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Jocelyn Paine

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Why I Want to be Transhuman

December 22, 2008

I want to point you at three of my favourite songs. They are: Македонско девојче; O δρόμος; and Πάμε μια βόλτα στο φεγγάρι. The first is a Macedonian folk song, also from Bulgaria; the second is Greek, by Manos Loizos; the third is also Greek, by Manos Xatzidakis. All are YouTube links, though I'm sure pasting the titles into Google will find other versions too; and I think you'll enjoy the music even if you don't understand the words. The third song is incredibly nostalgic.

I have a friend called Jon Franklin who likes sad music: haunting, plaintive, yearning. I like it very much too, which is why I am so pleased I have these three songs. I don't recall where I found the first: probably at a Balkan dancing class. The second: after being told of Manos Loizos by a Greek who was at St. Peter's and who became a local-radio DJ in Greece. (Giannis, I can't remember your surname, but do get in touch if you should ever read this.) The third: on a tape my friend Petros Stefaneas bought me while I was living in Athens.

And because Jon would like the songs too, I emailed him last night. I was in Oxford's pub Far From the Madding Crowd. I pulled my laptop out of my rucsac; I booted it and connected to the pub's free Wi-Fi. I called up Firefox; I typed English transliterations of the song names into Google. I plugged in my headphones and decided which of the resulting YouTube tracks I liked most; and then I logged into my Internet Service Provider and emailed the URLs to Jon. Last century, I would have gone home to make a compilation tape.

Now let me take you somewhere very different: to one page of the n-category Café blog. The page in question is a thread about Greg Egan's latest science-fiction novel Incandescence. And this posting in it is a comment about Incandescence from mathematical physicist John Baez:

Indeed, one nice thing about certain SF stories — like Riding the Crocodile, or some other things by Egan, or parts of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, or some of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels — is that they tackle the problems faced by people whose basic needs are all met, and who thus need to tackle the question what’s really worth doing, when you have the freedom to try anything?

A lot of non-SF writing — so-called 'serious literature' — features characters faced with this question who collapse into self-destructive behavior. This is an important problem, but ultimately I find it a bit boring. Yes, you can become a drug addict, kill someone, or slit your wrists…. next?

One thing really worth doing is glorying in the ideas of mathematics, the structures of physics and chemistry, the wonders created by evolution. Take a look at the pollination mechanism of the bucket orchid, explained by Eric Hansen in Bee Bop. Part of each flower of this remarkable plant is shaped like a bucket. A bee comes to it, attracted to the scent; falls into the bucket, which is filled with fluid; and tries to climb out. But the only way out is through a narrow tunnel, and from its roof, twin pollen sacs hang. The bee bumps into them, and they break off. Each sac has a sticky base, but the glue takes some time to set, so the flower keeps the bee trapped until it has. He can then escape, perhaps 45 minutes later, with the packets sticking to his back. Eventually, the bee will fly into a female flower. And this time, he will blunder against a bump on the roof that knocks the pollen packets from his back and pushes them onto the flower's pistil, pollinating it.

John Baez glories in these marvels too. And he is a top-notch explainer and enthusiastic science populariser, which is why he writes a weekly column called This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics. Had I the time, which I don't, because I've got to fix yet another Web server — and when will our machines eliminate the necessity of work? — I would spend my entire time absorbing and explaining such marvels: bucket orchids, pore-size regulation in E. coli, the subtlety of isomorphism and equality, Stelarc's third hand, Neural Gases, the duality between Geometry and Algebra or Space and Quantity. Because helping others understand the marvels is a second thing really worth doing.

I get joy from this because it reawakens what science-fiction readers call the Sense of Wonder. But a third thing that is really worth doing delivers a different joy: that of luxuriating in the sensuality of art. When I travel, I collect local music. I send myself books on icons, on the Byzantine town of Nesebar, on delicate Russian lacquer boxes from Kholui. A book by Portuguese Miguel Torga, with his story O Cavaquinho: destitute father in a remote mountain village can barely afford to buy his son the first Christmas present ever, a cavaquinho guitar; trudges miles through ice and snow to the city market; is found dead not far from home, guitar fallen in the snow beside sprawled body. A book by Bulgarian Aleko Konstantinov, whose yobbish anti-hero Bai Ganyo sweats and farts around Europe with bumpkinish lager-lout manners inherited from a Bulgaria only just out from under the Ottoman Yoke.

And I have cartoons by Argentinian Quino, who draws a Peanuts-ish (but darker) strip called Mafalda, plus single cartoons whose characters are usually being tormented by bureaucrats and dictators. Cartoons by Belgian André Franquin, whose infeasibly creative office-boy Guust Flater invents really silly things like a plastic duct slung above office desks to give his goldfish room to swim. Guust is great fun: I don't think he's been translated into English, so I read him in Dutch. I don't think Quino has been translated either, although I have copies in French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Which brings me back to my first paragraph. There are too many languages to learn. And Google Language Tools is not yet adequate for literature. Though it is already amazing. Remember those old science-fiction clichés? "He threw the mechanical translator into gear and began negotiating with the alien ambassador." And now we have the translator: free, and available from any rural pub equipped with a Wi-Fi box.

In this particular pub, I'm just going to buy another half of Bingle Jells, a strong bitter brewed by Mighty Oak. Some beers are dry and taste of ginger; others are heavy, and taste on the sides and back of the tongue like alcoholic Frank Cooper's Thick Cut Oxford Marmalade. Were I in Braga in Portugal, I would eat a slice of strong, dry, artesanal queijo de cabra, balanced by a strong red wine from Estramadura. (Lots of tannins, I like, the rougher the better. I have peasant tastes.)

In Athens, Taverna Barbagiannis — in Odos Emmanuel Benaki, if I remember correctly — did an excellent red onion, dill and potato salad, which I have tried to give a recipe for here, if you search for the string "Greek Onion, Dill and Potato Salad". (I collect recipes too.) It is excellent to sit in the warm Autumn air, tasting the freshness of the dill against the heaviness of the potato, somehow moderated by the salt of the olives and the biting bright pinpricks of grated red onion.

It is also excellent to walk down Odos Kallidromiou on Saturday morning, smelling the bunches of dill on the market stalls and deciding which to buy from aroma alone. And it was excellent to live in Hotel Orion above Odos Kallidromiou, because most residents were working for Ford Models. As I booked in at the hotel, not knowing this, a girl happened to walk out of the lift towards me. "You mustn't mind that we're all so beautiful," she said, "because we're models, you know."

Cooking; wine and beer; personal beauty: these are art too. But let me interrupt myself. In 2006, I published links and quotes in the Dr Dobbs AI Expert Newsletter, to illustrate the diversity of AI over its past 50 years. One link was to a quote by Marvin Minsky from It's 2001. Where Is HAL?, transcript of a 23rd May Dr Dobbs TechNetCast for Game Developers Conference 2001, previewing Minsky's book The Emotion Machine. Unfortunately, the part of the link that carried Minsky's quote has died, so I'll reproduce it below:

I was once giving some lectures on longevity and immortality. I noticed that people didn't like the idea much, so I actually took a poll of a couple of audiences. I asked how many of you would like to live for 200 years. Almost no one raised their hand. They said because you'd be so crippled and arthritic and amnesiac that it would be no fun. So I changed the question. How would you like to live 200 or 500 years in the same physical condition that you were at half your age. Guess what, almost nobody raised their hand. But when I tried the same question with a technical audience, scientific people, they all raised their hand. So I did ask both groups. The ordinary people, if you'll pardon the stereotype, generally said that they thought human lifetime was just fine. They'd done most of the things they wanted to do. Maybe they wanted to visit the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, but they could live without that. And surely another 100 years would be terribly boring.

 A fourth thing really worth doing is appreciating abstract structure: in art, in mathematics, in humour. I have a notion that, high in the brain's abstraction hierarchy, some mathematics activates the same neurons as do — for example — El Lissitzky posters and De Stijl typography. I base this only on introspection, though I'm willing to donate the idea to anyone with a spare fMRI scanner: looking at such images feels remarkably similar to when I try to visualise the contents of certain category-theory papers. Particularly, for some reason, those by William Lawvere, in which he describes such wonderful constructs as the "adjoint cylinder" and the "adequacy comonad". The latter, actually, feels as though it resembles H. G. Wells's time machine. The small one, that sat on an octagonal table and was used as a model: an intricate little gadget, all levers and gleaming quartz and brass and nickel bars. At any rate, I derive joy from sitting back and contemplating mathematical structures. Not hacking out proofs, or "doing" anything in particular, but just "looking" at them. This is mathematics as sculpture.

But — as I once remarked in a posting called A Plea to the Future — I'd like to use mathematics to provoke emotional responses, too. I want to be able to play the Glass Bead Game. Properly. By writing down an emotional baseline, or bass line, then setting up functors to map it into various sensory modalities and mathematical propositions, with adjunctions and colimits to ensure optimum harmonic blending. And if that sounds like gibberish, so would Bach musicology once.

This Dobbs posting is more personal than most of mine. Compared with much writing about transhumanism, it seems the best way to make my point. So I shall note that it is now the following morning, and I am sitting in my local Costa, enjoying a cappuccino while awash in the oceanic melodies of Existir, an album by Portuguese band Madredeus. I just finished listening to an anti-Salazar song, O Charlatão, by José Mário Branco and Sergio Godinho. I like Godinho's nifty wordplay so much that I'm going to ask Windows Media Player to play it again.

But Portuguese is yet another language to learn. Well, the caffeine in my cappuccino is a cognition-enhancing drug. So, I suspect, is Madredeus. I do hope, though, that the pharmacologists quickly invent something better. Caffeine kills sleep, and if we went round all day playing Madredeus on our iPods, it would be distracting. But we do need something, because our brains are so remarkably ill-tuned to the amount of practice needed to learn anything that's really worth doing. Just count the second-hand Greek and Spanish grammars, the guitar-chord tutors, in your local charity shop. Almost unused: one lesson, and then the brain stops wanting to learn. If there are neurophysiologists reading this, please tell me: what on Earth is the evolutionary benefit of not wanting to improve a skill?

So we're stuck with brains designed to count the bananas. And then we die. To Minsky's audience from the general public, that didn't matter. But it does to me. I want to live forever, to continue doing things that I love, that are really worth doing. Read Nick Bostrom's The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, and tell me. All the money wasted on the bloody Iraq war: wouldn't it have been better spent on anti-senescence research? Bostrom's fable is about the immorality of not researching immortality.

And, I want to do the things really worth doing with a brain that wants wholeheartedly to do them. And with other enhancements. In 2002, I went round Europe to watch the Euro come in. I stopped at a Maastricht beer festival, and I met a man who was a beer-recipe consultant. He would taste a brewery's beers, and then suggest new recipes that would fill gaps in their product range. In order better to do so, he had gone to London and had surgery to improve his taste discrimination. (He did not explain how.) Technology was giving him senses he had not had before.

Oh, you say, I've tagged this posting as "transhumanism" but haven't explained what that is? Transhumanism is using technology to enhance our bodies and minds. Like my beer consultant. Like I was doing in Far From the Madding Crowd when I Wi-Fi'd, Firefoxed, Googled, headphoned, and emailed. But more so. Exponentially more so; but always to deepen the joys that I've catalogued above; and others that I haven't, such as joy in running and dancing and collecting dialogues and taking photographs. I want this so much. I yearn for it. I yearn as strongly as the singer of Πάμε μια βόλτα στο φεγγάρι ever yearned for the Moon. Listen. If I were singing, you would hear an equal yearning in my voice.

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