We Were Always the Monolith.
This is a loose sequel, as the title may suggest, to an earlier post: Uplifting Civilisation into the 22nd Century… and Beyond! That post largely concerned itself with sketching out a future where humanity and the coming AI have joined together, along with some Uplifted Animals, to form a next-level, pluralistic space faring civilisation. Putting forward the idea of a truly posthuman culture that was an attempt to offer up…
[a] vision to help chart a course through the current extinction crisis towards a twenty-second century full of sentient beings in space; a living universe populated with the physical and virtual, human, machine and animal, and multiple combinations of them all. And that’s just for starters. Science only knows what comes after that.
The territory of the future moves beyond a human-machine civilisation, to a richer, space faring cyborg ecology.”
In this post I want to look forwards once more by looking backwards to our earliest origins – to cast our vision over that entire timeline, no less – and see how naturally we’ve merged the biological and the technological to get here, and will only continue to do so.
To draft an “Atemporal People’s Republic” that stretches from what we know of our first tool-using ancestor species to what we imagine our posthuman descendants will be and sideways to incorporate our contemporary sentient species and the technological enhanced – or “Uplifted” – animals soon to join them.
Atemporal – as in effectively timeless; descending to the very limits of our historical vision – into deep time – without going completely geological, or measuring the past by extinction events.
People’s – as in multi-species; everyone and everything sentient is granted Personhood here.
And Republic, because that seems to be our best political model so far, as much as we need one at all. Just as we set out in the first post though, our ultimate fictional role model is Iain M. Banks’s The Culture universe, which has been summarised thusly as an:
interstellar anarchist utopian society… composed of several inter-bred humanoid species, as well as machines with intelligences ranging from basic computers, to human-equivalent drones, to superintelligent artificial intelligences called Minds. The Culture’s economy is maintained automatically by its non-sentient machines, with high-level work entrusted to the Minds’ subroutines, which allows its humanoid and drone citizens to indulge their passions, romances, hobbies, or other activities, without servitude.
But where the Culture is a purely humanoid and machine intelligence civilisation, we include augmented animals in our Republic.
Here we will examine some specific cultural depictions past and present of such Uplifted Animals. Drawing upon an old television show, some recent movies, a long developed comic book universe and a Japanimation vision of the future. Contrasting the origin stories each are given – or not! – within these stories and the place they occupy in each’s society. Taking the lessons learned from this progressive analysis and then mixing in some fresh science to envisage just what fate might actually lie ahead for them. And us. Together. Co-evolving.
Demonstrating in the process such historical resonances as:
- how our future relationship with the coming AIs might echo the partnership which our lineage formed with the wolves tens of thousands of years ago.
- the archetypal similarities between the early years of the Bronze Age and the Space Age.
This post then elaborates the case for a human-machine-animal ultimate team-up, that working together can begin to repair the planet and then storm the heavens.
Companion species for eternity, across the galaxy. Let’s go!
SPOILER WARNING: plot details of the films Lucy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the anime Knights of Sidonia are discussed to varying degrees.
This post also references 2001, Prometheus and the Terminator films rather heavily.
If the Atemporal People’s Republic has a favourite popcorn action movie, it is Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson.
In this scene at the film’s conclusion, the freshly minted posthuman – by way of a massive dose of highly illegal and experimental pharmaceuticals – folds time and space to meet the archetypal protohominid with whom she shares a name. This nicely encapsulates the territory our republic occupies. To begin with, anyway.
The film after all does end with a rather cosmic looking memory stick being created that will boot up the true posthuman age. (And if you care to, imagine that it’s also the Operating System for Her, as we sketch out a Scarlett Johansson narrated posthuman origin story that dovetails the action and indie art house scifi subgenres.)
What we’ve learned recently is that humanity’s origins aren’t quite as linear as such a simply rendered sci-fi film as Lucy (the film) might have you believe. Protohominid Lucy has been recategorised to be just one of potentially many upright apes wandering around the Pleistocene savannah – “different australopithecines occupying a variety of ecological niches” – opening up the candidate list for human ancestors.
Our ancestral family tree looks more and more like a gnarly bush. Full of hybrids and genetic dead ends. Maybe none of our ancestors actually died out, but live on in all of us – just as the Neanderthal genome does, in part anyway.
Matching this is another find that has recently pushed back another border of the Republic, the first known use of tools, by seven hundred thousand years to 3.3 million years ago. That puts it within the same time period that these various australopithecines occupied: 3.7 million to 3.0 million years ago. A lot was happening on that Pleistocene savannah.
Ours is a truly ancient empire then and maybe we’ll soon make it as much as four million years old, or more. But its hallmark is the period known as the Anthropocene; when we really made our mark on the world. The dates for this vary, but we are unquestionably in the midst of it now. Perhaps at its highest point. Whether you date it from the end of the Ice Age, our ancestor’s first tool use or the dawn of the Nuclear Age, none of this would be possible today without the great boost in human population brought about by the development of agriculture.
Whether we’d existed in some mythical, Eden-esque balance with nature before that epoch is a matter of debate. But the agricultural period was when we first began to really shape not just the Earth, but also ourselves in the process. The co-evolution of the technological and the biological is a key attribute of the Anthropocene. Once we domesticated cattle and began to drink their milk we began in effect to genetically engineer ourselves. Becoming the agents of our own evolution.
And none of this would’ve been possible without our ancient team up with the wolf thousands of years earlier.
[F]ar from a benign human adopting a wolf puppy, it is more likely that a population of wolves adopted us. As the advantages of dog ownership became clear, we were as strongly affected by our relationship with them as they have been by their relationship with us. Dogs may even have been the catalyst for our civilization.”
Dogs appear to have been our first companion species. There’s a rough argument that it was thanks to the competitive advantage that they gave us – that we gave each other – that led ultimately to the extinction of the Neanderthals, putting not humanity, but the human-wolf team up at the top of the Tree of Life.
While there’s no record of agriculture pre-dating the Ice Age, genetic analysis now shows our alliance with the Canidae species began forty thousand years ago. Without their help we could never have become such effective herders; a crucial stage before developing agriculture – we needed those beasts of burden to develop our crops. With the gradually domesticated wolves’ help we probably also played a huge role in the various megafaunal extinctions of that period.
The domestic dog we have today is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding; a primitive, but still technological act. The Atemporal People’s Republic has been the synthesis of the biological and the technological for a very long time already. And we’re just getting started.
In summary then: we first began uplifting ourselves millions of years ago, our companion species tens of thousands of years ago, and are ready now to start creating whole new races.
That “we” has been a multi-species team up. Though the proto-AI we have amongst us today might still be learning how to read us, we’re certainly feeding them all the data through our various apps to do so. Training them up and becoming dependant in the process. The process of co-evolution continues.
Try swapping ‘wolves’ and ‘protodogs’ for ‘AIs’ in this quote:
Friendliness caused strange things to happen in the wolves. They started to look different… Changes also happened to their psychology. These protodogs evolved the ability to read human gestures.
A future interstellar society where humans have been adopted by friendly god-like AIs – which, as we’ve seen already, is a feature of Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe – well, that’s all just a little bit of history repeating (as the song goes).
We’ll explore in more depth just how the AIs are learning to read humans, and vice versa, a bit later on. Would you believe that dogs play a key role in this too?
Now a quick word about the pop science in our flagship popcorn action spec-fic flick, Lucy, and some larger historical context before continuing on our journey through time, space and fiction. Also – if you noticed some shared symbolism above, between Lucy’s cosmic memory stick and 2001‘s star filled Monolith, well we’re just getting started there too.
As for that worn out old line that Lucy-the-film bases its premise on – that we only use 10% of our brain – it’s a relic of a previous age, one that had its own unique vision of the future.
Where our age is preoccupied with – and worse, threatened by – the coming Technological Singularity, in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century the Zeitgeist was obsessed with its own flavour of posthumanity. Something that took various forms, one of which was the Human Potential Movement. (Another lingers on, familiar to anyone that’s recently seen Going Clear, in Scientology.) In the 1960s-1970s especially, it was assumed that our future evolution as a species would obviously involve the development of psychic powers; mind reading and telekinesis. And these are indeed some of the stages Posthuman Lucy goes through during in her metamorphosis.
It turns out that in the 1970s – in the midst of that era – there was this Human Potential Movement-flavoured, live action children’s television show. One that was concerned with the fall of mankind and the task of rebuilding civilisation in the 25th Century. A future where a remnant of the technocracy has held on and is back to set things right. A tv show, with a notable cast mate, that we are about to meet very shortly.
Because it’s time to begin our tour of Uplift Culture. First looking back critically at what are clearly evident as being problematic depictions. Then bringing our metaphorical lens closer to the present to more constructive depictions. Before once more gazing forwards, extrapolating ourselves out into the unknown fringes of a wilder, vaster Atemporal People’s Republic.
Legacy of the 20th Century: The Monkey on our back
For millions of years the Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th Century. Only a handful of scientists remain. Men, who have vowed to rebuild what has been destroyed… This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge, manned by a highly-trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind.
Ark II log, entry #1: I, Jonah, Ruth, Samuel and Adam are fully aware of the dangers we face as we venture into unknown, maybe even hostile areas. But, we’re determined to bring the promise of a new civilization to our people and our planet.”
Working my way through this show for the first time just recently, two things leaped out. Primarily, Adam; the talking, almost human-equivalent chimpanzee, who forms a part of the Ark II’s crew. Secondarily, the episodes based around machine intelligences.
Examining our previous cultural depictions of uplifted animals, robots and AIs lets us build a better plan for their arrival and derive some wisdom in the process. So let’s take a closer look at these episodes now, to that exact end.
Note: I’m posting the episodes in full, with a commentary following. Giving you to opportunity to watch them yourselves first, before reading on.
Guest-starring Robby the Robot, no less.
Commentary: While Adam is one of the crew, he’s very much the junior partner. As a newly uplifted client species is, perhaps, likely to be. (It’s never stated how Adam has come to full sentience, if he’s unique – the product of an experiment – or chimps have progressed up the evolutionary ladder during the preceding five hundred years.)
Jonah is the leader and clear patriarch in this situation. Obviously the newest addition will have to prove itself worthy… there’s a pecking order to maintain after all.
Human adult male, human adult female, human male child, newly human equivalent-ish chimps, and last of all… buggy robots.
The native fallen barbarians the good crew of Ark II have to save from themselves in this instance are beset by a dangerous gas, whose source proves just beyond the ability of the team to repair, endangering the lives of our fleshy heroic action scientists in doing in the process.
Up steps the robot. What better way then to earn the admiration of the patriarchal figurehead than with an act of self-sacrifice. That is how you prove yourself… right? With a worthy death. Right?
Poor Robby. May your programming code live long and prosper.
Commentary: This episode has some pretty clear and obvious Monolith symbolism.
As in a previous episode, The Mind Group, the plot also features psychic powers. It’s a given that developing telepathy, and perhaps other such abilities, is the natural evolution for not just the children of tomorrow and but its machine intelligences too.
To overcome the evil computer (who’s name totally isn’t HAL) which has subverted the natural order of things – controlling the youth and enslaving the adults – a cross-species partnership is required.
We get a nice vision here of the uplifted ape, Adam, standing on the shoulders of humanity’s token patriarchal leader, Jonah, to defeat what would enslave them all.
And everything is in its right place again.
Jonah: Think you can reprogram this thing to take orders instead of give them?”
“Omega: You have already done so, Captain Jonah. My function is to obey and serve mankind.”
“Jonah, laughs: Now that’s what I call being logical.”
Commentary: The finale of ARK II has a rather obvious stand-in for the decadent preceding age. They’re the lingering remnant – the selfish, unscientific humans who despoiled the Earth. Living on in a bubble of delusion, having an eternal feast. A perversion of the Garden of Eden.
It’s only thanks to the timely arrival of the crew of Ark II, who can point out the error of their ways and awaken a few of them to action. They overthrow their leader, renounce their immortality and… rejoin the other barbarians to do what exactly?
Certainly not re-purpose whatever the advanced tech is they’d be using to live like parasites with, like a blight upon the world, to instead begin the process of repairing the Earth.
As the series concludes, Ark II just drives on, sermon delivered to the audience. To continue it’s Star Trek-like mission.
Technocracy knows best kids!
Which is the thing about the whole show – they don’t actually bring that much hope or any evidence of the promise of a new civilisation, despite what Jonah says in his narration at the beginning of each episode. They just shout at people a lot; tell them what do and then leave. It’s all about hierarchy and maintaining order. Projecting both strength and soft power.
It’s the absentee father approach; storm in, make a big noise, make everyone fear you, then take off.
The technocratic patriarchy is no way to build out the Atemporal People’s Republic.
That’s the overall lesson here: poor old Adam, and any others of his kind, will soon tire of being at the bottom of the pecking order, and probably team up with the next machine intelligence they come across to destroy all humans, instead of restoring “order”.
Jonah and his ilk are no different, have progressed no further, than Victor Frankenstein had centuries earlier in his treatment of his archetypal posthuman creation, as this recent NY Books article on robot mythology points out:
For he shows no interest in nurturing or providing human comfort to his “child,” who strikes back at his maker with tragic results. A great irony of the novel is that the creation, an unnatural hybrid assembled from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” often seems more human than its human creator.
The robot’s sacrifice in particular and Adam’s behaviour in general in Ark II definitely make the case for client species striving to be more human than their creators.
So what’s a better example? Well as it happens, we have this whole new update on uplifted monkeys…
Lessons from the 21st Century: “Uplift of the Apes”
The reboot of the Planet of the Apes series, and in particular the first film in that series, gets things so much better.
Quick recap: Caesar, first of his name, first in his line of uplifted apes, isn’t intentionally chosen to become the leader of the ape revolution. He’s the child of a test subject in a drug trial for an Alzheimer’s cure – born enhanced, smuggled out by the researcher running the trial when he was ordered to be killed off – disposed of as so much unwanted property, treated like trash. Instead, this human takes responsibility and raises the ape amongst his own family.
Caesar then becomes a bridge between baseline humans and uplifted apes. The “ubermensch” ape. And humanity is still something to be overcome…
The first point here is about nurturing the successor species. Will Rodman, played by James Franco, brings Caesar into his family and treats him in effect as a son, with respect, nurturing him.
The other crucial point is of agency. When the plot progresses such that Caesar is imprisoned with the city’s other monkeys and apes, he uses his advanced intellect to escape and retrieve the Uplift-enabling pharmaceuticals. Caesar returns as the liberator to his kind – and now leader – to free them from the prison they’re physically contained in and mental cage they were never aware of, never knew they could break out of… joining him in the territory of full sentience.
More Monolith symbolism time:
Caesar seizes the means of oppression when freeing himself
The above echoes 2001, with a similar first act of sentience of the protohominid.
The second film in this series – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – set ten years after the first, explores the development of the Uplifted, “postsimian” culture. For dramatic effect it pits them against humans, who are now at near-extinction population levels thanks to a pandemic they blame on the risen apes, but that is really the result of their scientists’ attempts to prolong the healthy life of their own species and increase their intelligence. (A development of the Alzheimer’s cure from the first film.)
This sequels’s strongest and most relevant moments are where it teases us with the possibility that uplifted ape and endangered human could come together, form a greater community and all prosper together.
That at the very least, humanity can help teach and raise them – passing on the baton of civilisation – before departing from life’s stage; walking hand-in-hand into a natural extinction, as Rust Cohle advises in True Detective. Instead the film’s dramatic engine has them continually pitted off against each other. The third film in the series, War of the Planet of the Apes (due 2017), will be the total war of competing sentient species and the winner inherits the Earth. Recapitulating almost certainly humanity’s battle with the Neanderthals. A timeless, tragic tale.
Still, this is a noticeable progression from the world and philosophy of Ark II. We have a plausible mechanism of increasing the sentience of a species and a better style of cross-species parenting.
Also, at the very least, a better guide to what NOT to do afterwards. Cooperation, not competition. Mutual aid and prosperity, not individual extinction. Heterogeneous forms of community, not hierarchical control.
But how realistic is all this speculation? How can we best establish a multi-species community? How do we effectively manage communications between human, uplifted animals and any machine intelligence friends we make along the way?
Before we answer those questions, a quick fictional side trip out into the Galaxy where another lesson lies.
Whilst the word “Uplift” mightn’t be in common usage in contemporary culture, the concept itself is becoming increasingly established in the popular imagination. The Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to be establishing itself as a modern pantheon, and amongst its ever expanding mythology of heroes and villains we have an iconic example of an animal artificially augmented to become nothing less than a Guardian of the Galaxy.
This is Rocket Raccoon and his comic book origin tale puts him perfectly situated in the chain of posthumanity, and its successor species, as we most wish to see it depicted: on a natural human(oid) to machines to uplifted animal continuum:
Seeking to end their servitude, the robots used genetic engineering to give intelligence and awareness to the animals that had been left as companions for the patients.”
Rocket Raccoon then is the fictional embodiment of our ideal imagining of the Atemporal People’s Republic – one with upgraded companion species in it that stretches into the cosmos and has no problem with boundaries between human(oid) and machine and uplifted animal. They all form part of a greater society. One where a humble raccoon can be Uplifted to then become a galactic hero.
Let’s get real now.
Into the Future: The Emerging Science of Uplift & the Legal Case for Extending Personhood
So far we’ve explored past and present fictional looks at humanity’s treatment of uplifted animals and co-existence with machine intelligences. But they’re just movies and tv shows. Science fiction.
Ahhhhh, but this is the everyday science-fictional condition! Where we have talk of transplanting a human head onto a new body in the very near future. All previous bets are effectively now off. Suddenly Stalin’s plans to breed a super human-ape hybrid army – the Humanzee – looks far less fringe science and more like: “hmmmmmmmm? Well… If…”
The latest research shows that chimps have the potential to move from hunter-gather subsistence living, to cooking… “if only someone would give them ovens.” Will somebody actually try this soon? What reward mechanisms might they employ? Could this be the encouragement these chimps need to become Guardians of the Forest; their tiny quadrant of the Galaxy?
We’ve known that various species are tool-users for decades now, ever since Jane Goodall’s first amazing field observations shattered our delusion that it was what made humanity unique on this planet. Sentience is being recognised for an ever wider range of animals. To quote from the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness [PDF]:
Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition.”
The next crucial step then, in the proper establishment of a contemporary version of our Atemporal Republic is legal recognition of other species’ Personhood. This is currently before the courts in New York. A test case designed to repurpose laws that were previously used to free human slaves in the 19th century to grant freedom to a succession of species. The argument being that: “among them great apes, dolphins and elephants — share enough human traits to be deemed persons under the law and thus should not be held in captivity.”
What this court case is revealing is that with the granting of personhood comes great responsibility, apparently:
That panel noted that “animals have never been considered persons for the purposes of habeas corpus relief” and said that the chimps were not able to live up to “the rights and duties that attach to legal personhood.”
Presumably this then includes jury service and voting. And taxes. Probably not inter-species marriage though.
How this scenario will play out precisely for the case of future machine intelligences to be given personhood is unclear, but the initial path seems less murky, and is a mainstay of cyberpunk fiction. They just need to become individual corporations – which, it has been established already – are people too.
Oh, and about that origin story for the Planet of the Apes reboot? All such pharmacological research is off the cards now that captive Chimpanzees have been given the legal protection already afforded to their wild kin:
The new rule will bar most invasive research on chimpanzees. Exceptions will be granted for work that would “benefit the species in the wild” or aid the chimpanzee’s propagation or survival, including work to improve chimp habitat and the management of wild populations.”
Which seems a vital step in the right direction. I’d love to see such examples of legal protection extended to our cetacean colleagues (some of which actually have been married to humans – don’t ask ). To see all the Sea Worlds, and their like, emptied and used as the basis for breeding programs to restock the oceans. Revoke the ridiculous ‘scientific whaling’ exceptions given to Iceland, Norway and Japan. Stop the global slaughter of dolphins and seals. Wall off sections of the dying oceans and transport them there, under our protection.
This is how we build up the Atemporal People’s Republic. This is how we heal the Earth. By bringing in species after near-sentient species, granting them rights and privileges and acknowledging their contributions to the ecology and the true economy of the planet.
As I said in the first post in this series, an ocean suitably restocked with cetaceans will replenish its entire ecology, and sink a whole bunch of carbon far more effectively than planned super science climate solutions. Something I call “Organic Geoengineering”.
Meanwhile, incredible advances in genetics are being made and there’s casual talk of using them in the aid of the resurrection of previously extinct species. Why stop there, at mere DeExtinction, when you could be Uplifting them too?
George Church and his team at Harvard have sequenced the Mammoth genome and identified specific genetic alterations that they can apply to its nearest living relative, the Asian Elephant, to make it more Mammoth-like. Give it the characteristic thicker skin, layer of fat and so on that will let it survive, and thrive, in colder climes. So why not tweak their IQ in the process?
The driving argument is that all this will ultimately provide much needed help to conservation efforts for the Asian Elephant by increasing the range of their habitat. You could establish a breeding population far away from the existing network of poachers, on a safer reservation, on a different continent even; roaming as far north as the Arctic circle:
We’ll never get something back that is 100 per cent mammoth.
“But elephants are an endangered species, and what if you could swap out a few genes for mammoth genes, not to bring the mammoth back but to allow them to live in colder climates.
“We could bring elephants back to the wild. They could be free to wander in Northern Europe, and Britain.
“De-extinction could potentially be a new and hopeful weapon against diversity crises.”
Once established up in the Arctic they can fight climate change by getting to work stomping down the tundra, as is their nature, earning their keep that way. Contributing to the world’s true economy, before returning replenished, in higher numbers, to various areas of their historical, well, stomping grounds.
Why not ramp up their intelligence so they might have a better fighting chance against any poachers that might return? If we’re playing at God here, let’s do this properly!
Not so fast though – back to Alzheimer’s once again – we’ve learnt that there’s a direct correlation between our own increased intelligence and this disease. The Elephant never forgets, as the saying goes, but the Uplifted Elephas maximus might have the occasional glitch in that direction. ALL THE MORE REASON FOR US TO RAISE THEM PROPERLY THEN.
And maybe those Human Potential folk had the right idea, maybe telepathy is the answer after all. Machine-aided telepathy, that is.
There are other ways to put our heads together. Neurosilicon interfaces, for example. We’ve had those for more than a decade now. In labs around the world, neuron cultures put robot bodies through their paces; puddles of brain tissue drive flight simulators. At Clemson University in South Carolina, Ganesh Venayagamoorthy is busy teaching tame neurons to run everything from power grids to stock markets. DARPA has thrown its weight behind the development of a ‘cortical modem’, a direct neural interface wired right into your gray matter (we’re already using implants to reprogram specific neurons in other primates). But DARPA may have already been scooped by Theodore Berger, down at the University of Southern California. Way back in 2011, he unveiled a kind of artificial, memory-forming hippocampus for rats. The memories encoded in that device can be accessed by the organic rat brain; they can also be ported to other rats. It won’t be long before such prostheses scale up to our own species (that is in fact the explicit goal of Berger’s research).
If the prospect of surgery squicks you out, Sony has registered blue-sky patents for technology that plants sensory input directly into the brain using radio waves and compressed ultrasound. They’re selling it as a great leap forward for everything from gaming to telesurgery.
Throughout history we’ve communicated via the equivalent of dial‑up, through speech and writing and images on screens. A fat enough neural interface could turn everything broadband, act as a next-gen corpus callosum that fuses we into some new kind of I that’s never existed before.
Of course they’ll put safeguards in place, take every measure to ensure that nothing goes wrong. Maybe nothing will. Keep your baud rate dialled back far enough and you’ll be fine. But there are always those who push the envelope, who might actively embrace the prospect of union with another mind. They’re not all that uncommon in transhumanist circles. Some regard it as an inevitable step in abandoning the flesh, uploading consciousness into a gleaming new chassis with a longer warranty. To others it’s a way to commune with the souls of other species, to share consciousness with cats and octopuses. It’s a fine line, though. Keep the bandwidth too low and you lose the experience; edge it too high and you lose yourself.”
So writes the posthuman author, Peter Watts, in an article for Aeon. He points out that advances in Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) might soon enable the establishment of a kind of multi-species group mind. A technologically mediated virtual space for us all to communicate from within. The Internet of Things makes way for an Internet of Minds. Good, I was getting bored with Twitter.
This recent article on brain-to-brain communication from the Smithsonian concurs, taking us into the Atemporal People’s Republic proper: human, uplifted animals, AI – all are of one group mind:
It doesn’t even have to involve another human brain on the other end. It could be an animal—what would it be like to experience the world through smell, like a dog—or by echolocation, like a bat? Or it could be a search engine.”
In 2007, for example, DARPA started a programme called RealNose: an effort to develop a synthetic dog nose with real olfactory receptors for detecting odorants such as chemical weapons.”
Meanwhile, studying the existing empathic relationships between dogs and humans is helping to better engineer their robotic equivalents. The technological and the biological again converge to give us new companion species, with faculties that help us establish mutual trust in each other. Solving a problem that the creator of the 1960s-era simulated AI, Eliza, worried about, based on his experience:
Weizenbaum feared that AI couldn’t be trusted with decisions because it wouldn’t have empathy or compassion.”
Social robots are autonomous machines that interact and communicate with humans or other such robots according to their role, for example handing tools to an astronaut working on a space station. However, the technology is only at a very early stage and many hurdles remain.
“We could develop emotional sounds for robots based on dog barks that can be recognised by humans – that would be a way to create believable social robots,” he added.”
Aiding astronauts in their space work might well leap out as a key activity in this republic as its been described, one that will have us bootstrapping ourselves to the stars. But just as vital is the role these emergent machine intelligences can provide in helping to reform criminals:
Social robots may even find a role in institutional settings, helping prisoners “re-socialise” themselves during rehabilitation schemes. This has been achieved for years with prisoner pet partnership programs, but robots might be even better at the job.”
Unlike some humans today, I don’t think we’ll hear any pets complaining about robots taking their jobs. In fact, previous research hints that dogs are just fine being companions to robots:
There’s no question then that we already have elements of the technology required to begin to add new and upgraded member species to our notional Republic. Crucially also, an idea of how to build an effective multi-species communication platform.
A society of minds that can be conjured from the highly efficient brain-to-brain interface, but also through the more low bandwidth, but well-tested mechanisms of gestures and emotional responsiveness. And everything in between.
Returning briefly to legal and moral issues in the science-fictional condition, it’s clear that we need something better than the simple Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov offered up, what seems so long ago now. Just how we program, train or straight raise a machine intelligence becomes an incredibly instructive exercise in understanding ourselves also. Another chance to better ourselves by making the implicit explicit and thereby being able to apply some critical thinking about it. About ourselves. Our children, whatever form they take, whatever their origin, function as a mirror of ourselves; a projection of our values, our hopes and our fears. The various coming posthuman children then will let us debug the human condition. We’ll all grow up in the process. A process that is already underway:
These questions of how to govern robot morality (Serve the public trust? Protect the innocent? Uphold the law?) no longer belong in the halls of futurology.
With the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles to roads across the world such questions about codifying morality are already being asked, such as: Will your self-driving car be programmed to kill you if it means saving more strangers?
Google’s cars can already handle real-world hazards, such as cars’ suddenly swerving in front of them. But in some situations, a crash is unavoidable. (In fact, Google’s cars have been in dozens of minor accidents, all of which the company blames on human drivers.) How will a Google car, or an ultra-safe Volvo, be programmed to handle a no-win situation — a blown tire, perhaps — where it must choose between swerving into oncoming traffic or steering directly into a retaining wall? The computers will certainly be fast enough to make a reasoned judgement within milliseconds. They would have time to scan the cars ahead and identify the one most likely to survive a collision, for example, or the one with the most other humans inside. But should they be programmed to make the decision that is best for their owners? Or the choice that does the least harm — even if that means choosing to slam into a retaining wall to avoid hitting an oncoming school bus? Who will make that call, and how will they decide?
“Ultimately, this problem devolves into a choice between utilitarianism and deontology,” said UAB alumnus Ameen Barghi
And just as nations have different road rules and criminal systems, we may see them choose different models of robot morals too.
But these are far from the worse decisions ahead of us.
Because the honest truth, in a reality where the war machine funds so much of this research – however better we might re-purpose its results later – is that it’s less a SkyNet-esque “Rise of the Machines” type scenario that we have to fear, than an ever-augmented, increasingly empowered continuance of the business-as-usual, everyday horror for many that is the State and Empire.
“If it turns out that humans are reliably more truthful with robots than they are with other humans, it will only be a matter of time before robots will interrogate humans,” he comments.
Just another nightmare in a futurepresent that already has plenty of existing issues with ever more militarized police failing to be held accountable for their actions to the same degree as those they ‘protect & serve’.
Ethical and moral problems that will apply equally should Uplifted Animals serve the State in a similar capacity; especially if this is the price of their Personhood, as mentioned earlier.
The technological is always political. Making robots and AIs more empathic can also make them better interrogators. Advances in machine vision and emotional reasoning can make for better, more capable Social Robots that enrich society, or for the worst kind of secret police – as depicted by brutal Infiltrator units, another feature of the Terminator universe future.
So it’s with some caution that we watch Facebook – already having once operated under a dubious set of ethical standards, when conducting psychological experiments upon the people using its services – further develop its AI capabilities:
Facebook’s goal is to get a computer to understand empathy…
“What we’d like to do is make machines more intelligent, understanding text, images, videos and posts,” LeCun said. “Anything that can happen in the digital world we want to understand the context.” Because there is so much digital content people could easily become overwhelmed by the information flooding their feeds. The efforts of LeCun’s team will help connect people with the content that is most relevant to their interests and priorities. It’s a complex solution to a simple goal: to make sure that you see what you want to see on Facebook.
“That’s the big mission that we at Facebook are trying to fulfill,” LeCun said. “Machines that understand people.”
As their head researcher notes in this video though…
…they’re releasing the majority of their code to the open source community. So at least the Resistance will have a better chance this time.
Here’s where we step up the scale again, from individual members to the group level, looking at other ways in which we can organise and integrate the Peoples of this Atemporal Republic. Returning to the notion of the Cyborg Ecology, another concept mentioned in the first post.
Drones aren’t just the actual Flying Hunter/Killer Robots from the Terminator movies. They’re also being used to plant trees – perhaps soon to create whole forests, and thus habitats for our coming client species – but also to fight off elephant poachers.
Maybe we borg up these IQ-tweaked, technologically enhanced Elephants we’ve been considering? Give them some adjusted-for-scale wearables that fit with our increased understanding of the baseline Elephant’s culture. Maybe an infrasound alert summons the nearby non-lethal drone fleet to action?
There are worse ideas…
And I think by now we’ve managed to define the scope of our deep time to deep space ranging republic. Time to bring it all home.
Expanding the Republic’s borders: Dawn of the Space Apes & Rise of the Ethiopian Baboons
Some final thoughts then, to both close things out and close the loop for the argument I’ve presented here. We’ve managed to derive some lessons from our previous cultural depictions of a society featuring humans, uplifted animals and machine intelligences. We’ve taken a brief overview of the current legal situation, as it pertains to this matter, and a more in-depth technical survey of some of the science involved. Now let’s sum things up with a few more observations.
At the beginning of this post I talked about how our ancestors teamed up with the wolf, and how that partnership led to both our species prospering. That in time led to a point in history known as the Neolithic Transition. When a combination of three things led to the dawn of the Agricultural Age: domestication of cattle and horses, wheeled vehicles and a genetic mutation for lactose tolerance (known as the ‘LP allele’). The prevailing theory now seems to be that it was a people known as the Yamnaya, steppe herders from what’s now Russia and the Ukraine, that had the winning combination of all three, and five thousand years ago swept across Europe, outcompeting the existing hunter-gather populations there.
Once the LP allele appeared, it offered a major selective advantage. In a 2004 study, researchers estimated that people with the mutation would have produced up to 19% more fertile offspring than those who lacked it. The researchers called that degree of selection “among the strongest yet seen for any gene in the genome”.
Compounded over several hundred generations, that advantage could help a population to take over a continent. But only if “the population has a supply of fresh milk and is dairying”, says Thomas. “It’s gene–culture co-evolution. They feed off of each other.”
The factors that enabled the dawn of the Bronze Age could apply equally to the coming of a true Space Age; partnership / co-evolution with animals, a new means of transport, new habitats and transforming ourselves in the process.
The billionaire space enthusiasts are set to work building us a real interplanetary transport infrastructure, in concert with those nations still possessing a functional space program.
We’re figuring out how to use the increasingly powerful gene editing technology CRISPR, something that could be used to create astronauts capable of surviving long term on Mars or in zero gee, or wherever the off-world colonies end up being.
As for what that genetic enhancement might be, we turn to a fictional universe for some advice one last time. In the manga/anime series Knights of Sidonia the remnant human population, facing starvation as they flee a destroyed Earth with limited supplies, decides to engineer all future generations to have the ability to draw energy via photosynthesis. Eliminating the need for food, as we knew it. Giving them a selective advantage as remarkable as the ability to digest the milk of another animal. Just one of many imagined advances given to this space faring posthuman evolution of the human species.
Also, for no clear reason that I’ve been able to determine – other than it’s implicit when envisaging the future, tying us back to Ark II – there’s at least one Uplifted Bear amongst their population (who SPOILER ALERT was part of the ruling committee, so was no junior partner, unlike poor old Adam):
Which is the final part of the Bronze Age to Space Age analogy. As I’ve hopefully amply demonstrated, we could perform a whole new level of “domestication” as co-evolution as Uplift.
(If you’re wondering, by the way… China is the nation with the winning combination of all three attributes. A growing space program that will probably leap-frog the US and Russia by the decades’ end, and pioneering work at Beijing Genomics Institute that covers the other two. Firefly/Serenity was probably half-right, in the space faring future every person just speaks Mandarin.)
The other thing the Bronze Age had was the emergence of writing; “proto-writing”. A communication protocol that enabled the functioning of a true human civilisation. We might also map our idea of a multi-species, borg-like, group mind here. The communication protocol enabling the functioning of a true posthuman civilisation. This is where we meet the very edge of popular culture – the idea of posthuman group minds are explored in the new tv show, Sense8, from the Wachowskis and the Nexus series from Ramez Naam.
To repeat, the overall message is this: as we continue this process of co-evolution and mutual aid with upgraded companion species both machine and animal we will all prosper. We as in: those who choose to come aboard for this Grand Extropian Adventure. Continuing to thrive and extend the boundaries of the Atemporal People’s Republic to the stars, as the first post in this series also talked about.
And here’s the thing – it might be happening all over again. Baboons and wolves appear to be co-evolving; forming a mutually beneficial partnership in Ethiopia. “The unusual pact echoes the way dogs began to be domesticated by humans.” The uplift could happen without us. It may in fact be another natural process we’re just beginning to understand. It could be happening right now, elsewhere. It may have happened many times before. Perhaps we’re just the latest, brightest spark of intelligence in a series that have flared briefly across the Earth over its long, long, long history. That we can imagine, anyway. Which is a dark ray of hope to end all this philosophical musing on.
Should our species vanish, I hope we manage to leave signs before we go – physical Monoliths of our own design (about which I have some ideas) – that less guide those who follow, than warn them of our gravest errors. Like these plans to mark nuclear waste dumps. That if there’s one grand legacy we can leave, it’s that they might never repeat, or suffer from, our mistakes.
At the heart of all this consideration of any coming posthuman successor species, and the society we might form together, is that it provides the opportunity to become the best version of ourselves, even if it’s just by way of an elaborate, speculative thought experiment. To construct a better version of the near-future available to us from the emerging tool-kit provided by the union of scientific and historical research.
One that will seek to prove the words attributed to Albert Einstein, that:
The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”
To imagine that the best way we can take responsibility for the planet, and any and all of our children – be they (post)human, AI or uplifted animal – is through this idea of an Atemporal People’s Republic. Within which we can raise them to the best of our ability, and raise ourselves up in doing so. Before we’re gone; exiting the world’s stage. Thanks to individual extinction or off-world exploration. Hopefully the later. Together, crewing starships. Building something new. Extending the bounds of our joint Republic.
Hopefully we’ve made some progress here in understanding just how we might begin to do such a thing.
Because if it is, as some claim, the Sixth Mass Extinction right now – and we are in fact the metaphorical asteroid – let’s make that asteroid one that is a delivery mechanism for panspermia. Restore the Earth and then seed the cosmos.
And in doing so, we bootstrap ourselves up the evolutionary ladder in the process.
NOW THAT IS A PLAN!
The first post in this series concluded with a call, echoing the film Interstellar for us to…
be the higher dimensional Tesseract, bootstrapping humanity to a next level, space faring Culture that you want to see in the world.”
Now we understand that’s what our various species, in cooperation have been doing this whole time. The super culture we now call the Atemporal People’s Republic was the higher-dimensional Monolith this whole time.
Next stop: The Stars!
@m1k3y – who is totally not the leader of an Asteroid Death Cult, is keenly interested in DeExtinction, and other things that fall under the Dark Extropian label, principally examining them through the lens of pop culture.