The techno-optimists are at it again

1 (4)(the atomic explosion that destroyed Hiroshima)

Techno-optimism (a form of applied scientism, if you will) is the attitude that no matter how dire humanity’s problems, science and technology will surely come to the rescue. It tends to conveniently neglect that some of humanity’s biggest contemporary problems (say, climate change, or the risk of nuclear annihilation) are, in fact, caused by the willful misuse of science and technology. It seems odd to firmly believe that more of the same thing that caused the disease in the first place will surely cure the disease, because, you know, this time we’ll get it right.

A good example of techno-optimism is a recent article in Slate by Phil Torres, based on his new book, Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks. It’s actually a somewhat puzzling article, because Torres is both critical and supportive of what he calls radical human enhancement as a way to solve what he perceives as humanity’s existential risks. My take is that he mostly focuses on the wrong risks, some of which are not actually existential at all, and that his proposed solution is more likely to make things worse than better. I think of myself as a realist about technology – one who both appreciates its advantages (I’m writing this on a wonderfully advanced tablet computer!) and is aware of its dark side. But if after reading this you want to class me as a techno-pessimist, I’ll take it. Just don’t dismiss me as a Luddite, okay?

Torres begins by correctly pointing out that the current century is a bit special, in the context both of human evolution and, for that matter, the evolution of life on our planet. For the first time since life emerged 3.5 billion years ago a single, sentient species actually has developed the capacity to profoundly alter Earth’s bio- and geo-spheres. As my favorite philosopher, Spider-Man, warned us, with great power comes great responsibility, but we just don’t seem to be willing to accept that responsibility.

Torres then introduces the concepts of cognitive and moral enhancements, though the word “moral” appears only near the beginning of the piece, with “cognitive” replacing it throughout the rest of the article. That, as we shall see, is a crucial mistake. There are two classes of enhancement, conventional and radical. You are surely familiar with the conventional class (hence the name!): it includes things like education, meditation, and the absorption of caffeine. Okay, it’s an odd mix, but you get the point: anything that improves our cognitive abilities without permanently altering them in a heritable fashion, that is, across generations.

Radical enhancements are a whole different story, and while still at the borderlands between science and science fiction, surely some of them will become available within years or decades. Torres focuses his essay on radical enhancements, since he thinks these are the ones that will be necessary to stave off the existential risks faced by humanity.

One such radical enhancement is embryo selection, a process by which scientists – the wisest of all people, as we all know – pick a subset of embryos generated by a given combination of sperms and eggs, and do so repeatedly in order to improve whatever human characteristic is deemed to be desirable. Torres is perfectly aware that this is eugenics, but he deems it to be of a benign type, because it doesn’t violate people’s autonomy. I guess he hasn’t seen the film Gattaca. And yes, it is perfectly acceptable to object to sci-fi scenarios by using sci-fi philosophical thought experiments. Torres comments:

If we understand the genetic basis of intelligence sufficiently well, we could specify selection criteria that optimize for general intelligence. … According to a paper by philosophers Nick Bostrom and Carl Shulman, selecting one embryo out of 10, creating 10 more out of the one selected, and repeating the process 10 times could result in IQ gains of up to 130 points – a promising method for creating superbrainy offspring in a relatively short period of time. … As Bostrom puts it … ‘a strong prima facie case therefore exists for pursuing these technologies as vigorously as possible.’

I’m afraid that Bostrom and Shulman don’t know what they are talking about, and no such strong prima facie case has been made. At all. First off, we actually don’t understand the genetic basis of intelligence. We know that IQ (which is not at all the same thing as “intelligence,” whatever that is) is heritable in humans. But “heritable” simply means that there is – other things being equal – a statistical correlation between intelligence and genetic makeup. Nothing more, and that ain’t even remotely close enough to what one would need in order to do embryo selection on intelligence, even setting aside the ethical issues, which would be far more thorny than Torres lets on.

Second, and this will become a recurring theme of my critique, “superbrainy” doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with what is really needed: wisdom, or a good moral compass. I seriously doubt that there is any correlation at all between intelligence and morality, and if I’m right, creating a super-race of hyper-intelligent beings with the same highly imperfect moral compass as Homo sapiens sapiens is a sure recipe to accelerate and magnify whatever existential threat Torres, Bostrom and Shulman may be concerned about.

Speaking of which: what does Torres consider to be an existential threat to humanity? At the top of his list he puts “apocalyptic terrorism,” the possibility that someone inspired by a “Manichean belief system” will blow all of us to smithereens with a stolen atomic weapon, in the name of ridding the world of apostates and assorted infidels, thus establishing the kingdom of God on earth.

While surely there is a risk of one such attack, notice a few important caveats. To begin with, there is no credible scenario under which a nuclear terrorist attack would be civilization-ending. Yes, someone may be able to sneak a low grade nuclear weapon in a major city and kill hundreds of thousands, millions even. That would be an unprecedented and horrifying catastrophe. But an existential threat to civilization? No. You know what really constitutes such a threat? The fact that the codes for thousands of nuclear missiles are currently in the hands of an incompetent narcissist sitting in the White House. But, curiously, there is no mention of government-based threats in Torres’ piece. Lastly, please keep in mind that this specific threat is made possible by, you guessed it, science and technology! It’s the very existence of very smart scientists and unscrupulous politicians – none of whom seems to be equipped with even a barely functioning moral compass – that has put us into this situation in the first place. And you think giving more leeway to the same folks is going to save humanity?

More generally speaking, Steven Pinker’s ‘Escalator of Reason’ hypothesis states that the observed decline in global violence since the second half of the 20th century has been driven by rising average IQs in many regions of the world, a phenomenon called the ‘Flynn effect.’ The most important concept here is that of ‘abstract reasoning,’ which Pinker identifies as being ‘highly correlated’ with IQ. In his words, ‘abstraction from the concrete particulars of immediate experience … is precisely the skill that must be exercised to take the perspectives of others and expand the circle of moral consideration.’

With all due respect to Steven Pinker, I’m going to call bullshit on this one as well. As a start, “violence” has indeed declined since the second half of the 20th century (though even this conclusion comes with huge caveats about what exactly counts as violence), but there is a reason Pinker picked that particular time frame: two world wars had just taken place in the previous half century, killing millions of people, thanks to science and technology. The culmination of that period was the only nuclear attack on civilians in the history of humanity (so far), perpetrated by a government, not a Manichean terrorist; the US government, to be specific.
Moreover, there is no causal model (correlation, as Pinker knows, is not the same as causation) that actually links the Flynn effect (which is probably due to “conventional enhancement techniques,” such as better nutrition and education) and moral improvement. Indeed, I see no reason to believe that humanity at large has improved morally since the times of Socrates and Confucius. And “abstraction from the concrete particulars of immediate experience” is also the sort of thing that makes possible killing at a distance by pushing a button, or that allows many of us to reconcile the otherwise irreconcilable fact that the top 10% of the human population lives by standards historically reserved to Kings and Queens while the rest is below or barely above poverty, subject to preventable disease, or killed by violence rendered particularly effective by technologically advanced weaponry in the hands of unscrupulous governments.

Torres does acknowledge some of the limitations of the approach proposed by techno-optimists like Pinker. After writing that perhaps “idiosyncratic actors” (i.e., terrorists) would suffer from less empathy if they had a higher IQ, he remembers that some real life examples of such actors, like the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, actually do have high IQs, and yet they are still deficient in empathy. So let me state this clearly: there is no reason whatsoever to think that IQ and empathy are correlated, which throws a big wrench in Pinker’s, Bostrom’s and similar programs of enhancement. Torres continues:

Another major concern: cognitive enhancements would likely increase the rate of technological development, thereby shortening the segment of time between the present and when large numbers of people could have access to a doomsday button.

Right. But, again, he and his colleagues are insist in worrying about the least likely threats, which, once more, are not actually existential. No Unabomber can end the world. But Donald Trump (just to pick on the current occupant of the WH, it’s not that I trust others a hell of a lot more) can come pretty darn close. But Torres insists:

Although cognitive enhancements could worsen some types of terror agents, the evidence – albeit indirect – suggests that a population of cognitively enhanced cyborgs would be less susceptible to accidents, mistakes, and errors, and therefore less likely to inadvertently self-destruct in the presence of weapons of total destruction.

Ahem, no, the evidence suggests no such thing, and in fact the production of a population of “cognitively enhanced cyborg” is a nightmare that only naive techno-optimists could possibly wish on the rest of us. Don’t these people watch any sci-fi, at all? And there is more nonsense on stilts:

It seems plausible to say that a smarter overall population would increase humanity’s ability to solve a wide range of global problems. Consider Bostrom’s calculation that a 1 percent gain in ‘all-round cognitive performance … would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited … [it] would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists.’ … Superior knowledge about supervolcanoes, infectious diseases, asteroids, comets, climate change, biodiversity loss, particle physics, geoengineering, emerging technologies, and agential risks could lead to improved responses to these threats.

Bostrom’s calculations are based on thin air, to be charitable. It isn’t even clear what “all-round cognitive performance” means, let alone how to improve it so efficiently, and it is even more dubitable that such an improvement would actually be an improvement. Also, what sort of model of the brain is Bostrom working with, that allows him to simply sum small percentage increases across different individuals as if they were equivalent to a gigantic increase in a single person? Moreover, look at the list of disasters: most of them are both extremely unlikely and it is just as unlikely that we would be able to do much about them (I wonder why a nearby nova explosion isn’t part of the mix), but the most worrisome ones (climate change, biodiversity loss, emerging technologies, and agential risks) are all made possible by the very same thing that is supposed to save us: more intelligent technology.

Toward the end of the essay we simply reach Pindaric levels of imaginative flights:
There could be any number of existential risks looming in the cosmic shadows to which we, stuck in our Platonic cave, are cognitively closed. Perhaps we are in great danger right now, but we can only know this if we understand a Theory T. The problem is that understanding Theory T requires us to grasp a single Concept C that falls outside our cognitive space. Only after we recognize a risk can we invent strategies for avoiding it.

Sure. Now how about coming down to Earth, our only planet, which we are the ones currently destroying, and talk some sense? One of the problems with techno-optimism is that it captures the imagination with talk of supervolcanoes and “great unknown danger” X, offering us the reassuring but extremely dangerous feeling that all we need to do to get out of the trouble we have stubbornly dug ourselves into is more science. It almost sounds like magic. Because it almost is.

Only at the very end Torres manages to slip in the crucial word that has been missing from the entire exercise: wisdom. The problem is not that we are not smart enough, but rather that we are not wise enough. Science and technology have advanced by giant leaps since the time of Socrates and Confucius, and yet these two (as well as a number of other ancient sages) have been unsurpassed in wisdom by even the most cognitive advanced human beings of the intervening two and a half millennia.

I know it sounds far more pedestrian and unexciting, but what if – for a change – we actually got serious at using the sort of conventional enhancements that are proven to work? First and foremost, education. I don’t mean the sort of STEM-oriented technical tripe that produces more barely functional human drones apt for the use of large corporations. I mean serious education, what the Greeks called paideia, the rearing of good citizens of the polis. And yes, some meditation or other kinds of spiritual exercises, to calm our mind down and center ourselves so that we can live a better and more meaningful life, instead of depending on the constant acquisition of consumer goods for our so-called happiness. And caffeine, of course, that’s always helpful.