Transhumans and Post-Humans

“The defining idea of the coming era is actually the loss of an idea we never had to worry about losing before. It is the decay of belief in the specialness of being human.”
Jaron Lanier

“I want to make a computer that will be proud of me.”
Danny Hillis

“The important thing is not to be human but to be humane.”
Nick Bostrom

At one time artificial intelligence (AI) was heralded as the breakthrough that would enable thinking machines more powerful and capable than humans. AI stumbled as a discipline; its promise was repeatedly denied. In part this was because of the lack of sufficiently powerful technologies; in part it was a lack of understanding of how to create advanced intelligence. With the failure of AI still fresh in our minds, it is difficult to propose, yet again, that advanced thinking machines will come to dominate our world.

But they will.

Very soon we will have to come to terms with machines that are “smarter” than we are. These machines will be self-determining; they will build their successors. A new line of evolution will have occurred. This rise of machine intelligence presents some extraordinary questions for us. What will these machines will think of us? What we say to each other? And how?

LinkLink: How to Build an Intelligent Machine (from Jeff Hawkins)

While the work of Hans Moravec (robots, mind uploading), Vernor Vinge (the initial description of the singularity) and others paved the way, the classic expression of machine intelligence and the post-biological future is The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) by Ray Kurzweil.

Ray Kurzweil the SingularityWhile the examples and the predictions may be dated or unfulfilled, the concepts at the core of the book still form the basic argument for machine intelligence:

“within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition power, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself.”

Kurzweil’s vision of machine intelligence does not displace humans as much as redefine them:

“This is not because humans will have become what we think of as machines today, but rather machines will have progressed to be like humans and beyond.”

In this post-biological world there will be “no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.” Those of us who remain “unenhanced biological humanity” will be at a considerable disadvantage. In part of Kurzweil’s argument is simply about sheer processing horsepower (to use a wonderfully anachronistic metaphor in this context) and miniaturization: “what used to fit in a building, and now fits in your pocket, will fit inside a blood cell” (Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind, 2012).

Kurzweil dismisses debates about consciousness as a stumbling block to accepting machine intelligence and predicts that:

“machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people when they speak of their qualia [qualia = ideas, experiences, feelings]. They will exhibit the full range of subtle, familiar emotional cues; they will make us laugh and cry; and they will get mad at us if we say that we don’t believe that they are conscious … We will come to accept that they are conscious persons. My own leap of faith is this: Once machines do succeed in being convincing when they speak of their qualia and conscious experiences, they will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

To those who would say that this means the end of human identity, Kurzweil responds by asserting that “identity is preserved through continuity of the pattern of information that makes us us.” Nick Bostrom (The Transhumanist FAQ, 2003) puts it less technically:

“It is not our human shape or the details of our current human biology that define what is valuable about us, but rather our aspirations and ideals, our experiences, and the kinds of lives we lead.”

The argument for post-humans (machine intelligence; the singularity) as the platform for post-literacy challenges our concept of what it means to be a human and broadens our definition of intelligence. It requires that evolution become our responsibility:

“Evolutions shortcomings ought to be viewed as our opportunities. By systematically considering the limitations of the evolutionary process that created the human organism, we can identify promising possibilities for enhancing it, using interventions that are feasible today or may become feasible in the relatively near future.” (Nick Bostrom, “How to Enhance Human Beings” in Brockman, What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science, 2009).

The distinction between human and machine will dissolve slowly and incrementally. We will move knowingly and unexpectedly into this future state of evolution. And, like the evolution of writing systems from crude markings to transformative tools, we will have nurtured a new capacity and capability that transcends reading and writing. We will have become post-literate.


4 Responses to “Transhumans and Post-Humans”

  1. etresoft December 28, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

    How interesting…

    I had just read a story on Jaron Lanier and was looking for more information on “post-symbolic communication”. That phrase reminded me of Beyond Literacy and I found myself, by pure coincidence, at Beyond Literacy.

    Lanier has some very interesting ideas that seem very pertinent to the iSchool. To think I almost missed him. Almost.

  2. Stuart May 7, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    Something that this section has made me think about is the relationship between the post human and how that could separate individuals. Water J. Ong describes how literacy and oratory separate through the integration of a new technology that must be laboriously learned saying that “writing divides or distances more evidently and effectively as its form becomes more abstract…”. In this case cognitive implants, augmentations, and conscious biological changes might have similar divisible qualities, as a person who wants these augmentations would have to undergo the process of integrating that into their body, and then learn how to function seamlessly with those new parts. The integration and adaptation of new technology and biology could essentially function as an abstract form of literacy. The foreign mechanical augmentations could present one line of division, but the biological changes could also be another line of division, with those who choose to change the way their own brain functions, or what their DNA says. By creating this separation between those with augmentations/implants other individuals, the idea of the trans-human begins to form. The separation between those with the biological changes and other individuals the idea that the post-human forms as well. But these two sections of trans-human and post-human are not mutually exclusive, and will bleed into each other as well as bleed into the human. While these new lines of division form we will have to see which groups become dominant and which become subordinate, or whether this sort of gradient forms at all.

    • Michael Ridley May 13, 2013 at 10:44 am #

      As I read your comment I couldn’t help but think of the widespread discussion recently about the impact of Google Glass. It is still early days but this augmentation is likely to be quite far reaching. While not at the level of a biological augmentation (implants), it will set up distinctions among those with the technology (and the underlying interconnections and sharing) and those without. I think people using Google Glass are going to think differently and interact with others differently too. A small step towards the ideas you discuss.

  3. Jenna September 3, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    The thought of not being able to distinguish between a human and machine is very eerie to me. At this point the machines I use like my iphone or computer are very clearly not human. I suppose if and when this transition into post literacy and post human occurs it will be less of a scary thing and more of something that is expected. I don’t like thinking about a post literate world honestly, but it seems as if it is unavoidable at this point.

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