2012 Humanity+ Day 1 – Part 3 – Kim Stanley Robinson

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on the Humanity+ 2012 conference.
View: Part 1, Part 2

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 …

2012 Humanity+ Day 1 – Part 2 – David Brin

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on the Humanity+ 2012 conference.
Previous post here.

After David Orban, David Brin gave a presentation via Skype, which is a terrible way to present at a conference.  It took several minutes of futzing around to get the connection working properly and Brin still complained that he couldn’t see the audience.  Brin is primarily concerned that transhumanists will be burned at the stake.  He referenced Giordano Bruno, who was supposedly burned at the stake for having relatively more accurate cosmological views than those approved by the church.  I am highly skeptical of Brin’s vision.  First of all, the vast majority of people may never understand what a transhumanist even is.  Secondly, those few people that do oppose tranhumanism will be hopelessly disadvantaged by their lack of augmentation.  Thirdly, I mean, what the hell?  Burning at the stake?  What century are we living in?

He went on to admonish us to build bridges with our Christian neighbors to forestall the inevitable mob-of-peasants-with-torches-and-pitchforks scenes that lay ahead.  He illustrated some parallels between transhumanism and Christianity that I won’t bother repeating here.  My main argument with him is that I don’t happen to know any damn Christians.  This is the Bay Area.  None of my neighbors are Christians.  They are all liberals and lesbians and swing dancers and whatnot.  For that matter, I doubt that many transhumanists elsewhere know any Christians either.  It’s a self-segregation thing.  Why would a futurist hang out anywhere near any Christian?  (In terms of social distance.)

Brin went on to invoke Toynbee’s “creative minority.”  Ignoramus that I am, I had to look this up briefly, but it seems that Toynbee asserts that societal decay stems from the breakdown of the “creative minority.”   The creative minority fails when they stop finding solutions to problems and fall back to a worship of their former selves.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Peter Thiel was a fan of Toynbee.  I see parallels in his stagnation of innovation hypothesis.

However, I wonder how coherent the idea of a cultural creative minority is becoming in this inter-connected 21st century.  Many members of the creative minority in Silicon Valley are actually from overseas.  Which culture can lay claims to the innovation of Google or SpaceX?  But then all roads led to Rome at one time, so maybe these distinctions never existed in the first place.  Which is to say, maybe it was inaccurate to refer to the creative minority of Rome as “Roman” given that it’s members probably hailed from all over the ancient world as well.  It may be that as a culture decays it seems less cool and ceases to be a nexus or attractor of talent.  I am not sure, I will ask around.

So yeah, Brin wants us to go back to being a more pragmatic and problem solving society.  No problem, I will get right on that.  Let’s see, we need to rescue eugenics from the Nazi’s.  Ok, I guess Rachel Haywire was tapping into a zeitgeist when she mentioned that.  What else, oh yes, we need to get off our foreign oil dependency and stop sending cash to  these pernicious wahhabis.  I guess we are already on track for that, thanks to fracking.  Over all, I found a lot to disagree with in Brin’s talk, but I guess I will check out his book Existence and see if it’s any good.

More to come.

2012 Humanity+ Conference Day 1 – Part 1 – David Orban

I attended the 2012 Humanity+ conference this year and had an amazing experience.  I got to meet and chat with a bunch of cool people: successful founders, bright young people, professional writers, and groundbreaking researchers.  It was a very small conference with probably less than 150 attendees.  The quality of presentations was excellent overall.  I am still struggling to absorb all the information that was put forth.  I tried to strike a good balance between socializing and listening to speakers.  I could still kick myself for missing Jaan Tallinn’s talk at the Singularity Summit 2012, so I didn’t want to miss another great talk like that.

The theme of this conference was “Writing the Future” so there was a focus on writers and communication. One major theme was how to convince the public to seriously consider the risks and opportunities of emerging technologies.  This is extremely appropriate for myself who is trying to learn to write about the future.  I don’t feel bad that I probably am not doing it well, since the general consensus was that the media does a terrible job of covering science in general, let alone futurist topics like AI or life extension.  There is a lot of sensationalism and little evaluation of the confidence we should have in new discoveries or proposed technologies.

The first speaker of the conference was David Orban, but I am no morning person, so I missed the beginning of his talk.  He apparently did a similar talk called “Network Society: The Coming Societal Phase Change” at TedX Bologna recently so you might check that out (turn on the Closed Captioning for English subtitles).  The gist of it seems to be that the coming network society will move away from centralized control toward more distributed control.  He offers examples of distributed solar energy and distributed food generation.  He also suggests that BitCoin might represent a move away from centralized banking.  3d printing could do the same in the manufacturing space, allowing us to produce objects locally as we need them as suggested in the Diamond Age and other science fiction novels.

None of these ideas were new to me.   What did attract my interest was Orban’s assertion that our society is comprised of goal seeking structures that constrain the actions of our leaders.  These structures prevent the adoption of solar energy or the dismantling of central banks for example.  I am not sure how seriously Orban meant to apply this anthropomorphism of our cultural institutions.  I might prefer to say something like change is contingent on topology or state vector.  That is, I would prefer to say something like that if I had a proper understanding of dynamical systems theory.

Orban also offers this sage advice to aspiring futurists: to determine if some event will come about, find the opposing forces.  He asked what the opposing forces to Tesla’s free charging stations might be.  One non-obvious consequence of free transportation energy is the tax impact.  Fuel is heavily taxed in Europe, even more than the US.  Governments themselves might oppose free fuel for cars.

He also pointed out that hackers will rule this new networked society.  I tend to agree with him there.  As more and more objects and systems get connected to the internet and controlled by computers, the real owner of an asset will be whoever can hack it.  And unfortunately, the current state of computer security is woefully unprepared to stop this.  Hacking hasn’t destroyed the value of credit cards or online banking yet, but what will happen when your prosthetics can get hacked?

This is Part 1 on an N part series of posts on the 2012 Humanity+ conference.  Here is Part 2. Stay tuned for more.