Transhumanism and the Singularity
From a talk given by Charles Anderson to the North Yorkshire Humanists in October 2007
Much of the material in this talk may sound to you like Science Fiction. I've been reading about Transhumanism and the Singularity for over a year now, but when I think about the future they describe I still swing between wild optimism and deep skepticism.
The subject matter involves speculation about the future of humanity, intelligent life, and the very Universe itself. However, the proponents of both Transhumanism and the Singularity include some very intelligent people, and the first signs of the changes they predict are already occurring. Please bear that in mind if some of the following seems a bit detached from reality.
I first came across the term 'Transhumanism' completely by chance while browsing the web one day last year. A quick click later I found myself at the web site of the World Transhumanist Association.
Of course, being a Humanist myself the name immediately attracted my attention. Was it some offshoot of Humanism perhaps?. As it happens, yes it is partly 1. A Transhumanist will likely share many of our values, and certainly a Transhumanist is unlikely to subscribe to the conventional religions. Consider this from the UK Transhumanist Association web site: "It is the proper business of human beings to seek to improve themselves." I'm sure most of us could agree with that. However, whereas for a Humanist it would involve learning new skills, or trying out new experiences, Transhumanists are much more ambitious.
To quote from the World Transhumanist Association's site,
"Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked
beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways." 2 . They
are interested in
the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the
human organism opened up by the advancement of technology. Attention is given
to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information
technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and
Of course human beings have long been using technology to make improvements to their lives. Spectacles to improve failing eyesight, wrist watches to give us continuous access to the time, dentistry to repair our teeth. Even the humble pocket diary is a powerful memory extension tool, and a handheld computer like this iPaq of mine can significantly extend a person's abilities.
But a Transhumanist isn't just a human with access to more
and better technology. Transhumanists look forward to a future in which
technology radically redefines what it means to be human. More intelligent,
more capable, healthier, longer-lived. And if that wasn't enough, Transhumanism
also has a much longer term vision for our future. In the words of
Transhumanist Michael Annissimov:
the grandiose transhumanist vision:
intelligent beings spreading across the cosmos, and eventually shaping the very
structure of the universe itself. 3
Before we get to the future of the universe, let's look more closely at what Transhumanism is actually about.
The roots of Transhumanism (sometimes shortened to H+ or >H) go back many years, but the idea seems to have started to come into focus during the 1980s. The World Transhumanist Association was founded in 1998, and boasted 4547 members when I last checked this afternoon. (By comparison, that's substantially less than the British Humanist Association.)
Let me quote a bit from
The Transhumanist Declaration,
adopted by the WTA in 2002.
(1) Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
(2) Systematic research should be put into understanding these coming developments and their long-term consequences.
(3) Transhumanists think that by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it.
(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
(7) Transhumanism advocates the well-being of all sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non-human animals) and encompasses many principles of modern humanism. Transhumanism does not support any particular party, politician or political platform.
So you see, for Transhumanists, the Bionic Man is just a stepping stone. Genetic modifications, cybernetic implants, augmented intelligence are all on their agenda, as are dramatic life extension (effectively immortality) and even conscious control of our emotions.
How seriously should we take all this? I'm going to give
some examples of the emerging technologies that Transhumanists hope will enable
their dreams, but first I'd like to give a quote I found recently.
this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and 'cyborg' techniques may
change human beings themselves. That's something qualitatively new in recorded
history—and it will pose novel ethical conundrums. Our species could be
transformed and diversified (here on Earth and perhaps beyond) within just a
few centuries. That was by the astronomer Martin Rees, President of
The Royal Society 4. These ideas are
being taken seriously.
In February you may have read reports of a
Bionic Eye, developed
at the University of Southern California, which can be transplanted
on to the retinas of people who have lost their sight. Although still quite
primitive, and restoring only very limited vision, it's worth noting that the
first version, with just 16 pixels, took 16 years to develop. The latest
version, with 60 pixels, took only four. The researchers estimate they'll have a
1000 pixel version ready in another seven years. This brings us the enticing
possibility of a bionic eye one day that will actually provide better vision
than the natural human eye. For instance, it might have a built in zoom
feature, or be able to take snapshots.
Cochlear implants to restore hearing are another tool of medical science this is rapidly improving. Now personally I'd have serious reservations about volunteering to swap my healthy eyes or ears for electronic replacements, no matter how good they were. But as the technology matures, and the risks decrease, it's not hard to imagine a time when upgrading surgery becomes commonplace. Transhumanists would have no problem at all with this.
In July it was reported that biochemists at MIT have found a molecular mechanism behind learned fear, and have managed to cure it in mice. The hope is that eventually we can use this to treat sufferers from conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 5. Looking further, we can only speculate about which other human emotions might become controllable.
Even if you accept that technology may bring about the changes that Transhumanism needs to become a reality, you may still feel that we're looking centuries into the future. And yet Transhumanists very much hope to see these things come about within their own lifetimes. What they believe will convert these ideas from Science Fiction into Fact is the escalating pace of scientific progress.
You've probably heard about Moore's Law, an observation made in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore about the number of transistors you can fit on an integrated circuit. He saw that the number was doubling about every two years, and this trend has continued to the present time. Moore's Law has now been generalized to apply to other aspects of technology in which physical capabilities double at a fixed rate. The power of a personal computer (for a given price) is now doubling roughly every two years. Computer memory doubles in capacity every year. The amount of data coming out of a fibre optic cable is doubling every nine months.
These are all examples of exponential growth, and technology, particularly information technology, is rife with them. Compound interest on a savings account is another example, though unfortunately considerably slower to double in size.
The important thing to realise about exponential growth is that it is an accelerating curve, not a straight line. If something doubles every year, then after two years it will have quadrupled. But after just ten years it will be over a thousand times larger. And in twenty years it's a million times larger.
I'd like to give an example from my own field of computing.
In the mid-eighties I was living in Cambridge
when a friend told me about the new computer that the university was in the
process of installing. It was some giant system from IBM, but what impressed me
was the news that it was going to have no less than 50 GBytes of online hard
disc storage. You didn't hear the word
Giga very much back then, so it took
me a couple of seconds to work out that that meant 50,000 megabytes, an
unimaginable amount of space at the time, that would hold the experimental data
of the crystallographers, the radio astronomers, and all the other researchers
at one of the world's leading universities. Yet just twenty years later you can
buy a 500 GByte drive for your PC for less than £100. It will hold your music
and photo collection.
The inventor and writer Ray Kurzweil analysed this
phenomenon in an essay in 2001 entitled,
The Law of Accelerating Returns:
analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential,
… So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be
more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The 'returns,' such as
chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even
exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.
Here's another recent example. It took 15 years for geneticists to sequence the DNA of the HIV virus. When SARS broke out in 2003 it took just 31 days to sequence its DNA. The cost of sequencing the human genome ran into hundreds of millions. Today it would be just millions. Researchers are already looking to the time when it's feasible to sequence an individual's DNA for a few hundred pounds.
If these exponential trends continue, and there is every reason to think they will in the short term at least, then maybe Transhumanists' dreams aren't so far in the future after all. And there is another reason to expect these advances to happen in decades rather than centuries, and that's the Singularity. But before I get to that, I'll just take a brief look at one of Transhumanism's most important dreams, Immortality.
Death has usually been looked on as an inevitable part of existence. Until Transhumanism, that is. Transhumanists hope for a dramatic if not indefinite extension in the human lifespan.
There are two ways in which this might be achieved. The first requires medical science to advance to the point where we can progressively replace failing parts of the body, just as you can theoretically keep a car going forever by replacing components as they wear out. Sure, after a while there isn't a single bit of the original car left, but nevertheless you're still left with the same car.
The other way is even more ambitious. Let's conduct a thought experiment. Imagine that we can replace the neurons in a human brain (say, mine) one by one with some tiny electronic equivalent. At every step of the way the functioning of my brain carries on as normal, so you would still recognize my as being me. My thoughts and memories are just as before. However, at the end my brain is entirely electronic. As such, it is feasible to make an electronic backup of it onto tape or a hard drive. Then if I were to die, you could make an exact copy of my electronic brain from the backup. Logically it would seem that this new brain must think exactly like I did when the backup was made. It would have all my knowledge, all my memories, all my feelings. To any observer it would be me.
There are some big
ifs here, I admit. A lot of people
feel uneasy about the idea that an electronic device could support
consciousness, which is why I gave the example of replacing a human brain cell
by cell. With our current state of knowledge, we know of no reason why a
sufficiently advanced device might not sustain consciousness if it was modeled
on the human brain, the one thing we know for certain can.
Now let's think about what exponential progress means to the field of Artificial Intelligence, or AI for short. If the trends continue, computers with the computational power of the human brain will be available early in the next decade. That doesn't mean they will be able to think like humans, because we don't know how to write the software for that yet. However, in principle these supercomputers will be as powerful as a human brain. They will be expensive. However, with the pressure of exponential growth, we can look forward to a personal computer with the power of a human brain by the end of the next decade.
Meanwhile neuroscientists and psychologists are making rapid progress in analyzing how the human brain works. Here's another example of exponential progress: the resolution of brain scanning equipment is doubling every year, so every year we can see twice as much detail of what's going on inside out heads, or in ten years, a thousand times as much detail. The human brain is gradually being mapped, and we discover which bits of it
There's a lot of progress being made using computers to simulate how various bits of the brain work. The hope is that eventually we will know enough about the workings of the brain to be able to simulate it in software completely. Combine that with a computer powerful enough to run the simulation and in principle you have an artificial intelligence.
We don't know what these intelligences will be like. (To be honest we can't yet be fully sure that they will even be possible.) We don't know if they will be capable of emotion as we are, or if they'll be able to create works of art. But let's assume that they will be capable of tackling technical problems, like building a more powerful computer to run, or rewriting their software to make themselves more intelligent. Then we would have a new generation of AIs, who will be ever better at designing new computers and writing better software. And so on. Exponentially.
The mathematician and science fiction writer, Vernor Vinge,
wrote an article in 1993 about this, called
The Coming Technological
Singularity. The abstract starts with the words,
Within thirty years, we will
have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after,
the human era will be ended. For Vinge as a science fiction writer thinking
about the future, it was impossible to look beyond the point at which AI is
created, because it would rapidly become so intelligent that it would
completely outstrip human intelligence. We would face a future beyond our
Interestingly, in his 1993 article he was predicting it
would occur in the next thirty years. Twelve years later Ray Kurzweil, in his
The Singularity is Near, predicts it happening about forty years
from now. So it may not be quite as near as they think. Even so, when progress
is advancing exponentially, even if computers need to be a million times more
powerful than estimated, you're still looking at a timescale with the
Singularity occurring in this century.
A lot of people hope and expect that the super-intelligent beings created as a result of the Singularity will be able to use their vast intellects to solve humanity's problems. War, poverty, disease, all banished.
And immortality, of course.
Some people see the Singularity as a significant point in the history of the entire Universe. Super intelligences gradually expand through the cosmos, converting everything they find into computers to feed their ever-growing need for computational power. In effect, the Universe slowly achieves consciousness.
Religious fundamentalists tend to concentrate their fire on Evolution and Darwin, but they might be better off thinking about the consequences of these Transhumanist technologies. Just for starters, would an artificial intelligence possess a soul?
We can also speculate on the damage to organised religion if immortality or something like it is ever achieved. With the possibility of eternal damnation postponed indefinitely, religion might lose its biggest selling point.
There is an observed correlation between education and intelligence on the one hand and religious belief on the other. Briefly, the more people have of the one, the less they are likely to have on the other. Which brings us to the question of whether artificial intelligences and human beings with augmented intelligence will be less likely to be religious. (There's a possible danger for atheists here: what if they're more likely to be religious?)
And there are plenty of ethical questions that will need addressing too. Do AIs have rights? Is it ethical to reprogram them without their permission?
Possibly the biggest question is whether it's in our best interests to create AI. We can't anticipate how they will view Humanity, whether they will value us, or see us as a threat, or just an irrelevance.
Stephen Hawking warned recently that computer intelligence
will exceed human intelligence in the next few decades, and that we
need to develop direct connections to the brain, so that that computers can add
to human intelligence, rather than be in opposition. 6 Research into connecting the human brain with
computers is already underway.
Although I am strongly attracted to Transhumanism, I do have a big worry about some Transhumanists. On the surface their ambitions fly in the face of organised religion. The typical Transhumanist appears to be an atheist, happy for humans to interfere in areas traditionally assigned to God, such as altering our genetic makeup or trying to fight off the inevitability of Death.
Is this optimism based on informed speculation, or is it maybe partly a substitute for religion? Are Transhumanists just longing for a Golden Age when humans will have god-like powers, and super-intelligent beings solve all of Humanity's problems? Is the Singularity the Transhumanists' version of the Second Coming?
Listen to this quote from Nick Bostrom, a leading
It is hard to think of any problem that a superintelligence
could not either solve or at least help us solve. Disease, poverty,
environmental destruction, unnecessary suffering of all kinds… Additionally a
superintelligence could give us indefinite lifespan… A superintelligence could
also create opportunities for us to vastly increase our own intellectual and
emotional capabilities, and it could assist us in creating a highly appealing
experiential world in which we could live lives devoted to joyful
Let me give some more quotes, this time by another Transhumanist Eliezer Yudkowsy, a member of the Singularity Institute which works to bring the Singularity about. His younger brother had just died, which must have coloured his views, but this letter is still on his website 8, so I presume he stands by the sentiments.
I used to say:
I have four living grandparents and I
intend to have four living grandparents when the last star in the Milky Way
I wonder at the strength of non-transhumanist atheists, to
accept so terrible a darkness without any hope of changing it. But then most
atheists also succumb to comforting lies, and make excuses for death even less
defensible than the outright lies of religion. They flinch away, refuse to
confront the horror of a hundred and fifty thousand sentient beings annihilated
What would it be like to be a rational atheist in the
fifteenth century, and know beyond all hope of rescue that everyone you loved
would be annihilated, one after another as you watched, unless you yourself
died first? That is still the fate of humans today; the ongoing horror has not
changed, for all that we have hope.
Personally I don't find this a very healthy attitude to the reality of death (for even if immortality is achieved, the universe itself will die one day, and all in it). This isn't the Humanist's determination to make the most of the one life we have, it's real fear of personal annihilation.
Although for the first time in human history we have a plausible chance of seeing effective immortality achieved in our lifetimes, it is still just a chance, and it may come too late for any particular individual. For someone who is terrified at the prospect of death, but unable to accept religion's prospect of an eternal life hereafter, Transhumanism may temptingly offer a strictly scientific, completely non-religious possibility of living forever and cheating death.
Is Transhumanism wishful thinking, or a realistic appreciation of the possibilities opening up to us through coming technological advances?
Whichever, there is no denying that it does present a highly optimistic view of Humanity's possible future.
Also, its predictions are specific, and based on clear current trends.
We are at a unique point in human history when it is possible to appreciate the possibilities of a Transhumanist future, and at the same time have a realistic chance of living long enough to see it come about. It won't be a smooth ride. I suspect that most of this technology will come along as expected (though not necessarily as soon as some people hope), but it will bring its own set of new problems with it.
Just as entering the Atomic Age gave Humanity the power to destroy civilization, so promising fields like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence will give us new ways to harm ourselves as well.
But it needn't be like that. Transhumanists put a lot of thought into the pitfalls of the emerging new technologies. They very much want the world to survive. Transhumanist organisations like the Singularity Institute and the Lifeboat Foundation actively research the problems that could soon face us and work to come up with solutions.
Writing this talk I realised that I very much want the Transhumanist future to come about. I have no ethical problems about enhancing myself (though not before the techniques have been thoroughly tested). I would very happily have my intelligence augmented, there are plenty of parts of my body that could do with upgrading, and I could even live with being immortal.
I'm almost persuaded to sign up as a Transhumanist myself. However, as I said at the beginning, I still spend too much time swinging between enthusiasm and skepticism.
Even so, my mental horizons have changed since I first started to look into Transhumanism. A year or so ago I saw myself living hopefully into my mid-eighties, maybe a bit beyond, but very likely gone by the second half of the 21st century. Now I seriously speculate about the medical advances that will take place by the time I'm in my eighties, and whether they will be enough to keep me alive for another couple of decades, and then another couple after that. And if they are, perhaps I will get a chance to find out what's on the other side of the Singularity.
- Quoted in
The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil, 2005, p. 309.
- Nick Bostrom,
Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence
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