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Scott recently made two posts [1 2] about some of the dangers of technology, and of becoming too powerful for yourself. Now, I’ll admit that I didn’t entirely understand his concern. As far as I could tell, he was worried that at some point, we might perfectly know the best possible strategy for pursuing all of our desires, and have the willpower to do so. Then, in a sense, one could say that we’d no longer experience having a free will. There would always be only one reasonable action in any situation, and we would always pick that one.

Well, I’m not too concerned about that. But the post hilighted one possible way that technology could damage something that we consider dear and essential, by removing essential constraints. That’s actually a rather major worry, and a far broader one than just one example suggests. (This essay was also influenced by a recent comment by Randal Koene.)

First, though, let’s review a bit of history.

In 1967, the biologist Sol Spiegelman took a strand of viral RNA, and placed it on a dish containing various raw materials that the RNA could use to build new copies of itself. After the RNA strands had replicated on the dish, Spiegelman extracted some of them and put them on another dish, again with raw materials that the strands could use to replicate themselves. He then kept repeating this process.

No longer burdened with the constraints of needing to work for a living, produce protein coats, or to do anything but reproduce, the RNA evolved to match its new environment. The RNA mutated, and the strands which could copy themselves the fastest won out. Everything in those strands that wasn’t needed for reproduction had just become an unnecessary liability. After just 74 generations, the original 4,500 nucleotide bases had been reduced to a mere 220. Useless parts of the genome had been discarded; the viral RNA had now become a pure replicator, dubbed “Spiegelman’s monster”. (Source.)

What happens in evolution is that organisms adapt themselves to exploit, and protect themselves from, the various regularities of the environment. Light reflects off distant objects in a predictable manner, so creatures have evolved eyes that they can use to see. If the environment ceases to possess some regularities, it will necessarily change the organisms. Put a fish with eyes in a cave with no light, and it will lose its sight over a few thousand years at most. Even humans have kept evolving as our environment has changed. Sickle-cell disease is more common in people whose ancestors are from regions with malaria. A single sickle-cell gene makes you more resistant to malaria, but two give you the disease. That’s an acceptable tradeoff in an environment with a lot of malaria, but a burden outside that environment.

You could say that the environment constrains the kind of organisms that can exist there. Now, those constraints aren’t immediate: that cave fish won’t lose its eyes right away. But over enough time, as different kinds of fish compete for survival, the ones which don’t waste their energy on growing useless eyes will win out.

Humans, as I was suggesting before, have also evolved to meet some very specific environmental constraints. As our environment has changed – either by our own doing, or due to reasons that have nothing to do with us – those constraints have changed somewhat, and we have changed with them. But many things about our nature, things that we might consider fundamental, have not changed. We still tell stories, enjoy the company of others, and are distinct individuals. Sure, the exact forms that those things take have changed over time. Today we are more likely to watch a story on TV than to hear one over a campfire – but both are still recognizable forms of story-telling. Countless of human universals are found in cultures all over the planet:

aesthetics; affection expressed and felt; age grades; body adornments; childhood fears; classification of kin; cooking; cooperation; customary greetings; daily routines; dance; distinguishing right and wrong; dreams; emotions; empathy; envy; family (or household); folklore; generosity admired; gossip; hope; hospitality; imagery; jokes; judging others; leaders; likes and dislikes; manipulating social relations; marriage; meal times; mourning; music …

Individuals may disagree about which of those things really are fundamental – whether losing some specific universal would really be a loss – but most people are likely to say that at least some of those things are important and worth keeping.

But as technology keeps evolving, it will make it easier and easier to overcome various constraints in our environment, our bodies, and in our minds. And then it will become increasing tempting to become a Spiegelman’s monster: to rid yourself of the things that the loosened constraints have made unnecessary, to become something that is no longer even remotely human. If you don’t do it, then someone else will. With enough time, they may end up ruling the world, outcompeting you like Spiegelman’s monster outcompeted the original, umutated RNA strands.

Exactly what kinds of constraints am I talking about, here? Well, there are several, in a roughly increasing order of severity:

  • Not being too powerful for yourself. Scott’s concern: that at some point, we might perfectly know the best possible strategy for pursuing all of our desires, and have the willpower to do so. Then, in a sense, one could say that we no longer experienced having a free will – there would always only be one reasonable action in any situation, and we would always pick that one.
  • Having distinct minds. We might not be too far away from having the ability to directly connect brains with each other. I think about something, and the thought crosses over to your brain, merging with your stream of consciousness. With time, this technology could be perfected so that large groups of people could join together into a single entity, coordinating and doing everything much better than any “traditional” human. Combined with an ability to copy memories, the concept of “personal identity” might cease to have any meaning at all – there would be no persons, just an amorphous mass of consciousnesses all sharing most of the same memories.
  • Unmodifiable desires: as desire modification becomes possible, anyone could reprogram their brains to be constantly perfectly satisfied and never do anything else (except possibly the bare minimum needed for survival). Sure, the possibility feels unappealing now… but maybe you’re having a bad day, and you choose to modify your brain to feel just a little better, all the time. And then the thought of being permanently blissed out doesn’t feel so bad after all, and you modify your brain just a little more… how could you not envy the folks who are never unhappy, especially since the option to self-modify is always there?
  • Inability to design superintelligent AGIs. We are constantly investing in ever-improving AI, for the obvious economic reasons: it allows for ever-more work to be automated. It may indeed prove impossible to regulate AI development in order to stop super-intelligent AGIs (artificial general intelligences) from arising. If so, then it might also prove impossible to ensure that safe and human-friendly AGIs prevail: like with Spiegelman’s monsters, the AGIs not burdened with the constraints of respecting human life and property may end up winning the AGIs that wish to protect humanity, after which they’ll recycle human settlements into their raw materials.
  • An inability to become mindless outsourcers. Nick Bostrom suggests a scenario where we learn to offload all of our thought to non-conscious external programs. To quote: “Why do I need to know arithmetic when I can buy time on Arithmetic-Modules Inc. whenever I need to do my accounts? Why do I need to be good with language when I can hire a professional language module to articulate my thoughts? Why do I need to bother with making decisions about my personal life when there are certified executive-modules that can scan my goal structure and manage my assets so as best to fulfill my goals?” And so, we give in to the temptation to cut away more and more parts of our brains, letting computer programs run those tasks… until there is no conscious experience left.
  • An inability to copy the best workers, choosing only the ones best fit for their tasks. If we could upload brains to computers, it could also become possible to copy minds. This could be far quicker than ordinary reproduction, making copying the primary method by which humans multiplied – and one’s ability to acquire and retain more hardware to run one’s copies on, would become the main criteria that evolution selected for. As Nick Bostrom writes: Much of human life’s meaning arguably depends on the enjoyment, for its own sake, of humor, love, game-playing, art, sex, dancing, social conversation, philosophy, literature, scientific discovery, food and drink, friendship, parenting, and sport. We have preferences and capabilities that make us engage in such activities, and these predispositions were adaptive in our species’ evolutionary past; but what ground do we have for being confident that these or similar activities will continue to be adaptive in the future? Perhaps what will maximize fitness in the future will be nothing but non-stop high-intensity drudgery, work of a drab and repetitive nature, aimed at improving the eighth decimal of some economic output measure. Even if the workers selected for in this scenario were conscious, the resulting world would still be radically impoverished in terms of the qualities that give value to life.

To rephrase what I have been saying:

“Humans” inhabit a narrow region in a multidimensional space of possibilities, and various constraints currently keep everyone stuck in that tiny space. If any of those constraints were to be relaxed – the space of possible minds stretched in any direction – then the new kinds of minds, no longer burdened with the constraints that make our fundamental values so adaptive, would be free to expand in entirely new directions. And it seems inevitable that, given a broader space of possible adaptations, evolutionary pressures would eventually lead to the dominance of minds – or at least replicators – which were very different from what most of us would value as “human”.

Get enough of one constraint, and you might still recognize the outcome as having once been human. Get rid of enough constraints, and you’ll get the equivalent of a Spiegelman’s monster, no longer even remotely human.

There have been some suggestions of how to avoid this. Nick Bostrom has suggested [1 2] that we create a “singleton”, a world-order with a single decision-making agency at the highest level, capable of controlling evolution. The singleton could be an appropriately-programmed AGI, the right group of uploads, or something else. Maybe this will work: but I doubt it. I expect all such efforts to fail, and humanity to eventually vanish. Possibly within my lifetime, if we’re unlucky.

I’ll conclude this essay with the immortal words of H.P. Lovecraft:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Needless to say, Lovecraft was being too optimistic.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

xuenay: (Default)
One of the most common objections against the prospect of radical life extension (RLE) is that of overpopulation. Suppose everyone got to enjoy from an eternal physical youth, free from age-related decay. No doubt people would want to have children regardless. With far more births than deaths, wouldn't the Earth quickly become overpopulated?

There are at least two possible ways of avoiding this fate. The first is simply having children later. Even if nobody died of aging, there would still be diseases, accidents and murders. People who've looked at the statistics estimate that with no age-related death, people would on average live to be a thousand before meeting their fate in some way. Theoretically, if everyone just waited to be a thousand before having any kids, then population growth would remain on the same level as it is today.

Of course, this is completely unrealistic. Most people aren't going to wait until they are a thousand to have kids. But they might still have them considerably later than they do now. The average age for having your first child has already gone up as lifespans have grown. If you're going to live for a thousand years, why rush with having kids as soon as possible?

Currently there is (at least for women) an effective maximum cap on how high the age for first childbirth can grow, since once a mother's age grows beyond 35 or so, the probability for birth defects goes up radically. However, current reproductive technology has already made pregnancies over the age of 50 a real possibility. At the moment, this frequently requires egg donation, but a rudimentary ability to produce eggs from stem cells may not be that far away, certainly a lot closer than RLE. By the point that we have RLE, we'll likely also have the ability to produce new sperm and eggs from a person's own cells. Combined with an overall better condition of the body brought about by RLE, this seems like it could increase the maximum age for pregnancy indefinitely. With that, the average age for a first birth going up at least a couple of decades doesn't seem all that unrealistic.

Besides the average age for having kids going up, there's the possibility of larger family groups. Must we necessarily have a norm for children being the kids of exactly two adults? As a personal example, my best friend has a daughter who's two years old right now. I've been over there helping take care of the girl a lot, enough to make me feel like she's part of my family as well. Even if I never had children of my own, I already feel something resembling the feelings related to having a child of your own. In addition to growing attached to the children of your close friends, polyamory is also gradually becoming more common and accepted. With romantic relationships involving more than two people we also get children with more than two parent-like figures. Many have a strong desire to pass on their genes, something which can be helped with e.g. the recent creation of 3-parent human embryos.

So with both the prospect of having kids later and a child having more than two parents, I really don't think that the population problem is as hard to solve as some people make it out to be. It should also be noted that it's not like scientists are going to develop RLE one day, and then the next, blam, everyone lives forever. Rather, the technology will be developed in stages. In the early stages, there are going to be a lot of people who have grown far too frail to be helped, and it might take a long time before we hit acturial escape velocity, so there might simply be an e.g. 10-year bump on people's lifespan and then 20 years could pass before the next major breakthrough.

The treatments may also not be affordable for everyone at first, though it needs to be noted that governments will have a huge incentive to subsidize the treatements for everyone to reduce the healthcare costs of the elderly and to push back the age for retirement. A 2006 article in The Scientist argues that simply slowing aging by seven years would produce large enough of an economic benefit to justify the US investing three billion dollars annually to this research. The commonly heard "but only the rich could live forever" argument against RLE does not, I feel, take into account the actual economic realities (amusingly enough, as its supporters no doubt think they're the economically realistic ones).

So we're going to get a slowly and gradually lengthening average lifespan, which at first probably won't do much more than reverse the population decline that will hit a lot of Western countries soon. The replenishment rate required to keep a population stable is about 2.1 children per woman. The average fertility rate in a lot of industrialized countries is well below this - for instance, 1.58 in Canada, 1.42 in Germany, 1.32 in Italy, 1.20 in Japan and 1.04 in Hong Kong. The EU average is 1.51. Yes, in a lot of poor countries the figures are considerably higher - Niger tops the chart with 7.68 children per woman - but even then the overall world population growth is projected to start declining around 2050 or so.

To give a sense of proportion: suppose that tomorrow, we developed literal immortality and made it instantly available for everyone, so that the death rate would drop to zero in a day, with no adjustment to the birth rate. Even if this completely unrealistic scenario were to take place, the overall US population growth would still only be about half of what it was during the height of the 1950s baby boom! Even in such a completely, utterly unrealistic scenario, it would still take around 53 years for the US population to double - assuming no compensating drop in birth rates in that whole time.

We've adapted to increasing lifespans before. Between 1950 and 1990, the percentage of population over 65 almost doubled in Sweden, going from 10.3 to 18.1. (In the United Kingdom it went up from 10.7 to 15.2, in the US from 8.1 to 12.6, and in the more-developed countries overall it went from 7.6 to 12.1.) The beauty of economics is that like all resource consumption, having children is a self-regulating mechanism: if a growing population really does exert a heavy strain on resources, then it will become more expensive to have children, and people will have less of them. The exception is in the less industrialized countries where children are still a net economic benefit for their parents and not a cost, but most of the world is industrializing quickly. Over the last fifty years, the gaps between the rich and poor have gotten smaller and smaller, to the point where people are calling the whole concept of a first world/third world divide a myth. I see no reason to presume that radical life extension and indefinite youths would pose us any problems that we couldn't handle, at least not on the overpopulation front.

For anyone curious, this was mostly an English recap of some of the life extension-related discussion I covered in my 2009 book Kehittyvä ihmiskunta. If you can't read Finnish but were wondering what I wrote in that book, well, now you know a bit.

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(Prompted by Giulio Prisco's similar post.)

To whom it may concern:

I am writing this in 2010. My Gmail account has almost 2 GB of data, which contain some information about me and also some information about the persons I have exchanged email with, including some personal and private information. In addition, I have plenty of information about myself scattered across the web in various services, such as LiveJournal, Last.fm, and so forth. My hard drives also contain things such as IRC and instant message logs from at least the last five years, as well as various personal files.

I am assuming that as time goes, the amount of personal information about me stored both online and offline will only continue to grow. I am also assuming that there may come some point in time where:

1) AI-based technology is available to reconstruct copies of individual people by analyzing various sources such as the ones mentioned above, with sufficient accuracy for mind uploading via detailed personality reconstruction.
2) It is legally and technologically possible to gain access to various personal accounts (including but not limited to e-mail accounts and encrypted hard drives) in order to do this, but it may be illegal without the consent of the account owners (or their heirs).
3) Reconstructing a mind may or may not be legal without explicit permission from either the person being reconstructed or their heirs.
4) Many of the people today, including myself, may already be dead and therefore incapable of giving permission to use the data in their accounts for such a purpose.

In case of such a scenario, I hereby give permission to the relevant parties to read all the data I have stored in various places both online and offline, and use them together with other available information to reconstruct my mindfile with sufficient accuracy for mind uploading via detailed personality reconstruction. I also explicitly give permission for the actual process of rebuilding an upload copy of me, as well as for using this data for helping reconstruct other people I have been in contact with.

These permissions are given with the caveat that my uploaded copy should only be created if it will be treated in such a way that it is reasonable to assume that the currently living me would not, when presented with a description of the situation the uploaded copy ended up in, regret having given this permission. This clause is mainly intended to exclude the possibility of e.g. sadistic torture worlds, and is worded to make reference to my and not the copy's wishes to exclude possibilities such as editing the copy to not even be aware of the possibility of things being any better.

Should any of the content in this post become irrelevant or inapplicable because of future technological developments, the spirit and not the letter of the post should be adhered to.

Signed by Kaj Sotala on September 29, 2010, and witnessed by readers.

NOTE: The accuracy of the process outlined above increases with the number of persons who give their permission to do the same. You can give your permission in comments, your own blog or other public spaces.
xuenay: (sonictails)
What is transhumanism? It is often described as the philosophy that we should use technology to transcend our current physical and mental limitations, but it is more than just that. Transhumanists keep tab on emerging technologies and debate their risks and benefits; they promote public awareness of the topics and help divert funding to research; they work to make sure that humanity is better off from new technology. There exist tranhumanist think-tanks like the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, transhumanist research groups devoted to bringing forth new technologies, like the Metusaleh Foundation, and transhumanist research groups devoted to the risks of new technologies, like the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. I am a transhumanist - I believe that one of the major ways of making humanity better off is by developing new technology.

Around two years back, I was talking with somebody who asked - "but what does all of this have to do with happiness? Technology doesn't make people happier." Now, this is a serious point. There have been studies showing that people in more advanced countries aren't necessarily happier, and that the effect of any new technological gadget soon fades away as soon as people get used to it. Technology has advanced, but mostly the things making people happy are the ones they've always been - friends and family, achievement, religion.

Currently, humanity is trapped in a cruel cycle. We yearn for bigger houses, higher-paying jobs and new gadgets, but not because those things would really make us happier. We crave for them because craving for such things helped spread our genes in our ancestral environment. But evolution does not optimize happiness, nor does it bargain with the creatures it has created. Evolution does not say, "okay, you have the greatest fitness in this population, now you get to be happy". We're driven to develop better communications, better television, overall better standards of living - and in the end, little of that really seems to matter when it comes to happiness. We might strive for a luxurious living, because a luxurious living meant you'd survive better in the past, but then feel bored when do have all the luxuries. But we still want them.

So is technology really such a great thing? Is researching it really one of our highest priorities, if it doesn't even make people happier?

In a word, yes. For there is a way out. Not every technology is meaningless - technology has indirectly made our societies more open-minded, helping members of different minorities feel more accepted. Happiness studies suggest that one's health is a major component to their happiness, so improvements in healthcare help as well. The key seems to be that technology needs to primarily modify, not our environment, but ourselves. If evolution has given us such a crappy deal, where we keep striving for externalities that don't make us any happier, let's beat evolution and modify the internalities.

That, of course, is what transhumanism is all about. In fact, since technology has such a great capability for making people happier, I would argue that anyone who cares about the happiness of others has a moral responsibility to be a transhumanist.

So, just what sort of technology exactly is there that we should be working on to develop? Glad that you asked.


  • Cognitive enhancement will be a boon for those with below-average intelligence. Having your intelligence enhanced might not necessarily make you any happier if you already have a normal or above-normal intelligence, but it's not at all fun to be stupid. Having a low IQ gives you a serious handicap in both social life and with handling everyday life. It's easy to find anecdotal evidence for stupidity causing unhappiness - how many people do you know who enjoy hanging around those they consider imbeciles? - but the effect of intelligence on life has also been documented by actual studies:

    [IQ 75 and below] is the "high risk" zone: high risk of failing elementary school, being unmasked as incompetent in daily affairs (making change, reading a letter, filling out a job application, understanding doctors’ instructions, monitoring one’s young children), being cheated by merchants and exploited by friends and relatives, remaining unemployed, dependent, and socially isolated, and 'consistently fail[ing] to understand certain important aspects of the world in which they live, and so regularly find[ing] themselves unable to cope with some demands of this world' (Edger-ton, 1993, p. 222). Many eventually lead satisfying lives, but only with the help of a benefactor or strong social support network or only after a long struggle to find a self-affirming social niche. -- Linda Gottfredson (1997). Why G matters. Intelligence, 24, p. 79-132.

  • Elimination of old age. Currently, growing old is not a very enjoyable thing - your health begins to fail, your close ones start dying off, you become too tired to create new social circles when you lose the old ones. It is no wonder that there have been reports of disproportionally high suicide rates among the elderly. All of this could be avoided if we could eliminate aging and prevent all age-related decline, so people would stay healthy and physically young forever. This is a project many transhumanists are actively working on or supporting by donating to the Metusaleh Foundation - we already know what causes old age, so all that remains is fixing it.

  • Mentally becoming what you want to be. Many people are conflicted between competing desires - a desire to be a good person competing with a very short temper, or a desire to be a good lover competing with an unhealthy jealousy. I would like to be a good transhumanist and help improve the world, but I frequently grow lazy and end up wasting time doing something else when I could be studying things that might help me in this. As we learn to better understand the working of our brain, we can start modifying it. Oxytocin is a chemical which has been suggested to make people more trusting of each other, and there exist concentration-improving chemicals which could help me study (were they not currently prescription drugs). Eventually, such treatments will become more elegant and more accepted, and we'll be able to make ourselves be exactly what we want to be. The Cyborg Buddha project of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is an effort to promote awareness of these possibilities.

  • Physically becoming what you want to be. Sex-reassignment surgery is the most obvious example of this category. People might be unhappy with the physical shape they are in - be it their sex or their weight. Biotechnological and nanotechnological advances will help in this category, with improved virtual reality setups helping people forget their current shape until the technology arrives to actually make actual shape changes reality.

  • Baseline modification. It appears that a large part of happiness is genetic - some people are born naturally happy, and others are naturally unhappy. If the exact factors making some people happier than others can be isolated, everybody could potentially have their brain chemistry tweaked so that their baseline emotional state would be that of greater happiness.

  • Continued existence. Finally, one can't be happy if one's dead. There are problems ranging from meteorite impacts to global pandemics - existential risks - which might either kill all of us or a considerable portion of us. Technology such as cognitive enhancement or artificial intelligence will give us a better grasp of our problems, helping ward off such dangers.


All six categories - and others I have not mentioned - increase equality. People are not randomly condemned to be stupid. People are not condemned to be unhealthy simply because they're old. Like intelligence, some are naturally more talented at self-control than others: by increasing our control of our own brains, these inequalities diminish. Some people are not condemned to live in bodies they're unhappy with, while others get great ones. People are not condemned to be naturally less happy than others. People are not wiped out of existence when they'd still rather live. All of this increases people's happiness, and giving people control over these things gives them more choice. These are some of the core values that transhumanism's all about: Happiness, Equality and Choice.

Of course, transhumanism is not about embracing new technologies unthinkingly or without question. Every new technology carries with it new risks as well as new opportunities. Nanotechnology, one of transhumanists' favorite technologies, carries within it the potential to do vast damage in addition to vast good. Regulation will be undoubtably be needed - and transhumanists will be at the forefront of that as well, evaluating emerging technologies and bringing up the issues that might be involved.

Like all movements, transhumanism isn't something that just happens. It isn't obvious that technological progress will happen as fast as we like, that needless fears won't ruin it, or that the appropriate safeguards are taken. Transhumanism isn't a reason to go "cool, let's wait for these new toys". Transhumanism is a rallying cry for everyone who cares about humanity - to get up to date, to do something to help. Personally I blog and try to promote awareness about transhumanist issues, donate to valued organizations like the Singularity Institute, and work on my cognitive science degree. Everyone can help out somehow, by spreading the word if by nothing else. (Some other suggestions of how one might help can be found at Accelerating Future.)

In his book Our posthuman future, Francis Fukuyama worries about biotechnology reducing humanity's diversity. It is certainly a fact that in some ways, advancing transhumanism will reduce diversity - it will reduce the diversity of suffering, the diversity of unhappiness, the diversity of inequality. Instead, as people become more capable of changing into what they really want to be, it will increase diversity of expression, diversity of thought and diversity of mind.

It is entirely understandable that people might feel resistance to transhumanist aims and goals. Even I sometimes wonder if this is what I really want - having lived an entire life in a certain sort of society, one naturally gets attached to it. I wonder if the problems caused when true mindcrafting becomes possible will be worth it, feel annoyance at the thought of a world where I might have no unique talents that everybody couldn't obtain via technology. It is only human to grow much too attached to the ills of the world, only human to prefer a safe status quo instead of healthy change. It is human, just as it is human to grow fragile and mentally sluggish with age, to lack intelligence and to discriminate against others, to suffer and to be unhappy. I recognize my flaws for what they are - the worse part of my human nature, the one that diminishes where it could ennoble.

Something to transcend.

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