.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.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Honda's Hydrogen Cars Only Three to Four Years Away

The Sunday Times announces:
Hydrogen fuel cell cars could be on the road much earlier than the decade or more so far predicted. Honda has confirmed it plans a production model “in three to four years”.

The car will be based on the FCX Concept, unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show last year.

The car uses hydrogen to generate electricity that powers a motor.

Obviously this kind of development could have earthshaking implications for the entire global energy industry, especially if it were coupled with a completely clean and incredibly cheap source of electrical power. Workable fuel-cell-powered cars are a tremendous step forward... and they also represent a kind of technology I often discuss on this site -- not the technologies of human enhancement, but the technologies that enhanced people might develop in a cascade of breakthroughs revolutionary in their implications. A revolution that could easily go on forever.

The point is not just the awesome potential human augmentation has for human evolution. My point is that anyone with even a relatively modest level of enhanced intelligence -- at near-genius, genius or greater levels -- would easily be able to lay their hands on the simple, basic technologies, cultural forms and other critical underpinnings of our civilization and mold them to their will.

This fact represents both an opportunity and a risk. The opportunity is for enhanced individuals to do very well for themselves while also doing great things for the world. The risk is for a rogue "transhuman" or "superhuman" to take up such forces for self-centered reasons or even for goals they view as beyond approach. How many fanatics, after all, even those of high intelligence, necessarily see the terrible flaws in their philosophies? How many people who have tried to become the dominant force in their industry or political world been keenly aware of all those who had to be crushed on that journey?

Now imagine someone who is not restrained by meaningful limits on their power or by a need for the approval of their fellows. The potential for destruction is staggering. Especially if we end up in a world with only one or a handful of enhanced intelligences -- or if all of these exceptional minds belong to the same organization and are, perhaps, molded by the same extremist ideology.

The longer human augmentation remains the plaything of a limited subculture, the greater the risk that a single wealthy, resourceful visionary or extremist group may take up the quest and render all of our opinions moot.

Soc, Tech
Future Imperative

Business Week Talks "Smartest Superheroes"

So, Business Week decided to print an article by Joseph Pisani on the world's smartest superheroes. Though I'm not sure what their reasoning was, it's an interesting example of the question of human enhancement emerging once again in unexpected ways. (As it has recently through comic-book and science-fiction films, an Olympic gene-doping scandal, and various debates over cloning, stem cells and gene therapy, among other guises.) Pisani writes:
Although many casual observers may not believe it, intelligence goes a long way in the comic book world. For many of the most popular characters, intellect is every bit as important as the ability to fly at the speed of sound or shoot flames from one's eyes. Creators of these comic book heroes understand that great power unfettered by intelligence can often have terrible consequences. Many of the most popular heroes have not only learned how to harness their powers intelligently but also to use their super gray cells to help them better fight the forces of evil.

Actually, the more the public grasps that great intelligence is in fact a "power" -- rather than some kind of handicap to be scorned in others and denied in oneself -- the more likely the public is to embrace the technical skills and creative talents, and raw intelligence, our societies will need to compete in the 21st Century. By lauding such gifts instead of deriding them, we're taking a step towards a world in which great knowledge and intelligence can become widespread -- not merely through genetic engineering or nootropic drugs or non-invasive "mindtech" devices, but simply through education and the exercise of our innate abilities.

Perhaps it is an aspect of our ever-more-tech-driven world, or of rising international competition, but more people seem ready to acknowledge the importance of expanding human intelligence. The methods they choose to employ may differ, but the goal is coming into clearer focus.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Charles Krauthammer in "Beer? Hot Dogs? Steroids?"

Charles Krauthammer has recently returned to the issue of human enhancement in the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post. His latest piece is interesting in that Mr. Krauthammer seems to be taking a less rigid position against human enhancement than those held by many official "bio-conservatives." He begins:

Leave it to the good people of Philadelphia, whose football fans once famously booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus, to come up with the perfect takedown of the most inflated (in more ways than one) superstar in contemporary sport. With the visiting Barry Bonds at the plate and needing just two home runs to tie Babe Ruth's iconic 714 lifetime homers, the banner was raised: "Ruth did it on hot dogs & beer."

Bond's alleged, substantial use of steroids and other performance enhancers needs no introduction. But I think Krauthammer is zeroing in on one of the key emotional objections to human enhancement by bringing up the long-standing home runs of a revered sports figure who did it "honestly." He comments:

The idea that an athlete of Bonds's stature, for whom the body is both temple and bank vault, would be mistakenly ingesting substances is implausible, made all the more so by the evidence dredged up by two San Francisco sportswriters detailing Bonds's (alleged) gargantuan consumption of every performance-enhancing drug from steroids to human growth hormone.

But why should we care? What is really wrong with performance enhancement? We say we are against it because it diminishes striving, devalues achievement, produces a shortcut to greatness, etc. But in many endeavors we don't really care about any of that. Medical residents at hospitals have been known to take Ritalin to keep themselves alert on overnight shifts. If it enhances their thinking in the emergency room, what's the objection?

Many public speakers, performers and even some surgeons take beta-blockers to literally still their hearts and steady their hands. I've never seen a banner at the opera complaining: "Pavarotti does it on pasta." And what about the military, which pioneered some of these performance-enhancing studies to see how they could help soldiers survive the most extreme stresses? Isn't that an unqualified good?

Performance enhancement turns out to be disturbing only in the narrow context of competition, most commonly in sports. And the objection is not cheating nature but cheating competitors. It's basically a fairness issue.

I think we're seeing in editorials like this one that some formerly stringent opponents of human enhancement are rethinking their positions. Instead of calling for an outright ban of all such technology, Krauthammer seems to be looking at whether a particular form of enhancement is appropriate for a particular field. In the case of sports, where not everyone can or will avail themselves of treatments that can damage a player's long-term health, there seems to be more of an issue of fairness than there is when a doctor uses a stimulant or nootropic to maintain concentration during a four-hour surgery.

I suspect that as commentators become more familiar with enhancement technologies, debates will shift to the specifics of their use, rather than questions of absolute bans versus total acceptance. I doubt most members of the existing elite wish to handicap themselves or their children, so arguments over such technologies will probably focus more and more on matters such as availability, public subsidization versus private acquisition, government regulation and general health risks. And, of course, on whether or not we are creating some kind of elite caste that doesn't just think it's superior to everyone else, but actually is.

Bio, Noo, Soc
Future Imperative

Brian Doherty's "Is American Foreign Policy an Infinite Crisis?"

Brian Doherty began a recent article in Reason Online by writing:

He was the undisputed ruler of one world, convinced that the larger world outside his own immediate control was corrupt, lacking inspiring heroes and proper values. He acted boldly on the belief that through his own genius, combined with force, manipulation, and powerful weapons he had no hand in creating, he could make a difference—a positive difference, one he'd eventually be lauded for, petty carpers be damned.

To actuate his initially well-intentioned scheme, he launched an enormous, convoluted and confusing set of manipulations, tried to rid the world of magic, generated an interplanetary war, and built a giant cosmic tower capable of creating an endless array of alternate earths from scratch, powered by the energy forces of kidnapped Martians, Kryptonians, and random superbeings.

I am speaking, as the astute reader will have guessed, of President George W. Bush.

Doherty has put together a funny article. I've also argued that the world, at some level, looks at the President of the United States as a superhero or supervillain, simply owing to his tremendous impact on global affairs. And that we can in some ways gauge how people would feel about dealing with other beings far more powerful than themselves by assessing how they deal with the one who is already present in their lives.

It's an interesting question, and probably also an argument for the distribution of power -- so much of what we do in life is affected by this man, and is impacted by how well we attract, or avoid, or deal with his attention.

But we can talk about all that later. In the meantime, read the article.

Future Imperative