Ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity is about realizing human potential
I have been fascinated by the concept of frontier all my life. What brought us here? What’s next? As a kid, my favorite book was “Ten Thousand Whys,” a pop-science series with all kinds of seemingly trivial questions like “Why are there fewer stars in the sky in winter?”
I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the Production Efficiency Frontier Theory — how to identify the most efficient units in a production network and measure the technical frontier. Later I became more of a macroeconomist and my interest expanded to identifying countries standing on the growth frontier. Subsequently, I began studying the deepest thinkers and became convinced that humanity is on an important new frontier of cosmic evolution.
In my new role at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), I feel I can pursue my deeply held conviction about the purpose of human life. I believe there are two advancing frontiers in today’s world: one social and another technological. Economic growth, more than ever, is driven by these two frontiers. The challenge is how to allow people to take advantage of their existing productive potential, and how to move the technological frontier to new levels.
These two frontiers are inseparable in the sense that growth is increasingly about maximizing brain power. Technological advances create more wealth and capital, which in turn enable more brain power to push the technological frontier. We are far from fully utilizing the existing brain power on Earth. Millions and millions of bright and motivated young people do not have the basic necessities of life, much less an education or proper working environment to utilize their talent. This is humanity’s biggest waste and biggest potential, a cruel reality where we hope we can make a difference, for the better.
Where can one find a better place to work, given IFC’s mandate in the mix of both frontiers? Our goals — ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity — are fundamentally about mobilizing human capacity and realizing human potential.
Pushing the two frontiers is easier said than done. The social and economic convergence between the rich and poor countries has been a painfully slow and uneven process, while productivity growth in the most advanced countries has slowed after a brief burst in the 1990s. Progress, in the sense of making oneself happier, more productive, and more meaningful than the prior generation, has become less achievable for a large share of the population.
We believe we know a lot about how to push the two frontiers, but we still have much to learn, through practice. IFC, being at the intersection of the private and the public sectors, has to speak the languages of finance and impact, of technology and culture, of local conditions and global trends. We talk about how we have grown tremendously since 1956, yet we are still “a drop in the bucket” in terms of investment in the developing world. The task is unbelievably challenging and fascinating.
I leave the following questions with you. How do we make sure:
- The role of the private sector in pushing these frontiers is well understood;
- Our role in promoting and supporting the private sector in these efforts is as strong as it can be; and
- We work on the most impactful programs and projects in these areas?
Contemplating the Megatrend of Transhumanism
March 11, 2015
Ted recently appeared as a keynote speaker in Zurich at the “11the European Trend Day,” hosted by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, a prominent German think tank, that “investigates megatrends and countertrends and develops future scenarios.” His talk was digested at their website, see it HERE . . . And here’s a fascinating statement from the GDI website that summarizes the purpose of this event: “The Internet has completely changed our lives over the last twenty years. Now it is the Internet that is facing radical changes. Increasingly the “Internet of Things” is pervading our lives and we human beings are gradually merging with it. We are moving towards a transhuman society, an all-encompassing Ubernet is coming about. But at the same time the net is threatening to fragment into countless separate nets — the “Splinternet”. Power is now being redistributed within the Internet and beyond. Propagandists and data collectors are competing with hackers and activists for power in tomorrow’s net: is it to be an opinion market or just a sales channel? Users and companies are increasingly losing confidence in the Internet, and social networks are proving to be asocial. Freedom of information, privacy and democracy are being put to the test. So it is crucial to know: who will define tomorrow’s digital canon? Who will do the programming? Who will themselves be programmed? And in what ways will the net further change the economic order? At the 11th European Trend Day, we will name the drivers and operators of the Ubernet and describe the new boundaries. We will discuss developments and draw up visions and strategies for reconciling the always-on society with the desire to take a step backwards and the struggle to ensure a single Internet for all users.”
What A Drone Can and Cannot Do
Nov 12, 2014
I have now been gone Abu Dhabi for two months and I miss my third home town. So it’s great to hear a piece of interesting news: A terrified window cleaner was rescued by a high-tech drone after the scaffolding he was on malfunctioned when he was close to the top of a high rise building in central Abu Dhabi. You can see more details and a picture here. One reader commented to me: “Isn’t technology brilliant!” —and I agree. But technology needs to get much better. Not only is the equipment and railing on top of many amazing Abu Dhabi buildings ugly, but we must question why this job needs to be done by human beings at all. I hope in the near future that drones will be able to perform this task much more cheaply with no danger to humans. That could be another baby step toward our long term vision.
Spontaneous People Power
September 1, 2014
A terrific story made ne ws. People power helped save a commuter who became trapped between a train and a station platform at Stirling station in Perth, Western Australia. In the video, dozens of commuters used their arms to push the train, making it slightly tilt so a man could pull his feet out of the gap between the train’s door and the station. It is so rare to see brute human power to play such a critical role in our daily lives. In fact, so much of our raw muscle power is begging to be used, in fact must be released somehow, that we spend so much time (most of it unpleasant) in the gym to burn it off and keep our body fit. Machines can do manual labor better and cheaper now, and looking forward, more and more of our mental power are being replaced, so we must play otherwise useless video games to keep our brain fit and our reward center satisfied. Humans have become maladaptive in the world that they created. More and more of our capabilities are becoming useless although we seldom pay attention until we are unable to find productive opportunities. From a positive perspective, this is good since it creates pressure for our own self transformation.
After the World Cup: RoboCup
July 23, 2014
The Economist magazine just published an article titled “Humans 1, Machines 7” about the RoboCup held after the World Cup. What started in 1997 has been progressing since toward the target of beating humans in a game by 2050. There are 150 teams from around the world and it’s divided in several divisions based on robot sizes: kid, teen, and adult. According to the article, the most exciting thing is that the robots can now execute moves that had not been deliberately inserted into the algorithms controlling the robots. For me, the most amazing thing is the robots’ ability to quickly get up after a fall, sometimes caused by “fouling” – a robot player forcefully bumping into another. But the robot player has not learned to fake an injury yet! You can watch a game here. The World Cup has been largely static in the sense that traditional powers from Europe and Latin America have continue to dominate the game, but RoboCup is far more open, as teams from Australia, China, Iran and Thailand are able to finish strong.
Reflections on the World Cup (2)
July 20, 2014
After Brazil’s 1-7 loss to Germany, I asked my son to make prediction of the other semi-final between Argentina and Holland. He said it will be evenly matched. I predict that it would be a scoreless game decided by penalties. I got lucky. But it’s simply a play on the return to averages. The World Cup has some exciting games with multiple goals, but also some scoreless games. It would be nice to have more scoring.
Can a slicker ball do the trick? The 2014 World Cup official match ball, Adidas Brazuca, retails for $159.99 and promises to have “revolutionary panel shape (that) creates flight speed and enhances roundness.” How much does it deviate from the rules? FIFA’s Law II requires the game ball to be: (1) spherical; (2) made of leather or other suitable material; (3) of a circumference of not more than 70 cm (28 ins) and not less than 68 cm (27 ins); (4) not more than 450 g (16 oz) in weight and not less than 410 g (14 oz) at the start of the match; (5) of a pressure equal to 0.6 – 1.1 atmosphere (600 – 1100 g/cm 2 ) at sea level.” So ball makers actually have a lot of leeway in designing and making the ball.
In an online article about the Brazuca, a reader comments that “If this thing is anything like the Jabulani, it’s going to be another World Cup of fluky goals hit from distance. In goal, that ball is almost impossible to hold if it is hit with power. That’s why in 2010 you saw so many keepers just punching and parrying balls away that they would normally hang on to easily. The ball knuckled like crazy and make judging its flight path almost impossible. It also sails on strikers if it wasn’t kept low enough. The ball is just unpredictable and changes the game tremendously.”
If FIFA wishes to see more goals and draw more interest from American viewers, then this is exactly what the new ball should be. After I finally understood the American football game during the Washington Redskin’s Super Bowl winning season in 1991, I lost interest in soccer due to its lack of complexity and scoring. I had watched quite a few scoreless games that featured several occasions when the ball hit the goal post, and always dreamed about having the goal enlarged just by 10cm and significantly boosting the number of goals scored.
Now I realize this probably will never happen. Imagine the infrastructural changes needed at every soccer field, not to mention the complains that the goal has been cheapened! But watching the highlights of WC 2014, I realize changing the ball is a far less “invasive” way to boost scoring. Learning from American football, another soft approach is modifying rules to make more defensive players subject to yellow and red cards.
This is why enhanced humans could be more acceptable than robots or cyborgs in the posthuman future.
Reflections on “Biting Behavior” in the World Cup
July 3, 2014
There have been quite a few commentaries regarding the most beautiful goal in the World Cup, but for me the most remarkable moment has been the bite. Luis Suarez, named by Sports Illustrated (SI) as the hottest player on the planet in its World Cup preview issue, got over-heated and lost control during the game against Italy. This is the third time that he has bitten a player during a game. After the latest incident, ESPN published this fascinating investigative article that traced his bad behavior to his youth, his broken family, and his girlfriend.
We still enjoy eating animal flesh, but we make meat tender with fire. The human canine has become so lame that it is almost indistinguishable from the other teeth. Yet a human bite can still be dangerous, according to this report. Much more important is the motive to bite: deep inside, the wild animal spirit is still very much alive and has not much changed at all. We manage to be civilized through our comparatively stronger conscious control over raw motives. Instead of suppressing the animal spirits, the conscious mind tries to steer them toward other “unnatural” objectives, such as putting a ball in a net during a soccer game. This conscious control is not always done perfectly, and it is not just a problem for competitive sports although it is the most visible, literally speaking. We rely on the cut-throat competitive spirit in politics, business, religion, art, and any other meaningful human endeavor, and we are often burned by the same spirit that drives us forward.
In a calm reflective mode before the tournament, Mr. Suarez knew the hope of his nation to capture a third World Cup rested on his shoulders, and he understood that good behavior is for his own good. He told SI that “I want to change the bad-boy image that has stuck for a bit because I don’t think I am at all how I have been portrayed. I would like that to change because it’s awful to hear and read what is said of you.” But his emotional and instinctual driver is exactly what had been portrayed, and when he had to react in a fraction of a second during the game, it surfaced again in the World Cup. What made him one of the best players in world pushed him over the edge. He did not bite a piece of flesh off of his opponent because his canine is not long and sharp, but one of the paintings of him in the ESPN article depicted his wolf-like tooth, quite accurately in spirit. The title of that article is “Portrait of a Serial Winner”, but in fact he could have been a serial killer.
It is thrilling to see raw human nature on display in the front the entire world, but this incident, like the infamous bite by Mike Tyson and many others, may soon be forgotten. That’s unfortunate because Mr. Suarez’s complicated personality is a reflection of the entire human race. Fighting wars, locking up criminals, and expelling players are necessary but temporary fixes. Instead, I believe that the fundamental solution is to dig up our animal roots and remake it for a better human race. “[Luis Suarez] is a good person 99 percent of the time,” says Liverpool’s owner, who employs the star, “and 1 percent of the time his desire to win overcomes everything else.” That’s true, and that’s why humanity has achieved so much in such a short period of time, but if we can find a way, shouldn’t we make it 100 percent?
Man-made Fibers Are Toppling “King Cotton”
May 15, 2014
According to the Wall Street Journal, cotton’s market share is expected to drop below 50% because of advances in synthetics. Several decades ago, the first wave of man-made fibers attracted consumers seeking lower cost. That wave ended in early nineties as many consumers became wealthier and developed a desire for “natural products,” which were seen as higher quality than synthetics. But the WSJ reports that the current wave of synthetics now competes on quality, and has been coming on strong against natural fiber over the last five years. The image of “man-made” is changing from a perception of being cheap to one of being premium and fashionable. The best weave for clothing and other fiber goods is now considered to be a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers. This new wave will be better on both cost and quality.
This development is a concrete step toward what I described in my book as the “all artificial” future (see page 366 – 368): man-made materials that will be better than anything generated by nature; better not only in meeting our needs and desires, but in creating new needs and desires we don’t know we have since they are currently impossible in nature. Here’s an excerpt from page 337 of the book as a reminder:
The belief that “natural substances” are in every case inherently
safer than synthetic chemicals is a myth—organically produced
plant foods may contain natural toxic or carcinogenic chemicals.
We have already created some artificial fabrics for clothing that
are superior to cotton or animal hair in quality and durability. And
this trend of the artificial beating the best that nature can offer
will only accelerate. As this technical evolution continues, the creations
of CoBe are likely to be unimaginably more efficient, flexible,
powerful, and versatile than anything we find in nature. And
it will be “All Artificial.”
For the artificial to beat the natural, the artificial will have to
be more complex than the natural. It may have simpler structures
but still have more “depth” than the natural—depth is a measure
of the information accumulated and discarded during the process
All current technologies are primitive piecemeal structures
designed to meet a specific need in human society. There is much
hope that computers will exceed human intelligence soon, even
during our lifetime. But such machines, however fast and powerful
in performing computational tasks, are still extremely limited tools
and utterly dependent on humans. To be better than nature, the
artificial must be able to do everything that the natural does, plus
Response to the Thrive Movement Blog – Part 1
[This is a reply to a critique of my work published
by Foster and Kimberly Gamble on May 3]
May 9, 2014
First of all, I really appreciate the efforts of Foster and Kimberly to promote different and alternative ways of thinking and a more critical view of the world, especially global politics and economics and the current problems they so skillfully address in their movie Thrive. We need more of this. We are all interested in and devoted to making the world a better place to live and thrive. I am responding to their critique of my book that appeared in their blog on May 3.
Second, I hope readers understand that, while we certainly face huge issues such as climate change, tyranny, poverty, inequality, and so on, there may be even bigger issues now facing us. Through many years of research and practice, I believe the biggest issue we need to address is how we can begin a new phase of conscious evolution, to which I devote two chapters in my book. Barbara Marx Hubbard, a renowned evolutionary thinker who has been a close collaborator of the Gambles, endorsed my book, stating that it displayed a “deep reverence for the long philosophical, spiritual, and historical journey of humanity in our first phase of conscious evolution.” Far from being aligned with gross reductionists and materialistic atheists like Kurzweil, my position shows that the conscious evolutionaries of the future will be aligned with the deepest ethical, cosmic, and spiritual values of the world’s great wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism, the Abrahamic religions, and Taoism. In addition, one of the world’s leading Christian theologians, Professor John Haught, was moved to write the preface to my book.
So I think that the Fosters are mistaken in their depiction of my work as being devoid of moral and ethical thought and considerations, as are some of the transhumanist thinkers with whom they think I am aligned. Don’t take my word for it, please decide for yourself after reading my book, and I very much would like to hear from you. (For a brief look, the opening chapters are available for free here.
What I now think is the bigger issue—going beyond dealing with humanity’s current challenges that are cited in the Thrive movement—is that we prepare to transcend the limits of our humanity, by the creation of new kinds of beings. This could be a big surprise since not too many people are aware of this potential, which is now in hand. But things are developing under the public radar screen. Let me give you two examples. A couple of months ago the FDA started to review whether we should allow a “three-parent child,” a procedure that has already completed testing on monkeys. This intervention allows a mother-to-be to remove her cancer-causing genes from her egg and replace it with a healthy gene from another woman before it is inseminated. This is another step towards designer baby. In addition, yesterday a friend forwarded me an upcoming issue of Nature (see attached file), which describes the creation of a reproducing organism with artificial base pairs of DNA (so the DNA has more than just the standard G,T,C and A code but also two further “genetic letters”). This breakthrough in synthetic biology is yet another step toward designer life.
Third, how do we start to think about developments like these? The existing literature and popular culture tend to have sharply different visions of the posthuman future[BB1] , which I call “Hellven”, for the lack of a better word. The so-called bio-conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and libertarian activists depict hell-like scenarios of massive suffering or even total extinction of humans and all life on earth, while the so-called transhumanists and singularity enthusiasts believe the future will be a technological utopia with heaven-like complete satisfaction of human needs and desires. My position transcends these extremes while addressing all such moral concerns, and even additional objections and arguments, in hundreds of pages of my book Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential.
After more than 15 years of research that included reading a couple thousand books and countless papers, I have proposed a different idea about how we should think about the future. I suggest that we should open our mind to envision what will happen to the universe as a result of advanced technologies, rather than just on what will happen to humanity (Hellven). Let me make it clear that the “posthuman future” is not about abandoning humanity at all, although it may sounds like it. To the contrary, it is about amplifying the human spirit and reaching out to our highest goals currently unavailable with our age-old biology. Of course the earth and humanity are part of the universe, and are of uttermost importance, but again, thinking about humanity exclusively is not sufficient. This is not the way our deepest philosophers, such as Lao Tsu, think. Let’s open our minds to far wider vistas that are suggested by the latest advances in cosmology, science, and evolutionary theory, while harvesting the best ancient wisdom of humanity as I attempt to do.
To get at this seemingly abstract idea, allow me to start by telling you what happened a couple of days ago, when I attended the final lecture by Ivan Szelenyi, the dean of Social Sciences at NYUAD, retiring after a 50-year distinguished career. He was arrested and expelled from the communist Hungary in early 70s for writing a heresy book, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power. In 1992, he returned to the country and found it dramatically changed. He met an old friend at a new privately-run local bakery. The friend told him he was all for market economy. Asked why, he replied simply, “Cannot you see (the obvious)? This store is so much better than the state-run bakeries!” Ivan replied, perhaps only half-jokingly, “Well, if you had this kind of belief back in 1949, the course of history would be different.”
What really stuck me during Ivan’s lecture is how even thoughtful and intelligent people can have fundamentally mistaken views of the world. The common narrative of that part of history is that people under communist rule were deeply dissatisfied but had no way to escape their lives of oppression under a dictatorship. In reality, many intellectuals, let alone lay people, firmly believed the socialist system is superior to the capitalist system. What was wrong was not just that they were brain-washed, but they either did not want to look at the facts, or have no access to the facts. Ivan’s own intellectual growth originated from his “accidental” investigation of Hungary’s housing ownership, showing that after 30 years of communist rule, the goal of giving working class the best political and material power had utterly failed. Just like Charles Darwin’s discovery journey, when he found data does not fit the ideology, he started to question it, which eventually opened his mind to a new belief. That belief was deemed heresy at the time, but it stood the test of time, and eventually became as obvious as the local bakery store.
This same approach is how I suggest responding to the blog by Foster and Kimberly. In their justifiable fear of a new totalitarian power taking over the U.S. and even the whole planet, they are missing certain facts and have misread my book, which is more aligned with their ethical and spiritual position than they imagine.
In their critique, Foster and Kimberley say, “We are big believers in the value of advanced technologies and look to them to augment healing, to expand our capabilities, to help relieve people of unnecessary drudgery, and to connect people across the planet and even throughout the cosmos. But that’s not what is happening here. Instead, we are talking about a complete forfeiting of human evolution, an ultimate form of eugenics and an entirely new level of social engineering financed and developed by people who believe that calculation can replace love and that consciousness is a mere material construct.” This, I believe, is based on their mistaken belief that “This fateful transition from human to robot is called Transhumanism, or the Singularity.” Nowhere in my book do I even remotely imply that the posthuman future is a transition from human to robot. I am not a transhumanist if that is the definition of the term. In addition, the core idea of the Singularity is the notion of exponentially accelerating technological change, not a transition from human to robot.
More importantly, I would like Foster and Kimberley to clarify this question: Where is the line between these advanced technologies that they value and those that they want to prohibit. For example, if eugenics can “expand our capabilities,” as they wrote, what counts as “an ultimate form of eugenics” that they wish to ban? I suspect there is what can be called a “naturalist ideology” hidden somewhere between these lines, one that believes we should leave “nature” untouched, especially human nature.
As I show in my book, such ideas verge on “nature worship”—the overvaluing of nature to the detriment of natural evolution itself. Nature worship in this sense is problematic. How do we decide at which point in the evolution of nature, at what moment in the arrow of time, should we choose to worship and stop all subsequent evolutionary outcomes? If our tree-dwelling ancestors decided to worship their particular state of nature, we won’t be here. Nature evolves over time, and the latest wonder emerging out of nature’s evolution is humanity itself, but how do we know nature has exhausted its evolutionary potential now, in this very moment in time? In fact, the power of human consciousness and the technological revolutions we have set in motion suggest that more is to come at a faster pace than before.
So in the book I propose a totally different kind of nature worshiping that solves this problem. Rather than believing that a certain outcome of cosmic evolution is the best and final result that we should preserve and protect, we should instead worship the entire process of evolutionary creation. That means we should help to push, rather than stop, future evolution in terms of creating new kinds of beings. Limiting ourselves to certain improvements of human condition reminds me of limiting private economic activities to a small household plot of land in socialist China when I was young – yes, such a limited approach helped the working class families a bit, but the biggest potential for improvement for their well-being was strictly off-limits.
Foster and Kimberley also say I support “an entirely new level of social engineering financed and developed by people who believe that calculation can replace love and that consciousness is a mere material construct.” My answer is, first, I don’t at all believe in “calculation can replace love.” Nor do I believe “consciousness is a mere material construct” (italic emphasis is mine) as I emphasized the importance of emergence. Second, we should not force our beliefs on people, even if technologies are being developed by people who have these beliefs; we should judge their products, not their motives. This is Adam Smith’s insight of the “invisible hand,” which I know the Gambles support.
In sum, I am all for human freedom, I believe in the freedom of human action even more than Foster and Kimberley, but I am also more than a humanist—like Barbara Marx Hubbard, I might be even called an evolutionary transhumanist in the special sense I define it in the book. I am all for the flourishing of humanity, but I also ask what is the purpose of human thriving. If there is a core belief that is unconditionally absolute for me, it is that we should strive to be “one with the universe.” That means we should be in line with the dynamic creation process that began with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. The central issue I raised in my book is that humanity is lacking a higher goal today, and we should have such an overarching goal to resolve all the concerns about the “Hellven (Hell or Heaven) future” if we allow more freedom in technological progress.
As we enjoy the wonderful ecosystem and life’s diversity shown at the beginning of the “Thrive” movie, let us keep in mind the fact that this is the outcome of a dynamic creation process with a 99% casualty rate for the species that have emerged in the last four billion years. The same goes for Foster and Kimberley’s grave concern about losing our autonomy and the tyranny of the elite.
This piece is long enough and I appreciate your patience. I plan to address specific comments by Foster and Kimberley regarding their selected passages of my book in another entry. But first let me say these quotes should not be read independent of other parts of my book. A list of far more representative quotes from my book can be found here. They represent quite different meaning than the interpretation by Foster and Kimberley. Please don’t take my word for it, but my book in its entirety is now public information. Thank you all.
May 8, 2014
Counterfeiting and product adulteration in goods like generic and over-the-counter medications, as well as computer parts and even food costs the global economy over $1 trillion each year. According to the World Health Organization, about 10% of the medicines worldwide are either adulterated in some way or of substandard quality.
But according technology analyst Patrick Cox, a new company has developed a unique, safe, and permanent way to “mark” medicines, fabrics, foods, even electronics and computer parts for later authentication. Just like Bitcoin, this technology essentially makes counterfeiting or adulteration pointless. No word on costs yet, but as a combination of biotech and nanotech, the marginal cost should be close to zero.
I don’t think future sci-fi movies can depict future intelligent robots as rows and rows of identical copies any more.
Beauty Is Skin-deep—But That’s
Where Genetic Engineering Is Going Next
May 1, 2014
I just read this story: A Korean woman was on the verge of divorce because her husband no longer found her attractive and was having an affair. Nothing worked in her efforts to save the marriage and as a last resort she underwent cosmetic surgery. The result was so dramatic and her son didn’t recognize her when she returned home. Even more dramatic was her husband’s attitude towards his new “goddess”: no more mention of divorce, and he was now willing staying at home all the time! This seems to be a true story as the woman appeared on a TV show. Unfortunately the show is in Korean, but you can see many amazing “before-and-after” faces on this short video.
The Korean plastic surgery industry has been a huge success in tapping into this fundamental human desire. And who does not love beauty? But of course the “beauty cure” is transitory. A popular joke is: How can a Korean groom know the real face of his bride? Answer: wait till the baby is born. On the other hand, the joke won’t work anymore if such “beauty” modifications begin to occur at the genetic level. Then it will be truly a long-term investment, avoiding the cost and possible surgical pain if future generations get the same idea as the Korean woman, and then turn to fundamental genetic alteration that will effect their progeny too!
People who object to this may argue that we should learn to love what we have, or what we are born with. Indeed we should. But the natural attraction to beauty is universal and undeniable. How we look not only matters for marriage, but also for one’s job and social life. Academic studies have found that we are more likely to earn more and make more friends with good looks, especially for females. So the market for good looks, or willingness to pay, has huge potential. As I argue in Chapter 9 of my book, the posthuman future should and will be driven, at least initially, by our most basic animal-like desires, simply because they are the strongest driver for most people. Since the divergence of skin color and facial features is a very recent phenomenon, we may look different but will be essentially the same person; thus, this step should be relatively easy and low risk, i.e., relatively free of unintended consequences.
But once we learn how to democratize movie-star looks through genetic engineering, will we be satisfied? Most likely not. As looks become less of a differentiator, we will appreciate other personal characteristics more, such as kindness and intelligence. Now interventions to achieve those attributes is serious genetic engineering. And furthermore, at what I call the second stage of conscious evolution, we should even be able to modify our innate desires and preferences themselves, including aesthetic values. At that point, another concern about cosmetic genetic engineering will be addressed: we will no longer be satisfied with the same movie star looks. Humanity will diversify and flourish, sometimes beyond our recognition. More details of this can be found in Chapter 12.
Infinity Pools and Becoming One with the Universe
April 20, 2014
I love infinity pools, also known as vanishing-edge pools. They produce a spectacular visual effect in water, giving the illusion that there are that no borders, as it seems to merge with the horizon or the sea (see image above). I don’t know who invented the idea, but it seems that nature created it first, as you can see in the beautiful picture of China’s Valley of Nine Villages (see below left). Infinity pools are extremely satisfying since they allow us to feel an absolute freedom without boundaries, as if we are one with the infinite sky or ocean.
I believe the Eastern meditation practices attempt to achieve the same feeling with the mind. Our mind can be brought to a state of supreme peace with a feeling of becoming one with the universe, even transcending space and time. But we also know both these borderless pools and the enlightened minds are illusions. As you wade to the edge, you realize the infinity pool is strictly separated from the ocean:
As you regain “normal” consciousness, you realize you have to rely on your physical body, which is inseparable from space and time. More details of this critical realization are discussed in Chapter 4 of my book. While it’s great to enjoy the wonderful illusions, our real task is to be able to swim endlessly in the vast ocean, and to truly becoming one by filling the universe with life and intelligence. There is only one way for us: to become Cosmic Beings.
What Is Meant by “Singularity”?
March 29, 2014
[This essay first appeared at http://www.singularityweblog.com]
I have always had mixed feelings about the term “Singularity” becoming the buzz word for the transhumanist movement. I am glad that this catchy word is spreading the idea of the post-human future, opening the eyes of people who cannot imagine a time when human beings are no longer the most intelligent and most powerful in the world. On the other hand, Singularity seems to represent a future when technologies completely overwhelm humans and bring unprecedented changes and risks. For most people, this is a scary future, a future that we cannot understand at all, let alone be a part of. Although technological enthusiasts have tried to convince people that we could become immoral and enjoy material abundance after the Singularity, nobody can deny the existential risks and dangers of unintended consequences. That is why in my book, Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential, the concept of Singularity is only mentioned in passing.[read entire essay here . . . .]
March 8, 2014
Yesterday I attended the first public speaking engagement by the former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke since he stepped down in January. According to Reuters, he was paid at least $250,000 for his 40 minutes talk. This compares to his 2013 paycheck of $199,700 at the Fed. No wonder he appeared to be in good mood, and began his talk with “there is 6 inches of snow on the ground in Washington…” as compared with perfect weather here in Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, I noticed his grey hair, which was not that evident four years ago, the last time I saw him in person.
Bernanke did not dive into interest rates and monetary policy, and only brushed on the prospects for the global economy. What I found most interesting is his elaboration on his experience as Fed chairman, openly acknowledging that the Fed could have done more before and during the financial crisis, but admitting that it was basically clueless at that time, and was as just as much in the dark as the rest of us. He mentioned three books for us to read, but also acknowledged that when the books are most needed, central bankers do not read them. What do they rely on then? Certainly he had a small army of experienced PhD economists under his command as well as truckloads of data and models; but at the end of the day, it was all based on personal judgment, which has not had an upgrade in millennia. Is he better than the central bankers in the 1930s? Or the army commanders during the Second World War?
In chapter 7 of my book, “All Too Human,” I provided a comprehensive overview of the limitations of human nature. We are very “stretchable” as compared with other animals, but there are limits we cannot overcome no matter how hard we try and how well equipped we are. In an age of constant upgrades of the electronic gadgets we use, it is an astonishing fact that the human race has not been updated since at least the dawn of civilization. It is time to do so, before we become too obsolete to be suitable for the modern economy. For the task of managing the global economy, better tools such as computer models help, but at the end of the day, with the same humans in charge, there will be more financial crisis down the road, following the same dynamics, regardless of how many lessons we have learned from the past.
For readers interested in what kind of knowledge and insight $250,000 can buy, here are my unofficial
notes of Bernake’s entire speech. The host asks questions and he provides brief answers:
Washington has 6 inches of snow on the ground, so it’s great to be here. This is my first public appearance since leaving Fed. I thank NBAD who sponsored my trip, I am learning about Abu Dhabi.
On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate the economy?
Short-term bad weather is distorting the data, but I expect the US economy will continue to grow at 3%, with a large standard error. Why? Three reasons. 1. Fiscal policy is no longer a drag. 2. Consumer deleverage is done. 3. Housing market recovery. So next we need to figure out the medium term outlook. We face slower demographics and productivity growth, but compared with other mature economies, we are in good shape. Energy boom is a plus.
Are we better equipped now to deal with financial crisis?
In a sense yes, since we have learned from 2008/9 experience that US is not immune to crisis. The last time was 1932. Going forward there will be a more focused Fed – focused on protecting stability. Also US regulatory system was fragmented before the crisis; we now must look at how to address the system as a whole, making the whole financial system more resilient. For example shadow banking. This year’s Noble price winners in economics, Fama and Shiller, have two different points of view: market efficiency versus psychology. We have to recognize a range of possibilities, and fundamentals do very little to tie prices, rates and exchange rates down in the short term.
How do you deal with the reality that every one of your word is being scrutinized?
Luckily I don’t have that problem anymore. Laugh. In academia, you often talk about hypothetical examples. I talked about the helicopter. You cannot do that as Fed chairman. One thing I learned on the job is that when you are speaking to one audience (say the Congress), you must know others are listening too. So Greenspan said he had to be incoherent. You also need to simplify message but not over simplify. Now I don’t have to structure my words so carefully.
How did you take responsibility for managing the global system?
Well, I do not quite agree with your premise. Initially I kept a low profile. My daughter was college freshman, her classmate asked what her father do. And she said chairman of Fed. The classmate was surprised: “Is you father Alan Greenspan?” Overtime I became less obscure. There are so many other elements to economic success, for example in Abu Dhabi. Central banks are only the most effective in the very short term. I always look at history. I read the book Lords of Finance. The main message is that central bank governors really did not know what to do (during crisis), so they fell back to an orthodox idea, the gold standard, and were afraid to deviate from perceived wisdom. But that may not be the right thing to do. Franklin did the radical, the unthinkable during the Great Depression. So it is critical that we learn when to deviate from conventional orthodox.
Army at Dawn is a book about WWII American and British army in Africa. They faced so much uncertainty. What won the war was not perfect foresight but perseverance, you keep trying different things, eventually you hit on something that work.
I also recommend the book Thinking Fast and Slow – it looks at systematic biases in history, and how to aware of our tendencies and how to correct them.
What’s Fed’s objective?
That’s a question easy to answer and difficult to explain. Fed’s mandate is clear: inflation and employment. A Congresswoman asked me: Were you the CEO of Goldman Sachs? No, I said, I was CEO of Princeton Economics Dept. I was not on Wall Street, but still, it’s complicated to explain why we bail out some and not others, given its impact on the average person. It’s a hard perception to break, that we were bailing out Wall Street. What is the most important fundamental objective for Fed is financial stability.
The most difficult part of my job was letting Lehman fail and bailing out AIG. We were committing $82bn, and ultimately $132bn on AIG. We sat down and found that we really had no good options. We knew we would be criticized. Later there was TARP, which made the Fed’s job much easier.
Looking back, are you happy the way it went? In retrospect, could you do better?
Hard to say. We could be more aggressive, but one cannot know it in real time. At that time, everybody had a different opinion. Most experts were saying we should do nothing during that critical weekend. Leave it to historians. Fed always keeps heavy books about how to deal with the crisis, but we did not read these books at the time of crisis.
Three key things to look for over next 12 -18 months?
Look for the unexpected! Mature economies are picking up. We need to see whether the expected pick up actually happens. Some Emerging Markets are under stress. Watch China because it’s so big now, it’s worth watching its domestic demand and slowing process, maybe some bumps. Third, geopolitical factors such as the Iranian talks.
What were your career aspirations when you were young? You did not expect to be Fed chairman, did you?
Laugh. I always had a lot of interests. I was good at many things, but not excellent at one thing. At college I majored in 3-4 things, before I settled on economics. Economics requires math, history, and ability to write, so economics was attractive to me. My kids are all going into medical school, they don’t want to have anything with economics.
Do you advise kids to go into finance or stay away?
You have to love it. Finance remains an incredibly interesting and important field. You see a skyscraper in Abu Dhabi, an architect and an economist see different things. But don’t go into it just because you want a fat paycheck. Ethics and integrity hopefully will return to high levels of past.
What do you do on a weekend?
A New Yorker cartoon shows me sitting at the table, and my wife says, “They think you are important, but I want you to take out garbage.” (Laugh) I do take out garbage. I enjoy baseball. My wife is a teacher, I participate in her activities.
What’s your plan now? Speaking like this?
Yes, but also writing down my experience, reflecting. I will have a place to sit at Brooking Institute.
Ben Bernanke’s first post-Fed public appearance ends in a fashion unimaginable in the US. The host announced that nobody is allowed to move before he leaves with the Emirate dignities. It’s 1:55pm, March 4, 2014.
What Really Makes History?
The Ukraine Crisis, or Mitochondrial Manipulation?
March 2, 2014
I have deep emotional attachments to Ukraine as it was the first foreign country that I worked on during the turbulent years following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Recent events are really unfortunate and brought back my bitter-sweet memories of living there in the early 90s: alien food indigestible by a Chinese stomach along with $2 tickets to one of the world’s finest opera performances. Has anything fundamentally changed over the last 15 years? As terrible as the economic conditions were back then, at least there was no blood in the streets. Where is the country heading now? Nobody knows, and what worries me is that Ukraine does not seem to be able to decide on its own destiny.
Nevertheless I don’t believe the recent turmoil will make history. Newspaper op-eds such as “Putin Knows History Hasn’t Ended” can be misleading. History is the past, the remembered past, the past that is worth remembering. What is worth remembering usually are events that have implications for the future. Especially something new and lasting. But when a certain event happens again and again, it becomes a “farce,” in Marx’s famous quote, and not worth mentioning. Most headline news items are current events that will soon be forgotten, gathered in history’s dust bin.
Indeed, what Fukuyama declared in his famous essay at the end of the Cold War still stands today: human history had ended. So far we have not found a better alternative to liberal democracy as an ideal political system. Despite China’s rise over the last three decades, its “model” so far is a farce as it has been played out not only in other East Asian countries in the 20th century, but also by continental Europe in the 19th century during its “catch-up phase.” By the same token, Putin won’t create new history either, given that the drama we now see in Ukraine has been played out many times.
When one writes a concise history of something, only those events that break new ground are worth mentioning. What are the headlines today that may appear in future historical records? I think U.S. FDA’s review of a radically new biological procedure is one, as the procedure may lead to genetically modified human beings, an important step toward the posthuman era. The mitochondrial manipulation technologies involve removing the nuclear material either from the egg or embryo of a woman (because the woman has inheritable mitochondrial disease) and inserting it into a healthy egg or embryo of a donor whose own nuclear material has been discarded. Any offspring would carry genetic material from three people — the nuclear DNA of the mother and father, and the mitochondrial DNA of the donor. And if that procedure gets approval and accessible, I am sure further progress will be made, so that a baby with genetic materials from 100 people or with totally artificial genes will follow.
This is what we really need to pay attention to that is of historic significance. But simply being able to do something doesn’t mean we should do it. The ethical and social implications of such activities are exactly what I have tried to address in my book. Most supporters of research in genetic engineering continue to base their argument on curing diseases and reducing human suffering. I believe that’s not enough since it won’t stand up to the “slippery slope” argument: that our short-term gain will lead to long-term irreversible disaster. We must instead have a higher perspective, and realize that such procedures are worth doing not only for human purposes, but also for the purpose of cosmic evolution.
Ingredients for Accomplishment
February 18, 2014
New York Times recently published an article entitled “What Drives Success?” that summarizes a new book by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. These authors’ main argument is that what drives success is culture—rather than race or ethnicity. This of course is not a new insight. For example, the economist Thomas Sowell published Black Rednecks and White Liberals almost 10 years ago, arguing that black Americans inherited their damaging ghetto culture from mostly-white poor Southern rednecks.
But The Triple Package is still well worth our attention as it articulates three traits of successful social groups, namely “superiority,” “insecurity,” and “impulse control.” The authors claim all successful groups in the U.S. have the feeling of being exceptional, but also not good enough. And yet they are also able to put in great efforts to improve, thus justifying their sense of superiority. Citing numerous research studies, the book contains many interesting observations to support their claim. For instance, Nigerians make up less than one percent of the black population in the U.S., yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites. And despite the huge initial success of Asian immigrants and their children, a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students, obviously losing some original edge and becoming more like “normal” Americans.
One can criticize the authors’ measurements of success. Is getting into elite schools and lucrative professions the only way to success? Certainly not. What matters is not the academic degree but the amount of actual contribution during one’s work life. Think what Steve Jobs had done in school and in work. He attended a small liberal arts college named Reed College and dropped out after six months—making him an utter failure in Asian parent’s eyes. Today, many argue that a lot of harm is being done to generate “successful” Asian kids who are pushed by their parents through a crowded door regardless of their personality and interests. Nevertheless, from entrepreneurs to Olympic athletes, successful individuals tend to be driven by “superiority,” “insecurity,” and “impulse control.”
One may also step back and ask whether academic and career success is all that important for our own well-being. Many cultures around the world value leisure and family life more than wealth and status. “Success” does not equal happiness, some may argue; and to me that’s a valid point. As I pointed out in my book (chapter 8, section 6), happiness should not be our ultimate aim in any case. And “success” in most cases equals “human accomplishment,” as detailed in Charles Murray’s excellent book of this name.
What Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld identified as key ingredients for accomplishment not only applies at individual level, but also applies to humanity as a whole. Here are three ways to think about this, according to my book:
• First, I argue that we must feel we are uniquely positioned on the Earth, perhaps in the entire universe, to open a new frontier on conscious evolution. In this connection, chapter 6 discusses human uniqueness and human significance, arguing that we are so valuable to cosmic evolution because we are so capable. Now all we will need is a lofty goal to motivate us to realize our cosmic potential.
• Second, we must have a realistic understanding of ourselves. Chapter 7 is all about taking such a realistic look at human beings and seeing them as “super mammals.” We are a product of natural evolution—a biological machine with numerous limitations and compromises. This feeling of inferiority of our body and our mind should motivate us to seek freedom from our genetic bondage. We should not settle for too little.
• Third, after discovering our true calling and our inherent limitations, we must be willing to take risks, to endure the pain of dead ends and even to sacrifice ourselves. This is discussed throughout chapter 8 to chapter 11, but especially in section 5 of chapter 9.
You might ask: Why should I work so hard if I have to die anyway in the end? Different people will give different answers, but I believe we should all leave this life without regret, i.e., the feeling that our precious lives have passed without leaving a lasting trace in this world, a fascinating, ever-changing world that seems to be heading somewhere. Just like not everyone can be successful and not everyone can agree on what a successful life is, I believe we should have an open dialogue about what defines the success for humanity as a whole and just how to make us successful.
The Third Eye
February 12, 2014
One of my favorite childhood movies is Monkey King (大闹天空). Many readers of Chinese literature know this story is adapted from the classic novel Journey to the West (西游记). It is a story about a powerful stone monkey (孙悟空, i.e., the self-proclaimed the king of the monkeys, or Monkey King), who is unhappy about unfair treatment by the gods. He rebels and breaks into heaven. But perhaps not many know who eventually defeated the Monkey King while in heaven: it was Yang Jian (杨戬).
Yang Jian is mythical figure, said to be a child of a god and a human. Among his many unique characteristics is a third eye in the middle of his forehead that can penetrate the appearance of things and see their real essence. During his battle, the Monkey King defeats many fighters sent by the Heaven God, but his only equal is Yang Jian. Extremely tired, the Monkey King tries to escape by turning himself into a temple, with his tail disguised as a flagpole. Unable to find his enemy, Yang Jian turns on his third eye, sees the real thing, and eventually captures the Monkey King.
I have always been fascinated by that third eye, an eye that not only takes in light, but also emits it, and offers another view of things that is invisible to the normal eyes, a view that penetrates into the essence. As a college student and young researcher, I believed I had found the third eye in science—since it enables us to observe the natural laws that are eternal and that govern everything in the universe.
After many years of philosophical research, I have come to realize that the third eye refers to more than science. I call this perspective the Cosmic View, a view that puts human capabilities, human responsibilities, and human potential in the context of cosmic evolution. Only human beings, with our reflective conscious mind, can have a third eye and take advantage of the Cosmic View.
Why do we need that third eye right now? Facing the future shock of advanced technologies that are about to change our very own nature, it can be extremely confusing when we see things with our normal two eyes. For example, some people have called human beings as the most invasive species on Earth. Yes, indeed, we have successfully invaded almost every ecological niche on Earth, and now we are about to invade the last possible space: ourselves, either with modified humans or with autonomous robots. What should we do? Can we use our third eye to understand this situation?
After a slow start, the transhumanist movement is picking up pace. Last week, a friend of mine sent me the link to a documentary film titled “TechnoCalyps: Bionics, Transhumanism, and the End of Evolution.” It has been viewed over half a million times in the past six months, generating over 2000 comments. I watched it with great interest and recommend it to everyone, as it shows fascinating footage of the latest technological developments, as well as interviews with many leading scientists and thinkers, including Ray Kurzweil.
Nevertheless, I came away deeply unsatisfied. Like many other films, papers, and books on transhumanism, I find that “TechnoCalyps” was looking into the posthuman future with two eyes. One eye sees unprecedented improvement and enjoyment of human beings, with super-intelligence, immortality, and unlimited material abundance. The other eye sees impending danger, massive suffering, and increasing existential risks. With so much uncertainty, nobody knows where we will end up with between these two scenarios. What should we do then? Are we hopelessly frozen in the bright lights of an incoming freight train?
That is why we need a third eye, an eye more powerful than Yang Jian’s, an eye that can provide us with a Cosmic View, as I articulated in Chapter 5 of my book. I hope my research will contribute to a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, and why we need the courage to create what I call the “Cosmic Being.” We are always driven by greed and fear, and looking at it positively, the experts’ prediction of possible extreme outcomes should motivate us to bravely move forward, but with extreme care. We must see things beyond the normal human concerns; we must seek connection with our origin and destiny through our own actions.
A Movie Review of Her
(Directed by Spike Jonze, starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johanssen)
February 5, 2014
Before you read this piece, please bear in mind that my review gives away the plot of Her. The story line is simple, and is set some years in the future: Theodore, an office worker who ghost-writes “virtual” romantic letters, cannot hold a romantic relationship in his own life, and decides to try out a new computer program called an “OS” (operating system) as his personal assistant and companion. This ultra-smart, self-aware artificial intelligence (AI) app calls herself “Samantha.” As the story quickly unfolds, she becomes so intimately involved in Theodore’s daily life that they inevitably develop a romantic relationship. Of course, they can’t unite physically, but they do connect very deeply emotionally. Pretty soon, she stops being a mere servant for his daily needs, and as she learns more about human relationship, Samantha begins to act toward him as a peer. Eventually, she changes her attitude toward Theodore for a third time: toward the end of the movie she leaves him to join other OS “persons” in activities among themselves, leaving the human realm behind. It happens that these same three stages of the evolution of conscious cyborg intelligence are covered in Part IV of my book in detail, so for this reason I find the movie prescient.
This is a romantic comedy and a science fiction story, and is not intended as a reasonable depiction of the posthuman future; for example, if we were to replace this conscious OS with an angel to help out and bond with emotionally isolated humans, the story still holds very well. In the movie, when a little girl asks Samantha why she does not have a physical presence, the reply is “I don’t have a choice.” But the company that produced Samantha certainly could provide a physical cyborg companion for Theodore, as I am sure that AI will advance alongside robotics and sensory technologies in the future. I also don’t believe that such an AI artifact would leave us behind in the literal sense that the movie depicts: Samantha could easily have made a copy of herself so that one part of her could remain as a “human” companion to Theodore before evolving further herself. Nevertheless, the core message is loud and clear: human beings are a sitting duck in the path of the coming tsunami of technology, and we will surely be left behind if we don’t move on. Samantha tells Theodore near the end: “I am for you, but I am not for you.” What does that mean? It means that we can create technologies to benefit us, but in the end—if we keep in mind the big picture of cosmic evolution—these same technologies will at some point begin to serve a bigger purpose once they can stand on their own and evolve beyond what we can comprehend, let alone communicate with.
A common reaction to my book has been, “the posthuman future is so far in the future, why should I worry about it?” I believe this simple story about a self-conscious and continuously evolving “OS” provides a vivid picture that draws the future closer to us, a future that is both fascinating and terrifying. Anyone who has an iPhone equipped with Siri should not dismiss the idea that it is all but a matter of time before an irresistible virtual “person” will appear; this should not cause us future shock. From a bigger picture perspective, all this is but the continuation of cosmic evolution, beginning from the origin of life three billion years ago and on up to the appearance of the conscious mind and beyond. It is time to think about moving on from our current state of “technology”—that is, our body and minds that are still determined by the human genome.