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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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

An Extinction-Level Threat, and Other Trivial Matters -- Soc, Tech

Nature comes knocking on our door... and doesn't realize we've already seen this movie. From The Guardian in Britain comes this report:

Scientists are monitoring the progress of a 390-metre wide asteroid discovered last year that is potentially on a collision course with the planet, and are imploring governments to decide on a strategy for dealing with it.

Nasa has estimated that an impact from Apophis, which has an outside chance of hitting the Earth in 2036, would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere.
And before you ask, yes, this is the kind of serious problem that we could really use widespread, superhuman intelligence to deal with. Unfortunately, the intelligence and technology that would be so useful for dealing with threats on this scale -- whether natural or artificial -- are perfectly capable of creating even greater, possibly terminal threats. So assuming our existing problems don't get us, something new could.

My point? At some level we're going to have to see an improvement in human morality and ethics. Or, if you prefer, an improvement in emerging superhuman morality and ethics. Genius doesn't mandate virtue. Nor does it forbid anti-social behavior. In the end, only our integrity can save us. Or rather, the morals and ethics of an ever-growing majority of the human race... and whoever else might end up sharing this planet with us.


A further note from USAToday, on the research of MIT physicist Max Tegmark and Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom into the odds of a random extinction of our entire species:
Luckily, recent years have brought us better fixes on how quickly planets form and the age of the Universe (about 14.7 billion years). Added to the knowledge of how long it took an intelligent species to arise here on Earth, the evidence indicates that it's extremely unlikely than an inhabited planet would be randomly annihilated, say Tegmark and Bostrom...

...But insomniacs still have some fodder, the pair concludes. Their estimate "does not apply in general to disasters that become possible only after certain technologies have been developed, for example, nuclear annihilation or extinction through engineered microorganisms. So we still have plenty to worry about."

Which only reinforces, I suppose, my contention that we will increasingly rank as the highest threat to our own survival, and thus the need for a degree of moral development in tandem with our collective intellectual and technological development. You might have hoped that nuclear weapons might have clenched that argument, but oh well. At least we haven't received a "conclusive argument" in the form of an extinction event.

But on the positive side, if we ever do, you can rest assured I won't say "I told you so."

Future Imperative

Monday, December 19, 2005

What We Want to See in Our Kids... -- Soc

The New York Times reports that some preadolescent girls manipulate fellow students to maintain their social position. (You may need to subscribe to the Times Online to get this archived piece.) The article notes:

According to a study released by Brigham Young University researchers earlier this year, girls as young as 4 manipulate their peers to stay atop the social hierarchy. ''They'll spread rumors and give their peers the silent treatment,'' says David Nelson, an assistant professor of marriage, family and human development at B.Y.U. and an author of the study. ''They do whatever works to maintain control''...

...And the B.Y.U. researchers did find that boys are just as aggressive as girls. But their bullying takes many forms: they'll throw punches and orally belittle their prey. The preschool queen bee -- who accounted for 8 percent of the girls in the B.Y.U. study -- tends to use more subtle mechanisms to undermine fellow kids.

Before anyone says it, yes, you could look at this information and say, "Aw, how precocious." But that's kind of the point. Here we have a sliver of preadolescent girls performing exceptionally well... at about the last thing anyone wants to see kids doing.

Given the human enhancement orientation of this site, I find this study mainly interesting for one reason -- we've apparantly have raised one tenth or less of young girls to engage in levels of manipulation far beyond their years. And if we're going to see more and more exceptionally bright human beings emerge in the coming years -- both adults and kids -- we need to think carefully about what kind of "gifts" we want to nurture. And how we can make the practice of certain skills unattractive to budding classroom Machiavellis.

Like it or not, intelligence doesn't always correlate with honor, morals or compassion. But a functioning society usually does depend on these qualities, at least to some degree. And they'll probably be even more critical when our individual power to cause disruption or destruction, or simply to hurt those around us in subtler ways, is multiplied tenfold or more.

Which means small children who want to hurt, bully and dominate other small children are a problem for more than their playground or classroom. Ultimately, all these children grow up.

Future Imperative

Feedback on... -- Could a Single Gene Boost Your Intelligence, Guys? If You Lost It? -- Bio, Soc

I just received a comment on this last article on a single gene that seems to reduce IQ by an average of 20 points in the men who have it. In that article I point out that if this one gene proves to actually reduce the intelligence of these men by anything like an average of 20% and it could be neutralized through gene therapy or pharmaceuticals, then we have to ask ourselves, should we do that?

And should we make those resources to the general population, for any thus afflicted? One person responded:
I'm still suspicious of IQ tests. I don't like teaching to the test. I can't favor skewing genes for a test.

I replied:

Actually, I'm not proposing that we engage in mass gene therapy for any population based on just this one study. This gene may have some survival value on its own... or it might be a defect that hasn't been eliminated because a lot of men can get by without high intelligence (especially in an ancient or prehistoric setting).

But the point is, you first want to know "Does this gene have other benefits?" Then, "On average, how much will eliminating this gene help those people affected by it?" And finally, "How safely can we change, remove or neutralize this gene?"

If your answers are something like, "No," "About a 20% intelligence boost" and "Very," you'll end up having to seriously consider the implications of enabling a change. For example, allowing any U.S. citizen affected to undergo a safe gene therapy, covered by Medicare.

I'm not proposing this course of action (for one, I haven't heard definitive answers to the three questions above). But I am pointing out the issue. That's kind of what I do. =)

Future Imperative

Could a Single Gene Boost Your Intelligence, Guys? If You Lost It? -- Bio, Soc

According to this news article, the presence of a single gene in men can reduce their average IQ by up to 20 points, while having no effect on women who carry it. The article notes:
Scientists in North Carolina say they have identified a gene that affects IQ, a finding that, if confirmed, would be a significant step toward understanding the genetic basis for intelligence.

The new research could also have ethical implications because the effect of the gene appears to be quite dramatic: The scientists say that males who inherit a particular version of the gene have, on average, an IQ that is 20 points lower than males who don't.

"I have to admit, the ramifications of it are great," said Randy Jirtle, the Duke University biologist who led the new research, noting that current genetic testing techniques can easily determine which males have the gene version and which ones do not.

However, he stressed that the IQ results in his research were based on a group average; individual males carrying the gene version had a wide range of IQ scores. While females also can carry the gene variation, it does not appear to affect their IQ, he said.

This is one of those curious medical questions. If it turns out this gene has no real benefits, and yet it knocks down the intelligence of the average male carrier by something comparable to 20 points (with an American adult average of around 100 or 110 being common for most tests), then should we choose to turn this gene off? Or perhaps replace it altogether using gene therapy?

Remember, fixing problems related to just one gene is far easier when using gene therapy than when dealing with a whole set of interrelated genes. So what do we do?

And what impact will it have on our society if we do improve the intelligence of a large part of our society (wherever you may live) by an average of 20% or so?

Future Imperative