Peter Rothman, editor of H+ Magazine, spoke to David Wood, chair of London Futurists, about the “Anticipating 2025” event taking place in London on 22-23 March.
H+ Mag: Why did you choose the headline title “Anticipating 2025” for this event?
A-2025: Many technology conferences tend to focus on possible developments in the next 18-24 months: the next version of the iPhone, the likely adoption of Google Glass and other wearable computers, etc. Other conferences look much further afield – to the time of a potential technological singularity, perhaps mid-century, when radical superhuman AI might arise. The important time period in between is often neglected. This conference seeks to make amends.
Specifically, the goal of this conference is to elevate serious analysis of the radical scenarios that may unfold between now and 2025. Over two days, 18 speakers from various branches of futurism, academia, business, and activism, will be giving their views as to which future scenarios are technically feasible, and which (out of that subset) also happen to be desirable. They will also be debating the best steps to take to bring these desirable visions into reality.
2025 is well beyond current political election time horizons, and exceeds the planning framework of most business leaders. But technology has the potential to drive dramatic changes in human experience between then and now. For example, from now until 2025, there could be seven 18-month “Moore’s Law” generations, potentially resulting in a 128-fold (2^7) increase in computing power. That will enable devices that are, say, five times more powerful, five times cheaper, and five times smaller (hence requiring five times less energy input) than today’s computers. There will likely also be significant progress in other technology fields, such as nanotech, synthetic biology, renewable energy, robotics, brain interfacing, cognitive computing, and quantum computing. Taken together, this means there will be huge potential for change in very many areas of work, play, learning, and healthcare – as well as in our social and economic structures. The potential upsides and potential downsides are both enormous.
H+ Mag: Will transhumanists find this conference interesting?
A-2025: Yes, for three reasons.
First, a number of well-known transhumanist thought leaders are speaking at the event – including Natasha Vita-More, David Pearce, and Anders Sandberg. In my experience, these speakers always have interesting things to say.
Second, several talks at the event will be challenging an idea that many transhumanists tend to take for granted. This is the idea that it is only a matter of time before technology will advance sufficiently to satisfy the desires of anyone who wants to live indefinitely long, be as healthy as they wish, as smart as they wish, and so on. However, I see none of these developments as being inevitable. What various speakers will be talking about, indeed, is the risk that society will fracture horribly between now and 2025, and that major divisions will have occurred. The resulting inequalities and distress will provoke lots of backlashes and conflicts.
These conflicts could be triggered by a new crash of the financial system, by societal frustrations due to technological unemployment, by the thought that extreme weather is becoming much worse because of global warming due to our addiction to oil, or by terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction, coupled with extreme reactions from governments.
To be clear, there are two bad outcomes of this fracturing, conflict, and division of society. First, it will take most of us backwards, compared to what we’re now experiencing. A long way backwards. So it’s bad for the near-term future. But, second, it also risks destroying the societal mechanisms that enable technological progress – progress that is needed to achieve the positive vision for the future that transhumanists anticipate. So this divisiveness would be very bad for the long-term future too.
This can be summarised by the phrase “roadblocks en route to the future”. One of these roadblocks is convergence, but not the “technological convergence” that transhumanists often talk about. It’s a convergence of risk, heightened by the increasing pace of change.
For these reasons, a major theme of the Anticipating 2025 event is to identify the challenges faced by the transhumanist and technoprogressive vision, and to outline a roadmap of solutions to these challenges.
As an example, Marco Vega and Peter Brietbart of BIOPS will be talking about “Implementation as the crux of transhumanism”. Riva-Melissa Tezwill be talking about “The three obstacles that prevent emerging technologies from fulfilling their potential”. M Amon Twyman, founder of Zero State, will be talking about “The Wave of change: Convergent technologies and disruptive trends in 2025”. Rohit Talwar, Global Futurist and Founder of Fast Future Research, will be talking about “Driving forces, global challenges and potential disruptions”. And so on.
These are all topics that should both challenge and engage transhumanists. I hope that transhumanists will collectively become more involved in these discussions.
H+ Mag: And the third reason transhumanists will find this conference interesting?
A-2025: Transhumanists spend a lot of time exchanging news and ideas in virtual space, such as online social networks, but it’s good for us to gather from time to time in meat space too. This conference provides that opportunity.
From my experience at previous conferences, it’s the accidental, unplanned meetings with people that often provide some of the lasting value, with long-term relationships being formed or updated.
In addition to the people speaking at Anticipating 2025, there are transhumanists travelling from all over Europe to take part in the event, and even a few coming from across the Atlantic. So I expect a whole host of positive meat space meetings of that accidental, unplanned type.
H+ Mag: Do you expect interest from business people, or from people looking to invest in the “next big thing”?
A-2025: Some of the ideas being discussed could make a big difference in the world of business, in either short term or medium term timescales.Andrew Vladimirov, information security expert and DIY brain hacker, is talking on “The near future of accessible cognition enhancement and modification”. This takes the ideas of “smart drugs” (nootropics) and “wearable computers” one step further. Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO Azuri Technologies, is giving a presentation “(em)Powering Africa”, in which he’ll cover dramatic uses of solar energy and mobile technology. Paul Barnett, Founder & Acting CEO, The Strategic Management Forum, is talking about “Re-Thinking Strategy: How organisations can thrive during rapid change ahead”. And Maneesh Juneja, Digital Health Futurist and Health 2.0 London Chapter Leader, is talking on “Healthcare in the future: will advancing technology make doctors unemployed?”
As a different kind of example, a talk I organised for Humanity+ UK back in October 2009 featured a speaker from University College London called Dr Shane Legg. Shane talked about “Machine Super Intelligence”. People who paid close attention to Shane’s work, at that time and afterwards, had the opportunity to invest in the start-up Shane co-founded, known as “DeepMind”. DeepMind was recently acquired by Google for a price said to be around $500M. This acquisition was presumably good news for the early backers of DeepMind. Incidentally, video footage of Shane’s talk that day still exists – see http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/01/31/video-friday-deepminds-shane-legg-on-machine-superintelligence/.
We don’t have anyone from DeepMind speaking at Anticipating 2025, but we do have one businessman, Calum Chace, talking about a closely related subject, “Minds and AIs: six important questions”.
H+ Mag: With the date 2025 in mind, what’s your view on predicting the future of technology?
A-2025: From my own experience in the smartphone industry, I’ve seen lots of failed predictions about the future impact of technology.
Applications of technology often worked out in ways that few people had predicted in advance. This is because they failed to take into account the full set of conditions that govern the timing and scale of the impact. These conditions include political and legislative factors, alliances of companies being able to work together positively, the solution of hard usability questions, and changes in the expectations and thinking of ordinary people.
Technology marketers have a useful phrase: they talk about technology products “crossing the chasm” from early-stage adoption to mainstream usage. There’s often a large chasm – a gaping void – between these two types of market. The solution to this chasm isn’t just technological prowess. It involves marketing expertise, and also execution expertise (meaning, being agile, lean, and skilled at continuous integration). I’ll say more about this in my own talk at Anticipating 2025, when I hope to show technology predictions in a new light.
H+ Mag: What else are you looking forward to, at this event?
A-2025: In addition to the speakers I’ve already mentioned, there are a number of really fascinating talks. Let me briefly mention several.
David Levy, an International Chess Master with a long history in computer chess, is giving a talk “Love and sex with robots”. Mark Stevenson, who is the author of the book “An Optimist’s Tour of the Future”, is giving a talk “The Shift: Why our systems are failing us and what will replace them”. Sonia Contera, co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology, is speaking about “Nanotechnology in 2025″. Ben McLeish of the Zeitgeist Movement is talking about “Updating Technical Values and Hacking Culture-Lag”. And Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer and co-Founder, SENS Research Foundation, is speaking about “When the days of aging are clearly numbered, how will humanity react?”
Just as interesting as the individual talks is likely to be the interactions between the speakers on our panel discussions, and with the audience during the Q&A sessions after each talk. And as previously mentioned, the informal networking between sessions often sparks excellent ideas and connections.
H+ Mag: How can people find out more about the event?
A-2025: There are a number of preview videos at http://anticipating2025.com/previews/, including short videos introducing the ideas of a number of the speakers.
The same website contains a link where people can register.
H+ Mag: What are you planning next? Anticipating 2026?
A-2025: It’s too early to say for sure. However, one thought is to share some of the main ideas raised at Anticipating 2025 in an online forum, in a way that the key discussions can continue. This is the idea of a “London Futurists Academy”, though that name might change. Watch this space.