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9 November 2016

The missing vision

Filed under: politics, vision — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 10:04 am

The United States of America have voted. In large numbers, electors have selected as their next President someone committed to:

  • Making it much harder for many types of people to enter the country
  • Deporting many of the current residents
  • Ramping up anti-Islam hostility
  • Denouncing global warming as a hoax
  • Undoing legislation to protect the environment
  • Reducing US support for countries facing hostile aggression
  • Dismantling the US deal with Iran over nuclear technology
  • Imposing punitive trade tariffs on China, likely triggering a trade war
  • Packing the Supreme Court with conservative judges who are opposed to choice.

Over the past months, I have tried – and usually failed – to persuade many of my online “friends” of the dangers of voting for Donald Trump. Smart people have, it seems, their own reasons for endorsing and welcoming this forthcoming “shock to the system”. People have been left behind by the pace of change, I’ve been told. Who can blame them for reaching for an outsider politician? Who can blame them for ignoring the objections of elites and “experts”?

Because of the pain and alienation being experienced by many electors, it’s no surprise – the argument runs – that they’re willing to try something different. Electors have proven themselves ready to overlook the evident character flaws, flip-flops, egotism, sexism, and indiscipline of Trump. These flaws seem to pale into insignificance beside the hope that a powerful outsider can deliver a hefty whack on the side of a dysfunctional Washington establishment. Their visceral hatred of present-day politics has led them to suspend critical judgement on the Trump juggernaut. That hatred also led them to lap up, unquestioningly, many of the bogus stories circulating on social media, that levelled all kinds on nonsense accusations on the leadership of the Democratic Party.

(For a thoughtful, heartfelt analysis of why so many people leave behind their critical judgement, see this Facebook essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky.)

There are already lots of arguments about who is to blame for this development – about whose shoulders failed to hold the responsibility to uphold sensible rather than fantasist politics. For example, see this Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Blame the elites for the Trump phenomenon”.

My own analysis is that what was missing was (and is) a credible, compelling vision for how a better society is going to be built.

Electors were unconvinced by what they heard from Hillary Clinton, and (indeed) from the other non-Trump candidates for nomination. What they heard seemed too much of the same. They imagined that any benefits arising from a Clinton presidency would be experienced by the elites of society, rather than by the common citizen.

What’s needed, therefore, is the elaboration of a roadmap for how all members of society can benefit from the fruits of ongoing and forthcoming technological progress.

I call this vision the “Post-scarcity vision”. Because it involves the fundamental adoption of new technology, for progressive social purposes, it can also be called a “Technoprogressive vision”.

I’ve tried to share my thinking about that vision on numerous occasions over the last 5-10 years. Here are some slides taken from a presentation I gave last month to the IC Beyond (Imperial College Beyond) Society in Central London:

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If you want to hear my explanation of these slides in the context of a longer discussion of the impact of automation and technological unemployment on society, here’s a video of the entire meeting (the “vision” slides are in the second half of the presentation):

As this post-scarcity technoprogressive vision evolves and matures, it has the potential to persuade more and more people that it – rather than Trump-style restrictions on movement, choice, and aggregation – represents a better route to a society that it better for everyone.

But beliefs have deep roots, and it’s going to require lots of hard, wise work to undo all kinds of prejudices en route to that better society.

Footnote: I first wrote a formal “Transhumanist Manifesto” in February 2013, here (with, ahem, somewhat flowery language). For other related declarations and manifestos, see this listing on H+Pedia. Out of the growing community of technoprogressives and transhumanists, there’s a lot of potential to turn these visions into practical roadmaps.

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8 November 2016

Agile organisations for agile politics

Filed under: Agile, H+Pedia, politics, Transpolitica, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 6:23 pm

The pace of change in politics over the last twelve months has been breathtaking. It’s possible the change will accelerate further over the next twelve months:

  • Huge dissatisfaction exists with present-day political parties, candidates, and processes
  • Ideas can spread extremely rapidly, due to extensive usage of social media
  • Although many people feel alienated from mainstream politics, they have a hunger for political change.

Growing awareness of forthcoming technological disruptions heightens the general feeling of angst:

  • Technological unemployment (automation) threatens to eliminate whole swathes of jobs, or to reduce the salaries available to people who continue in their current roles
  • Genetic editing and artificial intelligence have the potential for people living “better than well” and even “more than human”, but it’s unclear how widely these benefits will be shared among all sectors of society
  • Technologies such as blockchain and 3D printing raise the possibility of decentralised coordination – coordination with less need for powerful states or corporations
  • Virtual Reality, along with new types of drug, could lead to large-scale disengagement of citizens from mainstream society – with people “tuning in and dropping out” as never before
  • Breakthroughs in fields of energy, nanotech, the Internet of Things, synthetic biology, and self-learning artificial intelligence could result, intentionally or unintentionally, in extremely chaotic outcomes – with recourse to new types of “weapons of mass destruction” (including cyber-terrorism, nano-terrorism, gene-terrorism, and AI-terrorism)
  • Technologies of surveillance could put more power than ever before in the hands of all-seeing, all-manipulating governments and/or corporations
  • Misguided attempts to “geo-engineer” planetary solutions to potential runaway climate change could have devastating unintended consequences for the environment.

In the light of such uncertainty, two skills are becoming more important than ever:

  • The skill of foresight – the anticipation and evaluation of new scenarios, arising from the convergence of multiple developing trends
  • The skill of agility – the capability to change plans rapidly, as unexpected developments take on a life of their own.

An update on the Transhumanist Party of the UK

This context is the background for a significant change in a political party that was formed nearly two years ago – the Transhumanist Party of the UK (TPUK).

As a reminder, here’s a 90 second promotional video for TPUK from April last year:

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The messages in that video remain as relevant and important today as when the Party was founded:

The Transhumanist Party – Transcending human limitations

Harnessing accelerating technology:

  • Enabling positive social change and personal freedom,
  • With no-one abandoned,
  • So technology benefits all – not just vested interests.

Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment

  • Policies informed by science and evidence,
  • Ideology and divisiveness replaced by rationality and compassion ,
  • Risks managed proactively, enabling innovation to flourish.

Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics

  • Smart automation and artificial intelligence addressing age-old human burdens,
  • Huge personal and financial benefits from preventive medicine and healthy longevity,
  • Politics transcending past biases and weaknesses.

However, despite this vision, and despite an initial flurry of positive publicity (including the parliamentary candidacy of Alex Karran), the Party has made little progress over the last 6-9 months. And in the last couple of weeks, two key members of the Party’s NEC (National Executive Committee) have resigned from the Party:

These resignations arise from the recognition that there are many drawbacks to creating and developing a new political party in the United Kingdom:

  • The “first past the post” electoral system makes it especially difficult for minority parties to win seats in parliament
  • Political parties need to establish a set of policies on a wide range of issues – issues away from the areas of core agreement among members, and where dissension can easily arise
  • The timescales spoken about for full electoral success – potentially up to 25 years – are far too far into the future, given all the other changes expected in the meantime.

Party executives will each be following their own decisions about the best way to progress the underlying goals of transhumanist politics. Many of us will be redoubling our efforts behind Transpolitica – the think tank which was established at the same time as the Transhumanist Party. The relationship between Transpolitica and TPUK is covered in this FAQ from the Transpolitica website:

Q: What is the relation between Transpolitica and the various Transhumanist Parties?

Transpolitica aims to provide material and services that will be found useful by transhumanist politicians worldwide, including:

  • Transhumanist supporters who form or join parties with the name “Transhumanist Party” in various countries
  • Transhumanist supporters who form other new parties, without using the word “transhumanist” in their party name
  • Transhumanist supporters inside other existing political parties, including mainstream and long-established parties
  • Transhumanist supporters who prefer not to associate closely with any one political party, but who have an interest in political action.

Transpolitica 2016

Transpolitica is hosting a major conference later this year – on 3rd December. It’s a conference with a very practical ambition – to gather and review proposals for “Real world policy changes for a radically better future”. There will be 15 speakers, covering topics in three broad sections:

  • Regulations, health, and transformation
  • Politics, tools, and transformation
  • Society, data, and transformation

Click here for more details, and to register to attend (while tickets are still available).

I’ll be kicking off the proceedings, with a talk entitled “What prospects for better politics?”.

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Watch out for more news about the topics being covered by the other speakers.

Note that a focus on devising practical policies for a radically better future – policies which could become the focus of subsequent cross-party campaigns for legislative changes – resonates with an important evolution taking place within the IEET (the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies). As James Hughes (the IEET Executive Director) writes:

I am proposing that the IEET re-focus in a major way, on our website, with our blog, with our community, and in our work, on the explicit project of building a global technoprogressive ideological tendency to intervene in debates within futurism, academe and public policy. While we will remain a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and will not be endorsing specific candidates, parties or pieces of legislation, we can focus on the broad parameters of the technoprogressive regulatory and legislative agenda to be pursued globally.

Regarding a first concrete project in this new direction, I have in mind our editing a Technoprogressive Policy Briefing Book, comparable to the briefing books of think tanks like the Brookings Institution, AEI, or Heritage Foundation. This project can collect and collaborate with the excellent work done by Transpolitica and other technoprogressive groups and friends. Each policy briefing would state a general issue in a couple of paragraphs, outline the key technoprogressive policy ideas to address the issue, and then list key publications and links to organizations pursuing those policies.

Next steps with the TPUK

As the official Treasurer of the TPUK, and following (as mentioned above) the resignation of both the leader and deputy leader of the Party, it legally falls to me to manage the evolution of the Party in a way that serves the vision of the remaining members. I’m in discussion with the other remaining representatives on the National Executive Committee, and we’ll be consulting members via the Party’s email conferencing systems. The basic principles I’ll be proposing are as follows:

  1. Times of rapid change demand organisational agility, rather than any heavyweight structures
  2. We will retain our radical purpose – the social changes ahead could (and should) be momentous over the next 5-25 years
  3. We will retain our progressive vision, in which technology benefits all – not just vested interests
  4. We will provide support across the spectrum of existing political parties to sympathisers of transhumanist and technoprogressive changes
  5. We will be ready to play a key positive enabling role as the existing political spectrum undergoes its own changes ahead – including the fragmentation of current parties and the creation of new alliances and new initiatives
  6. We will continue to champion the vision of (a.) Harnessing accelerating technology to enable positive social change and personal freedom; (b.) Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment; (c.) Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics
  7. We will aim to provide actionable, practical analyses – of the sort being presented at Transpolitica 2016 – rather than (just) statements of principle
  8. Rather than maintain an expensive infrastructure of our own, we should feed our work into existing systems – such as H+Pedia, Transpolitica, the IEET, and the Transhuman National Committee of the United States
  9. As far as possible, we will remain collaborative rather than divisive
  10. We will hold onto our domain names
  11. We will retain the option to field our own candidates in future elections, in case that turns out to be the most sensible course of action at that time (this means the Party will remain officially registered with the Electoral Commission – at modest cost)
  12. We will offer our donors and members a refund of the payments they have provided the Party within the last six months, in case they feel they no longer support our vision.

 

26 June 2016

#BRITE – a new start for Britain in Europe

Filed under: politics, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 11:12 am

The people have spoken. The status quo is unacceptable. The United Kingdom cannot continue unchanged, muddling through, somehow hanging on to the politics of the past, with minimal changes in its relationship with Europe and the wider world. That option is a non-starter. It would violate the clear result of the national referendum of 23rd June. The people have called for a bold new start.

Nevertheless, as I write these words, nearly three million people have signed the online petition that, in effect, calls for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Referendum picture

That figure of nearly three million signatories (which keeps rising higher every time I look at the website) dwarfs the number of signatories of all the other petitions (more than 10,000 in total) on the UK government website. The second most popular petition received 823,000 signatures.

List of petitions

In short, although the people have spoken – by a majority of 52% to 48% – huge swathes of the British population are deeply dissatisfied by the outcome. To be clear, I count myself among them. The dissatisfaction includes:

  • Wide recognition that the claims of the Leave campaign were full of exaggerations and (to use an unparliamentary word) lies
  • Observation that leaders of the Leave campaign are already vigorously, shamefully, evasively, back-pedalling on the promises they made before the vote – promises such as ring-fencing additional funding for the NHS and on dramatically reducing immigration
  • Realisation that the vote is likely to trigger Scottish independence – the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Even lots of people who voted Leave are now experiencing voter’s regret. For example, see the compilation in the Evening Standard, “‘I really regret my vote now’: The Brexit voters who wish they’d backed remain”.

This dissatisfaction is eloquently, passionately expressed in a remarkable piece of writing by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, “I want my country back”. If you haven’t read it, you should stop and view it now. I’ll be waiting here when you return.

Also worth pondering is this fine note “The three tragedies” from the Financial Times comments section.

In this context, and with the benefit of some sleep to clear my mind, I offer a proposal. This is not yet a manifesto, but it’s the draft of a potential manifesto.

Tentatively, I label this proposal BRITE – for BRitain In a Transformed Eu. Here goes. There are three parts to it.

1. A different form of second referendum

In the wake of the first referendum, negotiations must proceed on how Britain could leave the EU. These negotiations will flesh out lots of details that have so far been very vague – details where different members of the Leave campaign expressed starkly different opinions. Once the deal is reached, it will make clear features such as:

  • Our new relationship (if any) with the European Economic Area
  • The resulting requirements for payments and for open migration of workers
  • New trading agreements with countries elsewhere in the world
  • What will replace all the EU laws and regulations that currently are taken for granted as parts of British law
  • Impacts on Britain’s financial well-being, house prices, pension funds, etc – impacts on both the rich and the poor throughout the country
  • The likely future of the UK farming industry, fishing industry, the City of London, and so on.

In parallel, it will become clear how the United Kingdom itself would change:

  • Whether Northern Island would leave the United Kingdom and join a United Ireland
  • Whether Scotland would leave the United Kingdom
  • Borders that would need to be put in place.

But before that deal is actioned, with all its momentous consequences, the UK people should be asked whether they agree with it – or whether, instead, they prefer the UK to remain in what might be a seriously transformed EU.

That would be the second referendum.

2. A transformed EU

As I said, the people have spoken. The current status of the EU is unacceptable.

Quite likely, if there were referendums in other European countries, people in several other countries would, at this time, likewise reject ongoing EU membership. So wide is the distrust of existing government systems.

To my mind, the clearest analysis of the drawbacks of the way the EU is functioning is by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. See for example his analysis of the potential impending disintegration of the EU. Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to the entirety of his recent new book “And the weak suffer what they must”. It was gripping listening. The book is full of important back stories to the current EU situation.

Varoufakis has raised a roadmap of proposals for reforming the EU from a democratic perspective. The initial steps are small but significant. Here’s an EU petition for “Transparency in Europe now!”

As Citizens of the European Union we demand, effective immediately,

  • the live-streaming of the entire European Council, Eurogroup, ESM Board of Governors and Ecofin meetings, and the subsequent publication of official transcripts for all such meetings
  • a full set of minutes for each ECB Governing Council meeting to be published three weeks after the conclusion of each regular meeting, and complete transcripts of these meetings to be published within two years
  • an exhaustive list of all Brussels lobbyists and a register of every one of their meetings with elected or unelected EU officials
  • electronic publication of all TTIP negotiating documents and full transparency at every stage of the TTIP negotiations.

So here’s my proposal. In parallel with the Leave negotiations, supporters of EU reform should be doubling down, hard and skillfully, to accelerate groundswell support for democratic transformation of the EU.

Some skeptics say such a transformation can never take place. I believe they’re unduly skeptical. They are under-rating the reforms that have already taken place, over the history of the EU, and they are under-rating the potential for future change.

But we will see. The UK electorate would have the chance to decide, in, say, 18-24 months’ time, which of two parallel processes have heralded the best future for the UK:

  • Brexit – Britain exiting the EU – under the more detailed proposals that have been hammered out by that time (see point 1. above)
  • Brite – Britain in a transformed EU – under any progress that has taken place with EU reforms by that time.

3. An inclusive Britain

The third part of what needs to happen is, perhaps, the most important of all. It is to comprehensively address the growing sense of alienation that is widespread in many parts of Britain – parts that are disadvantaged from an economic or inclusive point of view. With justification, these parts feel that Westminster politicians pay them scant attention.

As a futurist, I have been writing for several years (e.g. here) about the growing inequality arising from rapid technological progress. We’re living in an increasing “winner takes all” environment. Some people do very well. Many others are in jobs with slow-growing salaries, with little prospect for improvement. In some parts of the world, life expectancy is actually declining among whole strata of people, due to growing despair as much as to anything else. (Despair leads to alcoholism and drug addiction.) See for example the article “Middle-Aged Americans are Dying of Despair”:

Even as longevity increases across the rich world, uneducated white Americans are living sicker and dying earlier…

This despair is driving populist, ugly, dangerous politics all around the world. It’s a fast-growing trend. Unless politicians address it, quickly and wisely, all bets are all for the future.

This may well require a new coalition in the UK, of progressive politicians who understand the threat, and who are willing to take the courageous, imaginative steps to address it.

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11 June 2015

Eating the world – the growing importance of software security

Security is eating the world

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

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

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

He then made the following prediction:

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

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

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

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

Dancing pigs

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

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

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

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

Herley comments:

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

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

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

Herley’s paper concludes:

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

Exponential change

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

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

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

Hacking embedded medical devices

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

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

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

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

Hacking vehicle control systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hacking thermostats and lightbulbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in an aluminium factory in February 1996,

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

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

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

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

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

The scariest book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complications with software updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except it isn’t signed really by Microsoft.

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

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

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

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

How not to be eaten

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

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

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

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

Move fast and break things

21 May 2015

Anticipating 2040: The triple A, triple h+ vision

Abundance Access Action

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

TPUK_LOGO3_400pxAbundance

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

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

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

TPUK_LOGO2_400pxAccess

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

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

Action

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

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

Transhumanism 2040

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

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

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

Transhumanism 2020

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

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

The political landscape will never be the same again.

Call to action

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

Join now

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

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

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

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

Anticipating the Transhumanist Party roadmap to 2040

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

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

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

 

28 April 2015

Why just small fries? Why no big potatoes?

Filed under: innovation, politics, Transpolitica, vision — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 3:12 pm

Big potatoesLast night I joined a gathering known as “Big Potatoes”, for informal discussion over dinner at the De Santis restaurant in London’s Old Street.

The potatoes in question weren’t on the menu. They were the potential big innovations that politicians ought to be contemplating.

The Big Potatoes group has a tag-line: “The London Manifesto for Innovation”.

As their website states,

The London Manifesto for Innovation is a contribution to improving the climate for innovation globally.

The group first formed in the run-up to the previous UK general election (2010). I blogged about them at that time, here, when I listed the principles from their manifesto:

  • We should “think big” about the potential of innovation, since there’s a great deal that innovation can accomplish;
  • Rather than “small is beautiful” we should keep in mind the slogan “scale is beautiful”;
  • We should seek more than just a continuation of the “post-war legacy of innovation” – that’s only the start;
  • Breakthrough innovations are driven by new technology – so we should prioritise the enablement of new technology;
  • Innovation is hard work and an uphill struggle – so we need to give it our full support;
  • Innovation arises from pure scientific research as well as from applied research – both are needed;
  • Rather than seeking to avoid risk or even to manage risk, we have to be ready to confront risk;
  • Great innovation needs great leaders of innovation, to make it happen;
  • Instead of trusting regulations, we should be ready to trust people;
  • Markets, sticks, carrots and nudges are no substitute for what innovation itself can accomplish.

That was 2010. What has caused the group to re-form now, in 2015, is the question:

Why is so much of the campaigning for the 2015 election preoccupied with small fries, when it could – and should – be concentrating on big potatoes?

Last night’s gathering was facilitated by three of the writers of the 2010 big potato manifestoNico MacdonaldJames Woudhuysen, and Martyn Perks. The Chatham House rules that were in place prevents me from quoting directly from the participants. But the discussion stirred up plenty of thoughts in my own mind, which I’ll share now.

The biggest potato

FreemanDysonI share the view expressed by renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, in the book “Infinite in all directions” from his 1985 Gifford lectures:

Technology is… the mother of civilizations, of arts, and of sciences

Technology has given rise to enormous progress in civilization, arts and sciences over recent centuries. New technology is poised to have even bigger impacts on civilization in the next 10-20 years. So why aren’t politicians paying more attention to it?

MIT professor Andrew McAfee takes up the same theme, in an article published in October last year:

History teaches us that nothing changes the world like technology

McAfee spells out a “before” and “after” analysis. Here’s the “before”:

For thousands of years, until the middle of the 18th century, there were only glacial rates of population growth, economic expansion, and social development.

And the “after”:

Then an industrial revolution happened, centred around James Watt’s improved steam engine, and humanity’s trajectory bent sharply and permanently upward

AndrewMcAfeeOne further quote from McAfee’s article rams home the conclusion:

Great wars and empires, despots and democrats, the insights of science and the revelations of religion – none of them transformed lives and civilizations as much as a few practical inventions

Inventions ahead

In principle, many of the grave challenges facing society over the next ten years could be solved by “a few practical inventions”:

  • Students complain, with some justification, about the costs of attending university. But technology can enable better MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – that can deliver high quality lectures, removing significant parts of the ongoing costs of running universities; free access to such courses can do a lot to help everyone re-skill, as new occupational challenges arise
  • With one million people losing their lives to traffic accidents worldwide every year, mainly caused by human driver error, we should welcome the accelerated introduction of self-driving cars
  • Medical costs could be reduced by greater application of the principles of preventive maintenance (“a stitch in time saves nine”), particularly through rejuvenation biotechnology and healthier diets
  • A sustained green tech new deal should push society away from dependency on fuels that emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases, resulting in lifestyles that are positive for the environment as well as positive for humanity
  • The growing costs of governmental bureaucracy itself could be reduced by whole-heartedly embracing improved information technology and lean automation.

Society has already seen remarkable changes in the last 10-20 years as a result of rapid progress in fields such as electronics, computers, digitisation, and automation. In each case, the description “revolution” is appropriate. But even these revolutions pale in significance to the changes that will, potentially, arise in the next 10-20 years from extraordinary developments in healthcare, brain sciences, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, distributed production of renewable energy, artificial intelligence, and improved knowledge management.

Indeed, the next 10-20 years look set to witness four profound convergences:

  • Between artificial intelligence and human intelligence – with next generation systems increasingly embodying so-called “deep learning”, “hybrid intelligence”, and even “artificial emotional intelligence”
  • Between machine and human – with smart technology evolving from “mobile” to “wearable” and then to “insideable”, and with the emergence of exoskeletons and other cyborg technology
  • Between software and biology – with programming moving from silicon (semiconductor) to carbon (DNA and beyond), with the expansion of synthetic biology, and with the application of genetic engineering
  • Between virtual and physical – with the prevalence of augmented reality vision systems, augmented reality education via new MOOCs (massive open online courses), cryptocurrencies that remove the need for centralised audit authorities, and lots more.

To take just one example: Wired UK has just reported a claim by Brad Perkins, chief medical offer at Human Longevity Inc., that

A “supercharged” approach to human genome research could see as many health breakthroughs made in the next decade as in the previous century

The “supercharging” involves taking advantage of four converging trends:

“I don’t have a pill” to boost human lifespan, Perkins admitted on stage at WIRED Health 2015. But he has perhaps the next best thing — data, and the means to make sense of it. Based in San Diego, Human Longevity is fixed on using genome data and analytics to develop new ways to fight age-related diseases.

Perkins says the opportunity for humanity — and Human Longevity — is the result of the convergence of four trends: the reduction in the cost of genome sequencing (from $100m per genome in 2000, to just over $1,000 in 2014); the vast improvement in computational power; the development of large-scale machine learning techniques; and the wider movement of health care systems towards ‘value-based’ models. Together these trends are making it easier than ever to analyse human genomes at scale.

Small fries

french-fries-525005_1280Whilst entrepreneurs and technologists are foreseeing comprehensive solutions to age-related diseases – as well as the rise of smart automation that could free almost every member of the society of the need to toil in employment that they dislike – what are politicians obsessing about?

Instead of the opportunities of tomorrow, politicians are caught up in the challenges of yesteryear and today. Like a short-sighted business management team obsessed by the next few quarterly financial results but losing sight of the longer term, these politicians are putting all their effort into policies for incremental changes to present-day metrics – metrics such as tax thresholds, the gross domestic product, policing levels, the degree of privatisation in the health service, and the rate of flow of migrants from Eastern Europe into the United Kingdom.

It’s like the restricted vision which car manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford is said to have complained about:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

This is light years away from leadership. It’s no wonder that electors are deeply dissatisfied.

The role of politics

To be clear, I’m not asking for politicians to dictate to entrepreneurs and technologists which products they should be creating. That’s not the role of politicians.

However, politicians should be ensuring that the broad social environment provides as much support as possible to:

  • The speedy, reliable development of those technologies which have the potential to improve our lives so fully
  • The distribution of the benefits of these technologies to all members of society, in a way that preserves social cohesion without infringing individual liberties
  • Monitoring for risks of accidental outcomes from these technologies that would have disastrous unintended consequences.

PeterDruckerIn this way, politicians help to address the human angle to technology. It’s as stated by management guru Peter Drucker in his 1986 book “Technology, Management, and Society”:

We are becoming aware that the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions.

Indeed, as the Transpolitica manifesto emphasises:

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.

The manifesto goes on to set out its objectives:

Transpolitica 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.

Specific big potatoes that are missing from the discussion

If our political leaders truly were attuned to the possibilities of disruptive technological change, here’s a selection of the topics I believe would find much greater prominence in political discussion:

  1. How to accelerate lower-cost high quality continuous access to educational material, such as MOOCs, that will prepare people for the radically different future that lies ahead
  2. How to accelerate the development of personal genome healthcare, stem cell therapies, rejuvenation biotech, and other regenerative medicine, in order to enable much healthier people with much lower ongoing healthcare costs
  3. How to ensure that a green tech new deal succeeds, rather than continues to fall short of expectations (as it has been doing for the last 5-6 years)
  4. How to identify and accelerate the new industries where the UK can be playing a leading role over the next 5-10 years
  5. How to construct a new social contract – perhaps involving universal basic income – in order to cope with the increased technological unemployment which is likely to arise from improved automation
  6. How society should be intelligently assessing any new existential risks that emerging technologies may unintentionally trigger
  7. How to transition the network of bodies that operate international governance to a new status that is fit for the growing challenges of the coming decades (rather than perpetuating the inertia from the times of their foundations)
  8. How technology can involve more people – and more wisdom and insight from more people – in the collective decision-making that passes for political processes
  9. How to create new goals for society that embody a much better understanding of human happiness, human potential, and human flourishing, rather than the narrow economic criteria that currently dominate decisions
  10. How to prepare everyone for the next leaps forward in human consciousness which will be enabled by explorations of both inner and outer space.

Why small fries?

But the biggest question of all isn’t anything I’ve just listed. It’s this:

  • Why are politicians still stuck in present-day small fries, rather than focusing on the big potatoes?

I’ll be interested in answers to that question from readers. In the meantime, here are my own initial thoughts:

  • The power of inertia – politicians, like the rest of us, tend to keep doing what they’re used to doing
  • Too few politicians have any deep personal insight (from their professional background) into the promise (and perils) of disruptive technology
  • The lack of a specific vision for how to make progress on these Big Potato questions
  • The lack of clamour from the electorate as a whole for answers on these Big Potato questions.

If this is true, we must expect it will take some time for public pressure to grow, leading politicians in due course to pay attention to these topics.

It will be like the growth in capability of any given exponential technology. At first, development takes a long time. It seems as if nothing much is changing. But finally, tipping points are reached. At that stage, it become imperative to act quickly. And at that stage, politicians (and their advisors) will be looking around urgently for ready-made solutions they can adapt from think tanks. So we should be ready.

10 March 2015

100 not out: 7 years of London Futurists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

22 June 2014

The critical importance of culture engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five factors that can undermine predictions of faster progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing mindsets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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