Interview with Nick Bostrom and David Pearce about Transhumanism

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By Andrés Lomeña [HedWeb]

Dave and Nick are the co-founders of the World Transhumanist Association, a nonprofit organization aiming to improve human capabilities with high technology

ANDRÉS LOMEÑA: Transhumanism, or human enhancement, suggests the use of new technologies to improve mental and physical abilities, discarding some aspects as stupidity, suffering and so forth. You have been described as technoutopian by critics who write on “Future hypes”. In my opinion, there is something pretty much worse than optimism: radical technopessimism, managed by Paul Virilio, deceased Baudrillard and other thinkers. Why is there a strong strain between the optimistic and pessimistic overview?

NICK BOSTROM: I can’t recall any instance of me personally being labeled “technoutopian”, although certainly it’s a term that has been applied to transhumanism by some critics.  In fact, there is some justice in this criticism.  Transhumanism is a very diverse movement, and some individuals who call themselves transhumanists might fairly be called “technoutopian” in the sense of “uncritically accepting of the view that technology will inevitably soon solve all big problems”.

I don’t know whether technopessimism is worse or better than technoutopianism.  It seems to me that we should try to overcome biases in either direction --- biases towards positive as well as biases towards negative outcomes --- and assign probabilities based on evidence and honest judgment rather than on the basis of ideological or temperamental prejudice.

DAVID PEARCE: Is our quality of life in technologically advanced societies better than life for our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the African savannah? The answer might seem obviously ‘yes’.  Technopessimists might reply that evidence suggesting we’re on average any happier is thin – and then go on to extrapolate accordingly. Such extrapolation is premature. We’re on the eve of a profound transformation of human nature itself. In theory, we can even recalibrate the hedonic treadmill and become constitutionally happier – relegating pessimism to history.  Technopessimism can sometimes be useful when it encourages deeper thought on unanticipated consequences of new technologies, worst-case scenario planning and better risk-reward analysis. But if humans were all depressive realists, then we’d still be living in caves. Transhumanists believe that we can overcome our physical, intellectual, emotional (and moral?) limitations as human beings via the responsible use of technology.

For what it’s worth, I’m a pessimist by temperament. But I (tentatively) believe that infotech and biotechnology will deliver billions of years of invincible well-being far richer than anything feasible today.

A.L.: There are many fears and more ignorance. Wikipedia systematizes all fears: infeasibility, playing God argument, Fountain of Youth argument, Brave New World argument, Frankenstein argument or Terminator argument (based on “Our final hour” by Martin Rees). What of these issues are sound (understandable) fears and what is not? One common criticism uses to be the eschatological vision of transhumanism (like Marxism and Christianity, for instance). In short, how could we struggle against these dystopian points of view?

N.B.: On a case-by-case basis, as well as by trying to identify biases that could affect our judgments across a broad range of cases.

Fear is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it’s directed at something that really is dangerous, and that it results in some constructive striving to reduce the danger.  For example, it makes good sense to be concerned about pandemic disease, naturally occurring as well as the possibility of bioengineered superbugs.  But to fear having the option of delaying disease and senility through some effective rejuvenation therapy is perverse.  In fact, I don’t think there are many people who are actually afraid of that, although some might express opposition for ideological reasons.

For an illustration of how one might attempt to diagnose and remove a bias affecting judgment across a range of enhancement issues, see a paper on status quo bias (http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/statusquo.pdf), which I wrote together with Toby Ord.

D.P.: Hubris/Playing God? What could be more “godlike” than creating new life? Not all cultures historically have made the connection between having sex and reproduction; but we have no such excuse. On the one hand, we condemn writers of computer malware who release corrupt code.  Yet we freely propagate our own corrupt code across the generations – notably a lethal genetic disease (ageing) and a predisposition to anxiety disorders, depression and other nasty Darwinian states of mind. As reproductive medicine advances, what’s wrong with acting as responsible parents instead? Why not plan the long-term genetic health and happiness of future generations? 

Contempt for the flesh/Fountain of Youth argument? What could show more contempt for the flesh than to champion Darwinian bodies which crumble and die?  As genetic medicine matures, why not design blueprints for perpetually youthful bodies? Moreover, we will soon have the opportunity to explore richer forms of sensuality; to magnify the somato-sensory cortex; and to isolate the molecular signature of sexual desire and amplify its substrates on demand. Transcending the flesh might be an option; it’s not an obligation.

Brave New World? This argument is harder to dismiss outright. But biotechnology can potentially empower the individual citizen rather than the state. For example, enhancing mood tends to increase personal autonomy and active participation in society.  Conversely, low mood is associated with subordination and social withdrawal. Huxley’s soma was wrongly touted as an “ideal pleasure drug”. Truly utopian pharmacology will surpass it.

Dehumanization / the Frankenstein argument? Yes, technology can dehumanize; and biotech can create monsters. Yet biotech can also create saints and angels. Put less poetically, we will shortly be able “humanize” ourselves. For we can biologically enhance our capacity for empathy - whether by functionally amplifying our mirror neurons, or by use of pro-social designer empathogens, or by genetically engineering sustained oxytocin-release to promote social trust. Will we do so? I don’t know.

The Terminator argument? Bioterrorism and “grey goo” are perhaps the most worrying scenarios.  But within the next few decades, we will most likely have self-sustaining bases on the Moon and Mars.  Even on the most apocalyptic scenarios, any existential risk to intelligent life will thereby be sharply diminished. From an ethical utilitarian perspective, it’s critical that human beings survive to become post-human.  For we are the only species capable of eradicating suffering in all sentient life. We are also the only species smart enough to spread intelligent bliss throughout the accessible universe.

A.L.: Probably, the most important problem is the shortage of information. Actually, we do not know too much about Transhumanism, excepting some Fukuyama´s articles (initially optimistic and then pessimistic). We would like to ask you the connections between transhumanism and other topics. For instance:
Transhumanism and religion: Do you consider yourself religious? Is there an atheist or agnostic transhumanism?

N.B.: I would call myself agnostic.  Most transhumanists appear to be non-religious, but there are also Catholic transhumanists, Mormon transhumanists, Buddhist transhumanists, etc.

D.P.: I think it’s hard to reconcile transhumanism and revealed religion. If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like. “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”, said Gautama Buddha. It’s a wonderful sentiment. Sadly, only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the living world. Compassion alone is not enough.

A.L.: Transhumanism and eugenics: Are all transhumanists eugenicist? Do you have a political program in this topic? Do you consider yourself a lobby of future generations?

N.B.: The World Transhumanist Association has officially adopted a statement banning all forms of neo-Nazi eugenicists from the organization.  (This was in response to an incident some years ago when one or two such trolls attempted to infiltrate the WTA.) Transhumanism supports reproductive rights among other human rights.  We tend to think that it is better that reproductive decisions be in the hands of parents, in consultation with their doctor, and within broad guidelines laid down by the state.  It would be ethically unacceptable, as well as potentially very dangerous, to have the state impose a one-size-fits-all formula on what kind of people should exist in the next generation.

If I were a parent, I would consider myself as having a moral duty to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the child which I was about to bring into the world would start his or her life with the best possible chances for a good life.  If a pregnant woman can improve her child’s IQ by taking folic acid or choline supplements, and by avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and lead-contaminated drinking water, I believe would be irresponsible for her to fail to take these easy steps.  Similarly, if I were using in vitro fertilization, and there were a simple genetic test which could select the embryo with the best genes for health and other desirable capacities, then I believe it would be negligent not to make use of the test.  It would be a very small inconvenience for a potentially large gain.

D.P.: Transhumanists aren’t eugenicists in anything resembling the odious traditional sense.  However, humanity is on the brink of a reproductive revolution. Prospective parents will soon be empowered to choose the kinds of children they want to bring into the world. Pre-implantation diagnosis is likely to become routine. Designer genomes will follow. Most parents will aspire to have happier, smarter, healthier children. In principle, a majority of people today would probably support use of genetic medicine to prevent diseases such as cystic fibrosis. By contrast, only a minority of people currently favour “enhancement” technologies. But today’s enhancement technologies are tomorrow’s remedial therapies. By the standards of our successors, mortal humans will presumably all seem tragically diseased and dysfunctional. At present we think it’s morally acceptable to pass on to our children the lethal hereditary disease of ageing - and a predisposition to various ugly states of mind (e.g. jealousy, low mood, anxiety, resentment, and loneliness) adaptive in the ancestral environment. Yet human life could potentially be so much richer. As technology matures, why not replace the cruel genetic roulette of natural selection with genetically preprogrammed superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence? Critically, this transformation needn’t (and shouldn’t) entail oppressing other races or species. Transcending our biological limitations entails transcending the ethnocentric and anthropocentric biases of our ancestors.

One real dilemma lies ahead.  In a post-ageing world, how do we reconcile individual reproductive rights with the finite carrying capacity of our home planet? Will population pressure finally make us “head for the stars”? Or is this scenario just sci-fi?

A.L.: Transhumanism and immortality: Do you all believe in transfer uploading? If the answer is yes… I guess you consider yourself dualist, right? By the way, I think Greg Egan´s novel talk about transfer uploading in a metaphysical and interesting way.

N.B.: I think that uploading could, under the right circumstance, preserve both consciousness and personal identity.  But I would not call myself a dualist.  I think my mind currently is running on a kind of protein computer, and if exactly the same computational processes were implemented on a silicone computer I believe I wouldn’t notice any difference.

D.P.: There is no scientific reason why we can’t rewrite our own genetic code and stay youthful indefinitely. In a sense, posthumans may become quasi-immortal – though perhaps such talk reflects untenable notions of personal identity. When? A few transhumanists are optimistic. They cite the exponential growth in computer power and predict ageless living may be feasible in decades. I hope they are right. Sadly, I fear that genetic rewrites plus other effective interventions may take centuries or more. Either way, well-controlled longitudinal trials of human anti-ageing therapies will be a problem. Uploading? Here perhaps there are stronger grounds for caution. The dominant technology of an age typically supplies its root metaphor of mind. Our dominant technology is the digital computer. So it’s natural to wonder if organic robots like us might scan, digitize and upload ourselves to a less perishable medium. Unfortunately, we don’t have any scientific understanding of the existence of consciousness, let alone a rigorous theory of its myriad flavors. Nor can classical physics explain how a hundred billion discrete brain cells can generate a unitary experiential field. I’m personally sceptical that a digital computer with a classical architecture will ever support unified consciousness. [Will mature artificial quantum computers be supersentient? Maybe.] I should add that some very smart people disagree. Am I a dualist? No, I think the world is exhaustively described by the equations of mathematical physics. But what “breathes fire into the equations” isn’t matter as understood by materialist metaphysics. Greg Egan? Yes, he’s a brilliant writer.

A.L.: Transhumanism and singularity: Is singularity really near? Is Vernor Vinge right or wrong?

N.B.: I don’t know. Neither does anybody else.  To me, this means that one ought to think in terms of a probability distribution smeared out over a wide range of possibilities, including assigning some non-trivial probability to the possibility that it will happen quite soon, within a couple of decades; some probability that it will take much longer; and some probability that it will never happen.  We can then have an interesting discussion about the exact shape of this probability distribution.  But unless we first recognize the uncertainty in such forecasts, we won’t get far in our analysis.

D.P.: The development of transhuman superintelligence is presumably inevitable in at least some low amplitude branches of the universal wave function.  Near? I guess that depends on your conception of proximity. Should it scare us? Not if superhuman intelligence entails a richer capacity for empathetic understanding of other sentient beings. The Singularity Institute [ http://www.singinst.org/ ] explores such issues in depth.

Vinge himself speaks of how we can, “in the fairly near future, create (or become) creatures who surpass humans in every intellectual and creative dimension. Events beyond this event - call it the Technological Singularity - are as unimaginable to us as opera is to a flatworm”. Vinge may well be right. But it’s worth recalling that opera-loving humans share something important in common with flatworms, namely a functional interaction between our respective opioid and dopamine systems. The pleasure pain-axis is what makes anything matter. Without hedonic tone, there isn’t any meaning or significance to existence. No, we can’t possibly imagine what kinds of sophisticated concepts posthuman minds may be blissfully happy about - any more than a flatworm can know about opera. But I predict that posthumans will not just be superintelligent but also supersentient.

A.L.: The Hedonistic Imperative suggests the molecular biology of Paradise. A world without pain, mental or physical. David refutes objections saying: “Warfare, rape, famine, pestilence, infanticide and child-abuse have existed since time immemorial. They are quite “natural”, whether from a historical, cross-cultural or sociobiological perspective”. I interviewed Gary Francione (about animal rights) by mail and he says something similar about veganism. So I guess we should take account of this abolitionist perspective, shouldn’t we?

My second question here is: if we achieve the biological paradise (forgetting objections like “pain is necessary”)… how will we live? I mean, what about jobs, wars, and son on? This new world seems to me almost unimaginable (Pain is totally erased? Because without feeling seem problematic, like in Congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis).

N.B.: Yes, I think we should take account of the abolitionist perspective.  And yes, the world that would result if the abolitionist project were eventually successful is almost unimaginable.  For starters, we can safely assume---considering the gargantuan technological obstacles that would have to be overcome for that vision to become a reality---that the elimination of suffering would not be the only difference between that new world and the present world.  Many other things would have changed as well. 

Of course, absent the intervention of a superintelligence or the complete destruction of the biosphere (another way in which Earthly suffering could be abolished), it is not going to happen overnight.  So we might get a clearer idea of the issues involved as we move gradually closer to the goal.

D.P.: “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!” says Darwin. Yet what if “Nature, red in tooth and claw” could be civilized?  What if posthuman “wildlife parks” could be cruelty-free? It’s technically feasible. I think any compassionate ethic – not just Buddhism or utilitarianism – must aim to extend the abolitionist project to the whole living world, not just our own ethnic group or species. A commitment to the well-being of all sentience is written into the Transhumanist Declaration.  [ http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/declaration/ ] What does such a commitment mean in practice?  Are we really ever going to stop killing and eating each other? Ideally, the power of moral argument alone would suffice. More plausibly, only the advent of abundant, cheap and delicious genetically-engineered vatfood can lay the foundations for global veganism.  Critically, “meat-less meat” production is potentially scalable indefinitely.  However, if we’re morally serious, a cruelty-free diet is just the beginning. A living world without suffering will entail the use of species-wide depot contraception; genomic rewrites; ecosystem redesign of our terrestrial wildlife parks; nanorobotics to manage a redesigned marine ecosystem; and much more besides.  This represents a serious computational and engineering challenge. See http://www.abolitionist.com for an overview.

Physical pain? Why do our silicon (etc) robots respond to noxious stimuli without feeling agony if damaged - whereas their injured organic counterparts (usually) suffer so terribly? For now, we can only conjecture. But there are at least two possible solutions to the miseries of physical pain in organic life. One is to offload everything nasty onto smart prostheses – the “cyborg” solution. The alternative is to engineer information-sensitive dips in otherwise sublime gradients of well-being – i.e. the functional analogues of pain without its vicious “raw feels”.

What will life be like in a hypothetical post-Darwinian era?  It’s fun to speculate.  But by analogy, imagine if a chronic pain specialist today were to start pontificating to his patients on how they should live their lives after they were cured.  Why should we take him seriously? In theory, emotionally enhanced humans could conserve much of our existing preference architecture, simply recalibrating the hedonic treadmill so we all lead richer lives around an elevated “hedonic set-point”. In practice, I think our entire conceptual scheme will be revolutionized too. Anything concrete we say now about a future era of paradise engineering is likely to be childlike in its naïveté. To gain a hint of what’s in store, perhaps try instead to recollect your most wonderful peak experience. I suspect (but can’t prove) that everyday posthuman life will be far better.

A.L.: I think transhumanism is unfamiliar because we cannot read a genealogy of your thoughts and thinkers. I suppose “negative utilitarianism” is a good starting point for David, but I don’t know what is Nick’s starting point. I don’t find too many key-figures as Hegel or Aristotle in your approaches; maybe you are trying to break up certain paths of knowledge (I mean, rejecting numerous presumptions), maybe I have to read better your writings.  Moreover, what is the starting point of the recent transhumanism? Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minksy, Hans Moravec? It seems to me very important. A history of your recent movement.

N.B.: There isn’t a singular starting point at which it all began.  Transhumanist thinking has taken shape gradually, through the contributions of many minds.

My own philosophical views are not based on any one particular predecessor.  I learn from and am inspired by many.  This, by the way, is the common way in contemporary analytic philosophy: it has become more like a science, with many people making piecemeal contributions to specific problems.

D.P.: Transhumanism is an extraordinarily diverse movement. For more background, perhaps see the Transhumanist FAQ. [ http://www.transhumanism.org/resources/faq.html ] Transhumanism in the modern sense of the term really dates to the seminal work of Max More and his colleagues at the Extropy Institute. Nick’s history of transhumanist thought [ http://www.nickbostrom.com/papers.pdf ] is illuminating. Personally I’d cite such influences as Bertrand Russell, Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins and Alexander Shulgin – not all of whom feature prominently in the transhumanist canon.

A.L.: By the way, are you going to celebrate anything for the ten anniversary of “World Transhumanist Association”. How did you meet to each other and when did you decide to found that non-profit organization? What are the current activities of your organizations?

N.B.: I guess we should to something to celebrate the tenth anniversary.  (I’ve been too busy just keeping things going and pursuing my own research to have given this any thought.)

We first met while I was a graduate student at the London School of Economics.  We had corresponded a bit by email.  Dave had formed the impression that I was some big shot professor, and he was probably disappointed when it turned out I was just a lowly grad student.  However, after our meeting he glossed me in his online diary as a “truth-hound in search of epistemic truffles”, if remember correctly.  I was quite intense in my early years, but old Scruffy has mellowed with time.

Nowadays, I’m mainly focusing on my research and on running the Future of Humanity Institute.  This is an interdisciplinary research outfit at Oxford University which seeks to study big picture questions for humanity in a rigorous way---an absorbing mission.  I like to try to help with transhumanist organizational and outreach tasks on occasion, but I am at heart a thinker, not an activist.

D.P.: A celebration? Check out the WTA website for details:  http://www.transhumanism.org

I first met up with Nick over a decade ago. He’d emailed some astute objections to the abolitionist manifesto I’d uploaded to http://www.hedweb.com. With some difficulty, Nick convinced me that I was a transhumanist (I predicted he would be the world’s first professor of Transhumanism: one hopes the first of many!). In turn, I harangued Nick into getting a website.  The WTA entered its period of explosive growth only after the formidable bioethicist James Hughes ( http://changesurfer.com/Hughes.html ) agreed to become Secretary. By contrast, I have a most un-transhumanist tendency to hide behind my computer. In a Darwinian world, herbivores tend to be timid - or they get eaten!

My own focus of research here at BLTC is in clinical psychopharmacology - particularly the treatment of affective disorders – because I think the relief of suffering is the most morally urgent challenge we face. Not everyone would agree; but “the easiest pain to bear is some else’s”. Psychotherapeutic drugs are only stopgaps: post-genomic medicine will be better.  But most people don’t want to hear how their descendants may enjoy lifelong superhappiness, perpetual youth, unlimited material abundance, superintellects, morphological freedom, and so forth. They want to know how they can improve their lives – and the lives of their loved ones – right now.

A.L.: If we are living a simulation… What does it suppose to us? Do we change something? Must we believe in Occam’s razor? Speaking of this… what do you think about “Physics of Immortality” by Tipler?

N.B. : So this refers to an academic paper I wrote a few years ago, which has attracted a great deal of attention (see http://www.simulation-argument.com for further details).  In short, no I don’t think the simulation hypothesis should drastically change the way we live, although it is intellectually interesting and might have some subtle practical ramifications.  I also like to take every opportunity to emphasize that the simulation argument does not show that we are living in a computer simulation, only that at least one of three propositions is true (it doesn’t tell us which one).  One of these propositions is the simulation hypothesis.

D.P.: How one should behave in a simulation presumably depends on its nature. Thus if you have a lucid dream, then anything is permissible. Complete self-indulgence is morally OK since the people in one one’s dreamworld are only zombies. The same holds true when using tomorrow’s virtual reality software - in one-player mode at least.  By contrast, if the Simulation Hypothesis [to be distinguished from Nick’s related Simulation Argument] is true, then “simulated” people have real experiences. Suffering, for example, isn’t any less real if played out within a cosmic supercomputer in the course of a Superbeing’s ancestor simulation. Indeed one of the reasons I believe we’re living in “basement reality” is because I find it inconceivable a Superbeing would opt to recreate – and proliferate - the horrors of the Darwinian past from which it emerged. Unfortunately this is more of a statement of personal incredulity than an argument.

Occam’s Razor? The Simulation Argument is interesting precisely because it is so parsimonious with assumptions. Its premises are quite widely shared in academic philosophy and the scientific community.

My own sense of how to behave in a simulation has more traditional roots in the theory of perception.  I’ve long believed that each of us lives in an egocentric simulation of the world run by the mind/brain. Since the zombies of each (waking) simulation have sentient real world counterparts, one should treat them as though they were real. Nonetheless as an angst-ridden teenager, my dawning acceptance of an inferential realist theory of perception made me feel as if I’d been condemned to solitary confinement for life.  The sense of loneliness was indescribable. Naïve realism is better for one’s mental health.

The Physics of Immortality? If Judeo-Christian theology is true, then Tipler’s book is a marvellously ingenious attempt to show how religious dogma might be reconciled with natural science. But I doubt that any physicist who doesn’t share Tipler’s Christian premises will share his conclusions.

A.L.: I admit I do not understand the strong anthropic principle at all (or any anthropic principle, being humble). Could you explain us it to us in an understandable way? What consequences has this to us?

N.B.: The anthropic principle has been construed and misconstrued in many ways.  If you remove all the misunderstandings, there is actually a sensible and important core, which is the injunction to take observation selection effects into account when either our evidence or our hypotheses contain indexical information.  I have a website which features some introductions: http://www.anthropic-principle.com.

D.P.: All versions of the strong anthropic principle claim that the universe was designed, in some sense, for human existence. I’m unconvinced.  Our best theory of the world, quantum mechanics, tells us we live in a multiverse with an inconceivably immense number of quasi-classical branches. In the vast majority of these branches, the constants of Nature are “wrong”. Such branches contain no observers and no life. By contrast, a (very) small minority of branches do support information-bearing self-replicators which evolve via natural selection to become observers. The naive observer in any such branch may wonder why the basic physical constants – e.g. the coupling constants that determine the strength of the four known forces of nature - appear so improbably fine-tuned to produce life, or human beings, or even his own existence. Naively, he may invoke God who has providentially tweaked the laws of physics for human benefit - or punishment. But such “anthropic coincidences” are merely an observation selection effect. The kind of branch we can observe is restricted by the conditions needed to give rise to observers. Observers, by their very nature, will find themselves in a branch atypical of the multiverse as a whole.

A.L.: I want to ask you something for finishing. Human enhancement and posthuman destiny seems to go toward extinction of the own humanity. Human condition is murdering itself. What do you think about this weird paradox?

N.B.: I think we must distinguish “humanity” from having a particular kind of sequence of DNA in our cells, just as we already distinguish it from being white or black, male or female, young or old, gay or straight.  There could be many forms of humanity, including new forms that don’t yet exist.  And the goal is not to replace the current people with some new set of “superior” people.  Rather, the goal is to give people the option to continue to develop in many different ways, including ways that differ from the types of humanity that we have today.  If you want a slogan, you could say that human is what we are, humane is what we hope we might become---and it need not be exactly the same thing for everyone.

D.P.: Does a toddler murder herself by growing into a mature adult? Does a chrysalis murder itself by becoming a beautiful butterfly?

A.L.: Something you want to add.

N.B.: I put preprints of many of my publications online, so readers who want to learn more could visit my homepage: http://www.nickbostrom.com.

D.P.: You may notice certain differences of emphasis between Nick and me. But I think we’d both agree that the future of life in the universe is potentially glorious beyond human comprehension.

N.B.: We do agree on that.  And that is really important. 

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