Review of Paul & Cox’s, Beyond Humanity: Cyberevolution and Future Minds

Gregory Scott Paul (1954 – ) is a freelance researcher, author and illustrator who works in paleontology, sociology and theology. Earl D. Cox is the founder of Metus Systems Group and an independent researcher. Their book, Beyond Humanity: Cyberevolution and Future Mindsis an assault on the mindset of those who oppose their view of scientific progress.

Paul and Cox argue that the universe, as well as all life and mind within it, have evolved over time from the bottom up. However, genes now have little to do with our evolution—science and technology move the accelerating rate of evolution. In the course of that evolution a general pattern emerges—more change in less time. While it took nature a long time to produce a bio-brain, technology will produce a cyber-brain much faster.

Despite its promises people are ambivalent about science and technology (SciTech). They believe it will improve their lives, yet it has contributed to the death of millions. Its success has, in some sense, backfired. To be completely accepted SciTech must solve the problems of suffering and death which inevitably leads to questions about human nature. When taking a good look at human nature, the authors conclude that there is good news—we have brains that produce self-aware, conscious thought which is itself connected with wonderful auditory and visual systems. However, our bodies need sleep, demand exercise, lust for fatty foods, and have limited mobility and strength.

The bad news continues if we consider the limited memories and storage capacity of our brain. We upload information slowly; often cannot control our underdeveloped emotions; are easily conditioned by all sorts of irrationalities as children; have difficulty unlearning old falsehoods as adults; don’t know how our brains work; often cannot change unwanted behavioral patterns; and brain chemicals control our moods—suggesting that we are much less free than we admit. Moreover, when individual minds join they are particularly destructive, often killing each other at astonishing rates. We are also vulnerable to: brainwashing, pain, sun, insects, viruses, trauma, broken bones, disease, infection, organ failure, paralysis, miniscule DNA glitches, cancer, depression, and psychosis. We degrade and suffer pain as we age, and we die without a backup system since evolution perpetuates our DNA not our minds. On the whole, this is not a pretty picture.

Disease and aging can be thought of as a war which matches our brains and computers versus the RNA and DNA computers of microbes and diseased cells. What is the best way to win this war? Regeneration from our DNA would only regenerate the body—the mind would still have died—so it is not a wholly promising approach. The way around this limitation is to have a nanocomputer within your brain that receives downloads from your conscious mind. If the mind storage unit receives continuous downloads you can always be brought back after death—you would be immortal. But why stop there? Why not just make an indestructible cyber-body and cyber-brain? Why not become immortal cyber-beings?

This all leads to questions about us becoming gods. The authors argue that the existence of gods is a science and engineering project—we can create minds as powerful as those of our imaginary gods with sufficient technology. Of course supernaturalism opposes this project, but SciTech will win the struggle, just as it has historically dismantled other supernatural superstitions one by one. Science will defeat supernaturalism by explaining it, by providing in reality what religions supply only in the imagination. When science conquers death and suffering, religion will die; religions fundamental reason for being—comforting our fear of death—will become irrelevant. As for the custodians of religion, the theologians, the authors issue a stern warning:

Theologians are like a group of Homo erectus huddling around a fire, arguing over who should mate with whom, and which clan should live in the green valley, while paying no mind to the mind-boggling implications of the first Homo sapiens … Theologians of the world … the affairs you devote so much attention to are in danger of having as much meaning as the sacrifices offered to Athena … science and technology may be about to deliver … minds [that] will no longer be weak and vulnerable to suffering, and they will never die out. The gods will soon be dead, but they will be replaced with real minds that will assume the power of gods, gods that may take over the universe and even make new universes. It will be the final and greatest triumph of science and technology over superstition.[i] 

Summary – We should proceed beyond humanity, overcoming the religious impulses which are the last vestige of superstition.

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[i] Gregory Paul and Earl Cox, Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds (Rockland, MA.: Charles River Media, 1996), 415.

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Summary of Jaron Lanier’s, “One Half A Manifesto”

Jaron Lanier (1960 – ) is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality who left Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research, Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. In the late 1990s Lanier worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s he was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities. More recently he has acted as an advisor to Linden Lab on their virtual world product Second Life, and as “scholar-at-large” at Microsoft Research where he has worked on the Kinect device for Xbox 360.

Lanier’s “One Half A Manifesto” opposes what he calls “cybernetic totalism,” the view of Kurzweil and others which proposes to transform the human condition more than any previous ideology. The following beliefs characterize cybernetic totalism.

  1. That cybernetic patterns of information provide the ultimate and best way to understand reality.
  2. That people are no more than cybernetic patterns.
  3. That subjective experience either doesn’t exist, or is unimportant because it is some sort of peripheral effect.
  4. That what Darwin described in biology, or something like it, is in fact also the singular, superior description of all creativity and culture.
  5. That qualitative as well as quantitative aspects of information systems will be accelerated by Moore’s Law. And
  6. That biology and physics will merge with computer science (becoming biotechnology and nanotechnology), resulting in life and the physical universe becoming mercurial; achieving the supposed nature of computer software. Furthermore, all of this will happen very soon! Since computers are improving so quickly they will overwhelm all the other cybernetic processes, like people, and fundamentally change the nature of what’s going on in the familiar neighborhood of Earth at some moment when a new “criticality” is achieved—maybe in about the year 2020. To be a human after that moment will be either impossible or something very different than we now can know.[i]

Lanier responds to each belief in detail. A summary of those responses are as follows:

  1. Culture cannot be reduced to memes, and people cannot be reduced to cybernetic patterns.
  2. Artificial intelligence is a belief system, not a technology.
  3. Subjective experience exists, and it separates humans from machines.
  4. Darwin provides the “algorithm for creativity” which explains how computers will become smarter than humans. However, that nature didn’t require anything “extra” to create people doesn’t mean that computers will evolve on their own.
  5. There is little reason to think that software is getting better, and no reason at all to think it will get better at a rate like hardware.

The sixth belief, the heart of the cybernetic totalism, terrifies Lanier. Yes, computers might kill us, preserve us in a matrix, or be used by evil humans to do harm to the rest of us. It is deviations of this latter scenario that most frightens Lanier for it is easy to imagine that a wealthy few would become a near godlike species, while the rest of us remain relatively the same. And Lanier expects immortality to be very expensive, unless software gets much better. For example, if you were to use biotechnology to try to make your flesh into a computer, you would need excellent software without glitches to achieve such a thing. But this would be extraordinarily costly.

Lanier grants that there will indeed be changes in the future, but they should be brought about by humans not by machines. To do otherwise is to abdicate our responsibility. Cybernetic totalism, if left unchecked, may cause suffering like so many other eschatological visions have in the past. We ought to remain humble about implementing our visions.

Summary – Cybernetic totalism is philosophically and technologically problematic.

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[i] Jaron Lanier, “One Half A Manifesto”

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Summary of Michio Kaku’s, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century

Michio Kaku (1947 – ) is the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York of City University of New York. He is the co-founder of string field theory and a popularizer of science. He earned his PhD in physics from the University of California-Berkeley in 1972.

In his book, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st CenturyKaku sets out an overall picture of what is happening in science today that will revolutionize our future.[i] He begins by noting the three great themes of 20th century science—the atom, the computer, and the gene. The revolutions associated with these themes ultimately aim at a complete understanding of matter, mind, and life. Progress toward reaching our goals has been stunning—in just the past few years more scientific knowledge has been created than in all previous human history. We no longer need to be passive observers of nature, we can be its active directors; we are moving from discover of nature’s laws to their masters.

The quantum revolution spawned the other two revolutions. Until 1925 no one understood the world of the atom; now we have an almost complete description of matter. The basic postulates of that understanding are: 1) energy is not continuous but occurs in discrete bundles called “quanta;” 2) sub-atomic particles have both wave and particle characteristics; and 3) these wave/particles obey Schrodinger’s wave equation which determines the probability that certain events will occur. With the standard model we can predict the properties of things from quarks to supernovas. We now understand matter and we may be able to manipulate it almost at will in this century.

The computer revolution began in the 1940s. At that time computers were crude but subsequent development of the laser in the next decade started an exponential growth. Today there are tens of millions of transistors in the area the size of a fingernail. As microchips become ubiquitous, life will change dramatically. We used to marvel at intelligence; in the future we may create and control it.  

The bio-molecular revolution began with the unraveling of the double helix in the 1950s. We found that our genetic code was written on the molecules within the cells—DNA. The techniques of molecular biology allow us to read the code of life like a book. With the owner’s manual for human beings, science and medicine will be irrevocably altered. Instead of watching life we will be able to direct it almost at will.  

Hence we are moving from the unraveling stage to the mastery stage in our understanding of nature. We are like aliens from outer space who land and view a chess game. It takes a long time to unravel the rules and merely knowing the rules doesn’t make one a grand master. We are like that. We have learned the rules of matter, life, and mind but are not yet their masters. Soon we will be.

What really moves these revolutions is their interconnectivity, the way they propel each other. Quantum theory gave birth to the computer revolution via transistors and lasers; it gave birth to the bio-molecular revolution via x-ray crystallography and the theory of chemical bonding. While reductionism and specialization paid great dividends for these disciplines, intractable problems in each have forced them back together, calling for synergy of the three. Now computers decipher genes, while DNA research makes possible new computer architecture using organic molecules. Kaku calls this cross-fertilization—advances in one science boost the others along—and it keeps the pace of scientific advance accelerating.

In the next decade Kaku expects to see an explosion in scientific activity that will include growing organs and curing cancer. By the middle of the 21st century he expects to see progress in slowing aging, as well as huge advances in nanotechnology, interstellar travel, and nuclear fusion. By the end of the century we will create new organisms, and colonize space. Beyond that we will see the visions of Kurzweil and Moravec come to pass—we will extend life by growing new organs and bodies, manipulating genes, or by merging with computers.

Where is all this leading? One way to answer is by looking at the labels astrophysicists attach to hypothetical civilizations based on ways they utilize energy—labeled Type I, II, and III civilizations. Type I civilizations control terrestrial energy, modify weather, mine oceans, and extract energy from planet’s core. Type II civilizations have mastered stellar energy, use their sun to drive machines and explore other stars. Type III – manage interstellar energy, since they have exhausted their stars energy. Energy is available on a planet, its star and in its galaxy, while the type of civilization corresponds to that civilizations power over those resources.

Based on a growth rate of about 3%  a year in our ability to control resources, Kaku estimates that we might expect to become a Type I civilization in a century or two, a type II civilization in about 800 years, and a type III civilization in about ten thousand years. At the moment, however, we are a Type 0 civilization which uses the remains of dead plants and animals to power our civilization. (And change our climate dramatically.) By the end of the 22nd century Kaku predicts we will be close to becoming a Type 1 civilization, and take our first steps into space. Agreeing with Kurzweil and Moravec, Kaku believes this will lead to a form of immortality when our technology replaces our brains, preserving them in robotic bodies or virtual realities. Evolution will have replaced us, just as we replaced all that died in the evolutionary struggle so that we could live. Our job is to push evolution forward.

Summary – Knowledge of the atom, the gene, and the computer will lead to a mastery of matter, life, and mind.

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[i] Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century (New York: Anchor, 1998).

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Summary of Marshall Brain’s, “The Day You Discard Our Bodies”

Marshall Brain (1961 – ) is an author, public speaker, and entrepreneur. He earned an MS in computer science from North Carolina State University where he taught for many years, and is the founder of the website HowStuffWorks, which was sold in 2007 to Discovery Communications for $250,000,000. He also maintains a website where his essays on transhumanism, robotics, and naturalism can be found. His essay, “The Day You Discard Our Bodies,” presents a compelling case that sometime in this century the technology will be available to discard our bodies.[i] And when the time comes, most of us will do so.

Why would we want to discard our bodies? The answer is that by doing so we would achieve an unimaginable level of freedom and longevity. Consider how vulnerable your body is. If you fall off a horse or dive into a too-shallow pool of water, your body will become completely useless. If this happened to you, you would gladly discard your body. But this happens to all of us as we age—our bodies generally kill our brains—creating a tragic loss of knowledge and experience. Our brains die because our bodies do.

Consider also how few of us are judged to have beautiful bodies, and how the beauty we do have declines with age. If you could have a more beautiful body, you would gladly discard your body. Additionally, your body has to go to the bathroom, it smells, it becomes obese easily, it takes time for it to travel through space, it cannot fly or swim underwater for long, and it cannot perform telekinesis. As for the aging of our bodies, most would happily dispense with it, discarding their bodies if they could.

Why would the healthy discard their bodies? Consider that healthy people play video games in staggering numbers. As these games become more realistic, we can imagine people wanting to live and be immersed in them. Eventually you would want to connect your biological brain to your virtual body inside the virtual reality. And your virtual body could be so much better than your biological body—it could be perfect. Your girlfriend or boyfriend who made the jump to the virtual world would have a perfect body. They would ask you to join them. All you would have to do is undergo a painless surgery to connect your brain to its new body in the virtual reality. There you could see anything in the world without having to take the plane ride (or go through security.) You could visit the Rome or Greece of two thousand years ago, fight in the battle of Stalingrad, talk to Charles Darwin, or live the life of Superman. You could be at any time and any place, you can overcome all limitations, you could have great sex!  When your virtual body would be better in every respect from your biological body, you would discard the latter.

Initially your natural brain may still be housed in your natural body, but eventually your brain will be disconnected from your body and housed in a safe brain storage facility. Your transfer will be complete—you will live in a perfect virtual reality without your cumbersome physical body, and the limitations it imposes.

Summary – We will be able to discard our bodies and live in a much better virtual reality relatively soon. We should do so.

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[i] Marshall Brain, “The Day You Discard Your Body”

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Summary of Charles T. Rubin’s, “Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature,”

Charles T. Rubin is a professor of political science at Duquesne University. His 2003 article, “Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature,” is a systematic attack on the thinking of Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, thinkers we have discussed in recent posts.[i]

Rubin finds nearly everything about the futurism of Kurzweil and Moravec problematic. It involves metaphysical speculation about evolution, complexity, and the universe; technical speculation about what may be possible; and philosophical speculation about the nature of consciousness, personal identity, and the mind-body problem. Yet Rubin avoids attacking the futurists, whom he calls “extinctionists,” on the issue of what is possible, focusing instead on their claim that a future robotic-type state is necessary or desirable.

Rubin argues that the argument that there is an evolutionary necessity for our extinction seems thin. Why should we expedite our own extinction? Why not destroy the machines instead? And the argument for the desirability of this vision raises another question. What is so desirable about a post-human life? The answer to this question, for Kurzweil, Moravec, and the transhumanists, is the power over human limitations that would ensue. The rationale that underlies this desire is the belief that we are but an evolutionary accident to be improved upon, transformed, and remade.

But this leads to another question: will we preserve ourselves after uploading into our technology? Rubin objects that there is a disjunction between us and the robots we want to become. Robots will bear little resemblance to us, especially after we have shed the bodies so crucial to our identities, making the preservation of a self all the more tenuous. Given this discontinuity, how can we know that we would want to be in this new world, or whether it would be better, any more than one of our primate ancestors could have imagined what a good human life would be like. Those primates would be as uncomfortable in our world, as we might be in the post-human world. We really have no reason to think we can understand what a post-humans life would be like, but it is not out of the question that the situation will be nightmarish.

Yet Rubin acknowledges that technology will evolve, moved by military, medical, commercial, and intellectual incentives, hence it is unrealistic to limit technological development. The key in stopping or at least slowing the trend is to educate individuals about the unique characteristics of being human which surpass machine life in so many ways. Love, courage, charity, and a host of other human virtues may themselves be inseparable from our finitude. Evolution may hasten our extinction, but even if it did not there is no need to pursue the process, because there is no reason to think the post-human world will be better than our present one. If we pursue such Promethean visions, we may end up worse off than before.

Summary – We should reject transhumanist ideals and accept our finitude.

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[i] Charles T. Rubin, “Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature,” The New Atlantis, No. 1, spring 2003.

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