Fascist transhumanists and 21st century politics

Tom James @ 04-09-2009

chain_crossCharlie Stross has written an interesting and engaging blog post on the future of politics in the 21st century, specifically he identifies the emergence of a new form of fascism that draws on transhumanism, the overhumanists:

To get to the money shot: transhumanism is going to influence the next century because, unless we are very unlucky indeed, the biotechnology, nanotechnology, and telecommunications industries are going to deliver goods that combine to fundamentally change the human condition. We’ve seen the tip of the iceberg so far

And what particularly exercises me is the possibility that if we can alter the parameters of the human condition, we can arbitrarily define some people as being better than others — and can make them so.

Not all transhumanists have good intentions. Earlier I went on for a while about Italy, home of the Modernist movement in art and birthplace of Fascism. Italy’s currently in the grip of a wave of racism and neofascist vigilantism, presided over by an allegedly racist media mogul with a near-monopoly on broadcast media in that country.

So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism

It had to happen eventually. It is sad to see the largely noble ideals of transhumanism (particularly my personal favourite strand of democratic transhumanism) subverted in this way.

Is the spread of fascistic transhumanism as likely as Stross fears? If so, what can be done to prevent it?

[from Charlie’s Place][image from cosmo flash on flickr]

The future’s alright

Tom James @ 01-09-2009

futureThe role of science fiction vis a vis the future and predictions thereof has always been a target of lighthearted mockery. However Centauri Dreams articulates, with the help of futurist Peter Garretson, what science fiction can offer, even if predictions aren’t always on the mark:

Many forays into fictional futures, then, can give us alternative ways to make a new concept real. We can try on those futures by reading stories that make them come alive, seeing what effects these changes would have on society. And we can do more. By placing futuristic concepts in a tangible, fictional context, we can encourage their growth and dissemination.

Science fiction explores how human beings respond to change and disruption, and as such helps us explore ourselves. It can also offer pictures of how the world could be, so as to encourage us to actualise these images and build a better future.

[from Centauri Dreams][image from doug8888 on flickr]

Psychohistory in the real world

Tom James @ 28-07-2009

crowdResearchers at Indiana University believe that it may be possible to create a real-life version of Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory:

Much as meteorologists predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, Indiana University’s Alessandro Vespignani believes we will one day predict with unprecedented foresight, specificity and scale such things as the economic and social effects of billions of new Internet users in China and India, or the exact location and number of airline flights to cancel around the world in order to halt the spread of a pandemic.

Psychohistory as described by Isaac Asimov holds that “while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.”

This certainly seems similar to the ideas of reality mining discussed here:

Vespignani writes that advances in complex networks theory and modeling, along with access to new data, will enable humans to achieve true predictive power in areas never before imagined. This capability will be realized as the one wild card in the mix — the social behavior of large aggregates of humans — becomes more definable through progress in data gathering, new informatics tools and increases in computational power.

It is an exciting direction, and offers the possibility of a black-swan style technological breakthrough. With improved data, through things like spimes and ubiquitous computing, combined with improved data processing techniques and communications there exists the possibility for a new and powerful way of studying, monitoring, and even controlling social and technological developments with precision.

[via Next Big Future][image from woodleywonderworks on flickr]

Modelling the climate

Tom James @ 02-07-2009

weatherAn interview with Gavin Schmidt over on Edge explores the nature and development of climate modelling:

What we have decided, as a scientific endeavor, is to extrapolate as much as we can from our knowledge of the individual processes that we can measure: evaporation from the ocean, the formation of a cloud, rainfall coming from a cloud, changes in the wind patterns as a function of the pressure field, changes in the jet stream. What we have tried to do is encapsulate those small-scale processes, put them altogether, and see if we can predict the emerging properties of that fundamental complex system.

He explores the sometimes contradictory predictions of different climate models:

In the same way that you can’t make an average arithmetic be more correct than the correct arithmetic, it’s not obvious that the average climate model should be better than all of the other climate models. So for example if I wanted to know what 2+2 was and I just picked a set of random numbers, the answer by averaging all those random numbers is unlikely to be four. Yet when you come to climate models, that is kind of what you get. You get all the climate models and they give you some numbers between three and five and they give you something that is very close to four. Obviously, it’s not pure mathematics — it’s physics, it’s approximations, there is empirical tuning that goes on.

You need to have some kind of evaluation. I don’t like to use the word validation because it implies a kind of binary/true-false set up. But you need an evaluation; you need tests of the model’s sensitivity compared to something in the real world that can give you some credibility that that model has the right sensitivity. That is very difficult.

It is a lengthy essay/video interview but well worth the read/watch, as it is refreshing to hear firsthand from a professional climatologist.

[at Edge][image from Nicholas T on flickr]

Is a Terminator scenario possible?

Edward Willett @ 27-05-2009

metropolis h+ Magazine conducted a poll of “roboticists, AI workers, SF writers, and other techie types” (the SF writers were David Brin and Vernor Vinge) to see if they thought a “Terminator-like scenario” was possible, and if so, how likely it was. (Via KurzweilAI.net.)

Boiling it down (read the whole thing here), the consensus seems to be 1) forget about the time travel; 2) don’t expect a super-intelligent Skynet to spontaneously awaken and start wiping us out (though rather alarmingly, it was generally thought that was just “highly unlikely,” not flat-out impossible); but 3) do expect a future full of robots, both beneficial and warlike–though in the latter case, the intelligence directing them is likely to be humans of a destructive bent, rather than an AI with its own designs on the planet.

Knowing what humans are capable of, this is not much comfort.

Even though I am by nature optimistic.

(Image: 1935 tobacco card of Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis, from Film Virtual History.)

[tags]robots, Terminator, artificial intelligence, science fiction, robotics, predictions[/tags]

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