dw2

27 May 2021

Twenty key themes in Vital Foresight

Filed under: Vital Foresight — Tags: , — David Wood @ 10:32 am

The scenarios that lie ahead for humanity – whether global destruction or sustainable superabundance – involve rich interactions of multiple streams of thought and activity. There’s a lot we need to get our heads around, including disruptions in technology, health, culture, economics, politics, education, and philosophy. Cutting corners on understanding any one of these streams could yield a seriously misleading picture of our options for the future. If we skimp on our analysis of future possibilities, we should not be surprised if humanity falls far short of our true potential.

That’s an extract from the Preface to my forthcoming new book Vital Foresight.

The book covers lots of ground that you won’t find anywhere else. Here are twenty examples:

(1) “A little foresight is a dangerous thing” – why many exercises in predicting the future end up making the future worse, rather than better.

(2) Insights from examples of seemingly bad foresight – what we can learn from looking more closely at past mis-forecasts of famines, plagues, climate change, fast progress with AI, war and peace, and terrorism.

(3) The eleven “landmines” (and “meta-landmines”) that pose the most threat of extensive damage to human civilisation. And how to avoid detonating any of them.

(4) “Shortsight” – The eight ways in which evolution has prepared us poorly to anticipate, evaluate, and steer the existential risks and existential opportunities that now confront us.

(5) “A little learning about disruption is a dangerous thing” – what most sets of recommendations get badly wrong when advocating disruption, exponentials, moonshots, and “accelerating returns”.

(6) “Surprise anticipation” – seven principles for managing the inevitable contingencies of any large transformation project.

(7) The design and use of canary signals, illustrated via the eleven landmines.

(8) “Hedgehogs, good, bad, and vital” – the importance, but also the danger, of having a single-minded vision for what the future can bring.

(9) What past sceptics of the potential for the Internet and distributed computing can teach us about the potential of the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.

(10) “Technology overhang” – the special significance of inventions or breakthroughs that turn out to surprisingly fruitful. And why they complicate foresight.

(11) The multiple interconnections between the ‘N’, ‘B’, ‘I’, and ‘C’ quadrants of the NBIC convergence that is driving the fourth industrial revolution.

(12) Fifteen ways in which AI could change substantially over the next 5-10 years – even before AI reaches the level of AGI

(13) Why the “superlongevity”, “superintelligence”, and “superhappiness” aspirations of transhumanism need to be supplemented with “superdemocracy” and “supernarrative”

(14) Eight areas of the “transhumanist shadow” – attitudes and practices of people associated with the transhumanist movement that (rightly) attract criticism

(15) “Thirteen core transhumanist values” that underpin what I describe as “active transhumanism”, as a counter to the tendencies in the transhumanist shadow, and as the means to steer humanity toward the truly better future that lies within our grasp

(16) Sixteen criticisms of transhumanism that are unfair or confused, but which are worth exploring, since they enable a richer understanding of the issues and opportunities for transhumanism

(17) The applications of active transhumanism in both politics and geopolitics

(18) Six ways in which today’s educational systems await profound upgrades – and a proposed “vital syllabus” with twenty-one areas covering the skills everyone will need in the 2020s and beyond

(19) Examples of different kinds of potential forthcoming technological singularity, beyond simply the advent of AGI

(20) “The Singularity Principles” – 21 principles which are intended to provide the basis for practical policy recommendations, to guide society away from risks of a radically negative encounter with emergent technology toward the likelihood of a radically positive encounter.

That might make my book sound like a collection of check lists. But you’ll find that there are plenty of discursive narratives in the book too. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them.

And, by the way, the book has nearly 1000 footnotes, in case you want to follow up some of the material I have referenced.

Click here to access a prepublication preview of the book – and to have the opportunity to provide feedback.

26 May 2021

A preview of Vital Foresight

Filed under: books, Vital Foresight — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 8:33 am

Vital Foresight is almost ready.

That’s the title of the book I’ve been writing since August. It’s the most important book I’ve ever written.

The subtitle is The Case for Active Transhumanism.

Below, please find a copy of the Preface to Vital Foresight. The preface summarises the scope and intent of the book, and describes its target audience.

At this time, I am inviting people to take a look at previews of one or more of the chapters, and, if you feel inspired, to offer some feedback.

Here are examples of what I encourage you to make comments or suggestions about:

  • You particularly like some of the material
  • You dislike some of the material
  • You think contrary opinions should be considered
  • There appear to be mistakes in the spelling or grammar
  • The material is difficult to read or understand
  • The ideas could be expressed more elegantly
  • You have any other thoughts you wish to share.

Unless you indicate a preference for anonymity, reviewers will be thanked in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book.

The chapters can be accessed as Google Doc files. Here’s the link to the starting point.

This article lists twenty key features of the book – topics it covers in unique ways.

And, for your convenience, here’s a copy of the Preface.

Preface

Over the twenty-five years that I held different roles within the mobile computing and smartphone industries, it was an increasingly central part of my job to think creatively and critically about future possibilities.

My work colleagues and I could see, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that computing technology was becoming ever more powerful. We debated long and hard, revisiting the same questions many times as new hardware and software capabilities started to emerge. What kinds of devices should we design, to take advantage of these new capabilities? Which applications would users of these devices find most valuable? How would people feel as they interacted with different devices with small screens and compact keypads? Would the Internet ever become useful for “ordinary people”? Would our industry be dominated by powerful, self-interested corporations with their own fixed visions, or would multiple streams of innovation flourish?

At first, my involvement with these discussions was informal. Most of my time at work went into software engineering. But I enjoyed animated lunchtime discussions at Addison’s brasserie on Old Marylebone Road in central London, where technical arguments about, for example, optimising robust access to data structures, were intermingled with broader brainstorms about how we could collectively steer the future in a positive direction.

Over time, I set down more of my own ideas in writing, in emails and documents that circulated among teammates. I also had the good fortune to become involved in discussions with forward-thinking employees from giants of the mobile phone world – companies such as Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, and many others, that were considering using our EPOC software (later renamed as “Symbian OS”) in their new handsets. I learned a great deal from these discussions.

By 2004 my job title was Executive VP for Research. I embraced the responsibility to pay attention to potential disruptions that could transform our business, either by destroying it, or by uplifting it. I came to appreciate that, in the words of renowned management consultant Peter Drucker, “the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions”. I also became increasingly persuaded that the disruptions of the smartphone market, significant though they were, were but a small preview of much larger disruptions to come.

Indeed, it’s now my view that the need for good foresight is stronger than ever. Accelerating technological change threatens to shatter the human condition in multiple ways. We – all of us – face profound questions over the management, not just of smartphones, but of artificial intelligence, nanoscale computers, bio-engineering, cognitive enhancements, ubiquitous robots, drone swarms, nuclear power, planet-scale geo-engineering, and much more.

What these technologies enable is, potentially, a world of extraordinary creativity, unprecedented freedom, and abundant wellbeing. That’s provided we can see clearly enough, in advance, the major disruptive opportunities we will need to seize and steer, so we can reach that destination. And provided we can step nimbly through a swath of treacherous landmines along the way.

That’s no small undertaking. It will take all our wisdom and strength. It’s going to require the very highest calibre of foresight.

The problem, however, is that predictions of the future appear to have a poor track record. Whether they have foretold doom and gloom, or envisioned technological splendour, these forecasts seem to have been wrong at least as often as they have been right. Worse, instead of helping us to see future options more clearly, past predictions have, all too frequently, imposed mental blinkers, encouraged a stubborn fatalism, or distracted us from the truly vital risks and opportunities. It’s no wonder that the public reputation of futurism is scarcely better than that of shallow tabloid horoscopes.

To add to the challenge, our long-honed instincts about social norms and human boundaries prepare us poorly for the counterintuitive set of radical choices that emerging technology now dangles before us. We’re caught in a debilitating “future shock” of both fearful panic and awestruck wonder.

Happily, assistance is at hand. What this book will demonstrate is that vital foresight from the field I call active transhumanism can help us all:

  1. To resist unwarranted tech hype, whilst still remaining open to the prospects of dramatic breakthroughs enabled by credible projections of today’s science and engineering
  2. To distinguish future scenarios with only superficial attractions from those with lasting, sustainable benefits
  3. To move beyond the inaction of future shock, so we can coalesce around practical initiatives that advance deeply positive outcomes.

The audience for vital foresight

I’ve written this book for everyone who cares about the future:

  • Everyone trying to anticipate and influence the dramatic changes that may take place in their communities, organisations, and businesses over the next few years
  • Everyone concerned about risks of environmental disaster, the prevalence of irrationalism and conspiracy theories, growing inequality and social alienation, bioengineered pandemics, the decline of democracy, and the escalation of a Cold War 2.0
  • Everyone who has high hopes for technological solutions, but who is unsure whether key innovations can be adopted wisely enough and quickly enough
  • Everyone seeking a basic set of ethical principles suited for the increasing turbulence of the 2020s and beyond – principles that preserve the best from previous ethical frameworks, but which are open to significant updates in the wake of the god-like powers bestowed on us by new technologies.

Although it reviews some pivotal examples from my decades of experience in business, this is not a book about the future of individual businesses or individual industries.

Nor is it a “get rich quick” book, or one that promotes “positive thinking” or better self-esteem. Look elsewhere, if that is what you seek.

Instead, it’s a book about the possibilities – indeed, the necessity – for radical transformation:

  • Transformation of human nature
  • Transformation of our social and political frameworks
  • Transformation of our relations with the environment and the larger cosmos
  • Transformation of our self-understanding – the narratives we use to guide all our activities.

Critically, this book contains practical suggestions for next steps to be taken, bearing in mind the power and pace of forces that are already remaking the world faster than was previously thought possible.

And it shows that foresight, framed well, can provide not only a stirring vision, but also the agility and resilience to cope with the many contingencies and dangers to be encountered on the journey forward.

Looking ahead

Here’s my summary of the most vital piece of foresight that I can offer.

Oncoming waves of technological change are poised to deliver either global destruction or a paradise-like sustainable superabundance, with the outcome depending on the timely elevation of transhumanist vision, transhumanist politics, and transhumanist education.

You’ll find that same 33-word paragraph roughly halfway through the book, in the chapter “Creativity”, in the midst of a dialogue about (can you guess…?) hedgehogs and foxes. I’ve copied the paragraph to the beginning of the book to help you see where my analysis will lead.

The summary is short, but the analysis will take some time. The scenarios that lie ahead for humanity – whether global destruction or sustainable superabundance – involve rich interactions of multiple streams of thought and activity. There’s a lot we’ll need to get our heads around, including disruptions in technology, health, culture, economics, politics, education, and philosophy. Cutting corners on understanding any one of these streams could yield a seriously misleading picture of our options for the future. Indeed, if we skimp on our analysis of future possibilities, we should not be surprised if humanity falls far short of our true potential.

However, I realise that each reader of this book will bring different concerns and different prior knowledge. By all means jump over various sections of the book to reach the parts that directly address the questions that are uppermost in your mind. Let the table of contents be your guide. If need be, you can turn back the pages later, to fill in any gaps in the narrative.

Better foresight springs, in part, from better hindsight. It’s particularly important to understand the differences between good foresight and bad foresight – to review past examples of each, learning from both the failures and, yes, the occasional successes of previous attempts to foresee and create the future. That’s one of our key tasks in the pages ahead.

In that quest, let’s move forward to an example from the rainbow nation of South Africa. Before we reach the hedgehogs and foxes, I invite you to spend some time with (can you guess…?) ostriches and flamingos.

==== Click here for the full preview, and to be able to make comments and suggestions ===

Blog at WordPress.com.