Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Primacy of "intelligence" in "popular" posthumanism

"For they caused me to see that it is possible to attain knowledge which is very useful in life, and that, instead of that speculative philosophy which is taught in the Schools, we may find a practical philosophy by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, heavens and all other bodies that envrion us, as distinctly as we know the different crafts of our artisans, we can in the same way employ them in all those uses to which they are adapted and thus render ourselves the masters and posessors of nature" -- Descartes, "Discourse on Method" (italics mine)
 "But it turns out that we are central, after all. Our Ability to create models -- virtual realites -- in our brains, combined with our modest-looking thumbs, has been sufficient to usher in another form of evolution: technology. That development enabled the persistence of the accelerating pace that started with biological evolution. It will continue until the entire universe is at our fingertips" -- Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near 

I set these two quotes against each other, so we can recognize that at the outset, Kurzweil's teleology is close to Descartes. In fact, his claim that humans will eventually "saturate" matter with intelligence and that the universe will "wake up" and become conscious sounds vaguely similar to Hegel's notion of Absolute Consciousness at the end of history. Consciousness is indeed a focus of Kurzweil's book, as he also, per Descartes, appears to uphold the privilege given to consciousness and intelligence. But rather than a soul or 'mind', Kurweil argues that we are a pattern that may gradually shift but essentially holds firm, regardless of the material medium on which it is instantiated. Kurzweil's work exemplifies N. Katherine Hayles' claim that we have shifted from presence/absence to pattern/randomness. For Kurzweil, the goal is increasing order and harmony in the universe, which will most likely increase complexity, but not necessarily; Throughout the text, we get the sense that his caveat about reduced complexity from order is actually a desire.

The desire is that technology and greater intelligence that comes with it can solve all our problems -- disease, death, war, income inequality, etc. His relentless assumption that if we can become more intelligent and then the "nonbiological" machines that will be 'us' will eventually surpass human intelligence, we can solve problems. Sure these technologies will bring in new problems, that mostly concern issues of control and possible terrorism, but those age old problems that humans just haven't been intelligent to solve yet -- we'll solve those. Eugen Thacker has recently cautioned against the view that biotechnologies offer "technical solutions to social and cultural problems." To assume that we will be able to solve our problems once we have become more intelligent implies that intelligence consists of rational understanding that we can communicate and agree upon in order to act. Kurzweil assumes that intelligence also corresponds with "creative" capacities, but, we have seen throughout history that a lot of creative work is not associated with rational or even 'emotional' intelligence.

I focus on this particular avenue because Kurzweil has assembled a large amount of research and argumentation for his position based on on countless scientific studies (although some more credible than others). We could sit here and critique him for thinking that by 2040 or whatever the Singularity will be here because of exponential growth of technology or we could critique his neglect of the animal (for the most part), but his argument more than any of that hinges on this slippery concept of intelligence, a focus I also found in Fukuyama with the exception that Fukuyama was defending an inherently complex and standard human IQ that we should attempt to maintain (at least on a bell curve).

Kurzweil defines intelligence (if it can be called a definition) on pg 296: "Intelligence is the ability to solve problems with limited resources, including limitations of time."

So intelligence is framed as the ability to solve problems, the very thing Kurzweil says super-intelligence will enable us to do. But is intelligence really measured by problem-solving capability?

Intelligence, as a word, derives from the Latin verb, intelligere, which in turn derives from inter-legere, which means to "pick out or discern." Wikipedia continues (and I realize that this may not be entirely accurate):

Intelligence derives from the Latin verb intelligere which derives from inter-legere meaning to "pick out" or discern. A form of this verb, intellectus, became the medieval technical term for understanding, and a translation for the Greek philosophical term nous. This term was however strongly linked to the metaphysical and cosmological theories of teleological scholasticism, including theories of the immortality of the soul, and the concept of the Active Intellect (also known as the Active Intelligence). This entire approach to the study of nature was strongly rejected by the early modern philosophers such as Francis BaconThomas HobbesJohn Locke, and David Hume, all of whom preferred the word "understanding" in their English philosophical works.[2][3] Hobbes for example, in his Latin De Corpore, used "intellectus intelligit" (translated in the English version as "the understanding understandeth") as a typical example of a logical absurdity.[4] 

Historically, then, its not a surprise that we link transhumanism with immortality and a kind of hyper-rationalist, masculinist, transcendence-laced -- discourse (I have yet to hear of a female extropian/transhumanist). 

But etymologically, if intelligence is meant to signify discerning or picking out, this means that is not limited to a kind of problem-solving approach. Instead, following the more recent continental theory, we could think of intelligence as picking out or discerning problems -- or even picking out something and then inventing with it. But again, not to solve a problem, but to make it more apparent or to show the aporias that confront us (here I am drawing loosely on some of Greg Ulmer's work). 

But what about privileging intelligence in general? Why intelligence? Why not stupidity? Why not not-knowing? I am not saying this as a Luddite reaction to Kurzweil's extensive accounts of developments in GNR technologies (Genetic, nano, robot) but in the sense that how does intelligence solve our problems? Have we not seen intelligence been used for ill-conceived ends? Most everyone would agree Hitler embodied the wickedness of a certain ideology (I hesitate to call him a 'bad man" because it sounds so silly and utterly inadequate), but how many people would say he was "stupid" "unintelligent," "ignorant"? 

So here we have to add that if Kurzweil wants to maintain a kind of technological-intelligence optimism that the assumption is that we (and the non-biological entities that follow us) becomes more "morally intelligent" too. 

But what the hell is "moral intelligence" ? Or "ethical intelligence" ? The moral/ethical/political principles discussed in Kurzweil's book are not radical. Rather, despite his speculative technological imagination, he does not imagine any new political or ethical arrangements that would come out of this (just ethical "problems" that need to be solved). 

What is the relationship between intelligence and values? 

Now we're in really deep shit. Once you start saying "ah, that value clearly reflects on that person's intelligence" you start to use intelligence as a bludgeon against people you don't agree with, and, of course, this leads to ad hominem attacks galore. We don't want to start questioning people's values based on their intelligence do we? And is it really their intelligence that came up with these values or their cultural, social, and political position? 

This focus on intelligence, at once a narrow and vague understanding of it, is the Achilles heel of popular posthumanism: Its always about the mind, consciousness -- AI rather than AL. The seat of all problem solving is the (bio or non-bio) intelligence of the individual innovator -- a convenient narrative for Kurzweil to perpetuate as an inventor and innovator himself.

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