9 May 2010

Chapter completed: Crises and opportunities

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

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

The title I have in mind for the book is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. Crises and opportunities

<Snapshot of material whose master copy is kept here>

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

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

In aggregation, these threats are truly fearsome.

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

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

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

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

This is the vision of humanity fulfilling its true potential.

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

1.1 The environmental crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vested interests include:

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

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

Despite all this uncertainty, I offer the following conclusions:

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

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

1.2 The economic crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.3 The extreme terrorist crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.4 The sense of profound personal alienation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 The existential crisis of accelerating change and deepening complexity

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

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

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

Moreover, the rate of change is increasing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Next chapter >>

20 April 2010

Creative chaos under the ash cloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I half-imagined that nature was saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Mother Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

19 February 2010

Silent drama on flight BA487

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabin crew, ten minutes to landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2 December 2009

The next IT industry: Synthetic biology

Filed under: risks, Singularity University, Synthetic biology — David Wood @ 2:30 am

Synthetic biology will be “the next IT industry”, and will even be “more important than the last one”.  These are two of the claims in the extraordinary video from the Singularity University featuring Andrew Hessel.

The video lasts nearly one hour, and is full of thought-provoking material.  The subtitle of the video is “hacking genomes”.

Here are just a few of the highlights and topics I noted while watching it:

  • Cells inside organisms are in many ways akin to computers inside networks
  • People with engineering backgrounds are bringing engineering ideas into biology
  • push-button biology: “dream is to design … press a button, and have the design translated to DNA sequences that can be synthesised and put to work in living cells”
  • “DNA printers” will become better and better
  • iGEM: international genetically engineered machines
  • DIYbio: “an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers”
  • Developing a genetic programming language
  • Creating the conditions for the emergence of a new generation of “computing whiz kids” – the synthetic biotech equivalents of Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates
  • “We’ll soon see molecular biological labs on iPhones”
  • Cost decrease curve for DNA synthesis (“writing DNA”) is tracking that for DNA sequencing (“reading DNA”), lagging it by around 8 years
  • “The human genome synthesis project is coming”

This is the same field where Craig Venter (famous from the first human genome project) is now working.  To quote from the website of his company, Synthetic Genomics:

The Global Challenge: Sustainably meeting the increasing demand for critical resources

The world is facing increasingly difficult challenges today. Population growth resulting in the growing demand for critical resources such as energy, clean water, food and medicine are taxing our fragile planet. To fulfill these needs we need disruptive technologies. We believe genomic advances offer the world viable, sustainable alternatives.

At Synthetic Genomics Inc. we are creating genomic-driven commercial solutions to revolutionize many industries. We have started by focusing on energy, but we imagine a future where our science could be used to produce a variety of products, from synthetically derived vaccines to prevent human diseases to efficient cost effective ways to create clean drinking water. The world is dependent on science and we’re leading the way in turning novel science into life-changing solutions.

Three possible reactions to the idea of synthetic biology

One reaction to the idea of synthetic biology is to say, “Wow – I’d love to become involved!”

A second reaction is to point out the potential huge risks if the process creates dangerous new life forms, such as a fast-spreading new virus.  One of the audience members in the video lecture asked about this; I wasn’t fully convinced by the answer Andrew Hessel gave.

A third reaction is to say that it’s very unlikely that we will, in fact, be able to improve on nature.  This is similar to a comment made by Mark Wilcox in response to my previous blogpost, “The single biggest problem”.  I wrote that:

rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”

Mark replied:

I actually find it rather arrogant given millions of years of evolution and our relatively short spell of technological development that any of us presume to know what “better than natural” actually is

This last point in turn poses two questions:

  • Is the outcome of millions of years of evolution” the best outcome possible?
  • If not, is there any reliable way to try to do better than evolution?

For a discussion of the imperfect output of evolution, see (for example) my earlier blogpost, “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature“.

It’s also well worth reading the paper by Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg, “The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement” (PDF).  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that paper:

Human beings are a marvel of evolved complexity. Such systems can be difficult to enhance. When we manipulate complex evolved systems, which are poorly understood, our interventions often fail or backfire.

It can appear as if there is a ‘‘wisdom of nature’’ which we ignore at our peril. Sometimes the belief in nature’s wisdom—and corresponding doubts about the prudence of tampering with nature, especially human nature—manifest as diffusely moral objections against enhancement. Such objections may be expressed as intuitions about the superiority of the natural or the troublesomeness of hubris, or as an evaluative bias in favor of the status quo. This chapter explores the extent to which such prudence-derived anti-enhancement sentiments are justified. We develop a heuristic, inspired by the field of evolutionary medicine, for identifying promising human enhancement interventions. The heuristic incorporates the grains of truth contained in ‘‘nature knows best’’ attitudes while providing criteria for the special cases where we have reason to believe that it is feasible for us to improve on nature.

In conclusion, I personally see this emerging field as being full of tremendous promise, though I will seek to ensure that it is approached with great care and thoughtfulness (as well as excitement).

20 July 2008

Rationally considering the end of the world

Filed under: bias, prediction markets, risks — David Wood @ 8:38 pm

My day job at Symbian is, in effect, to ensure that my colleagues in the management team don’t waken up to some surprising news one morning and say, “Why didn’t we see this coming?“. That is, I have to anticipate so-called “Predictable surprises“. Drawing on insight from both inside and outside of the company, I try to keep my eye on emerging disruptive trends in technology, markets, and society, in case these trends have the potential to reach some kind of tipping point that will significantly impact Symbian’s success (for good, or for ill). And once I’ve reached the view that a particular trend deserves closer attention, it’s my job to ensure that the company does devote sufficient energy to it – in sufficient time to avoid being “taken by surprise”.

For the last few days, I’ve pursued my interest in disruptive trends some way outside the field of smartphones. I booked a holiday from work in order to attend the conference on Global Catastrophic Risks that’s been held at Oxford University’s James Martin 21st Century School.

Instead of just thinking about trends that could destabilise smartphone technology and smatphone markets, I’ve been immersed in discussions about trends that could destabilise human technology and markets as a whole – perhaps even to the extent of ending human civilisation. As well as the more “obvious” global catastrophic risks like nuclear war, nuclear terrorism, global pandemics, and runaway climate change, the conference also discussed threats from meteor and comet impacts, gamma ray bursts, bioterrorism, nanoscale manufacturing, and super-AI.

Interesting (and unnerving) as these individual discussions were, what was even more thought-provoking was the discussion on general obstacles to clear-thinking about these risks. We all suffer from biases in our thinking, that operate at both individual and group levels. These biases can kick into overdrive when we begin to comtemplate global catastrophes. No wonder some people get really hot and bothered when these topics are discussed, or else suffer strong embarrassment and seek to change the topic. Eliezer Yudkowsky considered one set of biases in his presentation “Rationally considering the end of the world“. James Hughes covered another set in “Avoiding Millennialist Cognitive Biases“, as did Jonathan Wiener in “The Tragedy of the Uncommons” and Steve Rayner in “Culture and the Credibility of Catastrophe“. There were also practical examples of how people (and corporations) often misjudge risks, in both “Insurance and catastrophes” by Peter Taylor and “Probing the Improbable. Methodological Challenges for Risks with Low Probabilities and High Stakes” by Toby Order and co-workers.

So what can we do, to set aside biases and get a better handle on the evaluation and prioritisation of these existential risks? Perhaps the most innovative suggestion came in the presentation by Robin Hanson, “Catastrophe, Social Collapse, and Human Extinction“. Robin is one of the pioneers of the notion of “Prediction markets“, so perhaps it is no surprise that he floated the idea of markets in tickets to safe refuges where occupants would have a chance of escaping particular global catastrophes. Some audience members appeared to find the idea distasteful, asking “How can you gamble on mass death?” and “Isn’t it unjust to exclude other people from the refuge?” But the idea is that these markets would allow a Wisdom of Crowds effect to signal to observers which existential risks were growing in danger. I suspect the idea of these tickets to safe refuges will prove impractical, but anything that will help us to escape from our collective biases on these literally earth-shattering topics will be welcome.

(Aside: Robin and Eliezer jointly run a fast throughput blog called “Overcoming bias” that is dedicated to the question “How can we obtain beliefs closer to reality?”)

Robin’s talk also contained the memorable image that the problem with slipping on a staircase isn’t that of falling down one step, but of initiating an escalation effect of tumbling down the whole staircase. Likewise, the biggest consequences of the risks covered in the conference aren’t that they will occur in isolation, but that they might trigger a series of inter-related collapses. On a connected point, Peter Taylor mentioned that the worldwide re-insurance industry would have collapsed altogether if a New Orleans scale weather-induced disaster had followed hot on the heels of the 9-11 tragedies – the system would have had no time to recover. It was a sobering reminder of the potential fragility of much of what we take for granted.

Footnote: For other coverage of this conference, see Ronald Bailey’s comments in Reason. There’s also a 500+ page book co-edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic that contains chapter versions of many of the presentations from the conference (plus some additional material).

3 July 2008

Nanoscience and the mobile device: hopes and fears

Filed under: Morph, nanotechnology, Nokia, risks — David Wood @ 10:56 am

Nokia’s concept video of a future morphing mobile phone, released back in February, has apparently already been viewed more than two million times on YouTube. It’s a clever piece of work, simultaneously showing an appealing vision of future mobile devices and giving hints about how the underlying technology could work. No wonder it’s been popular.

So what are the next steps? I see that the office of Nokia’s CTO has now released a 5 page white paper that gives more of the background to the technologies involved, which are collectively known as nanotechnology. It’s available on Bob Iannucci’s blog, and it’s a fine read. Here’s a short extract:

After a blustery decade of hopes and fears (the fountain of youth or a tool for terrorists?), nanotechnology has hit its stride. More than 600 companies claim to use nanotechnologies in products currently on the market. A few interesting examples:

  • Stain-repellant textiles. A finely structured surface of embedded “nanowhiskers” keeps liquids from soaking into clothing—in the same way that some plant leaves keep themselves clean.
  • UV-absorbing sunscreen. Using nanoparticulate zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, these products spread easily and are fully transparent —while absorbing ultraviolet rays to prevent sunburn.
  • Purifying water filters. Aluminum oxide nanofibers with unusual bioadhesive properties are formulated into filters that attract and retain electronegative particles such as bacteria and viruses.
  • Windshield defoggers. A transparent lacquer of carbon nanotubes connects to the vehicle’s electrical source to evenly warm up the entire surface of the glass.

Even more interesting, to my mind, than the explanation of what’s already been accomplished (and what’s likely to be just around the corner), is a set of questions listed in the white paper. (In my view, the quality of someone’s intelligence is often shown more in the quality of the questions they ask than in the quality of the answers they give to questions raised by other people.) Here’s what the white paper says on this score:

As Nokia looks toward the mobile device of 2015 and beyond, our research teams, our partner academic institutions, and other industry innovators are finding answers to the following questions:

  1. What will be the form factors, functionalities, and interaction paradigms preferred by users in the future?
  2. How can the device sense the user’s behavior, physiological state, physical context, and local environment?
  3. How can we integrate energy-efficient sensing, computing, actuation, and communication solutions?
  4. How can we create a library of reliable and durable surface materials that enable a multitude of functions?
  5. How can we develop efficient power solutions that are also lightweight and wearable?
  6. How can we manufacture functional electronics and optics that are transparent and compliant?
  7. How can we move the functionality and intelligence of the device closer to the physical user interface?
  8. As we pursue these questions, how can we assess—and mitigate— possible risks, so that we introduce new technologies in a globally responsible manner?

That’s lots to think about! In response to the final question, one site that has many promising answers is the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, founded by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. As he explains in his recent article “Nano Catastrophes“, Mike’s coming to Oxford later this month to attend a Conference on Global Catastrophic Risks, where he’ll be addressing these issues. I’ll be popping down that weekend to join the conference, and I look forward to reporting back what I find.

This is a topic that’s likely to run and run. Both the potential upsides and the potential downsides of nanotechnology are enormous. It’s well worth lots more serious research.

11 June 2008

Technology and the risks of global catastrophe

Filed under: risks, UKTA — David Wood @ 10:45 pm

I’m a passionate enthusiast about the capabilities of technologies. But at the same time, I’m keenly aware of the potential for technology to wreak havoc and destruction. So I’m eagerly looking forward to the UKTA technology debate on Saturday (14th June):

Technology risks and the survival of humanity: Is emerging technology more likely to destroy human civilisation or to radically enhance it?

This is taking place in Birkbeck College, central London, from 2pm-4pm. Everyone is welcome to attend – there’s no charge. (If you Facebook, you can RSVP here.)

This event will in some ways be a preview of a considerably longer event taking place in Oxford during July: The Future of Humanity Institute’s conference on “Global Catastrophic Risks“. Speakers at this later conference include:

  • Professor Jonathan Wiener, current President of the Society of Risk Analysis;
  • Professor Steve Rayner, Director of the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation;
  • Professor William Potter, Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies;
  • Sir Crispin Tickell, a leading authority on the interaction between science and global governance, and an advisor on climate change to successive British Prime Ministers;
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence;
  • Mike Treder , co-founder and Executive Director, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology;
  • Professor Bill Napier , Honorary Professor, Institute for Astrobiology, Cardiff University.

I’m anticipating a lot of thought-provoking discussion. For this conference, advance registration is essential. There’s about a week left before registration closes.

« Newer Posts

Blog at WordPress.com.