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Be afraid, be very afraid … not

In Transhumanism on October 26, 2012 at 11:13 am

In response to this post by my favourite catholic blogger (!) who writes:

Transhumanists will tell you that the enhancements they propose for the human race will always be “optional.” Freedom and choice are their mantra. Freedom to enhance ourselves and our offspring, or not. That is our choice.

In contrast, I have continually argued that transhumanism is by nature coercive. Once we begin to radically change our bodies and our genetics, everyone will have to follow suit or be left behind.

I do understand her concern, it is a valid one, and one that is very frequently encountered when disruptive technologies emerge. It is however almost always a minor concern it would seem if you use comparable technological advances in our recent past as giudeline-examples. Take cosmetic surgery. While cosmetic surgery when it first became available, was regarded as an enhancement, – it has never become “coercive”. The reason is simply that it is not considered an enhancement by everyone. And of all those cosmetic enhancements that are available, very few opt for all of them since preferences for physical appearance is extremely individual.

I believe other kinds of enhancements (intelligence, endurance, physical strength, charm or what have you ..) will follow the same pattern in the future. While one particular enhancement will be desireable for one individual, someone else may find it repulsive and choose either a different enhancement or none at all.

In my mind such a future encompasses more diversity and more choices for anyone to fix whatever is considered by them personally as impairments or obstacles to personal development. The ones “left behind” by enhancement-technologies will probably be those who had no particular need for them in the first place. Consequence of such a scenario: more equal opportunities. Which would be a gaping contrast to the fear-inspired scenario above.

Mary Meets Dolly will continue to be my favourite catholic blog (!) because she does voice the sensible opposition to some of the more far-fetched transhumanist ideas out there. But, those ideas are just that, – far fetched.

Transhumanism to me means having the positive potential of technology as a starting point. If you choose to always use the worst case scenario when considering future developments, you’ll end up going backwards.

Have no fear.

Honors to ….

In Transhumanism, Uncategorized on December 6, 2011 at 9:38 am

Professor Moran at Sandwalk who is relentlessly responding to (the same) intelligent design claims. It’s a battle that may never be won. Beliefs based on faith is impossible to argue rationally against. Converting them to science is doing it the right way – but, no doubt – the hard way.

English: Transhumanism H+ symbol Русский: Симв...

Mary Meets Dolly for fighting against transhumanism and human enhancement – even though at the root of transhumanism you will find improved artificial limbs and medical technology made to heal disease and improve health. Who is opposed to that ? Strange how religion justifies suffering.

The Biotechnology board in my home-country who keeps having conferences on how knowledge of our own genes is dangerous is so many ways – even though most of us live unharmed lives with most of our traits (inherited or not) exposed.

Temperature predictions from some climate mode...

To the environmentalist movement who keeps warning us about global warming . If nobody cares, then converting people to science may not be such a good idea after all. Could some divine force intelligently design us out of this mess or are we intelligently designed into it with no escape ?

To me for writing another blog-post even though blogging is dead.

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The Testosterone Project

In Transhumanism on March 12, 2009 at 10:58 am

post to news.thinkgene.com

A vial of the injectable anabolic steroid, dep...

Image via Wikipedia

I have reached a crossing point of (what feels like crucial) life events :

1) Reaching an age where a life crisis is acceptable, 2) failing in sports activities and 3) becoming a transhumanist (see previous posts Epiphany: Transhumanism, – not ?, Diving into Transhumanism I and II and Decision time, become a transhumanist or not).

Enter: Testosterone.

Without further ado, I am launching my personal testosterone project. However, since the whole idea of human enhancement is new (and still feels scary) to me, I’m going to take this slowly and stepwise, – with an option to pull out after each step.

My plan is to post as I go along. Here’s the project plan outline:

  1. Test my testosterone levels.
    – Done. Turns out I’m at the low end of the normal spectrum.
  2. If low (and yes it was low), then learn more.
    – This will be the topic of the next post. For those who would like some more background on testosterone therapy – go here (via Alexis Madrigal).
  3. If not to scary, find out how to get a hold of it. Options seem to be a gullible physician or the illegal substance market.
  4. If not too illegal, then get some.
  5. Try low doses.
  6. If adverse events acceptable, continue and report effects on blog.
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Decision time, become a transhumanist or not.

In Transhumanism on January 25, 2009 at 9:10 pm

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Ama-gi, an early human symbol representing fre...
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Endpoint: become a transhumanist or not (join Humanity +).

People often go through three stages in considering the impact of future technology: awe and wonderment at its potential to overcome age-old problems; then a sense of dread at a new set of grave dangers that accompany these novel technologies; followed finally by the realization that the only viable and responsible path is to set a careful course that can realize the benefits while managing the dangers. – Ray Kurzweil “The Singularity is near” p. 408.

After almost a year of personal (re)search and pondering, I find myself leaning more and more towards Transhumanist ideas and principles. My three remaining major concerns are:

1. Technology accessibility in the future. If technology is available only to the fortunate, then technology can easily be a source of conflict, death and destruction rather than an instrument for peaceful, prosperous and healthy living for all. Humanity + deals with this concern saying:

……everybody should have the opportunity to become posthuman. It would be sub-optimal if the opportunity to become posthuman were restricted to a tiny elite. Taken from here

2. A question that has been bugging me, and one that I feel the needed to find an answer to before calling myself a Transhumanist is

“why is something natural also regarded as something good ? – by default”.

And I think I have come up with (a somewhat unsophisticated) answer: Natural is good because many people (most of us ?) believe that we need to remain as self-sustainable as possible. Dependency on technology is just that….dependency, and that, together with lack of knowledge, may be what is scaring many of us. I do not however, feel scared myself, – and knowledge is out there to be grabbed by anyone….

3. The right to say no to technology. When it comes to medical genetic technologies, I have come to the conclusion that the single most important right is the right to say “no”. Freedom to say no to any technology must be an essential part of our technological future. To ensure personal freedom, but more importantly – to keep non-technological options alive – preserving diversity as well as potentially life-saving alternatives……The people that many transhumanists and singularitariens derogatorily label “bio-pundits” or “bio-conservatives” will be an important balancing factor in the future we are developing. Transhumanists do not have to agree with them, only respect their opinions and rights to make personal anti-technological choices.

Those three concerns out of the way, the only thing that remains now is to take the test leaflet to see if me and the Human + society is a match. Result:

7-10 points: You are a transhumanist. Go forth and share the memes.

I refuse to use the word meme, but be open about my transhumanist membership I will. One small reservation will be made in making this last quote my own…..:

………transhumanism is very diverse. It’s a phenomenon that may well look different in Italy (say) from how it looks in (say) California or Nairobi. Not only that, there may be considerable debate about the essence of transhumanism, or what is important to it, among different thinkers in Italy (or in California, or Nairobi, or wherever). Transhumanism is a cultural, social, and political movement with much internal variety and debate. –

And with that, I am filling in the form and joining the fold. I am officially a transhumanist.

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Diving into Transhumanism III – Singularity

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

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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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Diving into Transhumanism II

In Transhumanism on May 14, 2008 at 3:23 pm

Endpoint: Become a Transhumanist or not.

In the previous posts Epiphany: Transhumanism, not ? and Diving into Transhumanism I, I have introduced the Transhumanist philosophy as presented on the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) website. This post will look at some examples on how transhumanism translates into real life in the foreseeable future (the quotes are still from the WTA website).

Drugs

Life-events have little long-term impact; the crests and troughs of fortune push us up and bring us down, but there is little long-term effect on self-reported well-being. Lasting joy remains elusive except for those of us who are lucky enough to have been born with a temperament that plays in a major key.

Drawing from the (depressing and hopefully untrue) quote above and other potentially drug-promoting statements on the WTA-web, one would assume that the safe use of mood-changing drugs (and cognitive enhancing drugs) must not only be accepted beyond recreational use, but also recommended to everyone to achieve lasting happiness and increased mental capacity. The pitfalls here are more than obvious however, and the lack of a solution on how to avoid detrimental drug abuse is a major drawback. Drugs are meant to treat disease and the dangers of pushing for extended use in the general population are evident to everyone. If being a Transhumanist means pushing drugs to otherwise healthy people, I need to pass.

Artificial intelligence

Transhumanism promotes accepting artificial intelligence (AI) and supporting it’s widespread use. This I guess, could be a good thing. But, as I will come back to in a later post, many Sci-Fi scenarios are situated in a machine-run future where humans have lost control. The Transhumanist values seems to reject the possibility of such a development since one of the Transhumanist values is to give equal rights to future sentient AI machines.

Should future forms of artificial intelligence
become sentient, they would be entitled to
moral consideration. Nobody should be discriminated
against on the basis of their morphology or
the substrate of their implementation.

Like in the case of drug use, this is naive in my opinion. Is it plausible to believe that we in the foreseeable future can design sentient AI that display the compassion, care and love it has taken biology millions of years to develop. Such an advanced morality must be a prerequisite for equal rights. Reassuringly though, there is a section on the dangers of AI which shows that Transhumanists see the dangers of their own philosophy.

As the prospect of general machine intelligence draws closer, more thought needs to be devoted to working out the legal, ethi-cal, social, and security implications, e.g. to deter-mine under what conditions artificial intellects or copies of existing persons should be given property rights or voting rights, and whether new public poli-cies will be needed to ameliorate structural unem-ployment.

Infertility and Cloning

Any procedure to create healthy offspring is supported by Transhumanists. That means that widespread use of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and other assisted reproduction technologies (ART) is encouraged. On a positive note, I have already changed my attitude towards IVF based on my ongoing Transhumanism studies. But, to revert to the more questionable Transhumanism values, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) must also be supported (since the endpoint is a better, healthier human being) and worryingly for a lot of us, reproductive cloning is equally supported and encouraged. I have posted on the slippery slope of PGD previously, and it is no secret that I have have serious problems accepting extended use of PGD. On reproductive cloning It is argued that opposition to human reproductive cloning (HRC) can be described like this:

….objections to HRC are based on the “yuck factor” — it just “feels wrong” to some. But our right to control our own reproduc-tion, not to be told by the government what kind of children we should and shouldn’t have, is far too important to be determined by other people’s vague anxieties. We learned that from the terrible history of eugenic laws. Historically the same people who say that HRC is wrong said the same thing about IVF. Just as society got used to the idea of “test-tube babies” so we will also get used to the idea of cloning.

Now, it may be true that there is a “yuck factor”, but dismissing the rather unison opposition to HRC on account of this is not only arrogant, but also non-scientific and down right unintelligent. Of course there are plenty good arguments against reproductive cloning. From a biologist perspective I worry that genetic diversity will suffer if cloning becomes common. There are benefits to sexual reproduction. Thus, the evolutionary consequences of cloning could be devastating. In addition, there are plenty more, perfectly valid counterarguments, – here are some taken from Center for Genetics and Society:

1. Reproductive cloning would foster an understanding of children, and of people in general, as objects that can be designed and manufactured to possess specific characteristics.

2. Reproductive cloning would diminish the sense of uniqueness of an individual. It would violate deeply and widely held convictions concerning human individuality and freedom, and could lead to a devaluation of clones in comparison with non-clones.

3. Cloned children would unavoidably be raised “in the shadow” of their nuclear donor, in a way that would strongly tend to constrain individual psychological and social development.

4. Reproductive cloning is inherently unsafe. At least 95% of mammalian cloning experiments have resulted in failures in the form of miscarriages, stillbirths, and life-threatening anomalies; some experts believe no clones are fully healthy. The technique could not be developed in humans without putting the physical safety of the clones and the women who bear them at grave risk.

5. If reproductive cloning is permitted to happen and becomes accepted, it is difficult to see how any other dangerous applications of genetic engineering technology could be proscribed.

Their pro and con site has more on this issue, – worth reading. In light of these counterarguments it is very clear that WTA is on thin ice when they are dismissing the whole debate based on the “yuck factor”. This better not be symptomatic in their dealings with issues of this importance.

The disabled

I am ending this post on a positive note, since those who can benefit most from biology-enhancing/repairing technology are the disabled.

Disabled people in the wealthier industrialized countries, with their wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, novel computing interfaces and portable computing, are the most technologically dependent humans ever known, and are aggressive in their insistence on their rights to be technologically assisted in fully participating in society.

Any technology that enables interaction and inclusion in society whenever that would otherwise have been impossible, cannot possibly be opposed by anyone. But, the disabled must not end up as guinea pigs for tech-testing, and the right to refuse to adopt technologies must be central. Giving WTA extra points on this issue is this statement:

Just as we should have the choice to get rid of a disability, we should also have the right to choose not to be “fixed,” and to choose to live with bodies that aren’t “normal.”

Other cons for still considering Transhumanism includes their expressed intent to care:

about the well-being of all sentience

And most importantly, their open-debate approach to science and ethics. Not all emerging philosophies in history has had these as core values, and that may have been why so many of them brought about such devastation and human grief. If you on the other hand combine heartfelt intention to do good with open debate and a willingness learn from such a debate, you may have a winner…….even if your original views where completely off base.

More to follow.

Diving into Transhumanism I

In Transhumanism on May 2, 2008 at 7:34 am

Endpoint: Become a Transhumanist or not.

This first post records my introduction to Transhumanism. Emphasis is put on counter-arguments as the transhumanist texts can be as alluring as those of a religious sect. This skepticism creates an objective barrier protecting my feeble (subjective and feeling) soul.

On the World Transhumanist Association website theres a section called “Transhumanist values“, divided into 5 sections:

1. What is transhumanism.

It promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology

Both present and future (yet unknown or emerging) technologies are included. Also included are terms normally associated with Science fiction, like space colonization and the creation of superintelligent machines as well as cryonics. All this, while certainly sounding weird and strange, I guess is harmless. Harmful potential however, emerges from….

an evolving vision to take a more proactive approach to technology policy. This vision, in broad strokes, is to create the opportunity to live much longer and healthier lives, to enhance our memory and other intellectual faculties, to refine our emotional experiences and increase our subjective sense of well-being

These all sound like good values, but it’s important to note that they contain problematic issues like cloning, human sorting, drug use and abuse, and lastly, but most importantly, the hard to avoid increase in social/intellectual/health inequalities between those with resources to access the technology and those without such resources.

2. Human Limitations

The range of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and activities accessible to human organisms presumably constitute only a tiny part of what is possible.

Which is probably true. The goal is to increase access to these yet unknown layers of the universe. A mind boggling perspective, – and an intriguing one too.

It is not farfetched to suppose that there are parts of this larger space that represent extremely valuable ways of living, relating, feeling, and thinking.

It is equally not farfetched however, to assume that there are parts of this space which will prove to be highly unattractive, or even dangerous to us. Also as I will touch upon in later posts, the means of enhancing cognition have inherent dangers especially if drugs are involved.

3. The core transhumanist value: exploring the posthuman realm. The desired endpoint of Transhumanism is the “posthuman” being, which will probably be markedly different from our present existence. The time in between us as human beings today and the posthuman being, the world will be populated by transhumans. Foreseeing the features of the posthuman being and finding ways to get there, is what transhumanism is about. The labels that Transhumanism puts on these processes however, are only fancy names for evolution in a modern technology driven world. No need for a separate ideology to see that the future human will be different from he present one. Nevertheless this vocabulary can prove useful in discussions on ways to responsibly achieving a better future.

4. Basic conditions for realizing the transhumanist project. This section outlines the dangers of uncritically embracing progress in technology. Restricted access to the technology is mentioned as one danger, global security (where the need to ensure sustainable development is underlined) is another one. A new technology should not be used if it poses…

Existential risk – one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

And that is reassuring to me. Still, on a negative note, I do feel that this section on possible dangers is suspiciously short compared to the other sections.

5. Derivative values. For the individual, these are freedom, individual choice, education, critical thinking and open-mindedness. A caution is added:

In cases where individual choices impact substantially on other people, this general principle may need to be restricted, but the mere fact that somebody may be disgusted or morally affronted by somebody else’s using technology to modify herself would not normally a legitimate ground for coercive interference.

These are values I can easily identify myself with, but maybe one should caution also that individuals should be protected from themselves. Receptive, uncritical individuals lacking suitable knowledge in a given field will be in real danger when presented with hyped up inventions (personal genomics is an example). Common values on the other hand include research, public debate and open discussion. It is stated that collectively…..

We will need all the wisdom we can get when negotiating the posthuman transition.

How this wisdom is to be applied as a a normative social superstructure is not specified though, and this is clearly a challenge.

In summary, my impression of Transhumanism is divided between the still prevailing enthusiasm and (what I now find as) justified skepticism. It seems clear to me that the implementation of these ideas needs a solid, commonly accepted social framework to avoid negative repercussions. That said, such a framework may not be impossible to carve out.

More quotes to end this introduction:

“Transhumanism is a philosophical and cultural movement, not a religion. Transhumanism does not offer answers about the ultimate purpose and nature of existence, merely a philosophical defense of humanity’s right to control its own evolution. Consequently the transhumanist philosophical stance is compatible with humanist interpretations of the world’s religions.

On the other hand, transhumanism is generally a naturalistic outlook and most transhumanists are secular humanists. Although scientific rationalism forms the basis for much of the transhumanist worldview, transhumanists recognize that science has its own fallibilities and imperfections, and that critical ethical thinking is essential for guiding our conduct and for selecting worthwhile aims to work towards. Religious fanaticism, superstition, and intolerance are not acceptable among transhumanists.”

The following posts will dive deeper into the depths and specifics of the philosophy. And the final decision on becoming a Transhumanist or not still remains…….

Epiphany: Transhumanism, – not ?

In Transhumanism on April 30, 2008 at 3:19 pm

While this may be old news for some, it’s a revelation to me. I just discovered another -ism, “Transhumanism”:

……………..radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering, and augmentation of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities…….

…………This affirmation of human potential is offered as an alternative to customary injunctions against playing God, messing with nature, tampering with our human essence, or displaying punishable hubris…….

Transhumanism” apparently began in 1998 (founded by two philosophers) and it is all about how we relate to (the promise of) technology. It is especially relevant to our perception of modern biology and biomedicine.

The concept is extremely intriguing: – why not use technology to transcend biology and all become super-human.

…..OK…..

But then again, …Super human ? all of us ???

Surely, some must loose out and surely, technology must have limitations we cannot overcome.

Well, I am going to turn a blind eye on these objections and dive into Transhumanism ideology with a skeptic, but open mind.

I will start out by exploring the World Transhumanist Association website. Then I will move on to a book published in 2005 by Raymond Kurzweil where apparently, much of the ideological inspiration behind Transhumanism can be found.

Many other books have been published on the subject and in the periphery of this ideology one can find writings by Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Marie Curie and Stephen Hawking. Thus, there should be plenty to pick from and a lot to cover.

While I am on this personal mind-trip, I am going to write (several) blog posts documenting my thoughts. Since the possible consequences of all of us becoming super-beings are scary and at the same time wonderful, I believe this is going to be a (bumpy) ride. I would appreciate greatly if you want to follow me into this (mine)field of near sci-fi ideology and comment on my findings.

Let’s start with some quotes, all from The World Transhumanist Association web site:

“Transhumanism is more than just an abstract belief that we are about to transcend our biological limitations by means of technology; it is also an attempt to re-evaluate the entire human predicament as traditionally conceived.”
Nick Bostrom, “What is Transhumanism” (1998).

…..and…..

“‘I believe in transhumanism’: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”
Julian Huxley “Transhumanism,” in New Bottles for New Wine 1957

….and…..

“The Singularity [human-surpassing machine intelligence] is a frightening prospect for humanity. I assume that we will somehow dodge it or finesse it in reality. One way to do that is to warn about it early and begin to build in correctives.”
Stewart Brand

More to follow……….