Transhumanism, Journalism and Ethics

Thursday October 18, 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.

Yesterday I wrote a post on the subject of Transhumanism, and put down some responses to a report in the most recent issue of New Scientist from the meeting of the World Transhumanist Association in Chicago.

In the previous post, I wrote as follows:

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, aging and involuntary death are undesirable. The jury, however, must remain out at the moment on the matter of whether they are unnecessary.

The New Scientist article included extracts from an interview with Marvin Minsky, which I quoted from liberally an in good faith. Since posting this article, however, Prof. Minsky has got in touch and suggested that the claims made in the New Scientist article were substantially wrong, in particular concerning his comments on the question of the relationship between science and ethical responsibility. Here is a section of the response that he sent me:

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.

Given that the accuracy of the article from which I was quoting has been called into question, I have decided to unpublish the previous post, as I do not wish to misrepresent Prof. Minsky’s views.

Having said this, I must confess to remaining unconvinced by the virtues of transhumanism; and at the same time, I think there is more to be said about the relationship between scientific research, on the one hand, and ethical responsibility on the other. What proportion of AI research funding, for example, comes from organisations whose concerns are primarily military?

Ethics, in the end, may not be to do with panels of experts making judgments about what other people do. It may be something rather closer to home, about our ethos, about the decisions that we make from day to day. And from this responsibility, nobody is exempt.

# · Danielle

Hi there.

I wrote the New Scientist piece about the transhumanist conference.

To clarify my use of Minsky’s specific quotes, I would like to post at least the part of the Minsky interview that Minsky now challenges.

But first I’d like to point you to a transcription of Minsky’s full talk at TV 2007. You may view the suggestion of uploading millions of lives on to a computer chip as “provocative and outlandish,” but that is indeed what Minsky suggested in his talk:


The specific graph in which Minsky discusses uploading to solve the population crunch is as follows:

Anyway, we’re facing a lot of problems. I think the best solution is to upload, or download, whatever you want to call it. Copy your intelligence, personality, knowledge base, common sense procedures and all that into a computer. I think that it will probably require well under a gigabyte, which costs fifty cents these days. But we don’t know how to do it. And if we can get people into a more manageable form, less expensive and more productive, then we can solve a lot of these problems. This is just a little list of the problems that us earthpeople face. Epidemics, pollution, energy, terrorism, and so forth. Virtually all those problems are the result of having too large a population. And that’s politically unmentionable. So everyone is talking about making the people who exist live longer, but when you have 10 billion people using 140 watts of their own energy and countless kilowatts of other energy, we certainly have some nice problems to face. If you could get them into little chips, then 10 billion people probably only cost a few hundred dollars an hour to run. Probably less.

# · Anthony

At the risk of stating the obvious, a computer chip, even one containing an exact copy of me, isn’t actually me. It’s a copy. Presumably the original me remains intact after the copying, in which case, to make the whole exercise worthwhile, I am subsequently exterminated. Uh, great. Or alternatively, I’m exterminated in the process of copying. Uh, great, again. Sure, the copy of me would think he was me (albeit minus a physical body), but he wouldn’t be me. He’d be a (and I have to say, rather inferior) copy, and I would simply be dead.

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