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April 2017

Singularity and human nature

Singularity in a nutshell

In his ‘The Singularity is near’, Mr. Ray Kurzweil portrays a fascinating picture of the future of humanity. Based on his insights regarding the exponential acceleration of information related technologies, Mr. Kurzweil predicts an explosive technological future that will surpass even the wildest imagination. Mr. Kurzweil describes in detail the advent of three technological revolutions that are already in their starting phases; the genetic revolution, that will result in gaining the full control on biological processes and in particular the biology of the human body. The Nanotechnology revolution that will result in gaining full control on matter on the molecular level, which will yield cheap and renewable resources of energy and the ability to manufacture virtually any material artifact cheaply and cleanly. Following is the Robotic or the strong A.I. revolution that will result in building autonomous intelligent machines whose intelligence capacities will vastly exceed those of contemporary humans. These three revolutions (GNR for short), combined together will profoundly revolutionize the way humans exist. Hints to that are already ubiquitous even today.

The Singularity forecasted by Mr. Kurzweil and others pronounces a change so profound that we can hardly predict or even imagine what shape it will take. Moreover, once the technological acceleration crosses certain thresholds, the very definition of what does it mean to be a human, will not be a matter of theoretical philosophic discourse anymore, it will become an interdisciplinary field fusing together philosophy, art and engineering. In just a few decades, so it plausibly seems, we will be capable to reverse engineer our bodies, to improve them and eventually design much better ones, with immense capabilities, primary of which is radical life extension. Simultaneously, if Kurzweil’s predictions are even remotely on track, and I think they are, we will be capable to reverse engineer our brains, and decipher the principles of human intelligence. Shortly after that we will be able to create (ourselves as) intelligent autonomous systems based on these principles, and endow them (which are us) with capacities far beyond the capacities of their originators. These super beings will be able to swiftly improve on their own design (as we do already today) evolving eventually far beyond what their originators could possibly imagine.

This is in a nutshell the vision of the Singularity. It is fascinating, it is exhilarating, and it is definitely awe-inspiring. And what is particularly intense in all the thoughts and sensations it evokes, is the possibility that many of us might live to see it taking place with our very own eyes. Mr. Kurzweil’s book title is: ‘The singularity is near – when humans transcend biology’, these humans transcending biology, are us. These are not humans living in some fictional fantastic future. These humans are us living at this very age and no one can appreciate the profundity of the idea of Singularity without accommodating this highly plausible proposition, without relating to it very personally.

Human nature – Not a given anymore

Most of the protagonists of the Singularity are biased towards the scientific conceptual framework, resulting in the concept of Singularity being primarily described within such framework, and seriously lacking descriptions that would put it in a broader human perspective. One of the most critical implications of the Singularity goes as follows:
If we will be able to reverse engineer our genes and the processes underlying the biology of the human system, and if we will be able to reverse engineer the brain and the processes underlying the human mind (assuming that indeed the mind is a natural phenomenon emerging from the human biological system), we will be in a position first to understand and then to redesign aspects of our nature or perhaps to redesign the human nature in its entirety. The human will become the master of his own evolution, and thus the master/creator of his own nature.

It is very difficult, even while writing these lines, to capture the full significance of such a proposition. In the course of human history, mankind has gone many transformations, cultural, social, economical, and technological of course. One belief however has withstood all these transformations; it is the belief that the human nature is a given and essentially invariant. Given by what? That already depends on particular culturally biased worldviews. Yet the point is that human nature is a given, so we can try to discover it, research it, understand it, and perhaps learn to shape our lives as individuals and as societies according to these findings, but we cannot alter its primary characteristics. Whether we cannot alter it because human nature is god given, destiny determined, shaped by prolonged evolutionary process or just an arbitrary conglomeration beyond one’s control, is beside the point, its invariance is the point.

Moreover, it is important to note that contemporary views, despite the observed significant variation in manifested human phenomena, hold human nature as universal meaning that all humans basically share the same essential nature, and this nature is the basis of defining what a human being is. This view, being a foundation of modern society and one of its primary stabilizing factors is soon to become moot if not altogether irrelevant. The same accelerating technological revolution that is going to facilitate reverse engineering of human intelligence will equally be available to reverse engineer human nature and eventually to alter it. Extensive pioneering work on that is already taking place for quite a while. Our best predictions to date place no foreseeable limitations as to the extent and the direction of such alterations of human nature, at least not from the technological perspective.

If there is one apocalyptic implication to the Singularity, it is exactly this: the world as we know it is going to end, and not so much because what will happen to the world, but rather because what will happen to us, its conscious observers, while we go beyond our knowable edge into a realm of radical evolution.

The Singularity is going to set us free of our given human nature, and this freedom spells the fantastic possibility of becoming true visionaries, the designers of our own nature, and riders of our own dreams. If this is not an awe-inspiring prospect, I do not know what is.

It is not surprising that the prospect of altering human nature is mostly avoided in the growing reference regarding the possibility of Singularity. We are far from being comfortable with this aspect of our future, so it is elegantly circumvented or hidden behind broad concepts such as intelligence, as if it is possible for human intelligence to radically evolve while leaving human nature invariant. Intelligence is too abstract a concept to capture this emotionally laden issue of human nature. When we try to imagine intelligence vastly greater than ours, we tend to regard it either as possessing a nature very similar to us, or entirely alien to us, or as largely lacking any inherent characteristics of nature such as emotional dispositions, inherent motives, moral values etc. In all these cases, the prospect of relating to human nature not as a given but as something given in our hands to consciously design and evolve, is largely avoided.

The future of human nature

In the year 20XX, we will possess the technological means to alter in a directed manner the human nature of individuals or of whole populations. The process of alteration of human nature will take place along two distinct though somewhat overlapping avenues. The first avenue includes what I call consequent alterations. These are alterations that will spontaneously emerge as a result of a radical change in the way humans live. The major changes that are up to radically affect human nature are:

· Radical life extension verging on immortality.
· Elimination of physical and emotional suffering.
· Almost unlimited and cheap resources of material artifacts, energy and information.
· The ability to selectively edit memories and experiences.
· The ability to change physical form and physical capabilities.
· The melting of individual perception barriers that is the ability for one human individual to fully experience and actually unite (temporarily or permanently) with other individual mind(s).

The second avenue includes alterations through direct intervention that is utilizing technological means to redesign and implement the most basic characteristics of the human nature, according to a premeditated plan. This may include one or more of the following:

· Altering basic traits of human behavior such as territoriality, self-preservation, procreative imperative, and sociality to name a few.
· Moderate to radical alteration of emotional makeup, motivation and value systems of individuals or whole populations. This may include for example emphasizing certain kinds of behavioral expression and values while completely eliminating others.
· Radical alteration of the human form and physical characteristics, including fluidity of form (for example within Matrix like virtual reality, and eventually also within physical reality).
· Radical alteration of the human sense perception and cognitive systems to such an extent as to introduce profound alteration of interaction with the environment and consequently of a world view.
· The design and creation of novel kinds of intelligent entities and creatures, as for example, bringing to life mythological or imaginary creatures.
· Uplifting animals to a state of sentiency (as in David Brin’s Uplift SF series).
· Design of novel kinds of minds according to artistic philosophical or poetic visions.

As much as this short speculative list may seem fictional, none of the above exceeds the horizons of plausibility set by a technological singularity taking place within just a few decades. Quite a few authors had already explored detailed scenarios of implementing most of the alterations described above. Describing these scenarios is beyond the scope of this article.

The point I wish to make here is that the capabilities of radically altering human nature are imminent, and with them the profound riddle of what defines a human as a human is about to gain a completely new perspective. The Singularity will throw unto the lap of humanity a kind of freedom we find hard even to imagine, and along with such freedom should come a kind of responsibility of a completely new kind.

A new kind of responsibility

Contemporary human values are primarily based on the assumption that all humans share the same essential nature, and this nature is invariant. This very basis to human equality, and our understanding of human rights, will swiftly vanish due to a technological Singularity. The very definition of what a human is will stand to highly irregular and unpredictable pressures and tests. Even today, fierce debates are already raging about the threat technological advancements like cloning, life extension and genetic manipulation are imposing on what it means to be a human. These debates are barely the tip of the iceberg compared to what we are going to face just a couple of decades from now where these technologies and others will reach fruition.

Very soon, in historical perspective, we will face a situation where no single aspect of our human nature will still be a constant beyond our ability to alter, augment or eliminate. Human future evolution will be completely in human hands to be directed, and no set of values or motives will withstand any constancy unless we choose it to be constant. Such choices may perhaps be the first real free choices in the history of humanity. Free in the sense that it will not have to be derived neither from a previous condition, nor from an a priori ingrained belief system that guides us. We will become that which our own visions will make us, and even this becoming we will have to choose.
The sense evoked with this kind of freedom is initially a sense of complete disorientation, like hanging in the void. In a manner of speaking this is the ultimate sense of a creator prior to the moment of being reflected by creation.

It seems that my very attempt to tackle such projected future evokes metaphysical associations. I think this is not accidental, since once the Singularity will deliver us beyond most physical limitations, we will realize to the fullest, individually and collectively, that human existence has been shifted in the course of its evolution deeper and deeper into the realm of the mind, the realm of vision and myth, to which the physical is merely a substrate. This realm is essentially metaphysical, and operates according to metaphysical principles. In the near future, we will have to resort to metaphysical thinking and metaphysical concepts in order to understand what we are. Upon the occurrence of the Singularity, the focus of our interest will swiftly shift from the materialistic realm to the realms of mind, and from the physical to the metaphysical.

The new kind of responsibility we should develop at the advent of the Singularity is not simply a more advanced moral responsibility, it is a metaphysical responsibility. Moral responsibility derives from a-priori accepted premises and values recognized as universal and thus are used as a basis of validation and source of ethical authority. For example, the principle that all humans should have essentially equal rights is derived from the belief in the universality of human nature i.e. all humans possess the same essential nature.

Metaphysical responsibility cannot be based on a-priori givens, for it can recognize none. Metaphysical responsibility starts with the realization of freedom and its entailed imperative to choose the principles and the universal values according to which evolution will take its direction. Without such responsibility, freedom, the ultimate promise of the Singularity must be abandoned.

On how we can sketch and start exploring possible scenarios of redesigning human nature, in the next part of this article.