Uh Oh! They Let Our Humor Columnist into the Humanity Plus Summit! Or Asperger’s Ain’t a Sandwich
I swear the talking GPS screamed when our geekmobile banked a hard left straight through the red light as we careened into the parking lot of the EON Reality Inc. building where the H+ Summit was already underway last month. We late futurists had skipped both breakfast and sleep in our urgency to learn the latest insights on how to forestall our deaths until we "make the cut," that is, survive to some point in the next decades when technology will allow radical life extension. Hopped up on caffeine and cortisol, we raced through the nicotine cloud of transhumanist smokers, burst into the buffet room, and snarfed the cheese Danishes, sweet cream pastries, croissants, and chocolate chip mini-muffins provided by the visionary H+ Summit organizers dedicated to maximizing human lifespans. I arrived under the aegis of Syntience, an artificial intelligence company developing systems that can learn any human language the way children do, by immersion. The slogan I suggested– "Artificial Intelligence: Because Real Intelligence Doesn’t Work"—was shot down, despite abundant evidence to support it.
We filed into a room of 140 or so, where Master of Ceremonies Alex Lightman regaled the crowd. "Can we make transhumanism cool?" "Affirmative!" cheered the trekkies. Alex was so enthusiastic, I was bummed he didn’t have pom-poms. I’d been told that over 100,000 viewers had logged on to witness live, with tens of thousands watching at any particular moment. Each speaker would get 15 minutes of fame, which was appropriate since a few looked like they belonged in Andy Warhol’s entourage. Our insulin appropriately spiked, we hung-over latecomers took our extra-wide padded seats designed for extra-wide padded butts, eager to learn how to extend our lives by any means necessary.
Oren Shaedel launched into his lecture about his promising experiments with "gonad ablation of Caenorhabditis elegans," meaning he burns the nads off worms. I could almost hear his Jewish mother saying, "For this we sent him to college?" Oren informed us that if you remove a man’s testicles around age twelve, he lives on average eleven years longer. Open minds snapped shut audibly all over the conference room, while several transhumanettes speculated about further behavioral advantages induced by testicular removal. Geeks gasped with such horror, many of us had to grab our asthmas inhalers before our glasses fogged up.
I remained offended until I stepped out for a discussion break and learned what it’s like to be a woman. One male after another stared at my chest, deemed me not worthy, and moved on to someone with a more impressive name tag. Nobody made eye contact until I took the name tag off and forced them to ask questions before they figured out I hadn’t invented anything interesting and abandoned me. Soon I was ready to ablate a few gonads myself.
Stars of Transcendent Man gobbled a bucket of KFC and discussed the efficacy of severe calorie restriction with deep-fried breath. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. I did my best to join the discussion, where I learned that the two most promising scientific techniques for life extension are starvation and castration. While I demanded my conference money back, I was reassured that though no humans have survived beyond known maximum lifespans ("yet!"), spectacular success had occurred among transfruitflyists, who, according to Bill McKibbin, retroactively rendered their previous fruit fly lives fruitless the moment their lives lengthened. When my scowl failed to soften, I was informed that 61% of known human disease genes closely match the genes in fruit flies. "Enough with the fruit flies!" I said. "Where’s my eternal abs?" Apparently these geneticists didn’t get the memo from Sarah Palin.
Regular humanists always ask why so many prominent transhumanists sport Gandalf beards. Attend a mass meeting of techno-enthusiasts and the answer becomes obvious. The most noticeable facial expression at an H+ Summit is one of wonder, but the second most noticeable facial expression says, I have no idea what you’re talking about, and a deepening looks of dismay that says, You may be much smarter than me, or your may be out of your freaking gourd. I can’t tell. Bearded transhumanists don’t suffer from this deer-in-the-headlights look, because, by stroking their beards, they can appear to be sagely considering the deeper principles of a nonsensical rant. Awkward silences can be extended indefinitely by beard stroking.
The psychological effect is hard to overstate. For instance, Gregory Fahy and Aubrey de Grey engaged in dueling Powerpoint presentations, a rarely witnessed bonding ritual among nerds, where they borrow each others’ slides in order to prove each other wrong, passing the microphone back and forth and pointing to the same data to infer opposite conclusions, waving their laser pointers like Saruman and Gandalf in a tiff. Nobody was qualified to judge the quality of their inferences, but Fahy was deemed defeated because he only had a moustache. After a day in the presence of so many luxuriantly bearded alpha nerds, half the male attendees arrived the second day unshaven.
It wasn’t all a male pissing contests. Transhumanettes defied the stereotype that girls can’t be geeks. Engineer Heather Knight busted out with a commanding presentation on robotics. Her robot was a teddy bear programmed to hug and cuddle… but still.
Alex Lightman reminded us that after the next talk we would begin our lunch break, informing us that a McDonalds and KFC were right across the street. This is when Syntience founder and CEO, Monica Anderson, demonstrated her talent for executive decisions by suggesting we Syntientists beat the nerd stampede by leaving for lunch immediately. This didn’t become a brilliant idea until after we had finished eating, when we got to stand outside and taunt the hungry scientists as they stood in long lines: "Where’s your future-thinking now, eh?"
A stone-faced engineer took a moment to decode my smirk, and then responded, "I have Asperger’s." I looked down expecting to see him carrying a tray of gristly sandwiches. After what we’d eaten so far, I wouldn’t have been surprised. When I looked back at the Spock-like stares of the scientists, I discovered what was going to make this conference fun beyond fun.
Want to amuse yourself? Talk trash with someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. Psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen showed evidence for a cognitive trade-off between talents for systemization and talents for reading social cues. Much of our physical world has been built by people who have been retroactively diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome: Einstein, Edison, Turing, Newton, Gates, Darwin, Ford, Bell and, according to the book Solutions for Adults With Asperger’s Syndrome, half the people at NASA. It looks like the next generation of folks with this unique brain are lining up at H+ and Singularity Summits to change our world just as radically as the classic Aspies changed theirs. But ancient Greek tragedists taught us that every blessing comes with a curse. Children developing a powerhouse gift for systems analysis might steal brain real estate from the modules in charge of intuiting social nuance. Such persons have the capacity to render any corny taunt hilarious by responding:
"I’m not sure I understand the information content of your statement. In what context were we ever in a position to compare penises? Comparing the size of any organ that adjusts to temperature seems to me to distort our discussion about the gonad ablation of fruit flies. Could you elaborate?"
The key to hilarity is not the jokester, but the straight man. An Asperger’s convention is a community of straight men. I was in smartass heaven.
Case in point:
R.U. Sirius, wasn’t. Dressed like a court jester, he offered a scholarly perspective on the history of the human urge for subversion that was itself a demonstration of the urge. Nobody got it. When lesser jesters fail to amuse an audience, they bomb. But RU was trained as a yippie. This seminal group of pranksters specialized in performing drive-by street theatre for the benefit of squares who were not in on the joke. When the Sirius jests failed to deploy, Sirius got that glint in his eye that said, "Here’s my chance to seriously fuck with these people." Beards were stroked like teddy bears while Sirius bombarded them with brain bombs that required delight in irony and spontaneous joy when connotations contradict denotations. Confused audience members kept spinning around to stare at me and fellow Syntientist Michael Gusek, because we were the only people in the room cackling like hyenas. The first talk I was able to understand, and I was one of the only people present who understood it. This was a community with the highest per capita I.Q. and the lowest per capita clue.
Transhumanist organizers looked deeply into the future and realized we needed dinner. They directed us to the Hyatt Regency, where we were provided with a pre-fixed menu involving steak, fries, and a tart that I think was made of pure insulin. During discussions with drunks at dinner, I discovered that there are two kinds of people with Asperger’s: sweet ones and dicks. Sweet ones acknowledge they don’t understand sarcasm or discretion and are paranoid about hurting people’s feelings and develop rule-based techniques to cope. Dicks are the ones who use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, who introduce themselves by saying, "I have Asperger’s" which, translated, means: "I am about to be rude to you, and I expect not to be held responsible. What you just said is stupid, and here’s why… "
These are the best straight men of all.
Gregory Fahy and Aubrey de Grey engaged in dueling Powerpoint presentations, waving their laser pointers like Saruman and Gandalf in a tiff.
More stuff I just can’t make up: An Aspie’s man engaged me in a fascinating analysis of the dynamics of jet lag, describing the complex feedback loops by which the connectionist network of the nervous system internalizes cues from the world to adjust to a situation our Pleistocene ancestors never had to face, such as suddenly being on the other side of the planet. I interrupted and said that I love jet lag because as a writer it gives me hours of silence to concentrate on my projects without interruption. My co-conversationalist countered that an efficient means to aid concentration is: "Divorce your wife." No smile, no wince of embarrassment, no defensive posture against my clenched fist, just unblinking eye contact as he expounded upon the reverse correlation between productivity and love. The guy played it so straight, I finally burst out laughing, at which point he tried to figure out when he’d managed one of those mysterious joke things he’d heard about.
This, by the way, was a Sweet Aspie who had developed baroque algorithms for guessing what other people are experiencing when everyday social intuition failed to kick in. The most jaw-dropping talk I heard at the conference was his off-the-cuff conversation, yet I imagine it would be frustrating to be his girlfriend. These brains are going to change our world, and change it big time, which is why I was here: to simply listen to these amazing people think aloud.
We owe Aspies the richness of our civilization, and this time we should listen to what they’ve got, because they’re trying to tell us. They bring wonderful news. The logistical feat of the H+ Summit was not a celebration of the in-crowd. These folks don’t need to hear each other’s fifteen-minute sum-ups. The entire endeavor was their attempt to reach the rest of us, those of us who wedgied Bill Gates in Junior High and tormented Turing to suicide. There’s no Revenge of the Nerds, only forgiveness. The H+ Summit is a giant Valentine to the rest of us, saying: "You can come, too."