Sat 05-Sep-2020

In the past 2 years or so I have been increasingly interested in the transhumanist movement. Transhumanism has a bit of a mixed reputation in “serious” circles of business and academia – sometimes patronised, sometimes ridiculed, occasionally sparking some interest. With its audacious goals of (extreme) lifespan / healthspan extension, radical enhancement of physical and cognitive abilities, all the way up to brain uploading and immortality one can kind of understand where the ridicule is coming from. I can’t quite comprehend the prospect of immortality, but it’d be nice to have an option. And I wouldn’t think twice before enhancing my body and mind in all the ways science wishes to enable.

With that mindset, I started attending (first in person, then, when the world as we knew it ended, online) transhumanist events. Paradoxically, Covid-19 pandemic enabled me to attend *more* events than before, including Humanity+ Festival. Had it been organised in a physical location, it would have likely been the in US; even if it was held in London, I couldn’t take 2 days off work to attend it, I save my days off for my family. I was very fortunate to be able to attend it online.

I attended a couple of fascinating presentations during the 2020 event, and I will try to present them in individual posts.

I’d say that – based on the way it is often referred to as a cult – transhumanism is currently going through the first stage of Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth. The first stage is ridicule, the second stage is violent opposition, and the third stage is being accepted as self-evident. I (and the sci-fi-loving kid inside me) find many of the transhumanist concepts interesting. I don’t concern myself too much with how realistic they seem today, because I realise how many self-evident things today (Roomba; self-driving cars; pacemakers; Viagra; deepfakes) seemed completely unrealistic, audacious, and downright crazy only a couple of years / decades ago. In fact, I *love* all those crazy, audacious ideas which focus on possibilities and don’t worry too much about limitations.

Humanity+ is… what is it actually? I’d say Humanity+ is one of the big players / thought leaders in transhumanism, alongside David Wood’s London Futurists and probably many other groups I am not aware of. Humanity+ is currently led by the fascinating, charismatic, and – it just has to be said – stunning Natasha Vita-More.

Transhumanist movement is a tight-knit community (I can’t consider myself a member… I’m more of a fan) with a number of high-profile individuals: Natasha Vita-More, Max More (aka Mr. Natasha Vita-More aka the current head of cryogenic preservation company Alcor), David Wood, Jose Cordeiro, Ben Goertzel. They are all brilliant, charismatic, and colourful individuals. As a slightly non-normative individual I suspect their occasionally eccentric ways work can sometimes work against them in the mainstream academic and business circles, but I wouldn’t have them any other way.

During the 2020 event Max More talked about UBI (Universal Basic Income). I quite like the idea of UBI, but I appreciate there are complexities and nuances to it, and I’m probably not aware of many of them. Max More definitely gave it some thought, and he presented some really interesting thoughts and posed many difficult questions. For starters, I liked reframing UBI as “negative income tax” – the very term “UBI” sends so many thought leaders and politicians (from more than one side of the political spectrum) into panic mode, but “negative income tax” sounds just about as capitalist and neoliberal as it gets. More amused the audience with realisation (which, I believe, was technically correct), that Donald Trump’s USD 1,200 cheques for all Americans were in fact UBI (who would have thought that of all people it would be Donald Trump who implements UBI on a national scale first…? Btw, it could be argued that with their furlough support Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak did something very similar in the UK – though these cheques were not for everyone, only for those who couldn’t work due to lockdown; so this was more like Guaranteed Minimum Income).

The questions raised by More were really thought-provoking:

  • Will / should UBI be funded by taxing AI?
  • Should it be payable to immigrants? Legal and illegal?
  • Should UBI be paid per individual or per household?
  • What about people with medical conditions requiring extra care? They would require UBI add-ons, which undermines the whole concept.
  • Should people living in metropolitan cities like London be paid the same amount as people living in the (cheaper) countryside?
  • How should runaway inflation be prevented?

Lastly, More suggested some alternatives to UBI which (in his view) could work better. He proposed an idea of universal endowment (sort of universal inheritance, but without an actual wealthy relative dying) for everyone. It wouldn’t be a cash lump-sum (which so many people – myself included – could probably spend very quickly and not-too-wisely), but a more complex structure: a bankruptcy-protected stock ownership. The idea is very interesting – wealthy people (and even not-so-wealthy people) don’t necessarily leave cash to their descendants: physical assets aside (real estate etc.) leaving shares, bonds, and other financial assets in one’s will is relatively common. Basically the wealthier the benefactor, the more diverse the portfolio of assets they’d leave behind. The concept of bankruptcy-protected assets is not new, it exists in modern law (e.g. US Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows the bankrupting party to keep their property), but to me it sounded like More meant it in a different way. If More meant his endowment as a market-linked financial portfolio whose value cannot go down – well, this can be technically done (long equity + long put options on the entire portfolio) – but only to a point. Firstly, it would be challenging doing it on a mass scale (the supply of required amount of put options could or could not be a problem, but their prices would likely go up so much across the board that it would have a substantial impact on the value and profitability of the entire portfolio). Secondly, one cannot have a portfolio whose value can truly only go up – it wouldn’t necessarily be the proverbial free lunch, but definitely a free starter. Put options have expiry dates (all options do), and their maturity is usually months, not years. Expiring options can be replaced (rolled) with longer-dated ones, but this would come with a cost. Perpetual downside protection of a portfolio with put options could erode its value over time (especially in adverse market conditions, i.e. underlying assets values not going up).

If More had something even more innovative in mind then it could require rewriting some of the financial markets rulebook (why would anyone invest the old-fashioned way without bankruptcy protection when everyone would have their bankruptcy-protected endowments?). I’m not saying it’s never going to happen – in fact I like the idea a lot (and I realise how much different my life could be from the material perspective had I received such endowment when I was entering adulthood), I’m just pointing out practical considerations to address.

And one last thing: speaking from personal experience, I’d say that this endowment *definitely* shouldn’t be paid in full upon reaching the age of 18 (at least not for guys… I was a total liability at that age; I’d squander any money in a heartbeat); nor 21. *Maybe* 25, but frankly, I think a staggered release from mid-20’s to mid-30’s would work best.