2012-09-20

Letter to a friend

It took me a while. But, I finally came around to writing this letter to an acquaintance with significant economic power. Insignificant compared to the US President; but significant compared to mine.

The thoughts in this letter are very general. The questions could be addressed to any person of his class. So, I see no harm in publishing it. I'm interested in what people of power think of these questions.

 

[Dear powerful/influential friend:]

I'm wondering about your thoughts on life extension, artificial intelligence, human-machine integration, and the future of the human species (assuming there's going to be any).

I don't generally have this kind of conversation with people of your generation, largely because they seem to not be interested in this topic. Most people appear to assume that the way things have been for ourselves, our fathers and grandfathers are how things are going to continue, even in the face of compelling evidence that this is unlikely to be the case.

Chances are, humanity in 100 years is going to be very different from humanity today - if, indeed, it continues to exist. I think the future is going to be greatly influenced by some or all of the advances mentioned above:


(1) Life extension. Half a century ago, we only first discovered DNA. A decade ago, we came up with a process to fully read it. Work is currently ongoing to understand it. In future decades, we will learn to manipulate it.

To a great extent, our first and foremost enemy is, and has always been, nature. We live comfortably because we've largely tamed it. We did botch a lot of the taming, did it the easy way rather than the right way; through issues such as climate change, it's going to cost us. But, the taming of nature is why most humans are currently alive.

To a great extent, the foremost natural enemy we haven't yet overcome is our own fragile, vulnerable, quirky, haphazardly built bodies. Yes, life is a miracle, and so on and so forth, but ultimately, we don't die because we need to. We die because our bodies are deteriorating crap, and our challenge is to figure out how to fix them before we expire.

Chances are, in the next several decades, we will learn how to fix our bodies. We will learn how to stop aging, and how to stop most diseases, including cancer.

My concern is, not enough is being done to speed up this development. We will get there eventually, but I would like to still be alive when cures for these problems are discovered. Yet, most everyone, rich and poor, seems to be blithely unaware of this. Most people are happily committed to wasting their ONE chance to live essentially forever, by fixing their bodies during the paltry 70-90 years before they expire.

Our countries invest trillions into warfare, and even more trillions into treatments for mere symptoms - just shepherding the walking dead, failing to cure anything - all while investing almost NOTHING into research that would fix mortality. Somehow, this seems fine to everyone - walking towards an unnecessary grave as we placate ourselves with belief about non-existent afterlife.


(2) Artificial intelligence. A decade ago, IBM built a computer that crushed the world's foremost chess masters. Recently, they built a computer that understood questions in English, and crushed human competitors in Jeopardy. These are types of specific intelligence. A general artificial intelligence has so far evaded researchers.

Computers grow more powerful, however. The supercomputer that crushed humans in Jeopardy will be a tablet computer in a decade. Algorithms will improve, and general artificial intelligence will be reachable.

We should pray (to, sadly, non-existent deities) that human-machine integration, and our understanding of our DNA, progress faster than development of general AI. When the first AI is created, it will be the first entity in our recorded history with access to blueprints of its own creation. It will be able to improve on those blueprints. It will be able to create a yet smarter AI. The next generation AI will be able to do the same to its own blueprints, until, after several generations, an AI arises that will vastly exceed humanity in its intelligence. What the AI proceeds to do after that is beyond our knowing.

If this happens, humans may be eclipsed by the AI, like chimpanzees are eclipsed by humans. We should hope that we will be able to make ourselves smarter - through integration with machines, through manipulation of our DNA - to be able to compete with an AI when it arises.


(3) Human-machine integration. One could argue we've already progressed a fair bit in this regard. Search engines have become extensions of our thought process. Computers and gadgets have become the way we communicate. In the interest of improving our ability to solve our problems, live more fulfilling lives, and stay competitive as an intelligent life form, in the presence of a possible AI, we should be working to integrate our minds with technology further.

This research, of course, is receiving the same pittance, in terms of investment, as research into anti-aging. We will eventually get there, but with little thanks to governments and philantropists, who could make the research happen much faster.

Bill Gates spends his fortune postponing the deaths of some Africans to 70 instead of 7. At a cosmic scale, these are not the investments that need to be made. We're spending our fortune to buy a fish, instead of a fishing pole. We have the opportunity in our hands to live till we are millions of years old, to travel to the stars, to learn the deepest mysteries of the universe. Each passing minute, we're letting this opportunity slip between our fingers, till we die simply because we did nothing. Our species may be conquered by an AI like the chimps we are, or the world might be conquered by people who were smart enough to invest into the problems that matter.


You're older than me; you have a bit less of a chance to see all this happen. But the chance is there. I know you try to live a healthy lifestyle, so you aren't planning on dying any time soon. Meanwhile, the number of discoveries in each decade will keep rising. We may well be able to extend lives in a couple of decades, and make people youthful not long after. If you live until 90, you might perhaps also live until 90 million. If that happens, most of your existence will be, from our current perspective, enhanced beyond recognition. Most of your experience might be as what we would now consider a demi-god.

Those are the stakes on the table.

My question is - have you considered this?

You are acquainted with a fair number of fairly influential people. Have they considered this? Is anyone thinking of this seriously?

Because evidence suggests that they have not.

Why are people whose main purpose in life seems to be to get ahead, not investing into possible immortality?

2012-09-19

There must always be... a Lich King

After having contemplated religion for a couple decades, I've come to a tentative conclusion about religion and the state. This conclusion may sound surprising.

I'll put it like this:
  • I'm atheist.
  • I think the overall effects of faith are harmful.
  • Separation of church and state makes the problem worse.
This is not to say I want religion to run countries. Not at all. Quite the opposite.

In order to control irrational and fundamentalist tendencies, countries have to run their religions.

Consider the following graphic:




Out of 11 countries in this graphic where support for evolution is over 75%, the following have, or have until recently had, a state religion:

CountryChurchOfficial Until
IcelandLutheran Evangelical Churchcontinuing
DenmarkChurch of Denmark (Lutheran)continuing
SwedenChurch of Sweden (Lutheran)2000
EnglandChurch of England (Anglican)continuing
NorwayChurch of Norway (Lutheran)2012

One could possibly also count the following as relatively recent departures:

ItalyRoman Catholic Church1984
SpainRoman Catholic Church1978

Altogether, from six to eight countries out of eleven with the highest support for evolution have recently had an official state religion; three of them continue to have one.

Contrast this with the United States, where there hasn't been an official state religion since colonial times. Yet, in this most advanced post-industrial economy, support for evolution is at a lackluster 50%, or worse.

Some years ago, in Warcraft, there was a villain named Arthas Menethil. He was a human prince from Lordaeron, who journeyed north to lead a war against the undead scourge. In the process, he was corrupted by the leader of the undead, the Lich King Ner'Zhul. He became a death knight in his service, returned to Lordaeron with an undead army, slew his father - the human king - and eventually fused with Ner'Zhul, becoming the new Lich King.

In World of Warcraft, a group of players defeats this Lich King - Arthas, at which point the ghost of Arthas's father warns about the following:

Terenas Menethil II:

Without its master's command, the restless Scourge will become an even greater threat to this world.

Control must be maintained. There must always be... a Lich King.

Or, for a shorter version:





In the most successful cases - in the countries enumerated above - a state religion can be the control that's needed.

State religion can also be very harmful. In the case of oppressive theocracies, such as Iran, religion is everywhere. No one can escape the Supreme Leader's doctrines. There can be no dancing, no music, and no playing most video games, either.

However, in many successful countries, a state religion contributes to checks and balances that can keep religious people reasonably sane, and prevent fundamentalism from running rampant. There's an "official insanity", a relatively mild one, which prevents more harmful insanities from taking root.

The US, with its separation of church and state, has no such checks and balances. Separation prevents the state from reigning in religion. But religious voters, and their leaders, are free to exert control over the state. Extremist religious beliefs in the US are rampant, and represent a mighty and destructive force in politics.

Over the past 60 years, the situation in the US has become worse in this regard, not better. In the past 12 years, religious extremism has played a crucial role in events that are coming closer and closer to destroying the country, and have inflicted damage on the world.

Being religious is a form of willful partial insanity. People who are partially insane need guidance from people who appear religious, and might well be, but are also responsible and sane. Without such guidance, they receive it from people who are not. Insanity runs rampant, until it becomes a threat to peace, prosperity, and progress.

That's what's happening to the US. Religious sentiment is being used by the selfish and unscrupulous as a political tool, with devastating consequences. Meanwhile, separation of church and state is preventing sane, responsible people from acting.

2012-09-05

7.6 earthquake in Costa Rica

Damn this earthquake! My shower gel fell off the windowsill. Fortunately, my shampoo was unaffected.

Seriously, though - our building shook a lot. It was pretty scary. We're grateful to the scientists, engineers and construction crews whose work allowed us to survive this with (so far) no visible damage. If we lived in Haiti, we would not have been so fortunate.

Thank you.