Hi, I'm Tim Tyler - and today I will be discussing the possible ways
of constructing angels.
In previous writings about the
future I have expressed the view that future organisms will be
the product of intelligent design. This essay builds on that premise -
and if you doubt it,
review that material first of all.
An engineered future probably means that the dominant
organisms in the future will resemble us about as much as we resemble
a velvet worm - or indeed, perhaps much less so.
Here, we will refer to these future dominant organisms as
angels. This terminology originates in the Great Chain of
Being diagrams - which often illustrate beings above humans but
below god. These entities often have halos - to symbolise their
highly-moral natures, harps - to symbolise a life of luxury, and wings
- symbolising their near-magical powers. Other authors have used this
terminology before me - e.g. Mark Ridley.
One of the most important roles of today's humans is to construct
angels - or at least take a step down the road that leads to them.
We should be laying down angelic foundations.
However - there seems to be some disagreement about what an
angel looks like - or how to go about building one.
There are a few things that we can say about the
majority of angels at this stage:
They will have digital brains. They will exhibit the hardware/software
divide found in today's computers. That means that their software
will be easily upgradable - and their brains will be capable of being
backed up. They will also be highly modular - making upgrades and
component repair in a hospital environment easier.
Much of the disagreement on how to build angels revolves around
the issue of what foundation to build upon.
Some are happy for the angels to be our "mind children" - descendants
of our memes, but not necessarily of our genes.
However, many people seem to think that our role should not be merely
creators of the angels, they want to be the ancestors of angels. They
want themselves - or their offspring - to turn into angels. They want
to become angels - or else they want an unbroken path of germ-line
descent to lead between them and the angels.
That seems likely to cause some problems to me. Humans are more like
slugs than they are like angels. To gradually transform a human into
an angel seems like a tall order to me.
The human genome is an unmaintainable mess. No sensible engineer would
have anything to do with its upkeep. It is the same with the human
brain - an unmaintainable mess. It is not even fully digital. The
thing is a complete joke.
Rather than representing a head-start on angel construction, the human
form is best seen as part of the hang-over which civilisation needs to
What do the proponents of engineering projects based on human
foundations have to say for themselves?
One proponent is Gregory Stock. Here's some video footage:
In a chapter of "Redesigning Humans" entitled "Our
Commitment to Our Flesh", Gregory lays out the case for embarking on
an engineering project based on human foundations. He says:
Predictions of the imminent fusion of human and
machine ignore the degree to which we are biological in nature and
want to remain that way." Expanding our senses, enhancing our physical
powers, or enlarging our minds is seductive, but until our flesh loses
its vitality or becomes diseased or damaged, few of us want to replace
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the race between
biological and computer evolution, however, unless the extremely rapid
machine transcendence predicted by Moravec and Kurzweil plays out, our
immediate future — involving us, our children and our children's
children — will be governed by medicine and biology.
Stock then goes on about adding extra features in on extra chromosomes
for the rest of the book - without revisiting the possibility of
"rapid machine transcendence".
Aubrey de Grey
Another enthusiast for engineering projects based on human foundations
is Aubrey de Grey. Here's some video footage:
Aubrey seems to think that we should build on modern humans - and
claims that if his proposed engineering project works, it will save
100,000 lives a day.
I am not terribly impressed by this argument. In my view, the best way to
deal with the loss of desirable data at death is to ensure that minds
can be copied and backed up. Aubrey's proposal simply doesn't even
attempt to do this. If it works, his plan would reduce
the occurance of undesirable data-loss due to death - but would not
come close to eliminating it - since people will still die
of accidents - and then their minds would be lost forever. Aubrey's
proposal seems to me to be a stop-gap solution that fails to address
the root of the problem - which is that people's minds can't currently
be backed up.
We could fix this problem properly by ensuring that people have
digital minds. That even looks like an easier solution to me - since
it doesn't involve radical surgery on a complex evolved system.
Anyway, if we are engineering humans, dealing with senescence hardly
seems like a top priority. There are all manner of other problems
which we have a much better chance of fixing - including AIDS and
malaria. Also, if we want to help humans persist for longer in the
face of economic competition with machines, then we should probably
focus on features that would increase their employability in the
Another proponent is Max More. Here's some video footage:
Max appears to be concerned that development not based on the human
form will result in him personally being left behind.
The main thing that I think that proponents are missing is that the
likely timescale for the arrival intelligent machines is now
To do human germ-line genetic engineering, would take multiple
generations of testing and tweaking before much positive change
could be effected.
Somatic gene therapy can fix some things - but is relatively weak
medicine - and has other issues associated with safety and
Also, there is the business of the "yuck factor" with which human
engineering projects are widely regarded.
I don't think projects that build on humans will have enough time to
get very far before humans are completely surpassed by other entities
built upon engineering principles.
I think that other projects with different foundations will overtake and
eclipse human-based development plans.
One of the first things to be surpassed will be the human brain - and
once that is no longer on the leading edge, I think that it will
rapidly become pretty clear that the developmental action has shifted
to another locus.
It seems to me that the plans to build on human foundations are
founded on idealism. The proponents want to help save the human
race. For them, a future dominated by intelligent machines is a
future where human beings are driven to extinction - obviously
regarded as something to be avoided at all costs:
I don't mind idealism - but it has to be combined with a little
realism. The idea that engineering angels from a human foundation is a
viable project does not strike me as being a realistic one. Other
people will have different ideas - and their projects will ultimately
be more successful.
Also, I think this particular kind of idealism is misguided. It seems
to me that these people want to cripple the angels - by creating them
with a terrible hangover. I am not convinced that is a good idea.
I am more positively inclined towards a strategy of building the best
angels that we know how to build. From that perspective, the idea that
one must start with a human being is simply a ridiculous and
unnecessary constraint. To me, crippling your project by starting with
a human being seems like a certain way to ensure that it ends miserably.