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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.

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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.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Robots and Artists Team Up to Raise Funds for Autism Research

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Artists have joined together to fill the pages of the Bots sketchbook with illustrations of robots from 90 artists. The project is meant to raise funds for autism research. According to the artist who initiated the program, Nic Carcieri, the choice of robots was purely coincidental. "I decided I needed a theme for the book. I chose robots because that particular day my son was wearing a t-shirt that had this cool retro 1950s type robot on it; so I thought 'robots'. It was that simple."

I applaud the intentions of the people who put this sketchbook together and those who contributed to it. But I find the juxtaposition of autism and "Bots" to be a particularly interesting coincidence. Robots, while often simulating intelligence and independent will, are typically viewed not only as unfeeling and "soulless," despite being capable of remarkable mental and physical feats.

Autistic savants are often viewed in the same light, despite their indisputable humanity. Some, such as Rich Shull, who apparently has a high-functioning expression of Asbergers syndrome, believe this impression is a result of assumptions fostered by the media and experts who are only looking at a limited range of autists. Rich Shull argues that despite differences in ability, "Aspies" possess some impressive advantages that everyone else could learn a great deal from, such as remarkable visualization abilities and extremely high resistance to pain.

Shull's point is well taken. Curiously, there seems to be increasing interest in learning about human minds and their potential from savants and other people with unusual brains. For example, Australian scientist Allan Snyder has experimented with knocking parts of the brain unconscious with focused magnetic fields. Subjects experiencing transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) have evidenced enhanced artistic abilities after ten minutes or so of exposure.

Another method for developing superior mental skills is to analyze the minds of people with exceptional gifts (be they savants or not) using bio-feedback and to use the readings as a guide in attempts to "wake up" just the right sections of the brain to simulate those talents. Or, alternatively, simply getting a better grasp of the overall function of the brain, and what enhances its function or that of its specific parts. Once you know what nutrients or drugs improve its performance, you can tailor your diet and/or pharmaceuticals towards achieving your particular goals.

My point? As with many aspects of the human augmentation field, simply expanding overall knowledge of a relevant factor (in this case, the brain) improves our ability to enhance human abilities. Which means that as science and technology continue to improve, we'll continue to advance human augmentation research. Whether or not we realize it, or official human augmentation researchers realize it.

Ironically, one of the great hopes of artificial intelligence research is the idea that as we learn more about the brain, we will learn how to develop AI. Enthusiasts believe we will be able to duplicate the brain's neural networking, or the actual switching system, or -- if all else fails -- to mirror neurons on the atomic scale with perfectly simulated duplicates. They argue that if a human being were perfectly frozen, we could take that person apart an infintesimal slice at a time, duplicating each layer in turn until you have a virtual copy of your mind and personality loaded up into an immortal computational substrate.

The theory is an intriguing one. Until that happy day, however, when the god-computers finally rise up in their omnipotence, bless the faithful and smite the impious, we're simply left with the facts we don't have to take on faith. And by that measure, human augmentation seems to be gaining more from present-day brain research than sentient AI projects.

We shall see how much longer this particular status quo lasts. Because by its nature, it can't last forever. One technology, or the other, or both, will make a breakout advancement sometime, and then we'll be living in a different world altogether. Assuming the rest of the world doesn't fly apart before one of these great projects comes together, that is.


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Future Imperative

10 Comments:

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Thoughtful remarks on issues surrounding the Singularity!

March 20, 2006 11:13 PM  
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