Tag: <span>transhumanism</span>

Building the Tower of Babel

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I spent this past weekend visiting some old friends. One of my friends is a Dominican Friar who was gracious enough to allow me to stay in one of the guest rooms at his Priory. One night while I was there he invited me to sit down with the other friars during their social hour. I think mostly he just wanted me to meet them, but as I was sitting there they ended up on the subject of what level of human technological enhancement was appropriate. Obviously this is a somewhat fraught issue for most religions, and definitely all of the traditional religions. I don’t want to misconstrue what my hosts said, nor do I claim any great insight into Catholic doctrine on this matter, so I won’t attempt to reconstruct the discussion. But it led to a conversation with my friend afterwards where I mentioned the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I’ve always felt that the MTA seemed to have missed the point of the story of the Tower of Babel, and my friend the Dominican (without any prodding from me) jumped to an identical conclusion. It was nice to have the support of someone else on this point and additionally it reminded me that I had wanted to write a post examining just this question. That is, does the story of the Tower of Babel speak to the goals religious transhumanism?

To conduct the examination we need to answer two questions: First is the story of the Tower of Babel a caution about using technology in an attempt to become like God? Second is using technology to become like God one of the primary goals of the MTA? The second question is easier to answer than the first so we’ll begin there.

It is always dangerous to speak for a group you do not belong to, particularly when you are a critic of the group. I could point out that my criticism is meant in the most constructive and friendly way possible. But, even so, as a reader you would have every right to question my objectivity on this point. If you have any worries on this point I would urge you to follow all the links and educate yourself by reading what the MTA says about itself. That said I am not trying to be unfair or prejudiced, and in that spirit here is my best summary of what the MTA believes: All of the promises made by Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, (resurrection, immortality, the creation of worlds, etc) are going to be accomplished through human ingenuity, in the form of technology. As I said you should follow the links to their website, but I think point four of the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation says much the same thing:

We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.

Perhaps, this, by itself, is already enough, and, from the standpoint of religion, you can already easily see why the Tower of Babel story is applicable. But for those that are not convinced or would like more evidence, let me break it down. First the principles I’ve already pointed out are just the Mormon veneer on top of main body of transhumanism. The MTA is not merely espousing a particular Mormon take on transhumanism they fully endorse the goals of the broader transhumanist movement. This is made clear when they explain what it takes to join the MTA:

The association requires that all members support the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation.

The Transhumanist Declaration gives one the impression that the sky’s the limit with respect to technological enhancement. For example let’s look at points 1 and 8 of the declaration (the first and last points):

Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.

We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

If you’re still not convinced let me close this section by providing a few examples of things transhumanists and the MTA in particular are definitely in favor of:

Cryonics: That is freezing or otherwise preserving someone when they die with a view towards bringing them back from the dead at some future point.

Genetic Modification: Obviously genetic modification can take many forms, but under the heading of human modification and enhancement the MTA is in favor of using it to the maximum extent possible as a means of increasing intelligence and of course, eventually providing immortality. If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca that’s probably a pretty fair representation.

Cybernetic enhancements: This category might cover getting rid of perfectly functional eyes and replacing them with more advanced robotic eyes, or some sort of direct connection between your brain and a computer (think the headjack from the Matrix.)

Mind uploading: The most radical idea of all would be the ability to copy your mind and then upload it to some sort of computer, allowing you to live on as a virtual being. This enhancement encompasses the benefits of all the previous enhancements, but is also probably the most difficult technically.

As I said I’m reluctant to speak for a group I’m critical of, and if you have doubts as to whether I’m accurately portraying the principles espoused by the MTA then you should definitely follow the links and read things for yourself, but from where I stand there can be very little doubt that the answer to my second question is: yes, one of the MTA’s primary goals is to become like God through the use of technology. With that, hopefully, out of the way let’s turn to the first and more important question. For the religious, is the Tower of Babel story a caution against efforts like this? Or more broadly what is the official LDS stance on achieving divinity through technology?

There will of course be people who think this sort of technological enhancement is a good idea regardless of what I say about the Tower of Babel or anything else. And there will be people who think it’s a bad idea, also regardless of what I say, but for those in the middle the Tower of Babel is a good place to start. Particularly if you’re Mormon. (Though as I pointed out even my very Catholic friend immediately made reference to the story of Babel.)

The reason it’s particularly good for Mormons is that it’s one of the few Old Testament stories to be mentioned in the Book of Mormon. And of those it’s definitely the most prominent. If we proceed from the assumption that everything in the Book of Mormon was put there for a reason why was it necessary to have a second telling of the story of the Tower of Babel? If you accept the idea that it’s a cautionary tale about using technology to achieve divinity in circumvention of God then the straightforward answer is that this is an issue modern saints would be grappling with and it was therefore helpful to have a reminder. I don’t know about you, but on the face of it, this connection, along with the underlying moral, make a lot of sense. And in fact I’m going to call this the traditional interpretation. However for the moment let’s assume that this is not the moral of the story of Babel. This is obviously the MTA’s position. And if it isn’t the moral why do we need a duplicate account? What is the alternative moral which is so important that the story needed to be repeated?

Lincoln Cannon is one of the founders of the MTA and a past president and therefore among its most vocal defenders. As you might imagine he has written an article explaining that the goals of the MTA are not the same thing we are being warned about in the story of Tower of Babel. This article is titled Ethical Progress is Not Babel, and I intend to deal with it in depth, but for the moment we’re just looking to see if he has an alternative moral for the story. I would say that he alludes to one. Drawing on a quote from Lorenzo Snow (which we’ll return to) Cannon writes:

Snow suggests that the builders’ moral failing was in allowing technical achievements to outpace moral achievements. The technical achievements in themselves were not the problem, but rather the problem was the relative lack of virtue.

To begin with even if we grant this moral, which we’ll call the MTA interpretation, I’m not sure that our technical achievements haven’t outstripped our moral achievements. A subject I’ll be returning to. But, also, why would this moral be more likely than the more obvious moral. Or to put in other terms how can we go about deciding which moral is more likely to be correct? Of course as religious people we are entitled to receive revelation with something like this, but as that is largely a personal endeavor we’re going to leave it out. What methods can we turn to in the absence of revelation?

Well first, most of the lessons contained in the scriptures are pretty simple. We’re told to have faith, repent, get baptized, love God and each other. I’d be willing to grant that the traditional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story is not quite that simple, but it’s certainly more simple than the MTA interpretation.

Second, when the Lord does instruct us through the scriptures, the obvious explanation is almost always the correct one. (I understand saying “correct” is a loaded term, but I think you know what I mean.) This is not to say there aren’t layers of meaning to the scriptures. But that’s not what we’re seeing here, the MTA interpretation ends up in a place that’s almost the exact opposite of the obvious meaning. I definitely can’t think of any scripture where God commands people to, for example, tell the truth, and the correct interpretation ends up being that lying is the only way to be saved.

Finally most gospel principles are repeated multiple times, but I can’t think of another place where we’re urged to not let our technology outstrip our ethics. Or where we’re urged to pursue technology as the true source of all the long promised blessings. In other words what other scriptures support the MTA interpretation? On the other hand there are lots of examples of scriptures which support the traditional interpretation. To give just a few examples:

  • When the Children of Israel made the Golden Calf: This may not seem very high tech to you, but for the time it was. Also this is another example of finding salvation in something we’re able to build for ourselves while ignoring the plain commandments of God.
  • Another, similar example is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Once again we have someone using wealth, power and yes, technology to redirect legitimate worship away from God and to something constructed and conceived by humans. And once again the right course was to refuse to bow down, even if it meant being thrown into the fiery furnace.
  • Moving from the Old Testament to the New we have the story of Simon, who sought to buy God’s power. At first glance you may not immediately see a connection, but if we do manage to reverse aging or resurrect people, or upload their mind into a computer. It’s going to be far easier to access that technology with money than by living a good life.
  • Moving to the Book of Mormon, not only do we have a repeat of the story of Babel, but we also have the story of the Rameumptom. Again, it may not seem like technology, but it’s another example of people building something designed to act as a shortcut to salvation. It’s basically an exact mirror of the Tower of Babel story only on a smaller scale.

It’s possible that you don’t see the connection in one or more of the examples I just cited. But for the MTA interpretation to be the best interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, you have to:

  1. Reject all the supporting examples for the traditional interpretation.
  2. Find other scriptural examples which support the MTA interpretation.
  3. Explain why the MTA interpretation is the more correct interpretation despite being more complicated.
  4. Justify why an interpretation which is exactly the opposite of the obvious interpretation is nevertheless the correct one.

As I mentioned already, Cannon has an article explaining how the Tower of Babel doesn’t mean what I (or my friend the Catholic Priest) think it means, and it’s finally time to turn to that article and examine his argument. Though if you’re expecting him to cover all four of the points I just made (or actually any of the points I just made) you’re going to be disappointed. Still he brings in some interesting sources, so it’s worth taking a look at what he has to say.

The first quote, which I already alluded to, is from Lorenzo Snow:

We should strive earnestly to establish the principles of heaven within us, rather than trouble ourselves in fostering anxieties like the foolish people of the Tower of Babel, to reach its location before we are properly and lawfully prepared to become its inhabitants. Its advantages and blessings, in a measure, can be obtained in this probationary state by learning to live in conformity with its laws and the practice of its principles. To do this, there must be a feeling and determination to do God’s will.

This is the statement Cannon draws on for his moral for the story of Babel, that is, that we should not let technology get ahead of morality. To be honest I’m not really getting that from this quote. I think, if anything, a better interpretation would be that we need to focus on our personal righteousness, rather than being anxious or even concerned about whether we can hasten salvation with technology.

Also, I find the term “lawfully”, and his discussion of conforming to the laws, to be interesting as well. There are certain covenants associated with salvation. And some of those are associated with major life events. We’re baptized when we reach the age of eight, we prepare for the afterlife by going through the temple at around the time we are considered to be adults. Additionally, while they aren’t technically covenants, we have baby blessings for the newly born and we dedicate the graves of the newly dead. What sort of law or ritual applies to being revived from cryonics, or being reconstructed from DNA? Are the brethren just waiting until the technology is ready before introducing the ordinance of cloning?

Returning to the Snow quote. I could certainly see how other people might have a different interpretation of it than I do, but I can’t see anyone declaring it to be slam dunk for the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel.

The second quote he references is a long one from John Taylor. In fact Cannon’s article is 2/3rds quotes from early Church leaders and only 1/3rd his explanation of those quotes. He is making a complicated and controversial claim and one of my criticisms is that 400 words does not seem sufficient to explain it. In any event back to the Taylor quote. I won’t include all of it, but Cannon helpfully bolds two sections, the second of which appears to be speaking the most directly to his point:

We are here to do a work; not a small one, but a large one. We are here to help the Lord to build up his kingdom, and if we have any knowledge of electricity, we thank God for it. If we have any knowledge of the power of steam, we will say its from God. If we possess any other scientific information about the earth whereon we stand, or of the elements with which we are surrounded, we will thank God for the information, and say he has inspired men from time to time to understand them, and we will go on and grasp more intelligence, light and information, until we comprehend as we are comprehended of God.

I have no problem agreeing that John Taylor is here saying that technology comes from God. That technology is not evil. But there is a huge difference between saying that technology comes from God and saying that technology is how we become Gods. Additionally there is a difference of kind and not merely of degree between using technology to broadcast General Conference to, say, Tierra del Fuego and using technology to live forever. Again, it’s an interesting quote, but it is not even close to being the same as the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel story. Still, if you have any doubts, I urge you to read Cannon’s entire article.

The final quote he includes is from Joseph Smith:

This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of n New Y- the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing [of] to eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him not the Glory.

(The spelling and punctuation are from the original document.)

At this point I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but yes, we agree technology is not evil by itself. Technology can be useful both in general and as it relates to the specific goals of the Church. But none of these quotes speak to the specific idea of using technology as a way of accomplishing all the things God has promised. I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that in the middle of the 1800’s when the Presidents of the Church talked about technology that they were not speaking about mind uploading, cybernetic replacement or cryonic resurrection. Fortunately one of the great things about the LDS Church is that we have ongoing revelation, and 15 prophetic leaders who give us counsel twice a year. And as far as I can tell none of them have come out in support of any of these technologies, certainly not as the means for achieving something like the resurrection of the dead as described in scriptures

And yet if the MTA is to be believed this is how it’s going to be done. Which means these aren’t marginal issues that reasonable people might disagree on, like whether it’s okay to take doctor prescribed marijuana in states where it’s now legal. Rather, issues like resurrection and immortality are fundamental to the entire gospel plan. And if the brethren aren’t pursuing them or investing in them or even talking about them, what does that say? And remember the Church does invest in things, if this is as important as the MTA claims, what does it say when the Church invests in the City Creek Mall, but not in life extension technologies? If these things are as critical to the gospel plan as the MTA claims then the only conclusion is that the brethren have completely failed in their jobs. It’s difficult to see how these two viewpoints can even co-exist, and one is tempted to view the MTA as more of a schismatic offshoot, than anything else.

In closing, let’s change tacks, and imagine that it’s true. Imagine that the MTA is everything it claims to be and God’s plan is to allow us to discover and perfect the technology necessary to achieve Godhood on our own. The MTA itself admits that this is only possible if our morality keeps pace with our technology. As you look around and take stock of the modern world, do you really think that’s the case? Are we really that much more righteous with our computers and jet airliners than the early saints were with their electricity and steam engines? Are we a thousand times more righteous than the twelve disciples and the people who followed Jesus because their technology was a thousand times more primitive? Is the modern world really so righteous that people who can barely be trusted with iPhones, are nevertheless on course to be trusted with omnipotence?


I’m definitely not ready for omnipotence, but I may be ready to handle the responsibility of a dollar a month, if you think so too, consider donating.


Predictions (Spoiler: No AI or Immortality)

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Many people use the occasion of the New Year to make predictions about the coming year. And frankly, while these sorts of predictions are amusing, and maybe even interesting, they’re not particularly useful. To begin with, historically one of the biggest problems has been that there’s no accountability after the fact. If we’re going to pay attention to someone’s predictions for 2017 it would be helpful to know how well they did in predicting 2016. In fairness, recently this trend has started to change, driven to a significant degree by the work of Philip Tetlock. Perhaps you’ve heard of Tetlock’s book Superforcasting (another book I intend to read, but haven’t yet, I’m only one man) But if you haven’t heard of the book or of Tetlock, he has made something of a career out of holding prognosticators accountable, and his influence (and that of others) is starting to make itself felt.

Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex, makes yearly predictions and, following the example of Tetlock, scores them at the end of the year. He just released the scoring of his 2016 predictions. As part of the exercise, he not only makes predictions but provides a confidence level. In other words, is he 99% sure that X will/won’t happen, or is he only 60% sure? For those predictions where his confidence level was 90% or higher he only missed one prediction. He predicted with 90% confidence that “No country currently in Euro or EU announces plan to leave:” And of course there was the Brexit, so he missed that one. Last year he didn’t post his predictions until the 25th of January, but as I was finishing up this article he did post his 2017 predictions, and I’ll spend a few words at the end talking about them.

As an aside, speaking of posting predictions on the 25th, waiting as long as you can get away with is one way to increase your odds. For example last year Alexander made several predictions about what might happen in Asia. Taiwan held their elections on the 16th of January, and you could certainly imagine that knowing the results of that election might help you with those predictions. I’m not saying this was an intentional strategy on Alexander’s part, but I think it’s safe to say that those first 24 days of January weren’t information free, and if we wanted to get picky we’d take that into account. It is perhaps a response to this criticism for Alexander to post his predictions much earlier this year.

Returning to Alexander’s 2016 predictions, they’re reasonably mundane. In general he predicts that things will continue as they have. There’s a reason he does that. It turns out that if you want to get noticed, you predict something spectacular, but if you want to be right (at least more often than not) than you predict that things will basically look the same in a year as they look now. Alexander is definitely one of those people who wants to be right. And I am not disparaging that, we should all want to be more correct than not, but trying to maximize your correctness does have one major weakness. And that is why, despite Tetlock’s efforts, prediction is still more amusing than useful.

See, it’s not the things which stay the same that are going to cause you problems. If things continue as they have been, than it doesn’t take much foresight to reap the benefits and avoid the downside. It’s when the status quo breaks that prediction becomes both useful and ironically impossible.

In other words someone like Alexander (who by the way I respect a lot I’m just using him as an example) can have year after year of results like the results he had for 2016 and then be completely unprepared the one year when some major black swan occurs which wipes out half of his predictions.

Actually, forget about wiping out half his predictions, let’s just look at his, largely successful, world event predictions for 2016. There were 49 of them and he was wrong about only eight. I’m going to ignore one of the eight because he was only 50% confident about it (that is the equivalent of flipping a coin and he admits himself that being 50% confident is pretty meaningless). This gives us 41 correct predictions out of 48 total predictions, or 85% correct. Which seems really good. The problem is that the stuff he was wrong about is far more consequential than the stuff he was right about. He was wrong about the aforementioned Brexit, he made four wrong predictions about the election. (Alexander, like most people, was surprised by the election of Trump.) And then he was wrong about the continued existence of ISIS and oil prices. As someone living in America you may doubt the impact of oil prices, but if so I refer you to the failing nation of Venezuela.

Thus while you could say that he was 85% accurate, it’s the 15% of stuff he wasn’t accurate about that is going to be the most impactful. In other words, he was right about most things, but the consequences of his seven missed predictions will easily exceed the consequences of the 41 predictions that he got right.

That is the weakness of trying to maximize being correct. While being more right than wrong is certainly desirable. In general the few things people end up being wrong about end up being far more consequential than all things they’re right about. Obviously it’s a little bit crude to use the raw number of predictions as our standard. But I think in this case it’s nevertheless essentially accurate. You can be right 85% of the time and still end up in horrible situations because the 15% of the time you’re wrong, you’re wrong about the truly consequential stuff.

I’ve already given the example of Alexander being wrong about Brexit and Trump. But there are of course other examples. The recent financial crisis is a big one. One of the big hinges of investment boom leading up to the crisis was the idea that the US had never had a nationwide decline in housing prices. And that was a true and accurate position for decades, but the one year it wasn’t true made the dozens of years when it was true almost entirely inconsequential.

You may be thinking from all this that I have a low opinion of predictions, and that’s largely the case. Once again this goes back to the ideas of Taleb and Antifragility. One of his key principles is to reduce your exposure to negative black swans and increase your exposure to positive black swans. But none of this exposure shifting involves accurately predicting the future. And to the extent that you think you can predict the future it makes you less likely to worry about the sort of exposure shifting that Taleb advocates, and makes things more fragile. Also, in a classic cognitive bias, everything you correctly predicted you ascribe to skill while every time you’re wrong you put that down to bad luck. Which, remember, is easy trap to fall into because if you expect the status quo to continue you’re going to be right a lot more often than you’re wrong.

Finally, because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. For example, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

All of this is not to say that you should move to Wyoming and build a fallout shelter. Only to illustrate the asymmetry of being right most of the time, if when you’re wrong you’re wrong about something really big.

In discussing the move towards tracking the accuracy of predictions I neglected to engage in much of a discussion of why people make outrageous and ultimately inaccurate predictions. Why do predictions, in order to be noticed, need to be extreme? Many people will chalk it up to a need for novelty or a requirement brought on by a crowded media environment, but once you realize that it’s the black swans, not the status quote that cause all the problems (and if you’re lucky bring all the benefits) you begin to grasp that people pay attention to extreme predictions not out of some morbid curiosity or some faulty wiring in their brain but because if there is some chance of an extreme prediction coming true, that is what they need to prepare for. Their whole life and all of society is already prepared for the continuation of the status quo, it’s the potential black swans you need to be on the lookout for.

Consequently, while I totally agree that if someone says X will happen in 2016, that it’s useful to go back and record whether that prediction was correct. I don’t agree with the second, unstated assumption behind this tracking that extreme predictions should be done away with because they so often turn out to not be true. If someone thinks ISIS might have a nuke, I’d like to know that. I may not change what I’m doing, but then again I just might.

To put it in more concrete terms, let’s assume that you heard rumblings in February of 2000 that tech stocks were horribly overvalued, and so you took the $100,000 you had invested in the NASDAQ and turned it into bonds, or cash. If so when the bottom rolled around in September of 2002 you would still have your $100k, whereas if you didn’t take it out you would have lost around 75% of your money. But let’s assume that you were wrong, and that nothing happened and that the while the NASDAQ didn’t continue its meteoric rise that it continued to grow at the long term stock market average of 7% then you would have made around $20,000 dollars.

For the sake of convenience let’s say that you didn’t quite time it perfectly and you only prevented the loss of $60k. Which means that the $20k you might have made if your instincts had proven false was one third of the $60k you actually might have lost. Consequently you could be in a situation where you were less than 50% sure that the market was going to crash (in other words you viewed it as improbable) and still have a positive expected value from taking all of your money out of the NASDAQ. In other words depending on the severity of the unlikely event it may not matter if it’s unlikely or improbable, because it can still make sense to act as if it were going to happen, or at a minimum to hedge against it. Because in the long run you’ll still be better off.

Having said all this you may think that the last thing I would do is offer up some predictions, but that is precisely what I’m going to do. These predictions will differ in format from Alexander’s. First, as you may have guessed already I am not going to limit myself to predicting what will happen in 2017. Second I’m going to make predictions which, while they will be considered improbable, will have a significant enough impact if true that you should hedge against them anyway. This significant impact means that it won’t really matter if I’m right this year or if I’m right in 50 years, it will amount to much the same regardless. Third, a lot of my predictions will be about things not happening. And with these predictions I will have to be right for all time not just 2017. Finally with several of these predictions I hope I am wrong.

Here are my list of predictions, there are 15, which means I won’t be able to give a lot of explanation about any individual prediction. If you see one that you’re particularly interested in a deeper explanation of, then let me know and I’ll see what I can do to flesh it out. Also as I mentioned I’m not going to put any kind of a deadline on these predictions, saying merely that they will happen at some point, but for those of you who think that this is cheating I will say that if 100 years have passed and a prediction hasn’t come true then you can consider it to be false. However as many of my predictions are about things that will never happen I am, in effect, saying that they won’t happen in the next 100 years, which is probably as long as anyone could be expected to see. Despite this caveat I expect those predictions to hold true for even longer than that. With all of those caveats here are the predictions. I have split them into five categories

Artificial Intelligence

1- General artificial intelligence, duplicating the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.

If there was a single AI able to do everything on this list, I would consider this a failed prediction. For a recent examination of some of the difficulties see this recent presentation.

2- A complete functional reconstruction of the brain will turn out to be impossible.

This includes slicing and scanning a brain, or constructing an artificial brain.

3- Artificial consciousness will never be created.

This of course is tough to quantify, but I will offer up my own definition for a test of artificial consciousness: We will never have an AI who makes a credible argument for it’s own free will.

Transhumanism

1- Immortality will never be achieved.

Here I am talking about the ability to suspend or reverse aging. I’m not assuming some new technology that lets me get hit by a bus and survive.

2- We will never be able to upload our consciousness into a computer.

If I’m wrong about this I’m basically wrong about everything. And the part of me that enviously looks on as my son plays World of Warcraft hopes that I am wrong, it would be pretty cool.

3- No one will ever successfully be returned from the dead using cryonics.

Obviously weaselly definitions which include someone being brought back from extreme cold after three hours don’t count. I’m talking about someone who’s been dead for at least a year.

Outer Space

1- We will never establish a viable human colony outside the solar system.

Whether this is through robots constructing humans using DNA, or a ship full of 160 space pioneers, it’s not going to happen.

2- We will never have an extraterrestrial colony (Mars or Europa or the Moon) of greater than 35,000 people.

I think I’m being generous here to think it would even get close to this number but if it did it would still be smaller than the top 900 US cities and Lichtenstein.

3- We will never make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species.

I have already offered my own explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, so anything that fits into that explanation would not falsify this prediction.

War (I hope I’m wrong about all of these)

1- Two or more nukes will be exploded in anger within 30 days of one another.

This means a single terrorist nuke that didn’t receive retaliation in kind would not count.

2- There will be a war with more deaths than World War II (in absolute terms, not as a percentage of population.)

Either an external or internal conflict would count, for example a Chinese Civil War.

3- The number of nations with nuclear weapons will never be less than it is right now.

The current number is nine. (US, Russia, Britain, France, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel.)

Miscellaneous

1- There will be a natural disaster somewhere in the world that kills at least a million people

This is actually a pretty safe bet, though one that people pay surprisingly little attention to as demonstrated by the complete ignorance of the 1976 Chinese Earthquake.

2- The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown.

I realize that this one isn’t very specific as stated so let’s just say that the meltdown has to be objectively worse on all (or nearly all) counts than the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis. And it has to be widely accepted that US government debt was the biggest cause of the meltdown.

3- Five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form.

This one relies more on the implicit 100 year time horizon then the rest of the predictions. And I would count any foreign occupation, civil war, major dismemberment or change in government (say from democracy to a dictatorship) as fulfilling the criteria.

A few additional clarifications on the predictions:

  • I expect to revisit these predictions every year, I’m not sure I’ll have much to say about them, but I won’t forget about them. And if you feel that one of the predictions has been proven incorrect feel free to let me know.
  • None of these predictions is designed to be a restriction on what God can do. I believe that we will achieve many of these things through divine help. I just don’t think we can do it ourselves. The theme of this blog is not that we can’t be saved, rather that we can’t save ourselves with technology and progress. A theme you may have noticed in my predictions.
  • I have no problem with people who are attempting any of the above or are worried about the dangers of any of the above (in particular AI) I’m a firm believer in the prudent application of the precautionary principle. I think a general artificial intelligence is not going to happen, but for those that do like Eliezer Yudowsky and Nick Bostrom it would be foolish to not take precautions. In fact insofar as some of the transhumanists emphasize the elimination of existential risks I think they’re doing a useful and worthwhile service, since it’s an area that’s definitely underserved. I have more problems with people who attempt to combine transhumanism with religion, as a bizarre turbo-charged millennialism, but I understand where they’re coming from.

Finally, as I mentioned above Alexander has published his predictions for 2017. As in past years he keeps all or most of the applicable predictions from the previous year (while updating the confidence level) and then incrementally expands his scope. I don’t have the space to comment on all of his predictions, but here are a few that jumped out:

  1. Last year he had a specific prediction about Greece leaving the Euro (95% chance it wouldn’t) now he just has a general prediction that no one new will leave the EU or Euro and gives that an 80% chance. That’s probably smart, but less helpful if you live in Greece.
  2. He has three predictions about the EMDrive. That could be a big black swan. And I admire the fact that he’s willing to jump into that.
  3. He carried over a prediction from 2016 of no earthquakes in the US with greater than 100 deaths (99% chance) I think he’s overconfident on that one, but the prediction itself is probably sound.
  4. He predicts that Trump will still be president at the end of 2017 (90% sure) and that no serious impeachment proceedings will have been initiated (80% sure). These predictions seem to have generated the most comments, and they are definitely areas where I fear to make any predictions myself, so my hat’s off to him here. I would only say that the Trump Presidency is going to be tumultuous.

And I guess with that prediction we’ll end.


Christianity, the Singularity and Getting a Driver’s License

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As I mentioned in my initial post, I had a difficult time imagining anything after the year 2000. Any examination of those difficulties would have to include my religious upbringing. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has the end of days built right into their name, apocalyptic thinking is built right into our DNA. On top of that toss in the Cold War and nuclear weapons, sprinkle in the coming turn of the millennium, place the cherry of my own innate pessimism on top of it all and you end up with a teenager who was pretty sure that the end was nigh.

I am sure I’m not the only teenager to have visions of Armageddon. And I’m equally sure that had I been born in some different era I probably would still have had feelings of impending doom. This is not to say that the 80’s didn’t have their share of existential angst, but if you were going off nearness to nuclear war we were closer during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if you were going by the actual intensity of the conflict World War II was orders of magnitude worse. Still in the 80’s, looking at things through the lens of religion, it appeared that the combatants were set, the doomsday weapons were primed and ready, and the clock was ticking down. Everything seemed to be pointing in the direction of Armageddon.

But then, of course, the Soviet Union fell, and for a while it appeared that we were not so very close after all. In fact, Francis Fukuyama famously speculated that we were at the end of history. Liberal democracy had triumphed; global antagonism was practically non-existent; and to top it all off we had the internet, and a promise of a connected world where everyone could join together in harmonious and enlightened forums. You may think that the last bit is hyperbolic, but I assure you it’s not (and that was written in 2010, it was even worse in 1999).

Having passed from doom to optimism, you might wonder where things stand for me now. To begin with I no longer entertain any illusions that I can predict the year or the actors or the manner of the apocalypse. I am definitely operating from a thief in the night viewpoint. But while I’m far less confident about the specifics of the catastrophes, I’m more confident than ever that they’re coming.

From a secular perspective they’re coming because chaos is the default state of the universe. And they’re coming because in our efforts to decrease volatility we have increased fragility, meaning that when black swans arrive they have a far greater impact. But all of this is a subject for another time. This post is about examining things from a religious perspective. Obviously I’m coming at things from an LDS viewpoint, but I think any form of Christianity will take you to the same place.

Even the mildest religion or the vaguest spirituality assumes that there is some kind of plan. A plan that has a happy ending, and from this it naturally follows that there is a power greater than ourselves. Presumably it could be part of this plan that having reached this point in human progress and evolution that no further bad things will happen. And there are probably some logically consistent frameworks out there that would lead to just that result. But as I said I want to go a step farther and talk broadly about what the plan might be from a Christian perspective.

Going back to my last post I posited that there were two possible paths: the apocalypse or the singularity. Taking Christianity as our framework can we deduce which of these two paths Christianity would point to?

Well to begin with Christianity Theology has a pretty strong end of the world component. Thus, right off the bat you’d have to say that it points to the apocalypse. But I want to ignore that element of things. If I say the Bible predicts an apocalyptic end of the world, then I might as well not even bother to blog. I’m sure there are thousands of blogs and millions of people who already agree with me there. But the theme of this blog is to go deeper and bring in arguments beyond just “and that’s what the bible says.”

In fact let’s set aside the idea of an apocalypse and Armageddon entirely for the moment. What does Christianity have against the singularity? In order to answer that question let’s start by reminding ourselves of some of the principal tenets all (or at least most) Christians have in common:

Tenet 1: We cannot be saved without the atonement. (John 14:6)

Tenet 2: God has some reward waiting for us. (Matthew 5:12)

Tenet 3: We have to die in order to receive the reward. (Hebrew 9:27, Alma 42:1-6)

It would appear on its face that several possible singularities like radical life extension or uploading our brains into a computer would violate all three of these tenets, but in particular #3. But even other singularities run into doctrinal issues. The chief appeal of AI is that we could create something smart enough to solve all our problems. In essence creating a sort of mini-god. How on earth would this not be a violation of several tenets of Christianity, not the least of which would be Commandment #1. I began by asking what does Christianity have against the singularity. Well I don’t know that it has something against every possible singularity, in fact the Second Coming of Christ is a huge singularity, but it definitely has issues, with many possible singularities.

In addition, the whole history of Christianity is one of struggle, and bearing our cross (Matthew 16:24). If we did create something that prevented disasters, and prevented opposition would we not have perverted the plan? Here I am starting to get more into Mormon theology and perhaps it’s best to make that jump. While all christianity has elements which would speak against a singularity Mormon theology is particularly damning on the subject. In particular there is the idea of deification, as embodied in the well know saying: As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be(come).

There are certain singularities that promise to grant deification. Or at least effective deification. In particular I’m thinking of being able to upload our minds into a computer. In effect something like this would allow us to achieve godhood under our own power. But if we become gods without the atonement (see tenet 1) what was the point of Jesus’ suffering? If we achieve the rewards without God (tenet 2) are his promises meaningless? And finally if we conquer death (tenet 3) why did Christ die on the cross, and what need do we have of the resurrection?

And here, perhaps, a metaphor is in order. Let us compare deification to getting a driver’s license. In particular I want to look at the destructive power it provides to the new driver, which is orders of magnitude greater than anything they’ve had before. Deification carries a similar (albeit vastly greater) increase in power. And in making this comparison I don’t want to minimize something that is both sacred and incomprehensible. But if this life is a test (Revelation 3:21) then we can compare mortality to driver’s ed. And you don’t pass driver’s ed by figuring out how to build a car. We are not saved by technology. We are granted salvation by following the commandments, and seeking after righteousness. Just as we get a driver’s license by following the rules, learning what is necessary and proving that we can be trusted with a car. The singularity will not save us. We can only be saved by the atonement of Jesus Christ, if we can be saved at all.

Through progress we have gained immense power, with the promise of even greater power. But gaining the power has no relationship to whether we have the wisdom to use that power. Just as building a car has no relationship to how skilled of a driver we are. The wisdom necessary for salvation does not come from progress. I comes from God. And we forget that at our peril.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.