Oct 23 2012

Not Sci Fi. Sci NOW!


As the walrus said to the Carpenter, the time has come to talk of many things.

To understand why I hold the views I do, you must first understand that my choices and views are shaped by the future that I see is coming, and without understanding that future, it is impossible to truly see why I support some issues on the right, some on the left, some in the middle, etc. So, this article is an attempt to explain, in a brief overview fashion, what I see coming down the road, and which I think far too many people are completely unaware of.

To begin, I am not a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, a communist, a socialist, or any other political leaning. If I must be labeled, I would say I am a Humanitarian first, and a Transhumanist second.

Humanitarianism: In its most general form, humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. Humanitarianism has been an evolving concept historically but universality is a common element in its evolution. No distinction is to be made in the face of human suffering or abuse on grounds of tribal, caste, religious or national divisions.

Transhumanism: An international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities. The movement regards aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death as unnecessary and undesirable. Transhumanists look to biotechnologies and other emerging technologies for these purposes. Dangers, as well as benefits, are also of concern to the transhumanist movement.

As such I would have to say I am a Transhumanist because I am a Humanitarian.

So, what precisely does that have to so with the future? It means I take the long view of most everything, because I believe there is a significant probability that I will be around to face the consequences of short sighted actions in the present. But it also means that I can look at some problems which are long term and see that the solutions to them are not yet available, but have a high likelihood of existing before the problem becomes a crisis. This includes such “catastrophic” issues as “Global Warming”, “Overpopulation” and in fact, most “Crisis” politics. Many of these issues are almost impossible to address with current technological capabilities, but will be much easier to address with technologies that are currently “in the lab”.

However, it also means I spend a lot of time researching exactly what the future is likely to bring, so that I can make determinations on which problems are immediate, short term or long term, and whether or not practical solutions exist now, or must wait until we have developed a little further.

But primarily, what those researches have shown me is that most people are utterly unaware of just what the future is going to bring. Most people see a future just like today, with differences only of degrees. They see the future of Star Trek, or of too many other tv shows, where humanity still has to face the exact same problems as they do today on a social level, with fancier trimmings.

Yet such a future is utter fantasy.  Our future is going to change things on a scale undreamt of by most humans, because it is a change not of scale, but of kind.

Humanity, as we know it, is going to cease to exist.

If you are unfamiliar with the concepts of Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnolgy, Quantum Computing, Cybernetics, and Bioengineering, you need to educate yourself in them, and soon, because they will have a much larger impact on us than who is president, whether or not global warming is happening, or even whether or not Healthcare reform is passed.

And before you dismiss any of those topics as flights of fantasy, you should be aware of the truth. If you want a quick brief overview, check out Next Big Future, Acceler8or, Gizmag, IO9, IEET, or Wired and spend a few hours reading through the various links and stories. This is not Sci-Fi, it is Sci-now.

Within the next twenty to fifty years, and possibly even within the next decade, humanity is going to face the largest identity crisis ever known.  We are going to find that things we have always taken for granted as unchangeable are indeed matters of choice. It’s already started.

As of this exact moment in time, you are reading this on the internet.  As such you have already entered into the realm of Transhumanism. You are free to choose what sex you wish to present yourself as, free to be which ever race you want to be, free to even choose what species you wish to present yourself as. You could be a Vulcan, an Orc, even a cartoon character from South Park. Every aspect of who you are comes down to your personal choice. You may choose to present yourself as you are, or you may present yourself as something else entirely.

That same choice is going to be coming to humanity outside the internet as well. Our medical technology, understanding of our biology, and ability to manipulate the body on finer and finer scales is advancing at an exponential rate. It will not be much longer before everyone has the ability to change everything about their physical body to match their idealized selves.

How will racists be able to cope with the concept that race is a choice? Or sexists deal with people switching genders on a whim? How will people feel when in vitro fertilization and an artificial womb can allow two genetic males to have a child, or for one to become female and have one via old fashioned pregnancy?

And yet that is just the barest tip of the iceberg, for not only will we be able to reshape ourselves into our idealized human form, we will also eventually have the ability to add and subtract other creatures as well. Not everyone will choose to be “human”.  There will be elves, and aliens, cat girls and lion men. We are already on the verge of nearly perfect human limb replacement, within a decade it is highly likely that we will be able to replace damaged nerves with electronic equivalents to control artificial limbs that mimic not only the full range of human motions, but with the creation of artificial muscles, do so in a completely natural manner.  It is but one step from creating an artificial replacement to making an artificial addition.

And there will be those who choose such additions, or who may even choose to replace their natural parts with enhanced cybernetic parts. We will have to face the very real fact of humans with far greater than current human physical ability, and even those with abilities no current human has, such as flight using their own wings.

Imagine a football game with someone who can leap the distance of the field, or throw a hail mary a mile. Is that someone we would call “human” today? Yet they will be the human of tomorrow.

But even that is just the barest hint of the future, because there is so much more that is happening as well. Since you are sitting here, reading this, I know you are already participating in another tenet of Transhumanism, mental augmentation. You use your computer to collect knowledge, to research and educate yourself, to improve your personal knowledge base by using it as an extended intelligence tool. I know quite well that most of you also use it for your primary news source, your main way of keeping yourself aware of what is happening in the world.

You also use it for entertainment, to watch videos, to game, to read, to discuss, and even to keep in touch with your friends and families.

It already is a mental augmentation device. And that function will only grow.  Your cell phone is becoming more and more of an accessory to your computer everyday. In less than ten years it is likely to become your primary computer, with your desktop communicating with it, and making it simply an extension. There is already an advanced cellphone in labs that is subdermal, meaning it is implanted into your skin, is powered by your own body sugars, and is invisible when not in use. Contact lenses with computer displays that use body heat for power are also in prototype stage. Eventually you will be connected to your computer every second of the day, and using it to augment your life in ways I doubt most people will even be able to imagine. And once the ability to connect the human mind directly to this intelligence augmentation device allows us to use it with a mere thought, can you really call such a person “human” as we currently define it?

And yet again, that is simply the merest hint of the possibilities, because in addition to all this computerization and cybernetics, you have to face the reality that we will soon be able to control matter at the atomic scale. And that is something that very very few people have any real grasp of.

Nanotechnology is not a pipedream. Anyone who tells you it is, is either indulging in denial, or is sadly misinformed. You want proof nanoscale machinery is possible, simply look in a mirror.  You are the finest proof that nanotechnology works. DNA is the most versatile molecular machine in existence that we are aware of, and it is with DNA that we are developing the earliest stages of true Molecular Engineering.

And with Molecular Engineering, almost everything we take for granted right now is going to change. I won’t go into the pages and pages of description of what complete control of matter on the molecular scale can do, but suffice it to say that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with this ability. We will be able to make food on your kitchen counter, make a car that is indestructible, but can fold into a handy briefcase, and just about everything you have seen in any scifi show ever. With nanotechnology we can permanently end hunger, poverty, and even clean up the environment.

If you truly wish to get a bare minimal grasp of the scope of the possible read Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler. While his vision of nanotech’s foundation is based on pure mechanical engineering, it is nonetheless one of the best introductions to the subject I know. We are developing this ability as we speak, as any of you who bothered to check out the recommended reading list would be able to see.

And that brings us to the next topic, Artificial Intelligence. I am not speaking here of the kind of AI that you are familiar with from Hollywood, but with something called Artificial General Intelligence. This is something far different.  AGI is the kind of program that can drive your car, cook your food, clean your house, diagnose your illnesses, operate on your brain, and yes, even do your job better, faster, and more reliably than you can. AGI is that AI which has absolutely no need to be self aware, conscious, or even thinking. AGI is what runs Chess computers. Any Skill that can be taught can be accomplished by AGI. IBM’s Watson is an example of this future, a machine able to learn to become an expert on any given subject and enable non-experts to have that expertise available on demand.

So be prepared people.  You will be replaced by a machine eventually.

And yet with Nanotechnology capable of ensuring our every physical need is met, Cybertechnology giving us superhuman abilities, and Bioengineering enabling us to be exactly who and what we want to be, is that really such a bad thing?

So I will at last come to the final technology which will make our future far different than what has come before. Indefinite Life Extension.

If you are alive today, you need to seriously contemplate that fact that you may not merely have a long life, but that your life may not even have a definite end. You may be alive, healthy, and in the best physical shape possible a thousand years from now. The younger you are, the greater the possibility.

You may have to face the very real likelihood that aging, death by natural causes, and every disease that currently afflicts mankind may be overcome within the next 30 to 60 years. It might even happen as soon as tomorrow. You may never die unless you have an accident, or commit suicide. And even that is just the simplest scenario. With the possibility of up to the nanosecond backups of your brain’s synaptic patterns and electrical impulses, dying might simply become as permanent as it is in a video game.

Humanity, as we currently know it, is going to cease to exist.

And most of us will not even notice it happening until it’s already occurring, indeed, most people are unaware of the fact that it is happening RIGHT NOW.

And this is the future, in the tiniest snippets of hints of what I truly foresee, that guides my thoughts and actions. A future which is so very, radically, unimaginably different that no-one can even truly begin to envision it. It becomes a blank wall beyond which we cannot see, because we do not even have the concepts to understand what is beyond the wall.

So think about these questions. Think about the reality we will have to face, and understand, you will have to come to terms with this. You can’t keep your head in the sand forever and you can’t comfort yourself by thinking it is decades down the road. It’s here, it’s now, and it’s in your face.

And if anything is certain, it is this: You are not prepared.

Jun 19 2012

Prometheus: Cautionary Tale About Seeking Immortality?


Ridley Scott’s prequel set in the Alien universe, the detailed and evocative Prometheus, delivers a science fiction narrative rife with mythological and philosophical implications beyond the standard big budget sci-fi fare, a story that presents fringe speculations about the influence of alien contact with the origins of the human species and offers serious questions about the prospective future of humanity and technology. Upon considering the many mythic references in the film, the transhumanist in me began to wonder: is technology becoming a modern mythic force, a deus ex machina that we presume we can rely on for future salvation? Is it here that we find the greater cautionary message of Prometheus?

Peter Weyland, in the 2023 TED talk that was released as a viral video before the launch of the film, sets up this line of thinking when he tells us, “At this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: we are the gods now.” This brazen statement causes a mild uproar in the crowd: is Weyland a foolish heretic? Or a prophetic visionary? Perhaps both.

The first scene where Weyland appears in Prometheus throws his motives into question. If Weyland has honest intentions, why does he hide the fact that he’s part of the expedition? The act of creating life in sentient robots has left Weyland with delusions of grandeur. Like King Gilgamesh and many others before him, Weylan plans to supplicate the alien “gods”, or Engineers, and pry from them the secret of immortal life. Weyland is withered and fragile, aged far beyond the normal capacities of the human body, to the extent that he must rely on cryosleep to survive, and a mechanical exoskeleton to augment his atrophied body. He has cheated death by artificial means, but to what end? His quality of life in this unnatural state does not seem very appealing.

“A king has his reign. He dies. It’s the natural order of things.” Weyland’s daughter, Meredith Vickers, offers as advice, trying to convince her father to abandon this quest. Weyland stubbornly disagrees, choosing to continue forward with his egotistical fantasy of immortal life. His philosophy may be more or less defined as a Transhumanist: Weyland seeks to gain immortal life (or an approximation) by using technology to extend his life as long as possible, with the hopes that the Engineers have even greater technology that could make him immortal, as the gods. Though, at face value, the purpose of the Prometheus mission is to make contact with humanity’s creators for the edification of our species, it becomes clear that the real primary purpose is for the aged industrialist to survive.

This is Weyland’s gamble, betting the lives of the entire crew of the Prometheus, including his daughter and android son, on the chance that he might win big. Which begs the question, if you could extend the length of your life at the price of others, is that morally acceptable — if you feel that you have something greater to give to the world than others might have?

Certainly Weyland feels that his life is more valuable than the lives of others. This is an important question for Transhumanists to consider, especially in the context of global economics; when the time comes that technologies for extreme life extension do exist, who will benefit from them? Wealthy individuals in the first world, at the expense of laborers assembling these technologies in the third world? What responsibility is there to provide access to technological innovation for all, when there are limited resources available? These issues will emerge as more pressing concerns in the 21st century.

Weyland’s less attractive personality traits are also on display in his daughter, Meredith Vickers. Many viewers who had seen Alien were likely questioning Vickers’ humanity up until the discussion with the pilot Janek when he asks her point blank if she is an android, a question to which the audience doesn’t really get a definitive answer. If she is human, she seems to have acquired some of the more inhuman qualities of the technology that she and her father have ensconced themselves in. Vickers’ dependence on technology, much like her father, is evident in her life pod, designed to cheat death and extend her life as long as possible by surrounding her with technological protections.

If anyone embodies the spirit of Prometheus the titan, it is “the closest thing Weyland has to a son,” the android David. Like Prometheus, David is an outsider to human culture but he wants to be helpful. Some of the most mundane yet fascinating scenes with David are towards the beginning of the story when the android watches old Technicolor movies of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and the audience is left to wonder about what implications there might be in the future… if intelligent machines look to humanity as role models, or god figures.

It is David who steals the “black goo” from the alien ship and gives it to the human scientists, though his intentions are somewhat difficult to discern. David is ostensibly giving the humans what they want, to have a divine transformative experience. The large human head sculpture in the room offers the implication that humans were genetically engineered using this substance. What the android does not anticipate is that the black goo is reactive to human emotion, as Elizabeth Shaw points out when the landing party is examining the alien murals. Very psychedelic!

Is the black goo a bioweapon or a lifegiving substance? Perhaps it’s both. The effect of exposure seems to accentuate a person’s existing traits. Before entering the alien sanctuary Shaw reminds the geologist Fiefield that they are on a peaceful mission of scientific discovery, but he will not give up his big metal gun or his aggressive attitude. One wonders if perhaps the crew of Prometheus had taken an opportunity to relax, take a deep breath and chant an Om or two, if their pilgrimage would have turned out differently. But we see a negative reaction/symbiosis, most pronounced in the angry geologist Fiefield who devolves into a rampaging zombie after being exposed to the goo. Even something as innocuous as meal worms can become extreme organisms when exposed to the black goo. The shiny green goo that David pulls out of the vials is a different substance. This might be the DNA of the Engineers race, that the “Gardener” released in the opening scene when he sacrifices himself to seed life on the planet. The black goo mutagenic catalyst plus the green DNA base is the volatile chemical mixture that can be used as a bioweapon.

Technology as a whole is also a tabula rosa of the human psyche; a gun without a negative human intention isn’t able to harm anyone. Surveillance technology isn’t inherently evil, but it can be used for evil purposes. Now, suppose you are part of the race of advanced aliens called the Engineers, in control of advanced technologies. What better form of weapon could there be than a biological weapon that you could drop on a planet and will transform aggressive species into monsters to kill each other? You could return hundreds of years in the future to check on the progress of evolution and if the species was still alive, presumably they would have evolved into a super-form.

The most pivotal scene of the film, particularly for transhumanists, is the moment of truth when Weyland “meets his maker.” Although the superior being — the translucent-skinned Engineer — is silent, we can draw conclusions about why his attacked his human progeny. The action occurs quickly. But in those few moments — watching the Engineer perceive us — we get a revealing glimpse into the microcosm of human society.

Weyland, the supplicant, annoyingly pesters the Engineer to grant him the boom of immortality. David relays Weyland’s selfish desires (or at least, we assume that David is in fact relaying Weyland’s desires) while Shaw, acting for the greater good of humanity, is physically suppressed with violence, brought to her knees by the fascistic domination of the dying patriarch. This simple act resounds with intense significance, displaying some of the more immature and uncivilized qualities of our species: how quickly we dominate each other for selfish gain. That the Engineer uses violence to display his distaste for human questions shows that the maker himself is not infallible. Like the humans creating androids, the Engineers creating humans are not “gods”, merely skilled technicians.

If our theoretical creators were to witness the state of our human society, what would they think? Would they want to help us perfect our many flaws, or would they be inclined to destroy us and start over, as God does in with the flood in the Old Testament? The moral of Prometheus’ techno fable may be that we shouldn’t latch on to the idea that machines or aliens or any other outside force is ultimately going to save us from ourselves. And if the quest for immortal life dehumanizes us, what is that life really worth?

While not a flawless film, Prometheus succeeds in tickling our immediate desire to experience the mysterium tremendum, that special kind of paralyzing fear that can only be inspired by a brush with divine cosmic powers. Prometheus also succeeds in presenting a mythic vision of the future, entwined with a cautionary tale about the possible selfishness of life extension technology, and the moral implications of seeding DNA and genetically evolved lifeforms into an environment. These are prophetic themes that engage in a meaningful cultural dialog, pushing the film to a level of art beyond the typical adolescent alien and robot fantasies that comprise a majority of big budget sci-fi.

Mythology and religion have traditionally served to provide answers to serious philosophical, existential questions. These days, many millions of people look to to answer immediate questions about the world around us. The assertion made in Prometheus with religious symbolism and the character of Elizabeth Shaw is that traditional religious faith can still be relevant in an age where human invention is approaching the ingenuity of the gods of legend. Is this true, or will the dated modes of religious faiths and miracles of old be replaced by new technological faiths and modern miracles: bioengineering, nanotech, data complexity, holograms, and advanced computing? Perhaps technology will be the source of future mythologies and religious quests.