Techno-Utopianism: A Perfect Future?

Google the word “science fiction” and you will generally find two different takes on what the future holds. One is the more popular dystopian stance, whereby science fiction writers and futurists take a pessimistic approach toward the future. The other is one which has been given slightly less pop culture coverage, the technological optimists. However, the optimist movement has been gaining steam of late, especially in Silicon Valley and in Futurist literature at large.

Google has invested in far-out projects, including life-extension technology popularized by advocates for mind-uploading to computers and advanced biotechnology. Elon Musk proved he could provide a private alternative to NASA with SpaceX. Again Musk proved that he could provide a viable alternative to the fossil-fuel reliant car, launching Tesla. Best-selling author, inventor and proponent of radical biotechnologies, Ray Kurzweil, has made the case for human immortality by way of technology (+) health. The H+ movement, or Transhumanism, of which Kurzweil’s ideas belong to, have begun to make an impact in Silicon Valley start-ups determined to advance biotechnology research and Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) capable of advancing such goals.

The future seems capable of many wonderful things, but not first without living within present restraints. And while I support ALL of the above examples enthusiastically, I will go more in depth as to some issues often overlooked by what I call Techno-Utopians.

Google itself has admitted Calico is a very hypothetical investment, a “moon shot.” While there is preliminary research to support such a venture, it may well be very far off from actual implementation. Most of the health technologies currently available are still years ahead of the necessary regulatory framework needed for their appropriate implementation.

On the space exploration front, SpaceX has been a stunning success, leading many to refer to Musk as a modern day Iron Man or Tony Stark. Tesla however continues to concern investors after a record run-up of its stock that Musk himself deemed troubling in an interview. While the car itself is revolutionary, the balance sheet of the company was never worthy of such a stock price run-up. A simple glance at Tesla’s balance sheet would have sent immediate red-flags to potential investors. Yet a passionate belief in something better, in the utopian vision of a revolutionary inventor, Elon Musk, drove the stock price to astronomical highs. Today the company is being investigated for a possible violation of SEC law regarding Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

Supporters of Singularity and general H+ proponents have spent billions on research, and have successfully petitioned governments to also spend many millions on Brain research (see BRAIN project in US and EU’s counterpart). While their goal is meritorious, the patent system and prevailing attitude toward scientific discovery in medicine may mean any breakthrough could remain prohibitively expensive for the masses for much longer periods of time.  It will likely remain the case that whatever Google does create, the FDA will surely take its time, possibly even rejecting some products. More than the regulatory framework issues, current medical patent law will make much of the Transhumanist science prohibitively expensive for most for the foreseeable future beyond any FDA approval. Things which could dramatically enhance life span will likely initially be deemed optional by insurance companies at best. Only the super wealthy will have the ability to initially finance their H+ medical interventions. Critics suggest a barrier to medical access could lead to potential Elysium-like socioeconomic concerns about who has access to what futuristic healthcare options.

H+ advocates also often oversimplify their mission. This is especially true when it comes to the brain-end of their argument. Kurzweil makes this mistake himself when discussing his hypothetical brain nanobots, which according to what we do know of the brain to be scientifically and biologically impossible on the scale (7 microns across) he mentions. This does not throw into doubt the entire Singularity movement, it only means that in order to enhance biology with technology we must still deal with present scientific constraints. The brain is EXTRAORDINARILY complex and even rosy estimates from proponents of H+ science consider any mind-uploading scenarios like the one Kurzweil envisions to be many, many years off (not 2045 as Kurzweil would suggest in his books and lectures).

Another component of the utopian wing of futurism is they often fail to answer important questions about their various predictions. One such question is, if people will begin to lead vastly longer lives because of technology, how will world population be affected? What about pollution, overcrowding, who will lead longer lives, how will we grow enough food etc.? What about issues with privacy? These questions are often answered by utopian advocates stating  (and I paraphrase) “technology will figure it all out.” This is the principle issue with utopian futurists. While dystopian writers and futurists use facts and problem-solving based on prevailing attitudes of things, utopians use vague ideas and belief to guide their arguments. The ideal look at the future is to utilize both schools of thought.

We are living in extraordinary times. More and more, we will see our lives upended by technology, sometimes for the better, and other times not. However, we must also remember to not get too caught up in the hype of what something may promise, and do our research to the best ability possible. There is no certainty in the future. There is no right or wrong, as what Futurism espouses is that of something which has not yet occurred. It is impossible to quantify, and let no math genius or smooth talker tell you otherwise. The only way we can accurately theorize about anything to come is by addressing the present restraints that prevent it from coming about or being implemented appropriately. It is good to have ideas and to continue to invest in a plausible future, especially in H+ ventures. We owe it to humanity. But in order to create the best outcomes, we must also be rational now and solve problems in the interim to best enable such wonderful visions to be appropriately implemented. Avoiding such problem-solving in the interim in favor of grandstanding about vast future possibility is Utopianism at its worst. Most people are not scared of technology or technological progress. What they fear is a group of overzealous computer scientists and techno-utopians overlooking serious flaws with their inventions or views.So instead of calling people Luddites, Techno-Utopians better address their concerns, and then maybe the folks who criticize these views will become more optimistic themselves.

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