By and large, mainstream culture has viewed the transhumanist movement with a smidge more fear and suspicion than truly warranted – after all, have our weak mortal forms not changed drastically over the last century? To someone living in the 1800s, we’re practically immortal supermen, so there’s no real reason to drink the haterade associated with contemporary transhumanist culture, because the bottom line is, the human race will never stay “the same.” In the smallest, most incremental of ways, technology is, for the most part, consistently helping us to defy nature. Furthermore, “transhumanism” in itself is broader than the contemporary autistic spectrum, so what most people are familiar with is usually the “weird” freakshow stuff. Transhumanism is, after all merely an extension of our natural (and, for the most part in this day and age, inhibited) fascination with our own bodies. Here are ten ways in which we will enhance our senses via transhumanist tech.
Because this is clearly the most important development in AI/VR research of late, Japanese geniuses have figured out a way for cold robotic claws to enjoy the pillowy warm softness of virtual breasts. The significance this has for enhancing humanity is dubious, but what we do know is that we’re one step closer – sort of – to humanizing a new “type” of “person,” or at the very least, emerging body parts.
Klotho, also known as KL-VS, is an anti-aging hormone that can make us smarter because of its positive effects on human cognitive reserves. When researchers studied subjects between the ages of 52 and 85, “they found that KL-VS did not prevent cognitive decline, it actually boosted brain faculties by around six IQ points without regard to the person’s age.” Klotho the gene variant was first discovered back in the 1970s, but its effect on increased intelligence is fresh information for neuroscientists. Interestingly enough, if a subject carries two copies of Klotho, one copy tends to impair brain function, while the other enhances it. There’s undoubtedly life-changing potential behind this particular protein, but researchers have yet to unlock all its secrets. What we can expect from Klotho-centric research is: longer, hopefully healthier lives, better treatment for Alzheimer’s, and overall enhanced cognitive faculties. Nonetheless, the ethics of whether we should extend our natural lifespan is something we’ll have to wrestle with as longevity-geared tech becomes more accessible.
Mind control is sort of within reach (we had to restrain ourselves from going overboard on puns there) with a new project at the Technische Universitat Munchen in Germany. A group of test pilots (one of whom had no actual cockpit experience) were fitted with EEG caps, connected to flight simulators, and instructed to steer the plane. The cap then measured the pilots’ brain waves and translated them into discrete commands via an algorithm. Researchers found that “all seven, flying the plane only with their thoughts, managed to achieve accuracy that would meet some flying license requirements. Astonishingly, even the participants with little or no prior training succeeded in landing the planes.” Applying this marvelous development to transhumanism, brain-piloted land transport systems could become a commercial norm, freeing our hands and feet to do other things (Texting? Oh wait, that’s already a problem NOW); I mean, Google’s self-driving car is a nifty idea and all, but at the end of the day, most people will want to retain control over something as potentially fatal as driving. Not to mention that driving is a terrific source of pleasure and adrenaline for many, and with the right safeguards, being able to seamlessly “think” your car/bike/conveyance into motion would lessen the role of physical fatigue in accidents. As for mental fatigue and psychological stability, that’s a whole different game altogether…
Aubrey de Grey remains a polarizing figure in the “live-forever” movement (related to age studies or gerontology, if you’re nasty), which in itself presents a pretty lively ongoing debate for the scientific community. Beyond academics, I’m not a fan of viewing death as a curable disease, but de Grey has long pushed for an alternative perspective based on new medical tech – advances that could slow tissue degeneration, 3D-print tissue, and fortify aging bones and muscles. With these potential game-changers, the concept of aging as we know it will change entirely – our senses won’t be as dull, our reflexes won’t be as slow, and we could maintain cognitive acuity for much longer. What kind of long-term effects will these new drugs, procedures, and slow but sure gene manipulation yield – possibly a faster, stronger, sharper human with finely tuned senses? Who knows.
A new study shows that hair colour can be lightened by tweaking a single gene; since hair is basically keratin, which is found in the epidermis and fingernails in humans, and scales, claws and hooves of animals, this could hypothetically lead to a future industry of cosmetic genetics to change the colour of various body parts. While we’re not quite at the stage where people are commercially grafting animal textures/attributes onto their bodies, synthetic biology and cross-species organ transplants are edging closer to a wealth of moonshot possibilities. The bio-aesthetic impact seems fairly obvious and doesn’t warrant explanation, but far more profound will be the social paradigms and values associated with certain “looks” and subcultures that this technology will facilitate.
Not quite the Ripley-Scott-burst-out-of-your-body sort of alien, but close enough – scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have successfully created the first organism with tweaked, completely alien DNA. By adding two new bases, X and Y, to our existing TGAC helix, Science™ is officially colouring outside the lines in the most ambitious way possible – “for now, the XY base pair does nothing; it just sits there in the DNA, waiting to be copied. In this form, it could be used as biological data storage — which could result in hundreds of terabytes of data being stored in a single gram of synthetic, alien DNA.” What does this mean for transhumanists? It means that people aren’t constrained by our natural genetic make-up any more, opening up possibilities for superhuman senses and modifiable biology.
Berlin-based artist Julian Oliver has cooked up a simple program to cut off Glassholes’ wireless connection, leading us down a delightfully slippery slope populated by 1) people who hate the idea of Google Glass becoming a commonplace human augmentation, and 2) the sweet, sweet smell of homegrown ingenuity bred with ad-hoc social regulations imposed by vigilante programmers. In this case, Oliver is a doll. Of course, losing wifi on your Glass for no apparent reason would be annoying, but the rise of wearables, constant connectivity, and an insatiable drive to augment and enhance our realities nurtures particularly noxious social behavior – the kind of feckless exhibitionism that will inevitably end in a vicious backlash, and the rise of actual legislation over what kind of body-enhancing tech we’ll be allowed to wear in public.
THE PERILS OF MULTISENSORY OVERLOAD
With all of these fascinating human enhancement developments in tech, one thing we’ll probably have to deal with (and are already dealing with in some capacity, although it’s going to get muuuuuch worse in the future) is the problem of sensory overload. As we become more capable of tech-centric multitasking, absorbing more types of information via a range of different media, the psychological toll will only increase; this is one particularly malicious type of social malaise that afflicts the characters in Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels/Slant universe is ‘disAffection,’ which is somewhat analogous to a sense of depression and inability to cope with heightened social and cultural pressures an expectations. There’s also the infamous fictional drug Soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, designed to distress people and provide a psychological pillow for arduous situations. We’re already living in a hypermedicated society in which anxiety and neurosis-related afflictions are common, especially with the rise of social media and the Bentham-esque prison of self-surveillance we’ve trapped ourselves in, but as interconnectedness continues to permeate through every facet of human life, it’s only going to get worse.
These are basically computer chips designed to operate more like a human brain rather than a computer. Qualcomm’s Zeroth chip, so named for one of Asimov’s laws of robotics, is currently at the forefront of the neuromorphic tech game. Naturally, on a project with such a massive scope, Qualcomm isn’t alone. Europe’s Human Brain Project has been an integral player in helping to map, study, and understand how the brain works – the next logical step for researchers is applying deep learning to synthesize human brain functions in robots, such as visual recognition or basic short term memory (learning small, simple chores). In theory, this sounds fantastically outré, but the real-life implications of self-learning robotics modelled on biological systems is….well, kind of a logistical, psychological, and ethical minefield: “Medical sensors and devices could track individuals’ vital signs and response to treatments over time, learning to adjust dosages or even catch problems early.” Okay, that all sounds good and practical. But… “your smartphone could learn to anticipate what you want next…those self-driving cars Google is experimenting with might not need your help at all, and more adept Roombas wouldn’t get stuck under your couch.” Having to imagine a scene in which one has to verbally and physically “argue” with the painstakingly-learned decisions of a pseudo-sentient object is fascinating on paper, but probably won’t be as romantic and exciting in the flesh (or rather, lack of flesh).
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