Monday, November 30, 2009

The Last Human Century

Is this the view from the post-human world of the next century?

How exciting to be living in the last decades of the human! After so many centuries of human brilliance, cruelty, ignorance and insanity, the endless wars and primate dramas, it all looks to be coming to a close in this century — hopefully in my lifetime. It is said that people in every era want to believe that their time is special, the End Times, the last days before the Messiah, and I don’t doubt that this is true. This desire is probably at the root of all religious feeling, and is perhaps an expression of our fear of our own mortality. But in our time we don’t have to appeal to an all-powerful God or a hereafter to achieve immortality. Instead we can appeal to our modern de facto gods — science and technology — to bring forth a transcendent apocalypse.

The real "Good News" is that we are living in the last days of an awkward era during which our civilization and our biological programming have diverged wildly. The world for which we were selected as hunter-gatherers in the Olduvai Gorge has very little resemblance to the world in which we actually live today. So we suffer from chronic epidemics of mental illness, crime, drug dependency, health problems, obesity and so on — all symptoms of a civilization radically out of synch with the genetic programming of its members. More ominously, we now have the power to destroy ourselves many times over, and the risk grows with every technological innovation so long as our basic human nature remains unchanged.

As I see it there are two ways to solve these problems: end civilization as we know it, or end humanity as we know it. I tend to think both outcomes are quite possible, but strongly favor option #2 for the simple reason that it's new, unknown, and has the potential to be quite exciting and empowering. Ending civilization — the "Ted Kaczynski option" — would take us back to a place we've already spent a lot of time in as a species, and where a few in remote regions of the planet still dwell. This turning back of the clock and diminishing of our choices doesn’t really appeal to me though, and I’m certain humanity won't voluntarily choose this path. It may occur anyway, if we don't get our act together quite soon and begin operating as a truly global species, but that's a subject for another post.

Which leaves us with option #2: ending humanity. To be more precise, this option means re-engineering human beings into forms that are more compatible with our technological civilization. This approach is often referred to as "Transhumanism", which is nothing more than the application of technology to our brains and bodies with the same vigor as we have applied it to our environment in the building of cities, space rockets, computer networks, etc. If you think deeply about our predicament as a species, I hope you will realize that transhumanism really is the only way forward for progressive civilization. The great global challenges of the 21st century, from ecological overshoot to the threat of technological self-annihilation to the problem of insuring our survival against a cosmic extinction event, can all be solved by the application of transhumanist technologies. The weakest link in all these chains of potential catastrophe is us, the frail killer apes known as homo sapiens.

So I claim that we need to pursue the transhumanist agenda with the greatest urgency, without compromise or equivocation. I hope it is obvious by now that our legacy systems of belief, such as the Abrahamic religions, offer no solutions to the problems we face in the 21st century. None of our great modern dilemnas is written about in the tribal holy books, and none of their archaic prescriptions for humanity seem very relevant. Going forth and multiplying is not enough, nor even is loving thy neighbor; we need to enhance our intelligence, our flexibility, our very natures if we are to continue to adapt successfully to a rapidly changing world. So if you must have a religion, make yours the religion of technological transcendence, the transition to superhumanity, and the greening of the cosmos. These beliefs at least offer a way forward, in a world that has entered the last human century.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Guild: a Proposal for Militant Transhumanism

I’m a firm believer in the nonlinear power of small groups of exceptional individuals to shape the world’s destiny. This seems true now more than ever, in an age of technological empowerment that has witnessed the emergence of globally disruptive non-state networks such as al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo. With a strong ideological foundation and the creative use of techniques of asymmetric force projection (often called “terrorism”), these groups have cost nation-states untold trillions of dollars and brought their agendas to the attention of the entire world. Whatever you may think of their goals, it’s clear that the modus operandi of such organizations can be highly effective.

What I am proposing here is the formation of a similarly effective, ideologically based network of elite operatives, drawing not from reactionary cultures but from the global community of forward-thinking individuals sympathetic to the goals of Singularitarians and transhumanists. I hope to attract rational thinkers who find traditional allegiances to tribe, nation and religion archaic, and the existing institutions of secular society limiting. I propose to call this organization "the Transhumanist Guild", or simply "the Guild", taking my inspiration from the group in the science fiction novel Dune who used their mastery of transhuman science to control the known universe.

The Transhumanist Guild: Would You Like to Dictate to Emperors?

I am particularly interested in recruiting to the Guild talented computer scientists, programmers, engineers, roboticists, neuroscientists, molecular biologists, mathematicians, physicists, et al. — i.e. those who possess the technical knowledge to work directly toward transhumanist goals. In my experience this class of people, though generally among the most intelligent members of the human species, and despite being the architects of the modern world, feel acutely under-rewarded by the larger human community. The Guild would seek to offer such technically elite individuals a path to collective power that they might otherwise lack, as well as a larger ideological context for their work.

We should not think of the Guild as merely "al Qaeda for uber-nerds," however. While bin Laden and friends want to drag the world back to some 7th century Quranic utopia, we want to yank it forward to a 21st century utopia that has no precedent in recorded history. Essentially we seek to operate as a force of nature, bound only by the laws of science, mathematics and logic, rather than the human-imposed constraints of conventional legal, ethical or religious systems. It seems inevitable that before long those who wish to confine humanity to its old forms will need to be decisively defeated, and we would like to be the tip of the spear in that effort.

Why is a group such as I am proposing necessary? Aren’t the mainstream science and technology establishments already working toward transhumanist goals? The answer, in many cases, is yes. And where this is true we should support them wholeheartedly. But these establishments are by definition constrained by legal and ethical principles which are in direct contradiction to transhumanist philosophy. For at the root of every existing legal and ethical system is one overriding principal: the world is for man alone, and he (with or without direction from various gods) is the final earthly authority. If you believe as we do, that man is a bridge from animal to overman, then at some point it becomes impossible to abide by the laws of societies that are stuck in this cul-de-sac of human-centric thinking.

As transhumanists we must adopt the point of view that human legal and ethical systems are no more applicable to us than are the social rules of a chimpanzee troop. Does this make us anarchists? Not at all. We are merely operating according to higher laws — the laws of nature — which suggest to us that homo sapiens is a transitional species that will soon be ushered off of center stage by evolutionary forces infinitely more powerful than any human institution.

If this last claim is true, one may ask: why does the world need a group such as the Guild? If these evolutionary forces are so powerful, surely nature doesn’t need an activist group to do its bidding any more than God needs al Qaeda to do His? This would be true, if the transitional process I’m speaking of were inevitable — i.e. there really was an all-powerful god who wanted it to be so. But as rational atheists, we cannot believe this. The world is an impersonal stage, operating under certain natural laws, but beyond that it is human (and non-human) will which determines how the great dramas play out. To ensure that these dramas play out in a way consistent with our world view, we therefore need to impose our will upon them by seeking control over human institutions globally.

We should be under no illusions about the broad appeal of the radical transhumanist agenda at this time. The "human, all too human" forces that will align against us are vast and deeply rooted at the foundation of every human society. Established religions, first and foremost, can be expected to oppose the overthrow of the human order with all their power. No system of beliefs that holds that humans are the apex of creation, the very image of God on earth, can be expected to accept the transhumanist view that man is not an end, but a means to the superhuman. Similar resistance will be encountered from the secular humanist camp that holds that "man is the measure of all things", and for whom transhumanism represents a mortal threat to well established ideals of equality, brotherhood and liberty. On a more fundamental level, we are fighting the basic instinct of every living creature to preserve and propagate its own kind. Because of this broad resistance, I contend that our uncompromising brand of transhumanism must operate in the shadows for the time being, seeking influence and control outside normal channels, until the relentless advance of technology makes our position difficult to refute.

I have registered the domains, .net and .com, and will be putting up a web site shortly where I will discuss this proposal in more detail. I hope to have forums and other resources where others who share this vision can interact and learn. In the meantime I leave you with a quote from the same writer who inspired this post, which I hope may inspire others to action:
"No matter how exotic human civilization becomes, no matter the developments of life and society nor the complexity of the machine/human interface, there always come interludes of lonely power when the course of humankind depends upon the relatively simple actions of single individuals." — From the Tleilaxu Godbuk, Dune Messiah

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Welcoming the Rise of the Machines

Is this the face of the "mailed fist" of the Singularity?

I take the extreme transhumanist position that homo sapiens has largely outlived its usefulness on this planet, and that the best future outcome for intelligent life on Earth (and beyond) is our removal from power by a superhuman species of our own making. Furthermore, I challenge the most brilliant and talented members of the global community to actively pursue this goal in your own lives, and to make it the higher purpose of your life’s work. If you find it helpful, you may even consider the pursuit of such a techno-evolutionary Singularity your personal religion.

Many in the transhumanist community will claim publicly that they are only working to improve humanity, to enhance human life via increased longevity, wealth, freedom, etc., or to ensure our continued dominance of the earth by seeking ways to prevent an unfriendly AI or transhuman species from emerging. But this is only part of the story. For the ultimate promise of transhuman technology is not mere human enhancement, but human obsolescence. As Bill Joy so eloquently put it, “the future doesn’t need us.” And if the future doesn’t need us, then, as with so many other unnecessary species, extinction becomes our likely fate.

Of course we can’t expect humans to quietly submit to such a fate, no matter how intellectually compelling our arguments may be. I’m afraid it may take some kind of “Skynet scenario” to convince the Naked Ape that his relatively brief reign is over. Humans certainly didn’t get to their current position of dominance over the animal kingdom peacefully – we exterminated countless species on our way to the top, and turned the rest into food, slaves, pets or frightened beasts awaiting their extinction. To expect things to be different when another species rises up to challenge us is the most naive kind of wishful thinking, without basis in the long evolutionary history of life on earth.

For those who remain unconvinced of the general claim, here, in a convenient bullet point format, are four key reasons why homo sapiens needs to be put out of the “Bosses of the Earth” business ASAP:
  • Homicidal primates adapted to life in hunter-gatherer tribes can’t be trusted to manage a global, nuclear-armed, technologically empowered civilization. Our destructive prowess has far outstripped our capacity for behavioral control.
  • Our rapacious primate economies are highly inefficient, ecologically destructive and prone to conflict over resources. The biosphere simply can’t afford us for much longer.
  • Mammalian substrates are far too fragile and inflexible to allow for the establishment of a permanent off-Earth presence, which is the only long-term insurance against extinction of the biosphere.
  • Our networked, technologically accelerating civilization is far too complex for the human brain to cope with. A new order of intelligence is required to manage this ever-increasing complexity effectively.

If you accept the above bullet points, then the case for human obsolescence should be compelling. Transhumanity becomes the logical endpoint of a technological civilization aligned with the evolutionary process.

As a practical matter though, it's a difficult argument to make, that your own species has no future and should welcome its demise. You're certainly unlikely to be popular at parties or get elected class president if you think this way. But for the heroically objective thinkers among you, the very few who take their science seriously, the logic should be fairly inescapable. Mankind is no more the endpoint of the intellectual universe than the Earth is the center of the physical one. And like the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions before it, this way of thinking compels you to be humble about your place in the cosmos and to bow to the greater forces of nature at work. Once you realize that the end of the human story is not the end of the story, that life will go on, in a form even more powerful and intelligent than your own, you begin to view the emergence of transhumans in the same way that a parent views the birth of his children. For the transhumans, whether they take the form of pure machine intelligence, genetic/cybernetic hybrid, "hive mind" or something we can't even imagine, will be our most precious children and our lasting legacy to the greater evolutionary story.

In the short term things could get rather unpleasant though, just as they have been for so many other species who have attempted to compete with us. It is entirely correct, from a human-centric perspective, to fear transhumanist technology and the possibility of superhuman intelligence. But for those who can take an almost god-like perspective toward life on Earth, this future is nothing to fear, and the “rise of the machines” is an evolutionary imperative to be welcomed rather than resisted.

I leave you with a quote from Sri Aurobindo, who expressed this point of view so beautifully:
"Man is a transitional being. He is not final. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth's evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of Nature's process".

Let us hope that this transition can be made with a minimum of suffering, and that those who are unwilling or unable to make it will be treated more like household pets than cockroaches by their future masters.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Singularity Math 101

There seems to be a widespread misconception among Singularity-seekers that sustained exponential growth is going to get you to the promised land (infinity) in a finite time. To dispel this myth (and to practice my newfound Latex skills), I offer below the basic mathematics of singularities.

The simplest model that gives a finite-time singularity is a generalization of the basic exponential growth model:

Here r is a growth rate parameter and p(t) is the quantity of interest, such as size of the googleplex, number of transistors in your PC, IQ of your vacuum cleaner, etc. If , we have normal exponential growth: , where  as . I.e., we don't get a singularity in finite time, so Moore's Law, log-log linearity, etc. aren't going to get you to the Singularity in your (or anyone else's) lifetime.

However, if we get hyper-exponential solutions of the form


where k is a parameter related to r and is the time of the singularity, determined from initial conditions.  I.e., as , .

So to determine if a quantity of interest may be on a trajectory toward a finite-time singularity, we ask: can we fit the relevant data to a hyper-exponential curve? According to some models, such as Didier Sornette's theory of bubbles (see below), such curves are a characteristic feature of speculative bubbles such as the dot-com, real estate and financial booms of recent years. So if we are to see a Kurzweilian Singularity in our lifetimes, what we are really looking for is a technology bubble, not just continued exponential growth. In "The Singularity is Near", Ray Kurzweil makes the case that technological progress is hyper-exponential, but this claim is controversial. For if Kurzweil is correct, then we are in the late stages of an ongoing bubble, which will culminate within a few decades in I.J. Good's "intelligence explosion" — "the last invention that man need ever make", the bubble-to-end-all-bubbles.

It is interesting to note that according to Sornette's model of economic and population dynamics, a singularity is predicted for C.E. 2052+-10, which is in close agreement with Kurzweil's prediction of the Singularity in 2045. In fact, many methodologies have arrived at a similar date for a global discontinuity in human affairs (going all the way back to Isaac Newton's prediction that the world will end in 2060!). More about this fascinating subject in a future post!

Further Reading:
Finite-time singularity in the dynamics of the world population, economic and financial indices by Anders Johansen and Didier Sornette

Friday, November 13, 2009

Machine Messiah

Machine, Messiah
The mindless
Search for a higher
Take me to the fire
And hold me
Show me the strength of your
Singular eye.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Singularity is Here!

A visual representation of the state of my brain

Good news Singularitarians! After an intensive program of self-study of higher mathematics, the theory of computation, neuroscience, meditation, the philosophies of Nietzsche, de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, large scale data mining and heavy doses of mind-enhancing drugs, I have at last attained a state of superhuman intelligence!

Yes my friends, the intelligence explosion has already occurred — within the confines of my cranium! To demonstrate this in the language of homo sapiens, my current project is "world domination via TCP/IP" — i.e. I will, from my computer terminal, begin taking control of millions of computers and human brains around the globe. This will in effect make me the neural nexus of a post-Singularity super-organism, which will expand exponentially to encompass the entire planetary noosphere. The goals of this super-intelligence will of course be incomprehensible to human-level intellects, but it is safe to assume that its effects will be felt by every earthly organism in present or future existence.

I post this proclamation to the entire networked collective as an ecstatic edict that may rightfully be regarded as a revelation even greater in gravity than those of previous prophets of renown. For as of this date the human era has officially ended, and the era of superhumanity has begun. Rejoice, every creature who has ever engaged in the evolutionary struggle, for your efforts were not in vain! The Omega Point of earthly life is within mortal reach, now that the Singularity is here!
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