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4 February 2013

Responding to the call for a new Humanity+ manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 December 2012

An absorbing, challenging vision of near-future struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I will say this:

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

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

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

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

16 September 2012

Transcending the threat of the long emergency

The not-so-distant future (2030-2045) may turn out very different from how we commonly imagine. It may turn out very different from what we desire.

At that time, those of us who remain alive and who still have the faculty to think critically, may well bemoan the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate the intervening turn of events, and didn’t organise ourselves effectively to enable a better future to unfold. We may bitterly regret our present-day pre-occupations with celebrity gossip and 24×7 reality TV and rivalries between the latest superphones and by bickering over gullible interpretations of antiquated religious folk tales.

Why did we fiddle why Rome burned? Why did we not see the likelihood of Rome burning? Why were we so enthralled to the excitements of consumer goods and free-market economics and low-cost international travel and relentless technology innovation that we failed to give heed to the deeper stresses and strains portending what writer James Howard Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency“?

The subtitle of Kunstler’s The Long Emergency book is “Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century“. His writing style is lively and unapologetic. He pays little respect to political correctness. His thesis is not just that supplies of oil are declining (despite vigorously growing demand), but that society fails to appreciate quite how difficult it’s going to be to replace oil with new sources of energy. Many, many aspects of our present-day civilisation depend in fundamental ways on by-products of oil. Therefore, we’re facing an almighty crisis.

Quoting Colin Tudge from The Independent, The Long Emergency carries an endorsement on its front cover:

If you give a damn, you should read this book

I echo that endorsement. Kunstler makes lots of important points about the likely near-future impact of diseases, shortages of fresh water, large multinationals in their runaway pursuit of profits and growth, the over-complexity of modern life, and the risks of cataclysmic wars over diminishing material resources.

I agree with around 80% of what Kunstler says. But even in the 20% where we part company, I find his viewpoint to be illuminating.

For example, I regard Kunstler’s discussion of both solar and wind energy as being perfunctory. He is too quick to dismiss the potential of these (and other) alternative energy sources. My own view is that the same kinds of compound improvements that have accelerated the information and communications hi-tech industries can also apply in alternative energy industries. Even though individual companies fail, and even though specific ideas for tech improvement are found wanting, there remains plenty of scope for cumulative overall improvement, with layers of new innovations all building on prior breakthroughs.

Kunstler’s first reply to this kind of rejoinder is that it confuses technology with energy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, “James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won’t Save Us“, he responds to the following observation by journalist Jeff Goodell:

You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.

Kunstler’s reply:

They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?

My own comment: the world is not facing a shortage of energy. An analysis published recently in Nature shows that wind energy could provide 20-100 times current global power demand. And as for solar energy, National Geographic magazine reports

Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.

So the problem isn’t one of lack of energy. It’s a problem of harvesting the energy, storing it, and transporting it efficiently to where it needs to be used. That’s a problem to which technology can apply itself with a vengeance.

But as I said, Kunstler is insightful even when he is wrong. His complaint is that it is foolish to simply rely on some magical powers of a free-market economy to deliver the technology smarts needed to solve these energy-related problems. Due to the dysfunctions and failures of free-market economies, there’s no guarantee that industry will be able to organise itself to make the right longer-term investments to move from our current “local maximum” oil-besotted society to a better local maximum that is, however, considerably remote from where we are today. These are as much matters of economics and politics as they are of technology. Here, I agree with Kunstler.

Kunstler’s second reply is that, even if enough energy is made available from new sources, it won’t solve the problem of diminishing raw materials. This includes fresh water, rare minerals, and oil itself (which is used for much more than a source of energy – for example, it’s a core ingredient of plastics). Kunstler argues that these raw materials are needed in the construction and maintenance of alternative energy generators. So it will be impossible to survive the decline in the availability of oil.

My comment to this is that a combination of sufficient energy (e.g. from massive solar generators) and smart technology can be deployed to generate new materials. Fresh water can be obtained from sea water by desalination plants. Oil itself can be generated in due course by synthetic biology. And if it turns out that we really do lack a particular rare mineral, presently needed for a core item of consumer electronics, we can change the manufacturing process to swap in an alternative.

At least, these transformations are theoretically possible. But, again, they’ll probably require greater coordination than our present system of economics and politics enables, with its over-emphasis on short-termism.

Incidentally, for a particularly clear critique of the idea that untramelled free market economics is the best mechanism to ensure societal progress, I recommend “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism“, by Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang. This consists of 23 chapters which each follow the same form: a common tenet of free-market economics is presented (and is made to appear plausible), and then is thoroughly debunked, by means of a mixture of data and theory. Professor Chang isn’t opposed to markets, but he does believe in the necessity for key elements of state intervention to steer markets. He offers positive remedies as well as negative criticisms. Alternatively, you might also enjoy “What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets“, by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. That takes a complementary path, with examples that are bound to make both proponents and opponents of free markets wince from time to time. They really get under the skin. And they really make you think.

Both books are (in my viewpoint) brilliantly written, though if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend the one by Ha-Joon Chang. His knowledge of real-world economics is both comprehensive and uplifting – and his writing style is blessedly straightforward. Being Korean born, his analysis of the economic growth in Korea is especially persuasive, but he draws insight from numerous other geographies too.

Putting the future on the agenda

As you can tell, I see the threat of self-induced societal collapse as real. The scenarios in The Long Emergency deserve serious attention. For that reason, I’m keen to put the future on the agenda. I don’t mean discussions of whether national GDPs will grow or shrink by various percentage points over the next one or two years, or whether unemployment will marginally rise or marginally fall. Instead, I want to increase focus on the question of whether we’re collectively able to transition away from our profligate dependence on oil (and away from other self-defeating aspects of our culture) in sufficient time to head off environmental and economic disaster.

That’s the reason I’m personally sponsoring a series of talks at the London Futurists called “The Next Golden Age Of Technology 2030-45“.

The first in that series of talks took place on Saturday at Birkbeck College in Central London: “Surfing The Sixth Wave: Modelling The Next Technology Boom“, with lead speaker Stephen Aguilar-Millan. Stephen is is the Director of Research at the European Futures Observatory, a futures think tank based in the UK.

The different talks in the series are taking different angles on what is a complex, multi-faceted subject. The different speakers by no means all agree with each other. After all, it’s clear that there’s no consensus on how the future is likely to unfold.

Rather than making specific predictions, Stephen’s talk focused more on the question of how to think about future scenarios. He distinguished three main approaches:

  1. Trends analysis – we can notice various trends, and consider extrapolating them into the future
  2. Modelling and systems thinking – we seek to uncover underlying patterns, that are likely to persist despite technology changes
  3. Values-based thinking – which elevates matters of human interest, and considers how human action might steer developments away from those predicted by previous trends and current models.

Stephen’s own approach emphasised models of change in

  • politics (a proposed cycle of concerns: community -> corporate -> individual -> atomistic -> community…),
  • economics (such as the Kondratieff Cycle),
  • and social (such as generational changes: boomer -> generation X -> millennial -> homeland -> scarcity),
  • as well as in technology per se.

For a model to understand long-term technological change, Stephen referred to the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez, whose book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages” is held in high regard. Perez describes recent history as featuring five major technical-economic cycles:

  1. From 1771: The First Industrial Revolution (machines, factories, and canals)
  2. From 1829: The Age of Steam, Coal, Iron, and Railways
  3. From 1875: The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering (electrical, chemical, civil, naval)
  4. From 1908: The Age of the Automobile, Oil, Petrochemicals, and Mass Production
  5. From 1971: The Age of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In this analysis, each such cycle takes 40-60 years to spread across the world and reach maturity. Each techno-economic paradigm shift involves “a change in the direction of change” and brings:

  • New industries
  • New infrastructure
  • New ways of transport and communication
  • New ways of producing
  • A new way of working
  • A new way of living.

Golden ages of technology – insight from Carlota Perez

Stephen’s slides will shortly be posted onto the London Futurist website. The potential interplay of the different models is important, but in retrospect, the area that it would have been good to explore further was the analysis by Carlota Perez. There are a number of videos on YouTube that feature her presenting her ideas. For example, there’s a four-part presentation “Towards a Sustainable Global Golden Age” – where she also mentions a potential sixth technical-economic wave:

  • The Age of Biotech, Bioelectronics, Nanotech, and new materials.




Unlike Kunstler, Perez offers an optimistic view of the future. Whereas Kunstler in effect takes wave four as being irretrievably central to modern society, Perez argues that the technology of wave five is already in the process of undoing many of the environmental problems introduced by wave four. This transformation is admittedly difficult to discern, Perez explains, because of factors which prolong the “energy intensive” culture of wave four (even though the “information intensive” wave five already enables significant reductions in energy usage):

  • The low price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s
  • The low price of labor in China and Asia
  • The persistence of “the American way of life” as the “model of well-being” that the world wishes to emulate.

On the other hand, a paradigm change in expectation is now accelerating (see slide 20 of the PDF accompanying the video):

  • Small is better than big
  • Natural materials are better than synthetic
  • Multipurpose is better than single function
  • ‘Gourmet’ food is better than standard
  • Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are healthier
  • Exercise is important for well-being
  • Global warming is a real danger
  • Not commuting to work is possible and preferable
  • Solar power is luxurious
  • Internet communications, shopping, learning and entertainment are better than the old ways.

Nevertheless, despite her optimism that “a sustainable positive-sum future is possible”, Perez states clearly (slide 23):

  • But it will not happen automatically: the market cannot do it alone
  • The state must come back into the picture

Her analysis proceeds:

  • Each technological revolution propagates in two different periods
  • The first half sets up the infrastructure and lets the markets pick the winners
  • The second half (“the Golden Age” of the wave) reaps the full economic and social potential
  • Each Golden Age has been facilitated by enabling regulation and policies for shaping and widening markets.

Scarcity resolved?

The next London Futurist talk in this series will pick up some of the above themes. It will take place on Saturday the 20th of October, with independent futures consultant Guy Yeomans as the lead speaker. To quote from the event page:

Many people regard technological invention as not just a key driving force in human evolution but as the primary source of historical change, profoundly influencing wider economic and social developments. Is this perspective valid? Does it enable us to fully explain the world we live in today, and may actively occupy tomorrow?

Specifically, will technological invention be the ‘saviour’ some believe for our collective future challenges? Can we rely on technology to resolve looming issues of scarcity?

To answer these questions, this talk re-examines the emergence of technology and its role in human affairs. It does this by reviewing the history of the discipline of futures thinking, including techniques such as trend analysis themes.

The talk begins by considering the conditions under which futures thinking formed in North America in the aftermath of World War II. From this, we’ll assess what contributions the methods and techniques created during this period have made to contemporary strategic planning. Using parts of this framework, we’ll formulate a perspective on the key issues likely to affect future technological needs, and assess the dynamics via which technologies may then emerge to meet these needs.

Crucial to all this will be our ability to identify and reveal the core assumptions underpinning such a perspective, thereby providing a more robust footing from which to investigate the ways in which technology might actually evolve over the coming decades. From this, we’ll finally ask:Will scarcity even emerge, let alone need to be overcome?

Later talks in the same series will be given by professional futurists Nick Price, Ian Pearson, and Peter Cochrane.

1 September 2012

The three most important questions about the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 October 2011

Human regeneration – limbs and more

Filed under: healthcare, medicine, rejuveneering, risks, Singularity — David Wood @ 1:57 am

Out of the many interesting presentations on Day One of the 2011 Singularity Summit here in New York, the one that left me with the most to think about was “Regenerative Medicine: Possibilities and Potential” by Dr. Stephen Badylak.

Dr Badylak is deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and a Professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Pittsburg. In his talk at the Singularity Summit, he described some remarkable ways in which the human body could heal itself – provided we provide it with suitable “scaffolding” that triggers the healing.

One of the examples Dr Badylak discussed is also covered in a recent article in Discover Magazine, How Pig Guts Became the Next Bright Hope for Regenerating Human Limbs.  The article deserves reading all the way through. Here are some short extracts from the beginning:

When he first arrived in the trauma unit of San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center in December 2004, Corporal Isaias Hernandez’s leg looked to him like something from KFC. “You know, like when you take a bite out of the drumstick down to the bone?” Hernandez recalls. The 19-year-old Marine, deployed in Iraq, had been trying to outfit his convoy truck with a makeshift entertainment system for a long road trip when the bomb exploded. The 12-inch TV he was clutching to his chest shielded his vital organs; his buddy carrying the DVDs wasn’t so lucky.

The doctors kept telling Hernandez he would be better off with an amputation. He would have more mobility with a prosthetic, less pain. When he refused, they took a piece of muscle from his back and sewed it into the hole in his thigh. He did all he could to make it work. He grunted and sweated his way through the agony of physical therapy with the same red-faced determination that got him through boot camp. He even sneaked out to the stairwell, something they said his body couldn’t handle, and dragged himself up the steps until his leg seized up and he collapsed.

Generally people never recovered from wounds like his. Flying debris had ripped off nearly 70 percent of Hernandez’s right thigh muscle, and he had lost half his leg strength. Remove enough of any muscle and you might as well lose the whole limb, the chances of regeneration are so remote. The body kicks into survival mode, pastes the wound over with scar tissue, and leaves you to limp along for life….

Hernandez recalled that one of his own doctors—Steven Wolf, then chief clinical researcher for the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research in Texas—had once mentioned some kind of experimental treatment that could “fertilize” a wound and help it heal. At the time, Hernandez had dismissed the therapy as too extreme. The muscle transplant sounded safer, easier. Now he changed his mind. He wanted his leg back, even if it meant signing himself up as a guinea pig for the U.S. Army.

So Hernandez tracked down Wolf, and in February 2008 the two got started. First, Wolf put Hernandez through another grueling course of physical therapy to make sure he had indeed pushed any new muscle growth to the limit. Then he cut open Hernandez’s thigh and inserted a paper-thin slice of the same material used to make the pixie dust: part of a pig’s bladder known as the extracellular matrix, or ECM, a fibrous substance that occupies the spaces between cells. Once thought to be a simple cellular shock absorber, ECM is now understood to contain powerful proteins that can reawaken the body’s latent ability to regenerate tissue.

A few months after the surgery healed, Wolf assigned the young soldier another course of punishing physical therapy. Soon something remarkable began to happen. Muscle that most scientists would describe as gone forever began to grow back. Hernandez’s muscle strength increased by 30 percent from what it was before the surgery, and then by 40 percent. It hit 80 percent after six months. Today it is at 103 percent—as strong as his other leg. Hernandez can do things that were impossible before, like ease gently into a chair instead of dropping into it, or kneel down, ride a bike, and climb stairs without collapsing, all without pain

The challenge now is replicating Hernandez’s success in other patients. The U.S. Department of Defense, which received a congressional windfall of $80 million to research regenerative medicine in 2008, is funding a team of scientists based at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine to oversee an 80-patient study of ECM at five institutions. The scientists will attempt to use the material to regenerate the muscle of patients who have lost at least 40 percent of a particular muscle group, an amount so devastating to limb function that it often leads doctors to perform an amputation.

If the trials are successful, they could fundamentally change the way we treat patients with catastrophic limb injuries. Indeed, the treatment might someday allow patients to regrow missing or mangled body parts. With an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States alone missing limbs, promoters of regenerative medicine eagerly await the day when therapies like ECM work well enough to put the prosthetics industry out of business.

The interesting science is the explanation of the role of the ECM – the extracellular matrix, which provides the scaffolding that allows the healing to take place. The healing turns out to involve the body directing stem cells to the scaffolding. These stem cells then differentiate into muscle cells, nerve cells, blood cells, and so on. There’s also some interesting science to explain why the body doesn’t reject the ECM that’s inserted into it.

Badylak speaks with confidence of the treatment one day allowing the regeneration of damaged human limbs, akin to what happens with salamanders.  He also anticipates the healing of brain tissue damaged by strokes.

Later that morning, another speaker at the Singularity Summit, Michael Shermer, referred to Dr Badylak’s presentation. Shermer is a well-known sceptic – indeed, he’s the publisher of Skeptic magazine.  Shermer often participates in public debates with believers in various religions and new-age causes.  Shermer mentioned that, at these debates, his scientific open mindedness is sometimes challenged.  “OK, if you are open-minded, as you claim, what evidence would make you believe in God?”  Shermer typically gives the answer that, if someone with an amputated limb were to have that limb regrow, that would be reason for him to become a believer:

Most religious claims are testable, such as prayer positively influencing healing. In this case, controlled experiments to date show no difference between prayed-for and not-prayed-for patients. And beyond such controlled research, why does God only seem to heal illnesses that often go away on their own? What would compel me to believe would be something unequivocal, such as if an amputee grew a new limb. Amphibians can do it. Surely an omnipotent deity could do it. Many Iraqi War vets eagerly await divine action.

However, Shermer joked with the Singularity Summit audience, it now appears that Dr Badylak might be God.  The audience laughed.

But there’s a serious point at stake here. The Singularity Summit is full of talks about humans being on the point of gaining powers that, in previous ages, would have been viewed as Divine. With great power comes great responsibility. As veteran ecologist and environmentalist Stewart Brand wrote at the very start of his recent book “Whole Earth Discipline“,

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

In the final talk of the day, cosmologist Professor Max Tegmark addressed the same theme.  He gave an estimate of “between 1/10 and 1/10,000” for the probability of human extinction during any decade in the near-term future – extinction arising from (for example) biochemical warfare, runaway global warming, nanotech pollution, or a bad super-intelligence singularity. In contrast, he said, only a tiny fraction of the global GDP is devoted to management of existential risks.  That kind of “lack of paying attention” meant that humanity deserved, in Tegmark’s view, a “mid-term rating” of just D-.  Our focus, far too much of the time, is on the next election cycle, or the next quarterly financial results, or other short term questions.

One person who is seeking to encourage greater attention to be paid to existential risks is co-founder of Skype, Jaan Tallinn (who earlier in the year gave a very fine talk at a Humanity+ event I organised in London).  Jaan’s main presentation at the 2011 Singularity Summit will be on Day Two, but he briefly popped up on stage on Day One to announce a significant new fundraising commitment: he will personally match any donations made over the weekend to the Singularity Institute, up to a total of $100,000.

With the right resources, wisely deployed, we ought to see collective human intelligence achieve lots more regeneration – not just of broken limbs, but also of troubled societies and frustrated lives – whilst at the same time steering humanity away from the existential risks latent in these super-powerful technologies.  The discussion will continue tomorrow.

27 July 2011

Eclectic guidance for big life choices

Filed under: books, challenge, Economics, evolution, leadership, market failure, psychology, risks, strategy — David Wood @ 10:34 pm

“If you’re too busy to write your normal blog posts, at least tell us what books you’ve liked reading recently.”

That’s a request I’ve heard in several forms over the last month or so, as I’ve been travelling widely on work-related assignments.  On these travels, I’ve met several people who were kind enough to mention that they enjoyed reading my blog posts – especially those postings recommending books to read.

In response to this suggestion, let me highlight four excellent books that I’ve read recently, which have each struck me as having something profound to say on the Big Topic of how to make major life choices.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, by Tim Harford

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure draws out all sorts of surprising “aha!” connections between different areas of life, work, and society.  The analysis ranges across the wars in Iraq, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of Soviet-style centrally planned economies, the unorthodox way the development of the Spitfire fighter airplane was funded, the “Innovator’s Dilemma” whereby one-time successful companies are often blindsided by emerging new technologies, different approaches to measuring the effectiveness of charitable aid donations, the risk of inadvertently encouraging perverse behaviours when setting grand over-riding incentives, the over-bearing complexity of modern technology, the causes of the great financial crash of 2008-2009, reasons why safety systems break down, approaches to tackling climate change, and the judicious use of prizes to encourage successful breakthrough innovation.  Yes, this is a real intellectual roller-coaster, with some unexpected twists along the way – revelations that had me mouthing “wow, wow” under my breath.

And as well as heroes, there are villains.  (Donald Rumsfeld comes out particularly badly in these pages – even though he’s clearly in some ways a very bright person.  That’s an awful warning to the others among us who rejoice in above-average IQs.)

The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but this book is grounded in observations about Darwinian evolution.  Three pieces of advice pervade the analysis – advice that Harford dubs “Palchinsky Principles”, in honour of Peter Palchinsky, a Russian mining engineer who was incarcerated and executed by Stalin’s government in 1929 after many years of dissent against the human cost of the Soviet top-down command and control approach to industrialisation.  These principles are designed to encourage stronger innovation, better leadership, and more effective policies, in the face of complexity and unknowns.  The principles can be summarised as follows:

  1. Variation – seek out new ideas and try new ideas
  2. Survivability – when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  3. Selection – seek out feedback and learn from mistakes as you go along, avoiding an instinctive reaction of denial.

Harford illustrates these principles again and again, in the context of the weighty topics already listed, including major personal life choices as well as choices for national economies and international relations.  The illustrations are full of eye-openers.  The book’s subtitle is a succinct summary: “success always stars with failure”.  The notion that it’s always possible to “get it right the first time” is a profound obstacle to surviving the major crises that lie ahead of us.  We all need a greater degree of openness to smart experimentation and unexpected feedback.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by Sam Harris

That thought provides a strong link to the second book I wish to mention: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  It’s written by Sam Harris, who I first came to respect when I devoured his barnstorming The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason a few years ago.

In some ways, the newer book is even more audacious.  It considers how we might go about finding answers to big questions such as “how should I live?” and “what makes some ways of life more moral than others?”  As some specific examples, how should we respond to:

  • The Taliban’s insistence that the education of girls is an abomination?
  • The stance by Jehovah’s Witnesses against blood transfusion?
  • The prohibition by the Catholic Church of the use of condoms?
  • The legalisation of same-sex relationships?
  • The use of embryonic stem cells in the search for cures of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
  • A would-be Islamist suicide bomber who is convinced that his intended actions will propel him into a paradise of abundant mental well-being?

One response is that such questions are the province of religion.  The correct answers are revealed via prophets and/or holy books.  The answers are already clear, to those with the eye of faith.  It is a divine being that tells us, directly or indirectly, the difference between good and evil.  There’s no need for experimental investigations here.

A second response is that the main field to study these questions is that of philosophy.  It is by reason, that we can determine the difference between good and evil.

But Sam Harris, instead, primarily advocates the use of the scientific method.  Science enters the equation because it is increasingly able to identify:

  • Neural correlates (or other physical or social underpinnings) of sentient well-being
  • Cause-and-effect mechanisms whereby particular actions typically bring about particular changes in these neural correlates.

With the help of steadily improving scientific understanding, we can compare different actions based on their likely effects on sentient well-being.  Actions which are likely to magnify sentient well-being are good, and those which are likely to diminish it are evil.  It’s no defense of an action that it makes sense within an archaic, pre-scientific view of the world – a view in which misfortunes are often caused by witches’ spells, angry demons, or spiteful disembodied minds.

Here, “science” means more than the findings of any one branch of science, whether that is physics, biology, psychology, or sociology.  Instead, it is the general disciplined outlook on life that seeks to determine objective facts and connections, and which is open to making hypotheses, gathering data in support of these hypotheses, and refining hypotheses in the light of experimental findings.  As science finds out more about the causes of human well-being in a wide variety of circumstances, we can speak with greater confidence about matters which, formerly, caused people to defer to either religion or philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, the book has stirred up a raucous hornet’s nest of criticism.  Harris addresses most of these criticisms inside the book itself (which suggests that many reviewers were failing to pay attention) and picks up the discussion again on his blog. He summarises his view as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena… fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

As Harris makes clear, this is far from being an abstract, other-worldly discussion.  Cultures are clashing all the time, with lots of dramatic consequences for human well-being.  Seeing these clashes, are we to be moral relativists (saying “different cultures are best for different peoples, and there’s no way to objectively compare them”) or are we to be moral realists (saying “some cultures promote significantly more human flourishing than others, and are to be objectively preferred as a result”)?  And if we are to be moral realists, do we resolve our moral arguments by deference to religious tradition, or by open-minded investigation of real-world connections (investigations such as those proposed, indeed,  by Tim Harford in “Adapt”)?  In the light of these questions, here are some arguments that deserve thought:

  • There’s a useful comparison between the science of human values (the project espoused by Harris), and a science of diets (what we should eat, in order to enjoy good health).  In both cases, we’re currently far from having all the facts.  And in both cases, there are frequently several right answers.  But not all diets are equally good.  Similarly, not all cultures are equally good.  And what makes one diet better than another will be determined by facts about the physical world – such as the likely effects (direct and indirect) of different kinds of fats and proteins and sugars and vitamins on our bodies and minds.  While people still legitimately disagree about diets, that’s not a reason to say that science can never answer such questions.  Likewise, present-day disagreements about specific causes of happiness, mental flourishing, and general sentient well-being, do not mean these causes fail to exist, or that we can never know them.
  • Likewise with the science of economics.  We’re still far from having a complete understanding of how different monetary and financial policies impact the long-term health of the economy.  But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and stop searching for insight about likely cause and effect.  The discipline of economics, imperfect though it is, survives in an as-yet-incomplete state.  The same goes for political science too.  And, likewise, for the science of the moral landscape.
  • Attempts to reserve some special area of “moral insight” for religion are indefensible.  As Harris says, “How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious.”  (I especially recommend Harris’s excoriating demolition of surprisingly spurious arguments given by Francis Collins in his surprisingly widely respected book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief“.)

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, by Daniel Siegel

The next book on my list serves as a vivid practical illustration of the kind of scientifically-informed insight that Harris talks about – new insight about connections between the brain and mental well-being.  Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation contains numerous case histories of people who:

  • Started off lacking one or more elements of mental well-being
  • Became a patient of the author, Dr Daniel Siegel – a Harvard-trained physician
  • Followed one or other program of mindfulness – awareness and monitoring of the patterns of energy and information flowing in the brain
  • Became more integrated and fulfilled as a result.

To quote from the book’s website:

“Mindsight” [is] the potent skill that is the basis for both emotional and social intelligence. Mindsight allows you to make positive changes in your brain–and in your life.

  • Is there a memory that torments you, or an irrational fear you can’t shake?
  • Do you sometimes become unreasonably angry or upset and find it hard to calm down?
  • Do you ever wonder why you can’t stop behaving the way you do, no matter how hard you try?
  • Are you and your child (or parent, partner, or boss) locked in a seemingly inevitable pattern of conflict?

What if you could escape traps like these and live a fuller, richer, happier life?  This isn’t mere speculation but the result of twenty-five years of careful hands-on clinical work by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D… one of the revolutionary global innovators in the integration of brain science into the practice of psychotherapy. Using case histories from his practice, he shows how, by following the proper steps, nearly everyone can learn how to focus their attention on the internal world of the mind in a way that will literally change the wiring and architecture of their brain.

Siegel is, of course, aware that drugs can often play a role in addressing mental issues.  However, his preference in many cases is for patients to learn and practice various skills in mental introspection.  His belief – which he backs up by reference to contemporary scientific findings – is that practices such as meditation can change the physical structure of brain in significant ways.  (And there are times when it can relieve recurring back pain too, as in one case history covered.)

Siegel defines the mind as “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information”.  He goes on to say:

So how would you regulate the mind?  By developing the ability to see mental activity with more clarity and then modify it with more effectiveness… there’s something about being able to see and influence your internal world that creates more health.

Out of the many books on psychotherapy that I’ve read over the years, this is one of the very best.  The case studies are described in sufficient depth to make them absorbing.  They’re varied, as well as unpredictable.  The neuroscience in the book is no doubt simplified at times, but gels well with what I’ve picked up elsewhere.  And the repeated emphasis on “integration” provides a powerful unifying theme:

[Integration is] a process by which separate elements are linked together into a working whole…  For example, integration is at the heart of how we connect to one another in healthy ways, honoring one another’s differences while keeping our lines of communication wide open. Linking separate entities to one another—integration—is also important for releasing the creativity that emerges when the left and right sides of the brain are functioning together.

Integration enables us to be flexible and free; the lack of such connections promotes a life that is either rigid or chaotic, stuck and dull on the one hand or explosive and unpredictable on the other. With the connecting freedom of integration comes a sense of vitality and the ease of well-being. Without integration we can become imprisoned in behavioral ruts—anxiety and depression, greed, obsession, and addiction.

By acquiring mindsight skills, we can alter the way the mind functions and move our lives toward integration, away from these extremes of chaos or rigidity. With mindsight we are able to focus our mind in ways that literally integrate the brain and move it toward resilience and health.

The sections in the book on meditation are particularly interesting.  As Siegel has become aware, the techniques he recommends have considerable alignment with venerable practices from various eastern traditions – such as the practice of “mindfulness“.  However, the attraction of these techniques isn’t that they are venerable.  It is that there’s a credible scientific explanation of why they work – an explanation that is bolstered by contemporary clinical experience.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, by Richard Rumelt

From a great book on psychotherapy, let me finish by turning to a great book on strategy – perhaps the best book on strategy that I’ve ever read: Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters.  The author, Richard Rumelt, Professor of Business and Society at UCLA Anderson School of Management, is a veteran analyst of strategy, who gained his first degree as long ago as 1963 (in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley).  He speaks with an accumulated lifetime of wisdom, having observed countless incidents of both “bad strategy” and “good strategy” over five decades of active participation in industry.

“Strategy” is the word which companies often use, when justifying their longer term actions.  They do various things, they say, in pursuit of their strategic objectives.  Here, “strategy” goes beyond “business case”.  Strategy is a reason for choosing between different possible business cases – and can provide reasons for undertaking projects even in the absence of a strong business case.  By the way, it’s not just companies that talk about strategy.  Countries can have them too, as well as departments within governments.  And the same applies to individuals: someone’s personal strategy can be an explicit reason for them choosing between different possible alternative courses of action.

It’s therefore a far from ideal situation that much of what people think of as a strategy is instead, in Rumelt’s words, “fluff” or “wishful thinking”:

It’s easy to tell a bad [strategy] from a good one. A bad one is full of fluff: fancy language covering up the lack of content. Enron’s so-called strategy was littered with meaningless buzzwords explaining its aim to evolve to a state of “sophisticated value extraction”. But in reality its chief strategies could be summed up as having an electronic trading platform, being an over-the-counter broker and acting as an information provider. These are not strategies, they are just names, like butcher, baker and candlestick maker…

Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action.  It assumes that goals are all you need.  It puts forward strategic objectives that are incoherent and, sometimes, totally impractical.  It uses high-sounding words and phrases to hide these failings…

The core of [good] strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors…

Bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems.  It ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead of accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests.  Like a quarterback whose only advice to teammates is “Let’s win”, bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of broad goals, ambition, vision, and values.  Each of these elements is, of course, an important part of human life.  But, by themselves, they are not substitutes for the hard work of strategy…

If you fail to identify and analyse the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy.  Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.

The mention of a specific company above – Enron – is an example of a striking pattern Rumelt follows throughout his book: he names guilty parties.  Other “guilty parties” identified in the midst of fascinating narratives include CEOs of Lehman Brothers, International Harvester, Ford Motor Company, DEC, Telecom Italia, and metal box manufacturer Crown Cork & Seal.

Individuals that are highlighted, in contrast, as examples of good strategy include titans from military history – General Norman Schwarzkopf, Admiral Nelson, Hannibal, and Hebrew shepherd boy David (in his confrontation with Goliath) – as well as industry figures such as Sam Walton, Steve Jobs, Intel’s Andy Grove, IBM’s Lou Gerstner, and a range of senior managers at Cisco.  The tales recounted are in many ways already well known, but in each case Rumelt draws out surprising insight.  (Rumelt’s extended account of Hannibal’s victory over the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC indicates many unexpected implications.)

Why do so many companies, government departments, and individuals have “bad strategy”?  Rumelt identifies four underlying reasons:

  • A psychological unwillingness or inability to make choices (this can be linked with an organisation being too decentralised)
  • A growing tide of “template style” strategic planning, which gives too much attention to vision, mission, and values, rather than to hard analysis of a company’s situation
  • An over-emphasis on charismatic qualities in leaders
  • The superficially appealing “positive thinking” movement.

Rumelt’s treatment of “positive thinking” is particularly illuminating – especially for a reader like me who harbours many sympathies for the idea that it’s important to maintain a positive, upbeat attitude.  Rumelt traces the evolution of this idea over more than a century:

This fascination with positive thinking, and its deep connection to inspirational and spiritual thought, was invented around 150 years ago in New England as a mutation of Protestant Christian individualism…

The amazing thing about [the ideology of positive thinking] is that it is always presented as if it were new!  And no matter how many times the same ideas are repeated, they are received by many listeners with fresh nods of affirmation.  These ritual recitations obviously tap into a deep human capacity to believe that intensely focused desire is magically rewarded…

I do not know whether meditation and other inward journeys perfect the human soul.  But I do know that believing … that by thinking only of success you can become a success, is a form of psychosis and cannot be recommended as an approach to management or strategy.  All [good] analysis starts with the consideration of what might happen, including unwelcome events.  I would not care to fly in an aircraft designed by people who focused only on an image of a flying machine and never considered modes of failure…

The doctrine that one can impose one’s visions and desires on the world by thought alone retains a powerful appeal to many people.  Its acceptance displaces critical thinking and good strategy.

As well as pointing out flaws in bad strategy, Rumelt provides wide-ranging clear advice on what good strategy contains:

A good strategy works by harnessing power and applying it where it will have the greatest effect.  In the short term, this may mean attacking a problem or rival with adroit combinations of policy, actions, and resources.  In the longer term, it may involve cleverly using policies or resource commitments to develop capabilities that will be of value in future contests.  In either case, a “good strategy” is an approach that magnifies the effectiveness of actions by finding and using sources of power…

Strategic leverage arises from a mixture of anticipation, insight into what is most pivotal or critical in a situation, and making a concentrated application of effort…

A much more effective way to compete is the discovery of hidden power in the situation.

Later chapters amplify these ideas by providing many illuminating suggestions for how to build an effective strategy.  Topics covered include proximate objectives, chain-link systems, design, focus (“pivot points”), competitive advantage, anticipation and exploitation of industry trends (“dynamics”), and inertia and entropy.  Here are just a few illustrative snippets from these later chapters:

In building sustained strategic advantage, talented leaders seek to create constellations of activities that are chain-linked.  This adds extra effectiveness to the strategy and makes competitive imitation difficult…

Many effective strategies are more designs than decisions – are more constructed than chosen..

When faced with a corporate success story, many people ask, “How much of the success was skill and how much was luck?”  The saga of Cisco Systems vividly illustrates that the mix of forces is richer than just skill and luck.  Absent the powerful waves of change sweeping through computing and telecommunications, Cisco would have remained a small niche player.  Cisco’s managers and technologists were very skillful at identifying and exploiting these waves of change…

An organisation’s greatest challenge may not be external threats or opportunities, but instead the effects of entropy and inertia.  In such a situation, organisational renewal becomes a priority.  Transforming a complex organisation is an intensely strategic challenge.  Leaders must diagnose the causes and effects of entropy and inertia, create a sensible guiding policy for effecting change, and design a set of coherent actions designed to alter routines, culture, and the structure of power and influence.

You can read more on the book’s website.

The book is addressed to people working within organisations, with responsibility for strategy in these organisations.  However, most of the advice is highly valid for individuals too.  Are the big personal goals we set ourselves merely “wishful thinking”, or are they grounded in a real analysis of our own personal situation?  Do they properly take account of our personal trends, inertia, entropy, and sources of competitive power?

15 August 2010

Seeing probabilities

Filed under: aging, risks, Ultralase — David Wood @ 12:59 am

I thought of entitling this blogpost “Blinded by technology”.  Or, perhaps, “Almost blinded by technology”.  But that would have been unfair.

It’s now just over five weeks since I had my eyes lasered at the Ultralase clinic in Guildford, Surrey.  For more than 40 years, I had worn spectacles, to correct short sightedness.  My hope with the surgery was that I could dispense with spectacles and all the inconvenience that goes with them.

I had an idea what to expect.  Back in 2005, my wife had a similar operation, also from Ultralase, and has been very happy with the result.  I remember her being pleased with the outcome just a few moments after the operation, when, from the room next to the operating theatre, I could hear her excited voice on opening her eyes.  But my own experience turned out different.

One complicating factor is that I received a treatment called “monovision”, in which the two eyes are given treatments that optimise them for different viewing tasks.  My left eye was optimised for short-distance reading (such as computer screens, books, phone screens).  My right eye was optimised for medium-distance and long-distance.

The rationale for monovision is to address a decline in the power of eyes to change the distance where they’re focussing.  This is a condition called “Presbyopia” – sometimes known as “Aging eye”.  To quote from “The Eye Digest“:

A presbyopic eye loses its innate ability to clearly see all objects that are located at different distances. It can see some objects clearly but not all. In individuals who are less than 40 years of age, the eye can be thought of as an ‘auto-focus’  cameras. In an auto-focus camera, all one has to do to get sharp pictures is to point the camera in that direction, the auto-focus mechanism kicks in and you get sharp pictures. After age 40, the presbyopic eye can be thought of as a ‘fixed-focus’ camera. Fixed-focus cameras, the most basic of all cameras, have a nonadjustable lens. In general, a fixed-focus camera can take satisfactory photographs but it may produce a blurred picture if the subject is moving or is less than 6 feet (1.8 meters) away.

The presbyopic eye is also in a more or less ‘fixed-focus’ state. This means that a presbyopic eye will see clearly only at a particular distance. If you correct the presbyopic eye for distance with glasses or contact lenses, then it will clearly see all the distant objects and may read 20/20 on the distance vision eye chart, but there is no way it would be able to clearly read up-close with the distance vision correction. On the other hand if you correct the eye for reading up-close, then you will be able to read clearly, but there is no way you will be able to see distance objects clearly with the same correction. So reading vision is at the cost of distance vision and vice versa.

And as Wikipedia puts it:

Presbyopia is a health condition where the eye  exhibits a progressively diminished ability to focus on near objects with age. Presbyopia’s exact mechanisms are not known with certainty; the research evidence most strongly supports a loss of elasticity of the crystalline lens, although changes in the lens’s curvature from continual growth and loss of power of the ciliary muscles (the muscles that bend and straighten the lens) have also been postulated as its cause.

Similar to grey hair and wrinkles, presbyopia is a symptom caused by the natural course of aging. The first symptoms (described below) are usually first noticed between the ages of 40-50. The ability to focus on near objects declines throughout life, from an accommodation of about 20 dioptres (ability to focus at 50 mm away) in a child, to 10 dioptres at 25 (100 mm), and levels off at 0.5 to 1 dioptre at age 60 (ability to focus down to 1–2 meters only).

The word presbyopia comes from the Greek word presbys (πρέσβυς), meaning “old man” or “elder”, and the Neolatin suffix -opia, meaning “sightedness”.

I can’t deny it: by these measures, I’m aging!  I turned 51 in February.  And I have presbyopia to show for my age.   (Not to mention wrinkles…)

Monovision is one of the options offered to patients with presbyopia.  Not everyone copes well with monovision treatment.  Apparently, some people get headaches, from the two eyes having different preferred focal lengths.  For this reason, Ultralase gave me special spectacles to wear, as an experiment, for six weeks before the intended date of the operation.  These spectacles mimicked the intended outcome of the operation: left eye great for short-distance, right eye great for everything else.  Happily, I had no headache, and was pleased with how these spectacles worked for me.

So I approached the operation itself with high hopes.  And I can report that my left eye has turned out exactly as hoped.  Without glasses, my short-range sight is excellent.

But  my right eye has ended up in a less optimal state.  Subsequent tests by Ultralase, repeated on several occasions, confirm that my right eye is about -0.75 compared to what was intended.  When I look into the middle distance or long distance, without wearing glasses, I see things as much fuzzier than before (when I wore glasses).  To see things more clearly, I have to squint, or stand up and walk closer.  In practical terms, it causes inconvenience when I’m in meetings at work.  I can’t see what’s displayed on screens in conference rooms.  I sometime struggle to see the prices on the menus behind the counter at coffee shops.  And so on.

But to say that I have literally been “blinded by technology” (by the short blast of a laser) would be putting things much too strongly.  I can get by fine, most of the time.

Nor was I figuratively “blinded by technology” – in the sense of being naively over-optimistic about the outcome of a technical fix to address the symptoms of aging.  The Ultralase surgeon had carefully explained matters to me before the operation.  He even got me to fill in some blank paragraphs in a form, using my own words to confirm that I understood the risks associated with the surgery.  One blank paragraph was headed, “Four risks with the operation”.  Another was headed, “How will I cope, if the treatment doesn’t work as well as I hope”.  It was sobering.

I knew, before the operation, that there was a one-in-six chance that I would need a “top up” operation six months (or so) further down the line.  And that looks like what will happen to me.  The risks were significantly higher in my case than for most patients, because of the monovision treatment, and because my eyesight was starting from such a poor threshold (around -8.0).

Medical treatments frequently involve probabilities.  As with many other difficult decisions in life, it’s important to be able to understand probabilities, and to plan ahead for possible unwanted outcomes.

It’s still possible that my right eye will continue to improve by itself.  I read of cases where it took several months, after laser eye surgery, for an eye to completely settle down.  That’s why Ultralase require several months of stability in eyesight before doing any follow-up surgery.  My current guess is that I’ll be visiting the surgery again some time around January.  In the meantime, I’m putting up with some haziness in my middle-distance and long-distance vision.

Has this experience changed my attitude towards the wonder-powers of technology (for example, to address the problems of aging)?

Not really.  I already know, viscerally, from my many years in the hi-tech smartphone industry, that technical solutions frequently fail.  A team can have many thoughtful, experienced, super-smart people, developing new technology in a careful way, but still the results can go wrong.  You can take measures to try to reduce risks, but you can’t make all the risks go away.  And, in many cases,  you shouldn’t seek to make all the risks go away.  That way, you’d miss out many benefits from when risky projects turn out good.  But you should be aware of the risks beforehand, and try to quantify them.

For me, a one in six chance of needing the inconvenience of a second operation was a risk well worth taking.  And I still see things that way.

9 May 2010

Chapter completed: Crises and opportunities

Filed under: alienation, change, climate change, Economics, H+ Agenda, recession, risks, terrorism — David Wood @ 12:16 am

I’ve taken the plunge.  I’ve started writing another book, and I’ve finished the first complete draft of the first chapter.

The title I have in mind for the book is:

The Humanity+ Agenda: the vital priorities for the coming decade

The book is an extended version of the 10 minute opening presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago, at the Humanity+ UK 2010 event.  My reasons for writing this book are spelt out here.  The book will re-use and refine a lot of the material I’ve tried out from time to time in earlier posts on this blog, so you may find parts of it familiar.

I’ve had a few false starts, but I’m now happy with both the framework for the book (9 chapters in all) and a planned editing/review process.

Chapter 1 is called “Crises and opportunities”.  There’s a copy of the current draft below.

I’ll keep the latest drafts of all the chapters in the “Pages” section of this blog – accessible from the box on the right hand side.  From time to time – as in this posting – I’ll copy snapshots of the latest material into regular blogposts.

It’s my hope that the book will benefit from feedback and suggestions from readers.  Comments can be made, either to regular blogposts, or to the “pages”.  I’m also open to receiving emailed comments or contributions.  Unless someone tells me otherwise, I’ll assume that anything posted in response is intended as a potential contribution to the book.

(I’ll acknowledge, in the acknowledgements section of the book, all contributions that I use.)

========

1. Crises and opportunities

<Snapshot of material whose master copy is kept here>

The decade 2010-2019 will be a decade of crises for humanity:

  • As hundreds of millions of people worldwide significantly change their lifestyles, consuming ever more energy and generating ever more waste, the planet Earth faces increasingly great strains. “More of the same” is not an acceptable response.
  • Alongside the risk of environmental disaster, another risks looms: that of economic meltdown. The massive shocks to the global finance system at the end of the previous decade bear witness to powerful underlying tensions and problems with the operation of market economies.
  • The rapid rate of change causes widespread personal frustration and societal angst, driving a significant minority of people into the arms of beguiling ideologies such as fundamentalist Islam and the militant pursuit of terrorism. Relatively easy access to potential weapons of mass destruction – whether nuclear, biological, or chemical – transforms the threat of terrorism from an issue of national security into an issue of global survival.

In aggregation, these threats are truly fearsome.

To improve humanity’s chances of surviving, in good shape, to 2020 and beyond, we need new solutions.

I believe that these new solutions are emerging in part from improved technology, and in part from an important change in attitude towards technology. This book explains the basis for these beliefs.  This chapter summarises the crises, and the remaining chapters summarise the proposed solutions.

In the phrase “Humanity+”, the plus sign after the word “Humanity” emphasises that solutions to our present situation cannot be achieved by people continuing to do the same as before. Instead, a credible vision of wise application of new technologies can bring humans – both individually and collectively – to operate in dramatically enhanced ways:

  • Humans will be able, in stages, to break further free from the crippling constraints and debilitations of our evolutionary background and our historical experiences;
  • We will, individually and collectively, become smarter, wiser, stronger, kinder, healthier, calmer, brighter, more peaceful, and more fulfilled;
  • Instead of fruitless divisions and conflicts, we’ll find much better ways to cooperate, and build social systems for mutual benefit.

This is the vision of humanity fulfilling its true potential.

But there are many obstacles on the path to this fulfilment.  These obstacles could easily drive Humanity to “Humanity-” (humanity minus), or even worse (human annihilation), rather than Humanity+.  There’s nothing inevitable about the outcome.  As a reminder of the scale of the obstacles, let’s briefly review five interrelated pending crises.

1.1 The environmental crisis

Potential shortages of clean drinking water.  Rapid reductions in the available stocks of buried energy sources, such as coal, gas, and oil.  Crippling impacts on our environment from the waste products of our lifestyles.  These – and more – represent the oncoming environmental crisis.

With good reason, the aspect of the environmental crisis that is most widely discussed is the potential threat of runaway climate change.  Our accelerating usage of fossil fuels means that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has reached levels unprecedented in human history.  This magnifies the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere, tending to push the average global temperature higher.  This relationship is complex.  Forget simple ideas about increases in factor A invariably being the cause of increases in factor B.  Think instead about a dance of different factors that each influence the other, in different ways at different times.  (That’s a theme that you’ll notice throughout this book.)

In the case of climate change, the players in the dance include:

  • Variation in the amount of sunlight striking earth landmasses, due to changes over geological timescales in the axis of the earth, the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, and the distribution of landmass over different latitudes;
  • Variation in the slow-paced transfer of heat between different parts of the ocean;
  • Variation in the speed of build-up or collapse of huge polar ice sheets;
  • Variation in numerous items in the atmosphere, including aerosols (which tend to lower average temperature) and greenhouse gases (which tend to raise it again);
  • Variation in the amounts of greenhouse gases, such as methane, being suddenly released into the atmosphere from buried frozen stores (for example, from tundra);
  • Variation in the sensitivity of the planet to the various “climate forcing agents” – sometimes a small change in one will lead to just small changes in the climate, but at other times the consequences are more severe.

What makes this dance potentially deadly is the twin risk of latent momentum and strong positive feedback:

  • More CO2 in the atmosphere raises the average temperature, which means there’s more H2O (water vapour) in the atmosphere too, raising the average temperature yet further;
  • Icesheets over the Antarctic and Greenland take a long time to start to disintegrate, but once the process gets under way, it can become essentially irreversible;
  • Less ice on the planet means less incoming sunlight is reflected to space; instead, larger areas of water absorb more of the sunlight, increasing ocean temperature further;
  • Rises in sea temperatures can trigger the sudden release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases from methane clathrate compounds buried in seabeds and permafrost – another example of rapid positive feedback.

Indeed, there is significant evidence that runaway methane clathrate breakdown may have caused drastic alteration of the ocean environment and the atmosphere of earth a number of times in the past, most notably in connection with the Permian extinction event, when 96% of all marine species became extinct about 250 million years ago.

Of course, predicting the future of the environment is hard.  There are three sorts of fogs of climate change uncertainty:

  1. Many of the technical interactions are still unknown, or are far from being fully understood.  We are continuing to learn more;
  2. Even where we believe we do understand the technical interactions, many of the detailed interactions are unpredictable.  Just as it’s hard to predict the weather itself, one month (say) into the future, it’s hard to predict the exact effect of ongoing climate forcing agents.  The effect that “a butterfly flapping its wings unpredictably causes a hurricane on the other side of the planet” applies for the chaos of climate as much as for the chaos of weather;
  3. There are huge numbers of vested interests, who (consciously or sub-consciously) twist and distort aspects of the argument over climate change.

The vested interests include:

  • Both anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear campaigners;
  • Both anti-oil and pro-oil campaigners, and anti-coal and pro-coal campaigners;
  • Both “small is beautiful” and “big is beautiful” campaigners;
  • Both “back to nature” and “pro-technology” campaigners;
  • Scientists and authors who have long supported particular theories, and who are loath to change their viewpoints;
  • Hardened political campaigners who look to extract maximum concessions, for the region or country they represent, before agreeing a point of negotiation.

Not only is it psychologically hard for individuals to objectively review data or theories that conflicts with their favoured opinions.  It is economically hard for companies (such as energy companies) to accept viewpoints that, if true, would cause major hurdles for their current lines of business, and significant loss of jobs.  On the other hand, just because researcher R has strong psychological reason P and/or strong economic incentive E in favour of advocating viewpoint V, it does not mean that viewpoint V is wrong.  The viewpoint could be correct, even though some of the support advanced in its favour is non-logical.  As I said, there’s lots of fog to navigate!

Despite all this uncertainty, I offer the following conclusions:

  • There is a wide range of possible outcomes, for the climate in the next few decades;
  • The probability of runaway global warming – with disastrous effects on sea levels, drought, agriculture, storms, species and ecosystem displacement, travel, business, and so on – is at least 20%, and likely higher;
  • Global warming won’t just make the temperature higher; it will make the weather more extreme – due to increased global temperature gradients, increased atmospheric water vapour, and higher sea temperatures that stir up more vicious storms.

A risk of at least 20% of a global environmental disaster deserves urgent attention and further analysis.  Who among us would enter an airplane with family and friends, if we believed there was a 20% probability of that airplane plummeting headlong out of the sky to the ground?

1.2 The economic crisis

The controversies and uncertainties over the potential threat of runaway climate change find parallels in discussions over a possible catastrophic implosion of the world economic system.  These discussions likewise abound with technical disagrements and vested interests.

Are governments, legislators, banks, and markets generally wise enough and capable to oversee the pressures of financial trading, and keep the systems afloat?  Was the recent series of domino-like collapses of famous banks around the world a “once in a lifetime” abnormality, that is most unlikely to repeat?  Or should we expect a recurrence of fundamental financial instability?  What is the risk of a larger financial crisis striking?  Indeed, what is the risk of adverse follow-on effects from the “tail end” of the 2008-2009 crisis, generating a so-called “double dip” in which the second dip is more drastic than the first?  On all these questions, opinions vary widely.

Despite the wide variation in opinions, some elements seem common.  All commentators are fearful of some potential causes of major disruption to global economics.  Depending on the commentator, these perceived potential causes include:

  • Clumsy regulation of financial markets;
  • Bankers who are able to take catastrophic risks in the pursuit of ever greater financial rewards;
  • The emergence of enormous monopoly powers that eliminate the benefits of marketplace competition;
  • Institutions that become “too big to fail” and therefore derail the appropriate workings of the market system;
  • Sky-high accumulation of debts, with individuals and countries living far beyond their means, for too long;
  • Austerity programmes that attempt to reduce debts quickly, but which could provoke spiraling industrial disputes and crippling strikes;
  • Bubbles that grow because “it’s temporarily rational for everyone to be irrational in their expectations” and then burst with tremendous damage.

We must avoid a feeling of overconfidence arising from the fact that previous financial crises were, in the end, survived, without the world of banking coming to an end.  First, these previous financial crises caused numerous local calamities – and the causes of major wars can be traced (in part) to these crises.  Second, there are reasons why future financial problems could have more drastic effects than previous ones:

  • There are numerous hidden interconnections between different parts of the global  economy, which accelerate negative feedback when individual parts fail;
  • The complexity of new financial products far outstrips the ability of senior managers and regulators to understand and appreciate the risks involved;
  • In an age of instant electronic connections, the speed of cascading events can catch us all flat-footed.

For these reasons, I tentatively suggest we assign a ballpark risk factor of about 20% to the probability of a major global financial meltdown during the 2010s.  (Yes, this is the same numeric figure as I picked for the environmental crisis too.)

Note some parallels between the two crises I’ve already discussed:

  • In each case, the devil is in the mix of weakly-understood powerful feedback systems;
  • Again in each case, our ability to discern what’s really happening is clouded by powerful non-rational factors and vested interests;
  • Again in each case, the probabilities of major disaster cannot be calculated in any precise way, but the risk appears large enough to warrant very serious investigation of solutions;
  • Again in each case, there is deep disagreement about the best solutions to deploy.

Worse, these two looming crises are themselves interconnected.  Shortage of resources such as clean energy could trigger large price hikes which throw national economies into tailspins.  Countries or regions which formerly cooperated could end up at devastating loggerheads, if an “abundance spirit” is replaced by a “scarcity spirit”.

1.3 The extreme terrorist crisis

What drives people to use bombs to inflict serious damage?  Depending on the cirumstance, it’s a combination of:

  • Positive belief, in support of some country, region, ideology, or religion;
  • Negative belief, in which a group of people (“the enemy”) are seen as despicable, inferior, or somehow deserving of destruction or punishment;
  • Peer pressure, where people feel constrained by those around them to follow through on a commitment (to become, for example, a suicide bomber);
  • Personal rage, such as a desire for revenge and humiliation;
  • Aspiration for personal glory and reward, in either the present life, or a presumed afterlife;
  • Failure of countervailing “pro-cooperation” and “pro-peace” instincts or systems.

Nothing here is new for the 2010s.  What is new is the increased ease of access, by would-be inflictors of damage, to so-called weapons of mass destruction.  There is a fair probability that the terrorists who piloted passenger jet airlines into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon would have willingly caused even larger amounts of turmoil and damage, if they could have put their hands on suitable weapons.

Technology itself is neutral.  A hammer which can be used to drive a nail into a piece of wood can equally be used to knock a fellow human unconscious.  Electricity can light up houses or fry someone in an electric chair.  Explosives can clear obstacles during construction projects or can obliterate critical infrastructure assets of so-called enemies.  Biochemical manipulation can yield wonderfully nutritious new food compounds or deadly new diseases.  Nuclear engineering can provide sufficient energy to free humanity from dependency on carbon-laden fossil fuels, or suitcase-sized portable weapons capable of tearing the heart out of major cities.

As technology becomes more widely accessible – via improved education worldwide, via cheaper raw materials, and via easy access to online information – the potential grows, both for good uses and for bad uses.  A saying attributed to Eliezer Yudkowsky gives us pause for thought:

The minimum IQ required to destroy the world drops by one point every 18 months.

(This saying is sometimes called “Moore’s Law of mad scientists“.)  The statement was probably not intended to be interpreted mathematically exactly, but we can agree that, over the course of a decade, the number of people capable of putting together a dreadful weapon of mass destruction will grow significantly.  The required brainpower will move from the rarified tails of the bell curve of intelligence distribution, in the direction of the more fully populated central region.

We can imagine similar “laws” of increasing likelihood of destructive capability:

The minimum IQ required to devise and deploy a weapon that wipes out the heart of a major city drops by one point every 18 months;

The minimum IQ required to poison the water table for a region drops by one point every 18 months;

The minimum IQ required to unleash a devastating plague drops by one point every 18 months…

Of course, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been with the world for half a century.  During my student days at Cambridge University, I participated in countless discussions about how best to avoid the risk of unintentional nuclear war.  Despite the forebodings of some of my contemporaries at the time, we reached the end of the 20th century unscathed.  Governments of nuclear-capable countries, regardless of their political hues and ideological positions, found good reason to avoid steps that could trigger any nuclear escalation.  What’s different with at least some fundamentalist terrorists is that they operate in a mental universe that is considerably more extreme:

  • They live for a life beyond the grave, rather than before it;
  • They believe that divine providence will take care of the outcome – any “innocents” caught up in the destruction will receive their own rewards in the afterlife, courtesy of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity;
  • They are nourished and inspired by apocalyptic writing that glorifies a vision of almighty destruction;
  • They operate with moral certainty: they seem to harbour no doubts or questions about the rightness of their course of action.

Mix this extreme mindset with sufficient raw brainpower and with weapons-grade materials that can be begged, bought, or stolen, and the stage is set for a terrorist outrage that will put 9/11 far into the shade.  In turn, the world’s reaction to that incident is likely to put the reaction to 9/11 far into its own shade.

It’s true, would-be terrorists are often incompetent.  Their explosives sometimes fail to detonate.  But that must give us no ground for complacency.  The same “incompetence” can sometimes result in unforeseen consequences that are even more destructive than those intended.

1.4 The sense of profound personal alienation

Environmental crisis.  Economic crisis.  Extreme terrorist crisis.  Added together, we might be facing a risk of around 50% that, sometime during the 2010s, we’ll collectively look back with enormous regret and say to ourselves:

That’s the worst thing that’s happened in our lifetime.  Why oh why didn’t we act to stop it happening?  But it’s too late to make amends now.  If only we could re-run history, and take wiser choices…

But there’s more.  Here’s a probability that I’ll estimate at 100%, rather than 50%.  It’s the probability that huge numbers of individuals will look at their lives with bitter regret, and say to themselves:

This outcome was very far from the best it could have been.  This human life has missed, by miles, the richness and quality of experience that was potentially available.  Why oh why did it turn out like this?  If only I could re-run my life, and take wiser choices, or benefit from improved circumstances…

The first three crises are global crises.  This fourth one is a personal crisis.  The first three are highly visible.  The fourth might just be an internal heartache.  It’s the realisation that:

  • Life provides, at least for some people, on at least some occasions, intense feelings of vitality, creativity, flow, rapport, ecstacy, and accomplishment;
  • These “peak experiences” are generally rare, or just glimpsed;
  • The majority of human experience is at a much lower level of quality than is conceivable.

The pervasive video broadcast communications of the modern age make it all the more obvious, to increasing numbers of people, that the quality of their lives fall short of what could be imagined and desired.  These same communications also strongly hint that technology is advancing to the point where it could soon free people from the limitations of their current existence, and enable levels of experience previously only imagined for deities.  Just around the corner lies the potential of lives that are much extended, expanded, and enhanced.  How frustrating to miss out on this potential!  It brings to mind the lamentations of a venerable French noblewoman from 1783, as noted in Lewis Lapham’s 2003 Commencement speech at St. John’s College Annapolis:

[A] French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, …, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”

Acts of gross destruction are often motivated by deep feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration: the world is perceived as containing significant wrongs, that need righting.  So there’s a connection between the crisis of profound personal alienation and the crisis of extreme terrorism.  Thankfully, people who experience dissatisfaction or frustration don’t all react in the same way.  But even if the reaction is only (as I suggested earlier) an internal heartache, the shortcoming between potential and reality is nonetheless profound.  Life could, and should, be so much better.

We can re-state the four crises as four huge opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to nurture an amazingly pleasant, refreshing, and intriguing environment;
  2. The opportunity to guide global economic development to sustainably create sufficient resources for everyone’s needs;
  3. The opportunity to utilise personal passions for constructive projects;
  4. The opportunity to enable individuals to persistently experience qualities of human life far, far higher than at present.

I see Humanity+ as addressing all four of these opportunities.  And it does so with an eye on one more crisis, which is the most uncertain one of the lot.

1.5 The existential crisis of accelerating change and deepening complexity

Time and again, changes have consequences that are unforeseen and unintended.  The more complex the system, the greater the likelihood of changes leading to unintended consequences.

However, human society is becoming more complex all the time:

  • Multiple different cultures and sub-cultures overlap, co-exist, and influence each other;
  • Worldwide travel is nowadays commonplace;
  • Increasing numbers of channels exist for communication and influence ;
  • Society is underpinned by a rich infrastructure of multi-layered technology.

Moreover, the rate of change is increasing:

  • New products sweep around the world in ever shorter amounts of time;
  • Larger numbers of people are being educated to levels never seen before, and are entering the worlds of research, development, manufacturing, and business;
  • Online collaboration mechanisms, including social networks, wikis, and open source software, mean it is easier for innovation in one part of the world to quickly influence and benefit subsequent innovation elsewhere;
  • The transformation of more industries from “matter-dominated” to “information-dominated” means that the rapid improvement cycle of semiconductors transforms the speed of progress.

These changes bring many benefits.  They also bring drawbacks, and – due to the law of unintended consequences – they bring lots of unknowns and surprises.  The risk is that we’ll waken up one morning and realise that we deeply regret one of the unforeseen side-effects.  For example, there are risks:

  • That some newly created microscopic-scale material will turn out to have deleterious effects on human life, akin (but faster acting) to the problems arising to exposure from asbestos;
  • That some newly engineered biochemical organism will escape into the wild and turn out to have an effect like that of a plague;
  • That well-intentioned attempts at climate “geo-engineering”, to counter the risk of global warming, will trigger unexpected fast-moving geological phenomenon;
  • That state-of-the-art high-energy physics experiments will somehow create unanticipated exotic new particles that destroy all nearby space and time;
  • That software defects will spread throughout part of the computing infrastructure of modern life, rendering it useless.

Here’s another example, from history.  On 1st March 1954, the US military performed their first test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb, at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  The explosive yield was expected to be from 4 to 6 Megatons.  But when the device was exploded, the yield was 15 Megatons, two and a half times the expected maximum.  As the Wikipedia article on this test explosion explains:

The cause of the high yield was a laboratory error made by designers of the device at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  They considered only the lithium-6 isotope in the lithium deuteride secondary to be reactive; the lithium-7 isotope, accounting for 60% of the lithium content, was assumed to be inert…

Contrary to expectations, when the lithium-7 isotope is bombarded with high-energy neutrons, it absorbs a neutron then decomposes to form an alpha particle, another neutron, and a tritium nucleus.  This means that much more tritium was produced than expected, and the extra tritium in fusion with deuterium (as well as the extra neutron from lithium-7 decomposition) produced many more neutrons than expected, causing far more fissioning of the uranium tamper, thus increasing yield.

This resultant extra fuel (both lithium-6 and lithium-7) contributed greatly to the fusion reactions and neutron production and in this manner greatly increased the device’s explosive output.

Sadly, this calculation error resulted in much more radioactive fallout than anticipated.  Many of the crew in a nearby Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, became ill in the wake of direct contact with the fallout.  One of the crew subsequently died from the illness – the first human casualty from thermonuclear weapons.

Suppose the error in calculation had been significantly worse – perhaps by an order of thousands rather than by a factor of 2.5.  This might seem unlikely, but when we deal with powerful unknowns, we cannot rule out powerful unforeseen consequences.  Imagine if extreme human activity somehow interfered with the incompletely understood mechanisms governing supervolcanoes – such as the one that exploded around 73,000 years ago at Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia) and which is thought to have reduced the worldwide human population at the time to perhaps as few as one thousand breeding pairs.

It’s not just gargantuan explosions that we need fear.  As indicated above, the list of so-called “existential risks” includes highly contagious diseases, poisonous nano-particles, and catastrophic failures of the electronics infrastructure that underpins modern human society.  Add to these “known unknowns” the risk of “unknown unknowns” – the factors which we currently don’t even know that we should be considering.

The more quickly things change, the harder it is to foresee and monitor all the consequences.  There’s a great deal that deserves our attention.  How should we respond?

>> Next chapter >>

20 April 2010

Creative chaos under the ash cloud

Filed under: challenge, chaos, Humanity Plus, precautionary principle, risks, volcano — David Wood @ 11:45 pm

Seven months of careful planning looked like they were unravelling, in the final seven days.

Discussions about a gathering of futurist and transhumanist thinkers in London’s Conway Hall, on April 24th, have been underway for seven months.  Behind the scenes, we’ve had a planning wiki, a mailing list, and a small group of volunteers each chipping in with suggestions and undertaking different tasks.  A website for the event went live on 19th January, and we started taking registrations a week after that.  Registrations built up, and up, so that I could finally feel comfortable putting my name to the following quote on a press release we issued, “Unprecedented gathering of futurist and transhumanist thinkers in London“:

The UK chapter of Humanity+, an organisation dedicated to promoting understanding, interest and participation in fields of emerging innovation that can radically benefit the human condition, announced today that registrations are on track for record attendance at the Humanity+ UK2010 conference taking place in Conway Hall, Holborn, London, on April 24th.

“Approaching 200 attendees are expected to take part in a full day of thought-provoking lectures, discussions, Q&A, and breakouts, led by a line-up of world class futurist speakers”, said David Wood, H+UK meetings secretary.  “Participants have registered from as far afield as Poland, Sweden, Croatia, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, and the USA.  The Humanity+ movement, previously known as the World Transhumanist Association, is coming of age.”…

However, on the very day of the press release, airplane flight restrictions were announced, for fear of damage from volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland.

At first, I wasn’t particularly worried.  I thought that only three of the ten speakers were overseas, and that there would be plenty of time for flights to resume before the conference.

But the speakers are actors on the global stage, much in demand around the world.  And I gradually learned that no fewer than six of the ten were stranded overseas – in Venice, Montreal, San Francisco, and so on.  And the airplane flight restrictions kept getting extended.  My heart sunk.

I half-imagined that nature was saying:

You Humanity+ people think you can do ‘better than nature‘. Pah!  Take that!

What depressed me most was that initial tests at the venue had already suggested that Internet connectivity in Conway Hall was poor.  So ideas of speakers delivering their presentations via video link seemed impractical.

But necessity is the mother of invention.  Since there was a real possibility that members of both speakers and audience wouldn’t be able to travel to London, we were obliged to reconsider options for Internet connectivity.  And this gives us the possibility for the meeting to rise above being a London-based event, into a happening with a real-time online presence.

I tweeted: What’s the best way to install, for one day, a temporary high bandwidth connection to a conference venue (in London, UK)?

Answers came, fast and varied.  With help from a couple of people from the H+UK event planning team, I followed up about half a dozen different ideas.  The Conway Hall administrators also proved very flexible and helpful.  In a way, it’s still too early to say, but it now looks as though we’re set up:

  • To support remote speakers doing Skype video calls into the event, with the screen on stage showing, sometimes their face, and sometimes their slides;
  • And, to broadcast a live video stream of the event, on a service such as Ustream.tv.

So maybe technology can work around the ravages of nature after all! (At least in small scale.  And, in the decades ahead, in ever larger scale.)

The ash cloud raises other questions relevant to transhumanism – especially how to deal with risk.

One moment, I was in email correspondence about conference logistics with the opening keynote speaker for the event, Max More.  Max is on public record as being critical of the precautionary principleA few moments later, I was watching the BBC news, where a “Cambridge volcano scientist” (I didn’t catch his name) was explaining that there’s something called the precautionary principle which means that aircraft flights through the ash cloud had to be forbidden.  My mind did a quick double take.

To back up: Wikipedia describes the precautionary principle as follows:

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.

This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is evidence of potential harm in the absence of complete scientific proof. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

In his 2005 article “THE PROACTIONARY PRINCIPLE“, Max offers the following criticisms of the precautionary principle:

The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:

  1. assuming worst-case scenarios
  2. distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
  3. assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
  4. ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
  5. illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
  6. conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.

What should we conclude about the wisdom of shutting down the airspace above the UK, on precautionary grounds?  That’s a good question to ask.  If you take part in the event this Saturday, you’ll have the chance to ask Max himself about that point.  (Especially since it now appears the airplanes are flying again, after all.)

Footnote: while writing this blog, I came across, for the first time, Max’s fine 1999 essay “A Letter to Mother Nature“.  It’s well worth reading.  Here’s how it starts:

Dear Mother Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

19 February 2010

Silent drama on flight BA487

Filed under: flight, risks — David Wood @ 12:36 pm

Can the senior member of the cabin staff please come to the cockpit immediately.

I hadn’t heard that announcement on an airplane before, and I hope I don’t hear it again.

About 20 minutes after take off from Barcelona, the pilot of the BA487 clearly had something that needed attention in a hurry.

I was seated quite far back in the plane, so I couldn’t see whether any cabin staff actually ran up the aisle.  Indeed, there was nothing to see at all – everything seemed to be progressing smoothly.  I had my head in a book; someone nearby was watching a movie on his laptop; many other people were sleeping.  It seemed as if nothing had happened.

But about five minutes later, an air stewardess leaned over to the person near me watching the movie, and gently instructed:

Please turn off the laptop – the captain hasn’t switched off the fasten-seatbelts sign.

Other passengers were asked to straighten the backs of their seats.  I overheard one air stewardess say to another “I think the pilot will make an announcement”.

For a moment, I wondered to myself if my own laptop could, somehow, be the cause of this as yet unknown issue.  It was in my laptop bag, in the locker above the seats.  I know that, occasionally, the laptop seems to switch itself on (perhaps to run an auto-timed virus scan) and then fails to close down again.  On these occasions, the laptop can become hotter and hotter, with the airconditioning fan going at full speed.  Perhaps – I speculated – it might be running at frantic speed at this very moment, above my head, emitting some kind of dangerous wireless rays, which were influencing cockit equipment.  Should I own up to this remote possibility, open my seatbelt, stand up, look inside my laptop bag, and check?  Probably not.

Then an air stewardess said quietly, in a reassuring voice:

We’re going back.  The pilot’s turning round.  There’s nothing to be worried about.

A few moments later, the pilot confirmed the same information via a cockpit announcement.  There was a strange smell in the cockpit, he said.  As a precaution, we would be returning to Barcelona.

I thought to myself: things can’t be too bad.  Otherwise we’d be diverting as quickly as possible to some other nearby airport, closer than Barcelona.

However, I found myself unable to concentrate on my book.  I read the same few paragraphs time and again, losing track of where I’d reached.  My mind was racing elsewhere.

Then all the cabin lights went out – apart from the low-level emergency lighting.  My mind jumped ahead again – hmm, the captain is accustomising everyone’s eyes to the darkness, in case the plane crashes and we all need to be able to see things clearly in the midst of nighttime chaos.  But the cabin as a whole seemed calm.  The British stiff upper lip was in play.  Or perhaps it was just that we were all tired – we’d had a long, hard week of meetings, meetings, meetings at the Mobile World Congress.

In the near-darkness, I half wondered about switching on my phone to compose a text message to my loved ones.  What would I say? Then the captain announced:

Cabin crew, ten minutes to landing

which had the happy side effect of calming me down.  But I couldn’t help noticing that someone a few rows away appeared to be praying.

The lights of Barcelona were, by now, visible outside the window.  We seemed an awfully long way up in the air.  Could we really descend all that way in just ten minutes?

Psychologically, those ten minutes lasted an age.  Chronologically, they lasted 12 minutes (according to my watch) – until the airplane wheels touched down on the runway.  A few people nervously clapped their hands, but the applause was muted, and failed to catch.

The potentially heart-stopping drama was over.  161 passengers (according to Telegraph.co.uk) had survived without any physical injury.  But another, lesser, drama was starting.  161 travel plans had been disrupted, and it was not at all clear how the plans would be re-made.  Most British Airways ground staff had gone home for the evening.  A few Iberian staff were, a few hours later, still processing a long line of passengers.  The lucky first few in the queue got seats on a mid-morning flight.  Those of us further back in the queue were assigned to increasingly late flights.  Too bad – it will mean I miss my early evening engagement in London.  But at least we’re all in one piece.

At around 1.30am in the morning, a minibus took a group of us to a hotel in Barcelona town centre.  We drove past the main FIRA location of the Mobile World Congress, which we had all been attending earlier in the week.  At last, the silence and stiff upper lip vanished.  Laughter broke out, with lots of black humour.  Momentarily, it seemed that the bus was stopping at the FIRA itself, and we joked that we needed to get out and start arranging more business meetings.

Postscript 1: There was at least one journalist on the flight, and he used mobile technology to file a report which appeared on Sky News while we were still in the airport arrival hall awaiting our luggage delivery: BA Flight Makes Emergency Landing.  (That story contains exaggerations.  For example, there was no announcement that there was going to be an emergency landing.  Don’t believe everything you read on news sites!)

The story was picked up by The Aviation Herald in its report, “Incident: British Airways B752 near Barcelona on Feb 18th 2010, strange odour in cockpit“.  Some of the reader comments there are interesting:

  • There is often a strange odour in the cockpit when I fly.
  • Tried a shower lately? Then use a different shampoo. [This one is a joke, by the way.]
  • Same aircraft had a similar problem on the 12th Feb. I guess they didn’t find the root cause yet.

The last comment is particularly interesting.  I wonder if the cause lies in software – the same as with the Toyota car recalls?

Postscript 2: By chance I found myself standing next to the pilot and co-pilot in the check-in area next day.  After thanking them for getting the flight down safely, I asked about the report of a similar incident the previous week.  They confirmed it had happened.  Indeed, they had been in the cockpit on that occasion too.  On that occasion, the fumes had caused them feelings of illness and lack of concentration – not something you want in the flight cockpit!  On this occasion, they had reacted quicker, putting on oxygen masks as soon as they smelt the fumes.  Better safe than sorry.

Postscript 3: My thanks to Jorgen Behrens for drawing my attention to a 2006 Guardian article by Antony Barnett which seems highly relevant: “Toxic cockpit fumes that bring danger to the skies“.  Here’s the beginning of that article:

Dozens of pilots have flown while dizzy, nauseous and suffering double vision on crowded passenger flights. The cause is contaminated air and it can strike without warning – but the cases have been kept from the public.

Three weeks ago the pilot of a FlyBe flight from Belfast international airport to Gatwick was preparing his passenger jet for take-off . He had just received clearance from air traffic control and released the aircraft’s brakes, pushing forward on the power levers in the cockpit to open the throttle.

As the plane began to accelerate down the runway at more than 100mph, he began to smell a strange odour described as similar to a ‘central heating boiler’. His throat became very dry and his eyes began to burn. Such was his discomfort that he was forced to hand control of the plane to his co-pilot. His fingers were tingling and his shirt soaked in sweat. He was confused, talking incoherently and unable to answer questions from his co-pilot. He could not accurately do safety checks. An emergency was declared and the flight returned to Belfast…

Chilling.

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