IEET > Vision > Virtuality > Directors > Giulio Prisco > HealthLongevity > Futurism > Innovation
Transhumanist Avatars Storm Second Life
Giulio Prisco   Sep 24, 2011   H Plus Magazine  

More than 80 transhumanist avatars stormed the virtual world of Second Life for a community event organized by Humanity+ on September 15. This has been by far the largest virtual transhumanist event that I have seen, and I believe I have seen them all.

Two or three years ago the Second Life system would have been slowed down to a halt by 80 participants, but now everything worked without a glitch: virtual reality technology has evolved, and transhumanists want to bring the same fast evolution to RL (Second Life slang for “Real Life.”)

Martine Rothblatt, owner of the virtual meeting venue at Terasem island, said after the event “It is a really positive sign to have a standing room only crowd turn out for a workshop on leading transhumanism to social ascendance.”

The invitation said “Join us in Second Life to brainstorm how to move forward together! Our upcoming event is for our members and friends, and will focus on the intersection of leadership and the future.”

Picture - Opening presentation by Humanity+ Chair Natasha Vita-More

After the opening presentation, Humanity+ Chair Natasha Vita-More gave the second speaker, Ben Goertzel, the Humanity+ 2011 Visionary Award. Ben described how recent findings in neurology and cognitive science can be applied to leadership in an organization and, following Nietzsche, compared both minds and leaders to “army commanders who take responsibility, after the fact, for what the soldiers did.”

Most speakers said that leadership is not about micro-management, but rather about vision and inspiration. Howard Bloom summarized leadership as “passion, persistence, persuasion, vision, and truth,” and emphasized the importance of getting the right picture in the media. Martine exhorted to focus on action and many different practical goals “No paper project ever fails — or succeeds,” and, following Margaret Mead, reminded that “it only takes a few passionate and committed people to get something done, that’s the only way to get things done.”

Bioethicist Linda MacDonald Glenn lamented the image of transhumanism as “otherness” and proposed inclusiveness and kindness to become better humans together. “I want to be more than human,” she said, “and I want all of us to be more than human.”

Picture - The talk of Martine Rothblatt

In answering the first question from the audience, Natasha said: “I think what we expect to do to to get more mainstream coverage is to try to turn some of our strategies back to the 1990s, where there was a tremendous amount of press coverage for those of us looking at the future.”

“Give a vision and people will self-organize, and yes, back to the 60s and the 90s and to OPTIMISM,” said The Lucifer Principle‘s author Howard Bloom, “The spirit of the 60s and of the 90s is the spirit of taking over and using will to take the future in the direction that we want, rather than laying down and letting destiny do it for us, which is the spirit of 9/11.”

As I noted in my talk, we should forget the pessimism of the last decade, whose tone was set by 9/11, and go back to the solar and positive optimism of transhumanism in the 90s, occasionally naive, often politically incorrect, but always vibrant,  full with energy and inspiring visions. Also, back to space, and why not back to the sixties (a truly magic decade.)

Khannea Suntzu, the outspoken “virtual Noam Chomsky of transhumanism”, has replied to the general optimism with a gloomy post on social and political issues which, I believe, cannot be easily dismissed. As Bloom noted, “no one knows what a singularity is,” but we are approaching it together.

Picture - Natasha Vita-More's avatar Natasha Cordeaux

Natasha sent this summary statement:

The Second Life event was a success. Why? Because we were packed with avatars and the presentations were focused and inspiring. Giulio’s talk revved-up the audience by expanding on how we need to return to the enthusiasm of the 1990s and reinstate that visionary, can-do attitude that we once had. Martine’s talk introduced the specifics of organizational management and that to succeed we need to promote diversity. Howard’s talk reminded us that passion is the key to not only getting our own work accomplished, but invigorating others to work with us. Linda’s talk emphasized the ideas of generosity, respect and appreciation within organizations. Ben’s talk produced an analogy between the phenomenal self and social organizations. My own talk asked what we can do to improve what we are already doing and how we can face change head-on and thrive.

After the talks, we had time for questions and the “open mic” conversation built upon the topics and content of the talks. There was a deeply motivated discussion on the idea of a project called “Future Day”. Ben presented the idea and Howard put this idea forward as a way to not only market Humanity+ but revive a spirit of the future and transhumanism which has been overridden by an over emphasis on technological risks and ethics. Where is our much needed spirit of can-do and emphasis on our innate human potential to innovate and problem-solve? Future Day would be a collaborative project that invites and includes all organizations within the transhumanist and future-oriented environment. We discussed a series of projects that would be in keeping with the Future Day concept. We also discussed why change is necessary for an organization and honestly assessed how we might improve what we are doing.

The Humanity+ @ Second Life “Leadership: MINDS” event was a success for many reasons. While Second Life is not the most convenient environment to hold a meeting. It is often slow and cumbersome. Many of our members had difficulty interfacing with the SL software and/or downloading that latest drivers for compatibility with the newest version of SL. Will we do it again? Yes, most definitely. We will also hold events in other virtual environments, such as OpenQwaq.  And maybe in the fall our next meeting with be at teleXLR8!

This video beginning with Ben’s talk (sorry Natasha, your opening talk is missing) was recorded from a fixed point of view behind the lectern. There is also a lower resolution but longer version of the same video, including the last part of the Q/A session. Thanks to Kim and Jack for recording the videos. This audio-only stream was recorded by Terasem’s Lori Rhodes. This video from a front PoV zoomed on the presentation screens, which includes Natasha’s opening talk, was produced by merging a video-only recording with Lori’s audio in post-processing.

The videos have their fun moments, showing the limited familiarity of some of the speakers with Second Life. Howard sent this comment:

Natasha Vita-More arranged an event in which she got popcorn sized nuggets of genuine wisdom by formatting ten-minute micro-presentations on leadership. Second life has drawbacks for conferencing: you can’t look into the faces of your listeners as you talk, and you see the sexual aspirations of many of your colleagues’ avatars, with tiny waists for women, bulging shoulders for men, and more, much of which becomes very apparent when second life is not able to summon the computer resources to clothe those you are speaking with. But for hit and run conferences gathering folks from all over the continent or the globe, it is an adventure, and it works.

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.



It all sounds really wonderful and I will be sure to attend the next one. Could IEET have a meeting, too, in Second Life?

It was a great meeting.

I think the conclusion: “revive a spirit of the future and transhumanism which has been overridden by an over emphasis on technological risks and ethics. Where is our much needed spirit of can-do and emphasis on our innate human potential to innovate and problem-solve?” was long overdue, but better late than never!

@Hank - Sure IEET could have a meeting in Second Life. We should ask Martine the permission to do it at Terasem island.

Or, of course we can use my teleXLR8 meeting space based on the OpenQwaq system with built-in videoconferencing:

I would really appreciate some critical commentary on the aesthetics of using Second Life for a conference like this. My knowledge of how second life works is pretty thin, but looking at the pictures prompts me to ask lots of questions:
1. Who designed the space? Chose the furniture etc? Are these user-customizable i.e can individual users see different furniture to others if they want? If not, why not?
2. There appear to be adverts in the conference space. I assume they are for organizations represented at the conference, but how did the selection criteria differ from real life? For me they seem out of place in this virtual environment and seem to dispel the suspension of disbelief required for interface immersion (like breaking the 4th wall in cinema - especially the photograph of the bearded dude) - can they be ad-blocked like within a web browser?
3. How does social etiquette differ from a conference in real life? For example, I see quite a few people standing up in one picture. They seem to follow decorum by standing behind people sitting, but in another image there is a robot avatar standing up in the front row (and facing away from the speaker). Does this avatar not allow sitting or was this avatar en route somewhere? Would any of this behaviour seem noticeable anyway? Do people ask others to sit down if their view is being blocked? How relevant is this anyway in a world where you can fly or float, as another avatar seems to be doing in the second image? Is that behaviour considered unconventional? How are interactions like this negotiated in practise? Are there public announcement about what kind of behaviour is expected from participants?
4. There seems to be a female avatar with only one arm in the second image, or is this a glitch with the rendering software? If the former, it strikes me as very interesting and at odds with the usual choices for avatar based on sexual aspirations as mentioned in the article. Does anyone know why he or she would design an avatar with one arm? More generally, was avatar fashion more conservative for those giving talks? Could any sort of dress code be implemented for a conference or is this against the spirit of second life, or redundant given that, at least technically I suppose, individuals could customise their perception of how others appear (or is this not ever done in practise)?
5. I have been aware of Second Life for several years, but have had no inclination to use it.  If I was using Second Life for the first time to join a conference such as this, would my behaviour or avatar selection pin point me as a novice or newb to others and would I be judged negatively because of this?

Sorry if these questions sounds dumb or flippant. I actually am very interested and will probably not ever use Second Life myself and would appreciate a reply, even brief.

Hank I created an IEET group in SL some time ago. This group is property of the IEET and all are welcome to join and use it for this purpose.

I’d be happy to organize and host a meeting, just contact me.

Guy - yes space design in SL is a fine art and taste is still a major factor. The above space was implemented by Giulio (my boss) and I criticized him a few times on this choice of design.  This one doesn’t work for events like these, and creates a screengrab mess, and a logistical clutter during events. People must ‘get’ a place because it is far more intuitive and playful. I like taunting Giulio about these differences of insight and I am sure he is sitting grinning behind his PC as he reads this.

But that’s the difference. I don’t sit behind a PC. I live inside SL, I am a native, he isn’t.

Grinning, indeed. In my opinion, the main design principle for SL is making things as easy to use as possible for newcomers. Avoid clutter, wide spaces, no need to fly or teleport, etc. Remember, 90% of those who came will not enter SL again until next year when we do another H+ event. Not everybody lives in SL.

- Smooth yet evocative backgrounds with meshing shapes and depictions that still are recognizable as real world entities
- darker colors interspersed with more saturated colors.
- no or limited windows or transparancies in FOV
- chairs arranged in one row of accesible arc, with a central walkway, no more than 60 degree podium, maybe two positioning rows. No stairs (*sad*) except for ramps, people don’t have the coordination to navigate stairs.
- Slightly elevated podium. Place any Power Point screens NOT above speakers. While in the real world this makes sense, an elevated or avatar centric angle of view makes this impractical. Maybe experiment with screens sunk in the floor, angled, and/or sideways to the speakers? Some space for experimentation here…
- give people space to self-express and don’t judge. Newcomers will always judge (or freak out, throw a tantrum, etc) but VR has a distinct personal culture of personal freedoms. People will LEAVE when infringed upon in a set of personal rights. Specifically, never disable AO function, as in ever. Like, *rude*.
- Griefing is part of every event and must be integrated, even if it may seem eminently undesirable. It’s the wild west, don’t swim upstream. I rarely had problems with griefers in years. Appoint 2 Ban-meisters, rarely an issue.
- no, objects in VR space are consensual. A chair and a space is a discrete arrangement of virtual lego blocks. There is an objective space by and large.
- Adverts and logo placement is pollution. Place it at the entrance.  Inside the FOV it’s worse than a distraction, it causes minor neurological pain. Spam is an act of aggression.
- Violation of decorum in virtual spaces is common, largely by clueless new people, ‘late adopters’ who are franticly trying to move their avatar one step left or right and sitting at home screaming and crying ‘this crap sucks’ while all more experienced users were making tea, and their avatar was dancing around the nobs, and chatting, and giving out info, and adding users to groups, and handing freebies, etc.  Half of the event were people rarely bothering with the gruesome SL interface and they were just standing there, gnashing their teeth “why is my screen flickering??” “why can’t I move??” and “I crashed again!” or “I can’t chat for some reason!!” or “my avatar is nude!!”.

Proper interaction design can in great part compensate for these nuisances. I have an idea for a meeting space which will greatly affect these frustrations. If only someone would commission me to build it.

Place all spectators around the speakers, put the screens in the floor, put all the visitors in boots around.  Clear walkways. Designate the central bit as a plot of land and make that plot inaccessible to anyone not of a specific group, so no one CAN wander in the central court yard, unless.  This formula is more or less used with interesting successs by the shakespeare company.

Second Life will not be used by most people in the world for years. Then finally SL or another VR bakery will come up with an interface so simple it will work with a gameboy.

(you’d still need a keyboard for typing, but movement you’d do with a gameboy).

Once SL (or the competitor) is as easy as GTA4, it will start penetrating the markets in earnest. That means - splitscreens to change clothes or change wearables. Automatic attachments that think for themselves. Away with the hellish DOS style inventory.

More grinning?

How sad. How about you try fit into the First Life? 😊


Not interested Greg. Do I have to?

Or do you not take kindly on those darn virtualists? I mean you never know what these odd people might be up that in yonder virtual places doing in tarrrnation all them odd virtual things they engage in. Maybe it’s a nice action item for them folks at the tea party movements - public dislosure of who is in em virtualised things and then name und shame those folks, because, yanno, nuthing good will come of this kind of ungawdliness. Better make sawr yur kids ain’t expowsed to em like virtual types.

Thanks for the responses Khannea and Giulio, and sorry my late reply.

Coming from a naive position re second life but from a knowledgable position as a designer, I suspect Khannea you are right in your concepts for conference spaces in second life. I can’t really see any reason to replicate typical conferences spaces in real life for the sake of familiarity, because real life conferences spaces are made of a myriad of design and economic limitations. And most are pretty bad, rolled out from generic kit style architectural plans. You don’t need to a typical conference room to have a conference anyway. I once attended a conference in a historic mansion - it was a lot better than elsewhere and the only functional additions to the space was a small mike, PA, screen and projector. 

If noobs have a problem in second life though, then this would seem to be the most important aspect to base a design around. Secondly, would be to create a transcendent experience for attendees, perhaps a space like the La Scala theatre, though there could be many more options…. I would propose an elastic space, that expanded or condensed as participants joined or left. No chairs, tables, stairs, or anything that corresponded to real life requirements like the need to sit, or anything gravity dependant actually. (Why is a building even needed? Perhaps to provide viewing platforms, but these don’t need any visible means of support.) And I agree, no advertising.

Scaling VR meetng places is nice. I.e. adding new ‘booths’ on top.

However the Scala idea is about occlusion. SL is now smart anough not to constantly rez other parts of a scene, ore other avatars as long as they are not in your field of view. By locating the essential scenery in a focal pam zone, and taking avatars above the action, or in to discrete boxes, you cut down on lag.

The trick is then to allocate the avatars within a 30 meter hearing bubble, while still making the scenery enticing, and creatively using the same depiction, shapes and tectures a few times.

These insights, some of which will be repetitive in general VR design, will return in the future and I am mezmerized by em. Virtual realms have their own internal logic and accounting, their own psychosocial need/cost whatever.  It is quite nice to get a ‘feel’ for that.

Despite the occasionally gut-resentment prejudice most people are starting to realize VR spaces will be big in the next decades, with peak oil and all. In a decade we will probably all be working in them, to save commutes. SL might even survive it ij to such more prosaic business markets and applications.

I stay with my earlier prediction - in a few years Google Earth may simply internalize SL in its code, or replicate a similar functionality. If I were GE I’d opensim parts of its VR spaces, and let a range of avatars walk around on its ‘streets’.

Imagine ll Google Earth users having an avatar and being able to stroll about halfway across the walk, and chatting there - or entering 3D store spaces there? ....buying local arts and crafts from virtual stores and having products deliver home? ..stores indexed with recent Google Earth spatial laser scans ? ... or stores run by virtual salespeople, much like a 3D website? ... how many third worlders would JUMP at such an opportunity to reach worldwide clients? ... how big an entertainment could interactive ‘on-the-fly’ sims become, hosting 50-100-200-500 people events in Google Virtual Earth, with music, storytelling, chatting, socializing, couch surfing, marketing, presentation, prototype demonstration?

Nah will never catch on, better return to my first life *smirk* {/s}

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