The liberties that matter most

Dear Futurists

1.) Futurism in a time of growing fear

The last few weeks have given people many reasons to be fearful.

First, there’s fear that we – or our friends or family members – may be struck down by an illness whose mode of operation is still pretty mysterious. Some people – perhaps even the majority – seem to be little scathed by a Covid-19 infection. But for others, there’s the prospect of serious long-term health impairments, or even a painful death.

Second, there’s fear that the economy is collapsing, due to people no longer meeting together in the same ways as before. Businesses everywhere are making employees redundant. Without money to pay bills, what will happen to us?

Third, there’s fear of surprisingly hostile views towards people in various minority groups. In the wake of a string of shocking incidents of police brutality against people of colour, attention has been drawn to deep-seated racist sentiments in unexpected places. Evidence has been highlighted that famous historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Che Guevara, harboured sentiments that we now find shocking. What other hateful opinions are people holding beneath the surface of apparently civilised veneers, we wonder?

Fourth, there’s fear that the street demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the wake of these incidents of police brutality may be teetering on the point of loss of control. If there’s lots of pent up frustration and worry, what will happen if news spreads of further apparent outrages, and demand grows for revenge? What damage could be inflicted if anger-filled autocrats seize power, locally or nationally?

That’s not to mention the worries about greenhouse gases continuing to accumulate in the atmosphere, potentially threatening extreme weather chaos over the next few years. Nor to mention the growing apprehension in some quarters in the UK about a “no deal Brexit”, with its predicted short-term negative effect on the economy – an effect that Brexit enthusiasts used to say would probably be tolerable, but which is now looking like a dangerous accumulation of Brexit-induced economic misery on top of lockdown-induced economic misery. Even the enthusiasts are drawing their breath, but the wheels of political inertia keep on turning.

Finally, there’s fear that the US elections in November 2020 will experience devious manipulation and interference by various forces (both internal and external to the country) that can apply the latest AI methods to create persuasive fake videos and other highly personalised micro-segmented social media messages. Rather than the better angels of our human nature surfacing, it could be a variety of horrible inner demons that are triggered by these messages.

It would be foolish to try to draw a veil over all these fears – to deny their validity, or to imagine everything will soon be made rosy again by the application of human ingenuity. Yes, there are bright scenarios for the future, but they’re by no means inevitable.

In this context, London Futurists has taken a two week break from meetings. Earlier during the lockdown, we held 11 online events in the space of 11 weeks. Lots of important discussions took place in these 11 events.

But what next?

2.) Six priorities for the rest of this year

I’ve never been a fan of merely keeping on doing the same as before. I see it as important to identify and pursue the actions that could have the biggest impact. Not just actions that will generate warm feelings, or a wave of congratulations. But actions that can tilt the public conversation towards growing appreciation of the key risks and opportunities ahead of us.

Accordingly, during the two week pause in London Futurists meetings, I developed a revised set of six priorities for the rest of this year. This consists of three sets of ideas to be highlighted, and three areas of technology that are potentially the biggest game-changers:

  1. Highlighting that bigger issues lie ahead – issues bigger even than the ones which are currently in the forefronts of most of our minds;
  2. Highlighting the likely intense interplay of technological change and social change, as technological breakthroughs leapfrog over what was previously anticipated, challenging current social structures, and enabling new institutions and new processes;
  3. Highlighting the relevance and applicability of the philosophy of transhumanism – the philosophy that asserts that humans have the ability, if we act wisely and boldly, to transcend the limitations and circumstances that we have inherited from evolution, history, and culture;
  4. Mapping the potential fast-changing future of Artificial Intelligence – pathways in which present systems of deep learning, remarkable though they are, are disrupted by new waves of innovation, including Artificial General Intelligence;
  5. Rebooting education – so that more people around the world quickly become aware of the mega-forces that are poised to radically transform society, and gain the skills that will allow them to thrive in the midst of this chaos and turbulence;
  6. Rebooting politics – so that we can all benefit from collective wisdom, rather than suffer under a collective madness.

Several of these priorities feature in our event this Saturday.

3.) Politics for greater liberty: transhumanist perspectives

This Saturday, from 7pm UK time (BST), a group of four panellists will be responding to the following set of questions:

  • In a time of widespread anxiety about social unrest and perceived growing inequalities, what political approach is likely to ensure the greatest liberty?
  • In light of the greater insights provided by science into human psychology at both the individual and group levels, what are the threats to our wellbeing that most need to be guarded against, and which aspects of human character most need to be protected and uplifted?
  • What does the emerging philosophy of transhumanism, with its vision of conscious life evolving under thoughtful human control beyond the current human form, have to say about potential political interventions?

The panellists are:

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

4.) Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity – TODAY

If you’re reading this before 6.30pm UK time today, Tuesday 16th June, here’s information about a How To Academy event that I recommend.

The speaker is the person who has written arguably the most important book about the future of artificial intelligence. (The book is a bit slow in a few places, especially in the opening sections, but contains lots of powerful observations.)

The book is Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control and the author is Professor Stuart Russell of Berkeley.

Tonight’s event is titled “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity” and here’s an excerpt from the How To Academy webpage:

Musk, Hawking, Gates: many powerful men fear the rise of super-intelligent machines. But in their circle, only one figure can claim to truly be an expert on the future of AI: Professor Stuart Russell.

How can we design artificial intelligence that realises its enormous potential to improve human lives – and does not unleash unintended consequences that could be disastrous for humanity?

The pandemic has taught us how unwilling we are to take heed of warnings and make preparations for a future global catastrophe. Scientists have been warning that such a pandemic would be coming, with an uncertain timeline, but almost nothing was done.

In the case of Artificial Intelligence, not only are we failing to heed to warning, but also actively investing hundreds of billions of dollars to make it arrive faster. It is time we prepared — before it is too late.

Berkeley Professor Stuart Russell has spent more than 40 years at the forefront of AI research, and is lauded by the giants of global technology and innovation as the leading expert in the field. His ‘bible’ on AI is employed by students and engineers the world over, and his TED Talk on the subject has been viewed over a million times. There is no one in the world better placed to explain the existential risk of intelligent machines to our species – or to lay down a roadmap that will ensure a safe, mutually beneficial co-existence between machines and humankind.

In this free livestreamed talk, Professor Russell will explain how we can ensure that we never lose control of machines more powerful than we are. He will show how we can avert the worst threats by reshaping the foundations of AI to guarantee that machines pursue our objectives, not theirs – a machine that has no overriding interest in self-preservation, that is provably deferential to humans, and makes decisions based on human preferences, not its own.

Some free tickets are available, though How To Academy invites a donation of £5 (or more) per ticket. For more details, click here.

5.) Humankind: a Radical New History of Our Species – TOMORROW

Let me draw your attention to one more in the series of online talks from How To Academy. This event is happening tomorrow, Wednesday 17th June, and features Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, talking about themes from his recent book “Humankind: A hopeful future”.

Some of you may already have heard me singing the praises of “Humankind”. I heartily recommend it, for its unusual but well-argued analysis of the roots of human nature.

Here’s how How To Academy describe tomorrow evening’s event:

Meet Rutger Bregman, one of the greatest young thinkers of our time, to hear a new story of human nature that places our capacity for kindness, not selfishness, at its heart.

Human beings, we’re taught, are by nature selfish and governed by self-interest. It’s a belief that unites the left and right, psychologists and philosophers, writers and historians. It drives the headlines that surround us and the laws that touch our lives. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Dawkins, the roots of this belief have sunk deep into Western thought.

But in this free livestreamed conversation with award-winning film director and humanitarian campaigner Richard Curtis, the bestselling Dutch historian and viral superstar Rutger Bregman makes a new argument: that it is realistic, as well as revolutionary, to assume that people are good.

Taking us through 200,000 years of human history, from the real-life Lord of the Flies to the Blitz, a Siberian fox farm to an infamous New York murder, Stanley Milgram’s Yale shock machine to the Stanford prison experiment, Bregman shows how believing in human kindness and altruism can be a new way to think – and act as the foundation for achieving true change in our society.

It is time for a new view of human nature. Fans of Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond ought not to miss this conversation with one of the most acclaimed and original thinkers of the 21st century so far.

For more details, click here.

6.) Ending Age-Related Diseases, 20th and 21st August

If you’re interested in the latest research on potential comprehensive solutions for age-related diseases – such as dementia, heart disease, stroke, and cancer – then I encourage you to check out the conference “Ending Age-Related Diseases” that is taking place online on 20th and 21st August.

The conference claims it will be the world’s largest online aging research conference. It may be right!

To give you an idea of the content for the event, here’s a 100 second preview video:

This is the third year the conference has been held. The first two were physical events in New York. I attended last year’s, and found it very fruitful.

I’m honoured to be featured as one of the interviewees at the 2020 conference. I’m sure I’ll be learning a lot from it!

7.) Dawn of the Transhuman Era, with Prof Steve Fuller – 24th June

Transhumanism is sometimes described as “uncomfortable”. I can understand why. At first hearing, it’s a disconcerting idea that we humans might soon be able to transcend age-old limitations of human nature – such as:

  • our physical tendencies to grow feeble and die;
  • our mental tendencies to cognitive biases and collective stupidity;
  • our emotional tendencies towards egotism, depression, and alienation;
  • our social tendencies towards deceptiveness, divisiveness, xenophobia, and the abuse of power.

Imagine if such an opportunity were within our grasp, but we turned our eyes away, and fixated instead on short-term distractions. Now that’s an uncomfortable thought.

An academic who has studied and written extensively about transhumanism is Professor Steve Fuller from the department of sociology at Warwick University. Steve is the featured speaker on Futures Podcast on Wednesday next week, 24th June. Here’s how Futures Podcast describes the event:

Discover the uncomfortable truth of what transhumanism means for humanity: from morphological freedom to death as a lifestyle choice.

Join transhumanist and author Prof. Steve Fuller for FUTURES Podcast LIVE, hosted by Luke Robert Mason.

Transhumanism argues that we should preserve and extend the unique properties that make us human by radically altering ourselves and the environment around us. Recently transhumanist thinking has seen a resurgence thanks to new technological developments that point towards the possibility that many of its promises will be realised. This raises a number of challenging issues that aspiring transhumanists must soon face: from how they will choose to manipulate or upgrade their body; to how they will approach the taboo of death – especially if, in principle, you could live forever.

What motivates a desire to transcend our perceived human limitations? What new bioethical approaches must we take? What can we learn from Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch – the ideal superior man of the future – that has real-world application today?

For more details, click here.

8.) H+ Summit, 7th and 8th July

The international Humanity+ organisation has put on hold its previous plans for a physical gathering in Los Angeles this summer.

Instead, it is now in the final stages of planning a two-day online H+Summit, to take place via Zoom on the 7th and 8th of July.

The declared themes of the Summit are:

  1. Beyond the Pandemic: Building a stronger, less vulnerable genome
  2. Beyond Mortality: Preventing negative conditions impacting life
  3. Beyond Scarcity: Economy of abundance (practical radical optimism)
  4. Beyond Cruelty: Stop discrimination / Create compassion (evolved consciousness)

You can obtain tickets and more information from Eventbrite.

Among a host of distinguished speakers, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on the topic “Practical steps to improve the public perception of the future”. Here’s the abstract for that talk:

The public is losing faith in experts. But with the accelerating pace of change and deepening global connectivity, it’s more important than ever to take advantage of the best insight from diverse communities around the planet, in order to be able to imagine and evaluate potential better futures.

This talk draws on three decades of personal experience of anticipating both the downsides and upsides of technology and innovation. It offers pragmatic suggestions for how everyone can improve their foresight skills. It highlights why previous foresight activities have had only limited success in readying society for oncoming risks and opportunities. It goes on to identify key changes that can make the biggest difference regarding our collective readiness for near-future risks and opportunities that have an even larger scale.

9.) Fast Future webinar on Government and Economy – this SUNDAY

From 6pm to 8pm (UK time) this Sunday, I’ll be one of four panellists on a Fast Future webinar, “Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future: Government and Economy”.

The four of us will each be presenting a snapshot of ideas from the chapters we contributed to the recent Fast Future book, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future, which was published on June 1st.

After the initial presentations, we’ll be responding to each other’s views, and answering audience questions.

The speakers will be:

  • Me, David Wood – speaking to the theme “More Aware, More Agile, More Alive”
  • Geoff Mulgan – “Using the Crisis to Remake Government for the Future”
  • Bronwyn Williams – “The Great Separation”
  • Rohit Talwar – “Post-Pandemic Government and the Economic Recovery Agenda: A Futurist Perspective”

I’m looking forward to a lively discussion!

For more details, and to register, click here.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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