On a tip from Accelerating Future, I attended “Transhumanism Past, Present and Future” on June 25th, presented by the New York Transhumanist Association at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan, and thought I might try to summarize what was presented there.

The first of the three speakers was Clark Matthews, author of a column entitled “Technology & Liberty”. He is currently working on a book on “old futures”, or the future as it was envisioned in the past. Matthews spoke on “Transhumanism and Behavior Control”. The essential message of the talk, as I understood it, was that advances in psychology and brain science often have been seen as opportunities for enforcing social control. He discussed Jose Delgado’s development of and experiments with deep brain implants in the 1960s, and the mathematician and Marxist historian of science Samuel Lilley’s vision of establishing a tranquil, ordered society.

Matthews ended by saying that he expects governments and large organizations over the coming decades will throw up roadblocks to scientific progress and social innovation sufficient to push back considerably the date of any technological singularity that might otherwise occur.

The artist Shane Hope then presented slides of some works from his gallery showing entitled “Your Mom Is Open Source”, which opened the following day. His work addresses transhumanist hopes and concerns, such as the merging and forking of selves, in a compelling visual style full of detail and chaos. He also employs a number of neologisms  such as “disasterbatory” — an interview covering some of these can be found here. Hope’s presentation at McNally Jackson led me to attend the opening, where I studied a few of the countless details in the 4-foot-square prints.

The final presenter was the writer Stuart Dambrot, who is working on a book on “the age of conflation”.  His talk covered considerable ground and was necessarily speculative, in keeping with his responsibility for the “Future” segment of the forum.  He projected the following sequence of developments leading to a radically changed world:

I. “R&D Convergence” — a continuation of the linking and merging of disparate fields of science and engineering we see now

II. “Recursive Emergent Complexity” —  formerly separate disciplines jump to higher levels of explanatory power once merged

III. “Recombinant Technologenesis” — made possible by: 1. Strong AI; 2. Nonlocalization (quantum communications will drastically reduce  constraints of distance); 3. Biorecalibration (not only life extension, but optimization and cloning); 4. Synthetic Biology; 5. Thermionic Conversion (the capture of waste heat as usable power); 6. Programmable Matter; 7. Molecular Assemblers (possibly mimicking evolutionary processes)

IV. “Singularity Genesis” — the combination of all the preceding leads to an unknowable future

Although he mentioned Vernor Vinge, Dambrot does not follow him in the use of the term “singularity” in this context to mean the point (hypothetical until it is imminent) at which a mind more powerful than any human’s starts to make discoveries and decisions that our “natural” — or as I might have it, “unimproved” — minds are not qualified to predict. He opts for the version in which change builds on change and compounds at such a frenetic rate that the mental and physical world will be noticeably transformed over ever-shorter periods.

Dambrot touched on some possible consequences of gaining control over mind and matter, such as the branching of human forms, “exocortical entanglement”, multiple instances of selves, the “uplift” of previously unintelligent organisms, the infiltration of AI into inorganic substrates, the merging into the physical world of virtual worlds, and utility fog. He suggested that in a post-scarcity world, money might be replaced by such abstract currencies as “reputation, inventiveness, equanimity and enablement”.

(My own view is that the human species may progress enough to agree upon a more enlightened use of limited resources well before molecular manufacturing effectively removes those limits.)

All in all, an interesting evening.



June 10, 2009

It was never my intent to make this page a clothesline for events in my private life, and it will not become one, but something very important in my life occured recently that is at the same time intimately related to this subject.

A few hours after my initial post here, my half-brother passed away. He had spent the last eight years in a persistent vegatative state due to head trauma suffered in a car accident at the age of 18. His entire brain was deprived of oxygen for several minutes, so we were told, but the primary injury was to his midbrain. Although our mother was sure that he continued to have moods and preferences, and that he sometimes expressed these to her through various cues, he was never again able to communicate or respond in any clear, consistent way to the rest of us. It is frustrating still not to know whether he was “there” after the accident, and if so, how much of him remained. His outward appearance was of one left exhausted by an endlessly troubled sleep. I dearly hope that was not what he experienced for the last third of his life.

He had been an extraordinarily kind and well-meaning friend, as those at the funeral attested, and had faced the world with humility and wonder, and a good deal of introspection.

Over the past few years, I gradually became interested in the more-or-less speculative cluster of topics that includes neuro-enhancement, brain-machine interfaces, nootropics, enhanced perception and so on. I became convinced more recently that the best hope for continuing and building upon our civilization (such as it is) will be found through improvements to ourselves — the expansion of our cognitive, creative and moral powers — via whatever methods we develop and feel comfortable employing at that moment. To this end I have enrolled in a degree program to study intelligence, the brain, and AI.

And yet, one reason for taking this path — and which I felt a bit embarrassed to admit — was to be in close contact with new research on brain rehabilitation, in the hope that I might be able to recommend something to relieve his condition as soon as possible. He had remained in remarkably good physical condition for years, beating the odds in rather dramatic fashion. Most often, patients in his state succumb to a respiratory or other infection within two years. I began to believe he would be around for several more years, long enough to out-wait the development of an effective treatment. He will not.

Because of his unexpected passing, I ended up dropping my classes. I have since enrolled in new ones. And I have returned here to reaffirm my intention to learn and inform about the topic that holds the greatest promise for enlarging and improving human experience.

But despite all the visions of wide, sunlit prospects ahead for those whose awareness will range beyond the merely human, I will never forget the imprisonment within a dimmed and narrowed reality that victims of retardation, head injury and senile dementia suffer. May we find cures soon.

Starting somewhere

March 13, 2009

You have to start somewhere, I’m told, and for a project as unsure of success and as far from completion as this, starting  here and now seems reasonable.

This blog will be devoted to news, conjecture, speculation and discussion on the various means by which the human brain may be improved.

Though the blog will reflect my quite limited understanding of a stunningly intricate subject, I hope it can serve as a catalyst for deeper understanding in others — or at least as a hitching post for interested parties.

More to come.