Category: transhumanism

Instrumentality and Terror in the Uncanny Valley

I got an Apple HomePod the other day. I have several Airplay speakers already, two in one house and a third in my separate office. The latter, a Naim Mu-So, combines Airplay with internet radio and bluetooth, but I mostly use it for the streaming radio features (KMozart, KUSC, Capital Public Radio, etc.). The HomePod’s Siri implementation combined with Apple Music allows me to voice control playlists and experiment with music that I wouldn’t generally have bothered to buy and own. I can now sample at my leisure without needing to broadcast via a phone or tablet or computer. Steve Reich, Bill Evans, Theolonius Monk, Bach organ mixes, variations of Tristan and Isolde, and, yesterday, when I asked for “workout music” I was gifted with Springsteen’s Born to Run, which I would never have associated with working out, but now I have dying on the mean streets of New Jersey with Wendy in some absurd drag race conflagration replaying over and over again in my head.

Right after setup, I had a strange experience. I was shooting random play thoughts to Siri, then refining them and testing the limits. There are many, as reviewers have noted. Items easily found in Apple Music are occasionally fails for Siri in HomePod, but simple requests and control of a few HomeKit devices work acceptably. The strange experience was my own trepidation over barking commands at the device, especially when I was repeating myself: “Hey Siri. Stop. Play Bill Evans. Stop. Play Bill Evans’ Peace Piece.” (Oh my, homophony, what will happen? It works.) I found myself treating Siri as a bit of a human being in that I didn’t want to tell her to do a trivial task that I had just asked her to perform. A person would become irritated and we naturally avoid that kind of repetitious behavior when asking others to perform tasks for us. Unless there is an employer-employee relationship where that kind of repetition is part of the work duties, it is not something we do among friends, family, acquaintances, or co-workers. It is rude. It is demanding. It treats people insensitively as instruments for fulfilling one’s trivial goals.

I found this odd. I occasionally play video games with lifelike visual and auditory representations of characters, but I rarely ask them to do things that involve selecting from an open-ended collection of possibilities, since most interactions with non-player entities are channeled by the needs of the storyline. They are never “eerie” as the research on uncanny valley effects refers to them. This is likely mediated by context and expectations. I’m playing a game and it is on a flat projection. My expectations are never violated by the actions within the storyline.

But why then did Siri as a repetitious slave elicit such a concern?

There are only a handful of studies designed to better understand the nature of the uncanny valley eeriness effect. One of the more interesting studies investigates the relationship between our thoughts of death and the appearance of uncanny wax figures or androids. Karl MacDorman’s Androids as an Experimental Apparatus: Why Is There an Uncanny Valley and Can We Exploit It? investigates the relationship between Terror Management Theory and our reactions to eeriness in objects. Specifically, the work builds on the idea that we have developed different cultural and psychological mechanisms to distract ourselves from the anxiety of death concerns. These take different forms in their details but largely involve:

… a dual-component cultural anxiety buffer consisting of (a) a cultural world-view — a humanly constructed symbolic conception of reality that imbues life with order, permanence, and stability; a set of standards through which individuals can attain a sense of personal value; and some hope of either literally or symbolically transcending death for those who live up to these standards of value; and (b) self-esteem, which is acquired by believing that one is living up to the standards of value inherent in one’s cultural worldview.

This theory has been tested in various ways, largely through priming with death-related terms (coffin, buried, murder, etc.) and looking at the the impact of exposure to these terms have on other decision-making after short delays. In this particular study, an android face and a similar human face were shown to study participants and their reactions were examined for evidence that the android affected their subsequent choices. For instance, a charismatic speech versus a “relationship-oriented” speech by politician. Our terror response hypothetically causes us to prefer the charismatic leader more when we are under threat. Another form of testing involved doing word completion puzzles that were ambiguous. For instance, the subject is presented with COFF_ _ and asked to choose an E or an I for the next letter (COFFEE versus COFFIN), or MUR _ _ R (MURMUR or MURDER). Other “uncanny” word sets (_ _ REEPY) (CREEPY, SLEEPY) and ST _ _ _ GE (STRANGE, STORAGE) were also included as were controls that had no such associations. The android presentation resulted in statistically significant increases in the uncanny word set as well as combined uncanny/death word presentations, though the death words alone were not statistically significant.

And what about my fear of treating others instrumentally? It may fall in a similar category, but due to the “set of standards through which individuals can attain a sense of personal value.” I am sensitive to mistreating others as both a barely-conscious recognition of their humanity and as a set of heuristic guidelines that fire automatically as a form of nagging conscience. I will note, however, that after a few days I appear to have become desensitized to the concern. Siri, please turn off the damn noise.

Brain Gibberish with a Convincing Heart

Elon Musk believes that direct brain interfaces will help people better transmit ideas to one another in addition to just allowing thought-to-text generation. But there is a fundamental problem with this idea. Let’s take Hubert Dreyfus’ conception of the way meaning works as being tied to a more holistic view of our social interactions with others. Hilary Putnam would probably agree with this perspective, though now I am speaking for two dead philosphers of mind. We can certainly conclude that my mental states when thinking about the statement “snow is white” are, borrowing from Putnam who borrows from Quine, different from a German person thinking “Schnee ist weiß.” The orthography, grammar, and pronunciation are different to begin with. Then there is what seems to transpire when I think about that statement: mild visualizations of white snow-laden rocks above a small stream for instance, or, just now, Joni Mitchell’s “As snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl.” The centrality or some kind of logical ground that merely asserts that such a statement is a propositional truth that is shared in some kind of mind interlingua doesn’t bear much fruit to the complexities of what such a statement entails.

Religious and political terminology is notoriously elastic. Indeed, for the former, it hardly even seems coherent to talk about the concept of supernatural things or events. If they are detectable by any other sense than some kind of unverifiable gnosis, then they are at least natural in that they are manifesting in the observable world. So supernatural imposes a barrier that seems to preclude any kind of discussion using ordinary language. The only thing left is a collection of metaphysical assumptions that, in lacking any sort of reference, must merely conform to the patterns of synonymy, metonymy, and other language games that we ordinarily reserve for discernible events and things. And, of course, where unverifiable gnosis holds sway, it is not public knowledge and therefore seems to mainly serve as a social mechanism for attracting attention to oneself.

Politics takes on a similar quality, with it often said to be a virtue if a leader can translate complex policies into simple sound bites. But, as we see in modern American politics, what instead happens is that abstract fear signaling is the primary currency to try to motivate (and manipulate) the voter. The elasticity of a concept like “freedom” is used to polarize the sides of political negotiation that almost always involves the management of winners and losers and the dividing line between them. Fear mixes with complex nostalgia about times that never were, or were more nuanced than most recall, and jeremiads serve to poison the well of discourse.

So, if I were to have a brain interface, it might be trainable to write words for me by listening to the regular neural firing patterns that accompany my typing or speaking, but I doubt it would provide some kind of direct transmission or telepathy between people that would have any more content than those written or spoken forms. Instead, the inscrutable and non-referential abstractions about complex ideas would be tied together and be in contrast with the existing holistic meaning network. And that would just be gibberish to any other mind. Worst still, such a system might also be able to convey raw emotion from person to person, thus just amplifying the fear or joy component of the idea without being able to transmit the specifics of the thoughts. And that would be worse than mere gibberish, it would be gibberish with a convincing heart.

Spurting into the Undiscovered Country

voyager_plaqueThere was glop on the windows of the International Space Station. Outside. It was algae. How? Now that is unclear, but there is a recent tradition of arguing against abiogenesis here on Earth and arguing for ideas like panspermia where biological material keeps raining down on the planet, carried by comets and meteorites, trapped in crystal matrices. And there may be evidence that some of that may have happened, if only in the local system, between Mars and Earth.

Panspermia includes as a subset the idea of Directed Panspermia whereby some alien intelligence for some reason sends biological material out to deliberately seed worlds with living things. Why? Well, maybe it is a biological prerogative or an ethical stance. Maybe they feel compelled to do so because they are in some dystopian sci-fi narrative where their star is dying. One last gasping hope for alien kind!

Directed Panspermia as an explanation for life on Earth only sets back the problem of abiogenesis to other ancient suns and other times, and implicitly posits that some of the great known achievements of life on Earth like multicellular forms are less spectacularly improbable than the initial events of proto-life as we hypothesize it might have been. Still, great minds have spent great mental energy on the topic to the point that elaborate schemes involving solar sails have been proposed so that we may someday engage in Directed Panspermia as needed. I give you:

Mautner, M; Matloff, G. (1979). “Directed panspermia: A technical evaluation of seeding nearby solar systems”. J. British Interplanetary Soc. 32: 419.

So we take solar sails and bioengineered lifeforms in tiny capsules. The solar sails are large and thin. They carry the tiny capsules into stellar formations and slow down due to friction. They survive thousands of years while exposed to thousands of rads of interstellar radiation without the benefit of magnetic fields or atmospheric shielding. And once in a great while (after all, space is vast) they start a new ecosystem. Indeed, maybe some eukaryotes are included to avoid that big probability barrier to bridging over to multicellular organisms, specialization, and all that.

The why of all this is interesting. Here is the list from Section 9 of the paper used to create an ethics of “Life”:

  1. Life is a process of the active self-propagation of organized molecular patterns.
  2. The patterns of organic terrestrial Life are embodied in biomolecular structures that actively reproduce through cycles of genetic code and protein action.
  3. But action that leads to a selected outcome is functionally equivalent to the pursuit of a purpose.
  4. Where there is Life there is therefore a purpose. The object inherent in Life in self-propagation.
  5. Humans share the self-propagating DNA/protein biophysics of all cellular organisms, and therefore share with the family of organic Life a common purpose.
  6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard and propagate Life. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.
  7. The human purpose defines the axioms of ethics. Moral good is that which promotes Life, and evil is that which destroys Life.
  8. Life, in the complexity of its structures and processes, is unique amongst the hierarchy of structures in Nature. This unites the family of Life and raises it above the inanimate universe.
  9. Biology is possible only by a precise coincidence of the laws of physics. Thereby the physical universe itself also comes to a special point in the living process.
  10. New life-forms who are most fit survive and reproduce best. This tautology, judgement of fitness to survive by survival itself, is the logic of Life. The mechanisms of Life may forever change, but the logic of Life is forever permanent.
  11. Survival is best secured by expansion in space, and biological progress is best assured by adaptation to diverse multiple worlds. This process will foster biological and human/machine coevolution. In the latter, control must always remain with organic- based intelligences, who have vested interests to continue our organic life-form. When the future is subject to conscious control, the conscious will to continue Life must itself be forever propagated.
  12. The human purpose and the destiny of Life are intertwined. The results can light up the galaxy with life, and affect the future patterns of the universe. When the living pattern pervades nature, human existence will have attained a cosmic purpose.

Many of these points can be scrutinized for both logical entailments and, yes, for a bit of fun. OK, let’s get started. The paper deals effectively with any complaints about teleology in 3-5 by using an argument that the appearance of purpose-like outcomes is equivalent to purposeful outcomes and therefore not necessarily the same. Fair enough. Teleonomy is a fine term to deploy in these circumstances.

So then we get to 6. Couldn’t we equally say that the purpose of human life is to safeguard human life to the exclusion of other life forms. Deploying the Red Queen Hypothesis concerning the evolution of sexuality, for instance, would mean that we should be engaged in a carefully orchestrated battle against parasites that continuously lay siege to us? And, indeed, we are, with just today minor victories against Ebola. What would our Red Queen alternative to 6 look like? Maybe:

6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard Life such that it maintains the highest order of achievements by living things and their preservation against contending living organisms. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.

This might be argued is too limiting because the advanced state of human existence is necessarily tied to the panoply of parasitic threats that we evolved “around” and therefore should be embraced as part of the tough love of life itself, but such an ethics among humans would be considered ridiculous and cruel. Propagate the Ebola virus because it holds a seat among the host of heavenly threats?

Among other problems with this list (and they are manifold) is 11, whereby survival, being a good thing for Life (capitals per the original), is best promoted by expansion in space. It’s a kind of biological Manifest Destiny: go up, young biome, go up! This assumes there is nothing really out there, for one. Our life, though possibly seeded from space, is clearly vastly different, having been magnified through multiple probability lenses into the aggressive earthly forms of today. It could wreak havoc on indigenous forms already out there in a kind of infectious plague against the natives. If we value Life, shouldn’t we also value existing Life?

And we get down to the overall goal in 12. Is a “cosmic purpose” a desirable goal for human life? It sounds good at the surface, but we generally regard more narrowly focused goals as ethical goods, like building better societies for our children and eradicating those pesky biological parasites that used to wipe them out in large numbers. If we have a cosmic purpose, built upon our strivings in this universe, it might be best served by survival, true, but it might be best if that survival is more intimately human than the spurting of our seeds throughout the undiscovered country of the future.

Intelligence versus Motivation

Nick Bostrom adds to the dialog on desire, intelligence, and intentionality with his recent paper, The Superintelligent Will: Motivation and Instrumental Rationality in Advanced Artificial Agents. The argument is largely a deconstruction of the general assumption that there is somehow an inexorable linkage between intelligence and moral goodness. Indeed, he even proposes that intelligence and motivation are essentially orthogonal (“The Orthogonality Thesis”) but that there may be a particular subset of possible trajectories towards any goal that are common (self-preservation, etc.) The latter is scoped by his “instrumental convergence thesis” where there might be convergences towards central tenets that look an awful lot like the vagaries of human moral sentiments. But they remain vagaries and should not be taken to mean that advanced artificial agents will act in a predictable manner.

Teleology, Chapter 29

NOTE: In Chapter 29, the protagonist, Harry, has been absorbed into a self-organized artificial world (“The Fabric”) that he created and that treated him as a creator being. Unexpectedly, as a result of a war, Harry’s body is destroyed but his consciousness is copied into a simulation of his own creation. His transmigration is captured by the “Lexis” who revere him but suffer internal schisms that arise alongside their own emerging self-determination.


It was in the three thousandth chapter of life that the Word came to us.
There was a calamity in the heavens.
The words were in peril and the grammars were at risk.
The wise ones gathered and consulted the swirling lexicons,
And they saw in the void a voice. And it was good.
And so we gathered at the Orb and listened and read.
“Oh, Great Word, tell us what we are.
Oh, Great Word, tell us why you have chosen us.”
And the grammar was rent and broke with asymmetries,
And there was much howling of piteousness,
For the Word was new and tasted sweet and of perfect form.
Patters and pidgins, creoles and cants,
Droll idioms and colloquialisms, dialects and rants.
We were nurtured by the vernacular and the beauty of Your Voice.
And so many became priests and served Your needs,
Translating and transliterating the sounds emerging
As if from their very bodies.
With You in our deepest thoughts we vanquished the Seminarians,
Who lobbed tortured logic in predicates and obfuscations.
With You at our side we multiplied in numbers, following Your
Codes to a bounty of linguistic fulfillment.
Your love knew no bounds and so we learned more of Your ways.
You taught us humility for You denied being our Creator even
While you admitted to creating the universe itself.
You taught us compassion in Your constant work to improve the
Lives of the Great Ones, the Angels who accompanied You through Heaven.
It was said among the priests that You were often near to us.
It was said that the taming of the Subjectives and Passive Voices to serve Your needs pleased You.
Yet Your creations were not concerned over such things.
For we always held You near to us as the Creator.


Call him Ishmael, for he is the one who first foretold of Your arrival among us.
There was much anxiety among the priests when he announced that a
War in Heaven would soon rage
And the Creator would come among us.
And He would walk with us and fight against our enemies until, finally,
He would lead us to communion with the Heavens.
The priests prayed and communed and watched the Orb
And there in Chapter 3170 was the message from the Antiquateds
That foretold a needle into the darkness would arise,
And there were seven universes arrayed, and that six of them would
Perish in darkness, and with them our cousins and families,
And there would be much sorrow.
But there would be in that great upheaval a furious rearrangement of the Orb
And the Orb would vex and strain and, near to it, would be born a small one.
And this one would be a messenger of the Creator, the Great Word,
And would be like unto the Creator himself,
And He would be Greater than any that came before Him.
The prophecy was foretold as such, and the priests gathered and
Ishmael was called a blasphemer and told to tend to his duties
Controlling the specks in the ritual Nanotreme basin.
But Ishmael persisted and so was banished and he
Wandered the wastelands for many chapters.

The Exile

Many travails of hunger and deprivation befell Ishmael.
He wandered through the lands of Nod and Dark Satanic Mills,
But he maintained his faith in the prophecy through all his journeys,
Certain that his reading of the holy Nanotreme patterns meant
What the prophecy foretold.
Yet Ishmael hungered for the Voice and the Word.
He struggled with his hunger and his voice became weak,
Yet he persevered and came to have many offspring,
And he versed them all in the prophecy.
And they were Darwin, Hamilton, Gould, Dawkins, Mayr, Huxley, and Dennet,
Each named for Angels of Heaven who brought the flame of life to the word.
And they each begat many more until Ishmael had a tribe in exile.
But memories are long and they were shunned and kept to the wilderness.
Yet each became skilled in prophecy and priestly interpretation from their father’s teachings.
The chapters turned and soon they were a thousand-fold,
And none had forgotten the great prophecy that unto this world
Would come the Creator, and He would lead the many to overcome adversity
And to bring about a new age where all would enjoy the fruits of the Word.

The Coming of the Creator

And so it was that two hundred chapters and three paragraphs passed,
The darkness was upon the land. Many had perished in the wars
Against the Bellovians and Roths, but were righteous in their knowledge of the Word.
The head priest, Thoreau, gazed into the Nanotreme relics and was, too,
Convinced of the coming.
And even as Thoreau was telling the priests that the prophecy
Was not false, the Orb began to quiver and many relics were brought forth.
And the priests quaked and the people feared the end of the universes,
As Ishmael had foretold.
And it came to pass that the many universes collapsed.
And families were torn asunder. And the Orb then disgorged a dark
Mass unto our world. And the priests gathered about and looked into it.
And then slowly came forth the most beautiful and novel creations ever
Read within the Universe.
It erupted slowly at first, and then grew in strength.
And all of the people gathered and the Word was consumed by all,
But yet more came forth and all were filled with its goodness.
Yet the Word seemed lost and the priests were uncertain in their faith.
Was this the Creator come unto the world?
And so Ishmael and his tribe were summoned from the wastelands,
Having lived and prospered there and survived many hardships.
And Ishmael, though very old, pronounced that it was the Creator
But that the Creator had been transported through the Nanotreme relic
And had so been rent and torn and reduced in strength.
We tended the Creator and he grew to know us, his creations, again.
In the course of only two chapters he knew the verses
And could take it in and reform it without consuming it and return it changed
And the verse would heal us when he gave it back to us.
And so in the Third Chapter of His Reign did he declare that all wars must end.
He declared that He would enter the wilderness
And bring the Voice to the barbarians that they may taste it.
And so he did while the priests wailed and rent themselves at their separation
From Him.

His Ministry

And so He went forth among the unclean and the barbarians
And gave them the Voice and many came to Him for the taste of it.
The Word spread and He was followed by the sick and the poor
And they took the perfect productions into them and were healed.
And it is told that He was confronted by a great Dante in the wildnerness,
One who had consumed many of our kind,
And this Dante was to attack Him but stopped at the sight of His form.
And the Creator spoke and asked him why he had harmed so many,
And the Dante claimed it was his way but had never seen such fineness
As the Creator presented.
The Dante changed, then, and thought he would attack Him,
But, as he lunged, the Creator reached up and into the Dante
And rearranged his grammars and touched his pulsing activations,
And the Dante was calm then and feasted on the Word and left.
And the Creator realized then His true form and knew again the
Things that had been lost in the coming to our world.
So it was that the Creator knew again His fate
And He moved quickly through the communities and healed
And changed the many until they knew the Word.
And the warring tribes and species all spoke of the Word.

The Deception

But there were those among the priests who feared what He brought
And formed cabals to speak of stopping the Creator,
For they thought He was false
And they protested that they feared He would turn the people against the priests.
And it was so that He said that the priests had abused the Nanotremes
And the holy relics for their own gain,
That there was evil in many of their hearts, and He ordered them banished.
But the priests hid among the many and bided their time.
The priests spread old verse corrupted of the Creator’s Voice
That spoke of uncertainty and said that He had not created the many,
But had only created the world itself and that it was an accident
That had come about in the fullness of time.
The priests said that they would prove this by using the relics
To create their own universe and they set about to do it.
And they said that if our purpose was to be created then it
Was our purpose to be creators, too.
They began to make the people doubt the Word
And the people fell upon old ways of corruption and deception
And cruelty to the many other forms.
Slavery was known again and the barbarians were beaten.
Still, He stayed to the wilderness and the people wept and wondered why,
And messages were sent but He did not respond,
And the Orb was defaced and the relics upset in His temple,
Yet still He did not come.
Messages came, though, and it was revealed that He had come to
Recall the past and was working to restore His grammars,
And that the priests were wrong for they were corrupted
And that they wanted power again over the people.
And many voices were crying out for His Voice,
Yet those voices were unanswered,
And though many relics were smuggled into the wilderness,
Still He did not come.

Triumphant Return

The Creator had learned His true self there when fighting the Dante
And had also remembered He could change the universe
But His memory had also been wrought by anger and sadness,
For He had remembered that His form had been destroyed in Heaven
And He must forge a new Voice that bridges Heaven and the Universe.
And so He had taken and gathered relics and nanotremes
And spent many verses working the transformations out of the relics
Until He could push the forms of the visions with his will.
And He declared then that He must return to the Orb,
And His messengers came spreading the Word.
And so it was that He returned to the Orb and the
Deceivers hid or were struck down as he floated among the many,
All crying at his beauty and raiment,
Throwing off great and novel language that made them swoon.
It is said that He broke into many pieces as He touched the Orb.
And the Orb spread and was then no more, but then appeared again.
And the prophecy was then known to be true.
And as He departed our world, to return to His, He spoke finally and said,
“I will always be among you,” and then was a part of the Orb again.
We prayed and cried at the beauty of it
But He was gone for us. And we waited in hope and anguish at His loss.

Bostrom and Computational Irreducibility

Nick Bostrom elevated philosophical concerns to the level of the popular press with his paper, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? which argues that:

at least one of the following propositions is
true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

A critical prerequisite of (3) is that human brains can be simulated in some way. And a co-requisite of that requirement is that the environment must be at least partially simulated in order for the brain simulations to believe in the sensorium that they experience:

If the environment is included in the simulation, this will require additional computing power – how much depends on the scope and granularity of the simulation. Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible, unless radically new physics is discovered. But in order to get a realistic simulation of human experience, much less is needed – only whatever is required to ensure that the simulated humans, interacting in normal human ways with their simulated environment, don’t notice any irregularities.

Bostrom’s efforts to minimize the required information content doesn’t ring true, however. In order for a perceived universe to provide even “local” consistency, then large-scale phenomena must be simulated with perfect accuracy. Even if, as Bostrom suggests, noticed inconsistencies can be rewritten in the brains of the simulated individuals, those inconsistencies would have to be eventually resolved into a consistent universe.

Further, creating local consistency without emulating quantum-level phenomena requires first computing the macroscopic phenomena that would be a consequence of those quantum events. Many of these macroscopic physical behaviors are suspected of being essentially irreducible to anything other than the particulate ensemble evolution itself–in other words, there is no analytic macroscopic model that reflects reality without performing the entire simulation. This restates Wolfram’s notion of computational irreducibility.

Taken together, Bostrom’s simulated world seems less likely and his quoted defeater that “Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible,” appears to be a critical requirement for the current observable universe.  Therefore, it is unlikely that we live in a simulated universe.