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15 September 2016

Two cheers for “Technology vs. Humanity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hip, hip…

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

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

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

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

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

Specifically:

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

Let’s take these points one at a time.

Human nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underestimating technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogmatism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

babies-by-design

Transhumanism

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

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

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom puts it like this:

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

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

Dear Mother Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Max emphasised earlier in his Letter,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vital need for an improved conversation

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

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

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

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

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As the welcome page states,

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

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

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.

 

 

25 October 2015

Getting better at anticipating the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Tetlock

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

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

Superforecasting

The book carries an endorsement by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman:

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

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

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

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

Summary of “Superforecasting”

The book draws on:

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

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

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

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

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

Human pictures

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

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

Aside: Other ways to evaluate futurists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote

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

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

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

10 October 2015

Technological unemployment – Why it’s different this time

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

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

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

Channel4_HumansAdvertisingHoarding-440x293

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

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

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

The master algorithm

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

TheMasterAlgorithm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of the robots

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

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

RiseofRobots

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

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

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

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

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

Well-researched and disturbingly persuasive.
Financial Times

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

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

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

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

Tech unemployment curves

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

A worked example: a site carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to be human?

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

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

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

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

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

Robotic Steel Workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is being redefined

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

Janna Anderson keynote

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

The Robot Takeover is Already Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who controls the robots?

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

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

robots

Here’s how the session is described:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four futures

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

15 September 2015

A wiser journey to a better Tomorrowland

Peter Drucker quote

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

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

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

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

The productivity paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wachter Kotler Naam

The Digital Doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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

That hospital is not alone…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrowland

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

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

AtCampusLondon

(photos by Kirsten Zverina)

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

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

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

There’s a video preview for the book:

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

Apex

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

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

RamezNaamTrilogy

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

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

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

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

Postscript: H+Pedia

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

hpluspedia

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

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

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

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

Second postscript:

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

7 August 2015

Brave new world – bold new adaptation

Filed under: futurist, happiness, irrationality, theatre — Tags: , — David Wood @ 9:05 am

Q: What do the following cities have in common: Northampton, Edinburgh, Oxford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Blackpool, and Bradford?

A: They’re the locations which have theatres featuring in the forthcoming tour of a bold new production of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave-New-World

“Brave New World” is a phrase that frequently enters discussions about the future. Even people who have never read Huxley’s book – or people who have long forgotten the precise contents – recognise the phrase as a warning about the future misuse of technology. In Brave New World, people lead lives that are… comfortable, even blissful, but which lack authentic emotional experience. As a result, technology leads to a curtailment of human potential. Overall, humanity is diminished in that Brave New World, despite the gadgetry and convenience of that future society.

The version of Brave New World that’s about to go on tour has a script by Dawn King, is directed by James Dacre, features original music from These New Puritans, and is produced by Touring Consortium Theatre Company. The cast includes Sophie Ward, Abigail McKern, William Postlethwaite, Gruffudd Glyn, Olivia Morgan and Scott Karim.

bnw-castheadI found out about this forthcoming tour a couple of months ago, when I was asked to come to speak, as a futurist, to representatives of the different theatres which would be hosting the play. Could I provide some perspective on the play, and why it is particularly relevant today?

I took the chance to read the script, and was struck by its depth. There are many layers to it. And despite Huxley having written the novel as long ago as 1931, it has many highly contemporary themes. So I was happy to become involved.

The team at Touring Consortium Theatre Company filmed what I had to say. Here are some short extracts:

Are we nearer to a Brave New World than we think? The pace of change is accelerating.

Factors that will shape the next 10-20 years.

Technologies from Brave New World that are almost within our grasp

Some of the social changes we’ve seen that are eerily close to what Aldous Huxley predicted in 1931.

What questions does Brave New World pose for today’s society?

Note: for the touring schedule – from 4 Sept to 5 Dec 2015 – see this listing.

To read more about Brave New World from a transhumanist perspective, see this website by philosopher David Pearce.

11 June 2015

Eating the world – the growing importance of software security

Security is eating the world

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

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

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

He then made the following prediction:

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

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

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

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

Dancing pigs

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

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

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

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

Herley comments:

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

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

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

Herley’s paper concludes:

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

Exponential change

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

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

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

Hacking embedded medical devices

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

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

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

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

Hacking vehicle control systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hacking thermostats and lightbulbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in an aluminium factory in February 1996,

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

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

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

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

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

The scariest book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complications with software updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except it isn’t signed really by Microsoft.

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

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

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

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

How not to be eaten

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

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

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

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

Move fast and break things

10 March 2015

100 not out: 7 years of London Futurists

100 not outWhen my mouse skimmed across the page of the London Futurists meetup site a few days ago, it briefly triggered a pop-up display that caught my eye. The display summarised my own activities within London Futurists. “Been to 100 Meetups” was the phrase that made me pause. That’s a lot of organising, I thought.

That figure of 100 doesn’t quite tell the full story. The events that I’ve organised under the London Futurists umbrella, roughly once or twice a month, are part of a longer series that go all the way back to the 15th of March 2008. In those days, I used the UK Humanity+ group in Facebook to publicise these events (along with some postings in blogs such as Extrobritannia). I discovered the marvels of Meetup in 2009, and adopted the name “London Futurists” from that time.

Browsing the history of these events in Facebook’s archive, over the seven years from March 2008 to the present day, I see there have been periods of relative activity and periods of relative quiet:

  • 10 events in 2008, 13 in 2009, and 11 in 2010
  • a period of relative quiet, 2011-2012, when more of my personal focus was pre-occupied by projects at my then employer, Accenture
  • 21 events in 2013, and another 21 in 2014
  • 6 events already in 2015.

This long series of events has evolved as time has progressed:

  • Initially they were free to attend, but for the last few years, I’ve charged a £5 entrance fee, to cover the room hire costs
  • We’ve added occasional Hangout-on-Air video events, to complement the in-real-life meetups
  • More recently, we’ve videoed the events, and make the recordings available afterwards.

For example, here’s the video of our most recent event: The winning of the carbon war, featuring speaker Jeremy Leggett. (Note: turn down your volume before listening, as the audio isn’t great on this occasion.)

Another important change over the years is that the set of regular and occasional attendees has grown into a fine, well-informed audience, who reliably ask speakers a probing and illuminating set of questions. If I think about the factors that make these meetups successful, the audience deserves significant credit.

But rather than looking backwards, I prefer to look forwards. As was said of me in a recent profile article in E&T, “David Wood: why the future matters”,

Wood’s contribution to the phenomenon of smart, connected mobile devices has earned him plenty of recognition… While others with a similar track record might consider their mid-50s to be the time to start growing wine or spending afternoons on the golf course, Wood thinks his “next 25 years will take that same vision and give it a twist. I now look more broadly at how technology can help all of us to become smarter and more mobile”.

Thankfully, mainstream media have recently been carrying more and more articles about radical futurist topics that would, until only recently, have been regarded as fringe and irresponsible. These are topics that have regularly been addressed during London Futurists events over the last seven years. To take just one example, consider the idea that technology may soon provide the ability to radically extend healthy human lifespan – perhaps indefinitely:

  • The cover of Time for February 12th displayed a baby, with the accompanying text: This baby could live to be 142 years old. Despatches from the frontiers of longevity
    baby-final1
  • The cover of Newsweek on March 5th proclaimed the message Never say die: billionaires, science, and immortality
    immortality-cover
  • The cover for Bloomberg Markets for April will bear the headline Google wants you to live forever
    Bill Maris

It’s worth reiterating the quote which starts the Bloomberg Markets article – a quote from Bill Maris, the president and managing director of Google Ventures:

If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.

Alongside articles on particular transhumanist and radical futurist themes – such as healthy life-extension, superhuman artificial intelligence, and enhanced mental well-being – there have been a recent flurry of general assessments of the growing importance of the transhumanist philosophy. For example, note the article “The age of transhumanist politics has begun” from The Leftist Review a few days ago. Here’s a brief extract:

According to political scientist and sociologist Roland Benedikter, research scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “transhumanist” politics has momentous growth potential but with uncertain outcomes. The coming years will probably see a dialogue between humanism and transhumanism in — and about — most crucial fields of human endeavor, with strong political implications that will challenge, and could change the traditional concepts, identities and strategies of Left and Right.

The age of transhumanist politics may well have begun, but it has a long way to run. And as Benedikter sagely comments, although there is momentous growth potential, the outcome remains uncertain. That’s why the next item in the London Futurists series – the one which will be the 101st meetup in that series – is on the theme “Anticipating tomorrow’s politics”. You can find more details here:

This London Futurists event marks two developments in the political landscape:

  • The launch of the book “Anticipating tomorrow’s politics”
  • The launch of the Transhumanist Party in the UK.

The speakers at this event, Amon Twyman and David Wood, will be addressing the following questions:

  • How should politics change, so that the positive potential of technology can be safely harnessed to most fully improve human society?
  • What are the topics that politicians generally tend to ignore, but which deserve much more attention?
  • How should futurists and transhumanists regard the political process?
  • Which emerging political movements are most likely to catalyse these needed changes?

All being well, a video of that event will be posted online shortly afterwards, for those unable to attend in person. But for those who attend, there will be plenty of opportunity to contribute to the real-time discussion.

Footnote: The UK Humanity+ events were themselves preceded by a series organised by “Estropico”, that stretch back at least as far as 2003. (A fuller history of transhumanism in the UK is being assembled as part of the background briefing material for the Transhumanist Party.)

8 February 2015

A tale of two cities – and of two speeds

Filed under: Barcelona, Cambridge, futurist, MWC, Singularity University — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 12:30 am

The two cities I have in mind are both Spanish: Barcelona in the north of the country, and Seville in the south. They’re each outstanding cities.

TwoCitiesInSpain

I’ll come back to these two cities in a moment. But first, a word about two speeds – two speeds of futurism – slow-paced futurism and fast-paced futurism.

As someone who’s had the word “Futurist” on my personal business card since early 2009, I’m inspired to see more and more people taking the subject of futurism seriously. There’s a widespread awareness, nowadays, that it’s important to analyse future scenarios. If we spend time thinking about the likely developments of current trends, we’ll be better prepared to try to respond to these trends. Instead of being shocked when disruptive forces burst through from being “under the radar” to having major impacts on lifestyles and society, we’ll have been acting to influence the outcome – pushing hard to increase the likelihood of positive changes, and to decrease the likelihood of negative changes.

But it’s my observation that, in many of the meetings I attend and the discussions I observe, the futurism on display is timid and conservative. Well-meaning speakers contemplate a future, ten or twenty years ahead, that is 95% the same as today, but with, say, 5% changes. In these modestly innovative future scenarios, we might have computers that are faster than today’s, screens that are more ubiquitous than today’s, and some jobs will have been displaced by robots and automation. But human nature will be the same in the future as in the past, and the kinds of thing people spend their time doing will be more-or-less the same as they have been doing for the last ten or twenty years too (except, perhaps, faster).

In contrast, I foresee that, within just a couple of decades, it will be very clear to everyone that momentous changes in human nature and human society are at hand (if they have not already taken place):

  • Robots and other forms of automation will be on the point of displacing perhaps 90% of human employees from the workforce – with “creative” jobs and “managerial” jobs being every bit as much at risk as “muscle” jobs
  • Enhanced suites of medical therapies will be poised to enable decades of healthy life extension, and an associated “longevity dividend” financial bonanza (since costs of healthcare will have plummeted)
  • Systems that exist both inside and outside of the human brain will be ready to dramatically increase multiple dimensions of our intelligence – including emotional and spiritual intelligence as well as rational intelligence
  • Virtual reality and augmented reality will be every bit as vivid and compelling as “natural reality”
  • Artificial general intelligence software will be providing convincing new answers to long-standing unsolved questions of science and philosophy
  • Cryonic suspension of people on the point of death will have become pervasive, since the credibility of the possibility of reanimation by future science will have grown much higher.

So whilst I cautiously welcome the slow-paced futurists, I wish more people would realise the immensity of the transformations ahead, and become fast-paced futurists.

One group of people who do have a strong appreciation of the scale of potential future changes are the faculty of Singularity University. In November, I took part in the Singularity University Summit Europe held at the DeLaMar Theater in Amsterdam.

delamar-outside

I was already familiar with a lot of the material covered by the different presenters, but – wow:

  • The information was synthesised in a way that was compelling, entertaining, highly credible, and thought-provoking
  • The different sessions dovetailed extremely well together
  • The speakers clearly knew their material, and were comfortable providing good answers to the various questions raised by audience members (including offbeat and tangential questions).

People in the audience told me later that their jaws had been on the floor for nearly the entire two days.

My own reaction was: I should find ways of enabling lots more people to attend future similar Summits. The experience would likely transform them from being slow-paced futurists to fast-paced futurists.

Happily, many Singularity University faculty members are returning to Europe, for the next Summit in the series. This will be taking place from 12-14 March in Seville. You can find the details here.

SUSS speakers

Sessions at SU Summit Spain will include:

  • Intro to SU and Exponentials – Rob Nail
  • Artificial Intelligence – Neil Jacobstein
  • Robotics – Rob Nail
  • Networks and Computing: Autonomous Cars – Brad Templeton
  • Breakthrough in Digital Biology – Raymond McCauly
  • Future of Medicine – Daniel Kraft
  • Digital Manufacturing – Scott Summit and Nigel Ackland
  • Energy Breakthroughs – Ramez Naam
  • SU Labs – Sandy Miller
  • Global Grand Challenges – Nick Haan
  • Security – David Roberts
  • Institutional Innovation and Scaling from the edge – Salim Ismail

And did I mention that the event is taking place in the fabulous history-laden city of Seville?

As it happens, Summit Spain will be taking place just ten days after another large event that’s also happening in Spain: Mobile World Congress (MWC), held in Barcelona, from 2-5 March. Many readers will know that I’ve been at every MWC since 2002, and I’ve found them to be extremely useful networking events. In my 2014 book Smartphones and beyond, I told the story of my first visit to MWC – which was called “3GSM” at that time, and which was held that year in Cannes, across the border from Spain into France. Unexpected management changes at Symbian, the pioneering smartphone OS company, meant I suddenly had to step into a whole series of press interviews scheduled for that week:

Never having attended 3GSM before, I had a rapid learning curve. Symbian’s PR advisors gave me some impromptu “media training”, to lessen the chance of me fluffing my lines, unwittingly breaching confidentiality restrictions, or otherwise saying something I would subsequently regret. My diary was soon full of appointments to talk to journalists from all over Europe, in the cramped meeting rooms and coffee bars in Cannes. The evenings were bristling with networking events in the yachts which clustered around the dock areas. Happily, when the week was over, there was nothing to regret. Indeed, Symbian’s various PR departments invited me back for numerous interviews at every subsequent 3GSM. In later years, 3GSM changed its name to MWC (Mobile World Congress), and outgrew Cannes, so it relocated instead to Barcelona. I have attended every year since that first sudden immersion in 2002.

But all good things come to an end (so it is said). In recent years, I’ve found MWC to be less compelling. Smartphones, once dramatically different from one year to the next, have slowed down their curve of change. The wellspring of innovation is moving to other industries.

After MWC 2014, I had the privilege to chair a discussion of industry experts in Cambridge, co-hosted by Cambridge Wireless and Accenture, regarding both the highs and lows (the “fiesta” and the “siesta”) of the Barcelona event.

In that panel, the expressions of “siesta” (snooze) were consistently more heartfelt than those of “fiesta” (feast).

When the time came, a few weeks back, for me to decide whether to follow my habit of the last dozen years and book my presence in Barcelona for 2015, I found my heart was no longer inspired by that prospect. I’ve decided not to go.

I’m sure a great deal of important business will happen during these hectic few days at MWC, including some ground-breaking developments in fields such as wearable computing and augmented reality. But that will be slow ground-breaking – whereas it’s my judgement that the world needs, and is headed towards, fast ground-breaking. And Seville, ten days later, is the place to get early warning of these changes. So that’s where I’m headed.

If you’re interested in a preview taster of that early warning – a ninety minute anticipation of these three days – then please consider attending an event happening at Google’s Campus London on the morning of Thursday 12th February. This preview meeting is free to attend, though attendees need to pre-register, here. The preview on Thursday will:

  • Introduce the rich resources of the Singularity University (SU) community
  • Highlight some of the most dramatic of the technological changes that can be expected in the next few years
  • Answer your questions about SU Summit Spain
  • Conduct a lottery among all attendees, with the winner receiving a free admission ticket to SU Summit Spain.

The speakers I’ll be introducing at the preview will be:

  • Russell Buckley: Mentor, angel investor in 40+ startups, Government advisor, fundraising specialist, and Singularitarian
  • Nick Chrissos: Collaboration CTO, Cisco
  • Luis Rey: Director of the Singularity University Summit Spain.

The preview will start at 9am with tea/coffee and light breakfast. Presentations will start at 9.10am.

Note:

Icon combo 3
Footnote: If you’re interested in how the wireless industry can respond to the threat of being bypassed (or even steamrollered) by innovation arising elsewhere, you should consider registering for the 7th Future of Wireless International Conference, being held by CW (Cambridge Wireless) on 23-24 June. That conference has the timely theme “Wireless is dead. Long live wireless!” I’ll be one of the keynote speakers at the event. Here’s the description of what I’ll be talking about there (taken from the event website):

Wireless disrupted.

Wireless has spent two decades disrupting numerous other industries. But the boot is now on the other foot. This talk anticipates the powerful forthcoming trends that threaten to steamroller the wireless industry, with the well-spring of innovation moving beyond its grasp. These trends include technologies, such as artificial intelligence, next generation robotics, implantable computing, and cyber-security; they also include dramatic social transformations. The talk ends by suggesting some steps to enable a judo-like response to these threats.

19 September 2014

The new future of old age

In an enchanting four minute video, Korean artist Seok Jeong Hyeon, who is also known as Stonehouse, portrays the gradual aging of a baby girl. At first, the changes are slow, but they accumulate as years and then decades pass. The end result is an elderly woman, adorned with lines and wrinkles, who finally stops breathing.

The video is beautiful, and the woman maintains her own elegance to the end. As such, it presents a romantic view of aging. (And the video even hints at another romantic idea, namely reincarnation.)

In reality, as we age, we suffer from increasing numbers of aches and pains. We half-laugh when we say that we’re experiencing a “senior moment” of forgetfulness, but we notice our declining potency. Worse, every extra eight years that we live, past the age of around 35, we become twice as likely to die within the next year. In other words, our mortality rate increases exponentially. This was first observed in 1825 by British actuary and mathematician Benjamin Gompertz. Empirical data continues to support Gompertz, nearly two centuries later. For example, here’s a chart of the exponentially increasing death rate in the USA:

gompertz-mortality-curve

One of the factors underlying this upwards surge of mortality rate is the fact that, as we become older, we become increasingly vulnerable to various horrible diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and lung disorders. Aging researcher Avi Roy of Oxford has collected information from the Office of National Statistics as follows:

Death rates from diseases

These five diseases aren’t random choices, by the way. They’re currently all high up in the list of the current largest causes of death.

The romantic notion of death is that we grow old gracefully, lose our powers almost imperceptibly, and die in our sleep, contented, surrounded by happy thoughts. In all too many cases, alas, death is preceded by viciously nasty diseases.

The Palo Alto prize

One of the deeply cherished visions of potential human progress has been the hope that, one day, we could reverse this state of affairs. Instead of the rate of mortality increasing with chronological age, it could remain constant. The terrible diseases listed, and others like them, which all currently increase their impact the older we get, could be conquered by the development of medicine – much the same as medicine has already made huge inroads against infectious diseases. The best solution would be, not a wide range of individual interventions each targeted at specific diseases, but an intervention that undoes the underlying damage of aging – the damage which accumulates throughout our body, and which makes it more likely that we fall prey to “diseases of old age”.

Until recently, that vision has lain well outside scientific orthodoxy. People have been loath to mention the idea, as it could spell the end of their academic careers.

However, that reticence seems to be changing. No less than eleven research teams from universities around the world have already publicly committed to entering for the recently announced “Palo Alto Longevity Prize”, which has a $1M prize fund. This video provides an introduction to the prize:

This video introduces key personnel from the different teams who are already engaged in developing solutions for contest:

.

The eleven teams and their leaders are listed in a recent TechCrunch article about the prize:

Doris Taylor, Ph.D.
Texas Heart Institute, Houston, TX
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-taylor-lab/ ‎
TEAM NAME: T.H.I. REGENERATIVE MEDICINE (approach: stem cells)

Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, NY
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/cai-lab/
TEAM NAME: CAI LAB (approach: hypothalamic regulation)

Andreas Birkenfeld, M.D.
Charite University School of Medicine, Berlin, Germany
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-indy/
TEAM NAME: INDY (approach: gene modification)

Jin Hyung Lee, Ph.D.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-lee-lab/
TEAM NAME: LEE LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

David Mendelowitz, Ph.D.
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-mendelowitz-lab/
TEAM NAME: MENDELOWITZ LAB (approach: oxytocin)

Scott Wolf, M.D.
Mountain View, CA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/volts-medical/
TEAM NAME: VOLTS MEDICAL (approach: inflammatory tissues)

Irving Zucker, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-zucker-lab/
TEAM NAME: ZUCKER LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

Brian Olshansky, M.D.
University of Iowa Medical Center, Iowa City, IA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-olshansky-lab
TEAM NAME: IOWA PRO-AUTONOMIA (approach: not yet public)

William Sarill, M.A.
Arlington, MA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-sarill-lab/
TEAM NAME: DECO (approach: pituitary hormones)

Steven Porges, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-porges-lab/
TEAM NAME: POLYVAGAL SCIENCE (approach: optimizing both the left & right vagal branches)

Shin-Ichiro Imai, M.D., Ph.D.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/imai-lab/
TEAM NAME: IMAI LAB (approach: gene modification)

Approaching rejuvenation

AR Cover page v2In the light of all the fascinating developments around the field of increasing healthy longevity, I’ve decided that my next book will focus on that field.

The book is entitled “Approaching rejuvenation: Is science on the point of radically extending human longevity”. My intent is that the book will provide a bird’s eye report from the frontiers of the emerging field of rejuvenation biology:

  • The goals and motivations of key players in this field
  • The rapid progress that has been achieved in the last few years
  • The challenges that threaten to thwart further development
  • The critical questions that need to be faced.

The book will be based around material from interviews with more than a dozen researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians, who are making it their life’s quest to enable human rejuvenation. I’ve already started doing these interviews.

I’m far from being an expert in any branch of biochemistry or medicine. However, I hope to bring five important angles to this writing task:

  1. My background in history and philosophy of science, wrestling with the question of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, and the more general dilemma of how to decide whether lines of research are likely to turn out to be misguided dead-ends
  2. My professional career within the smartphone industry, where I saw a lot of similar aspirations (though on a much smaller scale) regarding the breakthroughs that fast-moving technology could enable
  3. My experience as a writer, in which I seek to explain complicated subjects in a relatively straightforward but engaging manner
  4. The six years in which I have had the privilege to organise meetups in London dedicated to futurist, singularitarian, and technoprogressive topics – meetings which have featured a wide variety of different attitudes and outlooks
  5. My aspiration as a humanitarian to probe for both the human upsides and the human downsides of changing technology – in order to set possible engineering breakthroughs (such as rejuvenation biotech) in a broader societal context.

If you have any suggestions or comments about this new book project, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The new future of old age

The London Futurists event next Saturday (27th September) addresses the same general theme. I close this blogpost with an excerpt from the description of the meetup. Please see the associated meetup page for more information about the speakers, for logistics details, and to register to attend. I hope to see some of you there!

Futurists, life extension advocates, transhumanists and others have been speaking for several decades already about the possibility, desirability, and broader consequences of significantly extending the human healthy lifespan. In this vision, the deteriorating effects of infirmity and old age could be radically postponed, and perhaps abolished altogether, via improvements in regenerative biotechnology.

Forget “70 is the new 50”. We might have the possibility of “150 is the new 50”. And alongside the existing booming cosmetics industry, with huge amounts spent to reduce the visible signs of aging, we might envision a booming rejuvenation industry, reversing the actual underlying biochemical damage that constitutes aging.

Recently, the pace of change in the field of healthy life extension seems to have increased: almost every day there are reports of possible breakthrough treatment methods, unexpected experimental results, new economic analyses of demographic changes, and innovative theoretical ideas. It’s hard to keep up with all these reports.

How can we evaluate this flurry of change?

Held in conjunction with the UN International Day of Older People (which occurs each year on 1st October), this event brings together a panel of expert speakers – William BainsMichael Price, Alex Zhavoronkov, and Sebastian Sethe – who will each give their assessment of “what’s new in the field of old age”:

  • What are some of the most significant research findings and other potential breakthroughs from the last five years?
  • What is the likelihood of significant practical change in healthy longevity within, say, the next 10-20 years?
  • What would be the economic, social, and psychological implications of such changes?
  • Are there any new grounds for scepticism or fear regarding these potential changes?
  • If individuals wish to help accelerate these changes, what should they do?
  • What are the major obstacles that could prevent real progress being made?

FB meeting image

 

 

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