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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, May 12, 2006

Should You Access Your Cyber-Implants Through Your Tongue? And Other Speculations...

The Washington Post reports on some of the latest military-driven human augmentation research:
In their quest to create the superwarrior of the future, some military researchers aren't focusing on the obvious body parts such as legs or biceps or hearts. They're looking at tongues.

By routing signals from helmet-mounted cameras, sonar and other equipment through the tongue to the brain, they hope to give elite troops superhuman senses similar to those of owls, snakes and fish.

Researchers at Florida's Institute for Human and Machine Cognition envision their work giving Army Rangers 360-degree unobstructed vision at night and allowing Navy SEALs to sense sonar in their heads while maintaining normal vision underwater -- turning science fiction into reality.

The device, known as the "Brain Port," was pioneered more than 30 years ago by Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist. He began routing images from a camera through electrodes taped to people's backs and later discovered the tongue was a superior transmitter.

Normally I would go over all the potential advancements heralded by the research itself. But today, I think it might be more important simply to point out that this new strain of research is being done, and who is doing it. Why?

Because here we see the military working very seriously to create augmented human troops -- "super-soldiers." And because there are a few potential "tipping points" when it comes to the emergence of widespread human augmentation research -- turning points after which radical human augmentation becomes far more likely. Frankly, a major push by the U.S. military to develop superhuman troops is one of the most obvious. Again, why?

The U.S. military can't really afford to be caught behind the power curve on human enhancement tech on the battlefield. Nor can they really afford for U.S. scientists (in the military-industrial complex or otherwise) to fall behind either. And as this sensory enhancement research joins augmented reality displays, power armor, nootropics and other lines of inquiry being paid for by the Pentagon, we can see that with so much money being used to explore so many different augmentation options, eventually these researchers will hit paydirt.

In fact, they'll probably hit it several times. And because it's really hard to take that kind of technology away from the Pentagon for any reason, political or otherwise, that cat will probably stay out of the bag.

Which means the very fact this research exists may in some ways be more important than what they find. Human augmentation research has now been deemed acceptable by one of the most important funding sources in existance. Whatever the consequences, a continued drive for military breakthroughs will reshape this field.

Bio, Cyber, Soc
Future Imperative

Thursday, May 11, 2006

When Your Worst Critic Becomes Your Best Friend

Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has expressed concern over NIH funding for the development of ethical guidelines for human genetic enhancement.

A new age of tax-funded eugenics has just officially begun. On April 29 Medical News Today announced that Case Law School in Cleveland was receiving $773,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to “develop guidelines for the use of human subjects in what could be the next frontier in medical technology -- genetic enhancement."

Professor of law and bioethics Max Mehlman will lead a team of law professors, physicians, and bioethicists in a two-year project aimed at exploring guidelines for altering the human species through genetic enhancement. This development signals a gargantuan shift in tax-funded genetic science.

Though I eschew the political aspects of these debates, I do feel that a wider, better informed discussion of emerging and already existing human enhancement methods is a very good idea. Though much of Mitchell's article simply laid down a hard line against the augmentation of human biology, he did eventually explain some of the reasoning behind his strongly held opinions.
Have we learned none of the lessons of the older eugenic age? Since those less-than-halcyon days we have been spending huge amounts of legal and social capital trying to convince American culture that all human beings have equal rights and ought to be valued as much as another, regardless of their ethnicity, abilities, disabilities, gender or age. We have been teaching our children that, regardless of genetic traits, we are to respect one another, bear one another’s burdens, and celebrate our inherited differences.

Now we seem to be standing on the precipice prepared to throw all of those hard-earned lessons into the abyss of a technocratic utopianism that is ready to create new inequalities.

How many will have to die in human re-design experiments to show us this is a really bad idea? Moreover, through genetic enhancement we will inevitably create at least two genetic classes of people: the gene-enhanced and the rest of us. We have not even figured out how to solve access to healthcare for therapeutic and preventive goals. How do we hope even to begin a discussion about equal access to genetic modification for enhancement purposes?

Here’s how the strategy will work: Mehlman and colleagues will begin a search for the most emotionally compelling marginal cases to show that a fine line between therapy and enhancement cannot be maintained. They will argue that in “rare” cases, re-engineering can be justified in a liberal society that respects “freedom” and “autonomy.” And one day we will all wake up in the movie "Gattaca." Worse, future generations will inherit the whirlwind we created.
Again, while I eschew the political debates on these issues, I do embrace the social and economic questions, since that is an area -- at least at the local level -- where I can influence just how these resources are assessed and possibly used.

Mitchell's politically oriented criticisms are actually quite useful for assessing your own plans and any local augmentation projects you may have or be developing. Why? Because however accurate or unfair you may feel his analysis of human augmentation as a whole may be, they are a worthwhile cautionary perspective -- a lens through which you can view your own work.

Are you dismissive of human equality? Will your plans encourage dramatic inequalities and perhaps the emergence of an unchallengable elite? Do you have adequate safety protocols for any biotech or cybertech projects under your supervision or established by your funding? Do you have any plans for equal access to your enhancement procedures, once safety and effectiveness have been determined?

Are you simply looking to find some kind of a crack in regulatory barriers to usher in a future no one else in your society would wish for, on the assumption that you know best?

All questions, to be blunt, that any project leader or founder should consider carefully, even if their field, as a whole, is utterly innocent of such intentions. Or completely driven by them.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative

Monday, May 08, 2006

Human Frailty and Superhuman Strengths

I was reading an older podcast interview on NeoFiles recently, in which R.U. Sirius was talking to Michael Chorost, author Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. Chorost's book is about how having a computer implanted in his skull partially restored his hearing.

But in the midst of this interview, Chorost offered an interesting observation. He noted that the "deaf community" is an extremely close and welcoming subculture, and that many deaf people view the hearing-enabled as the handicapped members of society. Apparently, "listening" to someone when you are deaf and must read their sign language gestures or their lips requires much more active engagement in the conversation than simply listening to them with your ears.
Now, there are evidently other reasons why the deaf may have a particularly strong community -- a robust support network is ultimately a survival advantage for those plugged into it. But Chorost's point that this "disabled group" might actually have a profound emotional/social advantage over the rest of us is a critical issue for those of us interested in any form of radical human enhancement.

Why? Let us take another example. Many people envision an ultimate intellect as being purely rational, its logic untainted by emotional baggage. Yet arguably, a lack of emotion, particularly a lack of emotional bonds with other people, is a hallmark of the classic psychopath.

Is it possible that we could successfully create a truly enhanced human being and yet sabotague an element of the psyche that most would deem critical to being merely an advanced (or even adequate) human being? We could, of course, argue that even if such capacities were lost, our first-generation, engineered, "posthuman entity" would eventually rediscover these gifts, if only because their mind would be capable of looking at so many aspects of human and posthuman intelligence, and they would inevitably see the value in any lost abilities.

But honestly, if we look at the "weak superintelligence" derived from, say, accelerating the speed of someone's brain to phenomenal levels, one has to ask: Would a psychopath learn to value their missing compassion? Even if they had a long time to think about it?

Would the hearing-enabled, in our world, willingly render themselves deaf, even if they knew they would be embraced by a community and circle of friends some may bitterly miss in their own lives? Or would someone used to using a motivation/energy enhancer such as modafinil choose to lose their edge after they came to accept its existence as part of their lives, and were no longer wistful for, or frequently reminded of, the days when they were more emotionally balanced?

The answer to that last question is probably yes more often than not, but the point remains, it is possible to have a completely worthwhile human enhancement that in some ways limits us -- whether emotionally, or in terms of our creativity, spontaneity, mental precision, charisma, sense of humor, empathic skills, etc.

This reservation, far from constituting a reason to avoid all human enhancement, may in fact be a reason to pursue a very, very wide variety of human enhancement research projects. We appear to have a formidable range of augmentation options available to us already -- either present now or immanent -- so we should be aware of potential drawbacks in each and every enhancement technology and discipline.

Some people may consider particular weaknesses to be advantges -- the ambitious worker who embraces the monomaniacal focus of modafinil, the calm individual who enjoys the greater serenity of deep meditation, the angry youth who has no problem with the violence and attitude of a hyper-aggressive school of the martial arts. But faced with a sufficiently broad array of options, first-adopter, human-enhancement enthusiasts will be able to choose those augmentations that work best for their goals and their lives. And like a deaf teen or adult weighing a cochlear implant, they will be able to measure what would be gained against what they may be giving up.

AL, Bio, CPS, Cyber, MA, Soc
Future Imperative