Interview with Anders Sandberg
by Jonathan Despres. Go to the Interviews.
Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what current projects are you involved in?
I’m a computational neuroscientist from Sweden doing philosophy in Oxford. From an early age I have been interested in more or less everything, so after studying math and computer science I got into neuroscience and psychology, and then the ethics and politics of emerging technologies. When I got an offer to work at the Future of Humanity Institutive in Oxford with the ethics of enhancing humans, I grabbed it.
What are your goals for the next decade?
I want to help get the concept of human enhancement technology accepted and understood, so that we can start figuring out what particular technologies are actually useful. For example, currently development of cognition enhancing drugs is a side effect of traditional pharmacological development, which leads to medicalisation (people invent medical conditions needing treatment since enhancement is not regarded as a valid medical goal) and impairs research both into how well they actually work, what their risks are and how they could be used. Similarly many other technologies actually enhance human potential tremendously (just think of Google, Wikipedia and smart cellphones) but are not recognized as enhancers – which means that some of the ethical problems surrounding enhancement still do not get addressed just because they tend to focus on things like drugs and genetics rather than software.
When do you think will we achieve real life extension?
We are already extending our lives, it is just that the extension is slower than our rate of ageing. I’m hopeful that our rapidly growing understanding of the nature of ageing and ageing damage will start to bear fruit in the next 10-20 years. That would imply that we might be seeing treatments within say 20-30 years.
Your vision of the future?
What I want to see is mankind to emerge on the galactic scene as an evolutionary radiation – not a single perfected species but a ever branching set of clades encompassing everything from software to traditional biology. I believe there is a real strength in diversity, and in order to prosper we need not just to cherish diversity but to actively expand it. That is going to be a major challenge over the coming decades as the traditional international system will undergo radical changes in response to an ever more capable, dangerous and rapid humanity. I don’t believe in any sharp singularity, but rather a great and turbulent swell of humanity.
Do you believe in Cryonics and when will it suceed?
I think cryonics is a worthwhile pursuit. Whether it will succeed or not is hard to tell, but I think it makes sense as a last resort. I would expect reanimation to become feasible somewhere after 2050. Personally I doubt the best or most likely way is cellular repair; I would go for straight scanning and reconstruction of the brain in the form of software instead.
What kind of jobs you did when you were younger and what is the important things you learned about it?
I have only held two nonacademic “real jobs”: working as a postman during summer holidays, and creating a brain exhibition after getting my Ph.D. From delivering mail I learned that physical exertion isn’t very appealing (and that your postman knows far more about your life than you would like to know). The brain exhibition got me in touch with all sorts of people – artists, museum administrators, carpenters and journalists – and I learned just how fascinating their disciplines are.
Why isn't the science of cryonics progressing at a rate commensurate to other sciences?
There are too few people doing any closely related work. The reason is partially that the cryobiology community got scared away early on by the apparent pseudoscientific angle and still have not reconsidered.
Do you believe in a God?
For all practical purposes I am an atheist. Which doesn’t stop me from occasionally being a pantheist – it is just that considering reality itself as God does not seem very religious when the divinity in question has no consciousness, agency, knowledge or independent existence independent from the rest of the universe.
What extropian values do you prefer the most and why?
I love complex systems, and I want to see more self-organisation of interesting structures. I want to help support a boundless expansion of life, organisation and complexity across the universe. Why? Because such systems are the only ones actually capable of experiencing anything valuable to them.
What do you think we should do to advance the quality of life of everybody?
Short term: find better ways of promoting open societies, so that people can free themselves of corruption, despotism and unnecessary regulations holding their life projects back.
Mid term: Solve the scarcity problems. Advanced technology tends to be clean and efficient: we can reduce many resource demands by virtualizing our tools, low-level control of matter allows effective recycling, biotechnology is the ultimate green technology and efficient systems can distribute and make use of disperse sources of energy.
Long term: Make it possible to explore new and meaningful realms, whether they be states of posthuman existence, space or new technologies. A civilization needs frontiers to thrive.
Do you see a future for biology? (considering bionics, ai, mind uploading, robotics)
Yes. I think it might be greener to upload and become a solid state civilisation than to lumber around in wasteful biological bodies. But virtual biology is also biology. I think we are going to see that bionics, AI and robotics will become suspiciously biology-like – what defines biology is its evolutionary tendencies rather than being squishy. There is also a very large amount of stored evolutionary experience in the genomes of life that will prove valuable.
The man or the woman that is a model for you? Why?
I have always wanted to know *everything*, so I have always admired those polymaths who more or less knew everything there was to know at their time – Leibniz, Athanasius Kircher, Leonardo, Newton, Benjamin Franklin or John von Neumann. Each had their own quirks and flaws, but show just what we humans can aspire to.
What do you think of last minute cases in cryonics?
If you have the money to do it, go for it. But it is safer to plan ahead.
The stuff you are proud in your life?
I have inspired other people to study and explore.
The stuff you are not proud in your life?
I leave far too many projects unfinished.
What would you love to accomplish before you die?
I’d like to have helped ensure that mankind will survive and flourish over cosmological epochs.
What is your greatest book ever? Why and when?
I think Barrow and Tipler’s _The Anthropic Cosmological Principle_ is my favorite. It encompasses everything from philosophy to physics to transhumanism to history – it was my starting point for really exploring the Big Picture issues facing intelligent life.
What are the languages of the universe for you?
Mathematics and evolution.
Is competition good in cryonics?
Yes. Sooner or later someone will come up with a good business and marketing model.
Imagine yourself as a space navigator and you discover a smaller, less advanced civilization on a planet, what would you do with them?
I would leave some helpful hints (perhaps inscribed on black monoliths just for fun) about key technologies or problems (this is how you make optics, the germ theory of disease, probability theory) and leave it up to them to find their uses.
What do you think biological simulations will do to cryonics, aging or nanotechnology?
I think they will become important in everyday medicine and research first, before becoming good enough to be applied to cryonics and ageing. Nanotechnology can likely get ahead using more traditional low-level chemistry simulations.
Overall, the world is becoming increasingly simulatable. That does not mean it becomes predictable. The need for tools for interpreting simulations is growing very fast!
What kind of mathematics is used in aging, cryonics & nanomedicine?
The key is sets of connected differential equations, describing how different concentrations, physiological parameters or molecule species interact. But there are many different ways of simulating complex systems: the real skill in simulation is not making the simulations themselves, but the ability to predict/guess how complex models to use.
What will be the best (central), most important tool in molecular manufacturing? And why ?
Distributed simulations. The space of possibility is so large that we need to rapidly sift through it to find designs that work.
Which path should we take for immortalism, nanomedicine or biogerontology or something else?
All of them. There is no particular approach we can safely say will work, we will have to explore many options in parallel. This requires a dynamist, bottom-up process rather than some technocratic project aiming at focusing on the One True Method.
What first attracted you to the idea of physical immortality?
Life is enjoyable, so why should it end?
What a company can do to become sucessful in the life extension business?
Invest in the right biochemical pathway; “owning” the treatment of a key bottleneck is going to be very valuable.
How handy an indefinite lifespan would be?
What would be the jobs of the future?
We are increasingly getting jobs that are meta-jobs: rather than manage matter and energy directly, we manage the technology that manages them – or the management of management. Services are important, but as they become automated again managing the automation becomes the key job. So being able to handle complex systems of people, machines and other systems is going to be a major requirement. That requires a great deal of adaptivity and creativity. Of course, the really profitable jobs are going to be about *creating* new such systems.
What do you think of the Paradise Engineering idea?
I think it is a promising project, although I’m not certain a pain-free motivation system is possible, at least for anything remotely similar to current organisms.
What do you think about the singularity, when will it happen?
I think we will either see it this century, or it will not happen. People tend to overestimate the rapidity of change in the near future, but underestimate the overall change. This makes me suspect that the “real” singularity will be something far broader and complex than just a self-improving AI. It is going to be at least as messy and multifaceted as the industrial revolution.
What's the future of "information technology" for you?
I want to have access to the infosphere all the time, on my own terms. That suggests something like the wearable computers (perhaps based around smartphones and a good heads up display), a really solid wireless infrastructure and smart user interfaces. A good user interface is invisible: things happen as you want them to happen, you do not think about how you make them happen. That, unfortunately, is extremely hard to design. I think design is the ultimate limitation for information technology.
What would be the great inventions/ideas of the future?
Right now we have the “superknowledge” of Google, Wikipedia and data mining producing nontrivial results. Once an easy user interface allows people to mine the total knowledge effectively we are going to become extremely powerful – and whoever runs the interface is going to become richer and more influential than Google.
In general, any technology making human capital significantly cheaper – be it cognition enhancement, better education, AI or uploading – will have enormous impact. Sure, a free energy source would be nice to have, but with more human capital it is easier to search for better energy sources than it is to improve human capital with energy.
What should we do to improve/clean our ecology?
Make telepresence and fabbing cheap and useful. Right now we send far too much matter over long distances for merely the purpose of getting information. Green parties worldwide ought to promote better communications and telepresence as well as efficient hightech small-scale manufacturing rather than trying to curb consumption – you get much bigger gains from making consumption efficient than from going against human desires.
Do you think molecular manufacturing (or anything else) could clean up pollution on earth and in space? If so, when and how?
MMF can certainly help clean up pollution, which is after all merely the wrong kind of matter in the wrong place. The real problem is repairing ecosystems: for this nanotechnology is less useful than biotechnology, but I can imagine that putting sensor bots in every square meter of the biosphere may help us safeguard it much better.
Your best movie ever is?
The Truman Show.
Your religion is?
Your political view?
Your web page is?
Your contact information?
The Future of Humanity Institute
Faculty Of Philosophy
University of Oxford
Suite 8, Littlegate House
16/17 St Ebbe's Street
Oxford, OX1 1PT
Your favorite song, and your favorite style of music are ?
Arclight by VNV Nation. I’m fond of many styles, everything from baroque music over trance techno to minimalist modern to Arabian chants to bhangra to Japanese synth music.
What would you want to enhance the most?
I would enhance my ability to set priorities and stick to them, my working memory and my ability to finish what I start. When enhancing ourselves we should aim for enhancing the major bottlenecks.
Why are you optimistic?
Because there is no *use* in feeling bad in most situations. Psychological studies have shown that pessimists are not happier than optimists despite more rarely being disappointed. Meanwhile the optimists feel that they can actually do something about their problems.
Do you know a good person that I should interview?
What about professor Julian Savulescu?