I’ve been up to the demonstrations at the Wisconsin capitol at least a dozen times, and every time I’ve noticed a strange effect: I can’t help laughing and smiling. In fact, all the participants exhibit this syndrome, even the police. Some of this can be explained by the imaginative costumes and signs that folks bring. Like a five-year-old boy with “Walker is a Big Meanie” pinned to his shirt, the young woman carrying a “Free Lindsay Lohan” sign (fun even if she’s an ironic counter-demonstrator), and the Raging Grannies, a singing group of mature ladies in their flowered hats. But it goes much deeper than that. The demonstrators include teachers, railroad workers, prison guards, off-duty police and firefighters, iron workers, nurses, postal carriers and sorters, sheet metal workers, truck drivers, doctors, steam fitters, farmers, university teaching assistants, electrical workers, professors, and gray-haired retirees like me. These people are insulted by the new state government and are worried sick about the humiliations they will suffer when they no longer have unions and collective bargaining to defend them. They include many private sector union workers who think their cause will be lost if public sector unions disappear. By their demonstrations, hundreds every day and tens of thousands every weekend, for week after week, these people are reclaiming their dignity. It just feels so good that you have to smile and laugh.
The pressure on middle class working people has several causes: jobs are disappearing to automation, communication and transportation technology are forcing American workers to compete with much cheaper labor globally, and our complex, computerized financial system sucks the profits out of other sectors and defies understanding by regulators. The remorseless logic of the market is telling a large percentage of the population that they just aren’t worth as much as they were before these technology-driven changes. It’s fair to say that Wisconsin’s new governor and legislative leaders are market ideologues, and they want to bring the logic of the market to state workers (even those, like I used to be, whose salary and benefits don’t come from state taxes).
We develop technology to make the world better, so we can have cheaper and more plentiful manufactured goods, food, communications and transportation. But rather than sharing in this bounty, some people are worse off. Are we in such a rush to develop and exploit technology that we can’t provide a little dignity to those who are hurt? Can’t we temper the logic of the market with compassion for those not on the cutting edge of technology? I spent my career developing software for real-time process control and for scientific visualization, but I can’t help laughing and smiling when I’m with folks reclaiming their dignity from the logic of the market.
We transhumanists know that, when it comes to technology, the world hasn’t seen anything yet. The average human lifespan has approximately doubled over recent centuries in the developed world; during the next century science is likely to discover how to extend human life indefinitely. This will include a deep understanding of the mechanisms of life and its diseases, and development of technology for modifying those mechanisms. This will enable us to enhance human bodies to repair defects and increase skills. We are also likely during the next century to build artificial brains better in all ways than human brains, and to learn how to merge them with human brains so that humans can increase their intelligence limited only by the size of their artificial brains.
But I think that when it also comes to possible negative effects of technology, we haven’t seen anything yet. When your intelligence depends on the size of your brain, the logic of the market is that your intelligence depends on your wealth. And in turn, your wealth will depend on your intelligence. This positive feedback loop between wealth and intelligence will create a huge divergence in the intelligence of different humans, so that less intelligent humans can not speak or learn the languages spoken by the most intelligent. Humanity may essentially split into multiple species, with the great mass no better than pets to the elite.
Will our pursuit of biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology squeeze out all other considerations? Or can we compromise technological progress with compassionate public policy for all humans? One approach to compassionate policy would be to ensure that all humans have equal access to enhancement technologies, independent of their wealth. Another approach would be to require a license for greater-than-human intelligence, with the condition that such super-intelligent minds must have specified altruistic primary values or goals. The details of compassionate policy for the creation of super-intelligent minds are the subject of numerous papers and debates, with no consensus yet on the best policy. But the lesson of the Wisconsin demonstrations is that such compassion may make us all laugh and smile a lot.