Monday, January 02, 2006

Your New Masters Will Have Asperger’s

I gave both Jonathans the new Joel Garreau book Radical Evolution, and of course read it myself before passing it on. That’s the way we do things in my family. The book is divided into 3 sections: the Heaven scenario of all the ways that technical assistance and self-enhancement is going to cure diseases, make us brilliant, and provide for our needs Very Soon; the Hell scenario, in which one of these GRIN technologies (genetic, robotic, information, nanotech) runs amok and does something devastating to us Very Soon; and the Prevail scenario in which some things go wrong with the new technologies, but mankind muddles along anyhow, Like Always.

I could tell this was going to be worrisome when even the Heaven scenario had parts that I thought were bad for humankind. Ray Kurzweil, the prophet of everything will be more ducky than you imagined, is already an eccentric guy and will be signing up for every self-enhancement he can get his mitts on. Facing the possibility that none of us will want our own children to fall behind and fail to become uber-persons, the thought is that a whole lot of folks are going to be enhanced. A subset of us will rocket into superintelligence so quickly that they will be a dominant race. And that’s the Heaven scenario, remember.

There are lots of interesting possible discussions about this, including whether it is at all likely, which I will be posting on over the next few weeks. For the moment, my concern is the comments of the people making these decisions. In all three scenarios, the people inventing and controlling these technologies are strange in a specific way: they have symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. According to this study reported in the NYTimes, that shouldn’t be very surprising.

My worry is not that they are statistically likely to have Asperger’s, and thus be difficult to work with for the folks around them. My concern is what I actually read -- the childishness of the philosophical underpinnings of their justifications. Like bright sixth-graders who get over-technical and have to correct things said in their presence (That years don’t have 365 days, but 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds, for example), Asperger-y people get stuck on such things and cannot let them go. If you say something is teal, and they think it’s just a little too green for that, there is no reasoning with them about it. They will sound like they are reasoning, they will think in their own minds that they are reasoning. But some glitchy thing in their brain will be telling them it’s not teal, and that glitch is immovable.

Ray Kurzweil sounds frightenly like Weston in the last scenes of CS Lewis's Out of The Silent Planet. I always thought Weston was a poorly-written, bombastic fool, and Lewis himself acknowledged that it was hard to imagine such a buffoon inventing anything, let alone a spaceship. Lewis regretted making the character so unconvincing and exaggerated. Now, 60 years later, here he is, in the flesh. Lewis has again proven prescient as to what the natural extension of a train of thought will be.

This rigidity carries over to ethical and philosophical ideas. A single premise will be held in the face of all reason, for example: It’s better to live long than die young. This genetic flip will make people live longer. Therefore it is good. Any additional pluses or minuses may be given lip-service, but will ultimately carry no weight. A particularly chilling example from real life is from Jaron Lanier. Now Lanier is actually one of the reasonable, moderate, balanced voices from the high-tech crowd. When challenged by a clergyman at a conference that he and others were just boys playing with things they didn’t understand, he went back and thought about it. What he came up with is that the churches had failed to keep up with technology by not coming up with ceremonies for operations and other tech events. Apparently the fascination of all cultures with birth, death, marriage, and coming of age does not capture the essence of life. Essentially, Lanier is angry that the churches have not developed ways of blessing whatever the hell it is that scientists want to do.

7 comments:

Jake Was Here said...

I doubt that the real masters of the future will have Asperger's. It seems entirely more likely to me that the flaws this author inadvertently describes in the future Master Race (and what a chilling thought that is) are really projections of the author's flaws. Perhaps he, along with such men as Lanier and Kurzweil, have a compulsive side to their behavior that resembles Asperger's, and of course they imagine Utopia as being full of people like them.

That's the flaw with every Heaven scenario ever dreamed up - the creators of such scenarios inevitably believe that their Heaven will be populated with the kind of people THEY like.

Julian Morrison said...

Kurzweil 's mistake is the idea that mind is a machine and that mere technical progress will eventually allow a computer to think. The evidence of floundering AI efforts does not support this assumption. It's more of a materialist point of principle - the mind is meat, simulate the meat and you must have a mind, QED.

Take away that assumption, and the whole "singularity" alters markedly. Technology remains a tool requiring a human mind to push the buttons. People get smarter, fitter, hugely longer lived, more diverse in form and function, but continue to be people.

I don't think any "master race" is likely. Parents' ideas of how to change their children will be divergent, not convergent. If one family gives their kids wings, another makes them smart and a third gives them unearthly beauty, who's the master race?

Bad Penny said...

Aspeis won't be your masters because Aspies aren't interested in having power. One possible scenario is that Aspies will invent stuff, and power-seeking NTs (neuro typicals) will use the inventions to control others.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree that those on the autisitc spectrum seldom have much interest in power per se. But they do have a strong interest in making things be a certain way, and can be rather persistent in making it so. They won't think of it as controlling us. They will think of it as getting it right.

NTL, your scenario doesn't sound far-fetched to me. It may be a matter of who gets in first and hardest.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with the clergyman's criticism (that the scientists are "children playing with what they don't understand") is this. Either the clergyman believes himself to belong to a superior species, better than normal humans (in the way that Marxists seem to consider themselves, when they classify everybody's thoughts but their own as being motivated by "class interests"). Or the clergyman admits that he himself is a human being and he himself doesn't understand things any better.

In the latter case, the decision to leave human beings in the same state they're in now -- short lives and all -- is itself a choice. Made by inaction. By the same sorts of alleged children who are supposed to not be competent to choose to live longer instead.

In other words, religion has the same problem as Marxism: it wants to abolish human reason and autonomy, yet not to abolish it.

That's quite a problem, and I don't think I'm going to be the only person to notice it. C.S. Lewis certainly described it, e.g., in the dialogue of Reason with the Spirit of the Age in his Pilgrim's Regress...

--Erich Schwarz / emsch at caltech edu

Laetitia said...

I've always been sceptical of the fact that suddenly every incredibly cerebral, socially awkward, clumsy genius (particularly those that reside in that esoteric, ulterior dimension known as the Information Technology lair) has Asperger Syndrome. Sure, I can see how most techies would have it, as techies tend to relate better to mechanical contraptions of pure logic such as computers and the rigid, systematic thinking involved in computer and mathematical sciences, but unless someone has a pronounced deficit whereby they cannot read nonverbal social cues, simply having a rigid personality is not definitive enough for a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. As someone who is bipolar myself, I got really interested in working in counseling, especially in the area of early childhood development. And I see a lot of patients who have high-functioning autism/AS. There are a few patients whom I see who clearly do not have HFA/AS, they just happen to merely have a few set characteristics (e.g. obsessive interests in numbers, mathematics, computers, etc) and are often very introverted people who simply are more interested in expending their considerable energies toward their interests. There is a peculiar immersion to whatever they become ensconced in, but this immersion is not so intense that it compromises their abilities to talk to people and pick up on signals from various interactions on the periphery. These people are still polite, and they acknowledge people as sentient forms, and can judge whether or not they need to put their activities aside in an effort to assist and interact with other people around them.

However, there are those who truly have High Functioning Autism/AS who do not pick up on social cues at all and are subject to the particular rigidity that characterizes people like Ray Kurzweil (whom I strongly suspect might have some aspects of his cognition and perception that are very similar to the logical and apersonal thinking (I know that isn't a word, but it's the closest approximation I could come up with; the emblem of autistic thinking is that while they have superior logical/analytical reasoning and thus can relate more to computers and machines than they can to people), they lack the kind of personal intuition that would lead to making human connections. And I think that this is partially due to the fact that computers are for the most part more concrete, exact (providing they are all functioning nominally) and well....predictable, to the autistic person's mind, than would a human being, who has these whack emotions that are totally out of their range of thinking.

But then again, I think that there are those who don't have an autism spectrum disorder who may have aspects of autism (logical/analytical, abstract comprehension on different levels than most people, difficulty picking up nonverbal cues, is sociologically aberrant and does not relate to ppl in the same way, etc) but don't necessarily have the disorder. So I think that a few areas of distinction have to be present in order for one to have autism. Particular among these is the inability to interpret the nonverbal signals of the social world. The crux of this is that someone can have technological inclinations and obsessions with certain topics and not necessarily have Asperger Syndrome. I really think that AS is more of a personality thing than an actual autism spectrum disorder. Because unless the person has severe developmental delays leaving them bereft of social intuition, and severe organizational problems such that they literally cannot function enough to hold down a job for more than a month, they don't have a pervasive developmental disorder such as autism or AS. These people could just be socially inept or not care very much for social conventions or what others think in the first place. They could just be socially inept geeks. Autism is a heck of a lot rarer than statistics would show, and a heck of a lot more complicated than mere social ineptitude. This is why it's so greatly misdiagnosed and overdiagnosed.

Anonymous said...

Bad Penny! You're wrong. I have Asperger , I have power and work for more. I am VERY interested, because I see political correctness is killing the Western World. I saw this when I was three (I am now 40) and I always wondered why so few other people saw this (and still do).