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1 January 2017

The best books I read in 2016

Antidotes to the six horsemen of the Trumpocalypse

Here’s one of my deeply held beliefs. We owe it to ourselves to take best advantage of the insights and experiences of those who have gone before us. Where researchers have seen more clearly or understood more deeply than their predecessors or contemporaries, we should pay special attention to their words and concepts. Where these researchers have written books that make accessible key aspects of their hard-won expertise, we should prioritise finding the time to read these books.

But in 2016, not everyone agreed that expertise is worth attention. Experts are over-rated, we heard. The elites deserve a comeuppance.

That sentiment is an ominous echo of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its opposition to the “four olds” – a revolution which, between the years 1966-1976, resulted in horrific damage to the country and many millions of deaths. A later candid assessment by the Chinese government described that period of wilful ignorance as being

Responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.

I have no truck for those rabble-rousers who declared in 2016 that “we have had enough of experts”. I choose expertise every time, over wishful thinking, hearsay, and dogmatism. I choose to keep on educating myself in the arts of critical thinking, rather than bowing my honest opinion to the rants of the populist press or the false certainties of the demagogues in our midst.

At a time where the six dreadful horsemen of the Trumpocalypse are gathering speed – when perverse interactions are growing more unpredictable between radical over-confidence, divisive boasts of “my tribe first”, enthralment to personal egos, trigger-happy vindictiveness, shameless lying, and fake news designed to inflame rather than to enlighten – we need calm, rational, evidence-based thinking more than ever.

The hard thing, of course, is knowing where true expertise really lies. It can be difficult to distinguish the trustworthy experts from self-declared “experts”. And it is important to perceive the limitations of the expertise of any one person or any one discipline. Thankfully, these tasks can be aided  group intelligence, as we collectively develop an appreciation for which writers are the most reliable in particular areas.

In that spirit, I list below the books that I read and rated as “5 stars” during 2016 on GoodReads. I tend to rate books that highly if:

  • They contain novel material which addresses highly important themes
  • They are well-written – giving good evidence and rationale for the points of view they advance
  • They maintained my interest all the way to the end of the book.

Hopefully my brief reviews will provide some inspiration to guide you in your own reading, research, and projects during 2017. Do let me know.

(Click on any book cover below, to visit the GoodReads page for the book.)

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

homo-deus

Written by Yuval Noah Harari. Of all the books on my list, this is the one that provides the largest perspective. This book explains how the three terrible scourges which have confronted humans throughout history – plague, famine, and war – will be replaced in the 21st century by three huge new projects, labelled as “immortality”, “happiness”, and “divinity”. Here are three brief quotes from Harari’s book on these grand projects:

  • “Struggling against old age and death will merely carry on the time-honoured fight against famine and disease, and manifest the supreme value of contemporary culture: the worth of human life… Modern science and modern culture don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery, and they certainly don’t view death as the source of life’s meaning. Rather, for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve”
  • “Being happy doesn’t come easy. Despite our unprecedented achievements in the last few decades, it is far from obvious that contemporary people are significantly more satisfied than their ancestors in bygone years. Indeed, it is an ominous sign that despite higher prosperity, comfort and security, the rate of suicide in the developed world is also much higher than in traditional societies… The bad news is that pleasant sensations quickly subside and sooner or later turn into unpleasant ones… This is all the fault of evolution. For countless generations our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness”
  • “In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum… If we ever have the power to engineer death and pain out of our system, that same power will probably be sufficient to engineer our system in almost any manner we like, and manipulate our organs, emotions and intelligence in myriad ways. You could buy for yourself the strength of Hercules, the sensuality of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena or the madness of Dionysus if that is what you are into.”

Harari’s book also makes plain that these projects risk enormous upheavals in society – potentially facturing humanity into “the near gods” and “the near useless”. Even that thought isn’t the largest in the book. He writes near the end:

  • “The Internet-of-All-Things may soon create such huge and rapid data flows that even upgraded human algorithms cannot handle it. When the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens…”
  • “When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.”

I therefore pick Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow as the single most profound book of 2016.

Note: I presented a personal review of this book near the start of a London Futurists event on the 4th of October. Here’s a video recording:
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The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

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Written by Daniel E. Lieberman. This book shares with Homo Deus the fact that it has an enormous scope. It casts a careful eye back over the long prehistory of human (and hominid) evolution, and draws fascinating conclusions about problems of disease and health experienced by people in the 21st century.

The book presents a wealth of compelling evidence about the various stages of evolution between ape and modern-day human. It also introduces the concepts of “dysevolution” and “mismatch diseases”. Aspects of human nature that made great sense in our previous environments sit uneasily in the new environments in which we now exist. This includes aspects of our physiology and aspects of our psychology.

To what extent can these aspects of our physiology and psychology be re-engineered, using 21st century skills in genetics, nanotech, 3D printing, smart drugs, and so so? Lieberman is cautious in drawing conclusions, suggesting that we’ll find it easier to re-engineer our environment than to reengineer ourselves. His view deserves attention, even though I believe he underestimates the pace of forthcoming technological change.

The Industries of the Future

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Written by Alec J. Ross, who spent four years working as Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Hilary Clinton when she was Secretary of State for Defence. The style of writing is highly accessible to people in political roles – whether in office, in the civil service, or in an advisory capacity.

The subjects Ross covers – including robots, genomics, cryptocurrency, cyberwarfare, big data, and the Internet of Things – can also be found in books by other futurists. But he provides a refreshingly international perspective, highlighting ways in which different parts of the world are adapting (or failing to adapt) to various technological trends. He also has a candid view on potential downsides to these technology trends, alongside their potential upsides. He gives plenty of reasons for believing that there will many large changes ahead, but he emphasises that the actual outcomes will need careful shepherding.

If Hilary Clinton had become the US President, I would have felt comfortable in knowing that she could draw on insight about future trends from such a well-informed, balanced advisor. This is not an author who offers brash over-confidence or wishful thinking.

Bitcoin: the Future of Money?

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Written by Dominic Frisby. Bitcoin, along with its underlying “blockchain” technology, remains the subject of a great deal of speculation as 2016 draws to a close. I read a number of books on this topic in the last 12 months. Of these books, this was the one I enjoyed the most.

Frisby has a pleasant conversational style, but also has an eye for the big picture. Bitcoin/blockchain is too important a topic to ignore. The biggest disruptions it creates may well be in areas outside of present-day mainstream focus.

London Futurists will be returning to Bitcoin and/or blockchain several times in the months ahead. Watch this space!

The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts

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Written by by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind. This book provides a comprehensive account of how technology and automation are transforming work within professions such as law, auditing, education, architecture, healthcare, accounting, and the clergy.

The writers – a father and son – have been researching this field since the 1980s. They have interviewed leading practitioners from numerous professions, and are fully aware of the arguments as to why automation will slow down in its impact on the workforce. They assess these arguments at great length (perhaps almost too fully), and give strong reasons why all professions will, on the contrary, be significantly transformed by ever-more powerful software in the decades ahead. As they make clear, this is not something to be feared, but is something that will provide low-cost high-quality expertise to ever-larger numbers of people – rather than such expertise being accessible to the wealthy.

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

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Written by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. This book makes a powerful case that movements for political change need to find a powerful over-arching positive vision. Merely “occupying” and “criticising” isn’t going to take things very far.

The vision offered in this book is that automation, rather than being seen as a threat to jobs, should be embraced as a precondition for a new society in which people no longer need to work.

Note: the authors gave a presentation about their ideas at a London Futurists event on the 20th of August. Here’s the video recording from that event:

The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism

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Written by Calum Chace. This book is the third on my list that focuses on technological unemployment as caused by automation and AI (artificial intelligence). Of the three, it’s probably the easiest to read, and the one that paints the widest context.

Like Srnicek and Williams (the authors of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work), Chace foresees that technological unemployment may portend the end of capitalism. Whether this forthcoming “Economic Singularity” will be a positive or negative development remains to be seen. The Economic Singularity therefore shares some of the characteristics of the “Technological Singularity”, which Chace also covers in this book.

Note: the author gave a presentation on his ideas to London Futurists on the 8th of October. Here’s the video recording:
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The Gene: An Intimate History

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Written by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This book covers the history of ideas and experiments on the subject of genetic inheritance, from the thinkers of ancient Greece right up to the latest research. Along the way, the author weaves in accounts from the medical experiences of his own family members that suffered from inherited diseases. He is a compelling story-teller. He is also an accomplished cancer physician, with training from Stanford University, University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School, and Columbia University Medical Center.

I was familiar with many of the historical episodes from my own prior reading, but I learnt a great deal from the additional material assembled by Mukherjee – for example about the attempts at different times by eugenics enthusiasts to alter society by human interference with “natural selection”. The book is particularly strong on the interplay of nature and nurture.

I also appreciated the way the author highlighted the drawbacks of the haphazard quality control  in the early experiments in gene replacement therapies – experiments with tragic consequences. The lack of care in these experiments led to an understandable institutional backlash which arguably set back this field of therapies by around a decade.

By the time I read this book, I had already published my own book “The Abolition of Aging: The forthcoming radical extension of healthy human longevity”. I was relieved to find no reason to alter any of the conclusions or recommendations in my book as a result of the magisterial quantity of research reviewed by Mukherjee.

The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution

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Written by David Stipp. During the course of writing my own book “The Abolition of Aging” I consulted many books on medical treatments for anti-aging. I read this particular book all the way through, twice, at different stages of my research.

Stipp has been writing on the subject of medicine and aging for leading publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Fortune since the early 1980s. Over that time, he has built up an impressive set of contacts within the industry.

Stipp’s book is full of fascinating nuggets of insight, including useful biographical background details about many of the researchers who are pushing back the boundaries of knowledge in what is still a relatively young field.

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

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Written by David Brion Davis. This sweeping account of the history of slavery draws on many decades of the author’s research as one of the preeminent researchers in the field. The book interweaves heart-rending accounts with careful reflection. This is a story that includes both dreadful low points and inspiring high points of human behaviour. There’s a great deal to be learned from it.

Davis quotes with approval the prominent Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky who concluded in 1869 that:

The unwearied, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery very may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.

The thorough analysis by Davis makes it clear that:

  • The abolition of slavery was by no means inevitable or predetermined
  • There were strong arguments against the abolition of slavery – arguments raised by clever, devout people in both the United States and the United Kingdom – arguments concerning economic well-being, among many other factors
  • The arguments of the abolitionists were rooted in a conception of a better way of being a human – a way that avoided the harsh bondage and subjugation of the slave trade, and which would in due course enable many millions of people to fulfil a much greater potential
  • The cause of the abolition of slavery was significantly advanced by public activism – including pamphlets, lectures, petitions, and municipal meetings
  • The abolition of slavery cannot be properly understood without appreciating the significance of moral visions that “could transcend narrow self-interest and achieve genuine reform.”

On reason I read this book was to consider the strengths of a comparison I wanted to make in my own writing: a comparison between the abolition of slavery and the abolition of aging. My conclusion is that the comparison is a good one – although I recognise that some readers find it shocking:

  • With its roots in the eighteenth century, and growing in momentum as the nineteenth century proceeded, the abolition of slavery eventually became an idea whose time had come – thanks to brave, smart, persistent activism by men and women with profound conviction
  • With a different set of roots in the late twentieth century, and growing in momentum as the twenty-first century proceeds, the abolition of aging can, likewise, become an idea whose time has come. It’s an idea about an overwhelmingly better future for humanity – a future that will allow billions of people to fulfil a much greater potential. But as well as excellent engineering – the creation of reliable, accessible rejuvenation therapies – this project will also require brave, smart, persistent activism, to change the public landscape from one hostile (or apathetic) to rejuveneering into one that deeply supports it.

American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity

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Written by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson. Many of the great social reforms of the last few centuries required sustained government action to make them happen. But governments need to work effectively alongside the remarkable capabilities of the market economy. Getting the right balance between these two primal forces is crucial.

The authors of this book defend a very interesting viewpoint, namely that the mixed economy was the most important social innovation of the 20th century:

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

They 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 authors’ characterisation of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up 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 increasingly poorly understood. 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. This book describes that process as a form of collective “amnesia” (forgetfulness). It was one of the most frightening books I read in 2016.

In describing this book as “frightening”, I don’t mean that the book is bad. Far from it. What’s frightening is the set of information clearly set out in the book:

  • The growing public hostility, especially in America (but shared elsewhere, to an extent) towards the idea that government should be playing any significant role in the well-being of society
  • The growing identification of government with self-serving empire-building bureaucracy
  • The widespread lack of understanding of the remarkable positive history of public action by governments that promoted overall social well-being (that is the “amnesia” of the title of the book)
  • The decades-long growing tendency of many in America – particularly from the Republicans – to denigrate and belittle the role of government, for their own narrow interests
  • The decades-long growing tendency of many others in America to keep quiet, in the face of Republican tirades against government, rather than speaking up to defend it.

I listened to the concluding chapters of American Amnesia during the immediate aftermath of the referendum in the UK on the merits of remaining within the EU. The parallels were chilling:

  • In the EU, the positive role of EU governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of EU governance
  • In the US, the positive role of US governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of US governance. The commendable ambitions of the Obama government therefore ran into all sorts of bitter opposition.

I wrote the following in July, in a Transpolitica review article “Flawed humanity, flawed politics”:

The parallels might run one step further. To me, and many others, it was almost unthinkable that the referendum in the UK would come down in favour of leaving the EU. Likewise, it’s unthinkable to many in the US that Donald Trump will receive a popular mandate in the forthcoming November elections.

But all bets are off if the electorate (1) Feel sufficiently alienated; (2) Imbibe a powerful sense of grievance towards “the others” who are perceived to run government; (3) Lack a positive understanding of the actual role of big government.

I take no pleasure in what turned out to be the prescience of those remarks. That was a prediction where I did not want to be correct.

And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future

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Written by Yanis Varoufakis. This book has some striking parallels with American Amnesia: the author provides an gripping survey of many parts of history that have consequences for the present time. Varoufakis focuses on the development of the European Union.

Time and again I discovered in the pages of this book important new aspects of events that I thought I already knew well, but where it turned out there were key connections that I had missed. In short, the book is full of powerful back stories to the current EU situation.

Whilst supporting many of the ideals of the EU, Varoufakis is an incisive critic of many of its aspects. Like the supporters of Brexit, he sees plenty that is deeply dysfunctional about  the current organisation of the EU. However, he believes that fixing the EU is both more practical and more desirable than turning our backs on it, and hoping to benefit from its likely subsequent unravelling. Varoufakis is one the leaders of the DiEM25 movement that describes itself as follows:

DiEM25 is a pan-European, cross-border movement of democrats.

We believe that the European Union is disintegrating. Europeans are losing their faith in the possibility of European solutions to European problems. At the same time as faith in the EU is waning, we see a rise of misanthropy, xenophobia and toxic nationalism.

If this development is not stopped, we fear a return to the 1930s. That is why we have come together despite our diverse political traditions – Green, radical left, liberal – in order to repair the EU. The EU needs to become a realm of shared prosperity, peace and solidarity for all Europeans. We must act quickly, before the EU disintegrates.

I expect the influence of DiEM25 to grow during the next few months, as the public discussion about the future of Europe becomes more contentious. They’re holding a public meeting in London on the evening of Friday 27th January:

A troubled Britain is on its way out of a troubled European Union. Disintegration and xenophobia are in the air. The government in London is in disarray. But so is every other government in Europe, not to mention the European Commission whose authority is tending increasingly towards zero.

The only forces to be gathering strength everywhere are those of what might be called a Nationalist International, spreading their belligerent reach to Trump’s America. Bellicose nativism is on the rise propagating a thinly-veiled discursive ethnic cleansing. Even sections of the Left are succumbing to arguments in favour of retreating behind the nation-state and stricter border controls.

Srećko Horvat, a Croat philosopher, Elif Shafak, renowned Turkish novelist, and Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, bring to this conversation an intriguing perspective. As intellectuals who know Britain well, they understand first hand the perils of nationalism, disintegration, isolationism and marginalisation. They will place post-Brexit Britain in a context informed by a view of Europe and Britain from the continent’s opposite ‘corner’, sharing insights from Greece’s tensions with Brussels and Berlin, Yugoslavia’s disintegration, and Turkey’s fraught relationship with a Europe that both courts and marginalises it.

Moderated by Owen Jones, a passionate campaigner for a quite different Britain in a quite different Europe, it promises to be an evening that restores confidence in Britain’s and Europe’s humanist and internationalist potential.

I’m looking forward to it!

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

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Written by Bill Browder. Any vision for a better future needs to include an assessment of the power and intentions of the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia. Since there are many dark clouds on the international horizon, it’s understandable that some thinkers are clutching at straws of hope that Putin could become a reliable partner in the evolution of the international system. Perhaps. But any such thoughts need to be well aware of the horrific dark side of the Kremlin. We would be foolish to risk rose-tinted spectacles in this case.

This book provides ample documentation of many truly shocking abuses of power in Russia. Browder has an intriguing personal back story, which takes up the first half of the book. This part of the book explains how Browder’s investment fund Hermitage Capital, came to be the leading non-Russian participant in Russia companies following the wave of post-Soviet privatisations. It also explains Browder’s fierce legal conflicts with some of the Russian oligarchs, as Browder sought to prevent further fleecing of the assets of companies in which he had invested.

For a while, it seems that Putin supported what Browder was doing. But then Browder became an increasing annoyance to the Kremlin. What happens next is astonishing. Of all the books I read in 2016, this was the most gripping.

Browder is sometimes described as “Putin’s No. 1 enemy”. The book provides considerable justification for that claim. The story is by no means over. Browder continues to speak publicly about his story: I saw him speak at the Wired 2016 event in November in London. I commend the Wired organisers for having the breadth of vision to provide Browder with a key speaking slot.

Politics: Between the Extremes

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Written by Nick Clegg. Clegg is the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party who was deputy prime minister of the UK from 2010 to 2015. His subsequent fall from power, as the LibDems were trounced in the May 2015 general election, was harsh and bitter. Huge numbers of former supporters of the party turned against it.

Nevertheless, Clegg is one of the most thoughtful politicians in the UK today. His book includes candid assessments of the mistakes he made, and his regrets for not doing things differently. One of the biggest regrets is not paying more attention to matters of communication: the LibDems frequently failed to get the credit for important contributions to the coalition government. As such, the party was out-manoeuvred by more powerful forces.

The book is an eloquent appeal for greater “liberalism” in politics – less certainty and dogmatism, more tolerance of diversity, more openness to new opportunities, and more willingness to embrace tricky coalitions. Despite the notes of sadness in the book, there are real grounds for optimism too.

Clegg comes across in the book the same as I have observed from several public events where I have seen him speak at close hand – as an eminently likeable person, honest about his mistakes, with a passionate belief in better politics and a willingness to build bridges. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of him in 2017.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

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Written by Jeff Sutherland. No matter how much we improve our foresight skills, we’re still likely to encounter surprises as our projects unfold. The world is full of uncertainty. We therefore need to improve our agility skills in parallel with our foresight skills. Agility gives us the ability to change our focus quickly, in the light of better feedback about likely future scenarios.

Scrum is one of the most influential sets of practice for agile working. This book, by one of the co-creators of Scrum, makes it clear that Scrum has wide applicability beyond the context of software development in which it initially grew to fame. Sutherland provides a host of telling examples of how large, cumbersome projects could be transformed into sleeker, more effective vehicles by the application of Scrum ideas such as sprints, scrum masters, transparency, estimation, waste management, and pivots.

If anyone ever feels overwhelmed by having too much to do – or too much to think about – the ideas in Sutherland’s book could help you break out from being bogged down in analysis-paralysis.

In my own futurist consulting activities, I’m finding that professional audiences are showing increasing interest in the few slides I sometimes include on the topic of “Agile futurism”. Perhaps I ought to flesh out these slides into a new service offering in its own right!

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15 September 2016

Two cheers for “Technology vs. Humanity”

On Saturday I had the pleasure to host Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard at a London Futurists event in central London. The meetup was organised in conjunction with the publication of Gerd’s new book, “Technology vs. Humanity”.

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This three minute video from his website gives a fast-paced introduction to Gerd’s thinking:

The subtitle of Gerd’s book indicates the emphasis that comes across loud and clear in its pages: “The coming clash between man and machine”. I have mixed feelings about that emphasis. Yes, a clash between humanity and technology is one of the possible scenarios ahead. But it’s by no means set in stone. If we are smart, much better futures lie ahead. These better future see a combination of the best of present-day humanity and the fruits of technological development, to create what I would call a Humanity+ future.

In the Humanity+ future, technology is used to enhance humanity – making us healthier, kinder, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, and more engaged. In contrast, Gerd expects that technology will result in a downgrade of humanity.

The video of Saturday’s London Futurists event records some dialog on exactly that point. If you’ve got a spare 60 minutes, it’s worth watching the video all the way through. (The Q&A starts after 44 minutes.)

You’ll see that Gerd is an engaging, entertaining presenter, with some stunning visuals.

Hip, hip…

Overall, I am happy to give two cheers to Gerd’s new book – two loud cheers.

The first cheer is that it has many fine examples of the accelerating pace of change. For example, chapter three of his book reviews “ten megashifts”. Gerd starts his presentation with the bold claim that “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years”. He may well be right. Related, Gerd makes a strong case that major change can sneak up on people “gradually and then suddenly”. That’s the nature of exponential change.

The second cheer is even louder than the first one: I completely agree with Gerd that we need to carefully consider the pros and cons of adopting technology in greater areas of our lives. He has a brilliant slide in which human’s attitude towards a fast-improving piece of technology changes from “Magic” to “Manic” and then to “Toxic”. To avoid such progressions, Gerd recommends the formation of something akin to a “Humanity Protection Agency”, similar to the “Environmental Protection Agency” that constrains corporations from polluting and despoiling the environment. Gerd emphasises: just because it is possible to digitise aspects of our lives, it doesn’t mean we should digitise these aspects. More efficient doesn’t always mean better. More profit doesn’t always mean better. More experiences doesn’t always mean better – and so on. Instead of rushing ahead blindly, we need what Gerd calls “exponentially increased awareness”. He’s completely right.

So I am ready to say, “Hip, hip…” – but I hold back from the third cheer (“hurrah”).

Yes, the book can be a pleasure to read, with its clever turns of phrase and poignant examples. But to my mind, the advice in the book will make things unnecessarily hard for humanity – dangerously hard for humanity. That advice will unnecessarily handicap the “Team Human” which the book says it wants to support.

Specifically:

  • The book has too rosy a view of the present state of human nature
  • The book has too limited a view of the positive potential of technology to address the key shortcomings in human nature.

Let’s take these points one at a time.

Human nature

The book refers to human unpredictability, creativity, emotion, and so on, and insists that these aspects of human nature be protected at all costs. Even though machines might do the same tasks as humans, with greater predictability and less histrionics, it doesn’t mean we should hand these tasks over to machines. Thus far, I agree with the argument.

But humans also from time to time manifest a host of destructive characteristics: short-sightedness, stupidity, vengefulness, tribalism, obstructiveness, spitefulness, and so on. It’s possible that these characteristics were, on the whole, useful to humanity in earlier, simpler stages of civilisation. But in present times, with powerful weaponry all around us, these characteristics threaten to plunge humanity into a new dark age.

(I touched on this argument in a recent Transpolitica blogpost, “Flawed humanity, flawed politics”.)

Indeed, despite huge efforts from people all over the globe, the planet is still headed for a potential devastating rise in temperature, due to runaway climate change. What’s preventing an adequate response to this risk is a combination of shortcomings in human society, human politics, human economics, and – not least – human nature.

It’s a dangerous folly to overly romanticise human nature. We humans can, at times, be awful brutes. Our foibles aren’t just matters for bemusement. Our foibles should terrify us.

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I echo the thoughts expressed in a landmark 2012 Philosophy Now article by  Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, “Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement”:

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?…

Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.

We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities…

Underestimating technology

This brings me to the second point where Gerd’s book misfires: its dogmatic dismissal of the possibility of technology to make any significant improvement in “soft” areas of human life, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, and intuition. The book asserts that whilst software might be able to mimic emotions, these emotions will have no real value. For example, no computer would be able to talk to a two year old human child, and hold its attention.

This assessment demonstrates a major blindspot regarding the ways in which software can already provide strong assistance for people suffering from autism, self-doubt, early stage dementia, or other emotional or social deficits. As one example, consider a Guardian article from last year, “How robots are helping children with autism”.

zeno-the-smiling-robot-008

Consider also this comment from Dr Lucy Maddox, an NHS clinical psychologist and lecturer:

There are loads of [computer] apps that claim to use psychological principles to increase wellbeing in some way, encouraging you to keep track of your mood, to manage worry, to influence what you dream about … Can an app really distil something useful from psychological research and plug you into some life-influencing wisdom? I think some can…

This discussion brings to mind the similar dismissals, from the 1970s and early 1980s, of the possibility that the technology of in-vitro fertilisation (“test-tube babies”) could result in fully human babies. The suggestion was that any such “devilish” technology would result in babies that somehow lacked souls. Here’s a comment from Philip Ball from New Humanist:

Doubts about the artificial being’s soul are still with us, although more often expressed now in secular terms: the fabricated person is denied genuine humanity. He or she is thought to be soulless in the colloquial sense: lacking love, warmth, human feeling. In a poll conducted for Life in the early days of IVF research, 39 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men doubted that an “in vitro child would feel love for family”. (Note that it is the sensibilities of the child, not of the parents, that are impaired.) A protest note placed on the car of a Californian fertility doctor when he first began offering an IVF service articulated the popular view more plainly: “Test tube babies have no souls.”

In 1978 Leon Kass – said, later, to be the favourite bioethicist of President George W. Bush – thundered his opposition to in-vitro fertilisation  as follows:

More is at stake [with IVF research] than in ordinary biomedical research or in experimenting with human subjects at risk of bodily harm. At stake is the idea of the humanness of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment, our sexual being, and our relation to ancestors and descendants.

These comments by Kass have strong echoes to the themes developed by Gerd in Technology vs. Humanity.

It turned out, contrary to Kass’s dire forecasts, that human society was more than capable of taking in its stride the opportunities provided by IVF technology. Numerous couples found great joy through that technology. Numerous wonderful children were brought into existence in that way.

It ought to be the same, in due course, with the opportunities provided by technologies to enhance our emotional intelligence, our creativity, our intuition, our compassion, our sociability, and so on. Applied wisely and thoughtfully, these technologies will allow the full potential of humanity to be reached – rather than being sabotaged by our innate shortcomings.

Emphatically, I’m not saying we should be rushing into anything. We need to approach the potential offered by these new technologies with great thoughtfulness. And with a more open mind than Gerd displays.

Dogmatism

I found my head shaking in disbelief at many of the paragraphs in Technology vs. Humanity. For examples, here’s Gerd’s description of the capabilities of Virtual Reality (VR):

Virtual travel technologies such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung VR, and Microsoft’s HoloLens are just beginning to provide us with a very real feeling for what it would be like to raft the Amazon River or climb Mount Fuji. These are already very interesting experiences that will certainly change our way of experiencing reality, of communicating, of working, and of learning… [but] there is still a huge difference between these new ways to experience alternate realities and real life. Picture yourself standing in the middle of a crowded bazaar in Mumbai, India, for just two minutes. Then, compare the memories you would have accumulated in a very short time with those from a much longer but simulated experience using the most advanced systems available today or in the near future. The smells, the sounds and sights – all of these are a thousand times more intense than what even the most advanced gadgetry, fuelled by exponential gains, could ever hope to simulate.

“A thousand times more intense”? More intense than what “the most advanced gadgetry could ever hope to simulate”? Ever?! I see these sweeping claims as an evidence of a closed mind. The advice from elsewhere in the book was better: “gradually, and then suddenly”. The intensity of the emotional experience from VR technology is likely to increase gradually, and then suddenly.

Opening the book to another page, my attention is drawn to the exaggeration in another passage, in the discussion of the possibility of ectogenesis (growing a baby outside a woman’s body in an artificial womb):

I believe it would be utterly dehumanising and detrimental for a baby to be born in such a way.

During his presentation at London Futurists, Gerd used labelled the technology of ectogenesis as “jerk tech”. In discussion in the Marlborough Arms pub after the meetup, several women attendees remarked that they thought only a man could take such a high-handed, dismissive approach to this technology. They emphasised that they were unsure whether they would personally want to take advantage of ectogenesis, but they thought the possibility should be kept open.

Note: for a book that takes a much more thoughtful approach to the possibilities of using technology to transform genetic choice, I recommend Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice” by Ronald Green.

babies-by-design

Transhumanism

The viewpoint I’m advocating, in this review of Technology vs. Humanity, is transhumanism:

…a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom puts it like this:

Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.

One of the best introductions to the ideas of transhumanism is in the evocative “Letter to Mother Nature” written in 1999 by Max More. It starts as follows:

Dear Mother Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast, this is what Gerd says about transhumanism (with similar assertions being scattered throughout his book):

Transhumanism, with its lemming-like rush to the edge of the universe, represents the scariest of all present options.

What “lemming-like rush”? Where’s the “lemming-like rush” in the writings of Nick Bostrom (who co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998)? Recall from his definition,

…by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have

And consider the sixth proposed “human constitutional amendment” from the letter by Max More:

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

As Max emphasised earlier in his Letter,

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence

To Gerd’s puzzling claim that transhumanists are blind to the potential risks of new technology, let me exhibit as counter-evidence the nearest thing to a canonical document uniting transhumanist thinking – the “Transhumanist Declaration”. Of its eight clauses, at least half emphasise the potential drawbacks of an uncritical approach to technology:

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

It’s a pity that the editors and reviewers of Gerd’s book did not draw his attention to the many mistakes and misunderstandings of transhumanism that his book contains. My best guess is that the book was produced in a rush. (That would explain the many other errors of fact that are dotted throughout the various chapters.)

To be clear, I accept that many criticisms can be made regarding transhumanism. In an article I wrote for H+Pedia, I collected a total of 18 different criticisms. In that article, I seek to show, in each case,

  • Where these criticisms miss the mark
  • Where these criticisms have substance – so that transhumanists ought to pay attention.

That article – like all other H+Pedia articles – is open for further contributions. Either edit the page directly. Or raise some comments on the associated “Discussion” page.

The vital need for an improved conversation

The topics covered in Technology vs. Humanity have critical importance. A much greater proportion of humanity’s collective attention should be focused onto these topics. To that extent, I fully support Gerd’s call for an improved global conversation on the risks and opportunities of the forthcoming impact of accelerating technology.

During that conversation, each of us will likely find some of our opinions changing, as we move beyond an initial “future shock” to a calmer, more informed reflection of the possibilities. We need to move beyond a breathless “gee whiz” and an anguished “oh this is awful”.

The vision of an improved conversation about the future is what has led me to invest so much of my own time over the years in the London Futurists community.

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More recently, that same vision has led me to support the H+Pedia online wiki – a Humanity+ project to spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism and futurism among the general public.

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As the welcome page states,

H+Pedia welcomes constructive contributions from everyone interested in the future of humanity.

By all means get involved! Team Human deserves your support. Team Human also deserves the best information, free of dogmatism, hype, insecurity, or commercial pressures. Critically, Team Human deserves not to be deprived of access to the smart transformational technology of the near future that can become the source of its greatest flourishing.

10 June 2016

Lessons from Underground Airlines

In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

For example, consider the influence of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. What alternative history might have arisen if that great statesman had been felled by an assassin’s bullet, not (as in actual history) in 1865, after the conclusion of the American Civil War, but much earlier in his presidency?

That alternative scenario provides the backdrop to the speculative novel “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winter. It’s a novel that speculates, masterfully, about the trajectory of an alternative history.

Underground Airlines

Imagine if early martyrdom of Lincoln, before any civil war could start, had precipitated a colossal long-standing compromise in the United States, with northern anti-slavery states warily coexisting with southern pro-slavery states, not just for a few more years, but for long decades – indeed, right up until the present day. Imagine if the “underground railroad” rescue mechanism of safe houses and secret routes to transport fugitive escaped slaves, that existed in actual history from the 17th to the 19th century, persisted in modified, modernised form right up until the twenty first century, now known as “underground airlines” (the words which form the title of Winter’s book). Imagine if the latest features of modern society – such as GPS tracking and ubiquitous mobile computers – coexisted with industrial scale slavery in the “Hard Four” recalcitrant states of the deep south. And, worst of all, imagine an extension, right up till today, of the massive double think (self-deception) in which good people persuade themselves that the whole system is acceptable. Imagine the double think with which these bystanders view fugitive slaves on the run, as fair game to be hunted by trackers from the south acting on behalf of massive slave-holding conglomerates.

Winter’s book features double think writ large. Characters that, to outward appearances, seek to help runaway slaves, are secretly assisting the trackers, and allow themselves to feel comfortable with that double think. They accept the brute facts of slavery, and make peace (of a sort) with their personal accommodation to that worldview.

Personalities from actual history intrude, under the skilful choreography of the writer, into the alternative Underground Airlines history. Shunned by much of the rest of the industrialised world, the alternative America occupies a relative backwater on the global stage. The FDR and LBJ mentioned in quiet moments in the narrative wielded an impact far more local, in Underground Airlines history, than in actual history. A reference to a recent “gulf war” turns out to have nothing to do with the Middle East.

More than clever plotting

Winter’s book deserves praise for its clever plotting. Revelations of character motivations come as surprises, but not as jolts: the reader is gradually made aware of a bigger picture with its own, horrible logic. It adds up to gripping reading.

But more than that: Underground Airlines deserves praise for its astuteness in recognising that there was nothing inevitable about the abolition of slavery. The circumstances that we nowadays find overwhelmingly objectionable – the “Inhuman Bondage” described at length by real-world historian David Brion Davis in his epic account of the rise and fall of new world slavery – could be seen by otherwise admirable men and women as necessary, inevitable parts of a way of life that has many redeeming positive aspects. These apologists were wrapped in a set of perceptions – their “accepting slavery” paradigm – which prevented them from acknowledging the full awfulness of bound servitude. Despite their intelligence, their thinking was constrained. Despite the kindness that lay in their hearts, there were marked limits to their compassion.

Inhuman Bondage

I came across the work of David Brion Davis in the course of researching my own recently published book, The Abolition of Aging. Here’s an extract from near the end of my book:

The analysis by Davis makes it clear that:

  • The abolition of slavery was by no means inevitable or predetermined
  • There were strong arguments against the abolition of slavery – arguments raised by clever, devout people in both the United States and the United Kingdom – arguments concerning economic well-being, among many other factors
  • The arguments of the abolitionists were rooted in a conception of a better way of being a human – a way that avoided the harsh bondage and subjugation of the slave trade, and which would in due course enable many millions of people to fulfil a much greater potential
  • The cause of the abolition of slavery was significantly advanced by public activism – including pamphlets, lectures, petitions, and municipal meetings.

With its roots in the eighteenth century, and growing in momentum as the nineteenth century proceeded, the abolition of slavery eventually became an idea whose time had come – thanks to brave, smart, persistent activism by men and women with profound conviction.

With a different set of roots in the late twentieth century, and growing in momentum as the twenty-first century proceeds, the abolition of aging can, likewise, become an idea whose time has come. It’s an idea about an overwhelmingly better future for humanity – a future that will allow billions of people to fulfil a much greater potential. But as well as excellent engineering – the creation of reliable, accessible rejuvenation therapies – this project will also require brave, smart, persistent activism, to change the public landscape from one hostile (or apathetic) to rejuveneering into one that deeply supports it.

My claim in The Abolition of Aging is that most of us accept a terrible double think. We avidly support research against diseases such as cancer, dementia, and heart failure. We are aware of the destructive nature of all these diseases. But we shy away from research into the main underlying escalator of these diseases – the factor that makes these diseases more likely and (when they occur) more serious. This factor is biological aging – namely, the gradual deterioration of our molecular, cellular, and organic systems. We’re too ready to accept biological aging as a given.

We say it would be good if people could avoid being afflicted by cancer, dementia, or heart failure. We advocate people taking steps to decrease the chances of these diseases – for example, not to spend too much time under the direct sun, unprotected. But we tell ourselves that it’s somehow natural (and therefore somehow admirable) that biological aging accelerates in our bodies. So we acquiesce. We accept a deadly compromise.

The Abolition of Aging seeks to overturn that double think. It argues that rejuvenation is a noble, highly desirable, eminently practical destiny for our species – a “Humanity+” destiny that could, with sufficient focus and organisation, be achieved within just one human generation from now. Rejuvenation – the periodic reversal of the accumulation of significant damage at our molecular, cellular, and organic levels – can lead to a rapid decline in deaths from diseases of old age, such as cancer, dementia, heart failure, and lots more. Despite the implications of this change for our economic and social systems, this is an overwhelming good, which we should welcome wholeheartedly.

I’m happy to report that The Abolition of Aging has already featured as the #1 bestseller (in the UK) of the Gerontology section of Amazon.

Gerontology bestsellers UK

Next steps

Let’s return to the question from the start of this blogpost: In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

We can’t all be Abraham Lincoln. But as I review in the final sections of my book, there’s a lot that each one of us can do, to tilt upwards the probability that successful rejuvenation therapies will be widely available by 2040. This includes steps to:

  1. Strengthen communities that are working on at least parts of the rejuveneering project
  2. Improve our personal understanding of aspects of rejuveneering – the science, roadmaps, history, philosophy, theories, personalities, platforms, open questions, and so on – and help to document aspects of that better understanding, by creating or editing knowledgebases or wikis
  3. Become involved with marketing of one sort or another
  4. Undertake original research into any of the unknowns of rejuveneering; this could be part of formal educational courses, or it could be a commercial R&D undertaking; it could also be part of a decentralised activity, in the style of “citizen science”
  5. Provide funding to projects that we judge to be particularly worthwhile.

Our contributions are likely to be more significant when they connect into positive efforts that others are already making. For example, I’m impressed by the activities of the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP), which you can read about here. I’ve just made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign, and I encourage you to consider doing the same.

25 May 2016

The Abolition of Aging – epublished

TAoA Cover page v11

I’m happy to report that my new book was epublished today, for Amazon Kindle. It’s “The Abolition of Aging: The forthcoming radical extension of healthy human longevity”.

You can find it on Amazon US, Amazon UK, …

It’s not a book about reprogramming our (silicon-based) devices – the kind of thing that used to be on my mind in my smartphone industry days. Instead, it’s about reprogramming our biology.

My reasons for writing this book are contained in its foreword. For convenience, I append a copy of the foreword at the end of this blogpost.

Physical copies of the book should be available from some time next month, for readers who prefer atoms to bits. I am planning to create an audio version too.

You can find more details about the book on its own website:

  • Advance praise, from people who have read pre-publication copies
  • The book’s description and dedication
  • An expanded table of contents
  • A community page, for further information about topics covered in the book.

If anyone has comments or queries about anything they read in the book, they’re welcome to raise them as responses to this blogpost.

Foreword

(This content is part of the introductory material of the book “The Abolition of Aging”.)

Within our collective grasp dwells the remarkable possibility of the abolition of biological aging.

It’s a big “if”, but if we decide as a species to make this project a priority, there’s around a 50% chance that practical rejuvenation therapies resulting in the comprehensive reversal of aging will be widely available as early as 2040.

People everywhere, on the application of these treatments, will, if they wish, stop becoming biologically older. Instead, again if they wish, they’ll start to become biologically younger, in both body and mind, as rejuvenation therapies take hold. In short, everyone will have the option to become ageless.

Two objections

The viewpoint I’ve just described is a position I’ve reached following extensive research, carried out over more than ten years. My research has led me to become a strong supporter of what can be called “the rejuveneering project”: a multi-decade cross-disciplinary endeavour to engineer human rejuvenation and thereby enable the choice to abolish aging.

But when I mention this viewpoint to people that I meet – as part of my activity as a futurist, or when I catch up with my former colleagues from the smartphone industry – I frequently encounter one of two adverse reactions.

First, people tell me that it’s not possible that such treatments are going to exist in any meaningful timescale any time soon. In other words, they insist that human rejuvenation can’t be done. It’s wishful thinking to suppose otherwise, they say. It’s bad science. It’s naively over-optimistic. It’s ignorant of the long history of failures in this field. The technical challenges remain overwhelmingly difficult.

Second, people tell me that any such treatments would be socially destructive and morally indefensible. In other words, they insist that human rejuvenation shouldn’t be done. It’s essentially a selfish idea, they say – an idea with all kinds of undesirable consequences for societal harmony or planetary well-being. It’s an arrogant idea, from immature minds. It’s an idea that deserves to be strangled.

Can’t be done; shouldn’t be done – in this book, I will argue that both these objections are profoundly wrong. I’ll argue instead that rejuvenation is a noble, highly desirable, eminently practical destiny for our species – a “Humanity+” destiny that could be achieved within just one human generation from now. As I see it, the abolition of aging is set to take its place on the upward arc of human social progress, echoing developments such as the abolition of slavery, the abolition of racism, and the abolition of poverty.

It turns out that the can’t/shouldn’t objections are interlinked. They reinforce each other. It’s often because someone thinks an effort is technically impossible that they object to any time or finance being applied to it. It would be much better, they say, to apply these resources to other philanthropic causes where real progress is possible. That, allegedly, would be the moral, mature thing to do. Conversely, when someone’s moral stance predisposes them to accept personal bodily decline and death, they become eager to find technical reasons that back up their decision. After all, it’s human nature to tend to cherry pick evidence that supports what we want to believe.

Two paradigms

A set of mutually reinforcing interlinked beliefs is sometimes called a “paradigm”. Our paradigms guide us, both consciously and unconsciously, in how we see the world, and in the kinds of projects we deem to be worthwhile. Our paradigms filter our perceptions and constrain our imaginations.

Changing paradigms is hard work. Just ask anyone who has tried to alter the opinion of others on contentious matters such as climate change, gun control, regulating the free market, or progressive taxation. Mere reason alone cannot unseat opinions on such topics. What to some observers is clear and compelling evidence for one position is hardly even noticed by someone entrenched in a competing paradigm. The inconvenient evidence is swatted away with little conscious thought.

The paradigm that accepts human bodily decline and aging as somehow desirable has even deeper roots than the vexatious political topics mentioned in the previous paragraph. It’s not going to be easy to dislodge that accepting-agingparadigm. However, in the chapters ahead, I will marshal a wide range of considerations in favour of a different paradigm – the paradigm that heartily anticipates and endorses rejuvenation. I’ll try to encourage readers to see things from that anticipating-rejuvenation paradigm.

Two abolitions

Accepting aging can be compared to accepting slavery.

For millennia, people from all social classes took slavery for granted. Thoughtful participants may have seen drawbacks with the system, but they assumed that there was no alternative to the basic fact of slavery. They could not conceive how society would function properly without slaves. Even the Bible takes slavery as a given. There is no Mosaic commandment which says “Thou shalt not keep slaves”. Nor is there anything in the New Testament that tells slave owners to set their slaves free.

But in recent times, thank goodness, the public mind changed. The accepting-slavery paradigm wilted in the face of a crescendo of opposing arguments. As with slavery, so also with aging: the time will come for its abolition. The public will cease to take aging for granted. They’ll stop believing in spurious justifications for its inevitability. They’ll demand better. They’ll see how rejuvenation is ready to be embraced.

One reason why slavery is so objectionable is the extent of its curtailment of human opportunity – the denial of free choice to the people enslaved. Another reason is that life expectancy of slaves frequently fell far short of the life expectancy of people not enslaved. As such, slavery can be counted as a major killer: it accelerated death.

From the anticipating-rejuvenation perspective, aging should be seen as the biggest killer of all. Compared to “standard” killers of the present day, such as drunken driving, terrorism, lead fumes, or other carcinogens – killers which rouse us to action to constrain them – aging destroys many more people. Globally, aging is the cause of at least two thirds of human deaths. Aging is the awful elephant in the room, which we have collectively learned to ignore, but which we must learn to recognise and challenge anew.

Every single week the rejuveneering project is delayed, hundreds of thousands more people suffer and die worldwide due to aging-related diseases. Advocates of rejuveneering see this ongoing situation as a needless slaughter. It’s an intolerable offence against human potential. We ought, therefore, to be powerfully motivated to raise the probability of 50% which I offered at the start of this foreword. A 50% chance of success with the rejuveneering project means, equally, a 50% chance of that project failing. That’s a 50% chance of the human slaughter continuing.

Motivation

In the same way as we have become fervently motivated in recent decades to deal with the other killers mentioned above – vigorously campaigning against, for example, drunk drivers and emitters of noxious chemical pollutants – we ought to be even more motivated to deal with aging. The anger that society has directed against tobacco companies, for long obscuring the links between smoking and lung cancer, ought to find a resonance in a new social passion to uncover and address links between biological aging and numerous diseases. If it’s right to seek to change behaviours and metabolism to cut down bad cholesterol (a precursor of heart disease) and concentrated glucose (a precursor of diabetes), it should be equally right to change behaviours and metabolism to cut down something that’s a precursor of even more diseases, namely, biological aging.

This is a discussion with enormous consequences. Changes in the public mood regarding the desirability of rejuveneering could trigger large reallocations of both public and private research expenditure. In turn, these reallocations are likely to have major implications in many areas of public well-being. Clearly, these decisions need to be taken wisely – with decisions being guided by a better understanding of the rich landscape of rejuveneering possibilities.

An ongoing surge of motivation, wisely coordinated, is one of the factors which can assist the rejuveneering project to overcome the weighty challenges it faces – challenges in science, technology, engineering, and human collaboration. Stubborn “unknown unknowns” surely lie ahead too. Due to these complexities and unknowns, no one can be sure of the outcome of this project. Despite what some rejuvenation enthusiasts may suggest, there’s nothing inevitable about the pace of future medical progress. That’s why I give the probability of success as only around 50%.

Although the end outcome remains unclear, the sense of discovery is increasing. The underlying scientific context is changing rapidly. Every day brings its own fresh firehose of news of potential breakthrough medical approaches. In the midst of so much innovation, it behoves us to seek clarity on the bigger picture.

To the extent that my book can provide that bigger picture, it will have met at least some of its goals. Armed with that bigger picture, readers of this book will, hopefully, be better placed to find the aspect of the overall rejuveneering project where they can make their best contributions. Together, we can tilt that 50% success probability upwards. The sooner, the better.

(If you found this interesting, you may like to read “The discussion ahead” next.)

 

25 October 2015

Getting better at anticipating the future

History is replete with failed predictions. Sometimes pundits predict too much change. Sometimes they predict too little. Frequently they predict the wrong kinds of change.

Even those forecasters who claim a good track record for themselves sometime turn out, on closer inspection, to have included lots of wiggle room in their predictions – lots of scope for creative reinterpretation of their earlier words.

Of course, forecasts are often made for purposes other than anticipating the events that will actually unfold. Forecasts can serve many other goals:

  • Raising the profile of the forecaster and potentially boosting book sales or keynote invites – especially if the forecast is memorable, and is delivered in a confident style
  • Changing the likelihood that an event predicted will occur – either making it more likely (if the prediction is enthusiastic), or making it less likely (if the prediction is fearful)
  • Helping businesses and organisations to think through some options for their future strategy, via “scenario analysis”.

Given these alternative reasons why forecasters make predictions, it perhaps becomes more understandable that little effort is made to evaluate the accuracy of past forecasts. As reported by Alex Mayyasi,

Organizations spend staggering amounts of time and money trying to predict the future, but no time or money measuring their accuracy or improving on their ability to do it.

This bizarre state of affairs may be understandable, but it’s highly irresponsible, none the less. We can, and should, do better. In a highly uncertain, volatile world, our collective future depends on improving our ability to anticipate forthcoming developments.

Philip Tetlock

Mayyasi was referring to research by Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Over three decades, Tetlock has accumulated huge amounts of evidence about forecasting. His most recent book, co-authored with journalist Dan Gardner, is a highly readable summary of his research.

The book is entitled “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction”. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Superforecasting

The book carries an endorsement by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman:

A manual for thinking clearly in an uncertain world. Read it.

Having just finished this book, I echo the praise it has gathered. The book is grounded in the field of geopolitical forecasting, but its content ranges far beyond that starting point. For example, the book can be viewed as one of the best descriptions of the scientific method – with its elevation of systematic, thoughtful doubt, and its search for ways to reduce uncertainty and eliminate bias. The book also provides a handy summary of all kinds of recent findings about human thinking methods.

“Superforecasting” also covers the improvements in the field of medicine that followed from the adoption of evidence-based medicine (in the face, it should be remembered, of initial fierce hostility from the medical profession). Indeed, the book seeks to accelerate a similar evidence-based revolution in the fields of economic and political analysis. It even has hopes to reduce the level of hostility and rancour that tends to characterise political discussion.

As such, I see the book as making an important contribution to the creation of a better sort of politics.

Summary of “Superforecasting”

The book draws on:

  • Results from four years of online competitions for forecasters held under the Aggregative Contingent Estimation project of IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity)
  • Reflections from contest participants whose persistently scored highly in the competition – people who became known as ‘superforecasters’
  • Insight from the Good Judgement Project co-created by Tetlock
  • Reviews of the accuracy of predictions made publicly by politicians, political analysts, and media figures
  • Other research into decision-making, cognitive biases, and group dynamics.

Forecasters and superforecasters from the Good Judgement Project submitted more than 10,000 predictions over four years in response to questions about the likelihood of specified outcomes happening within given timescales over the following 3-12 months. Forecasts addressed the fields of geopolitics and economics.

The book highlights the following characteristics as being the cause of the success of superforecasters:

  • Avoidance of taking an ideological approach, which restricts the set of information that the forecaster considers
  • Pursuit of an evidence-based approach
  • Willingness to search out potential sources of disconfirming evidence
  • Willingness to incrementally adjust forecasts in the light of new evidence
  • The ability to break down estimates into a series of constituent questions that can, individually, be more easily calculated
  • The desire to obtain several different perspectives on a question, which can then be combined into an aggregate viewpoint
  • Comfort with mathematical and probabilistic reasoning
  • Adoption of careful, precise language, rather than vague terms (such as “might”) whose apparent meaning can change with hindsight
  • Acceptance of contingency rather than ‘fate’ or ‘inevitability’ as being the factor responsible for outcomes
  • Avoidance of ‘groupthink’ in which undue respect among team members prevents sufficient consideration of alternative viewpoints
  • Willingness to learn from past forecasting experiences – including both successes and failures
  • A growth mindset, in which personal characteristics and skill are seen as capable of improvement, rather than being fixed.

(This section draws on material I’ve added to H+Pedia earlier today. See that article for some links to further reading.)

Human pictures

Throughout “Superforecasting”, the authors provide the human backgrounds of the forecasters whose results and methods feature in the book. The superforecasters have a wide variety of backgrounds and professional experience. What they have in common, however – and where they differ from the other contest participants, whose predictions were less stellar – is the set of characteristics given above.

The book also discusses a number of well-known forecasters, and dissects the causes of their forecasting failures. This includes 9/11, the wars in Iraq, the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, and many more. There’s much to learn from all these examples.

Aside: Other ways to evaluate futurists

Australian futurist Ross Dawson has recently created a very different method to evaluate the success of futurists. As Ross explains at http://rossdawson.com/futurist-rankings/:

We have created this widget to provide a rough view of how influential futurists are on the web and social media. It is not intended to be rigorous but it provides a fun and interesting insight into the online influence of leading futurists.

The score is computed from the number of Twitter followers, the Alexa score of websites, and the general Klout metric.

The widget currently lists 152 futurists. I was happy to find my name at #53 on the list. If I finish writing the two books I have in mind to publish over the next 12 months, I expect my personal ranking to climb 🙂

Yet another approach is to take a look at http://future.meetup.com/, the listing (by size) of the Meetup groups around the world that list “futurism” (or similar) as one of their interests. London Futurists, which I’ve been running (directly and indirectly) over the last seven years, features in third place on that list.

Of course, we futurists vary in the kind of topics we are ready (and willing) to talk to audiences abound. In my own case, I wish to encourage audiences away from “slow-paced” futurism, towards serious consideration of the possibilities of radical changes happening within just a few decades. These changes include not just the ongoing transformation of nature, but the possible transformation of human nature. As such, I’m ready to introduce the topic of transhumanism, so that audiences become more aware of the arguments both for and against this philosophy.

Within that particular subgrouping of futurist meetups, London Futurists ranks as a clear #1, as can be seen from http://transhumanism.meetup.com/.

Footnote

Edge has published a series of videos of five “master-classes” taught by Philip Tetlock on the subject of superforecasting:

  1. Forecasting Tournaments: What We Discover When We Start Scoring Accuracy
  2. Tournaments: Prying Open Closed Minds in Unnecessarily Polarized Debates
  3. Counterfactual History: The Elusive Control Groups in Policy Debates
  4. Skillful Backward and Forward Reasoning in Time: Superforecasting Requires “Counterfactualizing”
  5. Condensing it All Into Four Big Problems and a Killer App Solution

I haven’t had the time to view them yet, but if they’re anything like as good as the book “Superforecasting”, they’ll be well worth watching.

10 October 2015

Technological unemployment – Why it’s different this time

On Tuesday last week I joined members of “The Big Potatoes” for a spirited discussion entitled “Automation Anxiety”. Participants became embroiled in questions such as:

  • To what extent will increasingly capable automation (robots, software, and AI) displace humans from the workforce?
  • To what extent should humans be anxious about this process?

The Big Potatoes website chose an image from the marvellously provocative Channel 4 drama series “Humans” to set the scene for the discussion:

Channel4_HumansAdvertisingHoarding-440x293

“Closer to humans” than ever before, the fictional advertisement says, referring to humanoid robots with multiple capabilities. In the TV series, many humans became deeply distressed at the way their roles are being usurped by these new-fangled entities.

Back in the real world, many critics reject these worries. “We’ve heard it all before”, they assert. Every new wave of technological automation has caused employment disruption, yes, but it has also led to new types of employment. The new jobs created will compensate for the old ones destroyed, the critics say.

I see these critics as, most likely, profoundly mistaken. This time things are different. That’s because of the general purpose nature of ongoing improvements in the algorithms for automation. Machine learning algorithms that are developed with one set of skills in mind turn out to fit, reasonably straightforwardly, into other sets of skills as well.

The master algorithm

That argument is spelt out in the recent book “The master algorithm” by University of Washington professor of computer science and engineering Pedro Domingos.

TheMasterAlgorithm

The subtitle of that book refers to a “quest for the ultimate learning machine”. This ultimate learning machine can be contrasted with another universal machine, namely the universal Turing machine:

  • The universal Turing machine accepts inputs and applies a given algorithm to compute corresponding outputs
  • The universal learning machine accepts a set of corresponding input and output data, and makes the best possible task of inferring the algorithm that would obtain the outputs from the inputs.

For example, given sets of texts written in English, and matching texts written in French, the universal learning machine would infer an algorithm that will convert English into French. Given sets of biochemical reactions of various drugs on different cancers, the universal learning machine would infer an algorithm to suggest the best treatment for any given cancer.

As Domingos explains, there are currently five different “tribes” within the overall machine learning community. Each tribe has its separate origin, and also its own idea for the starting point of the (future) master algorithm:

  • “Symbolists” have their origin in logic and philosophy; their core algorithm is “inverse deduction”
  • “Connectionists” have their origin in neuroscience; their core algorithm is “back-propagation”
  • “Evolutionaries” have their origin in evolutionary biology; their core algorithm is “genetic programming”
  • “Bayesians” have their origin in statistics; their core algorithm is “probabilistic inference”
  • “Analogizers” have their origin in psychology; their core algorithm is “kernel machines”.

(See slide 6 of this Slideshare presentation. Indeed, take the time to view the full presentation. Better again, read Domingos’ entire book.)

What’s likely to happen over the next decade, or two, is that a single master algorithm will emerge that unifies all the above approaches – and, thereby, delivers great power. It will be similar to the progress made by physics as the fundamental force of natures have gradually been unified into a single theory.

And as that unification progresses, more and more occupations will be transformed, more quickly than people generally expect. Technological unemployment will rise and rise, as software embodying the master algorithm handles tasks previously thought outside the scope of automation.

Incidentally, Domingos has set out some ambitious goals for what his book will accomplish:

The goal is to do for data science what “Chaos” [by James Gleick] did for complexity theory, or “The Selfish Gene” [by Richard Dawkins] for evolutionary game theory: introduce the essential ideas to a broader audience, in an entertaining and accessible way, and outline the field’s rich history, connections to other fields, and implications.

Now that everyone is using machine learning and big data, and they’re in the media every day, I think there’s a crying need for a book like this. Data science is too important to be left just to us experts! Everyone – citizens, consumers, managers, policymakers – should have a basic understanding of what goes on inside the magic black box that turns data into predictions.

People who comment about the likely impact of automation on employment would do particularly well to educate themselves about the ideas covered by Domingos.

Rise of the robots

There’s a second reason why “this time it’s different” as regards the impact of new waves of automation on the employment market. This factor is the accelerating pace of technological change. As more areas of industry become subject to digitisation, they become, at the same time, subject to automation.

That’s one of the arguments made by perhaps the best writer so far on technological unemployment, Martin Ford. Ford’s recent book “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” builds ably on what previous writers have said.

RiseofRobots

Here’s a sample of review comments about Ford’s book:

Lucid, comprehensive and unafraid to grapple fairly with those who dispute Ford’s basic thesis, Rise of the Robots is an indispensable contribution to a long-running argument.
Los Angeles Times

If The Second Machine Age was last year’s tech-economy title of choice, this book may be 2015’s equivalent.
Financial Times, Summer books 2015, Business, Andrew Hill

[Ford’s] a careful and thoughtful writer who relies on ample evidence, clear reasoning, and lucid economic analysis. In other words, it’s entirely possible that he’s right.
Daily Beast

Surveying all the fields now being affected by automation, Ford makes a compelling case that this is an historic disruption—a fundamental shift from most tasks being performed by humans to one where most tasks are done by machines.
Fast Company

Well-researched and disturbingly persuasive.
Financial Times

Martin Ford has thrust himself into the center of the debate over AI, big data, and the future of the economy with a shrewd look at the forces shaping our lives and work. As an entrepreneur pioneering many of the trends he uncovers, he speaks with special credibility, insight, and verve. Business people, policy makers, and professionals of all sorts should read this book right away—before the ‘bots steal their jobs. Ford gives us a roadmap to the future.
—Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor for the Economist and co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

Ever since the Luddites, pessimists have believed that technology would destroy jobs. So far they have been wrong. Martin Ford shows with great clarity why today’s automated technology will be much more destructive of jobs than previous technological innovation. This is a book that everyone concerned with the future of work must read.
—Lord Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick, co-author of How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life and author of the three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes

If you’re still not convinced, I recommend that you listen to this audio podcast of a recent event at London’s RSA, addressed by Ford.

I summarise the takeaway message in this picture, taken from one of my Delta Wisdom workshop presentations:

Tech unemployment curves

  • Yes, humans can retrain over time, to learn new skills, in readiness for new occupations when their former employment has been displaced by automation
  • However, the speed of improvement of the capabilities of automation will increasingly exceed that of humans
  • Coupled with the general purpose nature of these capabilities, it means that, conceivably, from some time around 2040, very few humans will be able to find paid work.

A worked example: a site carpenter

During the Big Potatoes debate on Tuesday, I pressed the participants to name an occupation that would definitely be safe from incursion by robots and automation. What jobs, if any, will robots never be able to do?

One suggestion that came back was “site carpenter”. In this thinking, unfinished buildings are too complex, and too difficult for robots to navigate. Robots who try to make their way through these buildings, to tackle carpentry tasks, will likely fall down. Or assuming they don’t fall down, how will they cope with finding out that the reality in the building often varies sharply from the official specification? These poor robots will try to perform some carpentry task, but will get stymied when items are in different places from where they’re supposed to be. Or have different tolerances. Or alternatives have been used. Etc. Such systems are too messy for robots to compute.

My answer is as follows. Yes, present-day robots currently often do fall down. Critics seem to find this hilarious. But this is pretty similar to the fact that young children often fall down, while learning to walk. Or novice skateboarders often fall down, when unfamiliar with this mode of transport. However, robots will learn fast. One example is shown in this video, of the “Atlas” humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics (now part of Google):

As for robots being able to deal with uncertainty and surprises, I’m frankly struck by the naivety of this question. Of course software can deal with uncertainty. Software calculates courses of action statistically and probabilistically, the whole time. When software encounters information at variance from what it previously expected, it can adjust its planned course of action. Indeed, it can take the same kinds of steps that a human would consider – forming new hypotheses, and, when needed, checking back with management for confirmation.

The question is a reminder to me that the software and AI community need to do a much better job to communicate the current capabilities of their field, and the likely improvements ahead.

What does it mean to be human?

For me, the most interesting part of Tuesday’s discussion was when it turned to the following questions:

  • Should these changes be welcomed, rather than feared?
  • What will these forthcoming changes imply for our conception of what it means to be human?

To my mind, technological unemployment will force us to rethink some of the fundamentals of the “protestant work ethic” that permeates society. That ethic has played a decisive positive role for the last few centuries, but that doesn’t mean we should remain under its spell indefinitely.

If we can change our conceptions, and if we can manage the resulting social transition, the outcome could be extremely positive.

Some of these topics were aired at a conference in New York City on 29th September: “The World Summit on Technological Unemployment”, that was run by Jim Clark’s World Technology Network.

Robotic Steel Workers

One of the many speakers at that conference, Scott Santens, has kindly made his slides available, here. Alongside many graphs on the increasing “winner takes all” nature of modern employment (in which productivity increases but median income declines), Santens offers a different way of thinking about how humans should be spending their time:

We are not facing a future without work. We are facing a future without jobs.

There is a huge difference between the two, and we must start seeing the difference, and making the difference more clear to each other.

In his blogpost “Jobs, Work, and Universal Basic Income”, Santens continues the argument as follows:

When you hate what you do as a job, you are definitely getting paid in return for doing it. But when you love what you do as a job or as unpaid work, you’re only able to do it because of somehow earning sufficient income to enable you to do it.

Put another way, extrinsically motivated work is work done before or after an expected payment. It’s an exchange. Intrinsically motivated work is work only made possible by sufficient access to money. It’s a gift.

The difference between these two forms of work cannot be overstated…

Traditionally speaking, most of the work going on around us is only considered work, if one gets paid to do it. Are you a parent? Sorry, that’s not work. Are you in paid childcare? Congratulations, that’s work. Are you an open source programmer? Sorry, that’s not work. Are you a paid software engineer? Congratulations, that’s work…

What enables this transformation would be some variant of a “basic income guarantee” – a concept that is introduced in the slides by Santens, and also in the above-mentioned book by Martin Ford. You can hear Ford discuss this option in his RSA podcast, where he ably handles a large number of questions from the audience.

What I found particularly interesting from that podcast was a comment made by Anthony Painter, the RSA’s Director of Policy and Strategy who chaired the event:

The RSA will be advocating support for Basic Income… in response to Technological Unemployment.

(This comment comes about 2/3 of the way through the podcast.)

To be clear, I recognise that there will be many difficulties in any transition from the present economic situation to one in which a universal basic income applies. That transition is going to be highly challenging to manage. But these problems of transition are a far better problem to have, than dealing with the consequences of vastly increased unpaid unemployment and social alienation.

Life is being redefined

Just in case you’re still tempted to dismiss the above scenarios as some kind of irresponsible fantasy, there’s one more resource you might like to consult. It’s by Janna Q. Anderson, Professor of Communications at Elon University, and is an extended write-up of a presentation I heard her deliver at the World Future 2015 conference in San Francisco this July.

Janna Anderson keynote

You can find Anderson’s article here. It starts as follows:

The Robot Takeover is Already Here

The machines that replace us do not have to have superintelligence to execute a takeover with overwhelming impacts. They must merely extend as they have been, rapidly becoming more and more instrumental in our essential systems.

It’s the Algorithm Age. In the next few years humans in most positions in the world of work will be nearly 100 percent replaced by or partnered with smart software and robots —’black box’ invisible algorithm-driven tools. It is that which we cannot see that we should question, challenge and even fear the most. Algorithms are driving the world. We are information. Everything is code. We are becoming dependent upon and even merging with our machines. Advancing the rights of the individual in this vast, complex network is difficult and crucial.

The article is described as being a “45 minute read”. In turn, it contains numerous links, so you could spend lots longer following the resulting ideas. In view of the momentous consequences of the trends being discussed, that could prove to be a good use of your time.

By way of summary, I’ll pull out a few sentences from the middle of the article:

One thing is certain: Employment, as it is currently defined, is already extremely unstable and today many of the people who live a life of abundance are not making nearly enough of an effort yet to fully share what they could with those who do not…

It’s not just education that is in need of an overhaul. A primary concern in this future is the reinvention of humans’ own perceptions of human value…

[Another] thing is certain: Life is being redefined.

Who controls the robots?

Despite the occasional certainty in this field (as just listed above, extracted from the article by Janna Anderson), there remains a great deal of uncertainty. I share with my Big Potatoes colleagues the viewpoint that technology does not determine social responses. The question of which future scenario will unfold isn’t just a question of cheer-leading (if you’re an optimist) or cowering (if you’re a pessimist). It’s a question of choice and action.

That’s a theme I’ll be addressing next Sunday, 18th October, at a lunchtime session of the 2015 Battle of Ideas. The session is entitled “Man vs machine: Who controls the robots”.

robots

Here’s how the session is described:

From Metropolis through to recent hit film Ex Machina, concerns about intelligent robots enslaving humanity are a sci-fi staple. Yet recent headlines suggest the reality is catching up with the cultural imagination. The World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year hosted a serious debate around the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, organised by the NGO Human Rights Watch to oppose the rise of drones and other examples of lethal autonomous warfare. Moreover, those expressing the most vocal concerns around the march of the robots can hardly be dismissed as Luddites: the Elon-Musk funded and MIT-backed Future of Life Institute sparked significant debate on artificial intelligence (AI) by publishing an open letter signed by many of the world’s leading technologists and calling for robust guidelines on AI research to ‘avoid potential pitfalls’. Stephen Hawking, one of the signatories, has even warned that advancing robotics could ‘spell the end of the human race’.

On the other hand, few technophiles doubt the enormous potential benefits of intelligent robotics: from robot nurses capable of tending to the elderly and sick through to the labour-saving benefits of smart machines performing complex and repetitive tasks. Indeed, radical ‘transhumanists’ openly welcome the possibility of technological singularity, where AI will become so advanced that it can far exceed the limitations of human intelligence and imagination. Yet, despite regular (and invariably overstated) claims that a computer has managed to pass the Turing Test, many remain sceptical about the prospect of a significant power shift between man and machine in the near future…

Why has this aspect of robotic development seemingly caught the imagination of even experts in the field, when even the most remarkable developments still remain relatively modest? Are these concerns about the rise of the robots simply a high-tech twist on Frankenstein’s monster, or do recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence pose new ethical questions? Is the question more about from who builds robots and why, rather than what they can actually do? Does the debate reflect the sheer ambition of technologists in creating smart machines or a deeper philosophical crisis in what it means to be human?

 As you can imagine, I’ll be taking serious issue with the above claim, from the session description, that progress with robots will “remain relatively modest”. However, I’ll be arguing for strong focus on questions of control.

It’s not just a question of whether it’s humans or robots that end up in control of the planet. There’s a critical preliminary question as to which groupings and systems of humans end up controlling the evolution of robots, software, and automation. Should we leave this control to market mechanisms, aided by investment from the military? Or should we exert a more general human control of this process?

In line with my recent essay “Four political futures: which will you choose?”, I’ll be arguing for a technoprogressive approach to control, rather than a technolibertarian one.

Four futures

I wait with interest to find out how much this viewpoint will be shared by the other speakers at this session:

15 September 2015

A wiser journey to a better Tomorrowland

Peter Drucker quote

Three fine books that I’ve recently had the pleasure to finish reading all underscore, in their own ways, the profound insight expressed in 1970 by management consultant Peter Drucker:

The major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions.

That insights sits alongside the observation that technology has been an immensely important driver of change in human history. The technologies of agriculture, steam, electricity, medicine, and information, to name only a few, have led to dramatic changes in the key metrics in human civilisation – metrics such as population, travel, consumption, and knowledge.

But the best results of technology typically depend upon changes happening in parallel in human practice. Indeed, new general purpose technology sometimes initially results, not in an increase of productivity, but in an apparent decline.

The productivity paradox

Writing in Forbes earlier this year, in an article about the “current productivity paradox in healthcare”, Roy Smythe makes the following points:

There were two previous slowdowns in productivity that were not anticipated, and caused great consternation – the adoption of electricity and the computer. The issues at hand with both were the protracted time it took to diffuse the technology, the problem of trying to utilize the new technology alongside the pre-existing technology, and the misconception that the new technology should be used in the same context as the older one.

Although the technology needed to electrify manufacturing was available in the early 1890s, it was not fully adopted for about thirty years. Many tried to use the technology alongside or in conjunction with steam-driven engines – creating all manner of work-flow challenges, and it took some time to understand that it was more efficient to use electrical wires and peripheral, smaller electrical motors (dynamos) than to connect centrally-located large dynamos to the drive shafts and pulleys necessary to disperse steam-generated power. The sum of these activities resulted in a significant, and unanticipated lag in productivity in industry between 1890 and 1920…

However, in time, these new GPTs (general purpose technologies) did result in major productivity gains:

The good news, however, is substantial. In the two decades following the adoption of both electricity and the computer, significant acceleration of productivity was enjoyed. The secret was in the ability to change the context (in the case of the dynamo, taking pulleys down for example) assisting in a complete overhaul of the business process and environment, and the spawning of the new processes, tools and adjuncts that capitalized on the GPT.

In other words, the new general purpose technologies yielded the best results, not when humans were trying to follow the same processes as before, but when new processes, organisational models, and culture were adopted. These changes took time to conceive and adopt. Indeed, the changes took not only time but wisdom.

Wachter Kotler Naam

The Digital Doctor

Robert Wachter’s excellent book “The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age” provides a dazzling analysis of the ways in which the computerisation of health records – creating so-called EHRs (Electronic Health Records) – is passing through a similar phase of disappointing accomplishment. EHRs are often associated with new kinds of errors, with additional workload burdens, and with interfering in the all-important human relationship between doctor and patient. They’re far from popular with healthcare professionals.

Wachter believes these problems to be temporary: EHRs will live up to their promise in due course. But only once people can set the hype aside. What’s needed is that designers of healthcare tech products and systems will:

  • Put a much higher priority on ease of use, simplifying usage patterns, and on redesigning the overall flow of activity
  • Recognise and deal with the multiple complexities of the world of medicine.

For a good flavour of Wachter’s viewpoint, consider this extract from a New York Times opinion article he wrote in March, “Why Health Care Tech Is Still So Bad”,

Last year, I saw an ad recruiting physicians to a Phoenix-area hospital. It promoted state-of-the-art operating rooms, dazzling radiology equipment and a lovely suburban location. But only one line was printed in bold: “No E.H.R.”

In today’s digital era, a modern hospital deemed the absence of an electronic medical record system to be a premier selling point.

That hospital is not alone…

I interviewed Boeing’s top cockpit designers, who wouldn’t dream of green-lighting a new plane until they had spent thousands of hours watching pilots in simulators and on test flights. This principle of user-centered design is part of aviation’s DNA, yet has been woefully lacking in health care software design.

Our iPhones and their digital brethren have made computerization look easy, which makes our experience with health care technology doubly disappointing. An important step is admitting that there is a problem, toning down the hype, and welcoming thoughtful criticism, rather than branding critics as Luddites.

In my research, I found humility in a surprising place: the headquarters of I.B.M.’s Watson team, the people who built the computer that trounced the “Jeopardy!” champions. I asked the lead engineer of Watson’s health team, Eric Brown, what the equivalent of the “Jeopardy!” victory would be in medicine. I expected him to describe some kind of holographic physician, like the doctor on “Star Trek Voyager,” with Watson serving as the cognitive engine. His answer, however, reflected his deep respect for the unique challenges of health care. “It’ll be when we have a technology that physicians suddenly can’t live without,” he said.

I’m reminded of a principle I included in a long-ago presentation, “Enabling simply great mobile phones” (PDF), from 2004:

It’s easy to make something hard;
It’s hard to make something easy…

Smartphones will sell very well provided they allow users to build on, and do more of, the things that caused users to buy phones in the first place (communication and messaging, fashion and fun, and safety and connection) – and provided they allow users to do these things simply, even though the phones themselves are increasingly complex.

As for smartphones, so also for healthcare technology: the interfaces need to protect users from the innumerable complications that lurk under the surface. The greater the underlying complexity, the greater the importance of smart interfaces.

Again as for smartphones, once good human interfaces have been put in place, the results of new healthcare technology can be enormous. The New York Times article by Wachter contains a reminder of vexed issues within healthcare – issues that technology has the power to solve:

Health care, our most information-intensive industry, is plagued by demonstrably spotty quality, millions of errors and backbreaking costs. We will never make fundamental improvements in our system without the thoughtful use of technology.

Tomorrowland

In a different way, Steven Kotler’s new book also brings human considerations to the forefront. The title of the book is “Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact”. It’s full of remarkable human interest stories, that go far beyond simple cheer-leading for the potential of technological progress.

I had the pleasure to help introduce Steven at a recent event in Campus London, which was co-organised by London Futurists and FutureSelf. Steven appeared by Skype.

AtCampusLondon

(photos by Kirsten Zverina)

Ahead of the event, I had hoped to be able to finish reading his book, but because of other commitments I had only managed to read the first 25%. That was already enough to convince me that the book departed from any simple formula of techno-optimism.

In the days after the event, I was drawn back to Kotler’s book time and again, as I kept discovering new depth in its stories. Kotler brings a journalist perspective to the hopes, fears, struggles, and (yes) remarkable accomplishments of many technology pioneers. For most of these stories, the eventual outcome is still far from clear. Topics covered included:

  • The difficulties in trying to save the Florida Everglades from environmental collapse
  • Highlights from the long saga of people trying to invent flying cars (you can read that excerpt online here)
  • Difficulties and opportunities with different kinds of nuclear energy
  • The potential for technology to provide quick access to the profound feelings of transcendence reported from so-called “out of the body” and “near death experiences”
  • Some unexpected issues with the business of sperm donation
  • Different ways to enable blind people to see
  • Some missed turnings in the possibilities to use psychedelic drugs more widely
  • Options to prevent bio-terrorists from developing pathogens that are targeted at particular individuals.

There’s a video preview for the book:

The preview is a bit breathless for my liking, but the book as a whole provides some wonderfully rounded explorations. The marvellous potential of new technology should, indeed, inspire awe. But that potential won’t be attained without some very clear thinking.

Apex

The third of the disparate trio of three books I want to mention is, itself, the third in a continuous trilogy of fast-paced futurist fiction by Ramez Naam.

In “Apex: Connect”, Naam brings to a climactic culmination the myriad chains of human and transhuman drama that started in “Nexus: Install” and ratcheted in “Crux: Upgrade”.

RamezNaamTrilogy

Having been enthralled by the first two books in this trilogy, I was nervous about starting to listen to the third, since I realised it would likely absorb me for most of the next few days. I was right – but the absorption was worth it.

There’s plenty of technology in this trilogy, which is set several decades in the future: enhanced bodies, enhanced minds, enhanced communications, enhanced artificial intelligence. Critically, there is plenty of human  frailty too: people with cognitive biases, painful past experiences, unbalanced perspectives, undue loyalty to doubtful causes. Merely the fact of more powerful technology doesn’t automatically make people kinder as well as stronger, or wiser as well as smarter.

Another reason I like Apex so much is because it embraces radical uncertainty. Will superintelligence be a force that enhances humanity, or destroys it? Are regulations for new technology an instrument of oppression, or a means to guide people to more trustworthy outcomes? Should backdoors be built into security mechanisms? How should humanity treat artificial general intelligence, to avoid that AGI reaching unpleasant conclusions?

To my mind, too many commentators (in the real world) have pat answers to these questions. They’re too ready to assert that the facts of the matter are clear, and that the path to a better Tomorrowland is evident. But the drama that unfolds in Apex highlights rich ambiguities. These ambiguities require careful thought and wide appreciation. They also require human focus.

Postscript: H+Pedia

In between my other projects, I’m trying to assemble some of the best thinking on the pros and cons of key futurist questions. My idea is to use the new site H+Pedia for that purpose.

hpluspedia

As a starter, see the page on Transhumanism, where I’ve tried to assemble the most important lines of argument for and against taking a transhumanist stance towards the future. The page includes some common lines of criticism of transhumanism, and points out:

  • Where these criticisms miss the mark
  • Where these criticisms have substance – so that transhumanists ought to pay attention.

In some cases, I offer clear-cut conclusions. But in other cases, the balance of the argument is ambiguous. The future is far from being set in stone.

I’ll welcome constructive contributions to H+Pedia from anyone interested in the future of humanity.

Second postscript:

It’s now less than three weeks to the Anticipating 2040 event, where many speakers will be touching on the themes outlined above. Here’s a 90 second preview of what attendees can expect.

11 June 2015

Eating the world – the growing importance of software security

Security is eating the world

In August 2011, Marc Andreessen famously remarked that “software is eating the world”. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Andreessen set out his view that society was “in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy”.

With his background as pioneering web software architect at Netscape, and with a string of successful investments under his belt at venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, Andreessen was well placed to comment on the potency of software. As he observed,

More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defence. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures.

He then made the following prediction:

Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.

Industries to be impacted in this way, Andreessen suggested, would include entertainment, communications, recruitment, automotive, retail, energy, agriculture, finance, healthcare, education, and defence.

In the four years since the phrase was coined, “software is eating the world” has shown every sign of being a profound truth. In more and more sectors of industry, companies that lack deep expertise in software have found themselves increasingly by-passed by competitors. Software skills are no longer a “nice-to have” optional extra. They’re core to numerous aspects of product development.

But it’s time to propose a variant to the original phrase. A new set of deep skills are going to prove themselves as indispensable for ever larger numbers of industries. This time, the skills are in security. Before long, security will be eating the world. Companies whose software systems fall short on security will be driven out of business.

Dancing pigs

My claim about the growing importance of security may appear to fly in opposition to a general principle of user behaviour. This principle was described by renowned security writer Bruce Schneier in his 2000 book “Secrets and Lies”:

If J. Random Websurfer clicks on a button that promises dancing pigs on his computer monitor, and instead gets a hortatory message describing the potential dangers of the applet — he’s going to choose dancing pigs over computer security any day. If the computer prompts him with a warning screen like: “The applet DANCING PIGS could contain malicious code that might do permanent damage to your computer, steal your life’s savings, and impair your ability to have children,” he’ll click OK without even reading it. Thirty seconds later he won’t even remember that the warning screen even existed.

In other words, despite whatever users may say about the importance of security when directly asked about that question (“yes, of course I take security seriously”), in practice they put a higher priority on watching animated graphics (of flying pigs, cute kittens, celebrity wardrobe malfunctions, or whatever), and readily accept security risks in pursuit of that goal.

A review paper (PDF) published in 2009 by Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research shared findings that supported this view. Herley reports that, for example, users still typically choose the weakest passwords they can get away with, rather than making greater efforts to keep their passwords unguessable. Users also frequently ignore the advice against re-using the same passwords on different sites (so that, if there’s a security problem with any one of these sites, the user’s data on all other sites becomes vulnerable too).

Herley comments:

There are several ways of viewing this. A traditional view is that users are hopelessly lazy: in the face of dire descriptions of the threat landscape and repeated warnings, they do the minimum possible…

But by the end of his review, he offers a more sympathetic assessment:

“Given a choice between dancing pigs and security, users will pick dancing pigs every time.” While amusing, this is unfair: users are never offered security, either on its own or as an alternative to anything else. They are offered long, complex and growing sets of advice, mandates, policy updates and tips… We have shown that much of this advice does nothing to make users more secure, and some of it is harmful in its own right. Security is not something users are offered and turn down. What they are offered and do turn down is crushingly complex security advice that promises little and delivers less.

Herley’s paper concludes:

How can we help users avoid harm? This begins with a clear understanding of the actual harms they face, and a realistic understanding of their constraints. Without these we are proceeding blindly.

Exponential change

What are the “actual harms” that users face, as a result of insecure software systems or poor personal security habits?

We live in a time of rapid technology change. As software eats the world, it leaves more and more aspects of the world vulnerable to problems in the software – and vulnerable to problems in how that software is used, deployed, and updated.

As a result, the potential harm to users from poor security is constantly increasing. Users are vulnerable in new ways that they had never considered before.

Hacking embedded medical devices

For example, consider one possible unexpected side-effect of being fitted with one of the marvels of modern technology, an implantable heart pacemaker. Security researcher Barnaby Jack of IOActive gave a devastating demo at the Breakpoint conference in October 2012 of how easy it was for an outsider to interfere with the system whereby a pacemaker can be wirelessly recalibrated. The result is summed up in this Computerworld headline, “Pacemaker hack can deliver deadly 830-volt jolt”:

The flaw lies with the programming of the wireless transmitters used to give instructions to pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), which detect irregular heart contractions and deliver an electric shock to avert a heart attack.

A successful attack using the flaw “could definitely result in fatalities,” said Jack…

In a video demonstration, Jack showed how he could remotely cause a pacemaker to suddenly deliver an 830-volt shock, which could be heard with a crisp audible pop.

Hacking vehicle control systems

Consider also the predicament that many car owners in Austin, Texas experienced, as a result of the actions of a disgruntled former employee of used car retail firm Texas Auto Center. As Wired reported,

More than 100 drivers in Austin, Texas found their cars disabled or the horns honking out of control, after an intruder ran amok in a web-based vehicle-immobilization system normally used to get the attention of consumers delinquent in their auto payments.

Police with Austin’s High Tech Crime Unit on Wednesday arrested 20-year-old Omar Ramos-Lopez, a former Texas Auto Center employee who was laid off last month, and allegedly sought revenge by bricking the cars sold from the dealership’s four Austin-area lots.

Texas Auto Center had included some innovative new technology in the cars they sold:

The dealership used a system called Webtech Plus as an alternative to repossessing vehicles that haven’t been paid for. Operated by Cleveland-based Pay Technologies, the system lets car dealers install a small black box under vehicle dashboards that responds to commands issued through a central website, and relayed over a wireless pager network. The dealer can disable a car’s ignition system, or trigger the horn to begin honking, as a reminder that a payment is due.

The beauty of the system is that it allows a greater number of customers to purchase cars, even when their credit history looks poor. Rather than extensive up-front tests of the credit-worthiness of a potential purchaser, the system takes advantage of the ability to immobilise a car if repayments should cease. However, as Wired reports,

Texas Auto Center began fielding complaints from baffled customers the last week in February, many of whom wound up missing work, calling tow trucks or disconnecting their batteries to stop the honking. The troubles stopped five days later, when Texas Auto Center reset the Webtech Plus passwords for all its employee accounts… Then police obtained access logs from Pay Technologies, and traced the saboteur’s IP address to Ramos-Lopez’s AT&T internet service, according to a police affidavit filed in the case.

Omar Ramos-Lopez had lost his position at Texas Auto Center the previous month. Following good security practice, his own account on the Webtech Plus system had been disabled. However, it seems he gained access by using an account assigned to a different employee.

At first, the intruder targeted vehicles by searching on the names of specific customers. Then he discovered he could pull up a database of all 1,100 Auto Center customers whose cars were equipped with the device. He started going down the list in alphabetical order, vandalizing the records, disabling the cars and setting off the horns.

His manager ruefully remarked, “Omar was pretty good with computers”.

Hacking thermostats and lightbulbs

Finally, consider a surprise side-effect of attaching a new thermostat to a building. Modern thermostats exchange data with increasingly sophisticated systems that control heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. In turn, these systems can connect into corporate networks, which contain email archives and other confidential documents.

The Washington Chamber of Commerce discovered in 2011 that a thermostat in a townhouse they used was surreptitiously communicating with an Internet address somewhere in China. All the careful precautions of the Chamber’s IT department, including supervision of the computers and memory sticks used by employees, to guard against the possibility of such data seepage, was undone by this unexpected security vulnerability in what seemed to be an ordinary household object. Information that leaked from the Chamber potentially included sensitive information about US policy for trade with China, as well as other key IP (Intellectual Property).

It’s not only thermostats that have much greater network connectivity these days. Toasters, washing machines, and even energy-efficient lightbulbs contain surprising amounts of software, as part of the implementation of the vision of “smart homes”. And in each case, it opens the potential for various forms of espionage and/or extortion. Former CIA Director David Petraeus openly rejoiced in that possibility, in remarks noted in a March 2012 Wired article “We’ll spy on you through your dishwasher”:

Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as RFID, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing…

Transformational is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies, particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.

To summarise: smart healthcare, smart cars, and smart homes, all bring new vulnerabilities as well as new benefits. The same is true for other fields of exponentially improving technology, such as 3D printing, unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”), smart toys, and household robots.

The rise of robots

Sadly, malfunctioning robots have already been involved in a number of tragic fatalities. In May 2009, an Oerlikon MK5 anti-aircraft system was part of the equipment used by 5,000 South African troops in a large-scale military training exercise. On that morning, the controlling software suffered what a subsequent enquiry would call a “glitch”. Writing in the Daily Mail, Gavin Knight recounted what happened:

The MK5 anti-aircraft system, with two huge 35mm cannons, is essentially a vast robotic weapon, controlled by a computer.

While it’s one thing when your laptop freezes up, it’s quite another when it is controlling an auto-loading magazine containing 500 high-explosive rounds…

“There was nowhere to hide,” one witness stated in a report. “The rogue gun began firing wildly, spraying high explosive shells at a rate of 550 a minute, swinging around through 360 degrees like a high-pressure hose.”

By the time the robot has emptied its magazine, nine soldiers lie dead. Another 14 are seriously injured.

Deaths due to accidents involving robots have also occurred throughout the United States. A New York Times article in June 2014 gives the figure of “at least 33 workplace deaths and injuries in the United States in the last 30 years.” For example, in a car factory in December 2001,

An employee was cleaning at the end of his shift and entered a robot’s unlocked cage. The robot grabbed his neck and pinned the employee under a wheel rim. He was asphyxiated.

And in an aluminium factory in February 1996,

Three workers were watching a robot pour molten aluminium when the pouring unexpectedly stopped. One of them left to flip a switch to start the pouring again. The other two were still standing near the pouring operation, and when the robot restarted, its 150-pound ladle pinned one of them against the wall. He was killed.

To be clear, in none of these cases is there any suggestion of foul play. But to the extent that robots can be remotely controlled, the possibility arises for industrial vandalism.

Indeed, one of the most infamous cases of industrial vandalism (if that is the right description in this case) is the way in which the Stuxnet computer worm targeted the operation of fast-spinning centrifuges inside the Iranian programme to enrich uranium. Stuxnet took advantage of at least four so-called “zero-day security vulnerabilities” in Microsoft Windows software – vulnerabilities that Microsoft did not know about, and for which no patches were available. When the worm found itself installed on computers with particular programmable logic controllers (PLCs), it initiated a complex set of monitoring and alteration of the performance of the equipment attached to the PLC. The end result was that the centrifuges tore themselves apart, reportedly setting back the Iranian nuclear programme by a number of years.

Chillingly, what Stuxnet could do to centrifuges, variant software configurations could have similar effects on other industrial infrastructure – including energy and communication grids.

Therefore, whereas there is much to celebrate about the growing connectivity of “the Internet of Things”, there is also much to fear about it.

The scariest book

Many of the examples I’ve briefly covered above – the hacking of embedded medical devices, vehicle control systems, and thermostats and lightbulbs – as well as the upsides and downsides of “the rise of robots” – are covered in greater detail in a book I recently finished reading. The book is “Future Crimes”, by former LAPD police officer Marc Goodman. Goodman has spent the last twenty years working on cyber security risks with organisations such as Interpol, NATO, and the United Nations.

The full title of Goodman’s book is worth savouring: “Future Crimes: Everything is connected, everything is vulnerable, and what we can do about it.” Singularity 1on1 podcast interview Nikola Danaylov recently described Future Crimes as “the scariest book I have ever read in my life”. That’s a sentiment I fully understand. The book has a panoply of “Oh my god” moments.

What the book covers is not only the exponentially growing set of vulnerabilities that our exponentially connected technology brings in its wake, but also the large set of people who may well be motivated to exploit these vulnerabilities. This includes home and overseas government departments, industrial competitors, disgruntled former employees, angry former friends and spouses, ideology-fuelled terrorists, suicidal depressives, and a large subset of big business known as “Crime Inc”. Criminals have regularly been among the very first to adopt new technology – and it will be the same with the exploitation of new generations of security vulnerabilities.

There’s much in Future Crimes that is genuinely frightening. It’s not alone in the valuable task of raising public awareness of increasing security vulnerabilities. I also recommend Kim Zetter’s fine investigative work “Countdown To Zero Day: Stuxnet and the launch of the world’s first digital weapon”. Some of the same examples appear in both books, providing added perspective. In both cases the message is clear – the threats from cybersecurity are likely to mushroom.

On the positive front, technology can devise countermeasures as well as malware. There has long been an arms race between software virus writers and software antivirus writers. This arms race is now expanding into many new areas.

If the race is lost, it means that security will eat the world in a bad way: the horror stories that are told throughout both Future Crimes and Countdown To Zero Day will magnify in both number and scope. In that future scenario, people will look back fondly on the present day as a kind of innocent paradise, in which computers and computer-based systems generally worked reliably (despite occasional glitches). Safe, clean computer technology might become as rare as bottled oxygen in an environment where smog and pollution dominates – something that is only available in small quantities, to the rich and powerful.

If the race is won, there will still be losers. I’m not just referring to Crime Inc, and other would-be exploiters of security vulnerabilities, whose ambitions will be thwarted. I’m referring to all the companies whose software will fall short of the security standards of the new market leaders. These are companies who pay lip service to the importance of robust, secure software, but whose products in practice disappoint customers. By that time, indeed, customers will long have moved on from preferring dancing pigs to good security. The prevalence of bad news stories – in their daily social media traffic – will transform their appreciation of the steps they need to take to remain as safe as possible. Their priorities will have changed. They’ll be eagerly scouring reports as to which companies have world-class software security, and which companies, on the other hand, have products that should be avoided. Companies in the former camp will eat those in the latter camp.

Complications with software updates

As I mentioned above, there can be security vulnerabilities, not only intrinsic in a given piece of software, but also in how that software is used, deployed, and updated. I’ll finish this article by digging more deeply into the question of software updates. These updates have a particularly important role in the arms race between security vulnerabilities and security improvements.

Software updates are a key part of modern technological life. These updates deliver new functionality to users – such as a new version of a favourite app, or an improved user interface for an operating system. They also deliver security fixes, along with other bug fixes. In principle, as soon as possible after a major security vulnerability has been identified and analysed, the vendor will make available a fix to that programming error.

However, updates are something that many users dislike. On the one hand, they like receiving improved functionality. But they fear on the other hand that:

  • The upgrade will be time-consuming, locking them out of their computer systems at a time when they need to press on with urgent work
  • The upgrade will itself introduce new bugs, and break familiar patterns of how they use the software
  • Some of their applications will stop working, or will work in strange ways, after the upgrade.

The principle of “once bitten, twice shy” applies here. One bad experience with upgrade software – such as favourite add-on applications getting lost in the process – may prejudice users against accepting any new upgrades.

My own laptop recently popped up an invitation for me to reserve a free upgrade from its current operating system – Windows 7.1 – to the forthcoming Windows 10. I confess that I have yet to click the “yes, please reserve this upgrade” button. I fear, indeed, that some of the legacy software on my laptop (including apps that are more than ten years old, and whose vendors no longer exist) will become dysfunctional.

The Android operating system for smartphones faces a similar problem. New versions of the operating system, which include fixes to known security problems, often fail to make their way onto users of Android phones. In some cases, this is because the phones are running a reconfigured version of Android, which includes modifications introduced by a phone manufacturer and/or network operator. Any update has to wait until similar reconfigurations have been applied to the new version of the operating system – and that can take a long time, due to reluctance on the part of the phone manufacturer or network operator. In other cases, it’s simply because users decline to accept an Android upgrade when it is offered to them. Once bitten, twice shy.

Accordingly, there’s competitive advantage available, to any company that makes software upgrades as smooth and reliable as possible. This will become even more significant, as users grow in their awareness of the need to have security vulnerabilities in their computer systems fixed speedily.

But there’s a very awkward problem lurking around the upgrade process. Computer systems can sometimes be tricked into installing malicious software, whilst thinking it is a positive upgrade. In other words, the upgrade process can itself be hacked. For example, at the Black Hat conference in July 2009, IOActive security researcher Mike Davis demonstrated a nasty vulnerability in the software update mechanism in the smart electricity meters that were to be installed in homes throughout the Pacific North West of the United States.

For a riveting behind-the-scenes account of this particular research, see the book Countdown To Zero Day. In brief, Davis found a way to persuade a smart meter that it was being offered a software upgrade by a neighbouring, trusted smart meter, whereas it was in fact receiving software from an external source. This subterfuge was accomplished by extracting the same network encryption key that was hard-wired into every smart meter in the collection, and then presenting that encryption key as apparent (but bogus) evidence that the communication could be trusted. Once the meter had installed the upgrade, the new software could disable the meter from responding to any further upgrades. It could also switch off any electricity supply to the home. As a result, the electricity supplier would be obliged to send engineers to visit every single house that had been affected by the malware. In the simulated demo shown by Davis, this was as many as 20,000 separate houses within just a 24 hour period.

Uncharitably, we might think to ourselves that an electricity supplier is probably the kind of company to make mistakes with its software upgrade mechanism. As Mike Davis put it, “the guys that built this meter had a short-term view of how it would work”. We would expect, in contrast, that a company whose core business was software (and which had been one of the world’s leading software companies for several decades) would have no such glitches in its system for software upgrades.

Unexpectedly, one of the exploits utilised by Stuxnet team was a weakness in part of the Microsoft Update system – a part that had remained unchanged for many years. The exploit was actually used by a piece of malware, known as Flame which shared many characteristics with Stuxnet. Mikko Hyppönen, Chief Research Officer of Finnish antivirus firm F-Secure, reported the shocking news as follows in a corporate blogpost tellingly entitled “Microsoft Update and The Nightmare Scenario”:

About 900 million Windows computers get their updates from Microsoft Update. In addition to the DNS root servers, this update system has always been considered one of the weak points of the net. Antivirus people have nightmares about a variant of malware spoofing the update mechanism and replicating via it.

Turns out, it looks like this has now been done. And not by just any malware, but by Flame…

Flame has a module which appears to attempt to do a man-in-the-middle attack on the Microsoft Update or Windows Server Update Services system. If successful, the attack drops a file called WUSETUPV.EXE to the target computer.

This file is signed by Microsoft with a certificate that is chained up to Microsoft root.

Except it isn’t signed really by Microsoft.

Turns out the attackers figured out a way to misuse a mechanism that Microsoft uses to create Terminal Services activation licenses for enterprise customers. Surprisingly, these keys could be used to also sign binaries…

Having a Microsoft code signing certificate is the Holy Grail of malware writers. This has now happened.

Hyppönen’s article ends with some “good news in the bad news” which nevertheless sounds a strong alarm about similar things going wrong (with worse consequences) in the future:

I guess the good news is that this wasn’t done by cyber criminals interested in financial benefit. They could have infected millions of computers. Instead, this technique has been used in targeted attacks, most likely launched by a Western intelligence agency.

How not to be eaten

Despite the threats that I’ve covered above, I’m optimistic that software security and software updates can be significantly improved in the months and years ahead. In other words, there’s plenty of scope for improvements in the quality of software security.

One reason for this optimism is that I know that smart people have been thinking hard about these topics for many years. Good solutions are already available, ready for wider deployment, in response to stronger market readiness for such solutions.

But it will take more than technology to win this arms race. It will take political resolve. For too long, software companies have been able to ship software that has woefully substandard security. For too long, companies have prioritised dancing pigs over rock-hard security. They’ve written into their software licences that they accept no liability for problems arising from bugs in their software. They’ve followed, sometimes passionately, and sometimes half-heartedly, the motto from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that software developers should “move fast and break things”.

That kind of behaviour may have been appropriate in the infancy of software. No longer.

Move fast and break things

11 April 2015

Opening Pandora’s box

Should some conversations be suppressed?

Are there ideas which could prove so incendiary, and so provocative, that it would be better to shut them down?

Should some concepts be permanently locked into a Pandora’s box, lest they fly off and cause too much chaos in the world?

As an example, consider this oft-told story from the 1850s, about the dangers of spreading the idea of that humans had evolved from apes:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

More recently, there’s been a growing worry about spreading the idea that AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) could become an apocalyptic menace. The worry is that any discussion of that idea could lead to public hostility against the whole field of AGI. Governments might be panicked into shutting down these lines of research. And self-appointed militant defenders of the status quo might take up arms against AGI researchers. Perhaps, therefore, we should avoid any public mention of potential downsides of AGI. Perhaps we should pray that these downsides don’t become generally known.

tumblr_static_transcendence_rift_logoThe theme of armed resistance against AGI researchers features in several Hollywood blockbusters. In Transcendence, a radical anti-tech group named “RIFT” track down and shoot the AGI researcher played by actor Johnny Depp. RIFT proclaims “revolutionary independence from technology”.

As blogger Calum Chace has noted, just because something happens in a Hollywood movie, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen in real life too.

In real life, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczinski was so fearful about the future destructive potential of technology that he sent 16 bombs to targets such as universities and airlines over the period 1978 to 1995, killing three people and injuring 23. Kaczinski spelt out his views in a 35,000 word essay Industrial Society and Its Future.

Kaczinki’s essay stated that “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race”, defended his series of bombings as an extreme but necessary step to attract attention to how modern technology was eroding human freedom, and called for a “revolution against technology”.

Anticipating the next Unabombers

unabomber_ely_coverThe Unabomber may have been an extreme case, but he’s by no means alone. Journalist Jamie Bartlett takes up the story in a chilling Daily Telegraph article “As technology swamps our lives, the next Unabombers are waiting for their moment”,

In 2011 a new Mexican group called the Individualists Tending toward the Wild were founded with the objective “to injure or kill scientists and researchers (by the means of whatever violent act) who ensure the Technoindustrial System continues its course”. In 2011, they detonated a bomb at a prominent nano-technology research centre in Monterrey.

Individualists Tending toward the Wild have published their own manifesto, which includes the following warning:

We employ direct attacks to damage both physically and psychologically, NOT ONLY experts in nanotechnology, but also scholars in biotechnology, physics, neuroscience, genetic engineering, communication science, computing, robotics, etc. because we reject technology and civilisation, we reject the reality that they are imposing with ALL their advanced science.

Before going any further, let’s agree that we don’t want to inflame the passions of would-be Unabombers, RIFTs, or ITWs. But that shouldn’t lead to whole conversations being shut down. It’s the same with criticism of religion. We know that, when we criticise various religious doctrines, it may inflame jihadist zeal. How dare you offend our holy book, and dishonour our exalted prophet, the jihadists thunder, when they cannot bear to hear our criticisms. But that shouldn’t lead us to cowed silence – especially when we’re aware of ways in which religious doctrines are damaging individuals and societies (by opposition to vaccinations or blood transfusions, or by denying female education).

Instead of silence (avoiding the topic altogether), what these worries should lead us to is a more responsible, inclusive, measured conversation. That applies for the drawbacks of religion. And it applies, too, for the potential drawbacks of AGI.

Engaging conversation

The conversation I envisage will still have its share of poetic effect – with risks and opportunities temporarily painted more colourfully than a fully sober evaluation warrants. If we want to engage people in conversation, we sometimes need to make dramatic gestures. To squeeze a message into a 140 character-long tweet, we sometimes have to trim the corners of proper spelling and punctuation. Similarly, to make people stop in their tracks, and start to pay attention to a topic that deserves fuller study, some artistic license may be appropriate. But only if that artistry is quickly backed up with a fuller, more dispassionate, balanced analysis.

What I’ve described here is a two-phase model for spreading ideas about disruptive technologies such as AGI:

  1. Key topics can be introduced, in vivid ways, using larger-than-life characters in absorbing narratives, whether in Hollywood or in novels
  2. The topics can then be rounded out, in multiple shades of grey, via film and book reviews, blog posts, magazine articles, and so on.

Since I perceive both the potential upsides and the potential downsides of AGI as being enormous, I want to enlarge the pool of people who are thinking hard about these topics. I certainly don’t want the resulting discussion to slide off to an extreme point of view which would cause the whole field of AGI to be suspended, or which would encourage active sabotage and armed resistance against it. But nor do I want the discussion to wither away, in a way that would increase the likelihood of adverse unintended outcomes from aberrant AGI.

Welcoming Pandora’s Brain

cropped-cover-2That’s why I welcome the recent publication of the novel “Pandora’s Brain”, by the above-mentioned blogger Calum Chace. Pandora’s Brain is a science and philosophy thriller that transforms a series of philosophical concepts into vivid life-and-death conundrums that befall the characters in the story. Here’s how another science novellist, William Hertling, describes the book:

Pandora’s Brain is a tour de force that neatly explains the key concepts behind the likely future of artificial intelligence in the context of a thriller novel. Ambitious and well executed, it will appeal to a broad range of readers.

In the same way that Suarez’s Daemon and Naam’s Nexus leaped onto the scene, redefining what it meant to write about technology, Pandora’s Brain will do the same for artificial intelligence.

Mind uploading? Check. Human equivalent AI? Check. Hard takeoff singularity? Check. Strap in, this is one heck of a ride.

Mainly set in the present day, the plot unfolds in an environment that seems reassuringly familiar, but which is overshadowed by a combination of both menace and promise. Carefully crafted, and absorbing from its very start, the book held my rapt attention throughout a series of surprise twists, as various personalities react in different ways to a growing awareness of that menace and promise.

In short, I found Pandora’s Brain to be a captivating tale of developments in artificial intelligence that could, conceivably, be just around the corner. The imminent possibility of these breakthroughs cause characters in the book to re-evaluate many of their cherished beliefs, and will lead most readers to several “OMG” realisations about their own philosophies of life. Apple carts that are upended in the processes are unlikely ever to be righted again. Once the ideas have escaped from the pages of this Pandora’s box of a book, there’s no going back to a state of innocence.

But as I said, not everyone is enthralled by the prospect of wider attention to the “menace” side of AGI. Each new novel or film in this space has the potential of stirring up a negative backlash against AGI researchers, potentially preventing them from doing the work that would deliver the powerful “promise” side of AGI.

The dual potential of AGI

FLIThe tremendous dual potential of AGI was emphasised in an open letter published in January by the Future of Life Institute:

There is now a broad consensus that AI research is progressing steadily, and that its impact on society is likely to increase. The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable. Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.

“The eradication of disease and poverty” – these would be wonderful outcomes from the project to create AGI. But the lead authors of that open letter, including physicist Stephen Hawking and AI professor Stuart Russell, sounded their own warning note:

Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks. In the near term, world militaries are considering autonomous-weapon systems that can choose and eliminate targets; the UN and Human Rights Watch have advocated a treaty banning such weapons. In the medium term, as emphasised by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age, AI may transform our economy to bring both great wealth and great dislocation…

One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.

They followed up with this zinger:

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong… Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues outside non-profit institutes… All of us should ask ourselves what we can do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.

Criticisms

Critics give a number of reasons why they see these fears as overblown. To start with, they argue that the people raising the alarm – Stephen Hawking, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, Oxford University philosophy professor Nick Bostrom, and so on – lack their own expertise in AGI. They may be experts in black hole physics (Hawking), or in electric cars (Musk), or in academic philosophy (Bostrom), but that gives them no special insights into the likely course of development of AGI. Therefore we shouldn’t pay particular attention to what they say.

A second criticism is that it’s premature to worry about the advent of AGI. AGI is still situated far into the future. In this view, as stated by Demis Hassabis, founder of DeepMind,

We’re many, many decades away from anything, any kind of technology that we need to worry about.

The third criticism is that it will be relatively simple to stop AGI causing any harm to humans. AGI will be a tool to humans, under human control, rather than having its own autonomy. This view is represented by this tweet by science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Seems to me, as long as we don’t program emotions into Robots, there’s no reason to fear them taking over the world.

I hear all these criticisms, but they’re by no means the end of the discussion. They’re no reason to terminate the discussion about AGI risks. That’s the argument I’m going to make in the remainder of this blogpost.

By the way, you’ll find all these of these criticisms mirrored in the course of the novel Pandora’s Brain. That’s another reason I recommend that people should read that book. It manages to bring a great deal of serious arguments to the table, in the course of entertaining (and sometimes frightening) the reader.

Answering the criticisms: personnel

Elon Musk, one of the people who have raised the alarm about AGI risks, lacks any PhD in Artificial Intelligence to his name. It’s the same with Stephen Hawking and with Nick Bostrom. On the other hand, others who are raising the alarm do have relevant qualifications.

AI a modern approachConsider as just one example Stuart Russell, who is a computer-science professor at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the 1152-page best-selling text-book “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”. This book is described as follows:

Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, 3rd edition offers the most comprehensive, up-to-date introduction to the theory and practice of artificial intelligence. Number one in its field, this textbook is ideal for one or two-semester, undergraduate or graduate-level courses in Artificial Intelligence.

Moreover, other people raising the alarm include some the giants of the modern software industry:

Wozniak put his worries as follows – in an interview for the Australian Financial Review:

“Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” Mr Wozniak said.

He said he had long dismissed the ideas of writers like Raymond Kurzweil, who have warned that rapid increases in technology will mean machine intelligence will outstrip human understanding or capability within the next 30 years. However Mr Wozniak said he had come to recognise that the predictions were coming true, and that computing that perfectly mimicked or attained human consciousness would become a dangerous reality.

“Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently,” Mr Wozniak said.

“Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know about that…

And here’s what Bill Gates said on the matter, in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit:

I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

Returning to Elon Musk, even his critics must concede he has shown remarkable ability to make new contributions in areas of technology outside his original specialities. Witness his track record with PayPal (a disruption in finance), SpaceX (a disruption in rockets), and Tesla Motors (a disruption in electric batteries and electric cars). And that’s even before considering his contributions at SolarCity and Hyperloop.

Incidentally, Musk puts his money where his mouth is. He has donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to run a global research program aimed at keeping AI beneficial to humanity.

I sum this up as follows: the people raising the alarm in recent months about the risks of AGI have impressive credentials. On occasion, their sound-bites may cut corners in logic, but they collectively back up these sound-bites with lengthy books and articles that deserve serious consideration.

Answering the criticisms: timescales

I have three answers to the comment about timescales. The first is to point out that Demis Hassabis himself sees no reason for any complacency, on account of the potential for AGI to require “many decades” before it becomes a threat. Here’s the fuller version of the quote given earlier:

We’re many, many decades away from anything, any kind of technology that we need to worry about. But it’s good to start the conversation now and be aware of as with any new powerful technology it can be used for good or bad.

(Emphasis added.)

Second, the community of people working on AGI has mixed views on timescales. The Future of Life Institute ran a panel discussion in Puerto Rico in January that addressed (among many other topics) “Creating human-level AI: how and when”. Dileep George of Vicarious gave the following answer about timescales in his slides (PDF):

Will we solve the fundamental research problems in N years?

N <= 5: No way
5 < N <= 10: Small possibility
10 < N <= 20: > 50%.

In other words, in his view, there’s a greater than 50% chance that artificial general human-level intelligence will be solved within 20 years.

SuperintelligenceThe answers from the other panellists aren’t publicly recorded (the event was held under Chatham House rules). However, Nick Bostrom has conducted several surveys among different communities of AI researchers. The results are included in his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. The communities surveyed included:

  • Participants at an international conference: Philosophy & Theory of AI
  • Participants at another international conference: Artificial General Intelligence
  • The Greek Association for Artificial Intelligence
  • The top 100 cited authors in AI.

In each case, participants were asked for the dates when they were 90% sure human-level AGI would be achieved, 50% sure, and 10% sure. The average answers were:

  • 90% likely human-level AGI is achieved: 2075
  • 50% likely: 2040
  • 10% likely: 2022.

If we respect what this survey says, there’s at least a 10% chance of breakthrough developments within the next ten years. Therefore it’s no real surprise that Hassabis says

It’s good to start the conversation now and be aware of as with any new powerful technology it can be used for good or bad.

Third, I’ll give my own reasons for why progress in AGI might speed up:

  • Computer hardware is likely to continue to improve – perhaps utilising breakthroughs in quantum computing
  • Clever software improvements can increase algorithm performance even more than hardware improvements
  • Studies of the human brain, which are yielding knowledge faster than ever before, can be translated into “neuromorphic computing”
  • More people are entering and studying AI than ever before, in part due to MOOCs, such as that from Stanford University
  • There are more software components, databases, tools, and methods available for innovative recombination
  • AI methods are being accelerated for use in games, financial trading, malware detection (and in malware itself), and in many other industries
  • There could be one or more “Sputnik moments” causing society to buckle up its motivation to more fully support AGI research (especially when AGI starts producing big benefits in healthcare diagnosis).

Answering the critics: control

I’ve left the hardest question to last. Could there be relatively straightforward ways to keep AGI under control? For example, would it suffice to avoid giving AGI intentions, or emotions, or autonomy?

For example, physics professor and science populariser Michio Kaku speculates as follows:

No one knows when a robot will approach human intelligence, but I suspect it will be late in the 21st century. Will they be dangerous? Possibly. So I suggest we put a chip in their brain to shut them off if they have murderous thoughts.

And as mentioned earlier, Neil deGrasse Tyson proposes,

As long as we don’t program emotions into Robots, there’s no reason to fear them taking over the world.

Nick Bostrom devoted a considerable portion of his book to this “Control problem”. Here are some reasons I think we need to continue to be extremely careful:

  • Emotions and intentions might arise unexpectedly, as unplanned side-effects of other aspects of intelligence that are built into software
  • All complex software tends to have bugs; it may fail to operate in the way that we instruct it
  • The AGI software will encounter many situations outside of those we explicitly anticipated; the response of the software in these novel situations may be to do “what we asked it to do” but not what we would have wished it to do
  • Complex software may be vulnerable to having its functionality altered, either by external hacking, or by well-intentioned but ill-executed self-modification
  • Software may find ways to keep its inner plans hidden – it may have “murderous thoughts” which it prevents external observers from noticing
  • More generally, black-box evolution methods may result in software that works very well in a large number of circumstances, but which will go disastrously wrong in new circumstances, all without the actual algorithms being externally understood
  • Powerful software can have unplanned adverse effects, even without any consciousness or emotion being present; consider battlefield drones, infrastructure management software, financial investment software, and nuclear missile detection software
  • Software may be designed to be able to manipulate humans, initially for purposes akin to advertising, or to keep law and order, but these powers may evolve in ways that have worse side effects.

A new Columbus?

christopher-columbus-shipsA number of the above thoughts started forming in my mind as I attended the Singularity University Summit in Seville, Spain, a few weeks ago. Seville, I discovered during my visit, was where Christopher Columbus persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to fund his proposed voyage westwards in search of a new route to the Indies. It turns out that Columbus succeeded in finding the new continent of America only because he was hopelessly wrong in his calculation of the size of the earth.

From the time of the ancient Greeks, learned observers had known that the earth was a sphere of roughly 40 thousand kilometres in circumference. Due to a combination of mistakes, Columbus calculated that the Canary Islands (which he had often visited) were located only about 4,440 km from Japan; in reality, they are about 19,000 km apart.

Most of the countries where Columbus pitched the idea of his westward journey turned him down – believing instead the figures for the larger circumference of the earth. Perhaps spurred on by competition with the neighbouring Portuguese (who had, just a few years previously, successfully navigated to the Indian ocean around the tip of Africa), the Spanish king and queen agreed to support his adventure. Fortunately for Columbus, a large continent existed en route to Asia, allowing him landfall. And the rest is history. That history included the near genocide of the native inhabitants by conquerors from Europe. Transmission of European diseases compounded the misery.

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

It all adds to the argument for keeping our wits fully about us. We should use every means at our disposal to think through options in advance. This includes well-grounded fictional explorations, such as Pandora’s Brain, as well as the novels by William Hertling. And it also includes the kinds of research being undertaken by the Future of Life Institute and associated non-profit organisations, such as CSER in Cambridge, FHI in Oxford, and MIRI (the Machine Intelligence Research Institute).

Let’s keep this conversation open – it’s far too important to try to shut it down.

Footnote: Vacancies at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

I see that the Cambridge University CSER (Centre for the Study of Existential Risk) have four vacancies for Research Associates. From the job posting:

Up to four full-time postdoctoral research associates to work on the project Towards a Science of Extreme Technological Risk (ETR) within the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

CSER’s research focuses on the identification, management and mitigation of possible extreme risks associated with future technological advances. We are currently based within the University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Our goal is to bring together some of the best minds from academia, industry and the policy world to tackle the challenges of ensuring that powerful new technologies are safe and beneficial. We focus especially on under-studied high-impact risks – risks that might result in a global catastrophe, or even threaten human extinction, even if only with low probability.

The closing date for applications is 24th April. If you’re interested, don’t delay!

15 February 2015

Ten years of quantified self

Filed under: books, healthcare — Tags: , , , , , , , — David Wood @ 12:02 am

Ten years. Actually 539 weeks. I’ve been recording my weight every morning from 23 October 2004, and adding a new data point to my chart every weekend.

10 years of Quantified Self

I’ve been recording my weight ever since I read that people who monitor their weight on a regular basis are more likely to avoid it ballooning upwards. There’s an instant feedback which allows me to seek adjustments in my personal health regime. With ten years of experience under my (varyingly-sized) belt, I’m strongly inclined to continue the experiment.

The above chart started life on my Psion Series 5mx PDA. Week after week, I added data, and watched as the chart expanded. Eventually, the graph hit the limits of what could be displayed on a single screen on the S5mx (width = 480 pixels), so I had to split the chart into two. And then three. Finally, after a number of hardware failures in my stock of S5mx devices, I transferred the data into an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop several months ago. Among other advantages, it once again lets me see the entire picture.

20150214_084625This morning, 14th Feb 2015, I saw the scales dip down to a point I had last reached in September 2006. This result seems to confirm the effectiveness of my latest dietary regime – which I’ve been following since July. Over these seven months, I’ve shrunk from a decidedly unhealthy (and unsightly) 97 kg down to 81 kg.

In terms of the BMI metric (Body Mass Index), that’s a reduction from 31.2 – officially “obese” – down to 26.4. 26.4 is still “marginally overweight”, since, for men, the top end of the BMI scale for a “healthy weight for adults” is 24.9. With my height, that would mean a weight of 77 kg. So there’s still a small journey for me to travel. But I’m happy to celebrate this incremental improvement!

The NHS page on BMI issues this sobering advice:

BMI of 30 or more: a BMI above 30 is classified as obese. Being obese puts you at a raised risk of health problems such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Losing weight will bring significant health improvements..

BMI score of 25 or more: your BMI is above the ideal range and this score means you may be overweight. This means that you’re heavier than is healthy for someone of your height. Excess weight can put you at increased risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. It’s time to take action…

As the full chart of my weight over the last ten years shows, I’ve had three major attempts at “action” to achieve a healthier body mass.

The first: For a while in 2004 and 2005, I restricted myself to two Herbalife meal preparations a day – even when I was travelling.

Later, in 2011, I ran across the book by Gary Taubes, “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It”, which made a great deal of sense to me. Taubes emphasises that some kinds of calories are more damaging to health than others. Specifically, carbohydrates, such as wheat, change the body metabolism to make it retain more weight. I also read “Wheat belly” by William Davis. Here’s an excerpt from the description of that book:

Renowned cardiologist William Davis explains how eliminating wheat from our diets can prevent fat storage, shrink unsightly bulges and reverse myriad health problems.

Every day we eat food products made of wheat. As a result millions of people experience some form of adverse health effect, ranging from minor rashes and high blood sugar to the unattractive stomach bulges that preventative cardiologist William Davis calls ‘wheat bellies’. According to Davis, that fat has nothing to do with gluttony, sloth or too much butter: it’s down to the whole grain food products so many people eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

After witnessing over 2,000 patients regain their health after giving up wheat, Davis reached the disturbing conclusion that wheat is the single largest contributor to the nationwide obesity epidemic – and its elimination is key to dramatic weight loss and optimal health.

In Wheat Belly, Davis exposes the harmful effects of what is actually a product of genetic tinkering being sold to the public as ‘wheat’ and provides readers with a user-friendly, step-by-step plan to navigate a new, wheat-free lifestyle. Benefits include: substantial weight loss, correction of cholesterol abnormalities, relief from arthritis, mood benefits and prevention of heart disease.

As a result, I cut back on carbohydrates – and was pleased to see my weight plummet once again. For a while – until I re-acquired many of my former carb-enjoying habits, whoops.

That takes me to regime number three. This time, I’ve followed the more recent trend known as “5+2”. According to this idea, people can eat normally for, say, five days in the week, and then eat a very reduced amount of calories on the other two days (known as “fasting days”). My initial worry about this approach was that I wasn’t sure I’d eat sensible foods on the two low-calorie days.

That’s when I ran across the meal preparations of the LighterLife company. These include soups, shakes, savoury meals, porridge, and bars. Each of these meals is just 150-200 calories. LighterLife suggest that people eat, on their low-calorie days, four of these meals. These preparations include sufficient proteins, fibre, and 100% of the recommended daily intake of key vitamins and minerals.

To be clear, I am not a medical doctor, and I urge anyone who is considering adopting a diet to obtain their own medical advice. I also recognise that different people have different metabolisms, so a diet that works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else. However, I can share my own personal experience, in case it inspires others to do their own research:

  • Instead of 5+2, I generally follow 3+4. That is, I have four low-calorie days each week, along with three other days in which I tend to indulge myself (except that, on these other days, I still try to avoid consuming too many carbs, such as wheat, bread, rice, and potatoes)
  • On the low-calorie days, I generally eat around 11.30am, 2.30pm, 5.30pm, and 8.30pm
  • If I’m working at home, I’ll include soups, a savoury meal, and shakes; if I’m away from home, I’ll eat three (or four) different bars, that I pack into my back-pack at the beginning of the day
  • On the low-calorie days, it’s important to drink as well as to eat, but I avoid any drinks with calories in them. In practice, I find drinks of herbal teas to be very effective at dulling any sense of hunger I’m experiencing
  • In addition to eating less, I continue to do a lot of walking (e.g. between Waterloo Station and meeting locations in Central London), as well as other forms of exercise (like on the golf driving range or golf course).

Note: I know that BMI is far from being a complete representation of personal healthiness. However, I view it as a good starting point.

To round off my recommendations for diet-related books that I have particularly enjoyed reading, I’ll add “Mindless eating” by Brian Wansink to the two I mentioned earlier. I listened to the Audible version of that book. It’s hilarious, but thought-provoking, and the research it describes seems very well founded:

Every day, we each make around 200 decisions about eating. But studies have shown that 90% of these decisions are made without any conscious choice. Dr Brian Wansink lays bare the facts about our true eating habits to show that awareness of our patterns can allow us to lose weight effectively and without serious changes to our lives. Dr Wansink’s revelations include:

  • Food mistakes we all make in restaurants, supermarkets and at home
  • How we are manipulated by brand, appearance and parental habits more than price and our choices
  • Our emotional relationship with food and how we can overcome it to revitalise our diets.

Forget calorie counting and starving yourself and learn the truth about why we overeat in this fascinating, innovative guide.

Three books

I’ll finish by thanking my friends, family, and colleagues for their gentle and thoughtful encouragement, over the years, for me to keep an eye on my body mass, and on the general goodness of what I eat. “Health is the first wealth”.

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