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14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four steps in the analysis

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

Transcending capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

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

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

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

And to emphasise the point:

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

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

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

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

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

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

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

Populism and its dangers

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

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

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

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

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 May 2018

Tug Life IV: Beware complacency

Filed under: Events, futurist — Tags: — David Wood @ 10:28 am

What does the collision of creativity, media and tech mean for humans?

That’s the overall subject for a series of events, Tug Life IV, being run from 12-15 June by Tug, Shoreditch-based digital marketing agency.

As the ‘IV’ in the name suggests, it’s the fourth year such a series of events have been held – each time, as part of the annual London Tech Week.

I was one of the speakers last year – at Tug Life III – when my topic was “What happens to humans as machines become more embedded in our lives?”

I enjoyed that session so much that I’ve agreed to be one of the speakers in the opening session of Tug Life IV this year. It’s taking place on the morning of Tuesday 12th June, on the topic “What are we doing with technology? Is it good for us? What should we do about it? As individuals? As businesses? As government?”

Other speakers for this session will include representatives from TalkToUs.AI, Microsoft, and Book of the Future. To register to attend, click here. Note that, depending on the availability of tickets, you can sign up for as many – or as few – of the Tug Life IV events as best match your own areas of interest and concern.

Ahead of the event, I answered some questions from Tug’s Olivia Lazenby about the content of the event. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

Q: What will you be talking about at Tug Life IV?

I’ll be addressing the questions, “Is technology good for us? And what should we do about it?”

I’ll be outlining three types of scenarios for the impact of technology on us, over the next 10-25 years:

  1. The first is business as usual: technology has, broadly, been good for us in the past, and will, broadly, continue to be good for us in the future.
  2. The second is: social collapse: technology will get out of hand, and provoke a set of unintended adverse consequences, resulting in humanitarian tragedy.
  3. The third is sustainable abundance for all, in which technology enables a huge positive leap for society and humanity.

In my talk, I’ll be sharing my assessment of the probabilities for these three families of scenario, namely, 10%, 30%, and 60%, respectively.

Q: Would you agree that the conversation around the future of technology has become increasingly polarised and sensationalised?

It’s good that the subject is receiving more airtime than before. But much of the coverage remains, sadly, at a primitive level.

Some of the coverage is playing for shock value – clickbait etc.

Other coverage is motivated by ideologies which are, frankly, well past their sell-by date – ideologies such as biological exceptionalism.

Finally, another distortion is that quite a few of the large mainstream consultancies are seeking to pass on blandly reassuring messages to their clients, in order to bolster their “business as usual” business models. I view much of that advice as irresponsible – similar to how tobacco industry spokespeople used to argue that we don’t know for sure that smoking causes cancer, so let’s keep calm and carry on.

Q: How can we move past the hysteria and begin to truly understand – and prepare for – how technology might shape our lives in the future?

We need to raise step by step the calibre of the conversation about the future. Two keys here are agile futurism and collaborative futurism. There are too many variables involved for any one person – or any one discipline – to be able to figure things out by themselves. The model of Wikipedia is a good one on which to build, but it’s only a start. I’m encouraging people to cooperate in the development of something I call H+Pedia.

My call to action is for people to engage more with the communities of futurists, transhumanists, and singularitarians, who are, thankfully, advancing a collaborative discussion that is progressing objective evaluations of the credibility, desirability, and actionability of key future scenarios. Let’s put aside the distractions of the present in order to more fully appreciate the huge opportunities and huge threats technology is about to unleash.

7 December 2017

The super-opportunities and super-risks of super-AI

Filed under: AGI, Events, risks, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 7:29 pm

2017 has seen more discussion of AI than any preceding year.

There has even been a number of meetings – 15, to be precise – in the UK Houses of Parliament, of the APPG AI – an “All-Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence”.

According to its website, the APPG AI “was set up in January 2017 with the aim to explore the impact and implications of Artificial Intelligence”.

In the intervening 11 months, the group has held 7 evidence meetings, 4 advisory group meetings, 2 dinners, and 2 receptions. 45 different MPs, along with 7 members of the House of Lords and 5 parliamentary researchers, have been engaged in APPG AI discussions at various times.

APPG-AI

Yesterday evening, at a reception in Parliament’s Cholmondeley Room & Terrace, the APPG AI issued a 12 page report with recommendations in six different policy areas:

  1. Data
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Skills
  4. Innovation & entrepreneurship
  5. Trade
  6. Accountability

The headline “key recommendation” is as follows:

The APPG AI recommends the appointment of a Minister for AI in the Cabinet Office

The Minister would have a number of different responsibilities:

  1. To bring forward the roadmap which will turn AI from a Grand Challenge to a tool for untapping UK’s economic and social potential across the country.
  2. To lead the steering and coordination of: a new Government Office for AI, a new industry-led AI Council, a new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, a new GovTech Catalyst, a new Future Sectors Team, and a new Tech Nation (an expansion of Tech City UK).
  3. To oversee and champion the implementation and deployment of AI across government and the UK.
  4. To keep public faith high in these emerging technologies.
  5. To ensure UK’s global competitiveness as a leader in developing AI technologies and capitalising on their benefits.

Overall I welcome this report. It’s a definite step in the right direction. Via a programme of further evidence meetings and workshops planned throughout 2018, I expect real progress can be made.

Nevertheless, it’s my strong belief that most of the public discussion on AI – including the discussions at the APPG AI – fail to appreciate the magnitude of the potential changes that lie ahead. There’s insufficient awareness of:

  • The scale of the opportunities that AI is likely to bring – opportunities that might better be called “super-opportunities”
  • The scale of the risks that AI is likely to bring – “super-risks”
  • The speed at which it is possible (though by no means guaranteed) that AI could transform itself via AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) to ASI (Artificial Super Intelligence).

These are topics that I cover in some of my own presentations and workshops. The events organisation Funzing have asked me to run a number of seminars with the title “Assessing the risks from superintelligent AI: Elon Musk vs. Mark Zuckerberg…”

DW Dec Funzing Singularity v2

The reference to Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg reflects the fact that these two titans of the IT industry have spoken publicly about the advent of superintelligence, taking opposing views on the balance of opportunity vs. risk.

In my seminar, I take the time to explain their differing points of view. Other thinkers on the subject of AI that I cover include Alan Turing, IJ Good, Ray Kurzweil, Andrew Ng, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Stuart Russell, Nick Bostrom, Isaac Asimov, and Jaan Tallinn. The talk is structured into six sections:

  1. Introducing the contrasting ideas of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg
  2. A deeper dive into the concepts of “superintelligence” and “singularity”
  3. From today’s AI to superintelligence
  4. Five ways that powerful AI could go wrong
  5. Another look at accelerating timescales
  6. Possible responses and next steps

At the time of writing, I’ve delivered this Funzing seminar twice. Here’s a sampling of the online reviews:

Really enjoyed the talk, David is a good presenter and the presentation was very well documented and entertaining.

Brilliant eye opening talk which I feel very effectively conveyed the gravity of these important issues. Felt completely engaged throughout and would highly recommend. David was an excellent speaker.

Very informative and versatile content. Also easy to follow if you didn’t know much about AI yet, and still very insightful. Excellent Q&A. And the PowerPoint presentation was of great quality and attention was spent on detail putting together visuals and explanations. I’d be interested in seeing this speaker do more of these and have the opportunity to go even more in depth on specific aspects of AI (e.g., specific impact on economy, health care, wellbeing, job market etc). 5 stars 🙂

Best Funzing talk I have been to so far. The lecture was very insightful. I was constantly tuned in.

Brilliant weighing up of the dangers and opportunities of AI – I’m buzzing.

If you’d like to attend one of these seminars, three more dates are in my Funzing diary:

Click on the links for more details, and to book a ticket while they are still available 🙂

14 March 2017

Public events – chances to watch me speak

Here are a few places I’ll be speaking at public events over the next few weeks.

If you happen to be in one of these neighbourhoods, and the timing works for you, it would be great to see you there.

(1) Funzing experience, London EC2A 4JH, Tues 25th April

I’ve only recently found out about Funzing. They connect event hosts and event guests, to allow more people to discover and share experiences that are engaging, interesting, and (yes) fun. Categories of experience on offer include tours and walks, comedy and music shows, craft and DIY workshops, and inspiring talks and lectures.

As an experiment, I’m speaking at one of these events on Tuesday 25th April. My topic will be “Can we abolish aging?”

By 2040, could we have abolished what we now know as biological aging?

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

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

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

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

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

Funzing clock

For more details, visit the Funzing event page.

Note: you can use the code ‘david10‘ for 10% discount from the normal Funzing entry fee.

For details of other events where I’ll be speaking on themes related to radical extension of healthy life expectancy, keep your eyes on this list.

(2) The future of politics, Manchester, Fri 24th March

Manchester Futurists were founded in January this year, announcing themselves to the world as follows:

We are fascinated by how technological advancement will shape the future, and the social, ethical and economic challenges humanity will face. Come talk about it with us!

We plan to hold regular meetups that introduce concepts relating to futurism, followed by an informal discussion on the subject. Probably followed by the pub 🙂 …

We aim to take an evidence-based approach and avoid pseudoscience. We believe social justice is important to a utopian future, and where appropriate will discuss intersections with feminism, racism, etc…

Join us to exercise your brain, discuss the future and meet people with a passion for technology!

I’ll be their guest speaker on Friday 24th March. Click here for more details and to RSVP.

It will be a chance for me to share some ideas from my forthcoming new book “Fixing Politics: A Technoprogressive Roadmap to a Radically Better Future”.

Cover v2

(This placeholder book cover design is intended to suggest that our political infrastructure is in a perilous state of ruin.)

(3) The case for transhumanism, Brighton, Tues 11th April

On the evening of Tuesday 11th April I’ll be the guest speaker at Brighton Skeptics in the Cafe, presenting the case for transhumanism.

Three logos

Here’s a collection of good definitions of transhumanism, taken from H+Pedia:

  • “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values” – Max More, 1990
  • “Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase” – Transhumanist FAQ
  • “Transhumanism is the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, both physically, mentally and socially using rational methods” – Anders Sandberg, 1997
  • “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remould in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have” – Nick Bostrom, 2003
  • “Transhumanism promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology; attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence” – Nick Bostrom, 2003
  • “Transhumanism is the science-based movement that seeks to transcend human biological limitations via technology” – Philippe van Nedervelde, 2015
  • “Transhumanism anticipates tomorrow’s humanity: Envisaging the positive qualities and characteristics of future intelligent life; Taking steps towards achieving these qualities and characteristics; Identifying and managing risks of negative characteristics of future intelligent life” – Transpolitica website, 2015

At the event, I’ll be setting out my personal vision of “Transhumanism for all”:

  • “Transhumanist benefits for all” – The tremendous benefits of new technology should become available to anyone who wishes to take advantage of them (rather than being restricted to the well off or the well connected)
  • “Transhumanist thinking for all” – The core transhumanist memes should become understood, accepted, and endorsed by a wider and wider set of people, from all walks of life, en route to becoming the default worldview in more and more areas of society.

(4) Artificial Intelligence transforming healthcare, Lyon, Wed 5th April

Biovision Full

Biovision is holding a World Life Sciences Forum from 4th to 6th April in Lyon, France:

This year’s topic in ‘From Global health to One health’. One health is “the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines – working locally, nationally, and globally – to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment”.

The event will have six main themes:

  • Global medical education & training
  • Digital health and innovation for sustainable healthcare
  • Emerging viral diseases
  • Animal health
  • Innovative technologies
  • Science of metagenomics.

I’ll be part of a multi-talented panel on the Wednesday: “Artificial Intelligence: A generous revolution serving health”.

For more details, click here.

(5) Postscript – forthcoming London Futurists events

Don’t forget that London Futurists regularly hold discussion events on Saturday afternoons in Birkbeck College, central London. I chair these events to help ensure a rich flow of questions and answers.

Forthcoming London Futurists events are listed here (with links to more information):

The event this Saturday features Azeem Azhar, the curator and publisher of the phenomenally interesting weekly newsletter “The Exponential View”. Azeem’s topic is “The age of technology has arrived. Now what?”

LonFut AA 18 March 2017.png

 

21 June 2016

5G World Futurist Summit

Filed under: disruption, Events, futurist — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 11:30 pm

Intro slide

On Wednesday next week, 29th June, it will be my pleasure to chair the Futurist Summit which is one of the free-to-attend streams happening as part of the 5G World event taking place at London’s Olympia.

You can read more about the summit here, and more about the 5G World event here.

The schedule for the summit is as follows:

11:00 Introduction to the Futurist Summit
David Wood – Chair, London Futurists & Principal, Delta Wisdom

11:30 Education 2022 – MOOCs in full use, augmented by AIs doing marking and assessment-setting
Julia Begbie – Deputy Director of Studies – KLC School of Design

12:00 Healthcare 2022 – Digital healthcare systems finally fulfilling the promise that has long been expected of them
A
vi Roy – Biomedical Scientist & Research Fellow at the Centre for Advancing Sustainable Medical Innovation (CASMI) – Oxford University

12:30 Finance 2022 – Anticipating a world without physical cash, and in many cases operating without centralised banks
Jeffrey Bower, Digital Finance Specialist, United Nations

13:00 Networking Lunch

14:00 Reinventing urban mobility for new business strategies…self-driving cars and beyond
Stephane Barbier – CEO – Transpolis

14:30 The Future of Smart Cities
Paul Copping – Smart City Advisor – Digital Greenwich, Royal Borough of Greenwich

15:00 The Future of Computer Security and ‘Cybercrime’
Craig Heath, Director, Franklin Heath 

15:30 What happens when virtual reality experiences become more engaging than those in the real world?”
Steve Dann, Founder & CEO, Amplified Robot 

16:00 End of Futurist Summit

Speakers slide

Each of the 30 minute slots in the Summit will include a presentation from the speaker followed by audience Q&A.

If you’re in or near London that day, I hope to see many of you at the Summit!

Note that, although the Futurist Summit is free to attend, you need to register in advance for a Free Expo Pass, via the 5G World conference registration page. You’ll probably see other streams at the event that you would also like to attend.

Stop press: Any members of London Futurists can obtain a 50% discount off the price of a full pass to 5G World – if you wish to attend other aspects of the event – by using the Priority Code Partner50 on the registration webpage.

 

 

21 May 2015

Anticipating 2040: The triple A, triple h+ vision

Abundance Access Action

The following vision arises from discussions with colleagues in the Transhumanist Party.

TPUK_LOGO3_400pxAbundance

Abundance – sustainable abundance – is just around the corner – provided we humans collectively get our act together.

We have within our grasp a sustainable abundance of renewable energy, material goods, health, longevity, intelligence, creativity, freedom, and positive experience.

This can be attained within one human generation, by wisely accelerating the green technology revolution – including stem cell therapies, 3D printing, prosthetics, robotics, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, neuro-enhancement, artificial intelligence, and supercomputing.

TPUK_LOGO2_400pxAccess

The rich fruits of technology – abundance – can and should be provided for all, not just for those who manage to rise to the top of the present-day social struggle.

A bold reorganisation of society can and should take place in parallel with the green technology revolution – so that everyone can freely access the education, healthcare, and everything else needed to flourish as a full member of society.

Action

TPUK_LOGO1_400pxTo channel the energies of industry, business, finance, universities, and the media, for a richly positive outcome within the next generation, swift action is needed:

  • Widespread education on the opportunities – and risks – of new technology
  • Regulations and checks to counter short-termist action by incumbent vested interests
  • The celebration and enablement of proactive innovation for the common good
  • The promotion of scientific, rational, evidence-based methods for taking decisions, rather than ideologies
  • Transformation of our democracy so that governance benefits from the wisdom of all of society, and serves the genuine needs of everyone, rather than perpetuating the existing establishment.

Transhumanism 2040

2040Within one generation – 25 years, that is, by 2040 – human society can and should be radically transformed.

This next step of conscious evolution is called transhumanism. Transhumanists see, and welcome, the opportunity to intelligently redesign humanity, drawing wisely on the best resources of existing humanity.

The transhumanist party is the party of abundance, access, and action. It is the party with a programme to transcend (overcome) our ingrained human limitations – limitations of animal biology, primate psychology, antiquated philosophy, and 20th century social structures.

Transhumanism 2020

2020As education spreads about the potential for a transhumanist future of abundance, access, and action – and as tangible transhumanist projects are seen to be having an increasingly positive political impact – more and more people will start to identify themselves as transhumanists.

This growing movement will have consequences around the world. For example, in the general election in 2020 in the UK, there may well be, in every constituency, either a candidate from the Transhumanist Party, or a candidate from one of the other parties who openly and proudly identifies as a transhumanist.

The political landscape will never be the same again.

Call to action

To offer support to the Transhumanist Party in the UK (regardless of where you are based in the world), you can join the party by clicking the following PayPal button:

Join now

Membership costs £25 per annum. Members will be invited to participate in internal party discussions of our roadmap.

For information about the Transhumanist Party in other parts of the world, see http://transhumanistpartyglobal.org/.

For a worldwide transhumanist network without an overt political angle, consider joining Humanity+.

To discuss the politics of the future, without any exclusive link to the Transhumanist Party, consider participating in one of the Transpolitica projects – for example, the project to publish the book “Politics 2.0”.

Anticipating the Transhumanist Party roadmap to 2040

Footnote: Look out for more news of a conference to be held in London during Autumn (*), entitled “Anticipating 2040: The Transhumanist Party roadmap”, featuring speakers, debates, open plenaries, and closed party sessions.

If anyone would like to speak at this event, please get in touch.

Anticipating 2040
(*) Possible date is 3-4 October 2015, though planning is presently at a preliminary stage.

 

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the controversy that arose.

The cause was an hour-long lecture with 55 slides, ranging far and wide over a range of disruptive near-future scenarios, covering both upside and downside. The basic format of the lecture was: first the good news, and then the bad news. As stated on the opening slide,

Some illustrations of the enormous potential first, then some examples of how adding a high level of ambient stupidity might mean we might make a mess of it.

Ian PearsonThe speaker was Ian Pearson, described on his company website as “futurologist, conference speaker, regular media guest, strategist and writer”. The website continues, boldly,

Anyone can predict stuff, but only a few get it right…

Ian Pearson has been a full time futurologist since 1991, with a proven track record of over 85% accuracy at the 10 year horizon.

Ian was speaking, on my invitation, at the London Futurists last Saturday. His chosen topic was audacious in scope:

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

We’re all familiar with the idea of the singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society.

But this new technology won’t bring a utopia. We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse…

There were around 200 people in the audience, listening as Ian progressed through a series of increasingly mind-stretching technology opportunities. Judging by the comments posted online afterwards, some of the audience deeply appreciated what they heard:

Thank you for a terrific two hours, I have gone away full of ideas; I found the talk extremely interesting indeed…

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

But not everyone was satisfied. Here’s an extract from one negative comment:

After the first half (a trippy sub-SciFi brainstorm session) my only question was, “What Are You On?”…

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

…it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

These are just the starters of negative feedback; I’ll get to others shortly. As I review what was said in the meeting, and look at the spirited ongoing exchange of comments online, some thoughts come to my mind:

  • Big ideas almost inevitably provoke big reactions; this talk had a lot of particularly big ideas
  • In some cases, the negative reactions to the talk arise from misunderstandings, due in part to so much material being covered in the presentation
  • In other cases, Isee the criticisms as reactions to the seeming over-confidence of the speaker (“…a proven track record of over 85% accuracy”)
  • In yet other cases, I share the negative reactions the talk generated; my own view of the near-future landscape significantly differs from the one presented on stage
  • In nearly all cases, it’s worth taking the time to progress the discussion further
  • After all, if we get our forecasts of the future wrong, and fail to make adequate preparations for the disruptions ahead, it could make a huge difference to our collective well-being.

So let’s look again at some of the adverse reactions. My aim is to raise them in a way that people who didn’t attend the talk should be able to follow the analysis.

(1) Is imminent transformation of much of human life a realistic scenario? Or are these ideas just science fiction?

NBIC SingularityThe main driver for belief in the possible imminent transformation of human life, enabled by rapidly changing technology, is the observation of progress towards “NBIC” convergence.

Significant improvements are taking place, almost daily, in our capabilities to understand and control atoms (Nano-tech), genes and other areas of life-sciences (Bio-tech), bits (Info-comms-tech), and neurons and other areas of mind (Cogno-tech). Importantly, improvements in these different fields are interacting with each other.

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable

Will all the individual possible applications of NBIC convergence described by Ian happen in precisely the way he illustrated? Very probably not. The future’s not as predictable as that. But something similar could well happen:

  • Cheaper forms of energy
  • Tissue-cultured meat
  • Space exploration
  • Further miniaturisation of personal computing (wearable computing, and even “active skin”)
  • Smart glasses
  • Augmented reality displays
  • Gel computing
  • IQ and sensory enhancement
  • Dream linking
  • Human-machine convergence
  • Digital immortality: “the under 40s might live forever… but which body would you choose?”

(2) Is a focus on smart cosmetic technology an indulgent distraction from pressing environmental issues?

Here’s one of the comments raised online after the talk:

Unfortunately any respect due was undermined by his contempt for the massive environmental challenges we face.

Trivial contact lens / jewellery technology can hang itself, if our countryside is choked by yoghurt factory fumes.

The reference to jewellery took issue with remarks in the talk such as the following:

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

In contrast, the talk positioned greater use of technology as the solution to environmental issues, rather than as something to exacerbate these issues. Smaller (jewellery-sized) devices, created with a greater attention to recyclability, will diminish the environmental footprint. Ian claimed that:

  • We can produce more of everything than people need
  • Improved global land management could feed up to 20 billion people
  • Clean water will be plentiful
  • We will also need less and waste less
  • Long term pollution will decline.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some short-term problems, ahead of the time when accelerating NBIC convergence can be expected to provide more comprehensive solutions:

  • Energy shortage is a short to mid term problem
  • Real problems are short term.

Where there’s room for real debate is the extent of these shorter-term problems. Discussion on the threats from global warming brought these disagreements into sharp focus.

(3) How should singularitarians regard the threat from global warming?

BalanceTowards the end of his talk, Ian showed a pair of scales, weighing up the wins and losses of NBIC technologies and a potential singularity.

The “wins” column included health, growth, wealth, fun, and empowerment.

The “losses” column included control, surveillance, oppression, directionless, and terrorism.

One of the first questions from the floor, during the Q&A period in the meeting, asked why the risk of environmental destruction was not on the list of possible future scenarios. This criticism was echoed by online comments:

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

If we risk heading towards an environmental abyss let’s do something about what we do know – fossil fuel burning.

During his talk, I picked up on one of Ian’s comments about not being particularly concerned about the risks of global warming. I asked, what about the risks of adverse positive feedback cycles, such as increasing temperatures triggering the release of vast ancient stores of methane gas from frozen tundra, accelerating the warming cycle further? That could lead to temperature increases that are much more rapid than presently contemplated, along with lots of savage disturbance (storms, droughts, etc).

Ian countered that it was a possibility, but he had the following reservations:

  • He thought these positive feedback loops would only kick into action when baseline temperature rose by around 2 degrees
  • In the meantime, global average temperatures have stopped rising, over the last eleven years
  • He estimates he spends a couple of hours every day, keeping an eye on all sides of the global warming debate
  • There are lots of exaggerations and poor science on both sides of the debate
  • Other factors such as the influence of solar cycles deserve more research.

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

  • The view that global average temperatures  have stopped rising, is, among serious scientists, very much a minority position; see e.g. this rebuttal on Carbon Brief
  • Even if there’s only a small probability of a runaway spurt of accelerated global warming in the next 10-15 years, we need to treat that risk very seriously – in the same way that, for example, we would be loath to take a transatlantic flight if we were told there was a 5% chance of the airplane disintegrating mid-flight.

Nevertheless, I did not want the entire meeting to divert into a debate about global warming – “that deserves a full meeting in its own right”, I commented, before moving on to the next question. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, since it may have caused some members of the audience to mentally disengage from the meeting.

(4) Are there distinct right-wing and left-wing approaches to the singularity?

Here’s another comment that was raised online after the talk:

I found the second half of the talk to be very disappointing and very right-wing.

And another:

Someone who lists ‘race equality’ as part of the trend towards ignorance has shown very clearly what wing he is on…

In the second half of his talk, Ian outlined changes in norms of beliefs and values. He talked about the growth of “religion substitutes” via a “random walk of values”:

  • Religious texts used to act as a fixed reference for ethical values
  • Secular society has no fixed reference point so values oscillate quickly.
  • 20 years can yield 180 degree shift
  • e.g. euthanasia, sexuality, abortion, animal rights, genetic modification, nuclear energy, family, policing, teaching, authority…
  • Pressure to conform reinforces relativism at the expense of intellectual rigour

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

People have a strong need to feel they are ‘good’. Some of today’s ideological subscriptions are essentially secular substitutes for religion, and demand same suspension of free thinking and logical reasoning.

Knowledge GraphA few slides later, he listed examples of “the rise of nonsense beliefs”:

e.g. new age, alternative medicine, alternative science, 21st century piety, political correctness

He also commented that “99% are only well-informed on trivia”, such as fashion, celebrity, TV culture, sport, games, and chat virtual environments.

This analysis culminated with a slide that personally strongly resonated with me: a curve of “anti-knowledge” accelerating and overtaking a curve of “knowledge”:

In pursuit of social compliance, we are told to believe things that are known to be false.

With clever enough spin, people accept them and become worse than ignorant.

So there’s a kind of race between “knowledge” and “anti-knowledge”.

One reason this resonated with me is that it seemed like a different angle on one of my own favourite metaphors for the challenges of the next 15-30 years – the metaphor of a dramatic race:
Race

  • One runner in the race is “increasing rationality, innovation, and collaboration”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a positive singularity
  • The other runner in the race is “increasing complexity, rapidly diminishing resources”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a negative singularity.

In the light of Ian’s analysis, I can see that the second runner is aided by the increase of anti-knowledge: over-attachment to magical, simplistic, ultimately misleading worldviews.

However, it’s one thing to agree that “anti-knowledge” is a significant factor in determining the future; it’s another thing to agree which sets of ideas count as knowledge, and which as anti-knowledge! One of Ian’s slides included the following list of “religion substitutes”:

Animal rights, political correctness, pacifism, vegetarianism, fitness, warmism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism

It’s no wonder that many of the audience felt offended. Why list “warmism” (a belief in human-caused global warming), but not “denialism” (denial of human-caused global warming? Why list “anti-capitalism” but not “free market fundamentalism”? Why list “pacifism” but not “militarism”?

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

Ian raised my curiosity about ‘false beliefs’ (or nonsense beliefs as Ian calls them) as I ‘believe’ we all inhabit different belief systems – so what is true for one person may be false for another… at that exact moment in time.

And things can change. Once upon a time, it was a nonsense belief that the world was round.

There may be 15% of truth in some nonsense beliefs…or possibly even 85% truth. Taking ‘alternative medicine’ as an example of one of Ian’s nonsense beliefs – what if two of the many reasons it was considered nonsense were that (1) it is outside the world (the system) of science and technology and (2) it cannot be controlled by the pharmaceutical companies (perhaps our high priests of today)?

(5) The role of corporations and politicians in the approach to the singularity

One place where the right-wing / left-wing division becomes more acute in the question of whether anything special needs to be done to control the behaviour of corporations (businesses).

One of Ian’s strong positive recommendations, at the end of his presentation, was that scientists and engineers should become more actively involved in educating the general public about issues of technology. Shortly afterward, the question came from the floor: what about actions to educate or control corporations? Ian replied that he had very little to recommend to corporations, over and above his recommendations to the individuals within these corporations.

My own view is different. From my life inside industry, I’ve seen numerous cases of good people who are significantly constrained in their actions by the company systems and metrics in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Indeed, just as people should be alarmed about the prospects of super-AIs gaining too much power, over and above the humans who created them, we should also be alarmed about the powers that super-corporations are accumulating, over and above the powers and intentions of their employees.

The argument to leave corporations alone finds its roots in ideologies of freedom: government regulation of corporations often has undesirable side-effects. Nevertheless, that’s just an argument for being smarter and more effective in how the regulation works – not an argument to abstain from regulation altogether.

The question of the appropriate forms of collaborative governance remains one of the really hard issues facing anyone concerned about the future. Leaving corporations to find their own best solutions is, in my view, very unlikely to be the optimum approach.

In terms of how “laissez-faire” we should be, in the face of potential apocalypse down the road, I agree with the assessment near the end of Jeremy Green’s blogpost:

Pearson’s closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.

Endnote:

After the presentation in Birkbeck College ended, around 40-50 of the audience regrouped in a nearby pub, to continue the discussion. The discussion is also continuing, at a different tempo, in the online pages of the London Futurists meetup. Ian Pearson deserves hearty congratulation for stirring up what has turned out to be an enlightening discussion – even though there’s heat in the comments as well as light!

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

2 April 2011

Virtual futures and digital natives

Filed under: disruption, Events, futurist, Humanity Plus — David Wood @ 6:34 pm

A child born today will be immersed in a world that is, more than ever, virtual…  With a single Google search, a child has instant access to a plethora of information. With Google Earth the entire globe can be navigated with little travel-cost endured. And languages can be translated without a single understanding of the complex linguistics of other cultures…

These words are taken from the blog for the forthcoming University of Warwick Virtual Futures 2.0’11 conference.  The stated theme of the conference is “Digital natives: fear of the flesh?”.  The phrase “digital native” refers to someone young enough (in body or in spirit) to find themselves at home in the fast-evolving digital connected world.

But is anyone truly at home in this world?  The author of the blog, Luke Robert Mason, continues as follows, drawing on comments made by performance artist Stelarc who took part in an earlier Virtual Futures conference:

But this virtual world is also plagued by complexity – a complexity born of information which the  biological brain is not designed to comprehend.  As performance artist Stelarc stated in his early work, “It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated; it is intimidated by the precision, speed and power of technology and it is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its new extraterrestrial environment.”

The Virtual Futures 2.0 conference rekindles a series of trailblazing conferences that the University of Warwick hosted in 1994, 1995, and 1996, attracting upwards of 300 attendees:

These conferences questioned the future possibility of the ‘virtual’ and alluded towards the impact of emerging technologies on society and culture. They were, at their time, revolutionary…

The topics discussed at the conferences in the 90’s included chaos theory, geopolitics, feminism, nanotechnology, cyberpunk fiction, machine music, net security, military strategy, plastic surgery, hacking, bio-computation, cognition, cryptography & capitalism. These topics are still poignant today with perhaps the addition of genetics, bio-engineering, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, bio-ethics and social media.

Call for papers

The conference organisers have now issued a call for papers:

The revival aims to reignite the debates over the implications of new and future communication technologies on art, society and politics. The conference will take place on the 18th-19th June 2011 and include paper presentations, panels, performances, screenings and installations.

We welcome researchers, scholars and artists to submit proposals for papers and/or performances around this year’s theme of: “Digital Natives: Fear of the Flesh?”…

Please send proposals (250 words max) to papers@virtualfutures.co.uk by 1st May 2011.

Interested in presenting or performing at the event?  As for myself, I’m preparing a proposal to speak at the conference.  I’m thinking about speaking on the topic “Beyond super phones to super humans – a journey along the spectrum of personal commitment to radical technological transformation“.

I like the conference focus on “digital natives” but I’m less convinced about the “Fear of the flesh?” coda.  Yes, my human flesh has lots of limitations.  But I look ahead to far-reaching bodily improvement, rather than to leaving my flesh altogether behind.  Other radical futurists, in contrast, seem to eagerly anticipate a time when their mind will be entirely uploaded into a virtual world.  There’s ground for lots of debate here:

  • Are these visions credible?
  • Are these visions desirable?
  • How should such visions be evaluated, in a world full of pressing everyday problems?
  • Which of these personal futures should we prioritise?

No doubt these questions, along with many others, will be tackled at the event.

Note: Virtual Futures 2.0 is organised at the University of Warwick with support from the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning, the School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies, and the Centre for History of Medicine, in association with Humanity+ UK.

10 October 2010

Call for speakers: Humanity+ UK2011

Filed under: Events, Humanity Plus, UKH+ — David Wood @ 2:18 pm

Although I haven’t allocated much time over the last few months to organising Humanity+ activities, I still assist the organisation on an occasional basis.

Earlier today, I issued a “call for speakers” for the January 2011 Humanity+ UK conference that will be taking place on Saturday 29 January 2011, in London’s Conway Hall.

Here’s a summary of the call:

Submissions are requested for talks lasting no more than 20 minutes on the general theme of Making a human difference. Submissions should address one or more of the follow sub-themes:

  1. Technology that enhances humans
  2. Existential risks: the biggest human difference
  3. Citizen activism in support of Humanity+
  4. Humanity vs. Humanity+: criticisms and renewal
  5. Roadmapping the new human future.

Submissions need not be lengthy – around the equivalent of one page of A4 material should be sufficient. They should cover:

  • Proposed title of the talk, and which of the above sub-themes apply to it
  • Brief description of the talk
  • Brief description of the speaker
  • An explanation of why the presentation will provide value to the expected audience.

The 20 minute limit on the length of presentations is intended to ensure that speakers focus on communicating their most important messages. It will also allow a larger number of speakers (and, hence, a larger number of points of view to be considered during the day).

A small number of speakers will also be invited to take part in panel Q&A discussions. These will be decided nearer the time of the conference.

Speaker submissions should be emailed as soon as possible to humanityplusuk AT gmail DOT com.

Speaker slots will be allocated as soon as good submissions are received, and announced on the conference blog. The call for submissions will be closed once there are no available speaking slots left.

Note: at this conference, all speakers will be required to provide slides (e.g. PowerPoint) to accompany their presentation. Speakers who fail to provide their slides to the organisers at least 48 hours before the start of the conference will be removed from the programme.

The organisers also regret that no speaker expenses, fees, or honoraria can be paid. However, speakers will receive free registration for the conference.

Footnote: For background, here’s the site for the corresponding 2010 conference, which attracted an audience of just under 200 people.

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+.

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