Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 3 – Uploading the Self)

In a chapter of The Singularity is Near titled “Uploading the Human Brain”, Ray Kurzweil toys with the possibility that scanning the brain to understand its workings will result in our capability to upload, and presumably download, its architecture. Such architecture, to Kurzweil’s mind, is responsible for who we are and our sense of personhood. He acknowledges that such a procedure is presently science-fiction although is confident that it is well within the ‘Kurzweil-Moravec’ universe, and a likely scenario.

In order to upload the human brain one’s neurological structure is scanned and transmitted to a powerful computer. Kurzweil is not so ignorant as to presume that this neurological structure can survive outside of materiality, thus he claims the data must be instantiated onto a computational medium in the same way that a program is burned onto a DVD. If this were a possibility it would “capture a person’s entire personality, memory, skills and history”. While he does acknowledge that the reinstated mind requires a body, his acknowledgement is for juvenile reasons that do not tackle or adequately address the immensity of the problem.

For instance, his answer as to why our reinstated minds require a body ignores important, phenomenologically discerned, criticisms of the Cartesian mind-body dualism. For Kurzweil, we need a body, or some sort of material instantiation for very simple reasons: “so much of our thinking is directed toward physical needs and desires”. Furthermore, the sole reference to the body as a whole is in the scant acknowledgment that “a person’s personality and skills do not reside only in their brain, although that is their principal location. Our nervous system extends throughout the body, and the endocrine (hormonal) system has an influence as well”. Instead of letting the reader know exactly how the endocrine system will be factored into this uploading, and treating such issues with the care they deserve, he skims over them favor of simpler questions such as “How quickly do we need to scan a person’s nervous system?”

Hans Moravec conceptualizes the brain similarly to Kurzweil so it is not surprising that he overlooks similar pivotal issues. Moravec’s posthumans are virtual and informational beings. A similar thinker, Marvin Minsky, explains that

a human brain could be encoded in less than 10^15 bits. If it takes a thousand times more storage to encode a body and surrounding environment, a human with living space might consume 10^8 bits, and a large city of a million human-scale inhabitants might be efficiently stored in 10^24 bits, and the entire world population would fit in 10^28 bits.

In a speech delivered at Carnegie Mellon University in 1992 Moravec referred to the brain as if it were simply an organ whose parts will one day be able to be replaced as they fail. By replacing our gray matter with non-biological material bit-by-bit he argues that our personality would remain intact.

Moravec explains that the best example of ‘bodiless minds’ are computer programs such as a chess program. A chess program operates on pure mathematics and considers only equations relating to numerical chess related algorithms. Despite appearing graphically for the user as specific pieces, the program itself has no relation whatsoever to physical chess pieces, a board, or its opponent. Moravec predicts that in the near future such computer programs will be as clever as the human mind. Implied of course is that the two will eventually blur as the programs become exceedingly more intelligent and complex than the human. Of course, for him and Kurzweil, by the time procedures such as mind uploading are possible nanotechnology and robotics will be so developed and complex that there will exist a myriad of biological and non-biological body-possibilities for replacing the brain.

Like Kurzweil, Moravec insufficiently recognizes the immense role that embodiment plays on our construction of both reality and our sense of self. His scant warning against the condition of disembodiment is delivered in a paragraph warning of the hallucinatory and psychotic condition of subjects who spend more than 12 hours in a sensory deprivation tank. Both thinkers agree that something must be done with the body, however they are content with understanding the body as reducible to and compatible with an informational pattern. This is extraordinarily dualistic. Espousing such a pattern, when poorly considered, ends up sounding suspiciously like advocating the possibility of a disembodied subject.

Katherine Hayles, a thinker whose views I respect, uses such an informational structure of the human (or posthuman)  in her book How we Became Posthuman:

…the posthuman marks a shift in emphasis from materiality as the central concern of the human, (what she calls the presence/absence dialectic) to a view of the human that privileges pattern/randomness. When the pattern/randomness dialectic is foregrounded, with our essence articulated in DNA patterns, we become essentially a complex pattern of interactive information.

In Hayles’ argument the posthuman can be articulated seamlessly with intelligent machines.  We must distinguish the views of the posthuman as espoused in Kurzweil and Moravec from those of theorists such as Hayles.  Hayles’ book is partially a response to Hans Moravec’s assertion that “human identity is essentially an informational pattern rather than an embodied action”. She reminds us that:

“in the face of such a powerful dream, it can be a shock to remember that for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium, whether that medium is the page from the Bell Laboratories Journal,…the computer-generated topographical maps used by the Human Genome Project, or the cathode ray tube on which virtual worlds are imagined”.

Kurzweil and Moravec share a similar dream of translating the biological into patterns and informational bandwidth.  While a theorist might utilize virtuality and cybernetics as imaginary tools to upset dualistic conceptualizations underlying theories of gender and psychology, Moravec and Kurzweil utilize the virtual and the cybernetic in the most literal and irresponsible fashion. Such irresponsibility and literal uses of hybridity raises questions as to how we might defend Hayles and Haraway’s ideas or whether it is time to reconfigure them entirely.

Kurzweil and Moravec’s visions are dominated by a perverse and literal form of the destabilization between subject and object. So what do we find when after years of attack the empire we despise is under threat not by our hand but that of another enemy? How are we to consider our prior attacking rhetoric of liberation and dissent? Bruno Latour writes in his essay War of the Worlds: What About Peace? of the effect 9/11 had on deconstructionist theory:

Does such idle criticism not look superficial now that nihilism is truly striking at ‘us’…putting what we call civilization in great danger of being found hollow? Who needs to add another deconstruction to a heap of broken debris? The courageous iconoclast…does she not look a bit silly now that what she wanted to strike down lies in dust, already smashed to the ground, and by people who do not fit at all the ideal of the critical avant-garde?! What has happened to the critical urge? Has it not overshot its target?

On the eve of Kurzweil’s Singularity, our metaphoric theories of cybernetics begin to look frightening.  They do seem to have ‘overshot their target’. We might return Oliver Sacks’ The Disembodied Lady with renewed interest and consider Christina, unable to feel her own body and as a result unable to identify with herself. For a split second she senses the wind and disturbingly reminisces on how it once felt on her skin: “It’s not the real thing, but its something – it lifts this horrible, dead veil for a while”. In using the virtual as a space to interrogate issues such as gender and liberal subjectivity have we risked our sense of balance and position and forgot about our joints and tendons? Or worse yet, have we been ignorant of the powerful corporate forces that follow in the wake of these theories? I do not think this is yet the case, but it will be the case if we stare into Kurzweil’s Singularity with our eyes wide and our mouths agape and refuse to question its most basic premises.

Kurzweil’s ideas are frightening. His formulations ignore a particularly immense body of work by social constructivists of science and technology and phenomenologists  such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty. If we do not attack this literal invasion of the sphere of theory and criticism we may find it too late to continue the fruitful proliferation of cyborg mythology and imagery. Furthermore, if Kurzweil’s ideas were to be widely taken up we would find ourselves surrounded more than ever by ideas of linearity, Messianism and technological determinism.

DANTE AND THE RIVER OF LETHE, 1880s Gustave Dore's Purgatory, Religious Antique Wood Engraving

Kurzweil and Moravec’s ideas are misleading. For all the novelty of their new hybrid-creatures we find familiar and rather ancient invocations of reincarnation, except in this modern case it is not ‘body and soul’ but ‘flesh and mental informatic code’ that are separated, one purified and the other vilified. Because the latter has no set myth-of-recurrence to ground it we tend to think of it as a progressive, linear and dialectical separation. It is not that the soul leaves the body to be reincarnated but that the flesh is shed in order for the being to evolve into some other informatic-body.

Indeed, there is something very old-fashioned about these so-called post-humanists.

The narrative of such a process appears as follows: Once we were doomed to death, then we sustained our lives through the medical cures of technoscience and now our capacities have increased so that we may enter the binary gates of further progress. We think of the soul departing the body and traveling home to its celestial paradise. The example of the informatic-being traveling to its informational paradise seems different as it appears not to be a return home but a realm built for it by the linear and logical progression of techno-science.

The informatic-being envisioned by Kurzweil appears to be a next step as opposed to the Western religious understanding of the soul’s journey ending in recurrence. In other words: transubstantiation of the body instead of transmigration of immortal souls. But, despite not having a myth-of-recurrence, this logic is not so different from Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of souls. After all, is it not concerned with privileging one pole of a binary opposition (mental-informatic-code) and unifying it with a quantitatively alike informatic realm? The informatic-being presumably travels to its informational paradise. Joel Garreau writes in Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What It Means to Be Human that Kurzweil’s future seems indistinguishable from the Christian version of paradise and he aptly titles the chapter concerning him ‘Heaven’.


~ by dccohen on January 1, 2010.

2 Responses to “Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 3 – Uploading the Self)”

  1. Hey Dustin. I’m really digging this stuff. You’re writing about a lot of topics that I became really interested in in my last year of undergrad, especially in this post. I wish I had known about Kurzweil and Moravec back then. I wrote an essay back then about the possibilities of disembodied politics via cyberspace that I thought you might be interested in, even though it’s a pretty shitty last minute undergrad essay. You can check it out here:

    Anyway, please keep up the good work!

  2. great stuff – really interesting – but just one thing – even an hour in a sensory deprivation tank is incredible – do it a couple of times as it’s a learned process and I guaranteed you’ll be amazed. For thinkers and artists it’s a must – this is a great web site which lists centers from around the globe.

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