My favourite interviewees were two of the most zealous futurists – world renowned head of British Telecom’s Research Laboratories Peter Cochrane, and Max More, the president of a group that dabbles in transhumanism, cryogenics and plans to colonise the universe. I’m excited and challenged by their seemingly outrageous, cheeky and optimistically confident notions. They realise their visionary insights into new technology, life and the future may be completely wrong, but they’re not going to sit around and wait for it to happen. Onwards, and to hell with the consequences.
First up is Peter Cochrane who shared his thoughts on why we should insert technology to enhance our “wetware” [brain], silicomorphisation and the importance of instant gratification. His mission is to “boldly go and be first – technologically, managerially and operationally.” This means his job involves trying to “live in the future, at least five years ahead of any other human, and 10 years ahead of most. I’ve occupied this role for many years, using the latest technology emerging from my laboratory and those we collaborate with worldwide.”
Cochrane’s a down-to-earth digital visionary, and since 1993 he has been in charge of 660 staff dedicated to studying future technologies such as speech systems, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, wearable computers and agents. He leads a team which aims to challenge the status quo, generate novel, workable ideas and get there first in a huge foresight shop aimed at predicting the future to ensure BT is never wrong-footed. “We have to find out the implications of new technology before it arrives, so we don’t get caught out by a paradigm change we didn’t see coming,” Cochrane says.
He’s a vivacious 50-year-old professor, with a string of awards, twice as many doctorates as O levels, and has pencilled portraits of his family, screensavers featuring his kids, and a myriad of black box high-tech gadgets that make his office seem like the set design for Star Trek meets The Waltons. There’s an old-fashioned “there are those who make things happen..” motivational plaque on his wall, a Neanderthal skull, a couple of wiry atomic element-type models, a gigantic monitor and a small camera so anyone can phone and see whether he’s busy. This set-up is perfect for a person who envisages a world where you can have your secretary “in your ear”, bionic robots with superior senses and memory, and implants to improve our performance. His first priority is to make technology more user-friendly.
“I’ve been silicomorphised for over 20 years, and I don’t like it,” Cochrane laments. “The screen wears my eyes out. We were designed to be hunter-gatherers, not information processors. One of our primary skills is visual correlation – not gazing at spreadsheets. I’m pushing for voice input; instead of using an archaic keyboard, I’d rather be doing business by talking to a unit strapped to my wrist. The office-you-wear is not far away.”
One of his tools is a program that edits masses of information down to a single page. Then another machine converts this into speech. It can be made to sound like his wife’s voice, but the delivery is monotone. “It’s difficult to put in the emotion and takes about 100 times more computing power, but we’re working on it.”
Other concepts the BT team is looking at involve strapping mini-televisions to your glasses and microphones to your ears so you can communicate virtual reality-style with experts miles away. And they’re putting information on a contact lens. “We can already project a full A4 page into the eye that’s readable, but we’re having a few problems with it,” he concedes. “We’re considering the use of implants. It depends on what’s socially acceptable.”
Hyperactively enthusiastic for someone who’s been at the same company for 23 years, Cochrane works 11-hour days and loves his job. He enjoys conducting experiments on his wife and kids and in social situations to figure out how people interact with technology. “I’ve been blessed with an understanding family,” he acknowledges. A handy tip, he suggests, for emptying an entire railway carriage is to use advanced electronic equipment strapped to your head. “When I do that, everybody leaves. They think I’m strange. It’s a guaranteed way of getting a carriage all to yourself.”
He predicts the future is about doing more with less and achieving more in a given lifetime. “One of our objectives is to do 10 times more. My father had a working life of 100,000 hours. I can do what he did in 10,000 hours and my children will be able to do it in 1000 hours. We have to work in new and dynamic ways. Three years ago I eradicated using paper in my office. Now I write less than five letters a week and respond to 35 to 60 email messages in brief mathematical formulas, such as:
B = OK – do it, but take care. P.
Or the more descriptive:
M+A = I have no idea, but Roger might. P
“Dickensian pleasantries such as `please’ and `thank you’ are dispensed with. This allows me to spend more time talking to people. I reply to 98 per cent of my email within 12 hours and travel overseas with a GSM cellular phone connected to my laptop, screwdrivers, crocodile clips, a set of international connects and a nose for sockets – it’s like travelling with a Boy’s Own Meccano set and it’s inconvenient. I’d rather have body furniture I could quickly put on and go – an office I could wear. If we don’t wrap ourselves around the technology and use it then we’re not going to survive.”
BT has a prototype of a mobile office which looks like a wrist watch on steroids – it has a pop-up screen so you can have video conversations with your boss, a mobile phone, computer and health care system. “A lot of the technology for wearable body furniture is available now. It just needs the integration and marketing to bring it together,” Cochrane says. This probably won’t mean shorter working hours, though. “I don’t think so. It’s in our nature to work. We shouldn’t work harder, just smarter.”
He describes the Internet as an information superfootpath. “Our ability to work from anywhere is constrained by modems. Constructing a national superhighway is entirely down to politics. Hopefully the industry will agree on standards and a global information superhighway will only be a few years away.”
On the educational front, Cochrane says we nearly have all the technology needed to create a new medium for passing on knowledge. “We’re approaching the Superman paradigm where access to his entire history, mother and father was possible with a single crystal in his Fortress of Solitude. Imagine if we had records of the many ideas of Newton and other famous people that never saw the light of day. These stored concepts could be merged with artificial intelligence systems which could look at all of these ideas and coalesce them all in a way that currently escapes us due to our limited human memory,” Cochrane predicts.
But would you choose to be immortal if your soul lived on inside the form of a machine? “It’s more acceptable if you introduce new ideas gradually. For example, after my father died, I asked my mother and wife whether they would want the essence of my father if it was embodied in a machine. They emphatically said `No!’ Later, I asked my wife if she would still love me if I had an artificial heart, limbs, and so on. She said `Yes’. If you have to make a choice between living with an artificial or baboon’s heart or dying, which would you choose? If you’d rather die, then fine – there’s plenty of us who enjoy life.”
And while we’re here, it’s important to be able to make the most of what we’ve got. “It’s vital to design easy-to-use interfaces, otherwise we’ll have a divisive society of information have and have-nots. We need an attractive, iconic interface to entice the computer illiterate.”
If you’d rather join the Luddites and return to subsistence farming, then think again. “What people don’t realise is that if we switched off the telecommunications network we’d all die. The telephone network is now the nervous system of the planet, and computers are the neurons. It’s an integral part of communicating.” And if you’re elderly and can’t get to grips with those darn newfangled contraptions, Cochrane suggests: “Don’t worry – you’re going to die soon.” So is it simply a matter of survival of the fittest? “No – if you can’t keep up, you make friends. You either fight it or join in, there is no escape.”
You’ll also have to keep updating your skills to stay employable. “What we’d like to have is all knowledge in one head, so one person can understand all aspects of a project. But there’s too much information and we might already be breaching the ability of the human mind to cope with the enormous flow of data.
“The entire information base of all knowledge more than doubles every two years, as does the power of computers. It has taken millions of years for people to evolve to our present intellectual peak, and it’s likely that computers will attain a similar standing in less than 100 years. Over a 20 year period, the computer on your desk will be about a million times more powerful. By the year 2015 the supercomputer will arrive that’s equal to our human brain. About 10 years after that, it’ll be on your desk. And about five years after that, it’ll be wearing you. The only reason you take the dog for a walk if because you’re smarter than the dog. The computers will be smarter than us. If we’re going to stay in control, we really have to understand and use this technology and make it more user-friendly.”
But humans still have some superior qualities – Cochrane says we’re better at creative activities, such as dreaming, thinking ahead and abstract ideas. “At the moment, machines don’t commit crimes, rarely make mistakes, are non-emotional, objective, can work 365 days a year and are totally dedicated. They are, or soon will be, smarter than our wetware [brain]. So far, machines have not developed an ability to design and perfect strategies or consider the ethics or morality of their actions.”
He describes a computer as being similar to a human brain without any sensory input. “If we gave a computer a vastly superior sensory system, who knows what sort of discoveries and conclusions it might make?”
His views on artificial intelligence have also changed his ideas about mortality. “I no longer worry about dying, but I do worry about dying before my computer is proud of me. In the future there will be man, woman, and machine. Three slight – or grossly – different ways of thinking. Carbon life with its emotion, uncertainty and analogue processes complemented by the far more deterministic and precise machine. The machine will be able to conceptualise the future by running incredibly complex models to predict the outcome of any action or decision. It’s the ultimate mix = analogue + digital, random + chaotic, intuition + modelling. Perhaps my computer will envy my imagination and intuition.”
The Extropian Institute has a self-improvement philosophy that depends on future scientific advances. The group started in 1988 when Max More PhD (doctorate in Philosophy) and Tom Morrow [a pseudonym to avoid embarrassment at work] launched a magazine called Extropy. The Extropian Institute was established soon after to provide a networking organisation to bring together the most “creative, forward-thinking intellects from numerous fields to overcome traditional, genetic, biological, and neurological limits.”
The Institute encourages research and projects involving the use of technology to “extend life, augment intelligence, improve rational thinking, fine-tune psychology, move off-planet and develop artificial intelligence”. Extropians often make career choices based on their futuristic philosophy, in areas such as software engineering, neuroscience, aerospace engineering, cryptology, mathematics, philosophy and researching life-extension techniques.
There are about 5,000 Extropians, and a couple of hundred paid-up members. “We mainly appeal to people who think a lot,” says Extropy Institute president Max More, an ex-pat who left the UK for the US because it was “more forward-thinking.” “We don’t focus on brainy people, though we do have a lot of intelligent members. People join from all walks of life – there are two truck drivers on our list. Many members are interested in life extension, and some have had near-death experiences that motivated them to investigate the options.”
The Extropians have been online since 1991. “The Net is a natural medium for easily spreading our ideas. It’s important that we’re able to adapt quickly to change and our network helps us do this. The Web site outlines our main principles and we have an email list to discuss issues.”
More is the organisation’s only full-time worker, and he tries to raise funds to support research that promotes Extropian aims. “We need wealthy benefactors. I’ve approached the Rockefeller foundation and Bill Gates, because he’s interested in nanotechnology.”
Members do not have to agree with all of the five basic Extropian principles to join. These are: boundless expansion, self-transformation, dynamic optimism, intelligent technology, and spontaneous order. And the mnemonic acronym to help you keep these on the tip of your tongue is “Best do it so!”
Extropians tend to advocate technologies that seem like wacky sci-fi fantasies, and suggest technological solutions to problems such as space development, memetics, artificial intelligence, and ethical issues about smart drugs. They debate the ethics of whether taking drugs to enhance motivation or intelligence is morally equivalent to taking steroids or getting a facelift? Or should parents or teachers be able to force kids to take smart drugs?
It’s a complex and changing philosophy. “Transhumanism involves learning about and making use of new technologies that can increase our capacities and life expectancy,” More says. “We become transhuman, which is the ultimate state, when we have fully integrated these values into our lives, when we have consciously transformed ourselves ready for the future, rising above outmoded human beliefs and behaviours.” To become transhuman entails a lot of continuing hard work, and part of this plan includes life extension. Many Extropians supplement their diets with vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, beta carotene, vitamins C and E, chromium picolinate, zinc, and selenium. Caloric restriction [the 120-year Diet by Roy Walford] is also popular, as there is substantial evidence that it will increase maximum lifespans.
They also exercise, use pharmaceuticals with life-extending effects, and undergo regular laboratory tests of biomarkers of aging.
“We reexamine our assumptions and try to live healthily and improve our intellect,” Max, 32, explains. “I’m eating to develop my strength at the moment, so I have healthy, low-fat food and take vitamins. I do weight training five days a week and often cycle, run and go for hikes. I don’t do a lot of experimental stuff at my age. As I get older I’ll try other approaches.
“I don’t think there’s a division between the brain and body – we aren’t humans waiting to be placed in virtual bodies. That’s a non-Extropian attitude and it’s too passive. People who mainly use their brains and let their bodies atrophy may be on the wrong track. We have to make the best of what we’ve got now, and I’d warn against anyone deciding to pin all their hopes on future medical advances and not bothering to do any exercise now.”
US-based Extropians consider the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be extremely annoying, because it costs up to $100million and takes 10 to 15 years for a pharmaceutical company to get a drug through the approval process. The company can only recoup this cost if the drug can be patented. There are many drugs which have been available in Europe for years or decades, such as tryptophan, but cannot be patented in the US because the patents have expired, or the drug is a natural compound that cannot be patented.
“We think people should be allowed to make their own choice about whether to take new drugs that have only undergone minimal testing,” More recommends. “The biggest advance in this area is due to AIDS activists who have forced the FDA to approve of experimental drugs quicker. The FDA is biased against innovation and it also overreacts. For example, thalidomide, which was only bad for pregnant women – is an excellent drug for other purposes, but noone’s allowed to take it.”
Extropians are also generally opposed to most governments because of laws that limit the allowable range of experimentation. Politically, they say they agree with a wide range of political leanings, including some libertarians, anarchists, classical liberals, and even political neoconservatives. “The regulation of mind-altering and nootropic drugs is one example of government interference; rigid regulations which forestall experimentation with other forms of economic organisation is another,” More points out. “As an alternative to government, Extropians suggest the concept of privately produced law, which means achieving many of the things that government is supposed to accomplish, only by voluntary means. Many Extropians have their own views, but we advocate political ideas that would allow individual choice and technologies to be developed as quickly as possible. The worst way to manage a complex society is to have centralised governments. You need a few basic rules, such as non-violence, private ownership of resources and voluntary association with any groups, and private law. The core functions of government would be turned over to the free market. Everyone would have to invest in their own pensions, and charities would be privatised. We’d also be in favour of using e-cash in a way that reduces the government’s revenue from taxes. It’s a waste paying bureaucrats. In a free market economy, there would be little poverty,” More says.
And Extropians aren’t keen on environmentalists either. “Radical environmentalists would like to reverse all development and change, thinking that nature as it exists now is the best we can do, and that all changes are bad,” More says. “Some extreme forms of environmentalism claim humans are parasites abusing the earth. For some Extropians, the issue is that the environment is not the only thing we value, and we don’t want to see other things sacrificed at the altar of the environment. In the long run, preserving the environment unaltered may prove to be of less value than some of things we are asked to sacrifice.
“The vanishing ozone layer is more important than global warming, and we should be paying more attention to that. To overcome these sorts of problems we need more technology, not less. Energy-generating methods have gradually become cleaner than when we were burning coal.”
More outlines a plan where the economic rules would be changed so people would absorb the costs of the environment as they use it, and everyone would be paying for water and air. “Factories would buy the right to pollute the air, but not at the expense of everything else. Overall, this sort of scheme should reduce pollution.”
Another area of concern for More is the growing Luddite backlash towards technology. “A trio of US college students, Kirk, Patrick and Sale, are smashing computers on stage to illustrate that technology is bad. And a group of anti-nuclear activists recently protested against the space mission involving the Cassini, which is going to fly by Venus and Saturn and give us some very valuable information. They’re worried about the plutonium onboard. I’m in favour of space exploration because that’s our future.”
While some members are spiritually-inclined, the official Extropian view is that religion stands for “superstition, dogmatism, and resistance to change”. “Much irrationality in the world is related to religion, so we’re somewhat soured against the whole concept. Religions traditionally have provided a sense of meaning and purpose in life, but have also suppressed intelligence and stifled progress. The Extropian philosophy provides an inspiring and uplifting meaning and direction to our lives, while remaining flexible and firmly founded in science, reason, and the search for improvement. The problem with religious faith is that people believe in concepts without any evidence. Any type of faith or dogmatic thinking, including political faith, that isn’t based on reason is bad because it can lead to murder.”
Extropians have their own brand of “dynamic optimism”. “We don’t pray; that’s very passive. Things can be made better and we combat the negative thought that there’s nothing we can do. I’m not saying that everything’s great, but we think about how we can improve things and focus on how, overall, things generally do get better.”
The main problems that still concern him are a ready supply of energy and the number of nuclear and biological weapons being developed or acquired by fundamentalist countries. So what can he do about these major dilemmas? “By staying dynamically optimistic we continue to do our best, assist in lots more research and keep learning,” More says.
If Extropians ruled the world then women, minority racial groups, and people of `nonstandard’ sexual preferences wouldn’t be given preferential treatment. “Selection” would be encouraged so progress could occur. The Institute also opposes the redistribution of wealth through forcible taxation, supports employers’ rights to hire whomever they choose and affirms the right of every person to freely choose with whom they associate.
“Employers should be free to indulge their prejudices. You should be allowed to be stupid and irrational if you want to be,” More says. But what about discrimination based on gender and race? “It will become absurd to think in those terms because in the future these factors won’t be significant. Certain groups don’t do well now because of the government’s failure to provide them with a good education. The government is good at providing education in wealthy areas, but the market system doesn’t work in poor areas. During the 19th Century the poorest kids in orphanages used to given a more thorough education than kids get today. We should have a tax credit system or vouchers so disadvantaged kids can use the voucher to attend whichever school they want.”
Once you’ve got a great education, you’ll want to stay around as long as you can to get a chance to use it. Many Extropians have arranged for cryonic biostasis in the event of their accidental deanimation. Most members believe that being frozen is the second-worst thing that can happen to you. The very worst is dying without being frozen! While the possibility of being successfully revived from the freezing process is far from a certainty, this small chance is greater than the non-existent chance of revival after cremation or burial.
“We challenge the idea that death is a good thing,” More says. “Noone can guarantee immortality and an indefinite lifespan, but we can perpetually work to improve ourselves. We’d like to try and abolish ageing and degeneration, but not through magical and mystical ideas which don’t meet the standards of scientific rigour. Meditation and positive visualisation can be helpful, and we’re looking forward to genetic engineering and molecular technology bringing improvements. The main reason for being interested in life extension is that it means we get the chance to keep on learning.”
More says that promoting cryogenics now, despite the slim chance of its success, is “not altruistic at all”. “I’m intensely interested in seeing life extension happening in my own time. Many Extropians have signed up to have their whole body cryogenically frozen – it costs $125,000.” The largest and oldest cryogenic company, Alcor, funds your suspension for 150 years, after you’ve taken out a life insurance policy that nominates Alcor as the beneficiary. If your body is unrecoverably mangled when you die, the money then goes to your next named beneficiary. For a cheaper option, you can have a neurosuspension (head only) for $50,000. More explains that someone who dies suddenly of a mutilating injury and isn’t attended to by Alcor representatives for a couple of hours doesn’t have a great chance of being successfully frozen. “The best case scenario is cancer when you have a couple of months or so to make some arrangements. It would be ideal to be frozen before the cancer does too much damage, but we can’t make that choice because the government won’t change the law.”
He doesn’t consider other options, including cloning, as a viable form of immortality. “I’m not into sperm donation. And what’s the point of having a delayed twin of yourself? The signs of progress in the field of cloning are minor, apart from the fact that animal organs could be cloned with human protein for transplants. We’re more interested in genetic engineering for higher intelligence. Why clone when it would be better to spread memes instead of genes? I’m looking forward to the engineering of our own genes so our faults, such as mental illnesses or susceptibility to get cancer, aren’t passed on to the next generation. It would be great to have kids who are smart in every aspect. But the main problem is that the Government decides what we can do.”
He’s not overly keen on DIY genetic engineering by choosing the sperm of Nobel prize winners, either. “If you can’t use your own sperm, you may want to choose sperm from a person with outstanding achievements. But you have to be wary because Nobel prize winners may be very lousy and much inferior in other important areas.”
What if someone jumps out and shoots you? “Our policy on self-defence means staying alert and not relying on the police to provide protection.”
One of the most unusual ideas mentioned on the Extropian Institute’s Web site is the concept of a Nirvana-Paradise-like state called “The Singularity.” This is supposed to occur when the growth rate of technological progress is at its most rapid and people will somehow ascend to a more sophisticated level of existence. The most common guess is The Singularity will occur around 2035 AD. The strongest argument for the timing is the trend for computers becoming smarter. Others think nanotechnology advances will cause The Singularity. Another factor could be the development of self-replicating machines which would have dramatic economic effects. Not everyone buys this concept, though. ”While other Extropians believe in it, I find it a dubious idea,” More says. “If it ever happens, the way we do things now will affect the direction The Singularity will take us.”