Tag Archives: Stewart Brand

Transcendent Plan

 

One of my oft-quoted sources for future technology is Ray Kurzweil. A brilliant technologist, inventor, and futurist, Kurzweil seems to see it all very clearly, almost as though he were at the helm personally. Some of Kurzweil’s theses are crystal clear for me, such as an imminent approach toward the Singularity in a series of innocuous, ‘seemingly benign,’ steps. I also agree with his Law of Accelerating Returns1 which posits that technology advances exponentially. In a recent interview with the Silicon Valley Business Journal, he nicely illustrated that idea.

“Exponentials are quite seductive because they start out sub-linear. We sequenced one ten-thousandth of the human genome in 1990 and two ten-thousandths in 1991. Halfway through the genome project, 7 ½ years into it, we had sequenced 1 percent. People said, “This is a failure. Seven years, 1 percent. It’s going to take 700 years, just like we said.” Seven years later it was done, because 1 percent is only seven doublings from 100 percent — and it had been doubling every year. We don’t think in these exponential terms. And that exponential growth has continued since the end of the genome project. These technologies are now thousands of times more powerful than they were 13 years ago, when the genome project was completed.”

Kurzweil says the same kinds of leaps are approaching for solar power, resources, disease, and longevity. Our tendency to think linear instead of exponential means that we can deceive ourselves into believing that technologies that, ‘just aren’t there yet,’ are ‘a long way off.’ In reality, they may be right around the corner.

I’m not as solid in my affirmation of Kurzweil (and others) when it comes to some of his other predictions. Without reading too much between the lines, you can see that there is a philosophy that is helping to drive Kurzweil. Namely, he doesn’t want to die. Of course, who does? But his is a quest to deny death on a techno-transcendental level. Christianity holds that eternal life awaits the believer in Jesus Christ, other religions are satisfied that our atoms return to the greater cosmos, or that reincarnation is the next step. It would appear that Kurzweil has no time for faith. His bet on science and technology. He states,

“I think we’re very much on track to have human-level AI by 2029, which has been my consistent prediction for 20 years, and then to be able to send nanobots into the brain in the 2030s and connect our biological neocortex to synthetic neocortex in the cloud.”

In the article mentioned above, Kurzweil states that his quest to live forever is not just about the 200-plus supplements that he takes daily. He refers to this as “Bridge One.” Bridge One buys us time until technology catches up. Then “Bridge Two,” the “biotechnology revolution” takes over and radically extends our life. If all else fails, our mind will be uploaded to Cloud (which will have evolved to a synthetic neocortex), though it remains to be seen whether the sum-total of a mind also equals consciousness in some form.

For many who struggle with the idea of death, religious or not, I wonder if when we dissect it, it is not the fear of physical decrepitude that scares us, but the loss of consciousness; that unique ability of humans to comprehend their world, share language and emotions, to create and contemplate?

I would pose that it is indeed that consciousness that makes us human (along with the injustice at the thought that we feel that we might lose it. It would seem that transcendence is in order. In one scenario this transcendence comes from God, in another ‘we are as Gods.’2

So finally, I wonder whether all of these small, exponentially replicating innovations—culminating to the point where we are accessing Cloud-data only by thinking, or communicating via telepathy, or writing symphonies for eternity—will make us more or less human. If we decide that we are no happier, no more content or fulfilled, is there any going back?

Seeing as it might be right around the corner, we might want to think about these things now rather than later.

 

1. Kurzweil, R. (2001) The Law of Accelerating Returns, KurzweilAI . Kurzweil AI. Available at: http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns (Accessed: October 10, 2015). 
2. Brand, Stewart. “WE ARE AS GODS.” The Whole Earth Catalog, September 1968, 1-58. Accessed May 04, 2015. http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/1010/article/195/we.are.as.gods.
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The nature of the unpredictable.

 

Following up on last week’s post, I confessed some concern about technologies that progress too quickly and combine unpredictably.

Stewart Brand introduced the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”1 Thirty-two years later, he wrote that new technologies such as computers, biotechnology and nanotechnology are self-accelerating, that they differ from older, “stable, predictable and reliable,” technologies such as television and the automobile. Brand states that new technologies “…create conditions that are unstable, unpredictable and unreliable…. We can understand natural biology, subtle as it is because it holds still. But how will we ever be able to understand quantum computing or nanotechnology if its subtlety keeps accelerating away from us?”2. If we combine Brand’s concern with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the current supporting evidence exponentially, as the evidence supports, will it be as Brand suggests unpredictable?

Last week I discussed an article from WIRED Magazine on the VR/MR company Magic Leap. The author writes,

“Even if you’ve never tried virtual reality, you probably possess a vivid expectation of what it will be like. It’s the Matrix, a reality of such convincing verisimilitude that you can’t tell if it’s fake. It will be the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s rollicking 1992 novel, Snow Crash, an urban reality so enticing that some people never leave it.”

And it will be. It is, as I said last week, entirely logical to expect it.

We race toward these technologies with visions of mind-blowing experiences or life-changing cures, and usually, we imagine only the upside. We all too often forget the human factor. Let’s look at some other inevitable technological developments.
• Affordable DNA testing will tell you your risk of inheriting a disease or debilitating condition.
• You can ingest a pill that tells your doctor, or you in case you forgot, that you took your medicine.
• Soon we will have life-like robotic companions.
• Virtual reality is affordable, amazingly real and completely user-friendly.

These are simple scenarios because they will likely have aspects that make them even more impressive, more accessible and more profoundly useful. And like most technological developments, they will also become mundane and expected. But along with them come the possibility of a whole host of unintended consequences. Here are a few.
• The government’s universal healthcare requires that citizens have a DNA test before you qualify.
• It monitors whether you’ve taken your medication and issues a fine if you don’t, even if you don’t want your medicine.
• A robotic, life-like companion can provide support and encouragement, but it could also be your outlet for violent behavior or abuse.
• The virtual world is so captivating and pleasurable that you don’t want to leave, or it gets to the point where it is addicting.

It seems as though whenever we involve human nature, we set ourselves up for unintended consequences. Perhaps it is not the nature of technology to be unpredictable; it is us.

1. Brand, Stewart. “WE ARE AS GODS.” The Whole Earth Catalog, September 1968, 1-58. Accessed May 04, 2015. http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/1010/article/195/we.are.as.gods.
2. Brand, Stewart. “Is Technology Moving Too Fast? Self-Accelerating Technologies-Computers That Make Faster Computers, For Example – May Have a Destabilizing Effect on .Society.” TIME, 2000
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Logical succession, the final installment.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been discussing the idea posited by Ray Kurzweil, that we will have linked our neocortex to the Cloud by 2030. That’s less than 15 years, so I have been asking how that could come to pass with so many technological obstacles in the way. When you make a prediction of that sort, I believe you need a bit more than faith in the exponential curve of “accelerating returns.”

This week I’m not going to take issue with an enormous leap forward in the nanobot technology to accomplish such a feat. Nor am I going to question the vastly complicated tasks of connecting to the neocortex and extracting anything coherent, but also assembling memories, and consciousness and in turn, beaming it to the Cloud. Instead, I’m going to pose the question of, “Why we would want to do this in the first place?”

According to Kurzweil, in a talk last year at Singularity University,

“We’re going to be funnier. We’re going to be sexier. We’re going to be better at expressing loving sentiment…” 1

Another brilliant futurist, and friend of Ray, Peter Diamandis includes these additional benefits:

• Brain to Brain Communication – aka Telepathy
• Instant Knowledge – download anything, complex math, how to fly a plane, or speak another language
• Access More Powerful Computing – through the Cloud
• Tap Into Any Virtual World – no visor, no controls. Your neocortex thinks you are there.
• And more, including and extended immune system, expandable and searchable memories, and “higher-order existence.”2

As Kurzweil explains,

“So as we evolve, we become closer to God. Evolution is a spiritual process. There is beauty and love and creativity and intelligence in the world — it all comes from the neocortex. So we’re going to expand the brain’s neocortex and become more godlike.”1

The future sounds quite remarkable. My issue lies with Koestler’s “ghost in the machine,” or what I call humankind’s uncanny ability to foul things up. Diamandis’ list could easily spin this way:

  • Brain-To-Brain hacking – reading others thoughts
  • Instant Knowledge – to deceive, to steal, to subvert, or hijack.
  • Access to More Powerful Computing – to gain the advantage or any of the previous list.
  • Tap Into Any Virtual World – experience the criminal, the evil, the debauched and not go to jail for it.

You get the idea. Diamandis concludes, “If this future becomes reality, connected humans are going to change everything. We need to discuss the implications in order to make the right decisions now so that we are prepared for the future.”

Nevertheless, we race forward. We discovered this week that “A British researcher has received permission to use a powerful new genome-editing technique on human embryos, even though researchers throughout the world are observing a voluntary moratorium on making changes to DNA that could be passed down to subsequent generations.”3 That would be CrisprCas9.

It was way back in 1968 that Stewart Brand introduced The Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Which lab is working on that?

 

1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ray-kurzweil-nanobots-brain-godlike_us_560555a0e4b0af3706dbe1e2
2. http://singularityhub.com/2015/10/12/ray-kurzweils-wildest-prediction-nanobots-will-plug-our-brains-into-the-web-by-the-2030s/
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/health/crispr-gene-editing-human-embryos-kathy-niakan-britain.html?_r=0
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We are as gods…

 

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

— Stewart Brand (1968) Whole Earth Catalog

Once again it has been a busy week for future news, so it becomes difficult to know what to write about. There was an interesting OpEd piece in The New York Times about how recreating the human brain will be all but impossible this century and maybe next. That would be good news for The Lightstream Chronicles where the year is 2159 and artificial intelligence is humming along smoothly, brain cloning or not.

A couple of other web articles caught my attention both emanated from the site, Motherboard. They frequently write about the world of Transhumanism. This week there was an interesting article on “the Father of Modern Transhumanism” Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, who changed his name to FM-2030, FM was a futurist, a UN diplomat, and writer. In 1970, he began writing about utopian futures that broke free of all the “isms” that were holding back humanity. The author, Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, writes:

“For FM-2030, the ideological left and right were dinosaurs, remnants of an industrial age that had ushered in the modern world but was being quickly replaced and whose vestiges were only holding humanity back. He proposed a new political schema populated by two groups: UpWingers and DownWingers. The former looks to the sky, and into the future. The latter down into the earth, and into the past. UpWingers see a future for humanity beyond this planet. DownWingers seek to preserve it.

FM-2030 was an unabashed UpWinger.”

FM imagined some prescient future scenarios such as open-source genetic blueprints, the disappearance of the nuclear family and cites replaced with something he called mobile, as well as the end of aging and disease and anything resembling our current form of politics. The article continues:

“Science and technology serve as the engine behind FM-2030’s “true democracy,” one he believed could chaperone humanity beyond its oppressive, hierarchical, and tribal origins and into the future it deserves.”

FM died at 69 of cancer and was frozen, “but his political ideas have lived on.” The up-winger, down-winger terminology has been replaced by Proactionaries and Precautionaries by philosophers and sociologists.

“Proactionaries (UpWingers) argue, most simply, that the risk inherent in any technological or policy venture is unavoidable and, further, often offset by the rewards of progress. They aver that the universe is a fundamentally perilous place.”

Precautionaries are a bit more egalitarian and more risk averse. I would call them the voice of reason, but then I’m probably one of them.

The article sums up noting how far the transhumanist movement has come, citing the advent of the Transhumanist Party and its current Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan. Istvan also writes occasionally for Motherboard.

So I jumped to an Istvan article on the same site, Why I Advocate for Becoming a Machine. Istvan begins with this simple statement: “Transhumanists want to use technology and science to become more than human.” He explains that our present feeble makeup cannot see 99% of the light spectrum, we can’t hear like bats, nor energy patterns, nor vibrations from the Earth’s core. To Istvan, that we owe ourselves and humanity a rebuild.

“The reality is that many transhumanists want to change themselves dramatically. They want to replace limbs with mechanical endoskeleton parts so they can throw a football further than a mile. They want to bench press over a ton of weight. They want their metal fingertips to know the exact temperature of their coffee. In fact, they even want to warm or cool down their coffee with a finger tip, which will likely have a heating and cooling function embedded in it…Biology is simply not the best system out there for our species’ evolution. It’s frail, terminal, and needs to be upgraded.”

Istvan makes one a good argument: that we are confused about the point at which we become no longer human. For example, he notes that if we had all of our internal organs replaced many of us would probably find that acceptable. If, however, we replaced our arms and/or legs with super-charged titanium versions most would think we are crossing the line.

Here are some of my questions: If, within our current capabilities, we are unable to find happiness and fulfillment, then why should we expect to find it when we can throw a football a mile, or bench press a ton? What is to keep it from becoming two miles or two tons? Will we be happier or safer when the next Hitler can run faster, jump higher or live forever? Is the human propensity to foul things up going to go suddenly away when we can live forever?

One could argue that from the beginning of time, (literally) we have been obsessed with becoming God. As god-like as we have become over the centuries, it appears that we are still no closer to knowing what it means to be human or finding meaning in our lives. It seems that might be something we should get a grip on before moving on to the divine.

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