Sunday, 18 October 2015

Futurama vs Transhumanism

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn.

I said this blog was going to discuss topics that I wouldn't want to make a video about, mostly because they're minor points or addenda to existing videos. This one, I could make a video about if I were still using my camcorder, but the logistics of filming it on my phone in 1 continuous shot make it impractical. It also wouldn't really suit the Blender animated format that I discuss embarking on in this video.

PBS Idea Channel released a video in June called "Is Futurama the Best Argument Against Transhumanism". I recommend watching it, but to give a summary, the video describes transhumanism, and Futurama's portrayal of the future as one in which there are many wonders of technology, but there are still issues faced by the characters, human and alien alike. It talks about how, despite having an abundance of modern gadgets that have inarguably changed our world, it IS arguable whether they have made us happier and more contented. As is typically the case with popular videos, the comments largely echo the views of PBS Idea Channel. However, I can't possibly disagree more with the conclusions.

To start off, Futurama was, at one time, one of my favourite shows. As a Simpsons fan, I readily jumped on the idea of having the same humour in a futuristic setting. My appreciation didn't even wane when the show was brought back after it's cancellation, with the one about the 3012 elections being among my all-time favourites. However, it paints a view of the future that cannot seriously be informed by an honest look at future trends. Like Back To The Future 2, which takes part 3 days from now, it seems to be far more informed by humour than dedicated futurology. People fly around in vacuum tubes, people still work as delivery boys, the only AI seems to be entirely encased in robot bodies, it is all based almost exactly around humans, buildings appear to still be made of 20th century materials, and elections don't seem to have changed at all (other than robots getting a vote, which is something I will mark to the show's credit). Other than my previous bracketed statement, all of those observations are contestable within possibly the next 50 years let alone 1000.

However, it's transhumanism that I'm focused on here. Transhumanism is necessarily about overcoming human limitations. From the arguments presented in the video, it doesn't appear as if PBS has actually grasped transhumanism at all.

He argues that we aren't significantly happier than we were in the past, despite our newer technology. I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, I would argue that the real purpose of technology so far is to show off the power of the human brain. We created it because we could. A secondary purpose is to make our lives safer. I don't think many people would seriously argue that technology hasn't made our lives safer, just imagine being on the plains of Africa 100,000 years ago and hunting lions with a spear. However, it is by looking back at this timeline that we also learn why we are not happier. We evolved to fight for our food, just like every other living creature. We are a product of the competitive drive of evolution. Let's not forget, evolution is a set of random changes occurring in the genome that the environment then weeds out depending on how successful it is at procreating. This is a dumb process that couldn't possibly account for idleness and lack of challenge. Technology, so far at least, has taken away challenge and provided much idleness. The result is that many yearn for the past which they see as "simpler" and "more social" despite it also being more hard work, more dangerous, dirtier, less tolerant, more violent and a host of other bad qualities.

There are 2 words that I want to highlight in the previous paragraph: "so far". Technological progress is not "finished". There are scientific questions we still need to answer, and there are further problems that technology will be able to solve. More importantly, technology will be able to solve problems that it itself created, leading to, in a moment of stunning irony, the conclusion that technology is "the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems". The most relevant problem to be solved here? The problem of happiness.

What PBS fails to grasp is that happiness itself is a product of the human mind. Transhumanism seeks to re-invent the human being in accordance with the continually progressing technology of the time. We can, in theory, engineer a better form of happiness. We can possibly even engineer out the ability for a human being to suffer without also, intentionally or otherwise, engineering out that which makes us most productive or most human.

How can it be that we won't just laze around doing nothing all day when we are continually happy? Simple. What happens when we are idle? How do we feel? We feel bored. Guilty. We are motivated into action by emotions that make us feel bad. We justify and even romanticize this because we have no alternative emotions to feel. What if instead we felt a tremendous urge to do something? That, along with this urge, came the motivation and energy to do it? Most of my inability to motivate myself to write here, to make videos, to do the learning that I strongly feel I want to do is caused by a lack of motivation and energy. This doesn't make me productive, it does the opposite. What we can essentially do here is turn a "negative" feeling into a biotechnologically driven "positive" adrenaline shot to our motivation and even a potential cure for depression.

This could be applied to all negative feelings. Physical pain could be replaced entirely with an extensive diagnostic network that could motivate you to seek "techno-medical" help whenever you sustain injury or the technology is corrupted or damaged. Sadness could be replaced by an urge to bond with other people, and the other person's brain could make it's owner attracted to that urge.

Make no mistake, this is an ethical Olympus Mons. There are so many angles to look at this and it raises so many questions about how we might approach designing a "transhuman template". Can we conceive of a set of emotions that don't inadvertently cause adverse behaviour? Is human behaviour and it's results so complex as to, even given a Kurzweilian view of the future, be impossible to begin to engineer a better alternative? It won't come as a surprise to anyone when I answer these questions with the ever humble and honest answer of "I don't know", but I wouldn't be a transhumanist if I wasn't optimistic about our ability to succeed.

What I would stress though is this. Let's not immediately give up. I have offered attempts at solutions because we do still suffer, and I want to see that suffering dealt with. The arguments that PBS presents against transhumanism fail because it is almost as if he believes that technological progress will just stop one day, as if we could stop people from designing a better human being. Our human brains, a product of imperfect evolution, have served us well in getting as far as we have and making sure we never just "stop", but it has caused an inexcusable amount of suffering along the road. It is not heady or unrealistic to consider that, given all we've achieved so far, we can't do a lot better when the design of that progress engine becomes intentional.


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