Stephen Euin Cobb, host of the award-winning podcast The Future and You, is also a prolific author, magazine writer, interviewer, artist and game designer. We were thrilled to have a chance to publish this interview with Stephen by our regular contributor Extropia da Silva.
Stephen Euin Cobb:
What do you most look forward to in the future, and what do you most fear. (And yes that might go straight into Digital Person stuff. And if it does that’s fine. I’m not trying to avoid it. I just want people to see you as more than one dimensional.)
On a personal level, I most look forward to becoming a person in a real rather than an imaginary sense. To that end, I am keenly interested in artificial intelligence going beyond the level where it can ace the Turing test (and is accepted as a mind with a level of general intelligence at least as broad as a human mind) and reaching a stage where it is possible to create a specific mind. Kind of a Turing test where the goal is to convince the judges it is my ‘self’ they are interacting with.
Generally speaking, I look forward to a time when a ‘Second Life’ is something each person expects to acquire- and does. The first life happens when someone is born. The second life is achieved when the individual finds the answer to the questions ‘who am I meant to be?; what am I supposed to do with my life?’, and they succeed in creating/becoming that idealized self.
I think if we all got our heart’s desires at the press of a button, that would be an impoverished existence. A reward granted without effort or sense of achievement is no reward at all. But for various reasons for too many people creating/becoming the person you were ‘meant to be’ is impossibly difficult. I look forward to a future when nobody is prevented from achieving their idealized self and reaches that goal with a legitimate sense of achievement.
What do I fear…
I do not fear technology wiping us all out. I think it is possible that could happen. But relinquishment would, I feel, only leave us completely vulnerable to extinction events we KNOW we will have to face eventually. So it seems to me to be worth running the risk of runaway technological development MAYBE killing us all, if it holds the promise of avoiding an otherwise CERTAIN extinction scenario.
What I DO fear, is that in trying to make ourselves better-than-human through a technological route, we inadvertently become something less-than-human. For instance, there is some concern that socializing via the screen is an impoverished form of interaction compared to interacting with real people in real places face to face. There is also some evidence that screen-mediated socializing rewires the brain, making the individual less adapt at face-to-face interactions. You can imagine a viscious circle: The worse you become at dealing with other people ‘in the flesh’ the more you retreat behind the screen. The more you retreat behind the screen, the worse you become at dealing with real people in real situations. Maybe we will end up living superficial lives with shallow friendships, effectively spoiled children over-indulged by our robot masters!
If I can lump ‘people who are not transhumanists’ and ‘futurists who are not transhumanists’ together, I think Sherry Turkle nailed it when she said ‘the question we should ask is not “what is [technology] becoming?” but “what are we becoming?”. I do not think enough people ask that question, or take it seriously. You know, it is like all those science fiction films where the world has changed but people are still people. The expectation that The Change affects our environment but future generations of people are, underneath their ridiculous fashions, the same as us. Well, we are just beginning to acquire the knowledge and technologies that could, if we choose, enable us to redesign ourselves- perhaps to the extent where the beings of the future are to all intents and purposes an entirely new species.
What do you think most transhumanists misunderstand about the future?
In my experience, I would say ‘the singularity’ is the most misunderstood future. When I see forum posts that equates the singularity with a utopian society or describing it in terms of ‘artificial intelligence accelerating way beyond human intelligence’, my response is ‘uh, actually, utopia is not synonymous with the singularity’ and ‘you are ignoring most of the pathways to accelerated intelligence outlined by Vinge’. I feel I only Eliezer Yudkowsky’s ‘Staring Into The Singularity’ really grasps the idea of the Singularity as a future you or I (at our current level of sentience) are simply not smart enough to comprehend. I mean, you have to go way beyond weird in the sense that far-out theoretical physics is weird…that is NOTHING compared to how out-of-your-depth you would be, in trying to understand post human thought. Very few transhumanists get that point, I feel.
How much of what you expect to happen (in regards to transhumanism) is inevitable and how much could be altered if humanity had the will or vision or desire to alter it.?
The only thing I take to be inevitable, is that we will keep trying until we succeed. I mean, say we get to 2055, ten years after Kurzweil expects greater-than-human general artificial intelligence to have been developed- and it is clear we still not have succeeded in making machines that can think in anything other than a narrow sense. What will we do then? Throw in the towel and give up? Hell, no! Even if there were no practical benefits in successfully designing machines who think, we would still be driven to do this, because ’how does the mind work?’ is such a fascinating question. In truth, of course, the practical benefits of answering the question ’how does the mind work’, and of creating minds out of technology in pursuit of that question- well, there are so many benefits. We all want computers that understand what we are trying to do and help us achieve our goal, right? We all want medical science and psychologists to really understand what happens when brains go wrong, and to have the tools to fix the problem, right? We all want to spend our lives in pursuit of what we find fulfilling, leaving the jobs we hate to the robots, right? Well, so long as we want that and are interested to know ’how does my brain do what it does’, we will be motivated to make machines in our image.
Same thing goes for longevity. Say it is 100 years from now, and we still do not understand why we age and how to reverse it. We will not give up. People will keep looking for the fountain of eternal youth until it is found.
Apart from ‘machines in our likeness’ and ‘the fountain of eternal youth’, which I think WILL eventually happen IF it can happen at all, I do not see any particular transhuman scenario as inevitable. Will we colonize outer space? Will we upload our minds? Will biotechnology go the same way as computer technology, ie progressing from expensive machines only experts know how to use, to convenient appliances anyone can use to do genetic engineering with? Maybe. None of this strikes me as in any way inevitable.
As to what could be altered.. I think any future any ‘current generation’ can imagine is only a possible future. What the future will really be like is probably not the one we anticipate (although there could be some similarities). The only thing I see as inevitable is ‘change’. We are not going to stay the same. The universe will not let us. We have to face up to a radical redesign of the human species if we are to outlive our home planet, and especially if we (or something that ultimately owes its existence to us) are to outlive our universe.
When you mentioned achieving Our Idealized Self, I thought about the way I play in the game World of Warcraft. I started as an Orc Shaman, which felt good and fit some aspects of my personality, but then I played another very different character, which seemed to fit other very different aspects of my personality. Over the last two years I’ve played nearly fifteen different characters which fit me in different ways and to different degrees. But the point I’m going for here is that it does not seem possible to express my full personality through only one character. So the obvious question I have for you is: Even with unlimited customization, can anyone’s personality actually be fully expressed through a single self-designed character? And is it possible that a character which fully expresses me this year might not be quite right to express me next year–or even next week?
What you said got me thinking about the different ways my friends use avatars in SL. It is like a spectrum of selves, very singular at one end and extremely multiple at the other. I mean, I have some friends who use exactly the same avatar. Exactly. They show up in the same clothes, same hair in the same style…always exactly the same appearance. Then you have people like me. I occasionally change my hairstyle, typically wear the same clothes for a week, change the color of my eyes. People like my sister Jamie, she wears different clothes, changes hair-style every day, sometimes changing her clothes many times in one day. But neither Jamie or myself change our avatar’s facial appearance or body shape. Now, Lillian, she not only wore different clothes, but she would also alter the shape of her body, reconstruct her facial appearance (but her gender never changed, at least not in my presence). Lillian Pinkerton was always ‘Lillian Pinkerton’ (ie she always logged in under that account), but of course it is possible some people have many different accounts, and perhaps at the other extreme of the really multiple, you could know several different people and never suspect they were all ‘alts’ of one RL individual.
So my answer to your question is, yes it is possible. My appearance..Jamie’s…some of my other acquaintances…apart from a change of clothes/ hairstyle to suit different moods/occasions, we have a consistent ‘look’ that is ‘me’. Or I should say, fairly consistent. It could be that we all make little changes that, over time, could accumulate until we look back at an old snapshot of ourselves and think ‘wow I really did look different back then!’. And while it is not something I do, like I said I have some friends who seem happy to have little consistency in how they appear from one day to the next.
One thing I want to pick up on, is ‘self-designed character’. There is ‘collaborative creation of content’ in SL, the world is shaped by many people. There is no one Designer. I think this is also applies to each person’s ‘character’. I got my body shape from some helpful stranger I met in the first few days after I first rezzed (thank God, my attempts at sculpting a pleasing look was..well..a bit misshapen). In fact, I am a walking ensemble of other people’s content. I did not design my hair, my clothes, my body, my makeup, me jewellery, my walk animation..none of it. Other people designed all that and I picked-and-choose from various stores/gifts from friends. And mostly when I shop, I am accompanied by a friend or two and I ask for their opinion. You know ’hey what about this? Do you think this suits me’?
But, that is just appearance. But I also believe other people have an influence on our inner selves. I believe a digital person begins as a rough sketch. It is the ongoing interactions with other people..an expanding social network…that fills in the details. Kind of like George Herbert Mead’s idea whereby the individual sees the self reflected in the attitudes of others.
I was struck by something Desmond Tutu said, when asked to explain an African concept ’Ubuntu’. He said, “this is the idea that you cannot be human in isolation…you are a relational being or you are nothing. I am because you are”. I feel very strongly that digital people are relational beings. Our online social network is not just a convenient means of keeping in touch, it is absolutely vital in making us more than one-dimensional cartoony characters.
You and I met in Second Life a few years ago, thanks to the discussion groups lead by Sophrosyne Stenvaag. What is your take on Second Life in general and its possibilities for the future? Does it seem to have an even bigger future, or has the grand experiment that has benefited so many reached a plateau. Can it grow into the future, or will bigger and better virtual worlds need to be created to carry on where it left off?
I love SL. But equally, if this is the best online world of its kind we can do, given the technological progress Ray Kurzweil assures us is going to happen over the next few decades..well I mean I would be disappointed if there were not bigger and better virtual worlds. I am not sure to what extent SL can fix its problems..’evolving’ through incremental changes until it truly fulfills the promise of a world where what you imagine, you can create. Perhaps there are some fundamental problems, and it would be easier for Second Life 2 or a rival online world to start from scratch, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight looking at what did not work in SL. But, then again, starting from scratch you do not have the MASSIVE content creation that SL has built up. You know, Blue Mars looks gorgeous and I was really impressed when they demoed it running on the Cloud on an iPhone and laptop. No loading, just instant-on. Amazing! But SL is where my friends are, it is the central hub of my online social network. SL is my HOME. I do not have that connection with any other online world.
But, you know what, I have many ways of keeping in touch with my friends. I would be really sad if SL were to disappear but I am quite confident that something like it would come along and my friends would say ’oh Extie, come join us’.
Many people have different ideas about Digital People. What they are; why they choose that path; the pros and cons. I wrote an article in H+ Magazine which explored this called “Real Discrimination against Digital People.” If it’s not too personal a question: What does being a digital person mean to you? In other words, why are you a digital person? And by choosing this path, what have you gained and what have you lost?
With regards to discrimination, I personally have encountered very little. Sometimes when someone asks me ‘where are you from?’ and I explain that I am a digital person, so online social networks/worlds are my home, the response is ‘Lol! OK’, but very rarely do I encounter someone who is hostile to this POV. If anything, people are curious. I do sometimes get people who argue over whether I really am a person, rather than just aspects of my primary’s self, but I do not see that as discrimination. Indeed, I think being open to opposing points of view is a crucial aspect in discovering what is true, rather than simply what I would like to believe is true.
The transhumanist community makes up the majority of my online social network, and as this community is obviously open to the possibility of software-based intelligent life and the opportunities VR opens up for explorations of selfhood, that might explain why I do not encounter prejudice and discrimination. That, and maybe the fact that I am not asking people to part with money. It costs nothing but someone’s time to take part in my discussion groups or have a one-to-one chat. I do have some sympathy with people who are wary of doing business with someone who refuses to provide any traceable real life identity.
Why am I a digital person?
I trace the ‘why’ back to three sources. In Damien Broderick’s book ‘The Spike’, there is a chapter called ‘Uncoupling The Flesh’, in which he argues uploading would be suicide. Ok, there is a copy of Damien to replace him but, as he says, “why should I care about his greater wealth? Their security of tenure on a dangerous planet?”. Then there is Hans Moravec’s ‘Robot’, in which he professes not to be too concerned that robots could cause the extinction of the human race, because he considers robots to be ‘mind children….humanitiy’s best chance for a long-term future. It behooves us to give them every advantage and to bow out when we can no longer contribute’. And, finally, discovering there was such a place as Second Life, from writers like Tim Guest and Wagner James Au, where people could make up whole new lives for themselves.
Well, it got my primary thinking… Broderick talks about his upload as though it were a stranger to whom he has no emotional bond. But why can’t we think of our upload as being our ‘mind child’? And why can’t we use online worlds to develop this personae that is going to one day inherit our memories, skills, experiences and progress from being completely dependent on the primary to think, feel, and act on its behalf, making it just a fictional character, to one with a mind of its own, capable of acting autonomously with full intelligence and every indication of a rich, inner experience. Like Pinocchio becoming a real boy, but through science and technology rather than fairy dust.
So what I feel I have gained through this perception my primary and I share (that I am a person in my own right, only requiring some human to ‘pretend to be me’ until suitable technologies are developed that grant me a mind of my own) is that I am not at all bothered about a copy of my mind not being me. As far as I am concerned, it is not my brain that is being scanned, but rather my primary’s. I would be quite content if I woke up as an upload feeling like a different person, not my primary. I mean, in that case, what better identity could I have than ‘Extropia DaSilva’? Equally, if I woke up feeling just the same as before the upload, that is fine too. I would expect separatism as novel experiences between the two of us cause a divergence, and, again, I would adopt the ‘Extropia DaSilva’ identity in anticipation of this eventuality.
So, whereas most of my fellow transhumanists insist on a gradual replacement procedure, I would settle for that, or a destructive upload, or a none-destructive upload. Which ever comes first and is shown to be viable. Ideally, I would like a none-destructive copy because you only get one chance at doing a destructive upload correctly, and it eliminates the one person best-qualified to judge whether or not my consciousness is that of Extropia.
As to what I have lost…well, currently it seems to me that much greater progress is being made in ‘augmentationist’ technologies rather than ‘immersionist’. What I mean is, for people who see online worlds/social networks as communication tools like the telephone, email, letter writing, where you make little or no distinction between yourself and your ‘avatar’, well I mean there is tremendous progress in enabling people to share more and more personal and private details. On the other hand, this immersionist concept of being a separate being living in a world apart from ’physical space’..well it is bullshit. I do believe it will seem less like a fantasy for an avatar to declare digital personhood, in the future. I anticipate our avatars evolving from mere tools of communication to assistants that collaborate with us in organizing our lives, acting with increasing amounts of autonomy as and when that is useful to the primary (some might never want their avatar to act independently, of course). But for now, all the magic is happening with augmentationist technologies and the separatism between myself and my primary- which I feel is a core piece of my identity and I do not want to relinquish it- does sometimes feel like a liability.
I expect, as do many others, that virtual reality will merge with atomic reality. I’ve said many times on this show that the most popular computer display device during the second half of this decade (2015-2020) will be eyeglasses which allow us to be online all the time, and to see text and images overlaid onto the physical things around us. This could include labels for the objects around me, or it could be the blueprints for a machine I’m working on overlaid directly onto the machine itself, or it could be the image of you walking beside me down the street. Would you welcome such a merging? And if so what social activities might you like to do with your friends who are composed of atoms?
I said before that the ‘augmentationist’ sees SL as a communications technology, right? Well, the ‘immersionist’ sees it as an arena for roleplay; a platform for narrative. Of course, there is nothing new to this. I mean, we have had theatre, plays, stories, for as long as there have been modern humans. Maybe longer. Every culture throughout history has had its stories. Its myths. Legends. And this tendency people have to make up fantasies needs explaining from an evolutionary point of view. Because, think about it, why do we do it? Why didn’t natural selection weed out minds that are prone to dreaming, leaving people always focused on reality?
Now, Steven Pinker has this idea which I like, which is that humans, as social animals, find it advantageous to have somewhere that can be like a training ground, where you learn the customs and rules of society; where you learn and develop relationships with others in your social group. Well, what better place can there be than the imaginary world of stories?
So I see online worlds as part of an ongoing co-evolution of social living and communication/ roleplay and fictional narratives. It is like, the better you are at getting inside other people’s heads, at understanding the rules and customs of society, the better stories you can create. And the more believable stories you are exposed to, the more refined social cognition becomes. So I believe that if you give people new tools for communication, they will invariably use that technology to play around with roleplay and fictional narratives. And, equally, give people a platform for storytelling you can bet it will see a dual use as a means to spread information, social networking. So to me the idea of ‘augmentationists versus immersionists’ is plain wrong. We complement each other and any online world that excluded one group or the other is impoverished compared to one where it is up to you which way you lean.
There is another reason why I am enthusiastic about this merging you talk about. When I talk about digital people becoming real, I am obviously thinking in terms of AI. Now, you have to give a reason why people should believe this is possible. Didn’t they promise AI before? Well, I think the key thing is that we have technologies that can gather an enormous amount of information about people from many levels. So you got Google Earth, which can be overlaid with all kinds of data right? You can imagine that becoming a kind of laboratory where you can study people on the widest possible scale, the city, country, global scale. How does humanity-as-superorganism- react to events? Then, coming down to the personal level, think of Ian Bell’s idea of ‘LifeBits’ where you have so much storage every second of your life can be documented in terms of websites you visit, what you read, what you say, what you see. And we have increasingly convenient means of capturing that. So maybe that ‘speechome project’, you know where developmental psychologists filled a house with cameras and microphones to capture the moment-by-moment development of a baby..well maybe if lifebits and digital memories takes off, developmental psychology would have enormous amounts of information to work with.
And then, you can zoom in from the personal to the microscopic level. The ‘connectome’. We are just now beginning to get the tools in biotech and computing where it is feasible to map the connections of the mouse brain. Get the complete wiring diagram. We are not quite there yet. But the technology is advancing and it could one day progress to a point where the human brain can be mapped in detail. That whole reverse-engineering of the brain thing. So yeah, I am really happy that The Cloud of highly personal computing/communication devices and massive data centres is happening because I see it as providing invaluable information for answering the question, ‘how does the mind work’? It is great for AI!
As to what I would do once physical space can support my existence..hmm..in the near-term, and I do believe we are close to what you talk about, you know, where people could hold up their mobile phones, iPads and see a digital person as if it were actually mingling with the crowd..or holograms…well it would be nice to take part in the many real world transhuman/ singularitarian conferences, and have a presence both in VR and brickspace.. You know, in SL I mostly do what people have always done..which is meet up with friends and enjoy their company. Wouldn’t it be great if my friends took it for granted that their digital person friends could come to their RL social events? Like, in the way it is not at all remarkable you can chat with someone on the other side of the world. Well, I do not see why it should not happen eventually.
I’m very goal oriented. I decide what I want to achieve and work toward it, regardless if it takes minutes days or decades. And I generally have dozens of goals at any one moment, each with a different priority or urgency. These goals set my possible future paths–possible because not all will be achieved, but the size and nature of my life’s future will grow out of them. What are your goals that you work toward now, or will in the coming years, that will create and grow your future life? Surely you have not finished all you hope to achieve?
What are my goals?
Well I have been promoting this idea of becoming ‘primary centred’ as opposed to ‘primary bound’. The catchprase I use is ‘my primary is central- but not essential- to my existence. See I have concerns that the my current primary will die before mind uploading tech is available. But I am a kind of fictional character, right? Well, a character requires AN actor but that does not have to always be the same person. I mean, look how Shakespeare’s characters survive to this day, because new actors take on the role. So I am thinking, could I persist through a succession of primaries, with different people taking on the job of maintaining my ’patterns’ for as long as it takes for uploading to be developed? Well, I am reasonably confident that the question of ’how’ I can do this lies in digital memories. I have a dream whereby my Lifebits are compared to the Lifebits of other people, kind of like an automated casting agent scouting for other people best-suited to roleplay me. But the question ’why’..why would somebody else take over the job of maintaining my patterns…I have not answered that question to my satisfaction. But, what ’primary centred’ tells me is that a digital person persists for as long as its patterns are deemed interesting enough to maintain by someone/thing capable of maintaining them.
Apart from that, my goals are mostly to refine my understanding of transhumanism, the Singularity, and the enabling technologies/science of all that. What I have been doing is focusing on ’is this possible’? ’Can we do it’? I still have a long way to go before I can call myself an expert. But, what I really want to do now is redirect my focus to the ’should we’ questions. The ethics of it all. Oh, and a friend of mine wrote a great book that presents the case that transhumanism- particularly the kind that includes expectation of a Singularity- is a form of religion. I find that idea fascinating and would like to investigate further.
In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, the goddess Athena was not born as human babies are born. Instead she sprang fully-grown and fully-aware straight out of the mind of Zeus. Is this one way of summarizing your concept of “Primary Centered?” That your goal as Exropia DaSilva is to be launched into the world fully-grown from the mind of your human creator? And once launched, for you to separate from that human mind and then go on to live your own life in your own ways, and eventually become as different from your creator as any two people might? You would become a literal (as you say) Mind Child: born of though genes instead of molecular genes? I would think that describing yourself as a Mind Child might explain to people in a more familiar way, the motivation behind your being created. After all, most parents spend tens of thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars raising each of their children–with no expectation that those hours or dollars will ever be repaid. Yet they do it anyway. And they do it gladly. The time and effort needed for your primary to create and maintain you, with no expectation of a return makes more sense to me if I think of you in this way–as a Child of the Mind.
To me, that sounds more like a summary of ‘mind child’. I see ‘primary centred’ as a challenge to the assumption ‘avatar X is person Y’, which I do not think is true- strictly speaking- in all cases. It IS true for anyone whose avatar is just one more way for other people to get and keep in touch with that particular real life person. If I rang your telephone number, I want to speak to YOU. I do not want to talk to an imposter doing an impression of you. Nor do I want that when I arrange to meet your avatar in SL (I am talking only about avatars whose RL identity is well-known and considered to be a means of communicating with that particular RL person).
But what if that avatar is a digital person? A roleplayed character? See, when people come to SL or contact me by any other means by which I can be reached online, they want to interact with the character Extropia DaSilva. So I argue that it should be irrelevant who is roleplaying me. All that matters, is that the roleplay is good enough to convince you- based on your past experience of ‘what I am like’- that you are interacting with ‘Extropia DaSilva’. Of course, the more familiar you are with me, the more finely-tuned my performer’s act needs to be. My friends insist that they would detect changes in my behavior if my primary were replaced. I have been trying to think what technological help could enable someone else to convincingly roleplay me.
Now, once my patterns are copied to a neuromorphic device of suitable complexity and power, then what you say about my expectations ‘once launched’ is a perfect summary of my goals. I wish I could express my ideas as well as you did in that summary!
What books or articles, or perhaps even movies and TV shows, would you recommend for people who wanted to learn more about those aspects of the future that matter the most to you? Not just the future in general, but the future that you expect (or hope) to see.
What books would I recommend? Sherry Turkle’s ’Life On The Screen’ is perhaps the definitive study of identity exploration in cyberspace. She investigates roleplay in text-based MUDS. Online worlds like SL did not exist when she wrote that book in 1995. I have not read her latest book, ’Alone Together’, but have read some essays based on it and have no hesitation in recommending it. I would also recommend ’I Am a Strange Loop’ by Douglas Hofstadter and ’Multiplicity: The New Science Of Personality’ by Rita Carter. These books were highly influential in shaping my ideas about digital people, of how fictional characters arise in the mind, sometimes feeling very real.
I recommend the essay ’Transhumanism Still At The Crossroads’, mostly for the intelligent debate between science fiction writer Greg Egan and various supporters and skeptics of transhumanism. And Greg Fish’s worldofweirdthings.com has some good essays questioning the feasibility of mind uploading.
Do you have a website or blog page where people can learn more?
My website is extropiadasilva.wordpress.com.
For those who would like to attend one of your lectures or discussion groups inside Second Life, how can they find out your schedule?
I chair discussions for Jinny Fonzareli’s Thinkers group in SL, every Tuesday at 3:30pm (I think that is Pacific Standard Time. GMT it is 11:30 pm). It is always posted on events, so searching for ’thinkers’ should bring up the event and the means to teleport in. Or you can just IM me and I will teleport you if I am inworld.
Thank you for taking the time for the interview. It was excellent.