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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, October 22, 2005

Forget Education and Opportunities, "Where Are My Cerebral Implants, Mommy?" -- Bio, Soc

Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution, has suggested that enhancement technologies will inevitably become widespread if not the norm in society. What are you going to do, after all, when your kid comes to you to say that he or she just can't compete with the augmented students at school?

But there may be an even bigger competitive challenge making itself felt out there, one which could be eased or magnified by human augmentation. Is the world flat or is it spiky? New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has described a newly leveled global economic playing field in The World Is Flat -- essentially making the argument that in an interconnected, globalized world innovation can arise anywhere. Which means people living in wealthy Western countries (such as the United States) need to get ready for a tidal wave of competition from hungry, talented people newly able to compete in the 21st Century -- in particular, the roughly 3 billion people in China, India and the former Soviet Bloc.

Friedman argues that these people are just as capable of innovation and advanced technical work as Americans, Japanese and Western Europeans, but because they have traditionally been held back from fully utilizing their talents, they are paid far less for work often every bit as good as that provided by workers in the West.

Friedman's thesis, of course, is not without critics. A novel counterargument comes from Dr. Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, The Flight of the Creative Class and Cities and the Creative Class. As you might imagine, Florida is known for his theories regarding something he calls the Creative Class. In his own words:

"Some 38 million Americans, 30 percent of all employed people, belong to this new class. I define the core of the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content. Around the core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgement and requires high levels of education or human capital."

In contrast to Friedman, one of Florida's chief arguments is that the place you live and work and try to innovate or launch a business is incredibly important. He insists that certain cities contain just the right mix of technology, talent and tolerance to form the ideal conditions for dynamic industries. And that cities rivaling the world's technology and innovation leaders are by no means common -- Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, Washington D.C., Boston, New York, etc.

He explains in "The World Is Spiky" that while cities with large populations are widely distributed throughout the world (though particularly concentrated in southern and eastern Asia, Western and Central Europe and North America), significant economic activity is far more concentrated in large minority of those cities... and the real factors driving long-term growth and competitive viability, technological innovation and scientific breakthroughs, are concentrated in a relative handful of cities, primarily in America, Western Europe and three East Asian countries (chiefly Japan).

So how do we reconcile these two positions, if at all? And why are they so tied to the looming issue of human augmentation?

First, we should realize that Friedman and Florida, despite their apparent differences, often appear to be reading from the same script. If you ask either of these men what an advanced nation like America needs most, they will tell you, like a mantra, that we need to be developing a reservoir of talent on our own shores while being more open than ever to the first class minds native to other countries. Both of them are known for sounding the alarm on issues such as the viability of modern education and barriers to work and immigration being imposed on the world's brightest scientists, artists, inventors, performers, entrepreneurs and other dynamic economic actors who have traditionally been drawn to America.

Friedman & Florida (two men who could practically go on the road as tag-team pundits for many of these issues) point out that America -- long an outlet for bright, creative people with limited opportunities in their countries of origin -- is now facing intense competition for those innovators from around the world. Not only is it now possible to found a corporation or engage in cutting edge research in India or China, but businesses, universities and governments all over the world are now keenly interested in tapping into this gold mine of global talent.

America, they insist, can no longer passively wait for the world's best people to "step off a boat" in New York, D.C., L.A. or elsewhere. Instead, we have to go out and recruit that talent before someone else gets to it. And we have to make sure that our country is the best incubator for that talent -- not only in terms of educating our own kids, or of being open to bright young graduate students from other nations, but in creating a national environment that stimulates and nurtures new ideas and new enterprises.

But even if Friedman & Florida aren't so far apart, what does any of this have to do with human augmentation? Simple, really. If education, immigration, communications and technological efficiencies in the creative process are all disruptive to the status quo of distributed wealth, productivity and talent... then what could be more disruptive than the ability to dramatically enhance human intelligence and talent, either in specific areas or across the board?

To quote an earlier piece:

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.
The point here is that we may in fact have the ability to create new humans (or modify existing ones) who would become a "higher order species" in terms of raw intellect. Regardless of whether this particular modification proves out, we have enough research going on with regards to in-vitro genetic manipulation, adult gene therapy, nootropic nutrients and drugs, accelerated learning methods and technologies and other promising fields that it seems very likely that one of them will provide us with practical methods to produce dramatically enhanced human beings. Still, on the subject of this particular development, I had an amusing exchange:

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?

And, for that matter, should people interested in the same issues as Friedman & Florida be ignoring them? Personally, I'm not involved in political affairs, but as an entrepreneur in a tech-heavy industry, these matters are of clear interest to me from a purely practical standpoint. If something is poised to upset the innovation applecart utterly, and its precise arrival can not be predicted but could occur at any time -- could actually have already occured, but gone unnoticed -- then as a corporate officer with fiduciary duty, I have to stay alert to these possibilities. Unfortunately, most of the business world and the "Creative Class" is not.

Just imagine, human beings whose intellect, spectrum of talents and raw creativity surpass yours and mine as that of advanced primates such as apes surpasses that of rats. And imagine that result from just one of many potential augmentations. And then imagine the further augmentations that such a "master race" might think up after thus multiplying its intelligence.

Something to reflect on. But in the meantime, ask yourself what you're going to say when the head of your research department comes to you and says that he or she just can't compete with all of the augmented scientists at the symposium. Because the researchers you work with -- or the musicians, inventors, actors, artists and writers -- may just bring this up before your children do.

You can discuss this topic here, on Betterhumans.Com. (Registration is free.)

Future Imperative

Friday, October 21, 2005

Don't Let It Drive You Crazy -- AI

And so researchers have announced that their victorious racing robot, triumphant in the recent DARPA challenge (to traverse a 132-mile desert course with no human assistance), learned how to drive by watching as experienced humans took the wheel of its vehicle and showed it how.

As with many "revolutions in automation," it's arguably the tiny adjustments that we aren't focusing on right now that could have the most impact. While autonomous vehicles are the next step towards robust, independent robots handling tasks without constant human supervision, the key thing here may be that we're taking yet another significant step towards eliminating even more mindless, repetitive work for humans. This has proven to be a colossal force for change in the past, beginning with the Industrial Revolution and continuing all the way to the present.

What we may be seeing in this innovation as well as others that strike even more to the heart of high prestige drudgery -- such as computers that can perform biotech research or experiments and derive basic theories from the results, or advanced software to assess your taxes -- is the elimination of even more jobs that have in the past required a certain level of demonstrable skill and intelligence, though very little in the way of human creativity. In other words, the truck driving positions and lab tech/junior lab researcher jobs that once served as either respectable blue-collar careers or entry level white collar work may be going away along with those of the clearly unskilled.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Not necessarily Armageddon at all. We'll have to make some serious adjustments when more of these less complex jobs get outsourced not to India but to microchips. For example, one thing that makes the public feel better about the idea that some people have high-paying, prestigious careers with a lot of power, and other people have to work for minimum wage or at least accept their lot in the middle class is the idea that only a handful of people can do the most rewarding jobs (or start the most rewarding businesses) out there.

There has been a certain degree of truth to this idea. But conveniently enough, we're seeing many of the "make work" jobs that keep our middle and lower classes occupied fading away at just the moment when radical human enhancement has become a realistic option for the rest of us. Nootropics, gene therapy, accelerated learning, cybernetics, mindtech and more... all of them open up the possibility of creating vastly more gifted "average" human beings.

People in the near future may still have to "prove themselves" in less prominent positions before being entrusted with the full measure of an organization's available resources, but the "enfant terrible" -- the young prodigy suddenly emerging to prominence -- may become far more common in business circles, government labs and eventually all walks of life. Indeed, depending on how flexible we older generations are in absorbing new enhancement methods and technologies, we may quickly find ourselves put to one side by the unmatched intellect of children who have absorbed the benefits of these resources without suffering from our prejudices. They aren't going to wonder whether or not the modifications made to their DNA before birth, or the "supplement" their mother has been giving them since they were toddlers (and ground up into their baby food before that), or the way their teacher taught them in pre-school or college somehow makes them a "freak," a "mutant," or a "cheater." It will just be a part of their world, as natural as breathing.

Having said all that, the open prize money and competition format used by DARPA appears to be an excellent method for making key breakthroughs in open competitions. Especially when they pick breakthroughs which, if they existed, would open up whole new industries or fields of research.

But it's the little adjustments to society, such as this adjustment in available careers and human potential, that can really change everything.

You can discuss this topic here.

Future Imperative

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Short on Ideas -- Bio, Soc

An article in the times discusses a study undermining the idea that unusually short people are somehow disadvantaged in other people's perceptions or in ordinary social interactions. The reason this study is so critical is that particularly short children who do not have growth hormone deficiency are nonetheless given growth hormone to stimulate their growth by "an inch or two."

Oddly enough, whatever the outcome of this particular debate, it foreshadows the discussions people in advanced nations will soon be having with regards to other basic, enhanceable characteristics. You can debate whether or not height is that critical of an attribute for a normal or exceptional life, but how about intelligence? A strong immune system? Exceptional muscular strength or cardiovascular health? The capacity to regenerate from virtually any wound?

Which of these is truly critical to living the best of all possible lives (assuming that is even our goal)? Which components of each of these (such as memory or creativity for intelligence) are definitely necessary and which are extraneous or just "nice to have?" These are questions worth mulling over. What is surprising is how quickly the mainstream press is beginning to wrestle with issues that were once barely even worth a moment's consideration.

Future Imperative

The Worth of a Life -- Part II -- Bio, Gov, Soc

Patricia Bauer just wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post entitled "The Debate No One Wants to Have" arguing that many Americans take it for granted that if genetic testing makes it possible to screen babies with major disabilities while they are still embryos, it would be kinder to simply abort such an imperfect being rather than bring him or her into the world.

Whatever your political views on this particular question, we are beginning to see the first leading edges of a debate on various methods of human biological optimization, of which simple genetic screening is one of the simplest and crudest. If aborting an embryo, no matter how crippled, apalls you, how would you feel if you had the technology to cure that unborn child completely? Even to enhance his or her capabilities permanently?

How much is that child's original genetic code an inalienable right, a fundamental element of their being?

These are heady questions, but what is fascinating is that they are increasingly coming out of the obscure corners where they have been debated by ethicists, geneticists, biochemists and enthusiasts and are moving into the cultural and political mainstream.

As a fan of informative public debate, I must say this looks promising, whatever its ultimate outcome.

Future Imperative

The Worth of a Life -- Part I -- AL, CPS, Soc, $$$

Barbara Ehrenreich has written a new book entitled Bait and Switch, a sequel to her bestseller Nickel and Dimed, about the struggles of white collar workers who are between jobs and have, in their own way, fallen between the cracks in society. Nickel and Dimed, of course, explores just how difficult and precarious life is in America if you're trying to get by on minimum wage jobs.

One thing I find fascinating about such reported experiences is the simple idea that human beings are not valued more than they are by corporations or by society. No, I'm not talking about "valued for their intrinsic worth" or "valued because it's the right thing to do." Important as those perspectives are, I'm really surprised that in this day and age we don't value people more for their immense potential financial worth.

Accelerated learning researchers such as Dr. Win Wenger and Paul Scheele have many techniques demonstrating enormous untapped human abilities generally accessible by virtually everyone, and biotech research is thundering forward at such breakneck speed that it likely has already developed methods for optimizing human mental performance, and has created further, revolutionary augmentations in animals that may well be usable in humans.

Why then, do we persist in seeing "the common man" as, well, common? It seems that we could be stimulating tremendous levels of talent and creativity in our country's talent pool, encouraging many more people to invent, create and/or found companies, while also supplying those people with tons of gifted workers capable of supporting such endeavors. But instead we're grinding people down with unaffordable slave wages and sudden layoffs that can easily dead end in destroyed careers. Common human decency aside, what sense does it make to treat our most valuable resources in that fashion?

Future Imperative

Monday, October 17, 2005

Irresponsibility, Technology and Their Consequences... -- Bio, Gov, Soc

Bill Joy (co-founder of Apple Computers) and Ray Kurzweil (author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology) have co-written an op-ed piece for the New York Times, "Recipe for Destruction." They warn of the existential threat posed by a carefree attitude towards the technology behind weapons of mass destruction -- in specific, the publishing of the genetic code for the 1918 influenza pandemic in the name of scientific openness.

Their united front on this issue seems surprising at first glance. Bill Joy is well remembered for his article in Wired magazine, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us Anymore," and Ray Kurzweil for his paeans to the glorious techno-future before us, as described in SIN and The Age of Spiritual Machines. But they're raising an absolutely vital point for anyone who plans to live in the future... and who hopes to live long enough to enjoy it.

Given the technology increasingly available to human beings, particularly those with advanced technical knowledge and/or considerable wealth, we either have to control potential weapons of mass destruction and other cataclysmically powerful innovations, or stand by and wait until we are consumed by them. Because anything that can be used as a devastatingly powerful weapon in today's world sooner or later will be.

This point in particularly well taken for those of us who are aware of not only the present rate of accelerating technological change, but also the potential for radically enhancing human intelligence and creativity (a potential that has already begun to be realized). The easier these technologies are to use, and the easier it is for people to think up new ones, the harder it will be to contain such potential threats. Which means we need to be extremely forward looking and to "lean forward" in confronting such dangers early. In the case of a potentially loose virus, now would be the time to develop a robust vaccine and pharmaceutical production capacity capable of either churning out cures for likely bioweapons (such as avian flu) very, very fast, or better still, stockpiling such cures and treatments and developing the capacity to make them at blinding speed as well.

Ambitious? Yes. But when faced with an existential threat of reasonable likelihood, the question ceases to be political or even economic and becomes one of simple survival. Do you want to survive a major plague such as avian flu or the Spanish Influenza virus? Then you need to be as prepared as possible, which, depending on your resources, make include stockpiling a few doses of a known vaccine (if commercially available) or an antibiotic known to help in resisting infection. As well as more conventional tactics.

While you're at it, feel free to weigh just how you would survive a natural disaster such as Katrina also, or a terrorist attack against some devastating target (such as a chemical plant or nuclear power plant) in your own back yard.

After all, it's the smart thing to do. Ask yourself: What would a nascent posthuman do? =)

Future Imperative