Finding the best perspective

Dear Futurists,

1.) “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points”

That’s one of the principles identified by distinguished computer science pioneer Alan Kay.

For example, consider how much easier long multiplication and division becomes when you switch from Roman numerals to Arabic numerals. That transformation enables many more people to carry out arithmetical tasks that previously caused even geniuses to break into a sweat.

In a similar way, the goal of futurism is to provide new perspectives – new points of view – from which to assess more clearly the landscape of future possibilities.

From an awkward perspective, we don’t get to see much. We’re like the drunk searching near the lamppost for his lost set of keys, since that’s the only part of the ground that’s illuminated.

But if we can attain a better perspective, all sorts of possibilities start to become apparent.

What lies ahead landscape

The landscape of future possibilities is more complex than any physical landscape. It varies over many more that the three dimensions of terrestrial landscapes.

Becoming aware of new dimensions can transform our understanding of how things connect together, empowering or constraining possibilities. It’s like when:

  • Karl Marx highlighted the role of class conflict and social alienation
  • Mary Wollstonecraft highlighted the role of perpetuated gender inequality
  • Charles Darwin highlighted the power of evolution by natural selection
  • Sigmund Freud highlighted the role of repressed sexuality
  • Ernst Becker highlighted the role of our desire to deny the reality of death.

So what are the key dimensions for making sense of the landscape of possibilities for the world after the Covid-19 crisis?

What axes deserve to be given prominence, in models of differing scenarios of the future?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Whether society’s response to the Covid-19 crisis is centralised or distributed
  • Whether the economy prioritises the health of individuals or the health of corporations
  • Whether public authorities will become more or less trusted
  • Whether borders will become harder or looser
  • Whether the Internet becomes awash with irrationality, or a beacon of reliability
  • Whether most people prefer to muddle on through, as near to business-as-usual as possible, or demand more seismic changes
  • Whether virtual communications permanently displace traditional modes of business and interaction
  • Whether the influence of China grows or shrinks
  • Whether the Euro rises to the challenge or fails in the moment of crisis
  • Whether elderly people are viewed as somehow expendable, or are valued as much as younger generations
  • Whether healthcare systems accelerate a transition to preventive measures, or remain as a “National Sickness Service” rather than a “National Health Service”
  • Whether concerns over future global crises are brought into the centre stage of public discussion, or continue to lurk in fringe discussions

As I said, there’s a lot to weigh up!

To guide us through this rich mixture of ideas – and to advocate particular sets of priorities – three panellists will be appearing in the London Futurists webinar tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon:

Dimensions for decisions

  • Simon Mair, Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, University of Surrey
  • Maija Palmer, Innovation editor at Sifted, an FT-backed news site for European start-ups
  • Bronwyn Williams, futurist and economist at Flux Trends and What The Future Now

It should be a lively discussion!

You’ll find more information about this event here, on Crowdcast. There’s no charge to register or to participate in the event. As soon as you’ve registered, you can join the text chat there, as a prelude to the live video discussion.

2.) Transhumanism vs. Humanism?

Another potential key dimension for future scenarios is whether technology is seen as a means to protect and elevate human nature, or, instead, as a means to improve upon human nature.

That’s one of the topics being debated on 23rd April by futurists Calum Chace (generally advocating transhumanist answers) and Gerd Leonhard (generally advocating humanist answers).

You can register to take part in this debate here.

The event page says that topics to be covered will include:

  1. Humans are not just data (Gerd) vs. Organisms are algorithms (Calum)
  2. We should transcend technology not humanity (Gerd) vs. We should transcend human limitations (Calum)
  3. What is important is our humanity (Gerd) vs. What is important is our minds (Calum)
  4. We should follow the precautionary principle to govern exponential technological change (Gerd) vs. If a technology solves a big problem we should adopt it unless we can confidently forecast significant harm (Calum)

I’ll be observing the discussion in real time on the 23rd (it is scheduled to start at 8pm BST) and will likely be adding my opinions into the mix.

3.) Accepting death vs. Disrupting death?

Yet another dividing point for future scenarios is whether society will continue to encourage people to accept the inevitability of aging and death, or whether there will be growing momentum to disrupt and even dismantle aging and death.

That’s a topic I’ll be covering on Wednesday, 15th April, in an online event hosted by DSMNTL Ideas. I’ll be arguing that technologies which we can glimpse today, in early stages of design and development, give us good reason to revise our views on the inevitability of aging and death.

As you’ll appreciation, this possibility has pretty big implications for both philosophy and religion.

For more details of this event, and to sign up to attend, click here.

For some background, here’s an interview I recently recorded with the Portuguese language translators of my book The Abolition of Aging, Nina Torres Zanvettor and Nicolas Chernavsky, from NTZ Publications.

The interviewers, who are both based in Brazil, asked a range of great questions, covering philosophical matters as well as scientific ones. For example, we discussed at some length changes in the healthy longevity field that have taken place in the four years since the English language version of my book appeared. Has my estimate for the probability of widespread low-cost rejuvenation therapies being available by 2040 changed during these four years? You’ll find out my answer in the video.

The video has subtitles in both English and Portuguese. The Portuguese version of the book is available in Kindle format on Amazon sites worldwide.

4.) Priorities in building AI: best performing vs. most ethical?

Here’s another key question for the future: should society put more effort and resources into building an AI with the best performance, or into building an AI with the best ethical principles?

That’s the subject of a debate taking place on 30th April in an online webinar which is part of the MK (Milton Keynes) Tech Fringe.

The debate is described as follows:

MOTION: This House Believes building the best-performing AI should take priority over building the most ethical AI

You decide. You make the decision. Do we throttle back AI and implement AI Ethics, or do we trust that there is a greater good to keeping an unbridled AI? You will not be left alone to make this decision. Tony Koutsoumbos, the founder of the Great Debaters Club, will chair two teams who in turn must lay out the case for or against the motion. Not only that, you the audience will have an opportunity to cross-examine both teams.

The expert debaters will be:

  • Dr Naeema Pasha, Director of Henley Careers
  • Dr Tom Farrell, Research Consultant
  • David McMahon, Philosopher
  • Dr. Kyriakos Christodoulides, Theoretical Physicist
  • Dr. Chris Walker, President, 104 London Debaters
  • Chris Wales, Great Debaters Club

Before the debate starts, I’ll be providing some context in a keynote address, where I’ll be explaining why I believe the changes in the next 15 years are likely to be among the most turbulent of human history. How AI will interact with these changes is going to make a huge difference to the outcome.

For more details of the event, and to register to take part, click here.

5.) Seeing through technology hype

There are two major mistakes that people can make regarding the future of technology:

  • Believing too easily the exaggerated claims and fast-talking hype arising from individual companies and technology boosters
  • Failing to appreciate that, despite the untrustworthy exaggerations of many individual claims about technology, bigger changes really are building momentum.

To see the landscape of future scenarios clearly, we need to avoid both of these mistakes.

Tech writer Gemma Milne’s new book brings a wealth of useful material to this discussion. It is entitled Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It

Gemma’s writing has been featured in the BBC, the Guardian, The Times, OneZero, Quartz and elsehere. She is also the Deep Tech and Science Startup Contributor for Forbes Europe, and the co-founder of Science: Disrupt – a media outlet covering advances in science startups, research processes and industries such as space, energy, health and advanced computing. In addition, Gemma works with the World Economic Forum as one of their Global Shapers, and is also an advisor to the European Commission and Innovate UK, helping them decide which scientific innovations should be funded with government money.

Gemma will be speaking about themes from her book in a London Futurists webinar on Monday 20th April. We’ll be joined by a number of expert panellists, and will be answering questions and points raised by audience members.

For more information, click here.

6.) Priorities in transhumanist politics: integration vs. standalone organisation?

I’ll close this newsletter with two questions. Let’s start with the easier one.

Are politicians paying sufficient attention to the most important risks and opportunities of the near future?

My answer is that most politicians are woefully distracted, and/or woefully unaware of the changes that lie ahead.

That was a case I made in my opening presentation to the online London Futurists event on Tuesday, “Risks beyond Covid-19”.

There’s a copy of my slides here. A video recording of the entire discussion is available on the Crowdcast page for the event.

But that leads to a harder question: What’s the best way to inform politicians of the forthcoming existential risks (and, yes, forthcoming existential opportunities)?

  • Should energy be placed into independent political parties that focus on these issues – parties such as the Transhumanist Party in the UK?
  • Or should energy instead be placed into working inside existing political parties?

If you strongly support the first of these two options, then this announcement should interest you:

The Board of the Transhumanist Party UK (TPUK) announces that it is inviting applications from people to take over the position of TPUK Leader.

This is an opportunity to raise the profile and accelerate the progress of transhumanist politics in the UK.

The announcement invites applications from people who:

  • Are resident within the UK
  • Can demonstrate knowledge of transhumanism and enthusiasm for it
  • Can explain their vision for how the TPUK would evolve under their leadership.

The closing date for applications is 27th April.

For more information, click here.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

Image credit: the picture of a desert landscape is by Pixabay member Angeles Balaguer.


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