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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.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Surviving the End of the World (Your Choice of Apocalypse) - Part II

This post should actually be Part I.V of this extended article, but I just wanted to add a quick note to the original piece. I commented earlier on the Imagestream forum:

Here's another thought I've shared in these "dystopian future" discussions on the same forum:

"One interesting question worth considering with any potential, massive disruption of the world's status quo is whether or not such desperate times would actually force people to change some of their bad habits in response. Frankly, there's a lot of things that individuals would never consider doing willingly -- living with another family, working in a community garden, recycling all resources, learning to build and maintain alternative energy sources -- that they would jump on in a heartbeat in order to survive.

"To me that's the biggest possible "plus" to any truly disastrous or disruptive event -- that perhaps more lives will be saved in the long run by forcing people to reject self-destructive strategies in favor of ones that actually, demonstrably *work.*"

Once I've gotten my thoughts down, I'll send some initial thoughts to the list on practical measures that could be used to enhance our daily living/economic competitiveness/local quality of life while also making us better prepared for major disasters, and enabling us to contribute to staving them off.

That's all I have for now, but the brainstorming mentioned above is, rest assured, in progress. I'm terribly fussy where my own survival is concerned, much less with that of my family and friends.

Future Imperative

Of Tractors and Transformers

Someone just posted on a futurists' forum:

Wow, I just saw this on youtube? Come on, now! There's no way this thing is real...is there?


To which I replied:
I've seen a number of pseudo-mecha out there like it, Trammel, but remember, just because something looks vaguely mecha-like doesn't mean it has any real combat capabilities, and even if we had a real mech unit, it wouldn't necessarily be even as effective as a normal tank.

After all, what are the classic mech abilities? To be able to walk, to fire weapons and perhaps to pick up objects? A smaller, man-sized or slightly larger suit of power armor might be useful to infantry troops or SWAT teams facing heavy weapons, but being higher off the ground isn't necessarily an advantage when people are shooting at you. Note, for example, that the cockpit shown in this video seems to fairly exposed to hostile fire. Certainly it could be armored, but wouldn't increasing the mass of the upper half of the machine make that much more unwieldy? Even if it can walk in the first place?

That doesn't mean large devices which can walk, lift and have integrated, extremely powerful tools (as opposed to weapons) are useless -- even a "transformer"-style truck/robot could extremely practical. Why? If you have the technology, why not construct a powered shell capable of working with heavy materials and equipment with its "hands"? For example, why not build a robot of that type which can cut down and move trees, or excavate rock, soil and clay? Heck, why not a smaller version capable of moving heavy loads? The transformer aspect would come into play if your designs were sophisticated and reliable enough to change back and forth from robot-with-articulated-hands to simple truck. You could move your vehicle around on roads in one form, and walk into rough terrain and do your heavy work in the other.

This isn't as wild a notion as you might think -- there are still plenty of jobs where you might want to apply that kind of "muscle." And why, really, should people break their backs when machines could plausibly do the dangerous, agonizing labor themselves?

Future Imperative

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Surviving the End of the World (Your Choice of Apocalypse) - Part I

Dr. Wenger recently commented on the Yahoo Imagestream forum:

...Indeed, I now have a half-dozen people willing to exchange and do some problem-solving together on the matter. (I have to get key information together and to them before I take off for South Africa several days hence.) That nucleus may be the start we need, especially since the task as I see it is to generate enough good ideas for contingency that as more of the crunch arrives people won't spiral all the way down into panicked hopelessness. The ideas will have had at least a minimal circulation and will be there in the back of people's awareness to be called-upon. National and world politics being what they are, the problem itself is going to get a lot worse before enough people are sufficientlty motivated to take actual significant action, I don't see any likely solutions to THAT problem; we are on track of the one possible solution that I've thus far seen to the main complex of problems. There are a few other things I must do soon to remain on track, however.

In human affairs, the geometric shortest distance between two points is a very zigzaggy line.

I responded:
I think I'll start that discussion in a minor way simply by posting a short exchange regarding general survival issues I had on another forum, found here:

Though I haven't elaborated on these points yet in this conversation, there are ways we can all draw people's attention to these problems while also addressing them ourselves *and* preparing ourselves for the consequences if they are not dealt with.

"Grimwell" is the handle of the person starting this thread. I'm "Dry Observer."


Quoting Dry Observer in another thread...

Your point about people dying off before they could react is exactly what I've been talking about in our disaster-preparedness discussions, Grimwell. If people have at least some margin of safety and some time to plan when the world starts coming apart, they're far more likely to survive and choose viable strategies than if they immediately end up as a starving refugee. Which is why I try to encourage people to plan for these kinds of problems.

A month of rice and other food, clean drinking water, an independent power supply and a place to live in relative safety -- these are the basics
everyone should be trying to insure in the event of an emergency. And for a long term emergency, some survival skills, critical equipment, the ability to replace/repair your most important technologies, and hopefully some friends and neighbors who can share the resources and survival skills you lack -- these are exactly what you need to carry on if everything shuts down for a couple months or years of rebuilding
(see Katrina) or if your corner of society shuts down and doesn't look like it's ever coming back...

A very valid hope, for a very valid concern should the underpinnings of the current world structure fail -- most people simply lack the preparedness, basic resources, and knowledge to survive a 'die off' event from happening. As DO observes, it's really not that hard to be prepared and survive the initial fest, but I'd counter that few people in the 'civilized world' are interested in stocking up on a big bag of rice, let alone knowing how to cook it in water that does not come out of the faucet and end up on their stovetop... when you tell people to be ready -- you are the crazy one.

Assuming that a goal is to prevent millions (or billions according to some resources) of people from dieing in a post-post-modern event, how do we convince people that they should take some basic precautions to get over the first major bumps? DPH is about future tracking, can we sort out how to choose a future we want? Or do we let 'em rot and pick the gold from their fillings when the bones dry out?

Dry Observer:
I'd break that question down into two parts, Grimwell.

One: How do I survive, and how do I help the people I care about personally?

Two: How does society, or as much of the population as possible, both in my country and around the world, survive?

Both questions are challenging. I submit that the second question is as much about preventing societal disintegration as it is about keeping large numbers of people alive afterwards, because so many of the resources that would sustain multitudes post-collapse would be useful in staving off disaster beforehand.

For example, suppose your country can generate enough electricity and/or heating/cooling by alternative means such as wind, hydro-electric, geothermal and tidal power to maintain electrical power across your nation's power grid. There would still be issues of maintaining the equipment, replacing parts (though there would fewer involved than in your typical nuclear reactor or coal plant) and maintaining the electrical grid itself. Over a sustained period, remote areas far from power sources would be increasingly likely to lose their connection.

Nevertheless, this kind of resource would be to your country what a big bag of rice, stacks of canned goods, fresh water, propane and can opener would be to an adaptable survivor -- at least a potential short term lease on life. It doesn't solve all your problems, just like having food doesn't necessarily protect you from, say, roving bands of marauders. But it does help enormously with at least one challenge.

Regarding the first question, I think there's a point to be made about protecting your friends and loved ones. Though protecting those you care about seems like a purely altruistic decision, it's actually a very good survival strategy. Remember, if you are in a place which is relatively safe, having people around you that you can trust, who have some resources and skills to offer for the sake of communal survival can be absolutely vital. This is why some rural communities are apt to hang together even after a relatively devastating breakdown (at least in the short to medium term).

But having friends and family to call on, and whom you may have already helped out, can be good even for someone in the city who is convinced they will have to leave if something *really* bad happens.

For example, let's say you're a guy living in a major city. Let's call you "Warren" and the city, "London." Let's say you have a dependent or close friend you might want to get out of the city with you, or at least a teddy bear or something. What possible preparations can you make? (Since this covers a lot of us in urban areas, please think of this example in terms of your own life or that of some city-dwelling friend.)

Well, let's say our "Warren" has a little extra money saved, but can't necessarily afford his own personal, fully stocked and equipped retreat-farm in the British countryside, much less to hire someone to man it and drive off vandals or looters. But maybe he does know a friend or three with whom he could stay if things got bad in the city.

Great. But most farms could use a little hardening to handle a post-industrial world, so maybe he could use some of his (relatively meager) survival funds to help a couple of these friends install micro-hydro generators in their farms' creeks, or to get a special water purifier or ham radio or something (your priorities, after food, water and power, will vary). Maybe he actually stores a little extra food and water at each of these sites as an insurance policy. If things come apart, then, depending on "which way the fallout's blowing" and where he can get to, he'll pick just one of these places to go to. So if he arrives, his food and water are taken care of, and he'll just be another set of hands and skills. (Safety in numbers.) And any resources he's helped to acquire, like an independent power supply, will contribute substantially to the survival and welfare of his group.

I could go further into this strategy, and eventually I will. But the point is that generosity and an ability to work well with others can be critical survival traits -- for those who plan ahead. And that safety in numbers is more than a cliche, if you pick your ground and your companions well. Arguably, many of these ecological developments and alternative communities here in the U.S. could be excellent places to go to ground and survive... assuming they could protect themselves.

And that's another element of "safety in numbers." The larger the working, benevolent society around you, the less likely you are to be overwhelmed by one of the worst threats in most forms of collapse -- large numbers of desperate human beings. Yes, the welfare of those around you is a definite issue, and if you can't do much about the situation of your world or your country, you may still be able to keep your local city on its feet for as long as possible.

And again, every month of lead time you buy is that much more time for everyone involved to make plans and muster resources.

Future Imperative

Monday, September 25, 2006

Fire and Forget -- Automating the Construction of Our Automated Weapons

Skunk Works photograph

New Scientist reports on Lockheed Martin's unmanned aircraft, the Polecat, which is partially manufactured from "printed" parts. The article notes:

...the Polecat unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a 28-metre flying wing, weighing four tonnes. It was designed in part to test cheaper manufacturing technologies.

...And since UAVs tend to crash more often than piloted planes, the race is on among UAV makers to make them cheaper. The Skunk Works thinks a technique called 3D rapid prototyping, or "3D printing", is the best way to lower costs.

...In rapid prototyping, a three-dimensional design for a part - a wing strut, say - is fed from a computer-aided design (CAD) system to a microwave-oven-sized chamber dubbed a 3D printer. Inside the chamber, a computer steers two finely focused, powerful laser beams at a polymer or metal powder, sintering it and fusing it layer by layer to form complex, solid 3D shapes.

The technique is widely used in industry to make prototype parts - to see if, for instance, they are the right shape and thickness for the job in hand. Now the strength of parts printed this way has improved so much that they can be used as working components.

Reportedly 90% of the Polecat was made from composite materials, many of them shaped by rapid prototyping. Frank Mauro, director of UAV systems at the Skunk Works, says the entire Polecat airframe was constructed using low-cost rapid prototyping methods and materials, resulting in order of magnitude reductions in fabrication and assembly time.

This kind of step forward in manufacturing has many implications, both good and bad. First, as Jamais Cascio has pointed out, we're already moving into an era in which paramilitary groups, terrorist organizations and petty warlords will be able to manufacture their own advanced weapons from "tabletop" manufacturing systems. But the fact that rapid prototyping has advanced to the point that we can now make part of an airframe -- a structure that has to endure serious stresses in its routine use -- out of these composites, then the scope of what can be built by cutting-edge desktop factories has obviously outpaced the expectations of all but their wildest enthusiasts.

What does that mean for the rest of us? On the one hand, even more advanced weapons could end up in the hands of the world's very worst people. On the other, those of us who have access to such technologies in the advanced world will soon be in a position to manufacture more and more complex products and equipment, thus reducing our dependence on global supply chains and enabling innovative people and companies to turn inventions and refinements into reality with a simple change of the digital plans in our Fab Labs and RepRaps. (Slang for replicating rapid prototyping machines.)

From a civilian point of view, on the one hand you have a technology custom made for the inspired inventor and the innovative company. On the other, this puts resources in the hands of small groups that could be used to dramatically develop areas in the third world which are normally cut off from our global industrial base... and which could also be used to rebuild areas temporarily or permanently cut off from outside help due to a disaster. (For example, those towns and rural areas in the U.S. lacking in power for months after Hurricane Katrina.)

Future Imperative