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29 August 2014

Can technology bring us peace?

SevereThe summer months of 2014 have brought us a sickening surfeit of awful news. Our newsfeeds have been full of conflict, casualties, and brutalities in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and so on. For example, just a couple of days ago, my browser screamed at me, Let’s be clear about this: Russia is invading Ukraine right now. And my TV has just informed me that the UK’s terror threat level is being raised from “substantial” to “severe”:

The announcement comes amid increasing concern about hundreds of UK nationals who are believed by security services to have travelled to fight in Iraq and Syria.

These real-world conflicts have been giving rise to online mirror conflicts among many of the people that I tend to respect. These online controversies play out heated disputes about the rights and wrongs of various participants in the real-world battles. Arguments ding-dong ferociously: What is the real reason that MH17 plane was shot down? How disproportionate is the response by Israel to provocations from Hamas? How much is Islamic belief to blame for the barbarism of the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Or is the US to blame, on account of its ill-advised meddling in far-off lands? And how fair is it to compare Putin to Hitler?

But at a recent informal pub gathering of London Futurists, one of the long-time participants in these meetups, Andrius Kasparavicius, asked a hard question. Shouldn’t those of us who believe in the transformational potential of new technology – those of us who dare to call ourselves technoprogressives, transhumanists, or social futurists – have a better answer to these conflict flashpoints? Rather than falling back into twentieth century diatribes against familiar bête noir villains, isn’t it worth striving to find a 21st century viewpoint that transcends such rivalries? We talk a lot about innovation: can’t we be innovative about solving these global flashpoints?

A similar thought gnawed at me a few weeks later, during a family visit to Inverness. A local production of West Side Story was playing at the Eden Court theatre. Bernstein’s music was exhilarating. Sondheim’s lyrics were witty and provocative. The cast shimmied and slunk around the stage. From our vantage point in the second row of seats, we could see all the emotions flit across the faces of the performers. The sudden tragic ending hit hard. And I thought to myself: These two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, were locked into a foolish, needless struggle. They lacked an adult, future perspective. Isn’t it the same with the tragic conflicts that occupy our newsfeeds? These conflicts have their own Jets and Sharks, and, yes, a lack of an adult, future perspective. Can’t they see the better future which is within our collective grasp, if only they can cast aside their tribal perspectives?

That thought was soon trumped by another: the analogy is unfair. Some battles are worth fighting. For example, if we take no action against Islamic State, we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s an ever worse spate of summary beheadings, forced conversions, women being driven into servitude roles in societies all over the middle east, and terrorist strikes throughout the wider world.

But still… isn’t it worth considering possible technological, technoprogressive, or transhumanist approaches to peace?

  • After all, we say that technology changes everything. History is the story of the continual invention and enhancement of tools, machines, and devices of numerous sorts, which transform human experience in all fields of life.
  • Indeed, human progress has taken place by the discovery and mastery of engineering solutions – such as fire, the wheel, irrigation, sailing ships, writing, printing, the steam engine, electricity, domestic kitchen appliances, railways and automobiles, computers and the Internet, plastics, vaccinations, anaesthetic, contraception, and better hygiene.
  • What’s more, the rate of technological change is increasing, as larger numbers of engineers, scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs from around the globe participate in a rich online network exchange of ideas and information. Forthcoming technological improvements can propel human experience onto an even higher plane – with our minds and bodies both being dramatically enhanced.
  • So shouldn’t the further development of technology give us more options to achieve lasting resolution of global flashpoints?

Event previewTherefore I have arranged an online hangout discussion meeting: Global flashpoints: what do transhumanists have to say? This will be taking place at 7pm UK time this Sunday, 31st August. The corresponding YouTube video page (for people who prefer not to log into Google+ in order to view the Hangout that way) is here. I’ll be joined in this discussion by a number of thinkers from different transhumanist perspectives, based around Europe.

I’ve put a plaintive note on the meeting invite:

In our discussion, we’ll try to transcend the barbs and scape-goating that fills so much of existing online discussion about Iraq/Syria/Ukraine/Gaza/etc.

I honestly don’t know how the discussion is going to unfold. But here are some possible lines of argument:

  1. Consider the flashpoint in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting dead of teenager Michael Brown. That particular conflict arose, in part, because of disputes over what actually happened at the time of the shooting. But if the police in Ferguson had all been wearing and operating personal surveillance cameras,  then perhaps a lot of the heat would have gone out of the issue. That would be one example of taking advantage of recent improvements in technology in order to defuse a potential conflict hotspot
  2. Much conflict is driven by people feeling a sense of profound alienation from mainstream culture. Disaffected youths from all over Europe are leaving their families behind to travel to support fundamentalist Islamic causes in the middle east. They need a much better vision of the future, to reduce the chance that they will fall prey to these particular mind viruses. Could social futurism, technoprogressivism, and transhumanism offer that alternative vision?
  3. Rather than technology helping to create peace, there’s a major risk it will help to worsen conflicts. Powerful arsenals in the hands of malcontents are likely to have a more horrific impact nowadays – and an even worse one in the near future – than corresponding weaponry had in the past. Think also of the propaganda value of Islamic State execution videos distributed via YouTube – that kind of effect was unthinkable just a decade ago.

Existential ThreatOf these three lines of discussion, I am most persuaded by the third one. The implications are as follows. The message that we social futurists and transhumanists should be highlighting, in response to these outrages is, sadly, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. There are actually existential risks that will deserve very serious collective action, in order to solve. In that case, it’s even more imperative that the global community gets its act together, and finds a more effective way to resolve the conflicts in our midst.

At the same time, we do need to emphasise the positive vision of where the world could reach in, say, just a few decades: a world with enormous abundance, fuelled by new technologies (nanotech, solar energy, rejuvenation biotech, ubiquitous smart robots) – a world that will transcend the aspirations of all existing ideologies. If we can make the path to this future more credible, there’s good reason to hope that people all over the world will set aside their previous war-like tendencies, tribal loyalties, and dark age mythologies.

 

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22 June 2014

The critical importance of culture engineering

Here’s a prediction for what the world will be like in thirty years’ time:

The world will be at a new orbit in history. We will translive all over this planet and the solar sphere — home everywhere. We will be hyperfluid: skim on land — swim in the deep oceans — flash across the sky. Family will have given way to Universal life. People will linkup/linkout free of kinship and possessiveness. We will stream ahead propelled by a cornucopia of abundance. Life expectancy will be indefinite. Disease and disability will nonexist. Death will be rare and accidental-but not permanent. We will continuously jettison our obsolescence and grow younger…

One problem with this prediction is that it was made more than thirty years ago. It dates from June 1981, when it was published by FM Esfandiary in his article “Up-Wing Priorities”. The text can be retrieved from the Internet Archive. I thank Alexander Sabatelli for drawing this quote to my attention (in a posting in Rational Transhumanism). I omitted from the above quote the lead-in clause “Around 2010”, and the sentence after the quote,

At 2000 plus ten all this will be the norm — hardly considered marvelous.

FM Esfandiary describes his own track record at the start of his article:

FM. Esfandiary is a telecommunicator — writer — long-range planner — university lecturer. He has taught Up- Wing philosophy since the mid-1960s— first at the New School for Social Research (New York) and currently at UCLA (Extension). His most recent books are Optimism One — Up- Wingers — Telespheres.

Esfandiary says: “l am universal. I translive all over the planet. Learn via telecom. Have many professions. Am involved with many people. Consider all children as mine also. Neither right nor left — / am Up. I have no age. Am born and reborn everyday. I intend to live forever. Barring an accident I probably will. I also want to help others live on indefinitely.

More details about FM Esfaniary can be found in the Wikipedia article about him:

  • He legally changed his name to FM-2030, in part to reflect the hope and belief that he would live to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2030
  • He published a book in 1989 with the title Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World
  • As such, he is widely regarded as one of the founding figures of modern transhumanism
  • Despite issues with some of his predictions (as in the example above), he had greater success with many of his other forecasts about future technology
  • In July 2000, he died from pancreatic cancer and was placed in cryonic suspension at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, where his body remains today.

For those who want to find out more about FM-2030, the Galactic Public Archives channel on YouTube has combined some audio recordings of his lectures with some imaginative visuals. For example, here’s a five minute video entitled “FM-2030: Are You Transhuman?”

Stepping aside from the biographical details, a larger question looms, for anyone (like myself) who believes in the potential to radically transform human experience:

  • What prevents present-day techno-optimism about the future from having the same fate as the above over-optimistic prognostications from 1981?

Five factors that can undermine predictions of faster progress

Cover page v3I address that question in my chapter “Roadblocks en route to 2025” in the recently published book “Anticipating 2025: A guide to the radical changes that may lie ahead, whether or not we’re ready”.

In that chapter, I list factors that can undermine predictions of tech-driven progress:

1.The underlying core engineering may turn out to be harder than expected. Nuclear fusion is a case in point; another is battery lifetime. It may also prove unexpectedly hard to obtain the kind of smooth, responsive, reliable performance from the underlying components demanded by busy “mainstream” customers who are unprepared to tolerate long delays or awkward interfaces.

2.Applications need to be developed that will harness the underlying core technology to deliver real value to users. This requires a lot of attention to design matters. It also often involves integrating technologies from diverse sources – technologies that are individually capable but which can fail when combined together. This integration process in turn relies on suitable interfaces (sometimes called “APIs”) being available to developers.

3.The surrounding network infrastructure and business environment needs to be sufficiently supportive. Products and services rarely operate in isolation. Electric cars rely on an infrastructure to support car battery recharging. Smartphones relied on wireless networks as well as on device manufacturers; they also relied on functioning “application stores”. In other words, what business analysts call “the value chain” needs to be put in place. The problem here, however, is that different companies make different assessments of the priorities of creating a new value chain. Vested interests are often ill-disposed towards enabling innovative new products to plug into their networks. The resulting inertia dampens progress.

4.The legislative and regulatory framework needs to be sufficiently supportive.Government rules about inspections, certification, standards, and subsidies often have the effect of favouring the status quo rather than new, game-changing solutions. This effect can be compounded when vested business interests who are opposed to particular new disruptive innovations have a disproportionate influence over any changes in legislation.

5.The mindset of potential users of applications of the technology needs to be supportive. This can also be described as the prevailing “philosophy” or “zeitgeist”. For example, public attitudes towards GM (genetically modified) food differ between the US (generally positive) and Europe (generally hostile). This has led the GM industry to develop more fully in North America than in Europe. Importantly, public attitudes can change. Initial public fears about IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) – including suspicions that “soulless little devils” might be created by this new technology – soon turned to warm acceptance as the healthy vitality of the resulting “test-tube babies” became clear for all to see. However, other elements of negative thinking remain deeply ingrained in the public mind. This includes the viewpoint that the onset of frailty and bodily decay with increasing age, leading to death, is somehow a desirable aspect of human existence.

Changing mindsets

As I go on to explain in that chapter, I have come to see one of these five categories of obstacle as being more significant than the others. This is the obstacle caused by an antagonistic mindset from the general public. If users are resolutely suspicious of technologies that would disturb key familiar aspects of “life as we know it”, engineers will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient funding to bring these technologies to the market – even if society would eventually end up significantly improved as a result.

Politicians generally take actions that reflect the views of the electorate, as expressed through public media, opinion polls, and (occasionally) in the ballot box. However, the electorate is subject to all manners of cognitive bias, prejudice, and continuing reliance on rules of thumb which made sense in previous times but which have been rendered suspect by changing circumstances. These viewpoints include:

  • Honest people should put in forty hours of work in meaningful employment each week
  • People should be rewarded for their workplace toil by being able to retire around the age of 65
  • Except for relatively peripheral matters, “natural methods” are generally the best ones
  • Attempts to redesign human nature – or otherwise to “play God” – will likely cause disaster
  • It’s a pointless delusion to think that the course of personal decay and death can be averted.

In some cases, long-entrenched viewpoints can be overturned by a demonstration that a new technology produces admirable results – as in the case of IVF. But in other cases, minds need to be changed even before a full demonstration can become possible.

It’s for this reason that I see the discipline of “culture engineering” as being equally important as “technology engineering”. The ‘culture’ here refers to cultures of humans, not cells. The ‘engineering’ means developing and applying a set of skills – skills to change the set of prevailing ideas concerning the desirability of particular technological enhancements. Both technology engineering and culture engineering are deeply hard skills; both need a great deal of attention.

A core part of “culture engineering” fits under the name “marketing”. Some technologists bristle at the concept of marketing. They particularly dislike the notion that marketing can help inferior technology to triumph over superior technology. But in this context, what do “inferior” and “superior” mean? These judgements are relative to how well technology is meeting the dominant desires of people in the marketplace.

Marketing means selecting, understanding, inspiring, and meeting key needs of what can be called “influence targets” – namely, a set of “tipping point” consumers, developers, and partners. Specifically, marketing includes:

  • Forming a roadmap of deliverables, that build, step-by-step, to delivering something of great benefit to the influence targets, but which also provide, each step of the way, something with sufficient value to maintain their active interest
  • Astutely highlighting the ways in which present (and forthcoming) products will, indeed, provide value to the influence targets
  • Avoiding any actions which, despite the other good things that are happening, alienate the influence targets; and in the event any such alienation emerges, taking swift and decisive action to address it.

Culture engineering involves politics as well as marketing. Politics means building alliances that can collectively apply power to bring about changes in regulations, standards, subsidies, grants, and taxation. Choosing the right partners, and carefully managing relationships with them, can make a big difference to the effectiveness of political campaigns. To many technologists, “politics” is as dirty a word as “marketing”. But once again, mastery of the relevant skillset can make a huge difference to the adoption of technologies.

The final component of culture engineering is philosophy – sets of arguments about fundamentals and values. For example, will human flourishing happen more fully under simpler lifestyles, or by more fully embracing the radical possibilities of technology? Should people look to age-old religious traditions to guide their behaviour, or instead seek a modern, rational, scientific basis for morality? And how should the freedoms of individuals to experiment with potentially dangerous new kinds of lifestyle be balanced against the needs of society as a whole?

“Philosophy” is (you guessed it) yet another dirty word, in the minds of many technologists. To these technologists, philosophical arguments are wastes of time. Yet again, I will disagree. Unless we become good at philosophy – just as we need to become good at both politics and marketing – we will fail to rescue the prevailing culture from its unhelpful mix of hostility and apathy towards the truly remarkable potential to use technology to positively transcend human nature. And unless that change in mindset happens, the prospects are uncertain for the development and adoption of the remarkable technologies of abundance mentioned earlier.

For more details about the Anticipating 2025 book, click here.

And see below for a short video from the opening of the second day of the Anticipating 2025 conference, in which I link the concept of Culture Engineering back to remarks from the first day of that conference.

An earlier version of this blogpost first appeared on my channel in LinkedIn.

17 September 2013

When faith gets in the way of progress

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

The rise and fall of our health and vigour is depicted in this sketch from leading biogerontology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov:

Aging Decline

This diagram is taken from the presentation Alex made at a London Futurists event on 31st August. Alex used the same slide in his presentation, several days later, to the SENS6 conference “Reimage aging” at Queens’ College, Cambridge.

conf-page-banner

My impression from the attendees at SENS6 that I met, over the four days I spent at the conference, is that the vast majority of them would give a resounding ‘No’ as the answer to the question,

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

What’s more, they shared a commitment that action should be taken to change this state of affairs. In various ways, they described themselves as “fighters against aging”, “healthy longevity activists”, and as “campaigners for negligible senescence”. They share an interest in the declaration made on the page on the SENS Research Foundation website describing the conference:

The purpose of the SENS conference series, like all the SENS initiatives, is to expedite the development of truly effective therapies to postpone and treat human aging by tackling it as an engineering problem: not seeking elusive and probably illusory magic bullets, but instead enumerating the accumulating molecular and cellular changes that eventually kill us and identifying ways to repair – to reverse – those changes, rather than merely to slow down their further accumulation.

This broadly defined regenerative medicine – which includes the repair of living cells and extracellular material in situ – applied to damage of aging, is what we refer to as rejuvenation biotechnologies.

This “interventionist” approach, if successful, would lead to a line, on the chart of performance against age, similar to that shown in the bright green colour: we would retain our youthful vigour indefinitely. Mechanisms supporting this outcome were explored in considerable technical details in the SENS6 presentations. The SENS6 audience collectively posed some probing questions to the individual presenters, but the overall direction was agreed. Rejuvenation biotechnologies ought to be developed, as soon as possible.

But not everyone sees things like this. SENS6 attendees agreed on that point too. Over informal discussions throughout the event, people time and again shared anecdotes about their personal acquaintances being opposed to the goals of SENS. You can easily see the same kind of negative reactions, in the online comments pages of newspapers, whenever a newspaper reports some promising news about potential techniques to overcome aging.

For example, the Daily Mail in the UK recently published a well-researched article, “Do lobsters hold the key to eternal life? Forget gastronomic indulgence, the crustacean can defy the aging process”. The article starts as follows:

They are usually associated with a life of gastronomic indulgence and heart-stopping excess. But away from the dinner table, lobsters may actually hold the secret to a long, healthy — and possibly even eternal — life.

For this crustacean is one of a handful of bizarre animals that appear to defy the normal aging process.

While the passing years bring arthritis, muscle loss, memory problems and illness to humans, lobsters seem to be immune to the ravages of time. They can be injured, of course. They can pick up diseases. They can be caught and thrown into a pot, then smothered in béchamel sauce.

But rather than getting weaker and more vulnerable over the years, they become stronger and more fertile each time they shed their shells.

The typical lobster weighs 1 to 2 lb. But in 2009, a Maine fisherman landed a colossus of 20 lb, which was estimated to be 140 years old. And that isn’t even the oldest lobster found so far. According to Guinness World Records, a 44 lb leviathan was caught in 1977, with claws powerful enough to snap a man’s arm.

The species belongs to an elite group that appears to be ‘biologically immortal’. Away from predators, injury or disease, these astonishing creatures’ cells don’t deteriorate with age…

For healthy longevity activists, there was lots of good news in the article. This information, however, was too much for some readers to contemplate. Some of the online comments make for fascinating (but depressing) reading. Here are four examples, quoted directly from the comments:

  1. How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?
  2. People have to die and they’re not dying quickly enough. Soon the earth will run out of water and food for the ever increasing masses.
  3. These “researchers” should watch Death Becomes Her
  4. The only guarantee of eternal life is to read your Bibles. Though even if you don’t, eternal life of another kind exists, though it’s not particularly appealing: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Rev 14:11).

To be clear, the goal of project such as those in the SENS umbrella is to extend healthy lifespans (sometimes known as “healthspans”) rather than simply extending lifespans themselves. Rejuvenation technologies are envisioned to undo tendencies towards unwelcome decrepitude, crabbiness, and so on.

As for the reference to the 1992 Hollywood film “Death Becomes Her” featuring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in a frightful “living dead” immortality, I’ll get back to that later.

Infinite ResourceThe question of potential over-population has a bit more substance. However, the worry isn’t so much the number of people on the earth, but the rate at which everyone is consuming and polluting. With potential forthcoming improvements in harnessing solar energy, we’ll have more than enough energy available to look after a planet with 10 billion people. Arguably the planet could sustain at least 100 billion people. (That argument is made, in a well-balanced way, by Ramez Naam in his recent book “The infinite resource” – a book I thoroughly recommend. I’ve also covered this question from time to time in earlier blogposts – see e.g. “Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years”.)

However, I believe that there are deeper roots to the opposition that many people have to the idea of extending healthy lifespans. They may offer intellectual rationalisations for their opposition (e.g. “How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?”) but these rationalisations are not the drivers for the position they hold.

Instead, their opposition to extending healthy lifespans comes from what we can call faith.

This thought crystallised in my mind as I reflected on the very last presentation from SENS6. The speaker was Thomas Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, and his topic was “Understanding the paradox of opposition to long-term extension of the human lifespan: fear of death, cultural worldviews, and the illusion of objectivity”.

The presentation title was long, but the content was clear and vivid. The speaker outlined some conclusions from decades of research he had conducted into “Terror Management Theory (TMT)”. I’ve since discovered that the subject of “Terror Management Theory” has its own article in Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to humans. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. If life is thought meaningful, death is less terrifying. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning…

pyszczynski

Here’s the “paradox” to which Pyszczynski (pictured) referred: people oppose the idea that we could have longer healthy lives, because of the operation of a set of culture and philosophical ideas, which were themselves an adaptive response to the underlying fact that we deeply desire indefinitely long healthy lives. So the opposition is self-contradictory, but the people involved don’t see it like that.

For all of history up until the present age, the idea of having an indefinitely long healthy life was at stark variance to everything else that we saw around ourselves. Death seemed inevitable. In order to avoid collapsing into terror, we needed to develop rationalisations and techniques that prevented us from thinking seriously about our own finitude and mortality. That’s where key aspects of our culture arose. These aspects of our culture became deeply rooted.

Our culture operates, in many cases, below the level of conscious awareness. We find ourselves being driven by various underlying beliefs, without being aware of the set of causes and effects. However, we find comfort in these beliefs. This faith (belief in the absence of sufficient reason) helps to keep us mentally sane, and keeps society functional, even as it prepares us, as individuals, to grow infirm and die.

In case any new ideas challenge this faith, we find ourselves compelled to lash out against these ideas, even without taking the time to analyse them. Our motivation, here, is to preserve our core culture and faith, since that’s what provides the foundation of meaning in our lives. We fight the new ideas, even if these new ideas would be a better solution to our underlying desire to live an indefinitely long, healthy life. The new ideas leave us with a feeling of alienation, even though we don’t see the actual connections between ideas. Our faith causes us to lose our rationality.

Incidentally, similar factors apply, of course, when other things that have profound importance to us are challenged. For example, when we think we may lose a cherished romantic partner, we can all too easily become crazy. When your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes.

Ending AgingIt turns out that Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of SENS, has already written on this same topic. In chapter two of his 2007 book “Ending aging”, he notes the following:

There is a very simple reason why so many people defend aging so strongly – a reason that is now invalid, but until quite recently was entirely reasonable. Until recently, no one has had any coherent idea how to defeat aging, so it has been effectively inevitable. And when one is faced with a fate that is as ghastly as aging and about which one can do absolutely nothing, either for oneself or even for others, it makes perfect psychological sense to put it out of one’s mind – to make one’s peace with it, you might say – rather than to spend one’s miserably short life preoccupied by it. The fact that, in order to sustain this state of mind, one has to abandon all semblance of rationality on the subject – and, inevitably, to engage in embarrassingly unreasonable conversational tactics to shore up that irrationality – is a small price to pay….

Aubrey continues this theme at the start of chapter three:

We’ve recently reached the point where we can engage in the rational design of therapies to defeat aging: most of the rest of this book is an account of my favoured approach to that design. But in order to ensure that you can read that account with an open mind, I need to dispose beforehand of a particularly insidious aspect of the pro-aging trance: the fact that most people already know, in their heart of hearts, that there is a possibility that aging will eventually be defeated.

Why is this a problem? Indeed, at first sight you might think that it would make my job easier, since surely it means that the pro-aging trance is not particularly deep. Unfortunately, however, self-sustained delusions don’t work like that. Just as it’s rational to be irrational about the desirability of aging in order to make your peace with it, it’s also rational to be irrational about the feasibility of defeating aging while the chance of defeating it any time soon remains low. If you think there’s even a 1 percent chance of defeating aging within your lifetime (or within the lifetime of someone you love), that sliver of hope will prey on your mind and keep your pro-aging trance uncomfortably fragile, however hard you’ve worked to convince yourself that aging is actually not such a bad thing after all. If you’re completely convinced that aging is immutable, by contrast, you can sleep more soundly.

Underwood_Mair_2013_smallAnother speaker from the final session of SENS6, Mair Underwood of the University of Queensland, provided some timely advice to the SENS6 community, that dovetails well with the discussion above. Underwood’s presentation was entitled “What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals”. The presentation pointed out the many ways in which popular films (such as “Death Becomes Her”, mentioned above) portray would-be life extensionists in a bad light. These people, the films imply, are emotionally immature, selfish, frustrated, obstructive, and generally unattractive. This is the pro-death culture at work.

To counteract these impressions, and to help free the broader community from its faith that aging and death are actually good things, Underwood gave the following advice:

  1. Assure that life extension science, and the distribution of life extension technologies, are ethical and regulated, and seen to be so
  2. Assuage community concerns about life extension as unnatural or playing god
  3. Assure that life extension would involve an extension of healthy lifespan
  4. Assure that life extension does not mean a loss of fertility
  5. Assure the community that life extension will not exacerbate social divides, and that those with extended lives will not be a burden on society
  6. Create a new cultural framework for understanding life extension.

This advice is all good, but I suspect that the new few years may see a growing “battle of faiths”, as representatives of the old culture fight harder in opposition to the emerging evidence that we we are on the point of possessing the technological means to extend human healthspans very significantly. This is a battle that may need more tools, to influence the outcome, than mere hard-honed rationality. At the very least, we’ll need to keep in mind how culture works, and the ways in which faith draws strength.

Follow ups: Several forthcoming London Futurists meetups address topics that are directly relevant to the above line of thinking:

  • Futurism, Spirituality, and Faith, in Birkbeck College on Saturday 21st September, discusses ways in which committed technoprogressives can best interact with faith-based movements, without these interactions leading to fruitless irrationality and loss of direction
  • Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity, a Google Hangout On Air (HOA) on Sunday 29th September, features a panel discussion on the question, “What are the most important ongoing projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity?”
  • Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan, another Google HOA, on Sunday 20th September, reviews a recently published novel about a possible near-future scenario of a growing battle between the old human culture and an emerging new culture that favours indefinitely long healthspans.
  • Finally, if you’re interested in the question of whether solar energy will be able, as I implied above, to address pending shortages in global energy supplies, even as human population continues to increase, you should make it a priority to attend the London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October, The Energy of Nations, with Jeremy Leggett. The speaker on this occasion is one of the world’s foremost authorities on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment. The topic of the best energy systems for the decades ahead is, alas, another one in which faith tends to subvert reason, and in which we need to be smart to prevent our thinking being hijacked by adverse factors.

For more information about the evolution of London Futurists, you can take a peek at a new website which is in the process of being implemented, at http://londonfuturists.com/.

10 February 2013

Fixing bugs in minds and bugs in societies

Suppose we notice what appears to be bugs in our thinking processes. Should we try to fix these bugs?

Or how about bugs in the way society works? Should we try to fix these bugs too?

As examples of bugs of the first kind, I return to a book I reviewed some time ago, “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind”. I entitled my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature”, and I still stick by that description. In that review, I pulled out the following quote from near to the end of the book:

In this book, we’ve discussed several bugs in our cognitive makeup: confirmation bias, mental contamination, anchoring, framing, inadequate self-control, the ruminative cycle, the focussing illusion, motivated reasoning, and false memory, not to mention absent-mindedness, an ambiguous linguistic system, and vulnerability to mental disorders. Our memory, contextually driven as it is, is ill suited to many of the demands of modern life, and our self-control mechanisms are almost hopelessly split. Our ancestral mechanisms were shaped in a different world, and our more modern deliberative mechanisms can’t shake the influence of that past. In every domain we have considered, from memory to belief, choice, language, and pleasure, we have seen that a mind built largely through the progressive overlay of technologies is far from perfect…

These bugs in our mental makeup are far from being harmless quirks or curiosities. They can lead us:

  • to overly trust people who have visual trappings of authority,
  • to fail to make adequate provision for our own futures,
  • to keep throwing money into bad investments,
  • and to jump to all kinds of dangerous premature conclusions.

But should we try to fix these bugs?

The field where the term ‘bug’ was first used in this sense of a mistake, software engineering, provides many cautionary tales of bug fixing going wrong:

  • Sometimes what appears to be a ‘bug’ in a piece of software turns out to be a useful ‘feature’, with a good purpose after all
  • Sometimes a fix introduces unexpected side-effects, which are worse than the bug which was fixed.

I shared an example of the second kind in the “Managing defects” chapter of the book I wrote in 2004-5, “Symbian for software leaders: principles of successful smartphone development projects”:

An embarrassing moment with defects

The first million-selling product that I helped to build was the Psion Series 3a handheld computer. This was designed as a distinct evolutionary step-up from its predecessor, the original Series 3 (often called the “Psion 3 classic” in retrospect)…

At last the day came (several weeks late, as it happened) to ship the software to Japan, where it would be flashed into large numbers of chips ready to assemble into production Series 3a devices. It was ROM version 3.20. No sooner was it sent than panic set into the development team. Two of us had independently noticed a new defect in the agenda application. If a user set an alarm on a repeating entry, and then adjusted the time of this entry, in some circumstances the alarm would fail to ring. We reasoned that this was a really bad defect – after all, two of us had independently found it.

The engineer who had written the engine for the application – the part dealing with all data manipulation algorithms, including calculating alarm times – studied his code, and came up with a fix. We were hesitant, since it was complex code. So we performed a mass code review: lots of the best brains in the team talked through the details of the fix. After twenty four hours, we decided the fix was good. So we recalled 3.20, and released 3.21 in its place. To our relief, no chips were lost in the process: the flashing had not yet started.

Following standard practice, we upgraded the prototype devices of everyone in the development team, to run 3.21. As we waited for the chips to return, we kept using our devices – continuing (in the jargon of the team) to “eat our own dog food”. Strangely, there were a few new puzzling problems with alarms on entries. Actually, it soon became clear these problems were a lot worse than the problem that had just been fixed. As we diagnosed these new problems, a sinking feeling grew. Despite our intense care (but probably because of the intense pressure) we had failed to fully consider all the routes through the agenda engine code; the change made for 3.21 was actually a regression on previous behaviour.

Once again, we made a phone call to Japan. This time, we were too late to prevent some tens of thousands of wasted chips. We put the agenda engine code back to its previous state, and decided that was good enough! (Because of some other minor changes, the shipping version number was incremented to 3.22.) We decided to live with this one defect, in order not to hold up production any longer.

We were expecting to hear more news about this particular defect from the Psion technical support teams, but the call never came. This defect never featured on the list of defects reported by end users. In retrospect, we had been misled by the fact that two of us had independently found this defect during the final test phase: this distorted our priority call…

That was an expensive mistake, which seared a cautionary attitude into my own brain, regarding the dangers of last-minute changes to complex software. All seasoned software engineers have similar tales they can tell, from their own experience.

If attempts to fix defects in software are often counter-productive, how much more dangerous are attempts to fix defects in our thinking processes – or defects in how our societies operate! At least in the first case, we generally still have access to the source code, and to the design intention of the original software authors. For the other examples, the long evolutionary history that led to particular designs is something at which we can only guess. It would be like trying to fix a software bug, that somehow results from the combination of many millions of lines of source code, written decades ago by people who left no documentation and who are not available for consultation.

What I’ve just stated is a version of an argument that conservative-minded thinkers often give, against attempts to try to conduct “social engineering” or “improve on nature”. Tinkering with ages-old thinking processes – or with structures within societies – carries the risk that we fail to appreciate many hidden connections. Therefore (the argument runs) we should desist from any such experimentation.

Versions of this argument appeared, from two different commentators, in responses to my previous blogpost. One put it like this:

The trouble is that ‘cognitive biases and engrained mistakes’ may appear dysfunctional but they are, in fact, evolutionarily successful adaptations of humanity to its highly complex environment. These, including prejudice, provide highly effective means for the resolution of really existing problems in human capacity…

Rational policies to deal with human and social complexity have almost invariably been proved to be inhumane and brutal, fine for the theoretician in the British Library, but dreadful in the field.

Another continued the theme:

I have much sympathy for [the] point about “cognitive biases and engrained mistakes”. The belief that one has identified cognitive bias in another or has liberated oneself from such can be a “Fatal Conceit,” to borrow a phrase from Hayek, and has indeed not infrequently given rise to inhumane treatment even of whole populations. One of my favourite sayings is David Hume’s “the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason,” which is at the heart of Hayek’s Fatal Conceit argument.

But the conclusion I draw is different. I don’t conclude, “Never try to fix bugs”. After all, the very next sentence from my chapter on “Managing defects” stated, “We eventually produced a proper fix several months later”. Indeed, many bugs do demand urgent fixes. Instead, my conclusion is that bug fixing in complex systems needs a great deal of careful thought, including cautious experimentation, data analysis, and peer review.

The analogy can be taken one more step. Suppose that a software engineer has a bad track record in his or her defect fixes. Despite claiming, each time, to be exercising care and attention, the results speak differently: the fixes usually make things worse. Suppose, further, that this software engineer comes from a particular company, and that fixes from that company have the same poor track record. (To make this more vivid, the name of this company might be “Technocratic solutions” or “Socialista” or “Utopia software”. You can probably see where this argument is going…) That would be a reason for especial discomfort if someone new from that company is submitting code changes in attempts to fix a given bug.

Well, something similar happens in the field of social change. History has shown, in many cases, that attempts at mental engineering and social engineering were counter-productive. For that reason, many conservatives support various “precautionary principles”. They are especially fearful of any social changes proposed by people they can tar with labels such as “technocratic” or”socialist” or “utopian”.

These precautionary principles presuppose that the ‘cure’ will be worse than the ‘disease’. However, I personally have greater confidence in the fast improving power of new fields of science, including the fields that study our mind and brain. These improvements are placing ever greater understanding in our hands – and hence, ever greater power to fix bugs without introducing nasty side-effects.

For these reasons, I do look forward (as I said in my previous posting) to these improvements

helping individuals and societies rise above cognitive biases and engrained mistakes in reasoning… and accelerating a reformation of the political and economic environment, so that the outcomes that are rationally best are pursued, instead of those which are expedient and profitable for the people who currently possess the most power and influence.

Finally, let me offer some thoughts on the observation that “the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason”. That observation is vividly supported by the disturbing “moral dumbfounding” examples discussed by Jonathan Haidt in his excellent book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” (which I briefly reviewed here). But does that observation mean that we should stop trying to reason with people about moral choices?

MoralLandscapeHere, I’ll adapt comments from my review of “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”, by Sam Harris.

That book considers how we might go about finding answers to big questions such as “how should I live?” and “what makes some ways of life more moral than others?”  As some specific examples, how should we respond to:

  • The Taliban’s insistence that the education of girls is an abomination?
  • The stance by Jehovah’s Witnesses against blood transfusion?
  • The prohibition by the Catholic Church of the use of condoms?
  • The legalisation of same-sex relationships?
  • The use of embryonic stem cells in the search for cures of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
  • A would-be Islamist suicide bomber who is convinced that his intended actions will propel him into a paradise of abundant mental well-being?

One response is that such questions are the province of religion. The correct answers are revealed via prophets and/or holy books.  The answers are already clear, to those with the eye of faith. It is a divine being that tells us, directly or indirectly, the difference between good and evil. There’s no need for experimental investigations here.

A second response is that the main field to study these questions is that of philosophy. It is by abstract reason, that we can determine the difference between good and evil.

But Sam Harris, instead, primarily advocates the use of the scientific method. Science enters the equation because it is increasingly able to identify:

  • Neural correlates (or other physical or social underpinnings) of sentient well-being
  • Cause-and-effect mechanisms whereby particular actions typically bring about particular changes in these neural correlates.

With the help of steadily improving scientific understanding, we can compare different actions based on their likely effects on sentient well-being. Actions which are likely to magnify sentient well-being are good, and those which are likely to diminish it are evil. That’s how we can evaluate, for example, the Taliban’s views on girls’ education.

As Harris makes clear, this is far from being an abstract, other-worldly discussion. Cultures are clashing all the time, with lots of dramatic consequences for human well-being. Seeing these clashes, are we to be moral relativists (saying “different cultures are best for different peoples, and there’s no way to objectively compare them”) or are we to be moral realists (saying “some cultures promote significantly more human flourishing than others, and are to be objectively preferred as a result”)? And if we are to be moral realists, do we resolve our moral arguments by deference to religious tradition, or by open-minded investigation of real-world connections?

In the light of these questions, here are some arguments from Harris’s book that deserve thought:

  • There’s a useful comparison between the science of human values (the project espoused by Harris), and a science of diets (what we should eat, in order to enjoy good health).  In both cases, we’re currently far from having all the facts.  And in both cases, there are frequently several right answers.  But not all diets are equally good.  Similarly, not all cultures are equally good.  And what makes one diet better than another will be determined by facts about the physical world – such as the likely effects (direct and indirect) of different kinds of fats and proteins and sugars and vitamins on our bodies and minds.  While people still legitimately disagree about diets, that’s not a reason to say that science can never answer such questions.  Likewise, present-day disagreements about specific causes of happiness, mental flourishing, and general sentient well-being, do not mean these causes fail to exist, or that we can never know them.
  • Likewise with the science of economics.  We’re still far from having a complete understanding of how different monetary and financial policies impact the long-term health of the economy.  But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and stop searching for insight about likely cause and effect.  The discipline of economics, imperfect though it is, survives in an as-yet-incomplete state.  The same goes for political science too.  And, likewise, for the science of the moral landscape.
  • Attempts to reserve some special area of “moral insight” for religion are indefensible.  As Harris says, “How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious.” That’s the conversation we need to progress.

PS I’ve written more about cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance – and how we can transcend these mistakes – in my blogpost “Our own entrenched enemies of reason”.

26 August 2012

Yoga, mindfulness, science, and human progress

Filed under: books, change, culture, Google, medicine, science, yoga — David Wood @ 12:07 am

Friday’s Financial Times carried a major article “The mind business“:

Yoga, meditation, ‘mindfulness’ – why some of the west’s biggest companies are embracing eastern spirituality

The article describes a seven-year long culture transformation initiative within business giant General Mills, as an example a growing wave of corporate interest in the disciplines of yoga, meditation, and ‘mindfulness’. It also mentions similar initiatives at Target, First Direct, Aetna, and Google, among others.

The article quotes Professor William George, the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Medtronic, who is an intelligent fan of mindfulness. In a Harvard Business Review interview, Professor George makes the following points:

Mindfulness is a state of being fully present, aware of oneself and other people, and sensitive to one’s reactions to stressful situations. Leaders who are mindful tend to be more effective in understanding and relating to others, and motivating them toward shared goals. Hence, they become more effective in leadership roles…

Leaders with low emotional intelligence (EQ) often lack self-awareness and self-compassion, which can lead to a lack of self-regulation. This also makes it very difficult for them to feel compassion and empathy for others. Thus, they struggle to establish sustainable, authentic relationships.

Leaders who do not take time for introspection and reflection may be vulnerable to being seduced by external rewards, such as power, money, and recognition. Or they may feel a need to appear so perfect to others that they cannot admit vulnerabilities and acknowledge mistakes. Some of the recent difficulties of Hewlett-Packard, British Petroleum, CEOs of failed Wall Street firms, and dozens of leaders who failed in the post-Enron era are examples of this…

Public awareness of ‘mindfulness’ has recently received a significant boost from the publication of a book by one of Google’s earliest employees, Chade-Meng Tan. The book’s title is smart, playing on Google’s re-invention and dominance of the Search business: “Search inside yourself“. The sub-title of the book is both provocative and playful: The unexpected path to achieving success, happiness (and world peace).

The book’s website claims,

Meng has distilled emotional intelligence into a set of practical and proven tools and skills that anyone can learn and develop. Created in collaboration with a Zen master, a CEO, a Stanford University scientist, and Daniel Goleman (the guy who literally wrote the book on emotional intelligence), this program is grounded in science and expressed in a way that even a skeptical, compulsively pragmatic, engineering-oriented brain like Meng’s can process…

It’s playful, but it’s also serious. It’s a great idea to re-express the ideas of mindfulness in ways that software engineers find interesting and compelling. It uses the language of algorithms – familiar to all software engineers – to discuss techniques for improved mental performance.

(Aside: Meng has a remarkable gallery of photographs of himself alongside industry titans, leading politicians, media stars, famous book authors, and others. He’s impressively well connected.)

But does this stuff work?

Sure, these exercises can leave people feeling good, but do concrete long-term effects persist?

These are big questions, and for now, I’d like to zero in to a question that’s (marginally) smaller. I’ll leave further discussion about mindfulness and meditation for another occasion, and look now at the yoga side of this grand endeavour. Does yoga work?

My reason for focussing on the yoga aspect is that I can speak with more confidence about yoga than about mindfulness or meditation. That’s because I’ve been attending yoga classes, semi-regularly, for nearly 24 months. What I’ve experienced in these classes, and my discussions with fellow participants, has prompted me to read more, to try to make sense of what I’ve seen and heard.

I kept hearing about one particular book about yoga, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards“, written by Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times science journalist William J. Broad.

Broad is no newcomer to yoga – he has been practising the discipline since 1970. As he explains in the Acknowledgements section of the book, he initially thought it would take him nine months to write it, but it turned into a five-year project. The result shows – the book bristles with references to over a century’s worth of research, carried out all over the globe.

“The Science of Yoga” has received a great deal of criticism, especially from within the yoga community itself. Don’t let these criticisms put you off reading the book. It’s a mine of useful information.

The book has been criticised because of its less-than-reverential approach to many of the pioneers of yoga, as well as to some contemporary yoga leaders. The book also punctures several widespread myths about yoga – including claims made in many popular books. Some of these myths are enumerated in a handy review of Broad’s book by Liz Neporent, “What Yoga Can—and Can’t—Do: A look at the benefits and limitations of this popular, mind-body practice“:

  1. Yoga is a good cardiovascular workout
  2. Yoga boosts metabolism
  3. Yoga floods your body with oxygen
  4. Yoga doesn’t cause injuries
  5. Yoga is good for flexibility and balance
  6. Yoga improves mood
  7. Yoga is good for your brain
  8. Yoga improves your sex life

It turns out the four of these eight claims are strongly contradicted by growing scientific evidence. On the other hand, the other four are strongly supported. (I’ll leave you to do your own reading to find out which are which…)

The analysis Broad assembles doesn’t just point to correlations and statistics. It explains underlying mechanisms, so far as they are presently understood. In other words, it covers, not just the fact that yoga works, but why it works.

As well as summarising the scientific investigations that have been carried out regarding yoga, Broad provides lots of insight into the history of yoga – puncturing various more myths along the way. (For example, there’s no evidence that the popular “Sun salutation” exercises existed prior to the twentieth century. And advanced yogis aren’t actually able to stop their hearts.)

As you can see, there’s lots of good news here, for yoga enthusiasts, alongside some warnings about significant dangers.

Broad is convinced that yoga, carefully prescribed to the specific needs of individuals, can work wonders in curing various physical ailments. Broad’s discussions with Loren Fishman MD, in the chapter entitled “Healing”, form a great high point in the book. Fishman is an example of someone who immersed himself in the study of medicine after already learning about yoga. (Fishman learned yoga from none other than BKS Iyengar, who he travelled to Pune, India, to meet in 1973. Iyengar comes out well in Broad’s book, although Broad does find some aspects of Iyengar’s writing to be questionable. Full disclosure: the type of yoga I personally practice is Iyengar.)

For example, Fishman described yoga’s applicability to treat osteoporosis, the bone disease, which in turn “lies behind millions of fractures of the hip, spine, and wrist”:

Yoga stretching… works beautifully to stimulate the rebuilding of the bone. It happens at the molecular level. Stress on a bone prompts it to grow denser and stronger in the way that best counteracts the stress. Fishman said that for three years he had been conducting a study to find out which poses worked best to stimulate the rejuvenation.

“It’s a big thing”, he said of the disease. “Two hundred million women in the world have it and most can’t afford the drugs”, some of which produce serious side effects. By contrast, Fishman enthused, “Yoga is free”…

In addition to its beneficial effect on the body, yoga can have several key beneficial effects on the mind – helping in the treatment of depression, calming the spirit, and boosting creativity.

In the epilogue to the book, Broad envisions two possible futures for yoga. Here’s his description of the undesirable future:

In one scenario, the fog has thickened as competing groups and corporations view for market share among the bewildered. The chains offer their styles while spiritual groups offer theirs, with experts from different groups clashing over differing claims…

The disputes resemble the old disagreements of religion. Factionalism has soared… hundreds of brands, all claiming unique and often contradictory virtues.

Yet, for all the activity, yoga makes only a small contribution to global health care because most of the claims go unproven in the court of medical science. The general public sees yoga mainly as a cult that corporations try to exploit.

But a much more positive outcome is also possible:

In the other scenario, yoga has gone mainstream and plays an important role in society. A comprehensive program of scientific study… produced a strong consensus on where yoga fails and where it succeeds. Colleges of yoga science now abound. Yoga doctors are accepted members of the establishment, their natural therapies often considered gentler and more reliable than pills. Yoga classes are taught by certified instructors whose training is as rigorous as that of physical therapists. Yoga retreats foster art and innovation, conflict resolution, and serious negotiating…

Broad clearly recognises that his own book is far from the last word on many of the topics he covers. In many cases, more research is needed, to isolate likely chains between causes and effects. He frequently refers to research carried out within the 12-24 months prior to the book’s publication. We can expect ongoing research to bring additional clarity – for example, to shed more light on the fascinating area of the scientific underpinning of “kundalini awakening“. Broad comments,

The science of yoga has only just begun. In my judgement, the topic has such depth and resonance that the voyage of discovery will go on for centuries…

Studies… will spread to investigations ever more central to life and living, to questions of insight and ecstasy, to being and consciousness. Ultimately, the social understanding that follows in the wake of scientific discovery will address issues of human evolution and what we decide to become as a species.

I say “amen” to all this, but with two clarifications of my own:

  • Alongside a deeper understanding and wider application of yoga, improving human well-being, I expect leaps and bounds of improvement in “hard technology” fields such as genetic analysis, personalised medicines, stem cell therapy, nano-surgery, and artificial organs – which will work in concert with yoga and mindfulness to have an even more dramatic effect
  • Because I see the pace of scientific improvement as increasing, I think the most significant gains in knowledge are likely to happen in the next few decades, rather than stretching out over centuries.

Footnote: Earlier this week, William J Broad featured in a fifteen minute interview in a public radio broadcast. In this interview, Broad describes the adverse reaction of “the yoga industrial complex” to his book – “they hate this book, because it’s exploding myths… there’s an economic incentive for people to only focus on the good and deny the bad”.

24 December 2009

Predictions for the decade ahead

Before highlighting some likely key trends for the decade ahead – the 2010’s – let’s pause a moment to review some of the most important developments of the last ten years.

  • Technologically, the 00’s were characterised by huge steps forwards with social computing (“web 2.0”) and with mobile computing (smartphones and more);
  • Geopolitically, the biggest news has been the ascent of China to becoming the world’s #2 superpower;
  • Socioeconomically, the world is reaching a deeper realisation that current patterns of consumption cannot be sustained (without major changes), and that the foundations of free-market economics are more fragile than was previously widely thought to be the case;
  • Culturally and ideologically, the threat of militant Jihad, potentially linked to dreadful weaponry, has given the world plenty to think about.

Looking ahead, the 10’s will very probably see the following major developments:

  • Nanotechnology will progress in leaps and bounds, enabling increasingly systematic control, assembling, and reprogamming of matter at the molecular level;
  • In parallel, AI (artificial intelligence) will rapidly become smarter and more pervasive, and will be manifest in increasingly intelligent robots, electronic guides, search assistants, navigators, drivers, negotiators, translators, and so on.

We can say, therefore, that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.

We’ll see the following applications of nanotechnology and AI:

  • Energy harvesting, storage, and distribution (including via smart grids) will be revolutionised;
  • Reliance on existing means of oil production will diminish, being replaced by greener energy sources, such as next-generation solar power;
  • Synthetic biology will become increasingly commonplace – newly designed living cells and organisms that have been crafted to address human, social, and environmental need;
  • Medicine will provide more and more new forms of treatment, that are less invasive and more comprehensive than before, using compounds closely tailored to the specific biological needs of individual patients;
  • Software-as-a-service, provided via next-generation cloud computing, will become more and more powerful;
  • Experience of virtual worlds – for the purposes of commerce, education, entertainment, and self-realisation – will become extraordinarily rich and stimulating;
  • Individuals who can make wise use of these technological developments will end up significantly cognitively enhanced.

In the world of politics, we’ll see more leaders who combine toughness with openness and a collaborative spirit.  The awkward international institutions from the 00’s will either reform themselves, or will be superseded and surpassed by newer, more informal, more robust and effective institutions, that draw a lot of inspiration from emerging best practice in open source and social networking.

But perhaps the most important change is one I haven’t mentioned yet.  It’s a growing change of attitude, towards the question of the role in technology in enabling fuller human potential.

Instead of people decrying “technical fixes” and “loss of nature”, we’ll increasingly hear widespread praise for what can be accomplished by thoughtful development and deployment of technology.  As technology is seen to be able to provide unprecedented levels of health, vitality, creativity, longevity, autonomy, and all-round experience, society will demand a reprioritisation of resource allocation.  Previous sacrosanct cultural norms will fall under intense scrutiny, and many age-old beliefs and practices will fade away.  Young and old alike will move to embrace these more positive and constructive attitudes towards technology, human progress, and a radical reconsideration of how human potential can be fulfilled.

By the way, there’s a name for this mental attitude.  It’s “transhumanism”, often abbreviated H+.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology, AI, and H+.

As for the question of which countries (or regions) will play the role of superpowers in 2020: it’s too early to say.

Footnote: Of course, there are major possible risks from the deployment of nanotechnology and AI, as well as major possible benefits.  Discussion of how to realise the benefits without falling foul of the risks will be a major feature of public discourse in the decade ahead.

28 December 2008

The best book I read in 2008

Filed under: books, culture, happiness, psychology — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

I’ve had the pleasure to read through several dozen fine books in 2008 – here’s a partial list of reviews. (One reason this list is “partial” is because I often neglected to assign the label “books” to relevant postings.)

As the year draws to a close, I’m ready to declare one book as being the most memorable and thought-provoking that I’ve read in the entire year: “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by University of Virginia Associate Professor Jonathan Haidt. It’s a tour de force in positive psychology.

The endorsement printed on the front cover is probably reason enough for anyone to read this book: “For the reader who seeks to understand happiness, my advice is: Begin with Haidt“. The endorsement is from Martin Seligman, Professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.

The stated purpose of the book is to consider “ten great ideas” about morality and ethics, drawn from Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions, and to review these ideas in the light of the latest scientific findings about the human condition. Initially, I was sceptical about how useful such an exercise might be. But the book quickly led me to set aside my scepticism. The result is greater than the sum of the ten individual reviews, since the different ideas overlap and reinforce.

Haidt declares himself to be both an atheist and a liberal, but with a lot of sympathy for what both theists and conservatives try to hold dear. In my view, he does a grand job of bridging these tough divides.

Haidt seems deeply familiar with a wide number of diverse traditional thinking systems, from both East and West. He also shows himself to be well versed in many modern (including very recent) works on psychology, sociology, and evolutionary theory. The synthesis is frequently remarkable. I found myself re-thinking lots of my own worldwide.

Here are some of the age-old themes that Haidt evaluates:

  • The mind is divided against itself – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”
  • Perception is more important than external substance – “Life itself is but what we deem it”
  • Humans tend to be rank hypocrites – we notice the speck in others’ eyes, without paying attention to the plank in our own
  • The golden rule of “reciprocity” lies at the heart of all morality
  • Personal fulfilment depends on giving up attachments
  • Personal happiness is best pursued by seeking to cultivate “virtues”
  • Lives need suffering and setbacks to allow people to reach higher states of development
  • Religion plays a unique role in creating cohesive cultures.

To be clear, the evaluation of these themes typically shows both their prevailing strengths and their limitations. (It was a bit of a jolt every time I read a sentence in the book that said something like “What the Buddha failed to appreciate is…“)

The ideas that I have taken away from the book include the following:

  • A vivid metaphor of the mind as being a stubborn elephant of automatic desires, with a small conscious rider sat on top of it (as illustrated in the picture on the front cover of at least some editions of the book);
  • In any battle of wills, the elephant is bound to win – but there are mechanisms through which the rider can distract and train the elephant;
  • The most reliable mechanisms for improving our mood are meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac;
  • There are hazards (as well as benefits) to promoting self-esteem;
  • Although each person has a “happiness set point” to which their emotional status tends to return after some time, there are measures that people can take to drive their general happiness level higher – this includes the kind of personal relations we achieve, the extent to which we can reach “flow” in our work, and the extent to which different “levels” of our lives “cohere”;
  • Alongside the universally recognised human emotions like happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger, that have typically been studied by psychologists, there is an important additional emotion of “elevation” that also deserves study and strengthening;
  • The usual criticisms of religion generally fail to do justice to the significant beneficial feelings of community, purity, and divinity, that participation in religious activities can nurture – this draws upon some very interesting work by David Sloan Wilson on the role of religions as enabling group selection between different human societies.

Despite providing a lot of clarity, the book leaves many questions unresolved. I see that Haidt is working on a follow-up, entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion“. I’m greatly looking forward to it.

Footnote: “The happiness hypothesis” has its own website, here.

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