Thursday October 18, 2007
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.
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