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Review of Rykon Volta’s “Arondite” – A Fascinating Exploration of a Hypothetical Future History, With Relevance to Our World – by Gennady Stolyarov II

Review of Rykon Volta’s “Arondite” – A Fascinating Exploration of a Hypothetical Future History, With Relevance to Our World – by Gennady Stolyarov II

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Gennady Stolyarov II


 

Arondite by Rykon Volta offers a fascinating exploration of a hypothetical trajectory of humankind’s future history, in which Hugo de Garis’s dire predictions of an “Artilect War” had come to pass. As in de Garis’s narrative, so in Volta’s, the anti-technological reactionary Terran faction initiates that war to assail emergent sentient artificial general intelligences and their philosophical allies, the pro-innovation Cosmists. Rather than allow such artificial general intelligences to develop, the Terran General Vantus destroys the entirety of the Earth in the year 2071 and binds the remnants of humanity to an Artilect Protocol, which imposes the harshest punishments on any humans who experiment with genetic modification, cybernetic implants, or artificial intelligence.

The story of Arondite takes place 500 years later, in 2571-2572. Humanity has, over the course of five centuries, risen slowly from the ashes of the Artilect War, and multiple competing societies and governments have taken hold in the Solar System – particularly the Martian Republic and the Jovian Empire, who are now on the edge of major war. The historical narratives at the beginning of each chapter are among the most intriguing aspects of Arondite and serve to add great depth to the world in which the events of the plot transpire. Indeed, the historical scenario presented by Volta is reminiscent of two epochs already experienced by humankind: the emergence of Classical Antiquity after a gradual recovery from the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and the rise of Medieval and then Renaissance societies after the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire. Every such recovery of civilization is a testament to human ingenuity in the face of immense adversity, and in the world depicted by Volta, the hardships of outer space certainly magnify those constraints for the remnants of humanity. Yet by developing extensive settlements both on multiple planets and in space, as well as advanced spacefaring vessels on which much of the book’s plot takes place, humans demonstrate irrepressible innovation by advancing in practically the only directions available to them. Still, the harsh boundaries imposed by the Artilect Protocol are beginning to fray, and indeed, would need to be overcome in order for further progress in the Solar System to be possible.

The protagonists of Arondite are a group of space pirates – Peron, Ashlyn, and Carlile, as well as their various and situationally shifting allies – who are quickly drawn into matters far weightier and more perilous than they could have expected, as they unwittingly find themselves at the epicenter of the struggle by multiple major powers for the Arondite Chip – a map to one of the few artilects rumored to remain. Without revealing the specific details, the plot features numerous rapid developments in this struggle – filled with shifting allegiances, sudden changes of fortune, and revelations of hidden motives which diverge from surface appearances. The reader is kept wondering throughout as to who will gain possession of the Arondite Chip – the pro-artilect Acliate Brotherhood, the Martian Republic, the Jovian Empire, the tense and ever-precarious alliance of the protagonists who must resist pressures from each of these forces, or perhaps someone else entirely. Characters from every faction, however, are united in their recognition of the vast transformational power of an artificial general intelligence; some fear it and wish to destroy it, whereas others wish to harness it for their own objectives. But will the protagonists be not only capable enough to locate this artilect, but wise enough to truly understand its capabilities and nature – and respect its autonomy?

The events of Arondite are driven strongly by all-too-familiar flaws of human character – from irrational fear to the desire for the subjugation of others to the perception of existence as a zero-sum struggle of all against all. Because of the prohibitions of the Artilect Protocol, these flaws have persisted and become endemic within the societies of 2571; after all, no fundamental improvements upon human nature had been made available via technological pathways. Thus, for all of humankind’s spacefaring progress, the aforementioned deleterious vestiges of the suboptimal evolution of the human mind had not been corrected; another major war looms on the horizon and threatens to undo centuries of hard-earned advancement. However, the rediscovery of the artilects might just open an entirely different and more hopeful set of possibilities for the future of civilization.  One can only hope that, in our own civilization, that set of possibilities can be opened much sooner and with major conflicts averted.

Through the plot of Arondite, Volta illustrates the futility of attempting to impose restrictions on technological progress – restrictions which only serve to mire humankind in an escalating war of all against all. The protagonists are thrust into such an all-encompassing struggle, but because of their relative naiveté (despite being space pirates) are able to keep their minds open to alternative possibilities and thus have a chance to bypass the numerous hostile forces and machinations standing in their way. There is a broader message contained in this kind of narrative – the ability of an earnest individual, who is not altogether experienced with “the way things are done” in a given field, to significantly influence that field and overcome institutional barriers that had hitherto prevented progress past a certain point. Both in the world of Arondite and in our world, Volta shows that the philosophy of transhumanism, with its openness to technologies that can radically transform the human condition to remedy age-old flaws, is the way forward, transcending the destructive power struggles which needlessly stunted the advancement of humanity in the past.

Gennady Stolyarov II is the Chairman of the United States Transhumanist Party. 

Arondite is available on Amazon in hard-copy and Kindle formats here

Watch the U.S. Transhumanist Party Virtual Enlightenment Salon of  July 19, 2020, when Rykon Volta was the guest of honor and discussed Arondite and the ideas surrounding it with the U.S. Transhumanist Party Officers.

 

Review of Jamie Metzl’s “Hacking Darwin” by Dan Elton

Review of Jamie Metzl’s “Hacking Darwin” by Dan Elton

 

Dan Elton


Our inaugural  book review of 2020 covers Hacking Darwin by Jamie Metzl. As a  happy coincidence, David Wood of the London Futurists recently had Metzl speak to his group, and you can watch a recording of the event here.  This book is an exploration of how we might genetically engineer our children, why we might want to do so, and what the consequences might be.

The fact is, some people are already “hacking Darwin”. The first “test-tube baby” was born in 1978. This set the stage for preimplantation genetic testing, which became popular in the 1990s and widely used today. But “hacking Darwin” had already been occurring earlier due to genetic testing. A striking example Metzl discusses is the rapid decrease in Tay-Sachs disease in the  Ashkenazi jewish community.  Tay-Sachs is a genetic disorder which has devastating effects on the nervous system. By age 2, children with Tay-Sachs start to experience seizures and decline in mental functioning. Sadly, most die in agonizing pain by the age of five. About one in twenty seven Ashkenazi Jews carry the Tay-Sachs genes. Remarkably though, since the 1980s, the prevalence of the disease among Ashkenazi Jews has been very low, due to extensive genetic testing and family planning. Marriages between people who have tested positive for the disease were discouraged, and when they do occur, the couples tended to adopt rather than risk having a child born with the disease. The result was a great reduction in needless suffering, which is hard to argue against.

One of the major objections to genetic engineering is that it is “unnatural”. Metzl points out that a better term is “unfamiliar”. He points out that many things that seem natural are actually very “unnatural” – for instance, if you went back a few thousand years, you wouldn’t find anything resembling today’s corn or bananas – they are human concoctions from centuries of selective breeding. It seems that the queeziness people feel, which they label as due to “un-naturalness” is actually just due to unfamiliarity, which naturally invokes anxiety. History shows us that any radical technology or new idea naturally experiences widespread pushback. But history also shows that acceptance of a radical new idea or technology can be remarkably fast notwithstanding.

In-vitro fertilization provides an interesting case study of how public opinion can shift. Initially it was demonized, but public acceptance of it rapidly changed over the course of only a few years.

The next technology that will come down the pipeline, according to Metzl, is iterated embryo selection. Embryos are already inspected visually to select the one that is least likely to result in a miscarriage, and as noted in some cases preimplantation genetic testing is performed to check for a few genetic illnesses. This process can be scaled up and improved dramatically. Instead of having 10-15 eggs fertilized, a hundred might be, and instead of just doing visual checks, the genome of each embryo might be sequenced to screen out certain genetic disorders and select for certain traits. The process could also be “iterated”, using induced pluripotent stem cells (IPCs) from the embryos to create new gametes (eggs & sperm) which could be combined to create new embryos.

Fig. 1 – The Cost of Sequencing a Human Genome.

Source: National Human Genome Research Institute

 https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/fact-sheets/Sequencing-Human-Genome-cost

The benefits of expanding IVF and embryo selection could not only eliminate unnecessary suffering but also result in large financial savings which will allow money to be redistributed elsewhere in our healthcare system. The current cost of taking care of the current number of people born with genetic diseases each year was roughly estimated by Metzl to be $48 billion, spread over 37 years into the future.

The cost of sequencing is dropping dramatically (see Fig. 1). This is allowing for larger genome-wide association studies (GWASs). Using big data, statistical methods, and machine learning, many outcomes can be predicted by analyzing the many genes which can influence most traits. Already, the height a child will grow to can be predicted to within an inch (assuming they get adequate nutrition) by analyzing thousands of genes.

Two major types of enhancements which will benefit our offspring are discussed in length by Metzl – increased intelligence and increased healthspan, and it’s worth discussing some of his main findings here. (Other possible enhancements he notes are increased empathy, supersensory capabilities, increased physical stamina and strength, increased beauty, increased ability to extract nutrition from foods, and better ability to tolerate mircrogravity and  radiation.)

Regarding intelligence, the Minnestota Family Twin study found that 70% of IQ is genetic. More recent works put the number somewhat lower (about 50%), but a surprising amount is hereditary, and the variance due to genetics is significant (about 15 points of IQ in each direction). The rest seems to be largely due to things like childhood nutrition and having a rich environment as a kid. Higher IQ provides many benefits. Among them is a better ability to adapt to change and work in a dynamic environment where you constantly have to learn new skills. Statistically, people with lower IQ tend to work jobs with a regular routine, such as service positions. Currently, those with low IQ can still have a great life (there’s no evidence IQ correlates with happiness), and low-IQ people can learn a trade where there is reliable demand, become very good at it, and be valued by society. With the advent of AI and robotics, this is rapidly changing, and the risk of large-scale technological unemployment is real. Metzl asks, in light of this, is it really fair that we are trusting the economic wellbeing of our children to the genetic lottery of sexual recombination? It’s already not easy to compensate for a bad draw in the genetic lottery. Additionally, if other parents are doing it, why would any parent want to risk their child being far behind their peers? According to Metzl, the choice will be clear for parents in the future.

The second major area where genetic engineering will have an effect is aging. The diseases of aging were not something evolution cared much about, so there are likely genetic hacks that are possible but were just never selected for – it’s an area ripe for optimization.  For a glimpse of what is possible, Metzl has us consider the naked mole rat, a species which is remarkable in many ways (click here for a  full list of ways this species is special). Most notably, naked mole rats don’t exhibit the normal signs of aging, and they don’t get cancer. Thus, as odd as it may seem, the naked mole rat is the subject of intense research, and this humble species even serves as a sort of touchstone increasing the confidence of venture capitalists investing in longevity biotech startups in Silicon Valley. According to Metzl, “Calico, Google’s San Francisco–based life-extension company, maintains one of the world’s largest captive colonies of naked mole rats to see if it can uncover biomarkers of aging and unlock the secrets of naked mole rat longevity.”

It seems that genetic engineering will eventually be accepted as the ethically superior way of creating children – no one will want to leave something as important as the health and economic wellbeing of their children to blind chance. Human beings naturally crave control and certainty where possible — that’s why we give our kids vaccines and parents spend thousands of dollars on prophylactic dental procedures such as orthodontics or the removal of wisdom teeth. Yes, there will always be some hold-outs who will want to stick with “traditional conception”, but after reading Metzl’s book I can’t help but think that eventually the numbers will be quite small. Consider, for instance, that even the Amish use modern medicine.

The scientific and technological path to a much more healthy world, with much less suffering and longer, healthier lives is clear. There are straightforward steps we can take to reduce congenital ailments, for instance. However, there’s a real chance we may delay even this for decades, causing much needless suffering. Part of the reason is that any discussions of the subject immediately bring up a lot of cultural baggage from the horrible legacy of eugenics. The horrors of eugenics form an unfortunate negative emotional halo around any discussion of genetic engineering. While the eugenics movement is largely dead, the subject is so important that Metzl rightly devotes a large part of the book to it. Concerns about a re-emergence of the horrors of eugenics are legitimate, but conflation of what is being proposed with those horrors is not. Eugenicists advocated forced sterilization, whereas nobody is proposing that today. Instead, all that is being proposed is that parents have a choice in how their children are conceived. However, there is a real concern that parents will voluntarily choose children with certain biases, such lighter skin and heterosexuality. There are also concerns that the creation of genetically engineered “super children” would lead to a caste system of some sort, leading to a highly in-equitable society where the non-genetically-engineered are constantly discriminated against and made to feel unworthy. Metzl acknowledges each of these risks as real, but he also points out that none of the scenarios are inevitable and asks the reader to consider the benefits of genetic engineering as well, some of which we previously discussed. He notes that our current world is already very unequal in terms of genetics. Might a bit more genetic inequality be acceptable, Metzl asks, if the children created make enormous contributions to the arts and sciences which benefit all of humanity? Regarding whether a caste system might form, Metzl suggests that we must work to ensure the technology is widely distributed (at one point I recall he suggests insurance companies might have an incentive to provide genetic engineering as it would reduce health costs later on). A bigger horror, Metzl suggests, is not genetic inequality, but perfect genetic equality – the creation of a uniform generation of cookie-cutter children, where misfits and non-neurotypicals (which have historically contributed so much) have been selected out.  Each of these concerns are real, and Metzl doesn’t try to argue otherwise.

While ethical concerns may stifle the development of genetic engineering, a different scenario is a genetic arms race. In other areas such as AI, China is making more aggressive investments in genetic technology – a “$9 billion, fifteen-year investment to improve national leadership in precision medicine”. Metzl points out that the Chinese seem to have far fewer hang-ups around the subject and are blazing full steam ahead.

While the author is sympathetic to genetic engineering, the book presents a balanced treatment and never waxes too polemical. The first part of the book is mostly about the science. The later sections, on the ethical concerns and the genetic arms race scenario, are the most thought-provoking and are parts I may re-listen to at some point. Overall, this book is a very timely and thought-provoking introduction to the subject.

Dan Elton, Ph. D., is Director of Scholarship for the U.S. Transhumanist Party.