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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, September 16, 2006

A Society Short on Breath, and Other Issues...

This article from Medical News Today discusses how many people in Europe are sick and/or dying because of unhealthy lifestyle choices:

Aware of the rising costs and burden of chronic disease, countries across the WHO European Region are taking a comprehensive approach to curbing the epidemic. As many chronic diseases are closely linked to lifestyles, an estimated 80% of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancer, could be avoided if common lifestyle risk factors were eliminated. Without the engagement of a wide range of sectors and stronger health systems for better prevention and control, large numbers of people will continue to die every year from mostly preventable diseases.
The lifestyle choices leading to these problems seem fairly obvious:

Seven leading risk factors - high blood pressure, tobacco, alcohol, high cholesterol, overweight, low fruit and vegetable intake and physical inactivity - account for almost 60% of all ill health in the Region. The leading risk factors are high blood pressure for death, and tobacco for ill health. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for both ill health and death in the Region's young people, experts stress.

When considering major social problems, one thing I often see in the numbers is tremendous opportunity. In this case, note that some very simple shifts in lifestyle -- say, giving up tobacco and alcohol, getting a bit of exercise and changing the average diet... oh, and some deep breathing/meditation -- would transform the health outlook of the continent of Europe. And presumably that of the rest of the advanced world as well.

How would such a shift "change the world"? Simple. First, healthy people tend to think more clearly. Second, the tremendous human capital loss resulting from early death, dementia, debilitating conditions, etc would be dramatically reduced. And finally, advanced nations would save vast amounts of money on their medical bills.

How does this, say, bring about the Singularity? Actually, it doesn't. But there are those who argue that humanity is fundamentally stuck at its present level of combined intellectual performance. And those people tend to forget how many factors there are like this "health crisis" -- factors that if only altered slightly (if on a large scale) would turn around completely. Other conditions include warfare (a phenomenal waste of life and resources), the arms race (still effectively going on amongst countries, if only in the form of "upgrades"), the lack of children's vaccinations in the Third World and elsewhere, illiteracy, poor education, too few students acquiring education, too few workers being employed to the best of their abilities, excessive pollution, and energy sources that are both overpriced and destructive to the environment.

If only a few of these issues were solved, the resources freed up could be challenged to far more productive ends. That doesn't mean that they would. But leaving aside all the non-traditional means we have and will soon have to amplify human abilities, there are still many ways in which human society could collectively become far, far more powerful and brilliant that it is now.

Future Imperative

Robotic Scouts -- Ready to Penetrate Enemy Territory and Seize... Your Job!

This article from Wired discusses:
...the challenge facing robots currently being developed by the U.S. Air Force.

Rather than maneuver driverless through miles of rough desert terrain, these will have to find their way into underground bunkers, map unknown facilities in three dimensions and identify what's in them while avoiding detection -- all without any human control.

This is well beyond the capability of any existing system, but the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is putting its hopes on new software that lets robots learn, walk, see and interact far more intelligently than ever before.

It's based on work by Stephen Thaler, who came to prominence 10 years ago with his brainchild the Creativity Machine. This is software for generating new ideas
on the basis of existing ones, and it has already written music, designed soft drinks, and discovered novel minerals that may rival diamonds in hardness.

Obviously, there are two points to consider here. First, that we are developing robots not only capable of operating without human oversight, but robots capable of independently handling some pretty complex tasks. That's important, because the more complex the work robots can do without oversight, the more we can eliminate human beings from the equation in more and more work environments.

Remember, there are plenty of jobs that while not incredibly demanding on your intellect, nevertheless have traditionally required a live human being's judgement somewhere in the loop. For example, driving large trucks. If you can develop a system which can handle those basic driving challenges -- changes of route, aggressive drivers, flat tires, etc -- and which requires no rest stops, paychecks or health insurance, then you can replace every cargo truck driver in the country with a machine.

This level of decision-making ability threatens the jobs of whole classes of people, just as automation has subtracted vast numbers of workers (per unit of output) from the manufacturing industry over the years.

The other point is that the technical achievements of systems like Thaler's Creativity Machine threaten not just relatively straightforward blue collar jobs, but many creativity demanding jobs now held by run-of-the-mill engineers, inventors and scientists. If "ordinary scientists and inventors" and other research people can have their jobs automated away as well, then those people are either going to have to "raise their game" to compete on a level where the machines can't -- which is evidently still quite possible, especially with regards to inventions whose nature and parameters can not be easily defined by other humans ahead of time -- or seek employment elsewhere.

I believe it is possible to enhance human performance dramatically, even using those methods and technologies already available, much less those about to emerge from the pipeline. But this is an area in which getting started early and using effective tools from the start is a critical advantage, and one which more people in technical pursuits should be trying to utilize.

AI, Tech
Future Imperative

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

DARPA's Work to Enhance Human Performance, and What It Means...

DARPA's list of projects includes Lockheed's neurological optimization work:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT - News) $650,000 to support Phase IV of a program designed to help maintain the performance levels of military personnel working in stressful environments.

Called Improving Warfighter Information Intake Under Stress, the program monitors operators' cognitive activity, identifies conditions that may lead to sub-optimal performance, and adaptively implements intelligent strategies to help avoid performance declines. Applying recent advances in cognitive neuroscience to develop revolutionary human-computer interfaces, the technology uses a human operator's cortical electrical activity, blood oxygenation, heart rate, skin conductance and pupil dilation to monitor cognitive activity in real time. These physiological markers typically depart from norms during high workload, distraction or drowsiness.
If I have to point out the human enhancement applications of this research, then you probably need to go back and read that last paragraph again. Not only is DARPA working to eliminate the "sub-optimal" performance so dangerous to overstretched people working in dangerous and/or high-responsibility positions... but the sheer amount of data they're collecting regarding human performance in general will give them great reserves of information to draw upon for future human augmentation research.

This may sound far-fetched, but remember that the U.S. military hasn't exactly been shy in suggesting that it's interested in dramatically enhanced troops. Particularly as their missions have become more and more challenging.

Future Imperative

Men of Steel

DARPA shares this description of its exoskeleton research:

The goal of the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation Program is to develop devices and machines that will increase the speed, strength, and endurance of soldiers in combat environments. Projects will lead to self-powered, controlled, and wearable exoskeletal devices and/or machines and demonstrations of their utility in military applications. Inclusion of exoskeleton technology into land-based operations could radically alter the current military doctrine through significant increases in the load-carrying and power deliver capacity of the individual soldier. This technology will extend the mission payload and/or mission range of the soldier and increase the lethality and survivability of ground troops for short-range missions and special operations. Currently the program is evaluating exoskeleton prototypes with the goal of determining the best applications for exoskeleton technology in the near and far terms.
Obviously the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan brought the needs of individual ground troops to the forefront in military planning. Oddly enough, you could argue that the military already uses "power armor" for its individual troops... specifically, vehicles such as F-22s and A-10s. These are, after all, machines that vastly increase the abilities of the lone combatants inside them including their speed of movement, their sensory abilities, their armor and defensive countermeasures and, of course, their capacity for destruction.

But the pressures of special forces anti-terrorism work in general and the Iraq conflict in particular are reminding many observers just how vulnerable the average soldier, Marine, etc actually is, and how much s/he could benefit from a great increase in strength, speed and carrying capacity.

Perhaps you could see this as a natural evolution in how we are adapting to the rigors of modern warfare -- the fact that military conflicts have become too dangerous for ordinary, conventionally equiped humans to survive on the battlefield. Unfortunately, if past arms races are any guide, those battlefields will soon be too dangerous for anyone to survive them. Not a problem so long as those war zones are somehow distant and contained (except that they never are) and the mindless "AI" drones sent out to fight in them are happy with their lot, but not so easily dealt with when the war comes looking for you.

Despite everything we do to armor our soldiers and police, there's a critical mass we'll soon be facing -- a tipping point that hits when enough individuals and institutions know enough to be able to build weapons of mass destruction without significant outside help. A steel or titanium or diamondoid shell won't do much good against a tactical nuke or even a pandemic. (You'll have to leave the armor sometime.) Many of these tools being developed for our next-generation military sound like they'd useful indeed to our next-generation cops -- the people who will have to police terror on many different "battlefields."

These devices -- including exoskeletons, non-lethal weapons and advanced scanners -- could be invaluable in law-enforcement while becoming increasingly futile warfighting tools in a world with many ever-more-advanced and contending military forces. What's the point of bulletproof armor against explosions that can crumple it like tin foil? What's the point of sniffing out explosives when dozens of mini-missles are hurtling toward you at supersonic speeds?

One of our most pressing practical concerns in the coming decades may be to avoid as many such conflicts as possible by reducing the number of potential contenders. In other words, to get as many nations as committed to peace as possible, if only out of self-preservation or socio-economic self-interest, or at least make outright sociopathic governments and organizations as rare as possible before certain technologies become almost as common as the electric toothbrush. I will let others argue the political, economic and/or cultural elements of such a push.

I merely wish to point out what one consequence of ever-advancing technology could be -- a world in which we no longer make war because no one can afford to."

Future Imperative