Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: June 2009

15 June 2009

Let A Hundred Futures Bloom: A Both/And Survey of Transhumanist Speculation

Mention the world “transhumanism” to most of my friends, and they will assume you mean uploading people into a computer. Transcendence typically connotes an escape from the trappings of this world — from the frailty of our bodies, the evolutionary wiring of our primate psychologies, and our necessary adherence to physical law.

However, the more I learn about the creative flux of our universe, the more the evolutionary process appears to be not about withdrawal, but engagement – not escape, but embrace – not arriving at a final solution, but opening the scope of our questions. Any valid map of evolution is fractal – evermore complex, and always shifting to expose unexplored terrain.

This is why I find it is laughable when we try to arrive at a common vision of the future. For the most part, we still operate on “either/or” software, but we live in a “both/and” universe that seems willing to try anything at least once. “Transhuman” and “posthuman” are less specific classifications than catch-alls for whatever we deem beyond what we are now… and that is a lot.

So when I am in the mood for some armchair futurism, I like to remember the old Chinese adage: “Let a hundred flowers bloom.” Why do we think it will be one way or the other? The future arrives by many roads. Courtesy of some of science fiction’s finest speculative minds, here are a few of my favorites:

...By Elective Surgery & Genetic Engineering

In Greg Egan’s novel Distress, a journalist surveying the gray areas of bioethics interviews an elective autistic — a man who opted to have regions of his brain removed in order to tune out of the emotional spectrum and into the deep synesthetic-associative brilliance of savants. Certainly, most people consider choice a core trait of humanity… but when a person chooses to remove that which many consider indispensable human hardware, is he now more “pre-” than “post-?” Even today, we augment ourselves with artificial limbs and organs (while hastily amputating entire regions of a complex and poorly-understood bio-electric system); and extend our senses and memories with distributed electronic networks (thus increasing our dependence on external infrastructure for what many scientists argue are universal, if mysterious, capacities of “wild-type” Homo sapiens). It all begs the question: are our modifications rendering us more or less than human? Or will this distinction lose its meaning, in a world that challenges our ability to define what “human” even means?

Just a few pages later in Distress, the billionaire owner of a global biotech firm replaces all of his nucleotides with synthetic base pairs as a defense against all known pathogens. Looks human, smells human…but he has spliced himself out of the Kingdom Animalia entirely, forming an unprecedented genetic lineage.

In both cases, we seem bound to shuffle sideways – six of one, half a dozen of the other.

...By Involuntary Implosion

In the 1980s, Greg Bear explored an early version of “computronium” – matter optimized for information-processing – in Blood Music, the story of a biologist who hacks individual human lymphocytes to compute as fast as an entire brain. When he becomes contaminated by the experiment, his own body transforms into a city of sentient beings, each as smart as himself. Eventually, they download his whole self into one of their own — paradoxically running a copy of the entire organism on one of its constituent parts. From there things only get stranger, as the lymphocytes turn to investigate levels of reality too small for macro-humans to observe.

Scenarios such as this are natural extrapolations of Moore’s Law, that now-famous bit about computers regularly halving in size and price. And Moore’s Law is just one example of a larger evolutionary trend: for example, functions once distributed between every member of primitive tribes (the regulatory processes of the social ego, or the formation of a moral code) are now typically internalized and processed by every adult in the modern city. Just as we now recognize the Greek Gods as embodied archetypes correlated with neural subroutines, the redistributive gathering of intelligence from environment to “individual” seems likely to transform the body into a much smarter three cubic feet of flesh than the one we are accustomed to.

...By Nano-Hacking

Then again, there might be systemic constraints to just how far tech will take us. Charles StrossGlasshouse offers a rare perspective on the possible consequences of nanotechnology: once we all rely on computers to back ourselves up and store ourselves for interstellar transit, those computers become the targets for a new level of informational warfare. In a world where people can be rebuilt at whim, murder is effectively obsolete.. No one can be killed, but everyone is at constant risk of being hacked. Suddenly you wake up working for the enemy, and loving it. Selective memory erasure programs saturate the network and prevent any further development from crossing communities and achieving universality. History is routinely wiped, so no new wisdom can accrue. Once again, humanity is splintered into countless isolated physical and mental regions, and some of them respond by choosing to eschew high technology entirely, living and dying on the clock of some long-forgotten world.

In other words, what we normally imagine as a linear continuum might instead be a wave of progress that ebbs and flows, a cycle of Light and Dark Ages distributed capriciously through space-time.

...By Hyperdimensional Intervention

The idea that humankind will be “initiated” into a new and higher mode of being by some other race of transcendental entities has been circulating for thousands of years. Perhaps there is a common trajectory for the development of sentient species, and we receive intermittent, minimally-intrusive guidance by those who came before us. It is an idea that has certainly found its way into common sci-fi discourse — be it through Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 or Stephen Baxter’s Manifold. Were we to take seriously the growing ranks of exopoliticians, exobiologists, and exolinguists, this in fact is happening. Descartes was given his famous plane — practically the emblem of rational modernity — by an angelic vision. Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the double helix) and Kary Mullis (pioneer of the Polymerase Chain Reaction) both admitted to interfacing with LSD when their Nobel Prize-winning finds came to them. Crop circles form overnight in muddy fields with no footprints, bearing strange radiation signatures and seeming to encrypt dense information about the structure of the quantum vacuum and the movement of celestial bodies. This pattern is almost universal among species-changing creative eruptions (or are they irruptions?) throughout history; even Moses had his burning bush. In every instance, these revelations drew our species closer to what we might call transhuman. We’re “getting the message,” but who is doing the talking?

...By Natural Quantum Evolution

One option in particular seems to get short shrift by a community that tends to believe we will lift ourselves up into a posthuman order by our own bootstraps…but if the future even modestly resembles the past, then we cannot neglect the possibility that nature will do the heavy lifting for us. Recent research at UC Berkeley and Washington University has demonstrated that photosynthesis is 95% efficient because it uses quantum computation to retroactively decide upon the best possible electron paths. Johnjoe McFadden at the University of Surrey has suggested that this very same process may have been how life emerged in the first place, and other scientists have noted similar, strangely intelligent mutation responses in lab cultures. Egan’s novel Teranesia runs with this new model of “smart evolution,” suggesting that we may see posthumanity spontaneously self-organize out of the quantum superposition of all possible futures — as if good ideas reach backward in time to organize their necessary histories. Given the uncanny prescience of some sci-fi speculation, this might not be too far from the truth.

All of the Above

As our options increase, humanity — and whatever else might call us their ancestors — will probably continue to take every form available: flesh, metal, and software; post-linguistic and pre-linguistic; evolution by self-mastery and deus ex machina. If it can happen, it probably will. This is the world in which we live, and every step we take into the future makes that increasingly, painfully obvious. Transhumanism, as best as I can define it, is the story of “and.”

(Written for H+ Magazine.)

10 June 2009

Echoes Of An Interstellar Meltdown

> Imagery

These paintings are from my live art residency at Wakarusa Festival's Interstellar Meltdown, a festival-within-a-festival that featured sweet live PA and electronic rock acts all weekend. I was lucky enough to get "official" status for this one (artist's wrist band serial number 00002), so I basically camped at the stage all weekend, up until dawn with the late-night acts every night. It was a super productive weekend. My legs are only now recovering...

2009 06 04 Wakarusa (Studio + Gem, The Floozies, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) - 24" x 24" masonite board
I've been reading Michael S. Schneider's excellent book A Beginner's Guide To Constructing The Universe. It's a tour of the numerical archetypes 1 through 10, how they manifest in nature, what they meant to the Pythagoreans and Freemasons...and how to construct each in 2D and 3D with a compass and straightedge. So in my last few weeks of living in Phoenix, I spent a few hours every day exploring the arrangement of circles and straight lines to decompose larger polygons into fractal arrays of repeating stars, diamonds, and triangles. I almost didn't want to color this one in, given how lovely and subtle the gloss black and matte black of the paint and board looked together. But I kept photos of that earlier stage and will be making digital stencils for further exploration. And jumping out of the car at Wakarusa to immediately get going on this piece was a blast.

available - 2009 06 05 Wakarusa (Pretty Lights, Praang) - 30" x 15" canvas panel
People have been telling me for over a year that I should try painting on a gradient...so I did. And it was great. Definitely expect a lot more of that...gradients make the appearance of depth even easier than using a black field. And I'm all about the depth.

available - 2009 06 05 Wakarusa (Studio + The Egg, Telepath, Heavy Pets, Heavyweight Dub Champion) - 24" x 24" masonite board
Another experiment pulled from the pages of A Beginner's Guide To Constructing The Universe – this time, the "harmonic decomposition of a square." My mom gave me an octagonal prism lens (kind of like the kind that goes on kaleidoscopes) right before I left for Wakarusa and I was handing it to spun kids all weekend so they could look at this painting. The gold outlines on every harmonic are really sweet in person...this one is so formal and linear that I don't identify with it as much as some of my other works, but that didn't seem to dissuade anyone at the shows.

2009 06 06 Wakarusa (EOTO, 2020 Soundsystem, Madahoochi) - 30" x 15" canvas panel
GOLD BACKGROUND! What else to be said about this one? Except that I threw the plants in kind of late in the process and then had to pull the cubes back out from the background...which reminds me of one time when I was at Clinton Lake in Lawrence KS and saw a UFO fly behind a tree, except that I could still see its lights as if they were in front of the tree, which was very puzzling. Also, I'm really satisfied with the electric sparks coming off the cubes. My friend Nathan who is a huge Futurama dork said this one reminds him of "space honey."

available - 2009 06 06 Wakarusa (Somasphere, Boombox, DJ Rehka) - 30" x 15" canvas panel
Back to black. Above-mentioned Futurama dork was drawing fields of cubes when I hung out with him last week, so figured I'd veer into the realm so skillfully portrayed by Kris Davidson and try to build three dimensions out of two. Freehanding those cubes is getting easier all the time...but barely. There's a bit of multi-perspectival head-twisting with this piece, because if you start from the corners of the trigram it appears that the center cubes are larger but farther away...but if you start from the center, it seems like the closest corner of a tetrahedron pointing toward the viewer. Either way, our confused brains don't want to register this as flat.

available - 2009 06 07 Wakarusa (Shpongle, Chuck Love, Ott) - 30" x 15" canvas panel
Speaking of confused brains, this is what happens on the third night I've desecrated my melatonin cycle in the name of art. Kind of a topographic map of a digital desert under blacklight. I'm eager to explore plenty more concentric lines in future pieces.

> Writing

I was recently given a great extended interview about my art and music by Austin music blogger Tyler Groover on his blog TwoGroove.com – probably the most in-depth any journalist has ever cared to go with me.
Part One - Background
Part Two - Artistic Process
Part Three - Miscellaneous Ranting

I've also been writing for transhumanist magazine H+, where the future of technological and ethical evolution is examined by a community of thinkers who agree we're all about to call into question our deepest assumptions about human nature and existence. My two most recent articles:

Let A Hundred Futures Bloom (on page 67 of their digital edition)
A "both/and" view of the so-called "singularity" that will transform everything we know...my look at numerous possible future scenarios that could bring about a posthuman world, which might not be mutually exclusive.

The Spooky World Of Quantum Biology (not my title!)
It turns out that the "spooky" behaviors of the quantum world – where teleportation, time-travel, and bilocation are par for the course – are the machinery of life. New research indicates that quantum effects might explain the mysteries of biology, finally provide a stable definition of life, and allow us to tap the incredible computational ability of living systems to steer the course of evolution – or fulfill our destiny as pawns of the vast "intelligent design..."

01 June 2009

The Spooky World of Quantum Biology

The new science of quantum biology is teaching us about how the actual behavior of evolution is governed by disconcertingly spooky processes – time travel being one of them. Will quantum computation finally be realized by biomimicry, in organic systems? Evolution is the new (old) computation...and we're about to take the reigns.

One hundred and fifty years ago, paleontologist Thomas Henry Huxley (an autodidact and philosopher who coined the term “agnostic” and was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his passionate defense of natural selection) asserted that humankind would eventually take the processes of evolution into our own hands. Within a few decades of his proclamation, a cadre of equally brilliant scientists including Werner Heisenberg, David Bohm, and Max Planck began to unravel the mysterious properties of quantum mechanics. These two theories –- evolutionary and quantum dynamics -- can each be considered among the most important discoveries of all time. Taken together, they have changed almost everything about the way we understand reality. However, in spite of the popularity of interdisciplinary research and unifying theories over the last hundred years (despite, even, quantum physicist Erwin Schröedinger’s 1944 book, What Is Life?), it was only recently that the relationship between these two vastly important domains was even considered. Now, a new kind of science, called “quantum biology,” is beginning to emerge –- and it could change everything we know, again.

Life is a molecular process; molecular processes operate according to the quantum playbook; therefore, life is a quantum process. And yet, it wasn’t until the nineties that anyone suggested biology could be better understood by looking at it through the lens of quantum theory. (The seminal paper was D.V. Nanopoulos’ "Theory of brain function, quantum mechanics and superstrings.”) Not long after that, the idea caught on – particularly in the neurosciences, where the idea of the brain as a quantum computer quickly became a topic of fierce debate.
Quantum computation, a science still in its infancy, promises swiftness and efficiency vastly superior to anything possible with conventional silicon chips. Rather than relying on binary bits like contemporary systems, quantum computers use “qubits” that include all possible superpositions of a particle’s classical state. Instead of being “trapped” in a single configuration, the logic gates of a quantum computer employ multiple possibilities in synchrony – using the entire set of alternative outcomes to arrive at an answer.

It’s a promising avenue for people with big plans for strong AI or virtual reality. The only complication is that coherence –- in which the many possible states of a particle or group of particles stay hung in superposition –- is something scientists have only been able to study under extremely controlled conditions. It’s only possible when that system doesn’t interact with anything else that might “collapse the wave function,” and so most of the major options for quantum computing involve impractical scenarios like creating a supercooled vacuum.
This is one of the reasons that many scientists have considered quantum biology both unlikely and unscientific. The thermal noise of biological systems seemed too great to allow for quantum weirdness; and even if it could, how on Earth would we study it? But science is the story of ingenuity’s victory over shortsightedness – and one research team, led by Gregory S. Engel at UC Berkeley, has devised way to directly detect and observe quantum-level processes within a cell using high-speed lasers.

They were trying to establish exactly how organic photosynthesis approaches 95% efficiency, whereas the most sophisticated human solar cells operate at only half that. What they discovered is nothing short of remarkable. Using femtosecond lasers to follow the movement of light energy through a photosynthetic bacterial cell, Engel et al. observed the energy traveling along every possible direction at the same time. Instead of following a single trajectory like the electrons on a silicon chip, the energy in photosynthesis explores all of its options and collapses the quantum process only after the fact, retroactively “deciding” upon the most efficient pathway.

I’ll say that again, because it bears repeating. Not only do quantum phenomena occur in living systems, but the basic processes of life we take for granted rely on the transfer of information backward in time. Life is so magical because it cheats.

Although the mechanisms by which a living cell can prevent decoherence by dampening its own chemical “noise” remain utterly mysterious, findings such as these conclusively demonstrate that room-temperature quantum computing is possible (and knowing how something works isn’t always necessary in order to use it). And Engel’s group isn’t the only team to detect it: other laboratories have implicated a phenomenon called electron tunneling (micro-teleportation, in which an electron disappears in one location and instantaneously appears somewhere else without having traveled the intermediate distance) at work behind a range of organic phenomena, from our sense of smell and the activities of our enzymes to the neutralization of free radicals with anti-oxidants… possibly even consciousness itself. Paul Davies (Arizona State University) and JohnJoe McFadden (The University of Surrey) have independently suggested that computation in the netherworld of quantum coherence might explain how the earliest self-replicating molecules overcame the inestimable odds against them –- life’s very existence may be the consequence and continued operation of a quantum computer. We may ultimately have to accept our human quest for qubit calculation as a kind of biomimicry, rather than something new and unique.

Quantum biology stands to answer other big questions, as well –- questions that many contemporary biologists prefer to ignore. McFadden, in his excellent primer Quantum Evolution, cites several experiments that suggest certain mutations are “intelligent,” even “anticipatory.” For example, bacterial cultures have been observed to evolve clever responses to lab toxins at speeds that – just like the emergence of DNA from a primordial soup – defy astronomical odds. Can biological quantum calculation account for this? McFadden thinks so. (His hypothesis was itself anticipated in the science fiction of Greg Egan, whose novel Teranesia featured some very “spooky” retrocausal mutations – including the instantaneous appearance of entire new ecosystems via competing future evolutionary scenarios. Whether such extreme examples of quantum biological principles are possible remains to be seen.)

As we continue to probe biological phenomena that beat quantum computer scientists to the punch, a new picture emerges of evolutionary computing and design. Huxley’s prophecy that we will eventually take the reigns of our own evolution might come true sooner than predicted by establishment geneticists. But by appealing to the quantum oracle, we may be acting in service of something far older and more intelligent than we can even guess. Ultrafast computing, accelerated by our explorations into the new science of quantum biology, could well be the critical technology that pushes us over the edge into the Singularity – a timeless and transcendent event in which we already live, because it is the nature of life itself – a vast sentience beyond human comprehension, and we are merely the newest avenue for its expression in the world. Classical or quantum, human or ecological, natural selection still gets the last laugh.

Further Reading:

Quantum Aspects of Life, eds. Derek Abbott, Paul Davies, Arun K Pati

Discover Magazine: "Is Quantum Mechanics Controlling Your Thoughts?"

Nature: "Evidence for wavelike energy transfer through quantum coherence in photosynthetic systems," Engel et al.

"Conscious Events As Orchestrated Space-Time Selections," by Stuart Hameroff & Roger Penrose