Existential Ambiguity

This century there will be new things under the sun. I must confess I take great delight in that. I am a connoisseur of ethical dilemmas, and I have a resentment of the kind of people that object to things “because these things might be unethical”. Quite often I find that these people who object to stuff for “ethical reasons” (or another favorite truism “the slippery slope! the slippery slope!”) just don’t like what they hear, on account of the power of their gut (instincts) and they use intellectual rhetorical tricks to object against it. Some people just don’t like what they hear and that’s that.

So when I talk about “new things under the sun” I am largely negotiating a very large range of Transhumanist topics and dilemmas, “ethical or not”. Ad yes I take delight in cultivating moral ambiguity. The transhuman domain is a very large field of possible concerns (or stuff to vehemently disagree on, and get worked up over) so again – I like want to create these dilemmas as a means of cultivating enjoyable debate and deliberation.

Let’s pick an example I discussed on some forum a while back, and let’s casually explore the considerable stress (or black, angry dismissal) some people can exhibit when confronted with this particular family of examples of transhuman potential developments.

Lets assume that somewhere in the next few decades it will be possible to create reasonably robust emulations of human thinking. There will be a period when these simulations are not yet fully “convincing”. Let’s for the sake of argument allege that there will be “fairly convincing” simulations of minds, sort of like highly sophisticated help desk siri-like vitual assistants. Kinda like Raymond Kurzweil’s “Ramona” AI emulation. Truly I empathize. I know that the Terasem organization is also experimenting with these personhood emulations, even though they aren’t always fully convicing yet, they may one day be precisely that.

So lets assume in fifteen years these emulations are mostly convincing in online interaction, but not anywhere realistic in real world engagemengs. In other words: in 2027 there are sophisticated mental simulation neural network programs (or whatever you care call them) that when engaged in online conversation are smart enough to be mostly convincing (deceptive) that they are in fact not actual humans. These emulations would in part be human analogue mental constructs, but the sad truth is that for a number of years these constructs would not be sentient, sapient, self-aware or “actually” intelligent in any meaningful fashion. Let’s assume that the transitional period between these devices being “full of fail” (as clearly the Ramona AI and most Terasem CyBeRev emulations still are right now in 2012) and them “completely being on par with human cognitive function” is the period between 2018 and (about?) 2035. In other words – between 2018 and 2035 these online emulations will take increasing amounts of time to be revealed as constructs. This is a basicly the Chinese Room Experiment.

But this is pretty a important transition. The consequences of “robustly convincing” emulations of human minds will have profound consequences for human society. For instance, these emulations may have deeply disruptive consequences for universal human employment and employability. Or these emulations may have deeply disruptive consequences for relationships, especially if the emulations contain a somewhat affordable haptic component. Human beings may become tempted to decline “normative” relationships with flesh&blood human beings in favor of engaging in sexual and emotional relationships with idealized virtual persona. This could have profound consequences on birth rates, and this could potentially happen in quite a lot of countries, and within less than 20 years. We are already seeing similar adjustments to birth rates in Japan, and I can argue that a mix of technology, pornography and social dissatisfaction to an arguably patriarchally centered (and demanding) society is causing Japanese women to defect from their part in childbirth.

Now lets assume we have a commercial product of mental emulation, possibly linked to a high resolution computer graphics rendition of a person; a virtual persona so to speak. Now let’s assume it is possible to engineer emulations of this type as to closely resemble actual living persons, with a certain degree of idealization or “debugging”. For example – an idealized version of Ray might have better memory, better mental stamina, and (even?) more apt social skills. I can envision Ray Kurzweil (or any similar VIP) answering all telephone calls he receives somewhere around 2027, and being able to rent computer power to answer hundreds of such calls per second. You’d see a holographic Ray on the video screen and you would be none the wiser if this would be the actual Ray, or one of his arbitrarily iterated emulations. Ray might like to occasionally “take a call” once every week but there would be no viable way of making sure. By 2027 the emulation of the existing person might not be actually sentient (or sapient or self-aware, however you want to label the transcendent human uniqueness) but it might be sufficiently well-designed to avoid the scrutiny of an AI verification test. In other words – in the short intervals of communication you might not have sufficient opportunity to “voight-kampff” any accessible emulations.

Ray Kurzweil might be one of these unambiguous examples where the “ethical problem” isn’t sufficiently self-evident. Let’s invoke a more ethically ambiguous example. Let’s take Apple Corporations Steve Jobs as a brainstorming example. Let’s assume than in the year 2027 there is a corporate CEO that manages a major corporate (or otherwise unique) entity that is of critical figurehead importance. The living presence as manager of this Corporation X may be of great financial weight in keeping corporate stocks stable. The very prospect of death of this powerful executive (and this person might as well be a significantly influential government figure, a tyrant, a scientist, a media figure, a celebrity) might cause stocks or market confidence to slide and take a turn for the worst. In this person in 2027 maybe the then equivalent of billions or trillions of dollars or euro’s might be at stake.

There would be an increasing incentive in the societal paradigm of 2027 to ascertain legal perpetuity in the existence (or perceives existence) of such a VIP. This idea is nothing new and it was explored in the 1989 Novel Mona Lisa Overdrive. The premise has been a great concern for many “ethicists”, who object to the very idea that a human would be able to somehow cast a lasting influence of history by “sticking around an unnatural length of time”. There appears to be a quite offensive aspect to exclusivity when it comes to engineered states of life extension.

Now lets assume the CEO of Corporation X wants to do just this, and let’s deliberate on plausible technological advancements. The CEO might be inclined towards an uncommon degree of narcissism (which is by itself nothing objectionable) and would like to extend his or her sentient existence “in some meaningful format”.

This particular CEO might discover around 2025 that he or she has only a very limited amount of years left to live.

Now – such a person might be led to believe that somewhere in the 2030s there would be a sharply increasing likelyhood of life extension. This is by itself not implausible at this stage – we can easily conclude that in the next decades at some stage it will become (a) technologically and medically possible to use treatments to extend human longevity by a (b) in advance falsifiable (you can test it is actually happening), (c) in a reliable, safe and somewhat comfortable manner and (d) it is relatively affordable for a significantly big market segment. However before the human species gets to the point where these life extension treatments become accessible (even to the small elites that can afford any early and very expensive treatments) the CEO of Corporation X has reasons to conclude “he (or she!) won’t make it in time”.

What options does our “somewhat more determined” Steve Jobs analogue have to appreciably perpetuate his temporal existence on this planet, as recognized member of the human species? Bear in mind the CEO might have much of a choice in this – his corporate ambitions may force to imprison him in a “contract he can’t refuse”. His ambitions may disallow him the freedom of a public demise, and a sharp decrease in stock values. Such a CEO may be help at the mercy of quite ruthless mercantilist and shareholder constraints.

Let’s assume CEO X decides to semi-retire from public life in a luxurious third world country of his choice, to “be able to focus in detail” on his executive responsibilities. Outwardly nothing changes : a million people a week might still have detailed interactions with CEO X through his endless iterative legions of AI personal secretaries and assistants (each such iteration being a perfect virtual copy of him in appearance, knowledge, mannerisms and voice) and the relative isolated status of CEO X might be easily explained.

So how would common EU (US) civilian law deal with the potential that such a CEO would have died in 2027, but there would be no way of knowing this for sure? Subpoena him to provide evidence of life? That would be unprecedented.

And it gets worse – the CEO might decide to retire in 2028, and nobody would be the wiser. The retirement in this case being – the CEO knows he is dying and he wants to perpetuate his existence by any means possible. So he lays himself down to sleep, has his skull opened, his brain accessed and medical devices attached to his body as to keep the body alive, in some form or function. The CEO X might be alive by the constrained definition of US or EU law, even if he brain would be extracted for some sort of anticipatory archival purposes. Nominally our CEO might be brain dead, or maybe he would have had his brain extracted and purposefully scanned, with the purpose of returning from being “temporarily existentially challenged”. He might have reasonable expectations that in a decade it would be possible to reconstruct his functional consciousness (sapience, sentience, self-awareness, intelligence, soul, mind) from a meticulous reconstruction of his neurological pathways (or his “connectome”) but he would be aware he would probably die (and thereby actually risk irreversible loss to his person-hood) about a decade early.

By ‘bio-preserving’ his skull contents he might have optimal expectations of his demise being only a temporary inconvenience. Actually – I think this would be precisely the first scenario a human being might ‘return’ from actual death. I think the estimate of something like this happening in the 2020s or 2030s would be a plausible one. The point here being – someone dies and is in the position (and feels the pressing necessity) to engineer his or her timely reconstruction and return into the limelight not long after.

Let’s not insert any Schwarzenegger jokes here.

I shall not speculate on the contingency of the actual return – any reconstruction of a human mind in some other kind of substrate is so speculative, and opens up so many many unknowns that I can not start making an estimate of when it would be possible (though my gut instincts tell me this might very well become “acceptably” possible somewhere between 2035 and 2060) or what the implications might be. These implications might very well entail the highly uncertain, highly dangerous, deeply disruptive and mostly unfathomable ‘unknowns’, what’s colloquially referred to as “The Singularity”, and since we can’t make definitive statements on the nature of these Singular developments, let’s not.

But what we can extrapolate safely is all of the above – a human being using lacunes of common law to hide from legal scrutiny and cultivate the myth of being alive. A human keeping his de-brained body alive to be able to actually make the legal claim he “is” alive. A human being that uses a range of simple AI emulations (and potentially conspiring with human actors) to simulate a physical or virtual presence of emulated person-hood. The technology is no longer speculative as to make this beyond plausible somewhere in the next few decades, and quite probably in our lifetime. Such an emulated person might lose the convenience of very precise memory recall, or the most intimately unique character traits of what makes an actual human, but such a person would be able to stay recognized as a legal person well beyond societally discernible death for probably well over decades.

And the scary part is, such a highly powerful, affluent person may very well spur on the moment where a reconstructed human being returns in a form of Artificial Intelligence that combines the most aggressive and ambitious human drives in to a technological substrate.

I have a note of concern here that has been at the forefront of my thinking for the last twenty or so years, and this concern lies central at the heart of my criticism of competitive capitalism and corporatism in specific, and our current society in more general terms. The jungle environment of modern corporate culture does not breed the nicest of human qualities in our leaders, our service providers, our political systems and our culture. I could argue that the human planetary civilization quickly evolving (and potentially weaponizing) societal qualities that are by their very nature inhuman.

My concern is that we are wandering into a technological take-off point we can ill define or we can scarcely comprehend or visualize, where the most powerful and arguably ruthless elements will soon be able to embed their core values in to the automated bedrock of existence. Once we stumble as a human species in to the era of self-replicating automated synthetic intelligence we de facto stumble into a Singularity. My worry is that the moment the very first synthesized intelligence emerges, it will likely be a reflection of the darkest and most ruthless elements in human nature. This manifest automated ruthlessness will be the first to inherit superhuman intelligence, and I am concerned this would have potentially very dire consequences for any other human being on this planet.

I suppose I am sorry for invoking this image on the legacy of the recently deceased Steve Jobs, but I suppose taking Dick Cheney as a brainstorming example would be more of an evocative image of what I intend to convey.