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14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

I find myself in a great deal of agreement with Fully Automated Luxury Communism (“FALC”), the provocative but engaging book by Novara Media Co-Founder and Senior Editor Aaron Bastani.

It’s a book that’s going to change the conversation about the future.

It starts well, with six short vignettes, “Six characters in search of a future”. Then it moves on, with the quality consistently high, to sections entitled “Chaos under heaven”, “New travellers”, and “Paradise found”. Paradise! Yes, that’s the future which is within our grasp. It’s a future in which, as Bastani says, people will “lead fuller, expanded lives, not diminished ones”:

The comment about “diminished lives” is a criticism of at least some parts of the contemporary green movement:

To the green movement of the twentieth century this is heretical. Yet it is they who, for too long, unwisely echoed the claim that ‘small is beautiful’ and that the only way to save our planet was to retreat from modernity itself. FALC rallies against that command, distinguishing consumption under fossil capitalism – with its commuting, ubiquitous advertising, bullshit jobs and built-in obsolescence – from pursuing the good life under conditions of extreme supply. Under FALC we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.

The book is full of compelling turns of phrase that made me think to myself, “I wish I had thought of saying that”. They are phrases that are likely to be heard increasingly often from now on.

The book also contains ideas and examples that I have myself used on many occasions in my own writing and presentation over the years. Indeed, the vision and analysis in FALC has a lot in common with the vision and analysis I have offered, most recently in Sustainable Superabundance, and, in more depth, in my earlier book Transcending Politics.

Four steps in the analysis

In essence, FALC sets out a four-step problem-response-problem-response sequence:

  1. A set of major challenges facing contemporary society – challenges which undermine any notion that social development has somehow already reached a desirable “end of history”
  2. A set of technological innovations, which Bastani calls the “Third Disruption”, with the potential not only to solve the severe challenges society is facing, but also to significantly improve human life
  3. A set of structural problems with the organisation of the economy, which threaten to frustrate and sabotage the positive potential of the Third Disruption
  4. A set of changes in attitude – and political programmes to express these changes – that will allow, after all, the entirety of society to fully benefit from the Third Disruption, and attain the “luxury” paradise the book describes.

In more detail:

First, Bastani highlights five challenges that, in combination, pose (as he puts it) “threats whose scale is civilisational”:

  • Growing resource scarcity – particularly for energy, minerals and fresh water
  • Accelerating climate change and other consequences of global warming
  • Societal aging, as life expectancy increases and birth rates concurrently fall, invalidating the assumptions behind pension schemes and, more generally, the social contract
  • A growing surplus of global poor who form an ever-larger ‘unnecessariat’ (people with no economic value to contribute)
  • A new machine age which will herald ever-greater technological unemployment as progressively more physical and cognitive labour is performed by machines, rather than humans.

Second, Bastani points to a series of technological transformations that comprise an emerging “Third Disruption” (following the earlier disruptions of the Agricultural and Industrial Revoutions). These transformations apply information technology to fields such as renewable energy, food production, resource management (including asteroid mining), healthcare, housing, and education. The result of these transformations could (“if we want it”, Bastani remarks) be a society characterised by the terms “post-scarcity” and “post-work”.

Third, this brings us to the deeper problem, namely the way society puts too much priority on the profit motive.

Transcending capitalism

The economic framework known as capitalism has generated huge amounts of innovation in products and services. These innovations have taken place because entrepreneurs have been motivated to create and distribute new items for exchange and profit. But in circumstances when profits would be small, there’s less motivation to create the goods and services. To the extent that goods and services are nowadays increasingly dependent on information, this poses a problem, since information involves no intrinsic costs when it is copied from one instance to another.

Increasingly, what’s special about a product isn’t the materials from which it is composed, but the set of processes (that is, information) used to manipulate those material to create the product. Increasingly, what’s special about a service isn’t the tacit skills of the people delivering that service, but the processes (that is, information) by which any reasonably skilled person can be trained to deliver that service. All this leads to pressures for the creation of “artificial scarcity” that prohibits the copying of certain types of information.

The fact that goods and services become increasingly easy to duplicate should be seen as a positive. It should mean lower costs all round. It should mean that more people can access good quality housing, good quality education, good quality food, and good quality clean energy. It’s something that society should welcome enthusiastically. However, since profits are harder to achieve in these circumstances, many business leaders (and the hangers-on who are dependent on these business leaders) wish to erect barriers and obstacles anew. Rather than embracing post-scarcity, they wish to extent the prevalence of scarcity.

This is just one example of the “market failures” which can arise from unfettered capitalism. In my own book Sustainable Superabundance, five of the twelve chapters end with a section entitled “Beyond the profit motive”. It’s not that I view the profit motive as inherently bad. Far from it. Instead, it’s that there are many problems in letting the profit motive dominate other motivations. That’s why we need to look beyond the profit motive.

In much the same way, Bastani recognises capitalism as an essential precursor to the fully automated luxury communism he foresees. Here, as in much of his thinking, he draws inspiration from the writing of Karl Marx. Bastani notes that,

In contrast to his portrayal by critics, Marx was often lyrical about capitalism. His belief was that despite its capacity for exploitation, its compulsion to innovate – along with the creation of a world market – forged the conditions for social transformation.

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

The bourgeoisie … has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

By the way, don’t be put off by the word “communism” in the book’s title. There’s no advocacy here of a repeat of what previous self-declared communist regimes have done. Communism was not possible until the present time, since it depends upon technology having advanced to a sufficiently advanced state. Bastani explains it as follows:

While it is true that a number of political projects have labelled themselves communist over the last century, the aspiration was neither accurate nor – as we will go on to see – technologically possible. ‘Communism’ is used here for the benefit of precision; the intention being to denote a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another. Given the possibilities arising from the Third Disruption, with the emergence of extreme supply in information, labour, energy and resources, it should be viewed not only as an idea adequate to our time but impossible before now.

And to emphasise the point:

FALC is not the communism of the early twentieth century, nor will it be delivered by storming the Winter Palace.

The technologies needed to deliver a post-scarcity, post-work society – centred around renewable energy, automation and information – were absent in the Russian Empire, or indeed anywhere else until the late 1960s…

Creating communism before the Third Disruption is like creating a flying machine before the Second. You could conceive of it – and indeed no less a genius than Leonardo Da Vinci did precisely that – but you could not create it. This was not a failure of will or of intellect, but simply an inevitability of history.

Marx expected a transformation from capitalism to communism within his own lifetime. He would likely have been very surprised at the ability of capitalism to reinvent itself in the face of the many challenges and difficulties it has faced in subsequent decades. Marx’s lack of accurate prediction about the forthcoming history of capitalism is one factor people use to justify their disregard for Marxism. The question, however, is whether his analysis was merely premature rather than completely wrong. Bastani argues for the former point of view. The internal tensions of a profit-led society have caused a series of large financial and economic crashes, but have not, so far, led to an effective transition away from profit-seeking to abundance-seeking. However, Bastani argues, the stakes are nowadays so high, that continued pursuit of profits-at-all-costs cannot continue.

This brings us to the fourth phase of the argument – the really critical one. If there are problems with capitalism, what is to be done? Rather than storming any modern-day Winter Palace, where should a fervour for change best be applied?

Solutions

Bastani’s answer starts by emphasising that the technologies of the Third Disruption, by themselves, provide no guarantee of a move to a society with ample abundance. Referring to the laws of technology of Melvin Kranzberg, Bastani observes that

How technology is created and used, and to whose advantage, depends on the political, ethical and social contexts from which it emerges.

In other words, ideas and structures play a key role. To increase the chances of optimal benefits from the technologies of the Third Disruption, ideas prevalent in society will need to change.

The first change in ideas is a different attitude towards one of the dominant ideologies of our time, sometimes called neoliberalism. Bastani refers at various points to “market fundamentalism”. This is the idea that free pursuit of profits will inevitably result in the best outcome for society as a whole – that the free market is the best tool to organise the distribution of resources. In this viewpoint, regulations should be resisted, where they interfere with the ability of businesses to offer new products and services to the market. Workers’ rights should be resisted too, since they will interfere with the ability of businesses to lower wages and reassign tasks overseas. And so on.

Bastani has a list of examples of gross social failures arising from pursuit of neoliberalism. This includes the collapse in 2018 of Carillion, the construction and facilities management company. Bastani notes:

With up to 90 per cent of Carillion’s work subcontracted out, as many as 30,000 businesses faced the consequences of its ideologically driven mismanagement. Hedge funds in the City, meanwhile, made hundreds of millions from speculating on its demise.

Another example is the tragedy of the 2017 fire at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in West London, in which 72 people perished:

The neoliberal machine has human consequences that go beyond spreadsheets and economic data. Beyond, even, in-work poverty and a life defined by paying ever higher rents to wealthy landlords and fees to company shareholders. As bad as those are they pale beside its clearest historic expression in a generation: the derelict husk of Grenfell Tower…

A fire broke which would ravage the building in a manner not seen in Britain for decades. The primary explanation for its rapid, shocking spread across the building – finished in 1974 and intentionally designed to minimise the possibility of such an event – was the installation of flammable cladding several years earlier, combined with poor safety standards and no functioning sprinklers – all issues highlighted by the residents’ Grenfell Action Group before the fire.

The cladding itself, primarily composed of polyethylene, is as flammable as petroleum. Advances in material science means we should be building homes that are safer, and more efficient, than ever before. Instead a cut-price approach to housing the poor prevails, prioritising external aesthetics for wealthier residents. In the case of Grenfell that meant corners were cut and lives were lost. This is not a minor political point and shows the very real consequences of ‘self-regulation’.

Bastani is surely right that greater effort is needed to ensure everyone understands the various failure modes of free markets. A better appreciation is overdue of the positive role that well-designed regulations can play in ensuring greater overall human flourishing in the face of corporations that would prefer to put their priorities elsewhere. The siren calls of market fundamentalism need to be resisted.

I would add, however, that a different kind of fundamentalism needs to be resisted and overcome too. This is anti-market fundamentalism. As I wrote in the chapter “Markets and fundamentalists” in Transcending Politics,

Anti-market fundamentalists see the market system as having a preeminently bad effect on the human condition. The various flaws with free markets… are so severe, say these critics, that the most important reform to pursue is to dismantle the free market system. That reform should take a higher priority than any development of new technologies – AI, genetic engineering, stem cell therapies, neuro-enhancers, and so on. Indeed, if these new technologies are deployed whilst the current free market system remains in place, it will, say these critics, make it all the more likely that these technologies will be used to oppress rather than liberate.

I believe that both forms of fundamentalism (pro-market and anti-market) need to be resisted. I look forward to wiser management of the market system, rather than dismantling it. In my view, key to this wise management is the reform and protection of a number of other social institutions that sit alongside markets – a free press, free judiciary, independent regulators, and, yes, independent politicians.

I share the view of political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, articulated in their fine 2016 book American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity, that the most important social innovation of the 20th century was the development of the mixed economy. In a mixed economy, effective governments work alongside the remarkable capabilities of the market economy, steering it and complementing it. Here’s what Hacker and Pierson have to say about the mixed economy:

The mixed economy spread a previously unimaginable level of broad prosperity. It enabled steep increases in education, health, longevity, and economic security.

These writers explain the mixed economy by an elaboration of Adam Smith’s notion of “the invisible hand”:

The political economist Charles Lindblom once described markets as being like fingers: nimble and dexterous. Governments, with their capacity to exercise authority, are like thumbs: powerful but lacking subtlety and flexibility. The invisible hand is all fingers. The visible hand is all thumbs. Of course, one wouldn’t want to be all thumbs. But one wouldn’t want to be all fingers either. Thumbs provide countervailing power, constraint, and adjustments to get the best out of those nimble fingers.

The characterisation by Hacker and Pierson of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up in their book by lots of instructive episodes from American history, going all the way back to the revolutionary founders:

  • Governments provide social coordination of a type that fails to arise by other means of human interaction, such as free markets
  • Markets can accomplish a great deal, but they’re far from all-powerful. Governments ensure that suitable investment takes place of the sort that would not happen, if it was left to each individual to decide by themselves. Governments build up key infrastructure where there is no short-term economic case for individual companies to invest to create it
  • Governments defend the weak from the powerful. They defend those who lack the knowledge to realise that vendors may be on the point of selling them a lemon and then beating a hasty retreat. They take actions to ensure that social free-riders don’t prosper, and that monopolists aren’t able to take disproportionate advantage of their market dominance
  • Governments prevent all the value in a market from being extracted by forceful, well-connected minority interests, in ways that would leave the rest of society impoverished. They resist the power of “robber barons” who would impose numerous tolls and charges, stifling freer exchange of ideas, resources, and people. Therefore governments provide the context in which free markets can prosper (but which those free markets, by themselves, could not deliver).

It’s a deeply troubling development that the positive role of enlightened government is something that is poorly understood in much of contemporary public discussion. Instead, as a result of a hostile barrage of ideologically-driven misinformation, more and more people are calling for a reduction in the scope and power of government. That tendency – the tendency towards market fundamentalism – urgently needs to be resisted. But at the same time, we also need to resist the reverse tendency – the tendency towards anti-market fundamentalism – the tendency to belittle the latent capabilities of free markets.

To Bastani’s credit, he avoids advocating any total government control over planning of the economy. Instead, he offers praise for Eastern European Marxist writers such as Michał Kalecki, Włodzimierz Brus, and Kazimierz Łaski, who advocated important roles for market mechanisms in the approach to the communist society in which they all believed. Bastani comments,

[These notions were] expanded further in 1989 with Brus and Łaski claiming that under market socialism, publicly owned firms would have to be autonomous – much as they are in market capitalist systems – and that this would necessitate a socialised capital market… Rather than industrial national monoliths being lauded as the archetype of economic efficiency, the authors argued for a completely different kind of socialism declaring, ‘The role of the owner-state should be separated from the state as an authority in charge of administration … (enterprises) have to become separated not only from the state in its wider role but also from one another.’

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

  • The political task of establishing the overall direction and framework for the development of the economy
  • The operational task of creating goods and services within that framework – a task that may indeed utilise various market mechanisms.

Key in the establishment of the overall direction is to supersede society’s reliance on the GDP measure. Bastani is particularly good in his analysis of the growing shortcomings of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and on what must be included in its replacement, which he calls an “Abundance Index”:

Initially such an index would integrate CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, the falling cost of energy, resources and labour, the extent to which UBS [Universal Basic Services] had been delivered, leisure time (time not in paid employment), health and lifespan, and self-reported happiness. Such a composite measure, no doubt adapted to a variety of regional and cultural differences, would be how we assess the performance of post-capitalist economies in the passage to FALC. This would be a scorecard for social progress assessing how successful the Third Disruption is in serving the common good.

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

  • Revised priorities for central banks – so that they promote increases of the Abundance Index, rather than simply focusing on the control of inflation
  • Step by step increases in UBS (Universal Basic Services) – rather than the UBI (Universal Basic Income) that is often advocated these days
  • Re-localisation of economies through what Bastani calls “progressive procurement and municipal protectionism”.

But perhaps the biggest recommendation Bastani makes is for the response to society’s present political issues to be a “populist” one.

Populism and its dangers

I confess that the word “populist” made me anxious. I worry about groundswell movements motivated by emotion rather than clear-sightedness. I worry about subgroups of citizens who identify themselves as “the true people” (or “the real people”) and who take any democratic victory as a mandate for them to exclude any sympathy for minority viewpoints. (“You lost. Get over it!”) I worry about demagogues who rouse runaway emotional responses by scapegoating easy targets (such as immigrants, overseas governments, transnational organisations, “experts”, “the elite”, or culturally different subgroups).

In short, I was more worried by the word “populist” than the word “communist”.

As it happens – thankfully – that’s different from the meaning of “populist” that Bastani has in mind. He writes,

For the kind of change required, and for it to last in a world increasingly at odds with the received wisdom of the past, a populist politics is necessary. One that blends culture and government with ideas of personal and social renewal.

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

Others, who may agree about the scale and even urgent necessity of change, will contend that such a radical path should only be pursued by a narrow technocratic elite. Such an impulse is understandable if not excusable; or the suspicion that democracy unleashes ‘the mob’ is as old as the idea itself. What is more, a superficial changing of the guard exclusively at the level of policy-making is easier to envisage than building a mass political movement – and far simpler to execute as a strategy. Yet the truth is any social settlement imposed without mass consent, particularly given the turbulent energies unleashed by the Third Disruption, simply won’t endure.

In other words, voters as a whole must be able to understand how the changes ahead, if well managed, will benefit everyone, not just in a narrow economic sense, but in the sense of liberating people from previous constraints.

I have set out similar ideas, under the term “superdemocracy”, described as follows:

A renewal of democracy in which, rather than the loudest and richest voices prevailing, the best insights of the community are elevated and actioned…

The active involvement of the entire population, both in decision-making, and in the full benefits of [technology]…

Significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty – overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.

That last proviso is critical and deserves repeating: “…overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power”. Otherwise, any movements that build popular momentum risk devouring themselves in time, in the way that the French Revolution sent Maximilien Robespierre to the guillotine, and the Bolshevik Revolution led to the deaths of many of the original revolutionaries following absurd show trials.

You’ll find no such proviso in FALC. Bastani writes,

Pride, greed and envy will abide as long as we do.

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

The management of discord between humans – the essence of politics – [is] an inevitable feature of any society we share with one another.

Indeed, that is good advice. We all need to become better at managing discord. However, writing as a transhumanist, I believe we can, and must, do better. The faults within human nature are something which the Third Disruption (to use Bastani’s term) will increasingly allow us to address and transcend.

Consider the question: Is it possible to significantly improve politics, over the course of, say, the next dozen years, without first significantly improving human nature?

Philosophies of politics can in principle be split into four groups, depending on the answer they give to that question:

  1. We shouldn’t try to improve human nature; that’s the route to hell
  2. We can have a better politics without any change in human nature
  3. Improving human nature will turn out to be relatively straightforward; let’s get cracking
  4. Improving human nature will be difficult but is highly desirable; we need to carefully consider the potential scenarios, with an open mind, and then make our choices.

For the avoidance of doubt, the fourth of these positions is the one I advocate. In contrast, I believe Bastani would favour the second answer – or maybe the first.

Transcending populism

(The following paragraphs are extracted from the chapter “Humans and superhumans” of my book Transcending Politics.)

We humans are sometimes angelic, yet sometimes diabolic. On occasion, we find ways to work together on a transcendent purpose with wide benefits. But on other occasions, we treat each other abominably. Not only do we go to war with each other, but our wars are often accompanied by hideous so-called “war crimes”. Our religious crusades, whilst announced in high-minded language, have involved the subjugation or extermination of hundreds of thousands of members of opposing faiths. The twentieth century saw genocides on a scale never before experienced. For a different example of viciousness, the comments attached to YouTube videos frequently show intense hatred and vitriol.

As technology puts more power in our hands, will we become more angelic, or more diabolic? Probably both, at the same time.

A nimbleness of mind can coincide with a harshness of spirit. Just because someone has more information at their disposal, that’s no guarantee the information will be used to advance beneficial initiatives. Instead, that information can be mined and contoured to support whatever course of action someone has already selected in their heart.

Great intelligence can be coupled with great knowledge, for good but also for ill. The outcome in some sorry cases is greater vindictiveness, greater manipulation, and greater enmity. Enhanced cleverness can make us experts in techniques to suppress inconvenient ideas, to distort inopportune findings, and to tarnish independent thinkers. We can find more devious ways to mislead and deceive people – and, perversely, to mislead and deceive ourselves. In this way, we could create the mother of all echo chambers. It would take only a few additional steps for obsessive human superintelligence to produce unprecedented human malevolence.

Transhumanists want to ask: can’t we find a way to alter the expression of human nature, so that we become less likely to use our new technological capabilities for malevolence, and more likely to use them for benevolence? Can’t we accentuate the angelic, whilst diminishing the diabolic?

To some critics, that’s an extremely dangerous question. If we mess with human nature, they say, we’ll almost certainly make things worse rather than better.

Far preferable, in this analysis, is to accept our human characteristics as a given, and to evolve our social structures and cultural frameworks with these fixed characteristics in mind. In other words, our focus should be on the likes of legal charters, restorative justice, proactive education, multi-cultural awareness, and effective policing.

My view, however, is that these humanitarian initiatives towards changing culture need to be complemented with transhumanist initiatives to alter the inclinations inside the human soul. We need to address nature at the same time as we address nurture. To do otherwise is to unnecessarily limit our options – and to make it more likely that a bleak future awaits us.

The good news is that, for this transhumanist task, we can take advantage of a powerful suite of emerging new technologies. The bad news is that, like all new technologies, there are risks involved. As these technologies unfold, there will surely be unforeseen consequences, especially when different trends interact in unexpected ways.

Transhumanists have long been well aware of the risks in changing the expression of human nature. Witness the words of caution baked deep into the Transhumanist Declaration. But these risks are no reason for us to abandon the idea. Instead, they are a reason to exercise care and judgement in this project. Accepting the status quo, without seeking to change human nature, is itself a highly risky approach. Indeed, there are no risk-free options in today’s world. If we want to increase our chances of reaching a future of sustainable abundance for all, without humanity being diverted en route to a new dark age, we should leave no avenue unexplored.

Transhumanists are by no means the first set of thinkers to desire positive changes in human nature. Philosophers, religious teachers, and other leaders of society have long called for humans to overcome the pull of “attachment” (desire), self-centredness, indiscipline, “the seven deadly sins” (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth), and so on. Where transhumanism goes beyond these previous thinkers is in highlighting new methods that can now be used, or will shortly become available, to assist in the improvement of character.

Collectively these methods can be called “cognotech”. They will boost our all-round intelligence: emotional, rational, creative, social, spiritual, and more. Here are some examples:

  • New pharmacological compounds – sometimes called “smart drugs”
  • Gentle stimulation of the brain by a variety of electromagnetic methods – something that has been trialled by the US military
  • Alteration of human biology more fundamentally, by interventions at the genetic, epigenetic, or microbiome level
  • Vivid experiences within multi-sensory virtual reality worlds that bring home to people the likely consequences of their current personal trajectories (from both first-person and third-person points of view), and allow them to rehearse changes in attitude
  • The use of “intelligent assistance” software that monitors our actions and offers us advice in a timely manner, similar to the way that a good personal friend will occasionally volunteer wise counsel; intelligent assistants can also strengthen our positive characteristics by wise selection of background music, visual imagery, and “thought for the day” aphorisms to hold in mind.

Technological progress can also improve the effectiveness of various traditional methods for character improvement:

  • The reasons why meditation, yoga, and hypnosis can have beneficial results are now more fully understood than before, enabling major improvements in the efficacy of these practices
  • Education of all sorts can be enhanced by technology such as interactive online video courses that adapt their content to the emerging needs of each different user
  • Prompted by alerts generated by online intelligent assistants, real-world friends can connect at critical moments in someone’s life, in order to provide much-needed personal support
  • Information analytics can resolve some of the long-running debates about which diets – and which exercise regimes – are the ones that will best promote all-round health for given individuals.

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

One criticism of the initiative I’ve just outlined is that it puts matters the wrong way round.

I’ve been describing how individuals can, with the aid of technology as well as traditional methods, raise themselves above their latent character flaws, and can therefore make better contributions to the political process (either as voters or as actual politicians). In other words, we’ll get better politics as a result of getting better people.

However, an opposing narrative runs as follows. So long as our society is full of emotional landmines, it’s a lot to expect people to become more emotionally competent. So long as we live in a state of apparent siege, immersed in psychological conflict, it’s a big ask for people to give each other the benefit of the doubt, in order to develop new bonds of trust. Where people are experiencing growing inequality, a deepening sense of alienation, a constant barrage of adverts promoting consumerism, and an increasing foreboding about an array of risks to their wellbeing, it’s not reasonable to urge them to make the personal effort to become more compassionate, thoughtful, tolerant, and open-minded. They’re more likely to become angry, reactive, intolerant, and closed-minded. Who can blame them? Therefore – so runs this line of reasoning – it’s more important to improve the social environment than to urge the victims of that social environment to learn to turn the other cheek. Let’s stop obsessing about personal ethics and individual discipline, and instead put every priority on reducing the inequality, alienation, consumerist propaganda, and risk perception that people are experiencing. Instead of fixating upon possibilities for technology to rewire people’s biology and psychology, let’s hurry up and provide a better social safety net, a fairer set of work opportunities, and a deeper sense that “we’re all in this together”.

I answer this criticism by denying that it’s a one-way causation. We shouldn’t pick just a single route of influence – either that better individuals will result in a better society, or that a better society will enable the emergence of better individuals. On the contrary, there’s a two way flow of influence.

Yes, there’s such a thing as psychological brutalisation. In a bad environment, the veneer of civilisation can quickly peel away. Youngsters who would, in more peaceful circumstances, instinctively help elderly strangers to cross the road, can quickly degrade in times of strife into obnoxious, self-obsessed bigots. But that path doesn’t apply to everyone. Others in the same situation take the initiative to maintain a cheery, contemplative, constructive outlook. Environment influences the development of character, but doesn’t determine it.

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

  • With the aid of technological assistance, more people – whatever their circumstances – will be able to strengthen the latent “angelic” parts of their human nature, and to hold in check the latent “diabolic” aspects
  • As a result, at least some citizens will be able to take wiser policy decisions, enabling an improvement in the social and psychological environment
  • The improved environment will, in turn, make it easier for other positive personal transformations to occur – involving a larger number of people, and having a greater impact.

One additional point deserves to be stressed. The environment that influences our behaviour involves not just economic relationships and the landscape of interpersonal connections, but also the set of ideas that fill our minds. To the extent that these ideas give us hope, we can find extra strength to resist the siren pull of our diabolic nature. These ideas can help us focus our attention on positive, life-enhancing activities, rather than letting our minds shrink and our characters deteriorate.

This indicates another contribution of transhumanism to building a comprehensively better future. By painting a clear, compelling image of sustainable abundance, credibly achievable in just a few decades, transhumanism can spark revolutions inside the human heart.

That potential contribution brings us back to similar ideas in FALC. Bastani wishes a populist transformation of the public consciousness, which includes inspiring new ideas for how everyone can flourish in a post-scarcity post-work society.

I’m all in favour of inspiring new ideas. The big question, of course, is whether these new ideas skate over important omissions that will undermine the whole project.

Next steps

I applaud FALC for the way it advances serious discussion about a potentially better future – a potentially much better future – that could be attained in just a few decades.

But just as FALC indicates a reason why communism could not be achieved before the present time, I want to indicate a reason why the FALC project could likewise fail.

Communism was impossible, Bastani says, before the technologies of the Third Disruption provided the means for sufficient abundance of energy, food, education, material goods, and so on. In turn, my view is that communism will be impossible (or unlikely) without attention being paid to the proactive transformation of human nature.

We should not underestimate the potential of the technologies of the Third Disruption. They won’t just provide more energy, food, education, and material goods. They won’t just enable people to have healthier bodies throughout longer lifespans. They will also enable all of us to attain better levels of mental and emotional health – psychological and spiritual wellbeing. If we want it.

That’s why the Abundance 2035 goals on which I am presently working contain a wider set of ambitions than feature in FALC. For example, these goals include aspirations that, by 2035,

  • The fraction of people with mental health problems will be 1% or less
  • Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent.

To join a discussion about the Abundance 2035 goals (and about a set of interim targets to be achieved by 2025), check out this London Futurists event taking place at Newspeak House on Monday 1st July.

To hear FALC author Aaron Bastani in discussion of his ideas, check out this Virtual Futures event, also taking place at Newspeak House, on Tuesday 25th June.

Finally, for an all-round assessment of the relevance of transhumanism to building a (much) better future, check out TransVision 2019, happening at Birkbeck College on the weekend of 6-7 July, where 22 different speakers will be sharing their insights.

7 June 2019

Feedback on what goals the UK should have in mind for 2035

Filed under: Abundance, BHAG, politics, TPUK, vision — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

Some political parties are preoccupied with short-term matters.

It’s true that many short-term matters demand attention. But we need to take the time to consider, as well, some important longer-term risks and issues.

If we give these longer-term matters too little attention, we may wake up one morning and bitterly regret our previous state of distraction. By then, we may have missed the chance to avoid an enormous setback. It could also be too late to take advantage of what previously was a very positive opportunity.

For these reasons, the Transhumanist Party UK seeks to raise the focus of a number of transformations that could take place in the UK, between now and 2035.

Rather than having a manifesto for the next, say, five years, the Party is developing a vision for the year 2035 – a vision of much greater human flourishing.

It’s a vision in which there will be enough for everyone to have an excellent quality of life. No one should lack access to healthcare, shelter, nourishment, information, education, material goods, social engagement, free expression, or artistic endeavour.

The vision also includes a set of strategies by which the current situation (2019) could be transformed, step by step, into the desired future state (2035).

Key to these strategies is for society to take wise advantage of the remarkable capabilities of twenty-first century science and technology: robotics, biotech, neurotech, greentech, collabtech, artificial intelligence, and much more. These technologies can provide all of us with the means to live better than well – to be healthier and fitter than ever before; nourished emotionally and spiritually as well as physically; and living at peace with ourselves, the environment, and our neighbours both near and far.

Alongside science and technology, there’s a vital role that politics needs to play:

  • Action to encourage the kind of positive collaboration which might otherwise be undermined by free-riders
  • Action to adjust the set of subsidies, incentives, constraints, and legal frameworks under which we all operate
  • Action to protect the citizenry as a whole from the abuse of power by any groups with monopoly or near-monopoly status
  • Action to ensure that the full set of “externalities” (both beneficial and detrimental) of market transactions are properly considered, in a timely manner.

To make this vision more concrete, the Party wishes to identify a set of specific goals for the UK for the year 2035. At present, there are 16 goals under consideration. These goals are briefly introduced in a video:

As you can see, the video invites viewers to give their feedback, by means of an online survey. The survey collects opinions about the various goals: are they good as they stand? Too timid? Too ambitious? A bad idea? Uninteresting? Or something else?

The survey also invites ideas about other goals that should perhaps be added into the mix.

Since the survey has been launched, feedback has been accumulating. I’d like to share some of that feedback now, along with some of my own personal responses.

The most unconditionally popular goal so far

Of the 16 goals proposed, the one which has the highest number of responses “Good as it stands” is Goal 4, “Thanks to innovations in recycling, manufacturing, and waste management, the UK will be zero waste, and will have no adverse impact on the environment.”

(To see the rationale for each goal, along with ideas on measurement, the current baseline, and the strategy to achieve the goal, see the document on the Party website.)

That goal has, so far, been evaluated as “Good as it stands” by 84% of respondents.

One respondent gave this comment:

Legislation and Transparency are equally as important here, to gain the public’s trust that there is actual quantified benefits from this, or rather to de-abstractify recycling and make it more tangible and not just ‘another bin’

My response: succeeding with this goal will involve more than the actions of individuals putting materials into different recycling bins.

Research from the Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified nine “planetary boundaries” where human activity is at risk of pushing the environment into potentially very dangerous states of affairs.

For each of these planetary boundaries, the same themes emerge:

  • Methods are known that would replace present unsustainable practices with sustainable ones.
  • By following these methods, life would be plentiful for all, without detracting in any way from the potential for ongoing flourishing in the longer term.
  • However, the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices requires overcoming very significant inertia in existing systems.
  • In some cases, what’s also required is vigorous research and development, to turn ideas for new solutions into practical realities.
  • Unfortunately, in the absence of short-term business cases, this research and development fails to receive the investment it requires.

In each case, the solution also follows the same principles. Society as a whole needs to agree on prioritising research and development of various solutions. Society as a whole needs to agree on penalties and taxes that should be applied to increasingly discourage unsustainable practices. And society as a whole needs to provide a social safety net to assist those peoples whose livelihoods are adversely impacted by these changes.

Left to its own devices, the free market is unlikely to reach the same conclusions. Instead, because it fails to assign proper values to various externalities, the market will produce harmful results. Accordingly, these are cases when society as a whole needs to constrain and steer the operation of the free market. In other words, democratic politics needs to exert itself.

2nd equal most popular goals

The 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 7, “There will be no homelessness and no involuntary hunger”, with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. Disagreeing, 11% of respondents judged it as “Too ambitious”. Here’s an excerpt from the proposed strategy to achieve this goal:

The construction industry should be assessed, not just on its profits, but on its provision of affordable, good quality homes.

Consider the techniques used by the company Broad Sustainable Building, when it erected a 57-storey building in Changsha, capital city of Hunan province in China, in just 19 working days. That’s a rate of three storeys per day. Key to that speed was the use of prefabricated units. Other important innovations in construction techniques include 3D printing, robotic construction, inspection by aerial drones, and new materials with unprecedented strength and resilience.

Similar techniques can in principle be used, not just to generate new buildings where none presently exist, but also to refurbish existing buildings – regenerating them from undesirable hangovers from previous eras into highly desirable contemporary accommodation.

With sufficient political desire, these techniques offer the promise that prices for property over the next 16 years might follow the same remarkable downwards trajectory witnessed in many other product areas – such as TVs, LCD screens, personal computers and smartphones, kitchen appliances, home robotics kits, genetic testing services, and many types of clothing…

Finally, a proportion of cases of homelessness arise, not from shortage of available accommodation, but from individuals suffering psychological issues. This element of homelessness will be addressed by the measures reducing mental health problems to less than 1% of the population.

The other 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 3, “Thanks to improved green energy management, the UK will be carbon-neutral”, also with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. In this case, most of the dissenting opinions (16%) held that the goal is “Too timid” – namely, that carbon neutrality should be achieved before 2035.

For the record, 4th equal in this ranking, with 68% unconditional positive assessment, were:

  • Goal 6: “World-class education to postgraduate level will be freely available to everyone via online access”
  • Goal 16: “The UK will be part of an organisation that maintains a continuous human presence on Mars”

Least popular goals

At the other end of this particular spectrum, three goals are currently tied as having the least popular support in the formats stated: 32%.

This includes Goal 9, “The UK will be part of a global “open borders” community of at least 25% of the earth’s population”. One respondent gave this comment:

Seems absolutely unworkable, would require other countries to have same policy, would have to all be developed countries. Massively problematic and controversial with no link to ideology of transhumanism

And here’s another comment:

No need to work for a living, no homelessness and open borders. What can go wrong?

And yet another:

This can’t happen until wealth/resource distribution is made equitable – otherwise we’d all be crammed in Bladerunner style cities. Not a desirable outcome.

My reply is that the detailed proposal isn’t for unconditional free travel between any two countries, but for a system that includes many checks and balances. As for the relevance to transhumanism, the actual relevance is to the improvement of human flourishing. Freedom of movement opens up many new opportunities. Indeed, migration has been found to have considerable net positive effects on the UK, including productivity, public finances, cultural richness, and individuals’ well-being. Flows of money and ideas in the reverse direction also benefit the original countries of the immigrants.

Another equal bottom goal, by this ranking, is Goal 10, “Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent”. 26% of respondents rated this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “Uninteresting”.

My reply in this case is that politicians in at least some other countries have a higher reputation than in the UK. These countries include Denmark (the top of the list), Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.

What’s more, a number of practices – combining technological innovation with social innovation – seem capable of increasing the level of trust and respect for politicians:

  • Increased transparency, to avoid any suspicions of hidden motivations or vested interests
  • Automated real-time fact-checking, so that politicians know any distortions of the truth will be quickly pointed out
  • Encouragement of individual politicians with high ethical standards and integrity
  • Enforcement of penalties in cases when politicians knowingly pass on false information
  • Easier mechanisms for the electorate to be able to quickly “recall” a politician when they have lost the trust of voters
  • Improvements in mental health for everyone, including politicians, thereby diminishing tendencies for dysfunctional behaviour
  • Diminished power for political parties to constrain how individual politicians express themselves, allowing more politicians to speak according to their own conscience.

A role can also be explored for regular psychometric assessment of politicians.

The third goal in this grouping of the least popular is Goal 13, “Cryonic suspension will be available to all, on point of death, on the NHS”. 26% of respondents judged this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “A bad idea”. One respondent commented “Why not let people die when they are ready?” and other simply wrote “Mad shit”.

It’s true that there currently are many factors that discourage people from signing up for cryonics preservation. These include costs, problems arranging transport of the body overseas to a location where the storage of bodies is legal, the perceived low likelihood of a subsequent successful reanimation, lack of evidence of reanimation of larger biological organs, dislike of appearing to be a “crank”, apprehension over tension from family members (exacerbated if family members expect to inherit funds that are instead allocated to cryopreservation services), occasional mistrust over the motives of the cryonics organisations (which are sometimes alleged – with no good evidence – to be motivated by commercial considerations), and uncertainty over which provider should be preferred.

However, I foresee a big change in the public mindset when there’s a convincing demonstration of successful reanimation of larger biological organisms or organ. What’s more, as in numerous other fields of life, costs will decline and quality increase as the total number of experiences of a product or service increases. These are known as scale effects.

Goals receiving broad support

Now let’s consider a different ranking, when the votes for “Good as it stands” and “Too timid” are added together. This indicates strong overall support for the idea of the goal, with the proviso that many respondents would prefer a more aggressive timescale.

Actually this doesn’t change the results much. Compared to the goals already covered, there’s only one new entrant in the top 5, namely at position 3, with a combined positive rating of 84%. That’s for Goal 1, “The average healthspan in the UK will be at least 90 years”. 42% rated this “Good as it stands” and another 42% rated it as “Too timid”.

For the record, top equal by this ranking were Goal 3 (74% + 16%) and Goal 4 (84% + 5%).

The only other goal with a “Too timid” rating of greater than 30% was Goal 15, “Fusion will be generating at least 1% of the energy used in the UK” (32%).

The goals most actively disliked

Here’s yet another way of viewing the data: the goals which had the largest number of “A bad idea” responses.

By this measure, the goal most actively disliked (with 21% judging it “A bad idea”) was Goal 11, “Parliament will involve a close partnership with a ‘House of AI’ (or similar) revising chamber”. One respondent commented they were “wary – AI could be Stalinist in all but name in their goal setting and means”.

My reply: To be successful, the envisioned House of AI will need the following support:

  • All algorithms used in these AI systems need to be in the public domain, and to pass ongoing reviews about their transparency and reliability
  • Opaque algorithms, or other algorithms whose model of operation remain poorly understood, need to be retired, or evolved in ways addressing their shortcomings
  • The House of AI will not be dependent on any systems owned or operated by commercial entities; instead, it will be “AI of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Public funding will likely need to be allocated to develop these systems, rather than waiting for commercial companies to create them.

The second most actively disliked goal was Goal 5, “Automation will remove the need for anyone to earn money by working” (16%). Here are three comments from respondents:

Unlikely to receive support, most people like the idea of work. Plus there’s nothing the party can do to achieve this automation, depends on tech progress. UBI could be good.

What will be the purpose of humans?

It removes the need to work because their needs are being met by…. what? Universal Basic Income? Automation by itself cuts out the need for employers to pay humans to do the work but it doesn’t by itself ensure that people’s need will be met otherwise.

I’ve written on this topic many times in the past – including in Chapter 4, “Work and purpose “of my previous book, “Transcending Politics” (audio recording available here). There absolutely are political actions which can be taken, to accelerate the appropriate technological innovations, and to defuse the tensions that will arise if the fruits of technological progress end up dramatically increasing the inequality levels in society.

Note, by the way, that this goal does not focus on bringing in a UBI. There’s a lot more to it than that.

Clearly there’s work to be done to improve the communication of the underlying ideas in this case!

Goals that are generally unpopular

For a final way of ranking the data, let’s add together the votes for “A bad idea” and “Too ambitious”. This indicates ideas which are generally unpopular, in their current form of expression.

Top of this ranking, with 42%, is Goal 8, “The crime rate will have been reduced by at least 90%”. Indeed, the 42% all judged this goal as “Too ambitious”. One comment received was

Doesn’t seem within the power of any political party to achieve this, except a surveillance state

Here’s an excerpt of the strategy proposed to address this issue:

The initiatives to improve mental health, to eliminate homelessness, and to remove the need to work to earn an income, should all contribute to reducing the social and psychological pressures that lead to criminal acts.

However, even if only a small proportion of the population remain inclined to criminal acts, the overall crime rate could still remain too high. That’s because small groups of people will be able to take advantage of technology to carry out lots of crime in parallel – via systems such as “ransomware as a service” or “intelligent malware as a service”. The ability of technology to multiply human power means that just a few people with criminal intent could give rise to large amounts of crime.

That raises the priority for software systems to be highly secure and reliable. It also raises the priority of intelligent surveillance of the actions of people who might carry out crimes. This last measure is potentially controversial, since it allows part of the state to monitor citizens in a way that could be considered deeply intrusive. For this reason, access to this surveillance data will need to be restricted to trustworthy parts of the overall public apparatus – similar to the way that doctors are trusted with sensitive medical information. In turn, this highlights the importance of initiatives that increase the trustworthiness of key elements of our national infrastructure.

On a practical basis, initiatives to understand and reduce particular types of crime should be formed, starting with the types of crime (such as violent crime) that have the biggest negative impact on people’s lives.

Second in this ranking of general unpopularity, at 37%, is Goal 13, on cryonics, already mentioned above.

Third, at 32%, is Goal 11, on the House of AI, also already mentioned.

Suggestions for other goals

Respondents offered a range of suggestions for other goals that should be included. Here are a sample, along with brief replies from me:

Economic growth through these goals needs to be quantified somehow.

I’m unconvinced that economic growth needs to be prioritised. Instead, what’s important is agreement on a more appropriate measure to replace the use of GDP. That could be a good goal to consider.

Support anti-ageing research, gene editing research, mind uploading tech, AI alignment research, legalisation of most psychedelics

In general the goals have avoided targeting technology for technology’s sake. Instead, technology is introduced only because it supports the goals of improved overall human flourishing.

I think there should be a much greater focus in our education system on developing critical thinking skills, and a more interdisciplinary approach to subjects should be considered. Regurgitating information is much less important in a technologically advanced society where all information is a few clicks away and our schooling should reflect that.

Agreed: the statement of the education goal should probably be reworded to take these points into account.

A new public transport network; Given advances in technology regarding AI and electrical vehicles, a goal on par with others you’ve listed here would be to develop a transport system to replace cars with a decentralised public transportation network, whereby ownership of cars is replaced with the use of automated vehicles on a per journey basis, thus promoting better use of resources and driving down pollution, alongside hopefully reducing vehicular incidents.

That’s an interesting suggestion. I wonder how others think about it?

Routine near-earth asteroid mining to combat earthside resource depletion.

Asteroid mining is briefly mentioned in Goal 4, on recycling and zero waste.

Overthrow of capitalism and class relations.

Ah, I would prefer to transcend capitalism than to overthrow it. I see two mirror problems in discussing the merits of free markets: pro-market fundamentalism, and anti-market fundamentalism. I say a lot more on that topic in Chapter 9, Markets and fundamentalism”, of my book “Transcending Politics”.

The right to complete freedom over our own bodies should be recognised in law. We should be free to modify our bodies and minds through e.g. implants, drugs, software, bioware, as long as there is no significant risk of harm to others.

Yes, I see the value of including such a goal. We’ll need work to explore what’s meant by “risk of harm to others”.

UK will be part of the moon-shot Human WBE [whole brain emulation] project after being successful in supporting the previous Mouse WBE moon-shot project.

Yes, that’s an interesting suggestion too. Personally I see the WBE project as being longer-term, but hey, that may change!

Achieving many of the laudable goals rests on reshaping the current system of capitalism, but that itself is not a goal. It should be.

I’m open to suggestions for wording on this, to make it measurable.

Deaths due to RTA [road traffic accidents] cut to near zero

That’s another interesting suggestion. But it may not be on the same level as some of the existing ones. I’m open to feedback here!

Next steps

The Party is very grateful for the general feedback received so far, and looks forward to receiving more!

Discussion can also take place on the Party’s Discourse, https://discourse.transhumanistparty.org.uk/. Anyone is welcome to create an account on that site and become involved in the conversations there.

Some parts of the Discourse are reserved for paid-up members of the Party. It will be these members who take the final decisions as to which goals to prioritise.

9 November 2016

The missing vision

Filed under: politics, vision — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 10:04 am

The United States of America have voted. In large numbers, electors have selected as their next President someone committed to:

  • Making it much harder for many types of people to enter the country
  • Deporting many of the current residents
  • Ramping up anti-Islam hostility
  • Denouncing global warming as a hoax
  • Undoing legislation to protect the environment
  • Reducing US support for countries facing hostile aggression
  • Dismantling the US deal with Iran over nuclear technology
  • Imposing punitive trade tariffs on China, likely triggering a trade war
  • Packing the Supreme Court with conservative judges who are opposed to choice.

Over the past months, I have tried – and usually failed – to persuade many of my online “friends” of the dangers of voting for Donald Trump. Smart people have, it seems, their own reasons for endorsing and welcoming this forthcoming “shock to the system”. People have been left behind by the pace of change, I’ve been told. Who can blame them for reaching for an outsider politician? Who can blame them for ignoring the objections of elites and “experts”?

Because of the pain and alienation being experienced by many electors, it’s no surprise – the argument runs – that they’re willing to try something different. Electors have proven themselves ready to overlook the evident character flaws, flip-flops, egotism, sexism, and indiscipline of Trump. These flaws seem to pale into insignificance beside the hope that a powerful outsider can deliver a hefty whack on the side of a dysfunctional Washington establishment. Their visceral hatred of present-day politics has led them to suspend critical judgement on the Trump juggernaut. That hatred also led them to lap up, unquestioningly, many of the bogus stories circulating on social media, that levelled all kinds on nonsense accusations on the leadership of the Democratic Party.

(For a thoughtful, heartfelt analysis of why so many people leave behind their critical judgement, see this Facebook essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky.)

There are already lots of arguments about who is to blame for this development – about whose shoulders failed to hold the responsibility to uphold sensible rather than fantasist politics. For example, see this Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Blame the elites for the Trump phenomenon”.

My own analysis is that what was missing was (and is) a credible, compelling vision for how a better society is going to be built.

Electors were unconvinced by what they heard from Hillary Clinton, and (indeed) from the other non-Trump candidates for nomination. What they heard seemed too much of the same. They imagined that any benefits arising from a Clinton presidency would be experienced by the elites of society, rather than by the common citizen.

What’s needed, therefore, is the elaboration of a roadmap for how all members of society can benefit from the fruits of ongoing and forthcoming technological progress.

I call this vision the “Post-scarcity vision”. Because it involves the fundamental adoption of new technology, for progressive social purposes, it can also be called a “Technoprogressive vision”.

I’ve tried to share my thinking about that vision on numerous occasions over the last 5-10 years. Here are some slides taken from a presentation I gave last month to the IC Beyond (Imperial College Beyond) Society in Central London:

slide1

slide2

slide3

slide4

If you want to hear my explanation of these slides in the context of a longer discussion of the impact of automation and technological unemployment on society, here’s a video of the entire meeting (the “vision” slides are in the second half of the presentation):

As this post-scarcity technoprogressive vision evolves and matures, it has the potential to persuade more and more people that it – rather than Trump-style restrictions on movement, choice, and aggregation – represents a better route to a society that it better for everyone.

But beliefs have deep roots, and it’s going to require lots of hard, wise work to undo all kinds of prejudices en route to that better society.

Footnote: I first wrote a formal “Transhumanist Manifesto” in February 2013, here (with, ahem, somewhat flowery language). For other related declarations and manifestos, see this listing on H+Pedia. Out of the growing community of technoprogressives and transhumanists, there’s a lot of potential to turn these visions into practical roadmaps.

21 May 2015

Anticipating 2040: The triple A, triple h+ vision

Abundance Access Action

The following vision arises from discussions with colleagues in the Transhumanist Party.

TPUK_LOGO3_400pxAbundance

Abundance – sustainable abundance – is just around the corner – provided we humans collectively get our act together.

We have within our grasp a sustainable abundance of renewable energy, material goods, health, longevity, intelligence, creativity, freedom, and positive experience.

This can be attained within one human generation, by wisely accelerating the green technology revolution – including stem cell therapies, 3D printing, prosthetics, robotics, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, neuro-enhancement, artificial intelligence, and supercomputing.

TPUK_LOGO2_400pxAccess

The rich fruits of technology – abundance – can and should be provided for all, not just for those who manage to rise to the top of the present-day social struggle.

A bold reorganisation of society can and should take place in parallel with the green technology revolution – so that everyone can freely access the education, healthcare, and everything else needed to flourish as a full member of society.

Action

TPUK_LOGO1_400pxTo channel the energies of industry, business, finance, universities, and the media, for a richly positive outcome within the next generation, swift action is needed:

  • Widespread education on the opportunities – and risks – of new technology
  • Regulations and checks to counter short-termist action by incumbent vested interests
  • The celebration and enablement of proactive innovation for the common good
  • The promotion of scientific, rational, evidence-based methods for taking decisions, rather than ideologies
  • Transformation of our democracy so that governance benefits from the wisdom of all of society, and serves the genuine needs of everyone, rather than perpetuating the existing establishment.

Transhumanism 2040

2040Within one generation – 25 years, that is, by 2040 – human society can and should be radically transformed.

This next step of conscious evolution is called transhumanism. Transhumanists see, and welcome, the opportunity to intelligently redesign humanity, drawing wisely on the best resources of existing humanity.

The transhumanist party is the party of abundance, access, and action. It is the party with a programme to transcend (overcome) our ingrained human limitations – limitations of animal biology, primate psychology, antiquated philosophy, and 20th century social structures.

Transhumanism 2020

2020As education spreads about the potential for a transhumanist future of abundance, access, and action – and as tangible transhumanist projects are seen to be having an increasingly positive political impact – more and more people will start to identify themselves as transhumanists.

This growing movement will have consequences around the world. For example, in the general election in 2020 in the UK, there may well be, in every constituency, either a candidate from the Transhumanist Party, or a candidate from one of the other parties who openly and proudly identifies as a transhumanist.

The political landscape will never be the same again.

Call to action

To offer support to the Transhumanist Party in the UK (regardless of where you are based in the world), you can join the party by clicking the following PayPal button:

Join now

Membership costs £25 per annum. Members will be invited to participate in internal party discussions of our roadmap.

For information about the Transhumanist Party in other parts of the world, see http://transhumanistpartyglobal.org/.

For a worldwide transhumanist network without an overt political angle, consider joining Humanity+.

To discuss the politics of the future, without any exclusive link to the Transhumanist Party, consider participating in one of the Transpolitica projects – for example, the project to publish the book “Politics 2.0”.

Anticipating the Transhumanist Party roadmap to 2040

Footnote: Look out for more news of a conference to be held in London during Autumn (*), entitled “Anticipating 2040: The Transhumanist Party roadmap”, featuring speakers, debates, open plenaries, and closed party sessions.

If anyone would like to speak at this event, please get in touch.

Anticipating 2040
(*) Possible date is 3-4 October 2015, though planning is presently at a preliminary stage.

 

10 May 2015

When the future of smartphones was in doubt

It’s hard to believe it now. But ten years ago, the future of smartphones was in doubt.

At that time, I wrote these words:

Smartphones in 2005 are roughly where the Internet was in 1995. In 1995, there were, worldwide, around 20-40 million users of the Internet. That’s broadly the same number of users of smartphones there are in the world today. In 1995, people were debating the real value of Internet usage. Was it simply an indulgent plaything for highly technical users, or would it have lasting wider attraction? In 2005, there’s a similar debate about smartphones. Will smartphones remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

That was the opening paragraph in an essay which the Internet site Archive.org has preserved. The original location for the essay, the Symbian corporate website, has long since been retired, having been absorbed inside Nokia infrastructure in 2009 (and, perhaps, being absorbed in turn into Microsoft in 2014).

Symbian Way Back

The entire essay can be found here, warts and all. That essay was the first in a monthly series known as “David Wood Insight” which extended from September 2005 to September 2006. (The entire set still exists on Archive.org – and, for convenience, I’ve made a copy here.)

Ten years later, it seems to me that wearable computers in 2015 are roughly where smartphones were in 2005 (and where the Internet was in 1995). There’s considerable scepticism about their future. Will they remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

Some commentators look at today’s wearable devices, such as Google Glass and Apple Watch, and express disappointment. There are many ways these devices can be criticised. They lack style. They lack “must have” functionality. Their usability leaves a lot to be desired. Battery life is too short. And so on.

But, like smartphones before them – and like the world-wide web ten years earlier – they’re going to get much, much better as time passes. Positive feedback cycles will ensure that happens.

I share the view of Augmented Reality analyst Ori Inbar, who wrote the following a few months ago in an updated version of his “Smart Glasses Market Report”:

When contemplating the evolution of technology in the context of the evolution of humanity, augmented reality (AR) is inevitable.

Consider the innovation cycles of computing from mainframes, to personal computers, to mobile computing, to wearables: It was driven by our need for computers to get smaller, better, and cheaper. Wearables are exactly that – mini computers on track to shrink and disappear on our bodies. In addition, there is a fundamental human desire for larger and sharper displays – we want to see and feel the world at a deeper level. These two trends will be resolved with Augmented Reality; AR extends our natural senses and will become humans’ primary interface for interaction with the world.

If the adoption curve of mobile phones is to repeat itself with glasses – within 10 years, over 1 billion humans will be “wearing.”

The report is packed with insight – I fully recommend it. For example, here’s Ori’s depiction of four waves of adoption of smart glasses:

Smart Glasses Adoption

(For more info about Augmented Reality and smart glasses, readers may be interested in the forthcoming Augmented World Expo, held 8-10 June at the Santa Clara Convention Centre in Silicon Valley.)

What about ten more years into the future?

All being well, here’s what I might be writing some time around 2025, foreseeing the growing adoption of yet another wave of computers.

If 1995-2005 saw the growth of desktop and laptop computers and the world wide web, 2005-2015 saw the growing ubiquity of smartphones, and 2015-2025 will see the triumph of wearable computers and augmented reality, then 2025-2035 is likely to see the increasingly widespread usage of nanobots (nano-computers) that operate inside our bodies.

The focus of computer innovation and usage will move from portables to mobiles to wearables to insideables.

And the killer app of these embedded nanobots will be internal human enhancement:

  • Biological rejuvenation
  • Body and brain repair
  • Body and brain augmentation.

By 2025, these applications will likely be in an early, rudimentary state. They’ll be buggy, irritating, and probably expensive. With some justification, critics will be asking: Will nanobots remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

28 April 2015

Why just small fries? Why no big potatoes?

Filed under: innovation, politics, Transpolitica, vision — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 3:12 pm

Big potatoesLast night I joined a gathering known as “Big Potatoes”, for informal discussion over dinner at the De Santis restaurant in London’s Old Street.

The potatoes in question weren’t on the menu. They were the potential big innovations that politicians ought to be contemplating.

The Big Potatoes group has a tag-line: “The London Manifesto for Innovation”.

As their website states,

The London Manifesto for Innovation is a contribution to improving the climate for innovation globally.

The group first formed in the run-up to the previous UK general election (2010). I blogged about them at that time, here, when I listed the principles from their manifesto:

  • We should “think big” about the potential of innovation, since there’s a great deal that innovation can accomplish;
  • Rather than “small is beautiful” we should keep in mind the slogan “scale is beautiful”;
  • We should seek more than just a continuation of the “post-war legacy of innovation” – that’s only the start;
  • Breakthrough innovations are driven by new technology – so we should prioritise the enablement of new technology;
  • Innovation is hard work and an uphill struggle – so we need to give it our full support;
  • Innovation arises from pure scientific research as well as from applied research – both are needed;
  • Rather than seeking to avoid risk or even to manage risk, we have to be ready to confront risk;
  • Great innovation needs great leaders of innovation, to make it happen;
  • Instead of trusting regulations, we should be ready to trust people;
  • Markets, sticks, carrots and nudges are no substitute for what innovation itself can accomplish.

That was 2010. What has caused the group to re-form now, in 2015, is the question:

Why is so much of the campaigning for the 2015 election preoccupied with small fries, when it could – and should – be concentrating on big potatoes?

Last night’s gathering was facilitated by three of the writers of the 2010 big potato manifestoNico MacdonaldJames Woudhuysen, and Martyn Perks. The Chatham House rules that were in place prevents me from quoting directly from the participants. But the discussion stirred up plenty of thoughts in my own mind, which I’ll share now.

The biggest potato

FreemanDysonI share the view expressed by renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, in the book “Infinite in all directions” from his 1985 Gifford lectures:

Technology is… the mother of civilizations, of arts, and of sciences

Technology has given rise to enormous progress in civilization, arts and sciences over recent centuries. New technology is poised to have even bigger impacts on civilization in the next 10-20 years. So why aren’t politicians paying more attention to it?

MIT professor Andrew McAfee takes up the same theme, in an article published in October last year:

History teaches us that nothing changes the world like technology

McAfee spells out a “before” and “after” analysis. Here’s the “before”:

For thousands of years, until the middle of the 18th century, there were only glacial rates of population growth, economic expansion, and social development.

And the “after”:

Then an industrial revolution happened, centred around James Watt’s improved steam engine, and humanity’s trajectory bent sharply and permanently upward

AndrewMcAfeeOne further quote from McAfee’s article rams home the conclusion:

Great wars and empires, despots and democrats, the insights of science and the revelations of religion – none of them transformed lives and civilizations as much as a few practical inventions

Inventions ahead

In principle, many of the grave challenges facing society over the next ten years could be solved by “a few practical inventions”:

  • Students complain, with some justification, about the costs of attending university. But technology can enable better MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – that can deliver high quality lectures, removing significant parts of the ongoing costs of running universities; free access to such courses can do a lot to help everyone re-skill, as new occupational challenges arise
  • With one million people losing their lives to traffic accidents worldwide every year, mainly caused by human driver error, we should welcome the accelerated introduction of self-driving cars
  • Medical costs could be reduced by greater application of the principles of preventive maintenance (“a stitch in time saves nine”), particularly through rejuvenation biotechnology and healthier diets
  • A sustained green tech new deal should push society away from dependency on fuels that emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases, resulting in lifestyles that are positive for the environment as well as positive for humanity
  • The growing costs of governmental bureaucracy itself could be reduced by whole-heartedly embracing improved information technology and lean automation.

Society has already seen remarkable changes in the last 10-20 years as a result of rapid progress in fields such as electronics, computers, digitisation, and automation. In each case, the description “revolution” is appropriate. But even these revolutions pale in significance to the changes that will, potentially, arise in the next 10-20 years from extraordinary developments in healthcare, brain sciences, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, distributed production of renewable energy, artificial intelligence, and improved knowledge management.

Indeed, the next 10-20 years look set to witness four profound convergences:

  • Between artificial intelligence and human intelligence – with next generation systems increasingly embodying so-called “deep learning”, “hybrid intelligence”, and even “artificial emotional intelligence”
  • Between machine and human – with smart technology evolving from “mobile” to “wearable” and then to “insideable”, and with the emergence of exoskeletons and other cyborg technology
  • Between software and biology – with programming moving from silicon (semiconductor) to carbon (DNA and beyond), with the expansion of synthetic biology, and with the application of genetic engineering
  • Between virtual and physical – with the prevalence of augmented reality vision systems, augmented reality education via new MOOCs (massive open online courses), cryptocurrencies that remove the need for centralised audit authorities, and lots more.

To take just one example: Wired UK has just reported a claim by Brad Perkins, chief medical offer at Human Longevity Inc., that

A “supercharged” approach to human genome research could see as many health breakthroughs made in the next decade as in the previous century

The “supercharging” involves taking advantage of four converging trends:

“I don’t have a pill” to boost human lifespan, Perkins admitted on stage at WIRED Health 2015. But he has perhaps the next best thing — data, and the means to make sense of it. Based in San Diego, Human Longevity is fixed on using genome data and analytics to develop new ways to fight age-related diseases.

Perkins says the opportunity for humanity — and Human Longevity — is the result of the convergence of four trends: the reduction in the cost of genome sequencing (from $100m per genome in 2000, to just over $1,000 in 2014); the vast improvement in computational power; the development of large-scale machine learning techniques; and the wider movement of health care systems towards ‘value-based’ models. Together these trends are making it easier than ever to analyse human genomes at scale.

Small fries

french-fries-525005_1280Whilst entrepreneurs and technologists are foreseeing comprehensive solutions to age-related diseases – as well as the rise of smart automation that could free almost every member of the society of the need to toil in employment that they dislike – what are politicians obsessing about?

Instead of the opportunities of tomorrow, politicians are caught up in the challenges of yesteryear and today. Like a short-sighted business management team obsessed by the next few quarterly financial results but losing sight of the longer term, these politicians are putting all their effort into policies for incremental changes to present-day metrics – metrics such as tax thresholds, the gross domestic product, policing levels, the degree of privatisation in the health service, and the rate of flow of migrants from Eastern Europe into the United Kingdom.

It’s like the restricted vision which car manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford is said to have complained about:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

This is light years away from leadership. It’s no wonder that electors are deeply dissatisfied.

The role of politics

To be clear, I’m not asking for politicians to dictate to entrepreneurs and technologists which products they should be creating. That’s not the role of politicians.

However, politicians should be ensuring that the broad social environment provides as much support as possible to:

  • The speedy, reliable development of those technologies which have the potential to improve our lives so fully
  • The distribution of the benefits of these technologies to all members of society, in a way that preserves social cohesion without infringing individual liberties
  • Monitoring for risks of accidental outcomes from these technologies that would have disastrous unintended consequences.

PeterDruckerIn this way, politicians help to address the human angle to technology. It’s as stated by management guru Peter Drucker in his 1986 book “Technology, Management, and Society”:

We are becoming aware that the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions.

Indeed, as the Transpolitica manifesto emphasises:

The speed and direction of technological adoption can be strongly influenced by social and psychological factors, by legislation, by subsidies, and by the provision or restriction of public funding.

Political action can impact all these factors, either for better or for worse.

The manifesto goes on to set out its objectives:

Transpolitica wishes to engage with politicians of all parties to increase the likelihood of an attractive, equitable, sustainable, progressive future. The policies we recommend are designed:

  • To elevate the thinking of politicians and other leaders, away from being dominated by the raucous issues of the present, to addressing the larger possibilities of the near future
  • To draw attention to technological opportunities, map out attractive roads ahead, and address the obstacles which are preventing us from fulfilling our cosmic potential.

Specific big potatoes that are missing from the discussion

If our political leaders truly were attuned to the possibilities of disruptive technological change, here’s a selection of the topics I believe would find much greater prominence in political discussion:

  1. How to accelerate lower-cost high quality continuous access to educational material, such as MOOCs, that will prepare people for the radically different future that lies ahead
  2. How to accelerate the development of personal genome healthcare, stem cell therapies, rejuvenation biotech, and other regenerative medicine, in order to enable much healthier people with much lower ongoing healthcare costs
  3. How to ensure that a green tech new deal succeeds, rather than continues to fall short of expectations (as it has been doing for the last 5-6 years)
  4. How to identify and accelerate the new industries where the UK can be playing a leading role over the next 5-10 years
  5. How to construct a new social contract – perhaps involving universal basic income – in order to cope with the increased technological unemployment which is likely to arise from improved automation
  6. How society should be intelligently assessing any new existential risks that emerging technologies may unintentionally trigger
  7. How to transition the network of bodies that operate international governance to a new status that is fit for the growing challenges of the coming decades (rather than perpetuating the inertia from the times of their foundations)
  8. How technology can involve more people – and more wisdom and insight from more people – in the collective decision-making that passes for political processes
  9. How to create new goals for society that embody a much better understanding of human happiness, human potential, and human flourishing, rather than the narrow economic criteria that currently dominate decisions
  10. How to prepare everyone for the next leaps forward in human consciousness which will be enabled by explorations of both inner and outer space.

Why small fries?

But the biggest question of all isn’t anything I’ve just listed. It’s this:

  • Why are politicians still stuck in present-day small fries, rather than focusing on the big potatoes?

I’ll be interested in answers to that question from readers. In the meantime, here are my own initial thoughts:

  • The power of inertia – politicians, like the rest of us, tend to keep doing what they’re used to doing
  • Too few politicians have any deep personal insight (from their professional background) into the promise (and perils) of disruptive technology
  • The lack of a specific vision for how to make progress on these Big Potato questions
  • The lack of clamour from the electorate as a whole for answers on these Big Potato questions.

If this is true, we must expect it will take some time for public pressure to grow, leading politicians in due course to pay attention to these topics.

It will be like the growth in capability of any given exponential technology. At first, development takes a long time. It seems as if nothing much is changing. But finally, tipping points are reached. At that stage, it become imperative to act quickly. And at that stage, politicians (and their advisors) will be looking around urgently for ready-made solutions they can adapt from think tanks. So we should be ready.

11 March 2015

My vision for Humanity+, 2015-2017

Filed under: Humanity Plus, vision — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 1:40 pm

The most important task for the worldwide Humanity+ organisation, over the next three years, is to dramatically raise the calibre of public discussion about transhumanism and radical futurism.

As an indication of the status quo of the public discussion about transhumanism, type the words “Transhumanists are” into a Google search bar. Google charmingly suggests the following auto-completions:

  • Transhumanists are stupid
  • Transhumanists are evil
  • Transhumanists are crazy.

Transhumanists Are

These sentiments are at stark variance with what I believe to be the case: transhumanists have an insight that deserves much wider support – an insight that, if acted on, will lead to vast improvements in the quality of life of people all over the planet.

That insight – known as the “central meme of transhumanism” – is that we can and should improve the human condition through technology. Rather than continuing to be diminished by limitations inherited from our evolutionary heritage – limitations in our physiology, our psychology, our philosophy, and our social structures – we can and should take conscious control of the next stage of human evolution. We can and should move from a long phase of Darwinian natural selection to a phase of accelerated intelligent design.

Transhumanists boldly assert, in the FAQ maintained on the Humanity+ website, that

Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.

Transhumanism is the viewpoint that human society should embrace, wisely, thoughtfully, and compassionately, the radical transformational potential of technology. Recent and forthcoming breakthroughs in technology fields such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, renewable energy, regenerative medicine, brain sciences, big data analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence can:

  • Enable humans to transcend (overcome) many of the deeply debilitating, oppressive, and hazardous aspects of our lives
  • Allow everyone a much wider range of personal autonomy, choice, experience, and fulfilment
  • Facilitate dramatically improved international relations, social harmony, and a sustainable new cooperation with nature and the environment.

Different opinions

But as I said, most people see things differently. They doubt that technology will change human nature, any time soon. Or, inasmuch as technology might change core aspects of human existence, they fear these changes will be for the worst. Or, if they think technology is likely to improve human experience, they see no need for any “ism” – any philosophy or movement – that promotes such an outcome; instead, they think it will be sufficient to leave technologists and entrepreneurs to get on with the task, unencumbered by philosophical baggage.

I’m very happy to enter discussion on all these points with informed critics of transhumanism – with people who are open to constructive dialogue. That’s a dialogue I wish to promote. That dialogue is, as I see things, a core part of the mission of the Humanity+ organisation.

All too often, however, critics of transhumanism (including the people noticed by Google as thinking that transhumanists are “stupid”, “evil”, and “crazy”) have only a hazy understanding of transhumanism. Worse, all too often the same people have only a hazy idea of the radical transformative potential of accelerating technology. To the extent that these people (who probably form the vast majority of the population) are futurists at all, they are “slow-paced” futurists rather than fast-paced futurists (to use a couple of terms I’ve written about previously). They’re largely oblivious to the far-reaching nature of changes that may take place in the next few decades.

To an extent, we transhumanists and other radical futurists share part of the blame for this situation. In our discussions of the positive transformational potential of technology, we’ve sometimes been collectively guilty of:

  • Presenting these technological developments as more-or-less inevitable, and as happening according to an inviolable timescale (linked over-closely to Moore’s Law)
  • Emphasising only the positive implications of these changes, and giving scant attention to potential negative implications
  • Taking it for granted that these positive benefits will become accessible to everyone, regardless of income, without there being any risk of them primarily benefiting the people who are already powerful and rich.

In other words, our collective advocacy of transhumanism has sometimes suffered from science fiction hype, wishful thinking, and political naivety. The popular negative appraisal of transhumanism stems, in part, from a reaction against these missteps.

A better dialogue

That’s what I believe the Humanity+ organisation can fix. Humanity+ can lead the way in encouraging a wiser, more credible, and more compelling assessment of transhumanism and radical futurism. This will involve multi-dimensional communications – short form and long form, written and video, intellectual and artistic, prose and poetry, serious and humorous, scientific and literary, real-time and recorded, face-to-face and online. As this library of material grows, it will be less and less possible for critics to radically misrepresent the intent and vision of transhumanists. Neutral observers will quickly call them out: you say such-and-such, but the clear evidence is that transhumanists have a much better understanding than that.

As time progresses, more and more people will understand the central messages of transhumanism. They’ll identify with these messages, viewing them as sensible, reasonable, and praiseworthy. And they’ll put more pressure on leaders of all sectors of society to prioritise changes which will accelerate the attainment of the positive evolution of humanity.

Practical steps

The outgoing board of directors of Humanity+ have already sketched a high-level strategic plan which will, in effect, put the organisation in a much better shape to carry out the role I’ve described above. I was part of the team that drew up that plan, and I’m now asking the set of Full Members of the organisation to choose me as one of their preferred candidates for the four elected vacancies on the board.

The strategic plan can be described in terms of five components: stability, speed, scale, vision, and engagement:

  • Stability: Recent changes in the constitution of Humanity+ have been designed to ensure greater stability in the format and membership of the board of directors. Rather than elections being held on an annual basis, the board now operates with a three-year cycle. For each three-year period, five of the directors are appointed to their roles by the outgoing board, and four more are elected by a vote by all Full Members. This hybrid structure seems to me to provide a strong basis for the other changes which I will describe next
  • Speed: For the last few years, Humanity+ has shown some aspects of being a bureaucratic organisation, held back from its true potential by a mix of inertia and unclear (diffuse) vision. By adopting modern principles of lean organisations and exponential organisations – learning from principles of successful business startups – the organisation can, and should, move more quickly. I offer my own experience in getting things done quickly – experience which I have honed over 25 years in the mobile computing and smartphone industry
  • Scale: To have a bigger impact, Humanity+ needs to be able to make better use of its wide network of potential supporters. In part, this involves hiring a Development Director, to improve the financial footing of the organisation. In part, this involves revitalising our structure of chapters, affiliates, and volunteer effort. Finally, this also involves modernising our use of information technology. I expect each of the new board members to play important roles in improving these structures
  • Vision: Perhaps the single most important energiser of action is to have a clear, inspiring, stretch goal – a so-called “massively transformational purpose”. My own personal vision is “transhumanism for all” – something I have spelt out in more detail in my online declaration of interest in being elected to continue my role on the board. In terms of a vision for Humanity+, I offer “dramatically raise the calibre of public discussion about transhumanism and radical futurism” (though I’m open to re-wording). That is, I offer the vision that I’ve described in the opening part of this article
  • Engagement: The public discussion about transhumanism has recently been heating up. Transhumanist ideas are appearing more and more often in popular magazines, including Time, Newsweek, and Bloomberg Markets (as I covered in a recent blogpost). Significant credit is due here to the high-energy work of the recently formed Transhumanist Party, led by Zoltan Istvan. The headline in a recent article in The Leftist Review put it as follows: “The age of transhumanist politics has begun”. As that article goes on to say, “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”. Humanity+ cannot stand aside from this engagement. Over the next few years, our engagement needs to continue to expand – not just in the worlds of science and technology, but also in the worlds of art, economics, and (last but not least) politics. One reason I recently founded the Transpolitica think-tank was to accelerate exactly that kind of dialogue. I’ll be delighted to position Humanity+ as being at the heart of that dialogue, rather than standing at the periphery.

A resilient, long-term contributor

I’ve recently passed the landmark of having organised 100 London Futurists events. As I covered in a previous blogpost, that series of meetings has extended for seven years (March 2008 to March 2015). I mention this as an example of the way I am able to work:

  • Long-term commitment
  • Regular incremental improvements
  • Success via building a collaborative team (including volunteers and regular audience members)
  • Hands-on facilitation and leadership.

That’s the kind of working discipline that I wish to continue to apply on the Humanity+ board.

The endorsements framework on LinkedIn is far from being a watertight reputation management system, but the set of endorsements that my professional colleagues have kindly provided for me surely gives at least some indication of my positive qualities.

For Humanity+ Full Members wishing to check out my personal history and philosophy in more detail, one option is to dip into my book “Smartphones and beyond: lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian”. Other options are to leaf through the eclectic set of articles on my personal blog (a couple of representative examples are “A muscular new kid on the block” and “Towards inner Humanity+”), and to view the videos on the Delta Wisdom and London Futurists channels on YouTube.

For transhumanists (old and new) who are currently not Full Members of Humanity+, you can find more details here about how to join the organisation. The election runs until midnight PST on 31st March. People who become Full Members up to 24 hours before the end of the election period will be added to the set of electors.

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5 January 2014

Convictions and actions, 2014 and beyond

In place of new year’s resolutions, I offer five convictions for the future:

First, a conviction of profoundly positive near-term technological possibility. Within a generation – within 20 to 40 years – we could all be living with greatly improved health, intelligence, longevity, vigour, experiences, general well-being, personal autonomy, and social cohesion. The primary driver for this possibility is the acceleration of technological improvement.

In more detail:

  • Over the next decade – by 2025 – there are strong possibilities for numerous breakthroughs in fields such as 3D printing, wearable computing (e.g. Google Glass), synthetic organs, stem cell therapies, brain scanning, smart drugs that enhance consciousness, quantum computing, solar energy, carbon capture and storage, nanomaterials with super-strength and resilience, artificial meat, improved nutrition, rejuvenation biotech, driverless cars, robot automation, AI and Big Data transforming healthcare, improved collaborative decision-making, improved cryonic suspension of people who are biologically dead, and virtual companions (AIs and robots).
  • And going beyond that date towards mid-century, I envision seven “super” trends enabled by technology: trends towards super-materials (the fulfilment of the vision of nanotechnology), super-energy (the vision of abundance), super-health and super-longevity (extension of rejuvenation biotech), super-AI, super-consciousness, and super-connectivity.

Second, however, that greatly improved future state of humanity will require the deep application of many other skills, beyond raw technology, in order to bring it into reality. It will require lots of attention to matters of design, psychology, sociology, economics, philosophy, and politics.

Indeed, without profound attention to human and social matters, over the next 10-20 years, there’s a very real possibility that global society may tear itself apart, under mounting pressures. In the process, this fracturing and conflict could, among lots of other tragic consequences, horribly damage the societal engines for technological progress that are needed to take us forward to the positive future described above. It would bring about new dark ages.

Third, society needs a better calibre of thinking about the future.

Influential figures in politics, the media, academia, and religious movements all too often seem to have a very blinkered view about future possibilities. Or they latch on to just one particular imagining of the future, and treat it as inevitable, losing sight of the wider picture of uncertainties and potentialities.

So that humanity can reach its true potential, in the midst of the likely chaos of the next few decades, politicians and other global leaders need to be focusing on the momentous potential forthcoming transformation of the human condition, rather than the parochial, divisive, and near-term issues that seem to occupy most of their thinking at present.

Fourth, there are plenty of grounds for hope for better thinking about the future. In the midst of the global cacophony of mediocrity and distractedness, there are many voices of insight, vision, and determination. Gradually, a serious study of disruptive future scenarios is emerging. We should all do what we can to accelerate this emergence.

In our study of these disruptive future scenarios, we need to collectively accelerate the process of separating out

  • reality from hype,
  • science fact from science fiction,
  • credible scenarios from wishful thinking,
  • beneficial positive evolution from Hollywood dystopia,
  • human needs from the needs of businesses, corporations, or governments.

Futurism – the serious analysis of future possibilities – isn’t a fixed field. Just as technology improves by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants, who collectively find out which engineering solutions work best for particular product requirements, futurism can improve by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants – both “amateur” and “professional” futurists.

The ongoing process of technological convergence actually makes predictions harder, rather than easier. Small perturbations in one field can have big consequences in adjacent fields. It’s the butterfly effect. What’s more important than specific, fixed predictions is to highlight scenarios that are plausible, explaining why they are plausible, and then to generate debate on the desirability of these scenarios, and on how to enable and accelerate the desirable outcomes.

To help in this, it’s important to be aware of past and present examples of how technology impacts human experience. We need to be able to appreciate the details, and then to try to step back to understand the underlying principles.

Fifth, this is no mere armchair discussion. It’s not an idle speculation. The stakes are really high – and include whether we and our loved ones can be alive, in a state of great health and vitality, in the middle of this century, or whether we will likely have succumbed to decay, disease, division, destruction – and perhaps death.

We can, and should, all make a difference to this outcome. You can make a difference. I can make a difference.

Actions

In line with the above five convictions, I’m working on three large projects over the next six months:

Let me briefly comment on each of these projects.

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Forthcoming London Futurists event: The Burning Question

The first “real-world” London Futurists meetup in 2014, on Saturday 18th January, is an in-depth analysis of what some people have described as the most complex and threatening issue of the next 10-30 years: accelerated global warming.

Personally I believe, in line with the convictions I listed above, that technology can provide the means to dissolve the threats of accelerated global warming. Carbon capture and storage, along with solar energy, could provide the core of the solution. But these solutions will take time, and we need to take some interim action sooner.

As described by the speaker for the event, writer and consulting editor Duncan Clark,

Tackling global warming will mean persuading the world to abandon oil, coal and gas reserves worth many trillions of dollars – at least until we have the means to put carbon back in the ground. The burning question is whether that can be done. What mix of technology, politics, psychology, and economics might be required? Why aren’t clean energy sources slowing the rate of fossil fuel extraction? Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy? Will we wake up to the threat in time? And who can do what to make it all happen?

For more details and to RSVP, click here.

Note that, due to constraints on the speaker’s time, this event is happening on Saturday evening, rather than in the afternoon.

RSVPs so far are on the light side for this event, but now that the year-end break is behind us, I expect them to ramp up – in view of the extreme importance of this debate.

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, with Ramez Naam

One week from today, on the evening of Sunday 12th January, we have our “Hangout on Air” online panel discussion, “Ramez Naam discusses Nexus, Crux, and The Infinite Resource”.

For more details, click here.

Here’s an extract of the event description:

Ramez Naam is arguably one of today’s most interesting and important writers on futurist topics, including both non-fiction and fiction.

  • For example, praise for his Nexus – Mankind gets an upgrade includes:
  • “A superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” – Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
  • “A sharp, chilling look at our likely future.” – Charles Stross
  • “A lightning bolt of a novel. A sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction.” – Ars Technica.

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between Ramez Naam and an international panel of leading futurists: Randal KoeneMichell Zappa, and Giulio Prisco. 

The discussion aims to cover:

  • The science behind the fiction: which elements are strongly grounded in current research, and which elements are more speculative?
  • The philosophy behind the fiction: how should people be responding to the deeply challenging questions that are raised by new technology?
  • Finding a clear path through what has been described as “the best of times and the worst of times” – is human innovation sufficient?
  • What lies next – new books in context.

I’ll add one comment to this description. Over the past week or so, I took the time to listen again to Ramez’s book “Nexus”, and I’m also well through the follow-up, “Crux”. I’m listening to them as audio books, obtained from Audible. Both books are truly engrossing, with a rich array of nuanced characters who undergo several changes in their personal philosophies as events unfold. It also helps that, in each case, the narrators of the audio books are first class.

Another reason I like these books so much is because they’re not afraid to look hard at both good outcomes and bad outcomes of disruptive technological possibility. I unconditionally recommend both books. (With the proviso that they contain some racy, adult material, and therefore may not be suitable for everyone.)

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, AI and the end of the human era

I’ll squeeze in mention of one more forthcoming Hangout On Air, happening on Sunday 26th January.

The details are here. An extract follows:

The Hollywood cliché is that artificial intelligence will take over the world. Could this cliché soon become scientific reality, as AI matches then surpasses human intelligence?

Each year AI’s cognitive speed and power doubles; ours does not. Corporations and government agencies are pouring billions into achieving AI’s Holy Grail — human-level intelligence. Scientists argue that AI that advanced will have survival drives much like our own. Can we share the planet with it and survive?

The recently published book Our Final Invention explores how the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence challenges our existence with machines that won’t love us or hate us, but whose indifference could spell our doom. Until now, intelligence has been constrained by the physical limits of its human hosts. What will happen when the brakes come off the most powerful force in the universe?

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between the author of Our Final InventionJames Barrat, and an international panel of leading futurists: Jaan TallinnWilliam HertlingCalum Chace, and Peter Rothman.

The main panellist on this occasion, James Barrat, isn’t the only distinguished author on the panel. Calum Chace‘s book “Pandora’s Brain”, which I’ve had the pleasure to read ahead of publication, should go on sale some time later this year. William Hertling is the author of a trilogy of novels

  • Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears,
  • A.I. Apocalypse,
  • The Last Firewall.

The company Avogadro Corp that features in this trilogy has, let’s say, some features in common with another company named after a large number, i.e. Google. I found all three novels to be easy to read, as well as thought-provoking. Without giving away plot secrets, I can say that the books feature more than one potential route for smarter-than-human general purpose AI to emerge. I recommend them. Start with the first, and see how you get on.

Anticipating 2025

Anticipating Header Star

The near future deserves more of our attention.

A good way to find out about the Anticipating 2025 event is to look at the growing set of “Speaker preview” videos that are available at http://anticipating2025.com/previews/.

You’ll notice that at least some of these videos have captions available, to help people to catch everything the speakers say.

These captions have been produced by a combination of AI and human intelligence:

  • Google provides automatically generated transcripts, from its speech recognition engine, for videos uploaded to YouTube
  • A team of human volunteers works through these transcripts, cleaning them up, before they are published.

My thanks go to everyone involved so far in filming and transcribing the speakers.

Registration for this conference requires payment at time of registration. There are currently nearly 50 people registered, which is a good start (with more than two months to go) towards filling the venue’s capacity of 220.

Early bird registration, for both days, is pegged at £40. I’ll keep early bird registration open until the first 100 tickets have been sold. Afterwards, the price will increase to £50.

Smartphones and beyond

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Here’s a brief introduction to this book:

The smartphone industry has seen both remarkable successes and remarkable failures over the last two decades. Developments have frequently confounded the predictions of apparent expert observers. What does this rich history have to teach analysts, researchers, technology enthusiasts, and activists for other forms of technology adoption and social improvement?

As most regular readers of this blog know, I’ve worked in mobile computing for 25 years. That includes PDAs (personal digital assistants) and smartphones. In these fields, I’ve seen numerous examples of mobile computing becoming more powerful, more useful, and more invisible – becoming a fundamental part of the fabric of society. Smartphone technology which was at one time expected to be used by only a small proportion of the population – the very geeky or the very rich – is now in regular use by over 50% of the population in many countries in the world.

As I saw more and more fields of human interest on the point of being radically transformed by mobile computing and smartphone technology, the question arose in my mind: what’s next? Which other fields of human experience will be transformed by smartphone technology, as it becomes still smaller, more reliable, more affordable, and more powerful? And what about impacts of other kinds of technology?

Taking this one step further: can the processes which have transformed ordinary phones into first smartphones and then superphones be applied, more generally, to transform “ordinary humans” (humans 1.0, if you like), via smart humans or trans humans, into super humans or post humans?

These are the questions which have motivated me to write this book. You can read a longer introduction here.

I’m currently circulating copies of the first twenty chapters for pre-publication review. The chapters available are listed here, with links to the opening paragraphs in each case, and there’s a detailed table of contents here.

As described in the “Downloads” page of the book’s website, please let me know if there are any chapters you’d particularly like to review.

3 July 2013

Preparing for driverless vehicles

Filed under: driverless vehicles, futurist, Humanity Plus, robots, safety, sensors, vision, Volvo — David Wood @ 10:56 am

It’s not just Google that is working on autonomous, self-driving cars. Take a look at this recent Atutoblog video showing technology under development by Swedish manufacturer Volvo:

This represents another key step in the incorporation of smart wireless technology into motor vehicles.

Smart wireless technology already has the potential to reduce the number of lives lost in road accidents. A memo last month from the EU commission describes the potential effect of full adoption of the 112 eCall system inside cars:

The 112 eCall automatically dials Europe’s single emergency number 112 in the event of a serious accident and communicates the vehicle’s location to the emergency services. This call to 112, made either automatically by means of the activation of in-vehicle sensors or manually, carries a standardised set of data (containing notably the type and the location of the vehicle) and establishes an audio channel between the vehicle and the most appropriate emergency call centre via public mobile networks.

Using a built-in acceleration sensor, the system detects when a crash has occurred, and how serious it is likely to be. For example, it can detect whether the car has rolled over onto its roof. Then it transmits the information via a built-in wireless SIM. As the EU commission memo explains:

  • In 2012 around 28,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million injured in 1.1 million traffic accidents on EU roads.
  • Only around 0.7% of vehicles are currently equipped with private eCall systems in the EU, with numbers barely rising. These proprietary systems do not offer EU-wide interoperability or continuity.
  • In addition to the tragedy of loss of life and injury, this also carries an economic burden of around EUR 130 billion in costs to society every year.
  • 112 eCall can speed up emergency response times by 40% in urban areas and 50% in the countryside. Fully deployed, it can save up to 2500 lives a year and alleviate severity of road injuries. In addition, thanks to improved accident management, it is expected to reduce congestion costs caused by traffic accidents.

That’s 9% fewer fatalities, as a result of emergency assistance being contacted more quickly.

But what if the number of accidents could themselves be significantly reduced? Here it’s important to know the predominant factors behind road accidents. A landmark investigation of 700,000 road accidents in the UK over 2005-2009 produced some surprising statistics. As reported by David Williams in the Daily Telegraph,

Vehicle defects are a factor in only 2.8 per cent of fatals, with tyres mostly to blame (1.5 per cent) followed by dodgy brakes (0.7 per cent).

The overriding message? It’s not your car or the “road conditions” that are most likely to kill you. It’s your own driving.

In more detail:

The biggest cause of road accidents in the UK today? The statistics are quite clear on this and it’s “driver error or reaction”. It’s listed by police as a factor in more than 65 per cent of fatal crashes and the heading covers a multitude of driving sins many of which you’re probably on first-name terms with. Topping the charge sheet is failing to look properly (the Smidsy factor – “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you’, relevant in 20.5 per cent of fatals involving driver error), followed by “loss of control” (34 per cent) which, says Greig, often means leaving yourself with “nowhere to go” after entering a bend or other situation, too quickly. Other errors include “poor turn or manoeuvre” (12 per cent) and “failed to judge other person’s path or speed” (11.6 per cent.).

Second biggest cause of fatal accidents, to blame for 31 per cent, is the “injudicious action”, an umbrella term for “travelled too fast for the conditions’ (15.9 per cent of those labelled injudicious), “exceeded speed limit” (13.9 per cent) or “disobeyed give-way or stop sign” (2.1 per cent)?

Third culprit in the daily gamble on who lives and who dies is “behaviour or inexperience” (28 per cent), which covers faults such as “careless, reckless or in a hurry” (17 per cent), “aggressive driving” (8.3 per cent) and “learner/inexperienced” (5.3 per cent).

The fourth main category is “impairment or distraction” (to blame for 19.6 per cent of fatal accidents) covering “alcohol” (a factor in 9.6 per cent of fatal accidents) and “distraction in vehicle” (2.6 per cent).

(The numbers add up to more than 100% because accidents are often attributed to more than one factor.)

These statistics give strength to the remark by Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google:

Your car should drive itself. It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.

This suggestion commonly gives rise to three objections:

  1. The technology will never become good enough
  2. Even if the raw technology inside cars becomes better and better, there will need to be lots of changes in roadways, which will take a very long time to achieve
  3. Even if the technology did become good enough, legal systems will never catch up. Who’s going to accept liability for crashes caused by bugs in software?

The first objection is heard less often these days. As noted in a 2011 New York Times interview by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and authors of the book Race Against the Machine,

In 2004, two leading economists, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, published “The New Division of Labor,”which analyzed the capabilities of computers and human workers. Truck driving was cited as an example of the kind of work computers could not handle, recognizing and reacting to moving objects in real time.

But last fall, Google announced that its robot-driven cars had logged thousands of miles on American roads with only an occasional assist from human back-seat drivers. The Google cars are but one sign of the times.

The third objection will surely fall away soon too. There are already mechanisms whereby some degree of liability can be accepted by car manufacturers, in cases where software defects (for example, in braking and accelerating systems) contribute to accidents. Some examples are covered in the CNN Money review “Toyota to pay $1.1 billion in recall case”.

Another reason the third objection will fall away is because the costs of not changing – that is, of sticking with human drivers – may be much larger than the costs of adopting driverless vehicles. So long as we continue to allow humans to drive cars, there will continue to be driver-induced accidents, with all the physical and social trauma that ensues.

That still leaves the second objection: the other changes in the environment that will need to take place, before driverless vehicles can be adopted more widely. And what other changes will take place, possibly unexpectedly, once driverless cars are indeed adopted?

That’s one of the topics that will be covered in this Saturday’s London Futurists event: The future of transport: Preparing for driverless vehicles? With Nathan Koren.

Nathan_Koren_PhotoAs explained by the speaker at the event, Nathan Koren,

The robots have arrived. Driverless transport pods are now in operation at Heathrow Terminal 5 and several other locations around the world. Driver-assist technologies are becoming commonplace. Many believe that fully driverless cars will be commercially available before the decade is out. But what will the broader impact of driverless transport be?

Automobiles were once called “horseless carriages,” as though the lack of a horse was their most important feature. In reality, they changed the way we work, live, and play; changed the way we design cities; and altered the global economy, political landscape, and climate.

It will be the same with driverless vehicles: we can expect their impact to be go far beyond simply being able to take our hands off the wheel.

This presentation and discussion goes into depth about how automated transport will affect our lives and reshape the the world’s cities.

Nathan is a London-based, American-born architect, transport planner, and entrepreneur. He is widely recognised as a leading authority on Automated Transit Networks, and designed what is scheduled to become the world’s first urban-scale system, in Amritsar, India. He works as a Transport Technology & Planning Consultant for Capita Symonds, and recently founded Podaris, a cloud-based platform for the collaborative design of Automated Transit Networks. Nathan holds an Architecture degree from Arizona State University, and an MBA from the University of Oxford.

I hope to see some readers of this blog, who are based in or near London, at the meeting this Saturday. It’s an important topic!

For additional background inspiration, I recommend the three short videos in the article “The future of travel: Transportation confronts its ‘Kodak moment'”. (Thanks to Nathan for drawing this article to my attention.)

Speakers in these videos talk about the industries that are liable to radical disruption (and perhaps irrelevance) due to the rise of collision-proof driverless vehicles. The airbag industry is one; car collision insurance might be another. I’m sure you can think of more.

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

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

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

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

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

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

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

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

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

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

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

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

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

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

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

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

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

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

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

And another:

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

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

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

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnote:

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

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

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