The Antispeciesist Revolution – read by David Pearce

The Antispeciesist Revolution

[Original text found here]

Speciesism.
When is it ethically acceptable to harm another sentient being? On some fairly modest(1) assumptions, to harm or kill someone simply on the grounds they belong to a different gender, sexual orientation or ethnic group is unjustified. Such distinctions are real but ethically irrelevant. On the other hand, species membership is normally reckoned an ethically relevant criterion. Fundamental to our conceptual scheme is the pre-Darwinian distinction between “humans” and “animals”. In law, nonhuman animals share with inanimate objects the status of property. As property, nonhuman animals can be bought, sold, killed or otherwise harmed as humans see fit. In consequence, humans treat nonhuman animals in ways that would earn a life-time prison sentence without parole if our victims were human. From an evolutionary perspective, this contrast in status isn’t surprising. In our ancestral environment of adaptedness, the human capacity to hunt, kill and exploit sentient beings of other species was fitness-enhancing(2). Our moral intuitions have been shaped accordingly. Yet can we ethically justify such behaviour today?

Naively, one reason for disregarding the interests of nonhumans is the dimmer-switch model of consciousness. Humans matter more than nonhuman animals because (most) humans are more intelligent. Intuitively, more intelligent beings are more conscious than less intelligent beings; consciousness is the touchstone of moral status.

The problem with the dimmer-switch model is that it’s empirically unsupported, among vertebrates with central nervous systems at least. Microelectrode studies of the brains of awake human subjects suggest that the most intense forms of experience, for example agony, terror and orgasmic bliss, are mediated by the limbic system, not the prefrontal cortex. Our core emotions are evolutionarily ancient and strongly conserved. Humans share the anatomical and molecular substrates of our core emotions with the nonhuman animals whom we factory-farm and kill. By contrast, distinctively human cognitive capacities such as generative syntax, or the ability to do higher mathematics, are either phenomenologically subtle or impenetrable to introspection. To be sure, genetic and epigenetic differences exist between, say, a pig and a human being that explain our adult behavioural differences, e.g. the allele of the FOXP2(1) gene implicated in the human capacity for recursive syntax. Such mutations have little to do with raw sentience(1).

Antispeciesism.
So what is the alternative to traditional anthropocentric ethics? Antispeciesism is not the claim that “All Animals Are Equal”, or that all species are of equal value, or that a human or a pig is equivalent to a mosquito. Rather the antispeciesist claims that, other things being equal, conscious beings of equivalent sentience deserve equal care and respect. A pig, for example, is of comparable sentience to a prelinguistic human toddler. As it happens, a pig is of comparable (or superior) intelligence to a toddler as well(5). However, such cognitive prowess is ethically incidental. If ethical status is a function of sentience, then to factory-farm and slaughter a pig is as ethically abhorrent as to factory-farm and slaughter a human baby. To exploit one and nurture the other expresses an irrational but genetically adaptive prejudice.

On the face of it, this antispeciesist claim isn’t just wrong-headed; it’s absurd. Philosopher Jonathan Haidt speaks of “moral dumfounding”(6), where we just know something is wrong but can’t articulate precisely why. Haidt offers the example of consensual incest between an adult brother and sister who use birth control. For evolutionary reasons, we “just know” such an incestuous relationship is immoral. In the case of any comparisons of pigs with human infants and toddlers, we “just know” at some deep level that any alleged equivalence in status is unfounded. After all, if there were no ethically relevant distinction between a pig and a toddler, or between a battery-farmed chicken and a human infant, then the daily behaviour of ordinary meat-eating humans would be sociopathic – which is crazy. In fact, unless the psychiatrists’ bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is modified explicitly to exclude behaviour towards nonhumans, most of us do risk satisfying its diagnostic criteria for the disorder. Even so, humans often conceive of ourselves as animal lovers. Despite the horrors of factory-farming, most consumers of meat and animal products are clearly not sociopaths in the normal usage of the term; most factory-farm managers are not wantonly cruel; and the majority of slaughterhouse workers are not sadists who delight in suffering. Serial killers of nonhuman animals are just ordinary men doing a distasteful job – “obeying orders” – on pain of losing their livelihoods.

Should we expect anything different? Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt spoke famously of the “banality of evil”(7). If twenty-first century humans are collectively doing something posthuman superintelligence will reckon monstrous, akin to the [human] Holocaust or Atlantic slave trade, then it’s easy to assume our moral intuitions would disclose this to us. Our intuitions don’t disclose anything of the kind; so we sleep easy. But both natural selection and the historical record offer powerful reasons for doubting the trustworthiness of our naive moral intuitions. So the possibility that human civilisation might be founded upon some monstrous evil should be taken seriously – even if the possibility seems transparently absurd at the time.

One possible speciesist response is to raise the question of “potential”. Even if a pig is as sentient as a human toddler, there is a fundamental distinction between human toddlers and pigs. Only a toddler has the potential to mature into a rational adult human being.

The problem with this response is that it contradicts our treatment of humans who lack “potential”. Thus we recognise that a toddler with a progressive disorder who will never live to celebrate his third birthday deserves at least as much love, care and respect as his normally developing peers – not to be packed off to a factory-farm on the grounds it’s a shame to let good food go to waste. We recognise a similar duty of care for mentally handicapped adult humans and cognitively frail old people. For sure, historical exceptions exist to this perceived duty of care for vulnerable humans, e.g. the Nazi “euthanasia” program, with its eugenicist conception of “life unworthy of life”. But by common consent, we value young children and cognitively challenged adults for who they are, not simply for who they may – or may not – one day become. On occasion, there may controversially be instrumental reasons for allocating more care and resources to a potential genius or exceptionally gifted child than to a normal human. Yet disproportionate intraspecies resource allocation may be justified, not because high IQ humans are more sentient, but because of the anticipated benefits to society as a whole.

Practical Implications.
1. Invitrotarianism.

The greatest source of severe, chronic and readily avoidable suffering in the world today is man-made: factory farming. Humans currently slaughter over fifty billion sentient beings each year. One implication of an antispeciesist ethic is that factory farms should be shut and their surviving victims rehabilitated.

In common with most ethical revolutions in history, the prospect of humanity switching to a cruelty-free diet initially strikes most practically-minded folk as utopian dreaming. “Realists” certainly have plenty of hard evidence to bolster their case. As English essayist William Hazlitt observed, “The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings.” Without the aid of twenty-first century technology, the mass slaughter and abuse of our fellow animals might continue indefinitely. Yet tissue science technology promises to allow consumers to become moral agents without the slightest hint of personal inconvenience. Lab-grown in vitro meat produced in cell culture rather than a live animal has long been a staple of science fiction. But global veganism – or its ethical invitrotarian equivalent – is no longer a futuristic fantasy. Rapid advances in tissue engineering mean that in vitro meat will shortly be developed and commercialised. Today’s experimental cultured mincemeat can be supplanted by mass-manufactured gourmet steaks for the consumer market. Perhaps critically for its rapid public acceptance, in vitro meat does not need to be genetically modified – thereby spiking the guns of techno-luddites who might otherwise worry about “FrankenBurgers”. Indeed, cultured meat products will be more “natural” in some ways than their antibiotic-laced counterparts derived from factory-farmed animals.

Momentum for commercialisation is growing. Non-profit research organisations like New Harvest(8), working to develop alternatives to conventionally-produced meat, have been joined by hard-headed businessmen. Visionary entrepreneur and Stanford academic Peter Thiel has just funnelled $350,000 into Modern Meadow, a start-up that aims to combine 3D printing with in vitro meat cultivation. Within the next decade or so, gourmet steaks could be printed out from biological materials. In principle, the technology should be scalable.

Tragically, billions of nonhuman animals will grievously suffer and die this century at human hands before the dietary transition is complete. Humans are not obligate carnivores; eating meat and animal products is a lifestyle choice. “But I like the taste!” is not a morally compelling argument. Vegans and animal advocates ask whether we are ethically entitled to wait on a technological fix? The antispeciesist answer is clear: no.

2. Compassionate Biology.
If and when humans stop systematically harming other sentient beings, will our ethical duties to members of other species have been discharged? Not if the same ethical considerations as apply to members of other human races or age-groups apply also to members of other species of equivalent sentience. Thus if famine breaks out in sub-Saharan Africa and young human children are starving, then we recognise we have a duty to send aid; or better still, to take proactive measures to ensure famines do not arise in the first instance, i.e. to provide not just food aid but family planning. So why not assist, say, starving free-living elephants? Until recently, no comparable interventions were feasible for members of other species. The technical challenges were insurmountable. Not least, the absence of cross-species fertility control technologies would have often made bad problems worse. Yet thanks to the exponential growth of computer power, every cubic metre of the planet will shortly be computationally accessible to micro-management, surveillance and control. Harnessed to biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics, such tools confer unprecedented power over Nature. With unbridled power comes complicity. Ethically speaking, how many of the traditional cruelties of the living world do we wish to perpetuate? Orthodox conservation biologists argue we should not “interfere”: humans can’t “police” Nature. Antispeciesists disagree. Advocates of compassionate biology argue that humans and nonhumans alike should not be parasitised, starved, disembowelled, asphyxiated, or eaten alive.

As always, bioconservatives insist such miseries are “natural”; status quo bias runs deep. “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity”, observed George Bernard Shaw. Snuff movies in the guise of Nature documentaries are quite popular on Youtube, a counterpoint to the Disneyfied wildlife shows aired on mainstream TV. Moreover even sympathetic critics of compassionate biology might respond that helping free-living members of other species is prohibitively expensive. An adequate welfare safety-net scarcely exists for humans in many parts of the world. So how can we contemplate its extension to nonhumans – even just to large-brained, long-lived vertebrates in our Nature reserves? Provision of comprehensive healthcare for all free-living elephants(10), for example, might cost between two or three billion dollars annually. Compassionate stewardship of the living world would be technically daunting too, entailing ecosystem management, cross-species fertility control via immunocontraception, veterinary care, emergency famine-relief, GPS tracking and monitoring, and ultimately phasing out or genetically “reprogramming”(11) carnivorous predators. The notional bill could approach the world’s 1.7 trillion-dollar annual arms budget. But irrespective of cost or timescale, if we are to be consistently non-speciesist, then decisions about resource allocation should be based not on species membership, but directly or indirectly on sentience. An elephant, for example, is at least as sentient as a human toddler. If it is ethically obligatory to help sick or starving children, then it’s ethically obligatory to help sick or starving elephants – not just via crisis interventions but via long-term healthcare support.

A traditional conservation biologist might respond that elephants helped by humans are no longer truly wild. Yet on such a criterion, clothes-wearing humans or beneficiaries of food aid and family planning aren’t “wild” humans either. Why should this matter? “Free-living” and “wild” are conceptually distinct. To assume that the civilising process should be confined to our own species is mere speciesist prejudice. Humans, transhumans and posthumans must choose what forms of sentience we want to preserve and create on Earth and beyond. Humans already massively intervene in Nature, whether though habitat destruction, captive breeding programs for big cats, “rewilding”, etc. So the question is not whether humans should “interfere”, but rather what ethical principles should govern our interventions(12).

Speciesism and Superintelligence.
Why should transhumanists care about the suffering of nonhuman animals? This is not a “feel-good” issue. One reason we should care cuts to the heart of the future of life in the universe. Transhumanists differ over whether our posthuman successors will most likely be nonbiological artificial superintelligence; or cyborgs who effectively merge with our hyperintelligent machines; or our own recursively self-improving biological descendents who modify their own genetic source code and bootstrap their way to full-spectrum superintelligence(13). Regardless of the dominant lifeform of the posthuman era, biological humans have a vested interest in the behaviour of intellectually advanced beings towards cognitively humble creatures – if we survive at all. Compared to posthuman superintelligence, archaic humans may be no smarter than pigs or chickens – or perhaps worms. This does not augur well for Homo sapiens. Western-educated humans tend to view Jains as faintly ridiculous for practising ahimsa, or harmlessness, sweeping the ground in front of them to avoid inadvertently treading on insects. How quixotic! Yet the fate of sentient but cognitively humble lifeforms in relation to vastly superior intelligence is precisely the issue at stake as we confront the prospect of posthuman superintelligence. How can we ensure a Jain-like concern for comparatively simple-minded creatures such as ourselves? Why should superintelligences care any more than humans about the well-being of their intellectual inferiors? Might distinctively human-friendly superintelligence turn out to be as intellectually-incoherent as, say, Aryan-friendly superintelligence? If human primitives are to prove worthy of conservation, how can we implement technologies of impartial friendliness towards other sentients? And if posthumans do care, how do we know that a truly benevolent superintelligence wouldn’t turn Darwinian life into utilitronium with a communal hug?

Viewed in such a light, biological humanity’s prospects in a future world of superintelligence might seem dire. However, this worry expresses a one-dimensional conception of general intelligence. No doubt the nature of mature superintelligence is humanly unknowable. But presumably full-spectrum(14) superintelligence entails, at the very least, a capacity to investigate, understand and manipulate both the formal and the subjective properties of mind. Modern science aspires to an idealised “view from nowhere”(15), an impartial, God-like understanding of the natural universe, stripped of any bias in perspective and expressed in the language of mathematical physics. By the same token, a God-like superintelligence must also be endowed with the capacity impartially to grasp all possible first-person perspectives – not a partial and primitive Machiavellian cunning of the kind adaptive on the African savannah, but an unimaginably radical expansion of our own fitfully growing circle of empathy.

What such superhuman perspective-taking ability might entail is unclear. We are familiar with people who display abnormally advanced forms of “mind-blind”(16), autistic intelligence in higher mathematics and theoretical physics. Less well known are hyper-empathisers who display unusually sophisticated social intelligence. Perhaps the most advanced naturally occurring hyper-empathisers exhibit mirror-touch synaesthesia(17). A mirror-touch synaesthete cannot be unfriendly towards you because she feels your pain and pleasure as if it were her own. In principle, such unusual perspective-taking capacity could be generalised and extended with reciprocal neuroscanning technology and telemetry into a kind of naturalised telepathy, both between and within species. Interpersonal and cross-species mind-reading could in theory break down hitherto invincible barriers of ignorance between different skull-bound subjects of experience, thereby eroding the anthropocentric, ethnocentric and egocentric bias that has plagued life on Earth to date. Today, the intelligence-testing community tends to treat facility at empathetic understanding as if it were a mere personality variable, or at best some sort of second-rate cognition for people who can’t do IQ tests. But “mind-reading” can be a highly sophisticated, cognitively demanding ability. Compare, say, the sixth-order intentionality manifested by Shakespeare. Thus we shouldn’t conceive superintelligence as akin to God imagined by someone with autistic spectrum disorder. Rather full-spectrum superintelligence entails a God’s-eye capacity to understand the rich multi-faceted first-person perspectives of diverse lifeforms whose mind-spaces humans would find incomprehensibly alien.

An obvious objection arises. Just because ultra-intelligent posthumans may be capable of displaying empathetic superintelligence, how do we know such intelligence will be exercised? The short answer is that we don’t: by analogy, today’s mirror-touch synaesthetes might one day neurosurgically opt to become mind-blind. But then equally we don’t know whether posthumans will renounce their advanced logico-mathematical prowess in favour of the functional equivalent of wireheading. If they do so, then they won’t be superintelligent. The existence of diverse first-person perspectives is a fundamental feature of the natural world, as fundamental as the second law of thermodynamics or the Higgs boson. To be ignorant of fundamental features of the world is to be an idiot savant: a super-Watson(18) perhaps, but not a superintelligence(19).

High-Tech Jainism?
Jules Renard once remarked, “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn’t.” God’s conspicuous absence from the natural world needn’t deter us from asking what an omniscient, omnipotent, all-merciful deity would want humans to do with our imminent God-like powers. For we’re on the brink of a momentous evolutionary transition in the history of life on Earth. Physicist Freeman Dyson predicts we’ll soon “be writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses”(20). The ethical risks and opportunities for apprentice deities are huge.

On the one hand, Karl Popper warns, “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell”(21). Twentieth-century history bears out such pessimism. Yet for billions of sentient beings from less powerful species, existing life on Earth is hell. They end their miserable lives on our dinner plates: “for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka”, writes Jewish Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer(22).

In a more utopian vein, some utterly sublime scenarios are technically feasible later this century and beyond. It’s not clear whether experience below Sidgwick’s(23) “hedonic zero” has any long-term future. Thanks to molecular neuroscience, mastery of the brain’s reward circuitry could make everyday life wonderful beyond the bounds of normal human experience. There is no technical reason why the pitiless Darwinian struggle of the past half billion years can’t be replaced by an earthly paradise for all creatures great and small. Genetic engineering could allow “the lion to lie down with the lamb.” Enhancement technologies could transform killer apes into saintly smart angels. Biotechnology could abolish suffering throughout the living world. Artificial intelligence could secure the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone. Our quasi-immortal descendants may be animated by gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible today.

Such fantastical-sounding scenarios may never come to pass. Yet if so, this won’t be because the technical challenges prove too daunting, but because intelligent agents choose to forgo the molecular keys to paradise for something else. Critically, the substrates of bliss don’t need to be species-specific or rationed. Transhumanists believe the well-being of all sentience(24) is the bedrock of any civilisation worthy of the name.

Also see this related interview with David Pearce on ‘Antispecism & Compassionate Stewardship’:

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NOTES

1. How modest? A venerable tradition in philosophical meta-ethics is anti-realism. The meta-ethical anti-realist proposes that claims such as it’s wrong to rape women, kill Jews, torture babies (etc) lack truth value – or are simply false. (cf. JL Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Viking Press, 1977.) Here I shall assume that, for reasons we simply don’t understand, the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Meta-ethical anti-realists may instead wish to interpret this critique of speciesism merely as casting doubt on its internal coherence rather than a substantive claim that a non-speciesist ethic is objectively true.

2. Extreme violence towards members of other tribes and races can be fitness-enhancing too. See, e.g. Richard Wrangham & Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

3. Fisher SE, Scharff C (2009). “FOXP2 as a molecular window into speech and language”. Trends Genet. 25 (4): 166–77. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2009.03.002. PMID 19304338.

4. Interpersonal and interspecies comparisons of sentience are of course fraught with problems. Comparative studies of how hard a human or nonhuman animal will work to avoid or obtain a particular stimulus give one crude behavioural indication. Yet we can go right down to the genetic and molecular level, e.g. interspecies comparisons of SCN9A genotype. (cf. http://www.pnas.org/? content/early/2010/02/23/?0913181107.full.pdf) We know that in humans the SCN9A gene modulates pain-sensitivity. Some alleles of SCN9A give rise to hypoalgesia, others alleles to hyperalgesia. Nonsense mutations yield congenital insensitivity to pain. So we could systematically compare the SCN9A gene and its homologues in nonhuman animals. Neocortical chauvinists will still be sceptical of non-mammalian sentience, pointing to the extensive role of cortical processing in higher vertebrates. But recall how neuroscanning techniques reveal that during orgasm, for example, much of the neocortex effectively shuts down. Intensity of experience is scarcely diminished.

5. Held S, Mendl M, Devereux C, and Byrne RW. 2001. “Studies in social cognition: from primates to pigs”. Animal Welfare 10:S209-17.

6. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, 2012.

7. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Viking Press, 1963.

8. http://www.new-harvest.org/

9. “PayPal Founder Backs Synthetic Meat Printing Company”, Wired, August 16 2012. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/3d-printed-meat/

10. https://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/elephantcare.html

11. https://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/index.html

12. The scholarly literature on the problem of wild animal suffering is still sparse. But perhaps see Arne Naess, “Should We Try To Relieve Clear Cases of Suffering in Nature?”, published in The Selected Works of Arne Naess, Springer, 2005; Oscar Horta, “The Ethics of the Ecology of Fear against the Nonspeciesist Paradigm: A Shift in the Aims of Intervention in Nature”, Between the Species, Issue X, August 2010. http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bts/vol13/iss10/10/ ; Brian Tomasik, “The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering”, http://www.utilitarian-essays.com/suffering-nature.html ; and the first print-published plea for phasing out carnivorism in Nature, Jeff McMahan’s “The Meat Eaters”, The New York Times. September 19, 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/the-meat-eaters/

13. Singularity Hypotheses, A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Eden, A.H.; Moor, J.H.; Søraker, J.H.; Steinhart, E. (Eds.) Spinger 2013. http://singularityhypothesis.blogspot.co.uk/p/table-of-contents.html

14. David Pearce, The Biointelligence Explosion. (preprint), 2012. https://www.biointelligence-explosion.com.

15. Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere , OUP, 1989.

16. Simon Baron-Cohen (2009). “Autism: the empathizing–systemizing (E-S) theory” (PDF). Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156: 68–80. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04467.x. PMID 19338503.

17. Banissy, M. J. & Ward, J. (2007). Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy. Nature Neurosci. doi: 10.1038/nn1926.

18. Stephen Baker. Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011.

19. Orthogonality or convergence? For an alternative to the convergence thesis, see Nick Bostrom, “The Superintelligent Will: Motivation and Instrumental Rationality in Advanced Artificial Agents”, 2012, http://www.nickbostrom.com/superintelligentwill.pdf; and Eliezer Yudkowsky, Carl Shulman, Anna Salamon, Rolf Nelson, Steven Kaas, Steve Rayhawk, Zack Davis, and Tom McCabe. “Reducing Long-Term Catastrophic Risks from Artificial Intelligence”, 2010. http://singularity.org/files/ReducingRisks.pdf

20. Freeman Dyson, “When Science & Poetry Were Friends”, New York Review of Books, August 13, 2009.

21. As quoted in Jon Winokur, In Passing: Condolences and Complaints on Death, Dying, and Related Disappointments, Sasquatch Books, 2005.

22. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Letter Writer, 1964.

23. Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics. London, 1874, 7th ed. 1907.

24. The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009). http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/

David Pearce
September 2012

Link to video

CLAIRE – a new European confederation for AI research

While the world wakes up to the huge potential impacts of AI in the future, how will national worries about other nations gaining ‘AI Supremacy’ effect development?
Especially development in AI Ethics & safety?

Claire-AI is a new European confederation.
Self described as

CONFEDERATION OF LABORATORIES FOR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE RESEARCH IN EUROPE – Excellence across all of AI. For all of Europe. With a Human-Centred Focus.
Liking the ‘human-centered’ focus (albeit a bit vague), but where is their focus on ethics?

A Competitive Vision

Their vision admits of a fear that Europe may be the losers in a race to achieve AI Supremacy, and this is worrisome – seen as a race between tribes, AI development could be a race to the bottom of the barrel of AI safety and alignment.

In the United States of America, huge investments in AI are made by the private sector. In 2017, the Canadian government started making major investments in AI research, focusing mostly on existing strength in deep learning. In 2017, China released its Next Generation AI Development Plan, with the explicit goal of attaining AI supremacy by 2030.

However, in terms of investment in talent, research, technology and innovation in AI, Europe lags far behind its competitors. As a result, the EU and associated countries are increasingly losing talent to academia and industry elsewhere. Europe needs to play a key role in shaping how AI changes the world, and, of course, benefit from the results of AI research. The reason is obvious: AI is crucial for meeting Europe’s needs to address complex challenges as well as for positioning Europe and its nations in the global market.

Also the FAQ page reflects this sentiment:

Why does Europe have to act, and act quickly? There would be serious economic consequences if Europe were to fall behind in AI technology, along with a brain-drain that already draws AI talent away from Europe, to countries that have placed a high priority on AI research. The more momentum this brain-drain develops, the harder it will be to reverse. There is also a risk of increasing dependence on AI technology developed elsewhere, which would bring economic disadvantages, lack of transparency and broad use of AI technology that is not well aligned with European values.
What are ‘European Values’? They aren’t spelt out very specifically – but I suspect much like other nations, they want whats best for the nation economically, and with regard to security.

Claire-AI’s vision of Ethics

There is mention of ‘humane’ AI – but this is not described in detail anywhere on their site.
What is meant by ‘human-centred’?

Human-centred AI is strongly based on human values and judgement. It is designed to complement rather than replace human intelligence. Human-centred AI is transparent, explainable, fair (i.e., free from hidden bias), and socially compatible. Is developed and deployed based on careful consideration of the disruptions AI technology can cause.
Many AI experts are convinced that the combination of learning and reasoning techniques will enable the next leap forward in AI; it also provides the basis for reliable, trustworthy, safe AI.

So, what are their goals?

What are we trying to achieve? Our main goal is to strengthen AI research and innovation in Europe.

Summing up

Strong AI when achieved, will be extremely powerful because intelligence is powerful. Over the last few years the interest in AI has ramped up significantly – with new companies and initiatives sprouting like mushrooms. The more competitiveness and economy of attention focusing on AI development in a race dynamic to achieve ‘AI supremacy’ will likely result in Strong AI being achieved sooner than previously expected by experts, as well as motivation to precautionary measures.
This race dynamic is good reason to focus on researching how we should think about the strategy to cope with global coordination problems in AI safety as well as its possible impact on an intelligence explosion.

The race dynamic could spur projects to move faster toward superintelligence while reducing investment in solving the control problem. Additional detrimental effects of the race dynamic are also possible, such as direct hostilities between competitors. Suppose that two nations are racing to develop the first superintelligence, and that one of them is seen to be pulling ahead. In a winner-takes-all situation, a lagging project might be tempted to launch a desperate strike against its rival rather than passively await defeat. Anticipating this possibility, the frontrunner might be tempted to strike preemptively. If the antagonists are powerful states, the clash could be bloody. (A “surgical strike” against the rival’s AI project might risk triggering a larger confrontation and might in any case not be feasible if the host country has taken precautions.)Nick Bostrom - Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

Humanity has a history of falling into Hobbsian Traps – since a first mover advantage of Strong AI could be overpowered compared to other economic focuses, a race to achieve such a powerful general purpose optimiser as Strong AI, could result in military arms races.

As with any general-purpose technology, it is possible to identify concerns around particular applications. It has been argued, for example, that military applications of AI, including lethal autonomous weapons, might incite new arms races, or lower the threshold for nations to go to war, or give terrorists and assassins new tools for violence.Nick Bostrom - Strategic Implications of Openness in AI Development

What could be done to mitigate against an AI arms race?

Website: https://claire-ai.org

Moral Enhancement – Are we morally equipped to deal with humanities grand challenges? Anders Sandberg

The topic of Moral Enhancement is controversial (and often misrepresented); it is considered by many to be repugnant – provocative questions arise like “who’s morals?”, “who are the ones to be morally enhanced?”, “will it be compulsory?”, “won’t taking a morality pill decrease the value of the intended morality if it skips the difficult process we normally go through to become better people?”, “Shouldn’t people be concerned that use of enhancements which alter character traits might consumer’s authenticity?”

Humans have a built in capacity of learning moral systems from their parents and other people. We are not born with any particular moral [code] – but with the ability to learn it just like we learn languages. The problem is of course this built in facility might have worked quite well back in the Stone Age when we were evolving in small tribal communities – but doesn’t work that well when surrounded with a high-tech civilization, millions of other people and technology that could be
potentially very dangerous. So we might need to update our moral systems and that is the interesting question of moral enhancement: can we make ourselves more fit for a current work?Anders Sandberg - Are we morally equipped for the future?
Humans have an evolved capacity to learn moral systems – we became more adept at learning moral systems that aided our survival in the ancestral environment – but are our moral instincts fit for the future?

Illustration by Daniel Gray

Let’s build some context. For millennia humans have lived in complex social structures constraining and encouraging certain types of behaviour. More recently for similar reasons people go through years of education at the end of which (for the most part) are more able to morally function in the modern world – though this world is very different from that of our ancestors, and when considering the possibilities for vastly radical change at breakneck speed in the future, it’s hard to know how humans will keep up both intellectually and ethically. This is important to consider as the degree to which we shape the future for the good depends both on how well and how ethically we solve the problems needed to achieve change that on balance (all things equal) benefits humanity (and arguably all morally relevant life-forms).

Can we engineer ourselves to be more ethically fit for the future?

Peter Singer discussed how our circles of care and compassion have expanded over the years – through reason we have been able to expand our natural propensity to act morally and the circumstances in which we act morally.

We may need to expand our circle of ethical consideration to include artificial life – considering certain types of software as moral patients.

So, if we think we could use a boost in our propensity for ethical progress,

How do we actually achieve ideal Moral Enhancement?

That’s a big topic (see a list of papers on the subject of ME here) – the answers may depend on what our goals and  preferences. One idea (among many others) is to regulate the level of Oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) – though this may come with the drawback of increasing distrust in the out-group.
Since morality depends on us being able to make accurate predictions and solve complex ethical problems, ‘Intelligence Enhancement‘ could be an effective aspect of moral enhancement. 

Morality is dependent on us being able to predict what’s going to happen when we do something. So various forms of intelligence enhancement might be very useful also for becoming more moral. Our ability to control our reactions that allow our higher-order values to control our lower order values is also important, that might actually require us to literally rewire or have biochips that help us do it.Anders Sandberg - Are we morally equipped for the future?

How we decide whether to use Moral Enhancement Therapy will be interesting – it may be needed to help solve global coordination problems; to increase the likelihood that we will, as a civilization, cooperate and cope with many known and as yet to be realised complex ethical quandaries as we move through times of unprecedented social and technological change.

This interview is part of a larger series that was completed in Oxford, UK late 2012.

Interview Transcript

Anders Sandberg

So humans have a kind of built-in capacity of learning moral systems from their parents and other people we’re not born with any particular moral [code] but the ability to learn it just like we can learn languages. The problem is of course this built-in facility might have worked quite well back in the Stone Age when we were evolving in small tribal communities – but doesn’t work that well when surrounded with a high-tech civilization, millions of other people and technology that could be potentially very dangerous. So we might need to update our moral systems. And that is the interesting question of moral enhancement:

  • can we make ourselves more fit for a current work?
  • And what kind of fitness should we be talking about?

For example we might want to improve on altruism – that we should be coming to strangers. But in a big society, in a big town – of course there are going to be some stranger’s that you shouldn’t trust. So it’s not just blind trust you want to enhance – you actually want to enhance ability to make careful judgements; to figure out what’s going to happen on whom you can trust. So maybe you want to have some other aspect, maybe the care – the circle of care – is what you want to expand.

Peter Singer pointed out that there are circles of care and compassion have been slowly expanding from our own tribe and their own gender, to other genders, to other people and eventually maybe to other species. But this is still biologically based a lot of it is going on here in the brain and might be modified. Maybe we should artificially extend these circles of care to make sure that we actually do care about those entities we ought to be caring about. This might be a problem of course, because some of these agents might be extremely different for what we used to.

For example machine intelligence might produce more machines or software that is a ‘moral patient’ – we actually ought to be caring about the suffering of software. That might be very tricky because our pattern receptors up in the brain are not very tuned for that – we tend to think that if it’s got a face and the speaks then it’s human and then we can care about it. But who thinks about Google? Maybe we could get super-intelligences that we actually ought to care a lot about, but we can’t recognize them at all because they’re so utterly different from ourselves.

So there are some easy ways of modifying how we think and react – for example by taking a drug. So the hormone oxytocin is sometimes called ‘the cuddle hormone’ – it’s released when breastfeeding and when having bodily contact with your loved one, and it generally seems to be making us more altruistic; more willing to trust strangers. You can kind of sniff it and run an economic game and you can immediately see a change in response. It might also make you a bit more ego-centric. It does enlarge feelings of comfort and family friendliness – except that it’s
only within what you consider to be your family. So we might want to tweak that.

Similarly we might think about adding links to our brains that allow us to think in better ways. After all, morality is dependent on us being able to predict what’s going to happen when we do something. So various forms of intelligence enhancement might be very useful also for becoming more moral. Our ability to control our reactions that allow our higher-order values to control our lower order values is also important, that might actually require us to literally rewire or have biochips that help us do it.

But most important is that we need the information we need to retrain the subtle networks in a brain in order to think better. And that’s going to require something akin to therapy – it might not necessarily be about lying on a sofa and telling your psychologist about your mother. It might very well be a bit of training, a bit of cognitive enhancement, maybe a bit of brain scanning – to figure out what actually ails you. It’s probably going to look very very different from anything Freud or anybody else envisioned for the future.

But I think in the future we’re actually going to try to modify ourselves so we’re going to be extra certain, maybe even extra moral, so we can function in a complex big world.

 

Related Papers

Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us

Anders contributed to this paper ‘Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us‘. This paper reviews the evolutionary history and biology of love and marriage. It examines the current and imminent possibilities of biological manipulation of lust, attraction and attachment, so called neuroenhancement of love. We examine the arguments for and against these biological interventions to influence love. We argue that biological interventions offer an important adjunct to psychosocial interventions, especially given the biological limitations inherent in human love.

Human Engineering and Climate Change

Anders also contributed to the paper “Human Engineering and Climate Change” which argues that cognitive, moral and biological enhancement could increase human ecological sustainability.

Many thanks for watching!

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Kind regards,
Adam Ford
– Science, Technology & the Future: http://scifuture.org

Another Milestone in Achieving Brain Preservation & Whole Brain Emulation

A technology designed to preserve synapses across the whole brain of a large mammal is successful – covered in this interview with Keith Wiley, Fellow of the Brain Preservation Foundation.
(see below)
In an announcement from the Brain Preservation Foundation, it’s president Ken Hayworth writes:

Using a combination of ultrafast glutaraldehyde fixation and very low temperature storage, researchers have demonstrated for the first-time ever a way to preserve a brain’s connectome (the 150 trillion synaptic connections presumed to encode all of a person’s knowledge) for centuries-long storage in a large mammal. This laboratory demonstration clears the way to develop Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation into a ‘last resort’ medical option, one that would prevent the destruction of the patient’s unique connectome, offering at least some hope for future revival via mind uploading. [ref]

The neuroscience and medical communities should begin an open debate regarding ASC’s ability to preserve the information content of the brain. BPF President Ken Hayworth

The significance of the Aldehyde-Stabilized-Cryopreservation as a means to achieve future revival is hotly debated among neuroscientists, cryonicists, futurists, philosophers, and likely some concerned clergymen of various persuasions. Keith Wiley (a fellow at BPF) reached out to me to do an interview on the subject – always eager to help fan the flames, I enthusiastically accepted. I also happen to think that the topic is very important (see my previous interviews with Kennith Hayworth on the first small-mammalian preservation prize being won: ‘Verifiable Brain Preservation’, and a two part epic interview on brain preservation: see part 1 and part 2).

Interview with Keith Wiley

Discussing the Brain Preservation Foundation’s announcement of the large mammal prize and related topics.


Topics covered:

Keith Wiley

Keith Wiley

– 1000ft view: What/why research brain preservation?
– The burning of the library of Alexandria was an unfortunate loss of knowledge. How can we be so complacent about brain death?
– Where are we at? Neuroscience imaging technology is preparing to map entire insect and small mammal brains at the nanometer scale using ultrafast electron microscopes, with the near-term goal of reading memories.
– Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation: what is it? How does it work?
– Previous small-mammal brain preservation prize won in 2016 – how does large-brain one differ? Extra proof of concept? How is it emblematic of progress?
– The difference between biological and uploaded revival (because the award winning technique that made the news can’t be reversed for biological revival) – Ship of Theseus / Grandfathers Axe
– The BPF’s heavy interest in gaining scientific credibility for brain preservation through peer-reviewed publications and research, and through objective investigation of preserved brains for verification — the BPF’s lack of confidence in relying on futuristic nanotechnology to repair any damage caused by the preservation process (which cryonics folks generally rely on when told their process might be damaging the brain)

Brain Preservation Foundation: http://www.brainpreservation.org/

About the BPF: The Brain Preservation Foundation is a non-profit organization with the goal of furthering research in whole brain preservation. The BPF does not currently support the offering of ASC, or any other preservation method, to human patients. This single Prize winning laboratory demonstration is insufficient to address the types of quality control measures that should be expected of any procedure that would be applied to humans. BPF president Kenneth Hayworth has released a document outlining his position on what should be expected prior to any such offering.


About Keith Wiley: he is a fellow with the Brain Preservation Foundation and a board member with Carboncopies, which promotes research and development into whole brain emulation. He has written several articles and papers on the philosophy of mind uploading. His book, A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading, is available on Amazon. Keith’s website is http://keithwiley.com.

A link to the associated text chatroom discussion (which seems to disappear after the live event ends) is here.

The Debate Rages On!

The BPF prize kindles debates around the world on

  • which brain preservation techniques actually work, and how do we verify this?
  • what are the best roadmaps to achieve viable brain preservation in view to achieve individual survival beyond our current understanding of biological death?
  • and ultimately, if ‘technological resurrection’ were possible, should we allow it?

All very healthy debates to be having!

See PrWeb’s article
Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation Wins Final Phase of Brain Preservation Prize
.

The significance of this Prize win is sure to be debated. Those who dismiss the possibility of future mind uploading will likely view ASC as simply the high-quality embalming and cold storage of a deceased body—an utter waste of time and resources. On the other hand, those who expect that humanity will eventually develop mind uploading technology are more likely to view ASC as perhaps their best chance to survive and reach that future world. It may take decades or even centuries to develop the technology to upload minds if it is even possible at all. ASC would enable patients to safely wait out those centuries. For now, neuroscience is actively exploring the plausibility of mind uploading through ongoing studies of the physical basis of memory, and through development of large-scale neural simulations and tools to map connectomes. This Prize win should shine a spotlight on such neuroscience research, underscoring its importance to humanity.

I point this out because adoption of pattern versus continuity views of identity should determine an individual’s view of the utility of vitrifixation for brain preservation. The primary point to consider here is that chemical fixation is a good deal less reversible than present day vitrification, low temperature storage with cryoprotectants. The reversible vitrification of organs is a near-future goal for a number of research groups. But reversing chemical fixation would require advanced molecular nanotechnology at the very least – it is in principle possible, but far, far distant in our science fiction future. The people advocating vitrifixation are generally of the pattern identity persuasion: they want, as soon as possible, a reliable, highest quality means of preserving the data of the mind. It doesn’t matter to them that it is effectively irreversible, as they aren’t hoping to use the brain again after the fact. ASHBURN, Va. (PRWEB) March 13, 2018

Fight Ageing’s alternative view on preservation of pattern and continuity is summarized here here

For those of us who adhere to the alternative viewpoint, the continuity theory of identity, the self is the combination of the pattern and its implementation in a specific set of matter: it is this mind as encoded in this brain. A copy is a copy, a new entity, not the self. Discarding the stored brain is death. The goal in the continuity theory view is to use some combination of future biotechnology and nanotechnology to reverse the storage methodology, repair any damage accumulated in the brain, and house it in a new body, restoring that individual to life.

I point this out because adoption of pattern versus continuity views of identity should determine an individual’s view of the utility of vitrifixation for brain preservation. The primary point to consider here is that chemical fixation is a good deal less reversible than present day vitrification, low temperature storage with cryoprotectants. The reversible vitrification of organs is a near-future goal for a number of research groups. But reversing chemical fixation would require advanced molecular nanotechnology at the very least – it is in principle possible, but far, far distant in our science fiction future. The people advocating vitrifixation are generally of the pattern identity persuasion: they want, as soon as possible, a reliable, highest quality means of preserving the data of the mind. It doesn’t matter to them that it is effectively irreversible, as they aren’t hoping to use the brain again after the fact. Fight Ageing -

Also see the Alcor Position Statement on Brain Preservation Foundation Prize.

While ASC produces clearer images than current methods of vitrification without fixation, it does so at the expense of being toxic to the biological machinery of life by wreaking havoc on a molecular scale. Chemical fixation results in chemical changes (the same as embalming) that are extreme and difficult to evaluate in the absence of at least residual viability. Certainly, fixation is likely to be much harder to reverse so as to restore biological viability as compared to vitrification without fixation. Fixation is also known to increase freezing damage if cryoprotectant penetration is inadequate, further adding to the risk of using fixation under non-ideal conditions that are common in cryonics. Another reason for lack of interest in pursuing this approach is that it is a research dead end on the road to developing reversible tissue preservation in the nearer future.

I point this out because adoption of pattern versus continuity views of identity should determine an individual’s view of the utility of vitrifixation for brain preservation. The primary point to consider here is that chemical fixation is a good deal less reversible than present day vitrification, low temperature storage with cryoprotectants. The reversible vitrification of organs is a near-future goal for a number of research groups. But reversing chemical fixation would require advanced molecular nanotechnology at the very least – it is in principle possible, but far, far distant in our science fiction future. The people advocating vitrifixation are generally of the pattern identity persuasion: they want, as soon as possible, a reliable, highest quality means of preserving the data of the mind. It doesn’t matter to them that it is effectively irreversible, as they aren’t hoping to use the brain again after the fact. Alcor President, Max More

 

No doubt these issues will inspire heated discussion, and challenge some of the core assumptions of what it means to be human, to have a thinking & self-aware mind, to be alive, and to die. Though some cherished beliefs may be bruised in the process, I believe humanity will be better for it – especially if brain preservation technologies actually do work in .

Medical time-travel for the win!


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– Science, Technology & the Future

The Point of View of the Universe – Peter Singer

Peter Singer discusses the new book ‘The Point Of View Of The Universe – Sidgwick & Contemporary Ethics’ (By Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer) He also discusses his reasons for changing his mind about preference utilitarianism.

 

Buy the book here: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/97… Bart Schultz’s (University of Chicago) Review of the book: http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/49215-he-poin… “Restoring Sidgwick to his rightful place of philosophical honor and cogently defending his central positions are obviously no small tasks, but the authors are remarkably successful in pulling them off, in a defense that, in the case of Singer at least, means candidly acknowledging that previous defenses of Hare’s universal prescriptivism and of a desire or preference satisfaction theory of the good were not in the end advances on the hedonistic utilitarianism set out by Sidgwick. But if struggles with Singer’s earlier selves run throughout the book, they are intertwined with struggles to come to terms with the work of Derek Parfit, both Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984) and On What Matters (Oxford, 2011), works that have virtually defined the field of analytical rehabilitations of Sidgwick’s arguments. The real task of The Point of View of the Universe — the title being an expression that Sidgwick used to refer to the impartial moral point of view — is to defend the effort to be even more Sidgwickian than Parfit, and, intriguingly enough, even more Sidgwickian than Sidgwick himself.”

Amazing Progress in Artificial Intelligence – Ben Goertzel

At a recent conference in Beijing (the Global Innovators Conference) – I did yet another video interview with the legendary AGI guru – Ben Goertzel. This is the first part of the interview, where he talks about some of the ‘amazing’ progress in AI over recent years, including Deep Mind’s AlphaGo sealing a 4-1 victory over Go grandmaster Lee Sedol, progress in hybrid architectures in AI (Deep Learning, Reinforcement Learning, etc), interesting academic research in AI being taken up by tech giants, and finally providing some sobering remarks on the limitations of deep neural networks.

The future of neuroscience and understanding the complexity of the human mind – Brains and Computers

Two of the world’s leading brain researchers will come together to discuss some of the latest international efforts to understand the brain. They will discuss two massive initiatives – the US based Allen Institute for Brain Science and European Human Brain Project. By combining neuroscience with the power of computing both projects are harnessing the efforts of hundreds of neuroscientists in unprecedented collaborations aimed at unravelling the mysteries of the human brain.

This unique FREE public event, hosted by ABC Radio and TV personality Bernie Hobbs, will feature two presentations by each brain researcher followed by an interactive discussion with the audience.

This is your chance to ask the big brain questions.

[Event Registration Page] | [Meetup Event Page]

ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function

Monday, 3 April 2017 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm (AEST)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
2 Clarendon Street
enter via the main Exhibition Centre entrance, opposite Crown Casino
South Wharf, VIC 3006 Australia

Professor Christof Koch
President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science, USA

Professor Koch leads a large scale, 10-year effort to build brain observatories to map, analyse and understand the mouse and human cerebral cortex. His work integrates theoretical, computational and experimental neuroscience. Professor Koch pioneered the scientific study of consciousness with his long-time collaborator, the late Nobel laureate Francis Crick. Learn more about the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Christof Koch.

Professor Karlheinz Meier
Co-Director and Vice Chair of the Human Brain Project
Professor of Physics, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Professor Meier is a physicist working on unravelling theoretical principles of brain information processing and transferring them to novel computer architectures. He has led major European initiatives that combine neuroscience with information science. Professor Meier is a co-founder of the European Human Brain Project where he leads the research to create brain-inspired computing paradigms. Learn more about the Human Brain Project and Karlheinz Meier.

 

 

This event is brought to you by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.

Discovering how the brain interacts with the world.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function is supported by the Australian Research Council.

Building Brains – How to build physical models of brain circuits in silicon

Event Description: The brain is a universe of 100 billion cells interacting through a constantly changing network of 1000 trillion synapses. It runs on a power budget of 20 Watts and holds an internal model of the world.   Understanding our brain is among the key challenges for science, on equal footing with understanding genesis and the fate of our universe. The lecture will describe how to build physical, neuromorphic models of brain circuits in silicon. Neuromorphic systems can be used to gain understanding of learning and development in biological brains and as artificial neural systems for cognitive computing.

Event Page Here | Meetup Event Page Here

Date: Wednesday 5 April 2017 6-7pm

Venue:  Monash Biomedical Imaging 770 Blackburn Road Clayton

Karlheinz Meier

Karlheinz Meier (* 1955) received his PhD in physics in 1984 from Hamburg University in Germany. He has more than 25 years of experience in experimental particle physics with contributions to 4 major experiments at particle colliders at DESY in Hamburg and CERN in Geneva. After fellowships and scientific staff positions at CERN and DESY he was appointed full professor of physics at Heidelberg University in 1992. In Heidelberg he co-founded the Kirchhoff-Institute for Physics and a laboratory for the development of microelectronic circuits for science experiments. For the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) he led a 10-year effort to design and build a large-scale electronic data processing system providing on-the-fly data reduction by 3 orders of magnitude enabling among other achievements the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012. In particle physics he took a leading international role in shaping the future of the field as president of the European Committee for Future Accelerators (ECFA).
Around 2005 he gradually shifted his scientific interests towards large-scale electronic implementations of brain-inspired computer architectures. His group pioneered several innovations in the field like the conception of a platform-independent description language for neural circuits (PyNN), time-compressed mixed-signal neuromorphic computing systems and wafer-scale integration for their implementation. He led 2 major European initiatives, FACETS and BrainScaleS, that both demonstrated the rewarding Interdisciplinary collaboration of neuroscience and information science. In 2009 he was one of the initiators of the European Human Brain Project (HBP) that was approved in 2013. In the HBP he leads the subproject on neuromorphic computing with the goal of establishing brain-inspired computing paradigms as research tools for neuroscience and generic hardware systems for cognitive computing, a new way of processing and interpreting the spatio-temporal structure of large data volumes. In the HBP he is a member of the project directorate and vice-chair of the science and infrastructure board.
Karlheinz Meier engages in public dissemination of science. His YouTube channel with physics movies has received more than a Million hits and he delivers regular lectures to the public about his research and general science topics.

 

David Brin on Marching for Science and the Future

March Fourth – on March 4th for Science and the Future!
Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwW3nIPQYwc

A discussion on science advocacy & the future! David discussed how to think about strategic foresight (because it was kind of Future Day being March fourth) and science advocacy (especially in relation to the global science march). We also covered the kinds of social systems and attractor states – what we can do to wittingly steer away from a return to feudalism – and hopefully towards a brighter future.

Points Covered in the Interview:

– David Brin’s futurist advisory role at NASA
– Future Day – paying close attention to the future (especially politics)
– Self Preventing Prophecies (not fulfilling) http://www.davidbrin.com/nonfiction/tomorrowsworld.html
– AI and other dangers
– Our feudalistic history, likely a strong ‘attractor state’ – and how to get unstuck from feudalism
– Feudalism as one of the 110 explanations for the Fermi Paradox
– Athenian Democracy – and it being toppled by feudalism – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athenian_democracy
– The March for Science

David Brin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Brin
Future Day: http://future-day.org #FutureDay


p.s. Future Day is sometimes celebrated on the 1st of March, sometimes on the 4th (‘March Fourth…’ get it??), and sometimes for the whole month.

March for Science: http://marchforscience.com #ScienceMarch #MarchForScience

 

David Brin earned a Master of Science in applied physics in and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in space science. He currently serves on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group. He has also been a participant in discussions at the Philanthropy Roundtable and other groups seeking innovative problem solving approaches.
He has won numerous awards for his science fiction – one of his novels, The Postman, was turned into a motion picture.

“The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.

ON APRIL 22, 2017, WE WALK OUT OF THE LAB AND INTO THE STREETS.

We are scientists and science enthusiasts. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.

Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels – from local schools to federal agencies – throughout the world.”

Many thanks for watching!

Consider supporting me by:
a) Subscribing to my YouTube channel:
b) Donating via Patreon:
c) Sharing the media I create

Kind regards,
Adam Ford
– Science, Technology & the Future: http://scifuture.org

March for Science! Interview with Michael Shermer

Adam Ford: G’day everybody – we’ve got Michael Shermer here today and we’re going to discuss science advocacy as well as the up and coming ‘March for Science’ which is happening on the 22nd of April. And I’m helping out with the Melbourne March for Science here in Australia.
Michael is in California. Michael is an American science writer, a historian of science and is the founder of the Skeptics Society – which I believe has about 55-60 thousand members at the moment – right?
Michael Shermer: That’s right yes.   All over the world!
Adam Ford: He has largely devoted his time at the Skeptics Society investigating pseudoscience and super natural claims – and things that rub up against the scientific view of the world. Shermer has been well known for engaging in debate on the topic of pseudoscience and religion .. and emphasizes scientific skepticism – and a famous one I think was with you and Sam Harris a while ago with Deepak Chopra – I thought that was hilarious to watch.. it was very good on your part.
We met about a year ago at a Think Inc conference focusing on Transhumanism and the Singularity and Skepticism – it’s interesting that more recently Sam Harris has covered a lot of the AI stuff recently and become sort of a vocal advocate for cautionary development of artificial intelligence there – but we might cover that later.
But in terms of the March for Science, to begin with – it may not be obvious to everybody that there exists a connection… what relationship do you see between skepticism and science?
Michael Shermer: Well I think really they are one and the same – I mean most scientists are skeptics by nature; they doubt claims until there is evidence for it.. they start with the Null Hypothesis – that your claim is not true until proven otherwise. You know, and so, and skeptics have a deep interest in science – probably if there was overlapping venn diagrams the part that is not overlapping on the skeptics side is the fact that we take a deep interest in a lot of these fringe, marginalized, borderland type claims that most scientists don’t have time to deal with. (Sorry I have a barking dog here – his name is Hitch!)
You know skeptics deal with things like ESP and psychics and UFOs and alien abductions and these sorts of things that mainstream scientists don’t have time to deal with.. or things like creationism and holocaust denial, the anti-vaccination movement, you know ‘the birthers’, ‘the truthers’… these are all claims that are being made that should be challenged – facts should be checked, evidence should be evaluated. But scientists don’t have time to do that so that’s kind of our specialty – so you might think of it as a branch of science – it’s like people that study alternative medicine, most of them are doctors, but are doctors that specialize in this because most doctors don’t have time – you know they are just busy doing their own work and research – so you know our focus is on those areas.. and really its necessary; it’s important; it’s needed – because most scientists don’t know how to respond. And some scientists have tried to face-off with creationists (for example) – and they don’t fare well because they think all they need is the science – but that’s not enough; you need to know what the arguments are that the creationists are making; why are they making those arguments? what the context is, and how to respond to that particular argument – which is not just countering with the scientific data, it has to do with the type of argument that they are making and what they really after there.. so you have to kind of know that and now you know, skepticism has been around for decades (modern skepticism) and so skeptic magazine and there are a number of other skeptic magazines around the world and groups and conferences and so it’s a whole literature and tons of books, 100s of books specializing in topics – so we had a really good literature now of skepticism that brings value to science.

Adam Ford: Yeah – and there’s going to be a Science March – I think skeptics should come along and help support this! Now this is happening not only in Washington – but there are groups all over the world who are getting involved. And it seems as though it’s going to be quite large – in terms of how large science marches can get – it may be the largest one yet – we’ll see ok!
Yes so I’m just wondering – there’s been quite a lot of controversy in the media of what counts as real facts and what counts as knowledge that can be trusted, policies that can trusted – so when people are going to this march for science – what do you think they should be listening for? How can they get the most out of it and make it the best possible science march?
Michael Shermer: Well know one knows because we’ve never done done this before! There was a Reason Rally in Washington DC that I participated in – that’s more of an Atheism type march. This (the march for science) is pure science – it’s not an atheism thing; religion has nothing to do with it; we just love science – and I think it’s really more instead of what happens at the march – it’s the idea that people are interested in that, and they care about that – and passionately enough to send a signal to Washington and politicians and really everybody – that we live in an age of science! There’s nothing more important the scientific method for determining what’s true – and so in an age of #alternativeFacts and ‘fake news’ stories and that sort of thing, we need science more than ever! And yes we have to get past this idea of science as guys in lab coats with beakers or particle accelerators – you know I mean all of us should be reasoning scientifically – that is it’s science and reason, it’s logic, it’s critical thinking, it’s just evaluating any claim whether it’s made by a politician or an economist or a religious leader .. anybody – if it’s a factual claim, its fair game for skeptical evaluation by anyone. I would like to think that we live in an age of science – we are all scientists in a sense that we should all be training how to think scientifically.
Adam Ford: Certainly! Alan Adler who was one of the stars of M.A.S.H. going years back (I used to watch that when I was a kid) said like science is a meticulous expression of human curiosity – so in a sense like we innately we are “proto-scientists” you know – sticking things in our mouths, tasting them and trying out new things in the world – some of the theory of science is a little bit unintuitive though – and I don’t think we are natural born scientists in the extreme sense…
Michael Shermer: Ahh yeah – that’s true! A couple of things – I have a new born, so it’s been kind of fun watching little Vinnie run experiments (Adam: Congratulations!) Thankyou! He’s a cute little guy – but they put stuff in their mouths, they drop things , they pick things up, they’re touching things – what they are doing is – the theory of Alison Gopnik (the developmental psychologist) – is that they’re like little scientists running experiments. Okay if I pick this up and drop it, what does it do? Where does it go? It’s called ‘object permanence’ – they’re little scientists. They also intuit the way the world works – figuring out how gravity (and things like that) which does not always turn out to be right. So our intuitions about the world (for example) – if you go outside it looks like the sun is rising, the sun is setting – the stars are stars are rising, the stars are setting – you don’t feel the earth move, you see the sky move. It feels like the earth is flat and stationary – everything goes around it – well we know that’s wrong – but that’s an intuitive idea. Same thing with evolution – it’s not intuitive; you don’t see species change – what you see is species staying the same in a human lifetime. So, it’s an inferential science – you have to infer from the fossils, from DNA, and so on – that evolution happened over long stretches of time – but in terms of the way our minds work from out senses, it’s counter intuitive – same thing with most of quantum physics – a lot of the esoteric sciences, you know, they are counter-intuitive. So that does take effort and training and practice, schooling and so on – there is a reason you should get a degree in science – because we learn something about these things over the centuries.
Adam Ford: Not everybody has a degree in science, not everybody has the time or the inclination to go through a degree in science – how can people, without a very mature scientific understanding of the world – still combat things like ‘alternate facts’ – how can find a position to stand in where they are in a position to judge the veracity of ‘alternate facts’?
Michael Shermer: It’s not hard, it’s not difficult at all – you just have to ask a few probing questions like ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘how do you know that’s true?’, ‘who said that?’, ‘what were their sources?’, ‘have their sources been double checked?’, ‘have they been fact checked?’ – you know these are just really basic like journalism type questions that any first year journalism student learns – that you can’t just read the newspaper and expect that that’s the truth – you got to know ‘what are the other sources?’, ‘what’s the source of that fact, and that fact?’ You’ve got to have more than one source, and cross check and fact check and things like that – so in fact its really just a matter of thinking critically in terms of asking questions; critical questions – just like ‘well that’s interesting – how do you know?’, ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘what’s the site?’ – ‘well you know I read it on the interweb’ – well most of the stuff is not fact checked on the interweb – Alex Jones’ ‘Info Wars’ – he talks about the aliens are running the government – you know whatever – down the rabbit hole you go with some of these websites – particularly the conspiratorial minded ones – you don’t have to have a degree in science that there’s something fishy going on there – you’ve just have to ask ‘come on, does that really work?’, ‘does that really fit with the way we know the world works?’ – its basically questions like that – we call it a baloney detection – Carl Sagan called it ‘the baloney detection kit’ – we’ve since published something along those lines called ‘the baloney detection kit’ at skeptics.com – Carl stated in his great book ‘Demon Haunted World’ just asking questions, you know – kicking the tires before you buy the car – just asking really basic questions like the ones I just said – so that – just start right there – by challenging the authority. ‘How do you know?’
Adam Ford: Absolutely! So – I might ask – sometimes I think it’s a bit counter productive to get too political in some of the interviews I do, because I’m not a political scientist – but.. what are your views on the current state of politics in America and Britain – do you see a promising horizon in the future?
Michael Shermer: Well, yeah – I’m an optimist – you know despite the last year of political upheaval; and everyone is all panicky and worrying – just calm down everybody – tranquillo; everything is going to be ok – we have spent centuries building civil societies – no one person can destroy it all; it’s not the end of the world – for all these things: artificial intelligence, terrorism – you know, these are not existential threats – I don’t think there are any (with the possible exception of nuclear weapons) anything that can destroy civilization – so you know just carry on in an optimistic way – continue making progress no matter who’s in power. I think there’s enough checks and balances in place to keep things stable.
Adam Ford: Well there are a certain amount of checks and balances to keep things stable. But you know, I can’t avoid the possibility that things could go pear shaped – so biasing the odds of achieving the kinds of futures we want is something that I think is worth doing – but also on that topic – we can use science to help us shape our understandings of how to do the most good in the world. Some people call this ‘science philanthropy’ – there has been successes in medicine in improving lives a lot over the years – and successes in other areas of science has had huge impacts. What areas of science and engineering do you think are both under-funded and under-populated and worth throwing resources at?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think that Social Sciences dealing with human problems like crime, racism, conflicts, civil wars – the kinds of things that kill people I think should be right up there with medicine. With public health we should have economic public health and political public health and conflict and peace studies – there are people that do this but I think they are under funded compared to say some of the medical professions or physics – which is all great – I don’t want to take any money from anybody just put more money into the social sciences, particularly the psychological sciences that study these kinds of human problems that we still need to work on. I mean we’ve wrote this book ‘The Moral Arc’ about moral progress over the last 500 years – I document there has been a lot of moral progress – we have a long ways to go – yeah so we need to keep working on it, and figure it out what it is we’ve been doing that is right and do more of that; and what it is we’ve been doing wrong and do less of that – and really that’s what social scientists do for a living – they try to figure out the cause of different things that we want to study – it’s not just a correlation but maybe there’s a causation there as well. There’s techniques to determine that – so I’d say more funding for that.
Adam Ford: Ok, what’s your view on funding basic fundamental science as opposed to applied scientific research?
Micheal Shermer: I think it’s both – I don’t think it’s fair to say one is more important than the other – I mean most of the applied research comes out of theoretical science – you have to have the theories first – you have to have the fundamental understanding of the laws and principles of nature that you then later manipulate through applied technologies and so we need both – so that’s why all the big companies: IBM, Google, Apple – they have their own research labs too; they have their professional scientists working there; all the pharmaceutical companies – they have their own professional scientists and their own laboratories – they know we have to make discoveries before we make products.
Adam Ford: The Effective Altruism movement has grown in popularity over the years. Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker … Peter Singer has definitely been involved, Stephen Pinker said it was one of the world’s best ideas. Have you any thoughts on the Effective Altruism movement?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think it’s great – I’m totally behind it – that and the animal rights movement and the application of the moral principles we have developed over the centuries: civil rights, civil liberties and so fourth – protections for those who can’t protect themselves, like animals – I think all of that’s important and the current movement that Peter Singer is pushing for, and I support it – mostly when I make my end of year donations, if there’s so many good charities I don’t know which one to pick – I just go to his website and he has a list – these are the ones we’ve spent years studying that we think save the most lives – or your dollar will go the farthest – and I just give my money to him – well his org (Adam: is it ‘The Life You Can Save’) – yeah the Life You Can Save – yep and it’s also a consciousness raising effort, which is the kinds of things that Gandhi did and Dr King did of just making people aware that we should be even thinking about those sorts of things – like what’s the value of life – how much money do you have to spend to save one life? Well it depends well if you talk about mosquito nets to prevent Malaria – it’s pretty cheap – a couple of bucks goes a long ways – you know, vitamins, water, just basic needs – that’s why I very much respect the Gates Foundation; they’re really going after to be solved which can be solved like within 6 months a year, a couple of years, 10 years, thirty years – you know, not pie in the sky stuff, like we’re going to build libraries for everybody – you know that was great – you know Carnegie did that, Rockefeller Foundation and all the things they did they’ve done over the last century – they are all good – but you know I like the idea – well let’s just save some lives right now
Adam Ford: Like pulling glass out of feet that are getting harmed today rather than worry about the long term future?
Michael Shermer: Yeah that’s right – well I mean both is good but you know if you want some bang for your buck that’s the best way to do it – to go for that – Effective Altruism – those kinds of moves that they make that are immediate and measurable – that’s why Gates is so good – he’s a scientist – well he is a technologist – he likes to measure things – you know I want quantitative measurements. So if we spend 100 million dollars in Africa on this problem, can I see a difference next year? I want to see the graph, I want to see the pie chart, I want to see the slice of the problem getting smaller – they’re projecting the end of poverty as the UN has defined it – $1.25 a day or less for extreme poverty, $2.50 a day or less for regular poverty – they are projecting the end of that – it will be zero percent by 2030 – that’s only 13 years from now – that’s unbelievable! Thousands of years of ‘we’ve always had the poor with us’ – before 1900 it was about 80% of the worlds population was poor, was living in poverty – now it’s about 10% – that’s a huge, huge improvement – and it’s almost, I wouldn’t say it’s unnoticed, but you know the activists who hew and cry that things are bad and getting worse – I think it’s good to have people like myself and Stephen Pinker, Peter Singer and others that are more optimistic say ‘Hey wait a minute – we have a lot of work to do but we’ve come a long ways’.
Adam Ford: Absolutely yeah – it’s good to report that achievements have been made. Unfortunately in the news people like to watch horror and they seem to not necessarily like – but if it bleeds it leads they say – and people are attracted to.. are paying attention to news snippets that have something to do with something that’s wrong in the world. And it’s unfortunate that people loose track of what’s going right – because what’s going right in the world helps reinforce us to work in the direction of made what’s right in the world happen – okay so yeah I think people miss out on a lot when they have this constant negativity bias in selecting the type of news that one sees.
So what do you think the most exciting thing is in developments in STEM is? What do you think think is the most exciting news in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or engineering (as some people like to say)?
Michael Shermer: Oh well I think it’s definitely the application of technologies through smart phones, and iPads and laptops through the internet and reversing the classroom; essentially you can get your classroom lectures online for free! Not just the MOOC courses – the online video recordings of professors giving lectures (you know there’s 1000s of them now) but like the Khan Academy videos – these are short little 5 minute, 8 minute tutorials on very specific things, you know, math, algebra, english literature history, there’s 1000s of them now – I think the Gates Foundation is backing them too – that is getting beyond the idea that you have to have a brick and mortar building with kids sitting in rows – like little soldiers – because the fact that the original classroom was designed in a way to impose order on children and teach them to be good citizens and soldiers for the nation. I mean it was really Nationalism kind of movement – it’s not that I’m against having classrooms – I’m a professor, I have a class where I will be lecturing for hours in a classroom with 25 students sitting there taking notes – that’s fine, that’s good – it’s not the only thing – you can get any kind of education you want now, right now! I can too – I take teaching company courses when I’m out riding my bike or commuting the LA traffic – I listen to lectures – they are about 30 minutes – by the best professors in the world that go to the studio and this company, record these lectures professionally and they’re great – you know I take stuff on Shakespeare, taking courses on ancient history – there’s 100s of courses like that – I would never have the time otherwise to just sit down and take a class.. but if you’re just driving, or if you’re out walking, hiking, working out or cycling (in my case) why not get information – and it’s super cheap, it’s unbelievably cheap (Adam: Yes some are for free, it’s incredible!) – even podcasts! You know I’m a latecomer to doing podcasts thing as a guest being interviewed but folks are listening to it – and it turns out there are some really good podcasts – they’re totally free – and they’re unscripted conversations, like you and I are having – they just talk – and I learn a lot from people I’ve either never heard of or have heard of and have always wanted to read their book or whatever – or just didn’t have time – and here he is, he is just talking for the next hour and a half – in the case of Joe Rogan – 40 hours on a particular topic – you know it’s great – and it’s free! Again one of those projections in the future – at some point person on the planet will have access to the internet and virtually all knowledge will be free and immediately accessible on a hand held device – that’s gotta change the world!
Adam Ford: Yeah I know – I mean the more rationally and I guess informed people are, the more likely I think people will be able to make better informed decisions (Michael: Hopefully!) – I suspect it will be the case but there are still a lot of ideas on the internet that don’t have a lot of basis in proof so my next question is – what kinds of ideas that some people loosely define as ‘scientific’ are ready to be thrown out, retired, or put to rest? and why the hell are they still in currency?
Michael Shermer: First of all the internet is like the printing press – we don’t want to ban certain sites, just like we don’t want to ban books – it’s a bad idea. The new technologies bring side effects that are unwanted – in this case non-fact checked sites that just spew, not just spewing hate but false information – which in many ways is even worse – I mean the hate, the bigotry stuff you can see it – it’s obvious and anybody that has a brain and a heart can ignore it – but the information that’s not quite true – not crazy stuff like ‘Aliens are running the world.. lizards living in Mexico…’ you know – no one believes that – it’s more of the stuff that you know ‘I heard that whatever..’ is some political thing – we get back to the problem of baloney detection, we have to have certain critical questions that we ask before we accept things as true – and that’s what we’re here for – that’s what you do, that’s what I do – we’re all out there pushing back, push back, push back – and that there is many people who are aware that there you can’t just believe everything that you read on the internet.
Adam Ford: Okay – on the theme of being scientifically minded – in what ways have you personally updated your belief based on new evidence – what have you changed your mind about? (it could be something that happened yonks ago, or recently)
Michael Shermer: Well both, I used to be a born again Christian and a creationist and I abandoned both of those beliefs when I saw the facts didn’t support it. More recently, I used to be always in favor of the death penalty – mainly out of sympathy for the victims families – but then that always kind of went against my libertarian beliefs because I’m always hesitant about having the state having too much power; I was always slightly conflicted about that. Then when I was writing ‘The Moral Arc’ I really looked into the literature on ‘does it deter crime?’ – no, ‘does it deter homicides?’ – no. Because most of these crimes and homicides are committed in acts of emotional outbursts – usually there’s some moralistic component to it – it’s not a thought through rational calculation by a rational agent saying ‘okay I can get the Rolex watch, I can steal the car but I might face the death penalty’ – there’s no calculations like that anyway. And worst of all the corruption of the criminal justice system and too many people have very likely been put to death and are sitting on death row who don’t belong there – we know that for sure 100% over 200 have been exonerated through DNA alone – these are mostly rape homicide cases where there’s a rape case still in the archives that can be tested using DNA introduced in the 90s and that’s changed everything. And it’s come out that not only that but also a lot of police departments and criminal justice systems are not very efficient – not just corruption but also relying on things like eye-witness testimony which is not reliable. I’d like to air on the side of keeping too much power from the state – the power to kill people – the death penalty, also I’m sympathetic to the victims families yes but prison is a pretty rotten place to be and maybe there’s some satisfaction in knowing that the person who killed your loved one is at least rotting away on one of these hell holes – maybe it would feel better … I don’t know, there’s just too many problems with the death penalty. Gun control – I think we should have some gun control – some background checks – just basic stuff that most people think is reasonable – I used to be against those, now I’m for those. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things.
Adam Ford: Awesome! Well next question would be: what invention or idea do you think will change ‘everything’?
Michael Shermer: Yeah – that was one the Brockman Edge.org questions – I can’t remember what my answer was now – but I think it was the scientific method – the way of science – it’s already been invented but just keep doing more of it. Obviously some big ones like the internet a game changer for sure. But the problem is I don’t even know what we don’t know – if you asked that question of Homo Erectus 2 million years ago, it would be ‘oh I think better stone tools are going to change everything’ – they’re not thinking ‘I need more bandwidth’ for my internet – they don’t even know what they don’t know – we didn’t even know about the internet say 25 years ago – 50 years ago, whatever. There was no such thing.. yeah well you know if in 50 years 125 – I don’t know, I really don’t – I think that one big thing would be .. you know my next book is called ‘Heavens on earth – the quest for immortality’ – I’ve been reading a lot about radical life extension, cryonics..
Adam Ford: You know that’s an interest of mine – I don’t believe in immortality – but I certainly think that radical life extension is possible in theory, in principle, it’s just that I don’t think we have any clear signs of it happening within our lifetimes – but it might happen in our lifetimes – and I’m open to that and I’ll certainly be all for it. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews with Aubrey de Grey and a number of other people – that have pretty concrete predefined testable theories about whether this will work or not.. so lets see.
Michael Shermer: So I mean in terms of what would be a break through – it’s not getting people to live 200 years, 500 years or whatever – I think it’s getting more people to live quality lives into their 80s, 90s and even into their 100s – the maximum life span is about 125 – no one’s ever going to make it past that and there are genetic reasons for that – that we can’t yet solve involving the telomeres and all that – but instead of worrying about that, let’s just link certain problems like alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease – the things that take you out or make you miserable at the end of your life, you know.. (Adam: Extending health-span) yes.. instead of living from 80-90 or 90-100 bed ridden, miserable and unable to walk – that’s not living – so that would be a goal for people that do that kind of research to aim for – you know I mean people I interviewed for my book say ‘sure, don’t you want to live to be 500?’ – my response is just get me to 100 without being senile, bed ridden with tubes in my stomach and just completely out of it – I don’t want to live like that – I’m not worried about 500 years – I just want to get to 100 and have a good healthy life…
Adam Ford: See how you feel when you get to 100, and the new generations of medicine are out and about then – then you can decide whether you want to continue to live – if you’re miserable and sad you may not want to continue – and that’s the thing, it’s a useful technology to give people choice about whether they want to continue to exist or not – and I think that’s interesting.
Micheal Shermer: Yeah well the polls on it show that most people say that they would not want to live beyond usually about 80 to 85 years – and you know, I think they are just not thinking this through carefully – they are thinking they are going to be bed ridden or whatever – of course, no one wants to live like that – but in fact if you were healthy and said well ‘you have a death sentence, you are going to die a week from tomorrow – but if you take this pill you will live an extra year – would you like to do that?’ – ‘Oh, yeah of course’ – yeah and so take it forward another year and make the same offer ‘yeah, I’ll take one more year’… and one more year, and one more year! As long as you’re healthy and reasonably happy .. of course we can see if we can op that – no ones going to go ‘no, I’m done’ – well unless your suicidal – the average healthy, happy person is not going to say ‘I’m done now’ – because of some philosophical, metaphysical notion of ‘we should only live as long as is normal or natural’ – well what that means is most of us would have been dead long ago anyway because there is very little natural in modern medicine – the whole point of medicine is to overcome those natural problems that disease and just entropy – just the assault on the body and brain that we are learning to reverse or avoid.
Adam Ford: Have you interviewed Liz Parrish at all? (Michael: no, I don’t know Liz) – well this is something interesting – there are a number of people who are interested in rejuvenating the telomeres (with the aid of telomerase) without causing cancer – there are some people who seem to be making some in-roads – but I don’t know what kind of test need to be done to justify whether they have made any success – and whether they will take 30 years to do the test or not. But it is interesting that there are people working on that problem knowing that if you just do it in a hap-hazard way you might end up causing disease – like causing cancer.
Michael Shermer: That’s right pleiotropy .. (Adam: Antagonistic pleiotropy?) .. yeah that’s right – so you have to be careful about that – but I was encouraged to see that it looks like drinking beer might be good for oneself so maybe Aubrey de Grey is on to something there – you know he loves beer (Adam: he certainly does) – and so do I so hey okay!
Adam Ford: Well the last joint question is: What are you most concerned about and what are you most optimistic about with reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine or mathematics)?
Michael Shermer: Well, I guess more broadly – first, concern about Islamic terrorism, and fundamentalist religion and in general and Islamic terrorism in particular – I don’t think it’s an existential threat – they’re not going to take over the western world – that’s not going to happen – you know but it can cause a lot of carnage and that’s a concern. The continued reduction of nuclear weapons I think is important – I want to look forward to more of that. In terms of STEM and continuing to promote science – is just we don’t want any setbacks. This idea that political ideology or economic ideology or religious beliefs trump scientific facts… no, no, no, no, no! We have to change our beliefs to fit the facts and not vice versa – that’s a deep rooted human problem within our nature to want to be right regardless of the facts, in the teeth of counter evidence – it’s called cognitive dissonance, the more you commit to a particular belief and you confront facts that contradict it the more likely you are to spin doctor the facts rather than your beliefs and that’s a very human problem – every body does it – you know so I think that’s an area we need more work on – not just understanding how it works, we know how cognitive dissonance works, but what to do about it – so long as we’re working on that. So that’s what I’m optimistic about!
Adam Ford: And I’m optimistic about the Science March!
Michael Shermer: Yes right I’m not it – lets go, let’s do it!
Adam Ford: So I hope people get involved and show to the world just how interested people are in science. It’s been fantastic having you on the show again! So I hope we cross paths again!
Michael Shermer: Oh we will, well definitely when my book comes out next January we’ll do another conversation.
Alright take care, cheers!

March for Science – 22nd April 2017!