American Humanists Association 2004 conference report - complete!

From: Michael Anissimov (
Date: Tue May 11 2004 - 22:01:33 MDT

For interested parties...

Michael Anissimov here, got in from the American Humanists Association
2004 conference (
in Las Vegas the day before yesterday and am finally orienting myself.
I feel obligated to give my fellow transhumanist colleagues, mentors,
advisors, and acquaintances the low-down on the conference and my
experiences there. I feel that transhumanism and humanism are two
gigantic puzzle pieces slowly merging into one another, and it is up to
us to ensure that these pieces fit into each other smoothly. I
especially hold transhumanists to high standards in the areas of
diplomacy and maximizing our positive PR.

The conference was similar in size to Transvision 2003, with around 300
or so attendees and around 25 people giving talks or receiving awards.
It was held in the conference area of a Stardust Casino and Hotel. If
you've ever been to Vegas, you've probably heard of it. Wayne Newton
sings there. The casino smoke irritated my eyes horribly, I should have
worn goggles or something. No utility fog to create a smoke-free bubble
to walk around in. *Sigh*. My lodging was at a dirt cheap, $16/night
hostel in a bad downtown neighborhood. I did the entire 4-day trip on
about $300, amazingly enough. Big thanks to all the anonymous
contributors who helped me raise that money, especially to a certain
ImmInst member who donated $150 and Misha Anissimov who donated $50.
(Want to help send me to Transvision this August? Feel free to send me
an email.)

I was welcomed to the conference by AHA employees Jende Huang, Farhad
Shakerin, and another nice young woman around my age (whose name I
forgot...sorry!) who turned out to be a vegan. As I said in my earlier
report, many of the conference-goers were quite elderly but lively and
passionate for their age. A few conference-goers came up to me and said
how happy they were to see a young face at the conference. (Like
Transvision, I was probably the youngest attendee at the conference.)
Many of the conference-goers seemed to know each other very well and I
can only assume that they have been going to these conferences for many
years. The AHA was originally founded in 1941 and this was their 63rd

At the entrance to the conference was a whiteboard that said "Las Vegas
is a Sin-Free Zone" and had a bunch of the signatures of conference
attendees. Later that night I went back to my hostel and wrote the


"Las Vegas is not a city of "sin". The concept of "sin" is religious.
But it is a city that contains and encourages a great deal of
self-destructive and morally negative choices. This cannot be denied.

The city contains many pawn shops, merchants who will purchase your
gold, jewelry, and other valuables in exchange for cash. Where does the
cash go? To fuel gambling, drinking, and whore binges, no doubt.
Sorry, but I can't call that morally right.

And what about the many "escorts" for sale at any time of night or day
in any part of the city? Girls who accept money for sex with anyone,
not because they like the job, but because they're desperate for the money?

Las Vegas is a city that exploits human weaknesses for the maximum
possible profit. It's hard for me to appreciate the beautiful
architecture of many of these fancy casinos when I consider what is
paying for their construction.


The above shouldn't be considered "self-righteous"; to the contrary, it
should be considered self-evident. Anyway...

My talk was "Why You Need to Know About Transhumanism". The audience
was only about 30 people, sadly. The audience reading this email is
probably several times as large. About the same as my "Accelerating
Progress and the Potential Consequences of Transhuman Intelligence" talk
at Transvision 2003.

<self-promotional memetic engineering>
In the future, if I'm speaking at a conference you happen to be
attending *cough*Transvision04*cough*, I'd appreciate it if you'd
consider showing up! I'm getting better at public speaking, really!
</self-promotional memetic engineering>

There were two other talks going on at the same time. One about the evil
of the conservatives and the other about the adventures of a humanist
pornography writer, which lured most of the conference-goers away from
my session. Oh well. I spoke for about 20 minutes, emphasized that
transhumanists were humanistic and strongly espouse values that respect
the autonomy of the individual. I mentioned that we discourage the
notion of social stratification or human vs. transhuman coalitionism,
marking these as evolved tendencies we might want to discard once we
have the technology to improve our neurology.

I gave quick summaries of issues that transhumanists care about -
biotech and genetic engineering, life extension, nanotechnology,
emotional reengineering, and self-improving artificial intelligence. I
emphasized that there exist a *broad spectrum* of transhumanists who
hold a wide range of different opinions on all these issues. We're a
*family* of evolving worldviews, not a single evolving worldview, or,
dare I say it, a static worldview. For the next 30 minutes or so, we
did a Q&A session, and people asked some interesting questions along
with some off-topic questions. Although 90% of the audience seemed to
be over 60, they seemed quite forward-looking and many of them had heard
about transhumanism before that day.

A copy of "The Humanist" with George Dvorsky's wonderful article was in
every conference packet (!) and I think that really helped prime the
talk. It's cool how he portrays transhumanism as a cultural phenomenon
that goes beyond a simple focus on the future, and I concur that stuff
like converting to veggy-ism can be considered a form of
self-improvement. (Consider going all the way and becoming a vegan
next, George! Do you know what they do with all the male chicks that
are born in egg-producing factories? Pile them in bags until they crush
each other and suffocate, then they toss 'em into blenders. Better
cross your fingers and *hope* their neurology can't support the
formation of pain qualia, hm?)

Many of the talk attendees were very focused on the issue of
overpopulation, and I suggested the options of arcologies, sea cities,
hollowing out large portions of underground, or mass migrating into
outer space using buckytube elevators. I cited the "First World Effect"
and the declining birth rate as women are better educated. I also
mentioned that the right technology would allow modification of our
digestive systems so we could theoretically extract nutrients from
anything with chemical bonds, if need be. Many of the younger attendees
(ages 30-60) seemed enthusiastic, along with a fair portion of the
seniors. I have a feeling that nearly all of the people who didn't care
about transhumanism simply attended the other talks, so I didn't really
get to see them.

The Q&A session was really fun - there was one super-enthusiastic,
greying Buddhist man sitting up in the front. He seemed like someone who
had travelled extensively and was familiar with a range of cultures. He
gestured wildly to the audience after I called on him to ask a
"question" on several occasions, asserting that we need "radical
solutions such as transhumanism!" to adequately confront future risks
and the problem of overpopulation. He discussed the value of meditation
and lovingkindness in contrast with transhumanism, all in his 3-minute
"question". ("Questions" during conference talks are often more like
personal mini-speeches.) I was very impressed.

Some audience members asked which books or websites they should
recommend to their children or grandchildren, and I recommended "The Age
of Spiritual Machines",, and After the
talk, 3 people came up to me and said they liked my talk and would look
further into transhumanist issues. One sweet lady who turned out to be
an editor for a retiree's health magazine (and former professor) asked
for some information about me personally and said she was considering an
article on me and transhumanism. On the days of the conference when I
didn't give my talk, few people made conversation with me but I did have
a few brief conversations on evolution and scientific issues. I agreed
with them on
issues regarding the stupidity of Bush and the war and so on. I did not
attend the conference buffets or award ceremonies because 1) I couldn't
afford it, and 2) I doubt I would have fit in very well anyway - these
seemed to be close-knit, long-time activists.

That's about it. I am now happy to return from dirty and fake Las Vegas
to my wonderful home town of San Francisco, California and all my
transhumanist friends on the internet and IRL. I feel encouraged that
many humanists are interested in transhumanist issues, and look forward
to continued dialogue and cooperation between adherents of both
philosophies in years to come. But this weekend, it's off to Foresight
and the first SF Bay Area Transhumanist meeting for me!

Michael Anissimov                     
Advocacy Director, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
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