Transhumans by 2030?

transhumanismThe issue of transhumanism, the rise of a new type of humanity characterized by man-machine interface and augmented intelligence, is being debated quite fervently in some circles right now. But it seems that groups other than Futurists and speculative fiction writers are joining the discussion. Recently, the National Intelligence Council, a US policy think-tank, released a 140 page report that outlined major trends and technological developments we should expect in the next 20 years.

The report, entitled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds”, predicted several trends which are likely to come true in the near future. Amongst them is the end of U.S. global dominance, the rising power of individuals against states, a growing middle class that will increasingly challenge governments, and ongoing shortages in water, food and energy. However, predictions were also made concerning a future where humans have been significantly modified by various technologies, what is often referred to as the dawn of the Transhuman Era.

how-nanotechnology-could-reengineer-usIntrinsic to this new era is the invention of implants, prosthetics, and powered exoskeletons which will become regular fixtures of human life. These will go beyond merely correcting for physical disabilities or injury, to the point where average humans are enhanced and become more productive. 2030 is key year here, because it is by this point that the authors predict that prosthetics will exceed organics, and people will begin getting them installed in order to augment themselves.

In addition, life extension therapies and medical advances which will be used predominantly by the elderly will become a means for otherwise healthy people to prolong their lives and maintain health and vitality for longer periods of time. Brain implants are expected to become a reality as well, ostensibly to allow people to have brain-controlled prosthetics, but also for the sake of enhanced memory and augmented thinking.

bionic_handAnd of course, bionics are an important factor in all this. Already, researchers have achieved breakthroughs with bionic limbs, but retinal attachments, artificial eyes, and even fully-functioning organs are expected before 2030. On top of that, improvements in drugs, such as neuropharmaceuticals – drugs that enhance memory, attention, speed of thought – and implants which assist in their delivery are expected to be making the rounds.

google_glassesFinally, there is the matter of virtual and augmented reality systems, which are already becoming a reality thanks to things like Project Glass and recent innovations in PDAs. As the report notes: “Augmented reality systems can provide enhanced experiences of real-world situations. Combined with advances in robotics, avatars could provide feedback in the form of sensors providing touch and smell as well as aural and visual information to the operator.”

However, the big issue, according to the report, is cost and security. Most of these technologies will be not affordable to all people, especially for the first few years of their existence. This could result in a two-tiered society where the well-to-do live longer, healthier and have a competitive advantage over “organics”, people of lesser means who are identifiable by their lack of enhancements. Also, developers will need to be on their guard against hackers who might attempt to subvert or infect these devices with tailor-made viruses.

Naturally, the importance of maintaining uniform scientific progress was stressed, and the need for a regulatory framework is certainly needed. What the CSER recently recommended is certainly worth keeping in mind here, which was to ensure that some kind of regulatory framework be put in place before all of this becomes a reality. What’s more, public education is certainly necessary, so that the current and next generation of human beings knows what to expect and how to go about making informed choices therein.

To see the full report and learn more about the NIC, follow the link below:

National Intelligence Council: Who We Are


More Judgement Day Announcements…

terminator_judgement_dayNovember saw some rather interesting developments in the field of robotics. First, there was the unveiling of Disney’s charming juggling robot, an automaton capable of playing catch with a human being. This robot is intended for use in Disneyland parks as a form of entertainment for guests, but many people wonder if this is an eerie precursor to a machine that is capable of throwing other things as well…

While Disney was scant with the details of how the robot works, they did explain that a camera tracks the balls being thrown, while an algorithm works out exactly where the ball is going to land and positions the robot arm accordingly. Combining video tracking and software, the robot is able to anticipate where its catching hand needs to be, much like the human brain does. Check out the video of it playing catch with a human stand-in below:

Also in the news, Momentum Machines unveiled a new automated burger robot chef last month. After being successfully tested on the line, the company announced its plans to introduce this robot to fast food chains everywhere, saving companies millions of dollars in staffing costs. According to projections, Momentum Machines says that its automated burger robot — which does everything from flipping burgers, to slicing tomatoes, to toasting the bun — could save the fast food industry $9 billion in wages.

Of as yet, no video is available of the burger robot doing a demonstration, but this helpful infographic does give a breakdown of the robots structure and basic functions (below). Granted, this might seem like a callous and insensitive move, especially to the over 2 million workers currently employed in fast food in the US alone. But with just about every other production line having been automated already, this seems to many like the next logical step. Good luck Momentum Machines; hope the angry mob outside your offices doesn’t scare you!

robot-burger-flipper-momentum-machinesGranted, this may all still seem like a far cry from Skynet and Cylons, but under the circumstances, is it any wonder that Cambridge University founded the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies? Clearly, some people are worried robots are going to be doing more than just chucking balls and flipping our burgers.

Scientists Raise the Alarm on Human Enhancements

enhancementThe concept of technological progress and its potential consequences has been the subject of quite a bit of attention lately. First, there was the announcement  from Harvard University and Human Rights Watch that a ban on killer robots was needed before the current pace of innovation led to the machines that could so without human oversight.

Then came the University of Cambridge’s announcement about the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies. And last, there was the news the news that the DOD had signing a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.

bionic_handConcordantly, back in early November, the Royal Society along with the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded a workshop called “Human Enhancement and the Future of Work” in which they considered the growing impact and potential risks of augmentation technologies. In their final report, they raised serious concerns about the burgeoning trend and how humanity is moving from a model of therapy to one in which human capacities are greatly improved. The implications, they concluded, should be part of a much wider public discussion.

Specifically, the report raised concerns on drugs and digital enhancements that will allow people to work longer, hard and faster. Such technologies could easily give rise to a culture of enhanced competitiveness, more than we currently know, where the latest in cybernetics, bionics and biomedical devices are used to gain and edge, not to remedy medical problems. Currently, things like bionic prosthesis are being created to aid amputees and injury victims; but as the technology improves and such devices become more effective than organic limbs, the purpose could change.

cyberpunk-eyeWhat’s more, there are the ethical implications of having such technology available to human beings. If people can upgrade their bodies to enhance their natural abilities, what will it means for those who get “left behind”? Will the already enormous gulf between the rich and poor expand even further and take on a new dimension? Will those who want to succeed in the business world be forced to scrounge so they can get the latest upgrades.

Or, as the panel’s final report put it:

“Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. Widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness; or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.”

At the same time however, they acknowledge the potential efficacy and demand for such technologies, prompting the call for open discourse. Again, from the report:

“Although enhancement technologies might bring opportunities, they also raise several health, safety, ethical, social and political challenges, which warrant proactive discussion. Very different regulatory regimes are currently applied: for example, digital services and devices (with significant cognitive enhancing effects) attract less, if any, regulatory oversight than pharmacological interventions. This raises significant questions, such as whether any form of self-regulation would be appropriate and whether there are circumstances where enhancements should be encouraged or even mandatory, particularly where work involves responsibility for the safety of others (e.g. bus drivers or airline pilots).”

In many ways, this report is overdue, as it is offering some rather obvious commentary on a subject which has been the subject of speculation and fiction for some time. For example, in the Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson explored the idea of human enhancement and the disparity between rich and poor at length. In his world, the rich were ensured clinical immortality through AI and biotech while everyone else was forced to spend their savings just to afford the latest tech, merely so they could stay in the running.

However, just about all of the panel’s recommendations were most appropriate. They included further investigations into ensuring safety, affordability, and accessibility, not to mention that some of these enhancement technologies —  be they pharmaceutical, regenerative medicines, or cybernetics — should be regulated by the government. This last article is especially appropriate given the potential for personal misuse, not to mention the potential exploitation by employers.

With all the harm that could result from having technologies that could render human beings “postmortal” or “posthuman”, some degree of oversight is certainly necessary. But of course, the real key is a public educated and informed on the issue of cybernetics, bionics, and human enhancement, and what they could mean for us. As with so much else, the issue is one of choice, and awareness of what the consequences could be. Choose wisely, that’s the only guarantee! Hey, that rhymed… I smell a quote!