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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 22, 2006

Where Will You Be When the Floodwaters Rise? -- The Indonesian Experience

Someone particularly oblivious to geography might ask why Indonesia's fate is so important. Well, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous nation (after China, India and the United States), and her entire population lives on islands just off Southeast Asia. Certainly nations like Australia will agree that what happens to such an immense displaced wealth of people is a significant concern.

Future Imperative

Where Will You Be When the Floodwaters Rise? -- The Australian Experience

Australia's brush with the oceans seems relatively mild, until you look at where her biggest cities are sitting. Fortunately, Canberra should still be with us. Everyone else, please enjoy the Outback. (Time to plant a few trees, I suppose...)

Future Imperative

Where Will You Be When the Floodwaters Rise? -- The New Zealand Experience

Here's a quick glimpse of New Zealand "under water" as discussed in my global warming article. Remember, the darkest shade of green representing elevations from 0 to 50 meters (just over 164 feet) is a good gauge of how much will start going under if sea levels rise as much as 200 feet.

Future Imperative

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Supergenius Cage Match: Stradovarius Versus the Supercomputer -- Who Will Take Home the Title?

Kenneth Silber on Tech Central Station has written an article questioning the likelihood of the Singularity. Silber discusses the career of violin-maker Antonio Stradivari, arguing that since the legendary artisans' instruments have yet to be equaled by technology centuries more advanced than that available to him, we have reason to doubt the smooth progression of technology anticipated by many Singularity enthusiasts. He remarks:

Perhaps someday advanced technology will outstrip the Strad, producing violins widely regarded as superior. If so, it still will have taken a considerably long time for high tech to outdo the work of a craftsman who lived before the industrial revolution. In any event, there will be an element of subjectivity to any evaluation of which violins are best. It seems likely that the best future violins will be regarded as notably different from Strads, and not readily amenable to a direct comparison. One consideration is that Strads, in the view of many experts, already are at their peak and perhaps moving beyond it. It also remains to be seen what new qualities and subtleties current violins will take on with age.

There is, I believe, a broader lesson to be taken from the Stradivarius about the future of technology. Some futurists and technologists, such as Vernon Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, have argued that the world is approaching a transformation known as the "Singularity", marked by the advent of some form of superhuman intelligence. In this picture, technologies such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering soar up a curve of rapid and inexorable change. In some versions, the Singularity is given a specific timeframe, occurring sometime around the year 2030.

The Stradivarius strikes a discordant note in this presumed crescendo of technological advance. These antique violins are a reminder that technology does not always progress, but sometimes stagnates or regresses. Far from following an exponential curve upward, technological change tends to occur in fits and starts, and to depend on happenstance (such as, perhaps, the growth patterns of woods near the town of Cremona, Italy in the waning centuries of the Little Ice Age). Sometimes, technological secrets are lost, as when Stradivari and then his sons died, leaving no one to carry on the family business.

Though technological progress may not always follow a straight line, the information technology most Transhumanists and Singulatarians focus on has generally flowed in that direction, and thus AI researchers, nano engineers and uploading enthusiasts can be forgiven for anticipating continued progress -- even leaving aside the history of Moore's Law.

But Silber's argument may still have an important application. We may not fathom the secrets of the human mind quickly enough to duplicate them in the next few decades or more, and in the meantime, the ability to significantly enhance human intelligence or effectively simulate it will in fact require considerable effort. And will doubtless go down many blind alleys.

I disagree with the idea that complex, challenging, many forking path to enhanced intelligence is a bad thing, however. If we fail to come up with a single, magical technique that gives us a crude but immensely powerful replica of the human mind, then a field that involves many sciences, many experiments and many fits and starts will actually encourage the diversity, discussion and debate we need. Why?

Because instead of stifling key abilities -- radically enhancing analytic skills or memory at the cost of creativity or empathy, for example -- with a single advance so powerful that no one "can afford not to take it," we may get a host of augmentations arising from many different technologies and effecting many different attributes. Imagine having to probe human perception, charisma, artistic abilities, inventive skills, logical/mathematical processes, etc. Imagine finding out more and more about the permutations in our thinking, and refining our capacity to develop each human being on many different levels, in many different directions.

Surely the experience we would gain from those years of "wandering in the wilderness" would be worth the trip, yes?

Future Imperative

Monday, April 17, 2006

Stanford to Offer First Online High School for Gifted Students

Stanford University has just put out a news release on its online educational initiative for exceptional students:

A $3.3 million gift from the Malone Family Foundation of Englewood, Colo., will fund the first online high school for gifted students.

Developed by Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), the Online High School will be a three-year, fully accredited, diploma-granting high school. The program will begin accepting student applications this spring and is scheduled to begin classes in the fall. Information about the application process and the courses will be available online beginning April 25 at http://epgy.stanford.edu/ohs/.

"This groundbreaking project will have immediate impact on the educational options of gifted students," said foundation Chairman John C. Malone. "While we will continue to establish Malone scholarship endowments at schools across the country, thereby making these schools affordable to gifted students with limited financial means, this ubiquitous Stanford program will provide all gifted students everywhere the opportunity to receive an education comparable to that offered by the best schools in the world."

EPGY expects that the online school will draw gifted students from across the United States and around the world. Among those who are likely to be interested are students in rural areas or overseas, students who are being home schooled, students in Title I schools, students who need advanced instruction in a particular subject area, students interested in academic pursuits not covered by the standard high school curriculum and students who want a more intensive academic program.

"The course of study will be academically rigorous, featuring enhanced mathematical content in the natural sciences and social sciences and emphasizing discussion and argumentation in humanities courses," said Raymond Ravaglia, deputy director of EPGY.

University-level courses will be available to students in many subject areas. "We want to keep these students working at full capacity until they are old enough to enter a university," said EPGY Director Patrick Suppes, the Lucie Stern Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Stanford. "There is no reason why the best students in the OHS [Online High School] should not be able to complete work at a level comparable to that of the best Stanford University undergraduates."

In addition to the work students do online during the academic year, they will have the option of coming to Stanford for up to eight weeks during the summer. This residential component of the high school program will allow students to do things that are difficult or impossible to do online, such as laboratory work, while providing them with an opportunity to deepen their bonds with classmates and instructors.

The program will support students who wish to attend full time, but it will not require full-time enrollment. "Part of the motivation behind the creation of the EPGY-OHS is to address the difficulties that students frequently have in pursuing advanced educational opportunities beyond those offered by their local schools," Ravaglia said.

Students in the program will be able to combine courses taken from local schools with those taken from the Online High School and other programs for gifted students in order to satisfy their requirements for the OHS diploma. The online school also will support dual-enrollment with traditional high schools, encouraging them to view the online school as a resource for their best students and not just as a competing institution.

Though I'm personally interested in forms of accelerated learning that work best with a live partner, or at least a self-motivated practitioner, I find this offering intriguing for many reasons. One, Stanford's online school could serve as a powerful supplement to often-underfunded local gifted and talented programs. And two, I think the greater the diversity and energy we see emerging in the general fields of accelerated learning and gifted education, the better -- especially the greater energy and diversity we see in the programs in which these marvelous techniques and/or already advanced minds are actually put to work.

Future Imperative

"Thor Shield" Meant to Thwart Rampaging Stun-Gun-Wielding Criminals

Speaking of nifty technologies that will put you a step ahead of all the other anarcho-futurist rabble-rousers on your block, we give you the Thor Shield, a special fabric designed to protect wearers from having 50,000 volts of electricity crackling through their bodies... as described by MobileMag Mobile Technology Magazine:
But Thor Shield intercepts those electrical probes and prevents the wearer from being zapped. A company named G2 is the creator. A video put out by the company shows no ill effects of a stun gun to an executive wearing a Thor Shield hat and jacket.

G2 claims that it was motivated in part by reports of suspects stunning police officers with their own stun guns and that it will sell only to law enforcement. But even though necessity is the mother of invention, imitation is the severest form of invention. What is intended to be used to protect the police might one day soon be used against them.

Of course, people use the same argument against the widespread use of heavy machine guns by law-enforcement, and look how that's worked out in Afghan neighborhoods... Oh wait, nevermind -- let's not.

But seriously, technologies such as Thor Shield fabric, designer clothes/body armor and systems for detecting/resisting NBC contaminents or chemical explosives -- or even armored cars and "bulletproof" windows -- may end up becoming part of a larger trend. As human technology, and, perhaps, human intelligence, increases, we may find ourselves taking subtle, livable defensive measures to counter the malevolence of those sociopaths newly empowered all around us.

How could we avoid a state of cold war with our neighbors, or reflexive, if polite, suspicion of all strangers (until they prove themselves)? Perhaps by working to ensure that human morality improves at a pace comparable to that of our most dangerous technologies. And that our communities and law-enforcement are the ones who stay on the leading edge of the innovation curve, and not the worst among us.


So. Good luck with that. In the meantime, I'll be in my bomb shelter in an "undisclosed location,"* working on the air recyclers. Thank God for freeze-dried, pre-irradiated food. Keeps forever, and I'm going to need it.

*No, I'm not telling. Find your own. =p

Future Imperative