The next transformational technology?

by on August 30, 2012 at 8:13 am in Economics, Education, Film, Food and Drink, Games, History, Medicine, Music, Philosophy, Religion, Science, The Arts, Travel | Permalink

Noah Smith writes:

Addendum: I seem to be the only person talking about Desire Modification as a transformational technology. Greg Egan and Vernor Vinge have written books in which this technology plays a central role. In my “spare time” I’m writing a couple of sci-fi short stories based on the idea. It’s a really big deal, and I’ll write a post about it soon.

Rich Berger August 30, 2012 at 8:31 am

Isn’t Desire Modification one of the key forces in dieting? And religion, too?

Jamie_NYC August 30, 2012 at 8:49 am

Desire modification: Fail. It seems to me that human egos have a self-protection features, i.e. they don’t want to be modified. As one kid put it: “it’s good that I don’t like spinach, because if I liked it I would eat it, and I hate it!”.

Given author’s apparent liberal worldview, perhaps he meant Desire Modification for others…

Saturos August 30, 2012 at 9:05 am

I have a desire to modify the desire to modify desires (in general). Anyone with me?

Saturos August 30, 2012 at 9:11 am

Richard Dawkins should be happy with that development, though. In an introduction to the last edition of The Selfish Gene he wrote:

“Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives. The same principle can and should work on a wider scale.”

Now, what are the difficulties with making that argument? Tyler’s interview with Singer also comes to mind.

Robert August 30, 2012 at 9:26 am

Rebelling against your selfish genes is a very different matter to rebelling against your desires.

lords of lies August 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

right. it’s one thing to thwart your gene’s end goal by slapping on a latex barrier. it’s quite another to thwart your gene’s means to reach its end goal by rearranging your mental matrix to stop feeling pleasure from sex.

ps the rising hispanic high school graduation rate doesn’t mean what noah millman thinks it means. his equalism, too, will be discredited by reality.

Jim Clay August 30, 2012 at 9:33 am

Using contraceptives is “rebelling against our selfish genes”? In other words, having kids is selfish? Unreal.

John Thacker August 30, 2012 at 9:37 am

In the sense that our genes want us to reproduce, it certainly is. And for most of history, having kids was selfish under the non-pejorative senses of the word.

It’s a little bit less clear now, with the combination of governmental social insurance meaning that your child contributes to the support of others instead of just to you, and the rise of such intensive parenting techniques. But I think you can still make a decent case for it.

I suppose that most people use “selfish” in a pejorative sense. I don’t think that Dawkins is doing so here, nor in any discussion of “selfish genes.”

JWatts August 30, 2012 at 9:46 am

“Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives.”

That’s a silly comment. The urge to procreate is designed to ‘override’ our selfish instincts. Males to some degree and females to a much larger degree are better off without children on an individual basis. This was always true to a great degree, but with the advent of modern retirement pensions it’s unequivocally true. Once world society has had retirement pensions and highly effective birth control for 10+ generations it’s quite possible society will have to confront a catastrophically low birth rate. Look at the demographics of the world today, the long developed countries (3-5 generations post country wide pension) are already seeing populations that are falling below replacement rates.

Cliff August 30, 2012 at 9:57 am

How was it “always true to a great degree”? What about farmers? It’s not “unequivocally true” if you like having children, is it?

I imagine population will fall until people with high reproductive rates take over and stabilize it, or until the government starts encouraging procreation, whichever comes first. Sadly, I doubt they will ever be able to encourage procreation by people we would want to do so, but who knows.

Finch August 30, 2012 at 10:42 am

The evolutionary pressure in favor of people who like kids and against people who (just) like sex is huge, possibly unprecedented for a behavioral pressure.

I predict (my favorite fringe prediction – I recognize it’s fringe) that developed world birth rates will be much higher in 10+ generations, and that the effect will be most pronounced in the populations most affected by birth control. Look for birth rates among the educated to rise generation over generation for some time. Populations that do not effectively use birth control will be less affected by its evolutionary pressure; I’m much less certain here, but I expect they will also experience a fall below replacement followed by a long-term rise. It will just take a lot longer.

JWatts August 30, 2012 at 10:53 am

“How was it “always true to a great degree”? What about farmers?”
Farmers benefited from children as a) cheap labor and b) retirement security. But is the labor that children provide enough to overcome the attention they require. It’s doubtful. Most farming children were married pretty young. Roughly 16 for females and 18 for males. So their parents didn’t get very many years of high productivity out of them. I think most farmers were happy to use what labor they could get, but that it was merely the best use of a sunk cost (“having children”) and that they would have had a lot of children in any case. Indeed, what I’ve read indicates that farmers didn’t necessarily have a greater number of births than non-farmers per number of years married. It’s just that pre-industrial city dwellers had a very high infant mortality rate and that they tended to marry a couple of years later. So the average family size for farmers was bigger not by a greater desire, but by better circumstances.

But in any case, modern farming machinery makes large family sizes needless, much like modern pension systems obviate the need for lots of ‘direct’ children. Granted, you still need lots of ‘societal’ children to become working adults to fund the modern pension system. Which is why so many first world pension systems are facing a long term crisis.

“It’s not “unequivocally true” if you like having children, is it?”
I would consider a “liking” of children (which I do by the way) another case of my “selfish genes” being overridden. I have a lot less personal time now that I have children. Their diapers and feeding schedule comes at inconvenient times and is seriously disruptive to my inherent laziness. However, their needs come first.

You do raise a good point, though. I originally said, “The urge to procreate is designed to ‘override’ our selfish instincts.” I would like to amend it to say “The urge to procreate and the maternal/paternal bond are designed to ‘override’ our selfish instincts.” It’s clear that the love you feel for your children is greater and more complex than just an urge to procreate.

John Thacker August 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

The furor if some people use desire modifications to “cure” homosexuality in themselves or their children will make the deaf community and cochlear implants seem like nothing.

Major August 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm

That’s a silly comment. The urge to procreate is designed to ‘override’ our selfish instincts.

You don’t understand the comment. It’s the selfishness of *genes* that Dawkins is referring to (and only in a metaphorical sense), not the selfishness of people.

Alex Godofsky August 30, 2012 at 9:51 am

The “selfish gene” is not a gene for selfishness (i.e. one that makes you selfish), it’s the notion of a gene that acts selfishly. The thesis is that via natural selection we arrive at genes that are optimized for their own propagation, and that only “care” about other things incidentally. If you were to anthropomorphize the gene for hemoglobin, for instance, you wouldn’t say “its goal is to help you get oxygen to the cells of your body”, you would say “its goal is to ensure you survive and pass it on to your offspring, and its strategy for doing that is to help you get oxygen to the cells of your body”.

rationalist August 30, 2012 at 9:51 am

I would definitely want to modify myself so that it is impossible to torture me;some modification of the way my brain processes pain that makes intense pain for a long duration impossible. The ability to feel such intense unpleasantness is a pure liability.

Saturos August 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

I don’t think that counts as desire modification, though.

Jon Rodney August 30, 2012 at 9:52 am

The thought of ‘desire modification’ makes me uneasy. It also makes me think of the ‘mood organs’ in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

JWatts August 30, 2012 at 11:05 am

“The thought of ‘desire modification’ makes me uneasy.” Don’t worry about it. The very first session of “desire modification” therapy will cure your feelings of uneasiness. ;)

Obligatory Dilbert: http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2003-02-07/

Brett August 30, 2012 at 10:42 am

Desire Modification sounds like a thicket of potential ethical issues, depending on what you can do with it. Look at the example of A Deepness in the Sky, which Noah points to. That had a group of people making other people ultra-focused on some particular purpose or project while also compliant, essentially turning them into human machinery.

Mood Modification, though, could be pretty interesting. Imagine if you had an implant to monitored and occasionally stimulated the “pleasure center” of your brain, keeping you in a generally upbeat and good mood as long as it was turned on. I think they’ve already done experiments with stimulating pleasure in a monkey’s brain with electrical connections.

Saturos August 30, 2012 at 11:34 am

“That had a group of people making other people ultra-focused on some particular purpose or project while also compliant, essentially turning them into human machinery.”

If I mention “House-elves”, does anyone here know what I’m talking about?

“Imagine if you had an implant to monitored and occasionally stimulated the “pleasure center” of your brain, keeping you in a generally upbeat and good mood as long as it was turned on.”

Dude, I think that’s called crack.

Jon Rodney August 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I am a registered member of S.P.E.W.

The Original D August 30, 2012 at 11:49 am

“Desire modification” is not a good term for this. I prefer “desire mediation.” It’s easy for me to desire that I go to the gym, but when the time comes I find reasons to blow it off. Both desires are legitimate, but only one will win out. So I develop habits that make me more likely to follow through.

Another term I’ve heard for such practices is “extended will” – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/changepower/201104/not-enough-willpower-use-your-extended-will

Nick August 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Whats’s with all the category tags for this post? Not sure it’s that broad of a topic.

Noah Smith August 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm
Steko August 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm

They did this with rats, they keep pressing the pleasure button until they die of starvation/exhaustion.

Brian Donohue August 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Desire modification? Isn’t this what Buddha was on about?

Brian Donohue August 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm

‘Making matters worse is a new and growing gap between the educational preparation and achievement of American girls and boys; the female share of college graduates is now up to 58 percent.’

Prima facie discrimination?

naziism, communism, equalism August 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm

probably not. just like the reverse ratio from the past was not prima facie discrimination.

pundits tend to read too much upside from the female college enrollment numbers. the question to ask is: how has academia changed that more women find it a suitable home for four years? many useless and undemanding departments and classes have been added and expanded over the last forty years, such as women’s studies, communications, sociology, and the various critical [X] theory subjects and the whole panoply of soft sciences. is a wave of women graduating with these degrees really going to herald a new age of innovation? forget innovation, what about simply maintaining civilization?

college is now in the business of rewarding conscientiousness, something which girls tend to be better at than boys. it’s a great trait if you’re an employer looking to fill your ranks with obedient cogs, not so great if you want to end stagnations and crass credentialism.

Tim August 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm

I feel sorry for the crusty old men that are being left behind. But I feel more hopeless for their sons who are being raised with false promises that “civilization” is having things handed to them on a silver platter. I know so many who are basically unemployable.
I’m sorry you don’t understand the value of the liberal arts, communications, sociology, or critical thinking. My hunch is your boss does (or your new boss will).

Lance September 6, 2012 at 11:57 am

As if the hard sciences didn’t require critical thinking. Liberal arts are nothing but hot air without the support of hard sciences and engineering.

mark August 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Sounds awfully Clockwork Orange-ish to me. Maybe it’s the kinder, gentler Clockwork Orange but still. But then so much has happened in the last decade to convert the libertarian warnings of mid-century English novelists into reality.

Claudia August 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm

This transformational technology sounds like something that would end up making TGS look like a period of robust growth. But setting aside the doomsday scenarios of societal regress (which should make Noah’s novel a fun read), desire modification at the individual level simply does not sound desirable. Noah points to meditation as an existing related technology, but I disagree with the parallel. A key part of meditation (as I understand it) is mindfulness. It’s not about reducing (or changing) your desires, but rather about being grounded in (and accepting) your present reality. The descriptions of desire modification in his post, in contrast, sound like un-tethering people from their reality (not a good thing in my opinion).

Brian Donohue August 31, 2012 at 9:05 am

I dunno. “No-mind”, nirvana, the dissolving I, the opposite of grasping. These are all Hindu/Beuddhist/Zen ideas that, to me, suggest the opposite of “mindfulness”, but I’m no expert on meditation, enlightenment, or any of that fancy Eastern stuff really.

JVA August 31, 2012 at 6:32 am

My take on cosequences for cheap and widely available desire modification (as in Sci-Fi).

1) Marketing, fast food, tabacco, alcohol is no more. Videogames soon follow. Other forms of entertainment are also suspect.
1.1) With marketing gone much of the mass media is gone. Elections/news will never be the same.
2) Insurers demand modifications for any insurance. People comply because it is cheaper and everybody is doing it. Insurance becomes much cheaper.
3) Government mandated modifications:
3.1) For obeying laws and law enforcement.
3.2) Additional modifications when applying for unemployment benefits.
3.3) Additional modifications for criminals.
3.4) Modifications for military.
3.5) Everyone in theocracies becomes religious.
4) Legally forbidden modifications
4.1) For any criminal activity.
4.2) Forbidden to modify women to not want children. This causes increase in male/female wage difference. Might be different in other countries.
4.3) For any religious/anti-religious activity.
5) Black/gray market for covert modifications for benefit of corporations/military. This is what becomes of marketing companies.
6) Every employer demands compliance modifications. Unmodified people become unemployable. People might protest this but only during first years. CVs start to include compliance modification credentials alongside education.
7) Modifications become weapons of war. Many small/weak countries “unexpectedly” vote to join their more powerfull neighbours. EU becomes a federation, USSR reforms under a different name, Israel ends conflict with Palestine (because everyone now recognizes Israel as legitimate) and nukes/conquers much of middle east. Noone objects.

jva August 31, 2012 at 6:33 am

Holy formatting fail….

My take on cosequences for cheap and widely available desire modification (as in Sci-Fi).

1) Marketing, fast food, tabacco, alcohol is no more. Videogames soon follow. Other forms of entertainment are also suspect.

1.1) With marketing gone much of the mass media is gone. Elections/news will never be the same.

2) Insurers demand modifications for any insurance. People comply because it is cheaper and everybody is doing it. Insurance becomes much cheaper.

3) Government mandated modifications:

3.1) For obeying laws and law enforcement.

3.2) Additional modifications when applying for unemployment benefits.

3.3) Additional modifications for criminals.

3.4) Modifications for military.

3.5) Everyone in theocracies becomes religious.

4) Legally forbidden modifications

4.1) For any criminal activity.

4.2) Forbidden to modify women to not want children. This causes increase in male/female wage difference. Might be different in other countries.

4.3) For any religious/anti-religious activity.

5) Black/gray market for covert modifications for benefit of corporations/military. This is what becomes of marketing companies.

6) Every employer demands compliance modifications. Unmodified people become unemployable. People might protest this but only during first years. CVs start to include compliance modification credentials alongside education.

7) Modifications become weapons of war. Many small/weak countries “unexpectedly” vote to join their more powerfull neighbours. EU becomes a federation, USSR reforms under a different name, Israel ends conflict with Palestine (because everyone now recognizes Israel as legitimate) and nukes/conquers much of middle east. Noone objects.

GiT August 31, 2012 at 9:42 am

“D-mod” technology seems like it would feed the renewal of virtue ethics…

I find the reaction to this concept funny.

We already have these things in analog and medicinal forms. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, therapy, education, life coaches and personal trainers, rehabilitation centers, self-help books, clubs and groups of every kind, boot camp/military training… But yes, the easier this becomes, the greater the potential for bad things, I suppose.

lords of lies August 31, 2012 at 10:06 am

“Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, therapy, education, life coaches and personal trainers, rehabilitation centers, self-help books, clubs and groups of every kind, boot camp/military training…”

none of those things you listed modifies human desire. they only modify the symptoms of human desire.

antidepressants: depression likely evolved to boost our immune systems and fight off infection. the genes for depression and immune system functioning are linked. the desire, then, from the gene level, is survival. antidepressants do not alter this fundamental desire to stay alive. they only alter how depressed people experience the symptoms.

antianxiety meds: anxiety gets us to recognize a status threat and to do something about it. our desire is for status. anti-anxiety meds reduce the symptoms of anxiety, but not the innate desire for higher relative status.

therapy: interventions to “feel better about ourselves” do not rely on denying basic desires at the root of the emotional state. they “work”, when they work, by getting people to reframe their perception so that their desires can more easily be pursued or, lacking an avenue for pursuit, accommodated.

education: what desire does education modify? the desire to forego learning? makes no sense. humans are learning machines. some humans, and some human groups, are better learning machines than others, but the same basic impulse is universal.

rehab centers: a drug or alcohol addiction is simply an external hijacking of the status-dopmanie brain feedback loop. rehab does not change the core desire for good feelings.

self-help books: you may as well call them desire-fulfilling books.

boot camp: again, i don’t see the innate desire being modified here. the desire to be a couch potato? then you could say that getting up in the morning is a modification of the couch potato desire. humans also have a powerful innate desire for group membership and, men especially, desire status, which can often be obtained through warrior training.

so, no, contra noah, i do not see human desire modification tech anytime soon, if only because its existence would necessarily mean reformulating human beings themselves until they look and feel nothing like the humans we are today.

GiT September 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm

You have a very silly understanding of human nature and human desire.

Stian September 1, 2012 at 4:45 am

“Eureka! I’ve invented a Desire Modification machine! I’ll mass-produce it and make billions! On second thoughts…” “Mmmmmmm…”

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