I recently had the good fortune to interview these chaps about their latest book:
Transcendence – click here to buy from Amazon
And enjoy this tour of a sample of topics covered, from A-Z…
Martin: Hello everybody. We got these chaps. We have R. U Sirius. You’re going to wave R. U.
Martin: We have Jay Cornell.
Martin: Hello. And I’m Martin Shervington and I’m going to do a Q and A, ’cause I’m fascinated by them. So this is Transcendence, this is their latest book and it says, ‘The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity.’
Jay: Yes, indeed.
Martin: So I met Jay very recently at a transhumanist event, and do you know what? Especially for today I’ve put that on.
Jay: Oh, there you go.
Martin: And I connected up with R.U as well. I know there are people like Peter Felton in the audience that know R.U, of course. And we’re going to run through the book. So I’m going to start, I’m going to fire questions out. Oh, a bit of background, you want to go first, Jay? Who are you, what do you do?
Jay: My connection with this is that R.U and I were both editors on h+ magazine for a couple of years. And before that I’m just a longtime fan of science and science fiction and so this sort of thing was always my interest. Normally I do web development.
Martin: Okay. Cool. Thank you. And R.U?
R.U.: Okay, yeah, I started a magazine in 1984 called High Frontiers, which was sort of about the convergence of psychedelics and the new upcoming tech culture, various scientific interests and also just the evolution of popular culture in general … that sort of techno-edge of that. That eventually turned into Mondo 2000 in 1989.
Mondo 2000 got pretty popular and influential and since then I’ve been writing and editing various things including h+ magazine from 2008 through 2010 … the official magazine of humanity+, the transhumanist organization. So yeah, I’ve been kind of in this culture for a long time.
Martin: Well let’s start then, I’ll start with a question. Let’s begin with: what is transhumanism? Who wants that one? Knowing that the next one is going to be: what is the singularity?
Jay: My definition of transhumanism is the idea that humans have not stopped evolving and that we’re actually taking charge of our own evolution using technology in various ways to make ourselves stronger, smarter, healthier, live longer. Possibly at the very end upload our brains to computers and live forever. For various reasons I think that is more unlikely than some people think it is, but that’s how I describe it in brief.
Martin: Okay, great. Now with that, he’s got a cup of tea on the way, he’s got plants being re-arranged in the background, it’s the perfect scene, well done. What is the singularity?
R.U.: Okay, to me the singularity … I go by the traditional explanation such as it is, the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge’s idea that some time, probably during the first half of the twenty first century, artificial intelligences will become smarter and more capable than we are. And once they do they’ll bootstrap themselves to become so much smarter than us that their understanding of the world, the universe and everything will exceed us to the point where we can’t understand what will happen from that point on.
So we no longer become the main drivers in human evolution. Ray Kurzweil wrote the book The Singularity is Near. He projects the idea that we will unite with the AIs, that the AIs will be in us so that our intelligence and the AI intelligence will be a unified sort of thing, not something outside of us. But in any case, to me it’s the idea that artificial intelligence will exceed us. I don’t necessarily believe in that. And there are a whole bunch of other people that like to talk about singularity. The psychedelic mystic Terrence McKenna had his idea of the singularity. We’d go through an Omega Point in which everything changes and becomes incomprehensible. We’re already past the point … the place in time when he predicted that would happen. I don’t think there’s been a singularity, although it seems pretty incomprehensible to me. Particularly at this moment in the morning… and probably incomprehensible to most human beings.
Jay: Maybe we’ve had a singularity in ISIS land because that’s pretty incomprehensible to most of the world. That was not really predictable by some people twenty years ago.
R.U.: The backward singularity.
Jay: There you go.
Martin: Right, we got a little on transhumanism, a little on singularity, I’m going to come to the book. What I thought I’d do, I’ll fire out, you can decide who wants to pick it up. I’m going to fire out a name, from one of the section headings and we’ll just run through, tell me in a few words what it is. Let’s go for: artificial general intelligence. What’s that about?
R.U.: Okay, well I’ll take that on first. AI scientists are making a distinction between the broad notion of artificial intelligence that currently exists, like your Siri that talks to you on your cell phone or any of the systems that are running our banks and our airplanes ad infinitum; and the idea of artificial general intelligence, which is something that can mimic actual human intelligence or otherwise be a sort of intelligence that is competent to handle complexity rather than one or two simple tasks.
And we don’t have artificial general intelligence yet. We have a whole bunch of people who believe in it and are working on it and are being well funded in some areas by organizations like Google and DARPA and other ones I can’t think of immediately.
So that’s the thing, artificial general intelligence is the thing that would lead towards the singularity, assuming it could work and that it could advance that far.
R.U.: Jay, you want to add anything to it?
Jay: Yeah, I think it’s one of the more interesting topics to me, historically, because people have been seriously talking about this at least since the 1950s. In science fiction it goes back farther, but definitely by the sixties you had top-notch computer scientists saying, ‘Aha! Soon we will have an artificial intelligence equal to that of human beings, oh it’s probably about only twenty years in the future.’
Well, you know, we’re about fifty years in the future from that and it’s still twenty years in the future. To me it’s sort of the fusion power of computing science. It’s the thing that they thought was not that difficult to do and the more they learn about it the harder it is to do. Human intelligence turns out to be far more complicated and thus harder to replicate than they thought.
Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s not going to happen, but I think it’s an interesting cautionary tale in techno-optimism that people have sort of thought this has been right around the corner for quite a while now. And it’s still right around the corner. And maybe it is.
Martin: We shall see. 2035. Okay, next one, who wants to tell me about Aubrey DeGrey?
R.U.: Well, Aubrey DeGrey is the leader of several projects to increase lifespan. I think his main organization is called SENS, S-E-N-S. If I can remember it’s (something) engineering negligible senescence.
Martin: We should rename that. It’s a nice easy one for us to remember.
R.U.: S-E-N-S. Oh yeah, it’s a simple name, easily available. So, Aubrey is a fellow who looked at life extension as an engineering project rather than as something that was built into our genes that could have a singular simple solution if we were to understand the genomic mechanism that causes us to age no matter what.
He thinks you just have to fix a whole bunch of things all the time. And there are six kinds of things, I can’t really recall what they are. But you can certainly read about them in our book. So yeah, he’s become a leading figure in the movement for radical life extension.
Martin: And there are some very long living rats on the planet. He’s actually in the U.K as well, on that. But there’s a lot of mice. There’s a lot of work being done that’s proven that some of the techniques are working, isn’t it? In this area. Even applying to humans.
R.U.: Yeah, it’s been shown that mammals can have their lives extended. Except for Jay, but mammals can have their lives extended far beyond the presumed biological limits.
Martin: Not eating them, R.U, is one of them. That’s how we extend them, by not eating them.
Martin: No need for that Jay, it’s good. Okay, cool. Let’s do one more A. Augmented reality, what’s your perspective on that?
Jay: That’s a very interesting thing. A good sort of model of augmented reality is when you’re watching a sports event on television and there is the ticker at the bottom showing you the score and the averages per player and all of that. And the idea of augmented reality is that you would use a computer to do that for yourself personally. You would have a readout on your Google Glass or high-tech contact lens that would give you a readout from your computer, from the internet, and augment what you are seeing in the everyday world.
The example I gave in the book was you’re walking down the street and you see somebody moving out of an apartment building. Then you ask your computer, okay, who rents that space, how much is that apartment going for, what else has happened this neighborhood, is it a high crime neighborhood or not.’ And you get all that information fed to you immediately.
Martin: Okay, perfect, which leads us into the B I’ve chosen; biohacking.
Jay: Well, there are a number of people who are using biological tools and techniques to experiment on themselves. There are people called ‘grinders’ who have actually made, sort of, implantable devices. In one case somebody implanted one under their own forearm, doctors won’t do this, and so they use ice cubes, and vodka, and scalpels that they bought on eBay and put a device under their arm. I think all the initial one that I heard of did was it sent blood pressure, pulse rate, via Bluetooth to an external device.
And recently there were some people who did some experiments, controversial even in the transhumanist community, with eye drops that gave them temporary night vision to one extent or another. So there are a number of people doing that on themselves and they are also doing things like bioengineering the microbes in yogurt to make them glow in the dark and so on.
So people have their own little kitchen and garage and basement biology labs where they’re doing biological experiments on themselves and others.
Martin: They eat the yogurt and then they glow in the dark.
R.U.: I would add that recently in researching an article, I’ve discovered that a lot of the people who view themselves as biohackers, primarily what they are doing is measuring their well-being, sort of like FitBit but more extensively. And it’s that sort of biohacking; changing what they eat; how they sleep; what kind of exercise they do; seeing how far they can push their biology into the realm of self-enhancement and basically being sort of superhuman as compared to the average person, without actually having to go into genomics or put things inside your body. And that appears to be part of the culture of biohacking is simply doing things that ordinary humans can easily do. And then measuring the results and using those results as a feedback to become even more superhuman within the biological limits that they we have today.
Jay: That’s true, then the grinders are sort of the bleeding edge of the biohacking movement. Because biohacking does include less extreme things. In fact Timothy Ferris had a best-selling book a couple of years ago called The Four Hour Body, in which he talked about his experiments and just measuring exactly what it takes to lose weight, and build muscle mass and so on. And so he ends up having his watch alarm go off at exactly this time and he eats four raw almonds. And doing things like that in order to optimize his health.
Martin: Great, and then you mentioned quantified self. This very much ties into that. It’s already like the FitBit, I think. It’s already well on the way isn’t it. So it’s only these steps of what people would see almost as commitment, let’s go for the word commitment. Do any of these things, as soon as you go into it deeper there’s more options?
Jay: Right, and the Apple watch with HealthKit, yeah, all that’s tying in, people are getting very organized and specific about their health.
Martin: Okay, what does this lead into, cognitive enhancement, specifically.
R.U.: Okay, well there has been a movement towards intelligence increase drugs and nutrients since the 1970′s and that sort of evolved into the concept of cognitive enhancement and… can we improve the functions of our brain? And certainly people are now using technology, machines, and so forth … technique as well as technology, but also a whole plethora of new drugs, nootropics and so forth to have better brains, so maybe we can keep up with the AIs when they start to be as intelligent as we are.
Jay: It looks like you were going to say something about that. That’s what I would say.
R.U.: There’s an awful lot of stuff online about nootropics. I don’t know the degree to which anything is proven to work as a sort of long-term IQ booster, or something that people can gobble down for a few years and suddenly become, from being an average person to… uh… being an Einstein and so forth. We don’t have something along those lines yet, but there do seem to be a number of things that are understood to be effective.
Even those old fashioned drugs that terrorize America ‒ the stimulants, the amphetamines ‒ seem to have some intelligence increase use at least as a temporary effect, as many college students and writers know. Although it doesn’t seem to make the bikers particularly intellectual.
Jay: Yes, that is a big thing apparently in colleges these days, of getting your Adderall prescription and using it to study harder.
Martin: I just stand up on the weekends, in the city, so that’s what I was going to say. One more thing, any time I smoke weed, I’m a genius. That counts. Doesn’t happen often but it counts. I thought I’d use that example. Okay, so, California man, it’s living here.
Let’s talk about consciousness. What is consciousness now because obviously we’re talking about AI and this is where the bridge starts to come. Because people go, can an AI have self-reflexive consciousness? Can it know itself to be a thinking creature? So, where are you guys at with that?
Jay: I’ll say a little something. That’s a very tricky issue because that really gets into a great deal of heavy duty philosophy as we discovered when we were working on this section of the book. One particular issue that I find interesting is that, to many people, your consciousness in your brain is just your neurons firing back and forth and sending chemical and electrical signals and so, hey, all you need to do is to have an artificial brain, a silicon brain, that you have programmed to do the same thing at the same level to the same degree and then, voila, you’ll have consciousness right?
Well, there are many people who think this is not going to work. They think that consciousness is, to some degree, arising from our physical bodies in a way that you either won’t be able to, or it will be much more difficult to simply model this in silicon and say you have the same thing. Then other people will say, oh no, that’s biological essentialism, I think is the term for that.
But I find it very interesting and I think actually it may be, to some degree, it relates to what I said earlier about how artificial general intelligence turns out to be much more difficult than we thought ten or twenty or thirty years ago. Trying to understand exactly how the brain works and why it works that way is very difficult.
Martin: Okay. I’m going to give you a choice, DARPA or distributive cognition.
R.U.: We could do them together. Jay you want to take on one of those?
Jay: Sure, I think I wrote the distributive cognition one. That’s the idea that much of our mental activity is actually not simply limited to our brains. That we use computers and other people to understand things.
Martin: But this sort of ties in to Kurzweil’s idea that we already have outsourced our knowledge to the Cloud, haven’t we?
Jay: Exactly, yes.
Martin: So what we’re saying is within a social system your cognition isn’t actually you, you go and ask advice, you go and get perspectives. Is it that?
Jay: Right, yeah, that’s part of it. It was a particular fellow whose name I don’t remember, who was studying how Navy ships operated. And the sort of theoretical model that he came up with was distributed cognition. The idea that you don’t simply look at one person’s brain to see how they’re understanding something. They’re bringing in knowledge from outside of themselves. And you look at that whole process, the whole interlinked system to understand how cognition works.
Martin: Yeah, go on, R.U.
R.U.: There’s basically the idea that human beings have always had distributive cognition at least since the beginning of writing and publishing and anything that sort of binds the discoveries, the contents of some human minds to the content of other human minds. It appears to occur in other kinds of species naturally, ants and so forth.
Jay: Right, leaving a trail for the other ants to follow, that kind of thing.
Martin: And probably social media, starts to ‒
Jay: Oh yes, there’s a lot of distributive cognition going on there.
R.U.: In fact I think it’s been shown that human beings in isolation don’t have much cognition at all. They have hallucinations but that’s a different sort of thought.
Martin: Okay, do you want to do DARPA? D-A-R-P-A.
R.U.: Oh, I’d love to do DARPA. I don’t know if they would let me do them. Incredible. In the United States Army … the sort of wildly experimental arm, you know I can’t remember off the top, but anything far out and extreme in technology that you could think of… creating non-biological life, working with cryonics, doing some of the first realistic works with cryonics, taking injured and bordering on dead people and freezing them to do work, you know, putting them into a cryonic state to do work on them and then bringing them back… that’s one of their projects.
And they basically have a singularity project going to bring about intelligent machines. If you look up the stuff that DARPA does, it is as out there as it can possibly be. And the government has always considered them sort of an experimental arm where they can play with things that may not have an immediate payoff like that foolish internet thing that they were working on in the seventies.
Jay: Right. And of course it was DARPA research that underlies a lot of the internet. Because the reason that the internet was developed originally was, how can we communicate between military bases and military units in the aftermath of a nuclear war? So you need some sort of system for the computers to communicate that if one node goes down, if one city goes down, the rest can still communicate. And so that research was at the core of what became the internet.
Martin: Cool. Okay. Let’s go on to the Es. Exoskeleton.
R.U.: One of the most popular articles on h+ was about an exoskeleton machine that could make a human being … I can’t remember the exact figure … thirty or forty times stronger. Basically you strap it on and you can use it to lift things and move mountains and so forth. A Japanese company, I believe, created it. So yeah, that’s basically the idea that we can have these exterior forms of embodiment that can do things that we can’t do at the level of the full body. Otherwise it’s just cyborg technology if it’s just one specific thing.
Jay: That’s another interesting example of a technology that, I first saw this in Popular Science in the late 1960s. Because somebody, maybe GE, had developed one and the idea was that you could have the guy in the warehouse lifting five hundred pound boxes off of the upper story of the shelf there. And, I didn’t write that section or I would have researched this, because I was wondering why that was a false start and you heard nothing about it except in science fiction, you know, Iron Man costumes kind of thing. But recently they seem to have made more strides that way. Probably because robotics has gotten better and probably there’s some computer control that’s necessary. I think in the ’60s original one there was a hydraulic system that probably didn’t work very well, or which didn’t work well enough to do what they wanted.
Martin: Cool, okay, next. Let’s go with Fun Theory.
R.U.: Yeah, Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is fairly well-known in singularity circles, started a number of organizations, came up with a theory basically regarding how much fun is there in the universe and can this be mathematically proven or mathematically analyzed.
The article is sort of fun. It’s not that much fun. As I say in the book, I think Sheldon Cooper would be beside himself without having been cloned. We have a number of things that are in the book that are silly and playful and there to give people some relief from some of the harder science and tech news. And Fun Theory is just that pretty much.
Martin: Perfect, I can tell you’re about to say something, Jay. Do you want to say something?
Jay: Oh no, I was just going to say to anyone in the audience to please don’t be put off by the word ‘encyclopedia’ in the title of this book. Because even though it’s a bunch of short to medium-long pieces arranged alphabetically, it is not a dry tome. It’s written in a very lively way, it’s often very funny. So please don’t be put off by it.
Martin: Be put off? No, it’s great. I’m just zipping through a few of the things. So we’re going to come down to, next one I’m going to go for, gamification, in this perspective.
Jay: That was another one of R.U.’s sections.
R.U.: Yeah, there is this concept that has been going around in the tech world and also in the corporate world and I’m sure in other places, that we learn more, we do better creative work, or we do even better boring work if we turn it into a game, or if we turn them into games. Contemporary people love gaming, computer gaming and so forth. So the idea of gamification is to remove or decrease the boundary between work and play and to turn things into games.
And that game theory has been out there since the early twentieth century. Buckminster Fuller, the scientist, architect, suggested that we can remake the world and the development and distribution of resources by creating a world game.
So yeah, this is a thing that’s going around. I see it as being associated with the idea of Homo Ludens, the idea that man, or humanity, is a playful being.
Martin: Yup, love it, which leads into the stop at humanity plus.
R.U.: Okay, that’s kind of my thing mostly too. Humanity+ is an organization that evolved out of the World Transhumanist Association, which, in a way, evolved out of the Extropy Foundation. And, in a way, this is sort of the organized transhumanist group; or the original organized transhumanist group. And the idea is Humanity Plus … humanism … the embrace or humanity but also the embrace of enhanced humanity.
And the people that came up with the idea of Humanity+ for a while tried to get people to stop saying ‘transhumanism’ and start saying ‘humanity plus.’ It was an attempt to change the memetics of the transhumanist movement. But the use of the word transhuman had already escaped the grasp of the organized transhumanist. Any number of science fiction writers andpeople who I worked with in Mondo 2000 magazine and so forth were already using transhuman and posthuman as ways to describe some things that are going on, including in science fiction, so there was no way of reeling that back in.
But the organization continues to exist and sponsor conferences and they have a website… h+ magazine website… that I initially started. It’s still going and running good stuff.
Jay: I remember about fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years ago, there was a minor campaign, they wanted people to stop calling them ‘browsers’ for some reason, I’ve forgotten what the suggested term was. But somebody objected to the web browser as a term and they were trying to change everybody’s language, it was like, ‘nah, too late,’ so we all still call it that.
Martin: I get it. So, I, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. IEET, what is this?
R.U.: Okay, well that’s another platform and group that’s very well connected in the sense of having the support of not just transhumanist types but large numbers of people in various communities that are interested in social well-being and the effect of technology on social well-being. But it does have sort of a transhumanist edge. Hank Pellissier has now become the editor of their website and he’s a very active transhumanist who… we both went to a conference that he organized yesterday.
But IEET is sort of somewhere on the boundary between the ordinary or mainstream pop culture reportage that goes on in a lot of tech websites… journalism… and then the notion of scientific papers and stuff like that. IEET is sort of somewhere on the boundary between those two things and has a certain official cachet or whatever.
Martin: Okay, super. Let’s go L, Longevity Immortality.
R.U.: That’s the big kahuna for transhumanists. Jay, go ahead.
Jay: That’s long been a core interest of transhumanists and in fact I think that if you gather any group of transhumanists that’s probably the core focus of most of them, I would say. What I can say that’s interesting about it? I don’t know, I’m at a loss, I’ll pass.
R.U.: Well, there’s a lot of research in this area. As we discussed earlier, we’ve shown that mammals can have their lives extended beyond the presumed biological limits. Google has a well-funded project… or actually they’re putting money into another company that’s semi-independent of Google.
Martin: Not Calico, is it?
R.U.: Yeah, Calico. So there’s a lot of work in this area and just recently, I think about three or four months ago, the FDA actually approved some tests for a drug that people hope might have the ability to extend biological lifespan.
And the point, of course, is that this is health extension and these are attempts to stop aging, slow down aging or reverse aging. So the point isn’t for people to keep getting older and more decrepit for tens of thousands of years. But the point is to keep people young and to thereby eliminate or lessen the diseases that are associated with aging.
And this is the thing for one of transhumanism’s critics, who likes to call transhumanism a robot cult. But I think he is confusing transhumanism with singularitarianism. So transhumanism is the immortality cult and singularitarianism is the robot cult. So critics, get that straight.
Martin: Cool, but the thing is we’ve been extending our lives. Wasn’t it you Jay, who said a toothbrush is a life extension tool, in one of the chats when I came to the rally. And it’s like we already have technology that extends life, cooking food extends your life. So it’s like some people don’t realize that we are already using tech to extend our lives, it’s just another thing.
Jay: Well of course, it’s a continuum and we tend to take for granted certain things. We modify our environment by wearing clothes and building houses. And it is kind of funny because sometimes in discussions you’ll have people commenting on a website about the perils of technology as they sit and tap on their computer over the internet and tell us how technology is this really awful, dangerous thing. And that’s been one of the eternal struggles, one of the yin-yang struggles of human existence is the people who want to improve things and promise the wonders of technology in one degree or another. And then the people who say no, that’s not a good idea for one reason or another.
And while R.U and I are both, pretty much, generally techno-optimists, we’re both aware that the history of this is not that cut and dried. The many, many times throughout history people have made wonderful optimistic claims about how the telegraph is going to end the war because countries would have an instant way of communicating with one another, so there wouldn’t be the miscommunications that brought war.
And then again dynamite was so terrible it was going to end war. The machine gun was so terrible it was going to end war. The airplane was going to end war. The nuclear bomb was going to end war. There were some people who thought that the internet in the 1990s was definitely going to bring about an era of peace and understanding.
So I think one of the things that we talk about in the book, one of the overall themes of the book is to be optimistic, to be hopeful, to look at the way things might change for the better, but at the same time be aware that things are often over-hyped, they come later or in flawed forms than people thought. They don’t necessarily do everything that people hope they would do.
R.U.: Yeah, I want to add that at this conference we were at yesterday, there was a person that presented a wonderful chart that showed that something like fifty percent of humanity, or even more than that, used to die from infectious disease. And maybe one percent of humanity used to die from old age. And now it’s like one percent of humanity dies from infectious disease and a much larger percentage of humanity dies from old age.
So we’ve extended life sort of to the limits of what is perceived as our outside potential. Lots of people are living into their nineties now and a number of them are living into their one hundreds and so forth.
Martin: Cool, right, coming to the M, there’s lots of Ms here, but I’m going to go for the matrix. You can check your simulation theory as well if you want.
R.U.: Excuse me for a moment, while Jay is talking I’m going to go get a plug for my computer so it doesn’t run out of charge.
Jay: Okay, well let me talk about simulation theory, which is related to this, and it’s a section I wrote and that was one of my most fun sections to write. You know, whenever you have to write something it’s always best if you get really into it.
So we all know how computers can create artificial worlds. In the most simple forms you can pull up Photoshop and create an image, even a photograph, a photograph in a sense is an artificial world. It’s a two dimensional array of pixels that simulates something. With things like role-playing games and so on, you have three-dimensional worlds in which people can act in a virtual way. So the interesting thing is that as people get better at using computers to create, to simulate reality, some people have wondered, hmm, what if our reality is simulated? What if there is an alien race out there and they’re constructing an experiment, and what we see as the universe is actually a simulation run by some alien race, some future kid in the 10th grade who’s got this running as a simulation?
How likely is this and how would we know? Surprisingly, there are a number of pretty mainstream scientists who think that it’s actually more likely than not. This is the case. Nick Bostrom, professor I think maybe at Cambridge? Yes. Somewhere in the U.K. I forgot, but yes, Nick Bostrom is one of the people who thinks this is actually more likely than not. Obviously that’s a controversial position.
The part that I found most interesting is the question of, OK, if this is true, how would we know? How would we be able to figure this out? There are a few interesting points. One is that if we were scientists studying physical constants like the speed of light and so on, that if they found that a physical constant of the universe had suddenly changed, that that might be somebody adjusting their simulation. Once or twice people have thought that that has happened. ‘Wait a minute, this constant isn’t the same,’ and they do more measurements and they say ‘oh no, that was a mistake, never mind.’
The other aspect has to do with when computers are set to simulate reality there’s always some sort of a grid system. Just as there are two dimensional pixels for an image, there will be a three-dimensional version of that. And so the resolution of your grid has a lower limit. At some point you’re still using dots, you’re still using pixels to form your fake three-dimensional reality. And so if our universe really were a simulation, there would be I believe an upper limit on the energy of cosmic rays, and cosmic rays would not come from all directions equally, because they’re traveling along this matrix which would have a resolution, then that would mean that in some directions, cosmic rays would be easier for them to go than other directions. Interestingly, there actually is an upper limit on the energy of cosmic rays, which some scientists, well, I think which most of them at this point say ‘oh no, we have another explanation for that,’ but that’s a question that we talk about in the book for at least a few pages and I just found that very interesting. At first it just sounds like the classic dorm room stoner type of idea: ‘Oh man, what if we’re living in the Matrix, man? Man, how would we know?’ But as it turns out there are actually real scientists who are wrestling with this question and think that the answer may be yes.
R.U.: There’s an interesting apocalyptic scenario embedded into that which is once the other dimensional computer hacker group that has created this simulation gets bored, they pull the plug and whoops it’s all gone.
Jay: That’s right. That’s right. Mom accidentally unplugs the computer when she needs to vacuum and suddenly the universe disappears.
Martin: Cool, OK.
R.U.: It’s the sort of thing makes us smile. [Laughs]
Martin: On to 2. Let’s come to ‘Neurobotics.’
R.U.: Yeah this is the idea of robots … sort of pre-artificial general intelligence … robots that can learn and that can mimic human behavior using basic artificial intelligence. And there are a number of experiments in which we start to get behaviors from robots and that’s fundamentally what the concept of neurobotics are.
N-E-U-R-O… it implies a certain type of intelligence. But in some ways it’s more of a sort of thing where we begin to see robots that mimic human intelligence in various ways, which excites us about the potential for real artificial intelligence…. artificial general intelligence/singularitarian kinds of intelligence. These computers can sort of trick us into feeling like there’s someone there.
Companies are creating dolls and pets and stuff that people develop strong feelings and affections for because it does seem like there’s somebody in there.
Martin: Cool. OK. Next I think we’ll stick with it. Let’s go for the ‘O,’ let’s go for ‘Optogenetics.’ I could sense it was a Jay one.
Jay: Ahh yes, let me think. Wasn’t that the one about stimulating the brain with fiber optics as –
R.U.: With light?
Jay: With light, right. Neuromodulation yes, yes. Neuromodulation is the whole area of stimulating the brain using chemicals, using electricity. With optogenetics you’re doing it with fiber optics and light to very specifically target areas in the brain and that’s what I – yes.
R.U.: There are already cases where this is being used in surgery as opposed to invasive surgery. I don’t remember the specifics… whether it relates to brain tumors. But it’s a very exciting technology that might replace a lot of the more invasive ways of affecting the brain. Of course this relates also to cognitive enhancement. There might be ways to use light to achieve various states of alertness or altered states of consciousness and so forth.
Jay: Right, yeah, and something that they’re also developing. See, one of the problems of brain stimulation is that you’re either working from outside the skull which means you have to go through the skin and skull to get to something and you can’t really do it very accurately. Or if you’re actually drilling a hole and sticking an electrode in, that’s pretty invasive and the body often rejects or seals off large intrusive things like that. But if you can do it with very very tiny bits of fiber optics you’re better off.
Something that people have been experimenting with more recently, are I think they’re called injectable meshes, where you have something that looks like a mesh, a fish net, that it is fine enough that it can actually be injected with a hypodermic needle. And so that mesh can then be on a certain section of the brain and connected to the outside and they can then use electricity to influence various brain activity, but in a less invasive way than using a much larger electrode.
Martin: OK. Coming on to ‘Psychedelic Transhumanism.’ Hehe.
R.U.: Oh yeah. [Laughs]. OK, I think that there are several streams within transhumanist culture. One of those streams is more hedonic… more leaning towards the idea that human beings can spend time in ecstatic states and that the use of certain psychedelic drugs that don’t increase intelligence necessarily in the IQ sense, but which allows us to shift perspectives radically. It should be considered a cognitive enhancer, and there are a number of cases in which this is proven to be the case, including the fellow who co-discovered DNA. His name is escaping me right now.
Jay: Francis Crick, I believe it is.
R.U.: Francis Crick who, it’s been acknowledged, was using a low-dose LSD frequently around the time that he came up with a lot of his perceptions around this. And then there’s always the example of Steve Jobs, one of many people within the digital creative world who has spoken about taking inspiration and insight from psychedelic drugs. And Timothy Leary who was probably the person who’s most associated with LSD and psychedelics during the 1960s, became one of the first transhumanists. Although that word wasn’t in use in the mid-’70s when decided that space migration intelligence increase and life extension were the perfect goals for the human future.
And so there’s always been this sort of psychedelic contingent within transhumanism. It’s controversial. A lot of people are very much attached to the idea that intelligence is logic. And artificial intelligence as we know it is primarily associated with the use of logic and that sort of pushes the ideas of insight and intuition and the sudden occurrence of vision into the background. And psychedelic transhumanists are sort of an alternative view in which vision and ecstasy and intuition and sudden insights are embraced as part of human creativity and part of our potential to evolve beyond the ordinary states of humanity.
Martin: OK. Good. What are ‘Quadcopters’ got to do with transhumanism?
R.U.: Jay, do you want to take ‘Quadcopters?’
Jay: The whole drone thing that’s been going on in recent years, I guess it was a bit of a stretch to put it in the book, but it definitely fits in with robotics, even with distributed cognition and augmented reality in a way too, that it’s more eyes and ears around. Also one of the trends that we talk about in the book is how technology often starts off as a very limited, expensive thing that only governments and universities and rich people can afford, say, computers in the 1950s and then suddenly everybody in the world is carrying one around in their pocket. The recent advances in drone technology have made aerial photography and aerial surveillance something that’s available to the average person.
And that’s sort of just part of this democratization of technology, part of the spread of knowledge and awareness and sensors, that we’re hooked up to computers, we can communicate to people on the other side of the world instantly, and now there are people flying quadcopters around and watching demonstrations or wars or whatever.
R.U.: This is an opportunity to actually say something about the nature of the book, because aside from our own writings, the materials in the book are supplemented by quotes from writings and interviews with other people who contributed materials to h+ magazine when I was the editor there, and some people who also contributed to an online site called ‘Acceler8or.’
One of the reason quadcopters is in the book frankly is because one of the writers for Acceler8or had a great deal of enthusiasm for quadcopters and really projected some transhumanist ideas onto quadcopters. If people want to look that up they could Google Acceler8or and quadcopters and you could add R.U. Sirius to that so they could get to the right Acceler8or site, and you can find out why this person associated quadcopters with some very extreme transhumanist sorts of ideas.
Martin: Cool. OK, this comes to, my gosh I didn’t know which one to pick. ‘Ray Kurzweil’ or ‘Rapture of the Nerds.’ You have a choice on that one.
R.U.: They go together hand in glove.
Jay: Definitely, definitely. ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ is the amusing tongue-in-cheek description of the singularity. It’s a comment which is, you know, I will, there’s a definite touché there, that just as very devout Christians will talk about the Rapture and how it’s just around the corner and everything will be wonderful afterwards, there is a subset of the singularitarian community that pretty much talks about the singularity the same way. That it’s something that’s just around the corner and oh boy, it will be absolutely wonderful. So I think that that quip has a certain sting to it and helps illuminate some of the similarities of the emotional response that people have to the singularity.
R.U.: Yeah, the singularity would seem to promise some of the things that religion promises to people, which is immortality or eternal life in a heavenly place which would probably be online, although it could be a vastly improved Earth environment or space and so forth. So the idea of a singularity may be meeting certain kinds of thirst for transcendence of the fleshly contradictions that religion has met.
Jay: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is that. Transcendence is a good word and that does help excuse the title of the book there. I mean this is obviously something that I believe is pretty much inherent in humans and often you’ll see it in religion, of course, the religious impulse that there’s something beyond human life, there’s something beyond death.
Also there’s a lot of it in politics. The idea that ‘hey, we’re going to create the new Soviet man,’ then the Soviet Union will end poverty and oppression and so on. It’s a secular version of that urge to transcend, the promise of a future Utopia, and to an extent the belief in the singularity I think is a very similar utopian urge, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but I think it’s important that we recognize that the emotions that powered the religious and political versions of this are pretty much the same emotions that are along, that are in this particular technological version.
R.U.: Yeah, I would say that there are two different narratives or lines of thought in transhumanism and one of them is the improved human being and the other one is the perfected human being or the perfected posthuman. And I think the ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ is a comedic line that pushes people towards looking at transhumanists and singularitarians as believers in the idea of the perfected human being. I think that maybe if you polled transhumanists maybe 20-25% of them really believe in the perfected human being… the singularitarians probably a lot more… because once you go through this point then this could possibly turn out to be wonderful beyond our greatest imaginations.
But yeah, that’s what ‘Rapture of the Nerds’…‘Rapture of the Nerds’ kind of hangs a sign around all transhumanism. I love the line, but it would also be one of my critiques of a number of science fiction writers who don’t really look at what goes on in transhumanism very carefully and prefer to believe that all people who subscribe to this idea subscribe to the idea of the perfected human.
Martin: We touched on Kurzweil. Kurzweil works for Google now. So you look at Larry Page being influenced by Kurzweil and you said that. It’s like, they’ve got money, they’re invested in these life extension businesses. They’ve bought Deep Mind which is a learning algorithm for $400 million in paper. So you start to see that there’s some big business people involved in a lot of these areas, so even the ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ which is what it does and you pair are fantastic. It brings it to a level of just pointing and just going, yeah, if you’re going to say that and realize they said that before, they’ve been saying that for 2000 years over there. Do you know what I mean? Just point a little bit and I like that.
So we’re going to move in to the final stretch.
R.U.: Also just to add that there’s a science fiction novel called Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross. And it’s pretty entertaining, but I actually really wanted them to savage singularitarianism.I thought it was a little weak in terms of what I was hoping for on a level of satire, but it is an enjoyable book, for sure.
Martin: Good. Right. Speaking about I’ve got so many ‘S’s here, but we talked about the ‘singularity’….
Jay: You skipped over ‘Mind Uploading’ which is actually one of my favorite topics. You want to do that one?
Martin: Let’s do that. That’s one of the ‘M’s. Let’s do that.
Jay: Yes. I found this very interesting because one of the basic, more far-out ideas in transhumanism. The idea that you upload your brain to a computer. Turns out there’s an awful lot to this. We talked earlier about consciousness, and to what extent consciousness is something that comes out of our biology and can we actually replicate it in silicon form. That, I find this whole idea very interesting because on a purely technical level for example, let’s say it were possible to read your consciousness, we transfer it to a computer, now your brain is operating 10 million times faster.
That sounds good in a certain way, however let’s say you’re communicating to someone whose mind isn’t uploaded. Won’t they seem to be speaking and thinking and acting 10 million times slower than you? So having a conversation would be like talking to somebody who can say 3 words to you every year in your subjective consciousness.
Would you be able to remain sane under those circumstances? I mean you could occupy your time by reading every bit of literature ever written and watching every movie and listening to every bit of music ever played, but if you’re doing that at 10 million times normal speed, you might run out of ways to distract yourself before your conversation partner can formulate their next word.
I also find sort of the legal aspects fascinating. For example, if you upload your brain to a computer, is that computer you in a legal sense? Do they get to vote? Do you both get to vote? If your physical body dies and your computer brain lives on, do they own your stuff? Who’s married to your wife? If they replicate themselves, then what happens? [Laughs]. So there’s a lot of interesting philosophical and legal issues in that particular subtopic, beyond the simple technical issues of exactly how would you do this, and is it possible.
Martin: Cool. Let’s go to ‘S.’ ‘Sexbot.’ Who wants to take the ‘Sexbot?’
Jay: Ahh, that’s an R.U. thing. He’s the ‘Sexbot’ addict.
R.U.: Oh yeah, I love me some ‘Sexbots.’ There are already a bunch of them that have been created. I don’t know if people are banging them yet, but… yeah –
Jay: They’re banging everything.
Jay: Exhaust pipes, yeah, you name it, somebody’s been caught banging it.
R.U.: Yeah, anything with a hole or anything that’s large and juts out. Yeah that’s a fun area. It’s been observed in a number of areas that pornography is the first thing that people use certain technologies for. We have a list of them in the book. I think there are six or seven major ones, including setting up systems so that you can pay for something over the internet. That started with getting people to pay for porn.
Jay: Right, it was an early driver of VHS video tapes and DVDs also.
R.U.: It’s the world’s oldest robotic profession. So yeah, these things are coming along.
Martin: What it’s going to do probably is move the technology for real robots.
That’s one of the things, isn’t it, is essentially experiment or would want to be replicated? So what it would do is from skin to feedback mechanisms and voice and response and all of that, that’s kind of where it’s going, isn’t it? It’s saying there’s a market there. That’s the point isn’t it? There’s a market so people will invest due to serve that market, whereas other people are going ‘I don’t necessarily want one of those in my house,’ whereas there’s some guys that go ‘I want one of those in my house.’
R.U.: I want six of them in my house. Yeah, it does move us towards embodiment. Certainly even without a sexual motivation there’s a great deal of interest in creating robots that are built like humans and mimic humans and there’s… –what is it… ASIMO from Japan and Sony and MIT has their version of it. I meant that just recently they had the first humanoid built robot that can walk upright on two legs without any assistance from humans.
Jay: Yes, I believe I’ve seen footage of people sort of giving it a shove and having it recover its balance. It’s quite good about that. Oh, and I would also like to recommend to everybody the movie Ex Machina, which I don’t know if it’s still in the theatres, I think it came out 6 months ago, but very, very well-done film that explores artificial intelligence and sort of by implication sexbots, because the artificially intelligent androids, robots in the movie are all attractive females and that’s sort of part of the plot point I believe.
R.U.:Yeah, also on the TV show Humans the family brings in a very attractive robot and the teenage boy in the family really is really having a difficult time trying to cope with his feelings.
Martin: Cool. I want a sexbot. And ‘Transbemanism.’
Jay: That’s another one of R.U.’s segments.
R.U.: Yeah. It’s a complicated idea. This idea comes from Martine Rothblatt, who also started the Sirius Satellite radio system. It’s the idea that the once we are able to sort of download ourselves into the digital matrix we can make lots of copies of ourselves. And the whole question of identity becomes very flexible and very mutable so that we will be… in some sense we already are lots of different human beings at various times in our lives and there’s a great deal of intellectual exploration particularly I think within academia and postmodernism and poststructuralism and so forth about the idea that our ideas of ourselves are very limited within traditional discourses. (These sorts of people like to use that term.) And when we digitize and offer ourselves opportunities to actually have more selves then the whole question of identity becomes even more flexible. It’s not the greatest explanation of it, but you can look up Martine Rothblatt and she certainly has some wonderful writings on this idea.
Martin: Great. ‘Virtual Reality.’
Jay: Well, we all know about that. Again I find that very interesting in that virtual reality was supposedly really going to be the big thing circa about 20 years ago now. It was about 1995/’96/’97, that people felt that was really going to take off and then it kind of sputtered and stalled. Does anybody do anything in Virtual Reality Markup Language anymore? I’m not even sure that’s a thing. But of course we now have a massive online games and artificial worlds which have been hugely popular. I guess in contrast to the rule that pornography necessarily leads the way, it seems like virtual reality pornography again never really took off, but virtual reality gaming turned out to be, my gosh, it’s a gigantic industry now. How many people are playing World of Warcraft at any given time? Holy mackerel. It’s a huge number of people.
R.U.: Now we’re finally getting to the point where some companies are releasing … I don’t think they’ve actually released them commercially yet … but I can’t remember all the projects that are going on, Morpheus and Oculus Rift. And then you put on some glasses, more or less like what the early VR pioneers were doing, only with much better technology… much better speeds now. You put on your glasses and you enter into a 3-D dimensional alternative world in which you can interact with other people. And that was the initial idea of VR.
There was a lot of theory about VR in the early and mid-’90s, including people like Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna and sort of psychedelic transhumanist enthusiasts in which it was viewed as having the potential to be a mind-expanding technology because you can experience really radically visionary worlds. And it sort of creates a new space for artistic expression in a period where all the mediums seem to have been used up and anything anybody can think of to do has already been done. Here’s this other terrain upon which people can create mind-blowing and possibly mind-expanding situations for people to get into, and that this could be an evolutionary development for human beings.
Martin: I think it’s very interesting if you’re not trying it out, get a Cardboard and download VRSC, it’s called An Evolution of Verse by Chris Milk. It’s only 3½ minutes, ahhhh, but he’s leading the way with the film side of it, I think.
OK, so let’s go to the last few. We did the other ones so now warbots. What’s a ‘warbot’?
R.U.: Oh my God, there’s so many of them. When we invaded Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, we aren’t using any robots at all, and during that process there … I can’t remember the exact number … but there were thousands of warbots sent to, as they say the ‘theatre of war.’ And these at first were not armed robots, but they were useful for going into situations where human beings wouldn’t want to go.
Jay: Disarming bombs and that kind of thing.
R.U.: Right, right. There’s just been this tremendous and frankly pretty scary evolution of robotics… robots for war. And you can look this up online… I don’t really remember the details… but there are a number of companies that are actually creating armed robots for the use of, well, the Pentagon. And I assume maybe some other countries are doing this as well.
One of the things that I found interesting and amusing that I used in the book that actually occurred in a conversation … an interview with somebody on the h+ website was the… what’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger?
R.U.: Terminator. A whole bunch of robotic scientists were really enthusiastic about creating the terminator. There were people at the Pentagon really saying “Make us the ‘Terminator.’”
Martin: What could go wrong?
R.U.: It’s interesting how people … how dystopian novels and films can awaken a thirst in many inventors.
Jay: There are also, I believe you mentioned it in the book, Northrup’s X-47, which is an unmanned aircraft which has been doing things like taking off and landing from an aircraft carrier on its own, doing mid-air refueling and so on.
Many people are predicting that the era of manned aircraft may be not coming to a close, but is possibly becoming, they’re going to be at least partially replaced. If you are sending an armed aircraft over heavily-defended enemy territory, it’s better if somebody is sitting back at headquarters in their bunker controlling it, possibly with their virtual reality equipment, and then there’s just an unmanned aircraft that’s out there doing the fighting.
R.U.: I just want to add that if people want to view a very scary looking warbot, they should look up ‘BigDog,’ one word, capital B, capital D. Man that is one scary looking thing.
Martin: I saw BigDog. Did you see the little brother? It’s called Spot.
R.U.: I don’t know if I’ve seen that one or not.
Martin: I think it’s the little one right – and they kicked him. I was like: don’t kick him. It’s a terminator. Don’t upset the robot. You want to roll over early on this. Be nice. But yes, and that company, Boston Dynamics, got bought by Google.
Jay: Yeah, and so the idea that in not so distant future you’ll have your special forces team of a half dozen guys followed along by a half dozen sort of cargo pack robots trotting along behind them. That seems like it’s not too far off in the future.
R.U.: My comment on Google was “don’t be evil doesn’t scale.” That got around.
Martin: OK, on that note, ‘XPRIZE.’
R.U.: Yeah this is a thing developed mainly by Peter Diamandis, who is kind of a figure within transhumanist and singularitarian thought who helped create… yeah, there you go, Steven Kotler, a very good friend to us actually who helped us promote our own book. He developed the XPRIZE first to encourage people to develop space programs and basically offer a reward for the first company that could, independent of NASA and government funding, get a craft into what we officially considered space. And that contest was done, was won. And they’ve created a whole bunch of other projects including a project to create the equivalent of the tricorder, where you can, like Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, you could pass an instrument over a person’s body or in a certain place and get readouts of what’s wrong with the person.
And the number of people that have succeeded in creating sort of rudimentary versions of this, like where you can put something up to the person’s forehead and get some of the basic readings that the doctors get, like blood pressure and heart rate and those kinds of things.
Martin: Last one. ‘Zero State.’
R.U.: OK, ‘Zero State’ is a transhumanist group I think largely out of England. And it’s sort of in opposition to Big Transhumanism and the kind of work that is being done by big corporations and big government and so forth. While they don’t embrace the term anarchist, it’s based on the idea of mutual aid, from I believe it’s Kropotkin. I get Kropotkin and Bakunin mixed up. If they add Nash and Young to the band then I would be able to remember them better.
‘Zero State’ is sort of an alternative-ish transhumanist group. And the fellow who formed ‘Zero State’ – Amon Twyman I think is his name – is also forming the Transhumanist Party in England and is running for some kind of an office there.
Jay: Amon Kalkin.
R.U.: Amon Kalkin, thanks. Yeah. If they had better memory drugs I would be able to start all of this….
Martin: I think we’ve done a brilliant talk. There’s so much more to it everybody. If you’re watching this live, we’re going to put the links so that you can access the book. If you’re watching us in the future, then you’re probably going to see that it’s all going to be segments and we’ll put links to the book in the description section. But we pretty much see that, and I’m saying that to the live people now, but even though I’ve got the book, I’m also going to have it on the PlusYourLife.com site and we can go from there.
That was Jay and R.U. That was a wonderful talk. Thank you both and I know that people on the thread, we’ve got Sheila and Peter, and Jody and other people. And I haven’t come to your questions because they’re sort of watching. They’re so interested and they’re thanking you so much and I know I’m going to get lots of questions later on.
But really, really appreciate, and great to connect and Jay and R.U., I wish you the best for the book.
Jay: Thanks for having us.
R.U.: Yeah, that was fun.
Martin: Thank you both. That was a great talk. Bye.