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24 June 2019

Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four steps in the analysis

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

Transcending capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

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

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

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

And to emphasise the point:

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

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

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

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

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

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

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

Populism and its dangers

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

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

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

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

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 June 2019

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

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

Some political parties are preoccupied with short-term matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most unconditionally popular goal so far

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

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

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

One respondent gave this comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd equal most popular goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least popular goals

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

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

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

And here’s another comment:

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

And yet another:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals receiving broad support

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

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

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

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

The goals most actively disliked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will be the purpose of humans?

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

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

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

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

Goals that are generally unpopular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestions for other goals

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

Economic growth through these goals needs to be quantified somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overthrow of capitalism and class relations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

24 April 2019

Supporting the SomosMiel revolution: time to act

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

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

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

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

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

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

Futuristicamente

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working together

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving faster

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

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

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

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

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

Time for action

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 January 2019

To make a dent in the universe

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

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

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

What might you do?

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

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

Should a Transhumanist Run for US President?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the books, the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

Going forwards

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

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

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

20 January 2019

Rejuvenation. Now. Easier than we think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: Claudio_Scott on Pixabay.

23 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

I draw the ideas in these scenarios from three sources.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

29 September 2018

Preview: Assessing the risks from super intelligent AI

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

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

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

Transcript of the video:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 July 2018

Transhumanism freed from the fantasies

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

Transhumanism attracts a lot of fantasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transhumanism is oppression disguised as liberation.

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

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

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

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

We should expect, and demand, better!

A better starting point

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

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

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

Julian Huxley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max More

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

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

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

Dear Mother Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your ambitious human offspring.

The Transhumanist Declaration

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

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

Moving forwards

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

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

20 July 2018

Christopher Columbus and the surprising future of AI

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

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

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

The Christopher Columbus angle

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

Bear with me while I retell this analogy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Columbus analogy

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

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

Footnote

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

 

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