Wednesday, June 16, 2010

YES! Hard-core transhumanist splinter groups yearning for cyber-heaven

The anti-transhumanist New Atlantis blog Futurisms has a story on Why Transhumanism Won’t Work. See also the review at Accelerating Future.

The article is mainly an anti-uploading rant. Their technical objections to uploading are, needless to say, very stupid. But they understand the concept of uploading well;

"uploading is the proposition that, by means of some future technology, it may be possible to “transfer” or “migrate” a mind from its brain into some new “embodiment” (in the same way one “migrates” a computer file or application from one machine to another). That may mean transferring the mind into a new cloned human body and brain, or into some other computational “substrate,” such as a future supercomputer with the horsepower to emulate a human brain."

My own position is: Mind Uploading is feasible in principle. This is the only position compatible with materialism, the scientific method, and current scientific knowledge. Denying this is falling into vitalism and mysticism. Our bodies and brains ARE machines which operate according to the laws of physics, machines which can be fully understood by science and improved by engineering. We ARE information, and information CAN be transferred from one computational substrate to another. Perhaps achieving uploading may take longer than some transhumanists thought in the 90s, and perhaps the deployment of uploading technology will force us to re-think our intuitive concept of self. But this does not change the fact that uploading is feasible in principle, and desirable. Some day it will be achieved (and there are VERY promising research projects ongoing), and every human will have the option of leaving biology behind and moving to a post-biological life with indefinite lifespan. This will probably not happen in the first half of the century, but for my generation there are new emerging options for brain preservation.

They also understand well that uploading is a central transhumanist meme, perhaps THE central one:

"transhumanism itself is uploading writ large. Not only is the idea of uploading one of the central dogmas of transhumanism..."

And they understand, better than many transhumanists, the current situation of the transhumanist movement:

"The further mainstreaming of transhumanism seems to require some P.R. maneuvering, including a rebranding (the glossy new name “H+”). It may also require a moderating of ambitions. The old “Extropian” dreams of uploading and wholesale replacement of humanity with technology may be too scary and weird for mass audiences. Perhaps more modest ambitions will have a broader public appeal: life extension and performance enhancement, cool new gadgets and drugs, and only minimal forms of cyborgization (implanting technological devices within the body). In other words, more Aubrey de Grey, less Hans Moravec; more public policy and less cyberpunk; more hipster geeks and fewer socially-impaired nerds. A kinder, gentler Singularity. Maybe even one with women in it... "

Here they are describing the moderate, watered down, lukewarm, cautious, timid, politically correct, and BORING version of transhumanism that some ex-transhumanists turned PC anti-transhumanists wish to promote. No Extropian dreams of uploading to cyber-heaven, but free anti-oxydant and viagra for senior citizens.

But, of course:

"If so, distancing themselves from uploading is probably a smart move for the H+ leaders, but it risks a split with their base, and the formation of new, hard-core splinter groups still yearning for cyber-heaven..."

YES! Let's form hard-core transhumanist splinter groups yearning for cyber-heaven. Let's put some vision, imagination and FUN back into transhumanism. Let's re-affirm the bold, fresh, uncompromising and energizing transhumanism of Hans Moravec and Max More. Let's not appease critics and PC idiots, but ignore them. Not kissing ass, but kicking ass.


  1. I'm amazed that people purport to speak with authority on the subject while being apparently ignorant of issues explored in the philosophy of personal identity decades, if not centuries ago.

  2. Hi Stathis,

    I am not too concerned with philosophies of personal identity in this context. As you say, these issues have been explored for decades and centuries. I prefer to see things more practically:

    Before going to sleep, I could think that I will cease to exist and another person, who remembers most of my memories, will wake up in my bed tomorrow morning.

    This cannot be theoretically disproved, but of course thinking so would be masochism. Instead, I choose to think that I will sleep, and the same I will wake up. We all do.

    I can make this choice because experience tells me that today’s me has always felt like, and accepted himself as, a continuation of yesterday’s me. And today, I am willing to accept tomorrow’s me as a valid continuation of today’s me. There is continuity, because the perception and acceptance of continuity is never broken.

    The same applies to uploading. Note that most people would accept teleport (you disappear here and an identical copy appears there), which logically is the same as uploading. This tells me that the difficulty is mainly psychological.

    I am persuaded that, once mind uploading will be a reality distributed in society, all issues related to personal identity will disappear like snowflakes in the sun, and everyone will just assume continuity of personal identity after uploading. The SF novels of Richard K. Morgan:

    are especially interesting: uploading consciousness is a routine, nobody considers it strange, and it is business as usual for everyone. This is what I think will happen.

  3. I sometimes wonder what our ancestors would have thought if they were told there would one day be devices that transmit the voices of the dead. I expect quite a few would dismiss the idea as absurd. Of those that accepted it could be done, I expect quite a few would be disturbed by the prospect.

    Well, now we all have radios and music systems that allow us to listen to Micheal Jackson, Winston Churchill, and many other people who are deceased. Technology has a funny way of appearing mysterious and unsettling while merely theoretical, but merely useful, fun, and practical once it is invented and firmly integrated into society.

    Another example: '[it] should be feared by the sane and sensible person'. What is this 'it' the quote is talking about? The telephone. Now, global telecommunication has given us problems (like spam and cold calling) but very few people actually FEAR the telephone. Again, it is just one more useful gadget.

    As for uploading, if realised it could change psychological continuity from a one-to-one relationship to a one-to-many relationship. Identity as we understand it today would be strained by the ability to upload multiple copies of one mind that might then diverge, only to later merge again into a society of Minds.

    But, maybe this will seem no more strange to future people than instantaneous communication across oceans, or listening to a dead man singing, seems to us. Perhaps online worlds, brain-machine interfaces and other technological capabilities preceeding uploading get us used to being able to split off aspects of ourselves, play around with identity and ease the transition from one-to-one to one-to-many relation.

  4. Good analogy Extie. I am sure some of our ancestors would have said something like "This is impossible: amplifying voice to make it heard thousands of miles away would result in a noise so loud that it would deafen, or kill, all those standing nearby" -- which is certainly true, but irrelevant: engineers have found ways to transmit voices over thousands of miles which does not involve local acoustic amplification.

    Think also of the objection that our ancestors raised to the idea that the Earth could be round: "but if the Earth were round, the people at the antipodes would fall".

    I suspect most of our intuitive objections to uploading (being two copies at the same time, etc.) are psychological in nature, and
    similar to these.

    In fact I think these and similar objections disappear like a snowflake in the sun when looked at from a new perspective. I don't know what this new perspective can be, but I suspect it has something to do with new intuitive concepts of self, based on degrees of selfness instead of a binary me/not-me.

    So I think we should just develop uploading technology without worrying too much about metaphysics and, once we can talk to uploads, we will be on much more solid ground to sort philosophy out.

  5. Old school idealism isn't what you need. Ther is no contradiction between mainstreaming and uploading vision. PLF and HAMAS are pretty mainstream. Without public policy forays you cannot move forward. Splinter cells are not an answer, there are no resources to create them.


  6. @livingtomorrow: I have nothing against mainstreaming, on the contrary I look forward to seeing our ideas discussed and considered by the mainstream. But they must be _our ideas_, not a watered-down version.

    I also agree that there is no contradiction between mainstreaming and uploading vision. We can discuss proximate here-and-now themes in mainstream circles, and visionary transhumanism in more imaginative circle. As far as I am concerned, these two faces of transhumanism can easily co-exist.

    But apparently these "ex-transhumanists turned PC anti-transhumanists" are ready to bend over backwards to be accepted as good boys by mainstream "bioethicists", and to give up their transhumanist ideas as juvenile sins of which they duly repent. I want nothing to do with this, and I very much prefer splinter cells to continue to promote real transhumanism.

  7. I agree entirely, OP. If a "hardcore transhumanist" splinter group was ever properly formed, I'd be right in there. I'm not anti-mainstream, per se, and I agree with the previous commenter that the mainstream circles have, in views, quite a lot in common with smaller groups. However, the sanitisation of transhumanism for the mass market has gone far too far.

    While I understand that the mass market would not accept more niche transhumanist ideology at all, and so we must have some form of front, our front mustn't take over our beliefs. The cyberpunkish ideals, borderline amoralism and close-enough eugenicism of some of the IRC channels wouldn't be accepted in public, so we have to appear more credible, and, to so do, have a big shiny humanist organization backing us up. But it shouldn't become us. Although some extremism is, indeed, too far, most of it is not. Indeed, splinter cells would be inconvenient in comparison to our current setup, but it's better than kowtowing to the pseudosentimental archaisms of the bioethicists.

  8. I'm sure you've read enough of my writing to know I'm a die hard techno geek, and I don't in the slightest buy into the "slow, gentle, PC singularity." That's little more to me than sticking one's head into the sand and trying to ignore the reality shaping itself around us.

    Technology doesn't exist in a vacuum, and magic doesn't happen if all the parts are not in place. That's where most past futurists and transhumanists went wrong. They ignored all the needed supporting tech and thought that this or that breakthrough would be just around the corner.

    The problem is that before any "breakthrough" can happen, every piece in the puzzle has to be in place.

    I never expected "massive benefits" from the human genome project immediately. Why? Because I saw it for what it was. A complete readout of the program that makes up humans. Written in a code which we understood only the alphabet of, but not the syntax or grammer. Sure, it was marvelous, but meaningless without that added layer of knowledge.

    We needed something else to make the promises of the genome project actually fulfill-able, but no-one wanted to listen. And now you have those people who refused to listen saying "oh well, it's going to be decades and decades yet."


    Computers lie behind the accelerating curve, and always have. We needed computers to not only develop to a certain point, even more critically, we needed computers to be in enough hands, connected to enough people. We needed not only fast computers, but the internet to grow large enough to enable truly massive amounts of data to be shared, collaborated on, re-shared, collaborated further on, and begin snowballing.

    We've hit that stage within the last two years finally. And I've been watching that snowball, still small right now, but growing daily, as it's been picking up speed. By the end of this decade, I don't think anyone is going to be able to avoid seeing the avalanche of change that is already starting.

  9. (the following is inspired by this very blog entry of Giulio's).

    The computational theory of mind is based on the premise that the brain is a kind of computer. It might not be directly comparable to the laptop I am using right now, but it is an organ that performs information processing.

    But, what if this is wrong, and the brain is just not a computer at all? Sometimes critics of uploading raise this possibility, as if a positive answer (yes, the brain is a completely different thing to a computer) would refute the theory that a mind can be transferred/copied to a different substrate.


    One thing I think is fairly irrefutable: The mind is what the brain does. In other words, the mind is the result of physical processes going on in the brain (well, we might have to expand to include processes in the central nervous system, chemicals produced by the body...whatever, it is all materialistic, physical processes).

    Well, if that is true (and the evidence against it being true is flimsy to say the least) then it is possible to build a physical system that functions just like a brain does. We can build brainlike machines. And that means uploading is still possible, even if it turns out that the brain is not a kind of computer.

    It would, however, make it almost impossible to estimate when uploading will become a practical technological capability.

  10. Maybe even one with women in it, huh? Sounds splendid. Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone strikes me as an ideal icon. Way back in 1970 she advocated employing technology to liberating ends such as artificial wombs and full automation through machines as smart as people. Though not yet considered a transhumanist writer in any circle I'm aware of, she fits right in with her discussion of the tyranny of biology and ambitious vision for social transformation.

    Oh, did Mark only want women with mainstream goals? My mistake.

  11. As usual, awesome, Giulio. I've been a hardcore transhumanist for as long as I remember, a friggin' floating-point frothing freak, caring more about computation than copulation.

    It's a CHOICE. And the choice was right: today I, a transitional-human, create seminal ultratech while the merely-humans can see no further than their next paycheck.

  12. @Extie: the brain is a computer in a general sense. It is a device which obeys the laws of physics, performs computations based on its previous state and current input, and uses the results of such computations to act upon its environment and update its state. This, which I consider self-evident, is not related to any specific computational technology and implementation on any specific substrate.

    If one analyzes the arguments of anti uploaders, one always find some kind of deep and often hidden belief in a non-physical self, vitalism ("Elan vital"), and ultimately mysticism. They don't realize it and would never admit it but... their objections indicate a strongly held conventional religious belief. The opposition to transhumanism is actually _the fight of old religions against a new one_.

  13. @Kur0: the sanitisation of transhumanism for the mass market has gone far too far.

    I don't think the ongoing attempts at sanitisation are meant for the mass market, but for a relatively small but very vocal group of PC pseudo-intellectuals, mainly in academic ivory towers.

    I am persuaded that the "mass" is much smarter than these "intellectuals" like to think, and perfectly able to understand and embrace radically new concepts.

    I do not really care for monolithic movements without internal diversity and, in the spirit of letting thousands of flowers bloom, welcome splinter groups.

  14. I'm in total agreement with you, Giulio! Transhumanism should be fun. The transhumanism of the 90s is still alive today. It never ended.

  15. Hi Michael. The transhumanism of the 90s is definitely still alive today - you and I are living proofs.

    Since the 90s, transhumanism has evolved. The transhumanist community is now more complex and diversified, which is good. It is also more open to cultural and social considerations that were often ignored in the 90s, and this is also good.

    But we transhumanists are still those who want to reach for the stars and leave biology, mortality, and all limits behind. This is our goal. Adopting effective strategies and good PR is good, but without losing sight of our goals.


    A piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago that more or less could be considered my manifesto.

  17. Wow Valkyrie, this is a great piece. Just left this comment on your blog:

    Hi Valkyrie, this is a great article.

    (Bio)luddites talk a lot of "human nature" and "human dignity", never defining them, and they criticize transhumanism for being against "human nature" and "human dignity".

    But to me, the essence of human nature and human dignity is our never ending quest for something more and something better. "No. We can do better" is our transhumanist answer to the question "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?" We are those who stand for the true human nature and dignity.

  18. TY Giulio. I had originally submitted that to H+ but sadly only a few days later R.U. put the magazine on hiatus.

    I can still remember the day I found that answer for myself. I had recently enrolled in an electronics repair class, and my teachers "pep talk" was "Everything I am going to teach you is useless. No-one does board level repairs anymore, and computers can diagnose hardware far better than any of you will ever be able too." But I liked the class, and became very interested in the science behind electronics... which led to my local library and a book I originally thought was on miniaturization, a book titled "Nano"

    I figured I would read a few chapters before bed the night I got it. I never did get any sleep that night, but I did wake up.

    The first thing I wrote after reading was this question: "Have you ever woken up and realized you have woken up in a completely different world than you went to sleep in?"

    I was asleep in a world of grey, of hopelessness and unending monotony. I read sci-fi and fantasy books as a way to escape this drab existence, but the dreams I had as a child seemed dead and buried.

    That book changed everything. I felt like a glass planet hit by a meteor. I could hear the tinkling of the falling glass go on and on as I sat there for hours with my mind racing.

    I had been asking "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?" for twenty five years.

    And in that moment of shattering glass I finally had the answer.

    In the years since, I have watched as that world I saw in the future has been assembled piece by inevitable piece. I've shaken my head at far too many futurists who have failed to see the forest because they were only looking at trees, and seen far to many people like Mike Treder head off in weird tangents because they refuse to take their eyes off the sky and look at the ground at their feet.

    And the biggest mistake I have seen people make time and again is to think that technological advancement is a linear process. Mike's "straight" road, even Kurzweil's "accelerating curve" fail to realize that progress is a PARALLEL process, and that each and every day more and more of these massively parallel lines are widening and beginning to overlap, and merge. Follow any single thread and it may seem to lead nowhere, and too many transhumanists have become disillusioned because they followed a path that didn't lead to their desired end.

    But that has never meant that other paths don't lead to them.

  19. While I don't give into arguing the feasibility of uploading, Im far more interested in knowing if there's a possibility we have already been uploaded...

    If This universe is already a simulation then should we not worry more about reaching out of the simulation vs going deeper into it?

  20. @Valkyrie: the books which played this waking-up role for me were Sir Arthur C. Clarke novels (2001, Childhood's End...), which I read when I was very young.

    As you say, progress is a parallel process with many parallel tracks which blend and amplify each other at some point. Someday, progress will permit achieving even the most radical transhumanist visions (indefinite lifespan aka immortality, mind uploading...)

    Yet, I don't see a fast-takeoff, exponential Singularity in our immediate future (I can be wrong, and I will be happy if history will prove me wrong). I am afraid I tend to agree (or better, I tend not to disagree) with Mike Treder concerning actual timeline predictions.

  21. @Particleion: see my most recent article on the possibility that our own reality may be a simulation:

    In Whom we live, move, and have our being

    It has been suggested that fundamental physics indicate that our reality may be a simulation. See this article on The Universe Algorithm on Extropia's blog. I often think that an efficient simulation does not bother computing things that nobody is watching, which seems to imply that computed realities have quantum physics.

    Reaching out of the simulation... sounds difficult, remember that if the simulation is completely consistent there is no way of knowing. Perhaps "they" listen to our prayers and upgrade (some of) us to Level 81 (out of the simulation, in their own reality) when we die. But perhaps they prefer waiting that we reach similar capabilities for ourselves. In this case, they would offer us an escape door only after we develop uploading technology.

  22. @Giulio

    *giggle* I have NEVER believed in the "fast takeoff Singularity" Giulio, primarily because I do not see "Singularities" as unique events.

    Humanity has had many singularities. The First was probably either stone chipping or fire. Then Agriculture, then cities, leadin up to the last few, the printing press, the industrial revolution, and the ongoing one we are currently in, which is the transition between material and non-material based economies.

    Whether or not we make it to an AI Singularity is entirely dependent on how well we deal with all the problems we will face during this transition, and it's immediate consequences. Those will come within the two decades, and will certainly influence not only how AI is developed, but whether or not we even notice if AI gets developed.

    This is what I am talking about when I say people ignore the fact that there is a forest because they are so focused on one single "AI Singularity" tree.

    I don't give a damn about an AI singularity. I seriously think that by the time it happens, humanity is going to be so far along it's own enhancement that no-one will be able to tell "AI" from "Human" from "Humanoid" from "CG Avatar" etc.

    And what I do see occurring is a rapid development of personal AR/VR Audio Video immersion devices, rapidly accelerating biological morphological technology, rapidly advancing universal printer tech, culminating in universally programmable Stem cells which can reshape the human body at will, Basic nanotech capable of using bacteria as assemblers and able to "grow" any arbitrary product, and the beginnings of massively enhanced BCI and cybernetics. All of which will have enormous impacts on the human psyche LONG BEFORE AN AI SINGULARITY CAN HAPPEN.

    So perhaps it's a matter of definition. If you ONLY define a singularity as "HARD AI TAKEOFF" then you are right.

    I don't, because it makes very little sense to. At the core a "Singularity" is an event that produces an effect so profound that the society before and after might as well be two separate cultures. No-one "pre-singularity" could imagine what a "post singularity" society would truly be like. Did anyone really think that a printing press would lead to the Reformation? Or that the Industrial revolution would lead to the massive number of changes it did? And yet these effects become obvious in retrospect.

    So, as I see a series of "Singularities", it appears we are in the middle of one, with another one less than a half century behind it, with perhaps another one past it, each coming sooner than the previous.

    I do see a fast exponential take-off in the near future, in numerous areas, but not a UNIVERSAL, fast exponential takeoff, because we will are likely to reach a plateau where we will consolidate, adjust to the new social reality, then slam into high gear again, before we plateau, consolidate, etc. It's the pattern we have always followed in the past, so I see no reason to expect it change. I don't think there is any possible way to maintain the highest exponential accelerations without those plateaus, so while the OVERALL trend is a smooth curve, it's one that meanders, but at a faster and faster rate between "singularities"