Tech Talk

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do – B.F. Skinner


How to Prepare Our Kids for their Transhuman Future

11-8-18 – DSG

The Beginning of the Transhuman Age

In a recent report issued by Gartner and reported in Forbes, Gartner makes the following stunning claim:

“Over the next decade, humanity will begin its ‘transhuman’ era…”

Transhumanism is a philosophy that “advocates for the transformation of the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.”

Obviously, this has profound implications for the human condition: ethical, moral, religious, economic, political, environmental. Many people may bristle at the idea of transhumanism, instinctively (and possibly correctly) perceiving this as the loss of our humanity. Indeed, transhuman scholars point to a future when humans become “posthuman,” like a new species that harnesses technology to control and direct its own evolution.

Where Does This Lead?

Optimists might believe that transhumanism will lead to a golden age of human achievement, prosperity, fulfillment and enjoyment. A world where technology has been successfully directed to solve our most significant problems like climate change, natural resource limitations, disease, and warfare. Pessimists might believe that, at best, we will lose our humanity and our freedoms to our AI overlord. It gets much darker from there.

I choose to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a pragmatist. I want to prepare myself and my daughter, who is currently seven, for what’s to come so that we may successfully navigate, understand, and benefit from this future. Part of my approach to this has led to a personal philosophy of mine that I call the “nature-tech balance.”

However uncomfortable, frightening, or exciting transhumanism may sound to us, this genie has already left the bottle. While transhumanism may be defined as a philosophy, it’s probably an inevitability because these technological advancements are driven by global economic competition and a perceived massive benefit to humanity. Bioengineering, for example, may lead to designer babies, but it can also potentially cure cancer. A brain-machine interface might be weaponized for warfare, but it will also cure paralysis and accelerate learning. Not only will these technological advancements not be stopped, they will soon be accelerated by quantum computing and vastly faster and more sophisticated communication networks.

We may be able to anticipate some of the negative consequences, but we cannot possibly predict or understand them all. The current side effects of social media alone have left governments and the corporations running these platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) reeling as social media has inadvertently streamlined revolutionary uprisings, government repression, and geopolitical cyber warfare. Already, technological advancement seems to be outpacing the ability of many humans to comprehend what is happening in their world. For many there is a sense of losing connection to how things work and what things mean.

Those of us who are currently in the middle of our adult lives will experience some of the beginnings of this new human condition. But our children and grandkids may become the first of the true “posthumans.”

If you’re not convinced, consider the profound differences in human life between 1918 and 2018. Then consider that the next 100 years will bring substantially more rapid technological change than the previous century. We simply cannot know or predict what life will be like in the year 2118. Also consider that, because of many of the expected technological advancements of the next century, our kids and grandkids may live much longer lives. We must assume that many, if not most, of our kids may live well into the 22nd century.

The combination of exponentially advancing technology and lengthening human life span creates a compounding effect on each individual life. This could create a self-reinforcing cycle: Relentlessly accelerating technological advancement may provide our children and/or grandchildren with opportunities to choose to extend their lives. Once they choose to do so, increasingly sophisticated technological breakthroughs will present them with additional life-extending options. The cycle would then continue. Could it be that our kids, or our grandkids, will face the moral question of whether or not to choose a state of immortality? It sounds outlandish but it’s really not out of the realm of possibility. As a parent I find that to be unnerving if not frightening.

If our kids and grandkids are going to be the guinea pigs of a new posthuman condition as they lead humanity into the 22nd century, how do we prepare them for their future life if we cannot accurately predict the societal changes to come? After all, we are the ones who will be foisting this new kind of life upon our innocent kids and grandkids. We have a responsibility to understand how to prepare them for living and thriving in it.

How do we Prepare Our Kids for What we Can’t Predict?

In this blog post from AI Theology there are some good insights into some of the specific skills that our kids should focus on, like coding. But it also touches on the importance of disciplines like philosophy and theology to prepare our kids for one specific question: “What does it mean to be human in an AI world?” That may be the central moral question of the next century, and it has less to do with specific technical skills than it does with moral values.

I think the best thing we can do to prepare our kids and grandkids for transhumanist lives is to actively teach them how to apply unchanging core human values to every new situation they face. Core values may vary slightly by culture, but most of them are remarkably universal and timeless. What is changing is the complexity and variability of the situations our kids will have to apply these values against. Parents today, and increasingly in the future, will need to teach and reinforce core values more actively. Call it situational value-based learning.

If we can actively teach situational values as technology continues to accelerate, we will be training our kids to be adaptable to a technological world that advances beyond their ability to directly comprehend. By doing this we will also increase the likelihood that our kids will achieve the optimists’ vision of a transhuman world.

Ageless values like respect and compassion will remain important (and may become more important). But less traditional values may gain importance. Critical thinking, for example, has always been a very valuable life skill, but I think it should now be considered a moral obligation. Our kids are going to have to learn how to be masters at distinguishing between what’s real and what’s fake, between information that has integrity and sophisticated propaganda.

Historically, humans do not have a great track record for this kind of critical thinking and the current trajectory is not positive. As communication platforms are increasingly putting us into informational bubbles, people are succumbing to echo chambers that block them off from opposing perspectives. This is increasing political and social tribalism and may be contributing to a new rise in political authoritarianism. This will only get worse before it gets better and making it better will require our childrens’ generation to become the best critical thinkers in history.

Another value that I think will become essential is what I call the nature-tech balance, which I wrote about here. We are already perceiving our detachment from nature. When we get out into the wilderness we often speak of “unplugging” from life or “reconnecting” to nature. These word choices are not coincidental. Having a connection with the real natural world is absolutely a human need. Paradoxically, as technology distances us from our direct day-to-day dependence on nature, we increasingly crave nature for psychological well-being. We know this instinctively. We’ve also proven this scientifically–there is a clear link between mental well-being and immersion in nature.

In a transhuman world staying connected with nature will become a conscious moral obligation. Keeping a healthy balance between nature and technology means that we should keep one “foot” in the technological world and the other “foot” firmly planted in the wilderness. I will be teaching this value actively to my daughter. Both “feet” are equally important to her overall equilibrium. It would be a mistake for her to shun the technological world. She must live in it and learn how to thrive in it. But, keeping the other foot grounded in nature will allow her to keep everything in perspective. It will keep her tethered to her origins. It will keep her humble. And it will feed her spiritual soul in a way that technology will never be able to match.

Conclusion

Much of this article may seem like far fetched science fiction. But I contend that this is a very practical perspective. Consider that just in the last couple of decades the following technologies have transitioned from the mostly futuristic conceptual state to becoming part of our everyday language and lives:

  • Artificial Intelligence—now part of everyday conversation, early iterations of AI are already being productized.
  • Virtual and Augmented Reality—go to your local Best Buy to check out their selection of VR headsets. It won’t be long before we will laugh at how primitive they looked in the year 2018. And augmented reality is now being implemented in manufacturing operations among other things.
  • Autonomous Vehicles—cars that drive themselves have been on the road as test vehicles for years. Some self-driving features are already being included in today’s mass-produced cars and more of these features will gradually infiltrate our cars over the next couple of decades until cars really do drive themselves most of the time.
  • Quantum Computing—will exponentially increase mainstream computing power, providing the engine to accelerate advances in AI, VR and other technologies.
  • 5G and 6G Wireless Networks—will drastically increase wireless data speed and capacity while simultaneously reducing latency. 5G has entered the deployment phase. Give it just 2-5 more years for ubiquitous 5G network coverage and device compatibility, and about 10 years for 6G to reach the start of its deployment phase.
  • Gene Editing—look up CRISPR.

The technologies above, and others, are rapidly developing and resulting in real-world applications today, in 2018. But the breathtaking advancements we are seeing today will seem antique to our kids in 50 years. Technological advancement will continue to accelerate at or near exponential rates. It would be foolish to assume that concepts that sound like science fiction today, like significant life extension, consumer space travel, human-like artificial intelligence, and indeed transhumanism, will not be experienced in the lifetimes of our kids (and may even be experienced in ours). It is our responsibility as parents to think about how to prepare our children to not only cope with, but thrive in, their transhuman futures.

Now is the time to think about it. Now is the time to make it a conscious part of our parenting strategy.

 

______________________________

 

Exponential Technology and the Nature-Tech Balance

9-13-18 – DSG

Moore’s Law contends that technological computing power doubles about every 18 months.  The theory was first established by Gordon Moore in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every year.  Although it was later revised to 18 months Moore’s Law has been remarkably consistent.

Consider the Cray-2 supercomputer released in 1985 (nicknamed “bubbles” for its innovative liquid cooling system).  The Cray-2 required a large room to house it and cost many millions of dollars.  By comparison the iPhone 5 (already an antiquated device) has 2.7 times the processing power of the Cray-2, fits in your palm, weighs a few ounces and, when new, cost just a few hundred dollars.

So, where does this take us?  Many so-called “futurists” like Ray Kurzweil, contend that this exponential trend will continue into perpetuity until we reach what they call “The Singularity.” The Singularity will happen, they say, when technological cognitive ability surpasses the human brain.  If this occurs, what may happen next is runaway technological advancement self-perpetuated by artificial intelligence that quickly moves beyond human comprehension and then continues to accelerate at exponential rates.

That prospect, of course, raises all kinds of questions.  The scariness factor of it depends on how you look at it.  On the one hand, it could be the catalyst that allows the human race to finally achieve its glorious destiny: No more wars; quick solutions to global climate change; everlasting life in perpetual bliss; opportunities for fulfillment that cannot even be imagined today.  On the other hand, it could also mean the total extinction of our species as we essentially become absorbed or consumed by the new super-intelligent machines that we have no ability to control or even understand.

While this may still be in the science fiction realm today, many technology gurus are taking it quite seriously.  In 2017 Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, warned of an existential threat to human existence posed by artificial intelligence.

There are also many skeptics, including highly credible tech gurus such as Paul Allen of Microsoft fame.  However, even the skeptics don’t necessarily suggest that The Singularity won’t happen, they just believe it will take a much longer period of time to get there.  Kurzweil predicts the singularity will occur in 2045 (in most of our lifetimes!) while others suggest that it will take hundreds of years.  So, it’s just a matter of time!

How does this relate to nature?  I believe the reason people today find such a connection to nature is because our daily lives are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, and this has everything to do with technology.  When people get out into the wilderness they often use terms like “reconnecting” with the wild or “unplugging” from the world.

This is no coincidence.  In the days of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, environmental visionaries like them were eccentrics.  Those guys were way ahead of their time.  They had some sort of enhanced connection to the natural world that was uncommon then.  Most people in those days did not have a concept for “wilderness” as having its own intrinsic value.  The wilderness was a forbidding and unwelcoming place that was to be exploited and controlled by man.  The ideal was a cultivated landscape shaped by the plow and industry.

These days, while there are still those who have little appreciation for, or interest in, the wilderness, most people seem to appreciate natural places for what they are—natural.  Why has this changed?  I believe it’s partly because industry and technology have worked to detach humans from nature, and by doing so, humans are becoming increasingly nostalgic for natural experiences and immersion into nature.

I work in a technology field and I’m passionate about it.  Technology has provided humanity with great solutions to massive problems.  It has directly contributed to reductions in global hunger and infectious diseases, increases in life span, improvements in quality of life and much more.  But, I’m also keenly aware that technology increasingly separates us from nature and that creates a psychological and sociological conflict.  This conflict will only become more pronounced as technology marches on.

My personal philosophy for dealing with this is what I call nature-tech balance.  I have a professional “foot” and a nature “foot.” I keep one foot (my professional one) in the technology world.  Things are changing incredibly fast, and linking my career to leading technological trends helps ensure that, as these things continue to change our lives in ways we can’t always predict, I will be less likely to be left behind and bewildered by technological innovation.  My other foot (my nature one) is firmly planted in the natural world.  I make sure to “unplug” and step into the wilderness where my smartphone is no longer connected to the web, I can’t read my email, and I can’t talk to Alexa.

I know when I’m in the wilderness that I’m ultimately human and my survival depends on human behavior and traits.  How do I get to my destination one step at a time?  How do I keep warm and dry?  How do I avoid falling off a cliff?  How do I avoid getting mauled by a bear?  And, while I’m doing all this I stop to take in the view.  That beautiful red rock cliff face has been warmed by a hundred million sunrises and will be lit by a hundred million more. That Bristlecone Pine over there is real, and it was a sapling in the days of the Roman Empire.  Contemplation of nature, detached from technology, will keep us grounded and humble.  It will remind us of our origins and will restore our mental equilibrium.

When technological advancement surpasses our ability to comprehend what is happening, those who keep one foot in technology and one foot in nature will be the most likely to be able to cope if things go sour, and thrive if things go well.  Now, it’s time for me to plan my next adventure into the woods.