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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, May 08, 2006

Human Frailty and Superhuman Strengths

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I was reading an older podcast interview on NeoFiles recently, in which R.U. Sirius was talking to Michael Chorost, author Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. Chorost's book is about how having a computer implanted in his skull partially restored his hearing.

But in the midst of this interview, Chorost offered an interesting observation. He noted that the "deaf community" is an extremely close and welcoming subculture, and that many deaf people view the hearing-enabled as the handicapped members of society. Apparently, "listening" to someone when you are deaf and must read their sign language gestures or their lips requires much more active engagement in the conversation than simply listening to them with your ears.
Now, there are evidently other reasons why the deaf may have a particularly strong community -- a robust support network is ultimately a survival advantage for those plugged into it. But Chorost's point that this "disabled group" might actually have a profound emotional/social advantage over the rest of us is a critical issue for those of us interested in any form of radical human enhancement.

Why? Let us take another example. Many people envision an ultimate intellect as being purely rational, its logic untainted by emotional baggage. Yet arguably, a lack of emotion, particularly a lack of emotional bonds with other people, is a hallmark of the classic psychopath.

Is it possible that we could successfully create a truly enhanced human being and yet sabotague an element of the psyche that most would deem critical to being merely an advanced (or even adequate) human being? We could, of course, argue that even if such capacities were lost, our first-generation, engineered, "posthuman entity" would eventually rediscover these gifts, if only because their mind would be capable of looking at so many aspects of human and posthuman intelligence, and they would inevitably see the value in any lost abilities.

But honestly, if we look at the "weak superintelligence" derived from, say, accelerating the speed of someone's brain to phenomenal levels, one has to ask: Would a psychopath learn to value their missing compassion? Even if they had a long time to think about it?

Would the hearing-enabled, in our world, willingly render themselves deaf, even if they knew they would be embraced by a community and circle of friends some may bitterly miss in their own lives? Or would someone used to using a motivation/energy enhancer such as modafinil choose to lose their edge after they came to accept its existence as part of their lives, and were no longer wistful for, or frequently reminded of, the days when they were more emotionally balanced?

The answer to that last question is probably yes more often than not, but the point remains, it is possible to have a completely worthwhile human enhancement that in some ways limits us -- whether emotionally, or in terms of our creativity, spontaneity, mental precision, charisma, sense of humor, empathic skills, etc.

This reservation, far from constituting a reason to avoid all human enhancement, may in fact be a reason to pursue a very, very wide variety of human enhancement research projects. We appear to have a formidable range of augmentation options available to us already -- either present now or immanent -- so we should be aware of potential drawbacks in each and every enhancement technology and discipline.

Some people may consider particular weaknesses to be advantges -- the ambitious worker who embraces the monomaniacal focus of modafinil, the calm individual who enjoys the greater serenity of deep meditation, the angry youth who has no problem with the violence and attitude of a hyper-aggressive school of the martial arts. But faced with a sufficiently broad array of options, first-adopter, human-enhancement enthusiasts will be able to choose those augmentations that work best for their goals and their lives. And like a deaf teen or adult weighing a cochlear implant, they will be able to measure what would be gained against what they may be giving up.

AL, Bio, CPS, Cyber, MA, Soc
Future Imperative

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