why tech billionaires can’t “disruptively” vote their way to digital immortality
You’ve probably heard about billionaires’ Plan B for when the end of the world comes, much of it centering around property in New Zealand. It’s not exactly a bad plan as far as doomsday prepping goes; buy a nice bunker somewhere in Middle Earth and wait out the chaos in luxury on one of two fairly isolated islands. Now, you may have noticed that front and center for such planning is Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump backer Peter Thiel of the pay-to-sue-Gawker-into-oblivion fame to the public at large, and ultra-libertarian venture capitalist with some crazy ideas about the future to the techies who know him. His backing of seasteading and support for Trump just because he got bored with Obama, are but a warmup to what he really has in mind for the future: immortality as a sentient super-AI.
No, you didn’t read that wrong, and no, this is not hyperbole. In fact, yours truly was once invited to an event where Thiel was a featured speaker after a rather public spat with the president of the Singularity Institute. I did not take up the offer because I had to be in class to learn how to build actual AI systems. And for full disclosure, I was invited to join an advisory board for a group of futurists called The Lifeboat Foundation, but like Groucho Marx, I didn’t want to be involved in a club that would accept someone like me as a member, much less as an advisor based on little more than me being a grad student at the time. So Thiel’s involvement with a group of futurists and an occasional computer scientist who thinks we’re on the verge of something a lot like the plot of Transcendence, is extremely well known in tech.
In fact, the belief that at some point, artificial intelligence and the march of technology will create a singularity that will alter humanity forever, has an alarming number of adherents in Silicon Valley. The face of the Singularity today, Ray Kurzweil, works at Google and runs Singularity University where it’s preached thanks to a multimillion commitment from his employer. And the fact that this belief is so popular in the world’s biggest tech hub isn’t all that surprising if we consider its followers. They’re told that their code and the technology they’re developing is changing the world, or they’re devoted followers of popular science news ready for the incredible future promised to us by the glossy magazines and sci-fi movies to arrive. To be told that by 2035 or 2045 we may become immortal through technology is appealing to say the least, and empowering for those who think they can help.
This is perhaps why Elon Musk is trying to fuse humans with machines by using technology originally intended to control prosthetics and provide any locked-in patients a way to communicate with the world, and he’s far from the only tech tycoon to try it. This may also be why futurists devote lots of time on Less Wrong, the Singularitarian version of reddit where oft quoted futurist Eliezer Yudkowsky ruminates on training your AI like your pet so it won’t turn malevolent, which is a very roundabout and bizarre approach for machines we can control at their most fundamental levels. But more on that later, lest we digress. The point is that a lot of people are culturally ready to transcend being mere meatbags subject to nature’s capricious whims, and a sizable group of engineers who think they can expedite the future, or have skills that civilian Singularity adherents believe they can count on.
when technology becomes a matter of faith
Ask Singularitarians how to solve world problems and they will say that it’s just a matter of technology and if we don’t have it now, we’ll have it sooner rather than later because they believe that Moore’s Law isn’t just a gimmick that Intel used to sell more processors, but an actual principle of how all of our scientific and technical progress works. Unfortunately, once we look at the data points they use to justify this approach, we’ll see that they’re highly selective and cherry-picked to fit their theory, and the predictions they point to when their forecasting prowess is questioned are often corrected after the fact to make them sound at least in the ballpark. In essence, they’re hoping for a technological revolution that will solve all of their problems, but their justification for this hope stands on a factual house of cards.
So it’s kind of understandable that wealthy Singularitarians would identify with a lot of libertarian ideology. Do banking regulations really matter in a world where banks as we know them will be replaced by some blockchain implementation that allows peer-to-peer banking? How much do we need to invest in public schools and universities when we’ll ultimately learn all the things we need to know online, diving into vast digitized treasure troves of information on a whim? As far as they’re concerned, the answer is always a startup, an app, a website, something that gets them one step closer to the world in which an AI smarter than every human on Earth combined comes out of Silicon Valley’s efforts and none of those things we’re fighting about today will matter anymore because they would be about as relevant to us then as arguing about funding alchemical experiments is today.
In their eyes, we’ve all lagged behind in embracing change, and they really do have a point there. With the rise in automation and stagnation from our politicians instead of agendas to adapt and reeducate those whose jobs were automated away or outsourced to those who will be automated away soon enough, a lot of people are getting desperate to either turn back the clock to the halcyon days of yore, or knowing they’re doomed want to take us down with them. With neither the populace nor the politicians “grokking it” as we can see by the mess we have on our hands today in many parts of the world, no wonder that some of them are thinking about chilling out in a bunker if our graying, change-phobic political leaders melt down the global economy or start a nuclear war because a Twitter exchange went south.
And here Peter Thiel in particular stands out because just based on how he justified his support for Trump, he may have been hoping for some sort of agent of creative destruction, figuring that since people are stuck between worlds, so to speak, maybe the old world needs a little push to self-destruct so a new one could rise from its ashes. Hopefully not literal ones. But with the old world order dead, he and his like-minded friends can build floating cities that will become mobile centers of commerce staffed with graduates and partners of his entrepreneur finishing school, investing into the many life-extending and brain-AI-interfacing ventures funded by other tech VCs and luminaries until one day they can upload their minds into bodies that are no longer constrained by the limits of mere biology.
Of course, the biggest question here is how realistic all this is. Could a human mind really be uploaded and recreated in digital form? In one word, no. In more words than that, thinking about the mind as just a complex but reproducible electrical pulses on a substrate that can be swapped out is just wrong from beginning to end. Your brain doesn’t just provide a way for the electrical pulses in question to travel, it’s entirety is what makes you work. This includes all the neurotransmitters, glial cells, the ability to change the neural pathways in response to stimuli and experience, all things that will not translate into a computer model provided you could even represent a human connectome (the map of all neural pathways in the brain) with the required degree to accuracy to even try such an experiment, which is also a huge what if with bizarre ethical implications.
when biology won’t cooperate with your dreams
Basically, what Singularitarians are asking scientists and engineers to do is the equivalent of recreating the city of Tokyo with everything that makes it what it is, including the people, culture, and institutional memories, using nothing more than a Google road map that’s patchy and not too accurate in some places. No one knows how to do that or if it would be possible, but it’s not the answer they want to hear, so they insist that smart people are on it and it’s just a matter of time until the problem will be solved. And after they outsourced this monumental, possibly Sisyphean, task to “smart people” in line to benefit from the supposedly exponential growth of our technological prowess, they spend years writing philosophy papers in which an AI is just some mysterious black box we must train, trick or appease, substituting any sort of technical detail with thought experiments.
Even if we forget for a moment that the Singularity has been astutely called the Nerd Rapture for all the likelihood it will happen, Singularitarians who support “disruptive” candidates for office, hoping they will get free reign to accelerate their dreams and pour money saved with tax breaks into startups that will solve the problems standing in the way, are shooting themselves in the foot. Most startups out there tackle First World problems rather then aim to answer questions that befuddle the world’s top scientists, and every small government politician puts basic science, the kind they need to have even a small chance at some of their dreams of life extension coming true, first on the budgetary chopping block. Libertarian Singularitarianism, in short, is an escapist fantasy from a technological and scientific standpoint, that ends up setting itself back from a research and political point of view.
None of this means that our world doesn’t need to change or there’s nothing amazing in the pipeline for the future. Just the opposite to both. But we are not going to be suddenly uploading our minds to machines, and we are not getting life extension treatments by 2035 no matter what we do or who we’ll vote for at the polls. Outsourcing all the hard work of reshaping civilization and humanity for the far future of our utopian dreams to nameless groups of “smart people” and the “exponential march of technological progress” that’s anything but exponential, much less assured, is abdicating responsibility for implementing your dreams. The future doesn’t change itself. It requires real effort and a sober understanding of what science and engineering can do.
If you want to become a space-faring cyborg, you’re going to have to work for it by doing your research, supporting scientists, and voting for leaders with the right priorities: education, STEM funding, and affordable, quality healthcare for all because life extension technologies and treatments won’t do you much good if you can’t afford them, won’t live long enough to get them, or both. And if you really want all of this to happen in your lifetime, you can’t afford to let others do all that hard work for you. They might, but not on your schedule, or they might decide they would rather turn back the clock while dismissing your ideas as wild utopian dreams unworthy of even discussing in theory, much less allocate funds to work towards. This is what a lot of Singularitarians need to learn, that progress is not a given.
[ this article was originally published in Rantt Politech ]