Thursday, July 6, 2017

A class in the "could" and "should" of transhumanism

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For what might be the last time, I got to teach transhumanism.

No, I wasn't leading students in constructing AIs and we didn't give each other cybernetic implants. The class was, it has always been, a class for second semester seniors that was focused on ethics. Or as I saw one of students eloquently put it in an online exchange:

S: Thanks for teaching us about robots and ethics.
Some guy: So now you can build ethical robots?
S: Heck yeah.

I love that comeback.
Anyway, teaching the class has always been a necessary mental exercise for this transhumanist. I know that I can sometimes become enraptured with the "sexier" promises of a transhuman future, but I try to never be so blind that I don't see the potential pitfalls. The heady rush of thinking that we can should always be tempered with the question of if we should. That's what the class was all about. Here's how it worked:

I like to start the class by showing a movie. There are any number of films that demonstrate how much the notion of transhumanism has always been ingrained in our culture while raising critical questions of consequences and serious considerations of right and wrong. My first outing I showed Blade Runner. I of course adore that film, but students found it dated and obtuse. So next time out I showed Transcendence. Not a good film really, but it illustrates many transhuman concepts. This time? I showed Ex Machina. That worked. It worked so well that I resolved to show it the first day of all of my future transhumanism classes.

Then they went and closed the college. What are ya gonna do?

We spent the first third of the semester reading and discussing The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. I know, I know. It's about 14 years old by now and it's contested by many. The text does a nice job however of laying out key concepts and questions regarding these emerging technologies. As such it prompted great discussions about just how much...or how little...consideration was being given to ethics as transhumanism becomes a greater part of our lives.

Students then took a month and did writing and research on an ethical question of their choosing. They were charged with looking at this question through the lens of at least three academic disciplines while instantiating their claims with published studies. Most critically, their argued stance needed to be explicitly connected to ethical reasoning, such as deontology or utilitarianism or the like. All of this was poured into their 20 page capstone document and presented to the rest of the class.

Let me tell you. I was very impressed with both the questions and the arguments they raised. Here are a few:

-Creating artificially intelligent robots would basically create a new class of being. We shouldn't do that when we can't even achieve true equality among humans.
-There are large companies like Monsanto that hold patents on genetically engineered organisms. They basically own forms of life. Think about that for a moment.
-Nanotechnology may become a doomsday weapon on par with nuclear warheads.
-Artificial Intelligence. So many thought-provoking meditations on this subject but so little room in a blog post.

At the end of the class, I came away with two realizations.

This year's senior class are "transhuman natives" of a sort. Class discussions from previous years quite often involved an element of shock. "They're really working on human-like robots? That think?" and the sort. These students didn't have that shock. Now granted that may in part be due to a class I had with them as freshmen where I briefly introduced transhuman concepts, but I think it's more than that. We've reached a point where youth see concepts such as machines with human intelligence and augmenting the body through technology as not wild notions but inevitable realities.

More importantly, the seniors were asking all the right questions with almost no prompting from me. Just like the rest of us, they want a better quality of life. They wouldn't mind easier living...but at what cost? There are aspects of their existence, such as identity and achievement through effort, they were unwilling to sacrifice. Yeah, anyone who calls millennials lazy and only wanting to live in their smartphones should take a moment and speak to one of the members of this graduating class.

It was a challenging but rewarding class and I am thankful I could teach it. If it must come to an end, then I can't think of a better roster for the final class.

Oh and if you're reading this, guys? There are a few other people pondering questions you raised in class:

If you have a neural interface, could hackers gain access to your brain?

There might be a downside to sexbots.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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