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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.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Supergenius Cage Match: Stradovarius Versus the Supercomputer -- Who Will Take Home the Title?

Kenneth Silber on Tech Central Station has written an article questioning the likelihood of the Singularity. Silber discusses the career of violin-maker Antonio Stradivari, arguing that since the legendary artisans' instruments have yet to be equaled by technology centuries more advanced than that available to him, we have reason to doubt the smooth progression of technology anticipated by many Singularity enthusiasts. He remarks:

Perhaps someday advanced technology will outstrip the Strad, producing violins widely regarded as superior. If so, it still will have taken a considerably long time for high tech to outdo the work of a craftsman who lived before the industrial revolution. In any event, there will be an element of subjectivity to any evaluation of which violins are best. It seems likely that the best future violins will be regarded as notably different from Strads, and not readily amenable to a direct comparison. One consideration is that Strads, in the view of many experts, already are at their peak and perhaps moving beyond it. It also remains to be seen what new qualities and subtleties current violins will take on with age.

There is, I believe, a broader lesson to be taken from the Stradivarius about the future of technology. Some futurists and technologists, such as Vernon Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, have argued that the world is approaching a transformation known as the "Singularity", marked by the advent of some form of superhuman intelligence. In this picture, technologies such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering soar up a curve of rapid and inexorable change. In some versions, the Singularity is given a specific timeframe, occurring sometime around the year 2030.

The Stradivarius strikes a discordant note in this presumed crescendo of technological advance. These antique violins are a reminder that technology does not always progress, but sometimes stagnates or regresses. Far from following an exponential curve upward, technological change tends to occur in fits and starts, and to depend on happenstance (such as, perhaps, the growth patterns of woods near the town of Cremona, Italy in the waning centuries of the Little Ice Age). Sometimes, technological secrets are lost, as when Stradivari and then his sons died, leaving no one to carry on the family business.

Though technological progress may not always follow a straight line, the information technology most Transhumanists and Singulatarians focus on has generally flowed in that direction, and thus AI researchers, nano engineers and uploading enthusiasts can be forgiven for anticipating continued progress -- even leaving aside the history of Moore's Law.

But Silber's argument may still have an important application. We may not fathom the secrets of the human mind quickly enough to duplicate them in the next few decades or more, and in the meantime, the ability to significantly enhance human intelligence or effectively simulate it will in fact require considerable effort. And will doubtless go down many blind alleys.

I disagree with the idea that complex, challenging, many forking path to enhanced intelligence is a bad thing, however. If we fail to come up with a single, magical technique that gives us a crude but immensely powerful replica of the human mind, then a field that involves many sciences, many experiments and many fits and starts will actually encourage the diversity, discussion and debate we need. Why?

Because instead of stifling key abilities -- radically enhancing analytic skills or memory at the cost of creativity or empathy, for example -- with a single advance so powerful that no one "can afford not to take it," we may get a host of augmentations arising from many different technologies and effecting many different attributes. Imagine having to probe human perception, charisma, artistic abilities, inventive skills, logical/mathematical processes, etc. Imagine finding out more and more about the permutations in our thinking, and refining our capacity to develop each human being on many different levels, in many different directions.

Surely the experience we would gain from those years of "wandering in the wilderness" would be worth the trip, yes?

Future Imperative


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