London Futurists – more news – 12th Sep 2014

Dear London Futurists,

I know it’s only several days since I last wrote to all of you, but there are quite a few other things I’d like to draw your attention to:

1. Big Data Science in Medicine Congress – Accelerating Longevity Research

This Monday (15th Sept) from 4.30pm to 7.30pm, the Oxford University Scientific Society, Deep Knowledge Ventures, and the Biogerontology Research Foundation (BGRF), are jointly hosting an event Big Data Science in Medicine. This event brings together leading lights from artificial intelligence, biomedical science and regenerative medicine for a series of talks and discussion in Oxford with the ambition of accelerating research on aging.

The speakers will be: Aubrey de Grey, Alex Zhavoronkov, Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, Avi Roy, Dmitry Kaminskiy, Riva-Melissa Tez and Geoffrey Furlonger.

The event is free to attend but it is necessary to register in advance. There are still a few tickets left. For more details, and to register, click here.

The event also has its own Facebook page, where you can see who among your friends is planning to attend.

2. A report on RB2014 conference on Rejuvenation Biotechnology

London Futurists‘ friends Serious Wonder were able to attend the SENS conference on Rejuvenation Biotechnology last month in Santa Clara. (In case you don’t follow Serious Wonder already, I recommend that you keep an eye on their website.)

Cadell Last, an evolutionary theorist and science writer, who is developing an animated science channel with PBS Digital Studios, has written a brief summary of RB2014 for Serious Wonder. Here’s a taster of what he wrote:

There was a time – only a few years ago – when serious research into radical life extension was popularly considered to be completely insane. But the scientific grounds for thinking of aging as an unconquerable problem are evaporating quickly. There is no law of biology stating: “Humans shall not exceed the age of 120.” Instead, it is becoming clear that what holds back anti-aging research is institutional support, and thus: funding, laboratories, dedicated research teams, and so forth.

However, in 2014 – at this year’s Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference (RB2014) – I am happy to report that this institutional situation is beginning to change; a new life science paradigm is emerging, and building the structural architecture for a radically new medical world in the process. At RB2014 leading scientists in fields ranging from systems chemistry, cell biology, neuroscience, gerontology, computer science, and biological anthropology gathered in Santa Clara, California, with a determined focus and a common enemy: aging.

RB2014 was the largest radical life extension gathering in science history, and the atmosphere was optimistic, the research progress was impressive, and the futuristic vision was simultaneously practical and ambitious. Minds that could actually transform life extension rhetoric and fantasy into near-term practical applications had converged. Asfuturist Ben Goertzel aptly pointed out last year, research related to radical life extension is “no longer the province of visionaries howling out in the wilderness.” Radical life extension is in the process of becoming “Big Science”.

Harvard Medical School professor George Church – arguably the world’s pre-eminent geneticist – calmly opened the conference with a keynote focused on research that can only be described as revolutionary: CRISPR activator therapeutics. CRISPR, stated simply, may allow researchers to transform somatic cells in the adult human body into pluripotent stem cells.

Church explained that CRISPR could have a number of transformative applications, including many related to age-reversal strategies, and specifically, the improved regulation of complex metabolic pathways. In short, the technology and methods for safely and reproducibly regenerating somatic cells could allow us to reach a fundamental tipping point in the fight against aging. Doctors would be able to use genetic and epigenetic sequencing techniques to rejuvenate the human body. Although Church emphasized a cautiousoptimism, a major breakthrough in this area of research would forever change human civilization…

3. The $1M Palo Alto longevity prize

For more evidence that serious longevity research is going mainstream, see this short video about a recently announced $1M longevity prize for the first team of scientists who can demonstrate the reversal of aging in laboratory animals.

The prize is described in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article from a few days ago:

On Tuesday a group of doctors, investors, and researchers announced the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. The latest attempt to crack the code of life, it will award $1 million to teams of scientists that demonstrate a reversal of the aging process in test animals. About 10 teams have already signed up to compete for the prize, including researchers from nearby Stanford University, as well as the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and Washington University in St. Louis. “We spend more than $2 trillion per year on health care and do a pretty good job helping people live longer, but ultimately you still die,” says Dr. Joon Yun, a doctor, investor and the main backer of the prize. “The better plan is to end health care altogether.”

Mankind has spent centuries obsessing about ending aging for obvious reasons. Of late, Silicon Valley has emerged as one of the places most interested in the topic. Google, for example, has created a biotech research house called Calico to develop therapies that may increase lifespans. It also employs Ray Kurzweil, who has proposed downloading one’s brain into a machine as a means of cheating death. And just last month, a Hyatt hotel in Silicon Valley played host to the Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference at which top scientists discussed “emerging regenerative medicine solutions for the diseases of aging.”

In the case of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, the antiaging focus will be studying and altering heart rate variability. HRV is the measure of the change in time from one heartbeat to the next. Instead of looking at a person’s average heart beat of, say, 60 beats per minute, HRV monitors performance at the next layer down, providing a better indicator of how a person is reacting to stress or injury. A $500,000 prize will go to a team that can take an older mammal and bring its HRV characteristics back to those of a young adult mammal; another $500,000 will go to a team that can extend an animal’s lifespan by 50 percent…

4. Google+ Hangout and Q&A with Brenda Mathisen of Metamed

One final item about healthy longevity before I move on to other topics.

(Perhaps you can guess that I’m gearing up to write a book on this whole subject…)

A few days ago I took part as an audience participant in a Hangout On Air featuring Brenda Mathisen of Metamed. The interviewer in that event demonstrated lots of enthusiasm and passion for indefinite life extension – as you might guess from the name of the society he represents, “The eternal life fan club”. The speaker, Brenda Mathisen, gave a long list of well balanced, well informed answers to questions.

You can view the whole interview here on YouTube. The discussion becomes particulary interesting as the questions proceed.

If any of the last few items sparks your curiosity about healthy life extension, don’t forget that London Futurists is holding a panel discussion “The new future of old age” on Sat 27th September, with panellists William Bains, Michael Price, Alex Zhavoronkov, and Sebastian Sethe.

5. A word for people coming to tomorrow’s event, The Proactionary Imperative

Our event tomorrow (Sat 13th Sept), “The proactionary imperative, with Steve Fuller and Veronika Lipinska”, will be in the B18 Lecture Theatre in the Basement Level of Birkbeck College.

Since I gave some misleading directions the last time we had an event in that room, I’ll explain things more carefully this time:

  • You can walk down the main staircase just beside the reception, and then follow signs, and you’ll (eventually) get to B18;
  • Or you can find staircase C (or lift C), and use that instead, to end up very close to B18 without having to navigate further;
  • But don’t take the lift or staircases to the left of the building; even though there are signs there which suggest you can get to B18, these signs are misleading; you’ll eventually end up at a recently constructed psychology lab that blocks further passage.

(I half-wonder whether the Birkbeck psychology lab is secretly filming people who get confounded by these directions, to observe their psychological reactions…)

6. Another word about tomorrow’s event: a request for camcorder operator

Since writing my last newsletter I have obtained a hi-spec camcorder (Panasonic VC750EB-K) and a directional shotgun mic (Rode videomic pro), with the intent that futureLondon Futurists events will be video recorded (assuming the speakers give permission – which they have for tomorrow’s event).

I am now looking for a volunteer to sit beside the camcorder and to occasionally change where it (and the directional mic) is pointing. Anyone who volunteers is welcome to a couple of months of free entry to London Futurists events.

Please get in touch if you are interested and can commit to being in the lecture room at least 15 minutes before the event is due to start.

7. Producing an English language version of Transvision 2014 website

The Transvision 2014 conference in Paris, 20-22 November, is shaping up to be a watershed event in the history of futurism, technoprogressivism, and transhumanism in Europe. The list of speakers and topics can be seen on the conference website.

You’ll notice that most of that site is in French. The Google translate function does a reasonable job of converting some of that into English, on request, but for the present time, a skilled bi-lingual human translator performs better at this task than any AI.

The organisers of Transvision have asked if there is anyone in London Futurists who is confident enough in bi-directional translation of the material currently on that site, who would be willing to provide some of their time on that task? Do let me know.

8. 5G wireless networks – what could go wrong?

On September 22-23 in London, the Wireless World Research Forum (WWRF) in conjunction with techUK will host an event called ‘The 5G Huddle – Towards a global 5G vision’.

The event is described as follows on its website:

2 days of interactive discussion aimed at bringing together senior industry and Government leaders from North America, Europe and Asia.

As we begin the process across the world of defining what constitutes 5G, this event will develop the international discourse on what 5G should be – from technologies and networks to applications, markets and business models. We will also build on our collective experiences to focus on the approaches on standardisation of 5G, with the aim of its availability from 2020. This roundtable provides an excellent starting point for industry and academia to work together to create the vision for 5G and a high-performance environment.

The organisers had the commendable idea of thinking to invite a futurist to join the discussion. As a result, I’ll be speaking from one of the panels, on a theme that is a favourite of mine: anticipating predictable surprises. Specifically, I’ll be sharing ideas about “What disruptions might a 5G launch around 2020 face?”

I’ll welcome any suggestions on what I should include in my opening remarks to that panel.

9. New technology and positive human values – what could go wrong?

Taking a wider context than forthcoming 5G wireless networks, let’s consider both the potential upsides and downsides of new technology as a whole. That’s the subject matter for our joint event (co-hosted with The Zeitgeist Movement UK and Social Futurist Forum) on Tuesday 23rd September: “Can technology and positive values revolutionise society?”

The speakers are James Phillips and Amon Twyman. For more details, and to RSVP to attend, please click here.

10. Superintelligent AI – what could go wrong?

You may have seen the tweets a few weeks ago from US tech billionnaire Elon Musk – the person behind SpaceX and Tesla – in which he expressed worries about the emergence of superintelligent AI (Artificial Intelligence).

He tweeted “We need to be super careful with A.I. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” He followed this up with this: “Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable”.

Musk had been reading the book by Professor Nick Bostrom of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”. Musk said that book was “worth reading”. I heartily concur. (Slides from a talk I gave recently about Bostrom’s book are available here on Slideshare. If anyone would like me to give a similar talk in a different setting, please get in touch.)

It’s a big book. Happily, MIRI (the Machine Institute Research Institute), in collaboration with the rationality advocacy group LessWrong, have announced “an online reading group where you can join with others to ask questions, discuss ideas, and probe the arguments more deeply”. Katja Grace writes on the MIRI site:

The reading group will “meet” on a weekly post on the LessWrong discussion forum. For each ‘meeting’, we will read about half a chapter of Superintelligence, then come together virtually to discuss. I’ll summarize the chapter, and offer a few relevant notes, thoughts, and ideas for further investigation. (My notes will also be used as the source material for the final reading guide for the book.)

Discussion will take place in the comments. I’ll offer some questions, and invite you to bring your own, as well as thoughts, criticisms and suggestions for interesting related material. Your contributions to the reading group might also (with permission) be used in our final reading guide for the book.

We welcome both newcomers and veterans on the topic. Content will aim to be intelligible to a wide audience, and topics will range from novice to expert level. All levels of time commitment are welcome. We especially encourage AI researchers and practitioners to participate. Just use a pseudonym if you don’t want your questions and comments publicly linked to your identity.

We will follow this preliminary reading guide, produced by MIRI, reading one section per week.

If you have already read the book, don’t worry! To the extent you remember what it says, your superior expertise will only be a bonus. To the extent you don’t remember what it says, now is a good time for a review! If you don’t have time to read the book, but still want to participate, you are also welcome to join in. I will provide summaries, and many things will have page numbers, in case you want to skip to the relevant parts.

If this sounds good to you, first grab a copy of Superintelligence. You may also want to sign up here to be emailed when the discussion begins each week. The first virtual meeting (forum post) will go live at 6pm Pacific on Monday, September 15th. Following meetings will start at 6pm every Monday, so if you’d like to coordinate for quick fire discussion with others, put that into your calendar. If you prefer flexibility, come by any time! And remember that if there are any people you would especially enjoy discussingSuperintelligence with, link them to this post!

Topics for the first week will include impressive displays of artificial intelligence, why computers play board games so well, and what a reasonable person should infer from the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Note that “6pm” in the above note refers to Californian time zone, but since the discussions remain open, there’s no need for people to wait up until 2am UK time to get involved.

And in case anyone wonders how they can get involved in specific projects to improve our strategic understanding of Superintelligence, I recommend this very useful list of ideasby Luke Muehlhauser.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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