RE: [sl4] Aubrey de Grey on BBC 'comedy' show.

From: Mike Drabble (
Date: Mon Oct 12 2009 - 15:23:49 MDT

Oh, I know it wasn't that bad, and fairly funny in parts, but it seemed to
have just a faint edge of sneering. Mind you, that's de rigeur for this type
of BBC panel show, so I might be reading too much into it.

Fully agree with your points regarding the panel's fixation with the linear,
but then that's been the case with pretty much everyone I've discussed
singularitarian concepts with that were unaware of them beforehand. Takes
quite a bit of establishing of context for people to accept that the
exponential may be a more appropriate model of progression. Of course, this
doesn't apply to the kids raised on games like Metal Gear Solid, which I'm
told contains a number singularity-related themes. I introduced these
concepts to a class of 15-16 year old school kids to whom I teach creative
arts/philosophy, and they were entranced. They love Dresden Codak, and are
more than happy discussing grey goo, Jupiter brains and destructive uploads.
They're even starting to introduce transhumanist/singularitarian ideals to
their friends, which perhaps goes to show that if we want to give these
concepts a wider circulation we should copy the Jesuits and get 'em while
they're young.

Agree, it'd be very interesting to see how someone like Derren Brown would
handle communicating such concepts. Maybe he could use his methods as a
short-cut to get around that initial establishing of context, but I still
think that the best way to do it is to discuss things long-term. Of course
there's not always that option, so perhaps the methods you mention warrant

But regarding the esteemed Aubrey himself, I'm afraid I came to the opposite
conclusion. There are so many barriers to break down when introducing these
concepts to fresh ears, and - brilliant man though he is - Aubrey does look
a bit like a stereotypical mad scientist, and that's going to turn some
people off before he starts speaking. To them he looks kinda weird, so the
stuff he's saying must be kinda weird too. You and I may be able to ignore
physical appearance/presentational style, but then we're familiar with his
work anyway. The average channel-hopper (I know, as if they'd ever pause on
BBC4, but you get the point...) will just see a strange beardy guy, as I
suspect did the panel... hence the slight ridicule. It's unfortunate, but
presentation matters, especially when we're dealing with concepts that are
unpalatable/unfamiliar to so many.

Not saying, of course, that someone like Aubrey shouldn't promote his ideas
whenever he has the chance... but maybe the lesson we can take from this is
that if we're serious about transhumanism/singularitarianism being something
other than an lightly-regarded sect, we have to pay attention to how the
concepts we deal with are presented.

Hopefully I needn't point out that the above isn't a criticism of Aubrey de
Grey himself, rather a comment on society's obsession with appearances, and
the fact that we may need to accommodate it to communicate effectively.


-----Original Message-----
From: [] On Behalf Of Amon Zero
Sent: 12 October 2009 16:34
Subject: Re: [sl4] Aubrey de Grey on BBC 'comedy' show.

> Good to see these ideas getting out into the mainstream media, but from
> show at least there still seems to be a fair amount of
> schoolyard/finger-pointing type ridicule...

That was interesting (and funny), thanks Mike. Seemed to me that the
'ridicule' was pretty good natured, given that it's a comedy show. It
was perhaps more telling that Aubrey's model was rejected because the
judges were more familiar with linear - rather than exponential -
thinking, and were also not previously familiar with the various
pieces of contextual information provided by Aubrey. In short, they
wanted to agree with the gist of what Aubrey had to say, but their own
forecasts were anchored in perceptions of a future that looks a lot
like the past. So far, so Kurzweil. That impression does, however,
lead me to thinking about ways in which transhumanist ideas could be
most effectively communicated to a wider audience, where necessary.

A cognitive psychologist (or Derren Brown) attempting to sway those
judges would probably try to find a way to pre-exposure them to the
various points Aubrey made, along with a bit of information about the
nature of exponential trends. The reason for this is based in two
empirical phenomena studied by psychologists: (1) The Mere Exposure
effect, and (2) the Anchor-and-Adjust Heuristic. The Mere Exposure
effect shows that if you expose a person to a simple idea or
phenomenon without any kind of explicit argumentation, then leave them
for a while, later they will find the idea/stimulus more attractive
than they would otherwise have done. The Anchor-and-Adjust Heuristic
is essentially a rule of thumb people commonly use when judging a
quantity (e.g. "What is my own estimate of average life expectancy a
hundred years from now?"); People start with a prior "anchor" - a
more-or-less arbitrary baseline - and then "adjust" slightly from
there, in the direction that a persuasive argument would suggest.

The judges on this TV show seemed like they *wanted* to agree with
Aubrey (his charisma and that beard go a long way to augment his
arguments!), but their "anchors" were rooted in linear extrapolation
of past trends, and so they couldn't agree with Aubrey's apparently
radical (and arguably exponential) model.

So, why might Derren Brown have planted billboards with the relevant
facts along the judges' route to the studio? Because mere exposure to
such contextual information might give them a new anchor, which is
within adjusting range of Aubrey's own estimates, thus making
agreement with him acceptable, and therefore more likely.

Might be a technique worth considering if people need to be convinced
of any arguments in favour of particular FAI techniques that can be
grounded in quantitative terms. If you don't agree with me, forget you
ever read this post, go away for a bit, and then next time you're
presented with this argument, it's more likely that you will ;-)

- Amon

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