Thursday, August 20, 2009

Treder: Meanwhile, People Are Dying

Mike Treder has posted tot he IEET blog an article on Meanwhile, People Are Dying. He writes:

"In assessing the possibilities of a world more greatly enabled and impacted by emerging technologies, it’s tempting to consider all the various visionary dreams as equally likely. Reading a lot of science fiction (which I do, and which I heartily encourage) can lead a person to think that if something has been imagined, then it must be possible. This is one of the risks of enjoying speculative fiction, and it’s made more acute by engaging uncritically in a community of like-minded believers... It’s useful, then, to think about emerging technologies on two axes: feasibility, and impact. “Feasibility” means how likely something is to be achieved, “Impact” describes how much a particular emerging technology (or result of a technology) is likely to change the world... Beyond assessing the feasibility and the effects of emerging technologies, it’s imperative that we also stay firmly footed in the real world if we hope to play a role in bringing about positive change. In the real world, people are dying... We need to have an overlay on our thinking, a recognition that while it can be fun and valuable to spend time thinking about or working on futuristic possibilities, in the real world life goes on... Technoprogressives are in a unique position to bridge the gap between understanding the potential power of emerging technologies--modulated by a sober and realistic assessment of feasibility--and finding workable solutions to the real problems we face today and will face tomorrow."

These quotes give a sense of the article, but you should read the original, which has also some diagrams to categorize emerging technologies, from robotics to mind uploading, in terms of their feasibility and impact.

I think using the term "feasibility" is ambiguous. It is not clear whether Mike refers to feasibility with current technologies and financial resources, feasibility in the short term, or feasibility in principle. For example I certainly agree with Mike that AGI and mind uploading are hardly feasible with today's resources, or in a few years, and perhaps not within our lifetimes, but I am persuaded they are feasible in principle: this is the only assumption compatible with the scientific worldview. To claim otherwise, is to fall into vitalist and mystical positions. No, there is nothing "sacred" or "forbidden" in biology and cognition. Our bodies, brains and minds are machines, and it is within the capabilities of our species to engineer better ones.

Having said this, I mostly agree with the letter of Mike's article, and I mostly disagree with (my interpretation of) its spirit.

Yes, beyond assessing the feasibility and the effects of emerging technologies, it’s imperative that we also stay firmly footed in the real world if we hope to play a role in bringing about positive change. Yes, if something has high potential impact but almost no chance of being achieved in the short term, it should be assigned a lower priority (as far as the allocation of public resources is concerned) than other work of possibly lesser impact but greater likelihood of success in the short term. Yes, I think when we allocate public resources we should give top priority to finding workable solutions to the real problems we face today and will face tomorrow. Yes, in today's world, people are dying. I agree with Mike on these points, and this is why I call myself a technoprogressive.

But I think also those who choose to spend time thinking about or working on futuristic possibilities play a very important role. The world is big and complex, and different people with different skills, interests, inclinations, sensibilities and personalities, can give a useful contribution to making the world a better place. Don't demonize those who choose to focus on far future speculations and cosmic visions: these are not incompatible with finding workable solutions to the real problems we face today and will face tomorrow, and these two different attitudes can co-exist in the same person and mutually reinforce. This is why, besides calling myself a technoprogressive, I also call myself a transhumanist. If the intended spirit of Mike's article is to demonize transhumanist dreamers, I most certainly disagree. Focus on what is more important to you, let other focus on what is more important to them, and let's try to work together for what is important to all.