dw2

5 December 2019

Nano comes to life

Filed under: books, healthcare, nanotechnology, Oxford — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 12:44 am

To make progress in biotechnology, the discipline of software engineering will be key. Right?

After all, life is the outcome of what is known as the genetic code. Our biological metabolism is the execution of that code in our cells, extra cellular structures, organs, various circulatory systems, and so on. Admittedly, that code lacks documentation, and has no comments to guide our understanding. Indeed, it has been described as worse than the worst of human-written “spaghetti” code. Such is the complexity. But in due course, we can expect the painstaking application of methods of reverse software engineering to induce biology to give up its deepest secrets. Right?

Not so fast. The message in the recent new book by Oxford University Professor Sonia Contera, Nano Comes to Life, is that if we want to make better progress with biology, we need to increase our understanding of physics. Yes, physics – including mechanics, surface tension, electrostatic forces, dynamic motion, and so on.

Consider our DNA. Parts of our chromosomes consist of genes that cause our cells to create various proteins. The mapping of elements of chromosomes to specific proteins is, indeed, governed by a genetic code. The elucidation of that code has been one of the great triumphs of scientific endeavour in the last hundred years. That same endeavour, however, threw up a puzzle: large parts of our DNA – perhaps the majority of it – seem to be “junk”. It consists of multiple copies of genes that no longer create proteins. Various ideas developed for why these DNA segments exist – viewing them as self-serving, or “selfish”: they exist because they are copied into new generations, and that’s all there is to say about the matter.

However, there’s more than one level to think about our DNA. Yes, it consists of genes. But it also exists as a complex 3D structure, which folds and coils. Depending on the precise folding and coiling – and on whether some molecular groups known as methyls or acetyls are added into a kind of skin for the DNA – different genes are exposed to chemical interactions. We say that different genes can be turned “on” or “off”. Without the long chains of intermediary so-called “junk” DNA between various genes, these 3D interactions wouldn’t take place. The folding and coiling would be different. In other words, junk DNA may be purposeful after all, not in terms of its biochemical interactions, but in terms of its mechanical interactions.

One suggestion in Nano Comes to Life is that mechanical pressure on a cell can result in pressure on the nucleus of the cell, which can, in turn, change the precise 3D shapes of various chromosomes, altering which genes are turned on or off. In other words, external stresses and strains from the environment could directly alter the genetic expressions inside cells.

The limits of reductionism

The suggestion just given is but one example of a thesis which Nano Comes to Life brilliantly highlights: we should avoid becoming carried away with the methodology of reductionism. Reductionism looks for the causes of complex phenomena in a fuller analysis of the constituent parts of the larger system. To understand human biology we need to understand cells. To understand cells we need to understand chemistry. To understand chemistry we need to understand physics. To understand physics we need to understand mathematics. All that is true… but it is not the whole story.

I confess that when I hear people criticising reductionism, I become apprehensive. I half expect the conversation to continue as follows: we cannot understand biology in terms of chemistry, so that proves that aliens did it. Or that psychic telepathy exists. Or that humans are designed by a supernatural deity. Or that magic dwells deep in the universe. Or some other (unjustified) leap of faith.

However, emphatically, that’s not the kind of criticism of reductionism that you’ll find in Nano Comes to Life. Instead, the message is a kind of restatement of the saying often attributed to Einstein:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

In other words, true progress in biology is likely to come, not from single-minded pursuits of individual lines of thinking, but, instead, from the interplay of multiple levels of understanding. That interplay can give rise to emergence.

Progress in multiple fields

Nano Comes to Life contains an impressive survey of fast progress that is being made in multiple labs around the world (in research universities and in commercial settings) precisely by adopting this multi-level thinking. The book brings readers up to date with remarkable recent research breakthroughs in techniques such as:

  • DNA nanotechnology (including DNA origami),
  • novel protein synthesis via nanotechnology,
  • nanomaterials and transmaterials – which combine features of biological materials with those from outside biology,
  • the creation of replacement organs, as well as “organs on a chip” (very useful for drug testing purposes),
  • targeted cancer drug delivery systems,
  • avoidance of the threat of growing antibiotic resistance,
  • enhancing the immune system,
  • and other aspects of what is known as nanomedicine.

The book also provides fascinating insight into the history and practice of cutting-edge laboratory science.

The context: a vision delayed

I’ve been aware of the field of nanotechnology since some time around the year 1990, when I came across the very first book written on that subject. That book was Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by Eric Drexler (first published in 1986). Reading that book that significantly raised my awareness of the scale of the profound positive transformation that technology could in due course enable in the human condition. Reflecting the importance of that book on the subsequent trajectory of my thinking, a picture of me holding my copy of it was my cover photo on Facebook for a number of years.

(Thanks to Yanna Buryak for snapping this picture of me at just the right moment.)

Eric Drexler’s 1986 book foresaw the eventual deliberate systematic manipulation of matter to create myriad nanoscale levers, shafts, conveyor belts, gears, pulleys, motors, and more. In ways broadly similar to the marvellous operation of ribosomes within biological cells, specially designed nanofactories will be able to utilise atomically precise engineering to construct numerous kinds of new material products, molecule by molecule.  But whereas the natural nanotechnology of ribosomes involves processes that evolved by blind evolution, synthetic nanotechnology will involve processes intelligently designed by human scientists. These scientists will take inspiration from biological templates, but can look forward to reaching results far transcending those of nature.

But despite the upbeat vision of Engines of Creation, progress with many of the ideas Drexler envisioned has proven disappointingly slow. Although the word “nanotechnology” has entered general parlance, it has mainly referred to developments that fall considerably short of the full vision of nanofactories. Thus we have nanomaterials, including nanowires and nanoshells. We have techniques of 3D printing that operate at the nanoscale. We have nanoparticles with increasing numbers of uses. However, the full potential of nanotechnology, envisioned all these years ago by Drexler, remains a future vision.

What Sonia Contera’s book Nano Comes To Life provides, however, is a comprehensive summary of progress within the last few years – and grounds for foreseeing continuing progress ahead.

Why the 2010s are the new 1830s

A clear sign of progress – at last – with nanomachines was the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016. This prize was jointly received by Fraser Stoddart from Scotland, Bernard Feringa from the Netherlands, and Jean-Pierre Sauvage from France, in recognition of their pioneering work in this field – such as finding ways to convert chemical energy into purposeful mechanical motion.

As the Nobel committee remarked, nanomachines in the 2010s are at a roughly similar situation to electrical motors of the 1830s: the basic principles of the manufacture and operation of these machines are just becoming clear. The scientists in the 1830s who demonstrated a variety spinning cranks and wheels, powered by electricity, could hardly have foreseen the subsequent wide incorporation of improved motors in consumer goods such as food processors, air conditioning fans, and washing machines. Likewise, as nanomachines gain more utility, they can be expected to revolutionise manufacturing, healthcare, and the treatment of waste.

It is these future revolutions which feature in Nano Comes to Life – particularly in the field of medicine and health. Importantly, these future revolutions are described in the book, not as any kind of inevitable development, but as something whose form and value will depend critically on choices taken by humans – individually and collectively. Indeed, in an epilogue to the book, the author points to a number of encouraging trends in how scientists, technologists, general citizens, and artists, are interacting to raise the probability that the full benefits of nanotechnology will be spread widely and fairly throughout society. It’s another example of the need to think about matters at more than one level at the same time.

The messages in that final section are ones with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Postscript: For a deeper dive

To hear Sonia Contera present her ideas in more depth, and to join a public Q&A discussion about the implications, check out the London Futurists event happening this Saturday (7th December).

13 November 2019

The astonishing backstory to fracking, Russia, and the dangers of capitalism out of control

Blowout is truly a standout. It brilliantly illuminates powerful forces behind ongoing changes in the oil and gas industry. As the book makes clear, we underestimate these forces at our peril. Accordingly, Blowout deserves a wide readership.

Rachel Maddow, the author of Blowout, doubles as the narrator of the book’s audio version. She also hosts a nightly public affairs show on MSNBC. She reads her own words with great panache. It’s as if the listener could see the knowing winks. Indeed, whilst listening to Blowout, I was prompted to laugh on loud on occasion – before feeling pangs of guilt for having taken pleasure at various all-too-human episodes of duplicity, hubris, and downfall. This isn’t really a laughing matter, though the humour helps our sanity. The future may depend on how well we take to heart the lessons covered in Blowout.

Despite the sharp critical commentary, the book also offers a lot of sympathy. Although the oil and gas industry is portrayed – as in the subtitle of the book – as “the most destructive industry on earth” – and as a strong cause of “corrupted democracy” and “rogue states” – the narrative also shows key actors of this industry in, for a while, a positive light. These individuals see themselves as heroic defenders of important ideals, including energy independence and entrepreneurial verve. Blowout shows that there’s considerable merit in this positive self-assessment. However, very importantly, it’s by no means the whole story.

Blowout interweaves a number of absorbing, captivating tales about larger-than-life individuals, decades-long technological innovation, some of the world’s most successful companies, and clashes of realpolitik. The structure is similar to a pattern often found in novels. At first it’s not clear how the different narrative strands will relate to each other. The connections become clear in stages – vividly clear.

Together, these accounts provide the backstory for various items that frequently appear in the news:

  • The transformation of the oil and gas industry by the technology of fracking (fracturing)
  • Oil executives being seemingly unconcerned about interacting with repulsive autocratic politicians
  • Russian political leaders taking steps to destabilise democracy in the US and in the EU
  • The long relationship between Vladimir Putin and former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
  • The activities of people whose names have featured in the Mueller investigation – including Paul Manafort and Dmytro Firtash
  • The floods of aggressive denial against the findings of scientists that activities of the oil and gas industry risk humongous environmental damage.

Blowout deserves a five-star rating for several different reasons. The discussion of the history of fracking, by itself, should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the general principles of technological disruption. The development of fracking conforms to the common pattern of a disruption lingering through a long, slow, disappointing phase, before accelerating to have a bigger impact than even the cheerleaders of the technology previously expected. It also produces a strong example of how an industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate. The industry will have too strong a motivation to downplay the “unexpected side effects” of the new technology. It’s chilling how oil and gas industry experts sought to silence any suggestion that fracking could be the cause of increased earthquakes. It’s also chilling how people who should have know better rushed to adopt various daft pseudo-scientific explanations for this increase.

The book’s account of oil-induced corruption in Equatorial Guinea is also highly relevant (not to mention gut-wrenching). The bigger picture, as Blowout ably explains, is addressed by the concept of “the paradox of plenty”. Of even greater interest is the application of this same theory to developments within Russia.

Alongside tales of epic human foolishness (including the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the bizarre experience of Shell’s experimental drilling in the Artic), the book offers some genuine inspiration. One example is the growing democratic push-back in the state of Oklahoma, against the previous dominance in that state of the oil and gas industry. Another example is the way in which by no means every country with a “plenty” of oil falls victim to the “paradox” of poorer overall social wellbeing.

In the end, Blowout emphasises, criticising the behaviour of the oil and gas industry makes as little sense as criticising a lion for having the temerity to hunt and eat prey. The solution cannot be merely to appeal to the good conscience of the executives in that industry. Instead, it’s up to governments to set the frameworks within which that industry operates.

In turn, it makes strong internal sense for executives in that industry to seek to undermine any such regulatory framework. We should not be surprised at the inventiveness of that industry and its supporters in finding fault with regulations, in obscuring the extent to which that industry benefits from long-standing subsidies and kickbacks, and in undermining effective international democratic collaboration (such as in the EU). Instead, we need clear-minded political leadership who can outflank the industry, so that we gain its remarkable benefits but avoid its equally remarkable downsides. And what will help political leaders to gain a clearer mind is if the analysis in Blowout becomes better known. Much better known.

PS Some of the same analysis is also covered in this recent video in the series about the Technoprogressive Roadmap:

 

25 October 2019

Making real sense of quantum mechanics: “Something deeply hidden”

The new book by Sean Carroll, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, is probably the single best argument for the Everett understanding of quantum mechanics.

That’s the approach named after physicist Hugh Everett III and which is often also called (although slightly misleadingly) the “Many Worlds Interpretation”.

In his book, Carroll makes clear the powerful attractions of the Everett understanding, and persuasively counters the objections that are commonly raised against it. He highlights how this approach is the natural, straightforward response to the extraordinary success of the quantum formalism. Despite its apparent profligacy of multiple worlds (multiple diverging branches of reality), it’s actually a lean and austere interpretation of quantum mechanics. Unique among interpretations of quantum mechanics, it adds in nothing beyond the wave equation itself.

Back in the 1980s I spent four years mulling the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. Over time, against my initial inclinations (and hopes), I came to have an increasing respect for the Everett understanding – an outcome I wrote about here. Alongside my grudging respect for that interpretation, I retained the view that it still faced many hard questions. However, Carroll’s book has convinced me that these questions aren’t particularly daunting. In other words, the book has strengthened my conviction that these “Many Worlds” do come into being whenever quantum transactions are macroscopically magnified.

In terms of the history of the topics covered, and the pros and cons of the different interpretations reviewed, I see Carroll as being overwhelmingly correct. I particularly liked his demolition of the idea that there’s such a thing as a coherent “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics. The only area where I wanted to see the argument extended was that more could have been said about how all the non-Everett interpretations of quantum mechanics have to accept one or other kind of radical non-locality (despite the attempts of various writers to “have their cake and eat it”).

The final third of the book may be the most important. It reviews the possibility for progress in an area of physics that has long experienced troubles: quantum gravity. Carroll argues that the best hopes for us obtaining a correct quantum theory of gravity (that works at all energy scales) is to take quantum mechanics itself more seriously. This part of the book is more speculative than the earlier parts, but it has raised my interest in delving more into these topics.

This final part of the book also underlines the difficulties faced by the non-Everett interpretations of quantum mechanics in dealing, not with particles, but with the relativistic fields which modern physics views as being more fundamental than particles. This part also reviews how space and time should emerge from the theory of quantum gravity, rather than being presupposed as the canvas upon which the theory would operate. Some of the potential implications for black holes (and maybe even the Big Bang) are mind-stretching.

It’s a shocking possibility that each of us exist alongside numerous different versions of ourselves, in the overall multiverse – versions that have increasingly divergent experiences. I see this possibility as one of the most remarkable insights to have arisen from humanity’s millennia-long exploration into science. It’s an insight that takes time to sink in. It’s a good question how much this insight should change our day-to-day behaviour. Carroll has an answer to that too: not as much as we might first think. Personally I find it a humbling realisation.

PS For another book that addresses some of the same topics – inside an even larger set of profound ideas – I recommend Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark.

4 October 2019

A Silicon Valley centred view of the prehistory of smartphones

Filed under: films, Psion, smartphones, Smartphones and beyond, Symbian — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 7:11 am

The first thing to say about the film General Magic (official site, IMDb) is that you should watch it.

The film is available on iTunes, and on Amazon Prime, and from lots of other places too.

It tracks the rise and fall of the company with the same name as the film – General Magic – and the impact of the people involved in the subsequent rise of the smartphone industry.

Here’s the trailer:

General Magic was conceived inside Apple in 1989, and, as reported at the time by the New York Times, was spun out as a separate entity in 1990:

Three well-known technologists from Apple Computer Inc., including perhaps its most distinguished programmer, Bill Atkinson, are forming a new company.

Mr. Atkinson and Marc Porat, another Apple researcher, are leaving Apple to form General Magic Inc. They will be joined by Andy Hertzfeld, who designed much of the operating system of the Macintosh computer in the early 1980’s but who has not been with Apple for six years.

The company, which will be based in Mountain View, Calif., will make products known as ”personal intelligent communicators.” While the company would not elaborate, industry analysts believe this refers to handheld devices that can store appointments and other information and transmit and receive information, either over telephone lines or over the airwaves…

Mr. Atkinson, 39 years old, has been with Apple for 12 years. He is best known for developing Hypercard, a program included with every Macintosh that allows users to organize information on computerized notecards…

Dr. Porat, 42, who will be president of General Magic, came to Apple in 1988 and was manager of business development in the advanced technology group.

Much of the vision of the company came from Marc Porat, the company’s first CEO. The film quotes from a visionary email Marc Porat had written in 1990 to John Sculley, at the time Apple’s CEO, about the kinds of devices their platform would enable:

A tiny computer, a phone, a very personal object… It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used. It will offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, the enchantment of a crystal. Once you use it you won’t be able to live without it.

The film also shows a large book of design ideas, dating (it said) back to the same formative era. Here are a couple of sketches from the book:

(the name given to the concept device in this sketch is “remotaphonputer”), and

General Magic operated in stealth mode until 1993. By that time, many of Apple’s key employees had transferred to work there, all inspired by the vision of designing a hardware and software platform for handheld “personal intelligent communicators”. Also by that time, the company had assembled a formidable collection of investors, including AT&T, Sony, Motorola, Philips, and Panasonic. These backers were joined in due course by British Telecom, Cable & Wireless, France Telecom, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, NTT DoCoMo, Nortel, Sanyo, and Toshiba. All these companies provided a senior executive to what was known as the “Founding Partner’s Council”, and backed General Magic with a financial stake of up to $6M each.

One powerful feature of the film is the interweaving of lots of archival documentary footage, shot during the company’s formative period by Sarah Kerruish. That shows, for example, a young Megan Smith saying that, one day, the technology would fit onto a device as small as a “Dick Tracy wristwatch”. Smith later served under Barack Obama as the USA’s Chief Technology Officer. As it happens, another young employee at General Magic, Kevin Lynch, went on to lead the Apple Watch project. And that’s only the start of the list of stellar accomplishments which lay ahead for one-time General Magic employees. As the film points out, around 98% of the present day smartphone market can be traced to efforts of two people who sat close to each other in the General Magic workspace: Andy Rubin, the designer of Android, and Tony Fadell, who is credited as “father of the iPod” and “co-inventor of the iPhone”. Rubin is mainly missing from the movie, but Fadell appears regularly, speaking with great passion.

With the aid of Goldman Sachs, General Magic IPO’ed in February 1995, in a huge publicity wave. The company’s stock price promptly doubled.

However, the company was already facing many issues. I touched on these in a short section in my own 2014 book Smartphones and Beyond, in the chapter entitled “Die like IBM, or die like Apple”. That chapter referred to various ideas contemplated by Psion in the mid 1990s as its software team laboured to create what would later be known as Symbian OS – software initially targeted for a device code-named “Protea” (this would reach the market in 1997 as the Psion Series 5):

Psion’s confidence about the prospects for its forthcoming 32-bit software system (the future Symbian OS), that was so high when serious coding had started on that system in late 1994, had grown considerably more tentative by the first half of 1996. One reason was the repeated delays in the development project, as mentioned in the previous chapter. But another reason was the changing competitive landscape.

Mounting competition

As the Protea project zigzagged forwards, sideways, and sometimes backwards, with uncertain and seemingly unknowable end date, Psion’s senior management wondered from time to time whether a different software system, obtained from outside the company, might prove a better bet for future mobile products.

For example, there was a period of around a week when senior management were enthralled by the “Magic Cap” system from a Californian company with the audacious name “General Magic”. General Magic had been spun out of Apple in 1990…

Partners and investors for General Magic included Sony, Motorola, AT&T, Philips, Matsushita, and British Telecom. A powerful buzz about the company’s future meant that its stock price doubled on the first day of its IPO in February 1995. It was therefore understandable that Psion senior managers would consider joining the General Magic party, and licence Magic Cap for use in their PDAs. After all, one of them whispered, think of the cost savings from not needing to maintain such a large in-house team of Psion’s own software developers. How much simpler to utilise ready-made software, created by the same team that had achieved such marvels in their earlier careers elsewhere in Silicon Valley! And how cute the Magic Cap software seemed, with its real-world metaphors and winsome bouncing rabbit.

That particular fancy soon evaporated. The Magic Cap software might appear cute, but closer examination revealed shallowness (weak functionality) in practice. The devices brought to market – by Sony and Motorola – were pale shadows of what the General Magic marketing machine had previously led people to expect. In contrast, Psion could see the strength in depth baked into the developing 32-bit Epoc software system. Psion’s development team escaped this particular axe.

(See here for a longer excerpt from that chapter.)

Total sales of the two devices running General Magic’s software were a paltry 3,000 units. The devices fell a long way short of the vision, and had few redeeming features. The company started a brutal downward slide. Investors were left high and dry. The post-IPO stock price of $26 per share had fallen to $1.38 by 1999.

The film highlights a major learning: the way to implement a grand vision is via a series of incremental steps. Don’t try to fit every desired innovation into a single release of a product. Do it in stages, with good quality throughout. That’s a lesson which Tony Fadell took with him from General Magic to Apple in later life, where he oversaw regular increments to the functionality of the iPod, which in time laid the foundation for a similar set of regular increments in the functionality of the iPhone.

What the film emphasises less is the difficulty posed to the company by its wide set of powerful investors and their divergent interests. The governance problems of General Magic were high in the minds of the executives from Ericsson and Nokia who visited Psion’s offices in central London in April 1998 to discuss the potential formation of the Symbian joint venture. With the approval of a team from Nokia that included Mikko Terho and Juha Putkiranta, Ericsson’s Anders Wästerlid included the following points in a set of guiding principles:

Avoid the structure of General Magic

Need to be able to act fast

Need to learn how to deal effectively with conflicts within the group of owners

Yes, Ericsson and Nokia wanted other companies to become involved with the joint venture, in due course. However, they offered this practical observation:

The more people who are in the boat, the tougher it is to start. But it’s easy for more people to jump in once the boat is moving.

(That meeting, as well as many other steps in the formation of Symbian, are covered in a later chapter of my book, “Death Star or Nova”.)

To its credit, the film highlights one more way in which the vision of General Magic failed to anticipate market development: lack of appreciation of the forthcoming importance of the worldwide web. The services accessed on General Magic devices would be provided by the network operator, such as AT&T. It was an intern who, apparently, first drew this omission to the attention of the General Magic leadership.

Where the film does less well is in the implication running nearly all the way through, that the work of General Magic laid a uniquely important basis for what smartphones subsequently became. One commentator states, “Without General Magic, there could never have been Android”.

In this regard, the film provides an overly Silicon Valley centred view of the prehistory of today’s smartphones.

Here’s just some of what’s missing from that view, and from what General Magic was trying to accomplish:

  • The emergence (as just mentioned) of the web
  • Push technology, pioneered by BlackBerry RIM
  • The devices in Japan running on NTT DoCoMo’s network, with their rich ecosystem of iMode apps and services
  • The devices running Brew services on Qualcomm phones
  • Simple PC connectivity, as pioneered by Palm
  • Access to enterprise services, led by Microsoft’s handheld computers
  • Nokia’s first communicator, launched in 1996, running software from GeoWorks
  • The first device marketed as a smartphone, the GS 88 launched by Ericsson in 1997, also running GeoWorks software.

Last, but not least, I am bound to mention the very considerable thinking that took place at Psion, from the early 1980s onwards. When I started work at Psion as a software engineer in June 1988, I discovered that a huge amount of design had already taken place for what would eventually become the Psion Series 3 communicator. That design was an iteration on what Psion had learned in a number of earlier projects, including two generations of handheld organiser products. On the launch of the Organiser in 1984, Psion had declared the device to be “The world’s first practical pocket computer”. This phrase headlined a magazine promotion which can be found, along with lots of other useful archive material, on Eddie Slupski’s ‘Bioeddie’ website. The magazine article went on: “The Psion Organiser will change the way you work.” It was a prescient claim.

(For more about these early design ideas at Psion, see, you guessed it, another chapter from my book, “Before the beginning”. For the causes of Psion’s eventual departure from the consumer handheld space, see later chapters of the same book.)

It’s often said that history gets to be written by the victors. The world’s most successful smartphones, by far, are from two Silicon Valley companies, Apple and Google. Therefore Silicon Valley insiders have the right to emphasise the flow of personnel and ideas from General Magic to these current platforms. Indeed, it’s a fascinating story.

However, my own view is that one dimensional accounts of history – however absorbing – are likely to mislead. The best products and services are able to integrate insights and contributions from multiple diverse backgrounds.

1 October 2019

“Lifespan” – a book to accelerate the emerging paradigm change in healthcare

Harvard Medical School professor David Sinclair has written a remarkable book that will do for an emerging new paradigm in healthcare what a similarly remarkable book by Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom has been doing for an emerging new paradigm in artificial intelligence.

In both cases, the books act to significantly increase the tempo of the adoption of the new paradigm.

Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence – subtitled Paths, Dangers, Strategies – caught the attention of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Barack Obama, and many more, who have collectively amplified its message. That message is the need to dramatically increase the priority of research into the safety of systems that contain AGI (artificial general intelligence). AGI will be a significant step up in capability from today’s “narrow” AI (which includes deep learning as well as “good old fashioned” expert systems), and therefore requires a significant step up in capability of safety engineering. In the wake of a wider appreciation of the scale of the threat (and, yes, the opportunity) ahead, funding has been provided for important initiatives such as the Future of Life Institute, OpenAI, and Partnership on AI. Thank goodness!

Sinclair’s book, Lifespan – subtitled Why We Age, and Why We Don’t Have To – is poised to be read, understood, and amplified by a similar group of key influencers of public thinking. In this case, the message is that a transformation is at hand in how we think about illness and health. Rather than a “disease first” approach, what is now possible – and much more desirable – is an “aging first” approach that views aging as the treatable root cause of numerous diseases. In the wake of a wider appreciation of the scale of the opportunity ahead (and, yes, the threat to society if healthcare continues along its current outdated disease-first trajectory), funding is likely to be provided to accelerate research into the aging-first paradigm. Thank goodness!

Bostom’s book drew upon the ideas of earlier writers, including Eliezer Yudkowsky and Ray Kurzweil. It also embodied decades of Bostrom’s own thinking and research into the field.

Sinclair’s book likewise builds upon ideas of earlier writers, including Aubrey de Grey and (again) Ray Kurzweil. Again, it also embodies decades of Sinclair’s own thinking and research into the field.

Both books are occasionally heavy going for the general reader – especially for a general reader who is in a hurry. But both take care to explain their thinking in a step-by-step process. Both contain many human elements in their narrative. Neither books contain the last word on their subject matter – and, indeed, parts will likely prove to be incorrect in the fullness of time. But both perform giant steps forwards for the paradigms they support.

The above remarks about the book Lifespan are part of what I’ll be talking about later today, in Brussels, at an open lunch event to mark the start of this year’s Longevity Month.

Longevity Month is an opportunity to celebrate recent progress, and to anticipate faster progress ahead, for the paradigm shift mentioned above:

  • Rather than studying each chronic disease separately, science should prioritise study of aging as the common underlying cause (and aggravator) of numerous chronic diseases
  • Rather than treating aging as an unalterable “fact of nature” (which, by the way, it isn’t), we should regard aging as an engineering problem which is awaiting an engineering solution.

In my remarks at this event, I’ll also be sharing my overall understanding of how paradigm shifts take place (and the opposition they face):

I’ll run through a simple explanation of the ideas behind the “aging-first” paradigm – a paradigm of regular medical interventions to repair or remove the damage caused at cellular and inter-cellular levels as a by-product of normal human metabolism:

Finally, I’ll be summarising the growing momentum of progress in a number of areas, and suggesting how that momentum has the potential to address the key remaining questions in the field:

In addition to me, four other speakers are scheduled to take part in today’s event:

It should be a great occasion!

24 June 2019

Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World

Filed under: AGI, books, irrationality, risks — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 11:45 pm

What the world needs, urgently, is more rationality. It needs a greater number of people to be aware of the mistakes that are, too often, made due to flaws and biases in our thinking processes. It needs a community that can highlight the most important principles of rationality – a community that can help more and more people to learn, step-by-step, better methods of applied rationality. And, critically, the world needs a greater appreciation of a set of existential risks that threaten grave consequences for the future of humanity – risks that include misconfigured artificial superintelligence.

These statements express views held by a community known sometimes as “Less Wrong” (the name of the website on which many of the key ideas were developed), and sometimes, more simply, as “the rationalists”. That last term is frequently used in a new book by science writer Tom Chivers – a book that provides an accessible summary of the Less Wrong community. As well as being accessible, the summary is friendly, fair-minded, and (occasionally) critical.

The subtitle of Chivers’ book is straightforward enough: “Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World”. The race is between, on the one hand, the rapid development of technology with additional capabilities, and on the other hand, the development of suitable safety frameworks to ensure that this technology allows humanity to flourish rather than destroying us.

The title of the book takes a bit more explaining: “The AI Does Not Hate You”.

This phrase is a reference to a statement by one of the leading thinkers of the community in question, Eliezer Yudkowsky:

The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms which it can use for something else.

In other words, the existential risk posed by artificial superintelligence isn’t that it will somehow acquire the human characteristic of hatred, but that it will end up following a trajectory which is misaligned with the best interests of humanity – a trajectory that sees humans as a kind of irrelevance.

To be clear, I share this worry. I’ve given my reasons many times on this personal blog, and I wrote up my own analysis at some length in chapter 9, “Towards abundant intelligence”, in my most recent book, “Sustainable superabundance”. My ideas have been shaped and improved by many things I’ve learned over the years from members of the Less Wrong community. Indeed, my presentations about the future of AI generally include several quotations from Yudkowsky.

However, these ideas often cause a kind of… embarrassment. Various writers on AI have poured scorn on them. Artificial superintelligence won’t arrive any time soon, they assert. Or if it does, it will be easy to keep under human control. Or if it transcends human control, there’s no reason to be alarmed, because its intelligence will automatically ensure that it behaves impeccably towards humans. And so on.

These critics often have a second string to their analysis. Not only do they argue for being relaxed about the idea of existential risks from superintelligence. They also argue that people who do worry about these risks – people like Yudkowsky, or Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom, or Stephen Hawking, or Elon Musk – are somehow personally defective. (“They’re egotistical”, runs one complaint. “There’s no need to pay any attention to these people”, the critics continue, “since they’re just philosophers, or mathematicians, or physicists, or business people, etc, rather than being a real AI expert”.)

At an extreme, this set of criticisms expresses itself in the idea that the Less Wrong community is a “cult“. A related objection is that a focus on humanity’s potential extinction is a distraction from much more pressing real-world issues of the present-day and near-term future – issues such as AI algorithms being biased, or AI algorithms stirring up dangerous social divisions, or increasing economic inequality, or disrupting employment, or making weapons more dangerous.

It’s in this context that the book by Chivers arrives. It tackles head-on the controversies around the Less Wrong community – controversies over its ideas, methods, aims, and the lifestyles and personalities of many of its leading figures. It does this carefully and (for the most part) engagingly.

As the book proceeds, Chivers gives voice to the various conflicting ideas he finds in himself regarding the core ideas of the Less Wrong community. My own judgement is that his assessments are fair. He makes it clear that, despite its “weird” angles, the community deserves more attention – much more attention – for its core ideas, and for the methods of rationality that it advocates.

It’s a cerebral book, but with considerable wit. And there are some touching stories in it (especially – spoiler alert – towards the end).

The book provides the very useful service of providing short introductions to many topics on which the Less Wrong community has written voluminously. On many occasions over the years, I’ve clicked into Less Wrong material, found it to be interesting, but also… long. Oh-so-long. And I got distracted long before I reached the punchline. In contrast, the book by Chivers is divided up into digestible short chunks, with a strong sense of momentum throughout.

As for the content of the book, probably about 50% was material that I already knew well, and which gave me no surprise. About 30% was material with which I was less familiar, and which filled in gaps in my previous understanding. That leaves perhaps 20% of the content which was pretty new to me.

I can’t say that the book has made me change my mind about any topic. However, it has made me want to find out more about the courses offered by CFAR (the Center For Applied Rationality), which features during various episodes Chivers recounts. And I’m already thinking of ways in which I’ll update my various slidesets, on account of the ideas covered in the book.

In summary, I would recommend this book to anyone who has heard about Less Wrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Bostrom, or others in the extended rationalist community, and who is unsure what to think about the ideas they champion. This book will give you plenty of help in deciding how seriously you should take these ideas. You’ll find good reasons to counter the voices of those critics who seek (for whatever reasons) to belittle the Less Wrong community. And if you end up more worried than before about the existential risks posed by artificial superintelligence, that’s no bad thing!

PS1: For a 10 minute audio interview in which Tom Chivers talks about his book, visit this Monocle page.

PS2: If you want to see what the Less Wrong community members think about this book, visit this thread on the Less Wrong site.

14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

I find myself in a great deal of agreement with Fully Automated Luxury Communism (“FALC”), the provocative but engaging book by Novara Media Co-Founder and Senior Editor Aaron Bastani.

It’s a book that’s going to change the conversation about the future.

It starts well, with six short vignettes, “Six characters in search of a future”. Then it moves on, with the quality consistently high, to sections entitled “Chaos under heaven”, “New travellers”, and “Paradise found”. Paradise! Yes, that’s the future which is within our grasp. It’s a future in which, as Bastani says, people will “lead fuller, expanded lives, not diminished ones”:

The comment about “diminished lives” is a criticism of at least some parts of the contemporary green movement:

To the green movement of the twentieth century this is heretical. Yet it is they who, for too long, unwisely echoed the claim that ‘small is beautiful’ and that the only way to save our planet was to retreat from modernity itself. FALC rallies against that command, distinguishing consumption under fossil capitalism – with its commuting, ubiquitous advertising, bullshit jobs and built-in obsolescence – from pursuing the good life under conditions of extreme supply. Under FALC we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.

The book is full of compelling turns of phrase that made me think to myself, “I wish I had thought of saying that”. They are phrases that are likely to be heard increasingly often from now on.

The book also contains ideas and examples that I have myself used on many occasions in my own writing and presentation over the years. Indeed, the vision and analysis in FALC has a lot in common with the vision and analysis I have offered, most recently in Sustainable Superabundance, and, in more depth, in my earlier book Transcending Politics.

Four steps in the analysis

In essence, FALC sets out a four-step problem-response-problem-response sequence:

  1. A set of major challenges facing contemporary society – challenges which undermine any notion that social development has somehow already reached a desirable “end of history”
  2. A set of technological innovations, which Bastani calls the “Third Disruption”, with the potential not only to solve the severe challenges society is facing, but also to significantly improve human life
  3. A set of structural problems with the organisation of the economy, which threaten to frustrate and sabotage the positive potential of the Third Disruption
  4. A set of changes in attitude – and political programmes to express these changes – that will allow, after all, the entirety of society to fully benefit from the Third Disruption, and attain the “luxury” paradise the book describes.

In more detail:

First, Bastani highlights five challenges that, in combination, pose (as he puts it) “threats whose scale is civilisational”:

  • Growing resource scarcity – particularly for energy, minerals and fresh water
  • Accelerating climate change and other consequences of global warming
  • Societal aging, as life expectancy increases and birth rates concurrently fall, invalidating the assumptions behind pension schemes and, more generally, the social contract
  • A growing surplus of global poor who form an ever-larger ‘unnecessariat’ (people with no economic value to contribute)
  • A new machine age which will herald ever-greater technological unemployment as progressively more physical and cognitive labour is performed by machines, rather than humans.

Second, Bastani points to a series of technological transformations that comprise an emerging “Third Disruption” (following the earlier disruptions of the Agricultural and Industrial Revoutions). These transformations apply information technology to fields such as renewable energy, food production, resource management (including asteroid mining), healthcare, housing, and education. The result of these transformations could (“if we want it”, Bastani remarks) be a society characterised by the terms “post-scarcity” and “post-work”.

Third, this brings us to the deeper problem, namely the way society puts too much priority on the profit motive.

Transcending capitalism

The economic framework known as capitalism has generated huge amounts of innovation in products and services. These innovations have taken place because entrepreneurs have been motivated to create and distribute new items for exchange and profit. But in circumstances when profits would be small, there’s less motivation to create the goods and services. To the extent that goods and services are nowadays increasingly dependent on information, this poses a problem, since information involves no intrinsic costs when it is copied from one instance to another.

Increasingly, what’s special about a product isn’t the materials from which it is composed, but the set of processes (that is, information) used to manipulate those material to create the product. Increasingly, what’s special about a service isn’t the tacit skills of the people delivering that service, but the processes (that is, information) by which any reasonably skilled person can be trained to deliver that service. All this leads to pressures for the creation of “artificial scarcity” that prohibits the copying of certain types of information.

The fact that goods and services become increasingly easy to duplicate should be seen as a positive. It should mean lower costs all round. It should mean that more people can access good quality housing, good quality education, good quality food, and good quality clean energy. It’s something that society should welcome enthusiastically. However, since profits are harder to achieve in these circumstances, many business leaders (and the hangers-on who are dependent on these business leaders) wish to erect barriers and obstacles anew. Rather than embracing post-scarcity, they wish to extent the prevalence of scarcity.

This is just one example of the “market failures” which can arise from unfettered capitalism. In my own book Sustainable Superabundance, five of the twelve chapters end with a section entitled “Beyond the profit motive”. It’s not that I view the profit motive as inherently bad. Far from it. Instead, it’s that there are many problems in letting the profit motive dominate other motivations. That’s why we need to look beyond the profit motive.

In much the same way, Bastani recognises capitalism as an essential precursor to the fully automated luxury communism he foresees. Here, as in much of his thinking, he draws inspiration from the writing of Karl Marx. Bastani notes that,

In contrast to his portrayal by critics, Marx was often lyrical about capitalism. His belief was that despite its capacity for exploitation, its compulsion to innovate – along with the creation of a world market – forged the conditions for social transformation.

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

The bourgeoisie … has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

By the way, don’t be put off by the word “communism” in the book’s title. There’s no advocacy here of a repeat of what previous self-declared communist regimes have done. Communism was not possible until the present time, since it depends upon technology having advanced to a sufficiently advanced state. Bastani explains it as follows:

While it is true that a number of political projects have labelled themselves communist over the last century, the aspiration was neither accurate nor – as we will go on to see – technologically possible. ‘Communism’ is used here for the benefit of precision; the intention being to denote a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another. Given the possibilities arising from the Third Disruption, with the emergence of extreme supply in information, labour, energy and resources, it should be viewed not only as an idea adequate to our time but impossible before now.

And to emphasise the point:

FALC is not the communism of the early twentieth century, nor will it be delivered by storming the Winter Palace.

The technologies needed to deliver a post-scarcity, post-work society – centred around renewable energy, automation and information – were absent in the Russian Empire, or indeed anywhere else until the late 1960s…

Creating communism before the Third Disruption is like creating a flying machine before the Second. You could conceive of it – and indeed no less a genius than Leonardo Da Vinci did precisely that – but you could not create it. This was not a failure of will or of intellect, but simply an inevitability of history.

Marx expected a transformation from capitalism to communism within his own lifetime. He would likely have been very surprised at the ability of capitalism to reinvent itself in the face of the many challenges and difficulties it has faced in subsequent decades. Marx’s lack of accurate prediction about the forthcoming history of capitalism is one factor people use to justify their disregard for Marxism. The question, however, is whether his analysis was merely premature rather than completely wrong. Bastani argues for the former point of view. The internal tensions of a profit-led society have caused a series of large financial and economic crashes, but have not, so far, led to an effective transition away from profit-seeking to abundance-seeking. However, Bastani argues, the stakes are nowadays so high, that continued pursuit of profits-at-all-costs cannot continue.

This brings us to the fourth phase of the argument – the really critical one. If there are problems with capitalism, what is to be done? Rather than storming any modern-day Winter Palace, where should a fervour for change best be applied?

Solutions

Bastani’s answer starts by emphasising that the technologies of the Third Disruption, by themselves, provide no guarantee of a move to a society with ample abundance. Referring to the laws of technology of Melvin Kranzberg, Bastani observes that

How technology is created and used, and to whose advantage, depends on the political, ethical and social contexts from which it emerges.

In other words, ideas and structures play a key role. To increase the chances of optimal benefits from the technologies of the Third Disruption, ideas prevalent in society will need to change.

The first change in ideas is a different attitude towards one of the dominant ideologies of our time, sometimes called neoliberalism. Bastani refers at various points to “market fundamentalism”. This is the idea that free pursuit of profits will inevitably result in the best outcome for society as a whole – that the free market is the best tool to organise the distribution of resources. In this viewpoint, regulations should be resisted, where they interfere with the ability of businesses to offer new products and services to the market. Workers’ rights should be resisted too, since they will interfere with the ability of businesses to lower wages and reassign tasks overseas. And so on.

Bastani has a list of examples of gross social failures arising from pursuit of neoliberalism. This includes the collapse in 2018 of Carillion, the construction and facilities management company. Bastani notes:

With up to 90 per cent of Carillion’s work subcontracted out, as many as 30,000 businesses faced the consequences of its ideologically driven mismanagement. Hedge funds in the City, meanwhile, made hundreds of millions from speculating on its demise.

Another example is the tragedy of the 2017 fire at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in West London, in which 72 people perished:

The neoliberal machine has human consequences that go beyond spreadsheets and economic data. Beyond, even, in-work poverty and a life defined by paying ever higher rents to wealthy landlords and fees to company shareholders. As bad as those are they pale beside its clearest historic expression in a generation: the derelict husk of Grenfell Tower…

A fire broke which would ravage the building in a manner not seen in Britain for decades. The primary explanation for its rapid, shocking spread across the building – finished in 1974 and intentionally designed to minimise the possibility of such an event – was the installation of flammable cladding several years earlier, combined with poor safety standards and no functioning sprinklers – all issues highlighted by the residents’ Grenfell Action Group before the fire.

The cladding itself, primarily composed of polyethylene, is as flammable as petroleum. Advances in material science means we should be building homes that are safer, and more efficient, than ever before. Instead a cut-price approach to housing the poor prevails, prioritising external aesthetics for wealthier residents. In the case of Grenfell that meant corners were cut and lives were lost. This is not a minor political point and shows the very real consequences of ‘self-regulation’.

Bastani is surely right that greater effort is needed to ensure everyone understands the various failure modes of free markets. A better appreciation is overdue of the positive role that well-designed regulations can play in ensuring greater overall human flourishing in the face of corporations that would prefer to put their priorities elsewhere. The siren calls of market fundamentalism need to be resisted.

I would add, however, that a different kind of fundamentalism needs to be resisted and overcome too. This is anti-market fundamentalism. As I wrote in the chapter “Markets and fundamentalists” in Transcending Politics,

Anti-market fundamentalists see the market system as having a preeminently bad effect on the human condition. The various flaws with free markets… are so severe, say these critics, that the most important reform to pursue is to dismantle the free market system. That reform should take a higher priority than any development of new technologies – AI, genetic engineering, stem cell therapies, neuro-enhancers, and so on. Indeed, if these new technologies are deployed whilst the current free market system remains in place, it will, say these critics, make it all the more likely that these technologies will be used to oppress rather than liberate.

I believe that both forms of fundamentalism (pro-market and anti-market) need to be resisted. I look forward to wiser management of the market system, rather than dismantling it. In my view, key to this wise management is the reform and protection of a number of other social institutions that sit alongside markets – a free press, free judiciary, independent regulators, and, yes, independent politicians.

I share the view of political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, articulated in their fine 2016 book American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity, that the most important social innovation of the 20th century was the development of the mixed economy. In a mixed economy, effective governments work alongside the remarkable capabilities of the market economy, steering it and complementing it. Here’s what Hacker and Pierson have to say about the mixed economy:

The mixed economy spread a previously unimaginable level of broad prosperity. It enabled steep increases in education, health, longevity, and economic security.

These writers explain the mixed economy by an elaboration of Adam Smith’s notion of “the invisible hand”:

The political economist Charles Lindblom once described markets as being like fingers: nimble and dexterous. Governments, with their capacity to exercise authority, are like thumbs: powerful but lacking subtlety and flexibility. The invisible hand is all fingers. The visible hand is all thumbs. Of course, one wouldn’t want to be all thumbs. But one wouldn’t want to be all fingers either. Thumbs provide countervailing power, constraint, and adjustments to get the best out of those nimble fingers.

The characterisation by Hacker and Pierson of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up in their book by lots of instructive episodes from American history, going all the way back to the revolutionary founders:

  • Governments provide social coordination of a type that fails to arise by other means of human interaction, such as free markets
  • Markets can accomplish a great deal, but they’re far from all-powerful. Governments ensure that suitable investment takes place of the sort that would not happen, if it was left to each individual to decide by themselves. Governments build up key infrastructure where there is no short-term economic case for individual companies to invest to create it
  • Governments defend the weak from the powerful. They defend those who lack the knowledge to realise that vendors may be on the point of selling them a lemon and then beating a hasty retreat. They take actions to ensure that social free-riders don’t prosper, and that monopolists aren’t able to take disproportionate advantage of their market dominance
  • Governments prevent all the value in a market from being extracted by forceful, well-connected minority interests, in ways that would leave the rest of society impoverished. They resist the power of “robber barons” who would impose numerous tolls and charges, stifling freer exchange of ideas, resources, and people. Therefore governments provide the context in which free markets can prosper (but which those free markets, by themselves, could not deliver).

It’s a deeply troubling development that the positive role of enlightened government is something that is poorly understood in much of contemporary public discussion. Instead, as a result of a hostile barrage of ideologically-driven misinformation, more and more people are calling for a reduction in the scope and power of government. That tendency – the tendency towards market fundamentalism – urgently needs to be resisted. But at the same time, we also need to resist the reverse tendency – the tendency towards anti-market fundamentalism – the tendency to belittle the latent capabilities of free markets.

To Bastani’s credit, he avoids advocating any total government control over planning of the economy. Instead, he offers praise for Eastern European Marxist writers such as Michał Kalecki, Włodzimierz Brus, and Kazimierz Łaski, who advocated important roles for market mechanisms in the approach to the communist society in which they all believed. Bastani comments,

[These notions were] expanded further in 1989 with Brus and Łaski claiming that under market socialism, publicly owned firms would have to be autonomous – much as they are in market capitalist systems – and that this would necessitate a socialised capital market… Rather than industrial national monoliths being lauded as the archetype of economic efficiency, the authors argued for a completely different kind of socialism declaring, ‘The role of the owner-state should be separated from the state as an authority in charge of administration … (enterprises) have to become separated not only from the state in its wider role but also from one another.’

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

  • The political task of establishing the overall direction and framework for the development of the economy
  • The operational task of creating goods and services within that framework – a task that may indeed utilise various market mechanisms.

Key in the establishment of the overall direction is to supersede society’s reliance on the GDP measure. Bastani is particularly good in his analysis of the growing shortcomings of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and on what must be included in its replacement, which he calls an “Abundance Index”:

Initially such an index would integrate CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, the falling cost of energy, resources and labour, the extent to which UBS [Universal Basic Services] had been delivered, leisure time (time not in paid employment), health and lifespan, and self-reported happiness. Such a composite measure, no doubt adapted to a variety of regional and cultural differences, would be how we assess the performance of post-capitalist economies in the passage to FALC. This would be a scorecard for social progress assessing how successful the Third Disruption is in serving the common good.

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

  • Revised priorities for central banks – so that they promote increases of the Abundance Index, rather than simply focusing on the control of inflation
  • Step by step increases in UBS (Universal Basic Services) – rather than the UBI (Universal Basic Income) that is often advocated these days
  • Re-localisation of economies through what Bastani calls “progressive procurement and municipal protectionism”.

But perhaps the biggest recommendation Bastani makes is for the response to society’s present political issues to be a “populist” one.

Populism and its dangers

I confess that the word “populist” made me anxious. I worry about groundswell movements motivated by emotion rather than clear-sightedness. I worry about subgroups of citizens who identify themselves as “the true people” (or “the real people”) and who take any democratic victory as a mandate for them to exclude any sympathy for minority viewpoints. (“You lost. Get over it!”) I worry about demagogues who rouse runaway emotional responses by scapegoating easy targets (such as immigrants, overseas governments, transnational organisations, “experts”, “the elite”, or culturally different subgroups).

In short, I was more worried by the word “populist” than the word “communist”.

As it happens – thankfully – that’s different from the meaning of “populist” that Bastani has in mind. He writes,

For the kind of change required, and for it to last in a world increasingly at odds with the received wisdom of the past, a populist politics is necessary. One that blends culture and government with ideas of personal and social renewal.

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

Others, who may agree about the scale and even urgent necessity of change, will contend that such a radical path should only be pursued by a narrow technocratic elite. Such an impulse is understandable if not excusable; or the suspicion that democracy unleashes ‘the mob’ is as old as the idea itself. What is more, a superficial changing of the guard exclusively at the level of policy-making is easier to envisage than building a mass political movement – and far simpler to execute as a strategy. Yet the truth is any social settlement imposed without mass consent, particularly given the turbulent energies unleashed by the Third Disruption, simply won’t endure.

In other words, voters as a whole must be able to understand how the changes ahead, if well managed, will benefit everyone, not just in a narrow economic sense, but in the sense of liberating people from previous constraints.

I have set out similar ideas, under the term “superdemocracy”, described as follows:

A renewal of democracy in which, rather than the loudest and richest voices prevailing, the best insights of the community are elevated and actioned…

The active involvement of the entire population, both in decision-making, and in the full benefits of [technology]…

Significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty – overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.

That last proviso is critical and deserves repeating: “…overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power”. Otherwise, any movements that build popular momentum risk devouring themselves in time, in the way that the French Revolution sent Maximilien Robespierre to the guillotine, and the Bolshevik Revolution led to the deaths of many of the original revolutionaries following absurd show trials.

You’ll find no such proviso in FALC. Bastani writes,

Pride, greed and envy will abide as long as we do.

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

The management of discord between humans – the essence of politics – [is] an inevitable feature of any society we share with one another.

Indeed, that is good advice. We all need to become better at managing discord. However, writing as a transhumanist, I believe we can, and must, do better. The faults within human nature are something which the Third Disruption (to use Bastani’s term) will increasingly allow us to address and transcend.

Consider the question: Is it possible to significantly improve politics, over the course of, say, the next dozen years, without first significantly improving human nature?

Philosophies of politics can in principle be split into four groups, depending on the answer they give to that question:

  1. We shouldn’t try to improve human nature; that’s the route to hell
  2. We can have a better politics without any change in human nature
  3. Improving human nature will turn out to be relatively straightforward; let’s get cracking
  4. Improving human nature will be difficult but is highly desirable; we need to carefully consider the potential scenarios, with an open mind, and then make our choices.

For the avoidance of doubt, the fourth of these positions is the one I advocate. In contrast, I believe Bastani would favour the second answer – or maybe the first.

Transcending populism

(The following paragraphs are extracted from the chapter “Humans and superhumans” of my book Transcending Politics.)

We humans are sometimes angelic, yet sometimes diabolic. On occasion, we find ways to work together on a transcendent purpose with wide benefits. But on other occasions, we treat each other abominably. Not only do we go to war with each other, but our wars are often accompanied by hideous so-called “war crimes”. Our religious crusades, whilst announced in high-minded language, have involved the subjugation or extermination of hundreds of thousands of members of opposing faiths. The twentieth century saw genocides on a scale never before experienced. For a different example of viciousness, the comments attached to YouTube videos frequently show intense hatred and vitriol.

As technology puts more power in our hands, will we become more angelic, or more diabolic? Probably both, at the same time.

A nimbleness of mind can coincide with a harshness of spirit. Just because someone has more information at their disposal, that’s no guarantee the information will be used to advance beneficial initiatives. Instead, that information can be mined and contoured to support whatever course of action someone has already selected in their heart.

Great intelligence can be coupled with great knowledge, for good but also for ill. The outcome in some sorry cases is greater vindictiveness, greater manipulation, and greater enmity. Enhanced cleverness can make us experts in techniques to suppress inconvenient ideas, to distort inopportune findings, and to tarnish independent thinkers. We can find more devious ways to mislead and deceive people – and, perversely, to mislead and deceive ourselves. In this way, we could create the mother of all echo chambers. It would take only a few additional steps for obsessive human superintelligence to produce unprecedented human malevolence.

Transhumanists want to ask: can’t we find a way to alter the expression of human nature, so that we become less likely to use our new technological capabilities for malevolence, and more likely to use them for benevolence? Can’t we accentuate the angelic, whilst diminishing the diabolic?

To some critics, that’s an extremely dangerous question. If we mess with human nature, they say, we’ll almost certainly make things worse rather than better.

Far preferable, in this analysis, is to accept our human characteristics as a given, and to evolve our social structures and cultural frameworks with these fixed characteristics in mind. In other words, our focus should be on the likes of legal charters, restorative justice, proactive education, multi-cultural awareness, and effective policing.

My view, however, is that these humanitarian initiatives towards changing culture need to be complemented with transhumanist initiatives to alter the inclinations inside the human soul. We need to address nature at the same time as we address nurture. To do otherwise is to unnecessarily limit our options – and to make it more likely that a bleak future awaits us.

The good news is that, for this transhumanist task, we can take advantage of a powerful suite of emerging new technologies. The bad news is that, like all new technologies, there are risks involved. As these technologies unfold, there will surely be unforeseen consequences, especially when different trends interact in unexpected ways.

Transhumanists have long been well aware of the risks in changing the expression of human nature. Witness the words of caution baked deep into the Transhumanist Declaration. But these risks are no reason for us to abandon the idea. Instead, they are a reason to exercise care and judgement in this project. Accepting the status quo, without seeking to change human nature, is itself a highly risky approach. Indeed, there are no risk-free options in today’s world. If we want to increase our chances of reaching a future of sustainable abundance for all, without humanity being diverted en route to a new dark age, we should leave no avenue unexplored.

Transhumanists are by no means the first set of thinkers to desire positive changes in human nature. Philosophers, religious teachers, and other leaders of society have long called for humans to overcome the pull of “attachment” (desire), self-centredness, indiscipline, “the seven deadly sins” (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth), and so on. Where transhumanism goes beyond these previous thinkers is in highlighting new methods that can now be used, or will shortly become available, to assist in the improvement of character.

Collectively these methods can be called “cognotech”. They will boost our all-round intelligence: emotional, rational, creative, social, spiritual, and more. Here are some examples:

  • New pharmacological compounds – sometimes called “smart drugs”
  • Gentle stimulation of the brain by a variety of electromagnetic methods – something that has been trialled by the US military
  • Alteration of human biology more fundamentally, by interventions at the genetic, epigenetic, or microbiome level
  • Vivid experiences within multi-sensory virtual reality worlds that bring home to people the likely consequences of their current personal trajectories (from both first-person and third-person points of view), and allow them to rehearse changes in attitude
  • The use of “intelligent assistance” software that monitors our actions and offers us advice in a timely manner, similar to the way that a good personal friend will occasionally volunteer wise counsel; intelligent assistants can also strengthen our positive characteristics by wise selection of background music, visual imagery, and “thought for the day” aphorisms to hold in mind.

Technological progress can also improve the effectiveness of various traditional methods for character improvement:

  • The reasons why meditation, yoga, and hypnosis can have beneficial results are now more fully understood than before, enabling major improvements in the efficacy of these practices
  • Education of all sorts can be enhanced by technology such as interactive online video courses that adapt their content to the emerging needs of each different user
  • Prompted by alerts generated by online intelligent assistants, real-world friends can connect at critical moments in someone’s life, in order to provide much-needed personal support
  • Information analytics can resolve some of the long-running debates about which diets – and which exercise regimes – are the ones that will best promote all-round health for given individuals.

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

One criticism of the initiative I’ve just outlined is that it puts matters the wrong way round.

I’ve been describing how individuals can, with the aid of technology as well as traditional methods, raise themselves above their latent character flaws, and can therefore make better contributions to the political process (either as voters or as actual politicians). In other words, we’ll get better politics as a result of getting better people.

However, an opposing narrative runs as follows. So long as our society is full of emotional landmines, it’s a lot to expect people to become more emotionally competent. So long as we live in a state of apparent siege, immersed in psychological conflict, it’s a big ask for people to give each other the benefit of the doubt, in order to develop new bonds of trust. Where people are experiencing growing inequality, a deepening sense of alienation, a constant barrage of adverts promoting consumerism, and an increasing foreboding about an array of risks to their wellbeing, it’s not reasonable to urge them to make the personal effort to become more compassionate, thoughtful, tolerant, and open-minded. They’re more likely to become angry, reactive, intolerant, and closed-minded. Who can blame them? Therefore – so runs this line of reasoning – it’s more important to improve the social environment than to urge the victims of that social environment to learn to turn the other cheek. Let’s stop obsessing about personal ethics and individual discipline, and instead put every priority on reducing the inequality, alienation, consumerist propaganda, and risk perception that people are experiencing. Instead of fixating upon possibilities for technology to rewire people’s biology and psychology, let’s hurry up and provide a better social safety net, a fairer set of work opportunities, and a deeper sense that “we’re all in this together”.

I answer this criticism by denying that it’s a one-way causation. We shouldn’t pick just a single route of influence – either that better individuals will result in a better society, or that a better society will enable the emergence of better individuals. On the contrary, there’s a two way flow of influence.

Yes, there’s such a thing as psychological brutalisation. In a bad environment, the veneer of civilisation can quickly peel away. Youngsters who would, in more peaceful circumstances, instinctively help elderly strangers to cross the road, can quickly degrade in times of strife into obnoxious, self-obsessed bigots. But that path doesn’t apply to everyone. Others in the same situation take the initiative to maintain a cheery, contemplative, constructive outlook. Environment influences the development of character, but doesn’t determine it.

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

  • With the aid of technological assistance, more people – whatever their circumstances – will be able to strengthen the latent “angelic” parts of their human nature, and to hold in check the latent “diabolic” aspects
  • As a result, at least some citizens will be able to take wiser policy decisions, enabling an improvement in the social and psychological environment
  • The improved environment will, in turn, make it easier for other positive personal transformations to occur – involving a larger number of people, and having a greater impact.

One additional point deserves to be stressed. The environment that influences our behaviour involves not just economic relationships and the landscape of interpersonal connections, but also the set of ideas that fill our minds. To the extent that these ideas give us hope, we can find extra strength to resist the siren pull of our diabolic nature. These ideas can help us focus our attention on positive, life-enhancing activities, rather than letting our minds shrink and our characters deteriorate.

This indicates another contribution of transhumanism to building a comprehensively better future. By painting a clear, compelling image of sustainable abundance, credibly achievable in just a few decades, transhumanism can spark revolutions inside the human heart.

That potential contribution brings us back to similar ideas in FALC. Bastani wishes a populist transformation of the public consciousness, which includes inspiring new ideas for how everyone can flourish in a post-scarcity post-work society.

I’m all in favour of inspiring new ideas. The big question, of course, is whether these new ideas skate over important omissions that will undermine the whole project.

Next steps

I applaud FALC for the way it advances serious discussion about a potentially better future – a potentially much better future – that could be attained in just a few decades.

But just as FALC indicates a reason why communism could not be achieved before the present time, I want to indicate a reason why the FALC project could likewise fail.

Communism was impossible, Bastani says, before the technologies of the Third Disruption provided the means for sufficient abundance of energy, food, education, material goods, and so on. In turn, my view is that communism will be impossible (or unlikely) without attention being paid to the proactive transformation of human nature.

We should not underestimate the potential of the technologies of the Third Disruption. They won’t just provide more energy, food, education, and material goods. They won’t just enable people to have healthier bodies throughout longer lifespans. They will also enable all of us to attain better levels of mental and emotional health – psychological and spiritual wellbeing. If we want it.

That’s why the Abundance 2035 goals on which I am presently working contain a wider set of ambitions than feature in FALC. For example, these goals include aspirations that, by 2035,

  • The fraction of people with mental health problems will be 1% or less
  • Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent.

To join a discussion about the Abundance 2035 goals (and about a set of interim targets to be achieved by 2025), check out this London Futurists event taking place at Newspeak House on Monday 1st July.

To hear FALC author Aaron Bastani in discussion of his ideas, check out this Virtual Futures event, also taking place at Newspeak House, on Tuesday 25th June.

Finally, for an all-round assessment of the relevance of transhumanism to building a (much) better future, check out TransVision 2019, happening at Birkbeck College on the weekend of 6-7 July, where 22 different speakers will be sharing their insights.

7 June 2019

Feedback on what goals the UK should have in mind for 2035

Filed under: Abundance, BHAG, politics, TPUK, vision — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

Some political parties are preoccupied with short-term matters.

It’s true that many short-term matters demand attention. But we need to take the time to consider, as well, some important longer-term risks and issues.

If we give these longer-term matters too little attention, we may wake up one morning and bitterly regret our previous state of distraction. By then, we may have missed the chance to avoid an enormous setback. It could also be too late to take advantage of what previously was a very positive opportunity.

For these reasons, the Transhumanist Party UK seeks to raise the focus of a number of transformations that could take place in the UK, between now and 2035.

Rather than having a manifesto for the next, say, five years, the Party is developing a vision for the year 2035 – a vision of much greater human flourishing.

It’s a vision in which there will be enough for everyone to have an excellent quality of life. No one should lack access to healthcare, shelter, nourishment, information, education, material goods, social engagement, free expression, or artistic endeavour.

The vision also includes a set of strategies by which the current situation (2019) could be transformed, step by step, into the desired future state (2035).

Key to these strategies is for society to take wise advantage of the remarkable capabilities of twenty-first century science and technology: robotics, biotech, neurotech, greentech, collabtech, artificial intelligence, and much more. These technologies can provide all of us with the means to live better than well – to be healthier and fitter than ever before; nourished emotionally and spiritually as well as physically; and living at peace with ourselves, the environment, and our neighbours both near and far.

Alongside science and technology, there’s a vital role that politics needs to play:

  • Action to encourage the kind of positive collaboration which might otherwise be undermined by free-riders
  • Action to adjust the set of subsidies, incentives, constraints, and legal frameworks under which we all operate
  • Action to protect the citizenry as a whole from the abuse of power by any groups with monopoly or near-monopoly status
  • Action to ensure that the full set of “externalities” (both beneficial and detrimental) of market transactions are properly considered, in a timely manner.

To make this vision more concrete, the Party wishes to identify a set of specific goals for the UK for the year 2035. At present, there are 16 goals under consideration. These goals are briefly introduced in a video:

As you can see, the video invites viewers to give their feedback, by means of an online survey. The survey collects opinions about the various goals: are they good as they stand? Too timid? Too ambitious? A bad idea? Uninteresting? Or something else?

The survey also invites ideas about other goals that should perhaps be added into the mix.

Since the survey has been launched, feedback has been accumulating. I’d like to share some of that feedback now, along with some of my own personal responses.

The most unconditionally popular goal so far

Of the 16 goals proposed, the one which has the highest number of responses “Good as it stands” is Goal 4, “Thanks to innovations in recycling, manufacturing, and waste management, the UK will be zero waste, and will have no adverse impact on the environment.”

(To see the rationale for each goal, along with ideas on measurement, the current baseline, and the strategy to achieve the goal, see the document on the Party website.)

That goal has, so far, been evaluated as “Good as it stands” by 84% of respondents.

One respondent gave this comment:

Legislation and Transparency are equally as important here, to gain the public’s trust that there is actual quantified benefits from this, or rather to de-abstractify recycling and make it more tangible and not just ‘another bin’

My response: succeeding with this goal will involve more than the actions of individuals putting materials into different recycling bins.

Research from the Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified nine “planetary boundaries” where human activity is at risk of pushing the environment into potentially very dangerous states of affairs.

For each of these planetary boundaries, the same themes emerge:

  • Methods are known that would replace present unsustainable practices with sustainable ones.
  • By following these methods, life would be plentiful for all, without detracting in any way from the potential for ongoing flourishing in the longer term.
  • However, the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices requires overcoming very significant inertia in existing systems.
  • In some cases, what’s also required is vigorous research and development, to turn ideas for new solutions into practical realities.
  • Unfortunately, in the absence of short-term business cases, this research and development fails to receive the investment it requires.

In each case, the solution also follows the same principles. Society as a whole needs to agree on prioritising research and development of various solutions. Society as a whole needs to agree on penalties and taxes that should be applied to increasingly discourage unsustainable practices. And society as a whole needs to provide a social safety net to assist those peoples whose livelihoods are adversely impacted by these changes.

Left to its own devices, the free market is unlikely to reach the same conclusions. Instead, because it fails to assign proper values to various externalities, the market will produce harmful results. Accordingly, these are cases when society as a whole needs to constrain and steer the operation of the free market. In other words, democratic politics needs to exert itself.

2nd equal most popular goals

The 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 7, “There will be no homelessness and no involuntary hunger”, with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. Disagreeing, 11% of respondents judged it as “Too ambitious”. Here’s an excerpt from the proposed strategy to achieve this goal:

The construction industry should be assessed, not just on its profits, but on its provision of affordable, good quality homes.

Consider the techniques used by the company Broad Sustainable Building, when it erected a 57-storey building in Changsha, capital city of Hunan province in China, in just 19 working days. That’s a rate of three storeys per day. Key to that speed was the use of prefabricated units. Other important innovations in construction techniques include 3D printing, robotic construction, inspection by aerial drones, and new materials with unprecedented strength and resilience.

Similar techniques can in principle be used, not just to generate new buildings where none presently exist, but also to refurbish existing buildings – regenerating them from undesirable hangovers from previous eras into highly desirable contemporary accommodation.

With sufficient political desire, these techniques offer the promise that prices for property over the next 16 years might follow the same remarkable downwards trajectory witnessed in many other product areas – such as TVs, LCD screens, personal computers and smartphones, kitchen appliances, home robotics kits, genetic testing services, and many types of clothing…

Finally, a proportion of cases of homelessness arise, not from shortage of available accommodation, but from individuals suffering psychological issues. This element of homelessness will be addressed by the measures reducing mental health problems to less than 1% of the population.

The other 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 3, “Thanks to improved green energy management, the UK will be carbon-neutral”, also with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. In this case, most of the dissenting opinions (16%) held that the goal is “Too timid” – namely, that carbon neutrality should be achieved before 2035.

For the record, 4th equal in this ranking, with 68% unconditional positive assessment, were:

  • Goal 6: “World-class education to postgraduate level will be freely available to everyone via online access”
  • Goal 16: “The UK will be part of an organisation that maintains a continuous human presence on Mars”

Least popular goals

At the other end of this particular spectrum, three goals are currently tied as having the least popular support in the formats stated: 32%.

This includes Goal 9, “The UK will be part of a global “open borders” community of at least 25% of the earth’s population”. One respondent gave this comment:

Seems absolutely unworkable, would require other countries to have same policy, would have to all be developed countries. Massively problematic and controversial with no link to ideology of transhumanism

And here’s another comment:

No need to work for a living, no homelessness and open borders. What can go wrong?

And yet another:

This can’t happen until wealth/resource distribution is made equitable – otherwise we’d all be crammed in Bladerunner style cities. Not a desirable outcome.

My reply is that the detailed proposal isn’t for unconditional free travel between any two countries, but for a system that includes many checks and balances. As for the relevance to transhumanism, the actual relevance is to the improvement of human flourishing. Freedom of movement opens up many new opportunities. Indeed, migration has been found to have considerable net positive effects on the UK, including productivity, public finances, cultural richness, and individuals’ well-being. Flows of money and ideas in the reverse direction also benefit the original countries of the immigrants.

Another equal bottom goal, by this ranking, is Goal 10, “Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent”. 26% of respondents rated this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “Uninteresting”.

My reply in this case is that politicians in at least some other countries have a higher reputation than in the UK. These countries include Denmark (the top of the list), Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.

What’s more, a number of practices – combining technological innovation with social innovation – seem capable of increasing the level of trust and respect for politicians:

  • Increased transparency, to avoid any suspicions of hidden motivations or vested interests
  • Automated real-time fact-checking, so that politicians know any distortions of the truth will be quickly pointed out
  • Encouragement of individual politicians with high ethical standards and integrity
  • Enforcement of penalties in cases when politicians knowingly pass on false information
  • Easier mechanisms for the electorate to be able to quickly “recall” a politician when they have lost the trust of voters
  • Improvements in mental health for everyone, including politicians, thereby diminishing tendencies for dysfunctional behaviour
  • Diminished power for political parties to constrain how individual politicians express themselves, allowing more politicians to speak according to their own conscience.

A role can also be explored for regular psychometric assessment of politicians.

The third goal in this grouping of the least popular is Goal 13, “Cryonic suspension will be available to all, on point of death, on the NHS”. 26% of respondents judged this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “A bad idea”. One respondent commented “Why not let people die when they are ready?” and other simply wrote “Mad shit”.

It’s true that there currently are many factors that discourage people from signing up for cryonics preservation. These include costs, problems arranging transport of the body overseas to a location where the storage of bodies is legal, the perceived low likelihood of a subsequent successful reanimation, lack of evidence of reanimation of larger biological organs, dislike of appearing to be a “crank”, apprehension over tension from family members (exacerbated if family members expect to inherit funds that are instead allocated to cryopreservation services), occasional mistrust over the motives of the cryonics organisations (which are sometimes alleged – with no good evidence – to be motivated by commercial considerations), and uncertainty over which provider should be preferred.

However, I foresee a big change in the public mindset when there’s a convincing demonstration of successful reanimation of larger biological organisms or organ. What’s more, as in numerous other fields of life, costs will decline and quality increase as the total number of experiences of a product or service increases. These are known as scale effects.

Goals receiving broad support

Now let’s consider a different ranking, when the votes for “Good as it stands” and “Too timid” are added together. This indicates strong overall support for the idea of the goal, with the proviso that many respondents would prefer a more aggressive timescale.

Actually this doesn’t change the results much. Compared to the goals already covered, there’s only one new entrant in the top 5, namely at position 3, with a combined positive rating of 84%. That’s for Goal 1, “The average healthspan in the UK will be at least 90 years”. 42% rated this “Good as it stands” and another 42% rated it as “Too timid”.

For the record, top equal by this ranking were Goal 3 (74% + 16%) and Goal 4 (84% + 5%).

The only other goal with a “Too timid” rating of greater than 30% was Goal 15, “Fusion will be generating at least 1% of the energy used in the UK” (32%).

The goals most actively disliked

Here’s yet another way of viewing the data: the goals which had the largest number of “A bad idea” responses.

By this measure, the goal most actively disliked (with 21% judging it “A bad idea”) was Goal 11, “Parliament will involve a close partnership with a ‘House of AI’ (or similar) revising chamber”. One respondent commented they were “wary – AI could be Stalinist in all but name in their goal setting and means”.

My reply: To be successful, the envisioned House of AI will need the following support:

  • All algorithms used in these AI systems need to be in the public domain, and to pass ongoing reviews about their transparency and reliability
  • Opaque algorithms, or other algorithms whose model of operation remain poorly understood, need to be retired, or evolved in ways addressing their shortcomings
  • The House of AI will not be dependent on any systems owned or operated by commercial entities; instead, it will be “AI of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Public funding will likely need to be allocated to develop these systems, rather than waiting for commercial companies to create them.

The second most actively disliked goal was Goal 5, “Automation will remove the need for anyone to earn money by working” (16%). Here are three comments from respondents:

Unlikely to receive support, most people like the idea of work. Plus there’s nothing the party can do to achieve this automation, depends on tech progress. UBI could be good.

What will be the purpose of humans?

It removes the need to work because their needs are being met by…. what? Universal Basic Income? Automation by itself cuts out the need for employers to pay humans to do the work but it doesn’t by itself ensure that people’s need will be met otherwise.

I’ve written on this topic many times in the past – including in Chapter 4, “Work and purpose “of my previous book, “Transcending Politics” (audio recording available here). There absolutely are political actions which can be taken, to accelerate the appropriate technological innovations, and to defuse the tensions that will arise if the fruits of technological progress end up dramatically increasing the inequality levels in society.

Note, by the way, that this goal does not focus on bringing in a UBI. There’s a lot more to it than that.

Clearly there’s work to be done to improve the communication of the underlying ideas in this case!

Goals that are generally unpopular

For a final way of ranking the data, let’s add together the votes for “A bad idea” and “Too ambitious”. This indicates ideas which are generally unpopular, in their current form of expression.

Top of this ranking, with 42%, is Goal 8, “The crime rate will have been reduced by at least 90%”. Indeed, the 42% all judged this goal as “Too ambitious”. One comment received was

Doesn’t seem within the power of any political party to achieve this, except a surveillance state

Here’s an excerpt of the strategy proposed to address this issue:

The initiatives to improve mental health, to eliminate homelessness, and to remove the need to work to earn an income, should all contribute to reducing the social and psychological pressures that lead to criminal acts.

However, even if only a small proportion of the population remain inclined to criminal acts, the overall crime rate could still remain too high. That’s because small groups of people will be able to take advantage of technology to carry out lots of crime in parallel – via systems such as “ransomware as a service” or “intelligent malware as a service”. The ability of technology to multiply human power means that just a few people with criminal intent could give rise to large amounts of crime.

That raises the priority for software systems to be highly secure and reliable. It also raises the priority of intelligent surveillance of the actions of people who might carry out crimes. This last measure is potentially controversial, since it allows part of the state to monitor citizens in a way that could be considered deeply intrusive. For this reason, access to this surveillance data will need to be restricted to trustworthy parts of the overall public apparatus – similar to the way that doctors are trusted with sensitive medical information. In turn, this highlights the importance of initiatives that increase the trustworthiness of key elements of our national infrastructure.

On a practical basis, initiatives to understand and reduce particular types of crime should be formed, starting with the types of crime (such as violent crime) that have the biggest negative impact on people’s lives.

Second in this ranking of general unpopularity, at 37%, is Goal 13, on cryonics, already mentioned above.

Third, at 32%, is Goal 11, on the House of AI, also already mentioned.

Suggestions for other goals

Respondents offered a range of suggestions for other goals that should be included. Here are a sample, along with brief replies from me:

Economic growth through these goals needs to be quantified somehow.

I’m unconvinced that economic growth needs to be prioritised. Instead, what’s important is agreement on a more appropriate measure to replace the use of GDP. That could be a good goal to consider.

Support anti-ageing research, gene editing research, mind uploading tech, AI alignment research, legalisation of most psychedelics

In general the goals have avoided targeting technology for technology’s sake. Instead, technology is introduced only because it supports the goals of improved overall human flourishing.

I think there should be a much greater focus in our education system on developing critical thinking skills, and a more interdisciplinary approach to subjects should be considered. Regurgitating information is much less important in a technologically advanced society where all information is a few clicks away and our schooling should reflect that.

Agreed: the statement of the education goal should probably be reworded to take these points into account.

A new public transport network; Given advances in technology regarding AI and electrical vehicles, a goal on par with others you’ve listed here would be to develop a transport system to replace cars with a decentralised public transportation network, whereby ownership of cars is replaced with the use of automated vehicles on a per journey basis, thus promoting better use of resources and driving down pollution, alongside hopefully reducing vehicular incidents.

That’s an interesting suggestion. I wonder how others think about it?

Routine near-earth asteroid mining to combat earthside resource depletion.

Asteroid mining is briefly mentioned in Goal 4, on recycling and zero waste.

Overthrow of capitalism and class relations.

Ah, I would prefer to transcend capitalism than to overthrow it. I see two mirror problems in discussing the merits of free markets: pro-market fundamentalism, and anti-market fundamentalism. I say a lot more on that topic in Chapter 9, Markets and fundamentalism”, of my book “Transcending Politics”.

The right to complete freedom over our own bodies should be recognised in law. We should be free to modify our bodies and minds through e.g. implants, drugs, software, bioware, as long as there is no significant risk of harm to others.

Yes, I see the value of including such a goal. We’ll need work to explore what’s meant by “risk of harm to others”.

UK will be part of the moon-shot Human WBE [whole brain emulation] project after being successful in supporting the previous Mouse WBE moon-shot project.

Yes, that’s an interesting suggestion too. Personally I see the WBE project as being longer-term, but hey, that may change!

Achieving many of the laudable goals rests on reshaping the current system of capitalism, but that itself is not a goal. It should be.

I’m open to suggestions for wording on this, to make it measurable.

Deaths due to RTA [road traffic accidents] cut to near zero

That’s another interesting suggestion. But it may not be on the same level as some of the existing ones. I’m open to feedback here!

Next steps

The Party is very grateful for the general feedback received so far, and looks forward to receiving more!

Discussion can also take place on the Party’s Discourse, https://discourse.transhumanistparty.org.uk/. Anyone is welcome to create an account on that site and become involved in the conversations there.

Some parts of the Discourse are reserved for paid-up members of the Party. It will be these members who take the final decisions as to which goals to prioritise.

24 April 2019

Supporting the SomosMiel revolution: time to act

The most important changes often arise from the bold actions of outsiders.

Those of us who desire positive humanitarian change need to be flexible enough to recognise which outsiders can be the best vehicles for the transformations we want to see in society.

And we need to be ready to get behind these opportunities when they arise.

Consider the key example of the transformation of healthcare, towards a new focus on the reversal of aging as providing the best route to better health for everyone.

For those of us who hold that vision of the forthcoming “abolition of aging”, what are the most practical steps to make that vision a reality?

Here’s my answer. It’s time to get behind “Somos Miel”.

Futuristicamente

Miel is a recently formed political party, which is taking part in Spain in the elections on the 26th of May to the European Parliament.

The word “miel” has two meanings. First, it’s the Spanish for “honey”. Somos Miel means “We are honey”. The association of honey with improved health exists in many cultures around the world.

Second, MIEL is the abbreviation for “Movimiento Independiente Euro Latino”. Translating from Spanish to English gives: “The Independent Latin Euro Movement”.

Heading the party’s list of candidates is José Cordeiro, described as follows in the introduction of his Wikipedia article:

José Luis Cordeiro is an engineer, economist, futurist, and transhumanist, who has worked on different areas including economic development, international relations, Latin America, the European Union, monetary policy, comparison of constitutions, energy trends, cryonics, and longevity. Books he has authored include The Great TabooConstitutions Around the World: A Comparative View from Latin America, and (in Spanish) El Desafio Latinoamericano (“The Latin American challenge”) and La Muerte de la Muerte (“The death of death”).

Cordeiro was born in Caracas, Venezuela from Spanish parents who emigrated from Madrid during the Franco dictatorship…

He’s evidently a man of many talents. He’s by no means a European political insider, infused by the old ways of doing politics. Instead, he brings with him a welcome spread of bold outsider perspectives.

When asked if he is from “the right” or “the left”, his answer, instead, is that he is from “the future”. Indeed, he often appends the greeting “futuristicamente” after his name, meaning “Yours futuristically”.

José is also known as a vocal advocate for “revolution” – a revolution in the potential of humanity. He has the courage to advocate ideas that are presently unpopular – ideas that he believes will soon grow in public understanding and public support.

Working together

I first met José at the TransVision 2006 conference in Helsinki, Finland. I remember how he spoke with great passion about the positive possibilities of technology in the next stage in the evolution of life on the earth. As the abstract from that long-ago talk proclaims:

Since the Big Bang, the universe has been in constant evolution and continuous transformation. First there were physical and chemical processes, then biological evolution, and finally now technological evolution. As we begin to ride the wave into human redesign, the destination is still largely unknown but the opportunities are almost limitless.

Biological evolution continues but it is just too slow to achieve the goals now possible thanks to technological evolution. Natural selection with trial and error can now be substituted by technical selection with engineering design. Humanity’s monopoly as the only advanced sentient life form on the planet will soon come to an end, supplemented by a number of posthuman incarnations. Moreover, how we re-engineer ourselves could fundamentally change the ways in which our society functions, and raise crucial questions about our identities and moral status as human beings.

Since that first meeting, the two of us have collaborated on many projects. For example, we both sit on the board of directors of Humanity+. José has spoken on a number of occasions at the London Futurists events I organise – such as TransVision 2019 which will take place in London on 6-7 July. And we are named as co-authors of the Spanish language book La Muerte de la Muerte which has attained wide press coverage throughout Spain.

Another thing we have in common is that we are both impatient for change. We’re not content to sit back and watch impersonal forces operate in society at their own pace and following their own inner direction. We believe in doing more than cheering from the sidelines. We both believe that the actions of individuals, wisely targeted, can have a huge impact on human affairs. We both believe that inspired political action, at the right time, can unleash vast public resources in support of important transformational projects.

We also recognise that delays have major consequences. Each single day that passes without the widespread availability of reliable treatments for biological aging, upwards of 100,000 people die as a result of aging-related diseases. That’s 100,000 unnecessary human deaths, every single day – preceded in almost every case by extended suffering and heartache.

Moving faster

On a positive note, there is considerable good news to report, regarding progress with regenerative medicine and rejuvenation biotechnology. The Undoing Aging conference in Berlin last month contained an encouraging set of reports from a host of world-leading scientists working in this field. Keep an eye on the Undoing Aging channel in YouTube for videos from that event. For a review of the human implications of these scientific breakthroughs, the forthcoming RAADfest in Las Vegas in October will be well worth attending – to hear about “the most powerful information and inspiration for staying alive”.

But the opportunity exists for progress to go much faster, if more elements of society decide to put their weight behind this project.

That’s where Miel comes in. José is a well-known figure in Spain, due to his many media appearances there. Current indications are that he stands a fighting chance of being elected to the European Parliament. If elected, he’ll be a tireless public advocate for the cause of rejuvenation healthcare. He’ll promote studies of the economic implications of different scenarios for the treatment of aging. He’ll also champion the creation of a European Agency for Anti-Aging, to boost research on how addressing aging can have multiple positive benefits for the treatments of individual aging-related diseases, such as dementia, cancer, and heart failure.

You’ll find a number of articles on the Miel blog about these aspects of Miel policy. For example, see “Within 25 years, dying will be optional” and “I’m not afraid of artificial intelligence, I’m afraid of human stupidity”.

You’ll also observe from its website how Miel is, wisely, giving voice in Spain to a community that perceives itself to be under-represented, namely the Latin Americans – people like José himself, who was born in Venezuela. Those of us who aren’t Latin Americans should appreciate the potential for positive change that this political grouping can bring.

Time for action

Despite the groundswell of popular support that Miel is receiving, it’s still in the balance whether the party will indeed receive enough votes throughout Spain to gain at least one member in the European Parliament.

I’m told that what will make a big difference is an old-fashioned word: money.

If it receives more donations, Miel will be able to place more advertisements in social media (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc). With its messages in front of more eyeballs, the chance increases of popular support at the ballot box.

In a better world, money would have a lower influence over politics. But whilst we should all aspire to move politics into that better state, we need to recognise the present reality. In that reality, donations have a big role to play.

To support Miel, visit the party’s donation page. Donations are accepted via credit cards, debit cards, or PayPal.

But please don’t delay. The elections are in just one month’s time. The time for action is now.

25 January 2019

To make a dent in the universe

Suppose you saw that science and technology had the potential to significantly extend healthy lifespans, but that very few scientists or technologists were working on these projects.

Suppose you disagreed with the government spending huge sums of public money on the military – on the capability to kill – and wished for more spending instead on the defeat of aging (and all the terrible diseases that accelerate with aging).

Suppose you felt that too many leadership decisions in society were influenced by out-dated ideologies – for example, by belief systems that regard as literal many of the apocalyptic statements in millennia-old religious scriptures – and that you preferred decisions to be determined by cool reason and scientific evidence.

What might you do?

If you were Zoltan Istvan, in October 2014, you might decide on an audacious project. You might decide to announce your candidacy for becoming the President of the United States, as a representative of a newly conceived “Transhumanist Party”. You might decide that the resulting media attention would raise the public understanding of the possibility and desirability of using science and technology in favour of transhumanist goals. You might decide the project had a fair chance of making a dent in the universe – of accelerating humanity’s trajectory onwards and upwards.

Here’s what Istvan wrote at the time, in the Huffington Post:

Should a Transhumanist Run for US President?

I’m in the very early stages of preparing a campaign to try to run in the 2016 election for US President. I’ll be doing it as a transhumanist for the Transhumanist Party, a political organization I recently founded that seeks to use science and technology to radically improve the human being and the society we live in.

In addition to upholding American values, prosperity, and security, the three primary goals of my political agenda are as follows:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

In line with his confident personality, Istvan went on, in the very next paragraph, to issue a challenge to the status quo:

These three goals are so simple and obvious, you’d think every politician in the 21st Century would be publicly and passionately pursuing them. But they’re not. They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).

In later months, Istvan decided to add two more ingredients to the project, to increase its potential impact:

  1. A declaration of a “Transhumanist Bill of Rights” in Washington DC
  2. The journey of a huge coffin-shaped “Immortality Bus” across the USA, to reach Washington DC.

What happened next has already been the subject of chapters in at least two books:

After the books, the film.

“Immortality or bust” has its first public showing tomorrow (Jan 26th), at the historic United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of the Raw Science Film Festival. The film has already received the “Raw Breakthrough Award” associated with this festival. In view of the public interest, I expect people will have the chance to see it on Netflix and/or HBO in due course.

I had the opportunity to view a preview copy earlier this week. The film stirred a range of different emotions in me, particularly towards the end. (Spoilers are omitted from this blogpost!)

The producer, Daniel Sollinger, cleverly weaves together several different strands throughout the film:

  • The sheer audacity of the venture
  • The reactions of Istvan’s family – his wife, his mother, and his father – and how these reactions evolve over time
  • The various journalists who are shown interviewing Istvan, sometimes expressing sympathy, and sometimes expressing bemusement
  • Istvan’s interactions with the other transhumanists, futurists and life-extensionists who he meets on his journey across the USA
  • The struggles of the bus itself – the problems experienced in its “plumbing” (oil), as a kind of counterpoint to Istvan’s wishes for radical improvements in human biology
  • Encounters with members of different political parties.

There were a couple of times I wanted to yell at the screen, when I thought that Istvan’s interlocutors were making indefensible claims:

  • When John McAfee (yes, that John McAfee) was giving his interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory
  • When John Horgan of the Scientific American effectively labelled transhumanism as a kind of cult that posed a problem for the good reputation of science.

Assessment

How will history ultimately assess the Immortality Bus and the Transhumanist Bill of Rights? In my view, it’s too early to say. In the meantime, the film Immortality or Bust provides a refreshing birds-eye view of both the struggles and the (minor) triumphs of the adventure so far.

Those who would criticise Istvan for his endeavours – and there are many – need to say what they would do instead.

Some choose to work on the technology itself. That’s something I respect and admire. My own assessment, however, is that the community of transhumanists needs to do more than contributing personal efforts to the science, technology, and/or entrepreneurial development of pro-health startups. We need to change the public conversation – something that Istvan has persistently tried to do.

In particular, we need to find the best ways to raise public awareness of the possibility and desirability of many more people getting involved in science and technology projects in support of significantly increased human flourishing. We need to answer the naysaying objections of bioconservatives and other opponents of transhumanism. We need to affirm that humanity can transcend the limitations which have held us back so many times in the past – the limitations in our bodies, our intellects, our emotions, and our social structures. We need to proclaim (as on the opening page of my own newly published book) that a new era is at hand: the era of sustainable superabundance – an era in which the positive potential of humanity can develop in truly profound ways.

We also need to transform the political environment in which we are all operating – a political environment that, if anything, has grown more dysfunctional over the last few years. That takes us back to the subject of the Transhumanist Party.

Going forwards

The Transhumanist Party which Istvan conjured into existence back in October 2014 has travelled a long way since then. Under the capable stewardship of Gennady Stolyarov (who took over as Chair of the party in November 2016), the U.S. Transhumanist Party has grown a leadership team of many talents, a website with rich content, and a platform with multiple policy proposals in various stages of readiness for adoption as legislation. It has revised, twice, the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, with version 3.0 being agreed by the party’s internal democratic processes on Dec 2-9 last year.

So far as I’m aware, there’s no v3.0 (or even v2.0) of the immortality bus. Yet.

What about overseas? Well, most of the Transhumanist Party organisations set up in other countries, from 2015 onwards, have long since faded from view. In the UK, however, a number of us feel it’s time to reboot that party. Watch out for more news! Or come to the London Futurists event on the 2nd of February, “Politics for profoundly enhanced human wellbeing”, where you will hear announcements from the UK party’s new joint leaders.

Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.