Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"Personhood" For Beginners

Originally posted on on May 30, 2012

Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? This essay is the first in a series of articles, entitled “The Casual Transhuman” - it will examine H+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large.
One of the most difficult and polarizing concepts for my non-transhumanist friends to discuss is non-human personhood.  For those who haven’t kept up on it or need a refresher, here are the basics:
There is a conceit amongst the majority of our population that we humans are the center of our universe. As we have become the technologically superior species on this planet, and as our dominion over the Earth has spread, we have assumed that we are the top dogs - that we are the only sentient beings here. All other animals are beneath us, and we are their masters. It has become so ingrained that the average person does not even question the truth of this kind of thinking.  
But this doesn’t hold up very well under any kind of scrutiny. 
Why do people in the Western world eat the flesh of cows, but not horses? Why do we dote upon dogs and cats, but never show affection for groundhogs and opossums? We can eat tuna and swordfish, but dolphins and sharks? It’s unthinkable. Why do we do this? People would say that it is because the horses, dogs, dolphins, etc. are intelligent and that the others are not. They would say that these animals show certain humanlike characteristics, or that they serve a purpose, and therefore are more evolved and should be protected.
Again, I speak in terms of the general feeling of people I know or speak to about this subject. This is by no means meant to be a blanket statement. Of course there are animal lovers and rights activists who believe the opposite, but they are unfortunately in the minority in the United States.
Well, the concept of non-human personhood grows from this. Some animals are quite intelligent. More highly evolved apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees share all but a miniscule amount of their DNA with homo sapiens and have been shown to make and use tools, to converse with people in sign language and to mourn the passing of a loved one.  Why are homo sapiens considered “people” but Koko the Gorilla is not? Why are we allowed to forcibly move them from their homes into either zoos or labs? Why are we allowed to experiment on them, put them into space, test drugs and other chemicals on them? Would we do these things to our own kind?
Again, I’m talking about the vast majority of humanity. Personhood is a right for humans, not a privilege. Shouldn’t higher apes be considered people, taking into account their mental, physical and emotional complexity? It comes from the fallacy that we are humans and anything not human is automatically lesser than we are. People who believe in the right of personhood for non-human beings disagree and advocate that these apes should be protected and allowed to live as freely as humans.
And what about non-simian species? Dolphins are often set as an example when discussing non-human personhood. They have a highly-developed society and are one of the few species widely understood to engage in sexual intercourse for fun as well as procreation. They also play games, some of which are quite involved and complex. Here is a video about one such game;

As we have studied animals, we have discovered that they are not very unlike us. So now we have beings that share this planet with us, that we know are intelligent, creative, emotional and complex. Now what? Many people just say “Fine, I accept that, but I’m still better than those animals. Now pass the A-1.” Others take this knowledge to heart and adopt a cruelty-free lifestyle - veganism, activism, etc. 
From a technoprogressive viewpoint, that is not good enough. What makes you a person? Your sense of self and awareness of the world and your place in it and in the society of others like yourself. Sentience. What we know of the way some of these more evolved animals think, it is safe to assume that dolphins, dogs, pigs and apes are sentient. Therefore, they could be qualified as people.
So how do we determine which animals deserve personhood? Obviously, a gorilla is closer to humans than ants. But ants have a highly developed social order and society. In fact, one could argue that ants are “more developed” than humans in a lot of ways. Disagree? then read this and report back to me. There is a human-centric bias that things that are more like us (or that are at least cute and cuddly) are more highly evolved. But ants have been around for over 80 MILLION YEARS! Think about that.
As always, I end my article by asking you to pick up the discussion. How do you determine which animals deserve personhood and the rights that go with it? How do we enforce their protection? Do you even think that ANY non-humans deserve to be protected as people?  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

We Are The Borg...And That Is A Good Thing.

Originally Posted on on May 22nd, 2012.

Let’s be real. The majority of transhumanists, scientists, astronomers, computer specialists, etc. became interested in their fields of study through their interest in science-fiction. We know the story of how cellphones were designed with Star Trek‘s communicators in mind, as were tablet computers, ebooks, and other new technologies. That has all been well-documented and I’m relatively certain that it is not news to most of us. Star Trek has been very influential in my life, guiding my thought processes in many areas, like physics, astronomy, quantum mechanics - even politics and economics.

I think that, more so than Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5, the galaxy as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry has inspired people from all walks of life - scientist and layperson, politician and religious leader, male and female - to work toward creating a better future. The idea of this liberal, technologically-advanced, culturally-diverse near-utopia that has no further need for hard labor, resource mining, or even money has given people something to strive toward.

Yet there is a dark side to Star Trek.

 The most feared villains of the 24th Century are a monstrous group of cybernetically enhanced organisms connected to each other through a collective hive-like consciousness. They have lost all semblance of individuality. They are the Borg, and their only desire is to “assimilate” every free being they see into the Collective, “adding their biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.” The Borg are cold, unfeeling drones, who speak as one in a monotonous cacophany. Their limbs are replaced with tools, specially designed for the work that that drone is expected to perform. Most have at least one eye replaced with an implant which allows them to see beyond the visible spectrum, and which also has a nifty heads-up display. When a Borg is killed another appears next to it, removes vital pieces of technology, then walks away. The dead drone then disappears. Beamed? Disintegrated? Who knows? But the other drones don’t seem to care, so neither do we. What people find most disturbing about the Borg is their loss of individuality. They are the zombies of Star Trek, and are popular for the same reasons.

 Pretty terrifying, isn’t it?

 Every time some new piece of technology is invented - every new social network that goes online - every breakthrough in human-computer interface is cause for alarm in many people who feel that we are becoming ever more like the Borg Collective. As is customary for my articles, a quick Google Search will come up with some insight into the thoughts of the non-transhumanists.

 As a rule, when some new gadget is introduced, like say the Oakley’s HUD glasses - a competitor to the Google Glasses, one of the first reader comments will be the familiar “Resistance is Futile.” refrain. It doesn’t even have to make sense to the article. There just has to be a report on a major (or not-so-major) news site about technology, and somewhere beneath it, you will see those words.

 But is it such a bad thing for humanity to want to become a collective? Isn’t one of the main selling points of the internet, social media, etc. the fact that we are all now closer than ever? What I write on my Twitter account can be read by hundreds or even thousands of people instantly. They know what I am thinking, and I can see what is on the mind of all the people I follow. Facebook allows me to share videos, photos, music, status updates and more (although I rarely use Facebook anymore, but I plan on returning to it). Foursquare, Google+, LinkdIn, Skype, and all the other apps and social media are being used to keep us constantly “plugged in” to our peers, our favorite celebrities, causes, politicians, businesses and anyone or anything else we want. Anything I want or need to know can be accessed instantaneously through my various devices. I have been keeping up on the reasearch into Google Glasses, Augmented Reality, implanted microchips, prosthetic limbs, brain uploading and more and I have to say “bring it on!” I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and have lived on both sides of the technology boom. As a child I listened to vinyl records and now I have hours of music loaded onto my Android phone. I used to go to the corner Blockbuster once a week to rent VHS tapes and now I can instantly Netflix anything I want on my laptop, phone or TV. As I write these articles, or my upcoming novel, if I need specific information about a topic, it is there for me, either online or through a friend or follower, and I find that to be incredibly exciting.

In other words, I grew up “free” and have been “assimilated” into the collective consciousness of humanity, which is increasingly digital. 24 hour news has given rise to instant political commentary, so I know where each side stands on a given situation. People from all walks of life give input on message boards, Twitter and Facebook. CNN often shows viewer Tweets in the scroll at the bottom of the screen. Yet I do not feel like I have lost my individuality, in a Borg-like stupor. I feel much more informed than I would be if I were disconnected. I feel like I am a part of a greater whole. And I feel like I can be heard. I am not a voiceless drone. I am not one of the millions speaking in unison. The technology that connects me to everyone else does not rule me. I rule the technology and I use it to better myself. After all, isn’t that what Transhumanism is all about?

So how do we spread the word? How do we make breakthrough technology “sexier” to the general public? It seems that as long as there is some distance between the person and the product, people aren’t as nervous. Cell phones, tablet computers, iPods and the like are ubiquitous. However, as soon as someone brings up microchip implants, HUD glasses or thought-controlled interfaces - wearable technoloogy - people are upset about the potential consequences. In other words, how do we let people know that can we make “cyborgs” without making “The Borg?”

 This one will all come down to advertising, I think. Take a look at this video...

 And this one…

 These videos show people who are becoming more and more integrated with their technology. The woman in the first video has received an implant that allows her to hear for the first time. Did she immediately lose all her humanity? No. She is now able to participate more in society. To hear music, laughter, and all sorts of other things. Her use of this technology gave her one of the most sincere and wonderful emotional reactions I’ve ever watched. Cyborg? Yes. Borg? Not even remotely. The second video shows how currently developing technologies are going to integrate into the daily lives of people in the not-too-distant future. Do these people seem inhuman? Do they walk around like mindless zombies? No. In fact, they appear to have more time for interpersonal communication and healthy relationships. Of course, this video was created to make everyone appear happy, wealthy and well-adjusted. The truth will probably be a little less pleasant, but the idea remains the same, and it’s a good one. This video shows us that the future can be more like Star Trek, and that that future is not very far off.

A constant influx of these types of images - of happy people and their serene lives made possible through technology - might help to soften some of the Luddite reaction. Although, the comments sections beneath both of those videos on YouTube do feature debates and some very frightened people. We will never make everyone happy about the merger of man and machine, but with continued positive press and cheaper and more powerful devices, we will soon become linked together to spread our ideas, our beliefs, our lives with each other on a global scale, and we will be able to see, hear and do things that no humans in history have ever done. We are a collective species already, living in our big cities and longing to be part of groups with similar interests. We just need to take the next step - together.

The In-Vitro Meat Debate

Originally Posted on on May 7, 2012

Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? This essay is the first in a series of articles, entitled “The Casual Transhuman” - it will examine h+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large. 

 A few months ago, I was having dinner with some friends at a local diner. The topic of conversation turned to transhumanism and related fields of study. Our talk went into the wee hours of the morning, and we were quite animated in our discussion of life-extension, posthuman economics, religion and so forth. The three of us were like peas in the proverbial pod, but my wife sat quietly for most of the time, sipping her tea and staying as far away from the conversation as possible. She has always had an interest in science, but once we start getting into futurism or H+ topics, she shuts down. When I come home talking about some new concept for human/computer interface, augmented reality, in-vitro meat, etc., she nods her head, saying “uh huh” at every pause in my speech, and generally humoring me as much as possible before changing the subject to something practical.

 Why is that? She is certainly intelligent enough to understand these things. Her comprehension is not in question.

I have come to the conclusion that she doesn’t really think these things are truly possible. And that, if they are, the scientific advances we make are neither desirable nor practical. I ask for her thoughts on in-vitro meat and she shrugs her shoulders, saying “Nobody will eat it because it’s made in a lab. People would be too afraid of it.” Having read the article by Hank Pellissier titled Nine Ways In-Vitro Meat Will Change Our Lives I gave her examples of how it would be cheaper, healthier, even tastier, she still seemed to believe that nobody would be interested because they do not like change.

 This is one of the main problems I see with the H+ “community.” Transhumanists on the “inside,” the admitted science nerds and computer geeks and whatnot, are up to date on current research into these matters. The public, however, is not. The cubicle cowboy who uses the web for email, sports headlines and the occasional escapist pornography has no idea what the majority of the topics of interest to the H+ people are. They could not care less that somebody in a white coat is growing filet mignon in a petri dish. And if they read a short article about it on, say, Reuters, they would likely read the headline, skim the article and go straight to the comments where they will see an assortment of gems like the following…

 “Up Next….How to deal with people who have eaten in-vitro meat and have turned into flesh eating ZOMBIES!!!!” - benjamin81882

 “Great, but no animals lives will be saved. That’s a completely ridiculous and false statement. The animals just won’t be born in the first place. Vegans and veggies should be happy about this though as now more land can be dedicated to exploiting bees for fruits and vegetables and they can have their meat and eat it too. Of course, true vegans will still have to grow their own fruits and veggies and let nature take its course and no test tube meat for you as you cannot exploit animals (which includes humans) for food. LOL.” - Peter666

 And over at the Huffington Post comes one comment to which I give extra points for creativity…

 “I thought they already had this with the McRib…yum yum” - ewalter899

 Aside from this, there are many comparisons to Soylent Green and “Frankenburger” and other frightening ideas. So how does the growing community of transhumanists spread the word that there is absolutely NOTHING scary about this innovation? I have spoken to people who were using the “yuck” factor as a reason to avoid the shmeat. When I tell them (half-jokingly) to compare the slaughterhouse to a clean and sterile laboratory and then tell me which is yucky, they laugh it off and change the subject, like my wife does.

 Which leads me to the following thought. Is there are uncanny valley of sorts at play here? To the average person, is lab-grown meat not real meat? Can it only be considered beef if it actually came from a slaughtered cow? It looks like meat, smells like meat, tastes like meat - but it isn’t meat? Even though the vast majority of people no longer need to hunt for their meals, is there still some embedded need to connect with our food on a primal level? We know that this steak was once alive, and now it is not and it sustains us, so we are still at the top of the food chain. Is that a comforting thought to the carnivorous humans among us? To this I say, go out into the jungles of Africa with no weapons or tools and see how long you last. We have never been the top of any food chain. We are not the masters over most animals - only those our ancestors domesticated and bred.

 So how to change this perception that lab meat is creepy or wrong or ungodly? Well first, the media would have to stop referring to the product as “Frankenfood.” I see that in nearly every article I’ve read on the subject. It doesn’t exactly evoke a Pavlovian response from me, and I doubt it does to most people. In fact, “in-vitro meat,” the technical term for this product, isn’t so comforting either. My wife says the term makes her think of babies and that we don’t want to eat babies. There is an imitation crab meat product on the shelves called Krab and vegetarian meat-substitutes are already labeled Chik’n. In order for people to be less afraid of the product, they need to have a catchy name to call it that is also appetizing and positive. People seem to like seeing that their tuna is “dolphin safe” and that their chicken is “free-range,” meaning that the food company has taken steps to insure that the final product was prepared in a humane way with as little suffering to the animals as possible. So I propose that IVM be given a similar moniker, like “No-Kill Meat.” Nothing about labs, test tubes or petri dishes, and there is the satisfaction of knowing that this meat did not require the death of an animal. It may not be the best, but it sure beats Frankenburger.

 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has given their approval of this research, and that could help the growing population of vegetarians to spread the word about it. I know some people who believe that PETA does more harm than good but to the majority of people, they are the voice of vegetarianism. Other environmental agencies will focus on the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and other ecological benefits to IVM. Getting the vegetarians and the green thinkers on our side, promoting IVM will be sure to bring over a lot of consumers.

 When the product finally hits the shelves, perhaps we could invite our friends and neighbors to a barbecue and only tell them afterwards that their hot dogs and hamburgers were in-vitro. We could support any restaurants that serve IVM by patronizing them frequently (please no KFC jokes, I’m being serious here). In other words, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. Any form of positive reinforcement is better than negative acts like attacking slaughterhouses and protesting in front of a McDonald’s. That would only serve to frighten away people who might have been vaguely interested. Perhaps some intrepid entrepreneur could open a restaurant that serves popular dishes in which the meat has been entirely replaced with IVM.

 And now I open the floor to all of you. In-vitro meat is on its way, and soon. It can be met with applause and excitement, or with derision and scorn. It is up to those of us who believe that this product will fundamentally change the way we produce and consume our food to spread the word about it. How would you make in-vitro meat more…appetizing…to the common consumer?