Rethinking Our Utopian Choices: Why Whether the Future Needs Us Matters (Part 1/2)

On Bill Joy’s Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us… Over the next two posts I will present a conclusion, or a sort of winding down, or cooling off to a LONG set of posts concerned with trans- and post- humanism. In mid-2000 a provocative essay titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” was published in Wired. It was such a popular piece that the magazine continues, 9 years later, to have an e-mail address dedicated to inquiries and questions regarding it. The article was not written by a radical environmentalist or a member of the religious right, but Bill Joy, the co-founder, chief scientist (and at that time C.E.O.) of the successful computer development company Sun Microsystems.

Joy’s confrontational essay, like Katherine Hayles’ book How we Became Posthuman, was written in direct response to questionable theories of unstoppable technological progress espoused by thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec and Marvin Minsky. Joy’s questions are those of a computer scientist re-considering his individual moral and ethical responsibilities in the face of such questionable theories. His essay contrasts the proliferation of 21st century GNR technologies [genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics] with NBC technologies [nuclear, biological, and chemical]. While NBC has come to be understood as underlying WMD’s [weapons of mass destruction], GNR may possibly usher in an age of “not just of weapons of mass destruction, but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD)”. Such a state of KMD, Joy writes, is amplified by the ability of GNR to replicate and even possibly self-replicate uncontrollably. He writes that “the most compelling 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology [GNR] – pose a different threat than the technologies that have come before [NBC]. Specifically, robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate”. Joy writes with a sense of responsibility, a responsibility that asks whether or not we should consider relinquishing these technologies. But what I will argue is that this call for relinquishment should not be understood as standing in the way of science and technology, but is intended to give individual scientists and technicians the agency to question and critique the direction and expected outcomes of their research.

As I have suggested in many of the posts on this blog, we have reason to be suspicious of the views of transhumanist and Extropian thinkers. It is not that I am suspicious of their technological optimism, but that I find questionable their belief in an inevitable and teleological sense of progress. In other words, while I am an advocate of stem cell research and find biotechnology and nanotechnology fascinating and worthwhile, I would hesitate to argue that they are necessary steps on some linear progression of scientific knowledge. Thus, we must not become confused and intimidated by those who conflate inevitable progress with scientific responsibility. We must be able to distinguish between those who heavily advocate GNR and those who see embedded within GNR some divine or inherent law that the human species must accept and immerse itself within. Without understanding what is propelling the arguments of certain proponents of GNR we might find ourselves repelling right-wing bio-luddism with an equally damaging technophilia. Extropianism and transhumanism, led by organizations such as the Extropy Institute and the World Transhumanist Organization consider forms of science and technology such as ‘mind uploading’ and ‘replicating nanotechnology’ to be heralds of the next phase of humanity. We should be questioning and interrogating Extropianism and transhumanism in order to consider the dynamic in which this new (post)humanism is built on the Enlightenment premise of inevitable progress. We must pay greater attention, as has been suggested by thinkers such as Bruno Latour, to the way that technology is not an autonomous process and discern the interplay between human and non-human actors. Latour’s study of a failed French transportation system called Aramis, portrays a technology blurring in an out of object-hood, gaining and losing degrees of reality as its creators agreed and disagreed on its viability and feasibility.

The Nightmare of Hiroshima

Joy’s “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” suggests that given the intense optimism of the proponents of transhumanism and extropianism and the tremendous risks that could manifest themselves “Maybe we should rethink our utopian choices”. I believe that Joy’s essay deserves to be taken seriously and not instantly labeled as the work of a ‘luddite’ and a ‘technophobe’. Joy is intimately involved with the technological and does not suggest we relinquish our drive to create altogether, but reminds us of the lessons we can learn from Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the ensuing nuclear arms race while devising our choices for the future. He injects into the narrative of posthumanism, what we called earlier a new form of humanism, a sort of researcher’s responsibility that I find highly constructive.

Joy begins the essay (similarly to Hayles’ Posthuman) by elucidating his discomfort with the predictions of Ray Kurzweil. He explains:

I can date the onset of my unease to the day I met Ray Kurzweil, the deservedly famous inventor of the first reading machine for the blind and many other amazing things. Ray and I were both speakers at … [a] … conference and I encountered him by chance in the bar of the hotel… I was sitting with John Searle, a Berkeley philosopher who studies consciousness. While we were talking, Ray approached and a conversation began, the subject of which haunts me to this day. I had missed Ray’s talk and the subsequent panel that Ray and John had been on, and they now picked right up where they’d left off, with Ray saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something like that, and John countering that this couldn’t happen, because the robots couldn’t be conscious. While I had heard such talk before, I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm of science fiction. But now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility. I was taken aback, especially given Ray’s proven ability to imagine and create the future. I already knew that new technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power to remake the world, but a realistic and imminent scenario for intelligent robots surprised me. It’s easy to get jaded about such breakthroughs. We hear in the news almost every day of some kind of technological or scientific advance. Yet this was no ordinary prediction. In the hotel bar, Ray gave me a partial preprint of his then-forthcoming book The Age of Spiritual Machines, which outlined a utopia he foresaw – one in which humans gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology. On reading it, my sense of unease only intensified; I felt sure he had to be understating the dangers, understating the probability of a bad outcome along this path.

Having struggled to build reliable software systems for thirty years Joy understands their workings quite well and is unsure that the future will pan out as Kurzweil imagines it in his utopian scenario. He locates a “textbook dystopia” in Hans Moravec’s prediction for the 21st century, where our main job will be to pass laws “decreeing that they [the robots] be ‘nice’”. Finally, he is troubled by the manner that these ideas of a silicon posthumanity spell out the extinction of the homo sapien. (to be continued…)

——-cybject is only a thought experiment——


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~ by dccohen on January 8, 2010.

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