Thursday, August 30, 2012

Desire Modification: the ultimate technology


"It's not having what you want/ It's wanting what you've got"
- Sheryl Crow

"We sell you the serenity to accept the things you can't change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
- advertisement for Metadesire, Inc. in "Utility Functions" (by Noah Smith, in progress)

What is the ultimate technology? Several suggestions have been made. One is faster-than-light travel, which (if allowed by the laws of physics) would open up the entire Universe to human exploitation. Another is self-bootstrapping artificial intelligence, which could (and hopefully would) invent anything humans could invent, and so save us from all further exertions. A third, much discussed in the past decade, is mind upload (sometimes called "brain emulation"), which would allow us to exist in any world of our choosing, and essentially be gods (as long as nobody pulled the plug from outside).

As ultimate technologies go, being a god is hard to beat. And mind upload makes faster-than-light travel look a little silly...why explore strange new worlds when you can just create them? But I think there is an even more ultimate technology out there for the taking - one that is probably a lot easier to create than any of the ones I named. That technology is desire modification.

First, let's imagine the ultimate form of desire modification (or "d-mod" as I will sometimes refer to it). In this ultimate form, each person would have a computer in his or her brain that could change his or her desires, habits, beliefs, personality, and emotions in any conceivable way. Here are some thoughts about what that would imply for the human species:

1. Obviously, the technology would be incalculably dangerous. If the brain computers were hacked, people could be made into slaves, zombies, or worse. So the technology would only be adopted after extreme precautions had been taken and shown to be effective.

2. Such a technology would mean the instant end of economics as we know it. Utility theory assumes something called "local nonsatiation", which means that people always want more of something. With d-mod, local nonsatiation goes right out the window, since you can instantly dial yourself to a "bliss point" where you are just perfectly satisfied and don't want anything else. That's the end of scarcity.

3. Just as personality upload makes FTL travel look a bit silly, d-mod makes personality upload look a little silly. Why bother creating new worlds when you can just like the world you're in? Why "hack the world" when you can just "hack the human"?

4. When we can decide what we want, desire becomes less important than meta-desire. What do we want to want? And what do we want to want to want? Etc. D-mod is like putting the parameters of the utility function in the utility function itself. The result could be very chaotic if people keep changing and changing (because each new change induces a desire for another change). But most people are likely to end up in fixed-points or "cul-de-sacs", where they want to want exactly what they currently want.

5. However, not everyone will end up in the same cul-de-sac. The resultant "clades" of humans will be very, very different from each other, much more different than people are now. This will make human interaction very weird. In fact, in a sci-fi story I'm writing, I refer to the rapid adoption of d-mod as "The Weirdening", and I think the Weirdening would (will?) be even weirder and more important and less predictable than the "Singularity".

6. With humanity divided into clades by motivation and personality type, evolution would be very important. For example, suppose some people just decided to pump up their happiness to ridiculous levels, and eliminate all of their wants or needs - instant nirvana. These "happies" (note the semi-pun) might just sit on sidewalks, letting their beards grow long, until they either died of starvation (which is what rats do when given this option) or were kept alive by altruistic passers-by. Alternatively, imagine people turning themselves into "zipheads" who only care about work (I stole the term from Vernor Vinge). "Happies" and "zipheads" would quickly die off or be switched back to other personalities by concerned family and friends; in the end, they would be survived by clades who want long-term survival and possess more complex, well-rounded sets of motivations.

7. However, after all this talk of zombie slaves and Weirdenings, I should note that I personally think that d-mod will be pretty benign. Most people just want to be happier, more motivated, kinder versions of the people they already are. Although we could conceivably become a planet of bizarre posthumans, I think the more likely outcome is that we'll end up pretty close to where we started. But the extra life satisfaction that we'll get from d-mod, even so, will represent a bigger a boost to utility and happiness than any technology before or after. It will put the lie to the old (and wrong) idea that technology doesn't change human nature.

OK, so hopefully your mind is as blown as mine was when I thought of all this back in the summer of 2010. (Random aside: I did come up with all this on my own, after reading some Charles Stross stories about personality upload and thinking "How come these people have godlike control over their worlds but are still so dissatisfied all the time?" A little while later I happened to read Greg Egan's novel Diaspora, which had already explored most of these ideas and questions decades ago. So, while I can claim originality, I can't claim primacy for these ideas. For other sci-fi books that deal with d-mod technology, see Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, and of course Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Now, back to reality. Obviously we are a long way from the kind of d-mod I discuss above. But how far away? Rudimentary d-mod technologies already exist, and are already big business. The main examples are antidepressant medication such as Prozac, recreational pleasure drugs such as Ecstasy, and "study drugs" such as Adderall. Deep brain stimulation of the nucleus accumbens, used to combat severe depression, is another example. A third is meditation, which is used to increase calmness and sometimes reduce certain desires (remember, skills and techniques also count as "technologies" - Buddhists and others have been exploring d-mod for thousands of years). Motivational speakers, self-help books and courses, and psychotherapy also partly fall into the d-mod category. So the market is already there; d-mod is a product that sells itself.

The real possibility for the explosion of d-mod technology, and the resultant Weirdening, comes from advances in neuroscience, computer science, and the intersection between the two. Drugs are a blunt instrument; computer chips are precise. So watch this space. The "fourth industrial revolution" of desire modification will be the biggest and most important. And possibly the last. But if it's not the last, will it matter?

50 comments:

  1. Desire modification: The end of progress. Why put your mind to understanding something new, when you can program yourself to enjoy what already exists?

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    1. Most people are genuinely interested in discovering new things, regardless whether this technology exists or not. In fact, I believe most people would choose to become MORE interested in discovery, not less.

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    2. Bill Ellis6:07 PM

      All it would take to satisfy a lifetime's discovery for anyone is to make it so that they are interested in everything.

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  2. Interesting post — and frustratingly desirable. Who wouldn't want to be able to adapt their neurology to feel different sometimes? I think that you are right to earmark this general area as one to watch.

    Now, excuse me a diversion into the slightly loopy.

    The notion of an ultimate technology is, of course, subjective. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the real issue is not the technology, but its use; we may already have far more potent technologies than we realise, just as the technologies that underpinned the previous industrial revolutions lay dormant for years before their wider implementation.

    I propose that the next industrial revolution — and one which may be labelled by many as an "ultimate" technology — may herald immortality, built around cloning technology. As a materialist, I believe consciousness is a property of the body and its neurology (although the exact mechanism remains uncertain). I tend to believe that we have all been conscious many times before as the atoms in our bodies have journeyed around the Earth in the billions of years the Earth has existed as an ecosystem, and we will become conscious once again post-death as the atoms that make up our consciousness are redistributed into other living beings. However I am sure I am not alone in that quite like the idea of having a choice about staying on and having another lifetime as myself.

    An interesting experiment would be to clone a dying human (someone who wanted another lifetime as their self) and use their corpse as a feedstock for the cloned foetus, thus assuring that the old materials are used to construct the new.

    And yes — I will one day attempt to turn this meme into a sci fi novel, because I'm screwy like that.

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  3. If d-mod becomes a reality, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to assume that it's an inevitability for any civilization advanced enough to explore space and have a legitimate shot at contacting another advanced civilization. I see d-mod as a massive hindrance to this type of space exploration. As such, all advanced civilizations (aside from any that happen for form in the same cosmic neighborhood) are doomed to permanent isolation.

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    1. Read Diaspora yo. :)

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    2. I was going to make the same point, but you beat me to it. I could see this thing as one of several possible answers to the Fermi Paradox (along with extremely difficult interstellar travel). Maybe every civilization eventually reaches a point where it can deeply modify itself, and thus find stability and happiness. The few that expand heavily outward into space before this happens are so rare that the nearest one might be over in the Andromeda Galaxy, or the like.

      Of course, the opposite could be true. If you had a group of beings that really liked space colonization, they could Desire Modify themselves so that space travel was the central focus of all their ambitions and so forth.

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    3. Anonymous6:15 PM

      Your last paragraph is important.

      Assuming there's no singleton that forces or convinces everyone to d-mod out of expansionary desires, there's strong Darwinian case against this form of extinction risk.

      Those who retain a desire to go forth and multiply will indeed go forth and multiply even if no one else does.

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  4. You're doing this as a sci-fi story? Please get it published ASAP.

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  5. You may be interested in the Culture series of books by Iain Banks, which envisages a functioning post-scarcity utopia. Super-intelligent "Minds" than run the society are major characters, and it is a part of the constructions of each new Mind that they write their own operating software and personality.

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    1. I've read the first three Culture books, and didn't like them. Not many ideas that were new or interesting, and the stories and characters didn't really resonate with me...

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  6. Chris2:10 PM

    You mention Diaspora (which I haven't read), but desire modification is also in Egan's Permutation City. Eliezer Yudkowsky, for one, isn't a fan.

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    1. I haven't read any of these books, but if you want to go back in time, Walden Two seems like a fairly early description of this idea. (Although it's not exactly the same thing.)

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  7. Anonymous2:23 PM

    I disagree that desire modification would be the "most important" of possible technological advances we could see in the future. We humans might spend most of our time inside our own heads, and like to imagine that what goes on in there is always of paramount importance, but our ability to actually modify the material universe those minds and the bodies they are inexorably linked with is more important. Real advances in nanotech, and more importantly, advances that allowed us to make use of greater and greater amounts of energy will remain the most important for overall human advancement, if we conflate growth with advancement.

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    1. Response of a person using d-mod: "Eh."

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    2. Anonymous12:27 PM

      Response of the person shoving that individual using d-mod into the Soylent Green processor: damn, this person is so heavy.

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    3. Wait, are you telling me that Soylent Green is PEOPLE???

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  8. Love your Metadesire, Inc. advertisement (I've harvested it for future use in my sigfile), although it occurs to me that convincing folks that there is an easy fix for things that are very difficult to change, and that they are powerless to change things they ought to have a say in, are the bases of our consumer and political economies respectively.

    Someone will doubtless decide to market it anyway - the final rope-sale of capitalism.

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  9. What's interesting to me is that this could almost make Communism viable. Imagine if a group of people forming a Communist Society decided to Desire Modify themselves so that they all wanted to work extremely hard for the sake of the society, as well as being deeply altruistic.

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    1. Notably, such a group would probably be able to outcompete pretty much any other d-mod group, and would therefore be very likely to survive, thrive, destroy all opposition, and win (provided they didn't make other mistakes).

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    2. Not necessarily. They'd have to deal with free-riders. This would require being less altruistic, which might undermine their cooperative benefits. It would take experimentation to see if the right balance could be struck. However, given the success of multicellular organisms, I'd say that there is a very good chance it would work.

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  10. Anonymous11:26 PM

    Hi Noah. I can't imagine why you think this technology would be mostly benign. If we ever get to the point that we can control desires with computers, I think the first, most obvious application would be to implant chips in prisoners and soldiers and the like. If it ever takes off in the private sphere, we would immediately draw up laws which say which desires we are allowed to feel and which we aren't (we obviously can't have people cranking up their desire for murder, but we might as well control more harmless sins like alcohol). As somebody who has zero desire to modify personal desires, I can't imagine why anybody would think d-mod is a good idea. It sounds thoroughly like a way to enslave people.

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    1. Well, the bad thing about slavery is the part where people force you to do things you don't want to do. When you take away the part about not wanting to do it, it's not immediately clear what's so bad about it, or even if it really qualifies as slavery at all.

      I guess the real problem is that people might be modified in such a way that their desires are satisfied but they don't actually experience much happiness. But satisfaction and happiness are so indelibly connected that it seems quite possible that changing one the other automatically comes with.

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    2. Anonymous6:26 PM

      UserGoogol, I think you are too optimistic in your last sentence; it is quite possible to want something other than maximizing your total happiness-over-suffering. In fact, addiction is a good example.

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  11. With every other technology, precautions have come after adoption has begun. Why would this one be different?

    I don't know what effect it would have on economic theory, but once the ones who don't want to want to survive have finished dying off there's a lot of resource contention that would be essentially the same. Water, air, heat, food, transportation, people still need jobs, and so on. If there are machines involved (not just drugs), those machines will need power, and will have limitations, so there would be a competitive market for more capable machines - and regulatory action once enough people who want to want to survive are killed by low-quality machines. Drugs, of course, would still need to be produced and distributed.

    If it's like every other technology, it there will be a long delay between when use begins and when anyone outside of the "top billion" has access to it. (Does the "middle billion" have cars today? Cell phones? How long did those take?) What you're describing only makes sense in the rich and middle-class in the "first world." Even there, I'm not sure people will want to change what they want - it would have to overcome some wanting to want exactly what you already want, which might carry some social stigma in both directions.

    I think the most dramatic change might be in food production, since lots of people would want to want things that cost less, so they'd want to want (for example) beans instead of burgers. Marketers would try to change what you want to want, and they might succeed, which might make d-mod act as a multiplier of marketing success.

    I'm not convinced our minds can actually be manipulated that way - it seems difficult to make significant changes without making your mind not really work anymore, so I'm not sure interesting changes are possible. If they are, I think the interesting questions would be about where the line is for abusive use. When is it OK to meddle with what your spouse wants to want? What happens when you make your children want to want to be obedient? Should employers increase job satisfaction by making employees like their job? Can the government force you to want to serve in the military? Can violent offenders be forced to want to be pacifists? Would making them want to actually make them nonviolent?

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  12. Anonymous6:11 AM

    You increase your happiness and satisfaction by managing your desire, not by satisfying it.

    Desire, by definition, is unsatisfiable. If you could map your desire onto something that you already have, that would not lead to satisfaction. Instead you would become obsessive, fixated and tortured: you would be stuck in a paradox of having and desiring at the same time, the impulse would be to somehow consume that thing, incorporate it within yourself.

    So desire modification, if it could change the object of desire, would be very dangerous not in terms of mind control, but in terms of making people psychotic.

    You would have to have a mechanism whereby if an object of desire was attained, then that desire would "switch off" or move on to a different target. If you switch it off, then you are basically steadily reducing people's level of desire. You could just mass-prescribe opiates and have the same effect.

    If you move it on to a different target, then you could use this in order to better control and structure your desire. You would control the excesses and maybe increase people's overall satisfaction and happiness as a result.

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    1. Anonymous8:08 AM

      Incidentally your point about reflexivity, evolution and clades implicitly acknowledges that desire cannot, in fact, be controlled the way you suggest. Desires crop up unbidden all the time, so all you can really do is limit the universe of potential things that you could desire, by shaping your "meta-desires".

      This sets you off on a game of russian dolls where you never actually end up at the big desire that encompasses all the other layers.

      It's a provocative idea, but I'm not sure I share your enthusiasm that it's either desirable or possible even in the abstract to control desire. I'd be interested in reading your sci-fi though to see how you work this all out.

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    2. Anonymous8:11 AM

      For example, at what level would you start controlling your desire? Chocolate or World Peace?

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  13. Anonymous8:22 AM

    The. Modders will spread outward in the real world.. Because the interners plugs will be pulled by the external modders.. You always need to get to the top level of reality.. Going intern is temporary because your world supervenes on the outside one..

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  14. Anonymous9:55 AM

    Whatever became of that TED video of the computer reading that guy's mind? I always figured that would be the next big thing. Once we've all got gems in our ears like Ender, we'll probably chatter a lot and begin approaching some sort of species consciousness a la Starcraft Protoss. At the very least, we'll sing pretty thought poems like the readers in The Demolished Man...

    Guys. What if we all have psychic powers in like, a couple decades.

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  16. Something that works reasonably well for me is to alleviate the terror of pain that I can't easily eliminate, e.g. toothache, by trying to like it or even enjoy it.

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    1. You therefore refute Dr Samuel Johnson, who claimed "There is not yet philosopher who can endure the toothache patiently."

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  17. Noah,
    Desire modification is indeed a fascinating idea, and i've given it quite a bit of thought myself. I doubt it requires computer implants, though you are quite right that it needs new techniques. However, you are assuming that desires are something out of an individual's control; in fact, people already can and do modify their desires (say, by quashing socially unacceptable desires or by slowly refining an existing, acceptable desire). Here the crane-building-crane is the circular thought-will-desire-emotion series: you can want to change a desire and then actually think through how to accomplish that. This is a more organic and less violent approach, one that actively evolves your desires instead of forcing them.

    The exciting leap-forward would not so much be a novel desire-changing technology, or even technique, but the exponential refining of said desires. I am not so much interested in turning happiness "always on" (which would be more of an emotion mod), as exploring all the novel kinds of desires/emotions that people will "think up". Your second-order desires will here come into play as we will have to figure out what desires are desirable, but as i said above, we must think about what desires we want to have, or more likely, what desires we want others to have! Desire modification is already rampant, it's just that society (non-consciously) molds children's raw desires into (mostly) socially beneficial ones. When society starts doing so consciously, and when individuals learn to continue modding their desires for themselves as adults, things will get very interesting indeed.

    p.s. Among the sci-fi forerunners, we musn't forget Delaney's Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand, which is about desire's complete elimination, a different solution to the same problem.

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  18. Ho Noah. You really are one of my favourite bloggers. Don't you think religion does d-mod? Not necessarily for the better - think of the fundamentalists whose desire is to go to heaven, let the world be damned. But properly undsufferings religion evolved in response to suffering. Why is there suffering and how do we deal with it? When the early Christians can join Paul to "count as joy the privilege if sharing in Christ's suffering" and Jesus can say "it is more blessed to give than to receive", this must surely count as the ultimate d-mod and fulfilment of the prophecy "where O Death is your sting?"

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  19. Quakerism is undoubtably a very effective and relatively benign form of D-mod. Extraordinarily effective economically, too, given the record of its few adherents.

    Studies of well-being suggest religious people are significantly happier. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is quite interesting on this.

    Paul Dolan of the LSE has also found that the very happiest people are serious drug-addicts who now now recovered from their addiction: this, then, might constitute a solution to the problem, if a drastic one. Spend your teens on crystal meth and then stop.

    I gave a TED talk on this subject in 2008 (I think) called Life Lessons from an Ad Man

    http://www.ted.com/talks/rory_sutherland_life_lessons_from_an_ad_man.html

    ....without realising that I was proposing exactly the same thing.

    Advertising is, of course, a form of desire modification, although perhaps often (not always) operating in the wrong direction. The Becker-Murphy paper on advertising seems to imply that the authors see advertising as a form of desire modification.

    I am currently writing a book on this subject and am hugely grateful for some of the sci-fi precedents listed here. Brave New World's "Soma", combined with hypnotic in-embryo "teaching" encouraging the individual to be happy with his lot is perhaps another famous advance mention of this technology.

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  20. We seem to have evolved quite a bit of d-mod as it is. Arguably including the illusion of free will. ("The origins of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind" is a bizarre read on this). But many - I won't say all - of our beliefs are a product of our behaviour and circumstances.

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  22. In this vein, I would recommend this excerpt from Hans Jonas' "Technology and Responsibility". There are also relevant thought in CS Lewis' "Abolition of Man".

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  23. Anonymous8:19 AM

    Surely advertising is a (harmful) form of D-Mod? Advertisers change our desires by manipulating emotions like insecurity, loneliness and envy so that our consumption patterns change in ways that favour their clients.

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  24. Not always. But what you describe probably is a fair account of most fashion and luxury goods advertising. Equally, if advertising adds emotional value to simple things, it may actually add to the emotional enjoyment of essentials.

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  25. (Holy god, third time trying to submit this comment, which keeps getting shorter as patience runs out...it's not your blog, it's my router and Wordpress.) In 2009 I arrived at the conclusion that being able to adjust our desires would accomplish more for civilization than would free stuff from nano-assemblers or immortality or massive increases in cognitive power. Because otherwise we're just rich, clever, unkillable apes-in-suits-with-guns. So you're onto an idea with a big future.

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  26. Anonymous5:34 AM

    thanks

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  27. Desire modification is a well known psychic technique. The mind is open to many different suggestions everyday.

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  28. Anonymous4:23 AM

    "I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them."
    - John Stuart Mill

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  29. Desire modification is a very familiar topic in political philosophy, as the poster above has demonstrated. Isiah Berlin's 'Inner Citadel' concept is one such example. The idea of retreating inward and limiting desires so as not to have them frustrated is clearly not a new one, but can it ever be achieved? The conscious mind is mobilized by desires; whether they are deemed 'higher' or 'base'. Perhaps 'contentedness' is linguistically the only place in which an absence of desire occurs, because it implies the very absence of desires. Even a happy person would like to have more happiness, because they know how it makes them feel and they want a greater measure of that happiness, or that it will last as long as possible, also a desire.

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  30. Anonymous10:51 PM

    ...(remember, skills and techniques also count as "technologies" - Buddhists and others have been exploring d-mod for thousands of years...

    Hence batteries not included...or even required!

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  31. Larry "Ringworld" Niven used the term "Wirehead" for this, although he doesn't explore the idea very far.

    I certainly see the idea of meta-wants, where we have to decide what we want to want, as being one of the next big changes in humanity.

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  32. The short story 'Axiomatic' in Greg Egan's collection of the same name is also a dark take on this idea.

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