Monday, November 05, 2007

A Bit of Fry and Hari

Today my topic is one of problems. Problems are often defined as particular questions or sets of options. In the case of immigration the problem is usually phrased:

"How can we reduce or control immigration so that it becomes a positive force within our society rather than a negative force?"

And, as always, the way the problem is phrased begs the question: "Is immigration a negative force right now?"


I don't really care about immigration. It's a Daily Mail issue and has been parsed entirely in terms of being something negative, despite the obvious fact that with an aging population it is entirely necessary that we import cheap, youthful labour to care for our elderly.

Many of the great debates in life, the universe and everything devolve to questions that are misapplied. When I say I don't care about debating about God or poetry or global warming or the the ethics of scientific research (empiricism and the scientific method in the real sense of the concept is/should be gloriously free of these considerations, that it clearly isn't is regrettable) I don't mean I don't care. I mean I don't care about the issue as it is usually expressed because I feel it has been misrepresented.

Take transhumanism and the closely related issue of AI. Putting aside the vast technical and scientific barriers to both, the debate is often put in terms of "should we pursue this line of research?" This is a ridiculously stupid question to ask. The appropriate response is:

We are already pursuing this research in a form you don't yet recognise as transhumanist research and AI research.

Even more succinctly, and with regard to transhumanism you could say:

We are already transhumans and could well be considered posthumans.

Consider: prior to the industrial revolution humans were essentially bright apes and they (or other organisms) provided the majority of the energy required to run civilization. We are approaching a period in human development where manual labour might well become obsolete. The key lies in the control mechanisms.

It is still massively cheaper to employ Chinese humans to make most things than to develop and manufacture a robot capable of doing the same job.

Similarly with construction: the problem here requires a robot capable of navigating a building site, following vague instructions, applying "common sense" to problems, drinking tea and reading The Sun: all of which are as yet beyond the capabilities of even the most complex (or simple-minded, in the latter case) non-biological machines.

The point is that I wear glasses and wear clothes and take drugs and read books and use a pocket calculator and function much better, and am much happier, than I would be if I did not do these things.

Scientists of many different disciplines have made it their business to model parts of the human brain and the neural structures of other animals and have been doing so for decades.

Meanwhile genetic engineering continues apace. If you're smart enough to identify the red lines that mark any particular area of research as being dangerous then you're probably smart enough to cope with the outcomes. If you can't identify the red lines then we're probably fucked anyway.

Fukyama's argument boils down to the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is flawed for all the reasons discussed by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near, so I won't bother going into it.

Johann Hari's recent article touches on a subject dear to my heart: transhumanism. As a devoted absorber of the teachings of More, Kurzweil, et al, I am always happy to see reference to this interesting ideology in the national press.

( an aside, and due to the purchase of T-shirts and prints by myself and many others the sublime Dresden Codak is to be published weekly!)

Apart from a reference in New Scientist a few years ago and a few "eccentric American" stories in The Guardian and other newspapers this is the first serious reference to transhumanism I've seen in the Dead Tree Press. Doubtless more will emerge over time and it will begin to gain credence (or at least name-recognition, which is all you seem to need these days c.f. Boris Johnson) amongst the general populace.

Hari also makes an excellent point regarding the criticism of transhumanism by Francis Fukyama. The debate has been warped to fit the extremes. Either we ban all research that might lead to the creation of a separate posthuman species or we actively pursue such research to the end of creating such a species.

As Hari points out, bickering over creating new species of human is pointless and stupid. Evolution only seems static to us because it works on such a long timescale (but not unthinkably long - only about 40 000 years separate us from prehuman hominids).

I think, like Hari, it is much more sensible to concentrate on the possibilities to create smarter, faster, stronger, healthier, more long-lived people.

The Gattaca issue, that maybe one day humanity might be divided between haves and have-nots, between the rich and the poor, between the upgraded and the legacy, between the Eloi and the Morlocks is also silly.

Human beings have always suffered inequality of health and ability due to inequality of wealth. The key to liberal democracy lies in all individuals being equal under the law (the problem of defining individals, particularly with regard to posthumans, is an issue for another day).

The issue for transhumanism is how to provide people with better lives and greater powers of self-expression and more opportunity for happiness. The issue is not the creation of a new species, although this might be a means to the end of creating more opportunity for happiness.

As always the problem is not as it is phrased, it is something altogether different. In the case of Stephen Fry's recent blog posting (which The Guardian has taken on as a series of articles) the issue as it is often phrased is "do you prefer looks/form to functionality?" in the context of consumer electronics.

Of course, as Fry points out, when it comes to a device you use every day form is very much tied up with functionality. For me beauty in consumer electronics stems from design, and design is also a key component of usability and hence functionality.

If a house is a "machine for living in" then that house should look aesthetically pleasing or it is not fulfilling it's function.

Anyone who claims that those who reject the existence of God are "close minded" is treading on thin ice. The debate should be not be: "does God exist?" The debate should be: "how did the universe begin?"

There are, I assert, ways of finding out if God exists. If God exists then presumably those who pray to God for help will achieve statistically higher in their endeavours than those who don't pray.

If there was a correlation between frequency of prayer ("faith" is difficult to measure) and say, salary, then you could begin to build a hypothesis for the existence of something that could be called God.

I'd be interested to see if any such research has been done and what the result was. I suspect as I am not aware of any such research then the results (if any) did not suggest God exists, as I'm certain the various Churches would be trumpeting it to the heavens.

Of course prayer is there as a comforter. I, as a secular humanist, choose to reject it as a piece of mental transhumanism that is not self-contained enough to be safe.

Faith in God or manifest destiny is too powerful and dangerous. Singularitarianism and transhumanism is as open to corruption as any ideology but, like liberalism, the fundamental precepts of the transhumanist meme are overwhelmingly positive.

Any corruption of liberalism would cease to be usefully described as such. So with transhumanism. Then it devolves to word games and Orwellian propaganda.

I feel it is much better to form a core of easily expressible beliefs and live by them. In the case of humanism this is all there is and I am alone.

This sucks. I'd like to do something to make this last longer and something to make me less lonely.

So transhumanism is the next logical step after humanism.

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