words :: Interview
Transhumanism and the Next 20 Years
Interview by ROBERT JARRELL | 15. APRIL 2006
An interview with transhumanist Michael Annisimov about technology and what the next 20 years might look like.
Robert Jarrell (RJ): What is your background and experience with transhumanism? Is your work or personal life involved with transhumanism in some way or another?
Michael Annisimov (MA): I have been a transhumanist since I was 11, which was in 1995. I read an article on nanotechnology in Popular Mechanics, went on to read a few books, and realized that by building tools with fine control over the structure of matter, many features of humanity we consider immutable, like aging, will in fact be amenable to change. When I was 18, still finishing up High School, I founded the non-profit Immortality Institute, an online community of aging researchers, life extension enthusiasts, and forward-looking philosophers devoted to the scientific effort to extend human lifespan far beyond its traditional boundaries. This organization has grown to hundreds of paying members and has published a book, The Scientific Conquest of Death, and documentary film, Exploring Life Extension. Around the time of the Immortality Institute's founding, I was inspired by the writings of Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge biogerontologist who looks at aging as an engineering problem composed of identifiable subtasks. De Grey has since appeared on TV shows like 60 Minutes and on prestigious magazine covers such as MIT Technology Review.
Since about 2002 I have been writing regularly about transhumanism and technologies relevant to it, such as nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. These articles have appeared on various transhumanist-oriented websites. Of particular concern to me is the issue of human extinction risk: could these advances in technologies threaten our humanity, or possibly even lead to our demise? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Transhumanists have a responsibility to ensure that the technologies they advocate, such as advanced biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics, are developed safely and in a well-regulated context. To this end I currently work as Fundraising Director for Lifeboat Foundation, an organization devoted to studying these risks and taking mitigative action against them to the best of our ability. If people are worried about the risks of advanced technology I suggest they check out our site and consider becoming a member. I also run a blog, Accelerating Future, where I regularly discuss these issues. My personal life is related to transhumanism to the extent that I have many transhumanist friends, eat vegetarian, and am currently in the process of signing up for cryonics. The vegetarian part is related to transhumanism firstly because vegetarian diets are healthier and promote a longer life, and secondly because I wouldn't want transhumans to raise humans in cages and kill them for food, therefore I don't condone humans engaging in the practice with other animals.
RJ: What do you believe is the most significant transhumanist technology that will occur in the next 20 years?
MA: In the next 20 years the rate of change of technology will be immense. The rate of change itself is accelerating, so the amount of technological change in the next 20 years will be much greater than what we've seen in the past 20 years. Huge progress will occur in numerous areas: computers will become extremely powerful and lightweight, we'll have holographic displays (finally!), and non-carbon-emitting primary energy sources will be developed through careful investment in solar and nuclear power. Low-intensity lasers which project images directly onto the retina will be available to the common consumer, which will allow "augmented reality"—overlayed web-based text and images onto the real world. Instead of reading this interview on a computer screen, you might read it while relaxing on the beach, projected directly into your field of vision by a lightweight device similar to a bluetooth headset or perhaps even smaller. No wall socket, no wires, no fragile and cumbersome laptop, no problem.
Having said all that, I believe the most significant impact of a transhumanist technology in the next 20 years will be something most people today don't know too much about: molecular manufacturing. This is where tiny robotic arms, no more than 100 nanometers on a side, participate in huge numbers to build products atom by atom in a synchronized fashion. Recently IBM announced that it had successfully used molecular self-assembly to manufacture chips with billions of tiny vacuum "airgaps" that improve cooling and therefore allow the chip to run significantly faster than anything made before. Self-assembly is used all over the place in nature, where it builds things like seashells. The next step is to transfer from spontaneous self-assembly to intelligently directed atomic synthesis. When this technology is mature, we'll be able to use it to build any chemically stable structure automatically, for the cost of raw materials and a little bit of electricity. This is likely to happen sometime between 2015 and 2030. Numerous scientists see this coming, but most people don't know anything about it and react with skepticism because they hear the projected capabilities but need more information on the underlying technology itself. For this, I recommend Nanofuture by J. Storrs Hall, or Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler. Both are easy reads and summarize the technology well.
RJ: Can you elaborate on the concept of human beings interfacing with the global Internet and not being to distinguish between the two? What are the pros and cons of this?
MA: Today, the Internet is used to connect people that never would have met in a society without it. This very interview is only happening because you, Robert, saw my stuff online and emailed me to ask for an interview. Practically everyone reading this interview is doing so from a computer connected to the Internet. The use of email has saved the world billions of dollars in postal fees. The Internet has made high-quality information available to everyone, as long as you can distinguish between the garbage and the good stuff. It would be absurd to say that the Internet is anything less than one of the greatest human inventions ever. So I think interfacing more closely with the Internet would indeed be a good thing, although there may be certain challenges, such as MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) addiction, which will need to be addressed as the Internet becomes more powerful and ubiquitous.
The primary reason why those who currently object to the Internet do so is because interfacing with the Internet currently involves sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen. In the next five to ten years, we will develop cheap wearable devices that allow us to interface with the Internet from anywhere with a cell phone signal. We'll develop tiny implants that can transmit sound directly to our auditory cortex, and eventually implants that integrate with every aspect of our brain architecture. At this point it'll be pointless to prevent "cheating" in schools, because students will have automatic and instantaneous access to all questions of fact. More emphasis will be placed on analysis and interpretation, facets of knowledge sadly neglected in the prevailing educational paradigm of our modern school system.
When the Internet and humanity are more closely fused, anyone with the necessary implants or devices will become "psychic"—capable of transmitting text and eventually actual thoughts from person to person at the speed of light. We already have crude devices that can be implanted in a cat which allow us to use electrodes to see, at low resolution, what the cat is actually looking at. This is remarkable, and it's another one of those technological advances which is a huge deal, but few people know about. When we "visualize" something, we use the same neural machinery that actually displays images from the eye, the visual cortex. So it will only be a matter of time before our visualizations can be encoded as data and uploaded to the net as files for anyone to download. This will greatly boost our creative potential and also the critical analysis of our own brain processes.
RJ: What do you believe is the most (important) ethical issue regarding transhumanism today and what might it be in the future once some of these technologies are in place?
MA: The most important ethical issue today related to transhumanism is the global extinction risk that will emerge from transhumanist technologies. This is the most important ethical issue today, and it will be tomorrow. If we survive this period of advanced technological change and reach a relative steady-state with a near-zero chance of global disaster, then the biggest ethical issue will have been solved and anything that comes next will look trivial by comparison. To get a better idea of the magnitude of extinction risk, note that even if the risk is relatively small, say, 1% per year, then stretched out over a time period of hundreds of years, human extinction becomes practically certain. If we want to have our species around for millions of years to come, we have to decrease the risk to almost zero. This is essential, and arguably there is no greater cause for our generation.
The main two extinction risks are synthetic life and artificial intelligence. Synthetic life could be made out of much sturdier materials than the proteins that make up all current life, and could have reproduction cycles much more rapid than those we're accustomed to. For instance, the fastest self-replicating bacteria can double their numbers in about 20 minutes. New artificial bacteria based on nonbiological chemistry might be able to replicate in 5 minutes or less, and do so with a wider variety of materials. They could also be made out of materials that don't biodegrade, and could integrate normal biological molecules (C, H, O, N) with nonbiological elements which are just available in comparative quantities but not fully exploited by current biological life (Fe, Si, Mg, Ni). If such replicators seriously damaged the biosphere, or even consumed human biomaterial directly, the survival of our species could be put in severe danger.
The second main risk is artificial intelligence. Once it gets smarter than us, it will be able to trick us, manufacture its own robotics, and quickly become capable of killing us if it wants to. The key will be to make it so that it won't want to. This will be done by making the first artificial intelligence fundamentally altruistic, and lacking in any form of observer-centered goal system, which is ubiquitous to all organisms fashioned by Darwinian evolution. A selfless artificial intelligence with respect for human life will not want to change its goals, because it will want to want those goals. We must ensure that these goals are not context-dependent—that is, whatever the surrounding environment, they are maintained. This seems possible, as there are many features of the human brain that remain constant no matter what our experiences. If we do not construct artificial intelligence carefully, then we could end up having to face a superintelligent AI that does not explicitly dislike us, but has self-centered goals which entail reshaping the surface of the Earth in its own image. The end result would be no different than the run-amok synthetic life discussed in the above paragraph.
RJ: Many transhumanist theories disregard or argue against human nature or philosophies such as Taoism, where opposites such as life and death balance nature. Transhumanist have visions of moving beyond this balance and declare that it is unecessary. How do you think our value system or philosophies of life will change or adapt if we become immortal? How does one get up in the morning and work hard or have ambition when its just another day in a life that will never end. On one hand a slacker culture could evolve and on the other someone might take advantage of it and become very good at many things. With a lot of time on our hands we could become a doctor and artist and author and programmer and the list could go on and on. It would be fascinating as we might have a slacker culture or more people might become Renaissance men.
MA: The problem with philosophies like Taoism is that you can hijack them to say almost whatever you want. It is necessary that there be slaves so people can be free? Southern slaveowners used this argument prior to the Civil War. It's "natural" that there be masters and slaves, right? In nature, we see complex social hierarchies where individuals on the top are free to beat and even kill their inferiors if they try to gain access to the alpha male's harem. What is the lesson we take away from this? Natural does not equal good. Some natural things are good, like flower petals, and others are bad, like endemic typhus. Some artificial things are good, like the toothbrush and a warm jacket, and some artificial things are bad, like nukes and corporate bureaucracy. Using a broad brush to paint natural as good and artificial as bad is an intellectually lazy oversimplification. The hippy movement, which started right here in San Francisco, is partially to blame for this. The modern environmentalist movement is a bit more savvy, though, and sees technology as the solution, not the problem.
Surely, extended lifespans will change the way we look at life. We'll have to take responsibility for things further in the future, things we previously had the ability to conveniently ignore and pass the responsibility on to our children. For example, Social Security, a ticking financial time bomb, seems to be largely ignored by many of the old men currently running Washington. They aren't concerned because they will likely be six feet under by the time it becomes a major problem. I doubt that a slacker culture would emerge on any wide scale because people are motivated to accomplish things so that they can talk and brag about it. Say you're a girl at a party, do you want to talk to the guy who is a successful businessman or active scientific researcher, or the guy who sits at home all day watching reruns of Lost? No one wants to be the loser doing nothing. Extended lifespans will lead to a new Renaissance where people have the time to actually look outside their own field and make connections between disciplines. Today, this only happens on a limited scale because our lives are too damn short.
RJ: What SF novel and non-fiction book do you recommend to read for a beginner transhumanist?
MA: For sci-fi, I recommend The Golden Age by John C. Wright. For non-fiction, go for The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Both books are mind-blowingly awesome.