Saturday, November 7, 2009
This is a slightly-edited excerpt from a chapter (“The Psychology of Forever”) I wrote back in 1996, but which has never been published. Although I might write some of it a little differently today, I haven’t changed my views about any of the ideas expressed here. You will find this essay along with related thoughts as a chapter in the forthcoming book, Death and Anti-Death Volume 7, edited by Charles Tandy.
"Growing old is no more than a bad habit which a busy man has no time to form."
André Maurois, The Art of Living, “The Art of Growing Old” (1940).
Life is good, some will grant. Life offers numerous paths and possibilities. But isn’t life good only because it is limited in length? If we lived indefinitely, potentially forever, wouldn’t we eventually stagnate, lose interest, become bored?
Certainly this belief has been pushed at us for centuries through stories, from Jonathan Swift’s Struldbruggs in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1844-5), and Karel Capek’s The Makropoulos Secret (1925), to more recent tales as presented in John Boorman’s 1974 movie Zardoz.
The world of Zardoz, set in the distant future, has been divided into two realms: the Vortex, where dwell the immortals, and the Outlands, home to the short-lived Brutals. The decadent, impotent immortals have lost their vitality. An especially intelligent Brutal, played by Sean Connery, invades the Vortex, introducing chaos, destroying their society, and returning the immortals to a natural state. That is: dead. Even in the heroic Highlander movie, the grand prize for the sole surviving immortal (“There can be only one!”) is wisdom-with-death.
I suspect this cultural tendency to see indefinite lifespan or potential immortality as a curse serves as a psychological defense against the historically undeniable fact of human mortality. So long as mortality was an unalterable part of the human condition, it was understandable if we fooled ourselves into believing that physical immortality would be dreadful. I am suggesting that mortality no longer need be accepted as inevitable. If indefinitely extended longevity is achievable, continuing to cling to the immortality-as-curse myth can only destroy us.
To begin uncovering the errors fueling opposition to extreme longevity, consider first the distinction between seeking immortality and seeking indefinite lifespan. Suppose we were to grant that we might become bored of life, whether it be centuries, millennia, or eons from now. We might even grant that boredom was inevitable given a sufficiently extended life. Granting these suppositions for now, what follows? Only that literal immortality—living forever—would not be desirable. But forever is infinitely longer than a billion years. If there were, in principle, some limit to the length of a stimulating, challenging, rewarding life, we could not know where it lies until we reached it.
If immortality should not be a goal, indefinitely long lifespan can be. If, one day we find ourselves drained, if we can think of nothing more to do and our current activities seem pointless, we will have the option of ending our lives. Alternatively, we might change ourselves so radically that, although someone continues to live, it’s unclear that it’s us. But we cannot know in advance when we will reach that point. To throw away what may be a vastly long stretch of joyful living on the basis that forever must bring boredom and stagnation would be a terrible error.
Stagnation sets in when motion ceases. Motion, change, and growth form the core of living. We will stagnate if we either run out of the energy to stay in the flow of life, or if we exhaust all the possibilities. I suggest that while some people run out of energy at any age, doing so is not inevitable. I further suggest that life’s possibilities are literally unbounded. Certainly we can see this to be true for millennia to come.
Theoretically arguments from physics, cosmology, and computer science indicate that even true immortality and infinite variety cannot be ruled out. First, then, why do many people run out of energy and settle into a stagnant decline? If we survey the diversity of personalities around us, one thing will become clear: People get bored because they become boring.
Sadly many people don’t wait for old age to become boring. The prospect of extended longevity repels them since even their current lives are dull. What makes them become weary? They make themselves that way in several ways.
Continue on the full text of this essay.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
(A talk being translated to Italian and delivered to a Catholic conference on "The idea of earthly immortality: a new challenge for theology", September 2009).
Intellectual honesty is extremely important to me. Therefore, I must say at the beginning that I am not religious. As the founder of modern transhumanism, I am a rationalist and do not see good reason to believe in the existence of a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. At the same time, I have studied and understand religion in general and the Catholic faith in particular. I have studied and taught philosophy of religion for many years—including Mount St. Mary’s in Brentwood, California, and have engaged in discussions with many Catholic philosophy students. In addition, I have enormous respect for St. Thomas Aquinas—undoubtedly the greatest of all Catholic theologians.
For Aquinas, faith and reason are compatible and should lead to the same answers, so long as we use our God-given reason carefully. This is a core part of Scholastic philosophy and its blending of revealed wisdom with Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle appeals to me for several reasons, the main one for our current purpose being his virtue ethics. It is from a perspective of a virtue ethics of human flourishing that I will argue that Catholics should adopt a generally favorable attitude toward transhumanism and, especially, the pursuit of greatly extended maximum life spans.
Catholic theologians and other thinkers have long been strong defenders of the sacredness of life. They have opposed terminating the life of fetuses and have resisted the resort to suicide. The core transhumanist goal of extended life in the physical realm is thoroughly consistent with this pro-life stance. I prefer the term “extended life” (or “indefinite life span” or “agelessness”) to the term “physical immortality”. I am far from sure that genuine immortality—living literally forever—is possible. Even if we live until the far-future decay or implosion of the universe, that falls infinitely short of forever. A trillion years is but an infinitesimal fraction of eternity.
Even if we succeed in fully understanding and conquering the aging process—as I believe we probably will in the coming decades—our life spans will continue to be limited by factors such as accident, murder, and wars. In a world without aging, we are likely to focus on continuing to reduce the death rate. But, for any period of time—whether a year, a century, or a millennium—we will face a certain probability of death. By “death”, I mean a permanent physical death; loss of personal continuity beyond the point where it can be restored by the medical science and practice of the day.
Literal physical immortality, then, is probably not an option. Agelessness or indefinite life may well be. A substantial and growing number of gerontologists see this as a realistic goal. In part, it’s for this reason that I say that immortality is not truly the goal for most of us as transhumanists. The goal is indefinite life spans. We aim to continually improve ourselves and enhance our capabilities. That makes degenerative aging and involuntary death our mortal enemies. We want to live for now and for the indefinite future. But we cannot know whether we will want to continue living far in the future. Perhaps, after centuries or millennia, we will choose to restore the aging process and allow our physical lives to reach an end. (I believe Catholic moral philosophy may not see this as suicide, but as choosing to move on to the afterlife.)
Transhumanists seek radically extended lives as part of a philosophy that affirms continuous improvement of ourselves, not only intellectually and emotionally but also morally and what might be called spiritually. This goal seems consistent with Catholic views about virtue and the duties of human beings to serve and glorify God. This would not be true if it were possible to point to passages in the Bible—especially in the literal text of the New Testament—that declared longer lives to be contrary to God’s will or to His plans for us. In fact, there is nothing in the Bible that rejects extended physical lives. The Bible appears to be neutral on the topic.
We might even interpret it to have a favorable attitude if we focus on the stated life spans of many early people in the Bible. A major effort to combat physical aging is run by the Methuselah Foundation—named after a man reputed to have lived for 969 years, narrowing exceeding the life spans of several others, including Jared (who lived to 962) and Noah (who lived to 950). The longest-lived person for whom we have reliable records in modern history was Jeanne Calment, who died at the age of 122 years, 164 days. The Bible mentions no fewer than 33 people who lived beyond the age of 123. Whether we take those ages literally or metaphorically, the Bible seems to suggest that our current life spans are not as long as those of people clearly favored by God. And why should a life span of 78 be any more privileged and accepted than historical life spans of 40 or even 30?
In other words, the current average longevity of human beings has varied greatly over time. There is no reason to accept the current state of affairs as uniquely right or divinely commanded. The Catholic Church has no objection to the historical progression of science and technology that has gradually reduced the death rate and extended our lives. In fact, Catholics naturally stand behind efforts to alleviate the suffering of disease and aging and the maintenance and restoration of the healthy, flourishing physical being gifted to us by God.
The Catholic Church should no problem supporting the extension not only of the average life span, but also the maximum life span. At least since Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, it has become clear that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation. As Pope John Paul II put it: “Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”
This is especially important in the current context, because the maximum human life span is a product of morally arbitrary evolution, not the result of any divine edict that has ever been communicated to us. Aging and biological senescence and death are the products of evolution. As such, they have no special moral status, whether naturalistic or divine. Aging is essentially a disease process. It results from the failure of our evolved biological mechanisms for cellular repair. We have been endowed with rational capacities unique in all the world. I can see no reason why we should not direct those rational faculties toward improving on what nature has so wonderfully but imperfectly developed. The goal, of course, is not an extended period of decrepitude but an extended period of healthy and vigorous life.
It would be enough for the Catholic Church to support anti-aging efforts simply by acknowledging that this involves relieving suffering and infirmity, and that senescence is not a divinely-commanded condition. But there are positive arguments for actively combating the ravages of aging and the inevitability of biological death. One of these might come from taking the lead of Jesus, who repeatedly urged us to “do as I have done”. Jesus did not look at physical weaknesses and sickness and say “My Father has commanded it. Accept your suffering and impending death.” On the contrary, Jesus made it a core part of his mission to heal the sick and even raise the dead.
This implies that, while suffering may have value, the kind of involuntary, guiltless suffering imposed by age-related illness and senescence is not inherently noble. We can grant that suffering might improve us and can have a valuable place in our lives, without accepting every kind of suffering. Suffering comes in many forms, so reducing or even eliminating suffering due to aging and death still allows plenty of room for a salutary or redemptive role for suffering.
Catholics faced with disease and suffering do not hesitate to support medical research even as they minister to the spiritual needs of victims. I believe that, as it becomes ever more feasible to prevent and reverse the diseases of aging, our moral responsibility to help in doing so becomes greater. Extending the maximum human life span has not seemed feasible until recent years. As more evidence accumulates showing that we can successfully combat aging and the inevitability of biological death, I would expect to see the Church actively supporting or conducting research.
A final observation: From a specifically Christian perspective, extending the maximum healthy life span of humans beyond the current limit of around 123 years would have another major benefit: It would give us more time to develop virtue, to do good works, to serve God, and to save souls. This alone should be reason enough to vigorously support the quest for ageless bodies and indefinite life spans. Few of even the most optimistic transhumanists expect the world to ever be perfect. To the extent that the world remains imperfect—and far inferior to Heaven—a longer existence in the physical world might perhaps be regarded as a milder form of purgatory. It can be seen as a divine blessing: an extended opportunity to improve ourselves, do good works to redeem ourselves, to glorify God, and to more fully earn a place in Heaven.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
James Hughes posted [on the WTA-Talk email list] the results of one particular survey that reported apparently strong agreement on something or other. James especially highlights the figure of 97% agreement. That does indeed sound very impressive. I do think that such a tight consensus among a group of scientists would be something to give considerable epistemic weight to -- at least in the absence of major objections, say from a neighboring discipline. I’m perfectly willing to be persuaded that a consensus on some clear point exists that I currently disagree with. So far, however, I haven’t been given sufficient reason to do so. Let's look at little more closely at this particular survey and my reasons for doubt.
>Two questions were key: Have mean global temperatures risen compared
>to pre-1800s levels, and has human activity been a significant
>factor in changing mean global temperatures?
>About 90 percent of the scientists agreed with the first question and 82 percent the second.
These numbers are lower than the most impressive one of 97%, but still high.
>The strongest consensus on the causes of global warming came from
>climatologists who are active in climate research, with 97 percent
>agreeing humans play a role.
Agreement was lower in certain groups:
>Petroleum geologists and meteorologists were among the biggest
>doubters, with only 47 percent and 64 percent, respectively,
>believing in human involvement.
Why would agreement be higher among the climatologists than among other scientists, including meteorologists and physicists? One plausible answer is that it's because the climatologists can make better judgments. (Although evidence-based forecasting shows that expert forecasts of future changes cannot be trusted with this kind of problem.) Another plausible answer is that groupthink is at work, as it is in so many areas of human activity. This is hardly an arbitrary suggestion, given all the accusations of "denial" and "planetary traitors" and the strong pressures being exerted against skeptics.
Of course there are other surveys, which produce different results. Climatologists are only one group qualified to answer these questions. But l'll set that aside here.
One question that comes to mind is; How were the people to be questioned selected? What percentage of the total does the 3,100 or so represent? From what I've seen, some 10,200 earth scientists were contacted. Only 3,100 replied. Now, these may be representative, or they may not be. Anyone with an academic background in the social sciences, or statistics knows that samples can and often do misrepresent the whole. Given the thousands of scientists who have signed dissenting opinions, I'm not terribly confident that the percentages of respondents in this survey accurately represent the whole group. It seems, for instance, that earth scientists working in private industry were ignored. Given that government-funded scientists may have an incentive (above and beyond the obviously heavy peer-pressure) to agree, the results may not give an accurate picture of all relevant scientists.
These questions come to mind especially because of the highly politicized nature of this discussion. Also, specifically, because of misrepresentations such as seen with the IPCC report, where a small group of people claim to speak for a much larger group. (Compare the summary of the IPCC report to the actual details of the report...)
Other surveys have yielded different percentages. You can see that just from the Wikipedia article.
But, set aside these concerns.
Much more troubling are the questions and the conclusions so quickly drawn from them. Consider the questions. What exactly were those surveyed being asked?
1. "Have mean global temperatures risen compared to pre-1800s levels?"
1800 was around the time that we began to recover more quickly from the Little Ice Age. So what does this tell us? Not much about today or about human activity. It does show that climate scientists agree that the global temperature changes over time. Who is going to disagree with that?
2. Has human activity been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures?
So, 82% said yes to this. Is this anything to get excited about? Should it impress those of us who are a bit skeptical about warming catastrophe stories? Suppose you are entirely certain that carbon dioxide released by humans is not the cause of global warming. You would still easily grant that global mean temperatures has risen due to the urban heat island effect.
In addition, the question is very vague, certainly if "significant" is taken in the sense of statistical significance (as it presumably is by these scientists). If those climate scientists believed that only 2% or 5% of observed warming could be attributed to human activity, they would still agree with that statement.
How many would still agree if the question was:
-- Do you agree that warming was almost certainly primarily due to human activity? (Not just "significant".)
-- Is global warming principally or quantifiably due to human activity?
-- Are you certain or almost certain that human activity would cause a degree of future warming that constituted a catastrophe?
-- Do you believe that large cuts in carbon dioxide would be effective or cost-effective?
-- Do you believe that the Kyoto Protocol is a sensible solution?
Claiming consensus -- even if entirely justified -- on such vague questions that few skeptics would disagree with is an easy victory that gets us nowhere with any discussion that matters. Once again, dumbing down the issue to a "consensus" of some vague kind isn't useful.
Aside from the foregoing points, I have to say that given the inaccuracy of climate models (as shown comparing them to the past), being impressed by a supposed (or even real) consensus of climate scientists doesn't look too different from relying on a consensus of astronomers. (I would have equally harsh things to say about economists, when they model whole economies...) Granted, that's overstating it. But not by a whole hell of a lot. Again, see my previous post pointing to an audit of the forecasting methodology of the IPCC report, which is considered the gold standard.
I just can't see climate modeling as having attained the status of a hard science at this stage. Even if there was a rock solid consensus on some point of interest (rather than on statements that I have no problem with at all), I would not feel rationally compelled to assent to it as I would, for instance, in the case of a consensus among particle physicists who tell me not to worry about strangelets as they start up the Large Hadron Collider.
We skeptics (okay, “planetary traitors” if you prefer) actually hold a wide range of views. I’m tired of being labeled a “denier” of some unspecified received truth. I do not deny, for instance, that there has been some global warming this century. My doubts about the claimed (and possibly real) consensus concern other beliefs. To set the record straight (and to make it a bit harder for people like Treder to misrepresent me), here are my current views, as of early August 2009:
• It’s highly probable that there has been some global warming this century—probably about 0.7 degrees C.
• The climate is dynamic and is continually changing. Further, it changes in different ways in different places. For instance, it may be warming in some areas while it cools in others. Local, specific examples are not good evidence for a global trend.
• There has been no warming over the past 12 years—despite continued human-related emissions.
• Over the next century, it’s extremely uncertain how much, if any, further GW/AGW to expect.
• Climate models are not proven reliable or accurate. Climate modeling is still an infant science.
• GW is far from the most urgent or important global issue for us to deal with. (See the work of The Copenhagen Consensus. Also see this [yes, it’s from a Cato blog, so start up your ad hominems]. Some problems that are more deserving of attention: Hunger, malaria, and unsafe water.
• Enormously expensive actions to reduce/stop GW by severely restricting CO2 emissions are premature. (Global wealth decades in the future will be far higher than with restrictions; mitigation is vastly more efficient, to whatever extent it might be needed.)
• Given the considerable uncertainty (and also taking in account geopolitical and health considerations), it probably makes sense to move strongly toward nuclear power (and more solar, wind, and wave power where feasible) and to encourage or even subsidize research into alternative energy sources.
• The extent to which global warming is anthropogenic is much more uncertain than asserted by the “consensus”/orthodoxy.
• The extent to which a consensus actually exists is not clear, nor is it clear on what exactly the consensus agrees (beyond the fact of some warming over the last century and some contribution by human activities).
I reserve the right to change these views as I continue to study this interrelated set of complex issues.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
For those of us still using bizarre imperial units, the BMI is calculated by measuring your weight in pounds and your height in feet. You then multiply your weight by 4.88 and divide the result by your height squared. For a 6’ 00” person weighing 200 lbs, their BMI is 27.1. So, yes, we have a simple metric, but this BMI is Balmy Metric Idiocy. It’s Badly Misleading Information.
The Proactionary Principle urges us, when making decisions, to strive for objectivity and to use evidence-based methods—not simply methods that are widely accepted and used. The great disparity between the high popularity of the BMI and its low level of objectivity and accuracy serves as an object lesson. It’s not just that millions of dieters use the BMI. It has been used and recommended for years by nutritionists, trainers, and official health, wellness, and fitness organizations. Governments are using it to define many millions of people as overweight and obese for the purposes of crafting health policy. The US National Institutes for Health (NIH) starting use BMI in 1985 to set cut-off points for weight and health.
So, what’s wrong with the BMI? I first realized one of its shortcomings when I ran the calculation for myself. I had been working on regaining some lost muscle mass. In doing so, I had put on a couple of pounds of fat along with the muscle. Despite the small gain, I know that I was still fairly lean. This was confirmed by having the gym staff (on more than one occasion) use their more expensive version of the Tanita bioelectrical impedance scale I have in my bathroom. The result: 12.5% body fat. This was a bit lower than the result on my cheaper Tanita scale at home, but close. Given that result—and the fact that I could easily see my abdominals in the mirror—I should expect the BMI to come out clearly below 25, right?
Using the BMI calculator at MSNBC (and verified by my own calculation), I discovered that my BMI was 27.1 According to that, I was overweight. At the same time, the BMI calculator complained that my waist size was “not typical”. I take it that “not typical” means that I had more muscle than most people. That is one major problem with the BMI: It utterly fails to distinguish between fat and muscle.
Take a slightly more non-typical example (but not at all an unknown one): An athlete or bodybuilder with 10% body fat weighing 225 lbs and standing 6 feet tall. At that body fat level, the BMI should be no more than around 20 (the lower end of normal). In fact, it might well be under 20, since few people have that low a level of body fat. Instead, the BMI comes out as 30.5. The BMI is telling this highly conditioned, wonderfully lean athlete that he is in fact obese!
It’s true that the BMI is a pleasantly simple metric. Simplicity is good, but not at the expense of necessary accuracy and information. Because it considers only height and weight, the BMI doesn’t discriminate between fat, muscle, organ, and water. As such, it’s a foolish way to define normal, overweight, or obese. It doesn’t take into account body frame, making it blind to the differences between men and shorter women. Studies show that BMI does a particularly poor job when applied to children, especially when comparing children of differing ethnic groups. For instance, “Slight Sri Lankan children in Australia have more body fat than white Australian children with the same BMI."
Another fatal weakness of the BMI is that it tells us little about people’s health status or probable future health. One reason for this is that it makes no distinction between the places where fat is stored on the body. It’s now known that abdominal fat is a better indicator of future health problems than fat in other areas, but the BMI is oblivious to this finding. The numbers of the BMI yield a misleadingly precise classification, despite the fact that it’s hard to see any difference in increased risk for premature death or serious illness between those who are of normal weight (BMIs of 20-25), overweight (25 to 30), and obese (over 40).
Risks only go up for those classified as underweight (BMI < 18) or as morbidly obese (BMI < 40). If you have a BMI between 25 and 26, you’re classified as overweight. Yet studies by Flegal at the US Center for Disease Control found this group had the best longevity prospects. A study by Gronniger found that moderately obese men (as classified by the BMI) had the same mortality rate as men of “normal” weight.
The BMI is arbitrary in the way it classifies people as normal, overweight, and obese. No scientific basis has been found for labeling people as overweight or obese on the basis of their BMI. What the BMI really does is to codify someone’s subjective views of overweight and obesity into a pseudo-objective metric. I don’t say this to make things easier for fat people. Personally, I work at staying reasonably lean and I have a strong aversion to body fat in other people. My own arbitrary measures would be at least at strict as those embodied in the BMI—were I to attempt to force my preferences onto everyone else, under cover of science.
As I have argued in the context of critiquing the “precautionary principle”, activists like arbitrariness. Arbitrary measures and principles are easily manipulated by special interests. Politicians can use the arbitrariness of the BMI to hype a “war on fat” and to troll for votes by exaggerating health risks. The weight loss industry and those who sell weight loss drugs can do the same.
The BMI is a simple, slim measure, but it’s too simple to do the job. A better approach will, of necessity, be a little better filled out with information and wisdom. If you hadn’t considered these points before, now you know. Don’t be a Bloody Moronic Idiot by continuing to use the BMI.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
As we’ve seen in responses to previous crises, organizations both public and private have not done well at making the kinds of changes that effectively prevent a different set of problems cropping up in future. Attention to the six problem areas Stulz discusses would probably help. These are: 1. Relying on historical data. 2. Focusing on narrow measures. 3. Overlooking knowable risks, such as those outside the class of risks normally associated with particular units, and those related to the hedging strategies used to manage risks already identified and assessed. 4. Overlooking concealed risks. 5. Failing to communicate. 6. Not managing in real time.
Stulz concludes by calling for “sustainable risk management”. This includes using scenario analysis to take into account catastrophic risks. You can find my more detailed review of Stulz’ article and a link to the article itself here.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
It’s important to realize that scenario learning is not a forecasting method. Its purpose is not to pinpoint future events but to highlight large-scale forces that push the future in different directions. If we are to develop robust strategies, policies, and plans, we need a sufficiently diverse set of scenarios. In recent years, the success of the Singularity concept has narrowed the range of scenarios pondered in many discussions. The Singularity was conceived and developed by Vernor Vinge (inspired by I.J. Good’s 1965 thoughts on “the intelligence explosion”), Hans Moravec, and Damien Broderick. Over the last few years it has become strongly associated with the specific vision expounded in great detail by Ray Kurzweil.
Responses to Kurzweil’s bold and rich Singularity scenario have often been polarized. To some readers, the Singularity is obvious and inevitable. To others, the Singularity is a silly fantasy. My concern is that the very success of Kurzweil’s version of the Singularity has tended to restrict discussion to pro- and anti-Singularity scenarios. Just as the physical singularity of a black hole sucks in everything around it, the technological Singularity sucks in all discussion of possible futures. I’d like to open up the discussion by identifying a more diverse portfolio of futures.
We could chop up the possibilities in differing ways, depending on what we take to be the driving forces and the fixed factors. I choose a 2 x 5 matrix that generates 10 distinct scenarios. The “5” part of the matrix refers to five degrees of change, from a regression or reversal of technological progress at one extreme to a full-blown Singularity of super-exponential change at the other. The “2” part of the matrix refers to outcomes that are either Voluntarist or Authoritarian. I’m making this distinction in terms of how the trajectory of change (or lack of it) is brought about—either by centralized direction or by a primarily emergent or distributed process, as well as by the form it ends up taking.
As a transhumanist, I’m especially interested in the difference between the Singularity and what I call the Surge. In other words, scenarios 9 and 10 compared to 7 and 8.
So, we have five levels of change, with each level having two very broadly defined types, as follows: [click to enlarge]
Level 1 is the realm of Regression (or Reversal) scenarios. In “U-Turn”, civilization voluntarily abandons some or all technology and the social structures technology makes possible. It’s hard to see this happening on a global level, but we can imagine this happening due to cultural exhaustion from the complexities of technologically advanced living (this is the “Mojo Lost” variant. A religion or philosophy might arise to translate this cultural response into action. In the “Hard Return” variant, a similar outcome might result from global war or from the advent of a global theocracy.
Level 2: Stationary. Bill Joy’s advocacy of relinquishing GNR (genetic, nano, robotic) technologies is a partial version of this, at least as Joy describes it. A more thorough relinquishment that attempted to eradicate the roots of dangerous technologies would have to be a partial Level 1 scenario. Some Amish communities embody a partial Stationary scenario, though most Amish are not averse to adopting new technologies that fit their way of life.
The Steady State scenario seems to me quite implausible. It involves everyone somehow voluntarily holding onto existing technology but developing no new technologies. This might be slightly more plausible if hypothesized for a far future time when science has nothing more to discover and all its applications have been developed. The Full Stop variant of the Stationary level of change is more plausible. Here, compulsion is used to maintain technology at a fixed level. Historically, the western world (but not the Islamic world) experienced something very close to Full Stop during the Dark Ages, from around 500 AD to 1000 AD (perhaps until 1350 AD).
If extreme environmentalists were to have their way, we might see a version of Full Stop that I call Hard Green (or Green Totalitarianism) come about. A more voluntarist version of this might be called Stagnant Sustainability.
Level 3: Linear Progressive. This level of change might also be called “Boring Future”. It’s a scenario of slow, gradual advance in traditional areas that we see in most science fiction—especially SF on TV and in the movies. Technology advances and society changes at a linear pace. The recent past is a good guide to the near future. Most of us seem to have expectations that match Level 3. Kurzweil calls this the “intuitive linear” view. I don’t feel much need to distinguish the Voluntarist and Authoritarian versions, except to give them names: Strolling and Marching.
Level 4: Constrained Exponentially Progressive (Surge scenarios). This level of scenarios recognizes that technological progress (and often social progress or change) is not linear but exponential, at least some of the time and at least for many technologies and cultures. The past century is therefore not a good guide to the century to come. Overall, despite setbacks and slowdowns, change accelerates—technology surges ahead, sometimes then slowing down again before surging ahead once more. We can expect to see much more change between 2010 and 2060 then we saw between 1960 and 2010. To the extent that this change comes about without centralized control and direction, it’s a scenario of Emergent Surge. To the extent that a central plan pushes and shapes technological progress, it’s a Forced Surge.
Level 5: Super-exponentially Progressive (Singularity scenarios). The Singularity scenarios arise when we project the discontinuous arrival of superintelligence, or otherwise expect double-exponential progress. Yudkowsky’s “Friendly AI” is a clear instance of the Humanity-Positive Singularity, though not the only possible instance. There are other ways of distinguishing various Singularity scenarios. One way (going back to Vinge) is in terms of how the Singularity comes about: It might be due to the Internet “waking up” augmentation of human biologically-based intelligence, human-technology integration, or the emergence of a singular AI before humans exceed the historical limits on their intellectual capabilities.
By defining and naming these scenarios, I hope to make it easier to discuss a fuller range of possibilities. We might use these scenarios (suitably fleshed out) as a starting point to consider various questions, such as: Is continued technological progress inevitable? Could we plausibly envision civilizations where progress halts or even reverses? What factors, causes, and decisions could lead to halting/stagnation or regression?
My own main interest, for now, lies in considering the differences between the Surge and the Singularity scenarios. They may not appear to be very different. I believe that there is a quite a difference in the underlying view of economics and social, psychological, and organizational factors. I will explore the Surge vs. Singularity issue more in a later post, and in the sixth chapter of my forthcoming book, The Proactionary Principle. I will consider, for instance, factors favoring a Surge rather than a Singularity, such as adoption rates, organizational inertia, cognitive biases, failure to achieve super-intelligent AI, sunk costs, activist opposition, and regulation and bureaucratically-imposed costs—nuclear power in the USA being a good example.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
I don’t mean heavy-handed government intervention that acts in a way that prevents the circuit breaker from blowing. On the contrary, many of the most important ways of moderating the swings consist of removing and preventing government interventions of the kinds I listed in my previous entry.
More relevant are means of helping us learn more quickly, thereby reducing the magnitude of the problems resulting from failure. Designing institutions and learning processes to learn from “fast failure” through many modest experiments (as well as developing better means of anticipation) seems to be a promising approach. This is really just a practical implementation of pancritical rationalism, and was nicely described in some detail by Stefan H. Thomke in his book Experimentation Matters.
We won’t really make major progress in moderating the business cycle until we can find better ways of reducing the endemic biases in human thinking. We also need to continue improving our understanding of feedback systems and problems resulting from imitative behavior. (Imitation may be why all major mortgage debt rating agencies used the same flawed ratings models for poorly-understood derivatives, though that may have more to do with SEC regulations.)
One factor that no doubt contributed to the problems is the way executive compensation has been incentivizing executives to take on excessive risk in pursuit of short-term gains. That is not inherent in the market system; it's a result of the specific compensation schemes used. Four authors have recently published a working paper suggesting a better compensation scheme. My review of “Dynamic Incentive Accounts” is here.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
There’s been talk recently about “stress testing” the banks to determine their financial strength. It seems odd to me that we don’t say much at all about the need to stress test government regulations and institutions. Two of the tenets of the Proactionary Principle is to take a comprehensive and maximally objective look at proposed actions, policies, regulations, and institutions. Perhaps we need a constitutional amendment to require the stress testing of proposed regulations. They should be carefully tested under widely varying assumptions and scenarios.
Those looking for easy and centralized answers to current financial and economic problems have renewed the ideological attack on free markets… or on anything remotely close to free markets in our very heavily regulated economy. I have long since repudiated the “libertarian” label as inadequate to describe my economic and political views. Even so, I think the best answers to economic matters almost always reside in the smart design and use of markets rather than in direct government intervention. Since I don’t want to be taken to support the latter in the current situation, I feel compelled to list here some of the ways the government has caused or strongly contributed to the financial and economic problems.
I find ludicrous the claim that our problems result from a lack of regulation. The real situation is one of continuing heavy regulation but with decreased effectiveness and ever less accountability. As economist Tyler Cowen put it, “That’s dysfunctional governance, not laissez-faire.” He points out that, just in the regulatory category of finance and banking, inflation-adjusted expenditures have risen 43.5 percent from 1990 to 2008. The Federal Register puts out something like 70,000 pages of new regulations each year.
Between 1980 and 2007, the highest growth rate in regulation was in "homeland security". The second-largest growth rate was in regulation of finance and banking, where spending almost tripled, rising from $725 million to $2.07 billion. (See this for more details.)
Some of the worst things happened in the highly regulated housing and bank mortgage lending sectors, including among the government-sponsored mortgage agencies. Banks are regulated by rules and agencies including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the international Basel accords on capital standards, state authorities, the Federal Reserve the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and particular laws such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
I don’t doubt that problems can arise in financial markets through poor decision making and herd behavior. But that doesn’t mean that regulation is the answer in most cases. In genuinely free markets, or anything close to them, problems will usually reveal themselves before they grow as large as the recent Western financial problems. They only grow monstrous if the government won’t allow the fuse to blow.
Some of the specific problematic regulations and institutions, in my view:
The Federal Reserve, formed by the government, played a central role in the financial crisis with its insistence on keeping interests too low for too long. The government thereby contributed to what economists call moral hazard.
The longstanding mortgage interest deduction encouraged overinvestment in real estate.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were formed by the government and given a legally-enforced monopoly over “conforming loans.” These institutions contributed to the credit crisis by pushing money at borrowers who wouldn’t otherwise have received loans.
The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) reinforced this problem when the government pressured banks to loan lots more money to people with bad credit. The mortgage market collapsed when many of those people could no longer repay the loans. The CRA, passed in 1977 and strengthen in 1995, compelled banks to extend loans in high-risk areas. If they refused to do so, they would be liable for fines and would find it harder to get approval for mergers and branch expansions.
The federal government added to the subprime problem through a change in regulations by the comptroller of the currency in December 2005. This triggered some mortgage borrowers to default.
In 1975, the SEC created a credit rating cartel by mandating that debt be rated by a Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (NRSRO). By establishing the NRSRO, the government raised barriers to entry, leaving those in the favored group protected from competition in the ratings business. It also spurred the inflation of debt ratings. How? Before the NRSRO, it was the debt buyers who had to go to the ratings agencies to evaluate what they were buying. After the NRSRO, it was the issuers of debt who sought out the ratings. Naturally they sought out the highest rating possible. [See this.]
Those are just a few of the bad moves originating in government regulations and institutions. I could also point to increased uncertainty created by inconsistent actions, such as the government bailing out AIG but not Lehman. The government even spurred the use of securitized mortgages through federal regulations allowing the banks to hold much smaller loan loss reserves on the condition that they used securitized mortgages.
The point here is not that the market works perfectly. Nor is it that all regulations necessarily make things worse. It is that regulations have unintended consequences and that therefore we should be applying much smarter and more critical thinking to how we design and evaluate them. I believe that the most promising role for regulation is in helping markets work better, that is, in creating smart markets. But the regulations listed above are of a different kind: they attempt to directly force the highly complex system that is the economy to produce outcomes desired by politicians and interest groups in the name of the public interest.
Monday, May 25, 2009
A Letter to Mother Nature
From Max More
August 1999 (undergoing revision May 2009)
Dear Mother Nature:
Sorry to disturb you, but we humans—your offspring—come to you with some things to say. (Perhaps you could pass this on to Father, since we never seem to see him around.) We want to thank you for the many wonderful qualities you have bestowed on us with your slow but massive, distributed intelligence. You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled mammals. You have given us free rein of the planet. You have given us a life span longer than that of almost any other animal. You have endowed us with a complex brain giving us the capacity for language, reason, foresight, curiosity, and creativity. You have given us the capacity for self-understanding as well as empathy for others.
Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves!
What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end.
We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.
We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution, initiated with the tools of biotechnology guided by critical and creative thinking. In particular, we declare the following seven amendments to the human constitution:
Amendment No.1: We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death. Through genetic alterations, cellular manipulations, synthetic organs, and any necessary means, we will endow ourselves with enduring vitality and remove our expiration date. We will each decide for ourselves how long we shall live.
Amendment No.2: We will expand our perceptual range through biotechnological and computational means. We seek to exceed the perceptual abilities of any other creature and to devise novel senses to expand our appreciation and understanding of the world around us.
Amendment No.3: We will improve on our neural organization and capacity, expanding our working memory, and enhancing our intelligence.
Amendment No.4: We will supplement the neocortex with a “metabrain”. This distributed network of sensors, information processors, and intelligence will increase our degree of self-awareness and allow us to modulate our emotions.
Amendment No. 5: We will no longer be slaves to our genes. We will take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological, and neurological processes. We will fix all individual and species defects left over from evolution by natural selection. Not content with that, we will seek complete choice of our bodily form and function, refining and augmenting our physical and intellectual abilities beyond those of any human in history.
Amendment No.6: We will cautiously yet boldly reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses in ways we, as individuals, deem healthy. We will seek to improve upon typical human emotional excesses, bringing about refined emotions. We will strengthen ourselves so we can let go of unhealthy needs for dogmatic certainty, removing emotional barriers to rational self-correction.
Amendment No.7: We recognize your genius in using carbon-based compounds to develop us. Yet we will not limit our physical, intellectual, or emotional capacities by remaining purely biological organisms. While we pursue mastery of our own biochemistry, we will increasingly integrate our advancing technologies into our selves.
These amendments to our constitution will move us from a human to an transhuman condition as individuals. We believe that individual transhumanizing will also allow us to form relationships, cultures, and polities of unprecedented innovation, richness, freedom, and responsibility.
We reserve the right to make further amendments collectively and individually. Rather than seeking a state of final perfection, we will continue to pursue new forms of excellence according to our own values, and as technology allows.
Your ambitious human offspring.
The passage printed below [from J.S. Mill’s On Liberty] contains nearly 1200 words. Summarise it in not more than 250 words, and answer ONE of the questions following it.
4. Should there be any limits to “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects”?
10. Is the existence of evil irreconcilable with that of a loving, omnipotent God?
23. When, if ever, is it justifiable to break a law?
1. Why is unemployment in Britain so high?
14. Does the effect of a budget deficit depend on whether it is financed by printing money or borrowing from the public?
16. What is meant by “supply side” policies? Would they be effective?
22. Does the “natural monopoly” argument justify the present degree or nationalization in the UK economy?
1. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his means.” Is this a good principle by which to allocate rewards and burdens in society?
3. Is there a sense in which democratic government is “government by consent”?
11. Has the modern Conservative party justified its claim to be the heir to the Liberal tradition?
16. “How far a Prime Minister dominates the cabinet is more a matter of personality than of the institutional resources as his or her disposal.” Do you agree?
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Transhuman, by Jonathan Hickman and J.M. Ringuet. Not great, but worth reading as a very recent work.
Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis. A dozen volumes following the gonzo future journalist Spider Jerusalem. The early issues include great treatments of cryonics and uploading.
Squadron Supreme, by Mark Gruenwald. Explores what might happen if a super-powered group (modeled on DC’s Justice League of
Lots of stuff by Warren Ellis, including
--the Planetary series, superbly illustrated by John Cassaday. Each story draws on a classic myth or literary figure or other classic trope.
--Ministry of Space: An alternate-reality Britain goes into space. Superbly illustrated by Chris Weston.
--Ocean: “Sometime in the future, the UN sends weapons inspector Nathan Kane to a space station above Jupiter, where an exploratory team has made an alarming and ominous discovery: beneath the icy exterior of the planet's ocean moon, Europa, are coffins containing members of a sleeping alien race and guns capable of destroying an entire planet. As Kane and the station crew investigate, they are threatened by the sinister representative of a powerful software conglomerate seeking to exploit the discovery for its own purposes.” Among other fun aspects of this story are the “corporate humans” with company-designed personality templates installed for the duration of their contract.
--Orbiter: Dedicated to the astronauts of the ill-fated Columbia on mission STS-107, this is the story of a space shuttle missing for a decade that mysteriously returns… covered in a strange skin, with Martian soil in its landing gear. If you love space and are unhappy at the end of manned space missions, you’ll enjoy this.
--Doktor Sleepless (mad scientist who uses mildly future-tech to disrupt the social order).
--Stormwatch: A cynical, clever modern take on technologically-advanced super-teams who take a ruthless approach to solving problems. Volume 1: A Force of Nature. Volume 2: Lightning Strikes. In Volume 3, Change or Die, a Superman-level, ageless man known as The High leads a team of metahumans determined to radically change the world, not just to solve problems as they arise. This includes using nanotechnology to create the Nevada Garden (where treelike devices grow anything you want) and the abolition of government and war. The second story in this volume involves a conflict with a radical offshoot of an American Cyborg religion, the Church of Gort—cyborg fundamentalists with shared minds. In Volume 4: Final Orbit, Stormwatch fights off the aliens from the Alien movie.
--The Authority. This is a continuation of Stormwatch, with some of the same characters, but with the concepts and settings turned up higher. The team includes the tough, gay couple The Midnighter (an enhanced Batman-like character) and Apollo, as well as The Engineer, whose powers are self-created through nanotechnology. Every super-group has their HQ, but the Authority’s is the most amazing. It’s an alien space-city-spaceship 50 miles long and 35 miles deep and powered by a caged baby universe.
From the introduction by Grant Morrison to the first volume, Relentless: “Because traditional superheroes always put the flag back on top of the White House, don’t they? They always dust the statues and repair the highways and everything ends up just the way it was before… But what “IF”? What if the superheroes decided to make a few changes according to a “higher moral authority”? What if they started to act the way WE might act faced with impossible problems? What if every problem was a solution in disguise? What if WE began to think like superhumans, on a scale we never imagined before?”
Warren Ellis engages in plenty of big concept adventures in his Authority adventures, including an invasion from an alternate universe and the return of Earth’s creator (who wants the planet back, minus all life on it). His writing is beautifully complemented by Bryan Hitch’s penciling, Paul Neary’s inking, and Laura Depuy’s coloring. It could have been a disaster when he left the title, but happily he was replaced by Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely who set out on their controversial (and occasionally censored run). The transition is in the middle of the volume appropriately titled, Under New Management (starting with #13 in the single issues). Even more so under Millar, The Authority set out to change the world drastically, not just to save it from threats.
Book 3 is Earth Inferno and Other Stories, followed by Book 4: Transfer of Power in which the governments of the world attack The Authority, in fear of losing their own power to abuse their citizens.
--Ultimate Human (the modern “Ultimate” universe versions of Iron Man/Tony Stark and the Hulk/Bruce Banner). Here they represent the triumphs of biotechnology and nanotechnology. The somewhat narcissistic but brilliant technology-inventor Stark gets the better deal; Banner is cursed with an insanely strong and id-driven alter ego whose physiology adapts to any environment.
Ultimates 1 and 2. For a thoroughly modern take on super-powered teams.
Ultimate Iron Man (written by Orson Scott Card; the Ultimate line is Marvel’s more recent line (starting in 2000), unencumbered by decades of continuity). This is a technologically-enhanced Tony Stark, whose body is genetically-enhanced before he even puts on his advanced armor.
Ultimate X-Men: Volumes 1 to 6, written by Mark Millar, and 7 and 8 by Bendis. These entertaining issues (the series goes downhill from issue 46/volume 9) has some transhumanistically interesting aspects, including Magneto’s war on homo sapiens. Some quotes: Prof. X: “But there aren’t nicknames, Storm. You’ve just been rebaptized as a post-human being.” “Post-human problems require post-human solutions, Peter. I teach rehabilitation at my school, not revenge.” Seville at the Hellfire Club on an article given him by Prof X.: “Oh, just some stupid article from the London Times. It’s a piece by Stephen Hawking about mutants being man’s last hope against the evolution of artificial intelligence.
Magneto (mutant, anti-human terrorist): “Do not be afraid. Evolution is merely taking place. Just as man replaced ape, so now must you give way to your evolutionary masters… We are not murderers, we are not terrorists and our attacks upon human decadence are far from evil. The Brotherhood of Mutants is simply here to take our place at the top of nature’s food chain. I will keep this message brief because I disliking speaking to you. It feels ridiculous, like conversing with a toad or a common earthworm… you have six calendar months to surrender your world to Homo Sapien Superior. During this time, we will prepare your new society and decide which of your races should be kept as slaves, which should be fuel, and which should be saved for our larder. Magneto has spoken.”
The Surrogates, by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele <http://www.amazon.com/Surrogates-Graphic-Novels/dp/1891830872/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265598580&sr=1-1> I found the movie mildly entertaining, but not terribly engaging or intellectually stimulating. The original graphic novel is a little more interesting. I didn’t much like the illustration by Weldele, though it might be more to your taste (too lacking in detail for my liking). The strongest parts, for me, were the fictional ads for surrogate bodies (which seemed to have very much in common with Natasha Vita-More’s earlier “Primo Posthuman”) and related text on the ad campaign. We’re all extremely familiar with the idea of virtual bodies in virtual space.
Surrogates differs from the standard by envisioning a world of physical surrogate bodies that often look like de-aged and enhanced versions of people’s “real” physical bodies. The tone is lightly anti-transhumanist, alas. In reality, transhumanists might like to have such surrogate bodies, but surely they would also prefer to enhance their primary bodies, rather than to leave their sluggish, slobbish physical primaries stacked ungainly in the closet.
On religion and myth:
Garth Ennis’ Preacher series. 9 volumes; deeply offensive to traditional religions. “A tale out of Ireland, dragged through Texas with a bloody hard-on, wrapped in barbed wire and rose thorns. And it’s out to get you.” (From the introduction.)
Lucifer (volumes 1 to 11 by Mike Carey). An unconventional and engaging take on the Lord of Hell, who resigns that post."
Sandman (Neil Gaiman, books 1 to 10)
Other good comics/graphics novels, but not of specifically transhumanist interest:
Animal Man (by Grant Morrison--several volumes; lots of metaphysical fun)
Promethea, by Alan Moore. Delves deeply into magical and Kabbalistic symbols and systems and play with levels of mythic reality. I found the stories more turgid that other
V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Alan Moore). Far more than the later movie,
Irredeemable, written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Peter Krause: This is a new title, starting in April 2009. It’s the utterly convincing and terrifying tale of a Superman-like, extremely powerful superhero who goes bad in reaction to the ungrateful criticisms of those he saves. “Let me tell you the kind of world I live in. It is a world of miserable paramecium who lash out at you in a state of perpetual rage for not solving their problems fast enough.”
Alias (great characters, written by Brian Michael Bendis).
Powers, by Bendis and Oeming (super-powered detective thriller series with excellent dialogue).
Fell, by Warren Ellis. (The first issues just came out in trade paperback). A dark but remarkably fascinating series of detective tales set in Snowtown, featuring the exiled Detective Richard Fell.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller -- most people like this more than I do, but it’s a classic)
Daredevil (about ten volumes written by Bendis). A sophisticated take on Matt Murdock/Daredevil.
John Constantine: Hellblazer. Lots of volumes, many by good writers, especially the Garth Ennis issues. For instance, the collection Fear and Loathing (#62-67). The grim runs by Jamie Delano are often excellent. Some good ones by Warren Ellis (Haunted, and Setting Sun) and Mike Carey. From Tainted Love: " You don’t accept death! You don’t humanize it!! And it’s not your frigging friend. “Old man death”! Listen to yourself! …I saw death. It’s not your friend. It’s a twisted, coiled, ugly little length of dogshit and you fight it to your last bloody drop- -- otherwise you’re nothing. Otherwise… why did you even bother in the first place?"
Starman (issues/collections by James Robinson, currently being put out in Omnibus editions)
All Star Superman (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely). A 12-issue limited series that has lots of fun with the central themes of the Superman mythos.
Ex Machina and The Last Man (both Brian K. Vaughn). The first concerns the Mayor of New York, who can “talk” to machines. The second is about the last man alive in a world of women.
Fables. A nicely-done translation of dozens of classic myths into the modern world.
From Hell (brilliant story of Jack the Ripper by Alan Moore)
Joker (Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo). A beautifully-drawn graphic novel focused on Batman’s central nemesis.
Any Punisher collection by Garth Ennis (assuming you enjoy hilarious-but-violent), e.g. Welcome Back Frank.
The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman. An engaging apocalyptic zombie series that focuses not on the zombies but on the drama of the few remaining humans struggling to survive.
Red Son (what if Superman as a baby landed in the
Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest (Millar/Hitch).
We3 (Grant Morrison; fantastic illustration by Frank Quitely). About a dog, a cat, and a rabbit, all hugely enhanced physically and cognitively for military purposes, who escape confinement and try to find home.
Doom Patrol (Grant Morrison). A bizarre, highly post-modern super-team with strange characters and entertainingly weird stories.
Amazon is a good place to get collections of these issues at low prices. If Amazon doesn't have an item, I can recommend this source: http://www.mycomicshop.com/