CS Lewis and the Transhumanists

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Image borrowed from Twisty Turny Lanes

That Hideous Strength was published in 1945, the third of CS Lewis’s ‘space trilogy’. It’s a curious book, weaving dystopian sci fi, magic from the Dark Ages of Britain and Christian allegory into an adventure story about progress.

George Orwell thought the end result too unruly, commenting in a review for the Manchester Evening News:

Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways…

However if you can stand the lack of discipline (Orwell thought it ultimately a ‘book worth reading’ by the way), Lewis is thought-provoking on the natural world, technological progress in general, and the idea that we now call transhumanism in particular.

Sugar and spice, and all things nice

The villains of That Hideous Strength are the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (or NICE – to the discomfort of present-day clinical readers), an ambiguous and elastic organisation who claim to take a scientific approach to solving the social problems of the modern world.

To the general public, NICE’s purposes are fuzzy but benign. Mark Studdock, a young social scientist with a fellowship at a nearby university is ambitious and curious about the organisation. When discussing NICE with his academic peers, Mark speaks enthusiastically:

The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past. One hopes, of course, that it’ll find out more than the old free-lance science did; but what’s certain is that it can do more

Through flattery and coercion on the part of some NICE staff with whom he makes contact, Mark abandons his fellowship and starts to work for the institute. Gradually he is initiated into NICE’s inner circle and trusted with NICE’s true purpose.

One night Filostrato, an Italian scientist, draws him to one side and tells him:

This Institute – Dio meo; it is for something better than housing and vaccinations and faster trains and curing the people of cancer. It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing.

Filostrato has successfully preserved, by regulating the atmosphere and blood supply, the decapitated but still-living head of a notorious scientist, which regularly gives instructions to members of NICE. In time, Mark discovers the head (unknown to Filostrato) is actually a conduit for instructions from ‘macrobes’ – rather like fallen angels.

Merlin

The NICE scientists’ objective of defeating death (or organic life) is contrasted with an alternative, and typically Lewis, perspective inspired by ancient British myth and Christianity. This view is embodied, and fought for, by a small resistance who are joined by Merlin, who wakes from hundreds of years of sleep.

Merlin has lain interred under a wood since the dark ages and proves to be a wild nature-lover with 5th century habits and behaviours. He is aided, and becomes indwelt, by the Oyéresu (good angels who preside over nearby planets, and the inverse of the macrobes) to destroy NICE, including its scientists and the preserved Head.

As a side note, a running joke and symbol of NICE’s ambiguity is the obfuscatory language used by Wither, the organisation’s Deputy Director, who pulls the strings of the institute. Wither talks rather like Sir Humphrey Appleby. When asked by Mark to tell him exactly what his role at NICE would constitute, Wither replies:

We do not really think, among ourselves, in terms of strictly demarcated functions, of course. I take it that men like you and me are – well, to put it frankly, hardly in the habit of using concepts of that type. Everyone in the Institute feels that his own work is not so much a departmental contribution to an end already defined as a moment or grade in the progressive self-definition of an organic whole.

In the final chapters of the book, Merlin defeats NICE and distributes some poetic justice by casting the curse of Babel over NICE’s employees, causing them to become completely unable to understand each other. Finally, they are eaten in a bloody scene by the animals used in NICE’s experiments.

Aluminium trees

Like other dystopias, That Hideous Strength is a warning about what happens when progress is delegated to ideology of the few and divorced from the needs of the many. NICE professed to be working on public health and sanitation and other worthy goods, but instead were pursuing a madcap agenda, guided by dubious forces.

That Hideous Strength is also a commentary on what is lost when we rely on technology to fulfill our dreams. NICE’s real agenda was a war on nature. At one point, Filostrato orders a row of beech trees to be cut down, explaining to his colleagues that his idea of perfection would be to synthesise trees:

At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet … And why not? It is simple hygiene.

Oxford in the 1940s seems very far from 21st century California, but the ideas that Lewis attributed to NICE and Filostrato are fresh as ever – and increasingly popular. Ray Kurzweil, an inventor (currently employed by Google) and leading proponent of transhumanism, is impatient with nature’s pace:

Biological evolution is too slow for the human species. Over the next few decades, it’s going to be left in the dust.

Kurzweil imagines a time when people will transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain” and predicts humanity will soon be able to scan human brains in such detail that it becomes feasible to reverse engineer them.

Once this is possible, the next logical step is for humans to be able to upload their brains to computers, effectively protecting themselves from bodily decay and becoming immortal – an idea now familiar through various films.

Matter of Britain

Merlin, the wild man, stands out in clear contrast to NICE’s techno-utopia. Where NICE want to eliminate biology, Merlin is deeply connected with nature. At one point, Dimble, another academic and one of Merlin’s allies in the resistance, muses about the difference between Merlin’s worldview and the NICE scientists:

Merlin is the reverse of Belbury [where NICE is based]. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse.

After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead – a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking onto it the aid of spirits – extra-natural, anti-natural spirits [i.e. the macrobes] …

In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way.

Through That Hideous Strength,  Lewis warns that the power that technology appears to give us threatens our relationship with the natural world. While we may appear to have the ability to synthesise nature, we have forgotten just how interlinked we are; made of the same stuff and by the same Creator.

It’s easy to read Lewis as anti-progress, in his novels and other writings. When approached by the (presumably tongue-in-cheek) Society for the Prevention of Progress with an invitation of membership he replied in similar style, signing the letter “Yours regressively”:

While feeling that I was born a member of your Society, I am nevertheless honoured to receive the outward seal of membership. I shall hope by continued orthodoxy and the unremitting practice of Reaction, Obstruction, and Stagnation to give you no reason for repenting your favour.

This blog hopes to take a more open or curious (perhaps technorealist) approach. There may be parts of transhumanism thinking that are compatible with Christian views, which will be explored in future posts.

But any worldview which views nature as an expendable and replaceable commodity should send alarm signals to readers who take That Hideous Strength to heart.

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MPs’ Degrees: What Do They Know?

September 2017: The below post relates to MPs elected in 2010. If you’re interested in more up-to-date data, see some of the sources in this Twitter thread (click on the tweet to see the rest in the thread):


An earlier post quoted Carl Sagan, who was convinced that not enough people really understand science and technology: “a prescription for disaster”, he said. So what fields of knowledge are our national decision-makers most comfortable in?

There’s been plenty of media noise in recent years about ‘professional politicians’ and more recently about Labour’s choice of candidates, as well as the occasional FoI request to government departments to find out what qualifications ministers have.

But information on MPs’ qualifications doesn’t seem to be readily available… Until now perhaps! The data in the chart below was collected by a script which looks up the Wikipedia entry for each MP, searches for mention of their degree, and if found, categorises it:

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Data collected by a script that looks up each MP’s Wikipedia entry

Of 650 MPs in the 2010-2015 parliament, the script found data on the degrees of 374 MPs, about 58% of the total. The other 276 may not be graduates, or their Wikipedia entry may not mention it, or be specific enough to categorise (some entries refer to a BSc or BA).

Of the sample, the most common subject area (using HESA’s subject areas) was social studies, which includes geography, economics etc. Following a sharp drop, the next category was law, and historical and philosophical studies, before another fall to languages.

The most common STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths) subject area (based on this definition) was physical sciences (14 MPs in the sample qualified in chemistry, physics etc.). 8 MPs had degrees in maths, 6 in engineering & technology and 2 in computer sciences.

Is the high proportion of social studies graduates in parliament actually unusual, or does it simply reflect the popularity of those subjects? This chart compares the distribution of MPs across subject areas with full-time students at UK universities in 2012/13:

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MPs’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students

Of the three biggest parties; 11.3% of Conservative MPs, 11.9% of Labour MPs and 23.7% of Liberal Democrat MPs in the sample studied STEM subjects. However, taking sample sizes into account, the Lib Dems’ lead on STEM isn’t statistically significant.

About 32 MPs (9% of the sample) studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford. A recent BBC article about PPE in Westminster quoted graduate and columnist Nick Cohen talking about his subject’s penetration in government:

[PPE is] a degree for generalists, and British society has always loved generalists … But I think we’d certainly benefit from more scientists and engineers at the top.

Does this matter? Of course degrees in subject areas other than STEM are valuable; qualifications in politics or history are obviously appropriate for an MP. And of course it’s true that many social studies graduates have an excellent understanding of technology.

But the bias away from STEM is still striking. One humdrum argument for more tech know-how in Westminster is that as public services become more IT-dependent, ministers need a better understanding of the pitfalls of technology. As the Institute for Government found:

Ministers frequently do not pay sufficient attention to the IT dimension of policy announcements

But the more interesting arguments are related to future trends; say if human enhancement becomes commonplace, or robots have a big effect on the labour market. Legislators are keen to promote STEM, but does parliament itself have the knowledge it needs to keep up?

There’s now a sequel to this post that looks at Lords’ degrees.

Note on the script

The above charts may not be completely accurate; they depend on the MP’s Wikipedia entry to correctly record the degree, as well as the script’s ability to correctly categorise degrees into subject areas. The script is on Github, if you’d like to see it – or improve it!

Thanks to TheyWorkForYou for making the list of MPs available, and to Wikipedia for making its data available via an API, as well as its contributors for researching MPs and keeping their articles up to date. Any errors are highly likely to be the author’s.

Raising the Bar: Therapy or Enhancement?

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Image borrowed from Rolling Stone

In the Olympic games at Mexico in 1968, Dick Fosbury changed the high jump forever, when he left all other competitors behind and set an Olympic record of 2.24m. His winning technique of twisting his body and clearing the bar backwards is now universally adopted.

The Fosbury Flop has enabled high jumpers to clear new heights ever since, now over 2.4m. Dick Fosbury has since become a symbol of innovation, signed by Mazda to help advertise their cars in 2013. Fosbury’s new technique raised the bar for everyone.

As a ‘natural’ technique, the Flop was unusual but legitimate. Innovations that use technology to push human boundaries (in athletics or elsewhere) are more controversial, often becoming a discussion over whether the change is therapeutic or an enhancement.

For example, a prosthesis that allows an athlete with missing legs to compete with biological runners (as Pistorius did in the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games) is a therapeutic use, while a prosthesis that enabled speeds faster than biological legs would be enhancement.

The therapy vs. enhancement distinction sounds promising, but is ultimately less meaningful than you might think. The reason is that the definition of what is a ‘normal’ state of health has always changed over time – like in a high jump, the bar is moved from time to time.

Definitions of disease have altered over time, as well as differing between class, gender and culture. As we age, most of us expect our bones to break more easily, but osteoporosis was reclassified from a natural part of getting older into a disease by the WHO in 1994.

An opposite example is homosexuality, first thought of as an ‘act’ (and a capital offence in the UK after 1533), then a ‘state’, then a mental disorder, before finally removed as a listed disease from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual II in 1974.

Ronald Cole-Turner, a professor of theology and ethics writes about the line between therapy and enhancement:

“Disease” itself is a socially constructed category, not something unambiguous in nature, and the list of diseases changes over time, often in light of cultural preferences or the marketing of a new drug. If “therapy” treats “disease”, it treats a moving target.

Cole-Turner goes on to quote Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics who describes as “certainly no friend of technological enhancement”. Kass says:

Those who introduced this distinction [between therapy and enhancement] hoped by this means to distinguish between the acceptable and the dubious or unacceptable uses of biomedical technology: therapy is always ethically fine, enhancement is, at least prima facie, ethically suspect … But this distinction is inadequate and finally unhelpful to the moral analysis.

Kass continues:

Needless arguments about whether or not something is an ‘enhancement’ get in the way of the proper question: What are the good and bad uses of biotechnical power? What makes a use “Good”, or even just “acceptable”?

Between Technophobia and Technophilia

Talk about the future of technology and you’re likely to hear two categories of response: technophobia (Chambers describes a technophobe as “someone who dislikes or fears, and therefore avoids using, technology”) and technophilia (a technophile is “someone who likes and advocates the use of new technology”).

But what’s the name for views that occupy the middle ground?

Technorealism (which appeared as a term in the 90s but seems to have died away) sought to “expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism”. Technorealists advocated applying tech “in a manner more consistent with basic human values”.

Also occupying the middle ground are the complementary terms Techno-progressivism and Bioconservatism. Both terms are frequently used – and were perhaps coined – by the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, a think-tank with close transhumanist links.

Techno-progressivism describes an optimistic stance towards technology, recognising a key role for it in effecting positive change. Bioconservatism is a more wary position on tech (though less so than Technophobia), conscious of its threat to existing social patterns.

Through interviews with the UK’s public, Ipsos MORI have identified six segments (which are simply descriptive, rather than ideological) that illustrate how the UK population respond to science, and by extension, to technology. MORI describe the segments as:

  • Confident Engagers – positive attitude towards, and few concerns about, science
  • Distrustful Engagers – enthusiastic about science, but distrustful of scientists and regulators
  • Late Adopters – did not enjoy science at school, but have become more interested as adults
  • The Concerned – have stronger views on the limitations of science
  • The Indifferent – not especially worries about science, but tend to think it’s not for them
  • Disengaged Sceptics – find science overwhelming and do not feel well informed

This chart illustrates how the UK’s population is distributed across the six segments in 2011 and 2014. While the number of Confident Engagers and The Indifferent have fallen, the Disengaged Septics and Late Adopters have risen:

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

MORI also report links between the segments and religion. On average, 13% were likely to attend a religious service at least a week, but this figure rose to 21% for members of The Concerned. 33% of Muslims belonged to The Concerned segment, but Muslims only accounted for 10% of that segment’s membership.

Michael Sleasman of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, a research centre at a Christian university, outlines three (lengthily-named) responses to technology he has observed among Christians: technological sentimentalism, technological messianism and technological responsibilists.

Technological sentimentalism sees technology as a threat and urges a return to a less technological past. Technological messianism views technology as a saviour, the solution to all our problems. Technological responsibilists adopt a consciously critical approach, which Sleasman illustrates with a quotation from Stephen Monsma:

[Technology is a] distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends or purposes.

This post is simply sketching out the semantic terrain… More on what the middle ground of techno-progressivism and technological responsibilism look like in future posts.

Generation Y, Faith & Science

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

Here’s some interesting data from Ipsos MORI’s Public Attitudes to Science 2014 study. Since 1988, when people are asked whether “we depend too much on science and not enough on faith”, there has been an overall decline in three generations, but a small rise in one.

Generation Y (or Millennials), which MORI define as those born after 1980, were more likely to agree in 2014 than they were in 2011, lifting them just above the baby boomers. MORI plan to evaluate this trend to see whether it continues its upwards slant.

The Transhumanism Trend

Transhumanism is the idea that human potential isn’t yet fully realised, and that people can be enhanced through technology. Transhumanists advocate technology not just for therapy but for extension. As Humanity+, an umbrella group, puts it:

… the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. In other words, we want people to be better than well.

How big is the movement?

Humanity+ is the largest group with over 6,000 members. Singularity Network, a Facebook group has just over 12,000. So it’s small, but possibly fast-growing: “It’s grown by one thousand per cent in two years” hyperbolized one transhumanist in an interview.

Here’s a chart from Google of web searches as a proxy for interest, which does show a slight increase for transhumanism (plotted against against the slightly more popular ‘star fruit’ to give some sense of context) from 2004 onwards:

Data from Google Trends

Data from Google Trends

Googlers of the term transhumanism seem to live mainly in Austin, Philadelphia, Denver, Stockholm, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.

Looking further back, Google’s nGram viewer lets us look at interest during the 20th century, using the term’s appearance in English language books as a proxy. This chart shows occurrences of the term (and case sensitive variations) between 1900 and 2008.

Data from Google nGram Viewer

Data from Google nGram Viewer

So again the concept isn’t that well known, but has been growing quickly since the 90s (although so is ‘star fruit’ if you were wondering). As the nGram also shows, transhumanism is an older idea than the last decade or so.

Coined by Julian Huxley, a biologist, in 1957, the idea’s seeds were sown earlier than that, probably by JBS Haldane in 1923. The bump during the counter-cultural 60s and 70s is perhaps due to futurists like FM-2030, who taught at The New School in the 60s.

Much more on transhumanism in future posts…

Predicting the Future of Robotics with TRIZ

M-block

Image borrowed from Victor’s Stuff

TRIZ is a much less fashionable approach to innovation than, say, design thinking, but it does have a pleasing Russian moniker: теория решения изобретательских задач, or theory of inventive problem solving to English speakers.

TRIZ was developed by Genrich Altshuller, who analysed enormous numbers of patents, looking for repeating patterns in how engineers solved problems. From these, Altshuller developed several tools to help engineers solve problems more efficiently.

These include a ‘contradiction matrix’ and a set of ‘inventive principles’ which work together to prompt the brain into finding efficient ways to solve problems.

For example, something that must be both strong and lightweight is a contradiction: making things stronger often involves adding material. Entering these requirements into the contradiction matrix points to relevant principles, such as composite materials, or disposable parts.

Also from his study of patents, Altshuller developed eight trends that illustrate how many technologies evolve over time. One trend shows that while inventions often start as an immobile solid, the next generation is flexible, and the one after that is often a liquid or gas form – eventually the same problem may solved with a type of field.

To take a simple example (from Karen Gadd’s TRIZ for Engineers), blackboard pointers were originally rigid sticks, then developed joints to become hinged or telescopic devices, before (I think they skipped the liquid or gas phase) finally becoming electrical field devices in the shape of laser pointers.

Immobile System → Jointed → Many Joints → Fully Elastic → Liquid / Gas → Field

Does this trend help us predict the future of robotics?

In the late 30s, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation built an ungainly robot called Elektro, which was certainly pretty immobile (though it could smoke cigarettes). In ’54, a robot called the Unimate, which had the first jointed arm, was developed for General Motors. Modern industrial robots are now multi-jointed, and some androids appear completely flexible.

Perhaps with modular robots, such as MIT’s M-Blocks – which assemble themselves like jumping beans into the most appropriate shape for a specific task – we’re seeing the beginning of a more mature phase of robotics.

As modular robots develop and miniaturise, might we see nanoscale (a nanometre is 1,000,000mm) M-Blocks, so small they effectively form a robotic ‘field’ that can assemble itself into the most appropriate shape for the task at hand?