Phillip Wozny offers his thoughts on Transhumanism, an intellectual movement focused on advancing the human condition with technology. He is a grad student, currently studying artificial intelligence at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
The Netherlands is a forward thinking place. Everyone seems to be chipping away at the future in one way or another. In such a milieu, I often encounter a certain type of futurist that I find very problematic, the hardcore transhumanist. He/she believes that we are destined to transcend our earthly flesh-prisons (bodies) and upload our consciousness to the cloud. Sounds dumb when you say it out loud, but there’s a fair amount of otherwise very intelligent people who harbor such desires in the back of their minds. Maybe I’m old school, but I like bodies and think they matter considerably now and in the cyber-punk dystopia to which we are headed. However, I care for my fellow futurists and would issue a warning in their direction. By overlooking the body, and its subsequent role in generating semantic meaning, they’re headed towards Lovecraftian madness in the event of their success.
In transhumanist paradise, the swirling mass of associations and experiences filed under your name and birth date is divorced from your body and digitized. In such a form, it could inhabit other bodies. Maybe they look like yours, have larger features or roller skate feet. The quality of the body itself is arbitrary in this context, which begs the question of where your you-ness resides.
If you’re digital, then you’re a series of ones and zeros etched into the cloud somewhere. That is, your form is essentially symbolic. Of course ones and zeros are not to be reduced to meaningless bits. If you zoomed out to more familiar levels of abstraction, from bits to code to a generative neural network, you’d find something that speaks like you do and laughs at the right time and so on. Regardless of the level of abstraction, you are symbolic, which is to say rooted in a language of some sort.
Language means things. That’s my favorite part about it. Its best not to explore how it means things or where that meaning stuff comes from, but every now and then it’s worth going down the rabbit hole. By rule I avoid it, but for the transhumanist at the bar who won’t shut up, I make an exception.
Many moons ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein, stated “if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, that we should have to say that it was its use.” If meaning resides in use, then there is some ground upon which semantics rests, the user. This concept is very well illustrated by a recent experiment in artificial language generation researchers at Open-AI, Elon Musk’s apocalypse prevention division.
A group of agents in a two-dimensional grid world send out arbitrary characters as they attempt to complete simple tasks, such as arriving at a certain point on the grid. The success or failure of the agents in completing their tasks determines the value of the arbitrary characters. Consequently, high-value arbitrary characters are more likely to be communicated. If one agent called out “marklar” and another agent turned around to view and then move to its goal location, then the value of “marklar” increases with respect to turning around. As this process continued, agents developed their own language that facilitated collaboratively achieving their goals.
We, analog flesh-things with hair down there, are no different than the software agents in Elon’s lab. We graduated from clubbing mammoths to civilization thanks to our collaborative impulse and well kept records of success or failure. Whenever we achieve success, the basal ganglia chemically up-votes everything present in the state of success, which would include the random cave-man speak that led to the successful clubbing of the mammoth. The sound with potential for word-status is still just an associative placeholder for the trace of motor activity that led up to the successfully completed action.
Take the word “duck,” for example. Someone calls out “duck” and you get hit in the head with a soccer ball. Then someone again calls out “duck,” you respond accordingly and watch the ball pass over head. The meaning of the “duck” is resides in the pain you felt when you didn’t crouch coupled with the bending of knees and the lowering of the torso. For robots and humans alike, semantic meaning resides in not just the body but your body. Your definition of “duck” is rooted in the pain you felt when you were too busy musing about semantics and got hit in the head on the soccer field. The fact that my “duck” is not your “duck” matters for the transhumanist who thinks his/her “duck” can be “01100100 01110101 01100011 01101011.”
At the end of the year, Dr. Sergio Canavero plans to perform the world’s first human head transplant. Disregarding ethical concerns and assuming success, the surviving patient would have a body, thick with meaning but lacking in the associative links between spoken words and bodily experience. Imagine learning a new language using a dictionary containing only definitions. This is the lovecraftian horror that the transhumanists would encounter if thrust into a body not their own: the utter terror of empty symbols.
To conclude, I think the transhumanist disregard for the body is more a cause for psychoanalytic concern than technological. Even if such a future is in store for us, it is much further down the line than our lifetimes. Thus, transhumanism ends up being more of a political stance towards bodies than a realistic platform for technological progress. The above described existential terror is only hypothetical, but the melancholy of spending your days loathing your own body is very real. I empathize with the desire for another skin with faster legs as anyone who has ever had dreams of flight can too. We are all tortured by our limitations, at least until we can learn to love them. So instead of giving yourself to impossible dreams of the future, take a bath, go jogging, enjoy good olive oil, sink back into your flesh prison and appreciate its walls.
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