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14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four steps in the analysis

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

Transcending capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

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

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

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

And to emphasise the point:

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

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

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

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

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

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

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

Populism and its dangers

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

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

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

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

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 November 2018

Biohacking, cyborgs & wearables: What might the future look like?

Filed under: Humanity Plus — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 11:59 am

Here’s a copy of my prepared remarks to kick off a discussion today in an event at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

For more details on some of the ideas covered, see Sustainable Superabundance.

Biohacking, cyborgs & wearables: What might the future look like?

I’d like to paint some possible scenarios for around ten to twenty years into the future, covering the uses of biohacking, wearable computing, and implantable computers.

I draw the ideas in these scenarios from three sources.

First, the scenarios involve extrapolations from my own experience in the mobile computing and smartphone industries, stretching back just over 30 years, to when I started work as a software engineer inside Psion PLC in Central London. During my career, I held a number of executive responsibilities inside an offshoot of Psion, Symbian, the creator of the world’s first successful smartphone operating system. My experience over these 30 years included periods of slow change followed by periods of intense rapid change. During my career, I also saw dramatic changes in ideas about how widely smartphones could be used.

Second, my scenarios are based on what I learned at more than 200 public meetings which I have chaired since March 2008 for the London Futurists organisation – meetings where radical technoprogressive concepts were discussed many times, from multiple perspectives.

And third, the scenarios draw upon my own research and writing in the field known as transhumanism – the philosophy that says that it is both possible and desirable for human nature to be fundamentally improved by the wise use of science and technology. I first spoke at an international transhumanist conference in Helsinki in July 2006, and as it happens I gave two keynotes at the latest conference in that same series, in Madrid last month. To put all my cards on the table, I serve on the Board of Directors of Humanity+, the world’s longest established transhumanist community.

Rather than using the rather clumsy expression “biohacking, wearable computing, and implantable computers”, I’m going to reframe the discussion instead to be about “humanity enhancement technologies”, h-e-t.

HET includes devices of different sizes. On the larger scale we can foresee wider take-up of improved smart glasses, smart earbuds, and parts of a smart exoskeleton. On a smaller scale, consider myriad bodily sensors, both inside and outside the body, and, perhaps, synthetic replacements for some parts of some of our body organs. On an even smaller scale, more profoundly, consider embedded nanobots – computing devices the size of blood cells, which can travel freely around the body.

In simple terms, HET includes technologies that monitor us and our environment, technologies that advise us, technologies that strengthen us and revitalise us, and technologies that act on our behalf. Overall, these technologies can, to coin a phrase, act like an inner guardian angel.

In all cases, the goal of HET would be to allow people to become more fully human, enabling higher states of health, higher levels of creativity, higher planes of consciousness, and, in general, greater amounts of human flourishing.

Some writers dislike the idea of “becoming more fully human”. This strikes these writers as being somehow anti-human or elitist or divisive. But if there is one constant about human nature – an admirable constant –  it is our deep desire to be able to go beyond our natural condition.

Indeed, it was our natural condition for most of history and prehistory, to be likely to die well before the age of forty. It was the natural condition for women, if they didn’t die whilst giving birth, to see around five of their seven children predecease them, dying in childhood. Humans said to each other, rightly, we can do better. Thankfully, nowadays the average life expectancy for the whole earth’s population is a bit more than seventy years. And thankfully, nowadays the previous natural condition of living in near absolute poverty is, for most people, a thing of the past.

These changes happened in the past; what about the future?

There are still many parts of human nature which get in the way of fuller human flourishing. HET can play a big role in overcoming these aspects of human nature. I’ll briefly look at four areas of human nature where HET can help us transcend our present serious limitations.

First, our bodies are too prone to become damaged, especially with aging. Embedded health monitors and nanoscale repair solutions can help to reverse damage more promptly, giving us many extra years of vitality and health. Second, our minds are too easily misled, by numerous cognitive biases; but smart glasses and smart earbuds, as well as future systems that in due course connect more directly into our brains, can steer us away from decisions we would later regret, a bit like a good friend can do. Third, our emotional states are too prone to become despondent and alienated; again, HET can help keep us in a more productive state of flow – steering us away from egotism and envy. And fourth, our human social dynamics too often involve deception, abuses of power, xenophobia, and tribalism; HET can intervene in our thinking to steer us towards behaving with greater respect, greater transparency, greater empathy, and greater collaboration.

To summarise what I’ve just said, HET, Humanity Enhancement Technology, can help us achieve abundant health and longevity, abundant intelligence and wisdom, abundant emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and, fourth, abundant collaboration and democracy.

Well, that’s the positive vision, but of course there are big risks with such technology, potentially leading to alternative scenarios. I’ll briefly mention four such risks, and I’ll also indicate in each case some steps we can take to avoid these risks.

First, if we in effect have voices in our heads, and miniature robots in our bloodstream, we need to be sure these agents really are acting in our own best interests, rather than in the interest of the corporations or governments that design and operate these agents. For this reason, the large tech companies need to come under improved democratic oversight.

Second, there’s a risk that HET might magnify some of our powers, but in an imbalanced way. We might become stronger but not kinder. We might become cleverer but not wiser. We might become more manipulative but not more merciful. We might become like extra powerful versions of some of the most devious of present-day politicians, or some of the nastiest of present-day criminals – people who are evidently clever and capable, but who lack sufficient moral sentiment. For this reason, we must prioritise technologies that improve our emotional intelligence ahead of technologies that simply make us cleverer or stronger.

Third, there’s a risk that HET remains expensive, and therefore increases the level of inequality in society. In principle, the cost of HET should decline sharply over time, the same as has happened for smartphones, and for many other items containing consumer electronics. But there’s nothing inevitable about such a decline. That’s another reason for ensuring that the development of these technologies remains under improved democratic oversight.

Fourth, there’s a risk of a sharp fracturing of human society, if some people use HET to raise their performance levels significantly, but others decline the opportunity and remain unenhanced. For this fourth risk, the resulting inequality would in principle be voluntary, rather than involuntary, as in the third risk. It would be like having lots of communities akin to the present-day Amish, who are very selective about which kinds of technology they use, and which they avoid using. Well, society should support and respect this kind of diversity. But we should be ready to fight backward-looking ideologies, if these ideologies seek to oppress people and keep them in a state of illiteracy or deprivation. It’s like we don’t allow religious groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses to forbid their children from having blood transfusions. We don’t allow that kind of child abuse. We don’t permit communities to keep their youngsters in a state of being illiterate, denying them basic education. Nor should we permit people to deny their children vaccinations, leaving the community vulnerable to deadly infectious diseases. But we should, nevertheless, respect legitimate diversity and difference of practices. It is is an important topic for further discussion what the limitations of that tolerance and diversity should be.

So, yes, there are profound risks with HET. But there are also profound benefits too, if we get things right. And there are also profound risks in not adopting HET, that is, in leaving humanity in our present unenhanced status. To quote the eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall. End of quote.

To conclude: In our present state, it’s too easy for us to make fatal mistakes, out of our prejudices, our insecurities, our frustrations, and our egotism. These fatal mistakes can have catastrophic consequences, for the environment, and for human civilisation. Therefore we need to take wise and profound advantage of emerging twenty first century technology, via HET, to elevate our human nature, in anticipation of a forthcoming new era of sustainable superabundance that is within our grasp. Thank you.

 

21 July 2018

Transhumanism freed from the fantasies

Filed under: books, H+Pedia, Humanity Plus — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 10:08 pm

Transhumanism attracts a lot of fantasy.

What I mean to say is that articles about transhumanism time and again include fantasies from the minds of the authors of these articles. These authors project all kinds of unwarranted assumptions onto the picture they paint of transhumanism. They don’t describe transhumanism. Instead, they describe their fantasy of what transhumanism is.

For example, I have read authors earnestly asserting that transhumanism is dedicated to improved efficiency. Or to maximising intelligence. Or to rushing to adopt every bit of new technology as quickly as possible. Or to increasing the wealth of the 1%. Or to the pursuit of hedonism. Or to denigrating the human body in favour of pure mind. Or to escaping from politics. Or to imposing a particular political solution on everyone else. Or to worshipping the forthcoming technological singularity as a new religion. Or to championing atheism above all else. And so on.

I don’t want to raise the web-ranking of these rather sad articles by linking to them all. If you really want to track them down, it’s not hard. A couple of H+Pedia pages – Straw transhumanist and Misconceptions about transhumanism – will give you some ideas for search terms to use.

But I will mention one article in particular, which was drawn to my attention a couple of days ago. The article is entitled “The Transhumanism Revolution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation”. Here are some choice quotes from it:

The transhumanist perspective insists that humans have a distinctly separate mind and body…

The… transhumanist project… [aims at the] objective: liberating the human being from the limitations of the body…

In its various forms, transhumanism is an attempt to reify an illusory mind-body dualism…

If we perceive ourselves and others to be disembodied minds piloting meat machines—bodies of mere matter that do not matter—what horror will we be capable of inflicting on the bodies of others? …

Transhumanism is oppression disguised as liberation.

To be clear, transhumanists do talk about liberation from current limitations. But these aren’t specifically “limitations of the body”. They are the limitations of the human nature we have inherited from evolution and which has been moulded by society and by philosophy. They are limitations in our mind as well as our body – limitations in our social structures as well as in our individual selves.

And to be clear again, there are of course some people who identify as transhumanists who yearn to free their consciousness from their biological bodies. Likewise, for various of the straw transhumanist characterisations I listed above, there are indeed some transhumanists who conform to the description.

But to jump to the conclusion that transhumanism itself has these characteristics, would be like noticing some personality features in a person with a given nationality, and deducing that all people with that nationality necessarily possess these same features. Or like concluding that all Christians seek to accelerate a literal Armageddon in the Middle East, just because some Christians seem to have that aspiration. Etc.

Such conclusions are lazy. They are reductionist (confusing an occasional manifestation for the essence of a movement). They can also stir up confusion and enmity, unnecessarily.

We should expect, and demand, better!

A better starting point

For a picture that sets out the landscape of different ideas and positions within the overall transhumanist framework, this diagram from H+Pedia is a useful compendium:

(You can click on the diagram, to reach the version of it that is embedded in H+Pedia. And then you can click on individual terms in that diagram, to jump to the page in H+Pedia that gives more information about a particular term.)

As for what might be called the core of transhumanism, I’d like in the remainder of this blogpost to highlight some key passages from the history of transhumanist thought – passages that deserve to be better known.

Julian Huxley

One of the first writers to have asserted the need for a new philosophy, to be called transhumanism, was the British evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley FRS. Huxley gave a talk “Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny” over two evenings in Washington DC on 19-20 April 1951. A version of the talk was subsequently included in the journal Psychiatry later that year, and is also available in pages 245-278 of the book of Huxley’s essays “New Bottles for New Wine” published in 1957. Here’s the section where Huxley introduces the concept of transhumanism as being a new philosophy:

Never was there a greater need for a large perspective, in which we might discern the outlines of a general and continuing belief beyond the disturbance and chaos of the present…

Every society, in every age, needs some system of beliefs, including a basic attitude to life, an organized set of ideas around which emotion and purpose may gather, and a conception of human destiny. It needs a philosophy and a faith to achieve a guide to orderly living – in other words, a morality…

This brings me… to the emergent idea-system, the new organization of thought, at whose birth we are assisting. It takes account, first and foremost, of the fact that nature is one universal process of evolution, self-developing and self-transforming, and it includes us. Man does not stand over against nature; he is part of it. We men are that part of the process which has become self-conscious, and it is our duty and our destiny to facilitate the process by leading it on to new levels.

Our chief motive, therefore, will derive from the exploration and understanding of human nature and the possibilities of development and fulfilment inherent in it, a study which will of course include the limitations, distortions, and frustrations to be avoided.

Such a philosophy might perhaps best be called Transhumanism. It is based on the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and arrive at fuller fruition; it is the realization that both individual and social development are processes of self-transformation.

Huxley returned to the same theme in a 1957 essay entitled “Transhumanism” which can be found on pages 13-17 in the same volume of essays “New Bottles for New Wine” mentioned earlier. An extract:

As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future. This cosmic self-awareness is being realized in one tiny fragment of the universe —in a few of us human beings. Perhaps it has been realized elsewhere too, through the evolution of conscious living creatures on the planets of other stars. But on this our planet, it has never happened before…

Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish and short”; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery in one form or another—poverty, disease, ill-health, over-work, cruelty, or oppression. They have attempted to lighten their misery by means of their hopes and their ideals. The trouble has been that the hopes have generally been unjustified, the ideals have generally failed to correspond with reality.

The zestful but scientific exploration of possibilities and of the techniques for realizing them will make our hopes rational, and will set our ideals within the framework of reality, by showing how much of them are indeed realizable. Already, we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted. We are already justified in the conviction that human life as we know it in history is a wretched makeshift, rooted in ignorance; and that it could be transcended by a state of existence based on the illumination of knowledge and comprehension, just as our modern control of physical nature based on science transcends the tentative fumblings of our ancestors, that were rooted in superstition and professional secrecy.

To do this, we must study the possibilities of creating a more favourable social environment, as we have already done in large measure with our physical environment…

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.

“I believe in transhumanism”: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.

Max More

Skipping ahead past a number of other influential thinkers, let me pick out some writing of the philosopher Max More – who (with good justification) is often described as the person who gave transhumanism its modern definition. This is from an essay More first published in 1990, “Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy”:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life rather than in some supernatural “afterlife”. Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system.

For a more lyrical description of transhumanism, I like the essay More wrote in 1999, “Letter to Mother Nature”. The letter is well worth quoting in its entirey:

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.

Amendment No.1: We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death. Through genetic alterations, cellular manipulations, synthetic organs, and any necessary means, we will endow ourselves with enduring vitality and remove our expiration date. We will each decide for ourselves how long we shall live.

Amendment No.2: We will expand our perceptual range through biotechnological and computational means. We seek to exceed the perceptual abilities of any other creature and to devise novel senses to expand our appreciation and understanding of the world around us.

Amendment No.3: We will improve on our neural organization and capacity, expanding our working memory, and enhancing our intelligence.

Amendment No.4: We will supplement the neocortex with a “metabrain”. This distributed network of sensors, information processors, and intelligence will increase our degree of self-awareness and allow us to modulate our emotions.

Amendment No. 5: We will no longer be slaves to our genes. We will take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological, and neurological processes. We will fix all individual and species defects left over from evolution by natural selection. Not content with that, we will seek complete choice of our bodily form and function, refining and augmenting our physical and intellectual abilities beyond those of any human in history.

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.

Amendment No.7: We recognize your genius in using carbon-based compounds to develop us. Yet we will not limit our physical, intellectual, or emotional capacities by remaining purely biological organisms. While we pursue mastery of our own biochemistry, we will increasingly integrate our advancing technologies into our selves.

These amendments to our constitution will move us from a human to an transhuman condition as individuals. We believe that individual transhumanizing will also allow us to form relationships, cultures, and polities of unprecedented innovation, richness, freedom, and responsibility.

We reserve the right to make further amendments collectively and individually. Rather than seeking a state of final perfection, we will continue to pursue new forms of excellence according to our own values, and as technology allows.

Your ambitious human offspring.

The Transhumanist Declaration

The nearest thing that the transhumanist community has to a canonical document is the Transhumanist Declaration. This evolved over a number of versions over the period from around 1996 to 2009. Here’s the latest version, taken from the Humanity+ website:

  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.

Moving forwards

I hope you’ll agree with me that there are no grounds, in any of these foundational documents, for the reductionist distortions of transhumanism that critics from time like to portray and then to rail against.

Indeed, the transhumanist community has authored a wide range of engaging literature on transhumanist themes. If you prefer to do your reading from a book, rather than from an online wiki such as H+Pedia, the best starting point is probably the collection “The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future”, edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More. Enjoy!

5 May 2018

Humans: The solution, or the problem?

Filed under: Transcending Politics — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 3:33 pm

Silicon Valley seems to think that we’re somehow going to compensate for humanity’s faults with digital technologies. I don’t think humans are obsolete. I don’t think humans are the problem, I think humans are the solution.

These words reached my inbox earlier today, as part of a Nesta interview of technology writer Douglas Rushkoff.

The sentiment expressed in these words strikes me as naive – dangerously naive.

Any worldview that ignores the problematic aspects of human nature risks unwittingly enabling the magnification of these flaws, as technology puts ever more power in our hands.

Think of the way that Fox News, with the support of a network of clever social media agitators, has been magnifying many of the uglier human inclinations – resulting in the human calamity of Trumpistan. That’s an example of what can happen if the flaws within humanity aren’t properly handled. It’s an example of twenty first technology making humans problems worse.

Just because we can, correctly, assess humans as having a great deal of positive potential, this doesn’t mean we should become blind to the harmful tendencies that coexist with our favourable tendencies – and which (if we’re not careful) might overwhelm these tendencies.

Here are some examples of our harmful tendencies:

Conflict

  • Abuse of power: we humans are often too ready to exploit the power we temporarily hold, for example in personal relationships with subordinates or colleagues
  • Confirmation bias: we divert our attention from information that would challenge or negate our own pet theories or the commonly accepted paradigms of our culture; we clutch at any convenient justification for ignoring or distorting such information
  • Dysfunctional emotions: we are prone to being dominated by emotional spasms – of anger, self-righteousness, possessiveness, anxiety, despair, etc – to the extent that we are often unable to act on our better judgements
  • Overconfidence: we tend to assess ourselves as having above-average abilities; we also often assume that our core beliefs are more likely to be true than an objective evaluation would suggest
  • In-group preference: we are liable to prejudice in favour of people who seem “like us” (by whatever criteria), and against people who appear to fall outside our group; this drives unnecessary conflict, and can also mean we miss the best opportunities
  • Inertia: we cling onto possessions, habits, and processes that have served us well in the past, and which might conceivably be useful to us at some time in the future, even if these attachments reduce our room for manoeuvre or damage our openness to new experiences
  • Herd mentality: we too readily fall into line with what we perceive our peers are thinking or doing, even though our conscience is telling us that a different path would be better
  • Loss of perspective: we fail to pay attention to matters that should be of long-term importance to us, and instead become dominated by grudges, personal vindictiveness, fads, and other distractions.

Many of these characteristics are likely to have bestowed some evolutionary advantage to our ancestors, in the very different circumstances in which they lived – similar to the way that a sweet tooth made good sense in prehistoric times. These characteristics are far less useful in today’s world, with its vastly increased complexity and connectivity, where individual mistakes can be magnified onto a global scale.

Other characteristics on the list probably never had much direct utility, but they existed as side-effects of yet other character traits that were themselves useful. Evolution was constrained in terms of the character sets it could create; it lacked complete flexibility. However, we humans possess a much greater range of engineering tools. That opens the way for the conscious, thoughtful re-design of our character set.

The project described in the article that caught my attention this morning – the “Team Human” project – needs in my view to be more open to what some in Silicon Valley are proposing (but which the article scorns), namely the use of technology to assist:

  • The strengthening of positive human tendencies
  • The taming of negative human tendencies.

Of course, technology cannot do these things by itself. But it can, very definitely, be part of the solution. Some examples:

  • Education of all sorts can be enhanced by technology such as interactive online video courses that adapt their content to the emerging needs of each different user
  • Vivid experiences within multi-sensory virtual reality worlds can bring home to people the likely consequences of their current personal trajectories (from both first-person and third-person points of view), and allow them to rehearse changes in attitude
  • The reasons why meditation, yoga, and hypnosis can have beneficial results are now more fully understood than before, enabling major improvements in the efficacy of these practices
  • Prompted by alerts generated by online intelligent assistance software, real-world friends can connect at critical moments in someone’s life, in order to provide much-needed personal support
  • Information analytics can resolve some of the long-running debates about which diets – and which exercise regimes – are the ones that will best promote all-round health for given individuals.

And there are some more radical possibilities:

  • New pharmacological compounds – sometimes called “smart drugs”
  • Gentle stimulation of the brain by a variety of electromagnetic methods – something that has been trialled by the US military
  • Alteration of human biology more fundamentally, by interventions at the genetic, epigenetic, or microbiome level
  • The use of intelligent assistance software that monitors our actions and offers us advice in a timely manner, similar to the way that a good personal friend will occasionally volunteer wise counsel; intelligent assistants can also strengthen our positive characteristics by wise selection of background music, visual imagery, and “thought for the day” aphorisms to hold in mind.

What I’m describing here is the vision of transhumanism – the vision that humanity can and should take wise and profound advantage of technology to transcend the damaging limitations and drawbacks imposed by the current circumstances of human nature. As a result, humans will be able to transition, individually and collectively, towards a significantly higher stage of life – a life with much improved quality.

And here’s a formulation from 1990 by the founder of the modern transhumanist movement, philosopher Max More:

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.

Any attempt to “reprogram society to better serve humans” that fails to follow this transhumanist advice – any project that turns its back on the radical transformational potential of science and technology – is leaving itself dangerously underpowered.

In short: the journey to a healthier society inevitably involves transhumanism. Without transhumanism, Team Human isn’t going to make it.

Note: For a fuller examination of the ideas in this blogpost, see my recent new book Transcending Politics, especially Chapter 12,  “Humans and Superhumans” and Chapter 1, “Vision and roadmap”.

Picture source: TheDigitalArtist and JoeTheStoryTeller.

1 March 2018

Pragmatically envisioning better humans

Filed under: Transcending Politics — Tags: , — David Wood @ 12:00 pm

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

(The following consists of short extracts from Chapter 12,  “Humans and Superhumans”, of my recent new book Transcending Politics.)

In this chapter, I’ll look at four different answers to this question:

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

The technoprogressive transformation of society and human nature that I envision will build upon the product management insight that it’s more important to analyse the intended outcome of a transformation than to become over-enthused by potential means to carry out that transformation. That is, the specification must come first, and then the implementation. Otherwise the implementation might develop inertia of its own. In that case, we’ll get technology for technology’s sake – answers looking for questions, rather than the other way round.

Accordingly, let’s now take a moment to explore features of the human character that there’s a strong case to seek to improve. Then we can move on to consider potential ways to carry out such improvements.

The character features I’m aiming to list are those which, if they are not tamed, threaten to combine in devastating ways with the greater powers that technology as a whole is putting in our hands. These features include:

  • Dysfunctional emotions: we are prone to being dominated by emotional spasms – of anger, self-righteousness, possessiveness, anxiety, despair, etc – to the extent that we are often unable to act on our better judgements
  • Overconfidence: we tend to assess ourselves as having above-average abilities; we also often assume that our core beliefs are more likely to be true than an objective evaluation would suggest
  • Confirmation bias: we divert our attention from information that would challenge or negate our own pet theories or the commonly accepted paradigms of our culture; we clutch at any convenient justification for ignoring or distorting such information
  • Abuse of power: we are too ready to exploit the power we temporarily hold, for example in personal relationships with subordinates or colleagues, and in the process damage other people – and often our own longer-term interests too
  • In-group preference: we are liable to prejudice in favour of people who seem “like us” (by whatever criteria), and against people who appear to fall outside our group; this drives unnecessary conflict, and can also mean we miss the best opportunities
  • Over-attachment: we cling onto things that might conceivably be useful to us at some time in the future, even if these attachments reduce our room for manoeuvre or damage our openness to new experiences
  • Herd mentality: we too readily fall into line with what we perceive our peers are thinking or doing, even though our conscience is telling us that a different path would be better
  • Loss of perspective: we fail to pay attention to matters that should be of long-term importance to us, and instead become dominated by grudges, personal vindictiveness, fads, and other distractions.

Many of these characteristics are likely to have bestowed some evolutionary advantage to our ancestors, in the very different circumstances in which they lived. They are far less useful in today’s world, with its vastly increased complexity and connectivity, where individual mistakes can be magnified onto a global scale.

Other characteristics on the list probably never had much direct utility, but they existed as side-effects of yet other character traits that were themselves useful. Evolution was constrained in terms of the character sets it could create; it lacked complete flexibility. However, we humans possess a much greater range of engineering tools. That opens the way for the conscious, thoughtful re-design of our character set.

Some critics of transhumanism respond that they prefer to keep human nature as it is, thank you very much, with all our quirks and foibles. These features are said to enable creativity, fun, imagination diversity, and so on. My response is to point again to the character flaws listed earlier. These are not “quirks” or “foibles”. Nor can they be described as “allowable weaknesses”. They are dangerous weaknesses. And as such, they deserve serious attention from us. Can we find ways to dial down these character flaws, without (at the same time) inducing adverse side-effects?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s worth stressing some key differences between this kind of transhumanist initiative, on the one hand, and the idealist political campaigns of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and others (covered earlier in the chapter). The transhumanist initiative is committed to:

  • Open review, so that problems arising can be noticed and addressed promptly
  • An experimental approach, to discover what actually works in reality, rather than just sounding good in theory
  • An agile framework, in which feedback is sought on a regular basis, so that knowledge can accumulate quickly via a “fail fast” process
  • Easy access by all members of society to the set of ideas that are under discussion, in order to promote a wider appreciation of any emerging risks or opportunities
  • Giving priority to data, rather than to anecdote, supposition, or ideology
  • Embracing diversity as far as possible, with hard constraints being imposed only when matters are seen to be particularly central
  • Integrating viewpoints from many different perspectives, rather than insisting on there being only “one true way” forwards.

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

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

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

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

(To read more, follow the links from the Transpolitica website.)

7 November 2017

Press Release: TransVision 2017, 9-11 November

Filed under: Humanity Plus, TransVision — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 11:25 pm

Brussels | Thursday November 9, Friday November 10, Saturday November 11

Representatives of the major European transhumanist associations will be meeting at the TransVision 2017 symposium held at the Grand Café Muntpunt, right in the centre of Brussels:

  • Day 1 = Reports on the situation and the evolution of transhumanist thought and transhumanist organisations
  • Day 2 = Working groups exploring proposals for future projects
  • Day 3 = Conclusions: the future of transhumanism and the politics of emerging technologies

Journalists are welcome to contact contact@transhumanistes.com in order to attend the symposium.

Journalists can meet and interview the following speakers and participants (among others):

  • Anders Sandberg – Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University
  • Angel Marchev – University for National and World Economy, Sofia
  • Chris Moneteiro – H+Pedia manager, TPUK official, and cybercrime researcher
  • David Pearce ­– Co-founder of Humanity+ (originally the World Transhumanist Association)
  • David Wood – Chair of London Futurists, and Executive Director of Transpolitica
  • Didier Coeurnelle – Co-chair of Heales Healthy Life Extension Society
  • James Hughes – Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
  • Jose Cordeiro –Founding faculty of the Singularity University, and Director of Humanity+
  • Marc Roux – French Association Française Transhumaniste – Technoprog
  • Marcel A. Mayr – Futurist, Transhuman Party Germany
  • Riccardo Campa – Associazione Transumanisti Italiani
  • Valeryia Udalova (Pride) ­– Russian Transhumanist Movement, and CEO of CryoRus
  • Waldemar Ingdahl ­– Spokesperson for Humanity+ Sweden

Please feel free to forward this announcement to any journalist you think might be interested in this event.

For more information about the event, see transvision-conference.org.  For information about previous TransVision conferences (dating back to 1998), see hpluspedia.org/wiki/TransVision.

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

 

8 November 2016

Agile organisations for agile politics

Filed under: Agile, H+Pedia, politics, Transpolitica, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 6:23 pm

The pace of change in politics over the last twelve months has been breathtaking. It’s possible the change will accelerate further over the next twelve months:

  • Huge dissatisfaction exists with present-day political parties, candidates, and processes
  • Ideas can spread extremely rapidly, due to extensive usage of social media
  • Although many people feel alienated from mainstream politics, they have a hunger for political change.

Growing awareness of forthcoming technological disruptions heightens the general feeling of angst:

  • Technological unemployment (automation) threatens to eliminate whole swathes of jobs, or to reduce the salaries available to people who continue in their current roles
  • Genetic editing and artificial intelligence have the potential for people living “better than well” and even “more than human”, but it’s unclear how widely these benefits will be shared among all sectors of society
  • Technologies such as blockchain and 3D printing raise the possibility of decentralised coordination – coordination with less need for powerful states or corporations
  • Virtual Reality, along with new types of drug, could lead to large-scale disengagement of citizens from mainstream society – with people “tuning in and dropping out” as never before
  • Breakthroughs in fields of energy, nanotech, the Internet of Things, synthetic biology, and self-learning artificial intelligence could result, intentionally or unintentionally, in extremely chaotic outcomes – with recourse to new types of “weapons of mass destruction” (including cyber-terrorism, nano-terrorism, gene-terrorism, and AI-terrorism)
  • Technologies of surveillance could put more power than ever before in the hands of all-seeing, all-manipulating governments and/or corporations
  • Misguided attempts to “geo-engineer” planetary solutions to potential runaway climate change could have devastating unintended consequences for the environment.

In the light of such uncertainty, two skills are becoming more important than ever:

  • The skill of foresight – the anticipation and evaluation of new scenarios, arising from the convergence of multiple developing trends
  • The skill of agility – the capability to change plans rapidly, as unexpected developments take on a life of their own.

An update on the Transhumanist Party of the UK

This context is the background for a significant change in a political party that was formed nearly two years ago – the Transhumanist Party of the UK (TPUK).

As a reminder, here’s a 90 second promotional video for TPUK from April last year:

.

The messages in that video remain as relevant and important today as when the Party was founded:

The Transhumanist Party – Transcending human limitations

Harnessing accelerating technology:

  • Enabling positive social change and personal freedom,
  • With no-one abandoned,
  • So technology benefits all – not just vested interests.

Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment

  • Policies informed by science and evidence,
  • Ideology and divisiveness replaced by rationality and compassion ,
  • Risks managed proactively, enabling innovation to flourish.

Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics

  • Smart automation and artificial intelligence addressing age-old human burdens,
  • Huge personal and financial benefits from preventive medicine and healthy longevity,
  • Politics transcending past biases and weaknesses.

However, despite this vision, and despite an initial flurry of positive publicity (including the parliamentary candidacy of Alex Karran), the Party has made little progress over the last 6-9 months. And in the last couple of weeks, two key members of the Party’s NEC (National Executive Committee) have resigned from the Party:

These resignations arise from the recognition that there are many drawbacks to creating and developing a new political party in the United Kingdom:

  • The “first past the post” electoral system makes it especially difficult for minority parties to win seats in parliament
  • Political parties need to establish a set of policies on a wide range of issues – issues away from the areas of core agreement among members, and where dissension can easily arise
  • The timescales spoken about for full electoral success – potentially up to 25 years – are far too far into the future, given all the other changes expected in the meantime.

Party executives will each be following their own decisions about the best way to progress the underlying goals of transhumanist politics. Many of us will be redoubling our efforts behind Transpolitica – the think tank which was established at the same time as the Transhumanist Party. The relationship between Transpolitica and TPUK is covered in this FAQ from the Transpolitica website:

Q: What is the relation between Transpolitica and the various Transhumanist Parties?

Transpolitica aims to provide material and services that will be found useful by transhumanist politicians worldwide, including:

  • Transhumanist supporters who form or join parties with the name “Transhumanist Party” in various countries
  • Transhumanist supporters who form other new parties, without using the word “transhumanist” in their party name
  • Transhumanist supporters inside other existing political parties, including mainstream and long-established parties
  • Transhumanist supporters who prefer not to associate closely with any one political party, but who have an interest in political action.

Transpolitica 2016

Transpolitica is hosting a major conference later this year – on 3rd December. It’s a conference with a very practical ambition – to gather and review proposals for “Real world policy changes for a radically better future”. There will be 15 speakers, covering topics in three broad sections:

  • Regulations, health, and transformation
  • Politics, tools, and transformation
  • Society, data, and transformation

Click here for more details, and to register to attend (while tickets are still available).

I’ll be kicking off the proceedings, with a talk entitled “What prospects for better politics?”.

dw-speaker-transpolitica-2016

Watch out for more news about the topics being covered by the other speakers.

Note that a focus on devising practical policies for a radically better future – policies which could become the focus of subsequent cross-party campaigns for legislative changes – resonates with an important evolution taking place within the IEET (the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies). As James Hughes (the IEET Executive Director) writes:

I am proposing that the IEET re-focus in a major way, on our website, with our blog, with our community, and in our work, on the explicit project of building a global technoprogressive ideological tendency to intervene in debates within futurism, academe and public policy. While we will remain a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and will not be endorsing specific candidates, parties or pieces of legislation, we can focus on the broad parameters of the technoprogressive regulatory and legislative agenda to be pursued globally.

Regarding a first concrete project in this new direction, I have in mind our editing a Technoprogressive Policy Briefing Book, comparable to the briefing books of think tanks like the Brookings Institution, AEI, or Heritage Foundation. This project can collect and collaborate with the excellent work done by Transpolitica and other technoprogressive groups and friends. Each policy briefing would state a general issue in a couple of paragraphs, outline the key technoprogressive policy ideas to address the issue, and then list key publications and links to organizations pursuing those policies.

Next steps with the TPUK

As the official Treasurer of the TPUK, and following (as mentioned above) the resignation of both the leader and deputy leader of the Party, it legally falls to me to manage the evolution of the Party in a way that serves the vision of the remaining members. I’m in discussion with the other remaining representatives on the National Executive Committee, and we’ll be consulting members via the Party’s email conferencing systems. The basic principles I’ll be proposing are as follows:

  1. Times of rapid change demand organisational agility, rather than any heavyweight structures
  2. We will retain our radical purpose – the social changes ahead could (and should) be momentous over the next 5-25 years
  3. We will retain our progressive vision, in which technology benefits all – not just vested interests
  4. We will provide support across the spectrum of existing political parties to sympathisers of transhumanist and technoprogressive changes
  5. We will be ready to play a key positive enabling role as the existing political spectrum undergoes its own changes ahead – including the fragmentation of current parties and the creation of new alliances and new initiatives
  6. We will continue to champion the vision of (a.) Harnessing accelerating technology to enable positive social change and personal freedom; (b.) Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment; (c.) Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics
  7. We will aim to provide actionable, practical analyses – of the sort being presented at Transpolitica 2016 – rather than (just) statements of principle
  8. Rather than maintain an expensive infrastructure of our own, we should feed our work into existing systems – such as H+Pedia, Transpolitica, the IEET, and the Transhuman National Committee of the United States
  9. As far as possible, we will remain collaborative rather than divisive
  10. We will hold onto our domain names
  11. We will retain the option to field our own candidates in future elections, in case that turns out to be the most sensible course of action at that time (this means the Party will remain officially registered with the Electoral Commission – at modest cost)
  12. We will offer our donors and members a refund of the payments they have provided the Party within the last six months, in case they feel they no longer support our vision.

 

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

11 March 2015

My vision for Humanity+, 2015-2017

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

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

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

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

Transhumanists Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different opinions

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better dialogue

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

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

Practical steps

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

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

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

A resilient, long-term contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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