Resources for turbulent times

Dear Futurists,

I would prefer to start by sharing good news. However, the elephant in the room (or we might say, the bear in the room) can no longer be ignored.

What’s happening in Ukraine is gut-wrenching. It’s a sharp slap in the face for those of us who had hoped that humanity could navigate a fairly smooth path to a future of sustainable superabundance.

The possibility of horrific exchanges of nuclear weapons has lurked in the background of public thinking ever since the drama of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. I’m reminded of widespread existential dread in the early 1980s as intermediate range nuclear weapons accumulated in Europe, with Tomahawk cruise missiles squaring off against SS20 ballistics. In recent days, with the prospect of a hot clash between NATO and Russian forces, similar scenarios have burst back into the forefront of people’s thinking. One example: a well-known member of the Effective Altruist community, Robert Wiblin, has published a list of 17 “possible triggers” that he says could prompt him to relocate as fast as possible out of London and possibly even out of the UK, lest nuclear explosions target London.

Alongside the threat of nuclear holocaust, the wanton violence inflicted on citizens throughout Ukraine reminds us of the precarious nature of human civilisation. In any case, Ukraine is by no means the only location in the world where indiscriminate slaughter is being inflicted by tyrants and their mercenaries.

Whilst the world is becoming better, according to many metrics of prosperity, it is simultaneously becoming more treacherous. Various factors can combine together with terrible results:

  • Perceptions in some quarters – with some justification – that groups of people, or individual countries, are being “left behind” in a fast-changing world, and are being denied due respect and value
  • Access to various lethal “weapons of mass destruction”
  • Psychological patterns that, in some cases, incline people toward extreme risk-taking
  • Distortions in media and information flow that lead populations into highly warped perceptions
  • Adverse “game theory” interactions in which steps that are individually logical add up to horrendous overall conclusions.

In the midst of such turbulence, we can applaud bravery and heroism. Righteous anger is entirely understandable. But we also need cool minds and clear thoughts. London Futurists will continue in its mission to draw attention to resources and ideas that can help all of us to weigh up the opportunities and risks of potential courses of action.

And that brings me to a couple of minor milestones.

1.) Six dates for your diaries

If I look at the Upcoming Events page on the London Futurists meetup, I see something I’ve never seen before: no fewer than six upcoming events are in our diary.

I’m biased, but I consider all six events to be addressing really important topics. If you click on the links for the various events, to find more information, I hope you’ll agree.

A second minor milestone also deserves a quick mention: membership of the London Futurists meetup clicked past the 9,000 mark yesterday.

Thanks to everyone who has demonstrated interest and support in our goals and activities!

2.) Whatever happened to… flying cars, atomically precise assembly, abundant energy…?

Our event this Saturday, 19th March, features engineer and writer J. Storrs Hall talking about themes from his recent book Where is my flying car?

I’ve been listening to the audio version of the book, and am presently about 75% of the way through it. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

J. Storrs Hall knows a great deal about the history of flying cars. He refutes many of the stock answers I have tended to give people, whenever they asked me a question about apparently flawed futurist forecasts from decades past about the kind of technology consumers would be enjoying in the 2020s.

But the book is much more than a discussion of flying cars. It addresses what the writer views as “failures of nerve” and “failures of imagination” concerning other breakthroughs that he believes were well within our collective grasp, but which we have, so far, bungled:

  • Molecular scale assembly – the type of nanotechnology envisioned by Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler
  • Safe, abundant, atomic energy
  • Profound advances in healthcare which nanotechnology innovations would have enabled

I don’t always entirely agree with what’s in the book, but I am finding it riveting.

If we wish to see a world of sustainable superabundance sooner rather than later, we need to understand what has blocked progress in the past, and what is still blocking it today. We can’t simply reassure ourselves that society is advancing faster than ever before. As the book ably points out, such a reassurance is far from being a complete picture.

3.) Progress and opportunities: the Vital Syllabus

I have prepared some scene-setting slides which I’ll be sharing later today (Tuesday 15th March) at our open discussion event “The Vital Syllabus: Plans and Opportunities”.

The background to this event is that every serious discussion about significantly improving the future turns into a serious discussion about the need to significantly improve education.

That’s my conclusion from hosting London Futurists events for thirteen years, and from researching, writing, and editing ten books about the future.

In the second half of last year, I created an online skeleton for what I call the Vital Syllabus, namely, a reliable source of educational material covering the most important skills and principles for people to flourish in the 2020s and beyond. These are the skills and principles that are particularly relevant in our age of multiple pressures, dizzying opportunities, daunting risks, and accelerating disruption.

The Vital Syllabus project is now building more momentum. This online gathering is an open meeting covering:

  • Why this project is urgently needed
  • Recent progress made – and issues encountered
  • Suggestions about the best ways forward
  • How the “group intelligence” of London Futurists can improve the chance of the project being successful.

Click here for more information about this open discussion event and to register to take part.

4.) The Rise and Implications of AGI: Survey Report

Earlier this year, contacts of Fast FutureLondon Futurists, and the UK node of the Millennium Project were invited to participate in an online survey “The Rise and Implications of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)”.

A total of 199 responses were received, from 42 countries spanning six continents. The results were fascinating – and provocative. The report is still be being prepared, but will be released shortly.

On Saturday 2nd April, in a joint webinar, Rohit Talwar of Fast Future and I will host a conversation about the key findings and points of agreement/disagreement arising from this survey:

  • Points of contention
  • Points of strong agreement
  • Points of moderate agreement
  • Open questions
  • Plans for follow-up investigation

Topics covered will include:

  • Factors influencing the emergence of AGI – when, where, and who
  • Expected benefits from AGI
  • Expected risks from AGI
  • Options to steer or govern the rise and practice of AGI
  • Implications for business, the economy, and society at large

Click here for more information about this event and to register to attend.

Note: There will be two other opportunities to take part in events addressing aspects of the findings of this survey:

For more information about these other events, and to register (pick the times that work best for you), click on the links.

5.) Stepping into the Future: 23rd and 24th April

Adam Ford, a futurist based in Melbourne, Australia, and a long-time friend of London Futurists, is hosting a free two-day online event “Stepping into the Future” on the 23rd and 24th of April.

A great set of speakers are lined up to take part:

  • Anders Sandberg (Future of Humanity Institute)
  • Andres E. Gomez (Qualia Research Institute),
  • Ben Goertzel (OpenCog)
  • David Pearce (The Hedonistic Imperative),
  • James Hughes (Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technology),
  • Mike Johnson (Qualia Research Institute)
  • PJ Manney (Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technology)
  • Pramod K. Nayar (University of Hyderabad)
  • Stuart Armstrong (Future of Humanity Institute)

The talks will address four main topics:

  • The Future Human & the Posthuman
  • Paradise Engineering/Qualia Quality Control
  • Long-term Futures
  • Artificial Intelligence / Machine Understanding

I’ll be attending most of it – though there’s an unfortunate diary clash at the very beginning, since Elise Bohan will be giving a talk to London Futurists at the very same time: “Future Superhuman: Our transhuman lives in a make-or-break century”.

Click here for more information about “Stepping into the Future” and to register to take part.

6.) International Symposium on “We Have Always Been Cyborgs”

Finally, a few words from the website for a forthcoming (31st March) symposium on the ideas in the book We Have Always Been Cyborgs by Stefan Sorgner (who spoke on a similar topic at London Futurists in April last year):

This international symposium will bring together a group of internationally renowned thinkers, academics, and intellectuals to discuss, analyze and reflect upon suggestions about values, norms, and utopia, as they were presented in Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner‘s latest monograph entitled We Have Always Been Cyborgs (Bristol University Press 2022).

According to Julian Savulescu from the University of Oxford, We Have Always Been Cyborgs is an “eye-opening, wide-ranging and all-inclusive study of transhumanism. Sorgner’s account avoids both the utopian trap and the bogeyman spectre. He makes a compelling case for placing ourselves on the transhuman spectrum. How we continue to use technologies is in our hands. Sorgner’s book is both a comprehensive introduction to transhumanist thought and a clear-sighted vision for its future realization.”

N. Katherine Hayles from the University of California, Los Angeles adds further that “With an encyclopedic knowledge of transhumanism and a deep philosophical grounding, especially in Nietzschean thought, Stefan Sorgner tackles some of the most challenging ethical issues currently discussed, including gene editing, digital data collection, and life extension, with uncommon good sense and incisive conclusions. This study is one of the most detailed and comprehensive analyses available today. Highly recommended for anyone interested in transhumanist/posthumanist ideas and in these issues generally.”

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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3 Responses to Resources for turbulent times

  1. Hi David,

    Thank you for your interesting newsletter, as always. I’d like to register for the conference you mention in item 5 but I cannot seem to find a registration link or contact option anywhere; could you provide me a link or connect me to the organizers?

    Thank you in advance.

    Virtual Vibes, Yfke Laanstra +31(0)6-48380580 yfkelaanstra.com / yfkelaanstra.nl

    At the cutting edge of consciousness, computer technology and human potential

    Dare to Deviate Online Community Bits, Bytes & Bewustzijn (book)

    Reloading lost data_

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