April 12, 2013

Talking Transhumanism With Novelist Ramez Naam

I’m really excited to bring you a great interview with a brilliant writer. Ramez Naam is the author of Nexus by Angry Robot and a professional technologist. He was involved in the development of widely-used software products such as Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook and has a keen interest in human evolution and transhuman technologies.
Without further ado, on to the interview.
1. In your book, Nexus, you explore transhumanism through the lens of a government/public struggle for technology. In Kade and his friends we have the altruistic view of transhuman technology, and with the various government agencies they represent a more militaristic view of the technology, seeking to keep it out of the hands of the public. Do you think going forward, the governments of this world will stifle transhuman progression, or like Kade, do you think independent entrepreneurs and scientists will be able to develop this technology themselves?
Ramez: My best guess is that consumer demand is going to drive this, and governments are going to have to bow to that.  People have pretty baked in desires to live longer, be healthier, have greater capabilities, etc… In most cases, governments are going to bow to that.  That’s going to mean change.  Today there’s no mechanism in the world to approve a drug or genetic tweak that makes you smarter.  We don’t have a way to approve enhancements – only to approve things that cure diseases or heal injuries.  That’s likely to change as the technology matures.
Now, the wild card is terrible things happening.  9/11 shocked this country, and led to the reversal of what had been a long-term trend towards greater and greater civil liberties. If the technologies I’m writing about – biotech, nanotech, neurotech – get used in major terrorist attacks, or are central in terrible accidents, you may see society recoil away from them, and governments lock them down.  That’s the backstory of the world in Nexus – that between now and 2040 there have been some terrible things done with these technologies, and that’s part of why they’re so restricted.
2. My personal belief is that transhumanism, or posthumanism, is our likely next evolutionary step, but given the increasing burdens on our liberty by government and religious organisations do you think we’ll actually achieve that evolutionary path? Do you see a place in this progression for religion and government?
Ramez: There’s a lot of legitimate roles for government, to be sure. Safety testing. Funding basic research. Shutting down frauds and hucksters.  All of that is quite helpful.
As for religion, it doesn’t have to be at odds with biotechnology at all.  Within the US you see a wide spectrum of beliefs.  Some churches are adamantly opposed to embryonic stem cell use, for example.  But some are okay with it.  I think going forward the religions and churches that survive and thrive are going to be those that are a little flexible, that adapt to the changes in technology and the human condition that we’re going to be seeing.
3. A lot of transhuman tech is coming from the medical research sector; everything from 3D printed organs, ear and eye prosthesis and implants, all the way up to brain modifications. What do you think will likely be the ‘singularity’ within this field, and given the pharmaceutical companies corporation mindset, will it ever make it out of the labs and into the hands of the public? Would it create a new elite, with only the mega-wealthy having access to such technology, thus having a society of altered and non-altered people?
Ramez: The scenario where only the rich can afford new technologies is one of the most worrisome ones.  If it costs a lot of money to buy enhancements, and those enhancements increase your ability to earn more money, then you could have a runaway feedback loop, and a real pulling away of one layer of society from the rest. That’s definitely something to keep an eye out for.
But so far, it doesn’t seem to be happening. With technology that’s sold on the open market, what we see instead is incredible declines in price that are putting it into the reach of more and more people. There are around 5 billion cell phones in the world today. Tribesman in Africa and poor farmers in India have smart phones.  Each of them has more computing power and more access to information in their pocket than the President of the United States had twenty-five years ago. People who are, by our standards, incredibly poor still have capabilities that the richest man alive in the 1980s didn’t have.  That’s because of the incredible rate of innovation in bringing prices down in those technologies.
So that’s what we want to see in enhancement tech. Is it guaranteed to happen?  Absolutely not. We need to watch for it and encourage it. But is it guaranteed to go the other way, with a permanent over class that can afford the tech and no one else? That seems even less likely to me.
4. A lighter question this time. Given the current level of tech available, or perhaps what will likely be available say in the next 5 years, what’s the one modification/alteration that you would choose for yourself? And an extrapolation of that question, if it were possible, would you upload your own brain into a computer entity?
Ramez: Medical tech moves slowly. The tech itself can come along fast. But the process of experimentation involves human beings. The first rule of human trials is the same as in the rest of medicine – ‘do no harm’. That means that we’re extremely conservative.
As a result, I think 5 years from now is likely to look an awful lot like today. Will we have some new things on the market? Probably. If I had to hope for one or two, I’d say there’s a chance we’ll have a drug therapy that just barely retards the aging process in animals.  And we may have a next generation of drugs – aimed at people with Alzheimer’s and senile dementia – that just slightly enhance the rate of learning in healthy normal people. So those are two I’d look at.
Would I upload, if it were possible? Absolutely. I wouldn’t be the first. I’d want to see it proven out. But once it was, I’d be right there in line for it.
6.Following on from the ideas of individuals creating this new tech as opposed to corporations, what are your views on the ‘grinder’ subculture where people experiment on themselves and perhaps stretch the boundaries of legality?
more-than-human-cover-smallerRamez: People are going to experiment. There are always going to be some – usually young people – who want to explore the edges of what’s possible. You have to be safe, though. You need to be careful. The more powerful a technology is, the greater the chance of hurting oneself accidentally.
7. As I got thinking about all this tech it occurred to me that hardwire aside, we’re going to need a revolution in software to make the most of the technology. Do you see this happening now, or will it take a while for universities and other research centres to take experimental ideas and put them into a curriculum?
Ramez: We’ll definitely need new software.  As far as I can tell, though, the hardware is the limiting factor.  How do we get data in and out of the brain?  The more data you have, the more readily you can analyze to find patterns and learn to decode it.  And ultimately you can experiment with software far faster than you can with hardware.  So if the hardware is there, we’ll quickly develop software to use it.
8. On the subject of evolution, ageing seems to be one of the potential singularities in this march towards transhumanism. This could cause a population problem if people continue to live much longer lives. Can you see a solution to the resource issue of an essentially immortal race?
Ramez: I think we’re a pretty long way from having to worry about this. But even if we did have a complete cure for aging, that would put less of a strain on resources than you might expect. The real variable in population growth rate is the fertility rate – how many children does the average woman have? In the 1970s, around the world, this was over 5. Now it’s about 2.5 children, worldwide, that an average woman will have in her lifetime.  Once it gets to 2, you have a steady state population.
Now, if no one ever dies, you have to go lower than that. But that’s happening. In Japan the fertility rate is 1.4 children per woman. In Germany it’s the same. In Iran, it’s dropped from more than 7 children per woman in the 1980s to 1.7 today. These are all countries where the trends are towards a smaller population instead of a larger one. So I think we can figure it out.
I’m also an optimist about our ability to use natural resources wisely. I have a non-fiction book that just came out, called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, that talks about how vast the energy, food, water, and material resources on the Earth are, if we use them wisely. We have the raw resources to use 100 times more energy, grow food for 100 times as many people as we have today, etc.. IF we make the right decisions.
9. A couple of questions on your fiction now. You have an impressive professional background within IT, how did you come to write fiction? Is it something you’ve done much of before? Any particular authors that influenced you?
infinite-resource-final-cover-96dpiRamez: I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan, and I sort of dreamt of writing sci-fi myself, without ever really believing it would happen. Among my influences, I’d say, two of the greatest and least sung science fiction authors of the last 20 years: John Barnes and Ian McDonald. They’re both incredible wordsmiths with really unique and complex world building.  Alastair Reynolds is another influence. And I’ve been a huge fan of Iain Banks, and his ability to write these dark, compelling, page-turning tales that happen on the edge of what is essentially a utopia. It’s incredible sad to learn of his cancer, but my life – and a lot of lives – are a lot richer because of him.
10. Nexus has proven to be quite a well-regarded and popular book, and I was pleased to see you have a follow-up coming out. Could you tell us a little bit about it, and when we might look forward to reading it?
Ramez: Thanks! I’ve been incredibly gratified by the reception. It’s gone better than I had any right to expect. The sequel, Crux, comes out this summer. It’s set a few months after Nexus. The events that happen at the end of Nexus have changed a lot of things around the world. More people have access to the Nexus technology. The governments of both the US and China have reacted to the events of the first book. And a lot more conflict is brewing, inside of both countries. There will ultimately be three books in the story, and Crux is sort of the Empire Strikes Back of the three. It’s a little darker. Some bad things happen. And, while it’s a stand-alone book, it doesn’t end quite as cleanly as Nexus. It definitely sets the reader up for the third book, where a number of these conflicts will come to a head.
Here’s the official plot synopsis:
Six months have passed since the release of Nexus 5.  The world is a different, more dangerous place.
In the United States, the terrorists – or freedom fighters – of the Post-Human Liberation Front use Nexus to turn men and women into human time bombs aimed at the President and his allies. In Washington DC, a government scientist, secretly addicted to Nexus, uncovers more than he wants to know about the forces behind the assassinations, and finds himself in a maze with no way out.
In Thailand, Samantha Cataranes has found peace and contentment with a group of children born with Nexus in their brains. But when forces threaten to tear her new family apart, Sam will stop at absolutely nothing to protect the ones she holds dear.
In Vietnam, Kade and Feng are on the run from bounty hunters seeking the price on Kade’s head, from the CIA, and from forces that want to use the back door Kade has built into Nexus 5.  Kade knows he must stop the terrorists misusing Nexus before they ignite a global war between human and posthuman. But to do so, he’ll need to stay alive and ahead of his pursuers.
And in Shanghai, a posthuman child named Ling Shu will go to dangerous and explosive lengths to free her uploaded mother from the grip of Chinese authorities.
The first blows in the war between human and posthuman have been struck.  The world will never be the same.
I’d like to thank Ramez for taking the time for this interview, it was a fascinating discussion. Ramez’s links:

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