Thursday, February 09, 2006

Wilsdon: Who would not want to live to be 150?

James Wilsdon, head of science at the think-tank Demos, has published an article in the Financial Times called "Who would not seize the chance to live to be 150?"

The article promotes their recent book, "Better Humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension," but Wilsdon also explores the work of biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey.

Wilsdon describes de Grey's work and quotes the usual suspect, Jay Olshansky, for counter-opinion. Frustratingly, Olshansky is actually making a career of pooh-pooh'ing life extension simply due to the fact that he's the go-to guy for a press that is dominated by the need to produce 'balanced' journalism.

The article also describes how the life extension community has naturally intermingled with the transhumanists, of which de Grey claims to be a member. De Grey acknowledged his transhumanist proclivities at TransVision 2004 when we awarded him the WTA's Transhumanist Of The Year award.

Strangely, however, Wilsdon describes Ray Kurzweil as being more extreme than the transhumanists (probably because of his belief in a potential technological singularity and the emergence of post-biological super-intelligent creatures). I find this odd and a bit ironic because most the transhumanists I know, whether they be affiliated with the WTA or not, tend to have even more radical notions of artificial superintelligence and the potential for post-Singularity existence.

I suppose the WTA, with its sensible tone and "Better Than Well" slogan, is starting to effectively come across as a moderate voice for transhumanism, if not downright reasonable, a la the Art Caplan bioethics camp.

As an interesting aside, except for his allegiance to the Extropy Institute (he's on their council of advisors), Kurzweil has never described himself as a transhumanist (at least, not that I've ever heard or read -- please, someone correct me if I'm wrong) -- despite the fact that is exactly what he is. I suppose he wants to retain his creds and doesn't want to come across as being an ideologue or someone who's political or activistic.

Back to Wilson's article, he concludes the way most supporters of transhumanism conclude, with a warning about who will bring and control human enhancement technologies. It's a fair concern, and one that the WTA takes quite seriously -- a point on which it splits with other more libertarian-leaning transhumanist thinkers and camps. All transhumanists are to varying degrees biolibertarians, but by no means are they all social libertarians.

[article cross-posted from Sentient Developments]

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Demos's open access book on human enhancement

Demos has published an open access book on issues pertaining to human enhancement.

Titled "Better Humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension," the book contains articles written by a number of leading thinkers in bioethics and futures issues -- including the World Transhumanist Association's Nick Bostrom.

Book description:
We all share a desire for self-improvement.Whether through education, work, parenthood or adhering to religious or ethical codes, each of us seeks to become a ‘better human’ in a variety of ways. And for some people, more consumerist pursuits hold the key to self-improvement: working out in the gym, wearing makeup, buying new clothes, or indulging in a spot of cosmetic surgery.

But now a new set of possibilities is opening up. Advances in biotechnology, neuroscience, computing and nanotechnology mean that we are in the early stages of a period of huge technological potential. Within the next 30 years, it may become commonplace to alter the genetic make-up of our children, to insert artificial implants into our bodies, or to radically extend life expectancy.

This collection of essays by leading scientists and commentators explores the implications of human enhancement technologies and asks how citizens and policy-makers should respond.
You can download the individual essays:

01 - Stronger, longer, smarter, faster - Paul Miller and James Wilsdon
02 - Is it wrong to try to improve human nature? - Arthur Caplan
03 - Welcome to a world of exponential change - Nick Bostrom
04 - The mand who wants to live forever - Paul Miller and James Wilsdon
05 - The transhumanists as tribe - Greg Klerkx
06 - Brain gain - Steven Rose
07 - The cognition-enhanced classroom - Danielle Turner and Barbara Sahakian
08 - Better by design - Sarah Franklin
09 - More life - Jon Turney
10 - Nip/Tuck nation - Decca Aitkenhead
11 - The perfect crime - Rachel Hurst
12 - The unenhanced underclass - Gregor Wolbring
13 - Does smarter mean happier? - Raj Persaud

Is Islam Secularizable?

From the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society:

"The question of whether Islam can be secularized has been on the agenda of modern Arab and Muslim thought and history since Bonaparte's occupation of Egypt in 1798. Arabs have been attempting to settle the issue since at least the last quarter of the nineteenth century; i.e., since what we Arabs often refer to in our recent past as the Arab Renaissance, the Arab Awakening, the Islamic Reformation, or what the late expert on the period, Albert Elourani, aptly called the "Liberal Age" of Arab thought.

In my attempt to formulate a realistic answer to the question Is Islam secularizable?, I shall start by raising another question: was the simple, egalitarian, and unadorned Islam of Mecca and Medina (Yatherb) at the time of the Prophet and the first four Rightly-Guided Caliphs (chosen by the then-emerging Muslim community as his successors) compatible with the dynasties of such complex empires as Byzantium and Sassanid Persia at the time of their Arab-Muslim conquest? The accurate answer is..."


Monday, February 06, 2006


On September 30 - October 2, 2005, a group of individuals drawn from civil society organizations, governments, international agencies and academic institutions, came together in Montreal, Quebec, Canada for an international workshop entitled "Human Rights and Access to Essential Medicines: The Way Forward."

They were motivated by the ideas that health is a human right whose fulfillment requires our most urgent attention, and that essential medicines have a key role to play in its realisation.

Acting in their personal capacities, they drafted the following Montreal Statement on the Human Right to Essential Medicines.

You are invited to read the Statement, and to join them in working towards fulfillment of this right.

Together, we can make access to essential medicines a reality for all.

West Coast singularitarians on the prowl

Keith Norbury of the Victoria News in British Columbia has published an article about Canadian singularitarians David Coombes and Michael Roy Ames.

The article describes their work as the only current Canadian chapter of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which is "devoted to promoting the creation of friendly, superhuman intelligence for the benefit of humanity." Norbury provides a decent summary of issues pertaining to a potential technological singularity, the insights of Ray Kurzweil, and the potential implications of artificial superintelligence -- including potentials for the threat of annihilation or the bliss of infinite lifespans.

Coombes and Ames are portrayed fairly, although Norbury does note, quite accurately in my opinion, that there are parallels between singularitarian and religion. Some have referred to the singularitarity, for example, as "Rapture of the Nerds."

The Canadian duo sometimes sound a bit much, like when Coombes says, "I am doing this to solve the world's problems. This is an important thing to do," or when he says "I think it's pretty obvious something is going to happen. I read a lot of science fiction and technical science magazines like Discover and Scientific American," -- hardly your preeminent academic journals.

That being said, it's hard to deny the work and prognostications of singularitarians; there are a number of intriguing and even eerie indicators that show something's going on with exponential accelerating change.

"By its definition, the Singularity is beyond our comprehension," writes Norbury, "but Kurzweil envisions a world where reality and virtual reality become indistinguishable. Ultimately this consciousness spreads across the cosmos at nearly the speed of light - or even faster. The runaway changes leading to that aren't yet noticeable because in its initial stages an exponential graph appears quite flat. Only at the "knee of the curve" does it begin to veer sharply upward. We're at the knee now, Kurzweil says."

All-in-all, an interesting article about a pair of interesting guys working at the grassroots level to bring up public awareness on this important issue.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

It's the National Security, Stupid

US House Representative John Murtha has laid out four key elements of his national strategy for victory in Iraq:

""Redeploy, Replace, Reallocate, and Reconstitute."

Redeploy. As he's said since he first went public, Murtha believes we should quickly withdraw our troops from Iraq, leaving behind a mobile, rapid response force outside the country: "The war in Iraq is fueling terrorism, not eliminating it… A vast majority of the Iraqi people now view American troops as occupiers, not liberators." He backs this up with polls showing that 80 percent of Iraqis want U.S. forces out of Iraq, with 50 percent favoring a withdrawal in the next six months. What's more, 60 percent of Iraqis believe violent attacks in the country will decrease when we leave.

"Our continued military presence in Iraq," says Murtha, "is seen by Iraqis as interfering in Iraq's democratic process and undercuts the chances for the newly elected government to be successful…The longer our military stays in Iraq, the more unwelcome we will be."

Replace. Hindsight alone may not be wisdom -- but refusing to learn from past mistakes is not wisdom either. That's why Murtha wants to replace those responsible for the litany of failures in Iraq. In his letter, he urged the president to "hold accountable those responsible for so many missteps and install a fresh team that demonstrates true diplomatic skill, knowledge of cultural differences and a willingness to earnestly engage other leaders in a respectful and constructive way." In other words, kick Rummy to the curb and stop protecting (let alone promoting) those that have given us the outrages of Abu Ghraib, the bungled occupation, and the failed reconstruction.

Reallocate. Murtha also nails the price we have paid here at home for Bush's imperial adventures abroad: "The Department of Defense has been allocated $238 billion for the war in Iraq, with average monthly costs growing significantly since the beginning of the war. In 2003 the average monthly war cost was $4.4 billion; by 2005 the average monthly cost had reached $6.1 billion…. In the face of threats from international terrorists, we need to reallocate funds from the war in Iraq to protecting the United States against attack. A safe and swift redeployment from Iraq will allow us to do just that."

Reconstitute. Finally, Murtha, a longtime, diehard backer of the U.S. military echoes the concerns of Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Richard Myers, who in a classified report to Congress, worried that "the concentration of American troops and weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan limits the Pentagon's ability to deal with other potential armed conflicts." That's why Murtha wants to reconstitute our depleted forces. "On our current path, I believe we are not only in danger of breaking our military, but that we are increasing the chances of a major miscalculation by our future enemies, who may perceive us as vulnerable."

It's what Democrats need to be saying -- and backing up -- again and again and again: Iraq has made us less safe here at home and less able to deal with crises around the world."

Read more on the AlterNet.