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19 September 2020

The touchiest subject

Filed under: cryonics, Events — Tags: , — David Wood @ 8:59 am

Imagine. You’re in a car journey with your family, in the midst of the countryside, far from the nearest town or village.

Out of the blue, your car is struck by a huge lorry. By a quirk of fate, no one is hurt in the accident, except for your beloved young daughter, who should be celebrating her third birthday in a month’s time. The collision has impacted your daughter badly.

Your travelling companion knows a thing or two about medical injuries. It looks very serious, he says. Your daughter will probably die. But if she can be transported, quickly, to a hospital, there’s a chance – admittedly a slim chance – she might be saved. Let’s call for an ambulance, he urges you.

But you oppose the idea. We should not play God, you say. “My daughter has already lived. If we had this accident just outside the hospital, we could have used its facilities. But we’re in the wrong place. Let’s peacefully cradle my daughter in our arms, and think happy thoughts. Perhaps we’ll meet her again, in a life after death.”

Your travelling companion is astounded. You have a chance to continue living with your daughter, for many years, if only you take the necessary steps to summon an ambulance. Act now!

However, your mind is set. It would be selfish to divert scarce healthcare resources, all the way from that distant city, just on the off-chance that operations on your daughter might repair her damaged body.

Indeed, you suspect the whole ambulance thing is a bit of a scam. These ambulance companies are just in it to make money, you tell yourself.

Ridiculous? Hold that thought.

Something pretty similar happened in Thailand a few years ago. The young girl in question wasn’t in a traffic accident, but had an aggressive brain cancer. The problem wasn’t that the incident happened in the wrong place (that is, far from a hospital). The problem was that the incident happened at the wrong time – that is, at a time before a cure for that cancer is available.

And instead of the option of summoning an actual ambulance – with the slim chance of the daughter surviving the long journey to the hospital and then recovering from arduous surgery – in this case, the option in question is cryonic preservation.

The story is told in a Netflix documentary that was released a few days ago, “Hope Frozen: A quest to live twice”. Here’s the trailer:

To my mind, the film is sensitively made. It provides an engaging, accessible introduction to cryonics.

But cryonics is a heck of a touchy subject.

At the time of writing, there’s only one review of Hope Frozen on IMDb.

The film is “very well” made, the reviewer accepts. However, the main proposition is, apparently, “just silly”:

Just silly in many different ways. Their daughter died. End of story. The parents and doctors are trying to play God. She wasn’t even 3 years old…

Over the years I’ve been listening to people’s opinions about cryonics, I’ve often heard similar dismissals. (And far worse.)

It’s hard to think about death. The prospect of oblivion – for ourselves, or for our loved ones, is terrifying. We humans do all sorts of things to buffer ourselves from having to contemplate death, including telling ourselves various stories that provide us with some kind of comfort.

Psychologists have a lot to say about this topic. Look up “Terror Management Theory” on the Internet. (E.g. here on Wikipedia.)

I dedicated an entire chapter, “Adverse Psychology”, of my 2016 book The Abolition of Aging, to that topic, so I won’t say much more about it here. What I will say, now, is that it can be terrifying for each of us to have to think this sequence of thoughts:

  • There are some actions I could take, that would give myself, and my loved ones, the chance to live again, following what would otherwise be a fatal illness
  • But I’m not taking these actions. That must make me… foolish, or irresponsible, or lacking love for my family members
  • By my inactions, I’m actually sending people I love into a state of oblivion that isn’t actually necessary
  • But I don’t like to think of myself as foolish, irresponsible, or lacking love.

Conclusion: cryonics must be bunk. Now let’s scrabble around to find evidence in support of that convenient conclusion.

To be clear, the chances for cryonics being successful are, indeed, tough to estimate. No-one can be sure:

  • What new technological options may become available in the future
  • How critical is the damage that occurs to the body (especially to the brain) during the cryonics preservation process
  • What may happen during the long decades (or centuries) in between cryopreservation and a potential future reanimation.

However, my view is that the chances of success are nonzero. Perhaps one in ten. Perhaps lower. Perhaps higher.

Happily, serious people are carrying out research to understand more fully a wide range of options regarding cryonics.

If you’re interested to listen to a variety of viewpoints about these questions, from people who have thought long and hard about the topic, you should consider attending Biostasis 2020. It’s entirely online.

A number of free tickets are still available. Click here for more information and to register.

The conference is being organised by the European Biostasis Foundation (EBF), a Basel-based non-profit foundation.

Speakers at the conference will include a host of fascinating people

They include Aaron Drake, who was featured in the film Hope Frozen – and whose comments, in that film, I found refreshing and highly informative.

Oh, I’ll be speaking too. My subject will be “Anticipating changing attitudes towards death and cryonics”.

I’m expecting to learn a great deal during these two days!

31 July 2020

The future of AI: 12 possible breakthroughs, and beyond

Filed under: AGI, books, disruption — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:30 pm

The AI of 5-10 years time could be very different from today’s AI. The most successful AI systems of that time will not simply be extensions of today’s deep neural networks. Instead, they are likely to include significant conceptual breakthroughs or other game-changing innovations.

That was the argument I made in a presentation on Thursday to the Global Data Sciences and Artificial Intelligence meetup. The chair of that meetup, Pramod Kunji, kindly recorded the presentation.

You can see my opening remarks in this video:

A copy of my slides can be accessed on Slideshare.

The ideas in this presentation raise many important questions, for which there are, as yet, only incomplete answers.

Indeed, the future of AI is a massive topic, touching nearly every area of human life. The greater the possibility that AI will experience cascading improvements in capability, the greater the urgency of exploring these scenarios in advance. In other words, the greater the need to set aside hype and predetermined ideas, in order to assess matters objectively and with an independent mind.

For that reason, I’ve joined with Rohit Talwar of Fast Future and Ben Goertzel of SingularityNET in a project to commission and edit chapters in a forthcoming book, “The Future of AI: Pathways to Artificial General Intelligence”.

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We’re asking AI researchers, practitioners, analysts, commentators, policy makers, investors, futurists, economists, and writers from around the world, to submit chapters of up to 1,000 words, by the deadline of 15th September, that address one or more of the following themes:

  • Capability, Applications, and Impacts
    • How might the capabilities of AI systems evolve in the years ahead?
    • What can we anticipate about the potential evolution from today’s AI to AGI and beyond, in which software systems will match or exceed human cognitive abilities in every domain of thought?
    • What possible scenarios for the emergence of significantly more powerful AI deserve the most attention?
    • What new economic concepts, business models, and intellectual property ownership frameworks might be enabled and required as a result of advances that help us transition from today’s AI to AGI?
  • Pathways to AGI
    • What incremental steps might help drive practical commercial and humanitarian AI applications in the direction of AGI?
    • What practical ideas and experiences can be derived from real-world applications of technologies like transfer learning, unsupervised and reinforcement learning, and lifelong learning?
    • What are the opportunities and potential for “narrow AGI” applications that bring increasing levels of AGI to bear within specific vertical markets and application areas?
  • Societal Readiness
    • How can we raise society-wide awareness and understanding of the underlying technologies and their capabilities?
    • How can governments, businesses, educators, civil society organizations, and individuals prepare for the range of possible impacts and implications?
    • What other actions might be taken by individuals, by local groups, by individual countries, by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), by businesses, and by international institutions, to help ensure positive outcomes with advanced AI? How might we reach agreement on what constitutes a positive societal outcome in the context of AI and AGI?
  • Governance
    • How might societal ethical frameworks need to evolve to cope with the new challenges and opportunities that AGI is likely to bring?
    • What preparations can be made, at the present time, for the introduction and updating of legal and political systems to govern the development and deployment of AGI?

For more details of this new book, the process by which chapters will be selected, and processing fees that may apply, click here.

I’m very much looking forward to the insights that will arise – and to the critical new questions that will no doubt arise along the way.

 

19 June 2020

Highlighting probabilities

Filed under: communications, education, predictability, risks — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 7:54 pm

Probabilities matter. If society fails to appreciate probabilities, and insists on seeing everything in certainties, a bleak future awaits us all (probably).

Consider five predictions, and common responses to these predictions.

Prediction A: If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the UK will experience a significant economic downturn.

Response A: We’ve heard that prediction before. Before the Brexit vote, it was predicted that a major economic downturn would happen straightaway if the result was “Leave”. That downturn failed to take place. So we can discard the more recent prediction. It’s just “Project Fear” again.

Prediction B (made in Feb 2020): We should anticipate a surge in infections and deaths from Covid-19, and take urgent action to prevent transmissions.

Response B: We’ve heard that prediction before. Bird flu was going to run havoc. SARS and MERS, likewise, were predicted to kill hundreds of thousands. These earlier predictions were wrong. So we can discard the more recent prediction. It’s just “Project Pandemic” again.

Prediction C: We should prepare for the advent of artificial superintelligence, the most disruptive development in all of human history.

Response C: We’ve heard that prediction before. AIs more intelligent than humans have often been predicted. No such AI has been developed. These earlier predictions were wrong. So there’s no need to prepare for ASI. It’s just “Project Hollywood Fantasy” again.

Prediction D: If we don’t take urgent action, the world faces a disaster from global warming.

Response D: We’ve heard that prediction before. Climate alarmists told us some time ago “you only have twelve years to save the planet”. Twelve years passed, and the planet is still here. So we can ignore what climate alarmists are telling us this time. It’s just “Project Raise Funding for Climate Science” again.

Prediction E (made in mid December 1903): One day, humans will fly through the skies in powered machines that are heavier than air.

Response E: We’ve heard that prediction before. All sorts of dreamers and incompetents have naively imagined that the force of gravity could be overcome. They have all come to ruin. All these projects are a huge waste of money. Experts have proved that heavier than air flying machines are impossible. We should resist this absurdity. It’s just “Langley’s Folly” all over again.

The vital importance of framing

Now, you might think that I write these words to challenge the scepticism of the people who made the various responses listed. It’s true that these responses do need to be challenged. In each case, the response involves an unwarranted projection from the past into the future.

But the main point on my mind is a bit different. What I want to highlight is the need to improve how we frame and present predictions.

In all the above cases – A, B, C, D, E – the response refers to previous predictions that sounded similar to the more recent ones.

Each of these earlier predictions should have been communicated as follows:

  • There’s a possible outcome we need to consider. For example, the possibility of an adverse economic downturn immediately after a “Leave” vote in the Brexit referendum.
  • That outcome is possible, though not inevitable. We can estimate a rough probability of it happening.
  • The probability of the outcome will change if various actions are taken. For example, swift action by the Bank of England, after a Leave vote, could postpone or alleviate an economic downturn. Eventually leaving the EU, especially without a deal in place, is likely to accelerate and intensify the downturn.

In other words, our discussions of the future need to embrace uncertainty, and need to emphasise how human action can alter that uncertainty.

What’s more, the mention of uncertainty must be forceful, rather than something that gets lost in small print.

So the message itself must be nuanced, but the fact that the message is nuanced must be underscored.

All this makes things more complicated. It disallows any raw simplicity in the messaging. Understandably, many activists and enthusiasts prefer simple messages.

However, if a message has raw simplicity, and is subsequently seen to be wrong, observers will be likely to draw the wrong conclusion.

That kind of wrong conclusion lies behind each of flawed responses A to E above.

Sadly, lots of people who are evidently highly intelligent fail to take proper account of probabilities in assessing predictions of the future. At the back of their minds, an argument like the following holds sway:

  • An outcome predicted by an apparent expert failed to materialise.
  • Therefore we should discard anything else that apparent expert says.

Quite likely the expert in question was aware of the uncertainties affecting their prediction. But they failed to emphasise these uncertainties strongly enough.

Transcending cognitive biases

As we know, we humans are prey to large numbers of cognitive biases. Even people with a good education, and who are masters of particular academic disciplines, regularly fall foul of these biases. They seem to be baked deep into our brains, and may even have conveyed some survival benefit, on average, in times long past. In the more complicated world we’re now living in, we need to help each other to recognise and resist the ill effects of these biases. Including the ill effects of the “probability neglect” bias which I’ve been writing about above.

Indeed, one of the most important lessons from the current chaotic situation arising from the Covid-19 pandemic is that society in general needs to raise its understanding of a number of principles related to mathematics:

  • The nature of exponential curves – and how linear thinking often comes to grief, in failing to appreciate exponentials
  • The nature of probabilities and uncertainties – and how binary thinking often comes to grief, in failing to appreciate probabilities.

This raising of understanding won’t be easy. But it’s a task we should all embrace.

Image sources: Thanasis Papazacharias and Michel Müller from Pixabay.

Footnote 1: The topic of “illiteracy about exponentials and probabilities” is one I’ll be mentioning in this Fast Future webinar taking place on Sunday evening.

Footnote 2: Some people who offer a rationally flawed response like the ones above are, sadly, well aware of the flawed nature of their response, but they offer it anyway. They do so since they believe the response may well influence public discussion, despite being flawed. They put a higher value on promoting their own cause, rather than on keeping the content of the debate as rational as possible. They don’t mind adding to the irrationality of public discussion. That’s a topic for a separate discussion, but it’s my view that we need to find both “carrots” and “sticks” to discourage people from deliberately promoting views they know to be irrational. And, yes, you guessed it, I’ll be touching on that topic too on Sunday evening.

18 June 2020

Transhumanist alternatives to contempt and fear

Contempt and fear. These are the public reactions that various prominent politicians increasingly attract these days.

  • We feel contempt towards these politicians because they behave, far too often, in contemptible ways.
  • We feel fear regarding these politicians on account of the treacherous paths they appear to be taking us down.

That’s why many fans of envisioning and building a better world – including many technologists and entrepreneurs – would prefer to ignore politics, or to minimise its influence.

These critics of politics wish, instead, to keep their focus on creating remarkable new technology or on building vibrant new business.

Politics is messy and ugly, say these critics. It’s raucous and uncouth. It’s unproductive. Some would even say that politics is unnecessary. They look forward to politics reducing in size and influence.

Their preferred alternative to contempt and fear is to try to put the topic our of their minds.

I disagree. Putting our heads in the sand about politics is a gamble fraught with danger. Looking the other way won’t prevent our necks from being snapped when the axe falls. As bad outcomes increase from contemptible, treacherous politics, they will afflict everyone, everywhere.

We need a better alternative. Rather than distancing ourselves from the political sphere, we need to engage, intelligently and constructively.

As I’ll review below, technology can help us in that task.

Constructive engagement

Happily, as confirmed by positive examples from around the world, there’s no intrinsic reason for politics to be messy or ugly, raucous or uncouth.

Nor should politics be seen as some kind of unnecessary activity. It’s a core part of human life.

Indeed, politics arises wherever people gather together. Whenever we collectively decide the constraints we put on each other’s freedom, we’re taking part in politics.

Of course, this idea of putting constraints on each other’s freedoms is deeply unpopular in some circles. Liberty means liberty, comes the retort.

My answer is: things are more complicated. That’s for two reasons.

To start with, there are multiple kinds of freedom, each of which are important.

For example, consider the “four essential human freedoms” highlighted by US President FD Roosevelt in a speech in January 1941:

We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in their own way – everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world.

As well as caring about freeing people from constraints on their thoughts, speech, and actions, we generally also care about freeing people from hunger, disease, crime, and violence. Steps to loosen some of these constraints often risk decreasing other types of liberty. As I said, things are complicated.

The second reason builds on the previous point and makes it clearer why any proclamation “liberty means liberty” is overly simple. It is that our actions impact on each other’s wellbeing, both directly and indirectly.

  • If we speed in our cars, confident in our own ability to drive faster than the accepted norms, we risk seriously reducing the personal liberties of others if we suffer a momentary lapse in concentration.
  • If we share a hateful and misleading message on social media, confident in our own intellectual robustness, we might push someone reading that message over a psychological ledge.
  • If we discard waste products into the environment, confident that little additional harm will come from such pollution, we risk an unexpected accumulation of toxins and other harms.
  • If we grab whatever we can in the marketplace, confident that our own vigour and craftiness deserve a large reward, we could deprive others of the goods, services, and opportunities they need to enjoy a good quality of life.
  • If we publicise details of bugs in software that is widely used, or ways to increase the deadliness of biological pathogens, confident that our own reputation will rise as a result inside the peer groups we wish to impress, we risk enabling others to devastate the infrastructures upon which so much of life depends – electronic infrastructure and/or biological infrastructure.
  • If we create and distribute software that can generate mind-bending fake videos, we risk precipitating a meltdown in the arena of public discussion.
  • If we create and distribute software that can operate arsenals of weapons autonomously, freed from the constraints of having to consult slow-thinking human overseers before initiating an attack, we might gain lots of financial rewards, but at the risk of all manner of catastrophe from any defects in the design or implementation of that system.

In all these examples, there’s a case to agree some collective constraints on personal freedoms.

The rationale for imposing and accepting specific constraints on our freedom is in order to secure a state of affairs where overall freedom flourishes more fully. That’s a state of affairs in which we will all benefit.

In summary, greater liberty arises as a consequence of wise social coordination, rather than existing primarily as a reaction against such coordination. Selecting and enforcing social constraints is the first key task of politics.

Recognising and managing complexes

But who is the “we” who decides these constraints? And who will ensure that constraints put in place at one time, reflecting the needs of that time, are amended promptly when circumstances change, rather than remaining in place, disproportionately benefiting only a subset of society?

That brings us to a second key task of politics: preventing harmful dominance of society by self-interested groups of individuals – groups sometimes known as “complexes”.

This concept of the complex featured in the farewell speech made by President Eisenhower in January 1961. Eisenhower issued a profound warning that “the military industrial complex” posed a growing threat to America’s liberty and democracy:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

As a distinguished former military general, Eisenhower spoke with evident authority on this topic:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defence establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

It’s one thing to be aware of the risks posed by a military industrial complex (and the associated trade in armaments). It’s another thing to successfully manage these risks. Similar risks apply as well, for other vested interest “complexes” that can likewise subvert societal wellbeing:

  • A carbon energy complex, which earns huge profits from the ongoing use of carbon-based fuels, and which is motivated to minimise appreciation of the risks to climate from continuing use of these fuels
  • A financial complex, which (likewise) earns huge profits, by means of complicated derivative products that are designed to evade regulatory scrutiny whilst benefiting in cases of financial meltdown from government handouts to banks that are perceived as “too big to fail”
  • An information technology complex, which collects vast amounts of data about citizens, and which enables unprecedented surveillance, manipulation, and control of people by corporations and/or governments
  • A medical industrial complex, which is more interested in selling patients expensive medical treatment over a long period of time than in low-cost solutions which would prevent illnesses in the first place (or cure them quickly)
  • A political complex, which seeks above all else to retain its hold on political power, often by means of undermining a free press, an independent judiciary, and any credible democratic opposition.

You can probably think of other examples.

In all these cases, the practical goals of the complex are only weakly aligned with the goals of society as a whole. If society is not vigilant, the complex will subvert the better intentions of citizens. The complex is so powerful that it cannot be controlled by mere words of advocacy.

Beyond advocacy, we need effective politics. This politics can be supported by a number of vital principles:

  • Transparency: The operations of the various complexes need to be widely publicised and analysed, bringing them out of the shadows into the light of public understanding
  • Disclosure: Conflicts of interest must be made clear, to avoid the public being misled by individuals with ulterior motives
  • Accountability: Instances where key information is found to have been suppressed or distorted need to be treated very seriously, with the guilty parties having their reputations adjusted and their privileges diminished
  • Assessment of externalities: Evaluation systems should avoid focusing too narrowly on short-term metrics (such as financial profit) but should take into full account both positive and negative externalities – including new opportunities and new risks arising
  • Build bridges rather than walls: Potential conflicts should be handled by diplomacy, negotiation, and seeking a higher common purpose, rather than by driving people into antagonistic rival camps that increasingly bear hatred towards one another
  • Leanness: Decisions should focus on questions that matter most, rather than dictating matters where individual differences can easily be tolerated
  • Democratic oversight: People in leadership positions in society should be subject to regular assessment of their performance by a democratic review, that involves a dynamic public debate aiming to reach a “convergent opinion” rather than an “average opinion”.

Critically, all the above principles can be assisted by smart adoption of technology that enhances collaboration. This includes wikis (or similar) that map out the landscape of decisions. This also includes automated logic-checkers, and dynamic modelling systems. And that’s just the start of how technology can help support a better politics.

Transhumanist approaches to politics

The view that technology can assist humans to carry out core parts of our lives better than before, is part of the worldview known as transhumanism.

Transhumanism asserts, further, than the assistance available from technology, wisely applied, extends far beyond superficial changes. What lies within our grasp is a set of radical improvements in the human condition.

As in the short video “An Introduction to Transhumanism” – which, with over a quarter of a million views, is probably the most widely watched video on the subject – transhumanism is sometimes expressed in terms of the so-called “three supers”:

  • Super longevity: significantly improved physical health, including much longer lifespans – transcending human tendencies towards physical decay and decrepitude
  • Super intelligence: significantly improved thinking capability – transcending human tendencies towards mental blind spots and collective stupidity
  • Super wellbeing: significantly improved states of consciousness – transcending human tendencies towards depression, alienation, vicious emotions, and needless suffering.

My own advocacy of transhumanism actually emphasises one variant within the overall set of transhumanist philosophies. This is the variant of transhumanism known as technoprogressive transhumanismThe technoprogressive variant of transhumanism in effect adds one more “super” to the three already mentioned:

  • Super democracy: significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty – transcending human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.

These radical improvements, by the way, can be brought about by a combination of changes at the level of individual humans, changes in our social structures, and changes in the prevailing sets of ideas (stories) that we tend to tell ourselves. Exactly what is the best combination of change initiatives, at these different levels, is something to be determined by a mix of thought and experiment.

Different transhumanists place their emphases upon different priorities for potential transformation.

If you’d like to listen in to that ongoing conversation, let me draw your attention to the London Futurists webinar taking place this Saturday – 20th of June – from 7pm UK time (BST).

In this webinar, four leading transhumanists will be discussing and contrasting their different views on the following questions (along with others that audience members raise in real time):

  • In a time of widespread anxiety about social unrest and perceived growing inequalities, what political approach is likely to ensure the greatest liberty?
  • In light of the greater insights provided by science into human psychology at both the individual and group levels, what are the threats to our wellbeing that most need to be guarded against, and which aspects of human character most need to be protected and uplifted?
  • What does the emerging philosophy of transhumanism, with its vision of conscious life evolving under thoughtful human control beyond the current human form, have to say about potential political interventions?

As you can see, the webinar is entitled “Politics for greater liberty: transhumanist perspectives”. The panellists are:

For more details, and to register to attend, click here.

Other views on the future of governance and the economy

If you’d like to hear a broader set of views on a related topic, then consider attending a Fast Future webinar taking place this Sunday – 21st June – from 6pm UK time (BST).

There will be four panellists in that webinar – one being me. We’ll each be be presenting a snapshot of ideas from the chapters we contributed to the recent Fast Future book, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future, which was published on June 1st.

After the initial presentations, we’ll be responding to each other’s views, and answering audience questions.

My own topic in this webinar will be “More Aware, More Agile, More Alive”.

The other panellists, and their topics, will be:

  • Geoff Mulgan – “Using the Crisis to Remake Government for the Future”
  • Bronwyn Williams – “The Great Separation”
  • Rohit Talwar – “Post-Pandemic Government and the Economic Recovery Agenda: A Futurist Perspective”

I’m looking forward to a lively discussion!

Click here for more details of this event.

Transcending Politics

As I said above (twice), things are complicated. The science and engineering behind the various technological solutions are complicated. And the considerations about regulations and incentives, to constrain and guide our collective use of that technology, are complicated too. We should beware any overly simple claims about easy answers to these issues.

My fullest treatment of these issues is in a 423 page book of mine, Transcending Politics, that I published in 2018.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been flicking through some of the pages of that book again. Although there are some parts where I would now wish to use a different form of expression, or some updated examples, I believe the material stands the test of time well.

If the content in this blogpost strikes you as interesting, why not take a closer look at that book? The book’s website contains opening extracts of each of the chapters, as well as an extended table of contents. I trust you’ll like it.

14 May 2020

The second coming of the Longevity Dividend

Please find below an extended copy of my remarks at today’s online Round Table of the Business Coalition for Healthier Longer Lives, jointed hosted by the UK’s APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) on Longevity and Longevity Leaders.

(The stated goal of today’s Round Table is “Development of values for the Business Coalition for Healthier Longer Lives”.)

I’m David Wood, and I’ve been researching future scenarios for over 30 years.

The concept I want to put on the table today is that of the Longevity Dividend.

It’s actually a kind of second coming of the Longevity Dividend, since the idea was first proposed some 14 years ago by a quartet of distinguished longevity researchers (PDF).

It’s a good concept, but didn’t take hold in its first coming, for reasons I’ll get to shortly.

The core idea is that it is economically sensible – that is, financially wise – for society to make investments in research,

  • not just into individual aspects of aging,
  • nor just into individual diseases of aging,
  • but rather into the common root causes of many of the diseases and other adverse characteristics of aging

– that is, research into items we would nowadays call the hallmarks of aging.

The argument is that such investments wouldn’t just be positive from a humanitarian point of view. They would also be very positive from a medium-term financial point of view.

We can sum up their likely benefits in the age-old saying, a stitch in time saves nine. Healthier long-lived people are better contributors to the economy, and better consumers of the economy, rather than being a nine-fold drain.

To move forwards with this concept of the Longevity Dividend, we have to acknowledge that the calculations of costs and benefits are inherently probabilistic.

There are no guarantees that any particular research investments will prove successful. But that’s no reason for society to avoid making these investments into the hallmarks of aging. VCs already know well how to adjust their portfolios on account of probabilistic calculations.

The reason the first coming of the Longevity Dividend didn’t get very far, in the public mind, was that people implicitly rated the probabilities of these therapies succeeding as being very low. Why speculate about potential economic benefits of biorejuvenation interventions if these interventions have little chance of working? However, with lots of more promising research having taken place in the last 14 years, it’s no longer possible to wave away this calculation of significant benefits. So it’s time to bring the Longevity Dividend into the centre stage of public discussion.

The Longevity Dividend has a partner concept: that of Super Agers. They’re people who reach the age of 95 with minimal experience of cancer, heart disease, dementia, or diabetes. Of course, these Super Agers do succumb to one or other disease in due course. Often an infection. But the total healthcare cost of these people, throughout their long lives, is usually less than the total healthcare cost of people who have shorter lives. Quite a lot less total healthcare cost.

So one way to realise the Longevity Dividend would be to put more research into understanding what’s different about Super Agers.

But why isn’t this happening (or not happening much)? We need to go deeper into this topic.

We need to reflect on the general poor regard that society places in practice into any measures that prevent diseases rather than curing them.

Previous discussions in this series of Round Tables have highlighted how our societal incentive structures are deeply flawed in this regard.

Without addressing this misalignment, there’s unlikely to be much progress with the Longevity Dividend.

So one of the big outcomes of our collective deliberations must be to demand sustained attention to the question of how to alter society’s overall priorities and incentives.

And there’s an important lesson from history here, which will be my final remarks for now. That lesson is that the free market, by itself, cannot fix problems of flawed societal incentives. That kind of thing needs political action. But the politicians can be aided in this by industry groups stepping forward with specific agreed proposals.

It’s similar to how factory owners actually helped pressurise politicians in this country, two centuries ago, into changing the law about children working in their factories.

These factory owners saw that economic incentives were pressurising them into employing children, against their own humanitarian instincts. Many of these factory owners, as individuals, felt unable to stop hiring children, for fear of being out-competed and going out of business. It needed a change in law to cause that practice to change. And networks of factory inspectors to ensure conformance to the law.

Working out a similar change of law in the early 2020s is surely a key practical activity for this business coalition, so that prevention moves to centre stage, and with it, the concepts of Longevity Dividend and Super Agers. Thank you.

Further reading

For an extended analysis of the economic arguments about the Longevity Dividend, see Chapter 9, “Money Matters”, of my book The Abolition of Aging.

For the reasons why people disregard the economic and other logical arguments in favour of society investing more in a potential forthcoming radical extension of healthy human longevity, see Chapter 10, “Adverse Psychology”, of the same book.

For the example of the coalition to change the laws on child employment, see the section “When competition needs to be curtailed” in Chapter 9, “Markets and fundamentalists” of my book Transcending Politics.

 

12 May 2020

Five scenarios to unwind the lockdown. Are there more?

Filed under: challenge, healthcare, politics, risks — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 1:55 pm

The lockdown has provided some much-needed breathing space. As a temporary measure, it has helped to prevent our health services from becoming overwhelmed. In many (though not yet in all) countries, the curves of death counts have been slowed, and then tilted downwards. Financial payments to numerous employees unable to work have been very welcome.

As such, the lockdown – adopted in part by individuals and families making their own prudent decisions, and in part due to government advice and edict – can be assessed, provisionally, as a short-term success, given the frightful circumstances in which it emerged.

But what next? The present set of restrictions seems unsustainable. Might a short-term success transition into a medium-term disaster?

The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequor, Rishi Sunak, recently gave the following warning, referring to payments made by the government to employees whose companies have stopped paying them:

We are potentially spending as much on the furlough scheme as we do on the NHS… Clearly that is not a sustainable situation

What’s more, people who have managed to avoid meeting friends and relatives for two or three months, may become overwhelmed by the increasing strain of separation, especially as mental distress accumulates, or existing family relations rupture.

But any simple unwinding of the lockdown seems fraught with danger. Second waves of infection could shoot up, once social distancing norms are relaxed. In country after country around the world, tentative steps to allow greater physical proximity have already led to spikes in the numbers of infections, followed by reversals of the relaxation. I recently shared on my social media this example from South Korea:

South Korea: bars and nightclubs to close down for 30 more days after health officials tracked 13 new Covid cases to a single person who attended 5 nightclubs and bars in the country’s capital city of Seoul

One response on Twitter was the single word “Unsustainable”. And on Facebook my post attracted comments criticising the approach taken in South Korea:

It is clear Korea is going to be looking over its shoulder for the indefinite future with virtually no immunity in the population.

I have considerable sympathy with the critics: We need a better solution than simply “crossing fingers” and nervously “looking over the shoulder”.

So what are the scenarios for unwinding the lockdown, in a way that avoids the disasters of huge new spikes of deaths and suffering, or unprecedented damage to the global economy?

To be clear, I’m not talking here about options for restructuring society after the virus has been defeated. These are important discussions, and I favour options for a Great Reconsideration. But these are discussions for another day. First, we need to review scenarios for actually defeating the virus.

Without reaching clarity about that overall plan, what we can expect ahead is, alas, worse confusion, worse recrimination, worse health statistics, worse economic statistics, and a worse fracturing of society.

Scenario 1: Accelerate a cure

One scenario is to keep most of society in a state of social distancing until such time as a vaccine has been developed and deployed.

That was the solution in, for example, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh Hollywood film “Contagion”. After a few setbacks, plucky scientists came to the rescue. And in the real world in 2020, after all, we have Deep Learning and advanced biotech to help us out. Right?

The main problem with this scenario is that it could take up to 18 months. Or even longer. Although teams around the world are racing towards potential solutions, we won’t know for some time whether their ideas will prove fruitful. Bear in mind that Covid-19 is a coronavirus, and the number of successful vaccines that have been developed for other coronaviruses is precisely zero. Technology likely will defeat the virus in due course, but no-one can be confident about the timescales.

A variant of this scenario is that other kinds of medical advance could save the day: antivirals, plasma transfers, antimalarials, and so on. Lifespan.io has a useful page tracking progress with a range of these potential therapeutics. Again, there are some hopeful signs, but, again, the outcomes remain uncertain.

So whilst there’s a strong case for society getting more fully behind a considerable number of these medical research projects, we’ll need in parallel to consider other scenarios for unwinding the lockdown. Read on.

Scenario 2: Exterminate the virus

A second scenario is that society will become better at tracking and controlling instances of the virus. Stage by stage, regions of the planet could be declared as having, not just low rates of infectious people, but as having zero rates of infectious people.

In that case, we will be freed from the risk of contracting Covid-19, not because we have been vaccinated, but because there are no longer any infectious people with whom we can come into contact.

It would be similar to how smallpox was gradually made extinct. That virus no longer exists in the wild. One difference, however, is that the fight against smallpox was aided, since 1796, by a vaccine. The question with Covid-19 is whether it could be eradicated without the help of a vaccine. Could it be eradicated by better methods of:

  • Tracking which people are infectious
  • Isolating people who are infectious
  • Preventing travel between zones with infections and those without infections?

This process would be helped once there are reliable tests to ascertain whether someone has actually had the virus. However, things would become more complicated if the virus can recur (as has sometimes been suggested).

Is this scenario credible? Perhaps. It’s worth further investigation. But it seems a long shot, bearing in mind it would need only a single exception to spark a new flare up of infections. Bear in mind that it was only a single infectious hotspot that kick-started this whole global pandemic in the first place.

Scenario 3: Embrace economic reversal

If Scenario 1 (accelerate a cure) and Scenario 2 (exterminate the virus) will each take a long time – 18 months or more – what’s so bad about continuing in a state of lockdown throughout that period? That’s the core idea of Scenario 3. That scenario has the name “Embrace economic reversal” because of the implication of many people being unable to return to work. But would that be such a bad thing?

This scenario envisions a faster adoption of some elements of what has previously been spoken about as a possible longer term change arising from the pandemic – the so-called Great Reconsideration mentioned above:

  • Less commuting
  • Less pollution
  • Less time spent in offices
  • Less time spent in working for a living
  • Appreciation of life freed from a culture of conspicuous consumption
  • Valuing human flourishing instead of GDP
  • Adoption of a Universal Basic Income, and/or alternatives

If these things are good, why delay their adoption?

In short, if the lockdown (or something like it) were to continue in place for 18 months or longer, would that really be such a bad outcome?

The first problem with this scenario is that the lockdown isn’t just getting in the way of parts of life that, on reflection, we might do without. It’s also getting in the way of many of the most precious aspects of life:

  • Meeting people in close physical proximity as well as virtually
  • Choosing to live with a different group of people.

A second problem is that, whilst the true value of many aspects of current economic activity can be queried, other parts of that economy play vital support roles for human flourishing. For as long as a lockdown continues, these parts of the economy will suffer, with consequent knock-on effects for human flourishing.

Finally, although people who are reasonably well off can cope (for a while, at least) with the conditions of the lockdown, many others are already nearing the ends of their resources. For such people, the inability to leave their accommodation poses higher levels of stress.

Accordingly, whilst it is a good idea to reconsider which aspects of an economy really matter, it would be harsh advice to simply tell everyone that they need to take economic decline “on the chin”. For too many people, such a punch would be a knock-out blow.

Scenario 4: Accept higher death statistics

A different idea of taking the crisis “on the chin” is to accept, as a matter of practicality, that more people than usual will die, if there’s a reversal of the conditions of lockdown and social distancing.

In this scenario, what we should accept, isn’t (as in Scenario 3) a reversal of economic statistics, but a reversal (in the short-term) of health statistics.

In this scenario, a rise in death statistics is bad, but it’s not the end of society. Periodically, death statistics do rise from time to time. So long as they can still be reasonably controlled, this might be the least worst option to consider. We shouldn’t become unduly focused on what are individual tragedies. Accordingly, let people return to whatever kinds of interaction they desire (but with some limitations – to be discussed below). The economy can restart. And people can once again enjoy the warmth of each others’ presence – at music venues, at sports grounds, in family gatherings, and on long-haul travel holidays.

Supporters of this scenario sometimes remark that most of the people who die from Covid-19 probably would have died of other causes in a reasonably short period of time, regardless. The victims of the virus tend to be elderly, or to have underlying health conditions. Covid-19 might deprive an 80 year old of an additional 12 months of life. From a utilitarian perspective, is that really such a disastrous outcome?

The first problem with this scenario is that we don’t know quite how bad the surge in death statistics might be. Estimates vary of the fatality rate among people who have been infected. We don’t yet know, reliably, what proportion of the population have been infected without even knowing that fact. It’s possible that the fatality rate will actually prove to be relatively low. However, it’s also possible that the rate might rise:

  • If the virus mutates (as it might well do) into a more virulent form
  • If the health services become overwhelmed with an influx of people needing treatment.

Second, as is evident from the example of the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, people who are far short of the age of 80, and who appear to be in general good health, can be brought to death’s door from the disease.

Third, even when people with the virus survive the infection, there may be long-term consequences for their health. They may not die straightaway, but the quality of their lives in future years could be significantly impaired.

Fourth, many people recoil from the suggestion that it’s not such a bad outcome if an 80 year old dies sooner than expected. In their view, all lives area valuable – especially in an era when an increasing number of octogenarians can be expected to live into their 100s. We are struck by distaste at any narrow utilitarian calculation which diminishes the value of individual lives.

For these reasons, few writers are quite so brash as to recommend Scenario 4 in the form presented here. Instead, they tend to advocate a variant of it, which I will now describe under a separate heading.

Scenario 5: A two-tier society

Could the lockdown be reconfigured so that we still gain many of its most important benefits – in particular, protection of those who are most vulnerable – whilst enabling the majority of society to return to life broadly similar to before the virus?

In this scenario, people are divided into two tiers:

  • Those for whom a Covid infection poses significant risks to their health – this is the “high risk” tier
  • Those who are more likely to shrug off a Covid infection – this is the “low risk” tier.

Note that the level of risk refers to how likely someone is to die from being infected.

The idea is that only the high risk tier would need to remain in a state of social distancing.

This idea is backed up by the thought that the division into two tiers would only need to be a temporary step. It would only be needed until one of three things happen:

  • A reliable vaccine becomes available (as in Scenario 1)
  • The virus is eradicated (as in Scenario 2)
  • The population as a whole gains “herd immunity”.

With herd immunity, enough people in the low risk tier will have passed through the phase of having the disease, and will no longer be infectious. Providing they can be assumed, in such a case, to be immune from re-infection, this will cut down the possibility of the virus spreading further. The reproduction number, R, will therefore fall well below 1.0. At that time, even people in the high risk tier can be readmitted into the full gamut of social and physical interactions.

Despite any initial hesitation over the idea of a two-tier society, the scenario does have its attractions. It is sensible to consider in more detail what it would involve. I list some challenges that will need to be addressed:

  • Where there are communities of people who are all in the high risk tier – for example, in care homes, and in sheltered accommodation – special measures will still be needed, to prevent any cases of infection spreading quickly in that community once they occasionally enter it (the point here is that R might be low for the population as a whole, but high in such communities)
  • Families often include people in both tiers. Measures will be needed to ensure physical distancing within such homes. For example, children who mix freely with each other at school will need to avoid hugging their grandparents
  • It will be tricky – and controversial – to determine which people belong in which tier (think, again, of the example of Boris Johnson)
  • The group of people initially viewed as being low risk may turn out to have significant subgroups that are actually at higher risk – based on factors such as workplace practice, genetics, diet, or other unsuspected underlying cases – in which case the death statistics could surge way higher than expected
  • Are two tiers of classification sufficient? Would a better system have three (or more) tiers, with special treatments for pregnant women, and for people who are somewhat elderly (or somewhat asthmatic) rather than seriously elderly (or seriously asthmatic)?
  • The whole concept of immunity may be undermined, if someone who survives an initial infection is still vulnerable to a second infection (perhaps from a new variant of the virus)

Scenario 6: Your suggestions?

Of course, combinations of the above scenarios can, and should, be investigated.

But I’ll finish by asking if there are other dimensions to this landscape of scenarios, that deserve to be included in the analysis of possibilities.

If so, we had better find out about them sooner rather than later, and discuss them openly and objectively. We need to get beyond future shock, and beyond tribal loyalty instincts.

That will reduce the chances that the outcome of the lockdown will be (as stated earlier) worse confusion, worse recrimination, worse health statistics, worse economic statistics, and a worse fracturing of society.

Image credit: Priyam Patel from Pixabay.

30 March 2020

Ending insecurity: from UBI to a Marshall Plan for the planet

Filed under: London Futurists, UBI — Tags: , — David Wood @ 7:53 am

On Thursday last week, 60 members and friends of London Futurists took part in an online Zoom webinar addressing the following questions:

  • Are regular payments to every citizen in the country an appropriate solution to the fragility that the coronavirus pandemic is exposing in our economy and social safety net?
  • When we consider potential additional crises that may boil over in the years ahead, does the case for UBI (universal basic income) strengthen or weaken?
  • What are the alternatives to UBI?

A video recording of the discussion (lightly edited) is now available:

As you can see, the event was not without glitches, but it went more smoothly than the previous online London Futurists event. We continue to live and learn!

Please find below various takeaways from the conversation that deserve wider attention. I am providing these to help enable the continuation of key lines of discussion.

(My apologies in advance in case my summaries unintentionally misrepresent what any participant said.)

From Phil Teer:

  • A basic “no strings attached” income would allow people to follow government advice to “stay at home”, confident that they won’t fall into poverty as a result
  • If basic income had already been in place, it would have allowed the country to go into lockdown quicker, without waiting for a specific financial support scheme to be devised first
  • At the moment, far too many people feel obliged to work, even when they are unwell – that’s a bad system, even in times when no pandemic is taking place
  • Many aspects of the current benefits system are designed to incentivise people to return to work as soon as possible. That’s not a purpose we need the system to do at this moment
  • Basic income provides individual agency and choice: individuals being able to choose whether to protect themselves and their families by staying at home
  • Until now, technology for working remotely has been stuck on the wrong side of the adoption curve chasm, waiting for its big push into the mainstream; that push is now here
  • The crisis can accelerate adoption of automation – such as online supermarkets, and (already happening in China) unmanned supermarkets and drone deliveries
  • We can anticipate and welcome a shift in production from people to machines, bots, and algorithms
  • Companies big and small will question the need for their physical offices and premises
  • We should welcome these changes – they lay the basis for an “age of imagination” in which people will be valued more for their creativity than for their productivity

From Calum Chace:

  • The true challenge from technological unemployment is not meaning but income
  • Once the income problem is solved, a world of greater technological unemployment could bring in a second Renaissance
  • The forecasters who insist that people will always have paid work to do are pessimists
  • However, a “basic income” scheme that leaves recipients indefinitely poor (as implied by the word “basic”) will be a failure, and won’t survive
  • The economist John Kay: If UBI is high enough to be useful, it’s unaffordable. If it’s affordable, it’s not useful
  • That’s why every government so far, in responding to Covid-19, is implementing targeted policies rather than a regularly paid UBI
  • A better solution than UBI is “the economy of abundance” in which the goods and services needed for a very good standard of living are almost free
  • What will reduce the costs of these goods and services isn’t “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” but “Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism”
  • Taking inspiration from the abundant music delivery of Spotify, we need to develop what might be called Constructify and Clothify
  • This can happen by enlisting more and more advanced AI, driving down energy costs, and removing expensive humans from as many production processes as possible

From Barb Jacobson:

  • If a basic income scheme were already in place, we wouldn’t have seen such a fear and panic as has taken place over the last few weeks
  • Around 500,000 people in the UK have recently applied for Universal Credit (unemployment benefit), but these claim processes are unlikely to be completed until June
  • A package just announced by the government for self-employed people will also not kick in until June
  • In contrast, basic income would be the fastest and easiest way to get money to everybody who needs it
  • There’s a scheme in one province in South Korea that has already issued what they call an “emergency income”, via a card based on people’s national insurance number
  • Instead of “universal basis income” we can think of these payments as being a “dividend” – a share in the economy
  • What we’re learning in this crisis is that many people who are necessary to the operation of society (including carers) are unpaid or low paid or have insecure income
  • In contrast, many people who are paid the most aren’t noticed when they’re no longer working
  • Therefore the crisis can allow a rejigging of how the world is viewed and how we collectively function in it
  • In the meantime, there are prospects in central London of riots and mass looting in the next few weeks: shopkeepers are already taking precautions

From Carin Ism:

  • Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”
  • “That is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”
  • Our present social systems for producing and distributing surplus are by no means “the end of history”
  • We can’t know for sure what the full effects of basic income will be – although initial experiments are promising – so that’s an argument for continuing to experiment
  • All policy initiatives in response to the crisis are, likewise, experiments, if we are being honest. Staying with the status quo can no longer be defended
  • A bias against “something new” as being “irresponsible” is no longer tenable; everything in the current situation is unprecedented
  • Just as the public in each country have been watching how other countries have been changing health policies, they can now watch how other countries are changing social policies
  • When someone takes the leadership in effective economic and social policies, the whole world will be observing
  • The blossoming public conversation is going to highlight more clearly the injustices that have been in place for a long time without gaining proper attention before
  • The public will no longer accept a response in which banks get bail outs but essential workers just get applause

From Gennady Stolyarov:

  • A proposal that is currently receiving significant support from members of the US Transhumanist Party is “The United States Transhumanist Party supports for an immediate, universal, unconditional basic income of at least $1000 per month to be provided to every United States citizen for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and its immediate aftermath, without regard for individuals’ means or other sources of income.”
  • “The priority for this program should be to prevent massive and irreparable economic disruptions to the lives of Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic.”
  • This stands in dramatic contrast from the stimulus package negotiated in the US Congress, which contains only a one-time monetary payment, with many restrictions on who can receive it
  • As a result there is a risk of class resentment and class warfare
  • Means-tested payments are administratively complex and will hinder getting relief to people as rapidly as possible
  • Universal payments that reach billionaires form only a tiny fraction of the overall expenditure; it’s far simpler to include these people than to create admin systems to exclude them
  • There are means to fund a UBI other than raising taxes: consider the proposal by Zoltan Istvan (and developed by Johannon Ben Zion) of a “federal land dividend”
  • The western US, in particular, contains immense swathes of federally-owned land that is completely unused – barren scrub-land that could be leased out for a fee to corporations
  • That leasing would observe principles of environmental protection, and would allow use for agriculture, industry, construction, among other purposes

From a second round of comments from the initial five panellists:

  • Arguably the real issue is whether we put people first, and hope the economy gets better, or put the economy first, and hope that people are OK
  • By putting people first, with a basic income, it taps into the very thing that actually makes the economy work – the industry, imagination, and creativity of people
  • There is a strong psychological objection, from some, against any taxpayer money going to ultra-wealthy individuals – as would happen in a UBI
  • Economies are what makes it possible for all of us to have the goods and services we need to have a good life – so we cannot ignore the question of the health of the economy
  • The idea of paying for a social dividend from rents of public land dates back to the English radical Thomas Spence
  • By giving money to rich and poor alike, UBI would reinforce the important idea that everyone is a citizen of the same society
  • In the last forty years, the taxes on unearned income have fallen way below the taxes on working; fixing this would make it easier to afford a basic income
  • Why object to poor people receiving a basic income without working, when many rich people earn unearned income such as investment dividends or property rents without working?
  • Our monetary system is based on shared underlying stable beliefs; different ideas from radical thinkers threaten the stability of this belief system and could undermine it
  • The creation of lots of new money, to bail out companies, or to fund a basic income, is an example of an idea that could threaten the stability of the current financial system
  • Governance failures can have knock-on effects – for example, failures to regulate live animal markets can lead to the origination of new virus pandemics
  • For countries lacking sufficient unused land to fund a UBI via land lease, other public resources could fund a UBI – examples include the sovereign wealth fund in Norway
  • Economic progress, that would also help to fund a UBI, could be considerably accelerated by the application of technological innovation
  • This innovation is, unfortunately, too often constrained unnecessarily by the continued operation of outdated 20th century regulatory frameworks
  • Selected relaxation of regulations could enable lots of new economic activity that would make it easy to pay for a prosperous basic income for all

From Dean Bubley:

  • Rather than debating the long-term benefits of a UBI, we need to consider how any form of UBI could be implemented right now
  • How long would it take to implement either a one-off payment or a series of monthly payments, as an emergency solution, straight away
  • The UK finance ministry seem to have looked hard at lots of different options, and speed of implementation has been part of what has guided their choices
  • Any new IT project to support a UBI would by no means be a “small IT project”
  • In the future, once AI is smart enough to put lots of humans out of work, it will surely also be smart enough to allocate income payments in ways beyond simple uniformity

From Rohit Talwar:

  • Most of his contacts in the banking industry is anticipating a forthcoming 30%-80% job reduction due to automation
  • Corporations are responding to the current crisis by reconsidering the work they are doing – how much is essential, and how many tasks currently done by humans could be automated
  • Nearly all his contacts in the AI world are overwhelmed by requests to undertake projects to transform how businesses operate
  • We should therefore expect the automation of many jobs as early as the next twelve months, and a big new lump of unemployment in the short term
  • A stop-gap measure will be urgently needed to respond to this additional unemployment, until such time as people can be retrained into the new industries that will arise

Further responses from the initial panellists:

  • Instead of looking at UBI as being a cost, we should look at it as being an investment
  • In 2008, the nation invested massively in saving the banks and the money system; we now need to invest in people throughout society
  • Basic income allocated to billionaires will be recovered straightforwardly by the tax system – there’s no need to obsess over these particular payments
  • It’s not just the “top 1%” who don’t need any basic income support; it’s more like the top 50%; that makes it more important that the system is targeted rather than universal
  • However, lessons from working inside the benefits system is that “targeting doesn’t actually reach its targets”
  • In the UK, between 20%-60% of people eligible for benefits do not receive them
  • Rather than debating conditions for payments being made, more focus should be put on levying appropriate taxes on corporate profits and unearned income such as inherited wealth
  • The issue isn’t so much one of inequality but one of insecurity
  • A two-phase approach can be pursued – an immediate response as a quick fix, followed by a larger process to come into operation later
  • The immediate quick fix payment can be covered by something Western governments do all the time, namely deficit spending
  • Even people who are not normally fond of deficit spending can appreciate the special circumstances of the current dire emergency, and make an exception
  • Any such deficit spending could be recovered in due course by the fruits of economic activity that is jump-started by the policy initiatives already mentioned

From Wendy Grossman:

  • Making a UBI conditional – for example, a decision to exclude the top 1% – would inevitably lead on to many other wrangles
  • For example, there could be arguments over constraints on how many children a woman is allowed to have, with each of them receiving the standard basic income
  • What about the moral hazard to companies: companies might feel little need to pay their employees much, if the employees are already receiving a UBI
  • Companies may feel able to behave in such a way, unless the UBI is high enough that employees are confident about walking away from poor salaries at work

From Tim Pendry:

  • We need to distinguish the acute short-term problem from the chronic longer-term problem. The acute problem is one of dealing with deflation
  • Our economies could be smashed by this crisis, not because of the 1% death rate, but because of our reactions to it. That’s why a UBI – or something like it – seems to be essential
  • But before a UBI can be adopted in the longer term, a number of problems need to be solved, including having sufficient productive capacity to sustain the economy
  • Major transformations of the economy are often accompanied by a great deal of pain and misery – consider the Industrial Revolution, and Stalin’s actions in the USSR
  • Separately, trades unionists may have legitimate concerns about UBI, since its introduction could be used as an excuse to unravel key pin-pointed elements of the welfare state
  • Not every recipient of UBI will respond positively to it, becoming more creative and lovely; some will behave as psychopaths or otherwise respond badly to money being thrown at them
  • As a possible worrying comparison, consider how “the mob” responded to unconditional hand-outs in ancient Rome
  • There’s a growing clash between privileged employees and precarious freelancers. The solution isn’t to make everyone employees. The solution is to make everyone freelancers with rights

Fourth round of panellist responses:

  • It would be helpful to explore the concept of “helicopter money” in which money is simply created and dropped into the economy on a few occasions, rather than an ongoing UBI
  • We should beware a false dichotomy between “people” and “economy”; the two are interdependent
  • Something that could change the lockdown conditions is if reliable antibody tests become available: that would allow more people to return to work and travel sooner
  • Even if antibody testing becomes available, there’s still a need for a stop-gap measure enabling people to pay for food, rent, and so on
  • Instead of UBI, perhaps the government could provide free UBS – universal basic services – paying fees to e.g. electricity companies on behalf of consumers
  • We need to combine pragmatic short-term considerations, with working out how to manage the larger longer-term societal shifts that are now increasingly realised as being possible
  • We need to anticipate potential new future crises, and work out coping mechanisms in advance, especially thinking about which unintended consequences might result

From Tony Czarnecki:

  • The Covid-19 crisis is likely to accelerate the advent of technological unemployment, due to greater use of robotics and a general surge in innovation
  • It’s possible there could as a result be 3-4 additional unemployed within just one year – this will pose an even greater social crisis
  • Various reports created in 2016 calculated that the cost of a meaningful UBI could be as low as 3% of the GDP (the figure might be closer to 2% today)
  • This would provide an annual adult income of £5k, £2.5k for a child, and £8k for a pensioner
  • Of course this won’t yet support luxurious prosperity, but it’s a useful transitional step forward
  • One more question: do we really understand what lies behind the apparent reluctance of politicians to implement a UBI?

From Alexandria Black:

  • As an emergency solution, right now, payments could be made to special credit cards of individual citizens
  • These cards could also function as identifiers of someone’s Covid infection status
  • The cards will also assist in the vital task of contact tracing, to alert people of the spread of the virus
  • Another consequence of the Covid-19 crisis is an accelerating “crypto war” between China and the US
  • Measures which both countries seem to have been planning for some time may now being rushed out more quickly
  • Perhaps a “hackathon” investigation could be organised, to jump start a better understanding of the crypto war dimension of the current crisis

Final round of discussion points:

  • Rather than corporations potentially mistreating their employees who are receiving a UBI, the outcome could be the opposite: employees with a UBI will have more bargaining power
  • We’re all still at the learning stage of how best to organise ourselves as online digital citizens, able to bring about significant changes in social structures (such as a UBI)
  • The money supply isn’t fixed and static: if it wants to, the government can come up with more money
  • As a comparison, when governments go to war, they don’t ask how much it’s going to cost
  • UBI isn’t just about helping the poorest. It’s for everyone. It addresses the financial insecurity and precariousness that everyone can feel
  • UBI isn’t just for the people who have special creative talents. It’s for everyone, including people caring for family members or the elderly
  • Many who are wealthy keep working, for the sense of self-achievement from serving society via their business. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have that same sense of contribution
  • Today’s large companies may find clever ways to game any UBI system in their own favour – we’ll need to keep an eye on them throughout any transition to UBI
  • We should be open to having an unconditional universal payment being supplemented by conditional payments also available to everyone
  • The fundamental point is the ending of insecurity in society, rather than focusing on other topics such as redistribution or equality
  • Transhumanists like to talk about the goal of “Ending aging”; the goal of “Ending insecurity” belongs on that same list
  • Now is the perfect time to be starting the conversation about the bigger picture solution for the future, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll forget
  • As well as people representing civil society, key participants in such a conversation include the asset owners – the sovereign wealth funds and the big pension funds
  • The asset owners need to be on board, if governments are going to finance their new expenditure plans via debt
  • In effect we’re talking about a Marshall Plan for the planet.

For more details about the book project mentioned by Rohit Talwar at the end of the discussion, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Futurists Envision our Post-Pandemic Future, see here.

Thanks are especially due to all the panellists who spoke up during the event. This meetup page has more details of the event.

19 March 2020

Improving online events, for the sake of a better discussion of what truly matters

In a time of travel restrictions and operating from home, we’re all on a learning curve. There’s much for us to find out about alternatives to meeting in our usual physical locations.

London Futurists have been meeting in various physical locations for twelve years. We’ve also held a number of online gatherings over that time, using tools such as Google Hangouts on Air. But now the balance needs to shift. Given the growing Covid-19 lockdown, all London Futurists physical meetings are cancelled for the time being. While the lockdown continues, the group’s activities will be 100% online.

But what does this mean in practice?

I’d like to share some reflections from the first of this new wave of London Futurists events. That online gathering took place on Saturday, 14th March, using the meeting platform Zoom.

Hopefully my observations can help others to improve their own online events. Hopefully, too, readers of this blog will offer answers or suggestions in response to questions I raise.

Context: our event

Our event last Saturday was recorded, and the footage subsequently edited – removing, for example, parts where speakers needed to be told their microphones were muted. Here’s a copy of the resulting video:

By prior arrangement, five panellists gave short introductory talks, each lasting around 5-10 minutes, to set the stage for group discussion. Between 50 and 60 audience participants were logged into the event throughout. Some of them spoke up during the event; a larger number participated in an online text chat discussion that proceeded in parallel (there’s a lightly edited copy of the text discussion here).

As you can see from the recording, the panellists and the other participants raised lots of important points during the discussion. I’ll get back to these shortly, in another blogpost. But first, some thoughts about the tools and the process that were used for this event.

Context: Zoom

Zoom is available at a number of different price levels:

  • The “Free” level is restricted to meetings of up to 40 minutes.
  • The “Pro” level – which costs UKP £11.99 per month – supports longer meetings (up to 24 hours), recording of events, and other elements of admin and user management. This is what I use at the moment.
  • I’ve not yet explored the more expensive versions.

Users participating in an event can can turn their cameras on or off, and can share their screen (in order, for example, to present slides). Participants can also choose at any time to see a view of the video feeds from all participants (up to 25 on each page), or a “presenter view” that focuses on the person who Zoom detects as the speaker.

Recording can take place locally, on the host’s computer (and, if enabled by the organiser, on participants’ computers). Recording can also take place on the Zoom cloud. In this case, what is recorded (by default) is the “presenter view”.

The video recording can subsequently be downloaded and edited (using any video editing software – what I use is Cyberlink PowerDirector).

Limitations and improvements

I switched some time ago from Google Hangouts-on-Air (HoA) to Zoom, when Google reorganised their related software offerings during 2019.

One feature of the HoA software that I miss in Zoom is the ability for the host to temporarily “blue box” a participant, so that their screen remains highlighted, regardless of which video feeds contain speech or other noises. Without this option, what happens – as you can see from the recording of Saturday’s event – is that the presentation view can jump to display the video from a participant that is not speaking at that moment. For five seconds or so, the display shows the participant staring blankly at the camera, generally without realising that the focus is now on them. What made Zoom shift the focus is that it detected some noise from that video feed -perhaps a cough, a laugh, a moan, a chair sliding across the floor, or some background discussion.

(Participants in the event needn’t worry, however, about their blank stares or other inadvertent activity being contained in the final video. While editing the footage, I removed all such occurrences, covering up the displays, while leaving the main audio stream in place.)

In any case, participants should mute their microphones when not speaking. That avoids unwanted noise reaching the event. However, it’s easy for people to neglect to do so. For that reason, Zoom provides the host with admin control over which mics are on or off at any time. But the host may well be distracted too… so the solution is probably for me to enrol one or two participants with admin powers for the event, and ask them to keep an eye on any mics being left unmuted at the wrong times.

Another issue is the variable quality of the microphones participants were using. If the participant turns their head while speaking – for example, to consult some notes – it can make it hard to hear what they’re saying. A better solution here is to use a head-mounted microphone.

A related problem is occasional local bandwidth issues when a participant is speaking. Some or all of what they say may be obscured, slurred, or missed altogether. The broadband in my own house is a case in point. As it happens, I have an order in the queue to switch my house to a different broadband provider. But this switch is presently being delayed.

Deciding who speaks

When a topic is thought-provoking, there are generally are lots of people with things to contribute to the discussion. Evidently, they can’t all talk at once. Selecting who speaks next – and deciding how long they can speak before they might need to be interrupted – is a key part of chairing successful meetings.

One guide to who should be invited to speak next, at any stage in a meeting, is the set of comments raised in the text chat window. However, in busy meetings, important points raised can become lost in the general flow of messages. Ideally, the meeting software will support a system of voting, so that other participants can indicate their choices of which questions are the most interesting. The questions that receive the most upvotes will become the next focus of the discussion.

London Futurists have used such software in the past, including Glisser and Slido, at our physical gatherings. For online events, ideally the question voting mechanism will be neatly integrated with the underlying platform.

I recently took part in one online event (organised by the Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard) where the basic platform was Zoom and where there was a “Q&A” voting system for questions from the audience. However, I don’t see such a voting system in the Zoom interface that I use.

Added on 20th March

Apparently there’s a Webinar add-on for Zoom that provides better control of meetings, including the Q&A voting system. The additional cost of this add-on starts from UKP £320 per annum. I’ll be looking into this further. See this feature comparison page.

Thanks to Joe Kay for drawing this to my attention!

Summarising key points

The video recording of our meeting on Saturday lasts nearly 100 minutes. To my mind, the discussion remained interesting throughout. However, inevitably, many potential viewers will hesitate before committing 100 minutes of their time to watch the entirety of that recording. Even if they watch the playback at an accelerated speed, they would probably still prefer access to some kind of edited highlights.

Creating edited highlights of recordings of London Futurists events has long been a “wish list” item for me. I can appreciate that there’s a particular skill to identifying which parts should be selected for inclusion in any such summary. I’ll welcome suggestions on how to do this!

Learning together

More than ever, what will determine our success or failure in coming to terms with the growing Covid-19 crisis is the extent to which positive collaboration and a proactive technoprogressive mindset can pull ahead of humanity’s more destructive characteristics.

That “race” was depicted on the cover of the collection of the ebook of essays published by London Futurists in June 2014, “Anticipating 2025”. Can we take advantage of our growing interconnectivity to spread, not dangerous pathogens or destructive “fake news”, but good insights about building a better future?

That was a theme that emerged time and again during our online event last Saturday.

I’ll draw this blogpost towards a close by sharing some excepts from the opening chapter from Anticipating 2025.

Four overlapping trajectories

The time period up to 2025 can be considered as a race involving four overlapping trajectories: technology, crisis, collaboration, and mindset.

The first trajectory is the improvement of technology, with lots of very positive potential. The second, however, has lots of very negative potential: it is the growth in likelihood of societal crisis:

  • Stresses and strains in the environment, with increased climate chaos, and resulting disputes over responsibility and corrective action
  • Stresses and strains in the financial system, which share with the environment the characteristics of being highly complex, incompletely understood, weakly regulated, and subject to potential tipping points for fast-accelerating changes
  • Increasing alienation, from people who feel unable to share in the magnitude of the riches flaunted by the technologically fortunate; this factor is increased by the threats from technological unemployment and the fact that, whilst the mean household income continues to rise, the median household income is falling
  • Risks from what used to be called “weapons of mass destruction” – chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons, along with cyber-weapons that could paralyse our electronics infrastructure; there are plenty of “angry young men” (and even angry middle-aged men) who seem ready to plunge what they see as a corrupt world into an apocalyptic judgement.

What will determine the outcome of this race, between technological improvement and growing risk of crises? It may be a third trajectory: the extent to which people around the world are able to collaborate, rather than compete. Will our tendencies to empathise, and to build a richer social whole, triumph over our equally deep tendencies to identify more closely with “people like us” and to seek the well-being of our “in-group” ahead of that of other groups?

In principle, we probably already have sufficient knowledge, spread around the world, to solve all the crises facing us, in a smooth manner that does not require any significant sacrifices. However, that knowledge is, as I said, spread – it does not cohere in just a single place. If only we knew what we knew. Nor does that knowledge hold universal assent – far from it. It is mocked and distorted and undermined by people who have vested interests in alternative explanations – with the vested interests varying among economic, political, ideological, and sometimes sheer human cussedness. In the absence of improved practical methods for collaboration, our innate tendencies to short-term expedience and point-scoring may rule the day – especially when compounded by an economic system that emphasises competition and “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Collaborative technologies such as Wikipedia and open-source software point the way to what should be possible. But they are unlikely to be sufficient, by themselves, to heal the divisions that tend to fragment human endeavours. This is where the fourth, and final, trajectory becomes increasingly important – the transformation of the philosophies and value systems that guide our actions.

If users are resolutely suspicious of technologies that would disturb key familiar aspects of “life as we know it”, engineers will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient funding to bring these technologies to the market – even if society would eventually end up significantly improved as a result.

Politicians generally take actions that reflect the views of the electorate, as expressed through public media, opinion polls, and (occasionally) in the ballot box. However, the electorate is subject to all manners of cognitive bias, prejudice, and continuing reliance on rules of thumb which made sense in previous times but which have been rendered suspect by changing circumstances. These viewpoints include:

  • Honest people should put in forty hours of work in meaningful employment each week
  • People should be rewarded for their workplace toil by being able to retire around the age of 65
  • Except for relatively peripheral matters, “natural methods” are generally the best ones
  • Attempts to redesign human nature – or otherwise to “play God” – will likely cause disaster
  • It’s a pointless delusion to think that the course of personal decay and death can be averted.

In some cases, long-entrenched viewpoints can be overturned by a demonstration that a new technology produces admirable results – as in the case of IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). But in other cases, minds need to be changed even before a full demonstration can become possible.

It’s for this reason that I see the discipline of “culture engineering” as being equally important as “technology engineering”. The ‘culture’ here refers to cultures of humans, not cells. The ‘engineering’ means developing and applying a set of skills – skills to change the set of prevailing ideas concerning the desirability of particular technological enhancements. Both technology engineering and culture engineering are deeply hard skills; both need a great deal of attention.

A core part of “culture engineering” fits under the name “marketing”. Some technologists bristle at the concept of marketing. They particularly dislike the notion that marketing can help inferior technology to triumph over superior technology. But in this context, what do “inferior” and “superior” mean? These judgements are relative to how well technology is meeting the dominant desires of people in the marketplace.

Marketing means selecting, understanding, inspiring, and meeting key needs of what can be called “influence targets” – namely, a set of “tipping point” consumers, developers, and partners. Specifically, marketing includes:

  • Forming a roadmap of deliverables, that build, step-by-step, to delivering something of great benefit to the influence targets, but which also provide, each step of the way, something with sufficient value to maintain their active interest
  • Astutely highlighting the ways in which present (and forthcoming) products will, indeed, provide value to the influence targets
  • Avoiding any actions which, despite the other good things that are happening, alienate the influence targets; and in the event any such alienation emerges, taking swift and decisive action to address it.

Culture engineering involves politics as well as marketing. Politics means building alliances that can collectively apply power to bring about changes in regulations, standards, subsidies, grants, and taxation. Choosing the right partners, and carefully managing relationships with them, can make a big difference to the effectiveness of political campaigns. To many technologists, “politics” is as dirty a word as “marketing”. But once again, mastery of the relevant skillset can make a huge difference to the adoption of technologies.

The final component of culture engineering is philosophy – sets of arguments about fundamentals and values. For example, will human flourishing happen more fully under simpler lifestyles, or by more fully embracing the radical possibilities of technology? Should people look to age-old religious traditions to guide their behaviour, or instead seek a modern, rational, scientific basis for morality? And how should the freedoms of individuals to experiment with potentially dangerous new kinds of lifestyle be balanced against the needs of society as a whole?

“Philosophy” is (you guessed it) yet another dirty word, in the minds of many technologists. To these technologists, philosophical arguments are wastes of time. Yet again, I will disagree. Unless we become good at philosophy – just as we need to become good at both politics and marketing – we will fail to rescue the prevailing culture from its unhelpful mix of hostility and apathy towards the truly remarkable potential to use technology to positively transcend human nature. And unless that change in mindset happens, the prospects are uncertain for the development and adoption of the remarkable technologies of abundance mentioned earlier.

[End of extract from Anticipating 2025.]

How well have we done?

On the one hand, the contents of the 2014 London Futurists book “Anticipating 2025” are prescient. These chapters highlight many issues and opportunities that have grown in importance in the intervening six years.

On the other hand, I was brought down to earth by an email reply I received last week to the latest London Futurists newsletter:

I’m wondering where the Futurism is in this reaction.

Maybe the group is more aptly Reactionism.

I wanted to splutter out an answer: the group (London Futurists) has done a great deal of forward thinking over the years. We have looked at numerous trends and systems, and considered possible scenarios arising from extrapolations and overlaps. We have worked hard to clarify, for these scenarios, the extent to which they are credible and desirable, and ways in which the outcomes can be influenced.

But on reflection, a more sober thought emerged. Yes, we futurists have been trying to alert the rest of society to our collective lack of preparedness for major risks and major opportunities ahead. We have discussed the insufficient resilience of modern social systems – their fragility and lack of sustainability.

But have our messages been heard?

The answer is: not really. That’s why Covid-19 is causing such a dislocation.

It’s tempting to complain that the population as a whole should have been listening to futurists. However, we can also ask, how should we futurists change the way we talk about our insights, so that people pay us more attention?

After all, there are many worse crises potentially just around the corner. Covid-19 is by no means the most dangerous new pathogen that could strike humanity. And there are many other types of risk to consider, including malware spreading out of control, the destruction of our electronics infrastructure by something similar to the 1859 Carrington Event, an acceleration of chaotic changes in weather and climate, and devastating wars triggered by weapons systems overseen by AI software whose inner logic no-one understands.

It’s not just a new mindset that humanity needs. It’s a better way to have discussions about fundamentals – discussions about what truly matters.

Footnote: with thanks

Special thanks are due to the people who boldly stepped forwards at short notice as panellists for last Saturday’s event:

and to everyone else who contributed to that discussion. I’m sorry there was no time to give sufficient attention to many of the key points raised. As I said at the end of the recording, this is a kind of cliffhanger.

11 March 2020

Might future humans resurrect the dead?

Death is brutal. It extinguishes consciousness. It terminates relationships, dissolves aspirations, and forecloses opportunities. It shatters any chances of us nurturing new skills, visiting new locations, exploring new art, feeling new emotions, keeping up with the developments of friends and family, or actively sharing our personal wisdom.

Or does it? Is death really the end?

Traditionally, such a question has seemed to belong to the field of religion, or, perhaps, to psychical research. However, nowadays, an answer to this existential question is emerging from a different direction. In short, this line of thinking extrapolates from past human progress to suggest what future human progress might accomplish. Much more than we have previously imagined, is the suggestion. We humans may become like Gods, not only with the power to create new life, but also with the power to resurrect the dead.

As centuries have passed, we humans have acquired greater power and capability. We have learned how to handle an increasing number of diseases, and how to repair bodies damaged by accident or injury. As such, average lifespans have been extended. For many people, death has been delayed – as we live on average at least twice as long as our ancestors of just a few centuries back.

Consider what may happen in the decades and centuries to come, as humans acquire even greater power and capability.

Writers Ben Goertzel and Giulio Prisco summarise possible answers, in their visionary 2009 article “Ten Cosmist Convictions”:

Humans will merge with technology, to a rapidly increasing extent. This is a new phase of the evolution of our species, just picking up speed about now. The divide between natural and artificial will blur, then disappear. Some of us will continue to be humans, but with a radically expanded and always growing range of available options, and radically increased diversity and complexity. Others will grow into new forms of intelligence far beyond the human domain…

We will spread to the stars and roam the universe. We will meet and merge with other species out there. We may roam to other dimensions of existence as well, beyond the ones of which we’re currently aware…

We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.

Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”…

There’s much more to the philosophy of cosmism than I can cover in a single blogpost. For now, I want to highlight the remarkable possibility that beings, some time in the future, will somehow be able to reach back through time and extract a copy of human consciousness from the point of death, in order for the deceased to be recreated in a new body in a new world, allowing the continuation of life and consciousness. Families and friends will be reunited, ready to enjoy vast new vistas of experience.

Giulio develops these themes in considerable depth in his book Tales of the Turing Church, of which a second (expanded) edition has just been published.

The opening paragraphs of Giulio’s book set the stage:

This isn’t your grandfather’s religion.

Future science and technology will permit playing with the building blocks of space, time, matter, energy, and life, in ways that we could only call magic and supernatural today.

Someday in the future, you and your loved ones will be resurrected by very advanced science and technology.

Inconceivably advanced intelligences are out there among the stars. Even more God-like beings operate in the fabric of reality underneath spacetime, or beyond spacetime, and control the universe. Future science will allow us to find them, and become like them.

Our descendants in the far future will join the community of God-like beings among the stars and beyond, and use transcendent “divine” technology to resurrect the dead and remake the universe.

Science? Spacetime? Aliens? Future technology? I warned you, this isn’t your grandmother’s religion.

Or isn’t it?

Simplify what I said and reword it as: God exists, controls reality, will resurrect the dead and remake the universe. Sounds familiar? I bet it does. So perhaps this is the religion of our grandparents, in different words…

Giulio’s background is in physics: he was a senior manager in European science and technology centres, including the European Space Agency. I’ve know him since 2006, when we met at the TransVision conference in Helsinki in August that year. He has spoken at a number of London Futurists events over the years, and I’ve always found him to be deeply thoughtful. Since his new book breaks a lot of new ground, I took the opportunity to feature Giulio as the guest on a recent London Futurists video interview:

The video of our discussion lasts 51 minutes, but as you’ll see, the conversation could easily have lasted much longer: we stepped back several times from topics that would have raised many new questions.

Evidently, the content of the video isn’t to everyone’s liking. One reviewer expressed his exasperation as follows:

Absurd. I quit at 8:15

At first sight, it may indeed seem absurd that information from long-past events could somehow be re-assembled by beings in the far-distant future. The information will have spread out and degraded due to numerous interactions with the environment. However, in his book, Giulio considers various other possible mechanisms. Here are three of them:

  • Modern physics has the idea that spacetime can be curved or deformed. Future humans might be able to engineer connections between past spacetime locations (for example, someone’s brain at the point of death) and a spacetime location in their own present. This could be similar to what some science fiction explores as “wormholes” that transcend ordinary spacetime connectivity
  • Perhaps indelible records of activity could be stored in aspects of the multi-dimensional space that modern physics also talks about – records that could, again, be accessed by hugely powerful future descendants of present-day humans
  • Perhaps the universe that we perceive and inhabit actually exists as some kind of simulation inside a larger metaverse, with the controllers of the overall simulation being able to copy aspects of information and consciousness from inside the simulation into what we would then perceive as a new world.

Are these possibilities “absurd” too? Giulio argues that we can, and should, keep an open mind.

You can hear some of Giulio’s arguments in the video embedded above. You can explore them at much greater length in his book. It’s a big book, with a comprehensive set of references. Giulio makes lots of interesting points about:

  • Different ideas about physics – including quantum mechanics, the quantum vacuum, and the ultimate fate of the physical universe
  • The ideas featured by a range of different science fiction writers
  • The views of controversial thinkers such as Fred Hoyle, Amit Goswami, and Frank Tipler
  • The simulation argument, developed by Hans Moravec and popularised by Nick Bostrom
  • The history of cosmism, as it developed in Russia and then moved onto the world stage
  • Potential overlaps between Giulio’s conception of cosmism and ideas from diverse traditional religious traditions
  • The difference between the “cosmological” and “geographical” aspects of religions
  • The special significance of free-will, faith, and hope.

Despite covering weighty topics, Giulio’s writing has a light, human touch. But to be clear, this isn’t a book that you can rush through. The ideas will take time to percolate in your mind.

Having let Giulio’s ideas percolate in my own mind for a couple of weeks, here are my reflections.

The idea of future “technological resurrection” is by no means absurd. The probability of it happening is greater than zero. But for it to happen, a number of things must be true:

  1. The physical laws of the universe must support at least one of the range of mechanisms under discussion, for the copying of information
  2. Beings with sufficient capability will eventually come into existence – perhaps as descendants of present-day humans, perhaps as super-powerful aliens from other planets, or perhaps as intelligences operating at a different level of spacetime reality
  3. These beings must care sufficiently about our existence that they wish to resurrect us
  4. The new beings created in this process, containing our memories, will be us, rather than merely copies of us (in other words, this presupposes one type of answer to the question of “what is consciousness”).

Subjectively, this compound probability feels to me like being significantly less than 10%. But I accept that it’s hard to put numbers into this.

Someone else who offers probabilities for different routes to avoiding death is the Russian researcher Alexey Turchin. Alexey gave a fascinating talk at London Futurists back in April 2016 on the subject “Constructing a roadmap to immortality”. The talk was recorded on video (although the audio is far from perfect, sorry):

Alexey describes four plans, with (he says) decreasing probability:

  • “Plan A” – “survive until creation of strong and friendly AI” (which will then be able to keep everyone alive at that time, alive for as long as each person wishes)
  • “Plan B” – “cryonics” – “success chances as 1 – 10 per cent”
  • “Plan C” – “digital immortality” – “recording data about me for my future reconstruction by strong AI” – “even smaller chances of success”
  • “Plan D” – “immortality some how already exists” without needing any special actions by us – but this “is the least probable way to immortality”.

If you’d like to read more analysis from Alexey, see his 39 page essay from 2018, “Classification of Approaches to Technological Resurrection”.

I’m currently preparing a new talk of my own, that aims to draw wider attention to the ideas of thinkers such as Giulio and Alexey.

The talk is being hosted by DSMNTL and is scheduled for the 15th of April. The talk is entitled “Disrupting death: Technology and the future of dying”. Here’s an extract from the description:

Death stalks us all throughout life. We’re painfully aware that our time on earth is short, but the 2020s bring potential new answers to the problem of death.

Thanks to remarkable technologies that are being conceived and created, now may be the time to tackle death as never before. Beyond the old question of whether God created humanity in His image or humanity created gods in our image, it’s time to ask what will happen to humanity once technology gives us the power of Gods over life, death, and resurrection. And what should we be doing, here and now, in anticipation of that profound future transition?

This DSMNTL talk shares a radical futurist perspective on eight ways people are trying to put death in its place: acceptance, traditional faith in resurrection, psychic connectivity, rejuvenation biotechnology, becoming a cyborg, cryonic preservation, digital afterlife, and technological resurrection. You’ll hear how the relationship between science and religion could be about to enter a dramatic new phase. But beware: you might even make a life-changing death-defying decision once you hear what’s on offer.

For more information about this talk, and to obtain a ticket, click here.

I’ll give the last word, for now, to Giulio. Actually it’s a phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet that Giulio quotes several times in his book:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

19 January 2020

The pace of change, 2020 to 2035

Filed under: Abundance, BHAG, RAFT 2035, vision — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 10:05 am

The fifteen years from 2020 to 2035 could be the most turbulent of human history. Revolutions are gathering pace in four overlapping fields of technology: nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech, or NBIC for short. In combination, these NBIC revolutions offer enormous new possibilities.

I wrote these words on the opening page of RAFT 2035, my new book, which was published yesterday and is now available on Amazon sites worldwide (UK, US, DE, FR, ES, IT, NL, JP, BR, CA, MX, AU, IN).

Friends who read drafts of the book ahead of publication asked me:

RAFT envisions a huge amount of change taking place between the present day and 2035. What are the grounds for imagining this kind of change will be possible?

Here’s the answer I included in the final manuscript:

There is nothing inevitable about any of the changes foreseen by RAFT. It is even possible that the pace of change will slow down:

  • Due to a growing disregard for the principles of science and rationality
  • Due to society placing its priorities in other areas
  • Due to insufficient appetite to address hard engineering problems
  • Due to any of a variety of reversals or collapses in the wellbeing of civilisation.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the pace of technological change as experienced by global society in the last 15 years – pace that is already breathtaking – could accelerate significantly in the next 15 years:

  • Due to breakthroughs in some fields (e.g. AI or nanotechnology) leading to knock-on breakthroughs in other fields
  • Due to a greater number of people around the world dedicating themselves to working on the relevant technologies, products, and services
  • Due to more people around the world reaching higher levels of education than ever before, being networked together with unprecedented productivity, and therefore being able to build more quickly on each other’s insights and findings
  • Due to new levels of application of design skills, including redesigning the user interfaces to complex products, and redesigning social systems to enable faster progress with beneficial technologies
  • Due to a growing public understanding of the potential for enormous benefits to arise from the NBIC technologies, provided resources are applied more wisely
  • Due to governments deciding to take massive positive action to increase investment in areas that are otherwise experiencing blockages – this action can be considered as akin to a nation moving onto a wartime footing.

Introducing RAFT 2035

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

That insight from the biblical book of Proverbs is as true today as ever.

Without an engaging vision of a better future, we tend to focus on the short-term and on the mundane. Our horizons shrink and our humanity withers.

RAFT 2035 offers an alternative:

  • Thanks to the thoughtful application of breakthroughs in science and technology, the future can be profoundly better than the present
  • 2035 could see an abundance of all-round human flourishing, with no-one left behind.

The word “abundance” here means that there will be enough for everyone to have an excellent quality of life. No one will lack access to healthcare, accommodation, nourishment, essential material goods, information, education, social engagement, free expression, or artistic endeavour.

RAFT 2035 envisions the possibility, by 2035, of an abundance of human flourishing in each of six sectors of human life:

  • Individual health and wellbeing
  • The wellbeing of social relationships
  • The quality of international relationships
  • Sustainable relationships with the environment
  • Humanity’s exploration of the wider cosmos beyond the earth
  • The health of our political systems.

RAFT offers clear goals for what can be accomplished in each of these six sectors by 2035 – 15 goals in total, for society to keep firmly in mind between now and that date.

The 15 goals each involve taking wise advantage of the remarkable capabilities of 21st century science and technology: robotics, biotech, neurotech, nanotech, greentech, artificial intelligence, collaboration technology, and much more.

The goals also highlight how the development and adoption of science and technology can, and must, be guided by the very best of human thinking and values.

Indeed, at the same time as RAFT 2035 upholds this vision, it is also fully aware of deep problems and challenges in each of the six sectors described.

Progress will depend on a growing number of people in all areas of society:

  • Recognising the true scale of the opportunity ahead
  • Setting aside distractions
  • Building effective coalitions
  • Taking appropriate positive actions.

These actions make up RAFT 2035. I hope you like it!

The metaphor and the acronym

The cover of RAFT 2035 depicts a raft sitting on top of waves of turbulence.

As I say in RAFT’s opening chapter, the forthcoming floods of technological and social change set in motion by the NBIC revolutions could turn our world upside down, more quickly and more brutally than we expected. When turbulent waters are bearing down fast, having a sturdy raft at hand can be the difference between life and death.

Turbulent times require a space for shelter and reflection, clear navigational vision despite the mists of uncertainty, and a powerful engine for us to pursue our own direction, rather than just being carried along by forces outside our control. In other words, turbulent times require a powerful “raft” – a roadmap to a future in which the extraordinary powers latent in NBIC technologies are used to raise humanity to new levels of flourishing, rather than driving us over some dreadful precipice.

To spell out the “RAFT” acronym, the turbulent times ahead require:

  • A Roadmap (‘R’) – not just a lofty aspiration, but specific steps and interim targets
  • towards Abundance (‘A’) for all – beyond a world of scarcity and conflict
  • enabling Flourishing (‘F’) as never before – with life containing not just possessions, but enriched experiences, creativity, and meaning
  • via Transcendence (‘T’) – since we won’t be able to make progress by staying as we are.

What’s different about the RAFT vision

Most other political visions assume that only modest changes in the human condition will take place over the next few decades. In contrast, RAFT takes seriously the potential for large changes in the human condition – and sees these changes not only as desirable but essential.

Most other political visions are preoccupied by short term incremental issues. In contrast, RAFT highlights major disruptive opportunities and risks ahead.

Finally, most other political visions seek for society to “go back” to elements of a previous era, which is thought to be simpler, or purer, or in some other way preferable to the apparent messiness of today’s world. In contrast, RAFT offers a bold vision of creating a new, much better society – a society that builds on the existing strengths of human knowledge, skills, and relationships, whilst leaving behind those aspects of the human condition which unnecessarily limit human flourishing.

It’s an ambitious vision. But as I explain in the main chapters of the book, there are many solutions and tools at hand, ready to energise and empower a growing coalition of activists, engineers, social entrepreneurs, researchers, creatives, humanitarians, and more.

These solutions can help us all to transcend our present-day preoccupations, our unnecessary divisions, our individual agendas, and our inherited human limitations.

Going forwards, these solutions mean that, with wise choices, constraints which have long overshadowed human existence can soon be lifted:

  • Instead of physical decay and growing age-related infirmity, an abundance of health and longevity awaits us.
  • Instead of collective foolishness and blinkered failures of reasoning, an abundance of intelligence and wisdom is within our reach.
  • Instead of morbid depression and emotional alienation – instead of envy and egotism – we can achieve an abundance of mental and spiritual wellbeing.
  • Instead of a society laden with deception, abuses of power, and divisive factionalism, we can embrace an abundance of democracy – a flourishing of transparency, access, mutual support, collective insight, and opportunity for all, with no one left behind.

For more information about the book and its availability, see here. I’ll be interested to hear your feedback!

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