Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Transhumanism and "future crimes"

Students in my class on transhumanism have no trouble seeing the glass half-empty.

Regardless of the amount of grounded optimism I offer, all rendered suitably magniloquent, a transhuman world just doesn't seem appealing to them. The downsides and pitfalls of progress are obvious to them. What happens when you modify the human body so much as to render it unrecognizable? If brain-to-brain cybernetic interfaces become practical and widespread, as it seems they very well may one day, who is to say that an individual with Luciferian intent couldn't take over your mind? Well, it seems that we need not even wait that long before our current state of hyper-connectivity opens us to more and more frightening prospects.

Singularity Weblog published an excerpt from the book Future Crimes by Marc Goodmand. Socrates, the Chief Editor of Singularity Weblog, called it, "...the scariest book I have ever read." That's enough to make me sit up and take notice.

The excerpt kicks off with Goodman offering this chilling observation: George Orwell was right. Sort of. Sure, the author of 1984 would have smugly nodded his head at the issue of the NSA invading privacy all in the name of "national security," but it is less likely that Orwell would have foreseen Google, Acxiom, and social media. The sheer magnitude to which we are connected through our devices has created all manner of opportunities for transgressions, from the petty to the absolutely dystopian. Who is to blame for that? Well, we are.

As Goodman writes:

"To that point, in those cases it wasn’t Big Brother government that “did something to us,” but rather we who did something to ourselves. We allowed ourselves to become monetized and productized on the cheap, giving away billions of dollars of our personal data to new classes of elite who saw an opportunity and seized it. We accepted all their one-sided Terms of Service [ToS] without ever reading them, and they maximized their profits, unencumbered by regulation or oversight. To be sure, we got some pretty cool products out of the deal, and Angry Birds is really fun. But now that we’ve given all these data away, we find ourselves at the mercy of powerful data behemoths with near-government-level power who do as they please with our information and our lives."

Ouch. Touche.

I'm paraphrasing here, but Goodman explains the hazards of the 21st Century frontier in a few different ways. It used to be that it took at minimum one person to rob one other person, whether it be in a Batman-ish, "Crime Alley" scenario for a wallet and watch or what have you. Now, one person can rob thousands, perhaps millions via hacking. We saw this with the Target hack in late 2013. The reality of our society is that governmental mechanisms, irrespective of motive, can now monitor your email and search history, your social media activity, and even what video games you play. Doesn't take a warrant or a procedure. They can just do it.

My students were quick to pick up on the world's hyper-connectivity and what that means, coming to roughly the same conclusions as Goodman only not as detailed, obviously. Given Moore's Law and Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, we are only going to get more connected. What happens when consciousness is uploaded? Who has access? What happens in a "hive mind" scenario? Is the Orwellian concept of "thoughtcrime" that far fetched any longer? Does this mean we just halt all development of technology?

No. It means we greet the challenges with eyes wide open and do what we always do: try to solve them.

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