August 13, 2004

Memories of the future

hippocrates.jpgThe TransVision 2004 conference show the evolution of the transhumanist movement. From the tiny gang of people who had met through the internet that started it in a small hotel on the outskirts of Amsterdam 1998 to the 150+ crowd filling the lecture halls of University of Toronto, listening to internationally known experts (or themselves becoming internationally known experts). Transhumanism is growing up and learning how to address the big issues.

TransVision 2003 was to some extent a reaction to the new criticism from Joy, Fukuyama and Kass. The sudden appearance of well-argued (or at least powerfully argued) opposition energized many transhumanists into formulating their own positions and counterarguments. This trend continued this year, when many of the key speakers elaborated on far more detailled answers and rebuttals against the anti-posthumans. The realization that one need not just have the technology but the philosophy to direct it is sinking in.

The keynote addresses by Steve Mann on "Glogging: Sousveillance, Cyborglogs, and the right to self-modification” and Stelarc formed an interestingly balanced pair with the keynotes of Max More and Nick Bostrom. The former were technology- and art-driven, showing how they could drive exploration leading in a transhumanist direction. The latter were philosophy-driven, showing how philosophical themes can move one towards transhumanism.

In all these cases there were a core dynamist perspective: cyborgization led Steve to criticise the surveillance society and try to formulate humanistic technology. Stelarc's radical postmodern view of the body and self might be an all-dissolving alcaest for social projects, but at the same time his search for ways of medical self-expression brings home morphological freedom. Max's talk sketched a set of individualistic virtues for managing self-transformation and change. Nick's talk essentially boiled down to a plea for why exploration of the posthuman realm might be a very good thing. All in all, the goal is an open future, where people are free to explore and change to the furthest extent possible. We are far indeed from many of the centrally managed ideas suggested by Haldane and Wells.

Perhaps the most major theme of the conference (in the sense of reporting real progress) was fixing ageing. Aubrey de Grey's initial speech laid out the plan and showed some recent progress on fixing mitochondrial mutations by moving the genes to the nucleus. That was followed by another talks sketching a possible way of finding enzymes that break down lysozomal gunk using bioremediation as an inspiration: since graveyards are not overflowing with the substances the body cannot break down, there must be bacteria that can do it. These can be isolated, and the relevant enzymes gathered. Very elegant, but rather early to tell how useful it will be.

As for elegance, Rafal Smigrodzki had an even more exciting approach: using protofection, a new form of gene therapy, mitochondrial DNA can be replaced. This is promising as a treatment of mitochondrial disease, but of course also against some aspects of ageing. And if the method was as powerful as he implied, it may be a great vehicle for gene therapy too. Which makes the other approaches more plausible as treatments too, since most seem to rely on the presence of suitable genes rather than small molecules. Joćo Pedro de Magalhćes has built a database of genes involved or implied in ageing. The network is tangled, but it is not that impossible to start to deal with using the powerful tools of modern genomics and proteomics.

Transhumanism also has a side of truly wild cosmological and eschatological speculation. I moderated a session on "Big Theory" where Travis Garrett did a nice presentation of why, if we live in a Tegmark level 4 multiverse, most of the "objects" would be superbeing observers. The omega points outnumber the rocks, so to say. I'm not entirely sure his reasoning holds against equally complex "noise" objects, but it was a wonderful talk. Similarly broad speculation occured in the uploading session, where Allen Randall expanded the old quantum suicide/immortality thought-experiment to show that only minor (like lottery wins), but not major (like resurrections), miracles could be expected to happen. Also, being "resurrected" as a dreamlike virtual simulation is far more probable than being resurrected in any useful sense of the word. So we better ensure immortality more proactively than just to hope for the best.

The final theme I paid attention to was ethics. I already mentioned the ethical defenses of transhumanism made by Max and Nick. Tihamer (Tee) Toth-Fejel presented a very nice scheme for judging the morality of various enhancements using natural law and a Aristotelian-Thomist approach. Starting out with discovering the essential nature of an entity (and here different readings can of course get different conclusions: Fukuyama makes an essentialist static reading of human nature while I prefer a dynamist, Mirandolian one - but these different assumptions can at least be made clear!) one looks at how the enhancement can produce good while acting on the entity. Overall, the tools discussed (ends/means/circumstances, seeing existence as better than parasitic opposites, aiming for more being, truth and love) are not that strange, but most people in the bioethics field shun looking at such fearful medieval contraptions. Which is a shame, since they correspond more closely (once applied and freed of terminology) to human experience than the cool lines of modernist abstractions.

Another ethical talk of interest was Mark Walker's talk about genetic enhancements to promote virtue. Again, I got a nice fuzzy Aristotelian feel (and a postmodernist in the audience wondered why we were clinging to such outmoded stuff; but existential freedom aside, it is rather hard to be normative and postmodernist). There are clearly genes that affect moral reasoning, for example through temperament and personality. Certain aspects of personality such as sociability promote certain virtues - they do not control them, but it is easier to achieve friendship with the right kind of personality, and autonomy by being somewhat out-going. The genes are a foundation, not a program, and not really controlling the eventual development and expression of virtue, but they can perhaps help. A very counterintuitive idea to current bioethics where random genes are somehow seen as a guarantee of freedom, but not very strange to virtue ethics where the important thing is the good habits we set up for ourselves (and Mark did discuss how one could rebel against unwanted "help" from one's parents - just because I have the genes of a nice personality doesn't mean I can't change it).

Conferences are not the real thing, just a place for us to meet, slap backs and exclaim about how big each other's project has grown. But TransVision helps the transhumanist community hold together by showing that there are shared interests between mitochondrial cell biologists and philosophizing physicists. There is one world (modulo Tegmark :-) to explore and improve, and we are all doing it together.

Next year in Caracas!

Posted by Anders at August 13, 2004 05:43 PM

Hey Anders - the conference was a lot of fun. So, about the 'noise' structures - I've been worried about this for quite a few years now, but I think I have a resolution that I am maybe 90% happy with. And you're right, if you make randomly connected graphs, these are going to dominate the counting among the abstract graphs, both for a finite and infinite number of objects and relationships (and they grow quickly too - if you use a representation with N distinct objects and binary connections, then you get 2^(N*(N-1)/2)) different graphs...). If we are then trying to extract observers as the largest subset of the mathematical ensemble, it seems we are immediately foiled by this. It's not completely clear that this is a problem, perhaps the noise graphs do dominate the counting, but within the tiny residue of interesting graphs that we are actually interested in, the evolving observers dominate, which is why we are obervers - but if possible I like to go ahead and eliminate the noise structures. Generally I think this is valid because the noise structures contain very little 'real' information: as we just said, their implicit information is very slight - just random connections! Slightly more formally, this is where I like to use things like the concept of representation invariant information (imagine translating some program from one set of hardware and operating system to another - here we don't care about the nuts and bolts of how the program is realized on the millions of individual transistors, but rather the program itself) - and the noise structures have precious little representation independent information. To form a loose analogy, one could imagine in general relativity only counting over topologically distinct metrics, and not also over all the different coordinate systems that describe the same geometry (like cartesian and spherical and cylindrical and all the infinite other (and usually much less usefull) coordinates for flat space). I think Hawking is refering to something like this in his new paper, although I haven't actually read it yet. And there's another analogy in field theory - you get all sorts of infinities in the path integral due to gauge invariances in bosonic fields, so you use Faddeev and Popov's method to separate the infinities out in order to get what you want. Using this idea of only counting over the representation invariant information also allows us to count over the implicit representations of information, which makes the counting much easier since these have finite integers encodings. That said, I need to put all of this in a more formal mathematical langauge - I'm reading Jech's set theory right now, and that might help. Turing machine notation is also very tempting, but it is crucial that we don't limit ourselves to one finite machine, we need to keep on adding rules and states as time progresses... So yeah, have you read my semi-formal paper on my website? Any logical problems? (and even if not, it still needs to be experimentally verified!) I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


Posted by: Travis Garrett at August 17, 2004 10:48 PM

Just a quick note, since this really requires deep thoughts.

A noise majority is IMHO a problem, because it robs your hypothesis of the interesting property of explaining why we are observers - in a world dominated by observers one should not be surprised to be one, or expressed differently, consciousness isn't a strange thing. But in a world dominated by non-observers it becomes a very strange and unusual phenomenon.

I think representation independence is the clever idea that makes your model make sensee. I guess Chaitin's work might be relevant, since he shows that the Kolomogorov complexity is machine-equivalent up to a constant.

Posted by: Anders at August 18, 2004 12:13 AM