transhumanists at h+ vs. a skeptical biologist

A biologist tried to give a neuroscience lesson to the utopian futurists at H+ and they did not take it well.

humanoid robot

H+ Magazine tends to be very enthusiastic about the Technological Singularity espoused by Ray Kurzweil and transhumanists who like his ideas, so it caught my eye to find an article rather critical of some proposals by a number of Singularitarians published alongside the usual futuristic optimism. And no wonder. Its author is biologist Athena Andreadis who studies gene regulation and writes science fiction and pop sci posts across the web.

Her biggest problem? The sheer disregard many Singularitarians have for the biology involved in our brains and the fact that body and mind are a package deal. You don’t have one without the other and the ideas of uploading minds to a computer while tossing the bodies into a waste disposal unit simply doesn’t work. In other words, you can replace parts of your body until you’re mostly machine, but your brain is there for good.

By this point, the article is a few months old. Having found it soon after it was published, I saved it alongside my bookmarks with post ideas but managed to lose sight of it until now. Nevertheless, this is an article that’s just as valid today as it was in mid-October and there are even more things to talk about after some of the big online promoters of the Singularity made their marks in the comment section, including Jake Cannell, who’s made an appearance on this blog as well to argue the exact same proposition he argued at H+ a few weeks before.

He seems to be a pretty driven man. And why not? To be able to discard your body in favor of anything your heart desires is an awesome proposition. It would be like having a real life avatar you could style after a cartoon character, give yourself the kind of body that would turn a bodybuilder green with envy without a single trip to the gym, or experiment with the looks of a gorgeous porn star. The possibilities are only limited by what shell bodies are in stock. To believe that something like this is possible in our lifetime is definitely hard to let go. Sadly for transhumanists though, the reality of the matter is far more complex than that.

But why let science spoil the fun when one can snarl at scientists for being wet blankets with no appreciation for the wise and powerful beings of the future who can surely figure out how to do the impossible, according to a number of commenters on the article. As one of them says in his complaint…

This whole discussion is ludicrous, like cavemen discussing the future possibilities of the human race, envisioned entirely in terms of whether stone weapons can solve the cave-bear problem. We have literally no idea whatsoever what the lives of our descendants will be like in 10,000 years — not what their problems will be, nor what their capabilities will be.

There’s a point here. We really don’t know what life will be like ten millennia from now. Our descendants could be exploring the galaxy, or have managed to fulfill Einstein’s dire exercise in prediction and be fighting World War 4 with sticks and stones. But to say that such a fundamental thing like the limitations of our bodies might not be an issue in the future and the biological barriers to such things as mind uploading will disappear, is an exercise in boundless futuristic optimism which has a very mixed track record when it comes to making our dreams come true.

I’ve pointed out before why mind uploading wouldn’t work and reiterated those reasons in my debate with the Singularity Institute’s Michael Vassar. Computers do not work like human brains. That’s not how they were designed. Rebuilding them to simulate biological forms would mean taking the current and long proven von Neumann architecture, throwing it out the window, and starting from scratch.

There are some efforts to give computers a capability similar to thought via brain modeling projects but these experiments are more hype than anything else at this point and even if they turn out to be successful, the end product would have little to no practical use. However, instead of trying to be more like machines, we can do what’s already being done in medical and computer science labs across the world and make computers work with us.

We already know how to make thought controlled computers, how to build robotic limbs that function as if they were our arms and legs, and even how to turn thoughts into synthesized speech. Becoming part machine is how we could extend our lifespans, replacing organs that wear out for synthetic substitutes which can be repaired, along with the biological modifications suggested by Dr. Andreadis. Of course there’s a limit to how much we can replace. Touch any of our vital organs like the heart, liver or lungs, and you risk killing the brain. Mess with the circulatory system too much and you’ll risk stroke and starving the brain of oxygen.

Ultimately, we don’t know what the future will bring. Still, to task our descendants to make us into immortal bits of software and replying to very valid and pertinent scientific and engineering objections by saying that a future society will surely solve whatever scientific hurdles we face in making it happen, is just another way of pointing to the sky and saying that someone, somewhere will answer your prayers and build the magical technologies so we can transcend being human. But that’s not going to happen. We evolved as humans and this is exactly what we’ll be, no matter how many machine parts we add to our bodies or how far away from Earth we venture in the distant future. And our messy organic brains will always be with us.

# tech // biology / neurology / technological singularity


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