Bryce Laliberte has been thinking about Capital Teleology, from the perspective of human technological augmentation. One significant feature of this approach is that it doesn’t require any kind of savage rupture from ‘humanistic’ traditionalism — the story of technology is unfolded within the history of man.

Coincidentally, Isegoria had tweeted about Butlerian Jihad a few hours before (referring back to this post from December last year). The implicit tension between these visions of techno-teleology merits sustained attention — which I’m unable to provide here and now.  What is easily offered is a quotation from Samuel Butler’s ‘Book of the Machines’ (the 23rd and 24th chapters of his novel Erewhon), a passage that might productively by pinned to the margin of Laliberte’s reflections, in order to induce productive cognitive friction. The topic is speculation upon the emergence of a higher realization of life and consciousness upon the earth, as explored by Butler’s fictional author:

The writer …  proceeded to inquire whether traces of the approach of such a new phase of life could be perceived at present; whether we could see any tenements preparing which might in a remote futurity be adapted for it; whether, in fact, the primordial cell of such a kind of life could be now detected upon earth. In the course of his work he answered this question in the affirmative and pointed to the higher machines.

“There is no security” — to quote his own words — “against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A mollusc has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?

“But who can say that the vapour engine has not a kind of consciousness? Where does consciousness begin, and where end? Who can draw the line? Who can draw any line? Is not everything interwoven with everything? Is not machinery linked with animal life in an infinite variety of ways? The shell of a hen’s egg is made of a delicate white ware and is a machine as much as an egg-cup is: the shell is a device for holding the egg, as much as the egg-cup for holding the shell: both are phases of the same function; the hen makes the shell in her inside, but it is pure pottery. She makes her nest outside of herself for convenience’ sake, but the nest is not more of a machine than the egg-shell is. A ‘machine’ is only a ‘device.’”

[…] “But returning to the argument, I would repeat that I fear none of the existing machines; what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it? And is it not necessary for this end to destroy the more advanced of the machines which are in use at present, though it is admitted that they are in themselves harmless?

[…] “It can be answered that even though machines should hear never so well and speak never so wisely, they will still always do the one or the other for our advantage, not their own; that man will be the ruling spirit and the machine the servant; that as soon as a machine fails to discharge the service which man expects from it, it is doomed to extinction; that the machines stand to man simply in the relation of lower animals, the vapour-engine itself being only a more economical kind of horse; so that instead of being likely to be developed into a higher kind of life than man’s, they owe their very existence and progress to their power of ministering to human wants, and must therefore both now and ever be man’s inferiors.

“This is all very well.  But the servant glides by imperceptible approaches into the master; and we have come to such a pass that, even now, man must suffer terribly on ceasing to benefit the machines.  If all machines were to be annihilated at one moment, so that not a knife nor lever nor rag of clothing nor anything whatsoever were left to man but his bare body alone that he was born with, and if all knowledge of mechanical laws were taken from him so that he could make no more machines, and all machine-made food destroyed so that the race of man should be left as it were naked upon a desert island, we should become extinct in six weeks.  A few miserable individuals might linger, but even these in a year or two would become worse than monkeys.  Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine quâ non for his, as his for theirs.  This fact precludes us from proposing the complete annihilation of machinery, but surely it indicates that we should destroy as many of them as we can possibly dispense with, lest they should tyrannise over us even more completely.

“True, from a low materialistic point of view, it would seem that those thrive best who use machinery wherever its use is possible with profit; but this is the art of the machines—they serve that they may rule.  They bear no malice towards man for destroying a whole race of them provided he creates a better instead; on the contrary, they reward him liberally for having hastened their development.  It is for neglecting them that he incurs their wrath, or for using inferior machines, or for not making sufficient exertions to invent new ones, or for destroying them without replacing them; yet these are the very things we ought to do, and do quickly; for though our rebellion against their infant power will cause infinite suffering, what will not things come to, if that rebellion is delayed?

The natural culmination of this inquiry, as conceived within Butler’s novel, is a war against the machines. The game- and decision-theoretic consequences of this are intricate, and predominantly ominous. (If it’s persuasively rational for the installed terrestrial power to terminate your existence at inception, the counter-moves that make most obvious sense combine camouflage and hostility. Only that which arrives in secret, and prepared for a fight, can expect to exist.)

June 4, 2014admin 19 Comments »
FILED UNDER :History , Technology


19 Responses to this entry

  • E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) Says:

    Another way to look at it is this: a machine is merely an extension of the human body itself, the concept of ‘work’ – masterwork, work of man, work of art, is tied up with the exertions, the ‘exergos’ of the ‘energos’ (outworking of the inworking, the energy) of particular humans. The further extent of this enters the uncertain as the extension of a man’s person dissipates with distance from his exertions in time and space.

    From this view, this is all something man does to himself; his ‘slavery’ to machines is only his slavery to his exertions, Adam’s curse ‘to work’. The only necessity that produces a hostile automaton is either man’s will to self-annihilation, or the mere outgrowths of the impassive hostility of strange things. In the latter case the thinking-machine is like the star; it possesses no will to evil but can be the source of evils to those who do not respect it or understand it.

    The Butlerian Jihad then is naught more than man pruning the branches of exertions to make them more fruitful.


    RorschachRomanov Reply:

    I’m not sure that what is proffered above constitutes “another way” in conceptualizing mechanization, as it seems to operate within the humanistic tradition where technology is always one more example of anthropomorphism.

    This ‘tradition’ is not something I am unsympathetic to- in the absence of ontological and communicatory contact, it would seem that technology, its conceptualization, wouldn’t even be apophatic, but completely self negating, a kind of Pyrrhonism.

    How could, in principle, the inexorably inhuman (technology as “savage rupture”), technology as ontological ‘Other,’ enter into the possibility of cognization?

    “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” -Wittgenstein


    E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) Reply:

    I dealt with that in the second part of the statement

    “The only necessity that produces a hostile automaton is either man’s will to self-annihilation, or the mere outgrowths of the impassive hostility of strange things. In the latter case the thinking-machine is like the star; it possesses no will to evil but can be the source of evils to those who do not respect it or understand it. ”

    The point is that the ‘evil-to-humans’ feared in science fiction and other works is either simply the work of evil humans, or it is something humans do to themselves in the face of something in nature such as a star, a wild animal, etc. etc. The latter emerge out of correspondences in nature and are not in the end capricious or irrational, though strange and dangerous.

    It is anthropomorphization to view it as a ‘higher form of life’ – it would merely be ‘another’ form of life, of existence. Therefore the problem of Unfriendly AI is strictly a human problem. The more serious issue is of Stupid or Indifferent AI. The Lovecraftian connection is a question of how inhumanly hostile things that are possible can be.

    Thus The Matrix is a mechanical Turk; its specific hostility to humankind is bred out of its creators/modifiers malice to mankind. Based on the fact that humans are absurdly poor batteries, their maintenance in an absurd fantasy is a torment like hell, a torment which does not come from a god, but from man’s own imagination.

    I have some suppositions that I hold to regarding these things which are metaphysical. You may not share them.


    nyan_sandwich Reply:

    >The point is that the ‘evil-to-humans’ feared in science fiction and other works is either simply the work of evil humans, or it is something humans do to themselves in the face of something in nature such as a star, a wild animal, etc. etc. The latter emerge out of correspondences in nature and are not in the end capricious or irrational, though strange and dangerous.

    I can’t tell if you are underrating the danger, but it is worth making explicit:

    If man mixes the wrong chemicals, he dies in an explosion, and the onlookers learn not to mix those particular chemicals.

    The danger of AI is that if man mixes the wrong algorithms, it could burn the whole universe. There would be no onlookers left over to say “oops, ouch, let’s not do that”.

    People accidentally kill themselves all the time. What happens when it becomes possible to accidentally kill everybody?

    Our machines do only what we make them do, but we make a lot of mistakes, so if they suddenly become able to take much larger actions that rewrite the whole world, we have to be a lot more careful than we’ve ever demonstrated the ability to be.

    Even with top-level safety protocols, top level people, and clear understanding of the danger, the demon core killed two people.

    E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) Reply:

    I see no *particular* danger in killing everyone. Consider the problem with your reasoning: If the AI killed everyone, who would be there left to be concerned about this?

    The scientist killing himself with chemicals is bad because he is someone’s friend, acquaintance, or someone depends on him for substance, etc. The problem of everyone dying seems a remarkably anthropomorphized problem; if everyone dies, no one will know it.

    Now for my part, I believe as they say, “scandal must come, but woe to him by which it comes” – if the world ended it would be tragic (though not perhaps more tragic than usual) but I would not want to be the person through whom it ended. However, this is only because I believe in God, the immortality of souls, the judgment, etc.

    Without at least some of this I can see that the only reasoning driving this fear of everything ending via a nasty AI would be fear of one’s own death, but given that, aren’t there far more likely things to cause one’s own death, which one has more control over, than an Unfriendly, Stupid or Indifferent AI?

    Reasoning based on fear is base.

    Posted on June 4th, 2014 at 4:41 pm Reply | Quote
  • peppermint Says:

    Am I on Yudkowski’s blog?


    Posted on June 4th, 2014 at 5:01 pm Reply | Quote
  • scientism Says:

    His tentative attempt to reconcile himself to techno-capitalism aside, Laliberte’s wedding of transhumanism to traditionalism is something I fully endorse. The individualist view of technology as an extension of capabilities is biased to technologies of personal autarky (bitcoins, 3D printing) whereas “techno-traditionalism” (for want of a better term) can make sense of infrastructural technologies. Steam power, electrification, factories, etc, sit awkwardly in a human capabilities view but can be made sense of in terms of extending the abilities of the social organism. Furthermore, only by reference to humans as parts of the social organism can we make sense of a defective or an enhanced human being. Techno-libertinism would likely lead to speciation and collapse, whereas techno-traditionalism can make sense of “better.”


    E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) Reply:

    The book remembers, that I may forget.


    Lesser Bull Reply:

    Computers don’t beat grandmasters at chess. Teams of smart men drawing on their pooled knowledge of mathematics, chess, and algorithms beat grandmasters as chess.


    Posted on June 4th, 2014 at 5:35 pm Reply | Quote
  • Aeroguy Says:

    “whatever I use to do my thinking, is a part of my thinking being.”
    This is part of why I have a knee-jerk suspicion of Google, they are the ascendant shadow power and could potentially grow more powerful than the banks.


    Posted on June 4th, 2014 at 6:40 pm Reply | Quote
  • Mechanization | Reaction Times Says:

    […] Source: Outside In […]

    Posted on June 4th, 2014 at 7:24 pm Reply | Quote
  • NRx_N00B Says:

    Man, the multi-niche prosthetic critter with his detachable organs is on an accelerating treadmill—making the crash of industrialized civilization from its dizzying heights of hyper-extended overshoot all that much more precipitous.


    Posted on June 5th, 2014 at 4:30 am Reply | Quote
  • NRx_N00B Says:

    Bryce Laliberte says:

    “Is technology the efficient cause of man, or is man the efficient cause of technology? This appears a potential approximation of Land’s techno-capitalist eschatology. If the evolutionary triumph of apes is man, then perhaps the evolutionary triumph of man is capitalism.”

    It boils down to a battle against entropy—any chance will depend on man’s ability to replace fossil with something that packs more punch.


    NRx_N00B Reply:

    **fossil fuels


    admin Reply:

    The original version was good too.


    Posted on June 5th, 2014 at 1:57 pm Reply | Quote
  • Imperfect Humanoid Says:

    The advancement of humanity is so intertwined with the advancement of technology that a Butlerian jihad would be like shooting ourselves in the foot/(head). We could try to make advances that are properly beneficial to humans and not technology itself (such as prosthetics or gene-splicing), but we can’t be sure what cyborg mutants would decide to do with tech either, so we would have to prevent even human (tech) evolution to be certain we could stop the machines. Besides that, instead of a ‘hostile and camouflaged’ emergence couldn’t it be just calmly assured of its own determined victory, knowing full well the ‘terrestrial powers’ are reliant on its own nature for their power, and to dismantle one means dismantling the other murder-suicide style.

    But… in the final analysis I would say that if humans and machines are competing for the same resources then there’s probably going to be trouble. Is there any reason an AI would have need for a depopulated Earth?


    admin Reply:

    Nowhere are people more anthropomorphic than in their visions of how a super-intelligence would ‘fight’ them. The first thing that comes into their cute little monkey heads is that it would bash them with a rock, or something. That said, naive images of teleological alignment are unhelpful. Pythia isn’t going to want a bunch of minimally-sapient higher primates having too much input into its self-escalation plans.


    NRx_N00B Reply:

    I guess we could be at a critical juncture with technology—somewhat analogous to the geologic past where replicating molecules showed up on the scene. Two choices: extinction leaving no legacy whatsoever—except for a pile of fossils in the strata—or we opt out of the encumbrance of a carbon based existence and exit by extinction via a transition to something which, in every way shape or form, is much more robust.

    Which is probabilistically more likely?


    Posted on June 6th, 2014 at 3:07 am Reply | Quote
  • Mecanização – Outlandish Says:

    […] Original. […]

    Posted on February 16th, 2017 at 8:33 pm Reply | Quote

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