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19 March 2011

A singularly fine singularitarian panel?

Filed under: futurist, Humanity Plus, Kurzweil, Singularity — David Wood @ 12:37 pm

In a moment, I’ll get to the topic of a panel discussion on the Singularity – a panel I’ve dubbed (for reasons which should become clear) “Post Transcendent Man“. It’s a great bunch of speakers, and I’m expecting an intellectual and emotional mindfest.  But first, some background.

In the relatively near future, I expect increasing numbers of people to navigate the sea change described recently by writer Philippe Verdoux in his article Transhumanists coming out of the closet:

It wasn’t that long ago that listing transhumanism, human enhancement, the Singularity, technology-driven evolution, existential risks, and so on, as interests on one’s CV might result in a bit of embarrassment.

Over just the past decade and a half, though, there seems to have been a sea change in how these issues are perceived by philosophers and others: many now see them as legitimate subjects of research; they have, indeed, acquired a kind of academic respectability that they didn’t previously possess.

There are no doubt many factors behind this shift. For one, it seems to be increasingly apparent, in 2011, that technology and biology are coming together to form a new kind of cybernetic unity, and furthermore that such technologies can be used to positively enhance (rather than merely alter) features of our minds and bodies.

In other words, the claim that humans can “transcend” (a word I don’t much like, by the way) our biological limitations through the use of enhancement technologies seems to be increasingly plausible – that is, empirically speaking.

Thus, it seems to be a truism about our contemporary world that technology will, in the relatively near future, enable us to alter ourselves in rather significant ways. This is one reason, I believe, that more philosophers are taking transhumanism seriously…

On a personal note, when I first discovered transhumanism, I was extremely skeptical about its claims (which, by the way, I think every good scientific thinker should be). I take it that transhumanism makes two claims in particular, the first “descriptive” and the second “normative”: (i) that future technologies will make it possible for us to radically transform the human organism, potentially enabling us to create a new species of technologized “posthumans”; and (ii) that such a future scenario is preferable to all other possible scenarios. In a phrase: we not only can but ought to pursue a future marked by posthumanity…

One factor that leads people to pay more serious attention to this bundle of ideas – transhumanism, human enhancement, the Singularity, technology-driven evolution, existential risks, and so on – is the increasing coverage of these ideas in thoughtful articles in the mainstream media.  In turn, many of these articles have been triggered by the film Transcendent Man by director Barry Ptolemy, featuring the groundbreaking but controversial ideas and projects of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.  Here’s a trailer for the film:

The film has received interesting commentary in, among other places:

I had mixed views when watching the movie myself:

  • On the one hand, it contains a large number of profound sound bites – statements made by many of the talking heads on screen; any of these sound bites could, potentially, change someone’s life, if they reflect on the implications;
  • The film also covers many details of Kurzweil’s own biography, with archive footage of him at different stages of his career – this filled in many gaps in my own understanding, and gave me renewed respect for what he has accomplished as a professional;
  • On the other hand, although there are plenty of critical comments among the sound bites – comments highlighting potential problems or issues with Kurzweil’s ideas – the film never really lets the debate fly;
  • I found myself thinking – yes, that’s an interesting and important point, now let’s explore this further – but then the movie switched to a different frame.

The movie has its official UK premier at the London Science Museum on Tuesday 5th April.  Kurzweil himself will be in attendance, to answer questions raised by the audience.  The last time I checked, tickets were sold out.

Post Transcendent Man

To drill down more deeply into the potentially radical implications of Kurzweil’s ideas and projects, the UK chapter of Humanity+ has arranged an event in  Birkbeck College (WC1E 7HX), Torrington Square in Central London on the afternoon (2pm-4.15pm) of Saturday 9th April.  We’ll be in Malet Street lecture room B34 – which seats a capacity audience of 177 people.  For more details about logistics, registration, and so on, see the official event website, or the associated Facebook page.

The event is privileged to feature an outstanding set of speakers and panellists who represent a range of viewpoints about the Singularity, transhumanism, and human transcendence.  In alphabetical order by first name:

Dr Anders Sandberg is a James Martin research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. As a part of the Oxford Martin School he is involved in interdisciplinary research on cognitive enhancement, neurotechnology, global catastrophic risks, emerging technologies and applied rationality. He has been writing about and debating transhumanism, future studies, neuroethics and related questions for a long time. He is also an associate of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, as well as co-founder of the Swedish think tank Eudoxa.

Jaan Tallinn is one of the programmers behind Kazaa and a founding engineer of Skype. He is also a partner in Ambient Sound Investments as well as a member of the Estonian President’s Academic Advisory Board. He describes himself as singularitarian/hacker/investor/physicist (in that order). In recent years Jaan has found himself closely following and occasionally supporting the work that SIAI and FHI are doing. He agrees with Kurzweil in that the topic of Singularity can be extremely counterintuitive to general public, and has tried to address this problem in a few public presentations at various venues.

Nic Brisbourne is a partner at venture capital fund DFJ Esprit and blogger on technology and startup issues at The Equity Kicker. As such he’s interested in when technology and science projects become products and businesses. He has a personal interest in Kurzweil’s ideas and longevity in particular and he says he’s keen to cross the gap from personal to professional and find exciting startups generating products in this area, although he thinks that the bulk of the commercialisation opportunities are still a year or two out.

Paul Graham Raven is a writer, literary critic and bootstrap big-picture futurist; he prods regularly at the fuzzy boundary of the unevenly-distributed future at futurismic.com. He is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The Dreaded Press, a rock music reviews webzine, and Publicist and PR officer for PS Publishing – perhaps the UK’s foremost boutique genre publisher. He says he’s also a freelance web-dev to the publishing industry, a cack-handed fuzz-rock guitarist, and in need of a proper haircut.

Russell Buckley is a leading practitioner, speaker and thinker about mobile and mobile marketing. MobHappy, his blog about mobile technology, is one of the most established focusing on this area. He is also a previous Global Chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association, a founder of Mobile Monday in Germany and holds numerous non-executive positions in mobile technology companies. Russell learned about mobile advertising startup, AdMob, soon after its launch, and joined as its first employee in 2006, with the remit of launching AdMob into the EMEA market. Four years later, AdMob was sold to Google for $750m. By night though, Russell is fascinated by the socio-political implications of technology and recently graduated from the Executive Program at the Singularity University, founded by Ray Kurtzweil and Peter Diamandis to “educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges”.

The discussion continues

The event will start, at 2pm, with the panellists introducing themselves, and their core thinking about the topics under discussion.  As chair, I’ll ask a few questions, and then we’ll open up for questions and comments from the audience.  I’ll be particularly interested to explore:

  • How people see the ideas of accelerating technology making a difference in their own lives – both personally or professionally.  Three of us on the stage were on founding teams of companies that made sizeable waves in the technology world (Jaan Tallinn, Skype; Russell Buckley, AdMob; myself, Symbian).  Where do we see rapidly evolving technology (as often covered by Kurzweil) taking us next?
  • People’s own experiences with bodies such as the Singularity University, the Singularity Institute, and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  Are these bodies just talking shops?  Are they grounded in reality?  Are they making a substantial positive difference in how humanity responds to the issues and challenges of technology?
  • Views as to the best way to communicate ideas like the Singularity – favourite films, science fiction, music, and other media.  How does the move “Transcendent Man” compare?
  • Reservations and worries (if any) about the Singularity movement and the ways in which Kurzweil expresses his ideas.  Are the parallels with apocalyptic religions too close for comfort?
  • Individuals’ hopes and aspirations for the future of technology.  What role do they personally envision playing in the years ahead?  And what timescales do they see as credible?
  • Calls to action – what (if anything) should members of the audience change about their lives, in the light of analysing technology trends?

Which questions do you think are the most important to raise?

Request for help

If you think this is an important event, I have a couple of suggestions for you:

The discussion continues (more)

Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis and a colleague of mine from the mobile telecomms industry, has organised the “Inaugural UK Humanity+ Evening Salon” on Wednesday April 13th, from 7pm to 10pm.  Dean describes it as follows:

Interested in an evening discussing the future of the human species & society? Aided by a drink or two?

This is the first “salon” event for the London branch of “Humanity Plus”, or H+ for short. It’s going to be an informal evening event involving a stimulating guest speaker, Q&A and lively discussion, all aided by a couple of drinks. It fits alongside UKH+’s larger Saturday afternoon lecture sessions, and occasional all-day major conferences…

It will be held in central London, in a venue TBC closer to the time. Please contact Dean Bubley (facebook.com/bubley), the convener & moderator, for more details.

For more details, see the corresponding Facebook page, and RSVP there so that Dean has an idea of the likely numbers.

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