Nikola Danaylov at TZM Interviews

TZM Interviews is a new form of dialog that brings proactive, visionary and inspiring people into this conversation about cutting edge technology applied to global sustainability and how to effectively change the world. On November we had the honor to talk with Nikola Danaylov: Philosopher, singularitarian, infopreneur and a fellow party animal who started the Singularity Weblog to share thoughts on trends, news, issues, films and people related to technological singularity. During the summer of 2011 Nikola completed the Graduate Studies Program at Singularity University and returned home to Toronto, Canada where he lives.

Nikola, Technology is neutral, isn't it? And it seem it's pretty much in our hands to decide what's the direction we will give to it. While we see many good intentions in the world, it's pretty obvious that really damaging industries - like war or drug industries - are bigger than ever. What's the role culture plays in this? How can we shape culture in order to make singularity a process where the scientific method is applied for social concern?

In my view technology is like a magnifying mirror: It is a mirror because it gives us what we put in it. It is a reflection of our own image, though not that of our physical embodiment but of our ideas materialized in the real world. So if we focus on the idea of a terrifyingly destructive weapon we can end up with a hydrogen bomb. If we focus on creating abundance of safe energy we can eventually create nuclear fusion, thorium reactors, endless solar or geothermal power.

The reason why the mirror is magnifying is because technology provides us with absolutely unparalleled leverage to magnify the outcome we seek by an ever increasing exponential factor as directed by what Ray Kurzweil calls the law of accelerating returns.

If the above metaphor is a true representation of the way technology impacts our world then what we see out there is merely a reflection of our own selves. Of what we value and focus on. So the wars and destruction is not technology’s fault, just like the hammer is not to be blamed for hitting things other than the nail. The world is our own creation of our own image. Technology simply helps us do more with less but the direction is that of our own choosing and doing.

Culture is a very important factor because it colors the way we view the world. It sets the boundaries of what is possible, what is permissible and what is un/desirable. It tints our glasses to perceive certain things as being either right or wrong and to focus on one or the other. Therefore, culture in its own right can be either an incentive for progress or an impediment thereof. For example, if the cultural dogmas are entirely overlapping with religious ones then progress is either very hard and slow or outright impossible. Alternatively, in societies where the predominant culture creates incentives for trial-and-error, i.e. another way of saying it is embracing the scientific method, then we are almost guaranteed of progress. Because people will try many different things, see what works, discard what doesn’t work and move forward in an ever increasing cycle of improvement. This is what science and the scientific method is all about, and that is why it important to create strong cultural traditions of embracing it.

Would you tell us a little about your paper “Hacking Destiny: Critical Security at the Intersection of Human and Machine Intelligence”?

My “Hacking Destiny: Critical Security at the Intersection of Human and Machine Intelligence” paper focused on the introduction of armed drones in warfare, initially in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and eventually elsewhere such as Pakistan, and the implications thereof.

My main argument in the paper examined the issue of human security from a critical evolutionary point of view. In other words I looked at how the current and future 21st century technological developments may impact the prospects of survival of the human species. Despite what some may consider to be an issue of evolutionary biology I argued that this issue is first and foremost political since problematizing the issue and establishing who gets to make decisions, under what authority, what circumstances and towards what goals, are what politics is all about.

Even more specifically, the paper focused on human security in the broad sense with respect to the whole human species and the emerging threats and promises posed by the technological revolution in general and the potential rise in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in particular. I also examined the potential of conflict surrounding that process and identified some of the possible outcomes of any pre- and especially post-singularity conflicts.

My thesis was that a cautious but deliberate and conscious effort of improving (i.e. hacking) our biology is our best hope to ensure our future survival and security. It is this process that I call “hacking (our) destiny” and I argued that though it holds many unparalleled promises – such as absolute freedom of material and physical limitations and most notably immortality, it holds equally powerful dangers delineated by the full spectrum of conflict – from terrorism, low intensity conflict and civil war to large scale international, global, inter-species wars and even extinction.

SingularityWeblog is huge; I can't imagine that once it was just an idea in your head, maybe the need to communicate something. There are so many people trying to reach wider audiences. As an infopreneur, what's your advice for them?

Singularity Weblog started with a failure. Basically the most popular blog in the singularity niche – Singularity Hub, had a call out for writers. This was right after I had finished my MA degree and was looking for work. So I sent out an application for the position but never heard back from them. Then, after a couple of weeks of silence, I concluded that my application had failed to make the cut. Still, instead of giving up, my conclusion was that I can actually try and do this on my own. This was a really hard and risky decision. At the time I had no programming or computer knowledge, didn’t know how to write html code and had no clue how do record audio and video for podcasting. Still, I made a commitment and slowly, step-by-step, I started learning, and all the different elements started falling into place.

At first I created SingularitySymposium.com which is entirely an html based web site. Then, about six months later, I discovered WordPress, started SingularityWeblog.com and my life was changed forever...

All in all it took three years to take Singularity Weblog to where it is today. So, if there is any lesson at all here for all the infopreneurs out there, it must be: “Make a committed decision. Start working on it. Persist and don’t give up. And eventually things will start falling into place. Just begin. Don’t be afraid that you don’t know everything (or much at all). As long as you are willing to put the time and the effort to learn from your failures they can contain the seeds of your greatest successes...”

There is an old proverb which says that “Even the longest journey begins with a single step.” So my advice is – just make the first step and keep going forward.

I live in a third world country and I just visited some of these houses where all the electricity they have is a light bulb; some of them lack any electricity or even gas. How can a modern Socrates reach those people in the long run?

We do live in a world of terrible inequality. Some people are dying from over-eating and obesity while others from starvation. At the same time today we have more opportunities than we have had ever before in the history of mankind...

I believe that one thing that both intelligence in general and philosophy in particular can teach us well is empathy. If we are humble about our personal possessions and empathise with those who struggle to feed themselves, we realize that there is really no difference between us and them. Then we are at the best starting point to make a positive contribution to other people’s lives. So in that sense, philosophy can provide us with the motivation to do good in the world. But technology can provide the means through which we can implement doing good in the world and improving other people’s lives.


What's your answer to 'the big question'?

One can spend a life-time debating the issues in this video. In brief, my take is this: conservation of resources is important to slow down environmental degradation and resource depletion. However, in a world of 7 billion people and rising, conservation on its own is not enough to save us. 8 or 9 billion people on this planet will starve if we try to go back to the way our ancestors lived a couple of hundred years ago. Therefore, in addition to conservation, we also need new, ingenious ways of value creation. Of achieving more with less. Which is what technology is all about. Thus, in my view, a progressive future will be one which looks both ways – backwards toward more environmental respect, responsibility and less consumption, but also forward toward better, smarter and more efficient ways of creating more with less, at a lower cost, with less negative impact on the environment, etc. Thus, we need a hybrid approach that takes the best of both worlds.

What will I do? It has been almost three years now that I have been doing my best to focus on creating a positive impact on this world by spreading the message that technology, applied in a smart and responsible way, can help us alleviate or outright resolve many, perhaps most, of our current problems. Again, I am not saying that technology will save us. I am saying that we can save ourselves with the smart usage of technology. So it is true that we have many problems, but instead of despairing we should look closely into our current failures because they do contain the seeds of our future successes. This, I believe, is true not only at the personal level but also at the collective level.

How does it feel to be at SingularityU, converging with really proactive, creative, smart people? a) How do you imagine a world full of this kind of people? and b) How can we design society to kind of design these human beings?

Singularity University is an absolutely incredible, unique place like no other that I know of. I sincerely wish that everyone can experience it. The best part is that everyone can do so, even if it is via the mediation of technology. For example, people can go and watch many of the SU lectures on YouTube. Thus you can really learn exactly what SU attendees have learned and seen. You can also read, listen and watch some of the more personal accounts of people who have been to SU. I myself tried hard to document a lot of my experiences there, and I don’t mean only the academic ones but also the interpersonal, social ones. So you can start by checking out this article where I give my top five tips for people who are interested in applying to Singularity University.

At the very bottom of the article you will find a full list of other articles documenting my own personal experience at SU. Not only lectures that you can see and hear but also parties, road trips, a video tour and so on.

Ten concepts we should embrace in order to reduce the impact of singularity on us.

In my opinion we don’t need to embrace 10 concepts. We simply need to embrace one: “Never stop asking questions, and keep learning.”

I believe that as long as we are humble and know that we don’t know - we can actually learn new things and make progress. This is why Socrates said that he never taught anyone anything but instead wanted to act as a midwife to other people giving birth to their own ideas. This is very similar to what Buddhism calls having “a beginner’s mind”.

Since learning is a lifelong process, a praxis, a journey – it has no end. Just a beginning. And as long as we are keeping the beginner’s attitude we are walking along that journey. The moment we say we have learned something which is absolutely certain to remain unchanged forever is the moment we stop learning and begin to be an obstacle to progress.

If you want to know more about Socrates and his work, just subscribe to Singularity Weblog here: http://snglrty.co/RrElgK

You can also subscribe to Socrates’ popular Singularity 1 on 1 podcast via iTunes here: http://snglrty.co/WZgJUc or via YouTube.

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