Monday, December 1, 2014

Human augmentation: "Keeping it real"





Conversations about transhumanism have a tendency to devolve rapidly.

At least to my way of thinking.

I read an article at Singularity Weblog entitled Human Augmentation: A human look at a cybernetic future. I am still thinking about the piece, so I would have to say that in and of itself is indicative of a good essay. Not everyone agrees with that assessment or at least that's what the comments section would lead you to think (then again, comments sections are a special kind of hell.) One comment came from a reader most distraught over the use of "cybernetic" being led astray from its original epistemological meaning. Apparently, that reader fails to accept that words can acquire new meanings over time. Had a good chuckle over that. But I digress...

I strongly identified with the writer on two levels. First off, I believe that he gave very frank and honest reasons for wanting to pursue augmentation. Most of us want to be better. It might be a desire to be stronger, faster, smarter, or even thinner, but the majority of humans want to improve themselves. We want to be more. We want to accomplish more. This is exactly the kind of thinking that led me into transhumanism and I identify with it wholeheartedly.

Please let me be more. Please let me be more than human. Bionics are a way to do just that.

As you might have picked up on, there's a bit of fear in that plea. Humans are also fearful creatures. We are nosophobic (I know I am) and we are most suspicious of one another. Movement into body augmentation will no doubt be driven not just by our desire to better ourselves, but also by this aforementioned fear. As the writer of the essay points out, that's not exactly a good thing and that's my second area of identification.

Fear and...for the sociopaths among us...the lust for power will no doubt result in dangerous developments. I have never denied that and I'm rather concerned over the possibility. Acquiring knowledge and technical savvy is much like letting a genii out of a bottle: once it's out, it can't get it back in. We saw this with nuclear power. We will no doubt see it with human cloning. Likewise, we will no doubt see it with augmentation technology. The author makes the chilling example of ISIS. What if that terrorist organization had access to augmentation technology? It's perhaps not altogether far-fetched as they are already flying drones. There is cause for concern that the "cyborg death " of our popular fictions will become a reality.

And that's where I have a problem with the essay.

It is not for raising the concerns. Not at all. As I've said, I share many of the same worries. What bothers me is how quickly we begin to discuss transhumanism in terms of science fiction. More fittingly, when we speak about it in "Sci-Fi" allegories. The author mentions The Matrix as well as numerous video games with which I have zero familiarity, save for his descriptions of chrome guns attached to arms and limbs that turn into rocket launchers.

I know. I know. I'm a fine one to talk about science fiction comparisons given that I write in the genre and am prone to making said comparisons myself. I could go into a Harlan Ellison-esque diatribe of "science fiction v. 'Sci-Fi' " but Google it and you'll see what I mean.

What I'm talking about is how these pop trash "Sci-Fi" comparisons cloud the issue. We're just getting past the Google Glass stage and suddenly we're talking about "cyborg death machines." The presence of these comparisons in the transhuman water taint the subject. They inadvertently relegate transhuman technology to the heap labeled "that's just science fiction." I'm certain that's not the intent, but in the mind of the uninitiated, you establish a frame of reference that is squarely in the fictional.

Try this out: the technology for a "cyborg death machine" may be approaching (or already here in a few cases) but does it seem real? To many minds, I would say no. That is because it has been the stuff of movies, comic books, and yes, video games. "It can't really happen, right?"

The technology for human augmentation is very real and will only keep advancing. There are those of us who want it quite badly and our numbers will continue to grow (just look at the number of people willing to risk steroids and plastic surgery). There are legit concerns over this and those concerns must be discussed together (as they are already starting to be at the UN in regards to drones.)

Let's not cheapen things with "Sci Fi."




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