Oct 17 2012

Steal This Singularity: Entry #1


It was at the end of the first day of the Singularity Summit 2012 when Ben Popper — the dude from The Verge who I’d spoken to by phone — approached.  “What do you think?” he asked.  “It’s been pretty interesting,” I responded earnestly.  The absence of a superlative was perhaps telling, but I was not in the mood to think on it more deeply.  Ben agreed.  And then Eve and I made a wrong turn heading back to the North Bay and we found ourselves moving at a crawl through Chinatown.

Chinatown was throbbing with biological life of the human sort.  Old Chinese women were inspecting vegetables on display outside of stores.  A group of older men stood on a street corner just hanging out and talking.  The streets were packed to overflow with people going about their early Saturday evening activities.  I don’t think I saw anybody smiling, but I had the sense that people were enjoying their familiar activities.

Once home, I decided to finally watch I’m Still Here — the Casey Affleck film documenting Joaquin Phoenix’ supposed attempt to leave behind his acting career to become a rap star.  Fat; with long uncombed hair and scraggly beard, dressed like a particularly disheveled street person — throughout the film, Phoenix, along with some of his “handlers,” displays a full repertoire of coarse, vulgar, moronic human behaviors as he tries to pursue his new career.  He also appears in onstage performances, rapping… badly.  Various media commentators suspect that it’s a hoax, but Phoenix remains in character.  He puts Ben Stiller — trying to get Phoenix to consider a script —  through the ringer.  He acts pathetic and nuts in a famous Letterman appearance.   He’s trying to get Sean Combs to produce a rap album for him.

Watching this film — unsure myself whether the whole thing was a bit of Andy Kaufman-like performance art; a genuine descent into madness; or both (I was leaning towards both) —  and seeing how the various players tried to navigate how to respond given that they were experiencing the same uncertainty that I was — I was struck by the wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels multiple strange loopy character of the thing that I was not only witnessing but participating in by being engaged in confusion.  And I was struck by how many layers of uncertainly could emerge out of very stupid behaviors — behaviors, incidentally, that would likely hold little interest to a proper singularitarian; and all of it done for absolutely no rational purpose other than to fuck with people’s heads.  For what? To improve them? To teach them something?  No.  Just to see what happens.

The apex of this entertaining goof is reached when Phoenix and a Partner-In-Trick get a meeting with Sean “Puffy” Combs at his studio.  As Phoenix plays some terrible homemade rap recordings for him, we get to watch Combs try to navigate his way through the thicket of possibilities:

1: that he’s being fucked with

2:  that Phoenix — acting like a desperately crazed but sincere rap lover — might be earnest and might need help.

3:  that Phoenix might have enough money to pay him well to produce his train wreck of a rap career.

4: that the camera is recording him in a situation in which he has no clue as to how to respond and how to maintain his very non-ironic, one dimensional, cool, public persona.

Combs’ face and body language show his utter bafflement in this situation — his codes have been so scrambled that they could never be decrypted because there’s nothing there.  He’s been blown into empty space, unable to respond to the stimuli at hand; but still he maintains a slightly gruff but agreeable facade.

Finally, we see Phoenix wandering in an apparent daze through some woods and then diving into a lake.  At the end, we see him swimming underwater. In context, after this layer cake of weird loops and inappropriate dumb behaviors, the moment is evocative.  Evocative of what exactly?  Nothing, exactly.   Just evocative.

As I prepared for sleep, I suddenly realized I couldn’t really remember a fucking thing I heard at the Singularity Summit.  Funny thing… I don’t even think the movie is all that good.


I’ve been sort of playing around with the concept — “Steal This Singularity” — for several months now.  Prior to attending Singularity Summit 2012, I was thinking about it in political terms.  Letting “singularity” represent, essentially, a buzz word for a future radically transformed by technology, my “Steal This Singularity” notion was simply that the transhuman future should not be dominated by big capital and/or authoritarian government; and that — contrary to the reassurances of many glib futurists — this requires some intentionality, both in terms of programming and activism.  The technology doesn’t insure this by its very nature.  And the current general trend in this regard is not positive, but extremely ambiguous at best.  But I’ll save that for another essay.

Upon spending an afternoon at Singularity Summit and spending an evening vicariously experiencing Joaquin Phoenix’ trickster walkabout, another feeling emerged and, with it, a different sort of “Steal This Singularity” theme.  To wit: the clever, logical, programming/engineering monkey-mind should not be allowed to instantiate its limited idea of humanity, the universe and everything, on… well… humanity, the universe and everything.   The tricksters, the freaks, the surrealists, the hedonists, the outsiders — and all the uncodable strangeness that emerges from the biological codes’ diversification into cultural complexity and then into something as perverse and rationally pointless as a multilayered prank in a cinematic celebrity culture —  must hijack the engineer’s Singularity and recode it or uncode it so as to allow for liminal spaces outside its totalizing grasp.

We live in a time in which seemingly smart humans love to present us with absolute dualistic options: Republican or Democrat, socialist or free market; believer or atheist; Britney or Christina; Science or Superstition.  These discourses are dominant even among an intellectual class that used to know better; and the notion that there could be terrain outside those frames becomes, well, not exactly unthinkable but somehow too trivial to consider as anything but a sideshow.

I’m aware of the risk here in even implying that the instantiation of the biases of the engineering monkey mind over everything is a conscious or unconscious intention  that undergirds much of the Singularitarian sensibility. Singularitarianism and — more broadly — transhumanism — has produced a veritable glut of abstract theorizing, so whatever novel perceptions or objections or concerns one may think one is bringing to the party, some smarty pants has probably swatted it away or incorporated it into its logical totality.

On the other hand, if there was a role for artists in Singularity Summit 2012, I didn’t notice it.  Sex — a primary desire for most humans — seemed to be almost unmentionable, if not entirely archaic.  Heightened subjective states of consciousness — ecstasy, agape, rapture — seem to be well off the map.

Of course, it’s part of the culture of science that legitimacy requires the maintenance of a bordering-on-Calvinist front, but consider that when I interviewed (with Surfdaddy Orca) Ray Kurzweil for H+ magazine a few years ago, and suggested that the idea of utopia might involve people feeling good and being happy, he immediately leapt to a vision of people hanging around all the time on a morphine-like high.  (I actually think several billion human beings acting out the sort of western ideal of ambitiousness with Singularitarian technology is probably scarier than having most of them in an opiated haze, but I don’t think those are the only options. Anyway, that’s a different rant for a different time.)

This lack — this apparent negligence or denial or trivialization of non-obvious aspects of  subjective human experience and peculiarity — may prove to be of minimal importance if transhuman techno-evolution stops short of the Singularity.   If we don’t design silicon intelligences that will, for all intents and purposes, replace us — or at least dominate our original biological brains if we take them within us — but, if rather, we simply end up with tools that amplify and enhance, then there’s a reasonable hope for a diversity of mindstyles.  Some will gather in Less Wrong communities where they will continuously refine rationality; some will live in an eternal, amplified Burning Man of lived art, presentation and playful deviance; most will dip into both these and other memeplex scenes while engaging in a world rich in opportunity for all possible expressions of humanness or posthumanness.

But supposing that we do create the vastly superior intelligence.  Even if we merge with them, what aspects of humanness that some of us may wish to preserve will be overwhelmed?  Will the imp of the perverse, as displayed in my Joaquin Phoenix example, still stun our predictable mentations into momentary silence?  Can the engineered superior intelligence experience something as evocative, or is that too vague?  Will some of us still be driven into ecstasy dancing to James Brown?  What happens to the human characteristics that have given us characters like Arthur Rimbaud, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan…  you know, people who don’t make any goddamn sense?  And what the fuck did Nietzsche mean we he wrote, “I tell you. One must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”?

My next Steal This Singularity entry will take on the more sober political and economic implications of the concept.

Sep 30 2012

Shocking Shocker! Alex Jones & David Icke Are Illuminati Disinfo Agents!

I guess it all started about a year ago.  As part of my duties tracking conspiracy sites for my Illuminati Masters, I started noticing that Alex Jones was ranting more and more frequently against the transhumanists and singularitarians. 

Now, my job with Illuminati Central is fairly simply.  I track the conspiracy sites and warn the Illuminated Ones if anyone is getting to close to the truth as I understand it.

The illuminati’s plans — under constant revision — are conveyed to plebian members such as I every June at a week long Tantric DMT reorientation workshop held in Bavaria, soon after the Illuminated Ones return from that big Bilderberger shebang that they seem to enjoy so much.  Every year, it’s the same thing: they come bearing tales.  Once again, they were amazed at the size of Kissinger’s schlong.  Once again, they laughed so much they shat while bowling on acid with the frozen head of Dr. Leary.  Once again, Sandra Day O’Conner told that same damn story about eating cow balls, which they then insisted on repeating word for word for our “benefit.”  Blah blah blah.

Well, it’s all jolly until you have to ingest curare and lie in a casket for 24 hours.  “If a Bush can do it, anybody can!” they always tell us. They don’t mention that John Kerry died during his initiation.  They just assume we can’t tell.

Anyway, at some point, the Alex Jones rants started to bother me.  It wasn’t that it was at all close to the Secret Plans as I understood them.  Far from it.  But what if Jones was right? What if it was all true?  What if the Illuminati Masters weren’t really plotting to bring about a hedonic paradise on earth for all sentient beings, like that nice Dr. Benway promised me at that Virtual Reality party back in ‘91?  What if, in fact, they were simply brainwashing us now so we would march submissively to our deaths, all the while thinking that we were uploading our brains into a cool-ass pornographic adventure game?   I couldn’t stop wondering. It became an obsession. I wanted to know the truth.  I was willing, even, to risk the wrath of the Illuminated Ones to find out.

I sent message after message to my handler, begging her to pass it up the chain to the Perfect One — The Master Of All Masters — he who we dare not speak of but who some call Kurzweil 9.0.  It got so I was sending her 8, 9, even 10 notes a day — long notes disguised as official reports so that she would have to open them, speculating about the horrific possibilities that were tormenting my mind.

Then, one day, just as I was about to inject my daily dose of dep-Testosterone, my cell rang.  It was not the usual ringtone.  It was the Master Of All Masters ringing me up with the secret code:  “Oy ve! Oy ve!  Oy ve!  Oy ve! Oy….”  Excitedly, I pressed receive.  “This is Hipler,” I said, hoping that my voice would not betray too much fear.  “Hipler,” the jovial voice responded. “How the heck are ya?  This is Kurzweil Nine.  What’s the haps?”  “Did you get my notes about Alex Jones?” I managed to squeak out.  “Sure. Sure.  Read enough of them to get the gist.  Listen, Hipler, don’t worry about Jones.  Jones is one of ours.  Him and that creepy Icke fellah.  Icky Iche, I call ‘im.  He pouts so.  Say, you ever notice how a Brit will always overreact to an insult unless you also call ‘im a cunt?  Like if I say, ‘Icky Iche, ya cunt,’ then it’s all friendly jesting and ‘Hey, let’s head down to the pub and ‘ave a session.’”

I was starting to get impatient.  Why was The Master Of All Masters making with the small talk when I had serious matters to discuss?  As if he were reading my mind, Kurzweil Nine said, “Anyway, sorry for the small talk.  It gets lonely down here underneath the Denver Airport; no one to talk to but those creepy giant grey insects. Plus, the second you let your guard down and start really saying what you feel, they’re literally 11 inches up your ass.  I mean, human vulnerability really makes ‘em hot!

“Look. Here’s the scoop, Hipler.  Jones and Icke are Illuminati Disinformation  agents.  In fact, their function is so obvious I would have figured even you would figure it out, not to get insulting.  They make conspiracy theory look so absurd, so bizarre, so unattractive that no sane, talented investigative journalist will go anywhere near it.  I mean, you know the drill.  The Pentagon Papers.  The Church Committee after Watergate.   Iran-Contra.  LIBOR. All just the tip of the iceberg and, as you know, there were a few others that were never revealed  — legitimate conspiracies, some of them not even under our control!  I mean, who the hell knows what the Queen and that LaRouche asshole  are  up to?  And… is there something not quite right with that whole 9/11 thing?  How the hell would I know?… what with Jones and Icke riling up all those new age ditzes… no sane investigative journalist  wants to be associated with that.

You know, Hipler, sometimes our agents work a little bit too hard and it only causes problems.  In fact, why don’t you take a breather? Come visit me under Denver.  I could use some company.  Oh, by the way, that’s an order. And bring Vaseline.




Mar 16 2012

666/Singularity/Sex… are bad, mmm-kay?

No, trust me.  You’ll be amused by this fucked up but very well done video by some Bible bumpers about this beastly sex singularity thing… and I think they maybe pegged Michio Kaku as the antichrist.  Got some Ray Kurzweil in here too.  Have a lovely weekend!

Jan 02 2012

An Insufficiently Advanced Technology For McKenna’s Magical 2012

By now, everybody knows that there’s a big crowd of folks who think something really big is going to happen this year because the Mayan Calendar allegedly ended in 2012 — specifically December 21, 2012

Less well known amongst the masses that are vaguely familiar with the meme is the fact that psychedelic/cyberdelic philosopher Terence McKenna was the original primary source for this notion and for this particular date. (If my memory serves, Jose Arguelles — the recently deceased new age guru perhaps best known for 1987′s “Harmonic Convergence” — originally set a different date for this Mayan-influenced ending of all endings, but if you try to google for data… at least to the limits of my patience…  you’ll find that any notice of this is buried beneath the now unified meme that December 21 is the hot date with destiny.)

Both men envisioned not an apocalypse (as per the current dominant meme) but some sort of transmutation of the human condition (a positive apocalypse).  While Arguelles’s perceptions were largely influenced by mystical esoterica, McKenna’s vision was much more a hybrid of the mystical and the technological.

Like Ray Kurzweil, McKenna foresaw a world in which technical evolution (he liked to use the word novelty) would keep doubling at an exponential rate until we would hit a singularity.  Only McKenna originally envisioned this constant and ever-quicker exponential doubling not by charting technical evolution but by “channeling” the “logos” behind huge quantities of tryptamine hallucinogens in the Amazon.

In McKenna’s singularity, we would unite with “the logos,” after which all of human history and materiality itself would be seen platonically as an idea space and everything — including all proceeding time and human experience — would become, in some sense, our plaything.   And this would happen on December 21, 2012.

While McKenna divined much of his theory from such mystical sources as the i Ching and ideas taken from psychedelic shamanism as practiced in the Amazon, he was also an astute student of developments in hard science, technology and culture and his sense of this drive towards the singularity was at least somewhat “grounded” in how he saw real material and cultural developments.

Thus, when McKenna described his upcoming singularity as a place where the boundary between the exterior and interior collapses and what you imagine “simply comes to be,” it was not just mystical intuition. He would also be following movements towards technologies that allow us to control other technologies with our minds, he would be getting excited about K. Eric Drexler’s prediction of molecular control of the structure of matter; and he would be thrilling to predictions of desktop manufacturing (If you put those three things together, you get something like a world where what you imagine “simply comes to be.).  He also jumped on the Virtual Reality train in the early ’90s, as that would be a kind of ecology of mind where this vision would be even easier to realize.

McKenna’s technophilia — to the extend he was a technophile — was not without its ambiguities. He believed technological advance without the intervention of spiritual, psychedelic consciousness and values would be both ugly and lethal.

Still, it would probably be a mistake — one that seems to be made by many current McKenna-philes — to think that Terence would feel confident that this grand transmutation based, only in part, on the Mayan Calendar was going to occur on time despite the fact that the technological training wheels needed to boost us into this platonic state have not yet sufficiently developed (if ever).

McKenna never took his role as a prophet as seriously as some of his disciples now appear to.  As a self-admitted “carnival barker” (and how self righteous and humorless have we become that many reading this will find this reason to dismiss him entirely?), there’s a pretty good chance that he would have hopped aboard the 2012 circus for purposes of livelihood and as a context for spreading other aspects of his philosophy, and he probably would have been available to be propped up on a hemp-woven throne at the stroke of midnight at the 12.21.12 global rave, but I feel certain that he would have been much more surprised if December 21, 2012 turns out to be a day of magical transmutation than he would have been disappointed if it does not.


Oct 16 2011

100 Plus: An Accessible Look At The Longevity Revolution

Sonia Arrison’s book, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith is a look at the oncoming longevity revolution written in a style that is accessible to average readers who may not be part of the transhuman early adopters club.

Covering everything from desktop organ printing to Cynthia Kenyon’s successful work discovering lifespan regulating genes to Aubrey de Grey’s efforts to “engineer negligible senescence, 100 Plus does an excellent job of rounding up all the projects and advances that are likely leading us towards hyperlongevity while also covers the possible social, economic and political effects that longevity is having — and will have — on humans. But let’s have her tell it.

I interviewed Arrison via email.

RU SIRIUS: Your book is written towards a general audience.  What would you say to the more transhumanist types — many of whom frequent this site — to entice them into your book?

SONIA ARRISON: I think there’s a lot in the book that will appeal to transhumanists. 100 Plus begins with a history of the human drive for longevity, takes a look at the current science, and then dives into a discussion of family relations, economics, and religion in a longer-lived world. The book ends with a discussion of who is leading us into this exciting new era and calls on those with an interest to get involved.

RU: What technological development would you single out as the most promising one in terms of expanded biological lifespan for humans?

SA: The most promising area for expanding human healthspan is regenerative medicine, which includes the techniques of gene therapy and tissue engineering, both of which have demonstrated powerful human successes so far.  Gene therapy has been used to cure blindness and cancer in humans, and it has shown the ability to slow down aging and age-related diseases in lab animals. Tissue engineering is also super-exciting, since it offers the ability to build new organs for those that have worn down, like a heart or a lung.  Already, scientists have grown and successfully transplanted human organs, such as bladders and windpipes, for patients in need.  Human hearts and lungs have not been completed yet, but promising work in lab animals suggests it will be possible.

RU: What cultural development would you say most reflects this oncoming change?

SA: This could be answered in a few ways.  First, baby boomers are now visibly aging and many are looking for a cure to the problem.  As a generation, they’ve driven a lot of change and their collective biological plight is increasing interest in this field.

Second, because biology is becoming an information technology, it opens it up to the engineering culture of the tech community.

Looking at human repair from an engineering perspective, rather than from the traditional biological perspective, has caused a change in the way we go about solving various health problems.

RU: What — if anything — might stop the trend toward hyperlongevity?

SA: I don’t think anything will stop it in the long run, but there are a lot of things that could slow it down to the point that some of us alive today won’t be able to benefit.  For instance, government agencies like the FDA do not recognize aging as a disease.  This makes it difficult for scientists and companies to produce effective agents to slow aging, which is the number one risk factor for many debilitating diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

RU: Is current interest in radical life extension largely limited to people who are economically privileged, relatively speaking?  Or put more colorfully, what do you think the Chinese factory worker who made my iPad would say to an offer to live another 130 years?

SA: Living longer and healthier is a universal and perennial human desire. In the case of a Chinese factory worker, I think the more relevant question is whether he or she will be able to afford life extension technologies.

RU: Let’s follow up on that one. What do you think is likely to happen with the availability of maximum health and longevity to people of average or even low incomes?

SA: That depends on which technology hits the market first and how much it costs to provide.  It is worth noting at this point that there are already large divides in life expectancy around the world and even within the United States.  Within the US, Native American males in South Dakota have a life expectancy of 58 years, compared with Asian females in New Jersey, with a life expectancy of 91 years. Internationally, the gap is even larger.  A person living in Monaco can expect around 89 years, whereas someone living in Angola can only expect 38 years. That’s a 51 year difference – almost an entire lifetime.  If wealthier people and nations have access to the technology first, which they will, they will also have larger economic gains, because they will be able to be productive for longer periods of time.  So, the disparity between individuals and nations could grow more than we’ve ever seen before.  The one potential reason for some optimism on this point is that new technology is spreading faster than ever before, so the technology delay between those on the leading edge and those on the lagging edge may shrink.  Think, for instance, of how countries without large landline phone systems simply skipped that step and went straight to cell phones.  Historically, the distribution of new technology has been speeding up, not slowing down.

RU: You get into an area that might be controversial among transhumanists and singularitarians — the idea that those who embrace these philosophies have some similarities with religious believers. Could you expand on this idea?

SA: I argue in the book that religion will not fade away as we get further away from death.  That’s because there is more to religion than a promise of the afterlife.  Religion also speaks to the purpose of life.  Why are we here, what is the good life, and how should we live our lives?  These are questions that religion is well positioned to help answer.  If we look at religion as something that has a number of required elements, such as explaining the purpose of life and offers of transcendence, one can see these themes in movements like singularitarianism.  I point out in the book that one of the leaders in the singularity movement, Ray Kurzweil, offers up many of these elements.  The singularity, according to Kurzweil, is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”  He also has an answer for the purpose of life.  He says that the purpose of the universe “reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.”  There are other elements besides these two that make something a religion according to scholars who study this area, and I detail it in the book.  The bottom line is that not all transhumanists or singularitarians are religious, but there are some who do fit the category.

RU: When and how do you think we’ll know that we’re able to live to 150 or 300?  In other words, the year radical life extension is likely to be recognized and how we’ll know without waiting around 100 years to see if a 50-year-old makes it to 150?

SA: If scientists were able to use gene therapy to slow down aging in humans, as they have in lab animals, then the onset of the diseases of aging would happen at later and later ages.  Later onset of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease would be a good sign that the technology was successful and that human life span is about to break Jeanne Calment’s 122 year record.  When will we get there?  That’s tough to predict.  Gene therapy is only now coming out of the funk that it was in due to some early failures.  That said, because of the enormous successes that have already occurred in the field of tissue engineering, it seems likely that we will have the ability to replace many of our organs while we are waiting for holy grail solutions like gene therapy to slow overall aging, so the future looks pretty good.

Oct 02 2011

Euthanasia — How FUN Should It Be?

Euthanasia is looking like a great way to go in the future, for everybody who can’t survive long enough for the Singularity.

It’s an excellent advance in “taking a dirt nap.” It’s on our own schedule, with our own toys.

We deserve it; we’ve had a horrible time waiting. Examine the primitive history of suicide:

Stone Age? Hari-kari Hominid would either: 
1) Jump out of a baobab, bellyflopping on a mammoth tusk
2) Bash out his own brains with flint axe

Roman era?  Ditto, bad endings. Classic Christian options were:
1) Gobbled by lions, to colossal applause
2) Hanging out on the Appian Way, crucified

Renaissance? Romeo and Juliet got to slumber forever on each other’s bosoms,  but wasn’t the stench horrible? Didn’t Medievalists only bath annually?

19th century?  Overdosing on leeches… sucks.

20th century? Join a cult. Drink Kool-Aid. Bloat in jungle heat until your cadaver explodes.

Finally, euthanasia has arrived as the exciting H+ option for Self-Terminators! Big Sleep Opiates will be so drop-dead euphoric the desire to snuff oneself will be almost over-powering. 

Do you want: Immortally Tedious Life Extension? or Cathartic Neurochemical Xanadu… hmmm…

Cashing in your chips is already very affordable.  Dignitas in Switzerland will put you down for $6,000.

That’s so cheap I might borrow the Gs from someone I envy, like my rich cousin, just for the pleasure of offing my ass without paying him back.

Oregon’s ticket on the Stygian Ferry might be even cheaper than Dignitas because it doesn’t have a state sales tax. Libertarians love that!

If Ron Paul chooses Oregon, his faithful Paulites will follow, probably paying in coin.

Cambodia also has euthanasia — it invites all customers to join their Bone House. But will they pile up the new skulls in a “Killing-Self Fields” ?

Martin Amis suggested in 2010 that the UK build “death booths” on street corners to help the “silver tsunami” top themselves off instead of lingering on, bankrupting the welfare system. He suggested a free Martini and medal to all volunteers.

Is he right?  Yes, but it’s dangerous. It might end up gravely out-of-control. What about “Impulse-Snuffers”?

They might find a parking ticket on their car and use the booths as a convenient way to avoid the fine. Or they might be walking their dog, and suddenly decide, “I’m tired of picking this shit up.” Amis’ plan is also not “user-friendly”

Parkinsons’ fingers are tremulous, they’ll push the wrong buttons and Alzheimers’ won’t remember why they entered the booth

Besides, we don’t want euthanasia to be better than life, do we?  I think Luddite obstacles are necessary.

It used to be, killing yourself left a mess that bothered the relatives. Hemingway’s brains on the wall. Sylvia Plath’s head in the oven. For tidy people, this was a deterrent but with euthanasia… hey, what’s the downside?

I predict that capitalist markets will invent incredibly enticing euthanasia options.

For example, there’ll be “Heavenly” choices for religious folks who want to meet their Maker.

Neuro-psychedelic components in death cocktails will guarantee synthetic visions of “Paradise” to every creed:

Catholics will be able to experience glorious facetime with the Almighty, He’ll explain the inexplicable Trinity.

Muslims will virtually party in mosaic water parks with 72 virgins

Buddhists will jump off the Eight-Fold Path into Nirvana

Atheists can either drink & smoke with Christopher Hitchens (who might check his actual meat-bag in soon) or they can have secular sex with humanist hotties like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris.

Environmental biologists will select dream-death scenarios where they see themselves  as actual “Worm Food” or “Sleeping with the Fishes”

Ex-athletes will pass the torch after an imagined Ultimate Work-Out; a single studly day where they climb Everest, surf Maverick’s, and beat the crap out of Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Ray Kurzweil will of course choose to depart wrapped in virtual “Dad Time.”

Aubrey de Grey will leave the living convinced he just won the “Merlin the Magician” Look-A-Like Contest

A best-selling category will be Dying-Ecstatic-As-You-Visualize-Humilation-of-Your-Political-Enemies. Croaking Chechens will experience sweet vengeance on Vladimir Putin. Fading Gays will watch Michelle Bachmann-Sarah Palin cunnilingus porn on Fox News.

What about Transhumanists?  Unlucky ones who have to kick their own bucket before the Singularity?   What do they want for their final vision? I suspect they’d like to see everyone who thinks they’re immortal get buried by a ghastly surprise; Call it my “Sour Grapes” theory. 

Either of the following options might help dying H+ers chortle as they enter oblivion:
1) Virtually observing Grey Goo squelch all sentient life in the Universe
2) Watching Hugo de Garis’ “Artilect War” break out, and… the Terrans Win.

Jul 14 2011

Optimist Author Mark Stevenson Is Trippin’… Through The Tech Revolution

“The oddest thing I did was attend an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives.”

Mark Stevenson’s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future is a rare treat — an upbeat tour visiting major shakers behind all the technologies in transhumanism’s bag of tricks — written by a quippie (a culturally hip person who uses amusing quips to liven up his or her narrative).  Stevenson trips through visits to genetic engineers, robotics, nanotechnology enthusiasts, longevity seekers, independent space explorers and more among them names you’ll recognize like Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Eric Drexler and Dick Rutan.

I interviewed him via email.

RU SIRIUS:  Were you an optimist growing up?

MARK STEVENSON:  No, not especially – although I was always trying new things. For most of my childhood I was convinced I was going to be a songwriter for a living.

RU: What made you look forward to the future?

MS: I think that’s a natural thing that humans do. Time is a road. Those who don’t pay attention to the road tend to crash. A better question is: what stops people looking to the future? One reason is because the story we hear about the future is so rubbish. I mean think about it. If I recall the story of the future I’ve been used to hearing since I was born pretty much it goes something like this: “The future is not going to be very good (especially if you vote for that guy), it was better in the old days, you’ve got to look after yourself, the world is violent and unsafe, your job is at risk, your boss is an idiot, your employees are lazy, the generation below you are feral and dangerous, things are changing too fast and you can’t trust those scientists/ new-agers/ left wingers/ right wingers /religious people /atheists /the rich /the poor /what you eat /your neighbor. You are alone. Make the best of it. Vote for me. Buy my paper. I understand.” It’s hardly inspiring, is it?

RU:  As you’ve promoted the book, have you run into arguments or questions that challenge optimistic views?  What’s the most important argument or question?

MS:  I’m not intrinsically optimistic about the future; I’m not an optimist by disposition. I’d say I’m a possibilist – which is to say, it’s certainly possible that we’ll have a much better future, but it’s also certainly possible that we’ll have a really rubbish one. The thing that’s going to move that in one direction or another will be how all of our interactions in the march of history nudge us. One thing I do know is, if you can’t imagine a better future, you’re certainly not going to make it happen. It’s like going into a job interview thinking about how you’re not going to get it. You just won’t get the job. The biggest problem I have is semantic. As soon as you associate yourself with the word “optimism” some people will instantly dismiss you as a wishful thinker who really hasn’t understood the grand challenges we face. As a result, I constantly have to battle against a lazy characterization of my views that suggest I am some kind of Pollyanna in rose-tinted spectacles. My position is simply this: that we should have an unashamed optimism of ambition about our future, and then couple that with our best creative and critical skills to realize those ambitions. Have good dreams – and then work hard to do something about them. It’s obvious stuff but it seems to me that not nearly enough people are saying it these days.

RU:  Since writing the book, what has happened that makes you more optimistic?

MS: That there is a huge hunger for pragmatic change – in fact I’m setting up The League for Pragmatic Optimists to help catalyze this. Also I’m being asked to help organizations re-imagine themselves. That’s challenging and hopeful. The corporation is one of the biggest levers we have for positive change.

RU:  Less optimistic?

MS: When we talk about innovation we easily reference technology, medicine – or we might talk about innovation in music, dance, fashion. But we rarely talk about institutional innovation, and nowhere is this more apparent than in government. Almost every prime minister or president at some point early into their first term of government gives a rousing and highly ironic speech about how they wish to promote innovation. But isn’t it strange that while governments (and many corporations it has to be said) so often talk about stimulating innovation they themselves don’t change the way they work. When we introduced parliamentary democracy in the 1700s it was a massive innovation, a leap forward. Yet here we are, 300 years later and I get to vote once every four years for two people, both of whom I disagree with to run an archaic system that cannot keep up with the pace of change. To quote Einstein,  “We can’t solve problems we’ve got by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” It’s why I now dedicate much of my life helping institutions change the way they think about their place in the world and the way they operate.

RU:  Among the technologies you explore, we can include biotech, AI and nanotech.  In which of these disciplines do you most see the future already present.  In other words, whether it’s in terms of actual worthwhile or productive activities or in terms of stuff that’s far along in the labs, where can you best catch a glimpse of the future?

MS:  To quote William Gibson: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” So, synthetic biology is already in use, and has been for a while. If you’re diabetic, it’s almost certain your insulin supply is produced by E. coli bacteria whose genome has been tinkered with. The list of nanotechnology-based consumer products already available numbers thousands including computer memory and microprocessors, numerous cleaning products, antimicrobial bandages, anti-odour socks, toothpaste, air filters, sunscreen, kitchenware, fabric softeners, pregnancy tests, cosmetics, stain resistant clothing and pet furniture, long-wearing paint, bed-ware, guitar strings that stay sounding fresh thanks to a nano-coating and (it seems to me) a disproportionate number of hair straightening devices. It looks set to underpin revolutions in energy production, medicine and sanitation. Already we’re seeing it increase the efficiency of solar cells and heralding cheap water desalinization/purification technology. In fact, the Toffler Institute predicts that this will “solve the growing need for drinkable water, significantly reducing global conflict between water-starved nation-states.” In short, nanotech can take the ‘Water War’ off the table.

When it comes to AI I’m going to quote maverick Robot designer Rodney Brooks (formerly of MIT): “There’s this stupid myth out there that AI has failed, but AI is everywhere around you every second of the day. People just don’t notice it. You’ve got AI systems in cars, tuning the parameters of the fuel injection systems. When you land in an airplane, your gate gets chosen by an AI scheduling system. Every time you play a video game, you’re playing against an AI system”

What I think is more important to pay attention to is how all these disciplines are blurring together sometimes creating hyper-exponential growth. If you look at progress in genome sequencing for example — itself an interplay of infotech, nanotech and biotech — it’s outstripping Moore’s Law by a factor of four.

RU: What would you say was the oddest or most “science fictional” scene you visited or conversation you had during the course of your “tour”?

MS: The most “science fictional” was meeting the sociable robots at MITs Personal Robotics Group. Get onto You Tube and search for “Leo Robot” or “Nexi Robot” and you’ll see what I mean. Talking of robots, check out video of Boston Dynamics “Big Dog”  too.

The oddest thing I did was attend an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives – the idea of the first elected president of the nation, Mohamed Nasheed. (I was one of only one of four people not in the government or the support team allowed in the water). As we swam back to the shore I found myself swimming next to the president. His head turned my way and I must have looked startled because he made the underwater hand signal for “Are you okay?” I signalled back to assure him I was because there is no hand signal for “Bloody hell! I’m at an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives! How cool is that?!”

RU: Many of our readers are transhumanists.  What course of action would you recommend toward creating a desirable future.

MS: During my journey I spoke to a man called Mark Bedau, a philosopher and ethicist who said: “Change will happen and we can either try to influence it in a constructive way, or we can try to stop it from happening, or we can ignore it. Trying to stop it from happening is, I think, futile. Ignoring it seems irresponsible.”
This then, I believe, is everybody’s job: to try an influence change in a constructive way. The first way you do that is get rid of your own cynicism. Cynicism is like smoking. It may look cool but its really bad for you — and worse still its really bad for everyone around you. Cynicism is an institution of the mind that’s just as damaging as anything our governments or our employers can do to us.

I also like something a man called Dick Rutan told me when I visited the Mojave Space Port. He’s arguably the world’s finest aviator, most famous for flying around the world nonstop on one tank of gas. He’s seventy years old and still test piloting high-performance aircraft, and he told me: “Never look at a limitation as something you ever comply with. Never. Only look at it as an opportunity for greatness.”

RU: Your book is pretty funny… and you’ve been a stand up comedian.  What’s the funniest thing about the future?

MS: My next book, obviously!

Jul 12 2011

Rights of the nonhuman: Give me liberty or give me death?

Dolphin Head“Give me liberty or give me death!” By revealing a new level of importance for the burst-pulse sounds used by dolphins along with their clicks and whistles, researchers have realized that the sounds mirror behavior that keeps the social hierarchy and peace of the pod intact. Now, there is an increased call for a Declaration of Cetacean Rights.  In another 30 years, will this become a call for the rights of non-human AIs?

A new kickstarter documentary project will explore the possibility that dolphins’ intelligence may be superior to our own. The film hypothesizes that our own limited intelligence and human-centric orientation may prevent us from recognizing the true intelligence of other species in much the same way that 19th century western science failed to recognize the intelligence and worth of non-western cultures.  Here’s a video preview:

The riddle of dolphin clicks and whistles has befuddled researchers not unlike early Egyptologists deciphering the Rosetta Stone. The problem is: there isn’t a Dolphinese-equivalent Rosetta Stone — at least, yet.

Rosetta StoneThe earliest human-dolphin communication research dates to John Lilly’s Communication Research Institute on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in the 1950s. During the early 1960s, Lilly and co-workers published several papers reporting that dolphins could mimic human speech patterns. Lilly’s later, more controversial, work with isolation tanks and psychedelics — attempting to put himself into “dolphin space” — led him to believe that dolphins represent an alien and perhaps superior earth-bound intelligence in an aqueous medium.

In the 1980s Lilly directed a failed attempt to teach dolphins a computer-synthesized language. In the 1990s, Louis Herman of the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, found that bottlenose dolphins can keep track of over 100 different words. They can also respond appropriately to commands in which the same words appear in a different order, understanding the difference between “bring the surfboard to the man” and “bring the man to the surfboard”, for example.

A recent New Scientist article quotes Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, on the problems with these early attempts at human-dolphin communication: “They create a system and expect the dolphins to learn it, and they do, but the dolphins are not empowered to use the system to request things from the humans.”

Herzing is now collaborating with Thad Starner, an artificial intelligence researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, on a project named Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT). They want to work with dolphins to “co-create” a language that uses features of sounds that wild dolphins communicate with naturally.

The recording device being built by Starner and his students includes two hyrdophones and a data storage computer about the size of a smartphone. The hydrophones are capable of picking up the full range of dolphin sounds. An LED in the diver’s mask will light up and indicate from which direction–thereby which dolphin sounds are coming. A handheld device called a Twiddler acts as both a mouse and a keyboard and allows the diver to select the sounds to be played back to the dolphin — that is, to decide what to “say.”

Singularity Hub reports that the initial “conversations” will involve eight “words” invented by the research team. “Seaweed” and “bow wave ride” are two examples. The researchers will then use software to listen and see if the dolphins can successfully mimic the learned sounds. If they can, the CHAT team will then listen for new words, the “fundamental units” of dolphinese.

While inter-species communication with dolphins is an exciting prospect in itself, and would certainly help cement the case for granting human-like rights for dolphins and other cetaceans (particularly if dolphins start to explicate quarks, quantum physics, and 3-D acoustical engineering to us), it is not a necessary argument for granting non-human rights according to some animal rights activists. At a two-day meeting in Helsinki in 2010 led by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, conservationists, philosophers, and lawyers have come out saying that cetaceans should be granted the equivalent of human rights. Their Declaration of Cetacean Rights reads:

  • Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  • Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  • No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
  • All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.
  • No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.
  • Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.
  • The rights, freedoms, and norms set forth in this Declaration should be protected under international and domestic law.
  • Cetaceans are entitled to an international order in which these rights, freedoms and norms can be fully realized.
  • No State, corporation, human group, or individual should engage in any activity that undermines these rights, freedoms, or norms.
  • Noting in this Declaration shall prevent a State from enacting stricter provisions for the protection of cetacean rights.

Another organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project, goes a step further suggesting that non-human animals including chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins have the capacity to possess common law rights, “A declaration of common law personhood requires judges to decide something fundamental. A common law person is capable of having a common law right, any right. If one can have any common law right, one is a common law person.”

The multi-nation Oceanic-Union “Free Society over the Earth and Sea” broadens the definition of rights to include all forms of life (and, presumably, the ecosystems that support them). Article 106 — The respect of Animal Life — reads: “Therefore it is upon each and every Men and Women to both guard and protect all forms of life, rather than view other Animal Life forms as mere possessions and beasts of burden or pure sport.”

A noble sentiment, but one perhaps with blinders to the reality of ongoing human genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur. If we can’t get it together with our fellow humans, how can we expect to our fellow humans to respect the rights of non-humans?

Making the civil rights case for your iRobot Roomba, of course, is downright silly. But, conceivably, by the middle of this century, machines could be demanding the same rights as humans.

Robot Woman

Ray Kurzweil has predicted that human-level AI may be here within 20 years or so. Others are more conservative, while a few think it could be here in the next decade.  What should we do with an AI with intelligence matching your own intellect as it arrives (most likely in a virtual world)? Are these things just machines that we can use however we want? If they do have civil rights, should they have the same rights as humans?

A recent Forbes blog poses a key question on the issue of AI civil rights: if an AI can learn and understand its programming, and possibly even alter the algorithms that control its behavior and purpose, is it really conscious in the same way that humans are? If an AI can be programmed in such a fashion, is it really sentient in the same way that humans are?

Even putting aside the hard question of consciousness, should the hypothetical AIs of mid-century have the same rights as humans?  The ability to vote and own property? Get married? To each other? To humans? Such questions would make the current gay rights controversy look like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

Of course, this may all a moot point given the existential risks faced by humanity (for example, nuclear annihilation) as elucidated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and others.  Or, our AIs actually do become sentient, self-reprogram themselves, and “20 minutes later,” the technological singularity occurs (as originally conceived by Vernor Vinge).

Give me liberty or give me death? Until an AI or dolphin can communicate this sentiment to us, we can’t prove if they can even conceptualize such concepts as “liberty” or “death.” Nor are dolphins about to take up arms anytime soon even if they wanted to — unless they somehow steal prosthetic hands in a “Day of the Dolphin”-like scenario and go rogue on humanity.

The issue of rights is clearly more pressing for dolphins than AIs at this point: our cetacean cousins continue to wash ashore in the wake of massive oil spills and nuclear reactor meltdowns, and show up as sashimi in Japanese grocery stores…