London Futurists news, 30 Aug 2018

Dear Futurists,

The future seems to be hotting up – I see more and more interest in serious discussions about how to anticipate and shape our future.

Here’s a few things that have caught my attention. As usual, feel free to skip down to any headlines that most catch your interest.

1.) Some setbacks for driverless cars?

Driverless-cars-768x378

On Saturday 8th September, London Futurists are hosting a session led by Thinking Box on the subject “The future of driverless vehicles”:

What impact will autonomous vehicles have on our lives? How safe will they be? Who should be in charge of the algorithms that operate these vehicles? How might driverless cars transform the design of cities? What will happen to car ownership? What will the consequences be for employment? And what other questions should we be thinking about, before we travel further down the road towards widespread adoption of driverless vehicles?…

In the meantime, a number of articles have appeared recently which, each in their own way, raise some important issues regarding driverless cars:

I’m looking forward to a great event on the 8th. For more details, and to RSVP to attend, click here. (Registering in advance helps me to fine-tune how large a room I need to hire from Birkbeck College for the event.)

2.) AI algorithms with inscrutable bias?

Franken Algos

The last of the three articles I just mentioned – the one on “Franken-algorithms” – is very relevant to an event on Tues 25th September where I’ll be a panellist, “Ethics & the unconscious bias of AI”:

In this panel discussion, we will engage in dialogue and explore:
1. How can we better educate ourselves about the risks of unconscious bias in humans and in our technology?
2. How can we better embed the art of responsibility, to ensure that we make decisions to protect humans and to enhance our lives?
3. What transformation is required to ensure that humans and AI can work together cohesively and in harmony?
4. How do we harness empathy and common sense to promote and support humans to be responsible agents of technology?

Large-scale software systems have always suffered from the risks that individual developers sometimes only have a hazy understanding of the operation of the software libraries with which their applications interact. Side-effects of the libraries are often overlooked – until things go drastically wrong. Matters will become even hairier with the advent of self-modifying code in parts of software systems – when code evolves in conditions akin to random mutation and natural selection. We’ll end up with software that no-one fully understands, and whose behaviour in novel circumstances is likely to surprise us.

How can we manage software with that kind of unpredictable complexity?

To hear some suggestions – and to offer your own proposals – come along to the event on the 25th. It’s organised by Leanne Page and Patricia Potestas of the AI Talks meetup. For more details, see here. (Panellist names will be added to the event page in the next couple of days.)

3.) Next steps with the debate on democracy and digital dictatorships

If you missed our recent debate “A digital dictatorship will create a better society than democracy” held in partnership with the Great Debaters Club at the BIO Agency – or if you attended it and would like to refresh your memory about what was said – here’s a video of the event:

Many thanks to Iris Hulzink for operating the camera.

That event involved a continuation of several of the key arguments from a preceding event at Conway Hall, “Will Democracy Survive The Age Of Big Data & Artificial Intelligence?”, held in partnership this time with GlobalNet21:

Where next for this important discussion?

In reality, it will continue in many forms at numerous events, with varying degrees of involvement from London Futurists.

Time to Plan

If you are interested in helping to shape some of these future events, consider attending a planning meeting organised by Francis Sealey of GlobalNet21, taking place on Monday 3rd September. Francis writes as follows:

Over the last year we have held some really successful meetings with the Conway Hall Ethical Society, often involving other groups like the Great Debaters Club, the London Futurists and others.

Recently we held a joint meeting with the London Futurists that was packed out and highly successful.

We would now like to plan for our future events and we already have dates reserved for October through to December.

We would like your input into this and your ideas so that we can plan around topics that you think important and that will be popular to a wider audience.

To register to attend the planning meeting, click here.

4.) Conway Hall event “The New Global Power Grab”, Sun 2nd Sept

I can strongly recommend the event this Sunday afternoon in the “Thinking on Sunday” series at London’s Conway Hall, “The Death of the Gods – The New Global Power Grab”.

Death-of-the-Gods-Carl-Miller-Conway-hall-1

The event features Carl Miller, who co-founded the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos in 2012, and has been its Research Director ever since.

Here’s an extract from the event description:

The old gods are dying. Giant corporations collapse overnight. Newspapers are being swallowed. Stock prices plummet with a tweet. Governments are losing control. The old familiarities are tumbling down and a strange new social order is rising in their place. More crime now happens online than offline. Facebook has grown bigger than any state, bots battle elections, technologists have reinvented democracy and information wars are breaking out around us. New mines produce crypto-currencies, coders write policy, and algorithms shape our lives in more ways than we can imagine. What is going on?

For centuries, writers and thinkers have used power as a prism through which to view and understand the world at moments of seismic change. The Death of the Gods is an exploration of power in the digital age, and a journey in search of the new centres of control today. Carl Miller traces how power – the most important currency of all – is being transformed, fought over, won and lost.

And here are some comments from the review of Carl’s book in The Register:

Not scared of tech yet? You haven’t been paying attention…

Carl brings wider context and nuance that observers coming from the business or tech end of journalism often miss out. When he talks about sovereignty, it is rooted in a real concern for where political legitimacy comes from – not another all-caps slogan in a sock-puppeted social media post.

He also conveys real terror at some of the effects this is all having. His concern for how big tech is undermining our privacy and our politics is clear – and justified…

If you want to get a grip on what’s happening, this is an excellent place to start.

5.) Clean Growth Innovation Summit, Tues 16th Oct

For an event featuring a positive assessment of the capabilities of emerging technologies, consider the Clean Growth Innovation Summit taking place on Tues 16 Oct, as part of a week-long “Green GB Week” series of events, “Powering the new economy”.

Green Growth weekThe event is free to attend, but advance registration is essential. You can read the full details here. Some sessions with particularly interesting titles include:

  • Is the UK on track for a zero-carbon society? What kind of innovation will get us there?
  • Feeding the world: How will a planet of 10bn feed itself?
  • Buildings as power stations: Meeting the clean growth mission
  • Battery technology leaders by 2040
  • Climate KIC venture competition.

6.) Battle of Ideas, 13-14 Oct: Transhumanism, and much more

Battle of Ideas
I’ve taken part in two previous “Battle of Ideas” festivals. This year, however, the organisers seem to have outdone themselves, with a very wide range of fascinating sessions lined up over 13-14 October.

The festival is described as follows on its website:

The Battle of Ideas is an acclaimed annual festival that draws together 400 speakers from the UK and across the world each year. Since 2005, the Battle of Ideas has challenged speakers and audience alike to ‘shape the future through debate’. Over 3,000 people from all walks of life dispute and discuss the key issues and ideas of our time at a hundred different sessions across the weekend.

The website also quotes Nick Cater, executive director, Menzies Research Centre,
Australia:

Those who enjoy the comfort of conventional wisdom will find the Battle of Ideas a very unsafe space.

I’m biased, so I think the very best out of the 100+ sessions timetabled is the one on “Transhumanism: Who wants to live forever?”:

Transhumanists aspire to go beyond the biological and other limitations of our species, including the human body and the human lifespan. Recent scientific and medical developments suggest we have more control over biology than ever before, with genome editing allowing us to make precise alterations to our DNA…

Transhumanism’s interest in defying death owes much to Robert Ettinger, who in the 1960s began promoting cryonics – the preservation of (parts of) our bodies via freezing, in the hope of future resuscitation. This year saw renewed interest in the field, when researchers successfully revived nematode worms that had been preserved in Arctic permafrost for more than 40,000 years. Meanwhile, transhumanist visionaries such as futurist Ray Kurzweil, currently Google’s director of engineering, look to information technology and artificial intelligence, alongside biomedicine and cryonics, to enhance and extend human consciousness. Kurzweil has popularised science-fiction author Vernor Vinge’s concept of the ‘singularity’, a term that conveys a profound and ever-accelerating entanglement of human and machine capabilities.

I’ll be one of the panellists for that session, alongside Dr Günes Taylor, researcher, Francis Crick Institute, and Sandy Starr, communications manager at Progress Educational Trust. The session will be chaired by Nikos Sotirakopoulos, author, lecturer in sociology, York St John University.

In addition to the session on transhumanism, the following Battle of Ideas sessions look particularly interesting (among many others):

For more details of the event, and to obtain discounted ‘early bird tickets’ (before 12th September), click here.

7.) The Guardian explores transhumanism, Thurs 18th Oct

To be a machine

It’s not just the Battle of Ideas that will be exploring transhumanism in October (see previous news item). On Thursday 18th October, the Guardian will be hosting an event in London “To be a machine: Is the future transhuman?”:

Transhumanism is an extraordinary movement that ​seeks to cheat mortality and use technology to “solve the modest problem of death”.

For the Wellcome Book Prize-winning To Be a Machine, Mark O’Connell writes about its highest profile members, from the ultra-rich gatekeepers of Silicon Valley such as ​Elon Musk ​and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, to small-town libertarians experimenting with technological implants​. For three years he journeyed among biohackers, cryonicists and scientists seeking to use technology for human evolution, often using surreal vocabulary reminiscient of sci-fi movies: the human body is “meat” and the brain is merely “wetware”.

He will talk… about the science and the philosophy of this ​intriguing and often bewildering world that is fighting mortality with the power of computers.

I confess a particular interest in Mark O’Connell’s book. Near the beginning, the book describes in some length the author’s experiences at a London Futurists event back in January 2015, when Anders Sandberg spoke on the subject “What is a fair distribution of brains”. (Here’s a video recording of that long-ago event. Apologies for the poor audio.) Mark’s account of the event continues beyond the end of the formal discussion in Birkbeck College, into the informal conversation in the nearby pub the Marlborough Arms. (I’m still trying to work out the identities of a couple of people who feature in that extended section without being named.)

I recently listened to the entirety of an audio version of Mark’s book. Some parts annoyed me – he seemed unnecessarily stubborn in some of his misunderstandings of transhumanism. For example, he erected far too much of an opposition between “biology” and “technology”. And he seems irrationally wedded to the idea of inevitably growing old, weaker, and dying.

However, on the whole, it’s a good book, from which I learned a considerable amount. Even when the book was featuring people in the transhumanist community that I thought I already knew well, I frequently found out more about their backgrounds, their projects, and their personal struggles.

The writing is pretty cute – sometimes too cute. It comes as no surprise to learn that the writer has a doctorate in English literature. And there are some touching sections, such as the discussion between his wife and their three year old son (who appears quite a lot in this book) about the possibility that, by the time he has grown up, aging will have been abolished, by some of the people to his daddy is visiting.

In summary, I’m looking forward to attending this Guardian event. I’ll probably be asking questions from the audience, assuming I can catch the eye of the chair.

8.) TransVision explores transhumanism, 19-21 October

The very next morning after the Guardian event (see previous news item), I’ll be flying to Madrid, to take part in TransVision Madrid 2018:

Plaza_de_Cibeles_Madrid_Spain_Qmin500dd1

20th Anniversary of TransVision Conferences

Spain will host the next global futurist summit during October 19-20-21, 2018. HumanityPlus will be the main international organizer of this world congress, TransVision 2018, with the help of other leading associations and organizations working on futurist concepts like longevity extension, artificial intelligence, human enhancement and other technologies and future trends.

The first TransVision conference was held during 1998 in The Netherlands. During the last 20 years, we have seen phenomenal advances, and we expect to see much more during the next 20 years.

What will the future bring? Science and technology should lead the way! Now we are planning to host in Spain the 20th anniversary of the TransVision conferences, an international summit open to people from all continents, with participants coming from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Argentina to Australia, from Africa to China, from Russia to Venezuela.

The topics considered will be very broad, ranging from recent medical advances to artificial intelligence and robotics. The first keynote speaker will be Sophia, the first humanoid robot that was awarded citizenship last year. TransVision 2018 will have other keynote speeches by pioneers of the futurist movement like Natasha Vita-More and Ben Goertzel, among many others, both members of HumanityPlus.

I’ve created a short video to describe TransVision 2018 and its context:

To register, see this link. Prices increase on 15th September.

9.) Re-thinking Education, Tues 9th Oct

Whatever position one takes about the future – technoconservative, technoprogressive, etc – it seems clear that we need to rethink the purpose and practice of education.

On Tuesday 9th October, GlobalNet21 are holding an event “Re-thinking education” in one of the committee rooms of the House of Commons:

Is our traditional system of teacher-led subject-based learning destined for the history books?

Join us in the House of Commons to consider this intriguing question with ex-teacher Emma Hardy MP and TED Prize winner Professor Sugata Mitra, whose work inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire. Sugata brushes aside all establishment thinking on education, and Emma considers that we urgently need new approaches to how we prepare young people for a very different future.

Following 20 years of study and experiment with children in England and many other countries, Sugata discovered something quite startling: children with access to the Internet can learn anything by themselves and provide answers to complex, multidisciplinary problems. And central to this process is the children’s abilities to speak, deliberate and engage with their peers, not dissimilar to what happens in today’s workplace.

Using funds from his TED Prize, Sugata has recently built seven ‘Schools in the Cloud’, where Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) and a ‘Granny Cloud’ of mediators over the Internet interact with unsupervised children. The results of this three-year study are not yet fully analysed but he will present some of the findings at this event.

Are we beginning to see some glimpses of what schools should be for and what curricular, pedagogic and assessment changes will be required in the future? Examinations as we know them will have to go, Sugata says.

There is a desperate and long overdue need to discuss what policies, strategies, processes and changes government should be considering in order to prepare for a world where Artificial Super Intelligence will dramatically alter the way we work, play and live together. This will require radically new approaches to the way we do education.

Emma Hardy was elected as a Labour Member of Parliament for Hull West and Hessle at the 2017 general election. She is a member of the House of Commons Education Select Committee and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy, which co-ordinates research, promotes best practice and encourages the overarching principles of democracy in education and society at large.

It should be a provocative discussion! For more context, here’s a graphic summary of a famous TED talk by Professor Mitra:

suagata-mitra-drawing

For more details of the event at the House of Commons, and to register to attend that event, click here.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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