Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Forbidden Blog Post #1

Ted Kaczynski was totally fucking insane.

This is not a marginal proposition, I admit. He was also, as it happens, totally brilliant. My brief, painful stint as a math graduate student happened to be the year that Kaczynski's manifesto was published in the New York Times; when he was subsequently captured, his c.v. was circulated around my department. Though he had suddenly retired from his post at Berkeley in 1967, his work as a grad student and a professor before that had been, strictly mathematically speaking, rather notable.

The next time I encountered the idea that Kaczynski was a brilliant man who had just snapped was reading an article published in Wired Magazine in 2000. It contained this quote from Kaczynski's manifesto:

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can't make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines....On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained....Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity....Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race....Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them "sublimate" their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.
Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, proposed in that article that man (in his current, mostly biological form) was superfluous to the future in which Post-Humans were likely to arise.

This same idea popped back into my immediate consciousness when I was writing about Technological Singularities a couple of weeks ago. Lost in the fact that Ted Kaczynski was a psychotic murderer is the fact that, while there's no such thing as consensus on the matter, a lot of people who think about the future tend to think it will look not unlike the picture Kaczynski was drawing. At some point the future Unabomber must have hit a realization of the future and what it would be like for our species that was so exquisite in its horror that it pushed him over the edge, making him decide that any action taken to prevent it was justified.

I thought of this again this week as our president, Mr. Binary Opposition himself, issued the first (and most likely only) veto of his presidency in banning government funding of stem cell research. George W. clearly has no idea why he actually opposes stem cell research--it's impossible to parse a logical argument out of his rationale--but this is a rare case where I actually feel some sympathy for the guy. He's already lost this fight--it was lost when man emerged from the muck with big brains and opposable thumbs. Man will rush forward in His evolution as a species regardless of vetoes or pipe bombs, because that is what He does. A lot of good can be done for a lot of people who are currently suffering a lot of pain via research with stem cells, and the Right Wing Conservative Christian valuation of hypothetical blastocysts over actual living, suffering people who live in the world is a bizarre, twisted, and anti-human view of the world. But at the same time, this is one more step along the path of re-engineering the selves that humans will be in the future. Sometimes it seems like it might be a good idea to stop and think about that path, because the potential of it has scared the living crap out of a lot of very smart people.

Next: More of the Forbidden!

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