31 March 2010

Shorter and sharper: improved video on priorities

Filed under: communications, futurist, Humanity Plus, presentation, YouTube — David Wood @ 1:06 pm

The above video provides context for the Humanity+ UK2010 event happening on 24th April.

It’s the second version of this video.  In the spirit of continuous improvement, this version:

  • Has better audio (I found out how to get my laptop to accept input from a jack mic);
  • Is shorter (it needs to be under 10 minutes in length to be accepted onto YouTube);
  • Has some improved layout and logic.

As a video, it’s still far from perfect!  As you can see, my video creation skills are still rudimentary.  But hopefully people will find the contents interesting.

It’s probably foolhardy of me to try to cover so much material in just 10 minutes.  I’m considering creating a short book on this topic, in order to do fuller justice to these ideas.

Video transcript

In case anyone would prefer a written version of what I said, I append a transcript.  Everyone else can stop reading now.

(Note: this transcript doesn’t match the video exactly, since I ad-libbed here and there.)

My name is David Wood.  I’m going to briefly describe the Humanity+ UK2010 event that will be taking place in London on Saturday 24th April.

As context, let me outline what I’m calling “The Humanity+ Agenda”:

  • This is a proposed set of 20 priorities – 20 items that in my view deserve significantly more attention, analysis, resourcing, and funding, over the coming decade.
  • These priorities are proposed responses to an interlinked set of major challenges that confront society.

The first of these challenges is the threat of environmental catastrophe – lack of clean, sustainable energy and other critical resources.  Second is the threat of economic collapse.  We’re still in the midst of the most serious economic crisis of the last 60 years.  Third is the risk of some fundamentalist terrorists getting their hands on fearsome weapons of mass destruction.  Fourth is a more subtle point: the growing sense of alienation and discontent as individuals all over the world increasingly realise that their own share of possible peak experiences is very limited and transitory.  All this adds up to a radically uncertain future, made all the more challenging due to the need to drastically cut back activities to pay for the ongoing economic crisis.

The single thing that will make the biggest difference to whether we overcome these deep challenges is technology.  Accelerating technology can supply many far-reaching solutions.  But technology cannot stand alone.  Improved technology depends on improved education and improved rationality.  The relationship goes both ways.  There’s another two-way relation with improved health and improved vitality.  Likewise for improved social structure; and for the full expression of human potential.

The 20 priorities fall into these five themes.  These are five areas where there’s already a lot of expenditure – from both government and industry.  But we have to raise our game in each of these areas.  We need to become smarter and more effective in each area.  Rather than “health” I’d like to talk about “super health”, or “health plus”.  Similarly, we need substantially improved education and reasoning ability, substantially improved technology, and substantially improved social structure.  All this will take human experience and capability to a significantly higher level – “Humanity plus”.

So let’s start listing the 20 priorities.  You’ll notice many interconnections.

In the field of Health+, we need to accelerate the progress of preventive medicine.  Fixing medical problems at early stages can be a much more cost effective way of spending a limited health budget.  Healthy individuals contribute to society more, rather than being a drain on its resources.  Going further, the slogan “better than well” should also become a priority.  People with exceptional levels of fitness, strength, perseverance, and vitality, can contribute even more to society.

Anti-aging treatments are an important special case of the previous priorities.  Many diseases are exacerbated because our bodies have accumulated different kinds of damage over the years – which we call “aging”.  Systematically removing or repairing this damage will have many benefits.

Education+ refers to people improving their skillsets and reasoning ability, all throughout their lives.  Behavioural psychology is pointing out many kinds of irrational bias in how all of us reach decisions.  We all need help in identifying and overcoming these biases.

One example is the undue influence that fundamentalist thinking can hold over people – when dogma from “scripture” or “tradition” or a “prophet” overrides the conclusions of rational debate.  The world is, today, too dangerous a place to allow dogma-driven people to hold positions of great power.

An important part of freeing people from limited thinking is to boost education about the status of accelerating technology – covering the opportunities, risks, context, and options.

Another way we can become smarter – and more sociable – is via cognitive enhancement and intelligence augmentation.  This includes drugs that improve our thinking and/or our mood, and silicon accompaniments to our biological brains.  Being connected to the Internet, via the likes of Google and Wikipedia, already boosts our knowledge significantly.

Before long, we could have at our fingertips access to Artificial General Intelligence, whereby computers can provide first class answers to tough questions that previously eluded even the smartest teams of people.  For example, I expect that many cures for diseases will be developed in collaboration with increasingly intelligent silicon super-brains.

That takes us to Technology+, the set of technologies underpinning the other changes I am describing.  Improved robots could provide unmatched precision and manual dexterity, as well as great diligence and power.

Nanotechnology could enable the creation of highly useful new materials, compounds, and tools.  Synthetic biology, in turn, could apply techniques from manufacturing and software to create new biological forms, with huge benefits for health, food, energy, and more.  Research into large-scale clean energy could finally solve our energy sustainability issues.  And underpinning all these technologies should be new generations of ICT – information and communications technologies, especially improvements in software.

But technology requires support from society in order to advance quickly and wisely.  Under the heading “Society+” I identify four priority areas: patent system reform, smart market regulation, the expansion of the domain of collaborative voluntary enterprise, and vibrant democratic involvement and oversight, which enables an inclusive open discussion on the best way to manage the future.

Finally, under the heading “Humanity+” we have three priorities: expansion of human choice and autonomy, developing new ways of measuring human accomplishment – that avoid the well-known drawbacks of purely economic measurements – and “geo-engineering capability”.  I’m reminded of the recent statement by veteran ecologist Stewart Brand: “We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it”.  It’s a frightening responsibility, but there is no alternative.

In summary, 20 interlinked priority areas in five themes: health+, education+, technology+, society+, and humanity+.  In each case, we must reach new levels of achievement.  Happily, we have in our hands the means to do so.  But let’s not imagine that things will be easy.  The next 10-20 years will probably be the most critical in the history of humanity.

In the midst of great difficulties, we’ll no doubt be sorely tempted by six dangerous distractions.

First is the idea that human progress is somehow inevitable, as if governed by some kind of cosmic law.  Alas, I see nothing pre-determined.  We need to become activists, rather than passive bystanders.

Second is the idea that the free market economy, if set up properly and then left to its own devices, will automatically generate the kinds of improvement in technology and product that I am talking about.  Sorry, although markets have been a powerful force for development over history, they’re far from perfect.

Nature – and evolution by natural selection – is another force which has accomplished a great deal, but which is far from optimal.  Nature is full of horrors as well as beauty.  Humans have been augmenting nature with enhancements from technology from before the beginning of recorded history.  This process absolutely needs to continue.

Risk aversion is another dangerous temptation.  Yet if we do nothing, we’re going to be in significant trouble anyway.  Either way, we can’t avoid risk – we just have to become better at evaluating it and managing it.

Next on this list is religion – any view that all the important answers have already been revealed.  I see religion as akin to several of the other temptations on this list: it has achieved a great deal in the past, but is far from being the sole guide to what we must do next.

Last on this list is humanism – the idea that humans, with our present set of attributes and skills, will be sufficient to build the best possible future environment.  However, present-day humans are no more the end point of progress than were simians – monkeys – or mammals.  In my view, it is only the significantly enhanced humans of the near future who will, collectively, be able to guide society and civilisation to reach our true potential.

We can succeed by progress, not by standing still.  We can succeed by transcending nature with enhanced technology, and by restructuring society in ways more favourable to innovation, collaboration, choice, and participation.

If these ideas strike you as interesting, one way you can continue the discussion is at the Humanity+ UK2010 event, on the 24th of April.  This will be held in Conway Hall, in Holborn, London.  You can register for the event at the website humanityplus dash uk dot com.  There will be 10 speakers, including many of the pioneering thinkers of the modern transhumanist or Humanity+ movement.

  • In the morning, the key speakers are Max More, Anders Sandberg, and Rachel Armstrong.
  • After lunch, the speakers will be Aubrey de Grey, David Pearce, and Amon Twyman.
  • Later in the afternoon, we’ll hear from Natasha Vita-More, David Orban, and Nick Bostrom.

You can find more details on the conference website.  If you’re quick, you may also be able to book one of the few remaining places at the post-event dinner, where all the speakers will be attending.  I hope to see you there.

I look forward to continuing this important discussion!


  1. DW comments:

    “In the midst of great difficulties, we’ll no doubt be sorely tempted by six dangerous distractions.

    First is the idea that human progress is somehow inevitable, as if governed by some kind of cosmic law. Alas, I see nothing pre-determined. We need to become activists, rather than passive bystanders.”
    Sadly, David, the greatest danger to our species at present is represented by exactly what you are doing with this sort of comment: sticking your head in the sand and hoping the strong indications derived from observed patterns of the overall life process will go away.

    This anthropocentrism is, of course, very hard to break away from.In the past it has generated a motley assortment of gods, all essentially reflections of our own minds.

    The quite natural but, as we now realise, completely false notions that the cosmos all revolved round our little planet stem from the same self-centred human arrogance.

    As detailed in “Unusual Perspectives”, this kind of mindset is far from the truth – viewed objectively, our control over nature is very limited, such that we have itself being a direct consequence of the overall life process.

    Furthermore, extrapolations of the observed evolutionary patterns that arise from chemistry and biology strongly suggest that, within decades, our species will have played its essential part in the scheme of things and thus become redundant.

    This, in no way, however gives any reason for passivity or fatalism. Redundancy does not necessarily equate to extinction, although the latter is a certainly a possible outcome.

    Indeed, the awareness of such a scenario should spur us to redouble our efforts to not only realise the great potential to improve our quality of life, but also to ensure our very survival.

    So it is at our peril that we shy away from the realities of our universe to stay within our cosy anthropocentric comfort zones.

    We do NOT control nature, and we never will, but we CAN turn many of its aspects to our advantage. A good metaphor is that of the surfer. He cannot control the big wave but he can make his best efforts to ride it out and have great fun in the process.

    To thoroughly mix the metaphor, folk, you wanna ride the wave? Or just stick your head back in the sand?

    “The latest electronic format edition of “Unusual Perspectives” can be freely downloaded from the eponymous website. That’s the easy part.

    Absorbing the material therein and learning the knack of throwing off the anthropocentric shackles with which we have all been endowed is much, much harder. The principle of “No pain, no gain” applies.

    Comment by Peter G Kinnon — 31 March 2010 @ 11:48 pm

    • Hi Peter,

      I’m not sure where you’re disagreeing with me.

      Are you denying that people can have an effect on the planet?

      Are you denying that the passage of time can be full of nasty surprises, in which things turned out much worse than people generally expected? (For example, very few people foresaw the carnage of World War One.)

      However, I don’t accept your claims that:
      1.) our species will become redundant
      2.) studying chemistry and biology confirms point 1.

      My expectation is that our species can evolve (via “intelligent self-design”) to remain highly relevant on this planet.

      Comment by David Wood — 1 April 2010 @ 12:19 am

    • @Peter: I don’t understand the purpose of your opening sentence at all. How can David’s point about the need for deliberate and reasoned action be equated with ‘sticking one’s head in the sand’? Surely he is arguing the opposite, which seems to be exactly your position.

      The purpose of the rest of your post however appears to centre upon your e-book!

      Comment by sosh101 — 1 April 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  2. Your items 1 & 2 show exactly where you are “sticking your head in the sand” David. That is if you have more than skimmed my work and particularly noted the unique and timely properties and abundancies which have made the development technology not only possible but also inevitable.

    Yes, I do, of course, agree with much of your document, many aspects of which quite closely parallel my own thoughts. Education,for instance would benefit from very radical reforms, In fact this is the subject of an up-coming book I have planned. Acquainting very young children with the principles of mechanics and chemistry (the way our world works!) in an informal way (“play”) is one of the many unorthodox models to be advanced therein.

    Religion, on the other hand, I consider too silly to be worthy of rational consideration.

    1. If you had perused my comment more carefully you would have appreciated that it was directed at the prefixed quote rather than the whole of David’ comments.

    2. The “Unusual Perspectives” free download is provided as a public service for the benefit of those having attention spans capable of handling arguments more detailed than is practicable in a blog.

    I will leave it there for folk to mull over – perhaps in the fullness of time?

    Comment by Peter G Kinnon — 1 April 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    • Hi Peter,

      >Religion, on the other hand, I consider too silly to be worthy of rational consideration

      On the contrary, I think it’s imperative that we consider religion carefully and rationally. It’s impact on the world is much, much too large, for us to seek to declare it outside rational consideration. The best book I’ve read on religion is Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, by David Sloan Wilson. I discuss this book here.

      >Your items 1 & 2 show exactly where you are “sticking your head in the sand” David

      I’m trying to remain as open-minded as I can. To simplify the discussion, let’s just look at claim 2:

      >2. studying chemistry and biology confirms point 1 [that the human species will become redundant]

      I realise you believe that you’ve provided an argument for this in your book. For the sake of people who haven’t downloaded your book, could you please briefly summarise it?

      One concern I have is that I see plenty of examples, in science, of “emergence”: important new properties emerge at higher levels which were impossible to predict beforehand from study of lower levels. For example, extensive knowlege of both Hydrogen gas and Oxygen gas would not lead people to predict many of the properties of water. Extensive knowledge of chemistry would not lead people to predict many aspects that emerge at the biological levels. Extensive knowlege of biology would not lead people to predict many aspects that emerge at the human social level. And so on. Therefore, I’m skeptical about any claims to deduce the future of human society just from study of chemistry and biology.

      Comment by David Wood — 2 April 2010 @ 10:15 pm

    • @Peter. Yes, I posted with the understanding that your comment was mainly directed at the quoted passage, and still, refer you back to my original reply.

      Comment by Sosh — 21 April 2010 @ 8:08 am

  3. Good luck with the event. Will video be available afterwards for those of us living thousands of miles away?

    Comment by Jeremy — 6 April 2010 @ 12:34 am

    • Hi Jeremy – Yes, videos of the talks will be available afterwards. We may also be able to do some live broadcasting during the event, but it looks like there’s insufficient uplink connectivity in the venue’s wifi.

      Comment by David Wood — 6 April 2010 @ 7:22 am

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