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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.

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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, February 17, 2011

Because the Future Is Coming Fast

I am reactivating this Future Imperative blog for a number of reasons, but most importantly because the future itself seems even more pressing, more imminent and more radical than it did five years ago. There are many powerful forces at work in the world today, and this blog will be looking more and more at the currents that are seemingly invisible, but which can rise up like a surfer's wave or shift into a deadly riptide. And unlike the tides you find at the seashore, these powers are neither charted nor widely understood.

Indeed, many people do not even realize some of them exist. This blog will be about more than just enumerating the problems, however, but ways they can best be dealt with. But in order to meet these challenges, we must first know that they exist, be able to take their measure.

So to begin, we have...

Peak Energy

Peak oil is a straightforward concept -- we have a limited amount of oil and other non-renewable fuels, and one day each of these resources will run out. Peak oil tells us that at some point in the process of exhausting those resources, we will hit a moment in which we are extracting the most of that material (per day or per year) that we ever will. This turning point (particularly for oil) usually comes at roughly the midpoint of extraction, when only about half that resource is left. Worse, the first half of that resource -- be it oil, coal or natural gas -- is invariably the easiest half to extract. The latter half always takes more time, energy and raw materials (such as drilling rigs and pipelines) to tap, and in the case of oil and coal becomes increasingly dirty as well.

What most people do not understand is how heavily dependent the world is on its three key fossil fuels: especially oil. Oil not only provides the overwhelming majority of modern transportation fuel, but is raw material behind plastics, pharmaceuticals and most synthetics. Natural gas, on the other hand, is the source of most of the world's inorganic fertilizers.

The world is almost certainly near, at or just past this point of peak oil production, with coal and gas getting ever closer to peaking as well. While I am generally an optimist, very little in the way of renewable-energy alternatives are in place in most of the industrialized world, and after an initial slow drop or plateau of production after peaking -- as seen again and again in the peaking of oil production in every nation that has experienced it -- the drop off in production becomes quite precipitous. Our world, on the other hand, lacks the skills and infrastructure to simply go back to a low-energy lifestyle... among other problems, many regions are far more heavily populated than they were in pre-industrial times. Britain, for example, has around ten times its pre-industrial population.

Which brings us to our next concern...

Climate Change

There are a number of dire threats related to climate change, from rising sea levels to species extinction to a fatal acidification of the oceans to an outgassing of methane that could drive us into a runaway heatup of the entire planet. But for now, I will only discuss one situation -- food production.

For some time, climatologists have warned that shifts in climate and unstable weather could severely hurt crop production worldwide. These predictions, however, were usually set sometime in the nebulous future -- if specified at all, then typically indicated as being years if not a few decades away. And yet if the series of horrendous weather events we have seen in 2010 and early 2011 is any indication -- and not merely a bizarre confluence of highly improbable events -- then this time of faltering and then falling food production may already be upon us.

The droughts in Russia, the flooding in Pakistan, the drought in western Australia and the floods in eastern Australia, the desertification of cropland in China, the collapse of the "fossil" water tables in India... combined with more minor events, such as the Midwestern ice storm affecting winter wheat in the U.S., and major damage to vegetables in Mexico and southern China, these suggest a planet whose agriculture is already in crisis. In many less wealthy nations, people normally spend up to half of their income on food, and food prices have risen dramatically in the last year. Some will point to financial speculation as a culprit, and I will not try to unravel how much of the price of rice or wheat is work of investors and how much is driven by underlying conditions. What is clear is that underlying conditions have become dire, and need to be either dealt with, or grimly endured.


The Economy

Needless to say, the disastrous consequences of radical financial speculation are only aggravated by factors such as rising energy costs, resource depletion, an inflation in food costs combined with a drop in its availability, not to mention dealing with large-scale natural disasters from Haiti to Russia to Pakistan to Australia, and the existence or threat of war, terrorism and/or violent revolution in many unstable regions.

The economy is an odd beast, and very often becomes healthier when "starved" of its excesses. But all too many people seem to feel that the food eaten by others, or the clothes on their backs, are an egregious excess, rather than a necessity, or do not think about such issues at all. Hence, unhealthy forms of competition are all too prevalent. And, of course, the economy needs a certain level of resources to operate lest its existing structures all collapse catastrophically. And many individuals and organizations resist radically reforming or shutting down wildly inefficient industries and practices until it is too late to do either gracefully.

Yet as the dangers posed by energy, environmental and economic threats have become impossible to ignore, a host of tactics and strategies have emerged in response to them. Further, some forces already in motion have been responding to the global crisis (or crises) as it has become more pressing, whether due to foresight, inherent flexibility, or some combination thereof.

Crowdsourcing, Opensource, DIY Technology, Ebooks, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet

These six could each be their own category, but together they symbolize something larger than what they are today. Crowdsourcing -- letting the public complete tasks for you on their own initiative, such as creating smartphone and other software apps -- and opensource -- a conscious cooperative effort to create software, often major software such as Linux... these are forms of cooperation which have transformed software research. Google, Apple, Microsoft -- the titans of the computer industry have all embraced crowdsourcing for creating phone apps, because having potentially thousands of bright, talented programmers lending you hand for little or no money and with no gatekeepers to keep them from initiating a project... Well, that quirk alone is transformative.

But you could argue quite a few breakthroughs today have been opensourced, from peaceful revolutions in North Africa to SETI@Home's use of private PCs for breaking down and processing masses of data to DARPA's open competitions for key technological achievements. The more minds that can be effectively and intelligently leveraged, especially to a constructive end, the more powerful this technique becomes.

Similiarly, opensource research has produced some formidable projects, most notably computer operating systems other than either Windows or Apple's OS. Indeed, this technique is a subculture in itself, wherein pride in one's contribution and private recognition are typically the only rewards available.
Do-it-yourself technology, featured on sites such as Make and Instructables, has also tapped a pool of volunteer gadgeteers, inventors and experimenters to make physical technology and scientific research available to individual creators, tinkers and visionaries as never before. Whether using Arduino pre-programmed microcontrollers or DIY biotech data archives and prepared "bio-bricks" of standardized biological feedstocks, or simply using websites or YouTube to show how to use these or other tools to build innovative technologies... the DIY technology movement has gotten the painstaking details out of the way so that you can go ahead and be creative, and accomplish whatever you are trying to do.
Speaking of getting things out of the way, Ebooks have become a major new force in the publishing world. As one writer told me, "You sell each book for less money. But the writer gets much more per sale than they ever got for a paperback. It used to be that of all the people making money off of a book, the writer always got the least. With Ebooks, you get almost all of it." This change is interesting for any number of reasons, but in addition for cutting out the "middlemen" who absorb so much money with each conventional sale, while adding very little of value, the other profound change is an elimination of "gatekeepers." Or rather, once you can get your book out in front of the public, every individual who might get a chance to buy it becomes their own gatekeeper. The change is profound, in part because it is symbolic. I will discuss this factor further in other posts. But for now, it worth realizing that as individuals and organizations become more empowered, there are fewer and fewer gatekeepers to tell them "no" when they work towards something constructive. Which means the limits to your accomplishments have more and more to do with the resources available or accessible to you, and the talent and drive with which you use them.

Which brings us, of course, to the Internet. So much has been said about the Web that little more needs to be discussed here. Suffice to say that it is making a host of new interactions possible, not just a narrow spectrum of pop-up ads and global outsourcing. But in the end, it is only a tool. The quality of what is said upon it, and the degree to which the better ideas it transmits get noticed, in the end means everything.

Still, remember that all the crowdsourcing, opensourcing, DIY movements and Ebooks would be far less potent or even impossible without the medium of the Net, a power which also feeds the fierce competition between a host of long-standing and newly emerged tech giants, and the startup operations to follow. So long as it remains with us -- and there are plenty of ways to keep it up even in dire regional or global circumstances -- it will continue to foster this competition of ideas, and its own strange quest for human attention.

I have discussed IBM's Watson project elsewhere, but AI is one more tool that will be empowered by the Web. Watson appears to be a basic artificial intelligence, or something close enough. In essence, Watson or its immediate descendant will be able to follow orders. A machine that can understand the vague, imprecise language of a human and respond to it in a consistently intelligent way will be able to take the host of designs and tools and apps we have already standardized for human use and increasingly be able to use them at the spur of the moment for its human owner. Which is yet another force clearing away the detritus that slows useful human activities, especially many of the most productive ones, which once again changes the game for us all.

And that brings me to those most affected by, and those who will most effect, all of the above resources...

Human Enhancement and Human Augmentation

Essentially two phrases saying much the same thing, human enhancement means techniques and technologies that help human beings become better -- healthier, smarter, stronger, faster, better -- whereas human augmentation does much the same thing, only with an emphasis on methods that physically intrude upon and significantly alter the human body. But these two fields are incredibly fuzzy in terms of what truly makes them up.

For example, almost any medical research can be plausibly described as having human enhancement as a secondary use, because in understanding things well enough to heal them, we also learn how they can be improved. Meanwhile, arguably almost anything profoundly helpful could be described as "enhancing" a human -- what do you call an incredibly enlightening teacher or education, or the elite training of modern Olympic athletes?

But here is where human enhancement and human augmentation, however strictly defined, come to impact on us all. We already have humans of extraordinary conventional abilities, including no few geniuses within their respective fields. What happens if those people can be substantially enhanced in terms of their intelligence, their creativity, their ability to learn new information and new skills?

What happens if not just the elite scientist, or the rare genius can be enhanced, but if powerful enhancements become widespread? What happens to all those "common folk" -- whether common or brilliant -- who are out there developing smartphone apps or DIY technologies? What happens to the speed with which they do so, the quality of the technology they produce... and the significance of the problems they choose to address in the first place?

What happens then?

Tim O'Reill once wrote of author Frank Herbert:
One of his central ideas is that human consciousness exists on--and by virtue of--a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes. All of Herbert's books portray and test the human ability to consciously adapt. He sets his characters in the most stressful situations imaginable: a cramped submarine in Under Pressure, his first novel; the desert wastes of Dune; and in Destination: Void the artificial tension of a spaceship designed to fail so that the crew will be forced to develop new abilities. There is no test so powerfully able to bring out latent adaptability as one in which the stakes are survival.

The truth is that our age is now a test, one in which the stakes are survival.

Now we must decide whether to consciously adapt, or to fall into rage or despair or oblivion... until oblivion claims us.

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