Tag archives for transhuman

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.

Humanity’s Quest for Immortality

One of humanity’s oldest impulses has been to conquer death. From Egyptian mummification to the Christian heaven, the idea that some way, through material or spiritual works, we can transcend the mortal coil and live forever is highly seductive. These day, since and technology promise longer lives and immortality, ranging from the modest and sensible precautions of eating correctly and exercising, to the radical biomedical revolutions professed by Aubry de Grey and Ray Kurzweil.

Between antiquity and post-modernity lies a broad area of research into immortality that hasn’t yet been explored. John Grey has come out with an interesting new book examining the quest for immortality in the Victorian and Soviet eras, revealing a fascinating secret history of spiritualists, eugenicists, Soviet utopians, and the science fiction writer HG Wells.

Darwinism is impossible to reconcile with the notion that humans have any special exemption from mortality. In Darwin’s scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; there is no impassable barrier between human minds and those of other animals. How then could only humans go on to a life beyond the grave? If all life were extinguished on Earth, possibly as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the after-world, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. Then again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead – not only the human generations that have come and gone but the countless animal species that are now extinct – living on in the ether, forever?

Science could not give these seekers what they were looking for. Yet at the same time that sections of the English elite were looking for a scientific version of immortality, a similar quest was under way in Russia among the “God-builders” – a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed science could someday, perhaps quite soon, be used to defeat death. The God-builders included Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, a former Theosophist who was appointed commissar of enlightenment in the new Soviet regime, and the trade minister Leonid Krasin, an engineer and disciple of the Russian mystic Nikolai Fedorov, who believed that the dead could be technologically resurrected. Krasin was a key figure in the decisions that were made about how Lenin’s remains would be preserved.

Weakened in Britain, belief in gradual progress had ceased to exist in Russia. An entire civilisation had collapsed, and the incremental improvement cherished by liberals was simply not possible. The idea of progress was not abandoned, however. Instead it was radicalised, as Russia’s new rulers were confirmed in their conviction that humanity advances through a succession of catastrophes. Not only society but human nature had to be destroyed, and only then rebuilt. Humans did not go on to a new life on the other side. There was no other side. When humans died they returned to dust, just like other animals. But once the power of science was fully harnessed, the God-builders believed, death could be overcome by force. Eventually all of humankind could look forward to scientifically guaranteed immortality, but the process of technological resurrection would begin with the most valuable of human beings – Lenin.

Read the full excerpt at The Guardian.

The protagonists of John Grey’s book are the immediate sources of the current technological quest for immortality. Though the scientific barriers we face today are different, the philosophical quandaries and contradictions of physical immortality are similar. What will life mean without the end of death? How can society evolve when the powerful never relinquish their power? Is living forever truly the highest goal than e can devote ourselves to? There a difference between individual immortality, and the continued survival of humanity as a whole. For our species and our culture, death is tragic, but ultimately necessary and even unavoidable.

Should we seek immortality, or are our scientific resources best used elsewhere? John Grey’s history of the strange quest for immortality may help us decide.