.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.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Where Will You Be When the Floodwaters Rise?

Early this March, both ABC News and the Washington Post featured articles on global warming's accelerating meltdown of both Arctic and Antarctic icecaps (as seen here and here). While scientists have previously noted that a meltdown of Greenland's icecap would raise sea levels around the world by about 21 feet, a meltdown of Antarctica's icecap as well would lead to a worldwide increase in sea levels by about 200 feet.

In case you're wondering what a 200-foot rise in sea levels would amount to, please look at the attached maps. The darkest shade of green represents an elevation of 0 to 50 meters above sea level (a little over 164 feet). So in other words, take a look at that first rise in elevation and realize that high tide would be considerably higher than that. More importantly, a mere 20 foot increase would inundate most coastal cities and towns, destroying their economic viability and displacing vast populations (unless dramatic measures were taken, and probably even then).

So assume that without gigantic seawalls or other defenses, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, etc all disappear beneath the waves or at best are reduced to a mere vestige of their former selves.

The Washington Post notes:

The Antarctic ice sheet is losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice a year in a trend that scientists link to global warming, according to a new paper that provides the first evidence that the sheet's total mass is shrinking significantly.

The new findings, which are being published today in the journal Science, suggest that global sea level could rise substantially over the next several centuries.

It is one of a slew of scientific papers in recent weeks that have sought to gauge the impact of climate change on the world's oceans and lakes. Just last month two researchers reported that Greenland's glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, and a separate paper in Science today predicts that by the end of this century lakes and streams on one-fourth of the African continent could be drying up because of higher temperatures.

ABC News adds:

Zwally explains that the ice shelves, which the Antarctic ice cap pushes out into the ocean, are responding more than they expected to Earth's warming air and water. If the melting speeds up to a rapid runaway process called a "collapse," coastal cities and villages could be in danger.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Earth Science Research, said that disaster could probably be avoided, but that it would require dramatically cutting emission outputs. If the proper actions aren't taken, Hansen said, the sea level could rise as much as 80 feet by the time today's children reach middle age.

"We now must choose between a serious problem that we can probably handle and, if we don't act soon, unmitigated disaster down the road," Hansen said.

Not to be pessimistic, but "just" losing most of our greatest cities over the next 30 years or so might qualify as an unmitigated disaster, in and of itself. To destroy that much economic power while rendering that many people homeless and jobless -- and probably hungry -- while also experiencing catastrophic climatic impacts on agriculture... this could result in a breakdown of law and order over vast territories, not to mention the deaths of many innocent human beings.

"Based on the history of the Earth, if we can keep the warming less than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, I think we can avoid disastrous ice sheet collapse," Hansen said.

Hansen and other scientists point out that a rise of at least 1 degree Fahrenheit — and another few feet of sea level — seem virtually certain to happen because of the carbon that mankind has already put in the atmosphere.
As some scientists have pointed out, the meltdown could progress far more rapidly -- not just if China and India burn considerably more fuel than they are now, but if the rapid rise in global temperatures triggers other environmental effects, such as the release of carbon from the tundra or carbon and/or methane from the oceans. Depending on how quickly and significantly such events occur, we could have much worse concerns on our hands than losing a few hundred major cities.

But putting the most apocalyptic issues aside for the moment, why not ask yourself: Where will I be when the floodwaters rise?

Even if you're not sitting on the coastline of your country, remember, a "mere" 20 foot rise -- even over a period of several years -- will be wiping out coastal cities and communities and displacing at least a couple billion people worldwide. And most of those refugees will not have a second home in the Alps or the Rockies or the Himalayas or the Catskills. And if we see increased coastal storms and storm surges due to all of the excess heat in the atmosphere, living in the 20 to 200 feet of elevation may not be much fun even if sea levels stop with a Greenland meltdown.

And of course, a major ice sheet sliding off of either Greenland or Antarctica would create a tsunami that would dwarf the disaster we recently witnessed in South Asia. You're more apt to see a major collapse early on the process than later (when there's less ice to go sliding free), so 200 feet (plus storm surge levels) may be as high as your soon-to-be-local seashore may get. Comforting, isn't it?

So what are you going to do? I'll print some suggestions here soon as to what individuals and communities could do to deal with such a crisis. In the meantime I would simply suggest that you keep your eyes open... and pay attention to just where it is you live. If the oceans rise, you want to have made your plans before you have to start swimming.

If you would like to see some maps of potential sea levels for Britain and Ireland, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China and the Koreas, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Indonesia, Japan and Canada, please follow the links in this sentence. And remember, some maps will look frightening, some maps will look comforting. But before deciding how well suited your country's geography happens to be for this transformation, take a look at where your greatest cities are located. If you're not a landlocked country, then odds are at least a few of them are on or near your coastline...

Future Imperative

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Scientists Develop Artificial Muscles

TradeArabia.Com reports that scientists have developed "bionic" muscles. The article states:
Scientists have developed artificial, super-strength muscles which are powered by alcohol and hydrogen.

And they could eventually be used to make more advanced prosthetic limbs, say researchers at University of Texas, said a BBC report.

Writing in Science, the researchers say these artificial muscles are 100 times more powerful than the body's own.

They said they could even be used in 'exoskeletons' to give superhuman strength to certain professions such as firefighters, soldiers and astronauts.

Two types of muscle are being investigated by US researchers at the Nanotech Institute at the University of Texas in Dallas, working with colleagues from South Korea.

Both release the chemical energy of fuels, such as hydrogen and alcohol, while consuming oxygen.

Obviously artificial "muscles" 100 times stronger than normal muscles would be tremendously useful to the designers of powered exoskeletons. But they also imply rapid progress towards biomechanical muscles sufficiently elegant to be integrated into the human body, or a radically modified bionic body (such as a "full body conversion" cyborg). The latter option would be less concerned with issues of toxicity, immune system rejection, etc. But then, as at least one science fiction character has said, "You go that route, and before you know it you're a brain in a jar."

But then again, there are quite a few people who wouldn't object to that fate, if their brain were nigh immortal and their sensory capacities and virtual simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and realistic.

It's all a matter of choices. And rather than prejudging any of them, we'd much rather lay them out clearly in front of people, and let them decide for themselves what future they'd prefer. If not several.

Future Imperative

At Last, Something We Really Need -- Cybernetic Sharks

Everyone will be happy to know that the U.S. military is making great progress on its efforts to turn sharks into controllable cyborgs. The article on LiveScience.Com notes:

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) has taken another page from science fiction writer William Gibson's book by creating a neural implant to enable engineers to remotely manipulate a shark's brain signals. This would eventually allow them to control the animal's movements and possibly decode their perceptions.
Given that sharks have senses that humans don't have (like the ability to sense electromagnetic fields), it could open up some interesting uses.

So if you happen to be devoured at the seashore by a particularly cunning and persistent shark after saying (or thinking) something politically questionable, you can thank your swift execution on the progress of military science.

Seriously, though, the scientific domination of animals for the sake of utilizing their senses opens up fascinating new realms of research and data collection. Imagine, for example, that the implants and their installation were cheap enough to put into masses of flying insects such as hornets. And imagine if the senses of these swarming creatures could be modified to take an interest in unusual compounds -- such as the chemical components of plastic explosives.

Imagine then deploying swarms of these insects to examine shipping containers arriving at seaports, possibly having them enter each container through a special inspection opening (they only need an inch or two). A swarm with a sufficiently broad range of chemical triggers, or made up of enough hornets sensitive to each kind of element or compound, might well be able to provide thorough yet affordable vetting of every container being shipped into the U.S. or the EU. Imagine if you had hornets capable of detecting explosives, neurotoxins, bio-weapons and radioactive materials -- or at least of raising red flags when the presence of such substances was probable.

One major advantage of using scarcely modified cybernetic animals (particularly simpler animals with limited pain sensors) to do this scouting is that a healthy animal (including one recovered from minimal surgery) keeps itself alive and automatically repairs its own injuries through natural healing. You don't have to figure out how to simulate a natural brain, you don't have to teach it how to swim or fly or avoid walking into doors. You just have to figure out how to direct it and how to make sure it senses the kinds of things you need it to detect.

Live Science also has some articles on scientists "jacking in" to a cat's brain to see the world from its perspective and on a proposal to give birds biothermal RFID chips to detect avian flu. Which may turn out to be the most important "bio-weapon" we could possibly detect in the coming decade.

Future Imperative

What Superpower Would You Like? Teens Speak Out on Critical Issue...

Some student reporters surveyed their fellow students on behalf of the Deseret Morning News to find out what superpowers they'd like to have.
"I know whose superpowers I wouldn't like to have, and that's Aquaman, because Aquaman is by far the inferior Superfriend. Or, alternatively, the power of determination and grit, like Batman." — Ski Krieger, senior, West High School
"I'd want to be able to fly, because if you can fly, you don't have to be bulletproof or anything else, you can just fly away from everything." — Kelsie Court, junior, Viewmont High School
"Power of foresight and be a government agent." — Michelle Simon, junior, Lone Peak High School
"I think it would be cool to walk through walls. It would just be cool." — Melanie Hunter, senior, Viewmont
"I want to fly, because you can gain body strength but you can't gain flying." — Jessie Richards, junior, Lone Peak
"Super speed. I've always wanted to defy gravity and walk on water." — Tanner VanMeeteren, senior, Viewmont
"I would like to be able to fly, because I don't really like airplanes, because I don't like turbulence. I'd like to be the bionic man because I could run everywhere and I'd be in really good shape, and if anyone ever needed help I'd be there really fast." — Liza Lungren, junior, West
"The power of invisibility, because you could go anywhere." — Tara Wise, junior, Lone Peak
"I'd like to be able to shoot webs from my wrists, because I've already experienced super strength and it's not that great." — Andrew Bellomy, sophomore, Viewmont
"I would have Wolverine's healing power." — Teren Christensen, senior, Lone Peak
"I think it would be cool to be psychic, cause then you could always know what will happen to you and you'd always be ready." — Skyler Pettegrew, sophomore, Viewmont
"I'd have to be able to fly. Even better, I'd be able to teleport, cause flying is a waste of time if you can teleport. I'd control the weather and make it snow all the time. I'd be able to read minds. Basically, if you could combine the X-Men into one person, it would be me." — Nate Farr, junior, Viewmont
"I would want to fly, because then I could go anywhere in the world that I'd want to. And I wouldn't have to buy a plane ticket. Great way to save money, too." — Sarah Paulos, junior, West

Hum, Super
Future Imperative

Monday, March 20, 2006

Gods and Monsters II -- Human Augmentation for Athletes, Steroid-Based or Otherwise...

So, Barry Bonds. And, how shall we put it, alternative methods of human enhancement.

Our last article on this subject focused on the apparent genetic augmentation of some German athletes whose coach fell afoul of the World Anti-Doping Agency... and, of course, the implications of genetic augmentation for both athletics and human evolution in general. These are all critical subjects. But it's fascinating to see the steroid accusations against Barry Bonds leading to a broader discussion of just what kinds of augmentation, chemical or otherwise, are wrong, and which, like "modern equipment, workout regimens, and nutritional supplements" are simply good preparation.

The point of this site isn't to argue for a particular position. Rather, I support the idea that the more good information people have, and the more they think about human enhancement, the better the decisions society will make about augmentation issues.

Steroids are an excellent example. I can see why people might want to keep these drugs out of competitions. To the extent they damage the human body, it's understandable that athletes might not want to engage in a chemical competition with people ready to permanently damage their long term health in order to score a few more points.

But will that argument hold in the face of augmentations with no real drawbacks at all? We shall see.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative

Robots and Artists Team Up to Raise Funds for Autism Research

Artists have joined together to fill the pages of the Bots sketchbook with illustrations of robots from 90 artists. The project is meant to raise funds for autism research. According to the artist who initiated the program, Nic Carcieri, the choice of robots was purely coincidental. "I decided I needed a theme for the book. I chose robots because that particular day my son was wearing a t-shirt that had this cool retro 1950s type robot on it; so I thought 'robots'. It was that simple."

I applaud the intentions of the people who put this sketchbook together and those who contributed to it. But I find the juxtaposition of autism and "Bots" to be a particularly interesting coincidence. Robots, while often simulating intelligence and independent will, are typically viewed not only as unfeeling and "soulless," despite being capable of remarkable mental and physical feats.

Autistic savants are often viewed in the same light, despite their indisputable humanity. Some, such as Rich Shull, who apparently has a high-functioning expression of Asbergers syndrome, believe this impression is a result of assumptions fostered by the media and experts who are only looking at a limited range of autists. Rich Shull argues that despite differences in ability, "Aspies" possess some impressive advantages that everyone else could learn a great deal from, such as remarkable visualization abilities and extremely high resistance to pain.

Shull's point is well taken. Curiously, there seems to be increasing interest in learning about human minds and their potential from savants and other people with unusual brains. For example, Australian scientist Allan Snyder has experimented with knocking parts of the brain unconscious with focused magnetic fields. Subjects experiencing transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) have evidenced enhanced artistic abilities after ten minutes or so of exposure.

Another method for developing superior mental skills is to analyze the minds of people with exceptional gifts (be they savants or not) using bio-feedback and to use the readings as a guide in attempts to "wake up" just the right sections of the brain to simulate those talents. Or, alternatively, simply getting a better grasp of the overall function of the brain, and what enhances its function or that of its specific parts. Once you know what nutrients or drugs improve its performance, you can tailor your diet and/or pharmaceuticals towards achieving your particular goals.

My point? As with many aspects of the human augmentation field, simply expanding overall knowledge of a relevant factor (in this case, the brain) improves our ability to enhance human abilities. Which means that as science and technology continue to improve, we'll continue to advance human augmentation research. Whether or not we realize it, or official human augmentation researchers realize it.

Ironically, one of the great hopes of artificial intelligence research is the idea that as we learn more about the brain, we will learn how to develop AI. Enthusiasts believe we will be able to duplicate the brain's neural networking, or the actual switching system, or -- if all else fails -- to mirror neurons on the atomic scale with perfectly simulated duplicates. They argue that if a human being were perfectly frozen, we could take that person apart an infintesimal slice at a time, duplicating each layer in turn until you have a virtual copy of your mind and personality loaded up into an immortal computational substrate.

The theory is an intriguing one. Until that happy day, however, when the god-computers finally rise up in their omnipotence, bless the faithful and smite the impious, we're simply left with the facts we don't have to take on faith. And by that measure, human augmentation seems to be gaining more from present-day brain research than sentient AI projects.

We shall see how much longer this particular status quo lasts. Because by its nature, it can't last forever. One technology, or the other, or both, will make a breakout advancement sometime, and then we'll be living in a different world altogether. Assuming the rest of the world doesn't fly apart before one of these great projects comes together, that is.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Forbes Magazine on How to Maintain Your Mental Edge

Forbes magazine recently printed an article, "How to Make Your Brain Fitter in Six (Sort Of) Easy Steps." While not exactly revolutionary (at least for those of us who keep up with the subjects of brain fitness and longevity), the more frequently these articles appear in the mainstream press, the more we seem to be seeing a shift in attitudes regarding our brains.

For a long time, no one seemed to believe it was possible to improve the brain, at least not to any significant extent, and that certainly there was nothing you could do -- other than perhaps a miracle drug -- to stave off senile dementia. Though this change may seem petty, if billions of people are going to learn about the array of options available to them in the human enhancement field, then more of these seemingly prosaic pieces will be needed to lay the groundwork.

And remember, while simple exercises for your brain may not seem earthshaking, they are a means for improving your mental and physical health, and are thus just as legitimate as any breakthrough nootropic drug or gene therapy augmentation. And are, by their nature, more accessible, acceptable and easily adopted than almost anything else.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative

Bio-Warfare Calls for... Bio-Augmentation?

This article on bio-warfare and bio-terrorism makes an excellent point. The technology and skills for making designer plagues are becoming increasingly available to potential terrorists. I often keep up with catastrophically destructive technologies on this site because of the impact radically augmented human intelligence could have on their development.

Or to put it another way, if a skilled or even brilliant al Qaeda Ph.D. with a well-stocked lab is a nightmare today, imagine what a fanatic of any stripe and a savant-like ability to synthesize implausible new diseases could do to us. Especially if they also had ridiculously advanced abilities when it came to planning, strategy and the gathering of extraordinary resources.

The article notes that Ray Kurzweil and Senator Bill Frist have both called for a "Manhattan Project" level of focus on bio-defense, "with an eye toward developing generic antiviral drugs, rapid-response vaccine production, and even more advanced techniques, yet unknown, for responding rapidly to new pathogens (whether natural or artificial in origin)."

Regardless of what you may think of the urgency of dealing with conventional bio-warfare, imagine what kinds of consequences could flow from people with implausibly advanced abilities in technological development, if they concentrated those skills on destroying the world as we know it. We might have to engage in several such "Manhattan Projects" just to stay ahead of such people... and we would have considerable motivation to engage in judicious augmentation ourselves -- particularly of the scientists and law-enforcement personnel needed to contain such threats.

We may also find more human enhancement technology flowing out of research into preventing bio-terrorism. Why? Because human augmentation isn't a discrete part of the biotech industry. Rather, all of the serious enhancement therapies being developed seem to be side effects of treatments for medical conditions (Alzheimer's, etc). A massive effort to create resistance to bio-warfare would be apt to yield "dual-use" research -- science which could be applied to other opportunities. If nothing else, we would be to develop a kind of human far more resistant to exotic diseases than the typical person is now. And that would most definitely be an augmentation.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative