August 11, 2003

Human Mental Augmentation

Henry Farrell expresses skepticism about "transhumanism"--which he defines as "the idea of the self as a sort of infinitely extensible meccano-set, where you can plug in new bits and pieces all the time, just because it’s cool":

Crooked Timber: Better, Fitter, Happier : ...there are serious, principled reasons why you might want to disagree with transhumanism. And this argument has been going on for a long, long time.... What [Max Weber is] saying, I think, is that Tolstoy, and people like him, ask some interesting and important questions, which "progress"-obsessed types don't. They may not have the right answers to those questions, but that's beside the point. They're interested in whether life is meaningful, not whether it can be infinitely extended. And meaning, for Tolstoy, requires some reference point other than the internal desires of the individual. Which maybe allows me to articulate a little better what I find creepy about transhumanism than I could last week. It isn't the prospect of brain-machine interfaces, Singularities, telomere hacks and the like, few of which are likely to be with us anytime soon, if at all. It's the underlying philosophy behind this geek aesthetic - the idea of the self as a sort of infinitely extensible meccano-set, where you can plug in new bits and pieces all the time, just because it's cool. And, in the best of all possible worlds, keep on doing this forever.

But, Henry, it's too late. Our selves have already been infinitely extended. What has happened to the Third Chimpanzee over the past million years has already created gulfs between us and our chimpanzee and bonobo evolutionary siblings that dwarf any future Singularity. Think of trying to explain your own life to one of your African Plains Ape ancestors of the past--even those that already had upright posture, opposable thumbs, serious stone toolmaking, and language.

And if serious toolmaking and language didn't do it, agriculture did. And if agriculture didn't do it, writing did. And if writing didn't do it, large-scale social organization did. And if large-scale social organization didn't do it, metallurgy did. And if metallurgy didn't do it, large-scale environmental manipulation (i.e., building cities) did. And if LSEM didn't do it, printing did. And if printing didn't do it, steam-power did. And if steam-power didn't do it, the second industrial revolution did. And if the SIR didn't do it, modern information technologies did.

One thing is clear along this journey: after each stage, very few people want to go back. Henry Farrell's life would be impoverished were he to find himself switched with some eighth-century monk in a scriptorium, spending his days preparing vellum and ink and copying out Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Augustine--and little else.

So isn't the way to bet that our descendants will marvel at how limited our capabilities were?

And "meaning"... IMHO, you can lead a very meaningful life at the stone-tool stage as you find a mate, take pride in discovering how to make a better flint hand axe, and protect your young from wandering off and getting eaten by leopards in the night. You can lead a very meaningful life at the peasant-agriculture stage as you find a mate, take pride in building a better plow so that you can keep standing water from killing your grain, and try to get enough food growing to keep your young from starving to death in periodic famines. You can lead a very meaningful life at the post-industrial stage as you find a mate, take pride in discovering, learning, and communicating how the economy works so that we can collectively make better social decisions, and try hard to equip your young with the math, literacy, and social skills they will need so that their options will be bright ones. You can lead a very meaningful life at the post-singularity stage as you find a mate, take pride in demonstrating using ordered sequences of linearised tree-level ideoplast arrays to express higher-order metaphor functors that show the existence of nontrivial toposophic hierarchies in pre-S1 societies, and strive to ensure that your 37% augmented descendants have sufficient semantic instantiation at their transcoding.

Whatever part of a fear that modern life is without "meaning" does not come from neurotransmitter uptake malfunction (and Weber's fear did come from neurotransmitter uptake malfunction) is orthogonal to all the big issues of physical and information technology. Post-industrial life is no less "authentic" than the agricultural life of Tolstoy's serfs or, indeed, the hunting-and-gathering life of the first Cro-Magnon generations to spill out of Africa. If you want to say that there is a style of human life--a level of physical and information technologies and patterns of activity--that we were meant to have--you have to go all the way back to the hand axe and the burning brand.

Posted by DeLong at August 11, 2003 07:20 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Well, I disagree here. Sometimes the society just plain has the wrong setup, and if something else worked better before, why not change back? Here's the example. Both my babies were terrible sleepers, and didn't really sleep well through the night until they were 7-8 months old. Week after week of only 4-5 hours of sleep, no family close by to help out, a husband working long hours to get ahead at his job, left me just about nuts. I thought at that time that the nuclear family was absolutely the worst thing ever invented by humans, designed especially to drive women insane. I remember reading about some tribe in Phillipines, I think it was. I don't know if they were hunters or agricultural but what really caught my attention was the way young mothers were treated. They had a separate house all their own, and were waited on hand and foot by the older women of the community, who took it as their responsibility to make sure that the mothers were well rested and had no stress, so they could nurse successfully. In other words, all the mothers had to do was lay around and nurse, and be waited on by the other women. I have to admit I cried when I read that and at that particular time of my life I would have given up everything I had to live like that.

Posted by: northernLights on August 11, 2003 08:23 PM

But Henry's not complaining about neurotrasmitter what-have-yous; he's complaining about the philosophy and aesthetic of basing your sense of who you are on science fiction books.

Posted by: dsquared on August 11, 2003 11:06 PM

I think I agree with crooked timber. Using tech to replace a cripple's useless legs is an admirable achievment. Trying to "improve" him by giving him three legs, or to eliminate his need for legs altogether, would be monstrous. I don't believe Reynolds (or our gracious host) would agree with that characterization.

Posted by: tgs on August 12, 2003 01:28 AM

The idea about the life that we were ment to have seems to refer to the notion that we have evolved to fit into a certain environment.

What's wrong about this is that the environment changes as other species evolves - even though ecosystems might be in balance temporarily - in the long run most species will find themselves living other lifes than they were "ment to".

However, the idea is anyway right in pointing out how much faster cultural development is than biological evolution. Industrial culture happened to work better for human individuals than agriculture, which in turn happened to work worse for humans than hunter-gather cultures.

For human population size, agriculture was good and hunter-gathering was so-so. Now in the wake of the industrial revolution, we seem to have an idustrial implosion. People are at an increasing rate sucked in from rural regions in to urban areas, where reproduction is faltering.

Regardless of the friendliness to its individuals, industrialism or post-industrialism, does not seem to improve the chances for the human race.

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 01:45 AM

from the various examples given it is evident Saint Francis of Assisi did not have a meaningful life.

Posted by: bryan on August 12, 2003 01:59 AM

Got you! You poached that transhumanism string from Mariama Xi! [1]

"If you could provide any infomation on [translation failure]
or semi-local reciprocated meme transfers across
low-level toposophic hierarchies in immediately pre-S1
societies I'd be eternally grateful. I'd prefer
multiply connected ideoplast arrays because my exoself
is having trouble dealing with anything other than"

Toposophic I could figure out [2], but what's an ideoplast?

john

PS. You are definitely a hard science fiction guy.

[1] http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/archives/000048.html
[2] toposophic: http://www.orionsarm.com/sophontology/toposophy.html (reading this without context is fun)

Posted by: John Faughnan on August 12, 2003 05:23 AM

Got you! You poached that transhumanism string from Mariama Xi! [1]

"If you could provide any infomation on [translation failure]
or semi-local reciprocated meme transfers across
low-level toposophic hierarchies in immediately pre-S1
societies I'd be eternally grateful. I'd prefer
multiply connected ideoplast arrays because my exoself
is having trouble dealing with anything other than"

Toposophic I could figure out [2], but what's an ideoplast?

john

PS. You are definitely a hard science fiction guy.

[1] http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/archives/000048.html
[2] toposophic: http://www.orionsarm.com/sophontology/toposophy.html (reading this without context is fun)

Posted by: John Faughnan on August 12, 2003 05:25 AM

Sorry for the double post! After initial posting the results page did not render. A bug somewhere, but with networked multi-layered interacting software, the bug could be anywhere!

(I'm using Safari).

Posted by: John Faughnan on August 12, 2003 05:29 AM

"Using tech to replace a cripple's useless legs is an admirable achievment. Trying to "improve" him by giving him three legs, or to eliminate his need for legs altogether, would be monstrous . . ."

So, I guess there's no point in trying to sell YOU a car,right? :)

Posted by: rea on August 12, 2003 05:30 AM

>>"Using tech to replace a cripple's useless legs is an admirable achievment. Trying to "improve" him by giving him three legs, or to eliminate his need for legs altogether, would be monstrous . . ."

So, I guess there's no point in trying to sell YOU a car,right? :)<<

Precisely. Nail hit on head.

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on August 12, 2003 06:37 AM

Outside the state of California, we tend to draw a more hard-and-fast distinction between ourselves and our cars ...

Posted by: dsquared on August 12, 2003 07:06 AM

I, by contrast, have trouble drawing a hard-and-fast distinction between myself and my library...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on August 12, 2003 07:32 AM

Indeed, it's the hard and fast distinction between oneself and one's library that it would be nice to eliminate. I'd love to have all the stuff I've read be accessible as immediate memory without having to go look it up again. Better yet would be to have it accessible as memory even when I *hadn't* read it. (cf. Vinge's "Bookworm, Run").

The Internet is great in that it partly eliminates the distinction between your personal library and the libraries of the world, but that's just the first step.

Posted by: EKR on August 12, 2003 09:02 AM

I wonder if we will still have hacks after the singularity?

Posted by: Hackenkaus on August 12, 2003 09:24 AM

">>"Using tech to replace a cripple's useless legs is an admirable achievment. Trying to "improve" him by giving him three legs, or to eliminate his need for legs altogether, would be monstrous . . ."

So, I guess there's no point in trying to sell YOU a car,right? :)<<

Precisely. Nail hit on head.

Brad DeLong"

No, it's more like hammer missed nail completely. Hammer hit thumb. Cursing ensues.

Look at it this way. If you could transplant the brain of a human being into the body of a gorilla, what would you end up with? It wouldn't really be a gorilla, would it? But it wouldn't really be a human being either.

To compare things like agriculture or printing with the mechanical (or genetic) altering of humanity strikes me as deliberately wrong-headed. True, a human being born a thousand years ago wouldn't be able to handle modern society but he would still be a human being and his children, or at least grandchildren, would likely be able to seemlessly assimilate into the modern world.

And the reason why making actual alterations to the physical nature of a human being are so dicey is precisely because of what was pointed out...once you make a large change in human society, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to change back. Even when the "progress" turns out not to be an overall improvement.

Mike

Posted by: MBunge on August 12, 2003 09:49 AM

Wow, am I happy, for once I agree with Brad all down the line.

This is a journey, and since we don't have too much choice about it, better enjoy the ride.

Maybe there have only ever been a few people who wanted to go back, but they have been, in the main intellectuals, and of course their arguments are worth considering. They seem however mainly to rely, as does Henry, on some notion of an irreducible human essence that we are apparently in danger of losing.

The function of this essence is to provide a kind of ontological backstop - some solid ground -which enables you to justify the ethical superiority of your views (or as someone once said back on Gallowglass, to set your moral compass). What I think preoccupies the critics of sci-tech evolution more than anything else is the loss of this apparent certainty. But if this was always only a convenient fiction anyway, then where's the loss? Those who are really phased out can always follow Nietzsche and practise some 'active forgetting'.

The plastic and transient sense of self that Henry has so much trouble with may in fact be no more that a set of randomly interconnected neurons in your brain.

Meaning: where's the problem with losing something we never really had.

Posted by: Edward Hugh on August 12, 2003 10:04 AM

Brad-
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
We need more poeple on the left/liberal side supporting scientific & technicnal progress. The left used to benefit from being aligned with science, and letting the public political debates pit Luddite "liberals" (how can anti-progress be anything but "conservative") against pro-science right libertarians seems a long-term disaster for the liberals.

Posted by: Decnavda on August 12, 2003 11:09 AM

Could I just point out that the philosophy of "I would be a better, happier person if I only got that new technological gadget" has failed so spectacularly at the personal level that it is worth wondering whether it's going to work all that well at any social level?

Posted by: dsquared on August 12, 2003 11:53 AM

dsquared-
1. Who are you to decide for me how I should pursue my own happiness? Frankly, a lot of techie gadgets make me very happy.

2. As for the social level, shall we engage in comparisons of higher-tech vs. lower-tech societies with regard to average levels of per capita income, respect for human rights, and life satisifaction/ happiness?

Posted by: Decnavda on August 12, 2003 12:26 PM

>>Could I just point out that the philosophy of "I would be a better, happier person if I only got that new technological gadget" has failed so spectacularly at the personal level<<

Please send me all your new technological gadgets at once. We will both be happier.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on August 12, 2003 12:44 PM

Still no reason for civilisation over-optimism: Even though gadgets make us happier, they don't make us have more children - they make us have less as time spent with inventing, buying,learning to use and flashing our gadgets to our friends is time not spent at rising children.

Gadgets make us happier as individuals but are costful demographically for the civilisation. Our great grandchildren might not see even fancier gadgets evolve, because they might not be born at all.

(However, with urban/industrial culture coexisting with agriculture, gadgets are fine as they might make people leave agricultural societies for urban ones. The problem arises in a future world that is fully industrialised)

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 01:20 PM

">>Could I just point out that the philosophy of "I would be a better, happier person if I only got that new technological gadget" has failed so spectacularly at the personal level<<

Please send me all your new technological gadgets at once. We will both be happier."

Be careful whether you discuss absolute utility or relative "keeping up the with the Joneses" utility as recently discussed in the Economist and elsewhere. We see relative utility, so of course the one whith the most gadgets are the happier.

Observe though that the "anti-gadget side" seems to discuss a the absolute utility in gadgets, which is less obvious. Are we like the Native Americans who are said to have sold Manhattan for a few glass-perles selling our precious time for a few gadgets?

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 01:39 PM

I find the post examples to be similar enough to show a flaw in their argument. Say the Singularity is about to hit; in my perfect faith in technological improvement, I ask the best available AI to recommend the changes that will make me happy and successful, and it recommends that I remove all sense of affection for children and direct my energies totally to gaining gadgets. Post-singularity, this lopsided protocol gives me the edge; I starve out Professor DeLong's grandchildren before their instantiation.

There's fairy-tale precedent; think of all the ogres and wizards whose hearts are safe in a glass box under a fiery sea, etc. Maybe they weren't wicked before submitting to this logical safety procedure.

Even if Professor DeLong was happy when he got all dsquared's gadgets, it might not be because of the gadgets. It could be because he had more gadgets than dsquared, or because he had asserted dominance.

Posted by: clew on August 12, 2003 02:02 PM

Mats-
You are way off point with this population derth argument for Ludditism.
First, you seem to be basing this argument on the idea that we are spending too much time acquiring/ using gadgets than we are having kids. I do not know the statistics, but I would bet you money that early 21st Century post-industial societies have much higher average leisure time per person, then, oh, 95% of all other identifiable societies. Counting slaves as people, we probably have greater average leisure time than residents of classic Athens or Rome. Pre-contact Polinesian island societies that spent one day a week fishing and gathering fruit may have had more leisure time than us, but I don't think their birth rates were that high either.

Second, if you are assuming the naturalist argument is not a fallacy, it seems to me this planet was never meant to hold 6 billion members of a single large mammal species anyway. Post-industrial society may be slowing down population growth rates, but we are pretty far from Voluntary Human Extinction.

Posted by: Decnavda on August 12, 2003 02:06 PM

"I think I agree with crooked timber. Using tech to replace a cripple's useless legs is an admirable achievment. Trying to "improve" him by giving him three legs, or to eliminate his need for legs altogether, would be monstrous."

"Improve him?" Is he catatonic, so that he can't respond? If he isn't catatonic, why not ASK him whether he wants to have 3 legs, or eliminate his need for legs altogether? If he says "yes," what is the big deal? (If he says "no," I agree it's definitely monstrous to strap him to a table...)

I have astigmatism and wear glasses. I tried contacts about 15 years ago, and had lots of problems with them. (Maybe today's contacts are so improved that I should look at that option again.) In another couple years, I'll probably get PKK, or whatever gee-whiz eye surgery is available (for under $500 per eye!).

http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/1998/498_eye.html

BUT...if there was a ***digital camera*** eyeball available, such that I could have 20/5 vision (i.e., better than 20/20), with maybe a special telephoto zoom option (20/0.5), and maybe infrared and/or night vision...all for under $500 per eye, I'd probably get that.

The fundamental phenomenom here is that our laser surgery and our digital cameras are improving much faster than our species is evolving to have better eyeballs. How is is any more "monstrous" for me to surgery or mechanical eyeballs, than it is for me to wear glasses, or to squint?

And it isn't just eyeballs that aren't evolving as rapidly as our technology. That's true of virtually every part in the body...especially the brain.

In roughly 20 years, a computer costing $1000 will have the computing power of a human brain. So ***sometime*** in this century (probably before the middle of it) people will have fully portable brain assistance. It may not be actually located in the skull...it might be accessed via something that whispers in your ear. But in some way, your access to knowledge will be tremendously enhanced by use of a machine. I mean something way faster and way more powerful than a current portable computer or PDA with wireless Internet connection.

With this machine brain enhancement, it won't be a matter of someone trying to install this machine to "improve" you. You will WANT*** the machinery, because it's simply better. Machines are improving faster than humans evolve. It's as simple as that.

P.S. ***And if you don't want the machinery, it's hard to imagine that the machinery will be forced on you. Just like it's hard to imagine someone being forced to have eye surgery, rather than being allowed to wear glasses...or to just squint.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 02:12 PM

clew-
Conservatives cite fairy-tales they don't admit are fairy tales, such as the world being created in six days, to oppose technology. You cite fairy tales you admit are fairy tales.

For this analogy to to convience me, you need at least some evidence that the AI would suggest removing my concience. The historical, as opposed to fairy tale, precident however, is that higher tech societies have vastly increased empathy: More democratic sovereinty, more equal rights for women, and an end to slavery.

You can argue fairy tales, but I will stick with history.

Posted by: Decnavda on August 12, 2003 02:17 PM

Well, we have leisure on levels that probably compare favourably to traditional agricultural societies. But women there, successful enough to get married, were forced (by cultural tradition9 to have as many kids as possible. Our culture simply doesn't have that demographic advangate (GDP/head dis-advantage).

OK "we are pretty far from Voluntary Human Extinction", but industrialized countries that deny themselfes immigrants, like Japan, are already feeling the strain. And this is just a few generations away from their industrial breakthrough!

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 02:18 PM

"...letting the public political debates pit Luddite "liberals" against pro-science right libertarians..."

"Liberals" versus liberals, eh? ;-) I agree, the liberals would clean the "liberals'" clocks, as witnessed by this commentary on "liberal" Bill McKibben's views on biotechnology, by a real liberal, Ron Bailey:

http://www.reason.com/rb/rb040203.shtml

"'Do we want science to re-design human aging?' was the official topic debated last week by the ideological environmentalist Bill McKibben (author of the upcoming Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age) and UCLA bioethicist Gregory Stock (author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future) at the SAGE Crossroads series in Washington, D.C."

"McKibben was in favor of disease and death and Stock was a proponent of extending healthy human life spans."

Heh, heh, heh! Good line.

More good lines from Ron Bailey's commentary:

"But who can doubt that parents of children brought into the world via the miracle of IVF (in vitro fertilization) treasure them as 'gifts' far more than parents who can produce children with technology no more sophisticated than a bottle of champagne, a dozen roses, and a comfortable bed?"

:-)

...and finally:

"But human freedom cannot and does not rely on ignorance and randomness. Human freedom—the capacity to make choices based on reasons—expands with knowledge, not shrinks. If you don't believe it, think about how humanity's greater knowledge of such things as the germ theory of disease and the atomic theory of matter have radically increased our choices and freedom over the past two centuries compared with the choices available to our ancestors. Similarly, knowledge about how our genes affect our behavior and how our brains are wired increases rather than limits our freedom. Prozac, for example, does not limit our choices, but gives depressed people the freedom to adjust their emotional state to one they prefer."

Ron Bailey writes really well. He's a great spokesperson for *real* liberalism.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 02:35 PM

No I don't think "AI would suggest removing my concience". But more gadget means less kids much the same way as species with more brains have their adults spend more time with their offspring. Something has to be transferred into the brains, that takes time.

You can't spend too much time playing with you gadgets and expect to have many grandchildren.

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 02:36 PM

"OK "we are pretty far from Voluntary Human Extinction",..."

Yes, that seems fairly safe to say, given that in 200,000+ years of human history, there have never been more humans on earth than the 6.3+ billion alive at this minute.

"...but industrialized countries that deny themselfes immigrants, like Japan, are already feeling the strain."

Japan has a population of 127 million, in a land area slightly smaller than California. I'd say they're not in danger of running out of people anytime soon.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 02:45 PM

"I'd say they're [Japan] not in danger of running out of people anytime soon."

But they are already running out of people! Not old people of course but young people to take care of the old people. A double whammer - taking care of your grandma gives you less time to rise your own kids, so your grandkids will be fewer and therefore have to use even more time (/head) to take care of you.

It's a GDP problem too: With many old people per young people, it's gets harder for new (possibly productivity increasing) ideas to break through.

Try Gunnar Myrdal!

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 02:54 PM

northernLights writes, "Well, I disagree here. Sometimes the society just plain has the wrong setup, and if something else worked better before, why not change back? Here's the example. Both my babies were terrible sleepers, and didn't really sleep well through the night until they were 7-8 months old. Week after week of only 4-5 hours of sleep, no family close by to help out, a husband working long hours to get ahead at his job, left me just about nuts."

Yes, if only you'd had the Model X-15 crib/baby bed. It's coming in 2-4 decades (my standard time frame for futuristic predictions ;-)). The Model X-15 will have:

1) Active noise cancellation, with Enhanced Scream Recognition(TM). It separates general crying from true emergencies. General crying is completely cancelled out. You can see the baby's mouth open, but outside the crib, it's completely silent. Inside the crib, a computer recording says whatever general platitudes you'd say if you were there. True emergencies are translated into a pleasant soft call of, "Mommie, could you help, please?"

2) Automatic diaper changing (of course).

3) Automatic feeding (of course).

4) On the Model X-15 Deluxe, expert anesthetic gas injection. (Guaranteed to put them to sleep for exactly 8 hours.)

The total cost for a new Model X-15 Deluxe will be $200. It will be available, used, on EbayTNG ("The Next Generation") for $100. Batteries--er, fuel cell--not included.

So don't wait for society to change, northernLights. Engineering genius has always been faster. ;-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 02:58 PM

No "Automatic diaper changing" does not work! As I said, species with big brains need to have parents and offspring together (mentally), probably to get something into the brains.

"Automatic diaper changing" has been tested on monkey's in a well known experiment (automatic feeding actually). The poor lonesome little animal died of course!

Raising kids and spendig lots of time at work developing gadgets is in conflict. You need a lot of time to be able to do high-skilled high-productivity work. You need a lot of time to rise kids.

The question is simple enough: gadget of kids!

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 03:06 PM

No "Automatic diaper changing" does not work! As I said, species with big brains need to have parents and offspring together (mentally), probably to get something into the brains.

"Automatic diaper changing" has been tested on monkey's in a well known experiment (automatic feeding actually). The poor lonesome little animal died of course!

Raising kids and spendig lots of time at work developing gadgets is in conflict. You need a lot of time to be able to do high-skilled high-productivity work. You need a lot of time to rise kids.

The question is simple enough: gadget or kids!

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 03:07 PM

"But they are already running out of people! Not old people of course but young people to take care of the old people."

No, what they're running out of are artificial hearts and eyes and kidneys and whatnot, to make the old people independent.

Alternatively, they suffer from a dearth of personal attendant robots. Since they Japanese lead the world in robotics, they ought to be able to come up with something. Or, we in the U.S. can build them something. A frightening number of folks in here North Carolina have lost their textile and furniture manufacturing jobs. Should be no big deal to switch to making robots. ;-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 03:09 PM

speaking of gadgets, editing would be nice...

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 03:11 PM

"Try Gunnar Myrdal!"

I dunno. I already have about 10 books I'm wading through. Currently slogging through Wealth and Democracy (that Kevin Phillips doesn't seem to have a clue where wealth comes from). Plus the weekly editions of The Economist that keep piling up.

You try Julian Simon. (Now, there's a man who knows where wealth comes from!) :-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 03:15 PM

Mats-
You are nuts with this gadgets vs. kids stuff. Yes, making gadgets takes times that could be spent with the kids. So does praying in church or writing letters to your congressman to save the environment. So does working in a coal mine, harvesting wheat and hunting for meat in the forest with a spear.

Some gadgets actually help you have more time for the kids, like the Microwave oven. You can use some gadgets when spending time with you kids, playing video games or building a BattleBot as a father-daughter project.

So yes, I guess it is possible that some people can spend more time with gadgets than their kids. Just like they can with alcohol, Bingo, religion, politics, sports, etc., etc., etc....

Posted by: Decnavda on August 12, 2003 03:27 PM

"No "Automatic diaper changing" does not work!"

It doesn't *yet,* because the typical microprocessor has the brain of somewhere between a flea and a mouse. You don't see fleas changing diapers (though perhaps it's because flea diapers are so small).

Diaper changing ain't rocket science, Mats. (It's harder...it's clever engineering.) :-)

This reminds me. My brother wants me to quit my lucrative job and go in with him as a two-man engineering design shop. He got to thinking about it, and decided that we probably ought to think of some product(s) first. The Model X-15 Deluxe crib/bed is such a product! From now on, when the world thinks about messy diapers, they'll think of Bahner Brothers! ;-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 03:27 PM

"No, what they're running out of are artificial hearts and eyes and kidneys and whatnot, to make the old people independent." - I think both the species and the culture need individuals to die in order for themselves to develop. And here is probably the core of the controversy:

Gadgets makes individuals better off. However, making individuals better off (from already agreeable levels) has little to do with making society stable and durable.

What if the old "independent" people with "artificial hearts" would impose their ideals on every future generation. Destruction guaranteed through constant generation wars? Or maybe stability guaranteed by the rule of the grand great grandparents, imposing their century old ideas on all living...

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 03:31 PM

"'Automatic diaper changing' has been tested on monkey's in a well known experiment (automatic feeding actually). The poor lonesome little animal died of course!"

"northernLights" was talking about getting 7-8 hours sleep every night...not going on a year-long cruise around the world!

Any baby that dies from lonesomeness simply because it's parent needs to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night, is a baby in need of some serious genetic engineering. ;-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 03:31 PM

"Gadgets makes individuals better off. However, making individuals better off (from already agreeable levels) has little to do with making society stable and durable."

Society is a fictional social construct.

"What if the old "independent" people with "artificial hearts" would impose their ideals on every future generation."

That's what Constitutions are for. To limit government to specific, necessary functions. Of course, it doesn't help to have a Constitution, if the government doesn't pay any attention to it...as the U.S. so clearly demonstrates.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 03:38 PM

A baby doesn't die from lonesomeness because its parentS want to sleep. It cries til it gets what it needs (thereby proving its brains)!

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 03:39 PM

"A baby doesn't die from lonesomeness because its parentS want to sleep. It cries til it gets what it needs (thereby proving its brains)!"

Sometimes a baby cries til it gets what it wants. As Mick Jagger so eloquently put it, "Ya can't always get what you want."

That's where the Enhanced Scream Recognition(TM) comes in. It knows whether the baby is crying to get something it *wants,* or crying to get something it *needs.*

Bahner Brothers will be rich, rich, rich!

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 03:46 PM

"It knows whether the baby is crying to get something it *wants,* or crying to get something it *needs.*" - thereby learning the baby to rely on others in defining it needs.

Good for totalitarianism, but I can't see anything modern or liberal in it though. Godnite!

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 03:51 PM

Mats calls Enhanced Scream Recognition(TM), "Good for totalitarianism, but I can't see anything modern or liberal in it though."

Mats, parents have been deciding whether babies are crying from need or from want since the dawn of recorded history. Enhanced Scream Recognition(TM) merely transfers that decision-making to a machine.

Look, if you want, I can throw in a robotic Virtual Mother, that looks, sounds, and smells like the real thing. And the Virtual Mother will pick the baby up when the baby is crying for *want* as well as need. But it's going to cost extra. And I'll need some sort of legal protection from parents coming back when their children are spoiled rotten. ;-)

G'night.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 12, 2003 04:00 PM

Thanks very much Mark Bahner! It's because of people like you that survival of the species will be assured, and women will love you forever and ever. Glad to see you are using your brains for a very useful purpose.

To Mr. DeLong- that library- self connection sounds a little medieval. How's your woodpile doing? Mine is not doing well- in May the frost went out of the ground and everything went over. Some of the pieces look bigger than I thought, so it looks like I'm going to have to get out the splitting maul and have at it some more before I stack it up again. Whoops, there are some cracks that duct tape may not hold, so I guess it's back to Sears, Stone Age Division, and pick up a new one, not as good as one from the Actual Stone Age, but it will have to do.

Plus it won't be long until it is winter, so I may have to get out my mukluks and make sure they are waterproofed well. I was thinking maybe this will be the year that I should make an actual shirt from a deer hide, now what method should I use? Chewing, no, I checked my brain tanning book and it says that one animal's brain is exactly the right amount to tan a hide. I bet that's some useful information you don't have in YOUR library Mr. DeLong. Or I could go for the alternative, neats foot oil.

But what deer to get? Maybe my husband will decide that we need a nice corn fed deer this time, so he will probably have to get that muzzleloader rifle all ready, and the buckskin jacket that goes with it, the whole shebang.

Yep, fall brings on all sorts of preparations. Pretty soon that young guy at work will start bow and arrow hunting and all of us women at work will have to sound interested in his deer hunting stories.

Posted by: northernLights on August 12, 2003 04:10 PM

Mark, stop ragging on Mats. He doesn't know you're kidding. Model X-15 Deluxe crib is clearly the fevered fantasy of a desperately sleep-deprived parent of a young infant. I'm sure you know perfectly well it wouldn't really be a good idea, but you have my full sympathy (I can remember moments of wishing kids could be born with an "off" button on their foreheads).

Mats, you're perfectly right that kids need lots of touching and cuddling if they're going to even thrive physically, let alone grow up sane. And the economic requirement to work in a location away from your children is indeed tough on parents and kids. But most people manage work out some sort of compromise solution that still allows plenty of time for their kids. And as Decnava points out, a lot of gadgets increase leisure time that can be spent with the kids.

As for your other point, all I can say is... well, I was going to say, you're nuts, but Decnava already said it for me. So I'll content myself with observing that exponential growth is not indefinitely sustainable. Either you get an S-curve from a lower equilibrium point to a higher one, or else you hit a limit and suffer a population crash. Humanity was at one equilibrium point, with famine, disease, and a high infant mortality rate balanced by a high birth rate. In recent times, as people started living much longer, the human population on this planet has been exploding, even though there have been lower birth rates. Yes, as a natural consequence of this, the proportion of older people has grown. But your notion that having ever more and more and more kids, ad infinitum, will somehow solve this problem is folly, because those kids would grow old too, and need to be cared for, and make the problem even worse.

What you are fussing about is a transient imbalance as the population growth curve starts leveling out to reach a new equilibrium that takes modern lifespans into account. It has to happen sometime -- better for it to happen now than later, or not at all and hit a population crash. You only think it's abnormal because the scale of the curve exceeds the scale of your vision.

Posted by: Canadian Reader on August 12, 2003 04:22 PM

"Could I just point out that the philosophy of 'I would be a better, happier person if I only got that new technological gadget' has failed so spectacularly at the personal level"

I dunno, toilets are nice.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on August 12, 2003 06:37 PM

The REAL danger with such technology is that it will enable humans to start MANIPULATING their own brains in detail -- and I'm not just talking about Matrix/Philip K. Dick nightmare visions of artificially generated virtual-reality worlds or fake memories; we're very close to the far simpler feat of being able to efficiently physically control our own emotions. And just think what the human race would do with that alone...

I'm not alone in worrying; "The Economist" was worried enough to do a cover story earlier this year, and intelligent SF writers have been writing about the implications of this since at least 1941. Timothy Leary -- who, I imagine, is busily justifying himself at this moment to every demon in the vicinity -- was a great enthusiast for the idea: "The hell with drugs -- your kids will be demanding septal electrodes so they can control their own emotions by pushbutton!" Right... If the coming genetically engineered doomsday plagues don't get humanity, the coming Lotus Eaters will.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on August 12, 2003 08:47 PM

I've been ruminating on this ever since it first came up on Crooked Timber. And I only have to say two things: 1) essentialist arguments about "human nature" really creep me the hell out. And, 2) this argument lies deeply in the territory of Colossal Waste Of Time. We are going to screw around with our genetics and our minds. In a variety of ways we've long done so; and, even if we hadn't, we would in the future since it goes to the very core of our technological impulse. Worrying about this (or, for that matter, embracing it) at any deep philosophical level is a way of uselessly indulging oneself in regards to one's deepest intellectual/tempermental biases. People intellectually fetishize their instincts, especially those of conservative "essentialism" or uptopian "progressivism", (conventionally) technological or otherwise. It's intellectual laziness and I was sorry to see it on CT.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on August 12, 2003 09:23 PM

Decnavada - If I understand your argument correctly, you say a (presumed omniscient & obedient) AI wouldn't advise me to remove my conscience, because so far technological advances have made society more generous and compassionate. Different questions! I'm pretty sure that the AI, if asked to recommend modifications for *everyone* that would make *everyone* happier, richer and more productive, would recommend higher compassion and more ethics. (I'm basically a liberal because I think that's the effective prescription.) But that isn't what I asked it for, in my original thought-example. I don't see that most of the transhumanists are asking for the universal choice from Monkeys-Paw Mark XXIV.

(Total sidenote: I'm not sure the average person in a rich society is actually kinder than the average person in a pre-industrial one was or is. There's a vivid anecdote in one of George Sturt's journals describing the mutual help and forbearance of poor villagers. He uses the story to rail against pseudo-moralists who claimed that nobility of spirit only occurred with nobility of blood. Our society can be kinder with much less effort and intent from its members; that's one place we put our astounding wealth.)

Posted by: clew on August 12, 2003 11:13 PM

Still no need for development over optimism:

Agriculture had a mechansim for balancing populations against farmed area (Malthus). Industrialism has not. It is already after a few generations showing sign of reproduction rates (in high GDP/head populations) falling below replacement rates.

Today, agriculture and industrialism coexist, we see both healthy demographics and good GDP. But the demographics is ONLY thanks to remaining agricultural traditions and societies.

With industrialism fully implemented and small migrations flows (Japan W. Europe) there is an immedate demographic problem now, only some few generations away from the industrial revolution.

Its far less weird to worry about this (it's actually the a growing part of the job of puplic pension system policymakers) than to worry about how useless, cool or useful our gadgets are.

Posted by: Mats on August 12, 2003 11:47 PM

1. Industrialism creates demographical implosion.

If you don't see this, it's because you live where agricultural traditions are still stong and you have an influx of young immigrants (USA for instance...). Industrialism is about productivity, it's VERY hard to rise productivity (/hrs) in raising kids (able enough to later give you grankids) above that in agriculture.

2. Demographical problems is far worse than gadgetological:

In Europe and Japan, the demographical problem is already more important than discussions about how useful/annoying this or that gadget is. Especially for policymaking in pension systems and immigration. I guess it is becoming more important in the US to, whith implications from low productivity segments of the population (closer to agriculture traditions) regionally beginning to outnumber others (hispanics vs gringos for instance).

Posted by: Mats on August 13, 2003 01:43 AM

Mark, stop ragging on Mats. He doesn't know you're kidding."

I kid, I kid. But that doesn't mean that I don't think Mats is absolutely wrong. I **do** think he's absolutely wrong.

He has in his mind that humanity is in serious trouble...that population and civilization will somehow collapse because humanity will have fewer and fewer children.

This only goes to show that one can always find a Prophet (almost always a false one) of the Apocalypse, no matter what apocalypse is chosen.

Just 30 years ago, Paul Ehrlich and his ilk were falsely predicting that OVERpopulation was going to be the apocalypse. H@ll, I guess Paul Ehrlich and others are STILL (almost certainly falsely) predicting that OVERpopulation will bring an apocalypse:

http://www.dieoff.org

Now Mats is saying that UNDERpopulation is going to be the apocalypse. Mats says we'll all get old, and need young people to care for us, but no young people will be available.

Prophets of (usually false) apocalypses never seem to see the obvious arguments against their chosen apocalypses coming to pass. Mats doesn't seem to see:

1) We've got 6.3+ BILLION people on the planet, so we aren't likely to run out anytime soon,

2) Older people are staying healthy and independent later and later in life,

3) Our "gadgets," which he so disparages, are precisely what allows our older people to stay healthy and independent later and later in life (e.g. coronary bypasses, pacemakers, advanced hearing aids, artificial hips, laser cataract surgery,...and soon likely self-driving automobiles, personal attendant robots, and other advances that seem fanciful in 2003), and

4) There are disadvantages to being old, but there are advantages, too. Likewise, there are advantages to having fewer young people around. For example, old people tend not to want to fight in wars; and if they have few young people around, they don't want to waste them dying in wars. (Having fewer younger people around raises their value, and so raises the opportunity cost of killing them.)

It seems very likely to me that the close of the 21st century will see:

1) More than 6 billion intelligent entities on earth, with at least a billion of them homo sapiens,

2) An older homo sapiens population, with the world's median homo sapiens age over 40,

3) Wealth that makes the wealth of 2003 look absolutely impoverished, and

4) At least one new intelligent species, composed either of hybrid human-machines, or machines alone.

In short, I think virtually all the evidence available indicates that Mats' worries are unfounded. I agree that the homo sapiens population will be older, but that's simply not a big problem. And there's no way that the homo sapiens population will be extinct. Except by choice...which I think is highly unlikely.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on August 13, 2003 03:40 PM

"And there's no way that the homo sapiens population will be extinct." - this is a brilliant display on our tendency to be antropo/etno/ego-centric which nearly parallells the catholic church in the end of the medieval era!

Centrical bias aside, earth is round, it is way off the center of the universe, homo sapiens will be extinct (as a lot of other species in the families of human-like races, they have proven very fragile, and this is NOT because of competition from homo sapiens), (post-)industrial cultures will perish (unless we define it very widely)as hunter-gatherers did.

Individuals, Companies, Species, Cultures, etc are alive, and therefore they will sooner or later die. It is as simple as that.

After this erupiton, I'm ready to say that Mark and I finally seem to agree on what we disagree. He thinks he will be fine whith his gadgets on his older days, I'm afraid that I will find myself with far less grandchildren that I would like to have, with my government pension benefits eaten by rampant inflation (remind me to invest in index-linked govvies), in an intellectually stagnant socitety.

Posted by: Mats on August 14, 2003 12:42 AM
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