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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, November 12, 2005

Looking for Transhumanists? -- AL, CPS, Soc

Looking for some Transhumanists near you? Look no further. This site lists a host of active transhumanists from around the world. Ever wondered who is behind some of these anonymous names on the Web? Here you can find a photo, site URL and/or contact info for dozens of committed Transhumanists.

Of course, if you're just planning to "meet up" with like-minded people, there are tranhumanists, futurists, consciousness theorists, and AI, nanotech, biotech, innovation, metaphysics and general science enthusiasts. You can also find a host of useful links to active groups on the main page of this blog.

Why is all this important? Because while the Web can enable people to communicate over great distances, very often real innovation takes place at the local level, in casual exchanges and spontaneous collaborations. (As suggested by Dr. Richard Florida.) So really, if you live in a city or suburb where like-minded collaborators are few and far between, you can either move, manufacture more people who share your ideas, or look for those who already do. Starting or joining a group that already embraces similar interests can save you a great deal of time, even if you decide you need to encourage more people to join you in your planning.

I'm interested in helping people get some of these "esoteric" groups together because we really don't know where the next human augmentation breakthrough is coming from -- or the social, technological or psychological breakthrough that will enable us to make the most use of it. People of a more rigorous, logical bent often sneer at the interests of martial artists or would-be magicians, but I tend to be more accepting -- if only because these tend to be exactly the kinds of people who might discover an effective accelerated learning or self-enhancement technique or regimen and apply it obsessively to its fullest short-term potential. Which means that human augmentation could easily end up making immense strides in some neglected field... or in some odd subculture.

This might seem disquieting to some, but I'm far more concerned that a valuable contribution might be lost due to disinterest -- or worse, end up being monopolized by a handful of fanatics and/or followers of only one specific discipline and (possibly absurd) philosophy. A degree of openess and a free exchange of ideas could do much to not only spread methods that actually work but to find ways of enhancing and synergizing those that do.

So, what's your interest? Hypnosis or NLP? Self-improvement or shamanism? Cultural creatives or intentional communities? Science fiction or science fact? There's probably a group out there for you if you're in a large enough city, and even small cities and large towns can offer the manpower you need if you know where to work. So go ahead, find yourself some friends. Or at least some willing minions. =)

Future Imperative

AI Lawyers -- Don't Let Them Drive You Crazy... -- AI, AL, Bio, CPS, Cyber, Soc

A legal firm is introducing robot lawyers to its staff. This isn't the first example of computers handling complex, "mentally demanding" tasks, but it's interesting given that most people think of legal work as an inherently human function. And no, before you ask, these robots won't be arguing cases before juries but rather handling basic legal questions through the company's website and other interfaces.

But the fact remains that yet another form of intellectual "grunt work" may have just fallen victim to automation, just as these research tasks in comparative drug studies and genetic analysis have. Oddly enough, today in his subscription-only column in The Times, David Brooks made an argument that "human capital" is far more than simply skills and knowledge, but an array of attributes and learned abilities.

Brooks comments, "Most people think of human capital the way economists and policy makers do - as the skills and knowledge people need to get jobs and thrive in a modern economy. When President Bush proposed his big education reform, he insisted on tests to measure skills and knowledge. When commissions issue reports, they call for longer school years, revamped curriculums and more funds so teachers can transmit skills and knowledge.

"But skills and knowledge - the stuff you can measure with tests - is only the most superficial component of human capital. U.S. education reforms have generally failed because they try to improve the skills of students without addressing the underlying components of human capital."

His point is supported to a degree by these recent breakthroughs in artificial thought -- the newfound ability to transfer more and more educationally and mentally demanding -- but computationally relatively simple -- jobs to machines. If we can push basic legal consultation and biotech research jobs onto computers (or foreign workers) what's left for the rest of us?

I would suggest, as Mr. Brooks seems to be doing, that we should be pushing as many human beings to ascend to the heights of achievement, to live and work in ways we would consider extraordinary, whether or not they have received any form of mindtech enhancements or biotech or cybertech augmentations. There's a line in How to Win Friends and Influence People where Carnegie tells us that, contrary to popular belief, there's only a limited number of places at the bottom -- only so many positions open for brick layers and ditch diggers -- but unlimited room for great leaders and revolutionary genius.

This point is well worth remembering. Not only are intellectual "mind workers" in professions and the sciences going to have to give up more and more of the menial tasks set aside for novices and grad students, but blue collar workers are facing precisely the same threat. Even without China's immense workforce on the horizon, what are manufacturing workers in the advanced world going to do about the Fab Lab or Rapid Prototyping Machines? I've offered some suggestions in the past, but generally speaking, I think we have to make it a priority to get people's skills to the highest level possible.

The basic methods to achieve such advanced capacities already exist, whether in the form of accelerated learning or non-invasive mindtech, without ever getting into the "more controversial" issues of nootropics, genetic engineering, other biotech augmentations or cybernetics. What's more, the learning and creativity techniques in question would likely buffer humanity against the likely emergence of biologically superior beings. Whatever jolt or learning curve we'll suffer at that point in time will be lessened if humanity in general already knows a great deal about handling superhuman intelligence, transcendant innovation and commonplace genius. And humanities' collective capacity to handle such prodigies will be magnified if there are billions of brilliant (or greater) humans capable of perceiving attempts to dominate or manipulate the species.

Such levels of inventiveness will presumably also disperse the major research into human enhancement, making it less likely that a single power could monopolize the only technologies for radical human transformation.

Future Imperative

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Skeptic on Hypnosis -- Myst, SkiP

There is something odd about this skeptic's commentary. Here we have someone who received hypnotherapy as a treatment for his feelings of existential dread, recounts multiple sessions where his mind was clearly resisting the technique (whether consciously or not), finally quits in disgust when nearby workmen disrupt his last appointment, and yet notes that by that time... his feelings of dread had disappeared.

Mysteriously. Because clearly it couldn't have been the hypnosis. Not after all his resistance and the outside interference.

Perhaps it's just me, but doesn't that kind of thing sound more like a smashing success than a disaster?

And while we're on the subject, has anyone ever noticed the brand of skeptics who insist that anecdotal evidence is highly questionable, yet when they come up with anecdotes "clearly debunking" something outlandish (like chiropractics, or acupuncture), suddenly their one personal encounter takes on a gravitas equalled only by large-scale government studies.

Be that as it may, I find self-hypnosis -- particularly the form in which the subject listens to a hypnotic soundtrack and slips into trance to hopefully make the desired changes -- to be one of the most intriguing forms of human enhancement technology. While I appreciate the efforts of medical professionals to provide effective treatment one-on-one with their patients, someone producing effective recorded hypnosis sessions can offer help to millions in a far cheaper and more convenient way. I could cite a random self-hypnosis website or a random retailer of pre-made hypnotic soundtracks, but for the purposes of this article, I won't bother.

Instead, I'll share what I find most intriguing about hypnosis as a method for augmenting natural human abilities. A long time ago, scientists discovered that hypnosis could be used to spur breast growth in women willing to change the shape of their bodies. What apparently no one asked, at least not publicly, was the obvious follow up question -- if you can increase the size of breasts in adult women when they normally do not change, what other, even more flexible parts of the body might be similarly effected to even greater effect?

Why not use hypnosis to increase muscle tone or muscle mass, to decrease fatty deposits (perhaps in targeted locations), to improve eyesight, to heal wounds... perhaps even to improve interconnectivity and healthy circulation in the brain, and hence the normal function of that critical organ? There are subtler ways in which hypnosis can be used to improve people's abilities, but these blindingly obvious options seemed to be almost completely ignored by hypnotists until the late 90s. Today, with the explosion of commercial products available, the concept itself is probably impinging itself upon the public consciousness.

Why then, should I not be overjoyed, and why should I be only mentioning "random" advocates of this movement? Because, right now, while many small studies exist on the effectiveness of this or that particular technique, there is very little in the way of comparative studies regarding the efficacy of one commercial product versus another. Admittedly, in a fast-changing field, it may be that many soundtracks will be outdated within months. But a simple set of studies setting a baseline could indicate which products, for instance, actually improved learning abilities in kids, and to what degree each one did so. (For example, which ones were best at improving memorization, which helped most with logical problems like math, which improved verbal skills, etc.)

Sometimes simple experiments like this can both help legitimize the best practitioners while "debunking" the hucksters and the merely mediocre. By bringing to light the true gems, and indicating just what they're most effective at, this resource could reach the public in a far more effective fashion.

Future Imperative

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Eight-Year-Old Physics Genius Enters University -- AL, CPS, Soc

"Song Yoo-geun, 8, wants to build flying cars, defying Newton's law of gravity, and the physics genius which has made him Korea's youngest university student may very well drive him to that dream.

"Amid scholastic achievements that have confounded experts, the public spotlight is squarely on the child prodigy and his parents, both 46 and both former teachers. What has made Yoo-geun - born late November 1997 and actually just shy of 8 years old - so special?"

Now, I don't want anyone here to feel inadequate... =)

But this article raises interesting questions regarding what makes this particular child so special. I've asked before whether human augmentation (through genetic engineering, nootropics, cybernetics, or other physical interventions) is such a big deal when ordinary human potential may already be so overwhelming. Of course, augmentation might further leverage human potential, but if "superhuman" gifts were already widely available through advanced educational methods, perhaps other augmentation resources would not seem so threatening to those who worry about "our essential humanity."

Another point worth considering is whether we would know if parents or an organization decided to start biologically augmenting the children under their care. Whether by feeding the kids nootropics, having their genes engineered, altering the balance of proteins in their brains or what-have-you, adults could potentially transform a child's capabilities, while leaving that girl or boy outwardly unchanged. Would we really know if such transcendently gifted children started to emerge? Or would we get notice, at most, that some gifted eight-year-old had just entered college? =)

Finally, for people who keep track of the perennial question of "just how far behind are American/Australian/Canadian/etc schools?" -- a thought. Whatever you may feel about your own country's educational performance, the nation that unlocks the learning methods that make prodigies like Yoo-geun possible will be able to use them with all their children. What happens to your country's relative status if your neighbor has millions upon millions of Yoo-geuns... or Srinivasa Ramunjans, Nikola Teslas or Leonardo da Vincis?

Future Imperative