusions).

“Great, another naive singularitarian with a blog,” you may be thinking. “Like we need more of those, AMIRITEZ?” Well, give the guy a chance – looks to me like he’s going to be a lot less starry-eyed than some of the transhuman (ir)regulars, as this post responding to an H+ Magazine piece demonstrates:

The article goes on […] speculating the ways in which an advanced artificial intelligence might lower cancer risks or even develop alternative forms of energy.  But of course, nowhere does the article discuss how such an intelligence might be developed.  Nowhere does it discuss how you get from artificial general intelligence to the ability to model complex systems.  Nor does it discuss the limitations of such modeling.  No mention is made of potential drawbacks, technological failures, or anything.  It’s pure fantasy, masquerading as a serious proposal because it has a veneer of technology to it.

But frankly, you can show the reliance on magical thinking with just a few quick word changes.  For example, I’m going to change the title of the article to “Could Djinn Prevent Future Nuclear Disasters?”, then make just a handful of word changes to the paragraphs quoted:

“What is really needed, to prevent being taken unawares by “freak situations” like what we’re seeing in Japan, is a radically lower-cost way of evaluating the likely behaviors of our technological constructs in various situations, including those judged plausible but unlikely (like a magnitude 9 earthquake). Due to the specialized nature of technological constructs like nuclear reactors, however, this is a difficult requirement to fulfill using human labor alone. It would appear that finding magic lamps that hold Djinn has significant potential to improve the situation.

A Djinn would have been able to take the time to simulate the behavior of Japanese nuclear reactors in the case of large earthquakes, tidal waves, etc. Such simulations would have very likely led to improved reactor designs, avoiding this recent calamity plus many other possible ones that we haven’t seen yet (but may see in the future).”

I could, in fact, go through the entire article, replacing “AGI” with “Djinn” and a few other tweaks for consistency and not change the meaning of the article one iota.  Now to be fair, I don’t know if this author has grappled with these technological issues elsewhere, but as far as this article is concerned, wishing for a Commander Data or Stephen Byerley has about as much credence as wishing for a Djinn.  It’s simply not a practical solution for the moment.

I like him already!

[ A note to other editors looking to expand their stable of blogs with a soupçon of futurism and H+: this gun’s for hire, folks. *waves* ]