Addition, Subtraction

By | July 16, 2009

Talking about human augmentation the other night, we ended on a kind of down note when the subject turned to potential “augmentations” that inhibit or eliminate certain characteristics. We’re all for adding strength, mental focus, whiteness of tooth, and so forth, but what about taking things away? Generally speaking, subtraction is as good a method as addition — if not better — when it comes to achieving certain outcomes. For example, inhibiting myostatin looks like a much safer and healthier way of eliminating body fat and building muscle than the traditional “addition” approach, anabolic steroids.

For many of the changes we discussed, it’s not a matter of addition or subtraction, but a trading of one characteristic for another. RU Sirius talked about changing skin color. Even if people begin to experiment with a lot of options not provided on the original human palette, it would be kind of prissy to view such experimentation as a departure from core “humanity” rather than simply an extension of it. Even with a much more radical procedure such as a sex change operation — and we spent some time talking about the significance of coming improvements to those procedures — one state of being human is swapped for another.

But what happens if, as described in Greg Egan’s fiction and elsewhere, some people decide they don’t want the whole sex / gender thing at all? Would a completely sexless human be just as human as you or I? This one is a little bit trickier, but ultimately I think sex- and gender-free humanity would represent another extension of humanity, rather than a departure from it. They would certainly represent an unexpected variation on the human template, one that a lot of people would be uncomfortable with — but then I think there are a lot of those coming.

Then we got onto the subject of personality traits. I have suggested more than once that a great enhancement for people who want to make it in sales or show business or any number of other ventures would be the removal of the fear of rejection, along with some related forms of social anxiety. The individual who has no fear of being turned down, and who doesn’t mind asking for something any number of times, has a distinct advantage over people who shy away from being too aggressive. That person also runs the risk of being feared and despised for being so obnoxious — but then he or she wouldn’t care about that.

Is that person still human? Sure. But what happens if somebody decides to take the next step? Imagine a truly ruthless person who decides to hit the Delete key on all empathy with his or her fellow human beings. This individual has all the advantages of someone who removes fear of rejection, and then some. The lack of inhibition would go well beyond asking for things; we’re talking about someone who isn’t shy about taking things, and who doesn’t care about what happens to anyone who gets in the way.

We’re talking about a very dangerous person.

Now, surely, once we remove this trait we’re talking about a real departure from humanity, aren’t we? Well, my squishy and romanticized view of of who and what we are says yes, that’s a real departure. But reality says no. PJ Manney pointed out that we already have such people among us, that they make up a small but appreciable percentage of the population. They’re called sociopaths.

So if future technologies enable people to select in favor of sociopathy, it would not represent a departure from the human template. Needless to say, I hope we don’t see too much of that. But it won’t be a wholly new subtraction; it will be one that human evolution has already tried out and allowed. This serves as a reminder that there are risks with any new technology. Those who think the big “risk” associated with human enhancement technology is that future teenagers might opt to sport dorsal fins are missing the big picture. Look at people around you, and consider all the different qualities they possess. Any of those qualities is subject to magnification.

Still, I think a lot more people will be inclined to give themselves a brain boost or a prettier singing voice or the ability to breathe underwater (and possibly even the aforementioned dorsal fin) than will want to hack away parts of themselves that are more or less universally valued. In any case, if the future means that we will have to deal with people who have had some important human features deleted, that is a way that the future will be similar to, not different from, the present.

  • Harvey

    How certain is it that “empathy” is a genetic quality, as opposed to a human quality learned from environment. I am thinking of the robot baby caretakers from an old USSR experiment (I think), and how these babies lost plenty of human qualities in the process.

  • https://www.blog.speculist.com Stephen Gordon

    Enhancements I’m looking forward to:

    1. Myostatin inhibition. Being buff is healthier and sexier. There aren’t too many chronic illnesses that middle aged people in the civilized world suffer with that wouldn’t be aided by this.

    2. Respirocytes. If I can hold my breath for four hours, then why bother will gills? More seriously, imagine how much additional time emergency personnel would be given for dealing with heart attack victims. If your brain can survive a few more minutes because there’s more oxygen available, survival rates would shoot up.

    3. Kill Cancer.

  • Jef Allbright

    As a child I had a little red wagon, a Radio Flyer with a handle on one end. I remember causing my father a great deal of frustration when I told him that I had just realized that there was no “pulling” involved. Any time I was seen to be “pulling” my wagon, I was actually pushing against the handle. There was no actual “pulling” anywhere in the system. He didn’t get it, and he didn’t like such weirdness.

    I bring this up because there is no such thing in itself as a “subtracted” feature, except in relation to some particular reference. This is not to deny that, for example, deafness can be an impairment, but to emphasize that any such assessment is necessarily in regard to some standard of reference.

    “Transhumanists” tend to conceive and talk about enhancement and progress as if in some sense absolute, when actually, progress is making any such absolute claims (quite suitable for the more stable environment of our ancestors) increasingly meaningless.

    Now, while any assessment of value must necessarily be in relation to some reference, that doesn’t mean the frame of reference is arbitrary. On the contrary, present human nature, and thus our values, is the result of a very long chain of evolutionary development, thus we have built-in propensities for increasing agreement on preferences expressing values increasingly fundamental in the hierarchy of our evolved nature.

    So talk of “positive” and “negative” modifications to the “human” (even disregarding the implicit speciesism–our thinking should encompass all manifestations of agency) is increasingly incoherent seen in the light of our increasing instrumental effectiveness within a world of increasing uncertainty (and possibility.)

    Lest you think I’m splitting philosophical hairs here, this has a pragmatic point. Effective framing and discussion of issues of human enhancement is becoming increasingly important to social choice and policy supporting development in the direction of the future we would like to see.

  • MikeD

    I bet the risk of self-inflicted sociopathy is about the same as other forms of self-mutilation. The scarier (imo) consideration is what happens when a second party has control over a first party’s modification decision? Of course there is the cult leader manipulating people today, but what happens when (for example) a network provider takes control of an implanted communications device and simply mutes part of your talkative nature in order to conserve bandwidth during peak usage times. Far fetched? Maybe right now, but when was the last time you fully considered all the rights you waive when you click “I agree” at the bottom of a EULA?

  • http://blog.speculst.com Phil Bowermaster

    Harvey –

    I agree. Removal of empathy would probably not be a genetic modification. It would involve shutting down or avoiding neural pathways that were brought about (maybe not all that successfully)by some combination of nature and nature.

    Jeff –

    >>I bring this up because there is no such thing in itself as a “subtracted” feature, except in relation to some particular reference. This is not to deny that, for example, deafness can be an impairment, but to emphasize that any such assessment is necessarily in regard to some standard of reference.

    I agree. The standard I’m using is that of humanity.

    Anyhow, forget deafness. Let’s go with what was actually being discussed. Are you prepared to offer up a “standard of reference” from which people choosing to eliminate empathy from their psychological makeup would be a good thing? (Oops, sorry — does all this value-laden “good thing / bad thing” talk make you uncomfortable?)

    >>So talk of “positive” and “negative” modifications to the “human” (even disregarding the implicit speciesism–our thinking should encompass all manifestations of agency) is increasingly incoherent seen in the light of our increasing instrumental effectiveness within a world of increasing uncertainty (and possibility.)

    I simply couldn’t disagree more. Our “increasing instrumental effectiveness” doesn’t make talking about enhancements as negative or positive incoherent. Rather, it increases the urgency of having such a discussions.

  • Jef Allbright

    Phil, the point is not that there aren’t both good and bad enhancements, but that “good” and “bad” are entirely context-dependent and that the context is changing at an accelerating rate.

    Therefore, in order to coherently and effectively discuss issues of value, we need to adopt more sophisticated concepts.

    Your snarky comment about “value laden … talk” making me uncomfortable highlights the magnitude of the conceptual gap.

    My message is that there is nothing more important or central to “transhumanist” thought than achieving a effective framework for the promotion of an increasing context of hierachical, fine-grained, evolving values, promoted via methods increasingly effective, in principle, over increasing scope of interaction.

    Your “couldn’t disagree more” is like my dad arguing that I was “obviously pulling” the little wagon, when I was doing my best to explain that effective wagon-moving, seen coherently, is all about pushing. There’s no actual “pulling” anywhere in that local system. (While not denying the reality of “pulling” in terms of a force that acts in the direction of the force, there’s the little matter of the handle actually being pushed.)

    Likewise, while it’s increasingly meaningless to talk of modifications as inherently “good” or “bad”, it is increasingly meaningful, important, and urgent that we learn to effectively assess and evaluate actions, relative to our evolving values, rationally expected to promote those evolving values over increasing scope.

    Thank you for your part in raising awareness of these issues.

  • Jef Allbright

    Phil: ‘Anyhow, forget deafness. Let’s go with what was actually being discussed. Are you prepared to offer up a “standard of reference” from which people choosing to eliminate empathy from their psychological makeup would be a good thing?’

    Phil, the relative rarity of effective instances of sociopathy reinforces my point. Empathy is an effective heuristic, increasing the likelihood of positive-sum social interactions, formed within the (mainly tribal) environment of evolutionary adaptation, and most effective within a similar context.

    But that same heuristic, inherited from our ancestors and built-in to most of us today, is also involved in our instinctive in-group/out-group bias, so beneficial to cohesiveness of “self”, so detrimental to acceptance of “other.” This, the “uncanny valley” phenomenon, and a host of other interrelated aspects of our evolved nature highlight the increasing importance of increasing sophistication in our discussion of these issues.

    Academics still struggle with the classic Trolley Problem, trying to reconcile empathy with utilitarian notions of ethics. It would be amusing if it were not so important that we understand that both views are valid, within context, and what we need is not a theory of “what’s right” but a theory explaining an increasing context of observations (both views, and more) with increasing coherence.

    My point is not to discredit or “remove” empathy but to encompass it.

    A wise and effective leader, operating within a scope greater than that of our tribal ancestors, exploits fast and frugal heuristics like empathy within the domain of interpersonal relations; beyond that, (s)he uses more complex, and thus computationally expensive models, appropriate to the particular domain.

    To (perhaps foolishly) address your question as to a hypothetical scenario where lack of empathy within the “psychological makeup”could be a good thing, one has only to imagine forms of agency, closely connected teams, for example, where the benefits of such specialization among certain elements would contribute to increased effectiveness overall. The “standard of reference” that you request, is not “humanity” but “what works” seen from humanity’s present (but evolving) point of view.

    In the bigger picture, the simpler heuristic of empathy instantiated on our biological brains, will be superseded by a more complex framework modeling an increasing context of increasingly coherent, hierarchical, fine-grained evolving values. Lather, rinse, repeat with selection for increasing effective interaction over increasing scope.

    Thanks again for hosting the discussion and stimulating the refinement and expansion of our thinking on these increasingly important matters at the intersection of technology and society.

  • Harvey

    I am starting to think some of you people have already gotten some enhancement treatments.

  • Harvey

    Actually, you are slightly lifting the wagon too, unless it is one of those Sears models.

  • MDarling

    Well.

    First, may as well get the terms right, lest that wagon get’s confused about wha’t happening to it.

    Pull
    To apply force to so as to cause or tend to cause motion toward the source of the force.

    Push
    to press upon or against (a thing) with force in order to move it away.

    So- clearly a wagon could be pushed or pulled. It’s not a function of gravity or other universal constant. It’s a function of whether the balance and counter force exerted by an individual moves the wagon to one, or away.

    Jeff- if you were holding the handle and leaning away from the object- you were pulling it toward you.

    Now-
    agreed that that the political dynamic inherently extended from an “us v. them” or “us v. other” and “us v. us” is empathy.
    And perhaps empathy is a …. difficult example to make the point. There will be good and bad enhancements, though we will not always know for sure in advance which is which.
    And we may not after.
    Here’s where the relativism you espouse hits us with all it’s indifference. Our values shift and change and while it may make perfect sense to me to get the cochlear implants, I get that the deaf community may feel a loss.

    I want my knees back. And if/when big Pharma invents the viagra equivalent for my knees, I’m on board, faster if I can get my insurance to pay. Likewise other ailments, perceived and actual. (like I could tell the difference) Bigger and smaller body parts. Different colors. Altered sexuality.

    And likewise my overall aging. We can all agree to figure out the consequences later – unintended or intended. Or not. But I’ll choose what’s good for me, when it’s good for me. ANd if it’s bad – so?

    And in the end, the question about whether I’ve transcended or subverted my “humanity” is ….not even secondary.

    And Harv is right – there would almost surely be some lifting on the wagon too.