Marvin Minsky's Dreams of Immortality

Wednesday October 17, 2007


This post is part of a series concerning Marvin Minsky, Transhumanism and the New Scientist. Please read all three posts together before commenting. The other two posts can be found here and here .

My consciousness course rolls on, and this week we are talking about the question of AI and machine consciousness. So when I was looking through the New Scientist a few days ago, I noticed the name of Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of the AI labs at MIT over in the States. The article, on closer inspection, was a damned curious one. The subject was one about which I confess I know little: transhumanism, which Wikipedia calls “an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and ameliorate what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as stupidity, suffering, disease, ageing and involuntary death.” Stupidity, suffering, disease, ageing and involuntary death: that’s quite a list.

The New Scientist article was reporting from the World Transhumanist Association meeting in Chicago. The meeting is clearly a forum for a discussion of ideas that are deliberately provocative and outlandish (solving the problem of the population explosion by “uploading” ten million people onto 50-cent computer chips, anyone?), and so it should perhaps be understood in this light; but at the same time it was curious, not to say disturbing, reading. It may be that suffering, stupidity, disease, ageing and involuntary death are undesirable. The jury, however, must remain out at the moment on the matter of whether they are unnecessary.

The author of the article, Danielle Egan, spoke with Professor Minsky in an attempt to throw a bit more light upon what this whole transhumanist business is about. After all, when we’ve sorted out the minor problem of death (not to mention stupidity, disease etc. etc.), then we have to wonder about what to do with the eternal life we are left with. “Ordinary citizens,” the Professor said, “wouldn’t know what to do with eternal life… The masses don’t have any clear-cut goals or purpose”. That would include me, I suppose. After all, what would I do with eternal life? Spend an eternity reading Husserl? Not on your life! Go for lots of long walks. That would pall. Learn to play the sitar. That would be nice for a few decades, perhaps, but after that, I’d get a bit tired. Write more books? Probably. Get myself into even more trouble than I already do? Almost certainly. Anyway, I don’t need to worry about this, because as Professor Minsky says, as one of the masses, I’m not really cut out for it. Only scientists, he goes on to claim, those who are chewing away at important problems that can take years and years to solve, might be in need of eternity.

What is more worrying, is that Professor Minsky also claimed in the interview not only should scientists be exempt from death, but also from the kinds of fragile understandings and agreements that bind us together at all. “Scientists shouldn’t have ethical responsibility for their inventions,” he boldly asserts, “they should be able to do what they want. You shouldn’t ask them to have the same values as other people”.

Scientists should be allowed to do what they want? Is this as scientists? Or is it as human beings? Either way, I’m unconvinced. Scientists are not a breed apart who live divorced from the world. They are a part of a complex world of social interactions. They take money from funding bodies to do various kinds of work that is more or less of benefit to mankind. These funding bodies may have more or less wholesome agendas. If chairman of ACME Torture Instruments Plc. offers me a nice, comfortable job to explore human responses to pain stimuli, or if the board of Bomb-U-Like Ltd. employ me to find a way of wiping out an entire nation, intelligently stopping this destruction at some pre-programmed geographical border, then I can hardly claim that my research is ethically neutral.

Transhumanism, or at least Minsky’s brand of Transhumanism, is the kind of thing that gives science a bad name, and that fuels the popular myth – one that many scientists lament – of the deranged scientist in his or her (although, in the mental image we have, it is usually his ) lair, pressing buttons, playing with steaming test-tubes and cackling insanely over having found the elixir of immortality, without a moment’s thought about the ethical consequences of their actions.

But, having said that, I’m not sure it that Minsky is talking about science at all, even if he thinks he is. Immortal life, the ending of suffering, the overcoming of death, the salvation of humanity, the attainment of a state free from our ordinary, human stupidity, and a priesthood who are curiously exempt from the ethical standards of the rest of mankind… This, Professor Minsky, sounds more like bad religion than it sounds like good science.

# · Marvin Minsky

You should not believe what journalists write, because they often tend to shape their stories in advance, and then misunderstand the things they hear.

What I actually said was that our scientists are good at discovering the causes of things, and that this provides societies with new kinds of arts and technologies.

However, the public tends also to expect that the same scientists are also wise about imagining and predicting the social effects (and moral qualities) that may result from their discoveries.

But what I said to that reporter was almost exactly the opposite of what she reported! I argued that, so far as I could see, few scientists are especially good at predicting or evaluating the long-term effect of what they discover. So ideally, that would be the job of people who excel at those skills.

So what I actually tried to explain was that our societies needs scientists to be free to discover new possibilities—but the public should learn to understand that scientists are not especially good at making judgments about what other people should do!

In real life, of course, such decisions end up in the realm of politics, and that’s where the public ought to look—provided that they try harder to elect people with better qualifications.

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