Angelic Foundations


Angelic Foundations

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler - and today I will be discussing the possible ways of constructing angels.

Engineered future

In previous writings about the engineered future I have expressed the view that future organisms will be the product of intelligent design. This essay builds on that premise - and if you doubt it, you should review that material first of all.

An engineered future probably means that the dominant organisms in the future will resemble us about as much as we resemble a velvet worm - or indeed, perhaps much less so.

Building angels

Here, we will refer to these future dominant organisms as angels. This terminology originates in the Great Chain of Being diagrams - which often illustrate beings above humans but below god. These entities often have halos - to symbolise their highly-moral natures, harps - to symbolise a life of luxury, and wings - symbolising their near-magical powers. Other authors have used this terminology before me - e.g. Mark Ridley.

One of the most important roles of today's humans is to construct angels - or at least take a step down the road that leads to them. We should be laying down angelic foundations.

However - there seems to be some disagreement about what an angel looks like - or how to go about building one.

Angelic traits

There are a few things that we can say about the majority of angels at this stage:

They will have digital brains. They will exhibit the hardware/software divide found in today's computers. That means that their software will be easily upgradable - and their brains will be capable of being backed up. They will also be highly modular - making upgrades and component repair in a hospital environment easier.

Foundation constraints

Much of the disagreement on how to build angels revolves around the issue of what foundation to build upon.

Some are happy for the angels to be our "mind children" - descendants of our memes, but not necessarily of our genes.

However, many people seem to think that our role should not be merely creators of the angels, they want to be the ancestors of angels. They want themselves - or their offspring - to turn into angels. They want to become angels - or else they want an unbroken path of germ-line descent to lead between them and the angels.

That seems likely to cause some problems to me. Humans are more like slugs than they are like angels. To gradually transform a human into an angel seems like a tall order to me.

The human genome is an unmaintainable mess. No sensible engineer would have anything to do with its upkeep. It is the same with the human brain - an unmaintainable mess. It is not even fully digital. The thing is a complete joke.

Rather than representing a head-start on angel construction, the human form is best seen as part of the hang-over which civilisation needs to recover from.

Proponents

What do the proponents of engineering projects based on human foundations have to say for themselves?

  • Gregory Stock

    One proponent is Gregory Stock. Here's some video footage:

    In a chapter of "Redesigning Humans" entitled "Our Commitment to Our Flesh", Gregory lays out the case for embarking on an engineering project based on human foundations. He says:

    Predictions of the imminent fusion of human and machine ignore the degree to which we are biological in nature and want to remain that way." Expanding our senses, enhancing our physical powers, or enlarging our minds is seductive, but until our flesh loses its vitality or becomes diseased or damaged, few of us want to replace it.

    ...and...

    Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the race between biological and computer evolution, however, unless the extremely rapid machine transcendence predicted by Moravec and Kurzweil plays out, our immediate future involving us, our children and our children's children will be governed by medicine and biology.

    Stock then goes on about adding extra features in on extra chromosomes for the rest of the book - without revisiting the possibility of "rapid machine transcendence".

  • Aubrey de Grey

    Another enthusiast for engineering projects based on human foundations is Aubrey de Grey. Here's some video footage:

    Aubrey seems to think that we should build on modern humans - and claims that if his proposed engineering project works, it will save 100,000 lives a day.

    I am not terribly impressed by this argument. In my view, the best way to deal with the loss of desirable data at death is to ensure that minds can be copied and backed up. Aubrey's proposal simply doesn't even attempt to do this. If it works, his plan would reduce the occurance of undesirable data-loss due to death - but would not come close to eliminating it - since people will still die of accidents - and then their minds would be lost forever. Aubrey's proposal seems to me to be a stop-gap solution that fails to address the root of the problem - which is that people's minds can't currently be backed up.

    We could fix this problem properly by ensuring that people have digital minds. That even looks like an easier solution to me - since it doesn't involve radical surgery on a complex evolved system.

    Anyway, if we are engineering humans, dealing with senescence hardly seems like a top priority. There are all manner of other problems which we have a much better chance of fixing - including AIDS and malaria. Also, if we want to help humans persist for longer in the face of economic competition with machines, then we should probably focus on features that would increase their employability in the future.

  • Max More

    Another proponent is Max More. Here's some video footage:

    Max appears to be concerned that development not based on the human form will result in him personally being left behind.

Timescales

The main thing that I think that proponents are missing is that the likely timescale for the arrival intelligent machines is now relatively short.

To do human germ-line genetic engineering, would take multiple generations of testing and tweaking before much positive change could be effected.

Somatic gene therapy can fix some things - but is relatively weak medicine - and has other issues associated with safety and implementation difficulties.

Also, there is the business of the "yuck factor" with which human engineering projects are widely regarded.

Much the same problems affect the cyborg-based proposaly popular with Rodney Brookes and others. However, I have criticised the proposed cyborg path elsewhere in more detail.

I don't think projects that build on humans will have enough time to get very far before humans are completely surpassed by other entities built upon engineering principles.

I think that other projects with different foundations will overtake and eclipse human-based development plans.

One of the first things to be surpassed will be the human brain - and once that is no longer on the leading edge, I think that it will rapidly become pretty clear that the developmental action has shifted to another locus.

Motivation

It seems to me that the plans to build on human foundations are founded on idealism. The proponents want to help save the human race. For them, a future dominated by intelligent machines is a future where human beings are driven to extinction - obviously regarded as something to be avoided at all costs:

I don't mind idealism - but it has to be combined with a little realism. The idea that engineering angels from a human foundation is a viable project does not strike me as being a realistic one. Other people will have different ideas - and their projects will ultimately be more successful.

Also, I think this particular kind of idealism is misguided. It seems to me that these people want to cripple the angels - by creating them with a terrible hangover. I am not convinced that is a good idea.

I am more positively inclined towards a strategy of building the best angels that we know how to build. From that perspective, the idea that one must start with a human being is simply a ridiculous and unnecessary constraint. To me, crippling your project by starting with a human being seems like a certain way to ensure that it ends miserably.

Enjoy,

References

  1. Engineered future;


Tim Tyler | Contact | http://alife.co.uk/