Friday, February 24, 2006

Superlongevity is coming and it will be good

Superlongevity is coming, argues transhumanist philosopher Mark Walker, and it will be good.

In his recent paper, "Universal Superlongevity: Is It Inevitable And Is It Good?," Walker crunches the numbers and qualifies his claim.

He predicts that the initial preference for radical life extending technology will be somewhere at in the 30 to 50% range. He suspects that there will be some initial opposition in the first generation from those who are unaccustomed to it. However, writes Walker, for the first generation that grows up in a world where there are superlongevitists, the preference rate will likely jump up dramatically to about 80% or more.

Eventually, argues Walker, there will be fewer and fewer people over time who opt out of radical life extension. Consequently, there will come a day when the immortal will outnumber the mortal by a fair margin. "To the extent that it is possible to predict the composition of the future population of the world," writes Walker, "the most likely scenario is that (almost) everyone will choose to adopt technology to live hundreds of years, perhaps indefinitely. Further, ethically speaking, this seems like the best option for our world, for such a world is one where there are higher levels of happiness and achievement." Walker cites the philosophical perspectives of both welfarists (Bentham and Mills) and perfectionists (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Marx) to demonstrate that life extension is desirable to achieve both happiness and greater achievements.

Given that superlongevity is technically possible, and this is starting to look more and more the case with each passing year, Walker believes that our descendents will opt to use this technology and that it is, morally speaking, a good thing.

In terms of the inevitability of adoption, Walker dissects counter-arguments to radical life extension, including overpopulation issues and cost. He also tackles the issue of maintaining a population given the finite resources of our solar system. Walker writes:
As a long-term hope for the continuation of a mortal population, the obvious difficulty is that our solar system will support only so many persons (Bostrom, 2003). To support a single person requires some minimum quantity of matter and energy, and so at a doubling rate the resources of our solar system will quickly reach its carrying capacity. Looking speculatively to the future, we might imagine traveling to uninhabited solar systems as a means to continue the population expansion. However, even if some leave for other stars there is a finite amount of resources around this sun to underwrite such adventures, and for every such voyage there will be that much less matter and energy for supporting those that remain. So, even if intergalactic travel is possible, the finite nature of the resources of our solar system leads to the prediction that the number of inhabitants born in our solar system is finite. So, our model predicts that mortals will all but disappear from the local population around the sun.
Walker also addresses sociocultural issues surrounding superlongevity. There will come a day, for example, where there will be great tension for people when choosing not to suffer from some debilitating disease, and not wanting to opt for superlongevity. Eventually, given the maturation of life extending technologies, refusal to receive intervention will result in a self-imposed death, which may consequently be regarded as suicide. As Walker writes, "If we think of suicide as ‘voluntarily ending one’s own life’ then any death that results from refusing to use superlongevity technology looks like an instance of suicide."

Walker's paper makes for an interesting and provocative read as he touches upon most of the major issues. I would have liked to have a seen greater emphasis on the legal and constitutional issues surrounding superlongevity. When all is said and done, religious or cultural inhibitions will be trumped by individual rights and the rule of law (at least in democratic states).

Regardless, however, Walker's conclusions appear quite sound I would highly suspect that many of his predictions will hold true.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Futurist: the future of human-machine intelligence

The March/April 2006 issue of The Futurist looks very interesting (some of these articles can be found at KurzweilAI, or you can order copies):

Cover Story:
Reinventing Humanity: The Future of Machine–Human Intelligence
By Ray Kurzweil
Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil sees a radical evolution of the human species in the next 40 years.

Commentaries to this article are provided by development systems theorist John Smart, nanotech researcher J. Storrs Hall, cultural studies scholar Damien Broderick, and social critic and researcher Richard Eckersley.

Translation by Machine: A Bridge Across the Multicultural Gap
By David Belluomini
Growing diversity is a challenge in many U.S. neighborhoods. Technologies for overcoming language barriers offer hope for facilitating better communication.

At Home with Ambient Intelligence
By Patrick Tucker
In the future, your environment will respond to your needs and moods before you even know what they are.

Building Creative Communities: The Role of Art and Culture
By John M. Eger
The leading authority on information technology argues that cities must nurture the creative potential and community engagement of their citizens.

Cyberimmortality: Science, Religion, and the Battle to Save Our Souls
By William Sims Bainbridge
Research enabling you one day to archive and regenerate your memory, personality, and consciousness—giving you cyberimmortality—may meet resistance from religious groups arguing that the soul is a spirit, not a system.

A Timeline for Technology: To the Year 2030 and Beyond
By Ian Pearson and Ian Neild
What's ahead in technology, and what will it mean. This new timeline offers a glimpse of likely developments—and of how they may change our lives.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What would Jesus say about human enhancement?

I don't normally post overly religious or hyper-conservative arguments that are in opposition to human enhancement (mainly on the grounds that they are far too outside the conversation), but I just caught an article in Christianity Today that I just had to share.

In the CT article, "The Pursuit of Enhancement: The latest from Brave New Britain," writer Nigel M. de S. Cameron addresses the recent book published by the think-tank Demos, Better Humans: The Politics of Enhancement and Life Extension.

Cameron is quite unhappy with the people at Demos, mainly because they are calling for an open debate on the topic and the emergence of a politics of enhancement. Cameron is unconvinced that there could ever be a true politics constructed around the issue.

One of the fears that he expresses in the article is that Christians will "slide down the slope into the view that God wants the best for us." (that's right, we wouldn't want that to happen now, would we?)

Cameron goes on to explain himself. We are often told, he says, that God wants us healthy and wealthy. What could be better than to use our wealth to create super-health, and use the super-health to create yet more wealth, he asks. "For there is no doubt that 'enhancement' will be for the haves," writes Cameron, "and it will dig deeper the ditch between them and the have-nots."

Defeatedly, Cameron notes, "So let's have better babies, babies by design, and let's move on to redesign ourselves, using drugs and surgeries and finally reinventing ourselves from the genes and neurons up."

But the coup de grace of his article is in the conclusion:
"Can't see the problem? Well, when Jesus returns—Jesus the incarnate Son of God, the first-century Palestinian Jew, his flesh and blood glorified but still his own—when he returns in power and glory to call us to account, what will he find? Will he find faith upon the earth? Will he even find men and women? Or will he say, as he searches for fellow members of homo sapiens, the species he made in his image and took to be his own, and meets self-invented, designer beings, quite literally, "I never knew you"?"
Hmmm, I suppose that could be a problem for the Messiah when he returns, but I'm sure the new Jesus will get along with cyborgs just fine.

Like I said, far outside of the conversation. Far, far outside......

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Tolerating Bullshit

The measure of a free society is how much bullshit it's willing to put up with before it figures that the bullshit is actually doing some tangible harm -- and not just feelings being hurt. In other words, even a free society will actively manage the proliferation of potentially harmful memes by reprimanding those who perpetuate them.

The trick, of course, is in figuring out which memes are actually causing 'tangible' harm, to whom, how, and to what degree. And then a proportionality check needs to be done to determine the harm being done in turn by imposing censorship, limiting freedoms and incarcerating individuals.

I can only assume that the Austrian court who recently jailed Holocaust denying British historian David Irving concluded that the perpetuation of the "Holocaust denying" meme could result in it getting out of hand, which could in turn lead to increased hate and violence against Jews. Of course, such a conclusion would be extremely hypothetical and presumptuous, making their decision all the more problematic. In an offhand way, they're essentially arguing that memes will trump rational thought, empiricism, and due process; they don't want to give the ignorant and those who are easily swayed the benefit of the doubt.

If, on the other hand, they jailed Irving because Holocaust denial is a hate crime unto itself, then they are seriously violating free speech provisions and they have come to the wrong verdict. You can't put a guy in jail for being a revisionist historian, no matter how pathetic he may be as an historian or as a person. As it happens, Holocaust deniers tend to be right-wing wackos, but being the former doesn't absolutely imply the latter. Consequently, one cannot be committed of a hate crime by this kind of memetic linkage. It's conceivable that a Holocaust denier could be a very nice guy and friend to all the Jews, but at the same time a seriously misguided and hapless historian.

Taking this even further, revisionist historians cannot be jailed simply due to the fact that they posit alternative interpretations to historical events. Historiographers know this too well; the study of historical interpretation, known as historiography, is an established, credible, and absolutely necessary aspect of historical study. Historians study previous historians -- this is important so that interpretative re-normalizations that have taken place over time can be identified, as well as problems of biases, insufficient data, sampling errors, and lack of linear perspective. Monotone history is unacceptable for the same reasons as censorship.

Moreover, the designation of the Holocaust as a taboo subject for re-interpretation is grossly arbitrary. In addition to the Holocaust, why not also Stalin's Great Terror? There are enough Stalinist apologists around to jail -- why not them, too? How about the history of Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China? Or how about those Christian apologists who are trying to distance the church from the Inquisition, the persecution of scientists, and all its other injustices over the centuries?

Essentially, the Austrian court, with all it's good intentions to protect the Jewish people, has committed the same crime against free speech as those Muslims who are now railing against the recent inflammatory cartoons depicting Mohammed. From the perspective of maintaining civil liberties and our right to free speech, the Holocaust is no more beyond re-interpretation than Islam is removed from insult.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

The Left Hand of God

From Publishers Weekly:

"Named one of Utne's 100 American Visionaries, Rabbi Micheal Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, delivers an ambitious proposal called a "Spiritual Covenant with America." Before detailing his plan, he provides an extensive survey of American history and ideology, rife with examples of dominant and controlling attributes favored by those on the right (the "right hand of God") who believe in a frightening world replete with evil and ruled by an avenging God. This contrasts with what he considers the loving, kind and generous tendencies of those at the "left hand of God," who instead believe in a compassionate and merciful deity. These delineations occur on both sides of the political aisle - and not solely within one religion. Rabbi Lerner addresses both the "intolerant and militaristic" tactics of the political right and the "visionless... often spiritually empty" tenets of the political left with an even hand. His vision of a country devoid of poverty, homelessness, unemployment and uninsured citizens comes with an actual blueprint, in which Americans rededicate themselves to traditional values of love, kindness, respect and responsibility. Unfortunately, the rays of hope delivered in this impassioned proposal are buried in an often rambling and repetitive dialogue that may alienate those most likely to respond."

For more, read:

Finding Spirit Among the Dems Michael Lerner lays down a vision for a strong and successful Left -- but first it'll have to tackle its own demons.

Re-examining 'The Left Hand of God' Comments from our interview with Michael Lerner tended to reinforce his message: that progressives are having a heckuva time trying to understand the Right.

Technology Needs Democracy, Democracy Needs Technology

[via Amor Mundi] Over the years of my lifetime, conservative ideologues have seemed to frame their usual corporatist, militarist, deregulatory schemes more and more in apparently revolutionary terms. They seem to hyperventilate ever more conspicuously and insistently about their customary money-grabs and power-grabs in the faux-revolutionary cadences of "freedom on the march" and with faux-revolutionary visions of "free markets" surging, swarming, crystallizing, and well-nigh ejaculating the whole world over. And over these same years of my lifetime, the democratic left -- already demoralized, perhaps, by the failures of long-privileged revolutionary vocabularies -- seemed almost to sleepwalk into the rather uninspiring position of defending the fragile institutional attainments of imperfectly representative, imperfectly functional welfare states in apparently conservative terms. They have struggled reasonably but too-often ineffectually, spellbound with worry over the real harms to real people that have accompanied the long but apparently irresistable dismantlement of the social democratic status quo, such as it was.

This was and somewhat remains a problem for the radical democratic left. On the one hand, there appears to be an ongoing failure to take seriously the vast resources and breathtaking organizational discipline that can be mobilized by the real desperation of religious and market fundamentalist elites panic-stricken by global secularization and its threats to the traditional, parochial, and "natural" vocabularies that have legitimized hitherto their otherwise unearned privileges and authority. And on the other hand, there has simply been a failure of nerve and, worse, imagination in the fraught efforts to formulate an appealing post-marxist revolutionary democratic vocabulary that could inspire people to struggle for long-term general emancipation rather than short-term personal gain.

For me, of course, such a new revolutionary vocabulary would need to be a palpably technoprogressive one. It would consist of the faith and demand that global technological development be beholden to the interests of all its stakeholders as they themselves express these interests, that existing technological powers be deployed to redress injustice, ameliorate suffering, diminish danger, remediate the damage of prior and ongoing technological development (especially the legacies of unsustainable extractive and petrochemical industrialization), and finally that new technologies be developed to incomparably emancipate, empower, and democratize the world.

Conservatism cannot appropriate a technoprogressive vision, since any conception of progress that insists on both its technical and social dimensions will indisputably threaten established powers. But there is no question that conservatives will take up technodevelopmental politics for their own ends. Indeed, conservative military-industrial technophiles, neoliberal technocrats, and global corporate futurists already largely define the terms in which technodevelopmental politics are playing out in the contemporary world. Conservative technodevelopmental politics in its corporate-conservative mode will continue to insist that "progress" is a matter of the socially-indifferent accumulation of useful inventions to be enjoyed first and most by the elites with whom particular conservatives identify. And in its bioconservative modes conservative technodevelopmental politics will continue to indulge in daydreams of unenforceable bans on scientific research and of blanket disinventions of late modernity (trying all the while not to think too much about the genocidal die-offs entailed in such pastoral fantasies) on the part of deep ecologists and anti-choice activists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I believe that without democracy technology will likely destroy the living world, and that without technology democracy will likely wither into irrevelance and so destroy the human world. But I believe no less that a radical democratic politics of global technological development will likely emancipate humanity at last. Radical democracy needs to take up its revolutionary stance again, to gain and remake the world for us all before the world is utterly lost to us all.