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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.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Facing the Robot Menace? -- AI, Bio, Cyber, Soc, Tech


Now, if there's something that I find disturbing, it's not cybernetic implants in human brains, or the eventual development of more effective AI. No, it's something like this, the creation of an artificial "brain" of 25,000 neurons linked up to a simulated F-22 fighter. Lovely notion, eh? We can grow artificial brains trained to fly jet fighters into combat for us.

Talk about a fuzzy line to be trying to walk down. I can deal with the cybernetic therapies that have been used to deal with Parkinson's, depression and missing limbs, obviously, but growing a miniature brain to serve as nothing more than the control system for a weapon of war seems a little disturbing. Why? Because a sentient being has established rights and is apt to look out for their own welfare. An increasingly complex AI/living brain melding which is undergoing constant upgrades is more apt to cross that line into a dim consciousness (say, one capable of experiencing longing, or sorrow, or pain, or despair) without anyone knowing. And we probably don't want he/she/it controlling powerful weapons systems the day he/she/it crosses that line.

Meanwhile, at least in fiction the idea of an AI takeover has been spoofed, while in the real world more people seem to be talking about it than ever before. Freeman Dyson, for example, has described a "disturbing" conversation he had with researchers at Google who were planning to download all the world's books into a single, searchable database.

"We are not scanning all those books to be read by people," explained one of my hosts after my talk. "We are scanning them to be read by an AI."

Good to know.

Google, perhaps unsurprisingly, has spun the story somewhat differently.

Responding to a direct question from Tom Standage, technology editor of The Economist, Google's Levick did not outright deny that Google was developing AI technology. Instead he postulated that the Google employee's comments were probably referring to the idea of "intelligent networks" of information rather than artificial intelligence.

However Levick did admit that Google's founders believe that current search technology is still in its infancy and the future would look very different. "Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] would say that search is nothing like it could be right now," he said.

When questioned on whether a renaissance of the general paranoia about omnipotent and malign computers was underway now, Levick admitted that such concerns were more abundant, but insisted that Google's core philosophy of "Don't be evil" guides all its actions.

Comments by Google's Senior Research Scientist helped clarify (or muddy) the company's stance on artificial intelligence research.

"AI applications are using the infrastructure to get people useful information in interesting ways," said Sahami, according to reports. "There is no human intervention. Google News is an example of where AI is making a huge difference. It's used several million times a day," he added.

Sahami also reportedly hinted at AI-based research in progress at Google that has yet to be deployed, such as voice-driven search and query results clustering to help users navigate. "We want to combine information retrieval, large systems, and AI to work together towards the next generation of search engines," he said.

If all of this seems a little too real (or too bleak) for you, let me point you again towards the spoofery. There's even a book.

Of course, the main controversy surrounding Google at this hour is the question of whether the company will be forced to reveal a week's worth of Internet searches to the U.S. Government. While an interesting civil liberties question, I'll skip that debate (you can't even read this Times column without subscribing, hah!) and focus on the human enhancement/technological singularity issues raised (or mocked) above.

Personally, I'm still less concerned about the dehumanizing potential of radical human enhancement -- not because it couldn't happen, but because most of the means by which it could occur still have too many major drawbacks. Take cybernetics, for example. Most enthusiasts remember how Neo got jacked into the Matrix in The Matrix and rapidly downloaded martial arts skills into his nervous system.

That's an awesome concept. However, doing it with anything like our present technology -- or utilizing any other complex neural implants in the central nervous system -- is extremely problematical. Why? Because physically contacting and overriding so many nerves and then supplanting the signals being sent to them -- when you have no idea what each fiber is transmitting or receiving -- requires extremely advanced technology and exhaustive research into the functions of the brain and peripheral nervous system. Basically, you need at least a little nanotech to have even a chance of doing all that... or else an innovation that enables you to bypass the brute force method of connecting to and replacing each individual strand of your own "fiber optic" (and "fiber auditory," "fiber olfactory," etc) network.

Regarding artificial intelligence, some of the problems raised by Daniel Wilson in his book are actually relevant to that conversation. But let's ignore the very real stumbling blocks faced by today's AI researchers. I'm personally convinced that we'll achieve limited AI in the not-too-distant future -- we've already got machines doing basic scientific research, which means this prediction may, to a degree, have already come true. I'm not certain how the whole race to develop an all-powerful AI to rule over the known universe is going to go. Honestly, we could end up with biotech/genetically augmented humans in the near-future, since that technology is showing substantial progress, and superhumanly intelligent humans could conceivably maintain limited AI programs doing important support work that would enable their relatively slow biological brains to drive blindingly fast progress and keep biotech-based human augmentation well ahead of most basic capacities of computers.

(Say that five times fast. Thank you.)

I realize the above may be heresy to many AI programmers and enthusiasts. But I raise it as a possibility for exactly that reason -- it's one possibility. Any True Believer who claims to know What the Future Will Bring is likely fooling themselves. Or, as with my limited AI prediction above, is prophecizing something so close that it's technically already happened.

Future Imperative

Friday, January 20, 2006

Asberger's -- Next Evolutionary Step? -- Bio, Soc

A discussion recently broke out on Betterhumans.Com regarding whether Asberger's syndrome represents some kind of "evolutionary advance" for humanity. The argument boiled down to the point that despite major social handicaps, Aspberger's "victims" actually enjoy a few advantages over other people...

Over the years, as I have learned more about my son and others who struggle with AS and other communications related disabilities, I have noticed that, though these individuals are often at a disadvantage in one or more areas of their lives, particularly socially, they often seem to be more able to withstand frenetic clamorous stimuli, particularly in the form of television, video games and music. In fact, they often seem to prefer it.

This has led me to wonder if, due to the increasingly varied and easy exposure to information in its various forms, i.e., the internet, TV, Video games, innovations in sound and music, virtual reality, etc., the *sufferers* of AS and other communications disorders are really sufferers at all..or if they are the misunderstood vanguard of the next step of the evolution of man.

Are these the people, or the parents of the people who will take humanity to the stars? Will my son and other, high functioning AS sufferers, be..or breed the first colonists and ambassadors able to face the rigors of the journey; to leave our world and be the next human pioneers?

Rich Shull in his blog Pre Rain Man Autism makes another argument... that those who have Asberger's think in pictures and are thus dramatically more capable at certain mental tasks -- but frustratingly stymied in their ability to convey the resulting insights.

This raises another interesting question which plays into a larger issue for the human augmentation field -- whether an intended augmentation is cybernetic, pharmaceutical or genetic in nature, or even the result of non-invasive, stimulatory mindtech or accelerated learning. The larger question is this one: Is it possible to create mental or physical advantages that come with hidden flaws? And if so, how do you first detect those weaknesses and secondarily determine whether the benefits outweigh the associated drawbacks?

Now admittedly, we shouldn't over-generalize and assume that high-functioning people with Asberger's are typical of all autistics. There are plenty of people out there who definitely need our help (a point made endearingly here). But we should also consider that many high-functioning people without any particular conditions may be indistinguishable from those who are autistic or who have other extreme mental conditions -- the so-called "Geek Factor."

I personally shy away from the idea that high intelligence must come with some kind of inherent drawback, much less that great creativity is necessarily linked to insanity. But the potential consequences of extreme manipulations of the mind should be borne in mind -- not because great gifts must somehow be "paid for," but because certain gifts may be the result of shortcuts we don't want, such as extreme specialization and a disinterest in social relationships in favor of personal hobbies pursued with obsessive zeal.

Future Imperative

Trapped in a Happy Ending... -- Humor, Super

Imagine being a mad scientist who helps save the universe from total destruction, escapes certain doom with three fellow heroes... and then spends the next eighteen years in a pocket dimension with them -- the Superman and Lois Lane of the 30s, and the Superboy of the 50s. This is the premise behind Infinite Patience: The Blog of Alexander Luthor.

World changing it is not. Amusing, it is, even if you don't get all the DC Comics in-jokes.

All right, maybe I didn't get them all, either. Sue me. Or just be grateful this blog has any humor to speak of, given the issues it addresses.

Speaking of which, I have to go write my "Attack of the Killer Robots" post. God-fearing Americans have a right to know.

Future Imperative

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Superhero "Reality Show" -- Humor

Before anyone asks, what I find most interesting about the following creation of popular culture is the increasing frequency with which the "superhuman" pops up in popular media. If you look at the movies which have achieved blockbuster status in the last five years or so, a surprising number of them featured characters who were in some way "more than human," if not outright superheroes (Spider-Man, the X-Men, Batman). Writer Grant Morrison has suggested that superheroes have already made the leap from fading comic books to the silver screen, in preparation for their next jump... into the real world.

Regardless of whether or not four-color comic book characters make it into the real world, we do seem to have increasingly advanced augmentation technology on the one hand, and plenty of superhero enthusiasts on the other. If "becoming superheroes" seems too utterly ridiculous a career path for our first group of radical augmentees, perhaps we need to start thinking now about what viable alternatives there are to dressing up in ridiculous costumes and doing good as if it were an obsession.

In the meantime, we have shows like the following offering their perspective...

The Sci Fi Channel announced Who Wants to Be a Superhero? this Thursday, featuring Stan Lee, on its 2006 schedule. The network describes the show this way:

"Sci Fi Channel, teamed with Bruce Nash's Nash Entertainment (Meet My Folks, For Love or Money, Who Wants to Marry My Dad?) and legendary comic book creator Stan Lee (Spider-Man, Hulk, The Fantastic Four, X-Men), will produce a six-episode, one-hour weekly competition reality series that will challenge a lucky few to create their very own superhero and reward the winner with the best reality competition prize yet: immortality! All you'll need is an original idea, a killer costume and some real superhero mojo. The winner of this six-week competition will walk away with their superhero immortalized in a new comic book created by Stan Lee himself!

"In nationwide open casting calls, potential heroes will arrive in costume to prove their mettle ? revealing the true nature of their superhuman abilities and invoking the noble credos by which they live. From these thousands of hopefuls, Stan Lee will choose 11 lucky finalists to move into a secret lair and compete for the opportunity to become a real-life Superhero!

"Finalists will leave their former lives behind and live as their brainchild heroes 24/7, all under Stan Lee's watchful eye. Each week, our aspiring heroes will be challenged with competitions designed to test their true superhero abilities. It's not all just leaping tall buildings in a single bound, a true Superhero will be tested for courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion and resourcefulness. In the end, only one aspiring Superhero will have the strength and nobility to open the gates to comic book immortality."

Interesting. Anyone interested in competing?

Future Imperative

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Better Humans Symposium Coming Up... -- Bio, Soc

From the Demos website (for "Building Everyday Democracy"). And yes, for the record, I find the increasing discussion of human enhancement issues by the general public a telling point...

Better Humans?

The implications of human enhancement
6-8pm, Wednesday 8 February 2006
The Wellcome Trust, 215 Euston Road, London
Dr Aubrey de Grey, Cambridge University
Prof Sarah Franklin, London School of Economics
Dr Daniel Glaser, University College London
Dr Mark Walport, Wellcome Trust
Dr James Wilsdon, Demos (chair)

From memory pills to designer babies, extended lifespans to GM athletes, enhancement technologies promise (or threaten) to radically change our society. Is ours a cyborg future or will we resist the drive to improve human performance? How should policy makers and the public respond?

To mark the launch of 'Better Humans?' a new collection of essays by leading scientists and commentators, join Demos and the Wellcome Trust in a discussion of the implications of human enhancement technologies.To reserve a place at the event or for more information email us at science@demos.co.uk

Future Imperative

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Unbreakable Family... -- Bio, Soc

A Yale medical research team has identified a genetic quirk important for creating unusually strong bones and also relevant to osteoporosis research (article here).

The DNA of an extended Connecticut family has yielded a possible target for the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis, according to Yale scientists who reported their findings in the May issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Members of this family carry a genetic mutation that causes high bone density...

Family members, according to the investigators, have bones so strong they rival those of a character in the 2000 movie Unbreakable. “If there are living counterparts to the [hero] in Unbreakable, who is in a terrible train wreck and walks away without a single broken bone, they’re members of this family,” said Lifton. “They have extraordinarily dense bones and there is no history of fractures. These people have about the strongest bones on the entire planet.”

The point I take away from this discovery (originally reported back in 2002) is that medical research is again pointing to ways to enhance human abilities even in instances where researchers may not be thinking about augmentation at all. Research into unusually strong muscles and exceptional cardio-vascular fitness has yielded working augmentations for animals (mice and monkeys, respectively). How long before someone tries to apply those modifications to humans? Or to bestow this bone density mutation?

Or best of all, some kind of radical intelligence augmentation? It's the latter, after all, that will change everything...

Future Imperative

Which Superhero Are You? -- Humor, Obviously...

Well, I'm not sure how skewed my own self-impressions are, but I'm at least relieved that I didn't get a result of, say, "Catwoman." Thought I didn't notice the checkbox for "kleptomaniac who likes to wear black leather," so maybe I just think I'm Superman.

Feel free to take the following test, but be prepared if you get an answer you don't like ("Lex Luthor," "The Joker," or even "Howard the Duck").

Your results:
You are Superman
Green Lantern
Iron Man
The Flash
Wonder Woman
You are mild-mannered, good,
strong and you love to help others.
Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

Future Imperative