Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The problem with transhumanism: It's not what you think

I was planning to write about the transhumanist movement today, but after opening my email this morning to find an announcement for a grant competition from the DoD focused on, among other things, "human-computer symbiosis," this blog post became a priority.

Transhumanism is defined by the transhumanists at humanity+ as follows:

"(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies."

Humanity+ has insightful and very smart Board Members, some of whom are colleagues of mine. I applaud their second bullet point -- the study of the ethical matters that such technologies introduce --  as a critical component of transhumanism.

However, what concerns me is the first bullet point. Applied reason is cited in this point as the key to improving the human condition, and the way to apply this reason is to eliminate aging and enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

For an organization directed toward these aims, it's a glaring omission that there is not a single neuroscientist or psychologist on its Board of Directors. They are all either ethicists (great!) or technology people (wonderful!)...but what about the people who understand what it means to try to apply reason, what reason is anyway, and what intellectual and psychological capacities are? I think I understand why such people are missing from their Board.

Here are my top two hypotheses:

1) There is a hubris among Silicon Valley folks and other technologists that has become apparent over the years. They are very smart, yes. And they can make a lot of money, yes. But that doesn't mean they understand psychology. In fact, there is some evidence that, on average, those who choose professions related to technology do not have the best understanding of human interactions and relationships. However, because our culture reveres technology so much, there is a status problem here. Those with high status in the scientific tower (physicists, engineers, mathematicians -- all male-dominated fields, BTW) tend to think that their ability to do well in a high-status field confers an ability to have insight into lower-status problems (like psychological ones).

This status problem is borne out in, for example, the insistence of the folks who created Google Glass to have the camera on the right side of the glasses, a huge problem for anyone trying to read the emotional status of the wearer. The right upper eye area -- just the area that is covered by the camera -- is critical for reading subtle emotional cues, especially cues for negative emotions. No perceptual psychologist, if asked, would have suggested this camera placement. I know some of the people at Google Glass, and to their credit, they are working hard to correct these problems. But the problems wouldn't have occurred in the first place if psychology was considered a higher-status field, and psychology researchers were consulted in the first place.

2) Any neuroscientist or psychologist who has enough expertise and interest in consciousness and cognition to be of interest to Humanity+ is likely also aware of the huge problems that come from trying to move forward based on applying reason. Humans have a strong belief that we can be objective and reasonable, and of course we cannot. Take Harvard's Implicit Association Test (IAT) if you think that reason dictates your actions.

Now, there is a transhumanist argument that, in fact, emotional bias like that revealed by the IAT and similar experiments is exactly why transhumanism is a great idea. We will beat out that unreasonable bias, by applying our reason. Here's the rub -- when you think you're applying reason, you're not. We build computers to seem reasonable to us,  but what we build them to do is often not reasonable. For instance, providing porn to an international audience. Another for instance, the transhumanist goals of exterminating aging and uploading consciousness...are these reasonable? What would be better if we were immortal that couldn't be better by dying off and letting people raised in a new and different world take over the helm of their world? How would uploading our consciousness actually benefit us, when new and better-informed consciousnesses are being born all the time? The only "reasons" I can think of are emotional ones..."But, I don't want to die!" and, "I'm too important for my consciousness to be lost!"

The problem with transhumanism, as I see it, is that transhumanists first need to master the experience of being human. They're not alone, all of us have this problem. We all have trouble remembering that we're not supposed to be like robots. Especially men, these days. Our culture has so effectively squashed the idea that we have real anger, hurt, fear, and hope inside of us. We have forgotten that we are fragile and delicate, yet this fragility makes us such wonderfully made creatures! This cultural amnesia makes it easy for us to build organizations bent on destroying anything weak or vulnerable about us. "Why would we want those things? What's beautiful about weakness?" Oh, go read a @#^%$ poem for once!

What we really need -- what can really make us "superhuman" relative to how we are now -- is to work with focused, daily effort on LOVE. Compassion. Developing love for ourselves, and leaking that love out to others. Overflowing with love for our gentle, gentle, easily hurt selves. What if we use technology for that purpose?

So my gentle and loving challenge to the transhumanists is six-fold:

1) Rejoice over giving birth to new life (a human, not a cyborg) and experience fear for its survival (this does not mean the new life need be your child -- but someone close to you)
2) Weep over your family and friends getting sick and dying.
3) Enjoy and celebrate the wisdom and anxiety involved in getting older.
4) Work through your childhood hurts, loving yourself all over again, and finding ways to use technology to spread love into the world.
5) Then, when you turn 90 years old, decide whether you think you are too important to lose. Decide whether you think your mind, or the "computer minds" you create, can solve problems better than your children, who have molded their minds to this world, can. Decide whether you think you have a better plan than thousands of millions of years of evolution.
6) If you do think you are that important, then clearly you are not being reasonable. So do yourself and all of us a favor, and let your life go in love and peace. Be reasonable and move on.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Fine": Why We Avoid Too Much Happiness

I'm writing a novel as a side project, and I've been noticing something that every veteran fiction writer already knows. The story is only interesting when there's struggle, strife, conflict. When the main character feels creative, joyful, and whole -- SHE'S SO BORING. I'm bored with her happiness, and I'm the writer! My novel's future readers would never get to the second page of joy before abandoning the book. But if the main character were always miserable, that would be boring too. The rule is, the character has to go up and down, keeping an average mood below medium, punctuated by short stints of debatable happiness.

I notice the same thing in my conversations with acquaintances at work. The two correct answers to the question "How are you doing?" are either: 1) "fine," but said with a bored or cynical look, or 2) "horrible...let me tell you about my short-term slightly difficult situation with my landlord." Having recovered from a family health crisis with flying colors, I've discovered that the correct answer is never, "Wow, I am just giving thanks for life every day! I feel like I won the lottery! Life is a precious gift, you know?" People just back away when you're that happy.

Two questions emerge from these observations. First, why are we like this? Second, what can we do to start expressing happiness safely?

Why do we feel happiness is boring? Anyone who has experienced happiness knows it's anything but boring. It's an exhilarating state of appreciation and presence. It feels like you're connected to everything, including the subtler aspects of the universe, whatever they are. Certainly you feel more connected to yourself, and more connected to others. There's nothing boring about it. So I don't buy the idea that we actually feel that happiness is boring.

I've got a different explanation -- we are scared of happiness. We say it's boring because we want to back away from it, out of fear. Once happiness comes, we're afraid it'll go. The realization that once we find happiness, we will eventually lose it, seems somehow worse than the continued day-to-day trudgery of a luke-warm life. Better to stick with what we already know than risk the comfort of sameness in search of variety.

Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks of the Hendricks Institute teach about this fear. They call it the "Upper Limit Problem" -- the habit of creating an upper limit for the happiness and pleasure one can receive in one's life. It manifests in relationships (their area of expertise), but also in every aspect of daily life: work, home, play.

You might find yourself objecting, "Look, we can't all be happy all the time!" Well, maybe we can, we don't know. I'm just sure we haven't tried. Of course, there are circumstances that can make it very hard to be happy. It's important to recognize that these painful circumstances can actually work to bring us together, to help create bonds that didn't exist before the pain. These bonds, by the way, can lead to happiness. A recent study in Psychological Science supports this idea. This article explains how students who were asked to fish around for balls in an ice-cold water bucket and to maintain wall squats for a long period of time felt more solidarity with the other participants who were asked to do the same difficult and painful tasks than did students who did gentler versions of the tasks. Misery loves company; and maybe company loves misery.

So to keep our connections, maybe we become focused on "maintaining" rather than thriving. If everyone else is suffering, suffering with them is the kind thing to do, it seems. Perhaps this is the case, at least in the US, because it's what most people are doing. This is not the case everywhere; variations in individual emotional expression seems more common in some cultures than others. Regardless, if it's the case that we're all trying to avoid being separated out of our communities, then in order for happiness to rule the day, we'd all need to express it at once.

So in answer to the "how can we express happiness safely?" question, perhaps the answer is this: slowly but surely, amp up your responses to your work mates and your friends when they ask how you are.

Day 1: "I feel pretty good. Got lots of sleep last night."
Day 2: "Wow, I'm loving my husband these days. He's just a beautiful person."
Day 3: "Some days are rough, but today feels exciting! I'm grateful to be alive. You look happy, too! Are you?"

I'm going to try this experiment the rest of the week. If you feel like trying it too, please let me know how it goes!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How Science Must Save Itself

I had a dream a few nights ago that was striking in its message.

In the dream, I was a veterinarian. I was about to see an important patient, a dog, and I was reviewing some information about him. He was at least twenty years old, and very sick. I planned to give him a shot as well as a bath. That was standard procedure.

But when his owners carried him into the office, my heart melted. I took this old, weak dog into my arms and put him on the floor. I did not want to give him a shot or a bath, I wasn't sure he could withstand either of those. This dog required something different.

I got down next to him to examine him, and when I did I saw that his elbows were damaged. As soon as I noticed this, he spoke to me. "My name is Science," he told me, "My elbows hurt. But when I vibrate my hands, they feel better." He demonstrated this by shaking his paws in artful ways -- they seemed like the way a virtuoso ballerina or piano player would move her hands. As he shook his paws, I saw the muscles and skin on his elbows relax.

For awhile I was stymied by the meaning of the dream. Then after a few conversations about it, I realized it's simple. Science requires flexibility to be healthy. What can help science maintain its flexibility is to treat it compassionately and listen to its own prescription for itself, which is for scientists to do artful work that shakes things up and restores the flexibility that is inherent in the scientific process.

Science, like all systems of thought, has gone through periods during which it becomes rigid. In these times, reliance on dogma and what we already know outpaces reliance on the scientific method and the discovery of what we don't yet know.

During these times, which I believe to include the present era in science, it is critical to remember that the essence of science is not a series of facts, but instead a process. What makes the scientific method so beautiful and democratic is that if something is reliably observed, it must be explained whether it suits dogma or not. This is also the very gem that can easily be ignored once scientists begin to focus on results rather than the process that brings those results to light.

What is rigidifying science right now is current dominant focus on getting grants and papers published, as well as the very real concerns most young scientists have about making sure they do work that will get them a job rather than reveal deep truths. As a result, it seems that the artful use of process itself is rare.

A parallel example is the relationship between mysticism and religion. Mysticism can be considered a process of receiving information about spiritual and moral truths. But any religion that attempts to carry on without mysticism becomes rigid and dead.

Why is this? Why should lack of focus on the process and over-awareness of products kill any venture aimed at finding truth? Because truth is always being revealed. We are never done being surprised by more truths. If we stop looking, if we stop using the scientific method because we think we have "enough" truth, or if we have a "basic" understanding of the natural laws, then we will miss out on what we could know.

The artful use of our paws -- shaking things up, hoping to be proven wrong, working towards falsifying our own biases -- this is how science must save itself.

What's most beautiful to me about my dying-dog dream is what made me fall in love with science in the first place: Science itself knows the way to heal. Within the process of the scientific method...inspiration, observation, testing, replication, sharing...we have all the keys to remembering our ignorance. We can use science's own prescription to restore the flexibility of mind we need to make the next scientific revolution a giant step towards truth.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Path You Need Next

I built the joyful-life-decision tool Choice Compass partly because I was becoming more and more frustrated with the idea that we have to change ourselves to be better. That we don't have wisdom already inside of us, and that who we are isn't already enough.

This idea that we are not enough is prevalent in U.S. culture, and sadly has been transmitted around the world. It's a useful idea for people who want to sell things, in that if we feel we are not enough, we are likely to want to buy things to approach a feeling of completeness. My partner Brooks Palmer writes about this phenomenon in his Clutter Busting blog as well as his books, so I won't go on about it at length here. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of evidence that regardless of how many toys and trips people buy, feeling like you're complete is really an inside job.

At the same time as I say this, I want people to use Choice Compass (or, really, any tool that's useful) to help them figure out how to tap into their inner wisdom. The wisdom that's already there, but seldom accessed without a lot of analytical overlay. And, I charge for the tool. So how is this any different than the people my partner and I are decrying?

The difference is explained beautifully by Linda Stone, an elegant and original observer of technology and human potential. She points to the new "quantified self" movement, which has brought us Fit Bits and the like, and has asked -- do we need more information about how to improve ourselves? Or are we actually hungry for what she calls "Essential Self" technologies -- technologies that bring us closer to accepting and learning about who we are?

I had a conversation with Linda recently about these ideas, and we agreed that Essential Self tech is an under-represented idea that is starting to blossom. Maybe it's the "I'm OK, You're OK" of the 21st century, as it includes any method that brings us more in alignment with who we already are. However, it's not the most popular form of technology, to be sure.

In my conversation with Linda, I had an insight. There seems to be a clear difference between a forward-moving path for someone who has high status and lots of power in the world and a forward-moving path for someone who has low status and less power in the world. The person with lots of power will generally move forward in his or her life by learning how to relax, let go of control, and serve others.

But let's talk about the person with less power in the world. Relaxing can be useful for this person as well, to be sure. But letting go of control makes little sense when you don't have much control to start with. By the same token, people with less power are almost always serving others in our culture. So that's not a lesson that's necessary to be learned. What is necessary? When coming from little or no power, what is desperately necessary is to learn how to develop and use your voice. To listen to your inner wisdom. To accept your body, home, and possessions as they are. And to build boundaries and practices that allow your to develop more power and control in the world.

These are starkly different visions for what a personal growth path requires. The quantified self technologies really lean toward neither of them, as far as I can tell. Thus far, they seem to lean toward keeping track of your fitness and health numbers, and maybe helping you relax. For those aims, quantified self tools can be very useful, and can in some cases be life saving. But they don't really move people forward on their individual paths.

In my opinion, what is missing is twofold: 1) an acknowledgement that both of these paths exist and are completely valid for different people and for the same person at different times in life, and 2) new technologies that support either or both of these paths. These dual-path technologies would appeal to what is the best next step for someone, rounding out the distance between us. The more powerful of us would learn to make room for the outside world (taking Linda's cue, let's call these "Essential Other" technologies), and the less powerful would learn to locate and use their power inside (Essential Self technologies). In fact, in addition to Choice Compass, a few ideas loosely related to both things are starting to crop up, and some of them are also supported scientifically (for example, see the tools at happify.com).

I would like to see this dual-path movement grow. I'd like many voices to offer clear and explicit discussion of these differing and equally valid paths. And I'd like to see new tools for both inward and outward movement toward completeness, differentiated according to whichever path you need next.