Ramez Naam Seminar Media

Posted on Friday, August 7th, 02015 by Danielle Engelman
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

Enhancing Humans, Advancing Humanity

Wednesday July 22, 02015 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Naam Seminar page.


Audio is up on the Naam Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.


Enhancing humans and humanity – a summary by Stewart Brand

Beginning with the accelerating pace of biotech tools for human health and enhancement, Naam noted that health issues such as disease prevention will be drastically easier to implement than enhancement. Preventing some hereditary diseases can be done with a single gene adjustment, whereas enhancement of traits like intelligence or longevity entails the fine tuning of hundreds of genes. He favors moving ahead with human germline engineering to totally eliminate some of our most horrific diseases.

Over time he expects that human gene editing will lead in the opposite direction from the enforced conformity depicted in Brave New World and the film “Gattaca.” Instead people will relish exploring variety, and the plummeting costs of the technology will mean that the poor will benefit as well as the rich.

Naam’s brain discussion began with the Sergey Brin quote, “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.” Brain interface tools are proliferating. There are already 200,000 successful cochlear implants which feed sound directly into the nervous system. There is a digital eye that feeds pretty good visual data directly to the brain via a jack in the side of the user’s head. There is a hippocampus chip that can restore brain function in a rat.

Rat brains have been linked so that what one rat learns, the other rat knows. The paper on that work was titled “Meta-organism of Two Rats on the Internet.” Humans also have been linked brain to brain at a distance to share function. Zebrafish have been lit up to show all their neurons firing in real time. Coming soon is the deployment of “neural dust” that can provide ultrasonic communications with tens of thousands of neurons at a time.

How profound are the ethical issues? Naam observed that we already have many of the attributes of telepathy in our cell phones and smart phones. They came so rapidly and cheaply that they erased most of the concerns about a “digital divide.” Half of the world is now on the Internet, with the rest coming fast. And rather than a divider, the technology proved to be an equalizer and a connector, fostering economic growth and the rapid spread and sifting of ideas.

Digital connectivity, he argued, is widening everyone’s “circle of empathy.” A viral video started the Arab Spring. Viral videos are changing how everyone thinks about race in America. These technologies, he concluded, are making humans more humane.

One question from the audience inquired about the origin of so much reference in the Nexus series to group meditation as the epitome of mind sharing. Naam noted that Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, are highly interested in brain science, and his own experiences of the ecstacy of mind sharing were at a rave at Burning Man and a ten-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Thailand.

I asked if he agreed with the current round of panic about superintelligent artificial intelligence posing an existential threat to humanity. He said no. The dark scenarios imagine an AI so smart it implements new and grotesquely harmful pathways to solve a poorly contextualized problem. Naam pointed out that “Software almost never does anything well by accident.” (A flock of Tweets burst from the theater with that line.) And the dark scenarios imagine an isolated rogue super-capable AI. In reality nothing really capable is developed in isolation.

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  • Bruno Grieco

    Interesting talk. A couple of questions come to mind, which I believe may serve at least as food for thoughts:

    Cell phones as an example of the “benefits” of technology and mass production of it:
    As Ramez puts it: “there are more cell phones in Africa than toilets”
    But we forget that toilets are part of a “sanitation technology”. So at first this phrase sounds as if we were comparing technology to a cultural or an infra-structural development marker. But we are actually comparing two technologies, the first, which made good use of mass-production and early-adopter funding and the latter, which had all the chances of doing so over the past thousand of years and still haven’t reached some places.
    I wonder, how cell phones made it? How someone got to place a cell phone receiver tower on a village in the middle of nowhere and plug it with electricity while the village itself goes dark at night.
    What is this achievement sign of ? Does it signals that finally that society was able to claim something for themselves and they are ready to claim further improvements, such as sanitation, or that they have been driven by some perverse force to demand something that wasn’t really their first interest but fit on someone else’s agenda.
    What other technology is growing the same way as cell phones that may also be used as an example and why should I believe biotech should also follow this path ?

    On the question about AI, where Ramez mentions big corporations as a possible instance for AI, but jokes that Intel is not trying to turn everything onto computer chips:
    Corporations are indeed a good example where there is a kind of “consciousness”, or something that may be perceived as so, which is not directly connected to the CEOs mind (as compared to an absolutist ruler). Apple, for instance, still is remembered and perceived as an instance of Steve Jobs’ desires even now.
    But what if corporations start producing everything you need ? Imagine Apple joined with several other corporations. You would have Apple computers, Apple Cars, Apple Houses, ate Apple apples, went to Apple Schools, and had your tonsils removed at an Apple hospital. On this case, Apple would transform you into a cell. Hence the sci-fi dystopia made real only with technologies available nowadays.

    Well, food for thoughts.

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