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The concept of the Transhuman: human, the self, consciousness and their effects on the law
December 13, 2005 5:43 PM   Subscribe

The first Transhuman Conference On the Law of Transhuman Persons: Whether or not you believe humans are set to evolve into gods, or AI is destined to achieve self-awareness the idea of the Transhuman is a thought provoking concept. Philosophers have debated the nature of the self, of the human for millennia. Is it time to start drafting new laws to govern all possible sentient beings on this planet? or is it all just a science of fiction? a comfortable humanist illusion?
posted by 0bvious (37 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hedonistic Imperative is David Pearce's take on future of the human species.
posted by Gyan at 5:50 PM on December 13, 2005


See Also: Singularity
posted by blue_beetle at 6:57 PM on December 13, 2005


I hope that transhumans have evolved the web design sense beyond 1996 and choose to avoid Melbourne, Florida. If they do that, they are free to enslave me. Mere humans have already done so.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 7:15 PM on December 13, 2005


Mere appearances do not bother the Transhumans...

From their perspective that webpage probably looks like the nose of God
posted by 0bvious at 7:27 PM on December 13, 2005


transhumans don't need the web. you are all so going to die painfully; or maybe just turned into scientologists for entertainment purposes. either way is good.
posted by dorian at 7:28 PM on December 13, 2005


I consider MetaFilter a fledgling transhuman organism.
posted by Eideteker at 7:38 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]


cool
posted by Smedleyman at 7:41 PM on December 13, 2005


Does a Talkie Toaster have rights?
posted by meehawl at 7:45 PM on December 13, 2005


I thought at first that this might be some Kurzweil-related goofiness, but upon reading the "Meaning of Transhuman" section of their bitchin' webpage, I realized they're about 8 knotches lower on the credibility pole than ol' Kurz. How did I come to this? The following excerpt says it all; "Julian Huxley....defined the term 'transhumanism' (T.S. Elliott and Dante had also mentioned versions of the word)".

It's pathetic enough to invoke the names of brilliant artists like Dante and Eliot in a crass attempt to give credence to your own unique brand of web-based batshittery, but at least have the decency to spell the artists' names properly.
posted by Lee Marvin at 7:53 PM on December 13, 2005


I don't see a huge need to begin considering how law will have to adjust to a world that is different in the way that these folks anticipate. It will just muddle along, as it has through the last hundred years or so when there's been many changes in how people live and are governed by law.

"Set to" and "destined to" are expressions I won't use in this context. But I do think that AI is possible, and I do think that the longer we manage to survive without global catastrophe the more likely that we will change ourselves in radical ways. Particularly with regard to AI, I anticipate a long lag from when science accepts that an artificial consciousness has been created and when the law will agree. There will be serious ethical problems during that period and although I don't think I will live to see it, I worry about it.

The contemporary model for how many of these things will play out is, I think, most likely that of animal rights. The liberal tradition, especially with regard to law, has continuously expanded the concept of what kinds of people, and now what kinds of life, are to be thought to have "rights". I think the argument over the rights of AIs will make the current (and future) argument over animal rights look like a kumbaya sing-along.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:56 PM on December 13, 2005


the Cylons don't care about your silly laws.
posted by spiderwire at 8:01 PM on December 13, 2005


I'll go on record saying I don't want to use the same bathroom as some human-digital camcorder-spiny anteater hybrid. If God wanted us all to use the same bathroom he wouldn't have given them LCD displays. Or prehensile tongues.
posted by TimeFactor at 8:09 PM on December 13, 2005


Don't get me wrong here... I didn't post this because I agree with its overly optimistic babble. I tend to hold the opinion that if humankind does survive long enough to 'evolve' to a next stage then that stage will be utterly beyond any conscious control on our part.

The last link in my post balances things out a bit... please give it a read if you haven't already. The full book it was taken from (Straw Dogs by John Gray) is more thought-provoking than an infinite web-forum of transhumans.
posted by 0bvious at 8:17 PM on December 13, 2005


Then, of course, if a homo superior does come into being, in competition with us, by a standard rule of evolution, it would supplant our species unless we could destroy it.

I am reminded of an interesting survey of ordinary people of what genetic traits they would like their children to have, if such traits could be manipulated. At first they usually wanted beauty and intelligence, but when they were questioned further, many decided that they would like their children to have some feline or canine traits.

Why? Because people tend to get along better with cats and dogs than they do with each other.

I guess the future is for the furries.
posted by kablam at 8:27 PM on December 13, 2005


Transhumanists/singularity types have always annoyed me. The "science" they talk about that proves we're all going to change sounds a hell of a lot like what Alchemists used to talk about. Also, like Alchemists, I think a huge motivation for the movement is fear of death.

Wake me up when that thing that's supposed to happen tommorow actually happens.
posted by JZig at 8:28 PM on December 13, 2005


Unless catastrophe befalls our technology, it's an inevitability. I think it's one of the most interesting philosophical conundrums as it tackles the most fundamental question of how self is distinguished from others. Also, because in a since, it's already here. I'm a transhumanist because I'm using a computer (a human tool) and language (a human tool).
posted by iamck at 8:28 PM on December 13, 2005


Oh my, who in his right mind would be afraid of death?

By all means, my brave friends, die at once!
posted by bshock at 8:35 PM on December 13, 2005


""They're made out of meat." 
"Meat?" 
"Meat. They're made out of meat." 
"Meat?" 
"There's no doubt about it. We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, probed them all the way through. They're completely meat." 

"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars." 
"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them.  The signals come from machines." 

"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact." 
"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines." 
"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat." 
"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they're made out of meat." 

"Maybe they're like the Orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage." 
"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take too long. Do you have any idea the life span of meat?" 

"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the Weddilei.  A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside." 
"Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads like the Weddilei.  But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through." 

"No brain?" 
"Oh, there is a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat!" 
"So... what does the thinking?" 
"You're not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat." 

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!" 
"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?" 
"Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat." 
"Finally, Yes. They are indeed made out meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years." 

"So what does the meat have in mind?" 
"First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the universe, contact other sentients, swap ideas and information. The usual." 
"We're supposed to talk to meat?" 
"That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there? Anyone home?' That sort of thing." 
"They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?" 
"Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat." 

"I thought you just told me they used radio." 
"They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how  when you slap or flap meat it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other.  They can even sing by squirting air through their meat." 

"Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?" 
"Officially or unofficially?" 
"Both." 

"Officially, we are required to contact, welcome, and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in the quadrant, without prejudice, fear, or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.""

Many thanks to Terri Bisson
posted by troutfishing at 8:45 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]


kablam: Then, of course, if a homo superior does come into being, in competition with us, by a standard rule of evolution, it would supplant our species unless we could destroy it.

Oh, not necessarily. For one thing, intelligent beings aren't subject to normal evolution, because we conduct artificial selection. We keep all kinds of things alive that wouldn't survive in nature, for a variety of reasons.

It's also possible that the transition to posthumans will involve upgrading current humans instead of replacing them. This isn't necessarily good (Borg scenario) but can be.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:07 PM on December 13, 2005


I like how much of what constitutes "transhumanism" is equivalent to the lifestyle of wealthy west-coast wankers.

We will always be human. It's just that our definition of what that means will gradually change as we do. My concept of the human essence is, in all probability, radically different from that of a French peasant in 1130 CE or a Sumerian noble in 2100 BCE.

Thus, to be "transhuman" or "post-human" is fundamentally a state of contrast with regular old-style humans. In other words, trans/post-humanism carries with it an implicit assumption that there will still be an underclass that they can hopefully shit dry powdery fecal condensate on from their orbital rings. It is ahistorical, naive and elitist tripe blabbed out by scientifically ignorant rich dipshits who think that paying $3600 for a fucking biofeedback machine someow makes them more evolved than the barista serving up their latte.
posted by xthlc at 9:17 PM on December 13, 2005


Then, of course, if a homo superior does come into being, in competition with us, by a standard rule of evolution, it would supplant our species unless we could destroy it.

Not really. Monkeys are still around, and were neither destroyed by us (some aren't doing so well, granted) nor supplanted by our development.

...they've evolved too, just not in the same directions as us. Evolution isn't really a zero-sum game; we just think it is because that makes us feel better about obliterating anything we don't find immediately useful.
posted by aramaic at 9:45 PM on December 13, 2005


"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"
"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?"


Thanks for reminding me of that, trout. An old favorite of mine.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:03 PM on December 13, 2005


xthlc writes "It is ahistorical, naive and elitist tripe blabbed out by scientifically ignorant rich dipshits who think that paying $3600 for a fucking biofeedback machine someow makes them more evolved than the barista serving up their latte."

Wow. That's one hell of a sentence. Good show!

Oh, and thanks for the story, troutfishing. I'd never read it before.
posted by brundlefly at 11:10 PM on December 13, 2005


Nobody's mentioned Ken MacLeod's dismissive description of the Singularity as "the Rapture for nerds"?
posted by russilwvong at 12:13 AM on December 14, 2005


Transhuman, huh...chances are we humans would do this the same way we have always done this. If we can subjugate whatever we build or find, we will. If it can subjugate us, then our rights are going to be decided (explicitly or implicitly) by it. If it's a draw, we'll start worrying about "rights". I think the final link has the more accurate story: humans aren't as likely to be driven by ideals and plans as we are by the demands of the moment. The moment that non-human "transhuman" entities show up, the demand will be for profit first.
posted by agent at 1:27 AM on December 14, 2005


Do you believe that numbers have moral value? When it comes down to it an AI, as concievable today, is simply a very large number.
Transhumanists and other technologist types have simply ignored the fact that any entity which is isomorphic to a Turing Machine probably not sufficient to implement a mind. Why this is so and how we conclude this is a topic for philosophical debate, but the important thing for this conversation is that this is a major hurdle for transhumanist ideology. Is uploading your mind into a computer/AI is the existential equivelant of having a statue in your likeness placed on your tombstone?
posted by Osmanthus at 3:51 AM on December 14, 2005


personally i do believe that consciousness can come from a turing machine (all be it an incredibly complex one). there is no evidence i have yet come across which makes me think the human brain is not just such a machine. yet, i see where you are coming from.

the ai we have now is simply based on numbers of calculations and rarely surprises when it comes to its processing techniques. the human brain, and the countless more 'primitive' brains which came before it, had literally billions of years to test and implement new routines, new ways to process reality.

the belief in the singularity is incredibly short sighted. the iceberg of reality below the waterline is not just largely invisible to our view, i believe it is almost impossible for us to comprehend
posted by 0bvious at 5:12 AM on December 14, 2005


"Transhumanists and other technologist types have simply ignored the fact that any entity which is isomorphic to a Turing Machine probably not sufficient to implement a mind."

Oh, baloney. You're begging the question. I don't really know, or care, what "transhumanists" think, but among those of us who think AI is possible, there are many who fully are aware of what you're terming a problem and nevertheless do not believe that it is. It might well be the case that consciousness is much more difficult and subtle than we believe and is not comparable to a Turing machine—but to assert that this is manifestly the case and conclude that you've won the argument is not an argument, it's a statement of bias.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:24 AM on December 14, 2005


Here here! (to be spoken in a heavy British accent)

[I love the phrase 'baloney' by the way. This, however, does not work in a British accent]

If the next level of evolution is 'trans-human' what does that make us? Maybe we should rename ourselves 'trans-simian'
posted by 0bvious at 6:18 AM on December 14, 2005


"0bvious" your counter-argument, in this case truly ironically, is a logical fallacy of the form

a) There is no evidence i have yet come across which makes me think there is not a flying, invisible, dragon in the sky.

You imply that, because of the presence of a), you can safely assume that there is a flying invisible dragon, or in your case, that the brain is a machine.

Besides, I think with the recent advances in genetic engineering, a transhuman is more likely to be a biological oddity rather than a silicon synthetic. Or, rather than replacing an entire brain with a computer, embedded chips will enhance our current abilities, such as my hearing aids do mine.

Ha! Ha! I'm a transhuman! I got digital hearing! /Nelson
posted by Slothrop at 8:17 AM on December 14, 2005


"You imply that, because of the presence of a), you can safely assume that there is a flying invisible dragon, or in your case, that the brain is a machine."

The irony is even deeper than you realize.

You're hoisting yourself by your own petard as you can clearly see by restating your reasoning in terms of theism and atheism. Whether this mode of argument is fallacious or not is dependent upon which side of the fence the burden of truth is found.

You and obvious have both implicitly asserted opposing default assumptions without supporting them by argument. In this sense by itself it's not possible to say which one of you is guilty of fallacious reasoning. However, it seems to me that your example of "invisible flying dragons" alludes—unwittingly on your part—to a preference for default assumptions that are physical rather than metaphysical, for default assumptions that expects causes to be fewer rather than greater (a la Occam's Razor). In your example, a world with a flying invisible dragon is a more complex world without justification.

So, too, then is a world with an invisible, "living" qualia that is necessary for Mind and where mechanistic, material processes are insufficient.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:37 AM on December 14, 2005


I've always been confused why people think consciousness is present in "biological" materials, but not in "synthetic" materials - on the atomic level, what's the difference?
posted by iamck at 9:20 AM on December 14, 2005


Osmanthus, I'll play the technologist here. We have not ignored the possibility that AI is undecidable, and therefore not something a Turing machine can compute. We don't know exactly how brains work yet, and until we do, we can not prove that strong AI (human-level intelligence) is intractable. Does this mean that we should wait until neuroscience completely reveals the mechanisms of intelligence to start working on strong AI? No; consider that ideas of computability were co-developed in AI. The theory needed to prove or disprove the computability of human brain function may come from strong AI research.

This assumes that the goal of AI is to achieve human-like intelligence, whatever that means. Suppose that human-like behavior in silicon is computationally intractable for the sake off argument. In a vaccuum this assumption does not preclude other types of computational intelligence. As far as the transhumanist implications of this, I'll refer back to my earlier snark.

As far as your straw man: would you believe that meat can perform arithmetic?
posted by agent at 12:33 PM on December 14, 2005


Belief based on ignorance is mysticism.
posted by Osmanthus at 4:12 PM on December 14, 2005


Ethereal Bligh & Slothrop - forgive my philosophical boo-boo. My typing brain and thinking brain are often out of sync (plus i never did pay that much attention in elementary logic classes, much to my present dismay)

It is in the study of emergence where most evidence for a decontruction of consciousness can be found. Incredible complexity falls from simple order.

iamck - I take it you are a Panpsychist then? I like the idea of panpsychism, that all things at some level are conscious, but the concept lends itself to mysticism and misunderstanding.

It is not the matter of the brain, or even the neurons within it, which is conscious, it is the relationships between the matter at the most fundamental level which causes the emergence of the processes we call consciousness. I don't think atoms are conscious in any way we would call conscious, but in reacting and reflexing with other matter (space-time/energy?) in the universe that atom manifests itself - the atom cannot be said to exist at all unless it has a feedback with its surroundings. get enough feedback between matter and a higher level of order can emerge.

the thoughts and feelings we associate with consciousness, the qualia of experience, are a semantic phenomenon. it is our language which gives these concepts meaning and nothing more. why anyone would think you need an organic structure for qualia to emerge is beyond me. a complex enough system made from silicon and working in binary must be able to produce similar results.

conscious reflexion is the most incredible thing the universe can do and yet I believe the inevitability of emergence makes consciousness nothing special

(for more on 'reflexive consciousness' check out the work of philosopher Max Velmans, here)
posted by 0bvious at 6:08 PM on December 14, 2005


0bvious : "like the idea of panpsychism, that all things at some level are conscious, but the concept lends itself to mysticism and misunderstanding. "

Panpsychism is one step closer than physicalism, IMHO, but ultimately still not the answer. What misunderstanding are you referring to?
posted by Gyan at 7:19 PM on December 14, 2005


E-Bligh, I'd feel the sting of a petard-hoisting if I had any idea how I turned the argument into a theistic/atheistic tilt. I was merely pointing out that 0bvious' argument pro the brain being a machine was in an illogical form and therefore somewhat ironic as an illogical form would be rather unmachinelike, no? I think 0bvious is on the ball, though and just made the argument as a slip-up.

I think perhaps you were reading quite a bit into my comments - the form of the fallacy is basically "I have found no evidence that not-X, so therefore I can assume X." In my Philosophy classes, X was often presented as "flying, invisible dragons" presumably to showcase the wit philosophers are famous for.

I then changed the mode of my comments (that part where I say "Besides") to say that it is my belief that rather than creating complete new machine brains, we will likely embed computers around our body to enhance abilities in much the way that an automobile uses... whatchacallit? "Ubiquitous computing."
posted by Slothrop at 1:34 PM on December 15, 2005


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