My post last week – “We will have the power of the gods” about Michio Kaku’s upcoming TV series generated a certain amount of heat amongst transhumanists and singularitarians unhappy about my criticism of radical futurism. There’s been a lot of heated discussion on the blog of Dale Carrico, the Berkeley rhetorician who coined the very useful phrase “superlative technology discourse” for this strand of thinking, and who has been subjecting its underpinning cultural assumptions to some sustained criticism, with some robust responses from the transhumanist camp.
Michael Anissimov, founder of the Immortality Institute, has made an extended reply to my post. Michael takes particular issue with my worry that these radical visions of the future are primarily championed by transhumanists who have a “strong, pre-existing attachment to a particular desired outcome”, stating that “transhumanism is not a preoccupation with a narrow range of specific technological outcomes. It looks at the entire picture of emerging technologies, including those already embraced by the mainstream. “
It’s good that Michael recognises the danger of the situation I identify, but some other comments on his blog suggest to me that what he is doing here is, in Carrico’s felicitous phrase, sanewashing the transhumanist and singularitarian movements with which he is associated. He urgently writes in the same post “If any transhumanists do have specific attachments to particular desired outcome, I suggest they drop them — now”, while an earlier post on his blog is entitled Emotional Investment. In that he asks the crucial question: “Should transhumanists be emotionally invested in particular technologies, such as molecular manufacturing, which could radically accelerate the transhumanist project? My answer: for fun, sure. When serious, no.” Michael is perceptive enough to realise the dangers here, but I’m not at all convinced that the same is true of many of his transhumanist fellow-travellers. The key point is that I think transhumanists genuinely don’t realise quite how few informed people outside their own circles think that the full, superlative version of the molecular manufacturing vision is plausible (it’s worth quoting Don Eigler here again: “To a person, everyone I know who is a practicing scientist thinks of Drexler’s contributions as wrong at best, dangerous at worse. There may be scientists who feel otherwise, I just haven’t run into them”). The only explanation I can think of for the attachment of many transhumanists to the molecular manufacturing vision is that it is indeed a symptom of the coupling of group-think and wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, Roko, on his blog Transhuman Goodness, expands on comments made to Soft Machines in his post “Raaa! Imagination is banned you foolish transhumanist”. He thinks, not wholly accurately, that what I am arguing against is any kind of futurism: “But I take issue with both Dale and Richard when they want to stop people from letting their imaginations run wild, and instead focus attention only onto things which will happen for certain (or almost for certain) and which will happen soon…. Transhumanists look over the horizon and – probably making many errors – try to discern what might be coming…. If we say that we see something like AGI or Advanced Nanotechnology over that horizon, don’t take it as a certainty… But at least take the idea as a serious possibility….”
Dale Carrico responded at length to this. I want to stress here just one point; my problem is not that I think that transhumanists have let their imaginations run wild. Precisely the opposite, in fact; I worry that transhumanists have just one fixed vision of the future, which is now beginning to show its age somewhat, and are demonstrating a failure of imagination in their inability to conceive of the many different futures that have the potential to unfold.
Anne Corwin, who was interviewed for the Kaku program, makes some very balanced comments that get us closer to the heart of the matter: “most sensible people, I think, realize that utopia and apocalypse are equally unrealistic propositions — but projecting forward our present-day dreams, wishes, hopes, and deep anxieties can still be a useful (and, dare I say, enjoyable) exercise. Just remember that there’s a lot we can do now to help improve things in the world — even in the absence of benevolent nanobot swarms.”
There are two key points here. Firstly, there’s the crucial insight that futurism is not, in fact, about the future at all – it’s about the present and the hopes and fears that people have about the direction society seems to be taking now. This is precisely why futurism ages so badly, giving us the opportunity for all those cheap laughs about the non-arrival of flying cars and silvery jump-suits. The second is that futurism is (or should be) an exercise, or in other words, a thought experiment. Alfred Nordmann reminds us (in If and Then: A Critique of Speculative NanoEthics) that both physics and philosophy have a long history of using improbable scenarios to illuminate deep problems. “Think of Descartes conjuring an evil demon who deceives us about our sense perceptions, think more recently of Thomas Nagel’s infamous brain in a vat.” So, for example, interrogating the thought experiment of a nanofactory that could reduce all matter to the status of software, might give us useful insights into the economics of a post-industrial world. But, as Nordmann says, “Philosophers take such scenarios seriously enough to generate insights from them and to discover values that might guide decisions regarding the future. But they do not take them seriously enough to believe them.”