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2 November 2012

The future of human enhancement

Is it ethical to put money and resources into trying to develop technological enhancements for human capabilities, when there are so many alternative well-tested mechanisms available to address pressing problems such as social injustice, poverty, poor sanitation, and endemic disease? Is that a failure of priority? Why make a strenuous effort in the hope of allowing an elite few individuals to become “better than well”, courtesy of new technology, when so many people are currently so “less than well”?

These were questions raised by Professor Anne Kerr at a public debate earlier this week at the London School of Economics: The Ethics of Human Enhancement.

The event was described as follows on the LSE website:

This dialogue will consider how issues related to human enhancement fit into the bigger picture of humanity’s future, including the risks and opportunities that will be created by future technological advances. It will question the individualistic logic of human enhancement and consider the social conditions and consequences of enhancement technologies, both real and imagined.

From the stage, Professor Kerr made a number of criticisms of “individualistic logic” (to use the same phrase as in the description of the event). Any human enhancements provided by technology, she suggested, would likely only benefit a minority of individuals, potentially making existing social inequalities even worse than at present.

She had a lot of worries about technology amplifying existing human flaws:

  • Imagine what might happen if various clever people could take some pill to make themselves even cleverer? It’s well known that clever people often make poor decisions. Their cleverness allows them to construct beguiling sophistry to justify the actions they already want to take. More cleverness could mean even more beguiling sophistry.
  • Or imagine if rapacious bankers could take drugs to boost their workplace stamina and self-serving brainpower – how much more effective they would become at siphoning off public money to their own pockets!
  • Might these risks be addressed by public policy makers, in a way that would allow benefits of new technology, without falling foul of the potential downsides? Again, Professor Kerr was doubtful. In the real world, she said, policy makers cannot operate at that level. They are constrained by shorter-term thinking.

For such reasons, Professor Kerr was opposed to these kinds of technology-driven human enhancements.

When the time for audience Q&A arrived, I felt bound to ask from the floor:

Professor Kerr, would you be in favour of the following examples of human enhancement, assuming they worked?

  1. An enhancement that made bankers more socially attuned, with more empathy, and more likely to use their personal wealth in support of philanthropic projects?
  2. An enhancement that made policy makers less parochial, less politically driven, and more able to consider longer-term implications in an objective manner?
  3. And an enhancement that made clever people less likely to be blind to their own personal cognitive biases, and more likely to genuinely consider counters to their views?

In short, would you support enhancements that would make people wiser as well as smarter, and kinder as well as stronger?

The answer came quickly:

No. They would not work. And there are other means of achieving the same effects, including progress of democratisation and education.

I countered: These other methods don’t seem to be working well enough. If I had thought more quickly, I would have raised examples such as society’s collective failure to address the risk of runaway climate change.

Groundwork for this discussion had already been well laid by the other main speaker at the event, Professor Nick Bostrom. You can hear what Professor Bostrom had to say – as well as the full content of the debate – in an audio recording of the event that is available here.

(Small print: I’ve not yet taken the time to review the contents of this recording. My description in this blogpost of some of the verbal exchanges inevitably paraphrases and extrapolates what was actually said. I apologise in advance for any mis-representation, but I believe my summary to be faithful to the spirit of the discussion, if not to the actual words used.)

Professor Bostrom started the debate by mentioning that the question of human enhancement is a big subject. It can be approached from a shorter-term policy perspective: what rules should governments set, to constrain the development and application of technological enhancements, such as genetic engineering, neuro-engineering, smart drugs, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and artificial general intelligence? It can also be approached from the angle of envisioning larger human potential, that would enable the best possible future for human civilisation. Sadly, much of the discussion at the LSE got bogged down in the shorter-term question, and lost sight of the grander accomplishments that human enhancements could bring.

Professor Bostrom had an explanation for this lack of sustained interest in these larger possibilities: the technologies for human enhancement that are currently available do not work that well:

  • Some drugs give cyclists or sprinters an incremental advantage over their competitors, but the people who take these drugs still need to train exceptionally hard, to reach the pinnacle of their performance
  • Other drugs seem to allow students to concentrate better over periods of time, but their effects aren’t particularly outstanding, and it’s possible that methods such as good diet, adequate rest, and meditation, have results that are at least as significant
  • Genetic selection can reduce the risk of implanted embryos developing various diseases that have strong genetic links, but so far, there is no clear evidence that genetic selection can result in babies with abilities higher than the general human range.

This lack of evidence of strong tangible results is one reason why Professor Kerr was able to reply so quickly to my suggestion about the three kinds of technological enhancements, saying these enhancements would not work.

However, I would still like to press they question: what if they did work? Would we want to encourage them in that case?

A recent article in the Philosophy Now journal takes the argument one step further. The article was co-authored by Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, and draws material from their book “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement”.

To quote from the Philosophy Now article:

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…

In short, the argument of Professors Savulescu and Persson is not just that we should allow the development of technology that can enhance human reasoning and moral awareness, but that we must strongly encourage it. Failure to do so would be to commit a grave error of omission.

These arguments about moral imperative – what technologies should we allow to be developed, or indeed encourage to be developed – are in turn strongly influenced by our beliefs about what technologies are possible. It’s clear to me that many people in positions of authority in society – including academics as well as politicians – are woefully unaware about realistic technology possibilities. People are familiar with various ideas as a result of science fiction novels and movies, but it’s a different matter to know the division between “this is an interesting work of fiction” and “this is a credible future that might arise within the next generation”.

What’s more, when it comes to people forecasting the likely progress of technological possibilities, I see a lot of evidence in favour of the observation made by Roy Amara, long-time president of the Institute for the Future:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

What about the technologies mentioned by Professors Savulescu and Persson? What impact will be possible from smart drugs, genetic selection and engineering, and the use of external devices that affect the brain or the learning process? In the short term, probably less than many of us hope; in the longer term, probably more than most of us expect.

In this context, what is the “longer term”? That’s the harder question!

But the quest to address this kind of question, and then to share the answers widely, is the reason I have been keen to support the growth of the London Futurist meetup, by organising a series of discussion meetings with well-informed futurist speakers. Happily, membership has been on the up-and-up, reaching nearly 900 by the end of October.

The London Futurist event happening this weekend – on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd November – picks up the theme of enhancing our mental abilities. The title is “Hacking our wetware: smart drugs and beyond – with Andrew Vladimirov”:

What are the most promising methods to enhance human mental and intellectual abilities significantly beyond the so-called physiological norm? Which specific brain mechanisms should be targeted, and how?  Which aspects of wetware hacking are likely to grow in prominence in the not-too-distant future?

By reviewing a variety of fascinating experimental findings, this talk will explore:

  • various pharmacological methods, taking into account fundamental differences in Eastern and Western approaches to the development and use of nootropics
  • the potential of non-invasive neuro-stimulation using CES (Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation) and TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)
  • data suggesting the possibility to “awaken” savant-like skills in healthy humans without paying the price of autism
  • apparent means to stimulate seemingly paranormal abilities and transcendental experiences
  • potential genetic engineering perspectives, aiming towards human cognition enhancement.

The advance number of positive RSVPs for this talk, as recorded on the London Futurist meetup site, has reached 129 at the time of writing – which is already a record.

(From my observations, I have developed the rule of thumb that the number of people who actually turn up for a meeting is something like 60%-75% of the number of positive RSVPs.)

I’ll finish by returning to the question posed at the beginning of my posting:

  • Are these technological enhancements likely to increase human inequality (by benefiting only a small number of users),
  • Or are they instead likely to drop in price and grow in availability (the same as happened, for example, with smartphones, Internet access, and many other items of technology)?

My answer – which I believe is shared by Professor Bostrom – is that things could still go either way. That’s why we need to think hard about their development and application, ahead of time. That way, we’ll become better informed to help influence the outcome.

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2 March 2010

Major new challenges to receive X PRIZE backing

Filed under: catalysts, challenge, futurist, Genetic Engineering, Google, grants, innovation, medicine, space — David Wood @ 7:16 pm

The X PRIZE Foundation has an audacious vision.

On its website, it describes itself as follows:

The X PRIZE Foundation is an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity thereby inspiring the formation of new industries, jobs and the revitalization of markets that are currently stuck

The foundation can point to the success of its initial prize, the Ansari X PRIZE.  This was a $10M prize to be awarded to the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.  This prize was announced in May 1996 and was won in October 2004, by the Tier One project using the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne.

Other announced prizes are driving research and development in a number of breakthrough areas:


The Archon X PRIZE will award $10 million to the first privately funded team to accurately sequence 100 human genomes in just 10 days.  Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking explains his support for this prize:

You may know that I am suffering from what is known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is thought to have a genetic component to its origin. It is for this reason that I am a supporter of the $10M Archon X PRIZE for Genomics to drive rapid human genome sequencing. This prize and the resulting technology can help bring about an era of personalized medicine. It is my sincere hope that the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics can help drive breakthroughs in diseases like ALS at the same time that future X PRIZEs for space travel help humanity to become a galactic species.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth.  Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, provided some context in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Government agencies have dominated space exploration for three decades. But in a new plan unveiled in President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget earlier this month, a new player has taken center stage: American capitalism and entrepreneurship. The plan lays the foundation for the future Google, Cisco and Apple of space to be born, drive job creation and open the cosmos for the rest of us.

Two fundamental realities now exist that will drive space exploration forward. First, private capital is seeing space as a good investment, willing to fund individuals who are passionate about exploring space, for adventure as well as profit. What was once affordable only by nations can now be lucrative, public-private partnerships.

Second, companies and investors are realizing that everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy and real estate—are in near-infinite quantities in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, what was once seen as a wasteland will become the next gold rush. Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as “Seward’s Folly” (Secretary of State William Seward was criticized for overpaying the sum of $7.2 million to the Russians for the territory in 1867), Alaska has since become a billion-dollar economy.

The same will hold true for space. For example, there are millions of asteroids of different sizes and composition flying throughout space. One category, known as S-type, is composed of iron, magnesium silicates and a variety of other metals, including cobalt and platinum. An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion.

Technology is reaching a critical point. Moore’s Law has given us exponential growth in computing technology, which has led to exponential growth in nearly every other technological industry. Breakthroughs in rocket propulsion will allow us to go farther, faster and more safely into space…

The Progressive Automotive X PRIZE seeks “to inspire a new generation of viable, safe, affordable and super fuel efficient vehicles that people want to buy“.  $10 million in prizes will be awarded in September 2010 to the teams that win a rigorous stage competition for clean, production-capable vehicles that exceed 100 MPG energy equivalent (MPGe).  Over 40 teams from 11 countries are currently entered in the competition.

Forthcoming new X PRIZEs

The best may still be to come.

It now appears that a series of new X PRIZEs are about to be announced.  CNET News writer Daniel Terdiman reports a fascinating interview with Peter Diamandis, in his article “X Prize group sets sights on next challenges (Q&A)“.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.  Here are just a few highlights:

On May 15, at a gala fundraising event to be held at George Lucas’ Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, X Prize Foundation Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, along with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and “Avatar” director James Cameron, will unveil their five-year vision for the famous awards…

The foundation …  is focusing on several potential new prizes that could change the world of medicine, oceanic exploration, and human transport.

The first is the so-called AI Physician X Prize, which will go to a team that designs an artificial intelligence system capable of providing a diagnosis equal to or better than 10 board-certified doctors.

The second is the Autonomous Automobile X Prize, which will go to the first team to design a car that can beat a top-seeded driver in a Gran Prix race.

The third would go to a team that can generate an organ from a terminal patient’s stem cells, transplant the organ [a lung, liver, or heart] into the patient, and have them live for a year.

And the fourth would reward a team that can design a deep-sea submersible capable of allowing scientists to gather complex data on the ocean floor

Diamandis  explains the potential outcome of the AI Physician Prize:

The implications of that are that by the end of 2013, 80 percent of the world’s populace will have a cell phone, and anyone with a cell phone can call this AI and the AI can speak Mandarin, Spanish, Swahili, any language, and anyone with a cell phone then has medical advice at the level of a board certified doctor, and it’s a game change.

Even more new X PRIZEs

Details of the process of developing new X PRIZEs are described on the foundation’s website.  New X PRIZEs are are guided by the following principles:

  • We create prizes that result in innovation that makes a lasting impact. Although a technological breakthrough can meet this criterion, so do prizes which inspire teams to use existing technologies, knowledge or systems in more effective ways.
  • Prizes are designed to generate popular interest through the prize lifecycle: enrollment, competition, attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) and post-completion…
  • Prizes result in financial leverage. For a prize to be successful, it should generate outside investment from competitors at least 5-10 times the prize purse size. The greater the leverage, the better return on investment for our prize donors and partners.
  • Prizes incorporate both elements of technological innovation as well as successful “real world” deployment. An invention which is too costly or too inconvenient to deploy widely will not win a prize.
  • Prizes engage multidisciplinary innovators which would otherwise be unlikely to tackle the problems that the prize is designed to address.

The backing provided to the foundation by the Google founders and by James Cameron provides added momentum to what is already an inspirational initiative and a great catalyst for innovation.

17 January 2010

Embracing engineering for the whole earth

Filed under: books, climate change, Genetic Engineering, geoengineering, green, Nuclear energy — David Wood @ 2:14 am

One thing I’m trying to do with my blog is to provide useful pointers, into the vast amount of material that’s available both online and offline, to the small small fraction of that material which does the best job of summarising, extending, and challenging current thinking.

Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto“, the recent book by veteran ecologist and environmentalist Stewart Brand, comprehensively fits that criterion.  It is so full of insight that virtually every page contains not just one but several blogworthy quotes, ideas, facts, putdowns, and/or refutations.  It’s that good.  I could write a book-length blogpost signing its praises.

Brand turned 70 while writing this book.  In the book, he indicates that he has changed his mind as he grew older.  The book serves as a landmark for various changes of mind for the environmental movement as a whole.  The argument is sustained, easy-to-read, detailed, and compelling.

The core argument is that the future well-being of the whole planet – human societies embedded in biological ecosystems – requires a thoroughgoing embrace of an engineering mindset.  Specifically, the environmental movement needs to recognise:

  • That the process of urbanisation – the growth of cities, even in apparently haphazard ways – provides good solutions to many worries about over-population;
  • That nuclear energy will play a large role in providing clean, safe, low-carbon energy;
  • That GE (genetic engineering) will play a large role in providing safe, healthy, nutritious food and medicine;
  • That the emerging field of synthetic biology can usefully and safely build upon what’s already being accomplished by GE;
  • That methods of geoengineering will almost certainly play a part in heading off the world’s pending climate change catastrophe.

The book has an objective and compassionate tone throughout.  At times it squarely accuses various environmentalists of severe mistakes – particularly in aspects of their opposition to GE and nuclear energy – mistakes that have had tragic consequences for developing societies around the world.  It’s hard to deny the charges.  I sincerely hope that the book will receive a wide readership, and will cause people to change their minds.

The book doesn’t just provide advocacy for some specific technologies.  More than that, it makes the case for changes in mindset:

  • It highlights major limitations to the old green mantra that “small is beautiful”;
  • It unpicks various romantic notions about the lifestyles and philosophies of native peoples (such as the American Indians);
  • It shows the deep weakness of the “precautionary principle”, and proposes an own alternative approach;
  • It emphasises how objections to people “playing God” are profoundly misguided.

Indeed, the book starts with the quote:

We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.

It concludes with the following summary:

Ecological balance is too important for sentiment.  It requires science.

The health of the natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity.  It requires engineering.

What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable.  We live one life.

And what is an engineer?  Brand states:

Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The constant economy” by Zac Goldsmith, which I read a few weeks ago.  The two books share many concerns about the unsustainable lifestyles presently being practiced around the world.  There are a few solutions in common, too.  But the wide distrust of technology shown by Goldsmith is amply parried by the material that Brand marshalls.  And the full set of solutions proposed by Brand are much more credible than those proposed by Goldsmith.  Goldsmith has been a major advisor to the UK Conservative Party on environmental matters.  If any UK party could convince me that they thoroughly understand, and intend to implement, the proposal in Brand’s book, I would be deeply impressed.

Note: an annotated reference companion to the book is available online, at www.sbnotes.com.  It bristles with useful links.  There’s also a 16 minute TED video, “Stewart Brand proclaims 4 environmental ‘heresies’“, which is well worth viewing.

Thanks to Marc Gunther, whose blogpost “Why Stewart Brand’s new book is a must-read” alerted me to this book.

By a fortunate coincidence, Brand will be speaking at the RSA in London on Tuesday.  I’m anticipating a good debate from the audience.  An audio feed from the meeting will be broadcast live.

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