Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Transhuman Smithsonian




Last month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine centered on several aspects of transhumanism.

It was positive overall and I thought I'd do a post on the what the issue covered.  The "fun" stuff was looking at how science fiction affects our perceptions of what the future holds.  As to what fantastical innovations people are most open to, an article based on data from the Pew Research Center was not entirely encouraging.  The majority of the respondents, weighing in at 29%, chose "Don't Know" as to what sci-fi-inspired invention they would most welcome.  The runner up at 11% was "None/Don't Care." Yay people!

The next closest answer of any real merit is 9% of people responding that they are looking forward to "improved health and longevity." Hard to argue with that.  What are people opposed to?  Seems that lab-grown meat and driverless cars are not a popular idea.  Personally I think that's a gut reaction and that attitudes towards both innovations will change once they are able to be implemented in a cost-effective way and they are proven safe.  These are still rather new technologies so there is a bit of a way to go to drive out the bugs that inevitably arise in the system.  People are also quite leery over forays into brain implants solely to enhance memory and intelligence.

The Smithsonian also talked to Patrick Stewart about transhumanism.  It seemed an odd choice at first, even if I am an enormous geek, but Stewart had insightful things to say on the subject.

"I hope that the moral questions will be addressed as enthusiastically as the technical questions when it comes to artificial intelligence," he said.  Stewart then goes on to say that if we create a lifeform that has independent thought, even if it's a robot, but we keep it under control, is that any different than slavery?   Indeed this is the kind of important question I ask my students.  We obviously don't have human rights under control as it is.  What happens when we begin creating artificial lifeforms?  Will they get even fewer rights just because they are creations or "property?" Then there's modifying the human personage to enhance intellectual capabilities or to be able to see invisible bands of the spectrum or even just to live longer and healthier.  If we change us, does that change our rights?  Stewart seems to think that for at least right now "we are as good as it gets." Maybe but I'm looking forward to taking evolution under our control.

But a stand-out article for me was a look at Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) through electronic brain implants.  The idea behind this is one I have described before on these pages, namely that the recipient gets a "pacemaker for the brain." The device essentially bridges "broken circuits" in the brain, sending electrical impulses through the implanted electrodes to areas of the brain affected by movement  and emotional disorders such as Parkinson's, dystonia, and even depression.  In other words the goal is to restore movement and to alleviate pain.

In relation to that, I've long been interested in how transhuman technology might be used to erase emotions.  Seriously.  Get rid of them.  Please.  My existence would be improved considerably (even if my writing might not be) if I could at least dull my emotions without the physical harm that serious drugs cause.  To get as close to flat or neutral would enhance my productivity and quality of life greatly.  I can't seem to find too much on that subject, aside from the paranoid rantings of Alex Jones that transhumanists are going to turn everyone into soulless machines.

Me?  I say bring it on.


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