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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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World Future Society Conference July 24-26

Posted on Thursday, July 9th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 12.39.48 PM

On July 24-26, the World Future Society’s annual conference WorldFuture 2015: Making the Future will be taking place at the Union Square Hilton in San Francisco. Speakers include Long Now Board Members Peter Schwartz & Paul Saffo and Seminar Speakers Rusty Schweickart & Ramez Naam.

Long Now Members get a 20% discount on tickets on single days & the full conference, please check your email for the discount code for the conference.

Founded in 01966, the World Future Society (WFS) is the longest-running global membership organization for futurists and the foresight minded.  Its mission is to improve decision-making about the future by empowering futurists, fostering networks, and advancing knowledge and action on future critical issues.

Every summer, WFS hosts their annual conference, WorldFuture. Designed to bring futurism to the mainstream and introduce a new entrepreneurial generation to the power of foresight, Making the Future reflects the intersection of foresight and action: three days of diverse, interactive sessions designed to unite hundreds of attendees identifying and addressing future-critical issues.. This year, WFS welcomes Long Now Members to join them with  special offers, from whole conference discounts to one-day passes and free entry for students living at home for local residents.

The World Future Society Annual Summer Conference
July 24-26, 2015
Union Square Hilton Hotel

Neil Gaiman Seminar Media

Posted on Wednesday, July 8th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

How Stories Last

Tuesday June 9, 02015 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Gaiman Seminar page.


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


How stories last – a summary by Stewart Brand

Stories are alive. The ones that last, Gaiman said, outcompete other stories by changing over time. They make it from medium to medium—from oral to written to film and beyond. They lose uninteresting elements but hold on to the most compelling bits or even add some. The most popular version of the Cinderella story (which may have originated long ago in China) has kept the gloriously unlikely glass slipper introduced by a careless French telling.

“Stories,” Gaiman said, “teach us how the world is put together and the rules of living in the world, and they come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and want to help them propagate.” Northwest coast native Americans have a tale about a beautiful woman and young man whose forbidden love was punished by the earth shaking, and black ash on snow, and finally fire coming from a mountain, killing many people. It stopped only when the beautiful woman was thrown into the burning mountain.

That is important information– solid-seeming mountains can suddenly erupt, and early warnings of that are earthquakes and ash. As pure information it won’t last beyond three generations. But add in beauty and forbidden love and tragic death, and the story will be told as long as people live in the mountains.

The first emperor of China died 2,300 years ago. He was so powerful that he was able to totally conceal the location of his tomb, and all that was left was stories about the fabulous treasures buried with him. There was said to a whole army of terracotta warriors and ships floating on lakes of mercury. A few years ago a terracotta warrior was dug up in a field in China, and then a whole army of them. Archaeologists figured out where the emperor’s mausoleum must be buried, but first they did something not normally done at archeological digs. They checked if there might be any incredibly poisonous mercury around. There is.

Gaiman said he learned something important about stories from his cousin Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor who taught class in a Polish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Books were forbidden on pain of death, but Helen had a Polish translation of Gone With the Wind she read at night, and she told its story to her entranced students by day. “The magic of escapist fiction,” Gaiman said, “is that it can offer you escape from an otherwise intolerable situation, and it can furnish you with armor, knowledge, weapons, and other tools you can take back into your life to make it better.”

“‘Once upon a time,’ Gaiman said, “is code for ‘I’m lying to you.’ We experience stories as lies and truth at the same time. We learn to empathize with real people via made-up people. The most important thing that fiction does is it lets us look out through other eyes, and that teaches us empathy—that behind every pair of eyes is somebody like us.“

Stories have their own form of life, Gaiman concluded. “You can view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use for breeding and transmission. They are symbiotic with us. They are the thing that we have used since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person.“

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Photograph of Neil Gaiman by Kimberly Butler

Beth Shapiro Seminar Media

Posted on Monday, June 1st, 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.

How to Clone a Mammoth

Monday May 11, 02015 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Shapiro Seminar page.


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


De-extinction science – a summary by Stewart Brand

When people hear about “ancient DNA” in fossils, Shapiro began, the first question always is “Can we clone a dinosaur?” Dinosaurs died out so many millions of years ago, their fossils are nothing but rock (and by the way, there’s no workaround with mosquitoes in amber because amber totally destroys DNA). With no DNA, there’s no chance of cloning a dinosaur. (Sorry.)

The fossils of woolly mammoths, though, are not rock. They died out only thousands of years ago, and their remains are pretty well preserved in frozen tundra, which means there is recoverable DNA. So, Plan A, can we clone a mammoth? It would be like Dolly-the-sheep, where you take nuclear DNA from somewhere in the preserved mammoth body, inject it into the egg of a closely related species (Asian elephant), plant the mammoth embryo in a surrogate mother, and in two years, a newborn woolly mammoth! But as soon as any animal dies, unless it is cyropreserved with great care, all the DNA is attacked by gut bacteria, by water, by temperature change, and soon you have nothing but tiny fragments. Nobody has found any intact cells or intact DNA in frozen mammoth mummies, and probably they never will. So, you can’t clone a mammoth. (Sorry.)

Okay, Plan B, can you sequence a mammoth—reconstruct the entire genome through digital analysis and then rebuild it chemically and plant that in an elephant egg? Ancient DNA, even from the best specimens, is so badly fragmented and contaminated it’s hard to tell what bits are mammoth and how they go together. Using the elephant genome for comparison, though, you can do a pretty good job of approximating the original. Just last week the successful sequencing and assembly of the full woolly mammoth genome—4 billion base pairs—was announced. But all sequencing is incomplete, including the human genome, and maybe important elements got left out. A genome rebuilt from scratch won’t be functional, and you can’t create a mammoth with it. (Sorry.)

Alright, Plan C, can you engineer a mammoth? Take a living elephant genome and cut and paste important mammoth genes into it so you get all the mammoth traits you want. There is an incredibly powerful new tool for genome editing called CRISPR Cas 9 that can indeed swap synthetic mammoth genes into an elephant genome, and this has been done by George Church and his team at Harvard. They swapped in 14 genes governing mammoth traits for long hair, extra fat, and special cold-adapted blood cells. If you can figure out the right genes to swap, and you get them all working in an elephant genome, and you manage the difficult process of cross-species cloning and cross-species parenthood, then you may get mammoth-like Asian elephants capable of living in the cold.

(During the Q & A, Shapiro pointed out that with birds the process is different than with mammals. Instead of cloning, you take the edited genome and inject it into primordial germ cells of the embryo of a closely related bird. If all goes well, when the embryo grows up, it has the gonads of the extinct bird and will lay some eggs carrying the traits of the extinct animal.)

Why bring back extinct animals? Certainly not to live in zoos. But in the wild they could restore missing ecological interactions. Shapiro described Sergey Zimov’s “Pleistocene Park” in northern Siberia, where he proved that a dense herd of large herbivores can turn tundra into grassland—”the animals create and maintain their own grazing environment.” The woolly mammoth was a very large herbivore. Its return to the Arctic could provide new habitat for endangered species, help temper climate change, increase the population of elephants in the world, and bring excitement and a reframed sense of what is possible to conservation.

Furthermore, Shapiro concluded, the technology of de-extinction can be applied to endangered species. Revive & Restore is working on the black-footed ferret, which has inbreeding problems and extreme vulnerability to a disease called sylvatic plague. Gene variants that are now absent in the population might be recovered from the DNA of specimens in museums, and the living ferrets could get a booster shot from their ancestors.

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Neil Gaiman Seminar Tickets

Posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Neil Gaiman presents How Stories Last

Neil Gaiman presents “How Stories Last”


Tuesday June 9, 02015 at 7:30pm Castro Theater

Long Now Members can reserve 1 seat, and purchase a second ticket for half price ($15) join today! General Tickets $30


About this Seminar:

Neil’s talk will explore the way stories, myths and tales survive over great lengths of time and why creating for the future means making works that will endure within the oral tradition.

Preternaturally eloquent, Neil Gaiman has told stories in every medium—graphic novels (The Sandman), novels (The Ocean at the End of the Lane; American Gods), short stories (Trigger Warning), children’s books (The Graveyard Book), television (Dr Who), the occasional song (“I Google You”, with Amanda Palmer), and the occasional speech that goes viral (“Make Good Art”).

Members can reserve one complimentary ticket, and purchase one additional ticket for $15.00 (50% off of the General Admission ticket price).

Photograph of Neil Gaiman by Kimberly Butler

Michael Shermer Seminar Media

Posted on Wednesday, May 6th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

The Long Arc of Moral Progress

Tuesday April 14, 02015 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Shermer Seminar page.


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


Moral Progress – a summary by Stewart Brand

Shermer began with Martin Luther King’s statement in Selma, March 1965: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What if we look at that arc in terms of trendlines instead of headlines?

In the mid-19th century there were almost no democracies. Now there are 118, out of a total of 196 nations. Women’s suffrage only began to take off in the early 20th century (led in the US by Inez Milholland on her white stallion) and by the end of the century nearly all nations had adopted it (even Saudi Arabia may catch up this year). Gay rights are gaining legal and popular support in this very decade, with the transition in popular opinion about same-sex marriage arriving in 2011. Shermer noted that research shows that support is greatest in younger generations and in people associated with no religion, and that pattern is standard with most forms of moral progress.

Animal rights, Shermer said, is just now taking off in earnest, inspired by the 18th-century Enlightenment social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, who wrote, “The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?” The Enlightenment brought the power of abstract reasoning and science to social and moral problems and provided the tools to defy the unreasoning demands of strict ideologies and religions. Voltaire declared, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Shermer ended with Martin Luther King’s observation that “we were made for the stars, created for the everlasting, born for eternity,” and that stardust—us–can come to embody morality is the long arc of moral progress.

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Neal Stephenson at The Interval: May 21, Book Signing and Livestream

Posted on Friday, May 1st, 02015 by Mikl Em
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Neal Stephenson at The Interval on May 21, 02015; photo by Kelly O'Connor

Neal Stephenson speaks at The Interval on May 21, 02015. Photo by Kelly O’Connor

Best-selling author Neal Stephenson will visit The Interval at Long Now in San Francisco to read from and sign his new book in a special daytime event: 12:30 to 2pm on Thursday May 21, 02015.

The talk itself is sold out but Long Now members can hear Neal live on May 21 via the Long Now member website. Neal is making two other appearances in the Bay Area, and we are thrilled that he is including The Interval in his tour.

You can join more than 6500 long-term thinkers around the world as a Long Now member

Signed copies of SEVENEVES can be pre-ordered to pick up the day of Neal’s reading. Book sales benefit Long Now and the Friends of the San Francisco Library. Pre-ordered books can be picked up at Readers Bookstore near The Interval. We will not be shipping books. More details here.

Neal Stephenson's SEVENEVES at The Interval on May 21, 02015

SEVENEVES comes out on May 19th. Here’s what Neal has to say about his new book:

SEVENEVES is a very old project; I first started thinking about it when I was working at Blue Origin, probably circa 2004. The kernel around which the story nucleated was the space debris problem, which I had been reading about, both as a potential obstacle to the company’s efforts and as a possible opportunity to do something useful in space by looking for ways to remediate it

You can read the beginning of SEVENEVES on Neal’s site.

Long Now’s co-founder Stewart Brand will host this event and talk with him onstage after the reading. Stewart Brand, Ryan Phelan, and Long Now’s Revive and Restore project are acknowledged by Neal for providing useful background for SEVENEVES.

This will be Neal Stephenson’s first visit to The Interval. We are honored that Neal was one of the earliest donors to our Interval ‘brickstarter’ as well. And we can’t wait to show him Long Now’s new home in San Francisco.


Here are some photos from the event…

Stewart Brand intros Neal Stephenson at The Interval Neal Stephenson and Stewart Brand onstage at The Interval Neal Stephenson talks about his latest book #SEVENEVES at The Interval Neal Stephenson and Stewart Brand onstage at The IntervalNeal Stephenson and Stewart Brand onstage at The Intervalphotos by SF Slim

Beth Shapiro Seminar Tickets

Posted on Monday, April 20th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Beth Shapiro presents How to Clone a Mammoth

Beth Shapiro presents “How to Clone a Mammoth”


Monday May 11, 02015 at 7:30pm Marines Memorial Theatre

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15


About this Seminar:

Beth Shapiro is far from a giddy enthusiast about de-extinction. She knows more than nearly anyone about the subject because she is a highly regarded biologist in the middle of the two leading efforts in the new field—to resurrect extinct woolly mammoths and passenger pigeons. She knows exactly how challenging the whole process will be and how imperfect the later stages of success might appear.

An evolutionary biologist who created and runs the paleogenomics lab at UC Santa Cruz, Shapiro is a careful skeptic, a great story teller and explainer, and an extremely productive scientist. In this talk she spans the full de-extinction narrative from DNA editing all the way to revived populations in the wild—from lab work with CRISPR Cas 9 and primordial germ cells through to the ethical and practical issues of restoring a long-absent keystone species in its former ecosystem.

“The goal of de-extinction,” she points out, “is to restore ecosystems; to reinstate interactions between species that no longer exist because one or more of those species are extinct. We don’t need to create exact replicas of extinct species to achieve this goal.” She concludes, “De-extinction uses awesome, exciting, cutting-edge technology to take a giant step forward. De-extinction is a process that allows us to actively create a future that is really better than today, not just one that is less bad than what we anticipate.”

Beth Shapiro is a MacArthur Fellow, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and author of the new book from Princeton University Press, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction.

Paul Saffo Seminar Media

Posted on Wednesday, April 15th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

The Creator Economy

Tuesday March 31, 02015 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Saffo Seminar page.


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


The Creator Economy – a summary by Stewart Brand

Media innovations drive economic shifts, Saffo began. “We invent new technology and then use it to reinvent ourselves.”

  1. The Industrial/producer Economy: At the beginning of the 20th century the leading scarcity was stuff, and so manufacture was systematized. By 1914 one of Ford’s workers could buy a Model T car with four month’s salary. Production efficiency won the Second World War for the allies. In 1944 the US was producing 8 aircraft carriers a month, a plane every five minutes, and 50 merchant ships a day. The process became so efficient that its success ended the dominance of that economy. That always happens. “Every new abundance creates an adjacent scarcity.“
  2. The Consumer Economy The new scarcity was desire. 1958 brought the first credit card. The CEOs of leading companies shifted from heads of production to heads of marketing. Container ships doubled global trade.
  3. The Creator Economy: In 1971 Herbert Simon predicted, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently.” The new scarcity turned out to be engagement. The mass media television channels that had dominated the Consumer Economy were overwhelmed by personal media–YouTube, eBay, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, Google, Etsy. Hollywood was overwhelmed by video games. (The blockbuster movie “Avatar“ opened in 2009 with a $73 million weekend. The previous month, the game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” sold $310 million in 24 hours.)

Mass participation became the new normal. Stuff is cheap; status comes from creation. Value is created by engagement—from Wikipedia entries to Google queries to Mechanical Turk services to Airbnb to Uber to Kaggle analyses. Burning Man sets the standard of “no spectators.” Makers insist that “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

Saffo advised recalling four warnings for revolutionaries. 1) There are winners and losers 2) Don’t confuse early results with long-term outcomes. 3) Successful insurgents become over-powerful incumbents 4) Technologies of freedom become technologies of control.

If we want privacy now, we have to pay extra for it. As with our smart phones, we will subscribe to self-driving cars, not own them. With our every move tracked, we are like radio-collared bears. Our jobs are being atomized, with ever more parts taken over by robots. We trade freedom for convenience.

Over the 30 or so years remaining in the Creator Economy, Saffo figures that we will redefine freedom in terms of interdependence, and he closed with Richard Brautigan’s poem about a “cybernetic ecology” where we “are all watched over by machines of loving grace.”

Subscribe to our Seminar email list for updates and summaries.

Michael Shermer Seminar Tickets

Posted on Wednesday, March 18th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Michael Shermer presents

Michael Shermer presents “The Long Arc of Moral Progress”


Tuesday April 14, 02015 at 7:30pm SFJAZZ Center

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15

About this Seminar:

Steven Pinker writes: “Shermer has engaged the full mantle of moral progress and considered how far we have come and how much farther that arc can be bent toward truth, justice, and freedom.”

“Through copious data and compelling examples Shermer shows how the arc of the moral universe, seen from a historical vantage point, bends toward civil rights and civil liberties, the spread of liberal democracy and market economies, and the expansion of women’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights. Never in history has such a large percentage of the world’s population enjoyed so much freedom, autonomy, and prosperity. The steadily unfolding revolution of gay marriage gives Shermer the opportunity to show how rights revolutions of many different kinds come about.“ [Steven Pinker is the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature. He gave a SALT talk on “The Decline of Violence” in 02012.]

Michael Shermer’s new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. His previous books include The Believing Brain and The Science of Good and Evil. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine and has a monthly column in Scientific American.