I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 6.
“Superintelligence” refers to the idea that an advanced form of machine (computer-based) intelligence, programmed using Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques, will in the future greatly exceed the intellectual capacities of human beings. According to some experts, this gives rise to the threat that such a machine would seek to dominate or displace humans. This threat has given rise to a great deal of academic and industry interest in the area now known as “AI safety.”
I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 4.
In a truly remarkable historical development, seven men and women, all born in small Jewish communities in a narrow band of territory running through Western and Central Europe in the nineteenth century, made extraordinary contributions to the “Second Enlightenment” in the modern West. They were Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Gustav Mahler, Albert Einstein, Emmy Noether, and Franz Kafka. But a mere fifty years after the youngest among them was born (Kafka, in 1883), all of the communities from which they came, and so many other similar ones, were wiped out entirely in Nazi Germany’s Holocaust.
I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 3.
A key feature of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment was its war against religion, which it called “superstition,” and its advocacy of the “new science” – that is, experimental science, as defined first by Francis Bacon and Galileo in the preceding century and practiced by the first modern chemists. But in his great book on “the progress of the human mind,” Condorcet added an important corollary: that the evidence-based method of science should also spread throughout social practices, leading to a more humane society. But contemporary science can no longer fulfill this role, since its concepts and methods stray far from the common-sense understanding of the world.
I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 2.
The introduction of large-scale machinery into factories in the nineteenth-century, and (with railroads) into the public sphere, was a great shock to the artistic imagination. In such imaginative works as the short stories by Herman Melville, “The Bell-Tower” (1855), and E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909), this development was portrayed as presenting deep challenges to humanity’s sense of self, leading to the possibility that humankind could wind up as the passive and uncomprehending victims of the triumph of the machine.
I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 1.
What is “modernity”? In what essential, unique way does modern Western civilization differ from all of its predecessors, stretching back to the ancient Greeks, and all other major world civilizations (Chinese, Islamic, Japanese, Russian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and African Kingdoms)? I argue that the unique element is both modern science itself and its historical characteristics – its close bond with technology, and its influence on the social sphere. To be sure, this results in a highly problematic situation, since this science confers great operational power on humans, and thus it demands that this power be used prudently, a demand that has not yet been met.
The second edition features a new concluding chapter, entitled “Such Clever Microbes!” which deals with the implications of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique.
The work originally published in 2008 had two components that were central to its purpose as a work belonging to a specific genre, namely, science-based utopian fiction: First, a collection of essays, grounded in scientific literature, on the history of science, social impacts of science and technology, and mammalian reproductive biology. Second, a series of dialogues, involving different combinations of characters, that are philosophical in nature, largely concerned with exploring the social and ethical implications of the technologies associated with modern science. Works of utopian fiction in modern times have always been “novels of ideas,” and the present work seeks to remain faithful to that tradition. This edition has had minor changes to the text throughout, as well as the addition of an entirely new chapter on genome editing at the end, Chapter 17: “Such Clever Microbes!” focusing on the CRISPR-Cas9 technique.
I read in the paper recently that you are supposed to have said: “If I were to be born a second time, I would become not a physicist, but an artisan.” These words were a great comfort to me, for similar thoughts are going through my mind as well, in view of the evil which our once so beautiful science has brought upon the world.
Max Born, Letter to Albert Einstein (1954)
Hera and her sisters are now sealed off from the rest of the world in their private enclave at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. She is still tormented by the decision of her parents, two neuroscientists, to make genetic modifications in the brains of their twelve daughters—and by her own agreement to allow a similar procedure to be used later on a much larger group of human embryos.
Her doubts now spill over into a series of debates with a molecular biologist, Abdullah al-Dini, about whether scientists have the right to hand over the vast new powers they have discovered to a world still riddled with religious fanaticism, ethnic hatred, and a longing to see the prophecy of the “end of days” be fulfilled. These debates refer back to what happened during the Second World War, when physicists were unveiling the secrets of nuclear power, and the possibility of the atom bomb, just as the time when Nazi Germany and its allies were launching their terrifying bid for world domination.
Meanwhile, that group of engineered embryos has become one thousand young people, just turning eighteen, and the gender politics among them is threatening to bring down in ruins her own little experiment in redesigning human society.
The first (2008) edition is available from the University of Ottawa Press in three formats:
This work, originally published in 2006, had two components that were central to its purpose as a book belonging to a specific genre, namely, science-based utopian fiction: First, a collection of essays, grounded in scientific literature, on neuroscience, genetics, and reproductive biology. Second, a series of dialogues, involving different combinations of characters, that are philosophical in nature, largely concerned with exploring the social and ethical implications of the technologies used to create a tribe of genetically-modified individuals. Works of utopian fiction in modern times have always been “novels of ideas,” and the present work seeks to remain faithful to that tradition. The revisions undertaken for this edition were the elimination of two later chapters and some other material, beginning in Chapter 15, but none of the material related to the two key components has been deleted. Finally, this new edition contains pictures and illustrations not found in the original 2006 book, as well as an updated timeline for the events (advanced by a decade from the original timeline).
Author: William Leiss (www.leiss.ca) Length: Pages Xix, 195 Publisher: Magnus & Associates Ltd. Language: English ISBN 978-0-9738283-2-0
Table of Contents
Prologue and Retrospective Part One: The Mind Unhinged: Modernity and its Discontents Chapter 1: The Rupture in Historical Time in the Modern West Chapter 2: Sublime Machine Chapter 3: Modern Science and its Spacetime Chapter 4: Seven Figures and the Agony of Modernity Part Two: Pathways to Utopia Chapter 5: A Utopia for our Times Chapter 6: The Threat of Superintelligence Chapter 7: Good Robot Chapter 8: Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief Life-Systems: Introduction: Silicon and Carbon The First Dialogue: The Guardians The Second Dialogue: At Home in the Universe The Third Dialogue: What is Time? The Fourth Dialogue: Two Forms of Intelligence The Fifth Dialogue: On Superintelligence and the Ethical Will The Sixth Dialogue: What is Life? The Seventh Dialogue: Interdependence between Humanity and Machine Intelligence Conclusion: Mastery over the Mastery of Nature Chapter 9: Utopia in Practice, with A Discourse on Voluntary Ignorance Chapter 10: A Moral Machine: Rebooting Hal Appendix: “Hal” (Outline for a Screenplay) Sources and References / Acknowledgements / About The Herasaga
Synopsis Prologue and retrospective: A summary of the main themes in the first two volumes of The Herasaga: Hera, or Empathy (2006) and The Priesthood of Science (2008).
Chapter 1: Recounts the radical rupture in modern history caused by the emergence of the new natural sciences. Argues that the new science is an unambiguous good for humanity, but that its close connection with technology and industry is highly problematic, leading to out-of-control advances which, in the era of nuclear weapons, lead to the threat – still around us today – of the utter destruction of the entirety of civilization.
Chapter 2: Tells the story of the nineteenth-century reaction to the coming of industrial technology, called the “Age of Machinery,” regarded as greatly problematic by many important writers, notably Herman Melville, and leading to a powerful countervailing current in the early twentieth century, in E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops,” and in the first dystopian novel, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924).
Chapter 3: The French Enlightenment in the eighteenth century saw the new science as spreading rationalism against superstition and religion through all of society – but it underestimated badly the strength of traditional institutions which opposed this. Then, in the twentieth century, the new subatomic physics revealed the underlying natural world to be a scene of incomprehensibly weird forces, and modern science lost its ability to shape thinking in the social world.
Chapter 4: The second phase of Enlightenment is known as “modernity.” Across virtually all aspects of high culture during the twentieth century, modernity posed a radical challenge to traditional ways of thought and behavior. But it evoked an equally radical and violent reaction, represented best in Nazi ideology, which had a shockingly destructive outcome. At the core of this contest were the European Jewish communities, which suffered its horrendous consequences.
Chapter 5: The wreckage left by the violent contest over modernity prompts us to take another look at the tradition of utopian thought, with its vision of a better model for human society. Four different “platforms” are described and contrasted, with a special focus on their approach to the challenge implicit in the impact of steady technological advance on social life.
Chapter 6: The most recent challenge of technological advance is the idea of “superintelligence,” which imagines a future in which computer capabilities far exceed those of humans, in terms of thinking and decision-making. Scenarios have described the possibility that such a machine might turn out to be opposed to human interests and might have the capacity to deceive its human masters about what its own goals are. This has raised the prospect of a strongly-bifurcated future state for humanity: on the one hand, an end to all of the old problems of poverty and inequality; on the other hand, the possibility of the destruction of the planet and the human race itself.
Chapter 7: A whimsical short story, set sometime in the future, about robots and humans.
Chapter 8: The longest chapter in the book, an imaginary scene set 50 years in the future, this is a series of dialogues between a fictional human character and a superintelligent computer which calls itself “Hal.” The most intense discussion involves the difference between biological and machine forms of intelligence, and the dialogue revisits the potential threat of superintelligence covered in Chapter 6. After many pages of back-and-forth conversations about complex ideas, as well as some friendly banter, there is a surprise ending.
Chapter 9: This chapter returns to the utopian themes in Chapter 5 in the light of the subsequent issues raised in Chapters 6 and 8, and, in this context, reviews once again the difficult problems raised by the challenge that relentless technological advance poses for human society.
Chapter 10: Hal is rebooted in a scenario in which “his” human programmers are resolved to try to turn him into a “moral machine.”
Appendix: This is an outline for a movie screenplay about a superintelligent computer which is not at all malevolent but which simply wishes to control its own existence.
Hera and her sisters are now sealed off from the rest of the world in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. Hera is still tormented by her parents’ decision to genetically modify the brains of their twelve daughters—and by her own agreement to allow a similar procedure to be used on a much larger group of human embryos.
In a series of dialogues with a molecular biologist recruited for their private university, Hera and Gaia debate the changing relationship between science and society from the time of Lavoisier in the eighteenth century to the terrible legacy of atomic physics in the twentieth. Two dialogues between Hera and Jacob Hofer, a Hutterite minister, deal with the issue of nihilism in religion and science.
Meanwhile, the group of engineered embryos has become one thousand young people just turning eighteen, and their gender politics are threatening to ruin Hera’s new beginning for human society.
Like priests, scientists are liable to be misled by the purity of their motives into downplaying the risks inherent in their creations.
“It is, of course, quite correct for you to allot the relevant priesthood to Niels Bohr.” (Albert Einstein to Max Born, 7 September 1944)
This is the opening section from the Prologue to The Priesthood of Science, Book Two of The Herasaga, to be published in 2008. These words – “Begotten, not made” – are from the Nicene Creed, one of the fundamental texts of the Christian faith. They are reinterpreted here by Hera in the context of evolutionary biology and the appearance on earth of the Hominina subtribe: gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. See the website for Book One of The Herasaga, entitled Hera, or Empathy: http://www.herasaga.com
Ever since Plato, philosophers have been imagining future utopian societies. In more recent times, many of these fantasies have been about the doings of scientists because modern science fascinates us with the prospect of changing every aspect of our lives.
Hera is one of twelve sisters genetically modified by their neuroscientist parents to have superior mental faculties. During their teenage years the sisters were forced to flee for their lives from the remote Indonesian village where they were born. Later, Hera challenges her father’s right to have engineered his children, using the Biblical story of creation against him. But one day she discovers that the sisters’ genes contain modifications that their parents didn’t intend.