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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, April 15, 2006

Juggling Your Priorities, Expanding Your Brain...

Apparently juggling may in fact increase your brainpower, or at least expand the size of your brain. Medical News Today reports:

A new study published in the journal Nature finds that learning to juggle may cause certain areas of your brain to grow.

The finding challenges conventional wisdom the structure of the brain cannot change except through aging and disease. Previous studies have shown learning can result in changes in brain activity. But this latest study demonstrates an anatomical change as a result of learning — that is, the brain size actually expands.

Discoveries like this have an important secondary purpose, reminding both the scientific community and the general public that the adult human brain is not immutable-save-for-its-inevitable-decline, and that dramatic enhancement of at least some of its functions may be possible using remarkably simple, even prosaic, means. This point is key to encouraging more researchers to look seriously at methods for increasing human abilities -- not merely through the more controversial means of cybernetics, genetic engineering, nootropic drugs and other biotech tools, but through accelerated learning, discipline and/or "enriching new experiences" such as learning to juggle.

The article continues:

German researchers divided 24 non-jugglers into two groups and assigned one group to practice juggling for three months. The scientists performed brain scans on the volunteers using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, before and after they learned to juggle.

The type of MRI scans the researchers used allowed them to focus on structural changes rather than changes in brain activity. Using a sophisticated analysis technique called voxel-based morphology, the researchers were then able to investigate changes in brain gray matter, the area of the brain that consists mostly of the cell bodies of neurons rather than the connective fibers.

The study found that volunteers who did not train to juggle showed no difference in their brain scans over the three-month period. However, those who now acquired the skill demonstrated an increase in gray matter in two areas of the brain involved in visual and motor activity, the mid-temporal area and the posterior intraparietal sulcus.

The study defined increases as growth in volume and greater density of gray matter in those areas, but the nature of the increase is not clear, nor did scientists examine whether neural interconnections had changed in any way. The study also noted that after 3 months of no practice, the original group of jugglers had lost their increased brain size. One question of interest is whether continuing the practice of juggling for a longer period would make the changes permanent.

Future Imperative

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Regenerative Medicine -- What Will They Grow Back Next...

The New York Times reports that some scientists are now exploring whether human beings could utilize the same regenerative properties found in certain animals... the ability, for example, to grow back lost organs or limbs. The Times notes:
Many species, notably amphibians and certain fish, can regenerate a wide variety of their body parts. The salamander can regenerate its limbs, its tail, its upper and lower jaws, the lens and the retina of its eye, and its intestine. The zebra fish will regrow fins, scales, spinal cord and part of its heart.

Mammals, too, can renew damaged parts of their body. All can regenerate the liver. Deer regrow their antlers, some at the rate of 2 centimeters a day, said to be the fastest rate of organ growth in animals. In many of these cases, regeneration begins when the mature cells at the site of a wound start to revert to an immature state. The clump of immature cells, known as a blastema, then regrows the missing part, perhaps by tapping into the embryogenesis program that first formed the animal.

I suspect this is one of those augmentations which will look a lot bigger in hindsight. No, it doesn't have anything to do with increasing human intelligence -- directly. But the ability to recover from almost any wound, coupled with a process that will likely encourage further longevity breakthroughs as well as vastly greater productivity from many recipients -- these enhancements could also have a profound impact on human affairs (and for that matter, what it means to be human). We often forget how central our health and our energy levels are to whatever we're trying to accomplish. Or at least we forget until they desert us.

These "bottlenecks" in human performance may not be glamorous, but obviously they're factors that need to be addressed. How ironic it is that this particular problem may be cleared up by people who may not be interested in human enhancement at all.

Future Imperative

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

U.S. States Struggle for Their Share of the Biotech Pie

An article in The Washington Post notes that many American states are keenly interested in getting a share of the biotech industry. The article points out:

A report released at the BIO 2006 conference here showed U.S. employment in biosciences reached 1.2 million in 2004. That was slightly more than a 1 percent increase since 2001, with workers earning a lucrative average annual wage of $65,775.

"These are good, well-paying jobs," said Walter Plosila, a vice president at Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, which co-sponsored the report.

The report also found that states are spending billions of dollars to support bioscience research and development. State governments are also using investment funds and tax incentives to attract large industry anchors, instead of solely focusing on launching and growing new bioscience ventures.

Nearly every state sponsored a booth at this week's worldwide biotech industry meeting at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center, according to James Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Thirteen governors were expected to attend the conference, up from the nine who came to last year's event, according to a BIO spokeswoman.

This race for biotech jobs and biotech dollars is of course made more interesting by efforts on the part of some states to block embryonic stem cell research, while others, like California, are raising money to fund such endeavors.

For those familiar with Dr. Richard Florida's Creative Class theories, the idea that particular cities have a tremendous advantage in terms nurturing dynamic, high-tech companies doesn't come as a great surprise. What may be a surprise is to what degree this economic competition is affecting states' internal debates on issues such as stem cell research.

Missouri, known for its ban on stem cell research, is also known for its impressive biotech research hub -- a critical element of its economy developed over time with government support. If Missouri's top biotech companies and research centers can no longer attract the best scientists (say, because the state is perceived as being anti-biotech or overly restrictive), they can no longer remain on the cutting edge. Which means they either have to stake out limited niches where the stem cell ban will no longer have a chilling effect or simply leave the state.

California, which mustered considerable money to support such research, found its funding plans blocked by two attorneys suing the state government for its allegedly unconstitutional initiative. (They argue that it lacks proper government and public oversight. These lawyers apparently also have ties to anti-abortion organizations.) The Associated Press notes that $14 million was raised from philanthropic organizations. This money has been loaned to California's government until the lawsuits freezing its access to $3 billion in bond money set aside for stem cell research have been resolved.

In the meantime, of course, this conflict continues to shape California's biotech industry, for good or ill.

Future Imperative

The Scent of Fear -- An Intelligence Enhancing Substance?

The New York Times reports that women may be able to subconsciously detect the smell of fear and, what's more, the scent may actually improve women's performance on mental tasks. The article notes:

Scientists collected sweat from seven volunteers — four men and three women — who watched horror movies while holding gauze pads in their armpits. Then, their sweat was collected while they watched videos with neutral emotional content.


The subjects were divided into three groups: the first smelled the sweat pads of sweat collected during the frightening video; the second smelled pads collected during the neutral video; and the third, a control group, smelled pads with no sweat on them.

Without sacrificing speed, the women smelling the fear pads were more accurate than those in the other two groups when processing meaningful related words. There was no difference in speed or accuracy between the three groups when the words were not related.

Associate Professor Denise Chen, the study's lead author, remarks, "The smell of fear may have made these people more cautious, and made them better at recognizing meaningful information." Of course, one has to ask what it is about our social relationships, biological tendencies and/or historical circumstances have led us to the point that women find that skill so useful. (To the point that it is, perhaps, a survival advantage for the gender rather than just an odd socialization quirk or widespread mutation.)

But regardless, we have apparently found yet another environmental or circumstantial (dare I say biological) enhancement of human intelligence, at least for women. And one which as yet appears to have no significant side effects... and which technically isn't even a drug. (It's almost as impressive as the data indicating that women's double X chromosome may boost their health and longevity.)

One wonders what else out there might be of real benefit to our minds, and yet so cheap and so safe we could easily tap it for ourselves. If not through biotech, then through more effectively training and disciplining our minds.

Future Imperative

Monday, April 10, 2006

Betterhumans.Com Wants You!

Betterhumans.Com is making a push to boost its membership to the 2,000 mark. (They're 21 members short.) While this website is officially neutral on most policy debates over human enhancement ("our" only position is that the debate would be well-served by a knowledgeable public), Betterhumans.Com is worthwhile as a news source alone.

Betterhumans offers valuable information on the subject of human enhancement -- particularly information about cybernetics, AI, genetic engineering, nootropic intelligence-boosting drugs and other biotech- and infotech-related augmentations. While most useful sites covering human enhancement technology offer extremely narrow coverage, Betterhumans has a much broader perspective. You can actually get into discussions in which most participants have not staked out an immutable position they defend with fanatical intensity.

So if you want to share ideas with "like minds," or merely wish to see what some of the more thoughtful and practical "transhumanists," their associates and sympathizers are up to, check out the Betterhumans site. Membership is, incidentally, free.

You can join their site, read their archives and participate in the forums by going here.

Future Imperative