This piece originally appeared at the Institute for Emerging and Evolutionary Technologies website. It is dedicated to Leon Festinger.
Transhumanism is more often regarded as a faith by its detractors than its supporters. For my own part, I have long argued that the signature themes of transhumanism – especially the preoccupation with intellectual immortality and physical resurrection – bear the marks of Abrahamic theology. Indeed, without that theological backdrop, transhumanism’s zeal for mind uploading and cryonics looks simply bizarre. However, in this context, transhumanists can reasonably argue that they are scientifically delivering on those original theological promissory notes. Nevertheless, there remains the potentially pejorative sense of ‘faith’ lurking in what might be called transhumanism’s sense of eschatology – that is, its account of when, how and to whom those promissory notes will be delivered.
History shows that any humanly conceived idea is eventually realized in some form. Most of these ideas are realized fairly shortly after conception and in more or less the manner intended by their conceiver. However, many of the most important ideas – the ones that profoundly alter humanity’s self-understanding — are only realized much later and typically in a context quite alien to those who originally conceived them. Norbert Wiener famously observed that the possibility of an artificial intelligence was first raised in Talmudic discussions of the Biblical Golem. One of the goals of medieval alchemy was the creation of life from non-living materials. As for space travel and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, they became staples of speculative thought starting with the European Renaissance’s unprecedented confidence in the power of human ingenuity. But in all these cases, the ideas have taken 500‑2000 years to be realized – and many have yet to fully satisfy the ambitions of their conceivers.
The disconnect between the conditions of intellectual conception and realization is quite familiar to writers of history and fiction. Hegel called it the ‘cunning of reason’ and it informs many a plot twist. These authors operate at a ‘meta-level’ to those who conceive and realize the ideas in question. In that respect, they move in the direction of God’s point of view. This enables them to survey with confidence a much broader bandwidth of the space-time continuum than either the conceivers or the realizers of the ideas themselves. However, what stops these second-order observers from achieving complete Olympian detachment is that they can still feel emotion about the consequences. Thus, they – and their readers — are the ones who laugh, cry or are simply amazed at the fate of ideas as they make their way from their conceivers to their realizers. Moreover, those emotions may be quite different from the ones experienced by the people depicted in the works, who by definition operate from more limited horizons and hence are ignorant of the larger narrative context.
We live in a time when many knowledgeable people are projecting radical changes to the human condition in the historical near-term, say, in the next generation or two. These include indefinite human longevity in the bodies of our birth and the prospect of artificially enhancing our minds and bodies, including the ability to upload our minds into machines capable of extending our mental powers indefinitely. Some would go further in the manner of Elon Musk to claim that space travel and colonisation might become so ordinary as to become one channel for solving humanity’s persistent earth-bound problems.
Few doubt that the time it takes to conceive and to realize the most radical ideas has shrunk over the course of history. Much of our intuitive sense of ‘acceleration’ comes from this basic awareness. It was already present in the Italian Futurist movement at the start of the twentieth century, which appealed to the accelerated pace of change – largely in the realms of transportation and communication — more than a half-century before it was operationalised in terms of computational efficiency as Moore’s Law. Moreover, humanity has become increasingly open to multiple realizations of a given idea, such that only professional historians nowadays worry about the loss of the conceiver’s original context as his or her idea comes to be realized in various ways. Indeed, the original Italian Futurists made a point of wanting to destroy all traces of the past as a precondition to freedom and progress, which they equated with the frictionless realization of the products of the human mind. Although transhumanists rarely say anything quite so nihilistic, their privileging of the ‘virtual’ over the ‘natural’ sends largely the same message.
However, transhumanists also seem to believe that the sense of space-time compression implied by an ‘accelerationist’ world-view especially favours the current generation of transhumanists. They typically locate what theologians would call the eschaton, which some transhumanists think of as the ‘singularity’, as occurring within their normal biological lifetime – certainly in less than fifty years and quite possibly within a generation. Not surprisingly, then, transhumanists tend to be middle-aged white males with a reasonable amount of disposable income. These people also tend not to have children, even if they are married. In other words, they are already prepared to enter a world in which, say, price is not a barrier to acquiring enhanced powers or extended longevity, and intergenerational succession is not something one needs to worry about, either at the personal or the public policy level.
But what happens if the eschaton does not occur within such a convenient time-frame? To be sure, I am generally optimistic that science and technology’s direction of travel points to where transhumanists want to go. Nevertheless, for various reasons, the relevant developments may not happen as soon as the likes of Ray Kurzweil or Aubrey de Grey have predicted – or hoped. In other words, the people who might end up benefitting from the transhumanist paradise that awaits Homo sapiens are the descendants of people who lived non-transhumanist lives in our times. Of course, some transhumanists believe that cryonics gets around this problem, but its prospects remain largely as speculative now as they were fifty years ago – at least with regard to human resurrection.
So, do you still believe in transhumanism even if it is unlikely that you will personally benefit from it?
When one thinks of Mark Twain, one thinks of folksy wit, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and the Mississippi River. Twain’s work immortalized the rapidly changing United States of the 1800s. But in his personal life, Twain often preferred the future to nostalgia, supporting women’s suffrage and civil rights, and frequently being contemptuous of what he considered to be the absurd and corrupt values of the past. He harbored a long running fascination with technology and new gadgets, and frequently invested in the latter — albeit with spotty success, at best. But Twain cemented his becoming an honorary futurist via his long friendship with inventor and Mad-scientist archetype Nikola Tesla.
How will our relationship to technology evolve in the future? Will we regard it as something apart from ourselves, part of ourselves, or as a new area of evolution? In this new video from the Galactic Public Archives, Futurist Gray Scott explains that we are a part of a technological cosmos. Do you agree with Scott that technology is built into the universe, waiting to be discovered?
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In Unexpected Futurist, we profile the lesser known futurist side of influential individuals. This episode’s unexpected time-traveler: Benjamin Franklin. Ben Franklin was an inventor, observer, electricity pioneer, and serial experimenter, so it’s not entirely surprising he looked to the future. But it turns out he was looking to the far, far future. In 1780 he wrote a letter to a friend in which he lamented that he was born during the dawn of science.
Point discussed at 1:31 in the video: https://youtu.be/VJ_qtKf64Is?t=1m3s
From the conference text at: https://www.academia.edu/34323947/Mont_Order_July_2017_Conference_Text
- “Climate change not likely to be stopped, likely to result in a crisis. No resources may be left for next generation.“
- “Crises occurred in the past, and the 1% lost the most. The 99% are likely to survive climate change by struggling through anything (droughts, resource shortages, food shortages, economic crashes etc.) whereas the 1% could lose everything.”
- “If the elite crack under pressure as Donald Trump does, this supports the above. The future of the 1% during a climate change crisis could be a larger scale version of the insanity that grips people who suffer a financial loss and become homeless after a relatively normal life.”
- “As above, the Great Depression did not impact average person, but drove stockbrokers and other wealthy people to ruin or suicide.”
Futurist Gray Scott: We Can’t Ignore Our Psychological Future
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Why are we often so wrong about how the future and future technology will reshape society and our personal lives? In this new video from the Galactic Public Archives, Futurist Gray Scott tells us why he thinks it is important to look at all aspects of the future.
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Artificial Intelligence (AI) represents both the biggest opportunity and potentially the greatest threat to the legal profession in history.
This is part of a bigger global revolution – where society, business and government are likely to experience more change in the next 20–30 years than in the last 500.
This large-scale disruption is being driven by the combined effects of AI and other disruptive technologies whose speed, power and capability are growing exponentially – or faster.
These technologies, which are all are fed by AI, include quantum computing, blockchain technology, the internet of things (IoT), big data, cloud services, smart cities, and human augmentation. All of these could be hundreds or thousands of times more powerful within a decade.
The resulting changes mean the total transformation of every business sector, the birth of new trillion dollar industries and a complete rethink of law, regulation, legal infrastructures, and the supporting governance systems for every activity on the planet.
This film was compiled from audio of a discussion futurist FM-2030 held at the University of California on February 6th, 1994. In this discussion 2030 laid out an overview of his ‘transhuman’ philosophy and held a back and forth with other people present in the discussion. Discussion and debate included items such as the value of researching ‘indefinite lifespan’ technologies directly as opposed to (or in addition to) more traditional approaches, such as researching cures for specific diseases.
The excerpts in this archive file present a sort of thesis of FM 2030’s transhuman ideas.
About FM 2030: FM 2030 was at various points in his life, an Iranian Olympic basketball player, a diplomat, a university teacher, and a corporate consultant. He developed his views on transhumanism in the 1960s and evolved them over the next thirty-something years. He was placed in cryonic suspension July 8th, 2000. For more information about FM 2030, view the GPA Archive File: ‘Introduction to FM 2030′ or visit some of the following links:
Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies:
The New York Times:
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In preparation for writing a review of the Unabomber’s new book, I have gone through my files to find all the things I and others had said about this iconic figure when he struck terror in the hearts of technophiles in the 1990s. Along the way, I found this letter written to a UK Channel 4 producer on 26 November 1999 by way of providing material for a television show in which I participated called ‘The Trial of the 21st Century’, which aired on 2 January 2000. I was part of the team which said things were going to get worse in the 21st century.
What is interesting about this letter is just how similar ‘The Future’ still looks, even though the examples and perhaps some of the wording are now dated. It suggests that there is a way of living in the present that is indeed ‘future-forward’ in the sense of amplifying certain aspects of today’s world beyond the significance normally given to them. In this respect, the science fiction writer William Gibson quipped that the future is already here, only unevenly distributed. Indeed, it seems to have been here for quite a while.
Here are the sum of my ideas for the Trial of the 21st Century programme, stressing the downbeat:
Although the use of the internet is rapidly spreading throughout the world, it is also spreading at an alarmingly uneven rate, creating class divisions within nations much sharper than before. (Instead of access to the means of production, it is now access to the means of communication that is the cause of these divisions.) A good example is India, where most of the population continues to live in abject poverty (actually getting poorer relative to the rest of the world), while a Silicon Valley style community thrives in Bangalore with close ties to the West and a growing scepticism toward India’s survival as a democracy that pretends to incorporate the interests of the entire country. (The BBC world service did a story a couple of years ago after one of the elections, arguing that this emerging techno-middle-class is, despite its Western ties, are amongst those most likely to accept the rule of a dictator who could do a ‘Mussolini’ and make the trains run on time, and otherwise protect the interests of these nouveaux riches, etc.) In this respect, the spread of the internet to the Third World is actually a politically destabilizing force, creating the possibility of a new round of authoritarian regimes. This tendency is compounded by a general decline of the welfare state mentality, so that these new dictators wouldn’t even need to pay lip service to taking care of the masses, as long as the middle classes are given preferential tax rates, etc.
But even in the West, the easy access to the internet has political unsavoury consequences. As more people depend on the internet as a provider of goods, information, entertainment, etc., and regulation of the net is devolved into many commercial hands, it will be increasingly tempting for techno-terrorists to strike by: corrupting, stealing and recoding materials stored therein. In other words, we should see a new generation of people who are the spiritual offspring of the Unabomber and average mischievous hacker. Indeed, many of these people may be motivated by a populist, democratic sentiment associated with a particular ethnic or cultural group that is otherwise ‘info-poor’. Such techno-terrorism is likely to be effective when the offending Western parties are far from those of the offended peoples – one wouldn’t need to smuggle people and arms into Heathrow; one could just push the delete button 5000 miles away… I am frankly surprised that the major stock exchanges and the air traffic control system haven’t yet been sabotaged, considering how easy it is for major disruptions to occur even without people trying very hard. These two computerized systems are prime candidates because the people most directly affected are likely to be relatively well-heeled. In contrast, sabotaging various military defence systems could lead to the death of millions of already disadvantaged people, so I doubt that they would be the target of techno-terrorists (though they may be the target of a sociopathic hacker…)
One seemingly good feature of our emerging networked world is that we can customize our consumption better than ever. However, this customization means that we are providing more of our details to sources capable of exploiting them — not only through marketing, but also through surveillance. In this respect, remarks about the ‘interactivity’ of the internet should be seen as implying that others may be able to ‘see ‘through’ you while you are merely ‘looking at’ them. While this opens up the possibility of government censorship, a bigger threat may be the way in which access to certain materials may be ‘implicitly regulated’ by the ‘invisible hand’ of website hits. Thus, if a site gets a consistently large number of hits, it may suddenly start charging a pay-per-view fee, whereas those getting few hits may simply be taken off cyberspace by commercial servers. This could have especially pernicious consequences for the amount and type of news available (think about what sorts of stories would be expensive to access if news coverage were entirely consumer-driven), as well as on-line distance learning courses.
Here we see the dark side of the ‘user friendliness’ of the net: it basically mimics and reinforces what we already do until we get locked in. (In other words: spontaneous preferences are turned into prejudices and perhaps even addictions.) In the past, government and even businesses saw themselves in the role of educating or, in some other way, challenging people to change their habits. But this is no longer necessary, and may be even inconvenient as a means to a docile citizenry. (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was ahead of the curve here.)
There are also some problems arising from advances in biotechnology:
1. As we learn more about people’s genetic makeup, that information will become part of the normal ways we account for ourselves – especially in legal settings. For example, you may be guilty of alcohol-related offences even if you are below the ‘legal limit’, if it’s shown that you’re genetically predisposed to get drunk easily. (Judges have already made such rulings in the US.) Ironically, then, although we have no say in our genetic makeup, we will be expected not only to know it, but also to take responsibility for it.
2. In addition, while our personal genetic information will be generally available (e.g. used by insurance companies to set premiums), it may also be patented as intellectual property legislation seems to be allowing the patenting of substances that already exist in nature as long as the means is artificial (e.g. biochemical synthesis of genetic material for medical treatments).
3. This fine-grained genetic information will refuel the fires of the politics of discrimination, both in its negative and positive extremes: i.e. those who want to take a distinctive genetic pattern as the basis of extermination or valorization. (A good case in point is the drive to recognize homosexuality as genetically based: both pro- and anti-gay groups seem to embrace this line, even though it could mean either preventing the birth of gay children or accepting gayness as a normal tendency in humanity)
Finally, there are some general problems with the future of knowledge production:
1. It will become increasingly difficult to find support – both intellectual and financial — for critical work that aims to overturn existing assumptions and open up new lines of inquiry. This is because current lines of research – especially in the experimentally driven side of the natural sciences – have already invested so much money, people and other resources that to suggest that, say, high-energy physics is intellectually bankrupt or that the human genome project isn’t telling us much more than we already know would amount to throwing lots of people out of work, ruining reputations and perhaps even causing a general backlash against science in society at large (since public conceptions of science are so closely tied to these high-profile projects).
2. Traditionally radical ideas have been promoted in science – at least in part –- because the research behind the ideas did not cost much to do, and not much was riding on who was ultimately correct. However, this idyllic state of affairs ended with World War II. Indeed, it has gotten so bad – and will get worse in the future – that one can speak of a kind of ‘financial censorship’ in science. For example, Peter Duesberg, who discovered the ‘retrovirus’, lost his grants from the US National Institute of Health because he publicly denied the HIV-AIDS link. One result of this financial censorship is that radical researchers will migrate to private funders who are willing to take some risks: e.g. cold fusion research continues today in this fashion. The big downside of this possibility, though, is that if this radical research does bear fruit, it’s likely to become the intellectual property of the private funder and not necessarily used for the public good.
I hope you find these remarks helpful. Leave a message at … when you’re able to talk.