10 March 2015

100 not out: 7 years of London Futurists

100 not outWhen my mouse skimmed across the page of the London Futurists meetup site a few days ago, it briefly triggered a pop-up display that caught my eye. The display summarised my own activities within London Futurists. “Been to 100 Meetups” was the phrase that made me pause. That’s a lot of organising, I thought.

That figure of 100 doesn’t quite tell the full story. The events that I’ve organised under the London Futurists umbrella, roughly once or twice a month, are part of a longer series that go all the way back to the 15th of March 2008. In those days, I used the UK Humanity+ group in Facebook to publicise these events (along with some postings in blogs such as Extrobritannia). I discovered the marvels of Meetup in 2009, and adopted the name “London Futurists” from that time.

Browsing the history of these events in Facebook’s archive, over the seven years from March 2008 to the present day, I see there have been periods of relative activity and periods of relative quiet:

  • 10 events in 2008, 13 in 2009, and 11 in 2010
  • a period of relative quiet, 2011-2012, when more of my personal focus was pre-occupied by projects at my then employer, Accenture
  • 21 events in 2013, and another 21 in 2014
  • 6 events already in 2015.

This long series of events has evolved as time has progressed:

  • Initially they were free to attend, but for the last few years, I’ve charged a £5 entrance fee, to cover the room hire costs
  • We’ve added occasional Hangout-on-Air video events, to complement the in-real-life meetups
  • More recently, we’ve videoed the events, and make the recordings available afterwards.

For example, here’s the video of our most recent event: The winning of the carbon war, featuring speaker Jeremy Leggett. (Note: turn down your volume before listening, as the audio isn’t great on this occasion.)

Another important change over the years is that the set of regular and occasional attendees has grown into a fine, well-informed audience, who reliably ask speakers a probing and illuminating set of questions. If I think about the factors that make these meetups successful, the audience deserves significant credit.

But rather than looking backwards, I prefer to look forwards. As was said of me in a recent profile article in E&T, “David Wood: why the future matters”,

Wood’s contribution to the phenomenon of smart, connected mobile devices has earned him plenty of recognition… While others with a similar track record might consider their mid-50s to be the time to start growing wine or spending afternoons on the golf course, Wood thinks his “next 25 years will take that same vision and give it a twist. I now look more broadly at how technology can help all of us to become smarter and more mobile”.

Thankfully, mainstream media have recently been carrying more and more articles about radical futurist topics that would, until only recently, have been regarded as fringe and irresponsible. These are topics that have regularly been addressed during London Futurists events over the last seven years. To take just one example, consider the idea that technology may soon provide the ability to radically extend healthy human lifespan – perhaps indefinitely:

  • The cover of Time for February 12th displayed a baby, with the accompanying text: This baby could live to be 142 years old. Despatches from the frontiers of longevity
  • The cover of Newsweek on March 5th proclaimed the message Never say die: billionaires, science, and immortality
  • The cover for Bloomberg Markets for April will bear the headline Google wants you to live forever
    Bill Maris

It’s worth reiterating the quote which starts the Bloomberg Markets article – a quote from Bill Maris, the president and managing director of Google Ventures:

If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.

Alongside articles on particular transhumanist and radical futurist themes – such as healthy life-extension, superhuman artificial intelligence, and enhanced mental well-being – there have been a recent flurry of general assessments of the growing importance of the transhumanist philosophy. For example, note the article “The age of transhumanist politics has begun” from The Leftist Review a few days ago. Here’s a brief extract:

According to political scientist and sociologist Roland Benedikter, research scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “transhumanist” politics has momentous growth potential but with uncertain outcomes. The coming years will probably see a dialogue between humanism and transhumanism in — and about — most crucial fields of human endeavor, with strong political implications that will challenge, and could change the traditional concepts, identities and strategies of Left and Right.

The age of transhumanist politics may well have begun, but it has a long way to run. And as Benedikter sagely comments, although there is momentous growth potential, the outcome remains uncertain. That’s why the next item in the London Futurists series – the one which will be the 101st meetup in that series – is on the theme “Anticipating tomorrow’s politics”. You can find more details here:

This London Futurists event marks two developments in the political landscape:

  • The launch of the book “Anticipating tomorrow’s politics”
  • The launch of the Transhumanist Party in the UK.

The speakers at this event, Amon Twyman and David Wood, will be addressing the following questions:

  • How should politics change, so that the positive potential of technology can be safely harnessed to most fully improve human society?
  • What are the topics that politicians generally tend to ignore, but which deserve much more attention?
  • How should futurists and transhumanists regard the political process?
  • Which emerging political movements are most likely to catalyse these needed changes?

All being well, a video of that event will be posted online shortly afterwards, for those unable to attend in person. But for those who attend, there will be plenty of opportunity to contribute to the real-time discussion.

Footnote: The UK Humanity+ events were themselves preceded by a series organised by “Estropico”, that stretch back at least as far as 2003. (A fuller history of transhumanism in the UK is being assembled as part of the background briefing material for the Transhumanist Party.)

16 March 2010

Practical measures for personal longevity

Filed under: aging, supplement, UKH+, UKTA — David Wood @ 12:06 pm

What steps do you take, to enhance your personal longevity?

That’s a question I still struggle to answer.  I believe that the next few decades will see  spectacular advances in science, technology, society, art, and culture, and I’d very much like to participate in these – in some cases as an observer, and in some cases as an engineer and activist.  Rationally, therefore, I should be taking steps to make it more likely that I will remain alive, fit, and healthy, throughout these coming decades.  But what are these steps?

That’s the topic of the UKH+ (Extrobritannia) meeting that will be taking place in London on the afternoon of Sunday 28th March: “Aging and dietary supplements – correcting some myths“.  The speaker will be Michael Price, who has been carrying out independent research for 30 years into questions of life extension and futurism.  The meeting is described as follows on the Extrobritannia meetings blog:

This talk will review where we are (and aren’t) with respect to understanding aging. It will cover theories of aging, and the (largely failed) promises of gerontologists and immortalists, past and present. It will then make some suggestions for what we can do now – including a discussion of which dietary supplements may work, which may not, and why dietary supplements are generally discredited.

The idea of a “pill to make you live longer” is alluring, and often drums up tabloid headlines.  A Google search for “pill to make you live longer” returns more than 900,000 results.  Some websites look more credible than others.  In addition to pills, these websites often talk about “superfoods”.  For example, the Maximum Life Foundation recently published an article “Seven Superfoods That Will Keep You Young” and listed the following:

  1. Whey Protein
  2. Raw, Organic Eggs
  3. Leafy Greens
  4. Broccoli
  5. Blueberries
  6. Chlorella
  7. Garlic, the “Stinking Rose”

The same article continues:

The Most Important Way to Slow Aging

Do you know what the number one way to slow aging in your body is? If you’re like most people, you don’t.

Most people don’t understand the importance of optimizing their insulin levels, as insulin is without a doubt THE major accelerant of aging. Fortunately, you can go a long way toward keeping your insulin levels healthy by reducing or eliminating grains and sugars from your diet.

This one crucial step, combined with nutritional typing and the inclusion of nature’s anti-aging miracle foods in your diet, can dramatically improve your health and longevity.

It is also crucial to include a comprehensive exercise program as that is another lifestyle choice that will radically improve the sensitivity of your insulin receptors and help to optimize your insulin levels.

Theories about superfoods, pills, and other dietary supplement, depend in turn on theories of the causes of aging.  Some of these theories remain controversial – and I expect Michael will review the latest findings.  These theories include (to quote from Wikipedia, emphasis added):

  • Telomere theory: Telomeres (structures at the ends of chromosomes) have experimentally been shown to shorten with each successive cell division. Shortened telomeres activate a mechanism that prevents further cell multiplication. This may be an important mechanism of ageing in tissues like bone marrow and the arterial lining where active cell division is necessary. Importantly though, mice lacking telomerase enzyme do not show a dramatically reduced lifespan, as the simplest version of this theory would predict;
  • Free-Radical Theory: The idea that free radicals (unstable and highly reactive organic molecules, also named reactive oxygen species or oxidative stress) create damage that gives rise to symptoms we recognize as ageing.

Given the rich variety of different advice, it may be tempting – especially for people who are still in the first few decades of their lives – to take a different approach to hoping for a long life.  This approach is to trust that technological and medical improvements will happen quickly enough to be usefully applicable to you later in your life.  For example, someone in their twenties today can judge it as likely that significant improvements in anti-aging techniques will be widely available before they reach the age of sixty.

After all, life expectancy continues to rise.  Figures released last year by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (PDF) state that:

  • Life expectancy for males in the UK, at birth, was 73.4 years, in 1991-1993;
  • This figure rose to 77.4 in 2006-2008;
  • That’s a 4.0 year increase in life expectancy over that 15 year period.

People can follow the lead of anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey and talk about a future “longevity escape velocity” in which the increase in life expectancy over a 15 year period would be at least 15 years.  That’s an attractive vision, and de Grey makes a persuasive argument that it is credible.  What is far less certain, however, is:

  • The future timescale in which such remedies will become available;
  • Any variability in the performance of these future remedies, which might be influenced by the amount of damage our bodies have accumulated in the meantime.

These reservations increase the importance of addressing personal longevity issues sooner rather than later.  I’m reminded of the quotation that is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young

Finally, I’ll return to the question posed at the start of this article:

What steps do you take, to enhance your personal longevity?

At present, here’s my answer:

  • Have an annual medical checkup, to detect early warning signs of impending trouble;
  • Take (on doctor’s prescription) a statin pill in the evening, to lower cholesterol;
  • Take a collection of pills in the morning, including ginseng, mutivitamins, garlic, and ginkgo biloba;
  • “5 a day” portions of fruit and vegetables;
  • Pay attention to gum health, by cleaning between teeth as well as the teeth themselves;
  • Keep fit, by walking, and (increasingly) by spending time on the golf course or golf driving range;
  • Avoid cigarettes and excess alcohol;
  • Avoid dangerous sports.

I may have a different answer, after listening to Michael’s talk at the end of the month.

22 February 2010

Scepticism about the future of politics

Filed under: politics, UKH+, UKTA — David Wood @ 10:30 pm

I ought to have realised in advance that the topic for last Saturday’s UKH+ meeting would prove less popular than usual.

The first comment from the audience, once the speaker opened up for questions, said it all:

Frankly, I’m sceptical.

Recently, UKH+ meetings have attracted audiences of 40-70 people each time, for discussions about various aspects of the future of technology.  This time, we only had 20 people in the room.

The topic for this meeting was:

The future of politics. Can politicians prepare society for the major technology challenges ahead?

Another indication of scepticism about the meeting topic came in a tweet which suggested a different flow of causation:

Seems unlikely. Can technologists prepare politicians for the major technology challenges ahead?

Politicians are held in low regard by the public as a whole, and seem to be held in even lower regard by technology-savvy members of the public.  Even the speaker at the meeting, Darren Reynolds (chair of Burnley Liberal Democrats), accepted that politicians generally lag well behind breakthrough technological developments, such as the creation of the Internet.

So what was the point of organising the meeting?  Why should a group that focuses on potential breakthrough consequences of new technology be concerned about interactions with politicians?

Well, like it or not, politicians have a big influence over what happens in society:

  • They put in place regulatory frameworks, such as govern new medical treatments and drugs with human enhancement potential;
  • They allocate central funds in favour of different kinds of research and development;
  • They (sometimes) galvanise public change.

Politicians can on occasion even be persuaded to take good decisions – as in the case which was the subject of discussion last time Darren spoke at a UKH+ meeting, back in April 2008:

  • Reasons to support and improve the Human Fertilisation & Embryology bill.

On Saturday, Darren argued that, even though the party political system is far from perfect, and often drives suboptimal behaviour, it can still achieve good outcomes.  Those of us who desire faster development and wise adoption of new technologies (such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, robotics, and artificial intelligence) need to become more skilled in interacting with politicians.  What’s more, we have to recognise the emotional aspects of political dialog:

  • It’s insufficient to focus on rational debate about the capabilities of technologies;
  • People make decisions based on their feelings, not just on their rationality;
  • We have to understand the concerns, aspirations, hopes, and fears of different people, and tailor our communications to fit;
  • We also have to understand the power structures within society, and take these into account in our change initiatives too.

That advice made good sense to me, with my background in advocating the merits of various smartphone techologies over the years.  “Politics” – whether involving people who call themselves politicians, or merely as a messy aspect of corporate life – is something we have to learn to deal with.  If we fail to raise techno-progressive issues to the mainstream political agenda, we shouldn’t be surprised if people who are generally techno-conservative or techno-ignorant occupy positions of power in society.  Becoming a skilled influencer is much more than becoming a skilled rationalist.

But there’s another connection between politics and technology. It’s not just that politicians can influence the evolution and adoption of technology.  It’s that technology can enable improvements in how politics are conducted.  Discussion at the meeting raised good points about this connection:

  • The accelerating decline of old-style printed newspapers, and the rise of online media, alters the style of political discussion;
  • Technology could be used to enable more frequent votes, at lower cost, on matters where the public should be consulted;
  • Wider collaboration, such as used in open source software projects, or for Wikipedia, might enable better decisions to be reached;
  • Over time, more and more decisions could be referred to AI systems, to generate recommendations;
  • In due course, we’ll have to decide whether AIs deserve votes (the slogan “one man, one vote” will need re-thinking).

After the meeting finished, I found an interesting website with ideas along some of the same lines.  The Metagovernment project describes itself as follows:

The mission of the Metagovernment project is to support the development and use of Internet tools which enable the members of any community to fully participate in the governance of that community. We are a global group of people working on various projects which further this goal.

We expect governance software to be adopted first in small communities, and then to spread outward with the potential to gradually replace many institutions of representative democracy with a new kind of social organization called collaborative governance.

We conceive a world where every person, without exception, is able to substantively participate in any governance structure in which they have an interest. We envision governance which is not only more open, free, and democratic; but also which is more effective and less fallible than pre-Internet forms of governance…

I haven’t had time to look into Metagovernment more fully, but it’s potentially a good topic for a future meeting on “The future of politics”.

A different approach was (half-jokingly?) suggested by James Clement on Facebook:

I’m not so sure about ” putting choices in the hands of ordinary people…”  I’ll wait for our AI Overlords to save us!

Footnote: Darren Reynolds has been a pro-technology activist since at least 1998, when he was part of the team who who produced the original “Transhumanism Declaration“:

  1. Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of ageing, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
  2. Systematic research should be put into understanding these coming developments and their long-term consequences.
  3. Transhumanists think that by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it…

13 January 2010

Top of the list: the biggest impact

Filed under: books, democracy, Humanity Plus, UKTA — David Wood @ 12:46 am

I recently published a list of the books that had made the biggest impact on me, personally, over the last ten years.  I left one book out of that list – the book that impacted me even more than any of the others.

The book in question was authored by Dr James J. Hughes, a sociologist and bioethicist who teaches Health Policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.  In his spare time, James is the Executive Director of the IEET – the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

The title of the book is a bit of a mouthful:


I came across this book in October 2005.  The ideas in the book started me down a long path of further exploration:

I count this book as deeply impactful for me because:

  1. It was the book that led to so many other things (as just listed);
  2. When I look back at the book in 2010, I find several key ideas in it which I now take for granted (but I had forgotten where I learned them).

An indication of the ideas contained may be found from an online copy of the Introduction to the book, and from a related essay “Democratic Transhumanism 2.0“.

The book goes far beyond just highlighting the potential of new technologies – including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence – to significantly enhance human experience.  The book also contains a savvy account of the role of politics in supporting and enabling human change.

To quote from the Introduction:

This book argues that transhuman technologies – technologies that push the boundaries of humanness – can radically improve our quality of life, and that we have a fundamental right to use them to control our bodies and minds.  But to ensure these benefits we need to democratically regulate these technologies and make them equally available in free societies.  Becoming more than human can improve all our lives, but only new forms of transhuman citizenship and democracy will make us free, more equal, and more united.

A lot of people are understandably frightened by the idea of a society in which unenhanced humans will need to coexist with humans who are smarter, faster, and more able, not to mention robots and enhanced animals…

The “bioLuddite” opposition to genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, slowly building and networking since the 1960s, picked up where the anti-industrialisation Luddites left off in the nineteenth century.  While Luddites believed that defending workers’ rights required a ban on the automation of work, the bioLuddites believe genetic engineering and human enhancement technologies cannot be used safely, and must be banned…

The emerging “biopolitical” polarisation between bioLuddites and transhumanists will define twenty-first century politics…

People will be happiest when they individually and collectively exercise rational control of the social and natural forces that affect their lives.  The promise of technological liberation, however, is best achieved in the context of a social democratic society committed to liberty, equality, and solidarity…

Boing Boing author Cory Doctorow makes some good points in his review of “Citizen Cyborg”:

I’ve just finished a review copy of James Hughes’s “Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.” I was skeptical when this one arrived, since I’ve read any number of utopian wanks on the future of humanity and the inevitable withering away of the state into utopian anarchism fueled by the triumph of superior technology over inferior laws.

But Hughes’s work is much subtler and more nuanced than that, and was genuinely surprising, engaging and engrossing…

Hughes’s remarkable achievement in “Citizen Cyborg” is the fusion of social democratic ideals of tempered, reasoned state intervention to promote equality of opportunity with the ideal of self-determination inherent in transhumanism. Transhumanism, Hughes convincingly argues, is the sequel to humanism, and to feminism, to the movements for racial and gender equality, for the fight for queer and transgender rights — if you support the right to determine what consenting adults can do with their bodies in the bedroom, why not in the operating theatre?

Much of this book is taken up with scathing rebuttal to the enemies of transhumanism — Christian lifestyle conservatives who’ve fought against abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage; as well as deep ecologist/secular lefty intelligentsia who fear the commodification of human life. He dismisses the former as superstitious religious thugs who, a few generations back, would happily decry the “unnatural” sin of miscegenation; to the latter, he says, “You are willing to solve the problems of labor-automation with laws that ensure a fair shake for working people — why not afford the same chance to life-improving techno-medicine?”

The humanist transhuman is a political stance I’d never imagined, but having read “Citizen Cyborg,” it seems obvious and natural. Like a lot of basically lefty geeks, I’ve often felt like many of my ideals were at odds with both the traditional left and the largely right-wing libertarians. “Citizen Cyborg” squares the circle, suggest a middle-path between them that stands foursquare for the improvement of the human condition through technology but is likewise not squeamish about advocating for rules, laws and systems that extend a fair opportunity to those less fortunate…

The transformation of politics Hughes envisions is from a two-dimensional classification to a three-dimensional classification.

The first two dimensions are “Economic politics” and “Cultural politics”, with a spectrum (in each case) from conservative to progressive.

The new dimension, which will become increasingly significant, is “Biopolitics”.  Hughes uses the label “bioLuddism” for the conservative end of this spectrum, and “Transhumanism” for the progressive end.

The resulting cube has eight vertices, which include both “Left bioLuddism” and “Right bioLuddism”, as well as both “Libertarian transhumanism” and “Democratic transhumanism”.

Interestingly, the ramp-up of political debate in the United Kingdom, ahead of the parliamentary election that will take place some time before summer, has served as a reminder that the “old” political divisions seem inadequate to deal with the challenges of the current day.  It’s harder to discern significant real differences between the major parties.  I still don’t have any strong views as to which party I should vote for.  My guess is that each of the major parties will contain a split of views regarding the importance of enhancement technologies.

I’ll give the final words to James Hughes – from the start of Chapter 7 in his book:

The most important disagreement between bioLuddites and transhumanists is over who we should grant citizenship, with all its rights and protections.  BioLuddites advocate “human-racism”, that citizenship and rights have something to do with simply having a human genome.  Transhumanists… believe citizenship should be based on “personhood”, having feelings and consciousness.  The struggle to replace human-racism with personhood can be found at the beginnings and ends of life, and at the imaginary lines between humans and animals, and between humans and posthumans.  Because they have not adopted the personhood view, the human-racists are disturbed by lives that straddle the imaginary human/non-human line.  But technological advances at each of these margins will force our society in the coming decades to complete the trajectory of 400 years of liberal democracy and choose “cyborg citizenship”.

2 November 2009

Halloween nightmare scenario, early 2020’s

Filed under: AGI, friendly AI, Singularity, UKH+, UKTA — David Wood @ 5:37 pm

On the afternoon of Halloween 2009, Shane Legg ran through a wide-ranging set of material in his presentation “Machine Super Intelligence” to an audience of 50 people at the UKH+ meeting in Birkbeck College.

Slide 43 of 43 was the climax.  (The slides are available from Shane’s website, where you can also find links to YouTube videos of the event.)

It may be unfair of me to focus on the climax, but I believe it deserves a lot of attention.

Spoiler alert!

The climactic slide was entitled “A vision of the early 2020’s: the Halloween Scenario“.  It listed three assumptions about what will be the case by the early 2020’s, drew two conclusions, and then highlighted one big problem.

  1. First assumption – desktop computers with petaflop computing power will be widely available;
  2. Second assumption – AI researchers will have established powerful algorithms that explain and replicate deep belief networks;
  3. Brain reinforcement learning will be fairly well understood.

The first assumption is a fairly modest extrapolation of current trends in computing, and isn’t particularly contentious.

The second assumption was, in effect, the implication of around the first 30 slides of Shane’s talk, taking around 100 minutes of presentation time (interspersed with lots of audience Q&A, as typical at UKH+ meetings).  People can follow the references from Shane’s talk (and in other material on his website) to decide whether they agree.

For example (from slides 25-26), an implementation of a machine intelligence algorithm called MC-AIXI can already learn to solve or play:

  • simple prediction problems
  • Tic-Tac-Toe
  • Paper-Scissors-Rock (a good example of a non-deterministic game)
  • mazes where it can only see locally
  • various types of Tiger games
  • simple computer games, e.g. Pac-Man

and is now being taught to learn checkers (also known as draughts).  Chess will be the next step.  Note that this algorithm does not start off with the rules of best practice for these games built in (that is, it is not a specific AI program), but it can work out best practice for these games from its general intelligence.

The third assumption was the implication of the remaining 12 slides, in which Shane described (amongst other topics) work on something called “restricted Boltzmann machines“.

As stated in slide 38, on brain reinforcement learning (RL):

This area of research is currently progressing very quickly.

New genetically modified mice allow researchers to precisely turn on and off different parts of the brain’s RL system in order to identify the functional roles of the parts.

I’ve asked a number of researchers in this area:

  • “Will we have a good understanding of the RL system in the brain before 2020?”

Typical answer:

  • “Oh, we should understand it well before then. Indeed, we have a decent outline of the system already.”

Adding up these three assumptions, the first conclusion is:

  • Many research groups will be working on brain-like AGI architectures

The second conclusion is that, inevitably:

  • Some of these groups will demonstrate some promising results, and will be granted access to the super-computers of the time – which will, by then, be exaflop.

But of course, it’s when some almost human-level AGI algorithms, on petaflop computers, are let loose on exaflop supercomputers, that machine super intelligence might suddenly come into being – with results that might be completely unpredictable.

On the other hand, Shane observes that people who are working on the program of Friendly AI do not expect to have made significant progress in the same timescale:

  • By the early 2020’s, there will be no practical theory of Friendly AI.

Recall that the goal of Friendly AI is to devise a framework for AI research that will ensure that any resulting AIs have a very high level of safety for humanity no matter how super-intelligent they may become.  In this school of thought, after some time, all AI research would be constrained to adopt this framework, in order to avoid the risk of a catastrophic super-intelligence explosion.  However, at the end of Shane’s slides, the likelihood appears that the Friendly AI framework won’t be in place by the time we need it.

And that’s the Halloween nightmare scenario.

How should we respond to this scenario?

One response is to seek to somehow transfer the weight of AI research away from other forms of AGI (such as MC-AIXI) into Friendly AI?  This appears to be very hard, especially since research proceeds independently, in many different parts of the world.

A second response is to find reasons to believe that the Friendly AI project will have more time to succeed – in order words, reasons to believe that AGI will take longer to materialise than the date of the 2020’s mentioned above.  But given the progress that appears to be happening, that seems to me a reckless course of action.

Footnote: If anyone thinks they can make a good presentation on the topic of Friendly AI to a forthcoming UKH+ meeting, please get in touch!

15 October 2009

Machine super intelligence – 31st October

Filed under: AGI, UKTA — David Wood @ 11:25 pm

On Sat 31st October, from 2pm-4pm, Dr Shane Legg will be leading a state-of-the-art review of models of how super intelligent machines might work.  I’ll be chairing the meeting.

This will be taking place in:

  • Room 416, 4th floor (via main lift), Birkbeck College, Torrington Square, London WC1E 7HX.

There’s no charge to attend, and everyone is welcome. There will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions and to make comments.  Anyone with a Facebook account can (if they like) give an RSVP here.

About the talk (text from Shane Legg)

What ever happened to the ambitious aims of artificial intelligence, specifically, its original goal of creating an “intelligent machine”? Are we any closer to this than we were 20 or 30 years ago? Indeed, have we made any progress on figuring out what intelligence is, let alone knowing how to build one? After all, if we had a clearer idea of where we want to get to, we might be able to come up with some better ideas on how to get there!

Clearly, artificial intelligence could do with a better theoretical foundation.  This talk will outline work on creating such a foundation:

  • What is intelligence?
  • How can we formalise machine intelligence?
  • Solomonoff Induction: a universal prediction system.
  • AIXI: Hutter’s universal artificial intelligence.
  • MC-AIXI: a computable approximation of AIXI.
  • Can the brain tell us anything useful for building an AI?
  • Is building a super intelligent machine a good idea?

About the speaker:

Dr Shane Legg is a post doctoral research associate at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London. He received a PhD in 2008 from the Department of Informatics, University of Lugano, Switzerland. His PhD supervisor was Prof. Marcus Hutter, the originator of the AIXI model of optimal machine intelligence.

Upon the completion of his PhD he won the $10,000 Canadian Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence Prize and was also awarded a post doctoral research grant by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Shane is a native of New Zealand. After training in mathematics he began a career as a software engineer, mostly for American companies specialising in artificial intelligence. In 2003 he returned to academia to complete a PhD.

His research has been published in top academic journals (e.g. IEEE TEC), and featured in mainstream publications (e.g. New Scientist). All of Shane’s publications, including his doctoral thesis “Machine super intelligence”, are available on his website, http://www.vetta.org

Opportunities for further discussion

Discussion will continue after the event, in a nearby pub, for those who are able to stay.

There’s also a chance to join some of the UKH+ regulars for a drink and/or light lunch beforehand, any time after 12.30pm, in The Marlborough Arms, 36 Torrington Place, London WC1E 7HJ. To find us, look out for a table where there’s a copy of Shane’s book “Machine Super Intelligence” displayed.

About the venue

Room 416 is on the fourth floor (via the lift near reception) in the main Birkbeck College building, in Torrington Square (which is a pedestrian-only square). Torrington Square is about 10 minutes walk from either Russell Square or Goodge St tube stations.

Opportunity to be a formal “responder”

If anyone would like to have the chance to be a designated “responder” to Shane at the meeting itself, please let me know. The idea is that a responder will get 2-5 minutes (depending on how much he/she wants to say – and depending on how much time is left in the meeting) to raise comments from the floor, after Shane has finished his presentation. If you have a small number of slides to show (3 at MAX), that would be fine too, so long as they’re relevant to the main discussion.

Of course, anyone in the audience will be welcome to make a comment, during the final 20-30 minutes of the alloted 2 hours (2pm-4pm). However, if I know in advance that you have prepared something to say, I’ll find a way to set aside time for you.

11 August 2009

The future of energy

Filed under: books, Energy, innovation, UKTA — David Wood @ 11:03 pm

On Saturday afternoon (15th August), I’ll be chairing a meeting in Central London on the topic, “The future of energy: Leadership and technological innovation”.

The speaker is James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting & Innovation, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. I’ve seen James speak several times over the years, and he’s always both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The talk will cover some of the same ground as the recent book “Energise – A future for energy innovation” which James co-authored with Joe Kaplinksy.

Some extracts from the back cover convey the flavour of the book:

  • The way to deal with global warming is to build a bigger, better energy supply, not to invite the state to meter your family’s every use of energy at home and in the car;
  • This book shows you… why there’s still time to fix global warming without downgrading your lifestyle;
  • Energise! sets out a programme for innovation in nuclear, carbon-based and renewable energy.  The programme is one in which governments and industry do what they are supposed to do: enable people to get on with their lives;
  • Energise is a challenge to climate zealots, climate sceptics, and government moralisers alike;
  • This is a refreshing and a required read for anybody … bored with the idea of merely surviving, and confident that human beings can still make a much better world.

I’m expecting a lively debate!  The future of energy is a critically important topic, for all kinds of reason.

If you think you might like to attend, there are more details on the event blog.

28 May 2009

The future of medicine

Filed under: cryonics, medicine, UKTA — David Wood @ 11:37 pm
  • Someone who believes in the radical transformational potential of technology, and who anticipates that technology will result in very significant improvements in the quality of life in the relatively near future – but who is willing to go beyond predictions and theorising, to roll up his sleeves and become vigorously involved in building better technology.

That’s how I’d describe Mike Darwin, the speaker at the Extrobritannia (UKTA) meeting at Birkbeck College in central London this Saturday. In other words, Mike is an eminent engineer as well as a philosopher. Specifically, he’s an engineer in the field of preservative medicine.

But there’s more. Mike appreciates that the process of refining new medical processes can be intensely messy and flawed. Just because we’re surrounded by hi-tech, it’s no guarantee that medical trials will be pain-free or mistake-free. Far from it. There are technological uncertainties, organisational impediments, and cultural hurdles. Without a willingness to embrace this ugly fact, there’s a real risk that developments in medicine will slow down.

Mike’s topic on Saturday is “Whatever happened to the future of medicine”; the subtitle is “Why the much anticipated medical breakthroughs of the early 21st century are failing to materialize”. In his own words, here’s what the talk will address:

The last half of the 20th Century was a time of explosive growth in growth in high technology medicine. Effective chemotherapy for many microbial diseases, the advent of sophisticated vaccination, the development and application of the corticosteroids, and the development of extracorporeal and cardiovascular prosthetic medicine (cardiopulmonary bypass, hemodialysis, synthetic arterial vascular grafts and cardiac valves) are but a few examples of what can only be described as stunning progress in medicine derived in large measure from translation research.

The closing decades of the last century brought confident predictions from both academic and clinical researchers (scientists and physicians alike) that the opening decade of this century would see, if not definitive cure or control, then certainly the first truly effective therapeutic drugs for cancer, ischemia-reperfusion injury (i.e. heart attack, stroke and cardiac arrest), multisystem organ failure and dysfunction (MSOF/D), immunomodulation (control of rejection and much improved management of autoimmune diseases), oxygen therapeutics and more radically, the perfection of long term organ preservation, widespread use of the total artificial heart (TAH) and the clinical application of the first drugs to slow or moderate biological aging.

So far, so good. But Mike continues:

However, none of these anticipated gains has materialized, and countless drug trials in humans based on highly successful animal models of MSOF/D, stroke, heart attack, cancer, and immunomodulation have failed. Indeed it may be reasonably argued that the pace of therapeutic advance has slowed. By contrast, the growth of technology and capability in some areas of diagnostic medicine, primarily imaging, has maintained its exponential rate of growth and, while much slower than growth in other areas of technological endeavor, such as communications and consumer electronics, progress has been impressive.

Why has translational research at the cutting edge of medicine (and in particular in critical care medicine) stalled, or often resulted in clinical trials that had to be halted due to increased morbidity and mortality in the treated patients? The answers to these questions are complex and multifactorial, and deserve careful review.

And in conclusion:

Renewed success in the application of translational research in humans will require a return to the understanding and acceptance of the inescapable fact that perfection of complex biomedical technologies cannot be modeled solely in the animal or computer research laboratory. The corollary of this understanding must be the acceptance of the unpleasant reality that perfection of novel, let alone revolutionary medical technologies, will require a huge cost in human suffering and sacrifice. The aborted journey of the TAH to widespread clinical application due to the unwillingness on the part of the public, and the now extant bioethical infrastructure in medicine, to accept the years of suffering accompanied by modest, incremental advances towards perfection of this technology, is a good example of what might rightly be described as a societal ‘failure of nerve’ in the face of great benefit at great cost. It may be rightly said, to quote the political revolutionary Delores Ibarruri, that we must once again come to understand that, “It is better to die on our feet than to live on our knees!”

Mike has spoken once before at an Extrobritannia meeting. See here for my write-up. It was a tremendous event. I’m expecting a similar engrossing debate this Saturday too. No doubt some of the discussion will focus on the main thrust of Mike’s life work, cryonics: very few people in the world are as knowledgeable about this topic.

If anyone reading this is going to be in or near London on Saturday, it would be great to see you at this meeting.

20 March 2009

The industry with the greatest potential for disruptive growth

Filed under: aging, healthcare, UKTA — David Wood @ 11:37 pm

Where is the next big opportunity?

According to renowned Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, in a video recorded recently for BigThink:

The biggest opportunities are in healthcare. We are now just desperate to make healthcare affordable and accessible. Healthcare is something that everybody consumes. There are great opportunities for non-consumers to be brought into the market by making things affordable and accessible. I just can’t think of another industry that has those kinds of characteristics where demand is robust, and there’s such great opportunities for disruption.

The healthcare industry has many angles. I’m personally fascinated by the potential of smart mobile devices to play significant new roles in maintaining and improving people’s health.

Another important dimension to healthcare is the dimension of reducing (or even altogether removing) the impacts of aging. In an article on “10 ideas changing the world right now”, Time magazine recently coined the word “amortality” for the growing trend for people who seek to keep the same lifestyle and appearance, regardless of their physical age:

When Simon Cowell let slip last month that he planned to have his corpse cryonically preserved, wags suggested that the snarky American Idol judge may have already tested the deep-freezing procedure on his face. In 2007, Cowell, now 49, told an interviewer that he used Botox. “I like to take care of myself,” he said. Cowell is in show biz, where artifice routinely imitates life. But here’s a fact startling enough to raise eyebrows among Botox enthusiasts: his fellow Brits, famously unconcerned with personal grooming, have tripled the caseload of the country’s cosmetic surgeons since 2003. The transfiguration of the snaggletoothed island race is part of a phenomenon taking hold around the developed world: amortality.

You may not have heard of amortality before – mainly because I’ve just coined the term. It’s about more than just the ripple effect of baby boomers’ resisting the onset of age. Amortality is a stranger, stronger alchemy, created by the intersection of that trend with a massive increase in life expectancy and a deep decline in the influence of organized religion – all viewed through the blue haze of Viagra…

Amortals don’t just dread extinction. They deny it. Ray Kurzweil encourages them to do so. Fantastic Voyage, which the futurist and cryonics enthusiast co-wrote with Terry Grossman, recommends a regimen to forestall aging so that adherents live long enough to take advantage of forthcoming “radical life-extending and life-enhancing technologies.” Cambridge University gerontologist Aubrey de Grey is toiling away at just such research in his laboratory. “We are in serious striking distance of stopping aging,” says De Grey, founder and chairman of the Methuselah Foundation, which awards the Mprize to each successive research team that breaks the record for the life span of a mouse…

Notions of age-appropriate behavior will soon be relegated as firmly to the past as dentures and black-and-white television. “The important thing is not how many years have passed since you were born,” says Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, “but where you are in your life, how you think about yourself and what you are able and willing to do.” If that doesn’t sound like a manifesto for revolution, it’s only because amortality has already revolutionized our attitudes toward age.

Just how feasible is the idea of radical life extension? In part, it depends on what you think about the aging processes that take place in humans. Are these processes fixed, or can they somehow be influenced?

One person who is engaged in a serious study of this topic is Dr Richard Faragher, Reader in the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Brighton on the English south coast. Richard describes the research interests of his team as follows:

We “do” senescence. Why do we do this? Because it has been suggested for over 30 years that the phenomenon of cell senescence may be linked in some way to human ageing. Senescence is the progressive replicative failure of a population of cells to divide in culture. Once senescent, cells exhibit a wide range of changes in phenotype and gene expression which give them the potential to alter the behaviour of any tissue in which they are found. In its modern form the cell hypothesis of ageing suggests that the progressive accumulation of such senescent cells (as a result of ongoing tissue turnover) may contribute to the ageing process.

Richard is the featured speaker at this month’s Extrobritannia (UKTA) meeting in Central London, this Saturday (21st March). The title for his talk is “One foot in the future. Attaining the 10,000+ year lifespan you always wanted?”:

Dr Richard Faragher, Reader in Gerontology, School of Pharmacy & Biomolecular Sciences, University of Brighton, will review the aging process across the animal kingdom together with the latest scientific insights into how it may operate. The lecture will also review promising avenues for translation into practice over the next few years, and current barriers to progress in aging research will be considered.

I’m expecting a lively but informative discussion!

21 November 2008

Emulating the human brain

Filed under: AGI, brain simulation, UKTA — David Wood @ 7:00 pm

Artificial Intelligence (AI) already does a lot to help me in my life:

  • The real-time route calculation (and re-calculation) capabilities of my TomTom satnav system are extremely handy;
  • The automated language translation functionality inside Google web-search, whilst far from perfect, often allows me to understand at least the gist of webpages written in languages other than English;
  • The intelligent recommendation engine of Amazon frequently brings books to my attention that I am glad to investigate further.

On the other hand, the field of general AI has failed to progress as quickly as some of its supporters over the years had hoped. The Wikipedia article on the History of AI lists some striking examples of significant over-optimism among leading AI researchers:

  • 1958, H. A. Simon and Allen Newell: “within ten years a digital computer will be the world’s chess champion” and “within ten years a digital computer will discover and prove an important new mathematical theorem.”
  • 1965, H. A. Simon: “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do.”
  • 1967, Marvin Minsky: “Within a generation … the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved.”
  • 1970, Marvin Minsky (in Life Magazine): “In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.”

Prospects for fast progress with general AI remain controversial. As we gather more and more silicon power into smartphones and other computers, will this mean these devices become more and more intelligent? Or will they simply be fast rather than generally intelligent?

In this context, one interesting line of analysis is to consider a separate but related question: to what extent will it be possible to create a silicon emulation of the brain itself (rather than to focus on algorithms for intelligence)?

My friend Anders Sandberg, Neuroethics researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University, will be addressing this question in a presentation tomorrow afternoon (Saturday 22nd November) in Central London. The presentation is entitled “Emulating brains: silicon dreams or the next big thing?

Anders describes his talk as follows:

The idea of creating a faithful copy of a human brain has been a popular philosophical thought experiment and science fiction plot for decades. How close are we to actually doing it, how could it be done, and what would the consequences be? This talk will trace trends in computing, neuroscience, lab automaton and microscopy to show how whole brain emulation could become feasible in the mid term future.

The talk is organised by the UKTA. Last weekend, at the Convergence08 “unconference” in Mountain View, California, Anders gave an earlier version of the same talk. George Dvorsky blogged the result:

Convergence08: Anders Sandberg on Whole Brain Emulation

The term ‘whole brain emulation’ sounds more scientific than it does science fiction like, which may bode well for its credibility as a genuine academic discipline and area for inquiry.

Sandberg presented his whole brain emulation roadmap which had a flowchart like quality to it — which he quipped must be scientific because it was filled with arrows.

Simulating memory could be very complex, possibly involving chemical transference in cells or drilling right down to the molecular level. We may even have to go down to the quantum level, but no neuroscientist that Anders knows takes that possibility seriously…

As Anders himself told me afterwards,

…interest was high but time limited – I got a lot of useful feedback and ideas for making the presentation better.

I’m expecting a fascinating discussion.

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