1 January 2023

Enabling rethinking

Filed under: books, change, communications, psychology, retrospection — Tags: , — David Wood @ 10:45 pm

At the start of a new year, it’s customary for people to reflect on their life trajectories. Are the visions, attitudes, activities, and alliances, that have brought us to the end of one year, the best set to keep following in the next year?

So, new years are known for retrospectives – reviews of our past successes and disappointments – and for new resolutions – initiatives to change parts of our lifestyles.

My view, however, is that the pace of change in society is so rapid nowadays that we can no longer keep our rethinking – our retrospectives and our new resolutions – to something that just happens occasionally – perhaps once a year.

Moreover, the wide scope of change in society demands a rethinking that is not only more frequent, but also more searching, more radical, and more effective.

Accordingly, perhaps the single most important skill today is the ability to unlearn and relearn, quickly and successfully.

That’s why I put “Learning how to learn” as the very first area (out of 24) in the Vital Syllabus project which I oversee.

It’s also why my attention was drawn to the book Think Again by organizational psychologist Adam Grant.

I was intrigued by the subtitle “The power of knowing what you don’t know”, and by the recommendation on the book cover, “Guaranteed to make you rethink your opinions and your most important decisions”.

I downloaded the audio version of the book to my phone a couple of weeks ago, and started listening to it. I finished it earlier today. It was a great choice to be my last listen of the year.

It’s narrated by the author himself. I see from his biography that he “has been Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years”. After listening to his narration, I’m not at all surprised.

The chapters all involve engaging narratives with several layers of meaning which become clearer as the book progresses. Since I’m widely read myself, the narratives several times touched on material where I had some prior familiarity:

  • Learning from “superforecasters”
  • Learning from the Wright brothers (aviation pioneers)
  • Learning from expert negotiators
  • Learning from debating champions
  • Learning from the tragedies at NASA
  • Learning from the Dunning-Kruger analysis of overconfidence.

But in each case, the author drew attention to extra implications that I had not appreciated before. I’m considerably wiser as a result.

My own specific takeaways from the book are a number of new habits I want to include in my personal reflections and interactions. I see the book as enabling better rethinking:

  • Individually – when I contemplate my own knowledge, skills, and, yes, limitations and doubts
  • Interpersonally – when I bump up against other people with different beliefs, opinions, and loyalties
  • Within communities – so that an organisation is better able to avoid groupthink and more able to successfully pivot when needed
  • Transcending polarisation – by highlighting the complexities of real-world decisions, by encouraging “dancing” rather than conflicts, by expressing a wider range of emotions, and much more.

Because polarisation is such a challenging issue in today’s world, especially in politics (see my comments in this previous book review), the methods Grant highlights are particularly timely.

I’ve already found a couple of videos online that cover some of these points, and added them into various pages of the Vital Syllabus (here and here, so far). I’m sure there’s a lot more material out there, which should likewise be included.

If you have any additional suggestions, don’t hesitate to let me know!

19 June 2020

Highlighting probabilities

Filed under: communications, education, predictability, risks — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 7:54 pm

Probabilities matter. If society fails to appreciate probabilities, and insists on seeing everything in certainties, a bleak future awaits us all (probably).

Consider five predictions, and common responses to these predictions.

Prediction A: If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the UK will experience a significant economic downturn.

Response A: We’ve heard that prediction before. Before the Brexit vote, it was predicted that a major economic downturn would happen straightaway if the result was “Leave”. That downturn failed to take place. So we can discard the more recent prediction. It’s just “Project Fear” again.

Prediction B (made in Feb 2020): We should anticipate a surge in infections and deaths from Covid-19, and take urgent action to prevent transmissions.

Response B: We’ve heard that prediction before. Bird flu was going to run havoc. SARS and MERS, likewise, were predicted to kill hundreds of thousands. These earlier predictions were wrong. So we can discard the more recent prediction. It’s just “Project Pandemic” again.

Prediction C: We should prepare for the advent of artificial superintelligence, the most disruptive development in all of human history.

Response C: We’ve heard that prediction before. AIs more intelligent than humans have often been predicted. No such AI has been developed. These earlier predictions were wrong. So there’s no need to prepare for ASI. It’s just “Project Hollywood Fantasy” again.

Prediction D: If we don’t take urgent action, the world faces a disaster from global warming.

Response D: We’ve heard that prediction before. Climate alarmists told us some time ago “you only have twelve years to save the planet”. Twelve years passed, and the planet is still here. So we can ignore what climate alarmists are telling us this time. It’s just “Project Raise Funding for Climate Science” again.

Prediction E (made in mid December 1903): One day, humans will fly through the skies in powered machines that are heavier than air.

Response E: We’ve heard that prediction before. All sorts of dreamers and incompetents have naively imagined that the force of gravity could be overcome. They have all come to ruin. All these projects are a huge waste of money. Experts have proved that heavier than air flying machines are impossible. We should resist this absurdity. It’s just “Langley’s Folly” all over again.

The vital importance of framing

Now, you might think that I write these words to challenge the scepticism of the people who made the various responses listed. It’s true that these responses do need to be challenged. In each case, the response involves an unwarranted projection from the past into the future.

But the main point on my mind is a bit different. What I want to highlight is the need to improve how we frame and present predictions.

In all the above cases – A, B, C, D, E – the response refers to previous predictions that sounded similar to the more recent ones.

Each of these earlier predictions should have been communicated as follows:

  • There’s a possible outcome we need to consider. For example, the possibility of an adverse economic downturn immediately after a “Leave” vote in the Brexit referendum.
  • That outcome is possible, though not inevitable. We can estimate a rough probability of it happening.
  • The probability of the outcome will change if various actions are taken. For example, swift action by the Bank of England, after a Leave vote, could postpone or alleviate an economic downturn. Eventually leaving the EU, especially without a deal in place, is likely to accelerate and intensify the downturn.

In other words, our discussions of the future need to embrace uncertainty, and need to emphasise how human action can alter that uncertainty.

What’s more, the mention of uncertainty must be forceful, rather than something that gets lost in small print.

So the message itself must be nuanced, but the fact that the message is nuanced must be underscored.

All this makes things more complicated. It disallows any raw simplicity in the messaging. Understandably, many activists and enthusiasts prefer simple messages.

However, if a message has raw simplicity, and is subsequently seen to be wrong, observers will be likely to draw the wrong conclusion.

That kind of wrong conclusion lies behind each of flawed responses A to E above.

Sadly, lots of people who are evidently highly intelligent fail to take proper account of probabilities in assessing predictions of the future. At the back of their minds, an argument like the following holds sway:

  • An outcome predicted by an apparent expert failed to materialise.
  • Therefore we should discard anything else that apparent expert says.

Quite likely the expert in question was aware of the uncertainties affecting their prediction. But they failed to emphasise these uncertainties strongly enough.

Transcending cognitive biases

As we know, we humans are prey to large numbers of cognitive biases. Even people with a good education, and who are masters of particular academic disciplines, regularly fall foul of these biases. They seem to be baked deep into our brains, and may even have conveyed some survival benefit, on average, in times long past. In the more complicated world we’re now living in, we need to help each other to recognise and resist the ill effects of these biases. Including the ill effects of the “probability neglect” bias which I’ve been writing about above.

Indeed, one of the most important lessons from the current chaotic situation arising from the Covid-19 pandemic is that society in general needs to raise its understanding of a number of principles related to mathematics:

  • The nature of exponential curves – and how linear thinking often comes to grief, in failing to appreciate exponentials
  • The nature of probabilities and uncertainties – and how binary thinking often comes to grief, in failing to appreciate probabilities.

This raising of understanding won’t be easy. But it’s a task we should all embrace.

Image sources: Thanasis Papazacharias and Michel Müller from Pixabay.

Footnote 1: The topic of “illiteracy about exponentials and probabilities” is one I’ll be mentioning in this Fast Future webinar taking place on Sunday evening.

Footnote 2: Some people who offer a rationally flawed response like the ones above are, sadly, well aware of the flawed nature of their response, but they offer it anyway. They do so since they believe the response may well influence public discussion, despite being flawed. They put a higher value on promoting their own cause, rather than on keeping the content of the debate as rational as possible. They don’t mind adding to the irrationality of public discussion. That’s a topic for a separate discussion, but it’s my view that we need to find both “carrots” and “sticks” to discourage people from deliberately promoting views they know to be irrational. And, yes, you guessed it, I’ll be touching on that topic too on Sunday evening.

20 December 2013

Kick-starting the future – less than 24 hours to go

Filed under: Anticipating 2025, collaboration, communications, futurist — David Wood @ 10:18 am

By chance, two really interesting projects both seeking support on the crowd-funding site Kick Starter are coming to their conclusions in the next 24 hours.

They’re both well worth a look.


shift 2020 is a collaborative book about how technology will impact our future. The book is curated by Rudy De Waele and designed by Louise Campbell.

As Rudy explains,

The idea of shift 2020 is based upon Mobile Trends 2020, a collaborative project I launched early 2010. It’s one of the highest viewed decks on Slideshare (in the Top 50 of All Time in Technology / +320k views). Reviewing the document a couple of weeks ago, I realised the future is catching up on us much faster than many of the predictions that were made. I thought it was time to ask the original contributors for an update on their original predictions and new foresights for the year 2020.

The list of authors is extensive. I would copy out all the names here, but urge you to click on the links to see the full list.

My own set of five predictions from early 2010 that I submitted  to Rudy’s earlier project Mobile Trends 2020 seems to be holding up well for fulfilment by 2020 (if not sooner). See slide 36 of the 2010 presentation:

  1. Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”
  2. Powerful, easily wearable head-mounted accessories: audio, visual, and more
  3. Mobiles as gateways into vivid virtual reality – present-day AR is just the beginning
  4. Mobiles monitoring personal health – the second brains of our personal networks
  5. Mobiles as universal remote controls for life – a conductor’s baton as much as a viewing portal.

5 predictions for 2010

I’ve added some extra content for shift 2020, but that’s embargoed for now!

People who give financial support via Kick Starter to shift 2020 have lots of options to consider. For example, a pledge of £13 will deliver you the following:

shift 2020 Black and white printing on cream-coloured paper with a full-colour soft cover (5×8 in 13×20 cm) + 80 pages specially designed for business travellers, printed by blurb.com. Shipping costs included.

Estimated delivery: Jan 2014; Ships within the UK only

And £60 will deliver this:

shift 2020 shift 2020 nicely designed quality Hardcover, ImageWrap Standard Landscape 10×8 (25×20 cm) +80 pages Photo Book printed by blurb.com on Premium Semi Matt Paper, including a mention of your (personal) name in the acknowledgements page.

Estimated delivery: Jan 2014
Add £5 to ship outside the UK

Whereas shift 2020 seeks funding to support book publication, PostHuman seeks funding to support a series of videos about transhumanism.

The three supersThe “BIOPS” team behind this campaign have already created one first class video:

The first video by the British Institute of Posthuman Studies (BIOPS), entitled “PostHuman: An Introduction To Transhumanism”, investigates three dominant areas of transhumanist thought: super longevity, super intelligence and super wellbeing. It covers the ideas of Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil and David Pearce.

I’ll let the BIOPS team tell their story:

Writers Marco Vega and Peter Brietbart (that’s us!) have shared a passion for philosophy since we first met at Sussex University five years ago. Over time, we became frustrated with the classical, removed armchair philosophy, and began to look for philosophically sophisticated ideas with real human impact. Transhumanism stood out as a practical, far-seeing, radical and urgent field, informed by science and guided by moral philosophy.

We soon realised that our philosophy buddies and lecturers had barely heard of it, though the ideas involved were exciting and familiar. The problem for us is that even though transhumanism is incredibly relevant, it’s practically invisible in mainstream thought.

Influenced by YouTubers like QualiaSoup3vid3nc3CGPGreyRSA Animate,TheraminTreesVsauceCrashCourse and many more, we saw that complex ideas can be made accessible, entertaining and educational.

Our dream is to make this project – the culmination of five years of thought, reflection and research – a reality.

We’ve just released the first video – PostHuman: An Introduction to Transhumanism. We made it over the course of a year, in volunteered time, paid with favours and fuelled by enthusiasm. Now we need your help to keep going…

In the year 2014, we want to write, produce and release at least 6 more fully animated episodes. We’ll investigate a range of different transhumanist themes, consider their arguments in favour, highlight our greatest worries, and articulate what we perceive to be the most significant implications for humanity.

We’re worried that such critical topics and concepts are not getting the coverage they need. Our aim for the video series is to bring awareness to the most important conversation humanity needs to be having, and to do it in a way that’s accessible, balanced and educational.

In addition to animating the ideas and concepts, we also want to seek out and challenge influential transhumanist thinkers. We’ll record the interviews, and include the highlights at the end of the videos.

We’re looking to raise £65,000 to allow the production crew to make this happen.

I’m delighted that Marco Vega and Peter Brietbart of BIOPS will be among the speakers at the Anticipating 2025 event I’m holding at Birkbeck College on 22-23 March:

I wish both shift 2020 and PostHuman the best of luck with their fundraising and delivery!

25 April 2010

Practical magic

Filed under: communications, Events, Humanity Plus, magic, marketing, UKH+ — David Wood @ 10:26 pm

I won’t reveal the content of the tricks.  That would be unfair on the performer.

Our dining group at Soho’s Little Italy restaurant had been pleasantly surprised by the unannounced entrance of a lady magician, before the orders for coffee were taken.  Where were we from, she asked.  Answers followed, hesitatingly: Belgium, Germany, Sweden, New York, London…

The atmosphere changed from guarded politeness to unguarded amazement as the magician blazed her way through some fast-paced sleight of hand with newspapers, water, money, ribbons, and playing cards.  Many of our group of hardened rationalists and technophiles were gasping with astonishment.  How did she do that?

It was a fitting end to a day that had seen a fair share of other kinds of magic.

Despite my nervous forebodings from earlier in the week, the Humanity+ UK2010 event had seen a 100% turn out of speakers, ran (near enough) to time, and covered a vast range of intriguing ideas about forthcoming new technology and the enhancement of humanity.  An audience of approaching 200 people in London’s Conway Hall seemed to find much to think about, from what they’d heard.  Here’s a brief sample of online feedback so far:

Awesome conference – all your work paid off and then some!

Great conference today #hplusuk : thank you!

Enjoyed H+ event, esp @anderssandberg preso. Learnt about singularity, AI+, wireheads, future shock, SENS, protocells & more

Most enjoyable conference today. Thanks to the organisers and speakers

A few hours literally day dreaming, blown away by human cleverness.  These people should be allowed to talk on prime time on BBC regularly

Humanity+ today was terrific. I particulary enjoyed the talks from Amon Twyman – Expanding perception and transhumanist art, Natasha Vita-More – DIY Enhancement, Aubrey de Grey’s Life Expansion and Rachel Armstrong’s Living Technology

Great talk @davidorban how the #internetofthings could free us to be human again. Couldn’t agree more. #hplusuk

Love David Pearce, a true visionary! #hplusuk

Behind the scenes, a team of volunteers were ensuring that things ran as smoothly as possible – with a very early start in the morning following a late evening the previous day.  In my professional life over the years I’ve often been responsible for major events, such as the Symbian developer events and smartphone shows, where I had visibility of the amount of work required to make an event a success.  But in all these cases, I had a team of events managers working for me – including first-class professionals such as Amy Graller, Jo Butler, Liza Fox, and Alice Kenny, as well as brand managers, PR managers, and so on.  These teams shielded me from a great deal of the underlying drama of managing events.  In contrast, this time, our entire team were volunteers, and there was no alternative to getting our own hands dirty!  Huge amounts of thanks are due to everyone involved in pulling off this piece of magic.

Needless to say, some things fell short of perfection.  I heard mild-mannered grumbles:

  • That there wasn’t enough time for audience Q&A – and that too many of the questions that were raised from the floor were imprecise or unfocused;
  • That the audio from our experimental live streaming from the event was too choppy – due to shortcomings in the Internet connectivity from the event (something that will need to be fixed before I consider holding another similar event there);
  • That some of the presentations had parts that were too academic for some members of the audience, or assumed more background knowledge than people actually possessed;
  • That there should have been more journalists present, hearing material that deserves wide coverage.

The mail list used by the Humanity+ UK organising team is already reflecting on “what went well” and “what could be improved”.  Provisionally, we have in mind a follow-up event early next year.  We’re open for suggestions!  What scale should we have in mind?  What key objectives?

Because I was rushing around on the day, trying to ensure everything was ready for the next phase of the event, I found myself unable to concentrate for long on the presentations themselves.  (I’ll need to watch the videos of the talks, once they’re available.)  However, a few items successfully penetrated my mental fog.  I was particularly struck by descriptions of potential engineering breakthroughs:

This kind of information appeals to the engineer in me.  It’s akin to “practical magic”.

I was also struck by discussions of flawed societal priorities, covering instances where publications give undue prominence to matters of low importance, to the exclusion of more accurate coverage of technological issues.  For example, Nick Bostrom reported, during his talk “Reducing Existential Risks” that there are more scholarly papers on dung beetle reproduction than on the possibilities of human extinction.  And Aubrey de Grey gave examples of sensationalist headlines even in a normally responsible newspaper, for anti-aging news of little intrinsic value, whilst genuinely promising news receives scant coverage.

What is the solution to this kind of broken prioritisation? The discussion among the final speaker panel of the day helped to distill an answer.  The Humanity+ organisation, along with those who support its aims, need to become better at the discipline of marketing. Once we convey our essential messages more effectively, society as a whole should hear and understand what we are saying, and respond positively.  There’s a great art – and great skill – to the practice of communication.

Some people dislike the term “marketing”, as if it’s a swear word.  But I see it as follows.  In general terms, “marketing” for any organisation means:

  • Deciding on a strategic focus – as opposed to a scattergun approach;
  • Understanding how various news items or other pieces of information or activism might be received by people in the wider community;
  • Finding better ways to convey the chosen key messages;
  • Engaging within the wider community – listening more than talking – and learning in the light of that conversation;
  • Repeating the above steps, with increasingly better understanding and better execution.

At 5pm, we had to hurriedly leave the venue, because it was needed for another function starting at 6pm.  It was hard to move everyone outside the main hall, since there were so many intense group discussions happening.  Eventually, some of us started on a 20 minute walk through central London, from Holborn to Soho, for the post-event dinner at Little Italy.  The food was delicious, the waitresses coped well (and with many friendly smiles) with all our many requests, and the conversation was first class.  The magician provided a great interlude.  I left the restaurant, several hours later, with a growing list of suggestions for topics for talks in the normal UKH+ monthly meetings that could bring in a good audience.  Happily, I also have a growing list of names of people who want to provide more active assistance in building an enhanced community of supporters of the aims of Humanity+.

31 March 2010

Shorter and sharper: improved video on priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to continuing this important discussion!

28 March 2010

A video experiment: 20 priorities

Filed under: communications, futurist, Humanity Plus, presentation, UKH+ — David Wood @ 9:38 am

Video: 20 priorities for the coming decade

The video linked above is my attempt to address several different requirements:

  1. To follow up some ideas about the list of priorities I mentioned previously, tentatively named “The Humanity+ Agenda”;
  2. To find an interesting new way to help publicise the forthcoming (April 24th) “Humanity+ UK2010” event;
  3. To experiment with creating videos, to use for communications purposes, as a complement to textual blog posts.

As you can see, it’s based on Powerpoint – a tool I know well.

What I didn’t appreciate about Powerpoint, before, is the fact that you can embed an audio narrative, to playback automatically as the slides and animations progress.  So that’s what I decided to do.

First time round, I tried to ad lib remarks, as I progressed through the slides, but that didn’t work well.  Next, I wrote down an entire script, and read from that.  The result is a bit flat and jaded in places, and there are a few too many verbal fluffs for my liking.  When I try this again, I’ll set aside more time, and make myself re-do the narration for a slide each time I fluff a few words.

I also hit some bugs (and quirks) when using the “Record narration” features of PowerPoint.  Some of these seem to be known features, but not all:

  • A few seconds of the narration often gets truncated from the end of each slide.  The workaround is to wait three seconds after finishing speaking, before advancing to the next slide;
  • The audio quality for the first slide was very crackly every time, not matter what I tried.  The workaround is to insert an extra “dummy” slide at the beginning, and to discard that slide before publishing;
  • There’s a pair of loud audible cracks at the start of each slide.  I don’t know any workaround for that;
  • Some of the timing, during playback, is slightly out of synch with what I recorded: animations on screen sometimes happen a few seconds before the accompanying audio stream is ready for them.

I used authorSTREAM as the site to store the presentation.  They offer the following features:

  • Support for playback of presentations containing audio narration;
  • Support for converting the presentation into video format.

The authorSTREAM service looks promising – I expect to use it again!

Footnote: I’ll update this posting shortly, with a copy of the video embedded, rather than linked.  (I still find video embedding to be a bit of a hit-or-miss process…)

18 October 2009

Influencer – the power to change anything

Filed under: books, catalysts, communications, Singularity — David Wood @ 12:48 am

Are people in general dominated by unreason?  Are there effective ways to influence changes in behaviour, for good, despite the irrationality and other obstacles to change?

Here’s an example quoted by Eliezer Yudkowsky in his presentation Cognitive Biases and Giant Risks at the Singularity Summit earlier this month.  The original research was carried out by behavioural economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1982:

115 professional analysts, employed by industry, universities, or research institutes, were randomly divided into two different experimental groups who were then asked to rate the probability of two different statements, each group seeing only one statement:

  1. “A complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983.”
  2. “A Russian invasion of Poland, and a complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983.”

Estimates of probability were low for both statements, but significantly lower for the first group (1%) than the second (4%).

The moral?  Adding more detail or extra assumptions can make an event seem more plausible, even though the event necessarily becomes less probable. (The cessation of diplomatic relations could happen for all kinds of reasons, not just in response to the invasion. So the first statement must, in rationality, be more probable than the second.)

Eliezer’s talk continued with further examples of this “Conjunction fallacy” and other examples of persistent fallacies of human reasoning.  As summarised by New Atlantis blogger Ari N. Schulman:

People are bad at analyzing what is really a risk, particularly for things that are more long-term or not as immediately frightening, like stomach cancer versus homicide; people think the latter is a much bigger killer than it is.

This is particularly important with the risk of extinction, because it’s subject to all sorts of logical fallacies: the conjunction fallacy; scope insensitivity (it’s hard for us to fathom scale); availability (no one remembers an extinction event); imaginability (it’s hard for us to imagine future technology); and conformity (such as the bystander effect, where people are less likely to render help in a crowd).

Yudkowsky concludes by asking, why are we as a nation spending millions on football when we’re spending so little on all different sorts of existential threats? We are, he concludes, crazy.

It was a pessimistic presentation.  It was followed by a panel discussion featuring Eliezer, life extension researcher Aubrey de Grey, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and Singularity Institute president Michael Vassar.  One sub-current of the discussion was: given how irrational people tend to be as a whole, how can we get the public to pay attention to the important themes being addressed at this event?

The answers I heard were variants of “try harder”, “find ways to embarass people”, and “find some well-liked popular figure who would become a Singularity champion”.  I was unconvinced. (Though the third of these ideas has some merit – as I’ll revisit at the end of this article.)

For a much more constructive approach, I recommend the ideas in the very fine book I’ve just finished reading: Influencer: the power to change anything.

No less than five people are named as co-authors: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.  It’s a grand collaborative effort.

For a good idea of the scope of the book, here’s an extract from the related website, http://influencerbook.com:

When it comes to influence we stink. Consider these examples:

  • Companies spend more than $300 billion annually for training and less than 10 percent of what people are taught sticks.
  • Dieters spend $40 billion a year and 19 out of 20 lose nothing but their money.
  • Two out of three criminals are rearrested within three years.

If influence is the capacity to help ourselves and others change behavior, then we all want influence, but few know how to get it.

Influencer delivers a powerful new science of influence that draws from the skills of hundreds of successful change agents combined with more than five decades of the best social science research. The book delivers a coherent and portable model for changing behaviors—a model that anyone can learn and apply.

The key to successful influence lies in three powerful principles:

  • Identify a handful of high-leverage behaviors that lead to rapid and profound change.
  • Use personal and vicarious experience to change thoughts and actions.
  • Marshall multiple sources of influence to make change inevitable.

As I worked through chapter after chapter, I kept thinking “Aha…” to myself.  The material is backed up by extensive academic research by change specialists such as Albert Bandura and Brian Wansink.  There are also numerous references to successful real-life influence programs, such as the eradication of guinea worm diseasee in sub-saharan Africa, controlling AIDS in Thailand, and the work of Mimi Silbert of Delancy Street with “substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom”.

The book starts by noting that we are, in effect, too often resigned to a state of helplessness, as covered by the “acceptance clause” of the so-called “serenity prayer” of Reinhold Niebuhr

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference

What we lack, the book says, is the skillset to be able to change more things.  It’s not a matter of exhorting people to “try harder”.  Nor is a matter that we need to become better in talking to people, to convince them of the need to change.  Instead, we need a better framework for how influence can be successful.

Part of the framework is to take the time to learn about the “handful of high-leverage behaviors” that, if changed, would have the biggest impact.  This is a matter of focusing – leaving out many possibilities in order to target behaviours with the greatest leverage.  Another part of the framework initially seems the opposite: it recommends that we prepare to use a large array of different influence methods (all with the same intended result).  These influence methods start by recognising the realities of human reasoning, and works with these realities, rather than seeking to drastically re-write them.

The framework describes six sources of influence, in a 2×3 matrix.  One set of three sources addresses motivation, and the other set of three addresses capability.  In each case, there are personal, social, and structural approaches (hence the 2×3).  The book has a separate chapter for each of these six sources.  Each chapter is full of good material.

  • For example, the section on personal motivation analyses the idea of “making the undesirable desirable”
  • The section on social motivation analyses “the positive power of peer pressure”
  • The section on structural motivation recognises the potential power of extrinsic rewards systems, but insists that they come third: you need to have the personal and social motivators in place first
  • Personal ability: new behaviour requires new skills, which need regular practice
  • Social ability: finding strength in numbers
  • Structural ability: change the environment: harness the invisible and pervasive power of environment to support new behaviour.

Rather than bemoaning the fact that making a story more specific messes up people’s abilities to calculate probabilities rationally, the book has several examples of how stories (especially soap operas broadcast in the third world) can have very powerful influence effects, in changing social behaviours for the better.  Listeners are able to personally identify with the characters in the stories, with good outcomes.

The section on social motivation revisits the famous “technology adoption” lifecycle curve, originally drawn by Everett Rogers:

This curve is famous inside the technology industry.  Like many other, I learned of it via the “Crossing the chasm” series of books by Geoffrey Moore (who, incidentally, is one of the keynote speakers on day 2 of the Symbian Exchange and Expo, on Oct 28th).  Moore draws the same curve, but with a large gap (“chasm”) in it, where numerous hi-tech companies fail:

However, the analysis of this curve in “Influencer” focused instead on the difference between “Innovators” and “Early adopters”.  The innovators may be the first to adopt a new technology – whether it be a new type of seed (as studied by Everett Rogers), a new hi-tech product (as studied by Geoffrey Moore), or an understanding of the importance of the Singularity.  However, they are bad references as far as the remainder of the population are concerned.  They probably are perceived as dressing strangely, holding strange beliefs and customs, and generally not being “one of us”.  If they adopt something, it doesn’t increase the probability of anyone in the majority of the population being impressed.  If anything, they’re likely to be un-impressed as a result. It’s only when people who are seen as more representative of the mainstream adopt a product, that this fact becomes influential to the wider population.

As Singularity enthusiasts reflect on how to gain wider influence over public discussion, they would do well to take to heart the lessons of “Influencer: the power to change anything”.

Footnote: recommended further reading:

Two other books I’ve read over the years made a similar impact on me, as regards their insight over influence:

Another two good books on how humans are “predictably irrational”:

1 March 2009

A different kind of job title

Filed under: catalysts, communications, openness, vision — David Wood @ 11:29 pm

The companies where I’ve worked for the last twenty years – first Psion PLC, then Symbian Ltd – were, in the end, commercially driven companies, with a mission from shareholders to generate profits. The Symbian Foundation is different: it’s a not-for-profit organisation.

That’s not to say we are blind to commercial considerations. On the contrary, our task is to support a collection of member organisations, many of which are highly profit-focused. We have to manage our own finances well, and we have to enable our member organisations to earn significant profits (if that’s what they want to do). But we’re not, ourselves, a fundamentally commercial entity.

With this thought in mind, we took the decision that we ought to rethink other aspects of how we organise ourselves, and how we communicate. We did not want to take it for granted that elements from the setups of our previous companies would automatically also appear in the setup of the Symbian Foundation.

One outcome of this is a decision to avoid overly business-oriented language like “vice president”, “officers” and “chiefs”, in describing the senior management team. Instead, we’ve eventually settled on the term “Leadership Team”. Hopefully this terminology conveys an emphasis on openness, approachability, and a pioneering spirit.

To designate my own particular area of responsibility, I’ve taken a deep gulp, and I’ve plumped for the description:

Catalyst and Futurist, Leadership Team

In brief:

  • As catalyst, my role is to enable the Symbian software movement to discover and explore innovative solutions for the many challenges and opportunities faced by the mobile industry;
  • As futurist, my task is to distil compelling visions of the future of technology, business, and society – visions that provide the energy and inspiration for deeply productive open collaboration among the many creators and users of mobile products.

As catalyst, it falls to me to accelerate reactions that might otherwise occur too slowly. These reactions draw on energy that’s already present in the ecosystem, but my activities should help to ignite that energy. I’ve written before about the important role of catalysts in ecosystems, in my review of the book “The starfish and the spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

What’s involved in igniting reactions? In part, it’s to hold out an attractive vision of a different way of working, a different kind of product, a different software architecture, a different user experience, and so on. That’s where the “futurist” part of my job description fits in. In part, it’s also to act, on occasion, as an irritant.

From time to time, I’ll be acting as an ambassador for Symbian, as an agitator, as a networker, and as an evangelist. I’ve got mixed views about the term “evangelist”. On reflection, here’s why I prefer “catalyst”:

  • Evangelists come with pre-cooked solutions – they already know the answers;
  • Catalysts come with suggestions and ideas, but the answer actually comes from the ecosystem, rather than from the catalyst;
  • Evangelists listen, but only to improve their prospects for converting the listener;
  • Catalysts listen, in order to find the ingredients of a solution that no one fully understood in advance.

If I should forget this advice in the future, and speak more forcefully than I listen, I’m sure that members of the ecosystem will find the way to remind me of what true openness really means!

28 February 2009


Filed under: communications, fun, retrospection — David Wood @ 1:16 pm

The invitation made good sense to me:

Apologies for the short notice but are you free tomorrow afternoon [Friday] after 3pm to meet with us to provide your feedback on MWC please? It should only take 30 mins or so.

It would be a chance to discuss with the Symbian Foundation marcomms team my reflections on our activities at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona the previous week: what had gone well, where there was room to improve, what we should try to do differently at future events, and so on. As a big fan of the practice of retrospection, I was happy to carve out 30 minutes in my diary for this purpose.

As I climbed up the stairs to the first floor of #1 Boundary Row – where the marcomms team sits – I briefly rehearsed my thoughts. I had many positive recollections of how everyone had prepared for and then supported the Symbian Foundation presence at Barcelona. (My main negative observation was that the music in the party was, at times, a bit too loud, and impeded networking conversations.)

But when I came into the room, Anatolie Papas asked me to review a press release. I could see there were lots of quotes on it. Then I noticed the title of the release:

DW 2.0 TURNS 5.0


The man who helped put the ‘smart’ in ‘smartphone’ celebrates his half century and becomes a friendly spaceman

and I realised I was being ambushed – but in a very pleasant way!

Then a cake materialised, magnificently decorated with what is becoming an increasingly familiar picture:

A knife and forks appeared, and we collectively set to dividing up the cake and eating it. It was particuarly yummy! (The marcomms team get the credit for the design of the cake, but the manufacture was apparently by Konditor and Cook.)

The endorsements on the “press release” left me (unusually) lost for words. I won’t repeat the endorsements here – that would be far too indulgent – but I do nominate Bruce Carney (from Symbian’s Foster City office) as the provider of the geekiest quote:

“Congratulations on your 0x32nd birthday and thank you for your tireless contribution to get Symbian to where it is today; ready for the most exciting decade in all of our lives; the ‘Internet without wires’”, said Bruce Carney, Symbian^h^h^h^h^h^h^h Nokia.

The upbeat creativity that shone through this “press release” gives me all the more reason to be confident that this team will continue to devise and deliver suberb market communications as the rest of the Symbian Foundation accelerates into top gear over the months ahead.

15 January 2009

Daring to twitter

Filed under: communications — David Wood @ 1:25 am

For some time, I’ve been holding off experimenting with Twitter.

First, because the name of the service still rankles with me.

Second, because I’m fearful that it will turn out to be a distraction.

On the other hand, I remember having similar apprehensions before starting to blog, and before registering on Facebook. These are two experiments that have turned out very positive for me. So I hope to have a similar positive experience with Twitter:

  • So I can understand better why so many people speak well of it
  • So that I can improve my communication network.

I tried to register the name “dw2-0” for myself on Twitter, but it seemed not to like the hyphen. I’ve ended up with the simpler Twitter name “dw2”.

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