Printed: 2020-08-07

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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A New Focus for the IEET

November 03, 2016

Dear IEET friends and supporters. It is time for the IEET to undergo a major change of course.

When we started the IEET eleven years ago, we were an attempt to build a left-of-center policy think tank working in tandem with the World Transhumanist Association. By pulling together transhumanists who broadly agreed that there should be governments, and that they should be democratic and provide public goods, we limited the scope of political infighting. By not having “transhumanism” in our name we were giving non-transhumanist intellectuals an opportunity to engage with our issues and community without being bogged down by the transhumanist movement’s stigma and fractious politics.

Almost immediately, however, we began to adopt our own distinct identity, focused on the broad term “technoprogressivism,” with a dual mission to the futurist community and the progressive social movements. In the futurist community we promoted progressive perspectives to counter libertarian and apolitical views, and in the progressive social movements we attempted to show that emerging technologies could be liberatory if well-regulated and broadly accessible.

At the time it seemed that biopolitics was set to become a major new framework in global politics, and our broad programmatic agenda reflected an optimism about our growth. We established five major programs of work to promote:

(1) the concept of the Longevity Dividend,
(2) a non-anthropocentric “rights of the person” agenda that emphasized non-human personhood, and the importance of technological enablement in reproductive rights, disability rights, and other rights movements,
(3) popular culture critiques, to challenge speculative fiction, television and film creators to move beyond Luddite memes and envision a more complex future,
(4) catastrophic risk mitigation, emphasizing the role that technologies play in both creating and potentially mitigating risks, and
(5) investigation of the impacts of emerging neurotechnologies on moral behavior and spiritual life (Cyborg Buddha)

In each of these areas we have held conferences, published hundreds of articles and special issues of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, and promoted and helped network emerging public intellectuals.  However, this was always an agenda for an organization with a multi-million dollar budget, not for one scraping by with a couple of tens of thousands of dollars a year. Our fundraising was always diffuse, with no elevator pitch to give potential donors a clear idea what our mission was. By trying to do too much, we did everything a little less well.

We have however participated in an eco-system of rising public intellectuals, some of whom we have been able to promote and help launch their own projects, such as Nikola Danaylov, John Danaher, Rick Searle, and Phil Torres. Most of our issues are now in the political and policy domain and have single-issue organizations that more ably promote them.

IEET Fellow Aubrey de Grey’s hard work in building SENS has now been rewarded by the acknowledgement in biogerontology that imminent progress in anti-aging medicine is possible and desirable. In Washington DC the Global Healthspan Policy Institute (which IEET Managing Director Steve Umbrello is also a volunteer with) is taking the Longevity Dividend and regulatory reform message directly to the US Congress and FDA, in collaboration with longevity scientists like Nir Barzilai. While we can continue to chronicle and cheer on this work, emphasizing the importance of public financing of research and universal healthcare reform, the Longevity Dividend no longer seems like a project to which we have a distinct contribution to make.

In the 2000s the catastrophic risks space was already one with hundreds of national and global organizations working on specific threats, from nuclear proliferation to biosecurity to asteroid detection. What was being ignored were the low probability future threats, such as threats from emerging technologies. Now IEET Co-Founder Nick Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute has put the framework of catastrophic risk mitigation, in particular AI risks, on the international agenda, and helped launch dozens of AI risk reduction projects around the world, such as the Future of Life Institute. IEET Scholar Seth Baum’s Global Catastrophic Risk Institute (and which again IEET Managing Director Steve Umbrello volunteers for) is doing excellent work addressing nuclear, nanotechnological and other risks. IEET Fellow Wendell Wallach is now a globally featured speaker addressing technological risk, and IEET Fellow Patrick Lin’s Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group has published a dozen ground-breaking books and articles in tech ethics, such as the debate over coding trolley problem consequentialism into self-driving cars. While there are still some futurists who deny technology risks or propose magical solutions to them, it is time for us to move from “catastrophic risks” to a more specific focus.

Since we started our work on popular culture criticism, we have seen many important interventions, such as the founding of the explicitly techno-optimistic Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, the debate over ethnic and gender inclusion in science fiction, and a raft of research documenting the ways that popular culture reflects and shapes bio-morality. The website, thanks in part to founder and friend Annalee Newitz and the journalism of IEET Chair George Dvorsky, does excellent work on the political and cultural impacts of science fiction.  IEET Fellow Andy Miah is now the go-to expert on gene doping in sports, IEET Fellow Susan Schneider is applying philosophy to science fiction, AI and exobiology, and IEET Fellow Stefan Sorgner has launched the Journal of Posthuman Studies to bring together transhumanists and posthumanists in the humanities. The award-winning speculative fiction of IEET Fellows David Brin and Ramez Naam has modeled how to write sophisticated and radically liberatory technoprogressive futures, while also being serious public intellectuals addressing urgent public policy and politics.  Again, while we should champion and channel “culture work,” we don’t need to make it part of our elevator pitch.

Our Rights agenda was always the most complex of our initiatives since it envisioned both making interventions into a dozen different social movements, and the particular project of challenging the anthropocentric basis of rights discourse. On the latter project, we promoted the post-anthropocentric work of IEET Fellows David Brin, Linda Glenn and David Pearce. Our 2013 conference at Yale on non-human rights was a first, bringing together people involved in the great ape and cetacean rights with philosophers working on robot and post-human rights.  Steve Wise’s Nonhuman Rights Project has now launched court cases to redefine legal personhood, and long-time IEET friend and supporter Martine Rothblatt’s best-selling book Virtually Human made a detailed technoprogressive case for how to regulate a future with virtual persons. Our rights work had a specific focus on building ties with progressive bioethicists, legitimating the technoprogressive approach to human enhancement as a legitimate part of the bioethics dialogue. Bioethicists now include many, such as IEET Fellow Art Caplan, who are broadly sympathetic with the technoprogressive point of view that human enhancement and longevity therapies are acceptable so long as they are safe and equitably accessible. (We made less progress in promoting the post-gender agenda, but then, in an era of RuPaul’s Drag Race, non-binary activism, and transphobic panic attacks, that debate seems to be doing fine without our help.)

When Mike Latorra, George Dvorsky and I started the Cyborg Buddha project in 2005, we could never have predicted the coming explosion of research and debate on moral neuroscience and the use of neurotechnology to expand consciousness.  In 2012 we co-sponsored the Moral Brain meeting at NYU, which brought together leading researchers on moral neuroscience with philosophers engaged in the moral enhancement debate. In the last couple of years, IEET Scholar Mikey Siegel has helped organize an international network of consciousness researchers, inventors and investors, and has started his own project at Stanford and Sofia University. I, of course, have a long promised distillation of this project that still needs to come to fruition. However, it no longer makes sense for this project to a be a major focus for the IEET, especially since, according to our surveys of the IEET readership, it was never that popular as a focus for our work.

Over the last eleven years, the inevitability of technological unemployment and the desirability of basic income was a continuous theme in our work, connecting our critique of apocalyptic and anti-political AI risk work with our expectation that eventually, the policy world would have to embrace a post-work paradigm and vision. We promoted the work of IEET Fellow Marshall Brain, IEET Board Member Mark Walker and IEET Scholar John Danaher on tech unemployment and UBI. Now this argument has gone from marginal to global, included in party platforms and debated by the US President’s economic advisors. We published a special issue of JET on these arguments which is widely cited, and IEET Fellow Kevin LaGrandeur and I are editing a collected volume, with IEET contributors, on how to respond to technological unemployment. Again, technological unemployment and basic income are core components of the technoprogressive perspective, but it doesn’t make sense for us to make them the focus of our work.

While the organizational ecosystem has evolved in ways that challenge the strategic rationale for the IEET’s work, the political world has been turned on its head. After the economic crisis of 2008, techno-political issues like human enhancement became less salient, and 20th century issues of economics, race, religion, gender and national security ever more salient. The far right is in global political ascendance, from Trumpism, Putinism and jihadism, to Brexit and European racial-nationalism. It remains to be seen if the Pirates or Labour or Podemos or Die Linke can pick up the pieces of the crumbling EuroSocialist project, and what a new social democratic project will look like. What is clear is that this moment is a lot more like 1932 than the square-off between radical and libertarian cyborgs and Left and Right bioconservatives that we expected ten years ago.

In November 2014 the French Technoprog! organized a Transvision conference at which American and European transhumanists debated and ratified the Technoprogressive Declaration. That statement crystallized both core principles and strategic goals for technoprogressives, and was subsequently endorsed by dozens of futurist groups and hundreds of individuals. The Technoprogressive Declaration endorsed the IEET’s view that it was time for technoprogressives to organize as a distinct and visible ideological tendency to engage with progressive movements and parties, and not just focus on the insular futurist subculture.

In 2015, however, many futurists interested in political work soon turned to building parties of their own. Some of these projects, such as IEET Fellow David Wood’s Transpolitica and the UK Transhumanist Party built in part by IEET Scholar Amon Twyman, engaged previously nonpolitical futurists in debating and endorsing a technoprogressive policy agenda, which is a step toward serious political engagement. Others wasted efforts in promoting cults of personality and dead-end projects that soon stuttered to a halt. These projects have justified our suspicion that “transhumanism” is far too limited to build a political project around, without grounding itself in the pre-existing and inescapable history of political thought. Efforts to be “beyond Left and Right” always end up some place in ideological space. That the transhumanist billionaire Peter Thiel, whose philanthropy has dominated futurist organizations, threw himself behind Trump has justified the IEET’s insistence that the techno-political space is three dimensional. Libertarian transhumanism and fascist transhumanism need a visible technoprogressive response. Technoprogressives know who belongs at the table, and its not white nationalists and the alt-right.

Meanwhile, the emerging technologies that were considered science fiction ten years ago, and unworthy of serious policy engagement, have developed at the expected, accelerating pace. CRISPR has made debates about biosecurity and human genetic enhancement urgent. Artificial intelligence is being discussed at the White House.  Nanomachine pioneers just won the Nobel Prize. There will always be an emerging technology policy agenda that we on the bleeding edge take seriously, and that is not yet in the mainstream. However, it is no longer novel to point to the importance of the nano-bio-info-cogno convergence; that is now accepted.

So what is left for the IEET to focus on? Is there a particular project that would make sense given our limited resources, and would make an attractive pitch to technoprogressives with the means to support our work? When we surveyed the IEET audience in 2013, we found that, next to anti-aging work, their second greatest enthusiasm was for the IEET to focus on the project of defining and promoting technoprogressivism.

So I am proposing that the IEET re-focus in a major way, on our website, with our blog, with our community, and in our work, on the explicit project of building a global technoprogressive ideological tendency to intervene in debates within futurism, academe and public policy. While we will remain a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and will not be endorsing specific candidates, parties or pieces of legislation, we can focus on the broad parameters of the technoprogressive regulatory and legislative agenda to be pursued globally.

Regarding a first concrete project in this new direction, I have in mind our editing a Technoprogressive Policy Briefing Book, comparable to the briefing books of think tanks like the Brookings Institution, AEI, or Heritage Foundation.  This project can collect and collaborate with the excellent work done by Transpolitica and other technoprogressive groups and friends. Each policy briefing would state a general issue in a couple of paragraphs, outline the key technoprogressive policy ideas to address the issue, and then list key publications and links to organizations pursuing those policies.

As we transition to this new focus, we need to give our community a chance to decide on whether this is a direction they are still interested in going with us. Our approach to community-building has been inclusive and additive, with little expected of those whose work we enthusiastically promoted. What I have in mind is a more focused political direction that some of you may not be comfortable with, while others will cheer as past due. Please let Steven and I know either way.

In closing, I want to thank you for your support over the last dozen years. Working on the IEET has given me far more than I could have imagined. For those who are not interested in continuing to be connected with the IEET as we move in this new direction, I have faith that your work will still be contributing to our shared goals. For those of you ready to begin building an international cadre of technoprogressive public intellectuals and activists that can raise a “sexy, high-tech vision of a radically democratic future” to counter the dystopian narratives of Right and Left, I want to start hearing your thoughts on how we should proceed.

James J. Hughes Ph.D.
Executive Director, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies



Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837