August 02, 2004

A Brainy, Sexy, Insecure Future

The feeling that the WFS meeting has turned into a transhumanist meeting continues. Maybe it is just because I frequented the wrong seminars and missed all the down to earth stuff.

Here are some notes from some seminars I attended during Sunday:

The first seminar was "That's Enterbrainment", moderated by Arnold Brown and with Edith Weiner and Ian Pearson. The theme was brain enhancement possibilities, and lots of fun ideas were thrown around by Ian: shared enhanced dreaming, using minds as palettes for artistic expression, GPS & pain-signal based virtual prisons, print-on skin circuitry and recreational telepathy. Arnold invoked a more somber mood by asking for neuroethics and listing potential worries. Edith described some of the potential implications of the differences between male and female brains.

Overall, a somewhat mixed seminar. The possibilities mentioned by Ian were interesting, in some cases feasible but often hard to judge as feasible or not, they were simply too radical or presupposed too radical technologies. Edith's talk was intriguing and made much sense, but my sceptic side wanted to see more support for her assertions - are the gender differences in the brain really that strong, and do they have so powerful effects? One of the most interesting conjectures was that the richly stimulating environment we allow toddlers to grow up in makes the brain adapt to multitasking and strong sensory input, making a lot of male children unsuitable for the slow and sensory deprived school system, in turn leading to ritalin usage to pacify them. Not sure I buy the whole argument, but given that enriched environments do make brains change it would be strange if the increasingly rich rearing environments would not have some effect on the children.

Next seminar was "Revolution in security affaris", by Grant T. Hammond. This was an excellent discussion of the implications of the ongoing evolutionary changes in globalization, non-state actors and accelerating technology that lead to a qualitative revolutionary shift in the nature of security and conflict. It is no longer wars of conquest state-to-state, but contest actor-to-actor, where the actors may be both bigger and smaller than states. The growing interdependence of economies has made it hard to limit the diffusion of information and technology, both between states and within states. The military relies more and more on commercial off-the-shelf technology, which means that the tech differential might be more about having money and efficient production lines than keeping "nuclear secrets". There are about 200 states, but around 5000 inter-governmental organisations and 30,000 NGOs - and the number is rising, and who knows how much informal stuff there is out there. The lowered cost of coordination makes it possible to create more and more sub- and supernational groups with different interests. And the problems now exist on many different scales for which the state scale organisations are unsuitable. Advances in military technology enables both very fast forms of action (short warning and decision times) and variable lethality. If conquest is not the goal, the denial of service, disinformation, manipulation or the spread of pain are just as useful as oldfashioned violence.

The implications are among other things that the US emphasis on technological leadership might give smaller returns than expected (stuff diffuse too fast, and other means can be used), bureaucracies do not cope well with agile networks, traditional military is becoming increasingly irrelevant to security (it protects the territory and citizens, but not infrastructure, internet and cultural networks; security becomes everybody's business, and of course many will strive to fill the market), since states are optimized for wars they need to change (new forms of governance, alternative affiliation communities gain prominence). It is an ongoing contest, where the goal is not losing rather than winning.

The world sketched in the talk is a world where diplomacy, resiliency and the ability to adapt are paramount. One thought that struck me was that the ability to get many different coordinations (be they governments, NGOs, military branches or the IETF) to coordinate may be a key factor in being successful. Those who cannot coordinate the groups on their side will not be able to do the in-depth defense this new situation demands. The military, business and computer people might do fine jobs on their own during a crisis, but cruicial information and help does not flow between them making the entire nation insecure. If they can coordinate themselves, then the result is a much stronger system that can also meet threats on different scales. The same of course goes for aggressors; if several terrorist groups strike while there is a lot of information noise due to spam and worms, that might aid both sides (mail worms propagate better when people are insecure and desperate after information).

One problem with the discussion was that everybody was talking about terrorists (wonder why? ;-) but the issue of these complex and dangerous groups applies for many other groups: losers who don't like the current system or blames other groups, bad forms of self organisation (stock market bubbles and spam), irrational groups and groups with values strongly deviant from their surrounding culture. All of them can be threats, but in their eagerness to create security many people suggest one-size-fits-all solutions, usually focussed on what is believed to be good for fighting terrorists (and even there all problems are nails to the people with hammers). But we might need entirely different approaches to deal with the different kinds of threats, both larger and smaller than the nation scale.

The Future of Sex, Politics and Religion with Amy Oberg and Ian Pearson was fun but again so wild, so filled with exciting possibilities that may become possible someday that it might be more inspirational science fiction than actual future studies - the term after all implies that there should be some epistemic stringence around.

In any case, various technological ways of challenging gender, who/what we have sex with in what ways, as well as radical new forms of procreation of families were discussed. Some things were old hat like cybersex and net gender bending, but the panel managed to add some interesting new quirks to them like discussing sampling and remixing of sex, the impact of synthetic personalities on virtual partners and the levelling of the sexual playing field as augmented reality, virtuality and other techniques makes appearance and body form less important. Much time was spent discussing generating babies ("e-bay-bies") digitally from digital mixes of DNA followed by embryogenesis simulations, simulated childhood and perhaps eventual humanhood and embodiment. That strand however presupposes extremely powerful simulations well on par with uploading, making the discussions about the legal status of these babies somewhat moot: by that time there will be enough legal precendent about uploads, partial uploads and xoxes to handle virtual children.

The politics and religion parts were weaker, with some ideas about digital democracy (so mid-90's, isn't it? :-), AI politicians and some interesting reasonin g by Ian about the risks of getting feedback loops in the Maslowian self-actualization step where there are so many possibilities that people become stressed and uncertain, undermining the whole pyramid of needs and possibly fuelling anti-tech backlashes. Not sure I understood it right or if it makes any sense, but points at a concern I have pondered quite often: more advanced and powerful societies might produce self-limiting effects such as obsesity (too much of a good thing) or becoming spoiled (getting used to the safeguards, lowers resistance to crisis) that undermines them.

The religion part was very loose, with some speculations about internet cults (how stable would they be? internet communities seldom have much cohesion and effectiveness in the real world), religion for AIs and robots, and of course general apotheosis of AIs. My own suspicion is that we are going to end up married to superintelligences. First they are virtual sex partners and assistance software. Then they become social partners and guides too, and eventually they (and maybe we) become posthuman/postAI. Maybe one should aim for a hieros gamos with the Seed AI?

After that Josť Cordeiro presented transhumanism. Very fun, but of course not very new to me. I was used as Exhibit A, a real living Swedish transhumanist. The most interesting part of the discussion was the observation that humans are a scarce resource: we are willing to pay more and more for human services, we seem to value them more highly now than in the past. This fits in nicely with Robin's analysis of what happens when humans can be made plentiful.

Finally Kurzweil did his talk on uploading, life extension and possible threats. He is an impressively self-made man, and I especially liked his descriptions of how he methodically found an optimal diet and supplement regimen for himself. Many good points about various threats like epidemics, designer viruses, gray goo and evil AI. I just wonder if the "intelligence trump" assumption (more highly intelligent beings always trumps less intelligent beings) that he brought up actually holds. Brute force, evolution and using unknown information can do quite a bit to challenge a good mind.

Overall, a fun day but in the end I was a bit tired of exponential acceleration towards godlike intelligence. Thank heaven for The grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.

Posted by Anders at August 2, 2004 06:06 AM