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Review of ‘Against Transhumanism’ by Richard Jones

Giulio Prisco

Turing Church

January 25, 2016

Physicist Richard Jones, author of the (highly recommended) nanotechnology book “Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life” and editor of the Soft Machines blog, has written a short book provocatively titled “Against Transhumanism – The delusion of technological transcendence.” The book, an edited compilation of essays previously published on Soft Machines and IEEE Spectrum, is free to download.

It’s not that unusual for outspoken anti-transhumanists to show a crystal clear understanding of transhumanism. Francis Fukuyama denounced transhumanism as “the most dangerous idea in the world” in an influential 2004 article in the Foreign Policy magazine.

“As ‘transhumanists’ see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species,” noted Fukuyama. That’s a clear and good definition of transhumanism, one of the best that I have seen.

Jones, like Fukuyama, understands transhumanism. Chapter 2 of the book, titled “The strange ideological roots of transhumanism,” outlines the Marxist and Christian roots of transhumanism in the works of Russian Cosmists (e.g. Tsiolovsky, Fedorov) and British Marxists (e.g. Bernal, Haldane). See my review of the chapter and my related essays “The Russian Cosmists” and “John D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a transhumanist classic.”

Jones considers transhumanism as essentially spiritual and religious, a view shared by Robert Geraci in “Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality” and (at times) Ray Kurzweil himself, who said that we can regard “the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.”

Chapter 3, dedicated to nanotechnology, criticizes Drexler’s vision of self-replicating molecular nanotechnology (see my essay “The nanobots are coming back“). Jones doesn’t deny the feasibility in-principle of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) – he acknowledges that biology proves the feasibility of molecular nanotech – but underlines the huge challenges ahead. “Of course, none of these issues constitutes a definitive proof that the MNT route will not work,” he says. “But they certainly imply that the difficulties of implementing this program are going to be substantially greater than implied by [its proponents].”

“My own view is that radical nanotechnology will be developed, but not necessarily along the path proposed by Drexler,” said Jones in the Soft Machines book. “I accept the force of the argument that biology gives us a proof in principle that a radical nanotechnology, in which machines of molecular scale manipulate matter and energy with great precision, can exist. But this argument also shows that there may be more than one way of reaching the goal of radical nanotechnology.”

Jones’ thesis is that, while Drexlerian “mechanical” nanotech designs must work against nanoscale physics, biological evolution has found powerful ways to take advantage of the same nanoscale physics – a superior design approach. I think molecular nanotech will be eventually combine mechanical nanotech, wet bio-inspired engineering, and other approaches that somebody will think of.

In Chapter 4, Jones presents arguments against mind uploading but acknowledges that mind uploading might eventually be possible. “[Mind] uploading being impossible in principle [is] a conclusion I suggest only very tentatively,” he says “But there’s nothing tentative about my conclusion that if you are alive now, your mind will not be uploaded. What comforts does this leave for those fearing oblivion and the void, but reluctant to engage with the traditional consolations of religion and philosophy?”

I am in total agreement with Jones about mind uploading technology being very unlikely to be developed in useful time for those alive now. I consider both molecular nanotechnology and mind uploading as feasible in-principle and likely to be achieved by our grandchildren, or theirs, but I find Jones’ predictions more plausible than Kurzweil’s.

Jones mentions hope in cryonics and radical life extension as a mental strategy that transhumanists use to cope with the idea of death. I propose a Cosmist Third Way (described by Disinfo as “An Afterlife For Atheists” and by Motherboard as “The Religion of the Future“) as a better coping strategy.

I think we transhumanists should realize that molecular nanotech, superintelligent AI, mind uploading, interstellar travel and all that aren’t arriving anytime soon, and find coping strategies. My coping strategy, openly religious, is to think of future technologies able to resurrect the dead from the past with advanced science, space-time engineering and “time magic.” So I don’t fear death too much and I can enjoy the slow hike to the future.

“[The] tantalising possibility remains that we will truly learn to harness the unfamiliar quantum effects of the nanoscale to implement true quantum computing and information processing,” says Jones in Chapter 3 on nanotech, but he warns that the quantum aspects of nanoscale physics make molecular nanotech very challenging. Similarly, in Chapter 4 on mind uploading, Jones argues that the random quantum behavior of matter at the nanoscale poses significant conceptual problems for mind uploading. I disagree, but the discussion is interesting.

Chapter 5 echoes Dale Carrico’s views and can be summarized as Carrico minus insults. A difference between Jones and Carrico is that, while Carrico sticks to personal insults, Jones addresses the technical arguments proposed by transhumanist scientists in support of futuristic technologies like molecular nanotechnology and mind uploading. Another difference is that Jones acknowledges the good arguments of his opponents, and tries not to look like a fool.

OK, I will admit that I found Jones’ book via Carrico’s blog, of which I am an avid reader. I find Carrico’s blog interesting and often fun, especially when he insults me – I remember laughing for 10 minutes non-stop reading a particularly fun series of insults against me a few years ago. Carrico is an asshole, but one with a sense of humor, and he says intelligent things when he forgets being an asshole. Note: Dale hasn’t been insulting me much recently, I guess we are getting old.

Jones’ translation of Carrico’s views into reasonable arguments and polite language is likely to be taken more seriously than the original. The book is called “Edition 1.0,” and I look forward to reading future editions.

Replies to especially interesting points in Jones’ book.

“[Contrary] to the technological determinism espoused by the transhumanists, technologies don’t develop themselves.”

Technological determinism is not as common among transhumanists as Jones thinks. We (that is, I and similarly inclined transhumanists) don’t make predictions, but plans. It isn’t a predetermined outcome fixed in stone, it’s a project. “Will” is not used in the sense of inevitability, but in the sense of intention: we want to do this, we are confident that we can do it, and we will do our fucking best to do it.

“I think the brain is a computer, by the way, but it’s a computer that’s so different to manmade ones, so plastic and mutable, so much immersed in and responsive to its environment, that comparisons with the computers we know about are bound to be misleading.”

I don’t know anyone who seriously thinks that the brain is similar to today’s computers, perhaps powered by Intel 20ium and Nvidia JupiterForce, and running Windows 30. That is a restrictive and unnecessary assumption. The brain is a computer in the sense that it is a physical system that follows physical laws. Once these laws are well understood and engineers are able to reproduce the key physical features of the neural substrate, there’s no reason mind uploading shouldn’t be feasible. If a conscious mind can run only on a substrate with certain specific properties, then we will have to engineer substrates with the same specific properties to upload minds. (More…)

“It seems to me that all the agonising about whether the idea of free will is compatible with a brain that operates through deterministic physics is completely misplaced, because the brain just doesn’t operate through deterministic physics… The molecular basis of biological computation means that it isn’t deterministic, it’s stochastic, it’s random. This randomness isn’t an accidental add-on, it’s intrinsic to the way molecular information processing works.”

This is the most interesting part of Jones’ book. That the brain doesn’t operate through deterministic physics is trivially true if fundamental quantum physics isn’t deterministic. However, perhaps quantum physics is not only present as random background noise but plays a strong fundamental role in how the brain’s wetware generates consciousness. If consciousness depends critically on subtle quantum aspects of  our neural circuitry, not present in silicon electronics, then we wouldn’t be able to upload a mind to a silicon computer. If so, we will have to develop alternative substrates that exhibit the key quantum properties found (actually not yet found) in carbon-based biology. Jones doesn’t think we need fundamentally new physics to understand the brain-mind system, but I’m not so sure.

“Radical ideas like mind uploading are not part of the scientific mainstream, but there is a danger that they can still end up distorting scientific priorities… I think computational neuroscience will lead to some fascinating new science, but you could certainly question the proportionality of the resource it will receive compared to, say, more experimental work to understand the causes of neurodegenerative diseases.”

Any opinion “distorts” scientific priorities. But the term “influence” is more appropriate than “distort” in this case, and the right of citizens (including transhumanists) to influence public policy decisions is called democracy. I don’t think transhumanist research should receive disproportionate public funding at the expense of more urgent priorities, but appropriate resources should continue to be allocated to highly speculative science and technology driven by curiosity and visionary imagination, because history shows that’s the way to get good things done. Scouts don’t cost too much and come back with useful findings.

“Carrico sees a eugenic streak in both mindsets [transhumanist and bioconservative], as well as an intolerance of diversity and an unwillingness to allow people to choose what they actually want. It’s this diversity that Carrico wants to keep hold of, as we talk, not of The Future, but of the many possible futures that could emerge from the proper way democracy should balance the different desires and wishes of many different people.”

Of course democracy should balance the different desires and wishes of many different people – including transhumanists. It is Carrico who is intolerant of diversity and unwilling to allow people to choose what they actually want. Of course Carrico is a rhetorician with no power to enforce conformity, and at times he says intelligent things in a fun way, but the fact remains that he doesn’t tolerate dissent and claims the right to tell people what they must think and what they must want. I enjoy reading Carrico (who used to be a transhumanist himself a few years ago), but his views are entirely motivated by hatred of libertarianism. Like many American liberals, Carrico sees only the fake libertarianism of guns and predatory capitalism and ignores the real libertarianism of self-ownership and personal rights (of which transhumanism is an expression), but Jones should know better.

“For Carrico, transhumanism distorts the way we think about technology, it contaminates the way we consider possible futures, and rather than being radical it is actually profoundly conservative in the way in which it buttresses existing power structures… [Tranhumanism]/singularitarianism constitutes the state religion of Californian techno-neoliberalism, and like all state religions its purpose is to justify the power of the incumbents.”

See above about “distorts.” There’s something true here, but Carrico and Jones see only one side of the coin. Of course the incumbents are powerful and ready to take advantage of all trends, for example they are trying to turn the Internet into a tool for mass spamming, surveillance and mind control, and Bitcoin into a tool of the banks. But others are trying to find ways to use technology to give more power back to the people, and I think it’s more appropriate to consider transhumanism as their “state religion.” Here again, Carrico and Jones conflate very different aspects of libertarianism, bad ones and good ones, and throw away the baby with the water.

Image from Transcendence, a recent transhumanist film featuring mind uploading and molecular nanotech.

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.


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