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30 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Phil Teer:

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

From Calum Chace:

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

From Barb Jacobson:

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

From Carin Ism:

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

From Gennady Stolyarov:

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

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

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

From Dean Bubley:

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

From Rohit Talwar:

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

Further responses from the initial panellists:

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

From Wendy Grossman:

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

From Tim Pendry:

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

Fourth round of panellist responses:

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

From Tony Czarnecki:

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

From Alexandria Black:

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

Final round of discussion points:

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

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

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

19 March 2020

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

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

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

But what does this mean in practice?

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

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

Context: our event

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

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

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

Context: Zoom

Zoom is available at a number of different price levels:

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

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

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

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

Limitations and improvements

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding who speaks

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

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

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

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

Added on 20th March

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

Thanks to Joe Kay for drawing this to my attention!

Summarising key points

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

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

Learning together

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

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

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

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

Four overlapping trajectories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End of extract from Anticipating 2025.]

How well have we done?

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

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

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

Maybe the group is more aptly Reactionism.

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

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

But have our messages been heard?

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

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

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

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

Footnote: with thanks

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

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

14 May 2018

The key questions about UBIA

The first few times I heard about the notion of Universal Basic Income (UBI), I said to myself, that’s a pretty dumb idea.

Paying people without them doing any work is going to cause big problems for society, I thought. It’s going to encourage laziness, and discourage enterprise. Why should people work hard, if the fruits of their endeavour are taken away from them to be redistributed to people who can’t be bothered to work? It’s not fair. And it’s a recipe for social decay.

But since my first encounters with the idea of UBI, my understanding has evolved a long way. I have come to see the idea, not as dumb, but as highly important. Anyone seriously interested in the future of human society ought to keep abreast of the discussion about UBI:

  • What are the strengths and (yes) the weaknesses of UBI?
  • What alternatives could be considered, that have the strengths of UBI but avoid its weaknesses?
  • And, bearing in mind that the most valuable futurist scenarios typically involve the convergence (or clash) of several different trend analyses, what related ideas might transform our understanding of UBI?

For these reasons, I am hosting a day-long London Futurists event at Birkbeck College, Central London, on Saturday 2nd June, with the title “Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives: 2018 update”.

The event is defined by the question,

What do we know, in June 2018, about Universal Basic Income and its alternatives (UBIA), that wasn’t known, or was less clear, just a few years ago?

The event website highlights various components of that question, which different speakers on the day will address:

  • What are the main risks and issues with the concept of UBIA?
  • How might the ideas of UBIA evolve in the years ahead?
  • If not a UBI, what alternatives might be considered, to meet the underlying requirements which have led many people to propose a UBI?
  • What can we learn from the previous and ongoing experiments in Basic Income?
  • What are the feasible systems (new or increased taxes, or other means) to pay for a UBIA?
  • What steps can be taken to make UBIA politically feasible?
  • What is a credible roadmap for going beyond a “basic” income towards enabling attainment of a “universal prosperity” by everyone?

As you can see from the event website, an impressive list of speakers have kindly agreed to take part. Here’s the schedule for the day:

09:30: Doors open
10:00: Chair’s welcome: The questions that deserve the most attention: David Wood
10:15: Opening keynote: Basic Income – Making it happenProf Guy Standing
11:00: Implications of Information TechnologyProf Joanna Bryson
11:30: Alternatives to UBI – Exploring the PossibilitiesRohit TalwarHelena Calle and Steve Wells
12:15: Q&A involving all morning speakers
12:30: Break for lunch (lunch not provided)

14:00: Basic Income as a policy and a perspective: Barb Jacobson
14:30: Implications of Artificial Intelligence on UBIATony Czarnecki
15:00: Approaching the Economic SingularityCalum Chace
15:30: What have we learned? And what should we do next? David Wood
16:00-16:30: Closing panel involving all speakers
16:30: Event closes. Optional continuation of discussion in nearby pub

A dumb idea?

In the run-up to the UBIA 2018 event, I’ll make a number of blogposts anticipating some of the potential discussion on the day.

First, let me return to the question of whether UBI is a dumb idea. Viewing the topic from the angle of laziness vs. enterprise is only one possible perspective. As is often the case, changing your perspective often provides much needed insight.

Instead, let’s consider the perspective of “social contract”. Reflect on the fact that society already provides money to people who aren’t doing any paid work. There are basic pension payments for everyone (so long as they are old enough), basic educational funding for everyone (so long as they are young enough), and basic healthcare provisions for people when they are ill (in most countries of the world).

These payments are part of what is called a “social contract”. There are two kinds of argument for having a social contract:

  1. Self-interested arguments: as individuals, we might need to take personal benefit of a social contract at some stage in the future, if we unexpectedly fall on hard times. What’s more, if we fail to look after the rest of society, the rest of society might feel aggrieved, and rise up against us, pitchforks (or worse) in hand.
  2. Human appreciation arguments: all people deserve basic stability in their life, and a social contract can play a significant part in providing such stability.

What’s harder, of course, is to agree which kind of social contract should be in place. Whole libraries of books have been written on that question.

UBI can be seen as fitting inside a modification of our social contract. It would be part of what supporters say would be an improved social contract.

Note: although UBI is occasionally suggested as a replacement for the entirety of the current welfare system, it is more commonly (and, in my view, more sensibly) proposed as a replacement for only some of the current programmes.

Proponents of UBI point to two types of reason for including UBI as part of a new social contract:

  1. Timeless arguments – arguments that have been advanced in various ways by people throughout history, such as Thomas More (1516), Montesquieu (1748), Thomas Paine (1795), William Morris (1890), Bertrand Russell (1920), Erich Fromm (1955), Martin Luther King (1967), and Milton Friedman (1969)
  2. Time-linked arguments – arguments that foresee drastically changed circumstances in the relatively near future, which increase the importance of adopting a UBI.

Chief among the time-linked arguments are that the direct and indirect effects of profound technological change is likely to transform the work environment in unprecedented ways. Automation, powered by AI that is increasingly capable, may eat into more and more of the skills that we humans used to think are “uniquely human”. People who expected to earn money by doing various tasks may find themselves unemployable – robots will do these tasks more reliably, more cheaply, and with greater precision. People who spend some time retraining themselves in anticipation of a new occupation may find that, over the same time period, robots have gained the same skills faster than humans.

That’s the argument for growing technological unemployment. It’s trendy to criticise this argument nowadays, but I find the criticisms to be weak. I won’t repeat all the ins and outs of that discussion now, since I’ve covered them at some length in Chapter 4 of my book Transcending Politics. (An audio version of this chapter is currently available to listen to, free of charge, here.)

A related consideration talks, not about technological unemployment, but about technological underemployment. People may be able to find paid work, but that work pays considerably less than they expected. Alternatively, their jobs may have many rubbishy aspects. In the terminology of David Graeber, increasing numbers of jobs are “bullshit jobs”. (Graeber will be speaking on that very topic at the RSA this Thursday. At time of writing, tickets are still available.)

Yet another related concept is that of the precariat – people whose jobs are precarious, since they have no guarantee of the number of hours of work they may receive in any one week. People in these positions would often prefer to be able to leave these jobs and spend a considerable period of time training for a different kind of work – or starting a new business, with all the risks and uncertainties entailed. If a UBI were available to them, it would give them the stability to undertake that personal voyage.

How quickly will technological unemployment and technological underemployment develop? How quickly will the proportion of bullshit jobs increase? How extensive and socially dangerous will the precariat become?

I don’t believe any futurist can provide crisp answers to these questions. There are too many unknowns involved. However, equally, I don’t believe anyone can say categorically that these changes won’t occur (or won’t occur any time soon). My personal recommendation is that society needs to anticipate the serious possibility of relatively rapid acceleration of these trends over the next couple of decades. I’d actually put the probability of a major acceleration in these trends over the next 20 years as greater than 50%. But even if you assess the odds more conservatively, you ought to have some contingency plans in mind, just in case the pace quickens more than you expected.

In other words, the time-linked arguments in favour of exploring a potential UBI have considerable force.

As it happens, the timeless arguments may gain increased force too. If it’s true that the moral arc of history bends upwards – if it’s true that moral sensibilities towards our fellow humans increase over the passage of time – then arguments which at one time fell below society’s moral radar can gain momentum in the light of collective experience and deliberative reflection.

An impractical idea?

Many people who are broadly sympathetic to the principle of UBI nevertheless consider the concept to be deeply impractical. For example, here’s an assessment by veteran economics analyst John Kay, in his recent article “Basic income schemes cannot work and distract from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms”:

The provision of a universal basic income at a level which would provide a serious alternative to low-paid employment is impossibly expensive. Thus, a feasible basic income cannot fulfil the hopes of some of the idea’s promoters: it cannot guarantee households a standard of living acceptable in a modern society, it cannot compensate for the possible disappearance of existing low-skilled employment and it cannot eliminate “bullshit jobs”. Either the level of basic income is unacceptably low, or the cost of providing it is unacceptably high. And, whatever the appeal of the underlying philosophy, that is essentially the end of the matter.

Kay offers this forthright summary:

Attempting to turn basic income into a realistic proposal involves the reintroduction of elements of the benefit system which are dependent on multiple contingencies and also on income and wealth. The outcome is a welfare system which resembles those that already exist. And this is not surprising. The complexity of current arrangements is not the result of bureaucratic perversity. It is the product of attempts to solve the genuinely difficult problem of meeting the variety of needs of low-income households while minimising disincentives to work for households of all income levels – while ensuring that the system established for that purpose is likely to sustain the support of those who are required to pay for it.

I share Piachaud’s conclusion that basic income is a distraction from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms. As in other areas of policy, it is simply not the case that there are simple solutions to apparently difficult issues which policymakers have hitherto been too stupid or corrupt to implement.

Supporters of UBI have rebuttals to this analysis. Some of these rebuttals will no doubt be presented at the UBIA 2018 event on 2nd June.

One rebuttal seeks to rise above “zero sum” considerations. Injecting even a small amount of money into everyone’s hands can have “multiplier” effects, as that new money passes in turn through several people’s hands. One person’s spending is another person’s income, ready for them to spend in turn.

Along similar lines, Professor Guy Standing, who will be delivering the opening keynote at UBIA 2018, urges readers of his book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen to consider positive feedback cycles: “the likely impact of extra spending power on the supply of goods and services”. As he says,

In developing countries, and in low-income communities in richer countries, supply effects could actually lower prices for basic goods and services. In the Indian basic income pilots, villagers’ increased purchasing power led local farmers to plant more rice and wheat, use more fertilizer and cultivate more of their land. Their earnings went up, while the unit price of the food they supplied went down. The same happened with clothes, since several women found it newly worthwhile to buy sewing machines and material. A market was created where there was none before.

A similar response could be expected in any community where there are people who want to earn more and do more, alongside people wanting to acquire more goods and services to improve their living standard.

(I am indebted to Standing’s book for many other insights that have influenced my thinking and, indeed, points raised in this blogpost. It’s well worth reading!)

There’s a broader point that needs to be raised, about the “prices for basic goods and services”. Since a Basic Income needs to cover payments for these goods and services, two approaches are possible:

  1. Seek to raise the level of Basic Income payments
  2. Seek to lower the cost of basic goods and services.

I believe both approaches should be pursued in parallel. The same technologies of automation that pose threats to human employment also hold the promise for creating goods and services at significantly lower costs (and with higher quality). However, any such reduction in cost sits in tension with the prevailing societal focus on boosting economic prices (and increasing GDP). It is for this reason that we need a change of societal values as well as changes in the mechanics of the social contract.

The vision of goods and services having prices approaching zero is, by the way, sometimes called “the Star Trek economy”. Futurist Calum Chace – another of the UBIA 2018 speakers – addresses this topic is his provocatively titled book The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism. Here’s an extract from one of his blogposts, a “un-forecast” (Chace’s term) for a potential 2050 scenario, “Future Bites 7 – The Star Trek Economy”, featuring Lauren (born 1990):

The race downhill between the incomes of governments and the costs they needed to cover for their citizens was nerve-wracking for a few years, but by the time Lauren hit middle age it was clear the outcome would be good. Most kinds of products had now been converted into services, so cars, houses, and even clothes were almost universally rented rather than bought: Lauren didn’t know anyone who owned a car. The cost of renting a car for a journey was so close to zero that the renting companies – auto manufacturers or AI giants and often both – generally didn’t bother to collect the payment. Money was still in use, but was becoming less and less necessary.

As a result, the prices of most asset classes had crashed. Huge fortunes had been wiped out as property prices collapsed, especially in the hot-spot cities, but few people minded all that much as they could get whatever they needed so easily.

As you may have noticed, the vision of a potential future “Star Trek” economy is part of the graphic design for UBIA 2018.

I’ll share one further comment on the question of the affordability of UBI. Specifically, I’ll quote some comments made by Guardian writer Colin Holtz in the wake of the discovery of the extent of tax evasion revealed by the Panama Papers. The article by Holtz has the title “The Panama Papers prove it: America can afford a universal basic income”. Here’s an extract:

If the super-rich actually paid what they owe in taxes, the US would have loads more money available for public services.

We should all be able to agree: no one should be poor in a nation as wealthy as the US. Yet nearly 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. Perhaps one of the best solutions is also one of the oldest and simplest ideas: everyone should be guaranteed a small income, free from conditions.

Called a universal basic income by supporters, the idea has has attracted support throughout American history, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr. But it has also faced unending criticism for one particular reason: the advocates of “austerity” say we simply can’t afford it – or any other dramatic spending on social security.

That argument dissolved this week with the release of the Panama Papers, which reveal the elaborate methods used by the wealthy to avoid paying back the societies that helped them to gain their wealth in the first place…

While working and middle-class families pay their taxes or face consequences, the Panama Papers remind us that the worst of the 1% have, for years, essentially been stealing access to Americans’ common birthright, and to the benefits of our shared endeavors.

Worse, many of those same global elite have argued that we cannot afford to provide education, healthcare or a basic standard of living for all, much less eradicate poverty or dramatically enhance the social safety net by guaranteeing every American a subsistence-level income.

The Tax Justice Network estimates the global elite are sitting on $21–32tn of untaxed assets. Clearly, only a portion of that is owed to the US or any other nation in taxes – the highest tax bracket in the US is 39.6% of income. But consider that a small universal income of $2,000 a year to every adult in the US – enough to keep some people from missing a mortgage payment or skimping on food or medicine – would cost only around $563bn each year.

This takes us from the question of affordability to the question of political feasibility. Read on…

A politically infeasible idea?

A potential large obstacle to adopting UBI is that powerful entities within society will fight hard against it, being opposed to any idea of increased taxation and a decline in their wealth. These entities don’t particularly care that the existing social contract provides a paltry offering to the poor and precarious in society – or to those “inadequates” who happen to lose their jobs and their standing in the economy. The existing social contract provides them personally (and those they consider their peers) with a large piece of the cake. They’d like to keep things that way, thank you very much.

They defend the current setup with ideology. The ideology states that they deserve their current income and wealth, on account of the outstanding contributions they have made to the economy. They have created jobs, or goods, or services of one sort or another, that the marketplace values. And no-one has any right to take their accomplishments away from them.

In other words, they defend the status quo with a theory of value. In order to overcome their resistance to UBIA, I believe we’ll need to tackle this theory of value head on, and provide a better theory in its place. I’ll pick up that thread of thought shortly.

But an implementation of UBI doesn’t need to happen “big bang” style, all at once. It can proceed in stages, starting with a very low level, and (all being well) ramping up from there in phases. The initial payment from UBI could be funded from new types of tax that would, in any case, improve the health of society:

  • A tax on financial transactions (sometimes called a “Tobin tax”) – that will help to put the brakes on accelerated financial services taking place entirely within the financial industry (without directly assisting the real economy)
  • A “Greenhouse gas tax” (such as a “carbon tax”) on activities that generate greenhouse gas pollution.

Continuing the discussion

The #ubia channel in the newly created London Futurists Slack workspace awaits comments on this topic. For a limited time, members and supporters of London Futurists can use this link to join that workspace.

2 July 2017

If your Windows 10 laptop doesn’t connect to websites

Filed under: Connectivity, Microsoft — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 1:31 pm

What should you do if your Windows 10 laptop fails to connect to any website? With the same problem in both Chrome and Microsoft Edge?

Suppose, like me, you’ve rebooted your laptop several times, rebooted your home broadband wireless router, and also tried connecting to websites over the cellular SIM that is built into the laptop. All with no avail. What next?

You’d probably, like me, run the Windows Network Diagnostics tool. But what if that fails to report any problems?

That was the situation I was in last night. My laptop had been off the network for a while, as it rendered a 14GB MP4 file from recordings from yesterday’s London Futurists event. (This one, if you’re curious.) But when I was ready to upload the file to YouTube, I hit the connection problem.

As it happens, my laptop is a bit over six years well. It has served me well. But it gets pretty hot from time to time – especially when processing videos. I started to suspect that the heat may have damaged an internal connector. That’s despite the fact that the BIOS diagnostics tests gave the machine a clean bill of health.

I even spent some time disabling anti-virus software. That didn’t make any difference. Nor did leaving the laptop alone, switched off for six hours to cool down as I slept.

At this stage I was beginning to plan the process of buying a new laptop. I went to press the Windows “Shut down” button one more time. I noticed that the button actually said “Update Windows and Shut down”.

Well, I hadn’t been expecting any Windows update. Three days earlier, I’d already been through a very lengthy process of installing something called “Windows 10 Creators Update” – a process I’d accepted on the prompting of messages sent to me by Microsoft through my laptop.

(Did I say ‘lengthy’? A one point during that Creators Update my laptop had displayed a screen for more than two hours saying something like “This will take a while”. The percentage done indicator stayed at 1% for a full 15 minutes, before ticking up to 2%.)

This second update, which took place this morning, also took ages. I stared at my laptop as it warned me, “Getting Windows ready. Don’t turn off your computer”.

After around 30 minutes, I was almost ready to ignore the advice. Before reaching for the hardware reset button, though, I decided to attend to some other household tasks. By the time I returned to my laptop, it was inviting me to log in. Twenty minutes later, I was back online. Chrome was showing me webpages again. Hooray!

In short, my guess is that Microsoft was doing some kind of mass software download to my laptop, at the time I was trying to connect to websites, and for some reason, the Microsoft traffic was exclusively prioritised higher than mine. Too bad that the diagnostic tool gave no inkling of what might be happening.

I notice a recent headline in The Register: “Don’t install our buggy Windows 10 Creators Update, begs Microsoft”. The sub-headline follows up:

We’ll give it to you when it’s ready – and it is not.

My own experience seems to back up that message: the new software can struggle on older hardware.

Windows 10 users take note!

As a postscript, the YouTube video is now available:

14 March 2017

Public events – chances to watch me speak

Here are a few places I’ll be speaking at public events over the next few weeks.

If you happen to be in one of these neighbourhoods, and the timing works for you, it would be great to see you there.

(1) Funzing experience, London EC2A 4JH, Tues 25th April

I’ve only recently found out about Funzing. They connect event hosts and event guests, to allow more people to discover and share experiences that are engaging, interesting, and (yes) fun. Categories of experience on offer include tours and walks, comedy and music shows, craft and DIY workshops, and inspiring talks and lectures.

As an experiment, I’m speaking at one of these events on Tuesday 25th April. My topic will be “Can we abolish aging?”

By 2040, could we have abolished what we now know as biological aging?

It’s a big “if”, but if we decide as a species to make this project a priority, there’s around a 50% chance that practical rejuvenation therapies resulting in the comprehensive reversal of aging will be widely available as early as 2040.

People everywhere, on the application of these treatments, will, if they wish, stop becoming biologically older. Instead, again if they wish, they’ll start to become biologically younger, in both body and mind, as rejuvenation therapies take hold. In short, everyone will have the option to become ageless.

This suggestion tends to provoke two powerful objections. First, people say that it’s not possible that such treatments are going to exist in any meaningful timescale any time soon. In other words, they insist that human rejuvenation can’t be done. It’s wishful thinking to suppose otherwise, they say. It’s bad science. It’s naively over-optimistic. It’s ignorant of the long history of failures in this field. The technical challenges remain overwhelmingly difficult.

Secondly, people say that any such treatments would be socially destructive and morally indefensible. In other words, they insist that human rejuvenation shouldn’t be done. It’s essentially a selfish idea, they say – an idea with all kinds of undesirable consequences for societal harmony or planetary well-being. It’s an arrogant idea, from immature minds. It’s an idea that deserves to be strangled.

Can’t be done; shouldn’t be done – this talk will argue that both these objections are profoundly wrong. The speaker will argue instead that rejuvenation is a noble, highly desirable, eminently practical destiny for our species – a “Humanity+” destiny that could be achieved within just one human generation from now. The abolition of aging is set to take its place on the upward arc of human social progress, echoing developments such as the abolition of slavery, the abolition of racism, and the abolition of poverty…

Funzing clock

For more details, visit the Funzing event page.

Note: you can use the code ‘david10‘ for 10% discount from the normal Funzing entry fee.

For details of other events where I’ll be speaking on themes related to radical extension of healthy life expectancy, keep your eyes on this list.

(2) The future of politics, Manchester, Fri 24th March

Manchester Futurists were founded in January this year, announcing themselves to the world as follows:

We are fascinated by how technological advancement will shape the future, and the social, ethical and economic challenges humanity will face. Come talk about it with us!

We plan to hold regular meetups that introduce concepts relating to futurism, followed by an informal discussion on the subject. Probably followed by the pub 🙂 …

We aim to take an evidence-based approach and avoid pseudoscience. We believe social justice is important to a utopian future, and where appropriate will discuss intersections with feminism, racism, etc…

Join us to exercise your brain, discuss the future and meet people with a passion for technology!

I’ll be their guest speaker on Friday 24th March. Click here for more details and to RSVP.

It will be a chance for me to share some ideas from my forthcoming new book “Fixing Politics: A Technoprogressive Roadmap to a Radically Better Future”.

Cover v2

(This placeholder book cover design is intended to suggest that our political infrastructure is in a perilous state of ruin.)

(3) The case for transhumanism, Brighton, Tues 11th April

On the evening of Tuesday 11th April I’ll be the guest speaker at Brighton Skeptics in the Cafe, presenting the case for transhumanism.

Three logos

Here’s a collection of good definitions of transhumanism, taken from H+Pedia:

  • “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values” – Max More, 1990
  • “Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase” – Transhumanist FAQ
  • “Transhumanism is the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, both physically, mentally and socially using rational methods” – Anders Sandberg, 1997
  • “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remould in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have” – Nick Bostrom, 2003
  • “Transhumanism promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology; attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence” – Nick Bostrom, 2003
  • “Transhumanism is the science-based movement that seeks to transcend human biological limitations via technology” – Philippe van Nedervelde, 2015
  • “Transhumanism anticipates tomorrow’s humanity: Envisaging the positive qualities and characteristics of future intelligent life; Taking steps towards achieving these qualities and characteristics; Identifying and managing risks of negative characteristics of future intelligent life” – Transpolitica website, 2015

At the event, I’ll be setting out my personal vision of “Transhumanism for all”:

  • “Transhumanist benefits for all” – The tremendous benefits of new technology should become available to anyone who wishes to take advantage of them (rather than being restricted to the well off or the well connected)
  • “Transhumanist thinking for all” – The core transhumanist memes should become understood, accepted, and endorsed by a wider and wider set of people, from all walks of life, en route to becoming the default worldview in more and more areas of society.

(4) Artificial Intelligence transforming healthcare, Lyon, Wed 5th April

Biovision Full

Biovision is holding a World Life Sciences Forum from 4th to 6th April in Lyon, France:

This year’s topic in ‘From Global health to One health’. One health is “the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines – working locally, nationally, and globally – to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment”.

The event will have six main themes:

  • Global medical education & training
  • Digital health and innovation for sustainable healthcare
  • Emerging viral diseases
  • Animal health
  • Innovative technologies
  • Science of metagenomics.

I’ll be part of a multi-talented panel on the Wednesday: “Artificial Intelligence: A generous revolution serving health”.

For more details, click here.

(5) Postscript – forthcoming London Futurists events

Don’t forget that London Futurists regularly hold discussion events on Saturday afternoons in Birkbeck College, central London. I chair these events to help ensure a rich flow of questions and answers.

Forthcoming London Futurists events are listed here (with links to more information):

The event this Saturday features Azeem Azhar, the curator and publisher of the phenomenally interesting weekly newsletter “The Exponential View”. Azeem’s topic is “The age of technology has arrived. Now what?”

LonFut AA 18 March 2017.png

 

15 September 2016

Two cheers for “Technology vs. Humanity”

On Saturday I had the pleasure to host Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard at a London Futurists event in central London. The meetup was organised in conjunction with the publication of Gerd’s new book, “Technology vs. Humanity”.

tvh-3d-1

This three minute video from his website gives a fast-paced introduction to Gerd’s thinking:

The subtitle of Gerd’s book indicates the emphasis that comes across loud and clear in its pages: “The coming clash between man and machine”. I have mixed feelings about that emphasis. Yes, a clash between humanity and technology is one of the possible scenarios ahead. But it’s by no means set in stone. If we are smart, much better futures lie ahead. These better future see a combination of the best of present-day humanity and the fruits of technological development, to create what I would call a Humanity+ future.

In the Humanity+ future, technology is used to enhance humanity – making us healthier, kinder, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, and more engaged. In contrast, Gerd expects that technology will result in a downgrade of humanity.

The video of Saturday’s London Futurists event records some dialog on exactly that point. If you’ve got a spare 60 minutes, it’s worth watching the video all the way through. (The Q&A starts after 44 minutes.)

You’ll see that Gerd is an engaging, entertaining presenter, with some stunning visuals.

Hip, hip…

Overall, I am happy to give two cheers to Gerd’s new book – two loud cheers.

The first cheer is that it has many fine examples of the accelerating pace of change. For example, chapter three of his book reviews “ten megashifts”. Gerd starts his presentation with the bold claim that “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years”. He may well be right. Related, Gerd makes a strong case that major change can sneak up on people “gradually and then suddenly”. That’s the nature of exponential change.

The second cheer is even louder than the first one: I completely agree with Gerd that we need to carefully consider the pros and cons of adopting technology in greater areas of our lives. He has a brilliant slide in which human’s attitude towards a fast-improving piece of technology changes from “Magic” to “Manic” and then to “Toxic”. To avoid such progressions, Gerd recommends the formation of something akin to a “Humanity Protection Agency”, similar to the “Environmental Protection Agency” that constrains corporations from polluting and despoiling the environment. Gerd emphasises: just because it is possible to digitise aspects of our lives, it doesn’t mean we should digitise these aspects. More efficient doesn’t always mean better. More profit doesn’t always mean better. More experiences doesn’t always mean better – and so on. Instead of rushing ahead blindly, we need what Gerd calls “exponentially increased awareness”. He’s completely right.

So I am ready to say, “Hip, hip…” – but I hold back from the third cheer (“hurrah”).

Yes, the book can be a pleasure to read, with its clever turns of phrase and poignant examples. But to my mind, the advice in the book will make things unnecessarily hard for humanity – dangerously hard for humanity. That advice will unnecessarily handicap the “Team Human” which the book says it wants to support.

Specifically:

  • The book has too rosy a view of the present state of human nature
  • The book has too limited a view of the positive potential of technology to address the key shortcomings in human nature.

Let’s take these points one at a time.

Human nature

The book refers to human unpredictability, creativity, emotion, and so on, and insists that these aspects of human nature be protected at all costs. Even though machines might do the same tasks as humans, with greater predictability and less histrionics, it doesn’t mean we should hand these tasks over to machines. Thus far, I agree with the argument.

But humans also from time to time manifest a host of destructive characteristics: short-sightedness, stupidity, vengefulness, tribalism, obstructiveness, spitefulness, and so on. It’s possible that these characteristics were, on the whole, useful to humanity in earlier, simpler stages of civilisation. But in present times, with powerful weaponry all around us, these characteristics threaten to plunge humanity into a new dark age.

(I touched on this argument in a recent Transpolitica blogpost, “Flawed humanity, flawed politics”.)

Indeed, despite huge efforts from people all over the globe, the planet is still headed for a potential devastating rise in temperature, due to runaway climate change. What’s preventing an adequate response to this risk is a combination of shortcomings in human society, human politics, human economics, and – not least – human nature.

It’s a dangerous folly to overly romanticise human nature. We humans can, at times, be awful brutes. Our foibles aren’t just matters for bemusement. Our foibles should terrify us.

unfit-for-the-future

I echo the thoughts expressed in a landmark 2012 Philosophy Now article by  Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, “Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement”:

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?…

Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.

We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities…

Underestimating technology

This brings me to the second point where Gerd’s book misfires: its dogmatic dismissal of the possibility of technology to make any significant improvement in “soft” areas of human life, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, and intuition. The book asserts that whilst software might be able to mimic emotions, these emotions will have no real value. For example, no computer would be able to talk to a two year old human child, and hold its attention.

This assessment demonstrates a major blindspot regarding the ways in which software can already provide strong assistance for people suffering from autism, self-doubt, early stage dementia, or other emotional or social deficits. As one example, consider a Guardian article from last year, “How robots are helping children with autism”.

zeno-the-smiling-robot-008

Consider also this comment from Dr Lucy Maddox, an NHS clinical psychologist and lecturer:

There are loads of [computer] apps that claim to use psychological principles to increase wellbeing in some way, encouraging you to keep track of your mood, to manage worry, to influence what you dream about … Can an app really distil something useful from psychological research and plug you into some life-influencing wisdom? I think some can…

This discussion brings to mind the similar dismissals, from the 1970s and early 1980s, of the possibility that the technology of in-vitro fertilisation (“test-tube babies”) could result in fully human babies. The suggestion was that any such “devilish” technology would result in babies that somehow lacked souls. Here’s a comment from Philip Ball from New Humanist:

Doubts about the artificial being’s soul are still with us, although more often expressed now in secular terms: the fabricated person is denied genuine humanity. He or she is thought to be soulless in the colloquial sense: lacking love, warmth, human feeling. In a poll conducted for Life in the early days of IVF research, 39 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men doubted that an “in vitro child would feel love for family”. (Note that it is the sensibilities of the child, not of the parents, that are impaired.) A protest note placed on the car of a Californian fertility doctor when he first began offering an IVF service articulated the popular view more plainly: “Test tube babies have no souls.”

In 1978 Leon Kass – said, later, to be the favourite bioethicist of President George W. Bush – thundered his opposition to in-vitro fertilisation  as follows:

More is at stake [with IVF research] than in ordinary biomedical research or in experimenting with human subjects at risk of bodily harm. At stake is the idea of the humanness of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment, our sexual being, and our relation to ancestors and descendants.

These comments by Kass have strong echoes to the themes developed by Gerd in Technology vs. Humanity.

It turned out, contrary to Kass’s dire forecasts, that human society was more than capable of taking in its stride the opportunities provided by IVF technology. Numerous couples found great joy through that technology. Numerous wonderful children were brought into existence in that way.

It ought to be the same, in due course, with the opportunities provided by technologies to enhance our emotional intelligence, our creativity, our intuition, our compassion, our sociability, and so on. Applied wisely and thoughtfully, these technologies will allow the full potential of humanity to be reached – rather than being sabotaged by our innate shortcomings.

Emphatically, I’m not saying we should be rushing into anything. We need to approach the potential offered by these new technologies with great thoughtfulness. And with a more open mind than Gerd displays.

Dogmatism

I found my head shaking in disbelief at many of the paragraphs in Technology vs. Humanity. For examples, here’s Gerd’s description of the capabilities of Virtual Reality (VR):

Virtual travel technologies such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung VR, and Microsoft’s HoloLens are just beginning to provide us with a very real feeling for what it would be like to raft the Amazon River or climb Mount Fuji. These are already very interesting experiences that will certainly change our way of experiencing reality, of communicating, of working, and of learning… [but] there is still a huge difference between these new ways to experience alternate realities and real life. Picture yourself standing in the middle of a crowded bazaar in Mumbai, India, for just two minutes. Then, compare the memories you would have accumulated in a very short time with those from a much longer but simulated experience using the most advanced systems available today or in the near future. The smells, the sounds and sights – all of these are a thousand times more intense than what even the most advanced gadgetry, fuelled by exponential gains, could ever hope to simulate.

“A thousand times more intense”? More intense than what “the most advanced gadgetry could ever hope to simulate”? Ever?! I see these sweeping claims as an evidence of a closed mind. The advice from elsewhere in the book was better: “gradually, and then suddenly”. The intensity of the emotional experience from VR technology is likely to increase gradually, and then suddenly.

Opening the book to another page, my attention is drawn to the exaggeration in another passage, in the discussion of the possibility of ectogenesis (growing a baby outside a woman’s body in an artificial womb):

I believe it would be utterly dehumanising and detrimental for a baby to be born in such a way.

During his presentation at London Futurists, Gerd used labelled the technology of ectogenesis as “jerk tech”. In discussion in the Marlborough Arms pub after the meetup, several women attendees remarked that they thought only a man could take such a high-handed, dismissive approach to this technology. They emphasised that they were unsure whether they would personally want to take advantage of ectogenesis, but they thought the possibility should be kept open.

Note: for a book that takes a much more thoughtful approach to the possibilities of using technology to transform genetic choice, I recommend Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice” by Ronald Green.

babies-by-design

Transhumanism

The viewpoint I’m advocating, in this review of Technology vs. Humanity, is transhumanism:

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

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom puts it like this:

Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.

One of the best introductions to the ideas of transhumanism is in the evocative “Letter to Mother Nature” written in 1999 by Max More. It starts as follows:

Dear Mother Nature:

Sorry to disturb you, but we humans—your offspring—come to you with some things to say. (Perhaps you could pass this on to Father, since we never seem to see him around.) We want to thank you for the many wonderful qualities you have bestowed on us with your slow but massive, distributed intelligence. You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled mammals. You have given us free rein of the planet. You have given us a life span longer than that of almost any other animal. You have endowed us with a complex brain giving us the capacity for language, reason, foresight, curiosity, and creativity. You have given us the capacity for self-understanding as well as empathy for others.

Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves!

What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end.

We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution, initiated with the tools of biotechnology guided by critical and creative thinking. In particular, we declare the following seven amendments to the human constitution…

In contrast, this is what Gerd says about transhumanism (with similar assertions being scattered throughout his book):

Transhumanism, with its lemming-like rush to the edge of the universe, represents the scariest of all present options.

What “lemming-like rush”? Where’s the “lemming-like rush” in the writings of Nick Bostrom (who co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998)? Recall from his definition,

…by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have

And consider the sixth proposed “human constitutional amendment” from the letter by Max More:

Amendment No.6: We will cautiously yet boldly reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses in ways we, as individuals, deem healthy. We will seek to improve upon typical human emotional excesses, bringing about refined emotions. We will strengthen ourselves so we can let go of unhealthy needs for dogmatic certainty, removing emotional barriers to rational self-correction.

As Max emphasised earlier in his Letter,

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence

To Gerd’s puzzling claim that transhumanists are blind to the potential risks of new technology, let me exhibit as counter-evidence the nearest thing to a canonical document uniting transhumanist thinking – the “Transhumanist Declaration”. Of its eight clauses, at least half emphasise the potential drawbacks of an uncritical approach to technology:

  1. Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
  2. We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
  3. We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
  4. Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
  5. Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
  6. Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
  7. We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
  8. We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

It’s a pity that the editors and reviewers of Gerd’s book did not draw his attention to the many mistakes and misunderstandings of transhumanism that his book contains. My best guess is that the book was produced in a rush. (That would explain the many other errors of fact that are dotted throughout the various chapters.)

To be clear, I accept that many criticisms can be made regarding transhumanism. In an article I wrote for H+Pedia, I collected a total of 18 different criticisms. In that article, I seek to show, in each case,

  • Where these criticisms miss the mark
  • Where these criticisms have substance – so that transhumanists ought to pay attention.

That article – like all other H+Pedia articles – is open for further contributions. Either edit the page directly. Or raise some comments on the associated “Discussion” page.

The vital need for an improved conversation

The topics covered in Technology vs. Humanity have critical importance. A much greater proportion of humanity’s collective attention should be focused onto these topics. To that extent, I fully support Gerd’s call for an improved global conversation on the risks and opportunities of the forthcoming impact of accelerating technology.

During that conversation, each of us will likely find some of our opinions changing, as we move beyond an initial “future shock” to a calmer, more informed reflection of the possibilities. We need to move beyond a breathless “gee whiz” and an anguished “oh this is awful”.

The vision of an improved conversation about the future is what has led me to invest so much of my own time over the years in the London Futurists community.

lf-banner

More recently, that same vision has led me to support the H+Pedia online wiki – a Humanity+ project to spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism and futurism among the general public.

banner

As the welcome page states,

H+Pedia welcomes constructive contributions from everyone interested in the future of humanity.

By all means get involved! Team Human deserves your support. Team Human also deserves the best information, free of dogmatism, hype, insecurity, or commercial pressures. Critically, Team Human deserves not to be deprived of access to the smart transformational technology of the near future that can become the source of its greatest flourishing.

23 June 2016

Acceptance and change

Is it narcissist to seek a cure for aging? Is it egocentric or immature?

That’s an accusation that often comes my way.

The short answer is that it’s no more narcissist to seek a cure for aging than it is to seek a cure for cancer, or for dementia. (Moreover, as I argue in Chapter 2 of my book The Abolition of Aging, the most effective route to cure cancer may well be to cure aging first.)

Nor was it narcissist of previous medical pioneers to seek cures for TB, or for malaria.

Nor was it narcissist for slaves to dare to want to be free of their bondage. Nor was it narcissist for women to dare to want the right to vote. Thank goodness.

Suffragettes 1024x576

There’s a section in Chapter 1 of The Abolition of Aging where I review a variant of this argument. Here’s a copy of that section.

Acceptance and change

At first glance, rejuveneers seem to stand opposed to a profound piece of humanitarian wisdom – wisdom expressed by, among others, Gautama Buddha, 2nd century Stoic advocate Marcus Aurelius, and 20th century American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

That wisdom urges serenity and acceptance in the face of life’s deep challenges. There’s no merit in becoming unnecessarily agitated about an issue – such as the onset of aging – if there’s nothing that can be done about that issue. Why discuss a painful problem if you can’t change the outcome? What’s the point of complaining if there’s no solution available?

It’s as stated in the opening lines of Niebuhr’s famous “serenity prayer” (a prayer that everyone can appreciate, without any need to believe in a supernatural deity):

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

A similar thought lies at the heart of Buddhism. The “Four Noble Truths” state that suffering arises from attachment to desires, and that suffering ceases only when attachment to desire ceases. To transcend the omnipresence of suffering, we have to learn to accept life as it is, and to set aside desire – such as the desire for better material possessions, pleasure, security, or long life.

The Stoic philosophy of life, developed in ancient Greece and Rome, likewise emphasises an attitude of acceptance. As Epictetus (55-135 AD) stated,

Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.

Stoic advocate Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), who was emperor of Rome for the last 19 years of his life, posed the following questions in his “Meditations”:

Why do you hunger for length of days? The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.

Admiration of “Stoic calm” persists to the present day. Former American president Bill Clinton has been quoted as saying that “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” was his favourite book. Stoicism is highlighted by self-education advocate Paul Jun as providing “9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos”:

Not only does philosophy teach us how to live well and become better humans, but it can also aid in overcoming life’s trials and tribulations. Some schools of thought are for more abstract thinking and debate, whereas others are tools that are immediately practical to our current endeavours.

The principles within Stoicism are, perhaps, the most relevant and practical sets of rules for entrepreneurs, writers, and artists of all kinds. The Stoics focus on two things:

  1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?
  2. How can we become better human beings?

The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, realizing our ephemeral nature and the short time allotted—these were all meditative practices that helped them live with their nature and not against it.

It is in contrast to these philosophies of mature acceptance – philosophies that emphasise uncomplaining acknowledgement of our finitude and our limits – that rejuveneers can be portrayed as arrogant, grasping, and juvenile. Rejuveneers dare to complain about the perceived insult of deteriorative aging. Rejuveneers have the audacity to imagine that an outcome unavailable to the greats of the past – including giants such as Marcus Aurelius, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Gautama Buddha – namely, the option of indefinite youthfulness – might shortly be available to present-day folk. Rejuveneers, according to this line of thought, lack the self-awareness to realise how unreasonable their ambition is. Indeed, the hubris of the rejuveneers can seem absurd.

Three sages

But the quotes given above tell only a part of the story. For example, there’s more to Buddhism than acceptance. Buddhist mindfulness coach Sunada Takagi comments as follows:

Acceptance is the first step toward change

I recently had a couple people raise doubts to me about the Buddhist idea of “accepting what is.” Isn’t it too passive? What if we’re in a situation that’s really unacceptable?

I’ve come across a few things recently that speak to this. Each makes a slightly different point, but they all basically say the same thing. “Accepting what is” does not mean passive acquiescence. Far from it, it’s the first step in making real and lasting change…

So “accepting what is” is not about passivity at all. It’s about clear seeing… Paradoxically, it’s when we take responsibility for our own failings and difficulties, or those of the world around us, that the real process of change can begin to take place. I see it as an essential starting point for anything we take on in life.

Paul Jun, the writer I quoted above on the Stoic philosophy, also adopts a strong action-orientation. For him, being stoical is far from being passive. It can, as he says, be the prelude to urgency:

Remind yourself that time is our most precious resource

What I particularly love and find challenging about Stoicism is that death is at the forefront of their thoughts. They realized the ephemeral nature of humans and how this is repeated in many facets of life.

It provides a sense of urgency, to realize that you’ve lived a certain number of hours and the hours ahead of you are not guaranteed as the ones you have lived. When I think of this I realize that everyday truly is an opportunity to improve, not in a cliché kind of way, but to learn to honestly appreciate what we are capable of achieving and how we are very responsible for the quality of our lives.

This makes our self-respect, work ethic, generosity, self-awareness, attention, and growth ever more important. The last thing any of us wants to do is die with regret, hence why following principles of Stoicism puts your life into perspective. It humbles you and should also deeply motivate you.

That brings us back to the serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr. Above, I quoted the first clause of that prayer – the so-called “acceptance clause”. But there are two more clauses: an action clause and a wisdom clause. Here’s the entirety:

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
.

Just as people can, rightly, be criticised for foolhardily attempting to change something that cannot be altered, so also can they, again rightly, be criticised for passively accepting some massive flaw or shortcoming which, it turns out, lay within their capacity to fix.

The most important clause in this prayer, arguably, is the “wisdom clause”: if we can find out, objectively, whether something lies within our collective ability, it makes all the difference as to whether the right thing to do is to seek accommodation or to seek transformation.

For rejuveneering, I have no doubt that the right thing to do is to seek transformation. Doing otherwise would be akin – to borrow another motif from Christian heritage – to walking past on the other side of the road, keeping well away from an unfortunate traveller who has been mugged, stripped of his clothing, and left half dead. When regarding the unfortunate state of everyone around the world that is already “half dead” due to the approach of diseases of old age, who amongst us will prove to be a “good Samaritan” that sees the plight and provides tangible support? And who, in contrast, will be like the priest and the Levite of the biblical parable, rushing past with eyes averted, preoccupied with whatever else fits the accepting-aging paradigm?

Footnote

I’ll be addressing some of the themes of The Abolition of Aging at a London Futurists event this Saturday. Click here for more details.

DW Scenarios for life extension Slide 18

21 June 2016

5G World Futurist Summit

Filed under: disruption, Events, futurist — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 11:30 pm

Intro slide

On Wednesday next week, 29th June, it will be my pleasure to chair the Futurist Summit which is one of the free-to-attend streams happening as part of the 5G World event taking place at London’s Olympia.

You can read more about the summit here, and more about the 5G World event here.

The schedule for the summit is as follows:

11:00 Introduction to the Futurist Summit
David Wood – Chair, London Futurists & Principal, Delta Wisdom

11:30 Education 2022 – MOOCs in full use, augmented by AIs doing marking and assessment-setting
Julia Begbie – Deputy Director of Studies – KLC School of Design

12:00 Healthcare 2022 – Digital healthcare systems finally fulfilling the promise that has long been expected of them
A
vi Roy – Biomedical Scientist & Research Fellow at the Centre for Advancing Sustainable Medical Innovation (CASMI) – Oxford University

12:30 Finance 2022 – Anticipating a world without physical cash, and in many cases operating without centralised banks
Jeffrey Bower, Digital Finance Specialist, United Nations

13:00 Networking Lunch

14:00 Reinventing urban mobility for new business strategies…self-driving cars and beyond
Stephane Barbier – CEO – Transpolis

14:30 The Future of Smart Cities
Paul Copping – Smart City Advisor – Digital Greenwich, Royal Borough of Greenwich

15:00 The Future of Computer Security and ‘Cybercrime’
Craig Heath, Director, Franklin Heath 

15:30 What happens when virtual reality experiences become more engaging than those in the real world?”
Steve Dann, Founder & CEO, Amplified Robot 

16:00 End of Futurist Summit

Speakers slide

Each of the 30 minute slots in the Summit will include a presentation from the speaker followed by audience Q&A.

If you’re in or near London that day, I hope to see many of you at the Summit!

Note that, although the Futurist Summit is free to attend, you need to register in advance for a Free Expo Pass, via the 5G World conference registration page. You’ll probably see other streams at the event that you would also like to attend.

Stop press: Any members of London Futurists can obtain a 50% discount off the price of a full pass to 5G World – if you wish to attend other aspects of the event – by using the Priority Code Partner50 on the registration webpage.

 

 

25 October 2015

Getting better at anticipating the future

History is replete with failed predictions. Sometimes pundits predict too much change. Sometimes they predict too little. Frequently they predict the wrong kinds of change.

Even those forecasters who claim a good track record for themselves sometime turn out, on closer inspection, to have included lots of wiggle room in their predictions – lots of scope for creative reinterpretation of their earlier words.

Of course, forecasts are often made for purposes other than anticipating the events that will actually unfold. Forecasts can serve many other goals:

  • Raising the profile of the forecaster and potentially boosting book sales or keynote invites – especially if the forecast is memorable, and is delivered in a confident style
  • Changing the likelihood that an event predicted will occur – either making it more likely (if the prediction is enthusiastic), or making it less likely (if the prediction is fearful)
  • Helping businesses and organisations to think through some options for their future strategy, via “scenario analysis”.

Given these alternative reasons why forecasters make predictions, it perhaps becomes more understandable that little effort is made to evaluate the accuracy of past forecasts. As reported by Alex Mayyasi,

Organizations spend staggering amounts of time and money trying to predict the future, but no time or money measuring their accuracy or improving on their ability to do it.

This bizarre state of affairs may be understandable, but it’s highly irresponsible, none the less. We can, and should, do better. In a highly uncertain, volatile world, our collective future depends on improving our ability to anticipate forthcoming developments.

Philip Tetlock

Mayyasi was referring to research by Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Over three decades, Tetlock has accumulated huge amounts of evidence about forecasting. His most recent book, co-authored with journalist Dan Gardner, is a highly readable summary of his research.

The book is entitled “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction”. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Superforecasting

The book carries an endorsement by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman:

A manual for thinking clearly in an uncertain world. Read it.

Having just finished this book, I echo the praise it has gathered. The book is grounded in the field of geopolitical forecasting, but its content ranges far beyond that starting point. For example, the book can be viewed as one of the best descriptions of the scientific method – with its elevation of systematic, thoughtful doubt, and its search for ways to reduce uncertainty and eliminate bias. The book also provides a handy summary of all kinds of recent findings about human thinking methods.

“Superforecasting” also covers the improvements in the field of medicine that followed from the adoption of evidence-based medicine (in the face, it should be remembered, of initial fierce hostility from the medical profession). Indeed, the book seeks to accelerate a similar evidence-based revolution in the fields of economic and political analysis. It even has hopes to reduce the level of hostility and rancour that tends to characterise political discussion.

As such, I see the book as making an important contribution to the creation of a better sort of politics.

Summary of “Superforecasting”

The book draws on:

  • Results from four years of online competitions for forecasters held under the Aggregative Contingent Estimation project of IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity)
  • Reflections from contest participants whose persistently scored highly in the competition – people who became known as ‘superforecasters’
  • Insight from the Good Judgement Project co-created by Tetlock
  • Reviews of the accuracy of predictions made publicly by politicians, political analysts, and media figures
  • Other research into decision-making, cognitive biases, and group dynamics.

Forecasters and superforecasters from the Good Judgement Project submitted more than 10,000 predictions over four years in response to questions about the likelihood of specified outcomes happening within given timescales over the following 3-12 months. Forecasts addressed the fields of geopolitics and economics.

The book highlights the following characteristics as being the cause of the success of superforecasters:

  • Avoidance of taking an ideological approach, which restricts the set of information that the forecaster considers
  • Pursuit of an evidence-based approach
  • Willingness to search out potential sources of disconfirming evidence
  • Willingness to incrementally adjust forecasts in the light of new evidence
  • The ability to break down estimates into a series of constituent questions that can, individually, be more easily calculated
  • The desire to obtain several different perspectives on a question, which can then be combined into an aggregate viewpoint
  • Comfort with mathematical and probabilistic reasoning
  • Adoption of careful, precise language, rather than vague terms (such as “might”) whose apparent meaning can change with hindsight
  • Acceptance of contingency rather than ‘fate’ or ‘inevitability’ as being the factor responsible for outcomes
  • Avoidance of ‘groupthink’ in which undue respect among team members prevents sufficient consideration of alternative viewpoints
  • Willingness to learn from past forecasting experiences – including both successes and failures
  • A growth mindset, in which personal characteristics and skill are seen as capable of improvement, rather than being fixed.

(This section draws on material I’ve added to H+Pedia earlier today. See that article for some links to further reading.)

Human pictures

Throughout “Superforecasting”, the authors provide the human backgrounds of the forecasters whose results and methods feature in the book. The superforecasters have a wide variety of backgrounds and professional experience. What they have in common, however – and where they differ from the other contest participants, whose predictions were less stellar – is the set of characteristics given above.

The book also discusses a number of well-known forecasters, and dissects the causes of their forecasting failures. This includes 9/11, the wars in Iraq, the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, and many more. There’s much to learn from all these examples.

Aside: Other ways to evaluate futurists

Australian futurist Ross Dawson has recently created a very different method to evaluate the success of futurists. As Ross explains at http://rossdawson.com/futurist-rankings/:

We have created this widget to provide a rough view of how influential futurists are on the web and social media. It is not intended to be rigorous but it provides a fun and interesting insight into the online influence of leading futurists.

The score is computed from the number of Twitter followers, the Alexa score of websites, and the general Klout metric.

The widget currently lists 152 futurists. I was happy to find my name at #53 on the list. If I finish writing the two books I have in mind to publish over the next 12 months, I expect my personal ranking to climb 🙂

Yet another approach is to take a look at http://future.meetup.com/, the listing (by size) of the Meetup groups around the world that list “futurism” (or similar) as one of their interests. London Futurists, which I’ve been running (directly and indirectly) over the last seven years, features in third place on that list.

Of course, we futurists vary in the kind of topics we are ready (and willing) to talk to audiences abound. In my own case, I wish to encourage audiences away from “slow-paced” futurism, towards serious consideration of the possibilities of radical changes happening within just a few decades. These changes include not just the ongoing transformation of nature, but the possible transformation of human nature. As such, I’m ready to introduce the topic of transhumanism, so that audiences become more aware of the arguments both for and against this philosophy.

Within that particular subgrouping of futurist meetups, London Futurists ranks as a clear #1, as can be seen from http://transhumanism.meetup.com/.

Footnote

Edge has published a series of videos of five “master-classes” taught by Philip Tetlock on the subject of superforecasting:

  1. Forecasting Tournaments: What We Discover When We Start Scoring Accuracy
  2. Tournaments: Prying Open Closed Minds in Unnecessarily Polarized Debates
  3. Counterfactual History: The Elusive Control Groups in Policy Debates
  4. Skillful Backward and Forward Reasoning in Time: Superforecasting Requires “Counterfactualizing”
  5. Condensing it All Into Four Big Problems and a Killer App Solution

I haven’t had the time to view them yet, but if they’re anything like as good as the book “Superforecasting”, they’ll be well worth watching.

10 March 2015

100 not out: 7 years of London Futurists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The cover of Time for February 12th displayed a baby, with the accompanying text: This baby could live to be 142 years old. Despatches from the frontiers of longevity
    baby-final1
  • The cover of Newsweek on March 5th proclaimed the message Never say die: billionaires, science, and immortality
    immortality-cover
  • The cover for Bloomberg Markets for April will bear the headline Google wants you to live forever
    Bill Maris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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