19 September 2010

The Tomorrow Men

You may not have heard of some – or any – of these men. Yet they are all classed as visionary thinkers - futurists. As scientists, philosophers and social scientists they are trying to predict the future. It may be in terms of society, technology, medicine, life on earth or a permutation or combination thereof. Most among them are actively working towards creating their vision of the future. Take a look and see if you would want to live there.

If the idea of humanity merged with technology gives you a Borg-like shiver, then perhaps you need to look at the work of Gregory Stock. The current CEO of Signum Biosciences, his modus operandi is considerably more benign than our old friends from the Trek universe. His company is researching the protein networks that control our biological systems. It is hoped that this research will benefit people living with such conditions as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s down to more everyday conditions such as asthma.

He has noted the prevalence of social networking and the speed at which it has caught on and believes that it is only the beginning. Networking is something that he sees as an opportunity to move away from ordinary human intelligence and multiply it. By being tied together we may well, he believes, create something that he calls the Planetary Superorganism.

The superorganism would have us – humans – as its cells and through the operation of market forces would entice us to sustain it. In order to help facilitate the age of the human brain Stock has consistently campaigned against bans on stem cell research, cloning and is a strong advocate for research in to anti-aging.

Upside: You could live a lot longer thanks to Stock
Downside: To quote Mr Mercury, Who wants to live forever?

You may know Hanson best for his work on Albert-Hubo, the robot with Einstein’s head (albeit not literally) and it is in the field of robotics that he excels, Albert being just one in a line of robots he has created. He is the founder of his own company, Hanson Robotics, the aim of which is to develop robots as much like us as possible, from skin and facial expressions to the ability to hold interesting conversations.

From 2002 onwards when his first robots were unveiled Hanson has developed his ideas, developing Frubber – a rubbery material which looks a fair approximation to skin.  The levels of facial expression keep improving.  Think of the progress CGI has made and you realise that a near perfect reproduction of our features is not in the realms of science fiction.

Hanson believes that within a generation we will see machines that can solve problems creatively from a scientific perspective and create and express themselves through art too. With the emphasis on creating robots which will not freak us out in terms of meaningful interaction between us and a lump of plastic and metal, Hanson may propel society forward in to a new phase.

Upside: The robots may become so realistic we could send them to work instead of us.
Downside: You know those Three Laws of Robotics? Well....

Kurzweil's ideas demand to be taken seriously.  After all, he is a successful inventor, from reading machines for the blind to replicating the sound of instruments synthetically (and for both of the above they were workable and realistic).  The one word you may hear his name connected with is singularity.

The singularity is the time at which technology is to change our very existence at a profound level and Kurzweil believes it is close – perhaps just thirty years away.  We are not talking about the a few tweaks to Facebook either – we are talking evolution. The law of accelerating returns (think how quickly technology has progressed in the last two decades) means that we are moving ever closer to that point.

The next word you hear associated with Kurzweil is transhumanism which is intertwined with the singularity at least from an evolutionary perspective.  The central argument is that within years technology which is either equal or surpasses the functionality of our brains is achievable.  When technology gets to that point then we may get a huge evolutionary leap.

Upside: Longer lives and because we will break away from the archaic condition of our emotional systems, no more grumpy old men and women on the bus.
Downside: What if we all become Lawnmower men?

In any list of scientists there has to be at least one former child prodigy and although Hassabis is well in to his adulthood now he is the enfant not so terrible of this inventory.   He was a chess master at the age of thirteen and at 17 co-designed the classic game Theme Park which made him very, very rich.  A Cambridge Double

First he founded Lionhead Studios in 1998 – which made him even richer (remember Black & White?). As if creating two of the pivotal games of the last twenty years wasn’t enough he has turned his thoughts towards Hybrid Systems Neuroscience, which as well as neuroscience has a lot of psychology in its remit.

He discovered that there was a relationship between imagination and the reconstructive progression of memory recall from a starting point that people with injuries to their hippocampus were unable to picture themselves undertaking new experiences.

By 2020 he hopes to have created a team consisting of neuroscientists and computer scientists together who will have enabled computers to both learn and accumulate concepts but, crucially, to use them too.

Upside: Clever computers will mean less human error.
Downside: Hassabis was Executive Designer of the game Evil Genius.  Is he trying to tell us something?

You have heard of AI, but Goertzel is one of the prime movers behind AGI which stands for Artificial General Intelligence.   The Brazil born American believes that the future lies in the word general.  The idea is that at the moment we develop computers for specific tasks but if they had a more general intelligence, like us, then that would enable them to solve problems that their creators had not even considered in their programming.

His definition of intelligence is the capability to spot patterns in the world (and in your own actions) and to act upon them.  With this in mind he is one of the prime movers and shakers of OpenCog which aims to build a framework upon which an AGI can be built but with the difference that it will be open source – an AGI for Linux lovers then.

He is also increasingly interested in the field of artificial biology, whereby species can be manipulated on a genetic level to increase longevity.  This has already been done with fruit flies where life expectancy has increased five times in those flies altered.  Goertzel has every intention of living forever and has signed up with Alcor (a company that preserves people using cryonics after legal death).

Upside:  Clever computers?  Yes please.  Plus, hardly anyone would mind a few extra years on their life .
Downside: Perhaps a world full of Struldbrugs might not be such a good idea.

Brilliant has such a well, brilliant, name for a scientist that you might suspect he changed it from something like Smith.  To begin with he had a pivotal role in the eradication of smallpox back in the seventies which – let’s be frank – already makes him akin to someone from Krypton in many people’s eyes.  With his wife Girija he is also co-founder of the Seva Foundation which has restored the sight of over three million people suffering from cataract blindness.

At the moment he is overseeing the Skoll Urgent Threat Fund which was founded by eBay founder Jeff Skoll.  If you think of it like a scientific International Rescue, then you are not far off the mark.   His general aim is to make technology more purposeful and applies the principles of teleology to medicine and technology.  Teleology holds that human actions are inherent in nature and additionally it should inform our actions on an ethical basis.

As a winner of the One Wish to Change the World TED (Technology Entertainment Design) Foundation prize in 2006, Brilliant stated his wish at the award ceremony: To build a powerful new early warning system to protect our world from some of its worst nightmares.

Upside: Brilliant wants to globalize empathy and compassion.  That’s one to remember for the Beauty Pageant question section…
Downside: Er, well, none that we can think of actually.

More is a futurist and philosopher whose main thrust of thought is what to do about all of our emerging technologies – in global terms.  The word perhaps most associated with More is extropy which he defined in 1988.  Not quite the opposite of entropy (as it is more of a metaphor than a technical term), extropy measures our capacity for improvement and growth against our intelligence, energy and experience.

More recently, More has expounded on what he calls Dynamic Optimism.  Dynamic optimists have a vigorous, empowering, productive approach which produces circumstances for achievement by focus and taking advantage of potential and opportunity.  This can be done on an individual basis and collectively.  Yet it does not happen without effort – and lots of it.  However, his principles of dynamic optimism could make the world a better place to live.

Another believer in transhumanism, More hopes that mortality and the inevitability of our shrugging off this immortal coil is not an absolute necessity.  More also sees Futurism as more about scenarios than predictions - in other words there is always more than one way to skin a cat.

Upside: A vigorous pursuit of happiness.
Downside: Our optimism might opt out.

Brand is an ecopragmatist.  As an environmentalist he sees that the climate is changing, the world is becoming more urbanized and that the genie of biotechnology has been well and truly let out of the bottle.  As such he sees that geoengineering – or the deliberate engineering of our climate will become, in the future, a necessity.  Yet he isn’t sure that it will work.

He also advocates as green three things that many would find the need to be against if only out of initial experience and opinion. According to Brand, cites, nuclear power and genetic engineering are all green.   However, he is also a proponent of restoring the natural infrastructure of planet Earth and of engineering ecosystems in a benevolent way.

A little dubious of the singularity, Brand views the future as something to be welcomed as an opportunity to solve the world’s problems in innovative and (until now) unheard of ways.

Upside: Positive and pragmatic – you can’t uninvent.
Downside: Needs to convince himself before he can convince others.