.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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Darker Augmentation

This New York Times article on the link between meth use and identity theft describes the grim potential in any kind of human augmentation that is ultimately destructive or dehumanizing to its user. The article notes:

When methamphetamine proliferated more recently, the police and prosecutors at first did not associate it with a rise in other crimes. There were break-ins at mailboxes and people stealing documents from garbage, Mr. Morales said, but those were handled by different parts of the Police Department.

But finally they connected the two. Meth users — awake for days at a time and able to fixate on small details — were looking for checks or credit card numbers, then converting the stolen identities to money, drugs or ingredients to make more methamphetamine. For these drug users, Mr. Morales said, identity theft was the perfect support system.

At what point does a legitimate, legal nootropic drug -- say, one designed to highten motivation and alertness, like Modafinil -- turn its user into an addicted fanatic? And if someone actually gains genuine talents from its use, how hard does it become to help them... or reign them in?

But identity thieves are difficult to generalize about because most crimes are never solved. The prevalence of meth use among identity theft suspects may say more about the state of law enforcement than about the habits of lawbreakers. In other words, meth users may simply be the easiest to catch.

In Denver, Mr. Morales said his office and the local police lacked the resources to pursue more sophisticated identity thieves who crossed jurisdictions or bought and sold identities over the Internet. On the other hand, he said, “it’s easy to get a meth addict to flip’’ and testify against others.

Nonetheless, prosecutors, police officers, drug treatment professionals, former identity thieves and recovering addicts describe a connection between meth use and identity theft that is fluid and complementary, involving the hours that addicts keep, the nature of a methamphetamine high and the social patterns of meth production and use, which differ from those of other illegal drugs.

Personally, I never thought of meth use as a "performance-enhancing substance." Even when I read about meth use by hyper-motivated students in School of Dreams, it didn't occur to me that meth addict criminals would gain any kind of advantage from their pharmaceutical weakness. But there it is. And if we end up in a world where many different forms of human enhancement become commonplace, having a clear idea of their potential impact is always a good idea. After all, the potential damage a meth user can cause is usually limited. What happens if we end up with a host of fanatics with advanced technical skills and deep-seated hostility towards society -- a kind of Unabomber-Plus? Perhaps as a result of several different augmentations that all went right, and one final enhancement that went very, very wrong.

Dark, Noo, Soc
Future Imperative

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Global Uplift -- Further Thoughts

In my June "Global Uplift" article, I asked, "Incidentally, on the subject of transcending human limitations, is anyone else getting ready to do any dramatic human augmentation projects? Preferably with multiple volunteers?"

Needless to say, I have not been overwhelmed with replies in the affirmative. But I have had a chance to discuss the above ideas, and the following question emerged in passing.

"Yet, what, if any, limits should be considered to human enhancement?"

So I offered a reply:

Perhaps my earlier suggestion didn't answer that question explicitly enough when I mentioned my own planned human enhancement drive... One reason I encouraged others to start their own human enhancement programs is because whoever starts a particularly effective program first will end up with considerable power. Or they will if they simply use their enhanced intelligence to reinvest in their own methods.

What do I mean? Any tool that improves your basic ability to think, act and innovate also enhances your ability to create yet better tools. And those better tools enhance your ability to create another, even better generation of tools beyond that. Of course, this virtuous circle assumes you not only spend your energies developing new techniques and technologies for human enhancement, but that you have sufficient willpower, energy and/or resources to implement them once they exist. That latter point is no small issue -- most people realize that eating right and exercising will lead to both improved health and brainpower, but very few people make a dedicated effort to change their lives accordingly.

Unfortunately, we are probably not talking about the average person or even the average hobbyist. Someone obsessed with this particular field, or with self-perfection, or even with personal power, could easily do all in their power to methodically transform themselves, regardless of the cost.

Another major concern over biotech- and cybernetic-based human augmentation is that we may force people to use these drugs, genemods, implants, whatever in order to be able to participate in society -- to get a job, to get into college, to interact with "normal" citizens. After all, if everyone around is, say, roughly ten times as smart, how can you possibly contribute, especially intellectually?

And, of course, there's the fear that cybernetic and biotech modifications will dehumanize people even as they improve them. There are real concerns here, and reasons to proceed carefully. Hence, my own augmentation program focuses on non-invasive techniques and technologies. One hope I have for a dispersed effort by many different groups owing no particular allegiance to one another is a chance to get different perspectives on whatever biotech methods some groups inevitably *do* use. And perhaps some greater Net-awareness of the more dangerous drugs or augmentations some groups experienced in their haste to become "first adopters."

(Incidentally, if anyone thinks there's no active, public experimentation with "smart drugs," please see this report by the Washington Post. And note that the drugs most often mentioned, like Ritalin and Adderall, aren't known for being particularly safe or even "smart.")

So my reply to the question of what limits should exist is more of a procedural method than a hard line. I suggest that we find a surplus of healthy, non-invasive tools for enhancing overall human abilities, especially intellectual and creative talents. With that base level of safe, proven technology, people who spurn some or all biotech enhancements will have a reasonable alternative. They may still fall behind, but only the most absolute bio-conservatives will risk falling into a "genetic underclass."

Rest assured, this won't solve every problem. A lot of the effective, "effortless" techniques (like sensory deprivation or floatation tanks) take serious money and/or time. And many of the other known, well-tested methods for improving human performance require serious effort or at least willpower. For example, that esoteric, semi-mystical Path known as "exercise." (Mundane, yes, but a card very few seem to play...)

I'm not politically active, so I'll leave the legal debate over exactly what technologies should be banned to others. In practice, I believe gene therapy targeting genetic deficiencies/illnesses will be accepted as soon as it is safe and reliable. I also suspect we will face considerable pressure to legalize the safer nootropic (mind-enhancing) drugs, if only because of foreign competition. This pressure will only heighten if no one has access to the kind of non-invasive augmentation resources I mentioned earlier.

Still, if all we immediately do is therapeutic genetic modification and allow some nootropic nutrients, some people could still be experiencing significant enhancements. For example, what if you're reading this, you're a guy, and you discover you're one of those men who has a genetic defect which reduces IQ by an average of 20 points? (See link, in the article above.) Would it be therapy to fix that defect, or an augmentation? Given that the average IQ hovers around 110 (rising slowly over the decades) and most tests cap at 180 or below, a 20 or even 10 or 15 point shift for a moderately bright person could be staggering.

And let's not even go into the controversies which might surface if we had an intellectual enhancement that was for "men only" and only "certain men" at that. =)

So in summary, I think the question may not be to limit human enhancement right off the bat, but to get out ahead of the emergence of biotech-, cybernetic- and AI-based superintelligence, to give people options, and then be in a position to regulate, restrict, or, if the public chooses, ban whatever categories of augmentation they wish.

I realize this may seem like a tall order for those lacking political connections, but I'm not suggesting a political push, myself. The particular variant augmentation program I'm planning on is apt to be a bit expensive if I push through a group of ten people... being intensive, and requiring expensive pieces of equipment like float tanks, while refusing the stimulus of smart drugs. My version could easily push half a million in U.S. dollars, making it the sort of thing most of us wouldn't do lightly.

But this is where other people could conceive their own programs. Consider, my effort will be so expensive because of the numbers of people involved, the need to shore up motivation in some participants over a six-week period (including an intensive, full-time 3-week push), the cost of equipment and the cost of having to replace the contribution of smart drugs.

Someone who is on their own or with a couple of self-motivated friends could acquire far less if any hardware, skip the need for separate facilities, and decide for themselves their position on smart drugs. Their enhancement drive could be extraordinarily effective on just several hundred or a few thousand dollars/euros.

A completely different wrinkle in the "should we limit human enhancement" question is a very basic one -- what do you do about the people who don't care about your ban? Whether in other countries or simply competitors who are using technologies you haven't thought to restrict yet, what do you do about all the people who can evade or ignore your ban, and who simply leave you in the dust as a result?

As I've pointed out elsewhere, it would be the easiest thing in the world for someone with business interests and the knowledge and resources to start a program such as I've suggested to start it up -- for themselves. All you need are some employees in key positions -- scientists, inventors, executives, engineers, writers, designers, architects, etc -- and an effective system for radically enhancing their abilities. Sure, many of your secrets will leak out eventually, but that's why you keep reinvesting some of your intelligence in enhancing your overall enhancement program.

Ultimately, someone with the resources to do something like this could simply do it for themselves, and concentrate all that power into their own hands. I don't particularly like the notion of putting that much power into as few hands as possible, but in many ways, that's a decision we can all make now. By either acting, or not acting.

Future Imperative