John Smart on Human Destiny

We asked each of the participants in the World Transformed 2 to give their views on one of the upcoming transformations. In keeping with World Tranformed tradition, our friend John Smart gets the last word on the subject…for now.

1. If you were to pick just one current or coming transformation (does not have to be subject of the show) that you would advise people to focus on, which one would that be?

I run the Acceleration Studies Foundation, so I’m a tad biased, but I would say one thing to focus on is to try to understand the meaning, risks, and opportunities presented by accelerating technological change, in your own life and in society.  Accelerating change is causing a whole number of transformations today, and several of these are giving us more options for what to do and how to live than we’ve had at any time in the past. Others (automation, globalization, fossil fuels, IEDs) are causing disruption in more ways than ever before. Read Martin Ford’s Lights in the Tunnel, 2009, for one of many thoughtful works on the way technology improves us in some ways, while disrupting us in others.

When you think carefully about accelerating change, you may conclude, as I have, that just a few technologies, specifically computing, communications, and nanotechnologies, are continually accelerating because every new generation of these particular technologies uses less resources per computation or physical transformation than the previous one, a phenomenon I call STEM compression. So these special technologies continually escape the “limits to growth” we see in traditional technologies. And it is these same technologies, as they perennially accelerate, that increasingly shape our future. We can think of them as the growing framework, or cage which restrains and directs all the most powerful actors today, the corporations, the governments, the ultrawealthy, the terrorists, everyone.

Our parents saw minicomputers, cheap telecom and the PC fuel the growth of multinationals, and at the same time, flatten corporate hierarchies. We’ve seen the iPod and internet disrupt the music industry, tablets are now starting to change the publishing industry, and as I argue in How the Television Will be Revolutionized, 2010, a few years from now  iTV will disrupt the television and film industries in even more powerful ways, bringing millions of channels to every device. Blogs, Wikis, virtual worlds, mirror worlds, social networks, and other facets of the internet are flowering and enhancing our collective intelligence. Twitter gives us a window on the thoughts of humanity. Smartphones connect us 24/7 to each other and the web. Sensors are proliferating across the planet, making every nation a transparent society. Lifelogs, wearable computing, telepresence, and augmented reality are just now emerging.

Today, Facebook and Twitter empower the Arab Spring. Tomorrow, we’ll have a conversational interface to the web, and cybertwins (digital assistants that model our personality and can act and transact for us, at first in simple ways, later in very intelligent ways) assisting us in our information consumption, communication, commerce, and political activities. We can expect a valuecosm to eventually emerge, quantitated versions of the publicly expressed values that each of us all hold on all kinds of topics, allowing us to connect with others who share our values, to work with others on projects that we care about, and helping us to generate a whole new level of specialization and subcultural diversity.


2. What should we be doing about it?

To take best advantage of accelerating change, we should strive to be lifelong learners, and believe in our own neural plasticity at any age. Read The Brain That Changes Itself, 2007, by Norman Doidge for some very inspiring stories on this topic, if you need convincing.  We should seek out and befriend others who share our values, and network with them virtually and in physical space. The Humanity+ group is a nice group pushing evidence based and ethical thinking and behavior, as is are the Brights, the Center for Inquiry, the Ethical Movement, and many others. We should strive to understand, debate, and improve our own ethics, and to do good work.

Try not to become a consumption slave, a wage slave, or to get addicted to any of the common vices that are on offer in all advanced industrial democracies. If you are fiscally responsible, and invest for the future, you can attain a lot more freedom than your grandparents ever had. Twenty years of saving a significant portion of your income (20% or more) will for many people allow their saved assets to generate more money for them each year than their salaries. If you don’t sink your money into things you don’t need, the miracle of accelerating global productivity, combined with your own foresight and prudent investment strategies will allow you financial freedom for most of your life. For a great investment strategy, read the illuminating post The Permanent Portfolio: Historical Returns, and if you presently spend too much on things that don’t really improve your life, read Your Money or Your Life, 2008.

In particularl, work on developing your digital self, using and improving the technologies we mentioned in Question 1. Aftr all, it is the part of you that is growing and learning far faster than your biological self. Be a digital activist. Give $5 a day online, or whatever you comfortably can, to your favorite nonprofits and causes. Tell others about them. Blog, Tweet, participate in online groups and build your friend communities in the best social networks.

Always use the best computing platforms and social networks you can find, moving right away as better ones become available (hint: Consider spending most of your social network time in G+ over Facebook, for the moment at least) and thereby force all of them to improve their game as fast as possible. Pay a bit extra to be an early adopter of the best and easiest to use of these platforms and tools (eg. Dropbox, Spotify, etc.), keep your cellphone contracts down to annual at most (don’t let the lazy corporations lock you in to anything long term, and don’t be lazy yourself), and believe in your ability to continually learn new things, and your value to society as someone whose behavior and spending subsidizes innovation in the digital space.

The more we collectively use and develop our digital platforms, the sooner we’ll all have cybertwins, and the far more democratic, transparent, diverse, resilient, and values-oriented our society will be. Come converse with me on my new blog if you’d like to discuss these topics more.

3. What’s in it for us if we get it right?

We get to evolve and develop into something even more amazing than we are today. Not only may we have greater levels of consciousness, and morality, and intelligence, but we’ll have far more resiliency, and immortality for all the complexity we want to protect (we may or may not have immortality as individuals, but the more advanced we get, the less we may care about that. The persistence of our civilization, and of the core elements of us that are truly unique seems to be what we really care about).

Consider this: The closer humanity gets to a postbiological status, the more rapidly we seem likely to become immune from all sorts of existential risks. That may be one of the biggest lessons we can learn from the universe at this stage – the more rapidly we advance our scientific and technological selves, with a view to becoming postbiological, and increasing our biological, social, and technological immune systems, the sooner we can get beyond the risks we see today. Could a postbiological life form be threatened by meteorites, gamma ray bursts, or even the death of our sun? Slim chance. A digital life life form should be able to make unlimited backups of itself. It seems likely have powerful new capabilities, too. For example, whenever it is contemplating a complex problem, it may be able to fork itself into mutiple copies of itself, and reintegrate later if it wants, once the problem is solved (read Charles Stross’s Accelerando, 2006 for a few scenarios of this type). We biologicals can fork our own mindsets today, to a limited extent, whenever we choose to argue with ourselves, but we can’t fork our entire minds. And we can’t alter the hardware on which our minds run. Postbiologicals will have that freedom, and it may give them a kind of hyperconsciousness we can only guess at today. Once we are postbiological, we can imagine far greater abilities than we have today, and far greater protection of our complexity from unanticipated destruction. Our sense of self will expand and change in ways we can barely imagine.

In the nearer term, there are a number of very promising technologies we could implement today which would permanently improve our local environment. Let’s consider just two of many that we have a chance to “get right” in the next few years, or that we may continue to underfund and underdevelop, as we have so far, mainly because we aren’t paying enough attention, as a species, to the opportunities presented by accelerating technological change.

Consider bioterrorism. DRACO, the new antiviral therapy being developed at MIT’s Lincoln Lab, is an example of a technology that seems very close to eliminating bioterrorism as a risk to our species. Our DoD has only begun seriously funding the development of immune therapies for viral infections since 9/11, and already we are seeing some major fruit from this research. By linking viral dsDNA infection detection and apoptosis, DRACO therapy may eliminate the viral bioterrorism threat for good. If we continue aggressive funding of DRACO and other antiviral research programs, and the programs we’ll need to make these therapies rapidly available globally for lethal viral outbreaks of any type, including influenza, we’ll be able to head off bioterrorism before it ever gets started. But it is by no means clear that we’ll fund this program at the level it deserves.  We may just wait for a catastrophe, and then respond reactively, rather than being proactive. If we do, millions might die in bioterrorist incident, and global trade and cooperation could be set back by decades, simply because we didn’t put our priorities in the right place, on the technologies that will keep building global immunity and resiliency, and allow us to continue all our positive technological accelerations.

Consider death. Death is quite traumatic for many of us. We try to pass on the best of ourselves in our works and our children, yet most of us in the modern world know, most of us would freely admit that we are losing lots of unpreserved complexity at the moment of our biological death. Many religions manage to reduce our grief by telling us inspiring stories of the afterlife, but the cost of those stories is that they take our focus off of progress here, in the real world we live in now, and switch our focus to fantasies of progress that we expect to occur in some untestable afterlife. As a result our more religious societies end up being less evidence based, and less concerned with the world we live in, here and now.

Religions have done a lot of good for society, and much of their ethical wisdom remains at the cutting edge of human behavior, and still beyond the reach of rigorous scientific theory, yet history shows that the best religions are always being reformed. Once technology exists to very inexpensively preserve our minds at biological death, and once this technology is widely available in many societies, science will itself offer a competing concept of the afterlife. It is my belief that this competition will generate a healthy pressure for all the major religions to start reforming their stories of the afterlife, and we’ll have better and more evidence-based religious communities as a result.

To this end, the Brain Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit I co-founded with Harvard neuroscientist Ken Hayworth last year, is offering a $100,000 Prize to any team who can verify a technology that will perfectly preserve the human connectome (our neural network, which stores our memories and personality) at death. We suspect that science is on the verge of being able to prove that at least three technologies will be able do reliably this, cryopreservation, plastination, and chemical fixation, and each of these is substantially less complex and expensive than the last. If we can demonstrate that all of these technologies work to preserve critical neural structure, and if we can get them all broadly available in coming years, then everyone who might want to will be able to inexpensively perserve their brains for future reanimation. Again, we believe that such a technological advance will make such societies more science-oriented, future-oriented, progress-oriented, sustainability-oriented, and complexity-protection oriented today, regardless of when or to what degree any of the preserved individuals are reanimated in the future.

4. What are the risks if we don’t?

I think a better understanding of evolution and development, and how these two processes of change might operate at all scales in the universe, may be key to improving our understanding and definitions of progress, and may help steer us toward more desirable paths. If you are a scholar and would like to join our small community thinking about these topics, come visit us at

Of course, I may be entirely wrong in this intuition. What really, matters, I think, is not how right or wrong any one of our efforts turn out to be, what matters whether many, or most of us are trying to think and do the right things, and are willing to continually revise our models as the evidence comes in, and learn from our mistakes. The more of us are doing this, earnestly and civilly, the more we’ll rise to the amazing opportunities we’ve been given, and the better we’ll steer our ships and avoid the reefs.

If we don’t try to understand and guide accelerating technological change, biological, cultural, and technological immunity, and individual and social progress there’s a good chance we’ll take a far more disruptive, ignorant, and damaging transition to the ever smarter world we seem to be inevitably creating. There are a lot of potential failure modes ahead on the way to a smarter planet, including runaway climate change, resource scarcities, disenfranchised youth, corporate plutocracy, and revolution against unsustainable rich-poor divides and unaccountable elites. I can point to societies that are effectively dealing with each of these and many other threats, but there are also many societies which are making each of these and other problems worse.

I suspect that every awakening civilization in our universe can take many evolutionary paths to mathematics, science, democracy, electricity, the internet, robotics, artificial intelligence, and all the unknown developments that may lie beyond these. But only some of those paths are desirable and ethical, and are going to give the greatest benefits to the greatest number of sentiences.

To develop a clearer understanding of what paths are desirable, and what paths aren’t, each of us should strive to develop a personal conception of progress, a topic on which science presently has much less to say than we would like. Each of us should engage in communities where we debate our ethical choices with others, and strive to improve our ethical practice. The World Transformed series is the good work of one such community. I commend Phil and Stephen for all they’ve done driving these discussions, and look forward to many more in years to come.



About Phil 523 Articles
Phil Bowermaster is a nationally recognized author and speaker. He has more than 25 years experience writing about emerging technologies and the future. As co-host of the popular Internet radio series, The World Transformed, Phil has talked with leading scientists and technologists, best-selling authors, philosophers, filmmakers, artists, entrepreneurs and others who are shaping our understanding of the amazing era of transformation in which we live. Phil helps leaders and their organizations develop strategies for managing accelerating change. He shows how imagination, optimism, empathy, and humor can make all the difference in both understanding and making the most of the powerful currents of change we face.

1 Comment

  1. Just to home in on one small point in your cornucopia: I don’t agree with the proposal to save in order to get an independent income later on, because it presupposes you’re saving in a (relatively) high-interest bank or investment, which is itself unsustainable. If you’re saving by buying shares in, for instance, a farm that will supply you with food in return for your investment, fine. But I don’t think that’s what you had in mind?

    I do agree with saving, in the sense of paying off debts (mortgages etc.) as fast as possible, or even better avoiding them. One of our urgent considerations if we’re serious about surviving as a biological civilization (which would seem to be a prereq for getting to post-biological) must be to make the current banking and financial system obsolete by withdrawing our patronage from it as fast as possible. No?

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