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Archive for the ‘theory’ category

Feb 11, 2017

Value Conflicts surrounding the Meaning of Life in the Trans/Post/Human Future

Posted by in categories: biological, cryonics, cyborgs, economics, environmental, ethics, futurism, governance, health, homo sapiens, law, mobile phones, policy, posthumanism, security, theory, transhumanism

Posthumanists and perhaps especially transhumanists tend to downplay the value conflicts that are likely to emerge in the wake of a rapidly changing technoscientific landscape. What follows are six questions and scenarios that are designed to focus thinking by drawing together several tendencies that are not normally related to each other but which nevertheless provide the basis for future value conflicts.

  1. Will ecological thinking eventuate in an instrumentalization of life? Generally speaking, biology – especially when a nervous system is involved — is more energy efficient when it comes to storing, accessing and processing information than even the best silicon-based computers. While we still don’t quite know why this is the case, we are nevertheless acquiring greater powers of ‘informing’ biological processes through strategic interventions, ranging from correcting ‘genetic errors’ to growing purpose-made organs, including neurons, from stem-cells. In that case, might we not ‘grow’ some organs to function in largely the same capacity as silicon-based computers – especially if it helps to reduce the overall burden that human activity places on the planet? (E.g. the brains in the vats in the film The Minority Report which engage in the precognition of crime.) In other words, this new ‘instrumentalization of life’ may be the most environmentally friendly way to prolong our own survival. But is this a good enough reason? Would these specially created organic thought-beings require legal protection or even rights? The environmental movement has been, generally speaking, against the multiplication of artificial life forms (e.g. the controversies surrounding genetically modified organisms), but in this scenario these life forms would potentially provide a means to achieve ecologically friendly goals.

  1. Will concerns for social justice force us to enhance animals? We are becoming more capable of recognizing and decoding animal thoughts and feelings, a fact which has helped to bolster those concerned with animal welfare, not to mention ‘animal rights’. At the same time, we are also developing prosthetic devices (of the sort already worn by Steven Hawking) which can enhance the powers of disabled humans so their thoughts and feelings are can be communicated to a wider audience and hence enable them to participate in society more effectively. Might we not wish to apply similar prosthetics to animals – and perhaps even ourselves — in order to facilitate the transaction of thoughts and feelings between humans and animals? This proposal might aim ultimately to secure some mutually agreeable ‘social contract’, whereby animals are incorporated more explicitly in the human life-world — not as merely wards but as something closer to citizens. (See, e.g., Donaldson and Kymlicka’s Zoopolis.) However, would this set of policy initiatives constitute a violation of the animals’ species integrity and simply be a more insidious form of human domination?

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Feb 6, 2017

Quantum principles and human bio system to enhance its abilities

Posted by in categories: bioengineering, biological, biotech/medical, complex systems, disruptive technology, DNA, quantum physics, singularity, Singularity University, telepathy, theory, thought controlled, transhumanism

Recent evidence suggests that a variety of organisms may harness some of the unique features of quantum mechanics to gain a biological advantage. These features go beyond trivial quantum effects and may include harnessing quantum coherence on physiologically important timescales.

Quantum Biology — Quantum Mind Theory


Sep 25, 2016

Marshall McLuhan full lecture: The medium is the message — 1977

Posted by in categories: media & arts, theory

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Sep 21, 2016

A Free Education for all the World’s People: Why is this Not yet a Thing?

Posted by in categories: education, ethics, internet, open access, open source, philosophy, policy, theory

When we as a global community confront the truly difficult question of considering what is really worth devoting our limited time and resources to in an era marked by such global catastrophe, I always find my mind returning to what the Internet hasn’t really been used for yet—and what was rumored from its inception that it should ultimately provide—an utterly and entirely free education for all the world’s people.

In regard to such a concept, Bill Gates said in 2010, “On the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world […] It will be better than any single university […] No matter how you came about your knowledge, you should get credit for it. Whether it’s an MIT degree or if you got everything you know from lectures on the web, there needs to be a way to highlight that.”

That may sound like an idealistic stretch to the uninitiated, but the fact of the matter is universities like MIT, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, The European Graduate School, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and other international institutions have been regularly uploading entire courses onto YouTube and iTunes U for years. All of them are entirely free. Open Culture, Khan Academy, Wikiversity, and many other centers for online learning also exist. Other online resources have small fees attached to some courses, as you’ll find on edX and Coursea. In fact, here is a list of over 100 places online where you can receive high quality educational material. The 2015 Survey of Online Learning revealed a “Multi-year trend [that] shows growth in online enrollments continues to outpace overall higher ed enrollments.” I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group points out that “The study’s findings highlight a thirteenth consecutive year of growth in the number of students taking courses at a distance.” Furthermore, “More than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course (a total of 5,828,826 students, a year‐to‐year increase of 217,275).” There are so many online courses, libraries of recorded courses, pirate libraries, Massive Open Online Courses, and online centers for learning with no complete database thereof that in 2010 I found myself dumping all the websites and master lists I could find onto a simple Tumblr archive I put together called Educating Earth. I then quickly opened a Facebook Group to try and encourage others to share and discuss courses too.

The volume of high quality educational material already available online is staggering. Despite this, there has yet to be a central search hub for all this wonderful and unique content. No robust community has been built around it with major success. Furthermore, the social and philosophical meaning of this new practice has not been strongly advocated enough yet in a popular forum.

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Aug 24, 2016

Steve Fuller’s Review of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Posted by in categories: big data, bioengineering, biological, bionic, cyborgs, disruptive technology, energy, evolution, existential risks, futurism, homo sapiens, innovation, moore's law, neuroscience, philosophy, policy, posthumanism, robotics/AI, science, singularity, theory, transhumanism

My sociology of knowledge students read Yuval Harari’s bestselling first book, Sapiens, to think about the right frame of reference for understanding the overall trajectory of the human condition. Homo Deus follows the example of Sapiens, using contemporary events to launch into what nowadays is called ‘big history’ but has been also called ‘deep history’ and ‘long history’. Whatever you call it, the orientation sees the human condition as subject to multiple overlapping rhythms of change which generate the sorts of ‘events’ that are the stuff of history lessons. But Harari’s history is nothing like the version you half remember from school.

In school historical events were explained in terms more or less recognizable to the agents involved. In contrast, Harari reaches for accounts that scientifically update the idea of ‘perennial philosophy’. Aldous Huxley popularized this phrase in his quest to seek common patterns of thought in the great world religions which could be leveraged as a global ethic in the aftermath of the Second World War. Harari similarly leverages bits of genetics, ecology, neuroscience and cognitive science to advance a broadly evolutionary narrative. But unlike Darwin’s version, Harari’s points towards the incipient apotheosis of our species; hence, the book’s title.

This invariably means that events are treated as symptoms if not omens of the shape of things to come. Harari’s central thesis is that whereas in the past we cowered in the face of impersonal natural forces beyond our control, nowadays our biggest enemy is the one that faces us in the mirror, which may or may not be able within our control. Thus, the sort of deity into which we are evolving is one whose superhuman powers may well result in self-destruction. Harari’s attitude towards this prospect is one of slightly awestruck bemusement.

Here Harari equivocates where his predecessors dared to distinguish. Writing with the bracing clarity afforded by the Existentialist horizons of the Cold War, cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener declared that humanity’s survival depends on knowing whether what we don’t know is actually trying to hurt us. If so, then any apparent advance in knowledge will always be illusory. As for Harari, he does not seem to see humanity in some never-ending diabolical chess match against an implacable foe, as in The Seventh Seal. Instead he takes refuge in the so-called law of unintended consequences. So while the shape of our ignorance does indeed shift as our knowledge advances, it does so in ways that keep Harari at a comfortable distance from passing judgement on our long term prognosis.

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Mar 18, 2016

Who’s Afraid of Existential Risk? Or, Why It’s Time to Bring the Cold War out of the Cold

Posted by in categories: defense, disruptive technology, economics, existential risks, governance, innovation, military, philosophy, policy, robotics/AI, strategy, theory, transhumanism

At least in public relations terms, transhumanism is a house divided against itself. On the one hand, there are the ingenious efforts of Zoltan Istvan – in the guise of an ongoing US presidential bid — to promote an upbeat image of the movement by focusing on human life extension and other tech-based forms of empowerment that might appeal to ordinary voters. On the other hand, there is transhumanism’s image in the ‘serious’ mainstream media, which is currently dominated by Nick Bostrom’s warnings of a superintelligence-based apocalypse. The smart machines will eat not only our jobs but eat us as well, if we don’t introduce enough security measures.

Of course, as a founder of contemporary transhumanism, Bostrom does not wish to stop artificial intelligence research, and he ultimately believes that we can prevent worst case scenarios if we act now. Thus, we see a growing trade in the management of ‘existential risks’, which focusses on how we might prevent if not predict any such tech-based species-annihilating prospects. Nevertheless, this turn of events has made some observers reasonably wonder whether indeed it might not be better simply to put a halt to artificial intelligence research altogether. As a result, the precautionary principle, previously invoked in the context of environmental and health policy, has been given a new lease on life as generalized world-view.

The idea of ‘existential risk’ capitalizes on the prospect of a very unlikely event that, were it to pass, would be extremely catastrophic for the human condition. Thus, the high value of the outcome psychologically counterbalances its low probability. It’s a bit like Pascal’s wager, whereby the potentially negative consequences of you not believing in God – to wit, eternal damnation — rationally compels you to believe in God, despite your instinctive doubts about the deity’s existence.

However, this line of reasoning underestimates both the weakness and the strength of human intelligence. On the one hand, we’re not so powerful as to create a ‘weapon of mass destruction’, however defined, that could annihilate all of humanity; on the other, we’re not so weak as to be unable to recover from whatever errors of design or judgement that might be committed in the normal advance of science and technology in the human life-world. I make this point not to counsel complacency but to question whether ‘existential risk’ is really the high concept that it is cracked up to be. I don’t believe it is.

Continue reading “Who's Afraid of Existential Risk? Or, Why It's Time to Bring the Cold War out of the Cold” »

Oct 28, 2015

Humanity on a Budget, or the Value-Added of Being ‘Human’

Posted by in categories: automation, economics, futurism, governance, human trajectories, law, philosophy, policy, posthumanism, theory, transhumanism

This piece is dedicated to Stefan Stern, who picked up on – and ran with – a remark I made at this year’s Brain Bar Budapest, concerning the need for a ‘value-added’ account of being ‘human’ in a world in which there are many drivers towards replacing human labour with ever smarter technologies.

In what follows, I assume that ‘human’ can no longer be taken for granted as something that adds value to being-in-the-world. The value needs to be earned, it can’t be just inherited. For example, according to animal rights activists, ‘value-added’ claims to brand ‘humanity’ amount to an unjustified privileging of the human life-form, whereas artificial intelligence enthusiasts argue that computers will soon exceed humans at the (‘rational’) tasks that we have historically invoked to create distance from animals. I shall be more concerned with the latter threat, as it comes from a more recognizable form of ‘economistic’ logic.

Economics makes an interesting but subtle distinction between ‘price’ and ‘cost’. Price is what you pay upfront through mutual agreement to the person selling you something. In contrast, cost consists in the resources that you forfeit by virtue of possessing the thing. Of course, the cost of something includes its price, but typically much more – and much of it experienced only once you’ve come into possession. Thus, we say ‘hidden cost’ but not ‘hidden price’. The difference between price and cost is perhaps most vivid when considering large life-defining purchases, such as a house or a car. In these cases, any hidden costs are presumably offset by ‘benefits’, the things that you originally wanted — or at least approve after the fact — that follow from possession.

Now, think about the difference between saying, ‘Humanity comes at a price’ and ‘Humanity comes at a cost’. The first phrase suggests what you need to pay your master to acquire freedom, while the second suggests what you need to suffer as you exercise your freedom. The first position has you standing outside the category of ‘human’ but wishing to get in – say, as a prospective resident of a gated community. The second position already identifies you as ‘human’ but perhaps without having fully realized what you had bargained for. The philosophical movement of Existentialism was launched in the mid-20th century by playing with the irony implied in the idea of ‘human emancipation’ – the ease with which the Hell we wish to leave (and hence pay the price) morphs into the Hell we agree to enter (and hence suffer the cost). Thus, our humanity reduces to the leap out of the frying pan of slavery and into the fire of freedom.

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Sep 24, 2015

Losing Your Mind? Great Thinkers on the Brain

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, cryonics, neuroscience, philosophy, science, theory

Aristotle is frequently regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of antiquity. So why didn’t he think much of his brain?

In this brief history of the brain, the GPA explores what the great minds of the past thought about thought. And we discover that questions that seem to have obvious answers today were anything but self-evident for the individuals that first tackled them. And that conversely, sometimes the facts which we simply accept to be true can be blinding, preventing us from making deeper discoveries about our our world and ourselves.

Aug 13, 2015

Bitcoin needs a quantum theory of money

Posted by in categories: bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, economics, theory

Is Bitcoin money? To its users the answer is probably yes, but to many people the answer is less clear. Alan Greenspan, for example, said in December 2013: “I do not understand where the backing of Bitcoin is coming from. There is no fundamental issue of capabilities of repaying it in anything which is universally acceptable, which is either intrinsic value of the currency or the credit or trust of the individual who is issuing the money, whether it’s a government or an individual.” Indeed, one of the things holding back the adoption of cybercurrencies such as Bitcoin is that they do not fit well with traditional ideas about money.

Answers to the question “what is money” have typically fallen into one of three camps. The first, known as metallism or bullionism, holds that money needs to be backed by precious metal. The second camp is chartalism (from the Latin charta for a record) which holds that coins and other money objects are just tokens, that the state agrees to accept as payment of things like taxes. Finally, there is the dominant, hands-off school of thought, which most mainstream economists would agree with, which says that money has no unique or special qualities, but instead is defined by its roles, e.g. a medium of exchange.

Bullionists and chartalists therefore emphasise a different aspect of money – the inherent value or the authorising stamp – while most economists treat it as an inert chip. But none of them seem to apply well to emerging cybercurrencies, which are not backed by precious metal or the state, and (at least at first) are not much use as a medium of exchange. So how do they become money? The answer to this question is that money has quantum properties which allow it to be booted up from the ether.

Quantum money

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Jul 20, 2015

We May Look Crazy to Them, But They Look Like Zombies to Us: Transhumanism as a Political Challenge

Posted by in categories: defense, futurism, geopolitics, governance, government, life extension, philosophy, sustainability, theory, transhumanism

One of the biggest existential challenges that transhumanists face is that most people don’t believe a word we’re saying, however entertaining they may find us. They think we’re fantasists when in fact we’re talking about a future just over the horizon. Suppose they’re wrong and we are right. What follows? Admittedly, we won’t know this until we inhabit that space ‘just over the horizon’. Nevertheless, it’s not too early to discuss how these naysayers will be regarded, perhaps as a guide to how they should be dealt with now.

So let’s be clear about who these naysayers are. They hold the following views:

1) They believe that they will live no more than 100 years and quite possibly much less.
2) They believe that this limited longevity is not only natural but also desirable, both for themselves and everyone else.
3) They believe that the bigger the change, the more likely the resulting harms will outweigh the benefits.

Now suppose they’re wrong on all three counts. How are we to think about such beings who think this way? Aren’t they the living dead? Indeed. These are people who live in the space of their largely self-imposed limitations, which function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are programmed for destruction – not genetically but intellectually. Someone of a more dramatic turn of mind would say that they are suicide bombers trying to manufacture a climate of terror in humanity’s existential horizons. They roam the Earth as death-waiting-to-happen. This much is clear: If you’re a transhumanist, ordinary people are zombies.

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