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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.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Posthuman Dreams, or Being Both More and Less than Human... -- Dark, SF, Soc, Super

Aeon Flux is a new movie starring Charlize Theron, set in a dark future centuries hence, where the title character fights for freedom against the power of an oppressive government. Now, you might be asking, despite Aeon's clearly superhuman gifts in the original MTV cartoon, and the themes of cybernetic transformation, cloning, etc found in the movie and series, what a gorgeous woman in black leather has to do with transcending human limitations.

The answer, of course, is everything.

Forget the interviews and reviews. For a moment, even forget the movie and storyline itself. When you see someone like Charlize Theron, you see someone with a dozen years of ballerina experience, a Hollywood career and an Academy Award, who worked out for four and a half to five hours a day, six days a week for three and a half months with a trainer from Cirque du Soleil just to get ready for this movie.

So, aspiring transhuman, what do you say to her?

Bzzt! Too late! =)

My point here, of course, is not that my readers need to be better at chatting up celebrities. Or maybe you do, but that's your business. Instead, the actress -- and the character -- serve to point out a flaw in the philosophies of many who embrace the idea of transcending their human limitations.

Most people who aspire to being "more than human" are having enough trouble living a fully human life in the first place.

Or to put it another way, most people realize they can't keep track of absolutely everything going on around themselves (given conventional abilities, anyway). So we tend to take mental shortcuts, to tune out information deemed unimportant. A common side effect of highly specialized knowledge and skills, as it happens, is coming to ignore a great deal of the rest of life as irrelevent, or coming to understand other fields primarily in terms of one's own specialty alone.

As a result, many people who embrace the idea that they can become superhuman often latch on to a particular favorite strategy -- which is always to develop one or more of what I like to call "Rapture technologies." These are technologies whose enthusiasts believe will be capable of instantly transforming the world, or at least their discoverers, thus leading to the sudden Ascension of a posthuman "Power" and the instant irrelevence of all other forces and intelligences. Including the whole of humanity.

While it's hard to say whether or not one of the technologies being researched today will have such an impact, much less how quickly, one result of this theory can already be seen today. If you believe research into artificial intelligence is the one thing that will save humanity, and indeed the only thing that can, then you may become an obsessive AI researcher. Or obsessed about supporting AI research. The same holds true if your obsession is nanotech, uploading minds into computers or any other exclusive ultra-technology-that-is-going-to-save-us-all.

The problem here is that, personal philosophies not withstanding, the Singularity, if it comes, may come gradually, as the accumulated changes brought about by a host of human augmentations and a legion of technological innovations that, in aggregate, transform the human condition. As opposed to a single, blinding white flash 0.03 microseconds after a circuit closes inside this or that piece of RaptureTech in some underground lab.

This may not seem as elegant an evolution for those who have their hearts set on making their own private godling, but the possibility does bring us back to the movie, and to Aeon Flux.

Ms. Theron's considerable resume is a useful illustration. Many people in transhumanist circles talk about escaping their human limitations, but few of us have lived at anything like our full potential within those limits. This point may be moot if a god-computer raises us all up and grants us new flesh in the time of the nano-apocalypse, but in the case of a more gradual change, it's worth noting...

Charlize Theron is apt to become a transhuman before most if not all of the people reading this article. Why? If the first transhumans are basically just optimized humans who have been optimized again and again and again, what kind of person is apt to have the resources to use biotech augments once they're established as completely safe? Who will be operating in a challenging environment where extended and enhanced youth and beauty, not to mention talent, intelligence and athletic ability, will be absolutely key to her success?

And perhaps most key, who is pushing herself to her limits now, and thus most likely to fully utilize accelerated learning, biotech augments and non-invasive mindtech to become something more than just an "optimal man" when the opportunity arises?

Now, you might say, "You don't know whether or not Charlize Theron is actually interested in any of those things. Sure, she may be interested in improving her skills, but that doesn't mean she'll jump at any of this tech stuff. Even if it's known to work safely."

And you'd have a point. But Ms. Theron is just an illustration.

The point is, if humanity evolves into "superhumanity" by way of a "slow" evolution of biotech, accelerated learning, mind-stimulating devices and other options (cybernetics, limited AI, limited nano), then whoever is pushing forward hardest on all fronts -- developing skills to unheard of levels, acquiring effective, synergized enhancements, making use of revolutionary personal tech, etc -- will presumably cross the finish line first.

Which means that Charlize Theron is probably ahead of most of us looking at the possibility now, even though she presumably doesn't know she's in a race. And meanwhile, most of us are either just standing here watching her head down the final leg, or are slowly, smugly jogging in that direction, confidant that we're well in advance of any potential contenders. (Save perhaps a few friends.)

Imagine if "the superman" turns out to be more like Paul Atreides of Dune than True Omnipotence. Imagine if there are gradations of transhuman, if there are specialties even among these seeming-demi-gods.

Imagine, in short, if humanity still has levels of accomplishment and drive. And if people like Ms. Theron, who are stars in this world, continue to outshine you utterly in that one. And why? Perhaps because while she didn't realize she was in this race, she's been running it as though it mattered. And you haven't been. Because the god-computer is going to reach down and save you in the "end times."

Time to reconsider your habits, perhaps? Or just time to fetch your running shoes?

Or to pray to your false gods? =)

Future Imperative

A Few Thoughts from Frank Herbert of Dune -- SF, Soc, Super

Frank Herbert, author of the science fiction classic Dune, is known for his many interesting observations, and those of his characters. Here follow a few, and some more can be found, in context, in this online book...

The Litany against Fear:
I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

The best art imitates life in a compelling way. If it imitates a dream, it must be a dream of life. Otherwise, there is no place where we can connect. Our plugs don't fit.

Give me the judgment of balanced minds in preference to laws every time. Codes and manuals create patterned behavior. All patterned behavior tends to go unquestioned, gathering destructive momentum.

All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.

Religion must be accepted as a source of energy. It can be directed for our purposes, but only within limits that experience reveals. Here is the secret meaning of free will.

Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little to test that it's a mountain. From the top you cannot see the mountain.

There should be a science of discontent. People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.

What do you despise? By this you are truly known.

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.

When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual.

There exists no separation between gods and men, one blends softly casual into the other.
When I am weaker than you, I ask for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.

If you believe certain words, you believe their hidden assumptions. When you believe something is right or wrong, true or false, you believe the assumptions in the words which express the arguments. Such assumptions are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.

The child who refuses to travel in his father's harness, this is the symbol of man's most unique capability. "I do not have to be what my father was. I do not have to obey my father's rules or even believe everything he believed. It is my strength as a human that I can make my own choices of what to believe and what not to believe, of what to be and what not to be."

Good government never depends upon laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery. The most important element of government, therefore, is the method of choosing leaders.

Governments, if they endure, always tend increasingly toward aristocratic forms. No government in history has been known to evade this pattern. And as the aristocracy develops, government tends more and more to act exclusively in the interests of the ruling class - whether that class be hereditary royalty, oligarchs of financial empires, or entrenched bureaucracy.

These are illusions of popular history which a successful religion must promote: Evil men never prosper; only the brave deserve the fair; honesty is the best policy; actions speak louder than words; virtue always triumphs; a good deed is its own reward; any bad human can be redeemed; religious talismans protect one from demon possession; only females understand the ancient mysteries; the rich are doomed to unhappiness...

Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.

There is in all things a pattern that is part of our universe. It has symmetry, elegance, and grace - those qualities you find always in that which the true artist captures. You can find it in the turning of the seasons, in the way sand trails along a ridge, in the branch clusters of the creosote bush or the patterns of its leaves. We try to copy these patterns in our live and in our society, seeking the rhythms, the dances, the forms that comfort. Yet, it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection. It is clear that the ultimate pattern contains its own fixity. In such perfection, all things move toward death.

You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion. This power struggle permeates the training, educating, and disciplining of the orthodox community. Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox rule.

On his personal philosophy...

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?

In some people, simply confronting the idea of hyperconsciousness sharpens their mental alertness to a remarkable degree.

...If I'd been born in my grandfather's time, I'd have made my grandfather's mistakes. There's no doubt of it. I just don't want to make my grandfather's mistakes today.

If you want to get anything across, you have to be entertaining first. If you start standing on a street corner, people will tune you out. We human beings tend to have very good filter systems in our heads to see and hear only what we want to see. But analogues give you a marvelous device for getting past that screening system, because people can be caught up in the drama of the story, be deep into the problems of it. Then later on, much later on, they say, Oh, my God, he was talking about this!" And they come out of it with a brand new view of what's happening in their world.

We come from a spectator society, by and large. Whatever entertainment you produce is supposedly for passive receptors, who sit there and take it.... There are a lot of conventions, and you're supposed to gratify all of them. My contention is that entertainment has a far greater arena in which to perform. But to perform in that arena you make demands on your readers.

I ask myself, 'What is the society avoiding?'

Neither Brave New World nor 1984 will prevent our becoming a planet under Big Brother's thumb, but they make it a bit less likely. We've been sensitized to the possibility.

I think the sky is going to fall. I predict blackouts, more strikes, starvation, all kinds of urban violence. But on a positive note, I also think we are still a society of screwdriver mechanics. Our society is particularly rich in people who, faced with a problem, don't sit down and say, "We are doomed"; but instead ask, "How are we going to solve that?"

I saw clearly that science fiction was going to be the thing... My feeling about it was that here was an entire field that could be mined for drama, where there was no limit to the settings that could be created. And I like the idea of being in an open ended system. I leaped into it. It was made to order for my purposes.

Future Imperative

Of History and Hysteria... (Of Saviors and Supermen -- Part III) -- AL, CPS, Dark, SF, Soc, Super

Further to my last article, I offer a timely example of what happens when enough people are ill-informed of basic historical facts. According to The Washington Post, nationalistic comics are becoming popular in Japan. The Post's Hiroko Tabuchi reports,
In one book, crazed Chinese communist guerrillas spray benevolent Japanese troops with cyanide. In another, savage Korean immigrants massacre innocent Tokyo residents in the wake of World War II.

If this sounds like a reversal of Japan's history of aggression in Asia, that is just what the authors intend. The scenes appear in two best-selling examples of a growing literary genre in Japan: nationalist comics.

Now, with as many atrocities as the Japanese Imperial Army was responsible for during World War II, one would think that most rational Japanese would want to let this subject lie. And indeed, it seems most Japanese do.

But the handful who are revisiting history to revise it are more than just a passing embarrassment to the Japanese educational system. They're actually a useful object lesson to the rest of us. After all, Japan is an exceptionally wealthy, advanced, well-educated country. Despite certain issues she may have with her past, if this kind of "creative history" can become widespread there, it can become prevalent anywhere. And imagine, if you think telling the Koreans that Japan built their modern civilization is a bit out in left field, just think what your own countrymen might start believing if you fall asleep at the wheel.

The only real antibody to these delusions is the truth... and an awareness that what you teach in your textbooks has real consequences.

So good luck. And just remember, the above trend almost certainly wasn't the brainchild of some kind of mastermind, superhuman or otherwise. Indeed, the idea's promoters aren't necessarily even that bright. But if you can't defend yourself from blatant untruths, then you're going to be silly putty* in the hands of people who know what they're doing in the marketplace of ideas.

On the positive side, the immune system analogy also works when it comes to increasing your personal and your nation's resistance. If you catch the flu and recover, your system develops a resistance to that strain. If you're given a vaccine ahead of time, you'll be exposed to those genetic characteristics in a dose your system can analyze and then counter.

In the real world, this means that if you get burned by enough people pandering easy lies, eventually you may pick up on the fact and grow more cautious. And if you find out about a lie ahead of time, or get it in pieces, take it apart and analyze it for its factual worth, you're apt to more resistant to future arguments relying upon its false premises.

Or so we can hope.

Future Imperative

*Silly putty = a kind of soft, claylike substance, used as a toy.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Of Madness and Mentats... (Of Saviors and Supermen -- Part II) -- AL, CPS, Dark, SF, Soc, Super

Here's a response to my "Of Saviors and Supermen" article from Max, someone who takes a great interest in tracking down and learning about exceptionally gifted people. Whether or not we could as yet have anyone remotely on a par with Paul Atreides -- even given the lack of millions of heavily augmented people in our society as a counterbalance -- is a discussion for another time. For now, the furious pace of biotech enhancements (genetic, nootropic, etc) and the existance accelerated learning methods suggests that it's an issue worth eyeing now, before our opinions become something of a moot point.

And given the purpose of this site is too expand perspectives and share information and viewpoints, I thought I'd include Max's comments, and my response...

Very well thought-out, man. And there's not a thing there I can argue with.

It's a very dangerous ground, superhumans in a position where they are capable of directly steering the evolution of a society or a culture. It brings to mind Jim Jones, and it worries me that a person with even more personal power and influence could cause such a thing on an even greater scale. Or that a super-Hitler could gain control of a country.

I am reminded of the current storyline in comics of a character with the ability to directly steer a person's thoughts, and how he has created an extremely dangerous organization, in the interest of controlling events to his personal liking. What is really troubling is that such a person may indeed exist somewhere in the world as we speak. How would we know? The person would of course stay in the closet, so to speak, and work in the background. We would never see them until it was too late.

There is also, of course, the problem that would automatically arise if a metahuman suddenly appeared in the world, that decided he/she LIKED all the cult growing around him/her. I can foresee a situation similar to the Branch Davidians occurring. No matter which side of that particular conflict you came down on, it was a tragedy. A meta with a following would be exceedingly dangerous to society.

Yeah, I know. I'm the one who's the big proponent of seeing metas coming "out of the closet". But I have to acknowledge the huge risk. My best friend reminded me of the blood analogy of society, and its application to metas. It's like this. Compare society to blood, plain old red blood. What is seen is red. All the red blood cells. What is not seen are all the white blood cells, all the antibodies. Metas are like those white blood cells, those antibodies. They are necessary to society, in that they combat rampant sameness, which is the death of society. But you can't center blood around the white cells. They are essential, but not the primary focus of the blood. Metas are necessary, but we must not allow them to be central to the flow of society.

I am still of the opinion that metas should come out of the closet, even if in only a circumspect manner, masked by usernames and hidden on the outskirts of the culture, but not to control. I think that, just as we have to know about white blood cells and antibodies in order to better help in healthcare, we need to know about metas in order to better help society. White blood cells cannot carry oxygen; neither can metas run the world. They are meant to be no more than firemen, and examples of what is possible in the world.

Boy, did YOU open a can of worms.....

I responded...

My personal opinion, Max, is that the more advanced, enlightened and capable people are, the more easily society as a whole will be able to deal with extraordinary dangers, both metanormal and "normal" (like Al Qaeda, etc). One of the big problems in Dune was the existance of such a huge mass of people ready to follow Paul Atreides to hell and back. Or rather, ready to follow what they thought was the will of Paul Atreides, or what they thought was his example.

Admittedly, this issue isn't purely cleared up by the simple hand-waving answer of "we'll make everybody a meta" or "we'll make everyone superbright." The Fremen effectively were metas of a kind, and an unstoppable, fanatical army of millions in control of the Spice was, of course, more than enough to conquer the galactic empire a few times over. Which made them a big part of the problem, not the solution.

The question, I think, is in what particular abilities you emphasize in your education of people. Whether or not you separate out normal students from the gifted and "the Gifted," it's worth considering what skills would make it particularly hard to manipulate your pupils in the future. NLP? Self-hypnosis emphasizing mental flexibility, self-awareness and self-control? Philosophies like General Semantics?

You see, I think there may be too much emphasis on the whole "meta vs non-meta" divide (to the extent that anyone thinks about this question at all). Comic book characters provide a useful example. Think of all those classic superbeings in comics who may just be very strong, or better still, simply blast energy at people, but aren't too bright and don't really have any other exceptional abilities. In what way is the guy who unleashes a formidable amount of energy from his hands (enough to destroy a tank) intrinsically superior to a normal human being? For example, how is he superior to a normal insurgent with a rocket propelled grenade, or a normal soldier with an advanced shoulder-fired rocket?

My point is that many technologies or gifts we might think of as "superhuman" could easily exist in a person while leaving them largely unchanged, and hence just as vulnerable as any normal individual.

My own idea of a "true" superhuman generally assumes some degree of enhanced mental function and/or overall health. But remember, most of the factions in Dune were enhanced beings of one kind or another... Bene Gesserit, Spacer Navigators, Fremen, Sardaukar, Mentats, Tleilaxu Face Dancers and geneticists, and even the military cadres of the Atreides. Yet when Paul emerged at the height of his powers, he realized he had begun a legend -- and a Jihad -- which he could not control. And which even these varying factions could not thwart, either alone or together. To the extent that they were responding to him in a fully conscious way at all.

I think that basic notion -- be aware of what is occurring around you, both in your personal and societal space, and be conscious of the implications of events, and your own actions -- is a good rule of thumb. We may not yet have tools for every ordinary person to defend themselves against a superhuman manipulator... but how many people are truly proof against a mere mortal manipulator of great skill?


I'd like to add one more comment. We can do a great deal to improve ourselves as "mere mortals," whether to increase our resistance to outside coercion or to improve ourselves generally. I'll say more about this in the future, but ask yourself the next time you're shaking your head at the political opinions of a friend or co-worker, "How much do I know about this subject?" Odds are, even if you're an exceptionally well-informed person, there's a great deal you don't know about, at least not in any depth.

Now, in fairness, I'm something of a voracious consumer of all media, but in particular of news. And admittedly I don't know nearly enough either, yet am often dismayed at just how much time I unconsciously devote to news reports and articles. But the point remains, a simple, basic understanding of most common subjects would help alert you to the most outrageous lies you hear -- assuming you apply your own knowledge and perceptions to the question instead of just blindly accepting whatever you hear from one source or a handful of people in the media and office-cooler echo chambers.

There are probably other tools out there, but some of the most effective to start with are the ones you need every day. Know what you're talking about. Know what they're talking about. Remember, you don't have to agree with other people just to please them. You don't have to argue with nutcases either. And if you don't want a confrontation, you can always hold your tongue... or change the subject.

Just remember, when all else fails, start with the simple things you do understand.

Future Imperative

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Tiny Step Forward... -- AI, Cyber, Nano, Tech

Popular Science reports on the creation of robots so small that you could fit 200 on your fingertip. Researchers intend to one day create teams of such tiny robots to repair computer circuitry. Fixing your PC may seem relatively mundane, but swarms of effective micromachinery at this scale will open whole new areas of high-tech contruction and minimally-invasive surgery.

The push to continue improving and shrinking these devices to deal with ever smaller processors and chips will, in addition, create greater impetus towards creating "strong nanotechnology" by the "top-down" method of shrinking conventional machines down to a molecular scale. In the meantime, imagine such "prosaic" feats as cleaning out all of the plaque in your blood vessels, whether they supply your heart... or your brain.

Such is the state of converging technologies in today's world. "Curioser and curioser."

Future Imperative

Artificial Intelligence (Of a Sort) as Art -- AI, Soc

The New York Times is now sharing this article about Lynn Hershman Leeson and her art projects, various pseudo-AIs she has tried to bring to life as an aesthetic challenge.

Though clearly these "entities" fall far short of the kind of "strong artificial intelligence" that some believe could usher in a Singularity and an utterly transformed world, they do represent the potential that even limited AI has to interact with us and change us. Normally this site discusses the kind of work that artificial intelligence can do for us, but changing our perspectives can be just as powerful.

Future Imperative