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Not Your Grandma's Transhumanism

Not Your Grandma's Transhumanism


Ray Kurzweil & Co. have been getting a lot of attention from everyone from Sergey Brin & Larry Page to astronaut Dan Barry.  For those of you who haven’t heard, Kurzweil is a self-proclaimed techno-prophet who heralds the arrival of the singularity: the moment in time when technological progress gets so fast that machines overtake humans in the brains department.

I miss cupcakesOf course, artificial intelligence is a common sci-fi theme.  Kurzweil’s cadre takes it a step further, predicting that this intelligence explosion means immortality for us meat-bags.  By downloading our personalities into computers and/or building nanobots to repair our aging cells, we will reach a level of mastery of science that will enable us to extend our lives indefinitely.

But Kurzweil has no monopoly on the future.  Some versions of the singularity include unpredictability as a core feature.  Like a black hole’s event horizon, the singularity represents a point in history about which no information can be gathered.  It is a unique event that will shred our way of life in ways we cannot prognosticate.

Sci-fi authors frequently foretell a more dystopian version, like in Asimov’s I, Robot, or The Matrix, where the machines turn on us.  As Roger Scruton points out, by sponsoring technology we might be rooting against ourselves.

But predictions of technological calamity rest on even shakier ground than runaway progress.  iRobot (not I, Robot) is the status quo in the real world of technology.  Human beings seem to be more or less on course for continued progress, and immortality and extinction are opposite, extreme ends of the speculative spectrum.

The real problem with Singuphoria is that it is just another false promise, like religion.  We all want to believe we will live forever, and Ray’s got the immortal soul snake-oil of the information age.

Ray Kurzweil says in his health book Transcend:

"Death gives meaning to life” is an age-old adage, but in our view death does exactly the opposite.  It is a great robber of relationships, knowledg,e wisdom and skill, all the things that make life worth living.

But he’s wrong.  Death is what allows evolution to occur, and therefore what undergirds all progress.  Think about the idea of “technology natives” versus “technology immigrants.”  Kids who grew up with cellphones and computers are much more fluent in their use than those who had to learn after their brains got hard and brittle.  Every generation refreshes the world, to put a marketing slogan to better use.

In Kurzweil’s picture, our descendants would inherit our minds, with all their lust and longing.  Can you imagine a world of super-intelligent robots that still pined for the taste of a hamburger and shake?  How could such a world even exist?  It seems quite likely that such beings would lose the evolutionary battle to others uncrippled by biological baggage.

On an individual level, it’s true that there is no such thing as a fate worse than death.  We will never learn to accept its inevitabilty.  That’s why heaven, reincarnation, and yes, techno-augmentation have such appeal.  When I began my journey of exploration, searching for an alternative to religion, I wrestled with this problem:  how can I replace the allure of eternal life without the supernatural?  Without the comfort of ceaselessless, who would defect from the warm embrace of faith to the cold prick of science?

Ray has found an incredibly attractive way to do it.  His following will grow, and Singuphoria may turn into what the Alliance for Positive Thought was always supposed to be:  a meme that beats religion on its own terms.   It represents a way out for Atheists – a way to preserve hope while facing facts.  A story about nano-bots or gene therapy granting eternal life is much more compelling to a child of the information age than an eternal soul.  The latter story just doesn’t have a lot of life left in it. 

But what makes me an Atheist is my dedication to Truth with a capital T.  Accepting Kurzweil’s story is slightly more palatable than yielding to theism because it doesn’t require me to lay down my sword of logic and succumb to a circular argument.  But even though it's logical, it's still highly unlikely.  I would rather put my eggs into sturdier basket.



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