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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.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

But Seriously Now... -- The Stormshadow Manifesto -- All Except Easy, Gov, Long, Rev & SkiP

Last year I wrote up a little in-character commentary for a play-by-email game set in a fast-changing comic book world (similar to that in the X-Men movies), and at some point I realized... I was actually writing more about my world than his. =)

Seriously, if you look over my following post, just replace some references to aggressive powers with references to aggressive, advanced technology, and you're halfway to our (real world) near future already. The first few paragraphs of the "Manifesto" are a little more world-specific, but hey, I did start out trying to write something related to a fictional world, after all.

So I'm tossing this out for discussion. Why? In part because more and more news is emerging regarding breakthroughs in biotech, nanotech, infotech, cybertech and even more obscure technologies -- and these breakthroughs are pointing towards a huge surge in human evolution. One that's probably almost on top of us. Some of the people reporting are aware that the world is changing fast. But even the forward-looking ones usually don't know about what's going on in more than two or three fields of research. When in fact there's mind blowing stuff going on in all kinds of obscure, and not-so-obscure, areas simultaneously.

For instance, I refer you to the following article.

In short, the experts in the article are saying that while conventional wisdom expected the first athletes modified by gene therapy to show up in the 2008 Olympics, there may be genetically modified athletes right now in the 2004 Olympics. In other words, scientists have already successfully integrated a gene controlling an endurance-enhancing hormone (EPO) into monkeys, and once it's safe for humans, athletes will be able to undetectably improve their cardio-vascular endurance. Scientists have also found that by injecting insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) into their muscles, rats who didn't exercise increased muscle size and strength by 15% to 30%. Rats who exercised doubled their strength.

Think about that. They're doubling their strength with a single injection. Imagine what several complimentary modifications could do to your physique. And there's only so much muscle that can fit on a normal human frame. Imagine how much more could be done to modify and enhance a much more plastic system, such as the brain.

If we're already reaching a point where we can expect elite athletes to start altering their genetic codes to make huge physical improvements in the very near future (if they haven't already started), how long will it be before the rich and ambitious start altering other abilities, such as memory, perception or even basic intelligence? If we're that close to a major change, then I think it's high time people in groups like this started debating these issues a little more closely.

There are other indications suggesting rapid changes in the offing, ranging from the completion of the Human Genome Project to new computers that engage in a measure of independent scientific research into genetics and/or medicine. And not all of these portents are confined to genetics, or even to bio-tech. Once they start to get traction and feed into each other synergistically, we could be looking at a revolution in evolution.

The following piece is a viewpoint, though it isn't necessarily my viewpoint (I repeat, Dr. Elder is a fictional character). But it's an easily understood viewpoint, and one apt to spark discussion.

Anything else you need to know is in the "pre-Manifesto" intro below. I hope someone else finds this amusing. Or even alarming.


(And don't give me too hard a grilling over these fictional musings. I wrote the great majority of this spontaneously in a single sitting. So there. =) )


In acknowledgement of _____'s desire to make this campaign about more than just comic books, I'm scribbling out the challenges and emerging weirdnesses that Jake Elder (aka Stormshadow) sees in the rise of diverse metahumans on Earth.

(No, don't take this too seriously. He didn't. You don't even have to read this sucker. But I thought it was kind of funny, and I'm writing a character with a certain dry sense of humor anyway. =) )

There are increasing SF and pop culture references to this challenge: see I, Robot; X-Men and X2; most recent SF books about AI, nanotech and the Singularity; even The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy.

What do all of these and so many other books and movies (and comics) on this subject have in common? A question: If you have people so superior to everyone around them, how do you deal with them? Even if they are only a handful? Or worse, what if they are a newly emerging race? What happens when they start demanding what they earn by their own merits? Especially if they merit more than we do?

The Stormshadow Manifesto: MetaPeace, MetaWar

What happens to the human race when a new species emerges, one that is consistently faster, stronger, smarter and more adaptable than mankind? Because one already has, possibly even several. You might not have noticed. Most of them look just like us.

The Mutants, the Machines and the Guys Like Us

Communist mutants, unstoppable killing machines. And, of course, God-fearing, red-blooded American superheroes. The only force in the world that could stop Them. We've had a love-hate relationship with the more-than-human for decades, though it's mostly been hate. If you ask most people, it’s the mutants they’re afraid of. It’s not surprising. Which would you find more frightening, someone who looks clearly non-human wielding flashy, destructive superhuman powers, or someone undetectable whose invisible, traceless powers could alter your mind, fog your senses or warp the very fabric of your world? Which makes for the scarier mutant?

Well, I have some good news for you. The answer is: neither one. The bad news is: there’s something much scarier out there.

Imagine going to a new school as a kid, and finding out that the entire class was at least twice as strong as you. Twice as smart, twice as fast and much, much better looking. And that’s when you compare yourself, one-by-one, against the next weakest, dumbest, slowest, ugliest kids in there. The strongest, smartest, fastest and most attractive kids are so far beyond you that it almost hurts to contemplate.

And now imagine going to that school, and finding out that all the kids there are like that. For the sake of the argument, it’s a paradise of a school, and there’s none of the bullying, gossip, cliques or other problems that infect most normal schools. Maybe the other kids are just better than that. But now imagine going to that school, year after year, and so far as you know you’re the weakest, dumbest, slowest, ugliest kid in the world. Because that is your world.

Welcome to the future.

The problem with mutants isn’t the threat of being vaporized by someone who shoots death-bolts from their eyes. The problem is the likelihood, or rather the inevitability, that we will see people emerge who are not just stronger/smarter/faster/prettier than we are, but all those qualities together, and then some.

Tell me, what happened to the short, weak, dumb, slow, ugly kids at your school?

I thought so.

So when people talk about the irrational fear of mutants, it’s not as irrational as many of us like to claim. Oh, there’s other prejudices involved, to be sure, and the specific factors that spark panic may ultimately be rather trivial, but the underlying fear is quite logical.

The human race as we’ve known it is going away.

This isn’t just technology, though that’s a very, very large part of what’s happening. But most people forget that humanity has been going through insane levels of change since the dawn of the industrial revolution, yet we’ve experienced very little that actually changes humanity itself.

We’ve developed a bit of advanced medicine, found some herbs for sharpening memory or clearing the mind. But until the last few decades, the only way to transform yourself in what we used to call a radical fashion involved strict disciplines applied over many years… martial arts, meditation, constant mental exercises and/or endless study. And often inherent gifts born either of superior genetics or the endless application of unconscious habits that reinforced a savant’s burgeoning genius.

Other than these extraordinarily disciplined people, and a few so-called idiot savants, there have been only a handful of individuals who seemed naturally superior in all fields of endeavor, or so vastly superior in one or two, they seemed like a higher order of men. Da Vinci, perhaps, or Ramanujan. Tesla or Archimedes. Not many such names come down to us through history.

But now we have mutants emerging who are all but undetectable to the eye, yet far better than all of us in one way or another, or often quite a few. One mutant brain I have studied (through high-resolution MRI and other non-invasive treatments, thank you – my subject is alive and well) has a single notable difference from normal human brains – a much higher degree of healthy capillary development, supplying oxygen and nutrients and subtracting waste in every corner of that brain far faster and more effectively than any ordinary human’s. Analysis indicates this individual can muster a far-greater-than-normal degree of their brain’s resources to solve new problems, and they have an extraordinary memory and measurable intelligence.

Another subject simply learns naturally by tapping into the ancient, limbic areas of her brain as well as higher cortical regions. She hears lectures, can work things through logically, but she daydreams or half-daydreams through almost all of her classes. While most of her classmates struggle through their honors courses at a highly esteemed university, she lives in an inner world, where she vividly experiences the ideas discussed – swimming through a sea of differential calculus, walking the paths of her peripheral nervous system, talking sonnets with Shakespeare. She learns faster than almost any human I have ever met, because she can split her mind and live through these events at speeds thousands of times faster than our life in the “real” world.

My first subject was male, by the way. And both these subjects would be considered highly attractive. Imagine what would happen if their traits could be passed on, and they had children. They’ve met, but I don’t believe they’re dating.

Yes, the Mutant Question. Troubling, isn’t it? And I haven’t even gotten to the possibility of people selectively mining genetic traits and trying to give them to ambitious adults through gene therapy, or to the children of ambitious parents through germ-line manipulation. Or what impact mind-enhancing drugs and technology, and new methods to stimulate creativity and accelerate learning could do if monopolized by a privileged elite.

Is this then the future? Will a handful of people dwarf the lives and accomplishments of the vast majority, making the rest of us fade into harmless obscurity? Will they dominate the arts, the sciences, physical competition, every intellectual and professional endeavor? Will they be the ones who hold all the cards, and therefore all the power?

Welcome to the future. Which is also our past.

Was Elvis a God?

Well, was Elvis a god? Or if your answer is a resounding, scornful “No,” let me alter that question slightly. Was Mozart a god? Was Shakespeare a superman? Was Newton a higher order of human? By long standing tradition, a tiny minority has produced the vast majority of all of humanity’s creative work. How many humans have ever written a single short story? An anecdote? A song?

And of those who have published a single creative work, how many have produced more than one? Whether a novel, a play or a piece of music, few people have ever added anything of even passing significance to the permanent record of human achievement. And most who do have made their minor discovery, innovation or artistic effort and then faded away.

Humanity’s arts, science and politics have been dominated by a tiny fraction of the billions who have lived and died since the advent of the city-state. Most scholars, if pressed to define which individuals have made the most critical contributions to Western civilization – the advancements without which our civilization as we know it would be impossible, would come up with fewer than ten thousand names, fewer than even a thousand. Many historians would have only a few hundred. You can stretch such definitions easily, of course – throw in the automobile transmission or dental fillings and you get a couple more creators – but the sad fact is that most of our irreplaceable contributions come from so few people that even a poor education mentions most of them at one time or another.

Which brings us back to my original point: Depending on what you see as most critical, is, say, John Lennon a metahuman? Does a young Michelangelo possess supernatural gifts? Does da Vinci belong to another race altogether?

Technically, no. But what will we do when we’re dealing with a da Vinci times ten, or even times three? When it does come to this contingency, do any of us mere mortals have a plan? Any plan at all?

Is this then the end? No, actually, it’s just the beginning.

The Rise of the Machines

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
Vernor Vinge

What most people will forget during this debate about the Mutant Question is that mutants are only one potential future. There’s also the deliberate modification of human genes, through gene therapy or the manipulation of embryos. There’s a mix of high tech methods that could be applied to enhance human beings, such as sensory deprivation tanks, bio-feedback, ganzfelds, nootropic drugs and accelerated learning. And even some ancient disciplines, such as meditation and the martial arts. But humanity, mutants and optimized humans aren’t evolution’s only options. At least, not for long.

AI enthusiasts are absolutely convinced they will have something approaching the basic rudiments of human intelligence any year now. Of course, they’ve been saying this for decades, but there’s nevertheless reason to believe that a crude simulacra of a partial human intelligence should be coming along in the next several years – or at least within the next half century or so. That’s blinding speed by the standards of this field.

But AI visionaries believe that once they have such a machine, the near-mystical (or at least mythical) properties of Moore’s Law will reduce its cost and increase its processing power exponentially. Of course, if you have a perfect simulation of a dog, building a million more that chase their tails a million times as fast doesn’t do that much for you. But the AI guys are sure that once their machines can contribute to their own development (like CAD-CAM programs designing computer chips), a virtuous circle will kick in and they’ll get smarter and smarter at what becomes an exponential rate.

There is, however, a minor flaw in this theory.

Virtuous Circles, Vicious Cycles

There are already a few computers out there that simulate creativity and apply it methodically to scientific research with the speed and tireless concentration that is still only possible for a machine. And what do they do with all this applied intelligence? Genetic research through basic theory and experimentation in the case of the first of these devices. Pharmaceutical research through the study and cross-referencing of medical literature in the case of the second. In other words, they’re looking for ways to cure us – and do research applicable to the radical enhancement of human beings, not artificial minds.

So am I coldly dismissing the prospects of this field? Actually no, not at all. The AI world’s ideas about the power of advanced intelligence to improve itself are well taken. We have no convincing reason to believe that AI must emerge in the next few years or decades, but we have no way of ruling it out. More importantly, this planet already plays host to superhuman intelligences. There just aren’t very many of us, and some are rather narrowly focused. But we’re here.

And in the end, artificial intelligence, like every other possibility discussed here, simply boils down to choices. Our choices. And yours.

Any day now a superintelligence could create an AI capable of replicating itself, perhaps even capable of self-enhancement. This might take talents with hardware and software greater than any yet known to exist, but those skills might already be out there. Or someone could figure out the x-factor in mutant genes, or learn how to clone an existing mutant a few million times over, or develop the perfect intelligence drug or gene therapy enhancement. A lone superintelligence could do these things, or a sufficiently advanced, powerful and visionary organization. And the choices they make could decide things for all of us.

We could sit here complacently, sure that our own government will not play such dangerous games and confidant that no other power could manage them on their own.It took decades for the knowledge to build nuclear weapons to spread beyond the permanent five members of the Security Council and one or two other nations. I do not think we will be so lucky again. Whether the turning point is chemical, genetic, mental or cybernetic, or something else, we are on the cusp of immense change. And the genie is already out of the bottle. There is no way to track down and terminate every scientist or group of scientists potentially capable of such a breakthrough, much less to destroy the knowledge that could be used to do it.

So what are our options?

Just Say No

If you ask the President’s Council on Bioethics, and in particular its dauntless leader, Leon Kass, you will hear that we should keep the genie locked away and avoid enhancement like the plague. It’s unnatural, after all. And there seems to be a “yuck” factor involved as well.

If you want to read the Council’s report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, go here.

If you’d prefer the Cliffnotes then… enhancement is still unnatural, thanks for asking. The council’s more vocal members seem focused on heading all of this off at the pass, because (as one bio-ethicist puts it) once you can easily make yourself smarter, healthier and prettier, the question most people ask isn’t “Why?” but “Why not?”

But Seriously Now

Quite frankly, I believe the human species as we understand it now is faced with a choice. I’ll break with most apocalyptic alarmists and avoid declaring this to be a clear, immediate, all-or-nothing choice. It’s nothing so easy, I’m afraid.

Our decision is whether we want to be put aside by some master race in the future, or used as playthings, or possibly exterminated by someone who can make “better use” of our resources and living space. This won’t be a choice we make in a single election, or in a single project, or anything like that (or at least, it’s highly improbable). Rather, it will be a determination made by hundreds of leaders and researchers, and perhaps millions or even billions of individuals. Barring a supergenius poised to sweep away everything, it will only be made by a handful of individuals if everyone else who might choose… decides to make no decision at all.

What’s our choice? I give you a simple question. We have superhumans now, and we’re going to have more in the future. How do we keep from being swept away or torn apart as a species? And by species, I mean the entire human race, both baseline and mutant, and all other variations, natural or otherwise.

Most of the world’s police and security forces are woefully inadequate for dealing with superhuman threats. And almost every human is woefully inadequate compared to anyone with several normal attributes (such as memory, intelligence, creativity, energy and vitality) enhanced to superhuman levels. How can we match such people? And without becoming a caricature of what we fear – being so “enhanced” that we become physically and mentally debased and unhealthy – with, for example, crude cybernetic implants, addictive brain-boosting drugs or insane devotion to martial disciplines? Or without unleashing AI “protectors” who end up crushing both sides in the conflict?

The answer is actually pretty simple. We need to get to work very soon on ways to enhance “Joe Normal” without making him “Joe Abnormal,” creating a Frankenstein monster as our superman. We may decide some paths are too dangerous. Some people have a fear of drugs, of side effects and addiction. Others worry about being cut open, especially in order to attach electrical wires to their central nervous systems, or to replace their tissues and vital organs. And given most people’s experience with present state-of-the-art tech, I can’t blame them.

But we can research all these paths, to see what comes of them. Because in the fight we’re in, every little bit helps. A meta kid with a perfect memory isn’t so different if every kid in his class has a great memory. A kid with super reflexes doesn’t freak out his friends too much if they’re all really, really fast.

And a guy who fires death bolts from his eyes isn’t such a threat if the SWAT team he’s facing wears power armor and has the technology to contain him.

Do we want well-meaning AIs to conquer the planet? Probably not. We really should be stronger and smarter before we try to deal with anything like thinking machines. But machines that come close, that have some semblance of intelligence, these could prove invaluable in policing powerful metahumans. One of the great science fiction clichés is to handle a rogue superhuman by sending in giant killer robots to execute her or him. An even more common one is to send in inadequately armed police with the plea, “Timmy doesn’t really know what he’s doing with those plasma bolts. Try not to hurt him.”

Giant attack robots are not the enemy here. They could actually be great friends. For everybody. No one can expect ordinary police to handle high-powered metas with mundane guns. And certainly no one expects them to risk their lives in a futile attempt to bring down a godlike superhuman with non-lethal weaponry. But is it any better to bring military forces into an urban area to kill some powerhouse with overwhelming fire? How many innocents will die that way?

Robots of all kinds could serve as a useful buffer between out-of-control or suspect metas and normal law-enforcement. If you send them in as cannon fodder, at least they can’t be killed. If you need to stun someone dangerous, at least they’re willing to take the chance. And in the case of the larger robots, they can not only risk going toe to toe with deadly metas, but they can carry the ordinance needed to get through almost any defenses.

But we still need to be a bit more superhuman as a species if we intend to handle mutant humanity, AIs and whatever new species of man arise in the years to come. Ironically, if we want life as we know it to go on, then life as we know it has to change.

Be All You Can Be

And that’s my prayer. If we all become far more than we dare to imagine, then everything else – from idiots with portable nukes, smart plagues and dumb nanites, AIs taking over our planet and mutant geniuses taking over society… to warring shock troops and meta gangs leveling our cities, would-be dictators issuing ultimatums and unimaginable posthumans brushing everything aside in the blink of an eye – these things all become far easier to handle (or prevent) if we have more than half a hundred minds working on the problems. As would our “mundane” challenges. Millions, preferably billions, of superhuman humans would make all the difference.

That’s not easy, I’ll agree. Let’s be frank. In too many schools, being “too smart” is like bearing the mark of Cain. No one wants to be the “geek” or the “nerd,” and society has done a great job of labeling anyone who strays in that direction. And then asking why there aren’t enough native-born scientists or inventors any more. In other words, most normal kids and teens (and adults) are scared of ordinary intelligence. Most schools have trouble offering an adequate education.

And we need far more than “ordinary,” people. Ordinary isn’t going to do much more than dimly comprehend how outclassed it is, just before the end. If that.

But if enough people decide they want to survive as something more than a serf, a plaything or a pet, then we can change, and very quickly. America has shown the ability to turn on a dime and do whatever was necessary to save itself (and, incidentally, the world) in the past. Other free people have the same capacity. We just need to see the danger before we see the end.

Copywrite 2004 -- Ralph Cerchione

Future Imperative

Thursday, May 05, 2005

(Non-)Human Evolution -- Part II -- Attack of the Cyber-Chickens -- Bio, Cyber, Tech

Dr. James Auger proposes augmenting animal species through technology. The pictures in this article are particularly amusing.

Strangely enough, some people in favor of radical human enhancement/ evolution don't draw the line at evolving humans. Some transhumanists and others seriously talk about uplifting animals -- modifying complex animals such as apes and dolphins until they possess at least human intelligence and letting them decide whether or not they want to keep those augmentations. And of course, a few people don't want to draw the line anywhere, and would like to spread intelligence anywhere from virtually all animals to all multi-cellular organisms.

While this position, like that of the radical immortalists ("I want to live forever, along with anyone else who wants to") may seem radical, it really isn't if you take into account the philosophy of those who embrace it. If you don't believe humans are particularly distinct from animals, particularly not in a spiritual sense -- possessing a soul -- why shouldn't they be treated no differently than human beings? We help people who are mute or mentally limited all the time, why should animals be different?

The hard-core immortalist position is similarly explicable. If you don't believe human beings have an immortal soul, or an omnipotent Deity enforcing certain "facts of life" Who we are obliged to obey, then why shouldn't you try to live forever? This is all that there is, after all.

Many seemingly bizarre positions make a great deal of sense if you simply break them down and look at their core assumptions (unstated or otherwise). Which is good to keep in mind when dealing with people from dramatically different worlds (both mental and physical). The human enhancement debate is filled with traditionalists, futurists and others who often have no idea how unreal they seem to everyone else.

If you want to talk to these people, it helps to speak their language. Especially if you're trying to convince them to fund your experiments in teaching intelligence-boosted, voicebox-modified killer whales how to speak.

Future Imperative