My recent post on how the popular zeitgeist has already embraced transhumanism provoked responses from transhumanist Giulio Prisco and anti-transhumanist Dale Carrico, a lecturer at UC Berkeley. Carrico writes:
In something of a surprise move, Singularitarian Transhumanist Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov has declared victory. Apparently, the superlative futurologists have “won.” The Robot Cult, it would seem, has prevailed over the ends of the earth.
Usually, when palpable losers declare victory in this manner, the declaration is followed by an exit, either graceful or grumbling, from the stage. But I suspect we will not be so lucky when it comes to Anissimov and his fellow victorious would-be techno-transcendentalizers.
Neither can we expect them “to take their toys and go home,” as is usual in such scenes. After all, none of their toys — none of their shiny robot bodies, none of their sentient devices, none of their immortality pills, none of their immersive holodecks, none of their desktop nanofactories, none of their utility fogs, none of their comic book body or brain enhancement packages, none of their kindly or vengeful superintelligent postbiological Robot Gods — none of them exist now for them to go home with any more than they ever did, they exist only as they always have done, as wish-fulfillment fancies in their own minds.
Breaking it down, all these “toys” sound great. Desktop nanofactories, especially, in the right hands, could totally decentralize manufacturing and make it much easier for the world’s poorest people to gain some measure of material wealth and security.
I’d like to address some of the technologies Dale mentions, because I believe they are worthy goals and that intermediate steps to these goals are incredibly beneficial themselves.
To start with “robot bodies”, there are no robot bodies suitable for human occupation today, but there are exoskeletons. For instance, Japan is developing a “Power Assist Suit”, which will retail at $10,000 USD, to help elderly farmers in rural regions. If you want to ask how transhumanist-flavored thinking can distinguish a society, look no further than Japan. Japan is also working on developing brain-computer interfaces with cooperation from corporate giants like Toyota, Honda and Hitachi. There’s a reason why these initiatives are happening in Japan. Japan’s culture is extremely future-friendly and open-minded to transhumanistic visions, which include robotic exoskeletons and brain-computer interfaces.
As for “sentient devices”, many of my readers no doubt own iPhones or Android-powered smartphones and use their many useful features on a daily basis, including a variety of applications. This is not like having Einstein in your pocket, but it is certainly an improvement on what we had before. The improvement in sophistication of mobile devices in the last few years is nothing less than remarkable.
Regarding “immortality pills”, it makes great sense to look for compounds which have the potential to break up toxic accumulations of molecular junk in the body. That is what Geron and the SENS Foundation are doing, for instance. The Methuselah Foundation, while not working on “immortality pills”, has created excellent prizes for mouse rejuvenation and organ printing. These organizations are fueled by the kind of “superlative thinking” that characterizes transhumanism and which is criticized not only by outright anti-transhumanists like Carrico but also insiders like IEET Managing Director Mike Treder.
As for immersive holodecks, I see few other things with the potential to improve our civilizational resilience and save travel money. Companies like Microvision are developing innovative heads-up displays, projectors, and glasses to help bring virtuality into the real world. The computational requirements needed to smoothly update a virtual scene as someone quickly moves their head around to observe it are formidable, but we are moving closer to this milestone. Ray Kurzweil predicts that immersive VR will be the hip thing in the 2020s. I’ve previously argued that full-body haptic feedback suits would be necessary to truly experience immersive VR, and I predicted that such a suit would be developed by 2020. I still stand by that prediction — in fact, it could be sooner. Companies have already developed vests that can simulate hugging or combat. Guess where the hug vest was developed? Japan.
Desktop nanofactories, to me, seem more important and relevant than all the technologies listed above. Why? They would vastly accelerate progress towards all the above, probably so much so that it would actually be a threat to the stability of society. Instead of desktop nanofactories, today we have the explosion of 3D printing, which I follow closely and with great enthusiasm. Each week I wonder what the fabbing community will come up with next. Blogs like Fabbaloo chronicle progress in the field. Groups like open source ecology take it to the next level, making the open source fab lab a central feature of their effort. The success of open source ecology is a testimony to the power of desktop manufacturing units. As these manufacturing devices are improved, they will be able to fabricate an increasingly larger array of products. Their spatial resolution today is about 1 mm, but eventually that will drop to microns and eventually nanometers.
To manufacture true utility fog would require nanofactories, and a number of technological obstacles still remain between today’s nanotechnology and the routine synthesis of rigid microscale or macroscale objects from atomic components. Instead, we have Intel and Carnegie Mellon working on “claytronics”, what Brian Wang calls “poor man’s utility fog”. It could even be possible to manufacture early-stage catoms (the “atoms” of a claytronics setup”) with current nanoscale manufacturing technologies.
In conclusion, even though the technologies that Dale lists don’t exist yet, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep working towards them, or that the intermediaries won’t be incredibly useful. The vision of far-future possibilities is what inspires some of the projects above to grind forward on a daily basis.