Monday, July 27, 2009

Transhumanist Salvation or Judgment Day?

By Lou Cabron
June 30th, 2009

We're starting to brush up against real robots, real nanotech, and maybe even the first real artificial intelligence. But will emerging technologies destroy humankind — or will humankind be saved by an emerging transhumanism?

And which answer is more liberating?

If anybody knows, it's R.U. Sirius. The former editor in chief at Mondo 2000 (and a Timothy Leary expert) has teamed up with "Better Humans LLC." They're producing a new transhumanist magazine called h+. (And R.U. is also one of the head monkeys at 10 Zen Monkeys.) But can he answer this ultimate question? Terminator Salvation played with questions about where technology ends and humanity begins.

But what will we do when we're confronting the same questions in real life?

10 Zen Monkeys: Isn't this whole idea of real transhumanism kind of scary?

RU SIRIUS: Everything's scary. Human beings weren't born to be wild so much as we were born to be scared, starting on a savanna in Africa as hunter-gatherers watching out for lions and tigers and bears (oh my... Okay, maybe just lions), subjected to the random cruelties of a Darwinian planet. I would say that the transhumanist project is probably an attempt to use human ingenuity to make living in this situation as not scary as possible, and in some theories, to actually change the situation, to create a post-Darwinian era.

Of course, that — in itself — is scary. Our favorite narratives — our favorite movies and stories and comics tend to involve humans being altered by our own technologies to dramatically bad ends. Most of those stories are silly in the particular, but the broader fear of unintended consequences or the use of advanced technologies by intentionally destructive people isn't silly.

For instance, we explored the very rapid development of robotic technologies for warfare during the web site's Terminator Week. That's viscerally scary. Logically it can also mean less civilian casualties, less harm to soldiers, and so on. And on the other hand, it can also mean less hesitation to use violence against others, or a possibly objectionable system of total control in which revolution is permanently rendered impossible. And on the other hand... I can do the "on the one hand and on the other hand" until the Singularity or at least until the Mayan apocalypse of 2012.

But seriously, what really scares the crap out of me is that we might notmake radical technological problem-solving breakthroughs — that we might stop, or that the technologies might fall short of their promises. What scares me is the idea of a 6 billion-strong species finding itself with diminishing hopes, resource scarcities, insoluble deadly pandemics, and global depression based on the delusions of abstract capital flow resulting in increases in violence and suffering and territoriality and xenophobia.

10Z: But how does transhumanism resolve these problems? How does a bunch of rich people living longer solve any of this?

RU: Let's take this one at a time. The technological paradigm that has grown out of transhumanist or radical technological progressive circles that I'm most fond of is NBIC. Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno. The promise of nanotechnology — which has become much more tangible just in the last few months (thanks to developments we recently covered on our site) — is basic control over the structure of matter. This should eventually solve most of our scarcity problems, with the possible exception of physical space. (And there are ways we might deal with that, but I'm trying to keep it short.)

Nanotechnology, of course, has enormous potentials in terms of health as does biotechnology. People can find these details just about anywhere so I won't go into it. Anyway, sickness is perhaps our greatest source of misery and our greatest resource sink... particularly if you contrast sickness not just with the absence of disease but with the possibilities of maintaining a high level of vitality.

Then... information technology allows us to organize the data for distributed problem solving and — to a great degree — democratizes it. (More eyes and more brains on the problem, working with and through more intelligent machines.) IT is at the heart of all the breakthroughs and potential breakthroughs in nano and bio — and all this is leaving aside the further out projections of hyper-intelligent AIs.

You know, getting back to what's scary, I agree with Vernor Vinge that the greatest existential threat is still nuclear warfare. But next in line is the possibility of a major plague... a rapidly spreading pandemic. And already we can see that the tools for dealing with that come down to intelligent systems and biotech. There's biotech medical solutions using intelligent systems married to global mapping and communications and organized distribution. Human behavior has a role too, of course... but not as much as romantics might wish.