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Transhumanists vs Fake Singularitarians

 Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 12.41.51 PMBoth the ideology behind transhumanism and the concept of a singularity have been hijacked by fans of Ray Kurzweil and similar technology advocates. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ray, he is a really smart guy, a true modern day Thomas Edison, but he has inadvertently brought about a huge influx of immortality fanboys. One might even refer to them as a cult following, people who just mindlessly preach that we will all be immortal at 7am on the 1st of july in 2045. Since Kurzweil’s popularization of his views on mankind’s future, many “fake” singularitarians have joined the transhuman movement. I call them “fake” because they join for all the wrong reasons. Many of these rabid life extension enthusiasts actually have no idea what transhumanism is about and are often not even aware that this deeper philosophy exists although it is the underlying root on which real singularitarianism is built.

The people I refer to as “fake singularitarians” don’t really know much about either transhumanism or real singularitarianism. For example, they often don’t even know that alternative singularities have been proposed that are quite different from the one Kurzweil describes. Kurzweil carries the torch for accelerating change but Vernor Vinge describes a singularity in terms of an event horizon that makes prediction of what lies beyond impossible, including the rate of change.

Personally I am fan of the singularity concept as it was defined by I.J. Good, who talks about an intelligence explosion. It unfortunately doesn’t come with an ETA but this scenario is in my opinion the most likely and, I would argue, ongoing.

Since the brain is a finite physical system that does not require magic for its operation, I can’t see why we wouldn’t, given enough time, be able to understand it and replicate its functions. Besides, we already have narrow but sophisticated and very capable A.I., we have robot scientists like ADAM who are doing their own experiments and making new discoveries, we have Watson who can scan vast amounts of data and extract the important bits, we even have software that recognizes cat pictures! These A.I. systems will continue to get better and allow us to speed up our rate of discovery and generally just increase efficiency overall. In other words; one could argue that the intelligence explosion is well underway and that we are already augmenting human intelligence with machine intelligence.

All our current miracle technologies; be it biotech, nanotechnology, robotics or information technologies will push on and lead us to an era that was characterized perfectly by Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Here too, one could argue that we are already there because hardly anyone knows how something like a television, microwave or computer woks.

While singularitarians put most of their money on advances in computer and information science enabling digital immortality by 2045, transhumanists, those that do not identify as singularitarians, are not so sure. There is no scientific evidence that one could put forward that backs up such a strong claim. There is no absolute truth in science, only degrees of certainty. Although a couple of graphs extrapolating current trends indefinitely into the future can be used as evidence to support the likelihood of such an event taking place, such “proof” is still at best an estimate and doesn’t really justify the fervent belief, the lack of doubt and the certainty with which fake singularitarians proclaim to know that immortality lies in their near term future.

The interaction between culture and technology is chaotic. You won’t hear me disagreeing on how it’s likely that man will one day, perhaps even in the near future, be able to boost his lifespan so much that it almost makes sense to talk about immortality, but you can’t specify the exact moment death itself will cease to be. Not just because of uncertainties but also because I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of death entirely. In the end entropy is likely to outlive us all anyway.

That being said, if a jellyfish can achieve biological immortality, naked mole rats can beat cancer and so many organisms can live up to 1000s of years, it’s obvious that there is a lot of room for improvement. Extending lifespan is not against nature, its laws won’t stop us. In fact they help us by providing study materials that can show us how it’s done. If there are biological clocks ticking down inside of us, we just have to find them and rewind them, if there aren’t any and death is caused by nothing but wear and tear, that just means we’ll have to go in for maintenance now and then. Some people look at death as a natural part of life and maybe it is (entropy), but why not live longer? There is no supernatural hand of god striking you down when he thinks your time has come. As long as you keep fixing the stuff that breaks, you will keep on working, running, and living. Unlike singularitarians, I am not willing to pin down a date and am far from convinced that I will live to see this future.

This is what sets transhumanism apart from singularitarianism which is a much narrower ideology and only one of many subsets within the larger transhuman movement.

In a way you of course can’t blame people for not wanting to die, just as you can’t really blame Kurzweil for trying to bring these hard to grasp technologically enabled concepts to the foreground but there is more to transhumanism than technology, immortality and singularity. It’s a bit of a shame that these dominate the foreground however, creating so much singularity noise that it’s becoming hard to find the transhuman signal. Kurzweil has almost single-handedly planted the idea of a singularity in the zeitgeist of our times and for that we should be thankful because this media attention is putting transhumanism on the map as well.

But at the same time we should be afraid that as our base grows, many newcomers will be fake singularitarians who might at best be only dimly aware of the roots in transhumanism. It will distort the signal even further and add ever more noise. Fake singularitarians, as opposed to the real ones, are shallow materialists looking for a quick fix to eternal life. Transhumanists and real singularitarians are, or at least should be imaginative dreamers, idealists looking for adventure who go boldly where no man has gone before. People who carry the torch of reason, science and technology forward and in doing so hope to create a better tomorrow.

Transhumanism is at heart altruistic. You are not working for your own account. It’s not about salivating upon hearing of a new technological consumer gadget or even trying to achieve personal immortality. You work for all, for a future with more options, more freedom, more safety, less hunger, less poverty, less death. Ultimately it’s about creating a world with more good and less bad in it.

Just as our ancestors have created our “modern” world, our generation and the ones that follow will construct the road that leads to a transhuman future. Transhumanists think about the future and how to create the best possible one so that our descendants may not just live, but if possible, live a life even better than we ever could. Sometimes you hear people talk about how they want to leave the world a better place for their kids. This is to be applauded but it’s a shame that they first need to have kids to arrive at such a mindset. An even bigger shame is that many people without kids tend to not care about the future at all. I have news for them and everyone else. We are all family in a literal sense, we are all related. Genetically, we are almost identical and there is a good reason for that… We all share a common ancestor… Think about what that means. All of us, every single person on this planet, has the same great-great-great … great-great-grandmother. Even if you don’t spawn some childlings yourself, the people of the future will be somewhat related to you through your common ancestor. It’s also interesting to note that, if you go back far enough, about 4 billion years, we share a great grandmother with every single living thing on this planet from dinosaurs to amoebas and Christmas trees. It’s not because we are shooting for the stars, that we have to forget about our roots, heritage and history.

While the core mission of transhumanism is to create a better world through the application of technologies, what exactly it stands for is difficult to say as it is such a vast ideology with so many different currents (singularitarianism, extropianism, abolitionism, postgenderism,…) that it can’t be abstracted very easily. All these branches are not about technologies per se, although those will be required for realizing our dreams, it’s about how people and technology can co-exist in the best possible way and how to improve upon that relationship. Transhumanism is about wanting to set yourself free from both bottom-up biologically and top-down culturally imposed limitations, about breaking down the societal pressure and the predefined expectations it wants to make you fit and getting rid of the enforcement of rigid roles from which you aren’t allowed to stray if you value living a life among people. It’s about creating a society with more choice, more diversity and where being different is encouraged instead of frowned upon. It’s about learning to let go of an ideal form of being human/sentient and realizing that demanding everyone to look the same is a form of fascism.

This all comes down to the core idea that mankind is not the pinnacle of existence and that since the speed at which biological evolution acts on us pales in comparison to our socio-cultural-techno-economic evolution, we should use our gifts of self awareness, reflection and our power to plan ahead and weigh possible consequences, to decide for ourselves, individually and together, where to go next. If we ever want to make it off this rock and survive the harsh conditions of space and other planets, we will have to adapt. If you stop evolving, stop changing, you are dooming your future. If we rust in our traditions and hold on to dogma we will perish. We have to secure our future and take control of our evolution instead of having it dictated to us by blind forces beyond our control who do not care whether we live or die. This usually tends to be the part where most people get a nazi eugenics flashbacks but this is the opposite of what transhumanism wants to achieve. Each and every individual should be free in his choice of form and function.

Those who would want to turn their bodies into a canvas to increase their ability to express themselves should be allowed to do so. Unleashing your artistry on yourself to maximize the impact of expression, to increase the range of expressions available by inventing new ones, is practiced in very primitive form today Why not opt for a dynamic representation of your self that changes with your mood? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a liquid-glass polymorph with the ability to change shape at will? Why not choose your sex or gender? Switch things up by changing them now and then? Perhaps even create a new sex and/or gender? In such a society sex and gender could become a form of expression instead of a rigid part of your identity. The far future could be very strange indeed. Morphological freedom is but a small part of the puzzle, cognitive freedom is a far more interesting and tricky subject to talk about.

I understand that at this point genuine singularitarians might be feeling a bit upset for being left out or worry over how all this reflects upon their school of thought as I never clearly defined what they are all about.  I’d like to stress that although many singularitarians, the ones I refer to as fakers, are just pushing for immortality and nothing else, simply for their own gains, it’s important to note that there are more than a few singularitarians who are a genuine transhumanists and do in fact know all about transhumanism and its various branches. These real singularitarians share much of the thoughts that go into transhumanism and do have creating a better world as a main objective. The real singularitarians who are in the know and have at the very least an understanding of Kurzweil’s idea of accelerating change.

Not because they want to become immortal as fast as possible, but because they believe we underestimate how fast the technological snowball is rolling and that this growing snowball will soon become an unstoppable avalanche. The real singularitarians are trying to make sure that we don’t destroy the world in the next 30 years while at the same time hoping to bring about a “positive singularity”. A noble objective that has little if not nothing to do with the aims of fake singularitarians who obsess over nothing but immortality.

We could really use another figurehead of the same stature as Kurzweil who would instead focus on transhumanism itself. It probably shouldn’t be a technologist for they would likely replicate Kurzweil’s message minus the singularity angle but perhaps philosophers like Nick Bostrom or Max More would be a good fit? Perhaps ideally it would be someone who doesn’t even think the singularity is likely to ever occur, someone more interested in people, in the evolution of culture and possible futures of politics, law and society itself. Bostrom and More are not household names the way Kurzweil is but they should be!

It doesn’t help that all sides use poetic language to express the wonders the future might bring. Personally I like emotionally charged language over bland usage but so does the media and they just love to play it up when they hear someone talk about the ghost in the machine or building gods. We all know that there are no real gods at play here.

Even the fake singularitarians don’t literally worship Kurzweil, nor do many believe in gods of any sort. There are of course, remarkably enough, a  number of god worshiping transhumanists, including mormons and christians. However most transhumanists reject  talking about supernatural miracles like people did in the past, and feel that we should now spread the word of real wonders. Wonder can be found in every nook and cranny of nature. Be it sea pigs, atoms leaving visible traces in a cloud chamber, alien looking fungi such as the puffball, sprites and halos exploding into existence high up in our atmosphere, the moving art our culture produces or the science fiction inspired buildings we plant into the ground. From a set of pendulums creating wave patterns, to slugs having insanely beautiful sex, from something as simple yet imposing as a storm cloud to the earth-moving dance conducted by plate tectonics… There are more wonders out there than there are days in your life.

Although I do not believe I will personally live to see biological or digital immortality, I am not saying it can’t or won’t ever happen. I would of course love to be proven wrong and experience our vast future myself, but let’s just say I doubt that I will make it. And even though you or I possibly won’t live to see the future we are fighting for, it should not affect our will and perseverance to create it for our descendants. This will to make a difference in the world, to create a better world through the application of science and technology, is what will ultimately turn the future we dream about into a reality. We do it for the ones who follow in our footsteps, and helping those people get there is, or at least should be, the core idea that drives every modern day transhumanist forward to action.

Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

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Koen De Paus on G+

18 Comments

  1. Nice article!

    Though I fear I might be one of the fakers you’re talking about. Let me be honest here and say, as of right now, I’m not interested in anything else OTHER THAN immortality!

    With what I’ve read about Transgenics and the ability to pretty much design a new body like an engineer/architect designs a vehicle, along with, being able to pretty much plug in like the Matrix, download knowledge, and then go on and function as an incredibly intelligent being, sounds absolutely amazing to me!! But much like when I go to the doctor and he prescribes a medicine, I don’t ask him about the chemistry behind it, it’s history, (the specifics), I ask, “Will this make me better than I was?” If the answer is yes, sign me up! I can understand the specifics later!

    I still have an understanding of God that I’m not fanatical about, as it has more to do with time and an accumulation of wisdom, (not cereal box wisdom, but genuine understanding of the human condition). Anyone who has ad questions or experienced confusion, at some point, has turned to either another individual, a group of individuals, etc, looking for answers that would stabilize them and give them a sense of connectedness that replaces their disoriented delusions. I feel that regardless of what science achieves for us in terms of physiological make-up, the science of the worlds will always be necessary.

    But I hope that you do see this technology in your lifetime! I hope we all do! How nice would it be to be completely surrounded by pleasant, intelligent, helpful, beneficial human beings!! My only fear is the same fear that I’ve always had. The technology gets into the hands of a people that already have a confined superiority complex and they would rather extend their OWN bloodline, versus that of the human race as a whole. So, though I’m certain I wouldn’t be first in line for the immortality modification, I’d still like to believe that there’d be a line for me to get into if I chose to do so!

    Imagine being immortal, traveling to places a million light years away, and it wouldn’t even matter because, you certainly have the time to spare!! The argument of over-population, in that light, seems to vanish pretty quickly.

    But for me, these topics raise all kinds of new thoughts and ideas about our origin, our universe, even (for some) our creator! I tend to believe in larger cycles of time, and that what we often think of as being technological break-throughs, are actually repetitions of past technologies that were either lost or destroyed over time, or hidden. *shrug* Do I think we are the first generation to tap into immortality? No. For all we know, the Creator could have been an immortal being from another galaxy who created our entire solar system and is still alive and well today somewhere out there!?! All I know is that, I don’t know, and everything I used to feel like I knew, I’m unsure of today. These are such fundamental changes to our preconceived expectations of what life is that, I almost feel unfounded somedays, but in a good way.

  2. What a disaster; more like transhipsterism.

  3. I too am concerned with the use of “fake” as a term as it implies false motives. I see it as more of a Venn diagram. We all fall under Transhuman as we aspire to further improve the human condition through technology and some of us believe in the singularity as a technological pinnacle while others a turning point. No need to list one as “fake”. Such is the thinking of religious orders believing one truth is “truer” than others when as Mark Plus indicated much of the timeline determinations will made after they have occured.

    • Yet you are just as guilty by grouping all religious orders as believing a single truth when several view open acceptance of differing perspectives as viable or even encouraged or implying that religious individuals view themselves as inherently more correct in their beliefs

      • It is inherent to the very structure and essence of religion (well, orthodox/fundamentalist religion – the modern “liberal” versions are watered-down versions of the original): here is the truth, as written here, and to be interpreted thusly, by us.

  4. Koen

    I suspect most readers here would agree with you that transhumanists and singularitarians -along with everyone else – should cultivate the skill of critical thinking, and avoid hand-waving religiosity.

    The hand-waving religiosity is one of the things that prevents more people paying full attention to transhumanism.

    But I’m not sure that the line between transhumanists and singularitarians is the place where that skill evaporates.

    And unfortunately you seem to be guilty of a fair bit of hand-waving yourself. One example: Watson is smart, therefore one day we will have computers that can replicate the functions of the human brain. Well, maybe we will, but that is hardly an argument.

  5. Its naive to think transhumanism can have a meaningful impact in this world without a mindless mob following. The American colonists didn’t understand the history and details of democracy only how independence would lower their taxes. Less then two hundred years later the common man did not understand the impact of having man made satellites or space exploration only that it was important to get advanced in it before other nations.

    Your average person is not going to know the philosophical or technological details of any movement. However for it to have weight and affect the zeitgeist it needs mass appeal and exposure.

    Now I do agree alot of people are vastly overestimating our progress in life extending technology. Its likely we will see life spans much longer in the coming decades, I imagine by 2050 living past 90 wont seem so odd. However living to the point life span is arbitrary, probably not within this century.

    I think there is too much of an obsession with life extension. If we develop transhuman technologies like cybernetics and transgenics life extension will naturally occur. The chances of you living longer because of mind uploading or reversed aging any time soon are slim. The chances of you living longer from a 3D printed heart or cancer fighting nanomedicines is pretty good.

  6. I find your argument to be lacking in persuasiveness. Effectively you’re using the No True Scotsman fallacy seen used by the religious types all too often. Of course there are going to be differing ideas as a group grows and more people are drawn in. It doesn’t help that you seem focused on declaring that some parts of that group that doesn’t agree with you exactly is somehow not a true member of the community.

    Quite frankly I find your argument specious as well. You make claims about other members of the community and what they are proclaiming as if they are two dimensional cutouts. For example I’ve read a number of works by Kurzweil and while he posits a relatively set timeline his entire focus isn’t on immortality. Rather it is that immortality will be a logical outcome of technologies developed by rapid advances in AI, an intelligence explosion. That of course will entail rapid developments across the board. If anything he seems closer to Vinge’s views than what you seem to believe. Granted Kurzweil seems to tack towards the idea of uploading ourselves into robotic bodies or simply into digitized worlds but I don’t see him proclaiming that this is the only possible outcome and personally I see his thoughtline being more about us rapidly passing through transhumanism into posthumanism than anything else. At any rate it could be possible to simply upgrade the body we have, you know the actual root of transhumanism of upgrading ourselves so that we can do and experience more. I should also note that it isn’t shallow to desire immortality. I believe most would desire that effect simply to be able to experience more, to do more. Whatever a person’s desire to have immortality, however it is achieved, I don’t see how you have the authority to declare it a shallow reason. Nor do I see any authority inherent to you that allows you to declare other members of a community as ‘fake’. By all means, espouse your thoughts and try to win others over with reason and logic. Don’t however believe that you have the right to declare others as invalid. I don’t agree with Kurzweil on a number of things, then again I could say the same thing about every person on the planet. None of us are going to agree on everything. Driving others away or proclaiming them as anathema does not help your cause though.

  7. This is an excellent article. I don’t think, however, that the ideas and deviations imposed by newcomers are necessarily bad. The most important thing about Transhumanism is that it is transcendent. Even in the attempt to grasp a singularity, there will be fractals that form. With fractals, there will be fractures. Ultimately, I don’t think we will reach a true singularity, until ephemeralization has reached an absolute, essentially in relation to maximum entropy. Even then, that is not guaranteed, for a number of scientific and philosophical reasons; including the idea that, even if we were to become omniscient, that would simply make room for even stranger mysteries.

    Having said that, I can say that I am not a Transhuman purist. I only consider myself a Transhumanist, for as long as Transhumanism holds value. The moment that technology exceeds our ability to catch up to it, biotech considered, I would concede to not only a posthuman existence, but an entirely postbiological existence. If and willing that I would even survive to see such a reality come to fruition.

  8. You say you like Raymond Kurzweil and that he’s a smart guy, but without skipping a breath calls him a “modern day Thomas Edison”.
    Either you don’t know who Thomas Edison was or this is the worse example of a backhanded compliment I’ve ever seen.

    • The former, I suspect. Most people who compare others to Edison genuinely believe that he was a person to emulate. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

      • I would hope so, because otherwise he’s defeating the purpose of the article, as there’s no “moral high-ground” when one slings backhanded insults.

        Backhanded compliments is the tool of the intellectually weak and passive-aggressives who cannot summon the courage to face an intellectual opponent.
        Well crafted insults are fine even though they come at the cost of a “moral high-ground”, but backhanded compliments are just sad.

  9. I love me a good article and yours has a lot of great references in it, but the last thing this community needs right now is more backbiting.

    Beware the false prophets singularity worshipers!

    No mention of how to educate or consolidate these “fakes”. Just a wall of information interspersed with judgement. Bummer.

  10. One might even refer to them as a cult following, people who just mindlessly preach that we will all be immortal at 7am on the 1st of july in 2045.

    As I keep pointing out, this sort of claim makes no logical sense because a life extension breakthrough doesn’t work that way. You can only tell if one has happened by looking in the rear-view mirror, so to speak, after a whole lot of people have lived well past 120 years, and in good physical and cognitive shape. That knowledge simply won’t arrive by some arbitrary date in this century like 2045, when plenty of people alive now will live another 31 years (plus change) just through natural maturation and aging. If you want to set a reality-checking date to measure your progress, you should pick one well into the 23rd Century. If you can make it to a year like 2245 in good health, and with the ability to keep going, then you might have figured out what you had to do to overcome aging.

    You youngsters really should listen to me. I turned 54 last month, and I started to think about these ideas before many of you were born. Study what transhumansts’ precursors said in the 1970’s and see how far off the mark they fell, and you’ll see why I consider transhumanism pretty much a cargo cult until enough of you get your acts together and work on feasible, tangible projects which have something to do with turning your fantasies into real stuff.

    You can start by picking better heroes and role models. Don’t idolize nuts and cranks like Timothy Leary, who said back in the 1970’s that he expected to survive to witness the death of the sun. (How has that life-extension program worked out for Leary lately?) And don’t idolize cargo cult technologists like Eric Drexler and Eliezer Yudkowsky who talk big but can’t deliver the goods. As for Ray Kurzweil, at least you can separate his real accomplishments behind him from the imaginary and pseudoscientific nonsense he promotes now ( like his belief in homeopathy), and concentrate on the former.

    • Sigh, if we develop the technology to effectively reformat the body quickly and efficiently so that it is effectively young again and have diagnostic technologies that can show that the body has been rejuvenated then no, you don’t have to wait hundreds of years to prove something. Yes, accidents will take people out, that is likely unavoidable but if we can rejuvenate our bodies and have tangible evidence to that effect, then we don’t have to wait a long, long time to effectively say we’ve won the war on aging. Considering I highly doubt you have the technical merits to make any conclusive prognostications I will work under the auspices of listening to others. They may be off by a few decades but technology is advancing very quickly, whether you can see it or not. Things that were dreamed up in the early parts of the 20th century, and impossible then, are now becoming possible with our scientific prowess. Your age and ‘experience’ on the matter is moot. You’re not that much older than I am and in my life I’ve seen vast changes in technology in a number of areas. Considering that in the history of humanity there were points where it took centuries for major changes to occur, and then it drifted down to decades, then years, now we can see interesting strides being taken in months, I don’t see it as out of the question that it will only accelerate.

    • Yep and Yep. I figured out what you said about 5 years ago at age 24.

      Yudkowsky was a hard guru to shake as he is good at explaining his positions and is obviously smarter than me, but that isn’t saying much. In the end, what matters is what we accomplish, and I have some more practical ideas that can be implemented that will help a lot of people.

  11. Shouldn’t extanded lifespan be the #1 priority of any rational being ? Sure, it is a little bit shallow, but making your own body a canva ready to be painted according to your whims and desires can wait when compared to evading the ever-closing cold grasp of death.

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