Nov 04 2012

Upcoming Humanity Plus Conference On Writing — An Interview With Natasha Vita-More

Humanity Plus is sponsoring a conference on “Writing The Future” in San Francisco on December 1 – 2.  Among those presenting are Aubrey de Grey, Natasha Vita-More, Jamais Casio, Ben Goertzel, Max More, Sonia Arrison and David Brin.  Oh, and me.  I’m looking forward to it.

I interviewed Natasha Vita-More, Chairman of Humanity Plus, about the upcoming event and about the topic of writing

R.U. Sirius: What inspired you (and H+)  to  choose Writing The Future as this year’s theme?

Natasha Vita-More:I started thinking about the abbreviations of language and how human language grew out of symbols and how our cognitive abilities to imagine, problem-solve, and innovate has advanced. Yet, somehow we have reverted back to simple marks. This is easy and quick, and can be a lot of fun. It is also indicative of a tendency to quick-fix explanations and directions. Even though this can marvelously suffice for more lengthy bits of information, often they do not. A distinct amount of misinformation can be cut and paste into a new documents without references and often without contextualization, leaving readers to assume one thing or another, rather than the original meaning of the information, or the author’s original intend, and from which the knowledge sprung. Sometimes writers get it right – like Kevin Kelly, and sometimes they lead us off into the wilds of hyperbole, or second and third hand reporting. Having spent 20+ years writing about future-oriented ideas, I can identify my own lack of in-depth reporting. And having been interviewed for major publications for the same amount of time, I recognize how others misquoted me and even put words in my mouth. Fact checkers often avoid the obvious mistakes, even if you spell them out very clearly to them, if the article’s keywords beckon a high price from the publisher. This past year, I was hired by MIT Publishing to review another writer’s book on the future, and which covered transhumanist ideas. I noticed an excessive amount of mistakes in content and referential information. I also read a number of books and articles that were beautifully written and where the authors had taken the time to actually interview the people whose ideas they were covering.  This type of first hand reporting is valuable and we need more of it, rather than second hand—where a writer reads someone else’s book and then borrows the ideas into a new narrative, and then a third writer comes along and does the same, until it become a game of telephone-tag and we all know what happens to the content of sentence structure.

Several years ago, I started working on my own book where I am a co-editor and a contributing author. The book is titled The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology and Philosophy of the Human Future (Wiley-Blackwell 2013) and has 40+ essays by seminal thinkers. Our aim was to produce a book that does its best to get it right — to provide a reliable source of information for students, teachers, and the public who want learn about transhumanist ideas from the lips of those who either initiated a concept or formally contributed to the development of a concept.

The Humanity+ @ San Francisco was discussed by members of Humanity+. I pitched the idea of “writing” because I thought it would tie into the brain trust of San Francisco, our h+ Magazine, and the many transhumanists who are published authors — from science fiction, journalism, blogging, fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, comics, etc. et al.  The quality and scope of transhumanist writers is amazing!

RUS: How would you compare the power of the written word to create the future to the power of visual medias?

NVM:  I would compare them equally. Images are powerful influencers: what we see has a profound effect on what we do. Psychologists suggest that around 93% of our ability to communicate is based on nonverbal signifiers, such as visual images, and that our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than written words. Historically, the human brain favors images and we identify with certain shapes, such as the circle or the monolith or arrow. Environments that have wide-open vistas make us feel inspired and often shapes that are juxtaposed closely together make us feel anxious. Since human communication has evolved over some 30,000 years or so, and most of this was not verbal or written language, a visual is often easier to comprehend than a sentence or paragraph, not to mention James Joyce’s Ulysses.

But if we talk about the power of words, they can far exceed the implications of an image. How could I have drawn the paragraph I just wrote? It would have to look like a Hieronymus Bosch painting or series of Kandinsky symbols, or a swirling impression of Pollack.  Images influence who we are, how we behave, and what we do; but the written word takes us inside and often equally as deeply and passionately, and sometimes more so.

Painting, graphic design, architecture, and sculpture whisper in our ears certain sentiments that are unique to us as the viewer or observer. But reading a passage is heard in our own heads through our own voices, and intimately so.

One thing to consider though is a person’s sensorial abilities. For example, someone who is dyslexic cannot always see the words clearly and an image is more convenient and familiar. Likewise, a person who is visually inept often prefers the articulation of words as not symbolic representations of reality, but actually factual meanings.

RUS:  Same question: How would you compare the role of the writer in making the future to that of the scientist and/or technologist?

NVM:  The writer has an advantage because s/he is writing for an audience and the scientist is usually tucked away in a lab.  The writer, like everyone else, has an agenda:  to report, explain, remark, critique, praise, politicize, and/or exaggerate, for example. If a reader is smart, s/he can recognize a writer’s style and reputation and objectify the content for what they write and how they write it. But sometimes writers are crafty and the readers are naïve. This is where things can heat up!

RUS:  Who is your favorite novelist and why?

NVM: Jane Austin is my favorite novelist because she is compelling. The characters are timeless. Even though you didn’t ask, I’d like to add my second favorite novelist:  Herman Hesse.  He was a major influence on my life. I started reading him when I was a teenager and absorbed each book hungrily.  I read every single book and some many times. Each story is a journey about self-discovery. Siddhartha, Journey to the East, The Glass Bead Game, Steppenwolf —each one in my mind, is a wide-open vista to reflect on life and journey.

RUS:  Who is your favorite nonfiction writer and why?

NVM:  I think that my favorite nonfiction writer changes at each stage in my life, depending on what I want to learn. Many years ago it was Pearl S. Buck, and later it was Nietzsche. Over the past many years it has been Kevin Kelly because he is an insightful investigator, a reliable reporter, and his writing always seems to stem from his first hand experiences.

Oct 16 2011

100 Plus: An Accessible Look At The Longevity Revolution

Sonia Arrison’s book, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith is a look at the oncoming longevity revolution written in a style that is accessible to average readers who may not be part of the transhuman early adopters club.

Covering everything from desktop organ printing to Cynthia Kenyon’s successful work discovering lifespan regulating genes to Aubrey de Grey’s efforts to “engineer negligible senescence, 100 Plus does an excellent job of rounding up all the projects and advances that are likely leading us towards hyperlongevity while also covers the possible social, economic and political effects that longevity is having — and will have — on humans. But let’s have her tell it.

I interviewed Arrison via email.

RU SIRIUS: Your book is written towards a general audience.  What would you say to the more transhumanist types — many of whom frequent this site — to entice them into your book?

SONIA ARRISON: I think there’s a lot in the book that will appeal to transhumanists. 100 Plus begins with a history of the human drive for longevity, takes a look at the current science, and then dives into a discussion of family relations, economics, and religion in a longer-lived world. The book ends with a discussion of who is leading us into this exciting new era and calls on those with an interest to get involved.

RU: What technological development would you single out as the most promising one in terms of expanded biological lifespan for humans?

SA: The most promising area for expanding human healthspan is regenerative medicine, which includes the techniques of gene therapy and tissue engineering, both of which have demonstrated powerful human successes so far.  Gene therapy has been used to cure blindness and cancer in humans, and it has shown the ability to slow down aging and age-related diseases in lab animals. Tissue engineering is also super-exciting, since it offers the ability to build new organs for those that have worn down, like a heart or a lung.  Already, scientists have grown and successfully transplanted human organs, such as bladders and windpipes, for patients in need.  Human hearts and lungs have not been completed yet, but promising work in lab animals suggests it will be possible.

RU: What cultural development would you say most reflects this oncoming change?

SA: This could be answered in a few ways.  First, baby boomers are now visibly aging and many are looking for a cure to the problem.  As a generation, they’ve driven a lot of change and their collective biological plight is increasing interest in this field.

Second, because biology is becoming an information technology, it opens it up to the engineering culture of the tech community.

Looking at human repair from an engineering perspective, rather than from the traditional biological perspective, has caused a change in the way we go about solving various health problems.

RU: What — if anything — might stop the trend toward hyperlongevity?

SA: I don’t think anything will stop it in the long run, but there are a lot of things that could slow it down to the point that some of us alive today won’t be able to benefit.  For instance, government agencies like the FDA do not recognize aging as a disease.  This makes it difficult for scientists and companies to produce effective agents to slow aging, which is the number one risk factor for many debilitating diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

RU: Is current interest in radical life extension largely limited to people who are economically privileged, relatively speaking?  Or put more colorfully, what do you think the Chinese factory worker who made my iPad would say to an offer to live another 130 years?

SA: Living longer and healthier is a universal and perennial human desire. In the case of a Chinese factory worker, I think the more relevant question is whether he or she will be able to afford life extension technologies.

RU: Let’s follow up on that one. What do you think is likely to happen with the availability of maximum health and longevity to people of average or even low incomes?

SA: That depends on which technology hits the market first and how much it costs to provide.  It is worth noting at this point that there are already large divides in life expectancy around the world and even within the United States.  Within the US, Native American males in South Dakota have a life expectancy of 58 years, compared with Asian females in New Jersey, with a life expectancy of 91 years. Internationally, the gap is even larger.  A person living in Monaco can expect around 89 years, whereas someone living in Angola can only expect 38 years. That’s a 51 year difference – almost an entire lifetime.  If wealthier people and nations have access to the technology first, which they will, they will also have larger economic gains, because they will be able to be productive for longer periods of time.  So, the disparity between individuals and nations could grow more than we’ve ever seen before.  The one potential reason for some optimism on this point is that new technology is spreading faster than ever before, so the technology delay between those on the leading edge and those on the lagging edge may shrink.  Think, for instance, of how countries without large landline phone systems simply skipped that step and went straight to cell phones.  Historically, the distribution of new technology has been speeding up, not slowing down.

RU: You get into an area that might be controversial among transhumanists and singularitarians — the idea that those who embrace these philosophies have some similarities with religious believers. Could you expand on this idea?

SA: I argue in the book that religion will not fade away as we get further away from death.  That’s because there is more to religion than a promise of the afterlife.  Religion also speaks to the purpose of life.  Why are we here, what is the good life, and how should we live our lives?  These are questions that religion is well positioned to help answer.  If we look at religion as something that has a number of required elements, such as explaining the purpose of life and offers of transcendence, one can see these themes in movements like singularitarianism.  I point out in the book that one of the leaders in the singularity movement, Ray Kurzweil, offers up many of these elements.  The singularity, according to Kurzweil, is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”  He also has an answer for the purpose of life.  He says that the purpose of the universe “reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.”  There are other elements besides these two that make something a religion according to scholars who study this area, and I detail it in the book.  The bottom line is that not all transhumanists or singularitarians are religious, but there are some who do fit the category.

RU: When and how do you think we’ll know that we’re able to live to 150 or 300?  In other words, the year radical life extension is likely to be recognized and how we’ll know without waiting around 100 years to see if a 50-year-old makes it to 150?

SA: If scientists were able to use gene therapy to slow down aging in humans, as they have in lab animals, then the onset of the diseases of aging would happen at later and later ages.  Later onset of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease would be a good sign that the technology was successful and that human life span is about to break Jeanne Calment’s 122 year record.  When will we get there?  That’s tough to predict.  Gene therapy is only now coming out of the funk that it was in due to some early failures.  That said, because of the enormous successes that have already occurred in the field of tissue engineering, it seems likely that we will have the ability to replace many of our organs while we are waiting for holy grail solutions like gene therapy to slow overall aging, so the future looks pretty good.

Jul 20 2011

I Predict That My Predictions Will Be Proven Wrong

“Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic…”


Tonight, the audio podcast “Future Forward” will be uploading an interview with myself, Sonia Arrison and George Dvorsky.  Before doing the interview (twice, but that’s a whole other story) we were informed that we would be talking about likely human enhancements 25 years from now.

This got me thinking about the nature of predicting the future and the transhumanist project.  I began to wonder how accurate the predictions made by “futurists” 25 years ago would look today.  My unscientific sense (based on my admittedly faulty memory) is that most predictions made 25 years ago were probably either way too optimistic or way too pessimistic.  I can remember, for instance, when the very existence of genetic engineering seemed to hold a near future promise of mega-cures for the worst diseases.  Now we’ve got the whole genome and curing — for example — cancer is still a work in progress.  Thirty years ago, the future was in space colonization.  By 1986, disillusionment had already set it. (I suppose a study of futurist predictions made in 1986 is in order.  Meanwhile, Singularity Hub provides these predictions of the future from the 1960s.  The results are mixed… and amusing.)

In terms of people being too optimistic or pessimistic, the latter half of the 20th Century was filled with promises of utopia and/or apocalypse.  Indeed, the design theorist Buckminster Fuller made the case that it was going to be one or the other.  And yet, we seem instead to have muddled through, at least so far.

So on the one hand, I fear that those of us whose hopes have been raised by the transhumanist project may find ourselves 25 years hence still awaiting hyperlongevity, molecular engines of creation, really smart bots and so on.

On the other hand, assuming the technological ducks are in a row and astounding technological developments already in progress should be bearing magnificent fruit within 25 years, I find myself — in this age of massive oil spill disasters, crazy weather, announcements that the oceans are dying, and natural disasters rubbing up against nuclear power plants — wondering whether we will arrive at 2036 intact and without having encountered major disruption.

On the whole, the potential for environmental havoc that is disruptive enough to cancel the future seems to be a taboo subject in most transhumanist circles.  Indeed, Ray Kurzweil claims to have charted how two world wars and an economic depression didn’t seriously impede exponential growth in information processing power.  But the death of the oceans?

Of course, many transhumanist advocates will rise up to defend the memeplex by arguing that the science behind those predictions is all wrong.  People choose the science they want to believe and find the arguments — and even the statistics — to support their views. Of course, they could be right.

Am I becoming a pessimist?  I hope not.  I prefer to be agnostic on the optimism v. pessimism question.  Some otherwise hardcore rationalists argue that we should be optimistic because it generates positive action.  It’s also been shown that people with strong spiritual faith tend to be healthier and to live longer. (I’m just sayin’). Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic, because it tells me that this person is trying to deal honestly with things as they are rather than as they want them to be.

Meanwhile, on the Fast Forward show, I tossed out a brief challenge to the whole predicting thing and then let myself get carried along in the “what if” scenarios.  Ok, I’ll admit it. If nothing else, speculating can be fun.