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
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.