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24 June 2019

Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four steps in the analysis

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

Transcending capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

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

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

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

And to emphasise the point:

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

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

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

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

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

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

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

Populism and its dangers

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

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

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

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

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 January 2019

Rejuvenation. Now. Easier than we think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: Claudio_Scott on Pixabay.

21 July 2018

Transhumanism freed from the fantasies

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

Transhumanism attracts a lot of fantasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transhumanism is oppression disguised as liberation.

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

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

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

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

We should expect, and demand, better!

A better starting point

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

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

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

Julian Huxley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max More

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

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

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

Dear Mother Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your ambitious human offspring.

The Transhumanist Declaration

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

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

Moving forwards

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

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

17 July 2018

Would you like your mind expanded?

Filed under: books, healthcare, psychology, religion — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 10:15 pm

Several times while listening to the audio of the recent new book How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, I paused the playback and thought to myself, “wow”.

Pollan is a gifted writer. He strings together words and sentences in a highly elegant way. But my reactions to his book were caused by the audacity of the ideas conveyed, even more than by the powerful rhythms and cadences of the words doing the conveying.

Pollan made his reputation as a writer about food. The most famous piece of advice he offered, earlier in his career, is the seven word phrase “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. You might ask: What do you mean by food? Pollan’s answer: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

With such a background, you might not expect any cutting-edge fireworks from Pollan. However, his most recent book bears the provocative subtitle What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. That’s a lot of big topics. (On reflection, you’ll realise that your great grandmother might have had things to say about all these topics.)

The book covers its material carefully and patiently, from multiple different perspectives. I found it engaging throughout – from the section at the beginning when Pollan explained how he, in his late 50s, became more interested in this field – via sections covering the evolutionary history of mushrooms, thoughtful analyses of Pollan’s own varied experiences with various psychedelics, and the rich mix of fascinating characters in psychedelic history (many larger-than-life, others preferring anonymity) – to sections suggesting big implications for our understanding of mental wellbeing, illnesses of the mind, and the nature of spirituality.

If any of the following catch your interest, I suggest you check out How to Change your Mind:

  • The likely origins of human beliefs about religion
  • Prospects for comprehensive treatments of depression, addiction, and compulsive behaviour
  • The nature of consciousness, the self, and the ego
  • Prospects for people routinely becoming “better than well”
  • Ways in which controversial treatments (e.g. those involving psychedelics) can in due course become accepted by straight-laced regulators from the FDA and the EMA
  • The perils of society collectively forgetting important insights from earlier generations of researchers.

Personally, I particularly enjoyed the sections about William James and Aldous Huxley. I already knew quite a lot about both of them before, but Pollan helped me see their work in a larger perspective. There were many other characters in the book that I learned about for the first time. Perhaps the most astonishing was Al Hubbard. Mind-boggling, indeed.

I see How to Change your Mind as part of a likely tipping point of public acceptability of psychedelics. It’s that well written.

In case it’s not clear, you ought to familiarise yourself with this book if:

  • You consider yourself a futurist – someone who attempts to anticipate key changes in social attitudes and practices
  • You consider yourself a transhumanist – someone interested in extending human experience beyond the ordinary.

24 May 2018

“The People vs. Democracy” – a quick review

Filed under: books, politics, RSA — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:08 am

If you’re interested in politics, then I recommend the video recording of yesterday’s presentation at London’s RSA by Yascha Mounk.

Mounk is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at New America, a columnist at Slate, and the host of The Good Fight podcast. He’s also the author of the book “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” which I finished reading yesterday. The RSA presentation provides a good introduction to the ideas in the book.

The book marshals a set of arguments in a compelling way, which I hadn’t seen lined up in that way before. It provides some very useful insight as to the challenges being posed to the world by the growth of “illiberal democracy” (“populism”). It also explains why these challenges might be more dangerous than many commentators have tended to assume.

(“Don’t worry about the rise of strong men like Trump”, these commentators say. “Sure, Trump is obnoxious. But the traditions of liberal democracy are strong. The separation of powers are such that the excesses of any would-be autocrat will surely be tamed”. Alas, there’s no “surely” about it.)

Here’s how Mounk’s book is described on its website:

The world is in turmoil. From India to Turkey and from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. As a result, Yascha Mounk shows, democracy itself may now be at risk.

Two core components of liberal democracy—individual rights and the popular will—are increasingly at war with each other. As the role of money in politics soared and important issues were taken out of public contestation, a system of “rights without democracy” took hold. Populists who rail against this say they want to return power to the people. But in practice they create something just as bad: a system of “democracy without rights.”

The consequence, Mounk shows in The People vs. Democracy, is that trust in politics is dwindling. Citizens are falling out of love with their political system. Democracy is wilting away. Drawing on vivid stories and original research, Mounk identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, politicians need to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.

The People vs. Democracy is the first book to go beyond a mere description of the rise of populism. In plain language, it describes both how we got here and where we need to go. For those unwilling to give up on either individual rights or the popular will, Mounk shows, there is little time to waste: this may be our last chance to save democracy.

I liked the book so much that I’ve modified some of the slides in the presentation I’ll be giving myself this evening (Thursday 24th May), to include ideas from Mounk’s work.

One drawback of the book, however, is that the solutions it offers, although “worthy”, seem unlikely to stir sufficient popular engagement to become turned from idea into reality. I believe something bigger is needed.

3 May 2018

Recommended: The Longevity Code

If you’re interested in the latest advice on how to extend your healthspan, you should read The Longevity Code by Kris Verburgh.

The full title of the book is “The Longevity Code: Secrets to Living Well for Longer, from the Front Lines of Science”.

The book has the following description (on Goodreads):

Medical doctor and researcher Kris Verburgh is fast emerging as one of the world’s leading research authorities on the science of aging. The Longevity Code is Dr. Verburgh’s authoritative guide on why and how we age — and on the four most crucial areas we have control over, to slow down, and even reverse, the aging process.

We learn why some animal species age hardly at all while others age and die very quickly, and about the mechanisms at work that slowly but definitely cause our bodies to age, making us susceptible to heart attack, stroke, cancer, pneumonia and/or dementia.

Dr. Verburgh devotes the last third of The Longevity Code to what we can do to slow down the process of aging. He concludes by introducing and assessing the wide range of cutting-edge developments in anti-aging technology, the stuff once only of science fiction: new types of vaccines, and the use of mitochondrial DNA, CRISPR proteins, stem cells, and more.

In the course of researching and writing my own book The Abolition of Aging, I read dozens of different books on broadly similar topics. (For a partial list, scan the online copy of the Endnotes for that book.)

However, I found The Longevity Code to address a number of issues in ways that were particularly compelling and engaging:

  1. Persuasive advice on how to modify diet and lifestyle, now, in order to increase your likelihood to remain healthy long enough to benefit from forthcoming rejuvenation therapies (therapies which Verburgh lists as “Step 4” of a four-stage “longevity staircase”)
  2. A compelling analysis of different “theories of aging”, in Chapter 1 of his book, including the implications of the notably different lifespans of various animals that seem on first sight to have similar biology
  3. A down-to-earth matter-of-fact analysis, in Chapter 4 of his book, on the desirability of living longer lives.

The first of these points is an area where I have often struggled, in the Q&A portions of my own presentations on The Abolition of Aging, to give satisfactory answers to audience questions. I now have better answers to offer!

Allowable weakness

One “allowable weakness” of the book is that the author repeats himself on occasion – especially when it comes to making recommendations on diet and food supplements. I say this is “allowable” because his messages deserve repetition, in a world where there is an abundance of apparent expert dietary advice that is, alas, confusing, contradictory, and often compromised (due to the influence of vested interests – as Verburgh documents).

Table of Contents

The table of contents gives a good idea of what the book contains:

  1. Why do we age?
    • Making room?
    • Dying before growing old
    • Young and healthy, old and sick
    • Sex and aging
  2. What causes aging?
    • Proteins
    • Carbohydrates
    • Fats
    • Our energy generators and their role in life, death, and aging
    • Shoelaces and string
    • Other causes, and conclusion
  3. The longevity staircase
    • Avoid deficiencies
    • Stimulate hormesis
    • Reduce growth stimulation
    • Reverse the aging process
  4. Some thoughts about aging, longevity, and immortality
    • Do we really want to grow that old?
    • A new society?
  5. Recipes
  6. Afterword

About Kris Verburgh

You can read more about the author on the bio page of his website. Here’s a brief extract:

Kris Verburgh (born 1986) graduated magna cum laude as a medical doctor from the University of Antwerp, Belgium.

Dr. Verburgh is a researcher at the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies (CLEA) at the Free University Brussels (VUB) and a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group at the Free University of Brussels.

Dr. Verburgh’s fields of research are aging, nutrition, metabolism, preventive medicine and health. In this context, he created a new scientific discipline, called ‘nutrigerontology‘, which studies the impact of nutrition on the aging process and aging-related diseases.

Additionally, he has a profound interest in new technologies that will disrupt medicine, health(care) and our lifespans. He follows the new trends and paradigm shifts in medicine an biotechnology and how they are impacted by the fourth industrial revolution

Verburgh wrote his first science book when he was 16 years old. At age 25, he had written 3 science books.

Dr. Verburgh gives talks on new developments and paradigm shifts in medicine, healthcare and the science of aging. He gave lectures for the European Parliament, Google, Singularity University, various academic institutes, organizations and international companies.

And I’d be delighted to host him at London Futurists, when schedules allow!

30 November 2017

Technological Resurrection: An idea ripe for discussion

Like it or not, humans are becoming as gods. Where will this trend lead?

How about the ability to bring back to life people who died centuries ago, and whose bodies have long since disintegrated?

That’s the concept of “Technological Resurrection” which is covered in the recent book of the same name by Dallas, Texas based researcher Jonathan A. Jones.

The book carries the subtitle “A thought experiment”. It’s a book that can, indeed, lead readers to experiment with new kinds of thoughts. If you are ready to leave your normal comfort zone behind, you may find a flurry of unexpected ideas emerging in your mind as you dip into its pages. You’re likely also to encounter considerable emotional turmoil en route.

The context

Here’s the context. Technology is putting within human reach more and more of the capabilities that were thought, in former times, to be the preserve of divine beings:

  • We’re not omniscient, but Google has taken us a long way in that direction
  • We’re not yet able to create life at will, but our skills with genomic engineering are proceeding apace
  • Evolution need no longer proceed blindly, via Darwinian Russian roulette, but can benefit from conscious intelligent design (by humans, for humans)
  • Our ability to remake nature is being extended by our ability to remake human nature.
  • We can enable the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk
  • Thanks to medical breakthroughs, we can even bring the dead back to life – that is, the cessation of heart and breath need no longer herald an early grave.

But that’s just the start. It’s plausible that, sooner or later, humanity will create artificial superintelligence with powers that are orders of magnitude greater than anything we currently possess. These enhanced powers would bring humanity even closer to the domain of the gods of bygone legends. These powers might even enable technological resurrection.

Some details

In more detail: Profound new engineering capabilities might become available that can bridge remote sections of space and time – perhaps utilising the entanglement features of quantum physics, perhaps creating and exploiting relativistic “wormholes”, or perhaps involving unimagined novel scientific principles. These bridges might allow selected “copying” of consciousness from just before the moment of death, into refined bodies constructed in the far future ready to receive such consciousness. As Jonathan Jones explores, this copying might take place in ways that circumvent the time travel paradoxes that often feature in science fiction.

That’s a lot of “mights” and “maybes”. However, when contemplating the range of ideas for what might happen to consciousness after physical death, it would be wise to include this option. Beyond our deathbed, we might awaken to find ourselves in a state akin to paradise – surrounded by resurrected family and friends. Born 1945, died 2020, resurrected 2085? Born 1895, died 1917, resurrected 2087?

The book contains a number of speculative short stories to whet readers’ appetites to continue this exploration. These stories add colour to what is already a colourful, imaginative book. The artistic license is grounded in a number of solid references to science, philosophy, psychology, and history. For example, there’s a particularly good section on Russian “cosmist” thinkers. There’s a review of how films and novels have dealt with similar ideas over the decades. And the book is brought up to date with a discussion of contemporary transhumanists, including Ray Kurzweil, Ben Goertzel, Jose Cordeiro, and Giulio Prisco.

Futurists like to ask three questions about forthcoming scenarios. Are they credible (as opposed to being mere flights of fantasy). Are they actionable, in that individual human actions could alter their probability of occurring. And are they desirable.

All three questions get an airing in the pages of the book Jonathan Jones has written. To keep matters short, for now I’ll focus on the third question.

The third question

The idea of technological resurrection could provide much-needed solace, for people whose lives otherwise seem wretched. Perhaps death will cease to be viewed as a one-way ticket to eternal oblivion. What’s more, the world might benefit mightily from a new common quest to advance human capability, safely, beyond the existential perils of modern social angst, towards being able to make technological resurrection a reality. That’s a shared purpose which would help humanity transcend our present-day pettiness. It’s a route to make humanity truly great.

However, from other points of view, the idea of technological resurrection could be viewed as an unhelpful distraction. Similar to how religion was criticised by Karl Marx as being “the opium of the people” – an illusory “pie in the sky when you die” – the vague prospect of technological resurrection could dissuade people from taking important steps to secure or improve long-term health prospects. It might prevent them from:

  • Investigating and arranging cryonics support standby services
  • Channelling funds and resources to those researchers who may be on the point of abolishing aging
  • Encouraging the adoption of health-promoting lifestyles, economic policies, and beneficial diets and supplements
  • Accelerating the roll-out of technoprogressive measures that will raise people around the world out of relative poverty and into relative prosperity.

Finally, the idea of technological resurrection may also fill some minds with dread and foreboding – if they realise that devious, horrible actions from their past, which they believed were secret, might become more widely known by a future superintelligence. If that superintelligence has the inclination to inflict a punitive (hellish) resurrection, well, things gain a different complexion.

There’s a great deal more that deserves to be said about technological resurrection. I’m already thinking of organising some public meetings on this topic. In the meantime, I urge readers to explore the book Jonathan Jones has written. That book serves up its big ideas in ways that are playful, entertaining, and provocative. But the ideas conveyed by the light-hearted text may live in your mind long after you have closed the book.

PS I’ve addressed some of these questions from a different perspective in Chapter 12, “Radical alternatives”, of my own 2016 book “The Abolition of Aging”.

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:
.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

the-story-of-the-human-body

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

the-industries-of-the-future

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?

bitcoin-the-future-of-money

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

the-future-of-the-professions

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

inventing-the-future

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

the-economic-singularity

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

the-gene-an-intimate-history

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

the-youth-pill

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

inhuman-bondage

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

american-amnesia

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

and-the-weak-suffer-what-they-must

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”.

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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.

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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.

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