The next speaker from 2012 Humanity+ “Writing the future” conference was Kim Stanley Robinson. Although I am personally a big fan of science fiction, I don’t think I’ve read any of his novels. I understand that he is most well known for his Mars Trilogy. It might be useful to quote his Wikipedia page:
Robinson has been described as anti-capitalist, and his work often portrays a form of frontier capitalism that promotes ideals that closely resemble socialist systems, and faced with a capitalism that is staunched by entrenched hegemonic corporations.
Robinson’s H+ talk certainly touched on some socialist themes. He started out by saying that he considered the Humanity+ community and science fiction authors such as himself to be “Utopian fellow travelers” but then proceded to outline a number of potential problems with transhumanism. Before moving on, I would like to bring up Pinker’s criticism of Utopianism. People that believe in a future of infinite good continuing forever can rationally justify vast amounts of violence against anyone they perceive as interfering with this utopia. In spite of Robinson’s (and Wikipedia’s) assertions, I don’t tend to view transhumanism as particularly utopian. In fact, the dystopian cyberpunk movement was discussed in several talks over the weekend and is more aligned with H+ in my mind.
But I don’t want to indulge in the narcissism of small differences as Robinson allowed he might be doing when he criticized transhumanism. His initial criticism is that transhumanism tends to be technology centered and it ignores politics and general well being as defined by Maslow’s hierarchy. In Robinson’s view technology is fundamentally political. He asserts that social systems like justice are technology themselves and he rightly points out that justice is unevenly distributed. Ironically, he said that plans of Mars missions smacked of escapism. “Let’s leave this mess we made of earth behind and start over.”
Robinson worries that the very term transhuman or posthuman separates it’s adherents from the masses. It is apparently everyone’s obligation as good socialists to integrate themselves with the great unwashed. Thus Robinson jokingly suggested renaming transhumanism to “Adequacy.” I tease about his socialism, but I do think he took for granted that the audience shared his value system. I am not sure that they did. I have met a lot of libertarians and unapologetic elitists in this community. I think Robinson would have made a more effective plea if he had taken that into consideration and directly addressed these opposing viewpoints.
As for the name “transhumanist,” I am comfortable calling myself that, but I can see why some might associate it with the whole ubermensch idea. Practically speaking when you say “transhumanist” to someone it either means nothing at all to them, or it can serve as short hand to mean you are into futurism and augmentation and such. I’ve never told a prole that I was tranhumanist and had them pile scorn upon me for imagining I could transcend the human state which he himself was consigned to. Also, to their credit, the organizers of the conference and magazine use the phrase Humanity+, not transhumanism to describe their thing. Humanity is a nice inclusive word.
Robinson closed his talk with a discussion of AI. According to my notes, Robinson basically equated AI with the scientific method, which may be a terrible typo, but I will go with it anyway. I can see how the scientific method gave us a tool to greatly increase our understanding of the universe. But I guess I would classify that as Intelligence Augmentation (IA). Oh well, maybe it was just a typo after all.
Robinson goes on to state that AI cannot be created until we have a theory of consciousness. He was skeptical in fact that AI could exist at all. I guess he is discounting the argument that consciousness might not matter that much. He invoked the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals for some reason I don’t recall, but it’s a cool thing to look up anyway. Also he suggested that AI can’t exist until we solve the multiple realizability problem, which I hadn’t heard of so was another interesting thing to look up. Though I don’t understand how it can asserted that some general psychological state like pain cannot be reduced to more specific psychological states could actually map to physical states. Just as anyone can distinguish between a sharp and dull pain, a master of mindfulness might be able to make further distinctions. There must a limit, that line between the conscious and unconscious, but that just suggests to me that names are abstractions that refer to classes of experiences. I don’t see the problem. I guess I will need to hit up plato.standford.edu at some point.
Over all, I found myself disagreeing with Robinson quite a bit, but I thought his talk was provocative and interesting.
More 2012 Humanity+ commentary coming soon …