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Human Outcomes Among the Stars

Does transhumanism have a serious objective? The question resonates oddly yet provocatively given the stakes being considered. Augmenting the human frame potentially expands our powers, while the goal of uploading consciousness seems to offer a kind of immortality. These are surely desirable steps, but some versions of a posthuman future seem to point toward triviality, an existence within a simulated reality within a computational matrix, an awareness that sees no need to explore when simulation and observation can suffice. Can we avoid such a result?

I have a visceral, non-digital sense that a ‘singularity,’ if it occurs, will not include pushing minds evolved over eons to cope with a physical biosphere into digital frameworks. I doubt seriously that a human consciousness could make the adaptation — madness is the likely result. Hardly an expert on any of the relevant disciplines, I could well be wrong, but I noted Athena Andreadis’ thoughts on this issue in a recent entry on her Starship Reckless site. Here’s she’s talking about the first starship crews, surmising they may not represent a social or mental elite:

…the first generation of humans adjusted to starship living are far likelier to resemble Peter Watts’ marginalized Rifters or Jay Lake’s rabid Armoricans, rather than the universe-striding, empowered citizens of Iain Banks’ Culture. Such methods and outcomes will not reassure anyone, regardless of her/his position on the political spectrum, who considers augmentation hubristic, dehumanizing, or a threat to human identity, equality or morality. The slightly less fraught idea of uploading individuals into (ostensibly) more durable non-carbon frames is not achievable, because minds are inseparable from the neurons that create them. Even if technological advances eventually enable synapse-by synapse reconstructions, the results will be not transfers but copies.

Copies. The idea that I will be immortal fades with the thought that my human existence will end more or less the same way that of my ancestors’ did, either by accident or disease. The alternate take, that I may somehow cheat death through breakthrough advances in the science of medicine, makes more sense, but I suspect that even such long-term survivors will run into the limits of augmentation, which are imposed not by science but by evolutionary history.

I admit to remaining fascinated with the question despite my skepticism, and hadn’t thought it through from the space travel angle in quite the way Athena has. Do we have a human, biological future in interstellar space? If so, it surely must involve one of two things. Either we do develop a breakthrough technology for single-lifetime travel between the stars, or we take a lead from transhumanism by finding out just how far people can be altered to make potentially millennial journeys bearable. Such an outcome involves something Freeman Dyson has often written about, speciation. Widespread colonies lose contact with each other and breeding pools become isolated. The species changes over time, adapting anew as biological intelligence moves outward star by star.

I see that as an interesting and positive result, what Athena calls “…a Plurality of sapiens species and inhabited worlds…” In fact, I’m not sure the transhumanist community would necessarily disagree with that outcome, although I don’t see any great enthusiasm for space travel in much of what I read. Why travel to the stars when you can create an existence around your own star that becomes so computationally rich that any experience you might choose to have is within your grasp?

The answer is that our species is hardly monolithic, and as we move outward, it is less and less likely to be so. There was always some young dreamer in the average 18th Century port ready to sign up for a trip to the other side of the world, even if every friend he had planned to stay home. Sometimes he was the son of an admiral, planted there to gain experience for the naval career that awaited him. Other times he was a three-time loser on the run from problems imagined or real.

If we find a way to manage interstellar voyaging, will the scenario be any different? True augmentation of the species should emphasize its essential richness. We are dreamers and thieves and speculators and scholars, and some of us are travelers, at times unknowingly working for a common outcome that involves making life better even as we push outward. Ever the optimist, I have a sense that our species will survive in many forms, and that some of them will look back on our Solar System from a distant vantage indeed.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Zen Blade March 21, 2008, 13:38

    Adam,

    I do not have time to go into detail, but your comment regarding:

    “What do you think drives molecular self-assembly? String? It’s all electromagnetic interaction – how else do viruses self-assemble out of proteins?”

    Your comment strikes me as being OVERLY simplified, and not in a good way. This would be like saying, “How else do you think I met my wife and had kids? It’s all electromagnetic interactions – how else do you meet someone and make children out of nothing?”

    Here’s some quick reading if you are so inclined.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capsid
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virion#Structure
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_force

    -Zen Blade

  • hiro March 21, 2008, 17:42

    I think nanotechnology is already ancient history. If we are really talking about “technology singularity” right now, we should consider femto-technology and antimatter propulsion instead of nanotech & fusion. The singularity won’t occur unless we have something like “wormhole-computing” (like Planck AI from vacuum diagrams), and it will not happen at least in the next 100 years from now. It takes around 250 years to find a weak solution of the 3D compressible Euler equations, so it will take more time to find & solve the ultimate equations that describe our universe.

  • Adam March 21, 2008, 18:18

    Hi Zen

    Overly simplified for sheer brevity’s sake ;-)

    But seriously how else do biomolecules assemble, but via EM fields? The oligomeric sub-units of the protein coats find each other and lock into place via their magnetic surface structures – the charge structure exposed to all the world so the proteins can interact. They’re not inert, static chunks of protein, but are instead dynamic structures in continual thermal motion. Else they’d tangle and stay tangled.

    Adam

  • Zen Blade March 22, 2008, 11:54

    Molecules are definitely dynamic, but describing their interactions in terms of EM fields is… not something that most would be comfortable with. I’m not going to say it is outright wrong, but it just isn’t particularly useful.

    Biomolecules, such as protein or nucleic acids, interact based upon energy minimums. In other words, the interactions head towards the lowest state of free energy. Not necessarily THE lowest, but a “local” lowest state of free energy. This isn’t some magical ride, and this isn’t completely understood for every molecule, but this likely occurs through the formation of intermediate “local minimums” that lead to a longer lasting minimum.

    Example:
    *We have a very simple system containing ONLY Molecule A, which can interact with either Protein B or Protein C, also in the system.
    *For the sake of simplicity we will say there is a single stable interaction between either Molecule A and Protein B or between Molecule A and Protein C. Assuming that there is only a little of Molecule A with equal amounts of excess of Protein B and Protein C… what will likely happen?

    First, we need to know which interaction is more stable, which has a lower state of Free Energy—we would need to figure this out for just A+B (no C present) and for just A+C (no B present). If we try to think about the interaction, not as a permanent thing, but as something in flux, then the more stable interaction is the one in which the Molecule:Protein interaction is together for a greater % of time. This can be determined experimentally.

    Once we are able to generate “on” and “off” rates. Essentially, numbers symbolizing how frequent an interaction occurs and how frequent an interaction falls apart, we can compare and determine which interaction is more stable. We can also determine the likelihood of an interaction occurring, based upon the amounts of each molecule/protein present in a particular situation.

    Once we have these numbers, we can compare the two and determine which interaction is likely to predominate given the conditions.

    This is not so difficult when you have 3 distinct types of biomolecules to deal with using a very simplified system… But when you have so many molecules that you really can’t be sure how many distinct types you have… and the “distinct” types can be modified relatively easily by the covalent attachment of small molecules, well… describing interactions in terms of “EM fields” just doesn’t make sense. Yes, you can use some basic principles to say we want to minimize free energy, but that is only the beginning.

    Everything in this universe may be derived from a few source principles or materials, but that doesn’t mean citing those principles/materials makes for an accurate or an informed statement regarding all phenomena within the universe. Granted, if you can create any form of matter of your choosing from nothing, I’d be willing to concede that we are at the point where those few source principles can accurately describe just about anything.

    -Zen Blade

  • ljk March 22, 2008, 17:13

    3001: Humans as Virtual Spaceships

    Sir Arthur Clarke, author of 2001 -A Space Odyssey, often explored the idea of backing up or transferring the human brain on to a computer. In his sequel, 3001: The Final Odyssey, he wrote of future beings: “As soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of gemstone. In these they roamed the galaxy. They no longer built spaceships – they were spaceships.”

    In 2005, Sir Arthur told the BBC that “When their bodies begin to deteriorate you transfer their thoughts so their personalities would be immortal,” he told the BBC in 2005. “Just save it on a CD-Rom and plug it in – simple!”

    The real-life sequel to Clarke’s predictions is being developed by the renowned Microsoft researcher, Gordon Bell, who is is working on a project called MyLifeBits which aims to digitally store “a lifetime’s worth of articles, books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings.”

    The idea stemmed from the fact that, although vast, our memory can be like a will-o-wisp; examples are seen every day when we cannot remember what were even thinking of a few moments ago, or where we put the keys, or the name of a childhoodfriend.

    The latest version of the project also allows him to capture phone calls, instant messenger transcripts, television, and radio to build up a virtual surrogate memory of his life.

    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2008/03/mylifebits–a-v.html

  • Adam March 23, 2008, 0:16

    Zen,

    Minima theory is about minima in the electron distribution patterns that surround the molecules, governed by the quantum evolution of the electrons in the overall EM field of the biomolecule. Call it what you like, but we’re still talking about electrons in EM fields doing what they do. They’re not (significantly) interacting via gravity, weak nuclear or colour forces (at all), but via hydrogen bonds, covalent bonds and van der Waals forces – all EM in nature. Even the Casimir force behind van der Waals forces is the EM force in action – virtual photons being restricted to resonant wavelengths of the gaps between particles.

  • Zen Blade March 23, 2008, 11:26

    Adam,

    Let me try to use a metaphor. If I were to ask you what makes a book a book… how would you describe that.

    You could say letters make a book, or paper makes a book, or ink on paper fastened together makes a book, and all of those are accurate statements. However, these statements merely define the physical properties of a book, and none are particularly useful in understanding what a book actually is, or how there are different types of books that are used for different purposes and have very different formats.

    And sometimes the term “book” is not even very useful. So we might say a book of poetry, or a collection of short stories–in book form. The information content is very different. Or, if you are from an older generation, you may have a set of encyclopedias that is in book form… or a dictionary. All of these books are based upon some basic common principles, but those common principles alone do not differentiate between the types of books, and those principles are not particularly useful when explaining what differentiates a book of poems from a novel. Thus, we use a completely different set of terms that can more usefully define what is happening.

    This is how I feel when you say it’s all about EM interactions… yes, but that really isn’t the whole story. It’s like saying steel is simply iron and carbon (I don’t even know if that is right).

    -Zen Blade

  • Adam March 24, 2008, 5:11

    Hi Zen

    I understand what you’re saying – the difference between medium and message – but we’re talking about a very fundamental level of reality, both biomolecular interactions and consciousness itself. I’m unconvinced anything less fundamental than the merged fields of the brain’s neuronal firing can be the underpinning of something like qualia. The information encoded surely involves the higher-level processes you’re invoking, but the feel of it must lie at a deeper level.

  • Zen Blade March 24, 2008, 17:23

    I disagree with regards to “I’m unconvinced anything less fundamental than the merged fields of the brain’s neuronal firing can be the underpinning of something like qualia”.

    I believe that explanations can be found in the form of “wild” speculation using what we know about neurobiology. Clearly, the science is not up to the level yet where we can make a definitive statement, but I don’t think we need to invoke a non-biological or even a semi-mystical explanation. Again, I refer to the simple case that there exist other animals and mammals with similar biology, but they lack our “abilities”. The differences between us and them are within in our (collective) Genome, and how the expression of various parts of that Genome are regulated–which results in profound differences between species.

    We are going to have to agree to disagree…. for now.

    -Zen Blade

  • Theo Stauffer March 24, 2008, 20:29

    I would tend to agree with Zen Blade that the gradual replacement of neurons with something else, be it parts of a neural net or nano particles, is possibly what will eventually happen. While I think genetic engineering would eventually be able to create humans adapted to the various environments, I also think that biological entities would have an enormously hard time adapting to hard vacuum, radiation and the extreme heat and cold of various portions of outer space. Machines, on the other hand, as we know, can “survive” out there for as long as they have energy.

    The reason that I think that we are less coupled to our bodies than we think we are is because of research into brain-machine interfaces, and the simple but telling experiments that have been done to “fool” a person into thinking that an artificial limb is actually their own. I think the brain is actually quite easy to “fool” in that sense.

    However, moving a human mind into a computer or collection of connected nano-assemblies will probably be a very complex operation. But I feel, at a gut level, that it can be done, and by replacing parts of the biological brain, one by one with functional equivalents, it will be done. The devil, of course, is in the details, but I suppose that some kind of nano-chemical assembly will eventually be small enough and flexible enough to do this.

    What shape and form these “machine people” will eventually take is obviously a very good question. I suspect that the human brain is evolved to fit in with a human body type of shape, but that too will change over time.

    It’s kind of strange to think that our descendants who do eventually populate the stars might be thoroughly unrecognisable to us.

  • ljk April 11, 2008, 10:30

    Eyeing robots whose brains would work just like ours

    Numenta is just one of the many companies looking to recreate
    the human brain’s processing power virtually

    The Guardian [UK]

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/apr/10/robot.brain/print

    Hubertus Breuer

    April 10 2008

    It starts with a guessing game. On a laptop, Subutai Ahmad draws
    a square virtual blackboard, attaches an “L” on its back to it and
    puts a “T” on top.

    “What’s that?” asks the vice-president of the startup company
    Numenta. A milk pot? A car trailer? No. The computer indicates
    that the most likely object depicted is a … helicopter.

    Even though this may appear like a game from the computer stone
    age, the demonstration gives us a glimpse of the future of data
    processing.

    High-performance computers may play chess perfectly or help
    meteorologists predict the weather. But the task of differentiating
    a cat from a dog is still tricky for machines….

    At the end of the 1980s a GRADUATE STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY
    OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY, was refused permission to build a
    software model of the brain for his dissertation.

    The student, JEFF HAWKINS, was not amused and headed for
    Silicon Valley instead, where he invented the Palm Pilot and a few
    years later the Treo.

    Numenta is the latest enterprise of the wealthy 50-year-old
    maverick. Its selling pitch: Numenta is developing an algorithm
    similar to the one governing our cognitive abilities….

    But not everyone is convinced. BOB KNIGHT, A NEUROSCIENTIST
    AT BERKELEY UNIVERSITY, says that Hawkins’ theory is compatible
    with our current knowledge of how the brain works. But he points
    out that the theory lacks details and experimental proofs. For
    Numenta’s software, which is designed to make predictions based
    on prior experiences, this criticism is irrelevant….

  • ljk May 28, 2008, 9:46

    Robots go Where Scientists Fear to Tread

    KurzweilAI.net May 28, 2008

    Georgia Institute of Technology and
    Pennsylvania State University
    researchers have build autonomously
    collaborating robots called SnoMotes
    to collect data from dangerous
    ice-shelf environments. On-site
    measurements of ice-shelves can be
    more accurate than satellite or
    static weather station data, but
    they are difficult and dangerous for…

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/email/newsRedirect.html?newsID=8761&m=25748

  • ljk July 28, 2009, 5:24

    Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man

    New York Times July 25, 2009

    Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s…

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/email/newsRedirect.html?newsID=10903&m=25748

  • ljk October 7, 2009, 23:48

    Singularity University releases two lecture videos

    KurzweilAI.net

    Oct. 7, 2009

    Singularity University has posted on YouTube the first two videos of lecturers in the recent Graduate Studies Program at NASA Ames.

    VintCerf (“the father of the Internet”and Google Chief Internet Evangelist) gives a comprehensive overview of the state of the Internet today and new issues, including IPv6, the need for cloudcomputing…

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/email/newsRedirect.html?newsID=11229&m=25748

  • ljk October 10, 2009, 2:01

    Quoting from this article linked here:

    http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3379

    “I claim, though, that we do have an existence proof for superintelligence: it’s not humans, but human societies. Put a thousand (emulated) brains in a box, and crank up the clock speed to whatever you can. Build in all the communications substrate they might need, and turn them loose. You can try different forms or internal organization — literally, try them, experimentally — and give the internal brains the ability to mate electronically, have children, teach them in various ways. Some forms of human organization, for example the scientific community over the past 500 years, have clearly demonstrated the ability to grow in knowledge and capability at an exponential rate.

    “In what way could you argue such a box would not be a superintelligence? Indeed, some very smart people such as Marvin Minsky believe that this is pretty much the way our minds already work. And yet this “Society of Minds” would be a model we intuitively understand. And it would help us understand that, in a sense, we have already constructed superintelligent machines.”