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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.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Planning Ahead... Once Again

Douglas Engelbart is one of the near-forgotten visionaries behind the eventual development of the Internet. He is sometimes mentioned in this historical context, as someone whose ideas about connecting humanity to the sum total of human knowledge later took shape in architecture of ARPANet. What many people forget is that Englebart actually developed his ideas in the context of a larger plan he felt could transform human civilization... the augmentation of the human mind. His work, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, describes his position on this concept in some detail:
By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by "complex situations" we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers--whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human "feel for a situation" usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.
This work is fascinating for two reasons. One, consider that the entire Internet was conceived, first by Vannevar Bush, another augmentation enthusiast, and then by Engelbart, as arguably but a single facet of a strategy to enhance human minds and human problem-solving abilities. Second, consider that the Web, for all its vast, unfolding social, technological and economic potential, is arguably one of those tactical moves that least addresses the core question of how to enhance human minds. Though a valuable tool that provides access to great informational resources and allowing collaboration between many people (sometimes thousands or millions, in the case of open-source projects or SETI's screensaver/distributed programming effort), the Net typically has little impact on the actual function of human minds, or of the quality of their ideas... Unless you count the advantage of being exposed to viewpoints from all over the world, which unfortunately includes many distracting displays and deluded beliefs, as well as some genuine inspiration.

Engelbart lays out the demands facing the human race, even in that "simpler" post-war era:
Man's population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity. Augmenting man's intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable approach and some plausible benefits.

This introduction includes yet another insight worth mentioning -- in this case interesting for more than just historical perspective:

This report covers the first phase of a program aimed at developing means to augment the human intellect. These "means" can include many things--all of which appear to be but extensions of means developed andused in the past to help man apply his native sensory, mental, and motor capabilities--and we consider the whole system of a human and his augmentation means as a proper field of search for practical possibilities. It is a very important system to our society, and like most systems its performance can best be improved by considering the whole as a set of interacting components rather than by considering the components in isolation.

This kind of system approach to human intellectual effectiveness does not find a ready-made conceptual framework such as exists for established disciplines. Before a research program can be designed to pursue such an approach intelligently, so that practical benefits might be derived within a reasonable time while also producing results of long range significance, a conceptual framework must be searched out--a framework that provides orientation as to the important factors of the system, the relationships among these factors, the types of change among the system factors that offer likely improvements in performance, and the sort of research goals and methodology that seem promising.

These two paragraphs are laying the basic framework for an extensive, broad-based and flexible program for human enhancement -- not just focusing on a single path of development, such as genetic engineering or cybernetics, or hoping for serendipitous discoveries that can also be applied to augmentation goals, such as Alzheimer's drugs that can also enhance normal memory. Rather, Engelbart is trying to determine the key factors in human thinking and decision making, and how those factors can be influenced, and what research paths show potential, so he can create a multi-pronged strategy for transforming human abilities.

What's so fascinating about that? First, that we probably have reason to "go back to basics" and repeat his analysis today, as "flexible," "inclusive," "multi-disciplinary" and "long-range planning" are not words often associated with human enhancement research today. And second, because this is the kind of larger design researchers and strategists should be creating and re-creating on a regular basis, as technologies change, scientific discoveries emerge and new opportunities present themselves.

Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg, faculty from The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, have written their own, more modern take on this subject (with more of an ethical and regulatory slant) here: Cognitive Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges. This piece is, I think, a start, in a field in dire need of some overview and wider perspective. But even if this report were exhaustive in 33 pages, and it is not, it's the sort of thing you would want to do again and again, as the authors found out about new fields and specific enhancement resources already in existance or which emerge in the process of normal technological advancement (or a concerted human augmentation effort). But still, it's a start, though we still have a "journey of ten thousand li" ahead of us.

Bio, Mind, Noo, Soc, Tech
Future Imperative