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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.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Posthuman Dreams, or Being Both More and Less than Human... -- Dark, SF, Soc, Super

Aeon Flux is a new movie starring Charlize Theron, set in a dark future centuries hence, where the title character fights for freedom against the power of an oppressive government. Now, you might be asking, despite Aeon's clearly superhuman gifts in the original MTV cartoon, and the themes of cybernetic transformation, cloning, etc found in the movie and series, what a gorgeous woman in black leather has to do with transcending human limitations.

The answer, of course, is everything.

Forget the interviews and reviews. For a moment, even forget the movie and storyline itself. When you see someone like Charlize Theron, you see someone with a dozen years of ballerina experience, a Hollywood career and an Academy Award, who worked out for four and a half to five hours a day, six days a week for three and a half months with a trainer from Cirque du Soleil just to get ready for this movie.

So, aspiring transhuman, what do you say to her?

Bzzt! Too late! =)

My point here, of course, is not that my readers need to be better at chatting up celebrities. Or maybe you do, but that's your business. Instead, the actress -- and the character -- serve to point out a flaw in the philosophies of many who embrace the idea of transcending their human limitations.

Most people who aspire to being "more than human" are having enough trouble living a fully human life in the first place.

Or to put it another way, most people realize they can't keep track of absolutely everything going on around themselves (given conventional abilities, anyway). So we tend to take mental shortcuts, to tune out information deemed unimportant. A common side effect of highly specialized knowledge and skills, as it happens, is coming to ignore a great deal of the rest of life as irrelevent, or coming to understand other fields primarily in terms of one's own specialty alone.

As a result, many people who embrace the idea that they can become superhuman often latch on to a particular favorite strategy -- which is always to develop one or more of what I like to call "Rapture technologies." These are technologies whose enthusiasts believe will be capable of instantly transforming the world, or at least their discoverers, thus leading to the sudden Ascension of a posthuman "Power" and the instant irrelevence of all other forces and intelligences. Including the whole of humanity.

While it's hard to say whether or not one of the technologies being researched today will have such an impact, much less how quickly, one result of this theory can already be seen today. If you believe research into artificial intelligence is the one thing that will save humanity, and indeed the only thing that can, then you may become an obsessive AI researcher. Or obsessed about supporting AI research. The same holds true if your obsession is nanotech, uploading minds into computers or any other exclusive ultra-technology-that-is-going-to-save-us-all.

The problem here is that, personal philosophies not withstanding, the Singularity, if it comes, may come gradually, as the accumulated changes brought about by a host of human augmentations and a legion of technological innovations that, in aggregate, transform the human condition. As opposed to a single, blinding white flash 0.03 microseconds after a circuit closes inside this or that piece of RaptureTech in some underground lab.

This may not seem as elegant an evolution for those who have their hearts set on making their own private godling, but the possibility does bring us back to the movie, and to Aeon Flux.

Ms. Theron's considerable resume is a useful illustration. Many people in transhumanist circles talk about escaping their human limitations, but few of us have lived at anything like our full potential within those limits. This point may be moot if a god-computer raises us all up and grants us new flesh in the time of the nano-apocalypse, but in the case of a more gradual change, it's worth noting...

Charlize Theron is apt to become a transhuman before most if not all of the people reading this article. Why? If the first transhumans are basically just optimized humans who have been optimized again and again and again, what kind of person is apt to have the resources to use biotech augments once they're established as completely safe? Who will be operating in a challenging environment where extended and enhanced youth and beauty, not to mention talent, intelligence and athletic ability, will be absolutely key to her success?

And perhaps most key, who is pushing herself to her limits now, and thus most likely to fully utilize accelerated learning, biotech augments and non-invasive mindtech to become something more than just an "optimal man" when the opportunity arises?

Now, you might say, "You don't know whether or not Charlize Theron is actually interested in any of those things. Sure, she may be interested in improving her skills, but that doesn't mean she'll jump at any of this tech stuff. Even if it's known to work safely."

And you'd have a point. But Ms. Theron is just an illustration.

The point is, if humanity evolves into "superhumanity" by way of a "slow" evolution of biotech, accelerated learning, mind-stimulating devices and other options (cybernetics, limited AI, limited nano), then whoever is pushing forward hardest on all fronts -- developing skills to unheard of levels, acquiring effective, synergized enhancements, making use of revolutionary personal tech, etc -- will presumably cross the finish line first.

Which means that Charlize Theron is probably ahead of most of us looking at the possibility now, even though she presumably doesn't know she's in a race. And meanwhile, most of us are either just standing here watching her head down the final leg, or are slowly, smugly jogging in that direction, confidant that we're well in advance of any potential contenders. (Save perhaps a few friends.)

Imagine if "the superman" turns out to be more like Paul Atreides of Dune than True Omnipotence. Imagine if there are gradations of transhuman, if there are specialties even among these seeming-demi-gods.

Imagine, in short, if humanity still has levels of accomplishment and drive. And if people like Ms. Theron, who are stars in this world, continue to outshine you utterly in that one. And why? Perhaps because while she didn't realize she was in this race, she's been running it as though it mattered. And you haven't been. Because the god-computer is going to reach down and save you in the "end times."

Time to reconsider your habits, perhaps? Or just time to fetch your running shoes?

Or to pray to your false gods? =)

Future Imperative


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You, my friend, are wise in many things. My picture of the coming future parallels yours with uncanny precision. The only question is: is this a good development or a bad one? Could it go both ways, with one version a more positive reality than the similar yet slightly different alternatives. Will the entire globe encompass a hive-mind? Will it be centrally directed or emergent? Will it be more or less the picture that Aldous Huxley painted, with an inherently utterly locked hiearchy? How many human beings will get left behind as the species evolves?

Natural selection can create wondrous things, but she's not known for her empathy.

December 04, 2005 8:04 PM  
Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

You don't believe in the possibility of a hard takeoff, that's fine. Many do, and based on sound reasoning. An AI that runs on circuits millions of times faster than your brain will not wait years to advance. Advancement could take a while from the AI's perspective, but very rapidly from ours. You are discounting the possibility of beings that generate progress on faster-than-human timescales, because it *sounds* radical. But if a faster-than-human thinker gets its hands on faster-than-human mechanical actuators, progress will simply take off at a faster-than-human rate. Nothing religious or Rapturous about it - simply the laws of physics.

December 06, 2005 2:50 AM  
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