Many transhumanists are under the mistaken impression that the world they live in operates like a science fiction novel. It doesn’t.
This cognitive confusion seems to underlie some of the conflicts between moderate technoprogressives, like me, and the more exuberant types who expect that radical, wondrous changes are always just around the corner—because they read it in a book.
Don’t get me wrong. I love reading science fiction. I find it fascinating, compelling, mind-expanding, and occasionally even well-written. But I try to remember the second word in that genre description: fiction.
You see, the real world is not a story. It is not designed to be easily understood, to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It doesn’t have a moral. It cannot be edited to improve clarity and flow.
The actual world we inhabit is complex, confused, arbitrary, random, chaotic, contingent, and messy. It’s hardly the stuff of a best-selling novel, or at least not the kind that seems to incite such zeal among transhumanists who believe that what they read in a book or saw in a movie must be true.
No, if real life was a science fiction story, it would be very different.
If life was a science fiction story, then we would long ago have built bases on the Moon, and huge space stations would orbit the Earth. Instead, we have a handful of people sitting inside a cramped, smelly, recycled garbage can that we call the International Space Station. And the Moon has not felt a human footprint since 1972.
If life was a science fiction story, we already would be making serious plans to convert the planet Mars into a pleasant, inviting, new home for humans. Massive funding would be available, the science would be comparatively simple, and the needed technologies would be obvious and easily developed. But life is not a science fiction story. The science of terraforming is difficult and contentious, the technology is dauntingly expensive, the politics of funding and decision-making are fraught with distractions, and so Mars just sits there. And nothing will happen for a long, long time.
If life was a science fiction story, maverick genius scientists would be able to create powerful new technologies in their basement laboratories. Disrespected by their peers, they would go off on their own—assisted only by pimply geeks wearing glasses and beautiful blonde reporters who stumble onto the scene and fall in love with the protagonists—and they would do what the others said couldn’t be done. They would invent it and prove the doubters and naysayers wrong. But life is not a science fiction story. Such things don’t happen in the real world. Nanotechnology (or bioengineering, or computer intelligence, or whatever) is instead a slow, laborious, painstaking process that features many more failures than successes, many more dead ends than discoveries, and far too many boring, step-by-agonizing-step procedures to make a good novel.
If life was a science fiction story, glaciers would melt a lot faster than they do in the real world, sea levels would rise at a visible rate, and mega-hurricanes would form over the Atlantic so convincingly on radar screens that everyone would be forced to admit the scientists were right all along. In real life, of course, things are not so simple. Although the evidence is plain to anyone who examines it with an open mind, there is enough vagueness and noise within the data—science being what it is—to give room for skeptics to mount a campaign of distortion and obfuscation. Glaciers are melting, of course, and average temperatures continue to rise (we’ve just completed the warmest decade in history), but because we’re not living in a science fiction story, there will be no sudden plot twist to change everything and hasten a dramatic conclusion. We will just continue to see arguments and counter-arguments and political stasis, and not nearly enough concerted action.
If life was a science fiction story, giant banks of blinking mega-computers would unite in a misguided directive to save humans from themselves by taking control of all nuclear arsenals. It would be a totalitarian nightmare! But just in time, one boy would arrive to outsmart the smartest computer and save the day. Whew! In real life, meanwhile, supercomputers continue to grind away working dispassionately (and mindlessly) on various disparate projects, which may or may not be of benefit to most of us, but which certainly don’t make for a very compelling story.
If life was a science fiction story, then human-equivalent artificial intelligence would have been achieved by now (remember, it’s been less than ten years away for the last fifty years) and it would be guiding us on a manned mission to Jupiter. Except that we wouldn’t be able to trust the AI from going nuts and trying to kill us since it apparently wasn’t programmed to be friendly. But that is only a story and not real life.
If life was a science fiction story, the first and only instance of artificial general intelligence would immediately begin to rewrite and improve its own source code, would seize the means of manufacturing and energy production, and would instigate such rapid advances in computing and everything else that the world as we know it would almost immediately cease to exist! Since life is not a story, however, it seems almost inevitable that the development of AI will take a more mundane course and that any discernible Technological Singularity will proceed slowly enough that humans will somehow muddle through. Ho-hum.
Have I made my point? Can you see the huge differences between the science fictional world and the actual world?
Let me give one more example…
If life was a science fiction story, transhumans of the future would be so angered by my cynicism that they would construct a time machine, come back to 2010, and stop me from writing in mid-sente