Tag archives for singularity

Technological Determinism, Human Decisions

We’ve all heard the stories of inevitability: more and more transistors per square centimeter, with momentous leaps to new computing hardware whenever material capacity reaches its limit. While massively parallel, one-to-many molecular computation hardwares are certainly in the works, we should keep in mind that what looks like technological determinism from the outside is constituted by human decisions. What we call the Heaven Scenario — in which machine intelligence takes over the entire innovation process, designing super-intelligence without need of human intervention, transforming human bodies and cultures, spreading super-intelligence throughout the universe at 10 to the 90 computations per second — merely seeks pre-Heaven historical vectors, as it were. According to this narrative, all of us today are embedded within the pre-history of a cosmic Transcension. But what about this pre-history?

What if we traveled to today’s laboratories and spoke directly with the architects of each incremental advance in computer hardware, each conceptual leap on the road to Heaven? Would we be astounded by the range of plausible courses available to mankind even within this powerful narrative? Perhaps this is part of the allure of the Heaven Scenario: no one knows quite specifically how we’ll get there. We know there is a tremendous privilege afforded by the unforgiving universe and our own evolutionary endowments. In short, nothing seems to be stopping us beyond the accidents of our own history: technological lock-in, material bottlenecks, uncertainty, ignorance.

As the scholar of foresight methodologies Cynthia Selin has noted, intervening in people’s vision of the future actually intervenes in the future. In this sense the Heaven Scenario functions to alert growing numbers of people to the plausibility of a remarkable societal and cosmic modification sequence. This is the self-fulfilling prophesy aspect of Heaven: the future may hinge upon being predicted in the first place.

While claims of plausibility often merge with claims of inevitability, the Heaven Scenario is no mere hype-driven rhetorical effort to produce an outcome. If I may go Foucaldian for a moment: major steps toward the technical hardware of Transcension and Singularity are an ongoing production of real-life scientist’s and engineer’s who demonstrate an uncommon spirituality: “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself [or herself] in order to have access to the truth.” (as quoted in Paul Rabinow, 2011, The Accompaniment) Here “the truth” is a result of engaging, critiquing, and transforming inherited techniques, from textbook explanations of how things work to the instruments used to make things happen. In other words, the Heaven Scenario entails harrowing human encounters with the (human) universe.

This is easy to overlook, or treat superficially. In the face of tremendous cultural conditioning, the Heaven Scenario requires genuine insights and personal sacrifice, in millions and millions of variations. In the process, forms of cultural conditioning do not disappear suddenly in the light of Transcension. Rather, there is ever the chaos of mutual adjustments, with technical breakthroughs struggling for uptake amidst the violence of the ordinary market. Even if accidental insight or an unprovoked “Eureka!” spawns key innovations, Heaven hinges on human decisions.

This is where the Prevail Project situates its encounter with the contemporary pre-history of Heaven. We don’t just ask ornery rhetorical questions of this discourse, questions designed to dismiss the narrative’s allure such as “The Gospel according to Who?!” Rather, we consider the present moment a kind of Singularity of singularities. In the scientist, engineer, and mathematician’s spiritual quest for the truth — so to speak — we take up the call of William Faulkner to offer them a rendering of man’s lifted heart. Without man Heaven is unbelievable for this world. Thus, on man’s heart hinges the character and feeling of any Heaven that might arise. In pursuit of a discussion of these themes, and with an awareness that the Heaven, Hell, and Prevail scenarios each hinge upon present human practices, we at the Prevail Project invite participation from all walks. We’re looking for eye contact and a venue. In the months to come we will be developing strategies toward this end. Please keep posted.

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For more perspectives on transhumanism from humanistic perspectives, check out these podcasts and consider this new book.

Humanity’s Quest for Immortality

One of humanity’s oldest impulses has been to conquer death. From Egyptian mummification to the Christian heaven, the idea that some way, through material or spiritual works, we can transcend the mortal coil and live forever is highly seductive. These day, since and technology promise longer lives and immortality, ranging from the modest and sensible precautions of eating correctly and exercising, to the radical biomedical revolutions professed by Aubry de Grey and Ray Kurzweil.

Between antiquity and post-modernity lies a broad area of research into immortality that hasn’t yet been explored. John Grey has come out with an interesting new book examining the quest for immortality in the Victorian and Soviet eras, revealing a fascinating secret history of spiritualists, eugenicists, Soviet utopians, and the science fiction writer HG Wells.

Darwinism is impossible to reconcile with the notion that humans have any special exemption from mortality. In Darwin’s scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; there is no impassable barrier between human minds and those of other animals. How then could only humans go on to a life beyond the grave? If all life were extinguished on Earth, possibly as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the after-world, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. Then again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead – not only the human generations that have come and gone but the countless animal species that are now extinct – living on in the ether, forever?

Science could not give these seekers what they were looking for. Yet at the same time that sections of the English elite were looking for a scientific version of immortality, a similar quest was under way in Russia among the “God-builders” – a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed science could someday, perhaps quite soon, be used to defeat death. The God-builders included Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, a former Theosophist who was appointed commissar of enlightenment in the new Soviet regime, and the trade minister Leonid Krasin, an engineer and disciple of the Russian mystic Nikolai Fedorov, who believed that the dead could be technologically resurrected. Krasin was a key figure in the decisions that were made about how Lenin’s remains would be preserved.

Weakened in Britain, belief in gradual progress had ceased to exist in Russia. An entire civilisation had collapsed, and the incremental improvement cherished by liberals was simply not possible. The idea of progress was not abandoned, however. Instead it was radicalised, as Russia’s new rulers were confirmed in their conviction that humanity advances through a succession of catastrophes. Not only society but human nature had to be destroyed, and only then rebuilt. Humans did not go on to a new life on the other side. There was no other side. When humans died they returned to dust, just like other animals. But once the power of science was fully harnessed, the God-builders believed, death could be overcome by force. Eventually all of humankind could look forward to scientifically guaranteed immortality, but the process of technological resurrection would begin with the most valuable of human beings – Lenin.

Read the full excerpt at The Guardian.

The protagonists of John Grey’s book are the immediate sources of the current technological quest for immortality. Though the scientific barriers we face today are different, the philosophical quandaries and contradictions of physical immortality are similar. What will life mean without the end of death? How can society evolve when the powerful never relinquish their power? Is living forever truly the highest goal than e can devote ourselves to? There a difference between individual immortality, and the continued survival of humanity as a whole. For our species and our culture, death is tragic, but ultimately necessary and even unavoidable.

Should we seek immortality, or are our scientific resources best used elsewhere? John Grey’s history of the strange quest for immortality may help us decide.