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Technological Transcendence: An Interview with Giulio Prisco


A character in Ken MacLeod’s 1998 novel The Cassini Division refers to the Singularity as “the Rapture for nerds” (though it should be duly noted that in that novel the Singularity occurs anyway!).  This represents a moderately recurrent meme in certain circles – to denigrate transhumanism by comparing it to extreme religious notions.  But not all transhumanists consider such comparisons wholly off-base.  While transhumanism differs from traditional religions in being based around reason more centrally than faith, it does have some commonality in terms of presenting a broad vision of the universe, with implications on the intellectual level but also for everyday life.  And it does present at least some promise of achieving via science some of the more radical promises that religion has traditionally offered – immortality, dramatic states of bliss, maybe even resurrection.

A host of transhumanist thinkers have explored the connections between transhumanism and spirituality, seeking to do so in a manner that pays proper respect to both.   One of the most prominent among these has been Giulio Prisco, an Italian physicist and computer scientist, who is the author of the much-read transhumanist/spiritual essay “Engineering Transcendence”, and the leader of the online transhumanist/spiritual discussion group The Turing Church.  It was largely due to Giulio’s gentle prodding that last year I wrote my little book A Cosmist Manifesto, summarizing my own views on futurist philosophy, including musings at the transhumanism/spirituality intersection.  Giulio wrote a brief review/summary of that book for this magazine.   So last month when I decided to interview Giulio for the magazine, it was just the next step in our ongoing conversation!

Giulio has a rich history in the transhumanist community, including a period as a Board member of the World Transhumanist Association (the previous incarnation of Humanity+ [http://humanityplus.org], the organization behind this magazine), and a brief stint as Executive Director.   He’s also a Board member of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and the Associazione Italiana Transumanisti.  And in addition to his passion for transhumanism, he has pursued a very successful career in science and engineering, including a position as a senior manager in the European Space Administration, and his current work as a software and business consultant.

Ben:

OK, let’s jump right into it!  Could you sum up in a few sentences why you think the intersection of transhumanism and spirituality is so important?

Giulio:

A few years ago I sumarized my first thoughts about the intersection of transhumanism and spirituality in an article on “Engineering Transcendence”, which has been published online in many different places. A few months ago I have drafted a list of Ten Cosmist Convictions, which you have substantially edited, improved and included your great Cosmist Manifesto. These are my convictions about the intersection of transhumanism and spirituality.

In summary: Our universe is a very big place with lots of undiscovered and unimagined “things in heaven and earth” which science will uncover someday, and perhaps in this mysterious and beautiful complexity there is room for spirituality and even for the old promises of religions, such as immortality and resurrection.

Or perhaps not: the Cosmist Convictions are not predictions but objectives that we may achieve sooner, later, or never. I don’t know if superintelligence, uploading, immortality and the resurrection of the dead from the past will ever be technically possible. But I think these concepts are basically compatible with the laws of fundamental physics, and contemplating these possibilities can make us happy which is a good and useful outcome in itself.

Perhaps our wildest transhumanist dreams will never be achieved, but we should do our best to achieve them. Even if death is unavoidable and irreversible, we can still be happy by seeing ourselves as a small part of a big cosmic computation which, in some sense, exists beyond time, has existed, will exist, has existed in the future, will exist in the past… Death is not really a big deal, but we must do our best to cure and conquer it and become immortal… or die trying.

I am a theoretical physicist by training, and my worldview is strictly materialist with no room for the supernatural. Actually, I am quite a pragmatist and a positivist: I don’t know, or care, what “Reality” is, let alone “Truth”. I only know that, under certain conditions, some models give better predictions than others and help building more useful machines. Therefore I value scientific and philosophical views not on the basis of their “objective truth”, whatever that is, but on the basis of their utility. I don’t have problems accepting my own interpretation of spiritual transhumanism, because I don’t have conflicting a-priori metaphysical convictions.

Following William James, one of my favorite thinkers, I think a spiritual worldview based on the contemplation of transcendence can help us living better, happier and more productive lives, which is what really matters. But transcendence must be something that we build for ourselves, with science and technology.

Ben:

What’s the basic idea behind “The Turing Church” as you conceive it? What is it now?  What would you like to see it grow into, in your wildest dreams?

Giulio:

The Turing Church is a mailing list about the intersection of transhumanism and spirituality, which I have started in 2010. The name is a homage to Alan Turing, a great man killed by a bigot society, and a reference to the Turing-Church conjecture: under certain definitions and assumptions, a computer can fully emulate another computer, hence a mind, which is software running on a specific computing substrate, can in principle be transferred to another computing substrate (mind uploading). So the Turing Church can be seen as a spiritual community (Church) based on mind uploading, which is a central theme in the Ten Cosmist Convictions.

The mailing list goes through periods of activity and inactivity. At this moment I am not pushing very hard to transform the Turing Church into a “community”, let alone a “Church”, because there are already a few excellent communities for spiritually inclined transhumanists. So, probably the Turing Church will remain just a discussion group in the next future.

Ben:

What about the Turing Church Workshop you organized last year, where I gave a brief talk on Cosmism?  I’m sorry I had another obligation that day and didn’t get to participate in all the discussions – but I watched rest of it on video!

Giulio:

Yes, in November I organized “The Turing Church Online Workshop 1” – and all the talks and discussion at the Workshop have been recorded in full video and are available online.   The Workshop took place in the Teleplace virtual world, and was populated with interested observers and representatives of various spiritual transhumanist groups, including Martine Rothblatt of Terasem, Mike Perry of the Society for Universal Immortalism (SfUI), and Lincoln Cannon of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) … and a guy who wrote a Cosmist Manifesto last year, who gave a great talk without really answering the question I asked him to address in his talk: how to bootstrap  a “Confederation of Cosmists”….

Ben:

Hah.  Let’s get back to the Confederation of Cosmists a little later, and talk a bit about the Workshop now.

Giulio:

Sure!  I also gave a talk on “The Cosmic Visions of the Turing Church”, similar to the talk I had given at the Transhumanism and Spirituality Conference 2010 hosted by the MTA and partly based on my article “In Whom we live, move, and have our being”. In my presentation I developed the idea of scientific resurrection: our descendants and mind children will develop “magic science and technology” in the sense of Clarke’s third law, and may be able to do grand spacetime engineering and even resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future“.. Of course this a hope and not a certainty, but I am persuaded that this concept is scientifically founded and could become the “missing link” between transhumanists and religious and spiritual communities. I am perfectly aware that I can be accused of building a castle of unfalsifiable pseudoscience to protect my wishful thinking from reality, and I can live with that.

The objectives of the Workshop included discovering parallels and similarities between different organizations and to agree on common interests, agendas, strategies, and outreach plans. I think these objectives have been achieved, and some participants who were initially members of only one group have also joined the others, which is a good sign. I am a member of the three organizations, and I see them as compatible and complementary, each with its own specific focus.

Firstly, the Mormon Transhumanist Association is a very interesting experiment in promoting transhumanist spirituality within a major religion. Being a Mormon is not required for membership in the MTA, but of course most members are Mormons. Lincoln Cannon and others say that the Mormon doctrine make it very compatible with transhumanism, and I find their arguments persuasive.

Ben:

Yes, I actually talked with Lincoln extensively earlier this month, and I interviewed him for H+ magazine – the interview should appear not to long after yours.

Giulio:

The Mormon transhumanists’ New God Argument (a revised version of the simulation theories of Moravec and Bostrom) is especially relevant to spiritual transhumanism. They have made some friends in the Mormon community at large, but of course also some enemies, and I have my doubts that their views may be accepted by the more socially retrograde segments of the Mormon community. However, this is a great group and I am proud to be part of it. I look forward to seeing similar initiatives within other Christian denominations and  religions.

Ben:

Their thinking is certainly interesting, though I have to say I find much of it unconvincing myself.  Still, I came away from my conversations with Lincoln incredibly impressed with his creativity, and with the ability of traditional human belief systems like Mormonism to stretch and bend to account for transhumanist ideas.  He has genuinely managed to interpret Mormonism in a way that’s consistent with radical transhumaism, and that’s a fantastic intellectual achievement.  It makes me feel that, even after technological advancement brings really radical – even Singularity-level – changes, many people will still find no problem incorporating these in (upgraded versions of) their traditional belief systems.  Though, I do have a suspicion that after a transitional period these traditional belief systems will fall away – even Mormonism!

Giulio:

Another group represented at the Workshop was the Society for Universal Immortalism.  While this group is very small and it has not been very active recently, I am very fond of it because it gives a central role to the idea of technological resurrection which as I say above is, I believe, a necessary component of transhumanist spirituality. Universal Immortalism is built on Mike Perry’s book “Forever for All”, a great book which is now also featured on one of the main Terasem sites, the Truths of Terasem Podcasts site maintained by Alcor founders Fred and Linda Chamberlain, who are now very active in Terasem and participated in the Workshop.

Ben:

Terasem is interestingly diverse – I gave a talk at one of their workshops in Vermont a couple years ago, which was nominally about nanotechnology and its implications, but actually touched on all sorts of transhumanist technologies and issues.

Giulio:

Terasem is… a galaxy whose center is everywhere and nowhere or, in the words of its founder Martine Rothblatt in a recent email, in “all the anarchic Terasem stuff on the web”. At the Workshop, Martine described how the Terasem idea was born in her mind in 2002 with a powerful serendipitous epiphany of “balance of diversity and unity, in a quest for joyful immortality”.

Ben:

So are there any plans for another Turing Church Workshop?

Giulio:

I will think about the future of the Turing Church and probably organize a second Workshop, but at this moment I am more inclined to participate in already existing groups.

Ben:

You have a Turing Church discussion group, and then there are the Workshops.  Do you see there as being actual Turing Church “services” at some point in the future, similar to what happens now at Christian churches, or Buddhist temples, etc.?   Do you think these might occur in virtual worlds as well as in the physical world?  What elements do you foresee might go into such a service — speculating freely!

Giulio:

As I said, I am not planning to develop the Turing Church into more than a discussion group. I may change my mind, but at this moment I prefer being an active member of existing spiritual groups. I am not really interested in becoming a leader, or a guru.

There have been discussions of “services” in the Universal Immortalism mailing lists, but I don’t think any firm plan has been made. Of course Mormon Transhumanists participate in Mormon services, but I am not aware of any services for the transhumanist subgroup.

Terasem has services which, in line with the distributed and decentralized nature of the organization, can be performed anywhere with any number of participants (even one). Terasem services have a New Age look & feel, and I think they can help building bridges to the large New Age community. Some Terasem services have been performed in Second Life, and I look forward to participating. The Mormon Transhumanist Association is also hosting a monthly discussion group in Second Life.

A few years ago we founded an “Order of Cosmic Engineers” with a mailing list and periodic events in Second Life. Some spinoffs of the Order of Cosmic Engineers are active, and so is the original mailing list. I still participate sporadically, but I am mostly focusing on other things now.

I wish to recommend a great book: “Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality” by Robert Geraci, who also participated in the Turing Church Online Workshop. Here is my review of Robert’s book. Chapter 3 is entirely dedicated to his long field recog mission behind transhumanist lines in Second Life. He attended the 2007 Seminar on Transhumanism and Religion in SL and many events related to transhumanism and religion in 2008 and 2009. In the process, he became a friendly observer in our community, and a good friend of many transhumanist users of Second Life.

From my review: “According to Geraci, Apocalyptic AI is a religion: it is a religion based on science, without deities and supernatural phenomena, but with the apocalyptic promises of religions. And he thinks that, while the Apocalyptic AI religion has a powerful but often hidden presence in our culture, the Transhumanist community embraces it openly and explicitly. Transhumanism is first defined as “a new religious movement“, and throughout the book Geraci continues to see it as a modern religion. This may shock and upset many transhumanists readers who proudly see themselves as champions of science and rationality against religious superstition. Not this reader, though. I remember my first impressions after joining the Extropy mailing list in the late 90s. I thought, this is a powerful new religion for the new millennium.”

As you know, I have been personally and professionally involved in Second Life and other virtual worlds for years. Now I am focusing on other technologies to make a living, but I still have a few avatars in Second Life and look forward to participating in talks, seminars, conferences and why not religious services. I am an advocate of telepresence solutions for business, education and entertainment, and why not spirituality. It is clear that virtual reality technology can only improve, and I think virtual worlds can be very a very powerful enabling technology for new spiritual movements.

There is a caveat though. For most people virtual worlds are just nice things that one can do without, but a few users find them very addictive. Some of these users may become exclusively focused on their avatars or “digital persons”, often because in virtual worlds they can easily correct shortcomings of their real life which, unfortunately, cannot yet be easily corrected in the real world. I have come to consider some of these digital persons as close friends.

Now, I am a radical libertarian as far as personal lifestyle choices are concerned. I am also persuaded that in the future many people will upload to cyberspace, and I see this as something good. So, I am the last person who would object to the aspirations of my digital friends. But our primitive (by future standards) virtual reality technology is not yet able to permit living an alternative life in the metaverse. Someday it will be, and we will flock to cyberspace leaving our meat bodies behind. But that day is not now, and I am afraid addiction to virtual worlds can lead to stop even trying to function in the real world, which can be psychologically damaging. I guess what I am trying to say is, use virtual worlds as powerful telepresence and communication environments, and use them as much as you like for fun and role-playing, but please don’t forget that they are not real worlds yet. Someday, but not now. I am very happy to see that a good friend (you know who you are) is now stepping out of the Second Life greenhouse and becoming more and more active in the real world.

Ben:

Your current choice to pursue the Turing Church meme via discussion forums and workshops, rather than more traditional church-like stuff, brings up another point I was wondering about.  I’m curious what’s the difference, in your view, between Transhumanism or Cosmism as philosophies (as you’ll recall I’ve referred to Cosmism as a “practical philosophy”) and your idea of a transhumanist or cosmist *religion*.  That is, what elements do you see a religion as having that a philosophy lacks, and why do you feel these elements are important?

Giulio:

Religions are huggable: they help you get through the night and give you some warmth in a cold universe. Practical philosophy is also huggable. I like Cosmism as a practical philosophy because I think it can help me living a better and happier life, and I liked your book much more than most abstract philosophy books.

I like to play with abstract ideas, and so I have spent a lot of time reading philosophy. But besides a certain intellectual fun I don’t find most of philosophy very relevant. Abstract philosophy tends to be concerned with things like “Objective Reality”, “Objective Truth”, and “Objective Good”, but I am not persuaded that such things exist, and I am not persuaded that we really need them. The important questions I ask myself and others are more like “Can this improve my life?”, “Can this make my family, my friends and the other people on the planet happier?” I think if something can make some people happier without making others less happy, then it is definitely good and no amount of abstract sophistry can make it less good.

Cosmism in the sense of practical philosophy as described in your book, the spiritual visions of the Russian Cosmists including Fyodorov’s radical ideas on immortality and resurrection of the dead (described in more modern terms by Mike Perry in “Forever for All”), Hans Moravec’s and Hugo de Garis’ visions of a Cosmist diaspora with ever increasing intelligence spreading outwards from the Earth into the cosmic night, and the wild speculations in the Ten Cosmist Convictions, can give us joy and help us becoming better and happier persons.

I am persuaded that a wonderful cosmic adventure awaits our descendants and mind children, and I wish to be part of it. Perhaps radical life extension and mind uploading will be developed soon enough for me, or probably not. Perhaps cryonics will help, and perhaps not. Perhaps future generations will be able and willing to retrieve me from the past and upload me to the future as part of an artilect who, sometimes, may remember having been me … or perhaps not. But I am persuaded that these glimpses into veiled future possibilities are basically compatible with our best understanding of how the universe really works. And they give me beautiful visions of future worlds, and the hope, drive and energy that I need to try living a good and productive life, in this world. And this, I believe, is what really matters.

Ben:

What has been the reaction in the transhumanist community to your ideas about joining together transhumanism and spirituality?  What has been the reaction in the traditional spiritual, religious community? Has there been enough positive reaction on both sides to give you the feeling that Turing Church type initiatives have real potential to grow into something important in the world?

Giulio:

The reaction in the transhumanist community has not been very enthusiastic, but that was expected because many transhumanists force themselves into a hard ultra-rationalist attitude and can hardly swallow soft “possibilian” approaches. I think in many cases they had a very hard time overcoming their traditional religious upbringing, and they are constantly afraid of  falling back. I was not raised  in a very religious family and, apart from a couple of very mystic weeks when I was 14, I have never taken religion too seriously, so I am not afraid of falling back anywhere.

There is a small but growing minority of transhumanists who like my ideas. I am also proud to see that I am frequently attacked by anti-transhumanists for my ideas about joining together transhumanism and spirituality. Sometimes anti-transhumanists see the nature of our ideas more clearly than transhumanists themselves, and they consider it as a threat to conventional religions in their own space. Since I started reading transhumanist thinkers in the early 90s, I never had any doubts that our worldview is a religion: we don’t believe in the supernatural or in a dogmatic, revealed faith, but we are determined to make the old promises of conventional religions come true by means of science and technology. We see the universe with a sense of wonder and a sense of meaning, and our beautiful visions make us hopeful and happy. In this sense, transhumanism is a religion, and it has always been one.

I would not know about the reaction in traditional spiritual, religious communities, because I am not a member of any. When I describe my ideas to religious persons, they are usually shocked at the beginning but often they begin to listen with interest at some point. My friends of the Mormon Transhumanist Association are, of course, part of the Mormon community, and I believe their experience is similar.

I believe we should try to develop closer relations with New Age groups. New Agers have a bad reputation in the transhumanist community where they are seen as hopelessly deluded fools who waste their time jumping from a crystal therapy to a pyramid energy healing group, and are easy prey of new gurus and new scams, but I see them as fellow travelers and seekers, who could be more interested in our spiritual ideas than ultra-rationalist transhumanists or dogmatic religious believers. One of the reasons why I am very fond of Terasem is that I think it could be very appealing to New Agers.

Ben:

It’s not surprising if the reaction to your ideas has been all over the map, since the transhumanist community itself is extremely diverse and generally all over the map!

Giulio:

Indeed.  In this discussion I have used frequently the expression “transhumanist community” because it was kind of required by the context, but in reality there is no such a thing as a transhumanist community.

There are self-identified transhumanists all over the political spectrum from the far right to the far left, there are libertarian and authoritarian transhumanists, there are all sorts of positions on important social and political issues, and there are all kinds of attitudes toward the spiritual dimensions that we have discussed, from religious believers to intolerant “New Atheists”.

The common denominator, that using advanced technologies to substantially modify humans is feasible and desirable, does not hold transhumanists together any stronger than, say, members of a science fiction salon. Then, I think it is time to stop pretending that there is a “transhumanist community” and openly acknowledge that there are many separate groups, with similarities but also important differences. Once we acknowledge this, we may be able to work together on specific projects, openly or behind the scenes.

Based on this perspective, I’ve personally decided that I will dedicate less time to promoting a generic concept of transhumanism, and more time to more specific projects and groups. In particular, I want to be more actively involved in technology development, I want to help developing Cosmist ideas, and I want to participate more actively in the spiritual transhumanist groups mentioned here.

Ben:

One concept that seems a help a bit in disambiguating the multiple varieties of transhumanism is the distinction between “weak transhumanism” and “strong transhumanism” — where the latter is a more thoroughgoingly transhumanist philosophy, that verges more on Cosmism and is more markedly distinct from traditional humanist philosophy.  We’ve talked about this before.  I wonder if you could elaborate on this weak vs. strong transhumanism distinction and how you see it tying into your thinking on the transhumanism/spirituality intersection.

Giulio:

If weak transhumanism is about mild anti-aging theraipes paid by the public health system, and strong transhumanism is about mind uploading to cyberspace and galactic colonization, then of course I am both a weak and a strong transhumanist.

But the distinctive feature of weak transhumanists is their bigot condemnation of strong transhumanists, and their thought-policing attitude. According to them we should repent of our juvenile sins, abandon our transhumanist dreams, and think only politically correct thoughts. My short answer to that is: “BS”. In more words: “Cut the crap, think with your own head, and let me think with mine.” One thing that really drives me mad is denying others the liberty to think with their own head.

As far as I am aware, no strong transhumanist has ever condemned weak transhumanists for preferring to focus on proximate here-and-now concerns. But weak transhumanists do condemn radical and visionary transhumanists, and so we all have to chose a camp. I have chosen mine: I am a visionary, imaginative, irreverent, far-future oriented, politically incorrect transhumanist.

At the same time I have to mention that, besides their annoying bigot attitude, I quite frequently agree with weak transhumanists or even anti-transhumanists. I share many of their views on contemporary social and political issues, and some of my “enemies” would be surprised to learn that I agree with them on almost everything. I don’t think strong AGI and mind uploading will be developed soon, I think public research funding should give priority to more proximate projects, and I don’t believe in a clean singularity because the real world is messier than our nice models. In general, I think Ray Kurzweil’s predictions are far over-optimistic.

But Kurzweil gives us good dreams to dream, and often good dreams can be turned into reality. This is Ray’s role, and one Ray is worth thousands of his detractors. This is strong transhumanism: we dream wild dreams, and we do our best to make them come true.

In your Cosmist Manifesto, you point out that we can only achieve great goals by putting ourselves in a positive state of mind. Before a competition, a great athlete is in a state of flow and sure to win. Of course, in their rational minds great athletes know that victory is not certain and many things can go wrong, but positive thinking helps them giving their very best. It is in this sense that we, radical transhumanists, prefer an optimist outlook. It is in this sense that we say that we will roam the universe beyond the most remote galaxies, overcome all human limitations, and achieve transcendence.

Strong transhumanism is inherently spiritual, and Cosmist. Science and technology are not enemies of our desire for transcendence, but on the contrary they are the very means which will permit achieving transcendence.

Ben:

Hear, hear!

Finally, as a reward for answering all my interview questions so wonderfully, I’ll make a brief effort to answer your questions about how to start a Confederation of Cosmists – i.e. some sort of active organization centered around Cosmism aka “strong transhumanism” as a practical philosophy.  Not a religion but something vaguely analogous to a religion, founded on rational radical transhumanism rather than traditional faiths.

The reason I didn’t address that in my talk at the Workshop was basically that I didn’t have any really exciting or original answers.  And I guess I still don’t.

Giulio:

But now you will share your boring and unoriginal answers?

Ben:

Precisely.   My thinking is that there are two good ways for such a Confederation to get founded in the near future.

The first is simply the emergence of a guru.  Someone who wants to lead such an organization, and go around giving speeches and posting videos and writings about it, and being the charismatic leader at the heart of it.  That could certainly work – the affinity of humans, even transhumanist humans, for charismatic leaders seems undiminished as technology advances.

The other, perhaps more interesting route, would be to somehow leverage social network effects.  Make a Cosmist Confederation that could grow virally and self-organizingly in the same sort of way that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have grown.   Note that those social networks don’t have any charismatic leaders at the center.   Now we don’t have any example of religion-type organizations that have self-organized in this manner.  But of course the Web and other modern communication technologies are new, and it’s to be expected that all sorts of new phenomena are going to emerge in the coming years and decades.

This brings me back to an idea I had in the late 1990s, before blogging as such existed – I wanted to make a massive, collectively-authored, web-based Knowledge Base of Human Experience.  The idea was that each person could log on and type in some text about an experience they’d had, maybe upload some relevant images, and then enter some meta-data describing the emotional or spiritual or social aspects of the experience, to enable effective automated search and indexing and organization.  I never built the website unfortunately – if I had maybe I would have gradually morphed it into what we now call a public blog site, and gotten rich….  But I wonder if some idea vaguely like that could work today, and could serve as the seed of a self-organizing network-ish Cosmist Confederation?

This ties into something I’ve often complained about regarding the transhumanist community (I know you say that community doesn’t really exist, but as you say it’s a useful shorthand!) – the lack of attention to inner experience.  Too much about the science and technology, not enough about the individual and social states of mind that result from the technology, and that ultimately enable and drive the technology.  Perhaps some sort of Web social network specifically oriented toward sharing states of mind and experiences related to technology, mind and spirit could grow into something interesting.  What if you could upload an experience you’ve had, and get automagically connected with others who’ve had similar experiences?  Well you can envision the possibilities….

I don’t have any details brilliantly worked out or anything.  But my general point is, somewhere in the intersection of accelerating change, subjective individual and social experience, and Web 2.0 tech, there probably lies a way to seed the self-organization of a Confederation of Cosmists, without the need for any guru at the center.  If I weren’t so busy trying to build superhuman thinking machines and save the world, I might be inclined to figure out the right way to design that social network….  But as it is I’ll be happy to leave it to somebody else and sign on as an enthusiastic user.  Or if some industrious reader of this interview wants to collaborate on such a thing, who knows, maybe something like this could happen.