Gerald Feinberg’s “Prometheus Project”
I have great respect for the current crop of futurist pundits — Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, Max More and all the rest.
However, many people I talk to seem to assume that these folks were the first to tell the kind of story they’re telling in a serious way — the first to talk about rapidly accelerating technology leading to dramatic, amazing changes in the relatively near future.
Everyone acknowledges that concepts like this have been around in science fiction since Way Back When (well, since the earlier part of the 20th century, at least). But it seems much less remembered that futurist pundits have been writing non-fiction with this sort of upshot for many decades as well.
Valentin Turchin’s “The Phenomenon of Science,” first published in Russia in the late 1960s, covered themes like superhuman intelligence, the global brain, biological immortality and mind uploading, in a more sophisticated way than much contemporary commentary.
I.J. Good’s classic essay on the “intelligence explosion” was, of course, written in 1965.
And I recently ordered a copy of a book that made a big impact on me when I first read it in 1977 or so — The Prometheus Project, published in 1969 by physicist Gerald Feinberg (1933-1992). I found it well worth re-reading. The core ideas of the book have been part of my intellectual and emotional makeup for a long time now. But, it was invigorating to reread the book and feel these ideas stirring in the mind of a brilliant, visionary mind, so many years before the exponential acceleration of technology reached a point such as to make Singularitarianism almost commonplace.
The book is full of quotes embodying themes that are now commonplace in the futurist community:
[T]he advent of intelligent machines is likely to be followed closely by the advent of super intelligent machines…
[T]he development of biology will enable us to eliminate aging and make it possible for human beings to maintain themselves indefinitely at whatever biological age they choose.
[I]t may indeed be possible artificially to induce mental states corresponding to any imaginable human experience without the need for undergoing the experience itself.
… and many more. The various objections against radical life extension are discussed in a very similar way to what one hears from Aubrey de Grey these days, and the dangers of wireheading are alluded to.
Feinberg argues that humankind is at a point where has the possibility and practical obligation to choose its long-term future. He recognizes that humanity may end up making this choice implicitly, but prefers that humanity it should make it explicitly, after rational consideration of the various alternatives. He suggests setting up an international organization aimed at educating everyone in the world about the future possibilities open to the human race, and then polling all the human citizens of Spaceship Earth regarding their preferences. As opposed to Hugo de Garis’s vision of a battle between Terrans and Cosmists, he wishes to resolve the disputes underlying this sort of divide democratically.
This democratic process of education and collective choice is Feinberg’s “Prometheus Project.” It’s worthwhile to contrast this with the Coherent Extrapolated Volition (CEV) idea proposed by Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute. CEV proposes to automagically merge the aspirations of all humans on the planet, by using an advanced computational process to figure out what everyone would want if they really understood each other, and if they were the people they wanted to be. CEV is an intriguing idea, but its not clear that it’s practical or even well-defined. Feinberg’s approach is more concrete and involves getting humans to work together to think through their various aspirations and all the related issues. Joel Pitt and I suggested something similar in our recent essay on AGI safety.
Though he advocated a democratic process for choosing humanity’s future, Feinberg also had his own clear vision of what he thought the chief goal should be for humanity going forward: expanding the scope of consciousness. His thinking on the topic unified technological and spiritual perspectives, and subjective and objective considerations, much more subtly than one usually sees in modern discourses on the future. This may be mainly due to his own particular personal slant, or it may partly be due to the zeitgeist of the times when he wrote the book: the late 1960s were a time when inner growth, social change and spirituality were in the air, whereas current culture is far more focused on the material world. (Although, Feinberg was definitely no hippie, as his thoughtful but tentative and conservative comments on LSD attest!)
His discussion of the possibilities for broader subjective experience to be opened up by technological advances was more sophisticated than the views of most current techno-futurist pundits:
The Value of Extending Consciousness
I have argued that the root of man’s discontent is his finitude and the inability to accomplish all that he wills. To some extent this problem must exist for any conscious creature, since it is a consequence of the separation between the mind and the world. If we wish to attack the source of human unhappiness, we must do something about this conflict. One possibility would be eliminate consciousness, but this would leave the world very much the poorer, and most of us are too attached to the mind to abolish it. The alternative is to extend the scope of consciousness in such a way as to lessen, and eventually remove, the discrepancy between will and achievement.
There are many ways to extend the domain of our consciousness. We can increase the control we have over the external world through our technology. This path has been and will continue to be very important to man. But this cannot be the complete answer. There is a qualitative difference between our conscious control over our mental activities and our influence on the outside world. What we would like to do is bring more of the totality of experience into the direct control of our consciousness, that is, to internalize more of the outside world.
This may seem strange in view of the sharp distinction generally made between the two. Yet to one person, the mind of another person, to the extent that it is accessible at all through perception, is part of the outside world. If a merger of consciousnesses of the type described above could be attained, the minds would both be a part of the consciousness of one being. Similarly, the extension of the range of our consciousness to include parts of our mental activities now unconscious would be such an internalization of something we do not now control consciously. In both of these cases, the domain of consciousness would be spread to include mental phenomena external to individual consciousness. This would be a step toward the elimination of the conflict between one mind and the world outside, but not the end of it; consciousness would still have to be extended to realms not considered mental at all.
The achievement of new levels of consciousness would not only internalize part of the outside world, but presumably also change the internal world qualitatively. And just as it is difficult for us to imagine our minds as they would be if there were diminished in any way, so it is difficult to imagine them qualitatively augmented or to conceive how it would feel to occupy the next stage in consciousness…
[M]ystics’ lack of success in communicating their experiences does not augur well for the possibility of our understanding beings who are permanently on this level. We must wait to see. If we cannot understand, we will have to take their word for how it feels.
Anyone familiar with Giulio Prisco’s recent “Turing Church” initiative will find this sort of thinking quite familiar.
When I read Feinberg for the first time, as a child in the mid-1970s, none of the ideas struck me as dramatically new — I’d read it all before in science fiction. But I was impressed to see a serious physicist take such ideas so seriously, and develop them so soberly and rationally. And I was struck by his prediction that these things could potentially happen relatively soon — within my own lifetime, for example. Prometheus Project may have been the first place I encountered a serious scientific thinker endorsing the notion of rapid, exponential technological advancement and its shattering implications.
If, like me, you read Feinberg’s book back in the day, you may want to give it another go. And if you’re hearing about Feinberg for the first time, I encourage you to order a used copy of his book and check it out. His “similar but different” perspective on the themes preoccupying the futurist community today is fascinating to experience. And it’s wonderful as a reminder that the technology-fueled transformation we’re now experiencing, is something humanity has been gradually comprehending and processing for quite some time.