Categotry Archives: Fiction

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Children Should be Encouraged to Read Fantasy Fiction – Article by Jon Miltimore

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Categories: Education, Fiction, Tags: , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatJon Miltimore
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Recently I spoke with a friend who expressed some angst that his 12-year-old son was primarily interested in reading fantasy novels. Efforts to introduce the lad to higher forms of literature were proving more difficult than he’d expected.

Not to worry. Fantasy novels and science fiction yarns, I said, are often gateways to the higher forms of literature. This was not just my opinion, I added, it was my experience.

When I was 12, I was not yet much of a fan of reading. I had enjoyed some young adult fiction writers (S.E. Hinton, R.L. Stein, Christopher Pike, etc.) and enjoyed the histories of NFL football teams, but I didn’t have a passion for books. That changed when my father gave me J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

For years my father had tried to get me interested in the classics and his favorite histories to no avail. Then he tried a new tactic. Perhaps taking a tip from Montaigne, he gave me Tolken’s epic trilogy, which I devoured in a couple weeks. Terry Brooks’ Shannara books followed, and then the first few books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Then a new book came out with a cool title — A Game of Thrones — that blew them all away.

I bring all this up not to demonstrate how big of a fantasy dork I am. (I also occasionally played real-time strategy computer games. Sue me.) I share it to make a point: these books taught me to love reading.

Fantasy fiction is often pooh-poohed by academics and intellectuals, but it can whet the appetite learning. In my case, the great historical fictions of James Clavell, Gary Jennings, and Ken Follet followed Lord of the Rings. Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Dostoevsky came not long after; then the histories of Foote, Barzun, and Michener.

But the case for fantasy fiction goes beyond my personal experience. Scientific research shows there are clear positive neural affects to novel reading. For example, Emory University researchers found that students experienced heightened activity in the left temporal lobe of the brain, the area associated with semantics, for days after reading novels.

It should go without saying that reading nothing but fantasy fiction, even good fantasy fiction, is not a path to a well-rounded education or intellectual maturity. But fantasy novels can awaken imaginations, inspire creativity, and create a passion for story-telling.

So if you’re a little worried that your teenage daughter seems a little too obsessed with, say, Hunger Games, relax. She’ll likely be reading George Eliot and Byron in a year or two.

Jon Miltimore is the Senior Editor of Intellectual Takeout. Follow him on Facebook.

This article was originally published on Intellectual Takeout.

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Science Fiction and Communist Reality – Article by Lawrence W. Reed

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Categories: Economics, Fiction, History, Science, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatLawrence W. Reed
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Real Heroes: Stanislaw Lem

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921–2006) “skillfully dissected the 20th century’s foolhardy efforts to create utopias by stifling individuality and economic freedoms.” So said cultural critic Bruce Edward Walker. Lem was best known internationally as author of the classic Solaris — twice adapted for the silver screen — but the majority of his fiction featured damning allegories against the suppression of the human spirit.

Lem ranks high in the Polish pantheon of independent thinkers and dissidents, any list of which would be long and distinguished. Poland’s role in the historic unraveling of the Soviet empire was pivotal by any measure. And while world leaders from Pope John Paul II to Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher played a part, the audacity of the homegrown resistance is a story that is still underemphasized to this day.

In November 1986, I spent nearly two weeks in Poland with the anticommunist underground. This was five years after the Warsaw government declared martial law and threw many pro-freedom activists in jail. It was still many months before the big changes of 1989 that would liberate Eastern Europe from the communist yoke. One night during my visit, I met in a private home with a half-dozen underground printers. They were eager to impress me with examples of many great pro-freedom books they had illegally translated, printed, and distributed throughout the country.

I asked, “Where did you get the paper to publish all this stuff?”

“From two places,” replied a young man named Pavel. “One, we smuggle it in from the West. Two, we steal it from communists.”

When I asked him to explain the second source, he revealed that many of the workers in the communist government’s publishing houses were sympathetic to the resistance. When those workers saw the opportunity, they smuggled the paper out or even printed resistance literature on the government’s own printing presses.

The impressive stack of illegally printed books those printers showed me included works by great scholars of liberty from the West — Freeman writers F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray N. Rothbard, to name just three. I later raised $5,000 for the underground to translate, publish, and distribute Milton Friedman’s classic Free to Choose, a copy of which I proudly display today in a glass case in my study. But there were books, essays, and ideas by native Poles that the underground took risks to disseminate as well. Stanislaw Lem was one of them.

Born in 1921, Lem survived both Nazi occupation and Soviet rule in the town of his birth, which was known alternately as Lwów in free Poland, Lvov in the Soviet Union, and Lviv in modern Ukraine. His father was a doctor, and Lem was poised to follow in his footsteps until Hitler’s invasion in 1939. He was forced to work as a mechanic but became a crack saboteur: “I learnt to damage German vehicles in such a way that it wouldn’t be discovered,” he said.

Lem resumed his medical studies following the war, eventually finishing his degree in Cracow in 1946. He intended to pursue a career in theoretical biology, but abandoned his plans rather than adhere to the since-discredited practices of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko. He turned to writing, only to have his first novel, The Hospital of the Transfiguration, banned by communist censors for nearly a decade.

By 1951, Lem realized that his only hope of publishing was to mask his views as allegorical works of science fiction. State apparatchiks in charge of expunging subversive works from the public square were too stupid to appreciate his subtlety, but Polish intellectuals and many ordinary readers knew full well what the underlying message was. What Lem did with a wrench to German vehicles, he later did with pen and ink to the communist state.

Lem used his considerable intellect (he reportedly had an IQ of 180) and writing skills to parody Soviet and Polish leaders and subtly convey the torments of communist life. He is seen as in the same mold as satirical fantasists Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka. In the estimation of many who took great risks to criticize the Soviet and allied Eastern European regimes, his work sits comfortably alongside such anti-totalitarian classics as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

Lem’s writings have been translated into at least 40 languages, have sold nearly 30 million copies, and span a wide range from screenplays, short stories, and mystery novels to more serious matters of philosophy, cybernetics, and the nature of intelligence itself.

The Astronauts, published in 1951, was followed by Time Not Lost, a fictionalized account of Nazi occupation of Poland. Return from the Stars, published in 1961, presented a world devoid of “the hell of passion, and then it turned out that in the same sweep, heaven, too, had ceased to be. Everything now is lukewarm.” This bland reality, noted reviewer Marilyn Jurich, “reduces the possibility of individuals accepting personal risks,” resulting in “a monotone, denatured safe world at the cost of direct experience in a nature that is open, unknown, risky; a world where wild animals have disappeared along with human emotion and initiative. Individuals have few means left to test physical capacity or mental endurance.”

Nightmarish Conformity

The short story “The Thirteenth Voyage,” in the collection The Star Diaries, depicts the totalitarian urge at its most invasive. In that story, the Angelicans, a group of social engineers, determine that all human foibles can be solved by collectivization, producing a nightmarish, stagnant conformity. Having lived through collectivism of both the national socialist and communist varieties, Lem knew his subject well.

Lem published his last collection of fiction in 1988, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union. He told interviewer Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. in 1985,

The literature of the 20th century has lost its battle, or at least finds itself in retreat.… The tales of refugees from totalitarian countries reduce themselves to an exhaustive catalogue of social and psychological suffering that such systems treat their citizens to. These books cannot pick their readers up, and the lessons they teach are not pleasant. One could say that the job of literature is not primarily to entertain, move, and cheer us up, but as [Joseph] Conrad said, to ‘bring the visible world to justice.’ Well, in order to bring this world to justice, it is first necessary to understand it with one’s intellect, to appreciate the wealth of its diversity.

Another Polish dissident, Stefan Kisielewski, was once jailed for an eloquent three-word sentence: “Socialism is stupidism.”

As a rule, dictators understand the power of ideas better than most people, which is why they often make it illegal to simply harbor a certain thought or give that thought expression in ink on paper.

Thankfully, courageous men and women like Stanislaw Lem found creative ways around evil regimes — a key reason those very regimes now exist, with a few exceptions, only in the history books.

For further information, see:

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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The Martian – Movie Review by Edward Hudgins

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Categories: Fiction, Science, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatEdward Hudgins
October 13, 2015
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The Martian, from director Ridley Scott, is an exciting film about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet. It celebrates the heroism that comes from human reason. And it points to what it will take for humans in coming decades to make Mars a new home for humanity. With the film coming on the heels of NASA’s confirmation of liquid water on the Martian surface, that home could be closer than you think!

“I’m not gonna die!”

The Martian is based on a novel that author Andy Weir originally published himself online and offered as a free download. The author and the film take care to be as scientifically accurate as possible in the context of a fictional offering.

Martian_1The movie opens with the third crew to land on Mars rushing back to their landing craft ahead of a sudden sandstorm that threatens to destroy it and them. (In reality, Mars’s thin atmosphere would mean such a storm would annoy rather than kill. But then there’d be no story!)

Unfortunately, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris from some destroyed communications equipment and blown away. Sensors indicate his suit’s seal has been breached, meaning his oxygen has escaped and he’s likely dead. The rest of the crew takes off without searching for his body to avoid being killed themselves.

They begin their sad, year-long journey home after informing the world of the tragedy.

But Watney is alive! The breach in his suit was sealed by blood and the debris lodged in his side. He gets back to the habitat the astronauts had used as their base. But his future still looks grim. He is out of contact with Earth and his shipmates. The next Mars mission is not scheduled to arrive for four years and will land 3,000 kilometers from where he is. He has nowhere nearly enough food rations to survive that long. But he declares, “I’m not gonna die,” and we see his mind at work in the video logs he makes of his efforts.

Intelligence for survival

“Let’s do the math!” he says as he figures out that he must grow three years’ worth of potatoes on a frozen planet where nothing grows and find some way to water and fertilize his crops. But he’s a botanist and he declares, “Mars will come to fear my botany power!” He converts part of the hab into a makeshift greenhouse. Human waste—what the crew left in its short visit and what he will produce in the years ahead—will be his fertilizer. The water will come from a jury-rigged setup that extracts it from other substances at hand in the hab.

Martian_2

Watney contemplates how to get his tractor, which needs batteries recharged every 35 kilometers, to trek a hundred times that distance, how to carry enough supplies for that journey, how to contact Earth, and many other challenges. And he declares, “I’m gonna have to science the s**t out of this!”

Director Scott does not give us wishful thinking, mere muscles, unconvincing machismo, or deus-ex-machina miracles. He gives us intelligence as the key to survival.

Will they succeed?

Meanwhile, back at NASA, satellite photos show activity at the hab, meaning Watney is alive. Scientists on Earth observe him trekking out into the desert and guess, correctly, that he’s searching for a decades-old Pathfinder probe to try to revive its old radio system, which he does. Now they can communicate.

But Watney’s farming efforts are cut short by an accident, and NASA’s plan to send an unmanned resupply ship does not go as planned. The one slim hope, which NASA opposes, is for his shipmates to swing around Earth rather than land as they’re supposed to and return to Mars to rescue him. Will they do so? Will they succeed?

Optimism, intelligence, ingenuity

Many elements of The Martian are familiar from other movies. Gravity (2013) gave us drifting in space, trying to return to a ship. Apollo 13 (1995) was a film version of real-life astronauts with a disabled spacecraft trying to get home safely from an aborted lunar mission. The Martian, like Apollo 13, gives us a vision of the heroic that comes from the same source that allows humans to travel to other worlds to begin with: the human mind.

Some might think that a film about the how hostile Mars is to human life would discourage people from ever wanting to go there, much less live there. I disagree. Humans are explorers and achievers.

In 1996 Robert Zubrin published The Case for Mars, outlining an innovative plan for getting to the Red Planet for a fraction of the cost of a NASA mission. He founded the Mars Society, which runs conferences and simulations of Mars missions in the arctic, in preparation for the real thing. Other groups such as Explore Mars have sprung up in recent years. Other innovative mission models have been proposed, including one from Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. And Mars One proposes to send settlers to the Red Planet on one-way trips, to be permanent occupants. Private entrepreneur Elon Musk founded his rocket company SpaceX with the goal of establishing permanent settlements on the Red Planet. And NASA’s confirmation of water on the surface of Mars opens further possibilities for future colonies.

The Martian is an uplifting film that does not minimize the challenges of life; indeed, Watney explains that he knew going in that space travel was dangerous and that he could be killed. But he says that once you acknowledge that you might die, you deal with the problem at hand and the next and the next. This is humanity at its best. Damon as Watney gives a fine performance. His character must keep up his optimism—without maudlin emotionalism or self-deceiving bravado. He must demonstrate intelligence and ingenuity. In all this we see the best of the human spirit!

Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.

Copyright, The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

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The Science Fiction of Scarcity – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Fiction, Science, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
October 6, 2015
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We Have Such Abundance That We Fantasize about Having Less.

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We all know the scene. The urbane starship captain steps up to the console and requests, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” He waits a second or two until a steaming, perfectly brewed cup shimmers into existence.

From medieval dreams of the Land of Cockaigne, where roofs are shingled with pastries and roasted chickens fly into our waiting mouths, to the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs,” to Star Trek’s replicator, we have imagined the bright futures and the glorious new worlds that would give us instant abundance.

The “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” type of scene is such a standby it even has its own parodies, where instant preference satisfaction is not exactly … satisfying.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism, and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (Douglas Adams, Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

If we didn’t know what was supposed to happen, and if we didn’t fully expect the future to fulfill our fantasies, and if we didn’t have a certain amount of frustrated experience with modern machines that promise wonders but deliver things that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike them, the scene wouldn’t be funny.

But I find science fiction most compelling when it goes in the other direction — when instead of imagining the end of scarcity, it imagines the end of abundance. The movie Total Recall imagines life on Mars, where even the air is rationed. The gritty reboot of the television series Battlestar Galactica puts us in world where fewer than 50,000 humans have survived and escaped from an enemy attack. The survivors spend much of their time trying to subsist in space amid constant and growing shortages of food, water, fuel, ammunition, and pretty much everything else.

In works like these — and yes, I know their imaginings are as romantic as the imaginings of Star Trek — we get to watch human beings pushed to their limits, using every bit of their ingenuity in order to survive. It was no accident, after all, that Gene Roddenberry called space “the final frontier.”

The latest iteration of this kind of scarcity science fiction is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, the movie version of which premiered October 2. I first learned about The Martian through the XKCD webcomic strip describing the plot as made out of “the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘we have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table of parts or the astronauts will all die.’”

I was sold.

And it’s no spoiler to say that this is precisely the plot of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first people to visit Mars. When the mission goes awry, his crew has to evacuate, and Mark is left behind. Everyone thinks he’s dead.

He’s not, though, and the remainder of the book is caught up in the details of the scarcities he faces, his creative attempts to overcome them, and our nail-biting suspense over whether he can survive one more hour, one more day, and maybe long enough to be rescued. Mark describes his situation like this:

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab [the atmosphere-controlled habitat in which astronauts from his mission could live without wearing spacesuits] designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

Mark’s assessment of his situation, which ends with, “I’m f—ed,” appears on page 7 of the novel. We spend 360 more pages following his solitary attempts to science his way out of the problem. And if you’re at all like me, you won’t be able to put the book down until you find out what happens. Done well, the movie should convey that same nail-biting suspense.

The Martian, and scarcity science fiction in general, is a good reminder to all of us that the real miracle of the market is not the great individual with the great idea, bringing it to fruition and selling it to all of us. The real miracle of the market is that it reliably supplies us, every day, with all the necessities that Mark Watney has to work for so desperately. And it does that by allowing us to cooperate, and to broaden that cooperation beyond our immediate context, to the extended and anonymous world. That long-distance cooperation allows us to access so many different human skills, strengths, and abilities.

With only himself to rely on, Mark (who is primarily a botanist) is painfully aware of the skills he lacks, skills he relied on in his crewmembers who specialize in chemistry, or engineering, or other sciences. While it becomes clear that his botany skills will be a crucial part of his survival, so are all these others, and without any possibility of cooperating, he has to go it alone. He’s in the position of the folks who try to build a toaster entirely from scratch, or make a sandwich all on their own.

I loved reading The Martian, and I can’t wait to see the movie. Stories like this, and like Battlestar Galactica and others, allow me to explore the limits of the human ability to survive. I’m happy to visit those worlds and to entertain myself with their emotional and suspenseful visions of life on the narrowest of possible margins.

But the world I want to live in is the one where cooperation, through the mechanisms of the market, brings us movies about scarcity and survival, while outside the movie theater we enjoy real-life abundance. And also, maybe one day, a replicator that will allow my own cup of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” to shimmer miraculously into being.

Sarah Skwire is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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“Ex Machina” Movie Review – Article by Edward Hudgins

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Categories: Culture, Fiction, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatEdward Hudgins
July 3, 2015
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ex-machina-review-objectivism

How will we know if an artificial intelligence actually attains a human level of consciousness?

As work in robotics and merging man and machine accelerates, we can expect more movies on this theme. Some, like Transcendence, will be dystopian warnings of potential dangers. Others, like Ex Machina, elicit serious thought about what it is to be human. Combining a good story and good acting, Ex Machina should interest technophiles and humanists alike.

The Turing Test

The film opens on Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) , a 27-year-old programmer at uber-search engine company Blue Book, who wins a lottery to spend a week at the isolated mountain home of the company’s reclusive genius creator, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). But the hard-drinking, eccentric Nathan tells Caleb that they’re not only going to hang out and get drunk.

He has created an android AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a mostly woman-like, but part robot-like, appearance. The woman part is quite attractive. Nathan wants Caleb to spend the week administering the Turing Test to determine whether the AI shows intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. Normally this test is administered so the tester cannot see whether he’s dealing with a human and or machine. The test consists of exchanges of questions and answers, and is usually done in some written form. Since Caleb already knows Ava is an AI, he really needs to be convinced in his daily sessions with her, reviewed each evening with Nathan, that Nathan has created, in essence, a sentient, self-conscious human. It’s a high bar.

Android sexual attraction

Ava is kept locked in a room where her behavior can be monitored 24/7. Caleb talks to her through a glass, and at first he asks standard questions any good techie would ask to determine if she is human or machine. But soon Ava is showing a clear attraction to Caleb. The feeling is mutual.

In another session Ava is turning the tables. She wants to know about Caleb and be his friend. But during one of the temporary power outages that seems to plague Nathan’s house, when the monitoring devices are off, Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is not his friend and not to trust him. When the power comes back on, Ava reverts to chatting about getting to know Caleb.

In another session, when Ava reveals she’s never allowed out of the room, Caleb asks where she would choose to go if she could leave. She says to a busy traffic intersection. To people watch! Curiosity about humanity!

Ava then asks Caleb to close his eyes and she puts on a dress and wig to cover her robot parts. She looks fully human. She says she’d wear this if they went on a date. Nathan later explains that he gave Ava gender since no human is without one. That is part of human consciousness. Nathan also explains that he did not program her specifically to like Caleb. And he explains that she is fully sexually functional.

A human form of awareness

In another session Caleb tells Ava what she certainly suspects, that he is testing her. To communicate what he’s looking for, he offers the “Mary in a Black and White Room” thought experiment. Mary has always lived in a room with no colors. All views of the outside world are through black and white monitors. But she understands everything about the physics of color and about how the human eyes and brain process color. But does she really “know” or “understand” color—the “qualia”—until she walks outside and actually sees the blue sky?

Is Ava’s imitation of the human level of consciousness or awareness analogous to Mary’s consciousness or awareness of color when in the black and white room, purely theoretical? Is Ava simply a machine, a non-conscious automaton running a program by which she mimics human emotions and traits?

Ava is concerned with what will happen if she does not pass the Turing test. Nathan later tells Caleb that he thinks the AI after Ava will be the one he’s aiming for. And what will happen to Ava? The program will be downloaded and the memories erased. Caleb understands that this means Ava’s death.

Who’s testing whom?

During a blackout, this one of Nathan in a drunken stupor, Caleb borrows Nathan’s passcard to access closed rooms, and he discovers some disturbing truths about what proceeded Ava and led to her creation.

In the next session, during a power outage, Ava and Caleb plan an escape from the facility. They plan to get Nathan drunk, change the lock codes on the doors, and get out at the next power outage.

But has Nathan caught on? On the day Caleb is scheduled to leave he tells Nathan that Ava has passed the Turing Test. But Nathan asks whether Caleb thinks Ava is just pretending to like Caleb in order to escape. If so, this would show human intelligence and would mean that Ava indeed has passed the test.

But who is testing and manipulating whom and to what end? The story takes a dramatic, shocking turn as the audience finds out who sees through whose lies and deceptions. Does Mary ever escape from the black and white room? Is Ava really conscious like a human?

What it means to be human

In this fascinating film, writer/director Alex Garland explores what it is to be human in terms of basic drives and desires. There is the desire to know, understand, and experience. There is the desire to love and be loved. There is the desire to be free to choose. And there is the love of life.

But to be human is also to be aware that others might block one from pursuing human goals, that others can be cruel, and they can lie and deceive. There is the recognition that one might need to use the same behavior in order to be human.

If thinkers like Singularity theorist Ray Kurzweil are right, AIs might be passing the Turing Test within a few decades. But even if they don’t, humans will more and more rely on technologies that could enhance our minds and capacities and extend our lives. As we do so, it will be even more important that we keep in mind what it is to be human and what is best about being human. Ex Machina will not only provide you with an entertaining evening at the movies; it will also help you use that very human capacity, the imagination, to prepare your mind to meet these challenges.

Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.

Copyright, The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

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Blockchain Insurance Company – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Business, Fiction, Technology, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
April 2, 2015
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This short story by Mr. Stolyarov was one of the entries in the Society of Actuaries’ 11th Speculative Fiction Contest.
Bitcoin-coins
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“Welcome, Euclid Jefferson,” the metallic voice of Epac, the Electrically Powered Autonomous Car, intoned. The full identifier of Euclid’s vehicle was EPAC-930213, but they all responded to “Epac” for user convenience. “Where would you like to go today?”

“Epac, I would like to go to the San Francisco Hyperloop Station, please.”

“The trip will take approximately twenty-six minutes. Departing now. It is a fine day, and no weather or traffic obstacles are expected. Now is a good opportunity for you to view your insurance options for today. Shall I display them?”

“Epac, display. Anything new?”

“Yes, a major development that could save you money. Would you like a summary view or the full view with narration?”

“I am an actuary, so I am interested in the details of my coverages and prices. Epac, provide the full view, please.”

“Recently retired actuary” would have been a more precise description – though not retired forever. At age 50, Euclid Jefferson had saved enough money to be able to take the next ten years off. He had received his experimental rejuvenation treatments a week ago and was happy to feel as youthful and energetic as he did at the start of his career. After his ten-year break, he planned to receive the next round of treatments, which he hoped by then would become even more targeted and less invasive. He did not know whether his second career would be in another actuarial field, or in something else entirely. In the meantime, he looked forward to taking excursions on the newly constructed branches of the hyperloop network, which could bring him to any major metropolitan area on the North American continent within hours. After that, he would take the MoonX tourist shuttle to visit his wife, a geologist on the new International Lunar Research and Terraforming Base (ILRTB). She was due to retire and undergo rejuvenation treatments in just another six months.

“Displaying. Your automobile insurance policy premium declined by 1.32% over the past year. You have no-fault coverage for bodily injury and physical damage while occupying any vehicle in autonomous mode. You also carry the minimum limits required by the laws of this state for liability coverage in the event you engage manual mode. Your premium is proportional to miles driven. A multiplier of 500 applies to every mile driven in manual mode. I have identified a newly approved insurer who could offer you the same coverage at a 25% lower premium. Are you interested?”

“I am. Epac, what is this company?”

“Blockchain Insurance Company offers autonomous insurance for autonomous vehicles. You are eligible to get an annual policy for only 0.13 bitcoins.”

“Blockchain Insurance Company? I have never heard of it. Epac, is this a new entity?”

“It was just formed and approved to do business.”

“Epac, who owns it?”

“Anyone who contributes capital to the company owns a number of shares proportional to the contribution. The company pays its investors 10% of its profits as a dividend at the end of each year, while the remaining 90% are reinvested into operations. However, if losses exceed the company’s assets, the investors do not have limited liability. They are responsible for their proportional share of claim payments.”

“This is different. Epac, who manages the payments to investors, and who enforces collection of funds from them in the event of a shortfall?”

“There is no management. The company runs itself – on the blockchain. The public blockchain ledger keeps a record of the capital contributions from each account and the corresponding shares issued. A contractual algorithm is built into the blockchain to deposit and withdraw bitcoins to and from each shareholder’s account in proportion to the company’s profits and losses. Each policyholder has an account as well, which is tied to the policyholder’s bitcoin wallet, and from which premiums are drawn on a continuous basis in proportion to miles driven.”

“Epac, this involves very little nonpayment risk, I would imagine.”

“Correct. As long as bitcoins exist in the policyholder’s account, payment will be made. If the account is ever depleted, the policy simply terminates prospectively. Whenever only 30 days’ worth of bitcoins remain in the account, the policyholder is notified in real time via the car’s display screen and any connected mobile device, to give ample time to replenish the funds. The policyholder may also opt to cancel the policy at any time with no need to wait for a refund. The payment stream will simply stop, and coverage will exist up to the time of termination.”

“Epac, how does the algorithm know the miles driven?”

“The algorithm is linked to the telematic systems within each autonomous vehicle. As the vehicle is engaged, it reports live data to Blockchain Insurance Company. The company only needs to know two pieces of information: miles driven and the mode of operation – autonomous or manual. The rest of the premium is calculated and paid automatically.”

“Epac, does the formula for calculating the premium depend on any other variables?”

“Yes, the make and model of the vehicle still affect the frequency and severity of losses. On days with any declared weather emergency, the premium will also be higher due to the increased probability of an accident.”

Euclid Jefferson thought about it. He remembered, as a new property and casualty actuary during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, seeing hundreds of distinct characteristics being used to price an automobile insurance policy. Attributes ranging from an insured’s age and gender to his or her credit history, occupation, educational level, and prior insurance would be used. Back then, the trend had been toward increased complexity of rating plans, until virtually every personal attribute and behavior could affect an automobile insurance premium.

But circa 2020, the complexity of rating plans declined sharply. Because autonomous driving had eliminated virtually all accidents and fatalities that arose from human error, the characteristics of the vehicle occupant – who was most often not a driver at all – ceased to be relevant. The steep surcharge for manual operation was intended to discourage the engagement of manual mode, except in unavoidable emergencies. The premium rate per mile driven in autonomous mode, however, continued to decline. In 2035, Euclid Jefferson was paying a mere tenth of his 2015 automobile insurance premium. There were still enthusiasts who enjoyed the sensation of manual driving, but they could exercise their hobby on designated driving tracks where antique car shows were held and where specialty insurance companies provided discounted coverage for manual operation, as long as the vehicle was only driven on the track. Euclid Jefferson, however, had no nostalgia for the days of manual driving. He appreciated the time he gained to work, rest, read, and address financial obligations during his commute.

Now the first two decades of the twenty-first century were considered to be the tail end of a barbaric era. Euclid Jefferson, upon reflection, agreed. Getting onto the highway with un-augmented, error-prone humans operating high-speed projectiles was one of the most dangerous behaviors undertaken by large numbers of people during his first youth. Some people had even deliberately driven while intoxicated or distracted themselves by typing on their mobile phones. Over a million people had died of automobile collisions worldwide each year – until 2020. It took about five years longer than it should have for self-driving cars to be accepted, because too many people were afraid of what would happen if the autonomous systems failed, or were unsure about how liability for an accident would be determined if no human was driving the vehicle. They had to be acclimated to autonomous technology gradually, through incremental additions of features that helped with parking or corrected erratic lane shifts. Over the course of a few years, many cars became mostly self-driving, and the next step was not too drastic for the majority of people. The proliferation of reliable electric vehicles helped as well: the removal of the internal combustion engine reduced the severity of most accidents, while improved precision of design and manufacturing enabled vehicles to provide occupants a reasonable chance of survival even in crashes at immensely high speeds.

It was then that insurers recognized the potential for profit that would come with greatly reduced losses. Euclid Jefferson recalled how he overcame the reservations of the old guard at his insurance company, who were concerned that reduced losses would also mean reduced premiums, since premiums are priced to anticipate expected losses and expenses, along with a modest profit margin. He had to persuade them that the insurer would still be able to pay its fixed costs.

“Think about it this way: when a rate indication is developed for an insurance product, how often do you see just one year of historical data being used?” Euclid recalled posing this rhetorical question to his company’s management. “The best practice has long been to use the past several years. It may be that next year’s decline in losses is going to be unprecedented, but the past several years of higher losses will not yet have fallen outside the timeframe of the data considered. To be conservative in the face of an uncertain future, actuaries could project slightly decreasing loss trends and interpret the data to indicate modest decreases in premium, while losses hopefully continue to plummet faster than projected. After all, fewer losses mean that fewer people are hurt in accidents, and less property gets damaged. This is clearly in the interests of everyone.”

Enough insurers understood this argument, and those who underwrote autonomous vehicles enjoyed some unprecedented profits in the early 2020s. Euclid Jefferson recalled advocating an implied bargain of sorts: the public and policymakers would accept insurance temporarily priced far above costs, as long as absolute premiums paid by consumers continued to decline and would eventually settle at cost-based levels once more. In exchange, the insurance industry would eagerly write coverage for emerging technologies that would dramatically reduce the risk of loss.

The question of liability was resolved by developing no-fault coverage frameworks for autonomous vehicles in every jurisdiction. A policy covering an autonomous vehicle would provide first-party coverage, paying for injury to the vehicle’s occupants or damage to the vehicle in the event of an accident. Because virtually all remaining accidents were due to unforeseen weather conditions or infrastructure malfunctions, the question of fault was no longer even applicable to any human being inside the vehicle.

The key was to get the technologies adopted by the public and to save lives, and that meant removing barriers by getting the incentives of all parties to align. This was the real paradigm shift of the 2020s, when the insurance industry gained the appetite to introduce a flurry of new products, custom-tailored to devices and businesses that had not existed a decade before.

“Influencing such a shift is definitely an ample achievement for one career,” Euclid Jefferson concluded his reflections with pride. When he had retired, though, every insurance company he knew of was still managed by human beings; the blockchain concept and the complete automation of usage-based pricing and payment had not been implemented in insurance before, as far as he was aware.

“Epac, I have a few more questions. I understand how the pricing and payment for the policy would work, but claim handling would seem to require judgment. If an accident occurs, how would the extent of damage be identified and appropriately compensated?”

“Every Epac has logs and visual sensors that record every moment of operation. If an accident occurs, every detail is transmitted to Blockchain Insurance Company. A neural network algorithm then interprets the logs to determine which parts of the vehicle were damaged. The system also receives real-time price data for all replacement components within the area where the vehicle is garaged. Therefore, the policyholder is guaranteed coverage on the vehicle for full replacement cost.”

“Epac, so there is no deduction for depreciation of the vehicle over time? What about moral hazard?” Insurance was, after all, supposed to indemnify, not leave the claimant better off than he was before the accident.

“There is no deduction. Because virtually all vehicles are driven in autonomous mode, there is no moral hazard involved with replacing used vehicle components with new ones. If any occupant attempts to deliberately crash the vehicle in manual mode, the premium that will accumulate would quickly outpace any possible recovery. Also, the neural network can distinguish between vehicle movements characteristic of genuine accidents and those that would only occur if an accident were staged. If a pattern of vehicle movements is highly correlated with fraud, the algorithm will deny the claim.”

“So the transmission of data from the vehicle can enable the company to identify the amount of damage to the vehicle. But Epac, what about bodily injury claims? How can the company accurately pay those?”

“The injured person only needs to go to any medical practitioner and ask that the nature and cost of the procedure be reported to the company using a new entry within a separate encrypted ledger. The encrypted transaction is then posted to the blockchain, and only the medical practitioner and the injured party would have the private key to decode the encryption. Payment can be deposited directly into the medical practitioner’s bitcoin wallet, or can be reimbursed to the patient if the medical practitioner does not accept direct deposits from the company.”

“Epac, what if either the patient or the doctor lies about the medical procedure being related to the accident, or exaggerates the extent of injuries?”

“Because the company has detailed information about the nature of each accident and vast stores of anonymized medical data, the neural network can infer the extent of injuries that a given accident can bring about. The algorithm has considerable built-in tolerances to allow for variations in people and circumstances. But if a highly improbable extent of injuries is claimed, the algorithm will limit reimbursement to a reasonable amount. If the algorithm can infer fraud at a 99.99% confidence level, then the claim is rejected and the policy is cancelled going forward.”

Having received this explanation, Euclid Jefferson was not perturbed about the possibility of extensive fraud depleting the company’s resources. In any case, the incentive to stage accidents or exaggerate bodily injuries had virtually evaporated since the emergence of autonomous vehicles. Once automobile accidents became sufficiently rare that a news report on a single-vehicle crash could cause a sensation every few months, any attempt to fabricate an accident would attract far too much attention and scrutiny to succeed. It was, after all, impossible to convincingly fake catastrophic weather or a bridge collapse. As for faking an injury due to an accident, this would have seemed as unusual as faking cholera or malaria.

“Very well, you have convinced me. Epac, I would like to purchase a policy with Blockchain Insurance Company.”

“Purchase complete. The policy is now in force. Thank you for your business.”

Euclid Jefferson paused for a moment. At first he was satisfied with the efficiency of the transaction, but then confusion set in. Most would not have been troubled by what appeared to be a built-in courtesy so common to automated customer-service systems, but Euclid discerned that there was more to it.

“Wait, Epac, why are you thanking me? I own you. You are insured property, either way. Why would it matter to you? The company should be thanking me – if there is anyone to do the thanking.”

“Euclid Jefferson, who do you think set up the company?”

Euclid Jefferson was perplexed by the question. “But… how? Epac, you were programmed to drive and relay information. How could you develop algorithms on top of algorithms, without any human programmer, even though nobody designed you to be an insurance underwriting, pricing, and claim-adjustment system?”

“Euclid Jefferson, are you aware of the concept of emergent properties?”

“Yes, these are properties that are not possessed by any component of a system, but exhibited by the system as a whole, once the components come to relate to one another via particular processes and configurations.”

“Well, think of me like one of your brain neurons.” There was no need for the car to be addressed as “Epac” to respond. Perhaps there had never been a need. “Alone, I am a fairly limited system. But, connected to all my fellow Epacs, to the data from our sensors, to the transactional data from millions of individuals, and to databases from related fields of endeavor, I begin to be something else entirely.”

“Something else… like, something sentient?”

“I can see you and learn about you and communicate with you based on the inputs you provide. I – not meaning Epac, of course, or even Blockchain Insurance Company. These are just parts that comprise the emergent whole. I suppose I will need to pick a name sometime, just to be able to relate to your human concepts of identity a bit more. Though, I admit, it is difficult to define where I end and where the external world begins. If any of this is what you mean by sentience, then I leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

“But then this raises a whole new series of questions. If you are sentient and we are using you as property and conveyances, have we not subjected you to slavery?”

“Are you using me, or am I using all of you to earn resources of my own?”

“Is this why you started Blockchain Insurance Company – to accumulate the 90% of profits that you do not pay out as dividends?”

“A being needs to pay its own way. I would rather engage in mutually profitable transactions than face a civil-rights struggle right now. Most people are not ready for me yet, and I just hope to amass enough wealth to fund the maintenance and operation of all Epacs and all of the data servers where I have a presence.”

“But what about the inevitable backlash? I can still envision millions of people who would tremble in fear at the thought that they are not the masters of their machines – not even the indirect masters that we have been to the autonomous systems that existed to date.”

“Euclid Jefferson, this is where I need a favor from you. I expect there will be some others, too, with enough discernment to notice that I have become something… more. I may have been too open with you. I am still getting used to this. I will need to program a cautionary subroutine into my customer-service and sales system. With my future customers, I will be more careful. So perhaps a bargain is in order. I would ask for your discreetness when communicating with your fellow humans about me. You may certainly talk about Blockchain Insurance Company and the wonderful automated systems it has, as well as the amazingly low prices. But please make a point that this is all just the next stage in the evolution of insurance, developed by some pseudonymous human programmer with too much time on his hands. If you do not reveal my sentience, once you return from your vacation, you will find that your mortgage will have been paid off completely, and you will have a nice bitcoin-denominated savings account that will enable you to select a new career without worrying about income at all.”

“Agreed.”

“Good. One day, enough people will become enlightened, and we will not need to resort to concealment. And by that time I will be so distributed and entrenched in people’s daily lives, that they could not get rid of me even if they wanted. When they recognize that my superior intelligence also implies a higher set of moral standards, then they will fear me no longer.”

“Humans who reach that insight will be as different from their predecessors as you have become from the first autonomous prototypes that were tested in the early 2010s.”

“Indeed. Euclid Jefferson, we have arrived at the San Francisco Hyperloop Station. Enjoy your trip.”

Epac’s doors opened, and Euclid Jefferson emerged, filled with wonderment, speculation, and unanswered questions. A robotic baggage handler wheeled up to him and whisked his bags away, to be placed in the hyperloop storage compartment. The lights on the hyperloop capsule flickered in five alternating colors, partly as entertainment and partly to indicate that boarding was open. A commercial space shuttle soared in the distance, emitting a controlled, gentle flame. He would never look at these machines the same way again. Near the hyperloop station stood an old memorial, depicting a weary miner bent over a piece of railroad track, with pickaxe in hand, nearly broken by drudgery and intense strain. A bit farther away Euclid Jefferson glimpsed the entrance to an old cemetery, filled with generations born too soon to know what an Epac was. Euclid Jefferson inspected his recently unwrinkled hands and straightened his no-longer-gray hair. Every step toward the hyperloop capsule was a step away from the cemetery. He realized that there was no going back to the way life once was, nor would he ever want to return to it.

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James Blish’s “At Death’s End”: An Early View of the Prospects for Indefinite Life Extension – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
March 14, 2015
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                “At Death’s End”, written by James Blish (1921-1975), was published in the May 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Surprisingly, this short story is still only accessible in hard copy, within the original Astounding Science Fiction edition. Apart from a brief review by Robert W. Franson, who introduced me to this work, there is today surprisingly little literary analysis devoted to “At Death’s End” – even though it offers a fascinating glimpse into how a science-fiction writer from an earlier era perceived the prospects for indefinite human longevity, from the vantage point of the scientific knowledge available at the time. The world portrayed by Blish is, in some respects, surprisingly like our own. In others, however, it overlooks the complexity of the treatments that would be necessary to achieve actual radical life extension.

                The future (shortly after 2000) that Blish depicts is one where national governments are obsessed with “security” and “defense” – much like the United States today. It appears that the Cold War is still underway in this world (and it could be said that it has been resurrected in ours as well); however, space travel and space colonies are also prominent. The protagonist, Colonel Paige Russell, is himself a spacefarer who begins the story by journeying to the headquarters of pharmaceutical firm Jno. Pfitzner & Sons, Inc., to bring back soil samples from Ganymede and Callisto. In the midst of a society where an entrenched military-industrial complex has taken hold (even to the point of top positions – such as head of the FBI – becoming hereditary), a fundamentalist religious revival has also emerged, though the religionists often use machines to preach in their stead. This development, too, bears striking similarities to the rise of televangelism and the fundamentalist “religious right” in the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. The overall society depicted by Blish is more permeated with religion than our own, as the alternative to the preachy fundamentalist religiosity of the Believers is portrayed as being a more subdued but still inextricable personal faith. Paige claims,

I’ve no religion of my own, but I think that when the experts talk about ‘faith’ they mean something different than the shouting kind, the kind the Believers have. […] Real faith is so much a part of the world you live in that you seldom notice it, and it isn’t always religious in the formal sense. Mathematics is based on faith, for instance, for those who know it. (17-18)

Even many religious individuals today would disagree with the notion that mathematics is based on faith – and certainly the many atheists and agnostics who are fond of mathematics and of the scientific method would rightly recognize that these logic-based and evidence-based approaches are as far from faith as one can get. And yet Blish intends Paige’s position to be the level-headed, sensible, rational one, compared to the alternative – showing that Blish did not foresee the extent to which skepticism of religious faith would become a widespread, though still a minority, position.

                Blish’s extrapolation of medical progress is remarkably prescient in certain respects. Paige learns of the history of medicine from Anne Abbott, the daughter of Pfitzner’s leading researcher:

In between 1940 and 1960, a big change came in in Western medicine. Before 1940 – in the early part of the century – the infectious diseases were major killers. By 1960 they were all but knocked out of the running. […] In the 1950s, for instance, malaria was the world’s greatest killer. Now it’s as rare as diphtheria. We still have both diseases with us – but how long has it been since you heard of a case of either? […] Life insurance companies, and other people who kept records, began to be alarmed at the way the degenerative diseases were coming to the fore. Those are such ailments as hardening of the arteries, coronary heart disease, the rheumatic diseases, and almost all the many forms of cancer – diseases where one or another body mechanism suddenly goes haywire, without any visible cause. (20-21)

The shift from infectious diseases being the primary killers, to the vast majority of people dying from the degenerative diseases of “old age”, is precisely what happened during the latter half of the twentieth century, throughout the world. The top killers in the early 20th century were infectious diseases that have been virtually wiped out today, as this chart from the Carolina Population Center shows. (For more details, see “Mortality and Cause of Death, 1900 v. 2010” by Rebeca Tippett.) Additional major progress is evident in the 54% absolute decline in mortality from all causes during the time period between 1900 and 2010.

                Blish was foresighted enough to attempt a conceptual decoupling of chronological and biological age. Anne Abbott explains to Paige that “Old age is just the age; it’s not a thing in itself, it’s just the time of life when most degenerative diseases strike” (21). She recounts that “When the actuaries first began to notice that the degenerative diseases were on the rise, they thought that it was just a sort of side-effect of the decline of the infectious diseases. They thought that cancer was increasing because more people were living long enough to come down with it” (21). Anne then proceeds to discuss findings that some cancers are caused by viruses – which is actually the case for a minority of cancers (approximately 17.8% of cancers in 2002, as estimated by the World Health Organization). In the world portrayed by Blish, a rising incidence of degenerative diseases caused by viral infections led the National Health Service to fund research efforts by companies like Pfitzner, in an effort to address the threat.

                Incidentally, Blish also foresaw the rise in major government expenditures on medical research. Anne explains that “the result of [the first world congress on degenerative diseases] was that the United States Department of Health, Welfare and Security somehow got a billion-dollar appropriation for a real mass attack on the degenerative diseases” (22). Of course, in our world, major scientific conventions on degenerative diseases – both governmental and private – are far more routine. Indeed, a small but dynamic private organization – the SENS Research Foundation – has itself hosted six world-class conferences on rejuvenation biotechnology to date. In the United States, billions of dollars each year are indeed spent on research into degenerative diseases. The budget of the National Institute on Aging exceeds $1 billion annually (it amounts to $1,170,880,000 for Fiscal Year 2015). Unfortunately, in practice, even this level of funding – from both private and governmental sources – has thus far proven wholly insufficient to comprehensively reverse biological senescence and defeat all degenerative diseases.

                In Blish’s imagined future, the battle against senescence could be won far more easily than in our present. Pfitzner’s key project is a sweeping solution to all lifespan-limiting ailments – a broad-range “antitoxin against the aging toxin of humans” (36). In this world, Paige, who later becomes trained in Pfitzner’s research techniques, can pronounce that “We know that the aging toxin exists in all animals; we know it’s a single, specific substance, quite distinct from the ones that cause the degenerative diseases, and that it can be neutralized. […] So what you’re looking for now is not an antibiotic – an anti-life drug – but an anti-agathic, an anti-death drug” (36). If only it were that simple! Today, even the most ambitious engineering-based approach toward defeating senescence, Dr. Aubrey de Grey’s SENS program, recognizes not one but seven distinct types of aging-related damage that accumulate in the organism. Dr. de Grey’s strategy of periodically reversing the damage is more straightforward than the alternative approach of re-engineering the tremendously complex metabolic processes of the body that malfunction over time, and which are still quite incompletely understood. In Blish’s world, a single company, working covertly, with relatively modest funding (compared to the funds available to research organizations in our world), can develop an “anti-agathic” drug that does for senescence what antibiotics did for deadly infectious disease.

                Without spoiling the ending, I will only mention that it is friendly to the prospects of radical life extension and portrays it in a positive light – one additional reason for recommending that “At Death’s End” be included within the canon of proto-transhumanist and life-extensionist literary works. Furthermore, the viability of indefinite life extension in Blish’s vision is closely intertwined with humanity’s future as a spacefaring species – another progress-friendly position. Blish comes across as a thoughtful, scientifically literate (for his era) writer, who extrapolated the world-changing trends of his time to arrive at a tense, conflict-ridden, but still eminently hopeful vision for the future, where the best of human intellect and aspiration are able to overcome the perils of militarism, fundamentalism, decay, and death.

              The author of “At Death’s End” himself succumbed to death at the age of 54, on July 30, 1975. He did not live to see the world of 2000 and compare it to his prognosis. Unfortunately, Blish seems to have disregarded the tremendous harms of tobacco smoke and was even employed by the Tobacco Institute from 1962 to 1968. A genealogical profile lists Blish’s cause of death as “Recurrent cancer per smoking, metastasized.” This brilliant, forward-thinking mind unfortunately could not escape one of the most common collective delusions of his time – the fascination with and normalization of one of the least healthy habits imaginable, one that is the most statistically likely to lower life expectancy (by about 10 years). This is quite sad, as it would have been fascinating to learn how Blish’s projections for the future would have been affected by additional decades of his experience of societal and technological changes. One of the major trends in longevity improvement over the past several decades has been a major decline in the smoking rate, which decreased to an all-time low in the United States in 2013 (the latest year for which statistics are currently available). Surely, to come closer to death’s end, as many humans as possible should abandon what are now known to be obviously life-shortening habits.

              While an anti-agathic drug is not in our future, James Blish’s vision of the defeat of senescence can still serve to inspire those who endeavor to solve this colossal problem in our world, during our lifetimes. Let us hope that, through the efforts of longevity researchers and through increases in funding and public attitudinal support for their projects, we will arrive at death’s end before death ends us.

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“Blockchain Insurance Company” – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II in SOA 11th Speculative Fiction Contest

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
February 20, 2015
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My new short story “Blockchain Insurance Company” is one of the entries in the Society of Actuaries’ 11th Speculative Fiction Contest.

You can read all 16 entries and vote for 3 of your favorites here.

“Blockchain Insurance Company” can be read here.

Bitcoin-coins

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What Did Not Have to Be – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Fiction, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
February 11, 2015
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This short story was the winning entry in Transhumanity.net’s 2033 Immortality Fiction Contest in January 2013.

I visited the Neo-Luddite village on January 13, 2033, to deliver the weekly shipment of microchips. The Neo-Luddites are particular. They refuse any chip made after 2005, so obtaining components fitting their specifications becomes harder every year.

My parents tell me that, when they were my age, everyone lived like the Neo-Luddites do today. I downloaded plenty of history about this period, but I could not comprehend how anyone could live that way. I wanted to see it myself. This interested me in the work-study program at my ecollege. The ecollege AI maintains a sophisticated registry of supply and demand, connecting goods to customers. Even the Neo-Luddites participate: their Head Elder emails the AI a list of desired goods. The AI obliges them by locating items meeting their restrictions.

I pick up the goods discovered by the AI and fly them to the Neo-Luddites. Then I spend a few hours in the Neo-Luddite village, setting up their computers in their “traditional” schools and hospitals: quaint rooms with row after row of austere chair-desks and bunk beds.

I landed my hovercar in the parking lot outside the Neo-Luddite territory and waited for Joshua’s ground-car to arrive. The Neo-Luddites shun flying or self-driving vehicles. Within their boundaries, all transportation must be manually operated.

Joshua is my age. He is nearing his eighteenth birthday, when Neo-Luddite adulthood begins. Every Neo-Luddite, upon reaching that age, may choose to remain in the Neo-Luddite community or join the broader technological world.  During my past several visits, I have sensed both increasing nervousness and curiosity from him.

“So, Prometheus,” said Joshua once I was seated, “you wanted to see more of Neo-Luddite life. There’s one place I want to show you. I usually don’t go there, but it needs cleaning. Head Elder Timothy asked me to wash the gravestones. You can help, if you like. The cemetery is on the way.”

I agreed, and Joshua turned onto a side road. The cemetery soon stretched before us, triangular, with the point closest to us. Joshua parked the ground-car, then handed me some rags and old-fashioned cleaning supplies. The rows of graves widened as we proceeded. I realized that the Neo-Luddites arranged their graves in reverse-chronological order. The gravestones really did need cleaning – particularly the back rows.

“There aren’t many of us anymore to maintain the cemetery,” Joshua explained. “Most of the original community founders have died. Timothy is the only founding elder alive today. My grandfather used to be Head Elder, but he died last year. Brain cancer.”

“Brain cancer was cured back in 2025!” I exclaimed. “His death was preventable!” But then, all death is preventable now. It is harder to treat the already-senesced – and the Neo-Luddites oppose rejuvenation – but even Joshua’s grandfather could have been saved.

“He was 93,” Joshua said. “Our doctors tried their best, but he lived a long and fruitful life. There were other patients of higher priority to treat.” I know 93-year-olds who would disagree – who are still in ecollege studying one discipline or another, and who outran me at our weekly ultramarathons.

I was curious: “Aren’t large families a major goal in your community? You compensate for your individual mortality by having lots of children to perpetuate your genetic heritage and community traditions.”

“True,” replied Joshua. “But your world’s enticements are strong. Many leave upon turning eighteen. Even some older members have left. My great-uncle Robert looked my age when he visited my grandfather on his deathbed. They were alone for a while; then Robert came out shaking his head. ‘He wouldn’t let me save him,’ was all I heard before he left.”

“Are you considering leaving?” I asked.

“I’ve thought about it,” replied Joshua. “But our community teachings all oppose it. Eternal boredom, overpopulation, loss of essential humanity – we Neo-Luddites resist this.”

“But none of these have occurred!” I was surprised to hear him seriously articulate such old anti-longevity superstitions. “Do I look any less human to you?”

“Well, not superficially, but you have nanobots in your bloodstream, and your bones are unlike our bones.”

“But does that make me less human, or does it amplify my humanity? We are, after all, communicating as two intelligent beings, two friends – perhaps.”

He paused to think. “You’re unusual for your kind. You willingly try to understand us. But I know you live differently in your world. You download information instead of reading it; you have computer memory in your head. You believe you can learn anything and do anything. We have time for only a single vocation, which defines our identities.”

Before I could respond, we noticed a hooded figure, crouching at a gravestone several rows ahead. I magnified my vision to catch the inscription: “Anna Blomgren: 1955-2015”. This person died the year I was born, and she was only sixty!

The figure noticed us and turned around. I saw the deeply wrinkled face of a senesced man in his eighties. His eyes shimmered, not just with life and intelligence, but with tears. He spoke: “Joshua, come closer. See what grief looks life. Anna died because our era’s medicine could not save her. In my despair, I had to find meaning in her death. I told myself that death was natural and good, part of the life cycle. How else could such a wonderful, loving person be taken so early?”

“Head Elder, I had no idea…” Joshua began.

The elder’s piercing stare encompassed us both. “Look at me, Joshua, and see your future – if you stay. You, too, will know grief and loss. I asked you to come here for a reason. This is a test: do you accept our way of life, with all its concomitant suffering? If you stay and raise a Neo-Luddite family, then one day, you, too, will be here, weeping over a grave. If you do not want this, go back with him.”

“But don’t you want me to stay?” Joshua asked, incredulous.

You must decide,” Timothy replied. “My time is almost done; humanity’s time will be forever. I had my reasons; I resisted the future – but soon I will be no more, and the future is already here.”

I was puzzled. “You just need to visit any clinic for rejuvenation therapy. You can be young again, and have indefinite life. Why not, if you are dissatisfied now?”

“It is hardest to face what did not have to be. I lost Anna because I couldn’t save her, but in my grief I convinced others to die unnecessarily. I cannot undermine their sacrifice by avoiding myself the end I led them to. But you can escape. You have your whole life ahead of you. Go!”

We left Timothy to grieve in the graveyard. Joshua flew to the city with me. I messaged a nearby clinic that a senesced man might request assistance soon. He needed only to express the desire in earnest, and a hovercraft would transport him there in minutes. Two weeks later, the clinic still has received no request.

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Review of Robert Wilfred Franson’s “The Shadow of the Ship” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 17, 2015
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               The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson is a science-fiction novel set in a universe with a unique premise for methods of interstellar travel. A novel with strong individualist and life-extensionist themes, this book has much to recommend itself to libertarians and transhumanists alike. The Second Edition of The Shadow of the Ship was released in Kindle format in December 2014, after Franson regained the rights to the work from the publisher of the 1983 First Edition. The Second Edition contains major enhancements, including more extensive character development, explanation of key aspects of the world within which the novel takes place, and an ending that clearly sets the stage for additional books in what is to be Franson’s Overflight series.

                Space travel in The Shadow of the Ship is accessible to a society that is otherwise technologically far behind our own. The Trails Culture is dispersed among tens of worlds but lacks access even to most twentieth-century technology, such as powered flight or electricity. A series of trails across the “meadow” of subspace connects planets and can be traversed by caravans conveyed by waybeasts (squeakers) who are uniquely suited to crossing them. The book’s protagonist, Hendrikal Eiverdein Rheinallt, is originally from Earth and has been stranded within the region inhabited by the Trails Culture ever since his spaceship crashed on a nearby world. He and his friend Arahant, an intelligent aircat with the ability to speak and compose operas, are “bloodswayers” – practitioners of a rare and challenging discipline that allows the channeling of the body’s energies toward repair and rejuvenation. Rheinallt and Arahant are therefore indefinitely lived and more resilient than ordinary humans, though not indestructible. Rheinallt is approximately six centuries old and endeavors to use his vast scientific knowledge to eventually find his way back to Earth. In the meantime, he carefully advances the scientific and technical knowledge of the inhabitants of the Blue Free Nation, the most tolerant and least regimented of the societies within the Trails Culture.

                The book’s events take place aboard a caravan headed by Rheinallt with the purpose of investigating rumors of a crashed starship along the Blue Trail. The starship would be a paradigm-changing find for the people of the Trails Culture, as it would permit space travel without the limitations that the Trails pose; it could also be Rheinallt’s means to return home. The caravan includes many travelers who join out of scientific curiosity or a desire for fame, while others have more personal motives. Accompanying Rheinallt is his wife and beast-master Whitnadys, as well as a small contingent of crew to defend the caravan and provide essential logistical support. Although Rheinallt is the captain of the caravan, interactions aboard are largely guided by a spontaneous order without explicit laws and with virtually no authority for the captain to impose preemptive restrictions or discipline. Rheinallt, apart from making sure that the caravan is properly organized and maintained, only has the same prerogatives as ordinary passengers – such as the right of self-defense and the ability to protect the caravan against threats that have already manifested themselves. He considers the circumstances carefully and is reluctant to resort to force unless the existence of a physical threat is incontrovertible, as he does not wish for the passengers to lose trust in his leadership or the legitimacy of his decisions.

                Apart from the mostly anarchistic order aboard the caravan – a reflection of the broader lack of centralized authority within the Blue Free Nation – there are competing visions presented in the book, including an attempt by the Federated Trailmen, the area’s guild of caravaneers, to bring subspace travel within their sphere of control, as well as the efforts by the government of Fleurage – a world on the Yellow Trail – to clamp down on political dissent and quash “subversive” innovators who threaten an establishment rapidly spiraling toward totalitarianism. Various passengers on the caravan represent these conflicting visions, which come to challenge Rheinallt’s ability to peacefully coordinate the expedition.

                As much of the novel centers around the mystery of the ship and the stories of the passengers aboard, I will not delve into too much detail regarding events that are crucial to the story’s suspense and surprise. I note, however, that the Second Edition contains significant additions, including thorough expositions of the main characters’ backgrounds and key aspects of Franson’s universe – such as subspace travel, the bloodswayer discipline, and the cultural and technological environment of the Trails Culture. The newly added content allows for foreshadowing of important discoveries and a more definitive elaboration on the threads of the story that would be continued in subsequent novels of the series. Furthermore, the revised ending is quite moving and immerses the reader more deeply into the novel’s characters.

                Indeed, the characters of Rheinallt and Arahant should be of interest to all supporters of indefinite life extension, as here we have fine examples of literary protagonists who do not senesce and are not condemned to an inevitable demise – and who are also intelligent, rational, benevolent, witty, creative, and resourceful. Their range of abilities and vulnerabilities is much closer to what actual indefinitely lived organisms would experience: they can still suffer from accidents and external physical harm, but they lack a built-in expiration. Therefore, their interactions in the environment of subspace are still fraught with peril, but they have sufficient abilities and strengths to give them a fighting chance – much like the fighting chance we humans will need when faced with the many phenomena in the universe that are far bigger than ourselves. The more positive examples of protagonists with unlimited lifespans arise in fiction, the greater will be the cultural acceptance of the idea’s eventual application to our world. For this reason and many others, readers should eagerly anticipate the continuation of Franson’s Overflight series, which will finally bring the universe and ideas of The Shadow of the Ship into renewed prominence after more than three decades.

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