Newsletter of the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group of the National Space Society
Volume 7, Number 1& 2 First and Second Quarter, 1999
Seventh Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology Generation of Crisis: A Warning to the Nanocogniscenti The Foresight View: Chris Peterson Transhumanism: The New Master Race? FAST Bits
Seventh Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology
The Seventh Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology will be held at the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, CA. The Conference will begin with a reception the evening of Thursday, October 14, and end Sunday, October 17, 1999. An intensive Tutorial on Foundations of Nanotechnology will be held on October 14.
MRJ Technology Solutions, Inc. at
NASA Ames Research Center
Jan H. Hoh
Department of Physiology
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
University of Toronto, Nobel Laureate Chemistry
Over the next few decades, manufacturing is expected to undergo a profound change. Advances in miniaturization will reach the level of individual atoms and products will be designed and built to atomically-precise specifications. This conference is a meeting of scientists and technologists working in fields leading toward molecular nanotechnology: thorough three-dimensional structural control of materials and devices at the molecular level. The conference will cover topics relevant to the pursuit of molecular control, drawing from fields such as:
- molecular electronics
- biochemical molecular engineering
- scanning probe microscopy
- supramolecular chemistry and self-assembly
- theory/modeling and computations
- computer science
- natural and artificial molecular machines
- mechanical engineering and robotics
- applications of nanotechnology
For more information, check the web page at
P.O. Box 61058
Palo Alto, CA 94306 USA
tel. 650-917-1122 fax 650-917-1123
Generation of Crisis: A Warning to the Nanocogniscenti
by Tom McKendree
I have just read a book that is interesting, and on reflection, extraordinarily scary.
That book is The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. In it, they argue for a four-phase cycle of generations and historical periods that feed on each other. The generations cycle through "Heroes," like the "GI's" of World War II, "Artists," like the "Silent Generation" that saw WW II but were too young to be GI's, "Mystics," like the following generation of "Boomers," and finally "Nomads," like the current Generation X (which they call "13th Generation"), to be followed by another generation of "Heroes." In parallel, each generation is a young adult in respective periods of "Crisis," like the Depression and World War II, "High," like the 1950s, "Awakening," like the late 60's and the 70's, and "Unraveling," which supposedly describes the current period. The comparable last Unraveling in America they define as 1908 through 1929. They argue that this cycle of generations drives the cycle of eras, which forms in child- and young-adult- hood the character of the generations, and claim to have traced this cycle through history all the way back to the Renaissance.
On reflection, the scary part is their projected timing of the next Crisis period -- 2005 through 2026 (although they admit it could shift a few years either way). This sounds like a very good estimate of when transition to and first widespread use of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) will unfold.
This confluence of schedule estimates leads to three interpretations. First, it doesn't mean anything, as either Strauss & Howe are wrong, or MNT will take much longer to develop than now seems likely. Second, that molecular nanotechnology will play a key role in resolving the next great crisis. Third, the development of molecular nanotechnology will be the next crisis.
The first case, where MNT is developed in other than an atmosphere of crisis, is the best case. While we can hope for the best, we must consider the alternatives.
The second case is the worst. Here, there is some dramatic crisis, forming the context within which MNT is developed. Crises one could imagine unfolding in this time frame include:
I emphasize the many types of war, as organized violence seems to be the worst master to first call forth molecular nanotechnology. Note that the last Crisis is defined as "Depression and World War II," so even if the era is launched with something other than a great war, deadly conflict may well unfold before the Crisis era is over.
Now, imagine MNT being developed during one of the example crises above and read Strauss & Howe's claim that every crisis heads towards a climax, at which point:
Leaders become more inclined to define enemies in moral terms, to enforce virtue militarily, to refuse all compromise, to commit large forces in that effort, to impose heavy sacrifices on the battlefield and home front, to build the most destructive weapons contemporary minds can imagine, and to deploy those weapons if needed to obtain an enduring victory.
Suggested applications of MNT are often a Rorschach test--revealing more about the suggester than the technology. This is because the technology is potentially so powerful that limitations in people's minds are often more constraining than the limitations of the technology, and deep wishes are often first thoughts. With little effort, molecular nanotechnological horrors of nearly Lovecraftian proportions are imaginable. "The most destructive weapons [then] contemporary minds can imagine" will be terrible indeed, far beyond a fleet of thermonuclear-tipped ICBMs. Unleashing such horrors "to obtain an enduring victory" may well seem necessary to future leaders. A race to develop MNT weapons and unleash them first is likely if opponents "refuse all compromise" while seeking "an enduring victory." Rational combatants faced with such implacable and potentially deadly enemies should be expected to unleash nuclear weapons first, in an attempt to slow down or pre-empt the other side from being the first to develop and use MNT weapons.
Few good options present themselves once in the situation of a crisis with society's survival at stake, just as MNT and its use is unfolding. The best approach is to avoid this situation. Strauss & Howe make the point that a crisis era is unavoidable, and how it plays out is unpredictable, but individuals can still influence events for good or ill. In thinking about preparing for MNT, there as been a lot of "hope for the best, but think about the worst." Society may find itself in the worst, for reasons totally unrelated to MNT, which would be very bad indeed. We need to think about ways to prevent MNT from leading to its worst abuses, even if developed during a crisis in which every possible contribution is sought.
The third case is that the development of MNT *is* the crisis. This may actually be a good thing, strange as that sounds. The key to understanding this position is that in Strauss & Howe's theory, "Crisis" is at least as much a state of mind in society as a dire threatening circumstance. In a Crisis era, the elders are uncompromising moralizers, the middle-aged are hand's-on manueverers, and young adults are motivated team players. Imagine the Children of the 60's, more rigid with age and judgmental, as our most powerful leaders.
Imagine rootless Generation X'ers, honed by years of angling for survival and advantage, as our middle managers. Imagine the young, soldiers and young scientists, as well raised "heroes," willing to unswervingly follow their superiors, and dedicating their all in unison to succeed for their society in a great cause. Note that such selfless dedication to a cause describes both the GI's of World War II, and eager and elite volunteers of the Nazi SS. Meanwhile, children are well-behaved, protected, and stand back so adults can do their critical work.
This alignment of these generational types at these stages of life forms the "crisis" pattern that Strauss and Howe claim recurs every four generations.
Consider now the emerging potential of MNT in such a world. Say Zyvex builds a very limited, but undeniable, assembler. That may be dramatic enough for society at large to take a deep look at MNT. They could see that assemblers and their products are inevitable. Society may have just spent two decades unraveling, however, and could then easily imagine a Timothy McVeigh trying to kill millions from his garage, another Aum Shin Rikyo developing a virus of global destruction, out of control developer's strip mining the biosphere, or government embrace of a totalitarian approach that ultimately seeks to command every human moment. "The enemy" in this scenario is MNT developed for or used in abuse.
With intelligent foresight, a common wisdom can be prepared for society that banning MNT is not a solution -- banning will just lead to development and use of MNT by people the enforcers of the ban do not influence, making its abuse more likely. If this position is accepted, then a plausible crisis response is a giant global consortium, uniting the major players most able to develop the technology into an integrated effort to develop MNT first, deliberately and in safety. This strategy allows prior coordination between likely developers of early MNT uses, limiting to something manageable the downside risks from coming in second in the development and applications races. A major goal of the consortium must be to develop protections against MNT misuse. Since this is a crisis atmosphere, one might expect those not willing to join the consortium and play by its rules to be strongly suppressed, and that strong means will be used to insure against cheating. If the requirements for inclusion can be sufficiently permissive that an overwhelming array of the power centers in the pre-nanotechnology world will agree to be part of the consortium, then peace can be maintained in this pre-nanotechnology world.
A large, potentially bureaucratic Consortium could slow down development relative to what a free and open race would achieve, but also maintain some control for safety. Something like a crash program would be reasonable, with different approaches tried in parallel. The main benefit of structuring the consortium efforts this way will be faster progress by following whatever partial paths yield quicker results, and by not getting stuck along any single path. The approach also allows rewarding subteams that win their part of the race, while keeping subteams that are not first in their part of the race part of the overall winning side. Furthermore, with an "in-group" widely defined, a great deal of freedom can still be maintained within that "in-group."
The advantage of a "Crisis" era, as defined by Strauss & Howe, as the environment for developing MNT is that young people would be willing to be team players for a great cause. Thus, they are likely to be more dependable developers of MNT for widespread good, rather than narrow interests.
Now, what does this third scenario, "MNT Development as the Millennial Crisis," mean for the Nanocogniscenti, those people who today are aware of MNT and its implications? Most of the Nanocogniscenti are beneficiaries and proponents of current technological progress, embracing the change this generates. Many are computer professionals. They are more libertarian than society at large. While early visionaries like Drexler and early proponents like Merkle are of the "Boomer" generation, and given the probable timing of MNT development, these leaders could easily play the "Prophet" role that Strauss & Howe assign them. Generationally the Nanocogniscenti largely align with the "13th Generation," predicted to be the most entrepreneurial and libertarian generation, and least liked by society.
The Fourth Turning theory implies that libertarianism as a popular attitude may jump out of fashion in the upcoming Crisis. Consider in history how quickly H L Menken fell out of favor once the Depression hit. This creates the disastrous potential for conflict between the Nanocogniscenti and society at large. Proponents must be able to make an appealing case to for responsible MNT development to a society preoccupied with fixing the outer world, strengthening families, and raising up community even at the expense of individualism. Each era includes judgments of the era just past, and supposedly a Crisis era typically judges the previous era harshly for excessive individualism, and includes many people who will feel burned by change and who are interested in a pause. While we must prepare for other contingencies, we need to find wise policies for MNT that are implementable in a hysterical, defensive, communitarian atmosphere, and explainable to the satisfaction of those sensibilities why the policies are proper and wise.
It is important not to be tone deaf should the general tenor of society change. If the Nanocogniscenti cannot discuss the issues of MNT in the context of powerful values and priorities following a shift from today's, then miscommunication and conflict is likely, and would be utterly tragic. If the Nanocogniscenti cannot make peace with those values, then the deadly possibility exists of a "Crisis," as perceived by society, that becomes "Our current course is leading us to nanotechnology, the ultimate evil from these out-of-control technolibertarians/utopians/elites, that must be crushed." That result would be terrible, radicalizing MNT during an already risky transition. Fortunately, the potential benefits of MNT are so large that it can advance many different values. Thus, with care the utility and issues of MNT should be favorably translatable into nearly any context. Beyond the specifics of this particular scenario, coherent presentations of MNT for many different points of view need to be developed.
However it plays out, if a Crisis era in of 2005-2026 combined with the simultaneous development of MNT can be safely navigated, then the future looks bright. Following a Crisis in Strauss and Howe's schema comes a "High" of great material progress for society, like the United States in the 1950s. One can easily imagine a post-breakthrough High, as the beneficial uses of MNT flower.
Such an era should see species and environments recover, restored and protected, widespread wealth creation beyond most of today's dreams, general health as cures are found for all physical ailments, cryonically suspended victims of the Crisis and before revived, families reunited, asteroids settled, other equally great but currently unforeseen advances, and the miracles of life and civilization carried forth to the stars.
One can even vaguely see potential elements of the subsequent post-High "Awakening." MNT should provide tools to address memory, personality, thinking and identity, offering great potential to anyone interested in "Revolutionizing Consciousness."
If Strauss and Howe are correct, then before these wonderful eras to come, however, we must first survive the Crisis approaching over the horizon. The final irony is that reaching a post-MNT High seems quite likely to offer strong life extension capabilities, and the ability to revive the well-preserved in cryonic storage. This will modify the cycle of life, and thus mutate, or even bring to an end, a generational cycle that Strauss and Howe plausibly argue has coursed through history since at least the late 1400s.
The Foresight View: Chris Peterson
Editor Tihamer Toth-Fejel interviewed Foresight Director Chris Peterson at the Sixth Foresight Conference
MMSG: The talks so far at the Sixth Annual Foresight conference seem to show that we are definitely on track with respect to building assemblers in the next decade or two. What can stop us now?
Peterson: A world war could send us back to the stone age, and a major economic depression could slow down the current pace, while increased direct funding would accelerate the development of assemblers. On the other hand, a backlash of anti-technology feelings might result from a worst-case impact of the Y2K problem, but I doubt it.
MMSG: What about having a workforce that is adequately trained to develop the technology?
Peterson: The number of people actually involved in developing cutting-edge technology is quite small. On the other hand, widespread prosperity requires education. Right now there is a huge gap between unemployed people who are desperate for work, and the companies who desperately need trained people to do needed work. The educational system has not done the job of bridging that gap.
MMSG: What needs to be done to improve the education system?
Peterson: There are a whole bunch of things, but many of the problems have to do with classroom discipline. Also, teacher's unions who do nothing but remove incentives for educating students and protect incompetent teachers. I think a voucher system would work because it is the parents who have the highest incentive for well-educated students, and they need to be able to exercise it.
MMSG: What do you think the near-term goals are right now for assembler development?
Peterson: There are different pathways to get from here to there and each one has different near term goals: The biochemists are working on self-assembly, the physicists are increasing the capabilities of positional probes, and then there's the top-down approach that seeks to extend MEMS into the nanoscale range. Which path actually gets us there depends on funding and lucky breaks.
MMSG: During lunch, Eric seemed to talk more than usual about cryonics.
Peterson: Yes, and I would personally encourage especially older people to sign up. But even younger people - while Eric, Gayle Pergammit, and I were writing Unbounding the Future, Gayles's husband Phil died of cancer at 41. It is simply a form of long term first aid.
MMSG: Haven't some nanotech enthusiasts pointed out that cryonics is antithetical to the five major religious of the world?
Peterson: That's a bunch of baloney, and it really ticks me off when they say that. Cryonics is simply an experimental kind of medical treatment, and the more people make it seem like life after death - which it isn't - the more they antagonize people unnecessarily.
MMSG: At ISDC (the International Space Development Conference) Dr. Gillette predicted the commercialization of nanostructured zeolites and molecular membranes within five years. What do you think about the possible consequences, like pulling enriched plutonium from seawater?
Peterson: Oh, I agree with his predictions. On the other hand, passive nanostructures can't separate isotopes - you need special-purpose assemblers for that. In fact, I think what is going to happen is that individuals will have ready access only to limited purpose assemblers, because MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) doesn't work at an individual level.
MMSG: What is your vision for the year 2020, five years after Moore's Law gets down to individual atoms?
Peterson: I'm assuming that the bad things don't happen, but a lot depends on who develops the assembler and how it's controlled. Will it be NASA, a black military program, or a company like Zyvex? A lot of people are going to ask themselves if they want to remain human. I don't know.
MMSG: Figuring out what it means to be human is no easy task, as exemplified by the uproar over cloning. What do you think of cloning yourself?
Peterson: Cloning is silly. There is already one of me - been there, done that. What would be really interesting, however, if we took a little bit of Eric, and a little bit of me, and see what happens.
MMSG: Yes, I'm curious too! Does this mean that you'd like to have kids?
Peterson: Sure, but right now, there is too much to do and I'm just too tired <she sighs>. But you should see Eric with kids - he really connects with them.
MMSG: Speaking of Eric, what is doing now?
Peterson: Every ten years or so, Eric decides to learn a new field, and this time it's computer science. He feels that the next difficult hurdle with assembler is going to be controlling them, and he needs to know it.
MMSG: Some people in the National Space Society who worry about nanotech hope that they can escape any ill effects by fleeing from Earth.
Peterson: Good luck! First of all, it's very unlikely that we will build a starship before assemblers. But let's say that we somehow scraped together $100 billion to build something that could travel 1% of lightspeed. Assuming that after the assembler breakthrough Moore's law will hold true for any engineering field, that means that 18 months after you launch, a $50 billion ship follows you at 2% of lightspeed, catching up to you 18 months later. And 36 months later a $25 billion ship, etc. There is no way to escape the nanotech shockwave.
MMSG: Earlier you alluded to the issue of remaining human. How does AI fit into all this?
Peterson: You have to remember that all the work that has been done up to now has been with computers that have the raw processor power of a snail's brain. What will be interesting is when we get 1000 times the raw processing power of a human brain. Programming such a computer is likely to be quite a challenge, but at worse case, we can simply evolve them.
MMSG: But how you control an entity as intelligent as that? The cautionary tale of Skynet should tell us that you can't just turn it off. Besides, Eric is correct when he says that when there is any question about the personhood of an entity, we should give it the benefit of the doubt.
Peterson: And would you really want to pull the plug if you're planning to upload into silicon? More to the point, whenever you create an entity, you are responsible for it, just like you are for a child. As far as controlling them, there are two possibilities. First, you could build special-purpose intelligences that aren't really persons. On the other hand, if they have be build as general intelligences, then we might use game theory to play them off against each other.
Transhumanism: The New Master Race?
A number of years ago, the L-5 society was practically torn in two by a very divisive issue: President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative that would militarize Space while opening it up for settlement. It seemed that half the membership were peace-loving hippies, while the other half were military personal convinced that SDI was the only way out of the Mutual Assured Destruction. Personally, I was torn not only because I had friends on both sides, but because my own sympathies were divided.
Wisely, the L-5 leadership refused to take sides in this ideological battle, and the organization survived to merge with National Space Institute to form the present National Space Society. It may be slightly premature today (perhaps not, given Geron Inc.'s recent lengthening of telomeres), but I see the MMSG and the nanotech community coming to a similar juncture with respect to Transhumanism. Twice before in our nation's history have we been faced with the question of what it means to be human. The first time we flubbed it badly, and brother slaughtered brother in the bloodiest war this nation ever fought. The second time, which we are now experiencing, the issue is more abstract, and twenty years went by before anyone was shot, but the issue still tears a hole in the heart of this nation. With transhumanism, the issue will be even more visible than in the case of slavery, and it will not be possible to avoid taking sides on the issue.
It seems that the molecular manufacturing revolution will be the last one for the human race. This is because we are made of atoms, and since we will have the ability to remake ourselves, we will. So we must ask the difficult question of what it means to be human. The concept of a Transhuman has been coined to describe what comes after Homo Sapiens, but what does that really mean for us, the ordinary humans? Are we individually transformed, or just sloughed off like old skin cells?
In order to seriously consider the issue of transhumanism, a few approaches should be considered, and we need to understand the following:
Keep in mind that predicting the future under such chaotic conditions is a type of lunacy engaged only by angels and fools, which is probably why it is so much fun. Unfortunately, I cannot provide any clear answers -- at best I've tried to ask difficult questions that may hopefully permit others to reach the correct conclusions.
Characteristics of a Transhuman Being
What does it mean to achieve the Transhuman condition? At first glance, it is obvious that the Transhuman should be smarter, stronger, healthier, and better than us in every way. But the word "better" has some interesting connotations when we look at the concept of transhumanism in closer detail. Would the Transhuman be a better voter, or a better consumer, or a better politician? More fun-loving? Less suicidal? Would he/she/it be more ethical, more legalistic, or completely amoral? Would the Transhuman be an individual, or a hive mind?
Comparing ourselves to our prehominid ancestors, it is obvious that in terms of muscular strength, we are not stronger than they are. A 150 pound chimpanzee can throw Arnold Schwarzenegger across the room. On the other hand, our tools enable us to force our desires over all other animals -- this is why humans rule Earth, albeit often inefficiently and capriciously.
In addition to tools and other physical artifacts that manipulate the environment with more horsepower and/or precision than muscles can deliver, humans rule this planet because of their social inventions, including language, writing, political hierarchies, and money. Obviously, our intelligence is the trait that differentiates us more than any other from every other Terran species. So it seems reasonable that Transhomo individuals will be more intelligent than ourselves. This can occur by increasing bandwidth of the interface of people and computers. For example, my letters and articles in every field are much better if I write them while I have the world's knowledge at my fingertips -- i.e. access to the World Wide Web. In terms of data processing, however, the Web itself is a static repository of knowledge facts, ideas, and links. The Foresight Institute is trying to make the Web more effective by including back links, which will effectively double the types of relationships that ideas can have. Image how much it might improve when the links are as rich as those in linguistic networks and natural language software, and as active as processors in neural networks. Actually, Java applets may be one mechanism by which this could occur. At some point then, such enhancements may enable the Web to "wake up" into one form of a Transhuman.
Before going any farther in analyzing the Transhumanist viewpoint, it is important to be as objective as possible. Of course, this is impossible, but stating some fundamental assumptions will make open discussion more fruitful. I believe in Existence, Truth, and Love. Translated in the real world, that means that I fight to survive, because if I'm dead, then nothing else has much value to me. Second, it is important for me to learn as much as possible about my surrounding environment (i.e. the whole universe) and my place in it. This will increase my chances for survival, and help me love wisely. Finally, my positive relationships with everyone with whom I come into contact will make my survival and learning worthwhile. There are a number of concepts implicit in this world-view, including the idea that the universe is real, that it is at least partially knowable, and that it is worth living in.
My philosophical bias stated, let's take a look at the Transhumanist Principles:
1. Transcend: Strive to remove the evolved limits of our biological and intellectual inheritance, the physical limits of our environment, and the cultural and historical limits of society that constrain individual and collective progress.
2. Pragmatism: Use whatever tools prove effective toward this goal. Technology, and the intellectual disciplines used to develop it, are currently among the most effective such tools.
3. Memetic propagation. Support the proliferation of transhumanist principles and goals, consciously setting an example that others may follow or promoting the principles of transhumanism directly. Spread awareness of the dangers of technophobia, coercion, anti-humanism and other destructive ideologies.
4. Achievement. Whether seeking health, fitness, intellectual goals, or financial or social success or political accomplishment, strive to achieve your individual ambitions. Cooperate with other innovators and optimists to reach goals both personal and global.
5. Diversity. Promote human efforts to grow and adapt to an ever-changing universe. Tolerate people of all schools of thought that do not seek to limit the extent or variety of your achievement. Discourage any attempts to impose will or ideas through coercion.
6. Evolution. These principles should evolve, in order to address the needs of future Transhumanity; but resist any change in the principles that limits Transhuman activity.
These principles sound as good as motherhood and apple pie, but they deserve a closer look. The first point seems to make "Trancend" a goal of self-actualization and self-realization. Self-realization seems to be a restatement of Socrates' dictum, "Know thyself", and as such seems very good. It seems to me that an important aspect of self-realization is to know your limits. For example, if I'm standing on the top of the Empire State Building, and I want to get to the bottom quickly, it is important to accept the fact that I if I just step off, then the consequences are not very conducive to my survival. On the other hand, what if I have a parachute? Or (a few years from now) what if I've redesigned my body into a T-1000 Terminator so that I could survive the fall? In the first case, I may frighten a few people and break a city ordinance. In the second, if I land on a non-augmented human (perhaps an Amish tourist), the impact will kill him. In both cases, my own survival is not directly affected by my actions, but that of other people's is. Is this important? From a pragmatic viewpoint, it depends on how much I depend on them. The fact of the matter is that we are social animals, and our technology is a social construct. Therefore our survival depends on other people, most of whom we will never meet. Thus enlightened self-interest informs me that I should not endanger other people because of their limitations, even if my choices pose no danger to myself. But what if society mandates uncomfortable dress codes, allows economic slavery, penalizes creativity, and generally infringes on my freedom? In that case, how much should I respect it? It seems that this tension between society and the individual will exist in the Transhuman condition as much as our own.
The second Transhumanist principle of pragmatism is another wonderful sounding principle that seems nebulous up close. Pragmatic choices are always made in light of specific goals, but pragmatism is only a means to an end. If the end is not specified, someone could use pragmatic means to achieve evil goals.
In the Transhumanist Principles, the word "limit" is applied to five different fields: the biological, intellectual, the physical, cultural, and historical. The usage insinuates that we should rebel against all natural limits. Is the use of the word "natural" as in the laws of physics, or as in the nature of being human?
If it is used in the first sense, then is there any value to being "natural"? Are human beings "natural"? Thalomide and Chyrnoble should teach us to be humble with our tool-making intelligence, but as Peter Kohk points out, if human beings don't develop the technology to build a Space-faring civilization, the next KT meteor will wipe out 99% of the Terran species, including us. Such an interspecies "White Man's Burden" is as inescapable as it is heavy.
If the word natural is used in the second sense, then what does it really mean to rebel against what we are? As a tool-using species, it is human nature to manipulate our environment. This isn't a technological issue, but a metaphysical one, similar to the ones that philosophers engage when debating the essence, form, and nature of things. As finite primates, I suspect that we must recognize our inherent nature (e.g. social animals made of atoms and utilizing energy) and when we make decisions in accordance with these insights into our true character, we will be most effective in reaching our goals. But what ought those goals be? What is our true nature? How malleable is it, even if we can manipulate every atom in our bodies? What is it about us, that if we change it, then we are no longer humans? Putting a name on it (Transhuman) doesn't explain anything.
Everyone certainly works to achieve goals, but it is obvious that what most of the world thinks of transcendant goals for most of human history are not listed in the Transhumanist list. The goals listed are significantly materialistic, and in fact are quite low on Maslow's hierarchy. People respect heroes like Ghandi, Jesus, and Buddah because the goals they set touched a need far deeper than health, fitness, money, or power.
The science of ecology has shown that diversity aids survival. However, as David Brin points out, valuing diversity for its own stake is self-contradictory, and there are other values may be considerably more important than diversity (e.g. personal and species survival).
The Transhumanist Principles proclaim that coercion should be discouraged, which sounds like a worthwhile goal, but how is this to be accomplished? Is it to be taxed, with the military might of the government behind it? What would prevent a psychotic killer from running amok? What prevents an abortionist from destroying an 8-month-old fetus in one wing of a hospital while in another wing, a doctor tries to save the life of patient of the same age? Should an entity's personhood depend on whether or not he/she/it is wanted? On what grounds does a prosecutor charge a person who shoots abortionists? Is it because abortionists are old enough to vote for prosecutors? Nanotechnology will undoubtedly make birth control 100% effective, so the abortion issue should go away. But the Transhumanist Principles do not address the underlying issues involved in the abortion debate -- the definition of personhood and the inalienability of a human's right to life. These unresolved underlying issues will return with a vengeance. There have been 35 million abortions (i.e. failures of birth control) since Roe v. Wade, and this is with birth control methods that are generally more than 90% effective. It doesn't matter what one's beliefs about abortion are, something is wrong with this picture, and I am afraid that the emergence of Transhumans will magnify the confusion.
A Transhumanist position against anti-humanism also seems commendable, but it contradicts the last point of evolving with no limits on Transhuman activity. What if Transhumans mutate in to a form of anti-humanism? Unless everyone becomes Transhuman (some people will refuse for emotional and/or religious reasons), what happens to the ones who stay behind? Will they become beloved pets? Or legally protected endangered species that can be poached with little consequences?
Finally, the above Transhumanist principles seem very self-referential - they don't say very much because so much is left undefined.
Steps to the emergence of Transhomo Sapiens.
In order to pave the way for Transhomo Sapiens, we must be able to augment and rebuild ourselves in a number of different ways. The steps on the way to becoming Transhuman involve the human-directed assembly or growth of new person-like entities including:
One particular bio-enhancement is the ability to live longer with more youthful bodies -- a goal which has been drawing closer as medical technology learns more about how the human body works at a molecular level. An additional advantage of achieving this goal is that not only do we get to build the first Transhuman, but we might also get to become one.
As psychoactive drugs are designed for particular mental diseases, it is natural to ask, where does the disease end, and where does the personality begin? If you underwent a treatment that permanently removed a severe tendency to ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), would the resultant person really be you? What if you were psychologically disturbed because of a childhood or prenatal trauma? Can we simply remove the memory of the trauma, or must we do a lot more in order to heal someone? If we follow the former option, then we would need to also remove the natural reaction to the trauma. But given the holographic nature of the brain, this means adjusting billions of neurons. Will you still be you after such an adjustment?
Transhumanism is obviously an outgrowth of humanism, so it would be worthwhile to examine some of the issues surrounding ordinary humanism. Even though humanism is derived from the joining of Greek and Judeo-Christian values, the Catholic Church has been a tireless critic of some aspects of humanistic philosophy for hundreds of years. So some of her theologians have had a lot of time to think about some of these issues, and their reasoning may be instructive. Currently, they have only addressed, with mixed results, three of the steps toward the emergence of Transhumans.
Mother Teresa had a pacemaker, leading one to infer that the Church does not consider bio-enhancement intrinsically wrong, although some methods may be considered illicit (e.g. treating Parkinson's disease with aborted fetal tissue, or transplanting the organs of condemned criminals).
Cloning is considered immoral for the same reason that birth control is condemned -- it drastically separates the unitive and procreative aspects of the ultimate physical expression of love. This depends on the Aristotelian and Thomastic views of "natural law", which determines the "nature" of a thing by looking at it's purpose, presupposing one who "gives purpose." At any rate, it is not clear why this separation is "intrinsically disordered."
A recently approved document, Identity and Status of the Human Embryo has stated that "The embryo is a human being from the moment of conception and should be treated as such." The document regards as ''aberrant and morally illicit'' the in vitro production of embryos for commercial or industrial use, human cloning, the use of human embryos to produce ''monsters'', and the production of animal-human ''hybrids'' by transferring human embryos into animal wombs and vice versa. The Church has often spoken against in vitro fertilization (the source of most frozen embryos), again because of it separates the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, but she maintains that all frozen embryos should be ''guaranteed the chance of life.'' Pope John Paul recently spoke on the ''inalienable rights'' of frozen embryos and said that ''the fairest answer to the question of whether or not these unwanted embryos should be killed came from the German parliament, which proclaimed the embryo's right to live in 1991.'' This indicates that the Catholic Church seems to have accepted cryonics without a blink, contrary to the deathoid prejudices of many Christian fundamentalists. Then again, after apologizing about her role in the Galileo affair, she also seems to have accepted most of Darwinian evolution, while holding fast to the beliefs on faith and morals that she has taught for 2000 years. This combination of flexibility and stability is unusual for any human organization, much less for the world's oldest. Then again, perhaps her longevity may be explained by it. There may be important lessons here when human life spans reach thousands of years.
With any issue, it is the unstated assumptions that usually hide the most serious errors. For example, Meadow's famous "Limits to Growth" computer program predicted the collapse of human civilization by 1990, after assuming that the human environment stopped at the upper edge of the atmosphere, and that technological progress would stop. What are the unstated assumptions of the Transhuman condition?
Transhumanism as Religion
Anders Sandberg points out that Transhumanism is currently a religion:
The transhumanist memes often bind to memetic receptors normally linked to religious memes, at least the typical western monotheistic religions. Both types of memes have similar baits: the promise of a brighter future, health, prosperity, freedom, happiness, immortality and eventual transcendence. The difference is mainly how these changes should be achieved and what implications they have. Both memes protect the host from many negative emotions by providing an explanation for things and most importantly a future goal... this is both good news and bad news for transhumanism. Religoid memes have shown themselves to be extremely successful. But they also often promote irrationality and mindless acceptance of the meme. And transhumanism runs the risk of being subjected to convergent evolution, to end up a religion.
He seems to say this as if it were a bad thing. He does not seem to realize that any belief that is accepted without proof is, essentially religious dogma, and that it is impossible for even a robot to navigate across a room without the assistance of many non-provable assumptions about reality.
Sandberg also claims that Christianity and Transhumanism don't necessarily contradict each other, especially in the format of Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point. The idea that the entire universe will eventually become one mind seems ludicrous until we realize that with molecular nanotechnology we will be able to transform planets into Utility Fog, and stars into Dyson Spheres. So from a scientific point of view, the idea of a human-derived civilization reconstructing the universe into the Omega Point seems plausible, if not inevitable. However, the Omega Point is also identified with God, so our constructing it would be re-making God in our own image, and/or ultimately becoming God. Unfortunately, the three monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, claim that Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden for attempting to do just that. For that reason alone, they will not embrace the pantheistic hubris of the Omega Point.
What is the logical conclusion of these assumptions? As Richard Neuhaus put it, every atrocity begins with an error. Therefore, the implementation of any self-contradictory philosophy will result in disaster. Stalin believed that human beings were basically good, but that society was corrupting them. He also believed that the end justified the means. Because of these two incorrect beliefs, he liquidated 20 million of his own people. Pol Pot shared similar beliefs and butchered half his own people in the killing fields of Cambodia. More to the point, another group of people shared with Transhumanism the idea of building a post-human race. They called their proposed descendants the Master Race, and today, no other group has earned itself such a secure title to evil. The emotional overtones of Nazism is so powerful that even mentioning it causes people to stop thinking. But in fact, it should make each group reflect on how their own philosophy may be in some ways similar to what the Nazis believed. It may be most useful to separate the philosophy of Nazism from its nationalism and its anti-Semitism, both of which contributed to its popularity. What remains may be more easily compared to beliefs popular globally in the 1930s, and even today. If the Transhuman becomes a hive entity, then it would be very similar to the Nazi idea of the fatherland, and the communist idea of the State. This does not mean that it is wrong to sacrifice for one's group -- such self-sacrifice is beneficial for everyone under many conditions. However, the error occurs when every individual is given a lower priority than the idealized conglomerate, when in actuality it is the group that exists for the benefit of the individual in a synergistic relationship.
Another, more serious error that the Nazis made was differentiating between various grades of humanity, based on their capabilities and genetic endowment. Will augmented people make the same differentiation? Probably -- it is an easy temptation to fall into. When I competed in the arena as an All American wrestler, it was difficult not to look down on the "poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." The feeling of superiority is a very comforting feeling, especially after losing something of value. In the case of the German people after the humiliation of WWI, many were probably helpless to the seduction of feeling superior. Will a collapse of Social Security around 2010 have the same impact? Will the crisis McKendree mentioned earlier set up a fatal scenario?
The closest America has come to publicly admitting Nazi-like behavior is My Lai. In People of the Lie, Peck examined the atrocities there and concluded that his study " revealed the operation of gross intellectual laziness and pathological narcissism at every level." From the point of view of a psychiatrist, Peck has described the pathology of evil, and Transhumanism has no defense against it. Specifically, evil begins with a person's narcissistic tendencies that are warped by an over-riding fear of criticism. This delusion of perfection prevents self-correction, and results in the person lying first to themselves, and then to everyone else. After the lies come fraud, abuse, and murder. Peck's prescription consists of loving the person enough to tell him or her the truth, usually employing psychological techniques. Bear also alludes to the universal necessity of psychological help for every human being, and his heroine searches for truth, but Transhumanism seems to avoid objective truth. This is fatal, not only because science depends on assuming the existence of an objective truth, but also because ideas have consequences and technology amplifies them. The concept of transhumanism encompasses both eye-opening ideas and mind-blowing technology. In Terminator 2, the T-800 tells John Conner, "You have in you the power to destroy yourselves." But by the end of the movie, the T-800 learns the value of human life. The question is, when humans have such difficulty remembering it, how will the Transhumans learn it?
More insistently than any other issue, Transhumanism challenges our notion of what it means to be human. But we must answer another question: "Is Transhumanism good?"
FAST (French Advances in Science and Technology) is published by the Science and Technology Office of the Embassy of France to the United States, and by its CNRS Washington office.
TINY TIN TELLTALES
A search which began earlier this decade in Toulouse's Laboratory of Coordination Chemistry for smaller and smaller forms of tin oxide is about to turn into a brisk trade in nanosensors for a wide array of industrial uses. A team from the lab discovered a way to synthesize tin oxide particles 20 nanometers across in ultra-thin layers deposited on a chip. A series of industrial relationships led finally to the creation of a Swiss firm, Microsens, which has turned these particles into tiny sensors as contact with various gases prompts a change in their conductivity. By mixing in other ingredients such as palladium, cobalt or vanadium, researchers have been able to detect methane as well as carbon and nitrogen oxides. These "thin-layer" sensors should be strong competition for the
Japanese thick-layer sensors--until now the only diminutive sensor in town--as they are fifty times smaller than these bulky (1 micrometer) predecessors. Smaller sensors mean a larger percentage of the surface open to contact with the suspected gas, and therefore better detection. In addition, Microsens has perfected a micro-syringe for sensor installation thus making it possible to place several different types of captors on the same chip without fear of contamination. Uses are foreseen in a variety of fields where a controlled environment is desirable (houses, cars) or for testing uncontrollable ones (the air we breathe). (L'Usine Nouvelle, June 10, p81, Hamid Metadjer)
FAST --Paris - June 16, 1999 - Issue #98
NOT ONE BUT TWO GIANT METEORITES
French geologists' scrutiny of satellite photos of Limousin, on the western slopes of the Massif Central identified traces of a tremendous impact were found emanating in wavelike patterns up to 100 km. from Rochechouart. Afterwards, an undergraduate student in geology, who couldn't keep his eyes off the photos, spied a sudden disruption of the pattern to the northeast. Working with him, two established scientists (involved in the original detection) have posited a double impact based on another faint set of rings centered on Bizeneuille well to the east, with the disruption being exactly what one would expect if say two pebbles were dropped near each other in a pond. It seems now likely that both were part of the already known "catena" or string of giant meteorites that slammed into the planet 215 million years ago in a belt stretching along the 23rd parallel from Canada (site of the biggest crater) to the Ukraine. The ones landing in France are now estimated to be the largest, about 15 km. in diameter, and the Bizeneuille discovery is being accepted as the sixth in what was previously thought to be a five-meteorite string. (Sciences Avenir, June, p131-4, Caroline Idoux)
FAST - Paris - June 17, 1999 - Issue #99
METEORITES MAY BE LURKING UNNOTICED AMONGST US
One of the observations causing those who study the possibility of extra-terrestrial life to scratch their heads is the glaring absence of any meteorites composed of sedimentary rock. All fourteen meteorites from collections around the world which are thought to be from Mars are of igneous rock, all the more surprising in light of new information brought to earth by Pathfinder confirming the past existence of water on the red planet. A sedimentary meteorite would be a great find for it might contain signs of life, as such rock is known to do. A CNRS scientist has been wondering if in fact sedimentary meteorites look completely different from typical, black-crusted meteorites and thus are perhaps lying around incognito. This reasoning led to the idea of passing a few hunks of sedimentary rock through atmospheric entry to see what they look like on the other side. Next September several stones strapped to the heat shield of a scientific satellite will go into orbit on a Russian rocket and endure the transforming experience of reentry. The team responsible for the research project (named Stone) is eager to compare the changes occurring to a slice of Italian dolomite and one of Austrian basalt. One hypothesis would have the sedimentary dolomite changing less than the igneous rock and providing useful tips then for turning up a real sedimentary meteorite, maybe even teeming with fossils of proto-Martians. (Sciences et Avenir, July, p91, Dominique Padirac)
FAST Paris - June 30, 1999 - Issue #102