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14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four steps in the analysis

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

Transcending capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

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

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

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

And to emphasise the point:

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

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

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

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

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

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

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

Populism and its dangers

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

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

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

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

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 June 2019

Feedback on what goals the UK should have in mind for 2035

Filed under: Abundance, BHAG, politics, TPUK, vision — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

Some political parties are preoccupied with short-term matters.

It’s true that many short-term matters demand attention. But we need to take the time to consider, as well, some important longer-term risks and issues.

If we give these longer-term matters too little attention, we may wake up one morning and bitterly regret our previous state of distraction. By then, we may have missed the chance to avoid an enormous setback. It could also be too late to take advantage of what previously was a very positive opportunity.

For these reasons, the Transhumanist Party UK seeks to raise the focus of a number of transformations that could take place in the UK, between now and 2035.

Rather than having a manifesto for the next, say, five years, the Party is developing a vision for the year 2035 – a vision of much greater human flourishing.

It’s a vision in which there will be enough for everyone to have an excellent quality of life. No one should lack access to healthcare, shelter, nourishment, information, education, material goods, social engagement, free expression, or artistic endeavour.

The vision also includes a set of strategies by which the current situation (2019) could be transformed, step by step, into the desired future state (2035).

Key to these strategies is for society to take wise advantage of the remarkable capabilities of twenty-first century science and technology: robotics, biotech, neurotech, greentech, collabtech, artificial intelligence, and much more. These technologies can provide all of us with the means to live better than well – to be healthier and fitter than ever before; nourished emotionally and spiritually as well as physically; and living at peace with ourselves, the environment, and our neighbours both near and far.

Alongside science and technology, there’s a vital role that politics needs to play:

  • Action to encourage the kind of positive collaboration which might otherwise be undermined by free-riders
  • Action to adjust the set of subsidies, incentives, constraints, and legal frameworks under which we all operate
  • Action to protect the citizenry as a whole from the abuse of power by any groups with monopoly or near-monopoly status
  • Action to ensure that the full set of “externalities” (both beneficial and detrimental) of market transactions are properly considered, in a timely manner.

To make this vision more concrete, the Party wishes to identify a set of specific goals for the UK for the year 2035. At present, there are 16 goals under consideration. These goals are briefly introduced in a video:

As you can see, the video invites viewers to give their feedback, by means of an online survey. The survey collects opinions about the various goals: are they good as they stand? Too timid? Too ambitious? A bad idea? Uninteresting? Or something else?

The survey also invites ideas about other goals that should perhaps be added into the mix.

Since the survey has been launched, feedback has been accumulating. I’d like to share some of that feedback now, along with some of my own personal responses.

The most unconditionally popular goal so far

Of the 16 goals proposed, the one which has the highest number of responses “Good as it stands” is Goal 4, “Thanks to innovations in recycling, manufacturing, and waste management, the UK will be zero waste, and will have no adverse impact on the environment.”

(To see the rationale for each goal, along with ideas on measurement, the current baseline, and the strategy to achieve the goal, see the document on the Party website.)

That goal has, so far, been evaluated as “Good as it stands” by 84% of respondents.

One respondent gave this comment:

Legislation and Transparency are equally as important here, to gain the public’s trust that there is actual quantified benefits from this, or rather to de-abstractify recycling and make it more tangible and not just ‘another bin’

My response: succeeding with this goal will involve more than the actions of individuals putting materials into different recycling bins.

Research from the Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified nine “planetary boundaries” where human activity is at risk of pushing the environment into potentially very dangerous states of affairs.

For each of these planetary boundaries, the same themes emerge:

  • Methods are known that would replace present unsustainable practices with sustainable ones.
  • By following these methods, life would be plentiful for all, without detracting in any way from the potential for ongoing flourishing in the longer term.
  • However, the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices requires overcoming very significant inertia in existing systems.
  • In some cases, what’s also required is vigorous research and development, to turn ideas for new solutions into practical realities.
  • Unfortunately, in the absence of short-term business cases, this research and development fails to receive the investment it requires.

In each case, the solution also follows the same principles. Society as a whole needs to agree on prioritising research and development of various solutions. Society as a whole needs to agree on penalties and taxes that should be applied to increasingly discourage unsustainable practices. And society as a whole needs to provide a social safety net to assist those peoples whose livelihoods are adversely impacted by these changes.

Left to its own devices, the free market is unlikely to reach the same conclusions. Instead, because it fails to assign proper values to various externalities, the market will produce harmful results. Accordingly, these are cases when society as a whole needs to constrain and steer the operation of the free market. In other words, democratic politics needs to exert itself.

2nd equal most popular goals

The 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 7, “There will be no homelessness and no involuntary hunger”, with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. Disagreeing, 11% of respondents judged it as “Too ambitious”. Here’s an excerpt from the proposed strategy to achieve this goal:

The construction industry should be assessed, not just on its profits, but on its provision of affordable, good quality homes.

Consider the techniques used by the company Broad Sustainable Building, when it erected a 57-storey building in Changsha, capital city of Hunan province in China, in just 19 working days. That’s a rate of three storeys per day. Key to that speed was the use of prefabricated units. Other important innovations in construction techniques include 3D printing, robotic construction, inspection by aerial drones, and new materials with unprecedented strength and resilience.

Similar techniques can in principle be used, not just to generate new buildings where none presently exist, but also to refurbish existing buildings – regenerating them from undesirable hangovers from previous eras into highly desirable contemporary accommodation.

With sufficient political desire, these techniques offer the promise that prices for property over the next 16 years might follow the same remarkable downwards trajectory witnessed in many other product areas – such as TVs, LCD screens, personal computers and smartphones, kitchen appliances, home robotics kits, genetic testing services, and many types of clothing…

Finally, a proportion of cases of homelessness arise, not from shortage of available accommodation, but from individuals suffering psychological issues. This element of homelessness will be addressed by the measures reducing mental health problems to less than 1% of the population.

The other 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 3, “Thanks to improved green energy management, the UK will be carbon-neutral”, also with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. In this case, most of the dissenting opinions (16%) held that the goal is “Too timid” – namely, that carbon neutrality should be achieved before 2035.

For the record, 4th equal in this ranking, with 68% unconditional positive assessment, were:

  • Goal 6: “World-class education to postgraduate level will be freely available to everyone via online access”
  • Goal 16: “The UK will be part of an organisation that maintains a continuous human presence on Mars”

Least popular goals

At the other end of this particular spectrum, three goals are currently tied as having the least popular support in the formats stated: 32%.

This includes Goal 9, “The UK will be part of a global “open borders” community of at least 25% of the earth’s population”. One respondent gave this comment:

Seems absolutely unworkable, would require other countries to have same policy, would have to all be developed countries. Massively problematic and controversial with no link to ideology of transhumanism

And here’s another comment:

No need to work for a living, no homelessness and open borders. What can go wrong?

And yet another:

This can’t happen until wealth/resource distribution is made equitable – otherwise we’d all be crammed in Bladerunner style cities. Not a desirable outcome.

My reply is that the detailed proposal isn’t for unconditional free travel between any two countries, but for a system that includes many checks and balances. As for the relevance to transhumanism, the actual relevance is to the improvement of human flourishing. Freedom of movement opens up many new opportunities. Indeed, migration has been found to have considerable net positive effects on the UK, including productivity, public finances, cultural richness, and individuals’ well-being. Flows of money and ideas in the reverse direction also benefit the original countries of the immigrants.

Another equal bottom goal, by this ranking, is Goal 10, “Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent”. 26% of respondents rated this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “Uninteresting”.

My reply in this case is that politicians in at least some other countries have a higher reputation than in the UK. These countries include Denmark (the top of the list), Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.

What’s more, a number of practices – combining technological innovation with social innovation – seem capable of increasing the level of trust and respect for politicians:

  • Increased transparency, to avoid any suspicions of hidden motivations or vested interests
  • Automated real-time fact-checking, so that politicians know any distortions of the truth will be quickly pointed out
  • Encouragement of individual politicians with high ethical standards and integrity
  • Enforcement of penalties in cases when politicians knowingly pass on false information
  • Easier mechanisms for the electorate to be able to quickly “recall” a politician when they have lost the trust of voters
  • Improvements in mental health for everyone, including politicians, thereby diminishing tendencies for dysfunctional behaviour
  • Diminished power for political parties to constrain how individual politicians express themselves, allowing more politicians to speak according to their own conscience.

A role can also be explored for regular psychometric assessment of politicians.

The third goal in this grouping of the least popular is Goal 13, “Cryonic suspension will be available to all, on point of death, on the NHS”. 26% of respondents judged this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “A bad idea”. One respondent commented “Why not let people die when they are ready?” and other simply wrote “Mad shit”.

It’s true that there currently are many factors that discourage people from signing up for cryonics preservation. These include costs, problems arranging transport of the body overseas to a location where the storage of bodies is legal, the perceived low likelihood of a subsequent successful reanimation, lack of evidence of reanimation of larger biological organs, dislike of appearing to be a “crank”, apprehension over tension from family members (exacerbated if family members expect to inherit funds that are instead allocated to cryopreservation services), occasional mistrust over the motives of the cryonics organisations (which are sometimes alleged – with no good evidence – to be motivated by commercial considerations), and uncertainty over which provider should be preferred.

However, I foresee a big change in the public mindset when there’s a convincing demonstration of successful reanimation of larger biological organisms or organ. What’s more, as in numerous other fields of life, costs will decline and quality increase as the total number of experiences of a product or service increases. These are known as scale effects.

Goals receiving broad support

Now let’s consider a different ranking, when the votes for “Good as it stands” and “Too timid” are added together. This indicates strong overall support for the idea of the goal, with the proviso that many respondents would prefer a more aggressive timescale.

Actually this doesn’t change the results much. Compared to the goals already covered, there’s only one new entrant in the top 5, namely at position 3, with a combined positive rating of 84%. That’s for Goal 1, “The average healthspan in the UK will be at least 90 years”. 42% rated this “Good as it stands” and another 42% rated it as “Too timid”.

For the record, top equal by this ranking were Goal 3 (74% + 16%) and Goal 4 (84% + 5%).

The only other goal with a “Too timid” rating of greater than 30% was Goal 15, “Fusion will be generating at least 1% of the energy used in the UK” (32%).

The goals most actively disliked

Here’s yet another way of viewing the data: the goals which had the largest number of “A bad idea” responses.

By this measure, the goal most actively disliked (with 21% judging it “A bad idea”) was Goal 11, “Parliament will involve a close partnership with a ‘House of AI’ (or similar) revising chamber”. One respondent commented they were “wary – AI could be Stalinist in all but name in their goal setting and means”.

My reply: To be successful, the envisioned House of AI will need the following support:

  • All algorithms used in these AI systems need to be in the public domain, and to pass ongoing reviews about their transparency and reliability
  • Opaque algorithms, or other algorithms whose model of operation remain poorly understood, need to be retired, or evolved in ways addressing their shortcomings
  • The House of AI will not be dependent on any systems owned or operated by commercial entities; instead, it will be “AI of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Public funding will likely need to be allocated to develop these systems, rather than waiting for commercial companies to create them.

The second most actively disliked goal was Goal 5, “Automation will remove the need for anyone to earn money by working” (16%). Here are three comments from respondents:

Unlikely to receive support, most people like the idea of work. Plus there’s nothing the party can do to achieve this automation, depends on tech progress. UBI could be good.

What will be the purpose of humans?

It removes the need to work because their needs are being met by…. what? Universal Basic Income? Automation by itself cuts out the need for employers to pay humans to do the work but it doesn’t by itself ensure that people’s need will be met otherwise.

I’ve written on this topic many times in the past – including in Chapter 4, “Work and purpose “of my previous book, “Transcending Politics” (audio recording available here). There absolutely are political actions which can be taken, to accelerate the appropriate technological innovations, and to defuse the tensions that will arise if the fruits of technological progress end up dramatically increasing the inequality levels in society.

Note, by the way, that this goal does not focus on bringing in a UBI. There’s a lot more to it than that.

Clearly there’s work to be done to improve the communication of the underlying ideas in this case!

Goals that are generally unpopular

For a final way of ranking the data, let’s add together the votes for “A bad idea” and “Too ambitious”. This indicates ideas which are generally unpopular, in their current form of expression.

Top of this ranking, with 42%, is Goal 8, “The crime rate will have been reduced by at least 90%”. Indeed, the 42% all judged this goal as “Too ambitious”. One comment received was

Doesn’t seem within the power of any political party to achieve this, except a surveillance state

Here’s an excerpt of the strategy proposed to address this issue:

The initiatives to improve mental health, to eliminate homelessness, and to remove the need to work to earn an income, should all contribute to reducing the social and psychological pressures that lead to criminal acts.

However, even if only a small proportion of the population remain inclined to criminal acts, the overall crime rate could still remain too high. That’s because small groups of people will be able to take advantage of technology to carry out lots of crime in parallel – via systems such as “ransomware as a service” or “intelligent malware as a service”. The ability of technology to multiply human power means that just a few people with criminal intent could give rise to large amounts of crime.

That raises the priority for software systems to be highly secure and reliable. It also raises the priority of intelligent surveillance of the actions of people who might carry out crimes. This last measure is potentially controversial, since it allows part of the state to monitor citizens in a way that could be considered deeply intrusive. For this reason, access to this surveillance data will need to be restricted to trustworthy parts of the overall public apparatus – similar to the way that doctors are trusted with sensitive medical information. In turn, this highlights the importance of initiatives that increase the trustworthiness of key elements of our national infrastructure.

On a practical basis, initiatives to understand and reduce particular types of crime should be formed, starting with the types of crime (such as violent crime) that have the biggest negative impact on people’s lives.

Second in this ranking of general unpopularity, at 37%, is Goal 13, on cryonics, already mentioned above.

Third, at 32%, is Goal 11, on the House of AI, also already mentioned.

Suggestions for other goals

Respondents offered a range of suggestions for other goals that should be included. Here are a sample, along with brief replies from me:

Economic growth through these goals needs to be quantified somehow.

I’m unconvinced that economic growth needs to be prioritised. Instead, what’s important is agreement on a more appropriate measure to replace the use of GDP. That could be a good goal to consider.

Support anti-ageing research, gene editing research, mind uploading tech, AI alignment research, legalisation of most psychedelics

In general the goals have avoided targeting technology for technology’s sake. Instead, technology is introduced only because it supports the goals of improved overall human flourishing.

I think there should be a much greater focus in our education system on developing critical thinking skills, and a more interdisciplinary approach to subjects should be considered. Regurgitating information is much less important in a technologically advanced society where all information is a few clicks away and our schooling should reflect that.

Agreed: the statement of the education goal should probably be reworded to take these points into account.

A new public transport network; Given advances in technology regarding AI and electrical vehicles, a goal on par with others you’ve listed here would be to develop a transport system to replace cars with a decentralised public transportation network, whereby ownership of cars is replaced with the use of automated vehicles on a per journey basis, thus promoting better use of resources and driving down pollution, alongside hopefully reducing vehicular incidents.

That’s an interesting suggestion. I wonder how others think about it?

Routine near-earth asteroid mining to combat earthside resource depletion.

Asteroid mining is briefly mentioned in Goal 4, on recycling and zero waste.

Overthrow of capitalism and class relations.

Ah, I would prefer to transcend capitalism than to overthrow it. I see two mirror problems in discussing the merits of free markets: pro-market fundamentalism, and anti-market fundamentalism. I say a lot more on that topic in Chapter 9, Markets and fundamentalism”, of my book “Transcending Politics”.

The right to complete freedom over our own bodies should be recognised in law. We should be free to modify our bodies and minds through e.g. implants, drugs, software, bioware, as long as there is no significant risk of harm to others.

Yes, I see the value of including such a goal. We’ll need work to explore what’s meant by “risk of harm to others”.

UK will be part of the moon-shot Human WBE [whole brain emulation] project after being successful in supporting the previous Mouse WBE moon-shot project.

Yes, that’s an interesting suggestion too. Personally I see the WBE project as being longer-term, but hey, that may change!

Achieving many of the laudable goals rests on reshaping the current system of capitalism, but that itself is not a goal. It should be.

I’m open to suggestions for wording on this, to make it measurable.

Deaths due to RTA [road traffic accidents] cut to near zero

That’s another interesting suggestion. But it may not be on the same level as some of the existing ones. I’m open to feedback here!

Next steps

The Party is very grateful for the general feedback received so far, and looks forward to receiving more!

Discussion can also take place on the Party’s Discourse, https://discourse.transhumanistparty.org.uk/. Anyone is welcome to create an account on that site and become involved in the conversations there.

Some parts of the Discourse are reserved for paid-up members of the Party. It will be these members who take the final decisions as to which goals to prioritise.

24 April 2019

Supporting the SomosMiel revolution: time to act

The most important changes often arise from the bold actions of outsiders.

Those of us who desire positive humanitarian change need to be flexible enough to recognise which outsiders can be the best vehicles for the transformations we want to see in society.

And we need to be ready to get behind these opportunities when they arise.

Consider the key example of the transformation of healthcare, towards a new focus on the reversal of aging as providing the best route to better health for everyone.

For those of us who hold that vision of the forthcoming “abolition of aging”, what are the most practical steps to make that vision a reality?

Here’s my answer. It’s time to get behind “Somos Miel”.

Futuristicamente

Miel is a recently formed political party, which is taking part in Spain in the elections on the 26th of May to the European Parliament.

The word “miel” has two meanings. First, it’s the Spanish for “honey”. Somos Miel means “We are honey”. The association of honey with improved health exists in many cultures around the world.

Second, MIEL is the abbreviation for “Movimiento Independiente Euro Latino”. Translating from Spanish to English gives: “The Independent Latin Euro Movement”.

Heading the party’s list of candidates is José Cordeiro, described as follows in the introduction of his Wikipedia article:

José Luis Cordeiro is an engineer, economist, futurist, and transhumanist, who has worked on different areas including economic development, international relations, Latin America, the European Union, monetary policy, comparison of constitutions, energy trends, cryonics, and longevity. Books he has authored include The Great TabooConstitutions Around the World: A Comparative View from Latin America, and (in Spanish) El Desafio Latinoamericano (“The Latin American challenge”) and La Muerte de la Muerte (“The death of death”).

Cordeiro was born in Caracas, Venezuela from Spanish parents who emigrated from Madrid during the Franco dictatorship…

He’s evidently a man of many talents. He’s by no means a European political insider, infused by the old ways of doing politics. Instead, he brings with him a welcome spread of bold outsider perspectives.

When asked if he is from “the right” or “the left”, his answer, instead, is that he is from “the future”. Indeed, he often appends the greeting “futuristicamente” after his name, meaning “Yours futuristically”.

José is also known as a vocal advocate for “revolution” – a revolution in the potential of humanity. He has the courage to advocate ideas that are presently unpopular – ideas that he believes will soon grow in public understanding and public support.

Working together

I first met José at the TransVision 2006 conference in Helsinki, Finland. I remember how he spoke with great passion about the positive possibilities of technology in the next stage in the evolution of life on the earth. As the abstract from that long-ago talk proclaims:

Since the Big Bang, the universe has been in constant evolution and continuous transformation. First there were physical and chemical processes, then biological evolution, and finally now technological evolution. As we begin to ride the wave into human redesign, the destination is still largely unknown but the opportunities are almost limitless.

Biological evolution continues but it is just too slow to achieve the goals now possible thanks to technological evolution. Natural selection with trial and error can now be substituted by technical selection with engineering design. Humanity’s monopoly as the only advanced sentient life form on the planet will soon come to an end, supplemented by a number of posthuman incarnations. Moreover, how we re-engineer ourselves could fundamentally change the ways in which our society functions, and raise crucial questions about our identities and moral status as human beings.

Since that first meeting, the two of us have collaborated on many projects. For example, we both sit on the board of directors of Humanity+. José has spoken on a number of occasions at the London Futurists events I organise – such as TransVision 2019 which will take place in London on 6-7 July. And we are named as co-authors of the Spanish language book La Muerte de la Muerte which has attained wide press coverage throughout Spain.

Another thing we have in common is that we are both impatient for change. We’re not content to sit back and watch impersonal forces operate in society at their own pace and following their own inner direction. We believe in doing more than cheering from the sidelines. We both believe that the actions of individuals, wisely targeted, can have a huge impact on human affairs. We both believe that inspired political action, at the right time, can unleash vast public resources in support of important transformational projects.

We also recognise that delays have major consequences. Each single day that passes without the widespread availability of reliable treatments for biological aging, upwards of 100,000 people die as a result of aging-related diseases. That’s 100,000 unnecessary human deaths, every single day – preceded in almost every case by extended suffering and heartache.

Moving faster

On a positive note, there is considerable good news to report, regarding progress with regenerative medicine and rejuvenation biotechnology. The Undoing Aging conference in Berlin last month contained an encouraging set of reports from a host of world-leading scientists working in this field. Keep an eye on the Undoing Aging channel in YouTube for videos from that event. For a review of the human implications of these scientific breakthroughs, the forthcoming RAADfest in Las Vegas in October will be well worth attending – to hear about “the most powerful information and inspiration for staying alive”.

But the opportunity exists for progress to go much faster, if more elements of society decide to put their weight behind this project.

That’s where Miel comes in. José is a well-known figure in Spain, due to his many media appearances there. Current indications are that he stands a fighting chance of being elected to the European Parliament. If elected, he’ll be a tireless public advocate for the cause of rejuvenation healthcare. He’ll promote studies of the economic implications of different scenarios for the treatment of aging. He’ll also champion the creation of a European Agency for Anti-Aging, to boost research on how addressing aging can have multiple positive benefits for the treatments of individual aging-related diseases, such as dementia, cancer, and heart failure.

You’ll find a number of articles on the Miel blog about these aspects of Miel policy. For example, see “Within 25 years, dying will be optional” and “I’m not afraid of artificial intelligence, I’m afraid of human stupidity”.

You’ll also observe from its website how Miel is, wisely, giving voice in Spain to a community that perceives itself to be under-represented, namely the Latin Americans – people like José himself, who was born in Venezuela. Those of us who aren’t Latin Americans should appreciate the potential for positive change that this political grouping can bring.

Time for action

Despite the groundswell of popular support that Miel is receiving, it’s still in the balance whether the party will indeed receive enough votes throughout Spain to gain at least one member in the European Parliament.

I’m told that what will make a big difference is an old-fashioned word: money.

If it receives more donations, Miel will be able to place more advertisements in social media (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc). With its messages in front of more eyeballs, the chance increases of popular support at the ballot box.

In a better world, money would have a lower influence over politics. But whilst we should all aspire to move politics into that better state, we need to recognise the present reality. In that reality, donations have a big role to play.

To support Miel, visit the party’s donation page. Donations are accepted via credit cards, debit cards, or PayPal.

But please don’t delay. The elections are in just one month’s time. The time for action is now.

25 January 2019

To make a dent in the universe

Suppose you saw that science and technology had the potential to significantly extend healthy lifespans, but that very few scientists or technologists were working on these projects.

Suppose you disagreed with the government spending huge sums of public money on the military – on the capability to kill – and wished for more spending instead on the defeat of aging (and all the terrible diseases that accelerate with aging).

Suppose you felt that too many leadership decisions in society were influenced by out-dated ideologies – for example, by belief systems that regard as literal many of the apocalyptic statements in millennia-old religious scriptures – and that you preferred decisions to be determined by cool reason and scientific evidence.

What might you do?

If you were Zoltan Istvan, in October 2014, you might decide on an audacious project. You might decide to announce your candidacy for becoming the President of the United States, as a representative of a newly conceived “Transhumanist Party”. You might decide that the resulting media attention would raise the public understanding of the possibility and desirability of using science and technology in favour of transhumanist goals. You might decide the project had a fair chance of making a dent in the universe – of accelerating humanity’s trajectory onwards and upwards.

Here’s what Istvan wrote at the time, in the Huffington Post:

Should a Transhumanist Run for US President?

I’m in the very early stages of preparing a campaign to try to run in the 2016 election for US President. I’ll be doing it as a transhumanist for the Transhumanist Party, a political organization I recently founded that seeks to use science and technology to radically improve the human being and the society we live in.

In addition to upholding American values, prosperity, and security, the three primary goals of my political agenda are as follows:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

In line with his confident personality, Istvan went on, in the very next paragraph, to issue a challenge to the status quo:

These three goals are so simple and obvious, you’d think every politician in the 21st Century would be publicly and passionately pursuing them. But they’re not. They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).

In later months, Istvan decided to add two more ingredients to the project, to increase its potential impact:

  1. A declaration of a “Transhumanist Bill of Rights” in Washington DC
  2. The journey of a huge coffin-shaped “Immortality Bus” across the USA, to reach Washington DC.

What happened next has already been the subject of chapters in at least two books:

After the books, the film.

“Immortality or bust” has its first public showing tomorrow (Jan 26th), at the historic United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of the Raw Science Film Festival. The film has already received the “Raw Breakthrough Award” associated with this festival. In view of the public interest, I expect people will have the chance to see it on Netflix and/or HBO in due course.

I had the opportunity to view a preview copy earlier this week. The film stirred a range of different emotions in me, particularly towards the end. (Spoilers are omitted from this blogpost!)

The producer, Daniel Sollinger, cleverly weaves together several different strands throughout the film:

  • The sheer audacity of the venture
  • The reactions of Istvan’s family – his wife, his mother, and his father – and how these reactions evolve over time
  • The various journalists who are shown interviewing Istvan, sometimes expressing sympathy, and sometimes expressing bemusement
  • Istvan’s interactions with the other transhumanists, futurists and life-extensionists who he meets on his journey across the USA
  • The struggles of the bus itself – the problems experienced in its “plumbing” (oil), as a kind of counterpoint to Istvan’s wishes for radical improvements in human biology
  • Encounters with members of different political parties.

There were a couple of times I wanted to yell at the screen, when I thought that Istvan’s interlocutors were making indefensible claims:

  • When John McAfee (yes, that John McAfee) was giving his interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory
  • When John Horgan of the Scientific American effectively labelled transhumanism as a kind of cult that posed a problem for the good reputation of science.

Assessment

How will history ultimately assess the Immortality Bus and the Transhumanist Bill of Rights? In my view, it’s too early to say. In the meantime, the film Immortality or Bust provides a refreshing birds-eye view of both the struggles and the (minor) triumphs of the adventure so far.

Those who would criticise Istvan for his endeavours – and there are many – need to say what they would do instead.

Some choose to work on the technology itself. That’s something I respect and admire. My own assessment, however, is that the community of transhumanists needs to do more than contributing personal efforts to the science, technology, and/or entrepreneurial development of pro-health startups. We need to change the public conversation – something that Istvan has persistently tried to do.

In particular, we need to find the best ways to raise public awareness of the possibility and desirability of many more people getting involved in science and technology projects in support of significantly increased human flourishing. We need to answer the naysaying objections of bioconservatives and other opponents of transhumanism. We need to affirm that humanity can transcend the limitations which have held us back so many times in the past – the limitations in our bodies, our intellects, our emotions, and our social structures. We need to proclaim (as on the opening page of my own newly published book) that a new era is at hand: the era of sustainable superabundance – an era in which the positive potential of humanity can develop in truly profound ways.

We also need to transform the political environment in which we are all operating – a political environment that, if anything, has grown more dysfunctional over the last few years. That takes us back to the subject of the Transhumanist Party.

Going forwards

The Transhumanist Party which Istvan conjured into existence back in October 2014 has travelled a long way since then. Under the capable stewardship of Gennady Stolyarov (who took over as Chair of the party in November 2016), the U.S. Transhumanist Party has grown a leadership team of many talents, a website with rich content, and a platform with multiple policy proposals in various stages of readiness for adoption as legislation. It has revised, twice, the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, with version 3.0 being agreed by the party’s internal democratic processes on Dec 2-9 last year.

So far as I’m aware, there’s no v3.0 (or even v2.0) of the immortality bus. Yet.

What about overseas? Well, most of the Transhumanist Party organisations set up in other countries, from 2015 onwards, have long since faded from view. In the UK, however, a number of us feel it’s time to reboot that party. Watch out for more news! Or come to the London Futurists event on the 2nd of February, “Politics for profoundly enhanced human wellbeing”, where you will hear announcements from the UK party’s new joint leaders.

19 July 2018

Serious questions over PwC’s report on the impact of AI on jobs

Filed under: politics, robots, UBI, urgency — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 7:47 pm

A report (PDF) issued on Tuesday by consulting giant PwC has received a lot of favourable press coverage.

Here’s PwC’s own headline summary: “AI and related technologies should create as many jobs as they displace”:

AI and related technologies such as robotics, drones and driverless vehicles could displace many jobs formerly done by humans, but will also create many additional jobs as productivity and real incomes rise and new and better products are developed.

We estimate that these countervailing displacement and income effects on employment are likely to broadly balance each other out over the next 20 years in the UK, with the share of existing jobs displaced by AI (c.20%) likely to be approximately equal to the additional jobs that are created…

BBC News picked up the apparent good news: “AI will create as many jobs as it displaces – report”:

A growing body of research claims the impact of AI automation will be less damaging than previously thought.

Forbes chose this headline: “AI Won’t Kill The Job Market But Keep It Steady, PwC Report Says”:

It’s impossible to say precisely how artificial intelligence will disrupt the job market, so researchers at PwC have taken a bird’s-eye view and pointed to the results of sweeping economic changes.

Their prediction, in a new report out Tuesday, is that it will all balance out in the end.

PwC are to be commended for setting out their reasoning clearly, over 16 pages (p36-p51) in their PDF report.

But three major questions need to be raised about their analysis. These questions throw a different light on the conclusions of the report.

This diagram covers the essence of the model used by PwC:

Q1: How will firms handle the “income effect”?

I agree that automation is likely to generate significant amounts of additional profits, as well as market demand for extra goods and services.

But what’s the reason for assuming that firms will “hire more workers” in response to this demand?

Mightn’t it be more financially attractive to these companies to incorporate more automation instead? Mightn’t more robots be a better investment than more human workers?

The justification for thinking that there will be plenty of new jobs for humans in this scenario, is the assumption that many tasks will remain outside the capability of automation. That is, the analysis depends on humans having skills which cannot be duplicated by AIs, software, robots, or other automation. The assumption is true today, but will it remain true over the next two decades?

PwC’s report points to sectors such as healthcare, social work, education, and science, as areas where jobs are likely to grow over the next twenty years. But that takes us to the second major question.

Q2: What prevents acceleration in the capabilities of AI?

PwC’s report, like many others that mainstream consultancies produce, basically assumes that the AI of 10-15 years time will be a simple extension of today’s AI.

Of course, no one knows for sure how AI will develop over the years ahead. But I see it as irresponsible to neglect scenarios in which AI progresses in leaps and bounds.

Just as the whole field of AI was given a huge shot in the arm by unexpected breakthroughs in the performance of deep learning from around 2012 onwards, we should be open to the possibility of additional breakthroughs in the years ahead, enabled by a combination of the following trends:

  • Huge commercial prizes are awaiting the companies that can improve their AI capabilities
  • Huge military prizes are awaiting the countries that can improve their AI capabilities
  • More developers, entrepreneurs, designers, and systems integrators are active in AI than ever before, exploring an incredible variety of different concepts
  • Increased knowledge of how the human brain operates is being fed into ideas for how to improve AI
  • Cheaper hardware, including easy access to vast cloud computing resources, means that investigations of novel AI models can take place more quickly than before
  • AI can be used to improve some of its own capabilities, in positive feedback loops, and in new “generative adversarial” settings
  • Hardware innovations including new chipset designs and quantum computing could turn today’s crazy ideas into tomorrow’s practical realities.

Today’s AI already shows considerable promise in fields such as transfer learning, artificial creativity, the detection and simulation of emotions, and concept formulation. How quickly will progress occur? My view: slowly, and then quickly.

Q3: How might the “displacement effect” be altered?

In parallel with rating the income effect much more highly than I think is prudent, the PwC analysis offers in my view some dubious reasoning for lowering the displacement effect:

Although we estimate that up to 30% of existing UK jobs could be at high risk of being automated, a job being at “high risk” of being automated does not mean that it will definitely be automated, as there could be a range of economic, legal and regulatory and organisational barriers to the adoption of these new technologies…

We think it is reasonable to scale down our estimates by a factor of two thirds to reflect these barriers, so our central estimate of the proportion of existing jobs that will actually be automated over the next 20 years is reduced to 20%.

Yes, a whole panoply of human factors can alter the speed of the take-up of new technology. But such factors aren’t always brakes. In some circumstances – as perceptions change – they can become accelerators.

Consider if companies in one country (e.g. the UK) are slow to adopt some new technology, but rival companies overseas act more quickly. Declining competitiveness will be one reason for the mindset to change.

A different example: attitudes towards interracial marriages, or towards same-sex marriages, changed slowly for a long time, until they started to change faster.

Q4: What are the consequences of negligent forecasting?

Here’s a bonus question. Does it really matter if PwC get these forecasts wrong? Or is it better to err on the conservative side?

I imagine PwC consultants reasoning along the following lines. Let’s avoid panic. Changes in the job market are likely to be slow in at least the shorter term. Provided that remains the case, the primary pieces of policy advice offered in the report make sense:

Government should invest more in ‘STEAM’ skills that will be most useful to people in this increasingly automated world.

Place-based industrial strategy should target job creation.

The report follows up these recommendations with a different kind of policy advice:

Government should strengthen the safety net for those who find it hard to adjust to technological changes.

But the question is: how much attention should be given, in relative terms, to these two different kinds of advice? Should society put more effort into new training programmes, or in redesigning the prevailing social contract?

So long as the impact of automation on the job market is relatively small, perhaps less effort is needed to work on a better social safety net. But if the impact could be significantly higher, well, many people find that too frightening to contemplate. Hence the desire to sweep such ideas under the carpet – similar to how polite society once avoided using the word “cancer”.

My own view is that the balance of emphasis in the PwC report is the wrong way round. Society urgently needs to anticipate new structures (and new philosophies) that cope with large proportions of the workforce no longer being able to earn income from paid employment.

That’s the argument I made in, for example, my opening remarks in the recent London Futurists conference on UBIA (Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives):

… and I took the time at the end of the event to back up my assertions with a wider analysis:

To be clear, I see many big challenges in working out how a new post-work social contract will operate – and how society can transition from our present system to this new one. But the fact these tasks are hard, is all the more reason to look at them calmly and carefully. Obscuring the need for these tasks, under a flourish of proposals to increase ‘STEAM’ skills and improve apprentice schemes is, sadly, irresponsible.

18 June 2018

Politics for normal people: strongly recommended!

Filed under: politics, UBI — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 9:19 am

The first that I heard about Andrew Yang was something like this: a supporter of universal basic income (UBI) wants to become the President of the United States, and has written a book in favour of the idea.

I confess I was a bit sceptical. Most books written by aspiring politicians are lightweight.

However, it turns out that to describe the book Yang has written as simply a book about UBI, is to vastly understate its scope and the power. I’ve just finished listening to the audio version of it, and I’m very impressed.

Yes, the book says sensible, thoughtful things about the likely advantages of UBI, and how it might be paid for. But it says much more than that.

The title of the book is “The war on normal people”. These “normal people” are ones with statistically median characteristics – median education levels, median income, median family circumstances, and so on. These aren’t the people who tend to congregate in the parts of the USA where the economy is still doing well – such as New York, Boston, Silicon Valley, and Seattle. As Yang highlights in chapter after chapter of grim but compelling reading, the prospects for these normal people are bad – if trends continue on their current trajectories.

Yang has an impressive CV of activities he undertook prior to announcing his interest in becoming President. Here’s an extract from his online biography:

I’m not a career politician—I’m an entrepreneur who understands the economy. It’s clear to me, and to many of the nation’s best job creators, that we need to make an unprecedented change, and we need to make it now. But the establishment isn’t willing to take the necessary bold steps…

I was born in upstate New York in 1975. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 1960s and met in grad school. My Dad was a researcher at IBM—he generated 69 patents over his career—and my Mom was the systems administrator at a local university. My brother and I grew up pretty nerdy. We also grew up believing in the American Dream—it’s why my parents came here.

I studied economics and political science at Brown and went to law school at Columbia. After a brief stint as a corporate lawyer, I realized it wasn’t for me. I launched a small company in the early days of the internet that didn’t work out, and then worked for a healthcare startup, where I learned how to build a business from more experienced entrepreneurs. In my thirties, I ran a national education company that grew to become #1 in the country. I also met my wife, Evelyn, and got married. My education company was acquired, and with Evelyn’s support, I decided to take my earnings and committed myself to creating jobs in cities hit hard by the financial crisis. By that time I understood the power of entrepreneurship to generate economic growth, so I founded Venture for America (VFA), an organization that helps entrepreneurs create jobs in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

VFA resonates with so many people because it’s clear there’s a growing problem in the U.S.: automation is destroying jobs and entire regions are being left behind. For years I believed new business formation was the answer—if we could train a new generation of entrepreneurs and create the right jobs in the right places, we could stop the downward spiral of growing income inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. VFA created jobs by the thousands and continues to do amazing work across the country. But along the way, it became clear to me that job creation will not outpace the massive impending job loss due to automation. Those days are simply over.

Yang draws on many of his personal experiences in the book. He describes how, despite lots of good intentions from existing political and social leaders, much of the interior of the USA has been heading steadily downhill. The fixes that are often proposed, such as retraining people from one career skillset to another – aren’t going to work on the scale needed.

Hence Yang’s summary:

I fear for the future of our country. New technologies – robots, software, artificial intelligence – have already destroyed more than 4 million US jobs, and in the next 5-10 years, they will eliminate millions more. A third of all American workers are at risk of permanent unemployment. And this time, the jobs will not come back.

Despite the depressing analysis in the opening two thirds of the book, the final sections are full of what I see as credible optimism.

Here’s his headline vision:

As president, my first priority will be to implement Universal Basic Income for every American adult between the ages of 18 and 64: $1,000 a month, no strings attached, paid for by a new tax on the companies benefiting most from automation.

However – of key importance – Yang’s book makes clear that he understands that the financial payments are only a small part of the transformation that needs to be taken.

UBI is just the beginning. A crisis is underway—we have to work together to stop it, or risk losing the heart of our country. The stakes have never been higher.

Yang makes lots of interesting proposals about changes to communities (including systems of “digital social credits”), healthcare, and education. These build on his own experiences within the healthcare and education industries, and resonate with my personal observations from my own career. For example, Yang urges that we shouldn’t think of education and being primarily about preparing someone for employment. Instead, it should be about the development of character.

Anyone else considering running for political office would do well to compare their vision with that of Andrew Yang. I wish him the best of success.

24 May 2018

“The People vs. Democracy” – a quick review

Filed under: books, politics, RSA — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:08 am

If you’re interested in politics, then I recommend the video recording of yesterday’s presentation at London’s RSA by Yascha Mounk.

Mounk is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at New America, a columnist at Slate, and the host of The Good Fight podcast. He’s also the author of the book “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” which I finished reading yesterday. The RSA presentation provides a good introduction to the ideas in the book.

The book marshals a set of arguments in a compelling way, which I hadn’t seen lined up in that way before. It provides some very useful insight as to the challenges being posed to the world by the growth of “illiberal democracy” (“populism”). It also explains why these challenges might be more dangerous than many commentators have tended to assume.

(“Don’t worry about the rise of strong men like Trump”, these commentators say. “Sure, Trump is obnoxious. But the traditions of liberal democracy are strong. The separation of powers are such that the excesses of any would-be autocrat will surely be tamed”. Alas, there’s no “surely” about it.)

Here’s how Mounk’s book is described on its website:

The world is in turmoil. From India to Turkey and from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. As a result, Yascha Mounk shows, democracy itself may now be at risk.

Two core components of liberal democracy—individual rights and the popular will—are increasingly at war with each other. As the role of money in politics soared and important issues were taken out of public contestation, a system of “rights without democracy” took hold. Populists who rail against this say they want to return power to the people. But in practice they create something just as bad: a system of “democracy without rights.”

The consequence, Mounk shows in The People vs. Democracy, is that trust in politics is dwindling. Citizens are falling out of love with their political system. Democracy is wilting away. Drawing on vivid stories and original research, Mounk identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, politicians need to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.

The People vs. Democracy is the first book to go beyond a mere description of the rise of populism. In plain language, it describes both how we got here and where we need to go. For those unwilling to give up on either individual rights or the popular will, Mounk shows, there is little time to waste: this may be our last chance to save democracy.

I liked the book so much that I’ve modified some of the slides in the presentation I’ll be giving myself this evening (Thursday 24th May), to include ideas from Mounk’s work.

One drawback of the book, however, is that the solutions it offers, although “worthy”, seem unlikely to stir sufficient popular engagement to become turned from idea into reality. I believe something bigger is needed.

14 May 2018

The key questions about UBIA

The first few times I heard about the notion of Universal Basic Income (UBI), I said to myself, that’s a pretty dumb idea.

Paying people without them doing any work is going to cause big problems for society, I thought. It’s going to encourage laziness, and discourage enterprise. Why should people work hard, if the fruits of their endeavour are taken away from them to be redistributed to people who can’t be bothered to work? It’s not fair. And it’s a recipe for social decay.

But since my first encounters with the idea of UBI, my understanding has evolved a long way. I have come to see the idea, not as dumb, but as highly important. Anyone seriously interested in the future of human society ought to keep abreast of the discussion about UBI:

  • What are the strengths and (yes) the weaknesses of UBI?
  • What alternatives could be considered, that have the strengths of UBI but avoid its weaknesses?
  • And, bearing in mind that the most valuable futurist scenarios typically involve the convergence (or clash) of several different trend analyses, what related ideas might transform our understanding of UBI?

For these reasons, I am hosting a day-long London Futurists event at Birkbeck College, Central London, on Saturday 2nd June, with the title “Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives: 2018 update”.

The event is defined by the question,

What do we know, in June 2018, about Universal Basic Income and its alternatives (UBIA), that wasn’t known, or was less clear, just a few years ago?

The event website highlights various components of that question, which different speakers on the day will address:

  • What are the main risks and issues with the concept of UBIA?
  • How might the ideas of UBIA evolve in the years ahead?
  • If not a UBI, what alternatives might be considered, to meet the underlying requirements which have led many people to propose a UBI?
  • What can we learn from the previous and ongoing experiments in Basic Income?
  • What are the feasible systems (new or increased taxes, or other means) to pay for a UBIA?
  • What steps can be taken to make UBIA politically feasible?
  • What is a credible roadmap for going beyond a “basic” income towards enabling attainment of a “universal prosperity” by everyone?

As you can see from the event website, an impressive list of speakers have kindly agreed to take part. Here’s the schedule for the day:

09:30: Doors open
10:00: Chair’s welcome: The questions that deserve the most attention: David Wood
10:15: Opening keynote: Basic Income – Making it happenProf Guy Standing
11:00: Implications of Information TechnologyProf Joanna Bryson
11:30: Alternatives to UBI – Exploring the PossibilitiesRohit TalwarHelena Calle and Steve Wells
12:15: Q&A involving all morning speakers
12:30: Break for lunch (lunch not provided)

14:00: Basic Income as a policy and a perspective: Barb Jacobson
14:30: Implications of Artificial Intelligence on UBIATony Czarnecki
15:00: Approaching the Economic SingularityCalum Chace
15:30: What have we learned? And what should we do next? David Wood
16:00-16:30: Closing panel involving all speakers
16:30: Event closes. Optional continuation of discussion in nearby pub

A dumb idea?

In the run-up to the UBIA 2018 event, I’ll make a number of blogposts anticipating some of the potential discussion on the day.

First, let me return to the question of whether UBI is a dumb idea. Viewing the topic from the angle of laziness vs. enterprise is only one possible perspective. As is often the case, changing your perspective often provides much needed insight.

Instead, let’s consider the perspective of “social contract”. Reflect on the fact that society already provides money to people who aren’t doing any paid work. There are basic pension payments for everyone (so long as they are old enough), basic educational funding for everyone (so long as they are young enough), and basic healthcare provisions for people when they are ill (in most countries of the world).

These payments are part of what is called a “social contract”. There are two kinds of argument for having a social contract:

  1. Self-interested arguments: as individuals, we might need to take personal benefit of a social contract at some stage in the future, if we unexpectedly fall on hard times. What’s more, if we fail to look after the rest of society, the rest of society might feel aggrieved, and rise up against us, pitchforks (or worse) in hand.
  2. Human appreciation arguments: all people deserve basic stability in their life, and a social contract can play a significant part in providing such stability.

What’s harder, of course, is to agree which kind of social contract should be in place. Whole libraries of books have been written on that question.

UBI can be seen as fitting inside a modification of our social contract. It would be part of what supporters say would be an improved social contract.

Note: although UBI is occasionally suggested as a replacement for the entirety of the current welfare system, it is more commonly (and, in my view, more sensibly) proposed as a replacement for only some of the current programmes.

Proponents of UBI point to two types of reason for including UBI as part of a new social contract:

  1. Timeless arguments – arguments that have been advanced in various ways by people throughout history, such as Thomas More (1516), Montesquieu (1748), Thomas Paine (1795), William Morris (1890), Bertrand Russell (1920), Erich Fromm (1955), Martin Luther King (1967), and Milton Friedman (1969)
  2. Time-linked arguments – arguments that foresee drastically changed circumstances in the relatively near future, which increase the importance of adopting a UBI.

Chief among the time-linked arguments are that the direct and indirect effects of profound technological change is likely to transform the work environment in unprecedented ways. Automation, powered by AI that is increasingly capable, may eat into more and more of the skills that we humans used to think are “uniquely human”. People who expected to earn money by doing various tasks may find themselves unemployable – robots will do these tasks more reliably, more cheaply, and with greater precision. People who spend some time retraining themselves in anticipation of a new occupation may find that, over the same time period, robots have gained the same skills faster than humans.

That’s the argument for growing technological unemployment. It’s trendy to criticise this argument nowadays, but I find the criticisms to be weak. I won’t repeat all the ins and outs of that discussion now, since I’ve covered them at some length in Chapter 4 of my book Transcending Politics. (An audio version of this chapter is currently available to listen to, free of charge, here.)

A related consideration talks, not about technological unemployment, but about technological underemployment. People may be able to find paid work, but that work pays considerably less than they expected. Alternatively, their jobs may have many rubbishy aspects. In the terminology of David Graeber, increasing numbers of jobs are “bullshit jobs”. (Graeber will be speaking on that very topic at the RSA this Thursday. At time of writing, tickets are still available.)

Yet another related concept is that of the precariat – people whose jobs are precarious, since they have no guarantee of the number of hours of work they may receive in any one week. People in these positions would often prefer to be able to leave these jobs and spend a considerable period of time training for a different kind of work – or starting a new business, with all the risks and uncertainties entailed. If a UBI were available to them, it would give them the stability to undertake that personal voyage.

How quickly will technological unemployment and technological underemployment develop? How quickly will the proportion of bullshit jobs increase? How extensive and socially dangerous will the precariat become?

I don’t believe any futurist can provide crisp answers to these questions. There are too many unknowns involved. However, equally, I don’t believe anyone can say categorically that these changes won’t occur (or won’t occur any time soon). My personal recommendation is that society needs to anticipate the serious possibility of relatively rapid acceleration of these trends over the next couple of decades. I’d actually put the probability of a major acceleration in these trends over the next 20 years as greater than 50%. But even if you assess the odds more conservatively, you ought to have some contingency plans in mind, just in case the pace quickens more than you expected.

In other words, the time-linked arguments in favour of exploring a potential UBI have considerable force.

As it happens, the timeless arguments may gain increased force too. If it’s true that the moral arc of history bends upwards – if it’s true that moral sensibilities towards our fellow humans increase over the passage of time – then arguments which at one time fell below society’s moral radar can gain momentum in the light of collective experience and deliberative reflection.

An impractical idea?

Many people who are broadly sympathetic to the principle of UBI nevertheless consider the concept to be deeply impractical. For example, here’s an assessment by veteran economics analyst John Kay, in his recent article “Basic income schemes cannot work and distract from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms”:

The provision of a universal basic income at a level which would provide a serious alternative to low-paid employment is impossibly expensive. Thus, a feasible basic income cannot fulfil the hopes of some of the idea’s promoters: it cannot guarantee households a standard of living acceptable in a modern society, it cannot compensate for the possible disappearance of existing low-skilled employment and it cannot eliminate “bullshit jobs”. Either the level of basic income is unacceptably low, or the cost of providing it is unacceptably high. And, whatever the appeal of the underlying philosophy, that is essentially the end of the matter.

Kay offers this forthright summary:

Attempting to turn basic income into a realistic proposal involves the reintroduction of elements of the benefit system which are dependent on multiple contingencies and also on income and wealth. The outcome is a welfare system which resembles those that already exist. And this is not surprising. The complexity of current arrangements is not the result of bureaucratic perversity. It is the product of attempts to solve the genuinely difficult problem of meeting the variety of needs of low-income households while minimising disincentives to work for households of all income levels – while ensuring that the system established for that purpose is likely to sustain the support of those who are required to pay for it.

I share Piachaud’s conclusion that basic income is a distraction from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms. As in other areas of policy, it is simply not the case that there are simple solutions to apparently difficult issues which policymakers have hitherto been too stupid or corrupt to implement.

Supporters of UBI have rebuttals to this analysis. Some of these rebuttals will no doubt be presented at the UBIA 2018 event on 2nd June.

One rebuttal seeks to rise above “zero sum” considerations. Injecting even a small amount of money into everyone’s hands can have “multiplier” effects, as that new money passes in turn through several people’s hands. One person’s spending is another person’s income, ready for them to spend in turn.

Along similar lines, Professor Guy Standing, who will be delivering the opening keynote at UBIA 2018, urges readers of his book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen to consider positive feedback cycles: “the likely impact of extra spending power on the supply of goods and services”. As he says,

In developing countries, and in low-income communities in richer countries, supply effects could actually lower prices for basic goods and services. In the Indian basic income pilots, villagers’ increased purchasing power led local farmers to plant more rice and wheat, use more fertilizer and cultivate more of their land. Their earnings went up, while the unit price of the food they supplied went down. The same happened with clothes, since several women found it newly worthwhile to buy sewing machines and material. A market was created where there was none before.

A similar response could be expected in any community where there are people who want to earn more and do more, alongside people wanting to acquire more goods and services to improve their living standard.

(I am indebted to Standing’s book for many other insights that have influenced my thinking and, indeed, points raised in this blogpost. It’s well worth reading!)

There’s a broader point that needs to be raised, about the “prices for basic goods and services”. Since a Basic Income needs to cover payments for these goods and services, two approaches are possible:

  1. Seek to raise the level of Basic Income payments
  2. Seek to lower the cost of basic goods and services.

I believe both approaches should be pursued in parallel. The same technologies of automation that pose threats to human employment also hold the promise for creating goods and services at significantly lower costs (and with higher quality). However, any such reduction in cost sits in tension with the prevailing societal focus on boosting economic prices (and increasing GDP). It is for this reason that we need a change of societal values as well as changes in the mechanics of the social contract.

The vision of goods and services having prices approaching zero is, by the way, sometimes called “the Star Trek economy”. Futurist Calum Chace – another of the UBIA 2018 speakers – addresses this topic is his provocatively titled book The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism. Here’s an extract from one of his blogposts, a “un-forecast” (Chace’s term) for a potential 2050 scenario, “Future Bites 7 – The Star Trek Economy”, featuring Lauren (born 1990):

The race downhill between the incomes of governments and the costs they needed to cover for their citizens was nerve-wracking for a few years, but by the time Lauren hit middle age it was clear the outcome would be good. Most kinds of products had now been converted into services, so cars, houses, and even clothes were almost universally rented rather than bought: Lauren didn’t know anyone who owned a car. The cost of renting a car for a journey was so close to zero that the renting companies – auto manufacturers or AI giants and often both – generally didn’t bother to collect the payment. Money was still in use, but was becoming less and less necessary.

As a result, the prices of most asset classes had crashed. Huge fortunes had been wiped out as property prices collapsed, especially in the hot-spot cities, but few people minded all that much as they could get whatever they needed so easily.

As you may have noticed, the vision of a potential future “Star Trek” economy is part of the graphic design for UBIA 2018.

I’ll share one further comment on the question of the affordability of UBI. Specifically, I’ll quote some comments made by Guardian writer Colin Holtz in the wake of the discovery of the extent of tax evasion revealed by the Panama Papers. The article by Holtz has the title “The Panama Papers prove it: America can afford a universal basic income”. Here’s an extract:

If the super-rich actually paid what they owe in taxes, the US would have loads more money available for public services.

We should all be able to agree: no one should be poor in a nation as wealthy as the US. Yet nearly 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. Perhaps one of the best solutions is also one of the oldest and simplest ideas: everyone should be guaranteed a small income, free from conditions.

Called a universal basic income by supporters, the idea has has attracted support throughout American history, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr. But it has also faced unending criticism for one particular reason: the advocates of “austerity” say we simply can’t afford it – or any other dramatic spending on social security.

That argument dissolved this week with the release of the Panama Papers, which reveal the elaborate methods used by the wealthy to avoid paying back the societies that helped them to gain their wealth in the first place…

While working and middle-class families pay their taxes or face consequences, the Panama Papers remind us that the worst of the 1% have, for years, essentially been stealing access to Americans’ common birthright, and to the benefits of our shared endeavors.

Worse, many of those same global elite have argued that we cannot afford to provide education, healthcare or a basic standard of living for all, much less eradicate poverty or dramatically enhance the social safety net by guaranteeing every American a subsistence-level income.

The Tax Justice Network estimates the global elite are sitting on $21–32tn of untaxed assets. Clearly, only a portion of that is owed to the US or any other nation in taxes – the highest tax bracket in the US is 39.6% of income. But consider that a small universal income of $2,000 a year to every adult in the US – enough to keep some people from missing a mortgage payment or skimping on food or medicine – would cost only around $563bn each year.

This takes us from the question of affordability to the question of political feasibility. Read on…

A politically infeasible idea?

A potential large obstacle to adopting UBI is that powerful entities within society will fight hard against it, being opposed to any idea of increased taxation and a decline in their wealth. These entities don’t particularly care that the existing social contract provides a paltry offering to the poor and precarious in society – or to those “inadequates” who happen to lose their jobs and their standing in the economy. The existing social contract provides them personally (and those they consider their peers) with a large piece of the cake. They’d like to keep things that way, thank you very much.

They defend the current setup with ideology. The ideology states that they deserve their current income and wealth, on account of the outstanding contributions they have made to the economy. They have created jobs, or goods, or services of one sort or another, that the marketplace values. And no-one has any right to take their accomplishments away from them.

In other words, they defend the status quo with a theory of value. In order to overcome their resistance to UBIA, I believe we’ll need to tackle this theory of value head on, and provide a better theory in its place. I’ll pick up that thread of thought shortly.

But an implementation of UBI doesn’t need to happen “big bang” style, all at once. It can proceed in stages, starting with a very low level, and (all being well) ramping up from there in phases. The initial payment from UBI could be funded from new types of tax that would, in any case, improve the health of society:

  • A tax on financial transactions (sometimes called a “Tobin tax”) – that will help to put the brakes on accelerated financial services taking place entirely within the financial industry (without directly assisting the real economy)
  • A “Greenhouse gas tax” (such as a “carbon tax”) on activities that generate greenhouse gas pollution.

Continuing the discussion

The #ubia channel in the newly created London Futurists Slack workspace awaits comments on this topic. For a limited time, members and supporters of London Futurists can use this link to join that workspace.

6 March 2018

Transcending left and right?

(The following consists of short extracts from Chapter 1,  “Vision and Roadmap”, of my recent new book Transcending Politics.)

One of the most destructive elements of current politics is its divisiveness. Politicians form into warring parties which then frequently find fault with each other. They seek to damage the reputation of their adversaries, throwing lots of mud in the hope that at least some of it will stick. Whereas disagreement is inherent in political process, what would be far better is if politicians could disagree without being disagreeable.

The division between “left” and “right” is particularly long-established. The pioneering transhumanist philosopher F.M. Esfandiary, who later changed his name to FM-2030, lamented this division in his 1977 book Up-Wingers:

To transcend more rapidly to higher levels of evolution we must begin by breaking out of the confinement of traditional ideologies.

We are at all times slowed down by the narrowness of Right-wing and Left-wing alternatives. If you are not conservative you are liberal. If not right of centre you are left of it or middle of the road.

Our traditions comprise no other alternatives. There is no ideological or conceptual dimension beyond conservative and liberal – beyond Right and Left.

Right and Left – even the extreme Left – are traditional frameworks predicated on traditional premises striving in obsolete ways to attain obsolete goals.

Esfandiary’s answer was a different dimension: “Up” – the optimistic embrace of radical technological possibility for positive human transformation:

How do you identify Space scientists who this very day are working with new sets of premises to establish communities in other worlds? Are they Right-wing or Left? Are they conservative or liberal?…

These and other breakthroughs are outside the range of all the traditional philosophical social economic political frameworks. These new dimensions are nowhere on the Right or on the Left. These new dimensions are Up.

Up is an entirely new framework whose very premises and goals transcend the conventional Right and Left…

The Right/Left establishment wants to maintain an evolutionary status quo. It is resigned to humanity’s basic predicament. It simply strives to make life better within this predicament.

Up-Wingers are resigned to nothing. We accept no human predicament as permanent, no tragedy as irreversible; no goals as unattainable.

The term “Up” dovetails with Esfandiary’s evident interest in the exploration of space. We should raise our thinking upwards – towards the stars – rather than being constrained with small-mindedness.

Professor Steve Fuller of the University of Warwick and legal expert Veronika Lipinska take these ideas further in their 2014 book The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism, in which they explore “the rotation of the ideological axis”, from left/right to up/down. Fuller and Lipinska provide some fascinating historical background and provocative speculations about possible futures – including a section on “the four styles of playing God in today’s world”.

I share the view that there are more important questions than the left-right split that has dominated politics for so long. Esfandiary was correct to highlight the question of whether to embrace (“Up”) or to reject (“Down”) the potential of new technology to dramatically enhance human capabilities.

But the “Up” decision to embrace the potential for transhuman enhancements still leaves many other decisions unresolved. People who identify as being up-wing are torn between being “right-leaning upwingers” and being “left-leaning upwingers”:

  • The former admire the capabilities of a free market
  • The latter admire the safety net of a welfare system
  • The former mistrust the potential over-reach of politicians
  • The latter mistrust the actions of profit-seeking corporations
  • The former wish to uphold as much individual freedom as possible
  • The latter wish to uphold as much social solidarity as possible
  • The former are keen to reduce taxation
  • The latter are keen to increase equality of opportunity
  • The former point to the marvels that can be achieved by competitive-minded self-made individuals
  • The latter point to the marvels that can be achieved by collaboration-minded progressive coalitions.

I identify myself as a technoprogressive more than a technolibertarian. Individual freedoms are important, but the best way to ensure these is via wise collective agreement on appropriate constraints. Rather than seeking minimal government and minimal taxation, you’ll see in the pages ahead that I argue for appropriate government and appropriate taxation.

However, I’m emphatically not going to advocate that left-leaning transhumanists should somehow overcome or defeat right-leaning transhumanists. The beliefs I listed as being characteristic of right-leaning transhumanists all contain significant truths – as do the beliefs I listed for left-leaning transhumanists. The task ahead is to pursue policies that respect both sets of insights. That’s what I mean when describing the Transpolitica initiative as “integrative”. Rather than “either-or” it’s “both-and”.

 

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:

slide1

slide2

slide3

slide4

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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