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.

Sep 18 2012

Cellulose Nanocrystals: Imagine Skyscrapers Able To Shrug Off The Worst Earthquakes


Early this year I wrote an article about where I saw the future heading.  I suggested that one major change in our present reality would be the moving away from the use of “bulk” materials and towards materials that were cheap, plentiful, and had properties far superior to the majority of materials used for making nearly any product today.

One of those materials will, in all likelihood, be Cellulose Nanocrystals, a naturally occurring substance that can be produced from nearly any source of cellulose. CNCs are a form of glucose molecule, and in their natural form provide the strength and stiffness in nearly any form of plant, from grass stalks to Redwoods. It can be pretty easily processed out of nearly any plant material, though present efforts are concentrated on wood pulp. Essentially, when you break down the cell walls of any given plant, and extract the cellulose fibers, those fibers can then be further broken down into nanofibrils, microscopic fibers about an order of magnitude smaller, which are composed of highly organized regions of CNCs and amorphous chains of cellulose which can be removed by an acid bath. The resulting material is stronger than any other manmade material but carbon nanotubes, and far cheaper to make than CNTs or Kevlar. Potentially, such CNCs could be made in such large bulk quantities that they could be competitive with other metals and plastics, and even glass.

And that’s exactly where you will see them begin to make a huge impact. Think logically about it. If you were designing a new product, and you could use a substance with a fraction the weight, many times the strength, and the same costs, which would you use? As CNC’s are essentially another form of plastic (and much less explosive than their ancestor, celluloid, one of the very first “plastics” ever discovered) with properties similar to glass (transparency) steel (strength) and plastic (can be made in any shape); it could easily be used to replace multiple materials at once in a single product. And since it’s made from bio-organic materials, it’s a renewable resource. The waste materials from agriculture, biofuels, wood manufacturing, papermaking, and nearly all other industrial processes that use plant products could be used to make CNCs.

Imagine the possibilities. A house with walls less than an inch thick that could withstand a hurricane. A car with almost no metal parts. Skyscrapers able to shrug off the worst earthquakes. While many issues still need to be worked out, such as finding ways to seal the CNCs surface to ensure it’s waterproof, there are numerous ways that this sole disadvantage can be worked around without compromising its desirable properties. From clothes to cars to skyscrapers, CNC could potentially replace thousands of different materials we use daily that are either limited in supply; expensive to refine from raw materials; or just plain hazardous to the environment. Properly exploited, it could become a “one size fits all” solution to producing nearly any physical object in a manner that is both extremely economical, biosphere friendly, and infinitely renewable.

CNCs. It’s just one of many new materials that we will see replace our current bulk materials technology, and it brings us one more step closer to a future in which everything of a material nature is so abundant that it ceases to have any real monetary value.

Jul 17 2012

Altered Statesman: An Interview With Psychedelic Explorer David Jay Brown




‘I think DNA is ultimately trying to create a world where the imagination is externalized, where the mind and the external world become synchronized as one, so that basically whatever we can imagine can become a reality. Literally.”


Consciousness: What is it? Are your thoughts and emotions nothing more than neural static? Will your physical death extinguish your awareness? Is your individual consciousness just one of innumerable facets of a universal consciousness?

In search of answers to questions like these, local writer/neuroscience researcher David Jay Brown has mind-melded with many of the world’s most prominent philosophers, visionaries, culture-shapers and snorkelers of the psyche, including Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, Noam Chomsky, Ram Dass, Albert Hofmann, Jack Kevorkian, George Carlin, Sasha Shulgin, Deepak Chopra, Alex Grey, Jerry Garcia, Stanislav Grof and John Lilly. He’s chronicled these meetings in his bestselling interview compendiums Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, Mavericks of the Mind, Mavericks of Medicine and Voices from the Edge. Dubbed “the most compelling interviewer on the planet” by author Clifford Pickover, Brown has recently completed work on the book “The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality,” to be published by Inner Traditions in the spring of 2013.  In approximately two months, the web magazine Reality Sandwich will publish his new e-book “The Complete Guide to Psychedelic Drug Research.”

Brown  is also the author of the sci-fi books Brainchild and Virus: The Alien Strain. He frequently serves as guest editor of the tri-annual newsletter from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a Santa Cruz-based psychedelic research organization that recently published the second edition of Mavericks of the Mind (available at Bookshop Santa Cruz). He has written for periodicals such as Mondo 2000, Scientific American Mind, Wired, High Times, The Sun, Magical Blend and the Journal of Psychical Research. The diversity of his output is telling of his leave-no-stone-unturned approach to consciousness exploration: It’s a good bet he’s the only writer in history who’s contributed to both the Buddhist wisdom publication Tricycle and the porn magazine Hustler.

Brown’s studies of learning and memory at the University of Southern California in the early ’80s earned him a B.A. in psychology. Between 1985 and 1986, he did research on electrical brain stimulation at New York University, obtaining a master’s degree in psychobiology. His inquiries eventually led him into the realm of parapsychology: He’s the man behind the California-based research for biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s books Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Sense of Being Stared At, both of which presented scientific studies of unexplained phenomena. Brown’s knowledge of such mysteries, as well as of technology, smart drugs, health, psychedelic research and sex-drug interaction, have landed him guest spots on shows like HBO’s Real Sex, Fox’s A Current Affair, PBS’s Nature, ViaCom’s The Montel Williams Show and the BBC and Discovery Channel’s Animal X.

DAMON ORION: Tell me about the electrical brain stimulation research you’ve done. 

DAVID JAY BROWN: When I was at New York University, I did research for years where I surgically implanted electrical stimulating probes into the lateral hypothalamus of rats, which is a pleasure center. I would watch rats press a bar that delivered an electric current into their brain center over and over and over again until they fell asleep from exhaustion. Then they would wake up, and there was food sitting next to them, water sitting next to them and a mate sitting next to them. They ignored all three and would continue to press that bar over and over again to get the reward stimulation over survival instincts.

The other area of research I was involved in was at University of Southern California, and it was the exact opposite of the research I did at NYU, where I was surgically implanting electrodes into the brain centers of mammals and stimulating them: In this case I was inserting cold probes, which are devices that actually freeze or inhibit a certain part of the brain temporarily, so you can see how the animal operates with that one part of the brain missing, and how they operate when that part of the brain comes back.

The anesthetic that we gave to the rabbits prior to surgery was a drug called ketamine. I took some of this ketamine home and experimented on myself with it. After injecting 50 milligrams of ketamine chloride into my right thigh muscle and turning the lights out, I suddenly “realized” that my professors and my fellow researchers and colleagues at USC were in reality extraterrestrials—that they were scientists who were there not to study rabbits; they were there to study me. I was the test subject, and they’d left this bottle of ketamine out for me to take. They were watching me right at this moment with a video camera. And suddenly I found myself in a cage with cold probes implanted in my brain and giant rabbits all around me. They were measuring me, and I was naked and helpless. Suddenly, I snapped back into my body. I did not continue very much longer in that program after experiencing what I was experiencing from the rabbit’s point of view. That’s what ketamine taught me: what the rabbit was experiencing from what I was doing.

DO: You often ask your interviewees what they think happens to consciousness after death. If you had to put money on what happens after death, what would you bet on?

DJB: I guess wherever you go after death, the money’s not going to matter anymore! [Laughs.] You know, I think about that question every day, as an exercise of the imagination, and I change my mind about it all the time. I used to debate with my friend Nina Graboi — whom I interviewed for my book Mavericks of the Mind, and who passed away about 10 years ago —a ll the time about what happens to consciousness after death. It was one of our favorite topics of conversation. In general, I took the position that after you die, your individuality leaves, and your sense of awareness merges with the higher consciousness, the oneness, the source that everything came from originally. And her position was, “Well, there is that, but then there are all these levels in between where individuality remains besides the body, and you go through [multiple] incarnations with that. For years we went back and forth with this. Nina referred to her body as a spacesuit, and she always said she was going to get a new spacesuit when she died; she would go from one spacesuit to another. Well, after Nina died, I was writing in my journal, and the TV was on in the background. I was thinking about what was going on in Nina’s mind when she was dying: “I’ll bet she was thinking, ‘Now I see: David Jay Brown was right! You do just merge with the one consciousness.’” As I’m sitting there in this kind of self-congratulatory way, I look at the television screen, and there on the TV screen is one word: SPACESUIT. There was this tingle up my spine. I stopped in my tracks; my jaw dropped open. It was the most profound sense of communication with somebody after they died that I’d ever experienced. That is the most compelling evidence I’ve experienced that consciousness not only continues [after death], but that some sense of individuality continues as well.

DO: What are your memories of your friend Timothy Leary?

DJB: Well, my fondest and most important memories of Tim, I think, are [of] while he was dying. The last year [of his life], he announced to the media that he was thrilled and ecstatic that he was dying. And for the last year, while he was dying from prostate cancer, there was continuous celebration, continuous parties, continuously people coming around his house to tell him how important his work was to them. There was such a feeling of festivity and celebration and Tim deliberately trying to be playful and have fun with this process. This really made a very deep impression on me, because I ask so many questions about death—it’s an important philosophical topic for me. And there have been so many people throughout history trying to die bravely or courageously or nobly, but before Tim, I don’t think anybody ever tried to say, “Let’s make dying fun!” [Laughs.] Tim really tried to party through the dying process, and I thought it was just a stroke of brilliance. I cried when he died; as much fun as it was, it was terribly sad the moment that he really left. But he just left us all with such a great message, I think.

DO: Tell me about your connection to Robert Anton Wilson.

DJB: Bob was not only one of my closest friends, but he was the person who actually inspired me to become a writer. It was at the age of 16 that I read Cosmic Trigger, and that was how I encountered Timothy Leary, John Lilly and a number of the other people I went on to interview. I went to a lecture that Bob gave here in Santa Cruz back in the late ’80s. At the end of the lecture, I went over to talk to him. I told him I was working on a book, and I asked him if he would possibly consider writing a blurb for the back cover. He kind of hemmed and hawed and looked not terribly enthusiastic, like I was the 15th person that day who asked him that, you know? [Laughs.] But he did tell me to have my publisher send him a copy of my book, and he would take a look at it. So you could only imagine my absolute delight when I discovered from my publisher that he ended up writing an 11-page introduction to my first book, Brainchild. It was through that that I became friends with him. He was a tremendous friend and mentor. When I had difficulty paying my rent early in my writing career, he actually sent me money to pay my rent! He was always there when I called him, giving me great advice. When an editor made some kind of change to one of my articles that I wasn’t happy with, [he said,] “Editors don’t like the way the soup tastes until they pee in it themselves.” [Laughs.]

DO: What was your experience as a guest on The Montel Williams Show?

DJB:  I was on Montel Williams’ show back in the early ’90s, during his first season. There was all this anti-drug hysteria, and I was on the show to talk about smart drugs: cognitive enhancers like hydergine, piracetam and deprenyl — different drugs that are commonly prescribed for senile dementia, but have been used by people to enhance their memory or improve their concentration. He didn’t seem to be very open to even discussing the research or hearing anything about it. He kept cutting us off, and he’d talk about how dangerous methamphetamine was, how this was sending the wrong message to people and how the whole idea of putting “smart” before “drugs” was wrong, and there was no smart way too use drugs. He would not even carefully consider what we were saying. He had his mind made up. And what I think was so interesting is that since he’s developed multiple sclerosis and has had to use medical marijuana to treat the symptoms of this disorder, he’s now become one of the leading spokespeople for the legalization of medical marijuana. What is it about illness that turns people around? People think that medical marijuana is a joke until they’re faced with an illness, or until a loved one is, and then they really understand the medical value that it has and what a horrible, horrible atrocity it is that it’s against the law.

DO:  Is there a primary goal of your work or a primary message you’re trying to get out?

DJB: It seemed to me since I was a child that our species is in ecological danger… destroying ourselves. Since I was a teenager, since my very first psychedelic experiences, I felt a very strong commitment to help elevate and expand consciousness on this planet through my work. I made a personal pact with what I felt was DNA or higher intelligence. I felt that if I aligned my personal mission with life’s overall mission, then I would always be supported throughout my life in what I was doing, and I would be working for a noble cause.

DO: And what is DNA trying to do?

DJB: I think DNA is ultimately trying to create a world where the imagination is externalized, where the mind and the external world become synchronized as one, so that basically whatever we can imagine can become a reality. Literally. And I think that everything throughout our entire evolution has been moving slowly toward that goal. In the past couple thousand years, it’s been very steady. And through nanotechnology, through artificial intelligence, through advanced robotics, I think we’re entering into an age where we’ll be able to control matter with our thoughts and actually be able to create anything that our minds can conceive of. We’re very quickly heading into a time where machines are going to be more intelligent than we are, and we’re going to most likely merge, I think, with these intelligent machines and develop capacities and abilities that we can barely imagine right now, such as the ability to self-transform. What we can do with computers—digital technology, the way we can morph things on a computer screen—is the beginning of understanding that that’s how reality itself is organized, that we can do that with physical reality through nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, that the digital nature of reality itself will allow us to externalize whatever we think. So I think that eventually reality will become like a computer graphic screen, and we’ll be able to create whatever we want. That sound right? [Laughs.]


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.