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Life is Not a Science Fiction Story
Mike Treder   Feb 11, 2010   Ethical Technology  

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.

Space Station

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.

Terraforming Mars

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.

Global Warming

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…

Time Travel

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

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


the more exuberant types who expect that radical, wondrous changes are always just around the corner

Where are these “more exhuberant types”? Does anyone here expect that radical, wondrous changes are always just around the corner? Can you please raise your hand?

Nobody? Mike, could you take note? IEET transhumanist readers are different from your strawman.

I certainly don’t expect that radical, wondrous changes are always just around the corner—but I am persuaded that radical, wondrous changes can be achieved if we work at it long enough, hard enough, and smart enough.

“Many transhumanists are under the mistaken impression that the world they live in operates like a science fiction novel. It doesn’t.”

I think the only fiction here is that there are “Many transhumanists” that think change happens magically.

Reminds me of the U.S. Air Force propaganda:

:0] @ Mike

Whilst your points are more than valid and well expressed, you have noticed that the reasons that all these innovations you mention have not yet appeared is because of world politics and economics, and not merely for lack of technological expertise or innovative ideas?

There have been some immense advancements in computer science over the last two decades, and all these have been keenly adopted by world financial institutions to squeeze the last bucks and pennies from lightning speed transactions before someone else grabs it up : Money and competitive capitalism is still king. Do we in fact value capitalism higher than we do democracy?

Yet without capitalism could we ever hope to develop any of these innovations? : I can’t see world governments pushing for these ideals any time soon, as their priorities lay in preserving the status quo.

In the end it’s a matter for priorities not merely of practicality? Save people and nations from starving, from disease and poverty, improve world welfare or keep the world unenlightened and uneducated, keep ‘em thinking about their twittering trivia, throw ‘em the occasional mind-blowing movie to escape reality - and more importantly - keep ‘em engrossed in “self” and selfishness and individualism? Is this all just subtle misdirection and clever governance?

We all love good science fiction, especially the radical type that expresses the hidden dangers of mankind advancing too fast, too quickly. In fact without these thoughtful writers we may well have
blundered blindly and blown ourselves to bits already, or maybe even created our first demiurge to rule over us all, (and why do we strive for this anyhoo? Because, in the end, we have little faith in our own potential, and the potential of humanity, and we are just too darn lazy to solve half of these political and ethical problems for ourselves?)

What’s more important here is how the transhumanist community is planning to change the worldview, and direct world politics and ethics towards the consequences of all these technological goals and ideals? Even if half never do emerge or even fail, it is still important to face these possibilities rather than be caught short if they do become reality?

I’ve had these same thoughts Mike, although on a personal scale I routinely feel as though I am in a movie or science fiction story. 

An important tangent to your article is that gaps between unfolding reality and exuberant technological predictions may also be due to confusion between classes and instances (or particulars).  For instance, the fictional concept of the first sentient AI being the only one: Talking about a class of intelligence is different than the implementations of that class and what happens during the lifetimes of those implementations.  Technological concepts don’t actually change the world until they are instantiated and successfully docked with society or government.

Can you say straw man?  Who is this guy referring to?  Where are his legions of people who believe that science fiction is reality?  I have seen a few articles concerning “is science fiction a predictor of the future” that inevitably show that Star Trek tricorders (I think) are cell phone, doors can open by themselves, or if the Orwell world of 1984 has come true.  That is after the fact.
Wonder if his point is that we should not dream because someone might not agree with you or it may not happen in a life time?  Perhaps he is looking at the Raymond Kurzweil timeline for the Singularity with steps and points that should be met?
He should just stick with Religious folks as they have all the answers.  This article reminds me of an old man screaming “get off my lawn” to kids, or better yet don’t dream or hope.

... “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.”

Spot on ... and guess what, Mike ...I will use that sentence as my quote for the week.

.. is there anyone named “Bush” or “Blair” on that list?

Is it worth while to write science fiction stories that give the impression that change doesn’t happen magically?  Also, which is more misleading, a story say about mind uploading that makes it seem easy or a story that dwells on the expense and time involved and has the uploads have some limitations compared to regular people?  At first glance the former is more misleading but maybe the latter is more truly treacherous because it might slip more easily past peoples defenses.

@Mike: Case closed

Not really. For example, I purchased a cryonics contract some years ago, funded by life insurance, on the basis of my own evaluation of the scientific plausibility of cryonics. I think I know much more science than the average population, and I think the arguments of cryonicists are basically sound. As, I remember, you did a few years ago.

I am worried for you. You seem to have been infected by a contagious mind virus, propagated by a few well known useless PC idiots, which causes victims to view imagination as a sin, and dullness as a virtue. Why? I know you are smarter than that.

Back to cryonics: while I am reasonably confident in the technical feasibility of cryonics, I am much less confident in its <i>political<(i> feasibility. In particular, I fear that people like the useless idiots I was referring to, and other control-freaks of the nanny-state benevolent (?) dictatorship, if they come to power, will quickly throw all frozen bodies away.

Does all this really matter in the end? If some folks wish to place faith and belief in cryonics or any other life extension ideals, do they not have the right to do so, and in privacy without humiliation? I am not sure how much this costs, insurance or no insurance, and frankly I could not care less, but the point is.. folks have the right and freedom to spend their monies as they see fit.

I really get the impression that there seems to be some kind of a power struggle here at IEET, and what makes me think this? Perhaps it is the constant bickering over trivia, when all parties here, (regardless of their faiths and beliefs), should be aiming towards a common goal, (whatever that may be : and it beats me now?)

A little mindfulness would go a long way to achieving respectful dialogue and constructive debates. All I read now is people accusing each other of this and that, of political defamation, aspersions of career manipulations, and just blatantly slating each other for their contra-beliefs. Is this the example promoting the “New enlightenment”?

Now prove me wrong and that this is all just my imagination. (Please use something constructive).

I find it interesting that none of the technologies which have changed the world were mentioned. Things like microcomputers, cell phones, and even the internet have changed society in bigger ways than many science fiction stories have, and that’s not even accounting for huge social events such as the fall of the Berlin wall, 9-11 and other things which change courses mid stream. The problem I suspect is not assuming that technology will change things but in assuming that we are going to be able to accurately predict which technologies and how.

@CygnusX1 I really get the impression that there seems to be some kind of a power struggle here at IEET

Not a power struggle, but some chronic tension between radical transhumanists and moderate technoprogressives.

I have written about this tension, unnecessary in my opinion, here:

For me, the visionary and technoprogressive approaches can co-exist and even mutually reinforce, and the IEET must be a conversational space where both are represented and encouraged. Better health today, and post-biological life tomorrow.

On the other hand, some idiots out there keep saying that responsible technoprogressive citizens should not contemplate transhumanist visions and, with the thought-policing attitude typical of fundamentalist bigots, wish to ban transhumanists from technoprogressive interest groups.

Here, some people cultivate both practical technoprogressivism and visionary transhumansim.

Others, for reasons of their own, don’t miss any opportunity to pick on transhumanists, using a simplified strawman which exists only in their fantasy. This, I find annoying. Of course some transhumanists, like me, who never believed in offering the other cheek, feel the need to respond. But please note that the flow of “unprovoked attacks” is only one-way.

The IEET must be a conversational space where both visionary transhumanism and practical technoprogressivism are represented and encouraged. This is our unique, defining characteristic. This is the organization I joined as a founding member a few years ago, and I will do my best to keep it so. I recommend we work together on the many technoprogressive initiatives we all agree upon, and agree to disagree on unrelated personal preferences.

I am one of the transhumans who took away your pen, since you apparently cannot write in proper American English: if [something] WERE (not was). Kinda undermines your cred:).
I’m taking you back to a grammar remedial school.
The content is good, though.

@Mike: I also want to acquire mainstream leverage and get things done, but without renouncing my ideas. If the IEET were to become “respectable” by renouncing (or, even worse, denouncing)  its core transhumanist nature, I would prefer staying on what you call “the fringes”: a much more interesting place, and a lot more fun.

In my report on the First meeting of European Transhumanist Associations I wrote:

I don’t believe in “appeasing critics”, but in being true to one’s ideas and promoting them as forcefully as needed. Transhumanism is radical, disruptive, subversive, and revolutionary: so be it. Not kissing ass, but kicking ass.

Well said, Mike.

For those of you who are asking the identity of the straw man Mike refers to: chances are, he’s talking about you.

If you really have issues with what Mike is saying, perhaps you are a tad too zealous. Some of the articles and comments on IEET make this place seem like a techno-cultist granfalloon. Frankly, it casts the organization in a negative light, and it won’t help IEET achieve anything.

If your critics are potential sponsors, why not give them reason to believe in your cause? Could you explain what you mean by ‘kicking ass’?

I’m not suggesting that you resort to sycophancy, but I cannot see how kicking asses (in the traditional sense) will achieve anything but ostracism and perhaps a prison bid.

@Edward: If your critics are potential sponsors, why not give them reason to believe in your cause? Could you explain what you mean by ‘kicking ass’?

I am certainly willing to try persuading critics to support my cause, but I am not willing to give up my cause to please them. This is what I mean by kicking ass as opposed to kissing it.

Some of the articles and comments on IEET make this place seem like a techno-cultist granfalloon.

Don’t read these articles and comments then. I am certainly not going to stop saying what I think.

On the other hand, what about these plot-lines? 


‘Lone Genius Patent Clerk Completely Rewrites Physics in Revolutionary New Theories of Space and Time!’

1916: ‘Unknown Swiss Patent Clerk Albert Einstein has overthrown most of conventional physics in radical new theories showing that time and space can be curved, E=mc2, radical new theory of gravity charts fate of universe’


‘Failed Artist Ascends to Power in Germany…  Conquers Half of Europe and Nearly Succeeds in Taking Over World!’

1939: Unknown Austrian artist Adolph Hilter used never seen before techniques in oratory and propoganda to win power in Germany via a nationist ‘Nazi’ movement, completely modernizing that nation,  which proceeded to conquer half of Europe with radical new ‘Blitzkrieg’ warfare concepts and igniting a World War.


‘New Doomsday Weapon - Atomic Bomb - Wipes Two Japanese Cities From Face of Earth!’

1945:  ‘The US government revealed a secret ‘Manhatten Project’ where a small elite group of scientists in a few years created new doomsday weapons capable of destroying cities by harnassing the power of the atoms.  Two Japanese cities were obliterated instantly and World War ended.  US is now new global superpower’


Twin Towers Demolished, Pentagon Hit in Terror Attack!

2001:  Without warning, 4 US airlines were s hijacked simultaneously by a radical global terrorist organization: Two demolished New Yorks tallest buildings (the ‘Twin Towers’) and another took out a wing of the Pentagon, killing thousands and sparking Western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.


Wow, even denigrating cryonics now?  I thought that was something that transhumanists could agree on.

Not this what?

Will there be any important, revolutionary real world advances during this century that are missed by sci-fi authors and tech forecasters? Can reality beat sci-fi?

Mike is of course right. There are people living in a sci-fi fantasy world, where technological miracles are easy. Is this a large group? I don’t know, but the points are valid nonetheless. In real life any meaningful progress is hard, harder than any non-expert can imagine. That’s why I don’t trust the time lines offered even by the main stream, “conservative” transhumanists. Many a tech, when first conceived, was thought to be just around the corner, 3-5, maximum 10 years. In reality it often takes decades for any completely new tech to mature. If it’s not physically impossible, it will eventually get done, no doubt, but it may take orders of magnitude, 10-1,000,000 longer and more resources than expected.

D3V In reality it often takes decades for any completely new tech to mature. If it’s not physically impossible, it will eventually get done, no doubt, but it may take orders of magnitude, 10-1,000,000 longer and more resources than expected.

Agreed. Take the e-book technology and industry as an example. 15 years ago everyone could see it coming, and many people thought they printed book would disappear in a matter of a few years. Which has not been the case because of a) a relatively immature technology, b) lack of enabling technologies for deployment (now coming as Ipads, Kindle-like devices, large smartphones etc.), c) inertia of existing industries, d) social inertiaand e) the fact that the established tech (paper books) still offered a superior user experience in many respects.

But this is beginning to change now - the e-book industry has now entered its phase of maturity and acceleration, and it seems that by 2020 most readers in developed countries will read books and magazines in e-format on suitable devices.

So, we were right about what, and had exaggerated expectations about when. This is usually the case.

But as you say, If it’s not physically impossible (and, I would add, if enough people want it badly enough), it will eventually get done.

When it comes to the timeline for the more visionary transhumanist ideas (immortality, uploading…) I am more pessimist than most. Achieving operational immortality and uploading technologies will take longer, perhaps much longer, than we wish. But I am confident that we will eventually achieve them.

Mike, I agree that our primary focus at IEET should be on social and technological developments that we can already see on the horizon. This has always been my own position.

Once agreed on our primary focus on plausible short and mid term developments, I think there is nothing wrong in contemplating longer term, more speculative and visionary developments. Both attitudes can co-exist in the same person, and in the same group.

I usually agree with you on facts, strategies, and probable development timelines. We disagree on a single point: you seem to believe that we should appease our critics by becoming nice boys duly and humbly ashamed of our juvenile visionary ideas, while I, on the contrary, believe that our daring and solar visionary ideas must be cultivated and vigorously affirmed—not as a primary focus in policy circles, but as philosophical preferences.

About wild cards: I have been reading a lot about optogenetics and I think it could become an important wildcard.

Unless there are some wildcards, our future is going to be like today with just increasingly seamless and invisible technology, essentially the future we’ve already seen in sci-fi; like today with a whole lot more ambient intelligence and adaptation embedded in everything.

Luckily, the future has always had a couple of wildcards up its sleeve and this century will not be an exception, despite our increased skill at making predictions. If you’re a futurist/transhumanist you’re simply one who thinks that the best is yet to come. I see no reasons to believe otherwise.

I’m sorry but what exactly was the point of this article. All I read was you taking an opportunity to knock down a strawman or two and inform all of us that life isn’t a work of fiction, something most of us are very much aware of.

The only evidence you provide to support your point (which wasn’t even in your article) is that some people have purchased cryonics contracts and according to you “presumably all of them are transhumanists.  I haven’t taken a survey of cryonics customers but considering the fact that Ted Williams had himself frozen I’m gonna guess that more than a few wouldn’t call themselves transhumanists.  I question question your premise and your conclusion.

“In 20 years, thanks to nanotechnology, global warming won’t matter.”

I disagree with this statement, but I am interested in nanotechnology.

“A superintelligent AI will mean an end to politics.”

I disagree with this statement, but I am interested in a superintelligent AI.

“Emerging technologies will produce a post-scarcity society.”

I disagree with this statement, but I am interested in emerging technologies.

Too much black and white thinking. That’s what I’m complaining about.


First of all, basing an argument on “I know some people who” has never been an effective strategy.

That being said, I’ll grant you that some transhumanists may be over optimistic about the pace of new technologies and ignorant of the problems they have the potential to cause but your article read like someone saying, “You’re an idiot if you believe in anything transhumanism stands for.”

This discussion reminds me of a short story/chapter that Robert Nozick wrote for “Mind’s I” (ed. Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett):

He describes how we might think about life (and death) if we were living in a fictional story.  Food for thought…

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