Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In Defense of Superlativity

Many transhumanist ideas are products of fertile and creative imaginations. Some people would add “unhampered by the normal constraints of scientific and philosophical discipline”. Is that so? My answer: NO, or at least not necessarily.

The history of science and engineering show that in some case it is (e.g. perpetual motion machines), and in some cases it is not (e.g. heavier than air flying machines).

A perpetual motion machine is not compatible with the basic laws of physics as they are understood today. This has also been claimed for heavier than air machines, but in that case the claim was wrong.

The history of science and engineering shows that, if something is logically and physically possible, and if there is sufficient demand for it, it will probably be achieved at some point.

Given a highly imaginative engineering project, we have to choose whether to take it seriously as an airplane, or to dismiss it as a perpetual motion machine. This choice depends of course on many factors, including of course scientific and technical knowledge and experience, but also including many unspoken and at times unconscious assumptions, often emotional in nature, about our reality.

Let’s come now to the “superlative” examples.

One of the assumptions I make is that there is no such a thing as “supernatural” - everything in the universe can be, in principle, analyzed by science. According to this assumption, I think our bodies and minds are machines: very complex machines that are not presently understood in great detail, but nonetheless machines whose detailed blueprint can be in principle known, reproduced and improved. There is no mysterious “vital force” or supernatural “essence” forever beyond the domains of scientific analysis and engineering tinkering.

I also assume that I am the information encoded in my brain. Why? Simple - because I don’t see what else I might be. It seems to me that any other assumption would fall into mystic, magic, and supernatural realms that are completely foreign to my basic assumptions about reality.

On the basis of this assumption and conclusion, I think someday we will be able to upload human personalities to suitable computational supports, much longer lived than biological brains. This is, I believe, fully compatible with our current scientific understanding of the universe.

Of course, opinions about development timescales may differ. Ray Kurzweil sees it happening in only a few decades, while other thinkers believe it cannot take less than thousands of years. My own forecast, based only on my engineering intuition and understanding of current developments, is somewhat intermediate: I imagine operational mind uploading technology deployed by the end of this century or in the next century.

This makes me happy for my grandchildren, who will live in a very interesting world, but I don’t see mind uploading developed during my lifetime. So, on the basis that any finite probability is better than zero, I am signed up for cryonic suspension. The “natural vs. supernatural” argument above tells me that cryonics works in principle - there is no mystic “soul” that irretrievably leaves a frozen brain after death by decree of god.

Does it work in practice? Of course I don’t know. I could die in a plane crash without any possibility to retrieve the brain. Or the brain could not reach the cryonic facility in useful time because of legal complications. Or the current cryonic suspension technology could not be suitable. Or the cryonic facility could be bombed by terrorists. Or…

But, on the basis of the considerations above, I am quite willing to try. Actually I think that the odds are not that good (there many things that can go wrong, so there is a high probability that something will go wrong), but a small probability of surviving death is better than no probability of surviving death. Surviving temporary death by cryonics may permit reaching a future where mind uploading technology can provide a much longer life.

And I think the future could be a beautiful and interesting place. Of course it could also be a very ugly place but, one thing is sure, it will be what we make of it. The possibility that I could live to see it gives me hope, energy and drive.

Summary of this long post: I agree that we should not sell unscientific snake-oil, but I think a very long and interesting life enabled by mind uploading technology, and cryonics as a bridge to reach a point in time where this option is available, is an engineering project compatible with our current scientific knowledge. I do not intend to sell this a certainty, but I do intend to propose it as a possibility.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Soft Tiplerianism

This is a summary of my recent arguments on some transhumanist mailing lists in support of the idea that transhumanism might be, or become, a suitable alternative to religion. For lack of a better term, I am using "Soft Tiplerianism" to indicate a general, high level, conceptual appreciation of some ideas proposed by Fedorov, Teilhard, Tipler, Kurzweil, Perry and Clarke, without any specific proposal for their actual implementation.

In The Physics of Immortality, Frank J. Tipler proposed a high level concept:

Future technology may be able to resurrect the dead of past ages by some kind of "copying them to the future"

He also proposed a specific resurrection mechanism based on:

Intelligent beings of a far future epoch close to the gravitational collapse of the universe (the so called Big Crunch) may develop the capability to steer the collapse along a specific mode (Taub collapse) with unlimited subjective time, energy, and computational power available to them before reaching the final singularity. Having done so, they may wish to restore to consciousness all sentient beings of the past, perhaps through a "brute force" computational emulation of the past history of the universe. So after death we may wake up in a simulated environment with many of the features assigned to the afterlife world by the major religions. (from my Interview with Frank J. Tipler of November 2002).

Actually I liked David Deutsch's account of Tipler's vision (described in his popular book The Fabric of Reality) more than Tipler's own account. While I found some parts of The Physics of Immortality *very* interesting, I was not impressed with the overall conceptual clarity and felt that he was stretching some interesting analogies far too much.

Tipler's mechanism for resurrection is often criticized on the basis of its cosmological assumptions, that are not supported by current observations. Even if this is the case (that is, even if the Universe "left to itself" would not spontaneously evolve an Omega Point ´like cosmology), Tipler thinks that we may be able to do something about it: "the expansion of life to engulf the universe is exactly what is required to cancel the positive cosmological constant" (reference above). This "fix what you don't like" is, in my opinion, a very transhumanist attitude and is supported by Ray Kurzweil's last sentence in The Age of Spiritual Machines: "So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the Universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein's so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right".

We should not take nature (lower case n intended) as an absolute that cannot be modified or as something "superior" that must be revered, but rather as a plastic material that can be shaped and modified once we develop the capability to do so. Which is, in my opinion, what transhumanism is all about. Past generations were used to considering human biology, with all its comic or tragic accidents such as body fat, unchosen gender, stupidity, aging and mortality, as an absolute. We are beginning to see that, after all, our bodies and minds are just machines that can be fixed, improved and redesigned by engineering once we develop the needed knowledge and tools. I am just proposing to apply the same concept to cosmology and the fabric of reality, that's all (!). Of course. I do not have the faintest idea of whether, when and how megascale cosmic engineering may be an actual possibility. But I do not think we know enough of the detailed machinery of reality to rule out this vision, and find some pleasure and motivation in allowing myself to contemplate it.

It is worth noting that also Tipler's predecessor in using the term "Omega Point", Pierre Teilhard de Cardin, has been often criticized (even by Tipler himself!) for not getting some scientific facts right. But this is really like dismissing Leonardo as a crank because his aircraft sketches wouldn't fly, which is just stupid. Leonardo was a genius who got the *concepts* right, and later engineers equipped with more detailed knowledge have realized his visions.

While I find speculations on megascale cosmological engineering in the very far future interesting, I don't think we can take too seriously any current speculations on the capabilities and motivations of persons (in an extended meaning of "person" of course) millions of years more advanced than ourselves. So, I am quite agnostic on the specific resurrection mechanism proposed by Tipler. I also think that, perhaps, we may find some better ways to resurrect the dead much before the end of the universe, regardless of a Big Crunch that may or may not take place, like the fictional example in Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's novel The Light of Other Days. In Clarke-Baxter "theory" micro wormholes naturally embedded with huge density in the fabric of spacetime permit looking back in time and downloading a copy of a person's mind, that can then be "uploaded to the future". Many other thinkers and writers, including Nikolai Fedorov and Mike Perry, have dared contemplating resurrection. See also the website of the Society for Universal Immortalism.

While I cannot claim any knowledge of future "super technologies", I do relate deeply to Tipler's high level concept that future technology may be able to resurrect the dead of past ages by some kind of "copying them to the future"and, in the spirit of "There are more things in Heaven and Earth...", allow myself to contemplate such possibilities. There may be a point where consciousness becomes a important factor in the destiny of the universe, where conscious beings develop the capability to choose and build the universe they *want* to inhabit, and invite the dead of past ages to join the party by copying them to the future. I am using "Soft Tiplerianism" to indicate this soft rationalist, high level and not detailed concept that will, I hope, be detailed and realized by future scientists and engineers.

Since these are very long term visions, I do not put them in the realistic/programmatic world. What I do put in the realistic/programmatic world, in a "think big, act small" sense, is taking the first small steps toward the advancement of our species on this cosmic path, while at the same time trying to ensure our immediate survival. The future can be magic and beautiful, and we want to be there to see it happen. One of the first small steps that should be taken, in my opinion, is making transhumanism more appealing to more people in a more immediate way. Therefore, I am proposing to include "Soft Tiplerianism", as defined here as "Future technology may be able to resurrect the dead of past ages by some kind of copying them to the future", in the transhumanist memetic package. I am persuaded that this could facilitate outreaching beyond the original transhuamanist subculture(s), give many more people hope and a sparkling vision of a better future, and motivate them to roll up their sleeves and try to contribute to realizing such vision.

I am *only* arguing for the hypothetical feasibility, in principle, of these concepts, and my argument is based on the fact that they do not contradict the laws of physics as they are presently understood. I never said, do not want to say, and do not think that these possibility are "absolutely certain" or "guaranteed", just that they are a possible outcome of the development of our species. So I am not at all certain that our descendants will be able to, or be willing to, upload me to the future, but the simple possibility of this option is good enough (for me) as a replacement of religion. The main point of my proposal is an explicit acknowledgment that the current scientific thinking, and some reasonable extrapolations from today's engineering, *may* provide *some degree of* hope, grounded in technology and sciences, in some of the promises of traditional religions. Without, of course, the irrational faith, rigid dogmatism and intolerance that have plagued traditional religions.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Seminar on Transhumanism and Religion in SL

Seminar on Transhumanism and Religion in Second Life

Sunday, April 29, 2007, uvvy island in SL

The event was organized by the Second Life Chapter of the World Transhumanist Association.


Giulio Prisco, Executive Director, World Transhumanist Association (yours truly). I summarized my article/book precis Engineering Transcendence.

Extropia Dasilva, Fascinating and Mysterious Virtual Personality. Extropia is a "transhumanist avatar" who writes some of the best mind expanding stuff about first and second life, the universe and everything. Her talk Climbing Technological Mount Improbable is available online.

James Hughes, Executive Director, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. James presented his paper "The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future" (link).

Lincoln Cannon, President, Mormon Transhumanist Association. Lincoln presented the fascinating blend of Mormonism and Transhumanism developed by the MTA.

My presentation started, as usual, with a personal introduction slide where I said that I am with the WTA but am now speaking on behalf of Giulio Prisco, Giulio Perhaps (my avatar in SL), Yours Truly, the Fat Ugly Guy here (my avatar again) and Myself. I presented my own views on transhumanism and religion, which are not and cannot be represented as official WTA views. I think the "cosmic" part of transhumanism *is* an alternative to religion, firmly based on the scientific worldview, but able to provide much of what most people search in a religion. My conclusion: "Our Manifest Destiny: our species will spread to the stars, merge with its technology, and acquire god-like powers. Uploading technology will permit cybernetic immortality with the safeguard of backup copies. With “future magic”, we may find a way one day to bring back all persons who have ever lived. This can be an alternative to religion, based on science, rationality and humanism. I am very interested in the current experimental activities to memetically engineer transhumanist alternatives to religion, based on science, but still able to offer hope in “another life” even for those who are already dead".

Extropia gave, as usual, a very thoughtful and challenging presentation of current trends towards a Singularity and beyond. Her conclusion: "If the technological Singularity is not the summit of Mount Improbable after all, one might ask what is. Will science reveal the answer? Or maybe philosophy? Perhaps theology? Or should we conjecture that these are all manifestations of a grander overarching conceptual framework that we currently cannot comprehend, but may come to appreciate as we ascend to a state that might appropriately be defined as ‘God’? I like to think so!".

James had a monster presentation of interfaces, similarities and differences, and possible cross-talks between transhumanism and religions. James is, of course, a smart politician who knows better than trying to be too explicit on whether transhumanism can or cannot be an alternative to religion. His conclusion: "Transhumanism is potentially compatible with many metaphysics, theodicies, soteriologies and eschatologies. Religious will incorporate the H+ project into their faiths to create trans-spiritualities. The future religious landscape will be much more interesting". This concept of infecting religions with transhumanist memes is not so different from my concept of engineering religions based on transhumanism, and basically similar to an equivalent strategy, often discussed on the lists, to develop a transhumanist memetic presence in political movements.

Lincoln affirmed the basic compatibility between Mormonism and Transhumanism. He stated that the views of the MTA are received "with interest" by the larger Mormon community. His conclusions: "We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end". This is, I believe, a perfect explanation of why, despite what fundamentalists may say, transhumanism is not at all incompatible with religion but, on the contrary, each of the two sets of sensibilities can boost the other in a positive feedback loop.

This was a very good event and I was especially pleased to see some of the newcomers join the Second Life Chapter of the WTA.

Technical notes:

All speakers with the exception of Extropia used audio streaming for presentations and answers to questions from the audience. James Hughes and Lincoln Cannon used the Shoutcast plugin for Winamp to stream to our Shoutcast server, and I used Nicecast on a Mac to do the same. The technical challenge was the coordination of sound streams coming from different remote locations (basically, the previous speaker has to stop broadcasting, the next speaker must start broadcasting, nobody must start broadcasting at any moment different from the scheduled moment, and an occasional restart of the Shoutcast server may be required). Audio worked very well for James and Lincoln (their voices were crystal clear). It worked very well also for me but with some interruptions (I had to restart broadcasting several times). This was due to a combination of other speakers starting their broadcast while mine was still on and the fact that my Internet connection was not so reliable yesterday.

About 60 persons attended, with a peak audience of 45. There was not too much lag despite uvvy island being only a Class 4 sim.

Extropia's talk was disturbed by a griefer who, of course, was kicked out and banned from the region. He may even have been (you never know) one of the well known outspoken enemies of transhumanism. I can see his point - our ideas *are* a danger for the narrow, fundamentalist mentality they represent.

This page on the uvvy wiki has more pictures and will be updated with pictures, links, transcripts, audio and video clips as they become available.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Transhumanism, young whores and old bigots

In a letter to Max Born (source), Albert Einstein quoted ”the beautiful proverb: Junge Huren - alte Betschwestern (young whores - old bigots)”.

We have seen it happen so many times: once upon a time there was a wild teenager, sometimes naive but full of creativity and enthusiasm. Then (s)he has to learn some hard lessons, like that you are supposed to show at work at 8am in a formal suit. And then (s)he falls in the dullest mediocrity, forgets all wild and creative ideas of the past, and begins wearing formal suits even on Sunday mornings. (S)he may even, and this is really sad when it happens, become a boring, self-righteous, pompous and intolerant old bigot who hates teenagers for still having the aliveness that (s)he has lost.

Most wild teenagers avoid this trap, but some don’t. And I am sometimes afraid that transhumanism, once a wild and frighteningly brilliant teenager, may become a hopelessly dull old bigot.

A few years ago I used to say that the transhumanist movement had to grow up from its “nerdy sci-fi roots” and become an influential voice in the mainstream world. The metaphor I used was the same I am using now, a wild teenager who grows up and goes to business meetings in a formal suit. I also used to say that the transhumanist movement should not focus only on nerdy sci-fi stuff like immortality, conscious AI, brain implants and mind uploading, but also on the problems of today’s world and the attempts to find viable solutions. I still say and believe it: we should be part of progressive mainstream thinking, wear formal suits if it helps, and even get our hands greasy with the messy details of practical policy making and politics.

But, and this should go without saying, without giving up the core elements of our worldview. We, or at least most of us, *are* sci-fi nerds. I am certainly one. I believe that developing and deploying advanced technologies for human enhancement, without self-imposed a-priori artificial “ethical” limits, will make the world a better place and improve the quality of life and happiness of everyone on this planet and beyond. Which is, I believe, the only things that really matters. Of course I am not at all against practical ethical considerations related to the quality of life and happiness of actual, concrete persons, but I am very much against abstract “ethics” -what god does or does not want, absolute truths, objective morality, undefined notions of human dignity, if it is moral for flying donkeys to discuss number theory with crystal pigs, and all that.

A few years ago we founded the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies as “a mainstream transhumanist think-tank in a formal suit”.  Then we stopped using the T label, which was felt as too limiting, and invited non-transhumanist thinkers to join the IEET. Under the executive leadership of James Hughes, the IEET has carved itself a niche as a left-wing, transhumanist-friendly technoprogressive think tank. This is an important role that will, I hope, result in radically technoprogressive ideas of human enhancement becoming more and more accepted in mainstream policy.

Why am I writing this? Because I hear proposals to water down transhumanism to the point of becoming unrecognizable. And I am not referring to the predictable broken-disk anti-transhumanist rants of well known bioluddites, but to ideas put forward by people close to transhumanism and even by declared transhumanists. They seem ashamed of radical transhumanist ideas and mainly wishing to sound reasonable, “ethical” and politically correct to win the approval of the anti-progress bioluddites out there. Pleeease! Give me more of the old nerdy sci-fi stuff anytime.

To be clear: I am a left technoprogressive and very concerned with the problems of today’s world. But when I want to say or do something in support of food and clean water for everyone, affordable health care, education for all children, reduction of the digital divide, BIG, reduction of the North-South gap, world peace, civil rights, etc., I do so in other contexts, activist movements or political parties. Who is concerned about, for example, the environment, should join an environmental movement or a green party and *do* something, instead of trying to transform transhumanism into an environmental movement.

I see technoprogressivism and transhumanism as two complementary spheres of thought, with little overlap, and both are core elements of my worldview. Technoprogressivism is about how technical advances can and should improve the lives of as many persons as possible, here and now. Transhumanism is about leaving free rein to one’s imagination and looking forward to technical advances that may, and should, improve the lives of as many persons as possible in much more radical ways, tomorrow and perhaps elsewhere. I became a transhumanist many years ago mainly because transhumanism gave me a sense of wonder, a sense of meaning of life, a vision of our place in the universe, peace and happiness. I do not see any conflict or incompatibility between the two Ts, and want transhumanism to remain transhumanism. Perhaps even with some kind of “return to the origins” and some more sci-fi nerdiness to correct what I am beginning to perceive as the political correctness of old bigots.