Sunday, April 10, 2011

An interview with Nikki Olson

Nikki Olson is a writer and researcher for The Singularity Weblog where she has blogged about topics as interesting as "ETs and The Singularity" and "Against Nature Deficit Disorder."  She has an academic background in both Philosophy and Sociology in addition to being deeply knowledgeable about the concept of The Singularity.  Nikki is in the process of writing a book with Dr. Kim Solez and is active with The Lifeboat Foundation.  In light of all of that she is doing, I am very thankful to Nikki for taking the time out to talk Transhumanism here at Strange Horizons.

1)   Tell us please how you became interested in The Singularity?

I encountered Ray Kurzweil’s book “The Age of Spiritual Machines” through future tech enthusiast Dr. Kim Solez while working with him on an unrelated project. Having a background in philosophy, I was intrigued by the ideas in TASP, and  became curious as to why Kurzweil’s ideas had not made more of an impact on academic discourse on virtual reality and artificial intelligence. At first, I’ll admit, I assumed that because the academy wasn’t paying very much attention to Kurzweil’s philosophy, that it must have some major flaw or be poorly researched. But through further investigation, and reading ‘The Singularity is Near’, I found the opposite to be true. This began a long and exciting journey into re-analyzing all my past assumptions about the nature and purpose of humanity, and the future, through a Kurzweilian lens.

2)   While Dr. Kurzweil’s views on The Singularity are fairly well known, could we please hear your personal view and how it might differ from his in any respects?

It’s fairly difficult to disagree with Kurzweil on scientific grounds. For this reason, dissenting viewpoints, including my own, tend to be oriented around the social inferences he makes regarding future technology and human behavior. But on the scientific side of things, I am conflicted with him regarding views on consciousness. I don’t disagree that the culmination of AI will be conscious, which is where a lot of philosophers diverge with Kurzweil, but I disagree that consciousness is best understood as something occurring exclusively in the brain. I am more open to the possibility of there being different realms of conscious experience, and different kinds of consciousness, and that consciousness, in some form, occurs outside of the brain. This view, while not a popular view in the scientific, rational, West, is consistent with ideas put forth by Ben Goertzel, and the Singularity subculture group ‘The Cosmists’. In taking this stance, one is then more open to ideas such as alien encounters and different kinds of communication.

3)   As I'm sure you have experienced, I've had to deal with a few Luddites who are terrified by the idea of Transhumanism, saying that we will "lose our humanity." What is your usual response to this?

You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sympathize with that viewpoint, because once you look at the history of technology and its influence on humanity, you learn very quickly that we have, since primal days, been using technology to overcome and transcend human limitations. As Kristi Scott says in her latest IEET article, ‘it’s what we do.’ But I can sympathize with concerns of this nature when it comes to genetic engineering, and other more radical future technologies. To this concern I have two main responses. First, I think that it’s in our best interest to regard humanity as a ‘process’, rather than something fixed, finished, and to not be tampered with. Romancing the shortcomings of humanity doesn’t do anyone much good, and it certainly doesn’t help to improve the human condition more broadly. Neo-Luddite views, in my opinion, actually contribute to the mass of unnecessary suffering in the world because they oppose technologies that could be used to save many lives and eliminate a lot of suffering. They are almost unethical in that regard, actually. And second, that evolution is a slow and non-ideal process, at least when it comes to optimization of the most important, and I would say most ‘human’ traits, like those associated with pre-frontal lobe cognition. These traits allowed us to create large scale civilizations, to develop advanced technology, to direct our own social evolution, to have meaningful relationships, and so on, and are not sacrificed by Transhumanist proposals. Taking more control over our evolution, at least with regards to these traits, can actually be seen as a way to become more human. What’s actually being sacrificed are the other traits, such as aging and disease, that get in the way of our being able to live meaningful, satisfying, lives that transcend the limitations of our pre-human ancestral past.  

4)   You recently wrote an article asking how children are able to contemplate transhumanism. Tell us a bit about that?

Yes, the idea that Transhumanism, in its current form, cannot easily be taught to children, I feel, points to an important shortcoming of the movement, and can be given as a reason for its lack of broad appeal and growth. Transhumanism originated in opposition to religion, opting for a more scientific and rational way of thinking about man’s place in the world. But in narrowing one’s focus like this, you end up creating an ethos that is difficult to identify with emotionally, and existentially. Children, as well as adults, derive much meaning and understanding from the cultural and artistic expression surrounding an ethos. Mythology allows a viewpoint to ‘come alive’, it inspires, and creates a sense of ‘awe’ and wonderment. So long as the story, culture, and art doesn’t get confused with ‘truth’, but serves to expand and illuminate scientific realities, in the way we see happen in science fiction culture, and some Transhumanist subcultures, I see it as something that adds to the movement, rather than takes away. This line of thought is something I plan to develop further in the future.  

5)   How do you see Transhumanism affecting global issues such as poverty and instability in developing nations?

The best answer is that it already is. Though we don’t consider the technologies that play a role here, ‘Transhumanist’ technologies. Information technology, through artificial intelligence programs and automation, has reduced the cost of creating powerful software, and has ‘democratized’ knowledge. Education, and access to information, is probably the most valuable resource lacking in developing nations. It’s perhaps impossible, I think, to overestimate the difference that Internet access has made in these nations, and will continue to have, in nations plagued with economic and political  struggles. Also, we are on our way to solving major health concerns that create enormous obstacles in poorer nations. There is good reason to be confident that through greater understanding of the human genome that we will be able to really tackle things like AIDs and malaria. Through the pursuit of advanced technology, which is a main goal of Transhumanists, we have breakthroughs daily that help to solve global issues. I see a very bright future for developing nations, actually, so long as we pursue these problems with the mentality that they can be solved, and we focus on technology as the way to solve them.

6) If you could have any kind of cybernetic implant right now, what would it be?

Cybernetic implants are to me the most exciting technology on the horizon, and the benefits derived through the expansion of human memory and processing ability are difficult to anticipate.  If I could increase my IQ by 50 points, even, I think my experience of life would be very different. Also, being able to ‘turn on’ at whim, parts of the brain activated by psychedelics, but without the negative side effects, could lead to a dramatically different experience and viewpoint on life. Not that I feel by using cognitive augmentation that we could answer life’s more existential questions, but we would certainly be able to refine our thoughts on the matter.

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