April 24, 2011

Speaking on 'designer psychologies' at the Humanity+ Conference

This coming May I will be attending and speaking at Humanity+'s conference at Parson's University in New York. The theme of the conference is "Transhumanism meets design" and to that end I will be discussing the potential for 'designer psychologies.' The abstract for my talk:
Baseline human psychology is a legacy of our paleolithic ancestry. Its current configuration is the result of very specific evolutionary pressures, but it has become poorly suited for life in the post-industrial age. Not only are humans becoming increasingly susceptible to psychological disorders, they are also reaching hard limits in terms of memory capacity, attention spans and intelligence; humans are now having great difficulties keeping up with and adapting to novel technologies. Moreover, humans are coming to realize that there can be more to human psychology than the default state. In the space of all possible viable and desirable psychologies, the neurotypical mind is but a tiny speck. As the autism rights community has shown, there is considerable value to alternative psychologies. Looking ahead, and with the assistance of converging technologies like genetics, advanced psychopharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology, we will soon be able to design and create novel psychologies. This will be more than just intelligence or memory augmentation; designer psychologies will re-set and re-frame the way individuals perceive and process their environment in virtually all aspects. This design space is virtually limitless.
More about the conference:
April 12, 2011 (New York, NY) – Humanity+, the world’s leading nonprofit organization advocating the ethical use of technology to expand human capabilities, today announced its first conference in partnership with Parsons The New School for Design, a leading art and design school in New York City dedicated to the advancement of design thinking and education. Transhumanism Meets Design explores the role of design in transcending and transforming human potential, and will take place at The New School May 14–15, 2011. This groundbreaking conference features lectures and panels that bring together and explore the nexus of emerging technology, transdisciplinary design, culture, media theory, and biotechnology.
Transhumanism aims to elevate the human condition. Design is a process for problem solving. At Transhumanism Meets Design, these two domains will join forces as leading transhumanists, cyberneticists, life extensionists, singularity advocates, artificial intelligence experts, human enhancement specialists, inventors, ethicists, and philosophers gather to explore human futures, ask questions, construct ideas, and peer over the edge into the unknown.
“Translating this narrative calls for a transdisciplinarity that brings emerging technologies and creative insights to the forefront. Transhumanist aesthetics pioneers how we will design our existence and future identity,” said Natasha Vita-More, vice chair of Humanity+, who co-chairs the conference with Ed Keller, associate dean of Distributed Learning and Technology at Parsons. “We live in an era of unprecedented interest in design,” said Keller. “Recognizing that the body could be the next frontier, we are challenging designers to use the research tools developed to enhance products to engage and extend the human body.”
Featured speakers include Howard Bloom, author of Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, and Vivian Rosenthal, cofounder of New York–based Tronic Studio. Also speaking are artificial intelligence researcher Ben Goertzel, chair of Humanity+; Natasha Vita-More, artist and theorist of transhumanism; strategic philosopher Max More, CEO of Alcor Life Extension Foundation; and neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, a James Martin Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University.
For a full list of confirmed speakers and additional information about the conference, please visit the conference website: http://humanityplus.org/conferences/parsons.
To register for the conference, please visit the conference EventBrite page:
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Transhumanism Meets Design is one of the highlights of Parsons Festival 2011, which takes place May 7–23 and features exhibitions, interactive installations, and programs that showcase the full range of art and design thinking at Parsons. For more information, please visit www.newschool.edu/parsonsfestival. To learn more about Humanity+, please visit www.humanityplus.org.
Humanity+ is an international nonprofit membership organization which advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. Humanity+ supports the development of and access to new technologies that enable everyone to enjoy better minds, better bodies and better lives. In other words, Humanity+ wants people to be better than well. For more information visit humanityplus.org.
Parsons The New School for Design is a global leader in art and design education. Based in New York City but active around the world, the school offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the full spectrum of design disciplines. An integral part of The New School, Parsons builds on the university’s legacy of progressive ideals, scholarship, and pedagogy. Parsons graduates are leaders in their respective fields, with a shared commitment to creatively and critically addressing the complexities of life in the 21st century. For more information, please visit www.newschool.edu/parsons.
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Media Contacts:
Hal Hefner, Humanity+
Phone:             213-713-1219      
Email: hal@humanityplus.org
Kate McCormick, The New School
Phone:             212-229-5667       x3794
Email: mccork00@newschool.edu

Economist: How religion takes advantage of human nature

Great article in the Economist on how to build a religion. Excerpt:
At the outset, you must realise that success is unlikely if you go wholly against the grain of human nature. Granted, religion is all about forging the perfect man, or at least ensuring that, as far as possible, he lives up to divine expectations. But preternatural power has forged man in such a way that he will swallow some of your ideas about how to achieve this more easily than others.

By stressing the right ones, then, you can do to give a fillip to the painstaking process of perfecting mankind. This is what some temporal powers have been doing of late, when trying to nudge their citizens towards individual choices which are more socially desirable, with notable success. You can do the same. This will, however, require that you rein in your dislike for a moment and listen to what those ungodly scientists have to say, despite their unremitting efforts to explain away the need for your enterprise.

As in the case of states, your principal concern is to encourage co-operation among your flock. In the long run, groups that co-operate more have an advantage over those whose members are less willing to do so. This also means limiting the number of actual and potential shirkers. People, it seems, are naturally inclined to do this anyway, but you can egg them on with a few simple tricks.

First, you are better off plumping for a personal god, rather than some sort of indeterminate life force. Research shows that people who profess a belief in such a deity judge moral transgressions more harshly, which in turn tends to make them more willing to abide by the rules, and expend resources on enforcing them. This may be down to a conviction that they are being incessantly watched over by an attentive minder, who tallies their contributions (or lack thereof) and rewards (or punishments) in a cosmic ledger. Speaking of which, incorporating the idea of just deserts is a fine plan, too. Apparently, people are born with an intuition to that effect. Just remember to keep the misfortunes visited on wrongdoers commensurate with their misdeeds. Otherwise people will think it unfair and won't buy it. No fire and brimstone for littering, and suchlike.

Onion: Sullen Time-Traveling Teen Reports 23rd Century Sucks

From The Onion: Sullen Time-Traveling Teen Reports 23rd Century Sucks:
According to sullen teenager Steve Geremek, the 23rd century, a time previously restricted to the fantastical imaginings of science-fiction writers and futurists, "sucks."

Steve Geremek, shortly after his return from the "totally stupid and lame" year 2202.

"Ah, it was a bunch of boring stuff," said a slouching, mumbling Geremek, 17, at a press conference shortly after his return from the future Monday. "It totally blew."

Geremek, the son of renowned MIT theoretical physicist Irwin Geremek, was transported to the year 2202 last Thursday when he accidentally wandered into an experimental tachyon particle accelerator being developed by his father.

"I was messing around in my dad's thingy and, all of a sudden, there was this flash of purple light," Geremek said. "Next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a bunch of boring future stuff."

Asked to clarify what he meant by "boring future stuff," Geremek said, "I dunno... stuff."

One Green Planet on the IEET'S Rights of Non-Human Persons Program

One Green Planet has chimed in on our Rights of Non-Human Persons Program. In the article, The Post-Human Age? When Transhumanism and Animal Rights Collide, One Green Planet correctly observes that the IEET, as a promoter of non-anthropocentric personhood ethics, has outlined a strategy to allow nonhumans ranging from animals to future post-humans and their cognitive equivalents, such as artificial intelligences, to gain rough moral and legal parity with humans.

That said, the article goes on to list three objections to the program:
  1. Sentient beings will continue to be regarded as property
  2. This presents a new hierarchy that simply replaces an old one
  3. This will result in more animal experimentation
Quickly, in regards to the third point, it simply does not follow that sentient non-persons will suddenly become open season for experimentation. This argument is as pernicious as the human exceptionalist argument which contends that the value of humanity will somehow be lessened if we extend human-level rights outside the species. Ultimately, we have to ensure that all creatures capable of suffering will be protected.

Now, in regards to the first two objections: These arguments essentially express the fear that, under the IEET's plan, sentient non-persons will continue to be exploited as property and left out in the cold. All we're really doing, they argue, is creating a new hierarchy.

This is another classic example of how you can't please everybody all of the time. The RNHP infuriates the human exceptionalists as much as it does the die-hard animal rights advocates. Our middle-ground approach, as distasteful as it may seem to some, is both pragmatic and ideologically sound. And just as importantly, it's one that will get the job done where other attempts have failed. What we're doing at the IEET is unique; we've come to the realization that the extension of rights to non-human animals is an iterative process that will, out of necessity, have to involve a hierarchical approach.

Yes, all animals are capable of suffering, but not all animals are equal in terms of their capacity to suffer. Moreover, not all animals are equal in terms of their cognitive and emotional sophistication. A strong case can be made that the initial list of non-human persons we've designated are more susceptible of experiencing emotional and existential distress, and are thus deserving of special protections.

To reiterate an important point, we at the IEET do not feel that the circle of nonhuman persons stops at Great Apes, cetaceans, and elephants (or even advanced artificial intelligence). Because personhood follows a spectrum based on capacities, I fully expect entire sets and subsets of nonhuman person types to be included as time passes. What we're doing is a start. Initially, we're looking for buy-in on the concept of nonhuman persons and to get certain species protected by human-equivalent rights. Once we reach that milestone our efforts will not stop; the IEET will continue to work towards the extension of legal protections to more and more animals.

Animal rights folks are welcome to argue this approach with me all they want. But what they have to acknowledge is that, to date, virtually all strategies by animal rights groups to grant animals meaningful legal protections have utterly and completely failed. Traditional strategies are simply not working. What we at the IEET are offering is baby-steps approach that will eventually help us achieve our mutual goals.

April 2, 2011

Revisting Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921)

Everybody knows the dystopian novels Brave New World and 1984, but few remember Yevgeny Zamyatin's seminal work, We.

The Russian Zamyatin completed We in 1921, a book that was largely written in response to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and his work in the Tyne shipyards during the First World War. The result was a characteristically unique vision of the future, one that in turn spawned the satirical science fiction dystopia genre.

There's no questioning Zamyatin's influence on 21st Century writers like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and even Ayn Rand. In fact, Orwell himself said that it served as the model for 1984. Like the writers who followed him, Zamyatin took the burgeoning totalitarian and conformative elements of modern industrial society to an extreme conclusion, conveying a surveillance state that considered free will as the cause of unhappiness—and who in turn took it upon itself to control and direct the lives of its citizens.

The novel is set in the future where the protagonist, D-503, lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass and which serves as a kind of Benthamite Panopticon; the configuration allows the secret police and spies to inform on and supervise the public more easily. Society is thus portrayed as a kind of prison.

Life in this society is organized to promote maximum productive efficiency along the lines of the system advocated by the hugely influential F.W. Taylor. People march in step with each other and wear identical clothing. Names have been replaced by numbers; men have odd numbers prefixed by consonants while women have even numbers prefixed by vowels. The story itself follows the plight of D-503 as he struggles to reconcile his obligations to the state with his discovery of a nascent revolt called the Mephi.

Like 1984, the dystopian society is presided over by the Benefactor (who Orwell called Big Brother) and every hour "The Table" offers instructions to citizens (a precursor to the telescreen).

Needless to say Zamyatin's book was immediately banned in the Soviet Union. His literary position quickly deteriorated during the 1920s and he eventually fled to Paris in 1931. The novel was first published in English in 1924, but its first publication in the Soviet Union had to wait until 1988, when glasnost resulted in it appearing alongside 1984. A year later We and Brave New World were published together in a combined edition. In 1994, the novel received a Prometheus Award in the "Hall of Fame" category.