Humanity+ is sponsoring an h+ Summit in the hallowed halls of Harvard University on June 12-13, organized around the theme “The Rise of the Citizen Scientist.” I spoke via email with Humanity+ Executive Director (and frequent h+ magazine contributor) Alex Lightman and Chairman David Orban.
Lightman is also the author of Brave New Unwired World, the first book on 4G wireless, and has been one of the world’s foremost proponents of IPv6 (Internet Protocol Version Six), including providing testimony to the US Congress on internet leadership, and the transition plan for NATO.
David Orban is also an advisor of the Singularity University and founder and Chief Evangelist for WideTag, Inc., the OpenSpime technology company, which provides the infrastructure for an open “Internet of Things.”
(Note: Humanity+ created h+ magazine, but is not currently the publisher.)
H+: Let’s begin for beginners, with the very concept of Humanity+ and your relationships to it. What does it mean to you and how did you find your way in?
ALEX LIGHTMAN: Humanity+ is having the freedom, knowledge, wisdom and community to be all you can, and have your friends and family be all they can be, via technological enhancement. H+ is about communicating the best practices of Citizen-Scientists and innovators and out-of-the-box (even out-of-this-world) thinkers about what can be done to approximate superpowers, double your lifespan, increase your intelligence, and make a better world, one bionic upgrade at a time.
H+ is in one sense a return to the past, when most innovations were made by individuals, and a sneak preview of the future. In that sense, I found my way in via reading science fiction, and then at MIT when I discovered the Futurist magazine, which I did the cover story for in 1985, on the graphic revolution in computers. I was doing short documentary television pieces for a TV show called Strange Universe, and met Max More and the Extropians. Max coined the term transhumanism, and told me about how cryonics, longevity, uploading, and other areas all fit together coherently, in a way I hadn’t heard before. I also read FM-2030’s book, Are You Transhuman? and scored very high on the test, though I was a bit scandalized by the notion that people got more points for changing their gender.
DAVID ORBAN: I am a universal Darwinist, searching for replicators everywhere. So, for me, it has always been clear that our current biological form was on one hand a happenstance, deserving a certain level of respect, but no mindless devotion, and on the other that with or without our willingness, it could change. Our mind for me is clearly an expression of our brain, so that is bound to change, too, and with it, its creations: our identity, our technology, our society.
At that point, the question is simple. Have we reached a point in the evolution of our freedoms that enables us to analyze, understand, and act upon the parameters that define the human condition, and dynamically shepherd them on a desirable path? Oh, yes, we have! We very well have.
I have always been happier doing things, rather than just talking shop. Recently my sentiment has been rather perfectly summarized by the Cult of Done Manifesto penned by Bre Pettis. While keeping busy during the years, and gravitating towards the family of associations that orbit around our common memeplexes, quite recently I found myself in the classical “wrong place at the wrong time”… just joking… having been elected Chairman of Humanity+, really, to the contrary, it is a great honor and a challenge that I am having immense fun facing, even if it is proving harder than expected to sleep less then three hours per night.
My main goal for Humanity+ as an organization, as I have had the chance to articulate to our Board, is that of leveraging our three core assets: our membership, our content, and our brand. These are all, of course, intertwined. I want to increase our paying members, our active members, and even those who simply read our websites, or subscribe to our blog feeds. All of these want to know what the organization does, and the active ones want to know how they can help.
In order to help them, in the future, we will clarify much better how Humanity+ intends to influence positively the uptake of our ideals into society. Of course, learning about what we do is only possible if the information is easily accessible. That is why I am especially proud of the unanimous vote that the Board took on my motion to adopt the Creative Commons Attribution license as a default for all content released by Humanity+, which is the most liberal choice, offering unfettered diffusion to interesting, relevant, and compelling information. The Humanity+ brand cannot but gain in influence, recognition, and overall value through these and other forthcoming actions.
h+: It hasn’t been very long since the last US Humanity+ Conference in Southern California and you just had one in England. Why are you holding another one so soon and what happens at these conferences that adds value and amplifies and quickens the pathway towards human enhancement?
AL: When I started doing conferences on IPv6, the movement was pretty dead in the US. At the last IPv6 event in the US, the sponsors like IBM spoke to an empty room. Other than as one track at an IETF conference, there wasn’t even an event scheduled — not at a university, government agency, or corporation. I chaired and organized and rebranded the events as IPv6 Summit, starting with one at San Diego State University in June 2003, and told the Department of Defense that it was “now or never” to reboot IPv6. I asked them for a bold public commitment to IPv6, and they really came through. The Pentagon announced that it was mandating IPv6 for the Department of Defense. That keynote, with questions, was only 14 minutes, because there was no plan yet, but suddenly 20 sponsors signed up. At the end of this event, I wanted to keep the momentum going. If you wait a year, one third of the people are transferred to other departments, quit, retire, or otherwise fall away, but every six months you can have a core group that builds trust around the world. It’s also a basic military principle for the US forces (I was in Army ROTC and did Airborne paratrooper training while I was at MIT) to increase the tempo as a tactic.
When I became the Executive Director of H+, there wasn’t a plan for another TransVision conference, after some complications from the last event in Chicago. My intention was to regain momentum, and to solidify the rebranding of the World Transhumanist Association as H+, and I’d had success with IPv6, leading to Congressional hearings on internet leadership via IPv6 that I had the honor of helping to organize, down to the level of recommending the people from government and industry who testified before the Government Reform Committee, leading to the US government mandate for IPv6. This took three years. My intention is — within three years — to have the power and unity behind the H+ and transhumanist community to also be able to powerfully impact US and international public policy. My objective is to have the same legally-protected space in the public arena for someone to enhance himself, herself, or even itself if we are talking about AIs, that we have for freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom of association, and freedom to believe or worship as we each see fit.
As for what happens that adds value and amplifies and quickens the pathway towards human enhancement — I love the question — there are five things. First, people expand their minds and get a bigger vision of what is possible. Even if you read a great deal, the impact of seeing fifty real, likeable, friendly people give you their big smart visions of what is possible within a 48 hour period opens the doors of perception, and, as Einstein said, a mind once expanded can’t return to its former smaller size.
Second, attendees get a sense of common ground and common strategy for enabling multiple paths of possible enhancement to be enabled. Third, attendees get a sense of specific and immediate actions or to-dos, including what books or articles to read, that they can do on Monday morning. Fourth, they have fun, and bond with each other.
I spend time with rich people in Beverly Hills and Hollywood. One night at the Four Seasons it took 45 minutes to figure out who was going to pay the check, and I ended up paying one third of a dinner for six. In contrast, when I took on the task of splitting the check for many plates of sushi at the H+ Summit for 25 people, it took about four minutes and I ended up having to give people back money. There is a smart social superorganism of future superpowered, superbenevolent, supercool people coming together via the H+ Summits and that’s going to make for a human superconductor of best practices once the really good upgrades are available. And people are going to be brutally honest about how well they work or don’t work, because the lives and health of their friends may hang in the balance.
One last thing is that most people around H+ plan to live to 150, as I’ve mentioned in my Forever Young pieces for h+. You have a whole different approach to people if you enter with an expectation that this could be a friendship that could last for over 100 years. There is a winning-the-lottery feeling I get and I think others do as well when you can make friends with a transhumanist, because it can mean that instead of having one or two unusual things in common, you can have dozens of common interests, each of which is, in itself very rare and valuable.
DO: The worldwide transhumanist movement is a multifaceted, culturally rich complex of individuals and independent organizations, covering dozens of language areas and even more countries. There are countries where there is even more than one organization! Believe it or not, even in these days of global internet communications through text, audio, and video, and yes, even among hardcore transhumanists, being in the same place physically together has its value. Smelling, touching, and perceiving the social interactions with all the rich flavor of non-verbal communications for the moment cannot be effectively reproduced by online interactions! This is one of the reasons why it definitely does make sense to organize as many Humanity+ meetings as possible in all kinds of places. We are already in the planning stages of others to be held in South America, Europe, and elsewhere.
The UK meeting has been organized independently by the Humanity+ UK Chapter through the efforts of its director (they use another very British term, like Secretary of Meetings, or something similar!), David Wood, and his team. It was an excellent conference, and a great premise for further ones to be held as well.
Another important factor that cannot be discounted is that physical meetings lower the self-selecting effects of Internet-based communities. How do you widen your reach? How do you assure that you have the opportunity of talking to people who are not already convinced of the value of your ideas? That is only possible if you hit the road, and if you start to talk to people who are not in the community, who are new, and want to learn more, and hopefully to become active members once they have seen what Humanity+ has to offer them.
h+: The theme is the citizen scientist. Give us examples in which this democratization of science is taking place, and talk about the promise of the citizen scientist. Also, do you see any inherent dangers?
DO: The ivory tower approach to science is an inheritance from times when it was demeaning to work and studying was reserved to the noble class. Even then, the class system prevailed, and those fields that appeared to have more practical applications, like science and engineering, were perceived as inferior to the humanities. We still have remnants of this system, with the very strict separation of faculties, and fields of study, and the more or less unexpressed feelings of superiority of one specialist towards those working in a different field.
Writing was once a rare skill, but today in the western world it is very difficult to be a functioning part of society without an extensive set of knowledge that includes not only writing, but mathematics as well. Already, when an uncle, or an older mother calls his nephew or her daughter to reprogram the DVR, what we are seeing is not the limits in the user friendliness of a given generation of technologies, but the emerging power of (what it is time we stopped calling) the geek culture. We have to realize that today, programming, in a very general way, has become a necessary skill that people of all backgrounds are starting to wield more and more powerfully. Programming our bodies is advanced physiology, programming our minds is meditation and autohypnosis, programming living organisms is synthetic biology, and so on.
When amateur astronomers regularly make discoveries of celestial bodies on par with those made by the most advanced professional practitioners, it is clear that the field is wide open to participation by anybody.
Human civilization has gotten where it is now, for the good and the bad, through progressive acquisition of knowledge. We have multiple, huge crisis situations to overcome, from the economy, to ecology, to social upheavals, to global conflicts. My bet is that the way to get through these crises is going to be further knowledge, the spreading of the tools to acquire and apply knowledge — not through less knowledge; not through voluntary or imposed ignorance.
AL: Timothy Ferris makes the case, in his recent book The Science of Liberty, that it’s not a coincidence that the freedom to vote and the freedom to do science (involving the rights to travel, question, associate, speak to crowds, and publish freely) were co-evolving events. Further, he says that we can see elections as the public’s equivalent of science experiments in which we are testing, and falsifying, the claims of politicians and their supporters. The wider context of Citizen-Science (I think it’s cool to capitalize, though I can’t really justify it) includes five factors:
1. Moore’s Law-Like Learning Curve for Laboratories. The rough version of Moore’s Law is that you get twice the computing power for the same amount of money every 18 to 24 months. In The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil graphically illustrates that this learning curve has been going on for almost a century. Well, a similar phenomenon has been happening with scientific equipment. What used to require a multimillion dollar university or corporate laboratory is now, in parts, becoming affordable to install in the home. Increasingly, the kitchen will be where biotech is done, the bathroom will be for medical diagnostics, the basement will be where the earthquake simulations are, and the garage will be set up for open source manufacturing with 3D printers that produce, among other things, yet more scientific instruments.
2. The Return of the Individual Inventor. From the beginning of the US Patent Office under Thomas Jefferson until about 1930, individuals accounted for the majority of patents. The US benefited from an explosion of R & D in corporations and universities. One driver was the creation of the early military-industrial complex, a necessity to manage the complexity of aviation, which went from something as simple as the Wright Brother’s flyer at Kitty Hawk to an early version of bombers within about ten years. After 1930, corporate entities accounted for the majority of patents. Now, as large companies outsource so much, and downsize (the Fortune 500 has been shedding employees for decades, as they become more like financial institutions managing portfolios), individual inventors, tinkerers, makers and innovators are making a comeback. The Homebrew Computer Club got together (and I have this first hand from Paul Allen himself) to share science fiction books and all two-dozen-odd members became millionaires from their computer hobby and related expertise. Make magazine, which shows you how to do cool things like a hat that will turn off televisions in bars and airports, allows for people to make products that no company would dare to make. And in the process, they also end up creating new equipment and discovering new things.
The kitchen will be where biotech is done, the bathroom will be for medical diagnostics, the basement will be where the earthquake simulations are.
3: The Revival of the Mania for Measurement. In his book, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Europe 1250 to 1600, Alfred Crosby makes the case that the reason the Europeans were able to go from being rather irrelevant to colonizing most of the world was based on their mania for measurement, which made them better scientists, musicians and painters, and then better ship builders, sailors, and fighters with cannons. The internet has created a greenfield opportunity to be the first to make measurements. How many Twitter followers? How many Facebook friends? How many views or likes of your videos? You can only get so much attention by just repeating the same old stuff, and Hollywood will always have someone more famous saying it, with Tina Fey writing that oh-so-funny line. Scientists, or people playing scientist, don’t have to be famous, beautiful, popular, or rich. They just have to be true, and add to the sum of human knowledge.
4: The Facebook Eversmarter Friend effect. Posting smart, science-centric information brings smart friends. I apologize for using myself as an example, but I know my own statistics. I post discoveries, and I have, according to Facebook Grader, the 169th most influential network on Facebook, out of 56,240 people who measured themselves, and out of over 400 million Facebook users. My desire to have more friends who are smarter, who will post thoughtful links and make intelligent comments, and to expel from my realm people who just post nonsense like Mafia Wars, causes me to constantly seek ways to bring insightful discoveries to my community, and present the information in a way that will get people to agree with me rather than insult or argue with me. This peer pressure makes people more careful about what they say.
5: Prizes and grants. Peter Diamandis (also Class of 1983 from MIT like me) came up with the X-Prize, which by itself was huge, but then came up with multiple X-Prizes, and then went on the road talking about why prizes should be in use. Suddenly, we were “back to the future” like the Longitude prize, or the prize won by Charles Lindbergh. And winning the prize was objective — based on your results, not which political connections or funding you had. This has encouraged many people to enter the field and to go for the gold, with amazing results. These numbers are probably off, but I remember Peter Diamandis saying something to the effect that they paid a million for a “hole in one” insurance policy to fund the X-Prize; the prize was $10 million; the teams spent $100 million competing; and over $1 billion has been raised because of all the attention, awareness, and education that the X-Prize competition had — a three orders of magnitude impact of that original million or so dollars.
So, the promise of the Citizen-Scientist is to confer legitimacy and provide the incentive of windfall compensation to something that many people do for love. Darlene Cavalier has written that 48 million Americans engage in bird watching, five million test water quality, and millions look at the night sky and seek to discover new stars or planets. What if all these people — a number that might be equal to the 70 million Americans who volunteer three or more hours a week to charity — suddenly started turning their homes into research centers, connected at 100 Megabits/second to MIT OpenCourseWare, or the ability to have all the classes that an MIT PhD would have in a subject, plus a Community of Interest or Community of Practice around this, plus domestic robots and talking science equipment using Artificial General Intelligence and a Conversational User Interface (the makings of which are implicit in Apple’s purchase of Siri). The potential is there to have an explosion of human knowledge. That’s the upside.
The dangers or downsides are potentially catastrophic. Individual humans can have greater powers than armies. Greg Egan’s science fiction short story, “The Moral Virologist,” is one of 100 examples I could cite. It’s about a Citizen-Scientist who makes a virus that will be triggered when a man has sex with a woman. It does nothing if he has sex with the same woman. However, if he has sex with a different woman, he dies. The idea is that people should be forced to be faithful in their marriages or to their partners. However, the virologist didn’t count on the fact that humans change, and the virus mutates, and he ends up wiping out most of the human race by accident. Part of the reason for doing the H+ Summit is for people to develop a new set of practices and principles for ethical Citizen-Science. I was inspired by Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson’s nanotechnology concerns, and how they made them a part of Foresight Institute Senior Associates meetings, which are a model for the H+ Summits, even before nanotech was a common term.
h+: David mentioned people not convinced of the value of h+ ideas. How do you talk to people who are having — or perceiving — a real bad time for humans on planet Earth: economic crises and gigantic economic chasms between the wealthy and the poor, massive oil spills, war and terrorism, a huge prison population in the US, civil liberties losses and surveillance… I could fill up a page… or a book. In other words, what does H+ have to say to people who are actually suffering from want or oppression here and now?
DO: What is the power of the individual? Can we really say that everybody can achieve whatever they set their minds to? As an absolute statement, that is certainly not true. In large parts of Africa, and India, there are millions of people whose energy intake or social position is so utterly inadequate that no force of will is going to change it without outside help. There are, however, billions of people whose lives have gotten immensely better in a few decades. The dynamic analyses of Gapminder have achieved almost iconic status exactly because they illustrate so powerfully how clear and positive human development has been in the recent past.
These billions do have the power and the desire to aim for more: more opportunities, more knowledge, more degrees of freedom in defining their trajectories towards a rich and complex future. Humanity+ is a framework of values that offers a platform for analyzing this shared future and drawing up paths of development, and positive, accretive adoption of technologies. Through the lens that this platform offers, a rational, dogma-free future can be seen, and we start to have tools — from forecasting, or backcasting, to scenario planning, to the exploration of algorithmic spaces — that we can fruitfully deploy to concretely distinguish between possible alternatives, and choose the ones that maximize desirable outcomes.
AL: My course of my life was altered when during one semester at MIT I took courses in both ecology and systems dynamics — the methodology that was used for the Club of Rome study. I came away from that semester with the impression that world population would rise to nine billion and then collapse to as little as one billion within this 21st century. I am not trying to solve every individual problem. That would be crazy. I am trying to create a context in which I inspire people to take pride in becoming transhumanists, who are flexible of mind and body, and Citizen-Scientists, who will keep measuring, posing questions, testing hypotheses, and frankly admitting when experiments are failures. This new culture is necessary both to make the peak problems less grim, and to enable some humans to survive no matter what. One-third of the humans on the Hindenburg survived, which doesn’t seem possible from the photos. It may take moving into the oceans, or to space, or changing our genetic structure to breath carbon dioxide, but if we have the ability to enhance and transform our bodies and our minds, humanity as a whole will have the requisite variety to survive a vast range of existential threats to humanity.
As for people suffering from oppression, I have chosen to make a stand on one particular issue and asked the board of directors for permission (and received it yesterday after a vote) to make H+ an intelligent advocate for ending the American embargo of Cuba that has been in place for almost 50 years, a policy that harms American security, puts us in opposition to almost every other nation on Earth, including the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organization of American States — our neighbors. I believe that ending the embargo of Cuba is the most important next step to building a world that works for everyone. If we can end the embargo of Cuba, we will prove that we can learn. If we can’t end the embargo, then I’ll quote Rorschach from the movie Watchmen,“…all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll whisper ‘no.’” Before I seek to solve many injustices, inequities, and failures, I seek to solve this one obvious thing that can simply be done in five minutes by President Obama signing an executive order.
h+: I know you probably don’t want to single out anybody, but tell me anyway — what talk are you most looking forward to?
AL: I am looking forward to Ray Kurwzeil’s brand new talk. He hasn’t let me down in the 20 years I’ve been following the evolution of his thought.
It was my choice to make the theme of the conference “The Rise of the Citizen-Scientist,” hoping and intending that I’d be put in touch with people who were part of that movement, and the happy result was to be introduced to Darlene Cavalier, who exemplifies the cheerleader for Citizen-Science. I’m really looking forward to her talk as well.
DO: I have heard most of our speakers talk at other conferences. They are all excellent, and I especially like both Stephen Wolfram who spoke at another conference I organized 20 years ago! Ray Kurzweil, of course, for many represents the fulcrum of the ideas of our field, and the fact that he chose the H+ Summit to present new materials is a great honor. But in particular there is one who I haven’t heard speaking yet, and I am very curious to see deliver his talk. It promises to be intriguing, provocative, but also practical, not at all theoretical. And that is the talk by Alex Lightman! 🙂