David Pearce interviwed by Maitreya One
M.O: When did you become a transhumanist?
Well, I recall wanting to cure aging as a small child. Why should biochemical robots grow old and die when their silicon counterparts are easily reparable? In my early teens, I read Robert Ettinger’s “The Prospect of Immortality” (1962) – with its vision of cryonic suspension for today’s oldsters who won’t make the transition to post-aging civilisation. I resolved to sign up. However, my main focus has been the problem of suffering. How can we rid the world of physical and emotional pain? I learned about intracranial self-stimulation (“wireheading”) – which shows no physiological tolerance – and about the normal negative feedback mechanisms of the “hedonic treadmill” via the writings of psychologist Michael Eysenck. Why was my own hedonic set-point so low? Could designer drugs raise everyone’s hedonic set-points without turning us all into wirehead rats? I dreamed of a future of eternal youth, superhuman intelligence, and life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of well-being. However, this was all last century: the human genome hadn’t been decoded. Such speculations were just the idle philosophising of a pathologically introspective teenager, not a plan of action. I recall rocking back-and forth autistically with my eyes closed for several hours each day listening to trashy pop music while contemplating the nature of thought and Reality.
M.O: How long have you been a transhumanist?
In late 1995, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI), a plea to abolish suffering throughout the living world and create a biology of posthuman superhappiness. Early in 1996, transhumanist Mitch Porter got in touch with some kind words - and informed me that the manifesto fell under the label of transhumanism. This possibility hadn’t previously occurred to me. I associated transhumanism with libertarian free-market fundamentalism, the dynamic optimism of the extropians, and the American West Coast, not utilitarian ethics and a welfare state for bunny rabbits. So I wasn’t wholly convinced. However, in 1997 a young LSE philosophy postgrad called Nick Bostrom got in contact with some astute questions about The Hedonistic Imperative and overcame my doubts. We founded the World Transhumanist Association / Humanity Plus. A commitment to the well-being of all sentience is enshrined in the
Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009)
M.O: Are you a Buddhist?
Not in any formal sense. I think Buddhists are right to give overriding ethical importance to overcoming suffering – not just the suffering of one ethnic group or species, but the suffering all sentient beings. Of course, Buddhists teach overcoming suffering through the Noble Eightfold Path, not via biotechnology. Yet the historical Gautama Buddha seems to have been supremely pragmatic. If it works, do it! Neurobiology and evolutionary psychology explain why practising the Noble Eightfold Path can’t by itself overcome the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill. Nor can Buddhist mediational disciplines dismantle the horrors of the food-chain. If he were born today, then Gautama Buddha would welcome technologies like CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives to mitigate and prevent suffering. I doubt a latter-day Gautama Buddha would protest that advocates of abolishing suffering via biotechnology don’t understand the True Meaning of Buddhism.
M.O: What is the abolitionist project?
Mastery of our genetic source code promises the technical tools to abolish all experience below “hedonic zero” – from the mildest of pinpricks to the worst extremes of depression, agony and despair. Perhaps abolitionist “project” is too grand a term. (cf. abolitionist.com) Sadly, no coordinated international effort currently exists to rewrite our DNA to abolish suffering. Incremental progress is a more sociologically credible scenario for phasing out the biology of suffering than the UN-sponsored international effort that I’d really love to see launched – a Hundred Year Plan genetically to abolish any kind of involuntary unpleasant experience. Such a global mega-project might start with universal access to free preimplantation genetic screening and counselling for all prospective parents – a prelude to true genetic engineering. That said, the goal of good health for all already features in the World Health Organization charter. The WHO definition of health is ambitious: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health) Note the promise of “complete” well-being. By way of distinction, future life based on gradients of intelligent bliss won’t be completely perfect. A predisposition to information-sensitive dips in well-being is essential to preserving our capacity for critical insight, social responsibility and intellectual progress – at least in sentient biological robots like humans rather than in digital zombie AI. Yet such imperfection shouldn’t worry us unduly. The subjective feel of even the hedonic dips can still be far richer than the most exalted “peak experiences” humans enjoy today.
M.O: What's does the Hedonistic Imperative mean?
Humans should use biotechnology to abolish suffering throughout the living world. We should replace the biology of misery and malaise with gradients of sublime bliss.
M.O: What is some of the future technology we will use to end poverty?
One way to overcome poverty is to ensure good health and education for everyone. Universal access to the Net will entail universal access to the world’s educational resources. Ending poverty, and the provision of a guaranteed minimum basic income for all, is a precondition for civilised society. Yet we should also recognise that ending poverty is no panacea. The nature of the hedonic treadmill means that dirt-poor peasants in Indonesia are at least as likely to report being happy as citizens in rich Western nations. (cf. http://www.economist.com/node/21548213) Hundreds of millions of affluent people in the modern world are clinically or subclinically depressed. If we’re ethically serious about ending suffering, then we’ll need to tackle the biological-genetic roots of the problem, not just tinker around with the surface symptoms. In short, creating lifelong biohappiness will entail genetically modifying human nature.
M.O: Do you envision a time where humans won’t need to kill other animals for food?
Humans don’t need to kill nonhuman animals for food now. Statistically, vegetarians tend to be slimmer, longer lived, and record higher IQ scores than meat-eaters – though there are confounding variables. Either way, switching from a meat-based diet to global veganism can also ensure more people are adequately nourished. Feeding grain and soya products directly to people is far more energetically efficient than feeding crops to nonhuman animals whom humans abuse, factory-farm and butcher. What humans are doing to billions of other sentient beings is ethically indefensible - a crime against sentience. Factory-farming and slaughterhouses are perhaps greatest source of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today. No doubt moral revolutions happen. In practice, most meat-eaters are likely to acknowledge the compelling ethical arguments against harming nonhuman animals only when in vitro meat products of a taste and texture indistinguishable from today’s supermarket products became readily available at the same price as “traditional” meat. Only after a global dietary transition to in vitro meat will the death factories finally be outlawed.
M.O: Do you think that some governments suppresses technology?
We can point to historical examples of governments attempting to suppress a novel technology or restrict its use to the power elite. Yet consider two broad classes of technology that are shaping the modern world, namely biotechnology and computing / the Internet / artificial intelligence. Any government that attempts to prevent or drastically restrict their use is putting their country at an immense educational, economic, financial and military disadvantage. For sure, we should beware of slipping into a facile and simplistic technological determinism. But the idea that an antiscientific theocracy, or a “hermit kingdom” such as North Korea, could ever dominate the planet is unrealistic.
M.O: Will we be able to hack the brain so we can increase intelligence?
Yes. Recursively self-improving organic robots are going to modify their own source code and bootstrap our way to full-spectrum superintelligence – not least with the help of the nonbiological artificial intelligence. One key aspect of enhancing our intellects will be transcending the simple-minded conception of “intelligence” promoted by primitive IQ tests. Thus (1) amplifying our capacity for social cognition, co-operative problem-solving and “mind-reading”, (2) developing a more sophisticated capacity for introspection, and (3) acquiring greater expertise in navigating alien state spaces of consciousness via psychedelics are just as vital to enhancing our minds as improving the “autistic” component of general intelligence.
M.O: Do you think we will gain the ability to reverse engineer the brain?
Eventually – but perhaps not in the way most futurists suppose. Today the collaboration of neuroscience and computing is proving increasingly fruitful as traditional symbolic AI is complemented by deep learning and artificial “neural networks”. Some futurists believe that we’ll be able to map out the human connectome and “upload” our minds to computers. Here I’m more sceptical than some of my transhumanist colleagues about the existence of a clean digital abstraction layer in the brain which will supposedly allow phenomenally bound consciousness to "emerge" when organic minds are “implemented” in classical digital computers. After decades of research, orthodox materialist science has come no closer to explaining (1) why consciousness can exist at all (the “Hard Problem”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness) (2) how consciousness could be locally or globally bound by a pack of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound, supposedly classical neurons (the phenomenal binding / combination problem) (3) how consciousness exerts the causal power to allow us to discuss its existence (the problem of causal impotence versus causal over-determination) (4) how and why consciousness has its countless textures and the interdependencies of their values (the "palette problem"). In my view, classical digital computers and the software they run will always be insentient zombies. (cf. physicalism.com) Despite such scepticism, I think that neurochips, immersive VR and zombie AI will massively augment the cognitive capacities of sentient beings in ways beyond our imagination.
What drugs will be available in the future that will allow humans to gain the ability to feel greater happiness and empathy?
Short-acting euphoriants (e.g. opioids, cocaine) and empathogens (e.g. MDMA, “Ecstasy”) already exist. (cf. mdma.net) Unfortunately, they don’t deliver sustainable well-being. Such drugs actively trigger the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill. A minority of people derive long-term benefit from so-called antidepressants. Yet often “antidepressants” don’t work and/or have troublesome side-effects. Later this century, true psychoactive wonderdrugs will probably be developed, both inside and outside the scientific counterculture – “magic bullets” tailored to the genome and gene-expression profile of the individual. We can anticipate an era of personalised medicine that delivers sustainable, pro-social mood-enrichment to complement an abundance of exciting new gene-therapies. But Nature didn’t design Darwinian life to be happy. Other things being equal, a predisposition to be discontented promoted the inclusive fitness of our genes. In the ancestral environment of adaptation, folk who simply counted their blessings were outbred. So there are lots of nasty technical as well as ideological obstacles still to overcome before archaic life on Earth can be civilised.
M.O: How long have you been a vegan?
I’m a third-generation vegetarian. I became vegan only around the age of 30.
M.O: Other then our food choices how do you think we can stop the suffering of animals in the wild?
The pace of habitat destruction probably eclipses any near-term intervention that ethically-minded humans could make to reduce free-living animal suffering. And so long as humans systematically hurt, harm and kill nonhumans in factory-farms and slaughterhouses, it’s probably naïve to imagine that mankind will actively help free-living nonhumans in the wild. However, in the long run, a combination of biotechnology, CRISPR-based gene drives and IT promise the creation of a happy post-Darwinian life. The entire biosphere is programmable. (cf. gene-drives.com)
Have you been to Terry Grossman’s longevity clinic?
Alas no. I’m probably a little more conservative in the range of supplements I take too. But I admire the work of Terry and his co-author Ray Kurzweil. To quote Edwin Hubbell Chapin, “Scepticism has never founded empires, established principles, or changed the world's heart. The great doers in history have always been people of faith.” My own current scepticism about radical life-extension extends more to credible timescales than doubts about its scientific feasibility. In the 23rd century - and perhaps the 22nd – transhumans won’t grow old and die. And who knows what revolutionary breakthroughs lie ahead in the next few decades: maybe I’m too pessimistic.
M.O: Global Warming has become a big issue in this year’s election. What can we do globally with the science and technology we have today to clean up the environment we hep to destroy?
Geoengineering and other climate control projects may be needed later this century and beyond. The exponential growth of computer power will ideally make up for our inability to conduct well-controlled trials. But I suspect some climatic mega-disaster may be needed truly to stir the world to action – perhaps one of President Trump’s hotels will get flooded.
M.O: Do you think powerful AI has the potential destroy us because of our thirst for war greed and power?
Well, it’s hard to imagine a benevolent superintelligence would create Homo sapiens. A benevolent superintelligence probably wouldn’t suffer from status quo bias either. But for better or worse, I reckon that posthuman superintelligence will be our AI-augmented and genetically enhanced descendants, not some God-like singleton that erupts to destroy us (cf. “summoning the demon”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2014/10/24/elon-musk-with-artificial-intelligence-we-are-summoning-the-demon/) Clearly, conceptions of superintelligence vary. I still see the biggest underlying threat to the well-being of sentience as human male primates doing what Evolution designed human male primates to do, namely wage war. Many of our differences from chimpanzees are quite superficial. “Narrow” AI may enhance our war-fighting capabilities and the delivery systems of nuclear weapons. I don’t envisage a robot rebellion or some kind of AGI zombie putsch.
M.O: How long do you think it will take to cure aging?
Fully cure? Hundreds of years - which is not to say that the first quasi-immortal humans haven’t already been born. One big unknown is the extent of antagonistic pleiotropy (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antagonistic_pleiotropy_hypothesis) in the genome. Perhaps the biggest challenge to defeating aging may turn out to be the higher functions of the brain. Hearts, lungs and kidneys can all be replaced and upgraded. More profound obstacles lie in the way of installing a new CPU. Candidly, I’m pessimistic about the chances of contemporary middle-aged people making the transition to ageless transhuman society, let alone the prospects of older folk. And cryonics as practised today probably involves effectively irreversible information loss that makes reviving its patients problematic in the extreme. On the other hand, if cryothanasia were legalised and made readily available, then future reanimation should be feasible for anyone without a suicidal death-wish.
If we can get scientist to build bombs why can’t we get them to work together all over the world to end aging?
Genes and culture have co-evolved. But crudely, natural selection “designed” male human primates to hunt nonhumans and build coalitions of other male human primates in order to wage territorial wars of aggression. Nature didn’t design us to become a scientific community and collaborate to overcome aging. It’s difficult to imagine that any human enemy could inflict such gruesome damage on the victims as growing old. The ravages of aging strike down combatants and civilians alike. So the trillions of dollars that humans currently spend on ways to harm and kill each other (“defence”) would be more fruitfully spent on defeating our common enemy. We should work together to build a “Triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superhappiness and superintelligence.
M.O: Are you familiar with the Timeship project? If you have what do you think about it?
I like Heather (Part 3) by Klassick from the album Blackout:
M.O: Are you familiar with the Timeship project? If you have what do you think about it?
The Timeship Project is admirable in conception. But if we’re personally serious about being reanimated later next century or beyond, then cryonics as we understand it today will need to be supplemented, and perhaps replaced, by cryothanasia. I plan to be put in cold storage before I enter my dotage, not afterwards.
more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12 : 13 : 14 : 15
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