View Technoprogressive Political Platform for the USA
November 09, 2015
This year we’ve seen a flurry of activity at the intersection of transhumanism and contemporary politics – the emergence of Transhumanist Parties in several different countries, and Zoltan Istvan’s controversial, mostly theatrical run for US President (see this article for a brief summary of some of the controversy).
One thing this burst of transhumanist political passion has made abundantly clear is that transhumanism is much too broad an umbrella for anyone to shape it into a single “current transhumanist political agenda.” As just one among many issues, some transhumanists are fervent political libertarians, and others are definitively left-wing. And this sort of distinction is not purely theoretical, it makes a big difference regarding some highly practical issues connected to the advance of technology. Should everyone get a basic income, once robots and AIs take most of the jobs? Should the state or society, in some way, guarantee that newly invented technological benefits (say, life extension pills or molecular assemblers) are available to all?
Some folks draw, from these conflicts and complexities, the message that transhumanism and politics just don’t mix. But I don’t think this is warranted. Politics is tedious and often keeps one focused on the mundane and everyday rather than the profound or transformational. Yet politics, good and/or bad, has the potential to make a huge difference in the nature of the radical technology-fueled transformations we have ahead.
I have written elsewhere about my general vision of the path from here to Singularity. Please see my chapter titled “Toward a Human-Friendly Post-Singularity World” in the book The End of the Beginning, edited by myself and my father Ted Goertzel (a sociologist). (And you can find a free PDF of the book on the Humanity+ Press webpage). According to this broad vision, humanity is likely to achieve nanotechnology, quantum computing, superhuman AGI and other huge innovations during this century – and if we manage things well and have a bit of luck, many possibilities will eventuate after that. People will be able to expand their minds and bodies far beyond the human level, and will also be able to – if they choose – continue relatively traditional human lives, but without the burdens of aging, labor and disease that we currently take for granted.
But getting to this sort of rosy futurist vision may require us not to screw things up too badly in the coming few decades. And it seems to me that to make any headway at using politics to militate toward a brighter transhuman future of this nature, more focus is needed than just “transhumanism” broadly speaking. The Transhumanist Declaration, for example – profound and elegant as it is—doesn’t go far enough to serve as even the conceptual core of a political platform.
One species of transhumanism that gets a bit more concrete is what’s called “technoprogressivism” – the essence of which is summed up in the Technoprogressive Declaration. Crudely, technoprogressivism is the left wing of transhumanism. Unlike transhumanism generically considered, technoprogressivism is precise enough to reliably serve as a basis for concrete political activity. And my best, reasonably educated guess is that technoprogressivism is the pathway most likely to lead us to a broadly beneficial post-Singularity world.
In this article I aim to explore this theme a bit, and ask the question: What would a robust, contemporary technoprogressive political platform look like? I will ask this question in the context of the US, simply because that is the country I know best (although I currently live in Hong Kong, and am a citizen of Brazil as well as the US, nevertheless I lived in the US most of my life and grew up very familiar with the US political system both formally and informally). The basic elements of the platform I’ll propose would apply just about equally well to any developed country.
Working out a technoprogressive political platform for developing countries would be a somewhat different exercise (and also different for more advanced emerging economies like China, than for earlier-stage economies like most African nations). This is also an interesting and important topic, but I would rather leave it for transhumanists native to the developing world (or explore it in collaboration with such…).
Also, I have to emphasize that technoprogressivism is meatier and more coherent than transhumanism as broadly conceived, but still is a fairly big umbrella itself, and there’s plenty of room for various technoprogressives to disagree with each other on major practical issues. In this article I’m speaking for myself alone, not for any organization, and not for the technoprogressive community as a whole (though of course if others like my suggestions, all for the better!).
(And furthermore I’m speaking somewhat off the cuff here – I’ve done lots of spare-time reading and thinking on these topics, but I don’t have a political think-tank or an army of interns to do research and dig up facts and figures and historical precedents. The thoughts shared here are intended as a rough indication of an interesting direction, not as a highly detailed policy proposal. One could make a real policy proposal along the lines suggested, but I haven’t yet taken the time….)
Four Key Principles
Among the basic principles underlying the platform I propose are the following four … that, during the next phase of human socioeconomic cultural evolution, the state should:
1. Allow as much individual freedom as is feasible without seriously jeopardizing society
2. Compassionately provide basic support to all humans (and posthumans once they exist)
3. Militate toward a beneficial environment for humans (and posthumans) to coexist in
4. Actively advance science and technology in key areas, for general human (and posthuman) benefit
The first three points, as I interpret them, are essentially a socially-permissive form of democratic socialism. (Yeah, I know “socialism” is a dirty word in mainstream US politics currently; but since I’m proposing so many out-of-the-mainstream things here, it would seem pointless to kowtow to silly popular biases regarding word choice….)
“Individual freedom” as I construe it involves not only freedom from harassment for crimes without direct victims (like drug use, or experimentation with new body or mind modification technologies), but the freedom to democratically participate in choosing the rules of society.
“Basic support” as I construe it includes not just humane housing and food and healthcare, but also e.g. network connectivity and education.
The final point is something that gets much less focus in traditional leftist politics – and it’s something that my proposed platform gives a large emphasis. I consider it highly likely that Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge are basically right, and something like a Technological Singularity is probably near. If this is accurate, then science and technology are going to be the most critical things going on in the next few decades and century. Furthermore, they are going to be having dramatic social consequences – such as, for example, the elimination of most human jobs. Given this perspective, it seems to me highly unwise for society to allow science and technology development to be driven by mega-corporations, as is currently the case. Governments are far from perfect either, but I trust them more than large corporations; and it seems more feasible (though still extremely tough, I admit) to modify government into a more positive force, than to do the same with the megacorporations of the world.
What I will propose here is a gradual and organic modification of the current US political and socioeconomic system, rather than a radical replacement of the system with something else entirely. It’s not that I’m unable to dream up more radical alternatives – I have dreamed up plenty, and read about plenty others that sound interesting. But I also have a lot of respect for the fact that modern democratic capitalist states “somewhat work”. They have, for instance, led us to the verge of a Technological Singularity. And prior attempts to wholesale replace systems of government with utterly different ones have often met with dismal, tragic failure.
Currently the US GDP is around USD$16T (trillion), and the federal budget is around $4T. My platform would involve boosting the federal budget to more like $8T. This is a lot, but note that e.g. Sweden’s federal budget is around 50% of their GDP, and at times has been as high as 70%. Sweden’s experience, and that of a few other countries, demonstrate that it’s perfectly possible for a democratic capitalist system to operate with this level of federal budget.
I’m well aware that many Americans have a fear of “big government.” Actually I have the same instinct, and have to admit I’m strongly emotionally attracted to the American wild-west ideal of being out on the wild frontier with no restrictions except the laws of nature. But yet, that just isn’t the world we live in today. The world is more and more tightly interconnected, and it may be that the practical choice during the next few decades isn’t between Big Government and some sort of unfettered anarchic frontier freedom, but between Big Government and Big Corporations.
And it may well be that, if we manage to free the government from undue corporate influence and infuse it with more of the spirit of science and direct democracy instead, “big government” will no longer seem so scary, but will feel more like the rational way for humanity to express its mutual values and aspirations.
What we have right now, in the US, is a situation where global mega-corporations exert an extreme amount of control on the present and future of the human race. It seems that the most practical way of breaking out of the cycle of corporate rule, is for democratically elected governments to take more of the resources and control back from these corporations and the wealthier of their shareholders, and put more of the power in the hands of a wider variety of people and organizations.
For all our differences, all of us humans do have a lot in common – such as the desire for health and well-being, and the desire not to be enslaved (nor, say, terminated by killer robots, synthetic pathogens or nano-goo…). Technological Singularity is serious business and our odds of success will be maximized if we can focus on steering it together, rather than dispersing our resources and attention on petty economic or ideological competition.
Also, it should be understood that the federal budget doesn’t need to be spent entirely – or even primarily – on government employees. For instance, federal science funding today largely goes to universities; some (e.g. SBIR grants) goes to startup companies. And while government waste is a popular topic (and it certainly does exist, in multidimensional spades), some government agencies do amazing work – the US NIH is an outstanding example. The NIH has made far more profound medical discoveries than any Big Pharma firm.
There is a myth in the US that scientific and technological innovation are made primarily by tech companies, fueled by VC and angel investment. Actually, though, it’s government-funded research that has made the majority of the fundamental breakthroughs. What tech firms have excelled at, is productizing and commercializing technologies developed on the government dollar in university labs and national labs.
Productization is essential and absolutely not to be sneered at. I love my smartphone too – and even though they funded the invention of most of the underlying technologies, the US and European governments didn’t actually put a smartphone in my pocket.
But the dynamic in which the government funds research and then corporations productize the research and distribute the proceeds to their shareholders, serves pretty effectively to feed the engine of increasing inequality that Piketty so articulately described and documented in his celebrated book. This dynamic should be altered, via greater taxation of wealthy corporations and individuals, which will serve to feed back to the government some of the profits made from commercialization of government-funded research. The revenue from such additional taxation can be used to fund further research – and not arbitrary research, but research in specific science and technology areas that the people democratically estimate will best work toward broad future benefit.
Expanding the Federal Budget
So, suppose we increased the US federal budget to $8T/year, and with an eye toward using this extra budget for “entrepreneurial state” style directed science and technology investment. What would the new, radically technoprogressive budget look like?
Hands waving wildly, here’s a stab:
* An extra $1T or so per year to supply every US citizen with a basic income around $11K/year. This would simplify social welfare now, and simply be the more compassionate and moral thing to do. And it would lay a foundation for the future – because as AIs and robots take over more and more jobs, a basic income will be the only alternative to mass starvation and death.
* $400B per year for improved education, including free online education at all levels for all citizens, and a federal system providing official certification based on online courses
* $100B per year for development of alternative modes of exchange (including but not limited to cryptocurrencies), with a view toward creating economic mechanisms that are more democratic and decentralized and do not involve a huge parasitic financial sector such as the US currently possesses. Fixing the parasitic nature of the financial sector would save the economy vastly more than $100B per year
* $500B per year for direct foreign aid to the developing world, with a focus on boosting advanced science and technology there. This will benefit everyone including the developed world, because the current situation wastes a huge amount of the brainpower of the human race (since too many folks in the developing world have to spend too much of their brainpower just surviving, rather than contributing to the radical advancement of humanity). This would expand foreign aid from the current level of less than 1% of the federal budget to around 6% of the federal budget. (Note that most
Americans already think foreign aid constitutes a much higher percentage than this.)
* And last but not least—$2T per year for a new National Science and Technology Administration (NASTA – yeah, OK that sounds sorta like a third-rate reggae rapper or something, but we can live with it for the moment….), subsuming the NIH and NASA and taking over much of what DARPA and IARPA etc. now do
Yes, these are big round numbers and the reality would be more complex. But the US government found trillions of dollars to bail out corrupt banks and insurance companies in the wake of the financial crisis. The above sounds radical but fairly clearly would be achievable. We’re not talking about radical changes to the basic political and economic system, like happened in Russia and China under the initial advent of communism. We’re “just” talking about shifting the US federal budget to Sweden-like proportions, and putting most of the extra funds into Singularity-focused science and technology development; and radically simplifying and extending our current social welfare system. Compared to the dramatic nature of the coming Technological Singularity, this sort of change is small potatoes!!!
What would the envisioned NASTA do? Suppose its budget were divided among, say:
Bio (including longevity research and brain-computer interfacing)
Nano (including Drexlerian molecular assemblers as well as the less ambitious nanotech that has become popular)
Info (new computing architectures including quantum computing, massively parallel architectures, etc.)
Cogno (Artificial Intelligence, Intelligence Enhancement, robotics)
Clean energy (need I say more?)
Well-Being (what makes people deeply satisfied? What scientifically-vetted practices can people and groups follow to radically increase human well-being? How can we massively increase our Gross National Happiness?)
Space (we will learn so much by exploring the world beyond Earth, and create so many amazing spinoff technologies)
$250B each year for each of these areas would add up to $1.75T, leaving some left over in the $2T NASTA budget for other sciences.
The NASTA budget would be split between government labs, grants to university labs (in the US and sometimes overseas), SBIR-type grants to startup companies, and investments in firms at more advanced stages. Existing mechanisms for distributing research funds already exist, and with this amount of funding each focus area could have a division following a DARPA-style model, a division following an NSF-style models, and divisions experimenting with new modes of funds dissemination.
Can you really doubt that this would advance us faster and better toward a positive Singularity, than the current situation in which such a high percentage of our collective resources are controlled by corporations whose goals are to maximize shareholder value rather than to progress knowledge and invention or to benefit humanity as a whole?
Well, OK, yeah, I know, some people will doubt this very much. There is an ideology, especially popular in the US, which says that the path to general good is via people and organizations greedily seeking their own advantage. There is some truth to this. But not nearly as much as Americans typically tend to think. I am not proposing to eliminate corporations altogether – that might well be a good idea, but the effects at this stage would be difficult to predict. I am proposing simply to shift the allocation of resources substantially – but not totally – toward the radical advancement of science and technology for the public good.
Imagine full funding for Aubrey de Grey’s SENS programme for curing human aging—and multiple alternatives. Imagine a full-on push toward better brain scanning, to enable mapping of the human mind and work toward mind uploading. Imagine massive virtual worlds where young AGI software can interact and learn, and get instructed in both human knowledge and human values. Imagine the nanotech and nanomedicine visions of Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, Robert Freitas and others , worked on by massive teams of researchers and engineers around the world. Experimental robots of all shapes and sizes, interacting with us and learning from us in our homes, factories and schools. Clean energy tech getting the R&D boost it needs to overcome the sunk cost of fossil fuels based technology and become our most efficient way of directing energy toward our needs. Advanced tech used to clean up our parks and forests and waterways, and spread knowledge around the world. Serious study put into the social, psychological, biological and environmental causes of human unhappiness and strife, and finding empirically validated ways to help (surely more useful than putting so much attention on warfare and imprisonment as our current policies do). Internships via which students of all ages—in the developed and developing world—can participate in these amazing developments, learning as they go. A focus, not on corporations or nations trying to gain economic advantage over others , but on humanity working together to advance human well-being and maximize the odds that the tremendous changes Ray Kurzweil and others have foreseen occur for the good of all.
And what must be sacrificed to achieve these things? Essentially, some of the differential disposable income enjoyed by the upper wealth brackets. Not as many upper-bracket folks will be able to enjoy self-driving cars a few years in advance of the mass population. Not as many upper-bracket folks will be able to enjoy new medical therapies in overseas clinics before they are available to the mass population—but this wouldn’t matter much, in the vision I outline, because stifling medical regulations would be relaxed, substantially quashing the phenomenon of Americans needing to go overseas for cutting-edge treatments. To a greater extent, upper-bracket folks would end up using the same smartphones as everybody else. And of course, the ability of upper-bracket folks to signal their superior social status via wearing Rolex watches, carrying Luiz Vuitton luggage and spotting pop stars at the trendiest restaurants would be significantly impaired.
Bear in mind, given the rate of technological progress—which would be enhanced, not impaired by the proposed changes—the same technologies that the upper bracket gets today, tend to be distributed to the masses only a few years later. The same technologies that the developed world gets today, are distributed to the developing world—just unevenly and with a time lag. Decreasing economic inequality will only cause the upper brackets to get the benefits of new technologies around the same time as everyone else. Decreasing economic inequality in a way that puts more funds into scientific and technological progress will ultimately cause EVERYONE to get benefits faster, as well as causing these benefits to be more evenly distributed. It’s a win-win all around in practical terms—the only substantial loss would be to the relative socioeconomic status of a fraction of the population.
Moving Toward a Singularity-Era Socioeconomy
A variety of other changes to the current order would be valuable, toward the goal of creating a collectively beneficial society as we move toward Technological Singularity.
An expanded government as suggested above would need to make even more choices than the current government does. As the need for people to work to earn a living decreases, people will have more bandwidth to help the government make its decisions. Adoption of new methods of direct democracy will be extremely valuable. NASTA should experiment with making some of its research funding allocation decisions based on direct-democratic methods.
In a Singularity-era society, national borders will almost certainly be a thing of the past. We can work toward this by gradually increasing the number of immigrants permitted into the US, year by year. Experimental pathways should also be explored, such as incentives for trained individuals from developing countries to spend time in developed countries and then return home. Encouraging flow of educated individuals back and forth between the developed and developing world will maximize the rate of progress and benefit for all.
Founding a massively expanded government as proposed here on a corrupt and dysfunctional US Congress would obviously be suboptimal. Lawrence Lessig has proposed a variety of sensible measures for ending the current situation in which our representatives are basically owned by corporations and their lobbyists. Let’s implement them.
I also mentioned above the elimination of crimes without direct victim. This is gradually happening in the US, as gambling, prostitution and drug use are gradually (much too slowly) becoming decriminalized. It would stop much of the waste of money and human potential currently occurring in the US prison system. And, just as importantly, it would ease the path to a positive Singularity, by allowing adult individuals to experiment with radical body and mind modifications on themselves. It would also entail substantial deregulation of the medical industry, which would have the consequence of dramatic cost reduction and innovation increase.
In the technoprogressive vision as I understand and advocate it, government is compassionate and cares for its citizens, but also cares for its citizens’ rights to self-determine and self-experiment, so long as these rights do not pose a clear and direct threat to others.
Finally, there is the question of how to pay for the expanded federal budget proposed – a question with, I suppose, a fairly obvious answer. Sweden supports its proportionally large federal government with relatively high taxes, especially on wealthy individuals and corporations. Piketty has also proposed an international wealth tax (international in order to avoid the issue of wealthy individuals and corporations moving their funds among nations to avoid taxation), which I think makes a lot of sense.
A Technoprogressive President?
The platform I have somewhat vaguely sketched here, is certainly rather radical compared to what the main US political parties are currently proposing. However, it’s squarely within the scope of what could pragmatically be done within the existing US political, legal and economic system. It wouldn’t require revolution, only evolution. A shift from the current order to the proposed technoprogressive system could be done over a period of 5-10 years, bit by bit. The result would be more of a 21st century nation, a nation more fully prepared to craft a broadly beneficial Technological Singularity.
I’m under no illusion that the majority of the US population would vote for a technoprogressive program like this one – today. But what about a few years hence, when unemployment rises due to AIs and robots taking over jobs, and the unemployment rate shows no sign of ever sinking again, just keeps increasing? How will attitudes shift when nearly everyone in the developed world has a moderately generally intelligent service robot in their home, just as nearly everyone has a TV and a car today? At that point, reality may overtake the corporate-directed attitudinal programming that currently dominates the American psyche, and a technoprogressive direction may become widely perceived as the only humane and viable alternative.
So I believe that the time to start advocating for an evolutionary change toward a rational technoprogressive alternative is now. The time to start fleshing out proposals like the one I’ve vaguely sketched here, is now. The time to start fielding political candidates, whether within third parties or mainstream parties, is now.
It may not yet be the time for a technoprogressive US President – though things are changing faster and faster, and that time may come sooner than you think. But well before the time for a technoprogressive President, having more and more technoprogressives actively involved in governance, and political and economic strategic and tactical thinking, can surely make a difference.
You can rest assured I don’t have plans to shift my own career in a political direction – I’m not a “political” person, and my efforts are needed on the science and technology of AGI and life extension. But I am approached all the time by people asking what they can do to help bring about a positive Singularity – including people who are not oriented toward technical work. One possible answer is: Do your best to shift our socioeconomic system toward practical technoprogressivism. The platform indicated here is one Singularitarian scientist’s attempt to articulate what this might concretely mean.
Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (agiri.org).