On Saturday I had the pleasure to host Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard at a London Futurists event in central London. The meetup was organised in conjunction with the publication of Gerd’s new book, “Technology vs. Humanity”.
This three minute video from his website gives a fast-paced introduction to Gerd’s thinking:
The subtitle of Gerd’s book indicates the emphasis that comes across loud and clear in its pages: “The coming clash between man and machine”. I have mixed feelings about that emphasis. Yes, a clash between humanity and technology is one of the possible scenarios ahead. But it’s by no means set in stone. If we are smart, much better futures lie ahead. These better future see a combination of the best of present-day humanity and the fruits of technological development, to create what I would call a Humanity+ future.
In the Humanity+ future, technology is used to enhance humanity – making us healthier, kinder, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, and more engaged. In contrast, Gerd expects that technology will result in a downgrade of humanity.
The video of Saturday’s London Futurists event records some dialog on exactly that point. If you’ve got a spare 60 minutes, it’s worth watching the video all the way through. (The Q&A starts after 44 minutes.)
You’ll see that Gerd is an engaging, entertaining presenter, with some stunning visuals.
Overall, I am happy to give two cheers to Gerd’s new book – two loud cheers.
The first cheer is that it has many fine examples of the accelerating pace of change. For example, chapter three of his book reviews “ten megashifts”. Gerd starts his presentation with the bold claim that “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years”. He may well be right. Related, Gerd makes a strong case that major change can sneak up on people “gradually and then suddenly”. That’s the nature of exponential change.
The second cheer is even louder than the first one: I completely agree with Gerd that we need to carefully consider the pros and cons of adopting technology in greater areas of our lives. He has a brilliant slide in which human’s attitude towards a fast-improving piece of technology changes from “Magic” to “Manic” and then to “Toxic”. To avoid such progressions, Gerd recommends the formation of something akin to a “Humanity Protection Agency”, similar to the “Environmental Protection Agency” that constrains corporations from polluting and despoiling the environment. Gerd emphasises: just because it is possible to digitise aspects of our lives, it doesn’t mean we should digitise these aspects. More efficient doesn’t always mean better. More profit doesn’t always mean better. More experiences doesn’t always mean better – and so on. Instead of rushing ahead blindly, we need what Gerd calls “exponentially increased awareness”. He’s completely right.
So I am ready to say, “Hip, hip…” – but I hold back from the third cheer (“hurrah”).
Yes, the book can be a pleasure to read, with its clever turns of phrase and poignant examples. But to my mind, the advice in the book will make things unnecessarily hard for humanity – dangerously hard for humanity. That advice will unnecessarily handicap the “Team Human” which the book says it wants to support.
- The book has too rosy a view of the present state of human nature
- The book has too limited a view of the positive potential of technology to address the key shortcomings in human nature.
Let’s take these points one at a time.
The book refers to human unpredictability, creativity, emotion, and so on, and insists that these aspects of human nature be protected at all costs. Even though machines might do the same tasks as humans, with greater predictability and less histrionics, it doesn’t mean we should hand these tasks over to machines. Thus far, I agree with the argument.
But humans also from time to time manifest a host of destructive characteristics: short-sightedness, stupidity, vengefulness, tribalism, obstructiveness, spitefulness, and so on. It’s possible that these characteristics were, on the whole, useful to humanity in earlier, simpler stages of civilisation. But in present times, with powerful weaponry all around us, these characteristics threaten to plunge humanity into a new dark age.
(I touched on this argument in a recent Transpolitica blogpost, “Flawed humanity, flawed politics”.)
Indeed, despite huge efforts from people all over the globe, the planet is still headed for a potential devastating rise in temperature, due to runaway climate change. What’s preventing an adequate response to this risk is a combination of shortcomings in human society, human politics, human economics, and – not least – human nature.
It’s a dangerous folly to overly romanticise human nature. We humans can, at times, be awful brutes. Our foibles aren’t just matters for bemusement. Our foibles should terrify us.
I echo the thoughts expressed in a landmark 2012 Philosophy Now article by Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, “Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement”:
For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.
But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?…
Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.
We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities…
This brings me to the second point where Gerd’s book misfires: its dogmatic dismissal of the possibility of technology to make any significant improvement in “soft” areas of human life, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, and intuition. The book asserts that whilst software might be able to mimic emotions, these emotions will have no real value. For example, no computer would be able to talk to a two year old human child, and hold its attention.
This assessment demonstrates a major blindspot regarding the ways in which software can already provide strong assistance for people suffering from autism, self-doubt, early stage dementia, or other emotional or social deficits. As one example, consider a Guardian article from last year, “How robots are helping children with autism”.
Consider also this comment from Dr Lucy Maddox, an NHS clinical psychologist and lecturer:
There are loads of [computer] apps that claim to use psychological principles to increase wellbeing in some way, encouraging you to keep track of your mood, to manage worry, to influence what you dream about … Can an app really distil something useful from psychological research and plug you into some life-influencing wisdom? I think some can…
This discussion brings to mind the similar dismissals, from the 1970s and early 1980s, of the possibility that the technology of in-vitro fertilisation (“test-tube babies”) could result in fully human babies. The suggestion was that any such “devilish” technology would result in babies that somehow lacked souls. Here’s a comment from Philip Ball from New Humanist:
Doubts about the artificial being’s soul are still with us, although more often expressed now in secular terms: the fabricated person is denied genuine humanity. He or she is thought to be soulless in the colloquial sense: lacking love, warmth, human feeling. In a poll conducted for Life in the early days of IVF research, 39 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men doubted that an “in vitro child would feel love for family”. (Note that it is the sensibilities of the child, not of the parents, that are impaired.) A protest note placed on the car of a Californian fertility doctor when he first began offering an IVF service articulated the popular view more plainly: “Test tube babies have no souls.”
In 1978 Leon Kass – said, later, to be the favourite bioethicist of President George W. Bush – thundered his opposition to in-vitro fertilisation as follows:
More is at stake [with IVF research] than in ordinary biomedical research or in experimenting with human subjects at risk of bodily harm. At stake is the idea of the humanness of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment, our sexual being, and our relation to ancestors and descendants.
These comments by Kass have strong echoes to the themes developed by Gerd in Technology vs. Humanity.
It turned out, contrary to Kass’s dire forecasts, that human society was more than capable of taking in its stride the opportunities provided by IVF technology. Numerous couples found great joy through that technology. Numerous wonderful children were brought into existence in that way.
It ought to be the same, in due course, with the opportunities provided by technologies to enhance our emotional intelligence, our creativity, our intuition, our compassion, our sociability, and so on. Applied wisely and thoughtfully, these technologies will allow the full potential of humanity to be reached – rather than being sabotaged by our innate shortcomings.
Emphatically, I’m not saying we should be rushing into anything. We need to approach the potential offered by these new technologies with great thoughtfulness. And with a more open mind than Gerd displays.
I found my head shaking in disbelief at many of the paragraphs in Technology vs. Humanity. For examples, here’s Gerd’s description of the capabilities of Virtual Reality (VR):
Virtual travel technologies such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung VR, and Microsoft’s HoloLens are just beginning to provide us with a very real feeling for what it would be like to raft the Amazon River or climb Mount Fuji. These are already very interesting experiences that will certainly change our way of experiencing reality, of communicating, of working, and of learning… [but] there is still a huge difference between these new ways to experience alternate realities and real life. Picture yourself standing in the middle of a crowded bazaar in Mumbai, India, for just two minutes. Then, compare the memories you would have accumulated in a very short time with those from a much longer but simulated experience using the most advanced systems available today or in the near future. The smells, the sounds and sights – all of these are a thousand times more intense than what even the most advanced gadgetry, fuelled by exponential gains, could ever hope to simulate.
“A thousand times more intense”? More intense than what “the most advanced gadgetry could ever hope to simulate”? Ever?! I see these sweeping claims as an evidence of a closed mind. The advice from elsewhere in the book was better: “gradually, and then suddenly”. The intensity of the emotional experience from VR technology is likely to increase gradually, and then suddenly.
Opening the book to another page, my attention is drawn to the exaggeration in another passage, in the discussion of the possibility of ectogenesis (growing a baby outside a woman’s body in an artificial womb):
I believe it would be utterly dehumanising and detrimental for a baby to be born in such a way.
During his presentation at London Futurists, Gerd used labelled the technology of ectogenesis as “jerk tech”. In discussion in the Marlborough Arms pub after the meetup, several women attendees remarked that they thought only a man could take such a high-handed, dismissive approach to this technology. They emphasised that they were unsure whether they would personally want to take advantage of ectogenesis, but they thought the possibility should be kept open.
Note: for a book that takes a much more thoughtful approach to the possibilities of using technology to transform genetic choice, I recommend “Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice” by Ronald Green.
The viewpoint I’m advocating, in this review of Technology vs. Humanity, is transhumanism:
…a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.
Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom puts it like this:
Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.
One of the best introductions to the ideas of transhumanism is in the evocative “Letter to Mother Nature” written in 1999 by Max More. It starts as follows:
Dear Mother Nature:
Sorry to disturb you, but we humans—your offspring—come to you with some things to say. (Perhaps you could pass this on to Father, since we never seem to see him around.) We want to thank you for the many wonderful qualities you have bestowed on us with your slow but massive, distributed intelligence. You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled mammals. You have given us free rein of the planet. You have given us a life span longer than that of almost any other animal. You have endowed us with a complex brain giving us the capacity for language, reason, foresight, curiosity, and creativity. You have given us the capacity for self-understanding as well as empathy for others.
Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves!
What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end.
We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.
We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution, initiated with the tools of biotechnology guided by critical and creative thinking. In particular, we declare the following seven amendments to the human constitution…
In contrast, this is what Gerd says about transhumanism (with similar assertions being scattered throughout his book):
Transhumanism, with its lemming-like rush to the edge of the universe, represents the scariest of all present options.
What “lemming-like rush”? Where’s the “lemming-like rush” in the writings of Nick Bostrom (who co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998)? Recall from his definition,
…by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have
And consider the sixth proposed “human constitutional amendment” from the letter by Max More:
Amendment No.6: We will cautiously yet boldly reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses in ways we, as individuals, deem healthy. We will seek to improve upon typical human emotional excesses, bringing about refined emotions. We will strengthen ourselves so we can let go of unhealthy needs for dogmatic certainty, removing emotional barriers to rational self-correction.
As Max emphasised earlier in his Letter,
We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence
To Gerd’s puzzling claim that transhumanists are blind to the potential risks of new technology, let me exhibit as counter-evidence the nearest thing to a canonical document uniting transhumanist thinking – the “Transhumanist Declaration”. Of its eight clauses, at least half emphasise the potential drawbacks of an uncritical approach to technology:
- Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
- We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
- We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
- Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
- Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
- Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
- We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
- We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.
It’s a pity that the editors and reviewers of Gerd’s book did not draw his attention to the many mistakes and misunderstandings of transhumanism that his book contains. My best guess is that the book was produced in a rush. (That would explain the many other errors of fact that are dotted throughout the various chapters.)
To be clear, I accept that many criticisms can be made regarding transhumanism. In an article I wrote for H+Pedia, I collected a total of 18 different criticisms. In that article, I seek to show, in each case,
- Where these criticisms miss the mark
- Where these criticisms have substance – so that transhumanists ought to pay attention.
That article – like all other H+Pedia articles – is open for further contributions. Either edit the page directly. Or raise some comments on the associated “Discussion” page.
The vital need for an improved conversation
The topics covered in Technology vs. Humanity have critical importance. A much greater proportion of humanity’s collective attention should be focused onto these topics. To that extent, I fully support Gerd’s call for an improved global conversation on the risks and opportunities of the forthcoming impact of accelerating technology.
During that conversation, each of us will likely find some of our opinions changing, as we move beyond an initial “future shock” to a calmer, more informed reflection of the possibilities. We need to move beyond a breathless “gee whiz” and an anguished “oh this is awful”.
The vision of an improved conversation about the future is what has led me to invest so much of my own time over the years in the London Futurists community.
More recently, that same vision has led me to support the H+Pedia online wiki – a Humanity+ project to spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism and futurism among the general public.
As the welcome page states,
H+Pedia welcomes constructive contributions from everyone interested in the future of humanity.
By all means get involved! Team Human deserves your support. Team Human also deserves the best information, free of dogmatism, hype, insecurity, or commercial pressures. Critically, Team Human deserves not to be deprived of access to the smart transformational technology of the near future that can become the source of its greatest flourishing.