Science & Technology

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

Answering hard questions at the World Transhumanist conference


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.