Friday, August 10, 2007

TransVision 2007

In the last week of July the TransVision 2007 conference was held in Chicago. The theme was "Transhumanity Saving Humanity" and the speaker list included longevity scientist Aubrey deGrey, futurist Raymond Kurzweil, a number of scientists and even William Shatner. The list of topics was broad too:
  • Day One: Inner space: Transforming Ourselves
    Longevity, Life Extension, Nanotech, Nanomedicine, Bionics, Biotech, SENS, Cryonics

  • Day Two: Meta space: Transforming Humanity
    Environment, Global Warming, Sustainable Housing, Alternative Energy, AI, Robotics, Virtual Reality

  • Day Three: Outer space: Beyond the Planet
    Future Humans, Colonizing Outer space, Space Tourism, Future Civilizations

If you didn't have a chance to attend, you can get a flavor of the presentations from the attendees.

Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific And Moral Case For The Biotech Revolution, has several posts covering the conference:
George Dvorsky, who also spoke at the conference, wonders why many of the issues and thinkers in the transhumanist movement are generally ignored by the public.
Watching Aubrey de Grey explain to a small audience how he’s going to conquer death created no small amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain; the room should have been packed. Hell, the room should have had people lined-up out front pounding at the door demanding to be let in.

But that's just me. And all the other attendees of TV07 and other supportive transhumanists who from some strange reason seem to be the only ones who "get it."

I’ve struggled to figure out why this is the case. Undoubtedly, a large part of it has to do with the fact that most people today are incredulous and suspicious to the seemingly radical claims made by the transhumanists.

They don’t buy the time-lines. They apologize for death. They detest the libertarian strain that runs rampant in the movement. They think it’s dangerous, reckless and hubristic.
I can't speak for the "general public," but what makes me wary is that many of the proponents seem to have bit ideas but little knowledge of biology. I've read some discussions online in which transhumanism's advocates seem to think that 1000-year life spans and uploaded personalities are imminent and seem not to realize the very difficult biotechnical issues involved. There also seems to be the assumption that no matter how the technology develops, this will be a positive change for humanity, even though history has shown us that power-hungry and selfish individuals have frequently used technological developments for less than humanitarian ends (conquering the country next door, keeping down the peasants, etc.). Added to the mix are proponents of New Age woo, whose presence helps give transhumanism a bit of a crackpot aura. Less talk about the future transhumanist utopia and more acknowledgment of the biological and ethical issues involved would make it more appealing to me. And to be fair, some of those issues were apparently addressed at the conference.

There's another reason that I'm wary. Transhumanism seems popular among a certain type of geek: often in computer science, almost always white and male, and frequently "libertarian" - and sexist of the "chicks are poorly represented in math/science/computers because their brains aren't wired that way and I've never seen any sexism in my profession" variety. It's a kind of obliviousness to the fact that social forces might affect a person's life trajectory along with a hearty belief in some of the stupidest assertions of popular evolutionary psychology. I suppose it's not fair to judge a movement by it's advocates, but, alas, I am only human. If these guys are getting their brains uploaded, I don't want to share cyberspace with them.

Anyway, back to TransVision 2007. George Dvorsky has several posts adapted from his TransVision presentation "Whither ET? What the failing search for extraterrestrial intelligence tells us about humanity's future."
Since Fermi's Paradox (Give the age of the universe and the vast number of stars, there should be intelligent life on many planets, so "Where is everybody?" ) is built on a number of large assumptions about how and under what circumstances intelligent life can arise there is interesting discussion to be had in the comments (including "What paradox? I've seen aliens.). And it is important to discuss because if there is some unknown that has destroyed other intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, it would be nice to know what that is to help ensure our own survival.

Whether you think the singularity is right around the corner or far in the future, it sounds like many interesting issues were raised at the conference. For more, check out Nanotechnology Now's list of Extropian & Transhumanist Books, which includes both science books and a list "science futurism and speculative fiction." Their list is certainly not complete (how could they leave off Charlie Stross's Accelerando?), but you gotta start somewhere!

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