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12 March 2013

The coming revolution in mental enhancement

Filed under: entrepreneurs, futurist, intelligence, neuroengineering, nootropics, risks, UKH+ — David Wood @ 2:50 pm

Here’s a near-future scenario: Within five years, 10% of people in the developed world will be regularly taking smart drugs that noticeably enhance their mental performance.

It turns out there may be a surprising reason for this scenario to fail to come to pass. I’ll get to that shortly. But first, let’s review why the above scenario would be a desirable one.

nbpicAs so often, Nick Bostrom presents the case well. Nick is Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School, Director at the Future of Humanity Institute, and Director of the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, all at the University of Oxford. He wrote in 2008,

Those who seek the advancement of human knowledge should [consider] kinds of indirect contribution…

No contribution would be more generally applicable than one that improves the performance of the human brain.

Much more effort ought to be devoted to the development of techniques for cognitive enhancement, be they drugs to improve concentration, mental energy, and memory, or nutritional enrichments of infant formula to optimize brain development.

Society invests vast resources in education in an attempt to improve students’ cognitive abilities. Why does it spend so little on studying the biology of maximizing the performance of the human nervous system?

Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes. Even an Einstein or a Darwin at the peak of their powers could not make such a great impact.

Meanwhile others too could benefit from being able to think better, including engineers, school children, accountants, and politicians.

This example illustrates the enormous potential of improving human cognition by even a tiny amount…

The first objection to the above scenario is that it is technically infeasible. People imply that no such drug could possibly exist. Any apparent evidence offered to the contrary is inevitably suspect. Questions can be raised over the anecdotes shared in the Longecity thread “Ten months of research condensed – A total newbies guide to nootropics” or in the recent Unfinished Man review “Nootropics – The Facts About ‘Smart Drugs'”. After all, the reasoning goes, the brain is too complex. So these anecdotes are likely to involve delusion – whether it is self-delusion (people not being aware of placebo effects and similar) or delusion from snake oil purveyors who have few scruples in trying to sell products.

A related objection is that the side-effects of such drugs are unknown or difficult to assess. Yes, there are substances (take alcohol as an example) which can aid our creativity, but with all kinds of side-effects. The whole field is too dangerous – or so it is said.

These objections may have carried weight some years ago, but increasingly they have less force. Other complex aspects of human functionality can be improved by targeted drugs; why not also the brain? Yes, people vary in how they respond to specific drug combinations, but that’s something that can be taken into account. Indeed, more data is being collected all the time.

Evidence of progress in the study of these smart drugs is one thing I expect to feature in an event taking place in central London this Wednesday (13th March).

next big thingThe event, The Miracle Pill: What do brain boosting drugs mean for the future? is being hosted by Nesta as part of the Policy Exchange “Next big thing” series.

Here’s an extract from the event website:

If you could take a drug to boost your brain-power, would you?

Drugs to enhance human performance are nothing new. Long-haul lorry drivers and aircraft pilots are known to pop amphetamines to stay alert, and university students down caffeine tablets to ward off drowsiness during all-nighters. But these stimulants work by revving up the entire nervous system and the effect is only temporary.

Arguments over smart drugs are raging. If a drug can improve an individual’s performance, and they do not experience side-effects, some argue, it cannot be such a bad thing.

But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs…

This event will ask:

  • What are the limits to performance enhancement drugs, both scientifically and ethically? And who decides?
  • Is there a role for such pills in developing countries, where an extra mental boost might make a distinct difference to those in developing countries?
  • Does there need to be a global agreement to monitor the development of these pills?
  • Should policymakers give drug companies carte blanche to develop these products or is a stricter regulatory regime required?

The event will be chaired by Louise Marston, Head of Innovation and Economic Growth, Nesta. The list of panelists is impressive:

  • Dr Bennett Foddy, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Science and Ethics, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
  • Dr Anders Sandberg, James Martin Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
  • Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education & Learning, the Wellcome Trust
  • Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England.

Under-currents of mistrust

From my own experience in discussing smart drugs that could enhance mental performance, I’m aware that objections to their use often run more deeply than the technical questions covered above. There are often under-currents of mistrust:

  • Reliance of smart drugs is viewed as irresponsible, self-indulgent, or as cheating
  • There’s an association with the irresponsible advocacy of so-called “recreational” mind-altering drugs
  • Surely, it is said, there are more reliable and more honourable ways of enhancing our mental powers
  • Besides, what is the point of simply being able to think faster?

I strongly reject the implication of irresponsibility or self-indulgence. Increased mental capability can be applied to all sorts of important questions, resulting in scientific progress, technological breakthrough, more elegant product development, and social benefit. The argument I quoted earlier, from Nick Bostrom, applies here.

I also strongly reject the “either/or” implication, when people advocate pursuit of more traditional methods of mental enhancement instead of reliance of modern technology. Why cannot we do both? When considering our physical health, we pay attention to traditional concerns, such as diet and rest, as well as to the latest medical findings. It should be the same for our mental well-being.

No, the real question is: does it work? And once it becomes clearer that certain combinations of smart drugs can make a significant difference to our mental prowess, with little risk of unwelcome side effects, the other objections to their use will quickly fade away.

It will be similar to the rapid change in attitudes towards IVF (“test tube babies”). I remember a time when all sorts of moral and theological hand-wringing took place over the possibility of in-vitro fertilisation. This hubristic technology, it was said, might create soul-less monstrosities; only wickedly selfish people would ever consider utilising the treatment. That view was held by numerous devout observers – but quickly faded away, in the light of people’s real-world experience with the resulting babies.

Timescales

This brings us back to the question: how quickly can we expect progress with smart drugs? It’s the 64 million dollar question. Actually it might be a 640 million dollar question. Possibly even more. The entrepreneurs and companies who succeed in developing and marketing good products in the field of mental enhancement stand to tap into very sizeable revenue streams. Pfizer, the developer of Viagra, earned revenues of $509 million in 2008 alone, from that particular enhancement drug. The developers of a Viagra for the mind could reasonably imagine similar revenues.

The barriers here are regulatory as well as technical. But with a rising public interest in the possibility of significant mental enhancement, the mood could swing quickly, enabling much more vigorous investment by highly proficient companies.

The biophysical approach

But there’s one more complication.

Actually this is a positive complication rather than a negative one.

Critics who suggest that there are better approaches to enhancing mental powers than smart drugs, might turn out to be right in a way they didn’t expect. The candidate for a better approach is to use non-invasive electrical and magnetic stimulation of the brain, targeted to specific functional areas.

headset-renderA variety of “helmets” are already available, or have been announced as being under development.

The start-up website Flow State Engaged raises and answers a few questions on this topic, as follows:

Q: What is tDCS?

A: Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is one of the coolest health/self improvement technologies available today. tDCS is a form of neurostimulation which uses a constant, low current delivered directly to the brain via small electrodes to affect brain function.

Q: Is this for real?

A: The US Army and DARPA both currently use tDCS devices to train snipers and drone pilots, and have recorded 2.5x increases in learning rates. This incredible phenomenon of increased learning has been documented by multiple clinical studies as well.

Q: You want one?

A: Today if you want a tDCS machine it’s nearly impossible to find one for less than $600, and you need a prescription to order one. We wanted a simpler cheaper option. So we made our own kit, for ourselves and for all you body hackers out there…

AndrewVSomeone who has made a close personal study of the whole field of nootropics and biophysical approaches (including tDCS) is London-based researcher Andrew Vladimirov.

Back in November, Andrew gave a talk to the London Futurists on “Hacking our wetware: smart drugs and beyond”. It was a well-attended talk that stirred up lots of questions, both in the meeting itself, and subsequently online.

The good news is that Andrew is returning to London Futurists on Saturday 23rd March, where his talk this time will focus on biophysical approaches to “hacking our wetware”.

You can find more details of this meeting here – including how to register to attend.

Introducing the smart-hat

In advance of the meeting, Andrew has shared an alternative vision of the ways in which many people in the not-so-distant future will pursue mental enhancement.

He calls this vision “Towards digital nootropics”:

You are tired, anxious and stressed, and perhaps suffer from a mild headache. Instead of reaching for a pack from Boots the local pharmacists, you put on a fashionable “smarthat” (a neat variation of an “electrocap” with a comfortable 10-20 scheme placement for both small electrodes and solenoids) or, perhaps, its lighter version – a “smart bandana”.

Your phone detects it and a secure wireless connection is instantly established. A Neurostimulator app opens. You select “remove anxiety”, “anti-headache” and “basic relaxation” options, press the button and continue with your business. In 10-15 minutes all these problems are gone.

However, there is still much to do, and an important meeting is looming. So, you go to the “enhance” menu of the Neurostimulator and browse through the long list of options which include “thinking flexibility”, “increase calculus skills”, “creative imagination”, “lateral brainstorm”, “strategic genius”, “great write-up”, “silver tongue” and “cram before exam” amongst many others. There is even a separate night menu with functionality such as “increase memory consolidation while asleep”. You select the most appropriate options, press the button and carry on the meeting preparations.

There are still 15 minutes to go, which is more than enough for the desired effects to kick in. If necessary, they can be monitored and adjusted via the separate neurofeedback menu, as the smarthat also provides limited EEG measurement capabilities. You may use a tablet or a laptop instead of the phone for that.

A new profession: neuroanalyst

Entrepreneurs reading this article may already have noticed the very interesting business-development opportunities this whole field offers. These same entrepreneurs may pay further attention to the next stage of Andrew Vladimirov’s “Towards digital nootropics” vision of the not-so-distant future:

Your neighbour Jane is a trained neuroanalyst, an increasingly popular trade that combines depth psychology and a variety of advanced non-invasive neurostimulation means. Her machinery is more powerful and sophisticated than your average smartphone Neurostim.

While you lie on her coach with the mindhelmet on, she can induce highly detailed memory recall, including memories of early childhood to go through as a therapist. With a flick of a switch, she can also awake dormant mental abilities and skills you’ve never imagined. For instance, you can become a savant for the time it takes to solve some particularly hard problem and flip back to your normal state as you leave Jane’s office.

Since she is licensed, some ethical modulation options are also at her disposal. For instance, if Jane suspects that you are lying and deceiving her, the mindhelmet can be used to reduce your ability to lie – and you won’t even notice it.

Sounds like science fiction? The bulk of necessary technologies is already there, and with enough effort the vision described can be realised in five years or so.

If you live in the vicinity of London, you’ll have the opportunity to question Andrew on aspects of this vision at the London Futurists meetup.

Smart drugs or smart hats?

Will we one day talk as casually about our smarthats as we currently do about our smartphones? Or will there be more focus, instead, on smart drugs?

Personally I expect we’ll be doing both. It’s not necessarily an either/or choice.

And there will probably be even more dramatic ways to enhance our mental powers, that we currently can scarcely conceive.

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the controversy that arose.

The cause was an hour-long lecture with 55 slides, ranging far and wide over a range of disruptive near-future scenarios, covering both upside and downside. The basic format of the lecture was: first the good news, and then the bad news. As stated on the opening slide,

Some illustrations of the enormous potential first, then some examples of how adding a high level of ambient stupidity might mean we might make a mess of it.

Ian PearsonThe speaker was Ian Pearson, described on his company website as “futurologist, conference speaker, regular media guest, strategist and writer”. The website continues, boldly,

Anyone can predict stuff, but only a few get it right…

Ian Pearson has been a full time futurologist since 1991, with a proven track record of over 85% accuracy at the 10 year horizon.

Ian was speaking, on my invitation, at the London Futurists last Saturday. His chosen topic was audacious in scope:

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

We’re all familiar with the idea of the singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society.

But this new technology won’t bring a utopia. We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse…

There were around 200 people in the audience, listening as Ian progressed through a series of increasingly mind-stretching technology opportunities. Judging by the comments posted online afterwards, some of the audience deeply appreciated what they heard:

Thank you for a terrific two hours, I have gone away full of ideas; I found the talk extremely interesting indeed…

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

But not everyone was satisfied. Here’s an extract from one negative comment:

After the first half (a trippy sub-SciFi brainstorm session) my only question was, “What Are You On?”…

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

…it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

These are just the starters of negative feedback; I’ll get to others shortly. As I review what was said in the meeting, and look at the spirited ongoing exchange of comments online, some thoughts come to my mind:

  • Big ideas almost inevitably provoke big reactions; this talk had a lot of particularly big ideas
  • In some cases, the negative reactions to the talk arise from misunderstandings, due in part to so much material being covered in the presentation
  • In other cases, Isee the criticisms as reactions to the seeming over-confidence of the speaker (“…a proven track record of over 85% accuracy”)
  • In yet other cases, I share the negative reactions the talk generated; my own view of the near-future landscape significantly differs from the one presented on stage
  • In nearly all cases, it’s worth taking the time to progress the discussion further
  • After all, if we get our forecasts of the future wrong, and fail to make adequate preparations for the disruptions ahead, it could make a huge difference to our collective well-being.

So let’s look again at some of the adverse reactions. My aim is to raise them in a way that people who didn’t attend the talk should be able to follow the analysis.

(1) Is imminent transformation of much of human life a realistic scenario? Or are these ideas just science fiction?

NBIC SingularityThe main driver for belief in the possible imminent transformation of human life, enabled by rapidly changing technology, is the observation of progress towards “NBIC” convergence.

Significant improvements are taking place, almost daily, in our capabilities to understand and control atoms (Nano-tech), genes and other areas of life-sciences (Bio-tech), bits (Info-comms-tech), and neurons and other areas of mind (Cogno-tech). Importantly, improvements in these different fields are interacting with each other.

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable

Will all the individual possible applications of NBIC convergence described by Ian happen in precisely the way he illustrated? Very probably not. The future’s not as predictable as that. But something similar could well happen:

  • Cheaper forms of energy
  • Tissue-cultured meat
  • Space exploration
  • Further miniaturisation of personal computing (wearable computing, and even “active skin”)
  • Smart glasses
  • Augmented reality displays
  • Gel computing
  • IQ and sensory enhancement
  • Dream linking
  • Human-machine convergence
  • Digital immortality: “the under 40s might live forever… but which body would you choose?”

(2) Is a focus on smart cosmetic technology an indulgent distraction from pressing environmental issues?

Here’s one of the comments raised online after the talk:

Unfortunately any respect due was undermined by his contempt for the massive environmental challenges we face.

Trivial contact lens / jewellery technology can hang itself, if our countryside is choked by yoghurt factory fumes.

The reference to jewellery took issue with remarks in the talk such as the following:

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

In contrast, the talk positioned greater use of technology as the solution to environmental issues, rather than as something to exacerbate these issues. Smaller (jewellery-sized) devices, created with a greater attention to recyclability, will diminish the environmental footprint. Ian claimed that:

  • We can produce more of everything than people need
  • Improved global land management could feed up to 20 billion people
  • Clean water will be plentiful
  • We will also need less and waste less
  • Long term pollution will decline.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some short-term problems, ahead of the time when accelerating NBIC convergence can be expected to provide more comprehensive solutions:

  • Energy shortage is a short to mid term problem
  • Real problems are short term.

Where there’s room for real debate is the extent of these shorter-term problems. Discussion on the threats from global warming brought these disagreements into sharp focus.

(3) How should singularitarians regard the threat from global warming?

BalanceTowards the end of his talk, Ian showed a pair of scales, weighing up the wins and losses of NBIC technologies and a potential singularity.

The “wins” column included health, growth, wealth, fun, and empowerment.

The “losses” column included control, surveillance, oppression, directionless, and terrorism.

One of the first questions from the floor, during the Q&A period in the meeting, asked why the risk of environmental destruction was not on the list of possible future scenarios. This criticism was echoed by online comments:

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

If we risk heading towards an environmental abyss let’s do something about what we do know – fossil fuel burning.

During his talk, I picked up on one of Ian’s comments about not being particularly concerned about the risks of global warming. I asked, what about the risks of adverse positive feedback cycles, such as increasing temperatures triggering the release of vast ancient stores of methane gas from frozen tundra, accelerating the warming cycle further? That could lead to temperature increases that are much more rapid than presently contemplated, along with lots of savage disturbance (storms, droughts, etc).

Ian countered that it was a possibility, but he had the following reservations:

  • He thought these positive feedback loops would only kick into action when baseline temperature rose by around 2 degrees
  • In the meantime, global average temperatures have stopped rising, over the last eleven years
  • He estimates he spends a couple of hours every day, keeping an eye on all sides of the global warming debate
  • There are lots of exaggerations and poor science on both sides of the debate
  • Other factors such as the influence of solar cycles deserve more research.

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

  • The view that global average temperatures  have stopped rising, is, among serious scientists, very much a minority position; see e.g. this rebuttal on Carbon Brief
  • Even if there’s only a small probability of a runaway spurt of accelerated global warming in the next 10-15 years, we need to treat that risk very seriously – in the same way that, for example, we would be loath to take a transatlantic flight if we were told there was a 5% chance of the airplane disintegrating mid-flight.

Nevertheless, I did not want the entire meeting to divert into a debate about global warming – “that deserves a full meeting in its own right”, I commented, before moving on to the next question. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, since it may have caused some members of the audience to mentally disengage from the meeting.

(4) Are there distinct right-wing and left-wing approaches to the singularity?

Here’s another comment that was raised online after the talk:

I found the second half of the talk to be very disappointing and very right-wing.

And another:

Someone who lists ‘race equality’ as part of the trend towards ignorance has shown very clearly what wing he is on…

In the second half of his talk, Ian outlined changes in norms of beliefs and values. He talked about the growth of “religion substitutes” via a “random walk of values”:

  • Religious texts used to act as a fixed reference for ethical values
  • Secular society has no fixed reference point so values oscillate quickly.
  • 20 years can yield 180 degree shift
  • e.g. euthanasia, sexuality, abortion, animal rights, genetic modification, nuclear energy, family, policing, teaching, authority…
  • Pressure to conform reinforces relativism at the expense of intellectual rigour

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

People have a strong need to feel they are ‘good’. Some of today’s ideological subscriptions are essentially secular substitutes for religion, and demand same suspension of free thinking and logical reasoning.

Knowledge GraphA few slides later, he listed examples of “the rise of nonsense beliefs”:

e.g. new age, alternative medicine, alternative science, 21st century piety, political correctness

He also commented that “99% are only well-informed on trivia”, such as fashion, celebrity, TV culture, sport, games, and chat virtual environments.

This analysis culminated with a slide that personally strongly resonated with me: a curve of “anti-knowledge” accelerating and overtaking a curve of “knowledge”:

In pursuit of social compliance, we are told to believe things that are known to be false.

With clever enough spin, people accept them and become worse than ignorant.

So there’s a kind of race between “knowledge” and “anti-knowledge”.

One reason this resonated with me is that it seemed like a different angle on one of my own favourite metaphors for the challenges of the next 15-30 years – the metaphor of a dramatic race:
Race

  • One runner in the race is “increasing rationality, innovation, and collaboration”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a positive singularity
  • The other runner in the race is “increasing complexity, rapidly diminishing resources”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a negative singularity.

In the light of Ian’s analysis, I can see that the second runner is aided by the increase of anti-knowledge: over-attachment to magical, simplistic, ultimately misleading worldviews.

However, it’s one thing to agree that “anti-knowledge” is a significant factor in determining the future; it’s another thing to agree which sets of ideas count as knowledge, and which as anti-knowledge! One of Ian’s slides included the following list of “religion substitutes”:

Animal rights, political correctness, pacifism, vegetarianism, fitness, warmism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism

It’s no wonder that many of the audience felt offended. Why list “warmism” (a belief in human-caused global warming), but not “denialism” (denial of human-caused global warming? Why list “anti-capitalism” but not “free market fundamentalism”? Why list “pacifism” but not “militarism”?

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

Ian raised my curiosity about ‘false beliefs’ (or nonsense beliefs as Ian calls them) as I ‘believe’ we all inhabit different belief systems – so what is true for one person may be false for another… at that exact moment in time.

And things can change. Once upon a time, it was a nonsense belief that the world was round.

There may be 15% of truth in some nonsense beliefs…or possibly even 85% truth. Taking ‘alternative medicine’ as an example of one of Ian’s nonsense beliefs – what if two of the many reasons it was considered nonsense were that (1) it is outside the world (the system) of science and technology and (2) it cannot be controlled by the pharmaceutical companies (perhaps our high priests of today)?

(5) The role of corporations and politicians in the approach to the singularity

One place where the right-wing / left-wing division becomes more acute in the question of whether anything special needs to be done to control the behaviour of corporations (businesses).

One of Ian’s strong positive recommendations, at the end of his presentation, was that scientists and engineers should become more actively involved in educating the general public about issues of technology. Shortly afterward, the question came from the floor: what about actions to educate or control corporations? Ian replied that he had very little to recommend to corporations, over and above his recommendations to the individuals within these corporations.

My own view is different. From my life inside industry, I’ve seen numerous cases of good people who are significantly constrained in their actions by the company systems and metrics in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Indeed, just as people should be alarmed about the prospects of super-AIs gaining too much power, over and above the humans who created them, we should also be alarmed about the powers that super-corporations are accumulating, over and above the powers and intentions of their employees.

The argument to leave corporations alone finds its roots in ideologies of freedom: government regulation of corporations often has undesirable side-effects. Nevertheless, that’s just an argument for being smarter and more effective in how the regulation works – not an argument to abstain from regulation altogether.

The question of the appropriate forms of collaborative governance remains one of the really hard issues facing anyone concerned about the future. Leaving corporations to find their own best solutions is, in my view, very unlikely to be the optimum approach.

In terms of how “laissez-faire” we should be, in the face of potential apocalypse down the road, I agree with the assessment near the end of Jeremy Green’s blogpost:

Pearson’s closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.

Endnote:

After the presentation in Birkbeck College ended, around 40-50 of the audience regrouped in a nearby pub, to continue the discussion. The discussion is also continuing, at a different tempo, in the online pages of the London Futurists meetup. Ian Pearson deserves hearty congratulation for stirring up what has turned out to be an enlightening discussion – even though there’s heat in the comments as well as light!

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

20 February 2013

The world’s most eminent sociologist highlights the technological singularity

It’s not every day that the world’s most eminent sociologist reveals himself as having an intense interest in the Technological Singularity, and urges that “Everyone should read the books of Ray Kurzweil”. That’s what happened this evening.

The speaker in question was Lord Anthony Giddens, one of whose many claims to fame is his description as “Tony Blair’s guru”.

His biography states that, “According to Google Scholar, he is the most widely cited sociologist in the world today.”

In support of that claim, a 2009 article in the Times Higher Education supplement notes the following:

Giddens trumps Marx…

A list published today by Times Higher Education reveals the most-cited academic authors of books in the humanities…

As one of the world’s pre-eminent sociologists, Anthony Giddens, the Labour peer and former director of the London School of Economics, will be used to academic accolades.

But even he may be pleased to hear that his books are cited more often than those of iconic thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

Lord Giddens, now emeritus professor at LSE and a life fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, is the fifth most-referenced author of books in the humanities, according to the list produced by scientific data analysts Thomson Reuters.

The only living scholar ranked higher is Albert Bandura, the Canadian psychologist and pioneer of social learning theory at Stanford University…

Freud enters the list in 11th place. The American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and whose political books have a broader readership than some of his peers in the list, is 15th…

Lord Giddens is now 75 years old. Earlier this evening, I saw for myself evidence of his remarkable calibre. He gave an hour-long lecture in front of a packed audience at the London School of Economics, without any notes or slides, and without any hesitation, deviation, or verbal infelicity. Throughout, his remarks bristled with compelling ideas. He was equally competent – and equally fluent – when it came to the question-and-answer portion of the event.

LSE Events

The lecture was entitled “Off the edge of history: the world in the 21st century”. From its description on the LSE website, I had already identified it as relevant to many of the themes that I seek to have discussed in the series of London Futurists meetups that I chair:

The risks we face, and the opportunities we have, in the 21st century are in many respects quite different from those experienced in earlier periods of history. How should we analyse and respond to such a world? What is a rational balance of optimism and pessimism? How can we plan for a future that seems to elude our grasp and in some ways is imponderable?

As the lecture proceeded, I was very pleasantly impressed by the sequence of ideas. I append here a lightly edited copy of the verbatim notes I took on my Psion Series 5mx, supplemented by a few additions from the #LSEGiddens tweet stream. Added afterwards: the LSE has made a podcast available of the talk.

My rough notes from the talk follow… (text in italics are my parenthetical comments)

This large lecture room is completely full, twenty minutes before the lecture is due to start. I’m glad I arrived early!

Today’s topic is work in progress – he’s writing a book on the same topic, “Off the edge of history”.

  • Note this is a very different thesis from “the end of history”.

His starting point is in the subject of geology – a long way from sociology. He’s been working on climate change for the last seven years. It’s his first time to work so closely with scientists.

Geologists tend to call the present age “the Holocene age” – the last 12,000 years. But a geologist called Paul Crutzen recommended that we should use a different term for the last 200 years or so – we’re now in the Anthropocene age:

  • In this period, human activity strongly influences nature and the environment
  • This re-orients and restructures the world of geology
  • A great deal of what used to be natural, is natural no longer
  • Human beings are invading nature, in a way that has no precedent
  • Even some apparently natural catastrophes, like tsunamis and volcanoes, might be linked to impacts from humans.

We have continuities from previous history (of course), but so many things are different nowadays. One example is the impacts of new forms of biological threat. Disease organisms have skipped from animals to human beings. New disease organisms are being synthesised.

There are threats facing us, which are in no ways extensions of previous threats.

For example, what is the Internet doing to the world? Is it a gigantic new mind? Are you using the mobile phone, or is the mobile phone using you? There’s no parallel from previous periods. Globally connected electronic communications are fundamentally different from what went before.

When you are dealing with risks you’ve never experienced before, you can’t measure them. You’ll only know for sure when it’s too late. We’re on the edge of history because we are dealing with risks we have never faced before.

Just as we are invading nature, we are invading human nature in a way that’s unprecedented.

Do you know about the Singularity? (A smattering of people in the audience raise their hands.) It’s mind-blowing. You should find out about it:

  • It’s based on a mathematical concept
  • It’s accelerating processes of growth, rapidly disappearing to a far off point very different from today.

Everyone should read the books of Ray Kurzweil – who has recently become an Engineering Director at Google.

Kurzweil’s book makes it clear that:

  • Within our lifetimes, human beings will no longer be human beings
  • There are multiple accelerating rates of change in several different disciplines
  • The three main disciplines contributing to the singularity are nanotech, AI, and biotech
  • All are transforming our understanding of the human body and, more importantly, the human mind
  • This is described by the “Law of accelerating returns”
  • Progress is not just linear but geometrical.

This book opens our minds to multiple possibilities of what it means to be human, as technology penetrates us.

Nanotech is like humans playing God:

  • It’s a level below DNA
  • We can use it to rebuild many parts of the human body, and other artefacts in the world.

Kurzweil states that human beings will develop intelligence which is 100x higher than at present:

  • Because of merging of human bodies with computers
  • Because of the impact of nanotech.

Kurzweil gives this advice: if you are relatively young: live long, in order to live forever:

  • Immortality is no longer a religious concept, it’s now a tangible prospect
  • It could happen in the next 20-40 years.

This is a fantastic expansion of what it means to be human. Importantly, it’s a spread of opportunities and risk.

These were religious notions before. Now we have the real possibility of apocalypse – we’ve had it since the 1950s, when the first thermonuclear weapons were invented. The possibility of immortality has become real too.

We don’t know how to chart these possibilities. None of us know how to fill in that gap.

What science fiction writers were writing 20 years ago, is now in the newspapers everyday. Reading from the Guardian from a couple of days ago:

Paralysed people could get movement back through thought control

Brain implant could allow people to ‘feel’ the presence of infrared light and one day be used to move artificial limbs

Scientists have moved closer to allowing paralysed people to control artificial limbs with their thoughts following a breakthrough in technology…

…part of a series of sessions on advances in brain-machine interfaces, at which other scientists presented a bionic hand that could connect directly to the nerves in a person’s arm and provide sensory feedback of what they were holding.

Until now, neurological prosthetics have largely been demonstrated as a way to restore a loss of function. Last year, a 58-year-old woman who had become paralysed after a stroke demonstrated that she could use a robotic arm to bring a cup of coffee to her mouth and take a sip, just by thinking about it…

In the future…  it might be possible to use prosthetic devices to restore vision – for example, if a person’s visual cortex had been damaged – by training a different part of the brain to process the information.

Or you could even augment normal brain function in non-invasive ways to deliver the information.

We could learn to detect other sorts of signals that we normally don’t see or experience; the perceptual range could increase.

These things are real; these things are happening. There is a kind of geometric advance.

The literature of social scientists has a big division here, between doomsday thinkers and optimists, with respected thinkers in both camps.

Sir Martin Rees is example of first category. He wrote a book called “Our final century”:

  • It examines forms of risk that could destroy our society
  • Climate change is a huge existential risk – most people aren’t aware of it
  • Nanotech is another existential risk – grey goo scenario
  • We also have lots of weaponry: drones circulating above the world even as we speak
  • Most previous civilisations have ended in disaster – they subverted themselves
  • For the first time, we have a civilisation on a global scale
  • It could well be our final century.

Optimists include Matt Ridley, a businessman turned scientist, and author of the book “The rational optimist”:

  • Over the course of human civilisation there is progress – including progress in culture, and medical advances.

This is a big division. How do we sort this out? His view: it’s not possible to decide. We need to recognise that we live in a “high opportunity, high risk society”:

  • The level of opportunity and level of risk are both much higher than before
  • But risk and opportunity always intertwine
  • “In every risk there’s an opportunity…” and vice versa
  • We must be aware of the twists and tangles of risk and opportunity – their interpenetration.

Studying this area has led him to change some of his views from before:

  • He now sees the goal of sustainability as a harder thing than before
  • Living within our limits makes sense, but we no longer know what our limits are
  • We have to respect limits, but also recognise that limits can be changed.

For example, could we regard a world population of 9 billion people as an opportunity, rather than just a risk?

  • It would lead us to put lots more focus on food innovation, blue sky tech for agriculture, social reform, etc – all good things.

A few points to help us sort things out:

  1. One must never avoid risk – we live in a world subject to extreme system risk; we mustn’t live in denial of risk in our personal life (like denying the risks of smoking or riding motor cycles) or at an civilisational level
  2. We have to think about the future in a very different way, because the future has become opaque to us; the enlightenment thought was that we would march in and make sense of history (Marx had similar thoughts), but it turns out that the future is actually opaque – for our personal lives too as well as society (he wonders whether the EU will still exist by the time he finishes his book on the future of the EU!)
  3. We’ll have to learn to backcast rather than forecast – to borrow an idea from the study of climate change. We have to think ahead, and then think back.

This project is the grand task of social sciences in the 21st century.

One more example: the possibility of re-shoring of jobs in the US and EU:

  • 3D printing is an unbelievable technological invention
  • 3D printers can already print shoes
  • A printer in an MIT lab can print whole systems – eg in due course a plane which will fly directly out of the computer
  • This will likely produce a revolution in manufacturing – many, many implications.

Final rhetorical question: As we confront this world, should we be pessimists or optimists? This is the same question he used to consider, at the end of the talks he used to give on climate change.

His answer: we should bracket out that opposition; it’s much more important to be rational than either pessimist or optimist:

  • Compare the case of someone with very serious cancer – they need more than wishful thinking. Need rational underpinning of optimism and/or pessimism.

Resounding applause from the audience. Then commence questions and answers.

Q: Are today’s governance structures, at local and national levels, fit to deal with these issues?

A: No. For example, the he European Union has proved not to be the vanguard of global governance that we hoped it would be. Climate change is another clear example: twenty years of UN meetings with no useful outcome whatsoever.

Q: Are our human cognitive powers capable to deal with these problems? Is there a role for technology to assist our cognitive powers?

A: Our human powers are facing a pretty difficult challenge. It’s human nature to put off what we don’t have to do today. Like 16 years taking up smoking who can’t really see themselves being 40. Maybe a supermind might be more effective.

Q: Although he has given examples where current governance models are failing, are there any bright spots of hope for governance? (The questioner in this case was me.)

A: There are some hopeful signs for economic governance. Surely bankers will not get away with what they’ve done. Movement to address tax havens (“onslaught”) – bring the money back as well as bringing the jobs back. Will require global co-operation. Nuclear proliferation (Iran, Israel) is as dangerous as climate change. The international community has done quite well with non-proliferation, but it only takes one nuclear war for things to go terribly wrong.

Q: What practical advice would he give to the Prime Minister (or to Ed Miliband)?

A: He supports Ed Miliband trying to restructure capitalism; there are similar moves happening in the US too. However, with global issues like these, any individual prime minister is limited in his influence. For better or for worse, Ray Kurzweil has more influence than any politician!

(Which is a remarkable thing to say, for someone who used to work so closely with Prime Minister Tony Blair…)

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.

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