12 May 2020

Five scenarios to unwind the lockdown. Are there more?

Filed under: challenge, healthcare, politics, risks — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 1:55 pm

The lockdown has provided some much-needed breathing space. As a temporary measure, it has helped to prevent our health services from becoming overwhelmed. In many (though not yet in all) countries, the curves of death counts have been slowed, and then tilted downwards. Financial payments to numerous employees unable to work have been very welcome.

As such, the lockdown – adopted in part by individuals and families making their own prudent decisions, and in part due to government advice and edict – can be assessed, provisionally, as a short-term success, given the frightful circumstances in which it emerged.

But what next? The present set of restrictions seems unsustainable. Might a short-term success transition into a medium-term disaster?

The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequor, Rishi Sunak, recently gave the following warning, referring to payments made by the government to employees whose companies have stopped paying them:

We are potentially spending as much on the furlough scheme as we do on the NHS… Clearly that is not a sustainable situation

What’s more, people who have managed to avoid meeting friends and relatives for two or three months, may become overwhelmed by the increasing strain of separation, especially as mental distress accumulates, or existing family relations rupture.

But any simple unwinding of the lockdown seems fraught with danger. Second waves of infection could shoot up, once social distancing norms are relaxed. In country after country around the world, tentative steps to allow greater physical proximity have already led to spikes in the numbers of infections, followed by reversals of the relaxation. I recently shared on my social media this example from South Korea:

South Korea: bars and nightclubs to close down for 30 more days after health officials tracked 13 new Covid cases to a single person who attended 5 nightclubs and bars in the country’s capital city of Seoul

One response on Twitter was the single word “Unsustainable”. And on Facebook my post attracted comments criticising the approach taken in South Korea:

It is clear Korea is going to be looking over its shoulder for the indefinite future with virtually no immunity in the population.

I have considerable sympathy with the critics: We need a better solution than simply “crossing fingers” and nervously “looking over the shoulder”.

So what are the scenarios for unwinding the lockdown, in a way that avoids the disasters of huge new spikes of deaths and suffering, or unprecedented damage to the global economy?

To be clear, I’m not talking here about options for restructuring society after the virus has been defeated. These are important discussions, and I favour options for a Great Reconsideration. But these are discussions for another day. First, we need to review scenarios for actually defeating the virus.

Without reaching clarity about that overall plan, what we can expect ahead is, alas, worse confusion, worse recrimination, worse health statistics, worse economic statistics, and a worse fracturing of society.

Scenario 1: Accelerate a cure

One scenario is to keep most of society in a state of social distancing until such time as a vaccine has been developed and deployed.

That was the solution in, for example, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh Hollywood film “Contagion”. After a few setbacks, plucky scientists came to the rescue. And in the real world in 2020, after all, we have Deep Learning and advanced biotech to help us out. Right?

The main problem with this scenario is that it could take up to 18 months. Or even longer. Although teams around the world are racing towards potential solutions, we won’t know for some time whether their ideas will prove fruitful. Bear in mind that Covid-19 is a coronavirus, and the number of successful vaccines that have been developed for other coronaviruses is precisely zero. Technology likely will defeat the virus in due course, but no-one can be confident about the timescales.

A variant of this scenario is that other kinds of medical advance could save the day: antivirals, plasma transfers, antimalarials, and so on. Lifespan.io has a useful page tracking progress with a range of these potential therapeutics. Again, there are some hopeful signs, but, again, the outcomes remain uncertain.

So whilst there’s a strong case for society getting more fully behind a considerable number of these medical research projects, we’ll need in parallel to consider other scenarios for unwinding the lockdown. Read on.

Scenario 2: Exterminate the virus

A second scenario is that society will become better at tracking and controlling instances of the virus. Stage by stage, regions of the planet could be declared as having, not just low rates of infectious people, but as having zero rates of infectious people.

In that case, we will be freed from the risk of contracting Covid-19, not because we have been vaccinated, but because there are no longer any infectious people with whom we can come into contact.

It would be similar to how smallpox was gradually made extinct. That virus no longer exists in the wild. One difference, however, is that the fight against smallpox was aided, since 1796, by a vaccine. The question with Covid-19 is whether it could be eradicated without the help of a vaccine. Could it be eradicated by better methods of:

  • Tracking which people are infectious
  • Isolating people who are infectious
  • Preventing travel between zones with infections and those without infections?

This process would be helped once there are reliable tests to ascertain whether someone has actually had the virus. However, things would become more complicated if the virus can recur (as has sometimes been suggested).

Is this scenario credible? Perhaps. It’s worth further investigation. But it seems a long shot, bearing in mind it would need only a single exception to spark a new flare up of infections. Bear in mind that it was only a single infectious hotspot that kick-started this whole global pandemic in the first place.

Scenario 3: Embrace economic reversal

If Scenario 1 (accelerate a cure) and Scenario 2 (exterminate the virus) will each take a long time – 18 months or more – what’s so bad about continuing in a state of lockdown throughout that period? That’s the core idea of Scenario 3. That scenario has the name “Embrace economic reversal” because of the implication of many people being unable to return to work. But would that be such a bad thing?

This scenario envisions a faster adoption of some elements of what has previously been spoken about as a possible longer term change arising from the pandemic – the so-called Great Reconsideration mentioned above:

  • Less commuting
  • Less pollution
  • Less time spent in offices
  • Less time spent in working for a living
  • Appreciation of life freed from a culture of conspicuous consumption
  • Valuing human flourishing instead of GDP
  • Adoption of a Universal Basic Income, and/or alternatives

If these things are good, why delay their adoption?

In short, if the lockdown (or something like it) were to continue in place for 18 months or longer, would that really be such a bad outcome?

The first problem with this scenario is that the lockdown isn’t just getting in the way of parts of life that, on reflection, we might do without. It’s also getting in the way of many of the most precious aspects of life:

  • Meeting people in close physical proximity as well as virtually
  • Choosing to live with a different group of people.

A second problem is that, whilst the true value of many aspects of current economic activity can be queried, other parts of that economy play vital support roles for human flourishing. For as long as a lockdown continues, these parts of the economy will suffer, with consequent knock-on effects for human flourishing.

Finally, although people who are reasonably well off can cope (for a while, at least) with the conditions of the lockdown, many others are already nearing the ends of their resources. For such people, the inability to leave their accommodation poses higher levels of stress.

Accordingly, whilst it is a good idea to reconsider which aspects of an economy really matter, it would be harsh advice to simply tell everyone that they need to take economic decline “on the chin”. For too many people, such a punch would be a knock-out blow.

Scenario 4: Accept higher death statistics

A different idea of taking the crisis “on the chin” is to accept, as a matter of practicality, that more people than usual will die, if there’s a reversal of the conditions of lockdown and social distancing.

In this scenario, what we should accept, isn’t (as in Scenario 3) a reversal of economic statistics, but a reversal (in the short-term) of health statistics.

In this scenario, a rise in death statistics is bad, but it’s not the end of society. Periodically, death statistics do rise from time to time. So long as they can still be reasonably controlled, this might be the least worst option to consider. We shouldn’t become unduly focused on what are individual tragedies. Accordingly, let people return to whatever kinds of interaction they desire (but with some limitations – to be discussed below). The economy can restart. And people can once again enjoy the warmth of each others’ presence – at music venues, at sports grounds, in family gatherings, and on long-haul travel holidays.

Supporters of this scenario sometimes remark that most of the people who die from Covid-19 probably would have died of other causes in a reasonably short period of time, regardless. The victims of the virus tend to be elderly, or to have underlying health conditions. Covid-19 might deprive an 80 year old of an additional 12 months of life. From a utilitarian perspective, is that really such a disastrous outcome?

The first problem with this scenario is that we don’t know quite how bad the surge in death statistics might be. Estimates vary of the fatality rate among people who have been infected. We don’t yet know, reliably, what proportion of the population have been infected without even knowing that fact. It’s possible that the fatality rate will actually prove to be relatively low. However, it’s also possible that the rate might rise:

  • If the virus mutates (as it might well do) into a more virulent form
  • If the health services become overwhelmed with an influx of people needing treatment.

Second, as is evident from the example of the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, people who are far short of the age of 80, and who appear to be in general good health, can be brought to death’s door from the disease.

Third, even when people with the virus survive the infection, there may be long-term consequences for their health. They may not die straightaway, but the quality of their lives in future years could be significantly impaired.

Fourth, many people recoil from the suggestion that it’s not such a bad outcome if an 80 year old dies sooner than expected. In their view, all lives area valuable – especially in an era when an increasing number of octogenarians can be expected to live into their 100s. We are struck by distaste at any narrow utilitarian calculation which diminishes the value of individual lives.

For these reasons, few writers are quite so brash as to recommend Scenario 4 in the form presented here. Instead, they tend to advocate a variant of it, which I will now describe under a separate heading.

Scenario 5: A two-tier society

Could the lockdown be reconfigured so that we still gain many of its most important benefits – in particular, protection of those who are most vulnerable – whilst enabling the majority of society to return to life broadly similar to before the virus?

In this scenario, people are divided into two tiers:

  • Those for whom a Covid infection poses significant risks to their health – this is the “high risk” tier
  • Those who are more likely to shrug off a Covid infection – this is the “low risk” tier.

Note that the level of risk refers to how likely someone is to die from being infected.

The idea is that only the high risk tier would need to remain in a state of social distancing.

This idea is backed up by the thought that the division into two tiers would only need to be a temporary step. It would only be needed until one of three things happen:

  • A reliable vaccine becomes available (as in Scenario 1)
  • The virus is eradicated (as in Scenario 2)
  • The population as a whole gains “herd immunity”.

With herd immunity, enough people in the low risk tier will have passed through the phase of having the disease, and will no longer be infectious. Providing they can be assumed, in such a case, to be immune from re-infection, this will cut down the possibility of the virus spreading further. The reproduction number, R, will therefore fall well below 1.0. At that time, even people in the high risk tier can be readmitted into the full gamut of social and physical interactions.

Despite any initial hesitation over the idea of a two-tier society, the scenario does have its attractions. It is sensible to consider in more detail what it would involve. I list some challenges that will need to be addressed:

  • Where there are communities of people who are all in the high risk tier – for example, in care homes, and in sheltered accommodation – special measures will still be needed, to prevent any cases of infection spreading quickly in that community once they occasionally enter it (the point here is that R might be low for the population as a whole, but high in such communities)
  • Families often include people in both tiers. Measures will be needed to ensure physical distancing within such homes. For example, children who mix freely with each other at school will need to avoid hugging their grandparents
  • It will be tricky – and controversial – to determine which people belong in which tier (think, again, of the example of Boris Johnson)
  • The group of people initially viewed as being low risk may turn out to have significant subgroups that are actually at higher risk – based on factors such as workplace practice, genetics, diet, or other unsuspected underlying cases – in which case the death statistics could surge way higher than expected
  • Are two tiers of classification sufficient? Would a better system have three (or more) tiers, with special treatments for pregnant women, and for people who are somewhat elderly (or somewhat asthmatic) rather than seriously elderly (or seriously asthmatic)?
  • The whole concept of immunity may be undermined, if someone who survives an initial infection is still vulnerable to a second infection (perhaps from a new variant of the virus)

Scenario 6: Your suggestions?

Of course, combinations of the above scenarios can, and should, be investigated.

But I’ll finish by asking if there are other dimensions to this landscape of scenarios, that deserve to be included in the analysis of possibilities.

If so, we had better find out about them sooner rather than later, and discuss them openly and objectively. We need to get beyond future shock, and beyond tribal loyalty instincts.

That will reduce the chances that the outcome of the lockdown will be (as stated earlier) worse confusion, worse recrimination, worse health statistics, worse economic statistics, and a worse fracturing of society.

Image credit: Priyam Patel from Pixabay.

30 March 2020

Ending insecurity: from UBI to a Marshall Plan for the planet

Filed under: London Futurists, UBI — Tags: , — David Wood @ 7:53 am

On Thursday last week, 60 members and friends of London Futurists took part in an online Zoom webinar addressing the following questions:

  • Are regular payments to every citizen in the country an appropriate solution to the fragility that the coronavirus pandemic is exposing in our economy and social safety net?
  • When we consider potential additional crises that may boil over in the years ahead, does the case for UBI (universal basic income) strengthen or weaken?
  • What are the alternatives to UBI?

A video recording of the discussion (lightly edited) is now available:

As you can see, the event was not without glitches, but it went more smoothly than the previous online London Futurists event. We continue to live and learn!

Please find below various takeaways from the conversation that deserve wider attention. I am providing these to help enable the continuation of key lines of discussion.

(My apologies in advance in case my summaries unintentionally misrepresent what any participant said.)

From Phil Teer:

  • A basic “no strings attached” income would allow people to follow government advice to “stay at home”, confident that they won’t fall into poverty as a result
  • If basic income had already been in place, it would have allowed the country to go into lockdown quicker, without waiting for a specific financial support scheme to be devised first
  • At the moment, far too many people feel obliged to work, even when they are unwell – that’s a bad system, even in times when no pandemic is taking place
  • Many aspects of the current benefits system are designed to incentivise people to return to work as soon as possible. That’s not a purpose we need the system to do at this moment
  • Basic income provides individual agency and choice: individuals being able to choose whether to protect themselves and their families by staying at home
  • Until now, technology for working remotely has been stuck on the wrong side of the adoption curve chasm, waiting for its big push into the mainstream; that push is now here
  • The crisis can accelerate adoption of automation – such as online supermarkets, and (already happening in China) unmanned supermarkets and drone deliveries
  • We can anticipate and welcome a shift in production from people to machines, bots, and algorithms
  • Companies big and small will question the need for their physical offices and premises
  • We should welcome these changes – they lay the basis for an “age of imagination” in which people will be valued more for their creativity than for their productivity

From Calum Chace:

  • The true challenge from technological unemployment is not meaning but income
  • Once the income problem is solved, a world of greater technological unemployment could bring in a second Renaissance
  • The forecasters who insist that people will always have paid work to do are pessimists
  • However, a “basic income” scheme that leaves recipients indefinitely poor (as implied by the word “basic”) will be a failure, and won’t survive
  • The economist John Kay: If UBI is high enough to be useful, it’s unaffordable. If it’s affordable, it’s not useful
  • That’s why every government so far, in responding to Covid-19, is implementing targeted policies rather than a regularly paid UBI
  • A better solution than UBI is “the economy of abundance” in which the goods and services needed for a very good standard of living are almost free
  • What will reduce the costs of these goods and services isn’t “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” but “Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism”
  • Taking inspiration from the abundant music delivery of Spotify, we need to develop what might be called Constructify and Clothify
  • This can happen by enlisting more and more advanced AI, driving down energy costs, and removing expensive humans from as many production processes as possible

From Barb Jacobson:

  • If a basic income scheme were already in place, we wouldn’t have seen such a fear and panic as has taken place over the last few weeks
  • Around 500,000 people in the UK have recently applied for Universal Credit (unemployment benefit), but these claim processes are unlikely to be completed until June
  • A package just announced by the government for self-employed people will also not kick in until June
  • In contrast, basic income would be the fastest and easiest way to get money to everybody who needs it
  • There’s a scheme in one province in South Korea that has already issued what they call an “emergency income”, via a card based on people’s national insurance number
  • Instead of “universal basis income” we can think of these payments as being a “dividend” – a share in the economy
  • What we’re learning in this crisis is that many people who are necessary to the operation of society (including carers) are unpaid or low paid or have insecure income
  • In contrast, many people who are paid the most aren’t noticed when they’re no longer working
  • Therefore the crisis can allow a rejigging of how the world is viewed and how we collectively function in it
  • In the meantime, there are prospects in central London of riots and mass looting in the next few weeks: shopkeepers are already taking precautions

From Carin Ism:

  • Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”
  • “That is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”
  • Our present social systems for producing and distributing surplus are by no means “the end of history”
  • We can’t know for sure what the full effects of basic income will be – although initial experiments are promising – so that’s an argument for continuing to experiment
  • All policy initiatives in response to the crisis are, likewise, experiments, if we are being honest. Staying with the status quo can no longer be defended
  • A bias against “something new” as being “irresponsible” is no longer tenable; everything in the current situation is unprecedented
  • Just as the public in each country have been watching how other countries have been changing health policies, they can now watch how other countries are changing social policies
  • When someone takes the leadership in effective economic and social policies, the whole world will be observing
  • The blossoming public conversation is going to highlight more clearly the injustices that have been in place for a long time without gaining proper attention before
  • The public will no longer accept a response in which banks get bail outs but essential workers just get applause

From Gennady Stolyarov:

  • A proposal that is currently receiving significant support from members of the US Transhumanist Party is “The United States Transhumanist Party supports for an immediate, universal, unconditional basic income of at least $1000 per month to be provided to every United States citizen for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and its immediate aftermath, without regard for individuals’ means or other sources of income.”
  • “The priority for this program should be to prevent massive and irreparable economic disruptions to the lives of Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic.”
  • This stands in dramatic contrast from the stimulus package negotiated in the US Congress, which contains only a one-time monetary payment, with many restrictions on who can receive it
  • As a result there is a risk of class resentment and class warfare
  • Means-tested payments are administratively complex and will hinder getting relief to people as rapidly as possible
  • Universal payments that reach billionaires form only a tiny fraction of the overall expenditure; it’s far simpler to include these people than to create admin systems to exclude them
  • There are means to fund a UBI other than raising taxes: consider the proposal by Zoltan Istvan (and developed by Johannon Ben Zion) of a “federal land dividend”
  • The western US, in particular, contains immense swathes of federally-owned land that is completely unused – barren scrub-land that could be leased out for a fee to corporations
  • That leasing would observe principles of environmental protection, and would allow use for agriculture, industry, construction, among other purposes

From a second round of comments from the initial five panellists:

  • Arguably the real issue is whether we put people first, and hope the economy gets better, or put the economy first, and hope that people are OK
  • By putting people first, with a basic income, it taps into the very thing that actually makes the economy work – the industry, imagination, and creativity of people
  • There is a strong psychological objection, from some, against any taxpayer money going to ultra-wealthy individuals – as would happen in a UBI
  • Economies are what makes it possible for all of us to have the goods and services we need to have a good life – so we cannot ignore the question of the health of the economy
  • The idea of paying for a social dividend from rents of public land dates back to the English radical Thomas Spence
  • By giving money to rich and poor alike, UBI would reinforce the important idea that everyone is a citizen of the same society
  • In the last forty years, the taxes on unearned income have fallen way below the taxes on working; fixing this would make it easier to afford a basic income
  • Why object to poor people receiving a basic income without working, when many rich people earn unearned income such as investment dividends or property rents without working?
  • Our monetary system is based on shared underlying stable beliefs; different ideas from radical thinkers threaten the stability of this belief system and could undermine it
  • The creation of lots of new money, to bail out companies, or to fund a basic income, is an example of an idea that could threaten the stability of the current financial system
  • Governance failures can have knock-on effects – for example, failures to regulate live animal markets can lead to the origination of new virus pandemics
  • For countries lacking sufficient unused land to fund a UBI via land lease, other public resources could fund a UBI – examples include the sovereign wealth fund in Norway
  • Economic progress, that would also help to fund a UBI, could be considerably accelerated by the application of technological innovation
  • This innovation is, unfortunately, too often constrained unnecessarily by the continued operation of outdated 20th century regulatory frameworks
  • Selected relaxation of regulations could enable lots of new economic activity that would make it easy to pay for a prosperous basic income for all

From Dean Bubley:

  • Rather than debating the long-term benefits of a UBI, we need to consider how any form of UBI could be implemented right now
  • How long would it take to implement either a one-off payment or a series of monthly payments, as an emergency solution, straight away
  • The UK finance ministry seem to have looked hard at lots of different options, and speed of implementation has been part of what has guided their choices
  • Any new IT project to support a UBI would by no means be a “small IT project”
  • In the future, once AI is smart enough to put lots of humans out of work, it will surely also be smart enough to allocate income payments in ways beyond simple uniformity

From Rohit Talwar:

  • Most of his contacts in the banking industry is anticipating a forthcoming 30%-80% job reduction due to automation
  • Corporations are responding to the current crisis by reconsidering the work they are doing – how much is essential, and how many tasks currently done by humans could be automated
  • Nearly all his contacts in the AI world are overwhelmed by requests to undertake projects to transform how businesses operate
  • We should therefore expect the automation of many jobs as early as the next twelve months, and a big new lump of unemployment in the short term
  • A stop-gap measure will be urgently needed to respond to this additional unemployment, until such time as people can be retrained into the new industries that will arise

Further responses from the initial panellists:

  • Instead of looking at UBI as being a cost, we should look at it as being an investment
  • In 2008, the nation invested massively in saving the banks and the money system; we now need to invest in people throughout society
  • Basic income allocated to billionaires will be recovered straightforwardly by the tax system – there’s no need to obsess over these particular payments
  • It’s not just the “top 1%” who don’t need any basic income support; it’s more like the top 50%; that makes it more important that the system is targeted rather than universal
  • However, lessons from working inside the benefits system is that “targeting doesn’t actually reach its targets”
  • In the UK, between 20%-60% of people eligible for benefits do not receive them
  • Rather than debating conditions for payments being made, more focus should be put on levying appropriate taxes on corporate profits and unearned income such as inherited wealth
  • The issue isn’t so much one of inequality but one of insecurity
  • A two-phase approach can be pursued – an immediate response as a quick fix, followed by a larger process to come into operation later
  • The immediate quick fix payment can be covered by something Western governments do all the time, namely deficit spending
  • Even people who are not normally fond of deficit spending can appreciate the special circumstances of the current dire emergency, and make an exception
  • Any such deficit spending could be recovered in due course by the fruits of economic activity that is jump-started by the policy initiatives already mentioned

From Wendy Grossman:

  • Making a UBI conditional – for example, a decision to exclude the top 1% – would inevitably lead on to many other wrangles
  • For example, there could be arguments over constraints on how many children a woman is allowed to have, with each of them receiving the standard basic income
  • What about the moral hazard to companies: companies might feel little need to pay their employees much, if the employees are already receiving a UBI
  • Companies may feel able to behave in such a way, unless the UBI is high enough that employees are confident about walking away from poor salaries at work

From Tim Pendry:

  • We need to distinguish the acute short-term problem from the chronic longer-term problem. The acute problem is one of dealing with deflation
  • Our economies could be smashed by this crisis, not because of the 1% death rate, but because of our reactions to it. That’s why a UBI – or something like it – seems to be essential
  • But before a UBI can be adopted in the longer term, a number of problems need to be solved, including having sufficient productive capacity to sustain the economy
  • Major transformations of the economy are often accompanied by a great deal of pain and misery – consider the Industrial Revolution, and Stalin’s actions in the USSR
  • Separately, trades unionists may have legitimate concerns about UBI, since its introduction could be used as an excuse to unravel key pin-pointed elements of the welfare state
  • Not every recipient of UBI will respond positively to it, becoming more creative and lovely; some will behave as psychopaths or otherwise respond badly to money being thrown at them
  • As a possible worrying comparison, consider how “the mob” responded to unconditional hand-outs in ancient Rome
  • There’s a growing clash between privileged employees and precarious freelancers. The solution isn’t to make everyone employees. The solution is to make everyone freelancers with rights

Fourth round of panellist responses:

  • It would be helpful to explore the concept of “helicopter money” in which money is simply created and dropped into the economy on a few occasions, rather than an ongoing UBI
  • We should beware a false dichotomy between “people” and “economy”; the two are interdependent
  • Something that could change the lockdown conditions is if reliable antibody tests become available: that would allow more people to return to work and travel sooner
  • Even if antibody testing becomes available, there’s still a need for a stop-gap measure enabling people to pay for food, rent, and so on
  • Instead of UBI, perhaps the government could provide free UBS – universal basic services – paying fees to e.g. electricity companies on behalf of consumers
  • We need to combine pragmatic short-term considerations, with working out how to manage the larger longer-term societal shifts that are now increasingly realised as being possible
  • We need to anticipate potential new future crises, and work out coping mechanisms in advance, especially thinking about which unintended consequences might result

From Tony Czarnecki:

  • The Covid-19 crisis is likely to accelerate the advent of technological unemployment, due to greater use of robotics and a general surge in innovation
  • It’s possible there could as a result be 3-4 additional unemployed within just one year – this will pose an even greater social crisis
  • Various reports created in 2016 calculated that the cost of a meaningful UBI could be as low as 3% of the GDP (the figure might be closer to 2% today)
  • This would provide an annual adult income of £5k, £2.5k for a child, and £8k for a pensioner
  • Of course this won’t yet support luxurious prosperity, but it’s a useful transitional step forward
  • One more question: do we really understand what lies behind the apparent reluctance of politicians to implement a UBI?

From Alexandria Black:

  • As an emergency solution, right now, payments could be made to special credit cards of individual citizens
  • These cards could also function as identifiers of someone’s Covid infection status
  • The cards will also assist in the vital task of contact tracing, to alert people of the spread of the virus
  • Another consequence of the Covid-19 crisis is an accelerating “crypto war” between China and the US
  • Measures which both countries seem to have been planning for some time may now being rushed out more quickly
  • Perhaps a “hackathon” investigation could be organised, to jump start a better understanding of the crypto war dimension of the current crisis

Final round of discussion points:

  • Rather than corporations potentially mistreating their employees who are receiving a UBI, the outcome could be the opposite: employees with a UBI will have more bargaining power
  • We’re all still at the learning stage of how best to organise ourselves as online digital citizens, able to bring about significant changes in social structures (such as a UBI)
  • The money supply isn’t fixed and static: if it wants to, the government can come up with more money
  • As a comparison, when governments go to war, they don’t ask how much it’s going to cost
  • UBI isn’t just about helping the poorest. It’s for everyone. It addresses the financial insecurity and precariousness that everyone can feel
  • UBI isn’t just for the people who have special creative talents. It’s for everyone, including people caring for family members or the elderly
  • Many who are wealthy keep working, for the sense of self-achievement from serving society via their business. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have that same sense of contribution
  • Today’s large companies may find clever ways to game any UBI system in their own favour – we’ll need to keep an eye on them throughout any transition to UBI
  • We should be open to having an unconditional universal payment being supplemented by conditional payments also available to everyone
  • The fundamental point is the ending of insecurity in society, rather than focusing on other topics such as redistribution or equality
  • Transhumanists like to talk about the goal of “Ending aging”; the goal of “Ending insecurity” belongs on that same list
  • Now is the perfect time to be starting the conversation about the bigger picture solution for the future, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll forget
  • As well as people representing civil society, key participants in such a conversation include the asset owners – the sovereign wealth funds and the big pension funds
  • The asset owners need to be on board, if governments are going to finance their new expenditure plans via debt
  • In effect we’re talking about a Marshall Plan for the planet.

For more details about the book project mentioned by Rohit Talwar at the end of the discussion, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Futurists Envision our Post-Pandemic Future, see here.

Thanks are especially due to all the panellists who spoke up during the event. This meetup page has more details of the event.

19 March 2020

Improving online events, for the sake of a better discussion of what truly matters

In a time of travel restrictions and operating from home, we’re all on a learning curve. There’s much for us to find out about alternatives to meeting in our usual physical locations.

London Futurists have been meeting in various physical locations for twelve years. We’ve also held a number of online gatherings over that time, using tools such as Google Hangouts on Air. But now the balance needs to shift. Given the growing Covid-19 lockdown, all London Futurists physical meetings are cancelled for the time being. While the lockdown continues, the group’s activities will be 100% online.

But what does this mean in practice?

I’d like to share some reflections from the first of this new wave of London Futurists events. That online gathering took place on Saturday, 14th March, using the meeting platform Zoom.

Hopefully my observations can help others to improve their own online events. Hopefully, too, readers of this blog will offer answers or suggestions in response to questions I raise.

Context: our event

Our event last Saturday was recorded, and the footage subsequently edited – removing, for example, parts where speakers needed to be told their microphones were muted. Here’s a copy of the resulting video:

By prior arrangement, five panellists gave short introductory talks, each lasting around 5-10 minutes, to set the stage for group discussion. Between 50 and 60 audience participants were logged into the event throughout. Some of them spoke up during the event; a larger number participated in an online text chat discussion that proceeded in parallel (there’s a lightly edited copy of the text discussion here).

As you can see from the recording, the panellists and the other participants raised lots of important points during the discussion. I’ll get back to these shortly, in another blogpost. But first, some thoughts about the tools and the process that were used for this event.

Context: Zoom

Zoom is available at a number of different price levels:

  • The “Free” level is restricted to meetings of up to 40 minutes.
  • The “Pro” level – which costs UKP £11.99 per month – supports longer meetings (up to 24 hours), recording of events, and other elements of admin and user management. This is what I use at the moment.
  • I’ve not yet explored the more expensive versions.

Users participating in an event can can turn their cameras on or off, and can share their screen (in order, for example, to present slides). Participants can also choose at any time to see a view of the video feeds from all participants (up to 25 on each page), or a “presenter view” that focuses on the person who Zoom detects as the speaker.

Recording can take place locally, on the host’s computer (and, if enabled by the organiser, on participants’ computers). Recording can also take place on the Zoom cloud. In this case, what is recorded (by default) is the “presenter view”.

The video recording can subsequently be downloaded and edited (using any video editing software – what I use is Cyberlink PowerDirector).

Limitations and improvements

I switched some time ago from Google Hangouts-on-Air (HoA) to Zoom, when Google reorganised their related software offerings during 2019.

One feature of the HoA software that I miss in Zoom is the ability for the host to temporarily “blue box” a participant, so that their screen remains highlighted, regardless of which video feeds contain speech or other noises. Without this option, what happens – as you can see from the recording of Saturday’s event – is that the presentation view can jump to display the video from a participant that is not speaking at that moment. For five seconds or so, the display shows the participant staring blankly at the camera, generally without realising that the focus is now on them. What made Zoom shift the focus is that it detected some noise from that video feed -perhaps a cough, a laugh, a moan, a chair sliding across the floor, or some background discussion.

(Participants in the event needn’t worry, however, about their blank stares or other inadvertent activity being contained in the final video. While editing the footage, I removed all such occurrences, covering up the displays, while leaving the main audio stream in place.)

In any case, participants should mute their microphones when not speaking. That avoids unwanted noise reaching the event. However, it’s easy for people to neglect to do so. For that reason, Zoom provides the host with admin control over which mics are on or off at any time. But the host may well be distracted too… so the solution is probably for me to enrol one or two participants with admin powers for the event, and ask them to keep an eye on any mics being left unmuted at the wrong times.

Another issue is the variable quality of the microphones participants were using. If the participant turns their head while speaking – for example, to consult some notes – it can make it hard to hear what they’re saying. A better solution here is to use a head-mounted microphone.

A related problem is occasional local bandwidth issues when a participant is speaking. Some or all of what they say may be obscured, slurred, or missed altogether. The broadband in my own house is a case in point. As it happens, I have an order in the queue to switch my house to a different broadband provider. But this switch is presently being delayed.

Deciding who speaks

When a topic is thought-provoking, there are generally are lots of people with things to contribute to the discussion. Evidently, they can’t all talk at once. Selecting who speaks next – and deciding how long they can speak before they might need to be interrupted – is a key part of chairing successful meetings.

One guide to who should be invited to speak next, at any stage in a meeting, is the set of comments raised in the text chat window. However, in busy meetings, important points raised can become lost in the general flow of messages. Ideally, the meeting software will support a system of voting, so that other participants can indicate their choices of which questions are the most interesting. The questions that receive the most upvotes will become the next focus of the discussion.

London Futurists have used such software in the past, including Glisser and Slido, at our physical gatherings. For online events, ideally the question voting mechanism will be neatly integrated with the underlying platform.

I recently took part in one online event (organised by the Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard) where the basic platform was Zoom and where there was a “Q&A” voting system for questions from the audience. However, I don’t see such a voting system in the Zoom interface that I use.

Added on 20th March

Apparently there’s a Webinar add-on for Zoom that provides better control of meetings, including the Q&A voting system. The additional cost of this add-on starts from UKP £320 per annum. I’ll be looking into this further. See this feature comparison page.

Thanks to Joe Kay for drawing this to my attention!

Summarising key points

The video recording of our meeting on Saturday lasts nearly 100 minutes. To my mind, the discussion remained interesting throughout. However, inevitably, many potential viewers will hesitate before committing 100 minutes of their time to watch the entirety of that recording. Even if they watch the playback at an accelerated speed, they would probably still prefer access to some kind of edited highlights.

Creating edited highlights of recordings of London Futurists events has long been a “wish list” item for me. I can appreciate that there’s a particular skill to identifying which parts should be selected for inclusion in any such summary. I’ll welcome suggestions on how to do this!

Learning together

More than ever, what will determine our success or failure in coming to terms with the growing Covid-19 crisis is the extent to which positive collaboration and a proactive technoprogressive mindset can pull ahead of humanity’s more destructive characteristics.

That “race” was depicted on the cover of the collection of the ebook of essays published by London Futurists in June 2014, “Anticipating 2025”. Can we take advantage of our growing interconnectivity to spread, not dangerous pathogens or destructive “fake news”, but good insights about building a better future?

That was a theme that emerged time and again during our online event last Saturday.

I’ll draw this blogpost towards a close by sharing some excepts from the opening chapter from Anticipating 2025.

Four overlapping trajectories

The time period up to 2025 can be considered as a race involving four overlapping trajectories: technology, crisis, collaboration, and mindset.

The first trajectory is the improvement of technology, with lots of very positive potential. The second, however, has lots of very negative potential: it is the growth in likelihood of societal crisis:

  • Stresses and strains in the environment, with increased climate chaos, and resulting disputes over responsibility and corrective action
  • Stresses and strains in the financial system, which share with the environment the characteristics of being highly complex, incompletely understood, weakly regulated, and subject to potential tipping points for fast-accelerating changes
  • Increasing alienation, from people who feel unable to share in the magnitude of the riches flaunted by the technologically fortunate; this factor is increased by the threats from technological unemployment and the fact that, whilst the mean household income continues to rise, the median household income is falling
  • Risks from what used to be called “weapons of mass destruction” – chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons, along with cyber-weapons that could paralyse our electronics infrastructure; there are plenty of “angry young men” (and even angry middle-aged men) who seem ready to plunge what they see as a corrupt world into an apocalyptic judgement.

What will determine the outcome of this race, between technological improvement and growing risk of crises? It may be a third trajectory: the extent to which people around the world are able to collaborate, rather than compete. Will our tendencies to empathise, and to build a richer social whole, triumph over our equally deep tendencies to identify more closely with “people like us” and to seek the well-being of our “in-group” ahead of that of other groups?

In principle, we probably already have sufficient knowledge, spread around the world, to solve all the crises facing us, in a smooth manner that does not require any significant sacrifices. However, that knowledge is, as I said, spread – it does not cohere in just a single place. If only we knew what we knew. Nor does that knowledge hold universal assent – far from it. It is mocked and distorted and undermined by people who have vested interests in alternative explanations – with the vested interests varying among economic, political, ideological, and sometimes sheer human cussedness. In the absence of improved practical methods for collaboration, our innate tendencies to short-term expedience and point-scoring may rule the day – especially when compounded by an economic system that emphasises competition and “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Collaborative technologies such as Wikipedia and open-source software point the way to what should be possible. But they are unlikely to be sufficient, by themselves, to heal the divisions that tend to fragment human endeavours. This is where the fourth, and final, trajectory becomes increasingly important – the transformation of the philosophies and value systems that guide our actions.

If users are resolutely suspicious of technologies that would disturb key familiar aspects of “life as we know it”, engineers will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient funding to bring these technologies to the market – even if society would eventually end up significantly improved as a result.

Politicians generally take actions that reflect the views of the electorate, as expressed through public media, opinion polls, and (occasionally) in the ballot box. However, the electorate is subject to all manners of cognitive bias, prejudice, and continuing reliance on rules of thumb which made sense in previous times but which have been rendered suspect by changing circumstances. These viewpoints include:

  • Honest people should put in forty hours of work in meaningful employment each week
  • People should be rewarded for their workplace toil by being able to retire around the age of 65
  • Except for relatively peripheral matters, “natural methods” are generally the best ones
  • Attempts to redesign human nature – or otherwise to “play God” – will likely cause disaster
  • It’s a pointless delusion to think that the course of personal decay and death can be averted.

In some cases, long-entrenched viewpoints can be overturned by a demonstration that a new technology produces admirable results – as in the case of IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). But in other cases, minds need to be changed even before a full demonstration can become possible.

It’s for this reason that I see the discipline of “culture engineering” as being equally important as “technology engineering”. The ‘culture’ here refers to cultures of humans, not cells. The ‘engineering’ means developing and applying a set of skills – skills to change the set of prevailing ideas concerning the desirability of particular technological enhancements. Both technology engineering and culture engineering are deeply hard skills; both need a great deal of attention.

A core part of “culture engineering” fits under the name “marketing”. Some technologists bristle at the concept of marketing. They particularly dislike the notion that marketing can help inferior technology to triumph over superior technology. But in this context, what do “inferior” and “superior” mean? These judgements are relative to how well technology is meeting the dominant desires of people in the marketplace.

Marketing means selecting, understanding, inspiring, and meeting key needs of what can be called “influence targets” – namely, a set of “tipping point” consumers, developers, and partners. Specifically, marketing includes:

  • Forming a roadmap of deliverables, that build, step-by-step, to delivering something of great benefit to the influence targets, but which also provide, each step of the way, something with sufficient value to maintain their active interest
  • Astutely highlighting the ways in which present (and forthcoming) products will, indeed, provide value to the influence targets
  • Avoiding any actions which, despite the other good things that are happening, alienate the influence targets; and in the event any such alienation emerges, taking swift and decisive action to address it.

Culture engineering involves politics as well as marketing. Politics means building alliances that can collectively apply power to bring about changes in regulations, standards, subsidies, grants, and taxation. Choosing the right partners, and carefully managing relationships with them, can make a big difference to the effectiveness of political campaigns. To many technologists, “politics” is as dirty a word as “marketing”. But once again, mastery of the relevant skillset can make a huge difference to the adoption of technologies.

The final component of culture engineering is philosophy – sets of arguments about fundamentals and values. For example, will human flourishing happen more fully under simpler lifestyles, or by more fully embracing the radical possibilities of technology? Should people look to age-old religious traditions to guide their behaviour, or instead seek a modern, rational, scientific basis for morality? And how should the freedoms of individuals to experiment with potentially dangerous new kinds of lifestyle be balanced against the needs of society as a whole?

“Philosophy” is (you guessed it) yet another dirty word, in the minds of many technologists. To these technologists, philosophical arguments are wastes of time. Yet again, I will disagree. Unless we become good at philosophy – just as we need to become good at both politics and marketing – we will fail to rescue the prevailing culture from its unhelpful mix of hostility and apathy towards the truly remarkable potential to use technology to positively transcend human nature. And unless that change in mindset happens, the prospects are uncertain for the development and adoption of the remarkable technologies of abundance mentioned earlier.

[End of extract from Anticipating 2025.]

How well have we done?

On the one hand, the contents of the 2014 London Futurists book “Anticipating 2025” are prescient. These chapters highlight many issues and opportunities that have grown in importance in the intervening six years.

On the other hand, I was brought down to earth by an email reply I received last week to the latest London Futurists newsletter:

I’m wondering where the Futurism is in this reaction.

Maybe the group is more aptly Reactionism.

I wanted to splutter out an answer: the group (London Futurists) has done a great deal of forward thinking over the years. We have looked at numerous trends and systems, and considered possible scenarios arising from extrapolations and overlaps. We have worked hard to clarify, for these scenarios, the extent to which they are credible and desirable, and ways in which the outcomes can be influenced.

But on reflection, a more sober thought emerged. Yes, we futurists have been trying to alert the rest of society to our collective lack of preparedness for major risks and major opportunities ahead. We have discussed the insufficient resilience of modern social systems – their fragility and lack of sustainability.

But have our messages been heard?

The answer is: not really. That’s why Covid-19 is causing such a dislocation.

It’s tempting to complain that the population as a whole should have been listening to futurists. However, we can also ask, how should we futurists change the way we talk about our insights, so that people pay us more attention?

After all, there are many worse crises potentially just around the corner. Covid-19 is by no means the most dangerous new pathogen that could strike humanity. And there are many other types of risk to consider, including malware spreading out of control, the destruction of our electronics infrastructure by something similar to the 1859 Carrington Event, an acceleration of chaotic changes in weather and climate, and devastating wars triggered by weapons systems overseen by AI software whose inner logic no-one understands.

It’s not just a new mindset that humanity needs. It’s a better way to have discussions about fundamentals – discussions about what truly matters.

Footnote: with thanks

Special thanks are due to the people who boldly stepped forwards at short notice as panellists for last Saturday’s event:

and to everyone else who contributed to that discussion. I’m sorry there was no time to give sufficient attention to many of the key points raised. As I said at the end of the recording, this is a kind of cliffhanger.

11 March 2020

Might future humans resurrect the dead?

Death is brutal. It extinguishes consciousness. It terminates relationships, dissolves aspirations, and forecloses opportunities. It shatters any chances of us nurturing new skills, visiting new locations, exploring new art, feeling new emotions, keeping up with the developments of friends and family, or actively sharing our personal wisdom.

Or does it? Is death really the end?

Traditionally, such a question has seemed to belong to the field of religion, or, perhaps, to psychical research. However, nowadays, an answer to this existential question is emerging from a different direction. In short, this line of thinking extrapolates from past human progress to suggest what future human progress might accomplish. Much more than we have previously imagined, is the suggestion. We humans may become like Gods, not only with the power to create new life, but also with the power to resurrect the dead.

As centuries have passed, we humans have acquired greater power and capability. We have learned how to handle an increasing number of diseases, and how to repair bodies damaged by accident or injury. As such, average lifespans have been extended. For many people, death has been delayed – as we live on average at least twice as long as our ancestors of just a few centuries back.

Consider what may happen in the decades and centuries to come, as humans acquire even greater power and capability.

Writers Ben Goertzel and Giulio Prisco summarise possible answers, in their visionary 2009 article “Ten Cosmist Convictions”:

Humans will merge with technology, to a rapidly increasing extent. This is a new phase of the evolution of our species, just picking up speed about now. The divide between natural and artificial will blur, then disappear. Some of us will continue to be humans, but with a radically expanded and always growing range of available options, and radically increased diversity and complexity. Others will grow into new forms of intelligence far beyond the human domain…

We will spread to the stars and roam the universe. We will meet and merge with other species out there. We may roam to other dimensions of existence as well, beyond the ones of which we’re currently aware…

We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.

Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”…

There’s much more to the philosophy of cosmism than I can cover in a single blogpost. For now, I want to highlight the remarkable possibility that beings, some time in the future, will somehow be able to reach back through time and extract a copy of human consciousness from the point of death, in order for the deceased to be recreated in a new body in a new world, allowing the continuation of life and consciousness. Families and friends will be reunited, ready to enjoy vast new vistas of experience.

Giulio develops these themes in considerable depth in his book Tales of the Turing Church, of which a second (expanded) edition has just been published.

The opening paragraphs of Giulio’s book set the stage:

This isn’t your grandfather’s religion.

Future science and technology will permit playing with the building blocks of space, time, matter, energy, and life, in ways that we could only call magic and supernatural today.

Someday in the future, you and your loved ones will be resurrected by very advanced science and technology.

Inconceivably advanced intelligences are out there among the stars. Even more God-like beings operate in the fabric of reality underneath spacetime, or beyond spacetime, and control the universe. Future science will allow us to find them, and become like them.

Our descendants in the far future will join the community of God-like beings among the stars and beyond, and use transcendent “divine” technology to resurrect the dead and remake the universe.

Science? Spacetime? Aliens? Future technology? I warned you, this isn’t your grandmother’s religion.

Or isn’t it?

Simplify what I said and reword it as: God exists, controls reality, will resurrect the dead and remake the universe. Sounds familiar? I bet it does. So perhaps this is the religion of our grandparents, in different words…

Giulio’s background is in physics: he was a senior manager in European science and technology centres, including the European Space Agency. I’ve know him since 2006, when we met at the TransVision conference in Helsinki in August that year. He has spoken at a number of London Futurists events over the years, and I’ve always found him to be deeply thoughtful. Since his new book breaks a lot of new ground, I took the opportunity to feature Giulio as the guest on a recent London Futurists video interview:

The video of our discussion lasts 51 minutes, but as you’ll see, the conversation could easily have lasted much longer: we stepped back several times from topics that would have raised many new questions.

Evidently, the content of the video isn’t to everyone’s liking. One reviewer expressed his exasperation as follows:

Absurd. I quit at 8:15

At first sight, it may indeed seem absurd that information from long-past events could somehow be re-assembled by beings in the far-distant future. The information will have spread out and degraded due to numerous interactions with the environment. However, in his book, Giulio considers various other possible mechanisms. Here are three of them:

  • Modern physics has the idea that spacetime can be curved or deformed. Future humans might be able to engineer connections between past spacetime locations (for example, someone’s brain at the point of death) and a spacetime location in their own present. This could be similar to what some science fiction explores as “wormholes” that transcend ordinary spacetime connectivity
  • Perhaps indelible records of activity could be stored in aspects of the multi-dimensional space that modern physics also talks about – records that could, again, be accessed by hugely powerful future descendants of present-day humans
  • Perhaps the universe that we perceive and inhabit actually exists as some kind of simulation inside a larger metaverse, with the controllers of the overall simulation being able to copy aspects of information and consciousness from inside the simulation into what we would then perceive as a new world.

Are these possibilities “absurd” too? Giulio argues that we can, and should, keep an open mind.

You can hear some of Giulio’s arguments in the video embedded above. You can explore them at much greater length in his book. It’s a big book, with a comprehensive set of references. Giulio makes lots of interesting points about:

  • Different ideas about physics – including quantum mechanics, the quantum vacuum, and the ultimate fate of the physical universe
  • The ideas featured by a range of different science fiction writers
  • The views of controversial thinkers such as Fred Hoyle, Amit Goswami, and Frank Tipler
  • The simulation argument, developed by Hans Moravec and popularised by Nick Bostrom
  • The history of cosmism, as it developed in Russia and then moved onto the world stage
  • Potential overlaps between Giulio’s conception of cosmism and ideas from diverse traditional religious traditions
  • The difference between the “cosmological” and “geographical” aspects of religions
  • The special significance of free-will, faith, and hope.

Despite covering weighty topics, Giulio’s writing has a light, human touch. But to be clear, this isn’t a book that you can rush through. The ideas will take time to percolate in your mind.

Having let Giulio’s ideas percolate in my own mind for a couple of weeks, here are my reflections.

The idea of future “technological resurrection” is by no means absurd. The probability of it happening is greater than zero. But for it to happen, a number of things must be true:

  1. The physical laws of the universe must support at least one of the range of mechanisms under discussion, for the copying of information
  2. Beings with sufficient capability will eventually come into existence – perhaps as descendants of present-day humans, perhaps as super-powerful aliens from other planets, or perhaps as intelligences operating at a different level of spacetime reality
  3. These beings must care sufficiently about our existence that they wish to resurrect us
  4. The new beings created in this process, containing our memories, will be us, rather than merely copies of us (in other words, this presupposes one type of answer to the question of “what is consciousness”).

Subjectively, this compound probability feels to me like being significantly less than 10%. But I accept that it’s hard to put numbers into this.

Someone else who offers probabilities for different routes to avoiding death is the Russian researcher Alexey Turchin. Alexey gave a fascinating talk at London Futurists back in April 2016 on the subject “Constructing a roadmap to immortality”. The talk was recorded on video (although the audio is far from perfect, sorry):

Alexey describes four plans, with (he says) decreasing probability:

  • “Plan A” – “survive until creation of strong and friendly AI” (which will then be able to keep everyone alive at that time, alive for as long as each person wishes)
  • “Plan B” – “cryonics” – “success chances as 1 – 10 per cent”
  • “Plan C” – “digital immortality” – “recording data about me for my future reconstruction by strong AI” – “even smaller chances of success”
  • “Plan D” – “immortality some how already exists” without needing any special actions by us – but this “is the least probable way to immortality”.

If you’d like to read more analysis from Alexey, see his 39 page essay from 2018, “Classification of Approaches to Technological Resurrection”.

I’m currently preparing a new talk of my own, that aims to draw wider attention to the ideas of thinkers such as Giulio and Alexey.

The talk is being hosted by DSMNTL and is scheduled for the 15th of April. The talk is entitled “Disrupting death: Technology and the future of dying”. Here’s an extract from the description:

Death stalks us all throughout life. We’re painfully aware that our time on earth is short, but the 2020s bring potential new answers to the problem of death.

Thanks to remarkable technologies that are being conceived and created, now may be the time to tackle death as never before. Beyond the old question of whether God created humanity in His image or humanity created gods in our image, it’s time to ask what will happen to humanity once technology gives us the power of Gods over life, death, and resurrection. And what should we be doing, here and now, in anticipation of that profound future transition?

This DSMNTL talk shares a radical futurist perspective on eight ways people are trying to put death in its place: acceptance, traditional faith in resurrection, psychic connectivity, rejuvenation biotechnology, becoming a cyborg, cryonic preservation, digital afterlife, and technological resurrection. You’ll hear how the relationship between science and religion could be about to enter a dramatic new phase. But beware: you might even make a life-changing death-defying decision once you hear what’s on offer.

For more information about this talk, and to obtain a ticket, click here.

I’ll give the last word, for now, to Giulio. Actually it’s a phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet that Giulio quotes several times in his book:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

19 January 2020

The pace of change, 2020 to 2035

Filed under: Abundance, BHAG, RAFT 2035, vision — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 10:05 am

The fifteen years from 2020 to 2035 could be the most turbulent of human history. Revolutions are gathering pace in four overlapping fields of technology: nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech, or NBIC for short. In combination, these NBIC revolutions offer enormous new possibilities.

I wrote these words on the opening page of RAFT 2035, my new book, which was published yesterday and is now available on Amazon sites worldwide (UK, US, DE, FR, ES, IT, NL, JP, BR, CA, MX, AU, IN).

Friends who read drafts of the book ahead of publication asked me:

RAFT envisions a huge amount of change taking place between the present day and 2035. What are the grounds for imagining this kind of change will be possible?

Here’s the answer I included in the final manuscript:

There is nothing inevitable about any of the changes foreseen by RAFT. It is even possible that the pace of change will slow down:

  • Due to a growing disregard for the principles of science and rationality
  • Due to society placing its priorities in other areas
  • Due to insufficient appetite to address hard engineering problems
  • Due to any of a variety of reversals or collapses in the wellbeing of civilisation.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the pace of technological change as experienced by global society in the last 15 years – pace that is already breathtaking – could accelerate significantly in the next 15 years:

  • Due to breakthroughs in some fields (e.g. AI or nanotechnology) leading to knock-on breakthroughs in other fields
  • Due to a greater number of people around the world dedicating themselves to working on the relevant technologies, products, and services
  • Due to more people around the world reaching higher levels of education than ever before, being networked together with unprecedented productivity, and therefore being able to build more quickly on each other’s insights and findings
  • Due to new levels of application of design skills, including redesigning the user interfaces to complex products, and redesigning social systems to enable faster progress with beneficial technologies
  • Due to a growing public understanding of the potential for enormous benefits to arise from the NBIC technologies, provided resources are applied more wisely
  • Due to governments deciding to take massive positive action to increase investment in areas that are otherwise experiencing blockages – this action can be considered as akin to a nation moving onto a wartime footing.

Introducing RAFT 2035

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

That insight from the biblical book of Proverbs is as true today as ever.

Without an engaging vision of a better future, we tend to focus on the short-term and on the mundane. Our horizons shrink and our humanity withers.

RAFT 2035 offers an alternative:

  • Thanks to the thoughtful application of breakthroughs in science and technology, the future can be profoundly better than the present
  • 2035 could see an abundance of all-round human flourishing, with no-one left behind.

The word “abundance” here means that there will be enough for everyone to have an excellent quality of life. No one will lack access to healthcare, accommodation, nourishment, essential material goods, information, education, social engagement, free expression, or artistic endeavour.

RAFT 2035 envisions the possibility, by 2035, of an abundance of human flourishing in each of six sectors of human life:

  • Individual health and wellbeing
  • The wellbeing of social relationships
  • The quality of international relationships
  • Sustainable relationships with the environment
  • Humanity’s exploration of the wider cosmos beyond the earth
  • The health of our political systems.

RAFT offers clear goals for what can be accomplished in each of these six sectors by 2035 – 15 goals in total, for society to keep firmly in mind between now and that date.

The 15 goals each involve taking wise advantage of the remarkable capabilities of 21st century science and technology: robotics, biotech, neurotech, nanotech, greentech, artificial intelligence, collaboration technology, and much more.

The goals also highlight how the development and adoption of science and technology can, and must, be guided by the very best of human thinking and values.

Indeed, at the same time as RAFT 2035 upholds this vision, it is also fully aware of deep problems and challenges in each of the six sectors described.

Progress will depend on a growing number of people in all areas of society:

  • Recognising the true scale of the opportunity ahead
  • Setting aside distractions
  • Building effective coalitions
  • Taking appropriate positive actions.

These actions make up RAFT 2035. I hope you like it!

The metaphor and the acronym

The cover of RAFT 2035 depicts a raft sitting on top of waves of turbulence.

As I say in RAFT’s opening chapter, the forthcoming floods of technological and social change set in motion by the NBIC revolutions could turn our world upside down, more quickly and more brutally than we expected. When turbulent waters are bearing down fast, having a sturdy raft at hand can be the difference between life and death.

Turbulent times require a space for shelter and reflection, clear navigational vision despite the mists of uncertainty, and a powerful engine for us to pursue our own direction, rather than just being carried along by forces outside our control. In other words, turbulent times require a powerful “raft” – a roadmap to a future in which the extraordinary powers latent in NBIC technologies are used to raise humanity to new levels of flourishing, rather than driving us over some dreadful precipice.

To spell out the “RAFT” acronym, the turbulent times ahead require:

  • A Roadmap (‘R’) – not just a lofty aspiration, but specific steps and interim targets
  • towards Abundance (‘A’) for all – beyond a world of scarcity and conflict
  • enabling Flourishing (‘F’) as never before – with life containing not just possessions, but enriched experiences, creativity, and meaning
  • via Transcendence (‘T’) – since we won’t be able to make progress by staying as we are.

What’s different about the RAFT vision

Most other political visions assume that only modest changes in the human condition will take place over the next few decades. In contrast, RAFT takes seriously the potential for large changes in the human condition – and sees these changes not only as desirable but essential.

Most other political visions are preoccupied by short term incremental issues. In contrast, RAFT highlights major disruptive opportunities and risks ahead.

Finally, most other political visions seek for society to “go back” to elements of a previous era, which is thought to be simpler, or purer, or in some other way preferable to the apparent messiness of today’s world. In contrast, RAFT offers a bold vision of creating a new, much better society – a society that builds on the existing strengths of human knowledge, skills, and relationships, whilst leaving behind those aspects of the human condition which unnecessarily limit human flourishing.

It’s an ambitious vision. But as I explain in the main chapters of the book, there are many solutions and tools at hand, ready to energise and empower a growing coalition of activists, engineers, social entrepreneurs, researchers, creatives, humanitarians, and more.

These solutions can help us all to transcend our present-day preoccupations, our unnecessary divisions, our individual agendas, and our inherited human limitations.

Going forwards, these solutions mean that, with wise choices, constraints which have long overshadowed human existence can soon be lifted:

  • Instead of physical decay and growing age-related infirmity, an abundance of health and longevity awaits us.
  • Instead of collective foolishness and blinkered failures of reasoning, an abundance of intelligence and wisdom is within our reach.
  • Instead of morbid depression and emotional alienation – instead of envy and egotism – we can achieve an abundance of mental and spiritual wellbeing.
  • Instead of a society laden with deception, abuses of power, and divisive factionalism, we can embrace an abundance of democracy – a flourishing of transparency, access, mutual support, collective insight, and opportunity for all, with no one left behind.

For more information about the book and its availability, see here. I’ll be interested to hear your feedback!

5 December 2019

Nano comes to life

Filed under: books, healthcare, nanotechnology, Oxford — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 12:44 am

To make progress in biotechnology, the discipline of software engineering will be key. Right?

After all, life is the outcome of what is known as the genetic code. Our biological metabolism is the execution of that code in our cells, extra cellular structures, organs, various circulatory systems, and so on. Admittedly, that code lacks documentation, and has no comments to guide our understanding. Indeed, it has been described as worse than the worst of human-written “spaghetti” code. Such is the complexity. But in due course, we can expect the painstaking application of methods of reverse software engineering to induce biology to give up its deepest secrets. Right?

Not so fast. The message in the recent new book by Oxford University Professor Sonia Contera, Nano Comes to Life, is that if we want to make better progress with biology, we need to increase our understanding of physics. Yes, physics – including mechanics, surface tension, electrostatic forces, dynamic motion, and so on.

Consider our DNA. Parts of our chromosomes consist of genes that cause our cells to create various proteins. The mapping of elements of chromosomes to specific proteins is, indeed, governed by a genetic code. The elucidation of that code has been one of the great triumphs of scientific endeavour in the last hundred years. That same endeavour, however, threw up a puzzle: large parts of our DNA – perhaps the majority of it – seem to be “junk”. It consists of multiple copies of genes that no longer create proteins. Various ideas developed for why these DNA segments exist – viewing them as self-serving, or “selfish”: they exist because they are copied into new generations, and that’s all there is to say about the matter.

However, there’s more than one level to think about our DNA. Yes, it consists of genes. But it also exists as a complex 3D structure, which folds and coils. Depending on the precise folding and coiling – and on whether some molecular groups known as methyls or acetyls are added into a kind of skin for the DNA – different genes are exposed to chemical interactions. We say that different genes can be turned “on” or “off”. Without the long chains of intermediary so-called “junk” DNA between various genes, these 3D interactions wouldn’t take place. The folding and coiling would be different. In other words, junk DNA may be purposeful after all, not in terms of its biochemical interactions, but in terms of its mechanical interactions.

One suggestion in Nano Comes to Life is that mechanical pressure on a cell can result in pressure on the nucleus of the cell, which can, in turn, change the precise 3D shapes of various chromosomes, altering which genes are turned on or off. In other words, external stresses and strains from the environment could directly alter the genetic expressions inside cells.

The limits of reductionism

The suggestion just given is but one example of a thesis which Nano Comes to Life brilliantly highlights: we should avoid becoming carried away with the methodology of reductionism. Reductionism looks for the causes of complex phenomena in a fuller analysis of the constituent parts of the larger system. To understand human biology we need to understand cells. To understand cells we need to understand chemistry. To understand chemistry we need to understand physics. To understand physics we need to understand mathematics. All that is true… but it is not the whole story.

I confess that when I hear people criticising reductionism, I become apprehensive. I half expect the conversation to continue as follows: we cannot understand biology in terms of chemistry, so that proves that aliens did it. Or that psychic telepathy exists. Or that humans are designed by a supernatural deity. Or that magic dwells deep in the universe. Or some other (unjustified) leap of faith.

However, emphatically, that’s not the kind of criticism of reductionism that you’ll find in Nano Comes to Life. Instead, the message is a kind of restatement of the saying often attributed to Einstein:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

In other words, true progress in biology is likely to come, not from single-minded pursuits of individual lines of thinking, but, instead, from the interplay of multiple levels of understanding. That interplay can give rise to emergence.

Progress in multiple fields

Nano Comes to Life contains an impressive survey of fast progress that is being made in multiple labs around the world (in research universities and in commercial settings) precisely by adopting this multi-level thinking. The book brings readers up to date with remarkable recent research breakthroughs in techniques such as:

  • DNA nanotechnology (including DNA origami),
  • novel protein synthesis via nanotechnology,
  • nanomaterials and transmaterials – which combine features of biological materials with those from outside biology,
  • the creation of replacement organs, as well as “organs on a chip” (very useful for drug testing purposes),
  • targeted cancer drug delivery systems,
  • avoidance of the threat of growing antibiotic resistance,
  • enhancing the immune system,
  • and other aspects of what is known as nanomedicine.

The book also provides fascinating insight into the history and practice of cutting-edge laboratory science.

The context: a vision delayed

I’ve been aware of the field of nanotechnology since some time around the year 1990, when I came across the very first book written on that subject. That book was Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by Eric Drexler (first published in 1986). Reading that book that significantly raised my awareness of the scale of the profound positive transformation that technology could in due course enable in the human condition. Reflecting the importance of that book on the subsequent trajectory of my thinking, a picture of me holding my copy of it was my cover photo on Facebook for a number of years.

(Thanks to Yanna Buryak for snapping this picture of me at just the right moment.)

Eric Drexler’s 1986 book foresaw the eventual deliberate systematic manipulation of matter to create myriad nanoscale levers, shafts, conveyor belts, gears, pulleys, motors, and more. In ways broadly similar to the marvellous operation of ribosomes within biological cells, specially designed nanofactories will be able to utilise atomically precise engineering to construct numerous kinds of new material products, molecule by molecule.  But whereas the natural nanotechnology of ribosomes involves processes that evolved by blind evolution, synthetic nanotechnology will involve processes intelligently designed by human scientists. These scientists will take inspiration from biological templates, but can look forward to reaching results far transcending those of nature.

But despite the upbeat vision of Engines of Creation, progress with many of the ideas Drexler envisioned has proven disappointingly slow. Although the word “nanotechnology” has entered general parlance, it has mainly referred to developments that fall considerably short of the full vision of nanofactories. Thus we have nanomaterials, including nanowires and nanoshells. We have techniques of 3D printing that operate at the nanoscale. We have nanoparticles with increasing numbers of uses. However, the full potential of nanotechnology, envisioned all these years ago by Drexler, remains a future vision.

What Sonia Contera’s book Nano Comes To Life provides, however, is a comprehensive summary of progress within the last few years – and grounds for foreseeing continuing progress ahead.

Why the 2010s are the new 1830s

A clear sign of progress – at last – with nanomachines was the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016. This prize was jointly received by Fraser Stoddart from Scotland, Bernard Feringa from the Netherlands, and Jean-Pierre Sauvage from France, in recognition of their pioneering work in this field – such as finding ways to convert chemical energy into purposeful mechanical motion.

As the Nobel committee remarked, nanomachines in the 2010s are at a roughly similar situation to electrical motors of the 1830s: the basic principles of the manufacture and operation of these machines are just becoming clear. The scientists in the 1830s who demonstrated a variety spinning cranks and wheels, powered by electricity, could hardly have foreseen the subsequent wide incorporation of improved motors in consumer goods such as food processors, air conditioning fans, and washing machines. Likewise, as nanomachines gain more utility, they can be expected to revolutionise manufacturing, healthcare, and the treatment of waste.

It is these future revolutions which feature in Nano Comes to Life – particularly in the field of medicine and health. Importantly, these future revolutions are described in the book, not as any kind of inevitable development, but as something whose form and value will depend critically on choices taken by humans – individually and collectively. Indeed, in an epilogue to the book, the author points to a number of encouraging trends in how scientists, technologists, general citizens, and artists, are interacting to raise the probability that the full benefits of nanotechnology will be spread widely and fairly throughout society. It’s another example of the need to think about matters at more than one level at the same time.

The messages in that final section are ones with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Postscript: For a deeper dive

To hear Sonia Contera present her ideas in more depth, and to join a public Q&A discussion about the implications, check out the London Futurists event happening this Saturday (7th December).

13 November 2019

The astonishing backstory to fracking, Russia, and the dangers of capitalism out of control

Blowout is truly a standout. It brilliantly illuminates powerful forces behind ongoing changes in the oil and gas industry. As the book makes clear, we underestimate these forces at our peril. Accordingly, Blowout deserves a wide readership.

Rachel Maddow, the author of Blowout, doubles as the narrator of the book’s audio version. She also hosts a nightly public affairs show on MSNBC. She reads her own words with great panache. It’s as if the listener could see the knowing winks. Indeed, whilst listening to Blowout, I was prompted to laugh on loud on occasion – before feeling pangs of guilt for having taken pleasure at various all-too-human episodes of duplicity, hubris, and downfall. This isn’t really a laughing matter, though the humour helps our sanity. The future may depend on how well we take to heart the lessons covered in Blowout.

Despite the sharp critical commentary, the book also offers a lot of sympathy. Although the oil and gas industry is portrayed – as in the subtitle of the book – as “the most destructive industry on earth” – and as a strong cause of “corrupted democracy” and “rogue states” – the narrative also shows key actors of this industry in, for a while, a positive light. These individuals see themselves as heroic defenders of important ideals, including energy independence and entrepreneurial verve. Blowout shows that there’s considerable merit in this positive self-assessment. However, very importantly, it’s by no means the whole story.

Blowout interweaves a number of absorbing, captivating tales about larger-than-life individuals, decades-long technological innovation, some of the world’s most successful companies, and clashes of realpolitik. The structure is similar to a pattern often found in novels. At first it’s not clear how the different narrative strands will relate to each other. The connections become clear in stages – vividly clear.

Together, these accounts provide the backstory for various items that frequently appear in the news:

  • The transformation of the oil and gas industry by the technology of fracking (fracturing)
  • Oil executives being seemingly unconcerned about interacting with repulsive autocratic politicians
  • Russian political leaders taking steps to destabilise democracy in the US and in the EU
  • The long relationship between Vladimir Putin and former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
  • The activities of people whose names have featured in the Mueller investigation – including Paul Manafort and Dmytro Firtash
  • The floods of aggressive denial against the findings of scientists that activities of the oil and gas industry risk humongous environmental damage.

Blowout deserves a five-star rating for several different reasons. The discussion of the history of fracking, by itself, should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the general principles of technological disruption. The development of fracking conforms to the common pattern of a disruption lingering through a long, slow, disappointing phase, before accelerating to have a bigger impact than even the cheerleaders of the technology previously expected. It also produces a strong example of how an industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate. The industry will have too strong a motivation to downplay the “unexpected side effects” of the new technology. It’s chilling how oil and gas industry experts sought to silence any suggestion that fracking could be the cause of increased earthquakes. It’s also chilling how people who should have know better rushed to adopt various daft pseudo-scientific explanations for this increase.

The book’s account of oil-induced corruption in Equatorial Guinea is also highly relevant (not to mention gut-wrenching). The bigger picture, as Blowout ably explains, is addressed by the concept of “the paradox of plenty”. Of even greater interest is the application of this same theory to developments within Russia.

Alongside tales of epic human foolishness (including the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the bizarre experience of Shell’s experimental drilling in the Artic), the book offers some genuine inspiration. One example is the growing democratic push-back in the state of Oklahoma, against the previous dominance in that state of the oil and gas industry. Another example is the way in which by no means every country with a “plenty” of oil falls victim to the “paradox” of poorer overall social wellbeing.

In the end, Blowout emphasises, criticising the behaviour of the oil and gas industry makes as little sense as criticising a lion for having the temerity to hunt and eat prey. The solution cannot be merely to appeal to the good conscience of the executives in that industry. Instead, it’s up to governments to set the frameworks within which that industry operates.

In turn, it makes strong internal sense for executives in that industry to seek to undermine any such regulatory framework. We should not be surprised at the inventiveness of that industry and its supporters in finding fault with regulations, in obscuring the extent to which that industry benefits from long-standing subsidies and kickbacks, and in undermining effective international democratic collaboration (such as in the EU). Instead, we need clear-minded political leadership who can outflank the industry, so that we gain its remarkable benefits but avoid its equally remarkable downsides. And what will help political leaders to gain a clearer mind is if the analysis in Blowout becomes better known. Much better known.

PS Some of the same analysis is also covered in this recent video in the series about the Technoprogressive Roadmap:


25 October 2019

Making real sense of quantum mechanics: “Something deeply hidden”

The new book by Sean Carroll, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, is probably the single best argument for the Everett understanding of quantum mechanics.

That’s the approach named after physicist Hugh Everett III and which is often also called (although slightly misleadingly) the “Many Worlds Interpretation”.

In his book, Carroll makes clear the powerful attractions of the Everett understanding, and persuasively counters the objections that are commonly raised against it. He highlights how this approach is the natural, straightforward response to the extraordinary success of the quantum formalism. Despite its apparent profligacy of multiple worlds (multiple diverging branches of reality), it’s actually a lean and austere interpretation of quantum mechanics. Unique among interpretations of quantum mechanics, it adds in nothing beyond the wave equation itself.

Back in the 1980s I spent four years mulling the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. Over time, against my initial inclinations (and hopes), I came to have an increasing respect for the Everett understanding – an outcome I wrote about here. Alongside my grudging respect for that interpretation, I retained the view that it still faced many hard questions. However, Carroll’s book has convinced me that these questions aren’t particularly daunting. In other words, the book has strengthened my conviction that these “Many Worlds” do come into being whenever quantum transactions are macroscopically magnified.

In terms of the history of the topics covered, and the pros and cons of the different interpretations reviewed, I see Carroll as being overwhelmingly correct. I particularly liked his demolition of the idea that there’s such a thing as a coherent “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics. The only area where I wanted to see the argument extended was that more could have been said about how all the non-Everett interpretations of quantum mechanics have to accept one or other kind of radical non-locality (despite the attempts of various writers to “have their cake and eat it”).

The final third of the book may be the most important. It reviews the possibility for progress in an area of physics that has long experienced troubles: quantum gravity. Carroll argues that the best hopes for us obtaining a correct quantum theory of gravity (that works at all energy scales) is to take quantum mechanics itself more seriously. This part of the book is more speculative than the earlier parts, but it has raised my interest in delving more into these topics.

This final part of the book also underlines the difficulties faced by the non-Everett interpretations of quantum mechanics in dealing, not with particles, but with the relativistic fields which modern physics views as being more fundamental than particles. This part also reviews how space and time should emerge from the theory of quantum gravity, rather than being presupposed as the canvas upon which the theory would operate. Some of the potential implications for black holes (and maybe even the Big Bang) are mind-stretching.

It’s a shocking possibility that each of us exist alongside numerous different versions of ourselves, in the overall multiverse – versions that have increasingly divergent experiences. I see this possibility as one of the most remarkable insights to have arisen from humanity’s millennia-long exploration into science. It’s an insight that takes time to sink in. It’s a good question how much this insight should change our day-to-day behaviour. Carroll has an answer to that too: not as much as we might first think. Personally I find it a humbling realisation.

PS For another book that addresses some of the same topics – inside an even larger set of profound ideas – I recommend Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark.

4 October 2019

A Silicon Valley centred view of the prehistory of smartphones

Filed under: films, Psion, smartphones, Smartphones and beyond, Symbian — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 7:11 am

The first thing to say about the film General Magic (official site, IMDb) is that you should watch it.

The film is available on iTunes, and on Amazon Prime, and from lots of other places too.

It tracks the rise and fall of the company with the same name as the film – General Magic – and the impact of the people involved in the subsequent rise of the smartphone industry.

Here’s the trailer:

General Magic was conceived inside Apple in 1989, and, as reported at the time by the New York Times, was spun out as a separate entity in 1990:

Three well-known technologists from Apple Computer Inc., including perhaps its most distinguished programmer, Bill Atkinson, are forming a new company.

Mr. Atkinson and Marc Porat, another Apple researcher, are leaving Apple to form General Magic Inc. They will be joined by Andy Hertzfeld, who designed much of the operating system of the Macintosh computer in the early 1980’s but who has not been with Apple for six years.

The company, which will be based in Mountain View, Calif., will make products known as ”personal intelligent communicators.” While the company would not elaborate, industry analysts believe this refers to handheld devices that can store appointments and other information and transmit and receive information, either over telephone lines or over the airwaves…

Mr. Atkinson, 39 years old, has been with Apple for 12 years. He is best known for developing Hypercard, a program included with every Macintosh that allows users to organize information on computerized notecards…

Dr. Porat, 42, who will be president of General Magic, came to Apple in 1988 and was manager of business development in the advanced technology group.

Much of the vision of the company came from Marc Porat, the company’s first CEO. The film quotes from a visionary email Marc Porat had written in 1990 to John Sculley, at the time Apple’s CEO, about the kinds of devices their platform would enable:

A tiny computer, a phone, a very personal object… It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used. It will offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, the enchantment of a crystal. Once you use it you won’t be able to live without it.

The film also shows a large book of design ideas, dating (it said) back to the same formative era. Here are a couple of sketches from the book:

(the name given to the concept device in this sketch is “remotaphonputer”), and

General Magic operated in stealth mode until 1993. By that time, many of Apple’s key employees had transferred to work there, all inspired by the vision of designing a hardware and software platform for handheld “personal intelligent communicators”. Also by that time, the company had assembled a formidable collection of investors, including AT&T, Sony, Motorola, Philips, and Panasonic. These backers were joined in due course by British Telecom, Cable & Wireless, France Telecom, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, NTT DoCoMo, Nortel, Sanyo, and Toshiba. All these companies provided a senior executive to what was known as the “Founding Partner’s Council”, and backed General Magic with a financial stake of up to $6M each.

One powerful feature of the film is the interweaving of lots of archival documentary footage, shot during the company’s formative period by Sarah Kerruish. That shows, for example, a young Megan Smith saying that, one day, the technology would fit onto a device as small as a “Dick Tracy wristwatch”. Smith later served under Barack Obama as the USA’s Chief Technology Officer. As it happens, another young employee at General Magic, Kevin Lynch, went on to lead the Apple Watch project. And that’s only the start of the list of stellar accomplishments which lay ahead for one-time General Magic employees. As the film points out, around 98% of the present day smartphone market can be traced to efforts of two people who sat close to each other in the General Magic workspace: Andy Rubin, the designer of Android, and Tony Fadell, who is credited as “father of the iPod” and “co-inventor of the iPhone”. Rubin is mainly missing from the movie, but Fadell appears regularly, speaking with great passion.

With the aid of Goldman Sachs, General Magic IPO’ed in February 1995, in a huge publicity wave. The company’s stock price promptly doubled.

However, the company was already facing many issues. I touched on these in a short section in my own 2014 book Smartphones and Beyond, in the chapter entitled “Die like IBM, or die like Apple”. That chapter referred to various ideas contemplated by Psion in the mid 1990s as its software team laboured to create what would later be known as Symbian OS – software initially targeted for a device code-named “Protea” (this would reach the market in 1997 as the Psion Series 5):

Psion’s confidence about the prospects for its forthcoming 32-bit software system (the future Symbian OS), that was so high when serious coding had started on that system in late 1994, had grown considerably more tentative by the first half of 1996. One reason was the repeated delays in the development project, as mentioned in the previous chapter. But another reason was the changing competitive landscape.

Mounting competition

As the Protea project zigzagged forwards, sideways, and sometimes backwards, with uncertain and seemingly unknowable end date, Psion’s senior management wondered from time to time whether a different software system, obtained from outside the company, might prove a better bet for future mobile products.

For example, there was a period of around a week when senior management were enthralled by the “Magic Cap” system from a Californian company with the audacious name “General Magic”. General Magic had been spun out of Apple in 1990…

Partners and investors for General Magic included Sony, Motorola, AT&T, Philips, Matsushita, and British Telecom. A powerful buzz about the company’s future meant that its stock price doubled on the first day of its IPO in February 1995. It was therefore understandable that Psion senior managers would consider joining the General Magic party, and licence Magic Cap for use in their PDAs. After all, one of them whispered, think of the cost savings from not needing to maintain such a large in-house team of Psion’s own software developers. How much simpler to utilise ready-made software, created by the same team that had achieved such marvels in their earlier careers elsewhere in Silicon Valley! And how cute the Magic Cap software seemed, with its real-world metaphors and winsome bouncing rabbit.

That particular fancy soon evaporated. The Magic Cap software might appear cute, but closer examination revealed shallowness (weak functionality) in practice. The devices brought to market – by Sony and Motorola – were pale shadows of what the General Magic marketing machine had previously led people to expect. In contrast, Psion could see the strength in depth baked into the developing 32-bit Epoc software system. Psion’s development team escaped this particular axe.

(See here for a longer excerpt from that chapter.)

Total sales of the two devices running General Magic’s software were a paltry 3,000 units. The devices fell a long way short of the vision, and had few redeeming features. The company started a brutal downward slide. Investors were left high and dry. The post-IPO stock price of $26 per share had fallen to $1.38 by 1999.

The film highlights a major learning: the way to implement a grand vision is via a series of incremental steps. Don’t try to fit every desired innovation into a single release of a product. Do it in stages, with good quality throughout. That’s a lesson which Tony Fadell took with him from General Magic to Apple in later life, where he oversaw regular increments to the functionality of the iPod, which in time laid the foundation for a similar set of regular increments in the functionality of the iPhone.

What the film emphasises less is the difficulty posed to the company by its wide set of powerful investors and their divergent interests. The governance problems of General Magic were high in the minds of the executives from Ericsson and Nokia who visited Psion’s offices in central London in April 1998 to discuss the potential formation of the Symbian joint venture. With the approval of a team from Nokia that included Mikko Terho and Juha Putkiranta, Ericsson’s Anders Wästerlid included the following points in a set of guiding principles:

Avoid the structure of General Magic

Need to be able to act fast

Need to learn how to deal effectively with conflicts within the group of owners

Yes, Ericsson and Nokia wanted other companies to become involved with the joint venture, in due course. However, they offered this practical observation:

The more people who are in the boat, the tougher it is to start. But it’s easy for more people to jump in once the boat is moving.

(That meeting, as well as many other steps in the formation of Symbian, are covered in a later chapter of my book, “Death Star or Nova”.)

To its credit, the film highlights one more way in which the vision of General Magic failed to anticipate market development: lack of appreciation of the forthcoming importance of the worldwide web. The services accessed on General Magic devices would be provided by the network operator, such as AT&T. It was an intern who, apparently, first drew this omission to the attention of the General Magic leadership.

Where the film does less well is in the implication running nearly all the way through, that the work of General Magic laid a uniquely important basis for what smartphones subsequently became. One commentator states, “Without General Magic, there could never have been Android”.

In this regard, the film provides an overly Silicon Valley centred view of the prehistory of today’s smartphones.

Here’s just some of what’s missing from that view, and from what General Magic was trying to accomplish:

  • The emergence (as just mentioned) of the web
  • Push technology, pioneered by BlackBerry RIM
  • The devices in Japan running on NTT DoCoMo’s network, with their rich ecosystem of iMode apps and services
  • The devices running Brew services on Qualcomm phones
  • Simple PC connectivity, as pioneered by Palm
  • Access to enterprise services, led by Microsoft’s handheld computers
  • Nokia’s first communicator, launched in 1996, running software from GeoWorks
  • The first device marketed as a smartphone, the GS 88 launched by Ericsson in 1997, also running GeoWorks software.

Last, but not least, I am bound to mention the very considerable thinking that took place at Psion, from the early 1980s onwards. When I started work at Psion as a software engineer in June 1988, I discovered that a huge amount of design had already taken place for what would eventually become the Psion Series 3 communicator. That design was an iteration on what Psion had learned in a number of earlier projects, including two generations of handheld organiser products. On the launch of the Organiser in 1984, Psion had declared the device to be “The world’s first practical pocket computer”. This phrase headlined a magazine promotion which can be found, along with lots of other useful archive material, on Eddie Slupski’s ‘Bioeddie’ website. The magazine article went on: “The Psion Organiser will change the way you work.” It was a prescient claim.

(For more about these early design ideas at Psion, see, you guessed it, another chapter from my book, “Before the beginning”. For the causes of Psion’s eventual departure from the consumer handheld space, see later chapters of the same book.)

It’s often said that history gets to be written by the victors. The world’s most successful smartphones, by far, are from two Silicon Valley companies, Apple and Google. Therefore Silicon Valley insiders have the right to emphasise the flow of personnel and ideas from General Magic to these current platforms. Indeed, it’s a fascinating story.

However, my own view is that one dimensional accounts of history – however absorbing – are likely to mislead. The best products and services are able to integrate insights and contributions from multiple diverse backgrounds.

1 October 2019

“Lifespan” – a book to accelerate the emerging paradigm change in healthcare

Harvard Medical School professor David Sinclair has written a remarkable book that will do for an emerging new paradigm in healthcare what a similarly remarkable book by Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom has been doing for an emerging new paradigm in artificial intelligence.

In both cases, the books act to significantly increase the tempo of the adoption of the new paradigm.

Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence – subtitled Paths, Dangers, Strategies – caught the attention of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Barack Obama, and many more, who have collectively amplified its message. That message is the need to dramatically increase the priority of research into the safety of systems that contain AGI (artificial general intelligence). AGI will be a significant step up in capability from today’s “narrow” AI (which includes deep learning as well as “good old fashioned” expert systems), and therefore requires a significant step up in capability of safety engineering. In the wake of a wider appreciation of the scale of the threat (and, yes, the opportunity) ahead, funding has been provided for important initiatives such as the Future of Life Institute, OpenAI, and Partnership on AI. Thank goodness!

Sinclair’s book, Lifespan – subtitled Why We Age, and Why We Don’t Have To – is poised to be read, understood, and amplified by a similar group of key influencers of public thinking. In this case, the message is that a transformation is at hand in how we think about illness and health. Rather than a “disease first” approach, what is now possible – and much more desirable – is an “aging first” approach that views aging as the treatable root cause of numerous diseases. In the wake of a wider appreciation of the scale of the opportunity ahead (and, yes, the threat to society if healthcare continues along its current outdated disease-first trajectory), funding is likely to be provided to accelerate research into the aging-first paradigm. Thank goodness!

Bostom’s book drew upon the ideas of earlier writers, including Eliezer Yudkowsky and Ray Kurzweil. It also embodied decades of Bostrom’s own thinking and research into the field.

Sinclair’s book likewise builds upon ideas of earlier writers, including Aubrey de Grey and (again) Ray Kurzweil. Again, it also embodies decades of Sinclair’s own thinking and research into the field.

Both books are occasionally heavy going for the general reader – especially for a general reader who is in a hurry. But both take care to explain their thinking in a step-by-step process. Both contain many human elements in their narrative. Neither books contain the last word on their subject matter – and, indeed, parts will likely prove to be incorrect in the fullness of time. But both perform giant steps forwards for the paradigms they support.

The above remarks about the book Lifespan are part of what I’ll be talking about later today, in Brussels, at an open lunch event to mark the start of this year’s Longevity Month.

Longevity Month is an opportunity to celebrate recent progress, and to anticipate faster progress ahead, for the paradigm shift mentioned above:

  • Rather than studying each chronic disease separately, science should prioritise study of aging as the common underlying cause (and aggravator) of numerous chronic diseases
  • Rather than treating aging as an unalterable “fact of nature” (which, by the way, it isn’t), we should regard aging as an engineering problem which is awaiting an engineering solution.

In my remarks at this event, I’ll also be sharing my overall understanding of how paradigm shifts take place (and the opposition they face):

I’ll run through a simple explanation of the ideas behind the “aging-first” paradigm – a paradigm of regular medical interventions to repair or remove the damage caused at cellular and inter-cellular levels as a by-product of normal human metabolism:

Finally, I’ll be summarising the growing momentum of progress in a number of areas, and suggesting how that momentum has the potential to address the key remaining questions in the field:

In addition to me, four other speakers are scheduled to take part in today’s event:

It should be a great occasion!

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