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15 May 2022

A day in the life of Asimov, 2045

Filed under: vision — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 2:39 pm

“Gosh, that’s a hard question”, stuttered Asimov. “I’m… not quite sure which approach to try”.

Asimov’s tutor paused for a moment, then gave a gentle chuckle of encouragement.

“Well,” it offered, with a broad smile, “if you don’t know which approach to try, do you know which approaches you don’t want to try?”

That shift of perspective was just what Asimov needed. A few minutes later, he was making swift progress on a DeepMath question that had previously seemed nigh impossible. Once again, Asimov marvelled at the skills of the tutor. The tutor knew how to bring out the best of Asimov’s thinking skills. And that was just the start of its coaching abilities.

Asimov was midway through the morning’s training session. Training sessions were mandated for everyone over the age of three. They started gradually at first, for the younger children, but from the age of ten onward, everyone was expected to attend for training on seventy-two days each year.

Asimov recalled the popular saying: 20% of the days, humans attend to AGI, and AGI attends to humans 100% of the days.

Asimov also knew well the four reasons why this training system existed, and why people were happy to participate. First, if someone failed to participate, or performed poorer than expected during the training, their privileges were gradually withdrawn. They could spend less time in the latest virtual universes. When travelling in the base world, their speeds were restricted, so it took longer to move, for example, from Cambridge to Lagos. The food they were served was slightly less tasty than normal. And so on.

Second, the training was so wonderfully engaging. The challenges it posed differed from what could be obtained in non-training environments. Moreover, it was full of surprises. Whenever Asimov thought he could predict the content of the next day’s training session, he was invariably delighted by unexpected twists and turns. It was the same for everyone he knew. No-one regretted having to take time out of their many other activities to attend training. Instead, they eagerly looked forward to it, every time.

The tutors provided exercises for each participant that were well matched to their previous knowledge, skills, experiences, and temperament. Good results required significant effort, but that effort was well within each person’s capacity. Normally, a training session would complete after three and a half hours in the morning, and another three and a half hours in the afternoon. Occasionally, if the participant had been distracted or disengaged, a session might need to be extended for up to two more hours in an evening session. So long as that concluded satisfactorily, no loss of privileges would result.

Asimov felt pride in the fact that he had never been required to stay for longer than the minimal seven hours in a day. His concentration was excellent, he told himself…

And then he broke off his reverie, remembering that he had to solve another DeepMath puzzle. DeepMath had been discovered by AIs in the 2030s. Humans such as Ramanujan had sometimes come close to it in the past, but AIs made it much more approachable.

There was another pleasant surprise during the day’s lunch break. Angela, his partner for the last two years, joined him for the meal. Asimov noticed that she looked particularly mischievous on this occasion. “What’s on your mind”, he asked. “Oh, I’ll tell you this evening. Assuming you’re a good student and the AGI lets you out on time!” she joked.

At the age of 85, Angela was more than sixty years older than Asimov. His friends and family had been sceptical about the relationship at first. Even his big brother Byron, normally so supportive, had doubted whether it could last. “She’s old enough to be your grandmother”, he had scolded. “Indeed, she has a grandson who is older than you!”

But the wide use of rejuvenation therapies over the last fifteen years meant that octogenarians nowadays looked, and lived, as healthily as much younger people. The relationship had gone from strength to strength. It was a real triumph of complementarity, Asimov thought. And a triumph of medical technology. Most of all, it was a triumph of two remarkable people, enabled to live life to the full.

The afternoon training session focused on survival skills. That was the third reason these sessions were so important. Could humans cope in the event that the AGI stopped functioning, or disappeared off into some parallel dimension? Asimov needed to show that, without using any modern technology, he could gather twigs and then set them on fire, in order to cook a meal of mushrooms and root vegetables.

As he threw himself into that exercise, Asimov wondered whether he was contributing, at that moment, to the fourth aspect of the training. The AGI lacked sentience. There was no consciousness inside that vast digital brain. Aspects of the training were designed, it was said, for the AGI to learn things from human reactions that it could not directly experience itself. Asimov wasn’t sure he entirely believed that theory, but he was gratified to think that, in some aspects, his mind exceeded that of the AGI.

“So, what is it, my ancient wonder?” Asimov asked Angela, who was waiting for him as he exited the training. “What great adventure are you dreaming up this time?”

“My menopause reversal has been completed”, she replied. “It’s time for us to make a baby! Can you imagine what a combination of the two of us would be like?”

Asimov had another question. “But wasn’t your last pregnancy, back in the 1990s, really difficult for you?”

Angela gave a smile that was even more mischievous. “What would you say, dear boy, to ectogenesis? These artificial wombs are completely reliable these days.”

“Gosh, that’s a hard question”, stuttered Asimov. “I’m… not quite sure what to think.”

Footnote

This short story was submitted as part of my entry to the competition described here. For some more details of the world envisioned, this article has answers to 13 related questions.

The image at the top of this page includes a design by Pixabay member OpenClipart-Vectors.

A day in the life of Patricia, 2045

Filed under: vision — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 2:14 pm

The music started quietly, and gradually became louder. Patricia’s lips formed into a warm smile of recognition, as she roused from her sleep. That music meant only one thing: her great grandson, Byron, was calling her.

Patricia would normally already be awake at this time of the morning. But last night, she had been playing the latest version of 4D Scrabble with some neighbours in her accommodation block. This new release had been endlessly fascinating, provoking lots of laughter and good-spirited competitive rivalry. It’s marvellous how the software behind 4D Scrabble keeps improving, Patricia thought to herself. The group had finally called it a night at three thirty in the morning.

Her mindphone knew not to disturb her when she was sleeping, unless in emergencies, or for special exceptions. Byron was one of these exceptions. The music that preceded his call had been Byron’s favourite in 2026 – one of the first songs entirely written by an AI to top the hit parade. For his call-ahead music, Byron used a version of that song he had adapted by himself, reflecting some of the quirks of his personality.

Hello young man, she directed her thoughts into the mindphone. To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?

But Patricia already knew the answer. This was no ordinary day. It was a day she had never expected to experience, during the majority of her long life.

Happy Birthday Great Grandma! The thoughts appeared deep inside Patricia’s head, via a mechanism that still seemed magical to her. 115 years young today! Congratulations!

Byron’s voice was joined by several others, from her extended family. Patricia reached for her mindglasses and put them on, in order to add video to the experience.

Don’t forget there’s a big party for you this evening, continued Byron. And we have arranged a special virtual concert for you before that. The performers will be a surprise, but you can expect the best ever simulations of many of your old favourites!

Patricia had an idea what to expect. Her family had organised similar concerts for her in the past. It had seemed to her she had been sitting right next to the Glenn Miller Orchestra, or to Bill Haley and the Comets, or – especially delightful – a youthful-looking Tom Jones as he belted out passionate versions of his famous songs. Each time, the experience had been splendidly different.

But will I have time for my golf game later this morning? Patricia already had plans of her own. Don’t worry, everything has been scheduled perfectly, came the reply. Thank AGI!

Ninety minutes later, Patricia was standing at the first tee of her local golf course, along with three of her regular golfing buddies. As their health had been enhanced by wave after wave of rejuvenation therapies over the decades, their prowess at golf had improved as well. Patricia was hitting the ball further and straighter than ever. To keep the game interesting, the grass fairways would change their slopes and curves dynamically. It added to the challenge. And their exoskeletons had to be disabled for the duration of the game. At least, that was what the friends had agreed, but there were many other ways the sport could be played.

The only drawback to these golf gatherings was an occasional recollection of former playing partners who had, sadly, died of diseases over the years before new treatments had become available. Sometimes Patricia would also think of James, her beloved husband, who had died of an aggressive cancer in 2003. James had taught her how to play golf back in the 1970s. They had spent 48 years of married life together – thrilling to Bill Haley and the Comets, and then watching children and grandchildren grow up. But James had died long before the birth of Byron, or any of the other great grandchildren. How… unfair, Patricia thought to herself.

Patricia had actually been thinking of James quite a lot over the last few weeks. Byron had persuaded her to engage with an AGI agent that was collecting as much information as possible about James, by talking to everyone alive who still had memories of him. The agent had even roamed through her brain memories whilst she slept. Don’t worry, Great Grandma, Byron had reassured her. In case the AGI finds any ‘naughty’ memories in there, it will never tell anyone!

Then it was time for the concert to begin. Patricia would take part from her own living room, wearing a larger version of her mindphone, for a completely immersive experience. She realised that Byron was in that virtual world too, along with several other family members. They embraced and chatted. Then Byron said, quietly, There’s someone else who can join us, if you wish.

Patricia noticed, in the distance inside the virtual world, a silhouette that was strangely familiar, yet also somehow alien. She caught her breath suddenly. Oh no, she exclaimed. I think I know what’s happening, and I’m not sure I’m ready for this.

The newcomer remained a respectful distance away, and appeared to be standing in a shadow.

He’s not real, of course, Byron explained. He’s no more real than the performers here. After all, Bill Haley has been dead since 1981, and Glenn Miller since 1944. And Great Grandad James has been dead since-

Patricia was overcome with emotion – a mix of joy, fear, excitement, and even a little disgust. This is so strange, she thought.

Sensing a need for privacy, the other family members quietly retreated from the shared virtual reality. Patricia could make up her own mind whether to turn her back on the silhouette, or to call him forward. After so many years, what would she say first, to a replica of a man who had shared her life so completely all these years ago?

The silhouette quietly called Patricia’s name, in the way that only James could do. The long, long wait was over.

Footnote

This short story was submitted as part of my entry to the competition described here. For some more details of the world envisioned, this article has answers to 13 related questions.

The image at the top of this page includes a design by Pixabay member Gordon Johnson.

Timeline to 2045: questions answered

This is a follow-up to my previous post, containing more of the material that I submitted around five weeks ago to the FLI World Building competition. In this case, the requirement was to answer 13 questions, with answers limited to 250 words in each case.

Q1: AGI has existed for years, but the world is not dystopian and humans are still alive! Given the risks of very high-powered AI systems, how has your world ensured that AGI has at least so far remained safe and controlled?

The Global AGI safety project was one of the most momentous and challenging in human history.

The centrepiece of that project was the set of “Singularity Principles” that had first appeared in print in the book Vital Foresight in 2021, and which were developed in additional publications in subsequent years – a set of recommendations with the declared goal of increasing the likelihood that oncoming disruptive technological changes would have outcomes that are profoundly positive for humanity, rather than deeply detrimental. The principles split into four sections:

  1. A focus, in advance, on the goals and outcomes that were being sought from particular technologies
  2. Analysis of the intrinsic characteristics that are desirable in technological solutions
  3. Analysis of methods to ensure that development takes place responsibly
  4. And a meta-analysis – principles about how this overall set of recommendations could itself evolve further over time, and principles for how to increase the likelihood that these recommendations would be applied in practice rather than simply being some kind of wishful thinking.

What drove increasing support for these principles was a growing awareness, shared around the world, of the risks of cataclysmic outcomes that could arise all too easily from increasingly powerful AI, even when everyone involved had good intentions. This shared sense of danger caused even profound ideological enemies to gather together on a regular basis to review joint progress toward fulfilment of the Singularity Principles, as well as to evolve and refine these Principles.

Q2: The dynamics of an AI-filled world may depend a lot on how AI capability is distributed. In your world, is there one AI system that is substantially more powerful than all others, or a few such systems, or are there many top-tier AI systems of comparable capability? Or something else?

One of the key principles programmed into every advanced AI, from the late 2020s onward, was that no AI should seize or manipulate resources owned by any other AI. Instead, AIs should operate only with resources that have been explicitly provided to them. That prevented any hostile takeover of less capable AIs by more powerful competitors. Accordingly, a community of different AIs coexisted, with differing styles and capabilities.

However, in parallel, the various AIs naturally started to interact with each other, offering services to each other in response to expressions of need. The outcome of this interaction was a blurring of the boundaries between different AIs. Thus, by the 2040s, it was no longer meaningful to distinguish between what had originally been separate pieces of software. Instead of referring to “the Alphabet AGI” or “the Tencent AGI”, and so on, people just talked about “the AGI” or even “AGI”.

The resulting AGI was, however, put to different purposes in different parts of the world, dependent on the policies pursued by the local political leaders.

Q3: How has your world avoided major arms races and wars, regarding AI/AGI or otherwise?

The 2020s were a decade of turbulence, in which a number of arms races proceeded at pace, and when conflict several times came close to spilling over from being latent and implied (“cold”) to being active (“hot”):

  • The great cyber war of 2024 between Iran and Israel
  • Turmoil inside many countries in 2026, associated with the fall from power of the president of Russia
  • Exchanges of small numbers of missiles between North and South Korea in 2027
  • An intense cyber battle in 2028 over the future of an independent Taiwan.

These conflicts resulted in a renewed “never again” global focus to avoid any future recurrences. A new generation of political leaders resolved that, regardless of their many differences, they would put particular kinds of weapons beyond use.

Key to this “never again” commitment was an agreement on “global AI monitoring” – the use of independent narrow AIs to monitor all developments and deployments of potential weapons of mass destruction. That agreement took inspiration from previous international agreements that instituted regular independent monitoring of chemical and biological weapons.

Initial public distrust of the associated global surveillance systems was overcome, in stages, by demonstrations of the inherently trustworthy nature of the software used in these systems – software that adapted various counterintuitive but profound cryptographic ideas from the blockchain discussions of the early and mid-2020s.

Q4: In the US, EU, and China, how and where is national decision-making power held, and how has the advent of advanced AI changed that, if at all?

Between 2024 and 2032, the US switched its politics from a troubled bipolar system, with Republicans and Democrats battling each other with intense hostility, into a multi-party system, with a dynamic fluidity of new electoral groupings. The winner of the 2032 election was, for the first time since the 1850s, from neither of the formerly dominant parties. What enabled this transition was the adoption, in stages, of ranked choice voting, in which electors could indicate a sequence of which candidates they preferred. This change enabled electors to express interest in new parties without fearing their votes would be “wasted” or would inadvertently allow the election of particularly detested candidates.

The EU led the way in adoption of a “house of AI” as a reviewing body for proposed legislation. Legislation proposed by human politicians was examined by AI, resulting in suggested amendments, along with detailed explanations from the AI of reasons for making these changes. The EU left the ultimate decisions – whether or not to accept the suggestions – in the hands of human politicians. Over time, AI judgements were accepted on more and more occasions, but never uncritically.

China remained apprehensive until the mid-2030s about adopting multi-party politics with full tolerance of dissenting opinions. This apprehension was rooted in historic distrust of the apparent anarchy and dysfunction of politicians who needed to win approval of seemingly fickle electors. However, as AI evidently improved the calibre of online public discussion, with its real-time fact-checking, the Chinese system embraced fuller democratic reforms.

Q5: Is the global distribution of wealth (as measured say by national or international Gini coefficients) more, or less, unequal than 2022’s, and by how much? How did it get that way?

The global distribution of wealth became more unequal during the 2020s before becoming less unequal during the 2030s.

Various factors contributed to inequality increasing:

  • “Winner takes all”: Companies offering second-best products were unable to survive in the marketplace. Swift flows of both information and goods meant that all customers knew about better products and could easily purchase them
  • Financial rewards from the successes of companies increasingly flowed to the owners of the capital deployed, rather than to the people supplying skills and services. That’s because more of the skills and services could be supplied by automation, driving down the salaries that could be claimed by people who were offering the same skills and services
  • The factors that made some products better than others increasingly involved technological platforms, such as the latest AI systems, that were owned by a very small number of companies
  • Companies were able to restructure themselves ingeniously in order to take advantage of tax loopholes and special deals offered by countries desperate for at least some tax revenue.

What caused these trends to reverse was, in short, better politics:

  • Smart collaboration between the national governments of the world, avoiding tax loopholes
  • Recognition by greater numbers of voters of the profound merits of greater redistribution of the fruits of the remarkable abundance of NBIC technologies, as the percentage of people in work declined, and as the problems were more fully recognised of parts of society being “left behind”.

Q6: What is a major problem that AI has solved in your world, and how did it do so?

AI made many key contributions toward the solution of climate change:

  • By enabling more realistic and complete models of all aspects of the climate, including potential tipping points ahead of major climate phase transitions
  • By improving the design of alternative energy sources, including ground-based geothermal, high-altitude winds, ocean-based waves, space-based solar, and several different types of nuclear energy
  • Very significantly, by accelerating designs of commercially meaningful nuclear fusion
  • By identifying the types of “negative emissions technologies” that had the potential to scale up quickly in effectiveness
  • By accelerating the adoption of improved “cultivated meat” as sources of food that had many advantages over methods of animal-based agriculture, namely, addressing issues with land use, water use, antibiotics use, and greenhouse gas emissions, and putting an end to the vile practice of the mass slaughter of sentient creatures
  • By assisting the design of new types of cement, glass, plastics, fertilisers, and other materials whose manufacture had previously caused large emissions of greenhouse gases
  • By recommending the sorts of marketing messages that were most effective in changing the minds of previous opponents of effective action.

To be clear, AI did this as part of “NBIC convergence”, in which there are mutual positive feedback loops between progress in each of nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech.

Q7: What is a new social institution that has played an important role in the development of your world?

The G7 group of the democratic countries with the largest economies transitioned in 2023 into the D16, with a sharper commitment than before to championing the core values of democracy: openness; free and fair elections; the rule of law; independent media, judiciary, and academia; power being distributed rather than concentrated; and respect for autonomous decisions of groups of people.

The D16 was envisioned from the beginning as intended to grow in size, to become a global complement to the functioning of the United Nations, able to operate in circumstances that would have resulted in a veto at the UN from countries that paid only lip service to democracy.

One of the first projects of the D16 was to revise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the form initially approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, to take account of the opportunities and threats from new technologies, including what are known as “transhuman rights”.

In parallel, another project reached agreement on how to measure an “Index of Human Flourishing”, that could replace the economic measure GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as the de-facto principal indication of wellbeing of societies.

The group formally became the D40 in 2030 and the D90 in 2034. By that time, the D90 was central to agreements to vigorously impose an updated version of the Singularity Principles. Any group anywhere in the world – inside or outside the D90 – that sought to work around these principles, was effectively shut down due to strict economic sanctions.

Q8: What is a new non-AI technology that has played an important role in the development of your world?

Numerous fields have been transformed by atomically precise manufacturing, involving synthetic nanoscale assembly factories. These had been envisioned in various ways by Richard Feynman in 1959 and Eric Drexler in 1986, but did not become commercially viable until the early 2030s.

It had long been recognised that an “existence proof” for nanotechnology was furnished by the operation of ribosomes inside biological cells, with their systematic assembly of proteins from genetic instructions. However, creation of comparable synthetic systems needed to wait for assistance in both design and initial assembly from increasingly sophisticated AI. (DeepMind’s AlphaFold software had given an early indication of these possibilities back in 2021.) Once the process had started, significant self-improvement loops soon accelerated, with each new generation of nanotechnology assisting in the creation of a subsequent better generation.

The benefits flowed both ways: nanotech precision allowed breakthroughs in the manufacture of new types of computer hardware, including quantum computers; these in turn supported better types of AI algorithms.

Nanotech had dramatic positive impact on practices in the production of food, accommodation, clothing, and all sorts of consumer goods. Three areas particularly deserve mention:

  • Precise medical interventions, to repair damage to biological systems
  • Systems to repair damage to the environment as a whole, via a mixture of recycling and regeneration, as well as “negative emissions technologies” operating in the atmosphere
  • Clean energy sources operating at ever larger scale, including atomic-powered batteries

Q9: What changes to the way countries govern the development and/or deployment and/or use of emerging technologies (including AI), if any, played an important role in the development of your world?

Effective governance of emerging technologies involved both voluntary cooperation and enforced cooperation.

Voluntary cooperation – a desire to avoid actions that could lead to terrible outcomes – depended in turn on:

  • An awareness of the risk pathways – similar to the way that Carl Sagan and his colleagues vividly brought to the attention of world leaders in the early 1980s the potential global catastrophe of “nuclear winter”
  • An understanding that the restrictions being accepted would not hinder the development of truly beneficial products
  • An appreciation that everyone was be compelled to observe the same restrictions, and couldn’t gain some short-sighted advantage by breaching the rules.

The enforcement elements depended on:

  • An AI-powered “trustable monitoring system” that was able to detect, through pervasive surveillance, any potential violations of the published restrictions
  • Strong international cooperation, by the D40 and others, to isolate and remove resources from any maverick elements, anywhere in the world, that failed to respect these restrictions.

Public acceptance of trustable monitoring accelerated once it was understood that the systems performing the surveillance could, indeed, be trusted; they would not confer any inappropriate advantage on any grouping able to access the data feeds.

The entire system was underpinned by a vibrant programme of research and education (part of a larger educational initiative known as the “Vital Syllabus”), that:

  • Kept updating the “Singularity Principles” system of restrictions and incentives in the light of improved understanding of the risks and solutions
  • Ensured that the importance of these principles was understood both widely and deeply.

Q10: Pick a sector of your choice (education, transport, energy, communication, finance, healthcare, tourism, aerospace, materials etc.) and describe how that sector was transformed with AI in your world.

For most of human history, religion had played a pivotal role in shaping people’s outlooks and actions. Religion provided narratives about ultimate purposes. It sanctified social structures. It highlighted behaviour said to be exemplary, as demonstrated in the lives of key religious figures. And it deplored other behaviours said to lead to very bad consequences, if not in the present life, then in an assumed afterlife.

Nevertheless, the philosophical justifications for religions had come under increasing challenge in recent times, with the growth of appreciation of a scientific worldview (including evolution by natural selection), the insights from critical analysis of previously venerated scriptures, and a stark awareness of the tensions between different religions in a multi-polar world.

The decline of influence of religion had both good and bad consequences. Greater freedom of thought and action was accompanied by a shrinking of people’s mental horizons. Without the transcendent appeal of a religious worldview, people’s lives often became dominated instead by egotism or consumerism.

The growth of the transhumanist movement in the 2020s provided one counter to these drawbacks. It was not a religion in the strict sense, but its identification of solutions such as “the abolition of aging”, “paradise engineering”, and “technological resurrection” stirred deep inner personal transformations.

These transformations reached a new level thanks to AGI-facilitated encounters with religious founders, inside immersive virtual reality simulations. New hallucinogenic substances provided extra richness to these experiences. The sector formerly known as “religion” therefore experienced an unexpected renewal. Thank AGI!

Q11: What is the life expectancy of the most wealthy 1% and of the least wealthy 20% of your world; how and why has this changed since 2022?

In response to the question, “How much longer do you expect to live”, the usual answer is “at least another hundred years”.

This answer reflects a deep love of life: people are glad to be alive and have huge numbers of quests, passions, projects, and personal voyages that they are enjoying or to which they’re looking forward. The answer also reflects the extraordinary observation that, these days, very few people die. That’s true in all sectors of society, and in all countries of the world. Low-cost high-quality medical treatments are widely available, to reverse diseases that were formerly fatal, and to repair biological damage that had accumulated earlier in people’s lives. People not only live longer but become more youthful.

The core ideas behind these treatments had been clear since the mid-2020s. Biological metabolism generates as a by-product of its normal operation an assortment of damage at the cellular and intercellular levels of the body. Biology also contains mechanisms for the repair of such damage, but over time, these repair mechanisms themselves lose vitality. As a result, people manifest various so-called “hallmarks of aging”. However, various interventions involving biotech and nanotech can revitalise these repair mechanisms. Moreover, other interventions can replace entire biological systems, such as organs, with bio-synthetic alternatives that actually work better than the originals.

Such treatments were feared and even resisted for a while, by activists such as the “naturality advocates”, but the evident improvements these treatments enabled soon won over the doubters.

Q12: In the US, considering the human rights enumerated in the UN declaration, which rights are better respected and which rights are worse respected in your world than in 2022? Why? How?

In a second country of your choice, which rights are better and which rights are worse respected in your world than in 2022, and why/how?

Regarding the famous phrase, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, all three of these fundamental rights are upheld much more fully, around the world, in 2045 than in 2022:

  • “Life” no longer tends to stop around the age of seventy or eighty; even people aged well over one hundred look forward to continuing to enjoy the right to life
  • “Liberty” involves more choices about lifestyles, personal philosophy, morphological freedom (augmentation and variation of the physical body) and sociological freedom (new structures for families, social groupings, and self-determined nations); importantly, these are not just “choices in theory” but are “choices in practice”, since means are available to support these modifications
  • “Security” involves greater protection from hazards such as extreme weather, pandemics, criminal enterprises, infrastructure hacking, and military attacks.

These improvements in the observation of rights are enabled by technologies of abundance, operated within a much-improved political framework.

Obtaining these benefits involved people agreeing to give up various possible actions that would have led to fewer freedoms and rights overall:

  • “Rights” to pollute the environment or to inflict other negative externalities
  • “Rights” to restrict the education of their girl children
  • “Rights” to experiment with technology without a full safety analysis being concluded.

For a while, some countries like China provided their citizens with only a sham democracy, fearing an irresponsible exercise of that freedom. But by the mid-2030s, that fear had dissipated, and people in all countries gained fuller participatory rights in governance and lifestyle decisions.

Q13: What’s been a notable trend in the way that people are finding fulfilment?

For most of history, right up to the late 2020s, many people viewed themselves through the prism of their occupation or career. “I’m a usability designer”, they might have said. Or “I’m a data scientist” or “I’m a tour guide”, and so on. Their assessment of their own value was closely linked to the financial rewards they obtained from being an employee.

However, as AI became more capable of undertaking all aspects of what had previously been people’s jobs – including portions involving not only diligence and dexterity but also creativity and compassion – there was a significant decline in the proportion of overall human effort invested in employment. By the late 2030s, most people had stopped looking for paid employment, and were content to receive “universal citizens’ dividend” benefits from the operation of sophisticated automated production facilities.

Instead, more and more people found fulfilment by pursuing any of an increasing number of quests and passions. These included both solitary and collaborative explorations in music, art, mathematics, literature, and sport, as well as voyages in parts of the real world and in myriads of fascinating shared online worlds. In all these projects, people found fulfilment, not by performing better than an AI (which would be impossible), but by improving on their own previous achievements, or in friendly competition with acquaintances.

Careful prompting by the AGI helps to maintain people’s interest levels and a sense of ongoing challenge and achievement. AGI has proven to be a wonderful coach.

A year-by-year timeline to 2045

The ground rules for the worldbuilding competition were attractive:

  • The year is 2045.
  • AGI has existed for at least 5 years.
  • Technology is advancing rapidly and AI is transforming the world sector by sector.
  • The US, EU and China have managed a steady, if uneasy, power equilibrium.
  • India, Africa and South America are quickly on the ride as major players.
  • Despite ongoing challenges, there have been no major wars or other global catastrophes.
  • The world is not dystopian and the future is looking bright.

Entrants were asked to submit four pieces of work. One was a new media piece. I submitted this video:

Another required piece was:

timeline with entries for each year between 2022 and 2045 giving at least two events (e.g. “X invented”) and one data point (e.g. “GDP rises by 25%”) for each year.

The timeline I created dovetailed with the framework from the above video. Since I enjoyed creating it, I’m sharing my submission here, in the hope that it may inspire readers.

(Note: the content was submitted on 11th April 2022.)

2022

US mid-term elections result in log-jammed US governance, widespread frustration, and a groundswell desire for more constructive approaches to politics.

The collapse of a major crypto “stablecoin” results in much wider adverse repercussions than was generally expected, and a new social appreciation of the dangers of flawed financial systems.

Data point: Number of people killed in violent incidents (including homicides and armed conflicts) around the world: 590,000

2023

Fake news that is spread by social media driven by a new variant of AI provokes riots in which more than 10,000 people die, leading to much greater interest a set of “Singularity Principles” that had previously been proposed to steer the development of potentially world-transforming technologies.

G7 transforms into the D16, consisting of the world’s 16 leading democracies, proclaiming a profound shared commitment to champion norms of: openness; free and fair elections; the rule of law; independent media, judiciary, and academia; power being distributed rather than concentrated; and respect for autonomous decisions of groups of people.

Data point: Proportion of world population living in countries that are “full democracies” as assessed by the Economist: 6.4%

2024

South Korea starts a trial of a nationwide UBI scheme, in the first of what will become in later years a long line of increasingly robust “universal citizens’ dividends” schemes around the world.

A previously unknown offshoot of ISIS releases a bioengineered virus. Fortunately, vaccines are quickly developed and deployed against it. In parallel, a bitter cyber war takes place between Iran and Israel. These incidents lead to international commitments to prevent future recurrences.

Data point: Proportion of people of working age in US who are not working and who are not looking for a job: 38%

2025

Extreme weather – floods and storms – kills 10s of 1000s in both North America and Europe. A major trial of geo-engineering is rushed through, with reflection of solar radiation in the stratosphere – causing global political disagreement and then a renewed determination for tangible shared action on climate change.

The US President appoints a Secretary for the Future as a top-level cabinet position. More US states adopt rank choice voting, allowing third parties to grow in prominence.

Data point: Proportion of earth’s habitable land used to rear animals for human food: 38%

2026

A song created entirely by an AI tops the hit parade, and initiates a radical new musical genre.

Groundswell opposition to autocratic rule in Russia leads to the fall from power of the president and a new dedication to democracy throughout countries formerly perceived as being within Russia’s sphere of direct influence.

Data point: Net greenhouse gas emissions (including those from land-use changes): 59 billion tons of CO2 equivalent – an unwelcome record.

2027

Metformin approved for use as an anti-aging medicine in a D16 country. Another D16 country recommends nationwide regular usage of a new nootropic drug.

Exchanges of small numbers of missiles between North and South Korea leads to regime change inside North Korea and a rapprochement between the long-bitter enemies.

Data point: Proportion of world population living in countries that are “full democracies” as assessed by the Economist: 9.2%

2028

An innovative nuclear fusion system, with its design assisted by AI, runs for more than one hour and generates significantly more energy out than what had been put in.

As a result of disagreements about the future of an independent Taiwan, an intense destructive cyber battle takes place. At the end, the nations of the world commit more seriously than before to avoiding any future cyber battles.

Data point: Proportion of world population experiencing mental illness or dissatisfied with the quality of their mental health: 41%

2029

A trial of an anti-aging intervention in middle-aged dogs is confirmed to have increased remaining life expectancy by 25% without causing any adverse side effects. Public interest in similar interventions in humans skyrockets.

The UK rejoins a reconfigured EU, as an indication of support for sovereignty that is pooled rather than narrow.

Data point: Proportion of world population with formal cryonics arrangements: 1 in 100,000

2030

Russia is admitted into the D40 – a newly expanded version of the D16. The D40 officially adopts “Index of Human Flourishing” as more important metric than GDP, and agrees a revised version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, brought up to date with transhuman issues.

First permanent implant in a human of an artificial heart with a new design that draws all required power from the biology of the body rather than any attached battery, and whose pace of operation is under the control of the brain.

Data point: Net greenhouse gas emissions (including those from land-use changes): 47 billion tons of CO2 equivalent – a significant improvement

2031

An AI discovers and explains a profound new way of looking at mathematics, DeepMath, leading in turn to dramatically successful new theories of fundamental physics.

Widespread use of dynamically re-programmed nanobots to treat medical conditions that would previously have been fatal.

Data point: Proportion of world population regularly taking powerful anti-aging medications: 23%

2032

First person reaches the age of 125. Her birthday celebrations are briefly disrupted by a small group of self-described “naturality advocates” who chant “120 is enough for anyone”, but that group has little public support.

D40 countries put in place a widespread “trustable monitoring system” to cut down on existential risks (such as spread of WMDs) whilst maintaining citizens’ trust.

Data point: Proportion of world population living in countries that are “full democracies” as assessed by the Economist: 35.7% 

2033

For the first time since the 1850s, the US President comes from a party other than Republican and Democratic.

An AI system is able to convincingly pass the Turing test, impressing even the previous staunchest critics with its apparent grasp of general knowledge and common sense. The answers it gives to questions of moral dilemmas also impress previous sceptics.

Data point: Proportion of people of working age in US who are not working and who are not looking for a job: 58%

2034

The D90 (expanded from the D40) agrees to vigorously impose Singularity Principles rules to avoid inadvertent creation of dangerous AGI.

Atomically precise synthetic nanoscale assembly factories have come of age, in line with the decades-old vision of nanotechnology visionary Eric Drexler, and are proving to have just as consequential an impact on human society as AI.

Data point: Net greenhouse gas *removals*: 10 billion tons of CO2 equivalent – a dramatic improvement

2035

A novel written entirely by an AI reaches the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and is widely celebrated as being the finest piece of literature ever produced.

Successful measures to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, coupled with wide deployment of clean energy sources, lead to a declaration of “victory over runaway climate change”.

Data point: Proportion of earth’s habitable land used to rear animals for human food: 4%

2036

A film created entirely by an AI, without any real human actors, wins Oscar awards.

The last major sceptical holdout, a philosophy professor from an Ivy League university, accepts that AGI now exists. The pope gives his blessing too.

Data point: Proportion of world population with cryonics arrangements: 24%

2037

The last instances of the industrial scale slaughter of animals for human consumption, on account of the worldwide adoption of cultivated (lab-grown) meat.

AGI convincingly explains that it is not sentient, and that it has a very different fundamental structure from that of biological consciousness.

Data point: Proportion of world population who are literate: 99.3%

2038

Rejuvenation therapies are in wide use around the world. “Eighty is the new fifty”. First person reaches the age of 130.

Improvements made by AGI upon itself effectively raise its IQ one hundred fold, taking it far beyond the comprehension of human observers. However, the AGI provides explanatory educational material that allows people to understand vast new sets of ideas.

Data point: Proportion of world population who consider themselves opposed to AGI: 0.1%

2039

An extensive set of “vital training” sessions has been established by the AGI, with all citizens over the age of ten participating for a minimum of seven hours per day on 72 days each year, to ensure that humans develop and maintain key survival skills.

Menopause reversal is common place. Women who had long ago given up any ideas of bearing another child happily embrace motherhood again.

Data point: Proportion of world population regularly taking powerful anti-aging medications: 99.2%

2040

The use of “mind phones” is widespread: new brain-computer interfaces that allow communication between people by mental thought alone.

People regularly opt to have several of their original biological organs replaced by synthetic alternatives that are more efficient, more durable, and more reliable.

Data point: Proportion of people of working age in US who are not working and who are not looking for a job: 96%

2041

Shared immersive virtual reality experiences include hyper-realistic simulations of long-dead individuals – including musicians, politicians, royalty, saints, and founders of religions.

The number of miles of journey undertaken by small “flying cars” exceeds that of ground-based powered transport.

Data point: Proportion of world population living in countries that are “full democracies” as assessed by the Economist: 100.0%

2042

First successful revival of mammal from cryopreservation.

AGI presents a proof of the possibility of time travel, but the resources required for safe transit of humans through time would require the equivalent of building a Dyson sphere around the sun.

Data point: Proportion of world population experiencing mental illness or dissatisfied with the quality of their mental health: 0.4%

2043

First person reaches the age of 135, and declares herself to be healthier than at any time in the preceding four decades.

As a result of virtual reality encounters of avatars of founders of religion, a number of new systems of philosophical and mystical thinking grow in popularity.

Data point: Proportion of world’s energy provided by earth-based nuclear fusion: 75%

2044

First human baby born from an ectogenetic pregnancy.

Family holidays on the Moon are an increasingly common occurrence.

Data point: Average amount of their waking time that people spend in a metaverse: 38%

2045

First revival of human from cryopreservation – someone who had been cryopreserved ten years previously.

Subtle messages decoded by AGI from far distant stars in the galaxy confirm that other intelligent civilisations exist, and are on their way to reveal themselves to humanity.

Data point: Number of people killed in violent incidents around the world: 59

Postscript

My thanks go to the competition organisers, the Future of Life Institute, for providing the inspiration for the creation of the above timeline.

Readers are likely to have questions in their minds as they browse the timeline above. More details of the reasoning behind the scenarios involved are contained in three follow-up posts:

22 February 2022

Nine technoprogressive proposals

Filed under: Events, futurist, vision — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 11:30 pm

Ahead of time, I wasn’t sure the format was going to work.

It seemed to be an ambitious agenda. Twenty-five speakers were signed up to deliver short presentations. Each had agreed to limit their remarks to just four minutes. The occasion was an International Technoprogressive Conference that took place earlier today (22nd February), with themes including:

  • “To be human, today and tomorrow”
  • “Converging visions from many horizons”.
Image credit: this graphic includes work by Pixabay user Sasin Tipchai

Each speaker had responded to a call to cover in their remarks either or both of the following:

  • Provide a brief summary of transhumanist-related activity in which they are involved
  • Make a proposal about “a concrete idea that could inspire positive and future-oriented people or organisations”.

Their proposals could address, for example, AI, enhancing human nature, equity and justice, accelerating science, existential risks, the Singularity, social and political angles, the governance of technology, superlongevity, superhappiness, or sustainable superabundance.

The speakers who provided concrete proposals were asked, ahead of the conference, to write down their proposal in 200 words or less, for distribution in a document to be shared among all attendees.

Attendees at the event – speakers and non-speakers alike – were asked to provide feedback on the proposals that had been presented, and to cast up to five votes among the different proposals.

I wondered whether we were trying to do too much, especially given the short amount of time spent in preparing for the event.

Happily, it all went pretty smoothly. A few speakers recorded videos of their remarks in advance, to be sure to keep to the allotted timespan. A small number of others were in the end unable to take part on the day, on account of last-minute schedule conflicts.

As for the presentations themselves, they were diverse – exactly as had been hoped by the organisers ( l’Association Françoise Transhumanistes (Technoprog), with some support from London Futurists).

For example, I found it particularly interesting to hear about perspectives on transhumanism from Cameroon and Japan.

Reflecting the quality of all the presentations, audience votes were spread widely. Comments made by voters again and again stressed the difficulty in each picking just five proposals to be prioritised. Nevertheless, audience members accepted the challenge. Some people gave one vote each to five different proposals. Others split them 2, 2, and 1, or in other combinations. One person gave all their five votes to a single proposal.

As for the outcome of the voting: I’m appending the text of the nine proposals that received the most votes. You’ll notice a number of common ideas, along with significant variety.

I’m presenting these nine proposals in alphabetical order of the first name of the proposers. I hope you find them interesting. If you find yourself inspired by what you read, please don’t hesitate to offer your own support to the projects described.

PS Big thanks are due to everyone who made this conference possible, especially the co-organisers, Didier Coeurnelle and Marc Roux.

Longevity: Opportunities and Challenges

Proposed by Anastasiia Velikanova, project coordinator at Open Longevity

Why haven’t we achieved significant progress in the longevity field yet? Although about 17,000 biological articles with the word “aging” in the title are published yearly, we do not have any therapy that reliably prolongs life.

One reason is that there are no large-scale projects in the biology of aging, such as the Human Genome or the  Large Hadron Collider. All research is conducted separately in academic institutions or startups and is mostly closed. With a great idea at the start, a company hides its investigations, but the capabilities of its team are not enough to globally change the situation with aging.

Another reason is that the problem of aging is highly interdisciplinary. We need advanced mathematical models and AI algorithms to accumulate all research about molecular processes and identify critical genes or targets.

Most importantly, we, transhumanists, should unite and create an infrastructure that would allow solving the problem of aging on a large scale, attracting the best specialists from different fields. 

An essential part of such an infrastructure is open databases. For example, our organization created Open Genes – the database of genes associated with aging, allowing the selection of combinatorial therapy against aging.

Vital Syllabus

Proposed by David Wood, Chair at London Futurists

Nearly every serious discussion about improving the future comes round to the need to improve education. In our age of multiple pressures, dizzying opportunities, daunting risks, and accelerating disruption, people in all walks of life need better access to information about the skills that are most important and the principles that matter most. Traditional education falls far short on these counts.

The Vital Syllabus project aims to collect and curate resources to assist students of all ages to acquire and deepen these skills, and to understand and embody the associated principles. To be included in the project, these resources must be free of charge, clear, engaging, and trustworthy – and to align with a transhumanist understanding.

A framework is already in place: 24 top-level syllabus areas, nearly 200 subareas, and an initial set of example videos. Please join this project to help fill out the syllabus quickly!

For information about how to help this project, see this FAQ page.

Longevity Art

Proposed by Elena Milova, Founder at LongevityArt

When we are discussing life extension, people most often refer to movies, animations, books, paintings, and other works of art. They find there the concepts and the role models that they can either follow or reject. Art has the potential to seed the ideas in one’s mind that can then gradually grow and mature until they become part of the personal life philosophy. Also, since one function of art is to uncover, question, mock and challenge the status quo, art is one of the most appropriate medias for spreading new ideas such as one of radical life extension.

I suggest that the community supports more art projects (movies, animations, books, paintings, digital artworks) by establishing foundations sponsoring the most valuable art projects.

Use longevity parties to do advocacy for more anti-aging research

Proposed by Felix Werth, Leader at Partei für Gesundheitsforschung

With the repair-approach we already know in principle, how to defeat aging. To increase our chance of being alive and healthy in 100 years significantly, much more resources have to be put into the implementation of the repair-approach. An efficient way to achieve this is to form single issue longevity parties and run in elections. There are many people who would like to live longer, but for some reason don’t do anything for it. Running in elections can be very efficient advocacy and gives the people the option to very easily support longevity research with their vote. If the governing parties see that they can get more votes with this issue, they will probably care about it more.

In 2015 I initiated a longevity party in Germany and since then, we have participated in 14 elections already and did a lot of advocacy, all this with very few active members and very few resources. With a little more resources, much more advocacy could be done this way. I suggest that more people, who want radical life extension in their lifetime, form longevity parties in their country and run in elections. Growing the longevity movement faster is key to success.

Revive LEV: The Game on Life Extension

Proposed by Gennady Stolyarov, Chair at U.S. Transhumanist Party

I propose to resurrect a computer game on longevity escape velocity, LEV: The Game, which was previously attempted in 2014 and for which a working Alpha version had been created but had unfortunately been lost since that time.

In this game one plays the role of a character who, through various lifestyle choices and pursuit of rejuvenation treatments, strives to live to age 200. The U.S. Transhumanist Party has obtained the rights to continue game development as well as the previously developed graphical assets. The logic of the game has been redesigned to be turn-based; all that remains is to recruit the programming talent needed to implement the logic of the game into code. A game on longevity escape velocity can draw in a much larger audience to take interest in the life-extension movement and also illustrate how LEV will likely actually arrive – dispelling common misunderstandings and enabling more people to readily understand the transition to indefinite lifespans.

Implement optimization and planning for your organization

Proposed by Ilia Stambler, Chair at Israeli Longevity Alliance

Often progressive, transhumanist and/or life-extensionist groups and associations are inefficient as organizations – they lack a clear and agreed vision, concrete goals and plans for the organization’s advancement, a clear estimate of the available as well desirable human and material resources necessary to achieve those goals and plans, do not track progress, performance and achievements toward the implementation of those goals. As a result, many groups are acting rather as discussion clubs at best, instead of active and productive organizations, drifting aimlessly along occasional activities, and so they can hardly be expected to bring about significant directional positive changes for the future.

Hence the general suggestion is to build up one’s own organizations through organizational optimization, to plan concretely, not so much in terms of what the organization “should do”, but rather what its specific members actually can and plan to do in the shorter and longer term. I believe, through increasing the planning efficiency and the organizational optimization for the existing and emerging organizations, a much stronger impact can be made. (The suggestion is general, but particular organizations may see whether it may apply to them and act according to their particular circumstances.)

Campaign for the Longevity Dividend

Proposed by James Hughes, Executive Director at the IEET

The most popular goal of the technoprogressive and futurist community is universal access to safe and effective longevity therapies. There are three things our community can do to advance this agenda:

  1. First, we need to engage with demographic, medical and policy issues that surround longevity therapies, from the old-age dependency ratio and pension crisis to biomarkers of aging and defining aging as a disease process.
  2. Second, we need to directly argue for public financing of research, a rational clinical trial pathway, and access to these therapies through public health insurance.
  3. Third, we need to identify the existing organizations with similar or related goals, and establish coalitions with them to work for the necessary legislation.

These projects can build on existing efforts, such as International Longevity Alliance, Ending Aging Media Response and the Global Healthspan Policy Institute.

Prioritise moral enhancement

Proposed by Marc Roux, Chair at the French Transhumanist Association (AFT-Technoprog)

As our efforts to attract funding and researchers to longevity have begun to bear fruit, we need to popularise much more moral enhancement.

Ageing is not defeated. However, longevity has already found powerful relays in the decision-making spheres. Mentalities are slowly changing, but the battle for longevity is underway.

Our vanguard can begin to turn to other great goal.

Longevity will not be enough to improve the level of happiness and harmony of our societies. History has shown that it doesn’t change the predisposition of humans to dominance, xenophobia, aggressiveness … They remain stuck in their prehistoric gangue, which condemns them to repeat the same mistakes. If we don’t allow humans to change these behavioural predeterminations, nothing essential will change.

We must prioritise cognitive sciences, and ensure that this is done in the direction of greater choice for everyone, access for all to an improvement in their mental condition, and an orientation towards greater solidarity.

And we’ll work to prevent cognitive sciences from continuing to be put at the service of liberticidal control and domination logics.

On this condition, moral enhancement can be an unprecedented good in the history of humanity.

Transhumanist Studies: Knowledge Accelerator

Proposed by Natasha Vita-More, Executive Director at Humanity+

An education is a crucial asset. Providing lifelong learning that is immediate, accessible and continually updating is key. Transhumanist Studies is an education platform designed to expand knowledge about how the world is transforming. Its Knowledge Accelerator curricula examines the field of longevity, facts on aging and advances in AI, nanomedicine and cryonics, critical and creative thinking, relationships between humanity and ecosystems of earth and space, ethics of fairness, and applied foresight concerning opportunities and risks on the horizon.

Our methodology is applied foresight with a learning model that offers three methods in its 50-25-25 curricula:

  1. 50% immersive learning environment (lectures, presentations, and resources);
  2. 25% project-based iterative study; and
  3. 25% open-form discussion and debate (aligned with a Weekly Studies Group and monthly H+ Academy Roundtable).

In its initiative to advance transhumanism, the Knowledge Accelerator supports the benefits of secular values and impartiality. With a team located across continents, the program is free for some and at a low cost for others. As the scope of transhumanism  continues to grow, the culture is as extraordinary as its advocacy, integrity, and long-term vision.

Homepage | Transhumanist Studies (teachable.com) (I spoke on the need for education at TransVision 2021.)

7 February 2022

Options for controlling artificial superintelligence

What are the best options for controlling artificial superintelligence?

Should we confine it in some kind of box (or simulation), to prevent it from roaming freely over the Internet?

Should we hard-wire into its programming a deep respect for humanity?

Should we avoid it from having any sense of agency or ambition?

Should we ensure that, before it takes any action, it always double-checks its plans with human overseers?

Should we create dedicated “narrow” intelligence monitoring systems, to keep a vigilant eye on it?

Should we build in a self-destruct mechanism, just in case it stops responding to human requests?

Should we insist that it shares its greater intelligence with its human overseers (in effect turning them into cyborgs), to avoid humanity being left behind?

More drastically, should we simply prevent any such systems from coming into existence, by forbidding any research that could lead to artificial superintelligence?

Alternatively, should we give up on any attempt at control, and trust that the superintelligence will be thoughtful enough to always “do the right thing”?

Or is there a better solution?

If you have clear views on this question, I’d like to hear from you.

I’m looking for speakers for a forthcoming London Futurists online webinar dedicated to this topic.

I envision three speakers each taking up to 15 minutes to set out their proposals. Once all the proposals are on the table, the real discussion will begin – with the speakers interacting with each other, and responding to questions raised by the live audience.

The date for this event remains to be determined. I will find a date that is suitable for the speakers who have the most interesting ideas to present.

As I said, please get in touch if you have questions or suggestions about this event.

Image credit: the above graphic includes work by Pixabay user Geralt.

PS For some background, here’s a video recording of the London Futurists event from last Saturday, in which Roman Yampolskiy gave several reasons why control of artificial superintelligence will be deeply difficult.

For other useful background material, see the videos on the Singularity page of the Vital Syllabus project.

13 January 2022

Measuring – and forecasting – the health of the planet

An invitation to join a Millennium Project Delphi Study on the State of the Future

Assessments of individual health have been on my mind a lot recently, as I’ve observed my own physical body display less resilience in the face of stress than was the case when I was younger. (See my previous two blog posts, here and here, for the gory details.)

But alongside questions about the health of individuals, a larger set of questions loom. How is the health of global society as a whole? Are we headed toward major reversals, which could knock us collectively off course, akin to how diseases such as Covid-19 have intruded, often horribly, on individual lives?

Indeed, in any such assessment of the overall health of global society, what should we be measuring? Which factors are “symptoms” and which are closer to being “root causes”?

The Millennium Project has been addressing that subject on a regular basis since its formation in 1996. It regularly publishes updates on what it calls “The 15 global challenges” and, in a wider survey, “The State of the Future”.

What distinguishes the Millennium Project analysis from various other broadly similar enquiries is the “Delphi” method it uses to reach its conclusions. This involves an iterative online interaction between members of an extended community, who are asked their opinions on a number of questions, with the option for participants to revise their opinions if they read input from other respondents that brings new considerations to their mind.

The reason I’m mentioning this now is that a new Delphi survey is now starting, and there’s scope for a number of my acquaintances to take part. (Dear Reader: That includes you.)

This survey is being structured differently from previous years, and is using a new tool. Participants will be asked to offer estimates on 29 metrics for the year 2030 – including the best and worst potential value the indicator might have in 2030. You’ll also be asked which of the metrics are the most important (and which are the least).

To help you provide answers, the system already contains data points stretching several decades into the past.

The metrics include:

  • Income inequality (income share held by highest 10%)
  • Unemployment (% of total labour force)
  • Life expectancy at birth (years)
  • Physicians (per 1,000 people)
  • Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above)
  • People using safely managed drinking water services (% of population)
  • CO2-equivalent concentration in the atmosphere (ppm)
  • Energy efficiency (GDP per unit of energy use)
  • Electricity production from renewable sources (% of total)
  • Individuals using the Internet (% of population)
  • Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (% of members)
  • Number of conflicts between different states
  • Refugee population

You won’t have to answer all the questions. Instead, you can direct your attention to the questions where you feel you have some particular insight. You can browse the other questions at a later time. And, as mentioned, you can revisit some of your earlier answers once you see comments made by other participants. Indeed, it is in the interaction between different comments where the greatest insight is likely to arise.

If you think you’d like to take part, please get in touch with me. Note that the Millennium Project will give priority to people with the following roles: professional futurists, scientists (including social scientists as well as natural scientists), policymakers, science and technology experts, advisors to government or business, members of NGOs, UN liaison, and professional consultants.

The Delphi questionnaire will remain open until 31 January, 2022. The findings of the questionnaire will feature in a London Futurists event later in the year.

18 December 2021

My encounter with a four-armed robot

Filed under: aging, healthcare, robots — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 8:45 pm

I didn’t actually see the robot. My mind had already been switched off, by anaesthetists, ahead of my bed being wheeled into the operating theatre. It was probably just as well.

Image source: HCA Healthcare

Later, when my mind had restarted, and I was lying in recovery in my hospital ward, I checked. Yes, there were six small plasters on my abdomen, covering six small wounds (“ports”), that the urology surgeon had told me he would create in order for the da Vinci robot to work its magic.

The point of the operation was to remove the central core of my prostate – an organ that sits toward the back of the body and which is difficult to access.

The prostate wraps around the urethra – the channel through which urine flows from the bladder into the penis. The typical size of a prostate for a man aged twenty is around 20 ml. By age sixty this may have doubled. The larger the prostate, the greater the chance of interference with normal urine flow. In my own case, I had experienced various episodes over the last ten years when urination was intermittently difficult, but matters always seemed to right themselves after a few days. Then at the beginning of September, I found I couldn’t pass any urine. What made matters more complicated was that I was away from home at the time, on a short golfing holiday in Wiltshire. The golf was unusually good, but my jammed up bladder felt awful.

Following an anxious call to the NHS 111 service, I was admitted to the Royal United Hospital in Bath where, after a couple of false starts, an indwelling catheter was inserted through my urethra. Urine gushed out. I felt relieved as never before.

In a way, that was the easy bit. The harder question was what long-term approach to take.

A six-week trial of a muscle-relaxant drug called Tamsulosin had no impact on my ability to pass urine unaided. Measuring the size of my prostate via a transrectal ultrasound procedure clarified options: it was a whopping 121 ml.

The radiologist said “This is not the largest prostate I have ever seen”, but it was clear my condition was well outside the usual range. Not only would changes in medication or diet be very unlikely to produce a long-term solution for me. But most of the more standard prostate operations (there are a large family of possibilities, as I discovered) would not be suitable for a prostate as large as mine. The risks of adverse side-effects would be too large, as well as recurrence of prostate pressure in the years to come.

That led my consultant to recommend what is called a robotic-assisted simple prostatectomy. The “simple” is in contrast to the “radical” option often recommended for men suffering from prostate cancer. In a simple prostatectomy, the outer part of the prostate remains in place, along with nerve and other connections.

Over several hours, whilst my mind was deanimated, the robotic arms responded to the commands issued by the human surgeon. Some of the ports were used to introduce gas (CO2) into my abdomen, to inflate it, creating room for the robotic arms to move. Some ports supported illumination and cameras. And the others channelled various cutting and reconstruction tools. By the end, some 85% of my prostate had been removed.

It might sound cool, for a technology advocate like myself to receive an operation from a high-precision robot. But in reality, it was still a miserable experience, despite the high-calibre professional support from medical staff. The CO2 left parts of my body unexpectedly swollen and painful. And as time passed, other swellings known as oedemas emerged – apparently due to fluid.

I learned the hard way that I needed to take things slow and gentle as I recovered. In retrospect, it was a mistake for me to walk too far too soon, and to take part in lengthy Zoom calls. My sleep suffered as a result, with shivering, sweating, coughing fits, and even one black-out when I went to the bathroom and felt myself about to pass out. I had the presence of mind to lower my head quickly before the lights went out altogether. I came to my senses a few moments later, with my upper torso sprawled in the bath, and my lower body hanging over the edge. Thank goodness no serious damage ensued from that mini collapse. The only good outcome that night was when I took a Covid test (because of the coughing) and it came out negative.

Ten days later, things are closer to normal again. It’s wonderful that my internal plumbing works smoothly again, under my control. But I’m still being cautious about how much I take on at any time.

(If you’re waiting for me to reply to various emails, I’ll get round to them eventually…)

More good news: tests on the material removed from my body have confirmed that the growth was “benign” rather than cancerous. My wounds are healing quickly, and I am almost weaned off painkillers.

I have no regrets about choosing this particular surgical option. It was a good decision. Hopefully I’ll be playing golf again some time in January. I am already strolling down some of the fairways at Burhill Golf Club, carrying a single club in my hand – a putter. I drop a golf ball when I reach the green. Sometimes I knock the ball in the hole in two putts, or even just one. And sometimes it’s three putts, or even more. But the fresh air and gentle exercise is wonderful, regardless of the number of putts.

The bigger lesson for me is a message I often include in my presentations: prevention is better than cure. A stitch in time saves nine.

Earlier attention to my enlarging prostate – either by a change of diet, or by taking medicines regularly – may well have avoided all the unpleasantness and cost of the last few months.

As for the prostate, so also for many other parts of the body.

This year, I’ve been thinking more and more about the good health of the mind and the brain. With my reduced mobility over the last few months, I’ve had time to catch up with some reading about brain rewiring, mental agility and reprogramming, the role and content of consciousness, and ways in which people have recovered from Alzheimer’s.

Once again, the message is that prevention is better than cure.

If you’re interested in any of these topics, here’s an image of some books I have particularly enjoyed.

3 September 2021

Aging, slowing down, becoming a cyborg

Here’s a personal note. I’ve had to change quite a few of my plans, due to an unexpected medical issue.

(It’s nothing to do with Covid. The details are below, for readers with a stomach for indelicate topics.)

That issue completely disrupted my activities yesterday and the day before, and it is likely to cause further disruptions in the weeks and months ahead – depending on how my body responds to various treatments.

In any case, I’m going to have to slow down a bit. I may need to cancel some of my provisional travel plans, and spend less time in front of screens and keyboards.

Please accept my apologies in advance if you’re waiting to hear from me about something, and I seem to be unduly slow in responding.

I said my medical issue was “unexpected”, but that’s not the whole story.

I’ve known for some time that potential danger was building up in my body.

It’s an aspect of aging. Our bodies perform remarkably well while we’re in our youth, but over time, various sorts of damage and dysfunction start to build up.

In early years, that damage doesn’t matter much. The body is healthy enough to carry out repairs, and to produce workarounds to compensate for the decline in performance.

Eventually, however, the dysfunction becomes too severe, and results in greater amounts of harm, disease, frailty, and (in due course) death.

That’s why, for example, human mortality (along with the mortality of many other species) accelerates exponentially over time.

If you analyse the data from the UK’s National Life Tables for how many people at any particular age, you’ll find the following:

  • A ten year old has only one chance in around 10,000 of dying before their next birthday
  • A 35 year old has one chance in around 1,000 of dying before their next birthday
  • A 60 year old has one chance in around 100 of dying before their next birthday
  • An 85 year old has one chance in around 10 of dying before their next birthday.

(I did that particular analysis a few years ago. An analysis of the most recent life tables data may show slight differences.)

You’ll spot the pattern.

The pattern isn’t exact. (Otherwise no 110 year old would ever reach the age of 111. Which is what an extrapolation of the previous figures would suggest.)

But it holds to a first approximation. It was first stated in 1825 by London-based actuary and mathematician Benjamin Gompertz, and is sometimes expressed as follows: After the age of around 35, human mortality doubles every eight years.

And it’s plausible that what underlies this observed trend is a gradual increase in damage throughout the biological structures of the body – including damage in those aspects of our biology responsible for repair and regeneration.

That’s the general pattern. One specific example involves the prostate organ. Over time, in some men, the prostate grows and grows, to the extent that it constricts the urethra which passes through it. That constriction slows the flow of urine from the bladder to the outside world.

(As I said, this is an indelicate subject. But it can in some cases become a matter of life and death.)

And that’s what has happened to me.

I’ve known for some time that my prostate had grown large, and was interfering with my “plumbing”.

I now regret that I didn’t pay more attention to that growing risk. I was too easily reassured by observing that the problem seemed to wax and wane. I remember hearing that, for many people, the issue remains tolerable throughout their life. Indeed, the NHS webpage on the topic starts as follows (my emphasis):

Benign prostate enlargement (BPE) is the medical term to describe an enlarged prostate, a condition that can affect how you pee (urinate).

BPE is common in men aged over 50. It’s not a cancer and it’s not usually a serious threat to health.

I knew there were medicines that might help, such as Tamsulosin (brand name “Flomax Relief”) – but that they had side-effects.

So I gave the matter little attention.

But two days ago, my problems passing urine suddenly became a lot worse. I had a constant desire to “go”, but an inability to produce more than the tiniest trickle (after a lot of, err, stressing and straining).

To complicate matters, I was away from home. With my wife and two other couples, I was meant to be enjoying a three day golfing holiday in the picturesque Wiltshire countryside.

Yesterday morning, having failed to reach my own GPs online or by phone, I called the NHS 111 service. To cut to the chase, I was advised to get to a hospital as soon as possible. They made an appointment for me at a hospital in Bath, around 30 minutes car journey distant. And soon after that, I was being examined by an excellent team of NHS staff.

When someone’s bladder is full, it’s normally around 400 to 600 ml in volume. Ultrasound scans showed there was around 900 ml of urine in my bladder. No wonder I was feeling so uncomfortable.

I hadn’t expected to be in hospital that day, but thank goodness I was there.

I’ll skip over all the phases of analysis and treatment, and just mention that I am now slightly more of a cyborg than before. I’ve had a cleverly engineered piece of plastic inserted into my body, allowing me to drain my bladder at will, using a tap at the end of a tube which protrudes. It’s called an indwelling catheter.

It’s most likely only a temporary solution, until my response to Tamsulosin (the drug mentioned earlier) is assessed.

For the time being, my mobility is restricted, until I get used to this new attachment.

And my mind is, how to put it, rather shaken at the turn of events.

But things could have been a great deal worse. I’m deeply grateful for the rapid, painstaking response of the dozen or so members of the Royal United Hospital Bath who took such good care of me.

In moments of lucidity during these hours, I reflected on how much we all depend on each other. Rugged individualism only goes so far.

In the meantime, I’ll move forward with at least some of my projects, including the online London Futurists events already scheduled. They include one on (guess what?) aging, in two weeks time, and one on “Cryptocurrencies for profound good?” taking place tomorrow.

Opening image credit: Wolfgang Eckert from Pixabay.

2 August 2021

Follow-ups from the future of Transhumanist Studies

Last Saturday’s London Futurists event experimented with the format.

After the by-now usual 90 minutes of speaker presentation and moderated Q&A, and a five-minute comfort break, the event transitioned into a new phase with informal on-camera audience discussion. Audience members who stayed on for this part of the meeting were all transformed from webinar viewers into panellists, and invited to add their voices into the discussion. Questions to seed the discussion were:

  • What did you particularly like about what you have heard?
  • What would you like to add into the discussion?
  • What might you suggest as a follow-up after the event?

The topic for the event as a whole was “The Future of Transhumanist Studies”. The speaker was Natasha Vita-More, the executive director of Humanity+. Natasha kindly agreed to stay on for the informal phase of the event and provided more insight in that phase too.

I’m appending, below, a copy of the video recording of the main part of the event. What I want to share now are my personal take-aways from the informal discussion phase. (That part wasn’t recorded, but I took notes.)

1. The importance of increments

Transhumanism has a vision of a significantly better future for humanity.

To be clear, it’s not a vision of some kind of perfection – some imagined state in which no change ever happens. Instead, it’s a vision of an open, dynamic journey forward. Max More has written eloquently about that point on many occasions over the years. See in particular the Principles of Extropy (v3.11) from 2003. Or this short summary from the chapter “True Transhumanism” in the 2011 book H+/-: Transhumanism and Its Critics:

Transhumanism is about continual improvement, not perfection or paradise.

Transhumanism is about improving nature’s mindless “design”, not guaranteeing perfect technological solutions.

Transhumanism is about morphological freedom, not mechanizing the body.

Transhumanism is about trying to shape fundamentally better futures, not predicting specific futures.

Transhumanism is about critical rationalism, not omniscient reason.

What arose during the discussion on Saturday were questions about possible incremental next steps along that envisioned journey.

In part, these were questions about what science and technology might be able to deliver in the next 2, 5, 10 years, and so on. It’s important to be able to speak in a credible manner about these possible developments, and to offer evidence supporting these forecasts.

But there were also questions about specific actions that transhumanists might be able to take in the coming months and years to improve public awareness of key transhumanist ideas.

One panellist posed the question as follows:

What are the immediate logical next steps across the Transhumanist agenda that could [achieve wider impact]?

The comment continued:

The problem I see with roadmaps generally… is that people always look at the end of the roadmap and think about the end point, not the incremental journey… People start planning around the final slide/item on the roadmap instead of buying into the bits in between while expecting everyone else to do the work to get us there. That usually results in people not buying the incremental steps which of course stifles progress.

That thought resonated with other participants. One added:

This is a crucial idea. A sense of urgency is hard to engender in long term issues.

I am reminded of the excellent analysis by Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Kotter has probably done more than anyone else to understand why change initiatives frequently fail – even when the people involved in these initiatives have many admirable qualities. Here are the eight reasons he identifies for change initiatives failing:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management reorgs can unravel the progress made).

Kotter’s positive suggestions for avoiding these failures can be summed up in a slide I’ve used in various forms many times in my presentations over the years:

That brings me back to the topic of incremental change – envisioning it, communicating it, enabling it, and celebrating it. If that’s not done, any sense of urgency and momentum behind a change initiative is likely to falter and stall.

That’s why a credible roadmap of potential incremental changes is such an important tool.

Watch out for more news on that front soon.

2. Transhumanism becoming mainstream

Here’s another line of discussion from the informal conversation at the end of Saturday’s event.

Many members of the public, if they know about transhumanism at all, tend to see it as other worldly. It’s the subject of science fiction, or something that might appear in eccentric video games. But it’s not something relevant to the real world any time soon.

Or they might think of transhumanism as something for academics to debate, using abstract terminology such as post-modernism, post-humanism, and (yes) trans-humanism. Again, not something with any real-world implications.

To transhumanists, on the other hand, the subject is highly relevant. It’s relevant to the lives of individuals, as it covers treatments and methods that can be applied, here and now, to improve our wellbeing – physically, rationally, emotionally, and socially. It can also provide an uplifting vision that transforms our understanding of our own personal role in steering a forthcoming mega-disruption.

Moreover, transhumanism is relevant to the real-world problems that, understandably, cause a great deal of concern – problems about the environment, social interactions, economics and politics, and the runaway adoption of technology.

As Albert Einstein said in 1946, “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels”.

My own view is that transhumanism is the “new kind of thinking” that is, indeed, “essential” if we are to avoid the many dangerous landmines into which humanity currently risks sleepwalking.

That’s a core message of my recent book Vital Foresight: The Case For Active Transhumanism.

In that book, I emphasise that transhumanism isn’t some other worldly idea that’s in search of a question to answer. Instead, I introduce transhumanism as the solution of what I describe as eleven “landmines”.

Snippets of ideas about transhumanism are included in the early chapters of my book, but it’s not until Chapter 11 that I introduce the subject properly. That was a deliberate choice. I want to be clear that transhumanism can be seen as the emerging mainstream response to real-world issues and opportunities.

3. Academics who write about transhumanism

In some parts of the world, there are more people who study and write about transhumanism than who actively support transhumanist projects. That was another topic at the end of Saturday’s London Futurists event.

From my own reading, I recognise some of that academic work as being of high quality. For example, see the research of Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner from the History and Humanities department at John Cabot University in Rome. Sorgner featured in a London Futurists webinar a few months ago.

Another example of fine academic research into transhumanism is the 2018 PhD thesis of Elise Bohan of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia: A History of Transhumanism.

On the other hand, there’s also a considerable amount of academic writing on transhumanism that is, frankly, of a shockingly poor quality. I stepped through some of that writing while preparing Chapter 12 of Vital Foresight – the chapter (“Antitheses”) where I evaluate criticisms of transhumanism.

What these critics often do is to imagine their own fantasy version of transhumanism, and then criticise it, with little anchoring to the actual transhumanist community. That is, they criticise “straw men” distortions of transhumanism.

In some cases, these critics latch onto individual statements of people loosely connected with transhumanism – for example, statements by the fictional character Jethro Knights in the novel The Transhumanist Wager – and wrongly assume that these statements are authoritative for the entire movement. (See here for my own review of The Transhumanist Wager.)

These critics often assert: “What transhumanists fail to consider is…” or “Transhumanists never raise the question that…” whereas, in fact, these very questions have been reviewed in depth, many times over, in transhumanist discussion lists.

From time to time, critics of transhumanism do raise some good points. I acknowledge a number of examples throughout Vital Foresight. What I want to consider now are the questions that were raised on Saturday:

  1. How can transhumanists keep on top of the seemingly growing number of academic articles about us?
  2. What is the best way to respond to the misunderstandings and distortions that we notice?
  3. As a good use for our time, how do interactions with these academics compare with trying to share transhumanist messages with more mainstream audiences?

To answer the third question first: ideas matter. Ideas can spread from initially obscure academic settings into wider contexts. Keeping an eye on these discussions could help us to address issues early.

Moreover, what we can surely find, in amongst the range of academic work that addresses transhumanism, are some really good expressions and thoughts that deserve prominence and attention. These thoughts might also cause us to have some “aha” realisations – about things we could, or should, start to do differently.

Flipping to the first question: many hands make light work. Rather than relying on a single person that tries to review all academic mentions of transhumanism, more of us should become involved in that task.

When we find an article that deserves more attention – whether criticism or praise – we can add it into pages on H+Pedia (creating new pages if necessary).

The main event

Now you’ve read the after thoughts, here’s a recording of the event itself. Enjoy!

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