AVATARS: PIONEERS OF TRANSHUMANISM
(Image from H+ Magazine)
Transhumanism, the philosophical/ political movement which advocates the development of scientific understanding, technological innovation and cultural change that can free the individual and society from the constraints that limit our freedom to choose how we develop as individuals and the kind of societies we want to live in, awaits the development of technological capabilities which are, for now, the stuff of science fiction. Therefore, as things now stand, much of what transhumanists hope to achieve is relegated to science fiction and speculative science, not a practical pursuit that one may incorporate into their daily lives.
Or is it? Actually, I would say that there are people of a sort that are able to take advantage of the promised technologies of transhumanism, or at least technologies that deliver equivalent capabilities, right now. I am talking about avatars.
Perhaps the most obvious transhuman ability that avatars can take advantage of right now is genetic engineering. Now, genetic engineering is all about editing the genes of organisms in order to remove undesired traits or introduce desired ones, and since avatars are not biological we perhaps should not say there is literally genetic engineering going on. But avatars are graphical representations of users, and as such they do have a digital code that can be edited for the same reasons some would like to be able to edit the genetic code. The first set of choices that just about every MMORPG and online world requires a new user to make is 'how shall I present myself, visually, to everybody else?', and editing tools are made available so that, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the flexibility of such tools and the range of options to tweak your look, one can play around with an avatar's appearance in order to achieve a preferred look. This contrasts with real life in a couple of ways. Most obviously, whether you are blessed with good looks or have to go through life with the disadvantages of ugliness is largely down to a genetic role of the dice- you do not get to choose how you will look. And secondly, at birth you are hardly equipped with the mental faculties required to make an informed decision regarding what kind of outward appearance best captures your inner self, anyway. But in virtual worlds, it is possible to have both the technical capability to edit one's appearance to achieve a preferred look and the life experience needed to determine how you would rather appear to everybody else.
(Image from New World Notes)
But do we in fact have complete freedom to choose how we look in virtual worlds? It could be argued that cultural pressures influence our choices and this is the reason why most avatars in Second Life conform to Western stereotypes of physical beauty. There are also prejudices to consider. In an article for the New World Notes Blog called 'The Skin You're In', Wagner James Au reported on the experiences of an avatar belonging to one Erika Thereian who was given the opportunity to wear one of the new skins created by Chip Midnight, a well-respected content creator. This latest skin allowed the wearer to adopt the appearance of an attractive African-American woman (think Naomi Campbell or Tyra Banks.) Some of Second Life's residents admired this new look, but for others the 'skin she was in' caused a much more negative reaction.
"Great, they are gonna invade SL now" said one avatar, while another was even more explicit in regards to whom 'they' referred to, announcing "look at the nigger bitch". Ok, you could put that down to Internet trolls being bullies, but some Thereian's friends also had something of a negative reaction, with a few of them ignoring her, acting kind of cold around her, and one asking "like, when are you going back to being you?".
And then there are constraints that the platform's designers may impose. To take Second Life as an example again, when designing the avatar creation tools, a decision was taken by Linden Lab (the company behind Second Life) to limit avatars to a gendered, humanoid appearance. As Wagner James Au wrote in his book, 'The Making of Second Life', "Instead of giving users an automatic, pre-made option to go beyond those confines, they created 'attachment points' on every conceivable joint of the avatar body. If residents wanted to be taller than the eight-foot maximum height, they'd have to create leg-shaped stilts and attach them to the bottom of their feet".
Hunter Walk, who was a founding member of Linden Lab, explained the reasoning behind this decision. "I always liked the idea that if you saw somebody and they were an eight-foot Gundam robot, you knew that was a costume, and inside there was someone who looked just like you". It should be pointed out that this is not that much of a constraint, and content creators in Second Life have adopted genius solutions for overcoming the constraints on humanoid avatars to push the boundaries of creativity in avatar design. According to Walk, those limits were consciously imposed to encourage just those kinds of creative workarounds. "You need limits to push against. We wanted to figure out, 'what are the systems of scarcity that would help direct people's activity'"?
The desire to edit one's appearance to achieve a preferred look, the influences of cultural pressure to conform and the prejudices we may have to face for choosing to look a certain way, all play out in virtual worlds and hint at the promises and perils of genetic engineering in the physical world.
(Image from Prezi)
APM stands for Atomically Precise Manufacturing, the new name given to molecular nanotechnology in order to differentiate it from most nanotechnology, which has more to do with exploiting unique properties materials acquire when reduced to nanoscale sizes, than with anything associated with bottom-up assembly.
The promise of atomically-precise manufacturing is to be able to put together patterns of molecules of any complexity (provided the end product is physically possible) from the building blocks of stuff, which are the elements of the periodic table. One particularly prevalent misconception is to describe molecular nanotechnology in terms of ’building things atom by atom’. What these assemblers actually do is mechanically-guide reactive molecules, so whereas chemistry involves a lot of molecules wandering around and bumping together at random, assemblers would control how molecules react via a robotic positioning system that brings them together at the specific location and at the desired time. In short, Drexlerian nanotechnology applies the principles of mechanical engineering to chemistry. It is properly defined as ’the process that uses molecular machinery to guide reactive molecules’; and it is a misconception to describe it as ’building things atom by atom’. It IS true that the construction of specific molecules is governed by the physical forces between the individual atoms composing them, and it is equally true to say that controlling the motions and reactions of individual molecules implies controlling the motions and destinations of their individual constituent atoms, but it is NOT true that molecular nanotechnology builds with individual, unbounded (and, hence, highly reactive) carbon atoms. Since the atoms either bond successfully or not, this kind of manufacturing is a yes/no digital process.
Apart from 3D printing, current manufacturing methods are ’subtractive’. In direct contrast to this, APM is ’additive’. It takes a bottom-up approach to engineering by assembling the building blocks of matter into useful products, following a design that calls for only what’s needed. Defining what is meant by ’feedstock’ is rather difficult with conventional manufacturing, because at the scale at which current systems manipulate matter, material comes in such a wide range of forms (metals, ceramics, plastics, paper, wood, wool, cotton….) But at the scale at which molecular manufacturing works, there are, at most, 92 different building blocks (the elements of the periodic table). What’s more, almost everything in the material world uses fewer than 20 of these elements.
The process detailed in Drexler’s ’Nanosystems’ makes use of exponential manufacturing, in which integrated systems contain numerous subsystems attached to a framework. The process would begin with a flow of whatever elements are required (typical products require large quantities of carbon, moderate quantities of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, chlorine, fluorine, sulfur, silicon and lesser quantities of other elements). Molecular mills (mechanisms capable of selectively binding and transporting chemical species from a feedstock), would combine molecules into a diverse set of building blocks in the 10^-7 to 10^-6m range. Block assemblers would assemble components, component assemblers would piece together subsystems and systems assemblers would manufacture the finished product. As far as a household with a desktop nanofactory is concerned, the basic building blocks are likely to be those nanoscale Legos bricks. At this point a comparison with prim-building should be obvious. In the physical world of desktop nanosystems, macro scale products would be assembled from the bottom up by combining a diverse set of nanoblocks. In SL, builders take basic building-blocks known as ’prims’ and reshape and combine them into complex products (the building blocks used by nanosystems could incorporate struts and joints that contain sliding interfaces, thereby allowing them to be extended or twisted to assume a wide range of lengths or angles, Moreover, the blocks could be assembled into as many objects as can be derived by reshaping prims. In that sense, nanoblocks may also be reshaped as needed).
The building tools in SL allow content creators to make pretty-much anything. Whether it be jewellery, clothes, furniture, houses or cars it is all constructed from the same elementary building-blocks. Admittedly, designers may employ additional CAD tools like Photoshop, but even so prim-building is far more flexible than the highly specialized tools used in RL engineering today. Plastic-moulding machines and metal-cutting machines shape particular kinds of plastic and metal respectively; they do not possess the flexibility that would come from having tiny, fast-cycling parts that form complex patterns of the elementary building-blocks of matter. Nanosystems, though, would have precisely that capability.
It was mentioned earlier that prims are the elementary building blocks of all products built in SL. Of course, this is a virtual world and in reality everything is built out of the building blocks of information, which are binary digits. Linden Lab’s prototype metaverse exists inside computers, which are machines that contain tiny, fast cycling parts that can be directed to form complex patterns of bits. Computers are extremely capable of processing bits and just as adept at copying information. This gives Sl’s builders certain advantages that would not be possible using conventional manufacturing. Consider the way Fallingwater Celladoor goes about her job. “Sales vary a lot: Some things hit big, other’s don’t. I just make what I like and see what happens”. In other words, she makes use of rapid prototyping and deployment. In the real world, rapid prototyping does not exist in any meaningful way. So-called ’rapid prototyping machines’ are very costly, take substantial time to manufacture something, and that something can only be a passive component, not an integrated product. Assembly is still required. As for high-volume manufacturing, overheads to be considered include procurement of supplies, training workers, and the product must not only be useful but manufacturable as well. A significant part of the total design cost may be taken up by designing that manufacturing process.
A builder in SL does not need to worry about such things. There is no need to design the manufacturing process because the content-creation tools are already in place. There is no need to worry about procurement of supplies because prims are a readily-available resource. There is no need to train workers to run the manufacturing process because it’s carried out automatically by the power of computers. What’s more, while it requires time and effort to design and build a product in SL, this only applies to the first of anything. But once it’s done, once you have created your prim-based wonder, it requires zero effort from you to mass-produce them. A person turns up at your store, chooses whatever, and the information embodying its design is copied and a perfect reproduction is duly delivered to the customer’s inventory. If the item has been tagged as copyable, the customer can effortlessly give away the item to anyone without diminishing their own supply.
In short, the fact that everything you see and use in an online world is ultimately computer code means avatars inhabit the kind of world we could find ourselves in if and when atomically-precise manufacturing is realised. This would include both positive aspects, such as the explosion of creativity, open-source collaboration and a gift-based community, and the negative aspects, such as the creation of self-replicators for the purpose of causing disruption to society.
(Image from wallpaper abyss)
Because shared virtual worlds require an Internet connection, being in an online world means you have constant access to the augmentation of the larger world-wide web. Google is omnipresent and, as such, avatars can access a wealth of information which, if used with due care and attention, could make them much smarter than they would be absent of such accumulated knowledge. Before long, language translation algorithms will enable avatars who speak in different tongues to converse with one another. I recall how, years ago, I was able to have an awkward but passable conversation with Giulio Prisco's Italian- speaking avatars by using Google translate (this was by no means perfect, however, and fortunately for me they spoke excellent English). By now, I expect such technologies to be working more accurately and efficiently compared to back then.
Ok I admit this one is something of a stretch. If the user dies in the physical world, that is most often assumed to mean the end of the avatar that represented that user. I have previously written about the possibility that somebody else could impersonate that avatar, and suggested certain technological advances that could aid in successfully impersonating, say, 'Extropia DaSilva', but for now I think it is fair to say as a general rule that if you die in real life, your avatar's life is over too.
But if we confine our thoughts to what goes on in virtual worlds, I think it is fair to say that avatars have a kind of immortality. Certainly, in most MMOGs, death is a constant possibility but one which is more of a learning experience than the final consequence of a bad decision. MMOGs like Grand Theft Auto Online perhaps hint at the outrageous risks to life and limb people will be prepared to take once they can be certain of being resurrected. The movie 'Surrogates' depicted soldiers going off into actual battles using telepresence operated humanoid robots, charging into the fray with all the gusto that players rush into conflicts in games like 'Call Of Duty'. Could this be how wars would be fought if and when resurrection from any death is made possible in real life?
(Image from call of duty wiki)
The adrenaline junky's disregard to one's own safety that we see in videogames may be so widespread only because the best connection with one's onscreen personal they can achieve is 'immersion'. There are hints that, as technologies like virtual reality achieve deeper levels of connection, we may become more reluctant to engage in such daredevil pursuits. Virtual reality, when done well, can achieve 'presence'. By 'presence' we mean the more primitive parts of your brain accept the situation as real, even if the higher, more rational aspects of the mind know this is not true. Often, people will instinctively shy away from a sheer drop when using VR, even when knowing full well there really is no precipice before them.
Genetic engineering, atomically precise manufacturing, cyborging, and immortality. Everything that transhumanists dream of achieving in the future has its equivalents in online worlds and MMOGs. These computer-generated fantasy worlds are therefore testing grounds for how we as individuals and the societies we create will evolve when such technological capabilities come out of science fiction and into widespread use. As I said at the beginning, avatars are pioneers in transhumanism.
“The Making of Second Life” by Wagner James Au
“New World Notes” blog by Wagner James Au
“Nanosystems” by K. Eric Drexler
“Snowcrashing Into The Diamond Age” by Extropia DaSilva