Upgrade Yourself

Davros, inventor of the Daleks. Not all upgrades are a good idea.

If you could upgrade your brain, what would you change?

In my forthcoming novel, an alien virus infects humanity, with an effect rather like uploading a new software version to our brains. Memory and personality are retained – we are still ourselves – but some of our capabilities are upgraded. The virus is benign: but what should it improve, to optimise us?

I would not rush for higher IQ, which is a two-edged sword. Even when not socially dysfunctional, people with MENSA level IQs walk a tightrope between being thought arrogant and wearily helping others catch up. Besides, there was a good reason for humans to evolve with varied attributes. Any upgrade must preserve variety, or lose a key advantage of the human tribe.

There are of course many types (and definitions) of intelligence. Which would you boost in yourself? Empathy and social intelligence? Sporting intelligence and the rewards it brings? Artistic intelligence and the resulting creativity?

Or would it be intelligence at all? Perhaps you’d prefer to improve some other aspect of your mental capability, like memory (but would you actually want total recall?) Would you do a Solomon and choose wisdom? Even my clever aliens would find it tough to deliver that. How about greater sensory perception? In his book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark suggests that AI-enhanced brains could vastly broaden our experiences by processing data from sensors covering e.g. more of the electro-magnetic spectrum.

In fact the electronic upgrading of our brains has already begun. Elon Musk has made characteristically bold pronouncements, on using electronic implants not only to help repair brain damage but also for communicating wirelessly without speech. This raises the prospect of human interactions becoming universal, with inbuilt language translation programs.

Any development of telepathy raises profound questions about how far we want to go. I am too individualistic to willingly merge into a hive mind. But a cloud mind, perhaps… provided we can choose what to upload. My best thoughts I want to share with the world; my worst I want to delete unseen.

Yet my alien upgrades target something different. By enhancing our ability for objective self-criticism, they improve our competence and give us a higher level of self-awareness. We need this to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people with low ability in a task think they’re doing great.

In contrast, competent people are stern critics of their own work. That’s such a key quality for a writer that I’m probably programmed to pick it out. Even more than criticism from others, it enables writers to improve: and it underpins good and bad performance in everything from driving a car to being president.

So my choice for an upgrade is self-awareness. It’s an ability that cuts across all others, preserving the variety of the human tribe in all other respects and boosting performance in most of them.

That an alien virus might do this for us is wishful thinking: but AI may get there before we do. The ultimate choice we face may be about upgrading ourselves into a hybrid form, before autonomous AI outstrips us.

If we go hybrid, how do we avoid a split between those who want to upgrade and those who don’t? In my novel, that leads to civil war. Obviously it’s analogous to what is happening right now, in the growing war between those who revel in their ignorance and those who recognise their faults and wish to improve. In the book, The New Enlightenment wins. In reality, it hangs in the balance.

What are our Chances?

Hard to calculate the probabilities, when you don’t know what dice are being rolled

Lies, Damn Lies and the Statistics of Denial

Truth is the first casualty in war: and the war against Covid-19 is no different. From the start it has been characterised by lies, misinformation and the suppression of truth; and although this has varied in degree from one place to another, the contagion of deceit has left few places uninfected.

Just before the pandemic broke, I began writing a novel about an alien virus taking over the world. It’s been educational to see that for many of our leaders, the instinctive response would be denial. Some go on to be systematically untruthful; some are selective with the truth for the best of intentions; and some cannot ever bring themselves to admit there is a problem. Each society puts a cultural stamp on its falsehoods: we can tell a lot from the different ways in which we dissemble.

The clearest trait is that totalitarian regimes announce death rates that are unbelievably low. The more authoritarian the regime, the lower the figures. They try to use that as evidence of the need for control, whilst open societies bemoan the vulnerabilities that go with freedom. This is a mistake: anyone who thinks that Russia doesn’t have a runaway epidemic, or that Iran has got things in hand, needs a cold reality bath.

The Chinese government, battered by accusations of cover-up, have recently amended their figures for the early stages of the epidemic in Wuhan. That 50% increase restores a shred of credibility; but the great unknown is the extent to which the severity of the subsequent lockdown and surveillance was effective. We can’t trust their figures, so we don’t know how well it worked.

In the UK, with no systematic testing, government and media cling to the only certainty they can find, which is the number of deaths in hospital. Although forced to admit that this is only part of the picture, they continue to downplay deaths elsewhere, stating them as 10% of the hospital totals despite evidence that 40-50% is a more likely range. This bumbling around the data reflects a British establishment who generally gave up maths so early in their school careers that they never developed a grasp of statistics.

The most open and well educated societies have either combined strong, early measures with excellent campaigns of public information, thus preventing the disease from getting a hold (e.g. New Zealand), or have challenged the whole scientific basis of lockdowns (e.g. Sweden).

To understand the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, we first need to acknowledge that everyone is confused about what’s really going on. The epidemiologists are almost as lost as the rest of us. Why do death rates vary so wildly? How many people have been infected? Do they then gain immunity? After six months of pandemic, our ignorance still exceeds our understanding.

One mystery of Covid-19 is why its impact varies between ethnic communities. In the USA, 30% of identified cases are Afro-Americans, who form only 14% of the population. In the UK, three quarters of the healthcare workers who have died are from BAME backgrounds. The reason is unlikely to be genetic but a consequence of lifestyle, poverty, associated conditions like obesity – and the fact that they also provide roughly half of our frontline heroes.

Early on, the Chinese thought only 17% of those infected showed no symptoms. Yet when whole communities have been tested, like the crew of the USS Roosevelt, the real figure appears to be almost 60%. Iceland has tested 15% of its entire population and reckons the figure at near 50%. Incidentally, cooping people up in a confined space like an aircraft carrier demonstrates that in similar circumstances, most of us would get infected.

Testing in most developed countries is between 2% and 0.5% of the population and suggests that the total number of infections may be 50 to 70 times the number of identified cases. On this basis, over a hundred million people already have the virus, maybe a third of the population in some countries. Together, these statistics call into question several aspects of the lockdowns.

Big events cause big disasters: Italy and Spain owe most of their pain to a single football match in February. Big egos are worse: super-idiots like Trump and Bolsanaro facilitate contagion more than super-spreaders.

What policy guidance can we draw from all this? Firstly, in countries that have failed to contain the virus it’s likely that most of us are going to get infected whatever we do, so the main purpose of any policy is to manage the flow rate of cases through the health service.

Secondly, viral load is a major factor in determining whether someone lives or dies, so PPE for all frontline workers really is vital.

Thirdly, Sweden was probably right with its approach of focusing on social distancing rather than lockdown, at least once the disease was already present. 

Unless Covid-19 mutates into a more deadly form, it is probably going to kill about one of us in every thousand, mostly the old and sick. Balancing this against the human and economic cost of lockdown is a tough call. 

In any event we need to become more pragmatic in our policies. Crowding together in a confined space is bad; sunbathing in a park is not.

We also need to recognise that most of us have been very lucky. A flu-like pandemic was top of the risk register for decades: Covid-19 is probably the least deadly disease that could have forced us to make such huge changes.

This will not be the last pandemic. Will we learn the right lessons, before the next one? It would certainly help if we could clarify the truth of what is actually happening. Yet irrespective of the statistics, one lesson is clear. Our chances depend on how we load the dice. Minimising surplus capacity in emergency services is a false economy; but money spent on boosting our disaster preparedness is the wisest investment any politician will ever make.

China’s Great Wall of Silence

In my forthcoming novel, After the Event, different governments respond to an alien virus in very different ways. In this respect I’m finding it highly instructive to watch how the Covid-19 pandemic plays out around the world.

In the middle stages of the original epidemic, when Chinese officials briefly stopped trying to suppress the truth, there was a deluge of reportage coming out of the country. It’s not surprising that this has now reduced, given the tight lockdown, the evacuation of foreign journalists and the media’s shift of attention to the impact of the pandemic elsewhere. Yet if one scans the international media, the coverage of what is happening in China is now so limited that it is hard not to be suspicious. 

The official line is that the draconian measures imposed by the government of Xi Jinping have been extraordinarily successful. According to this narrative, China has gone in the space of six weeks from having a runaway epidemic with 60,000 confirmed cases in mid-February, to reaching a plateau of 80,000 at the beginning of March and a recovery to just 1,863 active cases now, most of them caused by people coming into the country from abroad. There have really only been two stories from China in the past week: a travel ban against foreigners, to prevent a “second wave” of infections; and the lifting of some internal restrictions so that people can re-enter Wuhan and start going back to work.

Really? Even given the omnipotence of the Chinese state and its instruments of control, is it credible that a lockdown could be that successful, that quickly, in a country where tens of millions of people had been moving between regions for the New Year festival during the epidemic’s early growth period just two months earlier? If experience from Italy and Spain is anything to go by, even the most rigorous of lockdowns could not have achieved such a fast turnaround.

The countries that have managed to contain the epidemic, at least for now, did so with a comprehensive programme of testing and tracking. This was also the approach in China: but can we believe that it was achievable on the vast scale necessary there, especially in light of emerging evidence that their tests have a high error rate? Spain and Turkey have found that tens of thousands of the test kits sent to them by China are unreliable (the batch in Spain were accurate only 30% of the time). Meanwhile the Dutch authorities have recalled 600,000 Chinese face masks as being unsafe.

We should also recall that during the epidemic, the Chinese authorities ran a massive programme of censorship against anyone who tried to highlight uncomfortable facts or question the official line. Some of the bloggers involved were forcibly put into quarantine and have not been heard from since. So there is really no other lense through which to view the situation in China today, except that of the government.

Given this background, let me pose some questions about what is really going on in China. Is it possible that the death toll is far higher than the 3,318 officially cited? Could it be that the authorities have suppressed the real number, for instance by ensuring that death certificates cite other causes? (This is easy to do when most people who succumb to Covid-19 die from multiple causes, such as heart failure and pneumonia, or else die without ever being tested.) Perhaps a new outbreak reported yesterday in a region near Hubei is evidence that new infections are still occurring at a higher rate than has been admitted? And is it conceivable that the ban on foreigners has been instituted not just to prevent new infections being brought in, but also to stop the rest of the world from discovering the true situation?

The Chinese communist party can only justify its grip on power if it is seen to be solving the country’s problems and leading its people to a better quality of life. Failure to overcome the Coronavirus epidemic, or a prolonged economic downturn, both hold more terrors for Xi Jinping and his minions than they do for western democracies. In a democracy, even the people who hold power don’t regard losing it as the end of the world. But for members of the Chinese regime, failure could be fatal.

No doubt they will use every trick in the book to manipulate the truth and strengthen their grip, just as they did after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Covid-19, however, personally touches a far larger proportion of the country’s 1.4 billion people. If the recovery being presented by China is a matter of smoke and mirrors, it will be interesting to see how long they can keep up the illusion.

In my novel After the Event, the alien infection is seen by many as beneficial: and efforts to stop it rebound on those who try. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your initial mindset and whether or not you’ve been infected. You’ll have to wait for the book to be finished to find out just where that leads.

Best of times, worst of times

Pollution reduction over Italy (from ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite)

I cannot be the only one who is enjoying this. 

Despite the disaster unfolding in intensive care units and the awful economic impact, the current crisis may be the best thing that’s happened in my lifetime. As a Boomer, I say this in the full knowledge that Covid-19 may kill me.

In part this is similar to the wartime generation’s refrain that WW2 provided the best years of their lives. (Mind you, the ones who said that never fought in the front line but were either civilians or had support roles in the armed forces.)

There is also an element of the same dark enjoyment that drives the popularity of movies and video-games about a zombie apocalypse, or any other end-of-days scenario, from War of the Worlds to Contagion (which I believe is currently the most in-demand movie on Netflix).

This darkness is the shadow of a larger feeling that society is failing, that we are being led to global catastrophe and that there is little we can do about it. Hence we live in a state of barely-suppressed rage, which feeds a desire to wipe the slate clean and also generates a thirst for justice and retribution.

The main focus for retribution should be the failure of political leadership that has been exposed in every continent. Totalitarian China first tried to suppress the truth, thereby ensuring the virus’s success, and now stakes its dictator’s survival on proving that only the strictest authoritarian control can save the people. If Xi Jinping succeeds, then China will complete its transition into Orwell’s nightmare 1984 state. If he fails, then he and his whole rotten system will fall. I vote for the virus.

In Russia, Putin has shown himself to be just as stupid as the Ayatollahs of Iran and the petty bureaucrats of Wuhan. The virus thrives on disinformation and will shortly demonstrate the limitations of the current Tsar’s power.

In America, Trump is being brought down by the one enemy he doesn’t know how to fight. No matter how much he insults and belittles the virus, it doesn’t care, it doesn’t stop and it is going to achieve huge success amidst a population that is particularly unhealthy and ill-informed.

The democratic anarchy of Italy and the bumbling of Boris are proving neither more nor less effective than most other systems in managing the disaster. Only the rigid conformity of Singapore, South Korea and Japan seem to offer any hope of success: and even they have no exit strategy.

Religion makes things worse. In several parts of the Muslim world, imams and the faithful believe that mass prayers will protect them, thereby ensuring that the virus (aka God or the devil) will correct their delusion.

The virus mostly kills old men. Fortunately, that covers most of the world’s leaders. If I believed in God, I would see this as Divine Judgement, or Comedy.

For a couple of years now I have been telling people that our societies and especially our cities are fragile and that a pandemic or a different global catastrophe will expose their vulnerabilities very soon. With this in mind I took my family to Dubai, saying that I wanted them to see it now because it won’t be there for very long. They thought I was exaggerating but if ever there was a monument to hubris, which deserves to have the giant portraits of its rulers replaced with the words of Ozymandias, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair”, then Dubai is it.

I thought the most likely cause of collapse would be global warming, which is set to make most of the Gulf region uninhabitable within the next 30 years. What I hadn’t anticipated was that a relatively mild pandemic would do in two months what all the world’s governments could not achieve in twenty years.

The satellite pictures are unequivocal. The great concentrations of pollution in China and Northern Italy have dissipated as quickly as the contrails in the skies. Those in Flanders and elsewhere will soon follow. Even Greta Thunberg could not make our idiot rulers take quick and effective action: but a tiny virus that only kills about one in a hundred of us, has transformed all our so-called leaders into action heroes almost overnight.

Or so they would have us believe. If the eventual relaxation of lockdown measures leads to a resurgence in the virus, they will be universally seen as super-villains. From this, two wonderful outcomes may emerge. The first is a realisation that their malign incompetence is the true threat. The second is the discovery that real change is not just necessary but possible.

When the Black Death killed over a third of Europeans, it changed society in ways that ultimately benefitted most of the survivors. Feudalism died out, wages and social mobility increased and the church’s stranglehold on thought was broken. We can achieve even greater benefits at much lower cost. 

Unless the virus mutates to a more lethal form that kills the young, we have the prospect of a corrupt old political order being swept away, dead or discredited. Their worship of economic growth may be seen for the idolatry that it is; their inability to own their mistakes and change their policies will be judged unpardonable; and the hold of religious fundamentalism can be weakened from the Bible Belt of the USA to the madrasahs of Iran. We may even come at last to recognise that there are too many of us, that our lifestyles are suicidal and that we must change if we are to avoid the fate of every parasite that kills its host.

The virus is neither our enemy nor our friend: but it can be the saviour of our species, if we are willing to learn from it.