Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Tag: evolution

The Augmentation Paradox

by rsbakker

So, thanks to the great discussion on the ‘Knowledge of Wisdom Paradox,’ here’s a sharper way to characterize the ecological stakes of the posthuman:

The Augmentation Paradox: The more you ‘improve’ some ancestral capacity, the more you degrade all ancestral capacities turning on the ancestral form of that capacity.

It’s not a paradox in the formal sense, of course. Also note that the dependency between ancestral capacities can be a dependency within or between individuals. Imagine a ‘confabulation detector,’ a device that shuts down your verbal reporting system whenever the neural signature of confabulation is detected, effectively freeing you from the dream world we all inhabit, while effectively exiling you from all social activities requiring confabulation (you now trigger ‘linguistic pause’ alerts), and perhaps dooming you to suffer debilitating depression.

It seems to me that something like this has to be floating around somewhere–in debates regarding transhumanism especially. If most all artificial augmentations entail natural degradations, then the question becomes one of what is gained overall. One can imagine, for instance, certain capacities degrading gracefully, while others (like the socio-cognitive capacities of those conned by Ashley Madison bots, for instance) collapsing catastrophically. So the question has to be, What guarantee do we have that augmentations will recoup degradations?

The point being, of course, that we’re not tinkering with cognitive technologies on the ground so much as on the 115th floor. It’s 3.8 billion years down!

Either way, the plausibility of the transhumanist project pretty clearly depends on somehow resolving the Augmentation Paradox in their favour.

The Knowledge of Wisdom Paradox

by rsbakker

Consider: We’ve evolved to solve environments using as little information as possible. This means we’ve evolved to solve environments ignoring as much information as possible. This means we’ve evolved to take as much of our environments for granted as possible. This means evolution has encoded an extraordinary amount of implicit knowledge into our cognitive systems. You could say that each and every one of us constitutes a kind of solution to an ‘evolutionary frame problem.’

Thus the ‘Knowledge of Wisdom Paradox.’ The more explicit knowledge we accumulate, the more we can environmentally intervene. The more we environmentally intervene, the more we change the taken-for-granted backgrounds. The more we change taken-for-granted backgrounds, the less reliable our implicit knowledge becomes.

In other words, the more robust/reliable our explicit knowledge tends to become, the less robust/reliable our implicit knowledge tends to become. Has anyone come across a version of this paradox anywhere? It actually strikes me as a very parsimonious way to make sense of how intelligence manages to make such idiots of some individuals. And its implications for our future are nothing if not profound.

 

The Posthuman as Evolution 3.0

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Knowing that you know that I know that you know, we should perhaps, you know, spark a doob and like, call the whole thing off.

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So for years now I’ve had this pet way of understanding evolution in terms of effect feedback (EF) mechanisms, structures whose functions produce effects that alter the original structure. Morphological effect feedback mechanisms started the show: DNA and reproductive mutation (and other mechanisms) allowed adaptive, informatic reorganization according to the environmental effectiveness of various morphological outputs. Life’s great invention, as they say, was death.

This original EF process was slow, and adaptive reorganization was transgenerational. At a certain point, however, morphological outputs became sophisticated enough to enable a secondary, intragenerational EF process, what might be called behavioural effect feedback. At this level, the central nervous system, rather than DNA, was the site of adaptive reorganization, producing behavioural outputs that are selected or extinguished according to their effectiveness in situ.

For whatever reason, I decided to plug the notion of the posthuman into this framework the other day. The idea was that the evolution from Morphological EF to Behavioural EF follows a predictable course, one that, given the proper analysis, could possibly tell us what to expect from the posthuman. The question I had in my head when I began this was whether we were groping our way to some entirely new EF platform, something that could effect adaptive, informatic reorganization beyond morphology and behaviour.

First, consider some of the key differences between the processes:

Morphological EF is transgenerational, whereas Behavioural EF is circumstantial – as I mentioned above. Adaptive informatic reorganization is therefore periodic and inflexible in the former case, and relatively continuous and flexible in the latter. In other words, morphology is circumstantially static, while behaviour is circumstantially plastic.

Morphological EF operates as a fundamental physiological generative (in the case of the brain) and performative (in the case of the body) constraint on Behavioural EF. Our brains limit the behaviours we can conceive, and our bodies limit the behaviours we can perform.

Morphologies and their generators (genetic codes) are functionally inseparable, while behaviours and their generators (brains) are functionally separable. Behaviours are disposable.

Defined in these terms, the posthuman is simply the point where neural adaptive reorganization generates behaviours (in this case, tool-making) such that morphological EF ceases to be a periodic and inflexible physiological generative and performative constraint on behavioural EF. Put differently, the posthuman is the point where morphology becomes circumstantially plastic. You could say tools, which allow us to circumvent morphological constraints on behaviour, have already accomplished this. Spades make for deeper ditches. Writing makes for bottomless memories. But tool-use is clearly a transitional step, ways to accessorize a morphology that itself remains circumstantially static. The posthuman is the point where we put our body on the lathe (with the rest of our tools).

In a strange, teleonomic sense, you could say that the process is one of effect feedback bootstrapping, where behaviour revolutionizes morphology, which revolutionizes behaviour, which revolutionizes morphology, and so on. We are not so much witnessing the collapse of morphology into behaviour as the acceleration of the circuit between the two approaching some kind of asymptotic limit that we cannot imagine. What happens when the mouth of behaviour after digesting the tail and spine of morphology, finally consumes the head?

What’s at stake, in other words, is nothing other than the fundamental EF structure of life itself. It makes my head spin, trying to fathom what might arise in its place.

Some more crazy thoughts falling out of this:

1) The posthuman is clearly an evolutionary event. We just need to switch to the register of information to see this. We’re accustomed to being told that dramatic evolutionary changes outrun our human frame of reference, which is just another way of saying that we generally think of evolution as something that doesn’t touch us. This was why, I think, I’ve been thinking the posthuman by analogy to the Enlightenment, which is to say, as primarily a cultural event distinguished by a certain breakdown in material constraints. No longer. Now I see it as an evolutionary event literally on par with the development of Morphological and Behavioural EF. As perhaps I should have all along, given that posthuman enthusiasts like Kurzweil go on and on about the death of death, which is to say, the obsolescence of a fundamental evolutionary invention.

2) The posthuman is not a human event. We may be the thin edge of the wedge, but every great transformation in evolution drags the whole biosphere in tow. The posthuman is arguably more profound than the development of multicellular life.

3) The posthuman, therefore, need not directly involve us. AI could be the primary vehicle.

4) Calling our descendents ‘transhuman’ makes even less sense than calling birds ‘transdinosaurs.’

5) It reveals posthuman optimism for the wishful thinking it is. If this transformation doesn’t warrant existential alarm, what on earth does?