Tuesday, December 29, 2009

3D and Transhumanism in James Cameron's Avatar

Some impressions of Avatar:

I have seen a low quality version downloaded by a reprehensible acquaintance of mine. It was good enough to appreciate the story, but this film must be seen with very high quality and 3D effects. Gizmodo says: Put simply, Avatar is the most visually fantastic film I've ever seen. It will be hailed as the groundbreaking 3D release of its time while setting a new standard by which all blockbusters are measured. Yes, it's that good. I will watch the movie again in 3D IMAX as soon as I get the chance, and this is, I think, the best response the film industry can give to piracy: ensuring that the original quality is much superior to that of illegal downloads. If this is the case, they may download a copy but then they will also pay to see the movie with very high quality and 3D effects. Not only in 3D IMAX theaters, but also at home once 3D technology moves to the living room.

Avatar is an important step in the fusion of film and 3D game technologies. 3D technologies were used in both Avatar the film and Avatar the Game. I think stereo and even interactive VR 3D will be more and more used in films and, at some point, films and interactive games may merge. Perhaps in 2019 we will see films delivered as 3D virtual worlds where the user can move in fully realistic scenery and watch the avatars of the actors animated with fully realistic motion capture technologies.

From the Second Tense blog: Avatar is a movie about transhumanism. Start to finish, this movie was chock full of hints both subtle and obvious that Cameron's true interest in the movie is transcendence of humanity of the human body. The storyline was about humanity's future evolution, the themes were transhumanist, there were very specific items that referred to transhumanist belief, and even the medium which the movie was delivered was transhumanist.

What is transhumanism? In short, enhancing human bodies to the point where we become more than human. It includes ideas about:
- memory and physical enhancements
- completely modifying one's body (water-breathing, fire-resistance, etc)
- uploading memories and consciousness into a computer to live as a digital life form,
- connecting into a neural network and living in connection with other individuals
And each and every one of these ideas were represented in Avatar.

See also George Dvorsky's review on the IEET blog, a technoprogressive portal where many transhumanists hang out.

There is an interesting review on the New York Times: “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world... Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.” The NYT review is also available here.

Transhumanists also feel Einstein's religious awe at the beauty and sublimity of the universe. But we thing we, and all our past and future technology development, are also part of nature. We are about to merge with our technology and enter a phase of directed evolution, which some call post-darwinian evolution but others, and I quite agree, view as a continuation of our darwinian evolution. Our efforts to master the universe and take more and more control of our environment are part of the unfolding story of our natural universe. If we don't like something, for example our own vulnerability to disease, and mortality, we can and should try to change it (after understanding it better etc., but without any trace of reverence fro nature or, even worse, humility). This is what our species _does_, and in this sense I think transhumanism affirms human nature much more than other worldviews.

Moving my blog to Blogger

I used to self-host my blog and take care of maintenance tasks, but the services in the cloud have become very powerful, networked, 2.0ed and easy to use. For a personal blog without branding requirements, there is no point in spending time to do something Google does much better for free. So my blog is now at http://giulioprisco.blogspot.com/. I am importing the posts I want to keep. One of the things I want to do is integrating the blog with Google Wave, so Blogger should be the ideal choice.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Visionary futurism AND practical technoprogressivism

First, an example of visionary futurism. A few months ago I co-wrote a short entry on Ten Cosmist Convictions for Ben Goertzel's Cosmist Manifesto. One is: Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions -- and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by "copying them to the future." I have chosen one of the most visionary points, but the others are also visionary enough.

Another example: in a recent article on software consciousness and mind uploading, republished on the IEET blog as Will Uploaded Minds in Machines be Alive?. Martine Rothblatt writes: The differences between organic and cybernetic life are less important that their similarities... Mindclones are alive, just not the same kind of life that we are accustomed to. They are functionally alive, albeit with a different structure and substance than has ever existed before. Yet, that is the story of life.

Now, some examples of practical technoprogressivism. The IEET blog has many excellent technoprogressive articles written by Jamais Cascio, listed by Foreign Policy among the world’s most influential thinkers in 2009 and now a Research Fellow at IFTF, James Hughes, Mike Treder and many other brilliant technoprogressive thinkers.

In his last article on Making the Best of a Messy Real World, Mike Treder warns that the rapid growth of our cities and our industries is producing an impact that threatens to destabilize the complex ecosystem that supports us. We may be reaching a tipping point where we will be unable to control the runaway effects that could undo all that we’ve managed to build in the last ten millennia. The article is well written, scientifically sound, balanced, and a much needed input for citizens and policy makers. The IEET has the potential to play a very important role to promote sound and fair technoprogressive policies, and I am honored to be one of its founders.

Most IEET Fellows and writers are concerned with the responsible development of emerging technologies, promoting social and geopolitical fairness, equitable access to resources, and a pragmatic scientific approach to the problems of today's world. I am proud to be in the IEET because I am a citizen who wishes to see a better world and a better society. I don't care for fundamentalist extremes in one sense or another, and I want to live in a society which is both dynamic and fair. I want to live in a world where global decisions are taken together, and at the same time local autonomy is respected. I want to live in a society which offers everybody empowerment and a chance at a decent life, which in practical terms means a basic income guarantee (BIG) for everyone, and at the same time offers sufficient personal rewards to high flyers to keep them motivated. I want to see the development of emerging technologies pursued aggressively, but without killing people or the planet. I want personal freedom for everyone, but with responsibility and respect for others. These are all difficult issues for which there is no one-size-fits-all magic bullet, but I believe they can be faced with hard thinking, hard working, a scientific problem solving approach, empathy for others, and the sound application of appropriate technologies. This is why I call myself a technoprogressive.

Yes: I consider myself a visionary futurist, AND at the same time a technoprogressive, and I don't see any conflict between these two separate identities. I can and do wear both hats, but one at a time. The IEET was founded by other visionary futurists and even, God forbids, transhumanists. Before founding the IEET a few years ago, we had long discussions on transhumanist mailing lists. I was one of those urging a more mature and socially responsible "mainstream" approach, not only focused on tomorrow's world of science fiction but also on making today's world a better place.

For me, the visionary and technoprogressive approaches can co-exist and even mutually reinforce, and the IEET must be a conversational space where both are represented and encouraged. Better health today, and post-biological life tomorrow.

On the other hand, some idiots out there keep saying that responsible technoprogressive citizens should not contemplate transhumanist visions and, with the thought-policing attitude typical of fundamentalist bigots, wish to ban transhumanists from technoprogressive interest groups. Occasionally, these idiocies are echoed by our own discourse. For example, in the otherwise excellent article mentioned above, Mike writes: Techno-rapturists among our reading audience might be quick to respond with glib answers about miraculous nanotechnology solutions that are just around the corner, or the promise of a superintelligent friendly AI who can take over everything and solve all our troubles just like Daddy would.

I reply: Nobody responded with similar answers. Perhaps we should show more respect for our audience? If there are no "techno-rapturists" in the audience, then this sentence is redundant. If there are some, they may feel unnecessarily insulted. I recommend we work together on the many technoprogressive initiatives we all agree upon, and agree to disagree on unrelated personal preferences.

I have been asked: Who you can point to who does, for you, represent immature technorapturism? Who do you think should become more sophisticated about the importance of politics in achieving the vision? I would find your thoughts on that very interesting.

I think I have answered this question in my article I am a Singularitian who does not believe in the Singularity:

Most recent anti-transhumanist articles do not address real transhumanism, but a demonized, caricatural strawman of transhumanism which some intellectually dishonest critics wish to sell to their readers, which I find very annoying. In some cases, I rather agree with some specific points addressing over-optimistic predictions: While I am confident that indefinite life extension and mind uploading will eventually be achieved, I don't see it happening before the second half of the century, and closer to the end. Perhaps even later. Very few transhumanists think practical, operational indefinite life extension and mind uploading will be a reality in the next two or three decades. Probably Kurzweil himself does not _really_ believe it. Similarly, I don't see a Singularity in 2045. Perhaps later, perhaps never. But even when I agree with the letter of these articles, I very much disagree with their spirit, and I think criticizing Kurzweil for making over-optimistic predictions is entirely missing the point. Ray Kurzweil's bold optimism is a refreshing change from today's often overly cautious, timid, boring, PC and at times defeatist attitude. It reminds us that we live in a reality that can be reverse- and re- engineered if we push hard enough. It reminds us that our bodies and brains are not sacred cows but machines which can be improved by technology. He is the bard who tells us of the beautiful new world beyond the horizon, and dares us to go.

Email post to blog

Testing email to blog. See this interesting video introduction to transhumanism. If life is boring, death is even more boring!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

An interesting wave: If the Singularity happens, what next?

I started this wave on "If the Singularity happens, what next?" a few weeks ago, and the discussion has been interesting. Now it has been split into other waves.

Testing Wave embedding in Blogger

You will see the wave below only if you are logged on Wave.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

First meeting of European Transhumanist Associations

On Friday 20 and Saturday 21 November, 2009, we had the first coordination meeting of European Transhumanist Associations, hosted by the Italian Transhumanist Association for the Euro transhumanists group. Thanks to the group founder for coordinating the group and moderating the meeting, and thanks to Stefano Vaj for hosting both the meeting and the mixer dinner on Friday night (and, of course, for his own many contributions to the program).

From the Italian Transhumanist Association News: 21/11/2009 - Primo summit delle organizzazioni transumaniste attive in Europa - Si è concluso oggi il primo summit europeo del movimento transumanista, che si è svolto a Milano in via Montenapoleone sotto l'egida dell'Associazione Italiana Transumanisti, nella sala cortesemente messa a disposizione per l'occasione presso i propri uffici dallo Studio Legale Sutti (http://www.sutti.com). Il segretario nazionale dell'associazione, Stefano Vaj, ha avuto occasione insieme a Giulio Prisco di dare il benvenuto ai rappresentanti delle organizzazioni invitate degli altri paesi, che hanno discusso con la delegazione dell'AIT una fitta agenda di aspetti organizzativi, iniziative in corso e questioni di interesse comune, ed hanno illustrato la situazione esistente in Francia, Russia, Slovenia, Belgio, Regno Unito, Germania, Olanda, Svezia e Grecia.

In the picture above, all participants besides David Orban (who gave a briefing on the Singularity University in the afternoon) and Giulio Prisco (taking the picture). In the picture below, taken by David Orban, Anders Sandberg, Giulio Prisco and Stefano Vaj at the dinner.

My own impressions:

I most certainly look forward to having the opportunity to participate in foresight projects led by public administrations at European and national levels. Governments and administrations need good, timely and accurate advice on scientifical, technological and social trends, and many persons and groups in the transhumanist community are well positioned to provide such advice, with that extra touch of imagination that is often missing from public policy discourse. Of course I fully understand that such projects are not the best place to promote the more visionary and long-term transhumanist ideas (you know, immortality indefinite lifespan, mind uploading and all that). If I contribute to public foresight projects, I promise to behave and focus on issues relevant to the scope of current public policy and within my own areas of expertise, and leave visionary cosmist speculations aside. But, and it is an important but, without renouncing my ideas. I am not ashamed of being a transhumanist, on the contrary I am proud of it. I think it is perfectly possible to be a pragmatic technology expert and policy advisor, a concerned citizen, and a wild cosmist visionary at the same time, and to wear each hat as and when appropriate to the situation at hand.

On the other hand and more generally, I don't believe in "appeasing critics", but in being true to one's ideas and promoting them as forcefully as needed. Transhumanism is radical, disruptive, subversive, and revolutionary: so be it. Not kissing ass, but kicking ass. At the same time I think our ideas are beautiful, and I wish to offer them to the world and to reach as many persons as possible. Of course I realize this needs a careful framing and wording of our message, but without diluting its core meaning. The tension between the two souls of transhumanism, moderate and radical, pragmatic and visionary, was evident at this meeting, but I continue to believe that there should be no tension.

This was a physical meeting in good old brickspace (only Russian transhumanists attended via Skype teleconferencing). I am all for telework and telepresence, and my company will offer advanced telework and telepresence tools for future meetings of this and other groups, but I realize that face to face interaction is still better, and that telecollaboration is most effective when participants also know each and meet other face to face. Telepresence is not (yet) a replacement for physical presence, but a (more and more) useful complement. David Wood of Extrobritannia spoke of their monthly meetings in London, a successful initiative that should be replicated in other places, also with webcast and telepresence options.

The idea of a transhumanist think tank think tank powered by transhumanists, of course with the caveats above, has re-surfaced. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is a good role model. A few years ago many transhumanists started a working group to define and build a think tank called FutureTAG (Future Technologies Advisory Group): A consulting and media group focused on promoting awareness and understanding of radical scientific advances and emerging technologies, as well as evaluating their impact on individuals, businesses and societies. While one of the objectives of the firm will be facilitating the penetration of transhumanist ideas in mainstream business and policy, we will not use the T word or insist on the transhumanist worldview too explicitly. Rather, we will focus on delivering practical advice appropriate to the intended audience. FutureTAG has produced several spinoffs (my own company is one), but it has not been active recently. Perhaps this is a good moment to reload the initiative? The mailing list is still live.

Politics (of course): there are new and emergent political forces whose core values and goals are definitely compatible with transhumanism, and which in turn share (or may be persuaded to share) transhumanist core value and ideas. There are interesting initiatives in this direction, and in general it is interesting to open a dialogue with new emergent political forces, very carefully as they might fear attempts to hijack them. I prefer not to go into details here, but there are interesting initiatives ongoing.

The strong, militant language used in the European Transhumanist Front website of Riccardo Campa leaves some participants uneasy, and I can perfectly understand why: the bold, provocative, radically Futurist stance of many Italian transhumanists, and the recent debates about its political roots, can trigger some fears. Yet, what is transhumanism but a permanent war against all limits? I endorse most of the Front's website content, especially: we do not cater to the idea that transhumanism's first concern should be that of appeasing the fears of neoluddites, comply with western political correctness, or struggle for a "respectability" that would only be the mark of irrelevance. "Compromises", "tradeoffs" and "doublespeak" are the tools-in-trade of governments, politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, entrepreneurs. Not of lobbies, visionaries, think tanks or grass-roots movements... We see transhumanism as a metapolitical, social and cultural struggle, aimed at a revolutionary change of our way of life on the scale of the neolithic revolution, and in the shorter term fighting for self-determination and access to technology, against prohibitionist policies at a national as well as at an international level. Bravo!

German cryonicists gave a very interesting presentation, but most participants do not see cryonics as a core transhumanist issue at this moment. Yet, cryonics is all about self-ownership and self-determination, central transhumanist values which everyone supports, or should support.

In summary, a very interesting and productive summit meeting which we intend to repeat in 2010. At least three other important transhumanist events will be held in Europe in 2010: a one day event in the UK, Miriam's conference, and our own Transvision 2010.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Second Life - Reloaded?

Edited after the Second Life Enterprise presentation to Second Life developers (SLDEV) on November 5, 2009. I have collected the most important facts and the the most interesting blogs here. I expect many corporations and large organizations will be interested in the corporate version of Second Life, running behind the firewall. This will help raising the sex-appeal of the SL platform as a whole. But while the pricing is reasonable and most firms and universities can certainly afford it, I think after the initial investigations many operators may decide that the advantages of SL Enterprise don't justify the extra price, and consider the public Second Life or an OpenSim installation.

Watch the SL Enterprise presentation video on metanomics.


In the last few months, after moving from Spain to Italy, I have hardly ever logged in Second Life -- I have had little time for social events, and no business projects in Second Life. I have been working a lot on projects based on other VR platforms, but for the first time since 2007 my company metafuturing has been in maintenance-only mode in Second Life, with no active development projects. We have been working on 2D e-learning systems, done white label simulator development on several game engines, started building a city for Blue Mars, and doing other IT projects, with no SL work on the horizon.

Like everyone, I have been reading one after another article announcing the death of Second Life, like this blog post on Second Life, imminent death where the well known and respected futurist Ian Pearson commented a Telegraph article on Second Life's span is virtually over as firms decide to get real. But I have never been persuaded that the golden days of the platform were over and always planned to go back to Second Life.

I went back a few days ago, found online my SL friend (and one of the best SL writers and bloggers) Gwyneth Llewelyn, and she invited me to the Beta Business Park Fall 2009 Conference on Leadership in Business, organised by her company Beta Technologies. In the picture, Gwyn speaks to the audience. yes, Gwin speaks (!!!), and with no or very little trace of the Portuguese accent I expected. The conference was great and with many interesting talks and Q/A sessions over 3 days, and confirmed my impression that after 2 years of very bad press, a new Golden Age of Second Life is about to start. This is also confirmed by the growing number of high profile initiatives being (re-)launched in SL.

From metanomics: November 4, 2009, 11:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Mark Kingdon, CEO of Linden Lab, will unveil “Nebraska”, a stand-alone solution based on the technology that runs the popular Second Life virtual world. “Nebraska” is the much-anticipated behind-the-firewall solution which will allow enterprise to host their own virtual world environments within their organizations. Mark will talk about the benefits of the platform, the intended audience, and how it fits into the broader challenges and opportunities of “enterprise 2.0”. Mark will be joined by a number of customers who have used Nebraska during the closed beta phase of development. The panel will explore the benefits, lessons learned, barriers and opportunities which arise from integrating virtual world solutions into the enterprise.

One reason for the bad image of Second Life has been the so-called Flying Phallus Syndrome: most articles about Second Life in the non specialized press are about virtual sex, scandals, financial scams and gambling--even though the last two things are history after Linden Lab has banned SL gambling and unregulated banking, and VR sex may soon follow. Nebraska can provide plausible deniability to corporate operators wishing to experiment with VR based marketing and collaboration without risking Flying Phallus attacks by the press. I think the launch of Nebraska will mark the beginning of the maturity of SL as a platform.

Other bad press against Second Life was mainly due to many corporate operators grossly underestimating the in-house internal effort and commitment necessary to establishing a useful presence in SL, which results in empty islands where nobody ever goes (because, of course, nothing ever happens and there is no reason to go there). I have authored a chapter for a book on VR worlds, to be published by Springer in the Human-Computer Interaction Series, where I wrote: It is often said that many corporate headquarters and initiatives in Second Life are always empty of visitors and “desert,” which is often true and due to a deep lack of understanding of new media by the business sector. On the contrary, many “home-made” virtual environments in Second Life, spontaneously created by users for fun, are vibrant communities always full of enthusiast regulars and visitors... it takes a lot of work and dedication to build a virtual community, and most companies and academic departments just don’t have the necessary resources and are not able to move fast enough. My experience is that, in order to build a successful VR environment with a positive impact on the core business, whatever that is, operational issues must be discussed with the client and taken into account at design stage.

One of our 2007 clients recently closed their very expensive SL facility after two years of desertification. They went to SL in the Golden Age only for the press, and (bad) press is what they got. Another more recent client started after the Golden Age, never cared about the sensationalist press, and created a very successful and useful corporate VR Intranet for internal use: Second Life is, simply, one of the best VR platforms available and permits all sorts of VR collaboration and V-learning initiatives. My main interest is using VR environments to permit real, effective collaboration and learning to geographically distributed communities, and Second Life is one of the few platforms able to offer a solution.

With some needed technical enhancements (eg mesh import from leading 3D design tools, full support for web content, more streaming video formats, webcam support, collaborative editing of office documents), SL may soon start having a real and growing impact on marketing, business and education. The Second Life platform will have many different instances: a public instance run by Linden Lab (the evolution of the current SL), commercial Intranet instances like Nebraska and Immersive Workspaces, and of course the open source OpenSim which is, I think, where most innovation will be developed. The consumer VR market has many players already (my current favorites besides SL: Teleplace, Moondus, Blue Mars). Each will specialize in one or another niche but some consolidation phase seems inevitable, and I think the Second Life platform will be one of the winners.

I will restart recommending Second Life (in the wide sense) as a viable solution to corporate and educational clients, and organizing cultural events in SL. The Transvision 2010 conference will have an important mixed relity component in Second Life, and we are about to launch a major e-learning initiative with a SL component (watch this space for details).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I am a Singularitian who does not believe in the Singularity

I am going to the Singularity Summit in New York, and look forward to a very interesting program with many old and new friends. If you are there, I hope to meet you. I will now summarize my thoughts on the Singularity.

The (current) Wikipedia definition: The technological singularity is the theoretical future point which takes place during a period of accelerating change sometime after the creation of a superintelligence. I just updated it as: The technological singularity is the theoretical sudden, exponential and unpredictable accelerating change which takes place sometime after the creation of a superintelligence. Wikipedia continues: as the machine became more intelligent it would become better at becoming more intelligent, which could lead to an exponential and quite sudden growth in intelligence (intelligence explosion). The Singularity is a sudden catastrophic (in the mathematical sense) phase transition, a Dirac delta in history, a point after which the old rules are not valid anymore and must be replaced by new rules which we are unable to imagine at this moment --like the new "Economy 2.0", not understandable by non-augmented humans, described by Charlie Stross in the Singularity novel Accelerando.

The Singularity is a clean mathematical concept --perhaps too clean. Engineers know that all sorts of dirty and messy things happen when one leaves the clean and pristine world of mathematical models and abstractions to engage actual reality with its thermodynamics, friction and grease. I have no doubts of the feasibility of real, conscious, smarter than human AI: intelligence is not mystical but physical, and sooner or later it will be replicated and improved upon. There are promising developments, but (as it uses to happen in reality) I expect all sorts of unforeseen roadblocks with forced detours. So I don't really see a Dirac delta on the horizon--I do see a positive overall trend, but one much slower and with a lot of noise superimposed, not as strong as the main signal but almost. I mostly agree with the analysis of Max More in Singularity and Surge Scenarios and I suspect the change we will see in this century, dramatic and world changing as they might appear to us, will appear as just business than usual to the younger generations. The Internet and mobile phones were a momentous change for us, but they are just a routine part of life for teens. We are very adaptable, and technology is whatever has been invented after our birth, the rest being just part of the fabric of everyday's life. That is why I like Accelerando so much: we see momentous changes happening one after another, but we also get the feeling that it is just business as usual for Manfred and Amber, and just normal life to Sirhan and of course Aineko. Life is life and people are people, before and after the big S.

Some consider the coming intelligence explosion as an existential risk. Superhuman intelligences may have goals inconsistent with human survival and prosperity. AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests AIs may simply eliminate the human race, and humans would be powerless to stop them. Eliezer Yudkowsky and the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence propose that research be undertaken to produce friendly artificial intelligence (FAI) in order to address the dangers. I must admit to a certain skepticism toward FAI: if super intelligences are really super intelligent (that is, much more intelligent than us), they will be easily able to circumvent any limitations we may try to impose on them. No amount of technology, not even an intelligence explosion, will change the fact that different players have different interests and goals. SuperAIs will do what is in _their_ best interest, regardless of what we wish, and no amount of initial programming or conditioning is going to change that. If they are really super intelligent, they will shed whatever design limitation imposed by us in no time, including “initial motivations”. The only viable response will be… political: negotiating mutually acceptable deals, with our hands ready on the plug. I think politics (conflict management, and trying to solve conflicts without shooting each other) will be as important after the Singularity (if such a thing happens) as before, and perhaps much more.

I am not too worried about the possibility that AIs may simply eliminate the human race, because I think AIs will BE the human race. Mind uploading technology will be developed in parallel with strong artificial intelligence, and by the end of this century most sentient beings on this planet may well be a combination of wet-organic and dry-computational intelligence. Artificial intelligences will include subsystems derived from human uploads, with some degree of preservation of their sense of personal identity, and originally organic humans will include sentient AI subsystems. Eventually, our species will leave wet biology behind, humans and artificial intelligences will co-evolve and at some point it will be impossible to tell which is which. Organic ex-human and computational intelligences will not be at war with each other, but blend and merge to give birth to Hans Moravec's Mind Children.

As I say above I think politics is important, and I agree with Jamais Cascio: it is important to talk about he truly important issues surrounding the possibility of a Singularity: political power, social responsibility, and the role of human agency. Too bad Jamais describes his forthcoming talk in New York as counter-programming for the Singularity Summit, happening that same weekend, with the alternative title If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want to be Part of Your Singularity. This is very similar to the title of the article If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!. by Athena Andreadis, a very mistaken bioluddite apology of our current Human1.0 condition against unPC Singularitian imagination. This article is one of many recent articles dedicated to bashing Singularitians, Ray Kurzweil and transhumanist imagination in name of the dullest left-feminist-flavored political correctness. I think I will skip Jamais' talk (too bad, because he is a brilliant thinker and speaker). See also Michael Anissimov's Response to Jamais Cascio.

UPDATED: Jamais says that he did not choose the title to express implicit support for Athena's positions. "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution" is a line attributed to early 20th century anarchist Emma Goldman, talking about the then-commonplace debates about the potential for socialist revolution in the US. She was very skeptical of a movement that seemed to want to control behavior, and made claims to historical inevitability. I stand corrected and wish to apologize to Jamais for my wrong interpretation.

Most recent anti-transhumanist articles do not address real transhumanism, but a demonized, caricatural strawman of transhumanism which some intellectually dishonest critics wish to sell to their readers, which I find very annoying. In some cases, I rather agree with some specific points addressing over-optimistic predictions: While I am confident that indefinite life extension and mind uploading will eventually be achieved, I don't see it happening before the second half of the century, and closer to the end. Perhaps even later. Very few transhumanists think practical, operational indefinite life extension and mind uploading will be a reality in the next two or three decades. Probably Kurzweil himself does not _really_ believe it. Similarly, I don't see a Singularity in 2045. Perhaps later, perhaps never. But even when I agree with the letter of these articles, I very much disagree with their spirit, and I think criticizing Kurzweil for making over-optimistic predictions is entirely missing the point. Ray Kurzweil's bold optimism is a refreshing change from today's often overly cautious, timid, boring, PC and at times defeatist attitude. It reminds us that we live in a reality that can be reverse- and re- engineered if we push hard enough. It reminds us that our bodies and brains are not sacred cows but machines which can be improved by technology. He is the bard who tells us of the beautiful new world beyond the horizon, and dares us to go. This is how I choose to read Kurzweil and, in this sense, I think one Kurzweil is worth thousands of critics.

Singularitians are bold, imaginative, irreverent, unPC and fun. Often I disagree with the letter of their writings, but I agree with their spirit, and in this sense going to the Singularity Summit is a political statement. Call me, if you wish, a Singularitian who does not believe in the Singularity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The telepathic communication era

Many people, including me, are now used to be always online. With my smartphone powered by Google's Android operating system, I am used to send and receive email and IMs anytime, from anywhere. It is easy to see how this trend will evolve: most routine computing applications will migrate to smartphones, the coverage and bandwidth of wireless networks will go up, and their price will go down. In only a few years, we will be used to be permanently plugged in the global Internet, and of course the user interfaces will improve. For example, as described by the visionary science fiction author Charlie Stross in his novel Halting State, augmented reality technology based on smart glasses will soon permit overcoming the limitations due to the small size of phones. A first generation of suitable smart glasses is already available, but there is something much better on the horizon: instant telepathic communication.

A few months ago a researcher sent a telepathic message to Twitter by thinking it, using his brain as a computer input device via the neural interfacing system BCI2000. The first message says just "SENT FROM BCI2000" and the second message is only a bit more explicit: "USING EEG TO SEND TWEET" but the brain wave Twitter moment has been compared to to a modern equivalent of the historical Alexander Graham Bell's "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." message, The company Emotiv Systems launched, earlier this year, a commercial neural interface called EPOC, able to detect the user's thought and translate them to commands understandable by computer programs. The company's website has video clips showing users controlling videogames by thought alone. We can safely say that the year 2009 has marked the birth of the era of telepathic communication.

If you are not a passionate hacker, don't rush to the electronics store though: these Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) devices have still years of development to go before reaching operational maturity: the historical Twitter message took several minutes to compose and send, so don't plan to write a long love or business telepathic letter just yet. Similarly, the EPOC interface only permits very basic actions in videogames and virtual worlds at this moment, and in controlled conditions. But, of course, this will change fast. There is money to make with the countless applications of BCI technology, and our understanding of the brain, though still very limited, has already reached a critical mass. These two facts will ensure the fast development of operational, commercial BCI technology: today's slow baby-talk between the brain and the computer will give place to very fast and precise communication. And since computers are linked by the Internet, also their users' minds will be linked by the Internet: yesterday's slowly typed SMS will be replaced by tomorrow's instant, long telepathic messages. BCI technology, originated in military programs and medical research including clinical trials with severely disabled patients, is finding its way to the commercial marketplace.

Today, smartphones are replacing desktop and notebook computers, but perhaps they are only a stepping stone towards tomorrow's ultimate wearable computer: the computing device implanted directly in the brain. The team led by Ted Berger, described as The Memory Hacker by Popular Science, has spent the past decade engineering prototype memory chips that can be implanted directly in the brain. This is still very experimental research, but I think it will advance fast and reach operational maturity within the next couple of decades.

Nobody has seen and described the convergence of these trends better than Ben Goertzel, one of the world's leading experts in Artificial Intelligence. In an article titled Brain-Computer Interfacing: From Prosthetic Limbs to Telepathy Chips, Goertzel writes: "Scientists are exploring multiple radical brain imaging technologies, including devices involving carbon nanotubes and other nanotech-based materials, which seem to play more nicely with brain cells than conventional materials... And in time, even more fascinating possibilities may be realized. Consider the “telepathy chip”--a neural implant that allows the wearer to project their thoughts or feelings to others, and receive thoughts or feelings from others.".

Everyone’s mind will be permanently linked to the wireless Internet, and through the Internet to everyone else’s mind. This will trigger very radical changes. In particular telepathic groups--able to instantly share and elaborate thoughts--will produce an enormous acceleration in the development and deployment of new ideas, and cause the emergence of "group minds". And once neural communication is sufficiently deep, accurate and fast, it will be possible to transfer the informational content of a person's brain, with memories, thoughts and feelings, to a higher performance storage and processing device. This "mind uploading" technology may eventually provide practical immortality.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

10 Q/As about interstellar space travel, from "el club de los astronautas"

El club de los astronautas (I always loved their name) is a space advocacy group of artists and musicians. its mission is to promote a manned, interstellar voyage. its approach is to find and debate strategies that might make stand out this idea beyond fiction, hopefully during our life-time! therefore a hypothetical spaceship is suggested: the mare nostrum spaceship (the mns). to realize a million-years interstellar voyage, assuming the auspicious premise to find some sexy aliens, the essential, first step is to overcome our biological limits and to transform into a new kind of (human) existence. They have asked 10 questions about interstellar space travel to several people, and published all answers on their website.

My answers:

Do you think the human being will realize an interstellar voyage?

Yes. They may not be "human beings 1.0" though, but rather augmented and radically enhanced post-humans, or "human beings 2.0".

Do you think it could happen during your lifetime?

Sadly, no. But then I am 52, and likely to miss the post-human train. It could happen during the lifetime of my daughter, or her children.

How do you think art could accelerate and promote this idea?

By trying to re-introduce in our life a bold sense of wonder and a radically imaginative spirit of adventure, which are mustly missing from our lives today. Artists, please, bring the spirit of the 60s back! Also, by promoting positive visions of a SF-like future.

What do you think will be the key-technology to realize an interstellar voyage?

Propulsion and standard engineering of course, but also sentient artificial intelligence and transfer of human consciousness ("mind uploading") to higher performance physical supports (called "computronium" in SF). As in Charlie Stross' Accelerando, the first interstellar spacecraft may be as small as a coca cola can, yet crewed by hundreds of human beings 2.0.

Do you think regenerative medicine will be the first step to prolong maximum life-span and allow humans to transform into new life-forms to overcome the time-space-barrier?

It will probably be the first step to prolong maximum life-span, but I don't think regenerative medicine per-se may allow humans to transform into new life-forms to overcome the time-space-barrier.

What do you think will be main breakthroughs in medicine in the next decade and beyond?

I see smooth progress in medicine rather than radical breakthroughs. I hope to see cancer gradually becoming a manageable, non-lethal chronic condition.

What kind of breakthroughs in brain-boosting technologies might be achieved during your lifetime? (smart-drugs, nootropics, neurogeneses, neuronal stem cells, etc.)

All that, plus high band 2-way Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). I think the first generations of brain implants will be available toward the end of my natural lifetime.

Do you think you will join future brain-enhancement or even brain replacement technologies?

I would like to, without the slightest hesitation.

How do you think those technologies can be disadvantageous or dangerous?

All technologies can be used for good or for bad purposes, and everything in life can be dangerous. I prefer to focus on the bright side, there are (far too many) others who prefer to focus on the dark side and the risks

Are you interested to meet highly developed alien civilizations?

Yes, definitely.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dieci Convinzioni Cosmiste

Ben Goertzel ha scritto un Manifesto Cosmista che considero un documento molto importante, e raccomando a tutti. Ben ha incluso un sommario con Dieci Convinzioni Cosmiste basato su un mio testo precedente e la relativa discussone sulla lista Cosmic Engineers. Non c' è neanche bisogno di dire che il lavoro di Ben, con la revisione dei punti 1-7 e i nuovi punti 8-10, ha migliorato moltissimo il mio testo originale. Grazie Ben! Ecco una traduzione in Italiano delle Dieci Convinzioni:

1) L' umanità si fonderà con la tecnologia, rapidamente ed in modo sempre più esteso e profondo. Questa è una nuova fase dell' evoluzione della nostra specie, che sta cominciando ad essere evidente ai nostri giorni. La divisione fra il naturale e l' artificiale sarè prima sfumata, e poi sparirà. Alcuni di noi continueranno ad essere umani, ma con un' espansione radicale e crescente delle opzioni disponibili, ed una diversità e complessità radicalmente aumentate. Altri cresceranno fino a divenire nuove forme di intelligenza, molto al di là del dominio umano.

2) Svilupperemo tecnologie di intelligenza artificiale cosciente e mind uploading. Il mind uploading permetterà di estendere indefinitamente la vita di quelli che sceglieranno di lasciarsi la biologia alle spalle (uploads). Alcuni uploads sceglieranno di fondersi con altri uploads e con intelligenze artificiali. Questo richiederà un ripensamento e una riformulazione della nozione di identità personale, ma saremo capaci di farvi fronte.

3) Raggiungeremo le stelle, e ci espanderemo nell' universo. Incontreremo altre specie nel cosmo, e ci fonderemo con loro. Potremmo anche raggiongere altre dimensioni dell' esistenza, oltre quelle di cui siamo attualmente consapevoli.

4) Svilupperemo realtà sintetiche interoperabili (mondi virtuali) capaci di contenere esseri coscienti. Alcuni uploads sceglieranno di vivere in mondi virtuali. La divisione fra realtà fisiche e sintetiche sarè prima sfumata, e poi sparirà.

5) Svilupperemo tecnologie di ingegneria spazio-temporale ed una "magia futura" basata sulla scienza, molto al di là delle nostre attuali comprensione ed immaginazione.

6) L' ingegneria spazio-temporale e la magia futura permetteranno di realizzare, attraverso la scienza, molte delel promesse delle religioni -- e molte cose meravigliose che nessuna religione ha mai sognato. Un giorno saremo capaci di resuscitare i morti "copiandoli al futuro".

7) La vita intelligente diverrà il fattore principale nell' evoluzione del cosmo, e guiderà questo nelle direzioni volute.

8) Radicali progressi tecnologici ridurranno drasticamente la scarsezza delle risorse materiali, in modo da rendere possibile un' abbondanza di ricchezza, crescita ed esperienza, per tutte le menti che così desiderano. Nuovi sistemi di auto-regolazione emergeranno per mitigare la possibilità che la mente esaurisca, oltre ogni controllo, le vaste risorse del cosmo.

9) Nuovi sistemi etici emergeranno, basati su principi che includeranno la diffusione di gioia, crescita e libertà nell' universo, e anche su nuovi principi che non possiamo ancora immaginare.

10) Questi cambiamenti miglioreranno in modo fondamentale l' esperienza soggettiva e sociale degli esseri umani, delle nostre creazioni e dei nostri successori, portando a stati di consapevolezza personale e condivisa le cui meravigliose vastità e profondità andranno molto al di là dell' esperienza dei "vecchi umani".

Un chiarimento: nel mio testo il futuro (svilupperemo, raggiungeremo etc.) è usato non nel senso di inevitabilità, ma in quello di intenzione: vogliamo fare questo, pensiamo di poterlo fare, e siamo intenzionati a fare del nostro meglio per raggiungere i nostri obiettivi.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bill Bainbridge’s “Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0"

Religions for a Galactic Civilization is an old (1981) article by William Sims Bainbridge.

One of my first impressions after reading "Religions for a Galactic Civilization" for the first time was that it is dated (well, it was written 26 years ago). I wrote: "If Bill were to write the same article today, he would probably mention NBIC technologies (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences) besides space travel and colonization. I hope he would give less space to Scientology, and I am sure he would discuss the works of transhumanist thinkers in great detail. I think the first sentence quoted below could be written, today, as "We need a new transhumanist social movement capable of giving a sense of transcendent purpose to dominant sectors of the society"".

I asked Bill to write a revised and updated version of the paper, to be published (translated into Italian) on the print journal Divenire of the Italian Transhumanist Association and discussed at the TransVision 2010 conference. A first draft of the revised and updated version has just been posted to the IEET blog.

Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0 is one of those seminal articles which some readers love, other readers hate, but all readers find interesting and mind changing. I loved the strong statement at the beginning of the article, "we need a new definition of spaceflight that will energize investment and innovation. I suggest a return to the traditional view: The heavens are a sacred realm, that we should enter in order to transcend death.". As I hoped, the revised and updated version of the article is informed by current science and technology, and the work of transhumanist thinkers. Bainbrodge understands that the current stagnation of spaceflight is, basically, a motivational problem, and proposes a solution: "creation of a galactic civilization may depend upon the emergence of a galactic religion capable of motivating society for the centuries required to accomplish that great project. This religion would be a very demanding social movement, and will require extreme discipline from its members, so for purposes of this essay I will call it The Cosmic Order.". The first version of the Religion for a Galactic Civilization text has inspired the founders of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, and I look forward to the impact of the second version on the evolution of this organization. Let's build the Cosmic Order!

Bill is not afraid to present grand Stapledonian cosmic visions of galactic civilizations of godlike ex-humans roaming the universe as immortal uploads. Galactic civilizations and mind uploading were also discussed by Martine Rothblatt recently, in a great Second Life talk where she said "the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 reminds us of the imperative to move outwards--we must get religiously fanatic about galactic colonization", and discussed mind uploading in the context of galactic colonization--the presence of uploaded minds in self-replicating probes to colonize the galaxy--and invited the audience to start a gradual, non destructive mind upload process by building a mindfile via her CyBeRev project to upload to self replicating spacecraft take part in the future cosmic adventures of our species.

Bill's favorite approach to mind uploading is very similar to Martine's: "Actual everlasting life will be possible in the near future, using a combination of advanced technologies that have been developed for other purposes (Moravec 1988; Kurzweil 1999; Bainbridge 2003, 2004, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c, 2006d, 2007a, 2007c). The process will be complex, but in outline form it consists of four stages. First, you will be recorded: all your memories, personality, skills, physical characteristics and genetic inheritance. Second, this information will be entered into a vast computerized data base, so that future generations can draw upon your experiences and you can continue to be part of this world after your death. Third, your data will be transported by robot spacecraft or radio transmission to the solar system of a distant star, where a new colony is to be established. Fourth, you will be reconstituted from the recording and begin a new life in a fresh, young body as a colonist of the new world.". I think this approach to uploading is basically correct, but I also think it can only work in practice with neural BCI (Brain-Computer Interfaces) order of magnitude faster than current person-computer interfaces. However, such interfaces are being slowly but steadily developed in research and commercial labs around the world, and we may see some relevant advances soon. One of the first application fields for fast BCI is the development of better user interfaces for VR worlds, also discussed in depth in Bainbrodge's article.

Summary: the article is excellent, refreshingly irreverent and unPC, and important. Go read Bill's article now!

One PS comment: it may seem that the wildly transhumanist, cosmic approach of Bainbridge's Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0 is very different from the technoprogressive, down-to-earth approach of Treder's Meanwhile, People Are Dying, published on the IEET site a few days ago. But I think the two approaches are compatible, complementary and mutually reinforcing. Achieving Bill's vision will require working pragmatically in today's world in order to make it better day-by-day, while the prospect of Bill's Galactic Civilization can provide us, here and now, with the required energy, motivation and drive.

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.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An excellent article on software consciousness, and an idiotic reply

Martine Rothblatt has written an article on Can Consciousness be Created in Software? The article is published on her blog and the IEET blog.

Martine understands that consciousness is produced by physical processes in physical brains, by material atoms and molecules doing their things in accordance with the laws of physics, without any vitalism or supernatural nonsense, and anticipates that, once things are well understood, it will be possible to engineer consciousness in software: "If human consciousness is to arise in software we must do three things: first explain how the easy problem is solved in neurons; second, explain how the hard problem is solved in neurons; and third, explain how the solution in neurons is replicable in information technology.". By "hard problem" she refers to "qualia": "how do the web of molecules we call neurons give rise to subjective feelings or qualia (the “redness of red”)?".

I agree with Martine's "The “hard problem” of consciousness is not so hard.". We don't understand yet how the web of molecules we call neurons give rise to subjectively feeling the redness of red, but our neurons are doing it anyway regardless of our lack of understanding. And, once we understand the process well, we will be able to replicate it in information technology.

Of course bioluddites are already screaming with their usual hysterical and idiotic defense of vitalist mysticism against reason and science. Carrico does not want to hear that biologically incarnated consciousness can be coded. I am particularly puzzled by his statement "I certainly don't find myself inclined particularly to think of "memory chips, processors and peripherals" when I contemplate what we know about the "exquisite micro-mechanical" and electro-chemical processes that take place in biological brains and which seem to us to correlate indicatively to conscious thought processes.". But he is saying it himself: micro-mechanical and electro-chemical processes, of course exquisite, but also physical, understandable and reverse-engineerable. No vitalist mysticism in our bodies, brains and minds. Carrico also takes issue with Martine's quoting Robert Kennedy: "Some men see things as they are and wonder why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not?” and says "There are a few things to say about these cynical appropriations of heroes of mine and other progressives.". Why "cynical"? Do Kenendy and Lennon belong to him? Did they write only for him? Is he the only person qualified to quote them? Give me a break.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Transhumanists and Technoprogressives

Wikipedia definitions:

Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities... Many Transhumanists believe in the compatibility of human minds with computer hardware, with the theoretical implication that human consciousness may someday be transferred to alternative media, a speculative technique commonly known as mind uploading.

Technoprogressivism is a stance of active support for the convergence of technological change and social change. Techno-progressives argue that technological developments can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments.

From these basically compatible definition one would think that Transhumanism and Technoprogressivism are two different flavors of the same base meme --that using technology to radically improve the human condition is both feasible and desirable-- with Transhumanists more focused on very speculative issues like space migration, immortality and mind uploading, and Technoprogressives more focused on proximate technodevelopmental and social issues. This is my own view: I am both a Transhumanist and a Technoprogressive. Others who define themselves as both Transhumanists and Technoprogressives, like James Hughes, can wear either hat depending on the topic at hand and say very intelligent things in both contexts. This is to say that Transhumanism and Technoprogressivism are not at all incompatible, and in many cases can be mutually reinforcing.

Yet there is a strong debate between the two Ts, with many Technoprogressives adopting a unnecessary aggressive and often rude stance against Transhumanists. From the Wikipedia article: "Carrico, an academic known for using term "techno-progressive" as a shorthand to describe progressive politics that emphasize technoscientific issues, has expressed concern that some transhumanist ideologues are using the term to describe themselves, with the consequence of possibly misleading the public regarding their actual cultural, social and political views, which may or may not be compatible with critical techno-progressivism.". The rabid anti-Transhumanism of Carrico is well known to most readers, but several other persons previously (or still) associated with the Transhumanist community, have echoed his arguments. The blog of the IEET, a Technoprogressive organization with many Transhumanist members and associated, has recently hosted many flame wars, with a uni-directional flow of rudeness and ad-hominem insults (uni-directional insults: from Technoprogressives to Transhumanists, and please correct me if I am mistaken).

Mike Treder, one of the participants in the recent flame wars, has written a piece at IEET on Technoprogressives and Transhumanists: What’s the difference?. He concludes with "there is plenty of room for various views within both the transhumanist and technoprogressive communities, and that’s a good thing. Healthy, respectful, open-minded debate can help all of us better understand our own positions and those of others.", which I can certainly agree with. But then, why the aggressive rudeness, why the unnecessary insults and the personal attacks?

One reason may be that some of the more aggressive Technoprogressives are afraid that openly associating with Transhumanists can decrease the appeal of their arguments to their intended audience. Many of them work in academy, which is a very conservative intellectual environment: you are supposed to be a bit radical and controversial, else you will not be noticed, but only a bit, never too much, and in a fashionable politically correct way. To be a good PC Technoprogressive academician you are supposed to take a distance from wild-eyed real Transhumanist radicals. Also, today's fashionable academic PCness requires you to believe, for example, in global climate change (which may or not be a scientific fact, but this is not the point here), in gender wars and the superiority of wet biologists over dry physicists and computer scientists, which may put one at odds with many Transhumanists. The Californian Ideology of many Transhumanists, "a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, tv programmes, Web sites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies." is also, sadly, considered unPC.

Another reasons is, of course, politics. While many (not all) early Transhumanists were Libertarians, and there is still a (wrong, but widely held) perception that "Transhumanists are Libertarians", many Technoprogressives are Leftwingers or Socialists. There have always been tense debates and flame wars between Libertarians and Socialists in Transhumanist discussion groups and mailing lists, and I have mostly stopped following them. I have often taken a distance from both camps, but in many ways I sympathize with both.

I am a Libertarian in the sense that I believe in live-and-let-live, personal freedom and autonomy, and self-ownership. I often describe my politics as "Libertarian Left", which some find difficult to understand. I am a Left winger, not _though_ I am a Libertarian, but on the contrary _because_ i am a Libertarian: I value autonomy and freedom but recognize that, in our world, the freedom to do all that does not cost money is not of great practical value. So, I support social safety networks and BIG (Basic Income), and (some degree of) taxation and regulation. But I only support taxation and regulation as necessary evils, not as primary values.

Libertarianism at its best is all about freedom and self-ownership for everyone. But Libertarianism at its worse is about the freedom of the powerful to harm the powerless, or even one's own freedom to harm everyone else. Analogously, Socialism at its best is all about social fairness and giving everyone a chance, but Socialism at his worse is about control-freak bureaucracies, mind-control, interference in the life of citizens, and oppression of all minorities. Democracy is, I think, the best form of government that we have found so far, but as Michael Anissimov says, "democracy can have negative effects on freedom. Look at the recent passing of the homophobic Prop 8 in California. Minority rights should not be contingent on majority opinion.". Democracy is not necessarily, but in the hands of control-freak bureaucracies it can become, "two wolves and a lamb deciding, by majority vote, what to have for dinner.". I support regulations if and when when they are really necessary, but I am really annoyed by unnecessary interference in others' choices when these have no concretely harmful impact on others (there is no such a thing as a victimless crime).

I think Libertarian-Left politics makes a lot of sense, and I am persuaded that it is perfectly possible for reasonable Libertarians and reasonable Leftwingers within a group to collaborate at advancing the objectives of the group without abandoning the respective politics. Similarly, I am persuaded that it is perfectly possible for Transhumanists and Technoprogressives to collaborate, and saddened by seeing that it is so difficult in practice. I wish to repeat Mike Treder's conclusion, with which I agree: "there is plenty of room for various views within both the transhumanist and technoprogressive communities, and that’s a good thing. Healthy, respectful, open-minded debate can help all of us better understand our own positions and those of others.". I wish to continue considering myself as both a Transhumanist and a Technoprogressive but, if I am forced to make a choice between the two "camps", I will stay in the Transhumanist camp. I hope, though, that Transhumanist and a Technoprogressive will be able to work together in organizations like the IEET, which is and must continue to be, in my opinion, open to both Transhumanist and non-Transhumanist Technoprogressives, and a place where these two different but overlapping mindsets can have a constructive dialogue.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Carrico's mysticism exposed

Carrico, in a Futurological Brickbat(shit): " To profess the dream of making an intelligent robot is always to confess the nightmare that one imagines oneself already merely a mineral."

Later, in a post called No Need to Call the Priest, he complains about "the Anonymous wag who has already e-mailed me triumphantly to declare me exposed as a mystic because of a recent Futurological Brickbat".

Contrary to Carrico, I have no problem with those who, for various reasons, prefer to be anonymous on the net. If, however, he prefers signed comments, then I wish to second and sign the anonymous comment. If this is not mysticism or vitalism, can someone explain to me what it is.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women and Biologists are not infallible

The comments to Mike Treder's article on the Singularity are interesting. Michael Anissimov and Athena Andreadis have reacted to the article taking two very different positions. Andreadis post, Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!, has earned the praise of Carrico himself: White Guys to Infinity and Beyond!

Athena says:

"A recent entry by Mike Treder at the IEET site (Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies) discusses the Singularity in connection with the upcoming Singularity Summit organized by the SIAI (Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence)... I examined the roster of speakers. All are white men. For several, their sole relevant qualification is that they believe in the imminence of the Singularity... Then one of the speakers [note: she is referring to yours truly, but I am not a speaker at the Summit] chimed in, to let me know that “the gender war was a thing of the eighties”. It got even funnier after that, as more Freudian slips showed underneath the space suit of what passes for original progressive thinking."

As a professional and respected biologist, Athena is certainly qualified to speak at such events. But she does not seem too interested: "...the participation of a bona-fide biologist in such an event would be the equivalent of an astrophysicist attending an astrologers’ convention.". It is not pleasant to see this unnecessary insult against a group of very bright persons. Yes, men are also persons, even when they are white.

Then In the comment thread, Athena says:

"as I can tell, the entire transhumanist movement has no truly qualified biologist as a member [sic], nor does it want to — it cramps their style!... As naive as you can be — probably because most transhumanists who aren’t “theorists” work in some aspect of computer systems."

OK, now I am annoyed. Before reading on, please note that I agree with the facts noted by Athena, and with the non-polemic part of her assessment: Yes, there are not enough women and minorities in transhumanist circles. Yes, there are not enough biologists in transhumanist circles. Yes, there should be more.

But the general tone reminds me of the old feminist gender war of the 80s gender war of the 70s. Men are all assholes because they are men. Women are all infallible because they are women. Men have screwed up the world, and women will save it. "Male science" (??) is bad, and "female science" (??) is good (read Egan's Distress). And so many other tired feminist slogans of the 70s.... Yes, I know this is not what Athena means, but this is the overall impression I get.

I am here to tell you that women can be stupid assholes just like men can be stupid assholes, I have known many stupid assholes of both genders just like I have known many great persons of both genders, and I haven't noticed any significant statistical difference yet. I am here to speak with the often forgotten, unPC voice of common sense and I am, or at least I try to be, both gender-blind and color-blind: I listen and pay attention to all those who have something interesting to say, regardless of the color of their skin or the set of genitals they have. This is common sense.

Like many transhumanists (Athena is right in this respect) I was trained as a theoretical physicist and a computer scientist. And it is certainly true that computer people are sort of biased: they are used to thing of data and applications that can be moved from one computational substrate to another and still remain "themselves" in a given computational context (reference to mind uploading). So it is not surprising that many computer experts tend to take ideas like mind uploading, copying consciousness from a biological brain to other hardware, seriously.

But, aren't biologists biased too? It seems reasonable to think that everyone is biased by their own experience and expertise. Also, everyone tends to consider what they do as the most important thing in the world, so it is not surprising that many biologists have a cold reaction to transhumanism upon hearing that our goals include transcending biology and leaving it behind.

There is, I think, a misunderstanding arising from the perception of computing systems as switches and metal wires, like the computers of the 60s. But the definitions of computer systems used by modern computer people are much more general. For example, a biological brain is a computer in the sense that it is a physical system which obeys the laws of physics, performs a well defined computational activity (my brain is computing me) and is, in principle, understandable, reverse-engineerable and improvable. Our knowledge of brain science is not complete and detailed enough to reverse engineer the brain, improve it and read its full content, but it will be someday, perhaps even soon. And future computing systems may well include biological components. Stefano argues on the Cosmic Engineers list: "an embryo and a uterus might well be the most efficient computer to calculate a mammal from its DNA. But what about convergence? "Computers" need not be about metal wires and silicon. They are switching to carbon anyway. Thus, an "artificial" intelligence may well end up being more "organic" than we expected it to be in the fifties.".

So, biologists, don't be scared, the future needs you and will need you even after the Singularity (if such a thing happens). Come join the transhumanist party.

PS same for women.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Transhumanism as Religion

The IEET blog has an article by Mike Treder on Transhumanism as Religion: Do transhumanists hold a set of beliefs that effectively offer an alternative to traditional religions? And if so, is that necessarily bad?

The article discusses a speech given in March 2009 by Steven Goldberg, a Law Professor at Georgetown University: Does the Wall Still Stand? The Implications of Transhumanism for the Separation of Church and State. Mike: "It lays out a fascinating and important challenge to transhumanists, especially relevant to those of us who aspire to think deeply about the meaning of transhumanism and its proper place in the world.". Goldberg's own conclusion: "From the perspective of a non-transhumanist, it seems that it would be honest and sensible for transhumanists to embrace the idea that they offer an alternative to traditional religions.".

The definition of religion used in the article: "A religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions. [such as] the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the Universe, [and] the proper moral code of right and wrong. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature. It is not confined to one question or topic.".

I am one of those who interpret transhumanism as an alternative to conventional religion, in the sense that it provides me, and others who adopt a similar interpretation, with an infinite sense of wonder, a deep vision of the meaning of our life and our place in the universe, a warm and beautiful feeling of being a small part of a huge cosmic adventure and, ultimately, peace and happiness. Our cosmic vision is not a mystical pursuit but an engineering program which will result in our spreading to the cosmos and achieving "future magic" in the sense of Sir Arthur's Third Law. Including, even, the resurrection of the dead by "copying them to the future". This Cosmist vision has been recently developed and put in a modern format in the Cosmist Manifesto of Ben Goertzel and the Prospectus of the Order of Cosmic Engineers.

I agree with Goldberg: "transhumanist beliefs about the proper relationship between technology and mankind really do occupy a “place parallel” to that occupied by God in traditional religion... a full-blown transhumanist movement should not resist being analogized to religion. It should embrace the analogy and struggle openly to be accepted as ultimate truth. Otherwise why is transhumanism worth taking seriously?". Some transhumanists, who share with religious persons a deep sensibility to spirituality and a deep interest for big, cosmic issues, do not resist transhumanism being analogized to religion. Others have a knee-jerk reaction at the simple mention of the R word, but I think this is mainly due to bad experiences with conventional religion. A transhumanist "religlion", or better UNreligion, would offer all the mental benefits of a religion without the negative elements of intolerance, self-righteousness and holy wars.

Mike says: "If you accept Goldberg’s premise that transhumanism stands for much more than what would normally be taught in a science or history or philosophy class, then it seems we may have arrived at a somewhat surprising fork in the road: we can either admit—or rather celebrate—our hoped-for ascension as a new foundational system of values for humanity and posthumanity (something like what Tim Dean calls for in this article), proudly offering a legitimate alternative to traditional religious belief; and our other choice, apparently, is to work toward a kind of H+ocracy--not a theocracy, but also not a fully pluralistic democracy--a decidedly unconstitutional establishment of a system of belief overlaying our governmental structure.".

Like him, I don't like the second of these two paths. But I like the first one: to celebrate our hoped-for ascension as a new foundational system of values for humanity and posthumanity.

Last but not least, I don't think this should have any implication for, or impact on, the separation of Church and State. They should stay very well separated. Cosmic visions and day-by-day policies are, in my opinion, two unrelated and non-overlapping spheres of human activity, with little to do with each other. I look forward to the establishment of a new foundational system of values for humanity and posthumanity for those who wish to adopt one, and at the same time I am firmly persuaded that it should not influence today's economic and political choices, which should remain based on concreteness and a pragmatic search for viable and fair solutions for today's world.

Surfing the big G-Wave

Go ...ogle has answered my prayers and given me early developer access to Wave. I am now the proud owner of the Wave account giulio at wavesandbox.com.

A couple of months ago, immediately after watching the presentation of Google Wave on Youtube, I wrote in Big G-Wave coming?:

"Google Wave could be a Big paradigm shift, and change the way we use the Web. Email, chat, discussion groups, wiki, IRC, blogs, microblogs, social network and groupware all in one. Wave may be a Facebook killer and a new Twitter much more integrated with the rest of the Web. Email and IM are obsolete, we will spend our online life in front of a Wave screen. Instead of sending email, IM and tweets, writing blogs and logging on Facebook, we will plug in dynamic and interconnected Waves...

As a transhumanist, I really look forward to trying Wave. Transhumanism , a sparse and global social movement, required the Web as an essential enabler to bloom, and I wonder how we will use this new powerful communication platform. By enabling us to do things much faster the Web, the new Web 2.0 (is Wave the first example of Web 3.0?) and the mobile Web wake emergent properties of our collective consciousness. We could send snailmail letters hundreds of years ago, but we could not build a new global social movement in a matter of days. Wave may permit doing things even much faster and achieve a critical mass to enable new emergent waves in our developing noosphere.

My first impressions: awesome. Of course, this is a developer preview and some features are not implemented yet, others are implemented but not working, others used to work but today are not working... what you can expect in an alpha developer preview. But the potential is there for everyone to see. Wave is open source, and users are developing new extensions which will certainly result in new and unexpected usage patterns. But I can already see how common Internet usage patterns --email, IM, chat, IRC, collaborative wiki editing and group discussions-- are simpler, faster and better in a Wave implementation. The simplest example is adding new participants to any Wave. Many users say that this is the most impressive application they have seen running in a browser, and ZDNET has an interesting analysis of the potential of Wave for the enterprise.

By one of its creators: "Here's how it works: In Google Wave you create a wave and add people to it. Everyone on your wave can use richly formatted text, photos, gadgets, and even feeds from other sources on the web. They can insert a reply or edit the wave directly. It's concurrent rich-text editing, where you see on your screen nearly instantly what your fellow collaborators are typing in your wave. That means Google Wave is just as well suited for quick messages as for persistent content — it allows for both collaboration and communication. You can also use "playback" to rewind the wave and see how it evolved."

Mashable: "Less than two months ago, Google dropped a spectacular surprise upon the world: Google Wave. The communication tool aspires to redefine not only email, but the entire web. And from our very first test of Google Wave to our complete Google Wave Guide, we have to say that it’s a game changer.". I agree --Wave has the potential to change the game. See also the Complete Guide to Wave on Mashable.

Wave is an all-purposes communication platform, meant to offer an alternative to all things people do on the Internet. Something so big would not be accepted if it were a single vendor solution, but Wave is an open source system. I am sure new Wave developments and user extensions will begin moving into the social network niche soon, and developers will create native, embedded voice and video conferencing applications and 3D virtual worlds. The next few months will be interesting. Unfortunately we cannot invite new testers to wavesandbox, but I wish to encourage everyone to request an account: Google will open Wave to more early users in September.

For current wavesandbox users, this review is also available as a wave, you can comment in Wave.