Friday, June 02, 2006

IEET Conference - Comprehensive Report - Part 4

Introduction * Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4 * Part 5

4:40 - 6:00 PM - From Human Rights to the Rights of Persons

This was a panel moderated by Dr. Nick Bostrom. Panel members were George Dvorsky whose talk was entitled "All Together Now: Developmental and Ethical Considerations for Biologically Uplifting Nonhuman Animals", Jeff Medina, who discussed "Personhood, Complexity, and Enhancement", and Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D., J.D., MBA whose presentation spoke "Of Genes, Bemes, and Conscious Things: Transhuman Enhancements and Transbeman Rights".

Where to start on this one? This particular session was...the word that comes to mind is "colorful". That's not an insult or euphemism; it's a poor attempt at finding an English word to describe the sort of imaginative discussion that went on during this panel. While every presentation I saw was interesting to some degree, this set was particularly evocative of the sort of sweeping, almost jubilant fascination that turned me into a transhumanist even before I knew what one was.

George Dvorsky spoke first. I'd been looking forward to this presentation, in part because the issue of how nonhumans might fare in a posthuman future is something I rarely see discussed outside a broad acknowledgement that we ought to do something about the environment (and I've made this acknowledgement myself). This presentation made me think. A lot. And I suspect that anyone who didn't listen carefully to Dvorsky's points or consider them in the context in which we humans already deal with nonhuman animals might have come away amused or befuddled or dismissive -- though it is my opinion that they'd be shortchanging themselves by maintaining these reactions without further consideration.

Mr. Dvorsky seemed to espouse the "humankind as steward" viewpoint, and suggested that perhaps the power granted to us through our evolved conscious volition, gives us an ethical imperative to consider nonhuman sentient denizens of the planet and seek to gain their perspectives on the future of Earth's biotechnosphere. In addition, Mr. Dvorsky proposes that we ought to offer nonhuman animals (at least creatures currently described as sapient) the same chances for lives that are longer, less brutal, and more self-directed as we seek to gain for ourselves. This, at least, is what I interpret "biological uplifting" to mean. And this is probably the most controversial notion suggested by Dvorsky's talk -- on the surface.

My take on the matter is that we humans have been conducting far-reaching, biosphere-altering, species-shaping experiments for years and years, and that what Dvorsky proposes is far, far more humane than many of these experiments. From factory farming to puppy mills to selective breeding that maximizes standardization of features at the expense of animal health and well-being, let there be no illusions that outside the urban and suburban bustle of modern human civilization, there exists an unspoiled natural landscape in which nonhumans persist in some sort of perfect eco-harmony. Dvorsky is not suggesting (as far as I can tell) that we take all the dolphins and apes in the world and implant them with memory-enhancement chips and breed them to contain human brain-bits that enable them to conduct symphonies and pass ninth-grade algebra -- but even if he were, that would still represent an improvement over a lot of what is being done to animals already.

I am not an "animal rights extremist" -- I'm not even a vegetarian (though I'm fairly close in terms of dietary habits; I don't eat red meat, and I've never liked meat very much, simply because it tends to have textures that bother me from a sensory standpoint). But I think it's impossible to ignore the fact that, through our agricultural practices and tendency (of quite a few people) to prefer, and produce, pure-bred pets, we humans have impacted the biosphere to a significant extent. Mr. Dvorsky posted a blog entry in March 2006 that posited the "end of livestock" -- many people probably take for granted the fact that livestock-keeping, far from being a "natural" phenomenon, is a very consciously erected, and maintained, technology. I've had people (upon noting my usually-vegetarian meal preferences) go off on tirades about how "humans were meant to eat meat" and how vegetarians are somehow going against some sort of natural order. But unless these same people make a practice of hunting, killing, and cleaning their own food, I don't think they have a proverbial leg to stand on as far as the "natural" argument goes. Anyone who eats farmed meat is partaking of agricultural technology -- end of story.

But Mr. Dvorsky's talk at the HETHR conference was not focused on farm animals or common pets (I only mentioned these to make the point that humans do not have a great track record for maintaining an unspoiled land, or even what might be considered a "natural" hunting-based relationship with wildlife), but rather, on creatures such as apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas) and aquatic mammals such as dolphins. These animals are, as far as many observers can tell, the most "human-like" of identified nonhuman life, and have the potential to interact with us in a far deeper and complex manner than they presently do. And considering that we humans have gone on to develop various cultural constructs that, while admittedly imperfect, have allowed such things as the development of protective laws and ethics, it might be irresponsible of us to simply let sentient nonhumans continue with certain aspects of their unaltered existence.

Mr. Dvorsky, in noting these positive cultural constructs, pointed out that "memetic uplift" of various animals is already happening. This memetic uplift consists of such things as proposals to offer personhood status and various protections to apes (already happening in Spain, and an increased acknowledgement of the fact that humans are not the only creatures capable of experiencing pain or emotions or building a culture. Hence, "biological uplift" may follow. Dvorsky suggested as examples that perhaps language ability, or cognitive capacity, could be increased in some animals for the sake of offering them the same opportunities we allow for ourselves.

A comparison was made to the notion of discovering an isolated human culture and facing the dillemma of whether to introduce cultural memes and principles that might increase quality of life for the members of a particular culture, but may at the same time erode that culture. Dvorsky acknowledged that past human attempts to "enlighten" indigenous cultures have often been engaged in clumsily -- that is, in a "dominating and unsympathetic" manner. In any attempts we make to explore or alter the cultures of nonhuman sapient creatures, we ought to be wary of cultural invasion.

While I fully support the notion of "memetic uplift" as presented by Mr. Dvorsky, I have a bit more trouble with the notion of biological uplift -- at least when it comes to supposed "cognitive enhancement". I would definitely question the notion of assuming that unaltered animals are less intelligent than humans, seeing as intelligence is an extremely general, difficult to define, and subjective term. Having known quite a few cats in my lifetime (which aren't even currently included on most people's "sapient lists", as far as I know), I would wager that in some ways they are actually "smarter" than we are, or at least, optimally skilled in different ways.

I do not dismiss the idea of "uplifting" animals biologically, however, I would caution against assuming that making them more human-like is necessarily an improvement. As far as enhancement goes, before attempting to modify animals such that their brains and systems of communication are more like ours, it would seem more ethically sound to perhaps enhance humans in a manner that makes some of us more able to understand and interpret animal communication systems. I would wager that this should at least be attempted before applying modification to a non-human animal, since for all we know, their communication systems could teach us a thing or two.

Jeff Medina spoke next, presenting a discussion of the meaning of personhood and possible caveats against non-useful applications of this term. Particularly, the notion of "relative complexity" as applied to personhood ethics was emphasized, in the context of potential eventual existence of posthumans who may apply the "complexity" definition and thereby use this as justification to exclude or mistreat humans.

Medina pointed out that in discussions such as this, we are coming from a background preceding the possibility of enhancement (and for the purposes of this discussion, a possible interpretation of "enhancements" might be "modifications that result in greater complexity of an organism"). This necessarily affects our attempts to define "personhood" and use this as a basis for establishing rights. Mr. Medina's argument seemed to assume a hypothetical future society including beings who had chosen to undergo various technological / biological alterations, and those who had not.

Mr. Medina did manage to convince me that the complexity argument as pertaining to personhood definitions is somewhat problematic. Whether applied to the biology or perceived cognitive capacity of an organism, complexity does seem to exist on a sliding, subjective scale. And there is no question in my mind that apparent complexity is wholly separate from value. I find complex systems to be very interesting, but I do not think that complexity, by any definition, determines an entity's right to exist or be destroyed or dismissed. The bacteria that live in the human gut may be less complex than the human they inhabit, but without these bacteria we would not survive very long. This, like the relative macrocosm that is the Earth's biosphere, represents an example of symbiosis.

EDIT: 6/14/06 Apparently, according to this article, colon microbes actually contain more than twice as many genes as the human genome. So genetically speaking, these organisms could be said to be more complex than we are, even if they are less structurally complex -- which in turn raises the question of what kinds of complexity are even assumed to be relevant when making the complexity argument for personhood!

It does not seem likely, to me, that modified humans, or posthumans, or whatever one may want to call them, would lose sight of the concept of symbiosis. (In my notes, I wrote "Posthumanity should mean the end of genocide", and I wholly believe this to be true). The concept of personhood may indeed be a valid basis for the establishment of rights, however, something more substantial than "complexity" must be determined in attempting to define personhood.

In my notes, I have "conscious thought" as a basis for personhood, though I cannot recall if Medina proposed this or whether it was something I mused on in response to something he said. Of course, there is a definite problem when it comes to defining consciousness (and the next speaker discussed this very issue). Overall, I think that Mr. Medina quite handily disposed with the notion of "complexity" as a basis for a justified and significant existence, and possibly made a reasonable case that eventually the notion of "personhood" may end up being just as problematic as earlier means of attempting to determine who gets which rights based on what observable characteristics.

Dr. Martine Rothblatt's presentation was perhaps the most personally relevant (EDIT: 2/7/09 Here I mean relevant in the purely philosophical sense -- one of my obsessions throughout adolescence especially was that of trying to figure out what made individuals who they were, etc. I do not, and did not when I attended this conference, "believe in mind uploading"; I was interested from a purely contemplatory point of view). of all the talks I witnessed. The concepts Dr. Rothblatt discussed and defined were closely synchronous with a lot of things I've been fixating on deeply for years and years, to the point where I'd say that the past 7 years of my life resolved into far sharper focus as I listened to this talk. It is always a rather uncanny (and delightful) experience to feel like you've independently defined certain things, only to have someone walk up to the front of a room, fire up a PowerPoint presentation, and reflect your own notions of identity and death back to you in full color and rich vocabulary. Though I do not know if the word "beme" will actually catch on as the standard to describe a unit of beingness, I think that Dr. Rothblatt has identified a potential solution to the problem of attempting to remove personhood from purely biological constraints.

A beme, according to Dr. Rothblatt, is a fundamental, transmissible, unit of beingness. Bemes would include such things as:

- Mannerisms
- Personality
- Feelings
- Recollections
- Beliefs
- Attitudes
- Values

These things, Dr. Rothblatt suggests, are far more powerful in terms of describing self-concept than are genes -- and I agree with her, since the uniqueness of discrete organisms goes far beyond what might be predicted from looking at genome profiles. Identical twins are not genetically unique, however, nobody would suggest that one lacks personal identity, or individual beingness, by virtue of being a twin. Minds, Rothblatt reminds us, differ far more than brains do. And her definition of self-identity very closely matches my own: simply summed up as the idea that we are the sum of our memories and experiences. The conscious perspective is still difficult to even describe properly in words, but we can certainly say that every sentient being has a unique, conscious perspective and that this conscious perspective in conjunction with all the sensations, impressions, and observations stored by a person over time comprise information.

Viewing people as "information patterns" is a notion that has long appealed to me, and this ties into Rothblatt's (and my) concept of what death is. When the information pattern is lost (assuming this information pattern includes the unique conscious perspective of an individual), the person is dead. And over time, the biological definition of death has evolved from cardiac death (you're dead when your heart stops) to brain death (you're dead when your brain shows no detectable activity) to information-dependent death (as indicated above, you're dead when the information that truly makes you you is gone). Current medical / legal definitions of death use the brain-based model, however, I think that the information-dependent model is actually the most scientifically sound.

After all, "brain death" is defined as being characterized by its irreversibility. The fact that people sometimes awaken from comas and supposed "persistent vegetative states" seems to indicate that something is only irreversible until it proves it isn't, and that could certainly happen at any time due to factors not yet entirely understood. Obviously, it is possible for a person's brain to be in a state wherein little to no "significant" activity is detected, but this does not necessarily mean that the person's identity has been lost for good. The fact that people can emerge, occasionally, even from persistent vegetative statesdemonstrates support for the information-dependent model of selfhood and death.

Dr. Rothblatt's notion of ethics (and the rights that ought to be granted based on these ethics) was described as being founded on "value reciprocation". That is, if a being values its / his / her / xyr life, then we (other beings) should, too. In my mind, this concept contributes toward another ethical imperative: that of helping create structures that compel conscious beings to value their existence.

This presentation was definitely the most media-heavy of all I witnessed; Dr. Rothblatt's PowerPoint slides were rife with colorful images and imagery. At one point, during a discussion of the issue of defining consciousness, the phrase: "Consciousness is like pornography: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it" appeared on the screen. If this statement were rephrased to read, "I know it when I experience it", I'd agree with it, but I do question the notion of whether consciousness can truly be ascertained by a party outside the subjective perception of an individual being. Of course, there is no need to take this to ridiculous extremes and suggest that perhaps the Rubik's cube or stuffed penguin on my desk are conscious, but I do not think that humans have a very good track record when it comes to accurately determining whether someone is conscious or not. I would say that if a being is determined to be alive (however that may be defined), it is best to offer the benefit of the doubt.

Dr. Rothblatt's presentation concluded with another (literally) colorful conceptual illustration: that of classifying two emerging human attitudes according to their ideological stance regarding technology. The "Red Dolphins" -- or short-term thinkers -- represent those who advocate extreme caution with, and even outright banning of in some cases, various developing technologies (or technology in general). The "Green Chimps" -- or long-term thinkers -- represent those who welcome technology and see it as an ultimate means to save Earth (or at least as much as possible of Earth's plant and animal life).

As Rothblatt aptly points out, with no technological development, we are almost certainly doomed on a planetary scale simply because the cosmos itself is random, arbitrary, and dangerous. However, in the short term, avoiding technological advancement may confer some benefit by virtue of allowing a certain degree of risk avoidance -- the risk in tis case being the risk associated with technologically-mediated disasters and mistakes. Over the long term, technology stands out starkly (and obviously, in my mind) as humanity's only hope to possibly escape cataclysmic destruction. As seemingly silly as these animal-color designations may sound, I'm happy to put myself in the "Green Chimp" camp.

Thus ends Part 4 of this Comprehensive Report. Part 5 to follow!

1 comment:

Dave said...

Just a quick thought about beings defined as information patterns, this is clearly a concept with which Kurzweil would wholeheartedly agree!