Human Theory

If Chickens Could Re-Invent Eggs...

... then the riddle would be easy to answer. Transhumanism and particularly extropianism have long seemed to me to be mostly about technophilia. About love of the product: Maybe even loving it so much that you want to make yourself more like it. 'Other proposals include a ridge in the nose developed for wearing glasses, ears moulded to accommodate earphones, a thumb with an extra joint for sending SMS messages more efficiently and a foot adapted to create the same posture as wearing high heels.'In one sense, it's of a piece with gun-nuttery: You can have my Blackberry* when you pry it from my cold, dead, extra-jointed thumb. 

On the other hand, I've always felt that people might be a little too attached to the present, so I find it hard to quarrel with designer/artist Marcia Nolte:

If we look back into the history of evolution, we see that our body adapts to changing circumstances. Today we see that these circumstances often adapt to our body. In this case the design is usually reacting on the individual needs and less on surviving.

Well, she's got a point. For better or worse, we're driving our own evolution, now, and while I'm really skeptical about our ability to make design decisions that don't bite us in the ass a hundred (or even fifty) years from now, letting the changes accrue randomly as an aggregation of consumer designs makes even less sense.

I'm not really sure what Nolte is trying to do with these images. As quietly disturbing as they are (and that ill-ease springs as much from the gestalt of the photos as from the strangeness of the body modifications), I suspect that they are meant to provoke thought. So let's think about it. 

What does it mean to alter ourselves to suit our products? Arguably we've done that, as part of a long, slow process that was initiated when we picked up a stone and threw it at prey or predator. But it was a truly slow process, and there wasn't really anything conscious about it. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find examples of selective breeding for desirable traits -- it should be easy to find them in slave populations, but you could almost certainly find them in general populations, as well. It would happen just as surely through social constraints on marriage suitability as it would through selective breeding among slaves.

What we have not had the capacity to do before now -- what we will soon have the capacity to do -- is to change ourselves to suit our environment. In its most extreme forms, this kind of extropianism (or is it transhumanism?) forces us to contemplate where the boundaries of humanity lie. James Blish pushed the edges of this envelope in his 'pantropy' stories, which were driven by a seeding metaphor: We "normal" humans "seed the stars" with beings more suited to the places we land. Is it a largely arborial world? Make them like monkeys. Aquatic? Seals. No large scale life yet? Make them near-microscopic.

The gauntlet hasn't often been thrown as forcefully since. But the extreme cases can make us think it's an easier problem than it really is. Body mods like extra joints in the thumb are trivial compared to actually changing the way the brain works, for example, and that's the big missing link, from my perspective. For me, the key human thing about humans has always been how our brains work. (I'm not a human-exceptionalist: This is also, to me, the key fox-thing about foxes or bat-thing about bats.) One of the things that extropians miss is that changing the brain in even small ways is liable to fundamentally change our human-ness.

Most people don't really have any grasp of what a homeostatic balancing act the brain-mind really is. Tweak the serotonin a little bit, for example, and you can turn a stable and solid person into a basket case in a heartbeat. So imagine if we were to throw off the timing by adding more efficient nanotech-driven neurons, for example. We might throw the recipient into a massive feedback loop that crashed their brain.

Some people are going to get seriously messed-up by all this. I suppose evolution requires casualties.

[via Dezeen]

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*Gotta be a Blackberry. Extropianism is too hard-core for an iPhone. Anyway, if he were modified for an iPhone, the tip of her model's thumb would be really, really tiny.

Vernor Vinge: Cheating at the Turing Test

Vernor Vinge on cheating at the Turing Test:

As with past computer progress, the achievement of some goals will lead to interesting disputes and insights. Consider two of [Rodney] Brooks's challenges: manual dexterity at the level of a 6-year-old child and object-recognition capability at the level of a 2-year-old. Both tasks would be much easier if objects in the environment possessed sensors and effectors and could communicate. For example, the target of a robot's hand could provide location and orientation data, even URLs for specialized manipulation libraries. Where the target has effectors as well as sensors, it could cooperate in the solution of kinematics issues. By the standards of today, such a distributed solution would clearly be cheating. But embedded microprocessors are increasingly widespread. Their coordinated presence may become the assumed environment. In fact, such coordination is much like relationships that have evolved between living things. [link added]

I don't think Vinge goes nearly far enough. I've thought for at least twenty years that our standards for machine sentience (or any non-human sentience, for that matter) were hopelessly anthropomorphic. For most purposes, "Artificial Intelligence" should have been called "Artificial Human-Like Intelligence."

I lack sympathy for the idea that we have only ourselves to judge it by. People have been dealing with beings of different intelligence for as long as there have been human beings. (We call them "animals.") I'd like to think we've figured out something by now -- or at least figured out how to figure it out -- about how to judge intelligence without provoking the shades of Alan Turing and G. B. Shaw to peals of ghostly laughter.

To Vinge's immediate point: If we require of the machine that it be like us, we are placing an irrelevant constraint on our evaluation of its intelligence. Imagine if machines were evaluating us -- think how short we'd fall in their estimation with our slow electro-chemical communications network, the lossy construction of our visual apparatus. And how slowly we caluclate!

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