By Lev Grossman – Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011
Hello all. I’ve been away nursing a rather nasty head cold (turned nasty cough now). While I was convalescing, I happened upon Lev Grossman’s article over at Time.com entitled Singularity: Kurzweil on 2045, When Humans, Machines Merge. I thought I’d comment on this article as a way of getting my blogging mojo back up to speed. From the outset I make no promises that my comments will make any sense because I still have prescription codeine-based cough syrup coursing through my veins.
I liked this article because it does a great job summarizing where we are with respect to the posthuman project. Simply put, posthumanism holds that eventually man will succeed in his attempts to transcend the limits that come along with being incorporated in a material body. As you might expect the biggest limitation that posthumanists wish to transcend is mortality—the body’s insistence on decrepitude and death. Posthumanists long for a day when human beings can pass from being mere mortals to a state of immortality. According to Grossman’s research, posthumanists now have a date for the big switch—2045. This date comes from the work of longtime futurist Raymond Kurzweil (who is the main focus of Grosman’s article). Kurzweil calls the big switch—mortal to immortal—the Singularity. The term comes from the theory of black holes, so please don’t ask me to explain it in my weakened condition. Grossman does a fairly good job, so I’ll refer you there.
According to Grossman’s research, there are two ways that Singularity can be achieved (and work is actively being done in each area): 1) fix the biologically-based body so that it never wears out, or, 2) move the essence of what it means to be human over to some mechanical (or biomechanical) host (that won’t wear out), such as a robot or maybe even cyborg. Honestly, if the Singularity comes, it will probably be some combination of path one and path two. Let me spend a moment with path two because this is the one that Kurzweil favors.
When I say above “move the essence of what it means to be human over to some mechanical or biomechanical host,” I’m being a bit vague here. Exactly what human essence are we talking about here? Kurzweil (and the many powerful Singularity believers and investors from such places as NASA and Google) is much more specific. Kurzweil wishes to move the brain of the human over to the biomechanical host. Kurzweil points out that computing power doubles every two years (which is a form of exponential growth). He tells us that we have more computing power in our smartphones today than was contained in a mammoth, room-filing computer of just 40 years ago. Kurzweil calculates that by 2045 computers will have (exponentially) grown enough to hold all of the computing power and calculations that take place in the average human brain. Kurzweil argues that if a computer in 2045 can effectively do what a human brain does, heck, why not move over. After recently going through a nasty head cold (and now posed to cough up a lung), I could be persuaded to give up these biologically-based peculiarities.
So, why would the topic of posthumanism be of concern to a Bowlbian such as myself? Well, when I think about the posthuman project, one question leaps out at me: “Will there be a need for attachment relationships in a posthuman world?” OK, I’m cheating here. I’m not the first to ask this question. Back in 1968, science fiction writer (and futurist in his own right) Philip K. Dick asked (via the title to his book), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was turned into the 1982 movie Blade Runner staring Harrison Ford). At the risk of reducing the main message contained in Dick’s book to the point of libel, Dick argues that androids or robots or cyborgs will have no need for such things as empathy and intimate relationships. Essentially, Dick argues that this same lot—androids, robots, and cyborgs—will have no need for attachment relationships (from which empathy springs, according to Bowlbian attachment theory). All this to say that if we accept Kurzweil’s date of Singularity—2045—then we might as well start packing because 2045 is also the date that attachment dies.
“OK, Rick, we know you are in an addled state, but can you point to anything that maps this posthuman project because with only 34 years to go there must be signposts today that we can see around us?”
Great question. Back in 2003, Francis Fukuyama wrote a great book on the subject entitled Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. I took the time to write an executive summary of Fukuyama’s book (use the CONTACT US link above to request a copy). I specifically summarized Fukuyama’s book as a way of trying to answer the question, “Will attachment survive in a posthuman world?” Again, the answer I came up with was “no.” But lets look at some of the posthuman signposts that Fukuyama points to. The first one I can think of might surprise you: feeding kids behavioral drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall. Fukuyama is not alone here. See books by Bowring, Eberstadt, and Keen for support. Apparently the current habit of parents (and other mental health experts) feeding copious amounts of behavioral drugs (more potent than cocaine in many cases, according to Bowring) to kids as young as two and three years old, maps our march toward a posthuman state.
Designer babies is another signpost that Fukuyama points to. The 1997 movie Gattaca (starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) looks at at this same theme. In Gattaca, the line is drawn between normal sexual reproduction and reproduction via genetic engineering. Apparently we have to cross this line to get to the Singularity. Back in 2001, I attended a conference at The University of New Mexico entitled Ethics and Genetics: Is the Genie Out of The Bottle? The keynote was by LeRoy Walters and was entitled What Was Wrong with Eugenics? Is there a eugenics component to posthumanism? You bet, but that’s a topic for another day. The workshop at this conference that caught my attention was Reproduction Without Sex: Cloning is Progress?! by Ned McNamara. Hey, think about it, taking your brain and putting it in a robot or cyborg or android is reproduction without sex. So, forget about whether attachment makes it in a posthuman world; will sex make it in a posthuman world? Again, the answer coming back from people like Fukuyama, Bowring, McNamara, and Andrew Niccol (the writer and director of Gattaca) is “no.”
What else? Oh yeah, Fukuyama tells us that all manner of what he calls biological shortcuts map our march toward posthumanism. I have already mentioned feeding behavioral drugs to kids as being one form of biological shortcut. Feeding copious amounts of antidepressants to adults is another biological shortcut that Fukuyama (as well as Keen and Bowring) points to. I’m sorry but I can’t remember others at this point. I know that Bowring makes a lot out of ARTs or assisted reproductive technologies (again, the trend toward designer babies and away from sexual reproduction). I can’t remember which but one of these authors points toward plastic surgery and the obsessive quest to look young as mapping our progression toward posthumanism. If I think of others, I’ll put them in an update. But for now, I think you get the drift. Ooooo wait! Remembered one. The big controversy in the world of attachment today surrounds the topic of robot caregivers. Attachment researchers (in ernest) are asking if robots can make good attachment figures. Apparently robot caregivers are being used in Japan to take care of the growing elderly population. What do you think? Could you cozy up to a robot caregiver? Check out this 2010 article by Petters, Waters, and Schönbrodt entitled Strange Carers: Robots as Attachment Figures and Aids to Parenting.
As long as I’m on the topic of sexual reproduction, here’s an interesting question to ponder: “Will gender exist in a posthuman world?” Ahhhh! What of it? Do you see any need for gender in a posthuman world? This gets a bit out of my purview but some feminists gladly welcome the Singularity because they argue that if women were no longer burdened by the female body and female biology (with its unique capacity to give birth to and nurture new life), they could finally realize true equality with men. Sounds great in theory but there’s one huge caveat here: this theory holds that gender will make the cut in a posthuman world. In all likelihood, it won’t. Can you have attachment without such things as gender, the female body, sexual reproduction, etc.? For a very considered treatment of the subject, see the 2000 edited volume The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader (which features a still from Blade Runner on the cover).
What’s my “bottom line” on the whole posthuman project? I think path number one has some potential—tweak the current body so that it doesn’t wear out. But path number two—put a human brain into some form of mechanical brain—is silly. Why? Path two is the wet dream (excuse the crude imagery but it fits) of all reductionists. Path two presupposes that you can reduce mind to brain. It also presupposes that individual mind is in individual brain. I’m not a reductionist and I also don’t believe that individual mind is in individual brain. As a true systems thinker, I believe that mind is an emergent property that emerges from a number of different places over both time and space. My thinking is informed by such books as Edwin Hutchins 1995 book Cognition in the Wild, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s 1999 book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Antonio Damasio’s 1995 book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, and Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s 2002 book The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities.
So, when the big shift to Singularity comes, I’ll only have one thing to say: “After you.”
PS – In his article, Grossman points to such things as Facebook and smartphones as mapping our path toward the Singularity. Actually, all forms of cybernetics—the Internet, search engines like Google, DVR or digital video recorder technologies like TiVo, national ID card programs, cell phones, smart phones, all “frequent flyer” programs, etc.—map our path toward the Singularity.