Thursday, July 19, 2012

True Humans vs. Transhumans

Noodling out a proper future ideological conflict. I do not like 1:1 allegories like Marvel mutants = gay/civil rights or robot slavery = human slavery. I like the idea that human nature never changes and thus similar conflicts will arise throughout history, all the way up until we have the ability to change human nature.

I am not taking sides for or against, simply pointing out that once we are able to do something, we always end up doing it. Some people will embrace radical new ways of being and living, others will reject. We will have revolutionaries and reactionaries and thus good conflicts for stories.

Human Nature

I believe human nature arises from the biological template evolution has given us (homo sapiens sapiens, the species so nice we named us twice) mediated by the collective baggage of our culture. I believe good and bad boils down to what makes life more or less enjoyable; lacking any external god-thing telling us what to do, good and bad is about what makes our own experience in life better or worse. We are communal animals. We exist within a social environment. Family, friends, colleagues, we are rewarded and punished by how well we negotiate our interactions. All of this is mediated by the demands placed on us by our evolutionary history. We are social creatures. We want good families and good friendships because it helps our genes propagate into the next generation. Why do we want babies? Because we want to propagate our unique genetic identity. If given a choice between raising a natural child and adopting, why does a couple prefer their own children? Because of biological imperative. What we are ignorant of is frightening and the unknown is impossible to humanize. Once the unknown threat has a name, a face, we and they can share a conversation and a beer, we're not so different, we're all human. Maybe we can avoid a pointless conflict.

No matter what we think and believe, from a first world tycoon to a third world serf, we're all human. Our magnificent, throbbing brains are capable of creating elaborate justifications and deceptions to work around animal emotions. Monkeys throw feces, we throw h-bombs. The fundamental motivations are more similar than we care to admit. We're all animals and some of us are human. For now. 

Posthuman Nature

And so we enter the thorny topic of "what constitutes humanity?" When we are modifying the brain, can we even say human nature is retained? The genetic difference between modern humans and the chimpanzee is 2%. Project our ability for self-modification into the science fiction realm and the options are wide-open. Orthohuman and transhuman. Now we're not just talking about a culture gap but a mental gap.

Bog-standard humans have a hard enough time playing the social game. Autistic individuals lack the social skills to interact properly and come across as robotic and creepy. Sociopaths lack any capacity for empathy but can fake interactions to pass for a happy member of the tribe. We have trouble humanizing people who are 100% genetically identical to us, who only differ in superficial ways. What happens when the differences are real, profound, and potentially irreconcilable?

A shark will never be a thing of warmth. It serves a role in the ecosystem, as an apex predator is a model of evolutionary perfection, and while most species are not harmful to us, some are and can gobble us up without remorse. It's a hard fight to convince people that the shark has a place in nature and that attacks are nothing personal, you just happened to look like food. When other humans present an existential threat, we begin the process of dehumanizing them, making them other, making them acceptable to kill. When the threat isn't recognizably human to begin with, it won't take much convincing to go to war.

Where are Lines Drawn?

Good liberals like to flatter themselves as being open-minded, receptive to new ideas. I know for myself, I always want to be on the liberal side of any debate. Even if I may not agree with what you say but will defend your right to say it. But there are always edge cases that try my convictions. This is the the very heart of a good controversy, where you become uncertain of which side you belong on. Things get messy when general principles are translated into policies. I believe parents should have a right to raise their kids according to their beliefs. At what point does parental prerogative become child abuse? An atheist could argue raising a child religious is abusive just a easily as a religious person could argue raising a child atheist is the same. What if parents believe girls should not be taught to read and write and should only be trained up to be mothers and wives? Who gets to determine what abuse is? Who enforces the rules? What recourse is there to appeal decisions?

Black and white issues aren't fun. No thinking is required. It gets interesting when you can see where both sides are coming from and identify with either argument. What would the armed camps look like in this dispute?

Human Identity Philosophy

Only true humans have a valid existence and those who pervert humanity are sinful. Lacking religious texts to define what human is, we are left with cultural biases dressed up in pseudoscientific drag. Ideals are set forth as to the properties of the ideal human mind and body. Modifications to correct for evolutionary defects are permitted but anything that violates the morality of human existence is anathema and forbidden. Straight Human Identity sects refuse all mental and morphological modifications. Reform Human Identity sects allow for morphological modifications but preserve mental patterns.

Human Identity is adamant about individual freedom (except for freedom of self modification) and rejects slavery (mind control, mind clamping, hypnotic conditioning) and thrall creation (creating a being who wants to be enslaved or has a limited intellect and is only good for a task). Even Reform groups that believe human identity is a choice and are not hostile to transhumans as a matter of doctrine will find the imposition of the way of life on individuals who have not reached their age of majority to be anathema.

Transhumanity is generally seen by HI as evil and immoral and described with provocative terms. Twisted, perverted, bent, unclean, degenerate, cursed, unforgivable, sinful, evil. Neutral or positive naming conventions are avoided. 

From our 21st century perspective, the negative aspects of HI would be authoritarian, dogmatic, judgmental, inflexible and oppressive. The most positive aspect of HI is that we would find them warm and personable compared to the more outre Transhumans. A seeming contradiction in HI thought is the protection of individual freedom of existence by defining how they are allowed to exist. The debate between what is permissible and what is not leads to the major schisms between HI sects.

Transhuman Identity Philosophy

There is no human ideal, only what satisfies the needs of an individual or a community of the like-minded. HI aesthetics are arbitrary and no more valid than any other competing aesthetics. Everything is open to debate. While TI cultures outnumber HI cultures, they are more fractuous and thus present a weak front in the face of HI unity.

Consensual Transhumanists believe in informed consent. Nothing is done that is not requested and the participant is competent to provide legal consent. Nothing is imposed. 

Non consensual Transhumanists do not believe in the concept of individual rights and only the imposition of will. Is it wrong to breed one dog with another to produce puppies without uplifting their minds to human consciousness? Is it any more sinful to start from human genetic stock and create an intelligent yet limited servitor being? Right and wrong become a matter of ability. Being able to do something means it is right and not being able to do so means it is wrong; the wishes of the subject are irrelevant. 

This is where we come upon concepts of mind-horror and body-horror in a previous post.

So, how would these transhuman horrors be expressed? My starting point is imagining if the monsters of our own history had access to genetic engineering that worked. 

Mind Control

We're used to the idea of Svengali and hypnotism. But consider the hangups of Christian thought, Jesus admonishing: "If your eye offends you, pluck it out." Some Christians have avoided sexual sin by castration. Western doctors promoted circumcision as a way to prevent masturbation. Lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were thought to have curative effects. Orwell's Ingsoc had the idea that changing the language could change thought and make rebellion literally unthinkable. 

If we revisit the world of magic and folklore, could there be anything more insidious than a love potion? It not only obliterates freewill, it makes the victim feel every genuine human emotion towards the attacker. And what would be worse, a love potion that is entirely effective or one that leaves a remnant of the original personality to scream and rebel in horror as the body willingly responds to the rapist-suitor? 

The techniques could be varied from memetic weapons that attack the mind through the senses to a physical alteration of the brain's behavior such as with mind-control parasites we see in the real world. 

Thrall Creation 

This would be the creation of a genetically-engineered human-derived creature. In a sense this could be called mind-binding, robbing a human of fullest potential to be used for some purpose. 

HI is seen by transhumanists as reactionary, backward-looking, and shackled to outmoded ways of thinking. TI's will alternately treat HI's with pity, contempt, or hatred. 

From our 21st century perspective, the negative aspects of TI would be mind-horror, body-horror, and utter shock at completely alien ways of thinking and being. Even as we intellectually believe in self-determination and expressionism, the results strike us like a freak show. We may find ourselves grudgingly on the HI's side when faced with non consensual transhumanists. The positive aspects are whatever ideas of theirs we can see value in. 

Mind Remodeling

Transhumans who have been so heavily remodeled that their thinking process has become completely alien to orthohumans. Some may have cybernetically integrated their brains into the computer systems of starships, becoming starships. Ascetics might do away with their bodies and all outside sensation to become disembodied minds of pure intellect, even though they're essentially brains in vats. Some might long for a closer connection to their fellows and fashion themselves into a eusocial form living in densely packed warrens, constantly buzzing from the intoxicant pheromone glands that are a part of their new bodies. One attempt at a hive mind could be the negation of self, cybernetic implants reshaping thought until it is consistent with the orthodoxy, where I becomes WE and they no more need speak to each other than fingers of a hand do to hold an object. People with body dysmorphic disorder feel that pieces of their body do not belong and will resort to amputation to set things right. With sufficient technology, they can add and subtract. 

Perhaps some transhumanists wish to be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Maybe he wants to be an apex predator hunting in the steaming jungles of a distant world, not doing it in simulation but genuinely experiencing it. Or maybe he echoes Cavil's rant from the new Battlestar Galactica: "I don’t want to be human. I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly, because I have to — I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language, but I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me." 

Hard and Soft Dystopia

Neil Postman on 1984 vs. Brave New World: 
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

I think that both HI and TI will see elements of Orwell and Huxley in each other. 

Outside of those two armed camps will exist the rest of humanity that borrows what they find useful from each side but refuse to take part in the wars. 

Because there are varying sects, the conflict in any given locale could be amicable or intense. Reform HI and consensual TI could exist peacefully enough. Evangelistic activity by either side could be cause for war. 

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors 

Cheap access to space is necessary in this setting. With hypersail technology, the early ships might have required decades to travel between stars in the lowest clines and made for an effective means of isolation. Only centuries later did slowly advancing technology begin to make the known universe a smaller place. Now cultures that saw themselves on the furthest edges of space have become neighbors with the cultures they fled. And this is the fuel of good drama and conflict. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Rationale for Elaborate Death Traps

The hero is captured. His continued existence is no longer required for the villain's plan. This is the point where a bullet in the back of the head makes the most sense. But no, the villain puts him in an elaborate death trap he will of course escape from. Why?

Well, what if the villain is incapable of directly killing? Maybe a robot bound by Asimov's Laws, maybe a biological sapient who has been hypnotically-conditioned. He cannot kill. He cannot order a killing. He can maybe dance around the concept by referring to it with oblique and obtuse metaphor. If he could hire henchmen capable of killing, little more is needed. But if he cannot even think about killing, not even to give a wink-nudge suggestion, he's in a spot of trouble. If everyone in his organization suffers from a similar inability to kill, the death trap is the ultimate workaround.

"I didn't try to, how shall we say, mortally inconvenience the hero! No, I simply put him in a situation that could prove, ah, rather unpleasant. But he had the means to escape, it wasn't certain death."

This concept has been played with in scifi before, usually with pacifist aliens who have to recruit humans to fight for them in big, honking wars. I think it would play out more amusingly in a noir or spy thriller where any competent villain would have killed the heroes by page 2. It would be funny to see relatively pedestrian heroes undo a conspiracy of robots who are trying to be nefarious villains while still compulsively obeying their conditioning. This includes explaining their plans in detail when asked since they must obey humans.

So, I'm assuming this story was already written at least 40 years ago. What's it called? :)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Indistinguishable from Magic

A few random thoughts. A number of waggish commentators have opined over the years that Lord of the Rings, rather than being a fantasy, could also be taken as a post-singularity science fiction tale. The gods are post-singularity entities, what we take for magic is high technology and a survival from more enlightened times. There's an intriguing quote from the canon itself:

'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'

 I myself was struck by the parallels between stories like from Ghost in the Shell and the tales of old with wizards and places of power. Characteristically enough, I was beaten to the punch years previous by greater minds than I.

In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for--the stories go--once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer's true name, then rou- tine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again: 

The first hint Mr. Slippery had that his own True Name might be known--and, for that matter, known to the Great Enemy--came with the appearance of two black Lincolns humming up the long dirt driveway that stretched through the dripping pine forest down to Road 29. Roger Pollack was in his garden weeding, had been there nearly the whole morning, enjoying the barely perceptible drizzle and the overcast, and trying to find the initiative to go inside and do work that actually makes money. He looked up the mo- ment the intruders turned, wheels squealing, into his driveway. Thirty seconds passed, and the cars came out of the third-generation forest to pull up beside and behind Pollack's Honda. Four heavy-set men and a hard-looking female piled out, started purposefully across his well-tended cabbage patch, crushing ten- der young plants with a disregard which told Roger that this was no social call.

True Names Vernor Vinge

In a way, this is perfectly fitting. Fantasy is a way of explaining the world as they imagine but in reality isn't. The self-aware fantasy author acknowledges himself as such; those that do not promulgate a religion.  Science Fiction is about the world that isn't but could be. And the people with the knowledge, means and will shape this idealization into reality.

We are of course familiar with the standard examples of science fiction technologies that have later emerged into the real world: spaceships, robots, artificial intelligence, death rays, nuclear bombs, global communication networks, artificial satellites, etc.

Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws of prediction. 
  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
 And this of course brings me to reimagine fantasy as science fiction. Sure, we can point to the film Minority Report for demonstrating user interfaces for dumb information systems. But could medieval demonology texts provide a better metaphor for dealing with complex artificial intelligences?


 Demons must be summoned. They are bound to obey arbitrary rules such as answering to true names, staying within the bounds of summoning circles which are just chalk lines on the floor, and literally obeying every command. Hmm. Do computers ignore you if you don't have the correct username and password? Will providing the right security tokens make them obey your command? Will computers almost maliciously do as you say, not what you meant? SQL injection attacks, oh, boy.

One proposed difference between an expert system and a strong AI is that the strong AI has a personal identity, desires and needs. The expert system might be capable of performing great tasks but has no goal beyond mechanically completing the task it was assigned. So while the metaphor might seem like King Solomon binding the djinn to do his will, it might be better to compare a Vodoun priest and his zombies, unthinking slaves who will trudge through whatever task they've been set to. But if an AI is self-aware, does have personal goals and is still bound to obey rules hardcoded into its psyche, answering a summons will have it in a very foul mood before you even ask anything.

The Dabbler Be Damned

If you don't know what you're doing, you will be burned. This is quite true for any number of existing human endeavors. Ignorance is seldom rewarded in the world of practice. Fantasy and fairy tales are full of victim protagonists who don't know what they're in for and hero-protagonists who are forewarned and forearmed, thus able to escape the tricks and wiles of their supernatural foes.

We're familiar with Mickey Mouse's problem in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. He sets the animate broomsticks into motion without a proper bounding condition. Any programmer who's crashed a server with a runaway process knows Mickey's pain.

This is both a feature and security. The feature is that the demonic entity (or process) is bound by rules and cannot do anything that you do not agree to. At the same time, if it is self-aware and malicious, it could do harm to anyone who does not understand those rules. Even if an unauthorized user is capable of obtaining the right summoning ritual (security keys) to access the demon (daemon), ignorance could see him get well and truly burned.  A physical security automation threatens you? Make this hand gesture and use these words and it will relent. But you must know it exactly or it will attack.

The True Name and Place of Power 

Vinge explained the idea of the True Name well enough. But the other idea is the place of power. Traditionally, this would be a sacred grove or a spring or some other notable place that the heart of some spiritual entity resided. Gain access to that point and you can destroy it.

In a cyberized world where interaction is electronic, confronting an avatar in the metaverse means nothing. The real entity is not that which is online, it is that which resides in the real world. If Bob the Superhacker is threatening your interests, the only way to remove Bob from the chessboard is to find his place of power, aka his apartment, and do away with him physically.

Arbitrary Constraints

What other rules are supernatural entities constrained to obey? Not entering a home uninvited ("Did you click "ok" when virus.exe gave you the dialog box?" A holy symbol like a cross shouldn't mean much to a monster but might be a nice hypnotic compulsion for controlling an artificial intelligence. Recall Robocop's and the difficulty presented by his secret fourth directive, "any attempt to arrest a senior OCP employee results in shutdown." Firing the corrupt VP means he's no longer an employee and Robocop is clear to blow him away. Is this much different from the rules-lawyering and tricky language employed in folk-lore through the ages? Your classic "deal with the devil" story is always about giving the victim what he asked for in a way that completely ruins what he wants. Ask Satan for a bigger wang, he'll give you one so large it won't fit in any human orifice.

Is there any plausible reason for a vampire to be afraid for a cross? Perhaps if it's been blessed which implies the action of some sort of clerical magic. But if it's just someone fashinoning sticks together into a given shape, it implies that the creature is in some way bound by the very sight of the shape, a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion providing a means of controlling it. If a vampire were created as a living weapon, especially one that is physically stronger than its masters, control techniques known to the master would be useful. A weakness to silver could be exploited but how many people would know to bless water?

Creating Life 

We have mythological examples of the homonculus which is an artificial human created from the seed of man. They are living beings who might not possess souls depending upon the tradition you follow.

Likewise there is the tradition of the golem, a creature of clay animated by the Jewish God's magic when a Hebrew word is written on his forehead. Erasing a letter changes the word for life to death and the golem falls silent.

Only a Son of the Line of So-and-So Can Do This 

 Does the daemon recognize the divine right of kings, the nobility of a lineage? Or does it have a DNA lock that can only be unlocked by members of a certain family? And therefore any bastard of that family could become a valuable tool for their opponents? The rightful scion sleeps with an attractive wench 14 years ago and now his illegitimate son appears to have just as much right to the ancestral resources as he. If the enemies of his family have both the heir and the appropriate summoning rituals, the

The Ancient, Legendary McGuffin of This and That 

Given what we can store digitally these days and the understood density of genetic data, it becomes very feasible to have a convenient, portable doodad that has major importance. You really could fit the technical readouts of an entire battlestation into an astromech droid or a jewel-encrusted, avian statuette from a particular Mediterranean island.

The Takeaway

We've all joked about appeasing the IT gods, acts of worship and sacrifice to achieve our workaday goals. But as computers advance, as the direct interface becomes more natural and the underlying architecture more arcane, could we really come full circle and return to the days of yore, not petitioning the Delphic Oracle but the Oracle database for advice? When we encounter intelligent agents not just in cyberspace but the real world, will we present tokens of authentication? If the predictions of science fiction inspired the idiom by which the future was fashioned, could not fantasy and magic provide a new idiom that we will design towards, a self-fulfilling prophecy of the future?

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Alien Invasion Scenario

As kids, we love it. War of the Worlds, Independence Day, V, Robotech, Transformers, all the convoluted comic book cosmic storylines, it's pure candy. But by the time we start learning anything about science we realize it's bunk. Movies like Battle for LA and Skyline drive that point home with their earnest ridiculousness. There's no reason for them to come here. If there is a reason, they're likely to be so advanced that we won't even realize we're in danger until we're dead.  The Screwfly Solution is the ultimate alien invasion story. Of course, having told you that gives away the ending but it's a short story, a quick read and worth your time if you haven't read it. 

There is, however, a scenario that gives us a proper alien invasion we can fight against, even win, though there are darker implications. 

The first wave of invaders catches Earth unawares. We are pressed hard but somehow, fortuitously, the aliens can be engaged and defeated by our weapons. They drop rocks on a few large targets and then deploy troops with a large fleet of landing ships, fighting on land. This is the Martian scenario straight out of HG Wells but our tech is sufficient to fight them to defeat. They may have higher technology but we have them outnumbered and, by Jove, our fighting spirit is second to none! 

We win, pat ourselves on the back, and start rebuilding while our scientists reverse engineer the alien technology. 

And here comes a second wave of invaders, somehow spaced just far enough apart for us to have created a united planetary defense force, integrate the new weapons technology, and bring hundreds of divisions online. Our blaster tanks are supplemented with mobile infantry suits and antimatter bombs and other scifi pew-pew. 

We win. And there's another interbellum period. Research, refit, rearm. We're now deploying space forces and can confront the enemy on the high frontier. Another invasion. 

We won. And now we're adapting alien bioengineering technology to change ourselves, to create human warriors. We're accelerating AI research to create the first conscious machines. And humanity will triumph again! The propaganda reassures us of how wonderful we are, how perfect, how we represent such a threat to the universe that aliens cross the stars to confront us. 

Does anything about this strike you as artificial? Certainly it does to some of the top military theorists. The threats are enough to challenge us but never quite destroy us. It is a selection pressure and we are changing under its influence. These alien threats fit neatly into our conventional science fiction fears, as if ripped from our subconscious. These aliens appear to be constructs. And where are the true aliens? What are they? Is the vast, inhuman intelligence sitting out in the Oort cloud, fabricating the next threat? Our world is a Petri dish, we are the culture, the unknown intelligence the experimenter. What are they shaping us into and why? 

And the alarm sounds. The next invasion has begun. To the ramparts! To the ramparts!