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Hamlet’s Transhumanist Dilemma: Will Technology Replace Biology? [Redux]

To be, or not to be: that was the question back when

Machines did not challenge the reign of men.

Will technology replace biology: that is the question now

When computers get exponentially smarter: why shouldn’t we bow?

Thus the dilemma facing the human race

Is about hardware and coding: What type to embrace?

Whether ’tis nobler to run DNA

On an ancient biological hardware – Evolution’s play!

Or ‘tis better to get up-to-date

And run binary code on the supercomputers of late.

But who is to say?

Is it nobler to suffer in the flesh

The slings and arrows of biology as destiny?

Or to hack ‘tis cursed body; and by technology

To live. Forever!

No more sickness, no more aging, no more death

Our mortal flesh is heir to.

The choice is yours and mine to make

But what a bind we find ourselves into:

To pick between humanity and immortality.

But what is human anyway?

A temporary grouping of the bits

En route to fall apart…

Or is there more to it?

A soul? A genome code? A conscience?  Or, a pattern?

Some kind of essence, anyway?

I still don’t know for sure what it is

So, why am I afraid to lose what I don’t know?


Authors’ note:

As you may see this post is neither polished nor really finished. It is a work in progress and as such it may and probably will change as my personal thoughts and feelings about the technological singularity evolve.

Feel free to contribute your thoughts and feelings on the subject…

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  • James

    Yo Socrates – nice Shakespearean mass-up asking the potent questions. As a work in process it would be a good next step to perhaps have a performance staged with an actor filmed with some human elements of setting and background sound … should/ could it be staged with a cyber-punk Hamlet addressing Dr. Ray’s head? “to be or not to be” a digital circus YouTube query from the Singularity Weblog?

  • James

    Yo Socrates – nice Shakespearean mass-up asking the potent questions. As a work in process it would be a good next step to perhaps have a performance staged with an actor filmed with some human elements of setting and background sound … should/ could it be staged with a cyber-punk Hamlet addressing Dr. Ray's head? “to be or not to be” a digital circus YouTube query from the Singularity Weblog?

  • That is a great idea James. I think I may know just the right people for it 😉

  • That is a great idea James. I think I may know just the right people for it 😉

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  • Pamela Blundell

    Ah, we haven’t got any further than Shakespeare did on this question. Have we? And I’m happier with his quill-driven words than any push-button techno-philosophy. Thanks, Will!

  • Hi Pamela,and thank you for your contribution.One thing is for sure — I am no Shakespeare ;-). However, it seems to me only natural that as the times change, the questions that we face will inevitably change also. Thus, since in my opinion we live in an era of unparalleled and accelerating changes (and that is only the beginning), then I believe that the most fundamental questions we ask are going to be either radically new, or at the very least, get re-focused and restated in a fundamentally different, new way. Shakespeare asked: To be or not to be?Socrates said: Know thyself!Just one of the old questions that I believe will take on a radically new meaning from now on is:What is to be human? There are many more…For, example: Is it better (especially in the moral and ethical sense) to run on DNA or on binary code?Will technology replace biology?Should we choose biology or immortality?It seems that James, for example, also finds these questions important. I believe that as technology gets more and more irreplaceable and the concept of the technological singularity gets more and more mainstream coverage, more and more people will start to ask themselves the questions that me and James are posing.So, to answer your question: Like it or not, I believe that we have indeed gotten much further than Hamlet, even if, without any doubt, we are all happier with Shakespeare’s brilliant verses rather than the push-button techno-philosophy of mine ;-)….

  • Hi Pamela,

    and thank you for your contribution.

    One thing is for sure — I am no Shakespeare ;-).

    However, it seems to me only natural that as the times change, the questions that we face will inevitably change also. Thus, since in my opinion we live in an era with unparalleled and accelerating changes (and that is only the beginning), then I believe that the most fundamental questions we ask are going to be either radically new, at the very least, get re-focused and restated in a fundamentally different, new way.

    Shakespeare asked: To be or not to be?

    Socrates said: Know thyself!

    Just one of the old questions that I believe will take on a radically new meaning from now on is:

    What is to be human?

    There are many more…

    For, example:

    Is it better (especially in the moral and ethical sense) to run on DNA or binary code?

    Will technology replace biology?

    Should we choose biology or immortality?

  • Pamela Blundell

    Ah, we haven't got any further than Shakespeare did on this question. Have we? And I'm happier with his quill-driven words than any push-button techno-philosophy. Thanks, Will!

  • Hi Pamela,

    and thank you for your contribution.

    One thing is for sure — I am no Shakespeare ;-).

    However, it seems to me only natural that as the times change, the questions that we face will inevitably change also. Thus, since in my opinion we live in an era with unparalleled and accelerating changes (and that is only the beginning), then I believe that the most fundamental questions we ask are going to be either radically new, at the very least, get re-focused and restated in a fundamentally different, new way.

    Shakespeare asked: To be or not to be?

    Socrates said: Know thyself!

    Just one of the old questions that I believe will take on a radically new meaning from now on is:

    What is to be human?

    There are many more…

    For, example:

    Is it better (especially in the moral and ethical sense) to run on DNA or binary code?

    Will technology replace biology?

    Should we choose biology or immortality?

  • Hi Pamela,

    and thank you for your contribution.

    One thing is for sure — I am no Shakespeare ;-).

    However, it seems to me only natural that as the times change, the questions that we face will inevitably change also. Thus, since in my opinion we live in an era with unparalleled and accelerating changes (and that is only the beginning), then I believe that the most fundamental questions we ask are going to be either radically new, at the very least, get re-focused and restated in a fundamentally different, new way.

    Shakespeare asked: To be or not to be?

    Socrates said: Know thyself!

    Just one of the old questions that I believe will take on a radically new meaning from now on is:

    What is to be human?

    There are many more…

    For, example:

    Is it better (especially in the moral and ethical sense) to run on DNA or binary code?

    Will technology replace biology?

    Should we choose biology or immortality?

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  • Why are we afraid to loose what we don’t know? Because we live in a state of fear. Every thought, feeling, idea and action is all derived from fear. Maybe it would be wise to first understand this cyber reality before we try to create another. Is it not possible that if fear can control us within a human brain then fear is also building the technology via our unaware selves to create a permanent place for itself using us as a convenient fuel source. Maybe this whole drive for eternal life in the Singularity world is possibility the ultimate statement of human stupidity – at least until we wake up and take charge of this vehicle in which we are currently housed.

  • Why are we afraid to loose what we don’t know? Because we live in a state of fear. Every thought, feeling, idea and action is all derived from fear. Maybe it would be wise to first understand this cyber reality before we try to create another. Is it not possible that if fear can control us within a human brain then fear is also building the technology via our unaware selves to create a permanent place for itself using us as a convenient fuel source. Maybe this whole drive for eternal life in the Singularity world is possibility the ultimate statement of human stupidity – at least until we wake up and take charge of this vehicle in which we are currently housed.

  • Hi David,

    Fear is indeed a powerful motivator. It is, however, certainly not the only one. Thus other motivators such as hope, love, hate, jealousy, compassion, scientific curiosity, ethics, aesthetics, religion, humanitarian and humanistic commitment (etc) can all be as strong a motivator as fear, if not more so. Thus I believe that claiming that technology is motivated by fear is a gross oversimplification. We live in a multi-causal world and therefore single cause explanations are not very plausible since all other things are also constantly and dynamically changing…. Take for example Dean Kamen’s invention of water purification machine — is that technology motivated by fear too? And what about the technology of music? The piano? There are countless other examples…

    Going back to my little piece above, I believe that my attitude towards the singularity and transhumanism is a mixture of emotions and while fear is certainly one of them, it is more of an after-thought rather than the primary motivator. It is more of an acknowledgment that where there is an opportunity there is also risk. Ultimately, without fear there can be no courage, but courage is not motivated by it. But by hope and the unshakable belief that tomorrow can be better than today…

  • Hi David,

    Fear is indeed a powerful motivator. It is, however, certainly not the only one. Thus other motivators such as hope, love, hate, jealousy, compassion, scientific curiosity, ethics, aesthetics, religion, humanitarian and humanistic commitment (etc) can all be as strong a motivator as fear, if not more so. Thus I believe that claiming that technology is motivated by fear is a gross oversimplification. We live in a multi-causal world and therefore single cause explanations are not very plausible since all other things are also constantly and dynamically changing…. Take for example Dean Kamen’s invention of water purification machine — is that technology motivated by fear too? And what about the technology of music? The piano? There are countless other examples…

    Going back to my little piece above, I believe that my attitude towards the singularity and transhumanism is a mixture of emotions and while fear is certainly one of them, it is more of an after-thought rather than the primary motivator. It is more of an acknowledgment that where there is an opportunity there is also risk. Ultimately, without fear there can be no courage, but courage is not motivated by it. But by hope and the unshakable belief that tomorrow can be better than today…

  • To some degree of course it will. But lets not avoid the question that will determine how this manifests – will we learn to develop beyond the intellectual restrictions imposed by fear in the human brain. Currently everything is a creation of fear – so if fear creates technology it will not be a the bright future you paint. It will house consciousness in a more advanced system than the human brain currently does. I think the Singularity stuff is great but all of the people I come across seem to ignore human nature and the energy that currently guides our thoughts…that seems a little dumb to me. Having said that they are the smartest group I have come across but still don’t get how to unleash intelligence, creativity and compassion from within – NOW! So that is the dumb bit! Or Naive maybe.

  • To some degree of course it will. But lets not avoid the question that will determine how this manifests – will we learn to develop beyond the intellectual restrictions imposed by fear in the human brain. Currently everything is a creation of fear – so if fear creates technology it will not be a the bright future you paint. It will house consciousness in a more advanced system than the human brain currently does. I think the Singularity stuff is great but all of the people I come across seem to ignore human nature and the energy that currently guides our thoughts…that seems a little dumb to me. Having said that they are the smartest group I have come across but still don’t get how to unleash intelligence, creativity and compassion from within – NOW! So that is the dumb bit! Or Naive maybe.

  • Fear is the creator of all our human emotions – not just the unpleasant ones. Only fear requires a perceptual reality founded on points of comparison to exist. So of course if we can feel love then we can also feel hate and so on it goes. A very restrictive way to exist. Look at all living creatures…they all function the same way. I am suggesting that fear, or where it derives from, is in fact the creator of this whole universe and is the energy that communicates between all atoms – hence creating this rather observable and predictable reality we try to be happy in!

  • Fear is the creator of all our human emotions – not just the unpleasant ones. Only fear requires a perceptual reality founded on points of comparison to exist. So of course if we can feel love then we can also feel hate and so on it goes. A very restrictive way to exist. Look at all living creatures…they all function the same way. I am suggesting that fear, or where it derives from, is in fact the creator of this whole universe and is the energy that communicates between all atoms – hence creating this rather observable and predictable reality we try to be happy in!

  • I predict we will inevitably create a machine (strong AI) we do not understand because we are using tools (our own minds) we do not understand.

  • Good point! But it depends how exactly we design the AI though. One way suggested by Kurzweil and others is first to map out and simulate the whole human brain. Then we use that knowledge to design an AI. Another way is Ben Goertzel’s method which is completely different approach and AI architecture, totally disconnected from the human brain simulation. Thus the former approach may provide evidence against your claim while the latter may support it…

  • Both methods seem potentially dangerous, IMO. A human brain-based AI may yield an entity with grossly magnified human foibles. Even foibles we could not see in ourselves because either we are biased or the foibles are inconsequential on a small (human) intelligence scale. A non-human brain-based AI may yield an entity with goals we may not even be able to fathom at this point, if ever. People seem to forget our human brains are just that- “human,” and limited. I hope we don’t open an AI Pandora’s Box.

    I know some form of strong AI is inevitable (if we don’t blow ourselves up first). And while IMO strong AI is a dangerous pursuit, I still choose to embrace the future instead of fearing it. Who knows, maybe I’m pessimistic and the strong AI we create will do nothing more than help us on our own benevolent terms.

  • Hi friend,
    Like you I am concerned about the dangers of developing AI… And, again, like you I choose to embrace the future rather than fear it… Let us hope that is enough…

  • Simple1248

    Intelligence is essentially the ability to fill in the… It came about as a response to the evolutionary pressures on our DNA to remain relevant. Indefinite replication is the primary function of DNA. Indefinite replication is the primary function of DNA. Indefinite replication is the primary function of DNA.

    We are human. It is vital to our sense of selves, the subjective nature of our minds, our very psyche’s, to acknowledge that “the map is NOT the territory”. The fact that we are fragile, flawed, and limited is what makes us able to feel, and regardless of whether that is the product of a quantifiable system, it is the fountain of meaning to me.

    We are what we are. We are the territory.

    Currently technology is the cartographer, and when it maps every process that describes us and we are fully quantified does it actually become us? Or is it merely a map of every process that we are?

    Before we can grow into technology it will need to grow into us.

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  • A screenwriter just asked me if he can use the Transhumanist Manifesto in his script. How cool is that?! 😉

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  • Patrick Morrow

    Very nice!

  • Michael Simmons

    They say that classic literature transcends the time in which it was written. I think it is funny that the best description of online life was from Shakespeare; Oh God, I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, we’re it not that I have bad dreams” if he had added a line about working from home in my pj’s it would be perfect. XD

  • Marius Catalin

    Superb!

  • Gord Deans

    Simplicity. Clarity. Stimulating. Profundity.

    Think. Think. Rethink.

    Ah Ha!

    Yes.

  • Love your feedback Gord! 😉

  • You might consider doing a further mashup with Willie the Bard: “What a piece of work is Man…?” There’s a lot of meat in that speech.

  • Ha, I’m not sure if you’re serious or joking but I like it either way 😉

  • Maybe that reworked speech would be the AGI’s response to the question, “Will you abide by Asimov’s Robotic Laws and never harm humans?” or possibly its defense/justification when the AGI is on trial for murdering his creator.

  • marco alpini

    Great Socrates, this may very well be the mother of all dilemmas.

    I am just wondering if we can make this call, if we can choose. Most likely we don’t. Transcend biology is probably the unavoidable product of evolution which is the engine of the universe. Resisting evolution means extinction.

    Our mind is like the content of a book that is continuously upgraded by the interaction with the external world. It doesn’t matter if this book is printed on paper or on a screen.

    Why should we worry about the physical support of our book?

    Once the technology is available, we will be able to shift support as we wish, perhaps better fitting the environment around us or to better feel it. We may find that the best paper for our book will be a mix of biology, bits and mechanics; after all each one of them should fit better certain functions than the others.

    We shouldn’t be worry about the final outcome, but we should be fearful about the transition to get there, which may lead us to a nightmare future and even extinction if we are not very, very careful.

    But I don’t think we have a choice, there is no way back. There in no “not to be”, only “be”. This is the entropic quality of evolution.

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