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1 March 2021

The imminence of artificial consciousness

Filed under: AGI, books, brain simulation, London Futurists — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 10:26 am

I’ve changed my mind about consciousness.

I used to think that, of the two great problems about artificial minds – namely, achieving artificial general intelligence, and achieving artificial consciousness – progress toward the former would be faster than progress toward the latter.

After all, progress in understanding consciousness had seemed particularly slow, whereas enormous numbers of researchers in both academia and industry have been attaining breakthrough after breakthrough with new algorithms in artificial reasoning.

Over the decades, I’d read a number of books by Daniel Dennett and other philosophers who claimed to have shown that consciousness was basically already understood. There’s nothing spectacularly magical or esoteric about consciousness, Dennett maintained. What’s more, we must beware being misled by our own introspective understanding of our consciousness. That inner introspection is subject to distortions – perceptual illusions, akin to the visual illusions that often mislead us about what we think our eyes are seeing.

But I’d found myself at best semi-convinced by such accounts. I felt that, despite the clever analyses in such accounts, there was surely more to the story.

The most famous expression of the idea that consciousness still defied a proper understanding is the formulation by David Chalmers. This is from his watershed 1995 essay “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”:

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect… There is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience.

When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion?

It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

However, as Wikipedia notes,

The existence of a “hard problem” is controversial. It has been accepted by philosophers of mind such as Joseph Levine, Colin McGinn, and Ned Block and cognitive neuroscientists such as Francisco Varela, Giulio Tononi, and Christof Koch. However, its existence is disputed by philosophers of mind such as Daniel Dennett, Massimo Pigliucci, Thomas Metzinger, Patricia Churchland, and Keith Frankish, and cognitive neuroscientists such as Stanislas Dehaene, Bernard Baars, Anil Seth and Antonio Damasio.

With so many smart people apparently unable to agree, what hope is there for a layperson to have any confidence in an answering the question, is consciousness already explained in principle, or do we need some fundamentally new insights?

It’s tempting to say, therefore, that the question should be left to one side. Instead of squandering energy spinning circles of ideas with little prospect of real progress, it would be better to concentrate on numerous practical questions: vaccines for pandemics, climate change, taking the sting out of psychological malware, protecting democracy against latent totalitarianism, and so on.

That practical orientation is the one that I have tried to follow most of the time. But there are four reasons, nevertheless, to keep returning to the question of understanding consciousness. A better understanding of consciousness might:

  1. Help provide therapists and counsellors with new methods to address the growing crisis of mental ill-health
  2. Change our attitudes towards the suffering we inflict, as a society, upon farm animals, fish, and other creatures
  3. Provide confidence on whether copying of memories and other patterns of brain activity, into some kind of silicon storage, could result at some future date in the resurrection of our consciousness – or whether any such reanimation would, instead, be “only a copy” of us
  4. Guide the ways in which systems of artificial intelligence are being created.

On that last point, consider the question whether AI systems will somehow automatically become conscious, as they gain in computational ability. Most AI researchers have been sceptical on that score. Google Maps is not conscious, despite all the profoundly clever things that it can do. Neither is your smartphone. As for the Internet as a whole, opinions are a bit more mixed, but again, the general consensus is that all the electronic processing happening on the Internet is devoid of the kind of subjective inner experience described by David Chalmers.

Yes, lots of software has elements of being self-aware. Such software contains models of itself. But it’s generally thought (and I agree, for what it’s worth) that such internal modelling is far short of subjective inner experience.

One prospect this raises is the dark possibility that humans might be superseded by AIs that are considerably more intelligent than us, but that such AIs would have “no-one at home”, that is, no inner consciousness. In that case, a universe with AIs instead of humans might have much more information processing, but be devoid of conscious feelings. Mega oops.

The discussion at this point is sometimes led astray by the popular notion that any threat from superintelligent AIs to human existence is predicated on these AIs “waking up” or become conscious. In that popular narrative, any such waking up might give an AI an additional incentive to preserve itself. Such an AI might adopt destructive human “alpha male” combative attitudes. But as I say, that’s a faulty line of reasoning. AIs might well be motivated to preserve themselves without ever gaining any consciousness. (Look up the concept of “basic AI drives” by Steve Omohundro.) Indeed, a cruise missile that locks onto a target poses a threat to that target, not because the missile is somehow conscious, but because it has enough intelligence to navigate to its target and explode on arrival.

Indeed, AIs can pose threats to people’s employment, without these AIs gaining consciousness. They can simulate emotions without having real internal emotions. They can create artistic masterpieces, using techniques such as GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks), without having any real psychological appreciation of the beauty of these works of art.

For these reasons, I’ve generally urged people to set aside the question of machine consciousness, and to focus instead on the question of machine intelligence. (For example, I presented that argument in Chapter 9 of my book Sustainable Superabundance.) The latter is tangible and poses increasing threats (and opportunities), whereas the former is a discussion that never seems to get off the ground.

But, as I mentioned at the start, I’ve changed my mind. I now think it’s possible we could have machines with synthetic consciousness well before we have machines with general intelligence.

What’s changed my mind is the book by Professor Mark Solms, The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness.

Solms is director of neuropsychology in the Neuroscience Institute of the University of Cape Town, honorary lecturer in neurosurgery at the Royal London Hospital School of Medicine, and an honorary fellow of the American College of Psychiatrists. He has spent his entire career investigating the mysteries of consciousness. He achieved renown within his profession for identifying the brain mechanisms of dreaming and for bringing psychoanalytic insights into modern neuroscience. And now his book The Hidden Spring is bringing him renown far beyond his profession. Here’s a selection of the praise it has received:

  • A remarkably bold fusion of ideas from psychoanalysis, psychology, and the frontiers of theoretical neuroscience, that takes aim at the biggest question there is. Solms will challenge your most basic beliefs.
    Matthew Cobb, author of The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience
  • At last the emperor has found some clothes! For decades, consciousness has been perceived as an epiphenomenon, little more than an illusion that can’t really make things happen. Solms takes a thrilling new approach to the problem, grounded in modern neurobiology but finding meaning in older ideas going back to Freud. This is an exciting book.
    Nick Lane, author of The Vital Question
  • To say this work is encyclopaedic is to diminish its poetic, psychological and theoretical achievement. This is required reading.
    Susie Orbach, author of In Therapy
  • Intriguing…There is plenty to provoke and fascinate along the way.
    Anil Seth, Times Higher Education
  • Solms’s efforts… have been truly pioneering. This unification is clearly the direction for the future.
    Eric Kandel, Nobel laureate for Physiology and Medicine
  • This treatment of consciousness and artificial sentience should be taken very seriously.
    Karl Friston, scientific director, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging
  • Solms’s vital work has never ignored the lived, felt experience of human beings. His ideas look a lot like the future to me.
    Siri Hustvedt, author of The Blazing World
  • Nobody bewitched by these mysteries [of consciousness] can afford to ignore the solution proposed by Mark Solms… Fascinating, wide-ranging and heartfelt.
    Oliver Burkeman, Guardian
  • This is truly a remarkable book. It changes everything.
    Brian Eno

At times, I had to concentrate hard while listening to this book, rewinding the playback multiple times. That’s because the ideas kept sparking new lines of thought in my mind, which ran off in different directions as the narration continued. And although Solms explains his ideas in an engaging manner, I wanted to think through the deeper connections with the various fields that form part of the discussion – including psychoanalysis (Freud features heavily), thermodynamics (Helmholtz, Gibbs, and Friston), evolution, animal instincts, dreams, Bayesian statistics, perceptual illusions, and the philosophy of science.

Alongside the theoretical sections, the book contains plenty of case studies – from Solms’ own patients, and from other clinicians over the decades (actually centuries) – that illuminate the points being made. These studies involve people – or animals – with damage to parts of their brains. The unusual ways in which these subjects behave – and the unusual ways in which they express themselves – provide insight on how consciousness operates. Particularly remarkable are the children born with hydranencephaly – that is, without a cerebral cortex – but who nevertheless appear to experience feelings.

Having spent two weeks making my way through the first three quarters of the book, I took the time yesterday (Sunday) to listen to the final quarter, where there were several climaxes following on top of each other – addressing at length the “Hard Problem” ideas of David Chalmers, and the possibility of artificial consciousness.

It’s challenging to summarise such a rich set of ideas in just a few paragraphs, but here are some components:

  • To understand consciousness, the subcortical brain stem (an ancient part of our anatomy) is at least as important as the cognitive architecture of the cortex
  • To understand consciousness, we need to pay attention to feelings as much as to memories and thought processing
  • Likewise, the chemistry of long-range neuromodulators is at least as important as the chemistry of short-range neurotransmitters
  • Consciousness arises from particular kinds of homeostatic systems which are separated from their environment by a partially permeable boundary: a structure known as a “Markov blanket”
  • These systems need to take actions to preserve their own existence, including creating an internal model of their external environment, monitoring differences between incoming sensory signals and what their model predicted these signals would be, and making adjustments so as to prevent these differences from escalating
  • Whereas a great deal of internal processing and decision-making can happen automatically, without conscious thought, some challenges transcend previous programming, and demand greater attention

In short, consciousness arises from particular forms of information processing. (Solms provides good reasons to reject the idea that there is a basic consiciousness latent in all information, or, indeed, in all matter.) Whilst more work requires to be done to pin down the exact circumstances in which consciousness arises, this project is looking much more promising now, than it did just a few years ago.

This is no idle metaphysics. The ideas can in principle be tested by creating artificial systems that involve particular kinds of Markov blankets, uncertain environments that pose existential threats to the system, diverse categorical needs (akin to the multiple different needs of biologically conscious organisms), and layered feedback loops. Solms sets out a three-stage process whereby such systems could be built and evolved, in a relatively short number of years.

But wait. All kinds of questions arise. Perhaps the most pressing one is this: If such systems can be built, should we build them?

That “should we” question gets a lot of attention in the closing sections of the book. We might end up with AIs that are conscious slaves, in ways that we don’t have to worry about for our existing AIs. We might create AIs that feel pain beyond that which any previous conscious being has ever experienced it. Equally, we might create AIs that behave very differently from those without consciousness – AIs that are more unpredictable, more adaptable, more resourceful, more creative – and more dangerous.

Solms is doubtful about any global moratorium on such experiments. Now that the ideas are out of the bag, so to speak, there will be many people – in both academia and industry – who are motivated to do additional research in this field.

What next? That’s a question that I’ll be exploring this Saturday, 6th March, when Mark Solms will be speaking to London Futurists. The title of his presentation will be “Towards an artificial consciousness”.

For more details of what I expect will be a fascinating conversation – and to register to take part in the live question and answer portion of the event – follow the links here.

29 December 2020

The best book on the science of aging in the last ten years

Filed under: aging, books, rejuveneering, science, The Abolition of Aging — Tags: , — David Wood @ 10:44 am

Science points to many possibilities for aging to be reversed. Within a few decades, medical therapies based on these possibilities could become widespread and affordable, allowing all of us, if we wish, to remain in a youthful state for much longer than is currently the norm – perhaps even indefinitely. Instead of healthcare systems continuing to consume huge financial resources in order to treat people with the extended chronic diseases that become increasingly common as patients’ bodies age, much smaller expenditure would keep all of us much healthier for the vast majority of the time.

Nevertheless, far too many people fail to take these possibilities seriously. They believe that aging is basically inevitable, and that people who say otherwise are deluded and/or irresponsible.

Public opinion matters. Investments made by governments and by businesses alike are heavily influenced by perceived public reaction. Without active public support for smart investments in support of the science and medicine that could systematically reverse aging, that outcome will be pushed backwards in time – perhaps even indefinitely.

What can change this public opinion? An important part of the answer is to take the time to explain the science of aging in an accessible, engaging way – including the many recent experimental breakthroughs that, collectively, show such promise.

That’s exactly what Dr Andrew Steele accomplishes in his excellent book Ageless: The new science of getting older without getting old.

The audio version of this book became available on Christmas Eve, narrated by Andrew himself. It has been a delight to listen to it over the intervening days.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned a great deal from a number of books that address the science of aging, and I’ve been happy to recommend these books to wider audiences. These include:

But I hope that these esteemed authors won’t mind if I nominate Andrew Steele’s book as a better starting point into the whole subject. Here’s what’s special about it:

  • It provides a systematic treatment of the science, showing clear relationships between the many different angles to what is undeniably a complex subject
  • The way it explains the science seems just right for the general reader with a good basic education – neither over-simplified or over-dense
  • There’s good material all the way through the book, to keep readers turning the pages
  • The author is clearly passionate about his research, seeing it as important, but he avoids any in-your-face evangelism
  • The book avoids excessive claims or hyperbole: the claims it makes are, in my view, always well based
  • Where research results have been disappointing, there’s no attempt to hide these or gloss over them
  • The book includes many interesting anecdotes, but the point of these stories is always the science, rather than the personalities or psychologies of the researchers involved, or clashing business interests, or whatever
  • The information it contains is right up to date, as of late 2020.

Compared to other research, Ageless provides a slightly different decomposition of what is known as the hallmarks of aging, offering ten in total:

  1. DNA damage and mutations
  2. Trimmed telomeres
  3. Protein problems: autophagy, amyloids and adducts
  4. Epigenetic alterations
  5. Accumulation of senescent cells
  6. Malfunctioning mitochondria
  7. Signal failure
  8. Changes in the microbiome
  9. Cellular exhaustion
  10. Malfunction of the immune system

As the book points out, there are three criteria for something to be a useful “hallmark of aging”:

  1. It needs to increase with age
  2. Accelerating a hallmark’s progress should accelerate aging
  3. Reducing the hallmark should decrease aging

The core of the book is a fascinating survey of interventions that could reduce each of these hallmarks and thereby decrease aging – that is, decrease the probability of dying in the next year. These interventions are grouped into four categories:

  1. Remove
  2. Replace
  3. Repair
  4. Reprogram

Each category of intervention is in turn split into several subgroups. Yes, the treatment of aging is likely to be complicated. However, there are plenty of examples in which single interventions turned out to have multiple positive effects on different hallmarks of aging.

There are a couple of points where some readers might quibble with the content, for example regarding dietary supplements, or whether the concept of group selection can ever be useful within evolutionary theory.

However, my own presentations on the subject of the abolition of aging will almost certainly evolve in the light of the framework and examples in Ageless. I’m much the wiser from reading it.

Here’s my advice to anyone who, like me, believes the subject of reversing aging is important, and who wishes to accelerate progress in this field:

  • Read Ageless with some care, all the way through
  • Digest its contents and explore the implications, for example via discussion in online groups
  • Recommend others to read it too.

Ideally, a sizeable proportion of the book’s readers will alter their own research or other activity, in order to assist the projects covered in Ageless.

Finally, a brief comparison between Ageless and the remarkable grandfather book of this whole field: Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, authored by Aubrey de Grey and Michael Rae. Ending Aging was published in 2007 and remains highly relevant, even though numerous experimental findings and new ideas have emerged since its publication. There’s a deep overlap in the basic approach advocated in the two books. Both books are written by polymaths who are evidently very bright – people who, incidentally, did their first research in fields outside biology, and who brought valuable external perspectives to the field.

So I see Ageless as a worthy successor to Ending Aging. Indeed, it’s probably a better starting point for people less familiar with this field, in view of its coverage of important developments since 2007, and some readers may find Andrew’s writing style more accessible.

31 July 2020

The future of AI: 12 possible breakthroughs, and beyond

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

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

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

You can see my opening remarks in this video:

A copy of my slides can be accessed on Slideshare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

14 May 2020

The second coming of the Longevity Dividend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

 

5 December 2019

Nano comes to life

Filed under: books, healthcare, nanotechnology, Oxford — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 12:44 am

To make progress in biotechnology, the discipline of software engineering will be key. Right?

After all, life is the outcome of what is known as the genetic code. Our biological metabolism is the execution of that code in our cells, extra cellular structures, organs, various circulatory systems, and so on. Admittedly, that code lacks documentation, and has no comments to guide our understanding. Indeed, it has been described as worse than the worst of human-written “spaghetti” code. Such is the complexity. But in due course, we can expect the painstaking application of methods of reverse software engineering to induce biology to give up its deepest secrets. Right?

Not so fast. The message in the recent new book by Oxford University Professor Sonia Contera, Nano Comes to Life, is that if we want to make better progress with biology, we need to increase our understanding of physics. Yes, physics – including mechanics, surface tension, electrostatic forces, dynamic motion, and so on.

Consider our DNA. Parts of our chromosomes consist of genes that cause our cells to create various proteins. The mapping of elements of chromosomes to specific proteins is, indeed, governed by a genetic code. The elucidation of that code has been one of the great triumphs of scientific endeavour in the last hundred years. That same endeavour, however, threw up a puzzle: large parts of our DNA – perhaps the majority of it – seem to be “junk”. It consists of multiple copies of genes that no longer create proteins. Various ideas developed for why these DNA segments exist – viewing them as self-serving, or “selfish”: they exist because they are copied into new generations, and that’s all there is to say about the matter.

However, there’s more than one level to think about our DNA. Yes, it consists of genes. But it also exists as a complex 3D structure, which folds and coils. Depending on the precise folding and coiling – and on whether some molecular groups known as methyls or acetyls are added into a kind of skin for the DNA – different genes are exposed to chemical interactions. We say that different genes can be turned “on” or “off”. Without the long chains of intermediary so-called “junk” DNA between various genes, these 3D interactions wouldn’t take place. The folding and coiling would be different. In other words, junk DNA may be purposeful after all, not in terms of its biochemical interactions, but in terms of its mechanical interactions.

One suggestion in Nano Comes to Life is that mechanical pressure on a cell can result in pressure on the nucleus of the cell, which can, in turn, change the precise 3D shapes of various chromosomes, altering which genes are turned on or off. In other words, external stresses and strains from the environment could directly alter the genetic expressions inside cells.

The limits of reductionism

The suggestion just given is but one example of a thesis which Nano Comes to Life brilliantly highlights: we should avoid becoming carried away with the methodology of reductionism. Reductionism looks for the causes of complex phenomena in a fuller analysis of the constituent parts of the larger system. To understand human biology we need to understand cells. To understand cells we need to understand chemistry. To understand chemistry we need to understand physics. To understand physics we need to understand mathematics. All that is true… but it is not the whole story.

I confess that when I hear people criticising reductionism, I become apprehensive. I half expect the conversation to continue as follows: we cannot understand biology in terms of chemistry, so that proves that aliens did it. Or that psychic telepathy exists. Or that humans are designed by a supernatural deity. Or that magic dwells deep in the universe. Or some other (unjustified) leap of faith.

However, emphatically, that’s not the kind of criticism of reductionism that you’ll find in Nano Comes to Life. Instead, the message is a kind of restatement of the saying often attributed to Einstein:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

In other words, true progress in biology is likely to come, not from single-minded pursuits of individual lines of thinking, but, instead, from the interplay of multiple levels of understanding. That interplay can give rise to emergence.

Progress in multiple fields

Nano Comes to Life contains an impressive survey of fast progress that is being made in multiple labs around the world (in research universities and in commercial settings) precisely by adopting this multi-level thinking. The book brings readers up to date with remarkable recent research breakthroughs in techniques such as:

  • DNA nanotechnology (including DNA origami),
  • novel protein synthesis via nanotechnology,
  • nanomaterials and transmaterials – which combine features of biological materials with those from outside biology,
  • the creation of replacement organs, as well as “organs on a chip” (very useful for drug testing purposes),
  • targeted cancer drug delivery systems,
  • avoidance of the threat of growing antibiotic resistance,
  • enhancing the immune system,
  • and other aspects of what is known as nanomedicine.

The book also provides fascinating insight into the history and practice of cutting-edge laboratory science.

The context: a vision delayed

I’ve been aware of the field of nanotechnology since some time around the year 1990, when I came across the very first book written on that subject. That book was Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by Eric Drexler (first published in 1986). Reading that book that significantly raised my awareness of the scale of the profound positive transformation that technology could in due course enable in the human condition. Reflecting the importance of that book on the subsequent trajectory of my thinking, a picture of me holding my copy of it was my cover photo on Facebook for a number of years.

(Thanks to Yanna Buryak for snapping this picture of me at just the right moment.)

Eric Drexler’s 1986 book foresaw the eventual deliberate systematic manipulation of matter to create myriad nanoscale levers, shafts, conveyor belts, gears, pulleys, motors, and more. In ways broadly similar to the marvellous operation of ribosomes within biological cells, specially designed nanofactories will be able to utilise atomically precise engineering to construct numerous kinds of new material products, molecule by molecule.  But whereas the natural nanotechnology of ribosomes involves processes that evolved by blind evolution, synthetic nanotechnology will involve processes intelligently designed by human scientists. These scientists will take inspiration from biological templates, but can look forward to reaching results far transcending those of nature.

But despite the upbeat vision of Engines of Creation, progress with many of the ideas Drexler envisioned has proven disappointingly slow. Although the word “nanotechnology” has entered general parlance, it has mainly referred to developments that fall considerably short of the full vision of nanofactories. Thus we have nanomaterials, including nanowires and nanoshells. We have techniques of 3D printing that operate at the nanoscale. We have nanoparticles with increasing numbers of uses. However, the full potential of nanotechnology, envisioned all these years ago by Drexler, remains a future vision.

What Sonia Contera’s book Nano Comes To Life provides, however, is a comprehensive summary of progress within the last few years – and grounds for foreseeing continuing progress ahead.

Why the 2010s are the new 1830s

A clear sign of progress – at last – with nanomachines was the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016. This prize was jointly received by Fraser Stoddart from Scotland, Bernard Feringa from the Netherlands, and Jean-Pierre Sauvage from France, in recognition of their pioneering work in this field – such as finding ways to convert chemical energy into purposeful mechanical motion.

As the Nobel committee remarked, nanomachines in the 2010s are at a roughly similar situation to electrical motors of the 1830s: the basic principles of the manufacture and operation of these machines are just becoming clear. The scientists in the 1830s who demonstrated a variety spinning cranks and wheels, powered by electricity, could hardly have foreseen the subsequent wide incorporation of improved motors in consumer goods such as food processors, air conditioning fans, and washing machines. Likewise, as nanomachines gain more utility, they can be expected to revolutionise manufacturing, healthcare, and the treatment of waste.

It is these future revolutions which feature in Nano Comes to Life – particularly in the field of medicine and health. Importantly, these future revolutions are described in the book, not as any kind of inevitable development, but as something whose form and value will depend critically on choices taken by humans – individually and collectively. Indeed, in an epilogue to the book, the author points to a number of encouraging trends in how scientists, technologists, general citizens, and artists, are interacting to raise the probability that the full benefits of nanotechnology will be spread widely and fairly throughout society. It’s another example of the need to think about matters at more than one level at the same time.

The messages in that final section are ones with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Postscript: For a deeper dive

To hear Sonia Contera present her ideas in more depth, and to join a public Q&A discussion about the implications, check out the London Futurists event happening this Saturday (7th December).

13 November 2019

The astonishing backstory to fracking, Russia, and the dangers of capitalism out of control

Blowout is truly a standout. It brilliantly illuminates powerful forces behind ongoing changes in the oil and gas industry. As the book makes clear, we underestimate these forces at our peril. Accordingly, Blowout deserves a wide readership.

Rachel Maddow, the author of Blowout, doubles as the narrator of the book’s audio version. She also hosts a nightly public affairs show on MSNBC. She reads her own words with great panache. It’s as if the listener could see the knowing winks. Indeed, whilst listening to Blowout, I was prompted to laugh on loud on occasion – before feeling pangs of guilt for having taken pleasure at various all-too-human episodes of duplicity, hubris, and downfall. This isn’t really a laughing matter, though the humour helps our sanity. The future may depend on how well we take to heart the lessons covered in Blowout.

Despite the sharp critical commentary, the book also offers a lot of sympathy. Although the oil and gas industry is portrayed – as in the subtitle of the book – as “the most destructive industry on earth” – and as a strong cause of “corrupted democracy” and “rogue states” – the narrative also shows key actors of this industry in, for a while, a positive light. These individuals see themselves as heroic defenders of important ideals, including energy independence and entrepreneurial verve. Blowout shows that there’s considerable merit in this positive self-assessment. However, very importantly, it’s by no means the whole story.

Blowout interweaves a number of absorbing, captivating tales about larger-than-life individuals, decades-long technological innovation, some of the world’s most successful companies, and clashes of realpolitik. The structure is similar to a pattern often found in novels. At first it’s not clear how the different narrative strands will relate to each other. The connections become clear in stages – vividly clear.

Together, these accounts provide the backstory for various items that frequently appear in the news:

  • The transformation of the oil and gas industry by the technology of fracking (fracturing)
  • Oil executives being seemingly unconcerned about interacting with repulsive autocratic politicians
  • Russian political leaders taking steps to destabilise democracy in the US and in the EU
  • The long relationship between Vladimir Putin and former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
  • The activities of people whose names have featured in the Mueller investigation – including Paul Manafort and Dmytro Firtash
  • The floods of aggressive denial against the findings of scientists that activities of the oil and gas industry risk humongous environmental damage.

Blowout deserves a five-star rating for several different reasons. The discussion of the history of fracking, by itself, should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the general principles of technological disruption. The development of fracking conforms to the common pattern of a disruption lingering through a long, slow, disappointing phase, before accelerating to have a bigger impact than even the cheerleaders of the technology previously expected. It also produces a strong example of how an industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate. The industry will have too strong a motivation to downplay the “unexpected side effects” of the new technology. It’s chilling how oil and gas industry experts sought to silence any suggestion that fracking could be the cause of increased earthquakes. It’s also chilling how people who should have know better rushed to adopt various daft pseudo-scientific explanations for this increase.

The book’s account of oil-induced corruption in Equatorial Guinea is also highly relevant (not to mention gut-wrenching). The bigger picture, as Blowout ably explains, is addressed by the concept of “the paradox of plenty”. Of even greater interest is the application of this same theory to developments within Russia.

Alongside tales of epic human foolishness (including the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the bizarre experience of Shell’s experimental drilling in the Artic), the book offers some genuine inspiration. One example is the growing democratic push-back in the state of Oklahoma, against the previous dominance in that state of the oil and gas industry. Another example is the way in which by no means every country with a “plenty” of oil falls victim to the “paradox” of poorer overall social wellbeing.

In the end, Blowout emphasises, criticising the behaviour of the oil and gas industry makes as little sense as criticising a lion for having the temerity to hunt and eat prey. The solution cannot be merely to appeal to the good conscience of the executives in that industry. Instead, it’s up to governments to set the frameworks within which that industry operates.

In turn, it makes strong internal sense for executives in that industry to seek to undermine any such regulatory framework. We should not be surprised at the inventiveness of that industry and its supporters in finding fault with regulations, in obscuring the extent to which that industry benefits from long-standing subsidies and kickbacks, and in undermining effective international democratic collaboration (such as in the EU). Instead, we need clear-minded political leadership who can outflank the industry, so that we gain its remarkable benefits but avoid its equally remarkable downsides. And what will help political leaders to gain a clearer mind is if the analysis in Blowout becomes better known. Much better known.

PS Some of the same analysis is also covered in this recent video in the series about the Technoprogressive Roadmap:

 

25 October 2019

Making real sense of quantum mechanics: “Something deeply hidden”

The new book by Sean Carroll, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, is probably the single best argument for the Everett understanding of quantum mechanics.

That’s the approach named after physicist Hugh Everett III and which is often also called (although slightly misleadingly) the “Many Worlds Interpretation”.

In his book, Carroll makes clear the powerful attractions of the Everett understanding, and persuasively counters the objections that are commonly raised against it. He highlights how this approach is the natural, straightforward response to the extraordinary success of the quantum formalism. Despite its apparent profligacy of multiple worlds (multiple diverging branches of reality), it’s actually a lean and austere interpretation of quantum mechanics. Unique among interpretations of quantum mechanics, it adds in nothing beyond the wave equation itself.

Back in the 1980s I spent four years mulling the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. Over time, against my initial inclinations (and hopes), I came to have an increasing respect for the Everett understanding – an outcome I wrote about here. Alongside my grudging respect for that interpretation, I retained the view that it still faced many hard questions. However, Carroll’s book has convinced me that these questions aren’t particularly daunting. In other words, the book has strengthened my conviction that these “Many Worlds” do come into being whenever quantum transactions are macroscopically magnified.

In terms of the history of the topics covered, and the pros and cons of the different interpretations reviewed, I see Carroll as being overwhelmingly correct. I particularly liked his demolition of the idea that there’s such a thing as a coherent “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics. The only area where I wanted to see the argument extended was that more could have been said about how all the non-Everett interpretations of quantum mechanics have to accept one or other kind of radical non-locality (despite the attempts of various writers to “have their cake and eat it”).

The final third of the book may be the most important. It reviews the possibility for progress in an area of physics that has long experienced troubles: quantum gravity. Carroll argues that the best hopes for us obtaining a correct quantum theory of gravity (that works at all energy scales) is to take quantum mechanics itself more seriously. This part of the book is more speculative than the earlier parts, but it has raised my interest in delving more into these topics.

This final part of the book also underlines the difficulties faced by the non-Everett interpretations of quantum mechanics in dealing, not with particles, but with the relativistic fields which modern physics views as being more fundamental than particles. This part also reviews how space and time should emerge from the theory of quantum gravity, rather than being presupposed as the canvas upon which the theory would operate. Some of the potential implications for black holes (and maybe even the Big Bang) are mind-stretching.

It’s a shocking possibility that each of us exist alongside numerous different versions of ourselves, in the overall multiverse – versions that have increasingly divergent experiences. I see this possibility as one of the most remarkable insights to have arisen from humanity’s millennia-long exploration into science. It’s an insight that takes time to sink in. It’s a good question how much this insight should change our day-to-day behaviour. Carroll has an answer to that too: not as much as we might first think. Personally I find it a humbling realisation.

PS For another book that addresses some of the same topics – inside an even larger set of profound ideas – I recommend Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark.

1 October 2019

“Lifespan” – a book to accelerate the emerging paradigm change in healthcare

Harvard Medical School professor David Sinclair has written a remarkable book that will do for an emerging new paradigm in healthcare what a similarly remarkable book by Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom has been doing for an emerging new paradigm in artificial intelligence.

In both cases, the books act to significantly increase the tempo of the adoption of the new paradigm.

Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence – subtitled Paths, Dangers, Strategies – caught the attention of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Barack Obama, and many more, who have collectively amplified its message. That message is the need to dramatically increase the priority of research into the safety of systems that contain AGI (artificial general intelligence). AGI will be a significant step up in capability from today’s “narrow” AI (which includes deep learning as well as “good old fashioned” expert systems), and therefore requires a significant step up in capability of safety engineering. In the wake of a wider appreciation of the scale of the threat (and, yes, the opportunity) ahead, funding has been provided for important initiatives such as the Future of Life Institute, OpenAI, and Partnership on AI. Thank goodness!

Sinclair’s book, Lifespan – subtitled Why We Age, and Why We Don’t Have To – is poised to be read, understood, and amplified by a similar group of key influencers of public thinking. In this case, the message is that a transformation is at hand in how we think about illness and health. Rather than a “disease first” approach, what is now possible – and much more desirable – is an “aging first” approach that views aging as the treatable root cause of numerous diseases. In the wake of a wider appreciation of the scale of the opportunity ahead (and, yes, the threat to society if healthcare continues along its current outdated disease-first trajectory), funding is likely to be provided to accelerate research into the aging-first paradigm. Thank goodness!

Bostom’s book drew upon the ideas of earlier writers, including Eliezer Yudkowsky and Ray Kurzweil. It also embodied decades of Bostrom’s own thinking and research into the field.

Sinclair’s book likewise builds upon ideas of earlier writers, including Aubrey de Grey and (again) Ray Kurzweil. Again, it also embodies decades of Sinclair’s own thinking and research into the field.

Both books are occasionally heavy going for the general reader – especially for a general reader who is in a hurry. But both take care to explain their thinking in a step-by-step process. Both contain many human elements in their narrative. Neither books contain the last word on their subject matter – and, indeed, parts will likely prove to be incorrect in the fullness of time. But both perform giant steps forwards for the paradigms they support.

The above remarks about the book Lifespan are part of what I’ll be talking about later today, in Brussels, at an open lunch event to mark the start of this year’s Longevity Month.

Longevity Month is an opportunity to celebrate recent progress, and to anticipate faster progress ahead, for the paradigm shift mentioned above:

  • Rather than studying each chronic disease separately, science should prioritise study of aging as the common underlying cause (and aggravator) of numerous chronic diseases
  • Rather than treating aging as an unalterable “fact of nature” (which, by the way, it isn’t), we should regard aging as an engineering problem which is awaiting an engineering solution.

In my remarks at this event, I’ll also be sharing my overall understanding of how paradigm shifts take place (and the opposition they face):

I’ll run through a simple explanation of the ideas behind the “aging-first” paradigm – a paradigm of regular medical interventions to repair or remove the damage caused at cellular and inter-cellular levels as a by-product of normal human metabolism:

Finally, I’ll be summarising the growing momentum of progress in a number of areas, and suggesting how that momentum has the potential to address the key remaining questions in the field:

In addition to me, four other speakers are scheduled to take part in today’s event:

It should be a great occasion!

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.

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