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It's the End of the World as We Know It (and Lawrence Krauss Feels Fine)

Last time I looked in on New Atheist hero Lawrence Krauss, who co-stars with Richard Dawkins in the upcoming documentary The Unbelievers, he was leading a panel discussion highlighted by the presence of Cameron Diaz. Ms. Diaz gave an extremely long, silly and inarticulate statement including about how a baby growing up into an adult proves evolution. Throughout, Dr. Krauss could be seen nodding vigorously as if in total agreement with her. Sadly, the video of Ms. Diaz, who is among the celebrity unbelievers who feature in the film, has been taken down. It's been wiped clean off the Internet, as far as I can find.

Now a reader brings to my attention comments by Dr. Krauss on another panel. This time it's a discussion on the theme "The Great Debate: What Is Life?," with a group of discussants that also includes Dawkins, Craig Venter, and Nobel laureate Sidney Altman. But unfortunately, not Cameron Diaz. Starting at 33:10, Krauss speculates in a bizarrely cheerful way about the demise of the human race in the near future. His interlocutor is Dr. Altman:

SIDNEY ALTMAN: There is another question, Lawrence, which I would like to ask you...You were talking about the future of computers and that they will have consciousness, which I don't understand at all, I don't understand what you mean by consciousness... but knowing that you're a very erudite person and that you've probably read some of Isaac Asimov.

KRAUSS: Yeah, of course.

ALTMAN: Shouldn't we make sure that the Three Laws of Robotics are imposed on our computers? [Laughter from the audience.]

KRAUSS: No, actually, I don't. It always amazes me, ...We have this perception that somehow alien life -- being computer life, is always a threat, and that in fact, our future isn't, isn't their future, and part of the problem of Asimov's Three Laws is the assumption that doing away with humans is a bad thing, and it's not at all clear to me that that's a bad thing in the long term, because I doubt, I doubt, that 200 years from now that being human will, will have that much resemblance to what being human is now, no matter whether computers get intelligent or not.

ALTMAN: [Shaking his head.] 

KRAUSS: I suspect that what we'll be able to do in genetics...

ALTMAN. No no no no no no no....

This is remarkable. Asimov's three laws, by the way, are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Krauss's remarks are brief, casual, and upbeat -- that's part of what makes them so disturbing. There are echoes of the transhumanist eugenic dream of future human evolution deliberately manipulated to result in a superior version of us down the road. That's creepy enough. See Chapter 10, "C. S. Lewis and the Advent of the Posthuman," in John West's book The Magician's Twin. But it sounds like Krauss is taking that to another level, with humanity wiped out in favor of robots or robot-hybrids. You can see why Altman, clearly appalled, is shaking his head and saying "No no no no no no no..."

Putting aside the technological vision, the question of its practical feasibility and likelihood, I'm impressed by the total, utter and complete lack of gravity that Krauss brings to the question of the looming extinction, as he speculates, of the human race. It's "not at all clear" to him that "doing away with humans is a bad thing"? He chortles and makes a joke about Star Trek. What better proof could there be of the way that the scientific picture you carry around in your head of how the world works informs how you feel emotionally about the weightiest matters imaginable?

Dr. Krauss, a physicist by profession, also has a sideline as an authority on how evolution should be taught in schools. See Casey's article "If Only This Article in Congressional Quarterly Had Been an April Fools' Day Joke." Our reader observes, "After these comments, [Krauss] is the last person I would want having influence on science education in the public schools." That makes two of us.