The “Superlativity Critique” Propagates

Richard Jones, a professor of physics and the Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council — a role informally known as “UK Nano-Champion” — has adopted Berkeley rhetoric professor Dale Carrico’s criticism of so-called superlative technology discourse. In a recent blog post, he responded to an article following on the heels of a TV series hosted by Michio Kaku, titled “We will have the power of gods”. Here is an extract with choice pieces, selected by Carrico:

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“Superlative technology discourse… starts with an emerging technology with interesting and potentially important consequences, like nanotechnology, or artificial intelligence, or the medical advances that are making (slow) progress combating the diseases of aging. The discussion leaps ahead of the issues that such technologies might give rise to at the present and in the near future, and goes straight on to a discussion of the most radical projections of these technologies. The fact that the plausibility of these radical projections may be highly contested is by-passed by a curious foreshortening….

[T]his renders irrelevant any thought that the future trajectory of technologies should be the subject of any democratic discussion or influence, and it distorts and corrupts discussions of the consequences of technologies in the here and now. It’s also unhealthy that these “superlative” technology outcomes are championed by self-identified groups — such as transhumanists and singularitarians — with a strong, pre-existing attachment to a particular desired outcome – an attachment which defines these groups’ very identity. It’s difficult to see how the judgements of members of these groups can fail to be influenced by the biases of group-think and wishful thinking….

The difficulty that this situation leaves us in is made clear in [an] article by Alfred Nordmann — “We are asked to believe incredible things, we are offered intellectually engaging and aesthetically appealing stories of technical progress, the boundaries between science and science fiction are blurred, and even as we look to the scientists themselves, we see cautious and daring claims, reluctant and self- declared experts, and the scientific community itself at a loss to assert standards of credibility.” This seems to summarise nicely what we should expect from Michio Kaku’s forthcoming series, “Visions of the future”. That the program should take this form is perhaps inevitable; the more extreme the vision, the easier it is to sell to a TV commissioning editor…

Have we, as Kaku claims, “unlocked the secrets of matter”? On the contrary, there are vast areas of science — areas directly relevant to the technologies under discussion — in which we have barely begun to understand the issues, let alone solve the problems. Claims like this exemplify the triumphalist, but facile, reductionism that is the major currency of so much science popularisation. And Kaku’s claim that soon “we will have the power of gods” may be intoxicating, but it doesn’t prepare us for the hard work we’ll need to do to solve the problems we face right now.

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I agree, from first exposure, that the Kaku piece is unnecessarily triumphalist, facile, and reductionist. Science popularization often sweeps away the manifold complexities involved in developing, deploying, and regulating major technologies for the sake of simplicity and shortening attention spans. Articles titled “we will have the power of gods” are incredibly unhelpful, even if they might be absolutely correct in the long term. Think about it: many of our powers today would be considered godlike from the perspective of the Middle Ages. When technology is applied to changing the human form, this effect will become much more pronounced.

But this sensationalistic talk prevents more cautious people from taking the arguments seriously.

I think Jones and Carrico are both wrong that transhumanists have a “strong, pre-existing attachment to a particular desired outcome”. A minority of transhumanists maybe, but not a majority. What transhumanists want is for humanity to enjoy healthier, longer lives and higher standards of living provided by safe, cheap, personalized products. The precise path pursued to achieve these outcomes is a secondary question, albeit an important one.

Many transhumanists are concerned that current fund dispersion schemes (the National Nanotechnology Initiative for example) fail to invest significantly in higher-payoff research avenues such as mechanosynthesis. The leading universities, and other entrenched incumbents have a monopoly on research dollars. They know they will get the funds anyway, so they are given great flexibility in how “nanotechnology” is defined, leading to more incremental research and less bold, cutting-edge research holding the possibility of major breakthroughs. This is counter-productive.

I first read Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation when I was 13. Admittedly, I became very excited about Drexler’s vision of molecular manufacturing creating rocket engines made of pure diamond and the like. But as I got older, I had to discard my juvenile attachment to particular technological outcomes, and embrace fuzzy probability distributions and uncertain research initiatives skewing distributions as a matter of percentages. The mission is to make the world a better place to live: if mechanosynthesis or artificial intelligence turn out to be extremely difficult or unworkable, we’d have to put our focus towards other projects, like:

brain-computer interfacing
deployment of solar power satellites
studies in proteomics and epigenetics
psychopharmacology and nootropics
progressively better fabbers
“smart” materials and bio-inspired materials
wearable devices and cybernetic implants

…and dozens or hundreds more. And many of us already do. See, transhumanism is not a preoccupation with a narrow range of specific technological outcomes. It looks at the entire picture of emerging technologies, including those already embraced by the mainstream. If one path doesn’t work, we try another. The overall trend in support of enhancement technologies is already practically ubiquitous in research labs worldwide.

If any transhumanists do have specific attachments to particular desired outcome, I suggest they drop them — now. The transhumanist identity should not be defined by a yearning for such outcomes. It is defined by a desire to use technology to open up a much wider space of morphological diversity than experienced today. We want to create millions of Homo sapiens spinoffs which people can mix and match at will. This will make democracy stronger by introducing new agents immune to human-characteristic cognitive biases, among other things.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the mention, Michael. I should mention for the sake of completeness that, my critique derives as much from the work of Alfred Nordmann as from Dale Carrico (links are in my original post).

    I accept that many transhumanists don’t all have pre-existing attachments to a desired outcome; clearly you yourself are a very reflective thinker and so are other transhumanists that I have met. But this isn’t what I claimed in my post. I didn’t say that (all or a majority of) transhumanists have such pre-existing attachments; I said that superlative technology outcomes are championed by transhumanists with such attachments. I await correction on this issue, but in the case of MNT, I know few, if any, proponents of this technology who are not transhumanists. Since transhumanists form a substantial minority of those who would be technically in a position to comment in an informed way on the matter, it seems to me that this is strong evidence that biases of the kind I identified are at work.

  2. Chris Petersen

    It might be interesting to create and debate about what subset of those listed cognitive biases might plausibly remain for a SI, due to necessary heuristic use.

  3. Now I’m confused. Michael said:

    “What transhumanists want is for humanity to enjoy healthier, longer lives and higher standards of living provided by safe, cheap, personalized products”

    Which I totally agree with. But Michael also said:

    “Jones and Carrico are both wrong that transhumanists have a strong, pre-existing attachment to a particular desired outcome”

    Guys, there is nothing wrong with with having a strong attachment to a particular outcome if that outcome is a commendable one. I have a strong desire for the outcome that humanity enjoys a better standard of living, longer lives and more freedom. I believe that Richard Jones also desires this outcome. (correct me here if I’m wrong). So what is everyone arguing about?

    Is all this “superlative technology discourse critique” just some silly post-modernist word game? Is it just a way for people to make themselves feel good by sounding contrary?

  4. Anyway, I’ve read Dale’s post on Amor Mundi and had some longer thoughts about it, which are over on Transhuman Goodness if anyone is interested.

  5. I want as much MNT as we can get as soon as we can get it. It is goal which should have more resources and effort devoted towards it. 10% of NNI funds. The almost complete lack of funding is a mistake. I am not certain exactly what the result will be in terms of enabled application, although I believe there is a lot of potential upside. I can make the same comment about baseball sports teams that only buy 12 year + veterans and do not spend 20% of resources on develop promising pitching and batting talent in their minor league system or have an underdeveloped and underfunded minor league system. Will any or all of the pitchers turn out? No. But it is a mistake to overlook potential aces. MNT looks like it might have a 120 mph fastball. It is worth more of a look. Pay to bring MNT into camp, try to develop other pitches etc… Get a better speed gun on him. etc… Still try to bring up your DNA nanotech, synthetic bio, and the rest etc…

    I also want more nuclear power and less coal use (and then after than less coal usage). I think that bad individual and societal choices have resulted in recent historical results being vastly inferior to what they could have been. The United States and other countries could have triple the amount of nuclear power as they currently have without the unnecessary 20-30 year building gap. Nuclear thermal and pulse propulsion should have and still should be developed for space.

    I have opinions on US and other countries military spending, healthcare spending, social security programs, environmental programs, anti-terrorism, anti-crime (pretty much all state, federal and local budgets.)
    I am a doctor, general, polician, accredited energy expert, phd ? No.
    Yet I and many others can state and observe the obvious.
    The Space shuttle has clearly been a waste of money.
    The 8th and 9th aircraft carrier groups were unnecessary.
    A lot of military and other spending and budgetary processes are corrupt and inefficient.

    Science and technology development is not an exception.
    There has been an overcommitment to Tokomaks.

    In one of the papers, linked to be Jones, at the end the author says that the climate change people have it right. Right with science, correlation of facts with predictions and response and attempts to take action.
    1. There are plenty of people in the climate change movement who fight nuclear power as part of the solution even though nuclear power is the dominant energy source that does not generate much CO2.
    2. They are often biased towards a pre-existing outcome. De-powering society, distributed solar and wind etc… (a lot on those websites and in media are in this mode.)
    3. Where is the technological and research components of the climate change movement ? Not that many in the movement are calling for a energy DARPA. (some are but not many)

    Dale Carrico has strong pre-existing attachment to communist and socialist outcomes. He will relabel them but it does not take much digging to get to that result.

    Jones has a strong pre-existing attachment to the soft machines, mimicking bio-nano outcome.

    If you can still get to superior recommendations and courses of actions then the biases are not impairing the discussion or the planning.

  6. On his site: Jones criticizes the MNT message and vision as mostly static for 15 years.

    The Climate change message touted at the end of the Alfred Norman piece (linked to in his article) has been going on for 200 years and in relatively its current form since 1958 and the sixties.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/jan/08/climatechange.climatechangeenvironment

    This vision has not changed much over that time other either. Is that a reason not to believe it ?

    Sometimes problems take a long time to solve and realize. That does not mean they are not worth pursuing.

    In technology there has been the vision of cleaner nuclear power with nuclear fusion. A vision of the future that has changed little over the last 40 years.

    For MNT, almost no effort, no results is not a surprise and does not say anything about the goal.

    There are a lot of possible futures. But some mistakes are persistent. There can be a persistent flaw in current actions and which would then be in almost all future projections.

    We would have a better future if we replace coal for power generation. The problem has persisted for a hundred years and will still take decades.

    We have to not use chemical rockets to really get anywhere in space.
    If we do use chemical rockets (or even if we don’t, we can still do more with more clever use of robotics and with low energy orbital transfers – 5 months to the moon using very little fuel).

    Kaku is making TV shows for the discovery channel. If multiple visions of the future that you think are more plausible is needed.
    1) Make your own show and distribute on Youtube
    2) Be aware that if it is boring you may not get much audience

    Sensationalism is in a lot of news broadcasts, newspapers and magazines. It is not unique to MNT or futurists.

  7. michael vassar

    Richard: I wouldn’t consider myself a transhumanist, and I think that MNT is possible, though I don’t advocate its development. I think that radical technology advocacy *is* transhumanism, to a close approximation, so it isn’t surprising that the people advocating a radical technology are transhumanists.

  8. Richard: “And Kaku’s claim that soon “we will have the power of gods” may be intoxicating, but it doesn’t prepare us for the hard work we’ll need to do to solve the problems we face right now.”

    But it does. It gives you the drive and energy to get out of bed in the morning and try doing something good. It provides you the motivation you need to do the hard work to solve the problems we face right now, and to build something better for the future. It may depend of course on one’s mental makeup, but many of us find “superlative technology discourse” energizing. While, of course, understanding that the road may not be as smooth as naive enthusiasts claim.

  9. Hm, I’m just comfortable with this but still not entirely convinced, hence i’m going to research a touch more.

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