30 March 2014

#VIEWPOINT: #Erdogan wants to play #war with his people

An unholy alliance between corruption, internet censorship and the plot against popular sovereignty has been exposed in Turkey by the aggressive reaction of Erdogan’s government to a controversial leaked audio tape.

In the audio tape, which cannot be watched in Turkey as a result of a block on video sharing site YouTube, high-ranking government officials brazenly speak of attacking their own people. This, they intend as a false flag attack to spark a wider regional conflict.

To quote intelligence chief Hakan Fidan’s own words, Erdogan’s government wants to “make up a cause of war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey”, thereby killing his own people for an excuse to kill even more. Given the Erdogan government’s vile commitment to deepening the crisis in Syria by trafficking weapons, it should surprise none of us that this incapable regime is developing a stronger appetite for the blood of its own people too.

Tragic events in Turkey’s streets in 2013 and 2014, such as the corrupt government’s killing and vilification of the young boy Berkin Elvan, who died after a head injury from a teargas canister when buying bread during the brutal police response to the Gezi protests of 2013, have exposed the increasingly repressive and arrogant nature of the incumbent government in Turkey. Opposition to the government has resurged in 2014, stirred on by the increasing evidence of Erdogan’s corruption, such as a tape verified by experts in which he is telling his son to “get rid of” large amounts of money.

The move to block YouTube on “national security” grounds can be taken only as confirmation that the tape, in which a false-flag attack against the Turkish people is considered, is authentic. This regime, which claims to represent the interests of the Turkish people, seriously considered and continues to consider attacking the Turkish people and dragging Turkey into a regional conflict.

Given that the ruling government officials in Turkey apparently have no “national security” concerns over a missile attack launched by them on the territory of their own country, we are left wondering what definition these officials are using for “national security”. Perhaps it is something similar to the same “national security” that their Pentagon idols talk about whenever inconvenient truths are exposed, as with Manning’s disclosure of US mass murder in Iraq. As Undersecretary Sinirlioğlu says in the leaked tape itself, “our national security has become a common, cheap domestic policy outfit.” This is true in all NATO countries, where governments trigger wars that are blatantly not in the national interest, and yet they still ask the nation to die in such wars.

The cheapening of national security as an outfit to strengthen any regime’s hold over its own people and the surrounding region has occurred in the capitals of other pro-Pentagon regimes, where people have been far too easily duped that closed-door national security decisions are really about the security of the nation in question. Crying wolf with fictive national security narratives, when only the security of the regime’s stranglehold on the nation is really at stake, threatens the whole nation. By being able to trade away national security for state secrecy, and conflate the two, a regime will have irrevocably cheapened the lives of its citizens, with or without mounting actual false flag attacks against those citizens.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has responded by describing the act of leaking of the tape itself as an act of treachery against Turkey and a “declaration of war,” in spite of the fact that it was his own regime’s intelligence chief who declared the intent to attack his own country by firing missiles into the territory of Turkey. Evidently forgetting the need to save Turkish lives, the Foreign Minister stated, “Wiretapping our prime minister, ministers and top officials is an open declaration of war against the Turkish Republic.”

During the leaked conversation, the Foreign Minister seems completely unconcerned at the prospect of a missile attack into Turkish territory by his own government colleagues. After reading the leaked conversation, we should all reconsider Davutoğlu’s claim that the ones who leaked evidence of his treason are the traitors, or if in fact he and his Erdogan regime are the traitors because they have declared their intent to attack the territory of their own country.

Whether the enemies of Turkey are the ones who reveal the truth to the people, or the ones who conspire to fire missiles at the people, is up to the Turkish people to decide. The state gets its legitimacy from the people. Therefore, ministers do not get to dictate who the traitor is. That is for the Turkish people to decide, after being presented with the uncensored truth about what hideous things are being said and done behind closed doors in the name of their “national security”.

The heroic insiders who leaked evidence of the Erdogan regime’s treason against the Turkish people are no enemies of Turkey, nor have they declared war on Turkey, as feverishly claimed by the panicking government. On the contrary, the government’s highest-ranking officials have been caught stating their intent to attack their own people. For those who still find this difficult to believe, their own leaked words are available for everyone to hear.

It is the Erdogan regime that has committed the most despicable act of treason, and has declared a willingness to attack its own people. In the knowledge of this, it is the responsibility of the Turkish people to respond by calling for the resignation of these tumorous people at the heart of government, before they can threaten Turkey’s national security by committing deception and murder in their country’s name.

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published on March 30 at Press TV

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26 March 2014

Who’s More Luddite?

Who is more “luddite”: the individual or the state?
In a recent TED talk, an individual – the robot body of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in Vancouver – said he beat the state. He argued that, while the internet enabled states with unprecedented powers to spy, it has also provided individuals with the ability to singlehandedly “win” against the state by exposing such abuse to the public. Snowden’s statement highlights the way in which the internet, along with other emerging technologies that promise similar decentralization and power to the individual, could be called a double-edged sword.
The capacity of democratized technology to either free people or control them often seems balanced in such a way that new technologies can be validly heralded as liberators or as enslavers, depending on one’s own personal experience with them. However, in spite of this duality, the overwhelming direction does seem to go towards empowering the individual rather than the state. After all, as Snowden so succinctly put it, he did “win”. We know the era of powerful states and monolithic corporations dictating the capabilities of the individual is coming to an end, as what could be called a libertarian or DIY culture is taking hold instead. As Kevin Kelly has put it, technology possesses its own will, and a specific preference for greater freedom.
The fear that advanced technology plays only into the hands of elites to the disadvantage of most of the world is quite common among progressives, as has been described by the IEET’s James Hughes. In reality, the alarmists who signal dangers and negative political outcomes from emerging technologies are missing a big piece of the puzzle. This piece is already forcing itself on us increasingly in the headlines, showing that our era’s defining technologies actually have far more potential to empower and liberate the masses of people now than ever before in history.
Further, the liberation is much more likely to ensue if technologies can advance in a maximally unregulated and un-policed manner. A democratic explosion of liberating technology is possible in the lives of the voiceless and worst-off people in the world, and several emerging technologies could feature significantly in that explosion.
To understand this possibility, it is important to direct our attention to two different kinds of disparity in the world. The first is the inequality that makes the citizens of a country voiceless and powerless in the face of the power of a strong state and massive corporations. The second is the inequality between the weak states or regions and the strong states or regions of the world-economy.
Both of the two arenas suggested above appear to be related. Strong states and corporations benefit exclusively from the system, and find the justification for their power in a global division of labor that says a cherished few can produce things of more value than the other countries. This division of labor exploits the weaker peripheral majority of the world as unrewarded instruments in the global production process, while the high-tech sophisticated work that is maximally profitable remains in the rich minority spaces of strong states and firms. With the club of powerful states and firms essential to the functioning of the world-system, trends that weaken the traditional power of the nation-state or cause rewards to be more equitably distributed are direct threats to the survival of the current global mode of production.
Already, the state is threatened by its inability to control the world of information, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel was mocked for calling “neuland” or “virgin territory.” As idiosyncratic as her choice of words may have seemed, it reflects the attitude of many heads of state. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had already used almost exactly the same meaning when describing the internet. The ongoing digitization of politics may appear to be unrelated to the world-economy, but it is relevant, because it betrays the worsening ability of powerful states to stay in control of decisive technologies in the long term, as we shall see.
Many progressives and critics of modern society see advanced and emerging technologies as inherently benefiting only powerful and elitist goals. However, as James Hughes argues in Citizen Cyborg, much of this view is simply not rational and leans towards a primitivist stance on modern industrial developments. It also adheres to an old-fashioned way of thinking that was true in a time when all the decisive technologies were unwieldy and had to be rigidly controlled or sanctioned by governments and powerful monopolistic firms to even be operated with any efficacy.
In attempting to rein in technology now, states and corporations will increasingly find themselves having to appeal to emotional or outright fabricated security concerns to maintain their profits. As patents and other forms of protection are increasingly circumvented by the geeks, pirates, cyber-idealists, Assanges and Snowdens being created by the internet culture, the only defense for statist and corporate interests will be to call these troublesome individuals security threats. By saying a radical new technology could become a threat, e.g. it could be used by terrorists, it could be hacked, there could be an accident, etc. powerful regimes and firms give themselves a convenient mandate to keep their technologies in their own hands, behind their walls, and prevent them from getting out to empower the public or weaker regimes such as those in the Global South. Regimes in the Global South must be weak for the present world-economy to function, so painting an empowered Global South as a deadly and irresponsible threat is probably going to be increasingly necessary for the Global North to maintain its privileges. By appealing to this narrative, the dominant states and firms will become true “luddites”: they are going to smash (discredit) the technologies they don’t like, so they get to keep their job (dominating the profitable production processes).
Increased numbers of progressives do overwhelmingly recognize the powerful potential of the internet to empower the public and traditionally weaker sections of global society. In fact, the internet has made a huge impact on the history of protest and the history of dissent, making it indispensable to progressive causes and the alternate media endorsed by progressives. However, progressive support for other areas of the democratization of technology and freedom of world-liberating technologies from regulation and authoritarian policing is very thin (just consider their responses to GM technology).
Reservations held by progressives about emerging technologies are not very consistent with the view of the internet as a useful political instrument. Many lack the understanding that the internet is not a fluke in technology, but part of a larger trend. Progressives would do best to learn the trend set by the internet, and adopt an anarchic view of technology as something that is becoming overwhelmingly liberating and increasingly easy for the common people to conquer and use for themselves.
A number of emerging technologies have high democratic value, being set to liberate and empower people more rapidly than ever in history. From personal computers to 3D printersnanotechnology and perhaps the salient breakthroughs of synthetic biology, the one thing all the big advancements in emerging technologies today have in common is that they do not have any great need to be monopolized by governments and corporations. Possibly the most important observation of their democratic potential is that these devices all seem to have the potential to copy themselves. Synthetic organisms may be the first man-made products to have this ability, while other man-made things do not. They may not need to be supplied or replaced by any authority or special provider. In theory, such devices could be leaked once and become rapidly available everywhere, just as information can be rapidly pirated and circulated on the internet every day.
The global division of labor, and by extension the massive inequality in terms of rewards in the present world-system, would face an existential threat from the leaking of decisive emerging technologies. World inequality, if it is a product of a large division of labor, would not survive the leaking and decentralization of a generation of advanced self-replicating, redundant manufacturing technologies into the poorer parts of the world-economy.
The last line of defense available to states and massive corporations, to protect against their privileged economic and political positions being damaged by the circulation of self-sustaining technologies, would be for them to rant about security and try to whip up paranoia. If they do so, then the security concerns about emerging technologies will come to be seen by many as the discourse to create authoritarian controls over who can and who can’t have something. At that time, there would be no doubt that the true luddites interfering in the inevitable course of technology are the rich and powerful – not the poor and disenfranchised.
To sum up, there is a trend of techno-liberation set to break a number of emerging technologies free. Many remain the apparent trademarks of powerful companies at present, but still they carry powerful democratic potential even as they remain locked in the Pandora’s Box of security arguments and fears. People who care about subverting global inequality should not be deterred by such rhetoric.
They should covet emerging technologies, such as synthetic organisms, as a gift and a perfect means of liberation for the poorer parts of the world-economy. This should be pursued without hesitation, in the hope that yet more democratic opportunities like the internet will surface and become available to the world’s marginal and oppressed people.
By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published on 25 March 2013 in h+ Magazine

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23 March 2014

How Hegemonic and Statist Interests Retard Technology

Aggressive mass surveillance and the continued sanctions on Iran originate with the same ideological goal: relentless control over all things technological.

Many progressives find fault with the modernity of technology. In their view, all technological progress only favors the state and the corporate elite, and constantly disempowers ordinary people [1]. Such a perspective is based on prejudices, heralding pessimism that could only disempower and censor us even more. This essay offers a very different interpretation of the relationship between hegemonic and statist interests and the spread of new information technologies.

The global spies and punishers are the ones who have betrayed everything modernity stands for. They have turned their backs on the technological progress that marks us apart from the other apes. They are the Luddites. In their desire to monitor, restrict and control everything for themselves, they are retarding the potential of our technology to truly improve life and freedom for all. And, like the Luddites, they are doing this to keep their jobs.

The United States is indeed a focal point for most of the technological breakthroughs in the world, but the fruits of all these breakthroughs remain inadequately shared with the rest of humanity. By failing thus, we in the West fail to inspire or educate, and so fail to fulfill any supposed role as the leaders of modernity.

What exists in the United States and other Western countries is not an environment for true technological progress. It is environment for profits and hoarding. As the celebrated physicist Michio Kaku has pointed out, there is a “brain drain” by which the US is supported by foreign scientists and takes credit for their accomplishments [2]. At the same time, the US allies threaten countries with sanctions and airstrikes if they appear to be progressing beyond the rigid bounds of technology delineated by the US and its cruel apologists, as it is with Iran.

What has been stated above may seem like a hard case to present, as it is not comparable with many other statements being made in the present politics. However, it finds good theoretical support between the lines of a similar economic theory. The particular theory explaining the imperative behind such a drive for monopoly and restrictions on the circulation of decisive technologies is the theory of the “capitalist world-economy”, as articulated by US social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein in his lectures and essays [3]. This theory portrayed the world as divided between the struggling countries of the global periphery and the self-appointed club of the rich core (who also happen to be the Bilderberg powers and OECD signatories) [4].

The core countries, which are primarily led from Washington, maintain their dominance by having a higher level of monopoly within the global production process [5]. They control decisive new areas like the genetic engineering and microcomputer industries, as well as emerging technologies [6]. It is from their centers, such as Silicon Valley, that the most valued industrial technologies begin to contribute to the global production processes.

The division of the world into low-tech and high-tech producers is the axial division of labor, long necessitated by the nature of a profit-driven world divided in terms of national borders and by the restriction of countries to having a specific economic base determined by their history (agrarian or industrial?) By reducing other countries to a state of dependency, the industrialized core is able to wield a more powerful military and obtain more political rights on the global stage [7]. This injustice, in turn, allows them to legitimize further oppression on the grounds that they are the most advanced and that the others need them more than they need the others. It is inevitably this injustice that gives the rich countries the ability to impose sanctions on others whom they disagree with.

As the core countries possess the more powerful position in the production process, it follows that they may at times deliberately thwart development, degrading technology and with it health and life in the rest of the world. There have been events that confirm the validity of this thesis. From US hostility to Japan’s rapid technological advancement to present US hostility to Iranian scientific progress, the rich and powerful remain as equipped and poised as ever to “set them back a decade or two or three”, as US Republican congressman Duncan Hunter ranted [8]. A comparable sentiment was found in the infamous words of Curtis LeMay concerning North Vietnam, and the threats of mass murder issued by Zionist Israel against the hapless Gaza Strip.

The core countries’ unilateral spying on the world only reinforces this thesis. What they are doing, in that case, is amassing capabilities and hiding them. They are subverting technology, arresting its natural destiny to empower the common man. They sought to hide these capabilities, to preserve them without challenge and so maintain the status quo. This, they knew, would maximize their power and profits.

Rather than allowing civilization to adjust and progress by knowing about and overcoming the brute technological arsenal of the state, the monopolistic powers are in love with secrecy for exactly the same reasons that the corporations are in love with intellectual property. The more barriers they set up to prevent others knowing what they have, the less the likelihood that anyone will be able to see the pathways to overthrow their unjust preponderance of power and wealth.

Julian Assange’s consideration of the perpetual use of security fears to attack internet freedom is particularly informative in this regard. Speeches on terrorism, narcissistic caressing of the US regime as the world’s only responsible custodian, and assumptions that some among humanity are just too irresponsible to hold certain capabilities, are always used [9].There is no fault in the analysis that the same arguments used to attack internet freedom are being recycled to attack Iranian scientific progress. These phobic arguments, which reject any notion of the human family, are deeply paranoid at best and racially aggravated and at worst.

Statist and hegemonic restrictions on technology’s potential in the name of security are nothing but Luddite policies swimming against the technium’s tide of freedom described in the works of Kevin Kelly [10]. Such restrictions presuppose that allowing the inevitable freedom of access to knowledge and the human right to develop independently will culminate in a security threat. What the defenders of the paranoia and monopoly fail to mention is that their actions interfere in creativity. Attempting to hoard all capabilities and strike others who attempt to develop is a blatant attack on technology itself – an affront to the natural force of the technium.

We can learn two very important conclusions from what has been exposed by the state’s massive betrayal of modernity and attempt to circumvent it. First, the view that the NSA’s sinister mass surveillance is a manifestation of out-of-control technological progress is opposite to the truth. It is the NSA and the statists themselves who fear today’s technological explosion and its liberating potential. The NSA’s violation is an attempt to retard the liberating effects of technology in the world today. They have tried to stab modernity in the back. As such, the opponents of the spies need not use Luddite arguments. They should instead be exposing the paranoid state and its supporters as Luddites – sluggish and archaic authorities opposing the freedoms that modernity stands for.

Second, we must more eagerly prepare for the near future when monopoly, state power and the appropriation of knowledge by companies are made impossible by the very acceleration and democratization of technology itself. A top theory of this awakening was authored by Yannick Rumpala, who speaks of a radical change in the capitalist mode of production as a consequence of new manufacturing technologies [11]. Although Rumpala’s paper itself is mainly discussing the implications of additive manufacturing (3D printing), the inclusion of K. Eric Drexler’s atomically precise manufacturing (APM) revolution [12] and J. Craig Venter’s synthetic biology revolution [13] makes the experiment of a networked economy with no factories, no corporations and no state increasingly possible.

Our other possible world may only be decades away, making our prescience of the political ramifications now truly important. It may have the potential to radicalize and transform everything about our economic and political existence, violating the former paradigm entirely and replacing it with something no-one can accurately predict.

Let us not fall for the view that mass surveillance is a case of our technology breaking bad. It is a clear manifestation of the doomed state’s paranoia in the face of the common man’s technology. What we have seen from the surveillance state, massive monopolistic corporations and the neoconservative ideologues defending the two is a pure Luddite manifestation of the phobia of technology. As George W. Bush once admitted, the “gravest danger” to US hegemony is “at the crossroads of radicalism and technology” [14]. In addition to this, neoconservative thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama have stood strongly against the movement encouraging the most radical vision of humanity’s liberation through technology: transhumanism [15].

Information wants to be free. The unrestrained democratization of knowledge and technology is the world’s inheritance, the freedom of humanity to achieve its noblest aspirations.

[1] J. Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: How Democratic Societies must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Westview Press, 2004) p. 130-131
[2] M. Kaku, “The Secret Weapon of American Science”, Big Think, http://bigthink.com/videos/the-secret-weapon-of-american-science, retrieved 15 March 2014
[3] I. M. Wallerstein, “Modernization: Requiescat in Pace”, p. 106-111 in The Essential Wallerstein (The New York Press, New York, 2000), p. 111.
[4] Id. “Class Formation in the Capitalist World-Economy”, p. 315-323 in The Essential Wallerstein (The New York Press, New York, 2000), p. 316.
[5] I. M. Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An introduction (Duke University Press, Durham, 2004) p. 17-18.
[6] Ibid. p. 28-31
[7] Ibid. p. 11-17
[8] B. Armbruster, “Congressman Says U.S. Should Use Nuclear Weapons If It Attacks Iran”, Think Progress, http://thinkprogress.org/security/2013/12/04/3018431/duncan-hunter-iran-nukes/#, retrieved 15 March 2014
[9] J. Assange et al. Cypherpunks (OR Books, 2012) p. 72
[10] K. Kelly, What Technology Wants (Viking Penguin, 2010) p. 269-270
[11] Y. Rumpala, “Additive manufacturing as global redesigning of politics”, h+ Magazine, http://hplusmagazine.com/2013/10/07/additive-manufacturing-as-global-redesigning-of-politics/, retrieved 15 March 2014
[12] K. E. Drexler, Radical Abundance (PublicAffairs, 2013) p. 286-287
[13] J. C. Venter, Life at the Speed of Light (Viking Adult, 2013) p. 178
[14] The New York Times, “Text of Bush’s Speech at West Point”, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/01/international/02PTEX-WEB.html?pagewanted=2, retrieved 28 June 2013
[15] F. Fukuyama “Transhumanism”, Foreign Policy, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2004/09/01/transhumanism, retrieved 30 June 2013

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham


By U.S. Navy (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photo #: NH 41701) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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22 March 2014

Emerging Tech Promises from Kurzweil, Drexler and Venter Et Al.

Brilliant predictions for the biotech century are found in works from the leading geniuses of our time. Included among such great thinkers are Ray Kurzweil (AI), K. Eric Drexler (nanotech) and J. Craig Venter (synthetic biology). Understandably, their books can be time-consuming for the layman, on account of their mostly scientific audiences. This is where concise and informative book reviews summarizing the main claims of such works come in (with page references included, for those of you who want to mount effective arguments based on these authors without taking notes from their extensive books).

The impending choices society will be forced to make, as a result of world-altering technologies, will affect us all. They will render the collective choices arising with respect to the internet and state mass surveillance insignificant. Consequences of nanotech (atomically precise manufacturing or APM), synthetic biology and artificial intelligence shake the assumptions of modern politics and economics. For this, we are being compelled to prepare and build.

The most cost-effective way of getting to know the key controversies and arguments on emerging technology is to read condensed reviews and responses to the defining points in the most important books on the subject:
My freshly released eBook, Unlocked, is a condensed public domain Kindle release with reviews and materials responding to emerging technology promises. These reviews echoed across the internet from 2013-2014, and were especially useful because they addressed and criticized each major point in the books. With accurate page references included, everyone is encouraged to re-use this resource to produce their own arguments and essays.
From James Hughes' Citizen Cyborg (2004) to Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near (2005), Unlocked reviews a total of 8 very extensive works by emerging technology geniuses.

Exciting technological choices awaiting civilization are understood through the vision of the pioneers who represent them. Through these visions, dreams and nightmares of things to come will advise us. However, it is unwise to focus entirely on scifi interpretations (as Ray Kurzweil's singularity could be described as). There are also refined, accurate estimates of the future. Drexler, for example, cautions against the scifi trope of microscopic nanorobots everywhere, healing our bodies and and repairing our machines. The real APM (atomically precise manufacturing) would take the form of garage-sized car factories and desktop-scale stores to download and assemble household appliances. Combined with synthetic biology's potential to make energy and resources, the possibilities of this revolution in information and the search to enhance life are limitless.

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

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21 March 2014

Book Review: The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil (2005)

Ray Kurzweil’s well-received book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is perhaps the best known book related to transhumanism and presents a view of inevitable technological evolution that closely resembles the claim in the later (2010) book What Technology Wants by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly.
Kurzweil describes six epochs in the history of information. Each significant form of information is superseded by another in a series of stepping stones, exposing a universal will at work within technology towards extropy (this is seen by Kevin Kelly as intelligence and complexity attaining their maximum state possible). The first epoch is physics and chemistry, and is succeeded by biology, brains, technology, the merger of technology and human intelligence and finally the epoch in which the universe “wakes up”. The final epoch achieves what could be called godhood for the universe’s surviving intelligences (p. 15).
Artificial intelligence, which Kurzweil predicts to compete with and soon after overtake the human brain, will mean reverse-engineering the human brain as a direct offshoot of developing higher resolution when scanning the brain (much as genome synthesis was the offshoot of being able to sequence a complete genome) (p. 25-29, 111-198). This is a source of particular excitement to many, because of Kurzweil and Google’s genuine efforts to make it a reality.
An interest in abundance and a read of J. Craig Venter’s Life at the Speed of Light will make Chapter 5 of Kurzweil’s book of particular interest, as it discusses genetics and its relationship to the singularity. Geneticsnanotechnology and robotics are seen as overlapping revolutions that are set to characterize the first half of the Twenty-First Century (p.205). Kurzweil addresses the full understanding of genetics, e.g. knowing exactly how to program and hack our DNA as in J. Craig Venter’s synthetic biology revolution (p. 205-212).
Kurzweil predicts “radical life-extension” on top of the elimination of disease and expansion of human potential through the genetics advancements of teams like J. Craig Venter’s. J. Craig Venter covered life extension and human enhancement in his 2013 book, but also drew special attention to the ongoing engineering of beneficial microbes for purposes of making renewable resources and cleaning the environment. Another prospect for abundance noted by Kurzweil is the idea of cloning meat and other protein sources in a factory (this being an offshoot of medical cloning advances). Far from simply offering life extension to the privileged few, Kurzweil notes that such a development may have the potential to solve world hunger.
To cover the nanotechnology revolution, Kurzweil visits nanotechnology father K. Eric Drexler’s assessments of the pros and cons in this field. In some ways, Kurzweil could be faulted for expecting too much from nanotechnology, since his treatment of the subject contrasts sharply with Drexler’s characterization of it as simply being “atomically precise manufacturing” (APM) and primarily having industrial ramifications. In Radical Abundance, Drexler specifically discourages the view echoed by Kurzweil of “nanobots” swimming in our body in the near future and delivering miracle cures, seeing such expectations as the product of sci-fi stories and media hype.
On the subject of artificial intelligence, there can be no doubt that Kurzweil is ahead of all of us because of his personal background. In his estimate, artificial intelligence reverse-engineered from the human brain will immediately “exceed human intelligence” for a number of reasons even if we only design it to be on par with our intelligence. For example, computers are able to “pool their resources in ways that humans cannot” (p. 259-298). In addition, Kurzweil forecasts:
The advent of strong AI is the most important transformation this century will see. Indeed, it is comparable in importance to the advent of biology itself. It will mean the creation of biology that has finally mastered its own intelligence and discovered means to overcome its limitations. (p. 296)
From our viewpoint in 2014, some of Kurzweil’s predictions could be criticized for being too optimistic. For example, “computers arriving at the beginning of the next decade will become essentially invisible, woven into our clothing, embedded in our furniture and environment”, as well as providing unlimited Wi-Fi everywhere (p. 312). While no doubt some places and instruments exist that might fit this description, they are certainly not in widespread use at this time, nor is there any particular need among society for this to become widespread (except perhaps the Wi-Fi).
Another likely over-optimistic prediction is the view that “full-immersion virtual reality” will be ready for our use by the late 2020s and it will be “indistinguishable from reality” (p. 341). In Kurzweil’s prediction, by 2029 nanobots in our bodies will be able to hack our nervous systems and trick us into believing a false reality every bit as convincing as the life we knew. We are in 2014. There is no full-immersion virtual reality system based on nanotechnology set to be on the market in 2020. A few dedicated gamers have the Oculus Rift (of which there will no doubt be a constant stream of successors ever reducing weight, trying to look “sexier”, and expanding the resolution and frame-rate over at least one decade), while there is no sign whatsoever of the nanotechnology-based neural interface technology predicted by Kurzweil. If nanotech-based full-immersion virtual reality is going to be possible in the 2020s at all, there ought to at least be some rudimentary prototype already in development, but (unless it is a secret military project) time is running out for the prediction to come true.
Part of the book addresses the exciting possibilities of advanced, futuristic warfare. The idea of soldiers who operate robotic platforms, aided by swarms of drones and focused on disrupting the enemy ability to communicate is truly compelling – all the more so because of the unique inside view that Kurzweil had of DARPA. Kurzweil sees a form of warfare in which commanders engage one another in virtual and physical battlefields from opposite sides of the globe, experiencing conflicts in which cyber-attack and communication disruption are every bit as crippling to armies as physical destruction (p. 330-335). Then again, this trend (like the idea of building missile-defense shields) may ultimately lead to complacency and false assumptions that our security is “complete”, while that foreign suppliers like Russia and China are also modernizing and have many systems that are thought to be on par with the US. A lot of US military success may be down to picking on vulnerable countries, rather than perfecting a safe and clean form of warfare (most of Saddam’s deadliest weapons were destroyed or used up in the First Gulf War, which alone could account for the US having so few casualties in the 2003 war.)
Although saying that the singularity will eliminate the distinction between work and play by making information so easily accessible in our lives, Kurzweil predicts that information will gain more value, making intellectual property more important to protect (p. 339-340). This sentiment is hard to agree with at a time when piracy and (illegally) streaming video without paying is already increasingly a fact of everyone’s life. If all thought and play is going to qualify as a creative act as a result of our eventual integration with machines, it only becomes ever harder to believe that such creative acts are going to need monetary incentives.
The book discusses at length how to balance the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. Of particular resilience is Kurzweil’s view that relinquishing or restraining developments can itself expose us to existential risks (e.g. asteroids). I myself would take this argument further. Failing to create abundance when one has the ability to do so is negligent, and even more morally questionable than triggering a nanotech or biotech disaster that must be overcome in the course of helping people.
Kurzweil goes through what seems like an exhaustive list of criticisms, arming singularitarians with an effective defense of their position. Of interest to me, as a result of penning a response to it myself, was how Kurzweil rebuts the “Criticism from the Rich-Poor Divide” by arguing that poverty is overwhelmingly being reduced and benefits of digital technology for the poor are undeniable. Indeed, among the world’s poor, there is no doubt that digital technology is good and that it empowers people. Anyone who argues this revolution is bad for the poor are just plainly ignoring the opinions of the actual poor people they claim to be defending. There has been no credible connection between digital technology and the supply of disproportionate benefits to wealthy elites. If anything, digital technology has made the world more equal and can even be regarded as part of a global liberation struggle.
Unfortunately, there is a major argument absent from the book. Kurzweil’s book precedes the revelations of mass surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. As a result, it fails to answer the most important criticism of an imminent singularity I can think of. I would have to call this the “Argument from Civil and Political Rights”. It takes into account the fact that greedy and cruel nation-states (the US being the most dangerous) tend to seek the monopoly of power in the current world order, including technological power. By bridging the gap between ourselves and computers before we create a more benevolent political and social order with less hegemony and less cruelty, we will simply be turning every fiber of our existence over to state agencies and giving up our liberty.
Suppose PRISM or some program like it exists, and my mind can be read by it. In that case, my uploaded existence would be no different from a Gitmo detainee. In fact, just interfacing with such a system for a moment would be equivalent to being sent to Gitmo, if the US government and its agencies exist. It does not matter how benevolent the operators even are. The fact that I am vulnerable to the operators means I am being subjected to a constant and ongoing violation of my civil rights. I could be subjected to any form of cruelty or oppression, and the perpetrator would never be stopped or held accountable.
It gets worse. With reality and virtual reality becoming indistinguishable (as predicted in this book), a new sort of sadist may even emerge that does not know the difference between the two or does not care. History has shown that such sadists are most likely to be the ones who have had more experience with and thus have obtained more power over the system. It is this political or social concern that should be deterring people from uploading themselves right now. If we were uploaded, what followed could never evolve beyond being a constant reflection of the flawed social order at the time when the upload occurred. Do we want to immortalize an abusive and cruel superpower, corporate lobbyists, secret police, or a prison? Are these things actually worth saving for all eternity and disseminating across the universe when we reach the singularity?
Despite the questions I have tried to raise in this review, I am still convinced by the broad idea of the singularity, and Kurzweil articulates it well. The idea, as promoted by Max More and quoted by Kurzweil (p. 373) that our view of our role in the universe should be like Nietzche’s “rope over an abyss” trying to reach for a greater existence, with technology playing a key role, helps encourage us to take noble risks. However, I believe the noble risks are not risks taken out of desperation to extend our lives and escape death, or risks taken to make ourselves look nice or something else petty. Noble risks are taken to ensure our future or the future of humanity, often at the expense of the present.
I would discourage people from trying to hasten the singularity because of a personal fear of their own death, as this would probably lead to irrational behavior (as occurs with the traditions that promote transcending death by supernatural means). Complications from society and unforeseen abuses, especially by our deeply paranoid and controlling states that are far too primitive to react responsibly to the singularity, are likely to slow everything down.
Editors note: concerns about virtual imprisonment or torture are not entirely unfounded, see for example this older article as well as this recent development.
By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published on March 17 in h+ Magazine

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