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Richard Jones on Against Transhumanism: the Delusion of Technological Transcendence

Against Transhumanism coverWe often tend to ignore people and books that we have strong disagreement with. And yet, often times it is precisely those interactions that are very productive in helping us re-evaluate our own positions and see things from a fresh perspective. I find that, more often than not, confronting rather than ignoring a good argument, is not only a more honest approach but can also be quite rewarding in a variety of ways. And my interview with Prof. Richard Jones is a perfect example of that. So, while I may disagree with him on his general verdict on transhumanism, I found an impressive amount of specific things we agree on. And, more importantly, I managed to learn a thing or two about nanotechnology and the human brain.

During our 75 min discussion with Prof. Richard Jones we cover a variety of interesting topics such as: his general work in nanotechnology, his book and blog on the topic; whether technological progress is accelerating or not; transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil and technological determinism; physics, Platonism and Frank J. Tipler‘s claim that “the singularity is inevitable”; the strange ideological routes of transhumanism; Eric Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology as reducing the material world to software; the over-representation of physicists on both sides of the transhumanism and AI debate; mind uploading and the importance of molecules as the most fundamental units of biological processing; Aubrey de Grey‘s quest for indefinite life extension; the importance of ethics and politics…

As always you can listen to or download the audio file above or scroll down and watch the video interview in full. To show your support you can write a review on iTunes or make a donation.

Who is Richard Jones?

Richard JonesRichard Jones is Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield. His first degree and PhD in Physics both come from Cambridge University, and following postdoctoral work at Cornell University, U.S.A., he was a lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.  In 1998 he moved to the University of Sheffield.  He is an experimental physicist who specialises in elucidating the nanoscale structure and properties of polymers and biological macromolecules at interfaces.

He is the author of more than 190 research papers, and three books, including Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life, published by Oxford University Press in 2004.  He was the Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council from 2007 to 2009, and is currently a member of EPSRC Council.  In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 2009 he won the Tabor Medal of the UK’s Institute of Physics for his contributions to nanoscience.

His blog – at www.softmachines.org – has, since 2004, discussed topics related to nanotechnology in all its varieties, together with other issues in science and innovation policy.  He has recently released the free e-book Against transhumanism: the delusion of technological transcendence.

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  • Tim Suetens

    This guy is an enemy of mankind.

  • This guy is a Professor in nanotechnology with a few impressive awards and administrative positions for his accomplishments in the field. He has devoted his work to bettering the plight of mankind in resolving some of our grandest challenges related to climate change in general and how applied nanotechnology can help us build useful materials in particular. Furthermore, he wrote a decent book with some useful information and references despite of his poor final conclusion. So, while he may be wrong on some things he certainly is not “an enemy of mankind.” In fact, such ridiculous statements have often been used to first dehumanize and then abuse a variety of people throughout history. And justify hideous crimes against humanity. So if you want to be intellectually honest and disagree with someone put forward an argument against them rather than a personal and ridiculous attack on them being “an enemy of mankind.” This is what the Church did to burn some of our best and brightest people during the dark ages. It is a convenient yet most dangerous and intellectually lazy and dishonest of paths. So, if you look at history, usually those that have called others “enemy of mankind” have historically turned out to be exactly that.

  • “We often tend to ignore people and books that we have strong disagreement with. And yet, often times it is precisely those interactions that are very productive in helping us re-evaluate our own
    positions and see things from a fresh perspective” Wise words, easier said than done! That is because human nature generally lacks critical self scrutiny and would always prefer to see its own ‘reason’ validated then consider itself to be in error. This hubris, innate to the human condition is particularly acute when it come to transhumanism, which presupposes a biological foundation for all brain functionality and especially consciousness. Now that assumption looks like being blown right out of the water along with two thousand years of theological exegesis and tradition. For a ‘singularity’ of a much more profound consequence is already beginning! More at http://www.energon.org.uk

  • Neoliberal Agenda

    Kurzweil is definitely a historic determinist. You just have to read the cover of his book to understand that,

  • Samantha Atkins

    If he is anti-scientific development and technological exploitation of possibilities for transcending many of our current limits then he is the enemy of human potential being fulfilled.

  • Alan Coffey

    Enjoyed this talk very much, and all opinions are worthy of discussion. Ultimately, the proof, or otherwise, of any or all of these scientific pursuits will be in their actual application in human existence. As regards ‘determinism’, it can come over as a bit of a fairy godmother flashing her magic wand moment, and instantly everything is changed beyond recognition. This is the way with thinking and ideas. Reality suggests a gradual integration of the science that works, and that science itself will continue to evolve, so at any given moment, we can only give our best guess as to any particular outcomes. Imho, ‘Transhumanism’ is the only way that our species can survive and go forward. Without changing what we are, we will just continue repeating our behaviours until extinction overtakes us. Better to upgrade our species by intention, and that way Homo Sapiens Sapiens can be allowed to fade away :):):)

  • MajorCornwallace

    As Socrates points out this guy is an actual scientist who works in a field directly related to the subject matter.

    I’m often surprised that people think “the singularity” or some “miracle event” is necessary for solving “all the problems”. This hasn’t been true up until now nor need it be in the future. Further, solving “all the problems” isn’t necessary, either, to make life a much better place for everyone.

    In fact, I think those who imagine that all is for naught until the Singularity might overlook other kinds of positive outcomes for humanity. I’m pretty sold on technology just from the practical sense of tool use and science being the best things for building and understanding. Politics is a big problem, though, and we have yet to fully grapple with it.

    This guy adds lots of reasonable points.

    First off Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil and especially Frank J Tipler are edge cases in science. I did not say “cutting edge” — they are making incredible, sometimes even reality-thwarting claims without being able to produce direct evidence or support. For those who do not recognize how these people can be considered quite unscientific and mostly ideological I would suggest reviewing history of science — for real, I’m not being facetious.

    There are a great many problems when our own ideological frameworks override evidence or clear analysis. Ideology can motivate us to look but can easily enough become a poison to thought.

    Further, extolling nanotechnology as a conceptual equivalent of biological transformation is highly questionable if not currently implausible. Sure, small machines can help us do small work but a lot of arguments seem to jump right to some kind of inevitable “those machines will become super smart because they will be as powerful as “.

    So, there are plenty of intellectually problematic positions in Singularity and Transhumanist discussions. We need to be honest about that. Nothing about Richard Jones’ position will disregard actual research or investigation. Nor will it stop intellectual curisosity or technological goals (like increased lifespan, treatment of aging, computer/biological interfacing, etc). Just realize on that journey a lot of people will bark up a lot of wrong trees and pointing out when we are is about as much what science is about as anything.

    It is the purview of religious fundamentalism to spite those who argue with us using reason and science.

  • Tim Suetens

    Don’t confuse me with a singularitarian like that nut Kurzweil.

  • Arthur FA Arcturus

    Drexler’s Nanosystems does take into account brownian motion and a lot of other issues typical of chemistry which are not seen in the large scale world. I find that Drexler’s work is being dismissed on no grounds whatsoever and I all I hear are arguments from incredulity. But I will watch to the end to see if he does eventually point to any real reason for being skeptical of nanotech.

  • Arthur FA Arcturus

    Has he read anything by Drexler and DeGrey? He talks about protein misfolding in dementia like that’s the deal breaker or the complexity that isn’t being recognized, but actually that’s covered under the intra/extracellular junk in SENS. He talks about the presence of different aging processes, and ignores that DeGrey’s SENS is based on striking at the few types of damage before all the ‘aging processes’ occur. Is he able to come up with an 8th deadly thing that DeGrey hasn’t considered? Or does he know a reason why any one of the 7 is impossible to solve? Otherwise what exactly has he got other than arguments from incredulity and skepticism?

  • Greg

    You should do a segment with fellow singularity, futurist, and transhumanist interviewer, Adam Ford. You both do things I wish the other would do in interviews and it’d be nice to see how either of your views have changed after interviewing so many thinkers on the subject. Particularly interesting to me (and possibly me only) would be to know if you’re more optimistic or pessimistic in the eventuality of a coming singularity. Just a thought! Cheers!

  • billy lee

    thanks for this interview on richard jones nik

  • You’re most welcome Billy, I’m happy if you find it useful and/or interesting 😉

  • storm

    I’m deaf and would enjoy transcripts of your podcasts. Even if just poorly automated speech to text, transcripts would be very helpful.

    Thank you.

  • I appreciate your situation and suggestion very much my friend. But to carry it out I need funds to pay for it. And, unfortunately, since for the past 6 years I’ve been giving away the fruits of my labor for free, I can’t afford to pay for transcriptions and don’t have the time to do it myself ;-(

  • This guy is probably an incredibly good physicist, but it seems he doesn’t necessarily know much about anything else. I very much doubt turning ourselves into machines is the route to transhumanism – rather, we are going to genetically engineer a better species out of ourselves, and that’s going to be the first truly significant step. Genetic engineering is a technology. It’s not all about machines… And now we have CRISPR.

    The first thing I noticed was that he’s conflating what’s widely adopted with what’s technologically possible. Adoption by the populace is very, very belated when it comes to new technologies, and they’re really piling up now on the discovery end. But of course technological progress will continue to accelerate – this is simple math, because our population growth continues. More people, more technological progress.

  • jack smith

    He even opens with the inability to understand the disconnect between technological potential and an unconscious societal resistance to apply it. Physiological evolution is practically stagnant and cultural evolution guided by animal impulse. He thinks like an ape who believes The Ape is the center of the universe.

  • Solur8

    Samantha – What work are you doing to advance technology? If you aren’t of an engineering or scientific mindset (profession) then I think your comments are by definition worthless.

  • Prokop Hapala

    As an other physicsit working in nanotechnology (although much less experienced) I want to comment on his technical part of argument.

    1) I completely agree with his arguments about randomness in nanosystems and in molecular biology. I completely agree that Drexler “mechanical engineering” cannot work at nanoscale due to thermal and quantum fluctuations. I also often try to disprove this idea of universal assembler and all-matter-software when I discuss with IT-oriented people. But I don’t think that this makes nanomachines harder to build, and so much limited as Prof. Jones concludes. Yes, Grey Goo is probably nonsense, but I think there is still lot of place to optimize stochastic molecular machinery, and most importantly to force it to do what we want. Evolution of biological nano-machines was constrained by many i) it must work at ambient conditions ii) it must be build from commonplace chemical elements iii) evolution by random mutation is very slow and inefficient process how to optimize something. Therefore I believe we can make much more powerful stochastic nanomachines than is current life on Earth.

    2) I also fully agree that biological information processing is stochastic. The question whether the randomness is “true” (e.g. some quantum mechanical) or just phenomenological (deterministic chaos, incapability to follow all microscopic details) is not important for the conclusions about our ability to mimic this kind of stochastic information processing. Many of current “machine learning” algorithms are stochastic as well. If somebody thinks that the difference between free-will or consciousness and computers follows from the difference between deterministic chaos of software pseudo-random generator and quantum noise, than we can very easily generate true quantum noise by many commonplace devices – actually they were used before (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardware_random_number_generator). It’s not hard to generate and use quantum randomness in physical hardware – it is just the opposite. As the size of components shrink we would not be able to avoid quantum randomness. Therefore, accepting and exploiting of randomness in micro- and nano- electronics is just the thing which will enable continuation of miniaturization of computer hardware.

    3) Prof. Jones said that elementary information processing unit in brain is molecule, not a neuron. But is there any experimental proof or indications that these microscopic details actually does matter for emergent phenomena in brain? Similar statement can be said about steam engine – that elementary unit of that machines are molecules of gas, and since there are ~10^23 of them the problem is intractable, so we will be never able to understand it. But then come phenomenological termodynamics, later rigorously derived from statistical termodynamics, which shows that we can abstract from the microscopic details and build simplified phenomenolgical models do describe steam engine. Ability to abstract from details is the most powerful tool of physics.
    Now in context of computations, the phenomenological model of how brain works is preceptron resp. neural network (or some later variation on that theme). We should follow it until we have realy serious indications that it is not sufficient level of description to understand observed phenomena (human and animal intelligence). Can anybody point out such proof or strong indication?

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