30 January 2014

A brilliant example of communication about science and humanity

Mathematical Universe

Do you enjoy great detective puzzles? Do you like noticing small anomalies, and turning them into clues to an unexpected explanation? Do you like watching world-class scientists at work, piecing together insights to create new theories, and coping with disappointments when their theories appear to be disproved?

In the book “Our mathematical universe”, the mysteries being addressed are some of the very biggest imaginable:

  • What is everything made out of?
  • Where does the universe come from? For example, what made the Big Bang go “bang”?
  • What gives science its authority to speak with so much confidence about matters such as the age and size of the universe?
  • Is it true that the constants of nature appear remarkably “fine-tuned” so as to allow the emergence of life – in a way suggesting a miracle?
  • What does modern physics (including quantum mechanics) have to teach us about mind and consciousness?
  • What are the chances of other intelligent life existing in our galaxy (or even elsewhere in our universe)?
  • What lies in the future of the human race?

The author, Max Tegmark, is a Swedish-born professor of physics at MIT. He’s made a host of significant contributions to the development of cosmology – some of which you can read about in the book. But in his book, he also shows himself in my view to be a first class philosopher and a first class communicator.

Indeed, this may be the best book on the philosophy of physics that I have ever read. It also has important implications for the future of humanity.

There are some very big ideas in the book. It gives reasons for believing that our universe exists alongside no fewer than four different types of parallel universes. The “level 4 multiverse” is probably one of the grandest conceptions in all of philosophy. (What’s more, I’m inclined to think it’s the correct description of reality. At its heart, despite its grandness, it’s actually a very simple theory, which is a big plus in its favour.)

Much of the time, the writing in the book is accessible to people with pre-university level knowledge of science. On occasion, the going gets harder, but readers should be able to skip over these sections. I recommend reading the book all the way through, since the last chapter contains many profound ideas.

I think you’ll like this book if:

  • You have a fondness for pure mathematics
  • You recognise that the scientific explanation of phenomenon can be every bit as uplifting as pre-scientific supernatural explanations
  • You are ready to marvel at the ingenuity of scientific investigators going all the way back to the ancient Greeks (including those who first measured the distance from the Earth to the Sun)
  • You are critical of “quantum woo woo” hand-waving that says that quantum mechanics proves that consciousness is somehow a non-local agent (and that minds will survive bodily death)
  • You want to find more about Hugh Everett, the physicist who first proposed that “the quantum wave function never collapses”
  • You have a hunch that there’s a good answer to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”
  • You want to see scientists in action, when they are confronted by evidence that their favoured theories are disproved by experiment
  • You’re ready to laugh at the misadventures that a modern cosmologist experiences (including eminent professors falling asleep in the audience of his lectures)
  • You’re interested in the considered viewpoint of a leading scientist about matters of human existential risk, including nuclear wars and the technological singularity.

Even more than all these good reasons, I highlight this book as an example of what the world badly needs: clear, engaging advocacy of the methods of science and reason, as opposed to mysticism and obscurantism.

Footnote: For my own views about the meaning of quantum mechanics, see my earlier blogpost “Schrödinger’s Rabbits”.

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:

  • 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.


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…)

16 June 2012

Beyond future shock

Filed under: alienation, books, change, chaos, futurist, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, robots, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 3:10 pm

They predicted the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities, and the end of blue-collar manufacturing. Not bad for 1970.

That’s the summary, with the benefit of four decades of hindsight, given by Fast Company writer Greg Lindsay, of the forecasts made in the 1970 bestseller “Future Shock” by husband-and-wife authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

As Lindsay comments,

Published in 1970, Future Shock made its author Alvin Toffler – a former student radical, welder, newspaper report and Fortune editor – a household name. Written with his wife (and uncredited co-author), Heidi Toffler, the book was The World Is Flat of its day, selling 6 million copies and single-handedly inventing futurism…

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time”, the pair wrote.

And quoting Deborah Westphal, the managing partner of Toffler Associates, in an interview at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Future Shock, Lindsay notes the following:

In Future Shock, the Tofflers hammered home the point that technology, culture, and even life itself was evolving too fast for governments, policy-makers and regulators to keep up. Forty years on, that message hasn’t changed. “The government needs to understand the dependencies and the convergence of networks through information,” says Westphal. “And there still needs to be some studies done around rates of change and the synchronization of these systems. Business, government, and organizational structures need to be looked at and redone. We’ve built much of the world economy on an industrial model, and that model doesn’t work in an information-centric society. That’s probably the greatest challenge we still face -understanding the old rules don’t apply for the future.”

Earlier this week, another book was published, that also draws on Future Shock for inspiration.  Again, the authors are a husband-and-wife team, Parag and Ayesha Khanna.  And again, the book looks set to redefine key aspects of the futurist endeavour.

This new book is entitled “Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization“.  The Khannas refer early on to the insights expressed by the Tofflers in Future Shock:

The Tofflers’ most fundamental insight was that the pace of change has become as important as the content of change… The term Future Shock was thus meant to capture our intense anxiety in the face of technology’s seeming ability to accelerate time. In this sense, technology’s true impact isn’t just physical or economic, but social and psychological as well.

One simple but important example follows:

Technologies such as mobile phones can make us feel empowered, but also make us vulnerable to new pathologies like nomophobia – the fear of being away from one’s mobile phone. Fifty-eight percent of millennials would rather give up their sense of smell than their mobile phone.

As befits the theme of speed, the book is a fast read. I downloaded it onto my Kindle on the day of its publication, and have already read it all the way through twice. It’s short, but condensed. The text contains many striking turns of phrase, loaded with several layers of meaning, which repay several rethinks. That’s the best kind of sound-bite.

Despite its short length, there are too many big themes in the book for me to properly summarise them here. The book portrays an optimistic vision, alongside a series of challenges and risks. As illustrations, let me pick out a selection of phrases, to convey some of the flavour:

The cross-pollination of leading-edge sectors such as information technology, biotechnology, pervasive computing, robotics, neuroscience, and nanotechnology spells the end of certain turf wars over nomenclature. It is neither the “Bio Age” nor the “Nano Age” nor the “Neuro Age”, but the hybrid of all of these at the same time…

Our own relationship to technology is moving beyond the instrumental to the existential. There is an accelerating centripetal dance between what technologies are doing outside us and inside us. Externally, technology no longer simply processes our instructions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback. Internally, we are moving beyond using technology only to dominate nature towards making ourselves the template for technology, integrating technologies within ourselves physically. We don’t just use technology; we absorb it

The Hybrid Age is the transition period between the Information Age and the moment of Singularity (when machine surpass human intelligence) that inventor Ray Kurzweil estimates we may reach by 2040 (perhaps sooner). The Hybrid Age is a liminal phase in which we cross the threshold toward a new mode of arranging global society…

You may continue to live your life without understanding the implications of the still-distant Singularity, but you should not underestimate how quickly we are accelerating into the Hybrid Age – nor delay in managing this transition yourself

The dominant paradigm to explain global change in the Hybrid Age will be geotechnnology. Technology’s role in shaping and reshaping the prevailing order, and accelerating change between orders, forces us to rethink the intellectual hegemony of geopolitics and geoeconomics…

It is geotechnology that is the underlying driver of both: Mastery in the leading technology sectors of any era determines who leads in geoeconomics and dominates in geopolitics…

The shift towards a geotechnology paradigm forces us to jettison centuries of foundational assumptions of geopolitics. The first is our view on scale: “Bigger is better” is no longer necessarily true. Size can be as much a liability as an asset…

We live and die by our Technik, the capacity to harness emerging technologies to improve our circumstances…

We will increasingly differentiate societies on the basis not of their regime type or income, but of their capacity to harness technology. Societies that continuously upgrade their Technik will thrive…

Meeting the grand challenge of improving equity on a crowded planet requires spreading Technik more than it requires spreading democracy

And there’s lots more, applying the above themes to education, healthcare, “better than new” prosthetics, longevity and rejuvenation, 3D printing, digital currencies, personal entrepreneurship and workforce transformation, the diffusion of authority, the rise of smart cities and their empowered “city-zens”, augmented reality and enhanced personal avatars, robots and “avoiding robopocalypse”, and the prospect for a forthcoming “Pax Technologica”.

It makes me breathless just remembering all these themes – and how they time and again circle back on each other.

Footnote: Readers who are in the vicinity of London next Saturday (23rd June) are encouraged to attend the London Futurist / Humanity+ UK event “Hybrid Reality, with Ayesha Khanna”. Click on the links for more information.

3 June 2012

Super-technology and a possible renaissance of religion

Filed under: death, disruption, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, religion, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 11:02 pm

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke

Imagine that the human race avoids self-destruction and continues on the path of increased mastery of technology. Imagine that, as seems credible some time in the future, humans will eventually gain the ability to keep everyone alive indefinitely, in an environment of great abundance, variety, and  intrinsic interest.

That paradise may be a fine outcome for our descendants, but unless the pace of technology improvement becomes remarkably rapid, it seems to have little direct impact on our own lives. Or does it?

It may depend on exactly how much power our god-like descendants eventually acquire.  For example, here are two of the points from a radical vision of the future known as the Ten cosmist convictions:

  • 5) We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.
  • 6) Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”.

Whoa! “Resurrect the dead”, by “copying them to the future”. How might that work?

In part, by collecting enormous amount of data about the past – reconstructing information from numerous sources. It’s similar to collecting data about far-distant stars using a very large array of radio telescopes. And in part, by re-embodying that data in a new environment, similar to copying running software onto a new computer, giving it a new lease of life.

Lots of questions can be asked about the details:

  • Can sufficient data really be gathered in the future, in the face of all the degradation commonly called “the second law of thermodynamics”, that would allow a sufficiently high-fidelity version of me (or anyone else) to be re-created?
  • If a future super-human collected lots of data about me and managed to get an embodiment of that data running on some future super-computer, would that really amount to resurrecting me, as opposed to creating a copy of me?

I don’t think anyone can confident about answers to such questions. But it’s at least conceivable that remarkably advanced technology of the future may allow positive answers.

In other words, it’s at least conceivable that our descendants will have the god-like ability to recreate us in the future, giving us an unexpected prospect for immortality.

This makes sense of the remark by radical futurist and singularitarian Ray Kurzweil at the end of the film “Transcendent Man“:

Does God exist? Well I would say, not yet

Other radical futurists quibble over the “not yet” caveat. In his recent essay “Yes, I am a believer“, Giulio Prisco takes the discussion one stage further:

Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Probably other civilizations out there already attained God-like powers.

Giulio notes that even the celebrated critic of theism, Richard Dawkins, gives some support to this line of thinking.  For example, here’s an excerpt from a 2011 New York Times interview, in which Dawkins discusses an essay written by theoretic physicist Freeman Dyson:

In one essay, Professor Dyson casts millions of speculative years into the future. Our galaxy is dying and humans have evolved into something like bolts of superpowerful intelligent and moral energy.

Doesn’t that description sound an awful lot like God?

“Certainly,” Professor Dawkins replies. “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.”

He raises his hand, just in case a reader thinks he’s gone around a religious bend. “It’s very important to understand that these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution.”

Could they be immortal? The professor shrugs.

“Probably not.” He smiles and adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be too dogmatic about that.”

As Giulio points out, Dawkins develops a similar line of argument in part of his book “The God Delusion”:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century…

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way…

Giulio seems more interested in the properties than the provenance. The fact that these entities have god-like powers prompts him to proclaim “Yes, I am a believer“.  He gives another reason in support of that proclamation: In contrast to the views of so-called militant atheists, Giulio is “persuaded that religion can be a powerful and positive force”.

Giulio sees this “powerful and positive force” as applying to him personally as well as to groups in general:

“In my beliefs I find hope, happiness, meaning, the strength to get through the night, and a powerful sense of wonder at our future adventures out there in the universe, which gives me also the drive to try to be a better person here-and-now on this little planet and make it a little better for future generations”.

More controversially, Giulio has taken to describing himself (e.g. on his Facebook page) as a “Christian”. Referring back to his essay, and to the ensuing online discussion:

Religion can, and should, be based on mutual tolerance, love and compassion. Jesus said: “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and added: “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”…

This is the important part of his teachings in my opinion. Christian theology is interesting, but I think it should be reformulated for our times…

Was Jesus the Son of God? I don’t think this is a central issue. He certainly was, in the sense that we all are, and he may have been one of those persons in tune with the universe, more in tune with the universe than the rest of us, able to glimpse at veiled realities beyond our senses.

I’ve known Giulio for several years, from various Humanity+ and Singularity meetings we’ve both attended – dating back to “Transvision 2006” in Helsinki. I respect him as a very capable thinker, and I take his views seriously. His recent “Yes, I am a believer” article has stirred up a hornets’ nest of online criticism.

Accordingly, I was very pleased that Giulio accepted my invitation to come to London to speak at a London Futurist / Humanity+ UK meeting on Saturday 14th July: “Transhumanist Religions 2.0: New Cosmist religion and spirituality for our boundless future (and our troubled present)”. For all kinds of reason, this discussion deserves a wider airing.

First, I share the view that religious sentiments can provide cohesion and energy to propel individuals and groups to undertake enormously difficult projects (such as the project to avoid the self-destruction of the human race, or any drastic decline in the quality of global civilisation).  The best analysis I’ve read of this point is in the book “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society” by David Sloan Wilson.  As I’ve written previously:

This book has sweeping scope, but makes its case very well.  The case is that religion has in general survived inasmuch as it helped groups of people to achieve greater cohesion and thereby acquire greater fitness compared to other groups of people.  This kind of religion has practical effect, independent of whether or not its belief system corresponds to factual reality.  (It can hardly be denied that, in most cases, the belief system does not correspond to factual reality.)

The book has some great examples – from the religions in hunter-gatherer societies, which contain a powerful emphasis on sharing out scarce resources completely equitably, through examples of religions in more complex societies.  The chapter on John Calvin was eye-opening (describing how his belief system brought stability and prosperity to Geneva) – as were the sections on the comparative evolutionary successes of Judaism and early Christianity.  But perhaps the section on the Balinese water-irrigation religion is the most fascinating of the lot.

Of course, there are some other theories for why religion exists (and is so widespread), and this book gives credit to these theories in appropriate places.  However, this pro-group selection explanation has never before been set out so carefully and credibly, and I think it’s no longer possible to deny that it plays a key role.

The discussion makes it crystal clear why many religious groups tend to treat outsiders so badly (despite treating insiders so well).  It also provides a fascinating perspective on the whole topic of “forgiveness”.  Finally, the central theme of “group selection” is given a convincing defence.

But second, there’s no doubt that religion can fit blinkers over people’s thinking abilities, and prevent them from weighing up arguments dispassionately. Whenever people talk about the Singularity movement as having the shape of a religion – with Ray Kurzweil as a kind of infallible prophet – I shudder. But we needn’t lurch to that extreme. We should be able to maintain the discipline of rigorous independent thinking within a technologically-informed renaissance of positive religious sentiment.

Third, if the universe really does have beings with God-like powers, what attitude should we adopt towards these beings? Should we be seeking in some way to worship them, or placate them, or influence them? It depends on whether these beings are able to influence human history, here and now, or whether they are instead restricted (by raw facts of space and time that even God-like beings have to respect) to observing us and (possibly) copying us into the future.

Personally my bet is on the latter choice. For example, I’m not convinced by people who claim evidence to the contrary. And if these beings did have the ability to intervene in human history, but have failed to do so, it would be evidence of them having scant interest in widespread intense human suffering. They would hardly be super-beings.

In that case, the focus of our effort should remain squarely on building the right conditions for super-technology to benefit humanity as a whole (this is the project I call “Inner Humanity+“), rather than on somehow seeking to attract the future attention of these God-like beings. But no doubt others will have different views!

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.

29 July 2011

Towards a mind-stretching weekend in New York

Filed under: AGI, futurist, leadership, nanotechnology, robots, Singularity — David Wood @ 9:19 pm

I’ve attended the annual Singularity Summit twice before – in 2008 and in 2009.  I’ve just registered to attend the 2011 event, which is taking place in New York on 15th-16th October.  Here’s why.

On both previous occasions, the summits featured presentations that gave me a great deal to think about, on arguably some of the most significant topics in human history.  These topics include the potential emergence, within the lifetimes of many people alive today, of:

  • Artificial intelligence which far exceeds the capabilities of even the smartest group of humans
  • Robots which far exceed the dexterity, balance, speed, strength, and sensory powers of even the best human athletes, sportspeople, or soldiers
  • Super-small nanobots which can enter the human body and effect far more thorough repairs and enhancements – to both body and mind – than even the best current medical techniques.

True, at the previous events, there were some poor presentations too – which is probably inevitable given the risky cutting-edge nature of the topics being covered.  But the better presentations far outweighed the worse ones.

And as well as the presentations, I greatly enjoyed the networking with the unusual mix of attendees – people who had taken the time to explore many of the fascinating hinterlands of modern technology trends.  If someone is open-minded enough to give serious thought to the ideas listed above, they’re often open-minded enough to entertain lots of other unconventional ideas too.  I frequently found myself in disagreement with these attendees, but the debate was deeply refreshing.

Take a look at the list of confirmed speakers so far: which of these people would you most like to bounce ideas off?

The summit registration page is now open.  As I type these words, that page states that the cost of tickets is going to increase after 31 July.  That’s an argument for registering sooner rather than later.

To provide more information, here’s a copy of the press release for the event:

Singularity Summit 2011 in New York City to Explore Watson Victory in Jeopardy

New York, NY This October 15-16th in New York City, a TED-style conference gathering innovators from science, industry, and the public will discuss IBM’s ‘Watson’ computer and other exciting developments in emerging technologies. Keynote speakers at Singularity Summit 2011 include Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings and famed futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. After losing to an IBM computer in Jeopardy!, Jennings wrote, “Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of ‘thinking’ machines. ‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.”

In February, Watson defeated two human champions in Jeopardy!, the game show famous for its mind-bending trivia questions. Surprising millions of TV viewers, Watson took down champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter for the $1 million first prize. Facing defeat on the final show, competitor Ken Jennings jokingly wrote in parentheses on his last answer: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Besides Watson, the Singularity Summit 2011 will feature speakers on robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, futurism, and other cutting-edge technologies, and is the only conference to focus on the technological Singularity.

Responding to Watson’s victory, leading computer scientist Ray Kurzweil said, “Watson is a stunning example of the growing ability of computers to successfully invade this supposedly unique attribute of human intelligence.” In Kurzweil’s view, the combination of language understanding and pattern recognition that Watson displays would make its descendants “far superior to a human”. Kurzweil is known for predicting computers whose conversations will be indistinguishable from people by 2029.

Beyond artificial intelligence, the Singularity Summit will also focus on high-tech and where it is going. Economist Tyler Cowen will examine the economic impacts of emerging technologies. Cowen argued in his recent book The Great Stagnation that modern society is on a technological plateau where “a lot of our major innovations are springing up in sectors where a lot of work is done by machines, not by human beings.” Tech entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, who sits on the board of directors of Facebook, will share his thoughts on innovation and jumpstarting the economy.

Other speakers include MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark, Allen Brain Institute chief scientist Christof Koch, co-founder of Skype Jaan Tallinn, robotics professors James McLurkin and Robin Murphy, Bionic Builders host Casey Pieretti, the MIT Media Lab’s Riley Crane, MIT polymath Alexander Wissner-Gross, filmmaker and television personality Jason Silva, and Singularity Institute artificial intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky.

8 May 2011

Future technology: merger or trainwreck?

Filed under: AGI, computer science, futurist, Humanity Plus, Kurzweil, malware, Moore's Law, Singularity — David Wood @ 1:35 pm

Imagine.  You’ve been working for many decades, benefiting from advances in computing.  The near miracles of modern spreadsheets, Internet search engines, collaborative online encyclopaedias, pattern recognition systems, dynamic 3D maps, instant language translation tools, recommendation engines, immersive video communications, and so on, have been steadily making you smarter and increasing your effectiveness.  You  look forward to continuing to “merge” your native biological intelligence with the creations of technology.  But then … bang!

Suddenly, much faster than we expected, a new breed of artificial intelligence is bearing down on us, like a huge intercity train rushing forward at several hundred kilometres per hour.  Is this the kind of thing you can easily hop onto, and incorporate in our own evolution?  Care to stand in front of this train, sticking out your thumb to try to hitch a lift?

This image comes from a profound set of slides used by Jaan Tallinn, one of the programmers behind Kazaa and a founding engineer of Skype.  Jaan was speaking last month at the Humanity+ UK event which reviewed the film “Transcendent Man” – the film made by director Barry Ptolemy about the ideas and projects of serial inventor and radical futurist Ray Kurzweil.  You can find a video of Jaan’s slides on blip.tv, and videos (but with weaker audio) of talks by all five panelists on KoanPhilosopher’s YouTube channel.

Jaan was commenting on a view that was expressed again and again in the Kurzweil film – the view that humans and computers/robots will be able to merge, into some kind of hybrid “post-human”:

This “merger” viewpoint has a lot of attractions:

  • It builds on the observation that we have long co-existed with the products of technology – such as clothing, jewellery, watches, spectacles, heart pacemakers, artificial hips, cochlear implants, and so on
  • It provides a reassuring answer to the view that computers will one day be much smarter than (unmodified) humans, and that robots will be much stronger than (unmodified) humans.

But this kind of merger presupposes that the pace of improvement in AI algorithms will remain slow enough that we humans can remain in charge.  In short, it presupposes what people call a “soft take-off” for super-AI, rather than a sudden “hard take-off”.  In his presentation, Jaan offered three arguments in favour of a possible hard take-off.

The first argument is a counter to a counter.  The counter-argument, made by various critics of the concept of the singularity, is that Kurzweil’s views on the emergence of super-AI depend on the continuation of exponential curves of technological progress.  Since few people believe that these exponential curves really will continue indefinitely, the whole argument is suspect.  The counter to the counter is that the emergence of super-AI makes no assumption about the shape of the curve of progress.  It just depends upon technology eventually reaching a particular point – namely, the point where computers are better than humans at writing software.  Once that happens, all bets are off.

The second argument is that getting the right algorithm can make a tremendous difference.  Computer performance isn’t just dependent on improved hardware.  It can, equally, be critically dependent upon finding the right algorithms.  And sometimes the emergence of the right algorithm takes the world by surprise.  Here, Jaan gave the example of the unforeseen announcement in 1993 by mathematician Andrew Wiles of a proof of the centuries-old Fermat’s Last Theorem.  What Andrew Wiles did for the venerable problem of Fermat’s last theorem, another researcher might do for the even more venerable problem of superhuman AI.

The third argument is that AI researchers are already sitting on what can be called a huge “hardware overhang”:

As Jaan states:

It’s important to note that with every year the AI algorithm remains unsolved, the hardware marches to the beat of Moore’s Law – creating a massive hardware overhang.  The first AI is likely to find itself running on a computer that’s several orders of magnitude faster than needed for human level intelligence.  Not to mention that it will find an Internet worth of computers to take over and retool for its purpose.

Imagine.  The worst set of malware so far created – exploiting a combination of security vulnerabilities, other software defects, and social engineering.  How quickly that can spread around the Internet.  Now imagine an author of that malware that is 100 times smarter.  Human users will find themselves almost unable to resist clicking on tempting links and unthinkingly providing passwords to screens that look identical to the ones they were half-expecting to see.  Vast computing resources will quickly become available to the rapidly evolving, intensely self-improving algorithms.  It will be the mother of all botnets, ruthlessly pursing whatever are the (probably unforeseen) logical conclusions of the software that gave it birth.

OK, so the risk of hard take-off is very difficult to estimate.  At the H+UK meeting, the panelists all expressed significant uncertainty about their predictions for the future.  But that’s not a reason for inaction.  If we thought the risk of super-AI hard take-off in the next 20 years was only 5%, that would still merit deep thought from us.  (Would you get on an airplane if you were told the risk of it plummeting out of the sky was 5%?)

I’ll end with another potential comparison, which I’ve written about before.  It’s another example about underestimating the effects of breakthrough new technology.

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.  For example, 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 several thousand people.

The more quickly things change, the harder it is to foresee and monitor all the consequences.  The more powerful our technology becomes, the more drastic the unintended consequences become.  Merger or trainwreck?  I believe the outcome is still wide open.

19 March 2011

A singularly fine singularitarian panel?

Filed under: futurist, Humanity Plus, Kurzweil, Singularity — David Wood @ 12:37 pm

In a moment, I’ll get to the topic of a panel discussion on the Singularity – a panel I’ve dubbed (for reasons which should become clear) “Post Transcendent Man“. It’s a great bunch of speakers, and I’m expecting an intellectual and emotional mindfest.  But first, some background.

In the relatively near future, I expect increasing numbers of people to navigate the sea change described recently by writer Philippe Verdoux in his article Transhumanists coming out of the closet:

It wasn’t that long ago that listing transhumanism, human enhancement, the Singularity, technology-driven evolution, existential risks, and so on, as interests on one’s CV might result in a bit of embarrassment.

Over just the past decade and a half, though, there seems to have been a sea change in how these issues are perceived by philosophers and others: many now see them as legitimate subjects of research; they have, indeed, acquired a kind of academic respectability that they didn’t previously possess.

There are no doubt many factors behind this shift. For one, it seems to be increasingly apparent, in 2011, that technology and biology are coming together to form a new kind of cybernetic unity, and furthermore that such technologies can be used to positively enhance (rather than merely alter) features of our minds and bodies.

In other words, the claim that humans can “transcend” (a word I don’t much like, by the way) our biological limitations through the use of enhancement technologies seems to be increasingly plausible – that is, empirically speaking.

Thus, it seems to be a truism about our contemporary world that technology will, in the relatively near future, enable us to alter ourselves in rather significant ways. This is one reason, I believe, that more philosophers are taking transhumanism seriously…

On a personal note, when I first discovered transhumanism, I was extremely skeptical about its claims (which, by the way, I think every good scientific thinker should be). I take it that transhumanism makes two claims in particular, the first “descriptive” and the second “normative”: (i) that future technologies will make it possible for us to radically transform the human organism, potentially enabling us to create a new species of technologized “posthumans”; and (ii) that such a future scenario is preferable to all other possible scenarios. In a phrase: we not only can but ought to pursue a future marked by posthumanity…

One factor that leads people to pay more serious attention to this bundle of ideas – transhumanism, human enhancement, the Singularity, technology-driven evolution, existential risks, and so on – is the increasing coverage of these ideas in thoughtful articles in the mainstream media.  In turn, many of these articles have been triggered by the film Transcendent Man by director Barry Ptolemy, featuring the groundbreaking but controversial ideas and projects of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.  Here’s a trailer for the film:

The film has received interesting commentary in, among other places:

I had mixed views when watching the movie myself:

  • On the one hand, it contains a large number of profound sound bites – statements made by many of the talking heads on screen; any of these sound bites could, potentially, change someone’s life, if they reflect on the implications;
  • The film also covers many details of Kurzweil’s own biography, with archive footage of him at different stages of his career – this filled in many gaps in my own understanding, and gave me renewed respect for what he has accomplished as a professional;
  • On the other hand, although there are plenty of critical comments among the sound bites – comments highlighting potential problems or issues with Kurzweil’s ideas – the film never really lets the debate fly;
  • I found myself thinking – yes, that’s an interesting and important point, now let’s explore this further – but then the movie switched to a different frame.

The movie has its official UK premier at the London Science Museum on Tuesday 5th April.  Kurzweil himself will be in attendance, to answer questions raised by the audience.  The last time I checked, tickets were sold out.

Post Transcendent Man

To drill down more deeply into the potentially radical implications of Kurzweil’s ideas and projects, the UK chapter of Humanity+ has arranged an event in  Birkbeck College (WC1E 7HX), Torrington Square in Central London on the afternoon (2pm-4.15pm) of Saturday 9th April.  We’ll be in Malet Street lecture room B34 – which seats a capacity audience of 177 people.  For more details about logistics, registration, and so on, see the official event website, or the associated Facebook page.

The event is privileged to feature an outstanding set of speakers and panellists who represent a range of viewpoints about the Singularity, transhumanism, and human transcendence.  In alphabetical order by first name:

Dr Anders Sandberg is a James Martin research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. As a part of the Oxford Martin School he is involved in interdisciplinary research on cognitive enhancement, neurotechnology, global catastrophic risks, emerging technologies and applied rationality. He has been writing about and debating transhumanism, future studies, neuroethics and related questions for a long time. He is also an associate of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, as well as co-founder of the Swedish think tank Eudoxa.

Jaan Tallinn is one of the programmers behind Kazaa and a founding engineer of Skype. He is also a partner in Ambient Sound Investments as well as a member of the Estonian President’s Academic Advisory Board. He describes himself as singularitarian/hacker/investor/physicist (in that order). In recent years Jaan has found himself closely following and occasionally supporting the work that SIAI and FHI are doing. He agrees with Kurzweil in that the topic of Singularity can be extremely counterintuitive to general public, and has tried to address this problem in a few public presentations at various venues.

Nic Brisbourne is a partner at venture capital fund DFJ Esprit and blogger on technology and startup issues at The Equity Kicker. As such he’s interested in when technology and science projects become products and businesses. He has a personal interest in Kurzweil’s ideas and longevity in particular and he says he’s keen to cross the gap from personal to professional and find exciting startups generating products in this area, although he thinks that the bulk of the commercialisation opportunities are still a year or two out.

Paul Graham Raven is a writer, literary critic and bootstrap big-picture futurist; he prods regularly at the fuzzy boundary of the unevenly-distributed future at futurismic.com. He is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The Dreaded Press, a rock music reviews webzine, and Publicist and PR officer for PS Publishing – perhaps the UK’s foremost boutique genre publisher. He says he’s also a freelance web-dev to the publishing industry, a cack-handed fuzz-rock guitarist, and in need of a proper haircut.

Russell Buckley is a leading practitioner, speaker and thinker about mobile and mobile marketing. MobHappy, his blog about mobile technology, is one of the most established focusing on this area. He is also a previous Global Chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association, a founder of Mobile Monday in Germany and holds numerous non-executive positions in mobile technology companies. Russell learned about mobile advertising startup, AdMob, soon after its launch, and joined as its first employee in 2006, with the remit of launching AdMob into the EMEA market. Four years later, AdMob was sold to Google for $750m. By night though, Russell is fascinated by the socio-political implications of technology and recently graduated from the Executive Program at the Singularity University, founded by Ray Kurtzweil and Peter Diamandis to “educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges”.

The discussion continues

The event will start, at 2pm, with the panellists introducing themselves, and their core thinking about the topics under discussion.  As chair, I’ll ask a few questions, and then we’ll open up for questions and comments from the audience.  I’ll be particularly interested to explore:

  • How people see the ideas of accelerating technology making a difference in their own lives – both personally or professionally.  Three of us on the stage were on founding teams of companies that made sizeable waves in the technology world (Jaan Tallinn, Skype; Russell Buckley, AdMob; myself, Symbian).  Where do we see rapidly evolving technology (as often covered by Kurzweil) taking us next?
  • People’s own experiences with bodies such as the Singularity University, the Singularity Institute, and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  Are these bodies just talking shops?  Are they grounded in reality?  Are they making a substantial positive difference in how humanity responds to the issues and challenges of technology?
  • Views as to the best way to communicate ideas like the Singularity – favourite films, science fiction, music, and other media.  How does the move “Transcendent Man” compare?
  • Reservations and worries (if any) about the Singularity movement and the ways in which Kurzweil expresses his ideas.  Are the parallels with apocalyptic religions too close for comfort?
  • Individuals’ hopes and aspirations for the future of technology.  What role do they personally envision playing in the years ahead?  And what timescales do they see as credible?
  • Calls to action – what (if anything) should members of the audience change about their lives, in the light of analysing technology trends?

Which questions do you think are the most important to raise?

Request for help

If you think this is an important event, I have a couple of suggestions for you:

The discussion continues (more)

Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis and a colleague of mine from the mobile telecomms industry, has organised the “Inaugural UK Humanity+ Evening Salon” on Wednesday April 13th, from 7pm to 10pm.  Dean describes it as follows:

Interested in an evening discussing the future of the human species & society? Aided by a drink or two?

This is the first “salon” event for the London branch of “Humanity Plus”, or H+ for short. It’s going to be an informal evening event involving a stimulating guest speaker, Q&A and lively discussion, all aided by a couple of drinks. It fits alongside UKH+’s larger Saturday afternoon lecture sessions, and occasional all-day major conferences…

It will be held in central London, in a venue TBC closer to the time. Please contact Dean Bubley (facebook.com/bubley), the convener & moderator, for more details.

For more details, see the corresponding Facebook page, and RSVP there so that Dean has an idea of the likely numbers.

15 March 2010

Imagining a world without money

Filed under: Economics, futurist, motivation, politics, Singularity, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:48 am

On Saturday, I attended “London Z Day 2010” – described as

presentations about futurism and technology, the singularity and the current economic landscape, activism and how to get involved…

Around 300 people were present in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre of London’s City University.  That’s testimony to good work by the organisers – the UK chapter of the worldwide “Zeitgeist Movement“.

I liked a lot of what I heard – a vision that advocates greater adoption of:

  • Automation: “Using technology to automate repetitive and tedious tasks leads to efficiency and productivity. It is also socially responsible as people are freed from labor that undermines their intelligence”
  • Artificial intelligence: “machines can take into account more information”
  • The scientific method: “a proven method that has stood the test of time and leads to discovery. Scientific method involves testing, getting feedback from natural world and physical law, evaluation of results, sharing data openly and requirement to replicate the test results”
  • Technological unification: “Monitoring planetary resources is needed in order to create an efficient system, and thus technology should be shared globally”.

I also liked the sense of urgency and activism, to move swiftly from the current unsustainable social and economic frameworks, into a more rational framework.  Frequent references of work of radical futurists like Ray Kurzweil emphasised the plausibility of rapid change, driven by accelerating technological innovation.  That makes good sense.

I was less convinced by other parts of the Zeitgeist worldview – in particular, its strong “no money” and “no property” messages.

Could a society operate without money?  Speakers from the floor seemed to think that, in a rationally organised society, everyone would be able to freely access all the goods and services they need, rather than having to pay for them.  The earth has plenty of resources, and we just need to look after them in a sensible way.  Money has lots of drawbacks, so we should do without it – so the argument went.

One of the arguments made by a speaker, against a monetary basis of society, was the analysis from the recent book “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Here’s an excerpt of a review of this book from the Guardian:

We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens’ incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks’ holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we’d trust each other more.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don’t soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources.

Wilkinson, a public health researcher of 30 years’ standing, has written numerous books and articles on the physical and mental effects of social differentiation. He and Pickett have compiled information from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census, to form a bank of evidence against inequality that is impossible to deny.

They use the information to create a series of scatter-graphs whose patterns look nearly identical, yet which document the prevalence of a vast range of social ills. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging…

The anxiety in this book about our current economic system was reflected in anxiety expressed by all the Zeitgeist Movement speakers.  However, the Zeitgeist speakers drew a more radical conclusion.  It’s not just that economic inequalities have lots of bad side effects.  They say, it’s money-based economics itself that causes these problems.  And that’s a hard conclusion to swallow.

They don’t argue for reforming the existing economic system.  Rather, they argue for replacing it completely.  Money itself, they say, is the root problem.

The same dichotomy arose time and again during the day.  Speakers highlighted many problems with the way the world currently operates.  But instead of advocating incremental reforms – say, for greater equality, or for oversight of the market – they advocated a more radical transformation: no money, and no property.  What’s more, the audience seemed to lap it all up.

Of course, money has sprung up in countless societies throughout history, as something that allows for a more efficient exchange of resources than simple bartering.  Money provides a handy intermediate currency, enabling more complex transactions of goods and services.

In answer, the Zeitgeist speakers argue that use of technology and artificial intelligence would allow for more sensible planning of these goods and services.  However, horrible thoughts come to mind of all the failures of previous centrally controlled economies, such as in Soviet times.  In answer again, the Zeitgeist speakers seem to argue that better artificial intelligence will, this time, make a big difference.  Personally, I’m all in favour of gradually increased application of improved automatic decision systems.  But I remain deeply unconvinced about removing money:

  1. Consumer desires can be very varied.  Some people particularly value musical instruments, others foreign travel, others sports equipment, others specialist medical treatment, and so on.  What’s more, the choices are changing all the time.  Money is a very useful means for people to make their own, individual choices
  2. A speaker from the floor suggested that everyone would have access to all the medical treatment they needed.  That strikes me as naive: the amount of medical treatment potentially available (and potentially “needed” in different cases) is unbounded
  3. Money-based systems enable the creation of loans, in which banks lend out more money than they have in their assets; this has downsides but also has been an important spring to growth and development;
  4. What’s more, without the incentive of being able to earn more money, it’s likely that a great deal of technological progress would slow down; many people would cease to work in such a focused and determined way to improve the products their company sells.

For example, the Kurzweil curves showing the projected future improvements in technology – such as increased semiconductor density and computational capacity – will very likely screech to a halt, or dramatically slow down, if money is removed as an incentive.

So whilst the criticism offered by the Zeitgeist movement is strong, the positive solution they advocate lacks many details.

As Alan Feuer put it, in his New York Times article reviewing last year’s ZDay, “They’ve Seen the Future and Dislike the Present“:

The evening, which began at 7 with a two-hour critique of monetary economics, became by midnight a utopian presentation of a money-free and computer-driven vision of the future, a wholesale reimagination of civilization, as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his “Imagine” days to do no less than redesign the underlying structures of planetary life.

Idealism can be a powerful force for positive social change, but can be deeply counterproductive if it’s based on a misunderstanding of what’s possible.  I’ll need a lot more convincing about the details of the zero-money “resource based economy” advocated by Zeitgeist before I could give it any significant support.

I’m a big fan of debating ideas about the future – especially radical and counter-intuitive ideas.  There’s no doubt that, if we are to survive, the future will need to be significantly different from the past.  However, I believe we need to beware the kind of certainty that some of the Zeitgeist speakers showed.  The Humanity+, UK2010 conference, to be held in London on 24th April, will be an opportunity to review many different ideas about the best actions needed to create a social environment more conducive to enabling the full human potential.

Footnote: an official 86 page PDF “THE ZEITGEIST MOVEMENT – OBSERVATIONS AND RESPONSES: Activist Orientation Guide” is available online.

The rapid growth of the Zeitgeist Movement has clearly benefited from popular response to two movies, “Zeitgeist, the Movie” (released in 2007) and “Zeitgeist: Addendum” (released in 2008).  Both these movies have gone viral.  There’s a great deal in each of these movies that makes me personally uncomfortable.  However, one learning is simply the fact that well made movies can do a great deal to spread a message.

For an interesting online criticism of some of the Zeitgeist Movements ideas, see “Zeitgeist Addendum: The Review” by Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio.

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