WE ARE VR PART TWO: EDUCATION

WE ARE VR PART TWO: EDUCATION

Schooling stands to benefit greatly from virtual reality. Given what was said about the effectiveness in reducing the costs of treating phobias in VR, one might conclude that the same thing would be true of doing education in VR. It is no doubt true that, once physical buildings are replaced with virtual classrooms and lecture halls, substantial reductions in the cost of providing venues for education would be possible. But the benefits go much further than simply saving money.
When education is tied to physical buildings, there is always a limit to how many people can attend. Only a certain number of students can be packed into a physical classroom or lecture hall, which is why access to the best schools and universities is a competition for a limited number of places. But a virtual classroom or lecture hall could comfortably accommodate student numbers of a size that would be totally unmanageable in a physical space. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of pupils could easily fit into a virtual classroom.
The idea of a classroom of a million students may bring to mind an image of a comically oversized room, with the poor students at the back looking across a vast sea of fellow students to the tiny speck that is the teacher, far, far away at the other end. But, of course, we can always negate this problem by using VR’s ability to bend reality. In a physical lecture hall there is a ‘sweet spot’. It is in the centre of the room, a few rows in front of the podium. Those that occupy this sweet spot learn what is being taught better than those positioned elsewhere. Obviously, in a physical hall or classroom only a few can occupy this ideal position, but as we saw in the example of sharing the same space as an expert instructor, in VR everybody’s POV can be rendered to ensure they occupy the best seat.
If there were a vast lecture hall of a million students, it would not only be those learning who would struggle. The teacher, too, would find it very hard to effectively deliver a lecture to so many people. Dozens of eye-contact experiments have shown that when a teacher looks at a student, that increases the chances of the student learning what is being taught. A well-trained lecturer will take care to spread his or her gaze around the audience rather than focus on some while ignoring others. But when you are dealing with an audience of a hundred or more, spreading your attention evenly means that, on average, each student has eye contact with the teacher for only one percent (or less) of the time.
A teacher’s avatar, though, can devote its full attention to every single person simultaneously. How? By tailoring the information being sent to each student’s computer that is rendering the avatar they are learning from. From the perspective of student A, it is as if he has the best seat in the room and has plenty of eye-contact with the teacher, while simultaneously students B, C and so on have precisely the same experience. Blascovich and Bailenson have tested whether lectures given by teacher avatars with ‘augmented gaze’ really can teach more effectively and found that, as a group, whose attendees whose lecturer had the ‘magic’ ability to devote his or her full attention to many individuals simultaneously retained more information compared to those learning from an avatar with no such ability. It may also be worth noting that not a single student has ever detected that the attention they were receiving was not genuine.
VR can not only be used to give teacher’s avatars superpowers of attention, but also to help the person behind the avatar lecture more effectively. The hardware tracks where your gaze is being directed and therefore, and can therefore in principle alert you should you be ignoring sections of the audience for too long. Blascovich and Bailenson achieved this with an algorithm that caused students to literally start fading from view if they were being ignored. Using this visual aid, teachers ignored those attendees at the far edges of the room for ten percent of the time. This was a substantial improvement compared to teachers who did not have their behaviour brought to their attention by a visual aid: They ignored people on the periphery for approximately forty percent of the time. What is perhaps most encouraging is the followup study lead by Peter Mundy who studies autism at the University of California Davis. When autistic children attended virtual classes which used ‘fading classmates’, they looked others in the eyes in a similar manner to non autistic children.
Another academic, Albert “Skip” Rizzo (who is a psychologist and researcher at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of California) uses the data gathered by the tracking technology of VR to identify children with ADHD. “Skip” created a virtual elementary-school classroom in which several distracting events occur during a lesson. Children with ADHD exhibit head and gaze movements quite different to those without the condition (their gaze wanders frequently, whereas people without ADHD mostly focus on the teacher). With VR tracking tech monitoring movements and highlighting behaviour, it takes only a few minutes to diagnose pupils with ADHD.
The ability of VR to track and record every action, utterance and gesture made by a student could potentially be used to provide useful information pertaining to how well he is she is learning lessons. No teacher could possibly subject a person’s facial expressions, tone of voice and micro expressions to the level of scrutiny that VR tech can, and if the student were to find themselves being examined so closely it would probably negatively affect their concentration. But VR tech can collect orders of magnitude more informative data points compared to standard midterm and final exams and do so in a completely discrete way. Using such data, it would be possible to determine with much greater precision what aspects of a lesson somebody is having difficulty with. People do not all share the same learning styles and it would probably be very much easier to tailor virtual classrooms to complement individual’s’ specific strengths and weaknesses compared to physical classrooms.
So far, we have been discussing classrooms in VR, but it would hardly be using VR to its full potential if all students did was attend virtual classrooms and lectures. With VR, history lessons need not just consist of listening to an avatar lecture about life in Tudor England, but actually experiencing it for oneself by spending time in the court of King Henry VIII or a hamlet from that period, designed to be as authentic as our best historians and archeologists can make it. Students learning about biology could be shrunk to cellular or molecular level and take a ‘fantastic voyage’ through a body, witnessing events like cell-division, again represented as accurately as our best scientific knowledge will allow.
The potential for VR to make use of learning methods beyond the traditional classroom was highlighted by Chris Dede at Harvard, who has created several VR learning scenarios. One of these, River City, required students to figure out why people were getting sick. Discovering the cause entailed talking with townsfolk, hospital staff, university scientists and other virtual inhabitants, and sharing the information gathered with fellow students. According to Dede, when students have first-hand experiences provided by being immersed in a virtual town with a disease outbreak, they reach a much more full understanding of the relationships among causes and effects compared to traditional classroom settings. One reason why is that students find the virtual experience much more immersive and engaging.
A branch of psychology known as ’embodied cognition’ takes the perspective that knowledge is aided by peripheral bodily actions such as postures and gestures. To give one example of this phenomenon, Professor Michael Spivey at Cornell determined that a set pattern of eye-movements focused learners’ attention more efficiently and this aided them in solving a particularly difficult brain teaser. If we go with the assumption that VR tech will one day interface directly with the brain and body, during any learning task avatars’ peripheral movements could be purposefully controlled with the human learners feeling those movements as if they were actually performing them. According to Blascovich and Bailenson, “if repetition of movements is crucial, then learning could be improved automatically and unconsciously. Learning could take place… even during naps, because the machine is controlling one’s motor movements”.
COMING UP IN PART THREE: HOW VR MIGHT CHANGE WORK.

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WHO OWNS YOU? 

QUOTE Maritme Admiralty Law is what is known as the law of the water. It is superceded by civil law and only applies to those that willingly contract themselves into it. The definition of Admiralty Law is a body of private international law governing the relationships between private entities which operate vessles on the oceans….Maritime Admiralty Law was originally created to govern ships, docking in foreign nations, for the import ot export of products and resources. It dealt with banking and merchant affiars, not civil affairs. When a product is taken off of a ship and bought into a foreign land, that nation takes custody of the resource and accounts for it with a certificate. That certificate marks the birthdate of that product in the custody of the respective nation.
Think of why it’s supposedly required to have a birth certificate in the first place. The Barran’s Dictionary of Banking Terms defines a certificate as a paper establishing an ownership claim….Maritime Admiralty Law is Banking Law and the law of Maritime Admiralty says that you, because you came out of your mother’s water, are a Maritime Admiralty Product. This is why the ship is sitting in its berth and is tied to the dock and the captain has to give a certificate of manifest to the port authorities. Because money is changing hands. This is why, when you were born, you had to have a birth certificate. You are a Maritime Admiralty Product….another product to be bought and sold. The British Crown through International Banking owns your physical body….You are a stock in a Maritime Admiralty Banking Scheme where you make money for banks…A Birth Certificate is actually a share. You are held as collatoral to secure the debt which your government owes to international bankers”.
LET IT NO LONGER BE SAID THAT JOBS=WORK. JOBS=DEBT SLAVERY. THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE LABOUR AWAY IN THEIR PLACE OF EMPLOYMENT NOT BECAUSE THEY WANT TO, OR BECAUSE THEY GET ANYTHING MEANINGFUL OUT OF SUCH LABOUR, BUT BECAUSE THE GOVERNING AND FINANCIAL ELITE HAVE ENSLAVED THEM THROUGH DEBT.
QUOTE People are used as collatoral with other nations because the US is bankrupt. The US declared bankruptcy on March 9 1933. At this point, the US began taking out loans from from a private non-government affiliated corporation called the Federal Reserve. With no money to pay back the loans, the US began using citizens as collatoral. All birth and marriage certificates are literally warehouse receipts….This Admiralty Law changes the meaning of the word ‘person’ from a natural living person to a corporation…Only all capital letters can be dealt with by banks and governments.
QUOTE the standard Rule of Law governing the use of English Grammar states that the correct Capitalization of Proper Names must begin with a capital letter, and the rest of the name must be spelled in smaller case letters. At Law, this lets others know you are an entity created by God, and not an entity created by man. Now, there are entities created by man, Corporations for example. Corporations are known as “persons” created by the government. They are created on a piece of paper and brought into existence by the government. To differentiate between those created by God and those created by the government, those created by the government have their names spelled in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. This lets others know that this entity does not have a body, soul, and spirit like man has, but that this is a fictitious entity created for the purpose of making a profit
‘Birth’ certificate, ‘capital’ letters…How interesting that the methods of modern slavery are hiding in plain sight in the very words we use every day. The creation of fiat currency commences when governments issue treasury bonds. CLUE NUMBER ONE. ‘Bond’ is short for bondage. Treasury bonds are basically IOUs, they are the national debt that future generations are expected to pay for through taxing their labour. All official documents have our names in CAPITAL letters. CLUE NUMBER TWO. ‘Capital’ is an asset owned by a person or organization. ‘Birth Certificate’. CLUE NUMBER THREE. Many of our commonly used phrases and sayings come from maritime origins. ‘Letting the cat out of the bag’. ‘Swinging the lead’. ‘A Square Meal’. ‘BIRTH (BERTH) CERTIFICATE’ originates from the fact that, under Maritime Admiralty Law, you, or rather your capacity to work (ie your labour power) is COLLATORAL WHICH IS TO BE USED TO SECURE THE DEBT WHICH YOUR GOVERNMENT OWES TO INTERNATIONAL BANKERS”.
WE ARE SLAVES TO THE SYSTEM. ONLY BY UNDERSTANDING THIS SYSTEM AND THE INSIDIOUS WAY IT HAS PERPETUATED THE BONDAGE OF HUMAN BEINGS CAN TECHNOSTISISM OR COLLABORATISM AVOID THE CRISES THAT COME FROM A FRAUDULENT ECONOMIC SYSTEM AND ACHIEVE TRUE ABUNDANCE WHERE EARTH’S RESOURCES AND HUMAN POTENTIAL ARE TAPPED INTO WITH MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY AND FAIRNESS.

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WE ARE VR (PART ONE)

WE ARE VR (PART ONE)

Flying cars. Hotels in space. Robotic sexual partners. Some technologies seem destined to remain vaporware: Great ideas in theory which never seem to become practical, widespread products. But next year could be the year in which we tick at least one much-anticipated item off of the list. Finally, we may be getting virtual reality.
VR is, of course, much anticipated by those gamers seeking to immerse themselves in virtual worlds as fully as possible. But its usefulness extends beyond escapism. Thanks to the fact that virtual reality entails tracking a person as closely as possible so as to match movements in reality to what is happening in computer-generated environments, this technology will collect a wealth of data for anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and others interested in people and society. Avatars are useful tools for both communication and storytelling, two of possibly the most fundamentally human traits. Thus they have great potential not just in representing us in online games and social networks, but in how we learn, how we work, and much more besides.
Commercial VR- by which I mean technology which can provide a sense of presence adequate enough to convince the unconscious parts of the brain that the experience is real, without inducing motion-sickness and at a cost that is affordable to those who can afford the latest games consoles- looks set to begin in 2016 with the launch of hardware like the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus headset. But VR itself has a much longer history.
IN THE BEGINNING.
So how far back do we have to go to find the origins of VR? Most essays and books I know credit Jaron Lanier with coining the term in the 1980s. In 1985, Lanier founded the company ‘VPL Research’, which produced early VR products like the Data Glove and the EyePhone. However, the Wikipedia entry for ‘VR’ traces its origins back to 1949 and a short story by Stanley G Weinbaum called ‘Pygmalion’s Glasses’. A decade later, Morton Heilig created the ‘Sensorama’, which was able to display stereoscopic 3D images in a wide-angle view, stereo sound, and could even produce aromas. Aparently, it was effective enough to ensure that Howard Rheingold was impressed when he tried it some forty years later while researching his 1992 book ‘Virtual Reality’.
Tracing the origins of VR depends on what you mean by ‘origins’ and ‘VR’: Whether you mean the concept of virtual reality or its practical realization; and whether you mean computer-generated reality or imaginary worlds brought to life by some other device (the Sensorama was a mechanical device that used no computers). If we mean the concept, then possibly Weinbaum short story is the point of origin for VR (although didn’t DesCartes come up with a thought experiment involving a false reality created by an evil demon in his 1641 ‘Meditations On First Philosophy’?). If we mean a computer-mediated device, then Ivan Sutherland’s 1968 contraption, dubbed the ‘Sword of Damocles’ due to the fact that it was an HMD (Head-Mounted Display) so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling, marks the origins of VR. On the other hand, if we expand the definition to include any device capable of creating an experience of reality, our journey toward the origins of VR would take us back not just decades, or even centuries, but to the very dawn of humankind.
There is a scene in The Matrix in which Morpheus challenges Neo to define ‘Real’ and tells him that if one defines ‘real’ in terms of what one can see and taste and touch, then ‘real’ is simply “electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. The implication here is that there is a difference between the world as it is and the world as it is perceived. In other words, the brain by its very nature is a kind of virtual reality machine, one which generated fictional worlds which approximate objective reality.
It seems like an odd assumption. After all, most people like to believe they are in touch with reality and that to live in a make-believe world is the very definition of ‘delusional’. But actually there is a great deal of truth in what Morpheus says. From the 20th Century onwards, physicists have amassed a wealth of evidence showing that reality is fundamentally driven by laws of quantum physics, a reality so bizarre it is famously said that if you think you understand it, you don’t. Well, if reality as revealed by our most precise scientific investigations seems counterintuitive to anything we commonly experience, doesn’t that prove we live our lives in a virtual reality of perceptions created by the mind that only approximates objective reality?
There are also good evolutionary reasons to believe that what we experience is only an approximation- a useful fiction, if you will- of the real world. Every moment of the day, reality bombards the senses with what would be an overwhelming amount of information unless the brain filtered much of it, and applied simplifying assumptions. Most illusions work by cleverly exploiting those built-in assumptions.
One of my favourites is the ‘McGurk Effect’. In this illusion, one watches a video clip of somebody saying a word like ‘pass’ over and over again, and then repeating a similar-sounding word like ‘farce’. In actual fact, the soundtrack is always repeating ‘pass’ with the person lip-synching ‘pass’ or ‘farce’. The McGurk Effect illustrates that our eyes can influence what we hear. We grow up learning that the mouth forms specific shapes in order for us to speak syllables like ‘fa’ and ‘pa’ so when you see someone mouthing ‘fa’ but you hear ‘pa’, your vision decides that what the person says cannot be ‘farce’, and to reconcile the conflicting information between the eyes and ears, your mind makes you hear a different sound to what is actually being heard. Illusions like this show us that reality is not just something we experience; it is something our minds create.
Another point to bare in mind is that, as human beings, our reality does not just consist of living in the here and now. The human mind is designed to wander. Working at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Jonathan Schooler and colleagues have developed methods to determine how often this happens. They determined that our minds zone out (that is, wander unconsciously) 15 to 20% of the time and tune out (wander deliberately) 25 to 35% of the time. We all experience being ‘somewhere else’ in our own minds: Imagining, remembering, or misremembering places, people and events. Being in two places at once- one physical, one mental- is a very human tendency.
WE LIVE IN AND AMONG STORIES.
Anthropologists have long sought to classify humans, coming up with terms like ‘the thinking animal’ or ‘Man the toolmaker’. But, perhaps the most apt description would be ‘the storytelling animal’. Creating imaginary places and people is a truly universal human skill. From the oral-storytellers of hunter-gatherer tribes, to the folktales written in ancient Sanskrit, Sumerian or Latin, and up to modern times with millions of books, TV shows and movies, storytelling is evident across all culture and throughout all human history.
This is such a fundamentally human trait, it may not seem odd, but it is if you think about it. Why would evolution not select against minds that wasted time creating imaginary situations, rather than dealing exclusively with the real world? A branch of study known as ‘Literary Darwinism’ seeks to answer that question by comparing the themes of the tales themselves. Far from being specific to each culture, similar themes and character types appear consistently in narratives from all cultures. Anyone who has spent some time ‘people watching’ in Second Life will have discovered that women there tend to be slim, young and beautiful. It is tempting to blame this stereotype on the fashion industry or Hollywood — endless images of impossibly beautiful people fill our streets and homes via billboard posters, magazine covers and TV shows. But, precisely the same gender description is encountered wherever you move across the landscape of folktales. No matter what continent, or what century, and regardless of whether it is a hunter-gatherer or an industrial society, women are much less likely to be the main characters and more likely to have emphasis placed on their beauty. Meanwhile, male characters are typically portrayed as more active and physically courageous. What these gender stereotypes reflect, it is suggested, are classic signs of reproductive health: youth and beauty for females (signifying the ability to bear children), and the ability to provide for a family (signalled by power and success) in males.
As for the themes, Patrick Hogan (a professor of English and Comparative Literature) has found that as many as two-thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions appear to be based on three narrative prototypes. ‘Romantic’ and ‘Heroic’ scenarios make up the two more common prototypes, with the former focusing on the trials and travails of love and the latter focusing on power struggles. Professor Hogan dubbed the third prototype ‘Sacrificial’. These kind of tales focus on agrarian plenty versus famine, as well as on societal redemption. These basic prototypes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.
The latter need is almost certainly the reason why we have stories in the first place. In order to follow a story, you need an ability to read another entity’s motivations and intentions. Understanding a story, in other words, is a skill that is equivalent to understanding the human mind. Psychologists have a name for the kind of immersionism typified by a weepy movie. They call it ‘Narrative Transport’. Whenever your emotions become inextricably tied to a story’s characters, you are displaying the ability to attribute mental states, such as awareness and intent, to another entity. This ability is known as ‘Theory of Mind’ and it is crucial to social interaction and communal living.
Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. It requires interacting with others and learning the rules and customs of society. Storytelling persists because there is no better way to promote social cohesion among groups, or for passing on knowledge to future generations. Stories’ roles in establishing the rules of society are demonstrated in a web-based survey of more than five hundred readers. The respondents answered questions about the motivations and personalities of one hundred and forty-four principle characters from a wide selection of Victorian novels. One thing this survey revealed is an evolved psychological tendency to envision human social relations as morally polarized between “us” and “them”. Another, was a tendency to view antagonists as a malign force motivated by social dominance as an end in itself, something that threatens the very principle of community. 
Theory of Mind is vital to social living, and it develops in children around age four or five. Once we possess it, we tend to make stories out of everything. This tendency was demonstrated in a 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel. They created an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square. Although the shapes had no minds, people nevertheless described the scene as if the triangles and circle had intentions and motivations. They would make comments like ‘the triangles are chasing the circle’. We have a predilection for making characters and stories out of whatever we see in the world around us.
REMEMBERING THE PAST AND IMAGINING THE FUTURE.
What is going on in the brain as we create and understand narratives? Imaging studies have identified areas of the brain that appear crucial to this ability. The medial and lateral prefrontal cortex are responsible for working memory, something that helps sequence information and represent story events. The cingulate cortex is evolved in visuospatial imagery and may be connecting personal experience with the story to add understanding. Identification of characters’ mental states seems to be the responsibility of regions such as the prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and temporal lobes. Patterns for story processing differ from those of other related mental tasks, such as paying attention or stringing together sentences for language comprehension.
Sometimes, the brain shows very little difference in patterns of activity, even when one would think it would. Apart from people with certain forms of dementia, we all have the ability to recall the past and imagine the future. We also have the ability to tell one from the other. If I imagine a birthday party, for instance, I do not confuse this fantasy with an actual party I attended. Conversely, if I recall a party that I did attend in the past, I know that what I see in my mind’s eye really happened and is not just imaginary.
The fact that we can so easily distinguish memory of the past from imagining the future might lead one to expect different patterns of activity associated with the past and the future. Indeed, that is what a team lead by Kathleen McDermot expected to see when they recorded the brain activity of subjects as they recalled or imagined a common experience. But, what they found was that both tasks produced very similar brain activity. McDermot remarked, “we really thought we were going to see a region that was more active in memory than in future thought. We didn’t find that”. This evidence suggests that our personal past and future are closely linked in the brain.
Why is that? Well, in and of itself, the ability to recall the past is not evolutionarily useful. It only becomes so once you can also plan for the future. Remembering how hungry you were last winter is advantageous only if it convinces you to store away food you find in a current season of abundance in preparation for the coming winter. Our capacity to remember the past evolved to help us imagine and plan for the future. One of the main functions of memory, therefore, is to shuffle scraps of the past around in novel ways to project possible futures.
This constructive nature of memory is believed to be the reason why we are prone to false memories. Professor Elizabeth Loftus wrote, “I’ve spent three decades learning how to alter people’s memories. I’ve even gone as far as planting entirely false memories into the minds of ordinary people — memories such as being lost in a shopping mall… all planted through the power of suggestion”. A simple way to demonstrate false memories is to show a person a list of words such as ‘pillow’, ‘doze’, and ‘sleep’. S/he can be easily tricked into remembering that the word ‘dream’ appeared on the list as well. However, people do not make the same mistake with unrelated words.
What this type of fallibility shows is that your memory is not a flawless action replay of an event that really happened. Instead, we only have the ability to remember bits and pieces of our past; to recall the outline of things rather than exhaustive details. We may feel as though we remember certain events fully, but what the mind actually does is imaginatively fill in missing details to construct plausible — but not necessarily accurate — accounts of what happened. 
So, people who study human behaviour have looked to earlier forms of communication and storytelling in order to better understand what makes us tick. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that virtual worlds and avatars, those latest examples of communication/storytelling tools, are likewise being used to gain a better insight into ourselves.
LEARNING ABOUT OURSELVES IN VR
Some studies are intended to see if real-world behaviours are evident in virtual worlds. There was, for example, the ‘Stigma Study’. To be stigmatized is to be less valued by others. From neurological studies, we know that when a person encounters a ‘stigmatized other’ their brains show a pattern of activity that indicates they feel threatened. In experiments designed to test whether stigmatization is carried over into virtual reality, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson arranged for participants in an experiment to meet with ‘Sally’ both in real life and virtual reality in a variety of conditions:
1: Some participants met ‘Sally’ with a birthmark on her face and also met her avatar which likewise bore a birthmark.
2: Some participants met ‘Sally’ with a birthmark, whereas her avatar had none.
3: Some encountered ‘Sally’ with no birthmark and also met her avatar, which did have a birthmark.
4: Some encountered both ‘Sally’ and her avatar without a birthmark.
The results of these studies showed that people were initially threatened by ‘Sally’ only if she bore the birthmark in the physical world. But within four minutes, participants were threatened only if Sally’s avatar had a birthmark.
What this tells us is that people adjust to virtual reality and accept it as ‘real’, and carry their prejudices over into the computer-generated world. The slight delay also tells us that we take a short while to adjust to the virtual world but come to accept it as grounded reality. In that sense, virtual reality is somewhat like those prism glasses which make the world seem upside down. Not surprisingly, it makes for a disorientating experience to wear such glasses, at least at first. But then the brain adjusts and the subject comes to view their topsy-turvy world as normal. If they then remove the glasses, grounded reality (which, by definition, is right way up) seems upside down to them. Just as people’s brains are neurophysically wired to ‘right’ sensory data, they also adapt to VR and behave accordingly.
MIRROR, MIRROR
As well as using virtual reality to gain insights into human behaviour, we also find instances where the technology is used to alter behaviour. The technologies that make virtual reality possible can be used to create a virtual mirror which users can approach and observe themselves (or rather, their avatar) in. But, being a virtual mirror, your reflection can do things that would not be possible in the physical world. It can, for example, morph into another person. In a set of experiments, participants stood in front of a virtual mirror in which they viewed themselves either at their current age, or as elderly persons. This was followed by a twenty minute conversation with another person about their life in the virtual world. Upon exiting the virtual world, the participants who had viewed themselves in the elderly condition budgeted twice as much money compared to those who saw their reflection at their current age.
One thing that virtual reality has long been known for is its ability to create an illusion of closeness. Gamers commonly work with and compete against other players, sharing a space in the virtual world while simultaneously being physically positioned far apart, perhaps on separate continents. As in the case of the virtual mirror, the technology lets us not only reproduce reality but also to do things that would be physically impossible. For example, in the real world it’s not possible for two people to literally share the same space, but in virtual reality there is nothing to prevent the rules governing the computer-generated environment being written so as to allow two bodies to overlap.
Professor Ruzena Bajcsy has developed tracking systems so precise, they are capable of capturing every single joint and movement. Studies have been done to see if people can learn physical movements more successfully by sharing the body of an expert, compared to watching an expert in a traditional video tutorial. Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson investigated whether the martial art tai chi could be better learned in a virtual world where body overlapping is possible, and their results showed that subjects who could share the body space of an expert did indeed perform substantially better compared to those who simply watched a video tutorial.
TREATING PHOBIAS
The ability to quickly and easily make changes to a virtual environment, and particularly the ability to reproduce dangerous situations while totally avoiding the possibility of any real harm, makes virtual reality a very useful tool for treating phobias or to come to terms with traumatic events. A common method for helping sufferers with arachnophobia and other irrational fears is systematic desensitization, whereby the patient undergoes increasingly intimate encounters with their object of dread. In the case of spiders, this could initially consist of entering a room in which there is a spider in a glass tank that is covered by a cloth. Then, on a subsequent session, being in a room in which the cloth is removed and the spider in the tank is in clear sight. Step by step, the patient becomes gradually desensitized to the point where they are confident enough to allow a tarantula to crawl up their arm.
The problem with this technique is that it entails working with live creatures that need looking after, and that costs time and money. And, as you can imagine, treating something like a fear of flying is costlier still. But, of course, by using virtual reality the costs can be dramatically lowered and we are also able to exercise a degree of control that would not be possible using live actors or mechanical devices.
Working with Dr JoAnn Difede, assistant professor of psychiatry at Newyork Presbyterian hospital, Dr Hunter Hoffman (who had previously found that the escapism of virtual reality is powerful enough to enable burns victims to reduce the perception of pain while their burns are being redressed by fifty to ninety percent) developed a virtual recreation of the attack on the Twin Towers. Little by little, those traumatized by the events of 9/11 encounter increasingly intense recreations, beginning with looking up at the World Trade Center, with no airplanes flying by let alone crashing, and then gradually more and more elements are added in, such as explosions and the sounds of people panicking. Using this technique, patients who had not responded to any other physiological treatment showed dramatic improvement.
And, like I said, the cost of doing this virtually is negligible compared to real life. And as Moore’s law marches on the costs keep going down. When Dr Hoffman started working with burns victims in 1996, a decent VR machine cost about $45,000. In 2016, when the likes of the Oculus Rift are expected to launch, a budget of under $1000 would almost certainly get you a VR setup as good, if not better, than that 90s example.
IMMERSION VERSUS PRESENCE
To those who have never experience a VR setup, it may be hard to believe that fictional recreations can help with real trauma. Everybody knows that something virtual is not real, so how can being in a pretend airplane cure somebody’s fear of flying?
But to think that way would be to ignore the power of ‘presence’. Presence is not the same thing as immersion. Videogames have long achieved a sense of immersion, the capability to draw players into the game and invest in their avatar and the challenges they are setting out to beat. You do not need photorealism to achieve immersion but you do need consistency of rules. So, for example, if the game prevents you from jumping over what looks like a totally clearable obstacle for some arbitrary reason, your attention is directed to fact that you are just playing a game. In some ways, realism can work against immersion, because it is much harder to achieve consistency of rules that match realism compared to a simple fantasy game that stays true to its own internal logic. You only have to watch the documentary movie ‘King Of Kong’ (about the two best Donkey Kong champions competing to achieve the highest possible score) to see how absorbed one can become with simple graphics and consistent rules.
But, no matter how engrossing a videogame can be, immersion is not the same thing as presence. The way videogames are traditionally played, the avatar is something you control and the environment it is in is observed from afar, viewed on a monitor. When videogame technology achieves presence, though, you perceive yourself as literally inhabiting a VR environment.
As with immersion, photorealism is not the most important thing for achieving presence. What is important is that the display offers a wide enough field of view to prevent one from seeing the edges, and that the tracking and rendering technology is capable of updating the point of view fast enough to avoid noticeable latency. According to John Carmack, “twenty milliseconds or less will provide the minimum level of latency deemed acceptable” and if it can be reduced to 18 milliseconds or less, the experience will be perceived as immediate, meaning you can move your head and redirect your gaze in a way that feels entirely natural.
DARE YOU CROSS ‘THE PIT’?
A common way of testing whether a VR setup has achieved presence is to have subjects undergo ‘The Pit’. As its name suggests, this is a VR experience in which you find yourself standing before a pit. Not a shallow pit, mind you, but a very long drop. There is also a plank spanning the pit (plus a real plank in the actual room in which the experiment takes place) and people are challenged to walk across the real plank while they perceive themselves as walking across the sheer drop.
Now, obviously, there is no pit in real life and the subjects know this. Nevertheless, according to Blascovich and Bailenson, one in three adults cannot summon up the courage to walk the plank, and those that do try struggle to maintain balance just as if they were really trying to cross a long drop. This happens because the brain’s perceptual systems (ones operating below the level of conscious awareness) are satisfied that the experience is real. And no matter how much you tell yourself the experience is only virtual, your brain insists you are doing something risky like standing close to the edge of a precipice. 
Tracking and rendering technology has long been used to convince the mind to accept something artificial as natural. Undoubtedly the most commonly used example would be the telephone. When you say something during a phone conversation, the inbuilt microphone ‘tracks’ your voice by digitizing it. And what the listener hears is not really your voice but a reproduction that approximates the sound of your voice, ‘rendered’ by his or her phone’s inbuilt speaker. Because the sounds being heard are so close to that of a human voice, your mind believes that is what you are listening to, and we have long-since adopted the attitude that a phone conversation is a direct two-way conversation between people who are physically distant, not a conversation mediated by artificial sounds that repeat what is being said.
So, if tracking and rendering works well enough to achieve presence, the more primitive parts of the brain will be convinced the experience is real. For that reason, VR has proven extremely useful as a tool of therapy for people with phobias and other traumas that can be treated by repeat exposure to whatever threatens them. It also means we have an unprecedented ability to record people’s actions in minute detail and learn more about ourselves and how to make ourselves better people.
I WAS MADE A RACIST
A word of caution, though: Sometimes the results are not what was expected. Consider the case of Victoria Groom, a graduate student who worked with Blascovich and Bailenson. She figured that if white participants could become black people in virtual reality, the experience would help reduce racial stereotyping. Instead, perceiving oneself as black in a virtual mirror actually increased people’s scores on standard measures of racism, and this was the case whether the subject him or herself was black or white. What this study suggests is that simply assigning a racial identity to somebody makes the stereotype more salient. However, it has been demonstrated that face-to-face contact with members of out-groups and taking a stigmatized-other’s perspective can reduce racism. In that case, VR systems like the ones the US Army have developed may prove more useful. The US Army has invested in virtual recreations of foreign cultures like those of the Middle East, and these function as training grounds allowing soldiers to immerse themselves fully in different customs so as to better understand and interact with locals in respectful ways. With VR, we too can immerse ourselves in cultures different to our own with far less expense and inconvenience compared to flying to exotic locations, and use the experience to reduce negative stereotypes.
This also suggests that virtual reality could be very useful for educational purposes, and this is what we will look into in part two.

Posted in Philosophies of self, technology and us | 4 Comments

MY ‘APPLE’ CONSPIRACY THEORY.

MY ‘APPLE’ CONSPIRACY THEORY.

What follows is just a hunch of mine. I have not done much research to verify its validity so maybe you should not take it too seriously. 

My ‘Apple’ conspiracy theory has to do with what I think the marketing strategy of the company ‘Apple’ is. Imagine that Apple intend to make a washing machine. The company will instruct its R+D teams to design the best washing machine that it is possible to make. The R+D teams will do this and hand in a blueprint for an absolutely amazing washing machine.

But this amazing washing machine will not be the actual machine that ends up on sale. What Apple will do is take that design for the best washing machine, and make it crappier. Now, why would they do such a thing? The reason is this: In doing so they increase the likelihood of repeat sales. You see, if they released the best possible washing machine, people would only buy one each. After all, why would you ever purchase another washing machine if the one you already own is the best of all possible washing machines? But if Apple sell you an inferior washing machine, they can then sell you essentially the same product over and over again. So like, you bought the iWash but, hey, now there is the iWash2 which is better in some way, and then there is the iWash3. And so on.

In other words, Apple use planned obsolesence to increase sales. They deliberately withhold technological innovations they could manufacture into their product, and then gradually reintroduce such features in products that are promoted as being all new but are really just the same darn thing with added bells and whistles.

I can think of a couple of things Apple are known to have done which lend weight to my hunch. First of all there is the original iPad and its lack of inbuilt camera. Why did it not have an inbuilt camera? The idea that it was not technically possible to add a camera seems exceedingly unlikely, given that every phone came with a camera by the time iPad was released. I think the reason why iPad did not have a camera was because Apple intended to sell the public iPads and then sell the public iPad2s (now with two inbuilt cameras!). They sold us the same product twice. Maybe the retina screen was not technically possible when the original iPad came out. But, then again, maybe it was and the company deliberately used an inferior display for the first two iPads just so they could sell us the same product not once, not twice, but three times.

The other odd feature I want to bring to attention is a particular screw that can be found on the back of iPhones. This screw is incompatible with just about every screwdriver people own. Why would Apple go to the effort of making a screw that does not work with any screwdriver people are likely to have? Does it make the product better in some way? No.  The reason why is because if they used a normal screw, people could remove the back cover and replace the battery. But, since they cannot remove the cover (because they cannot undo that screw) they cannot replace the battery and have to purchase a whole new phone once the battery they have expires. This is another kind of planned obsolence. We live in a throwaway culture where systematic repairs are made to be too awkward, leaving us little choice but to throw away something that could be fixed and buy it all over again.

Of course, if Apple really are deliberatlely selling us inferior products the blame does not like solely with them. We consumers must also share some responsibility for going out and buying Apple products knowing full well that, next year or next month or next week (depending on how soon they think they can get away with it) the company is bound to release a newer version which is a bit better. Or maybe not even better in any real technical sense. I recall a BBC documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’ in which a man queuing up at midnight to get the latest iPhone was asked what features the new one had that his current iPhone lacked. He thought long and hard and eventually came with with the following justification: The new iPhone was a different color.

The ‘Men Who Made Us Spend’ was largely about how market economies changed from selling us products we need to selling us lifestyles. A good example of what I mean would be the ‘Pepsi Paradox’. When people taste Cola from Pepsi or from Coca-Cola, and they cannot tell which is which, most people prefer the taste of Pepsi. But Coca-Cola is the best-selling brand. A neuroscientific study performed the blind taste test on subjects while their brains were scanned by fMRI. As per usual, Pepsi was the clear favourite. When drinking Pepsi, the subjects’ brain scans showed more activity in the ventral-putamen compared to when they drunk Coca-Cola.  The ventral-putamen is part of the brain’s reward system, so increased activity in this area means ‘this feels good’.

The really interesting result came about when the subjects tasted the cola drinks knowing which was which. When they tasted both Pepsi and Coca Cola knowing which drink was which, the subjects declared the taste of Coca Cola to be superior. Brain scans showed increased activity , not in the ventral-putamen, but rather in the medial prefrontal-cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for our self-identity. When we drink Coca-cola, we are not just influenced by how nice it actually tastes but also by the brand, the lifestyle that the company promotes to sell its product. Coca-Cola have done a better job than Pepsi at the whole self-identity thing, making us believe with are with the in-crowd if we consume their product. Their campaigns are so successful it actually creates a kind of virtual reality in which Coca-cola tastes better than Pepsi, but only if you know you are drinking Coca-cola.

If you want to sell people the same product over and over again there is probably no better market to do this in than one which sells lifestyles. It is pretty obvious that this is what companies do these days. For one thing, most companies now spend more money on advertising than they do on the manufacture of the product itself. And next time you watch the commercials notice how many have a love theme. Happy, good-looking people in a blissful relationship walking hand in hand while drinking from Coca-cola bottles or asking Siri for directions to the restraunt. Want to be like these people? Buy our product. Oh, haven’t you heard? The in-crowd would no longer be seen dead with product you have. You really need to purchase the new product (now in a different color!). You would not want everybody to think you are a loser, would you?

Why does it matter if we are being psychologically manipulated into buying inferior products, if we are happy? If, in your own mind that drink tastes great, isn’t that all that matters? If some guy is eager to own a phone which is a different color to the one he has, why should we get upset about this? We should get upset because it is so wasteful.  Planned obsolenece, perhaps more than anything else, highlights the difference between market efficiency and technical efficiency. From the perspective of technical efficiency a product is best if it is designed to work at the optimum possible level of performance and if its component parts are easily replaceable. But from the market efficiency perspective the ideal product is one which can be resold as many times as a company thinks it can get away with, and that means making products that cannot be repaired and must instead be replaced. It means making products that are designed to fail or become osbolete earlier than they theoretically should. The myth of the everlasting lightbulb is just that- a myth. However, what is not a myth is that, in the past lightbulb manufacturers formed a cartel which deliberately reduced the lifetime of bulbs. The sooner they fail, the sooner you buy a replacement, see. Or what about printer cartridges? You probably think that when the ‘toner is running low’ message pops up, that means the printer is running low on ink. And if you take it to a shop that refills cartridges, they will top up its ink. But, actually, some printer manufacturers fitted their cartridges with devices (mechanical in some cases, computer chips in others) that count the number of pages being printed. When a certain number is reached, the chip makes the printer stop working. It is not running out of ink and when you take the cartridge to be refilled all they really do is reset the device.  If you want proof, watch that documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’. You will see this guy explain how printer cartridges are made to fail early. He even resets the device and succeeds in printing out hundreds of more pages without topping up the ink levels at all. Again, they are selling you the same product over and over again when, in a system based not on market efficiency but technical efficiency, you would make far less purchases.

But there is more to get upset about than just the case that we are being treated as suckers. So much stuff is ending up as trash. According to some estimates, if we continue like we are, in a few-decades’ time we will require 27 Earths to provide sufficient resources to retain our consumerist, throwaway lifestyles. Pro-capitalists will dismiss such concerns, reasoning that innovation will surely save the day. Companies compete to out-innovate one another, to bring out superior products which, by any rational course of action, would outsell rival products that are not as well put together. Now, I do not doubt that ephemeralization is a real thing. Ephemeralization means ‘doing more with less’. A hard drive of yesterday that was the size of a fridge and could store a megabyte becomes, in time, a thumb-sized flash drive that stores 16 gigabytes.  But the fact is that our market economy has little interest in emphasising technical efficiency.  It is more profitable to release inferior products and then subsequent versions of the same product with some improvements, rather than give us the best possible product right away. And oh how the waste piles up.

I shall end on an optimistic note. That screw which Apple designed gave one entrepreneur a good idea: He could manufacture and sell a screwdriver that is compatible with that screw. Now, thanks to his product, people can much more easily replace the battery and do not need to buy a whole new phone. It just goes to show that sometimes planned obsolesence opens up a gap in the market that can be filled in useful ways, allowing us to be less wasteful than we were before. 

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WHY ALIEN LIFE SHOULD GIVE CAUSE TO WORRY

If we should ever succeed in discovering life on other worlds, should that discovery trouble us?


I think most people would say the answer to that question is ‘yes’ only if said aliens have tremendous technological capability. If that is the case, they just might come over here and use their technological might to take our gold and steal our women. On the other hand, if those aliens are primitive, there would be no need to be overly concerned. Why should anybody worry if we discover  microbial lifeforms inhabiting Europa, for example?


Actually there is a very good reason: The Great Filter.


The Great Filter is the hypothesis that there is some immensly challenging barrier standing in the way between the emergence of life and the establishment of an intergalactic civilization. Whenever life runs up against this barrier, it is extremely unlikely that it will  overcome it. It either goes extinct or never develops to a point where its mark on the universe can be noticed, which probably amounts to extinction in the long run.


The Great Filter could lie in our future. Perhaps civilizations aquire technological might before they evolve the wisdom to use it wisely, and end up destroying themselves? Perhaps there is some stage in past evolution that is profoundly hard to reach. The development of the eukaryotic cell, for example.


But if we discover primitive life on other worlds, that would make it much more unlikely that the Great Filter does lie in the past. It is not much of a Great Filter if life has overcome it not just once, but twice and maybe many times. 


If we find bacterial or- even worse- multicellular life, that should really worry us, because it makes it much less likely that the Great Filter is something we have successfully overcome.

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PESSIMISM AMONG THE SINGULARITARIANS: IS IT A BAD THING?

PESSIMISM AMONG THE SINGULARITARIANS: IS IT A BAD THING?

 Have you heard? Robots are coming and they are going to steal our jobs!

I expect you have heard rumours to that effect, because the tech news seems positively awash with reports of automation replacing shop assistants, cooks, and much more besides. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. I, for one, think it could potentially be the best thing ever. It could finally deliver the future that John Maynard Keynes promised automation would bring about: A huge reduction in the number of hours people would be required to devote to a job, and a massive increase in the amount of hours per day that can be devoted to a life of leisure. And, no, a life of leisure need not mean everybody is transformed into a couch potato, spending their days ‘doing nothing’. People may well do very little except vegetate in front of the TV when ‘leisure time’ is just a couple of week’s vacation from the usual necessity of having to devote 40 hours of almost every day to some mind­numbing activity, but once people are properly liberated from both jobs and the monetary and cultural pressures imposed on the unemployed to persuade them to rejoin the ranks of the wage slaves, and properly adjusted to the novel idea of boundless leisure, I predict a vast increase in the adoption of meaningful activity.

It occurred to me that not many ‘robots are coming for your job’ articles paint this event in optimistic terms. Instead, they tend to use phrases like ‘robots will steal your job’ and ’employment is increasingly threatened by automation’. I devised a challenge that I posted on the Singularity Network Facebook page:

“I challenge you all to find ONE example of a news report about robots which does NOT feature a comment along the lines of ‘but there are concerns that these robots threaten jobs’ but DOES feature a comment along the lines of ‘there are hopes that the rising productivity enabled by these robots will free up more leisure time for people”.

I do not think this challenge would require too much work. It would not take much effort beyond googling ‘robots will free us’, ‘robots liberate us from jobs’ or some such phrase to see if somewhere out there on the Web there is indeed an essay that views the robot revolution in a positive light. But, so far, nobody has bothered taking up the challenge, instead using my post as an opportunity to make gloomy replies such as:

“The powerful would rather kill the masses than allow them to have leisure time” 

and

“We have not benefited with “increased leisure time” or even “increased pay” from automation since the late 1970’s. Productivity has increased but salaries have remained flat. Most workers are being scammed, in a sense stolen from, but have no forum of redress”. 

One comment even accused my challenge of “whitewashing the ugly truth; that technology is already taking more jobs than it creates, that it is creating more inequality, not less, and that our politics are unprepared to handle the inevitable increase of poverty resulting from it”.

I can remember a time when Singularitarians were a whole lot optimistic. The future was something to look forward to. It was not considered to be a dystopia with rising inequality transforming capitalist democracies into something resembling a neo­feudalist rentier society like 18th­century France, it was to be a glorious paradise on Earth with death conquered and SAI­powered nanosystems and full­immersion VR satisfying our every material desire.

So, what happened? Why do we not champion the idea that the future is going to be great anymore, instead preferring to issue stark warnings about how bad things are and how much worse they are going to get?

I would like to propose that ‘pre­millennial Singularitarians’ have given way to ‘Post­millennial Singularitarians’. Back when we were all super­optimistic about the future, people like Max More were concerned that belief in inevitable better days ahead would lead to complacency:

“In the Western world, especially in millennarian Christianity, millions are attracted to the notion of sudden salvation and of a “rapture” in which the saved are taken away to a better place….I am concerned that the Singularity concept is especially prone to being hijacked by this memeset. This danger especially arises if the Singularity is thought of as occurring at a specific point in time, and even more if it is seen as an inevitable result of the work of others. I fear that many otherwise rational people will be tempted to see the Singularity as a form of salvation, making personal responsibility for the future unnecessary”.

As people like James Hughes have argued, this kind of passive sit back and wait for the inevitable techno­rapture is comparable to pre­millennial Christianity which held that Christians needed only to prepare themselves for salvation and paradise would be established for them. On the other hand, post­millennialists reckoned that Christians had to first turn back the tribulations and establish a kingdom of heaven on Earth. Only then would there be the Second Coming.

What no doubt greatly helped the post­millennialists’ case is that the year 1001 came and Christ did not return. In fact, we are now well into the year 2015 and there is still no show from the big C.

Enough about that, though, what about the ‘rapture of the nerds?’. Obviously, my use of the word ‘millennial’ in ‘pre­millennial Singularitarianism’ and ‘post­millennial Singularitarianism’ has nothing to do with time spans of a thousand years and is instead a reference to passively waiting for paradise on Earth to be established, versus considering it necessary to actively prepare the way for such a transformation. However, I would like to propose that there is a date which perhaps has convinced many that the bright future we looked forward to was not quite as inevitable as we once thought. That year, is 2009.

What is so significant about that year? Well, it is the first year for which Ray Kurzweil offered predictions concerning technological change in his book ‘The Age Of Spiritual Machines’. The book was published in 1999 and, ten years later, we finally had the opportunity to test Kurzweil’s predictions against that ultimate judge, the reality of the year 2009. Some who did just that judged Kurzweil’s success rate to be pretty poor. For example, Alex Knap of Forbes wrote:

“Out of 12 key predictions that Kurzweil highlighted for the year 2009, only one has come completely true. Four were partially true (score them a half­point each) and eight failed to come true by the end of 2011. That’s a score of 3 / 12 – or 25% accurate”.

Over on his ‘Accelerating Future’ blog, Michael Anisimov seemed just as critical, saying “So far, I haven’t seen Kurzweil straight­up admit that he was wrong”.

I should point out that Anisimov certainly was not saying that Kurzweil got it all wrong, only that he had some misses as well as hits. Ascertaining exactly how many ‘hits’ versus ‘misses’ he got is actually kind of difficult because, as Ieet Spectrum put it, “Most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable”.

Ray Kurzweil also pointed out that his predictions for 2009 were not actually for the year 2009 but rather the decade between 2009 and 2019, so we still have a few years left before we can really say how accurate a prophet of technological development Kurzweil really is (if, indeed, we can ever really say how accurate he is. That IEET Spectrum article argues that doing so will prove difficult).

But can people really be blamed for mistaking predictions for a decade for predictions of a specific year when the opening sentence of that chapter was “It is now 2009”? I could not find any caveat in that chapter along the lines of ‘do bare in mind that these predictions are for the decade of 2009­2019 not just 2009’.

Whatever. The point I am trying to make is that, prior to 2009 Kurzweil was the infallible prophet who had shown us how the future was going to be and had the charts to back up his prophecies. Those exponential curves showed the pathway to technorapture was a smooth one with no obstacles in the way. After 2009 we began to wonder if whether the future Kurzweil promised was quite as inevitable as we had believed. Perhaps there were obstacles in the way of progress, after all?

Take ethical concerns over such things as genetic engineering. Kurzweil assured us that ethical opposition to such things was completely incapable of getting in the way of progress:

“These ethical debates are like stones in a stream. The water runs around them. You haven’t seen any of these biological technologies held up for one week by any of these debates”.

But in his book ‘Rational Optimist’, Mark Ridley painted a rather different picture:

“African governments, after intense lobbying by Western campaigners, have been persuaded to tie genetically modified food in red tape, which prevents them from being grown commercially in all but three countries”.

It would seem, then, that opponents to GM are not so powerless after all. If our opponents and others with a vested interest in preventing the establishment of the future we desire have the ability to delay or even prevent it, we cannot just passively sit back and wait for its inevitable emergence. We must instead keep our eyes peeled for possible impediments to progress and actively work to promote the establishment of the future we desire for ourselves and future generations. In that case, the pessimism which greeted my challenge is no bad thing. It shows that people are thinking about what could go wrong, not just taking the laid back attitude that a utopia is inevitable and all we have to do is wait for it to be established for us.

But, equally, too much pessimism could lead to a ‘we’re doomed so why bother?’ attitude. It is important to remember that, while the future may not be wonderful, it certainly could be. Oh, and as for my challenge, there are indeed some articles that look positively on the robot revolution. For example, a Wired article said:

“Assuming a post­scarcity system of distribution evolves to peacefully and fairly share the fruits of robot­driven post­scarcity production, jobs as we know them might not just become unnecessary—they might stop making sense altogether…By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human”.

Perhaps Max More would be pleased to note that passive pre­millennial Singularitarians are being replaced with a more skeptical breed of transhumanists who accept that there is much to be done before we can rest assured that such a future is inevitable? 

 

Posted in technology and us, work jobs and all that | 2 Comments

THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER PART 4

PART 4: A TALE OF TWO TRANSHUMAN NATIONS.


In the previous installment, we saw how Transhumanist Wager has a lot in common with Atlas Shrugged. I ended with a mention of another story and it, too, can be said to have a broadly similar storyline to Istvan’s novel. That story is “Manna”, a novella by Marshall Brain. What these stories share in common is that they both depict a dystopian America, and the emergence of a high-tech nation which shows the way toward a transhuman civilization. At the same time, these stories contrast one another by having different causes for the initial dystopia, and also disagreements concerning how a transhumanist nation should be run. So, while in some ways they are broadly similar, in other ways they are quite different.


THE DYSTOPIAS


In the case of Transhumanist Wager, its dystopia and its causes have already been discussed in previous essays. I shall say no more about it, other than to briefly recap my thoughts. I argued that Transhumanist Wager may seem to depict an America sliding into decay because of religious phobias of technology, but the causes of the dystopia are really due to America as depicted in the novel being an Empire in an age of decadence, with players in top positions of authority having vested interests in keeping it that way. 


Manna’s dystopia is brought about by a scenario mentioned earlier in this series: Robots taking over the workplace. I think that when most people think about such a scenario, they imagine it being manual labourers who are displaced. In their mind’s eye they see a future where there are robot burger-flippers, robot shelf-stackers, robot garbage collectors, and so on. But, in Marshall Brain’s novella it is not manual workers who are displaced, at least not at first. Rather, it is managers and supervisors. The ‘robot’ which gives the story its title is not really a robot at all. It is a software program that can take a job and break it down into a sequence of microtasks. Each step in that sequence is so simple, just about anyone can do it. Furthermore,  there is no need for anyone to memorise the steps. This is because, as well as the computer it’s installed on, the hardware side of Manna consists of a wireless headset that each employee wears. Manna micromanages those employees, telling them what they are required to do at each and every stage in the sequence. 


In a way, employees working at a business that uses Manna are turned into automatons. They no longer have to think for themselves. Manna supplies the knowhow, and it uses people’s sensory organs, hands, and mobility to get the job done.


As Manna becomes installed in more and more workplaces, and particularly as each Manna becomes integrated into a network, the job market is transformed. Knowledge, and to a large extent skill, no longer give an employee any competitive advantage. Any person can be taken off the streets, set to work with a headset in place and, provided they can obey simple instructions, they can immediately start doing that job. The only skill that does give a competitive advantage is the ability to successfully complete each step quickly. This soon becomes an essential ability because of the following reasons. Manna has a huge pool of unemployed workers to select from. After all, management and supervisory roles no longer exist, so whoever filled such occupations is out of work. Secondly, Manna is charged with reducing waste and raising productivity. It constantly monitors how quickly an employee is completing each step, and can compare that to the time taken by the most proficient workers. If you are too slow, you are fired and a replacement can be found within an hour of your dismissal. But what makes this environment ultra-competitive is that fact that, once one Manna deems you unsuitable for employment, that information is uploaded to the network which means no other workplace managed by Manna will employ you, either.


Faced with zero job security, and the threat of permanent unemployment in a society with very little welfare, employees are under enormous pressure to accept long hours and to work at an exhausting pace throughout the day. Because Manna is driven to increase profits and cut costs, wage levels begin to go down. As Marshall Brain wrote:


“At any moment Manna could replace you with another warm body, and that meant you did what you were told, for minimum wage, or you got fired. Manna, and the corporations that used it, knew that was the equation”.


The overall result is to push the rich-poor divide to extremes. On the one hand, Manna is very successful at lowering costs, reducing waste, and raising productivity and efficiency. So profits are skyrocketing and the owners are made very rich indeed. But, on the other hand, employees are treated more or less as disposable robots, made to work until they are worn out, and then they are replaced and forgotten about; just one more person on the scrapheap of the unemployed.


It is within this harsh, ultra-competitive America that it finally happens: Robots as we tend to imagine them emerge in the marketplace. With their sophisticated brains, capable sensory equipment, dextrous hands and agile mobility, these robot labourers soon outcompete their human rivals. This obviously results in a massive displacement of workers with no hope of getting employed elsewhere. Manna deals with this underclass by doing what it does best: Minimise costs and reduce waste. No welfare cheques are issued. Instead, cheap government housing in the form of terrafoam buildings are erected on “trash land well away from urban centres so nobody had to look at them”. Each building is designed to pack in as many occupants as possible. That is not to say that the people living in these ghettos are mistreated. Each person gets a five foot by ten foot room with a bed and TV, and there are robots keeping everything clean and tidy and serving meals three times a day. But all these people have are their basic needs met, and a TV to pacify them, nothing more.


Marshall Brain describes America at this point in the following way:


“With the arrival of the robots, tens of millions of people lost their minimum wage jobs and the wealth concentrated so quickly. The rich controlled America’s bureaucracy, military, businesses and natural resources, and the unemployed lived in terrafoam, cut off from any opportunity to change their situation…American democracy had morphed into a third world dictatorship ruled by the wealthy elite”.


CRITICISMS OF MANNA’S DYSTOPIA


So, in both Transhumanist Wager and Manna, we have dark visions of America transformed into a dystopia. But whereas in Istvan’s tale we have religious fears of technology and government interference resulting in economic recessions and depressions, in Manna we have rapid adoption of robot technology within an aggressively capitalist environment resulting in the country becoming a 3rd-world plutocratic dictatorship. 


I think one advantage ‘Transhumanist Wager’ has over ‘Manna’ is that it understands the weakness of its dystopia. As the story’s State-led watchdog committees pass increasingly draconian laws in an attempt to restrict and suppress Transhumania’s technological prowess, all this does is result in a black market for those technologies. As the story says, “you don’t tell a prosperous, hardworking mother and father whose child is dying of leukemia when a cure exists 3,000 miles off coast. That’s when the parents…arrange a private black market charter flight to Transhumania for a week of treatment”.


In Istvan’s story, the measures the anti-transhuman government put in place ultimately serve only to push the likes of Jethro to find ways of circumventing those restrictions, and it is that determination and dogged problem-solving ability that results in the establishment of Transhumania.


But while, like ‘Wager’, ‘Manna’ also depicts a transhuman nation, here the contrasting dystopia and utopia are presented as alternate visions of the future. There is very little discussion about the fragility of Manna’s dystopia. It is true, despite what anarcho-capitalists may think, that we do not live in a Newtonian universe with mechanistic economic laws that tend toward fairness if only the State would stop interfering. Rather, an economy is better compared to an ecology. Entrepreneur Nick Hanauer said, “capitalism, because of the fundamental multiplicative dynamics of complex systems, tends towards inequality, concentration and collapse”.


In Manna there is clearly rising inequality and concentration of wealth. The story also pretty accurately depicts what results from this relentless concentration of wealth. As wealth, power and income continue to concentrate at the very top, societies are changed from democracies to neo-feudalist rentier societies like 18th century France.


But what Manna does not really touch upon is the inevitable collapse of such deeply unequal societies. Wherever you find such societies, you can guarantee that there will either be an uprising of the downtrodden majority, or there will be a police state. Manna’s dystopia does have something of a police state. The ‘have-nots’ are packed into terra-foam housing, out of sight and out of mind of the wealthy elite in their own gated communities. Robots patrol the ghettos and prevent anyone from wandering too far from the poor area.


Where it goes wrong is thinking that a police state put in place to perpetuate extreme inequality can be permanent. But it really can’t. The reason why not is because rising inequality is ultimately self-defeating; it is terrible for business. Contrary to what neo-classical economists thought, capitalism’s strength does not lie in efficiently allocating resources. Instead, its strength lies in efficiently creating solutions to problems. Economic growth is best determined not in terms of how much wealth there is but rather as the rate at which problems are solved.


The rate at which problems are solved depends upon how many active participants an economy has, both as entrepreneurs who can offer solutions and as customers who vote for those solutions with their money. Maximising participation requires investment in the kind of infrastructures that nurtures a middle class, because the middle classes are the source of growth and prosperity.


Manna’s dystopia depicts a world where you are either one of the downtrodden Many existing in a state of permanent economic exclusion, or you are one of the few plutocrats, blessed with enormous amounts of wealth. Neither of these groups can drive a great national economy. The poor can’t because they have so little to invest. And the super-rich can’t because there is only so much stuff they can buy. Just because you are making a thousand times the median wage, it does not follow that you will be out there buying a thousand times as much merchandise. There are only so many clothes, houses, cars and other material things that you can purchase before the inability of materialistic acquisition to bring happiness becomes all too obvious.


UTOPIAS


Anyway, lets move on to talking about these stories’ visions of a Transhumanist nation. In each story, we have the emergence of a futuristic nation where technological progress and innovation is proceeding at an astonishing rate. This is brought about chiefly by the nation’s citizens, who are depicted as highly motivated people who have built a society that grants them an unfettered chance to become all they can be. Where the stories differ is in how they think society should be organised.


I think these differences are best summed up by the author’s description of their imaginary transhuman nations. Marshall Brain’s nation goes by the name of the ‘Australia Project’ and he describes life there as being like “living on a gigantic luxury cruise ship. The trip is already paid for, and you are free to do whatever you want with your time”. Istvan describes Transhumania as being comparable to “an aggressive, expanding technology company racing to bring an incredible invention to market”.


PROPERTY IS THEFT


In the case of the Australia Project, three technological capabilities make it possible. Firstly, there are all those robots making it possible to automate just about any job you can name. Secondly, there are efficient renewable energy technologies providing abundant power. Lastly, we are told that everything in the Australia Project is completely recyclable. We are not told what technology makes this possible, but I would assume it to be atomically-precise manufacturing (or molecular nanotechnology as it used to be known).


Put together, these technological capabilities can potentially enable an economy where everything is ‘free’. But in order to ensure this is the case, the rules that govern that civilization have to be designed to facilitate such an outcome. So how does the Australia Project do that?


It does so by understanding that those key technological capabilities give cause to seriously re-examine a saying from the 60s (I think) which, at first, sounds oxymoronic and absurd: “Property is theft”. How can that be? Obviously you cannot steal something that is your own private property. Whoever came up with that phrase is obviously an agent of communism seeking State authority to steal the fruits of entrepreneur’s hard work.


The phrase begins to make a little more sense when you stop to consider what generally happens to the stuff we own. Individually, the stuff we own spends most of its time not being used. DIY tools like power drills and recreational equipment like barbeques spend the great majority of their lives stored in a shed or garage. A dress or a shirt you buy will be worn on occasion, but mostly hangs unused in a wardrobe. You drive your car from home to some destination and back again, and the rest of the time it is parked someplace, not doing anything except taking up space. In fact, you can take any particular private possession and you can all but guarantee that it mostly goes unused. The only exceptions I can think of are houses and cell phones. But most people do not own their homes because they either have a mortgage to pay off or they are renting, and few people own their cell phones either, preferring renewable contracts to buying such gadgets outright.


So, generally speaking we do not use the stuff that we own. And because it is our private property, that excludes others from using it as well. If I walk past a car that is just sat there not being used, I cannot get into that car and use it to get to where I want to go. That would be stealing. Ok, it is not necessarily the case that something being somebody’s private property prevents others from using it. The owner might be inclined to let trusted people borrow stuff from time to time, provided she can be confident it will be returned when she needs it.


ACCESS OVER OWNERSHIP


And that brings us to what is really useful, which is not to own stuff but rather to have access to stuff as and when we need it. A lot of people today find it rather inconvenient to clutter their homes with music and movies stored on physical media. They prefer to subscribe to services like Spotify or Netflix which stream music and movies over a fast Internet connection. In ‘Manna’, the combination of renewable energy, automation of jobs and complete recyclability makes it possible to extend the principle of access over ownership to the world of material things. It makes it possible to apply the open-source movement to the real world. Open-source software is software that is free to be used, changed and shared (in modified or unmodified forms) by anyone. 


In the Australia Project, each citizen is a shareholder in a corporation called 4GC inc. The story briefly tells us that the Project’s founder, Eric Garcier, sold shares in 4GC inc for $1000 each to a billion people and that provided him with the funding to buy 1. 5 million square miles of land in the Australian outback. Each person who bought shares in 4GC inc gets an equal share of the resources owned by the corporation. There are rules preventing any one person more than one share of stock. The robots, supplied with power from renewable energies, work for free turning material resources into whatever people want. Whatever you ask for is yours until you die or you decide to return it and then, thanks to complete recyclability, the resources used in its production are made available for others. 


Something else is needed to prevent some from taking too many resources and I will get to that later. For now, the important thing to note is that, in the Australia Project, nobody is paid to work and nobody is made to work. Your time is your own and how you spend it is pretty much up to you. If all you want to do is lay on a sun lounger drinking a tall glass of lemonade all day long, the robots provide you with a sun lounger and a tall glass of lemonade and you are left to indulge your own idea of a perfect day. If you feel like doing something a bit more productive, the robots will turn resources into whatever equipment you need to realise your vision. What you end up producing may have a very limited market, or just maybe it will be a runaway success. The robots don’t care. They will just turn out as many copies as necessary to meet demand. Of course, as per the open-source model, whatever you produce can be freely used and modified by everybody else. 


WORK DAMN YOU, WORK


Things are rather different where Transhumania is concerned. There, you most certainly are made to work. Each person is somebody selected by Jethro for being the best at some profession he deems useful. Each resident of Transhumania has goals assigned to them, and woe betide them should they fail to meet their targets. As the story informs us, “if you were hired for a position, and you failed to meet the goals assigned to you… then you would be forced off Transhumania at once”. 


We are introduced to Manna’s transhuman nation at a very different stage in its development compared to Wager. It is complete and fully functioning. If you have built a cruise ship, fitted it with facilities that enable people to relax and pursue activities and you have trained staff to provide services that facilitate relaxation and enjoyment, it would be a bit odd to deny people the right to take things easy. Can you imagine Captain Jethro walking around the deck of a cruise ship, yelling “I will have no layabouts!”?


But what if that cruise ship was in the process of being built, and everybody on site is a worker assigned certain goals which they are required to meet in order to ensure the project is completed? In that case, Jethro, as the boss in charge of this construction job, would be well within his rights to kick out anyone he finds lounging around. We are introduced to Transhumania at a time when before it exists, except as an idea in Jethro’s head. We follow the realisation of his dream, from securing the capital needed to pay for such a project, to the hiring of people needed to convert massive oil platforms into a floating city containing all the research facilities needed to pursue transhumanian goals. Everybody hired to build Transhumania are expected to do their jobs and complete goals assigned to them. How else could it be built?


NOT A HOLIDAY RESORT


The other thing to bare in mind is that Transhumania is never intended to be analogous to a luxury cruise ship. It is, instead, an incredibly well appointed research facility for the development of transhuman science, technology, philosophy etc. Where the Australia Project is concerned, all the technological capabilities that make it possible- renewable energy, robot labour, and atomically-precise assembly and disassembly- already exist. But on Transhumania the ten thousand or so hired professionals have to work to create all those technologies.


Transhumania does not just rely on the proverbial stick to motivate its workers, it has some carrots to offer as well. Seeing as it is run like ‘an aggressive..company’ it is perhaps not surprising that Transhumania offers the typical motivational scheme of such organisations: Big money bonuses. Not only is every researcher paid ‘exceptional wages’, they are also each given “a tax-free million dollar signing bonus”. This all makes common sense. After all, everybody knows that if you want to extract top performances from the brightest and best, you have got to pay them handsomely. 


ARE HIGH WAGES EFFECTIVE?


Well, so ‘everybody knows’ but is it really true? The question ‘do greater monetary rewards lead to better performance?’ has been put to the test and the results are pretty eye-opening. One such experiment was funded by the Federal Reserve Bank and conducted at MIT. A whole group of students were given a set of challenges to complete, such as memorizing strings of digits and solving word puzzles. In order to incentivise their performance, there were three levels of reward: A small monetary reward for those who did pretty well, a medium reward for average performers, and a large reward for those who did really well.


So what happened? Did a larger reward lead to better performance? No, it actually lead to poorer performance. Now, one might argue that what was offered as a large cash reward was simply not large enough. It was only $50, which is perhaps not much money to an MIT student. The experiment was repeated, this time in rural India where the equivalent of $50 really is a lot of money. In the Indian experiment, poor performers received a reward equal to two week’s salary; medium performers received a month’s salary, and the top performers were rewarded with a prize equal to two month’s salary.


The findings of this study were that people who received a medium reward did no better than those who received the small reward. And those offered high rewards? Once again, they did worst of all.


In fact, this experiment has been replicated many times by economists, psychologists and to a certain extent sociologists, always with the same results. So long as a task requires only mechanical skill, where you only have to follow a set of rules in order to complete the task, performance-related pay works as you might expect. The better the pay, the more incentivised people are to do well. But once the job requires even rudimentary creative thinking, higher rewards lead to poorer performance. Edward Deci, who in 1969 was a Carnegie Mellon psychology grad student who conducted such experiments, explained “when money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity”.


It should be pointed out that these experiments are not simply saying that money is a de-motivator and that if you pay people to do a creative job they will automatically lose interest in that work. Rather, it is telling us that too much money is a de-motivator. How much is too much? If you do not pay people enough, nobody is motivated. If you pay enough to enable people to stop having money anxiety, they will stop thinking about money and focus on their work. Once the monetary reward is sufficient to take the issue of money off the table, that is the point when offering yet more money de-motivates people.


WHAT MOTIVATES PEOPLE?


As well as showing us what does not lead to better performance, these experiments also shed light on what does. There are three factors that encourage people to do well:


Autonomy


Mastery


Purpose.


In other words, we work best when we have a sense of control over our own lives; when we feel that we are improving in our ability to perform tasks that matter to us and, finally, that what we are doing makes a genuine contribution to the world.


In the Australia Project, the kind of work for which performance-related pay works is done by robots. Remember, that kind of work is algorithmic, where you have a set of rules that you only need follow in order to successfully compete the task. Robots are particularly good at carrying out algorithms and since they work for free, performance-related pay incentives are completely unnecessary.


As for the residents, as shareholders of 4GC inc they have equal ownership of the Australia Project’s resources, and free access to whatever technologies and services are produced, as per the open-source rules under which this civilization operates. This takes the issue of money off the table, and as they are free to pursue their own interests and to contribute to projects they consider worthwhile, there is much scope to develop both mastery and purpose.


PREVENTING HOARDING


I have been using the word ‘free’ when talking about resident’s access to Australia Project’s products and services. But it is more accurate to say the resources that make such products and services possible are pre-paid for. As stockholders, the residents are co-owners of 4GC inc who have equal ownership of the labour power of the robots, the energy from renewables and the material resources contained within the territory. Whenever the idea of ‘freely’ using and sharing resources is put forward, an objection is always made that people would just excessively hoard or use up those resources. For example, if I were a particularly greedy and egocentric person, what would stop me from ordering the robots to manufacture a million life-size gold statues of myself to be put on display all over the place? This vanity project of mine would use up the entire reserves of gold, leaving none for anybody else.


In the Australia Project, this kind of excessive overuse is prevented by a currency system in the form of credits. You cannot earn credits. They are not awarded as wages or profit. Rather, every resident receives a thousand credits per week and a certain amount of credits are debited from a person’s account every time the robots ask you to make something. Not only does this credit system prevent excessive greed, it also helps keep track of how resources are being used and allocated.


Today, businesses typically have inventory systems and stock control that keep track of resource use, thereby allowing the company to order enough inventory to ensure they are neither under nor overstocked. In principle, there is nothing to prevent such inventory systems from being scaled up to work on a national or even global scale. Given suitably sophisticated sensor networks, communications networks, and artificial intelligence networks with the requisite expertise, we could keep track of the inventory of the Earth and base our decision to use that capital not on the question ‘do we have the money?’ but rather ‘do we have the resources?’. The Internet would have evolved into a kind of global nervous system, monitoring the biosphere and geosphere and ensuring the stuff we produce is sustainable and allocated fairly. And, no, this would not be a centralised distribution scheme ala communist states, any more than the Web is a centralised broadcasting service for communist propaganda. This would still be a world where money exists, in the sense of the economic calculations underlying all that inventory tracking, resource allocation and stock control. In time we may dispense completely with any physical representation of money and instead become integrated with the global brain to the extent where we just intuit misallocation of resources, perhaps in the form of anxiety or some negative emotion that we naturally seek to correct. 


There is a way to realise projects that will require more than a thousand credits-worth of materials. Residents can opt to collaborate on projects, which includes pooling their credits as well as their expertise. The story gives an example in the form of space elevators:


“Millions of people… were willing to contribute their credits to make it possible. With the credits available, the robots allocated the resources for research and design. Scientists, engineers and designers interested in the project worked on it simply to have a part in it and make it a reality. Then the robots built the space elevators to meet the demand”.


Where the Australia Project is concerned, credits are not tied up with status and achievement as is the case with money today. No one person has more of them than everybody else. Success in the Australia Project comes from the extent to which your contributions add to and refine the solutions to problems that people care about. 


SPEND YOUR MILLION ON…WHAT?


In contrast, Transhumania uses money as a performance-related incentive, in the form of extremely good wages and also a million dollar signing bonus. OK, but what do those researchers spend their money on?


As well as offering state-of-the-art research facilities and ‘hassle-free lives away from bossy governments’, Transhumania also boasts exceptional recreational facilities. It may not be intended to be analogous to a luxury cruise ship, but boy is it like one. It has shopping centres, art galleries and fitness centres. It has a great many restaurants and cafes. In fact the story tells us that it provides for every need and want you can think of, pretty much.


Probably, then, the residents of Transhumania spend their wages on all the fine recreational facilities and stuff available in the shops. But isn’t that a bit pointless? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to invest money used as wages and bonuses in Transhumania itself, and grant free access to its facilities to its residents as a carrot to incentivise performance?


We are also told that “Jethro made it easier to own than to rent, and most people opted to buy upon arriving. It replenished the cash Transhumania needed for actual research and city operations”. It does? How? I can see how somebody buying property could inject money into Transhumania’s reserves, but doesn’t the nation have to give the money back in the form of high wages and million dollar sign-up bonuses? Aside from the fact that money just does not provide an incentive once the issue of money is taken off the table, it seems to me that money on Transhumania is just circulating as people are paid wages which they spend, providing profits which used to pay wages. 


Ok, that is just how capitalist economies work. But while such a system seems to make sense on a large scale, to the extent to which few can coherently explain how the complex systems of supply and demand might be organised differently and still work, scale the system way down and money comes across as being an absurd convention which solves everything while not doing anything. There is a short story that has its origins in the Great Depression, and it asks readers to imagine a small town where times are tough, everybody is in debt, and everybody is living on credit.


Into this town comes a stranger, who considers staying a night in the local motel. He places a $100 bill on the desk and says he wants to inspect the rooms and pick one. As he goes upstairs, the motel owner takes the money and runs down the street to retire his debt to the pig farmer. The pig farmer is in debt to his supplier, the coop, and he heads off to hand over the $100 in payment of that debt. The guy at the coop takes the $100 and uses it to pay his debt to the local prostitute, who has been facing hard times and has had to offer her services on credit. She then rushes to the motel in order to pay her room bill. The Motel owner places the $100 bill on the counter. At that point, the traveller comes down, says none of the rooms are satisfactory, picks up the $100 bill and leaves.


During this sequence of events, nobody produced anything and nobody earned anything. And yet the town is now out of debt and everybody is looking to the future with more optimism. Transhumania’s economy almost seems like that small town. It is an autarkic state operating in isolation to the world’s nations and its economies. It’s Galt’s island rather than Galt’s Gulch, where unnecessary wages are just pointlessly circulated to pay off pointless debts.


HOW I WOULD RUN TRANSHUMANIA


How about this? Prospective new entrants to Transhumania are told, “you have been selected for your potential to contribute to our mission. As you can see, we offer not only the best research facilities but also superb recreational opportunities. You may freely partake of these facilities. All we ask in return is that you voluntarily use your skills to complete certain goals we will assign to you. The products and services that are derived from completion of said goals will be used to invest in Transhumania’s research and recreational facilities, which we are sure will provide you with a terrific and stimulating environment free of money worries. Be aware, however, that failure to meet your targets or interfering with other residents’ ability to meet targets will result in instant dismissal”.


In fact, one character in the story confirms that performance-related monetary incentives have little to no value, saying “forget the money. The laboratory facilities are like nothing on this continent. And everyone’s so goddamn smart and interesting”. 


I am not suggesting that Transhumania should abandon the use of money altogether. Money will always be necessary as it is the calculations which govern resource use and allocation, and  which determine the relative value of goods and services we fashion from those resources. Yes, it can be corrupted and turned into currencies that result in misallocation of capital but that is no reason to abandon money and go back to barter. What I am saying is that Transhumania could put money to much better use than performance-related incentives. It should invest money earned from problem solving into providing free access to its incredible facilities. I really have no idea why Transhumania is not run more like the Australia Project. I guess it comes down to Jethro’s opposition to ‘freebies’.


JETHRO’S RULES. GOOD FOR TRANSHUMANIA, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WORLD?


I can appreciate why it would be necessary to insist that only workers who make a positive contribution to the development of transhuman techs etc be permitted to remain on Transhumania while it is an offshore research facility whose purpose is to develop those very techs etc. What I do not understand is why that policy remains in place after those technologies are developed. Toward the end of the story, there is the following exchange between Jethro and his nemesis, Belinas:


Belinas: “Do you really think the whole world could live on Transhumania and be prosperous, and ponder incredible calculus equations, and work 20 hour days, and strive to be omnipotenders with no fear of anything?”.


Jethro: “I believe in giving them the choice. I believe in trying to teach them so they can contribute. Then kicking them out if they fail. Otherwise, if they don’t belong, people will sink the ship with their cumbersome weight”.


Really? We are not talking about some primitive pre-tech civilization here, where each person must labour to produce for basic needs or everybody will find themselves in a desperate situation. We are talking about Transhumania, which at this stage in the story has developed technologies that could allow for a high standard of living with very little labour.


Along with the military robots I talked about way back in part one, Transhumania also has Medibot, “with nine intricate fingers on each hand…designed to perform delicate medical surgery”, Buildbot, “able to perform everything from aircraft construction to tiny computer chip repair”, and Strongbot, “designed for lifting and handling awkward and heavy objects with sheer accuracy”. I am not sure if those machines are strictly speaking robots. The story tells us, “each machine (is) designed to always remain under strict control of… a human engineer”, which sounds to me more like a teleoperated machine rather than an autonomous one. Or maybe they can operate on their own volition but are designed to remain subordinate to human directives? Even if the former is true and they are teleoperated only, I do not doubt that making them into true robots would be well within the capabilities of Transhumania’s ten thousand or so researchers.


So, if you have robots like that, which you could set to work in any capacity imaginable be it in the agricultural, industrial or service industries, how can it possibly be the case that “those who don’t belong… will sink the ship with their cumbersome weight”?


Jethro is not just talking about people who are actively opposed to transhumanism. He is not taking the position of Richard Seed, who said, “you do not have to contribute. You do not have to participate. But if you are going to interfere with me becoming God… we will have warfare”. No, in Jethro’s world you do have to participate and you must contribute. Nobody gets to spend their days watching TV all day. We can’t have that. Those passive consumers use up resources and we cannot possibly support such layabouts.


Oh, come on. With technologies like those robots, of course you could have a world where work is voluntary and nobody need be forced by monetary and social pressures to go out and get a job. I do think that a compelling argument could be made, saying it would be a great pity if people chose to do nothing but watch TV all day when there are all those robots and neurochips and other amazing technologies providing infinite opportunity for creativity and contribution to the accumulation of solutions to problems. It would be something of a betrayal of all those who toiled away to produce such technologies if all we did was turn into couch potatoes. But, in the end, in so affluent and prosperous a civilization where the economy is (or could be) almost entirely automated,  people should be able to choose. 


VARIATIONS OF THE WAGER


Both stories arguably contain variations of the Transhumanist Wager. Istvan tells us:


“The wager…states that if you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible”.


In Manna, the Australia Project has nine core principles, one of which is ‘Live your life’. A character explains:


“Live your life means that… you decide what you want to do, and then you are able to do it. You reach your full potential. Live your life is the idea of thinking about your life as a whole, as something you get to design and control”.


Thanks to our technological capability, and the problem solving which is the true wealth and success of capitalism, today we have much more control over our lives than our ancestors. When it is dark, we can choose to flood our homes with light. When it is cold we can choose to be warm thanks to heating; and when it is warm air conditioning can keep us cool. But there are still some things that are beyond our control, certain limitations imposed upon us by our biological substrates. For example, we can augment our physical strength with machinery and our mental capabilities with computers, but we cannot choose not to succumb to the ravages of ageing. 


Given the choice, wouldn’t just about everybody choose to be alive tomorrow rather than be dead? We might imagine some unfortunate soul who faces such a poor quality of life tomorrow that death now seems like a preferable alternative. The author Terry Pratchett considered it preferable to be euthanized rather than let his incurable alzheimers rob him of his brilliant mind. But what if there were a third option along with ‘live in intolerable circumstances or die’, that choice being ‘have your malfunctioned body or mind repaired, so that it works as good as new’? What person would not go for that option if it were available?


You could try other options, like praying for divine intervention. But, really, how do any alternatives measure up to practical solutions put through the rigours of the scientific process and shown to be effective and replicable? Why pray for a healthy child when genetic engineering can guarantee your offspring will not be burdened with disability? If you have a disability, why would you do anything other than use medical technologies that can fix it, or adopt tech solutions that render that disability irrelevant? Yes, I am aware that some people do choose not to receive medical intervention on religious grounds. But that is not logical.


Transhumanism is logical. The most reasonable thing is to want to live to see tomorrow. And not to merely be alive tomorrow but to feel that your life is progressing in a positive direction. Who, given the opportunity, would opt for less intelligence rather than more? For a disabled body rather than a super-abled one?


But while I feel that Manna really believes in the Transhumanist Wager, funnily enough I do not get that impression from Istvan’s novel. Why not? Because residents of the Australia Project have a genuine choice with regards to the extent to which they contribute to and participate in transhumanism. The technologies are made available and, apart from rules designed to prevent behaviour that would overtly interfere with the ability of others to adopt the lifestyle they prefer, they can do what they want. This is a civilization that trusts that the logic of transhumanism coupled with its practical realisation is enough to ensure its success. No other coercion is necessary.


JOIN JETHRO…OR DIE!


When Jethro says, “I believe in…choice”, what does he mean, exactly? Well, we find out later:


“The choice we offer is simple: Die or join us. To die is to continue in your meager ways, your lackluster philosophies, and your future material successes, with nothing but gravestones and Internet obituaries to memorialize you at the end of your lives. To join us is to begin the greatest adventure and leap of progress our species has ever known”.


Sounds reasonable. Opt in, adopt transhuman life extension and augmentation technologies, and your lifespan will extend indefinitely and your life’s potential will expand. Opt out and, well, you will not be around all that long to influence the future. 


But Jethro is not really saying ‘choose life extension or choose death’. He is saying ‘be the kind of transhumanist I approve of, or be killed’. Remember, he said that anybody who does not belong (ie, conforms to his concept of what a transhumanist should be) will be ejected from Transhumania. Bare in mind that Transhumania is intended to evolve into something a bit more large-scale than just an offshore research facility:


“Earth…will be transformed into one global civilization…There will be no more sovereign nations, only Transhumania”.


How do you eject undesirables from the planet? Send them off to space colonies? No, Jethro’s transhumanist revolution has other plans:


“Any individual who ultimately hampers the optimum transhuman trajectory should be eliminated. The Humanicide Formula addresses this issue directly. It determines whether an individual should live or die based on an algorithm measuring productivity in terms of that individual’s remaining life hours, their resource consumption in a finite system, and their past, present and potential future contributions”.


This is not transhumanism that I subscribe to. Transhumanism is a movement that advocates, researches, and develops scitech that will give people maximum possible control over their own lives. The emphasis is very much on personal choice. I cannot tell you that you must become a superperson and you cannot tell me that I must relinquish my choice to become a superperson. When you go beyond making the adoption of transhuman technologies, philosophy etc a matter of personal choice and say “you must do this, or we will kill you”, what you have is not transhumanism, but rather a form of eugenics. It is imposing your choice on others, making them conform to your conception of a worthwhile life. 


THE DANGERS OF UTOPIAN THINKING


How did Jethro come to have such a warped concept of transhumanism? I think it is significant that he thinks of Transhumania as being a utopia. The problem with utopian thinking is that it sets up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. Most people accept that, in a situation where you must choose between a course of action that will result in the deaths of few or the deaths of many, the ethical thing to do would be to kill a few. In a utopia, its moral value is infinite because everybody is happy forever. If it is ethically permissible to sacrifice a few for the greater good, how many may be sacrificed to ensure an infinite good? And what about people who stand opposed to your concept of utopia? How evil are these people?


Secondly, everything is there for a reason in a utopia. Such societies by definition conform to a tidy blueprint. But both individuals and groups of people are diverse, and among that diversity will be people who cling to values that are out of place in (your version of) a perfect world. As Steven Pinker wrote, “if you are designing the perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plans from the start?”. 


For Jethro, it is perhaps neither people or even groups of people who stand in the way of utopia, but rather certain cultural systems which have been carefully manufactured over millennia to condition people away from their naturally transhumanist behaviour.


“It started long ago, with the inception of civilization, when charismatic leaders and ruling clans…learned they could preserve their platforms of power by controlling their communities’ thinking and behavioural patterns”. Refined over many centuries, that thought control has resulted in religious institutions, State control, and consumerist-fuelling media which “are nothing more than pieces of an intangible psychological construct designed…to keep you producing for others and contributing to their overall gain and not your own”.


In Jethro’s utilitarian calculus, religious institutions and State power are the infinite evils that stand opposed to his infinitely good Utopia. So, when he says the time has come for such institutions to be “wiped away” you just know he is about to perpetrate some enormously wicked act.


THE TRANSHUMAN TALIBAN


Way back in the introduction, I talked briefly about the statues which Muslim fanatics destroyed. But their act of vandalism cannot hold a candle to the act of destruction that Transhumania’s military technology unleashes. By the end of the attack we have the obliteration of:


The White House, Capitol Building and Supreme Court.


The Vatican.


The Kaaba.


The Wailing Wall and Temple Mount


The Grand Mosque.


Buckingham Palace.


Notre Dame.


Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue.


China’s Imperial Palace.


The Kremlin.


Actually, this is only a partial list. Istvan lists many more famous historical architectural works that are destroyed. What is more, the story tells us “no timeless religious monument (was) left unscathed”, suggesting that even buildings not explicitly listed  (such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Egyptian Pyramids) are also demolished.


Jethro gives advance warning of his act of wanton destruction, pointing out that “he was not an archaeologist, but a futurist. And relics of the past bore little value to him”. Wow. That has to rival ‘It’s the work of infidels’ as the stupidest reason to destroy our ancestor’s work ever put forward.


And what could it achieve, really? Surely not the elimination of democracy or communism or religion or any institution Jethro might despise. Those are intangible belief systems. A church and mosque is a community not a building. The physical monuments can remain while the cultural reason for their construction is lost. Nobody really knows why ancient people built Stonehenge. Whatever reason they had is lost to antiquity. Equally, the destruction of monuments is no guarantee that whatever intangible belief systems associated with them will also be eliminated. Joseph Stalin ordered the destruction of churches, mosques and temples but nevertheless religious beliefs and practices persisted among the majority of the population.


All you really guarantee is that you will be demolishing physical representations of human ability, monuments not just to some religious or political ideology that is ridiculous to some, but also monuments to the skills and ingenuity of our ancestors who laid the foundations upon which the modern world is built. 


Prior to this act of destruction, Transhumania’s cyberwarriors succeed in hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenal, and cause the timers to tick ominously down to zero, only for a last moment reprieve from armageddon when Jethro orders the countdown halted at three seconds to spare. In the modern world, just about everything is dependent on computers. So why not have a ‘Day The Earth Stood Still’ scenario where Transhumania shuts down all essential services? and then takes over global media so that Jethro can deliver a ‘this is John Galt speaking’ lecture where he lays bare all that is wrong with the world today? Jethro does deliver such a speech and while I do not agree with everything he says, there is much to admire in it. But how reasonable would any speech sound coming from somebody who just acted like the worst fanatic?


CONCLUSION.


If I were to base my opinion of Zoltan Istvan purely on this novel, I would harbour strong suspicions that he was actually an anti-transhumanist. The movement has long struggled to escape from the shadow of eugenics, which it superficially resembles, and here is a story which portrays transhumanists as aggressively intolerant, egocentric and determined to stop at nothing in their mission to mould everybody into their version of a perfect being. 


Or, I might think that Istvan was both a transhuman advocate and Ayn Rand admirer who set out to write the science fiction story she would have written were she alive today. But, alas, judged purely on the basis of this story he lacks the sheer intellectual ability of the founder of Objectivism, and the result is a blunt and crude imitation of her novels, where admirably self-interested characters are replaced with contemptibly ego-centric ones. Sure, there are aspects of the story I like. I like the way the story includes people with many different belief systems, providing an opportunity for Socratic questioning, complex ideas covered by many different angles. I did admire Jethro’s sheer determination and thought there was a great deal of merit in judging people in terms of what value they have to offer.  But, the overriding thought I get from reading Transhumanist Wager is that it portrays transhumanism in a light that provides ammunition for the movement’s opponents more than it provides arguments against their criticisms.

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