Here's what members of the SL4 list thought about existential risk. UFAI is radically undervalued. Gamma ray burster on par with human-originated threats? Give me a break.
I think that polls would have better results if people were actually forced to defend their positions, instead of replying anonymously. That's where the power of prediction markets can come in.
See more results here.
The World Transhumanist Association just held an election for its Directorship. Out of the 5 seats that were vacated, three were held by incumbents, and two new Directors joined. Here I'll go over the five winners of the election and take a little look at what these transhumanists are doing. The WTA is made up of people who pay dues to support this transhumanist umbrella organization, and we vote in new Directors when their 2-year terms expire.
Giulio Prisco, the new Executive Director of the WTA, was voted onto the Board again. This is no surprise, as he contributes to the movement constantly and is well-regarded among transhumanists. Read his considerations on the development of the transhumanist movement. You can also view his handiwork in SecondLife by visiting uvvy island.
Mike Treder was voted onto the Board again as well. Mike's organization, the CRN, is looking for $22,110 for a study of organizational responses to molecular manufacturing, which I think would be extremely valuable. You can read Mike's daily blog entries at the CRN blog, and more about his organization at the link provided.
Mike LaTorra is a writer and teacher in New Mexico, and the President of a Zen temple. He's been on the Board since its founding, and was voted on again. He recently started blogging here. I'll be keeping an eye on it.
Anne Corwin is a new Director. You can see her bio here. Anne has been an active blogger and podcaster over the last year, and contributed greatly to the collective discussion. She recently became a formal volunteer for Aubrey de Grey's organization, the Methuselah Foundation, and continues her quick integration into the community as one of the new WTA Directors. Corwin emphasizes neurodiversity, which is an important component of transhumanism which will become increasingly more relevant as technology hands us the keys to the human brain.
Partricia Manney is another new Director. Her bio is here, and her home page is here. From her bio, "Iâ€™m not your typical WTA person. Iâ€™m not an academic, scientist or technologist, nor do I have graduate degrees, but Iâ€™m every bit as committed, aware and excited about the future of humanity, being self educated in this realm and working with H+ ideas artistically." I think it's valuable that a transhumanist artist is now on the Board of Directors, showing how the transhumanist cultural view ranges across numerous domains of human experience.
I wish all of the Directors the best of luck as they govern the WTA for the next two years. As the movement grows, so will the necessary level of responsibility.
Like this, covered in self-replicating goo?
Or how about this, thriving environmentally and technologically?
(Heh! Explanation: The joke here is that we oft speak of malevolent or human-indifferent AI as having a thermostat-like goal system that mandates turning the earth into paperclips. You may educate yourself further here.)
This is great news. Prominent economists are writing papers and articles that reveal them to be blatantly transhumanistic. Even though I've been reading literature at the intersection of cognitive psychology and economics for a while, it was my colleague Michael Vassar who really kicked off my interest in economics in early 2004.
Robin Hanson is the quintessential transhumanist economist. (However, he resists the label: see the comments.) Legend has it that he has the highest IQ out of anyone in the transhumanist community. Regardless of whether or not this is true, he has contributed valuable insights to >H mailing lists for many years. Nowadays he headlines the >H-writer-saturated Overcoming Bias blog, which is the perfect symbol of the merger between transhumanism and economics. Robin has been a public transhumanist for a while now, and everyone knows it.
Then it was David D. Friedman, the son of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. I subscribed to his "Ideas" blog last year expecting economic banter, and before I knew it, he's talking about mind uploading, artificial wombs, and using virtual reality to create 'heaven on earth'. His blog tagline boasts, "I am an academic economist who teaches at a law school and has never taken a course for credit in either field.". A quick look at his main page shows a link to Aubrey de Grey's Wikipedia entry. (See some of his innovative 'products I'd like to see'.) Oookay... how the heck am I supposed to get views outside of the transhumanist community when the authors of these blogs turn into transhumanists within a few months of my subscription?
Today, it's Arnold Kling, the MIT economics Ph.D who teaches with Robin at George Mason University. He has a piece in TCS Daily talking about the relationship between economic development and moral/cognitive development. He declares, "We seem to be on the verge of operating directly on the human brain to a far greater extent than was true in the past", and concludes with, "In the study of history, the importance of mankind's mental and moral development has often been overlooked. My guess is that the rate of mental and moral development will accelerate sharply over the next few decades, and the phenomenon will be more widely noticed and its significance better appreciated." This is not ambiguously transhumanist, it's quite blunt - Kling mentions neuromedicine, genetic engineering, and the fuzzy line between therapy and enhancement. On a daily basis, he writes the wildly popular Econlog economics blog with Bryan Caplan, who I've mentioned here before.
Any other transhumanist economists out there? You can come out of the closet now.
I propose that January 12th be henceforth known as Cryonics Day. Aside from the fact that it's frickin' cold outside, January 12th is the day on which the first cryonics patient, Dr. James Bedford, took leave of us. Bedford's heart stopped beating on Jan. 12, 1967 at the age of 73, and shortly after he became the first person to be cryonically preserved with the intention of future resuscitation. That was 40 years ago. If Bedford were up and kicking today, he'd be 113 years old. In 7 years, his combined pre-suspension and post-suspension age will surpass that of the longest-lived human on record.
Our personality, memories, dreams, and goals have a physical reality - in the connections between neurons in the brain. There is no ambiguity here; the entire field of cognitive science is possible because we know for a fact that the brain is the hardware that runs the software of consciousness. Cryonic suspension preserves that connective map, opening up the possibility that one day it could be reanimated and given new life. In honor of Cryonics Day, here is my Cryonics Mini-FAQ.
Q. Is the brain capable of retaining personal identity after death?
A. Yes, because our identity rests on the pattern of our neural connections. Unless those are destroyed, the information that makes us up remains. To argue otherwise is like saying that the information in a book stops existing when we aren't reading it.
Q. Cryonics makes me uncomfortable. Why?
A. Because it challenges our pre-scientific folk notions of identity. Just like we used to think that the ceasing of heartbeat meant death, and were proved otherwise, the popular notion of identity will continue to evolve until it becomes scientific. The scientific definition of identity is based on the pattern of neurons in the brain.
Q. Do brain cells burst during the freezing process?
A. No. In fact, they shrink slightly because the water in them gets drawn out of them into extracellular ice crystals.
Q. Will medical tech ever be able to revive a cryonics patient without killing them?
A. If medical technology continues to advance and civilization doesn't collapse, this is extremely likely. See nanomedicine. The thawing process would need to increase temperatures without damaging cellular integrity. While this would require improvements in medical technology, it is entirely within the bounds of what the laws of physics allow.
Q. Are there any examples of animals that can survive freezing?
A. Yes, some frogs freeze solid regularly.
Q. Will anyone want to revive me in a hundred years?
Q. Will the world of the future be so unlike what I'm familiar with that it's too overwhelming to live there?
A. No. Technology implies power. The power to create areas suitable for humans from the past to get acclimated in, even if much of society has changed in big ways.
Congratulations to all the talented men and women working at Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, and those doing cryobiology and vitrification research.
Happy Cryonics Day! Do your best to stay warm. ;)
An existential risk is a global catastrophic risk that threatens to exterminate humanity or severely curtail its potential. Existential risks are unique because current institutions have little incentive to mitigate them, except as a side effect of pursuing other goals. There is little to no financial return in mitigating existential risk. Bostrom (2001) argues that because reductions in existential risks are global public goods, they may be undervalued by the market. Also, because we have never confronted a major existential risk before, we have little to learn from, and little impetus to be afraid. For more information, see this reference.
There are three main categories of existential risk - threats from biotechnology, nanotechnology, and AI/robotics. Nuclear proliferation itself is not quite an existential risk, but widespread availability of nuclear weapons could greatly exacerbate future risks, providing a stepping stone into a post-nuclear arms race. We'll look at that first, then go over the others.
Nuclear risk. The risk of nuclear proliferation is currently high. The United States is planning to spend $100 billion on developing new nuclear weapons, and reports suggest that the President is not doing enough to curtail nuclear proliferation, despite the emphasis on the War on Terror. Syria, Qatar, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates met to announce they their desire to develop nuclear technology. North Korea successfully tested a nuclear weapon in October. Iran continues enriching uranium against the will of the United Nations, and an Iranian official hinted that the country may be obtaining nuclear weapons. Last night, President Bush used the most confrontational language yet towards Iran, accusing it of directly providing weapons and funds to combatants killing US soldiers. The geopolitical situation today with respect to nuclear technology is probably the worst it has been since the Cold War.
Biotechnological risk. The risk of biotechnological disaster is currently high. An attempt among synthetic life researchers to formulate a common set of ethical standards, at the International Conference on Synthetic Biology, has failed. Among the synthetic biology and biotechnology communities, there is little recognition of the risk of genetically engineered pathogens. President Bush's plan to spend $7.1 billion on bird flu vaccines was decreased to $2.3 billion by Congress. There is little federal money being spent on research to develop blanket countermeasures against unanticipated biotechnological threats. There are still custom DNA synthesis labs that fill orders without first scanning for harmful sequences. Watch-lists for possible bioweapon sequences are out of date, and far from comprehensive. The cost of lab equipment necessary to make bioweapons has decreased in cost and increased in performance, putting it within the financial reach of terrorist organizations. Until there is more oversight in this area, the risk will not only remain, but increase over time. For more information, see this report.
Nanotechnological risk. The risk of nanotechnological disaster is currently low. Although substantial progress has been made with custom machinery at the nanoscale, there is little effort or money going towards the development of molecular manufacturing, the most dangerous (but also most beneficial) branch of nanotechnology. Although the level of risk today is low, once it begins to escalate, it could do so very rapidly due to the self-replicating nature of molecular manufacturing. Nanotechnology researcher Chris Phoenix has published a paper on how it would be technologically feasible to go from a basic self-replicating assembler to a desktop nanofactory in a matter of weeks. His organization projects the development of nanofactories sometime before 2020. Once desktop nanofactories hit the market, it would be extremely difficult to limit their proliferation, as nanofactories could probably be used to create additional nanofactories very quickly. Unrestricted nanofactories, if made available, could be used to synthesize bombs, biological weapons, or synthetic life that is destructive to the biosphere. Important papers on nanoethics have been published by the Nanoethics Group, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and the Lifeboat Foundation.
Artificial Intelligence risk. The risk from AI and robotics is currently moderate. Because we know so little about how difficult AI is as a problem, we can't say if it will be developed in 2010 or 2050. Like nanofactories, AI is a threat that could balloon exponentially if it gets out of hand, going from "negligible risk" to "severe risk" practically overnight. There is very little attention given towards the risk of AI and how it should be handled. Some of the only papers published on the topic during 2006 were released by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Just recently, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, wrote "A Robot in Every Home", outlining why he thinks robotics will be the next big revolution. There has been increased acceptance, both in academia and the public, for the possibility of AI of human-surpassing intelligence. However, the concept of seed AI continues to be poorly understood and infrequently discussed both in popular and academic discourse.
Feel free to add your own references in the comments.
Science fiction, computer games, anime... cyborgs are everywhere. Transhumanists are philosophers who believe that one day, cybernetic upgrades will be so powerful, elegant, and inexpensive that everyone will want them. This page lists ten major upgrades that I think will be adopted by 2050.
#10. Disease immunity.
Between 20 and 40 years into the future, we will become capable of building artificial antibodies that outperform their natural equivalents. Instead of using chemical signaling that relies on diffusion to reach its target, these antibodies will communicate with rapid acoustic pulses. Instead of proteins, they will be made using much more durable polymers or even diamond. These antibodies will move through the bloodstream more quickly than other cells in the bodies, and will take up less space and resources, meaning that there will be room for many more. Using super-biological methods for identifying and neutralizing foreign viruses and bacteria, these tiny robots will still function in harmony with our own bodies. They will probably be powered either by glucose, ATP (like natural antibodies), or acoustically. There are already bloodborne microbots today which are not rejected by the immune system - these are the precursors of tomorrow's nanorobotics. Through their presence and continued operation, they will eliminate all susceptibility to disease in those who have them running through their veins. This will not make people immortal, but it will allow them to walk into a room contaminated with a flesh-eating virus in nothing but a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. For more on artificial antibodies and other body-integrated nanites, see Nanomedicine.
#9. Telemicroscopic, full-spectrum vision.
There are microscopes that weigh one tenth of an ounce. Some birds of prey have vision so sharp that they can spot a hare a mile away. We have compact devices that can scan the electromagnetic spectrum from x-rays to radio waves, and everything in between. Our eyes in their current form can do none of these things. But in time, they will be upgraded. There are already prosthetic retinas that can provide low-resolution artificial vision for blind people. It's simply a matter of time until better prosthetic eyes are created, and their sharpness, contrast, and resolution is superior to what evolution gave us. The biggest challenge may end up not actually being about building a superior artificial eye, but remodeling the visual cortex so that it can process the info and relay it to the rest of the brain in such a way that it's not overwhelmed.
#8. Telepathy/Brain-Computer Interfacing.
Ever wanted to send someone a message with nothing but your mind, or have a neural implant that gives your brain direct access to Google? Hundreds of corporate and academic labs across the world are working on projects that generate progress in this area. Check out the Berlin Brain-Computer Interface, which lets you move the cursor around on a screen with only your EEG waves and 20 minutes of training. Miniature fMRI will allow us to continue increasing the bandwidth between brain and computer, eventually allowing for a "mental typewriter" that converts thoughts into text. A tiny transmitter could send this to a bone-conduction device on the receiving person, letting them hear the message without sound. NASA is also working on a device to transcribe silent, 'subvocal' speech. Like many transhumanist upgrades, these will probably start as efforts to help people who are handicapped, then evolve into powerful tools that can be used by anyone bold enough to adopt them.
Early in 2006, scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, led by Dr. Ray H. Baughman, developed artificial muscles 100 times stronger than our own, powered by alcohol and hydrogen. Leonid Taranenko, the former Soviet weightlifter, holds the world record for power lifting a 266 kg (586 lbs) dumbbell. If Leo's natural muscles were replaced with Dr. Baughman's synthetic polymer muscles, he could lift 26,600 kg, or about 30 tons. That's equivalent to the weight of this yacht, the Nova Spirit. Super-strength is an interesting area in that the technology to do it has already been invented - the only step remaining is actually weaving the fiber into a human body - which, today, would be complicated and messy, not to mention probably illegal. However, that doesn't mean that it won't be done, probably within the next couple decades. Further improvements to the process could make it safe for normal people, numerous ethics questions notwithstanding. One benefit of improved muscles is that we'd be far less vulnerable to unfortunate accidents. They could also provide armor against bullets or other forms of attack. One downside is that people could use them to bully others around. Guess the good guys will need even bigger muscles.
#6. Improved appearance.
In general, there is a lot of agreement as to who is attractive and who is less so. Numerous experiments have shown that while there are slight subjective differences in who we want to get with, we are biologically programmed to look for certain facial and physical features that correlate with increased fitness. For the time being, this is unavoidable. The only way to change it would be to reach inside our neural circuitry and start severing connections. Until we choose to do that, we can improve our own lives - and the lives of those who have to look at us - by looking as pretty or handsome as possible. We brush our teeth, keep fit, take showers, and all that other great stuff that helps us score. Some of us even visit the plastic surgeon, with mixed results. Surveys show that certain procedures, like liposuction, have very high patient satisfaction rates. As the safety and precision of our body modification technologies improves, we'll be able to change our faces and bodies with minimal fuss, and maximal benefit. Everyone will be able to be stunningly attractive. And the really great thing? We'll always be able to enjoy it. If everyone becomes attractive, we won't regard the slightly less attractive of the lot as "ugly" - our brain doesn't work that way. An attractive person is attractive, whether or not others are around. A planet full of attractive people could do a lot to improve our quality of life.
In the real world, psychokinesis is a bunch of wishful thinking and psuedoscience. Despite the roughly 30% of people who think that it's possible to affect objects through the mind alone, history and evidence make it clear that this is total nonsense. There are no psychics and there never have been. However, that doesn't mean that we can't create technopsychics artificially. By 2030, we'll be cranking out utility fog - swarms of tiny machines that fly through the air and interlock with robotic arms. By combining Brain-Computer Interfaces, like the type used by Claudia Mitchell to move her prosthetic arm, with utility fog, we will have direct-thought connections with powerful external robotics, allowing non-fictional psychokenesis. Utility fog, once all the necessary software for it is developed, will be capable of cooperating to perform practically any physical task or simulate a wide range of materials. Because utility fog could be distributed at low density and still accomplish a lot, a room filled with utility fog would look empty, and people in it could move and breathe normally. They would only notice once the fog is activated - either by a central computer, or a neural interface. Once a connection is achieved, practically anything could be accomplished with the proper programming. Throwing objects through the air, hovering over the ground, cracking an egg from across the room, materializing orbs of energy - all the antics we've always wanted to perform, but never had the means to.
Autopoiesis is Greek for self-creation. Allopoiesis is other-creation. Our body engages in both all the time - we start as a fetus that creates itself until it becomes an adult, then, essentially stops. Our body produces things external to itself, but usually involving an extended process of cooperation with thousands of other human beings and the entire economy. In the future, there will be cybernetic upgrades that allow for personal autopoietic and allopoietic manufacturing, probably based on molecular nanotechnology. Using whatever raw material is available, complex construction routines, and internal nanomanufacturing units, we'll be able to literally breathe life into dirt. If our arms or legs get blown off, we'll be able to use manufacturing modules in other parts of our body to regenerate them. Instead of building robots in a factory, we'll build them ourselves. The possibilities are quite expansive, but this would require technology more sophisticated than anything discussed thus far in this list.
Human flight, outside of an airplane... this was recently achieved by former military pilot Yves Rossy, who flew 7,750 ft above the Alps in his 10 ft wide, self-designed aerofoil. You can see a video of it here. The airfoil weighs only 110 lbs and cost just under $300,000. Over the next few decades, the weight will come down, the strength and flexibility will go up, and eventually it will be difficult to distinguish between people in aerofoils and people that can just fly whenever they want. Using high strength-to-weight materials like fullerenes, we will fly using wings that weigh only a fraction of our own weight and fold into our clothing or body when not in use. Rossy achieved speeds of 115 mph, but with superior materials and greater tolerance for acceleration and wind, our cybernetic flight speeds are more likely to top 500 mph. To take off from the ground, we'll simply use our super-muscles to jump to the highest object around and begin our flight from there. With personal flight, commercial airliners will become obsolete. The only problem left will be dodging each other.
When we think of superintelligence, we tend to think of the ways it is portrayed in fiction - the character able to multiply 6 fifty digit numbers in his head, learn ten languages in a month, repeat the catchphrase 'That's not logical', and other tired cliches. True superintelligence would be something radically different - a person able to see the obvious solution that the entire human race missed, conceive of and implement advanced plans or concepts that the greatest geniuses would never think of, understand and rewrite its own cognitive processes on the most fundamental level, and so on. A cybernetic superintelligence would not just be another genius human, it would be something entirely superhuman - something that could completely change the world overnight. For the same reason that we can't write a book with a character smarter than ourselves, we can't imagine the thoughts or actions of a true superintelligence, because they'd be beyond us. Whether it is developed through uploading, neuroengineering, or artificial intelligence, remains to be seen.
The ultimate upgrade would be physical immortality. Everything else pales by comparison. Today, there are already entire movements based around the idea. Realizing the possibility of immortality requires seeing a human being as a physical system - composed of working parts that cooperate to make up the whole, some of which have the tendency to get old and break down. Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey has identified seven causes of aging, which are believed to be comprehensive, because its been decades since a degenerative process has occurred in the body with an unknown cause. Defeating aging, then, would simply require addressing these one by one. They are: cell depletion, supernumerary cells, chromosomal mutations, mitochondrial mutations, cellular junk, extracellular junk, and protein crosslinks. A few pioneering researchers are looking towards solutions, but accepting the possibility requires looking at aging as a disease and not as a necessary component of life.
Well then, that just about wraps up our list. See you in 2050, alright?
These last few days I've been conducting an email interview with Dr. Alan Goldstein, a member of the Lifeboat Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board who is the genius behind our A-Prize. He is a professor of biomaterials with Alfred University, and temporarily on leave to write a book on the topic of synthetic life, organisms he calls animats. The A-Prize got some decent publicity this last month - a link to it was posted on Instapundit, one of the world's most widely read blogs. The basic idea is to give a prize to the first person that creates an artificial life form that can sustain itself in the environment, self-replicate, and doesn't depend entirely on DNA or RNA to store its design. Dr. Goldstein proposed the prize because the current lack of attention being given to this important area. He recognizes that these lifeforms could be extremely dangerous, leading to the destruction of portions of the ecosystem or even humanity itself. I asked him a few questions about what A-Life is and what it means. Before you read this interview, it might help to check out the A-Prize page.
Michael Anissimov: How do you define synthetic biology (A-life)?
Dr. Alan Goldstein: It is crucial to this discussion that people recognize that Synthetic Biology is not the same as Artificial Life. I have spent a great deal of time trying to explain the difference in terms that are understandable to non-technical folks.
It is much more useful, I suggest, to think in terms of life forms:
1. Natural Biological Life forms are those created by evolution without any form of molecular manipulation by Homo sapiens.
2. Recombinant DNA-based biological life forms are still natural insofar as they only use natureâ€™s tools to mix and match biological components, albeit at a much faster rate than can be achieved by evolution. This would include cell biology methods like somatic nuclear transfer and stem cell technology.
3. Synthetic Biology involves the same molecules used to create natural and recombinant DNA-based life forms, but the molecules themselves (DNA, RNA, proteins, the bounding membrane of the synthetic cell, etc.) are made in the laboratory de novo (i.e. from their monomeric precursors).
4. Finally, Nonbiological Life involves the introduction of molecules that have not previously been involved as essential components of living systems here on earth. We need to be very specific here because many â€˜esotericâ€™ elements (e.g. manganese and zinc) are essential co-factors in biological enzymes. Therefore Nonbiological Life (Animats) must be clearly defined as having significant functional units (e.g. molecules) fabricated from nonbiological materials.
The purpose of the Animat Test as presented in the article "I, Nanobot" is to provide an operational method for determining when the human race breaks the Carbon Barrier (TM) and creates the first nonbiological life form. I have termed such a life form an Animat (short for Anima materials).
MA: Can you expand a little on who you would give the A-Prize to?
AG: I would give the A-Prize to the first person or group that creates a life form that can pass the Animat Test or the first person or group providing information that leads us to the the inventor(s) of the first Animat (because, as we have discussed, many will worry that the publicity associated with creating the first nonbiological life form could be highly unfavorable).
I believe the Animat Test, as stated in "I, Nanobot" covers all possibilities. I don't have the test in front of me but I believe it says something to the effect that, if all the information necessary to encode essential life cycle processes cannot be stored in DNA or RNA then the the organism or entity is an Animat. That means if a single nonbiological chemical transformation is necessary for life-cycle programming, an 'Animat event' is identified. Since nanobiotechnology is about molecular engineering, this is actually the most likely scenario.
Think about it scientifically. All biological life forms we know of encode their reproductive information in DNA or RNA. Even prions must have an original gene that encodes the first protein molecule. So if even one step essential to programming the reproductive cycle cannot be encoded in DNA or RNA then we have a singularity - different from all natural life on Earth discovered or created to date.
We must put this singularity in a different category because it is, de facto, unique. Even if 999,999 out of 1,000,000 steps are encoded by DNA/RNA, that 1 step takes us through the Carbon Barrier. Just as 339.29 meters/sec is subsonic (97.1% of Mach 1 - 340.29 meters/sec - at sea level). Of course the significance of the Carbon Barrier is much greater than the Sound Barrier since is it will mark the first change in the chemical programming language of life in 3 billion years. If even a single step in the life cycle cannot be encoded in DNA or RNA that is revolutionary! Consider that the entire field of stem cells is based on the concept of totipotency, i.e. that all the programming necessary to the life cycle is contained in the genome of a single stem cell, i.e. in DNA and/or RNA Therefore, breaking the Carbon Barrier, even if it is only one molecule thick, will be a revolution because terrestrial biology as we define it (including Type 1-3 Life Forms) must - without exception- be DNA or RNA based.
So the Animat Test allows us to ask a Boolean question: Is this life form entirely biological? The answer, based on everything science has discovered to date, must be yes or no. If no, we will have identified/created a life form different from any other on Earth. If it is different from any other on Earth we need a name for it and the name I have proposed is Animat.
In fact, as explained in "I, Nanobot" the most likely scenario will be that the first Animat will arise as a small nonbiological component within an overwhelmingly biological system. However, if that nonbiological component is essential for the life cycle then it is essential for the life form which, in turn, means that the life form cannot be considered as biological.
But, given that this singularity in life form evolution could be as 'small' as one chemical reaction if we are not watching for it very closely we will not see it! Someone may, in fact, do something much more dramatic... like make a self-perpetuating, fully functional Animat, e.g. an entity like NeoSil that self-catalyzed and reproduced without the need to associate with a biological system. But we need to watch the entire spectrum from stand-alone to one-molecule-in-a-million if we want to know when the Carbon Barrier has been broken.
Therefore, my bottom line remains, if it can pass the Animat Test, it's an Animat. That is the moment Homo sapiens breaks through the Carbon Barrier and, whoever (or whatever group) does this or whoever (or whatever group) brings this to the world's attention should win the A-Prize.
MA: Why is A-Life an existential threat?
AG: It is not my intention to come off as an alarmist but I do feel an obligation to speak with intensity about the potential dangers of nanobiotechnology (more accurately about our growing ability to engage in molecular enginneering of both living and nonliving materials).
Why? Because most scientists engaged in this work who have considered its potentially catastrophic nature have not and will probably never speak out about these dangers. Why? Some may be truly naive or simply optimistic, but many fear a public backlash, loss of funding or both. To counterbalance this, I spend more time on the 'dark side' of nanobiotech than I would like. If we are going to get existential... since I work to create enabling technology in this field, either I am a bad or amoral person or I obviously do not consider developing this technology wrong or bad in any conventional sense. To the extent that I can know my own mind, I believe the latter to be the case.
But what I also believe, without question, is that the emerging ability of Homo sapiens to engineer the molecular and atomic integration of living and nonliving materials - the explicit goal of nanobiotechnology - is the most significant event in human evolution since the evolution of consciousness itself. Because when this technology matures, the result will be the creation of nonbiological life forms (Animats). The creation of Animats, in turn, will mean the end of any clear boundary between living and nonliving materials. Homo sapiens will have broken through the Carbon Barrier.
Is this an existential threat? That depends on whether one considers it essential to maintain Carbon-based biological life as the only life on the planet. The truth is that nanobiotechnology is both a gift and a threat on every possible level. Each new molecular engineering tool we develop will have multiple uses from medicine to bioweapons. I have written extensively on this topic in my series of articles for Salon.com.
What I consider most important is that society be informed of what is actually going on! Right now that is definitely not the case. The moral, ethical, and safety issues raised by nanobiotechnology are so monumental that, by comparison, stem cells and genetically engineered crops look like motherhood and apple pie. So why isn't the public concerned? Answer, because they don't understand what nanotechnology (much less nanobiotechnology) is really about or what it can really do. Furthermore, they will not understand until those of us who do take it upon ourselves to explain the full potential of molecular engineering applications to them.
There has never been a technology like this before. Breaking through the Carbon Barrier will be the real singularity in human evolution. For the first time in 3 billion years, we will have a true alien life form on Earth. For the first time in the history of humanity, the greatest danger of a revolutionary technology will come from its potential to create life rather than create death.
MA: You also mention that many of your colleagues understand the threat, do you think they're ahead of the curve?
AG: Absolutely! But that is exactly the way they want it to be. They do not, repeat not, want the dangers of nanobiotechnology discussed and they do not want 'the public' to understand that nanobiotechnology means the potential to engineer life forms in a way that makes rDNA look like Mom's Apple Pie.
MA: Is this idea new?
AG: The idea of nanobio as a way to make cyborg-like systems where molecular components are integrated into biology is not new. If the concepts of the Carbon Barrier, the clear delineation of terms such as synthetic biology and nonbiological life have been systematically raised before in a scientifically viable format I would welcome the reference.
MA: I understand that we currently lack the ability to custom-synthesize very long genomes, such as human genomes, from scratch. Do you think we will gain this ability in the next ten years?
AG: Most likely.
MA: Do you think there will be any serious risk from purely biological genetically engineered lifeforms?
AG: Genetic engineering and biotech are no more inherently dangerous than many other high tech human ventures. But nonbiological life forms or even 'smart mateials' are truly transformative because they have the potential to create unforseen synergies and to play by unknown rules with respect to their interaction with biological life.
MA: Is what you're talking about grey goo, green goo, or something else?
AG: My point in addresing the 'Grey Goo' issue is that the Nanobiotech community's greatest fear is that the public will (correctly) recognize the potential for this field to create hybrid life forms that cannot be controlled, this recognition creating (in turn) a public relations nightmare and (gasp) resulting in stringent regulation and control of research. Even Eric Drexler was ultimately forced to recant his 'Grey Goo' scenario saying that such a thing was not possible. He gave no logical reason for this reversal. Consider a research group building glucose oxidase-powered nanobiobot (Type2-Type4 hybrid life form), initially developed as a lifetime vaccine to hunt and kill cancer cells via delivery of a biological or nonbiological chemotherapeutic agent to these cells through synthetic biology-based surface recognition. Consider a second group building hybrid Type 2-Type 3 hybrid virus-like life biological life form created to synthesize single walled carbon nanotubes capable of blocking neurotransmitter ion channels for local delivery to patients with certain types of mental or physical illnesses. Consider a third group working on a Type2-Type4 (or Type2-Type 3) hybrid virus capable of synthesizing its own silica shell (like a diatom) so that it may be transmitted via aerosolization and/or survival in toxic environments for certain types of 'biodefense' or bioremediation applications... We are getting better all the time at modifying existing enzymes to create nonbiological carbon geometries so that a DNA-based virus that synthesizes SWNTs is a completely reasonable 10 year projection of current technology. We already understand a great deal about the molecular biology and biophysics of how diatoms and other life forms create sophisticated mineral structures on their surfaces.
Now suppose that these three either recombine in vivo or are are spliced together in some lab somewhere. The combination of glucose-oxidase-powered replication coupled with a genome that forms and synthesizes neurotransmitter-blocking SWNTs and capable of sheathing itself in silica would create a synthetic, deadly virus impervious to our immune system, capable of surviving in the external environment and of replicating in any human with glucose in her/his blood. That type of 'Goo' would be red, implying that it lives in a mammal (as opposed to green, implying it lives in photosynthetic plants). It would not eat the entire Earth but could wipe out Homo sapiens and perhaps a few other types of mammals as well.
MA: If you're worried about A-Life, why are you funding a prize for whoever creates it?
AG: I am not currently funding the prize. I suggested to Eric Klien that the Foundation may want to try to get it funded. I suggested that it be created because crossing the Carbon Barrier will be the single most important evolutionary event in 3 billion years. But, since this event may well be a single self-replicating molecule, it could easily pass unnoticed if we are not closely monitoring the field of nanobiotechnology. Nonbiological synthetic (Type 4) life is what the worldwide nanobio community is working towards even though many involved do not realize it explicitly. Many are simply building tools for molecular engineering... but these tools will be what is required for the creation of Type 4 life forms. Remember too that the prize should go to whoever invents nonbiological life or whoever reports the verifiable invention of nonbiological life.
MA: What regulations will be necessary to mitigate the risk?
AG: This question cannot begin to be answered until the research community is willing to engage in a serious dialog about what it is that they are actually doing rather than avoiding or denying the issue of the Carbon Barrier. Likewise, we need educated members of the nonresearch comunity involved in these discussions... which is why I write nonfiction articles on the topic attempting to clarify what nanobiotechnology is really about.
MA: I have talked to scientists working in nanotechnology who complain that your writing style is too flowery. How do you respond?
AG: I write creative nonfiction both to educate and as an art form; art-science fusion if you will. There are many scientists who, in fact, are fully aware of the possible implications of nanobiotechnology I have described and who could write technical papers on this topic for their peers if they had the courage and/or conviction to do so. I have written over 40 scientific, peer-reviewed publications and have no interest in writing for academics on this topic. My goal is to educate the public. Towards that end, the feedback I get is mainly that, in spite of 'dumbing' the science down and bringing the prose level up... my stuff is still too technical to get across to most educated but non-technical readers. My own personal opinion is that I am simply 20-30 years ahead of the curve. The simple answer is a MacArthur grant so that I can refine my writing until I get it right (just kidding, sort of).
MA: How will you communicate your ideas in the future?
AG: As I said above, the topic is inherently complex and the challenge is to present it accurately but in a format that will engage the public. I am having trouble 'dumbing' it down any further for general consumption. One answer might be to target my audience better. Working with your organization is an experiment on my part to see if readers with a greater-than-average interest read my stuff and 'get it' more often. Your Foundation might attract such readers... or not. On the other hand, it is always possible that I am just not a good enough nonfiction writer or that the topic itself cannot be sufficiently simplified in a scientifically rigorous manner without losing its impact for the nontechnical reader.
Watch a separate video interview with Dr. Alan Goldstein here.
Lots of cool things floating around on the Intersphere lately:
Jamais Cascio has been busy with numerous posts of great value. He warns us to be skeptical of end-of-year predictions made by fairweather futurists. He calculates the huge amount of fossil fuels that go into making a hamburger. He shows us a newspaper article from 2016. His taxonomy of existential risks, a useful contribution to this underattended field, was linked by BoingBoing.
There is a new collaborative blog on the software control of matter. Many of the usual suspects are posting there.
Now would be a good time to join the World Transhumanist Association if you haven't yet, because it's almost time to vote for new Directors. Three seats are opening up. It's a self-nomination process, so you can join today and run and even possibly win!
Inside the Monkeysphere, a great piece that presents some observations from evolutionary psychology in a "for dummies" format.
John Walker blasts Frank Tipler, this is from over a decade ago, but still. I think Walker is a bit harsh but I know where he's coming from. Guilio Prisco remarked on this blog that even if Tipler is wrong about his particular theory, he might actually have the general outline of an idea that really could come to pass, just like Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine sketches couldn't actually fly.
Danila Medvedev posts on how transhumanism might be a worldview for a small intellectual elite. Dale Carrico echoes this sentiment, but takes it much further, waxing critical about transhumanists and the word "transhumanism". I strongly disagree with many of his arguments. I think we might as well make as much noise under the banner "transhumanism" as we can, and toss it around proudly, and counterattack people when they attack us, without trying to dilute ourselves into the politically safe world of roundabout rhetoric. Anne C. does a podcast on how transhumanism is more of an attitude than a club.
Son of the late cybernetics pioneer J.F. Young, Simon Young is running Google ads for his website and book, which he calls "a transhumanist manifesto". I hadn't heard of it before - anyone here read the book?
PBS has some SL1 futurist series happening. Its nice to see the potential for living forever idea coming to the forefront of mainstream futurist bleatings. And that no one cares about extraterrestrials anymore. 22nd century? So lame. Exponential progress will give us the fruits of the 22nd century in the early 21st. Anyone who thinks otherwise falls prey to the linear progress fallacy.
Brian Wang explains why the recent World Futurist Society predictions are wrong. Not to say that they're anti-transhumanist - they're extremely pro-transhumanist. Basically, some of the futurists there are just pulling speculations out of places that shouldn't be spoken of. They are talking about DNA computing when it was just acknowledged that DNA computers are too weak to compete with other post-silicon architectures, for example. The WFS is getting more and more nanotechy and transhumanistic - they should boost their standards to that of the best transhumanist futurists, who don't talk about things they don't understand, in contrast to this basic science error-filled futurist speculation.
Discover has a piece on existential risk. Meh. I've started to dislike lists of threats, generally more than half of them are of negligible risk, and the numerosity of these lists distracts people from focusing on threats that truly are likely to kill them in a decade or two.
J. Storrs Hall's aircar proposal. This is old, but good. Dr. Hall is currently working on a book on AI. I will probably disagree with a lot said in it, but I loved his recent book Nanofuture.
George Dvorsky is on TV in Canada either tonight or tomorrow. We have to make sure that his piece makes it to YouTube. You should also read his "must-know terms for today's intelligensia".
Al Fin's blog is looking really good nowadays.
Greg Cochran steps out strongly in favor of economically explosive self-replicating manufacturing, a technology that people like the Institute for the Future seem utterly clueless about, or think it won't happen for 100 years. Cochran - I love this guy. He writes, "Hardly anyone seems to realize it, but we're on the threshold of an era of unbelievable abundance." Why are we worried about global warming when within 20 years it will be beyond simple to mass manufacture rockets and send up sunshields into space? Why do we care about Country X or Country Y when in the near future, the country that obtains nanotech will inherit the earth?
Look at the size of this MP3 player! Holy, holy crap!
The folks down at Sandia Labs are melting diamond into puddles. Could this be a step to unlocking the power of nuclear fusion using the Z machine?