Mars, Tomb of Futurism

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Tend Your Own Garden

If immortality is the Holy Grail of Futurism then the colonization of Mars is its Holy Sepulchre—a big empty tomb. Both attract their pilgrims: the former is a fairytale; the latter is a real place just out of reach, a sort of tantalizing inspiration to hungry dreamers everywhere salivating for land that doesn’t belong to them. These days, from the promises of Elon Musk to the heroics of Matt Damon, we positively fetishize Mars. Yet my advice to the 11th century crusader and the 21st century Martian colonist would be the same: tend your own garden.

I’m afraid that this is blasphemy from someone who calls himself a Transhumanist. After all, the colonization of space is tangentially connected enough to other themes associated with technological progress that they’re ordinarily all lumped together under the general banner of Futurism. In an increasingly divisive political climate, the promises of SpaceX and Mars One shine like the hope of some long-awaited escape from ourselves.

We might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably.More fundamentally, the allure of space colonization is at the heart of some of our most beloved cultural narratives, shaping the aspirations of explorers since the first days of NASA and the Soviet Space Program. Even the earliest films lionized astronauts. The moon landing was the greatest collective lived experience of the twentieth century, this perfect human achievement more majestic than the pyramids and just as pointless only to the cynical.

Today, we might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably. And given our recklessness when it comes to the fragile environment of this planet, perhaps we could use another world as a backup, just in case. We already have the technology to achieve the goal of getting to Mars, though for a perfect storm of reasons, it has yet to happen. But isn’t getting there a worthy goal? And won’t the journey there (and not only the physical journey, but the technical refinements forged along the way) benefit the cause of Progress with a capital P? Then what the hell am I complaining about?

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Space X JCSAT-14 long exposure launch. Credit: SpaceX

Colonization Problems

My intention here isn’t to trash space exploration or regale you with clickbait about the top eleven reasons why the colonization of Mars would be a tragic mistake at this juncture in time. However, I want to seriously problematize the prospective colonization, if you’ll excuse a word that academics tend to overuse. I don’t want to focus on the hackneyed and frankly shortsighted idea that the money spent on getting to Mars could be better employed for services here on earth.

My critique has to do with the repercussions of contemporary attitudes about the seemingly unrelated topics of imperialism in outer space on the one hand and Transhumanism on the other. Cultural prejudices enshrining heroic astronauts blazing across the sky and mad scientists forging abominations pose serious problems for Transhumanists of all stripes and would-be Martian colonists alike.

If the predominant image of space colonizers enshrined in our zeitgeist is heroic pioneers soaring across the galaxy in the name of science and adventure, the narratives surrounding genetic engineering and cyborgs are positively apocalyptic by comparison—just think of Frankenstein, the Terminator, and GATTACA.

Somehow, an astronaut’s 400 million kilometer journey from Earth to a theoretical outpost in a faraway wasteland seems less terrifying than a head’s four-meter journey from its body to a theoretical apparatus capable of supporting its consciousness.The reasons for this difference in our intuitions are varied. They partly have to do with the genealogy of our ideas about imperialism in outer space, which are grounded in discourse about the benefits of the exploration and exploitation of underdeveloped foreign lands, exotic travelogues, Cold War propaganda, epic films, etc. They also have to do with the attitudes that surround Transhumanism, grounded in skepticism about discredited fields like galvanism, the abuses of the eugenicists, deep-seated fears surrounding physiological dislocation and dismemberment, etc.

Heroes and Monsters

The end result of all this discourse is that, right now in the popular imagination, would-be cyborgs are monsters and would-be Martian colonists are heroes. Let’s take it for granted that the exploration of Mars would provide net benefits for society at large. Nevertheless, whether from the vantage point of someone who wants to investigate Mars and preserve its landscape (let’s call this the environmentalist perspective) or someone who wants to colonize and terraform it(the imperialist perspective, which incidentally seems to completely dominate the environmentalist one), the problem inherent in this tension is immense.

First, imagine you were an environmentalist who felt strongly against the radical transformation of Mars. Your reasons might be varied. To you, the urge to dominate nature with the clutter of terrestrial civilization might seem arrogant and intrusive. True, there are no indigenous Martians to despoil. But the process of terraforming the planet’s surface would still seem to be hugely rapacious.

Mars, Tomb of Futurism: The Hopes of Success Are Dependent on Cyborg HumansMars, Tomb of Futurism: The Hopes of Success Are Dependent on Cyborg HumansImagine drowning its pristine scarlet valleys in water and clouding its translucent atmosphere with chemicals. Wouldn’t even the most single-minded developer preserve some of the planet’s original landscape rather than transform it all? Doesn’t this intuition concede that there is inherent value and beauty in the wild state of the place? If advanced aliens exist within visitable distance of our planet, they are evidently the type to silently observe or ignore us rather than actively intervene in our affairs. How primitive it might seem to them that our conception of space travel in 2017 is still bound to the small-minded earthly impulse to barge in, dominate nature, and claim random parcels of it as our own.

From this perspective, the only visits to Mars should be undertaken for the sake of exploration rather than colonization. The best agents to do so would be robots and cyborgs rather than unenhanced human beings, whose imprint on the environment would be immense by comparison. Yet until the development of cyborgs, we are doomed to either only know Mars indirectly or permanently scar its landscape as successive generations of pioneers perish on its inhospitable surface.

Now, consider the imperialist perspective. To you, between climate change, nuclear war, plague, and pestilence, the existential threats to human civilization are great enough that you feel we need to colonize Mars as soon as possible or face the potential extermination of civilization as we know it. The preservation of the beauty of nature is all well and good, after all, but human interests come first.

Yet the conditions on Mars for the colonizers would be like something out of Dante; indeed, the first Martian immigrants should be “prepared to die,” warns Elon Musk.

As it is, we can’t even control the weather yet here on Earth, let alone create a colony on another planet with an inhospitable atmosphere. The bright eyed and bushy tailed original colonists would be like Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, fantasizing about the march of civilization but ending up the lonely dupes of capitalism wallowing in lunacy in a dark place where they shouldn’t have ventured in the first place.

On closer reflection, the imperialist would realize that until it became feasible to travel to Mars on a mass scale, the original colonies could only remain pitiable outposts for misguided dying settlers and insanely rich tourists rather than anything like a safety net for civilization at large. The fastest and most efficient way to transform the landscape would be by the sweat of cyborgs. And yet ironically, with the advent of cyborgs, the need to terraform the environment to suit un-enhanced human needs would perhaps be moot.

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NASA

Great Respect

While I might have misgivings about the subjugation of a planet ironically named for the god of conquest, I don’t want to disparage a journey there as an admirable Futurist goal. But whether you are an advocate of peaceful exploration or large-scale colonization, the time has come to think realistically about the requisite intermediate steps. We need to make heroes of the pioneers who are willing to risk their lives and careers to overcome the hurdles on the way to our destination “in this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching.”

Cyborgs and space explorers are entirely akin in their willingness to risk their lives for the sake of challenging the boundaries of conceivability. Yet in 2017, we call volunteers for the journey to Mars heroes, and there are no volunteers at all for brain implants because no doctor would ever dream of performing such an operation or convening a conference to discuss plans for one.

If a prominent surgeon called for volunteers and warned, as Musk did, that they must be prepared to die, I wonder if the public would meet the declaration with the same resigned sigh in recognition of the heroism of all involved. The principle is precisely the same: a human life is at stake. Yet we are willing to sanctify the sacrifice of the astronaut and glorify him, but would rather reverse engineer a machine analogous to a human brain than implant a machine into one

Investment in Mars in the absence of Transhumanism as a vigorous social ideology doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of Transhumanism, but it does come at the expense of the future of Mars. The most widespread current projections of the next century of human development imagine the needs of unenhanced humans predominating as a matter of course. Hence, long-term plans for Mars call for terraforming the planet to create a second Earth. Yet this limitation in our imaginations augurs great brutality and a great deal of human blood spilled along the way as we struggle to dominate conditions not meant for our bodies.

This, of course, does not mean I think there should be no exploration of Mars, or even that I am dead-set against eventual colonization. But I would hope that any such colonization would be undertaken in a spirit of great respect for nature, imposing upon it, let alone uprooting it, as little as possible. And I would also pray that the path toward colonization would be blazed with as few deaths as possible along the way.

Yet this can only take place after the ascendancy of Transhumanism and not a moment before it. For the time being, I would no more recommend a journey to Mars than I would a voyage across the Atlantic to an ancient Roman armed with nothing but a leaky trireme and his copy of Ptolemy.


My article was published at https://futurism.com/mission-to-mars-the-hopes-of-success-are-dependent-on-cyborg-humans/

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In Defense of Transhumanism

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My article appeared last year in the Washington Post.

When I first tried to start a club for the study of transhumanism at Yale, I was astounded by the university’s response. The chaplain intervened and vetoed the request. An email to me explained that there were already enough atheist groups on campus, assuming evidently that the words humanist and atheist were synonyms. I found myself awkwardly assuring a series of administrators that transhumanism had nothing to do with transgender students who didn’t believe in God. Broadly speaking, it involves the use of futuristic medical technology to lower the incidence of disease, enhance the capacity of the imagination and prolong the human lifespan. “We’re into things like cyborgs and genetic engineering,” I said.

It seems to me that while transhumanism resembles its progenitors, it is distinct from each of them, and lessons can be drawn from all of them.

First, there is the ugly specter of the eugenics movement, a disaster associated with decades of pseudoscientific research in an embarrassing array of discredited fields. People who see transhumanism as an extension of eugenics may be concerned that future policies could lead to rising inequality, intolerance for difference and the abuse of power.

In the future, with in vitro fertilization available to the rich, embryos will be screened for genetic profiles probabilistically likely to thrive according to various indicators. As we gain increasingly precise knowledge of the human genome and the probabilities of healthfulness associated with different genotypes, it will eventually be possible to select children likely not only to be healthy but also to excel. With popular inaction, this could lead to an unjust scenario in which fitness and intelligence might map onto the socioeconomic level of one’s parents. Legal restrictions on the selection of fetuses on the basis of genetic health, however, would be hugely regressive and counterproductive.

Transhumanists should demand the possibility of such prenatal care for all citizens rather than allowing the free market to restrict it to the few. In the long term, the development of increasingly efficient gene editing technology (both in vitro and, some day, in the womb itself) will likely significantly lower the associated costs. Although the horrors of eugenics should serve as a sobering reminder of the evil that can be perpetrated in the name of progress, they should not stifle discussion in the academy about the responsible implementation of genetic engineering in the future.

The second major source of transhumanist thought is science fiction, a genre that tends to favor dystopian narratives because they can be made so colorful from an artistic perspective. Despite all of the 19th-century novels bemoaning the effects of the Industrial Revolution, I suspect that if we could go back in time, we would still choose to industrialize. But perhaps the shape of the revolution would be different — we would hopefully pay attention to the kinds of things the novelists and poets complained about — for example, we might be less abusive toward the environment and more respectful of the rights of workers from the onset. [Eight questions to ask before human genetic engineering goes mainstream.

In our future, daily life will be transformed through the increasing automation of labor and the rise in sophistication of artificial intelligence. Life may be less about the 9-to-5 grind and more about education, community and the creation and enjoyment of art. Rather than imagining a future in which humans and machines are at odds — as many thinkers have predicted — transhumanists look forward to the advent of cyborgs, in which computers are incorporated into the brain itself, leading to radically enhanced processing power and the ability to preserve consciousness for lengths of time now deemed inconceivable. The ultimate lesson from transhumanism’s origins in science fiction is perhaps to seek those inventions that would radically enhance lifespans and empower the human imagination to control what it experiences in ways hitherto unimaginable, liberated from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune.

A third source of transhumanist ideas, and the one of greatest interest to me, is the tradition of humanism. When Cicero used the word “humanus” to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings — the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

Today, we often hear that truth is a construct and nothing but a reflection of power. Values are relative. But humanism and the idea of progress stand as rejoinders, and transhumanism falls squarely in line with this tradition. How can we best harness the power of progress? Not by seeking to control and exploit people different from us, a transhumanist might say, but by attempting to alleviate suffering and build bridges between imaginations. A willingness to empower more people than ever before to be born healthy, intelligent and able to devote long and meaningful lives to love, leisure and lifelong education is, to me, transhumanism at its best — an antidote to postmodern malaise.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/05/18/in-defense-of-transhumanism/?utm_term=.e4578111b4d0

Bring on the Cyborgs: Redefining the Singularity

Here is the final version of my speech “Bring on the Cyborgs: Redefining the Singularity.” I presented it at as a TED talk at Yale. The audition video can be seen in my posts from earlier this year.

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Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk are afraid. Afraid of our computers turning on us. Afraid that Siri will go from botching directions to taking over and crashing our cars. This is what they call the singularity.

The smartest and most powerful men on Earth are right to be concerned about the future. But in this speech, I’m going to propose a solution to save our species. It involves rethinking the concept of the singularity and reimagining our destiny as human beings. Without exaggeration, this topic might be the single most important one on Earth.

I’m a doctoral student at Yale in Roman history and the founder of Yale Students and Scholars for the Study of Transhumanism. It might seem strange that an ancient historian has an interest in studying the future. But don’t be so surprised.

Ancient historians are interested in the beginning of things like drama, democracy, and the idea of equality before the law. I’m interested in the singularity—and transhumanism—because today we are once again at the beginning of something new. And new beginnings are when we need to pay the most attention to the lessons of the past.

Historians know that technology has not always advanced in a straight line forward. At the Great Library of Alexandria, two thousand years ago, a scientist appropriately named Hero invented the first steam engine. The first computer in history, the Antikythera Mechanism, was developed over a century earlier. Both, however, were toys for the wealthy instead of tools to improve the lives of the masses.

Everyone asks me why Rome fell. I ask a different question. I ask, what could have saved Rome? And then I remember the steam engine and the computer, and I say: technology.

What is the singularity? Technically, it refers to the point inside a black hole where space and time don’t exist as we know them. But the word’s meaning has been expanded over the years.

In the 1950s, mathematican John von Neumann, applied the term to the history of human civilization. The singularity, he thought, was a point in history after which human affairs themselves would become fundamentally unrecognizable. Then, about the time when I was born in Israel in 1983, mathematician Vernor Vinge, defined the singularity as the point when artificial intelligence would create a world “far beyond our understanding.”

Neumann and Vinge had something in common. They imagined human progress escalating and accelerating as we approached the singularity. Today we have a parallel concept: Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years.

This means that computers are becoming more powerful, exponentially, and data since the 1960s has backed this up. Now, some question whether Moore’s Law will continue to hold true in the future, and I’ll get to that critique in a moment.

But if it does hold true, you may understand why so many brilliant people might be scared. One can easily imagine computers becoming so powerful – so fast – that they take control over their own programming and come to overpower us.

Mankind has often feared the conscious wills which it enslaves. As a classicist, I’m reminded of Aristotle’s “natural slaves.” The idea was that those who were able to apprehend rational principles well enough to follow basic orders but who simultaneously possessed no rational strategic faculties of their own were essentially slaves by nature.

Classicists argue about the people that Aristotle might have had in mind—a professor once even told me that he was really talking about the mentally handicapped: people like my brother Dinh. Today, I’d argue, it sounds like we’re talking about Siri. Siri can understand my directions and execute them, but has no strategic ends of her own. Computers like Siri understand us, but they don’t really comprehend us.

But what happens when a computer is sophisticated enough to form independent values? It certainly wouldn’t be Aristotle’s “natural slave” anymore. But here’s why people like Hawking are worried: its values might not be our values; its goals might not be our goals. Over the course of human events, slaves have tended to resent their former masters.

And if the conquest of the New World and the fall of the Qing Dynasty are any indication, where contention exists in the presence of technological and material inequality, there tends to follow the wholescale destruction and capitulation of one side of the struggle.

But I have hope for a different future. A future of which we can be proud. A future toward which we can work together. A future in which humans and machines are not enemies at war, but are one. This is where Transhumanism comes into the picture.

Transhumanism means using technology to enhance human capabilities. People already have pacemakers, hearing aids, and artificial limbs. This is just an elaboration. But why is the idea of transhumanism important to the singularity?

I’ll tell you. Transhumanism holds out the possibility that we will heal not only our hearts and our bodies, but also our minds. In the future, it may be possible to replace parts of the brain with computers—curing diseases like my late grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, and radically empowering us to shape our own dreams, metaphorically and literally.

If Moore’s Law continues to apply, we need the enhancements of transhumanism to stay one step ahead of our machines before they become smart enough to take control over their own programming and become more powerful than we can even imagine.

Machines may not share our passion for the preservation of civilization. But enhanced human beings will still have human experiences like that of membership in a community and feelings of pleasure, pain, and love.

If Moore’s Law does not hold true, however, as many computer scientists have argued, the need for transhumanism will be even greater. Our ability to create smaller and smaller microchips will eventually run into intractable barriers at the frontiers of our knowledge of quantum mechanics.

At that point, which could be no more than a decade away, new ideas will be needed. The time will come when we will need better materials than silicon, and the best alternative will be genetically engineered cyborgs.

The advantage seems clear: why reinvent the wheel when the human brain possesses great technology shaped by millions of years of evolution? Why reverse engineer what a human brain can do when it can be enhanced by robots?

Transhumanist technology can cure diseases, enhance intelligence, allow us to shape our dreams, and empower us to control our destiny as a species. But it must be available to all, and not only a chosen few. Its free choice or rejection must be a human right.

When access to the technologies associated with Transhumanism becomes a human right, our hopes and dreams will be transformed. When the brain is augmented by technology, and we understand the electrochemical foundations of consciousness, barriers to communication and understanding will come crashing down.

We will have the power to decide the content of our nightly dreams—anyone can feel like an NBA All-Star, the world’s most attractive movie star, or literally one of the stars of the Milky Way. Without the need to fight over resources, our ecological crisis will be solved and our Earth will be protected and healed, halting the destructive race to the bottom of industrialization.

As a historian, I can even imagine accessing the lives of our ancestors as experienced through their eyes. Life will be a blank canvass and a paintbrush for all of us. And we will all be equals in a fellowship of artists.

Given all that is true about transhumanism and the singularity, we are all obligated to bring that future closer. Each moment of delay means countless pain, suffering, and death. But each step of progress brings us one day closer to the dream and the promise of Transhumanism.

What must be done to bring that future closer? First, we must deal with the panic about the singularity. Fear of the singularity stems from its old definition. I want to redefine singularity to mean the point in technological progress when our relationship with machines becomes a seamless, shared consciousness.

The singularity will occur when we have the power to jump out of our bodies and into a cloud of pure imagination. The singularity will allow our imaginations to reach the boundaries of the universe.

This speech is a challenge: A challenge to all people who share my hope for humanity’s future. To bring humans and computers together, we as humans must come together and agree upon our shared purposes. As human beings, we are all enslaved to the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune. On Earth as it is, where you are born, and who you are born to, matter more than the content of your character. This must change.

To believe in transhumanism we need to believe in human progress again. Since the horrors of the twentieth century, we have retreated from such confidence. But Transhumanism is not tied to any single culture or broken ideology of the past. It is bound to our essential attributes—what makes us human—our imaginations, our feelings, our hopes, our dreams.

As a student of ancient history, I see the traces of transhumanism in the earliest records of human thought. When Cicero used the word humanitas to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings—the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

The only thing that we should fear is delay. We need more than a transhumanist society. We need transhumanist departments at every university. We need interdisciplinary study—in the humanities and the sciences—in order to probe the nature of our own natures in ways unprecedented until now. We need the courage and the legitimacy and the vision to undertake the research that must be done.

The most powerful men in the world are afraid of the future. But I am ready to face it. Are you?