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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!

24 June 2019

Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World

Filed under: AGI, books, irrationality, risks — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 11:45 pm

What the world needs, urgently, is more rationality. It needs a greater number of people to be aware of the mistakes that are, too often, made due to flaws and biases in our thinking processes. It needs a community that can highlight the most important principles of rationality – a community that can help more and more people to learn, step-by-step, better methods of applied rationality. And, critically, the world needs a greater appreciation of a set of existential risks that threaten grave consequences for the future of humanity – risks that include misconfigured artificial superintelligence.

These statements express views held by a community known sometimes as “Less Wrong” (the name of the website on which many of the key ideas were developed), and sometimes, more simply, as “the rationalists”. That last term is frequently used in a new book by science writer Tom Chivers – a book that provides an accessible summary of the Less Wrong community. As well as being accessible, the summary is friendly, fair-minded, and (occasionally) critical.

The subtitle of Chivers’ book is straightforward enough: “Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World”. The race is between, on the one hand, the rapid development of technology with additional capabilities, and on the other hand, the development of suitable safety frameworks to ensure that this technology allows humanity to flourish rather than destroying us.

The title of the book takes a bit more explaining: “The AI Does Not Hate You”.

This phrase is a reference to a statement by one of the leading thinkers of the community in question, Eliezer Yudkowsky:

The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms which it can use for something else.

In other words, the existential risk posed by artificial superintelligence isn’t that it will somehow acquire the human characteristic of hatred, but that it will end up following a trajectory which is misaligned with the best interests of humanity – a trajectory that sees humans as a kind of irrelevance.

To be clear, I share this worry. I’ve given my reasons many times on this personal blog, and I wrote up my own analysis at some length in chapter 9, “Towards abundant intelligence”, in my most recent book, “Sustainable superabundance”. My ideas have been shaped and improved by many things I’ve learned over the years from members of the Less Wrong community. Indeed, my presentations about the future of AI generally include several quotations from Yudkowsky.

However, these ideas often cause a kind of… embarrassment. Various writers on AI have poured scorn on them. Artificial superintelligence won’t arrive any time soon, they assert. Or if it does, it will be easy to keep under human control. Or if it transcends human control, there’s no reason to be alarmed, because its intelligence will automatically ensure that it behaves impeccably towards humans. And so on.

These critics often have a second string to their analysis. Not only do they argue for being relaxed about the idea of existential risks from superintelligence. They also argue that people who do worry about these risks – people like Yudkowsky, or Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom, or Stephen Hawking, or Elon Musk – are somehow personally defective. (“They’re egotistical”, runs one complaint. “There’s no need to pay any attention to these people”, the critics continue, “since they’re just philosophers, or mathematicians, or physicists, or business people, etc, rather than being a real AI expert”.)

At an extreme, this set of criticisms expresses itself in the idea that the Less Wrong community is a “cult“. A related objection is that a focus on humanity’s potential extinction is a distraction from much more pressing real-world issues of the present-day and near-term future – issues such as AI algorithms being biased, or AI algorithms stirring up dangerous social divisions, or increasing economic inequality, or disrupting employment, or making weapons more dangerous.

It’s in this context that the book by Chivers arrives. It tackles head-on the controversies around the Less Wrong community – controversies over its ideas, methods, aims, and the lifestyles and personalities of many of its leading figures. It does this carefully and (for the most part) engagingly.

As the book proceeds, Chivers gives voice to the various conflicting ideas he finds in himself regarding the core ideas of the Less Wrong community. My own judgement is that his assessments are fair. He makes it clear that, despite its “weird” angles, the community deserves more attention – much more attention – for its core ideas, and for the methods of rationality that it advocates.

It’s a cerebral book, but with considerable wit. And there are some touching stories in it (especially – spoiler alert – towards the end).

The book provides the very useful service of providing short introductions to many topics on which the Less Wrong community has written voluminously. On many occasions over the years, I’ve clicked into Less Wrong material, found it to be interesting, but also… long. Oh-so-long. And I got distracted long before I reached the punchline. In contrast, the book by Chivers is divided up into digestible short chunks, with a strong sense of momentum throughout.

As for the content of the book, probably about 50% was material that I already knew well, and which gave me no surprise. About 30% was material with which I was less familiar, and which filled in gaps in my previous understanding. That leaves perhaps 20% of the content which was pretty new to me.

I can’t say that the book has made me change my mind about any topic. However, it has made me want to find out more about the courses offered by CFAR (the Center For Applied Rationality), which features during various episodes Chivers recounts. And I’m already thinking of ways in which I’ll update my various slidesets, on account of the ideas covered in the book.

In summary, I would recommend this book to anyone who has heard about Less Wrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Bostrom, or others in the extended rationalist community, and who is unsure what to think about the ideas they champion. This book will give you plenty of help in deciding how seriously you should take these ideas. You’ll find good reasons to counter the voices of those critics who seek (for whatever reasons) to belittle the Less Wrong community. And if you end up more worried than before about the existential risks posed by artificial superintelligence, that’s no bad thing!

PS1: For a 10 minute audio interview in which Tom Chivers talks about his book, visit this Monocle page.

PS2: If you want to see what the Less Wrong community members think about this book, visit this thread on the Less Wrong site.

14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four steps in the analysis

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

Transcending capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

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

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

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

And to emphasise the point:

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

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

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

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

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

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

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

Populism and its dangers

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

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

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

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

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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