Tag archives for human enhancement

Avail to Prevail

“Prevail Project” is about the subtle and interesting notion that some day soon, some of us may not be human.

My readers are presumably human, and so might find this topic of dubious relevance.  So let’s get right into the “subtlety” aspect. There are stem cells among us, we can all agree on that, but is a stem cell “human”?  Stem cells exist as technological facts on the ground,  but do they have any “human rights”?  What happens when stem cells divide and multiply, and become a “test tube baby?”

Since the late 1970s, a huge, healthy cohort of “test tube babies” have appeared among us as our fellow citizens.  “Test tube adults” are not subjected to social stigma — we don’t consider them squalid Brave New World subhumans, as we did when they were science-fictional — but we might have done that.   We might have “relinquished” the technology through legislation, due to strong moral qualms about it.  Then many of us would have been denied parenthood.  Many of us would not be here.  One of the missing might have been you.

Nowadays, the term “test tube baby” has fallen out of use.  It’s archaic and de-controversialized, replaced by the cozier term “in vitro fertilization.”  But beneath this apparent triumph of social assimilation, the technology has continued to reticulate.  A fertilized human egg is a stem cell of sorts, because it has the capacity to form all human organs.  Further study revealed that many cells in the human body have a similar capacity.

This is the promise of “stem cell therapy” — that we pull living stem cells from the human body, tinker with their huge expressive capacity, and have them grow again inside the patient.  You could think of that as a kind of pureed and homogenized test-tube baby, if you were allowed to frame the issue in that repulsive way.  The odds are you would not be allowed that framing.  The way we mentally tackle these issues is a complex and subtle matter of “law, culture and values.”  It’s our law, culture and values that see to it that certain paradigms are unlikely to get a sustained airing.  Even if they’re quite logical and firmly based in science, in touch with the facts on the ground.

You’re very likely to hear that stem cell therapy is the murder of an unborn human being.  You’re also likely to hear, from a different point on  the ideological compass, that stem cell therapy can make the lame walk and the blind see.  You’re very unlikely to hear that stem cell therapy could be used to reduce fat, erase wrinkles or increase sexual potency, even though those are three colossal, highly profitable industries with every means, motive and opportunity for making sure that stem-cell therapy becomes mundane and unquestioned some day.

Now I ask you, in all seriousness: suppose that I’m 95 years old.  And yet my skin has no wrinkles, my hair is flaxen and wavy, I have fine muscle tone and I’m the father of four by a twenty-six-year old woman.  Am I human?  I’m not mumbling like Frankenstein or clanking like Robocop.  I can vote, and like a lot of elderly people I may be very street-wise and rather well-to-do.  Yet my body’s a chimeric patchwork of flesh that was formerly my own stem cells, rejuvenated in  a petri dish and injected back into me.

Naturally you may be entertaining a few qualms about my behavior, the way you do about, say, Barry Bonds’ baseball abilities or Silvio Berlusconi’s harem of leggy TV presenters.  But the odds are that I can put up a pretty good argument on my own behalf — I may well be a prosperous lawyer.  Or your political leader.  The odds are that you envy me.  The odds are that my entire society is sliding in my direction without ever making a conscious decision about it — maybe with the same hectic speed that we adapted desktop computers.  Or with the same blithe joy that we planted kudzu and unleashed Australian rabbits.

As Joel Garreau surmises, in that postulated situation, we have “passed an inflection point of self-modification.”  Thanks to a new suite of technical possibilities — the genetics of stem cells were just one such field of potential action — our human minds, human memories, human metabolisms have proved unexpectedly ductile.  We are changing ourselves.  We have the means:  the new means.  We have the motives — ancient motives, powerful motives, fear, greed, lust for power, spiritual transcendence, all of them.  And we have the opportunities, because there are so many areas where these practices could be made to flourish.

They could flourish in business, of course, but also in medicine, sports, the military, even in academia.  The street finds its own uses for things, and an innovation created for a legitimized purpose will undergo mission-creep as time passes.  Narcotic abuse is a major global industry despite decades of organized repression.   Sports doping, cosmetic surgery, the hairline cracks of posthumanity are everywhere.  The military will take most any step to get its lethal work done, but there’s nothing commoner than a military technology clumsily repackaged for civilian life — assault weapons, nuclear power, autonomous drones.

The question is metaphysical: “what is mankind?”  That question gets fought over every day, and in the cases of Terri Schiavo and Eluana Engaro, it shut down two different G-7 governments.  But it’s not only a metaphysical matter.  There are other pressing questions.  How, as a practical matter, can we watch the “inflection points?” How can we name and number the areas of potential crisis?  How quickly and effectively can we react?  Who are the watchmen, what are their proper duties?  Who watches the watchmen?

We’ve already had plenty of practice, much of it very unpleasant, in declaring certain people human or nonhuman.  There are stem cells, the brain-dead, the differently-abled, gays, untouchables, the bearers of contagious disease, existential ethnic enemies who must be “cleansed” or “finally solved” by whatever means possible; there are campaigners who will burn, maim and kill for the legal and ethical rights of animals.  We know how “law, culture and values” can make human history; what we don’t know is what genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology can and will do when tossed into this ever-bubbling stew.

Maybe the stew becomes a divine ambrosia.  That would be the “heaven scenario.”  Maybe the pot breaks and its boiling contents set the  stove on fire.  That would be the “hell scenario.”  Or maybe the pot more or less keeps at it, while some well-informed people spend more effort taking judicious sips of the brew.  That would be common sense, if we had any.

Not that these commonsensical observers are the boss chefs or anything; they’re just uneasily aware that, where the good old Nail Soup of History used to have onions and barley and carrots, nowadays it’s got brocco-cauliflower, cloned mutton and athletic-performance enhancers.

I am a fan of this effort, and I am speaking out in its support, because I know that it doesn’t have to succeed to be important.  Suppose it fails — suppose that in five years, ten years, twenty years or fifty, there are in fact many former-people among us who are blatantly no longer human.  Suppose they are tomorrow’s GRIN mutants, “people” who, for some wide and no-doubt compelling variety of reasons, chose to desert the formerly-human condition.

They’ll need an effort like this.  They will need it because they will know, with an existential certainty still closed to us, that they have crossed a mighty boundary and they cannot go back.  The “Prevail Project” is about peering through the keyhole of Pandora’s Box, but whoever breaks that box has to own it.   They will not be relieved from “law, culture and values;” they will merely have the awful quandary of creating their own.  Not in a vacuum, either.  We, who are human, have the grisly comforts of our quarter-million years of natural evolution, but  these evolutionary radicals will be beset by their own ambitions — plus the ambitions of many rival radicals.

They don’t have to be human for you to pity them.  If Milton could pity Satan, you could pity that.  I like it that this effort, the “Prevail Project,” is still framed within that venue, that it’s humanistic, that it’s contemplative, that it’s literary.  That’s why it’s me, a novelist, writing this conflicted essay, instead of it being the emanation of some chrome-plated New Model Superman, or some hooded Inquisitor, hunting down mankind’s heretics.

The “Prevail Project” is an inquiry into culture, law and values; it’s not a political party or a revolutionary movement.   Nobody is going to seize power over genetics, robotics, information or nanotech by compiling some data here, or by joining in these discussions, or by diligently feeding the nonhuman spiders that so busily catalog our texts nowadays.  Contributing to a site like this is a moral act.  It’s like joining Erasmus’s “Republic of Letters,” that “humanist” coterie of the twilight half-enlightened.  A small group, maybe, but they mattered to futurity.

It wasn’t so much that they prevailed, those earnest inquirers who scribbled in their dusty Latin; it was more that they made it possible to imagine a prevalence.

Bruce Sterling is the best-selling and prize-winning author of future fictions such as “The Difference Engine” and “Holy Fire,” that, like our world today, occupy the nexus of the strange and the terrifying. He blogs at Beyond the Beyond.

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.)

Augmenting Humanity @HeatSync Labs

Let’s start this year off with a bang! I just got back from HeatSync Labs, where the local hackers are taking their eyes off of 3D printing, near-space missions, tesla coils, and cylon Roombas and working on something a little closer to home; themselves.

Okay, that requires a little explanation. HeatSync is a Phoenix area hackerspace, a place for technically inclined people to come together, pool resources, and work on interesting projects. Hackerspaces started in the nerdvanas of Silicon Valley and Route 128, but the movement is spreading across the country, and expanding from electronics to biotech. With the democratization of technical equipment, almost anybody can be a scientist. The hackerspace movement scales up the joy of just messing around with blinkenlights to an adult level, and it might just serve as the incubutator for the next wave of innovation.

Augmenting Humanity @HeatSync is a small group of hackers with an interest in transhumanism, and with using their DIY skills to improve themselves. They’re well on their way. Jacob has an experimental magnetic sense, and wants more radical alterations. Harry is a recreational neuroscientist. He already has a 14 channel EEG he freed from an Emotiv controller, and his next step is to make an Arduino board DC neural stimulator, as well as his own version of ze goggles. With all this, he’s well on his way to doing some real interesting science. Jeremy is into quantified self, and wants to use smartphones and wireless sensors to make data collection trivial. Bryan is blind, and is working with Apple to improve the accessibility of iDevices, while trying to find hacks to make his life easier. The current project is a liquid level sensor. As a father of three, Bryan spends a lot of time filling bottles, and a device which beeps at the proper level would be good for everybody.

These guys are definitely aware of the social and political aspects of what they’re doing. They view themselves as citizen-scientists, in the vein of the old Royal Society, and they want to both improve themselves, and generate useful knowledge that the standard scientific research process won’t touch, either because it won’t be funded, or violates medical ethics (note: ethical medical research must treat a disease, so by definition, enhancement is unethical. The current work around has been ‘medicalization’, creating a disorder for people who want to be enhanced. Many people, myself included, think this is a major problem.) They also are very forward about getting their work out there, and connecting with like minded hackers across the world. In the absence of formal journals, all of this is being organized through social media, blogs, wikis, and video chat. We are lucky enough to live in an era where information can be shared easily, and advanced technology is cheap. In the next few months and years, I hope to spend a fair amount of time with Augmented Humanity, develop some projects, and get them out there. But for now, rest easy knowing that these people have the future well in hand.

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.