Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Unbearable Status of "Technological Stagnation"

Transhumanism post - I know I haven't done of these in a while, but I've been flagging in inspiration. Today, though, I found an article that frustrated the hell out of me, so here we go.

I was reading over at H+ magazine and I ran across this article by Dale Carrico. Carrico is (according to the comments, anyway; I don't know this for a fact) a leftist and a critic of transhumanism and futurism all together, leaving me to wonder if this man has even been awake for the last 30 years. In his article, The Unbearable Stasis of "Accelerating Change", Dale levels quite a few accusations against the transhumanist (and, by extension, science fiction) community. There's a lot of fair criticisms to be leveled to the community; criticisms are and constructive criticism is always helpful because it helps you improve. Very little of what is said here are accurate criticisms. Rather, this is a variation of the "futurehype" argument. I haven't seen the futurehype argument employed before this, so this is my first shot at tackling it.

We begin with a story of him and a friend getting haircuts, as they're flipping through a Popular Science magazine. The name "Peter Diamandis" comes up - honestly, a name I'm not that familiar with, although he refers to Diamandis as "This decade's [Ray] Kurzweil". I know who Kurzweil is; Kurzweil is a fellow that even I regard as being too optimistic about technology - he predicts computers able to replicate the human brain entirely by 2045, and I don't see that happening (if it's possible at all) until 2140 at the absolute earliest. I do see the possibility of uplifting chimpanzees and possible a strong AI by that time, though. That first one - uplifting chimpanzees through transgenic surgery and nootropics - is likely more possible than the development of a strong AI is, but I can see both of them by around 2050, if not slightly before. But a computer capable of emulating the human brain (which would have to be a neural network, not a computer as we would recognize it) before 2150? Not likely. My gut bumps that up even higher, to 2200. Such a neural network would require incredible advances in neurophysiology and neurobiology; beyond what we have now and beyond anything that we're likely to have in 30 some years. Please note this: any strong AI is going to have a method of thinking and a brain that is alien to our own. We may well develop an AI program before we understand how the brain operates; this is likely plausible simply because we're approaching the problem different from how our brains were shaped by evolution. The results may be the same (emotions, logic, meta-thought, etc.), but the methods of thinking will be alien to our own.

Anyway, that leads into these accusations:

This is something that has struck me time and time again: The transhumanoids and singularitarians and online futurists love to congratulate themselves over their unflappability at the prospects of shatteringly onrushing changed futures. They literally have a whole “shock level” calculator, which is kinda sorta like a Cosmo sex quiz for pasty futurological males who think diddling themselves over cartoons of space elevators or descriptions of traversable wormholes demonstrates the awesomeness of their humanity-plus brains as compared to mehum (mere human) sheeple types.
First off, this is incredibly unfair. I am transgender To assume that I'm "a pasty futurological male" is offensive to the extreme. You're making unfair assumptions about me that are not accurate in the slightest - in fact, I likely have more of a tan than he does, by virtue of working outside as often as I do. Second, there's a lot of transgender people involved in the transhumanist movement; this opening salvo of assaults is no different than when the someone at the Free Republic attacks people who support marriage equality. You make broad assumptions about people who support something different from you, you attack them based on those assumptions, and then pat yourself on the back. Or better yet, it's what happens when someone from the Right "debunks" global warming. All of the "global warming alarmists" who take marching orders from Al Gore and are anti-American. Same "logic".

Put simply, my response to this article can be summed up with this: Fuck you.

I can't let it go there. Allow me to demonstrate my "awesome mehum" patience by putting Carrico in his place. Carrico doesn't know jackshit about transhumanism if he's lumping transversable wormholes in with the movement. Transhumanism is about human improvement and improvement of the human condition; not about finding a way to flip off Old Man Einstein on the way out of the atmosphere. I personally think transversable wormholes are a possibility - given the discovery of dark energy, which is causing the inflation of the universe by the creation of negative pressure and is something like 90% of the total mass of the universe, collapsing one or two Jupiter masses of it into a wormhole to hold the throat open is very plausible. It's certainly with the reach of a Type III civilization, if one exists. I'll blow your mind even further: I learned the other day about these things called Krasnikov tubes. Simply put, a Krasnikov tube fixes a couple of the major problems with the Alcuberrie metric, allowing for the creation of a tube of warped space behind a ship as it flies at subluminal speeds to a nearby star. On the return trip, it can use that tube to fly at superluminal speeds back; the tube warps space and, through applications of negative energy, causes the space to move faster than the speed of light. you just catch a ride on the space, but because you're not moving, you're not violating causality.

If that hurts your mind, you can create a literal time travel device by putting two of these tubes beside one another. No, I'm not sure how that works, either. Mathematics and physics and reality is fucking weird, okay? Oh, yeah, it doesn't require a lot of negative energy to create these things, either - something like a few grams - and it's well within the possibility of a Type III and may be one of the answers to the Fermi Paradox.

Both of the above are perfectly possible with mathematics, within faults (there's some controversy right now), although exactly how they'd be implemented is anyone's guess.

But because I think they're possible doesn't mean that other transhumanists have even so much as thought about these things. In fact, I surprise my fellow futurist friends all the time because they've even heard some of this stuff before. So no, to paint all transhumanists as that, and to say that all transhumanists are "x" and paint it as such is beyond unfair.

Oh, and about that space elevator: "This is no longer science fiction," said Smitherman. "We came out of the workshop saying, 'we may well be able to do this'".

It's not possible now, but in 50 years, it may very well be a reality.

He continues:
Frankly, many of the ideas are already there decades earlier, in Turing, Shannon, Weiner, Bush. Heck, Anne Lindbergh was already surfing the “Wave of the Future” (and it was already fascist) even before a victorious post-war America managed through the inflation of the petrochemical bubble and the imposition of the mass-mediated Culture Industry to “invent” The Future Gernsback and Madison Avenue and all our Presidents would peddle the planet long before Toffler and company would stumble on the obvious and re-invent the wheel as a profitable pseudo-discipline for the seventies, then Brand and company would do it again for the eighties, then WIRED and company would do it again for the nineties, then the various p2p and Web 2.0 enthusiasts would do it again for the lost Bush decade, over and over and over again, the same hopes, the same tropes, the same dopes on and on and on from WW2 to Star Wars to whatever (probably bombed out cities or a pointless polluted moonscape).
(And it was already fascist). I've talked about how this word gets mused. I'm not sure what his point is by including this, unless he's implicating that transhumanists are fascist. In which case, yes, Dale, this anarcho-communist is a fascist. Would you prefer a lesson what those words mean? Google is your friend. If that's what you're doing, you're no better than the TEA Party.

This is what the future-hype argument boils down to; they predicted it, and it never happened. Therefore, it's over hyped, and it'll never happen. People keep predicting it, but it never comes to pass, so therefore, it's not real.

Pop quiz! Who said this?
Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.
And this:
The (atomic) bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.
Any idea? I'll tell you at the end.

In the meantime, here's a few positions that I hold:

Human immortality is possible, through the application of biomedicine to combat aging. Because, ultimately, aging is like any disease - and it can be treated as such:
Purging a certain type of cell from the bodies extends life and decreases some of the diseases of aging in mice. You'd have to be Sarah Palin to see that this doesn't have implications for humans, within the next 10 or 20 years. This concept is called "biological immortality", proper, because it's still possible to die from a disease or accident. Wikipedia has an entire article on it, but the end of the article deals with human biological immortality. There's a few sources that are worthwhile but I can't open them on my desktop because Acrobat hates Firefox right now, so I'll just link you to the entire Wikipedia article: biological immortality.
Nanotechnology will have both immediate improvements and long term improvements on our society. This is already visible - nanotechnology, even in the primitive form that it's in, is letting us create stronger materials, faster semiconductors, and cleaner food and such. He brings up the nanofabricator, which isn't entirely fair given that such technology is really advanced nanotechnology and we won't be seeing anything like that for another 100 years at least. I ran into a similar problem when I tried to include a utility fog in the second Blue Pimpernel novel; a utility fog is too advanced a form of technology.

But it's possible. It will likely exist in the future.

Medical technology will continue to accelerate unless individuals convinced it won't happen join forces with people who don't want it to happen and keep it from happening. I'm confident in my prediction that we'll see life spans up over 120, with extended youths and the ability to look like you were 20/30 and feel like you were 30 well into your early 80s by the middle of this century. Women will likely have the ability to control their fertility without having to use a pill. We will have conquered numerous diseases, including cancer, HIV/AIDs, and a lot of other diseases. This is possible. I'm confident we'll see this by the middle of the century. I'm fairly confident that we'll see uplifting, too, but once that happens you can almost bet anything it'll be crushed by people horrified with "playing God."

I'm also confident if people like Carrico have their say, and they work with people like the Koch brothers and, by extension, link hands with the Religious Right against technology, we'll never see any of that and we'll see society go backwards. You can't have change if you don't allow room for it.

Really, Carrico's problem seems to be "everyone says it's going to happen and it hasn't, therefore, it won't." Allowing for a realistic timescale this stuff is very possible. No, we won't have seed AI within the next decade or even three decades, failing some kind of sociological and technological Black Swan (even then; it's entirely unlikely). But in 100 years? I can see it.

Will I be alive to see it? Depends. Medical technologies are advancing faster than any other field now, with biomedicine leading the charge. Before we achieve biological immortality, we'll achieve life extension technologies. People born today, or people born in the 90s or 80s, may very well be alive to see it.

Masked under all the sarcastic contempt that Carrico displays for transhumanists and the movement, and futurists in general, is a twisted Romanticism and Post-modernist approach. Those who are suspicious of science, rather than people who practice the science, and are willing to accept anything that flies in the face of the "standard" and "the man", are the same people who pioneered the Science Wars in the 1990s, which the Republicans and right-wing used to create their offensive against evolution and global warming.

Carrico does make one criticism that I agree with, but I don't think it applies that much to the transhumanist movement - he claims that people lose themselves in fantasy and it negates the need to vote and go out and make it happen. This is true. This is one of the reasons why I want to approach a science degree, simply so I can add "playing God" to my resume. But it is imperative that if you want something to happen, you have to go out and make it happen.

Or, at least, attempt to. It's not like society wants you to. After all, how many people laugh at you when you tell them it's possible to biologically immortal? The very same people who lose themselves in the latest antics of Snookie and whoever the hell else is the celebrity of the moment on TV? The science ignorant; those who were cheated out of a decent education in biology because fuck-head creationists want the whole world to believe their mad delusion that God created the world while the Sumerians watched on in amazement? They believe their faith should be put on the same level as fact and taught as such? This is a problem of an uninformed public. Doing it isn't enough; you've got to get out there and sell it to people. You've got to convince them that they're locked in a cave, and the sock puppets on the wall are happily lying to them so long as they continue paying to live in the cave. It's possible. It's likely. But it won't happen if people keep thinking it won't, and it won't happen if we don't get out there and make it happen.

Romanticism is backwards-head and wrong. Post-Modernism is destructive and stupid when you apply it to the real world. These two philosophies fuse well with either right or left wingers; it doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on.

I'm sure there are a few in the movement who don't have a realistic grasp of the time scales involved and they don't realize this stuff doesn't happen over night. But that's not the entire movement. And it doesn't mean they're wrong or that they failed - it just means that they were off. Was Arthur C. Clark a failure because he predicted geostationary satellites too early? No. He was just off. Was Jules Verne a failure because he predicted space travel would happen because the rocket would be shot out of a cannon? No. In fact, he was off by a few hundred years (see the concept of a "mass driver"). It is easy to get excited about this stuff. But you also have to remember that it doesn't happen over night, and if you don't know anything about development of technology, it's easy to jump the gun.

Frankly, I'll take that exuberant optimism over the staid, cynical, "well, they got it wrong so it won't ever happen even though it should in theory be possible" that Carrico is exhibiting here. Frankly, I feel there's too much cynicism in the world and it's hurting our ability to interact with one another and function as a cohesive group. I also wonder how much of it occurs via self-fulfilling prophecy.

Oh, and yeah, the quotes. Keep in mind Arthur C. Clark's first law:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
So, the quotes: 

The (atomic) bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.
Fleet Admiral William Leahy served as Chief of Naval Operations during the Second World War. Early in his service, he was stationed on the Tacoma and Boston, which were in Panama and were involved in the construction of the Panama Canal. He served during the war between Turkey and Greece, World War I, the Boxer Rebellion, and others, and became the Chief of the Bureau of Ordinance, and was appointed Chief of Naval Operations in 1937. The Bureau of Ordinance was involved in the production of aerial bombs at the time, and as such, if there was any opinion on the atomic bomb that would stand at the time, it was the Chief of such an organization - like Admiral Leahy.

Of course, we all know he was wrong. We spent the next 50 years under the threat of Kennedy's nuclear "Sword of Damocles" because he was wrong.

Now, as for the first quote. What brash, ignorant fool said that:
Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.
William Thomson was a physicist who lived from June 1824 to 1904, who worked at the University of Glasgow. He did a lot of work on temperature and thermodynamics, and in fact, the Joule-Thomson effect is one of the many, many things named after him. He coined the term "kinetic energy" and is also known for his studies in the field of Magnetoresistence.

Of course, you know William Thomson, OM, GCOV, PC, PRS, PRSE, better by his title: First Baron of Kelvin, a.k.a., Lord Kelvin.

So, if you buy the futurehype argument against technological progression, remember that you're in good company: Lord Kelvin explicitly said that air planes couldn't work and that radio has no future, and Leahy, an explosives expert who served in several worlds including both World Wars, said that the atomic bomb is impossible.

However, unlike many of the peddlers of the futurehype argument, Kelvin realized he was wrong about x-rays in 1896 and agreed to have his hand x-rayed after seeing Roentgen's x-ray machine. He still held out that aviation was impossible, however, and in 1902, predicted that no airplane or balloon will be successful. And that's the difference between science and religion; a willingness to accept that what you previously believed was wrong, and change your perception to match the new paradigm.

While I don't doubt that there are people who approach transhumanism with the level of enthusiasm that people reserve for religion, and treat it as a religion, there's plenty of people who are here that are patient and know that this stuff is possible in some form or another, and it's a matter of time.

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