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The dark side of techno-utopian dreams: Ethical and practical pitfalls

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In a world that is becoming increasingly intertwined with technology, techno-utopianism has emerged as a dominant philosophy shaping humanity’s future. Visionaries like Elon Musk pursue ambitious projects such as the colonization of Mars, hoping for a future where humankind transcends its earthly limitations. While, on the surface, these futuristic dreams are captivating and promising, critical questions arise about their ethical implications, realism and whether we are overlooking pressing issues on Earth in pursuit of an idealized future. 

As defined by MIT’s Science Fiction: Media in Transition project, technological utopianism advocates that scientific and technological progress should bring society to a “utopia.” This ideology envisions advanced technology going as far as solving chronic problems such as world hunger, disease and introduces the possibility of allowing humans to transcend current biological limitations.

Silicon Valley, located in the southern Bay Area, Calif., is a beacon of technological innovation and home to a wide diaspora of tech subcultures that contribute to the broader discourse on techno-utopianism. From rationalists to transhumanists and effective altruists, each sect has its own individual goals and methods. However, they share the common belief that technology has the power to transform humanity and solve society’s biggest challenges. 

Nonetheless, this vision is not without its critics. Dr. Émile Torres, an existential risk philosopher who once was a proponent of these ideas, is now a vocal critic of them. In collaboration with Dr. Timnit Gebru, a computer scientist who is a prominent figure in artificial intelligence, they coined the acronym TESCREAL, which stands for “transhumanism, Extropianism, singularitarianism, (modern) cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and longtermism.” This bundle sums up a collection of futurist philosophies that prioritize an idealized, distant future over present concerns.A primary concern for the facade of techno-utopianism is the potential for utilitarian justification that leads to harmful results. 

“So if the ends can justify the means and the ends are like a literal utopia, where we’re all perfectly happy, and there’s infinite value, and everyone lives forever, and so on, then what exactly is off the table?,” Dr. Torres said in an interview with New University.

This mindset can easily lead to extreme measures being taken for the sake of the supposed greater good, potentially sacrificing the well-being of marginalized communities and ethical principles. 

Questionable ethical standards in the pursuit of this utopia have already risen, with one example being Neuralink, a company that aims to build brain-machine interfaces to enhance cognitive abilities. Reports have emerged of the firm committing animal cruelty, with Neuralink allegedly killing around 1,500 animals since 2018 during testing. In an attempt to achieve ambitious goals like helping the paralyzed walk and the blind see, the utilitarian approach justifies the harm it inflicts on animals.

The focus on this distant, idealized future at the expense of present-day ethical considerations also connects back to the troubling history of eugenics. The transhumanist goal of creating the optimal human that surpasses biological limitations through technological enhancement echoes the motivations of past eugenics movements. Torres described transhumanism, a philosophy infamously supported by notable figures such as Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, as “eugenics on steroids.” Both seek to engineer a supposedly superior human race and often disregard the potential harm to marginalized communities while doing so.

A key notion TESCREALists hold is the self-righteous belief in controlling the future, applying a colonial mindset and a sense of manifest destiny. In regards to space exploration, it assumes that humankind has the right and obligation to expand beyond Earth. However, this perspective often overlooks the significant concerns over feasibility.

 “The conditions on Mars are less hospitable than the conditions at the very top of Mount Everest. Nobody wants to move to the top of Mount Everest,” Dr. Torres said.

There is a stark contrast between the utopian vision of colonizing Mars and the harsh reality of its actual environment. The romanticism of a new frontier overshadows the practical and ethical challenges that such a venture entails. Longterminism, a key pillar in the TESCREAL ideology, emphasizes positively influencing and prioritizing the flourishing of the future. While this seems compelling in theory, the pursuit of this future venture can result in the disregard of present-day issues and the well-being of the current generation. 

“Longtermism tells the rich and powerful that they’re morally excused from caring about non-existential problems like global poverty and climate change,.” Dr. Torres said. 

The vision of AI as the all-encompassing solution for humanity’s problems is often ill-defined and overly optimistic. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, referred to artificial general intelligence as “magic intelligence in the sky.” Without a clear roadmap for its development or understanding of potential implications, addressing the real-world consequences and ethical considerations is made difficult. 

It becomes clear that these grand visions are fraught with ethical and practical challenges when diving deeper. The quest for a utopian future justifies harm in the name of progress and turns a blind eye to issues in the present. By drawing insights from philosophers such as Dr. Émile Torres, we can better understand the dangers inherent in these ideologies and prioritize a more grounded, ethical approach to technological advancement. This balanced perspective ensures that our pursuit of innovation does not come at the expense of the tangible problems of today and allows us to responsibly harness technology for the better.

Sriskandha Kandimalla is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at skandima@uci.edu

Edited by Jacob Ramos and Jaheem Conley.