Applying Transhumanist Morality to Career Choices
Transhumanist Morality is the idea that we should
consider the impact of our actions in the context of the millennium-scale history
of humanity. Specifically, I think the
only way we will avoid some kind of dystopian apocalyptic fate is by seeking
salvation through technology.
In this context, moral actions are those that increase the
probability that as a species we achieve technological salvation before we blow
ourselves up. I’d like to explore what
this means in very practical terms by analyzing a number of jobs I’ve had and
considered and seen my friends do over the years.
SEO for e-Commerce
I once seriously considered a job doing Search Engine
Optimization for an e-Commerce company. They offered me truckloads of money to get their web pages to the top of
the google rankings. The work would have
been technically fascinating, but I ended up rejecting the job largely on moral
grounds. I just couldn’t feel good
about the work I’d be doing.
Even without a transhuman perspective, this job clearly has a zero-sum impact on society. Reverse-engineering pagerank isn’t actually building value. Move sales away from other companies and
towards your own only has a positive impact on society if you genuinely believe
your company is creating more value for the consumer than your competitors
do. This kind of corporate
righteousness is dangerous and I just didn’t believe it.
Pure marketing efforts like SEO might as well be selling
used-cars for all the good it has on the long-term story-arc of humanity.
Electronic Music Systems
While at first blush this might seem trivial, I actually do
consider this work (my current primary employment) to be moral from a
Making it easier for people to consume music they love makes
their leisure time more efficient and effective. This makes people happier. Following the logic of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human needs, happy people
have more energy to devote to other causes. So by making people happier, I’m creating more capacity to solve the
meaningful problems. It’s an indirect
effect, but I think it is helping.
A reasonable counter-argument to this is that great creativity
often seems to come from the emotionally tortured, especially in the fine
arts. But I don’t think this pattern
holds up for great scientists and engineers.
Direct Political Activism
There are many reasons to consider the current political
regime in the US immoral from a transhuman perspective. The war on terror stands a chance of cutting
this whole conversation short by achieving the dystopian outcome in this
generation. Stifling stem-cell research
is directly preventing technological advancement. Regressive judgmental social policies like discrimination based
on sexual preference makes many people miserable and stifles creativity per the
earlier Maslow argument. This
government is certainly doing plenty to bring about the eventual destruction of
our technologically advanced society.
But the pendulum of politics swings very naturally back and
forth. (As evidenced by last week’s election.) Convincing a few people to
change their votes really doesn’t matter much because the aggregate political
mood has a will of its own. Trying to
alter that will by changing fundamental systems like openness of the press or
campaign funding policies or society’s sense of engagement in politics is
definitely more worthwhile since that work is better leveraged. But working on kicking out the current
damaging regime is a short-term fix that will just get undone after another
political cycle. There is a small
chance that kicking them out prevents catastrophe, and for that reason it’s
worthwhile, but I still haven’t lost my faith in the checks and balances in the
Running out of energy resources is one easy-to-foresee way
that our advanced society could collapse. As such, work on renewable energy helps to delay or even prevent this
set of doomsday scenarios.
This work is decidedly moral because it extends our runway
giving us longer to do what we need to before things go seriously south. This provides an indirect linear improvement
in the situation. Indirect because it’s
only addressing one possible set of doomsday scenarios. Linear because it’s directly combating the
problem directly – it’s not clear how good work here enables faster development
of good work in other areas. But this definitely helps.
Research into Neuroscience, Robotics, Computational Linguistics, etc
These and other fields offer great promise in the near term
to advance technology in the direction of technological salvation. A confluence of these technologies with a
few that we don’t understand yet have the potential to realize various scifi
visions of overcoming the physical limitations that will otherwise painfully
drag us back to a more primitive existence.
As such, work in these fields is directing helping to solve
the problem. This is highly moral
work. It is leveraged in that these advances will spur other advances.
Working on Internet Explorer or Google
Almost 10 years ago I got to contribute in a very small way to IE5. Back then browsers were still evolving quickly. It’s not as clear of the value or working on Firefox today, but back then building better browser technology was one of the most
direct contributions to increased human intelligence. Today the best analogy would probably be working on search for Google or MSN. The ubiquitization of the internet has dramatically improved
people’s ability to solve complex problems quickly. I really don’t know what technological salvation will involve,
but I am sure that getting there will require solving a great many complex
Work like this that facilitates human communication and
problem solving is extremely moral. By
facilitating all forms of problem-solving, it is accelerating the pace of
advancement in nearly every other field we can consider. This kind of exponential growth is what
we’re gonna need to avoid the bad scenarios.
Electronic learning systems have the potential to improve
the quality of education for everybody everywhere. This means enabling people to better solve complex problems in a
very direct way: they’re smarter.
I firmly believe that the next decade is going to see a
revolution in education at all levels. The net result will be an educational system which is extremely
meritocratic, enabling anybody who is motivated to achieve intellectual skills
close to their full intrinsic potential. A smarter population will make solving every technological challenge in
the future easier. As such, I currently
don’t see any activity more moral than building electronic learning systems.