For Drone Researchers: “People are the problem”

chimp attacks drone

Missy Cummings is the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab (aptly shortened to HAL; formerly known as the Humans and Automation Lab) at Duke University. A recent article by Todd C. Finkel in The Washington Post described her as “one of the nation’s top drone researchers”. The article was specifically concerned with current obstacles to using drones for delivering consumer goods as is being pursued companies like Amazon and Google. According to Finkel, Cummings “doesn’t doubt the technology” and “believes these autonomous machines already possess the ability to accurately and reliably do their jobs.” Finkel says that the technical issues regarding drone delivery have largely been solved.

But Cummings is concerned with the so-called “socio-technical issues”. These include kids throwing rocks, curious dogs, people with guns, etc. Indeed, searching “animals attacking drones” yields nearly half a million hits on Google and is becoming something of an online video genre. It is these sorts of obstacles that are purportedly delaying the Brave New World of drone delivery.

Or as The Washington Post succinctly puts it: “People are the problem.”

And isn’t this so often the case with technological progress? People are the problem. Or as one version of the Post headline put it “the enemy”.

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed in which investor Peter Thiel called for a vast expansion of nuclear power. He dismissed the accident at Chernobyl as “a direct result of both a faulty design and the operators’ incompetence”. Presumably the new designs Thiel is advocating for (and hoping to invest in) will be without fault and only put into the hands of inerrant operators.

Similar logic is employed to defend Google’s self-driving cars. The machine can do a better job than a human driver. It would therefore be best to eliminate the human element and turn operation of the vehicle over to the machine. Of course, the alternative that is not considered is that it may very well be the car that may need to be eliminated rather than the human.

The goal is to eliminate human error but to do that would require nothing short of eliminating humanity. Eliminating our animality. Assimilating us into a machine world or discarding us as refuse. While this is almost the explicit goal of transhumanists—those who hope to “transcend biology”—it is implicitly pursued by people such as Missy Cummings of Duke University. Cummings may not identify as a transhumanist, may not entertain the idea of living forever like Ray Kurzweil and Zoltan Istvan, may not pine to upload her brain to the internet, but she is doing the necessary work of overcoming the problem of people. Designing a world where our actions are without significance or impact.

In considering these “socio-technical” obstacles—the problem of human beings—Missy Cummings says she likes to consider how her eight year-old son would react to seeing a drone. She says “He’d like to throw rocks at it—because it’s there. It’s just human nature.”

While Cummings may see our rock-throwing nature as an obstacle to overcome, I see the impulses of her son as a source of hope. It’s an impulse that many of us share.

Pick up a rock.

Additional note:

drone researcherYou can learn more about Mary “Missy” Cummings at the website for the Humans and Autonomy Lab: 

The site lists her email address as:

The Humans and Anatomy Lab is located in Hudson Hall on the Duke University campus. (directions)

Baseball, Steroids, and the Arms Race of Technology

As an advanced society full of technological wonders, perhaps it’s time we consider upgrading our idea of sports and rethinking what constitutes an exemplary athlete.” –Zoltan Istvan

ARod“Exemplary athlete”? “tainted slugger”? Whatever your judgment, Alex Rodriguez returns to baseball after being suspended for the entire 2014 baseball season. Rodriquez was suspended for using various “performance enhancing drugs” or PEDs which are prohibited by Major League Baseball. At the time of his suspension he was the highest paid player in the history of the game and his suspension remains the longest ever handed down. With his return, baseball once again attempts to turn the page on what has been called the Steroid Era.

The story of Alex Rodriguez could be told as a modern parable warning of a danger more relevant to those of us who can’t hit a baseball as far as Rodriguez can—with or without steroids.

Peformance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)

Not everyone thinks that PEDs ought to be banned in professional sports. Like recreational drugs in widespread use, it is argued that regulation would be more effective and health risks could be minimized if PEDs were used openly and without penalty. Questions of fairness could purportedly be addressed by ensuring that all athletes have access to PEDs and therefore were competing on a level playing field. It is also argued that use is so widespread that prohibitions are ultimately futile; cheaters are going to cheat.

There are, no doubt, a lot of bad arguments for banning PEDs…but they are not all bad.

The most compelling reason for banning the use of PEDs by professional baseball players is that the use of PEDs by some creates undue pressure on others to do likewise. In order to remain competitive, many are compelled (would it be too far to say “coerced”?) to take what would otherwise be unnecessary risks to their health. It begins as a free choice by an individual and quickly becomes almost requisite for those who wish to play the game. And it does not only affect professional ball players, which is admittedly a fairly small group of people, but rather affects all who aspire to compete at that level—a considerably larger group of people. A study commissioned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame makes the point:

Even if every single player in Major League Baseball used steroids, that would be approximately 1,300 users, when in contrast, considering that there are about 16 million private and public high-school students in the U.S., between 350,000 to almost a million are using steroids illegally,”

It may be suggested that professional athletes are well compensated for taking such risks but most young people with such ambitions will never be so compensated; they are gambling with their health for a payoff that more often than not will never materialize. Shockingly, many minor league baseball players earn poverty level wages.

Philosopher Jacob Beck has compared the use of PEDs in baseball to a vicious arms race in which “everyone winds up worse off than if the arms race had never begun”. Beck argues that preventing such an arms race is in fact the only good reason to ban PEDs in professional sports.

There is also a secondary arms race between drugs and drug testing. Alex Rodriguez wasn’t suspended because he failed a drug test; the drugs he took never showed up on tests that were administered. Drugs are developed and introduced with the intention that they will not show up on particular tests; tests are then developed to catch up to the drugs being used. The effect is that new drugs are regularly introduced and with each one a new set of risks is introduced.

Personal Electonic Devices (PEDs)

There is a parallel between the logic of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball and the way new personal electronic devices (PEDs) are introduced and adopted.

The newest phone, watch, tablet, or whatever it may be, promises a competitive edge to the user. But the promises often hinge on your having the device before it becomes completely ubiquitous. Once others catch up, there is no competitive advantage and yet there is no clear way of going back to life without the device. No one is better off and everyone is locked into a new state of affairs; a new state of affairs which will often represent a net loss in terms of health and happiness. It is yet another vicious arms race.

New devices are originally presented as voluntary—so as to silence critics—but quickly become almost obligatory. Performance enhancing drugs are voluntary but quickly become obligatory if one hopes to remain competitive or make it in the big leagues.

Not writing about steroids, Ted Kaczynski explains the general phenomenon:

When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.” (“Industrial Society and its Future” published in Technological Slavery, p. 76)

Predating Kaczynski by approximately thirty years, Jacques Ellul writes:

“once an advanced technical product is created, the important thing is to force consumers to use it even though they have no interest in it.” (Ellul, Technological Society, p. 205)

As evidence for the point made by Kaczynski and Ellul, consider a recent New York Times headline (from February 2015): 

Apple’s New Job: Selling a Smartwatch to an Uninterested Publicsmartwatch

Steroids changed baseball in such a way so thateven those who might be disinclined to use them likely felt compelled. Personal electronic devices (PEDs) have changed society to such an extent that opting out is no longer a viable option for most people.

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Google’s Eric Schmidt speak of getting everyone online they are the equivalent of dealers setting up everyone’s injections; they have an interest in getting everyone hooked. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg explains that “Connecting everyone is one of the fundamental challenges of our generation.” In 2013, Eric Schmidt predicted that “everyone on Earth will be connected” by the end of the decade. Last January, Schmidt said that soon “the internet will disappear” explaining further that “there will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you areinteracting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.”

You won’t even sense it.

Postscript: Steroids, Technology, and Transhumanism

Finally, there is another argument in favor of allowing performance enhancing drugs into professional sports: the games would supposedly be more enjoyable for spectators. Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan looks forward to a time when “humans will sprint faster than horses” and “athletes will swim entire races without taking a breath”; as evidence that we are on such a trajectory Istvan explains that “already, untainted urine samples have become as essential to top runners as their shoes”.

Istvan has gone as far as to call for a Transhumanist Olympics which he explains as:

“a place for athletes in the 21st Century who have modified themselves with drugs, technologies, and bionic enhancements. A place where the best human potential combines with the most advanced science to create the coolest competitions possible.”

Set alongside the transhumanist visions of Zoltan Istvan, Rodriguez’s steroids may appear as banal as Flintstone vitamins. But the transhumanist vision is the logical extension of the ongoing arms race.


Gigadeath: The Metric of Transhumanism

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

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.

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)

Hugo de Garis’ The Artilect War can be read in its entirety online at:

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


Pearce and Predation: The Intersection of Veganism and Transhumanism

“The final dream of civilization is that everything will be controlled, organized, categorized; all wildness and spontaneity will be eradicated.”
-Miles Olson, Unlearn, Rewild

“Why confine the civilising process to a single ethnic group or species?”
-David Pearce

A recent interview with vegan and transhumanist David Pearce serves to illustrate the difficulty posed by predation for vegans and/or anyone concerned about the well-being of nonhuman animals. Predation is a Rorschach test and how one responds to it can inform their whole outlook on wild nature. Does predation mean that nature is necessarily and overwhelmingly a place of suffering and death (”red in tooth and claw”)? Alternatively, might the suffering associated with predation be offset by nature’s virtues?

Pearce understands veganism as a means to reduce suffering. But Pearce’s ultimate aspiration is not merely to reduce suffering but to eliminate suffering altogether. Predation is a significant source of suffering that would obviously need to be addressed for Pearce’s vision to be realized. Pearce says:

“I tentatively predict that the world’s last unpleasant experience in our forward light-cone will be a precisely datable event — perhaps some micro-pain in an obscure marine invertebrate a few centuries hence.” 

To realize this goal, Pearce is open to both phased extinctions and genetic reprogramming of carnivores. In the interview he says:

“I’m not personally convinced that we need such predatory species to survive.”

It is important to pause here. Pearce is saying that there may be no reason to be troubled by species extinction and that, in some cases at least, extinction might be a worthwhile goal to pursue. We don’t need lions or tigers and if they are only going to hurt other animals then they might as well disappear. Note that while such a view may seem strange, it is not necessarily inconsistent with Pearce’s veganism; Pearce would presumably view it as the logical extension of his veganism.

If predators are to be kept around:

“the carnivorous members of tomorrow’s wildlife parks will need to be genetically and behaviourally tweaked — with neurochips, GPS tracking and abundance of other high-tech safeguards to prevent accidents.”

He speaks of “wildlife parks” because at this point there will seemingly be no wilderness and consequently no free-living animals. Domestication will have reached its zenith. Animals that remain will effectively be zoo exhibits; they will exist at the discretion of human beings and in a form determined by human beings. He explains that:

“Within the next few decades, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control.”

Surveillance, micro-management, and control. These are the values of civilization and Pearce wonders: why limit the civilizing process to one species? The values of civilization aspire toward universal application.tiger collar

Note: David Pearce’s website–The Hedonistic Imperative–can be found at


Holy Zoltan, Batman!

Zoltan arcade“We didn’t evolve through billions of years to remain animals.” -Zoltan Istvan

Only a troubling amalgam of self-hatred, stunning arrogance, and (I charitably presume) willful ignorance could make the above sentiment possible; only a culture where such dysfunctional traits are widespread yet unacknowledged could interpret the statement as profound rather than pathological.

Self-hatred because it cast our fundamental identity as animals as something to be denied, belittled, and ultimately escaped. Arrogance because it positions humans as qualitatively different from and above all other animals.  And (willful) ignorance because even an elementary understanding of evolution reveals that no species is “more evolved” than any other. It is not as though evolution is a race where some individuals opted to drop out early (reptiles, perhaps?), others made it a considerable distance (chimpanzees, for example), but only one group finished the race (human beings!) and can now claim the prize of shedding their animality altogether.

Zoltan Istvan is the author of The Transhumanist Wager which has been described as transhumanism’s Atlas Shrugged (sometimes as praise and sometimes as criticism). He has allegedly (by Huffington Post at least) been described as a “visionary” and yet at their core his views represent what must be the most common prejudices in the western world: we are not animals, we are above animals, we are more evolved than animals, we can overcome death.

His ideas are promoted as cutting edge and yet they are not radically different than Descartes’ division between humans and other animals (except that for Descartes it was other animals who were the automatons whereas transhumanists anticipate a day when humans are essentially the automatons).  And despite his avowed atheism, Zoltan’s prejudices are similar to those of the Catholic Church which deny our animality, grant us dominion over other animals, and place us closer to God than other animals.

A few recent ideas from Zoltan:

  • In February, he wrote about transhumanism and environmental concerns: “While New York City, Boston and Miami may be partially underwater by 2100, many futurists don’t plan to be around in the flesh by then. And if they are, they’ll have the technology to walk on water.” He elaborates:

    “There are probably zero futurists who feel good about damaging our beautiful planet. However, many of them realize that the benefit of the species’ rapid evolutionary ascent outweighs the harm progress is causing to Earth. Our planet is strong; it can handle climate change and an expanding human population while our species prepares for the transhumanist age. The evolutionary outcome of humanity will be better of by turning a blind eye to Mother Earth.”

  • In April, Zoltan called for “one-time 1 percent life extension tax” which he refers to as the Jethro Knights Life Extension Tax (naming it after the lead character in his novel). In the article, he suggests that “the world can conquer death in about a decade’s time if enough resources are put towards it” and that “no sane and reasonable person wants to die if it can be avoided.”
  • Last December: “the birth of an advanced artificial intelligence will become far more important than the birth of Christ…reasonable people will celebrate AI Day, the real moment in history the savior of civilization was born.”

Zoltan himself acknowledges that it would be easy to dismiss such ideas as science fiction.  It would also be easy to dismiss his articles as well-designed click-bait for sites such as Huffington Post.  And yet the popularity of transhumanism appears to be growing.  The most noteworthy of all transhumanists, Ray Kurzweil, currently works for Google which is not exactly a fringe outfit.

Furthermore, the ideas need not be plausible or even desirable in order for the individuals infected with such ideas to be dangerous; even a fairly sympathetic review of his novel points out “some fascist measures” that are taken by the putative heroes in realizing their transhumanist goals. Evidence that those fascist tendencies are not necessarily limited to the pages of a novel or the minds of fictional characters can be found in a January 2014 article in Psychology Today titled: “When Does Hindering Life Extension Science Become a Crime?” in which Zoltan laments that “America continues to be permeated with anti-life extension culture” and argues that “[s]tifling or hindering life extension science, education, and practices needs to be recognized as a legitimate crime.” To not support radical life extension policy is, by Zoltan’s lights, to “prematurely [end] human lives” and thus “criminal manslaughter”.  Presumably refusing to pay your Jethro Knights tax might invite a harsh punishment.

(Note: for information on the above pictured Zoltan arcade amusement, visit here.)