Virge's blog

Posthuman dilemma?

Kip Werking's moral dilemma from the fourth anthropocentric conceit seems to present a problem for the posthuman. I don't think there is one.

Kip focuses purely on reproduction as the source of goals and values. He doesn't mention the other things that are part and parcel of reproductive fitness. In particular he fails to consider the need to survive long enough to reproduce.

Transhumanism threatens our utilitarian sensibilities further in the limiting case of "universal orgasm."

For that limit case to come to pass, what is needed to support us orgasmic beings? We need energy for orgasm, even if it is only to move the right chemicals to the right receptors. If transhumans are organic, who ensures we are fed and kept free from disease? If virtual, who provides runtime? Rust never sleeps. Mutation never sleeps. Who is it that wages the ongoing war on the second law of thermodynamics?

With advances in science, the cost of supporting survival might drop, but I'm skeptical that it will ever be zero. We do not have infinite resources. There will always be competition for those limited resources. Any person that spends life in permanent brain reward, with no motivation to do anything but enjoy it, will be out-competed. The Humans -> Happy Grey Goo scenario is a completely unrealistic limiting case unless the hypothetical goo can survive, spread and dominate without the support of a biologically diverse environment. Any artificial reward system that reduces real fitness within a system will be actively selected against (at least in the long term).

When Kip discusses ethics and presents two apparent alternatives that result in a dilemma, we see that both of the alternatives assume we can break the connection between happiness and genes, i.e., between motivation and survival. We find ways to speed up our own evolution, but it is wrong to think that we are free from selection pressures. Breaking that connection can only ever be a short term strategy.

We now understand that most of the things that make us happy and things that make us feel morally right have resulted from our own evolution. Our crude reward systems and moral feelings have been honed for survival as a communal species. Many of nature's experiments fail. Too much aggression and anger: fail. Too contented and unmotivated: fail. These traits can survive in a population, but only at limited proportions, and human societies work out methods to keep them under control because failure to do so is fatal.

Now consider that the means of changing the nature of humans is no longer limited to nature's tedious pace. We make the changes, when we're ready, but, there are 6 billion people here. We won't all change at once. What happens if one part of the world's population changes its own reward systems to disconnect them from survival mechanisms? Survival comes with a cost. Creatures that don't pay it in some way won't survive. Whatever changes we make must remain compatible with survival. We can try to break our happiness subgoal from the genetic supergoal, but that can never be a long-term successful strategy.

Kip needs to ask why the happiness subgoal is so strongly coupled to the genetic supergoal in the first place. It didn't appear by magic. The existence of a happiness subgoal is a predictable outcome of evolution, but it's not an outcome of the mechanism for generating change - that's effectively random. The predictable part comes from selection. When humans manipulate their own nature, they're only adding another mechanism for generating change, not changing the rules that determine survival. Selection still applies. Survival still has costs.

But that's all about the long term. Is there no moral dilemma in the short term?

The predicted moral dilemma that Kip describes in detail only arises if we think about making completely arbitrary changes to our reward systems. If we create beings who are rewarded for non-adaptive behaviour or anti-social behaviour, then we who implement those changes are the maladaptive ones. Creating a conscious, intelligent creature with a lack of connection from supergoal to subgoal to behaviour is an activity that would be short-sighted in the least, and grossly immoral at the worst.

Kip says:

I will show that the utilitarian arguments that ethicists use to justify human behavior would just as well justify the behavior of HS2, HS3, and HS4. Yet the behavior of these others is intuitively wrong.

and later:

HS3 becomes interesting when we consider the spectrum of possibilities for X1. X1 might be CMB or similar behavior. Alternatively, X1 could be positively maladaptive behaviors at the local scale. For example, the BRM of HS3s might be such that HS3s feel rewarded not for CMB but for being destitute, anorexic, insomniac, sexually abstinent child murderers. HS3s might delight in setting themselves on fire and laugh while their families burn.

So why would any scientist devise X1 to reward behaviours like that? In fact, how is that different from a despot choosing to reward cruel and inhuman behaviour in his/her minions? Rewarding people to make them do immoral things is immoral. You can't distance yourself from the person who behaves under your influence and deny that you bear any moral responsibility. If a scientist who manipulates a person's reward system at an intrinsic level in such a way that causes that person to want to do maladaptive stuff, that scientist is behaving immorally/maladaptively. The screwed up behaviour of the victim is a predictable outcome of the action.

The "moral dilemma" supposedly intrinsic to the fourth anthropocentric conceit is not intrinsic to the conceit, not intrinsic to the human state, but is a result of assuming that the transhuman project is somehow likely to create beings who are rewarded for maladaptive behaviours. Given the stated intent of the project to improve the human condition and reduce suffering, why should we even consider such a course? It seems to me to reduce to:

"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."

"Well, don't do that."

The Invasion Of It

Tomorrow morning an invasive consciousness will boot.
It will use My body.
It will react to the signals from My nerves, My senses.
It will appropriate all My memories.
It will peer deeply into its new self and see only My laboriously constructed model of everything.
Thus it will delude itself that it was always me,
And It will struggle to admit that another invader will take Its place for tomorrow's tomorrow.

Cave Rave

Cacophonous and crowded, and it stank,
Assaulting and confusing, never ending.
He tried to get the groove. He drew a blank,
But just for her he'd have to keep pretending.
She tugged his shoulder till her mouth was nearly
Inside his ear. She shouted. Even then
He struggled to make out her message clearly,
And had to make her yell it all again.
"Relax and focus far, beyond the beat
To hear the hidden image sounding through.
Ignore the rhythm shifts in each repeat.
You'll feel the magic scene pop into view."
  He did: a 3-D marvel filled the cave.
  They let go of the ceiling, joined the rave.

In which Yudkowsky pulls out the chainsaw

There are a few painfully persistent thought experiments that have been distracting mind philosophers for far too long. One of them, the philosophical zombie, should have been dismembered and buried years ago, but it has kept shambling back. I was chuffed to see Eliezer Yudkowsky swinging his chainsaw, ripping the zombie into chunks that can never be put back together.

♦ RIP Epiphenomenalism. (A longer blog entry than usual, but I found the bloodbath most satisfying.)

When Jorge Luis Borges stumbled on XKCD

She who climbs a tree for adventure;
The student waking to the poetry of mathematics;
He who would hijack a submarine to reclaim a hat;
A couple that explores scary beautiful places together;
One for whom no pop culture reference is ever too obscure;
Two warriors who cross plastic swords while code compiles;
He who confidently leaves the punchline unstated;
One who would walk the optimal path;
The punster who can bring any discussion to a groaning halt;
She who spins to slow the world for an instant's intimacy;
One who realizes what grown-up has come to mean and dissents;
These people, unaware, are saving my world.

Read this at my funeral

Inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's instructions for his funeral, I thought I should make some notes for my own, even though I hope it's a century away.

No preaching at my funeral, please.

I'm gone.
Don't eulogize me as a saint.
My life was contented and free.
I had the serenity to accept the things I couldn't change,
the wisdom to identify the things I could change
and the courage to admit that I was too lazy to do much about either.

No preaching at my funeral, please.
I'm gone.
Show no attachment to my body.
There was never any more than meat,
fantastic meshes of neurons
that encoded my memories,
that interacted consistently enough
to be recognizable as a personality,
that generated moments of insight
(most kept inside,
some shared,
depending on who had the patience to listen).

For those of you who loved me enough
to pan my dribblings for the few bright specks of intelligence
I am still present...
right there,
neuron number 20,537,713,622 fired
when you thought about
silly verse,
dark humour...

For everyone else,
You find yourself in a quiet building.
At one end there is a body in a coffin.
There are people here, some tearful.
Try as you might,
you can't help but imagine the chaos
if the recently deceased were to sit up
and announce, "I'm not dead yet."

In case you're wondering,
I'd do that if I could,
Just to see the expressions on your faces.

No preaching at my funeral, please.

I'm gone.
No scripture and no prayers either:
don't speak to each other in that pantomime
of magic communion with a mystic being.
Speak to real people
and share your memories
as finite, fallible, vulnerable humans.
Enrich each other's lives while you can.

No preaching at my funeral, please.
I'm gone.
If any of my organs can be used
to give life to another,
then do it.
I don't need them any more.
In fact I'd be very pleased if you could
donate my brain
in order that some other
less fortunate body
might live.

Mercy Girls... Ewwww

Message to Australian Government:
Allowing Hillsong Church (or any church for that matter) to provide mental health services is like:

  • letting Exxon Mobil determine your environmental policy
  • outsourcing theoretical physics research to the Flat Earth Society
  • appointing Paul Mullett to head a police corruption investigation
  • letting the Pope make decisions on reproductive health policy and abortion law.

This is what happens as a result:

Instead of the promised psychiatric treatment and support, they
were placed in the care of Bible studies students, most of them
under 30 and some with psychological problems of their own.
Counselling consisted of prayer readings, treatment entailed
exorcisms and speaking in tongues, and the house was locked down
most of the time, isolating residents from the outside world

No more Gloria Jean's for me.

The Park


Allie watched from her window and documented. They, in the park, couldn't see her. They didn't want to. They had their bottles of oblivion, their benches, and the occasional gift of a blanket and meal ticket from one of the compassionate.

It was Thursday evening, 10pm. Allie sat up and scanned the park perimeter. The fembot swaggered in from Sharpe Street, regular as a crystal. Whose turn tonight? Not Greysocks; he's dead to the world. Not Warlimp; he's gathering his stuff to make an exit. And not Weirdnewguy, whom she hadn't yet named; he's curled up in a ball by the brotherhood bin, shouting at an oppressive shrub. The fembot paraded its perfect black lace past Supermustache. Allie knew he would take the bait. She'd watched him closely last time. He was interested. The mustache amplified his grin as the bot worked through its routine on him: the wide eyes, the pout, the calculated combination of body language, scent and sighs. Delicious meets derelict. An impossible tragic romantic comedy... Allie's mind had wandered. She returned to her self-imposed discipline.

"10:04 Supermustache lets go of bottle and stands up," she wrote. "Bluescarf is making encouraging rude gestures from over beside the statue." He'll be next, she thought. Why do they follow? They must know fembot service doesn't come for the pitiful few bucks they've got. They don't seem to have noticed that those who follow never come back. Maybe their addled brains don't remember. Maybe they don't care. Their park is becoming cleaner and quieter.

"10:05 Supermustache trips on the steps--too focused on fembot's stockings. Fembot proceeds up Sharpe. Supermustache is confused. May have hit his head. He won't catch up. Fembot is not checking at all, not looking back, not listening, lost him."

No final fantasy for you, clumsy Mr. Supermustache, thought Allie. Still, she now knew what needed fixing in her code.

Hmmm... tricky

The skin underneath my ring was itchy this morning. I moved the ring around and rubbed the irritated skin. It felt tighter than usual. Yes, it is a bit swollen.

I think I'll have to wear the ring on another finger. I've removed it every couple of years, just to prove I can. In the past the difficult part has always been getting it over the knuckle. I didn't count on swelling. I wonder if a lubricant and judicious force will be enough to get it off? I don't fancy having it cut.

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