Some Musings on Quality in Transhumanism

by Anders Sandberg

Is transhumanism seeking quantity or quality? At first glance, it might look like we are obsessed with quantity: we want more, longer lives, stronger bodies, sharper minds, total control of matter from the atoms up to the stars. We speak of transforming the entire universe into habitats for life, increasing the information processing capacity of our computers with no bound and learning everything.

But as we are moving into the network age we are learning that "more is different" - the exact opposite of the old Soviet adage "quantity is quality". As something is extended, it not just grows, it also changes its nature (often in subtle ways no outside observer can predict). A drop of water is very different from a puddle, which in turn is fundamentally different from an ocean. By extending our abilities and works we will change them fundamentally.

This is the true core of transhumanism: humans can become something else, something new. Intelligence is not something that can be increased, it is a process, a potential for intelligent action. We seek to extend this potential, but that will by necessity change it and introduce new aspects of intelligence. After all, our goal is not to become superpowered Neanderthals, but to evolve beyond many outdated limits and quirks that once were useful but today are a hindrance (like wisdom teeth) or deadly threats (like xenophobia). Changing these old patterns will change us qualitatively, and that is what transhumanism really is about, not just being able to live to 300.

In the same way, the control of the physical world is at its core a qualitative goal. To a transhumanist most of the universe is currently a splendid wasteland, beautiful but with no inhabitants to give it meaning and perceive its grand beauty. What we seek is to extend the niche of life in the universe. This may appear to be a simply quantitative goal, just more Earths or Earth ecology, repeated indefinitely in O'Neill cylinders and Dyson spheres.

But the diversity of life we cherish on Earth did develop just because life was spread over a huge surface; in ecology it is known that the number of species in an area grows as the area grows, because there is more room for divergent evolution and differing niches. Plants and animals on isolated islands or continents like Australia develop in their own directions, becoming very different from the mainland species. But as modern communications make the world smaller, we (more or less) accidentally reduce diversity by introducing pests and predators - a strongly interconnected world will not be able to house as great diversity as Earth once did.

This is the reason we transhumanists want to spread life across the stars: only by creating the room for endless divergence and diversification can we counteract the flattening effect of fast long- range communications. The Earth is the home of at least a million species, each as different from each other as the oak, the hummingbird and the armadillo - imagine how many and how diverse species could emerge in a living solar system or a living galaxy!

The goal of transhumanism isn't infinite quantity - it is infinite quality. But "more is different": by solving the comparatively simple problems of limits to quantity we can also build a firm foundation for the endless growth of quality.

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