On BioScience and Life and Such

Diving into Transhumanism III – Singularity

In Transhumanism on January 2, 2009 at 9:51 am

post to news.thinkgene.com

Endpoint: Become a Transhumanist or not (previous posts Epiphany: Transhumanism, – not ? and Diving into Transhumanism I and II).

The Singularity is defined by Wikipedia as : “a theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves”. Ray Kurzweil predicts that we will reach singularity in a couple of decades from now. He sees the law of accelerating returns for technological development (a refinement of Moores law) as proof  that this drastic endpoint is imminent. Kurzweil outlines the process in his book “The Singularity in near“. This post comments on the book and summarizes some of my thoughts on the singularity, which again will be pivotal in my own decision to embrace Transhumanism or not (next blog post).

Image from KurzweilAI.net

I am not going to discuss the concept of singularity itself as others have already done that extensively. The IEEE Spectrum Online’s special edition on Singularity is a recent example where several papers presents intelligent criticism of Kurzweils view on singularity:

The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting. – Glenn Zorpette, IEEE Spectrum Online.

Reading the book from a biology/biochemistry perspective I myself find a number of flaws in Kurzweils arguments. He clearly is not a biologist by training and his lack of knowledge in biology fundamentals, in my view, puts a dent in his predictions. An illustrating example is when he mislabels the E. coli bacteria as a virus (p. 392, 1st chapter, 3rd bulletpoint). This in itself is a minor error, and could easily be excused if it wasn’t for the fact that he throughout the book,  displays a lack of understanding of the complexity in biology. Which in turn leads to oversimplified solutions like the one for antiviral medications and treatments:

We have new tools suited to this task. RNA interference for example can be used to block gene expression. Virtually all infections (as well as cancer) rely on gene expression at some point during their life cycles (p. 422)

The basic biological fact is that all cells rely on gene expression, and consequently, simply knowing about RNA interference will not cure viral disease. Similar oversimplifications are displayed when discussing our brains  (the quote below is also a quote in the book, but Kurzweil voices similar views throughout his book):

….The brain is bad: it is an evolved, messy system where a lot of interactions happen because of evolutionary contingencies…….(Anders Sandberg, quote p. 143)

I am convinced as I have argued before,  that this brainy mess is a good thing and I most certainly do not think our brains are bad, – although granted, there is room for significant improvement. The problem with biology however, is that it sometimes is hard to predict what side effects such improvements can have (see this Sentient Development post for illustrative examples).  This last point is my major issue with Kurzweil’s time-line predictions.

That said, none of the things discussed above diminish the essential message in the book :

Only technology, with its ability to provide orders of magnitude of improvement in capability and affordability, has the scale to confront problems such as poverty, disease, pollution and the other overriding concerns of society today (p. 408).

More worryingly, oversimplification is sometimes combined with throwing caution aside.  I strongly feel that a warning is in place when Kurzweil argues towards speeding up medical treatment approval by loosening up FDA guidelines and regulations (p. 417). Safety should always be put first, regardless of the treatment potential. Deviating from this rule truly puts us at risk.

The complexity of biology and the much needed regulative process for approving medical treatments suggest that the singularity is further away than Kurzweil predicts. However, the timing is of minor importance. My conclusion from reading this book, and a personal revelation that has had profound impact on my view of the world, is that the singularity will come in one form or another. It may take a 4-5 decades or it may take longer – but, it is relentlessly approaching. And importantly, … we need to be aware of the far reaching social and ethical issues that lie ahead.

To me, transhumanism needs to be about how we can best prepare for the singularity. What I have to consider in my personal quest is whether the actions, life choices and political stands (that I as a member of the transhumanist society would have to adhere to) are the right ones for me and my consciousness.

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  1. Hey Nils,

    You say: “Safety should always be put first, regardless of the treatment potential. Deviating from this rule truly puts us at risk.”

    I wouldn’t go that far. There are many late-stage cancer patients who are more than willing to set aside safety concerns regarding experimental treatments when the alternative is an awful, inevitable death.

    More generally, it’s worth bearing in mind that the safety testing process costs lives too. Every year that an effective new drug is delayed by regulatory hurdles results in the deaths of tens of thousands of patients that the drug would have saved; every dollar spent by pharma companies in ever-larger clinical trials is one less dollar that can be spent on developing new drugs. In a world where the “safety first” mentality was taken to an extreme we would NEVER allow new drugs to be released, because there an infinite number of tests on an infinite number of sub-groups (e.g. obese, female, diabetic teenagers of african ancestry who are currently regularly taking paracetamol) that would need to be performed to rule out all possible harm.

    There’s a fundamental trade-off here: saving lives with new drugs requires taking risks. So the issue isn’t whether safety should be put first, but rather where exactly the line should be drawn regarding the level of risk that is “acceptable”.

  2. Daniel. I do not mean to say that safety should get in the way of new treatments, but rather that safety must serve as the primary guide to find out, as you say: “where exactly the line should be drawn regarding the level of risk that is “acceptable””. Of course there’s a trade-off but certainly not on your argument that “safety testing cost lives too”. It doesn’t ! – since the question is purely hypothetical ! An “effective” drug is not “effective” if it has devastating side-effects and hence you will not know if you have an “effective” drug until safety-testing is finished. Your argument that dollars spent on clinical trials could have been spent on research is not valid either, – cash is not a major problem for the drug industry, – more cash will not mean more research, – changing business models and restructuring the industry on the other hand……

  3. Hey Nils,

    Sure safety testing costs lives – it holds back some drugs that would otherwise be out there saving lives. At the same time, of course, it SAVES many lives by holding back some drugs that would otherwise be out there killing people. The balance between these two forces is determined by the precise form of regulation.

    And regulatory hurdles certainly DO discourage development of new drugs. You argue that “cash is not a major problem for the drug industry”, which may or may not be true (the recent mass lay-offs and general belt-tightening in the sector suggest otherwise to me), but TIME certainly is: pharma companies only have a limited window to market their products before their exclusive patents expire, and every extra year of safety testing means one less year to make back their investment in R&D. The more regulatory hurdles pharma companies have to jump through the less profitable new drug development becomes, pushing pharma towards re-formulating existing active ingredients (which are easier to get approval for) rather than developing novel compounds.

    I’m not saying that safety testing isn’t important – no-one wants to live in a world of zero-regulation anarchy – but rather that it is important to bear in mind that it comes at a cost, both in terms of lives lost by approval delays and reduced incentive for innovation.

  4. […] finishing Ray Kurzweils book “The singularity is near” I had some thoughts on why his predictions on timing was probably a bit off.  One thing I didn’t mention, […]

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