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-uploading tech and the customized meat avatars while 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 douchebag’s 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.

Raise the Apollo 11!

The Apollo 11 booster has been found:

On July 16, 1969, the world watched as the Apollo 11 spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, with three crewmen on board. Four days later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to ever set foot on the moon.

The original rocket engines — “one and a half million pounds of thrust, 32 million horsepower, and burning 6,000 pounds of rocket grade kerosene and liquid oxygen every second” — that powered that historic launch fell to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and have not been seen in the four decades since. But that won’t be the case for long. Today on his blog, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced that he has located the rockets, and he plans to bring them to the surface.

As a space nut of long standing, I look forward to seeing these rockets in the Smithsonian one day soon.

No Other Option

There’s an old (mostly apocryphal) story about Cortez, and how when he reached the New World, he burned his ships. This sent a clear message to his men, we make this expedition work, here in this untested, foreign world, or we die trying. No Other Option is a hell of a motivating force. For better or worse.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies are suggesting just this motivator be our guiding principal for settling Mars.[1]

A human mission to Mars is technologically feasible, but hugely expensive requiring enormous financial and political commitments. A creative solution to this dilemma would be a one-way human mission to Mars in place of the manned return mission that remains stuck on the drawing board.

I quibble with some of their specific recommendations but they are just that, quibbles. Sending geriatrics as your first wave of colonials is not perhaps the best way to ensure the longevity of the species. Mars needs Women! And Men! And young ones, willing to fuck for Science! Frozen already fertilized embryos and an assortment of surrogate mothers plus a nice wide assortment of genetically viable breading couples would be better.

Communications technology has already reached the point where they could send email and Facebook updates back to Earth  with only reasonable time lags, so it’d be even better than the first wave of European immigrants to North America, who were in a cultural and information vacuum once they got aboard the Mayflower.[2] Plus, once the colonials are there, we could just lob supplies at them on a regular basis,[3] shipping new waves of colonials every few years.

The two biggest hurdles are cost (this is where an eccentric billionaire would come in handy) and the psychological toll of knowing you’re on a one-way trip. But really, aren’t we all?

If we intend to outlive the slow demise of our own ecosystem, there may be no other option.

Link via io9.

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1. I love that they titled their paper: “To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars.” it’s exactly this by-the-brass drive to take chances that Star Trek stood for. Plus it beats NASA’s current motto, “Meh. Let the Robot do it, Dancing With the Stars Is On.”

2. Which was be design. But that’s why we’d be sending hip young scientists to Mars, not xenophobic religious fanatics who think Protestant England in the 17th century is just too gosh darn liberal.

3. Unmanned supply drones would be a relatively inexpensive shot as well, costing less than Virgin Galactic’s proposed tourist trap in orbit deal. Heck, we get a few of those prefab printers in orbit, we could basically build the ships and launch them from a staging platform in a Lagrange Point.

Number 1: Stop Eating Patato Chips

Over at io9, Annalee Newitz has a grand little editorial taking the piss out of the Singularity:

It’s not that we couldn’t anticipate these problems, and even generate some Plan B ideas for dealing with them. But it’s hard to plan for problems when our eyes are on Heaven – that place where finally, all our problems are solved and we live happily ever after. It’s a fantasy as old as recorded history, and unlike history, it never changes. Yet we still keep mistaking it for a perfect vision of the future. Each time a Singularity-level technology comes along, we pack our bags for paradise instead of thinking sensibly about how we can prevent the worst side-effects of this new technology from biting us in our angelic asses.

The really insidious problem with belief in the Singularity/heaven is that it makes you complacent. You stop worrying about the problems of today, because they’ll all just magically disappear any minute… now! …Now! …Now?

Instead of using your brain and trying to think up ways to solve the problems we face as a society and a species, thousands, if not millions of people sit on their asses waiting for Jesus or his AI equivalent to show up and fix things the easy way.

Well it ain’t gonna happen. Now, how do we fix global warming? get off oil? cure AIDS? We can do these things, so long as we accept that they’re going to involve a lot of hard work and innovative thinking.

Cybermen with Italian Accents

Charlie Stross has found an odd turn of events in Italian Politics:

…transhumanism is going to influence the next century because, unless we are very unlucky indeed, the biotechnology, nanotechnology, and telecommunications industries are going to deliver goods that combine to fundamentally change the human condition. We’ve seen the tip of the iceberg so far: news stories like this would have been fodder for an SF story twenty or thirty years ago, and this video (playing pong! Using transcranial brain interfaces!) probably still is. But don’t be deceived: we’re entering strange territory.

And what particularly exercises me is the possibility that if we can alter the parameters of the human condition, we can arbitrarily define some people as being better than others — and can make them so.

Not all transhumanists have good intentions. Earlier I went on for a while about Italy, home of the Modernist movement in art and birthplace of Fascism. Italy’s currently in the grip of a wave of racism and neofascist vigilantism, presided over by an allegedly racist media mogul with a near-monopoly on broadcast media in that country.

So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism:

“Italian overhumanism is heavily influenced by the “Nouvelle Droite”, a fringe political movement that emerged from the French neofascist microcosm in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and which attempted to bring far-right ideas into the mainstream by discarding the trappings of historical Fascism in order to convey a similar message in a less unpalatable form. In common with the Nouvelle Droite, it borrows heavily from the extreme left (anti-americanism, anti-clericalism, opposition to globalisation), and has adopted neopaganism as a religious stance. While affirming the importance of science in modern life, this hybrid offspring of neofascism also maintains more traditional far-right positions such as elitism, antiegalitarianism and an interest in ethnic identity that crosses into differentialist racism.”Did you get that? The fascists have noticed transhumanism, and decided that they like it.

For those not up on Transhumanism, this may seem a little baroque. Basically, your regular H+ folk want to use biotech and cybernetics to make biotailoring a unique form of self expression. In this day-dream future, we all get to be mutants, only cooler. Sort of like the Anti-borg. All the cool toys with none of the weird laser eyes and claws (unless you’re into that sort of thing). Interresting ideas, at least. But the Overhumans want to improve themselves and those who are worthy. With force, if they don’t volunteer for Upgrade. The others well, they aren’t too specific on those ends but, words like “Genocide” probably wander into the room, though wearing some technotrousers and sparkly shirts with LED lights. Basically, the Overhumans are Cybermen. With Italian accents.

As creepy as it is that real people think like fictional villains form Doctor Who, the writer in me can’t help but stare in perverse fascination.

At the very least, I think I found the villains for my next book…

Happy Lunar Landing Day!

40 years ago today, humans landed on the Moon. Think about that over the next few days, while you wondering what to do with this world we inherited, that sometimes seems so broken and wrong. We can do extraordinary things if we decide we really want to. If we can put humans on the Moon, we can fix health care, and clean up the environment and maybe even set aside our superstitions and our fears and be nice to one another, just a little bit more often.

Fiddling With Code While the Matrix Burns

You may have heard that the Singularity is coming. Or maybe not. Either way, you should know that several people, some of them even smart, are all about the idea that humanity is on the verge of some unfathomable technological breakthrough, probably involving Artificial Intelligence, nano machines or both, that will irrevocably alter the path human history takes. There may be cake involved.

Continue reading “Fiddling With Code While the Matrix Burns”

In a Post LHC World, Anything Can Happen

You may have noticed this week that the world was not destroyed. While this tends to happen on a fairly regular basis, this week the world didn’t blow up in spite of unfounded concern about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Some people were afraid that by turning on the LHC, the world would be converted into Strange Matter, sucked into a micro black hole or would in some other way befall a fate worse than a mediocre episode of Stargate SG-1.

Or maybe it did.

Perhaps by turning on the LHC,* the fundamental properties of physics have gone subtly but irrevocably boink. You can’t tell, see, because we’re on this side of the event horizon and everything on Earth 2 is at an oblique angle to how things were on Earth 1.

For example:

On Earth 1, John McCain said that governors and mayors weren’t experienced enough to be Vice President or President while in Earth 2, he nominated Sarah Palin, who is now a world renowned Russian expert due solely to her being able to see Russia from the Governor’s mansion in Alaska.**

Also, on Earth 2, the US Army has a super secret weapon that is as revolutionary  in modern warfare as the tank or the nuclear bomb. You just can’t, you know, see it. My guess? Yaks with laser beam eyes. It’s a post-LHC world, baby. If the GOP can field a woefully unqualified soccer mom for the VP slot and still be taken seriously, then yaks now have laser beam eyes. QED, bitches.

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* The large hadrons are not yet colliding, as the proton flow is only going in one direction. At near the speed of light. How cool is that? So long as they don’t cross the streams, we should be OK.

** Which means that, because I can see the moon form my window, I am now an astronaut. Suck on it, Neil Armstrong!