Thursday, January 25, 2007

State of Mind

One of the reasons I write this is so that my infamy may live on longer than my frail, squidgy, human body. Seeing things like this (a remarkable way of displaying connections between great thinkers) and Noah’s face over six years project leads me to suspect that 1) there is a great deal I have to learn and 2) not much time to do it in. Sixty years sounds like a long time, and that’s all I can reasonably expect. I guess I might even live to see humanity ascend to a Kardashev type 1 civilization, or maybe even Kardashev scale 2. I was reassured to hear on today’s The Material World that if the potential iron wealth of the asteroid belt would, if distributed evenly amongst the people of Earth, would result in around $100 billion/person. This is reassuring because a gentleman called James Howard Kunstler has been making very persuasive arguments for a major alteration of our standard of living. Space is the answer, and space can only be achieved through concentrated technological advancement.

Geneology of Influence

Check out this amazing display of the interconnections between individuals in Wikipedia here. This is a beautiful way of exploring philosophical tradition.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Is Personal Wealth a Good Thing?

Here are a few things that have been on my mind for the past few days. At the moment I’m re-reading Learning the World by Ken MacLeod. It is superbly written, and assumes a degree of (admittedly fragile) civility in the (post-)humans of the future, in stark contrast to Stephen Baxter’s peculiarly pessimistic view of the future (Baxter disregards all possible human enhancement, and instead concentrates on natural human evolution, which has ceased to be a major factor in the future of humanity).

In the futuristic society MacLeod envisions in LtW humanity has spread out from the solar system and colonised several star systems. The method of colonisation involves launching vast generation ships (with indefinite longevity all of the original inhabitants survive to see the end of the trip. Once the ship arrives in a new system the youthful “ship generation” disassemble the asteroids, moons and minor planets and build a vast green sphere of space habitats around the new star. The original ship, divorced of its engines, turns into one of many habitats and the engines themselves are outfitted with raw materials, and become part of the first of many more ships to travel out to the next system to repeat the process.

Over the course of the journey, as more information about the destination system comes to light, there is much (monetary) speculation over the destinations system, with “resource futures” divvied up between members of the crew and passengers. MacLeod has explored the idea of an anarcho-capitalist society and the idea of an anarcho-socialist society in his previous (and excellent) Fall Revolution sequence.

All this has got me thinking about the nature of capitalism, the distribution of wealth, and the future of a posthuman humanity.

At the moment, in Britain and the USA there is a trend towards greater disparity in wealth, average incomes for the top 1% of the population in terms of wealth are increasing, whereas average incomes for the bottom 50% are remaining more or less static. Upper-middle-class people, who would be considered “well off” in another era now believe that they are “poorer” than they actually are. This is because of a combination of factors, including the greater visibility of the rich and their lavish lifestyles. This phenomenon is explored in depth in Stewart Lansley’s excellent book Rich Britain.

This book raises an interesting ethical question: is it fair (and is it just) that some can have so much and some can have so (comparatively) little?

From what I have absorbed on the subject there seem to be two broad schools of thought on the subject:

  1. People who believe that enormous individual wealth is good. These people argue that individuals who possess great wealth have grown assets (e.g. property, land, a business), worked hard, taken risks and deserve their wealth. People who believe this argue that these wealthy individuals pay enormous amounts of tax money (more than other individuals on more modest incomes pay over a lifetime), and also create employment in their businesses and in the services and products they consume. This is an opinion shared by Winwood Reade (see elsewhere in this text).
  2. People who believe that great personal wealth can only exist at the expense of other individuals. These people believe that the owners of capital are given too many advantages, way out of proportion to their actual contribution to society. People who believe this argue that the uber-rich can afford tax-havens and accountants who can hide their wealth and ensure that the uber-wealthy can pay as much, or as little, tax as they want.

My own opinions lie somewhere between these two extremes (although slightly closer to the first school of thought than the second – incidentally, check out The Political Compass for a much more rational description of how [relative] political views should be talked about, in contrast to the traditional left/right image), I believe that individuals should be given as many freedoms as possible, and that these freedoms should extend to things like access to top-quality education, healthcare and biological self-determination (see democratic transhumanism for what I mean by that last point).

I agree with Warren Buffett that inherited wealth is generally a bad thing (here engineered indefinite longevity would solve problems – if individuals never expect to die, they would have no desire to pass on their wealth to their offspring), but I believe the competitive and entrepreneurial spirit has done a great deal of good for humanity as a whole.

One of the more controversial aspects of the new breed of super wealthy has been highlighted by the recent record-high bonuses paid to bankers and financiers. I think that those who gain the most wealth should be the people who create the most wealth – the people for whom the platitudes of the first school of thought apply. I would probably include Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Howard Hughes (only because I have a soft spot for Howard Hughes – he was probably a most objectionable individual). In the process of making their fortunes, these individuals improved the lives of many other people, either through philanthropy (Philanthropist: a rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket – Ambrose Pierce The Devil’s Dictionary), or improvements in the standards of living brought about by their industrial actions.

However there are bankers and usurers who don’t so much create wealth as rearrange it, mostly so that it ends up in their pockets. I’m thinking of Carl Icahn, Mike Milken, and Phillip Green amongst others.

This trend of the rich getting richer and the middle-incomers staying the same without any detectable improvements brought about by the new super-rich may one day backfire, with greater controls put on the recently liberalised financial markets.

Also, I think the most essential question does not concern relative wealth in wealthy countries, but relative wealth between countries. Is it an immutable fact of life that there will always, somewhere, be poor people who must suffer in order for others to lead comfortable lives? Is the fact that there are a few uber-wealthy individuals a cause of the problems faced by poor countries?

I don’t think it is a fact of life. I believe that one day we will be able to arrange the matter of this Earth and this solar system is such a way that it can provide for each and every one of us a lifestyle that Bill Gates or George Soros could not buy today.

However until that time we are forced into considering whether a more authoritarian socialist-style redistribution of wealth might not be better for the time being.

Unfortunately “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” simply doesn’t work without an unacceptably powerful (and inevitably corrupt) state, and even when it is created it means that no one has any great need to excel, except for the empty promises of corrupt governments.

What about social democracy? I suspect that Tony Blair’s third way is a reasonably compromise between social justice and individual liberties. Aside from the Really Bad Idea Tony Blair has been a good premier, and has overseen one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history via the family tax credit system.

I think the middle class consensus of greater consumerism and aspiration that allowed the “third way” to work has broadly been a Good Thing, with the obvious (MASSIVE) problem of third-world poverty as the price-tag for cheap(-ish) designer clothes and nice coffee.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way I need to consider more personal things: I know that as an individual I can have very little influence on global affairs. I know it will make little difference if I recycle, or vote for a particular political party, or write a letter to my MP. I will do all of those things at one time or another, and will do so more out of principle than anything else.

However. Is it not my duty as a responsible citizen to extend my influence as wide and as high as I am capable and in doing so enact the changes I believe need to be undertaken? I’m not sure.

There is a difference between being faced with the abstract reality of a few wealthy people vs. the down-to-earth grinding poverty much of humanity is forced to live in and actually being offered the choice of wealth or power. Power corrupts. Good advice, so is the answer to water down power (through democracy) until its debilitating effect is destroyed?

What I’m trying to say is this: I am in a very fortunate position as a young, healthy, male in a progressive Western democracy. There are problems in the world that I feel I can have no effect on as an individual at the moment. I believe that I can amplify my positive effects through gaining large personal wealth (and incidentally having a good time into the bargain – money corrupts, see?), and ganging up with a load of other guilty people and trying to make a New and Better World. Which option should I take?

  1. Live an ethically and financially secure life as a middle-class writer/academic/engineer. Vote, recycle, minimise my carbon footprint, write to my MP, attend protests and try to shuffle through life without causing trouble or offence to anyone.
  2. Live a somewhat more exciting life as an entrepreneur. Make lotsa money and retire to try to force my idea of what a perfect world should be down various people’s word-holes.

Phrased like that, neither choice seems particularly appealing.

What about the Future?

Between now and the time when the cost of production goes down through magic nanotechnology, everyone is turned into an artificial genius, and everyone gets a butler robot in their own glittering space habitat and the present moment we will need to explore a few important questions:

  1. Is large personal wealth broadly a good thing or broadly a bad thing? Answer: broadly a good thing as long as the wealth is created in an entrepreneurial manner and the wealth is not derived from anything that is detrimental to society as a whole.
  2. Is capitalism, and the free market, broadly a good thing or broadly a bad thing? Answer: I’m not sure about capitalism, however the free market is a powerful resource allocation tool as well as being a necessary side-effect of personal liberty.
  3. Should corporations and limited companies continue to be granted the legal personhood they enjoy today? Answer: Yes, if only to allow for the legal personhood of AI and virtual humans. However corporations should be held to account to a much greater extent than they are today.
  4. Will democracy exist in a posthuman world? Can it exist? Should it exist? Answer: probably. Answer: Probably. Answer: Probably.
  5. Will a posthuman world be broadly libertarian or broadly socialist? Answer: a glib answer might be that as transhumanists seek to overcome the basic causes of human suffering, the very same thing the socialists and the liberals have been trying to do for three hundred years, then a future society will be libertarian, without a need for a state to nanny and bother and help and hinder. But really it depends on what kind of posthumanity various people end up with. Another way to phrase this question is: “will a posthuman world have an all-powerful state (or dominating organised body or group [to account for group minds {in as much as I can judge what a group mind would be like} etc]) that can override individual liberties to a great extent, or will a posthuman world be anarchistic?”

I understand that this is a somewhat rambling summary of some of my political and economic beliefs, I think I will re-write it a few times in the future.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Part of the cause of this speculation is that I have been re-reading Learning the World by Ken MacLeod (in which the segment of The Martyrdom of Man I placed above was quoted) and contrasting it with the equally splendid story The Mayflower II by Steven Baxter, in which a similar interstellar voyage as described in LTW turns out quite differently. Read both stories.


One of the things that bugs me about capitalism as a whole and specifically my own desire to be a (wealthy) entrepreneur is the sneaking suspicion that none of what we in Western Europe and North America enjoy (things like liberty, justice, free-speech, democracy, the happiness of pursuit, cheap clothes and fast food) could be possible without those same things being denied to people elsewhere in the world.

I doubt very much that I’d enjoy living in Britain in the period between 1830 and 1860. This was a time when laissez-faire capitalism and pseudo-libertarianism was allowed to run riot. The government created a night-watchman state, and a few individuals enjoyed enormous personal wealth whilst the majority became repressed workers.

Fortunately for me social change over the period from 1860 and 1947 and onward resulted in much greater freedom from economic repression, with true universal suffrage, education, health, and welfare benefits.

It could be argued, however, that nineteenth century Britain was like a microcosm of today’s global economy. There are a few uber-wealthy individuals, a larger fraction of middle-class people (people of median income in Western democracies), and a vast body of people living in what I would consider to be appalling conditions in places like India or China, working their fingers bloody for twelve cents an hour.

William Gibson in reputed to have said “the future is here, just not yet evenly distributed”. IF I am to remain in my happy, progressive bubble that assumes that given a few decades every human on the planet will have a quality of life equal to that of a typical middle-class individual in Britain then I should at least ask why this hasn’t already happened.

What would I have to sacrifice (as a citizen of the UK) if every human being on the planet were to have my standard of living. I once did a test that calculated how many Earths it would take to supply everyone with the same luxuries as myself. It was slightly over two.

It is difficult, though – surely global GDP has gone up over the past several decades? And surely the average individual worker in now more productive than they would have been fifty years ago?

I genuinely believe that there is no reason we can’t all enjoy high(er) and equivalent standards of living and with better healthcare and a flying car to boot. Perhaps in a century all industrial production will be wholly automated. Human beings will just be the brains (and the substantially upgraded brains, at that) of the great clanking replicator of human civilization, which will begin a glorious and wonderful era in which highly civilized, intelligent, and well-equipped individuals will set off into the darkness of space in vast artificial worlds, to build even bigger artificial worlds around all the suns of the galaxy.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


This is a list of projects that need to be undertaken:

  • Remove disease as a factor in people’s lives. Cure all diseases of both the body and, if necessary or desirable, the mind.
  • Achieve indefinite longevity for adult humans.
  • Build a space-based self-sufficient habitat that is completely independent from the Earth.
  • Build a space elevator.
  • Build a comprehensive network of subterranean detectors that can warn people in advance of earthquakes and other traumas.
  • Take all the nuclear weapons currently available for use on Earth and fly them out some considerable distance into space. Set them off, either simultaneously or in smaller groups. Use the immense electromagnetic “flashes” created by these events to map the location and velocity of all the objects in the inner solar system larger than a few tens of metres across, by observing the reflected electromagnetic radiation.
  • Any of the aforementioned objects that might collide with the Earth should be tagged, first by unmanned probes, and then their velocities must be altered such that they do not collide with Earth, or are directed into a safe orbit for use in the construction of the space habitats or space elevators.
  • Research into various areas of human enhancement should achieve the ultimate aim of giving people choices over how intelligent they are, and how good they can be at any physical or mental task.

The Martyrdom of Man

This is what I have in the way of hopes and dreams of the future.

I already have most of the things that really matter - a good home, a lovoing family, good friends, a stable political and economic environment, pleasant prospects, and a healthy body.

The only thing that is lacking is the luxury of time. I want to be able to study on my own time and in my own fashion. I want to be able to write and comment on writing. I want to be able to tinker with computers and go for long, solitary walks in the countryside.

None of these things require a great deal of money, but they do require a great deal of time. And time is money. I want to leave university at age 24; I want to get a job in a blue chip company for 3 years. Then I want to set up my own company. I’ll work hard for maybe 20 years then retire with a big pile of assets.

Then I want to dedicate my life to transhumanism, nuclear disarmament, improving the human condition (either by directly working in or funding nanotech research, gerontology, space habitat construction, biotech research…),until the human race reaches the level of sophistication that Winwood Reade describes in his book, The Martyrdom of Man:

“Population will mightily increase, and the earth will be a garden. Governments will be conducted with the quietude and regularity of club committees. The interest which is now felt in politics will be transferred to science; the latest news from the laboratory of the chemist, or the observatory of the astronomer, or the experimenting room of the biologist will be eagerly discussed. Poetry and the fine arts will take that place in the heart which religion now holds. Luxuries will be cheapened and made common to all; none will be rich, and none poor. Not only will Man subdue the forces of evil that are without; he will also subdue those that are within. He will repress the base instincts and propensities which he has inherited from the animals below; he will obey the laws that are written on his heart; he will worship the divinity within him. As our conscience forbids us to commit actions which the conscience of the savage allows, so the moral sense of our successors will stigmatise as crimes those offences against the intellect which are sanctioned by ourselves. Idleness and stupidity will be regarded with abhorrence. Women will become the companions of men, and the tutors of their children. The whole world will be united by the same sentiment which united the primeval clan, and which made its members think, feel, and act as one. Men will look upon this star as their fatherland; its progress will be their ambition; the gratitude of others their reward. These bodies which now we wear belong to the lower animals; our minds have already outgrown them; already we look upon them with contempt. A time will come when Science will transform them by means which we cannot conjecture, and which, even if explained to us, we could not now understand, just as the savage cannot understand electricity, magnetism, steam. Disease will be extirpated; the causes of decay will be removed; immortality will be invented. And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of Nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds.”

The Martyrdom of Man was written in 1872, and is prophetic of the sentiment shared by the transhumanists and with myself. This is the world we must all strive to create.

I am not particularly attractive or charismatic, I am not a genius nor particularly clever. I believe it is necessary to solve these problems – through whatever means come available. If the ultimate goal of every intelligent person was to become more intelligent, urbane, talented, wise, compassionate and responsible then the world would be a better place.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Graph Lust

This amazing page combines two of my passions: lists and graphs. It is a wonderfully cyclicly ironic way of displaying information about ways of displaying information.

Achievable Transhumanism

Here is more goodness from the Edge Foundation, Stephen M. Kosslyn, a psychologist at the University of Harvard, is optimistic that we will be able to improve human intelligence. He has three basic points to support this optimism: the first is that neurobiologists have managed to identify several discrete systems within the brain, and have also managed to identify how they work together to perform tasks:

Each system can be made more efficient by "targeted training." Such training involves having people perform tasks that are designed to exercise very specific abilities, which grow out of distinct neural networks. Just as a body builder can do curls to build up biceps and dips on parallel bars to build up triceps, we can design computer-game-like tasks that exercise specific parts of the brain—mental muscles, if you will. By exercising the right sets of systems, specific types of reasoning not only can be improved but—the holy grail of training studies—such improvement can generalize to new tasks that draw on those systems.

This is exactly the sort of cheap, achievable goals that transhumanists need to be talking about. There isn’t any need for smart drugs or neural implants to improve the human mind, all we need to do is understand the mind more effectively and find innovative ways of improving it manually.

The second point is an increased understanding of group interaction, and resulting methods of creating more effective teams.

Just as a mechanical calculator can extend our mental capacities, other people help us extend our intelligence—both in a cognitive sense (as required to solve problems) and in an emotional sense (as required to detect and respond appropriately to emotions, ours and those of others). In this sense, other people can serve as "social prosthetic systems," as extensions of our own brains; a wooden leg can fill in for a missing limb, and others' brains can fill in for our cognitive and emotional limitations.

Teams amplify and strengthen the effects of human achievements. By cultivating a deeper understanding of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses we can create teams that achieve far more than the sum of their parts.

The third point is usually the favourite of transhuman commentators: widgetry.

Some people carry computers with them everywhere they go, and treat Google as an extension of their own knowledge bases. Or, in my case, my PDA extends my organizational ability enormously. We soon will have a wide variety of mechanical helpmates.

Whether being constantly in communication is a good thing or not is debatable, but constant access to the web is useful: a lot of information and knowledge can be acquired very quickly, and much more accurately than from normal human memories

The Edge Foundation

The Edge Foundation have published their annual question at The Edge Foundation, headed by publisher John Brockman is an organisation that represents part of the “third culture”, a movement towards an integration between literary and scientific intellectuals. From Wikipedia:

John Brockman published a book of the same name whose themes are continued at the Edge website. Here, scientists and others are invited to contribute their thoughts in a manner readily accessible to non-specialist readers. In doing so, leading thinkers are able to communicate directly with each other and the public without the intervention of middlemen such as journalists and journal editors. Many areas of academic work are incorporated, including genetics, physics, mathematics, psychology, evolutionary biology, philosophy and computing technology.

This is an excellent idea. I personally think that we should all aim to be as much like polymaths and Renaissance Men as possible, and be skilled in a number of areas. Say, if a chemical engineer played bridge and painted watercolours, wrote stories and articles, whilst also being able to perform yoga and karate and play badminton.

The questions are quite fascinating. I will doubtless comment on them at length in the future.

The Perfect Phone

Note: I actually wrote this on the 7th of January, before Apple announced the iPhone. From what I've seen and read about the iPhone it seems like a step towards what I'm talking about.

I’ve been thinking about the problem surrounding PDAs. Every so often I experience something that leads me to think that maybe my enthusiastically techno-optimist outlook is, if not flawed, then at least misappropriated. There are several disadvantages of using a normal A7 paper notebook over a PDA:

  • You can drop a notebook in the sink and any information stored on it will still be accessible (after leaving it in the sun to dry – this can still apply to PDAs, but PDAs would generally be less likely to function after a good dunking).
  • Notebooks generally weigh less than PDAs.
  • Notebooks do not need recharging.
  • You can drop a notebook on the floor and not worry about it breaking.
  • Notebooks cost around £2. PDAs cost around £200.

Convergence is, I understand, the current big industry buzzword surrounding consumer electronics. It can, however, be argued that too much convergence leads to a giant Swiss Army Knife problem. Like most individuals with both chromasomes I enjoy the idea of owning a brick containing every possible tool I could ever possibly need, but I’m also aware that I wouldn’t want to carry it around with me.

Sure, it’s nice having a phone that can take pictures, send email, play movies, play music, access the web, send texts and make and receive phonecalls. But a Hack of all Trades can (at least for early adopters) prove to be annoyingly deficient in a way you really don’t want an object you just shelled out £200+ for to be. Things like the autofocus-lag on the 2 MP camera in my SE K750i, or the way the joystick gets clogged up with dust and works erratically.

Of course, I have the economics of consumer electronics to blame for these annoyances [anyone remember when 3G was going to be TNBT? Anyone remember minidisk players? Anyone remember bluray vs. HDDVD… Oh wait, that one hasn’t happened yet], companies are not going to invest in a piece of hardware that will last say, ten years, because they know that in ten years they will have a whole new range of phones to sell to people, and they don’t want people using the phone they bought ten years previously.

Just as the Israelites tired in the desert, so I’m tiring of pursuing the here-today, gone-tomorrow dreams of some white collar corporate sweatshop worker.

What I’m basically saying is that I’m annoyed that I have to swim through what could well be decades of projected-lifespan-six-months, NBTs that screw early adopters, screw everyone else, and become unfashionable just as the technology is perfected, before we get to the good stuff.

Here is a description of the things I want from the electronics industry (after reading it you’ll realise that by the time all of these things are available the electronics industry will either be non-existent or will have evolved into something completely different):

A mobile phone designed to operate well in any environment, and to continue to work without any need for a warranty (however this phone will be supplied with a warranty at least a decade long). This phone will not just be able to talk to other phones through a system of microwave-linked cellular towers but will be able to detect all electromagnetic radiation between say, 106 and 1016 Hz (a detachable aerial, would probably be required for anything much over 300 MHz), and carry enough processing clout to decode any and all intelligible signals on these frequencies. These signals may include audio, visual, audiovisual, text, still images, encoded software, anything. As much of the processing of this data as possible should be handled in software. Whether the signal is digital, analogue, FM, AM, or Morse code I want this device to be able to tell me what is being said.

The screen will have a definition such that the resolution of my own eyes will be insufficient to isolate a discrete pixel. The screen will be at least 40 mm by 60 mm in size, and the phone will be able to communicate with the surroundings as well (so screen size shouldn’t have to be an issue). The screen will be unscratchable, like the rest of the phone.

The phone will have two cameras that are fully detachable, and intelligent enough to combine to form a large baseline telescope. The cameras will be approximately the size of chart-pins, and will be stored in an isolated compartment within the main phone. There will also be a more standard camera built into the camera itself. This will have a fairly wide-angle camera capturing images at around 60 fps (for recording events to harvest for photographic still-shots later).

The phone will have a voice-activated (set to respond only to my voice-pattern, of course), thoroughly indexed, and wholly searchable encyclopedia, including the entire contents of the British library, the library of Congress, all available stored audiovisual output (i.e. everything ever written, recorded, filmed, or photographed).

In case I get bored with the phone’s fascia (I don’t know materials – some sort of carbon composite…?) the phone will be supplied with an autofabricator that can completely redesign the phone if I wish it to.

As well as maps and an on-board inertial-compass it will of course be able to consult any GPS systems that are available.

Spime, as I have mentioned before, is a powerful and worrying concept. I’m a bit too much of a libertarian (I’m not though) to find the idea of sentient armchairs and talking lamp-shades that remember life back in the CAD software anything but slightly worrying. However it would be nice if, occasionally, there were well-delineated bits of wall that could, if necessary, display text and video images at arbitrarily high definition if asked politely. These areas of wall would of course also be able to communicate with any hardware that happened to be in the vicinity, and would solve the problem of screen-size on mobile devices quite neatly, providing such areas of walls were sufficiently cheap and ubiquitous.

But why even go there? Instead of plastering every flat surface with mediaglyphs why not plaster ever eye-surface with a Head-Up-Display? This would solve the problem of wasting energy displaying data for all the world to see and offer a solution to the problem of viable virtual reality, or actual reality overlays. The contact-lens, or spectacle-based HUD would of course be available in a number of styles from your bedside autofab.