Archives for Visions of the Future

Technological Determinism, Human Decisions

We’ve all heard the stories of inevitability: more and more transistors per square centimeter, with momentous leaps to new computing hardware whenever material capacity reaches its limit. While massively parallel, one-to-many molecular computation hardwares are certainly in the works, we should keep in mind that what looks like technological determinism from the outside is constituted by human decisions. What we call the Heaven Scenario — in which machine intelligence takes over the entire innovation process, designing super-intelligence without need of human intervention, transforming human bodies and cultures, spreading super-intelligence throughout the universe at 10 to the 90 computations per second — merely seeks pre-Heaven historical vectors, as it were. According to this narrative, all of us today are embedded within the pre-history of a cosmic Transcension. But what about this pre-history?

What if we traveled to today’s laboratories and spoke directly with the architects of each incremental advance in computer hardware, each conceptual leap on the road to Heaven? Would we be astounded by the range of plausible courses available to mankind even within this powerful narrative? Perhaps this is part of the allure of the Heaven Scenario: no one knows quite specifically how we’ll get there. We know there is a tremendous privilege afforded by the unforgiving universe and our own evolutionary endowments. In short, nothing seems to be stopping us beyond the accidents of our own history: technological lock-in, material bottlenecks, uncertainty, ignorance.

As the scholar of foresight methodologies Cynthia Selin has noted, intervening in people’s vision of the future actually intervenes in the future. In this sense the Heaven Scenario functions to alert growing numbers of people to the plausibility of a remarkable societal and cosmic modification sequence. This is the self-fulfilling prophesy aspect of Heaven: the future may hinge upon being predicted in the first place.

While claims of plausibility often merge with claims of inevitability, the Heaven Scenario is no mere hype-driven rhetorical effort to produce an outcome. If I may go Foucaldian for a moment: major steps toward the technical hardware of Transcension and Singularity are an ongoing production of real-life scientist’s and engineer’s who demonstrate an uncommon spirituality: “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself [or herself] in order to have access to the truth.” (as quoted in Paul Rabinow, 2011, The Accompaniment) Here “the truth” is a result of engaging, critiquing, and transforming inherited techniques, from textbook explanations of how things work to the instruments used to make things happen. In other words, the Heaven Scenario entails harrowing human encounters with the (human) universe.

This is easy to overlook, or treat superficially. In the face of tremendous cultural conditioning, the Heaven Scenario requires genuine insights and personal sacrifice, in millions and millions of variations. In the process, forms of cultural conditioning do not disappear suddenly in the light of Transcension. Rather, there is ever the chaos of mutual adjustments, with technical breakthroughs struggling for uptake amidst the violence of the ordinary market. Even if accidental insight or an unprovoked “Eureka!” spawns key innovations, Heaven hinges on human decisions.

This is where the Prevail Project situates its encounter with the contemporary pre-history of Heaven. We don’t just ask ornery rhetorical questions of this discourse, questions designed to dismiss the narrative’s allure such as “The Gospel according to Who?!” Rather, we consider the present moment a kind of Singularity of singularities. In the scientist, engineer, and mathematician’s spiritual quest for the truth — so to speak — we take up the call of William Faulkner to offer them a rendering of man’s lifted heart. Without man Heaven is unbelievable for this world. Thus, on man’s heart hinges the character and feeling of any Heaven that might arise. In pursuit of a discussion of these themes, and with an awareness that the Heaven, Hell, and Prevail scenarios each hinge upon present human practices, we at the Prevail Project invite participation from all walks. We’re looking for eye contact and a venue. In the months to come we will be developing strategies toward this end. Please keep posted.

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For more perspectives on transhumanism from humanistic perspectives, check out these podcasts and consider this new book.

Junot Diaz Dispatches from the Apocalypse

Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Junot Diaz has an incredibly powerful piece on the Earthquake in Haiti, and what this apocalypse has revealed about the world. The Haitian earthquake was no natural disaster, it was a social disaster compounded by centuries of poverty and looting by the ruling classes. And while Haiti is at the extreme end of the bell-curve, everywhere else is becoming more and more like Haiti, as the wealth of the ultra-rich out-strips the rest of us.

But terrible as Haiti is, and terrible as this Haitian future is, we can’t look away.

“If I know anything it is this: We need the revelations that come from our apocalypses—and never so much as we do now. Without this knowledge how can we ever hope to take responsibility for the social practices that bring on our disasters? And how can we ever hope to take responsibility for the collective response that will be needed to alleviate the misery?

How can we ever hope to change?

Because we must change, we also must refuse the temptation to look away when we are confronted with disasters. We must refuse the old stories that tell us to interpret social disasters as natural disasters. We must refuse the familiar scripts of victims and rescuers that focus our energies solely on charity instead of on systemic change. We must refuse the recovery measures that seek always to further polarize the people and the places they claim to mend. And we must, in all circumstances and with all our strength, resist the attempts of those who helped bring the disaster to use the chaos to their advantage—to tighten their hold on our futures.”

Hear hear! Do not be distracted, do not be frightened, face the future boldly and say, “I will not give in.” It is what humans do best, after all.

In A World of Rapid Change, What Kind of Critter Do You Want to Be?

There are two kinds of critters on this planet. One produces zillions of offspring, then pays scant attention to them, playing the odds that some will survive. The other produces few offspring, but nurtures each lavishly to increase their chances of being the best they can be.

Each strategy has its plusses and minuses. The upside of having few progeny is that you can shape them to most highly adapt to their existing environment. The downside is, if you lose one, the result is devastating. The upside of having lots of ankle-biters is that if the world they are born into is up for grabs, such heirs as make it to adulthood are likely to be adapters, capable of rapidly evolving. The downside is that in periods of stability, we tend to view them as under-evolved vermin – as weeds.

There are lessons here for human enterprises. If the world we’re heading into is on tumble-dry, which kinds of critters do we want to be?

Our friend Jamais Cascio of OpenTheFuture.com offers a very Prevail-ish answer: both.

Cascio notes we are in a period in which even instability is not stable. If instability were constant, then it would clearly favor the high-reproduction throw-everything-at-the-wall and see what sticks mode, even if the outcome is not optimal. But, he says, it’s not. It is punctuated by periods of consolidation. Think Silicon Valley. A new innovation produces a flood of startups striving for advantage. But eventually, a small number of highly-evolved dominant players emerge.

Therefore, it is dangerous to rely on strategies that assume the continuation of either stability or instability. “Neither relying upon scale and incumbency nor relying upon rapid-fire iteration will succeed as fully and as dependably as we might wish,” says Cascio. “We can’t rely on either the garage hacker or the global corporation to push us to a new phase of history.”

What we want is resilience. The way to get it is by having the two kinds of critters collaborating with – and feeding off – each other.

To Prevail, then, is to create a new ecosystem that we can push in the right direction. For that we need rapid humanistic social bottom-up response to rapid technological change. It doesn’t take a genius to see that states and corporations can’t seem to figure out what to do, or how to plan for tomorrow, using only their slow, legacy, top-down means. In a period where the patterns we’ve seen before don’t seem to be working right, the answer is lots of small and large components in dense networks, bringing the wisdom of the edge to the core, or even bypassing the core, and fast.

Humanistic response means ideas and decisions that take into account the unique, individual values of every human being. It means organizations that allow people to flourish and grow, rather than grind them down and burn them out. Bottom-up means humans self-organizing as useful flocks, capable of rapidly creating powerful change without relying on the merely ambitious. Think of the hundreds of millions on eBay organizing extremely complex behavior without leaders, or YouTube helping swing an American presidential election, or even Twitter, heaven help us – if it terrifies tyrants, it must be good for something. Rapid technological change means transformative revolutions like genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology, increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny – and thus, what it means to be human.

Thus, our goals: quickly forging community, integration, foresight, and wisdom. It will not be easy to achieve, but all are necessary if we are to prevail.

May we start building all this here, now.

Limitless Review

The potential implications of human enhancement is one of the main reasons why I’m at CSPO, so I was excited and a little worried when the trailer for Limitless appeared. Would Hollywood do justice to the topic, or would they make yet another trite cautionary tale?

Limitless follows one Eddie Morra, a hapless failure at the age of 35, unable to write, living in a squalid Chinatown walk-up, and recently broken up. A chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law introduces Eddie to NZT, a drug which improves intelligence. From there, he is catapulted into a whirlwind of conspiracies and violence as he tries to stay one step ahead of his own mistakes.

The theme of the movie come out most clearly in two dialogs, one with Robert De Niro’s financier, who says “Your powers are a gift, they are not earned, and you are careless with your powers.” The second comes from Eddie’s girlfriend, when she finds out that his remarkable transformation in the past few months is due to NZT, “How do I know what’s you, and what’s the drug?” These are two common critiques of human enhancement, and psychopharmaceuticals in general; that they are a false path to knowledge which should be gained through hard work, and that they alter people in ways that damage their humanity. Neither of these critiques is particularly valid. Even when pressed, bioconservatives cannot specify what it is about human beings that enhancement threatens. Francis Fukuyama takes an entire book to weakly claim the existence of his ‘Factor X’ that defines humanity, to give one example.

This is not the position I hold to. Rather than try and defend a non-existent line between treatment and enhancement, it is better to note that human beings are continually enhancing their abilities through education and technology. We invent cars to extend our legs, books to extend our minds, and teach our children so they can benefit from our mistakes. Rather than view enhancement as a danger in and of itself, it is better to analyze the features of a particular enhancement for its risks.

By that metric, Limitless’s NZT would obviously fail. It is addictive, and leads to brain damage and death. The effects of NZT, increased alertness, pattern recognition, and focus, are certainly impressive, and impressively conveyed through camera effects in the film, but are by no means worth risking serious health problems. But let’s assume the health problems of NZT are solved, which they seem to be by the end of the film. Beyond its effects on intelligence, does NZT have any effect on morality?

Eddie Morra is not a bad person, but he’s not a particularly good person either, and his plan could be described as “1) Get rich, 2) Get powerful, 3) ???”. He’s a likeable enough jerk, with enough charisma to counteract his complete lack of actual values or goals beyond immediate pleasure. In that, the continued short-sightedness of Eddie’s planning throughout the movie is a commentary on America, and how best and brightest go into finance, law, and politics rather than the practical arts. The Russian loan-shark is a terrifying figure on NZT, but he was already a criminal psychopath. What a good person, not under duress, would do with their new powers is unknown.

NZT does certainly inspire a kind of paranoid egomania. Those who can survive the effects of the drug make one of their first priorities stamping out everyone else who might be using it, or who might pose a threat to their own wealth and power. Eddie Morra is not the first, and certainly not the last, of a series of chemically enhanced wunderkinds who shake the world of Limitless. This point is one the film makes effectively; it is the secrecy and limited access surrounding NZT that cognitive enhancement so dangerous. But would a more open system of enhancement lead to a better world, or deeper and deeper levels of Machiavellian scheming? That question remains unanswered.

Cognitive enhancement is not good or bad, but it is powerful, and like all instruments of power, it should be introduced with careful consideration. Information is not knowledge, and it certainly isn’t the wisdom to know what should aim for in life. But compared to who already populates the halls of power: the ambitious, the deceptive, and those who measure lives in dollars, is Eddie Morra so much worse? He gets everything he wants, and he doesn’t even have to drink much blood to do it.

(And a note for my friends who criticize the scientific accuracy of NZT: “It lets you access 100% of your brain.” That claim is made only by a completely unreliable drug dealer who lied five second previously. The only scene that makes no sense whatsoever is the one where… well, I won’t spoil it.)

Escape from Spiderhead

Science fiction can tell us a great deal about the future because it asks us to think with all of our faculties, not just about the nuts and bolts of a technology, but about how people will use it, and shape their lives around it. George Saunders imagines a medical technology that can make people fall into and out of love, harmlessly, but medicine does not appear from thin air. It takes the hard work of researchers, and the suffering and risk of test subjects, to bring about a new miracle cure.


That is to say: a desire would arise and, concurrently, the satisfaction of that desire would also arise. It was as if (a) I longed for a certain (heretofore untasted) taste until (b) said longing became nearly unbearable, at which time (c) I found a morsel of food with that exact taste already in my mouth, perfectly satisfying my longing.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/12/20/101220fi_fiction_saunders#ixzz19eGiRoIH

What might it be like to be the subject of such an experiment? To feel chemicals flowing through you at someone else’s command, bringing with them sudden lurches of emotion and capability, new ideas that before would have been beyond dreams? Yes, this is science fiction, but as controversy over ‘female Viagra’ and the 400 drugs for memory enhancement in the development pipeline show, very soon, this will be science fact. The researchers in Spiderhead are shallowly depicted as villains, and fortunately, no real-world ethics review board would approve their work, but experiments with similar ends must be done, if we are to know these new drugs are safe and effective.

Ghost In The Shell

The film is set in the not-too-distant future, when an unnamed government uses lifelike cyborgs or “enhanced” humans for undercover work. One of the key cyborgs is The Major, Motoko Kusanagi, who resembles a cross between The Terminator and a Playboy centerfold. She finds herself caught up in a tangled web of espionage and counterespionage as she searches for the mysterious superhacker known as “The Puppet Master.”

http://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Shell-Atsuko-Tanaka/dp/6304493681

Ghost In The Shell

From Shirow Masamune, the award-winning creator of Appleseed and Dominion, comes “The Ghost in the Shell”, the breakthrough manga that inspired the internationally acclaimed animated film. An epic dystopian tale of politics, technology, and metaphysics, The Ghost in the Shell has been hailed worldwide as an unparalleled visionary work of graphic fiction. And now it’s ready to dazzle the imagination in its second millennium. 

 This edition includes a new Introduction from Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson, and a fascinating Postscript from author Shirow Masamune, with his thoughts on the phenomenon that is The Ghost in the Shell!

 According to Kevin Inverno, “ I have held for almost a decade that it is the closest and most criminal, political, and philosophical issues society would be faced with as human and machine merged to an almost indistinguishable degree, and the struggle to retain individuality and humanity throughout the experience.  Never have I encountered any such series, animated or otherwise, so comprehensive in its coverage of human technological transcendence.”
http://ghostintheshell2ndgig.manga.com/

4 Health Breakthroughs We Might See By 2020

Oprah, talking about the deep, radical future again.

The next ten years will radically change the way major diseases are diagnosed, treated, even cured.  Take a sneak peak at the budding breakthroughs.                                  

http://www.oprah.com/health/Health-Breakthroughs-Well-See-By-2020

Impact Lab

A laboratory of future human experience: 

http://www.impactlab.com/.