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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Conquer the World in Order to Save It -- Civilization, Google and the Future -- AI, AL, Bio, CPS, Plan, Soc, Tech, $$$

Computer games seem to be coming into their own as tools for training and planning for corporations and governments. A number of companies are promoting their games as methods to simulate disasters, complex problems and social and economic challenges so that "players" can experience these situations without having to go through expensive live simulations. Whatever the value of these particular games, I suspect there are a couple of popular games that are serving a similar role for millions of Westerners -- Civilization(s) I, II, III and IV and the SimCity series.

These games show ordinary people that a nation or city's choices and investments have enormous long-term consequences. Are you spending enough on education? Infrastructure? Law and order? National defense? If you aren't, these can all come back to haunt you. (And yes, some would argue that The Sims offers the same perspective on the level of the individual human life, but that's a discussion for another time.)

As Douglas Kern points out in this article, your results in Civilization vary based on how well your strategy aligns with the inherent assumptions of its core rules -- and those rules tend to assume certain things, like the value of progress and modernity, and the enduring strength of civilizations (unless they are wiped out by an external force). Kern seems to be arguing that Civilization has failed to be conservative enough (or at least pessimistic enough) in its predictions, and others would doubtless insist that it isn't sufficiently liberal, libertarian, environmentally aware, Western-oriented, Eastern-oriented, pro-fascist or pro-democracy.

Needless to say, one of the game's options enables players to manipulate the numerical values behind the rules and create game realities that favor other options and world views, making this complaint something of a moot point.

But here is the intriguing side of Civilization and even SimCity. These are games that teach a host of people a very basic concept -- that planning and invested resources over time can have a profound effect on the course of history, as can the more immediate decisions we make today (such as choosing between war and peace).

Why is all of this relevant to this site's discussion of human augmentation issues? Two reasons. First, people of even moderately enhanced abilities are going to have to ask themselves where they want to focus their abilities and energies, especially prior to the emergence of some kind of genuinely superior human (someone who has actually made a quantum leap beyond conventional talents and genius in all aspects of human performance). One thing that might be useful to such emergent intellects is to already be contemplating questions of how they think society should be ordered -- or perhaps more importantly, what positive results they would most like to see in society, as their ability to develop strategies enabling those results will likely outstrip their original ideologies and grasp of socio-economic models.

Or to put it another way, if you're going to end up incredibly dynamic and powerful, have some goals in mind for when you reach that level -- but stay flexible on tactics. You're not really smart enough to imagine all the tricks available to Neo-You, so leave any plans you've got now open to future revision.

Examples of "ordinary" people who have acted to realize lifelong goals include Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, as noted in the Washington Post. "Their goal: to organize all of the world's information and make it universally accessible, whatever the consequences." The Post notes Google "has grander plans. The company is quietly working with maverick biologist Craig Venter and others on groundbreaking genetic and biological research. Google's immense capacity and turbo-charged search technology, it turns out, appears to be an ideal match for the large amount of data contained in the human genome. Venter and others say that the search engine has the ability to deal with so many variables at once that its use could lead to the discovery of new medicines or cures for diseases. Sergey Brin says searching all of the world's information includes examining the genetic makeup of our own bodies, and he foresees a day when each of us will be able to learn more about our own predisposition for various illnesses, allergies and other important biological predictors by comparing our personal genetic code with the human genome, a process known as 'Googling Your Genes.'"

For those who haven't read their Gregory Stock, yes, this kind of development is exactly the kind of thing that will push forward dual-use biotech applicable to human augmentation. But the point here is that people with long term goals (in this case more Craig Venter than Larry Page) who put themselves in a conventional position of power can use that power to accomplish amazing things.

The article goes on to note, "Brin's partner has nurtured a different ambition. For years, Larry Page dreamed of tearing down the walls of libraries, and eliminating the barriers of geography, by making millions of books searchable by anybody in the world with an Internet connection." I've read elsewhere a comment attributed to a Google employee, "We're not scanning these books so that a human being can read them. We're scanning them so an AI can read them." (Paraphrase.) Even a moment's contemplation suggests that both of these projects could have huge implications for the development of superhuman abilities (such as superintelligence). Another mover and shaker who came late to his private cause, Bill Gates, is doing amazing things through the Gates Foundation by funding dramatic new biotech research (some of which will also have impressive dual-use implications). But Page and Brin have gotten to their present projects much faster at least in part because they've been looking to the future and thinking about what they would want to do once they got in this position.

Again, these are the work of two bright but apparently quite "normal" human beings. Imagine what kinds of goals a superhuman or transhuman might accomplish, if you can.

The second reason this question of civilizational planning is important to this page is because civilizational planning is, in the end, what we're all about. The point of Future Imperative is to help make people aware of the wide variety of existing and imminent augmentation tools out there, so that the public can make better decisions about which technologies they want to embrace and which ones they want to avoid or await further studies on. Both as a society and as individuals, we have to decide what options we want to pursue, and how vigorously.

Many people argue about questions of "our" (American or Western) civilizational path here in the "real world." The New York Times has recently featured an article on whether or not the U.S. is losing its innovative edge, and two subscription-only columnists, Brooks and Friedman, have just written articles about the importance of human capital and, well, the importance of solving problems (including human capital). Obviously some of the technologies discussed on this webpage may help solve the above concerns, but they could just as easily exacerbate them. If America's technological edge is fading due to the higher number of engineers being produced in, say, China, what happens when other nations are producing far higher numbers of superhuman intellects? And begin putting them to work in their tech industries... and governments, militaries, financial institutions, etc?

Perhaps making plans for our potential future isn't just a game after all.

P.S. You may see my above comments as a whole-hearted endorsement of the game Civilization. In actuality, the game is sufficiently engrossing that it can serve as a terrible time waster (the main reason I haven't purchased a copy yet). If you try it out and find you can no longer tear yourself away from your copy of the game, remember -- there's always the site for overcoming Civ-addiction, found here. Good luck.

Future Imperative


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