Last weekend, amid biblical rains drenching the west coast, I went to the Humanity Plus conference in San Francisco, along with my bright-eyed friend Dian. Thanks to the magic of the Internet and a service that directly links people in need of a place to stay with homeowners willing to rent out a couch or a room, we stayed in a home a couple of miles away from the SF State University campus, where the event was being held.
Our host, herself a poet and fiction writer, had put a dream dictionary by the bedside, so that before going to bed I could peruse what it meant to have a snake slither surreptitiously through my unconscious, or perhaps a cyborg send electrotelepathic messages. A useful reference for Humanity Plus, where we listened to presentations on superintelligent AI, life extension velocity, spawning neural nets, space lasers, and even the humble bumblebee as an example of Moravec’s paradox (why simple things seem so damn hard to automate).
Several of the speakers cautioned the assembled trans-somethings to look around, pay attention to existing reality, recognize the astounding features already present in our lives today. As an example, Christine Peterson pointed to the humble and ubiquitous Internet, saying simply “I’m already living in a science fiction world.” For those of us who grew up with card catalogs, travel agents, and file clerks, the net itself is a truly disruptive technology, more so than any spaceship – and is already accepted as part of the landscape.
Annalee Newitz of io9 and James Hughes of IEET encouraged us to take the long view, recognize the physical and cultural past, connect the dots and the centuries, and remember the living, breathing, contradictory, and often suffering human beings who are on the planet. Annalee, who is working on a book based on deep time (Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction), used the concepts of geologic time (billions of years), species time (millions), and human time (a century) as units of comparison for the future. As she wrote in a recent article, “We need to think about the future as a set of overlapping timelines.”
Everyone alive today is familiar with the pace of technological change, when every decade brings new wonders; that’s our frame of reference, our given standard. Without a view of long time, we confuse what can be accomplished in a measuring unit – for example, even though we anthropomorphs are pushing climate change in decades, it takes geologic time for the Earth to adapt, not years or decades. In that context, looking ahead to transformative times, “we should set near-term goals (50-100 years) as futurists based on science that is known now.”
In other words, don’t rely upon the “magic nano-box doctrine,” as James Hughes said, to solve all our problems. Accelerating technology may lead to a bright future, but one step at a time. Work on today’s problems with today’s solutions.
The magic curve of exponential change was much less the focus than it is at Singularity Summit meetings. Instead, following the theme (writing about the future), we heard many exhortations to listen to and speak to a broad audience, rather than creating or perpetuating a techno-echo chamber, or as David Brin put it, living in a “self-referential community.” As he has said elsewhere, it is possible to talk to your neighbors, who are probably afraid of the change that is happening all around, and exhorted us to use stories such as the Tower of Babel, which he explores in his recent novel (Existence) and in a talk at the Singularity Summit 2011.
In the 2011 presentation Brin said “One of the problems we face are waves of nostalgia… in an era when science and the very notion of progress are under attack, we do need to keep fighting for a modern, courageous, ambitious, problem-solving civilization. That’s a daunting task.” At Humanity Plus he cautioned against assuming that ideas about radical technological change will be easily or simply accepted; even Michael Crichton’s novels are an example of a pervasive “renunciationism” which has been adopted by the far political right. Toynbee is instructive here, he says. “Civilizations that ignore their creative minority are the ones that have perished.”
Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the recent solar-system-wide novel 2312 and the Mars series, continued this humanistic approach to the future. “We will never be transhuman. We will always be human. We are never trans, and never post. [The future] has to be for everybody. It can’t be an escape hatch for affluent westerners.” Robinson is openly skeptical about many of the further speculations of techno-dreamers, such as artificial intelligence, mind-mapping, and uploading, warning against turning SF “into a a prophecy, a kind of hucksterism.”
“Technology is the way we manipulate the environment, including language, law, justice” – these are the human environments, the society around us, the human beings who live, dream, and suffer every day. His novel 2312 exemplifies the near-term approach to hard SF, and even if in the novel there are “quantum walk” streams of consciousness and implanted exo-bacteria, in a sense he is doing what we might call XF, Extrapolation Fiction – that pushes forward with current science and technology, but does not veer into speculation or science fantasy.
Several times during the conference the topic of longevity (or life extension) came up. The transhumanist community seems to believe strongly in the imminent prospect of effective physical immortality, and at the same time is reticent to speak of it. No wonder: the word immortality carries a heavy religious freight and unscientific other-worldly transcendence. Aubrey de Grey, speaking of his work with SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), said that in reality “The longevity benefits are just a side effect.” Still, “negligible senescence” or the more recent description of “robust rejuvenation” means that people will not get old. So, well, really long life – and with exponential technical/medical progress, that effectively means immortality.
But Aubrey de Grey makes one telling point: improvements are going to be rapid, because in the field of longevity research, improvements all look to be incremental: they don’t require a fundamental breakthrough. So one can reasonably extrapolate into the near future (5-15 years) in the same way that one can do for information technology, genetics, and other areas.
That’s a crucial idea when pondering futures that may include healthy 150-year-olds, or 3D printing, gray goo, biological avatars, synthetic biology, geo or germ-line engineering. How do we wrap our 3-pound gray matter around these possibilities, place them in the category of science fantasy, as Peterson put it, vs reasonable expectations? Aubrey de Grey uses a good rule of thumb: is the prediction based on known technology and science, or does it depend upon fantastic advances (mapping the human brain down to the molecular level) or non-science (faster-than-light travel)?
The answers aren’t always apparent, and they are changing fast. Machine learning, neural nets, and deep learning have had striking success in the last five years, and are now being used for classifying cancer cells or recognizing objects. Work on mapping the human brain, the “connectome,”
is moving forward, but still has daunting hurdles, and is prone to exaggeration (David Dalyrmple noted that the claim a few years ago by Dharmendra Modha and IBM that they had “exceeded the scale of the cat cortex” in simulation was wildly off the mark – on analysis they had modeled each neuron as a single yes/no logic gate, which by any measure is thousands to millions of times simpler than actual neurons. As Dalyrmple put it, they hadn’t even reached the level of a cockroach, let alone a cat.
Then again, there were some brain-bending far-ranging presentations, such as Ben Goertzel’s description of “Psynese,” a possible way for artificial intelligence (or future humans) to communicate. They or we would send a thought, peer-to-peer or mind-to-mind, packaged with an intelligent agent which would translate the thought into the mind-stuff of the recipient. Very cool. I want one! “In the future, a linguistic utterance is going to be a mind focusing on particular content, and translating it into forms for comprehension by various recipient minds.” Ultimately, this would “weave groups of minds into a kind of collective mind, a global brain.” Uber-cool.
For an introduction to his ideas on this, see the online version of his book, The Path To Posthumanity. Goertzel has many intriguing discussions of consciousness, mind, and the spirit as well, for example his recent “AGI, Consciousness, Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
Even as he indulges his wandering bumblebee tendency to cover broad ranges of thought in a single flight, Goertzel retains a practical humility. “If you are smart, you can see into the future using the power of intuition and reason. But not very far.” The unknown is still the unknown; as Peterson put it, scientists don’t like to make predictions about future science, for the very reason that the discoveries are still in the future – if they could predict it, the science would already be known.
The other person at Humanity Plus who bounces gleefully between exhortations for scientific rigor and flights beyond the beyond is Annalee Newitz. At a pre-conference event in Borderlands Books (a must-see destination for any serious SF fan, where you will get deliriously entranced by pulp postcards, authors past and future, and an atmosphere of Otherness, not unlike io9), she framed the discussion about futuristic writing in three categories: dystopian, aspirational, and realistic.
Of the dystopian, we’ve certainly had enough since the eighties to last a few lifetimes, in my opinion. There’s a limit to the fiction value of shock-gore. For all the bad-boy antics of cyberpunk, it has dominated pages and screens long enough. Although Neal Stephenson’s call last year for a heroic fiction to build the future may be not strictly necessary to motivate tomorrow’s engineers, still, maybe up and coming writers should consider Newitz’ second approach: aspirational futurism.
There’s a deep appeal to this more positive way of describing the future. As she put it, it is based on trends we see now – and encourages people to have hope. Then again she noted, “Even the very idea that we will be here in the future is itself profound.” The most dystopian novel, with cyborgs cohabitating with humanity 1.0 on a post-nuclear earth still has humanity – and so, hope. Keep in mind that Newitz also says “I’d love for my offspring to be octopuses on another planet.” Her mind definitely has a weirdness coefficient, as Stross would say, that is off the scale…
James Hughes, the editor of IEET gave a rapid-fire, moving, and literate call to action for aspiring future leftists, citing Prometheus and Pandora, Gilgamesh, then moving on to Heinlein, Mieville, Stross, Brin, and Robinson. “We need more stories that place us in the flow of time,” he said, urging everyone to have a historical sense of both fiction and events. (On Friday night, he also linked the question of increasing automation, humans competing with machines, and the global human rights movement. (You can watch the video here.
We can fool ourselves when thinking and planning for the future, Hughes cautioned. Beware of four cognitive biases: over-optimism, over-pessimism, fatalism, and magical thinking (messianism). Eleizer Yudkowsky has made it a cottage industry to speculate on “friendly (superhuman) AI,” but Hughes noted “The friendly AI idea is messianic magical thinking, seen through an apocalyptic lens.” In other words, stay grounded, look around, recognize history, humanity, and return to earth when you look ahead.
Looking at how change might occur in the future, he said that it’s more difficult to tell stories of collective action than it is to describe heroic individualism. The great man (or great dictator) theory of history is much more common – so we have more of these floating around in our heads and on the bookshelves. As writers, it is our job to do the hard work, citing Mieville’s Iron Council as an example of an evocation of the power of collective action.
James Cascio has brought the idea of collective action into the world, and affected millions in the process. Cascio is the founder of WorldChanging.com a project that is the natural grandchild of Brand’s Whole Earth Review. Although WorldChanging focuses on architecture, it is a wide-ranging, practical, and inspiring source for tools, projects, competitions, communities, education, and the environment. For anyone who thinks that idealism died in the sixties, check out the site or the book of the same title – and then roll up your sleeves.
Cascio ran through ten examples of how writers and futurists get it wrong, for example copying the ideas from the latest movie (Matrix brain-plugs! Star Wars space lasers!) to focusing only on technological change, and ignoring how people actually live and think. “How people live is the most important part…. We will have the same kinds of issues in the future that we’ve had for millennia.”
Even though he has been promoting positive futures for ten years through WorldChanging, he advises futuristic writers to include some screw-ups. “The street finds its own uses for things,” as William Gibson wrote. “The best kinds of narratives are about how you get from here to there, not just what there looks like.” In other words, even if you want to end up in Trekkian chrome and spandex, don’t forget to have a core meltdown once in a while, or have the replicator churn out a billion Tribbles.
P.J. Manney, the previous chair of Humanity Plus, spoke on the fundamental nature of storytelling. “Stories get in and crawl under the blanket of our skepticism,” so that in the end, “Your stories are futurism’s lifejacket.” They will engender thoughts, projects, ideals, and scientific work.
Once in a while over the weekend a sparkling critique would flash through. Perhaps my favorite moment was when David Brin enjoined us to read the post-modernist Francis Fukuyama, who “is very smart, and almost always wrong.” Post-modernism has a real chip on its existential shoulder when it comes to the actual, technical, scientific future, and never more in evidence than when railing against the realistic, positive attitudes of transhumanism or singularity thought.
RU Sirius, prankster, writer, and gadfly, contrasted cyberpunk with the positive futurism embodied in the audience, and talked about the role of writing in the twentieth century as “puncturing the smooth surface of advertising … now is the time to put [the darkness of cyberpunk] behind us, not show the dark visions.” But it depends on where we end up. “All of our hopes, our predictions, our dreams might get buried under the waves, literally, in which case it’s a different story than the hero’s journey.
On the second afternoon the sun came out, drenching the streets in golden light to match the enthusiasm at the conference, and off we went, writers, dreamers, scientists, futurists into the sun. And what will happen next… well, it’s a mystery.
Short summaries of each presentation are available, courtesy of Kris Notaro and IEET.
Day one morning James Hughes, David Orban, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Louie Helm, Fred Stitt, Keith Henson, Aubrey de Grey, Max More
Day one afternoon Annalee Newitz, RU Sirius, Natasha Vita-More, Ernesto Ramirez, Amy Li, George Dvorsky
Day two morning Ben Goertzel, David Dalrymple, Ramez Naam, Christine Peterson, David Pearce, Randal Koene, James Cascio, Reese Jones
Day two afternoon Adam Ford, PJ Manney, Michael Anissimov, Andrea Kusczewski, Desiree Dudley, David Bolinsky, Todd Huffman
Video is also available, (albeit a little grainy)