Peter Thiel: Utopian Pessimist

Peter Thiel, one of the few original minds in the life extension and accelerating-technological-change community, is featured in a short interview at Wired. Thiel seems to be aware of the limitations of extrapolation of trends:

We’ve been living in a unique period of accelerating technological progress. We’ve gone from horses to cars to planes to rockets to computers to the Internet in a very short time. It’s not automatic that that continues.

In a 2008 essay for the Hoover Institute, Thiel writes:

Thought experiments are notoriously misleading. Unlike more rigorous forms of scientific investigation, there are no empirical means to falsify these mental exercises. The optimistic thought experiment exists largely in the mind. The vistas of the mind are not always the same as reality. One could do worse than to ignore Milton ’s seductive promise: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

As has been argued on this website before, the life extension movement suffers from an abundance of individuals who engage in thought experiments and organize conferences to talk to other people who engage in thought experiments.  But the fight against aging  cannot be won through speculation and wishful thinking alone but is in serious need of an “empirical turn”  that will unleash an avalanche of experimental research.

Further reading: 2008 Reason Interview with Peter Thiel

The singularity is not near

Singularity skeptic Mark Plus drew my attention to the following blog post. The author writes that:

Chalmers’ (and other advocates of the possibility of a Singularity) argument starts off with the simple observation that machines have gained computing power at an extraordinary rate over the past several years, a trend that one can extrapolate to a near future explosion of intelligence. Too bad that, as any student of statistics 101 ought to know, extrapolation is a really bad way of making predictions, unless one can be reasonably assured of understanding the underlying causal phenomena (which we don’t, in the case of intelligence).

He ends his post by the following observation:

It is nice to see philosophers taking a serious interest in science and bringing their discipline’s tools and perspectives to the high table of important social debates about the future of technology. But the attempt becomes a not particularly funny joke when a well known philosopher starts out by deploying a really bad argument and ends up sounding more cuckoo than trekkie fans at their annual convention.

There are several arguments that can be made against simple extrapolations of past trends and the way many transhumanists think about the progress of science.  Some of these arguments have been made in my own piece Scientific Optimism and Progress in Cryonics. It is striking that when futurists have to estimate a timescale for important breakthroughs these events almost invariably are projected to happen within their lifetime, and even if they do not, there is some way to be a part of them. This tendency itself is indicative of how rationalism, wishful thinking, and self-interest can shape our ideas about the future.

The "yuck factor" and cryonics

In sensationalized accounts of cryonics, explicit descriptions of cryonics procedures, and that of neuropreservation in particular, are used to invoke a negative response in the reader.  Some bioconservatives have argued that disgust experienced in response to certain ideas and practices is “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it” (Leon Kass). In some cases, such as senseless violence, this is not necessarily an unreasonable approach because it may reflect a preserved instinct against behavior that is harmful to the individual or group. In such examples, however, the wisdom of repugnance can be corroborated by rational justification as well.

Where such an appeal to gut feelings is less fruitful, however, is in the context of medicine and forensics. The daily activities of many medical professionals and morticians consist of activities that would produce a strong negative gut response in most people who would observe them in all their detail. As the Alcor Life Extension Foundation points out in a document denying the mistreatment of Ted Williams:

Consider if a journalist did this expose of the funeral industry: “Funeral Home Scandal: Bodies injected with poison, organs mutilated, remains stuffed into wood boxes and covered with dirt!” It’s all true, right? Of course, if a disgruntled apprentice embalmer went to a sports magazine describing in graphic detail the use of a trocar during embalming of a sports celebrity, or the physical effects of cremation, he would be escorted out of the building by security.

The “yuck factor” that is produced in many people when they read about the details of cryonics procedures is not evidence of  pseudo-science or mistreatment. As a matter of fact, the procedures that are routinely performed in cryonics labs are designed to preserve life, not to destroy it. In this sense, the practice of cryonics can claim the moral high ground over prevailing methods of dealing with “human remains,”  where critically ill people are buried or burned because contemporary medicine has not yet found a way to treat them. If anything, it is this kind of medical myopia that should trigger the yuck factor.

Interview with Alcor member David Croft

david_croftDavid Wallace Croft is an Alcor member in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife Shannon and five children, Ada, Ben, Tom, Abe, and Ted.  He is employed as a Java software developer and is a part-time doctoral student.  His contact information and his weblog are available at www.CroftPress.com.

1. How did you first learn about cryonics?

I first learned about cryonics from the Extropians.  I think I first learned of the Extropians from “Wired” magazine.  I really liked what I read in the Extropian Principles so I dug into this subculture online.  I was a volunteer Webmaster for the Extropy Institute for a brief period.

2. When did you join Alcor and what motivated you to become a member?

Along with every other techie, I was swept into the Silicon Valley dot com boom during the late 90’s.  I worked next to Xerox PARC so I would sometimes wander over to attend their guest lectures including a slideshow on the subject of cryonics presented by Dr. Ralph Merkle.  I had a chance to attend local cryonaut dinners and meetings including a meeting at the Shaw-Merkle residence.  Actually signing up remained on my to-do list for a few years until I saw an ad on the back of the shirt of insurance agent Mr. Rudi Hoffman at an Extropian conference.  I approached him and he helped me make it happen.

3. How does your membership impact your life plans or lifestyle?

My Alcor membership has given me some peace of mind with regard to the terror of impending death.  I lost my faith in the supernatural afterlife at an early age and I struggled with the ramifications.  Now that I am middle-aged with five children, death is less frightening but I still think about my dwindling days with some despair.  My cryonics hope keeps me functional.

I am currently in Dallas but my long-term plan is to find a job in Phoenix, possibly in academia, so that I can establish my retirement residence near Alcor.

4. What do you consider the most challenging aspect(s) of cryonics?

Even amongst my atheist allies, cryonics is considered crazy.  When I read Humanist literature, I see a “mortalist” attitude where an acceptance of death is considered the rational alternative to belief in a supernatural afterlife.

5. Have you met any other Alcor members?

I have enjoyed my fellowship with members over the years, most recently at the Alcor conferences.  Awhile back, we had a cryonauts dinner here in the Dallas area with Dr. Scott Badger, Chana de Wolf, and Todd Huffman; I note that all four of us are involved in the study of the mind and brain.  I had the opportunity to attend one of the annual get-togethers hosted by Max and Natasha More in nearby Austin.  I also sample the CryoNet, Society for Universal Immortalism, and Venturists electronic mailing lists.

6. What areas of Alcor’s program would you like to see developed over the next 5-10 years?

I would like to see more Alcor conferences.  I would also like to see Alcor establish a second operational center in another location.

7. What kind of lasting contribution would you like to make to cryonics?

I would like to help establish a democratic religion for cryonaut brights.  I was inspired by the 1933 “Humanist Manifesto” proposing Humanism as a new religion.  I am the Treasurer and a co-founder of the Society for Universal Immortalism (SfUI), formerly known as the Transhumanist Church, which requires cryonics suspension arrangements before becoming a voting member.  I have also created a website for my own personal micro-religion which I call “Optihumanism”.  In my “Optihumanist Principles”, I have attempted to blend Religious Humanism, Neo-Objectivism, and Immortalism in a concise statement of my beliefs.  Less seriously, I also have a webpage for my “Cryobaptist Church” which makes the tongue in cheek assertion that salvation can be achieved by a post-mortem baptism in liquid Nitrogen.

8. What do your friends and family members think about your cryopreservation arrangements?

In general, my friends and family think it is a bit eccentric.  I am attempting to plant seeds with my wife and children by introducing them to cryonics fiction.

9. What are your hobbies or special interests?

One of my special interests is church-state separation activism.  With the assistance of my Objectivist friend and attorney Dean Cook, my family has legal cases pending challenging the constitutionality of a couple of new laws involving religion in Texas public schools:  a mandatory moment of silence and adding “under God” to the state pledge.

I am also a part-time doctoral student in Cognition and Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas.  Although my Bachelors is in Electrical Engineering, my two Masters degrees had a focus on neuroscience and neuromorphic systems.  As a programmer, I have been hired to work on a number of interesting projects including neural network chip design, intelligent software agents, peer-to-peer frameworks, and multiuser 3D environments.  My academic research could be described as pursuing artificial intelligence via a study of spiking neuronal networks.

10. What would you like to say to other members?

Many of my atheist, humanist, objectivist, and immortalist friends do not have children.  I recommend that you have them if you can.  Children are blessings we give to ourselves.

Less wrong

Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality:

Over the last decades, new experiments have changed science’s picture of the way we think – the ways we succeed or fail to obtain the truth, or fulfill our goals.  The heuristics and biases program, in cognitive psychology, has exposed dozens of major flaws in human reasoning.  Social psychology shows how we succeed or fail in groups.  Probability theory and decision theory have given us new mathematical foundations for understanding minds.

Less Wrong is devoted to refining the art of human rationality – the art of thinking.  The new math and science deserves to be applied to our daily lives, and heard in our public voices.

A beta-test version of the site is online here.

Cryonics and transhumanism

The association of cryonics with “transhumanism” seems inevitable but is problematic.  It seems inevitable because cryonics should be most attractive to people with a very positive perspective on the future capabilities of technology. Barring rapid advances in mitigating aging, cryonics  offers the only credible option for transhumanists to become a part of that future. It is unfortunate because it can have adverse effects on the objective of making cryonics a part of conventional medicine, and further alienates people who are open to the idea of human cryopreservation but fear the future.

For some people the choice for cryonics does not so much represent optimism about the pace of technological progress, or a desire for immortality, but rather skepticism about our contemporary definition of death.  This is not a trivial distinction. Despite some popular misconceptions, cryonics is not necessarily linked to having an extreme position on the pace of technological progress.  One can be a conservative regarding the timescale that it will take to develop credible cell repair technologies and be a staunch cryonics advocate without any contradiction.  Similarly, a commitment to cryonics does not necessarily mean that one has to root for the most radical and optimistic school of thought in nanotechnology.

The unfortunate association between cryonics and transhumanism has recently been addressed by ex-Alcor president and cryonics advocate Steve Bridge in his perceptive article Has Cryonics taken the Wrong Path? The Unnoticed Conflict between Rescue Technology and Futurist Philosophies. So far Bridge’s article has had limited effect and cryonics representatives are rarely invited to speak at any conferences outside of the predictable “Transhumanism-Singularity Industrial Complex.” This development does not just reflect a lack of effective and credible spokespersons that can make a persuasive scientific case for cryonics, it also reflects a lack of concern about cryonics being perceived as one element in a larger transhumanist or Singularitarian project.

There seem to be indications, however, that this climate is changing.  Cryonics activists such as Mark Plus and longevity advocates such as Anne Corwin have increasingly  expressed reservations about certain strands of futurism and the unsolicited identification with these movements. Another welcome development is scientific researchers such as Richard Jones who do not necessarily disagree about the  possibility of molecular cell repair technologies but reject the meliorist and quasi-religious tendencies in contemporary futurism.

In a recent blog entry about Ray Kurzweil, Richard Jones writes:

One difficulty is that Kurzweil makes many references to current developments in science and technology, and most readers are going to take it on trust that Kurzweil’s account of these developments is accurate. All too often, though, what one finds is that there’s a huge gulf between the conclusions Kurzweil draws from these papers and what they actually say – it’s the process I described in my article The Economy of Promises taken to extremes – “a transformation of vague possible future impacts into near-certain outcomes”….The difficulty, then, is not that there is no science underlying the claims Kurzweil makes, nor that this science isn’t very exciting on its own terms. It’s that this science can’t sustain the sweeping claims and (especially) the fast timescales that Kurzweil insists on.

It would be unfortunate for cryonics to be identified with naive thinking about society and technology and sellers of snake oil. Recent management and staff changes at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation indicate a renewed emphasis on sound business operations and medical credibility. It remains to be seen if these changes constitute a broader effort to re-position cryonics as an important player in the world of medical innovation.

Nanotechnology: The message matters

A recently conducted study brings a warning to technophiles who think that the facts are all that matter when informing a group of people about a new technology. The fact of the matter is that the message matters more.

In their article “What drives acceptance of nanotechnology?” (Nature Nanotechnology), the Cultural Cognition Project and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies reported that, when presented with balanced information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, a diverse sample of 1500 people who were largely unfamiliar with nanotechnology became deeply divided regarding its safety as compared to a group not shown such information.

The dividing line was cultural: “People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan, the lead author of the study, “while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”

Seeing that people respond so differently to the same information has caused many experts in the field to call for risk-communication strategies that take these findings into account. In this way, they hope to prevent a nanotechnology “culture war”:

“The message matters,” said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology.

Eric Drexler launches Metamodern blog

Molecular nanotechnology pioneer and cryonics advocate Eric Drexler has launched his own blog called Metamodern: The Trajectory of Technology. This is what we can expect:

In this blog, I’ll discuss current progress in science and technology, often with a specific perspective in mind: how current progress can contribute to the development of advanced nanosystems. This system-building perspective often highlights research opportunities and rewards that might otherwise be missed. As the topics come up, I’ll be suggesting research objectives that seem practical, valuable, and ready for serious pursuit.

However, like Engines of Creation, this blog isn’t intended to be “about nanotechnology”, but about broader issues involving technologies that will bring global change. Social software and the computational infrastructure of society are high on the list.

In his first post Drexler talks about the data explosion and the scientific method:

Tradition demands that science always be hypothesis-driven: First, try to guess the truth, and only afterward collect experimental data to test whether the guess predicts the results. Indeed, this has been termed “The Scientific Method”. The new data-driven approach suggests that we collect data first, then see what it tells us. This becomes practical when experimental methods can amass enormous amounts of data, enough data to test more hypotheses than any mortal scientist could conceivably imagine.

Eric Drexler has received a fair amount of uninformed and some informed criticism over the years. It is therefore encouraging to see Drexler making his presence known online.

HT Overcoming Bias

Herbert Marcuse on the ideology of death

Although critical philosophers like Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) are not known for their contributions to economics or analytic philosophy, Marcuse’s essay “The Ideology of Death” (1952) should appeal to those who think that death is not a necessary part of existence, let alone something to celebrate. In this essay, the author discusses the phenomenon that prominent Western philosophers (Plato, Hegel, Heidegger) have not just accepted death as a biological fact that may be overcome, but have elevated its status to something that gives meaning to life. Unfortunately, this line of thinking persists today.  Although Herbert Marcuse lived through the 60’s and 70’s, he did not seem to have an interest in investigating scientific means to prolong life and overcome death.

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man…

It is remarkable to what extent the notion of death as not only biological but ontological necessity has permeated Western philosophy–remarkable because the overcoming and mastery of mere natural necessity has otherwise been regarded as the distinction of human existence and endeavor…

A brute biological fact, permeated with pain, horror, and despair, is transformed into an existential privilege. From the beginning to the end, philosophy has exhibited this strange masochism–and sadism, for the exaltation of one’s own death involved the exaltation of the death of others…

How can one protest against death, fight for its delay and conquest, when Christ died willingly on the cross so that mankind might be redeemed from sin? The death of the son of God bestows final sanction on the death of the son of man…

The fight against disease is not identical with the fight against death. There seems to be a point at which the former ceases to continue into the latter. Some deep-rooted mental barrier seems to arrest the will before the technical barrier is reached. Man seems to bow before the inevitable without really being convinced that it is inevitable.

Published in The Meaning of Death, Herman Feifel, Editor (1959)

Serendipity and drug discovery

The blog Soft Machines writes about a new opinion piece in the Financial Times by David Shaywitz and Nassim Nicholas Taleb on biomedical science and drug discovery. The molecular revolution in biology was supposed to substitute rational design of drugs for trial and error and handwaving. So why do pharmaceutical companies have so little to show for their efforts?

The answer, we suggest, is the mismeasure of uncertainty, as academic researchers underestimated the fragility of their scientific knowledge while pharmaceuticals executives overestimated their ability to domesticate scientific research…So intent are managers on maintaining focus that important opportunities for novel discovery are lost, as is the intellectual space for tinkering and capitalizing on the chance observations and unexpected directions so important in medical research.

As Taleb, author of the brilliant book “Fooled by Randomness”, and more recently, “The Black Swan”, mentions in an article about him in the same paper:

There is a lot more randomness in biotechnology and any form of medical discovery. The role of design is overestimated. Every time we plan on trying to find a drug we don’t because it closes our mind. How are we discovering drugs? From the side-effects of other drugs.