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:
“Superlative technology discourseâ€¦ 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 foreshorteningâ€¦.
[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. Itâ€™s also unhealthy that these â€œsuperlativeâ€ 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 groupsâ€™ very identity. Itâ€™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 thinkingâ€¦.
The difficulty that this situation leaves us in is made clear in [an] article by Alfred Nordmann — â€œWe 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.â€ This seems to summarise nicely what we should expect from Michio Kakuâ€™s forthcoming series, â€œVisions of the futureâ€. 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 editorâ€¦
Have we, as Kaku claims, â€œunlocked the secrets of matterâ€? 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 Kakuâ€™s claim that soon â€œwe will have the power of godsâ€ may be intoxicating, but it doesnâ€™t prepare us for the hard work weâ€™ll need to do to solve the problems we face right now.
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:
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.