Digital Serfs and Cyborg Buddhas


Mike LaTorra and J. Hughes led a group discussion at the Convergence 08 unconference titled “Digital Serfs and Cyborg Buddhas.” Digital (or data) serfdom currently exists — and is growing — among high-tech workers. In a future of mind-uploading, the situation could worsen into a dystopian horror. The bright alternative to this vision of servitude in dark digital mills is life as an enhanced, empowered, free individual, the Cyborg Buddha, who enjoys both technological abundance and the time to enjoy it in contemplative bliss.

The following transcript of the presentation “Digital Serfs and Cyborg Buddhas” by Mike LaTorra and J. Hughes has not been approved by the speakers.  Video is also available.



J. Hughes: This is an attempt to bring together a little bit of speculative history with our ideas about a project we started two years ago called the Cyborg Buddha Project, which is Mike, myself, and George Dvorsky.

Setting  aside Singularitarian superintelligence, there are a number of trends that we already see happening that will create increasing amounts of what economists call structural unemployment and greater amounts of social insecurity, until we have a renegotiation of the contract around work, labor, income and leisure in our societies.  After the 2000 economic recession, when we started to have a pick up in employment in 2002 and 2005, many people observed that the amount of new employment added into the economy was slower and less than the replacement rate for what had come during previous recoveries.  Why was that?

One of the reasons was that IT turns out to be in many situations a better investment for business than human labor.  Setting aside whether we ever get to greater-than-human level intelligence, that shift is increasingly going to come about.  If you try to invest a hundred thousand dollars to become a more profitable business, it’s going to be more profitable to invest it in various forms of IT and robotization than in human labor.  As a consequence of that, increasing numbers of people are going to be unemployed.

Another part of this dynamic is that globalization is causing those of us in the industrialized world to have to compete against less expensive labor in the rest of the world.  That is going to contribute to structural unemployment in the industrialized world as well.  I believe there can be reciprocal benefits of course in terms of economic integration around the world, and some of those benefits may create employment in our countries as well, but in many cases it is going to shift jobs from the industrialized world to the developing world.

Another speculation about the impacts of technology on the future of employment is that if we get to effective molecular manufacturing or something that gets closer and closer to the kinds of magic nanoboxes that we imagine—and I think there are reasons to be skeptical that we’ll ever get a truly universal, free magic nanobox in everyone’s house that can make anything out of anything—who is going to make them and distribute them?  How much are the materials going to cost?  How much will it be for the designs that you download?  Those questions have to be answered.

The closer we get to such a technological future, the more the idea of general abundance will probably come about, and that will be extremely economically disruptive.  IT is already doing what is called “disintermediation.”  You don’t have to have a bunch of people in a supply chain to get you something with IT. You don’t have to go to a travel agent in order to get a ticket for an airplane, so travel agents are losing their jobs.  If you don’t have to go any farther than your living room to get all the stuff you need, then there is going to be huge economic disintermediation and lots of people are going to lose their jobs.

There are many policy wonks who have thought about this in the past.  They have considered this a huge, gaping policy black hole and that we should be pursuing policies to prevent such an eventuality, or even luddite restrictions on disruptive technologies or trade barriers to restrict global competition. I, along with many folks here, don’t think that would be the ideal technological path—to ensure that everyone has a 40-hour a week wage slave job—when we could have more general abundance.  We think, in fact, what more people are going to come around to is the idea that we want to redistribute unemployment and make sure that everyone has some kind of basic economic security guaranteed in that kind of future.

It may be impossible to completely redistribute unemployment so that everyone has a five-hour per week job.  There probably still will be inequalities of some people having extremely desirable kinds of jobs and others not having any, but we can probably ensure a future where everybody has economic security.  One of the policies that has been promoted ever since people started thinking about this three hundred years ago is a policy of basic universal income.  Thomas Paine suggested universal income, Condorcet considered basic universal income, so this is not a new idea. The idea is that every citizen not only would have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but would be given some kind of a basic income that they could live off of.

In imagining such a future, I don’t believe in a utopian revolutionary scenario where a singularity happens and we all get basic universal income.  It will be a very gradual, fitful diverse set of happenings around the world.  The general trajectory of this kind of historical event is that people are going to have to figure out what to do with their lives increasingly separated from the moorings of wage slavery.

That is actually the natural condition of us as a species.  We were, for a very long time, hunter-gatherers.  We were not being paid to do the things that we do everyday to survive. We would socialize everyday with the people that we lived with, and we socialized as we went out to gather berries and hunt animals.  We didn’t have this concept of a division between life and work. Still, many people consider this a crisis—how will people find meaning in their lives when they are no longer paid to do stuff? What are people going to do with their time once they are all freed from the obligation to go out and work in the labor market?

What I am going to talk about is that future that we are imagining, combined with the other things that we talked about in this scenario, such as neurotechnology.  How does neurotechnolgy play into this?  The ideal scenario goes something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—once you have your basic needs met, you start to work on self-actualization, self-realization… climbing mountains and stuff like that.  I think that is a desirable end.  The dystopian idea about how this plays out is that everyone watches TV and becomes a meth addict.  That is something that is happening to some people in our society.

Increasingly, we know how to affect the brain. Our brain has a happiness setpoint.  When we look at various people, events like winning the lottery make you happy for awhile, and then you come back to your happiness setpoint. You are diagnosed with cancer, after about six months if you are still alive, your happiness comes back up to your happiness setpoint.  If there is this innate set of biological conditions that determine our happiness and different aspects of our personality, we will be able to reach in and tweak our brain.  We are already figuring out how to do that with severe situations like depression with prozac and anti-depressants, but we will have Soma in the future.  We will have the ability to have direct brain-computer interfaces that create not only control over mood but also control over all of our sensory experience.

In that kind of situation, it is not just a dystopian heroin addiction.  You could change your brain in such a way that you never wanted to do anything other than what you were doing again.  The Sisyphus problem in philosophy is: what if we could change Sisyphus’s brain so that he never thought that he wanted to do anything but roll that rock up the mountain, and everytime it rolled back down he said, “Oh, great! I can roll it back up the mountain again!” We will be able to make ourselves the slaves of our own situation in those kinds of futures.

We want to respect cognitive diversity in the future as well. It’s not a censorious thing, where we say no one should be allowed to have the option of spending every day watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer re-runs over and over again if that’s the choice some people want to make. If it doesn’t cover 90% of the population, that is something we should probably allow.  How can we encourage people in the direction of a flourishing personality? Because many of the people in our community are very libertarian, we shy away from the notion of being judgmental about certain types of life choices. However, as we have increasing amounts of control, we have increasing responsibilities to each other, as you would say to a friend who has alcoholism, “I have a responsibility to do an intervention.”

We have a responsibility to promote a notion of human flourishing.  I’m going to turn it over to Mike, who is a Buddhist priest.  He can talk a little bit about Buddhist ideas about human flourishing.

Mike LaTorra:  To use a term that is not ideal but points us in the right direction, what I’ll be describing I call the “spiritual option.” This is not spiritual in the sense of some set of beliefs you are supposed to assume or some organization you are supposed to join.  Rather, this is part of human flourishing in the sense of expanding our capacities, deepening our understanding and developing to the point that we are capable of going through transformations—and I’ll explain what I mean later, in detail—that are quantum leaps up a step ladder of understanding.

What are we understanding?  We are understanding ourselves, both in terms of the body/mind structure with which we identify, and understanding that the process of identification itself (the process we use to define “me”) is in all cases deformed. It is not completely correct or wholesome because it leads to self-defeating behaviors, false beliefs that feed into unhappiness.  The spiritual option includes taking the understanding that has been taught in the spiritual traditions, particularly in Buddhism, over the last 2000 years in its essential form.  By that I mean the specific practices of concentration, which is meditative one-pointed attention focused on certain issues of understanding our experience.  I’m not talking about your life history experience, but experience as sensations, perceptions, thoughts—and seeing these in a way different from the way we typically do… namely, “this is me, this is all of me.”

When the process of identification, when stepping back from that limited identification, and moving into a more universal awareness, not limiting “me” to anything that is strictly defined, but being open-ended, the capacity for compassion and happiness through non-attachment—you may have heard that before—expands, I would say virtually without limit. This is a good thing. This is, in fact, something that leads to a baseline happiness that is ratcheted up from the setpoint that we typically tend to linger at. Technologically, I would hope that indeed we would be able to move up our happiness setpoint. What happens in this spiritual process as I am describing it is being able to not identify with any of this stuff as being necessarily “me,” to fundamentally have a different relationship to your own experience.

Now, if I were you, I would be wondering just what the hell this guy is talking about. Really, it comes down to an operational definition. Do the practices under the guidance of someone who has been through the process to the point of transformation, then make your own judgment. There is no way, and it would be improper, for me to try and persuade you that you must believe this, or even that you must do it. I am presenting this as something that I believe is desirable and useful based on my own experience. The reason why, if these practices have been around for so long, has it not resulted in universal happiness and everyone becoming more fundamentally happy, wise and compassionate, is that it is not a process of additive happiness. It is a rollercoaster. There is a running up to a peak, followed by running down into a trough, often called the dark night, which is an ordeal. This is where about 90% of the people who actually begin to engage these processes say, “This is not what I signed on for!” Even though they are under the guidance of a good teacher and they have some good conceptual maps of what to expect, they still decide they do not want to go through this.

I believe that with the kind of technology that we can expect to have, and with communication technology we already have, particularly the internet, good teachers providing good guidance for undergoing these practices and understanding where you are, especially during that dark night phase, could help a lot more people successfully pass through this and get to the portion of the development that is more easily understood and accepted because it does not have that dramatic dark night trough.

This is a cycle you could go through more that once, so it is not a one-time trip. However, it does lead to a most wonderful transformation. The spiritual option I think is something that more people would be encouraged to take up if they had the opportunity to do it because they have a lot more time. Their basic material needs are taken care of, in the kind of post-scarcity economic situation that J. was describing with the kind of communication media and other technologies including being able to read the brain states much more accurately and conveniently than is currently possible, providing real-time feedback to the practitioner, more people should be able to exercise the spiritual option with good results.  That is, a higher percentage of people not bailing out when it gets really tough at that dark night stage.

Hughes:  Let me add one more thing.  One of the ways in which both of us have been influenced by Buddhist cosmology is the notion of certain kinds of traps.  I think that relates to this notion of the dystopian possibilities. One of the ideas in Buddhism is that you can spend all your life cycling around in these different kinds of realms, and one of the realms is actually the heaven realm. When you end up in the heaven realm, you can live there for millions of years in perfect bliss, but it is the static nature of it that the Buddhist ideas complain about, because you are still not growing, flourishing, understanding yourself better or freeing yourself from the limitations that you are under. There are even realms outside of samsara that are traps. There are sand traps of different kinds of bliss: the bodyless bliss, or the one-with-everything bliss.

One of the things that we are very concerned about is that even if we get control over our brain and we start to make ourselves happier, we need to distinguish between the sand trap types of happiness and the flourishing types of happiness. There is evidence already in the literature that people who are up in the second standard deviation of happiness have more relationships, have more friends, are more involved in their community, they do better at work. However, when you get up into the third standard deviation of happiness, it begins to trail off, because then those people have less and less motivation. There is probably an ideal balance someplace.

There are a couple different lines of research about ways in which brain physiology relates to religious experience. There is a certain part of the brain that relates to our somatosensory awareness, our feeling of having boundaries to our body.  Experiments have been done with transcranial magnetic stimulation where you can knock out that part of the brain temporarily and create a sense that occurs every once in awhile in someone who practices meditation, chanting or other kinds of spiritual exercises, which is the sense of losing that sense of boundaries to your body, oneness with the universe, that kind of thing. Other kinds of research have gone on with people with brain lesions or undergoing transcranial stimulation for the experience that there is a spiritual presence in the room, that Jusus or Mary or UFOs have suddenly visited you. Similarly, a feeling of being outside of your body is another of those kinds of experiences that have been stimulated in people.

I think there are a couple consequences of this. When we understand the brain to that degree and when people have the capacity to push buttons or to take drugs that directly relate to these kinds of spiritual experiences, some religions are going to incorporate those. They are going to find ways of making those sacramental, like peyote was sacramental for Native Americans. Wine is sacramental for some people as well, though they don’t take it in the doses for which it is psychoactive. Some of that is going to be incorporates into those religious cosmologies. There are going to be new secular, non-theistic transpiritualities where people use those to create spiritual experiences.

Audience:  Can this be used to address religious fanaticism?

Hughes:  How we can control our moral behavior and psychological deficits in some form or another is something I am very concerned about because I am writing about it in my book Cyborg Buddha.   For instance, some people think you can diagnose drug addiction, various kinds of sexual obsession that people find troubling, religious obsessions or xenophobia as being a form of mental illness. We may be able to, for instance, give people some kind of MDMA that ramps up their empathy, makes them compassionate to others and overcomes various kinds of neurotic divisions that we create between one another.

LaTorra: For other people, simply understanding that these are brain phenomena that can be associated with activation in certain parts of the brain, this would be argument enough not to buy into their own visions if they undergo these things.

Hughes: The degree to which we have direct introspection into how we think, this is part of the Buddhist approach to things, you begin to unravel the neurotic tangles that you have in your brain, and the more direct experience and awareness you have of your own thinking. In fact, the application of cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective application of this. It is even applied to schizophrenics.

Audience:   Were you worried about cults being able to induce religious experience?

LaTorra: Cults do have such techniques, and they are quite old.  Isolation, limited food intake, repetition of the groups beliefs, the group focusing on the individual and trying to convince him that the best course would be to believe what everyone else believes.

Hughes: I have had a number of conversations here about the ethics of creating AI.  Do we want to create AI, genetically engineered animals or potentially other human beings who have intentionally restricted personalities that enjoy only doing what we want them to do?  This is what some people think is already happening with Ritalin in public schools, though I don’t actually agree with that.  Some people think we are drugging kids to put up with bad educational practices, and if we intentionally then created AIs or genetically engineered chimpanzees to be our slaves and never want anything but the conditions they are in, that would be even more trouble.

LaTorra: In Anders‘ talk on whole-brain emulation, he mentioned economist Robin Hanson‘s paper, in which he assumes brain emulation comes before AI. If it is possible to create copies of brains in software

Brain emulation comes before AI. It will be possible to create copies of brains in software that include all the knowledge and memories of the individuals who were copied. If you think of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, you have all these Calvins to do your homework for you. If they were like Calvin, they would want to get someone else to do their homework… Infinite regress. However, if they were really good workers, you would have digital serfs. Would they really enjoy their serfdom? They would have to be tweaked in order for that to happen… not exact copies of the original.

Hughes: I want to make one other observation, which is that astronomer Milan Ćirković, another Fellow of the IEET and involved in Oxford, has proposed a solution to the Fermi paradox. Perhaps one of the reasons that we don’t see any space-faring civilizations is that they all get to this point of neurotechnology and they just get sucked up into their own virtual worlds and entertainments. Maybe we will get to that point and say that’s the way to go. From our current values, that does not seem like a desirable option.

LaTorra: Another aspect we should set aside is ownership. Are there a few individuals who own a lot of these AIs? Does society as a whole own the output of these productive resources and redistribute it in a basic income guarantee program? These are issues that will make the difference in what our social pyramid looks like, whether we have something similar to the current situation in which most of the benefits goes to the very top, less that 1% of the population, or whether the benefits are more widely spread.


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