Futurism – the attempt at systematic, thoughtful speculation about the likely future – can be divided into smaller and larger questions.
Many of the ‘small’ questions are admittedly very interesting. Here are some examples.
Will China continue to grow in influence and strength? When will humans colonise Mars? Will increasing technological automation drive more and more people out of work? Will currencies converge (like a larger Euro-zone) or fragment? Is nuclear fusion ever going to prove viable? When will computers outplay humans at the game of Go, or drive cars better than humans, or create art better than humans? What will happen to the rate of population growth, and the rate of resource depletion? Will religion decline or resurge? Which of our present-day habits will our descendents look back on and regard as disdainfully as we now regard (say) slavery and cigarette smoking? Will money and campaign finance play an ever more domineering role in politics?
I call these questions ‘small’ only because there are even larger questions which frame any overall analysis of the future. In particular, I see three groups of questions as particularly pressing:
- The question of existential risk: Is it feasible that human civilisation could dramatically collapse within the next few decades – as a result of (e.g.) economic meltdown, rapidly changing climate, military or terrorist escapades, horrific weaponry or diseases, and/or rogue tech? Could we actually be living in the end times?
- The question of transhuman potential: Is it feasible that tech enhancements in the next few decades could radically transform and elevate human performance and experience – making us substantially smarter, stronger, healthier, longer-lived – potentially creating as big a step-up in capability as in the prehistoric jump from ape to human?
- The question of resource allocation: If transhuman potential lies within our grasp, should we indeed try to grasp it? Contrariwise, is any effort to accelerate transhumanism an indulgence, a distraction, or (even worse) a catalyst for disaster rather than progress? If there are credible risks of existential collapse, where should we actually be grasping? Which topics deserve the lion’s share of our collective attention, investment, analysis, and effort?
These questions are what I seek to see debated at the meetings of the London Futurists that I organise once every few weeks.
The questions defy any simple responses, but for what it’s worth, summary versions of my own answers are as follows:
- The threat of existential collapse is real. Human ingenuity and perseverance have led us through many major crises in the past, but there’s nothing guaranteed about our ability to survive even larger, more wicked, faster-breaking crises in the near future
- Technology is progressing at a remarkable rate, and the rate is likely to accelerate. Powerful combinations of nano-tech, AI, personal genetics, synthetic biology, robotics, and regenerative medicine, coupled with significantly improved understanding of diet and mental health (e.g. mindfulness), could indeed see the emergence of “Humanity+” amidst the struggles of the present-day. But there’s nothing inevitable about it
- Humanity+ (also known as “transhumanism”) is not only possible; it is highly desirable - so long as the increased ‘external’ strengths of new human individuals and societies are balanced by matching increases in ‘internal’ strengths such as kindness, open-mindedness, and sociability. As I’ve written before, we need increased wisdom as well as increased smartness, and an increased desire for self-mastery as well as an increased ability to transcend limits.
The reason why Humanity+ is desirable (as well as being possible) is because I see the enhanced humans of the near future, with their much greater collective wisdom – improved versions of you and me – as being the best bet to guard against the very real threats of existential risk.
Speakers at the London Futurists meetings address different parts of this overall rich mix of existential risk and transhuman opportunity. As befits healthy debate, the speakers take different viewpoints. Some of these speakers are what can be called “professional futurists”, often hired by businesses to help them consider scenarios for evolution of technology, business, and products. Other speakers are what can be called “activists”, who personally commit large amounts of their time and energy to bringing about one or more aspects of a desirable transhuman future.
The speaker on Sunday 2nd September, Aubrey de Grey, falls into the second category. As noted on the webpage for the event,
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge, UK and Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation, a California-based 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging.
Aubrey’s talk is entitled “Regenerative medicine for aging”. Note: this is not just about life extension – allowing longer lifespans. It is about health extension – allowing longer healthy lifespans, with resulting very positive benefits in reduced healthcare costs worldwide. As Aubrey writes,
In this talk I will explain why therapies that can add 30 healthy years to the remaining lifespan of typical 60-year-olds may well arrive within the next few decades.
If you’d like to find out more about Aubrey’s thinking and accomplishments, let me point you at two sources:
- The SENS Foundation website contains a wealth of detailed information
- A series of short video interviews by Aubrey were recently posted online by Adam A. Ford. These interviews were conducted in Melbourne, Australia, in May this year, in conjunction with the Humanity+ @Melbourne conference. Titles of these videos include “Addressing criticisms and concerns”, “Science and technology”, “Prediction”, “Are we programmed to die?”, “Aging and suffering”, “Replacement parts”, “SENS”, and so on.
Alternatively, if you’re in or nearby London, by all means drop into the meeting
(We’re planning to record it and make the video available afterwards, for people unable to join on the day.)