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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 09, 2005

Man into Supermouse -- Here I Come to Save the Day!... -- Bio

We've previously reported on mice created by Johns Hopkins who developed mice with muscles twice as large as normal by knocking out a gene for myostatin and letting their subjects exercise. Clinical trials of an antibody to myostatin have shown the muscles of test mice to grow 25% larger than untreated mice after five weeks or more of treatment. But now Johns Hopkins has worked with outside companies to create an even more powerful subtance that triggers a 60% increase in muscle size with just two injections.

A study in the the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers more technical details. The news release below offers an overview of the experiments.

Frankly, I think more than anything, this story indicates just how quickly things are progressing in biotech, particularly on the enhancement front. Gregory Stock, of course, would suggest that human augmentation research is mainly being driven by the tremendous push to solve other problems in biotech, from curing inherited diseases, looking for more effective vaccines or developing better tools for standard in-vitro fertilization of embryos.

In this case, it would appear that having the genetic modification is still more powerful than using even the latest agent. But researchers haven't been working on this technology very long, and already they've made this 25% to 60% jump. Sure, they'll need to test for safety, but until someone develops extra chromosomes with designer genes we can safely turn on and off, pharmaceuticals could easily be a kind of safe, middle-ground for enhancement. We may be able to flip on the attributes we want or need, and let them go when we lose interest or when we can no longer support the modifications.

This, of course, gives "ordinary humans" some recourse for keeping up with genetically modified future generations (especially those with the modified chromosomes) without having to resort to gene therapy only to balance the scales genetically. (Other options, of course, include accelerated learning, nootropics, non-invasive mindtech such as sensory deprivation tanks, self-hypnosis, virtual agents and other limited AI, nano-scale cybernetics, etc... though what you have access to will vary depending on your wealth, specialized knowledge, and of course how advanced the technology is by the time you try to utilize it.

The point, though, once again, is that augmentation tech is advancing faster than even most of its wild-eyed enthusiasts would expect. And that if we're finding ways to greatly enhance muscle mass, with or without exercise, imagine what we'll be able to do when it comes to the plasticity of the brain. Both in terms of therapy and augmentation... becoming "better than well."

So enjoy this news article. But remember, important as your strength and physique can be, we may soon be able to alter at least one organ whose modification could truly make you "more than human." Or we may just alter other people's, and leave you in a kind of permanent underclass. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The rich are different from you and I." Before long, that may be literally true.

BALTIMORE, Dec. 8 (AScribe Newswire) -- The Johns Hopkins scientists who first created "mighty mice" have developed, with pharmaceutical company Wyeth and the biotechnology firm MetaMorphix, an agent that's more effective at increasing muscle mass in mice than a related potential treatment for muscular dystrophy now in clinical trials.

The new agent is a version of a cellular docking point for the muscle-limiting protein myostatin. In mice, just two weekly injections of the new agent triggered a 60 percent increase in muscle size, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online Dec. 5 and available publicly through the journal's Web site.

The researchers' original mighty mice, created by knocking out the gene that codes for myostatin, grew muscles twice as big as normal mice. An antibody against myostatin now in clinical trials caused mice to develop muscles 25 percent larger than those of untreated mice after five weeks or more of treatment.

The researchers' expectation is that blocking myostatin might help maintain critical muscle strength in people whose muscles are wasting due to diseases like muscular dystrophy or side effects from cancer treatment or AIDS.

"This new inhibitor of myostatin, known as ACVR2B, is very potent and gives very dramatic effects in the mice," says Se-Jin Lee, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology and genetics in Johns Hopkins' Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. "Its effects were larger and faster than we've seen with any other agent, and they were even larger than we expected."

ACVR2B is the business end of a cellular docking point for the myostatin protein, and it probably works in part by mopping up myostatin so it can't exert its muscle-inhibiting influence. But the researchers' experiments also show that the new agent's extra potency stems from its ability to block more than just myostatin, says Lee.

"We don't know how many other muscle-limiting proteins there may be or which ones they are," says Lee, "but these experiments clearly show that myostatin is not the whole story."

The evidence for other players came from experiments with mighty mice themselves. Because these mice don't have any myostatin, any effects of injecting the new agent would come from its effects on other proteins, explains Lee. After five injections over four weeks, mighty mice injected with the new agent had muscles 24 percent larger than their counterparts that didn't get the new agent.

"In some ways this was supposed to be a control experiment," says Lee. "We weren't really expecting to see an effect, let alone an effect that sizeable."

In other experiments with normal female mice, weekly injections of the new agent provided the biggest effect on muscle growth after just two weeks at the highest dose given (50 milligrams per kilogram mouse weight). Depending on the muscle group analyzed, the treated mice's muscles were bigger than untreated mice by 39 percent (the gastrocnemius [calf] muscle) to 61 percent (the triceps).

After just one week, mice given a fifth of that highest dose had muscles 16 percent to 25 percent bigger than untreated mice, depending on the muscle group analyzed, and mice treated with one injection a week for two, three or four weeks continued to gain muscle mass.

But although the new agent seems quite promising, its advantage in potency also requires extra caution. "We don't know what else the new agent is affecting or whether those effects will turn out to be entirely beneficial," says Lee.

Lee says they also are conducting experiments with the mice now to see whether the effect lasts after injections cease and whether it helps a mouse model of muscular dystrophy retain enough muscle strength to prolong life.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Cancer Institute and by funds from Wyeth Research and MetaMorphix Inc. The new agent was produced and first tested at Wyeth, and the inhibitor used in the current mouse studies was produced at MetaMorphix. All of the mouse studies described in this article and in the PNAS paper were conducted in Lee's laboratory at Johns Hopkins.

Authors on the report are Se-Jin Lee and Suzanne Sebald of Johns Hopkins; Lori Reed of Wyeth Exploratory Drug Safety, and Monique Davies, Stefan Girgenrath, Mary Goad, Kathy Tomkinson, Jill Wright and Neil Wolfman of Wyeth Discovery Research; Christopher Barker, Gregory Ehrmantraut, James Holmstrom and Betty Trowell of MetaMorphix Canada; Barry Gertz, Man-Shiow Jiang, Li-fang Liang, Edwin Quattlebaum and Ronald Stotish of MetaMorphix, Beltsville, Md.; Martin Matzuk of Baylor College of Medicine; and En Li of Harvard Medical School.

Myostatin was licensed by The Johns Hopkins University to MetaMorphix and sublicensed to Wyeth. Lee is entitled to a share of sales royalty received by The Johns Hopkins University from sales of this factor. The Johns Hopkins University and Lee also own MetaMorphix stock, which is subject to certain restrictions under university policy. Lee is a paid consultant to MetaMorphix.

The terms of these arrangements are being managed by the university in
accordance with its conflict of interest policies.
- - - -

CONTACT: Joanna Downer, Johns Hopkins Medicine Office of Corporate
Communications, 410-614-5105, jdowner1@jhmi.edu
ON THE WEB: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/0505996102v1

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom -- Soc

One of the most intriguing things about intelligence and creativity is that human beings exhibit these virtues in incredibly diverse ways, despite our all-too-frequent attempts to categorize people and limit their choices.

Philip K. Dick was one of the edgiest, darkest and most bizarre science fiction writers of the 20th Century. Yet this speech by the same author reflects a very religious, Christian-influenced view of reality from an SF author most people would not automatically associate with matters of faith, much less Christianity. Famous for works such as Minority Report and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick's creativity seems in no way hampered by his religious beliefs. His speech also contains another interesting insight:

...The story was about a real dog, and I used to watch him and try to get inside his head and imagine how he saw the world. Certainly, I decided, that dog sees the world quite differently than I do, or any humans do. And then I began to think, Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn't we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe, it's as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can't explain his to us, and we can't explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too diffrently, there occurs a breakdown of communication... and there is the real illness.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from his example. Given the number of prominent scientists over the years who were known to believe in God, in some cases passionately, the philosophical and religious beliefs of thinkers should not be used as a criterion for assessing the worth of their other ideas.

And perhaps more significant to human potential advocates... we shouldn't allow our own assumptions about the course of human/posthuman evolution or the most viable enhancement technology paths to blind us to real progress along other avenues. Nor should we allow our assumptions to prevent us from utilizing techniques and technologies that would otherwise enhance our ability to make progress in whatever sphere of activity we deemed most valuable for ourselves or for the future in general.

Applying political or religious litmus tests to scientific truth (as opposed to the application of scientific principles) always turns out badly. So why go out of our way to do that in supposedly objective, rational circles?

And finally, there is something very odd about the impulse many futurists have to maintain a kind of ideological and religious purity to their worldviews. How so? Because so many radical futurists, whether Singulatarians, Transhumanists, professional AI programmers, genetic engineering advocates, accelerated learning researchers or would-be eugenicists, not only put forward a vision of technological reality sharply at odds with that of most of humanity, but often vigorously espouse an entire philosophy of life as part and parcel of their "self-evident" futurist ideas.

It's nice that you believe in the Coming AI Gods, or Uploading All Humanity, or Rewriting Our Children's Genes, or Reprogramming All Brains, but isn't that enough? If you're trying to promote half-a-dozen controversial ideas already, remember that if you have any more. There are enough outspoken Libertarians, democratic Socialists, Anarchists, micronation founders, techno-shamans, science fiction writers, utopian dreamers and neo-Fascists in the midst of these movements to begin with. Your views may seem conventional based upon your real life and online friends, but that doesn't carry much weight with the other 6 billion+.

So bear in mind, some people may disagree with you. If you want to get along with these people, if you want to promote your agenda, consider that before you tell them "All religious people are stupid," "I hate Capitalists," "The poor only live like that because they want to," "I hate liberals," "I hate corporations," "I hate educated people," "I hate the rich," "I hate foreigners." Believe it or not, not everyone agrees with any of the above statements, even after you've argued for half an hour with them. In fact, all you're doing is ticking off those religious, capitalist, poor, liberal, corporate, educated, rich, foreigners whom you're offering the Word.

If you have a futurist agenda to promote, you have few enough natural allies as it is. Why push aside most of the ones you have left?

Frankly, if you're of the belief that an AI posthuman will one day arise (and you hope to be the first) and you think that the first ethical thing such a being should do is forcibly upload every human being into a computer substrate... Well, that's fine. But if your agenda can be summed up as "All Brains Must Be Eaten," then remember that at some level you sound like the tagline of a zombie movie, and cut people a break when they describe their politics or mention their church or other religious faith.

In the eyes of many, you may be some kind of weird cultist already. If you persist in treating them that way, why should they give you the benefit of the doubt?

Just be clear -- if you're a radical futurist of virtually any stripe, then in the eyes of the world, you're the crazy one.

Future Imperative

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

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

Michael Anissimov offered the following comments about my post.
You don't believe in the possibility of a hard takeoff, that's fine. Many do, and based on sound reasoning. An AI that runs on circuits millions of times faster than your brain will not wait years to advance. Advancement could take a while from the AI's perspective, but very rapidly from ours. You are discounting the possibility of beings that generate progress on faster-than-human timescales, because it *sounds* radical. But if a faster-than-human thinker gets its hands on faster-than-human mechanical actuators, progress will simply take off at a faster-than-human rate. Nothing religious or Rapturous about it - simply the laws of physics.

Actually, Michael, I don't discount the possibility of a hard takeoff at all. I am, however, realistic about the fact that any method of achieving a hard takeoff Singularity could take a lot longer than its proponents believe, and may well be eclipsed by another technology first.

For example, the accelerated speed with which a computer intelligence could function is the most powerful argument for the eventual obsolescence of biological life. But in practice, there may be serious unforeseen challenges to the emergence of full artificial general intelligence. For example, we don't know to what degree the neural networks of our brains are dependent upon the biochemistry of our neurons and other brain cells. If they are, if particular, complex series of biochemical reactions are required to model the probability of a neuron firing and other brain functions, then how much processing power will it take to model intelligence as we know it?

Will it necessarily be possible to do so? If we have to start modeling the quantum behavior of molecules in cells, then suddenly we're looking at a much tougher brute force problem. Can all of this be bypassed by a more elegant program? Quite possibly, but the beauty of the brute force method is that you create intelligence without necessarily fully appreciating it for what it is.

And then, as others have pointed out, we have no way of knowing whether an AI would actually be friendly, as well as wise enough to avoid obliterating us all in a well-meaning gesture. After all, a system that simply self-optimized to achieve a simple goal could outthink us in terms of raw speed, and with sufficient destructive power annihilate the whole of humanity while attempting to, say, render us all down into computronium. As a companionable gesture.

Does all of this preclude AI? No, and in fact, I believe that a very limited artificial intelligence is with us already. We already have a computer that sifts and collates the world's medical journals, looking for pharmaceuticals with multiple applications, and there's another that has been systematically testing the genome of a worm one gene at a time -- testing subjects to see what happens when a particular gene is knocked out, hypothesizing as to what that gene does, and then experimenting to test the theory. That's pretty impressive.

Of course, given AI enthusiasts insistence that computers will naturally be applied to developing more powerful computers, it's ironic that both of these tools are focused on biotech. Then again, there's great human interest in how the body functions, and biotech, despite popular assumptions, may be an easier field for formidable new computers to make a mark in. Especially so long as biologists are restricted by inadequate processing power (The Human Genome Project) or have data best gathered by rapid, automated systems (see above). Their existance actually makes the point that limited AI could exist without making human beings irrelevant. In fact, this kind of tech could enable hyperbright scientists and inventors to delegate "intellectual grunt work" to "lowly computers" while they and their students/colleagues/employees focused on other challenges. In other words, near-light-speed computing could leverage mere mortal and transhuman minds as well as posthuman ones.

Meanwhile, it is probably possible to vastly amplify the speed at which the unmodified human brain functions at certain intellectually critical tasks. Not up to the speed of an optimized computer, at least not without radical physical changes or undiscovered principles, but substantially greater than a mere 10x shift. (I'd say more on this, but I may be patenting one technology for accomplishing this, so I'm afraid I'm just going to keep quiet about this technique for now.) If the human brain can be radically optimized even before any augmentations, imagine what the synergy of all the human enhancement fields could theoretically be. Especially if the biotech industry takes a page from AI boosters and applies ever-improving computers and biological intelligence to the problem of developing yet smarter scientists, etc.

But the point, again, isn't that true AI isn't possible. Or even that it isn't imminent.

But consider, what if you're absolutely correct? About everything you stated above?

Tell me, what makes more sense, to accelerate these achievements by applying the best resources possible to enhancing the minds of researchers (assuming this didn't distract them inexcusably from their work) or letting our present research teams to proceed without aid? For that matter, given that a potentially hostile nigh-omnipotent supercomputer (whether fully conscious or not) poses an existential risk to all human life and possibly all life, period, wouldn't it make sense for people to take this challenge (that seems almost impossible to humans) and let actual, functional transhumans solve it?

Am I proposing these options? Actually, I'm proposing that the various human augmentation/ intelligence enhancement sub-fields need to mature a bit and start talking to each other. Not only could they find great help in each other, but in their respective discoveries as well. Why shouldn't already smart people use accelerated learning, creativity enhancement, nootropics, non-invasive mindtech, and/or biotech augments to amplify their intellectual talents? (Why shouldn't we all?)

And remember, that's not entirely a rhetorical question. I'm asking it because I think it's a question the public should start to answer for itself. Because whatever the world's immediate decision, our best answers will come when as many people as possible not only have a say, but at least know what is being discussed. It will be far harder for simple ignorance to prevail if everyone knows the facts to begin with. And right now, most researchers don't know the facts about related, much less more distant, fields.

My point about Ms. Theron? Among other things, if we have a slow takeoff, people like her, with a great deal of wealth, drive, status, gifts and talent, are apt to remain at the top of the heap. The same situation is likely to prevail if we have a fast biotech takeoff. This shouldn't necessarily be the case -- most people reading this post have the tremendous advantage of knowing these things are possible, and being able to find links to unique resources... many of which are free. Why aren't aspiring transhumans pushing themselves to the limit? Wouldn't this make a lot more sense? If only in getting their research launched, their projects complete and their funding secured?


Incidentally, as a nine-year-old back in 1979, I had an imaginary storyline in which machines built out of individual atoms and molecules had reconstructed a force of supermen into godlike beings who thought at the speed of light and whose "enemies," a legion of hideously advanced yet atavistic cybernetic warriors, were merely angry children who posed the trivial challenge -- how were they going to let these cyberguys enjoy their freedom this week without allowing them to hurt themselves or anyone else. Simplistic, yes. My storylines got more sophisticated after I turned 10 or 11 or so. =)

Or, to cut a long story short, I've been aware of the possibilities of nanotech and posthuman life since years before Engines of Creation. I've got nothing against seeing a nano-utopia come into existance. I've probably been anticipating it longer than anyone now reading these words. But it isn't the only possibility. And the faster people realize that, the faster we'll be create the future we want, and avoid those we despise. =)
Hi there Ralph. I really like your blog! I just wanted to complain about one little thing - the title categories. It's distracting when they appear in the subject lines. Perhaps you could put them at the end of your posts, like technorati tags? Or transfer your blog to a service like Typepad or Wordpress that automatically integrates the ability to categorize posts? I'm just sayin', is all. :)

An excellent point, Michael. The reason I'm doing that now is because I want these posts to be relatively searchable on Blogger. I considered putting them at the bottom of the post just now, but it occurs to me that if someone looks into the archives for this site, they're only going to have article titles to go on, and guessing a post's contents on the basis of its title doesn't make searching scores if not hundreds of them any easier.

Nevertheless, making the site easier and more enjoyable to read is also a priority for me.

Any suggestions out there? Who would prefer to see the category abbreviations at the bottoms of the posts? Who likes them at the top? If you have a passionate opinion about them (or any opinion at all) please say so in your comment on this post. Thanks a lot.

Future Imperative

When Physical Perfection Enhances the Mind -- AL, Bio, Self

A study has found that exercise improves cognitive function. This may come as no surprise to my readers, particularly anyone steeped in common human enhancement techniques, but it's a point worth remembering nonetheless. Perhaps most interesting in the article was the implied attitude that many Americans actually see exercise as vain or irresponsible rather than a wise use of time. Clearly, there are a number of values we'll have to change in this country if we want to bring everyone along with enhancement tech.

Obviously, a tendency to be dismissive of intellectual accomplishment would be another -- and in this era of Major League Sports, probably the harder of the two. =)

Also note, extreme exercise such as marathons may hurt as much as it helps, so unhealthy exercise regimens (or destructive drugs such as steroids) are something to regard warily. I suspect that if your lifestyle supports an overall state of good health, it's probably better for your mind... but check with your doctor on these questions, regardless. And figure out, in particular, what's right for you.

Future Imperative

Plastic Surgery in All Its Glory -- Bio

Well, this is creepy. No, not the face transplant story which I'll address in a moment, but this story about leaking silicone gel implants.
Mentor Corp., which hopes to win Food and Drug Administration approval soon to sell its silicone-gel breast implants for general cosmetic use, faced a problem last year as it prepared to distribute to doctors the demonstration models that prospective customers would try on for size: The implants sometimes left behind an unsettling slick of silicone oil.

Faced with this potential marketing disaster, the company had its engineers come up with an improved plug that greatly reduced the level of leakage -- didn't stop it, mind you, but reduced it. They then modified the try out samples... but left the actual implants that go into people's bodies untouched.

Needless to say, the revelation of this detail has not been a propaganda coup for Mentor Corp.

Regarding the French woman whose face was recently restored through the world's first facial transplant, she seems to be doing well and yes, based upon the description of her situation, she did indeed need this operation, just to get along. My best wishes are with her tonight. Let's hope she does well, despite whatever controversy arises from the fact that her face came from a brain dead woman (a remarkable match, the article notes) and that she was injected with stem cells to reduce tissue rejection.

Her only statement upon seeing her face? A written note. "Merci."

Future Imperative

When Physical Perfection Puts the Young at Risk -- A Little Too Much Healthy Exercise -- Bio, Soc

The Washington Post has an interesting article on the American Academy of Pediatrics new policy on the risks faced by young athletes trying to gain or lose too much weight.
Young athletes are at risk of engaging in unhealthy efforts to lose or gain weight and doctors need to give them guidance and "put pressure" on coaches to do the same, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

In a detailed policy statement, the academy stresses that losing or gaining more than roughly one or two pounds weekly is dangerous.

"Weight loss accompanied by overexercising, using rubber suits, steam baths, or saunas" should be prohibited for all young athletes, the policy says. So should diet pills, nutritional supplements and diuretics, and no weight-loss plan for athletic purposes should ever be used before the ninth grade, the policy says.

Much as I normally appreciate people pushing their limits and trying to develop their gifts, I think this is one area where a little caution is warranted. Kids and teens have bodies that are still developing, and which don't need to be damaged by overzealous training (including dieting, supplements, etc). A healthy lifestyle seems more than adequate for the young, anything more extreme can certainly wait until you're an adult.

And I'm not even going to joke about the steroids. Though here's a question for my readers: How long do you think it will take before someone realizes just how much self-hypnosis can reshape the body... and maybe decides to toss the chemicals for mental augmentations?

Future Imperative

Another Tiny Step Forward -- Nano

A news release just came out on a major theoretical improvement on modern nanotech assembly methods. Even if this innovation proves out, it won't instantly revolutionize human technology, but it could make possibly some extraordinarily strong structures (diamondoid), that could be whipped up very quickly. A huge improvement over nanotech as it stands now, in that respect.

So if you have your heart set on an orbital "beanstalk," don't despair. We may have elevator to orbit before you know it. =)

"We stand the problem of self-assembly on its head," said Torquato, a professor of chemistry who is affiliated with the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials, a multidisciplinary research center devoted to materials science.

Instead of employing the traditional trial-and-error method of self-assembly that is used by nanotechnologists and which is found in nature, Torquato and his colleagues start with an exact blueprint of the nanostructure they want to build.

''If one thinks of a nanomaterial as a house, our approach enables a scientist to act as architect, contractor, and day laborer all wrapped up in one," Torquato said. "We design the components of the house, such as the 2-by-4s and cement blocks, so that they will interact with each other in such a way that when you throw them together randomly they self-assemble into the desired house."

To do the same thing using current techniques, by contrast, a scientist would have to conduct endless experiments to come up with the same house. And in the end that researcher may not end up with a house at all but rather—metaphorically speaking—with a garage or a horse stable or a grain silo.

While Torquato is a theorist rather than a practitioner, his ideas may have implications for nanostructures used in a range of applications in sensors, electronics and aerospace engineering.

"This is a wonderful example of how asking deep theoretical questions can lead to important practical applications," said Debenedetti.

So far Torquato and his colleagues have demonstrated their concept only theoretically, with computer modeling.

They illustrated their technique by considering thin films of particles. If one thinks of the particles as pennies scattered upon a table, the pennies, when laterally compressed, would normally self-assemble into a pattern called a triangular lattice.

But by optimizing the interactions of the "pennies," or particles, Torquato made them self-assemble into an entirely different pattern known as a honeycomb lattice (called that because it very much resembles a honeycomb).

Why is this important? The honeycomb lattice is the two-dimensional analog to the three-dimensional diamond lattice—the creation of which is somewhat of a holy grail in nanotechnology...

To create the honeycomb lattice, the researchers employed techniques of optimization, a field that has burgeoned since World War II and which is essentially the science of inventing mathematical methods to make things run efficiently.

Torquato and his colleagues hope that their efforts will be replicated in the laboratory using particles called colloids, which have unique properties that make them ideal candidates to test out the theory. Paul Chaikin, a professor of physics at New York University, said he is planning to do laboratory experiments based on the work.

The paper appearing in Physical Review Letters is a condensed version of a more detailed paper that has been accepted for publication in Physical Review E and which will probably appear sometime before the end of the year.

Torquato said that he and Stillinger initially had trouble attracting research money to support their idea. Colleagues "thought it was so far out in left field in terms of whether we could do what we were claiming that it was difficult to get funding for it," he said. The work was ultimately funded by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy.

"The honeycomb lattice is a simple example but it illustrates the power of our approach," Torquato said. "We envision assembling even more useful and unusual structures in the future."

Future Imperative

Monday, December 05, 2005

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

I posted my
He's using the Aeon Flux movie to start up a philosophical discussion on transhumanism, a pet fascination of Dry Observer's, though also an area of interest to Warren Ellis and particularly Grant Morrison (whose New X-Men run was shot through with some transhumanist ideas).

Either way I'll get to this tomorrow, though scanning through his post I find the title misleading since the Aeon Flux film is only tangential to the actual discussion.

Thanks, DJ, though I'd take issue with the thought that the film is really tangential to my argument. Admittedly, I didn't describe everything Charlize Theron did to prepare for that movie -- at the end of that initial training period she hurt her neck, and then had to spend a long time in rehab, followed by yet more training. And all to prepare for a single part she may never revisit.

My point? How many people do you know who are that devoted to self-improvement? Even with a particular goal in mind? Even among those who might talk about being a great athlete, a great artist or writer or scientist or musician, or even about transcending their human limits? Ms. Theron is one of many people who happens to be working very hard at improving her own talents and abilities. She and others like her may not know about extraordinary tech for self-enhancement now... but when they do, who do you think will be at the head of that pack as well?

I ask this question not to annoy, but to point out that most people want to achieve more, but it's often hard for people to focus on how to become better themselves. Or how important these "little choices" could be to my future, and to yours. =)


Two other posters pointed out some individuals who also work hard (a couple celebrities, and Ordinary Working People). I responded:

Actually, my point isn't that we all need to bow down before Charlize Theron as a living god(ess). Rather, that a lot of people who are big on human potential (not everyone on this list, I know) or who expect one day to be something "more" (whether in the transcendant sense or just in terms of remarkable achievement) are remarkably resistant to doing anything that might substantially improve their circumstances.

I welcome these other examples you guys have given, because they're making much the same point. (All right, maybe Jessica Simpson wasn't making the same degree of effort, but oh well. =) ) Many of the folks who like to talk about these "revolutionary technologies" (nanotech, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cybernetics) like to imply that "when the Revolution comes," all the folks who used to be on top will be pushed aside by a new, godlike elite (usually the hobbyists themselves, or the researchers), or else the playing field will be leveled for everyone, regardless of personal effort.

I'm suggesting that indeed, things might not go that way. Actually, we could easily end up with a reinforced elite in which only the richest can afford to pay for genetic modifications for themselves or their kids. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "The rich are different from you and I." In that world, his words would finally be literally true.

On the other hand, a more egalitarian society might offer enhancements of proven safety and benefit to everyone, allowing us all to rise together.

But the point is -- on the one hand, society probably won't make very good choices on these subjects if it doesn't know it's making a decision. And individuals may be forfeiting their opportunity to make decisions altogether. Including, ironically, those who should be keenly aware that there is a choice to be made.

What's your choice? There's a ton of accelerated learning techniques available for free on the Net. There's non-invasive technology designed to stimulate human intelligence. And this is all without getting into more controversial things, like nootropics (Piracetam, Modafinil, CX717, etc), genetic modifications, other biotech augmentations, or even cybernetics. And it's also without getting into really well known, accepted methods of self-improvement, like exercise, eating right and reading informative books. (Despite popular folklore, your librarian won't actually eat you. Not even if you forget to return books. =) )

Sure, it's one thing to say, "I don't know about all that hi-tech stuff," or "I don't have the time or energy to be working on those things." There are plenty of folks for whom those are legitimate arguments. But I originally wrote this article for that sliver of the population which does know about at least some of them, and which mostly has the resources to pursue them.

You've got to admit, if you know about techniques that don't alter you biologically, but do make you smarter or more creative, then you might ask, "Why don't I use these methods to achieve my own goals? Wouldn't that make more sense than waiting for someone else to do it for me?"

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Regulating Nanotech? -- Nano, Soc

The Washington Post just printed this article on the growing push to regulate nanotech in the U.S.

At issue are "nanomaterials," made of intricately engineered particles and fibers as small as 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair. At that scale the laws of chemistry and physics bend, giving familiar substances novel chemical, electrical and physical properties.

Unfortunately, some of these properties include substances which are not toxic in bulk form becoming quite dangerous in nano form, such as carbon nanofibers setting off fatal immune responses in test animals. Given how much stock many futurists place in nanotechnolgy's power to reshape the world and the whole of humanity, it's worth keeping up with these trends.

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology foresaw this eventuality long ago, and has been trying to forestall both dangers and calls for to end research by promoting responsible nanotech research and manufacturing. Their site declares:

Advanced nanotechnology may build machines that are thousands of times more powerful—and hundreds of times cheaper—than today's devices. The humanitarian potential is enormous; so is the potential for misuse. The vision of CRN is a world in which molecular manufacturing is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where malicious uses are limited by effective administration of the

CRN acts to raise awareness of the issues. We believe that even a technology as powerful as molecular manufacturing can be used wisely and well—but that without adequate information, unwise use will be far too common. The mission of CRN is to raise awareness of the issues presented by nanotechnology: the benefits and dangers, and the possibilities for responsible use.

In order to provide well-grounded and complete information, clear explanation, and workable proposals, CRN studies, clarifies, and researches the issues involved—political, economic, military, humanitarian, and technological. CRN presents the results for both technical and popular audiences, and works to supply the information as effectively as possible. The purpose of CRN is to investigate the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of molecular manufacturing, and to educate those who will influence its use or be affected by it.

We shall see how successful CRN's strategy will be in time. Obviously, given the reaction that Western Europe has had towards genetically modified "Frankenfoods," it's clear that a strong public reaction can have a huge impact on how certain products are received in the marketplace.

Presently, the debate is raging over whether a voluntary system of reporting and safeguards with lower levels of research spending on the potential ill-effects of nanoparticles is adequate, or if a mandated system of reports and safeguards and a robust safety research program would be preferable.

Hopefully we won't end up having our minds made up by some kind of a disaster -- anymore than we'll want to blinded to very real risks by some kind of spectacular breakthrough. (Much as such a breakthrough would be otherwise welcomed...)

Future Imperative

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

An anonymoust poster offered the following commentary, and I thought I'd print my reply.

You, my friend, are wise in many things. My picture of the coming future
parallels yours with uncanny precision. The only question is: is this a good
development or a bad one? Could it go both ways, with one version a more
positive reality than the similar yet slightly different alternatives. Will the
entire globe encompass a hive-mind? Will it be centrally directed or emergent?
Will it be more or less the picture that Aldous Huxley painted, with an
inherently utterly locked hiearchy? How many human beings will get left behind
as the species evolves?

Natural selection can create wondrous things, but she's not known for her

One of the ideas I try to emphasize on this site is that we don't really know which direction this "transhuman evolution" will take. A trap many futurists fall into the idea of One Technology Uber Alles. In other words, the notion that a single technology or field of research is inherently the only one that matters. This tendency shows up even in people who don't embrace a "Rapture Technology" view of the future or the Singularity.

That's partly a result of intense specialization, and one of the reasons I'm maintaining this website. I strongly suspect that many researchers would find it heartening to understand the extent of modern augmentation research -- not only what is on the horizon, but what is already here. I also suspect that most researchers (and other "enthusiasts") worth their salt would find it very useful to be able to augment their intelligence to a greater or lesser degree using those methods which are already here, as well as those that seem to be almost upon us.

As to your question about how it will all turn out, honestly, any of the possibilities you mention could happen. Or all of them. Just as the key technologies can't be declared from our standpoint, neither can we conclude how humanity will react to and utilize them.

Another reason I have this site is the belief that whatever decisions humanity ultimately makes about these technologies, our final decisions will be far, far better if we can maximize the number of people who can intelligently contribute to them. This doesn't just mean democracy, but intelligent, informed democracy, with a real emphasis on education and careful experimentation. Not just experimentation in terms of discovery, but in terms of wisely assessing risks as well as opportunities.

So how will it all turn out? Why don't you tell me? =)

Future Imperative