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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.

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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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Virtually a Life Worth Living, or... -- AI, Cyber, Soc, Tech

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Some might consider a considerable investment in one's online avatar to be a frivolous waste of time, energy and (in some cases) resources. Not everyone, however, according to a recent WashingtonPost.Com article. This piece notes:


People spend more of their lives online -- the average American Internet user spends 80 hours a month online at work and 30 hours at home, according to Nielsen-NetRatings -- and Web-based interactions are evolving to look less like word-based messaging and more like facsimiles of physical existence. Tens of millions of Internet users have online doppelgangers they design to act as their proxy online -- communicating, shopping and socializing on their behalf and expressing themselves through humanoid gestures, voices and facial expressions.

Furthermore, even videogames, those time-honored time-wasters of many a youth, are being used to train people in more advanced skills, such as surviving combat. The free online game America's Army puts each player through a virtual "boot camp" before allowing them to play the main combat simulation scenarios. Originally used as a recruitment tool by the U.S. Army, this latter game is now being used as a form of virtual training for enlisted troops.

Some might see these avatars and games -- and the personal investment of time and/or money some people have in their virtual alter-egos in games such as The Sims and various MMORPGs, and the skills we can now train people in virtually -- as an initial step towards making the general public comfortable with the idea of uploading their consciousness and becoming a virtual being. (A goal of many transhumanists, for example.)

While there may eventually be some truth to this idea, I see things slightly differently. I think it's likely that the average avatar owner no more wants to become his electronic alter-ego than Fabien Cousteau wants to become a real shark. One could actually argue that the emergence of high-quality avatars, like the development of "AI lawyers," effective assembly-line and household robots and even AI "scientists" represents not necessarily a precursor to a radically changed humanity, but yet another powerful tool enabling "mere mortals," or, perhaps, augmented mortals, to greatly magnify their personal power. Improved methods of online or VR training would fall under the same category. That newfound power could be demonstrated in increasing workplace efficiency, improved communications, an expanded ("free") workforce... or simply luring more hapless people into your absorbing game or online/real world community.

Which of course raises the key point -- what you're using these new tools for, or failing to use them for, may be just as important as whether or not they exist or whether you have access to them. Example given, your biotech company may be in a position to set up an array of computers to sift through all of the world's medical literature searching for candidate drugs to be used against a particular disease -- or you may simply use a brute-force array of machines to decode the smallpox virus, and then publish your findings online... So that an aspiring bio-terrorist can modify it into something that existing vaccines can not stop, thus killing a significant percentage of the human race.

This may be a crude example, but most of these technologies have multiple applications, and can easily be abused. America's Army may be designed to lure you into the military and into Iraq, but Doom, Civ IV, SimCity, Halo, The Sims, World of Warcraft and so forth are trying to such you into their legion of fans. People who sometimes spend a good part of their lifetimes laboring over trivial imaginary conflicts. The Civ Addiction site has a joking portrayal of this result that has more of a grain of truth than most players may be comfortable with. One could argue that the Net today is consuming vast amounts of human brainpower to no particular purpose, much like bad television has done for decades.

There can be no doubt that online activities have succeeded in finding their market niche. But when chatrooms, discussion lists, blogs, popular websites and even video games (online or otherwise) are eating up so much of the connected world's time, it raises the issue of what we're using our augmented abilities for.

You can get together with friends from across the world to shoot up creatures in the latest Doom or Halo game, but have you learned to collaborate with people across the planet or just down the street on anything meaningful? This is more than a rhetorical question; a shocking number of people have no idea how to set up a community task force or start a viable business, and hence vast amounts of human creativity and initiative are lost.

Is it surprising that one incredibly popular and addictive game is The Sims, where players take on an alternative identity and carry that persona forward through the travails and opportunities and steady daily progress of its life?

And if you have got a handle on your personal and professional life, what kind of larger vision animates your works in this world? Are you the sort of person who would, given the chance, publish the smallpox code, start a disastrous war or create an environmentally devastating product? Just because you could? Or because you had no clue of the larger implications of what you were doing?

We often find it very easy to codemn others for their lack of ambition, their limited horizons, their simplistic strategies. But by examining the weaknesses in our own lives, we can find not merely flaws in our planning, but unlooked-for sources of strength. Imagine what you could do if you did start that business, or realized where you should really be applying that new invention -- or simply how much more you could get out of your time by living a great life, instead of just the simulation of one.

Perhaps there's something to be learned from these games after all...


Future Imperative

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