Science

Would you give up your immortality to ensure the success of a posthuman world?

Answering hard questions at the World Transhumanist conference

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July 25-26, Chicago—On Wednesday at Transvision 2007, Marvin Minsky, the artificial intelligence guru who heads up MIT's Media Lab, puckishly suggested we could solve any population problem by uploading the minds of 10 billion people and running them on a computer that occupies a few cubic meters and costs only a few hundred dollars to run. Minsky was one of the scientific stars speaking at the World Transhumanist Association's annual meeting. Other celebrities included Star Trek's Captain Kirk (perhaps now better known as Denny Crane on ABC TV's bizarre Boston Legal), William Shatner. I am never starstruck by Hollywood personalities, but I have to admit that Shatner gave a hell of talk at the conference. More on that later. Another Hollywood luminary St. Elsewhere's Ed Begley, Jr. (now the protagonist in HGTV's reality series Living with Ed) also dropped by. Techno-celebrities included the X Prize's Peter Diamandis, the author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil, and Second Life's Philip Rosedale.

Minsky's talk, "Matter, Mind and Models," dealt with how he thinks the field of artificial intelligence (AI) went off track. He blamed "physics envy" on the part of AI researchers who sought some simple set of principles that would underlie and explain intelligence. This strategy failed, but researchers made a lot of progress in "narrow" AI. Minsky argued that human brains have a lot of different "ways to think" so that if one way doesn't work or solve the problem, it doesn't get stuck. Brains can split problems into parts, simplify, make analogies, and so forth. Current AI programs generally rely on just one main strategy and therefore tend to get stuck. In addition, Minsky claimed that the evolutionarily recent parts of the human brain recognize patterns of activity in other parts of the brain. In particular, those parts of the brain recognize when other parts are trying to solve problems. The brain can reflect on its own activities. Reflection is the missing ingredient in narrow AI research-reinforcement learning networks, rule-bases systems, neural networks, and statistical inference.

Minsky is not shy about speculating on what the future may hold. Once researchers understand how brains work, "we will discover ways to upload our minds into machines." He predicted that our AI descendants (what AI researcher Hans Moravec called our mind children) will eventually escape from this planet and spread throughout the universe. "If we are the only intelligence in the universe, then we are obligated to ensure that the universe remains meaningful," said Minsky. We sat at a table together over lunch and it was amusing to see some of the more Marxist-inclined transhumanists express horror when Minsky explained that he thought that democracy was not such a good idea. Why would anyone want to be governed by a majority of stupid people, he wondered.

Second Life's Philip Rosedale began by asking how many people had tried the virtual reality world. About half the audience raised their hands. Rosedale said that he created Second Life because he was inspired by the idea that "we could make a better world inside a computer." His avatar, Philip Linden (looking like a buff hippie), then took us on a brief tour of one of the islands in Second Life. The island was built by a woman as a virtual ecosystem complete with creatures that reproduce. It costs her $300 per month to maintain, but it's so popular with other denizens that they send her more than enough donations to keep it going. Rosedale conjured up screens inside the virtual world to illustrate his talk.

The residents of Second Life have created and occupied about 250 square miles of virtual land, expanding at a rate of 20 square miles per month. Nearly 70 percent of residents are from outside the United States. Their average age is 32 years. Second Life's economy is robust (Linden dollar/US dollar exchange rate L$260 to $1). Rosedale noted that there were over 40,000 producers in Second Life who have positive cash flow. He noted that his avatar had bought the virtual flute he was holding from another resident named Robbie Dingo who apparently makes thousands of dollars per month producing them. Rosedale has an almost utopian view of Second Life's possibilities. "Virtual worlds allow people to connect," said Rosedale. "The virtual world will rapidly outstrip the real world as a place where we exchange ideas and knowledge."

As a demonstration, Rosedale, approached a couple of avatars (a geisha and a samurai minotaur) to say hello. Once it was established that they were Japanese, he used Babelfish to translate their conversation. Finally, Rosedale mentioned the possibility of creating AI avatars that could learn from interacting with the avatars of humans in Second Life. "I find it very likely that any artificial intelligence we create will live first in a world like this," said Rosedale.

Rosedale's last observation flowed nicely into the next talk by Novamente AI researcher Ben Goertzel. Goertzel wants to create baby AI's that can learn and insert them into virtual worlds where human avatars can teach them. He suggested creating them as virtual pets, perhaps a parrot or a cat, that would be embodied, reflective, and could use adaptive learning. People in virtual worlds like Second Life could teach AI avatars not only tricks, but also about space, objects and even to talk. Whenever any one of the AI avatars learned something new it could be transferred immediately to all of the other AI avatars. With millions of virtual world residents teaching AI avatars, they could rapidly acquire artificial general intelligence.

Actor/activist Ed Begley, Jr., came to spread his environmentalist message to the assembled transhumanists. He began by citing a litany of various environmental "challenges" such as overfishing the oceans, dying coral reefs, overpopulation and so forth, noting that the magnitude of the challenges could get a person depressed. However, Begley insisted, "I'm quite hopeful because of what we've done already. A lot of things have gotten better." Specifically, he cited the fact that since 1970 the number of cars in Los Angeles quadrupled while ozone and smog was cut in half. He added that he had put in solar electric panels at his house back in 1990, which he acknowledged finally paid for themselves this year.

Begley's environmental activism seemed somewhat in sync with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R-Calif.) guiltless green. "Technology is not the enemy," said Begley. "Technology can be our friend." In an answer to a question, Begley did say that he opposed expanding nuclear power because no one knows how to store the waste safely. He also pointed out that the government insures nuclear power plants under the Price-Anderson Act, and suggested that private insurers' reluctance to cover them indicates that they are too dangerous.

Also on the environmental theme, Mark Ekstract, who just founded the upscale green lifestyle magazine, Verdant, spoke next. He too seemed to endorse Schwarzenegger's environmentalism-without-sacrifice, pointing out that there are now thousands of products made in ways that cause less harm to the natural environment. But Ekstract did wonder if conflict between environmentalists and transhumanists might be inevitable given the transhumanists' generally enthusiastic embrace of technologies like biotech and nanotech. He tended to favor the precautionary principle–in which advocates have to prove their products are safe before they are allowed onto the market–over the proactionary principle–which puts the burden on would-be restrictors to show that what is being proposed will cause more harm than good. In conclusion, Ekstract, who was bothered by what he clearly perceived as the "selfish" transhumanist desire to radically boost human life expectancy, asked, "Would you sacrifice your own immortality in order to ensure the success of a posthuman world?" That's a no-brainer. Of course, I would.

On Thursday, I gave my talk on "Envisioning a Post-Scarcity Economy." I confess that I failed at imagining a post-scarcity transhuman economy. Sure, nanotechnology might take care of all material wants, but things like status and home sites overlooking the Pacific Ocean will remain scarce. But I will write up my thoughts on the topic on another occasion.

Futurist Jerome C. Glenn from the U.N.'s Millennium Project was up next, talking about "Global Challenges in Transition to the Conscious-Technology Age." He listed 15 global challenges which included such standard items as impending freshwater shortages, the threat of natural and man-made pandemics, and so forth. I found one challenge especially interesting—how do we stop transnational crime networks from becoming ever more powerful and sophisticated global enterprises? Glenn claimed that the cash flow of transnational criminal networks is two times the world's total military budget (One suggestion: cut their cash supply by ending the global Drug War).

Glenn also made one of the more novel suggestions I've ever heard for improving the status of women around the world. Teach every girl Eagle Claw martial arts defense in elementary school. He claimed that Burma has a very low rate of attacks on women because they all are taught Eagle Claw. Actually, it sounds like a great idea. Finally, I was very pleased when Glenn said that overpopulation is not likely to be a problem. He pointed out something that I've been saying for years—that the U.N.'s low variant trend appears to be the path that world population is following. Glenn noted that would mean that world population would grow to about 8 billion in 2050 and start declining to 5.5 billion in 2100. That's 1 billion fewer people than currently live on the planet.

Peter Diamandis, the brains behind the Ansari X Prize, which paid $10 million dollars to Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites for the first reusable private spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, was up next. NASA is hopeless, so Diamandis wants to harness the dynamism of capitalism to get humanity into space. He described a couple new profit-making ventures that aim to stoke enthusiasm for space exploration. One is Zero G, which flies airplanes that allow passengers to experience weightlessness. Physicist Stephen Hawking was one recent passenger. The other venture is the Rocket Racing League which is modeled on NASCAR. Competition begins next year. Diamandis said that the goal of these companies is to drive the development of private space travel "not in fifty years; not for your kids; but for you."

William Shatner gave a keynote talk in the evening. Transvision 2007 master of ceremonies Charles Kam gave him such a long and fulsome introduction, that when Shatner appeared, he joked, "That introduction was longer than it takes Ray Kurzweil to eat his 200 pills." Shatner then proceeded to basically roll out a motivational speech. But as these things go, it was a pretty good motivational speech. He stroked the crowd by professing an interest in transhumanist ideals. For example, he suggested, "Maybe the time has come for we human beings to practice intelligent design," explicitly endorsing the World Transhumanist Association's goal of using technology to create "better minds, better bodies and better lives."

The final speaker was inventor and self-acknowledged transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, who argues that "The Singularity is Near." The singularity is a metaphorical social event horizon in which accelerating technological trends so change society that it is impossible to forecast what the world will really be like. Kurzweill believes that humanity will accelerate itself to utopia (immortality, ubiquitous AI, nanotech abundance) in the next 20 to 30 years. For example, he noted that average life expectancy increases by about 3 months every year. Kurzweil then claimed that longevity trends are accelerating so fast that the life expectancy will increase more than one year for each year that passes in about 15 years. In other words, if you can hang on another 15 years, your life expectancy could be indefinitely long. He projects that by 2030, AI will be ubiquitous, and most humans will be physically melded to information and other technologies. Kurzweil argued that we must reject the fundamentalist desire to define humanity by its limitations. "We are the species that goes beyond our limitations," he declared.

That's it from Transvision 2007. Next week, I will be sending in dispatches from the World Future Society's annual meeting in Minneapolis, where I will also be giving a keynote talk on "The Great Ecological Restoration of the 21st Century."

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. I think living inside of a videogame would be cool at first, then it would get boring after awhile as you get killed and then respawn, killed and respawn…unless if you die in the matrix you die in real life?

  2. Zach: I find the prospect of dying and respawning a lot more appealing than just dying. I don’t see how the prospect of a final death sweetens the deal.

  3. He projects that by 2030, AI will be ubiquitous, and most humans will be physically melded to information and other technologies.

    I find it eerie that the speaker right after Capt. Kirk describes humanity’s next step as becoming the Borg.

  4. In conclusion, Ekstract, who was bothered by what he clearly perceived as the “selfish” transhumanist desire to radically boost human life expectancy, asked, “Would you sacrifice your own immortality in order to ensure the success of a posthuman world?” That’s a no-brainer. Of course, I would.

    First of all, since when did libertarians care about seeming “selfish”?

    And secondly, the alternatives contradict themselves. A “posthuman world” where people still have to die wouldn’t qualify as a “success” by definition.

  5. Truly. How does the transhumanist goal of nearly indefinite life jibe with the UN’s projection of a world population of only 5.5 billion by 2100?

  6. mediageek:

    The UN isn’t predicting a singularity.

    Then again, neither am I, though I think any demographic projections for 100 years from now are more useless than a vagina on Janet Reno.

  7. I heard from a certain Phd on this blog that the movie sucked. And it must, since it went from #1 to “wherzit” in no time.

  8. We sat at a table together over lunch and it was amusing to see some of the more Marxist-inclined transhumanists express horror when Minsky explained that he thought that democracy was not such a good idea. Why would anyone want to be governed by a majority of stupid people, he wondered.

    Why would anyone want the market to set prices and allocate scarce resources based on the purchasing decisions of a majority of stupid people?

  9. I might add that everyone, including Marvin Minsky, displays stupidity about something or other. Those unlettered voters Minsky holds in contempt often know how to build houses, repair automobiles, re-upholster furniture and perform other useful services that brainiac Minsky has no clue how to do on his own.

  10. I would be very interested in a Ronald Bailey blog where you give your candid opinions instead of writing in the voice of a journalist getting paid.

    My opinions on the talks:

    Philip Rosedale: I loved this talk and think SecondLife is the future. Can’t wait till they integrate voice. One of the best talks at the conference.

    Ben Goertzel: Out of all the AI projects I have looked at in detail I find his the most promising.

    Ed Begley: he was okay, it sounded like he might have actually wrote his own talk.

    Mark Ekstract: deathist

    Your talk: ambitious and actually transhumanist (unlike many of the other talks), but you need to study a bit more on molecular manufacturing so you can describe more specific scenarios than just handwaving.

    Jerome Glenn: pretty good talk, I agree that his mentions of international crime and potential solutions made it unique. Jerry is working with the Lifeboat Foundation so I may be biased a bit in his favor here.

    Diamandis: my favorite talk of the conference. The man is amazing.

    Kurzweil: may have been interesting to anyone who is hearing it for the first time but it was incredibly boring if you think about how most have already read his book. He also promised something different at the beginning but never delivered…

    Marvin Minsky: he’s said it all before, the main impact I got was that he’s very grouchy and old now.

    William Shatner: better than I thought but let’s not too excited about a talk with no original content and that HE DIDN’T EVEN WRITE. (And you’re not stupid so you probably know this too.)

  11. Why would anyone want the market to set prices and allocate scarce resources based on the purchasing decisions of a majority of stupid people?

    Because the market also does a good job of satisfying niches, whereas the state usually imposes one-size-fits-all outcomes.

    I might add that everyone, including Marvin Minsky, displays stupidity about something or other.

    Inevitable with division of labor, although “ignorance” would be more accurate than “stupidity”.

  12. Regarding the comment about the girls in Burma supposedly taught ‘Eagle Claw’ martial arts in elementary school:

    As I said to a Burmese girl the other day, “Now I have met a lot of dames in my life, but your Eagle Claw skills… are reeeaally special.” She bought it……

    No, but semiseriously, do people just believe anything the Burmese government tells them? Okay, it’s possible they do sorta teach this skill. But I happen to live in a community with a number of Burmese people who hadn’t heard of this. So, if they do teach it, I don’t think it’s taught intensively and carried throughout the years. The Burmese ladies I have met, while being very nice and gracious, have not struck me as being able to tear anyone’s eyes out with their…claws….or much else. Maybe wrapping paper.

    But the real problem is the claim that there aren’t many attacks on women in Burma. Well, tell that to the Karen or other tribes. Regardless, the extent to which there are attacks or not, which are probably not too different in other neighboring countries, has got pretty much nothing to do with the women allegedly having been taught ‘Eagle Claw.’

    “Glenn also made one of the more novel suggestions I’ve ever heard for improving the status of women around the world. Teach every girl Eagle Claw martial arts defense in elementary school.”

  13. Edit: I meant, they could tear open wrapping paper…not that they could use wrapping paper to tear people’s eyes out, unless of course the Burmese government says they can.

  14. “Sure, nanotechnology might take care of all material wants,…”

    This is absurd. Nanotech might be the next great thing, who knows? Kurzweil’s singulartity might really happen too, but again who knows?

    The one thing I am utterly certain of is that no advancement of any sort will “take care of all material wants” or anything approaching such an achievement. Nanotech might make Bill Gates a trillionaire instead of a mere 100 billionaire, but I positively garantee you that the bottom 99% will still have plenty of material wants, and many of them will still be dying of starvation.

  15. Because the market also does a good job of satisfying niches, whereas the state usually imposes one-size-fits-all outcomes.

    One-size-fits-all solutions work much better than “niches” when it comes to matters like law, public health, environmental quality and so forth. You wouldn’t want to live next to a community of several thousand people who refuse to vaccinate their children and chlorinate their water supply, for example.

    I might add that everyone, including Marvin Minsky, displays stupidity about something or other.

    Inevitable with division of labor, although “ignorance” would be more accurate than “stupidity”.

    No, I mean “stupidity.” Marvin Minsky could have traded places with a carpenter early in life, but I doubt that even with extensive training the carpenter would work out as a university AI researcher, or that Minsky could attain the skill level of the carpenter.

  16. The one thing I am utterly certain of is that no advancement of any sort will “take care of all material wants” or anything approaching such an achievement.

    Actually, some kind of neuroscience breakthrough could pull that off. For example, if neuroscientists can figure out how Buddhist monks’ brains work, then in principle we could develop the technology to suppress people’s dukkha. We might even need that technology to prevent widespread violence during the downward slide in world oil supplies and the likely accompanying die off of most of the world’s population.

  17. I might add that everyone, including Marvin Minsky, displays stupidity about something or other.

    Inevitable with division of labor, although “ignorance” would be more accurate than “stupidity”.

    Actually, these are three different responses. If I go out and get in my car and find it won’t start:
    Division of labor–sending it to a garage to have it repaired.
    Ignorance–opening the hood to figure out what’s wrong with it.
    Stupidity–forgetting to check the gas gauge before doing the above.

  18. You wouldn’t want to live next to a community of several thousand people who refuse to vaccinate their children and chlorinate their water supply, for example.

    Not wanting to doesn’t give me the right to force them to do those things. Besides, I can vaccinate my own kids and take responsibility for my own water supply.

  19. I would give up immortality to have hair like William Shatner. Otherwise, no.

  20. Mark Plus,

    Shouldn’t you be writing about how anyone over the age of five who reads a Harry Potter story should be executed by firing squad? That makes about as much sense as the pseudo-scientific paranoid raving you’ve done here and the scat you’ve deposited on your blog, so I think you should go with it.

  21. wayne:

    Yes; the future with nanotech probably looks more like Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” than any techno-rapture fantasy- in other words, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

    As one of my friends once pondered with these fantasies of nano-utopia- “where does the energy to run all these nanobots come from”? Unless we have access to some sort of ultra-fusion or zero-point Santa Claus energy, we’re simply dealing with another energy-sapping advanced technology that will require a load of conventionally generated juice to run. (David Brin pointed this out in “Earth”, where he made a few offhand comments about the failure of the nano-utopians… where does all the power come from to run these little buggers?)

    Nanotech will be huge, I have no doubt about it- but it won’t give us immortality or an end to poverty, at least in the short run.

  22. Actually, some kind of neuroscience breakthrough could pull that off. For example, if neuroscientists can figure out how Buddhist monks’ brains work, then in principle we could develop the technology to suppress people’s dukkha. We might even need that technology to prevent widespread violence during the downward slide in world oil supplies and the likely accompanying die off of most of the world’s population.

    I would rather join a terrorist organization dedicated to the violent destruction of technology than submit to a psuedo-Buddhist cyber-lobotomy, and I suspect many others in the populous would agree with me. If it comes down to the plebes being told to take their soma so they can die off quietly, don’t expect it to happen without a struggle.

    And bear in mind, I love computers, gizmos, and technology. I’m no Luddite. I’d prefer a high-tech world. But if the choice is between tech and meaningless lives of digital masturbation or no tech and real lives filled with struggle and overcoming, I’ll take the latter.

  23. Ha ha ha ha ha!!!

    I love Transhumanists! They’re silly!

    *giggle*

    You want to know what the future is? Some combination of Orwell’s stamping boot mixed with green wafers from the Soylent Corporation.

    >>> “SecondLife is the future”

    HA HA HA HA HA HA!

    >>> “Ed Begley: he was okay”

    As much as I disagree with him on things, I respect the man. He walks the walk that he talks. I hear he generates the power for his morning toast with a stationary bike. The greenies should drop Gore like a plagure ridden squirrel and sign up Begley.

    Artificial Intelligence is the fusion power of the computing world. It’s forever 20 years away. 🙂

    >>> The UN isn’t predicting a singularity.

    Hey, even the UN has to get something right once in a while.

  24. I would give up immortality to have hair like William Shatner.

    Don’t be so dramatic. Even Shatner didn’t pay that much for his hair.

  25. “…his avatar had bought the virtual flute…”

    This one time, at virtual band camp…

  26. Kurzweil apparently states as fact that average life expectancy is increasing 3 months every year. On what does he base this? And he implies that this isn’t asymptotic to some maximum (~100 years). Is there any evidence for this?

  27. Quiet_Desperation:

    AI is already here, it’s simply not the magical superintelligent Santa Claus that most AI enthusiasts hope for. I’m not a software engineer myself (just a well-educated layman), but as my friends who are software engineers say regarding AI, our software becomes more intelligent every year, continually boosting our productivity and intelligence. The singularity is a mirage, however, as is simulated consciousness. But anyway, what good would a super-human monkey mind be, even if we could build one? Google and OS/X seem much more powerful and useful for augmenting my reality than such a simulated mind would be any day.

    No, we’re not headed for Orwell’s world or Kurzweil’s. We will continue to live in the world that humans always have, where there are haves and have-nots, despotic empires and democratic revolutions, pockets of freedom and iron cages of tyranny. There’s no technological Santa Claus, though some of us will have longer lives, greater wealth, and greater energy at our command (with any luck, maybe it will even be most of us, rather than a small elite).

    There’s no singularity coming; but there’s no apocalypse either. Just life, in all it’s ugliness, beauty, and complexity. And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  28. >>> I’m not a software engineer myself

    Well, I *am*. *And* I’m a hardware engineer. Your friends are BSing you, or indulging in a very watered down usage of “AI”.

    >>> what good would a super-human monkey
    >>> mind be, even if we could build one?

    Warfare.

    >>> but there’s no apocalypse either

    Neither 1984 nor Soylent Green were apocalyptic visions. They were more “not with a bang but a whimper” sorts of predicitons.

    >>> it’s ugliness, beauty, and complexity.
    >>> And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other
    >>> way.

    I’d like a little less ugliness, please.

    *And* fusion power *and* my goldanged flying car that I was promised! PROMISED, I tell you!

  29. [quote]The singularity is a mirage, however, as is simulated consciousness.[/quote]
    Well then, you seem to have figured it all out.

    Nothing left to see here people, go back to your homes, some guy has spoken.

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