Changing Emotions

Pre­vi­ously in se­ries: Grow­ing Up is Hard

Lest any­one read­ing this jour­nal of a prim­i­tive man should think we spend our time mired in ab­strac­tions, let me also say that I am dis­cov­er­ing the rich­ness available to those who are will­ing to al­ter their ma­jor char­ac­ter­is­tics. The va­ri­ety of emo­tions available to a re­con­figured hu­man mind, think­ing thoughts im­pos­si­ble to its an­ces­tors…
The emo­tion of -*-, de­scrib­able only as some­thing be­tween sex­ual love and the joy of in­tel­lec­tion—mak­ing love to a thought? Or &&, the true re­verse of pain, not “plea­sure” but a “warn­ing” of heal­ing, growth and change. Or (^+^), the most com­plex emo­tion yet dis­cov­ered, felt by those who con­sciously en­dure the change be­tween mind con­figu­ra­tions, and ex­pe­rience the broad spec­trum of pos­si­bil­ities in­her­ent in think­ing and be­ing.

—Greg Bear, Eon

So… I’m ba­si­cally on board with that sort of thing as a fine and de­sir­able fu­ture. But I think that the difficulty and dan­ger of fid­dling with emo­tions is oft-un­der­es­ti­mated. Not nec­es­sar­ily un­der­es­ti­mated by Greg Bear, per se; the above jour­nal en­try is from a char­ac­ter who was re­ceiv­ing su­per­in­tel­li­gent help.

But I still re­mem­ber one time on the Ex­tropi­ans mailing list when some­one talked about cre­at­ing a fe­male yet “oth­er­wise iden­ti­cal” copy of him­self. Some­thing about that just fell on my camel’s back as the last straw. I’m sorry, but there are some things that are much more com­pli­cated to ac­tu­ally do than to rat­tle off as short English phrases, and “chang­ing sex” has to rank very high on that list. Even if you’re om­nipo­tent so far as raw abil­ity goes, it’s not like peo­ple have a bi­nary at­tribute read­ing “M” or “F” that can be flipped as a prim­i­tive ac­tion.

Chang­ing sex makes a good, vivid ex­am­ple of the sort of difficul­ties you might run into when mess­ing with emo­tional ar­chi­tec­ture, so I’ll use it as my archetype:

Let’s sup­pose that we’re talk­ing about an M2F trans­for­ma­tion. (F2M should be a straight­for­ward trans­form of this dis­cus­sion; I do want to be spe­cific rather than talk­ing in vague gen­er­al­ities, but I don’t want to par­allelize ev­ery sen­tence.) (Oddly enough, ev­ery time I can re­call hear­ing some­one say “I want to know what it’s like to be the op­po­site sex”, the speaker has been male. I don’t know if that’s a gen­uine gen­der differ­ence in wishes, or just a se­lec­tion effect in which spo­ken wishes reach my ears.)

Want to spend a week wear­ing a fe­male body? Even at this very shal­low level, we’re deal­ing with dras­tic remap­pings of at least some seg­ments of the sen­so­ri­mo­tor cor­tex and cere­bel­lum—the so­matic map, the mo­tor map, the mo­tor re­flexes, and the mo­tor skills. As a male, you know how to op­er­ate a male body, but not a fe­male one. If you’re a mas­ter mar­tial artist as a male, you won’t be a mas­ter mar­tial artist as a fe­male (or vice versa, of course) un­less you ei­ther spend an­other year prac­tic­ing, or some AI sub­tly tweaks your skills to be what they would have been in a fe­male body—think of how odd that ex­pe­rience would be.

Already we’re talk­ing about some pretty sig­nifi­cant neu­rolog­i­cal changes. Strong enough to dis­rupt per­sonal iden­tity, if taken in one shot? That’s a difficult ques­tion to an­swer, es­pe­cially since I don’t know what ex­per­i­ment to perform to test any hy­pothe­ses. On one hand, billions of neu­rons in my vi­sual cor­tex un­dergo mas­sive changes of ac­ti­va­tion ev­ery time my eyes squeeze shut when I sneeze—the raw num­ber of flipped bits is not the key thing in per­sonal iden­tity. But we are already talk­ing about se­ri­ous changes of in­for­ma­tion, on the or­der of go­ing to sleep, dream­ing, for­get­ting your dreams, and wak­ing up the next morn­ing as though it were the next mo­ment. Not in­for­ma­tion­ally triv­ial trans­forms like up­load­ing.

What about sex? (Some­how it’s always about sex, at least when it’s men ask­ing the ques­tion.) Remap­ping the con­nec­tions from the remapped so­matic ar­eas to the plea­sure cen­ter will… give you a vagina-shaped pe­nis, more or less. That doesn’t make you a woman. You’d still be at­tracted to girls, and no, that would not make you a les­bian; it would make you a nor­mal, mas­culine man wear­ing a fe­male body like a suit of cloth­ing.

What would it take for a man to ac­tu­ally be­come the fe­male ver­sion of them­selves?

Well… what does that sen­tence even mean? I am re­minded of some­one who replied to the state­ment “Obama would not have be­come Pres­i­dent if he hadn’t been black” by say­ing “If Obama hadn’t been black, he wouldn’t have been Obama” i.e. “There is no non-black Obama who could fail to be­come Pres­i­dent”. (You know you’re in trou­ble when non-ac­tual pos­si­ble wor­lds start hav­ing poli­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions.)

The per­son you would have been if you’d been born with an X chro­mo­some in place of your Y chro­mo­some (or vice versa) isn’t you. If you had a twin fe­male sister, the two of you would not be the same per­son. There are genes on your Y chro­mo­some that tweaked your brain to some ex­tent, helping to con­struct your per­sonal iden­tity—alle­les with no analogue on the X chro­mo­some. There is no ver­sion of you, even ge­net­i­cally, who is the op­po­site sex.

And if we halt your body, swap out your Y chro­mo­some for your father’s X chro­mo­some, and restart your body… well. That doesn’t sound too safe, does it? Your neu­rons are already wired in a male pat­tern, just as your body already de­vel­oped in a male pat­tern. I don’t know what hap­pens to your tes­ti­cles, and I don’t know what hap­pens to your brain, ei­ther. Maybe your cir­cuits would slowly start to rewire them­selves un­der the in­fluence of the new ge­netic in­struc­tions. At best you’d end up as a half-baked cross be­tween male brain and fe­male brain. At worst you’d go into a per­ma­nent epilep­tic fit and die—we’re deal­ing with cir­cum­stances way out­side the evolu­tion­ary con­text un­der which the brain was op­ti­mized for ro­bust­ness. Either way, your brain would not look like your twin sister’s brain that had de­vel­oped as fe­male from the be­gin­ning.

So to ac­tu­ally be­come fe­male...

We’re talk­ing about a mas­sive trans­for­ma­tion here, billions of neu­rons and trillions of synapses re­ar­ranged. Not just form, but con­tent—just like a male judo ex­pert would need skills repat­terned to be­come a fe­male judo ex­pert, so too, you know how to op­er­ate a male brain but not a fe­male brain. You are the equiv­a­lent of a judo ex­pert at one, but not the other. You have cog­ni­tive re­flexes, and con­sciously learned cog­ni­tive skills as well.

If I fell asleep and woke up as a true woman—not in body, but in brain—I don’t think I’d call her “me”. The change is too sharp, if it hap­pens all at once.

Trans­form the brain grad­u­ally? Hm… now we have to de­sign the in­ter­me­di­ate stages, and make sure the in­ter­me­di­ate stages make self-con­sis­tent sense. Evolu­tion built and op­ti­mized a self-con­sis­tent male brain and a self-con­sis­tent fe­male brain; it didn’t de­sign the parts to be sta­ble dur­ing an in­ter­me­di­ate tran­si­tion be­tween the two. Maybe you’ve got to re­design other parts of the brain just to keep work­ing through the tran­si­tion.

What hap­pens when, as a woman, you think back to your mem­ory of look­ing at An­gelina Jolie pho­tos as a man? How do you em­pathize with your past self of the op­po­site sex? Do you flee in hor­ror from the per­son you were? Are all your life’s mem­o­ries dis­tant and alien things? How can you re­mem­ber, when your mem­ory is a recorded ac­ti­va­tion pat­tern for neu­ral cir­cuits that no longer ex­ist in their old forms? Do we rewrite all your mem­o­ries, too?

Well… maybe we could re­tain your old male brain­ware through the trans­for­ma­tion, and set up a dual sys­tem of male and fe­male cir­cuits… such that you are cur­rently fe­male, but re­tain the abil­ity to re­call and em­pathize with your past mem­o­ries as if they were run­ning on the same male brain­ware that origi­nally laid them down...

Sounds com­pli­cated, doesn’t it? It seems that to trans­form a male brain into some­one who can be a real fe­male, we can’t just rewrite you as a fe­male brain. That just kills you and re­places you with some­one re-imag­ined as a differ­ent per­son. In­stead we have to rewrite you as a more com­plex brain with a novel, non-an­ces­tral ar­chi­tec­ture that can cross-op­er­ate in re­al­time be­tween male and fe­male modes, so that a fe­male can pro­cess male mem­o­ries with a re­mem­bered con­text that in­cludes the male brain­ware that laid them down.

To make you fe­male, and yet still you, we have to step out­side the hu­man de­sign space in or­der to pre­serve con­ti­nu­ity with your male self.

And when your lit­tle ad­ven­ture is over and you go back to be­ing a man—if you still want to, be­cause even if your past self wanted to go back af­ter­ward, why should that de­sire be bind­ing on your pre­sent self?—then we’ve got to keep the dual ar­chi­tec­ture so you don’t throw up ev­ery time you re­mem­ber what you did on your va­ca­tion.

As­sum­ing you did have sex as a woman, rather than fend­ing off all com­ers be­cause be­cause they didn’t look like they were in­ter­ested in a long-term re­la­tion­ship.

But then, you prob­a­bly would ex­per­i­ment. You’ll never have been a lit­tle girl, and you won’t re­mem­ber go­ing through high school where any girl who slept with a boy was called a slut by the other girls. You’ll re­mem­ber a very atyp­i­cal past for a woman—but there’s no way to fix that while keep­ing you the same per­son.

And all that was just what it takes to ranma around within hu­man-space, from the male pole to the fe­male pole and back again.

What if you wanted to move out­side the hu­man space en­tirely?

In one sense, a sex change is ad­mit­tedly close to a worst-case sce­nario: a fixed tar­get not op­ti­mized for an easy tran­si­tion from your pre­sent lo­ca­tion; in­volv­ing, not just new brain ar­eas, but mas­sive co­or­di­nated changes to brain ar­eas already in place.

It might be a lot eas­ier to just add one more emo­tion to those already there. Maybe.

In an­other sense, though, a sex change is close to a best-case sce­nario: the pro­to­type of your des­ti­na­tion is already ex­ten­sively tested as a co­her­ent mind, and known to func­tion well within a hu­man so­ciety that already has a place for it (in­clud­ing com­pan­ions to talk to).

It might be a lot harder to en­ter un­charted ter­ri­tory. Maybe.

I’m not say­ing—of course—that it could never, ever be done. But it’s an­other in­stance of the great chicken-and-egg dilemma that is the whole story of pre­sent-day hu­man­ity, the great challenge that in­tel­li­gent life faces in its flow­er­ing: grow­ing up is a grownup-level prob­lem. You could try to build a cleanly-de­signed ar­tifi­cial grownup (self-im­prov­ing Friendly AI) to fore­see the path­way ahead and chart out a non­fatal course. Or you could plunge ahead your­self, and hope that you grew faster than your prob­lems did.

It’s the same core challenge ei­ther way: grow­ing up is an adult prob­lem. There are difficult ways out of this trap, but no easy ones; ex­tra-or­di­nary solu­tions, but no or­di­nary ones. Peo­ple ask me why I take all these difficul­ties upon my­self. It’s be­cause all the eas­ier ways, once you ex­am­ine them in enough fine de­tail, turn out to be illu­sions, or con­tain just as much difficulty them­selves—the same sort of hid­den difficulty as “I’d like to try be­ing the op­po­site sex for a week”.

It seems to me that there is just an ir­re­ducible resi­due of very hard prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with an adult ver­sion of hu­mankind ever com­ing into be­ing.

And emo­tions would be among the most dan­ger­ous tar­gets of med­dling. Make the wrong shift, and you won’t want to change back.

We can’t keep these ex­act hu­man emo­tions for­ever. Any­one want to still want to eat choco­late-chip cook­ies when the last sun grows cold? I didn’t think so.

But if we re­place our emo­tions with ran­dom die-rolls, then we’ll end up want­ing to do what is prime, in­stead of what’s right.

Some emo­tional changes can be de­sir­able, but ran­dom re­place­ment seems likely to be un­de­sir­able on av­er­age. So there must be crite­ria that dis­t­in­guish good emo­tional changes from bad emo­tional changes. What are they?

Part of The Fun The­ory Sequence

Next post: “Emo­tional In­volve­ment

Pre­vi­ous post: “Grow­ing Up is Hard