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Room 101

12.26.8

Mac Tonnies :: A Room 101 Interview with a Transhumanist

This fortnight in Room 101, we're breaking new ground with a special non-UFO interview with Mac Tonnies. Tonnies is the author of After The Martian Apocalypse, an excellent book on Mars anomalies. He is perhaps better known in UFO circles, though, for his controversial cryptoterrestrial hypothesis. Both these topics, of course, were covered in-depth during his appearance on BoA: Audio, so in this interview we're going to focus more on his views and beliefs as a Transhumanist instead. In particular, we'll be getting his take on many of the problems people have with the whole idea of Transhmanism. (You can read about my views on the topic in Doctor Who and the Robots of Death).

So is Mac Tonnies a real life Davros-like mad scientist or the next Arthur C. Clarke? Maybe a bit a both, you decide ...

Richard: First things first, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. I've really enjoyed your appearances on BoA: Audio and other podcasts and am really looking forward to finally getting the chance to ask you some questions, myself.

In this interview, I want to mainly get your take on the Transhumanist movement and some concerns many (myself included) have about the whole idea of upgrading humanity. But first there is something else I've been wanting to ask you about that kind of relates to transhumanism a little bit.

I'm a huge fan of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials and films, particularly Quatermass and the Pit. What do you think of the central premise of the story: "That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects"?

Mac Tonnies: Cultures all over the world seem to have a special affinity with insect intelligence, a theme we seem to see reiterated in Western pop culture's eponymous image of the "Gray" alien. "Trippers" who ingest DMT sometimes describe similar insect-like entities. The question that naturally arises is whether we're indeed making contact with an intelligence external to our own minds or else tapping into some neural legacy.

Colony collapse disorder is at least as disturbing, albeit for different reasons. The global die-off of bees reminds us how intricately connected we are with the planet. Ultimately, there are no dispassionate, clinical observers; we're embedded in the experiment with no clear sight of its purpose -- assuming, of course, that it has one.

Richard: For people who don't know, what is "transhumanism" and why do you support the idea?

Mac Tonnies: Transhumanism is a simple blanket term for people who view technology as a means by which to augment and expand human prowess -- physically, cognitively and perhaps even spiritually. We're already knee-deep in an era of smart-drugs, genetic therapies and molecular manufacturing, so it's not exactly rash to attempt to anticipate future breakthroughs. For instance, there's reason to suspect that aging itself will eventually come to be viewed as a degenerative disease, much how we currently view diseases like polio or cancer. Given the ability to avert disease, relatively few among us will refuse to take advantage of new cures. So I suspect most of us are "closet transhumanists," whether we're explicitly familiar with the philosophical arguments or not.

Richard: Sci-Fi is littered with examples of what might be called transhumans or post-humans: from the Daleks and Cybermen of Doctor Who to the Borg and Augments of Star Trek. But how do you imagine these future creations? For example, do you think some might have a group consciousness like the Borg or maybe removed their emotions like the Cybermen?

Mac Tonnies: The Borg is a wonderful cautionary metaphor: the transhumanist equivalent to the Party in Orwell's "1984." Could transhumanist technologies be used unwisely? Certainly. But the same could be said for any technology, old or new. As with any endeavor with the potential to fundamentally alter our relationship with ourselves, we need to apply caution and forethought, which is what much of contemporary science fiction represents.

Richard: I'm all for giving sight to the blind, replacing missing limbs and that kind of thing. Restoring or making up for lost ability seems fine, since we're already doing it with things like false teeth and eye glasses, but I have to draw the line at trying to make "improvements" or "upgrading" people. Trying to create better or even "perfect" beings suggests there is something wrong, or worse, inferior about people now. Historically, this is a very, VERY dangerous idea. What are your thoughts on this?

Mac Tonnies: I would argue that we're all "inferior" in the sense that we're ill-adapted to essentially any lifestyle other than the one in which we happened to evolve. (Ask an astronaut.) I don't think any transhumanist thinkers want to create a "perfect" being; the operative goal is to empower the human species on an individual level. In a foreseeable future scenario, instead of being saddled with the genome one blindly inherits, one can choose to become an active participant -- and I find that possibility incredibly liberating and exciting. Transhumanism is not eugenics.

Richard: The whole idea of the post-human seems dangerously close to Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the ‹bermensch or Superman. How do we prevent transhumanism from being hijacked and turned into something evil the way Nietzsche's ideas were by Hitler and the Nazis?

Mac Tonnies: That's a legitimate risk. As with the "digital divide," it's likely that, at first, only the relatively wealthy will have access to modification technology -- whether a brain-computer interface, anti-senescence treatment or access to intelligence-expanding pharmaceuticals. But one of the appealing outgrowths of digital manufacturing is the ability to build on the atomic level: the sort of technology that could mature into a nanotech "assembler" that can produce desired goods from scratch. Machines like this could do an immeasurable amount of good for the developing world; one hopes they're inevitable, like the now-ubiquitous cellphone.

Richard: Human beings seem to find it hard enough to get on with other humans, never mind post-humans. What sort of relationship do you think will exist between us and post-humans? Will they be our slaves or will we be their pets?

Mac Tonnies: Neither. A posthuman civilization will probably have enough to think about without harassing its neighbors -- especially if they pose no threat. When I see the Amish, I'm tempted to speculate along similar lines. Almost invariably, some of us will eschew transhumanism for various philosophical or metaphysical reasons, but that doesn't necessarily entail antagonism or hostility.

Richard: Closely paralleling transhumanism, of course, is the whole idea of the "Technological Singularity." A point in our future history when computers advance beyond the limits of human intelligence and become the new leading source of great invention and breakthroughs in the world. How likely do you think Ray Kurzweil's predictions are that it will occur in the next few decades?

Mac Tonnies: I think Kurzweil's overly optimistic -- and naive in a sort of endearingly infectious way. Specifically, I don't think the post-biological future will arrive as abruptly as Kurzweil suspects. While I think many of his forecasts will indeed happen more or less as advertised, I foresee a more gradual -- and markedly less utopian -- transition. On the other hand, we might direly need the technologies Kurzweil describes in order to survive the excesses and hazards of the next century, and necessity is often the mother of invention.

Richard: Do you think the Singularity is something we should be preparing for in case it really does take place? For instance, do you think we need any new laws or other safeguards to prevent any possible dangers? (e.g. Robot rebellion.)

Mac Tonnies: Absolutely. We can continue to engage in a healthy dialogue about when and how the Singularity might arrive -- if ever -- but there's enough momentum to suggest some very real challenges in coming decades. Possible dangers include "designer" viruses and weaponized nanotech: inventions that could conceivably render us extinct. I don't think that's a risk we can afford to underestimate, regardless of one's intellectual biases.

Richard: Some speculate that superintelligent machines might develop their own goals that could be inconsistent with continued human survival and prosperity. What do you think of AI (Artificial Intelligence) researcher Hugo de Garis warning that such entities may simply choose to exterminate the human race?

Mac Tonnies: Roboticist Hans Moravec thinks the opposite is more likely: our mechanical offspring will think of us as parents and allow us to join them or perish of our own accord. Perhaps it seems cold, but that's evolution. If homo sapiens in ultimately usurped by something wiser and more capable, that's quite OK with me.

Richard: What are your plans for the future? I understand you've been working on a book on your cryptoterrestrial hypothesis, when do you think we might expect that?

Mac Tonnies: I'm fascinated by accounts of apparent UFO occupants and have been rethinking who or what we might be dealing with. I'm of the opinion that the extraterrestrial interpretation is incomplete. Could we be interacting with indigenous humanoids? That's the question I'm posing in the book I'm writing. Time will tell if it helps resolve the UFO enigma; I'll be satisfied if it makes readers a little less complacent.

Richard: Thanks again, I look forward to your future projects.

Richard Thomas, BoA UK Correspondent and Columnist.

Sources:

Mac Tonnies' official website
Alex Jones' Endgame on Google Video
Building Gods Rough Cut on Google Video

Richard Thomas is also a columnist for Alien Worlds magazine. Check it out !

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