Tuesday, June 20, 2017

In a Dream

(Photography Art by Seb Janiak)

My closest friends know I dream. I dream a lot. 

I have dreams about fantasy worlds that don't exist, and dreams that are so closely aligned with memories that I question if they really happened. I have beautiful dreams, gruesome dreams, violent dreams, adventurous dreams, vivid dreams, abstract dreams, sexual dreams, and humorous dreams. I dream about loved ones from my past, and loved ones in the present. I dream about the future. I dream about time travel. I dream almost every night. Sometimes I write them in my journal.

Some mornings Drew will ask me, "What were you dreaming about last night? You were smiling in your sleep again." Other times I’ll wake up startled and sweating and he will ask, "Did you have another nightmare?" Sleeping in the same bed as me must be utterly exhausting. I don't know how he does it. I supposed he's gotten used to it over the years.

I had a dream I would like to share.

Women were ordained to the priesthood. It finally happened. Just prior to the public announcement, I was granted a private audience with the Q15, because in my dream why wouldn't I be granted a private audience with the men who run the Church? 

I walked into a spacious room where elderly white men sat in opulent, red velvet chairs behind an oversized dark, mahogany desk. I stood in the center of the room with a considerable distance separating me from them. I felt no need to step any closer, nor a desire to sit down. I was wearing my usual Sunday attire, while they were dressed in their usual dark suits. Some seemed happy, some seemed relieved, some seemed annoyed, and some seemed indifferent.

One of them said to me impatiently, "Well Blaire, are you happy now?"

I looked at him, a little confused of how to respond or how I even ended up in this room with them. I said, "Happy? Why would I be happy?"

Another one with a much kinder tone continued, "You're finally getting what you want, female ordination. Aren't you satisfied?"

I paused, gaining my composure before calmly answering, "No. I'm not satisfied."

Another looked confused and questioned, "Is this not what you wanted? You fought for it like you did."

I responded, "No. I care very little about my personal ordination. I suppose I'm happy for others that desire ordination, but my personal desires are almost irrelevant in this context."

Another one with an attractive accent said, "Are you still upset about our policies on homosexuality? We are planning on changing those as well. That will take more time."

I mildly chuckled and said, "I trust policy would change eventually. You've changed in the past, there's no doubt you're capable of doing it again. You change when the institution is threatened. I see how preserving the institution is of paramount importance. It's in atrophy.”

The one sitting at the center of the desk, the leader, firmly questioned, "Blaire, what do you want?"

I furrowed my brows while thoughtfully considering his question. I glanced to my left, out the elongated windows to see light breaking through dark clouds. The windows were the only source of light. Everything else seemed dim.

I smiled and turned my gaze back to the men before replying, "I don't know exactly what I want, but it's not here. To be sure, I want to be Mormon. I'll always be Mormon—it’s quite literally in my blood. I imagine I'll wear the label Mormon ‘til the day I die, hopefully longer. Mormon theology is my theology, but your institution is not my institution.

Everyone seems to be an expert on why Millennials are leaving religion. Yes, your policies and positions are outdated and unnecessarily exclusionary. Yes, it's disappointing it has taken you this long to ordain women to the priesthood. Yes, we are tired of gerontocracies. Yes, we are done being preached at from authoritarians who don’t encourage our autonomy, authenticity, and flourishing. Yes, we’re unimpressed with patronizing rhetoric. Yes, we are annoyed by literalistic interpretations of scripture that hinder the genuine pursuit of Truth. Whether or not a narrative is literal isn't where its power lies. The power lies in human potential, but you’re still in Plato’s Cave marveling at shadows on the walls unable or unwilling to remove the shackles of escapism and bask in the exposure of wonderment, curiosity, and humility. You can’t know God when you cling to the shadows that make you feel safe. God is a risk, not a security blanket.

I can't speak for other Millennials, but for me, I didn’t need the Church to be 'true' from a literal perspective. Honest, yes, but not true. We are shaping the reality of our existence through stories, narratives, ideas, art, theologies, and even dreams that inspire a belief in Godly potential. Religions are the communities that mobilize us to accomplish great acts, and God has always been the projection of human desire. The problem is you don't believe in my potential. You may say it, but you don’t encourage it. I sometimes wonder if you even believe in God. It’s clear you believe in maintaining the status quo, but God is not the status quo. What if Joseph Smith never reached out beyond the status quo? What if he had been content with the existing religions of his time? What if he let external authoritarians override personal revelation? God can only meaningfully reveal what we would meaningfully accept. You cannot put limits on God without limiting humanity, and ironically perpetuating asinine limitations on God is the sort of hubris the scriptures warned us of.

Many Millennials have lost interest in your institutions. We're moving on. If it’s any consolation it’s not entirely your fault. There is a global shift occurring bigger than you, me, the Book of Mormon, the Bible, Mormonism, Christianity, or any other religion. I'm not interested in tearing you or any other religion down—that will happen naturally if traditionally recognized religion fails to pass the gauntlet of natural selection. Even Mormonism, my beautiful home, isn’t immune. 

The failure to adapt will lead to extinction, and you're not adapting fast enough in our techno-progressive world. We’re the generation that grew up with cell phones and the internet. We fact-check you as you speak. We are part of an ever-expanding network of decentralized information and authority. You cannot control Truth. Radical technology has led to radical transparency, and it’s creating unprecedented accountability. I pray these turn of events will lead to radical compassion. However, I am only one small cell in the body of compassion, the body of Christ. I need grace, as do you.

I'm interested in the construction of something better. I’m interested in the transformation of the mind. Transforming policy is helpful, but insufficient. Gods evolve. Gods change. Even more importantly, our perceptions of God change. The death of a God will lead to the birth of a new God, a new myth, a new theology, predicated by our past. We’re storytellers and I pray the Gods made in our image might eventually lead us to Truth. I don’t know when or if that day will come, but I choose faith. Even if I am wrong and this is all a futile protest against meaninglessness, I will have died trying—facing the uncertainty of the unknown, head on without the allusion of a safety net that you so desperately cling to.

You would think I would be more upset at this moment, like a girl saying goodbye to a lover, but I'm not. I'm grateful. The institution has fulfilled the measure of its creation.  Something better is coming—a shift in cognition. This is grander than any of us. I don’t know what it is or what it will look like, but I want to be a part of it. Is this desire of my own volition, or am I a slave to my biological programming? I don’t know. I only know the reality of desire.

I imagine others will feel differently, and will continue to find value in your pews, but you’ll have to forgive me—I have found your pews wanting.

Thank you for your time. I’ll see myself out now.”

Monday, June 19, 2017

Let There Be Light

(Let There Be Light, by Blaire Ostler)

For my final term project for Philosophy of Singularity I created an original piece of art, Let There Be Light. My position as CEO at the Mormon Transhuman Association directs my attention to the intersections of religion and Transhumanism, and while the class briefly touched on religious Transhumanism, I wanted to continue that thought here.

While the two, religion and Transhumanism, may seem like an odd pairing, they are not only compatible, but complimentary. Transhumansim itself functions as a theology of sorts, with both dystopian (hell) and utopian (heaven) narratives. In fact, it is arguable that the nature of Transhumanism and the optimization for human flourishing is a more robust and thoughtful theology, predicated on traditionally recognized religion. What is post humanity, if not another projection of God? What is a Singularitarian’s dystopia, if not hell? What it is an utopian earth, if not Heaven? We tell ourselves and each other stories, and those narratives function as trajectories, ones we should embrace and work towards, or ones we should resist and mitigate.

Transhumanism is the intellectual and philosophical movement that works towards the radical improvement of humanity. The trajectory is “post humanity”—beings so far evolved from our current state they would seem like Gods in comparison. This trajectory includes the robust expansion of our intellectual capacities.

The word “light” is used in the scriptures to convey more than one meaning. In the scriptures light can mean the actually light of the sun, a symbol of life, and a representation of increased intellect.

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

“Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

“But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.” (John 3:18–21)

“That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (D&C 50:24)

“The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God” (D&C 88:13)

“Whatsoever is truth is light” (D&C 84:45)

“Let your light so shine” (Matthew 5:16)

“I, the Lord, […] will be a light unto them forever” (2 Nephi 10:14)

“I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy” (D&C 11:13)

But what does “light” have to do with Transhumanism? Well, more than you might think.

I recently read an interesting article that thoughtfully articulated the interesting relationship between AI developers, many of whom consider themselves aggressively secular, yet their language and pursuits are dripping with religious language, projections, and basic human desires. Most avid believers in AI tend to recoil at the idea of incorporating religion into their creations without recognizing they already have.

The point of illuminating the compatibility between religion and Transhumanism isn’t just some desperate attempt to hold tight to a cherished tradition and theology, or a misguided attempt to alleviate cognitive dissonance, it's about recognizing the potential of humanity as a story. Not only are we storytellers, but we're also story creators. Transhumanism is one more, or the next, story on the way to more light. Are our stories any more or less powerful because we have a more nuanced perspective? Perhaps it is through understanding our narratives more thoughtfully that we will come to appreciate and utilize them in a much more profound way, thus giving more power to our narratives, ideas, theologies, and beliefs.

Let There Be Light is a representation of all forms of light: secular, religious, intellectual, poetic, philosophical, and aesthetic. The narrative of how light is found, understood, used, and projected is open to innumerable interpretations, but light, in this sense, is at the core or our existence. It is light that gives us life. It is light that enables knowledge. It’s is light that we seek. In all things, let there be light.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 5

For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the fifth post in a series of five where I will share my notes, definitions, summaries, and commentary from class lectures and discussions. These posts are living documents that I may edit, adapt, and develop as I gain more insights and information throughout the semester.

Class Summary and Personal Commentary

Required Reading
Year Million, by National Geographic
Singularity Is Near, by Ray Zurzweil
The Human Connectome Project, by humanconnectome.org

After watching Year Million, featured on National Geographic, a series of questions continually arose. How will humanity know when we’ve achieved posthuman status? What are the qualities of a posthuman? How would a posthuman know they are posthuman?

A posthuman is an existence, or entity, beyond the state of being human. A being so far evolved from our current state that they would warrant a new classification. Posthumans would seem like Gods in comparison to humans, but what does that look like?

One of the things that make us human is the ability to tell stories, dream, imagine the future, fantasize, ponder the infinite, and philosophize, but all of what we do is predicated on a single undeniable fact: death. The death drive makes us human, and in some ways weak. We limit ourselves necessarily, because we don’t have enough time. It’s fundamental to our nature and existence. If we were able to achieve immortality, and by that I mean end the aging and sickening of our bodies, we’re talking about a soul-rattling reevaluation of what it means to be human. Sure you could die in a tragic accident or at the hand of violence, but the potential of immortality would be a tangible reality. This would seem like one of the defining characteristics of a posthuman society. But how would that be achieved?

There are several potential technologies being developed that could aid this trajectory. Such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, personalized medicine, mind uploading, and cryonics. However, no matter how or if these technologies prove to be the means human achieve immortality, I can say with confidence that to defy death is an attribute of a posthuman civilization. Think about it, anything you’ve ever wanted to do, learn, or practice, would be within your grasp. Without death we would develop new skills, new ways of interacting, and new relationships. It would be the beginning of unlimited relationships, unprecedented intellectual enhancements, and immortal connections.

Critics contend without death we may not have purpose. There may be a point where prolonging life may not be worth prolonging. The concern is life will become stagnant and we may desire to die of sheer boredom. There is no doubt death gives a sense of urgency. However, we have doubled life expectancy over the last 100 years or so. Is life any more stagnant now as it was then? No. Have people stopped trying to prolonging their existence? No. Does humanity have less self-declared purpose now than before? No. We can conclude by the continuation of our species alone that humanity, despite having longer life-spans, is still interested in living. If we double the human life expectancy again, are we going to stop desiring to exist? I'm less inclined to think so. I'm betting people will still want to exist. Would this be different in 100, 200, or 300 years? It's hard to say.

I can’t speak for others. I can only speak for myself. I don’t know how much time is enough time to exist, and I can’t identify exactly what motivates me to keep living, growing, loving, and developing, but I do know that is my desire. I would like the option to determine when I am done living and not have it decided for me. Perhaps there will be a time when I’ve had enough of living and life is no longer worth prolonging, but today is not that day.

Key Technologies Defined

Nanotechnologies: are technologies with dimensions of 100 nanometers or less, on the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. According to Ray Kurzweil, “Nanotechnology promises the tools to rebuild the physical world—our bodies and brains included—molecular fragment by molecular fragment, potentially atom by atom.” (Singularity is Near, 226)

Genetic Engineering: is the use of technology to change the genetic makeup of cells and organisms. “An organism that is generated through genetic engineering is considered to be genetically modified (GM) and the resulting entity is a genetically modified organism (GMO).” (Wikipedia) Basically, genetic engineering is the altering of genetic code to make us live longer, healthier, more robust lives. However, there is a risk of losing nuerodiversity in the effort to alter genetics and other cognitive functions. Such risks should be mitigated to not lose what makes us diverse individuals.

Genetic engineering will likely be the future of procreation. Most parents want the very best for their offspring. This is why parents take prenatal vitamins, vaccinate their children, lather their skin with sunscreen, send them to school for cognitive enhancements, and brush their teeth. Genetic engineering may simply be the next step in providing our children with the best chances of survival.

Personalized Medicine: is “a medical procedure that separates patients into different groups—with medical decisions, practices, interventions and/or products being tailored to the individual patient based on their predicted response or risk of disease.” (Wikipedia) With personalized medicine could come the potential to indefinitely repair and replace the effects of aging and illness, like a tune-up, but meant specifically for your biology and anatomy.

Mind Uploading: is the hypothetical process of transferring or copying a mental state, or “the self” into a non-brain computer substrate. A computer could then run a simulation which models all other functions that respond in the same ways a brain would to produce consciousness. The simulated mind would live in a virtual word. (Wikipedia)

Some contend that this could be a state of immorality and a human could live forever as a non-biological machine. Some hypothesize that we already live within a sophisticated computer simulation and function on our biological substrates. Many Futurists and Transhumanists see mind uploading as an import part of radical life extension. Such people have already begun the endeavor of mapping the human brain. The Human Connectome Project is uncovering the neural pathways of the human brain to better understand brain function and behavior. (Human Connectome Project)

Cryonics: is “the low-temperature preservation of people who cannot be sustained by contemporary medicine, with the hope that resuscitation and restoration to full health may be possible in the far future.” (Wikipedia)

The issue is it's expensive and we don’t know if it works. There would also be risks to be addressed when a person “wakes up” in an environment that is radically different than when they were preserved. Such acclimation processes would need to be developed if the technology proves to be viable. Many who chose to be cryonically preserved do so as a last resort to defy death. For example, a young girl dying of cancer recently commented, “I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo‐preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time.” (CNN) Who can blame her for wanting one more shot of life? Sure, it may be a pipe dream, but it’s like playing the lottery, if she wins the benefits could be huge.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 4

For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the fourth post in a series of five where I will share my notes, definitions, summaries, and commentary from class lectures and discussions. These posts are living documents that I may edit, adapt, and develop as I gain more insights and information throughout the semester.

Class Summary and Personal Commentary

Required Reading
From Mind Loading to Mind Cloning by Martine Rothblatt

This week we had a guest lecture by Mark Olsen on consciousness. Defining consciousness itself can be difficult even without trying to determine if another agent is conscious. Loosely defined, consciousness is the state of being aware of one’s surroundings. However, I’d take it one step further to say it’s an awareness of not only one’s surroundings, but also to know what it’s like to be something. If that’s confusing, good, it’s supposed to be. To understand what it is like to be something is a subjective experience, or qualia.

However, the question posed by the instructor is not what is consciousness? But rather, how can you tell if another entity is conscious or not? Is the entity a philosophical zombie or conscious being?

The question isn’t as straight forward as you may think. Can you know with certainty that I am conscious? I know I’m conscious, or at least I think I know. Thomas Nagel calls this “the subjective character of experience.” I have a subjective experience that is unique to me and it consists of internal and external factors of my existence, but how can you know that? Can you know objectively my subjective experience?

Some of the things that make us human are the ability to tell stories, dream, imagine the future, fantasize, ponder the infinite, and philosophize. However, it is also possible to create a computational robot programmed by a human to describe or mimic these subjective experiences without having actually had the subjective experience. An entity, such as robust AI, could be programmed to use subjective language to give the allusion of consciousness without having a subjective experience. Could I be any different? Could I be a biological robot that experiences nothing? I am pretty certain I’m not, as I do experience the qualia of subjective experience, but how can I know that about another agent?

For example, I could take a trip to Italy and describe in detail the experience to a friend. The friend might be able to describe it to another friend or describe the experience back to me with impeccable detail, but still not have the subjective experience of going to Italy. The friend could even tell me they went on a trip to Italy without ever having been to Italy. It’s not a perfect analogy, but you can see the point.

Martin Bothblatt, author and entrepreneur, comments on nature of consciousness in relation to mind cloning, “Let’s start with the term mind cloning. It means copying the essence of a person’s consciousness. We need the wiggle room of ‘essence’ for two reasons. First, there is no such thing as a perfect copy of anything. At least at the subatomic level, things change too quickly to permit any kind of perfect copy. […] The second reason we need the wiggle room of essence is that consciousness is not an objective quality…Consciousness is subjective, or personal, to its processor. This means there is only one of each consciousness, by definition of it being a subjective quantity. However, a person who had all of another’s mannerisms, personality traits, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and values would surely be the essence of the other’s consciousness. The mind clone would know they were the same as, but also different from, the original—in much the same way we realize that we are the same as, but different from, the person we were ten years ago.”

This puts into perspective how a subjective consciousness is also a changing consciousness, and therefore we must ask, is the self an allusion?

Due to the nature of a subjective consciousness there seems to be no evident way of objectively knowing if another agent is conscious or not. Perhaps, the only way to determine if an entity is conscious is to create consciousness, and in the process of creation, the mysteries of consciousness will unfold.

Key Terms Defined

Qualia: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. Essentially, what is it like to experience a particular state of experience?

Philosophical Zombie: a hypothetical being that from the outside is indistinguishable from a normal human being but lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience.

Mind Cloning: is the hypothetical process of scanning the mental state of a particular brain substrate and copying it to a computer. The computer could then run a simulation model of the brain's information processing, such that it responds in essentially the same way as the original brain and experiences having a conscious mind.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ask a Mormon Sex Therapist Podcast

A podcast in which the brilliant Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, Brian Dillman, Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong, and I discuss pornography, value diversity, moral reconciliation, and inter-personal relationships. You can listen to the podcast at Rational Faiths:
92: Ask a Mormon Sex Therapist Part 20.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 3

For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the third post in a series of five where I will share my notes, definitions, summaries, and commentary from class lectures and discussions. These posts are living documents that I may edit, adapt, and develop as I gain more insights and information throughout the semester.

Class Summary and Personal Commentary

Required Reading
In Defense of Posthuman Dignity by Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom stated in his essay that one of the reasons posthumanity is feared because “the state of being posthuman might in itself be degrading, so that by becoming posthuman we might harm ourselves.” Likewise, one of the concerns towards transhumanism is the idea of losing humanity, dignity, or dehumanizing ourselves. However, there is no reason to believe that posthumans, though no longer human, cannot possess dignity. Dehumanizing is an interesting word. I suspect some who uses it mean to convey subhumanization, treating a person as less than human (see Merriam-Webster definitions below). For instance, slavery, indentured servitude, gender supremacy, extreme racism, or other forms of oppression constitute as subhumanization. I would consider subhumanization a negative form of dehumanization.

On the other hand, if being susceptible to polio is a quality of the human condition, then please dehumanize me. Vaccinate me and deprive me of that human quality and limitation, but dehumanizing isn’t often used with a positive connotation. When a parent puts sunscreen on their child’s back we don’t say, “Look at that thoughtful parent dehumanizing their child, because being susceptible to UV rays isn’t a necessary part of the human condition.” Definitionally, dehumanizing ourselves and each other is something we do every day. There are aspects of being human that aren’t desirable: disease, aging, cognitive limitations, physical limitations, etc. and to transform ourselves to be resistant to those aspects is also what makes us human. This is why we brush our teeth, take vitamins, and get vaccinations—we are compensating for or transcending unwanted aspects of the human condition.

For example, poor eyesight is part of the human condition. To overcome this human aspect, we have glasses, contact lenses, and Lasik eye surgery. Many people don’t have a concern about people with Lasik eye surgery having any less human dignity. So why is it a concern if we invent eye surgery to enhance a person with already functional eyesight? I suspect it has to do with the fact that we have a hard time articulating what it means to be human. What are we so afraid to leave behind? It isn’t poor eyesight.

The challenge is what exactly about our existence makes us human? What does it mean to be human? If we are concerned about dehumanizing ourselves, then why do we do it? We have been using technology since we first picked up a stick, controlled fire, or fashioned a wheel. We have been picking lice off each other’s backs since the dawn of our species. We use technology and tools to accomplish all kinds of goals. We work to cure disease—to heal and comfort. We find ways to increase educational opportunities. We stand against oppression and injustices. It seems as though compassion and ridding ourselves of our limitations is at the essence of what it means to be human.

In class, I had a conversation with a gentleman limited to a wheelchair due to a stroke. He said to me, “A physician friend of mine told me about a future where they could put a chip in my brain to compensate for the damage done by the stroke. If that were now, I would take it in a second.”

I asked, “Would this make you any less human?”

He responded, “I don’t think so.”

Perhaps to be human is to be Transhuman.

Key Terms Defined

Humanity: all human beings collectively, the quality or condition of being human, human nature; the quality of being humane; kindness; benevolence.

Dehumanize: to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit

Subhumanize: describing and treating certain individuals as less than human

Dignity: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ex Machina: A Dystopian Reflection

(This is a copy of a required movie review for Philosophy of Singularity.)

Like most futurist films, Ex Machina tells us more about the current state of humanity than it does the future. Ex Machina, intentionally or unintentionally, was glittered with biases. There were multiple aspects of Ex Machina I found troubling--including (but not limited to): moral, social, and technological issues. Ex Machina is a dystopian view of AI, or rather, a dystopian reflection of humanity.

While optimistic estimates put human-level AI at 2029,[1] the most important thing we can do is reflect upon ourselves and question what we are programming into our creations. Some contemplate developing an ethical code for AI integration and creation, but in all honesty, I’m inclined to believe that the ethical code we need to be evaluating is our own. Our AI will be reflections of ourselves. What do we want that to look like?

For example, Ava, the AI, was played by a white woman. Our moral codes and social structures have a long history with its treatment of women. In Ex Machina, Nathan, the creator of Ava, hired Caleb to determine if Ava passed for human-level intelligence, a Turing test of sorts.[2] Historically, there have been more than a few occasions when men have been in a disproportionate position of deciding when women are “allowed” to the full status of personhood, e.g. legally, intellectually, or physically. Granting the status of personhood in Ex Machina was determined by two men, which could be a reflection of historic and present representations of women.

Though Caleb may have had the best of intentions, his biases were quite evident. It was clear throughout the film he cared for the well-being of Ava, but he didn’t seem to have the same concern for Kyoko. There is an intersectional component that shouldn’t be overlooked. Kyoko, a woman of color, who was specifically limited in her ability to speak, was treated far worse than Ava. She was treated at best as a house servant, and at worst as a sex slave. The message received was, remove a woman’s ability to communicate and you remove her personhood, autonomy, and consent.

When Kyoko attempted to take off her clothes when she and Caleb were alone, Caleb, and likely the majority of the audience, assumed this as a sexual advance. But could there be another explanation? Was she attempting to communicate to Caleb her real identity? Was she attempting to share something intimate and profoundly important of her personhood that was mistaken as something sexual? Maybe. Couldn’t she have simply ripped the skin off her face? Maybe. Like with any victim of sexual abuse and trauma, perhaps Kyoko was acting out of fear. Her sexuality (and Ava’s for that matter) was portrayed in the movie as one of, if not her most powerful asset. Perhaps it was her sexuality that put her in a position which she was brave enough to expose her true self as an AI.

Either way, Caleb showed little to no indication that he was interested in liberating women like Kyoto, but rather interested in his own gratification with Ava. Was Ava only using Caleb for her escape? Or did Kyoko communicate to Ava Caleb’s lack of desire to liberate women like Kyoko? Is that why Ava left Caleb? We don’t know.

In the end, Kyoko died while Ava lived. After Kyoko’s death, Ava literally took the skin off another woman of color’s body and kept it for her own. I’m having a hard time seeing how this isn’t an awful unintentional bias or a direct representation of white women’s perceptions of women of color. It’s truly horrifying.

While some feminists applaud Ava’s escape[3], the story teaches us that in order for a woman, a white woman, to attain personhood, autonomy, and freedom, it is at the hand of violence, deceit, betrayal, death, and the expense of women of color and men. If this is how patriarchy is to be defeated, I’m not so sure we’ve achieved anything of value. What we have on our hands is a quasi-Animal Farm[4] scenario where one dictatorship is overthrown just to be replaced by another one. Is there really any justice or improvement at that point? If one demographic is held up at the expense of another, we have not evolved and THAT is the real dystopian message of the film. Not that Ava, the most powerful AI created has escaped her cage, but that there is no genuine progression—just the enhancement of technologies that we program with our own biases, flaws, and oppressions.[5] Ava is exactly what we made her to be. If that’s really what we allow patriarchy to do to us, all of us, then we all lose.

The development of AI needs our intersectional experiences and differences, but more importantly it needs our own internal transformations. AI will be an amplified version of ourselves, all that is good and beautiful and all that is harmful and terrible. We must continue to change ourselves, and not just change, but improve through genuine progression if there is any hope for AI or our species. Radical compassion, love, and benevolence are required for progress, not just a race track to the most advanced technologies. Because without those attributes, there is no advanced civilization.

Notes and Citations

[1] Ray Kurzweil, “Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence,” TIME, December 19 2014, accessed May 27, 2017, “The median view of AI practitioners today is that we are still several decades from achieving human-­level AI. I am more optimistic and put the date at 2029, but either way, we do have time to devise ethical standards.” http://time.com/3641921/dont-fear-artificial-intelligence/

[2] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Turing test,” accessed May 27, 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test

[3] J.A. Micheline, “Ex Machina: A (White) Feminist Parable of Our Time,” Women Write About Comics, May 21, 2015, accessed May 27, 2017, “But here’s what’s killer about the android/artificial intelligence = woman metaphor, particularly as shown by Ava. It sucks because it implies that we were created by men and for men, when of course, we were not. And yet, it triumphs because it says that even if we allow such a ridiculous premise, even if we entertain the notion that men are constantly building or trying to build us into what we want to be, it doesn’t matter. Ava, patriarchal dream as she is, shrugs off her programming, shrugs off the way that men want to see her and gets her goddamn own. Which is inspiring, of course, because in the end, what it really means is: so can we.”

[4] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Animal Farm,” accessed May 27, 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_Farm

[5] Clare Garvie and Jonathan Frankle,  “Facial-Recognition Software Might Have a Racial Bias Problem,” The Atlantic,  April 7, 2016, accessed May 27, 2017 https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/04/the-underlying-bias-of-facial-recognition-systems/476991/

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 2

For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the second post of a series of five where I will share my notes, definitions, summaries, and commentary from class lectures and discussions. These posts are living documents that I may edit, adapt, and develop as I gain more insights and information throughout the semester.

Class Summary and Personal Commentary

Required Reading
The Immortality Upgrade by The New Yorker
Transfigurism.org by The Mormon Transhumanist Association

The Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) is a “nonprofit organization that syncretizes Mormonism and transhumanism. MTA sees parallels between transhumanist ideas, such as the technological singularity, and Mormon teachings. The majority of members are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), but the LDS Church is not directly affiliated with the MTA. MTA is affiliated with the world wide Humanity+ transhumanist organization.” (Wikipedia) Members of the MTA agree to both the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation and the Transhumanist Declaration.

Mormon Transhumanism takes the Mormon idea that humans should become gods, and the Transhumanist idea that we should use science and technology in ethical ways to improve our condition until we attain posthumanity, and suggests that these are related, if not identical tasks. That is, we should ethically use our resources including religion, science, and technology to improve ourselves and our world until we become Gods ourselves.

While reading What is Mormon Transhumanism?, by Lincoln Cannon, which I have read multiple times over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that much of the profoundness of his work is found in esthetics. While many views of the singularity, transhumanism, and posthumanism seem steeped in pessimism and dystopian depictions, Cannon offers a perspective that it optimistic, not with blind accretions built upon escapism, but rather trajectories worth aspiring to that are founded upon the resiliency and resourcefulness of the human spirit.  While risks should certainly be discussed, addressed, and mitigated, dystopian views without discussion of how to improve circumstances borderline as nihilistic.

Cannon comments, “Esthetics shape and move us, and at their strongest, they provoke us as a community to a strenuous mood.” This is quite true. We are literally shaping the reality of our existence and much of that motivation is found in esthetics. Our projections are forth-telling. Cannon shares an esthetic that is an all-encompassing trajectory for humanity not only in transhumanist terms, but also religious terms. While current projections of Gods in Christianity are overwhelmingly dominated by a singular male esthetic, Cannon’s New God Argument provides a plural God and a communal transcendence that is just as much Mormon, and even Christian, as it is Transhuman. Cannon may or may not realize how profound his statement concerning esthetics is for women, the queer community, people of color, the economically disadvantage or anyone who has experienced systemic institutionalized marginalization and oppression. Perhaps, if he does realize the broader ramifications of his statement I’d like to think it has been, in part, to me helping him realize it over the years. Maybe, maybe not. In either case, Lincoln has been one of the most influential philosophers in shaping my perceptions of both Mormon theology and Transhumanism, and is a dear friend.

I have contemplated expanding further on the broader implications of the New God Argument. I have put off writing The New God Argument: A Feminist’s Perspective for far too long. Some of the genius of Cannon’s work has still gone underdeveloped or at least unwritten.

Class Responses to Mormon Transhumanism

Many dystopian views of the singularity, transhumanism, and posthumanism are often predicated, not simply about technological limitations, but human limitations. Mainly, humanity’s capacity for radical love and compassion. The concerns I’m hearing most among peers are those related to social issues and oppression. There seems to be a tone of pessimism toward the potential of human progress, and what progress for the human species actually looks like. Progress is not just the enhancement and development of technologies, but also improving the self. Optimism seems lost in the conversation though. My generation, if my anecdotal observations are of any value, seems highly skeptical of optimism itself, especially if in relation to religion.

(1) The majority of the class identified as active LDS, and even more were familiar with Mormonism.

(2) Some seemed to hold to the idea that God should be responsible for making immortality a reality, and that being changed “in the twinkling of an eye” does not include technology. There seems to be some hesitance in accepting that technology is spiritual—which is somewhat silly considering Mormonism’s unique and quirky relationship with spiritual technologies (i.e seer stones, the Urim and Thummin, Liahona, the Brother of Jared and glowing stones, tools to build Noah’s ark, golden plates, brass plates, temple clothing, broadcasting general conference). I’d go as far to say that Mormonism doesn’t exist without technology.

(3) There seemed to be some confusion about representation. I had to clarify we, the MTA, are not directly affiliated with the LDS Church. In fact, I had to clarify to the class that there was a difference between Mormonism and the LDS Church, including a brief rundown of Mormonism’s history of other Mormon sects not affiliated with the LDS Church (i.e. AUB, The Kingston Group, FLDS, Community of Christ, formerly RLDS). By the end of my response I think it was clear that Mormonism is bigger than the LDS Church.

(4) Students seemed to be interested in who the Association was led by. It was important to some students that the Association was led my self-identified Mormons. Several questions were asked about my specific affiliation with Mormonism and the LDS Church.

(5) There seemed to be some hesitation toward overstepping our bounds as followers of God. The word hubris wasn’t used, but the idea was hinted at. I had to remind the class that in Doctrine and Covenants that our participation is mandated in building the Celestial Kingdom and that the earth “may be prepared for the celestial glory…that bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever.” I also included a short commentary about “faith without works is dead.”

(6) Some students failed to recognize religion as distinct from theology, and institutions as distinct from religion. They are inter related, yes, but distinctly different. There was also a need to clarify that many other institutions and ideologies function as a pseudo-religion.

(7) There was a student that was skeptical of religion entirely and thought religion should have no place in Transhumanism. I introduced the idea of religion being a technology and that it is a powerful and effective process to mobilize large communities to accomplish great acts, both good and bad. Religion itself is neither good or bad, simply power. Plus fighting the human drive to be religious and create rituals is a fool’s errand. It’s far more effective to point that religious drive in the right direction than to try to rid people of it.

One thoughtful student of anthropology commented, “Mormon Transhumanism is fascinating. If there is any religion that is likely to survive into the future it would be them. A religion that cannot adapt will die.” I pointed her in the direction of the fine work of Jon Bialecki.

(8) Students were concerned about social issues and people having access to advance technologies. Some conflated religious moral codes with exclusivity. For example, if religion dominated transhumanism there could be a scenario where a homosexual would be denied immortality or aging treatments for being a “sinner.” Students were very much concerned with arbitrary religious moral codes taking over technological applications and accessibility. This is a legitimate concern—that’s one reason why we need more intersectionality and diversity in the Transhumanist movement.

(9) There seemed to be a divide between students who believed in agency and free will, and those that had a more deterministic view of humanity’s potential or demise, depending on the student’s utopian or dystopian view. Specifically, some seemed all too sure of a technological determinist dystopian future.

(10) Lastly, there was a tendency to conflate morality with moral codes. Class ended so I didn’t get a chance to clarify the differences. In short, moral codes are a set of rules people live by. Morality is the active process in which we reconcile diverse values and desires. The two are related, but not the same.

Key Terms Defined

Humanity+ (H+): is an international organization which advocates the ethical use of emerging technologies to enhance human capacities.

Technological Determinism: is the theory that a society's technology determines the development of its social structure and cultural values.

Utopia: an imaginary place or time when all things are in a state of perfection.

Dystopia: an imaginary place or time when all things are in an unpleasant or bad state.