A dangerous thing

Dear Futurists,

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

That warning dates from 1711, in an extended poem by the essayist Alexander Pope.

Some three centuries later, danger abounds in the advice from numerous people who, alas, have latched onto some simple insights, and blown them out of proportion.

A little learning about economics is a dangerous thing. A little learning about pandemics is a dangerous thing. A little learning about AI is a dangerous thing. And, yes, a little learning about predictions and foresight is a dangerous thing too.

Of course, Pope’s aphorism should lead us, not to discard learning, but to embrace learning more fully – to “drink deep”, in the words of the next lines of his poem, rather than to be content with “shallow draughts” that “intoxicate the brain”.

That’s what I aim to assist, through the events organised by London Futurists. At a time when simplistic messages are causing unprecedented damage, I try to select speakers who will place their important messages within the broader context of the insights from multiple disciplines.

For some details, read on.

1.) The future of the science of cancer – TOMORROW

A little learning about cancer is a dangerous thing.

I’m thinking about learnings such as “cancer is caused by stress”, “cancer is a disease of modern living”, “cancer arises from genetic mutations”, “the biggest predictor of cancer is how old you are”, and “Big Pharma corporations aren’t really interested in a proper cure for cancer”.

There are elements of truth in all these observations. But to make significant progress against cancer, we need to be ready to open our minds to a richer set of findings.

A researcher who appreciates the bigger picture about cancer is Kat Arney, whose career includes more than ten years as a science communications specialist at Cancer Research UK. Kat has been nominated as “the female Brian Cox” but says she might prefer to be known as “the Nigella of science”. You can also find her included on a BBC America page “Brits Who Make Science Sexy”.

Kat will be speaking to London Futurists tomorrow (Saturday 30th January), from 4pm UK time. For the details, click here.

2.) Meetup, Zoom, and YouTube

A little learning about Meetup is a dangerous thing.

Well, not particularly dangerous – more annoying. Especially if you fail to pay attention.

Meetup is a handy way to share information about our online events. But these events don’t actually take place on Meetup. To view them, or take part, you have three options:

  1. Register (via the links on the Meetup page) for a slot in a Zoom webinar
  2. Watch live via a stream from the event that can be found on the London Futurists YouTube channel
  3. Watch the recording afterwards, at your own leisure – again via our YouTube channel.

The advantage of joining the Zoom webinar is that you can participate in the live text chat, add your questions into the live Q&A window, and vote for which questions in the Q&A window should be prioritised over the others.

The drawback of the Zoom webinar is that they are expensive to operate: the bigger the audience, the greater the expense. Currently London Futurists webinars are limited to 100 slots. If you’re too late to register for one of these, you’ll have to watch the event via one of the other methods, sorry.

The live stream on YouTube has its own text chat facility, and it’s possible that some questions or comment from there could be fed into the Q&A with the speaker(s), but I make no promises on that score.

Two points follow from this:

  1. If you are sure you want to attend the Zoom version of a meeting, visit the Zoom registration page as soon as you can. Otherwise you might find you’ve missed out.
  2. If you have registered on Zoom but then find you can’t join after all, kindly cancel your registration, to free your slot for someone else to take instead

For our last event (see next news item), 31 people registered on Zoom but then did not participate. Since all the slots were used, quite a few other people found they could not register there. Oops.

In view of the above dynamics, I’m going to revert (for all new events) to charging a small fee, UKP £2.50, when people register on Zoom. That will deter people from signing up who have little actual intention to take part. And the funds raised will help cover the costs of the Zoom, Meetup, and other software involved in hosting London Futurists.

If someone is unable (or unwilling) to afford this small fee – the price of a cup of coffee – they still have the option of viewing the event live over YouTube.

That’s the boring bit of this newsletter over. Sorry about that! Now back to the more interesting bits…

3.) There’s more to aging than you might first expect

It’s tempting to say that “aging is all about A” or “aging is all about B” – where there are various options for ‘A’ or ‘B’, etc.

Actually, there are at least 10 good options for ‘A’ and ‘B’. That’s the point. Aging is a complex multifactorial biological process.

But it’s not an endlessly complex process. Nor is it something that should push us into despair.

These were some of my takeaways from our event last Saturday 23rd January, where the presenter was Andrew Steele. The title of the event was “The future of the science of aging”.

The recording of the show is now available. Enjoy:

4.) Request for speakers: Viridian Conference, 17th March

The French Transhumanist Association (AFT, also known as Technoprog) are hosting a two day online Viridian Conference on 16th March (when the discussion will be in French) and 17th March (when the discussion will be in English).

You can find more details online (French day and English day).

The organisers are looking for a small number of speakers to give short presentations – of up to 15 minutes in length.

These presentations will need to be specifically targeted at the stated themes of the conference, rather than being general purpose talks.

Here’s an extract from the description of the event:

A technoprogressive future can only be imagined in the coming decades in an environment that is indefinitely sustainable. The change needed to make it “upwards” requires technological progress and profound societal changes. To do this, becoming more human by improving ourselves is an asset.

A “viridian” option, i.e. ecological, technological and non-destructive to humanity, implies radical transitions.

With this symposium, the organizers wish to question and develop the transhumanists’ reflection on environmental issues, and to deepen the Viridian Declaration. They also wish to reflect on how the arguments below can be debated in society.

Four areas that speakers are invited to address are described as follows:

  1. Renewable energies, nuclear energy, global warming…
  2. Pollution, health and longevity-related issues, biodiversity
  3. Social, economic and human right aspects
  4. Preparedness and resilience of public institutions in cases of crises

If you’re interested to apply to speak, please let me know.

5.) The opposite of a little learning

One person who cannot be said to suffer from a “little” learning is Oxford polymath scientist, philosopher, and transhumanist Anders Sandberg.

He’s one of the most widely informed people that I know.

Anders is giving a talk on Tuesday evening (2nd February) to the prestigious Royal Institute in London. Here’s an excerpt from the meeting description:

We are already seeing the impact of automation on the job market. Presently, machine intelligence is only domain-specific, but ultimately it will greatly exceed the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest. As such ‘super-intelligent’ systems develop, what jobs would humans have? Will there be any value to human life at all in such a scenario?

There is still time. The next few decades are critical for humankind – not least because of looming ecological, military and economic crises – but principally because we will need to design a future where humans and machines can live in harmony and synchronicity. Anders Sandberg of the Future of Human Institute at Oxford will explore how it is not only machines that we must be responsible for reprogramming, but indeed our own selves. As artificial intelligence replaces the role of the ‘specialist’, it is multidimensional minds, or polymaths, that will become indispensable.

The Royal Institute website has more information, as well as links to register. I’m expecting it to be a cognitive feast – with important implications for the future of humanity.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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