.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

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.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Speed Reading Ultrasimplified -- AL, Easy, Self

Speed reading is potentially a huge opportunity for self-enhancement. The rate at which you read forms a bottleneck in the speed with which you can gather new information from written material, which means that a much faster reading style could not only make it easier for you to learn new skills and broaden your mind, but also to save time. For a busy student or employee, being able to make it through textbooks or manuals in a fraction of the time (especially with increased comprehension) is clearly valuable. An hour here, an hour there -- when you're pressed for time, it all matters.

I have two suggestions for people who would like to see a substantial increase in their normal reading speed (especially the speed with which they read non-fiction, books for school, etc). Paul Scheele's Double Your Reading Speed in Ten Minutes is an extremely fast method for improving your overall reading speed. I actually had to use it twice to double my speed, because I first tried it in a room full of boisterous teenagers.

Second, there's an interesting accelerated reading tip out there from Dr. Win Wenger that involves using his Image Streaming technique (described in full, with backup procedures in case you have trouble getting your imagery going, here, and with a boiled down version of the technique, with my review, here). Essentially, with Image Streaming you close your eyes and describe aloud whatever pops intoyour mind's eye in all five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) as quickly as you can to an external listener -- either a tape recorder or (preferably) a live listener other than yourself.

The basic application of Image Streaming to accelerated reading is simple. "Before you even go in to reading the journal article, manuscript, text chapter or whatever, ask your Image Streaming faculties to show you an image which 'somehow will make everything in this paper come together for me and make sense to me.' Look in and see what that image is. Whether you immediately understand that image's meaning, just hang it on the back walls of your mind and plow into that reading. You will discover, with some amazement the first few times you achieve this effect, that everything in that paper does come together and make sense for you -- in less than a third of the time it'd ordinarily take you to work through that reading! -- And with many times the meaningful understanding that you would have otherwise experienced from that reading!"

I personally have found this technique to be very effective in increasing both my reading speed and understanding. If you are unfamiliar with Image Streaming, you may want to practice it so that you have a good handle on that skill before you try to apply it to your reading. Dr. Wenger suggests testing the method by Image Streaming for 10 minutes a day for ten days (preferably with a live partner), and then deciding, on the basis of whatever gains in mental clarity you've noticed by that time, whether you wish to continue using the technique. I would imagine developing at least that much facility with Image Streaming before using it to enhance your reading would be advisable. Just a suggestion.

Future Imperative

Friday, April 15, 2005

Gene Therapy vs. the Genetic Superbaby. Or Not... -- Bio

One odd question about human genetic enhancement is what would be produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people in our society, gene therapy that could enhance the genes of adults, or altering the germline by modifying the genes of the as-yet-unborn. This may not be an either-or question, incidentally. Both technologies are apt to show up at around the same time because they share some basic requirements. Still, here’s my present assessment.

Given a choice between having advanced gene therapy (permitting “multiple upgrades” of an adult genome without side effects) and in-vitro modification of chromosomes to allow for “superbabies”… I’d pick the advanced gene therapy.

This technology has a number of advantages. For example, you aren’t forced to neglect the condition of people who are already alive and who already have genetic defects. Nor do you don't have to spend 10,000 years breeding your "superior race." And you don't have to be supplanted by a new crop of vastly superior kids about 5 to 7 years after the last bunch started hitting society (whether in the schools, business, politics or sci-tech research).

One of the things that makes people leery about most forms of radical human enhancement is the unspoken fear of being left behind. This belief is not entirely irrational -- most young people in America, at least, have the experience of having been bullied/coerced/manipulated by individuals in a position of superior power. And a lot of us growing up come to an acceptance of who we are by exploring those areas in which we're different and often better than other people. So you have the traditional divisions of jocks, brains, artists, actors, comedians, etc, plus all the people who develop a sense of value by being extremely knowledgeable/talented in a specialized field they consider of burning importance -- the programmer who contributes to Linux, the scientist working on cancer, the Little League coach, the volunteer keeping a shelter open, the writer sharing their particular insights with the world.

If your whole self-image is at least partly based on being really capable in a particular endeavor, would you really look forward to a wave of people coming along, many or all of whom are potentially far better than you are in your field? Or who are already better? Or who can so outshine you -- if it suits their whim -- as to make your entire career look like a candleflame next to the bonfire of their casual accomplishments?

I'm reminded of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young man with a great interest in arithmetic, who came into the possession of a mathematical textbook that was roughly a century out of date. Within two years, he had re-derived a century's worth of mathematics, and had developed a number of original theories of his own (including one presently being used in modern superstring theory in physics). He later worked for a short time with a great British mathematician before dying at an early age.

My point in the above story is just this... Imagine how it would feel to be one of the minor mathematicians eclipsed by Ramanujan (especially if he had lived). Obviously some, like his friend Hardy, would have been overjoyed with the advances he brought to the field. But imagine having all of your life's work amount to a few theorems this fellow worked out over a lazy afternoon. Now imagine that there's not one Ramanujan, but ten thousand, and that's just the number that have flooded into your obscure little field. And you may not have been a Nobel-caliber scientist, or Olympic athlete or Mother Theresa-like social worker in the old world, much less this new one.

And then imagine finding out that these ten thousand are part of a wave of one million (or more) and that people expect many more waves to come in the future, each one larger and much more gifted than the last. Where, really, do you fit in this "brave new world"? Are you irrelevant? Are your children, now that these "superhumans" have come to supplant them? (And your kids will be obsolete, even if they're in one of these waves. After all, the next model will immediately make them redundant.)

The same problem exists with advanced methods for accelerated learning, creativity enhancement and basic intelligence boosting. There are some impressive techniques and technologies out there, and many of them could probably work in synergy. Thus magnifying their combined effects. And someone who has increased their creativity and/or intelligence could use those abilities to develop even better techniques and technologies.

In this case, the problem isn't creating a new "master race" every five minutes with the latest designer genes (available to no one born previously) but the simple fact that only extremely motivated people with access to all of these brain-enhancing resources are going to be able to use them effectively. So when someone sees the extraordinary feats of a genius who has studied intensively with a host of powerful tools (say, a float tank, some self-hypnosis, advanced speed reading, lateral thinking, Image Streaming, PO, a Ganzfeld, physical inversion, nootropic drugs, a careful diet and exercise regime, Freenoting, etc) they may think "I can't devote my life to doing all that. I have barely enough time to walk the dog. I'll never keep up with someone like that." And quietly envy or fear the newly minted genius.

So the most successful examples of such programs could easily be the most threatening to people. And thus create plenty of resistance, both overt and internalized, to the embrace of highly beneficial innovations.

I'm interested in gene therapy because in the near term it can handle many life threatening or at least debilitating disorders and in the long term it could eliminate the "superbaby" problem outlined above. If we all improve more or less together, no one has to feel threatened or ruined by the overall progress of the species. Even if some people get more advantages “than we had growing up.” People can live with that situation. They have been for centuries.

I feel the related problem with mind-enhancing tech could be relieved if the most powerful techniques that are also extremely easy to use are made widely available to the public. That won't prevent the brilliant, the disciplined or the obsessed from magnifying their relative mental advantages, but will allow for a wide-enough distribution of effective resources to prevent that gap from growing too wide, while also giving a gentle and rewarding-enough introduction to general society to encourage many people to explore their minds' potential further.

Frankly, I want both the brilliant individual and the general run of society to be able to develop to the fullest degree that they can.

Eugenic Apocalypse? Or Not? -- Bio

Some human enhancement enthusiasts have been accused of being obsessed with eugenics as a means of evolving the human species. Others can be caught griping about the genetic "decline of the species" as too many of "the wrong people" reproduce.

Human eugenics, the selective breeding of people to bring out favored traits, is a common scare word in these debates, mainly because of its association with the Nazis. Technically, eugenics doesn't have to be anything like their perverted massacres and human experiments, but that's rather beside the point.

When it comes to altering human genetics in a significant way, eugenic breeding programs (or an unconscious, genetic "decline of Man") will almost certainly be a non-issue over the next generation. Human genetics are apt to change so radically over the next several decades that worrying about long-term breeding trends will seem pointless in retrospect.

Why? Because we're making such advances in terms of genetic technology (particularly the information technology that is an underpinning of so much cutting edge biotech) that before long we'll probably start altering the human genome outright. I suspect researchers will start eliminating major genetic defects/diseases first -- a practice that will not be restricted to just the planned pregnancy or even the unborn child. Rather, gene therapy will reach a high level of reliability and be used to treat kids and adults with major genetically derived problems, especially those conditions that will ultimately kill their victims (e.g. small children affected by Tay-Sachs disease, a particularly painful death).

The need to treat these individuals who would otherwise perish will likely lead to ever-improving gene therapy techniques even as genetic research into the nature of genetically-based "high intelligence" (and other gifts) plunges ahead. Of course, there are presumably many factors involved in superior intelligence, and they can probably vary widely among different geniuses in different fields with different styles. Nevertheless, scientists will no doubt begin isolating genetic keys to better (and worse) memory, attentiveness, etc and use these building blocks to at least say with reasonable certainty how we can improve on the brain without damaging/undermining any of its existing functions.

Admittedly, reaching this level of technology may take some time. But it's doubtful we'll be struggling with these matters for more than a generation. Compare this to how much progress a eugenics program could make, even if it were initiated right now, over the course of three generations. Or how far "genetic drift" could take us in that amount of time. After three quarters of a century, if gene therapy hasn't transformed humanity, then the direct manipulation of pre-natal genes almost certainly will.

The other reason I'm not as concerned about theories of human genetic "devolution" is that I do feel intelligence/brilliance/giftedness has a lot more to do with education, upbringing and basic personality than we're sometimes willing to accept -- and I believe all those things can be improved on.

Also, where genetics has undermined the function of the brain, it may be possible to change things for the better through non-genetically based "treatments." For example, what if the circulation to your brain was slower than the ideal because the blood vessels ultimately supplying it (by feeding your circulating cerebral-spinal fluid and so on) were a bit smaller than average? Or simply a bit smaller than they should ideally be?

Well, guess what? There are ways to increase both that blood flow and the size of those vessels. Your carotid arteries can be increased permanently in size by holding your breath and swimming underwater for a total of one hour's worth of time (in segments, I believe, of at least two minutes or more at a go) per day for three weeks. (Which has been found to also permanently increase measured IQ by a small but significant amount.) You can also temporarily increase blood flow to your head by lying down on the floor and positioning a chair under your lower legs in a way that comfortably supports them about a foot off the ground.

And there you go -- you've now physically altered the state of your brain, whatever your genetics may have to say about it. Alternatively, all this research into nootropic drugs may be able to influence the function of our brains, and some substances may prove more effective for individuals with serious deficiencies (that a particular drug addresses) than for those with no real limitations. Nootropic nutrients may be even more promising in this regard, since there seem to be fewer issues of side effects.

All of these advances suggest to me that common concerns about genetics are not as dire as they may seem. The two most frequent apocalypses (that we'll be buried under a tidal wave of idiots and incompetents or that we'll be replaced by a new master race of genetic supermen) don't seem as plausible given bio-tech research in a number of promising directions.

Then again, perhaps I'm being optimistic about the supermen. =)

Author's Note: I wrote the original version of this article before my recent posts on brain development being markedly effected by the manipulation of protein levels. What discoveries like that one illustrate is that we really don't know what course biotechnologies -- or any of the other human enhancement technologies -- are going to take over the next decade, much less the rest of the 21st Century. So, aside from giving us reason to be humble in our comments, we're also reminded that one or more major discoveries could easily vault a particular method for human evolution far ahead of the others.

Will we suddenly have genetically enhanced superbabies? Gene therapy optimized adults? Accelerated learning derived savants? Nootropic wunderkinder?

Who knows. What we do know is that we're getting more hints all the time that everything in our world could change at the drop of a hat, and that it's better to know what's going on than to simply get caught flat-footed.

Future Imperative

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Master Race, Made to Order? -- Bio

Recently, in discussing one of the items in my last post, I received some interesting feedback, and wanted to share the ideas that emerged as a result.


Yep. They appear to have a technique that could make people superhumanly intelligent by altering the physical brain. And no one seems to have noticed. The mind boggles. Here's the snippet from my site where I comment on it and a link to the article where they discuss the nuts and bolts. (Without delving into the obvious implications.)

"Now here’s one of those breakthroughs that makes you wonder why they didn’t mark it with a screaming neon sign that says 'Blatant Human Enhancement Research.' It starts out innocently enough. 'A protein that's key to determining the developing brain's size and shape could be used to manipulate stem cells to rebuild the organ in adults.' But then they add, 'Underscoring the protein's impact, over-expressing it in rats gave them enlarged brains with grooves and furrows similar to those in evolved mammalian brains.'

"All right. I’m assuming they over-expressed this protein in very young or in-vitro rats. (Or that they would have to in order to get the fullest possible impact.) But nevertheless, we would appear to have the basic method necessary for developing superintelligent infants. Now sure, we don’t know how greatly a broad-based expansion of the brain would improve human minds, which abilities it would most effect or what drawbacks would exist. (Or how those factors would change with greater or lesser or targeted uses of this protein.) But nevertheless. We now have the means to literally create a whole generation of “superbabies.” And obviously, any applications for adult enhancement would be intriguing as well. And apparently, no one has even noticed."

One reader commented "Khan Noonien Singh will be born in my lifetime." (That's a eugenically engineered Star Trek superman, in case you're wondering.)

I responded...

Actually, this is one of those things I suspect could happen in the not-too-distant future. I don't think most authoritarian governments have much time left, but imagine if a tightly controlled dictatorship -- say, North Korea -- were to have thousand or tens of thousands of babies modified in vitro to have this over-expressed protein. And that they made sure the kids continued to have an excess of it in their brains growing up.

Imagine the impact such a country could have on the rest of the world if they had thousands of young adults who had been raised to be fanatically loyal to the state -- children of mid-level party loyalists, or simply orphans raised completely by the state. Imagine what would happen if their brains were as superior to ours as ours are to a mentally disadvantaged person (with no savant gifts) or a really, really high-functioning chimps.

Imagine what they could do to everyone else.

Perhaps more importantly, this protein experiment has already been pulled off in rats, just as the muscle-building trick you cited has been accomplished in mice. Which means these resources could probably be used now -- no major breakthroughs required.

To take another tack, imagine a major emerging power such as China or India testing out this method... and then altering the protein levels in their leaders', scientists' and engineers' brains. Among others. In India's case at least we (the U.S.) would be dealing with a democracy we get along fairly well with. China, on the other hand, hasn't made all of its intentions clear other than a desire to become the foremost power in Asia and, presumably, the world.

Hyper-evolved brains in the heads of the people who can do the most with them could completely alter the world's balance of power. Super-muscular troops are probably less of an issue, but physically superior ground troops never hurt anybody. And hyper-bright officers and weapons designers are apt to have an enormous impact on the capabilities of one's military.

So I ask, should democratic countries be ignoring this issue utterly? Just a thought.

Comments more than welcome. =)

Future Imperative