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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Monday, June 26, 2006


There's been a bit a discussion going on at Sadly, No! for the past few days about the concept of transhumanism.Transhumanism is basically the study of technologies to improve upon the human body, including such goals as greatly extending the human life span, creating copies of the human brain and melding human intelligence with computers. Yeah, it's some pretty crazy sci-fi shit.

Lying behind much of this transhumanist talk is Ray Kurzweil's theory that the rate of technological development is growing exponentially, so new technologies are being discovered at an ever increasing rate. That means that some of that crazy sci-fi shit might be a lot closer than we think. I explained this a little bit in the Sadly, No! comments here, here and here.

Admittedly, this stuff can be pretty scary, and in a follow-up post at Sadly, No!, Retardo seems to be calling for us to put the brakes on certain types of technological progress.

Say that was a good idea. How are we supposed to do it? Right after the first sheep was cloned in 1997, there was a big call for a public discussion about this whole cloning business (leading to a U.N. plan for banning all human cloning in 2002). What happened next? Scientists started trying to outdo each other to be the first to clone every dog, horse and monkey they could get their hands on.

If the Russian government decides they want to clone a human embryo, who's going to stop them? The United Nations? China could start chopping people's arms off to make super-robo-ninja commandos and we wouldn't be able to do a damn thing about it. We can't even stop North Korea from firing a missile at us. And as computers get cheaper and cheaper and wireless network give access to large and larger areas, more of the world will go online. Unless the telecos succeed in shutting off the pipes, information will be able to glow freely across the entire world. That's all science and technology is: Information.

I'm not exactly a big fan of the NRA (man, are these people nuts), but, well... If you outlaw science, only outlaws will have science.

If this sounds like scary cold war rhetoric, that's because it is. Retardo breaks out the standard "science is bad because it led to the atomic bomb" argument. But does anyone seriously think the world would be a better place if the U.S.S.R. had developed an atom bomb and we hadn't? There were evil, evil men running the Eastern Bloc in those days, and sometimes we do need to get our hands on advanced technology before the bad guys.

More importantly, the world really, really sucks right now. Like, really. There are more than six billion people on this planet, and life is generally nasty, brutish and short for a great many of them. How can we have any real chance of drastically improving their lives without vast infusions of new technology?

We can't stop technological progress, but I haven't lost faith in the ability of democracy to turn it towards good ends. We can turn research away from weapons and towards things like clothing the poor and feeding the hungry. If we try to ignore or impede the technological revolution that is happening around us because we are afraid of where it might take us, we are going to have no say in where that is.


Anonymous Johnny5 said...

That last paragraph really sums it up for me, too. There is a lot of time, effort and money going into fields of technology that are commercially promising or that are driven by power politics when, ideally, all of these resources should be pushed toward more noble causes. It's the same with government spending: I don't mind the fact that the government takes my money or that it spends billions upon billions of dollars each year, I mind the fact that the money is spent in frivolous or inefficient ways when it could be used for much better ends.

I can certainly understand why people like Retardo are afraid of technology, but man, I don't envy his position; I can't think of a more futile battle than trying to reign in the march of technological progress. Steering it is the best we can hope for.

Anonymous P. Pirx said...

Life was in general "short, nasty and brutish" for most people through all of human history, far more than it is today. I would suggest looking up some statistics of historical life expectancy, child mortality (typically one of of three children born reaching adulthood) and so on before issuing blanket statements along the lines of "the world really sucks now". True, it is still far from perfect, but in terms of human welfare it is better than it ever was. Some sense of perspective is needed.

Blogger Chance-86 said...

Pirx and Johnny both make some great points.
A quote that I am reminded of is this: "Knowledge is neutral, it's what bad people do with that knowledge that leads to pain and destruction."
Like it or not, we will always be in a global race to stay ahead, not just militarily but in the realm of technology as well. In this day and age, technology and financial growth have been whoring around for so long that a country could be brought to its knees by losing the techno-game. Hell, why do you think we've spent millions and millions of consumer and research dollars to make sure that our youth is better at Nintendo than any other kids on the planet?? I mean, I realize that the pursuit of these illusive goals have required sacrifice...morbid obesity, for example. But damn, have you seen the graphics on the PS3??!??!!
Technology is much like every other growth factor: necessity is the mother of invention. as the "tools" previously invented have been honed, it allows the next generation of technology to grow (exponentially??). This isn't bad...its neutral. When the technolgy saves the life of a child, we hail it as from God, BUT when the same technology is used to create viral weapons, we cry to the same God and demand answers....

Anonymous tet said...

The Singularity concept is nothing particularly new. Vernor Vinge began talking about it in the late 70s, I believe in his bobble stories.

Vinge's singularity was based at the time on Moore's Law, which had, at the time, been true since about 1946 or so. (Moore's Law states that every 18 months, the cost of a given computer of a specific power halves--it's a geometric, rather than an exponential curve.)

[Interesting side note is that that relation is no longer true. About a decade ago, the factor was cut from 18 months to 12, and it appears to be decreasing, which should increase the liklihood of a singularity.]

In Vinge's fiction, humanity suddently becomes extremely powerful and then simply vanishes in the middle of the 21st century. No one knows where they went and it's not explained.

I've watched the growth of the Internet since its creation in the late 60s (got invited to the birthday party) and have been on it (originally on HEPNET) since 1983.

What I've seen is an overall enhancement in the "real intelligence" and "real memory" of those who use it in a particular fashion.

What I mean by this is that the access to the vast quantity of information and connectivity has vastly increased one's ability to answer the questions of day to day life in seconds, rather than hours or days.

I don't see the next step as having to do at all with nanotech or cyborgs, but will have a PROFOUND impact on your life over the next decade.

One simple technology--wearable computers.

Growing out of a combination of wireless internet, I-Pods, Cellphones and extremely small and compact computers, I expect that within a decade you'll be able to get a full outfit for the present cost of an I-Pod.

What will this do to us? First of all, imagine having access, hands-free to the entire net. If you couple this with a GPS, compass and contact lenses, you'd be able to look at a building, for example, and using voice or blinks, call up the plans for it or the historical records (or the phone directory for it.)

Growing out of AIM, you'd have instant connectivity to anyone else that's wired the same way. With instant, voice-free communication world-wide, you would not have telepathy, but you'd have a method of instantly transferring data, melding into a communications ubernet.

Of course, you'd also have ample opportunity for both MMORPGs and porn like you wouldn't believe (two economies that, along with the information industry and libraries) I expect to push it.

One of the unpleasant side-effects of this influx of information is the possibilty of real-world retaliation for things done and said on the net. With access to the plans for WMDs, the day might come soon when you don't have to worry about Al-Queda solely, but your next door neighbor who possesses bio-weapons. (There was a recent chemical weapons attack on an abortion clinic in, I believe, South Carolina that was reported in the press--the method and chemicals used were easily found on the 'Net.)

See, becoming a Borg is not something that would happen overnight and totally, but incrementally, with this as the beginning--nothing here except the contact lenses is future-tech, it's just that it costs about $5000 at the moment. A google search for wearable computers should get you the latest details.

Two excellent *fictional* accounts of societal change due to this can be found in Accelerando by Charles Stross and Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.

I don't hold the books by the so-called "experts" on Transhumanism to be any more than idle speculation on their part--They cannot predict the direction of the future any better than I. At least the above authors have the good sense to admit that what they're discussing is fiction.

I also believe that any prediction at this time of more than 10 years is futile because of the effects of Moore's Law.

BTW, I enjoy your blog, fellows. Josh R. turned me on to it and I've been avidly reading.


Blogger Buck B. said...

This is such an interesting topic that I'll probably write more on it later.

Yeah, Johnny and Chance, I don't really know how to respond to people who are pessimistic about science and technology. Everything man has ever produced has been turned towards evil ends at some point. But when you blame technology for society's problems, you're overlooking all the ones it's eliminated.

And building on P. Pirx's point, the problems created by technology pale compared to those faced by our ancestors. Which is worse — The "stress" of modern living or a life expectancy in the mid-30's? Pollution or essentially being stuck in one place for your entire life?

Bottom line: people have always been miserable, so don't blame technology. I don't expect technology to make anyone happy by itself — just not dead and/or living in mind-bending poverty.

Having said that, P. Pirx, we shouldn't lose sight of how bad things are in the Third World. In many places, life's really not much different or better than it was a few hundred years ago. The disparity between life there and in developed countries just reinforces how important it is to bring the benefits of science to all. Especially since the increasing reach of telecommunications technology is making the poor of the world aware of just how good some of us have it. If ignorance is bliss, what is knowing exactly how bad your life is?

Blogger Buck B. said...


Yeah, that's exactly the stuff I get so excited about! Here's another post of mine from Sadly, No!:

I'm not so much interested in nanobots and other such magical wonders as I am simply with the effect that the rapidly increasing rate of technological change will have on society.

Some of the developments that have the power to revolutionize our basic way of doing things are already on the short-term horizon. Pervasive wireless and operating systems that can run on flash drives, for example. Flash drives that are now being incorporated into almost any kind of household object, from clothing to appliances to vehicles. No molecule-size robots required.

People really underestimated the effects pervasive computing will have an almost every aspect of society, from business efficiency to interpersonal communications. Another example: How much money and energy could we save if the amount of power consumed by every device was regulated by an Internet-connected onboard computer to keep it at maximum efficiency?

And there's also the effect that "access to the vast quantity of information and connectivity" has on personal intelligence. See what happens when you take away a friend's cell phone and then ask her for your number. Our brains have always been cluttered with information that computers are much better at remembering than we are. There are dangers in abrogating too much to computer memory, of course, but I'd rather let the stove remember how long to cook a pizza than to try storing that info in my head.

Anonymous tet said...

There's increasing evidence from active MRI work that your generation's brain hard-wiring is quite a bit different than mine as a mid-Boomer.

Our thumbs are mainly wired to be leverage and grasping devices, while yours are set up as a fifth digit. Watching the difference in dialing a cell phone makes it really obvious.

The two anatomically distinctive features that characterized homo sapiens were our hands and our language. I think it is possible that those two features may also be the hallmark of homo trancendentalis.

There are a lot of Singularitists that seem to look upon the idea as sort of a secular humanist version of the Rapture--a wonderous thing that will enable geeks to escape the underlying doom that will take the unenlightened.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, perhaps, I expect both of the Eschatonians to be somewhat disappointed. There is a conflict between the growing gathering of power by institutions (whether it be the Multinational Corporations, the last Superpowers, or religions) and the power of the individual to make themselves a Superpower (with WMDs, knowledge, or leverage.) Being naturally curious, it's going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. (In the "ohmigod, we're all going to die" sense of interesting, to quote Joss Whedon.)

Alvin Toffler has been about the only person with a decent track record of predictions over the last 35 years. He might be worth a first perusal or a reread at this time.


Blogger Chance-86 said...

Another interesting tidbit that could take up a ton of thought is the idea that you touched on RE: not knowing any of my friends' phone numbers anymore. This whole thought begs the question from the other perspective, in my mind. Are we too dependent on technology? I work in a fast-paced office environment that requires continual contact via phone and personal interaction. Last month a computer glitch shut us down for about an hour. Swear to God, people had no idea how to do ANYTHING without their computer system telling them what to do.
If a terrorist ever wants to bring this country to its knees, forget chemical, bio-weapons, or even nukes. Just wipe out electricty and this country will be screaming 'uncle' within days. Can you imagine, no starbucks (god knows that a triple espresso latte can't be properly made without electricity). Hell, we couldn't get water to our sinks (and toilets). No one would have any clue how to fend for themselves once McDonald's freezers and grills went down.
I left my cell phone at a buddy's place a couple of weeks ago and all of my friends acted like I had regressed into the 1970's. Think about it...when was the last time you heard a busy signal??
I love technology...but I do see a scary down-side to over-depending it.

Blogger Gordon the Gnome said...

I can't stand any government action aimed at slowing scientific progress—even for religious or ethical reasons—if only because it means someone else will get their hands on the results first. We're America, dammit, and if we're not moving forward, we're moving backward.

You're absolutely right about China or Russia cloning human beings first; in fact, I'd actually put money on China having already done so. Last I heard, South Korea was big in the cloning game, and it really is only a matter of time before we start seeing biological advances spring by leaps and bounds from East Asia. And where will we be? On the moral high ground?

An America driven by selective morals instead of competitive technology is an empire in its death throes.

Anonymous Adam J said...

Here's a thought on science in general. Where do you draw the line?

We've been genetically modifying everything on the planet for years, with frightening disregard for the consequences. But when it becomes the realm of a high-tech lab -- and not something the average person can do in a corn field (or the bedroom) -- then we get worried?

I'm not saying that we should throw caution to the wind, but I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

Consider this, a Saletan piece that is skeptical of a transhumanist conference. Here's the great last graph:

I noticed a little guy sitting near the back with a gizmo stuck to his head. I thought he was some kind of techno-showoff. When he finally got up to give his talk, it turned out that the gizmo was the outer part of a hearing-assistance implant. He's deaf. He showed us the inner part on the projection screen: a metal doodad that says "Advanced Bionics" and is wired through the gore in his head. Then he played audio of what he used to hear through his crude old implant, and what he hears now through his new one. How sweet the sound. Amazing grace.

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