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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.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Mining the Moon, a "Fusion" of Energy and Space Technologies -- Soc, Tech

Yes, the Russians are planning to mine the Moon. More power to them. Which is, incidentally, the point.

Russia's Energia Space Corporation (heavily state-controlled) plans to build a permanent base on the Moon to start "mining" the isotope Helium 3.

The idea would be to use helium 3 to power thermo-nuclear power stations, harnessing its potency to achieve nuclear fusion.

The technology to exploit helium 3 is still under development, but it has been touted by a significant academic school of thought as "the ideal fuel of the future" with several countries expressing interest. The race is now on to be the first to make it work.

Russian scientists have come up with the idea of using "lunar bulldozers" to heat the Moon's surface in order to get at the resource, and Mr Sevastyanov has told an academic conference that Moscow is keen to institute regular cargo flights of helium 3 back to Earth as soon as possible.

So yes, fusion does have a future. Admittedly, if we get alternative sources going here on Earth, its future may be in space, but it's a promising one nevertheless. (There aren't many sources of wind or water in hard vacuum, nor much in the way of solar power amongst the outer planets or in the Kuiper Belt.)

"We are planning to build a permanent base on the moon by 2015 and by 2020 we can begin the industrial-scale delivery ... of the rare isotope helium 3," Mr Sevastyanov said."The Earth's known hydrocarbon reserves will last mankind 50 to 100 years at the present rate of consumption. There are practically no reserves of helium 3 on Earth. On the Moon, there are between one million and 500 million tons, according to estimates." Much of those reserves are reported to be in the Sea of Tranquillity.

Mr Sevastyanov predicted that nuclear reactors capable of running on helium 3 would soon be developed and said that just one ton of the isotope would generate as much energy as 14 million tons of oil.

"Ten tons of helium 3 would be enough to meet the yearly energy needs of Russia," he added. However, Russia is not the only country interested in the technology. American scientists have expressed interest in helium 3, arguing that one shuttle-load of the isotope would be sufficient to meet US electrical energy needs for a year.

During the Cold War the space race had more to do with prestige but in an era when the world has become acutely aware of the finite nature of its resources, a new 21st-century race is developing with a very different aim: to secure a new source of energy for future generations. Helium 3's chief advantage is that it is not radioactive, so there would not be a problem disposing of it once it had been used.

A relatively radiation-free source of fusion power would be a welcome addition to our energy options indeed. And space itself might be the perfect place for it.

Future Imperative

South Korea Is Building Legions of Robots -- Soc, Tech

Nearly 80% of the homes in South Korea have high-speed, always-on broadband connections to the Internet. What could they possibly use all that bandwidth for? Well, among other things, controlling the security and military robots they intend for widespread use by the 2010s.

As noted in this article in The Korea Times:

When completed, the outdoor security robots will be able to make their night watch rounds and even chase criminals, according to Lee.

The government also seeks to build combat robots. They will take the shape of a dog or a horse, with six or eight legs or wheels.

Toward that end, the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) and the Defense Ministry will combine to channel a total of 33.4 billion won ($33.9 million) through 2011.

``The robots will be directed by a remote control system or move autonomously via their own artificial intelligence systems,'' MIC project manager Oh Sang-rok said.

``The two sophisticated robots will be empowered by the country's state-of-the-art mobile network, thus enabling mass production at an affordable price,'' Oh noted.

Smart robots need three basic functions of sensing, processing and action. Thus far, robotics researchers have tried to cram the three into a single dummy, causing expenses to soar.

Instead, the planned robots will be receiving most sensing and processing capabilities via a Web connection. Only the ability of movement will be located in the robot.

All right, I've scoffed, however mildly, at the idea of 50s SF-style legions of robotic shock troops in the past. And I still don't think a corny B-movie AI takeover is in the offing. But given a very serious push in the Pentagon to replace pilots on dangerous, long-range bombing missions (and perhaps ultimately all strike missions), we could end up with some very formidable military forces that are controlled entirely by robots.

Assuming there are still humans securely in the decision-making loop, this still may not be a critical concern. After all, our most powerful weapons, ICBMs and SLBMs, have been controlled by robotic guidance systems for as long as they've existed. So long as we (and the Soviets, Chinese, British, French and Israelis) controlled those programs, it wasn't the robots we were worried about.

And honestly, it's still human decisions about warfare and terrorism that bother me, not what the coffee machine may be plotting. But it is curious to see how much of our life has been automated in recent years... even tasks many thought could never be done without humans.

And it's also important to remember, even if we're not going to be overthrown by random tankbots or bombsniffing security programs, we're still going to have to secure all this infrastructure and make sure we can keep control when hackers and saboteurs decide to disrupt it. Honestly, I'm not so much worried about robotic aircraft going berserk on us (see Stealth) as I am seeing nations becoming dependent on remote-controlled aircraft in an era of radio communications. Until you have quantum entanglement communications (or something else that beats light speed and can't be physically disrupted) you'll always be vulnerable to someone with a big enough jammer. And if jamming your signal is the only way to stop your invincible Air Force, believe me, the bad guys'll have a big enough jammer.

Still, the idea that more robots may end up dying in our next war than people isn't necessarily that disturbing. What is disturbing is the question: With the technology we're developing now, for how much longer will war between nations be feasible, or even survivable?

Future Imperative

Thursday, January 26, 2006

New Stubstance May Halt Spread of AIDS, or... How Yogurt Will Save Us All -- Bio, Soc

Scientists have discovered that bacteria in yogurt can be genetically modified to produce cyanovirin, an established anti-HIV drug.

Lactococcus lactis, a lactic acid producing bacterium, appears in many dairy products including yogurt and cheese. Additionally, L. lactis is found in the human vagina and stomach, where it fights off harmful bacteria.

The joint study was conducted by Bharat Ramratnam and colleagues of the Brown Medical School in Rhode Island and the Food Research Institute in the UK. The study's results will now be applied to monkeys in order to see if the bacterium truly prevents HIV infection.

Researchers are excited about the recent study because they believe the bacteria can treat peripheral areas of the body, including the mucosal regions of the vagina, to prevent HIV virus from spreading.

Women are known to acquire HIV infection through sex more easily than men. Peripheral use of microbicidesin the form of gels and creams can be effective without causing much burden on other parts of the body.

Needless to say, while this may seem to be more for women than men, taking half the population away as a potential vector for the disease would be an immense step forward. Particularly in regions such as Africa, where AIDS is achieving staggering levels of infection and massacring an entire generation of people.

Researchers believe in the future the new evidence could lead to a pill or yogurt substance that can fight HIV, and be widely distributed among the masses. In addition, this pill could be made affordable to many to fight off the HIV virus, especially in third world countries in Africa. However, Nature also reported that this distribution would not take place until 2007, at the earliest.

Yes, this is going to drive all of the anti-GM foods people nuts. But that's a small price to pay for all those lives, eh? =)

Future Imperative

Google, A Multitude of Queries... -- Soc, Tech

A quick further note about the Google Question -- according to this article in The New York Times, the information being sought by the U.S. Justice Department would be stripped of any personal data. In other words, it would have no identifiable connection between the user and the search string... Though I'd imagine that if you type in your own name in absolutely every search string (due to, say, terminal narcissism), you're identity might still be compromised.

On the other hand, while the rest of us may not be directly affected by this particular database sweep, there are plenty of other individuals and organizations out there trying to mine your data. So you still might want to try the precautions mentioned here. That doesn't mean you have to fanatically follow the latest in computer technology to defend yourself -- occasionally checking on the effectiveness of your computer's firewall, anti-virus software, adware, etc... or having a competent professional do it for you.

It's a bit like getting your vaccinations, or having a plan, water, half a tank of gas and a month's supply of food in case of a disaster -- it won't stop the sky from falling, but in many scenarios it will greatly enhance your own safety and, if enough people follow suit, the stability and survivability of your society as well.

Future Imperative

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Google and Government -- Who Owns that Data, Anyway? -- Soc, Tech

For those who haven't been keeping up with the news, the Bush Administration recently requested data from the major search engines -- data on all of the searches performed in a particular week -- in the expressed hope of finding enough proof of child exploitation on the Web to revive a broad-based law protecting children. Of the major search engines, only Google has refused to comply.

Whatever you may feel about this particular issue, I think the situation is relevant to this site in two ways -- one, showing us how our own actions can leave us exposed to future data mining, and two, reminding us of how much power can accumulate in the hands of a very small number of people even without access to radical augmentation tech (note, for example, Google's genetic research, or their genetic and AI research).

This particular exchange during a question and answer session with David Vise, the author of The Google Story, is particularly revealing:

Boston, Mass.: To what extent can Google identify users if the user takes "reasonable" steps to guard privacy, such as (1) not having a Gmail acct, (2) not accepting cookies, and (3) turning off the search history function?

David A. Vise: Under those circumstances, Google says it cannot readily identify users. Having said that, Google still may have some IP address data. But taking the steps you describe is definitely a reasonable set of safeguards against Google, or some third party, identifying individuals based on data from the search engine.

Google, itself, has spoken of giving users the option of doing these things if they want to use the search engine but are worried about their privacy.

I believe what you are describing reflects the kind of approach Google is likely to take in China to protect the identies of individuals in the event it must comply wth a Chinese govt request for information.

I point the above information out not to make some random reader feel computer-illiterate, but because it's an example of how much you can do to protect yourself with absolutely minimal knowledge and effort. In other words, you don't have to be a genius, much less some kind of a supergenius, to be able to protect yourself from this form of surveillance. These kinds of issues will become ever more important as technology steadily expands in the future, and will be even more critical if dramatically enhanced intelligence become prevalent.

We can do a great deal to keep unnaturally-brilliant-but-not-omniscient beings under control. But in order to handle extraordinary technology and extraordinary beings, we have to be a bit extraordinary ourselves, both as individuals and a society.

So, are you ready to step up? Because we can't hide in this dugout forever...

Future Imperative