BBC TV’s venerable science flagship, Horizon, has had a rough ride as it tries to gain a new audience. It’s been accused of “dumbing down”. That’s nothing new – it’s a criticism often leveled at it during its 42 year life.
But instead of re-examing its approach, the series’ producers have taken the bold step of abandoning science altogether. This week’s film, “Human v2.0”, could have been made for the Bravo Channel by the Church of Scientology. The subject at hand – augmenting the brain with machinery – was potentially promising, and the underlying question – “what makes a human?” – is as fascinating as ever. Nor is the field short of distinguished scientists, such as Roger Penrose, or philosophers, such as Mary Midgley, who’ve made strong contributions.
Yet Horizon unearthed four cranks who believed that thanks to computers, mankind was on the verge of transcending the physical altogether, and creating “God” like machines.
“To those in the know,” intoned the narrator, “this moment has a name.” (We warned you it was cult-like, but it gets worse).
It’s not hard to find cranks – the BBC could just as readily have found advocates of the view that the earth rests on a ring of turtles – and in science, yesterday’s heresy often becomes today’s orthodoxy. But it gets there through a well-established rigorous process – not through unsupported assertions, confusions, and errors a five-year old could unpick.
Let’s return to the cult aspect.
The program began, and frequently returned to, shots of spooky silent Midwich Cuckoo children in a forest, apparently about to assert their God-like powers over Human 1.0.
Pill-peddler Ray Kurzweil (who pops 15 pills an hour in an attempt to stave off mortality) was cast as the guru.
But Kurzweil has a vested interest in talking rubbish. He is part-owner of a business called Ray And Terry’s Wellness Products, where you can buy Ray’s pills, and also read as you chomp along with the guru. Ray’s own book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough To Live Forever, he promises
“… a program designed to slow aging and disease processes to such a degree that you should be in good health and good spirits when the more extreme life-extending and life-enhancing technologies – now in development – become available.”
Accompanying the blurb is a legal disclaimer:
“These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Kurzweil’s claims went unchallenged.
Errors began to tumble out faster than we could record them, using our unaugmented v1.0 brains. The program couldn’t decide what was meant by “mind” and what was meant by “brain” – so it used the terms interchangeably.
Humans have a concept of the mind that’s about 4,000 years old (although about 3,900 years younger in the West) and it’s generally understood to encompasses alot more than mere circuitry, such as experience and values. By making the dishonest, rhetorical leap from “mind equals brain”, to “brain equals mechanical, determistic computer”, lots of speculation followed. But the program makers needed to create this short-circuit, because they couldn’t have made “Human 2.0” at all without it. Or at least it would have been very different.
Swayed by the easy seductions of the cult, the program makers made transferring consciousness look as simple as swiping a supermarket loyalty card – which merely demonstrated how little they valued the human mind, or, for that matter, the rational processes that permit us to create machanics.
Some errors were minor, but telling.
A black-and-white photograph of Intel’s Gordon Moore – presumably intended to suggest he was dead, although Gordon is still very much alive – accompanied a claim that “computers were doubling in power every year”. But Moore claimed nothing of the sort – he merely observed that the number of transistors on a given surface area was doubling every 18 months. The obvious reason why computers don’t “double in power”, except in theory, even every 18 months, wasn’t mentioned.
Our software is getting worse rather faster than our computers are getting more powerful – which means the much-vaunted “singularity” is receding, rather than approaching. It’s getting further away. With software getting dumber, the whole program seemed to support Jaron Lanier’s observation about the Turing Test – “we make ourselves stupid in order to make the computer software seem smart.”
The corollary had already been demonstrated. Our understanding of the “mind” is so universal and profoundly valued, you have to be fantastically clever (or an Anglo-American philosopher) to make it disappear.
No matter, the BBC told us, we’d be as good as there. We’d soon we’d able to, “download thoughts, store memories, [and] interface with machines.”
Having made mind and brain interchangeable, the program makers could use other deceits. Maps of neural activity from a monkey playing a game showed, we were told, that computers could “read thoughts”.
But the BBC’s charter requires “balance” – so again, thinking rather like cult members, the program brought in a sock puppet: someone who fundamentally supported their shaky proposition, only instead of thinking it was A Good Thing, said it was A Bad Thing. Bill Joy must have been unavailable, so the BBC cast Hugo De Garis in the Bill Joy role.
Like Joy, De Garis also envisaged “fabulous machines” with capacities “trillions above the human level” that were “massively intelligent” and “God-like”. (A very hard prospect to imagine when you’re re-installing Windows XP).
“How will they treat us?” he asked. “Like this!” – he slapped his forearm to illustrate it – “like mosquitos!”
De Garis is a neural network designer with an eye for cheesy publicity – he’s written a book that predicts “Gigadeaths” from the resulting conflicts between humans and “artilects” – machines which have presumably figured out more efficient re-install software sequences than we know today – all by themselves!
“A book that cannot and should not be ignored. It is too important and too disturbing to be. summarily dismissed” (sic) said his chum Captain Cyborg. That’s the kind of endorsement most people could do without.
(De Garis regularly spars with Captain Cyborg over which one is a “Cosmist” and which one is a “Terran” – names De Garis made up. We told you the cult-like clues were never far away – and, no, we don’t know whether Terrans or Cosmists have the lower Thetan count).
But he had a part to play, and that was to look increasingly nervous and twitchy as the program wore on – and he was close to being a gibbering wreck by the end. As were many of the viewers by this point.
Warming to the apocalyptic theme offered by De Garis, the narrator told us,
“The moment we store our minds in machines, we will be able to change what we are and who we are. So threatening is this future scenario one man has killed to prevent it happening…”
Yes, it was time for the Unabomber. When a homicidal paranoid schizophrenic is enlisted for “balance”, you know the program makers are really in deep, deep trouble.
(It’s a minor point, but nowhere in the Unabomber’s petty, 34,000 word ramble – Industrial Society and its Future did he ever mention “the singularity”, or even allude to a fusion of biology and technology and its consequences for the mind. Theodore Kaczynski did, however, ask what North Korea might one day do with genetic engineering – a question that deserves to be discussed more broadly than by a few nutters).
And where the researchers found useful material, it felt shockingly out of place. A 16-year old boy paralyzed from the neck down, and who could only move his eyes, was using a primitive man-machine interface to communicate with his carers. Here, our limited understanding of the brain was being put to practical use – not to “live forever” but to make one life a little more tolerable – an example trivialized by the context of “Human v2.0”.
For anyone watching in real-time, the news program that followed was illuminating. Newsnight focussed on the crisis in … science. The number of applicants to higher education courses in physics had dropped to a third, something apparently common in what get called “developed economies”. A learned panel was asked, “how could this be?”
But we’d already figured out the answer to that one. Perhaps because scientists were portrayed as ludicrous, misanthropic self-publicists, and science itself merely a sequence of unsupportable claims.
Well done, Beeb.