Monday, August 06, 2007

IT'S HARD TO BE, HARD TO BE HUMAN AGAIN. Sadlynaut Brad has discovered vintage chatter from the "transhumanist" community -- those forward-looking folks who see the heads-in-jars on "Futurama" and sigh longingly:
If your head is cryogenically frozen today, you will be alive in 2100.

Your mind is a pattern of activity in your brain. The ability to induce that pattern is encoded primarily in your neurons — in which neurons are of which type, and which neurons are connected together. Freezing a brain today in liquid nitrogen destroys many things, but seems to preserve this type/connection info. By 2100 we should be able to scan this info from a frozen brain. If we scan your brain and then build and run a computer simulation of it, someone who remembers being you would wake up and feel alive...
Go ahead and laugh -- many more will take his place! The TransVision 2007 conference convened in Chicago last week. On the scene, Reason reporter Ronald Bailey found participants "wondering if it is more appropriate to refering to the transfer of your mind to a silicon substrate 'uploading' or 'downloading.'" Cryonics was also on the agenda:
Shannon Vyff, the author of the children's book 21st Century Kids and self-described "proselytizing immortalist"... became interested in cryonics when she was experiencing a high-risk pregnancy when she was 21 years-old. She has signed up her children as well, but Vyff says, "I don't tell them that it will work. I tell them that it's a chance."
Further reportage from New City Chicago:
Finally, a speaker approaches the stage to introduce the man of the hour, and after a short, bizarre video featuring a "Star Trek"/James Bond mash-up to transhumanist lyrics like "We can live forever and make everything better!" [William] Shatner takes the stage.
Another keen follower of the man-machine movement is Ole Perfesser Glenn Reynolds. A few years back the "transhumanist libertarian" Reynolds told us he found that "the Singularity is something to take seriously" -- the Singularity being a transhumanist re-creation myth -- and foresaw "the creation of many millions (and eventually billions) of individuals with powers that would have been until recently regarded as godlike..." Today he notices that William Gibson has grown leery of predicting the future, given the pace of change, and asks, "Does this mean we're already into the Singularity?... If the next 10 or 15 years is that unpredictable, and it probably is, then I'd say we're already into the singularity. "

There are many different kinds of wishful thinking. Who among us has not at times hopefully surmised, despite what reason and experience have taught us, that our negative actions may yet lead to good because some unrelated event would somehow alter our chances of success? More than once I have foolishly concluded, in matters of relationship and career and even simple physics, that things would go my way this time because of a shift in the zeitgeist or luck or my own personal development; yet the odds always seem to favor history and the house.

Similarly, it would seem the Perfesser expects the burgeoning technology of our time to deliver unto him an exalted android immortality. That he might expect technology to improve his life is only logical, but why would he expect it also to lift him out of the realm of the merely human? Technological revolutions have come and gone, yet man has remained man. Why should the tech advances of the Perfesser's time alter that seemingly deathless formula?

The ancients would call hubris. I, being a damned modern, have a different idea. I have followed the Perfesser's devotion to the war in Iraq as a war on terror, and seen where it has led. I notice also what the war has done to our traditional ideas of humanity. The New Yorker recently reported on the offshore torture operations of the American intelligence community. One example was the interrogation used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who, after months in U.S. custody, confessed to several grave offenses, including both the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Richard Reid's attempted shoe-bombing, the murder of Daniel Pearl, and the 2002 Bali nightclub explosion. The New Yorker reported how these confessions were brought about:
According to sources, Mohammed said that, while in C.I.A. custody, he was placed in his own cell, where he remained naked for several days. He was questioned by an unusual number of female handlers, perhaps as an additional humiliation. He has alleged that he was attached to a dog leash, and yanked in such a way that he was propelled into the walls of his cell. Sources say that he also claimed to have been suspended from the ceiling by his arms, his toes barely touching the ground. The pressure on his wrists evidently became exceedingly painful...

Mohammed is said to have described being chained naked to a metal ring in his cell wall for prolonged periods in a painful crouch. (Several other detainees who say that they were confined in the Dark Prison have described identical treatment.) He also claimed that he was kept alternately in suffocating heat and in a painfully cold room, where he was doused with ice water. The practice, which can cause hypothermia, violates the Geneva Conventions, and President Bush’s new executive order arguably bans it...

The inquiry source said that most of the Poland detainees were waterboarded, including Mohammed. According to the sources familiar with the Red Cross report, Mohammed claimed to have been waterboarded five times. Two former C.I.A. officers who are friends with one of Mohammed’s interrogators called this bravado, insisting that he was waterboarded only once. According to one of the officers, Mohammed needed only to be shown the drowning equipment again before he “broke.”
Etc. A human being, of the pre-transhumanist sort, might wonder -- as even some U.S. officials quoted by the New Yorker have -- whether Mohammed's "confessions" were merely an attempt to escape further torture. But one who has left his humanity behind might only be expected to say, "Does anyone besides the liberal media and the Far Left actually care how we treated this murdering bastard? We could tie the sob to a cross and take him around the country to town squares everywhere and give the kiddies a whack at him with a hardball for a quarter a pop, for all I care. And they'd get a stuffed animal if they nail him in the manly bits ... before we hang or shoot him on the National Mall." Or "i can't hear u/i am singing the theme/from green acres."

The Perfesser, whose alleged opposition to torture has always been more potential than kinetic, may have deduced that the best way out of this whole human conundrum might be an upload into a powerful computer with a lifelike silicone shell. Physically he would at least as comfortable as he is in his Toyota Highlander. If he needs adventure, he can have images uploaded from his digital archive. And from there the traditional "bugs" of humanity -- among them conscience, justice, and fellow-feeling -- may be in time forgotten.


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