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The NSF Recommends Building Superhumans

from the a-really-interesting-government-report dept.
Mr_Farlops writes "A document (Found at the World Technology Evaluation Center site in PDF format.), issued by the US National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce, examines the eventual merger of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science to improve human mental and physical performance. The report's authors recommend that the United States set a national priority to research and develop technologies that will enhance human abilities and efficiencies."

9 Responses to “The NSF Recommends Building Superhumans”

  1. Practical Transhuman Says:

    Transhumanism: Not just for cranks any more!

    According to:

    http://wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/Report/NBIC _overview.pdf

    We stand at the threshold of a New Renaissance in science and technology, based on a comprehensive understanding of the structure and behavior of matter from the nanoscale up to the most complex system yet discovered, the human brain. Unification of science based on unity in nature and its holistic investigation will lead to technological convergence and a more efficient societal structure. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, concentrated effort can bring together nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and new humane technologies based in cognitive science.
    With proper attention to ethical issues and societal needs, the result can be a tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes and quality of life.

    Rapid advances in convergent technologies have the potential to enhance both human performance
    and the nationís productivity. Examples of payoffs will include improving work efficiency and
    learning, enhancing individual sensory and cognitive capabilities, revolutionary changes in healthcare, improving both individual and group efficiency, highly effective communication techniques including brain to brain interaction, perfecting human-machine interfaces including neuromorphic engineering for industrial and personal use, enhancing human capabilities for defense purposes, reaching sustainable development using NBIC tools, and ameliorating the physical and cognitive decline that is
    common to the aging mind.

    Gee, this sounds awfully familiar, if written in bureaucratese. Robert Ettinger and F.M. Esfandiary (later named FM-2030, now cryonically indisposed) were writing about this sort of thing 30 years ago.

    Only now has mainstream SciTech caught up with their vision. I'm tempted to say, "Better late than never," but the generation we lost in implementing such ideas has allowed the needless sacrifice of literally millions of lives. You really have to wonder about people's priorities when "immortality" is dismissed as utopian and unaffordable, while we always seem to find plenty of money to produce mountains of tobacco, junk food, cheap handguns and nuclear waste, which we know can really harm people.

  2. Practical Transhuman Says:

    Who gets to be the Borg Queen?

    On page 6 of the document

    http://wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/Report/NBIC _overview.pdf

    it says:

    It is hard to find the right metaphor to see a century into the future, but it may be that humanity would become like a single, transcendent nervous system, an interconnected "brain" based in new core pathways of society.

    Why don't they just come out and say that we're going to get assimilated into the Borg? At least people who've watched Trek spinoffs since The Next Generation would understand what that means. People might find such a subjugation appealing if the transhuman body seems relatively pleasing instead of looking like a human body dipped in superglue and rolled through a junkyard. But it might still be an especially horrific form of slavery nonetheless.

  3. Mr_Farlops Says:

    Re:Who gets to be the Borg Queen?

    One of the problems I have the with science fiction's portrayals of hive minds is that they are often coercive. People are forced into joining them. I think this is simplistic and misses the real danger: what if it's addictive?

    It may be that Borg (or name your favorite fictional hive society.) don't even have to vaporize planets or engage in hyper-genocide. They don't even have to fire a shot.

    They just offer potential recruits a simple proposition: "We can hook your brain, you mind into something truly transcendent. With this connection you can be everyone, experience everything. You'll be able to contemplate things beyond words, beyond logic, beyond all the limited mental processes your brain is capable of. Wanna give it a try?" I think they'd have no shortage of recruits. Millions would volunteer.

    That's the real threat.

    But ultimately I think it's an empty threat because such a thing is not stable.

    We only have to look at the ecosystem to see that the tension between the individual and the organization is eternal. If it wasn't, there'd only be ants or bacteria colonies and then evolution would stop.

    A lot of the trouble I have with much of transhumanist thinking is that it seems to imply that there is some sort of goal. That we are all heading towards heaven or, in the words of critics, hell.

    There is no goal. Evolution is an endless process that generates novelty. It's has no end and probably doesn't have a beginning either, the big bang aside. There maybe periods of greater complexity and there may be periods of simplication but the key thing is that it never stops.

  4. Mr_Farlops Says:

    Re:Transhumanism: Not just for cranks any more!

    I think that one of the more profound thoughts in all this thinking is that the utopias and dystopias of science fiction are guarenteed to be wrong.

    We really have no idea whatsoever of all the glories and horrors that amplifying the human condition will bring.

    For example, what if a hive mind gets depressed? You think you're sad now? Pal, you have no idea! As individuals gain more an more powerful tools to use as weapons, the situation might emerge where the death of millions might be considered a minor terrorist incident, no more significant than a small town murder.

    But the only thing that we can really say for sure is that things will be different. That's it. Which in some ways makes discussion of the changes to come rather sterile. It's like trying to describe color to someone blind from birth. We really have no idea. I think it's likely that we'll be exchanging the angst of the human condition for the angst of the post-human condition. Who's to say that our descendants won't be just as whiny and dissatisfied with their lives as we are? They may whining about things we have no comprehension of but they'd still be unhappy or happy about something. But I really have no idea and no one else does. It could be that the post-human world looks just like this one and we just don't know what's really going on, the Zoo Hypothesis of SETI fame.

  5. Practical Transhuman Says:

    Re:Transhumanism: Not just for cranks any more!

    Who's to say that our descendants won't be just as whiny and dissatisfied with their lives as we are? They may whining about things we have no comprehension of but they'd still be unhappy or happy about something.

    I'm less persuaded about this. Not long ago the philosophically minded referred to toothaches as existential trials (e.g., Augustine in his Confessions, Blaise Pascal which he found relief from by contemplating conic sections, etc.).

    Today, in countries with American-style dentistry, you just go to the dentist for treatment. It's looking like supposedly "psychological" causes of anguish are similarly subject to intervention, either behavioral (refer to Joseph Wolpe's classic research into behavior therapy, especially regarding people who were crippled by multiple phobias), cognitive, pharmacological or some combination thereof. It wouldn't surprise me if future intelligences adopt a thoroughly "postmodern" approach and assume that if entities experience anguish it's because they have constructed worldviews which allow it. They can make anguish go away by running a different reality-construction.

  6. The Living Fractal Says:

    Re:Who gets to be the Borg Queen?

    I have to agree on some of those points. For one, myself, I've never understood the whole "trans" in transhuman. I think whatever we do to ourselves through the advent of technology and science is still ultimately 'human'… It's just a buzz-word description used by those who really don't see that there is no such thing as a fully evolved system.

    Like the word 'weird'.. It's a spawn of ignorance.

  7. Mr_Farlops Says:

    Re:Transhumanism: Not just for cranks any more!

    Sure, once toothaches were considered existential trials and, once cured, we moved on to other things to worry and kvetch about.

    I am not saying that psychotherapy will not advance and cure memory loss, parkinson's, manic-depression, etc. I am just saying eliminating these afflictions, clears the way for new things to worry about or even creates new problems.

    And to a certain extent, to get a little po-mo, what gets defined as a problem is often totally arbitrary.

    For example, what if, upon developing the tools, someone decides to cure homosexuality? Is homosexuality really a disease? To bring up asperger's syndrome and high-function autism, sure it has a lot of drawbacks, but it also creates some interesting ways of thinking. In fact some with these conditions have rather angrily stated that they are not sick and don't want to be cured.

    I remember reading this science fiction short story where, psychotherapy had advanced to the point where most organically caused mental illness was cured. Because of this civilization evolved to become rather peaceful and idyllic but also static.

    A new threat emerged in the cliche of war-like aliens bent on destroying the Earth. Earth had been free of war for centuries; people had forgotten how to do it. So what did they do? They recreated many of the anti-social maladies of the ancient past to create a generation of moody, occasionally self-destructive, geniuses, meglomaniacs and bloodthirsty sociopaths to fight the war for them.

    It might be in the future that doctors will store these conditions defined as mental illnesses away like smallpox or polio viruses, just in case.

    If Pascal didn't have a toothache, would he have focused so strongly on conic sections and thus enriched our civilization?

  8. rumplestiltskin Says:

    Stand On Zanzibar Up and Running at last!

    There are a lot of replies to this posting focussing on some kind of "Hive Mind" scenario, which wasn't mentioned in the original and seems kinda OT to me. I wonder if people are just fizzing and popping Off Topic, or are they getting at something I don't see. As near as I can tell, the NSF is not proposing the construction of a Hive Mind.

    In a novel by that name by John Brunner (as every good xhumanist knows, heh heh) the government of a third world island nation without much encumbrance in the way of human rights decides to implement a program of genetic optimization using its own population as guinea pigs. The idea is not so much an immediate military attack plan, or even an espionage offensive, but simply a plan to out think and out compete the unmodded H Sapiens of the Free World by using the knowledge they so thoughtfully provide.

    Hilarity Ensues….

    The crux of this issue seems to be that nations which make a big deal out of Human Rights will be the last to implement Genetic Enhancement advances Above Board (under the table, of course, anything goes, as usual). BUT: nations which believe in their governments having rights Over their populations would soon have Modified Populations to order.

    Possibly followed shortly thereafter by Modified Governments? For better or worse. But who knows: there might simply be a change in administrations.

    Now that antitechnology greens (to distinguish them from the other branches) have made common cause with not only the US religious fundies now enjoying power here, but also with any foreign power interested in stealing some thunder from that particular crown jewel of the American "Economy" (Genetic Engineering and biotech in general), the hope that the population of a democratic or pseudodemocratic nation will use these advances first, in a more or less open way, is basically gone. We are in the position now of having to lobby our freedoms back in a political climate that is hostile and worsening.

    Though the whole subject is interesting from a scientific point of view, applications are further off now than they were five years ago.

  9. RobertBradbury Says:

    New location for report

    The new URL for the report is http://itri.loyola.edu/ConvergingTechnologies/.

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