Slow road

unSingularity – let’s enjoy the slow hike to the future

As a child of the 60s I spent most of my life regretting that we didn’t build those cities on the Moon and the planets. Now I realize that the Apollo adventure was too far from our supply lines to be sustainable. But we are still doing space, and someday (not soon) we will go back to the Moon, and then to Mars, to the planets, and to the stars.

In the meantime, we can enjoy our little steps in space, admire the view and think that, as crew members of Spaceship Earth, we are part of the wonderful adventures of our descendants among the stars. And perhaps we will be there… (please read until the end).

NASA historians observe that Apollo was a very expensive undertaking for its time and, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested in an essay published during the week of Apollo 11, we had made such a great leap into space during the 60s that we needed a time of “consolidation.” The first lunar landing came only eight years after Gagarin and, because it had all been so expensive, few saw a point in continuing. “We have a great deal to learn and great deal to do,” conclude the NASA historians. “But we have been to the Moon and can put that experience to good use as we prepare, sooner or later, to go back.”

The Master Arthur C. Clarke also said that the first manned missions to the Moon should really have been launched in this century, because last century was much too soon. I don’t find the citation at this moment but I remember reading something similar – I think Sir Arthur would have said something similar, and I certainly agree. Apollo in the 1960s was like buying a new gadget that we couldn’t really afford, and then having to return it. We went to the Moon a handful of times in the 60s and 70s, but then we didn’t have the resources to build a sustainable presence on the Moon.

I was 11 when I watched on TV the first man walking on the Moon, 15 when I watched the last, and it’s very unpleasant to realize that I’ll probably be 75 or older (or not be) when we go back to the Moon. But one should try to keep happiness and sense of wonder. So I have made this resolution: I will have fun following our robotic missions to the planets, without letting the fun be spoiled by the knowledge that probably I won’t see much more than that.

Annalee Newitz, a writer I sometime disagree with, wrote an awesome article titled “Stop pretending we aren’t living in the Space Age.”

“[C]olonizing other worlds is not something that takes ten years, or even a hundred,” she says. “It might take much longer than that before humans are living on Mars, or in orbit around Saturn. But we are undeniably on the path toward a future where humans live in space. Our ancestors, who dared to learn from the planets and stars, led us onto this path. And now we are actually seeing those planets up close, for the first time in the history of our species.” She adds:

“Enjoy this small but incredible slice of time that you get to live through, and remember that Galileo would be weeping with envy and relief to know we made it this far. Just because it takes centuries doesn’t mean we aren’t making progress. We’re riding a slow, powerful wave that will bear future generations to the stars.”

That is, I must concede, the right attitude. Of course a wild card could fall on the table anytime to change the game suddenly – for example the EmDrive could actually work and open a cheaper way to the planets, or those aliens that blink from Ceres could email us the specs for their warp drive and welcome us to the community of galactic civilizations – but I am not really holding my breath. The road to space is long and difficult, and will probably take generations, but we are enjoying the first few miles as crew members of Spaceship Earth.

I have been a transhumanist since I was a child, persuaded that humanity would transcend Earth and all limits. In the 90s I discovered organized transhumanism and became a card-carrying, unrepentant, in-your-face transhumanist. One little caveat though: I never believed that progress would be easy and fast.

20 years later I am still persuaded that 1) we will transcend Earth and all limits, but 2) not anytime soon. I am confident that things like radical life extension, artificial life, sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI) and super-human AI, mind uploading, and interstellar colonization, will happen someday, but probably after my time. I never considered the hyper-optimistic predictions of Ray Kurzweil and others as even remotely plausible, and I don’t see a Singularity in 2045 (or ever – I am a Singularitian who doesn’t believe in the Singularity). I am afraid things will take the time they must take, with all the twists and turns and roadblocks and setbacks that happen in the real world.

Getting things to almost work is much, much easier than getting things to work. Engineers know that even if you do 90 percent of the work in 10 percent of the time, then you will have to spend the remaining 90 percent of the time to do the missing 10 percent of the work. Same, of course, for money. Which means that 90 percent wasn’t really 90 percent, because it left out all the boring details that take 90 percent of the money and the time – boring details like sustainability, operational robustness, error recovery, failsafe operations and all that, without forgetting social acceptance, financial and political aspects.

This rant may give the impression that I have second thoughts about transhumanism, but that is very much not the case. On the contrary, I am totally on board without second thoughts, but I just happen to think that we will have to wait much longer than expected by optimist transhumanists. The impression that real AI seems always 20 years away indicates that perhaps we just don’t know enough to estimate the development timeline for something that is actually 200 years away. A good analogy is Leonardo’s flying machines. Leonardo understood that machines could fly, and produced sketches of flying machines, but the actual development of flying machines took centuries and required different technologies.

“You will not live to be 200 years old,” writes Newitz in another piece. “Life extension like that is not going to happen in our lifetimes because quite simply it takes time to analyze our genomes, then it takes more time to test them, then it takes more time to develop therapies to keep us young, and then there is a lot of government red tape and cultural backlash to deal with too. Maybe our grandchildren will have a chance to take a life-extension pill. But not us.”

In passing, it’s worth noting that Newitz is open-minded about sentient AI, artificial life, mind uploading and all that. “It’s possible that we’ll become cyborgs, beings who are half biological and half machine,” she writes in the last part of her book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. “No matter what scenario you think is most likely – synbio, uploads, or natural selection – our progeny may look nothing like us.” Newitz just thinks (and so do I) that:

“We may be at the start of a long, slow journey whose climactic moment comes thousands of years from now.”

My answer: So what? “The Universe is still young, all these things [space colonization, interstellar travel, immortality, strong AI, mind uploading…] and more will be developed by future generations, and it feels good to be part of a species that will do shit like this. I think our descendants will roam the universe and re-engineer space-time.” [read more…]

That does feel good indeed, but I (and I guess you too) still wish to be there in some way and see all those wonderful things. We want to hope that we will continue to be after our body dies, and we want to hope that we will see again our loved ones who passed away.

I guess everyone must find their way to cope with grief, and the (current) inevitability of physical death. Here is mine: I find joy in contemplating the Cosmist possibility, described by many thinkers including Nikolai Fedorov, Hans Moravec and Frank Tipler, that future generations (or alien civilizations, or whatever) may develop technologies to resurrect the dead. I hope to be copied to the future by “future magic” (in the sense of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) and find my loved ones there. [read more…]

Slow road

(Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons)

  • This is optimistic. For personal reasons lately I am no longer optimistic.

    • Giulio Prisco

      You should try. It’s hard work, but pays well.

    • spud100

      Khan, a saying in Alcoholics Annonymous, states, “fake it till you make it.” Which doesn’t mean be a happy, peppy, optimist, but rather, a reserved, quiet, sort of person who is relaxed, but detemined. I might phrase this by saying this: “screw em’ all-I go forward.” This isn’t always emotionally doable, but it often is, most of the time. Remember, please, we human beings are a complex neurobiological system that includes, not only the cerebrum, for logic, but the amygdala, for emotions. We need to be aware of which part of our brains we are feeding.

      From a human point of view, I’d rather have Wolframs’ magical hypercomputer, which spits out answers that we need, like ‘who else is out there?”, and, ‘how to make solar work?’ I would chose this over a genius mind in a box, as envisioned by Bostrom and Vinge, who we constantly have to be on guard, over. Transhumanists say they are the same thing , but that is merely, a guess.


      • Giulio Prisco

        @Mitch – While optimism comes natural to some persons, others must work on it, and it’s very hard work. But optimism correlates strongly with both happiness and success, and therefore it’s worth trying.

        A practice relevant in this context is to focus on achievable goals. If you wait for a manned expedition to the stars, you will be unhappy because that won’t happen in your lifetime. But you can choose to see our baby steps in space as the wonderful thing they are. We are going to the stars, and you are part of it, even if it takes centuries.

        (and don’t forget my last paragraph in the text)

  • Humans were specifically evolved/designed to live on planet earth. If we need to spread life elsewhere, why not design it for the environment? Mars Rover is designed for the environment and it will be designed/evolved to better suit that environment in the future.

    • Giulio Prisco

      The main point that I try to make in this post is that these things won’t happen tomorrow, or next week. However, I totally agree with what you say here. Ultimately, we will colonize the stars not as flesh-and-blood humans, but as AI-upload hybrids. Uploaded minds will be a portable, substrate-neutral format for space dwelling humans, which can be transmitted via radiation beams at the speed of light and loaded on all sorts of robotic bodies optimized for different environments. You may like this older article:
      However, once again, all that won’t happen anytime soon.

  • “Technology paces industry, but there’s a long lag in the process. Industry paces economics. It changes the tools, a great ecological change. And in that manner we come finally to everyday life. The politician is someone who deals in man’s problems of adjustment. To ask a politician to lead us is to ask the tail of a dog to lead the dog.”

    Buckminster Fuller

    • Giulio Prisco

      Well, with all due respect for Buckminster Fuller, human adjustment to change is the _most_ important thing. Humans are the dog, and gadgets are the tail. So I think politics is important.

      My opinion of most of today’s political parties and politicians is probably even more negative than yours, but ultimately politics is the art/science of living together without killing each other, and therefore the politicians’ role is of paramount importance.

      I just wish we could fire all politicians and replace them with better ones. But in-principle the politicians who “deal in man’s problems of adjustment” with a system-wide bird view are more suitable to manage society than narrowly-focused scientists and engineers.

  • Samantha Atkins

    It is quite unlikely you need to fully analyze the genome to stop aging and reverse its ravages. Technology, historically, is accelerating exponentially. Kurzweil didn’t make that up. Anti-aging can quite easily happen when 30 years from what I see of research to date. Not soon enough for me most likely but soon enough for my kids. The advent of greater than human AI is my working definition of Singularity. There is nothing whatsoever that makes it impossible and it is being worked on with more energy than ever. It also has subsidiary feeds getting very large funding. So I would be very surprised if it was not a fact by 2045.

    • Giulio Prisco

      But the technology/society system is NOT accelerating exponentially, and Kurzweil DID make that up.

      Some specific technologies accelerate exponentially in research labs for a period of time, but then their impact is slowed down back to linear (or worse) by friction in the interfaces with other developing technologies, or with the rest of the world including finance, politics, and culture.

      Think of a stone falling in the atmosphere – it doesn’t accelerate exponentially to the speed of light and beyond, but reaches a limit velocity (or hits the ground and stops). Same here.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Re greater than human AI, I think it will be developed eventually, but not soon and not without unexpected problems.

      The idea that the AI produces a better one in two days and the new AI produces an even better one in one day and so forth (the hard takeoff Singularity) seems, frankly speaking, naive – just like the idea the a stone falling in the atmosphere will accelerate to the speed of light and beyond.

  • Giulio Prisco

    UPDATE for “The Master Arthur C. Clarke also said that the first manned missions to
    the Moon should really have been launched in this century, because last
    century was much too soon. I don’t find the citation at this moment but I
    remember reading something similar – I think Sir Arthur would have said
    something similar, and I certainly agree.”

    I found the source:

    “Arthur C. Clarke (1979) has interpreted my analysis of the social
    history of spaceflight a little more optimistically, saying my book
    concluded that “space travel is a technological mutation that should not
    really have arrived until the 21st century.” – William Sims Bainbridge

    “As William Sims Bainbridge pointed out in his 1976 book, The Spaceflight
    Revolution: A Sociological Study, space travel is a technological
    mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century.” – Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

  • fartorizon

    Apollo in the 1960:

    I fucked the first time when I was 14 but then no sex until I was 20!!!

    • Giulio Prisco

      Very good analogy !!!

  • Nupur Munshi

    I have taken some courage to comment on this post which is otherwise way ahead of my humble understanding and knowledge. I am trying to share with my acquaintances the ideas of Dr. Prisco through his writings specially this one where he talks about mind uploading. I thought that mind uploading might not be popular with certain communities in my country because they “might” come up with certain queries unanswerable by me.This post and the link provided by you (of the article by Dr. Bainbridge) could answer those. I was also glad to read the last paragraph of this article along with the paper. I was thinking that scanning meant only the memories and personality,the mind not quite the physical characteristics. Now I see it is actually everything. Sir if you could,please, comment on that.

    • Giulio Prisco

      In the context of mind uploading, “scanning” usually refers to the data encoded in the brain, without the physical characteristics. The reason is that the physical characteristics, while important, are less important than memories and personality as far as identity is concerned.

      In other words, you are still you if you lose 20 kg in a diet, but you are no longer you if you lose 20 years of memory. If certain physical characteristics are deemed important, they could be easily reproduced in a new robotic body for the uploaded mind.

      Here “easily” means easily compared to mind uploading. Building a custom robotic body is a challenge, but uploading is much more difficult.

      However, to reiterate the spirit of this article, we (my and your generation) are stuck with physical bodies. Uploading is, perhaps, for our grandchildren.

      • Nupur Munshi

        Thanks for that great explanation. As for the last two lines the reason our generations are stuck with the physical characteristics is that to our generation the physical trait is one of the important identifiable form of our “loved” ones (parents, children,sibling, pets,friends and even our Gods).Shall we be able to recognize and love them the way we did in our uploading?

        • Giulio Prisco

          Our generations, and all previous generations. It will take some time to change that. But we get used to new things, and we get used to changes in physical appearance (new clothes, make-up, glasses, hairstyle, tattoos etc.) Getting used to consider the whole body as an option that can be easily changed like a vehicle or a dress (or not worn at all), will take generations from the moment the option becomes available (that is, it will take centuries from now), but yes, I think our descendants will be able to recognize and love uploads. Some kind of unique cryptographic signatures will replace the body as unique personal identifiers (ref. Greg Egan’s Diaspora).