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[Easy Chair]

Everything That Rises


I have come to perceive a cosmos filled with superintelligent beings — a virtually infinite number of them, whose minds have transcended their earthbound bodies and are independent of any particular substrate — a “connectome” thinking at fantastic speeds, light, effulgent, deathless. The beings are ourselves a thousand or ten thousand years in the future, networked across galactic distances and accompanied by every human consciousness that has ever existed, resurrected from the abysm of time by quantum recovery techniques that even now can be shown not to violate the laws of physics. And I have come to perceive how we on Earth now must begin the task of bringing this future about.

Actually, I don’t perceive all this myself. But I spent a long day recently in the social-activities room of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, listening to the speakers at the Modern Cosmism conference describe these and other visions in PowerPoint presentations. Large color photographs on the walls showed galaxies and nebulae. The A/V system was a bit balky. There was boxed coffee. Close to a hundred people sat in stackable chairs, many of them familiar with the general concepts and eager to ask questions of the presenters. Several were of Russian origin, including Vlad Bowen, the conference’s organizer and the executive director of the Cosmism Foundation. Over the course of the day the Russian cosmist tradition of past centuries was mentioned and honored as inspiration, but this conference was forward-looking to a high degree: the focus was on new cosmism, not old.

It’s possible that without knowing much of anything about, say, theosophy, or naturism, or spiritualism, you could guess at their basic concepts and aims. But I doubt the same is true of Russian cosmism. The speakers at this conference were largely enthusiasts of cutting-edge science or sciencelike speculation, and their graphs and charts and videos described actual experimental results as well as far-off possibilities. Bowen opened the proceedings by describing the Greek concept of an original chaos — meaningless and formless — out of which arose a cosmos, ordered and beautiful. He noted, as once upon a time a classics teacher of mine had, that the words cosmos and cosmetics have the same root. But universal oneness and order is not what cosmists mostly contemplate now, and really it never was.

George Young, in his encyclopedic account The Russian Cosmists, calls the movement “oxymoronic”: a blend of “activist speculation, futuristic traditionalism, religious science, exoteric esotericism, utopian pragmatism, idealistic materialism — higher magic partnered to higher mathematics.” Many of the wildest speculators in the Russian tradition were scientists, including the physicist Nikolai Umov, the pioneering rocket theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky. Their grounding in science didn’t hinder, and may have powered, their quasi-religious speculations, which most of them regarded as practical programs for long-term human action. Young argues that it’s a specifically cosmist tendency to make every search for knowledge a starting point for work: to change every -ology into an -urgy. Thus theology yields theurgy: knowledge of God yields methods for putting God’s power to work.

Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov — a nineteenth-century librarian, philosopher, and secular saint — is still largely unheard-of outside Russia but a central figure in the history of Russian thought. He didn’t use the term “cosmism,” but his vast writings and, even more, his teaching and his friendships gave rise to the movement, as both theory and program, –ology and –urgy. For Fedorov, the central problem facing mankind (and he believed that indeed there is a central problem) was death, and the solution was to find the means and the will to defeat death, to make it powerless over the future and to rescue from its grasp everyone who has ever lived: a general resurrection of all the dead. We receive life from our mothers and fathers; our duty is to reverse the process and give life back to them. That is the “common task” he said was set for humanity.

This may sound like the most groundless kind of occult speculation, and it’s true that cosmism was infused with esoteric Christian leanings. But Fedorov considered his immense project to be actually workable, achievable by as yet undiscovered technologies. To him death was disintegration, the disaggregation of the cells and molecules that compose us, which are subject to random scattering or lumping in lifeless concretions. To resurrect the dead would mean finding, separating, and reaggregating all the particles in the right order and with the right connections, whereupon they would return to life. Starting small — just one person reanimated, perhaps only briefly — the process would become more and more replicable, reach deeper into the past, and range further afield. The particles of the very earliest and longest dead have been carried away from Earth and into space as the world turns, but they must also be recovered and revived. For total resurrection we would have to reach the planets and even beyond to recover the “ancestral dust,” to identify each person’s contents, and (contra Humpty Dumpty) to put them together again. These journeys would have another benefit: by the time a fully resurrected population threatened to overwhelm old Earth, other planets would be ready to receive us. Fedorov thought that it would be possible to sail and steer Earth itself like a spaceship, out of its old orbit and on to who knows where.

For all of this extravagance, Fedorov fits into a long Russian tradition of extreme humility and selflessness. Though he corresponded with Tolstoy and intrigued Dostoevsky, he published little, and when his miscellaneous papers were collected and printed by his followers, he was dismayed. He gave away his exiguous salary as a Moscow librarian, did not buy clothes, never married, and hardly ate. (I can’t bring myself to believe the repeated assertion that Fedorov didn’t have a bed or blankets and for years slept on a humpbacked trunk. How is that possible? How did he not roll off every night, more than once? It seems like something in a fairy tale, in its own way as strange as the cosmic notions he and his devotees came up with.)

Fedorov’s influence on, or at least his persistence in, later Russian thought has been long and queer, and could still be felt at the Modern Cosmism conference in far-off New York. The fact might have been noted — I don’t think it was — that Fedorov’s techniques of resurrection came to include the synthesizing or reengineering of bodies to be capable of living on many seemingly inhospitable planets, as well as the idea that a whole being could one day be resurrected from even a small trace of the former person. These ideas may only superficially resemble things like digitally uploaded minds and DNA, but the modern cosmists’ impulses and aspirations really do reflect Fedorovian ones: transforming humans into posthumans, achieving immortality, leaving Earth, expanding experience.

You could argue that what distinguishes the modern cosmists is that they can report some actual progress in developing means and techniques to achieve those goals. True artificial intelligence and travel beyond the solar system are more than pure speculation; immortality via biological engineering can be thought of as an extension of current knowledge and practice. At least the World Transhumanist Association — whose symbol is a lovely graphic h+ — thinks so. A little further off is the possibility of “substrate-independent minds.” When I first heard the term I thought it meant minds unattached to any substrate, i.e., a ghost or spirit-self; but what’s meant is cognition that arises from a substrate of any kind. In this view the mind is defined as the information state of the brain, and is immaterial only in the sense that the information content of a data file is. The brain is the substrate on which our information is stored and with which it is computed, but, the suggestion goes, it might be able to run on different hardware. Minds running on machine substrates can interface at speeds many times faster than our present abilities permit, and without error.

Cosmists old and new see human evolution as equivalent to progress, though evolutionary biologists mostly don’t. Modern cosmists tend to be committed, not to say extreme, libertarian individualists, whereas the old cosmists dreamed of community and commonality. How do these visions comport? Through AI and IA (“intelligence augmentation”), people are becoming ever more linked. They are seeing and feeling the same things at the same moment around the globe, and though what spreads fastest among us right now seems to be various forms of spiritual and social infection, that may just be the growing pains of a future communitarian or libertarian utopia.

What if we really could upload our brains’ information content — our “minds,” in this formulation — into a machine substrate that would support the contents just as the brain does? Would it create a double of the original flesh-and-blood person? What would they say to each other? Which one of them could vote? Ben Goertzel, who appears everywhere in AI foundations, research groups, and affairs such as this conference (he has authored “A Cosmist Manifesto”), admitted that at present uploading would require the death of the original person. James Hughes, our conference transhumanist, suggested that if the self is an illusion, as Buddhists such as himself hold, then it can’t matter what devices and instantiations the so-called self might pass through. But what if a digital person, while seeming to be conscious, claiming to be conscious, and passing all the possible tests to establish consciousness, really isn’t — what if she is a “philosophical zombie,” a mind without a person? How consciousness arises from the brain is of course unknown, and no digital substrate has yet been shown to be cognate in any practical sense to a biological brain, which remains the only substrate we know that actually does support minds and consciousness.

But what if you started from the other end, and created superior intelligences ab initio — artificial intelligence, minds that are “born digital”? Ben Goertzel predicts the appearance of an ultra-intelligent machine that would design better machines than people could. As Alan Turings’s Bletchley Park collaborator I. J. Good long ago noted, the first ultraintelligent machine would be the last invention that people ever needed to make, bringing with it an inevitable “intelligence explosion.” This is the much-talked-of (in these quarters at least) technological singularity, the point at which machines will create their own successors and incorporate all of us into their replications and thus their immortality.

So many ifs! Could quantum entanglement — the mysterious instant correlation of distantly separated subatomic particles — eventually make possible the connecting of every space-time moment to every other, and permit instant data channels between different places, different times, and different universes? If so, maybe “quantum archaeology” really could bring the dead back from when and where they are alive. Of course this would only allow the transmission of information, not stuff: Information You could cross time and space at the speed of light, but not the meat package that contains it, which by then will have been left behind anyway. At the conference, this vision was put before us by Giulio Prisco, a physicist and computer scientist, and a founding member of the wittily named Turing Church. (The Church–Turing hypothesis in mathematics defines what can be calculated by a “Turing machine,” that is, a computer.)

I thought on the whole I’d prefer immortality to resurrection. (I have just reread that sentence and am astonished I could have typed it. If there are people who actually take sides on this issue, I was for a moment one among them.)

On reflection, the difficulty with the projects of modern cosmism and those of its allied societies, research groups, and churches (there is a Mormon Transhumanist Association) seems to me to be this: they begin with a premise that is far from proved, and then ponder the problems and possibilities that will follow if the premise is accepted. Sometimes our speakers seemed not to respect that possible within the laws of physics” doesn’t mean “practicable,” much less “on its way to us now.” Paradoxically, the old cosmist visions, despite their extravagance and insubstantiality, can seem richer and more immediate than modern cosmism’s projects because they lack the drag of investment in actual, practical processes, which can seem primitive and doubtful, even wrongheaded. The connectome of our great benefactor Drosophila melanogaster, the endlessly studied common fruit fly, comprises some 135,000 neurons, plus associated synapses, and within years, not decades, it may be digitally replicated in its entirety. This may not produce an active Information Fruit Fly, because we really don’t yet know how brains work, and simulation is not duplication. In any case, the human brain has nearly a hundred billion neurons, something like the number of stars in the Milky Way.

So what? Goertzel pointed out that the accepted physics has been overturned repeatedly through our brief human history and might well be again, and then again. As that great visionary Samuel Coleridge told himself in his diary:

My dear fellow! never be ashamed of scheming — you can’t think of living less than 4000 years, and that would nearly suffice for your present schemes. To be sure, if they go on in the same ratio to the performance, then a small difficulty arises; but never mind! look at the bright side always and die in a dream!

After the final presentation there was wine in plastic cups and cubes of cheese and further talk. But I was weary and overloaded, and went up from the basement of the Society for Ethical Culture and out into the mild October evening. I turned south and in a couple of blocks came to Columbus Circle, which had been a rather sorry and worn-out place when I lived in New York, and was now a brilliant, glittering, magic city of its own, overtopped with a vast tower of glass and light that somehow gave the illusion of being no more than a meter thick. Crowds moved around the circle and the illuminated Columbus monument, extended minds connected by their phones and their earbuds and their speech in a dozen languages. They signaled with their sweatshirts, their shopping bags, their headscarves, and their faces. Crowds, because this was the weekend when Columbus and his explorations were celebrated: voyager who only dimly knew where he was going, and was wrong about where he arrived.

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January 2016