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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, November 24, 2006

That Light in the Tunnel Is the Headlamp of an Oncoming (Toy) Train -- Bio-Feedback Awakens

Wired notes Hitachi's announcement of a neural-imaging-based brain-computer interface -- basically a control that in this case enables you to turn a train set on and off just by thinking about it. Wired comments:

The difference this time is that Hitachi's system doesn't invasively co-opt the nervous sytem, instead using a topographic modelling system to measure blood flow in the brain, translating the images into signals that are sent to the controller. So far, this new technique only allows for simple switching decisions, but Hitachi aims to commercialize it within five years for use by paralyzed patients and those undergoing "cognitive rehabilitation."

There's a couple of interesting ramifications to this biofeedback-like control. One, this is a kind of brain-machine interface much more likely to be accepted by the public than cybernetic implants, and is probably a far safer option too. This tool may also presage a greater interpenetration of society by biofeedback controls (whether standard EEGs or this bloodflow-scanning-based system), which are apt to teach people to use neurofeedback techniques with greater and greater facility. And neuro/biofeedback training can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching people to reduce stress, enhance mental function, and generally bring unregulated bodily processes under their conscious control.

Another twist we could see with these kinds of interfaces may mirror the emergence of texting -- apparently inefficient control systems that are used furiously by people who have grown up with them and developed great facility in them. Imagine what could happen if we get a standardised interface like Hitachi's, and then we get a generation of youngsters who can do increasingly complex things with them, like out-typing the fastest typists, manipulating images or willing original music into being, note-by-note. Since we don't have people who have trained themselves from pre-school in this fashion, we don't really know what the potential or the limits for this kind of technology actually are.

Cyber, Mind, Soc
Future Imperative

The Numbers Movie and Other Observations

The Numbers Movie is an interesting "women's perspective" on happiness and detachment. Normally I focus a bit more on technology and innovation on this site, but I think this short film is worth sharing on aesthetic grounds alone. I can also see a number of ways in which it directly applies to the subject of human enhancement -- specifically because it doesn't say anything about technology, power, money, innovation or other hard, "crunchy" factors clearly driving the field.

Why would such a thing matter? Because there are two terrible weaknesses of the field is that anyone can see. Number one -- enhancement resources exist that amount to simple exercises anyone can do... and they're often ignored, sometimes because people don't want to believe something "can be that easy," even when they've tested it out and "know better," sometimes because they're just bad at developing productive habits (like eating right and exercising) and sometimes because people are so busy "trying to fit it into my schedule" or "making sure that I do it right" that they never get started on them in the first place.

Number two -- people interested in more tech-heavy methods of augmenting humans often dismiss "ordinary means" of self-improvement... like having a healthy sense of detachment, and a perspective on what truly matters in your life. Frankly, I'm worried that too many such enthusiasts are crippling themselves -- and to no purpose, particularly in the case of fanatical tech-boosters whose particular means of self-augmentation hasn't actually arrived yet (be it an AI-god, personal uploading, cybernetic implants, etc). Why cut yourself off from resources that can help you in the here and now on the theory that one day such insights or personal skills will be rendered obsolete by a Singularity techno-rapture?

The other reason this tool is important should be obvious -- there are a lot of people out there who really want to get their wondertech or world-altering movement or revolutionary theories out there in front of the public. And too many people are willing to just post on the Internet or run the usual gamut of venture capitalists or use other conventional strategies to gain notice and resources.

Contrast that approach with the folks behind this item, who used fade-ins of static pictures (if spectacular ones), some nice music and a handful of well-turned phrases to generate one heck of an advertisement for their product.

I mean, all that for a free newsletter? And meanwhile, we've got guys licking stamps to send out their latest bone-dry grant proposals. Time to step it up, people.

Which brings me to my final point. As I've noted before, way too many individuals in the human enhancement field seem to think a single breakthrough in a particular area they favor (and perhaps work in) is going to Save Us All in a single blinding instant -- whether it's nano's True Assembler, AIs Silicon godling, neurology/neural networking's Final Upload, or what have you. As such, too many researchers and enthusiasts seem to discount what others would consider basic steps towards achieving their goals -- refinement and expansion of their existing (mundane) gifts and talents, securing financial means to pursue those interests, or promoting their ideas in the larger world.

Personally, I think that's a formula for having little if any influence on the course of the technology, science and social and economic trends arising from human enhancement breakthroughs. After all, you've just seen what "mere mortals" using relatively conventional talents can do on what was likely a very limited budget. Imagine what any of us could do with augmented, possibly superhuman abilities and the will to use them. But if you refuse to use the full range of your talents, even if you are a dramatically optimized "superhuman," you will be a mere shadow of your potential self. And if you fail to optimize at all, because the most practical means of doing so were right in front of you and you refused to use them -- 'cause they were "too fuzzy," "too sentimental," "too organic" or "too mushy" -- well, you'll just end up a hapless peasant in the shining realms and soaring citadels of Your Future Liegelords.

Congratulations. At least you didn't surrender your faith, your principles and the One True Way to Enlightenment.

Future Imperative

Monday, November 20, 2006

Jolting Your Neurons to Life: What Can Frankenstein Teach Us About the Economy?

Two more commentators responded to this post by briefly debating whether enhancing intelligence would simply put more smart people out of work (by devaluing their main asset) or present more opportunities for everyone as a result of a great improvement in society's ability to adapt and innovate.

I commented...

I understand where you're coming from ..., but I generally agree with what ... wrote above about intelligence and employment/opportunity.

I will grant you that there are intelligent, motivated people who are unemployed -- even well-trained and/or well-educated ones. After all, sometimes whole career fields come to an abrupt end, and either employment shrinks to a tiny minority (the world's best hand-illuminator of ancient manuscripts) or simply disappears (assembly-line painters of automobiles, watching the robots do twice the job in half the time using three-quarters of the paint).

But here's the thing... If human beings can be made substantially smarter overall -- nothing seemingly revolutionary, just pushing everyone a couple noticeable steps up the ladder in terms of average, overall intelligence, creativity and learning ability -- then you will swiftly see a revolutionary change in terms of economic productivity and scientific and technological progress.
Imagine, your average scientists become brilliant, your well-above-average scientists become geniuses, and your genius scientists become de facto superhumans, at least within the limits of their fields.

And this result is replicated in every single field of endeavor on the planet.

Is it true that many jobs, career fields and even industries will speedily drop into the dustbin of history? Yes, just as we once all gave up flint-knapping. We will move on to new jobs, new technologies and new products as stunning progress ushers them in.

But the vast increase in wealth made available by such changes, and tremendously enhanced human ability to cope with and take advantage of change will help people retrain for new work far faster than before. And meanwhile, smarter government, industry and NGO decisions will lead to better support for individuals in transition.

Could all of the above fall apart very quickly if large numbers of people become technically skilled but become (or remain) morally bankrupt? Absolutely. Which is one reason it would be wise to consider what kinds of ethics it would be wise to propogate in society as a whole and among enhancement first-adopters in particular.

But on the whole, I think uplifting as much of humanity as possible, more or less at the same time, is not only a good idea in terms of social, economic and technological progress, but also in terms of preventing an egregious concentration of immense power in the hands of some kind of self-selected elite.

Bio, Mind, Noo, Self, Soc
Future Imperative

Jolting Your Neurons to Life: Is this Just About Frankenstein, or Something More?

A Mr. Farlops offered the following comment on this subject on Betterhumans...

I mentioned rTMS a few times on this site too.

The thing is, as I last recall, Dr. Snyder's results haven't yet been verified by other researchers (Please, if someone knows more about this, let me know.) and the effect is temporary.

It seems to effect narrow areas of human mental ability as well, improving our pattern recognition, short and medium term memory and verbal ability. It's as if rTMS temporarily throws us into an autistic savant state. I think what's happening here is not an enlarging of the brain's performance envelope but sacrifice of some abilities to favor others, a temporary optimization.

I replied...

Actually, I think you're right about the effect of rTMS, Mr. Farlops. Perhaps Dr. Snyder or another researcher will make that technique a little faster, easier and more effective, and without weakening other brain functions in the meantime. Or maybe not.

However, by including that particular phenomena under the generalized heading of "electrical currents that can enhance your brain," I may have distracted you from the main point of the post. The other methods -- using weak currents to enhance memory or verbal skills, or CES to effect various enhancements -- _do_ seem to be clearly positive interventions, and with further refinement could be used on a much more regular basis, with potentially a far greater synergistic, even snowballing impact.

I should also clarify -- I don't think these electro-magnetic manipulations are the only simple means by which human intelligence and/or specific cognitive skills can be enhanced to a significant degree. On the contrary, while I was aware of some of this research, I am actually surprised by how far it has come. But these various, independently developed technologies are symbolic of the much larger human augmentation field. There are many, many tools right now that can boost human minds, and while some have serious drawbacks -- for example, the most dangerous of "nootropic" drugs, such as Ritalin -- the question remains: If you can improve your recall by a twelfth, sharpen your verbal skills, become dramatically motivated by a dose of Modafinil, and so on, at what point do you become "superhuman" in your capabilities? At what point does your company or organization become vastly more productive and powerful, as even its most mediocre members become effective geniuses? If not better?

"Disclaimer": Yes, there are also a lot of potentially dangerous methods out there, like all the college students freebasing on Ritalin while cramming for tests. And there's a fair question whether some tools can seriously alter your personality -- like those folks who report being super-energized, focused and motivated by Modafinil... who also report losing interest in family and friends with no connection to their work. Even a "motivation pill" with no other side effects might be a bit too much for many people to swallow. But there's also quite a few things that seem to be relatively harmless and simple, and which could be quite readily combined.

Making the first transhuman may not require AI, nanotech, cybernetics or a multi-billion-dollar budget. It may simply require putting together enough of the puzzle pieces already scattered all around us.

Or to put it another way, you may not be waiting on the Singularity.

The Singularity may be waiting on you.

Bio, Noo, Mind, Soc, Self
Future Imperative