Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Repugnant Price of Imaginary Paradise

Taking a break from the Benatar reviews for a moment.

I’ve been reading yet another transhumanist outline for eventual human bliss over at , and snagged the most salient section for your perusal...

1) radical enrichment of the pleasure centres. Irrespective of population density, suffering can in principle be abolished in all sentient life; and mind/brains motivated entirely by gradients of cerebral bliss. Ultimately, superintelligent posthumans may be animated by gradients of well-being that are billions of times richer than the range of hedonic tone adaptive for Homo sapiens in the ancestral environment.
2) a regime of global virtual reality, most memorably evoked in "The Matrix". The exponential growth of computer power (cf. Moore's Law) offers the prospect of lifelong immersive VR; a Matrix scenario minus its whimsical "Machines" dependent on pod-grown people for their bioelectrical energy. Most recently, Second Life and its cousins foreshadow what's possible. Next century's multimodal VR will be unimaginably more compelling.

On this "Paradise Matrix" scenario of reward circuitry enrichment plus immersive VR, the Earth's pain-ridden ecosystems can be progressively dismantled [though virtual wildlife safaris will be optional]. Each envatted mind/brain/virtual world can dine on genetically-engineered single-celled total nutrition mix, subjectively tasting (perhaps) like the ambrosial food of the gods. In mature vatworld Matrix models, the carrying capacity of the Earth runs to thousands of billions of interconnected (post-)humans. Each of these thousands of billions can enjoy lifelong well-being orders of magnitude richer than anything possible today. To maximise aggregate welfare on a cosmic scale, vatworlds could eventually be dispatched to seed and superpopulate other planets in our Local Group of galaxies - and indeed anywhere habitable or more-or-less terra-formable within our light-cone, saturating the universe with positive value.

I’m tempted to just fill up the rest of this post with the word ‘farfetched’, perhaps punctuated now and again with the phrase ‘geeks need women too’; but that would be overly pessimistic and unkind, methinks. Of course, beyond being highly speculative simply in terms of the logistics involved in paving this road to Nirvana, there are a lot of ad-hoc assumptions relative to the nature of happiness that strike me as extremely presumptuous. ‘Gradients of well-being that are billions of times richer’??? What the hell does it even mean to say that I could be a billion times happier than I am now? ‘Each of these thousands of billions can enjoy lifelong well-being orders of magnitude richer than anything possible today’. Assuming, of course, that there isn’t an as yet unperceived ceiling of hedonistic potential right above our heads. So far, I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary. And what if we discover that happiness is irrevocably relativistic in terms of both scope and degree. In other words, as Aquinas once postulated, enjoyment is enhanced in a field where suffering also exists, for comparison’s sake. If that’s so, our Matrix Heaven might require a Cyber Hell to be fully actualized. Come to think of it, the author might want to revisit the foundational film of his analogy, and listen to what Agent Smith had to say about the matter. The rose-colored hypothesizations exhibited in these masturbatory New Jerusalem scenarios really tickle me, sometimes.

But hey! Far be it from me to rain on little Poindexter’s sci-fi flights of fancy. After all, in the abstract world of all possibilities, anything becomes possible, right? However, in practical terms, all these transhumanist guys are gonna be dead long before any of this stuff ever becomes feasible, much less established across the board. So will their kids. And their kids. And THEIR kids. And here is where the term ‘billions’ really comes into play...BILLIONS of folks are going to suffer, and BILLIONS more will die before the culmination of this outrageously speculative scenario can even be hoped to be achieved. So what we actually have here are a few eggheads pumping up hope for a vicarious immortality as a justification to keep breeding, so that somewhere far down the line, some people who don’t even exist yet can play a TOTALLY AWESOME version of D & D, and maybe achieve a decent orgasm without ever having to touch a real woman. Once again, does the validity of the term ‘human sacrifice’ as applied to this situation escape everybody but me?

We are the future’s dirt, ladies and gentlemen; and whether the future kingdoms built upon that dirt are real or virtual makes very little difference to me.


Mitchell said...

Hi. I never got around to replying to your last comment on transhumanism.

I might start out by saying that for me transhumanism is a personal existential choice, not a civilizational imperative. In that regard I agree with you 100%: there is no justification for creating new hostages to fortune, out of the mere hope that eventually a better mode of being will be attained. Ideally, it would be done by those already living or not at all. In practice, though, pronatalism has such a strong hold on the human psyche that I expect we'll get borderline 'transhuman' things happening in a world that's still implicitly pronatal (even if childlessness becomes increasingly common).

I also think there's no question of centuries-long experimentation to be carried out here. I think everyone grasps the potential of the Internet as a high-speed gestator of new culture, new knowledge, new technology, and, ultimately, artificial intelligence. That vision makes more sense than ever in the "Web 2.0" era, as we find those companies filling great warehouses (data centers) full of networked computers. Back when the Internet was a computer on every desktop, the idea of all those PCs hooking up into single entities was a little mystical. But now having a warehouse full of cooperating computers is a business model (and the virtual equivalent, a bunch of hijacked computers coordinated through a chatroom, is a business model for digital crime). So that whole 1930s sf model of the big-brained future as a product of millennium-long experimentation, full of false starts, fails to reckon with transistorized speed. On a decadal scale, things are still developing incredibly quickly, and the challenge is more to form some idea of which direction all this hectic activity should take, rather than to rally people around the heroic purpose of becoming more than human. We are already in motion towards the existence of concentrations of technological power beyond anything in history. I'm 37, and I fully expect that this is a problem for my lifetime, not future generations.

With respect to the vision of a universe turned into an endless hive of brains in VR tanks, it seems like a low-probability outcome. If I put on my full-tilt mad scientist thinking cap, I must admit it does seem to be physically possible: take one self-replicating robot-spaceship constructor fleet, make its prime directive the creation of brains in bottles, and yes, you could have waves of these things spreading across the galaxy, dismantling each solar system they encounter and leaving it as a billion-year neuro-terrarium with automated overseers...

There is a stock example, in transhumanist discourse, of an AI with an arbitrary goal. It's called the paperclip maximizer: its objective is to maximize the number of paperclips in the universe. Its mode of operation would be identical to what I just described, except the constructor fleet makes trillions of paperclips in its asteroidal forges, rather than growing Matrix-style brain-farms. Once you get the idea of aggressive interstellar engineering like this, you realize that anything could be the imperative that gets acted out. The possibilities are so deranged that one has to wonder if we're not missing something. Is it really possible? Maybe there's some technical hitch that's been overlooked?

In any case, the existing problem with the happy brains-in-vats scenario is that no-one knows how to make a happy brain in a vat - or out of one. Maybe that's the part that's truly science fiction. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great comment! I don't think that transhumanist goals, fanciful or not, are necessarily at cross purposes with antinatalist ones; I see them as sort of second-tier solutions. I'm not so sure many of the technical aspects will ever be solved; for instance, I think the ideas about spreading throughout the universe depend a lot on Star Trek ftl speeds of travel, which is a pretty handy plot device, but probably impossible in the real world. The distances between solar systems are BIG, man! Maybe we need to think a little more locally.

Furthermore, there are the social, economic and political hurdles to be considered, not to mention the religious one. I mean, at the time of this writing, most of the human species is investing its existential coin in dead carpenters and camel jockies, for god's sake! I just don't envision a reasonable transformation of human tendencies rising to the top any time soon (pessimism is our friend!).

Still, my main concern is the willingness to keep breeding towards such speculative visions, whether or not it ever pans out. It's building stairs to the moon with human bodies, if you know what I mean. far as mind fucks go, this transhumanist knocking around can be sort of satisfying, at short spurts, that is.
I just don't have a lot of faith in the nuts and bolts aspect of the idea. And of course, in the meantime...well, you know.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, mitchell. All the best to you.

Anonymous said...

Reading back over my last comment, I'm forced to admit that the probability of a global antinatalism movement is, perhaps, only slightly more likely than a global transhumanism agenda, and for the same reasons I gave above. Hell, maybe even LESS likely, what with this human urge to pursue vicarious immortality. Ah, well...there's always solar flare radiation, or a rogue comet, or smart viruses. Wow, it's so easy to lapse into sci-fi scenarios in lieu of practical answers. Which, of course, would be for humans to reasonably acknowledge the facts, and simply stop breeding voluntarily. Negative bliss within 100 years, guaranteed! Ah well, even pessimists dream.

Unknown said...

As I said my piece> here (though in greater detail), the eventual heat death and/or decay of the universe will dissipate all matter anyway. Therefore, it renders meaningless all discussions about life extension via transhumanist technologies. Furthermore, while I'm all for helping people find ways to be truly happier, in the end it's just another way to make life somewhat more bearable.