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Beyond our ‘ape-brained meat sacks’: can transhumanism save our species? | Australian books

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Ageing cured. Death conquered. Work ended. The human brain reverse-engineered by AI. Babies born outside of the womb. Virtual children, non-human partners. The future of humanity could be virtually unrecognisable by the end of the 21st century, according to Elise Bohan – and that’s if we get the transition right. If we get it wrong, well.

“The future is wildly scary,” says the young philosopher-macrohistorian-futurist with a smile. “I can’t lie to you about that. In ten years time it’s all going to look pretty different, and in another ten years that’s a total event horizon for me … I think it’s eminently plausible at that point that the game has changed in some very fundamental way, whether for good or bad.”

Bohan, 31, is speaking from a sunny Mosman apartment, where she is house-sitting and looking after the plants. It’s a distance away from the Hawkesbury river on the outskirts of Sydney where she grew up; a place with pretty spots but where it was tough to be a smart kid. And it is a half world away from Oxford University where she forms part of the Future of Humanity Institute.

She’s in Sydney seeing family and promoting her new book Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-or-Break Century. The subtitle isn’t a gambit. “I believe that,” she says. “We are in the century that defines the future of humanity like no other.”

Transhumanism is a movement that aims to address – or end – what Bohan calls the “tragedies of reality”: ageing, sickness and involuntary death. It is, she writes, “a philosophy and a project that aims to make us more than human”.

Whether we recognise or understand it, that project has already begun, she says, and it will transform our world – and minds and bodies – within our lifetimes. Not only is it happening, she says, but this transition is necessary if humanity is to survive in perpetuity.

Elise Bohan.
Elise Bohan says her new book is a ‘love letter to humanity’. Photograph: Jessica Hromas

For Bohan, it is no great to leap to imagine that a baby born in 2030 may have its entire genome mapped at birth, that data uploaded to a central health record and cross-referenced at any medical appointment throughout its life. It is no great stretch to think that AI will become the most powerful intellectual force of the century. That human consciousness might be transferred from our “meat sacks” (bodies) into a technological sphere. That the rise of AI and automation might render great swathes of human labour redundant, and that maybe – if we get it right – that could leave more time for leisure, big thinking, meditation, connection.

Experiments are already underway in the realm of artificial wombs, and Bohan is sure – when viable – women will be “clamouring” to be freed from the shackles of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.

The book, she writes, is a “love letter to humanity”, but hers is a “tough love”. A love which sees a future for humanity, but not necessarily for human beings as we know it.

‘We love, we lose, we die’

When Bohan first encountered transhumanism, at around the age of 21, her first reaction was, “It’s crazy. It’s science fiction. It’s so far out. How weird,” she says. “But also – how interesting.”

Her brother had bounded down the stairs and insisted they watch the documentary Transcendent Man, about godfather of transhumanism Ray Kurzweil. He thought they’d find it hilarious – “which we did” – but it introduced Bohan to the idea of rapid acceleration of growth in computer technology, technological singularity (the theoretical point at which the force of technological change becomes out of human control and can shape human civilisation), and the idea that there was a future for humanity beyond what she calls our “ape-brained meat sacks”.

At the time she was an English literature undergrad, obsessed with poetry and the written word.

“It was a point of sadness for me as a young person, recognising that there were so many wonderful things that had already been written – forgetting all the things that would be written in the future – that I would never live long enough to encounter, to explore, and to put all these things together,” she says.

Fiction began to bore her as her interest in transhumanism increased. If fiction was all about exploring the human experience, it became evident that there was a tragic repetition. “We work, we learn, we love, we lose, we die,” she writes. Transhumanism offered something better.

Elise Bohan.
Elise Bohan. Photograph: Jessica Hromas

By the age of 28, she had written the world’s first book-length history of transhumanism for her PhD. It’s ironic, she says, to have cleaved to this – she’s always had an aversion to “isms”. They have a “ring of cult-like fascination” to them.

‘We’re building God, you know?’

Transhumanism is perhaps best known for preoccupation with achieving human immortality. A deathless life, however, is a confronting concept. As scarcity determines value, does not the fact that our time on earth is finite give that time its value? What exactly is tragic about death?

“For me, it is the loss of everything that matters. It’s a loss of all things of value,” she says.

On the contrary, she says, “if humans could go on in a state of robust health, could keep learning, you’d have this cumulative effect where our experiences and knowledge would accumulate much faster. The things that our species could do with that! The mysteries of the universe that we could unlock. The problems we could solve. And the depths of each others souls that we could explore.”

Souls, she admits, is a loaded word. But without an alternative vocabulary for what makes consciousness, she is not averse to using spiritual language.

“Is transhumanism encroaching on domains that religion has traditionally held? I think yes.”

When Bohan was a PhD student, she gave her first big paper at a conference. Afterwards, a biologist came up to her and congratulated her on her work.

“Then he looked me in the eye and whispered to me: ‘We’re building God, you know,’” she chuckles. “I looked back at him and I said: ‘Yeah, I know.’”

They knew they didn’t mean it as religion, she says. “But a lot of what has been talked about in religion – omniscience, omnipotence, hopefully omni-benevolence – we are at least getting closer to that all seeing, all knowing, all exploring [force].”

Who controls that force or those forces is, of course, a critical question. The early 21st century’s rapid growth in technology has seen power and wealth accumulate and concentrate among a small number of predominantly white men. A criticism levelled at transhumanists is that they never quite stopped clinging to the sci-fi that fascinated them as young boys.

“There is a degree to which many of them probably still are little boy fantasists,” says Bohan. “But they happen to be very, very clever little boy fantasists who also have engineering degrees and are very capable at building reusable rockets and what have you. I don’t think we can dismiss the real tangible, species-advancing projects they’re actually at the helm of.”

Regulating technology during this transhuman transition, argues Bohan, is not a good idea.

“All things being equal, would I rather a politician or cluster politicians ruling the nuclear powers of the nation states, or would I rather someone with a PhD from MIT who’s really really smart and understands the technological systems as best as a human being can?” she asks. “I’d rather it be the tech geek.”

“But that said, I’d rather it not be a human at all.” A technological solution to regulation would free decision-making from human biases, short-termism and tribalism – if done right, she says. “It might not go like that.”

Elise Bohan
Elise Bohan: ‘2100 … I think we’re going to be much farther ahead in the game.’ Photograph: Jessica Hromas

Best case, worst case

The worst case scenario she imagines sounds drawn from the pages of science fiction dystopias. A future where ruling AI does not share the values of human beings, nor value human beings at all.

The best case scenario for the end of the century? Bohan fully expects to still be alive (she’d be 110). “My honest answer is that I think the best case scenario is that by the end of the century… humans are done. But humanity is not done, right? So intelligence goes on,” she says.

There is a utopianism associated with that ideal of just being incredibly intelligent, being able to see farther than any intelligent human being has ever seen, to know more, to experience more, to feel more, to discover more.”

Future Superhuman by Elise Bohan front cover

But this imagining, she has come to believe, is beyond the capacity of most mortals. For them, there are the Cliff’s Notes.

“I think the comfortable version is: we have really good health care and everyone’s rich. And there’s lots of equality,” she laughs.

“But, 2100 – I don’t think that’s where we’re going to be. I think we’re going to be much farther ahead in the game.”

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.NET 6 comes to Ubuntu 22.04 • The Register

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Ubuntu and Microsoft have brought .NET 6 to the Ubuntu repositories, meaning that you can install it without adding any extra sources to the OS.

The announcement means that Ubuntu 22.04 is catching up with the Red Hat Linux family. As per Microsoft’s online docs, you could already do this on Fedora 36 as well as the more business-like variants: RHEL 8, CentOS Stream 8 and 9, and via scl-utils on RHEL 7.

Microsoft’s blog post about the news also mentions the ability to install the runtime, or the full SDK, into Ubuntu containers. Canonical also has new versions of these. It describes Ubuntu ROCKs as “new, ultra-small OCI-compliant appliance images, without a shell or package manager,” smaller than existing Ubuntu container images thanks to a new tool called chisel.

.NET 6 is Microsoft’s cross-platform toolchain for building apps to run on multiple platforms, including Windows, Linux, macOS, and mobile OSes. Essentially, it’s Microsoft’s answer to Oracle’s JVM – the increasingly inaccurately named Java Virtual Machine, which now supports multiple languages, including Clojure, Kotlin, Scala, and Groovy.

Microsoft’s own list of .NET languages is relatively short – C#, F#, and Visual Basic – although there are many others from outside the company. The list arguably should include PowerShell, but that already has its own Linux version.

Since 2014 or so, .NET primarily means what was formerly called .NET Core. According to Microsoft’s own diagram, that means the .NET Common Language Runtime, the bit which allows “managed code” to execute, and Microsoft’s web app framework ASP.NET.

There are three separate packages: dotnet-sdk-6.0, the SDK; dotnet-runtime-6.0, the CLR runtime; and aspnetcore-runtime-6.0, the runtime for ASP.NET. All three can be installed at once via the dotnet6 metapackage.

The notable bits of .NET that aren’t included in Core are the venerable Windows Forms framework or the slightly more modern Windows Presentation Framework, WPF.

Compare and contrast: .NET Framework versus .NET Core

Diagram showing .NET Core design

Click to enlarge

So don’t get excited and think that the inclusion of .NET in Ubuntu means that graphical .NET apps, such as Windows Store apps, can now be built and run natively on Linux. Limit your expectations to server-side stuff. This is a mainly a way to deploy console-based C# and ASP.NET apps into Ubuntu servers and Ubuntu containers.

When we asked Canonical about this, a spokesperson responded: “WPF is not currently supported in .NET 6 on Ubuntu. So, you’re correct that .NET 6 on Ubuntu is aimed at developers building text/server apps rather than graphical/GUI apps.”

We’ve also asked Microsoft if they have any additional information or details, and will update when they respond.

There are cross-platform graphical frameworks for .NET, including the open-source Avalonia and as well as Uno, which got on board in .NET 5. There is also Microsoft’s own Multi-platform App UI, or MAUI, which evolved out of Xamarin Forms.

The origins of .NET lie in Microsoft’s 1996 acquisition of Colusa Software for its OmniWare tool, which Colusa billed as “a universal substrate for web programming.” As Microsoft faced off against the US Department of Justice and European Commission, and the possibility of being broken into separate apps and OS divisions, it came up with Next Generation Windows Services, which then turned into .NET: a way to use Microsoft tools to build apps for any OS.

There is still controversy over exactly how open .NET really is, as exemplified by the aptly named isdotnetopen site. ®

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How cognitive science can be used to bring AI forward

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Dr Marie Postma spoke to SiliconRepublic.com about misconceptions around AI as well its relationship with human consciousness.

AI and robots are getting ‘smarter’ all the time. From Irish-made care robot Stevie to Spot the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, these tech helpers are popping up everywhere with a wide range of uses.

The tech beneath the hardware is getting smarter too. Earlier this year, Researchers at MIT developed a simpler way to teach robots new skills after only a few physical demonstrations. And just this week, Google revealed how its combining large language models with its parent company’s Everyday Robots to help them better understand humans.

However, the advances in these areas have led to recent discussions around the idea of sentient AI. While this idea has been largely rebuffed by the AI community, an understanding of the relationship between cognitive science and AI is an important one.

Dr Marie Postma is head of the department of cognitive science and artificial intelligence at Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences in the Netherlands.

The department is mainly financed by three education programmes and has around 100 staff and between 900 and 1,000 students.

‘Technology is not the problem; people are the problem’
– MARIE POSTMA

The team focuses on different research themes that combine cognitive science and AI, such as computational linguistics with a big focus on deep learning solutions, autonomous agents and robotics, and human-AI interaction, which is mainly focused on VR and its use in education.

Postma was a speaker at the latest edition of the Schools for Female Leadership in the Digital Age in Prague, run by Huawei’s European Leadership Academy.

Postma spoke to the 29 students about cognitive science and machine learning, starting with the history of AI and bringing it up to the modern-day challenges, such as how we can model trust in robots and the role empathy could play in AI.

“We have research where we are designing first-person games where people can experience the world from the perspective of an animal – not a very cuddly animal, it’s actually a beaver. That’s intentional,” she told me later that day.

Sentient AI

Her talk brought about a lot of discussion around AI and consciousness, a timely discussion following the news that Blake Lemione, a Google engineer, published an interview with the AI chatbot and claimed that it had become sentient.

Postma said much of the media coverage around this story had muddied the waters. “The way it was described in the media was more focused on the Turing test – interacting with an AI system that comes across as being human-like,” she said.

“But then at some point they mention consciousness, and consciousness is really a different story.”

Postma said that most people who research consciousness would agree that it’s based on a number of factors. Firstly it’s about having a perceptual basis, both the ability to perceive the world around us but also what’s happening inside us and being self-aware.

Secondly, the purpose of consciousness is being able to interpret yourself as someone who has feelings, needs, actionability in the world and a need to stay alive. “AI systems are not worried about staying alive, at least the way we construct them now, they don’t reflect on their battery life and think ‘oh no, I should go plug myself in’.”

Possibilities and limitations

While AI and robots don’t have consciousness, their ability to be programmed to a point where they can understand humans can be highly beneficial.

For example, Postma’s department has been conducting research that concerns brain-computer interaction, with a focus on motor imagery. “[This is] trying to create systems where the user, by focusing on their brain signal, can move objects in virtual reality or on computer screens using [electroencephalography].”

This has a lot of potential applications in the medical world for people who suffer from paralysis or in the advancements of prosthetic limbs.

Last year, researchers at Stanford University successfully implanted a brain-computer interface (BCI) capable of interpreting thoughts of handwriting in a 65-year-old man paralysed below the neck due to a spinal cord injury.

However, Postma said there is still a long way to go with this technology and it’s not just about the AI itself. “The issue with that is there are users who are able to do that and others who are not, and we don’t really know what the reasons are,” she said.

“There is some research that suggests that being able to do special rotation might be one of the factors but what we’re trying to discover is how we can actually train users so that they can use BCI.”

And in the interest of quelling any lingering fears around sentient AI, she also said people should not worry about this kind of technology being able to read their thoughts because the BCI is very rudimentary. “For the motor imagery BCI, it’s typically about directions, you know, right, left, etc.”

Other misconceptions about AI

Aside from exactly how smart the robots around us really are, one of the biggest falsehoods that Postma wants to correct is that the technology itself is not necessarily what causes the problems that surround it.

“What I repeat everywhere I go, is that the technology is not the problem, people are the problem. They’re the ones who create the technology solutions and use them in a certain way and who regulate them or don’t regulate them in a certain way,” she said.

“The bias in some AI solutions is not there because some AI solutions are biased, they’re biased because the data that’s used to create the solutions is biased so there is human bias going in.”

However, while bias in AI has been a major discussion topic for several years, Postma has an optimistic view on this, saying that these biased systems are actually helping to uncover biased data that would have previously been hidden behind human walls.

“It becomes explicit because all the rules are there, all the predictive features are there, even for deep learning architecture, we have techniques to simplify them and to uncover where the decision is made.”

While Postma is a major advocate for all the good AI can do, she is also concerned about how certain AI and data is used, particularly in how it can influence human decisions in politics.

“What Cambridge Analytica did – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And I don’t think they’re the only company that are doing that,” she said.

“I’m [also] concerned about algorithms that make things addictive, whether it’s social media or gaming, that really try to satisfy the user. I’m concerned about what it’s doing to kids.”

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‘I’m buying Manchester United’: Elon Musk ‘joke’ tweet charges debate over struggling club’s future | Elon Musk

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Tesla billionaire Elon Musk briefly electrified the debate about the future of Manchester United by claiming on Twitter that he is buying the struggling Premier League club – before saying that the post was part of a “long-running joke”.

He did not make clear his views on new coach Eric ten Hag’s controversial insistence on passing out from the back, or whether unhappy star striker Cristiano Ronaldo should be allowed to leave, but he did say that if he were to buy a sports team “it would be Man U. They were my fav team as a kid”.

With the team rooted to the bottom of the league after a humiliating 4-0 away defeat to Brentford, the outspoken entrepreneur’s tweet offered hope – however –briefly – to fans who want to see the back of current owners, the Florida-based Glazer family.

Also, I’m buying Manchester United ur welcome

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 17, 2022

Musk has a history of making irreverent tweets, and he later clarified the post by saying he was not buying sports teams.

No, this is a long-running joke on Twitter. I’m not buying any sports teams.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 17, 2022

Buying United, one of the biggest football clubs in the world, would have cost Musk at least £2bn, according to its current stock market valuation.

Manchester United’s recent on-pitch woes have led to increased fan protests against the Glazers, who bought the club in a heavily leveraged deal in 2005 for £790m ($955.51m).

The anti-Glazer movement gained momentum last year after United were involved in a failed attempt to form a breakaway European Super League.

But a takeover by Musk would have been a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for the club, given the billionaire’s tendency for off-the-cuff remarks and falling foul of market regulators.

Many were quick to point out that Musk had also promised to buy Twitter for $44bn before the deal collapsed in July, and has also boasted about colonising Mars and boosting birthrates on Earth.

That’s what you said about Twitter.

— Sema (@_SemaHernandez_) August 17, 2022

Fans responded with a mixture of bafflement and optimism given the lowly status of a club used to occupying the top places in the league rather than the bottom.

Manchester United did not immediately respond to a request for comment.



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