Project for a Progressive Ethics

By Dil Green

A proposal for progress

Engaging in events and conversations around the themes of Artificial Intelligence, Trans/Post-humanism, Singularity scenarios and Digital Futurism, all sorts of questions arise which involve consideration of unknowns, suppositions, assertions and opinions. Despite these layers of unknowns, it is nevertheless clear that society will soon need to make some serious decisions on a wide variety of issues. The outcome of these decisions is likely to have significant recursive impact on the very nature of humanity.

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Discussing these questions, the thought arises that the single most important tool we need in making these decisions is a robust ethical framework – namely, a framework which is widely shared and which is ‘fit for purpose’ in addressing change and uncertainty.

This is not an original insight – it seems to be commonplace. Eliezer Yudkowsky has been informally quoted as having said that,

Humanity will most probably be saved not by technologists but by philosophers.

However, what this ethical framework might actually be is typically assumed to be the responsibility of others, in some unspecified future.

Given that many commentators in varied fields subscribe to the idea that we are in a period of exponential change, one or more of these epochal phenomena will likely impinge on us in the next few decades, and so development of a useful ethical framework would seem to be an urgent undertaking. It is surely incumbent on individuals and groups who have reached this conclusion, not simply to ‘kick the can down the road’.

The time to start work is now.

A Progressive Ethics?

Of course, there already exist many and varied statements on ethics: the work of great philosophers, international declarations, legal frameworks, proposals in profusion. Why would we want yet another?

For a start, most are framed as static documents, closed to implications of rapid change; implicitly or explicitly, most have been developed in reaction to historical conditions, rather than with an eye to the future, and are set within frames of reference of a particular philosopher, tradition or class consciousness.

Clearly, existing frameworks will be important reference material, embodying as they do the best-intentioned thoughts of humanity over history. These, along with work by groups like the IEET and others within the futurist / progressive community, and the established practice of ethical committees within scientific, academic and medical establishments, must all be given serious consideration. However, it does not seem that any of these sources alone are immediately suitable for our purpose as they stand.

This proposal purposefully avoids any suggestion as to the content of a Progressive Ethics. Instead, the aim here is to start the ball rolling and to make some suggestions for a process and structure to support such a project, designed to allow it to meet the aim of being truly progressive, robust, practically useful and widely-accepted.

What do we need?

The proposal is that a Progressive Ethics is developed which can be of use to humanity in navigating the wide range of novel possibilities which must now be admitted as having the potential for significant impact on real futures (possibilities previously confined to the pages of speculative fiction).

Such a framework should help us to have better conversations – minimising the traps of misunderstanding and misrepresentation and enabling debate at ever higher levels based on clear shared understandings – even if these are understandings of disagreement.

We want this framework to be of practical use in deciding and implementing questions such as:

  • The development of reliably ‘friendly’ AI
  • The social management of a wide variety of technically possible modifications to strict biological life.
  • The implications of augmented humanity / transhumanism.
  • Effective and responsive approaches to inherently complex subjects such as human impact on the biosphere.

Suggestions for a start

These ideas are intended to start a debate about how such a project might get started, how it might be structured, how it might frame itself, and how it might best ensure that it remains relevant and responsive.

I suggest that we:

  • Frame the effort as the initiation of a process – a process that will continue to respond to new developments in knowledge, technology and culture. This must include the guaranteed provision (and expectation) that ‘forks’ of the project are permitted;
  • Set the fundamental aims of the project from the outset, and look to enshrining these in the foundational constitution of the body charged with maintaining and supporting the project;
  • Look for a structure for representing / communicating the framework which:
    • is not overly reductive, but remains rigorously rational,
    • strikes the most effective balance between clarity and simplicity on the one hand, and appropriate flexibility of application on the other,
    • supports the process-based approach without introducing undue ambiguity,
  • Design the process from the outset to be one which enables broad engagement without loss of focus – this will mean selecting appropriate democratic structures for the core body alongside processes for concentric levels of engagement to wider audiences.

All of these suggestions need elaboration, but the key aim of this post is to generate interest from people willing to take the fundamental idea of such a project forwards.

Get involved HERE (Transpolitica) or HERE (H+Pedia).

2016prismayelo150About the author

Dil Green trained and worked as an architect. Notable projects include the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum and a pioneering eco-friendly GP surgery.

The heroic self-image of architecture as the profession that actually builds a better future appealed to him, as a pragmatic utopian – someone who believes in working today towards a better tomorrow. However the strong limitations of the discipline quickly became apparent to him.

Since the advent of the web and smart devices, it has become increasingly clear that, for good or ill, the future will be built on the basis of digital tools. More, the kind of future that will be built is critically dependent on which particular tools become dominant.

His energies now go towards building digital tools and the social understanding around them that lead to the most positive outcomes for humanity that he can discern. He is interested in grass-roots, bottom-up developments, ones which can side-step power structures, ones which diminish the need for ‘approval’ from above, ones which empower humans acting in small groups towards human ends.

Flawed humanity, flawed politics

Evolution is a many-splendoured thing. Our long evolutionary history has prepared us well for many aspects of modern life. But in other aspects it bequeaths us problems. Nasty problems.

One example is our sweet tooth. Our ancestral instinct to eat plenty of fruit (or things that taste like fruit), in anticipation of subsequent times of lean, leads in the modern age to an epidemic of obesity. Oops.

Another example is our tendency to imagine intelligent agency where none exists – our so-called “hyperactive agency detector”. A rustle in the leaves; a cracked twig; a bolt of lightening – were these mere accidents, or the signs of a crafty predator? Better to be safe than sorry. But that hyperactive agency detector gave rise to numerous fantasies, worldwide, of ghosts and demons and supernatural deities. Double oops.

And yet another example is our tribalism – our innate apprehension of “the other”. We learned to fear alien groups of people who were noticeably different from our closer circle, and who might be expected, given a chance, to double-cross us or stab us in the back. Once upon a time, a rule of thumb “beware the outsider” was doubtless useful for survival. But in present times, that xenophobia can have all kinds of adverse consequences. Oops again.

What does this have to do with 21st century politics? Plenty!

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Four versions of tribalism

As I’ll list shortly, four of the most destructive tendencies in modern social life have their roots in our apprehension of “the other”. In each case, our social harmony is warped by ideologies that reinforce our innate tendency to fear those who seem different from ourselves. In each of the four cases, an ideology tells its adherents that there are deep reasons why the leopard cannot change its spots – why, that is, the outsiders are bound to keep on behaving in dangerous, destructive ways. So the ideology exacerbates the mistrust.

Look at these strange folk, the ideology says. Look at him here, and her there. These specific individuals are undeniably bad. And the rest are all the same. We – the decent, normal people – need protection against the entire tribe of others. We need to take back control – so these ideologies tell us, in various different ways.

These ideologies find willing listeners. Our subconscious minds are grateful for intellectual rationales that can be adopted, that shore up our instinctual urges, regardless of whether these urges remain good for us.

The first case is nationalism, or its variant, racism. Some English are duplicitous, therefore all English are duplicitous – that is (more or less) what I remember my barber telling me, on more than one occasion, when I had my hair cut as a teenager in Aberdeenshire in the mid 1970s. Other nationalists of a different stripe might say, in retort: some Scots are mean, therefore all Scots are mean. Some African Americans are lazy and disrespectful, therefore all African Americans are lazy and disrespectful. Some Moslems are fanatics, therefore all Moslems are fanatics. Some Poles are welfare scroungers, therefore all Poles are welfare scroungers. And so on.

Stated in such bald terms, the ideology is evidently puerile. But it is typically dressed up with finer trimmings. The reason why the other is likely to behave badly, we are told, is because they are victims of their culture, and (in some cases) victims of their religion. The ideology asserts – correctly, in my view – that some cultures are inferior to others, and that poor cultures can be kept in place by tendencies within religious teachings. For example, when a holy book emphasises that women are deeply different from men, we should not be surprised if people enmeshed in the resulting culture give scant attention to female equality. And if that holy book elevates faith as a virtue high above honest doubt, it’s no wonder that the members of that culture are inclined towards fanaticism.

The key question is: how easy is it for people to step aside from the culture in which they were previously enmeshed? Ideologies of nationalism tend to be sceptical on that count. In that view, culture is deterministic, and diminishes the capacity of “the other” to change. Forget any hopes of multi-cultural harmony. Instead, build walls.

The second case is anti-capitalism. That’s a bit more sophisticated than nationalism, but not by much. This line of thinking goes as follows: some business owners are ruthless profit-seekers, therefore all business owners are ruthless profit-seekers. Anyone who claims to be a “conscious capitalist” or a “moral capitalist” is deluding themselves. Their prevailing culture – the system of shareholder contracts and imperatives to maximise profits – ensures that they cannot really change. Therefore the “decent, normal people” – the working class – need to seize power, seize the means of production, and (if need be) string up the recalcitrant capitalist class from the lampposts.

Yet again, it’s an ideology that can find ready adherents. Developed under the label Marxist-Leninism, it’s an ideology that has caused horrible upheavals around the world.

The third case is the widespread rigid displeasure at EU bureaucracy.  Here’s the thinking: some EU bureaucrats are faceless self-serving empire-builders, therefore all EU bureaucrats are faceless self-serving empire-builders. As before, the argument runs from the specific to the general. A business leader finds his growth plans thwarted by ill-conceived regulations handed down imperiously from Brussels, therefore we have to take back control of all regulations handed down from Brussels. An innovative medical intervention is stymied by slow-moving EU healthcare review processes, therefore we have to take back control of all review processes from the EU. Perhaps we should even string up the leaders of that bureaucracy from the lampposts.

The key question in this case is: what stands in the way of intelligent reform of the EU bureaucracy? One answer is that the EU bureaucracy is part of a gigantic self-perpetuating system which is incapable of reform – much the same as Marxists claim that capitalism is incapable of meaningful reform. People with bad personal experiences of EU bureaucrats are, not surprisingly, sympathetic to that ideology.

What makes that line of thinking more likely to be accepted, alas, is the dearth of adequate positive communications about:

  • The rich benefits achieved from EU membership (despite a steady stream of mistakes being made)
  • The history of positive evolution of EU governance (despite the delays in some of these steps being taken).

Too many people have gained, in the short term, by spreading “bad news” stories (often wildly exaggerated) about EU governance. These stories have been good fun – ha ha ha – until they weren’t. Oops.

That takes me to the fourth case: rigid displeasure of government. It’s worth some extra attention.

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The case for governments

What is the point of governments?  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).

What I’ve just described is a view of governments which is defended by the most frightening book I’ve read this year. The book is “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper”. The authors are the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.

American Amnesia_1280

In describing this book as “frightening”, I don’t mean that the book is bad. Far from it. The authors’ characterisation of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up by lots of instructive episodes from American history, going all the way back to the revolutionary founders.

But what’s frightening is another set of information clearly set out in the book:

  • The growing public hostility, especially in America (but shared elsewhere, to an extent) towards the idea that government should be playing any significant role in the well-being of society
  • The growing identification of government with self-serving empire-building bureaucracy
  • The widespread lack of understanding of the remarkable positive history of public action by governments that promoted overall social well-being (that is the “amnesia” of the title of the book)
  • The decades-long growing tendency of many in America – particularly from the Republicans – to denigrate and belittle the role of government, for their own narrow interests
  • The decades-long growing tendency of many others in America to keep quiet, in the face of Republican tirades against government, rather than speaking up to defend it.

The risk ahead

I listened to the concluding chapters of American Amnesia during the immediate aftermath of the referendum in the UK on the merits of remaining within the EU. The parallels were chilling:

  • In the EU, the positive role of EU governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of EU governance
  • In the US, the positive role of US governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of US governance. The commendable ambitions of the Obama government therefore ran into all sorts of bitter opposition.

The parallels might run one step further. To me, and many others, it was almost unthinkable that the referendum in the UK would come down in favour of leaving the EU. Likewise, it’s unthinkable to many in the US that Donald Trump will receive a popular mandate in the forthcoming November elections.

But all bets are off if the electorate:

  1. Feel sufficiently alienated
  2. Imbibe a powerful sense of grievance towards “the others” who are perceived to run government
  3. Lack a positive understanding of the actual role of big government.

Dealing with the flaws

Given the three risk factors I’ve just listed, various counter-measures ought to be clear:

  1. Action is required towards the concrete factors that generate a sense of alienation. Rather than the fruits of economic success being channelled to a small fraction of society, with growing inequalities, we need powerful steps for greater inclusion and wider participation.
  2. Language that encourages grievance must be rooted out. Whenever pundits present distorted stories about “the other”, these stories should be strongly challenged.
  3. Education is long overdue about the positive role of big government – as a kind of “visible hand” that complements the famous “invisible hand” of the free market.

On the third point, I particularly like the formulation of Hacker and Pierson that the mixed economy was the most important social innovation of the 20th century:

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

That’s an insight with a lot of mileage.

However, none of the above three tasks is easy. They’re made harder by the deep-rooted tendencies inside the human spirit to tribalism – ugly tendencies that keep coming to the surface in contemporary debates over politics.

In turn, we’re often maintained in our tribal thinking by yet another legacy hangover from our evolutionary heritage. That’s the heritage of a human propensity for self-deception.

The poison of self-deception

Time and again, as I’ve read what friends of mine have written online in recent months, I’ve gently sighed to myself: these people are surely deceiving themselves. (And no doubt I am similarly guilty on many occasions!)

Indeed, as the giant of evolutionary theory Robert Trivers explains in his genre-defining 2011 book “Deceipt and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others”,

We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others, and thereby reap the advantages.

Our subconscious minds often work hard to prevent our conscious minds seeing the whole picture and thereby disturbing our equanimity:

However much we champion freedom of thought, we actually spend much of our time censoring input. We seek out publications that mirror or support our prior views and largely avoid those that don’t.

Robert Trivers Deceipt

Trivers also provides this telling observation:

The great sage Thales once put the general matter succinctly. “Oh master,” he was asked, “what is the most difficult thing to do?” “To know thyself”, he replied. “And the easiest?” “To give advice to others.”

Towards a better intelligence

As a transhumanist, I look forward to a time in the hopefully not-too-distant a future when we’ll be smarter, not only rationally, but also emotionally.

But that I mean that our conscious minds will have a clearer understanding of the factors leading us to espouse various beliefs and ideologies. I’m sure we’ll all have some rude shocks in the process (me included).

With that clearer understanding, we’ll have a chance to resolve our political debates in a more rational way – a way that avoids unnecessary tribalism and alienation. Better humanity can provide the gateway to better politics.

Whence comes this better emotional intelligence? That’s perhaps the biggest question of all. Smart drugs may contribute. So might improved meditation techniques, or digital nootropics (such as helmets that modulate the brain via electrical stimulation). Enhanced communities of emotional support are likely to play a key role too.

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Article by David W. Wood, Executive Director, Transpolita

The graphics images are from Pixabay (click to see the individual sources.)

Anticipating better democracy

Democracy is one of the great triumphs of civilisation. But the way democracy is practised, in the UK and in the wider world, leaves a great deal of room for improvement.

In short, recent events show the risks of populism, which is a perversion of democracy.

Can we improve democracy, so that it avoids the siren allure of populism? Can we take steps so that the best insights of the entire population rise to the top of political discussion, rather than being buried in a sea of confusion, rumour, innuendo, and downright lie?

In an age with increasingly rapid communications, and with growing alienation of large parts of society, these questions are pressing. This article is the first in an envisaged Transpolitica series, “Anticipating better democracy”, that tries to catalyse some answers.

There’s more to democracy than majority decision-making

Democracy is a system where the majority decides. It’s where leaders need the approval of the citizenry. But it’s not mob rule.

Democracy allows the majority to appoint leaders. But it does not permit the majority to ride roughshod over the opinions of the minority. It avoids placing absolute power into the hands of the winning coalition. The minority have important rights too.

Democracy enables political disagreements to be handled by discussion rather than by physical force. It avoids the powerful retaining power simply via their ability to summon armies and command the police. It allows the citizenry to vote leaders out of office, once these leaders no longer have sufficient popular support. Democracy therefore addresses the dangerous human trait in which people who have risen to a position of power tend to become overly confident in their own abilities, surround themselves by yes men, veer towards autocracy, and brook no dissent. Done right, democracy allows the opposition to speak truth to power.

To be clear, democracy is more than the simple fact of an election. Democracy is about the climate that prevails, both in the run-up to an election, and in its aftermath.

A democratic transition

To avoid a region descending into chaos after an election takes place, democracy requires the loser of an election to swallow hard, congratulate the victor, and to stop contesting the result.

John McCain concession speech

For example, when John McCain realised in the early morning of 5 November 2008 that he had lost the US Presidential election to Barack Obama, he called upon his own supporters to recognise that Obama was a good man:

My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving…

Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day — though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her Creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited…

Some of his supporters booed, on hearing these words, but McCain proceeded:

Tonight — tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama. I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.

Nevertheless, whilst a democratic decision provides a milestone landmark, it’s not necessarily the end of the journey. The party that lost an election does not vanish into nonexistence. There is no iron law of democracy that says a losing party must give up its ideological understanding once the voters have spoken against it. Instead, it can regroup, and be ready to offer a renewed understanding to the electorate in the changed circumstances of the future.

Changing circumstances

In some cases, it may not take long for circumstances to change. This is especially the case when a democratic decision has taken place in a particularly confusing environment, and where greater clarity emerges soon after the vote has taken place. In such a case, the voters may justifiably feel angry about being deceived by the way the campaign was conducted.

In this article, I’ll avoid focusing too closely on the contentious circumstances of the recent EU exit vote in the United Kingdom. Opinions clearly differ, forcibly, on that score. I’ll just note in passing that even Kelvin Mackenzie, former long-time editor of the right-wing Sun tabloid newspaper, has expressed his own “buyer’s remorse” for voting for the UK to leave the EU (despite having previously campaigned hard for that outcome).

Kelvin MacKenzie remorse

Circumstances are changing fast.

But let’s concentrate, for now, on some steps that might be taken to improve the calibre of democratic decision-making – steps that might avoid future examples of widespread voter regret (and major voter distress). I’ll consider two suggestions.

Holding politicians to account?

The Advertising Standards Authority has firm rules about the kinds of claims that companies can make in their advertisements. Thank goodness.

But no such rules apply to the claims that politicians make, in their campaigns. Columnist Alan Travis observes as follows, in his recent article “The leave campaign made three key promises – are they keeping them?”

While legal action can follow in the case of a commercial contract or the public flotation of a company if false statements are made in, there is no advertising code that requires political statements to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

It’s tempting to ask: Why not?

If politicians knowingly bend the truth, in ways that wouldn’t be allowed in commercial communications, and major financial damage results, shouldn’t they be sued as a result?

However, I see this as potentially dangerous ground. The threat of being sued could clamp down on free speech.

To make this work, the emphasis would have to be on evidence that the politician definitely knew their claims were wrong, but went ahead with them regardless.

Before we get to that point, we can accelerate an important recent political trend. That’s the trend of improved, quicker fact-checking.

Fact-checking politicians’ claims

One of the most impressive organisations I’ve encountered recently is Full Fact – which describes itself as “the UK’s independent factchecking organisation”.

Full Fact Logo

Their website continues:

We check claims made by politicians, the media, pressure groups, and other voices in public debate, and push for corrections where necessary. We also work with government departments and academic research institutions to improve the quality and communication of technical information at source, and campaign for greater transparency in the public arena.

We don’t support any view or political party. Our mission is to improve the quality of public debate, and to equip the public with the best information possible to make up their own minds. We provide links to all our sources so that you don’t have to take our word for anything – you can also check for yourself.

Our commitment to transparency extends to our funding…

In a profile article, the Financial Times gave a couple of examples of claims checked by Full Fact:

Leave’s claim that Britain sent £350m a week to the EU was “wrong” because it ignored the UK budget rebate, it found. The CBI’s claim that membership was worth £3,000 a year to every household was “not credible”; and so on…

In other words, claims on both sides of the debate were found wanting.

Full Fact have accomplished a great deal with only a skeleton team. But with more support (including volunteers, funding, and other resources) there’s much more that can be accomplished.

Of course, much political debate happens in dimensions removed from facts. And facts are often capable of multiple interpretations. So fact-checking, by itself, won’t cure all the shortcomings of our present-day practice of democracy.

But we can anticipate the growth of a fact-checking culture, with the following positive outcomes:

  1. Everyone will come to expect that claims made by politicians are routinely, quickly checked
  2. Alongside phrases like “Google this”, which are already commonplace, we’ll more often hear phrases like “Fact check this”
  3. Politicians who make claims that violate independent fact-checking will be treated as pariahs. (There probably won’t be a need to sue them in courts of law for their wilful misstatements. They will, rightly, fall foul of the court of public reputation.)
  4. Newspapers that make claims that violate independent fact-checking will, likewise, become pariahs.

Fact check true or false

If only…

If that kind of culture had been in place in the past, the misstatements of a certain leading UK politician, from his days as a newspaper journalist covering EU affairs from Brussels, would not have gone unpunished. And the UK may well not have come near its present political crisis. I’m referring to Boris Johnson. As stated by his former journalist colleague Martin Fletcher,

For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU – and the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson.

I know this because I was appointed Brussels correspondent of The Times in 1999, a few years after Johnson’s stint there for The Telegraph, and I had to live with the consequences.

Johnson, sacked by The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quote, made his mark in Brussels not through fair and balanced reporting, but through extreme euro-scepticism. He seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue.

The Telegraph loved it. So did the Tory Right. Johnson later confessed: ‘Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power.’

Next steps

Will this cultural change be sufficient to fix the current ails of democracy? Of course not. But it’s an important step in the right direction.

Transpolitica plans to publish more articles on anticipating better democracy. If you’d like to submit a contribution, please get in touch.

Artificial Intelligence in the UK: Risks and Rewards

AKThe following report was created by Transpolitica senior consultant Alexander Karran in response to the ongoing inquiry into robotics and artificial intelligence by the UK parliament’s Science and Technology Committee.

The report was submitted on behalf of Transpolitica, to address the topics listed on the Science and Technology Committee inquiry page:

  • The implications of robotics and artificial intelligence on the future UK workforce and job market, and the Government’s preparation for the shift in the UK skills base and training that this may require.
  • The extent to which social and economic opportunities provided by emerging autonomous systems and artificial intelligence technologies are being exploited to deliver benefits to the UK.
  • The extent to which the funding, research and innovation landscape facilitates the UK maintaining a position at the forefront of these technologies, and what measures the Government should take to assist further in these areas.
  • The social, legal and ethical issues raised by developments in robotics and artificial intelligence technologies, and how they should be addressed.

The author thanks members of Transpolitica and the Transhumanist Party UK for their feedback on previous drafts of this report.

Note: click here to access the entire set of submissions accepted by the Science and Technology Committee.

Robotic handshake

Executive Summary

This briefing introduces Artificial Intelligence (A.I) as it is applied in industry today, and outlines what the United Kingdom can do to take full advantage of the technology. The briefing covers four areas the Implications of robotics and artificial intelligence for the UK, gaining and maintaining primacy in A.I technologies, the social and economic opportunities afforded by A.I technologies and issues in developing robotic and artificial intelligence technologies.

  • A.I is fast becoming an integral part of everyday life. In the coming decades, its integration into the digital ecosystem will be such that almost all technology will have an “intelligent” component.
  • Advances in A.I, robotics, technology and the sciences are approaching an exponential curve due to convergence and driven by information technologies.
  • A.I, robotics and automated processes are highly likely to displace vast amounts of the labour force within the next two decades, potentially 15 million jobs are amenable to automation, by either robotics or software, and cover an ever-broadening range of occupations.
  • Changes in the distribution of the capital-labour ratio will lead to a hollowing out of low, mid and high skill workers.
  • Re-deployment to the work force after a period of re-education and skill improvement may not be possible due to the increased pace of change, requiring a radical rethink of what it means to learn and work in a rapidly evolving digital economy.
  • A basic income should be investigated to offset the reduction in employment opportunities allowing for greater social mobility, a basic standard of living and reduced perception of inequality.
  • There needs to be a radical reform of the national curriculum and educational system to focus above all else on the creative use of technology from an early age, potentially as early as year two and becoming more intensive by year twelve.
  • A.I technologies can be used in the education system to improve the delivery of materials, subject matter and acceptance of A.I. The integration of A.I tools into education is not something that needs to be developed from first principles, but can draw upon the existing field of A.I.Ed
  • Educating citizens at all levels of society about the effects of A.I upon the UK will prove to be the biggest challenge, if the UK is to gain primacy in this area.
  • Defence applications of A.I, robotics and automation require serious consideration and rapid development if the UK government is to vouchsafe its citizens and allies. However, there are ethical and moral considerations and boundaries to be reflected upon.
  • If the UK can respond fast enough and commit to investing in education, digital infrastructure and redeployment of research funding, then coupled with existing industrial and research frameworks the UK is well placed to reap the benefits of becoming a leading player in the A.I domain.

1.    Introduction

  1. Not since the dawn of the industrial revolution in 1750 has there been a period in history that has so radically altered society, economic growth and technological development. Since the start of this revolution, there has been a rapid but linear pattern of growth and development resulting in three distinct eras. The first era was the industrial revolution (mid-18th century), the second was the period of mass industrialisation (mid-19th century), which has now slowed and the third is the Information Technology (I.T) revolution which began in the latter half of the 20th The I.T revolution however, has broken this trend of linear progress and set in motion a period of exponential growth and development. This new revolution, which comes fast on the heels of the previous one, has been termed the fourth industrial revolution[1] or the second machine age[2].
  2. Thus far, this new “digital age” has been characterised by wide adoption of the internet and the creation of so called “cyber-physical” systems -replacing traditional infrastructure with digital technologies- and by convergence, in which the reliance and co-dependence on data driven processes provided by information technologies, is blurring the traditional divisions between scientific and industrial domains. This co-dependence is accelerating scientific and industrial progress in many areas, such as genetic engineering, regenerative medicine and automation driven by advances in robotics and algorithmic control or Artificial Intelligence (A.I).
  3. Advances in A.I have arguably been the principal technology contributing to current progress and one that is evolving in near real-time. A.I is set to become the most advanced technological tool developed by man, since the discovery and use of fire. There are many definitions of artificial intelligence, such as Machine Consciousness, Narrow Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Strong Artificial Intelligence and Artificial General Intelligence. However, for the purposes of this briefing, the focus is upon narrow artificial intelligence applications as these are currently heading into mainstream deployment.
  4. A.I loosely defined, is a set of statistical tools and algorithms that combine to form, in part, intelligent software that specializes in a single area or task. This type of software is an evolving assemblage of technologies that enable computers to simulate elements of Human behaviour such as learning, reasoning and classification. Some examples of A.I include classification algorithms, used to classify images on social media platforms, text mining algorithms and junk email identification to more complex examples used in computational biology and drug discovery, social network analysis, human gameplay and healthcare analytics (such as Google Deepmind and IBM Watson).
  5. In this briefing, we will outline the connotative potential of A.I as a tool to effect radical social change, financial stability and growth and an enhancement or declension of human existence. Our aim is to rationally consider the negative implications of A.I based on available evidence and opinion, while at the same time emphasising the benefits of the technology when ethically applied so that every UK citizen can be given the opportunity to live better than well, which is our mandate.

2.    Implications of robotics and artificial intelligence on the future UK

  1. If the 1st industrial revolution was characterised as a race between technology, labour and education, the 4th may well be categorised as a race against technology that replaces both brains and brawn. This next race has serious implications for education, especially given the current plans to replace state schools with a broad, enforceable national curriculum, with academies that focus on education as product. However, the greatest area of impact will be upon employment, recent research completed by the Bank of England[3] amongst others[4] shows that up to a third (potentially 15 million) of jobs are amenable to automation, by either robotics or software and cover an ever-broadening range of occupations.
  2. The eventual effect of automation will be the creation of an “autonomous economy[5]” in which digital processes talk to other digital processes and synergise to create new processes; this will allow industries to employ fewer workers, yet complete more work. Traditional trend mappings of the economic landscape (i.e. Neo-Capitalism) point to a trend in which, as the automation of labour increase so too does job creation (after an initial period of rapid falloff and recovery). However, there is now a growing body of evidence to suggest that this time things will be both quantitatively and qualitatively different[6], and that this difference is due to wider applications of Moores Law, beyond electronics to machine learning and information science. This new trend presents as an exponential growth curve that will see automation applied beyond physical labour to more cognitive labour[7].
  3. As this trend manifests over the coming decades it will lead to a radical redistribution of the capital-labour ratio by adding a new vector, that of the robot, forever changing the distribution of resources amongst the various strata of society. In certain occupational domains, human labour is likely to continue for technical, economic and ethical reasons. On a technical level, machines today remain inferior to humans at jobs involving creative, highly flexible or affective work and those tasks that rely on tacit rather than explicit knowledge. It may be that it is simply not economically feasible to replace workers in these areas, or ethical as in the case of those providing secondary, tertiary health or palliative care.
  4. The coming changes will lead to a hollowing out of low, mid and high skill workers, who would (based upon previous models) re-deploy to the work force after a period of re-education and skill improvement. However, in the new digital ecosystem, re-education will only take an individual so far, as their ability to adapt to rapid advancements decreases with the increased pace of change. This will require a radical rethink of what it means to learn and work in a rapidly evolving digital economy.
  5. Providing education and income to citizens who have or are likely to lose employment due to automation will prove to be one of the greatest challenges in the decades ahead. To address this challenge and help manage the social and economic impacts, government should engage with the public in open conversation and wide media outreach about the likely impact of A.I. Answering key questions such as how will the nature of work change? What types of jobs are likely to be automated? If there is no work, how will I support myself or my family? What can I do to find work? What will there be for my children? Such answers as provided need to be unambiguous and clear-cut and guide the public towards those industries with less probability of automation and towards education and skills training.
  6. In addition to the implications for the economy, employment, and education, serious consideration needs to be given to the military applications of this technology, in both a global and domestic context. These considerations need to take into account defensive, offensive, automated and autonomous perspectives. International debate is already fuelling calls for a prohibition on the deployment of autonomous systems in the theatre of war on ethical grounds (Red Cross[8], Human Rights Watch[9]). The HRW stated a position with some merit:

 “A requirement to maintain human control over the use of weapons would eliminate many of the problems associated with fully autonomous weapons. Such a requirement would protect the dignity of human life, facilitate compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law, and promote accountability for unlawful acts”

  1. However, given the changing definition of warfare in the modern digital age, “fully autonomous weapons” in this context may not take into account “software as a weapon”. This was demonstrated by the Stuxnet[10] malware deployment, which highlighted a radical shift from “traditional” warfare and hacking to cyber-physical attack engineering, and this form of attack will only increase in frequency[11] and sophistication as our technologies and infrastructure systems become smarter. Therefore, the debate must be expanded beyond battlefield deployment, to include a review of autonomous systems deployed at all points within the digital ecosystem.

3.    Gaining and maintaining primacy in A.I technologies

  1. In order to gain and maintain leadership in the application and development of A.I technologies the UK must concentrate its efforts to varying degrees in three areas, education, research and industry. The area requiring the highest degree of effort, but potential maximum return will be education. There needs to be a radical reform of the national curriculum that focuses above all else on the creative use of technology from an early age, potentially as early as year two and becoming more intensive by year twelve. In addition to performing “traditional” learning tasks such as reading and writing, technology should be integrated as an additional support tool, allowing other cognitive tasks such as mathematics and the sciences to be reconceptualised to support the step changes in learner outcomes that are required for modern life and the digital workplace.
  2. Traditional educational practice has thus far focused on developing core cognitive competencies, such as reading, writing and arithmetic with very little variation in how these are taught and applied beyond the education environment. Current and in-development A.I technologies shows that machines are already making significant strides towards mastery in all of these areas and it our conclusion that creativity should be added to this set of core competencies, a conclusion already supported by others[12]. Arguably creativity, in the digital workplace, can be defined as the ability to ask questions using advanced intelligent technology and utilise the answers to create novel solutions to present and future problems, as such, a superior proficiency in data analysis to produce insights and apply solutions will be a much sought after skill-set in the coming decades.
  3. Technology and A.I can serve a dual purpose in a reformed educational system by being both the facilitator of high quality learner experiences and the subject of those experiences. If in the UK, we could teach the creative use, support and understanding of A.I and information technologies from an early age, we could potentially create a generation of thought leaders and expert practitioners, with the foresight to fully utilise the potential of A.I both at home and abroad in many industrial domains. However, to achieve this, the educational system would need to foster an environment that encourages critical thinking, rational decision making and multidisciplinary approaches to increase creativity and a learner’s ability to synergise knowledge from disparate sources.
  4. The integration of A.I into education is not something that needs to be developed from first principles, but rather something that needs only draw from the existing field of A.I.Ed[13], a field of research already rich with methods and technologies which given opportunity, funding and study for feasibility could be rapidly deployed. This integration could feed into the current government’s plans for academy style schools, with a call for “match fund” proposals that blend A.I.Ed into current teaching practice and change the classroom environment from one that has barely changed in a century into something representative of modern digital life. This has the potential to rapidly evolve the education ecosystem, as incorporating machine learning into teaching and learning styles, would present an innovative “learning” environment that supports the learner, teacher and the A.I system as it learns how best to serve each learner individually according to their needs, providing a level of personalisation heretofore unknown in teaching practice.
  5. While high quality education concerning A.I technologies is needed at all levels of society, if A.I is to be embraced openly and incorporated fully as part of UK infrastructure, a positive feedback cycle needs to be created between citizens, education, industry and government. If initiated effectively this feedback cycle will fuel growth over and above standard measures of GDP, to include: education as product; innovation and entrepreneurship as a commodity to be shared strategically with allies; digital information infrastructure as a service; and if information security policy interactions are non-repressive, cybersecurity services. Furthermore, if A.I technology development is regulated using a light but firm touch, such a feedback loop allows for both secular development and global participation, providing opportunity for the UK to take global leadership in the development, application and commercial exploitation of A.I technologies.

4.    Social and economic opportunities

  1. The number of social and economic opportunities afforded by developing A.I technologies is practically limitless. The development and broad acceptance of the technology within all levels society will lead to advancements in many disparate fields, from healthcare and healthcare provision; critical infrastructure management and resilience; to decision support tools and forensic process automation. For example, advancements in the field of medicine and biology due to the application of current A.I have been truly revolutionary. A.I has allowed the tremendous amounts of data used in research to be analysed faster than ever before. Future developments in A.I, will further increase the pace of medical discoveries, and lifesaving medical interventions, accelerating discoveries in DNA mapping, drug discovery, genetic modification and synthetic biology, propelling the biological sciences to a whole new level.
  2. The UK as world leaders in synthetic biology and the biological sciences, is well placed to take advantage of A.I technologies in this domain, not just through our research frameworks, but also in the future through a reformed education system that incorporates A.I.Ed and penetrates all levels of society, making the use of A.I to complete tasks or reach goals as natural as using a calculator or pen and paper.
  3. Many pundits, experts, economists and capitalists argue that specialized narrow artificial intelligence applications, robotics and other forms of technological automation will ultimately result in a significant increase in human unemployment and underemployment within many fields of human endeavour (Deloitte[14], Financial Times[15], RSA[16]). This significant “hollowing out” of Labour at all levels of the employment ladder may well result in a fundamental shift in UK society, leading to much greater levels of inequality, lesser social justice and a greater potential for social unrest. However, if managed effectively and with all due ethical consideration, the further development of A.I and the concomitant increase in the automation of labour could become a boon to the UK, in terms of increased productivity by reducing the everyday burden of citizens via a basic-income and freeing their creativity and innate empathy. Additionally, providing a basic income allows for the scrapping of large portions of the welfare system as means testing or fraud detection would no longer be required. This would have the effect of increasing social mobility for citizens at a time when it is required, in order to re-educate or re-train to remain a viable prospect in a shrinking employment market.
  4. Thus, while it is increasingly likely that grande-masse automation will reduce the number of employment opportunities, benefits can accrue through an evolved education system that creates new employment opportunities. A.I.Ed could potentially become a large area of economic growth, helping to increase A.I, robotics and automation acceptance in the general populace. Growth would be stimulated based on the sheer number of industrial and cognitive domains required to support the development of educational A.I systems, such as, educators, computer science, Information technology, designers, technologists, infrastructure specialists, content creators and those sub domains that that support them.
  5. There will be a number of other opportunities both economic and social that will come from developing A.I technologies in the UK and advancements from within the industry. For example, in transport management, imagine a transport management system able to respond in real-time to traffic conditions nationally and locally, with the ability to update automated and non-automated vehicles with prevailing conditions and alternative courses of action, ensuring optimal traffic flow and reducing fuel consumption, accidental damage and time-to-travel as a consequence. The same types of system could be applied to critical infrastructure to provide greater resilience and fault tolerance. Another example within healthcare, would be the use of Big Data analytics to provide diagnostic support to GP’s, hospitals and secondary care providers allowing for fully personalised health care, through the rapid diagnosis and identification of disease states and which interventions would work most effectively for the individual, helping to reduce the cost overhead associated with prolonged care due to diagnostic exploration and drug provision.
  6. The possibility exists that A.I could be used within governance, providing evidence and helping to fact check statements and build policy. A decision support A.I could in effect act as a buffer between politician and policy, ensuring that before policy becomes actionable no unintended consequences are likely to arise. This is also an area of active research that could also provide economic and status benefits should the UK encourage its growth.

5.    Issues in developing robotic and artificial intelligence technologies

  1. The biggest challenge the UK faces with regards to developing A.I technologies, is educating the populace in its use, benefits and risks and how fast this information can be disseminated, from those in early learning, attending college or university to those performing jobs soon to be automated or retired, all must be made aware of the coming changes. It will not simply be a case of injecting some A.I subject matter into schools and colleges and hoping that learners and schools adapt, the change to an “A.I mind-set” needs to be systemic affecting all levels of our society. For the UK to prosper an equal focus must be on the practical applications of A.I in addition to creating and understanding the technology. The UK must focus on creating a generation of machine learning practitioners, through early learning and advocating “degree apprenticeships” or vocational certification.
  2. Short-sightedness could make the UK fall at the first hurdle in its efforts to capitalise upon A.I technologies, existing austerity measures could inhibit any effort through lack of funding. Taking advantage of A.I and it development would require a significant redeployment of funds towards those scientific and industrial domains which demonstrate multidisciplinary approaches utilising A.I to provide services nationally and globally or those applying A.I solve problems specific to the UK and its society.
  3. Another challenge facing the UK will be ensuring positive applications of A.I, a balance must be struck between national security needs and personal freedoms afforded to UK citizens, applying fully autonomous A.I to surveillance tasks targeted at citizens is a minefield of unparalleled danger. While the state is tasked with the security of its people, policing thought and action beyond the confines of just law, lies outside of its remit.
  4. A nimble and lean directorate consisting of ministers, economists, scientists and policy experts and futurists should be created, able to respond in short timescales to technological advances in near-real-time this expert policy group should advise upon and revise policy in line with the pace of technological change. Rather than traditional precautionary policy decision approaches this group should adopt a proactionary approach to policy and regulation (i.e. a light touch, but ethically constrained) of A.I in order to reap the benefits that the technology can bring to society and advance understanding of the negative consequences. This group should advise upon or create policy and legislature that is robust enough to adapt to rapid and radical changes, without falling into traditional deny all regulation.
  5. While it is lamentable that we live in a world of warring nation states, unmitigated threats and intractable ideologies, defence is another area in which the nations technological expertise and thought leadership can be applied. Investment in A.I and robotics for national defence is increasing globally[17], and it is within the UK’s best interest to increase research and development in this area in order to keep abreast of the changing nature of warfare. A full analysis of how A.I can be applied to defence ethically and morally is beyond the scope of this briefing. However, artificial intelligence and automated defence could potentially be an area of economic growth and a driver of global stability for this century, much as nuclear weapons and the potential for Mutually Assured Destruction was for the early portion of the previous century, the potential risks of A.I and robotics applied to warfare cannot be overstated.

6.    Conclusion

  1. A.I research and development has an immense amount of momentum behind it, socially, technically and economically. It is not a question of if we should we develop A.I further but rather how fast can the nation mobilise resources in the industrial, educational and civil services to take advantage of this brief period of research and exploration of the technology. The government must make a statement that defines the nation’s role as a leading light and technologically advanced society to be made to be at the forefront of its development in terms of the nation’s ability to prosper and defend itself.

References

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond

[2] Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. The second machine age: work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. WW Norton & Company, 2014.

[3] http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/speeches/2015/864.aspx

[4] http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/finance/deloitte-uk-finance-robots-are-coming.pdf

[5] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/515926/how-technology-is-destroying-jobs/

[6] Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. WW Norton & Company.

[7] http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/business-technology/our-insights/disruptive-technologies

[8] https://www.icrc.org/en/document/statement-icrc-lethal-autonomous-weapons-systems

[9] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/11/killer-robots-and-concept-meaningful-human-control

[10] http://spectrum.ieee.org/telecom/security/the-real-story-of-stuxnet

[11] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-36158606

[12] https://www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/creativity_vs._robots_wv.pdf

[13] https://www.pearson.com/innovation/smarter-digital-tools/intelligence-unleashed.html

[14] http://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/press-releases/articles/automation-and-industries-analysis.html

[15] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/126527ce-f8a8-11e5-8f41-df5bda8beb40.html#axzz45QbZXYUO

[16] https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/basic-income/

[17] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9067b4c2-0d14-11e6-ad80-67655613c2d6.html

Is the Transhumanist-Technoprogressive Distinction Meaningful in Political Debate?

In this article, guest contributor Gareth John argues that the “Transhumanist Party” might fare better under the alternative name “Technoprogressive Party”.

Throwing two-pennerth into the ring

I usually start my articles with some sort of self-deprecating disclaimer as to my lack of scientific or technological credentials. Well here’s another to add to the list: I’m no politician.

Indeed I have as much understanding of political discourse as I do about quantum mechanics, which seems to have something to do with incorrect usage of my electrical toothbrush coupled with the disappearance of one of my socks and the sudden appearance of a cat means I might very well inadvertently create a black hole in my bathroom. That is, not much at all.

Nonetheless I am a paid-up member of the Transhumanist Party UK (TPUK) and proud to be so. I was a little late to the party (pun intended) so missed much of the initial decision making process and policy enumerations, logo adoption etc. I’ll admit I remain somewhat on the fence as to whether the time is right or productive to introduce the radical ideas and aims of transhumanism to the general public, but I am fully committed to to do what I can to help further the cause.

Let’s be clear from the outset: I have no desire (nor luckily the clout) to stir up schism or division that detracts from TPUK’s stated goals, but I have spent some time considering my own political stance along with my technoprogressive ideals and would like to throw my two-pennerth into the ring as to my thoughts with regard to TPUK’s political presentation.

Supporting the three broad policy statements

First off, I should commend the Party’s introduction to transhumanist principles via the upfront pitch they make on the Party website homepage. The three broad policy statement demonstrate a perspective fully in line with my own viewpoint as to what are the most critically important points to advocate.

For those who haven’t looked at the party website (http://www.transhumanistparty.org.uk) the three policies listed are:

  1. Evidence, Science and Technology.
  2. Bright Green.
  3. Personal Freedom, Social Justice.

A video on the party website from the British Institute of Posthuman Studies adds a nice touch, although does to an extent exacerbate the issue I have with with the Party’s debut, namely that of the terminology used to frame the debate. (Transhuman? Posthuman?…)

In particular, I am most concerned with the demarcation of the terms ‘transhumanism’ and ‘technoprogressivism’ and whether that should matter to those of us moving forward in the sphere of political discourse and indeed, that of the ordinary voter.

A choice of name, a choice of direction

Technojanus.png

Let me nail my colours to the mast. I identify myself as a technoprogressive. I try to use the term as much possible when writing about ‘transhuman’ issues (already the problem is apparent). I wish that IEET Director James Hughes’ attempt at popularising the term ‘technoprogressive’ had been more successful.

For me the marriage between scientific and emerging technologies together with strong ethical and social principles is critical. I want a just distribution of the costs, risks and, most importantly, benefits of this new knowledge and capacities such that they do not remain the province of the rich and dangerous alone.

From Wikipedia:

‘… for most techno-progressive critics and advocates, the achievement of better democracy, greater fairness, less violence, and a wider rights culture are all desirable, but inadequate in themselves to confront the quandaries of of contemporary technological societies unless and until they are accompanied by progress in science and technology to support and implement these aims.’

Hear, hear, say I. I am a strong supporter of progress in science and technology. And it’s apparent that precisely these self-same values are shared by TPUK given the aforementioned introduction on their website.

To be clear, I’m not writing this to debate the similarities and differences between those who choose to identify as transhumanist or technoprogressive or both or neither. That would be fruitless; within both camps there are many and varied ideologies and political leanings that are either in agreement with each other or not. My argument is that it does appear that TPUK sits very much at the technoprogressive end of the spectrum and it’s here that I’d like to set forth my stall, so to speak, in that I believe terminology matters.

Accordingly, I’m not entirely convinced that TPUK as a political party has chosen the right name for itself.

I believe there is a core difference between the terms transhumanism and technoprogressive that makes a huge difference to how people view each. The latter seems to me to describe something that is concrete: the embrace of emerging technologies together with social justice and opportunity. I’m not sure this is the case with the former, which owns to a far greater and broader range of aims and ideals and – crucially – politically so.

As a simple example, James Hughes and Zoltan Istvan are both transhumanists, but I’d bet my bottom dollar you’d only describe one of them as technoprogressive in his political stance.

Beyond preaching to the converted

All of this would be academic were it not for the fact that TPUK is a radical political party that needs to spread the word in ways that ordinary people can understand. We’re not simply going to preach to the converted and spend our time debating among ourselves and other technologically-minded individuals or those with the ready cash to consider life extension etc as soon as it’s up and running.

The problem for me is that being a transhumanist can mean many things across very broad political spectrums.

While there’s an argument to be made for diversity being a positive thing, canvassing voters is made that much more difficult when there appears to be no central core to the view we’re espousing. Is the transhumanist libertarian, liberal, small ‘c’ conservative, green, socialist, anarchist? What is it about transhumanism that appeals to them in particular and what will they prioritise as a consequence when out on the street?

I suppose you could make an argument that the same applies to a technoprogressive, but I think it’s that much more difficult to sustain this view in light of the fact that this person has already to a far greater extent identified their political aims and ideals by mere fact of identifying as a technoprogressive. As it states on the homepage of TPUK, ‘Anyone who agrees with [the Transhumanist Party Principles] and who is legally eligible to join a UK political party can do so.’ It’s clear and up-front where you stand on the major issues right from the get-go.

The need for a central political premise

It’s going to be a hard sell however you look at it, but I think it’s going to be much more difficult as ‘transhumanists’ where, when questioned about it would almost have to start with the details and work backwards. By this I mean take what’s important to them and rationalise it to fit their current agenda. A broad range of views across the political spectrum is healthy – difference of opinion and debate yes – but a political party without a central political premise is not so much a political party as it is a group of utterly diverse political opinions glued together only by their vision of the future (and even these will vary widely).

So, given the three founding principles of TPUK appear to lead one to inexorably define them as ‘technoprogressive’ in their ideals, why not define it as such? Technoprogressive Party UK sounds so much more inviting, let alone clear, to my ears than the current monicker.

A straw poll

A quick straw poll among friends and acquaintances resulted in them grasping the technoprogressive angle much more quickly and easier than transhumanism.

Transhumanism seems almost to frighten people with visions of being ‘beyond human’ – the uninitiated seemed to envision little more than lab coats, Skynet and grainy images of eugenic experimentation. The alternative, however, was far more easily understood and seemed less scary – it led to discussion whereas the former was more likely to lead to dismissal. It particularly appealed to left-of-centre participants in my little study and flashed up huge warning lights to those further to the right and also some Greens (who admittedly have their own reservations about emerging tech for specific reasons of their own).

Now this was by no means an Ipsos MORI poll as I don’t have many friends or acquaintances, but all but one said that the term technoprogressivism expressed its viewpoint clearly from the outset whereas transhumanism required a little explanation which quickly led to sci-fi scenarios and glazed eyes. Incidentally, many of them thought the TPUK logo was a little scary too, a point on which I have to agree.

th party logo

In conclusion, I’m not suggesting that things should change. Lines have already been drawn in the sand and our attention should now focus on being the best that we can be in order that the Party can be the best that it can be: best at advocating positive social change through emerging technologies. To improve ourselves and societies using the most effective tools available to us – to go beyond what we have been in order to overcome the world’s most pressing problems and create a better future.

You know… kind of like what a technoprogressive would do.

Gareth JohnAbout the author

Gareth John is a technoprogressive transhumanist fascinated by how people perceive, interpret, respond, and interact in an increasingly media rich world. His interests include ethics and emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, personality types in cyberspace, biotechnology, cognitive science, cultural posthumanism in the humanities and arts. He lives with bipolar disorder. 

Four political futures: which will you choose?

By David W. Wood, Executive Director, Transpolitica

Forget left wing versus right wing. The political debate in the medium-term future (10-20 years) will be dominated, instead, by a new set of arguments. These arguments debate the best set of responses to the challenges and opportunities posed by fast-changing technology.

In this essay, I’ll outline four positions: technosceptical, technoconservative, technolibertarian, and technoprogressive. I’ll argue that the first two are non-starters, and I’ll explain why I personally favour the technoprogressive stance over the technolibertarian one.

Accelerating technology

Accelerating technology

The defining characteristic of the next 10-20 years is the potential ongoing acceleration of technology. Technological development has the potential to progress even more quickly – and to have even larger effects on huge areas of life – than has been the case in the last remarkable 10-20 years.

I share the view expressed by renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, in the book “Infinite in all directions”[i] from his 1985 Gifford lectures:

Technology is… the mother of civilizations, of arts, and of sciences

Technology has given rise to enormous progress in civilization, arts and sciences over recent centuries. New technology is poised to have even bigger impacts on civilization in the next 10-20 years.

MIT professor Andrew McAfee takes up the same theme, in an article published in October last year[ii]: (emphases added)

History teaches us that nothing changes the world like technology

McAfee spells out a “before” and “after” analysis. Here’s the “before”:

For thousands of years, until the middle of the 18th century, there were only glacial rates of population growth, economic expansion, and social development.

And the “after”:

Then an industrial revolution happened, centred around James Watt’s improved steam engine, and humanity’s trajectory bent sharply and permanently upward.

One further quote from McAfee’s article rams home the conclusion:

Great wars and empires, despots and democrats, the insights of science and the revelations of religion – none of them transformed lives and civilizations as much as a few practical inventions.

In principle, many of the grave challenges facing society over the next 10-20 years could be solved by “a few practical inventions”:

  • Students complain, with some justification, about the costs of attending university. But technology can enable better MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – that can deliver high quality lectures, removing significant parts of the ongoing costs of running universities; free access to such courses can do a lot to help everyone re-skill, as new occupational challenges arise
  • With one million people losing their lives to traffic accidents worldwide every year, mainly caused by human driver error[iii], we should welcome the accelerated introduction of self-driving cars
  • Medical costs could be reduced by greater application of the principles of preventive maintenance (“a stitch in time saves nine”), particularly through rejuvenation biotechnology[iv] and healthier diets
  • A sustained green tech new deal should push society away from dependency on fuels that emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases, resulting in lifestyles that are positive for the environment as well as positive for humanity
  • The growing costs of governmental bureaucracy itself could be reduced by whole-heartedly embracing improved information technology and lean automation.

Society has already seen remarkable changes in the last 10-20 years as a result of rapid progress in fields such as electronics, computers, digitisation, and automation. In each case, the description “revolution” is appropriate. But even these revolutions pale in significance to the changes that will, potentially, arise in the next 10-20 years from extraordinary developments in healthcare, brain sciences, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, distributed production of renewable energy, artificial intelligence (AI), and improved knowledge management.

Benefits to individuals but threats to society

The potential outputs from accelerating technology can usefully be split into two categories.

Enhanced humans

The first of these categories is “enhancing humans”. New technologies can provide individual humans with:

  • Extra intelligence
  • Extra health
  • Extra longevity
  • Extra material goods
  • Extra experiences
  • Extra opportunities.

The second category is “disturbing humanity”. This looks, instead, at the drawbacks from new technologies:

  • More power placed into the hands of terrorists, criminals, fanatics, and other ne’er-do-wells, to inflict chaos and damage on the rest of us
  • More power placed into the hands of governments, and the hands of corporations, to monitor us, and keep track of our every action
  • Risks from over-consumption and from the waste products of our lifestyles – including risks to planetary climate stability from excess emissions of greenhouse gases
  • Risks of technological unemployment, as growing numbers of people find themselves displaced from the job market by increasingly capable automation (robots, software, and AI)
  • So-called “existential risks”, from unintended side-effects of experiments with disease strains, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or artificial general intelligence.

The content of both categories are extremely weighty. How should politicians react?

The technosceptical response

One response is to deny that technology will have anything like the magnitude of impact that I have just described. This technosceptical response accepts that there has been rapid change over the last 10-20 years, but also observes the following:

  • There have been other times of rapid change in the past – as when electrification was introduced, or when railways quickly criss-crossed the world; there is nothing fundamentally different about the present age
  • Past inventions such as the washing machine arguably improved lives (especially women’s lives) at least as much as modern inventions such as smartphones
  • Although there have been many changes in ICT (information and communications technology) in the last 10-20 years, other areas of technology have slowed down in their progress; for example, commercial jet airliners don’t fly any faster than in the past (indeed they fly a lot slower than Concorde)
  • Past expectations of remarkable progress in fields such as flying cars, and manned colonies on Mars, have failed to be fulfilled
  • It may well be that the majority of the “low hanging fruit” of technological development has been picked, leaving much slower progress ahead.

Kevin Kelly, the co-founder and former executive editor of Wired, had this to say about progress, in an interview in March 2014[v]:

If we were sent back with a time machine, even 20 years, and reported to people what we have right now and describe what we were going to get in this device in our pocket—we’d have this free encyclopaedia, and we’d have street maps to most of the cities of the world, and we’d have box scores in real time and stock quotes and weather reports, PDFs for every manual in the world—we’d make this very, very, very long list of things that we would say we would have and we get on this device in our pocket, and then we would tell them that most of this content was free. You would simply be declared insane. They would say there is no economic model to make this. What is the economics of this? It doesn’t make any sense, and it seems far-fetched and nearly impossible.

In other words, the last twenty years have, indeed, been remarkable – with progress that would appear “insane” to people from the beginning of that time period. But Kelly then mentions a view that is sceptical about future progress:

There’s a sense that all the big things have happened.

So many big things have happened in the last twenty years. Is there anything left to accomplish? Can science and technology really keep up the same frenetic pace?

Kelly’s answer: We’re by no means at the end of the set of major technological changes. We’re not even at the beginning of these changes:

We’re just at the beginning of the beginning of all these kind of changes.

And for a comparison of what will happen next, to what has happened in the recent past, Kelly predicts that

The next twenty years are going to make this last twenty years just pale.

I share that assessment. I base my views upon the positive feedback cycles which are in place:

  • Technology magnifies our knowledge and intelligence, which in turn magnifies our technology
  • Technology improves everyone’s ability to access cutting-edge information, via free online encyclopaedias, massive open online courses, and open source software
  • Critically, this information is available to vast numbers of bright students, entrepreneurs, hackers, and activists, throughout the emerging world as well as in countries with longer-established modern economies
  • Technology improves the ability for smart networking of prospective partners – people in one corner of cyberspace can easily improve and extend ideas that arose elsewhere
  • The set of pre-existing component solutions keeps accumulating through its own positive feedback cycles, serving as the basis for yet another round of technological breakthrough.

What’s more, insight, tools, and techniques from one technology area can quickly transfer (often in innovative ways) into new technology areas. This kind of crossover features in what is called “NBIC convergence”:

NBIC

  • The ‘I’ of NBIC is for Information and Communications Technology. It means our ability to store, transmit, and calculate bits of information. It means the transformation of music and videos and newspapers and maps into digital form, which huge impacts for industry.
  • The ‘N’ of NBIC is for Nanotechnology. It means our ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level. Nano is one thousand times smaller than Micro, which in turn is one thousand times smaller than Milli. Nanotech enables better and better 3D printing, which is poised to disrupt many industries. It also enables new kinds of material that can be super-light and super-strong, and super-flexible, such as graphene and nanotubes. These new materials will also allow the creation of human-like robots.
  • The ‘B’ in NBIC is for Biotechnology. It means our ability to create, not just new kinds of material, but new kinds of life. It means our ability to reprogram, not just the silicon inside transistors, but the long chains of carbon-based DNA inside our cells. We’ll be applying software techniques to re-engineer genes. We’ll be able, if we wish, not just to create so-called “designer babies”, but also “re-designed adults”. With nano-sized computers, sometimes called nanobots, doctors will be able to target very precisely any ailing parts of our body, including cancerous cells, or tangles in the brain, and fix them. And, if we want, we’ll be able to remain perpetually youthful, with nano cosmetic surgery, both outside and inside the body.
  • And the ‘C’ in NBIC is for Cognotechnology. It means our ability to understand and improve the basis of cognition – thought and feeling. With very powerful scanners we can understand more precisely what’s going on inside our brains. And we can engineer new moods, new creativity, and (if we wish) new states of ecstasy and bliss.

The real significance of NBIC isn’t just in the four individual areas. It’s in the crossovers between the four fields:

  • Nano-sensors allow closer study than ever before of what is happening in the brain
  • Insight on how the brain performs its near-miracles of cognition will feed back into new algorithms used in next generation AI
  • Improved AI allows systems such as IBM Watson to study vast amounts of medical literature, and then make new suggestions about treating various diseases, etc.

For these reasons, I discount the technosceptical answer. It’s very unlikely that technological progress will run out of steam. However, I am sympathetic in two aspects to the technosceptical position.

First, I don’t see the detailed outcome of technological development as in any way inevitable. The progress that will be made will depend, critically, upon public mood, political intervention, the legislative framework, and so on. It will also depend on the actions of individuals, which can be magnified (via the butterfly effect) to have huge impacts. Specifically, all these factors can alter the timing of various anticipated product breakthroughs.

Second, I do see one way in which the engines of technological progress will become unstuck. That is if society enters a new dark age, via some kind of collapse. This could happen as a result of the influences I listed earlier as “technology disturbing humanity, threatening society”. If technologists ignore these threats, they could well regret what happens next. Plans for improved personal intelligence, health, longevity, etc, could suddenly be undercut by sweeping societal or climatic changes.

That leads me to the second of the four responses that I wish to discuss.

The technoconservative response

Whereas technosceptics say, in effect, “there’s no need to get worked up about the impact of technological change, since that change is going to slow down of its own accord”, technoconservatives say “we need to slow that change down, since otherwise bad things are going to happen – very bad things”.

Technoconservatives take seriously the linkage between ongoing technological change and the threats to society and humanity that I listed earlier. Unless that engine of change is brought under serious control, they say, technology is going to inflict terrible damage on the planet.

For example, many metrics for the health of the environment are near danger points, as a result of human lifestyles that are fuelled by conspicuous consumption. There are major shortages of fresh water. Species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate. Some of the accidents that are waiting to happen would make the Fukushima disaster site look like a mild hiccup in comparison. We may be close to a tipping point in global climate, which would trigger the wrong kind of positive feedback cycle (a cycle of increasing warmth). We may also be close to outbreaks of unstoppable pathogens, spread too quickly around the world by criss-crossing jet travellers rushing from one experience to another.

Enough

Technoconservatives want to cry out, “Enough!” They want to find ways to apply the brake on our technological steamroller – or (to change the metaphor) to rip out the power cable that keeps the engine of technological progress humming. Where technologists keep putting more opportunities into people’s hands – opportunities to remake what it means to be human – technoconservatives argue for a period of prolonged reflection. “Let’s not play God”, some of them might say. “Let’s be very careful not to let the genie out of the bottle.”

They’ll argue that technology risks leading people astray. Instead of us applying straightforward, ordinary, common-sense solutions to social problems, we’re being beguiled by faux techno-solutions. Instead of authentic, person-to-person relations, we’re spending too much time in front of computer screens, talking to virtual others, neglecting our real-world neighbours. Instead of discovering joy in what’s natural, we’re losing our true nature in quests for technotopia. These quests, argue the technoconservatives, aren’t just misguided. They’re deeply dangerous. We might gain a whole universe of electronic and chemical satiation, but we’ll lose our souls in the process. And not only our souls, but also our lives, if some of the existential risks come to fruition.

But whenever a technoconservative says that technology has already developed enough, and there’s no need for it to continue any further, I’ll point out the vicious impediments that still blight people’s lives the world over – disease, squalor, poverty, ignorance, oppression, aging. It’s true; some of these obstacles could be tackled by non-technological means, such as by politics or social change. But the solutions to other issues lie within the grasp of further scientific and technological progress. Think of the terrible pain still inflicted by numerous diseases, both in young people and in the elderly. Think of the heartache caused by neurodegeneration and dementia. Rejuvenation biotechnology has the latent ability to make all these miseries as much a thing of the past as deaths from tuberculosis, smallpox, typhoid, or the bubonic plague. Anyone who wants to block this progress by proclaiming “Enough” has a great deal of explaining to do.

In any case, is the technoconservative programme feasible? Could the rate of pace of technological change really be significantly slowed down?

Any such action is going to require large-scale globally coordinated agreements. It’s not sufficient for any one company to agree to avoid particular lines of product development. It’s not sufficient for any one country to ban particular fields of technological research. Everyone would need to be brought to the same conclusion, the world over. And everyone would need to be confident that everyone else is going to honour agreements to abstain from various developments.

The problem is, however, that the technology engine is delivering huge numbers of good outputs, in parallel with its bad outputs. And too many people (especially powerful people) are benefiting – or perceive themselves to be benefiting – from these outputs.

Compare the technoconservative thought with the idea that we could switch off the Internet. That would have the outcome of stopping various undesirable activities that currently take place via the Internet – abusive trolling, child pornography, distribution of dangerously substandard counterfeit goods, incitement by fanatical terrorists for impressionable youngsters to join their cause, and so on. But any such mass switch off would also stop all of the other systems which coexist on the Internet with the abovementioned nefarious examples, using the same communications protocols. Systems for commerce, finance, newsflow, entertainment, travel booking, healthcare, social networking, and so on, would all crash to a halt. For good or for ill, we’ve become deeply dependent on these systems. We’re very unlikely to agree to do without them.

Separate from the question of the desirability of shutting down the entire Internet is the question of the feasibility of doing so. After all, the Internet was designed with robustness in mind, including multiple redundancies. Supposedly, it will survive the outbreak of a (minor) nuclear war.

These same two objections – regarding desirability, and regarding feasibility – undermine any thought that the entirety of technological progress could be stopped. The technoconservative approach is too blunt, and is bound to fail.

But while we cannot imagine voluntarily dismantling that great engine of progress, what we can – and should – imagine is to guide that engine more powerfully. Instead of seeking to stop it, we can seek to shape it. That’s the approach favoured by technoprogressives. We’ll come to that shortly.

The technolibertarian response

The technolibertarian view is a near direct opposite of the technoconservative one. Whereas the technoconservatives say “stop – this is going too fast”, technolibertarians say “go faster”.

It’s not that technolibertarians are blind to the threats which cause so much concern to the technoconservatives. On the whole, they’re well aware of these threats. However, they believe that technology, given a free hand, will solve these problems. Technoconservatives, in this analysis, are becoming unnecessarily anxious.

For example, excess greenhouse gases may well be sucked out of the atmosphere by clever carbon capture systems, perhaps involving specially engineered bio-organisms. In any case, green energy sources – potentially including solar, geothermal, biofuels, and nuclear – will soon become cheaper than (and therefore fully preferable to) carbon-based fuels. As for problems with weaponry falling into the wrong hands, suitable defence technology could be created. Declines in biodiversity could be countered by Jurassic Park style technology for species resurrection. Ample fresh water can be generated by desalination processes from sea water, with the energy to achieve this transformation being obtained from the sun. And so on.

Singularity University Logo Blend Text White

This viewpoint has considerable support throughout parts of Silicon Valley, and also finds strong representation in the faculty of Singularity University. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University, offers this advice, in a 2014 Forbes article entitled “Turning Big Problems Into Big Business Opportunities”[vi]:

Want to become a billionaire? Then help a billion people.

The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities.

That’s the premise for companies launching out of Singularity University (SU).

Allow me to explain.

In 2008, Ray Kurzweil and I co-founded SU to enable brilliant graduate students to work on solving humanity’s grand challenges using exponential technologies.

This week we graduated our sixth Graduate Studies Program (GSP) class.

During the GSP, we ask our students to build a company that positively impacts the lives of 1 billion people within 10 years.

Tellingly, Diamandis’ latest book[vii] has the title “Bold”. It’s not called “Go slow”. Nor “Be careful”.

To my mind, there’s a lot to admire in these sentiments. I share the view that technology can provide tools that can allow the solution of the social problems described.

Where things become more contentious, however, is in the attitude of technolibertarians towards the role of government. The main request of technolibertarians to politicians is “hands off”. They want government to provide a free rein to smart scientists, hard-working technologists, and innovative entrepreneurs – a free rein to pursue their ideas for new products. It is these forces, they say, which will produce the solutions to society’s current problems.

Technolibertarians echo the sentiment of Ronald Reagan[viii] that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Governments suffer, in this view, from a number of deep-rooted problems:

  • Politicians seek to build empires
  • Politicians have little understanding of the latest technologies
  • Politicians generally impose outdated regulations – which are concerned with yesterday’s problems rather than with tomorrow’s opportunities
  • Regulators are liable to “capture” – an over-influence from vested interests
  • Politicians have no ability to pick winners
  • Political spending builds a momentum of its own, behind “white elephant” projects.

The technolibertarian recipe to solve social problems, therefore, is technology plus innovation plus free markets, minus intrusive regulations, and minus government interference. The role of government should be minimised – perhaps even privatised.

The technolibertarian spectrum

So far, I’ve given a charitable account of the motivation of technolibertarians. They’re aware of major risks to social well-being, I’ve said. And they want to apply technology to fix these problems.

There’s also a less charitable account, which I’ll mention, since it probably does describe a subset of technolibertarians. That subset has a somewhat different motivation. They don’t particularly care for the well-being of all humanity; rather, they focus on their own well-being. In some cases, they’re prepared to risk the destruction of large swathes of humanity – perhaps even the entirety of humanity. They embrace that risk, because they believe the only way for technological progress to proceed as quickly as possible is to play fast and loose with these risks. For them, the upside of technology achieving its potential is more important than the risk of major collateral damage. They want the possibility of the upside of exponential technology, for themselves, much more than they worry about any downsides of using that technology. In parallel, they’re motivated to find evidence that various existential risks are much less serious than commonly supposed.

Accordingly, there’s a spectrum within the technolibertarian camp of people who hold different motivations to different extents. It may be significant that the full title of the abovementioned recent book by Peter Diamandis[ix] – “Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World” – puts “create wealth” ahead of “impact the world”, as if the latter is a kind of afterthought. The personal success of “going big” has an even higher priority.

Bold Cover

A good indication of the range of technolibertarian stances is found in the introductory text of the well-run “Technolibertarians” group on Facebook[x]. It starts as follows:

Technolibertarians is a group of individuals committed to:

  • The idea of fostering private governments (often referred to Anarcho-Capitalism), or much smaller forms of the present forms of governments (often referred to as Classical Liberalism and/or Minarchism), both of which support greatly increased amounts of individual freedom in the personal and economic spheres both in and out of the worlds of the Internet;
  • Support for increasing the speed of the development of life extending and human-improving technologies, known as Transhumanism (H+), and the same as it regards creation of Strong Artificial Intelligence (also known as Artificial General Intelligence), until the point of reaching the Technological Singularity.

The Technological Singularity is the name given to the envisaged future point when artificial intelligence (AI) is more intelligent, in all relevant dimensions, than humans. The resulting AI is expected to be capable of solving all remaining human problems at that time, for example finding cures to any diseases that remain unsolved. Technolibertarians tend to take it for granted that such an AI will comply with human desires to find such cures, rather than adopting a different worldview in which slow-witted small-minded divisive humankind is seen as an irrelevance or a pest. That’s in line with the general technolibertarian tendency to minimise the potential downsides of fast-changing technology.

The group’s intro continues as follows:

Specifically, we wish to ensure that as technologies in these fields enhance and increase the rate of human evolution without being instruments of oppression, but rather, instruments of freedom for the individual to pursue his or her dreams in whichever manner the best deem fit, and, that these common goals can best be achieved by keeping markets and individuals as unencumbered by governments as possible, for as long as possible, until the Technological Singularity is reached.

The final paragraph of the intro has one point worth noting. That section lists the set of topics which the group asks to be excluded from its discussions:

NOTE: Proponents of things like anti-GMO/anti-vaccine luddism, chemtrailers, 9/11 truthers, Zeitgeist/Venus Project, and Raelianism, Climate alarmism, and other pseudoscientific beliefs are unwelcome to promote their unscientific irrational moonbattery in this group. Avoid logical fallacies, stick to facts.

The inclusion of “Climate alarmism” in this list of “pseudoscientific beliefs” and “unscientific moonbattery” is a reminder of the technolibertarian opposition to any focus on the potential drawbacks of misuse of technology. In that view, there’s no need to stir up any alarm about the potential for rapid climate change. Instead, provided politicians and regulators are kept out of the way, technologists and entrepreneurs will ensure that the climate remains hospitable.

The technoprogressive response

Technoprogressives share with technolibertarians the core proposition sometimes called “the central meme of transhumanism”[xi] – that it is that it is ethical and desirable to improve the human condition through technology. Both positions see very important positive roles for science and technology, and also for the productive energies that can be unleashed by entrepreneurs, start-ups, and other business groupings. The difference between the positions is in the question of whether political and legislative intervention can have positive outcomes. Both groups are aware that, in practice, political and legislative intervention is often cumbersome, self-serving, misguided, and unnecessarily hinders the speedy development of innovative products. The groups differ in whether it’s worth seeking better politics and better legislation.

The central meme of social futurism[xii] (which is a kind of synonym for the technoprogressive standpoint) states, analogously to the central meme of transhumanism, that it is ethical and desirable to improve society through technology. Technology isn’t just restricted to improving the human body and mind – doing better than Darwinian natural selection. It’s capable of improving human politics and human economics – doing better than the invisible hand of free markets. (Though, in both cases, modifications need to be approached with care.)

Some phrases from the Technoprogressive Declaration[xiii] – created in November 2014 – highlight the distinctive position taken by technoprogressives:

The world is unacceptably unequal and dangerous. Emerging technologies could make things dramatically better or worse. Unfortunately too few people yet understand the dimensions of both the threats and rewards that humanity faces. It is time for technoprogressives, transhumanists and futurists to step up our political engagement and attempt to influence the course of events.

Our core commitment is that both technological progress and democracy are required for the ongoing emancipation of humanity from its constraints…

We must intervene to insist that technologies are well-regulated and made universally accessible in strong and just societies. Technology could exacerbate inequality and catastrophic risks in the coming decades, or especially if democratized and well-regulated, ensure longer, healthy and more enabled lives for growing numbers of people, and a stronger and more secure civilization…

As artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies increasingly destroy more jobs than they create, and senior citizens live longer, we must join in calling for a radical reform of the economic system. All persons should be liberated from the necessity of the toil of work. Every human being should be guaranteed an income, healthcare, and life-long access to education.

Evidently, this Declaration aims at liberation – similar to the technolibertarian stance. But the methods in the Declaration listed include

  • Radical reform of the economic system
  • Smart regulation of new technologies
  • The democratisation of access to new technologies
  • Stepping up political engagement.

Another distinctive aspect of the Technoprogressive Declaration is in its recurring references to inequality. Indeed, the very first phrase is “The world is unacceptably unequal”. The picture accompanying the Declaration on the IEET website carries the word “egalitarianism” – the principle that all people deserve equal rights and opportunities.

technoprogressive_declaration_2014

To sharpen our understanding of the differences between technolibertarians and technoprogressives, let’s look more closely at this question of inequality – a topic which is strikingly missing from the introductory definition on the Facebook “Technolibertarians” group.

Growing inequality

Piketty

Publications[xiv] over the last few years by researchers such as Thomas Piketty[xv] and Emmanuel Saez[xvi] make it undeniable that, in many countries, including the US and the UK, the share of income being received by upper fractions of the population is rising to levels unprecedented since before the great depression of the 1930s. For example, the best paid 10% in the US now receive just over 50% of the total income in that country – up from around 35% over the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.

The Economist magazine noted in a November 2014 article[xvii], in a section headlined “The really, really rich get much, much richer”:

The fortunes of the wealthy have grown, especially at the very top. The 16,000 families making up the richest 0.01%, with an average net worth of $371m, now control 11.2% of total wealth—back to the 1916 share, which is the highest on record.

Similar trends apply throughout Western Europe (though less extreme).

Similar trends exist in Russia. Writing in October 2013, Ron Synovitz reported findings[xviii] from the annual global wealth study published by the financial services group Credit Suisse:

A new report on global wealth has determined that Russia now has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world – with the exception of a few small Caribbean nations where billionaires have taken up residency… A mere 110 Russian citizens now control 35 percent of the total household wealth across the vast country.

By comparison, billionaires worldwide account for just 1 to 2 percent of total wealth.

The report says Russia has one billionaire for every $11 billion in wealth while, across the rest of the world, there is one billionaire for every $170 billion.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet – the admired “sage of Omaha” who has contributed large amounts of his own personal wealth to philanthropic ventures – commented drily as follows[xix]:

There’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically.

If you look at the 400 highest taxpayers in the United States in 1992, the first year for figures, they averaged about $40 million of [income] per person. In [2010], they were $227 million per person… During that period, their taxes went down from 29 percent to 21 percent of income.

The raw statistics are incontrovertible. Where there’s scope for debate is in the interpretation of the figures.

Many people respond that inequality of outcome is no big deal. People are different, and that it’s right that their different efforts and talents are rewarded differently. I’ll come back in a moment to the question of the degree of the inequality of outcome, and whether that extreme is good for society. But we also need to look at the growing inequality of opportunity. The relevant dynamics were summed up evocatively in a recent perceptive speech in Washington[xx]. The speech explored the background to frustrations being expressed by US voters about the performance of their politicians. Here are some brief excerpts:

People’s… frustration is rooted in their own daily battles – to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were. They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.

I believe this is the defining challenge of our time…

While we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity – the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit…

We’ve never begrudged success in America. We aspire to it. We admire folks who start new businesses, create jobs, and invent the products that enrich our lives. And we expect them to be rewarded handsomely for it. In fact, we’ve often accepted more income inequality than many other nations for one big reason – because we were convinced that America is a place where even if you’re born with nothing, with a little hard work you can improve your own situation over time and build something better to leave your kids…

The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20% has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20% has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is.

The speech was made by US President Barack Obama, and is worth reading in full[xxi], regardless of your own political leanings (Republican, Democrat, or whatever).

Responses to growing inequality

Let’s look again at the changes in tax rate experienced by the top 400 taxpayers in the US, over the period 1992 to 2010. While the average income in that group soared more than five-fold – from $40M to $227M – the tax-rate fell from 29% to 21%.

In my experience, technolibertarians have three responses to statistics of this sort. First, they sometimes assert that the people benefiting from these hugely increased incomes (and declining tax rates) uniquely deserve these benefits. The market has delivered these benefits to them, and the market is always right. Second, they may point out that the tax office is a lot better off with 21% of $227M than with 29% of $40M. Third, they say that even if the rich are seeing their wealth rise faster than before, the poor are also becoming wealthier – so we are switching from a world of “haves and have-nots” to a world of “have-a-lots and haves”. In this new world, even the poorest (if they manage their lives sensibly) can access a swathe of goods that would have been viewed in previous times as spectacular luxuries.

There’s a gist of truth in all three answers. Changing market circumstances mean that winning companies do take a larger share of rewards that in previous times. The factors behind “winner takes all” outcomes are described in, for example, the book “The Second Machine Age”[xxii] by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, of MIT:

  • The digitization of more and more information, goods, and services
  • The vast improvements in telecommunications and transport – the best products can be used in every market
  • The increased importance of networks and standards – new capabilities and new ideas can be combined and recombined more quickly.

2ma

This effect is also known as “the economics of superstars”, using a term coined in 1981[xxiii] by Sherwin Rosen:

The phenomenon of Superstars, wherein relatively small numbers of people earn enormous amounts of money and dominate the activities in which they engage, seems to be increasingly important in the modern world.

This analysis explains why the photo sharing company Instagram, with only 13 employees at the time (but with 100 million registered users) was valued at $1B when acquired by Facebook in April 2012. In contrast, another company in the field of photography, Kodak, had its peak valuation of $30B in 1997, when it had 86,000 employees. This implies that Instagram employees had, on average, 2,000 times the productivity of Kodak employees. This productivity advantage was due to how Instagram took special advantage of pre-existing technology.

The analysis is continued in a landmark MIT Technology Review article by David Rotman, “Technology and inequality”[xxiv]:

The signs of the gap—really, a chasm—between the poor and the super-rich are hard to miss in Silicon Valley. On a bustling morning in downtown Palo Alto, the center of today’s technology boom, apparently homeless people and their meager belongings occupy almost every available public bench. Twenty minutes away in San Jose, the largest city in the Valley, a camp of homeless people known as the Jungle—reputed to be the largest in the country—has taken root along a creek within walking distance of Adobe’s headquarters and the gleaming, ultramodern city hall.

The homeless are the most visible signs of poverty in the region. But the numbers back up first impressions. Median income in Silicon Valley reached $94,000 in 2013, far above the national median of around $53,000. Yet an estimated 31 percent of jobs pay $16 per hour or less, below what is needed to support a family in an area with notoriously expensive housing. The poverty rate in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, is around 19 percent, according to calculations that factor in the high cost of living.

Even some of the area’s biggest technology boosters are appalled. “You have people begging in the street on University Avenue [Palo Alto’s main street],” says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and at Singularity University, an education corporation in Moffett Field with ties to the elites in Silicon Valley. “It’s like what you see in India,” adds Wadhwa, who was born in Delhi. “Silicon Valley is a look at the future we’re creating, and it’s really disturbing.”

Rotman goes on to quote legendary venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, Managing Director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Jurvetson was an early investor in Hotmail and sits on the boards of SpaceX, Synthetic Genomics, and Tesla Motors:

“It just seems so obvious to me [that] technology is accelerating the rich-poor gap,” says Steve Jurvetson… In many discussions with his peers in the high-tech community, he says, it has been “the elephant in the room, stomping around, banging off the walls.”

Just because there is strong market logic to the way in which technological superstars are able to command ever larger incomes, this does not mean, of course, that we should acquiesce in this fact. An “is” does not imply an “ought”. Even an enlightened self-interest should cause a rethink within “the 1%” (and their supporters on lower incomes – who often aspire to being to reach these stellar salary levels themselves). A plea for such a rethink[xxv] was issued by one of its members, Nick Hanauer. Hanauer introduced himself as follows:

You probably don’t know me, but like you I am one of those .01%ers, a proud and unapologetic capitalist. I have founded, co-founded and funded more than 30 companies across a range of industries—from itsy-bitsy ones like the night club I started in my 20s to giant ones like Amazon.com, for which I was the first nonfamily investor. Then I founded aQuantive, an Internet advertising company that was sold to Microsoft in 2007 for $6.4 billion. In cash. My friends and I own a bank. I tell you all this to demonstrate that in many ways I’m no different from you. Like you, I have a broad perspective on business and capitalism. And also like you, I have been rewarded obscenely for my success, with a life that the other 99.99 percent of Americans can’t even imagine. Multiple homes, my own plane, etc., etc.

But Hanauer was not writing to boast. He was writing to warn. The title of his article made that clear: “The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats”. This extract conveys the flavour:

The problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising.

Guillotine

Declining costs

But what about the declining costs of both the necessities and the luxuries of life? Won’t the imminent material abundance, enabled by exponential technologies, remove the heartaches caused by present-day inequalities? Here, the technolibertarians have a fair point.

After all, Mary Meeker’s annual KPCB reviews of Internet trends contain some eye-popping statistics of declining costs. Here are some call-outs from her 2014 presentation[xxvi]:

  • Computational costs have declined 33% annually from 1990 to 2013: a million transistors cost $527 in 1990 but only 5 cents in 2013
  • Storage costs declined 38% annually from 1992 to 2013: a Gigabyte of storage came down in price over that time from $569 to 2 cents
  • Bandwidth costs declined 27% annually from 1999 to 2013: connectivity of 1 Gbps came down in price over that time from $1,245 to $16
  • Even smartphones, despite their ever-greater functionality, have seen their costs decline 5% annually from 2008 to 2013.

One result of that final trend – as reported in Meeker’s KPCB presentation in 2015[xxvii] – is that smartphone US market penetration jumped up from 18% in 2009 to 64% in 2014. Even in the US, with all its manifest inequalities, access to smartphones evidently extends far beyond the 1%. That access brings, in turn, the opportunity to browse much more information, 24×7, than was available even to US Presidents just a couple of decades ago.

Smartphone Growth

Yuri Van Geest of the Singularity University picks up the analysis, in an attractive slideset introduction[xxviii] to his book “Exponential Organizations”.[xxix]. These slides illustrate remarkable price reductions for (broadly) like-for-like functionality in a range of fast-improving technological fields:

  • Industrial robots: 23-fold reduction in 5 years
  • Neurotech devices for brain-computer interface (BCI): 44-fold reduction in 5 years
  • Autonomous flying drones: 142-fold reduction in 6 years
  • 3D-printing: 400-fold reduction in 7 years
  • Full DNA sequencing: 10,000-fold reduction (from $10M to $1,000) in 7 years.

Similar price reductions, it can be argued, will take all the heat out of present-day unequal access to goods. In the meantime, technolibertarians urge two sets of action:

  • Let’s press forwards quickly with further technological advances
  • Let’s avoid obsessing about present-day inequalities (and, especially, the appearance of present-day inequalities), since the more they’re spoken about, the greater the likelihood of people becoming upset about them and taking drastic action.

However, at the same time as technology can reduce prices of products that have already been invented, it can result in the creation of fabulous new products. Some of these new products start off as highly expensive – especially in fields such as advanced healthcare. Sectors such as rejuvenation biotech and neuro-enhancement may well see the following outcomes:

  • Initial therapies are expensive, but deliver a decisive advantage to the people who can afford to pay for them
  • With their brains enhanced – and with their bodies made more youthful and vigorous – the “winner takes all” trend will be magnified
  • People who are unable to pay for these treatments will therefore fall even further behind
  • Social alienation and angst will grow, with potentially explosive outcomes.

A counter-argument is that enterprising companies will be motivated to quickly make products available at lower cost. Rather than pursuing revenues from small populations of wealthy consumers, they will set their eyes on the larger populations of consumers with lower incomes. But if the raw cost of the product itself remains high, that may not be easy. Apple’s policy of targeting the wealthier proportion of would-be smartphone users makes good sense in its own terms.

A similar policy – this time by pharmaceutical giant Bayer – was described in an article by Glyn Moody in early 2014[xxx]. The article carried the headline “Bayer’s CEO: We Develop Drugs For Rich Westerners, Not Poor Indians”. It quoted Bayer Chief Executive Officer Marijn Dekkers as follows:

We did not develop this medicine for Indians. We developed it for western patients who can afford it.

That policy aligns with the for-profit motivation that the company pursues, in service of the needs of its shareholders to maximise returns. But as Moody points out, pharmaceutical companies have, in the past, shown broader motivation. He refers to this quote from 1950 from George Merck[xxxi] (emphasis added):

We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been…

We cannot step aside and say that we have achieved our goal by inventing a new drug or a new way by which to treat presently incurable diseases, a new way to help those who suffer from malnutrition, or the creation of ideal balanced diets on a worldwide scale. We cannot rest till the way has been found, with our help, to bring our finest achievement to everyone.

What determines whether the narrow financial incentives of the market govern behaviours of companies with the technology (possibly unique technology) that enables significant human enhancement? Other factors need to come into play – not just financial motivation.

The genius – and limits – of free markets

Even within their own parameters – the promotion of optimal trade and the accumulation of wealth – free markets often fail. The argument for smart oversight and regulation of markets is well made in the 2009 book “How markets fail: the logic of economic calamities”[xxxii] by the New Yorker journalist John Cassidy[xxxiii].

Cassidy_How_Markets_Fail

The book contains a sweeping but compelling survey of a notion Cassidy dubs “Utopian economics”, before providing layer after layer of decisive critique of that notion. As such, the book provides a very useful guide to the history of economic thinking, covering Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes, Arthur Pigou, Hyman Minsky, among others.

The key theme in the book is that markets do fail from time to time, potentially in disastrous ways, and that some element of government oversight and intervention is both critical and necessary, to avoid calamity. This theme is hardly new, but many people resist it, and the book has the merit of marshalling the arguments more comprehensively than I have seen elsewhere.

As Cassidy describes it, “utopian economics” is the widespread view that the self-interest of individuals and agencies, allowed to express itself via a free market economy, will inevitably produce results that are good for the whole economy. The book starts with eight chapters that sympathetically outline the history of thinking about utopian economics. Along the way, he regularly points out instances when free market champions nevertheless described cases when government intervention and control was required. For example, referring to Adam Smith, Cassidy writes:

Smith and his successors … believed that the government had a duty to protect the public from financial swindles and speculative panics, which were both common in 18th and 19th century Britain…

To prevent a recurrence of credit busts, Smith advocated preventing banks from issuing notes to speculative lenders. “Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respects a violation of natural liberty”, he wrote. “But these exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments… The obligation of building party walls [between adjacent houses], in order to prevent the communication of a fire, is a violation of natural liberty, exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.”

The book identifies long-time Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as one of the villains of the great financial crash of 2007-2009. Cassidy quotes a reply given by Greenspan[xxxiv] to the question “Were you wrong” asked of him in October 2008 by the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms…”

Greenspan was far from alone in his belief in the self-correcting power of economies in which self-interest is allowed to flourish. There were many reasons for people to hold that belief. It appeared to be justified both theoretically and empirically. As Greenspan remarked,

“I have been going for forty years, or more, with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

Cassidy devotes another eight chapters to reviewing the history of criticisms of utopian economics. This part of the book is entitled “Reality-based economics”, and covers topics such as:

  • Game theory (“the prisoners dilemma”),
  • Behavioural economics (pioneered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky) – including disaster myopia,
  • Problems of spillovers and externalities (such as pollution) – which can only be fully addressed by centralised collective action,
  • Drawbacks of hidden information and the failure of “price signalling”,
  • Loss of competiveness when monopoly conditions are approached,
  • Flaws in banking risk management policies (which drastically under-estimated the consequences of larger deviations from “business as usual”),
  • Problems with asymmetric bonus structure,
  • The perverse psychology of investment bubbles.

In summary, Cassidy lists four “illusions” of utopian economics:

  1. The illusion of harmony: that free markets always generate good outcomes;
  2. The illusion of stability: that free market economy is sturdy;
  3. The illusion of predictability: that distribution of returns can be foreseen;
  4. The illusion of Homo Economicus: that individuals are rational and act on perfect information.

These illusions remain pervasive in many parts of economic thought. These illusions also lie behind technolibertarian optimism that technology, without government intervention, will be able to solve social and climatic problems such as terrorism, surveillance, environmental devastation, and threats from new pathogens.

Indeed, free markets and innovative technology have, together, been a tremendous force for progress in recent history. However, they need smart oversight and regulation if they are going to reach their fullest potential. That thought lies at the core of the technoprogressive stance.

The political landscape ahead

The need for smart oversight and regulation will grow even more pressing, as technology progresses over the next few decades to the point of displacing ever larger numbers of people from the workforce. This scenario is described in the recent book by Martin Ford, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future”[xxxv].

Rise of the robots

In the scenarios Ford describes, technological unemployment won’t just impact the lesser skilled jobs currently undertaken by people in, say, the lower 50% of the income spectrum. It will also bite into the skills used by many of the top 5% in their work. As a result, many people who presently instinctively rebel against any technoprogressive notion of a new social contract may find their worldview turned upside down.

Other growing social crises may well accelerate similar changes in mindset. For example, as threats to personal well-being from poor software security become more widely publicised – as covered in my recent article “Eating the world: the growing importance of software security”[xxxvi] – I expect a growing public clamour for government action to tilt the software security playing field. Any idea of a laissez-faire market in software vulnerabilities will become seen as an irresponsible indulgence. Likewise for any idea about a laissez-faire market in synthetic pathogens, potential nano-weaponry, and lots more besides.

In short: To the extent that they place whole-hearted trust in free markets, technolibertarians are indulging in a dangerous fantasy.

But I say all this out of no desire to see the technolibertarian viewpoint be crushed. After all, that viewpoint puts its finger on a set of valid concerns, which need to be integrated into our collective response to technological possibilities. Governments and regulatory schemes suffer, as mentioned earlier, from tendencies towards deep problems: empire-building, poor understanding of new tech, regulations that become outdated, regulatory capture, and white elephant projects.

So rather than technoprogressives somehow vanquishing technolibertarians, in debate over the next 5-10 years, I look forwards to the best insights of both positions being integrated. The governmental and regulatory systems of the near future need to be significantly enhanced versions of today’s incumbent systems. We need government 2.0 and regulations 2.0.

Thinkers whose instincts place them firmly within the technolibertarian heritage can actively contribute to this discussion. As an example of this kind of positive contribution, Swedish think-tank Eudoxa founder Waldemar Ingdahl writes as follows in his essay “Anarchy beyond socialism and capitalism”[xxxvii] in the first Transpolitica book, “Anticipating tomorrow’s politics”[xxxviii]:

This essay draws attention to a variant of anarchism – market anarchism – which has been little studied, but whose relevance may increase due to new technology…

Market anarchism is a belief centred on mutual exchange, not economic privilege, advocating freed markets, not capitalism. Social justice is mainly seen as eliminating the governmental privileges that rigs the market in favour of capitalists while retaining a focus on building voluntary institutions such as cooperatives.

Market anarchism pronounces itself a radical liberation while empowering people to eliminate structural poverty, and redistribute economic and social power. It differs from left-wing anarchism by its embrace of markets, while setting itself apart from the anarcho-capitalist view of freedom as simply being present day corporations and capitalist structures, minus the state’s taxes and regulations.

Indeed, there is much more that unifies technolibertarians and technoprogressives than what divides them. They can both be seen as part of what pioneering futurist FM Esfandiary[xxxix] called “up wing” as opposed to either “right wing” or “left wing”. In this, these two positions are opposed to the “down wing” technoconservative position, as well as to the “no wing” technosceptical position. Esfandiary also endorsed the term “transhuman”, via his 1989 book “Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World”.

Accordingly, I look forward to the following features of the political dialogue of the next 10-20 years:

  1. The evolution and maturation of an integrated transhumanist political position, that respects and enhances the best insights of both technolibertarians and technoprogressives
  2. The growing recognition of the fundamental inadequacies of both the technoconservative and technosceptical viewpoints.

Given the inertia present in current political systems and prevailing mindsets, the second of these tasks may prove harder than the first. But the first may turn out to be the enabler for the second. It is that task that deserves our fullest attention.

References

[i] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Infinite-All-Directions-Freeman-Dyson/dp/0060915692/

[ii] http://blogs.ft.com/andrew-mcafee/2014/10/16/were-living-through-a-new-industrial-revolution/

[iii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/road-safety/8702111/How-do-accidents-happen.html

[iv] http://www.sens.org/outreach/rejuvenation-biotechnology-conference-2015

[v] http://edge.org/conversation/the-technium

[vi] http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterdiamandis/2014/08/25/how-to-become-a-billionaire/

[vii] http://www.diamandis.com/bold/

[viii] http://www.reaganfoundation.org/reagan-quotes-detail.aspx?tx=2079

[ix] http://www.diamandis.com/bold/

[x] https://www.facebook.com/groups/technolibertarians/

[xi] https://wavism.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/cmzs-central-meme-of-zero-state/

[xii] https://wavism.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/cmzs-central-meme-of-zero-state/

[xiii] http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/tpdec2014

[xiv] http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/pikettys-inequality-story-in-six-charts

[xv] http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/capital21c/en/pdf/F0.I.1.pdf

[xvi] http://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf

[xvii] http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21631129-it-001-who-are-really-getting-ahead-america-forget-1

[xviii] http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-billionaire-wealth-inequality/25132471.html

[xix] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/post/theres-been-class-warfare-for-the-last-20-years-and-my-class-has-won/2011/03/03/gIQApaFbAL_blog.html

[xx] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/04/the-best-speech-obama-has-given-on-the-economy/

[xxi] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/04/the-best-speech-obama-has-given-on-the-economy/

[xxii] http://www.secondmachineage.com/

[xxiii] http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/schatzberg/ps616/Rosen1981.pdf

[xxiv] http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/531726/technology-and-inequality/

[xxv] http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014.html

[xxvi] http://www.businessinsider.com.au/mary-meekers-2014-internet-presentation-2014-5

[xxvii] http://www.slideshare.net/kleinerperkins/internet-trends-v1

[xxviii] http://www.slideshare.net/vangeest/exponential-organizations-h

[xxix] http://www.exponentialorgs.com/

[xxx] https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140124/09481025978/big-pharma-ceo-we-develop-drugs-rich-westerners-not-poor.shtml

[xxxi] http://todayinsci.com/M/Merck_George/MerckGeorge-Quotations.htm

[xxxii] http://www.amazon.com/How-Markets-Fail-Economic-Calamities/dp/0374173206/

[xxxiii] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/john_cassidy/search?contributorName=john%20cassidy

[xxxiv] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/23/business/worldbusiness/23iht-gspan.4.17206624.html

[xxxv] http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Robots-Technology-Threat-Jobless/dp/0465059996

[xxxvi] http://dw2blog.com/2015/06/11/eating-the-world-the-growing-importance-of-software-security/

[xxxvii] https://transpolitica.org/2015/06/13/anarchy-beyond-socialism-and-capitalism/

[xxxviii] https://transpolitica.org/publications/anticipating-tomorrows-politics/

[xxxix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FM-2030

Footnote

The article above features as Chapter 2 of the Transpolitica book “Envisioning Politics 2.0”.

Of Mind and Money: Post-Scarcity Economics and Human Nature

By Stuart Mason Dambrot, Synthesist | Futurist, Critical Thought

Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil.

Why Socialism? Albert Einstein, Monthly Review, 1949[i]

These two quotes from the same article written by Albert Einstein demonstrate that intelligence and imagination do not necessarily guard against nonconscious cognitive bias and unexamined beliefs. The question is whether either, both or neither are correct. This chapter, Of Mind and Money, provides a perspectival answer showing not only that, given advances in science and technology, the first quote is not necessarily factual, but also that as such it would support the design and implementation of a post-scarcity economic environment by modifying our fundamental, evolution-derived beliefs about scarcity, capitalism, class hierarchies, labor, and competition.

The Nature of Human Nature Redux

In the myriad discussions focused on future scenarios envisioned and articulated in science, technology, humanities, business, politics, or military, and other fields, there is one fundamental factor that is invariably undefined yet implicitly or explicitly assumed to be an unchanging and unchangeable constant.

Human nature

This is curious, in that the creators of said scenarios appear to be all about change, be they Singularitarians, Transhumanists, scientists, technologists, philosophers, or any other of the countless labels with which we describe ourselves to both ourselves and the world-at-large. Moreover, this cognitive bias is perhaps most pronounced in those scenarios concerned with post-scarcity economies, in which goods, services and information are universally accessible without the need for capital or its exchange in order to produce and acquire said goods, services and information.

This chapter will examine the evolutionary neurobiology of what we experience and perceive as human nature[ii] – the thesis being that as we learn more about the human brain and learn how to modify ourselves using a range of methods and techniques, human nature will take its rightful place amongst all other aspects of physical reality that we have studied, understood and modified.

This shift in perspective will then form the cognitive foundation of a new approach to constructing a post-scarcity/post-capital scenario that is no longer bound to attitudes and behavior long and erroneously held to be inviolate.

Human Nature: Fixed or Flexible?

In general, we appear to understand what is meant by human nature, accepting the term as if it refers to well-defined and permanent aspect of our existence. As the above quote demonstrates, this unquestioned assumption is independent of intellect, education and imagination, being more akin to religious belief in its unquestioned adherence to the axiom that human nature is, in Einstein’s words, “fixed and unalterable.” While the concept that human nature is constant is understandable when viewed as an inference based on observing historically recurrent patterns in human behavior (which are amplified versions of behaviors found in our closest hominid relatives2), only recently have science and technology given us discoveries and tools with the potential to change our evolutionary heritage and architect a very different possible future.

To this end, neuroscience, synthetic biology (a branch of biology integrating evolutionary, molecular, and computational biology with biophysics and nanobiotechnology – the melding of nanotech and biology) and other fields of established and emerging science are beginning to provide us with an understanding of our neurobiology at neural, molecular and genetic levels. These advances will then be instantiated in technologies that enable us to physiologically modify our dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors. The resulting shift in perspective will form the cognitive foundation of designing and implementing a technology-enabled post-scarcity economy by abandoning the belief that our human nature has not allowed, and therefore never could allow, such an environment to emerge and thrive on a large – much less global or exoplanetary – scale.

In addition to neuroscience and synthetic biology, the other areas key to designing and effecting human neuroaugmentation include synthetic genomics (a field within synthetic biology); optogenetics (a neuromodulation technique using light to control neurons genetically light-sensitized); neural prostheses; artificially accelerated evolution (already achieved in laboratories with fruit flies); and biorecalibration (biophysical optimization and health/life extension).

One of the main focal points in this effort might be to fine-tune the effects of the human-specific gene ARHGAP11B[iii], which appeared when the ancestral gene ARHGAP11A made an incomplete copy of itself and subsequently may have contributed to evolutionary expansion of human neocortex. (When ARHGAP11B was introduced into developing mice, the number of cortex stem cells nearly doubled and their brains sometimes developed folds – are found in primates but not mice.) The goal could be to use synthetic genomics to selectively modify phenotypic expression in the developing human brain of neural tissue and connectivity between the neocortex and the more primitive brain areas where emotion, motivation, habituation, and other functions occur.

One salient example can be seen in recent neuroscience research[iv] showing strong evidence that interpersonal differences in a specific area of the human brain are associated with different prosocial behavior. In another relevant study[v], neuroscientists at MIT identified the brain circuit in laboratory mice that controls how memories become linked with positive or negative emotions, and as a result were able to modify the emotional associations of specific memories using optogenetics – a method for controlling brain cells with light. More recently the technique has been used[vi] in mice to dramatically reduce stress-related depression-like behavior by activating positive memories.

The question might well be raised of why we cannot rely on widely-promoted sociocultural measures as a way to create a different conception of human nature, and thereby to change, abandon or transcend our biologically-determined behaviors by which we practice various degrees of inhumanity. While science, technology, medicine, knowledge, and other endeavors continue to advance at an accelerating rate, our basic behavioral patterns (in Einstein’s words, “biological constitution” and “natural urges”) have not. In fact, despite protests and legislation, other factors such as air and water quality have globally declined due to capitalism-motivated processes, with air itself now being carcinogenic[vii](causing lung cancer and contributing to bladder cancer) and water becoming increasingly both polluted[viii] and scarce[ix].

For these reasons, the assertion that sociocultural programs and legislation (given the role of corporate and individual wealth in politics) will address our species’ destructive behaviors seems somewhat naïve. Rather, a solution based on a medical model in which dysfunctional individual and group behaviors are seen not as causative but as symptoms of a deeper cause – our evolutionary neurobiology. The transformation of human society via optimizing human nature thus becomes a crisis to be scientifically analyzed and corrected rather than an anthropological project to be observed and discussed.

The Ethics of Enlightenment

Would this approach raise concerns? By all means: Does genetically resetting human neurobiology cross medical and/or ethical lines? Might this approach be considered Eugenics? Should any group or societal class have the authority to proceed with such a project? And so on. How might these issues be addressed – and are they, even in principle, addressable? On the other hand, are they in principle very different from other medical-model-based interventions?

Consider bioaugmentation applied to a serious disease: Imagine the development of a completely safe genetic treatment for cancer using – the same protocol hypothesized for resetting human nature. Despite the technology, delivery vector and safety of this cancer eradication protocol being equivalent to those of the universal transformation of human nature, it is likely that the former would encounter far less resistance than the latter. Why might this be the case? Several possible explanations come to mind:

  • While eliminating cancer is clearly perceived as a medical protocol focused on a range of terrible diseases, human nature is decidedly not seen as a disease state despite the parallels in symptomology (that is, where the problems and crises endemic in human society are seen as symptoms of many of our evolutionarily-determined behaviors)
  • A nonspecific fear of medical or genetic technology that operates at a scale or in a manner that people do not understand
  • There may be a religious factor at play, as evidenced by the belief by a remarkable number of people (despite the tremendous advances in evolution and genetics) that human beings did not evolve from earlier hominids, but rather were created by a divinity in that divinity’s image

In the above situations, education and social programs may be very helpful in laying the groundwork for accepting a medical model as a way of stopping and reversing the destructive path capitalism, as well as those who blindly accept its principles despite suffering as a result, seem committed to pursuing.

The Consequences of Capitalism

Capitalism has clearly demonstrated its profoundly negative impacts on individuals, groups, nations, the planet, and the space surrounding Earth. In terms of individuals, there is profoundly unequal access to many critical foundation areas, including food, clean water, electricity, healthcare, income, housing, transportation, education, security, governance, voting, freedom from, and freedom to. Two real-world examples illustrate the immensity of the problem:

Extreme Wealth Disparity

  • The 85 wealthiest individuals on Earth have assets roughly equivalent to 3.6 billion others
  • In 2011 Deloitte & Touche reported that the wealthiest 400 American families had assets of approximately $11 trillion, with the 2020 estimate being $19 trillion
  • Social Security, Food Assistance, Medicaid and other social safety nets are under defunding attacks from legislators whose salaries are by the citizens who voted them into office

Income and Mortality

The following chart[x] shows a nearly linear relationship between income level and age-related mortality: Those with lower incomes die at an earlier age.

Mortality and incomeIncome level and age-related mortality. Source: The Zeitgeist Movement Defined: Realizing a New Train of Thought, The Zeitgeist Group. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

These large-scale expressions and implementations of capitalism and other problematic behaviors based on our evolutionary neurobiology are not entities in and of themselves: They appear that way because large-scale events are agglomerations of more-or-less coordinated individual behaviors. However, even single events – especially when identified as part of a widespread practice or trend – deserve our attention. A case in point: a few representative reports from a single daily issue published on the progressive Daily Kos[xi] website are representative of a range of dysfunctional trends – some far more disturbing than others:

The typical approach to addressing these problems, articulated by Einstein and many others – whether sincerely or cynically – invokes ethics, culture, education, communication, social programs, legislation and other indirect measures. Unfortunately, given the increasingly elitist and militaristic activities trending on a global basis, this solution appears to be (except on a limited and temporary basis) less than effective.

Human-induced Mass Extinction

Much as global warming is only one factor in climate change, climate change may be part of a much more severe event caused by capitalism-fueled human activity. A paper recently published[xvi] by scientists at the universities of Stanford, Princeton and Berkeley found, even using highly conservative criteria, that current extinction rates far exceed those known to exist in our planet’s five previous mass extinction events[xvii]as determined by fossil records. The researchers found that their estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid biodiversity decline over the previous few centuries, concluding that a sixth mass extinction – one that would take millions of years, with Homo sapiens disappearing sooner rather than later – is already taking place.

Cumulative extinctions

Cumulative vertebrate species recorded as extinct or extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (2012). Source: Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances (2015) 1:5 e1400253. Copyright © G. Ceballos, P. R. Ehrlich, A. D. Barnosky, A. García, R. M. Pringle, T. M. Palmer. Creative Commons CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Courtesy: American Association for the Advancement of Science and Gerardo Ceballos.[xviii]

Specifically, they found that over the last century vertebrate species (that is, those having backbones) have gone extinct at an average rate as high as to 114 times than the background, or non-mass extinction, rate – a rate that would normally take place over as long as 10,000 years – and, critically, that this trend is caused by human activities including climate change, pollution, deforestation, habitat loss, and overexploitation for economic gain – all of which, the scientists note, are related to human population size and growth, which in turn increases consumption (predominantly by the wealthy) and economic inequity. They caution that “averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”

Post-Scarcity Economics: Beyond Capital

It should be noted that the term post-scarcity economics is sometimes described as being self-contradictory, since most – but not all – definitions of economics are based the dynamic between scarce resources and demand for goods, services and information based on or incorporating these scarce resources, with capital as the foundation for all economic transactions. On the other hand, a post-scarcity economy can operate without the need for capital while still responding to supply-and-demand forces in determining the resources needed to fulfill demand.

This post-scarcity vs. post-capital question can be resolved by reconceptualizing and redefining economics – as has occurred repeatedly over the centuries – as the transformation of resources into goods, services and information that are provided to individuals or groups who demand and then acquire them. Given the technology-based labor-free structure of a post-scarcity environment, the definition of post-scarcity economics then becomes the post-capital, technology-enabled, demand-responsive transformation of resources into goods, services and information that are provided to individuals or groups who acquire them.

That being said, post-scarcity embodiments have been conceptualized for many years. The efforts most salient to the thesis herein include Technocracy Movement[xix], which proposed replacing politicians and businesspeople with scientists and engineers who had the technical expertise to manage the economy; Venus Project[xx], which calls for a culture redesign to make war, poverty, hunger, debt and unnecessary human suffering unacceptable and explores the determinants of behavior to dispel the myth of human nature, asserting that environment shapes behavior; Zeitgeist Movement[xxi], reminiscent of the Technocracy Movement and previously aligned with the Venus Project, is focused on technology, post-scarcity, post-capital, post-labor and direct (nonrepresentational) governance; and Transpolitica[xxii], a grassroots Transhumanist political organization focused on enabling society to transcend the limitations and constraints of today’s political models.

Post scarcity

How would a fully-realized post-scarcity environment be structured? First and foremost, despite having elements in common with some systems, it will not take the form of any existing sociopolitical economy, including the usual suspects: capitalism (private property and ownership of means of production, capital accumulation, wage labor, market competition, labor theory of value); socialism (social ownership of means of production and co-operative management of the economy); communism (common ownership of means of production; absence of social classes, money and the State); and anarchism (absolute individual freedom and absence of government).

While the closest post-scarcity analogue is communism, the essential differences are that in technology-enabled post-scarcity there is neither labor nor ownership of the means of production. Moreover, analogous to the assumptions about the term economics discussed earlier, it is often thought that there is only one form of anarchism[xxiii] (as per the standard definition above) – but this is decidedly not the case[xxiv]. Anarchism variants can support fundamentally different political systems that vary from extreme individualism to complete collectivism – and in addition, there is a well-established link[xxv] between specific anarchist schools and post-scarcity/post-capitalism, of which examples include:

A post-scarcity system will therefore have unique features and technologies. Firstly, it will be an technology-enabled post-capital, post-labor, Crowdsourced Peer-to-Peer Networked Anarchy characterized by an absence of wealth, class, and governance hierarchies; autonomous intelligent ownerless production; distributed egalitarian point-to-point self-governance in which each individual or group can self-define as an independent polity; and Nash equilibrium replacing zero-sum game theory. Secondly, a valuation system based on positive inclusive qualities and behaviors such as reputation, inventiveness, equanimity, enablement, and empathy will replace monetization and profit. Thirdly, a post-scarcity architecture will entail a number of current (but significantly advanced), emerging, and potential technologies in four primary areas: personal production (advanced 3D/4D printers, nanofabricators); security (reputation encoding, quantum encryption, blind quantum computing); Artificial General Intelligence and autonomous robotics; and emerging, exotic and theoretical energy sources (compact fusion[xxxiii] and Polywell fusion[xxxiv], quantum thermionic conversion[xxxv], antimatter[xxxvi], and zero-point energy[xxxvii]).

Coincident with the science and technology trends outlined above, researchers studying spatial models of complex systems found that genetically-programmed mortality, while not benefitting individuals, in certain cases results in long-term benefit to the local population by reducing local environmental resource depletion. While noting that intrinsic mortality is not favored for long-range spatial mixing or if resources are unlimited, the paper[xxxviii] does not actually suggest that post-scarcity results in immortality. However, the open question is whether post-scarcity might support a human-induced genetic adaptation that would modify the scarcity-based evolutionary default of aging and limited lifespan – potentially to the point of immortality.

Despite the utopian nature of a post-scarcity economy, however, the transition to a global post-scarcity environment without human nature being universally optimized not only virtually guarantees it being rejected and prevented by capitalist interests, but also carries with it the potential for a new generation of criminal activity corresponding to the technologies described above– that is, reputation spoofing, false demand process interruption, genome hacking, neural theft, robotic telepresence hijacking, blind quantum communication capture, induced entanglement decoherence, and Artificial General Intelligence cracking. These, of course, will necessitate a corrective response, which will simply replicate our current environment in a more advanced technological context.

For these reasons, it would be wise to stage the transition such that elevating human nature is accomplished prior to attempting to construct a post-scarcity economy.

Revolution through Evolution

Summary:

  • Einstein was correct about capitalism but missed the mark on human nature
  • In a medical model, our myriad problems can be seen as symptoms of a central underlying condition, rather than cultural problems that can be addressed by social policies
  • That causative condition is a direct and primary consequence of our hominid evolutionary neurobiological heritage
  • The path forward to an enlightened world is for each individual to physiologically evolve beyond that heritage
  • We can wait for thousands of generations (natural evolution is slow) or use the science and technology our brain has manifested to achieve that step in a matter of decades.

The decision is ours to make.

References

[i] Why Socialism? Albert Einstein, Monthly Review, 1949

https://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism/

[ii] The Zeitgeist of Change

https://transpolitica.org/2015/04/06/the-zeitgeist-of-change/

[iii] Human-specific gene ARHGAP11B promotes basal progenitor amplification and neocortex expansion

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6229/1465.abstract

[iv] Spatial gradient in value representation along the medial prefrontal cortex reflects individual differences in prosociality

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/25/7851.abstract

[v] Bidirectional switch of the valence associated with a hippocampal contextual memory engram

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v513/n7518/full/nature13725.html

[vi] Activating positive memory engrams suppresses depression-like behaviour

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v522/n7556/full/nature14514.html

[vii] IARC: Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths

http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/pr221_E.pdf

[viii] World Water Assessment Programme: Water pollution is on the rise globally

http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/facts-and-figures/all-facts-wwdr3/fact-15-water-pollution/

[ix] Water Fact Sheet Looks at Threats, Trends, Solutions

http://pacinst.org/publication/facts-on-the-worlds-water/

[x] Based on data in G. D. Smith et al, Socioeconomic differentials in mortality risk among men screened for the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: I. White men, American Journal of Public Health (1996) 86(4): 486-496.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1380548/ (PDF)

[xi] Daily Kos

http://www.dailykos.com/

[xii] Teen stripped of National Honor Society position because she dared wear a sundress—in Florida

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/02/1389865/-Teen-stripped-of-National-Honor-Society-position-because-she-dared-wear-a-sun-dress-in-Florida

[xiii] NC Pastor tells graduating seniors they’ll be going to hell if they’re gay

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/02/1389845/-NC-Pastor-tells-graduating-seniors-they-ll-be-going-to-hell-if-they-re-gay

[xiv] School lunch room manager fired for giving out food to children without lunch money

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/02/1389964/-School-lunch-room-manager-fired-for-giving-out-food-to-children-without-lunch-money

[xv] Florida police murder black computer engineer as he listens to music; attempted cover-up exposed

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/01/1389661/-Florida-police-murder-black-computer-engineer-as-he-listens-to-music-attempted-coverup-exposed

[xvi] Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction

http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full

[xvii] Mass Extinction Event

https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Extinction_event

[xviii] Graphs show the percentage of the number of species evaluated among mammals (5513; 100% of those described), birds (10,425; 100%), reptiles (4414; 44%), amphibians (6414; 88%), fishes (12,457; 38%), and all vertebrates combined (39,223; 59%). Dashed black curve represents the number of extinctions expected under a constant standard background rate of 2 E/MSY. (A) Highly conservative estimate. (B) Conservative estimate.
For a larger version of the image, see http://d3a5ak6v9sb99l.cloudfront.net/content/advances/1/5/e1400253/F1.large.jpg

[xix] The Technocracy Movement

http://technocracy.wikia.com/wiki/Technocracy_movement

[xx] The Venus Project

https://www.thevenusproject.com/en/

[xxi] The Zeitgeist Movement

http://thezeitgeistmovement.com/

[xxii] Transpolitica

https://transpolitica.org/

[xxiii] Anarchism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism

[xxiv] Anarchist Schools of Thought

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_schools_of_thought

[xxv] Post-Capitalism Anarchism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-capitalism#Anarchism

[xxvi] Post-Scarcity Anarchism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-Scarcity_Anarchism

[xxvii] Social Ecology

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_ecology

[xxviii] Libertarian Municipalism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_municipalism

[xxix] Anarchist Communism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_communism

[xxx] Direct Democracy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy

[xxxi] Common Ownership

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_ownership

[xxxii] Anarcho-syndicalism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarcho-syndicalism

[xxxiii] Compact Toroid

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_toroid

[xxxiv] Polywell Fusion

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell

[xxxv] Thermionic Energy Conversion (PDF)

https://nems.stanford.edu/thermionic-energy-conversion

(http://gcep.stanford.edu/pdfs/UVaodfDrAb3BdgeRCpoy-w/07-Chen-GCEP-Workshop.pdf)

http://phys.org/news/2011-08-tiny-tech-big-results-quantum.html

[xxxvi] Antimatter Fuel

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimatter#Fuel

[xxxvii] Zero-point Energy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-point_energy

[xxxviii] Programed Death is Favored by Natural Selection in Spatial Systems

http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.238103

Footnote

The article above features as Chapter 6 of the Transpolitica book “Envisioning Politics 2.0”.

Specifications: An engineer’s approach to upgrading politics

By René Milan, Thelemic Transhumanist [see editor’s note[i]]

Terminator Salvation 2.0

Introduction

When i first heard about the prospective title of this book i was baffled.  Politics 2.0 – what might that mean?  Like most people probably would, i immediately associated it with the numbering system commonly used in software releases, but having worked as a programmer for 30 years i could not see how this could be applied to something as complex and diffuse as politics.  However if taken as something like a cognitive metaphor i still could not clearly grasp its meaning, beyond the vague implication of improvement over Politics 1.x, presumably what humanity is struggling with today.

As is my habit in such cases i forgot about this for the time being, and three days later as hoped a possible solution occurred to me.  What if i simply maintained the software approach and regarded the task as coming up with an improved kind of politics according to user requirements?

And already i run up against a fundamental problem in business software development, which constitutes the bulk of my experience: user desires are taken into consideration, but mostly within the strategic framework of increasing productivity, which can under smarter management even, and at best, include user contentment.  But the real driver is always some kind of business case for increasing profitability.  “Who pays the piper calls the tune.”

However in this case only the user pays (the very minimal cost of this book), so i am free to assume the user’s perspective in presenting, not a completely deliverable solution, which would be way beyond any single person’s capacity, but at best a draft of specifications for an upgrade to current politics with the aim of providing an improved user experience.  Unfortunately i can not query all seven billion users, but as i am one myself, and as the major shortcomings of current politics can be seen so clearly, i believe to have enough to go on.

Thus in the following i shall attempt to identify the drivers and mechanics of current politics, determine what effect they have on the people subjected to them (users, willy or nilly) and offer conclusions on how they could and should be improved for a Politics 2.0 release.

The current state of affairs

Sampling the currently prevailing conditions, unscientifically, simply from the common anecdotal user experiences gained by following international news, one can easily identify the main factors determining the ideas, the interests and the effects shaping the reality of current politics worldwide.

I Nation

The ultimate determinant of politics within a certain geographical area is, at least theoretically, the nation controlling this area, regarding the area and the idea of the nation as inextricably intertwined, as different aspects of the same national identity, which is claimed to be sacrosanct and tends to take on mystical proportions by associating itself with concepts of destiny, providence and even divinity.  Two good examples of how the myth of the nation was, and keeps getting to be, reinforced over the decades are the films “Birth of a Nation[ii] by Griffith from 1915, and “Triumph des Willens[iii] by Riefenstahl from 1935.  The current state of affairs is rather surprising considering that as recently as 500 years ago the idea played virtually no role in politics; the basic units then were empires, kingdoms and lower level fiefdoms.  While even only 200 years ago, and in reality even now, fixed borders were not effective in large parts of Africa, the middle east and elsewhere, today everybody claims ‘national sovereignty’ to be the highest good, in practice only one’s own.  The days of internationalism being part of anyone’s political agenda are long gone (early 20th century communism).  And even though there are international treaties and organisations, they are by design subservient to the interests of (the strongest) nations.  A possible exception to this was initially the EU, conceived out of the fresh experience of what nationalism ultimately results in, but as time passed even that unique experiment seems to have become secondary to the interest of the nations who were supposed to be absorbed and dissolved into this new structure.

The effects of this common paradigm are obvious.  In the name of ‘national security’ large proportions of the people’s wealth are endlessly spent on weaponry, subventions and trade preferences in order to make the nation ‘stronger’, but as this happens everywhere simultaneously in proportion to national wealth and moderated only slightly by variations in national ideologies, the effects of these efforts are largely cancelling each other out.  But what are the effects on the objects of our deliberations, the users of politics 1.x?

It appears that among the users three distinct groups can be identified.

  1. Those who directly or indirectly benefit from the expenditures generated under these conditions
  2. Those who get some emotional satisfaction merely from abstract ideas like that of a ‘strong nation’
  3. The rest

It also appears that ‘the rest’ constitute an overwhelming majority, and that they are therefore disproportionally exposed to the negative effects generated under current conditions, namely

  1. an increase of influence of the small groups identified under 1. and 2. above, and the resulting decrease of influence of the majority, meaning that most users are deprived of their voice in these matters
  2. the loss of resources wasted on this global zero sum game, which could otherwise be spent on truly beneficial endeavours such as improvements of health, educational, infrastructural and environmental conditions even in times of those destructive tools not being used
  3. direct (death and wounding, loss of habitat) and indirect (loss of resources, property, income, health and home) effects in times and places when and where these tools are used

To stay within the metaphor this importance of the nation could be seen as a current operating system feature, and as a consequence of the above it seems obvious to this engineer that for an upgrade to Politics 2.0 with the aim of an improved user experience the first prerequisite would be an OS upgrade that completely eliminates the role of the nation from the operating environment.

II Religion

Increasingly we can observe over the last few decades the effects of religious influence on politics and beyond.  This influence has been with humans at least since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the resulting congregation in large settlements (cities) and division of labour.  Even before that time this influence was obvious and actually potentially useful, for instance in the chieftain asking the shaman for advice in matters of hunting, planting, moving or fighting.  But in those days there was not yet a clear separation of religion and science.  After that time it took the form of identification of political leaders as divine entities (egypt etc), which was, for reasons which to explore would be beyond the scope of this brief analogy, common in the three early human large cultural evolutionary centres based in Mesopotamia and along the Nile and the Indus.  In the more off centre and smaller kingdoms it was less common.  Through the Greeks and then the Romans Europe inherited many values and institutions of the earlier civilisations, but the Greeks establishing philosophy and science outside of the domain of religion constituted an early break of the religious monopoly on politics which was only reestablished, partially, when Theodosius I decreed, of all the choices, xtianity to be the new state religion of Rome, which then survived the collapse of the western empire and positioned itself to sanction, or not, subsequent european monarchies.  This lasted throughout the middle ages and ended through the reformation, but was not ideologically questioned until the emergence of the enlightenment over a century later.  Nonetheless, religious influence and privileges are still common in Europe, and more so in the u.s.  Islam, being 500 years younger, is still at the beginning of its own reformation, and most countries in which it is dominant are explicitly defined as ‘islamic nations’.

Again let us examine the effects of this state of affairs on the users of politics 1.x.

The users are divided along similar lines and in similar numbers as under I.  In simple and direct terms there are the beneficiaries (who gain material advantages), the ideologues (who gain ideological, mental advantages), and the victims (who gain nothing).  And again we see a disproportional allocation of desirable and undesirable effects: too much political power for the first two smaller groups to the detriment of the third and largest group, a waste of resources on the privileges enjoyable by the first two groups largely paid for by the contributions of the third, and a host of policies restricting freedoms of users, most of whom are part of the latter group, as in marriage, abortion, political and sexual privileges.

Thus it becomes clear that a second OS upgrade is required in order to completely eliminate the influence of organised religion on the political domain, before implementation of Politics 2.0 with the aim of improving user experience can be undertaken.

III Greed

I had briefly considered giving this section the heading ´Money’, however money is merely a quantification of material value, created to have something approximating an objective measuring device for this value.  Clearly ‘objective’ is meant in a very relative manner, only in the sense that many would, or are simply forced to, agree that certain material and even immaterial objects have a particular value that can indeed be expressed by using this device.  In reality monetary value is defined by desirability, a very subjective concept, which in turn derives from real (biological) or artificially created (psychological) need.  Another option could have been ‘capitalism’, but that is just the currently fashionable term for the underlying force, which is truly greed, and which has been a driver of economic activity for much longer (in fact since the concepts and activities of hoarding and raiding proved to be conducive to survival) than the term ‘capitalism’ existed.

Again the effects on the experiences of the vast majority of the users are dismal to say the least.  As before, and more so than above, we have a subgroup of users who benefit materially, giving in to the genetic imperative of hoarding more than is reasonable, needless to say at the cost of the majority, many of whom do not have enough to even ensure material survival.  In between we have what used to be called the silent majority, which is not so silent anymore, and on a global scale certainly not a majority, who get by materially, but get nothing more out of a bad deal than some sort of intellectual satisfaction for which they were psychologically conditioned by the media controlled by the material beneficiaries in the first place.

This then is the third, actually the most important, operating system upgrade that is a prerequisite of even being able to implement a set of policies that could qualify as Politics 2.0.  I say the most important, because all the problems caused by ideologies such as nationalism and exoteric religion ultimately are maintained in the service of this same force, namely greed.  I am well aware that to resolve this problem requires a deep intervention in what is generally perceived as ‘human nature’, in reality merely the current manifestation of a genetic configuration resulting from arbitrary biological and historical conditions, which humans are becoming finally able to change, if only agreements on these issues can be arrived at.  But this subject is again beyond the scope of this piece.  Nonetheless i must point out that this must and will be addressed in the appropriate context.

The Needs

Once these operating system changes are in place, meaning that we can work on a basis of not meeting fundamental resistance to changes in software, or in policies, we can try to determine what is actually needed in order to arrive at maximal user satisfaction.

What do users want?  It might be helpful to take a fresh look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[iv], as users want most what they need most:

Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs

The hierarchical nature of this concept seems to be quite obvious.  Nobody will be too concerned with self esteem or even family if they can not fulfil their needs for food and drink.  So it must be, contrary to currently prevailing conditions where certainly safety requirements are not guaranteed to be met for millions of users, paramount for policies meeting the specifications of Politics 2.0 to ensure that these needs are met.  Then the question of priorities arises.  As politics will consist largely in the art of applying still, even after eliminating the parasitical forces described above under III, limited resources equitably on a global scale, before the needs above the basic two lower levels can be addressed all users must be elevated to that level, explicitly the first global priority must be to create conditions within which all users can elevate themselves to level three, or in other words, everyone’s physiological and safety needs must be met.

On this basis let us examine how Politics 2.0 can and should impact the safeguarding of meeting these needs.

1. Physiological

On the physiological level it is clearly the first three items that are vulnerable to adverse political conditions.  Even a partly commercial, partly scientific and purely adventurous project like MarsOne must include provisions to guarantee the users’ access to air, water and food, and to do so is a political decision.  On this planet environmental conditions vary so widely that pressures are quite different between various places.  Nonetheless given current population distribution it is the function of politics, and 2.0 in particular, to safeguard supply of these resources within the powers of current technologies, whose limits are increasingly tested as by rising sea levels and desertification.

  1. Air is one of the oldest problems. In recent decades air pollution caused problems in the 20th century, famously in L.A., Tokyo, Mexico etc, but these problems have been solved there long ago and the knowhow and technologies are easily available.  Nonetheless we have seen recent recurrences, especially persistent in Beijing, and surprisingly in Paris.  Other recent incidents were caused by burning of rainforest in Borneo and even volcanic eruption in Iceland.  With the exception of the latter these occurrences can be more or less easily controlled, especially after elimination of the greed factor, and the will and means to do so must be part of Politics 2.0.
  2. Food is a much more complex issue than the problems with air. It has environmental, technological, cultural and social components.  Since its establishment 10,000 years ago agriculture has undergone, and caused, some profound changes.  Its industrialisation throughout the 20th century is perhaps the most important, and its results are mixed.  Efficiency has increased, but its social effects (transfer of ownership to corporations), the impact on health and environment (large scale use of industrial chemicals, large monocultures and subsequent environmental degradation), and cultural consequences (establishment of an unprecedentedly large meat eating habit) are mostly negative.  Even the potentially so positive impact of genetic modification technologies has under the current capitalist paradigm often had negative social consequences (but these should be eliminated by the measures recommended under III).  To rectify these problems will constitute a major chunk of work writing low level requirements and coding for a release as part of Politics 2.0.
  3. Water availability is strongly intertwined with the issues hinted at under b) as 70% of the water utilised in the context of human activity is used in the service of food production. Therefore some of the current problems with water shortage deriving from overuse of current resources, as practiced in the course of industrial meat production, will be alleviated by measures designed to improve global food supply.  Nonetheless global aquifer depletion[v], which is currently gaining attention in California, besides the many places where it has long been an urgent issue, will remain a problem alongside political issues such as conflicts around water rights, such as in the middle east and along the Nile, and will have to be addressed when developing Politics 2.0.  One hope i have in this context is large scale cheap implementation of new desalination technologies.
  4. A resource not explicitly mentioned in the above hierarchy triangle but certainly closely intertwined with the three mentioned above is energy. Energy is needed in providing the other three, in transportation and communication, and even to provide creature comforts (making it warm where it is too cold and vice versa).  But energy has been the subject of global discussions for quite some time, largely in a context of power politics (in the name of obsolete nationalism), but increasingly also as an environmental issue.  Even after the recommended OS upgrades, which will eliminate the profit motive and the attendant manipulation of energy prices, a lot of creativity and effort will have to be applied to better provisions in Politics 2.0.
  5. Health is listed on level two of the pyramid, but it really affects all the levels throughout. What is referred to as level two health, is probably something like the minimal health required to allow the individual to function reasonably well in its survival activities within nature and society.  But if health is negatively affected by crippling or disabling, chronically painful, or fast progressing mortal disease, functionality even on the physiological level is denied.  Of course there are cultural practices prevailing in some human and other mammalian societies designed to mitigate the effects, but they amount to palliative interventions at best.  Therefore it must be addressed here.   Like the four previously mentioned issues it is out of the control of individuals, and even the most advanced efforts by organised health institutions are still far from understanding aetiologies of, or developing therapies for, many diseases including death.  Clearly political efforts in this area are also of the highest priority and must be a fundamental consideration in the process of upgrading politics.
  6. The other listed items, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion, are, in a healthy individual (and society), pretty much self regulating physiological processes. One other issue relevant in this context and connected with health, education, infrastructure and last not least direct individual control is hygiene, but its centre of gravity lies probably on the next level.

2. Safety

Beginning on the level called safety things get somewhat more complicated.  It becomes obvious that two factors, relevant throughout, that are not explicitly listed, assume increasing importance: education and infrastructure.  Listed however are several items that are quite culture specific and do therefore not belong into this pyramid of needs at all.

  1. Education beyond the level of basic survival skill is clearly a prerequisite for maintaining control of access to resources, specifically those pertaining to economic activity, caring for offspring, health and hygiene, and perhaps issues of morality. And its need goes way beyond this level, after all how can one currently fulfil one’s needs for esteem and self actualisation if one can not read or write or has not developed one’s capacity for logical and critical thinking?  It is a prerequisite best met by society, not private enterprise with its overriding profit motive, which is also not exactly interested in maintaining and growing a customer base with capacity for independent thought as history has shown and does to this day, but we will have eliminated its influence already with the measures undertaken as recommended in III.  But education itself is undergoing profound paradigm shifts.  While in many places primary and secondary education still takes the form of assembling the youth of the village in (or at) one place for communal teaching, investigation, experimentation and conversation, or that of not yet technologically replaceable traditional individual teaching by experts or masters, in places with access to advanced technology education is becoming increasingly nonlocal and free of cost.  This is very welcome in principle, but the difference in possibilities of access to the enabling technologies between these places raises another issue: infrastructure.
  2. Infrastructure is even more important in the provision of health services than in education. Advanced knowledge and technologies are of no value to the users unless they can be delivered to where they are.  Thus a complete network of operators (hospitals with physicians, equipment and personnel) within reasonable proximity to users, which is still widely lacking, must be established.  This in turn is dependent on solid transportation facilities.  If health and education services are provided online, as is becoming more and more common, requirements include a reliable and secure communications network.  Needless to say, both types of infrastructure require availability of the energy to operate and maintain them.
  3. Security of body is a concept subject to various influences. The most direct and often irresistible one is force majeure, as executed by natural disasters.  Human technology may never be able to completely shield users against its impacts as long as life is based on physical substrates within this universe.  But given that terra is a normally slowly changing environment compared to current user life spans, much progress has been made for example in adjusting construction technologies in earthquake prone japan or fending off the sea in the low lying netherlands.  Much more must be done especially in the light of climate change and rising sea levels.  Security threats caused by humans must be considered as criminal after military conflicts have been eliminated by overcoming the nation concept, and are being handled in two major ways: law and therapy.  It is clear that both approaches are still in their infancy; therefore much research in these areas must be undertaken under the provisions of Politics 2.0.
  4. Employment and property are both economic concepts and can be discussed together. The original function of both is to secure the user’s economic basis, in other words they are tools toward guaranteeing the fulfilment of the user’s needs, on all levels of the hierarchy, within the current system characterised by scarcity and the exchange of privately (lit.: stolen) owned property without which the user is totally dependent solely on the commodity of his physical productive capacity.  A huge number of users are currently subject to this latter condition: without employment and without property.  This of course is largely caused by the force described under III, which we assume to have eliminated before implementing Politics 2.0.  Thus alternative ways to secure users’ material needs must be found.  Many alternatives such as cooperative production and more recently universal basic income have been developed, tested and discussed for a long time.  Building on this work developing requirements for an upgrade is one of the major issues in improving user satisfaction, as it affects billions, indeed the vast majority of current users.
  5. I will be generous and interpret ‘family’ as code for ‘securing the survival of offspring’ since it is clearly not a biological but a cultural concept. Throughout history, in different human cultures and more so among other species, family is just one of the many social forms in which this function is being executed, and it is itself undergoing constant change.  The last century saw a transition in developed regions from ‘Großfamilie’ (apparently there is no english term describing the typical 19th century configuration with three or more generations and sidelines living together) to the currently common core family, and recently we are seeing the introduction of legally sanctioned non gender based models.  Throughout history we have seen different social constructs that among others all have proven capable of executing this function, while none is guaranteed to do it well, such as single parents, institutions, communes, polygamous and polyandrous groups.  Nonetheless i submit that groups operating on liberal principles tend to do a better job than those based on authoritarian ones.  Complexities of this issue are defined by the gradual change of children’s capacities throughout development, which requires finely grained understanding of the development processes while avoiding the traditional, and current, underestimation of these capacities.  The issues of child rearing are also closely related to those of education (addressed above under a), and to privilege (to be addressed below).  In conclusion Politics 2.0 must include provisions to secure childrearing with the goal of enabling the highest physical and mental potential of children while abstaining from interfering in the social constructs providing this function for any other reasons than goal oriented ones.
  6. Morality is an interesting issue for several reasons. An obvious one is that it occurs twice in this hierarchy, once here and again on the highest (self actualisation) level.  This can be interpreted to mean that here we are discussing morality as something learned, in whatever framework and by whatever authority (do good, don’t do bad), while under the self-actualisation paradigm it is understood as something coming from a combination of character and experience, from ‘within’.  But this interpretation implies a simplification that will not suffice to do the issue justice.  First let us examine the meaning of the term ‘morality’.  Derived from the latin ‘mores’, roughly equivalent to ‘custom’, meaning the way things are done, the term does not include any obvious legitimacy, other than perhaps that of evolutionary success.  But evolution is equivalent to change, so the conservative notion of morality is already questionable.  Then there is the question of the distinction of morality and ethics.  A brief but plausible treatment i have come across in my perfunctory investigation is presented here[vi].  According to this morality would be the appropriate term here while under ‘self-actualisation’ it should read ‘ethics’.  Consequently morality, being conditioned by culture, of which humans and other animals have many, should not be listed under ‘needs’.  More precisely what is meant here is playing by the rules that prevent ostracisation of the user from the cultural context in which he happens to find himself.  The value of this ‘in the wild’ is obvious, but it must be a point of importance in Politics 2.0 to liberate users from this constraint.

3. Love/belonging

Fortunately upwards from level three (love/belonging) the influence of politics diminishes.  Policies can create or obstruct conditions conducive to meeting the needs of this level and beyond, but a lot of the required effort is dependent on the individual user.

  1. Family here, as opposed to ‘the family’ (this brings up, perhaps not without reason, mafia associations, a social construct which indeed attempts to guarantee survival in exchange for playing by its rules) under 2.e, seems to indicate a sense of belonging and protection, and a construct that can respond to this need. Again, the traditional family is not the only social unit ensuring the desired outcome, and certainly not one to guarantee this outcome.  My generation (i was a young man in the ‘60s) had to and did find, or build, other social entities to provide for this kind of need, and i do think this holds true today, but i do not know how successfully, or even if, this is undertaken these days.  There is not much an upgrade can do beyond removing all systemic obstacles, which do currently still exist, toward letting individuals build these entities, fleeting and transitory as they often turn out to be.
  2. Friendship and sexual intimacy can be addressed together. Friendship is equivalent to intimacy; if it takes on sexual qualities, and to what degree, is dependent on psychological configurations and definitely must not be subject to policy.  In fact friendship is the overriding quality needed to ensure users’ needs are met on all levels of this hierarchy.  There is not much point in having a ‘family’ if none of its members can offer friendship to the user, and the same applies to alternative social constructs mentioned above.  Apparently sexual expression and conduct has been more or less subject to cultural conventions and pressures for a long time, and clearly since religion assumed its position of control of individual behaviour during the agricultural revolution.  Currently we are seeing two contradictory trends.  In more enlightened societies there is a steady retreat of powers attempting to regulate sexual behaviour of its citizens with one notable exception being the area of ‘underage’ regulation.  Children are widely and falsely seen as asexual beings, and arbitrary age limitations are set by law.  This is an important issue to be addressed within Politics 2.0 along the lines described under 2.e.  Simultaneously there is a strong reactionary backlash against this increasing liberalisation observable even within, and stronger outside these societies.  An upgrade of politics must include complete decriminalisation of these, and other, victimless activities.

4. Esteem and self actualisation

The needs described on the remaining two levels, esteem and self actualisation can be addressed together.  Those listed under esteem (self esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of and by others), are all more or less dependent on the realisation of the quality of friendship, which was mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Friendship appears to emerge from fulfilling the needs mentioned on this level and in turn to facilitate this fulfilment, as in a virtuous cycle.  Friendship must include a well developed capacity for empathy resulting in knowing when and how to step in and when to keep out, and again it plays a beneficial role in this development.  However empathy can, and should, apply beyond established friendship in relation to strangers, who after all are potential friends.

Of the six items listed under self actualisation, the latter three, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts, are all results of basic education, and should have been addressed and resolved long before this level is discussed.  Thus they are the only ones mentioned in these two highest levels that are actually subject to politics.

Of the other three, morality, creativity, spontaneity the first one has already been mentioned under 2.f “as something coming from a combination of character and experience, from ‘within’”, and labelled as ethics rather than morality.  Like ethics, creativity and spontaneity are properties of ‘character’ or ‘personality’, but how much they are also subject to a learning process is to be researched and discussed.  Another open question is whether any or all of these three can be rightfully described as needs.  One can lead a perfectly fulfilled life without being spontaneous, creative or having a finely developed sense of ethics.  However much i share Maslow’s ideas about what it takes, for me personally, to become a fulfilled human, or transhuman, being, these ideas can not be automatically presumed to be true for others.  What we are discussing here is politics, an activity with the potential to facilitate, and on the lower levels to guarantee, or as is widely the case today to obstruct, the possibility of living a fulfilled life.  How that opportunity is used if attained must remain subject to individual choice.

5. Further discussion

There are two issues which are rightfully, as they do not constitute needs, not discussed within the preceding, but which are intimately connected with its content and with each other.

  1. Taxes – this is here just meant as code for any number of ways in which societies take responsibility for issues that can reasonably and successfully only be addressed through a communal approach. All of the policies required by these specifications take resources, expressed in monetary value (money), and this money is usually raised through collecting taxes.  Even after recovering the money currently drained into private holes by greed as well as that wasted on the nationalistic zero sum military game, and by sheer incompetence, there may be additional funds required to be raised as taxes, unless government, or better society, is set up as a wealth generator itself.  This is a wide open issue which will however have to be discussed, agreed upon and included in the new version of politics.
  2. Privilege (lit.: private law) is another huge factor currently draining resources from the community into the hands and pockets of the minority that benefits from these transactions, the privileged. These are mostly corporate, political and religious structures as well as wealthy individuals, which have managed to manipulate legislative processes in order to maintain or establish these privileges.   Code within Politics 2.0 must ensure the elimination of all privileges.  Law can only apply to all.

Conclusion

The list of specifications arrived at here through one of many models describing users’ needs is far from complete, and it is merely that: a list of high level specs.  This must be discussed, revised and fleshed out in low level requirements, then coded and tested before being put in production.  At least that is how it would work in a well designed and executed project which itself is a rarity in the real world.

And now it is time to give up the conveniently assumed illusion of Politics 2.0.  The basic changes to ‘human nature’, that i nonchalantly presented above as prerequisite operating system upgrades, in reality will be, and already are being, hard fought over, mentally, politically, economically and militarily, and the outcome is far from clear.  Those who think that their greed has served them well are not willing to give up the benefits it has allowed them to accumulate, and may not even be willing to give up the trait of greed itself, if and when genetic reconfiguration tools which can do this become available.

On the other hand many desirable policies described in these specifications are already, and have been, subject to attempts at introducing them, with mixed success, despite and against the unfavourable conditions of this faulty operating system that is human, but hopefully not posthuman, nature.  If there has been progress or not over the last 100,000 years, when discussed from various utilitarian viewpoints, remains an open question.  However we have no other starting point than the present, and in this sense the best i can hope for is that this list of specifications may contribute to the debate on where to go from here.

References

[i] Editor’s Note:

The author of this chapter has chosen to abide by his personal style which includes customised spelling, neologisms, minimal capitalisation, and other peculiarities, which may appear to the reader to be mistakes

[ii] https://youtu.be/PTDDcJaJz64

[iii] https://youtu.be/b0kwnLzFMls

[iv] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow’s_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

[v] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/16/new-nasa-studies-show-how-the-world-is-running-out-of-water/

[vi] http://www.ethicsdefined.org/what-is-ethics/morals-vs-ethics/

Footnote

The article above features as Chapter 8 of the Transpolitica book “Envisioning Politics 2.0”.

Images via Wired and Wikipedia.

Prolegomena to any future transhumanist politics

Can transhumanism avoid becoming the Marxism of the 21st century?

By Steve Fuller,
Auguste Comte Professor in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick

Marx Bismarck Bostrom Fuller

Revisiting Marx and Bismarck

In ancient Greek tragedy, the term hamartia referred to a distinctive feature of the protagonist’s character that is the source of both his success and his failure, typically because the protagonist lacks sufficient judgement to keep this feature of his character in check. (Original Sin is the comparable Biblical conception, if Adam is seen as having overreached his divine entitlement.) The propensity for projecting the future, often with specific dates attached (as in the arrival of the Kurzweillian ‘singularity’), is transhumanism’s hamartia. But transhumanism is only the latest self-avowed ‘progressive’ movement to suffer from this potentially fatal flaw.

Karl Marx notoriously predicted that the proletarian revolution would occur in Germany because its rapid industrialisation made it the most dynamic economy in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, housing the continent’s largest and most organized labour movement. However, the widespread publicity of this quite plausible prediction — starting with The Communist Manifesto — led Bismarck less than two generations later to establish the first welfare state, which exploited Marx’s assumption that the state would always support capital over labour, thereby increasing wealth disparities until society reached the breakpoint. Bismarck effectively refuted Marx by treating his prediction as a vaccine that enabled the political establishment to regroup itself – effectively developing immunity — through a tolerable tax-based redistribution of income from rich to poor that provided a modest but palpable sense of social security from cradle to grave. On the side of the poor, Bismarck capitalized on the tendency for people to discount risky future prospects (i.e. a Communist utopia) when given a sure thing upfront (i.e. social security provision).

Thus, the Marxist revolution was averted – at least in Germany. Of course, like foreign bio-agents (viruses, bacteria, etc.) that over time generate more virulent strains capable of overcoming the target organism’s immunity, Marxism developed a more militantly revolutionary strain, which refused to work with the ‘social democrats’, as the Bismarck-appeased leftists came to called. It triumphed in Russia, courtesy of Lenin. To be sure, it involved various Realpolitik compromises (e.g. the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany) that established a zone free of external interference to enable the desired regime to acquire some traction in a turbulent Russia. But once the Soviet Union was in place, Marxism developed a still more virulent strain, courtesy of Trotsky, which presumed that Marxism would not completely succeed until the whole world was re-made in the image and likeness of Marx, even if that means making sacrifices at home and exporting the revolution abroad.

Now, when faced with a choice between the sort of Communist utopia that Marx envisaged and Bismarck’s welfare state, many – if not most – people still feel that the latter was indeed the better path for history to have chosen. Of course, this judgement is based on a greater familiarity with actual welfare states than actual Communist societies. Or, more to the point, it is easier to assess an unrealized Communism in relation to the realized welfare state than vice versa – despite the vivid imaginations of the most fervent Marxists. Bismarck’s revenge on Marx’s much-hyped prediction amounted to controlling the spin made of the subsequent history – not least by Bismarck’s English-speaking followers on the left, the British Fabians and American Progressives of the early 20th century.

I believe that something similar is bound to happen to transhumanism. To put my thesis in a nutshell: Transhumanism is the Marxism of the 21st century: Like its 19th century precursor, it comes burdened with hype – it sets the direction of political travel, while remaining an easy target for opponents. So let’s think through the political implications.

The first point is to recall Bismarck’s maxim that politics is the art of the possible. The very idea that one can make an art of the possible presupposes a sense of constraints – if not necessity – within which possibilities can be played out. These constraints are provided by what is presumed to be law-like in operation, such as Marx’s historical materialism. However, as Leibniz famously noted, even the laws of nature are hypothetical imperatives from God’s standpoint. In other words, certain consequences necessarily follow – but only if the initial conditions are met. If politics exists in Heaven, then there is everything to play for in terms of trying to persuade God which possibilities should be fixed and which should remain fluid. When Henri Poincaré spoke of the axioms of mathematics and physics as ‘conventional’, he was trying to secularize just this point of view. Applied to the present case: By suspending one of Marx’s axioms – that the state will always remain weak and compliant in the face of expanding capital – Bismarck opened up an entirely different political universe: What Marxists had presumed to be a foregone conclusion yielded a realm of new possibilities. The result is the political universe broadly defined as ‘social democracy’, originally the name of the manageable left-leaning parliamentary opponents of Bismarck’s own conservative party.

Contemporary transhumanism

Now shift the focus to contemporary transhumanism. Two tendencies are noticeable. On the one hand, there are bold, even millenarian predictions that within a generation our computational and/or biotechnological capacities will radically transform the material conditions of being human. These are analogous to Marx’s prediction that the German labour movement would launch the first Communist Revolution. On the other, there is a steady stream of mainly dystopic science fiction novels and films that generate an equally hyperbolic level of fear. The Bismarckian move in the face of this dialectical tension is the precedent set by the US National Science Foundation’s 2002 ‘Converging Technologies’ agenda, which established a programme of anticipatory governance, whereby social researchers would attempt to gauge the likely public response to the realization of these predictions. The tools of anticipatory governance are drawn from market research but raised to a new level, since the products in question remain speculative – albeit vividly conceived and frequently articulated. However, the effect of such research is to create a demand for broadly ‘transhumanist’ products while neutralizing the worst fears surrounding them.

So, even if the current transhumanist projects do not turn out as planned, a culture is being nurtured that wants them to be true and hence is willing to support their continued funding. In this respect, the founder of self-actualization psychology, Abraham Maslow, counts as an intellectual godfather of transhumanist politics with his conception of ‘Theory Z’ as a marketing strategy for the emerging group of consumers he called ‘transcenders’. These people, first identified in the late 1960s, had sufficiently large disposable incomes to easily satisfy their material needs, but they were disinclined to make further material investments in, say, property or stocks. Rather, they were open to products that promised positive self-transformation even if their material composition was not so different from the versions they had previously bought. Think ‘ecologically friendly’ or ‘socially responsible’ consumer goods.

A transhumanist descendant of this mentality may be found in the various shows and commercials fronted by Jason Silva, most notably his series ‘Shots of Awe’ and his exciting infomercial for Russian Standard Vodka, which manages in a little over three minutes to show how to get from Dimitri Mendeleyev, who formulated the periodic table of elements, to the transhumanist vistas that this particular mainstream brand of spirits opens your mind to. More to the point, Singularity University in California has become the mecca for cultivating this sense of ‘visioneering’, which, at least in the first instance, is a kind of Marketing 2.0 for Humanity 2.0. The unasked business plan question lurking in all this is how long are these ‘transcenders’ willing to wait before their symbolically driven purchases come to be redeemed by serious material improvements in, say, their quality of life and productivity. A Bismarckian move to short-circuit the transhumanist narrative might involve, say, channelling the modest advances made across the relevant sciences and technologies into mainstream healthcare, education, production systems, etc. – while cutting off funding for the more visionary projects. After all, even such modest advances amplified across the entire economy might result in a step change in the standard of living that might cause people to forget about the Singularity, especially if it does not involve a massive disruption of lifestyles already seen as desirable (e.g. the difference between extending lifespan 20 and 200 years).

Recommendations

So, is there any politically tractable strategy for transhumanism to avoid the Bismarckian move, which ultimately curtails the capacity of basic research to explore and challenge the fundamental limits of our being? My answer is as follows: Transhumanists need to take a more positive attitude towards the military.

A strong libertarian strain within transhumanism sees military spending as a waste of taxpayers’ money to fight wars over which they had little say, instead of spending it on, say, life-extending treatments that would directly benefit individuals. However, this is a myopic view of the military, which hints at an isolationist mentality that goes against transhumanism’s natural cosmopolitanism. (After all, aren’t transhumanists the ones interested in space colonization and searching for extraterrestrial life?) More to the point, such a myopic attitude neglects the very positive role that blue skies military-based research (e.g. DARPA in the US) has played in advancing much of what we now regard as a transhumanist agenda, not least the Silicon Valley revolution that took off with redeployment of military-funded research for civilian purposes as the Cold War drew to a close. This pattern of techno-commercial bonanza on the back of sustained military focus has been common at least since the Franco-Prussian War.

The reasons for the military’s potential centrality to the transhumanist agenda are easy to understand:  It is an institution that is by definition focussed on liminal possibilities – matters of life and death — at the largest scale and over the longest time periods. Its organization is fit for purpose: well-trained, risk-oriented yet subject to clear channels of communication and control – and, not least, subject to considerable trust from those on the outside to be able handle its own messes when they arise. The military suffers neither from the short-term ‘quick win’ mentality of most businesses nor the tendency of more democratic institutions to compromise their own values to appease powerful interests.

One way to make the connection between the military and transhumanism tighter would be by casting the transhumanist biomedical agenda as a matter of national security – a kind of long-term insurance against foreign rivals who might outproduce us, outflourish us, etc. Many mass medical innovations – from public hygiene reform to vaccinations – were introduced with this sense of ‘civilian preparedness’, with the likes of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch emerging as ‘national heroes’ of their respective countries in the Franco-Prussian War. In more general historical terms, major public funding for adventurous research has typically been done against the backdrop of a sustained external threat or ‘permanent state of emergency’ (think of the US v. USSR in the Cold War). A political party that says living 200 years is an inherently nice idea is not as persuasive as one arguing that living 200 years is necessary to maintain our position in the world. The activities of China’s Beijing Genomics Institute can help focus the mind on this issue. This public-private partnership aims to sequence the genomes of thousands of high-IQ people to find interesting transferable molecular patterns. Whether or not it succeeds in its ambitions, it is certainly assuming that the goal posts for ‘normal’ and ‘successful’ human existence are changing, which in turn requires substantial investment in basic research that aims at long-term human capital development.

Moreover, the focus on the military would help shift tenor of transhumanist political discourse from one of personal freedom to one of geopolitical necessity – but, at the same time, a discourse with a much more positive spin from that of Nick Bostrom at Oxford and Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. Whereas they are largely in the business of preventing worst possible outcomes (e.g. our unwitting destruction at the hands of superintelligent machines of our own creation), I am suggesting a spirit more in line with ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, namely, that each potential threat is an opportunity in disguise, a moment for further distinguishing the chaff of our evolutionary heritage from the wheat that we wish to take forward, be it in terms that are purely carbon-based, silicon-based or some combination of the two. Even highly probable long term changes to the Earth’s climate can be seen in this fashion: namely, as invitations for us to undertake now — prior to any actual global catastrophe – a systematic revaluation of our existential priorities, especially in terms of energy provision. In this respect, transhumanists can ally with a proactionary ‘ecomodernism’, which specifically targets energy as a locus for innovation, encouraging a general shift away from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy and a more generally planned global environment, with a door open to more substantial space exploration, not only as an escape route in case of ecological meltdown but also as a means of enhancing life on Earth.

Further reading

Fuller, S. (2011). Humanity 2.0: What It Means To Be Human Past, Present and Future[i]. London: Palgrave.

Fuller, S. (2012). Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0[ii]. London: Palgrave.

Fuller, S. and Lipinska, V. (2014). The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism[iii]. London: Palgrave.

References

[i] http://www.amazon.com/Humanity-2-0-Means-Present-Future/dp/0230233430/

[ii] http://www.amazon.com/Preparing-Life-Humanity-Palgrave-Pivot/dp/1137277068/

[iii] http://www.amazon.com/Proactionary-Imperative-Foundation-Transhumanism/dp/1137433094/

Footnote

The article above features as Chapter 11 of the Transpolitica book “Envisioning Politics 2.0”.

Cyborgization: A Possible Solution to Errors in Human Decision Making?

By Dana Edwards and Alexander J. Karran

Cyborg brain

Abstract

Accelerating social complexity in combination with outstanding problems like attention scarcity and information asymmetry contribute to human error in decision making. Democratic institutions and markets both operate under the assumption that human beings are informed rational decision makers working with perfect information, situation awareness, and unlimited neurological capacity. We argue that, although these assumptions are incorrect, they could to a large extent be mediated by a process of cyborgization, up to and including electing cyborgs into positions of authority.

Introduction

In the modern information age governing bodies, business organisations and adaptive systems are faced with ever increasing complexity in decision-making situations. Accelerating rates of technological and social change further compound this systemic complexity. In this complex environment the effects of human cognitive bias and bounded rationality become issues of great importance, impacting upon such domains as political policy, legislature, business practice, competitiveness and information intelligence.

In this text we shall use regulatory capture as an illustration of how human cognitive bias and conflicts of interest interact in the politico-economic space to create disproportionate advantage. We shall also hypothesize a novel potential solution to human cognitive bias in the form of human-machine hybrid decision support.

In broad terms regulation encompasses all forms of state intervention in economic function, and more specifically intervention with regard to the control of natural monopolies. The term “regulatory capture” is used to explain a corruption of the regulatory process. Regulatory capture has both narrow and broad interpretations. The broad interpretation is that it is a process through which special interest groups can affect state intervention ranging from the levying of taxes to legislation affecting the direction of research and development [i].The narrow interpretation places the focus specifically on the process through which regulated monopolies exert pressure to manipulate state agencies to operate in their favour[ii].

What these interpretations express is that regulatory capture generally involves two parties: the regulated monopoly and the state regulatory agency. The process of regulatory capture can be two way: just as corporations can capture government regulation agencies, the possibility exists for government agencies to capture corporations. As a result of this process, government regulatory agencies can fail to exert financial and ethical boundaries if they are captured, while corporations can fail strategically and financially if they are captured.

Regulatory capture takes two forms, materialist and non-materialist capture. In materialist capture, which is primarily financially motivated, the mechanism of capture is to appeal to the self-interest of the regulators. Materialist capture alters the motives of regulators based on economic self-interest, so that they become aligned with the commercial or special interest groups which are supposed to be regulated. This form of capture can be the result of bribes, political donations, or a desire to maintain government funding. Non-materialist capture also called cognitive or cultural capture happens when the regulator adopts the thinking of the industry being regulated. Status and group identification both play a role in the phenomena of regulators identifying with those in the industry they are assigned to regulate[iii].

Given the current socio-political climate of accelerating technological and social change, consideration should be given to how organizations are formed. Organizations should be structured to resist or otherwise minimize any service disruption caused by regulatory capture, so that if the process of normative regulation fails i.e. in situations where the balance of the relationship between the two entities has become corrupted, the service which required regulation in the first place can remain available after the failure.

One example of potential government regulatory failure due to a captured agency is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hydraulic fracking scandal of 2004. The EPA released a report[iv] in which they stated that hydraulic fracturing posed “little or no threat” to drinking water supplies. Whistle-blower Weston Wilson disputed[v] this conclusion of the EPA publicly and exposed five of the seven members of the peer review panel as having conflicts of interest. These conflicts of interest allowed elements within the administration to apply pressure, and become involved in discussions about how fracking would eventually be portrayed in the report. Due to this pressure the EPA may have unable to publish a genuine conclusion about the safety of fracking. This reveals a potential failure of the EPA to protect the public interest due to regulatory capture.

Another example of regulatory capture concerns a dramatic failure of regulatory oversight for the British National Foundation (BNF), which is one the UK’s most influential institutes on diet and health. The BNF, established more than 40 years ago, advises government, schools, industry, health professionals and the public, and exists solely to provide “authoritative, evidence-based information on food and nutrition”[vi]. Its ability to provide independent evidence-based advice however has been called into question given its apparent bias towards promoting the views of the food industry and the organization’s lack of transparency when reporting funding sources.

This comes as no surprise when 39 members of its funding membership come from the food industry[vii]. For example, In October 2009, when a television commercial for a member company’s probiotic yoghurt product was banned, the BNF spoke out in support of the product (and thus the company) by claiming that there is “growing evidence that a regular intake of probiotics may positively influence our health”. As a result while appearing to take a stance on the grounds of public health, it would appear as though the BNF were protecting its own interests and those of a member company under the guise of regulatory oversight.

Factors that affect human decision making within complex adaptive systems

The examples of regulatory capture described above highlight some of the issues associated with human cognitive bias, specifically within a complex adaptive system (such as a government or corporation) where rational choice is bounded by self-interest combined with overarching organizational goals. In information saturated environments such as these, human cognitive limitations can become a factor that leads to poor rational decision making, requiring the individual or organisation to rely on shortcuts which may lead to human error. A number of psychological and social factors such as “attention scarcity”, “information asymmetry”, and “accelerating societal complexity” contribute to poor rational decision making within complex organisational structures. Awareness has been rising that human attention has become a scarce resource in the information age, and attention scarcity ultimately relates to the economics of attention.

Attention scarcity relates to a human cognitive limitation which determines the amount of information a human can digest and attend to in a given period of time (also referred to as an information economy). Simply put, “attention is a resource-a person only has so much of it”[viii]. Thus, in a low information economy any item brought to the attention of decision makers is perceived by its economic properties which are deemed decisive for its profitability. In contrast, in a high information economy, the diversity of items mean perception is limited and only choices that expose decision makers to sufficiently strong signals are viable.

Attention scarcity is a weakness of human cognition which can be purposefully exploited. For example, consider the U.S. Affordable Care Act, which has over 9000 pages of rules. It is likely that most voters lacked sufficient “attention” to read through and digest each page at the time when the act was being debated. Due to the complexity of legislative law, even if a team of “netizens” formed to crowd source the reading and analysis of a new law, it is unlikely that they would be able to interpret and understand it within the available timeframe to object if needed.

The effects of attention scarcity are observed in the poor public understanding not only of legal documents, but also of complex open source software. We see in open source software situations where the developers allow anyone to read the source code but in which the source code has so many lines of opaque obfuscated code that very few users or even other software developers understand how it works. We can see how attention scarcity produces information asymmetry between the open source developers who can decipher the source code and everyone else who may or may not choose to use the software.

Information asymmetry is a serious factor intrinsic to cognitive bias in human decision making, and concerns decisions in transactions where one party has the perception of, or is in possession of, more or better quality information than the other. This potentially creates an imbalance in the transaction power dynamic which may lead to future failure and a collapse of trust, causing a kind of market failure in a worst case scenario.

Accelerating societal complexity refers to the structural and cultural aspects of our institutions whose practices are identified by the “shrinking of the present”, a decreasing time period during which expectations based on past experience reliably match the future[ix]. When combined with accelerating technological progress this “shrinking” appears to flow ever faster, making decisions based on belief or the perception of better information problematic.

All of these individual factors can influence the human decision making process; in combination they potentially create a decision space that becomes more fluid, with a self-reinforcing feedback loop which requires better decisions to be made in shorter spaces of time with incomplete or asymmetric information. Indeed, by all accounts humans make errors all of the time, but as society gets ever more complex, these errors have lasting and increasingly dangerous consequences (such as in the example of hydraulic fracking discussed above). In order to get a clearer picture of a possible basis for this error effect, some discussion of human cognitive limitations is warranted.

The impact of human cognitive limitation

As we have discussed previously, information asymmetry in complex adaptive systems allows for decision error to appear within the system, as the better informed parties possess a marked information advantage which allows them to exploit the ignorance of other parties. This can occur in any field of human endeavour, such as law, science, commerce or governance, where new knowledge will be easier to grasp by those with previous knowledge, given that knowledge is self-referential and compounds on itself[x]. As organizations grow larger and the decision requirements become ever more complex, attention scarcity and information asymmetry can form a feedback loop that – at scale – slows the rate of innovation/knowledge diffusion, as individuals and organisations vie for supremacy in transactions.

Research in the area of cognitive neuroscience suggests that the cognitive abilities of an individual are limited to five core systems (objects, agents, number, geometry and social) [xi], each with its own set of limitations. An example of limitation within the social system is “Dunbar’s number”, first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar[xii], who posited that the number of social group members a primate can track is limited to the volume of the neocortex, and while this theory is hotly disputed[xiii], it has yet to be disproven with any certainty. This limitation, if taken to its logical conclusion and scaled to match an average complex adaptive system (such as regulatory or corporate bodies) highlights that the decision making abilities of an average individual could be impaired significantly, when not augmented by technology or genetic engineering.

This impairment of decision making ability was remarked upon in Herbet A. Simon’s theories of bounded rationality[xiv]. These theories were concerned with rational behaviour in the context of individuals and organisations and individuals within organisations, which he stated were indistinguishable under the “theory of the firm”. In this theory the given goals and the given conditions (of the organization) drive “rational” decision making based on two functions: the demand function (the quantity demanded as a function of price) and the cost function (the cost of production as a function of the quantity produced). These two rules when applied to complex adaptive systems, such as regulatory or governing bodies, demonstrate the vast scope in which human cognitive bias can affect outcomes at the macro scale while appearing to be a series of micro decisions made by individuals.

Nowhere can this asymptotic synergy of information, human cognitive ability and bounded rationality be seen more clearly, than in the case of law. A truism often used in this context is that Ignorance of the law excuses no one, but the complexity of law confuses everyone. In a world where few if anyone in society knows the law it may well become necessary for people to supplement their own cognitive capacities with “apps” to protect themselves from the complexity of the law. “Lawfare” is said to describe a form of asymmetric warfare which allows for the exploitation of the esoteric and complex nature of the law to damage political opponents. Just as complex words on an ingredient list can be used to hide undesirable ingredients from customers, the law and its potential use as a weapon also remain hidden from most citizens.

The current analogue forms of government have their basis in a complicated combative bureaucracy (necessary to support representative forms of democracy). Accelerating technological progress, however, shows that this approach may not scale particularly well as society becomes orders of magnitude more complex in the coming decades. It is our analysis, that unless a Transhumanist approach is adopted to enhance the existing human decision processes by merging with technological decision support, catastrophic failures may occur.

In this socially complex future, it is likely that our politicians may have to rely increasingly on information technologies, to the point that they essentially become cyborgs, merging fact checking and recommendation engines – based on rational rulesets – to keep pace with accelerating societal change and allow them to fully encompass monolithic social structures. In addition, citizens may also out of necessity need to adopt similar technologies, in order to understand the decisions made by these new “enhanced” politicians and to adapt to and effectively participate in an increasingly complex and fast changing society. In addition the institutions of the future will likely have to adopt human error tolerant designs which use the latest decision support technology to help mitigate and dampen the consequences of human error.

The Cyborg Citizen: A transcendent solution?

In order to avoid confusion we first have to properly define what we mean by a cyborg citizen. Andy Clark[xv] in his book Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the future of Human Intelligence, argues that human beings are by nature cyborgs, claiming that human neural plasticity and a propensity to build and utilise tools in everyday life (from handwriting to mobiles phones), produces a species that thinks and feels most effectively only through the use of its technologies. Ray Kurzweil[xvi] goes one step further to predict that, by 2030, most humans will choose to be cyborgs:

Our thinking then will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking. We’re going to gradually merge and enhance ourselves. In my view, that’s the nature of being human – we transcend our limitations.

In order to understand what a “cyborg citizen” means in today’s information and technology driven society, we must expand upon this definition to include current technological and social developments. Indeed, we will have to recognize that each individual today, and more so in the future, will have a digital, virtual, and physical self[xvii]. Thus, a cyborg is a person who is (singly or in combination) enhanced by or dependent upon, robotic, electronic, or mechanical devices such as artificial hearts, pacemakers, portable dialysis machines or even mobile / cloud computing which employs storage, search, retrieval and analysis (SSRA) capabilities such as Google, Amazon etc.

Corporations also appear to be taking advantage of technologies to enhance human decision making as a way to adapt to increasing business and market complexity. Venture capitalist firm Deep Knowledge Ventures named to their board of directors[xviii] an algorithm called VITAL, which they intend to someday evolve into a full-fledged artificial intelligence. This move may represent one of the initial forays in what may become a trend toward human-machine run corporations. Indeed, some are going much further, to call for complete replacement of humans within complex organisations (such as government) with artificial intelligence[xix]. However, arguments about the inevitable rise of artificial general intelligence aside, we push for a “human-in-the-loop” approach through the merger or bonding of human ethical and moral “instinct” with a bounded rational decision support engine, existing in either digital space or embedded into the human central nervous system via implants.

So what would such a citizen cyborg look like? Below is a list of a number of hypothetical decision support systems which are presently borderline (in that they exist, but are not as yet fit for purpose), which could exist in digital space and employ SSRA capabilities to allow for enhanced human-machine hybrid decision making.

  • Intent casting: Intent casting, originally described by Doc Searls, allows consumers to directly express their wants and needs to the market. This could allow for the digitization of intent and for agent-based AI to shop on behalf of customers.
  • Algorithmic democracy: Algorithmic democracy in theory, would allow voters to delegate their voting decisions (and thus agency) to an algorithm, which could be referred to as a digital voting agent (DA). Examples of digital agents today include Siri, Amazon Echo, and Cortana. As these DA’s become more capable, it is possible that voters could rely on their DA to inform them as to how they should vote in accordance to their specific interests and preferences.
  • Digital decision support consultants: These are intelligent decision support systems that would help professionals make better decisions. It is likely that there will be apps for different professions such as IBM’s WellPoint for doctors, legal assistant apps, and real-time fact checkers[xx] These apps may be decentralized collaborative applications with human and robot participation or they may be software agent based AI. This category would also include algorithms such as Deep Knowledge Ventures VITAL and agents to track relationships and the flow of information between groups within a complex organization or brokers between two transaction parties.

Examples of algorithms that hypothetically speaking, could run on physiologically embedded technology, directly accessible by the human brain to provide decision support:

  • Generate and test search: a reinforcement learning, trial and error algorithm which can search through a limited solution space in a systematic manner to find the best solution[xxi]. In operation this algorithm would generate possible solutions to a set problem and test each until it finds the solution which passes a positive threshold, whereupon the solution is relayed to the human cognitive process for a potential decision and reinforcement. This kind of technique can be used to take advantage of simulation testing and solve problems which have a limited solution space, such as those presented by the “free market” or those requiring a quick human decision in a “lesser of two evils” scenario.
  • Global optimization search: evolutionary algorithms which are inspired by the biological mechanisms of global optimization search, such as mutation, crossover, natural selection and survival of the fittest[xxii]. These algorithms can search a solution space and compare each solution to a desired fitness criteria. In the case where human input is necessary to evolve a solution then an interactive evolutionary algorithm could allow the human to be the solution selector, while the algorithm is the solution generator. The algorithms can go through a similar process and be generated and evolved for improved fitness.
  • Markov decision processes: an experimental framework for decision making and decision support. A Markov decision process automates finding the optimal decision for each state while taking into account each action’s value in comparison to the others, essentially an idealised decision output for a given problem state. With human decision selection driving the process, the ramifications of each decision selection at each stage of the problem analysis can be carefully considered and accepted or rejected based on rational choice.

This list is by no means exhaustive and there may be other borderline hypothetical decision support systems and algorithms which are not mentioned here. However, this list gives a general idea of how embedded or digital artificial decision support agents can improve decision quality in certain sectors of human society. By improving decision quality through technology and semi-autonomous agencies we may be able to reduce the frequency of poor decisions which result from nothing more than human error and or human ignorance.

Discussion: Checks and Balances

We do not propose that cyborgization makes for a perfect solution to the problem of human cognitive limitation and decision error in complex social systems. Indeed, decision support systems already exist in one form or another. However, they are still in an early stage of development and not ubiquitous, thus technology such as VITAL benefits only large corporations and perhaps the intelligence establishment. It is a situation similar to the early stages of computer development or the Internet, both of which existed, but the benefits were limited to certain domains, back in the 1960s during the Cold War.

We believe the widespread adoption of decision support technology, be it embedded or digital, could provide the tools necessary for individuals to comprehend the entirety of complex organizations, model the decision-consequence space and select ethical decisions. These tools would essentially enable decision makers to take into account individual need and motivation, and provide ethical solutions which afford the greatest good for the greatest number, without creating asymmetric information economies.

An example of a beneficial application of cyborg technology would be the doctor who utilises WellPoint[xxiii] to make diagnoses based on a combination of learned skillset and a digital health agent with a broad specialist evidence based knowledge base. Alternatively, in a quantified-self context an individual could upload health data gathered from wearable sensor technology, and receive information of potential health issues which could be treated with alacrity in their early stages by doctors able to access this information and review treatment options.

However, such technology and its application would not come without limitation or risk. The widespread use of these technologies could lead to a form of information “cold war”, in which human and machine agents (singly or in combination) attempt to create a state of “perfect information” to gain a competitive advantage. They may seek a form of perfect regulatory capture where one party seeks always to have an advantageous position in any transaction, be it in the free market or in the policy, legislative or intelligence domains. Arguably, such an information cold war already exists between various governments, intelligence services and corporate entities and while the “battle ground” as it were, is in so called cyberspace, it is primarily an analogue concern where agency is biological i.e. human as opposed to A.I.

It is a sad reflection upon humanity that one “positive” aspect of this cold war scenario, is that competition (war) leads to innovation, as opposing sides race to gain the information advantage. This impetus this would accelerate the development of the technologies required to create a “true” cybernetic individual or generally intelligent artificial agent. It is a matter for debate whether this would result in a situation that would be to the benefit of humanity in general or lead to a totalitarian dystopia; in which one entity or organisation exists in a near perfect state of “knowing”, stifling the development of both technology and society.

It is our opinion that the potential benefits of cyborgization outweigh the potential risks. As our technological systems and culture grow ever more complex, we must consider the risk of human error, of bad decisions, of ignorance combined with advanced technologies, in the light of a technology so pregnant with possibility.

We realize cyborgization is a controversial subject, however we see it an unavoidable and unstoppable trend. Indeed, Ginni Rometty (Chairman and CEO of IBM) stated recently that:

In the future, every decision that mankind makes is going to be informed by a cognitive system like Watson, and our lives will be better for it[xxiv]

This is a statement is very much in accordance with our notion of keeping the human-in-the-loop during decision making. Furthermore, an argument could be made that given the current reliance by vast numbers of the world population on mobile phones and internet search engines, rather than becoming cyborgs at some specific point in time (as in the prediction of Kurzweil), we have always been cyborgs (as per Clarke’s argument) and it is merely a matter of time and technology, until the line between what is human and what is our technology becomes non-existent.

Conclusion

Just as search engines allow for human beings to find the relevant information meeting their “criteria”, the adoption of decision support engines could allow autonomous digital agents and human-machine hybrids alike to find the most ethical decision within a given consequence-decision space. This approach would allow for “what if” hypothesis testing[xxv] of many decision types such as policy determination, legislative impact, market transactions and global consequence. The dawn of ethical computing is fast approaching and it is in this area requiring our fullest attention. Transhumanism provides a socially progressive framework that if adopted can allow us to transcend our human cognitive limitations, so that we can become more effective and ethical decision makers. We believe that developing the technology which can facilitate our arrival at the cyborg stage of human leadership should be a top priority, especially in this time of accelerating developments in Artificial Intelligence, which if left unsupervised could surpass us to become the apex decision maker for our entire species.

Footnotes

[i] Stigler, G. (1971), “The Theory of Economic Regulation.”, Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science, 2, 3–21

[ii] Peltzman, S. (1976), “Toward a More General Theory of Regulation.”, Journal of Law and Economics, 19 , 211–48.

[iii] Carpenter, D., & Moss, D. A. (Eds.). (2013). “Preventing regulatory capture: special interest influence and how to limit it.” Cambridge University Press.

[iv] Environmental Protection Agency, “Study of Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Wells on Underground Sources of Drinking Water.” Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water report, June 2004 – accessed May 2015.

[v]http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/center-science-and-democracy/promoting-scientific-integrity/oil-extraction.html#.VX7TjkbFdlx

[vi] Chamberlain & Laurance (2010). “Is the British Nutrition Foundation having its cake and eating it too?” http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/is-the-british-nutrition-foundation-having-its-cake-and-eating-it-too-1925034.html – accessed May 2015.

[vii] Chamberlain & Laurance (2010). “Is the British Nutrition Foundation having its cake and eating it too?” http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/is-the-british-nutrition-foundation-having-its-cake-and-eating-it-too-1925034.html – accessed May 2015.

[viii]Crawford, Matthew B. (March 31, 2015). “Introduction, Attention as a Cultural Problem”. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (hardcover) (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 11.

[ix] Rosa, H.: “Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity.” Columbia University Press, New York (2013)

[x] Klein, S. B., & Kihlstrom, J. F. (1986). “Elaboration, organization, and the self-reference effect in memory.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115(1), 26-38. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.115.1.26

[xi] Kinzler KD, Spelke ES. Core systems in human cognition. Progress in Brain Research. 2007;164:257–264

[xii] Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”. Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): 469–493. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(92)90081-J

[xiii] Wellman, B. (2012). “Is Dunbar’s number up?” British Journal of Psychology 103 (2): 174–176; discussion 176–2. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02075.x

[xiv] Simon, H.A. (1972). Theories of bounded rationality. In C.B. McGuire and R. Radner (Eds.), Decision and organization: A volume in honor of Jacob Marschak (Chap. 8). Amsterdam: North-Holland

[xv] Andy, Clark. (2004) “Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence.”, Oxford; Oxford University Press.

[xvi] Guia Del Prado “Google Futurist Ray Kurweil thinks we’ll all be cyborgs by 2030” http://uk.businessinsider.com/ray-kurzweil-thinks-well-all-be-cyborgs-by-2030-2015-6?r=US – accessed june-2015

[xvii] The digital and virtual while similar are distinct in their differences. To make clear the distinction, something is virtual if it will only exist contained within a virtual world while if something is digital it is known to exist in the physical world just in digitized form. The distinction is between digital and virtual space in which digital space is a subset of what people consider to be part of the physical world while virtual space isn’t directly referring to a part of the physical world

[xviii]Wile, R. (2014, May 13). “A Venture Capital Firm Just Named An Algorithm To Its Board Of Directors – Here’s What It Actually Does.” Retrieved June 5, 2015, from http://www.businessinsider.com/vital-named-to-board-2014-5#ixzz31dVwrSEo

[xix] http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pellissier20150612

[xx] Ciampaglia GL, Shiralkar P, Rocha LM, Bollen J, Menczer F, Flammini A (2015) Computational Fact Checking from Knowledge Networks. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128193. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128193

[xxi] Kaelbling, L. P., Littman, M. L.,.and Moore, A. W., (1996) “Reinforcement Learning: A Survey.”, Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, Volume 4, pages 237-285

[xxii] Weise, T. “Global Optimization Algorithms – Theory and Application.” Germany: it-weise.de (self-published), 2009. [Online]. Available: http://www.it-weise.de/ -accessed 06-2015

[xxiii] http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/ibmwatson/assets/pdfs/WellPoint_Case_Study_IMC14792.pdf

[xxiv] http://www.businessinsider.in/The-CEO-of-IBM-just-made-a-jaw-dropping-prediction-about-the-future-of-artificial-intelligence/articleshow/47289655.cms

[xxv] Winfield, A. F., Blum, C., & Liu, W. (2014). “Towards an ethical robot: internal models, consequences and ethical action selection.” In Advances in Autonomous Robotics Systems (pp. 85-96). Springer International Publishing

Footnote

The article above features as Chapter 5 of the Transpolitica book “Envisioning Politics 2.0”.

The image is an original design by Alexander Karran.