.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

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.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A New Plasma Thruster for Spacecraft...

The European Space Agency has confirmed the findings of Australian scientists who developed a new plasma thruster for future spacecraft. Now, admittedly this seems a little trivial in light of the potential faster-than-light engine now under study, but it could still be an important incremental step towards opening up the solar system to further exploration, settlement and/or economic development. Plenty of concepts for tapping immense extraterrestrial resources only require a conventional long-range propulsion system -- though actually, the main barrier to such enterprises is really Earth's gravity well. And the development of better launch systems is an area attracting great interest these days, particularly with the success of the "X-Prize."

This alternative piece of technology illustrates a point well taken by AI researchers -- though artificial intelligence has not emerged in the last several decades, despite decades of predictions and promises, information technology has been anything but stagnant in the meantime. Many programs providing elements of what we would expect in an AI -- voice-recognition, expert systems, data-mining software -- have been developed, and have expanded the productivity of many workers. Researching a broad range of likely winners, as well as some "blue sky" projects, seems like an ideal strategy.

Though admittedly, the "eggs in one basket" method does occasionally produce an impressive omelette. =)

Future Imperative

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

And the Debate Rages On -- The Bioethics of Biotech Enhancement -- Bio, Noo, Soc

My recent "Kass Speaks!" article discussed some of the views of bioconservatives -- sometimes called bioskeptics -- on using biotech to enhance the abilities of humans. To enable people to become "Better than Well" -- smarter, stronger, faster, healthier -- or to develop new abilities altogether. A more balanced set of arguments can be found here on Reason.Com's debate on human enhancement. Participating in the debate were Ronald Bailey, Reason’s science correspondent and the author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution; Eric Cohen, director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Biotechnology and American Democracy Program and editor of the group’s journal, The New Atlantis; and Joel Garreau, a reporter and editor for The Washington Post and author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies, and What It Means To Be Human.

To quote moderator Nick Gillespie:

Our panelists tonight will not agree on very much, but on this basic point I suspect they’re in complete agreement: Forget all the talk about Social Security solvency, income tax rates, blue states, red states, even the war in Iraq. The most fundamental social and political issue facing the world today — and tomorrow — is the question of human enhancement.

Unfortunately, the format prevented any real sparring or discussion between the participants (other than the moderator). But this exchange was still a useful overview, especially for anyone relatively new to the debate. I wish they could have produced something a bit more extensive but this piece is still worth a glance.

Future Imperative

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hyperspace Engine Design Being Investigated by U.S. Government -- Tech

According to a report in The New Scientist and another on Scotsman.Com, the U.S. government is looking at testing a potential hyperspace engine design within as little as five years. Ian Johnston reports in the Scotsman:
An extraordinary "hyperspace" engine that could make interstellar space travel a reality by flying into other dimensions is being investigated by the United States government.

The hypothetical device, which has been outlined in principle but is based on a controversial theory about the fabric of the universe, could potentially allow a spacecraft to travel to Mars in three hours and journey to a star 11 light years away in just 80 days, according to a report in today's New Scientist magazine.

The New Scientist comments:
Every year, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics awards prizes for the best papers presented at its annual conference. Last year's winner in the nuclear and future flight category went to a paper calling for experimental tests of an astonishing new type of engine. According to the paper, this hyperdrive motor would propel a craft through another dimension at enormous speeds. It could leave Earth at lunchtime and get to the moon in time for dinner. There's just one catch: the idea relies on an obscure and largely unrecognised kind of physics. Can they possibly be serious?

The AIAA is certainly not embarrassed. What's more, the US military has begun to cast its eyes over the hyperdrive concept, and a space propulsion researcher at the US Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories has said he would be interested in putting the idea to the test. And despite the bafflement of most physicists at the theory that supposedly underpins it, Pavlos Mikellides, an aerospace engineer at the Arizona State University in Tempe who reviewed the winning paper, stands by the committee's choice. "Even though such features have been explored before, this particular approach is quite unique," he says.

Needless to say, the impact of faster-than-light travel on space exploration and economic development would be so vast as to stagger the imagination. The only comparable breakthroughs would be similarly mythic in scale -- nanotech assemblers reconstructing matter, artificial intelligence replacing all workers and/or achieving transcendant intelligence, or human beings developing superhuman intellect and abilities.

The resources available in deep space, and the potential for human civilization to expand in a dizzyingly diverse of array of cultures, free from the threat of potential extinction and facing little threat from planet-bound autocrats, would be able to reshape the course of our immediate future as few things could. Merely harvesting a few trillion dollars worth of metal and solar energy from our immediate neighborhood could have a stunning impact on the "global economy." The possibility of meeting extraterrestrial species, finding other habital planets (or creating our own), tapping the full degree of natural resources accessible in space -- these options are normally considered the stuff of science fiction, but there they are.

See you at the Great Wall of Galaxies. Let's make a date. =)

Future Imperative

Kass Speaks! -- Bio, Long, Noo, Soc

Leon Kass, until recently the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics (until he stepped aside last fall), offers an emotional critique of the dangers he feels are inherent in biotechnology -- particularly the dangers inherent in trying to make people "better than well" by artificial means. This article notes:
...he has been gamely and evenhandedly trying to work his way through the embryo debate, which really is just a salient in the larger culture war between "choice" and "life." But in an era in which biomedical technologies have already begun to alter the broad and basic contours of human nature, questions about when life begins, or what is permissible in the name of medicine, seem almost quaint. "Killing the creature made in God's image is an old story," he says. "Redesigning him after our own fantasies: That's what's really new."

Given that Future Imperative's driving principle is the idea that people will make better decisions about human enhancement issues if they're better informed about them, I've decided to link to this article on Kass' views from the Wall Street Journal's opinion page. Along the lines of this "bio-conservative" theme (Kass' opinions are often seen as the epitome of bio-conservative positions), I'd also like to link to The New Atlantis. This journal expresses the bio-conservative ideas of various Republican writers.

Curiously, the government has offered a number of radical enhancement visions for the future, particularly regarding the augmentation of American troops -- concepts frequently associated with military conservatives (and some moderates), including no small number of Republicans. Honestly, I have no idea what this means in political terms, but it is interesting that a party often seen as well organized seems to have two major currents beginning to clash on this issue. WIll one of them prevail? Will these advocates continue to ignore each other? Will they come to some kind of compromise? Or will these decisions ultimately be made by people outside of these two camps, once the debate moves into a larger and more public arena?

I don't know, but it seems like an important area for future journalistic exploration.

Future Imperative