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25 January 2019

To make a dent in the universe

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

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

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

What might you do?

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

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

Should a Transhumanist Run for US President?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the books, the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

Going forwards

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

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

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

20 January 2019

Rejuvenation. Now. Easier than we think?

Filed under: aging, books — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 11:25 pm

Chronic poor health is caused by the accumulation of biological damage in our body. Eventually the damage builds to such an extent that it kills us. Before reaching that nadir, the damage weakens us, slows us down, and makes us more vulnerable to all kinds of illness.

Accordingly, if we want more vitality, for longer, we need to find therapies that undo the biological damage in our bodies. And we need to apply these therapies on a regular basis.

These two paragraphs summarise a view about health that is becoming increasingly common these days. One of the champions of this “find therapies to fix the damage” school is the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey – chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation. I write about this approach in, for example, Chapter 8, “Towards an abundance of health” of my own most recent book, “Sustainable Superabundance”.

The kinds of damage-repair therapies that transhumanist tend to talk about involve breakthrough new technologies – such as stem cell therapies, manipulation of genetics and epigenetics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and 3D bio-printing.

But what if there is already a very promising damage-repair treatment, whose power we frequently overlook?

Step forward Professor Matthew Walker of the Neuroscience department at UC Berkeley. Walker is also the founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. Walker recently summarised the state-of-art understanding about sleep (and dreams), in his book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”. I started reading that book following a tip from London Futurists member Mark Goodman. That tip was one of the best I received in the whole of last year. Many thanks, Mark!

According to the wide research that Walker summarises in “Why We Sleep”, getting sufficient sound sleep on a regular basis is a great all-round boost to our health. Skimping on sleep – getting an average of only six hours a night, instead of the eight hours recommended – stores up lots of longer term damage. (For example: greater propensity to cancer, dementia, obesity, diabetes, heart condition…)

It’s not just a question of quantity of sleep. It’s a question of quality. Sometimes we have a sort of sleep – for example, when under the influence of alcohol – but that sleep doesn’t perform the rejuvenation miracles of good quality sleep.

It’s also a question of the different types of sleep – including the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep that accompanies dreams, and the four different levels of NREM (not-REM) sleep (sleep when we’re not dreaming). The different kinds of sleep are associated with different kinds of healing.

To be clear, sleep isn’t just for healing. Many kinds of memory are improved by the right kinds of sleep. And sleep can be a great boost to creativity too.

The number of diseases linked to poor quality sleep is both staggering and frightening. People who scorn getting a good night’s sleep – people who boast that they can get by on, say, five hours a night on average – are deluding themselves. If you don’t believe this, look into the research that Walker assembles and discusses.

Of course, there are limits to the kinds of repair that sleeping and dreaming can perform. These fine therapies, by themselves, won’t boost anyone’s life expectancy from 75, say, to 125, or beyond. For that kind of change, we’ll need the initiatives being researched by SENS (and developed by an increasing number of commercial companies). But if you want to increase the chance of you (and your loved ones) living long enough to benefit from the eventual availability of SENS-type treatments, changing your sleep habits could make all the difference.

As well as increasing your life expectancy, these improved habits have the potential to improve your focus, your memory, your creativity, and the way you interact positively and supportively with others.

Changing your diet is another way in which you might increase your life expectancy. As an aside, the best single book I have come across on that topic is “The Longevity Code: The New Science of Aging” by Kris Verburgh. (Verburgh’s book actually has a lot more in it than just analysis of the relation between diet and healthy aging. It should definitely be on your bookshelf.)

But what’s striking is that, although the connection between diet and healthy aging has been widely discussed, the connection between sleep and healthy aging has been relatively ignored. Walker’s book should start to amend that unfortunate state of ignorance.

There are another three big reasons why transhumanists (and people who share the same broad interests) should read “Why we sleep”. First, the book offers (directly and indirectly) lots of insights about the nature of consciousness, as explored through the discussion of consciousness in different sleep states, including dreaming. I’m sure that there are insights ready to be sparked by some of these sections, for AI researchers struggling with particular conceptual problems.

Second, Walker discusses broader social factors connected with sleep (and why so many people sleep badly these days). The sheer scale of lives lost by drivers drifting into “micro sleeps” is astonishing: accidents caused by drowsiness exceed those caused by drugs and alcohol. The damage caused by sleeping pills is another eye-opener. It also turns out there’s a lot of inertia in society – society often resists changes that would be in its own best interest! The adverse practice of the medical industry pushing junior doctors to the limit, sleepwise, is just one case. But the book also has some great examples, in the closing chapters, about positive social change. One involves the time at which schools start. It turns out that moving the start time later by 30 minutes, or one hour, can have a big impact on successful learning, as well as on the prevalence of teenage depression (not to mention the likelihood of students having car accidents en route to school).

Third, Walker identifies both risks and opportunities from new technologies, as regards changing sleep quality. Small doses of electricity applied to the scalp can significantly improve sleep. Other mechanisms look like they can improve our dreams. In the not-so-distant future, the ways in which we sleep and dream might be quite different from today. Technology, if used wisely, could lead us to patterns of sleeping and dreaming in which rejuvenation happens more profoundly.

To conclude: I really liked the first few chapters of “Why We Sleep”, and wondered how the book could continue at the same level of engagement over the remainder of its 340 pages of content. But it did – it was thoroughly interesting all the way through!

Image source: Claudio_Scott on Pixabay.

23 November 2018

Biohacking, cyborgs & wearables: What might the future look like?

Filed under: Humanity Plus — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 11:59 am

Here’s a copy of my prepared remarks to kick off a discussion today in an event at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

For more details on some of the ideas covered, see Sustainable Superabundance.

Biohacking, cyborgs & wearables: What might the future look like?

I’d like to paint some possible scenarios for around ten to twenty years into the future, covering the uses of biohacking, wearable computing, and implantable computers.

I draw the ideas in these scenarios from three sources.

First, the scenarios involve extrapolations from my own experience in the mobile computing and smartphone industries, stretching back just over 30 years, to when I started work as a software engineer inside Psion PLC in Central London. During my career, I held a number of executive responsibilities inside an offshoot of Psion, Symbian, the creator of the world’s first successful smartphone operating system. My experience over these 30 years included periods of slow change followed by periods of intense rapid change. During my career, I also saw dramatic changes in ideas about how widely smartphones could be used.

Second, my scenarios are based on what I learned at more than 200 public meetings which I have chaired since March 2008 for the London Futurists organisation – meetings where radical technoprogressive concepts were discussed many times, from multiple perspectives.

And third, the scenarios draw upon my own research and writing in the field known as transhumanism – the philosophy that says that it is both possible and desirable for human nature to be fundamentally improved by the wise use of science and technology. I first spoke at an international transhumanist conference in Helsinki in July 2006, and as it happens I gave two keynotes at the latest conference in that same series, in Madrid last month. To put all my cards on the table, I serve on the Board of Directors of Humanity+, the world’s longest established transhumanist community.

Rather than using the rather clumsy expression “biohacking, wearable computing, and implantable computers”, I’m going to reframe the discussion instead to be about “humanity enhancement technologies”, h-e-t.

HET includes devices of different sizes. On the larger scale we can foresee wider take-up of improved smart glasses, smart earbuds, and parts of a smart exoskeleton. On a smaller scale, consider myriad bodily sensors, both inside and outside the body, and, perhaps, synthetic replacements for some parts of some of our body organs. On an even smaller scale, more profoundly, consider embedded nanobots – computing devices the size of blood cells, which can travel freely around the body.

In simple terms, HET includes technologies that monitor us and our environment, technologies that advise us, technologies that strengthen us and revitalise us, and technologies that act on our behalf. Overall, these technologies can, to coin a phrase, act like an inner guardian angel.

In all cases, the goal of HET would be to allow people to become more fully human, enabling higher states of health, higher levels of creativity, higher planes of consciousness, and, in general, greater amounts of human flourishing.

Some writers dislike the idea of “becoming more fully human”. This strikes these writers as being somehow anti-human or elitist or divisive. But if there is one constant about human nature – an admirable constant –  it is our deep desire to be able to go beyond our natural condition.

Indeed, it was our natural condition for most of history and prehistory, to be likely to die well before the age of forty. It was the natural condition for women, if they didn’t die whilst giving birth, to see around five of their seven children predecease them, dying in childhood. Humans said to each other, rightly, we can do better. Thankfully, nowadays the average life expectancy for the whole earth’s population is a bit more than seventy years. And thankfully, nowadays the previous natural condition of living in near absolute poverty is, for most people, a thing of the past.

These changes happened in the past; what about the future?

There are still many parts of human nature which get in the way of fuller human flourishing. HET can play a big role in overcoming these aspects of human nature. I’ll briefly look at four areas of human nature where HET can help us transcend our present serious limitations.

First, our bodies are too prone to become damaged, especially with aging. Embedded health monitors and nanoscale repair solutions can help to reverse damage more promptly, giving us many extra years of vitality and health. Second, our minds are too easily misled, by numerous cognitive biases; but smart glasses and smart earbuds, as well as future systems that in due course connect more directly into our brains, can steer us away from decisions we would later regret, a bit like a good friend can do. Third, our emotional states are too prone to become despondent and alienated; again, HET can help keep us in a more productive state of flow – steering us away from egotism and envy. And fourth, our human social dynamics too often involve deception, abuses of power, xenophobia, and tribalism; HET can intervene in our thinking to steer us towards behaving with greater respect, greater transparency, greater empathy, and greater collaboration.

To summarise what I’ve just said, HET, Humanity Enhancement Technology, can help us achieve abundant health and longevity, abundant intelligence and wisdom, abundant emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and, fourth, abundant collaboration and democracy.

Well, that’s the positive vision, but of course there are big risks with such technology, potentially leading to alternative scenarios. I’ll briefly mention four such risks, and I’ll also indicate in each case some steps we can take to avoid these risks.

First, if we in effect have voices in our heads, and miniature robots in our bloodstream, we need to be sure these agents really are acting in our own best interests, rather than in the interest of the corporations or governments that design and operate these agents. For this reason, the large tech companies need to come under improved democratic oversight.

Second, there’s a risk that HET might magnify some of our powers, but in an imbalanced way. We might become stronger but not kinder. We might become cleverer but not wiser. We might become more manipulative but not more merciful. We might become like extra powerful versions of some of the most devious of present-day politicians, or some of the nastiest of present-day criminals – people who are evidently clever and capable, but who lack sufficient moral sentiment. For this reason, we must prioritise technologies that improve our emotional intelligence ahead of technologies that simply make us cleverer or stronger.

Third, there’s a risk that HET remains expensive, and therefore increases the level of inequality in society. In principle, the cost of HET should decline sharply over time, the same as has happened for smartphones, and for many other items containing consumer electronics. But there’s nothing inevitable about such a decline. That’s another reason for ensuring that the development of these technologies remains under improved democratic oversight.

Fourth, there’s a risk of a sharp fracturing of human society, if some people use HET to raise their performance levels significantly, but others decline the opportunity and remain unenhanced. For this fourth risk, the resulting inequality would in principle be voluntary, rather than involuntary, as in the third risk. It would be like having lots of communities akin to the present-day Amish, who are very selective about which kinds of technology they use, and which they avoid using. Well, society should support and respect this kind of diversity. But we should be ready to fight backward-looking ideologies, if these ideologies seek to oppress people and keep them in a state of illiteracy or deprivation. It’s like we don’t allow religious groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses to forbid their children from having blood transfusions. We don’t allow that kind of child abuse. We don’t permit communities to keep their youngsters in a state of being illiterate, denying them basic education. Nor should we permit people to deny their children vaccinations, leaving the community vulnerable to deadly infectious diseases. But we should, nevertheless, respect legitimate diversity and difference of practices. It is is an important topic for further discussion what the limitations of that tolerance and diversity should be.

So, yes, there are profound risks with HET. But there are also profound benefits too, if we get things right. And there are also profound risks in not adopting HET, that is, in leaving humanity in our present unenhanced status. To quote the eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall. End of quote.

To conclude: In our present state, it’s too easy for us to make fatal mistakes, out of our prejudices, our insecurities, our frustrations, and our egotism. These fatal mistakes can have catastrophic consequences, for the environment, and for human civilisation. Therefore we need to take wise and profound advantage of emerging twenty first century technology, via HET, to elevate our human nature, in anticipation of a forthcoming new era of sustainable superabundance that is within our grasp. Thank you.

 

29 September 2018

Preview: Assessing the risks from super intelligent AI

Filed under: AGI, presentation — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 1:14 am

The following video gives a short preview of the Funzing talk on “Assessing the risks from super-intelligent AI” that I’ll be giving shortly:

Note: the music in this video is “Berlin Approval” from Jukedeck, a company that is “building tools that use cutting-edge musical artificial intelligence to assist creativity”. Create your own at http://jukedeck.com.

Transcript of the video:

Welcome. My name is David Wood, and I’d like to tell you about a talk I give for Funzing.

This talk looks at the potential rapid increase in the ability of Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI.

AI is everywhere nowadays, and it is, rightly, getting a lot of attention. But the AI of a few short years in the future could be MUCH more powerful than today’s AI. Is that going to be a good thing, or a bad thing?

Some people, like the entrepreneur Elon Musk, or the physicist Stephen Hawking, say we should be very worried about the growth of super artificial intelligence. It could be the worst thing that ever happened to humanity, they say. Without anyone intending it, we could all become the victims of some horrible bugs or design flaws in super artificial intelligence. You may have heard of the “blue screen of death”, when Windows crashes. Well, we could all be headed to some kind of “blue screen of megadeath”.

Other people, like the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, say that it’s “irresponsible” to worry about the growth of super AI. Let’s hurry up and build better AI, they say, so we can use that super AI to solve major outstanding human problems like cancer, climate change, and economic inequality.

A third group of people say that discussing the rise of super AI is a distraction and it’s premature to do so now. It’s nothing we need to think about any time soon, they say. Instead, there are more pressing short-term issues that deserve our attention, like hidden biases in today’s AI algorithms, or the need to retrain people to change their jobs more quickly in the wake of the rise of automation.

In my talk, I’ll be helping you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all three of these points of view. I’ll give reasons why, in as little as ten years, we could, perhaps, reach a super AI that goes way beyond human capability in every aspect. I’ll describe five ways in which that super AI could go disastrously wrong, due to lack of sufficient forethought and coordination about safety. And I’ll be reviewing some practical initiatives for how we can increase the chance of the growth of super AI being a very positive development for humanity, rather than a very negative one.

People who have seen my talk before have said that it’s easy to understand, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, and it provides “much to think about”.

What makes my approach different to others who speak on this subject is the wide perspective I can apply. This comes from the twenty five years in which I was at the heart of the mobile computing and smartphone industries, during which time I saw at close hand the issues with developing and controlling very complicated system software. I also bring ten years of experience more recently, as chair of London Futurists, in running meetings at which the growth of AI has often been discussed by world-leading thinkers.

I consider myself a real-world futurist: I take the human and political dimensions of technology very seriously. I also consider myself to be a radical futurist, since I believe that the not-so-distant future could be very different from the present. And we need to think hard about it beforehand, to decide if we like that outcome or not.

The topic of super AI is too big and important to leave to technologists, or to business people. There are a lot of misunderstandings around, and my talk will help you see the key issues and opportunities more clearly than before. I look forward to seeing you there! Thanks for listening.

21 July 2018

Transhumanism freed from the fantasies

Filed under: books, H+Pedia, Humanity Plus — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 10:08 pm

Transhumanism attracts a lot of fantasy.

What I mean to say is that articles about transhumanism time and again include fantasies from the minds of the authors of these articles. These authors project all kinds of unwarranted assumptions onto the picture they paint of transhumanism. They don’t describe transhumanism. Instead, they describe their fantasy of what transhumanism is.

For example, I have read authors earnestly asserting that transhumanism is dedicated to improved efficiency. Or to maximising intelligence. Or to rushing to adopt every bit of new technology as quickly as possible. Or to increasing the wealth of the 1%. Or to the pursuit of hedonism. Or to denigrating the human body in favour of pure mind. Or to escaping from politics. Or to imposing a particular political solution on everyone else. Or to worshipping the forthcoming technological singularity as a new religion. Or to championing atheism above all else. And so on.

I don’t want to raise the web-ranking of these rather sad articles by linking to them all. If you really want to track them down, it’s not hard. A couple of H+Pedia pages – Straw transhumanist and Misconceptions about transhumanism – will give you some ideas for search terms to use.

But I will mention one article in particular, which was drawn to my attention a couple of days ago. The article is entitled “The Transhumanism Revolution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation”. Here are some choice quotes from it:

The transhumanist perspective insists that humans have a distinctly separate mind and body…

The… transhumanist project… [aims at the] objective: liberating the human being from the limitations of the body…

In its various forms, transhumanism is an attempt to reify an illusory mind-body dualism…

If we perceive ourselves and others to be disembodied minds piloting meat machines—bodies of mere matter that do not matter—what horror will we be capable of inflicting on the bodies of others? …

Transhumanism is oppression disguised as liberation.

To be clear, transhumanists do talk about liberation from current limitations. But these aren’t specifically “limitations of the body”. They are the limitations of the human nature we have inherited from evolution and which has been moulded by society and by philosophy. They are limitations in our mind as well as our body – limitations in our social structures as well as in our individual selves.

And to be clear again, there are of course some people who identify as transhumanists who yearn to free their consciousness from their biological bodies. Likewise, for various of the straw transhumanist characterisations I listed above, there are indeed some transhumanists who conform to the description.

But to jump to the conclusion that transhumanism itself has these characteristics, would be like noticing some personality features in a person with a given nationality, and deducing that all people with that nationality necessarily possess these same features. Or like concluding that all Christians seek to accelerate a literal Armageddon in the Middle East, just because some Christians seem to have that aspiration. Etc.

Such conclusions are lazy. They are reductionist (confusing an occasional manifestation for the essence of a movement). They can also stir up confusion and enmity, unnecessarily.

We should expect, and demand, better!

A better starting point

For a picture that sets out the landscape of different ideas and positions within the overall transhumanist framework, this diagram from H+Pedia is a useful compendium:

(You can click on the diagram, to reach the version of it that is embedded in H+Pedia. And then you can click on individual terms in that diagram, to jump to the page in H+Pedia that gives more information about a particular term.)

As for what might be called the core of transhumanism, I’d like in the remainder of this blogpost to highlight some key passages from the history of transhumanist thought – passages that deserve to be better known.

Julian Huxley

One of the first writers to have asserted the need for a new philosophy, to be called transhumanism, was the British evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley FRS. Huxley gave a talk “Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny” over two evenings in Washington DC on 19-20 April 1951. A version of the talk was subsequently included in the journal Psychiatry later that year, and is also available in pages 245-278 of the book of Huxley’s essays “New Bottles for New Wine” published in 1957. Here’s the section where Huxley introduces the concept of transhumanism as being a new philosophy:

Never was there a greater need for a large perspective, in which we might discern the outlines of a general and continuing belief beyond the disturbance and chaos of the present…

Every society, in every age, needs some system of beliefs, including a basic attitude to life, an organized set of ideas around which emotion and purpose may gather, and a conception of human destiny. It needs a philosophy and a faith to achieve a guide to orderly living – in other words, a morality…

This brings me… to the emergent idea-system, the new organization of thought, at whose birth we are assisting. It takes account, first and foremost, of the fact that nature is one universal process of evolution, self-developing and self-transforming, and it includes us. Man does not stand over against nature; he is part of it. We men are that part of the process which has become self-conscious, and it is our duty and our destiny to facilitate the process by leading it on to new levels.

Our chief motive, therefore, will derive from the exploration and understanding of human nature and the possibilities of development and fulfilment inherent in it, a study which will of course include the limitations, distortions, and frustrations to be avoided.

Such a philosophy might perhaps best be called Transhumanism. It is based on the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and arrive at fuller fruition; it is the realization that both individual and social development are processes of self-transformation.

Huxley returned to the same theme in a 1957 essay entitled “Transhumanism” which can be found on pages 13-17 in the same volume of essays “New Bottles for New Wine” mentioned earlier. An extract:

As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future. This cosmic self-awareness is being realized in one tiny fragment of the universe —in a few of us human beings. Perhaps it has been realized elsewhere too, through the evolution of conscious living creatures on the planets of other stars. But on this our planet, it has never happened before…

Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish and short”; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery in one form or another—poverty, disease, ill-health, over-work, cruelty, or oppression. They have attempted to lighten their misery by means of their hopes and their ideals. The trouble has been that the hopes have generally been unjustified, the ideals have generally failed to correspond with reality.

The zestful but scientific exploration of possibilities and of the techniques for realizing them will make our hopes rational, and will set our ideals within the framework of reality, by showing how much of them are indeed realizable. Already, we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted. We are already justified in the conviction that human life as we know it in history is a wretched makeshift, rooted in ignorance; and that it could be transcended by a state of existence based on the illumination of knowledge and comprehension, just as our modern control of physical nature based on science transcends the tentative fumblings of our ancestors, that were rooted in superstition and professional secrecy.

To do this, we must study the possibilities of creating a more favourable social environment, as we have already done in large measure with our physical environment…

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.

“I believe in transhumanism”: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.

Max More

Skipping ahead past a number of other influential thinkers, let me pick out some writing of the philosopher Max More – who (with good justification) is often described as the person who gave transhumanism its modern definition. This is from an essay More first published in 1990, “Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy”:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life rather than in some supernatural “afterlife”. Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system.

For a more lyrical description of transhumanism, I like the essay More wrote in 1999, “Letter to Mother Nature”. The letter is well worth quoting in its entirey:

Dear Mother Nature:

Sorry to disturb you, but we humans—your offspring—come to you with some things to say. (Perhaps you could pass this on to Father, since we never seem to see him around.) We want to thank you for the many wonderful qualities you have bestowed on us with your slow but massive, distributed intelligence. You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled mammals. You have given us free rein of the planet. You have given us a life span longer than that of almost any other animal. You have endowed us with a complex brain giving us the capacity for language, reason, foresight, curiosity, and creativity. You have given us the capacity for self-understanding as well as empathy for others.

Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves!

What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end.

We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution, initiated with the tools of biotechnology guided by critical and creative thinking. In particular, we declare the following seven amendments to the human constitution.

Amendment No.1: We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death. Through genetic alterations, cellular manipulations, synthetic organs, and any necessary means, we will endow ourselves with enduring vitality and remove our expiration date. We will each decide for ourselves how long we shall live.

Amendment No.2: We will expand our perceptual range through biotechnological and computational means. We seek to exceed the perceptual abilities of any other creature and to devise novel senses to expand our appreciation and understanding of the world around us.

Amendment No.3: We will improve on our neural organization and capacity, expanding our working memory, and enhancing our intelligence.

Amendment No.4: We will supplement the neocortex with a “metabrain”. This distributed network of sensors, information processors, and intelligence will increase our degree of self-awareness and allow us to modulate our emotions.

Amendment No. 5: We will no longer be slaves to our genes. We will take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological, and neurological processes. We will fix all individual and species defects left over from evolution by natural selection. Not content with that, we will seek complete choice of our bodily form and function, refining and augmenting our physical and intellectual abilities beyond those of any human in history.

Amendment No.6: We will cautiously yet boldly reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses in ways we, as individuals, deem healthy. We will seek to improve upon typical human emotional excesses, bringing about refined emotions. We will strengthen ourselves so we can let go of unhealthy needs for dogmatic certainty, removing emotional barriers to rational self-correction.

Amendment No.7: We recognize your genius in using carbon-based compounds to develop us. Yet we will not limit our physical, intellectual, or emotional capacities by remaining purely biological organisms. While we pursue mastery of our own biochemistry, we will increasingly integrate our advancing technologies into our selves.

These amendments to our constitution will move us from a human to an transhuman condition as individuals. We believe that individual transhumanizing will also allow us to form relationships, cultures, and polities of unprecedented innovation, richness, freedom, and responsibility.

We reserve the right to make further amendments collectively and individually. Rather than seeking a state of final perfection, we will continue to pursue new forms of excellence according to our own values, and as technology allows.

Your ambitious human offspring.

The Transhumanist Declaration

The nearest thing that the transhumanist community has to a canonical document is the Transhumanist Declaration. This evolved over a number of versions over the period from around 1996 to 2009. Here’s the latest version, taken from the Humanity+ website:

  1. Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
  2. We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
  3. We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
  4. Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
  5. Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
  6. Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
  7. We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
  8. We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

Moving forwards

I hope you’ll agree with me that there are no grounds, in any of these foundational documents, for the reductionist distortions of transhumanism that critics from time like to portray and then to rail against.

Indeed, the transhumanist community has authored a wide range of engaging literature on transhumanist themes. If you prefer to do your reading from a book, rather than from an online wiki such as H+Pedia, the best starting point is probably the collection “The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future”, edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More. Enjoy!

20 July 2018

Christopher Columbus and the surprising future of AI

Filed under: AGI, predictability, Singularity — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 5:49 pm

There are plenty of critics who are sceptical about the future of AI. The topic has been over-hyped, say these critics. According to these critics, we don’t need to be worried about the longer-term repercussions of AI with superhuman capabilities. We’re many decades – perhaps centuries – from anything approaching AGI (artificial general intelligence) with skills in common sense reasoning matching (or surpassing) that of humans. As for AI destroying jobs, that, too, is a false alarm – or so the critics insist. AI will create at least as many jobs as it destroys.

In my previous blog post, Serious question over PwC’s report on the impact of AI on jobs, I offered some counters to these critics. To my mind, this is no time for complacency: AI could accelerate in its capabilities, and take us by surprise. The kinds of breakthroughs that, in a previous era, might have been expected to take many decades, could actually take place in just a few short years. Rather than burying our head in the sands, denying the possibility of any such acceleration, we need to pay more attention to the trends of technological change and the potential for disruptive new innovations.

The Christopher Columbus angle

Overnight, I’ve been reminded of an argument that I’ve used previously – towards the end of a rather long blogpost. It’s the argument that critics of the future of AI are similar to the critics of Christopher Columbus – the people who said, before his 1492 voyage across the Atlantic in search of a westerly route to Asia, that the effort was bound to be a bad investment.

Bear with me while I retell this analogy.

For years, Columbus tried to drum up support for what most people considered to be a hare-brained scheme. Most observers concluded that Columbus had fallen victim to a significant mistake – he estimated that the distance from the Canary Islands (off the coast of Morocco) to Japan was around 3,700 km, whereas the generally accepted figure was closer to 20,000 km. Indeed, the true size of the sphere of the Earth had been known since the 3rd century BC, due to a calculation by Eratosthenes, based on observations of shadows at different locations.

Accordingly, when Columbus presented his bold proposal to courts around Europe, the learned members of the courts time and again rejected the idea. The effort would be hugely larger than Columbus supposed, they said. It would be a fruitless endeavour.

Columbus, an autodidact, wasn’t completely crazy. He had done a lot of his own research. However, he was misled by a number of factors:

  • Confusion between various ancient units of distance (the “Arabic mile” and the “Roman mile”)
  • How many degrees of latitude the Eurasian landmass occupied (225 degrees versus 150 degrees)
  • A speculative 1474 map, by the Florentine astronomer Toscanelli, which showed a mythical island “Antilla” located to the east of Japan (named as “Cippangu” in the map).

You can read the details in the Wikipedia article on Columbus, which provides numerous additional reference points. The article also contains a copy of Toscanelli’s map, with the true location of the continents of North and South America superimposed for reference.

No wonder Columbus thought his plan might work after all. Nevertheless, the 1490s equivalents of today’s VCs kept saying “No” to his pitches. Finally, spurred on by competition with the neighbouring Portuguese (who had, just a few years previously, successfully navigated to the Indian ocean around the tip of Africa), the Spanish king and queen agreed to take the risk of supporting his adventure. After stopping in the Canaries to restock, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria set off westward. Five weeks later, the crew spotted land, in what we now call the Bahamas. And the rest is history.

But it wasn’t the history expected by Columbus, or by his backers, or by his critics. No-one had foreseen that a huge continent existed in the oceans in between Europe and Japan. None of the ancient writers – either secular or religious – had spoken of such a continent. Nevertheless, once Columbus had found it, the history of the world proceeded in a very different direction – including mass deaths from infectious diseases transmitted from the European sailors, genocide and cultural apocalypse, and enormous trade in both goods and slaves. In due course, it would the the ingenuity and initiatives of people subsequently resident in the Americas that propelled humans beyond the Earth’s atmosphere all the way to the moon.

What does this have to do with the future of AI?

Rational critics may have ample justification in thinking that true AGI is located many decades in the future. But this fact does not deter a multitude of modern-day AGI explorers from setting out, Columbus-like, in search of some dramatic breakthroughs. And who knows what intermediate forms of AI might be discovered, unexpectedly?

Just as the contemporaries of Columbus erred in presuming they already knew all the large features of the earth’s continents (after all: if America really existed, surely God would have written about it in the Bible…), modern-day critics of AI can err in presuming they already know all the large features of the landscape of possible artificial minds.

When contemplating the space of all possible minds, some humility is in order. We cannot foretell in advance what configurations of intelligence are possible. We don’t know what may happen, if separate modules of reasoning are combined in innovative ways. After all, there are many aspects of the human mind which are still in doubt.

When critics say that it is unlikely that present-day AI mechanisms will take us all the way to AGI, they are very likely correct. But it would be a horrendous error to draw the conclusion that meaningful new continents of AI capability are inevitably still the equivalent of 20,000 km into the distance. The fact is, we simply don’t know. And for that reason, we should keep an open mind.

One day soon, indeed, we might read news of some new “AUI” having been discovered – some Artificial Unexpected Intelligence, which changes history. It won’t be AGI, but it could have all kinds of unexpected consequences.

Beyond the Columbus analogy

Every analogy has its drawbacks. Here are three ways in which the discovery of an AUI could be different from the discovery by Columbus of America:

  1. In the 1490s, there was only one Christopher Columbus. Nowadays, there are scores (perhaps hundreds) of schemes underway to try to devise new models of AI. Many of these are proceeding with significant financial backing.
  2. Whereas the journey across the Atlantic (and, eventually, the Pacific) could be measured by a single variable (latitude), the journey across the vast multidimensional landscape of artificial minds is much less predictable. That’s another reason to keep an open mind.
  3. Discovering an AUI could drastically transform the future of exploration in the landscape of artificial minds. Assisted by AUI, we might get to AGI much quicker than without it. Indeed, in some scenarios, it might take only a few months after we reach AUI for us (now going much faster than before) to reach AGI. Or days. Or hours.

Footnote

If you’re in or near Birmingham on 11th September, I’ll be giving a Funzing talk on how to assess the nature of the risks and opportunities from superhuman AI. For more details, see here.

 

19 July 2018

Serious questions over PwC’s report on the impact of AI on jobs

Filed under: politics, robots, UBI, urgency — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 7:47 pm

A report (PDF) issued on Tuesday by consulting giant PwC has received a lot of favourable press coverage.

Here’s PwC’s own headline summary: “AI and related technologies should create as many jobs as they displace”:

AI and related technologies such as robotics, drones and driverless vehicles could displace many jobs formerly done by humans, but will also create many additional jobs as productivity and real incomes rise and new and better products are developed.

We estimate that these countervailing displacement and income effects on employment are likely to broadly balance each other out over the next 20 years in the UK, with the share of existing jobs displaced by AI (c.20%) likely to be approximately equal to the additional jobs that are created…

BBC News picked up the apparent good news: “AI will create as many jobs as it displaces – report”:

A growing body of research claims the impact of AI automation will be less damaging than previously thought.

Forbes chose this headline: “AI Won’t Kill The Job Market But Keep It Steady, PwC Report Says”:

It’s impossible to say precisely how artificial intelligence will disrupt the job market, so researchers at PwC have taken a bird’s-eye view and pointed to the results of sweeping economic changes.

Their prediction, in a new report out Tuesday, is that it will all balance out in the end.

PwC are to be commended for setting out their reasoning clearly, over 16 pages (p36-p51) in their PDF report.

But three major questions need to be raised about their analysis. These questions throw a different light on the conclusions of the report.

This diagram covers the essence of the model used by PwC:

Q1: How will firms handle the “income effect”?

I agree that automation is likely to generate significant amounts of additional profits, as well as market demand for extra goods and services.

But what’s the reason for assuming that firms will “hire more workers” in response to this demand?

Mightn’t it be more financially attractive to these companies to incorporate more automation instead? Mightn’t more robots be a better investment than more human workers?

The justification for thinking that there will be plenty of new jobs for humans in this scenario, is the assumption that many tasks will remain outside the capability of automation. That is, the analysis depends on humans having skills which cannot be duplicated by AIs, software, robots, or other automation. The assumption is true today, but will it remain true over the next two decades?

PwC’s report points to sectors such as healthcare, social work, education, and science, as areas where jobs are likely to grow over the next twenty years. But that takes us to the second major question.

Q2: What prevents acceleration in the capabilities of AI?

PwC’s report, like many others that mainstream consultancies produce, basically assumes that the AI of 10-15 years time will be a simple extension of today’s AI.

Of course, no one knows for sure how AI will develop over the years ahead. But I see it as irresponsible to neglect scenarios in which AI progresses in leaps and bounds.

Just as the whole field of AI was given a huge shot in the arm by unexpected breakthroughs in the performance of deep learning from around 2012 onwards, we should be open to the possibility of additional breakthroughs in the years ahead, enabled by a combination of the following trends:

  • Huge commercial prizes are awaiting the companies that can improve their AI capabilities
  • Huge military prizes are awaiting the countries that can improve their AI capabilities
  • More developers, entrepreneurs, designers, and systems integrators are active in AI than ever before, exploring an incredible variety of different concepts
  • Increased knowledge of how the human brain operates is being fed into ideas for how to improve AI
  • Cheaper hardware, including easy access to vast cloud computing resources, means that investigations of novel AI models can take place more quickly than before
  • AI can be used to improve some of its own capabilities, in positive feedback loops, and in new “generative adversarial” settings
  • Hardware innovations including new chipset designs and quantum computing could turn today’s crazy ideas into tomorrow’s practical realities.

Today’s AI already shows considerable promise in fields such as transfer learning, artificial creativity, the detection and simulation of emotions, and concept formulation. How quickly will progress occur? My view: slowly, and then quickly.

Q3: How might the “displacement effect” be altered?

In parallel with rating the income effect much more highly than I think is prudent, the PwC analysis offers in my view some dubious reasoning for lowering the displacement effect:

Although we estimate that up to 30% of existing UK jobs could be at high risk of being automated, a job being at “high risk” of being automated does not mean that it will definitely be automated, as there could be a range of economic, legal and regulatory and organisational barriers to the adoption of these new technologies…

We think it is reasonable to scale down our estimates by a factor of two thirds to reflect these barriers, so our central estimate of the proportion of existing jobs that will actually be automated over the next 20 years is reduced to 20%.

Yes, a whole panoply of human factors can alter the speed of the take-up of new technology. But such factors aren’t always brakes. In some circumstances – as perceptions change – they can become accelerators.

Consider if companies in one country (e.g. the UK) are slow to adopt some new technology, but rival companies overseas act more quickly. Declining competitiveness will be one reason for the mindset to change.

A different example: attitudes towards interracial marriages, or towards same-sex marriages, changed slowly for a long time, until they started to change faster.

Q4: What are the consequences of negligent forecasting?

Here’s a bonus question. Does it really matter if PwC get these forecasts wrong? Or is it better to err on the conservative side?

I imagine PwC consultants reasoning along the following lines. Let’s avoid panic. Changes in the job market are likely to be slow in at least the shorter term. Provided that remains the case, the primary pieces of policy advice offered in the report make sense:

Government should invest more in ‘STEAM’ skills that will be most useful to people in this increasingly automated world.

Place-based industrial strategy should target job creation.

The report follows up these recommendations with a different kind of policy advice:

Government should strengthen the safety net for those who find it hard to adjust to technological changes.

But the question is: how much attention should be given, in relative terms, to these two different kinds of advice? Should society put more effort into new training programmes, or in redesigning the prevailing social contract?

So long as the impact of automation on the job market is relatively small, perhaps less effort is needed to work on a better social safety net. But if the impact could be significantly higher, well, many people find that too frightening to contemplate. Hence the desire to sweep such ideas under the carpet – similar to how polite society once avoided using the word “cancer”.

My own view is that the balance of emphasis in the PwC report is the wrong way round. Society urgently needs to anticipate new structures (and new philosophies) that cope with large proportions of the workforce no longer being able to earn income from paid employment.

That’s the argument I made in, for example, my opening remarks in the recent London Futurists conference on UBIA (Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives):

… and I took the time at the end of the event to back up my assertions with a wider analysis:

To be clear, I see many big challenges in working out how a new post-work social contract will operate – and how society can transition from our present system to this new one. But the fact these tasks are hard, is all the more reason to look at them calmly and carefully. Obscuring the need for these tasks, under a flourish of proposals to increase ‘STEAM’ skills and improve apprentice schemes is, sadly, irresponsible.

17 July 2018

Would you like your mind expanded?

Filed under: books, healthcare, psychology, religion — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 10:15 pm

Several times while listening to the audio of the recent new book How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, I paused the playback and thought to myself, “wow”.

Pollan is a gifted writer. He strings together words and sentences in a highly elegant way. But my reactions to his book were caused by the audacity of the ideas conveyed, even more than by the powerful rhythms and cadences of the words doing the conveying.

Pollan made his reputation as a writer about food. The most famous piece of advice he offered, earlier in his career, is the seven word phrase “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. You might ask: What do you mean by food? Pollan’s answer: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

With such a background, you might not expect any cutting-edge fireworks from Pollan. However, his most recent book bears the provocative subtitle What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. That’s a lot of big topics. (On reflection, you’ll realise that your great grandmother might have had things to say about all these topics.)

The book covers its material carefully and patiently, from multiple different perspectives. I found it engaging throughout – from the section at the beginning when Pollan explained how he, in his late 50s, became more interested in this field – via sections covering the evolutionary history of mushrooms, thoughtful analyses of Pollan’s own varied experiences with various psychedelics, and the rich mix of fascinating characters in psychedelic history (many larger-than-life, others preferring anonymity) – to sections suggesting big implications for our understanding of mental wellbeing, illnesses of the mind, and the nature of spirituality.

If any of the following catch your interest, I suggest you check out How to Change your Mind:

  • The likely origins of human beliefs about religion
  • Prospects for comprehensive treatments of depression, addiction, and compulsive behaviour
  • The nature of consciousness, the self, and the ego
  • Prospects for people routinely becoming “better than well”
  • Ways in which controversial treatments (e.g. those involving psychedelics) can in due course become accepted by straight-laced regulators from the FDA and the EMA
  • The perils of society collectively forgetting important insights from earlier generations of researchers.

Personally, I particularly enjoyed the sections about William James and Aldous Huxley. I already knew quite a lot about both of them before, but Pollan helped me see their work in a larger perspective. There were many other characters in the book that I learned about for the first time. Perhaps the most astonishing was Al Hubbard. Mind-boggling, indeed.

I see How to Change your Mind as part of a likely tipping point of public acceptability of psychedelics. It’s that well written.

In case it’s not clear, you ought to familiarise yourself with this book if:

  • You consider yourself a futurist – someone who attempts to anticipate key changes in social attitudes and practices
  • You consider yourself a transhumanist – someone interested in extending human experience beyond the ordinary.

22 June 2018

June 24th: A doubly historic day for Symbian

Filed under: smartphones, Smartphones and beyond, Symbian, Symbian Foundation, Symbian Story — Tags: — David Wood @ 11:13 pm

This Sunday will be the 24th of June 2018. It’s a doubly historic day for Symbian – and for the evolution of the smartphone industry.

Twenty years ago, to the day, the birth of Symbian Ltd was announced to the world. My colleague on the very first Symbian Operational Board, Bill Batchelor, urged all employees of the new company to “make a special note in your Agenda”.

Here’s a copy of my own Agenda file from that day – taken from my Psion Series 5mx:

The name “Symbian” had been a carefully guarded secret up to that day. The new company had been referred to, within planning documents with tightly restricted distribution, as “Nova” – representing an astronomically bright object. The very idea of a new company took nearly all employees of Psion (Symbian’s parent) as a surprise that morning.

The thinking behind the creation of the new company was spelt out at an “Impact” meeting in the Metropole Hotel on London’s Edgware Road. To mark the anniversary of this event, it’s an appropriate occasion for me to share some of the slides presented that day:












With the wisdom of hindsight, these slides can be seen as a mixture of powerful vision and naively audacious optimism.

Fast forward exactly ten years, to 24th June 2008. That morning, I was in Cambridge, ready to share news to all Symbian employees there that another huge transformation was to take place in the Symbian universe. Here’s my Agenda entry for that day:

I can, again, convey the essence of the news via a selection of the slides used on that day:






Once again, with the wisdom of hindsight, these slides can be seen as a mixture of powerful vision and naively audacious optimism.

More of our thinking was captured at the time by blogposts written by me (“Symbian 2-0”) and my Symbian Foundation Leadership Team colleague John Forsyth (“Welcome to the future of Symbian”).

The thinking behind the Symbian Foundation also built upon an inspired piece of strategic communication from earlier in 2008, led by Symbian’s CEO from that time, Nigel Clifford. He called it “the Symbian story”:






Did either of these powerful visions, set out ten years apart, have much of a chance of becoming a reality? Opinions still differ on these questions. I’ve set out my own analysis in my book “Smartphones and beyond: lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian” (published in September 2014).

Footnote

Any former Symbian employee who wishes to take part in some face-to-face reminiscences, and who can be near Symbian’s former headquarters in Boundary Row, Southwark, London, on the evening of Friday 29th June, is welcome to get in touch. Several of us will be gathering, ready to share news and views of what was, and what might have been.

18 June 2018

Politics for normal people: strongly recommended!

Filed under: politics, UBI — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 9:19 am

The first that I heard about Andrew Yang was something like this: a supporter of universal basic income (UBI) wants to become the President of the United States, and has written a book in favour of the idea.

I confess I was a bit sceptical. Most books written by aspiring politicians are lightweight.

However, it turns out that to describe the book Yang has written as simply a book about UBI, is to vastly understate its scope and the power. I’ve just finished listening to the audio version of it, and I’m very impressed.

Yes, the book says sensible, thoughtful things about the likely advantages of UBI, and how it might be paid for. But it says much more than that.

The title of the book is “The war on normal people”. These “normal people” are ones with statistically median characteristics – median education levels, median income, median family circumstances, and so on. These aren’t the people who tend to congregate in the parts of the USA where the economy is still doing well – such as New York, Boston, Silicon Valley, and Seattle. As Yang highlights in chapter after chapter of grim but compelling reading, the prospects for these normal people are bad – if trends continue on their current trajectories.

Yang has an impressive CV of activities he undertook prior to announcing his interest in becoming President. Here’s an extract from his online biography:

I’m not a career politician—I’m an entrepreneur who understands the economy. It’s clear to me, and to many of the nation’s best job creators, that we need to make an unprecedented change, and we need to make it now. But the establishment isn’t willing to take the necessary bold steps…

I was born in upstate New York in 1975. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 1960s and met in grad school. My Dad was a researcher at IBM—he generated 69 patents over his career—and my Mom was the systems administrator at a local university. My brother and I grew up pretty nerdy. We also grew up believing in the American Dream—it’s why my parents came here.

I studied economics and political science at Brown and went to law school at Columbia. After a brief stint as a corporate lawyer, I realized it wasn’t for me. I launched a small company in the early days of the internet that didn’t work out, and then worked for a healthcare startup, where I learned how to build a business from more experienced entrepreneurs. In my thirties, I ran a national education company that grew to become #1 in the country. I also met my wife, Evelyn, and got married. My education company was acquired, and with Evelyn’s support, I decided to take my earnings and committed myself to creating jobs in cities hit hard by the financial crisis. By that time I understood the power of entrepreneurship to generate economic growth, so I founded Venture for America (VFA), an organization that helps entrepreneurs create jobs in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

VFA resonates with so many people because it’s clear there’s a growing problem in the U.S.: automation is destroying jobs and entire regions are being left behind. For years I believed new business formation was the answer—if we could train a new generation of entrepreneurs and create the right jobs in the right places, we could stop the downward spiral of growing income inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. VFA created jobs by the thousands and continues to do amazing work across the country. But along the way, it became clear to me that job creation will not outpace the massive impending job loss due to automation. Those days are simply over.

Yang draws on many of his personal experiences in the book. He describes how, despite lots of good intentions from existing political and social leaders, much of the interior of the USA has been heading steadily downhill. The fixes that are often proposed, such as retraining people from one career skillset to another – aren’t going to work on the scale needed.

Hence Yang’s summary:

I fear for the future of our country. New technologies – robots, software, artificial intelligence – have already destroyed more than 4 million US jobs, and in the next 5-10 years, they will eliminate millions more. A third of all American workers are at risk of permanent unemployment. And this time, the jobs will not come back.

Despite the depressing analysis in the opening two thirds of the book, the final sections are full of what I see as credible optimism.

Here’s his headline vision:

As president, my first priority will be to implement Universal Basic Income for every American adult between the ages of 18 and 64: $1,000 a month, no strings attached, paid for by a new tax on the companies benefiting most from automation.

However – of key importance – Yang’s book makes clear that he understands that the financial payments are only a small part of the transformation that needs to be taken.

UBI is just the beginning. A crisis is underway—we have to work together to stop it, or risk losing the heart of our country. The stakes have never been higher.

Yang makes lots of interesting proposals about changes to communities (including systems of “digital social credits”), healthcare, and education. These build on his own experiences within the healthcare and education industries, and resonate with my personal observations from my own career. For example, Yang urges that we shouldn’t think of education and being primarily about preparing someone for employment. Instead, it should be about the development of character.

Anyone else considering running for political office would do well to compare their vision with that of Andrew Yang. I wish him the best of success.

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