Big Fun at Transhumanist Summer Camp

Neurotracking, video games, laughing rats, brainwave sniper training, robot love, and a "pernicious libertarian"


Don Braxton

JUNIATA COLLEGE, HUNTINGDON, PENNSYLVANIA—"I am trying to prevent a pernicious libertarian from taking over the transhumanist movement," the recorded message intoned on Tuesday. Or at least that's pretty close to what it said. I wasn't able to take notes at the time.

The recording was a part of Citizen Cyborg, a fun and thought-provoking play performed by student actors at Juniata College. The play, informed by transhumanist James Hughes' book of the same title, was presented as part of the Our Transhuman Futures conference; it explored transhumanist themes with delightful and insightful mash-ups of classic plays. One of my favorites was "Antigone in Denmark," in which Hamlet falls in love with the android Antigone, who is forbidden to bury her dead brother. The ruler Creon insists that androids don't die; they are unplugged and recycled. Antigone argues for the recognition of her personhood, and Hamlet falls in love with her. Spoiler alert: Both come to a bad end. Another segment combined Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) with William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In this case, the robot gets the girl and they mind-meld happily ever after.

Hughes, a self-described democratic socialist transhumanist with whom I have been friendly for years, assured me after the show that the "pernicious libertarian" he had in mind was not me but the venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Thiel supports various transhumanist enterprises, such as the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and the anti-aging SENS Research Foundation.

Back in 2005, I reviewed Citizen Cyborg—the book, not the play—and found fault with Hughes' naïve faith in the wisdom and efficacy of democratic decisionmaking with regard to technological progress. I got to make some of the same arguments at the Our Transhuman Futures conference, where my talk's topic was "The Democratic Threat to Transhumanism." As I explained to the conferees, the issues my fellow citizens should have the right to vote on should not include how long I get to live, with whom and how I reproduce (if at all), and how I can use enhancing technologies to help my family and friends to flourish. (While my presentation at Juniata College was somewhat different, readers can find some background in an earlier paper on the topic here.)

The conference, which was organized by the Juniata religion professor Donald Braxton, was kicked off by composer Gabriel Gould, who took us through the history of music from paleolithic times to today. Gould made the point that music—be it clacking two rocks together or complex compositions that have moved beyond human playability—has always been transhuman, in the sense it goes beyond the sounds made using human bodies. (To demonstrate music beyond human playability, Gould had us listen to a recording of one of Colon Nancarrow's player piano compositions. To capture all of its music would require several musicians sitting at the same piano at once whose motions do not interfere with one another. Listen here.)

Next the conferees turned to the future of computational wearables. Computer consultant Don Schwartz explained the advantages of Google Glass and allowed those of us who hadn't experienced the technology to try it. Schwartz explained how the glasses take photos, provide just-in-time driving directions as easily as glancing in a rear view mirror, and allow you to explore the Internet for information that is relevant to your locality—e.g., the nearest Thai restaurant. Schwartz, who lives in New Hampshire, has an inexplicable liking for snow, so he showed a video in which his son uses Glass as he snowboards down the slopes at the Okemo resort.

Google Glass has been adopted in hospital emergency departments, enabling physicians to view blood and other test results as they treat patients instead of having to hunt down a computer terminal. Schwartz also explained the developing social customs of how not to be a Glasshole. (Hint: Don't wear it into a public restroom.) One participant pointed out that Glass could be a good tool for sousveillance, enabling citizens to keep an eye on the actions of government functionaries. Schwartz assured us that while Google has gone quiet about further developments, the company is working hard on newer better versions of the technology, aiming first at the health care, first responder, and enterprise markets. He clearly loves the gadgetry and it does have its charm, but I think I will wait for Version 3.0 at least.

Aleksandra Przegalinska, a neuroscientist at Kozminski University in Warsaw, Poland, gave a talk called "Gamifying Neuroscience: The Future of Neurotrackers." She surveyed the proliferation of activity trackers that count the number of steps you take, your galvanic skin response, your heart rate, and so forth. Some companies, she noted, now offer headsets that claim to track you brain activity, such as the Muse and the Melon headbands. The idea is that these headbands detect various brain waves using electroencephalography (EEGs), and that users can exploit this information to increase their attentional focus or enhance their experience of meditation. The Melon headband claims to measure your focus and stress level. If Muse reports that your brain waves look stressed, it uses a kind of game interface that might suggest that you take five deep breaths, or perhaps would play a bit of music to regain your focus.

Przegalinska also discussed Pavlok tracking, which supplies an electric shock to users if they fail to meet certain goals that they set for themselves. (I personally have no interest in using this technology.) Citing the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, in which innovations reach a peak of inflated expectations and then fall into a trough of disillusionment before reaching the plateau of productivity, Przegalinkska suggested that neurotracking just now peaking and is some years away from being really useful for consumers.

Next up was Andrew Kulak, a graduate researcher in digital humanities at Virginia Tech, who spoke about "Interactive Fiction as a Transhumanist Genre." Kulak, who is studying video games as a literary and rhetorical genre, believes they are radically transforming narrative fiction, perhaps bringing about the demise of the grand narrative as embodied for the past two centuries in literary novels. Kulak cited data showing that gamer demographics have gone mainstream: Players have an average age of 31 and are evenly divided between men and women. (For more background, see Reason's June 2014 Video Game Nation issue.)

Kulak cited the gaming theorist Alexander Galloway's observation: "To play the game is to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm (to discover its parallel allegorithm)." Whatever that means, Kulak made a persuasive case that video games as narrative stand in somewhat the same position that early novels did in the 18th century. They are not yet the fullest expression of the anxieties and triumphs of our epoch, but they're on their way.

Neurotechnologies for brain health was the focus of Phillip Galinsky's presentation. Galinsky is a research technologist at Pennsylvania State University, and his talk ranged over a number of new technologies. Two particularly caught my interest: GLYX-13 and EEG feedback training for Army snipers. GLYX-13 is a new and possibly very powerful anti-depressant that was developed by tickling rats and then crossbreeding those that laughed hardest together. (No kidding.) It turns out that happy rats produce more insulin-like growth factor more GLYX-13 which is a molecular cousin to ketamine. Researchers have now developed an analogue compound which is now in clinical trials. Neurofeedback research funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has identified a specific brainwave pattern in expert snipers. Novices were then trained by watching their own brain waves to achieve that same pattern. The result: Novices were able to improve their marksmanship by 100 percent.

Isabel Pederson of the University of Ontario gave a talk called "Wearable Technology, Digital Life, and Our Proposed Transhumanist Futures." Pederson, author of Ready to Wear: A Rhetoric of Wearable Computers and Reality-Shifting Media, studies how the media use language and images to persuade people that new technologies are a good idea. She is particularly interested in how commercial technology companies create expectations of what the future will look like and how technologies will be used. For example, Pederson cited a 2009 Popular Science article called "Intel Wants Brain Implants in Its Customers' Heads by 2020." The article, she argued, was not merely a futuristic projection; it was a step toward normalizing and softening up the public for the eventual installation of computer hardware in their bodies. The article takes for granted that future computer/brain interfaces are inevitable.

Basically, companies' transhumanist rhetoric involves a "continuum of embodiment" in which proposed future tech is carryable, then wearable, and eventually implantable. (I suggested to her later that this continuum could carry on to the point at which human consciousness itself can be uploaded into machines. Pederson found this idea "most frightening.") Ultimately, Pederson argues that users of transhumanist rhetoric tend to end up telling us rather than asking us what we want. Of course, what "we" want will differ considerably among different individuals, who are free to reject any messages aimed at them.

The most disappointing session involved BINA48, the artificial intelligence avatar of Martine Rothblatt's spouse Bina Rothblatt. Martine Rothblatt is a transgender transhumanist funding research on how to instantiate human consciousness into machines running "mindware." As project manager Bruce Duncan explained, the idea is for people to create mindfiles containing reams of data detailing their experiences, beliefs, mannerisms, attitudes, and values, with the idea that they would be installed into machines that would later conjure into consciousness an "equivalent good enough copy" of themselves. Alas: When asked questions, BINA48 would often speak platitudes or, if stuck, diverted the audience by asking if we wanted to hear a lame joke.

Duncan said the research may lasting centuries. Given the manifold glitches exhibited by BINA48, it looks like it will take least that long. Martine Rothblatt herself was supposed to Skype in from Europe; she was a no-show.

The Elizabethtown College psychologist John Teske took a close look at how technology-mediated social intercourse is disembodying connections between people. The current hierarchy of communication involves varying degrees of intimate connections ranging from texts and emails through Snapchat and Facebook to phone calls and Skype. Teske showed data suggesting that people are turning to these disembodied communication technologies to keep others at a distance, at the cost of losing the benefits of vulnerable intimacy. (Perhaps that helps explain why Millenials have fewer sex partners than the last few generations?) Teske noted, however, that people appear to be learning how to limit the use of these technologies so that they can and do engage in more face-to-face social interaction.

Mark Waser, chief technology officer at the Digital Wisdom Institute, confined himself to the narrow topic of "Human Robotic Interaction, the Future of Work, and the Meaning of Life." Waser thinks technologically driven unemployment will become a big problem soon, as robots replace human workers. He also believes that we need to endow our tools with artificial intelligence (AI) so that they become "embodied selves" capable of cooperating ethically with us to achieve mutually beneficial goals. (Go here for a taste of his arguments.) Waser rejects the arguments of the thinkers he calls the Triumvirate of Terror—Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Nick Bostrom—who argue that superintelligent AIs are likely to destroy humanity. Interestingly, Waser and James Hughes more or less agree with me that the effort ban "killer robots" is premature, on the grounds that lethal autonomous war machines might actually prevent far more casualties than human warriors now do.

Conference organizer Donald Braxton addressed the issue of "How Transhumanism Triggers Evolved Emotional Systems." Apparently, some people are disgusted by the notion of having healthier bodies, smarter brains, and living forever. Who knew? Tribal and religious affiliations are maintained in part by appealing to evolved emotional responses, including disgust. Disgust evolved as a "hot" emotional mechanism that causes people to recoil from such things as rotten food, parasites, and unexpected bodily discharges that signal the present of disease. Bioconservative Leon Kass, who loathes the transhumanist goal of using technology to transcend our current biological limitations, infamously sought to harness the notion of disgust to rally opposition his 1997 New Republic article, "The Wisdom of Repugnance."

Braxton detailed some recent research in which he found correlations between survey subjects' religious commitment and their tolerance for various transhumanist technological proposals involving varying degrees of intrusion into human bodies. As religious commitment increases, rejection of transhumanist technologies also increases. Even more intriguingly, approval for transhumanist technologies dropped significantly if they violate the skin envelope, e.g., puncturing or applying technologies to bodily orifices or involve internal body modifications that remain visible outside the body. Apparently, technological enhancements that invade or change the outward appearance of human bodies provoke the psychological disgust mechanism. On the other hand, internal modifications of bodies that remain invisible were acceptable.

Braxton posed the question: How can transhumanists overcome the "hot" cognition of disgust? I will leave that question open for now, as my time at Transhumanist Summer Camp has come to an end.