⏳ Transhumanism, Virtual Existence & Live Podcast Events | #001
Welcome to the FUTURES Newsletter by British futurist Luke Robert Mason. Powered by the FUTURES Podcast.
Thank you to everyone who has been listening to the FUTURES Podcast.
Since I launched the show in December 2019 I’ve been lucky enough to speak with some fantastic guests including BBC historian Alice Roberts, Royal Astronomer Lord Martin Rees, physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili, NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan, neuroscientist David Eagleman, philosopher of consciousness David Chalmers, bionic pop artist Viktoria Modesta, and viral historian Rutger Bregman.
In November 2022 I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to meet some of you in person at our first FUTURES Podcast Live events in partnership with Kings Place - the UK home of live podcasting.
Earlier this year I partnered with Blinkist to turn a selection of our best episodes into Shortcasts. These short-audio experiences take a podcast episode’s key takeaways and insights, adds some fresh perspective, and then condenses them into a powerful listen of up to fifteen minutes.
You can hear an example of an episode below:
You can listen to all of the FUTURES Shortcast episodes by trying Blinkist Premium free for 7 days!
This newsletter is designed to keep you up-to-date with our latest shows, but will also keep you informed on the newest innovations and insights from across the world of science, technology and the near future.
Here is a sample of the sorts of things you’ll see in the coming weeks:
🤖 Robots & A.I.
Tesla AI Unveils Humanoid Optimus Robot
It has been an entire year since Tesla announced that they were working on a humanoid robot. For some utterly bizarre reason, they chose to do this by dressing someone as an android and having them dance for an assembled crowd of Tesla employees. Thankfully at this year’s Tesla AI Day, the company unveiled something far more mechanical - Optimus. The robot walked onto the stage untethered, waved at folk in the audience and - somewhat inevitably - did a little dance.
While it captured the imagination of journalists, tech-bros and ‘Elon Musk stans’ it has been critiqued by robotics experts many of whom took to Twitter to call it ‘next level cringeworthy’.
Whatever your opinion on this development, Tesla’s move into humanoid robotics may look set to solve some key problems: the challenges of building a ‘software brain’, and the high cost of manufacture - often caused by low production volumes. Musk aims to produce the robots for less than $20,000 with Optimus using the same self-driving technology found in Tesla cars.
"I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight [on AI], maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish.” - Elon Musk
For someone who has been famously wary of AI, it feels like Musk remains blissfully unaware of the very real dangers of a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Ai-Da Robot Debates Artificial Intelligence in the House of Lords, UK
Ai-Da, “the world’s first robot artist”, has become the first robot to give evidence to a parliamentary committee as part of its inquiry into the future of the creative industries in the United Kingdom. What was supposed to be a historical performance was met by technical challenges when Ai-Da shut down halfway through the session. Experts in the fields of AI and robotics, when asked about this performance, said this was a missed opportunity. Meanwhile, political pundits have pointed out that this was not the most robotic performance we’ve seen in UK politics in the last month.
Boston Dynamics’ Open Letter
Boston Dynamics along with five other leading robotics companies - Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics and Unitree Robotics - has signed an open letter promising that they will not weaponise their robots. They are calling other companies to join them. This letter is a response to recent videos that show companies adding weaponry to their robots. The letter claims that these projects, “harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society”. Tesla is yet to sign the letter.
🦿 Bionics & Prosthetics
3D Printed Prosthetics
When Enzo Romero saw Star Wars he was inspired, by Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand, to pursue a career in mechatronics and build robotic prosthetics. In this TED Talk Romero shares the journey that led him to build an affordable 3D-printed prosthetic hand constructed from recycled materials. The result is a prosthetic that costs much less than other products and is more accessible to people in his native Peru. While I’m supportive of these sorts of projects we should always be careful not to engage in ‘prosthetic envy’.
Ready for a Bionic Upgrade?
Manuel Giuseppe Catalano, a researcher in soft robotics at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, believes that technology will advance to the point when able-bodied people could replace their natural limbs with bionics. He believes that this will start to happen within the next ten years. Right now he’s working on connecting prosthetic hands directly to the spinal cord, but his goal is to enable everyone to replace their aged limbs with new ones.
🧠 Brain & Neuroscience
Lab-Grown Brain Cells Play Pong
Researchers have grown brain cells and then connected them to a computer via electrodes to play Pong. The ‘mini-brain’ learned to play the game within five minutes with a success rate that suggests this was more than just chance. One of the researchers behind this experiment went as far as claiming that this is, “the first sentient lab-grown brain”. This is a claim that other researchers say goes too far. An advocate of using brain cells to control robots was our first FUTURES Podcast guest, Prof. Kevin Warwick.
The Promise of Aging Research Isn’t Longevity
Researchers at Buck Institute for Research on Aging do not work on making humans live longer instead they focus on healthspan - extending the period of time that humans are healthy. It’s a distinction that Dr Andrew Steel is keen to emphasise.
NEO.LIFE takes us behind the scenes to show us what is really going on inside this little-known research centre, and how they plan to achieve the goal of making humans live better and healthier lives.
🎟 Live Podcast Events
I’m excited to announce our first series of live podcast events in partnership with Kings Place - the UK home of live podcasting.
🎤 Our Superhuman Future
Thursday 10 November 2022, 7PM - 8:30PM @ Kings Place, London, UK
Transhumanists believe that the only way for humanity to survive in the future is to merge with advanced technology. Today’s rapid developments in gene-editing and artificial intelligence point to the potential for a ‘humanity 2.0’ to upload their minds, enhance their bodies, create robot companions and have babies outside the womb. Ideas that were previously considered science fiction are fast becoming a reality. When might we expect these developments, and what ethical issues will they create?
Join Elise Bohan (University of Oxford) Prof. Steve Fuller (University of Warwick) and Anders Sandberg (Future of Humanity Institute) to discover what transhumanism means for the future of humankind.
🎤 Jim Al-Khalili on the Joy of Science
Thursday 24 November 2022, 7PM - 8:30PM, Kings Place, London, UK
Discover the joy of thinking and living a little more scientifically. Making an informed decision can feel near-impossible in a world of increasing complexity, unpredictability and contradictions. But the methods we use in science – to learn about the world around us – can also be our best tools in helping us better navigate everyday life. What can scientists teach us about how to agree without being disagreeable? How can we come to terms with changing our minds in light of new evidence?
Join physicist and BBC broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili and explore how the scientific method can be applied to wider society and help humanity thrive.
🎙 Latest Episode
I had the pleasure of speaking with the founder of Second Life Philip Rosedale who shared his thoughts on what virtual worlds can teach us about being human, the relationship between Second Life users and their avatars, and the challenges of building the metaverse using Web 3.0 technologies.
Virtual worlds, and the people who inhabit them, have long interested me. My first experience of Second Life occurred in 2010 at the University of Sussex where the then-PhD student (and former FUTURES Podcast guest) Dani Ploeger, and his colleague Seda Ilter, had organised an academic conference titled, “(re) Performing the Posthuman”.
I was a 20-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Warwick and had travelled to Sussex in anticipation of seeing a presentation by the artist Stelarc. He was attending the conference virtually, from Australia, by ‘performing as his avatar’. He gave us a tour through his Second Life Museum - a space that contained virtual renderings of some of his most iconic works, with digital walls adorned by virtual flesh. All the while his iconic laugh echoed in the space contrasted against a constant mechanical ping. It was a captivating experience.
But what caught my attention the most was something that Stelarc said during his presentation about the concept of a “Third Life”. The idea that not only could you control your avatar, but your avatar could - one day - control you! I asked Philip about this possibility on this podcast episode. I think you might be surprised to hear his answer!
🎓 Personal News
Earlier this month I took the first step in fulfilling a lifelong ambition of getting a PhD. I have returned to the University of Warwick - after studying my undergraduate there over a decade ago. Warwick has always had a special place in my heart. It was because of my time there (2008-2011) that I discovered the cult cyber-culture conference Virtual Futures - that I revived in 2011, and continued as a salon series in London between 2015-2019. These events had a massive impact on my independent intellectual development, and as such, the Uni has always felt like a spiritual home.
For the next four years, I’ll be an ESRC Funded 1+3 Postgraduate Student at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies and will spend my first year completing the MA in Social Science Research as part of the Doctoral Training Programme.
During my studies, I’ll be looking at the theme of robotic personhood. More on that soon.
📰 Other News (From Friends & Subscribers)
My friends at Cybersalon have launched a science fiction anthology. The book focuses on four main areas of rapid change: money, communities and identity, health and food, and retail and the reshaping of our high streets.
Douglas Rushkoff’s dark but hilarious new book ‘Survival of the Richest’ is now available in all good bookstores. The tech elite has a plan to survive the apocalypse: they want to leave us all behind.
If you have something you want to share in this newsletter feel free to reach out.
Luke Robert Mason
If you have any questions, recommendations or suggestions, reply to this email or tweet me @LukeRobertMason.