Gambling With The Future

A few days ago I was on Twitter discussing this terrible headline about AI and libertarianism (it’s from John Stossel so yeah, don’t even bother). This apparently attracted the attention of Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist author and philosopher, who started following me on Twitter. I followed back and he sent me a link to a free download of his book, The Transhumanist Wager. So I read it. Or tried to anyway.

The problems with The Transhumanist Wager begin with its turgid prose but they don’t end there.[1] For the unenlightened, Transhumanism is the school of thought that at some near future date, technology will enable humans to achieve a kind of immortality, either by cloning, uploading our minds onto the Internet or just putting our heads in jars. What sets Transhumanists apart from the science fiction writers who invented these tropes, is that Transhumanists think this is a dandy proposition and we should do everything within our power to make sure that this happens, up to and including bending or breaking a few inconvenient laws.[2] Istvan is a merry proponent of the bending of these laws and moral codes associated with them, on the grounds that well heck, someone is going to do it anyway and the benefits will be pretty cool, so why not?

Because as history has demonstrated time and agin, the primary beneficiaries of technological advances are the 1%. The wealthy elites would get the mind loading tech and the customized meat avatars. The rest of us would be left to rot in squaller, if we’re lucky. The unlucky ones would or be press-ganged into becoming indentured code servants for the wealthy. Yes, we’d all get to go live in the Matrix! As some douchebags slave, or part of the infrastructure. Instead of being a taxi driver, you’d get to be their car. Or their customized centaur steed. Forever.

Of course Transhumansits claim it will not be so. That ethical progress and libertarian values will prevent this sort of exploitive power play, which as usual, ignores all of human history and seems to apply only to the sort of perfectly spherical humans that exist in these thought exercises. The problem is that true libertarianism can only be attained by a better, more perfect form of human. And they don’t exist. They are is imaginary as the perfected, incorruptible, immortal souls of medieval catholic theology.

Which is what all this striving for immaculate digital perfection really is, warmed over Christian escapism.[3] Why worry about fixing the world’s problems when we can go hide in the Matrix?

So now my Twitter feed is full of libertarian futurists and their blinkered self-promotion and congratulatory ramblings, all in service of feeding me to the Machine so that the Koch Brothers and Rand Paul can can become immortals. Thanks but no thanks.

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1. All self-described philosophers have a tragic prose style, as if they are trying to sound as “smart” as their ideas and instead, end up sounding like Wittgenstein with a mouthful of marbles.

2. Human cloning has been outlawed in most countries, and by the UN. The sort of experimentation that would be required to create the mind-machine interface technology to allow for mind uploading isn’t illegal because it doesn’t exist, but if it did, would be illegal as it would violate all known guidelines for ethical practices in research.

3. That, mixed with the standard libertarian dream of having middle class vices legalized in order to enjoy them without the guilt of moral transgression.

Today’s Paranoia is Tomorrow’s Future

Eight months ago when I started on the current novel-in-progress,[1] I thought I was going to have to do some heavy lifting to explain how an AI could be birthed from Google Labs, and how a secretive government agency could get away with having a massive panopticon that allowed them backdoor access to mobile phones and CCTV.

Now? Not so much.

In between the time it took me to imagine those scenes and actually write them, they have gone from science fiction to mundane fact. I no longer have to explain how the Spook Show can track our heroes, because it’s a punch line on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. This is kinda weird, to say the least.

We’re used to the idea of science fiction having some sort of prognostication value, however inaccurate[2] but this is just silly. Good thing my novel still has parallel universes, ray guns and biomechanical plant people from the distant future to keep things good and weird, else I’d end up writing literary romance novels.

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1. This iteration of the novel anyway. 8 months ago I tossed out two thirds of the novel, replotted and basically started over, salvaging a handful of key scenes. Essentially, it’s a new novel with some of the same characters and ideas, just completely redone and with a different tone and ending. Shit happens.

2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  famously predicted nuclear submarines a century before they were a reality, while Nuromancer is widely considered to have predicted the Internet, it missed out on the omnipresence of mobile phones, though Albert Robida actually got that one right, in aweird way.

Everything is Connected

In between feeding and changing a 2 month old’s diapers, here’s a couple of things that have caught my eye around the old Interweb thingy:

The World In Deeper Inspection is a n intriguing web comic by Ashel, which is amazing and beautiful and strange in all the right ways.

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Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. ‘Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay.’ ”

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And another webcomic, this one John Rogers’ Arcanum, from Thrillbent. I like this one not just because Rogers is a fantastic story teller, but because it overlaps a bit in a thematic oblique way, with my own interests  especially the current novel in progress (and even more with the next one I plan to start this Fall). More on both of those projects later but for now, check out all th elinks above. Fun stuff.

I’ve Clearly Been Watching Too much TV Before Bed

I had a dream that they found forgotten in some vault on the Paramount lot an entire 4th season of Star Trek (TOS) that never aired. Episodes included a 2 parter where Khan and 2 of his rivals escaped from their banishment on Ceti Alpha VI and each took over a planet’s civilization, waging a massive interstellar war with Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise caught between them. There was also a 3 part story arc that was basically a retelling of Macbeth with Klingons (only they were the wrinkly forehead Klingons from the movies and TNG era, not the guys in bronzer from TOS era). There was also an episode where they found floating in space a disembodied head that came to life when they beamed it aboard. The head had Q-like powers and made the crew’s life hell until Kirk agreed to help it find all it’s missing body parts and reassemble it.

Last night I dreamed

The city of Portland built a  subway system and I took it all the way to the end, through the mountains, to the coast. The last stop was a platform on a sheer rock cliff overlooking the Haystacks. I walked down a set of steps carved into the side of the cliff and stood in the surf. Then I woke up.

Iranian Space Monkey!!

This week, Iran announced that they had successfully launched a monkey into orbit and returned him safely to Earth. And the rest of the world went WTF, Iran? Because really, it’s not 1961. We have a space station, Iran, and I know we don’t let you play on it, but that’s because you do things like launch monkeys into space in 2013.

Only, it turns out that they did no such thing. It was all a hoax. Which, as baffling as that fact remains, is a second order problem, right behind the assumption that Iran had some legitimate need to launch a monkey into space.

They did not, and here’s why:

Back in 1961, the US sent Ham the Astrochimp into orbit and safely retrieved him. They did this to see if it was possible to bring a living creature back from orbit safely, because no one had ever done it before. But now that we do it on a regular basis, there’s no need for that data point. This is like North Korea announcing they’ve invented the wheel (only it’s slightly oval and was faked with CG). What do they gain by doing this?

It’s been suggested that they did it (well, not relaly, but wanted us to think they had done it) in order to test their tech, presumably before they faked a launch with humans. But again, ignoring the hoax, this line of reasoning still doesn’t work. The science for putting a spacecraft into LEO has already been published and made freely available. That’s why Burt Rutan was able to build Spaceship One without having to completely recreate Project Mercury.

Go to your local library (assuming it has access to Eric or Web of Science) and the reference librarian can help you find hundreds of papers detailing the math and specifications for building a spacecraft. you still won’t be able to do it, unless you have a few extra billion dollars laying around, but the hurdle for a manned space mission is no longer a technical concern, it’s one of finances and resources.

In 1999, the Chinese put a taikonaut into orbit. But what they didn’t do was first shoot monkeys at the sky. They looked at where the US and Russians were at, then built their own version. Shenzhou is basically a half step between the Russian Soyuz and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Nothing glamorous, but as first steps go, it made sense from a technical standpoint. Also, it was still impressive. The Chinese went from 0 to Yuri Gagarin in seven years.

Any way you slice it, lobbing monkeys into space is amateur hour. Its usefulness was dubious 60 years ago and today it’d be laughable, if it weren’t so fucking cruel. Recreating that particular step in the process doesn’t get the Iranians anywhere. It’s not science, it’s sympathetic magic, imitating the steps in the hope that you’ll get the same results.
But of course they didn’t even do that. The Iranian government faked the result, which drives right by sympathetic magic and drops us off in cargo cult territory. They’re building fake monkey rockets in order to impress upon the world that they are making progress in a space program they don’t even have.

My head hurts. I’m going to lie down.

By Keith Edwards