Gigadeath: The Metric of Transhumanism

Giga-death is the characteristic number of human deaths in a
major 21st century war.
 (173)*

As previously addressed here at Uncivilized Animals, anarcho-primitivists have been harshly criticized for suggesting that the size of the current human population is not compatible with a living earth that can also support other forms of life. This assertion has lead to vitriolic accusations labeling primitivists as genocidal.

Ironically, the most genuine alternative to primitivism—transhumanism—also has what we might call a genocide problem…and it is not simply an accusation made by the most uncharitable of critics; rather it has been voiced by one of their own.

Meet Hugo de Garis:Hugo_de_Garis

I see humanity splitting into two major political groups, which in time will become increasingly bitterly opposed, as the artilect issue becomes more real and less science fiction like.” (11)

I am so pessimistic that I am glad to be alive today. At least I will die peacefully in my bed. However I fear for my grandchildren. They may well see the horror of it and very probably they will be destroyed by it. (17)

The above quotes are from de Garis’ book The Artilect War. In the book, de Garis lays out a doomsday scenario where the development of artifical intellects (hence his term “artilect”) divides humanity into two rival camps: Cosmists and Terrans. The Cosmists are those who wish to rapidly move forward with the development of these seemingly god-like artilects while the Terrans are essentially the Luddites who aim to halt the project seeing it as an existential threat to humanity. The Cosmists are purportedly motivated by awe whereas the Terrans are motivated by fear.

The two camps will be so passionate about their respective positions that billions will die in the conflict. Given his idiosyncratic tendency to coin new terms and acronyms, de Garis labels the result as “gigadeath”.

One startling aspect is that de Garis’ own area of research has been the development of artificial brains and intelligences. Before retiring in 2010, he was the director of Xiamen University’s Artificial Brain Lab in China. So what he is suggesting is that the most deadly war in the history of humanity (“a planetary civil war” (86) which will destroy his grandchildren) is a likely—perhaps even inevitable—consequence of his life’s work.

I feel terribly guilty in many ways, because I feel that my own work is part of the problem.” (82)

And while he may express some guilt, it is apparently not the kind of guilt that results from feeling one has made a serious mistake or would do things differently if given the opportunity; it’s guilt without regret. In The Artilect War he dedicates a whole chapter a set of arguments that could be employed by the Cosmists and an additional chapter for arguments that could be employed by the Terrans (these are probably the two most worthwhile chapters of his needlessly long book), but he does not pretend to be neutral; he is, at heart, a Cosmist.

If such a war does occur, killing billions, “gigadeath,” doesn’t that make me a monster, and the worst monster, worse than the monsters of Hitler, the Japanese, Stalin and Mao? Yet despite all this, I push on, because at the deepest level, I’m a Cosmist. I think that NOT building the artilects would be an even greater tragedy.” (84)

Humans “are of zero significance on a cosmic scale” (88) and so for de Garis there is no number of human death that could outweigh the pursuit of an intelligence that would purportedly be trillions of trillions of trillions of times more advanced than human intelligence. The loss of human being is in fact no loss at all. This is transhumanism.

By way of conclusion, it is important to note that amongst transhumanists de Garis is not a fringe figure. He has appeared in films such as Transcendent Man (a documentary on Ray Kurzweil), Singularity or Bust, and the BBC’s Human v2.0. His work is taken seriously be prominent transhumanist organizations and websites such as the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Humanity+, Singularity University, and KurzweilAI. He has been the subject of numerous interviews within transhumanist circles and The Artilect War has been widely reviewed by his colleagues. His work has been referenced in mainstream publications such The New York Times and Forbes magazine.

The existence of transhumanists such as de Garis creates something of a dilemma. On one hand, it is tempting to dismiss them as kooks or perhaps value them simply for the entertainment value of their grandiose aspirations. On the other hand, their fantasies do not need to be feasible in order for the pursuit of such fantasies to be genuinely dangerous.

Addendum:
de Garis predicts that Ted Kaczynski may eventually come to be regarded as “the first Terran” who was “decades ahead of his time” striking out at proto-Cosmists and that he may eventually occupy a historical place similar to that of abolitionist John Brown (174)

Note:
Hugo de Garis’ The Artilect War can be read in its entirety online at:
http://profhugodegaris.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/artilectwar.pdf

*Numbers in parentheses all refer to de Garis’ The Artilect War.

 

Wooden Ships

Slave Ship Fredensborg II, 1788_jpg

Billions will die. This is possibly the most quickly voiced objection to anarcho-primitivism: if implemented billions will die. Only civilzation can support a human population of 7 billion (and growing).  There cannot be 7 billion hunter-gatherers. A population of 7 billion needs to be packed into dense cities like slaves into wooden ships. The density alone means that there will be a significant attrition rate but anti-primitivist critics are seemingly just trying to ignore the fact that the ship is already sinking. Yet it’s difficult to celebrate the sea-worthiness of a slave ship. Anarcho-primitivists are suggesting a mutiny and possibly a turning back but are consequently blamed for putting the whole vessel at risk and besides, it is said that we’ve already gone too far. How will we make it to land without the captain?

Even those who are seemingly receptive to the critique of civilization such as Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, counsel against rocking the boat too hard. Wright counsels:

“Those who don’t like civilization, and can’t wait for it to fall on its arrogant face, should keep in mind that there is no other way to support humanity in anything like our present numbers or estate.”

Wright follows this point with a footnote that says; “Put bluntly, billions would die.”

Those who are less receptive to the critique of civilization than Wright will regularly use the word “genocidal” to describe the anarcho-primitivist ideal. Anarcho-statist Noam Chomsky has said that primitivists are “calling for the worst mass genocide in human history”. Resistance is both crazy and dangerous; better to bide one’s time in the belly of the ship, strive to adapt to one’s new conditions.

In reality, anarcho-primitivists are sounding the alarm: things do not get better when the slave ship arrives in the so-called “New World”. Waiting to act allows the stakes to get higher and puts even greater numbers in jeopardy.

Civilization currently has about 7 billion hostages. Anyone who seeks to disrupt civilization’s machinations is accused of putting those hostages at risk. But civilization is a fanatic who is not looking to make a deal. The hostages will never be released; as it stands, many of them already show symptoms of aligning with their captor. Indeed, as the human population grows, civilization claims even greater numbers. Soon anarcho-primitivists will likely be accused of putting 8 or 9 billion people in jeopardy. “Billions will die” the critics will warn. Ronald Wright explained that as civilization advanced, it “kicked out the rungs below” and so it will inevitalby be a terrifying and painful jump (or perhaps fall) back to sane way of life.

Nonetheless, mutiny remains the best course of action even knowing full well that not everyone will survive; we do not want to go where this ship is heading.

Rejecting Thanksgiving?

There are many reasons to reject Thanksgiving.  It is a holiday that celebrates the genocide carried out against native populations by encouraging the perpetrators of that genocide to enthusiastically gorge themselves on the slaughtered remains of a whole new set of victims.  The systematic slaughter of animals differs from genocide only in that it lacks the goal of total extermination; instead the goal is for a never ending supply of bodies and fluids.  Indeed, it is genocide without end.

Furthermore, Thanksgiving has become the starting gun marking the so-called holiday season, also known as the shopping season.  It is a holiday that is putatively about being thankful and appreciative which concludes with people being trampled to death outside Wal-Mart by shoppers who have been convinced that their adequacy as parents hinges on their ability to secure whatever toy happens to be trending.

Consequently, calls to reject Thanksgiving are commonplace amongst the subset of the population that objects to genocide, animal sacrifice, and/or the mass frenzy of consumerism.

But calling on people to simply reject a firmly established holiday is quite difficult and perhaps somewhat unclear.  Is the idea to treat the day that Thanksgiving happens to fall on as a typical day which might include going to work, eating an average meal, not travelling or visiting family, not engaging in whatever benign traditions one may have grown accustomed to?  I for example would likely have to refrain from playing “Alice Restaurant” and donning my (now stained and tattered) “This Dump is Closed on Thanksgiving” t-shirt.  Does singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant constitute tacit support for the atrocities at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday?

Alternatively, is the call to reject or boycott Thanksgiving more accurately (or if not more accurately, simply preferably) understood as a call to re-invent or transform Thanksgiving?  I would suspect that it would be more feasible to transform a holiday than to simply wipe it off the calendar.  I would suspect that it would be impossible for the mass of people currently living in the United States not to ascribe some significance to the end of November, to look at a calendar and not think: “Thanksgiving”.  It is more likely—and more rewarding—to reinvent, rehabilitate, or possibly just co-opt the holiday.

Admittedly, this is far from an original idea.  Many Native Americans have treated the holiday as a Day of Mourning.  I would like to see this idea spread further.  It was introduced as an opportunity to reflect on the violent and genocidal European conquest of this continent but could easily be extended to include the animal populations that have been removed from the land as well.

Likewise, vegans and animal advocates regularly circulate animal-free menus that mimic a traditional Thanksgiving feast.  And I am aware of one animal advocate who has recommended–similar to a Day of Mourning–that a Thanksgiving day fast would be a most appropriate response.  Is a fast a boycott or simply a different way of investing the day with significance and meaning?

In any case, we are a society that is desperately in need of holidays and so we should probably be reluctant to simply give them up.  In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, she reports that “[i]n fifteenth century France…one our of every four days of the year was an official holiday of some sort, usually dedicated to a mix of religious ceremonies, and more or less unsanctioned carryings-on.”  In comparison, our calendar looks quite austere.

But we need holidays that bring us closer to our espoused values, which serve as reminders of what we have genuinely deemed to be important and opportunities to reflect, holidays that pause rather than stimulate business cycles, which offer us the chance to experience a range of emotions from mourning, when appropriate, to joy.  We lack genuine holidays; we now have only sales pitches and endzone dances.Day of Mourning