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11 March 2015

My vision for Humanity+, 2015-2017

Filed under: Humanity Plus, vision — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 1:40 pm

The most important task for the worldwide Humanity+ organisation, over the next three years, is to dramatically raise the calibre of public discussion about transhumanism and radical futurism.

As an indication of the status quo of the public discussion about transhumanism, type the words “Transhumanists are” into a Google search bar. Google charmingly suggests the following auto-completions:

  • Transhumanists are stupid
  • Transhumanists are evil
  • Transhumanists are crazy.

Transhumanists Are

These sentiments are at stark variance with what I believe to be the case: transhumanists have an insight that deserves much wider support – an insight that, if acted on, will lead to vast improvements in the quality of life of people all over the planet.

That insight – known as the “central meme of transhumanism” – is that we can and should improve the human condition through technology. Rather than continuing to be diminished by limitations inherited from our evolutionary heritage – limitations in our physiology, our psychology, our philosophy, and our social structures – we can and should take conscious control of the next stage of human evolution. We can and should move from a long phase of Darwinian natural selection to a phase of accelerated intelligent design.

Transhumanists boldly assert, in the FAQ maintained on the Humanity+ website, that

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

Transhumanism is the viewpoint that human society should embrace, wisely, thoughtfully, and compassionately, the radical transformational potential of technology. Recent and forthcoming breakthroughs in technology fields such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, renewable energy, regenerative medicine, brain sciences, big data analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence can:

  • Enable humans to transcend (overcome) many of the deeply debilitating, oppressive, and hazardous aspects of our lives
  • Allow everyone a much wider range of personal autonomy, choice, experience, and fulfilment
  • Facilitate dramatically improved international relations, social harmony, and a sustainable new cooperation with nature and the environment.

Different opinions

But as I said, most people see things differently. They doubt that technology will change human nature, any time soon. Or, inasmuch as technology might change core aspects of human existence, they fear these changes will be for the worst. Or, if they think technology is likely to improve human experience, they see no need for any “ism” – any philosophy or movement – that promotes such an outcome; instead, they think it will be sufficient to leave technologists and entrepreneurs to get on with the task, unencumbered by philosophical baggage.

I’m very happy to enter discussion on all these points with informed critics of transhumanism – with people who are open to constructive dialogue. That’s a dialogue I wish to promote. That dialogue is, as I see things, a core part of the mission of the Humanity+ organisation.

All too often, however, critics of transhumanism (including the people noticed by Google as thinking that transhumanists are “stupid”, “evil”, and “crazy”) have only a hazy understanding of transhumanism. Worse, all too often the same people have only a hazy idea of the radical transformative potential of accelerating technology. To the extent that these people (who probably form the vast majority of the population) are futurists at all, they are “slow-paced” futurists rather than fast-paced futurists (to use a couple of terms I’ve written about previously). They’re largely oblivious to the far-reaching nature of changes that may take place in the next few decades.

To an extent, we transhumanists and other radical futurists share part of the blame for this situation. In our discussions of the positive transformational potential of technology, we’ve sometimes been collectively guilty of:

  • Presenting these technological developments as more-or-less inevitable, and as happening according to an inviolable timescale (linked over-closely to Moore’s Law)
  • Emphasising only the positive implications of these changes, and giving scant attention to potential negative implications
  • Taking it for granted that these positive benefits will become accessible to everyone, regardless of income, without there being any risk of them primarily benefiting the people who are already powerful and rich.

In other words, our collective advocacy of transhumanism has sometimes suffered from science fiction hype, wishful thinking, and political naivety. The popular negative appraisal of transhumanism stems, in part, from a reaction against these missteps.

A better dialogue

That’s what I believe the Humanity+ organisation can fix. Humanity+ can lead the way in encouraging a wiser, more credible, and more compelling assessment of transhumanism and radical futurism. This will involve multi-dimensional communications – short form and long form, written and video, intellectual and artistic, prose and poetry, serious and humorous, scientific and literary, real-time and recorded, face-to-face and online. As this library of material grows, it will be less and less possible for critics to radically misrepresent the intent and vision of transhumanists. Neutral observers will quickly call them out: you say such-and-such, but the clear evidence is that transhumanists have a much better understanding than that.

As time progresses, more and more people will understand the central messages of transhumanism. They’ll identify with these messages, viewing them as sensible, reasonable, and praiseworthy. And they’ll put more pressure on leaders of all sectors of society to prioritise changes which will accelerate the attainment of the positive evolution of humanity.

Practical steps

The outgoing board of directors of Humanity+ have already sketched a high-level strategic plan which will, in effect, put the organisation in a much better shape to carry out the role I’ve described above. I was part of the team that drew up that plan, and I’m now asking the set of Full Members of the organisation to choose me as one of their preferred candidates for the four elected vacancies on the board.

The strategic plan can be described in terms of five components: stability, speed, scale, vision, and engagement:

  • Stability: Recent changes in the constitution of Humanity+ have been designed to ensure greater stability in the format and membership of the board of directors. Rather than elections being held on an annual basis, the board now operates with a three-year cycle. For each three-year period, five of the directors are appointed to their roles by the outgoing board, and four more are elected by a vote by all Full Members. This hybrid structure seems to me to provide a strong basis for the other changes which I will describe next
  • Speed: For the last few years, Humanity+ has shown some aspects of being a bureaucratic organisation, held back from its true potential by a mix of inertia and unclear (diffuse) vision. By adopting modern principles of lean organisations and exponential organisations – learning from principles of successful business startups – the organisation can, and should, move more quickly. I offer my own experience in getting things done quickly – experience which I have honed over 25 years in the mobile computing and smartphone industry
  • Scale: To have a bigger impact, Humanity+ needs to be able to make better use of its wide network of potential supporters. In part, this involves hiring a Development Director, to improve the financial footing of the organisation. In part, this involves revitalising our structure of chapters, affiliates, and volunteer effort. Finally, this also involves modernising our use of information technology. I expect each of the new board members to play important roles in improving these structures
  • Vision: Perhaps the single most important energiser of action is to have a clear, inspiring, stretch goal – a so-called “massively transformational purpose”. My own personal vision is “transhumanism for all” – something I have spelt out in more detail in my online declaration of interest in being elected to continue my role on the board. In terms of a vision for Humanity+, I offer “dramatically raise the calibre of public discussion about transhumanism and radical futurism” (though I’m open to re-wording). That is, I offer the vision that I’ve described in the opening part of this article
  • Engagement: The public discussion about transhumanism has recently been heating up. Transhumanist ideas are appearing more and more often in popular magazines, including Time, Newsweek, and Bloomberg Markets (as I covered in a recent blogpost). Significant credit is due here to the high-energy work of the recently formed Transhumanist Party, led by Zoltan Istvan. The headline in a recent article in The Leftist Review put it as follows: “The age of transhumanist politics has begun”. As that article goes on to say, “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”. Humanity+ cannot stand aside from this engagement. Over the next few years, our engagement needs to continue to expand – not just in the worlds of science and technology, but also in the worlds of art, economics, and (last but not least) politics. One reason I recently founded the Transpolitica think-tank was to accelerate exactly that kind of dialogue. I’ll be delighted to position Humanity+ as being at the heart of that dialogue, rather than standing at the periphery.

A resilient, long-term contributor

I’ve recently passed the landmark of having organised 100 London Futurists events. As I covered in a previous blogpost, that series of meetings has extended for seven years (March 2008 to March 2015). I mention this as an example of the way I am able to work:

  • Long-term commitment
  • Regular incremental improvements
  • Success via building a collaborative team (including volunteers and regular audience members)
  • Hands-on facilitation and leadership.

That’s the kind of working discipline that I wish to continue to apply on the Humanity+ board.

The endorsements framework on LinkedIn is far from being a watertight reputation management system, but the set of endorsements that my professional colleagues have kindly provided for me surely gives at least some indication of my positive qualities.

For Humanity+ Full Members wishing to check out my personal history and philosophy in more detail, one option is to dip into my book “Smartphones and beyond: lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian”. Other options are to leaf through the eclectic set of articles on my personal blog (a couple of representative examples are “A muscular new kid on the block” and “Towards inner Humanity+”), and to view the videos on the Delta Wisdom and London Futurists channels on YouTube.

For transhumanists (old and new) who are currently not Full Members of Humanity+, you can find more details here about how to join the organisation. The election runs until midnight PST on 31st March. People who become Full Members up to 24 hours before the end of the election period will be added to the set of electors.

UKHplus FB header HD

9 January 2015

A transhumanist political manifesto?

I’ll welcome some feedback. The looming advent of the UK General Election in May this year has focused some minds – minds that are unhappy that too much of the political debate ignores some very important topics. These are the topics of the likelihood of large societal changes occurring in the next 5-10 years – changes arising from breakthroughs in multiple fields of technology. Politicians, for various reasons, aren’t giving much mind-share to these impending changes.

The outcome of this unhappiness about the current political discussion is the idea of launching a “transhumanist political manifesto”. The current draft of this document is below. (It’s a live document, and may have changed by the time you read this blogpost. You can access the live draft here.)

All being well, a later version of this document will be used as part of a checklist, in the next few months, to publicly evaluate various political parties for their degree of “future-readiness”.

The feedback I’m interested in is this. Especially if you consider yourself a transhumanist (or have some sympathies for that philosophy), what’s your reaction to the points picked out in this draft manifesto? Would you change the content? Or the prioritisation? And to what extent might the content be applicable in other countries, rather than just in the UK?

Preamble: Anticipating tomorrow’s humanity

UKhplusPrepared by UK Humanity+ (UKH+)

Transhumanism is the viewpoint that human society should embrace, wisely, thoughtfully, and compassionately, the radical transformational potential of technology.

The speed and direction of technological adoption can be strongly influenced by social and psychological factors, by legislation, by subsidies, and by the provision or restriction of public funding. Political action can impact all these factors, either for better or for worse.

UKH+ wishes to engage with politicians of all parties to increase the likelihood of an attractive, equitable, sustainable, progressive future. The policies we recommend are designed:

  • To elevate the thinking of politicians and other leaders, away from being dominated by the raucous issues of the present, to addressing the larger possibilities of the near future
  • To draw attention to technological opportunities, map out attractive roads ahead, and address the obstacles which are preventing us from fulfilling our cosmic potential.

Headlines

UKH+ calls upon politicians of all parties to define and support:

  • Regenerative projects to take full advantage of accelerating technology.

More specifically, we call for:

  • Economic and personal liberation via the longevity dividend
  • An inclusive new social contract in the light of technological disruption
  • A proactionary regulatory system to fast-track innovative breakthroughs
  • Reform of democratic processes with new digital tools
  • Education transformed in readiness for a radically different future
  • A progressive transhumanist rights agenda
  • An affirmative new perspective on existential risks.

Details

1. Regenerative projects to take full advantage of accelerating technology

Anticipating profound change

Accelerating technological progress has the potential to transform lives in the next ten years more profoundly than in any preceding ten year period in history.

Radical technological changes are coming sooner than people think, in technology fields such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, renewable energy, regenerative medicine, brain sciences, big data analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Together, these technologies will change society in unexpected ways, disrupting familiar patterns of industry, lifestyle, and thinking.

These changes include the potential for exceptional benefits for both the individual and society, as well as the potential for tremendous risk.

Current policymakers rarely tackle the angle of convergent disruptive technologies. This means they react to each new disruption with surprise, after it appears, rather than anticipating it with informed policy and strategy.

Politicians of all parties urgently need to:

  • Think through the consequences of these changes in advance
  • Take part in a wide public discussion and exploration of these forthcoming changes
  • Adjust public policy in order to favour positive outcomes
  • Support bold regenerative projects to take full advantage of accelerating technology – projects with the uplifting vision and scale of the 1960s Apollo moonshot program.

These bold regenerative projects can galvanize huge collaborative endeavours, via providing a new sense of profound purpose and shared destiny.

Benefits from profound change

The outcomes of these regenerative projects can:

  • Enable humans to transcend (overcome) many of the deeply debilitating, oppressive, and hazardous aspects of our lives
  • Allow everyone a much wider range of personal autonomy, choice, experience, and fulfilment
  • Facilitate dramatically improved international relations, social harmony, and a sustainable new cooperation with nature and the environment.

Managing the regenerative projects

These projects can be funded and resourced:

  • By tapping into a well-spring of positive motivation and discretionary effort which these projects will unleash
  • By benefiting from the longevity dividend, in which less budget will be consumed by end-of-life healthcare
  • From smarter forms of international cooperation, which should reduce costs from efforts duplicated between different countries
  • By progressively diverting funding from military budgets to regenerative budgets
  • By eliminating the loopholes which allow multinational companies to shuffle revenues between countries and thereby avoid paying due taxes
  • From savings from applying principles of automation and Information Technology wherever applicable.

The policies in this manifesto are designed to expedite these positive transformations whilst avoiding adverse consequences.

2. Economic and personal liberation via the longevity dividend

Given adequate resources, human longevity could be enormously extended using technologies which are already broadly understood. Prolonging healthy lifespan would clearly benefit the very large number of citizens concerned, and it would also benefit society by preserving and deepening the experience and wisdom available to solve our various social problems.

Transhumanists aspire to indefinite healthy life extension. Rejuvenation therapies based on regenerative medicine can and should be developed and progressively made available to all citizens. The resulting “longevity dividend” will have large social and economic benefits, as well as personal ones. We do not believe it would impose a dangerous pressure on resources. We call for a bold new moonshot-scale project with the specific goal of ameliorating the degenerative aging process and significantly extending healthy human lifespan.

A practical suggestion is that 20% of the public research funding that currently goes to specific diseases should be reassigned, instead, to researching solutions to aging. In line with the analysis of e.g. SENS, the “ending aging” angle is likely to provide promising lines of research and solutions to many diseases, such as senile dementia (including Alzheimer’s), cancer, heart disease, motor neurone disease, respiratory diseases, and stroke.

3. An inclusive new social contract in the light of technological disruption

Emerging technologies – in particular automation – are likely to impose significant strains on the current economic model. It is far from clear how this will play out, nor what are the best strategies for response. Society and its leaders need to consider and discuss these changes, and draw up plans to deal with different outcome scenarios.

Transhumanists anticipate that accelerating technological unemployment may cause growing social disruption and increased social inequality and alienation. A new social contract is needed, involving appropriate social, educational, and economic support for those who are left with no viable option of ‘earning a living’ due to unprecedented technological change.

A form of “negative income tax” (as proposed by Milton Friedman) or a “basic income guarantee” could provide the basis for this new social contract. Some observers feel it may take an moonshot-scale program to fully design and implement these changes in our social welfare systems. However, political parties around the world have developed promising models, backed up by significant research, for how universal basic income might be implemented in a cost-effective manner. UKH+ urges action based on the best of these insights.

A practical suggestion is to repeat the 1970s Canadian “Minincome” guaranteed income experiment in several different locations, over longer periods than the initial experiments, and to monitor the outcome. Further references can be found here andhere.

4. A proactionary regulatory system to fast-track innovative breakthroughs

The so-called “precautionary principle” preferred by some risk-averse policy makers is often self-defeating: seeking to avoid all risks can itself pose many risks. The precautionary principle frequently hinders intelligent innovation. The “proactionary principle” is a better stance, in which risks are assessed and managed in a balanced way, rather than always avoided. Any bias in favour of the status quo should be challenged, with an eye on better futures that can be created.

Transhumanists observe that many potentially revolutionary therapies are under research, but current drug development has become increasingly slow and expensive (as summarised by “Eroom’s law”). Translational research is doing badly, in part due to current drug regulations which are increasingly out of step with public opinion, actual usage, and technology.

In practical terms, UKH+ recommends:

  • Streamlining regulatory approval for new medicines, in line with recommendations by e.g. CASMI in the UK
  • Removing any arbitrary legal distinction between “therapies for ill-health” and “therapies for enhancement”.

We also urge revisions in patent and copyright laws to discourage counter-productive hoarding of intellectual property:

  • Reduce the time periods of validity of patents in certain industry areas
  • Make it much less likely that companies can be granted “obvious” patents that give them a throat-choke on subsequent development in an industry area
  • Explore the feasibility of alternative and complementary schemes for facilitating open innovation, such as reputation economies or prize funds.

5. Reform of democratic processes with new digital tools

The underpinnings of a prosperous, democratic, open society include digital rights, trusted, safe identities, and the ability to communicate freely without fear of recrimination or persecution. Transhumanists wish to:

  • Accelerate the development and deployment of tools ensuring personal privacy and improved cyber-security
  • Extend governmental open data initiatives
  • Champion the adoption of “Democracy 2.0” online digital tools to improve knowledge-sharing, fact-checking, and collective decision-making
  • Increase the usefulness and effectiveness of online petitions
  • Restrict the undue influence which finance can have over the electoral and legislative process.

Government policy should be based on evidence rather than ideology:

  • Insights from the emerging field of cognitive biases should be adapted into decision-making processes
  • New committees and organisations should be designed according to debiasing knowledge, so they are less likely to suffer groupthink
  • AI systems should be increasingly used to support smart decision making.

All laws restricting free-speech based on the concept of “personal offence” should be revoked. Anyone accepted into a country, whether as a visitor or as an immigrant, must confirm that they fully accept the principle of free speech, and renounce any use of legal or extralegal means to silence those who offend their religion or worldview.

6. Education transformed in readiness for a radically different future

A greater proportion of time spent in education and training (whether formal or informal) should be future-focused, exploring

  • Which future scenarios are technically feasible, and which are fantasies
  • Which future scenarios are desirable, once their “future shock” has been accepted
  • What actions can be taken to accelerate the desirable outcomes, and avoid the undesirable ones
  • How to achieve an interdisciplinary understanding of future scenarios
  • How resilience can be promoted, rather than society just having a focus on efficiency
  • How creativity can be promoted, rather than society just having a focus on consumption
  • The intelligent management of risk.

Lifelong training and education should become the norm, with people of all ages learning new skills as the need becomes apparent in the new age of automation. Educational curricula need to be able to adapt rapidly.

We would mandate that each university and educational establishment makes an increasing proportion of its material freely accessible online every year.

Education should take greater advantage of MOOCs, and the possibility for people having their knowledge certified without enrolling in a traditional college. MOOCs can be usefully complemented with location based learning labs (“makerspaces”) absorbing some of existing library empty space, preserving the “open knowledge” of libraries and expanding it into “open education and learning”. UKH+ anticipates a time where, apart from lab work, the whole of tertiary education will be delivered online.

7. A progressive transhumanist rights agenda

Transhumanists wish to:

  • Explore the gradual applicability of selected human rights to sentient beings, such as primates, that demonstrate relevant mental life, and also advanced AIs, that need such rights to function in their respective purpose
  • Hasten the adoption of synthetic (in-vitro) meat, and the abolition of cruelty to farm animals.

Transhumanists champion the concept of morphological freedom:

  • The rights of all people, including sexual and gender minorities, to bodily self-determination
  • Free access to modern reproductive technologies, including genetic screening to improve the quality of life, for all prospective parents
  • Making it easier for people, if they so choose, to enter a state of cryonic suspension as their bodies come close to clinical death.

Transhumanists envision support for a radical future for consciousness:

  • Enhanced mental cooperation as minds become more interconnected via brain-to-computer interfaces and other foreseeable brain/mind technologies, which will enable the ability to share qualia at rapid speeds.

8. An affirmative new perspective on existential risks

Some emerging technologies – in particular artificial general intelligence and nanotechnology – are so powerful as to produce changes more dramatic than anything since the agricultural revolution. The outcomes could be extraordinarily positive for humanity, or they could threaten our very existence.

Existing technologies already pose potential catastrophic risks to the well-being of humanity:

  • The risk persists of accidental nuclear warfare
  • Runaway climate change might be triggered by unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases that push global temperatures beyond sudden tipping points.

There are further complications from relatively easy access by alienated, destructive individuals to weapons of mass destruction, including dirty bombs and synthetic pathogens.

Without being complacent, transhumanists believe that sustained human innovation can mitigate all these risks, once they are fully understood. We call for significant resources to be applied to working out how to ensure that the outcomes are positive.

The wise management of the full set of existential risks is likely to involve innovations in technology (e.g. the development and production of cleaner energy sources), economics (e.g. a carbon tax to redress the market failure of unpenalized negative externalities), and politics (e.g. the collaborative creation and enforcement of binding treaties). The end outcome will be the successful harnessing of technologies, both old and new, for the radical enhancement of humanity.

29 August 2014

Can technology bring us peace?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3 July 2013

Preparing for driverless vehicles

Filed under: driverless vehicles, futurist, Humanity Plus, robots, safety, sensors, vision, Volvo — David Wood @ 10:56 am

It’s not just Google that is working on autonomous, self-driving cars. Take a look at this recent Atutoblog video showing technology under development by Swedish manufacturer Volvo:

This represents another key step in the incorporation of smart wireless technology into motor vehicles.

Smart wireless technology already has the potential to reduce the number of lives lost in road accidents. A memo last month from the EU commission describes the potential effect of full adoption of the 112 eCall system inside cars:

The 112 eCall automatically dials Europe’s single emergency number 112 in the event of a serious accident and communicates the vehicle’s location to the emergency services. This call to 112, made either automatically by means of the activation of in-vehicle sensors or manually, carries a standardised set of data (containing notably the type and the location of the vehicle) and establishes an audio channel between the vehicle and the most appropriate emergency call centre via public mobile networks.

Using a built-in acceleration sensor, the system detects when a crash has occurred, and how serious it is likely to be. For example, it can detect whether the car has rolled over onto its roof. Then it transmits the information via a built-in wireless SIM. As the EU commission memo explains:

  • In 2012 around 28,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million injured in 1.1 million traffic accidents on EU roads.
  • Only around 0.7% of vehicles are currently equipped with private eCall systems in the EU, with numbers barely rising. These proprietary systems do not offer EU-wide interoperability or continuity.
  • In addition to the tragedy of loss of life and injury, this also carries an economic burden of around EUR 130 billion in costs to society every year.
  • 112 eCall can speed up emergency response times by 40% in urban areas and 50% in the countryside. Fully deployed, it can save up to 2500 lives a year and alleviate severity of road injuries. In addition, thanks to improved accident management, it is expected to reduce congestion costs caused by traffic accidents.

That’s 9% fewer fatalities, as a result of emergency assistance being contacted more quickly.

But what if the number of accidents could themselves be significantly reduced? Here it’s important to know the predominant factors behind road accidents. A landmark investigation of 700,000 road accidents in the UK over 2005-2009 produced some surprising statistics. As reported by David Williams in the Daily Telegraph,

Vehicle defects are a factor in only 2.8 per cent of fatals, with tyres mostly to blame (1.5 per cent) followed by dodgy brakes (0.7 per cent).

The overriding message? It’s not your car or the “road conditions” that are most likely to kill you. It’s your own driving.

In more detail:

The biggest cause of road accidents in the UK today? The statistics are quite clear on this and it’s “driver error or reaction”. It’s listed by police as a factor in more than 65 per cent of fatal crashes and the heading covers a multitude of driving sins many of which you’re probably on first-name terms with. Topping the charge sheet is failing to look properly (the Smidsy factor – “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you’, relevant in 20.5 per cent of fatals involving driver error), followed by “loss of control” (34 per cent) which, says Greig, often means leaving yourself with “nowhere to go” after entering a bend or other situation, too quickly. Other errors include “poor turn or manoeuvre” (12 per cent) and “failed to judge other person’s path or speed” (11.6 per cent.).

Second biggest cause of fatal accidents, to blame for 31 per cent, is the “injudicious action”, an umbrella term for “travelled too fast for the conditions’ (15.9 per cent of those labelled injudicious), “exceeded speed limit” (13.9 per cent) or “disobeyed give-way or stop sign” (2.1 per cent)?

Third culprit in the daily gamble on who lives and who dies is “behaviour or inexperience” (28 per cent), which covers faults such as “careless, reckless or in a hurry” (17 per cent), “aggressive driving” (8.3 per cent) and “learner/inexperienced” (5.3 per cent).

The fourth main category is “impairment or distraction” (to blame for 19.6 per cent of fatal accidents) covering “alcohol” (a factor in 9.6 per cent of fatal accidents) and “distraction in vehicle” (2.6 per cent).

(The numbers add up to more than 100% because accidents are often attributed to more than one factor.)

These statistics give strength to the remark by Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google:

Your car should drive itself. It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.

This suggestion commonly gives rise to three objections:

  1. The technology will never become good enough
  2. Even if the raw technology inside cars becomes better and better, there will need to be lots of changes in roadways, which will take a very long time to achieve
  3. Even if the technology did become good enough, legal systems will never catch up. Who’s going to accept liability for crashes caused by bugs in software?

The first objection is heard less often these days. As noted in a 2011 New York Times interview by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and authors of the book Race Against the Machine,

In 2004, two leading economists, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, published “The New Division of Labor,”which analyzed the capabilities of computers and human workers. Truck driving was cited as an example of the kind of work computers could not handle, recognizing and reacting to moving objects in real time.

But last fall, Google announced that its robot-driven cars had logged thousands of miles on American roads with only an occasional assist from human back-seat drivers. The Google cars are but one sign of the times.

The third objection will surely fall away soon too. There are already mechanisms whereby some degree of liability can be accepted by car manufacturers, in cases where software defects (for example, in braking and accelerating systems) contribute to accidents. Some examples are covered in the CNN Money review “Toyota to pay $1.1 billion in recall case”.

Another reason the third objection will fall away is because the costs of not changing – that is, of sticking with human drivers – may be much larger than the costs of adopting driverless vehicles. So long as we continue to allow humans to drive cars, there will continue to be driver-induced accidents, with all the physical and social trauma that ensues.

That still leaves the second objection: the other changes in the environment that will need to take place, before driverless vehicles can be adopted more widely. And what other changes will take place, possibly unexpectedly, once driverless cars are indeed adopted?

That’s one of the topics that will be covered in this Saturday’s London Futurists event: The future of transport: Preparing for driverless vehicles? With Nathan Koren.

Nathan_Koren_PhotoAs explained by the speaker at the event, Nathan Koren,

The robots have arrived. Driverless transport pods are now in operation at Heathrow Terminal 5 and several other locations around the world. Driver-assist technologies are becoming commonplace. Many believe that fully driverless cars will be commercially available before the decade is out. But what will the broader impact of driverless transport be?

Automobiles were once called “horseless carriages,” as though the lack of a horse was their most important feature. In reality, they changed the way we work, live, and play; changed the way we design cities; and altered the global economy, political landscape, and climate.

It will be the same with driverless vehicles: we can expect their impact to be go far beyond simply being able to take our hands off the wheel.

This presentation and discussion goes into depth about how automated transport will affect our lives and reshape the the world’s cities.

Nathan is a London-based, American-born architect, transport planner, and entrepreneur. He is widely recognised as a leading authority on Automated Transit Networks, and designed what is scheduled to become the world’s first urban-scale system, in Amritsar, India. He works as a Transport Technology & Planning Consultant for Capita Symonds, and recently founded Podaris, a cloud-based platform for the collaborative design of Automated Transit Networks. Nathan holds an Architecture degree from Arizona State University, and an MBA from the University of Oxford.

I hope to see some readers of this blog, who are based in or near London, at the meeting this Saturday. It’s an important topic!

For additional background inspiration, I recommend the three short videos in the article “The future of travel: Transportation confronts its ‘Kodak moment'”. (Thanks to Nathan for drawing this article to my attention.)

Speakers in these videos talk about the industries that are liable to radical disruption (and perhaps irrelevance) due to the rise of collision-proof driverless vehicles. The airbag industry is one; car collision insurance might be another. I’m sure you can think of more.

4 February 2013

Responding to the call for a new Humanity+ manifesto

Filed under: BHAG, futurist, Humanity Plus, leadership, risks — David Wood @ 7:37 am

I’ve been pondering the call, on Transhumanity.net, to upgrade the Transhumanist Declaration.

This endeavour needs the input of many minds to be successful. Below, please find a copy of a submission from me, to add into the mix. I’ll welcome feedback!

Humanity is on the brink of a momentous leap forwards in evolution. If we are wise and strong, we can – and should – make that leap.

This evolutionary transformation takes advantage of rapidly improving technology – technology that arises from positive virtuous cycles and unprecedented interdisciplinary convergence. This technology will grant us awesome powers: the power to capture ample energy from the Sun, the atom, and beyond; the power to synthesise new materials to rejuvenate our environment and fuel our societies; the power to realise an unparalleled abundance of health, security, vigour, vitality, creativity, knowledge, and experience; the power to consciously, thoughtfully, proactively remake Humanity.

Through imminently available technology, our lives can be radically enhanced, expanded, and extended. We can be the generation that banishes disease, destitution, decay, and death. Our societies can become marvels of autonomy and inclusion, featuring splendid variety and harmony. We can move far beyond the earth, spreading ever higher consciousness in both inner and outer space. We can transcend our original biological nature, and become as if divine; we’ll be as far ahead of current human capabilities as current humans exceed the prowess of our ape forebears.

But technology is a two-edged sword. Alongside the potential for transcendent improvement lies the potential for existential destruction. We face fearsome perils of environmental catastrophe, unstoppable new plagues and pathogens, rampant unemployment and alienation, the collapse of world financial markets, pervasive systems of unresponsive computers and moronically intelligent robots that act in frustration to human desires, horrific new weaponry that could easily fall into the wrong hands and precipitate Armageddon, and intensive mechanisms for draconian surveillance and thought control.

Continuing the status quo is not an option. Any quest for sustainability of current lifestyles is a delusion. We cannot stay still, and we cannot retreat. The only way to survive is radical enhancement – moving from Humanity to Humanity+.

We’ll need great wisdom and strength to successfully steer the acceleration of converging technology for a positive rather than a negative outcome. We’ll need to take full advantage of the best of current Humanity, to successfully make the leap to Humanity+.

Grand battles of ideas lie ahead. In all these grand battles, smart technology can be our powerful ally – technology that can unlock and enhance our human capacities for insight, innovation, compassion, kindness, and solidarity.

We’ll need to transcend worldviews that insist on viewing humans as inherently diminished, incapable, flawed, and mortal. We’ll need to help individuals and societies rise above cognitive biases and engrained mistakes in reasoning. And we’ll need to accelerate a reformation of the political and economic environment, so that the outcomes that are rationally best are pursued, instead of those which are expedient and profitable for the people who currently possess the most power and influence.

As more and more people come to appreciate the tremendous attractiveness and the credibility of the Humanity+ future, they’ll collectively commit more of their energy, skills, and resources in support of realising that future. But the outcome is still far from clear.

Time is short, risks are high, and there is much to do. We need to open minds, raise awareness, transform the public mood, overturn prejudices, establish rights, build alliances, resist over-simplification, avoid the temptations of snake oil purveyors, dispel distractions, weigh up the best advice available, take hard decisions, and accelerate specific research and development. If we can navigate these slippery paths, with wisdom and strength, we will indeed witness the profound, glorious emergence of Humanity+.

20 December 2012

An absorbing, challenging vision of near-future struggles

nexus-75-dpiTechnology can cause carnage, and in the wake of the carnage, outrage.

Take the sickening example of the shooting dead of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After that fearful carnage, it’s no surprise that there are insistent calls to restrict the availability of powerful automatic guns.

There are similar examples of carnage and outrage in the new science fiction novel “Nexus: mankind gets an upgrade”, by the noted futurist and writer Ramez Naam.

I met Ramez at the WorldFuture 2012 event in Toronto earlier this year, where he gave a presentation on “Can Innovation Save the Planet?” which I rated as one of the very best sessions in the midst of a very good conference. I’ve been familiar with the high calibre of his thinking for some time, so when I heard that his new book Nexus was available for download to my Kindle – conveniently just ahead of me taking a twelve-hour flight – I jumped at the chance to purchase a copy. It turned out to be a great impulse purchase decision. I finished the book just as the airplane wheels touched down.

The type of technology that is linked to carnage and outrage in Nexus can be guessed from the image on the front cover of the book – smart drugs. Of course, drugs, like guns, are already the source of huge public debate in terms of whether to restrict access. Events described in Nexus make it clear why certain drugs become even more controversial, a few short decades ahead, in this fictional but all-too-credible vision of the near future.

Back in the real world, public interest in smart drugs is already accelerating:

  • I hear more and more discussions when people talk about taking nootropics of one sort or another – to help them “pull an all-nighter”, or to be especially sharp and mentally focused for an important interview. These comments often get followed up by reflections on whether these drugs might convey an unfair advantage.
  • The 2011 film Limitless – which I reviewed in passing here – helped to raise greater public awareness of the potential of this technology.
  • Audience attendance (and the subsequent online debate) at the recent London Futurist event “Hacking our wetware, with Andrew Vladimirov”, convinced me that public appetite for information on smart drugs is about to greatly intensify.

And as discussion of the technology of smart drugs increases, so (quite rightly) does discussion of the potential downsides and drawbacks of that technology.

Nexus is likely to ratchet this interest even higher. The technology in the novel doesn’t just add a few points of IQ, in a transitory basis, to the people who happen to take it. It goes much further than that. It has the potential to radically upgrade humans – with as big a jump in evolution (in the course of a few decades) as the transition between apes and humans. And not everyone likes that potential, for reasons that the book gradually makes credible, through sympathetic portrayals of various kinds of carnage.

Nexus puts the ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism clearly on the map. And lots more too, which I shouldn’t say much about, to avoid giving away the plot and spoiling the enjoyment of new readers.

But I will say this:

  • My own background as a software engineer (a profession I share with Ramez Naam) made me especially attuned to the descriptions of the merging of computing science ideas with those of smart drugs; other software engineers are likely to enjoy these speculations too
  • My strong interest in the battle of ideas about progress made me especially interested in inner turmoil (and changes of mind) of various key characters, as they weighed up the upsides and downsides of making new technology more widely available
  • My sympathy for the necessity of an inner path to enlightenment, to happen in parallel with increasingly smart deployment of increasingly powerful technology, meant that I was intrigued by some of the scenes in the book involving meditative practices
  • My status as an aspiring author myself – I’m now about one third of the way through the book I’m writing – meant that I took inspiration from seeing how a good author can integrate important ideas about technology, philosophy, societal conflict, and mental enlightenment, in a cracking good read.

Ramez is to be congratulated on writing a book that should have wide appeal, and which will raise attention to some very important questions – ahead of the time when rapid improvements of technology might mean that we have missed our small window of opportunity to steer these developments in ways that augment, rather than diminish, our collective humanity.

Anyone who thinks of themselves as a futurist should do themselves a favour and read this book, in order to participate more fully in the discussions which it is bound to catalyse.

Footnote: There’s a lot of strong language in the book, and “scenes of an adult nature”. Be warned. Some of the action scenes struck me as implausible – but hey, that’s the same for James Bond and Jason Bourne, so that’s no showstopper. Which prompts the question – could Nexus be turned into a film? I hope so!

1 September 2012

The three most important questions about the future

Filed under: futurist, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, risks, SENS, UKH+ — David Wood @ 2:51 pm

Futurism – the attempt at systematic, thoughtful speculation about the likely future – can be divided into smaller and larger questions.

Many of the ‘small’ questions are admittedly very interesting. Here are some examples.

Will China continue to grow in influence and strength? When will humans colonise Mars? Will increasing technological automation drive more and more people out of work? Will currencies converge (like a larger Euro-zone) or fragment? Is nuclear fusion ever going to prove viable? When will computers outplay humans at the game of Go, or drive cars better than humans, or create art better than humans? What will happen to the rate of population growth, and the rate of resource depletion? Will religion decline or resurge? Which of our present-day habits will our descendents look back on and regard as disdainfully as we now regard (say) slavery and cigarette smoking? Will money and campaign finance play an ever more domineering role in politics?

I call these questions ‘small’ only because there are even larger questions which frame any overall analysis of the future. In particular, I see three groups of questions as particularly pressing:

  1. The question of existential risk: Is it feasible that human civilisation could dramatically collapse within the next few decades – as a result of (e.g.) economic meltdown, rapidly changing climate, military or terrorist escapades, horrific weaponry or diseases, and/or rogue tech? Could we actually be living in the end times?
  2. The question of transhuman potential: Is it feasible that tech enhancements in the next few decades could radically transform and elevate human performance and experience – making us substantially smarter, stronger, healthier, longer-lived – potentially creating as big a step-up in capability as in the prehistoric jump from ape to human?
  3. The question of resource allocation: If transhuman potential lies within our grasp, should we indeed try to grasp it? Contrariwise, is any effort to accelerate transhumanism an indulgence, a distraction, or (even worse) a catalyst for disaster rather than progress? If there are credible risks of existential collapse, where should we actually be grasping? Which topics deserve the lion’s share of our collective attention, investment, analysis, and effort?

These questions are what I seek to see debated at the meetings of the London Futurists that I organise once every few weeks.

The questions defy any simple responses, but for what it’s worth, summary versions of my own answers are as follows:

  1. The threat of existential collapse is real. Human ingenuity and perseverance have led us through many major crises in the past, but there’s nothing guaranteed about our ability to survive even larger, more wicked, faster-breaking crises in the near future
  2. Technology is progressing at a remarkable rate, and the rate is likely to accelerate. Powerful combinations of nano-tech, AI, personal genetics, synthetic biology, robotics, and regenerative medicine, coupled with significantly improved understanding of diet and mental health (e.g. mindfulness), could indeed see the emergence of “Humanity+” amidst the struggles of the present-day. But there’s nothing inevitable about it
  3. Humanity+ (also known as “transhumanism”) is not only possible; it is highly desirable so long as the increased ‘external’ strengths of new human individuals and societies are balanced by matching increases in ‘internal’ strengths such as kindness, open-mindedness, and sociability. As I’ve written before, we need increased wisdom as well as increased smartness, and an increased desire for self-mastery as well as an increased ability to transcend limits.

The reason why Humanity+ is desirable (as well as being possible) is because I see the enhanced humans of the near future, with their much greater collective wisdom – improved versions of you and me – as being the best bet to guard against the very real threats of existential risk.

Speakers at the London Futurists meetings address different parts of this overall rich mix of existential risk and transhuman opportunity. As befits healthy debate, the speakers take different viewpoints. Some of these speakers are what can be called “professional futurists”, often hired by businesses to help them consider scenarios for evolution of technology, business, and products. Other speakers are what can be called “activists”, who personally commit large amounts of their time and energy to bringing about one or more aspects of a desirable transhuman future.

The speaker on Sunday 2nd September, Aubrey de Grey, falls into the second category. As noted on the webpage for the event,

Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge, UK and Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation, a California-based 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging.

Aubrey’s talk is entitled “Regenerative medicine for aging”. Note: this is not just about life extension – allowing longer lifespans. It is about health extension – allowing longer healthy lifespans, with resulting very positive benefits in reduced healthcare costs worldwide. As Aubrey writes,

In this talk I will explain why therapies that can add 30 healthy years to the remaining lifespan of typical 60-year-olds may well arrive within the next few decades.

If you’d like to find out more about Aubrey’s thinking and accomplishments, let me point you at two sources:

Alternatively, if you’re in or nearby London, by all means drop into the meeting 🙂

(We’re planning to record it and make the video available afterwards, for people unable to join on the day.)

28 July 2012

More for us all, or more for them?

Filed under: books, disruption, Economics, futurist, Humanity Plus, politics, UKH+ — David Wood @ 1:15 pm

The opening keynote speaker at this weekend’s World Future 2012 conference this weekend was Lee Rainie, the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Lee’s topic, “Future of the Internet”, was described as follows in the conference agenda:

In this keynote presentation based on his latest book, Networked: The New Social Operating System (co-authored with Barry Wellman), Dr. Rainie will discuss the findings of the most recent expert surveys on the future of teens’ brains, the future of universities, the future of money, the impact of Big Data, the battle between apps and the Web, the spread of gamefication, and the impact of smart systems on consumers.

That was a lot to cover in 45 minutes, but Lee said he would speak fast – and he did!

Analysis  of the Pew Internet expert surveys Lee mentions is available online at http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/2012survey/ – where you’ll find a wealth of fascinating material.

But Lee’s summary of the summary (if I can put it like that) is that there are two potential pathways ahead, between now and 2020, regarding what happens with Internet technology:

  1. In one pathway, we all benefit: the fruits of improving Internet technologies are widely shared
  2. In another pathway, the benefits are much more restricted, to “them”.

Hence the question: “More for us all, or more for them?”

“Them” could be political leaders, or it could be corporate leaders.

Listening to Lee’s words, I was struck by a powerful resonance with the main theme of a BIG book on history that I’m the processing of reading. (Actually, I’m listening to an Audible version of it on my iPod.)

The book is “Why nations fail the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty“, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It has a marvelous sweep through events in all eras of human history and in all corners of the globe.

I’m only six hours into what will be a 15 hour long listen, but I already suspect this to be the most important book about history that I’ve ever read. (And as regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot.)

It’s not just “one thing after another” (fascinating though that kind of history book can be), but a profound analysis of the causes of divergence between societies with prosperity and societies with poverty.

In brief, the primary differentiator is the kind of political institutions that exist:

  • Are they extractive, in which the outputs of society are siphoned by a relatively small elite
  • Or are they inclusive, which a much greater sharing of power, influence, and potential benefit?

The nature of political institutions in turn influence the nature and operation of economic institutions.

The book has many striking examples of how ruling elites blocked the development or the wider application of technology and/or market reforms, fearing the “creative destruction” which would be likely to follow – threatening their grip on power.

One example in the book is the story of the reaction of the Roman emperor Tiberius to the invention of unbreakable glass. This story is also told by, for example, Computer World blogger John Riley, in his article “Why innovation is not always welcomed with open arms“:

The story of the Roman inventor of flexible glass 2000 years ago is a salutary lesson for all innovators, especially those within organisations.

As Isadore of Seville tells it, the inventor went to the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) with a drinking bowl made of this flexible and ductile glass, and threw in on the ground to demonstrate that it didn’t shatter.

Tiberius asked him if anyone else knew about the invention. The inventor said he’d told no-one.

And he was instantly beheaded.

What the unfortunate inventor hadn’t seen was the big picture – Tiberius had instantly realised that cheap, easily produced flexible glass that didn’t break would wreck the Imperial monopoly on gold and silver!

That, sadly is too often the case in big companies, where someone comes up with a bright idea which in practice means interfering with a profitable short term operation or disintermediating a product line.

In such cases innovators these days don’t get killed – they get ignored, sidelined, blocked or gagged under non-disclosures. Many innovative products have been  rejected by large suppliers controlling projects when they threaten monopolistic inefficiencies. There are many cases of other innovations being bought up and mothballed…

As Acemoglu and Robinson point out, in a different political climate, the inventor could have taken his invention to market without the explicit knowledge and permission of the ruling elite (such as the emperor). That would be a world in which, to return to my opening question, there would more likely be technology benefits for everyone, rather than control of technology being subordinated to the benefits of a clique.

But our current political climate is highly troubled. My friend and Humanity+ UK co-organiser Amon Kalkin describes the situation like this:

We are in a time of crisis. Large numbers of people are increasingly disenfranchised, squeezed on all sides and with no hope of appeal to authorities. Why? Because those very same authorities – our governments – are virtually indistinguishable from the corporate interests who are gaining most from the current situation. We live under a system where our votes essentially don’t matter. You can pick a team, but you’re not allowed to change the rules of the game. Even worse, we have been trained to think of this as a normal and natural situation. Who are we to question these powerful people? Who are we to awaken, to unify and demand change?

Rather than just considering the topic “Why Nations Fail“, we might well consider “Why Transnational Institutions Fail” – referring to, for example, the evident problems within the Eurozone and within the United Nations.

The same imperative applies: we need to find a mode of collaboration that avoids being subverted by the special interests of ruling minorities – whether these minorities be economic elites or political elites.

That imperative has led Amon to found the Zero State movement:

Zero State is a movement for positive social change through technology.

We’re a grass-roots world community pursuing smart, compassionate solutions to problems, and improving the human condition.

Personal transformative technologies we pursue include life extension and Artificial Intelligence. Social projects include accelerating changebasic incomeMeshnet and Bitcoin, while lifestyle initiatives explore areas such as the arts, spirituality, fashion and culture.

More recently, Amon and various other Zero State members are launching a political party, “Consensus“, to promote their Zero State vision. My quote above (“We are in a time of crisis…”) comes from Amon’s description of what he plans to say at the launch meeting for Consensus that will take place next weekend in London.

For more details about this launch event, see this announcement on the London Futurist meetup site:

The case for a Zero State political movement

Many futurists envisage a better, more compassionate society, organized in terms of using technological developments to maximize well-being rather than simply concentrating resources in a few ultra-rich hands and leaving everybody else increasingly worse off. But all too often, futurists talk about positive outcomes as if such things come without work or struggle. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that right now our society is stalling, strangled by a tiny proportion of citizens who do not share our values.

There have been few moments in the history of our society like the one facing us now, where deep crisis also offers the opportunity for deep, positive change. It’s the time for futurists to step up to actively guide our society toward the better futures we envisage.

The CONSENSUS is a newly-formed UK-based political party which seeks to harness the intelligence and compassion to be found among futurists and other subcultures to the design of a real, improved future, for us and our children. Drawing inspiration from the eight principles of the Zero State movement, the CONSENSUS will encourage people to think about the possibilities open to society once again.

The CONSENSUS is the first party of its kind. We intend to reach out to other parties and groups who share similar views and goals. If we are successful, there will soon be a number of CONSENSUS parties at the national level around the world, all part of an organization known as the Consensus of Democratic Futurist Parties (CDFP). The UK CONSENSUS is already affiliated with an international futurist organization in the Zero State movement, and the seeds of multiple local political parties have been sown.

We welcome the opportunity to hear your views about the state of society today and its future, and what are the issues and goals that we should focus on. No matter what your own views are, this is your chance to have your say, and to have it influence a concrete course of action.

If you care about our future, and the possibility of finding intelligent, compassionate solutions to our problems, then we encourage you to come to this meeting to:

  • find out how you can help
  • join the conversation
  • offer your views on how we should move forward…

16 June 2012

Beyond future shock

Filed under: alienation, books, change, chaos, futurist, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, robots, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 3:10 pm

They predicted the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities, and the end of blue-collar manufacturing. Not bad for 1970.

That’s the summary, with the benefit of four decades of hindsight, given by Fast Company writer Greg Lindsay, of the forecasts made in the 1970 bestseller “Future Shock” by husband-and-wife authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

As Lindsay comments,

Published in 1970, Future Shock made its author Alvin Toffler – a former student radical, welder, newspaper report and Fortune editor – a household name. Written with his wife (and uncredited co-author), Heidi Toffler, the book was The World Is Flat of its day, selling 6 million copies and single-handedly inventing futurism…

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time”, the pair wrote.

And quoting Deborah Westphal, the managing partner of Toffler Associates, in an interview at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Future Shock, Lindsay notes the following:

In Future Shock, the Tofflers hammered home the point that technology, culture, and even life itself was evolving too fast for governments, policy-makers and regulators to keep up. Forty years on, that message hasn’t changed. “The government needs to understand the dependencies and the convergence of networks through information,” says Westphal. “And there still needs to be some studies done around rates of change and the synchronization of these systems. Business, government, and organizational structures need to be looked at and redone. We’ve built much of the world economy on an industrial model, and that model doesn’t work in an information-centric society. That’s probably the greatest challenge we still face -understanding the old rules don’t apply for the future.”

Earlier this week, another book was published, that also draws on Future Shock for inspiration.  Again, the authors are a husband-and-wife team, Parag and Ayesha Khanna.  And again, the book looks set to redefine key aspects of the futurist endeavour.

This new book is entitled “Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization“.  The Khannas refer early on to the insights expressed by the Tofflers in Future Shock:

The Tofflers’ most fundamental insight was that the pace of change has become as important as the content of change… The term Future Shock was thus meant to capture our intense anxiety in the face of technology’s seeming ability to accelerate time. In this sense, technology’s true impact isn’t just physical or economic, but social and psychological as well.

One simple but important example follows:

Technologies such as mobile phones can make us feel empowered, but also make us vulnerable to new pathologies like nomophobia – the fear of being away from one’s mobile phone. Fifty-eight percent of millennials would rather give up their sense of smell than their mobile phone.

As befits the theme of speed, the book is a fast read. I downloaded it onto my Kindle on the day of its publication, and have already read it all the way through twice. It’s short, but condensed. The text contains many striking turns of phrase, loaded with several layers of meaning, which repay several rethinks. That’s the best kind of sound-bite.

Despite its short length, there are too many big themes in the book for me to properly summarise them here. The book portrays an optimistic vision, alongside a series of challenges and risks. As illustrations, let me pick out a selection of phrases, to convey some of the flavour:

The cross-pollination of leading-edge sectors such as information technology, biotechnology, pervasive computing, robotics, neuroscience, and nanotechnology spells the end of certain turf wars over nomenclature. It is neither the “Bio Age” nor the “Nano Age” nor the “Neuro Age”, but the hybrid of all of these at the same time…

Our own relationship to technology is moving beyond the instrumental to the existential. There is an accelerating centripetal dance between what technologies are doing outside us and inside us. Externally, technology no longer simply processes our instructions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback. Internally, we are moving beyond using technology only to dominate nature towards making ourselves the template for technology, integrating technologies within ourselves physically. We don’t just use technology; we absorb it

The Hybrid Age is the transition period between the Information Age and the moment of Singularity (when machine surpass human intelligence) that inventor Ray Kurzweil estimates we may reach by 2040 (perhaps sooner). The Hybrid Age is a liminal phase in which we cross the threshold toward a new mode of arranging global society…

You may continue to live your life without understanding the implications of the still-distant Singularity, but you should not underestimate how quickly we are accelerating into the Hybrid Age – nor delay in managing this transition yourself

The dominant paradigm to explain global change in the Hybrid Age will be geotechnnology. Technology’s role in shaping and reshaping the prevailing order, and accelerating change between orders, forces us to rethink the intellectual hegemony of geopolitics and geoeconomics…

It is geotechnology that is the underlying driver of both: Mastery in the leading technology sectors of any era determines who leads in geoeconomics and dominates in geopolitics…

The shift towards a geotechnology paradigm forces us to jettison centuries of foundational assumptions of geopolitics. The first is our view on scale: “Bigger is better” is no longer necessarily true. Size can be as much a liability as an asset…

We live and die by our Technik, the capacity to harness emerging technologies to improve our circumstances…

We will increasingly differentiate societies on the basis not of their regime type or income, but of their capacity to harness technology. Societies that continuously upgrade their Technik will thrive…

Meeting the grand challenge of improving equity on a crowded planet requires spreading Technik more than it requires spreading democracy

And there’s lots more, applying the above themes to education, healthcare, “better than new” prosthetics, longevity and rejuvenation, 3D printing, digital currencies, personal entrepreneurship and workforce transformation, the diffusion of authority, the rise of smart cities and their empowered “city-zens”, augmented reality and enhanced personal avatars, robots and “avoiding robopocalypse”, and the prospect for a forthcoming “Pax Technologica”.

It makes me breathless just remembering all these themes – and how they time and again circle back on each other.

Footnote: Readers who are in the vicinity of London next Saturday (23rd June) are encouraged to attend the London Futurist / Humanity+ UK event “Hybrid Reality, with Ayesha Khanna”. Click on the links for more information.

3 June 2012

Super-technology and a possible renaissance of religion

Filed under: death, disruption, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, religion, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 11:02 pm

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke

Imagine that the human race avoids self-destruction and continues on the path of increased mastery of technology. Imagine that, as seems credible some time in the future, humans will eventually gain the ability to keep everyone alive indefinitely, in an environment of great abundance, variety, and  intrinsic interest.

That paradise may be a fine outcome for our descendants, but unless the pace of technology improvement becomes remarkably rapid, it seems to have little direct impact on our own lives. Or does it?

It may depend on exactly how much power our god-like descendants eventually acquire.  For example, here are two of the points from a radical vision of the future known as the Ten cosmist convictions:

  • 5) We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.
  • 6) Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”.

Whoa! “Resurrect the dead”, by “copying them to the future”. How might that work?

In part, by collecting enormous amount of data about the past – reconstructing information from numerous sources. It’s similar to collecting data about far-distant stars using a very large array of radio telescopes. And in part, by re-embodying that data in a new environment, similar to copying running software onto a new computer, giving it a new lease of life.

Lots of questions can be asked about the details:

  • Can sufficient data really be gathered in the future, in the face of all the degradation commonly called “the second law of thermodynamics”, that would allow a sufficiently high-fidelity version of me (or anyone else) to be re-created?
  • If a future super-human collected lots of data about me and managed to get an embodiment of that data running on some future super-computer, would that really amount to resurrecting me, as opposed to creating a copy of me?

I don’t think anyone can confident about answers to such questions. But it’s at least conceivable that remarkably advanced technology of the future may allow positive answers.

In other words, it’s at least conceivable that our descendants will have the god-like ability to recreate us in the future, giving us an unexpected prospect for immortality.

This makes sense of the remark by radical futurist and singularitarian Ray Kurzweil at the end of the film “Transcendent Man“:

Does God exist? Well I would say, not yet

Other radical futurists quibble over the “not yet” caveat. In his recent essay “Yes, I am a believer“, Giulio Prisco takes the discussion one stage further:

Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Probably other civilizations out there already attained God-like powers.

Giulio notes that even the celebrated critic of theism, Richard Dawkins, gives some support to this line of thinking.  For example, here’s an excerpt from a 2011 New York Times interview, in which Dawkins discusses an essay written by theoretic physicist Freeman Dyson:

In one essay, Professor Dyson casts millions of speculative years into the future. Our galaxy is dying and humans have evolved into something like bolts of superpowerful intelligent and moral energy.

Doesn’t that description sound an awful lot like God?

“Certainly,” Professor Dawkins replies. “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.”

He raises his hand, just in case a reader thinks he’s gone around a religious bend. “It’s very important to understand that these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution.”

Could they be immortal? The professor shrugs.

“Probably not.” He smiles and adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be too dogmatic about that.”

As Giulio points out, Dawkins develops a similar line of argument in part of his book “The God Delusion”:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century…

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way…

Giulio seems more interested in the properties than the provenance. The fact that these entities have god-like powers prompts him to proclaim “Yes, I am a believer“.  He gives another reason in support of that proclamation: In contrast to the views of so-called militant atheists, Giulio is “persuaded that religion can be a powerful and positive force”.

Giulio sees this “powerful and positive force” as applying to him personally as well as to groups in general:

“In my beliefs I find hope, happiness, meaning, the strength to get through the night, and a powerful sense of wonder at our future adventures out there in the universe, which gives me also the drive to try to be a better person here-and-now on this little planet and make it a little better for future generations”.

More controversially, Giulio has taken to describing himself (e.g. on his Facebook page) as a “Christian”. Referring back to his essay, and to the ensuing online discussion:

Religion can, and should, be based on mutual tolerance, love and compassion. Jesus said: “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and added: “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”…

This is the important part of his teachings in my opinion. Christian theology is interesting, but I think it should be reformulated for our times…

Was Jesus the Son of God? I don’t think this is a central issue. He certainly was, in the sense that we all are, and he may have been one of those persons in tune with the universe, more in tune with the universe than the rest of us, able to glimpse at veiled realities beyond our senses.

I’ve known Giulio for several years, from various Humanity+ and Singularity meetings we’ve both attended – dating back to “Transvision 2006” in Helsinki. I respect him as a very capable thinker, and I take his views seriously. His recent “Yes, I am a believer” article has stirred up a hornets’ nest of online criticism.

Accordingly, I was very pleased that Giulio accepted my invitation to come to London to speak at a London Futurist / Humanity+ UK meeting on Saturday 14th July: “Transhumanist Religions 2.0: New Cosmist religion and spirituality for our boundless future (and our troubled present)”. For all kinds of reason, this discussion deserves a wider airing.

First, I share the view that religious sentiments can provide cohesion and energy to propel individuals and groups to undertake enormously difficult projects (such as the project to avoid the self-destruction of the human race, or any drastic decline in the quality of global civilisation).  The best analysis I’ve read of this point is in the book “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society” by David Sloan Wilson.  As I’ve written previously:

This book has sweeping scope, but makes its case very well.  The case is that religion has in general survived inasmuch as it helped groups of people to achieve greater cohesion and thereby acquire greater fitness compared to other groups of people.  This kind of religion has practical effect, independent of whether or not its belief system corresponds to factual reality.  (It can hardly be denied that, in most cases, the belief system does not correspond to factual reality.)

The book has some great examples – from the religions in hunter-gatherer societies, which contain a powerful emphasis on sharing out scarce resources completely equitably, through examples of religions in more complex societies.  The chapter on John Calvin was eye-opening (describing how his belief system brought stability and prosperity to Geneva) – as were the sections on the comparative evolutionary successes of Judaism and early Christianity.  But perhaps the section on the Balinese water-irrigation religion is the most fascinating of the lot.

Of course, there are some other theories for why religion exists (and is so widespread), and this book gives credit to these theories in appropriate places.  However, this pro-group selection explanation has never before been set out so carefully and credibly, and I think it’s no longer possible to deny that it plays a key role.

The discussion makes it crystal clear why many religious groups tend to treat outsiders so badly (despite treating insiders so well).  It also provides a fascinating perspective on the whole topic of “forgiveness”.  Finally, the central theme of “group selection” is given a convincing defence.

But second, there’s no doubt that religion can fit blinkers over people’s thinking abilities, and prevent them from weighing up arguments dispassionately. Whenever people talk about the Singularity movement as having the shape of a religion – with Ray Kurzweil as a kind of infallible prophet – I shudder. But we needn’t lurch to that extreme. We should be able to maintain the discipline of rigorous independent thinking within a technologically-informed renaissance of positive religious sentiment.

Third, if the universe really does have beings with God-like powers, what attitude should we adopt towards these beings? Should we be seeking in some way to worship them, or placate them, or influence them? It depends on whether these beings are able to influence human history, here and now, or whether they are instead restricted (by raw facts of space and time that even God-like beings have to respect) to observing us and (possibly) copying us into the future.

Personally my bet is on the latter choice. For example, I’m not convinced by people who claim evidence to the contrary. And if these beings did have the ability to intervene in human history, but have failed to do so, it would be evidence of them having scant interest in widespread intense human suffering. They would hardly be super-beings.

In that case, the focus of our effort should remain squarely on building the right conditions for super-technology to benefit humanity as a whole (this is the project I call “Inner Humanity+“), rather than on somehow seeking to attract the future attention of these God-like beings. But no doubt others will have different views!

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