Key questions and key answers

Dear Futurists,

Two of the most important questions facing all of us just now are:

  1. How can we learn new skills?
  2. How can we pass on to others the skills that we know?

What prevents us learning new skills is that our minds are, often, already preoccupied by previous ways of doing things – ways that perhaps made sense in the past, but which are no longer well suited to the fast-changing circumstances of the present. Before we can learn, we have to unlearn. Before we can absorb important new information, we have to let go of some previous deeply held beliefs. But that’s hard!

What prevents us sharing new skills with others is that we fail to appreciate what’s going on inside the brains of the people we’re trying to teach. We may think we are saying all the right words, and our audience seems to be listening, but the end result isn’t what we expected. Old habits, old customs, and old ideas remain in place, despite the information we thought we had conveyed.

The good news is that, in both cases, the task can be aided by a better insights into human psychology. Nowadays, we understand the brain better than ever before. As a result of recent research, learning and teaching should be able to reach new levels of effectiveness.

For more details, read on.

1.) Embodied cognition – Tomorrow, Saturday 18th June

Understanding the mind and how thinking occurs has been a challenge for philosophers, scientists, theorists, educators, and artists throughout history. Until recently, ideas about how we learn have been mainly theoretical and intuitive. However, with ongoing advances in neuroscience, considerable progress is occurring. As a result, a paradigm shift is taking hold in human cognition, pointing to a new science-based understanding about the way we think and, ultimately, the way we learn.

This paradigm shift – a move away from traditional notions of the mind to an “embodied cognition” model of human thinking and learning – is the subject of an engaging new book Movement Matters: How Embodied Cognition Informs Teaching and Learning. Here’s an example of the advance praise the book has received:

How intimate are the links between mind, body, and movement? In this important and groundbreaking volume, research on the embodied mind suggests exciting new perspectives on teaching and learning. Essential reading for all those interested in evidence-led approaches to education

– Andy Clark – Professor of Cognitive Philosophy, University of Sussex; author of Being There and Surfing Uncertainty

Our London Futurists webinar tomorrow features the co-editors of this book:

  • Sheila L. Macrine, Professor, STEM Education & Teacher Development, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
  • Jennifer M.B. Fugate, Associate Professor, Department of Health Service Psychology, Kansas City University

Professors Macrine and Fugate will be highlighting key implications of their research for the future of teaching and learning, and answering questions raised by audience members.

For more details about this event and to register to attend, click here.

You may also be interested in this recent Frontiers In Education article co-written by tomorrow’s two speakers. Among other topics, the article explores why the educational establishment is sometimes slow in updating its methods in the light of new scientific research. This is described as “minding the (brain) gap” – in an echo of announcements that will be familiar to users of London’s Underground train system.

2.) Anticipating and managing cataclysmically disruptive technologies

On the subject of unlearning, learning, and sharing crucial insights, what set of insights could be more crucial than those which could improve our collective anticipation and management of cataclysmically disruptive technologies?

I’m referring to the rise and rise of NBIC technologies (nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech), and, potentially overtaking everything, the rise of AGI (artificial general intelligence).

If human minds remain preoccupied by outdated ideas about the tremendous risks and opportunities these technologies raise, we’ll be in a thoroughly bad state.

I’ve made many attempts over the years to help raise the calibre of public discussion about such technologies. I like to think I’ve had some successes. But nothing like as much as is needed.

So I’m now trying a different approach. It’s a new, short book (around 50 thousand words), entirely focused on that topic. Once the book is published, I’ll follow up quickly with an audio version, and with videos that illustrate the content.

In this book, I’ve tried to cover, via various analogies and examples, topics such as:

Critically, I’ve set out what I call “The Singularity Principles”, namely 21 principles that are designed:

  • To steer humanity’s relationships with fast-changing technologies,
  • To manage multiple risks of disaster,
  • To enable the attainment of remarkable benefits,
  • And, thereby, to help humanity approach a profoundly positive singularity.

These principles split into four areas:

  1. Methods to analyse the goals and outcomes that may arise from particular technologies
  2. The characteristics that are highly desirable in technological solutions
  3. Methods to ensure that development takes place responsibly
  4. Evolution and enforcement:
    • How the overall set of recommendations will evolve further over time
    • How to increase the likelihood that these recommendations are applied in practice rather than simply being some kind of wishful thinking.

I encourage members and friends of London Futurists to click on one or more of the above links, and read the pre-publication previews of as many of the chapters of the book as catch your attention.

If you would prefer to browse through a PDF pre-publication version of the entire book, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

I will be grateful for any feedback:

  • Aspects of the book that I should consider changing
  • Aspects of the book that you particularly like.

I will also appreciate any commendations or endorsements, which I can include with the publicity material for the book, to encourage more people to pay attention to it.

The timescale I have in mind: I will release electronic and physical copies of the book some time later this month (June), followed soon afterward by an audio version.

Therefore, if you’re thinking of dipping into any chapters to provide feedback and/or endorsements, the sooner the better!

Thanks in anticipation!

3.) The Economic Singularity Course – 20% discount for London Futurists

Here’s another experiment in the grand project to spread better awareness of the profound risks and opportunities posed by new technologies.

Friends of London Futurists in the Economic Singularity Foundation have created an online course: “The Economic Singularity Course”. It’s going to be running for ten live sessions, of one hour each, starting on 25th July.

Here’s the online synopsis for the course:

In the past, automation has boosted productivity, and therefore wealth – and in turn, employment. But past automation has mostly been mechanisation – the use of machines to replace human or animal muscle power. Increasingly, AI and other technologies are causing cognitive automation, with machines taking over tasks previously carried out by doctors, lawyers, drivers, telemarketers, and others.

Cognitive automation and its exponential growth have resulted in many implications. The exponential improvement of machine intelligence means it will cover a greater range of jobs cheaper, better and faster. Technological Unemployment is no longer a far-fetched reality, and observers think it will happen within one or two generations.

Exponential growth is shockingly fast, so policymakers should take the idea seriously now, rather than waiting to see if it happens.

Click here to read more about the course, and the six lecturers who will be sharing content.

And if you register, you can mention “London Futurists” on the online form, to receive a 20% discount on the early bird price.

4.) The UN’s report “Our Common Agenda” – opportunity to provide feedback

I’ve been reading the UN Secretary General’s recent report “Our Common Agenda”.

It comes in two flavours: a summary, which is two and a half pages long, and the full report, which is 86 pages. The following diagram is from the longer version (click on the diagram to see a higher resolution version).

The report leaves me with mixed feelings.

Some parts are bland, and could be considered “virtue signalling”.

But other parts offer genuinely interesting suggestions, including:

  1. A Summit of the Future
  2. Improved mechanisms for long-term governance of the global commons
  3. Establishing a UN Futures Lab
  4. Issuing Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Reports on a regular basis
  5. Creating a Special Envoy for Future Generations

Other parts are significant by what is not said, alas. For example, there is very little coverage of the themes covered in my forthcoming new book The Singularity Principles mentioned above.

Happily, members of the UN staff are receiving feedback on the content of the report. Some of this feedback is being organised and curated by the Millennium Project.

This feedback is running via a Delphi process. That means you can view the comments made by previous respondents (without attribution of individual comments to individual reviewers), and that can in turn inspire you to improve your own comments.

This Delphi process is running up until 1st July. That means you have up to two weeks to find the time to take a quick look at the UN report and then answer the questions in the Delphi.

You can find the online questionnaire here. After entering your email address, and answering several demographic questions, enter OCA1 when asked to enter the study code.

You’ll find there are basically six sets of questions – one set each about each of the five points highlighted above. In each case, you’ll be asked how important you think the particular proposal is, what could help to make it successful, and what could make it more likely to fail. (The sixth set of questions is an opportunity to offer any wider comments that you have in mind.)

You do not have to respond to all the questions. Nor do you have to finish this questionnaire on one visit. You are welcome to come back several times to complete it. You will be able to read others’ comments (without attribution) and edit your responses as often as you like until the deadline of 1 July 2022.

All those who respond to this questionnaire will receive a summary of the results and will be listed in the appendix of the report to the Director of the Strategic Planning and Monitoring Unit in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, unless you request not to be included.  All answers are anonymous – no attributions will be made, unless you want to be quoted by adding your name to your answer.

The interface to the questionnaire is a bit clunky in places. But it’s worth being patient with it!

5.) Vital Foresight and the Crisis Portal – Episode 9 of Humanity Unshackled

Episode 9 of the audio podcast Humanity Unshackled was released a few days ago.

Here’s the description of the show from its landing page on

We may be only a membrane away – a few years away – from a technological watershed which could liberate us all and take us to places unimagined, or, with roughly equal chance, destroy us just when the prize of transcendence is in sight. It seems that a “crisis portal” may be coming into view for humanity, offering the options of paradise and Armageddon.

How should we react to that prospect? How can we jump through that portal safely, without being killed in the process? Is the very idea exaggerated and over-excited? Or are there solid reasons to anticipate an unprecedented transition happening within perhaps one or two generations?

These were the questions that started a wide-ranging discussion between the two hosts of Humanity Unshackled, Rusty Burridge and David Wood, in the ninth episode of the show.


// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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