(Note: This is an expanded version of the previously posted article below called, Risk Aversion in Transhumanism. I made the article more generally focussed, as opposed to Transhumanist Wager focussed, for online publication.)
There was an interesting panel discussion at the Transhuman Visions Conference in San Francisco, February 1, 2014, which got even interesting-er when the following question was posed:
“If you knew you could live for 1,000 years or more, would you possibly become so risk-averse that you may be afraid to do anything that is even remotely dangerous and consequently live a long, but very insular and inhibited life?”
The responses to this question were a bit disappointing to me, since I strive to keep my natural, human, status-quo, meat-bag biases in check when thinking about such trans/post-human questions. The people on the panel, and everyone I heard discussing it outside after the event had concluded, approached this question with the assumption that they would have a greatly lengthened life/health-span, but would still be a biological being with much of our current existential vulnerabilities. This lead me immediately to the thought:
Well, if you plan on living 1,000+ years and insist on, or assume you’ll be, spending the whole time in something like your current hyper-fragile biological body that can be uber-easily destroyed, you jolly well BETTER be risk averse!
As Zoltan Istvan so eloquently put it in a podcast interview:
“At some point we will probably discover other entities to become…sub-atomic particles, pure energy, all sorts of cool nanotechnologies that will exist, but I don't believe that biology is going to make it. I think it's fragile. I think it's crude. It's also beautiful…for where we are now, the human being is also a magnificent creature. But in a hundred years, we're going to look back and say: Wow, the human being was such a fragile entity."
Whence Risk Aversion?
For the vast majority of people today, who have accepted the inevitability of their death in a few decades or years (and are sometimes derogatorily referred to as “deathists" by transhumanists), death is not nearly as great a loss to them as it is for a transhumanist, who believes that death may soon be conquered. A deathist sees no other option than to live a few decades and then surrender to the inescapable and obligatory "dying of the light." For them, it's the natural way of things. Some even see it as an almost noble act: to get out of the way for the next generation.
If a deathist also has a belief in a guaranteed spiritual afterlife, their concern over an end to this temporary and relatively insignificant and flawed corporeal existence is diminished even further. A deathist who is a "believer" has a few years of "inferior" earthly existence to lose and an eternity of blissful existence to look forward to, so it is much easier for them to find a few other people or causes that they may value more than the preservation of their own life. In stark contrast to the deathist’s submission to the inevitable, a transhumanist believes s/he will miss out on a chance for physical immortality, which may be the only kind possible, if they fail to preserve their life "above all else." The stakes couldn't be higher in the transhumanist hierarchy of values.
It is often pointed out that this could lead to an extreme risk-aversion in anyone who has achieved, or thinks they can eventually achieve, a greatly increased lifespan or physical immortality.
In the character of Jethro Knights, the protagonist of the philosophical novel, The Transhumanist Wager, by Zoltan Istvan, we can see a gradual evolution from a natural concern for his physical safety to a state wherein he can put almost any fear of death aside. This eventual indifference toward danger has its roots in an incident involving him stepping on a landmine that, luckily, turns out to be a dud and doesn’t explode. This becomes a life-altering event for Jethro.
“A single moment that transformed his youthful transhuman outlook into a physical law of its own…thinking solemnly and with full focus: What happened today is unacceptable. Death must be conquered. From now on, that is my first and foremost aim in life. That is the quintessential first goal of the transhumanist.” (19) Because of this experience, he “felt more strongly than ever that he was going to dedicate all his life’s energy to this movement's success.” (23)
One key factor enables him to take more calculated risks than one might expect from one whose "quintessential first goal" is to stay alive long enough to "conquer death" via science and technology. It is that very science and technology that mitigates the quite natural tendency to avoid any life-threatening risks and allows him to act boldly in the face of physical danger. For example, once Jethro's medical technology reaches an extreme level of efficacy, his aversion to physical risk plummets to near zero: "Don't you know you don’t have enough bullets in that gun to kill me? A surgery center ten times more advanced than anything on this continent is on that aircraft up there. My rescue team will be here in less than sixty seconds."(250)
Throughout the book, Jethro is trying to ensure the indefinite survival of his bio-body and to achieve, eventually, a continuity of his consciousness across biological and synthetic substrates by uploading his entire personal-essence, or mind-file, or consciousness-pattern into another processing-medium and synth-body or virtual-space.
"In all his studies on transhumanism, Jethro Knights decided he connected most with the work of Dr. Nathan Cohen. The scientist’s experiments, to combine brain neurons to the hardwiring of computers in order to download human consciousness, seemed the most sensible and important direction for the immortality quest. While getting the human body to live longer was a priority, it was not a long-term solution. Jethro already assumed that the human body, at least as it was, would only be around for another half century in its current form. Dr. Cohen's work was where the real evolutionary jumps could be made. Conscious computerized machines and their digital content, with proper maintenance, could last indefinitely. They were so much more durable than flesh. But this thinking was exactly the most radical as well. Because eventually, perhaps sooner than even many transhumanists would have it, there would be no need left at all for the human body." (72)
Especially for people who encounter this idea for the first time, fear and repulsion are often the automatic responses to such a prospect. People who express an aversion to their consciousness being uploaded to a non-bio "whole body prosthetic" often have a conception of it as being something similar to today's "machines"...they think of a laptop or some other extremely limited device. However, the transhumanists who think seriously about replacing their bodies envision a greatly enhanced sensory experience, not one that is less sensorially nuanced than our current bio-bodies. That would be a totally unacceptable step backward.
Genetic modification and other biotechnologies will provide great enhancements and, admittedly, we may be able to make some very transformative changes to our biology before we have the knowledge and technological ability to upload ourselves to a complete synth-body. However, many transhumanists consider even brilliant and heroic bio-tweaking as suboptimal attempts to retrofit a body that evolved to earth-centric specs, with all the inherent limitations that entails. The most forward thinking transhumanists tend to view a complete synthetic re-design to non-earth-centric specs as a surer way to protect our consciousness from a fatal, game-over damage "event." From this perspective, if our consciousness is still trapped in one uber-fragile meat-machine that can be easily and fatally damaged by nothing more technologically advanced than a large rock or stick, we're still living in what is essentially a “flesh-coffin” as Zoltan Istvan has described it. Transhumanists tend to envision a body with greatly enhanced sensory apparatus -- all senses extending to ranges and resolutions beyond anything that any bio-being naturally evolved to experience -- that is INSANELY durable and capable of exploring the universe far beyond the confines of this delicate biosphere on this one little dust-speck we call "Earth."
In addition to the advantages of increased durability, once our consciousness has been uploaded into a synthetic processing-medium, the possibility of upgrading our minds with the latest advances in artificial intelligence will enhance our intellects, memories, and processing power to levels never dreamed of by the humble "requirements" of natural selection.
The Roots of Fear of Transhumanism
Many of the most fearful objections to transhumanism are actually rooted in misconceptions about what is meant by terms like "machine" and intuitions about the inherent fragility of our current bodies. It is our current biological state that is highly vulnerable to all manner of life threatening disease and injury and requires uninterrupted supplies of water, oxygen, and carbon-based food. By providing a mechanism by which each person's consciousness can be set free from the limitations of biology and can be protected by much sturdier platforms and, most importantly, can be backed-up and restored if any particular synth-body/consciousness instantiation of us is destroyed, transhumanists will alleviate many of the typical bio-being fears of existential threats.
This possibility comes from the inherent ways that our relationship with mere "objects" changes once that object can be fully specified in the form of information. Once any kind of "content," whether it be from a photo, video, audio, or text file, has been captured in a copiable digital form, several aspects of its nature, as a unique object and its perceived value, change in fundamental ways.
In digital form, the content on these various forms of media becomes information or data and is thereby infinitely reproducible, which creates abundance, where once there was scarcity. And, more importantly, the nature of ownership and property is altered in at least one transformative way: whereas, in the past, if someone stole something from you that existed only in "physical" form, you suffered a loss of property -- you lost ownership, or at least, possession of that object at the time of the theft and if those physical objects are never returned to you, that loss was total and permanent. However, once that same "content" exists in digital form, it becomes possible for a thief to "steal" ALL of your photos, videos, music, and ebooks, by copying all of these files from your storage media to their storage media, while you suffer no actual loss of property. In fact, you may even be totally unaware that such a "robbery" ever occurred.
In this scenario, the only person to suffer a loss would be the copyright owner/content creator and even this is much different from a theft of non-digital property, in that, this digital theft doesn't deprive a rights-holder of a tangible object, but rather, of compensation for a copy. Just as in the case above, of the person who bought the content that was later "stolen" through copying, the rights-holder may not even know a theft has taken place because there has been absolutely no loss of property and no loss of the rights-holder's ability to continue to sell digital copies of the content. This is not to say, however, that absolutely no "crime" has been committed against either the purchaser of the media or the rights-holder, but rather, that the EFFECT of the crime is much different in the case of unauthorized copying of digital content versus the more conventional theft of a physical object involving a “transfer of possession.”
Now, let's look at a case of a vandal who destroys someone's entire collection of music in the form of compact discs, vinyl, tapes, and even some antique phonograph cylinders, versus the destruction of a storage medium: a hard-drive containing all the same music, but in digital form. In both cases the destruction could be total, assuming that there was no backup of the hard drive kept in a safe location. Ah, but what if there were a backup? In the case of the physical media, all was lost, but in the case of the file-based media, the entire music collection is intact in the backup, as though no destruction had ever occurred. Yes, the original hard-drive was damaged in the vandalism, yet the entire collection of music remains safe in the form of a copy, resulting in a case of minor property damage to a hard-drive and nothing more.
Now, what if we include in our list of content, not only photos, videos, audio, or text, but also some, currently, more exotic things like, DNA sequences, or perhaps even THE ENTIRE CONTENT OF ONE'S CONSCIOUSNESS? Does anything change in the above analysis? Compare the kidnapping of a person to the mere copying of a digital specification of that person's consciousness on some storage medium to another storage medium. Compare the murder of a person to the destruction of a digital specification of that person's consciousness on some storage medium. What if there is a safe backup of that digital specification of that person's consciousness that can be restored to an artificial processing medium that revitalizes the person to full consciousness in a non-biological substrate?
The Cure for the Fear of Transhumanism
Our transition from biology-based entities to beings residing in human engineered media provides the solution for some of the most common fears often expressed about transhumanism and Singularity related possibilities: the abuse of new and powerful technologies by malevolent people who would use them to control and enslave others in the service of their plans for world domination.
You may be familiar with...
Godwin's Law - Given enough time, in any online discussion, someone inevitably makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.
I would like to propose something I call, humbly…
Armstrong's Law - Given enough time, in any discussion of massively transformative future technologies, someone inevitably expresses a fear that some rich megalomaniacal psychopath will abuse these technologies to enslave us all and rule, or even to destroy, the world.
Mind uploading could actually be a solution to issues related to any potential violations of an individual's rights, as far as enslavement or murder are concerned. Once a person's consciousness is in a form that is able to be moved to different platforms, can be backed-up, and can take advantage of various security features, all issues related to life/liberty threatening actions taken against him/her/it automatically become far less severe and are no longer guaranteed to be catastrophic, as they would be in the case of a conventional "murder" of a singular biological entity. When the destruction of the current consciousness-residing platform doesn't automatically result in a guaranteed and permanent game-over condition for the "victim," what power does a threat of violence, or even a successful act of platform-destroying damage, wield against a being whose consciousness may exist in multiple platforms or can be restored from an up-to-date backup? Would such an act be anything more serious than a property damage incident?
Yes, there are many issues related to the simultaneous coexistence of multiple versions of ourselves; security issues regarding the hi-jacking and enslavement of uploaded minds; failsafe mechanisms that would allow for the continual backing-up, monitoring, and disabling of any mind-upload that fell victim to any form of piracy or coercion. There will be plenty of new challenges to be met, and plenty of new opportunities as well. One of the most important and world-transforming prospects will be the ability to safeguard our consciousness against the destruction of one particular instantiation of it in one particular platform in one particular geographical location.
Given this kind of future scenario, we can see that virtually all fears regarding the abuse of future technologies and individuals’ loss of autonomy stem from our intuitive grasp of the inherent fragility and irreplaceability of our easily-destroyed bodies and the only “copy” of our consciousness housed therein.
The Primacy of Consciousness
Jethro Knights, in his manifesto, states: "If you love life, you will always strive to reach the most advanced form of yourself possible while protecting that life." (179)
And he means it: "…we embark on the most critical journey of our lives, and embrace the quest to discover how far we can go as humans, as cyborgs, as conscious intelligent machines, as rays of light, as pure energy, as anything the future brings." (85)
Essentially, he is proposing that matter is, ultimately, of secondary importance and consciousness is of primary importance. We are currently bound to, and limited by, material resources. We are bound to one material bio-body. Matter comprises the vehicle in which our consciousness evolved, but it is something that we can evolve beyond, or more precisely, we can engineer beyond.
Science may someday work out a way for our "consciousness-pattern" to remain coherent outside the confines of a physical brain or brain-inspired artifact and become freed from the limitations of many/most/all physical constraints. Once a way is found to de-couple mind from matter, then consciousness will no longer be primary, rather, it will be unitary -- it will be THE WHOLE SHOW -- and we can dispense with any material "box" to put it in. Hmm, that could remind one of the religious conception of a soul that is independent from matter.
This would bring us to a stage wherein we've gotten past most of our dependence on matter and live in a state of almost pure consciousness, liberated from most of the limitations of material existence. At which time, all our current matter-orientation/dependence and tribal, monkey-brained conflicts over material resources will be something we can look back on quizzically, as we now look back to a time, long ago, when we used to be tadpole-like creatures.
Reminiscent of the differences in world-view between Jethro and, his much more mystically oriented love interest, Zoe Bach, transhumanists and religious people still have a certain fundamental "essentia" in common and may not be so far from each other as far as general themes are concerned. They are both talking about a "soul" or "consciousness" that can transcend the death of the body. The difference is that transhumanists prefer to employ science and uber-technological-advancement to reach their goals and have little interest in embracing beliefs that can't eventually be subjected to experiment.
Contrary to the common assumption that a personal goal to greatly extend one's lifespan will necessarily lead to extreme risk-aversion, as technology advances to a stage when death has essentially been "cured" and science works out how the essence of a being can be captured in its totality, transferred to other platforms, and with multiple backup copies available, an individual's destruction or even the threat thereof, need no longer be feared to anywhere near the extent that we currently fear serious damage or a fatal, unrecoverable, game-over event, to our one-and-only hyper-delicate meat-bag platform.
Undoubtedly, throughout the above discussion of mind-uploading and copying one’s consciousness and multiple, equally “authentic” copies, existing in parallel, there have been a certain, perhaps large, number of people shouting, “No, those are only COPIES…’philosophical zombies’ that may seem to be the ‘real’ person in every respect but decidedly ARE NOT! These copies are missing an essential x-factor that doesn’t arise solely from the operations of a physical brain or even an ‘exact’ copy of a brain, however incredible its level of detail, resolution, and precision may be.”
Well, now we are into the classic debate between dualism and monism and we run up against the fundamental assumption or hypothesis underlying much of Transhumanism: a functionalist, physicalist, materialist, behaviorist perspective that views the brain as the sole organ and generator of the sum-total of our consciousness, personality, and identity. “Minds are what brains do.” So, if you can make an incredibly “exact” copy of a particular brain, EVERYTHING that makes you, YOU, including your sense of identity, will reside in that “copy” as well and there is no sense, assuming the copying has been done well enough, in which that copy, or a THOUSAND copies, will be any “less than” the original bio-version, in terms of being “really you” in every meaningful sense.
One angle on this kind of hypothesis can be found on the website of The Brain Preservation Foundation. http://www.brainpreservation.org/content/overcoming-objections#patternism
“The patternism hypothesis proposes that it is a special physical pattern, not the matter, or even the type of matter (computer or biological), that stores the highest level information in living systems. If the special pattern that stores this information can be successfully maintained, and copied as necessary, the information survives.”
I have provided a link, below, to another article I wrote on this topic which I hope might be helpful in getting people to think beyond their automatic, VERY strong, and VERY natural intuitions about identity and the quite common aversion to thinking that their COMPLETE consciousness could be copied, uploaded to a non-biological medium and that there could be more than one COMPLETELY valid version of themselves coexisting simultaneously.