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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 19, 2005

Children and the Mastery of Music... -- AL, CPS, Soc

Further to my post about the eight-year-old physics genius entering college in South Korea, here is a news piece from '04 about a 12-year-old prodigy composer. This boy, Jay Greenberg, has written at least five full length symphonies -- a number equal to what one might expect a talented adult composer to produce over the course of their lifetime.

The piece notes:

"We are talking about a prodigy of the level of the greatest prodigies in history when it comes to composition," says Sam Zyman, a composer. "I am talking about the likes of Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and Saint-Sans."

Zyman teaches music theory to Jay at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he’s been teaching for 18 years.

"This is an absolute fact. This is objective. This is not a subjective opinion," says Zyman. "Jay could be sitting here, and he could be composing right now. He could finish a piano sonata before our eyes in probably 25 minutes. And it would be a great piece."
The article also states:

Jay has been told his hearing is many times more sensitive than an average person’s. The sounds of the city need to be shut out manually. But Jay can’t turn off the music in his head. In fact, he told us he often hears more than one new composition at a time.

"Multiple channels is what it’s been termed," says Jay. "That my brain is able to control two or three different musics at the same time –- along with the channel of everyday life."
It's interesting to note that at least one accelerated learning researcher, Dr. Win Wenger, has developed techniques for stimulating perfect pitch and sight-reading music skills in the very young, as well as composition skills for anyone -- and even he is astounded by Jay Greenberg's reported aptitude.

Dr. Wenger remarks:

This is a phenomenon which should be studied as closely as possible, including high-speed high-resolution scans of his brain while he's composing and in-between times, somehow while letting him live a normal child's life.

What he can do or anyone can do, likely all of us could do if the functions involved were well identified, defined and trained. So I hope we find out how he does it. We would have some difficulty studying Wolfgang's brain in action, Jay Greenberg is our first real chance in several hundred years to find out how it's done.
Dr. Wenger's techniques also include a more generalized method for speeding and improving learning in children by helping them to experience a skill from the perspective of a genius.

Future Imperative

Of Saviors and Supermen... -- SF, Soc, Super

Someone watching this new online trailer for Superman Returns might be forgiven for seeing a bit of messiah-like symbolism in the words of Superman's celestial father.

"...They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all -- their capacity for good -- I have sent them you, my only son."

Oddly enough, the question of how ordinary people would view a superman figure was of great interest to the science fiction writer Frank Herbert, author of Dune. Herbert spent essentially his entire literary career speculating about how humans could transform themselves into superhumans, and how ordinary people would respond to an obvious superman. The book Frank Herbert by Tim O'Reilly delves into this concern in interviews with Herbert and in depth reviews of most of his works.

O'Reilly remarks "One of his central ideas is that human consciousness exists on--and by virtue of--a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes. All of Herbert's books portray and test the human ability to consciously adapt. He sets his characters in the most stressful situations imaginable: a cramped submarine in Under Pressure, his first novel; the desert wastes of Dune; and in Destination: Void the artificial tension of a spaceship designed to fail so that the crew will be forced to develop new abilities. There is no test so powerfully able to bring out latent adaptability as one in which the stakes are survival."

Oddly enough, other techniques and technologies are employed in the Dune series to create augmented humans -- the Spice, the Water of Life and the Juice of Sappho are redolent of modern nootropics, the mental disciplines of the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit mirror accelerated learning, martial arts and meditative techniques, the Tleilaxu are masters of genetics and cloning, the Bene Gesserit have their vast eugenic breeding program, and the machine world of Ix touches on limited AI and cybernetics. But this particular method, learning to deal with uncertainty, chaos and life-threatening danger, seems to be a key element -- in combination with other techniques -- in creating Herbert's "true" superhuman, the one who is markedly better than all lesser attempts.

Paul Atreides (and later his son Leto) manages to dwarf all potential contenders when he comes into the full use of his abilities, but finds himself trapped by his absolute knowledge of the future, on the one hand, and his complete dominance over the human race on the other, two factors that combine to make his own legend the greatest bane to everything he is trying to accomplish, and the source of unimaginable suffering for the entire galaxy.

Herbert himself comments, "I had this theory that superheroes were disastrous for humans, that even if you postulated an infallible hero, the things this hero set in motion fell eventually into the hands of fallible mortals. What better way to destroy a civilization, society or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero?"

Needless to say, individuals will have different ideas about what constitutes an actual prophet, much less the validity of particular forms of revealed wisdom such as religion. But given present strides in the realm of human augmentation -- in terms of biotech genetic enhancements, nootropic drugs and nutrients, cybernetic and AI tools, and mindtech and accelerated learning options -- the question of "How do we deal with a real 'superman'?" may be more relevant every day. Ours will likely be a material superhuman rather than a spiritual one, but ironically, it is our prospective transhuman or posthuman's morals and humanity's feelings of reverence or antagonism towards them that raise the most immediate issues.

Some writers such as Tom Friedman of The New York Times talk about the modern-day power shift going on as "super-empowered" small groups and individuals discover they can exert influence on a global stage. And the threat created by frustrated, violent super-empowered people when they use their newfound power to destroy.

Needless to say, a "superpowered," super-empowered group or individual could shake the foundations of the world far more effectively than 19 hijackers with small knives, yet we're still dealing with the consequences of that particular earthquake. And if an ultimately mortal, even somewhat limited leader can inspire burning loyalty in his or her followers now, imagine what someone of superhuman charisma and political talent could achieve.

Future Imperative

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Gene Therapy, Claim Jumping and Leadership in Biotech -- Bio, Soc

So, yes, China is the only country to have given regulatory approval to any kind of gene therapy, and now it has approved a treatment in which a virus attacks tumor cells but not healthy cells in cancer patients. The technique, incidentally, is one which was originally developed by an American company, Onyx Pharmaceuticals, and then abandoned.

Oddly enough, the Chinese company, Sunway, has licenced world rights for their treatment. Sunway rederived an analogue to the original version, Onyx-015, by studying a paper published by Onyx's scientists.

There are two interesting trends here. One is the ongoing concern found in many corners of America that our lead in the biotech industry may be short lived if major research on subjects such as cloning and stem cells is restriced to other countries with friendlier regulatory environments. Some have suggested South Korea as one such option.

The other is the ongoing concern many people have about Chinese business' tendency to ignore intellectual property rights and to use technology without paying royalties or otherwise having the legal right to do so.

Curiously, while the technology may prove to be extremely potent, it's fascinating to consider that the most powerful results from this (re-)discovery may come from the public reaction to it (if any). A backlash against the West's manufacturing supply chain (partly located) in China would knock the wheels off the global economy. But that doesn't mean that a sufficiently "egregious" incident might not get people's attention and help encourage a sudden deterioration in relations.

And, of course, it's worth noting that China is yet another country that has the capacity to engage in human augmentation on a large scale should biotech or accelerated learning augmentations ever become widespread.

Future Imperative

Monday, November 14, 2005

Google, Conquering Your Genes -- AI, Bio, Soc, Tech

Google is up to yet more tinkering in artificial intelligence and the human genome. An interesting point made in the linked article is that Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are thinking very deeply about the future and the course they want their company to take going forward, confronting issues such as the cure and prevention of diseases, the development of artificial intelligence processes and improved language translation and increasing free access to otherwise unavailable sources of information. (A proclivity mentioned in my last article.)

Regarding their efforts to catalogue genetic information, the Post article quotes Stanford president John Hennessy.

"Just think of the application of Google to genomics," said Hennessy. "There are large databases, lots of information, and the need for search." With the addition of specialized data, he said, Google's index could aid in new discoveries in genetics. "You want to be able to use a search system that is content-dependent, with the genome and structure of DNA already built in. It is one of many potential areas where you can see this so-called 'intelligent search' making a big difference. We are going to see more and more of it."

The article adds:

Dr. Alan E. Guttmacher, deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said Google's involvement in genetics is particularly meaningful because of its capacity to search and find specific genes and genetic abnormalities that cause diseases. He also said that its massive computing power can be used to analyze vast quantities of data with billions of parts-quantities that scientists in laboratories do not have the capacity to process. The old model of a scientist working in a lab, he said, is being replaced by the new paradigm of a researcher working at a computer, connected to databases through the Internet, and doing simulations in cyberspace. "Until recently, the challenge has been gathering data," Guttmacher said. "Now, the bigger challenge is organizing and assessing it. Google-like approaches are the key to doing that. It completely accelerates and changes the way science is done. We are beginning to have incredible tools to understand the biology of human diseases in ways we never have before, and to come up with novel ways to prevent and treat them."

Google plans to assemble a genetic database, analyze it, and find significant correlations for individuals and populations -- thus finding links between particular genes and sets of genes and particular traits such as diseases and specific human qualities (eye color, intelligence, etc). Needless to say, this is another one of those biotech innovations that Gregory Stock would suggest has a powerful dual-use function relating to human augmentation. This kind of information and the capacity to do research in these areas will make augmentation research much easier -- to no small degree because people will be doing such research all the time for completely unrelated reasons, owing to the ease with which these studies can be done.

Need to analyze factors relating to memory for your Alzheimer's drug trials? Go crunch the database. Need to revisit reading speeds for your treatment of reading-challenged children? Let Google do it for you. Want to know what genetic anomalies can be found in learning disabled students? Put the Googleplex on it. That's what they're there for. Among other things...

The article ends by suggesting another "ultimate goal" for Google. A version of Google you could plug directly into your brain, enabling you to have access to all the world's knowledge right inside your head.

(Further insights regarding Google can be found in this discussion transcript with David Vise, author of The Google Story.)

Future Imperative

Conquer the World in Order to Save It -- Civilization, Google and the Future -- AI, AL, Bio, CPS, Plan, Soc, Tech, $$$

Computer games seem to be coming into their own as tools for training and planning for corporations and governments. A number of companies are promoting their games as methods to simulate disasters, complex problems and social and economic challenges so that "players" can experience these situations without having to go through expensive live simulations. Whatever the value of these particular games, I suspect there are a couple of popular games that are serving a similar role for millions of Westerners -- Civilization(s) I, II, III and IV and the SimCity series.

These games show ordinary people that a nation or city's choices and investments have enormous long-term consequences. Are you spending enough on education? Infrastructure? Law and order? National defense? If you aren't, these can all come back to haunt you. (And yes, some would argue that The Sims offers the same perspective on the level of the individual human life, but that's a discussion for another time.)

As Douglas Kern points out in this article, your results in Civilization vary based on how well your strategy aligns with the inherent assumptions of its core rules -- and those rules tend to assume certain things, like the value of progress and modernity, and the enduring strength of civilizations (unless they are wiped out by an external force). Kern seems to be arguing that Civilization has failed to be conservative enough (or at least pessimistic enough) in its predictions, and others would doubtless insist that it isn't sufficiently liberal, libertarian, environmentally aware, Western-oriented, Eastern-oriented, pro-fascist or pro-democracy.

Needless to say, one of the game's options enables players to manipulate the numerical values behind the rules and create game realities that favor other options and world views, making this complaint something of a moot point.

But here is the intriguing side of Civilization and even SimCity. These are games that teach a host of people a very basic concept -- that planning and invested resources over time can have a profound effect on the course of history, as can the more immediate decisions we make today (such as choosing between war and peace).

Why is all of this relevant to this site's discussion of human augmentation issues? Two reasons. First, people of even moderately enhanced abilities are going to have to ask themselves where they want to focus their abilities and energies, especially prior to the emergence of some kind of genuinely superior human (someone who has actually made a quantum leap beyond conventional talents and genius in all aspects of human performance). One thing that might be useful to such emergent intellects is to already be contemplating questions of how they think society should be ordered -- or perhaps more importantly, what positive results they would most like to see in society, as their ability to develop strategies enabling those results will likely outstrip their original ideologies and grasp of socio-economic models.

Or to put it another way, if you're going to end up incredibly dynamic and powerful, have some goals in mind for when you reach that level -- but stay flexible on tactics. You're not really smart enough to imagine all the tricks available to Neo-You, so leave any plans you've got now open to future revision.

Examples of "ordinary" people who have acted to realize lifelong goals include Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, as noted in the Washington Post. "Their goal: to organize all of the world's information and make it universally accessible, whatever the consequences." The Post notes Google "has grander plans. The company is quietly working with maverick biologist Craig Venter and others on groundbreaking genetic and biological research. Google's immense capacity and turbo-charged search technology, it turns out, appears to be an ideal match for the large amount of data contained in the human genome. Venter and others say that the search engine has the ability to deal with so many variables at once that its use could lead to the discovery of new medicines or cures for diseases. Sergey Brin says searching all of the world's information includes examining the genetic makeup of our own bodies, and he foresees a day when each of us will be able to learn more about our own predisposition for various illnesses, allergies and other important biological predictors by comparing our personal genetic code with the human genome, a process known as 'Googling Your Genes.'"

For those who haven't read their Gregory Stock, yes, this kind of development is exactly the kind of thing that will push forward dual-use biotech applicable to human augmentation. But the point here is that people with long term goals (in this case more Craig Venter than Larry Page) who put themselves in a conventional position of power can use that power to accomplish amazing things.

The article goes on to note, "Brin's partner has nurtured a different ambition. For years, Larry Page dreamed of tearing down the walls of libraries, and eliminating the barriers of geography, by making millions of books searchable by anybody in the world with an Internet connection." I've read elsewhere a comment attributed to a Google employee, "We're not scanning these books so that a human being can read them. We're scanning them so an AI can read them." (Paraphrase.) Even a moment's contemplation suggests that both of these projects could have huge implications for the development of superhuman abilities (such as superintelligence). Another mover and shaker who came late to his private cause, Bill Gates, is doing amazing things through the Gates Foundation by funding dramatic new biotech research (some of which will also have impressive dual-use implications). But Page and Brin have gotten to their present projects much faster at least in part because they've been looking to the future and thinking about what they would want to do once they got in this position.

Again, these are the work of two bright but apparently quite "normal" human beings. Imagine what kinds of goals a superhuman or transhuman might accomplish, if you can.

The second reason this question of civilizational planning is important to this page is because civilizational planning is, in the end, what we're all about. The point of Future Imperative is to help make people aware of the wide variety of existing and imminent augmentation tools out there, so that the public can make better decisions about which technologies they want to embrace and which ones they want to avoid or await further studies on. Both as a society and as individuals, we have to decide what options we want to pursue, and how vigorously.

Many people argue about questions of "our" (American or Western) civilizational path here in the "real world." The New York Times has recently featured an article on whether or not the U.S. is losing its innovative edge, and two subscription-only columnists, Brooks and Friedman, have just written articles about the importance of human capital and, well, the importance of solving problems (including human capital). Obviously some of the technologies discussed on this webpage may help solve the above concerns, but they could just as easily exacerbate them. If America's technological edge is fading due to the higher number of engineers being produced in, say, China, what happens when other nations are producing far higher numbers of superhuman intellects? And begin putting them to work in their tech industries... and governments, militaries, financial institutions, etc?

Perhaps making plans for our potential future isn't just a game after all.

P.S. You may see my above comments as a whole-hearted endorsement of the game Civilization. In actuality, the game is sufficiently engrossing that it can serve as a terrible time waster (the main reason I haven't purchased a copy yet). If you try it out and find you can no longer tear yourself away from your copy of the game, remember -- there's always the site for overcoming Civ-addiction, found here. Good luck.

Future Imperative

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Promising HIV Vaccine Results -- Bio, Soc

I just thought this was cool. Scientists say this experimental AIDS vaccine is "the most promising in 20 years," and they've doubled the number of people in the experiment worldwide from 1,500 to 3,000.

Personally, I find such developments interesting from a scientific as well as a humanitarian point of view. Gregory Stock has already explained in Redesigning Humans how ordinary scientific research in a variety of areas is creating "dual-use" technologies that will one day permit "human augmentation" -- thus enabling the creation of de facto superhumans.

Imagine the kinds of technological strides humanity is going to make in coming years because of the pressures to deal with calamities such as AIDS and emerging pandemics (such as avian flu). The kind of research and funding these challenges are generating, as well as the scientific initiatives of philanthropists such as Bill and Malinda Gates, will almost inevitably drive the creation of augmented humans as a side effect -- first people who have had their obvious genetic defects eliminated, but eventually individuals who are clearly superior and/or different from the common run of humanity.

Not that something like this would create any challenges...

It's an interesting time to be alive.