Death and Taxes Part II/III
Searching for Life in the Time of the Singularity.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want to die, and I’m pretty sure none of my ancestors did either. When faced with the futility of fighting death (and taxes), they got on with the more important business of preparing for the next [better] life. This was accomplished with the ever-present support of trusted all seeing deities, and their local representatives.
From 1900–2000, the mortal options were simple:
- longer natural life with rigorous regimes of dietary control, physical exercise, medicinal and surgical support;
- death with elaborate rituals to ensure a grand entrance into the next life;
- mostly dead cryogenics, with options ranging from: storage of reproductive cells for cloning, frozen heads or entire bodies awaiting a future thawing and reanimation.
In the new millennium, at least for some, these options are changing. By 2000, the rich had conquered taxes and shifted their focus back to the serious business of avoiding the death knell.
The new options, broadly captured by the concept of Trans-Humanism, is beginning to seep out of the pages of science fiction and into Life Extension laboratories all over the world. The return on investment for the first or leading commercialized research will be exponential. Expect long lines.
What price would you pay not to die?
To complicate things, Trans-Humanism has a mirror image, The Singularity. These two meet-in-the-center-ring for either a post-Darwinian human (trans-human) or a post-Von Neumann computational Artificial Intelligence (AI) singularity. These future scenarios, are accelerating towards each other. An entity collision event will occur before the end of this century.
The next steps on the evolutionary ladder.
If you hold up your hand, starting with the biologically innovative opposable thumb (circa 1 Million BC), it’s a useful tool for counting down the following five potential scenarios:
Evolution (thumbs up) the postulate that we are on a natural evolutionary path, and will evolve over many centuries into something better. It would likely involve: larger, denser and/or more connected brains. Recent evidence suggest, that after (only) a couple of thousand years of C-Sections, a small but detectable change occurs (big heads). Once a survivability risk, a larger cranium birth is now unlimited by the physical dimensions of the birth canal. Long term, ectogenesis could help accelerate this change and support the “index” scenario.
Genetic Engineering (index) starting in 2020, minor genetic editing procedures will be available to isolate and remove certain negative genetic traits, supporting survivability to a small segment of the population, likely the very young or in-vitro. CRISPR (~2010) is the first breakthrough to facilitate genetic editing, but there will be more, as it evolves from Science Fiction to Science to Technology and finally Tool. By 2030–2040, genetic screening, editing and possibly early enhancement in-vitro to an ectogenesis birth could see the first baby steps from homosapien to homotechnicus and the start of a brave new world of a post-Darwinian evolutionary cycle.
Nanotechnology (the finger) by 2020 its forecasted 50% of all labour will be resourced by robotics. These robots range in size from 10cm-10m and offer an evolutionary step for Homo economicus, measured by the power of economic gain (profit). These robots are boring. They may have some synthetic AI, but they exist largely to displace the cost of human capital.
As a result, from an evolutionary perspective, they are a dead end. Alternatively, nanotechnology has the potential to greatly impact our evolutionary path. Like bacteria, nano-scale machines are able to inhabit our bodies: repairing damage, accelerating nerve signals, strengthening: bone, skin organs. Ultimately, nanotechnology will replace our biological structure with an artificial one. Biology, with its liquids, fragility and degeneration may still rule on earth, but with nanotechnology built bodies, trans-humans are prepared to explore the stars.
Who wants to live forever?
Mind Upload (ring finger) by 2050, it may be possible to leverage genetic editing, nanotechnology and other fields like quantum computing to facilitate neural uploading from a biological brain to a more permanent substrate. Once uploaded, a vast array of options are available for a near infinite life. New: physical embodiments, transfers, telepresence and a hive-like world of social sharing as Facebook becomes Brainbook? We are probably too immature as a species to handle indefinite life spans, but once uploaded, we would evolve at a vastly more rapid pace. This new evolutionary pace, may help us out-run the risk of finite-disassociation, hedonism and ultimately perversion from a life spanning the epoch.
Don’t push that button!
Singularity (pinky) Since Ray Kurzweil’s 2006 book “The Singularity is Near”, the word has absorbed a variety of meme like baggage. I take the definition from mathematics, where singularity means an object that is not well behaved. In this scenario, our current bumbling efforts at AI, somehow stumble into the first spark of sentience, possibly with quantum or more ironically, biological or synthetic biology based computing. Current efforts in machine learning (ML) and AI are largely driven by homoeconomicus, again with the goal of optimizing the cost of labor, both in the physical (robotics) and white collar (ML/AI) use cases. These are non-sentient AIs, or Artificial Idiot Savants (AIS), that are potentially liberating or dangerous depending on their particular savant-ness. They do not represent a risk to homosapiens for the next step on the evolutionary ladder. Unless it is highly isolated (unlikely), the first singularity will rapidly evolve-and-expand, hopefully forever ignoring humans after the first three minutes. It is possible, that initially, there could develop a conflict of resource needs. We would therefore initiate our first computational existential risk, with a thoughtless depress of an Enter key.
So where does that leave us?
Things change, and stasis is death. Everything in the universe is changing, moving, evolving and will continue to do so until it stops. If the world ends in fire, it will be our fault. If it ends in frost, we survived longer than expected because of our willingness to change. Change as a result of the scenarios outlined above, or new ones yet unseen. This generation of homosapiens, will possibly live to see the next rung in the evolutionary ladder, with a mix of pride and prejudice. However, unlike the last Neanderthal, we will understand our obsolescence.
The risky road ahead.
If .001–1% of homosapiens are part of the brave new world in 2100, like most stories, the real action and climax comes near the end. Although each of the above scenarios result in the end of our dominance, they are constructive ends. Until that time, we need to avoid a field of destructive ones. Challenges from: climate change, population growth, geopolitics and trade, war,
terror, demographic inversions, revolutions resulting from income inequality, career obsolescence and those displaced, need to be accepted, understood and addressed. War and climate change are the two (known) principal existential risks, but all have the ability to trigger events leading to an unforeseen end, before we are able to pass the legacy of this planet to future inhabitants of any scenario.
In times past, we often worried about war and other great end-of-times decisions. At those moments, we sought a higher power for guidance; today we seek economists. Instead of choosing the less-traveled road of Adam Smith’s first book, we somehow chose the second. As economic power evolved, we chose Wealth at all costs over Moral Sentiments. In the time it took from America’s birth to pre-eminence, a modern society evolved based on the application of a profit / loss statement deeply interwoven into every aspect of life, ultimately pricing ourselves out of existence. Economics, when subservient to capitalism, becomes inverted to its once core tenants of supply and demand or scarcity and abundance. We know that for all suitable purposes, there is only one Earth (scarcity), but we treat it as though it is unlimited. Simultaneously, we queue globally in long lines for fashionable manufactured goods (abundance). Therefore, we pollute and contaminate the only life giving planet in the solar system (scarcity) but fret over being the first to own (license) the next iteration of a smartphone or gaming platform (abundance), because the old one is now obsolete. Platform and product lifecycle value is measured in its speed-to-obsolescence.
The current economic wealth road ultimately offers value accretion to goods and services only after they have been processed from their natural state into something, temporarily useful. When applied to these challenges, compounded by the rapid acceleration of technological progress in the remaining 21st century, we need to recognize, the current dominant economic model is a dead end, regroup around a greater theme of survival and possibly forecast “r > g” in a (Piketty) Capital world of AI/Robotics. The dominant economic model, when technological investments (endgame) displaces wealth from the many to the fewer-and-fewer, creates existential risk. We are essentially funding for-and-against the survivability and elevation of humanity, while destroying life on Earth.
The old (irrational) game.
Imagine a friend invites you to play a “nice game of chess”. She claims (positional) superiority by demanding “WHITE!”, thus enabling the right of first move. You acquiesce and sit at the table, only to discover instead of pawns, the white side of the board has all Queens dominating the first row. A reasonable response would be not to play, or [better] tip the board. Your opponent would: fuss, get angry, threaten and cajole you into playing under these conditions, possibly magnanimously offering a piece of pie and tea. But the game remains irrational.
The near term future of: robotics, AIS, AI along with its ownership and displacement of wealth and labor, are creating this chess scenario as a real world, hyper zero-sum game.
Compounding the acceleration of challenges from new technologies, we have an equal deceleration of trust, for all our beliefs and institutions. The crisis and scandals in: politics, education, religion and law are creating an ultimate scarcity in trust. Trust itself, is moving from the value you place in fellow humans, to trust in machines. By 2030, most goods-and-services you require, will be generated by an enigmatic AI blackbox. Even the owners (shareholders) of these black boxes, will be unable to derive the cause-and-effect of the processing therein. What is the digital equivalent of “trust me”?
We need the next fifty years or more to evolve, but these years will be perilous. If we are irrational, we may well not survive.
The new (rational) game.
There is more than 7 billion of us, but we’re rapidly going vintage. Rather than valuing people as abundant (cost), we need to invest in the core aspects that make us human (scarcity). There’s not much time. We may have one or two generations, to tip the board, and consider the core elements we desire, as a species to carry forward into the future.
Hopefully we would collectively agree on which human values we wish to be remembered: hundreds, thousands or millions of years from now. Everyone would likely share a similar list, regardless of: age, race, wealth or privilege when considering the long game when compared to the calculus of the short play.
Education beyond industry, the arts, engineering, sciences, philosophy, storytelling, empathy, emotional context and sharing would be a good start. An entirely new basket-of-goods, valued by its human essence, needs to be weighed and measured to satisfaction. I suspect the average 5-year-old child would agree with the majority of these values, that would carry humanities thumb print into a vast and distant future.
We need to tilt the board now, because we’ve opted all past-and-future at the cost of the irrational game. The irrational game has no future for us. The rational game requires us to take a longer view, embrace the best of our nature, and define winning as the ability to play the new game for an eternity, not an hour.
Like most distribution curves, it’s likely the middle three of these five scenarios will dominate the probability space, or Venn with new scenarios to create a greater maximum. We must act, because evolution moves too slowly, and the pinky (singularity) offers as much existential risk as the dinosaurs unwittingly faced 65 million years ago, before opposable thumbs became fashionable.
This time, it’s different. Like the 16-year-old who just swiped the keys to a Ferrari, we’re either going to kill ourselves or be in for a wild ride. We’ve had a couple of hundred thousand years to prepare for this. It’s inevitable, and I like the idea of stepping on the gas, as long as we’re out there living the risk.
The current irrational game, compounded with: robotics, artificial intelligence, trans-humanism and their aggregate impact on abundance and scarcity is broken.
The future rational game, is for the survival of some bit-part of our species, less we are a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”