Sunday, 18 October 2015

Future Analysis: Doctor Who

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

Time to start a series to get me committed to posting in this blog. This one will look at the various futures presented in science-fiction shows, movies and books that I've read, looking at the world-building of their futures. I want to start with a big one: the longest running sci-fi series of all time, Doctor Who.

I am a fan of the show. I watch it every Saturday as it comes on, and I've been extremely impressed with Peter Capaldi's episodes so far, in fact, The Magician's Apprentice is probably one of my all-time favourites for it's shock opening and it's "AN-ACH-RO-NI-SMS". Nevertheless, in terms of technological progress, it is, without a doubt, the most pessimistic view of the future I've ever seen. Let me explain.

Doctor Who is not known for its consistency. This is a show that has spanned 50 years. Many episodes have been lost, and it's hard to know if anyone has actually seen every single episode. It would be a miracle if no episode ever contradicted its established canon at some point. In fact, the most recent writers are very aware of this: dismissing such concerns with such plot devices as "fixed points" and "wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey". As a result of this, any hypothesized future can be rewritten to suit the changing cultural context or to make up for any errors in future prediction. Pretty clever when it's the relatively near future. However, this series makes predictions about the extremely distant future: "The End of the World" was set in the year 5 billion when the sun expands having used up its hydrogen and destroys the Earth, "Utopia", another of my all-time favourites, was set in the year 100 trillion near the heat death of the universe, and, most recently of all, "Listen" was set even later still when all life in the universe had died out apart from the episode's main "villains", creatures that perfectly evolved to hide. We are supposed to believe, watching these episodes, that we will still so easily die, that the vast majority of alien creatures will have human-like intelligence, that our spaceships will be made of materials that can't fix themselves, that we will not have, even ignoring transhumanism completely, continued to evolve so we look EXACTLY THE SAME IN 100 TRILLION YEARS.

There are futurists, who are taken seriously, who believe that transhumanist technologies will overcome most of these problems in the next 50 years and possibly all of them in the next 100. Their arguments rely solely on computing technology advancing at just the rate it is now. Even if their timing was off, at worst, all this will be achieved by the 23rd century. In order for us to reach the year 100 trillion and to not have a solution for all biological diseases, not have amplified our intelligence, not have changed our physiology AT ALL, to not have progressed even a few decades in material science, and to not have the slightest clue what to do about the impending heat death of the universe, a second humanity, one which is completely identical, would have to have evolved separately on another planet and have got to our point of development just before this heat death occurs. I don't think I even need to explain how preposterous this is.

I would be mad to attempt to predict what the universe would look like in the year 100 trillion and expect it to be right. Nevertheless, I make a habit of engaging in pie-in-the-sky speculation so let's see what we can say. To start, there's a very good chance we would have died long before we ever get to that point. We face a lot of existential threats in the near future as it is: climate change, resource shortages combined with increasing population, loss of biodiversity, the fact that we are still a one-planet species so anything that impacts the Earth with enough force will wipe us out like we were Doctor Who's prediction of the year 100 trillion on Ray Kurzweil's whiteboard. But engaging in pie-in-the-sky speculation about how we'll die isn't necessarily something I find as fun so let's move on.

Regardless of the accuracy of the aforementioned Kurzweil's predictions, the singularity will definitely have happened by this time. Therefore, we will no longer be human as we understand it today. By the standard of current human beings, we will have become god-like: we will be many, many orders of magnitude more intelligent, we will have left Earth long before the sun destroyed it, we may even have harvested the energy of the sun completely long before it ever gets to the point of destroying Earth. If it is theoretically possible to circumvent the speed of light, we will have found a way. If M-Theory is correct, we may have even done an Interstellar and migrated to other dimensions. We could live literally however we choose due to manipulating computronium: a substance postulated by Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 book "The Singularity Is Near" that essentially describes the conclusion of advancing information technology, which is a substance that is solely dedicated to computing power. Something made of computronium cannot squeeze any more computing power out of that volume of material. Manipulating such technology could allow us to create a Matrix of our own choosing, a body of our own choosing, and even an intellgence, knowledge-base, sensory experience and memories of our own choosing. If we know everything there ever is to know, we could, for example, choose to disconnect that knowledge from our brains so that we continue to be enthralled by new information. Most importantly, if the universe's heat death can be overcome, and we can survive beyond it, assuming our species is still bio-techno-physiologically motivated to do it, we will have found a way long before we ever get to that point.

I'd like to leave you with one other thing that's bothered me about Doctor Who for the last few years. If time travel exists in this universe, and it's not just the Time Lords who have access to it (Captain Jack was a "time agent" and, as established in Torchwood, the spin-off, he is not the only one as James Marsters played Captain John), why can't everyone do it? Again, are we supposed to believe that it was only independently invented twice, and they could regulate it so well that only very few had access to it?


Futurama vs Transhumanism

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn.

I said this blog was going to discuss topics that I wouldn't want to make a video about, mostly because they're minor points or addenda to existing videos. This one, I could make a video about if I were still using my camcorder, but the logistics of filming it on my phone in 1 continuous shot make it impractical. It also wouldn't really suit the Blender animated format that I discuss embarking on in this video.

PBS Idea Channel released a video in June called "Is Futurama the Best Argument Against Transhumanism". I recommend watching it, but to give a summary, the video describes transhumanism, and Futurama's portrayal of the future as one in which there are many wonders of technology, but there are still issues faced by the characters, human and alien alike. It talks about how, despite having an abundance of modern gadgets that have inarguably changed our world, it IS arguable whether they have made us happier and more contented. As is typically the case with popular videos, the comments largely echo the views of PBS Idea Channel. However, I can't possibly disagree more with the conclusions.

To start off, Futurama was, at one time, one of my favourite shows. As a Simpsons fan, I readily jumped on the idea of having the same humour in a futuristic setting. My appreciation didn't even wane when the show was brought back after it's cancellation, with the one about the 3012 elections being among my all-time favourites. However, it paints a view of the future that cannot seriously be informed by an honest look at future trends. Like Back To The Future 2, which takes part 3 days from now, it seems to be far more informed by humour than dedicated futurology. People fly around in vacuum tubes, people still work as delivery boys, the only AI seems to be entirely encased in robot bodies, it is all based almost exactly around humans, buildings appear to still be made of 20th century materials, and elections don't seem to have changed at all (other than robots getting a vote, which is something I will mark to the show's credit). Other than my previous bracketed statement, all of those observations are contestable within possibly the next 50 years let alone 1000.

However, it's transhumanism that I'm focused on here. Transhumanism is necessarily about overcoming human limitations. From the arguments presented in the video, it doesn't appear as if PBS has actually grasped transhumanism at all.

He argues that we aren't significantly happier than we were in the past, despite our newer technology. I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, I would argue that the real purpose of technology so far is to show off the power of the human brain. We created it because we could. A secondary purpose is to make our lives safer. I don't think many people would seriously argue that technology hasn't made our lives safer, just imagine being on the plains of Africa 100,000 years ago and hunting lions with a spear. However, it is by looking back at this timeline that we also learn why we are not happier. We evolved to fight for our food, just like every other living creature. We are a product of the competitive drive of evolution. Let's not forget, evolution is a set of random changes occurring in the genome that the environment then weeds out depending on how successful it is at procreating. This is a dumb process that couldn't possibly account for idleness and lack of challenge. Technology, so far at least, has taken away challenge and provided much idleness. The result is that many yearn for the past which they see as "simpler" and "more social" despite it also being more hard work, more dangerous, dirtier, less tolerant, more violent and a host of other bad qualities.

There are 2 words that I want to highlight in the previous paragraph: "so far". Technological progress is not "finished". There are scientific questions we still need to answer, and there are further problems that technology will be able to solve. More importantly, technology will be able to solve problems that it itself created, leading to, in a moment of stunning irony, the conclusion that technology is "the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems". The most relevant problem to be solved here? The problem of happiness.

What PBS fails to grasp is that happiness itself is a product of the human mind. Transhumanism seeks to re-invent the human being in accordance with the continually progressing technology of the time. We can, in theory, engineer a better form of happiness. We can possibly even engineer out the ability for a human being to suffer without also, intentionally or otherwise, engineering out that which makes us most productive or most human.

How can it be that we won't just laze around doing nothing all day when we are continually happy? Simple. What happens when we are idle? How do we feel? We feel bored. Guilty. We are motivated into action by emotions that make us feel bad. We justify and even romanticize this because we have no alternative emotions to feel. What if instead we felt a tremendous urge to do something? That, along with this urge, came the motivation and energy to do it? Most of my inability to motivate myself to write here, to make videos, to do the learning that I strongly feel I want to do is caused by a lack of motivation and energy. This doesn't make me productive, it does the opposite. What we can essentially do here is turn a "negative" feeling into a biotechnologically driven "positive" adrenaline shot to our motivation and even a potential cure for depression.

This could be applied to all negative feelings. Physical pain could be replaced entirely with an extensive diagnostic network that could motivate you to seek "techno-medical" help whenever you sustain injury or the technology is corrupted or damaged. Sadness could be replaced by an urge to bond with other people, and the other person's brain could make it's owner attracted to that urge.

Make no mistake, this is an ethical Olympus Mons. There are so many angles to look at this and it raises so many questions about how we might approach designing a "transhuman template". Can we conceive of a set of emotions that don't inadvertently cause adverse behaviour? Is human behaviour and it's results so complex as to, even given a Kurzweilian view of the future, be impossible to begin to engineer a better alternative? It won't come as a surprise to anyone when I answer these questions with the ever humble and honest answer of "I don't know", but I wouldn't be a transhumanist if I wasn't optimistic about our ability to succeed.

What I would stress though is this. Let's not immediately give up. I have offered attempts at solutions because we do still suffer, and I want to see that suffering dealt with. The arguments that PBS presents against transhumanism fail because it is almost as if he believes that technological progress will just stop one day, as if we could stop people from designing a better human being. Our human brains, a product of imperfect evolution, have served us well in getting as far as we have and making sure we never just "stop", but it has caused an inexcusable amount of suffering along the road. It is not heady or unrealistic to consider that, given all we've achieved so far, we can't do a lot better when the design of that progress engine becomes intentional.


Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Flat-Earth Creationist's Story

ESSENTIAL DISCLAIMER: I myself am not a flat-earther or creationist. This story is hypothetical and seeks to demonstrate a point.


I love my town. I love the people, the warmth, the sense of community. We all attend church, like clockwork, on a Sunday morning, basking in the equally invigorating and pleasing warmth of our lord, God. The inimitable father who created our universe and our planet 6000 years ago. We tell the stories to our children, in our schools, imparting the wisdom of the bible, that they may use it to enrich and better their lives. But it always comes back to the church.

This is where I met my true love, Sally, and where we had our 3 beautiful children together. Every Sunday, we go to our favorite building in the town. We pray, we listen, we sing, and we talk about the stories that inspire and inform our daily lives. The stories have brought us so much joy, our experiences so great, that last week, I decided to record myself telling these stories, sharing my feelings about our lord, on the popular video site, YouTube. This is where the joy ends...

After the first video, I got a lot of comments from atheists. They called me stupid, ridiculed my stories, they said things like "who could believe this in the 21st century". I received death threats via my inbox. It was clear to me that they didn't want me there. They didn't want me talking about the things which brought such joy to me and my family. I began to wonder whether or not they were even capable of joy? Nevertheless, I persisted. It didn't take me long to figure out the nature of YouTube: a land with the law of the jungle where the strong survive, and the weak flee. I decided to be the strong. I decided to keep going.


It's been almost a year. I've made some friends on YouTube. Some of these friends, believe it or not, are atheists. They're no different to me or my wife: they work hard, they love their children, and they appear to get just as much joy from science and art as we do from the scriptures. This was not my initial impression, but one which I learned in my persistence.

A new family came to our town last week. They live right next door, so me and my family have been helping them with their furniture and telling them about the local amenities and so forth. On their first day, after a lot of the hard work had been done, we invited them for dinner, and I got to speaking with the father, Gerald, afterwards on our porch, in our garden. Over a beer, we discussed the church, and that's when he told me. "This isn't really for us. We don't believe in God." Only I was around. I had my few atheist friends online, but this is my first time ever meeting one in person. It was this point that I had a haunting epiphany:

My first few months on YouTube were traumatic at best. A majority seemed only there to belittle beliefs other than their own. I remembered the few discussions that we had about atheists among our town's community, and not a single one was positive. Gerald, and possibly the rest of his family, were about to endure what I endured on YouTube here in this town, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't even know what to say to him.


A month has gone by, and I'm pleased to call Gerald one of my best friends. Unfortunately, this is about the only positive news I can relate to you. Things are tense. Some of the town-folk have grown suspicious that they see Gerald and his family on the street, but never at church. I have come to respect Gerald's views, my fellow town-folk have not. Even my wife asks me about them, and I've done my best to dodge the issue, but I fear we don't have long left.

On top of this, I find myself more and more persuaded by what atheists are telling me the longer I spend on YouTube and with Gerald. Our views directly conflict on many fronts, but for me, it's not the science vs bible issue that I find to be the most relevant here. It's the human drama behind the scenes.

I am beginning to believe that I have lived a lie. My views were never significantly challenged throughout my life. My life itself fed on, depended on, the teachings of my church, and my religion. We bonded over the stories. Our many happy, memorable experiences all in some way came back to the church. Our beliefs brought us together. They made us happy. But I'm coming to believe that we had been lied to.

If there is one thing I would wish for people to understand about me and the people in my town, it is this: we are not idiots. We are not stupid people. We are happy. The stories give us pleasure. They give us something to bond over, to find our sweethearts, to tell to our children, to make them happy too. It's not that we can't understand science. It may not even be entirely accurate to suggest we don't want to. It's that we can't afford to. Gerald is about to find out what happens when you are seen as a threat to that happiness. I can't blame the town. I can't blame Gerald for trying to make a life for his family. All I can do is watch and despair for what his about to happen...


I've moved to the UK. Sally left me, she has custody of the kids. Gerald and his family have come along with me, not knowing what else to do. Also, I am an atheist. I can no longer believe, in good conscience, the stories that my town and my church used to teach me. The Earth is not 6000 years old. God did not create it. It is between 4 and 5 billion years old, and it started with the big bang. I'm still a little sketchy with the details of the exact moment of creation, but, as I understand it, even the scientists studying it are. I don't think you even need me to say, then, why I am in this situation.

I am not pessimistic. Many of my YouTube friends live here. I came here, not because I don't love the USA, but because, for people like me, we are most definitely safe. Me and Gerald saw a video of the 2010 elections when a liberal candidate said on national TV "I am not a man of god". This place will be more welcoming for now. I will make a new life here. I will find someone else to share my life with. I love Sally dearly. The pain is excruciating. Nevertheless, I can't go back. The joy, the warmth, the welcoming open arms were reserved for members of their community, people who see the world as they see it. I no longer do or can.

This is the end of my story, but know that I don't hate them. I don't fear them. I don't blame them. They only want what any other human being wants: to belong, to love and be loved, and to be happy. Maybe one day when their children, or grandchildren, who will interact with technology that I can't even imagine, who could possibly meet a stranger in another country in a way that would be no different to us than meeting someone for a coffee today, can meet and interact with atheists like Gerald, and now myself, they can turn the community around, that it is not threatened by the present, that it embraces the future. And yet, I wonder whether we can replace that joy, that sense of community, of togetherness? I, at least, will endeavor to try...


Two Fronts

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

I said, WELCOME TO ORYGYN! Hello? Is anyone there? Oh I see. I get it. You couldn't wait 2 measly years for the next post so you left me.Typical 8<{D-

Where have I been? Nowhere. I've been here all along. I'm like that. One day, I'm interested in making videos. Next, I'm interested in watching TV for hours. That time frame is very flexible, but once it's up, you couldn't pay me to keep doing it. It's annoying. It leads to a lot of unfinished work. But there you go.

I have this blog. If I post here, I'm sending a signal to myself that if I don't think I can make a video about something, if it warrants a shorter but more considered response than to film a 9-minute video in one stretch and hope what I say is clear, I will say it here. That's the idea. I hope I can pull it off.