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Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

Posted January 10, 2013 6:55 AM by HUSH

Shoes worn out? Buy more at the mall. Car tires going bald? Buy new ones. Getting bored of your first kid? Make another. Need a new arm and hand? Buy one. No really--buy one. (Or steal one if you're in South America, allegedly.)

It sounds morbid and perhaps outlandish, but no longer does your missing limb (or his/her missing limb; its CR4 policy to never assume ownership of missing limbs) need to be a peg leg or a hand hook. What once was the science fiction of The Six Million Dollar Man, RoboCop and WinoBot has become the reality of the early 21st Century. Human hardships have become advantages as the line of humanity and machinery has blurred.

How close are we to improving the humans as a mechanical--not evolutionary--process?


The Advantaged

Though not covered in my extensive look at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Oscar Pistorius still managed to raise his international profile--and a few eyebrows. See, Pistorious has earned the nickname 'Blade Runner' due to his artificial leg prostheses. Born with a condition that results in no fibulas, Pistorius's legs were amputated at an early age. He was an athletic teen despite his disability and didn't consider running until a rugby injury prohibited him from more intense sport. His prostheses are $35,000 carbon fiber Flex-Foot Cheetah running blades, with sole support provided by Nike. They offer no heel so they are difficult to stand upon, but they do offer superb forward speed. Josh McHugh, representing Wired, wrote "Once they get going, Cheetahs are extremely hard to control."

One might suspect that Pistorius's prostheses limit him to Paralympic events, yet after three years of competition against natural-limbed runners Postorius was accused of cheating. The argument was that Pistorius's mechanical legs did not fatigue and his exertion was considerably less. In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federation ruled that such contraptions were banned until tests proved they did not unfairly aid Postorius. Hoping to return to international and able-bodied competition, Pistorius sought the results of physiological testing. Two studies concluded that he required 17 to 25 percent less energy than a normal sprinter, but that it was impossible to conclude he had an advantage since his metal legs must elastically deform at least eight percent. This means that each step results in less forward motion than a stride completed with flesh and bone (human legs elastically deform only about 5 percent). After four years of testing and being relegated to the 2008 Paralympics, Pistorius was able to return to the 2012 Olympics.

In an ironic turn of events Pistorius himself has questioned the advantage given to athletes running on newer, longer running blades. These more advanced designs are under review--and while we don't need that conclusion, we certainly can infer that running blades are a marked improvement on the muscles, tendons and bone with which your author is currently outfitted.

The Remarkable

While several organizations around the world have been developing brain-to-device interfaces, none has been more impressive than the instance of Jan Scheuermann, or as she references herself 'guinea pig extraordinaire'. Jan is afflicted with spinal cerebellar degeneration which eliminates the connection between the brain and spinal cord--in her case for unknown reasons. During a period of a few years, Jan had lost all control of her arms and legs. After witnessing other individuals move robotic arms with their minds, Jan contacted a research team at the University of Pittsburgh.

While moving a robotic arm by brain control is amazing, it is far from ground breaking. Such integrated biotechnology has existed for a decade and more. The truly remarkable part is the functionality of the arm, which Jan has dubbed Hector. Surgeons implant microelectrode arrays into the human's motor cortex, a spot in the brain where arm and hand orders originate. After connection, hardware interfacing and amplification the signals are fed to the machine which operates under paraplegic command. Now in most instances, the patient must register and measure each motion of the bionic arm. Essentially, if he or she wanted to pick up a ball on a nearby table, his or her decoded thought commands would appear as: arm extend; elbow flex; wrist rotate; palm open; arm descend; palm close; elbow contract. Each movement must be accounted for.

In Jan's unprecedented example she simply has to focus on the object. She would see the ball, recognize her bionic arm as reaching for it, and then retrieve it. Overall it is a much more natural process than calculating each individual arm movement. In a recent online chat Jan wrote, "The most awesome part is I now have the power to do things that I haven't done for 10 years. It is equally awesome to know that I am helping a whole generation of handicapped people down the road."

Hector is currently too big to attach directly to Jan's arm, but can be attached to her wheelchair. The engineers behind it claim that it could easily be made wireless and smaller. Individuals have been receiving integrated bionics in large numbers lately, but they lack the intuitive control of Hector.

The Eternal

Want to live forever? Even though Chelsey H recommends you move to Japan and pick peace lilies, science has a vision where you can do that right in ol' U.S. of A. While it surely will be controversial when the time comes, for now it is on the to-do list of transhumanists. These individuals believe that bionic improvements could lead to a day where people become more than human--where mechanical improvements in intellect and brawn lead to super humans. We would essentially be real life terminators, and innovation is getting there.

Respirocytes are microscopic, manufactured red blood cells that can carry 236 times more oxygen than organic RBCs. Using respirocytes a person could hold their breath for hours and never experience muscle fatigue. Augmenting human brain power with computing software and memory drives is another method of transhumanism under investigation.

Scoffing much? You may not realize it, but these optimized versions of legs and arms are only the current era of bionic prostheses. Fully artificial hearts have been relied upon since 1996--some of these hearts use a centrifugal pump which produces no pulse. Working silicon retinas have been produced, with hopes that in the near future some macular degeneration patients will receive mechanical implants. Recall that plastic surgery and orthodontistry are both forms of perfecting human limitations that are already commonplace.


There is something though that will remain unimprovable though; human emotion--perhaps best represented by art. The literature, films, paintings, sculpture and architecture of the world can never be replicated by machine, and as long as those capabilities remain truly human, then I'm happy to accept my system upgrade.

Resources

(Image credits: Collider; The 2012 Scenarion; Guardian; GizMag; International Hero; NPR)

Wikipedia - Mechanics of Oscar Pistorius's running blades; Bionics; Prosthesis; Respirocyte; Transhumanism

The Guardian - Mind over matter helps paralyzed woman...

reddit- I am Jan Scheuermann, Ask Me Anything

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Guru

Join Date: Mar 2012
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#1

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/10/2013 6:49 PM

[Judgement Day: as scores of ICBMs rain nuclear hellfire upon the Earth, the viewer suddenly hears the disembodied voice of John Connor]

"By the time Skynet became self-aware it had spread into millions of computer servers across the planet. Ordinary computers in office buildings, dorm rooms; everywhere. It was software; in cyberspace. There was no system core; it could not be shut down. The attack began at 6:18 PM, just as he said it would. Judgment Day, the day the human race was almost destroyed by the weapons they'd built to protect themselves. I should have realized it was never our destiny to stop Judgment Day, it was merely to survive it, together. The Terminator knew; he tried to tell us, but I didn't want to hear it. Maybe the future has been written. I don't know; all I know is what the Terminator taught me; never stop fighting. And I never will. The battle has just begun."

CUT!! CUT!!

AGAIN! FROM THE TOP! ROLL IN 3....2....1.....

"By the time Skynet became self-aware it had spread into millions of computer servers across the planet. Ordinary computers in office buildings, dorm rooms; everywh..."

CUT!!! CUT!!!

CONNOR, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING??? THINK ABOUT IT: WHAT IS SKYNET NUKING AGAIN, PLEASE? ORDINARY COMPUTERS IN OFFICE BUILDINGS??? DORM ROOMS??

IN OTHER WORDS, ITSELF???

WHAT IS THE DATE?? NINETEEN NINETY WHAT??? OH, I GET IT!! WHAT OPERATING SYSTEM ARE THESE 'ORDINARY COMPUTERS IN OFFICE BUILDINGS, DORM ROOMS, EVERYWHERE' RUNNING?

WINDOWS???

Damn! James Cameron thought of everything!

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Guru

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/11/2013 1:27 AM

"IN OTHER WORDS, ITSELF?" Ever trim your fingernails?

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Guru

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/11/2013 1:54 AM

Not in years. When they get too long I chuck a copy of 'Aliens' in the player and voila! Trimmed!

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#4

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/11/2013 12:38 PM

"...we certainly can infer that running blades are a marked improvement on the muscles, tendons and bone with which your author is currently outfitted."

Perhaps for running on a prepared surface, we might be able to infer running blades are an improvement for running. But for all-purpose use in standing, walking, dancing, sneaking, forest hiking, rock climbing, stair climbing, ladder climbing, tree climbing, tight-rope walking, beach walking, swimming or surf wading purposes, I would speculate the author's muscle-tendon-bone configuration would still out-perform these blades.

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Commentator

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#5

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/12/2013 1:45 AM

Usually, "the human condition" refers to a much broader concept than material empowerment, something including kindness, dignity, and so on.

Empirical knowledge is power, the kind of power that science and technology confer lots of, but without the wisdom to use it well. Empirical methods objectify and stereotype what they examine. This isn't a problem when applied to rocks and trees, but dicey when applied to other human persons.

Intelligence is an asset, but it's not a virtue. Brain augmentation that enhances intelligence confers more power, but not virtue. Vulnerability and humility are important features of what most have considered wisdom to be. Another poster mentioned how brain augmentation might be a good thing if it didn't affect the emotional and aesthetic parts of human experience. I'd be less worried about direct interference between brain augmentation and the more "human" aspects of experience than I would about the displacement of focus. How much time and energy can one devote to others' needs, as those others experience them, when one is so wrapped up in his own intellectual accomplishments that he assumes that the others' needs must be the same as his own, and that he can define needs, priorities as he sees them, either through projection or stereotyping? Emotional sensitivity is important to morality, courtesy, and even to democratic principles, which at bottom require one to attend to how others see, feel, and believe, as equally important with how one sees, feels, and believes oneself.

Access to information is expensive, and information isn't equally accessible. Neither would access to brain augmentation be equal. Given the state of the world, we could use a little more wisdom and a little less (selectively distributed) empowerment.

(I tried to keep this short, but I fear the result skips over too much to make anything like an argument.)

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#6
In reply to #5

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/16/2013 9:38 PM

You have severely restricted the possibilities of brain augmentation.

If you consider improvements that go beyond merely a large additional storage capacity and rapid access to encyclopedic facts, the prospects may seem not so skewed to the downside.

The main theme of your concerns seems to be that augmentation is likely to create more demands on attention and shift attention away from more human aspects. The opposite result is also plausible.

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Perhaps brain augmentation will result in the ability to assign repetitive, mundane, and other low return investments of attention to a concurrently running virtual consciousness. While that aspect of you, your virtual person ('Verson'), is interfacing with accountant, renewing your driver's license, completing a TPS report, and making safe driving decisions, the focus of your actual Person at that time is entirely on the conversation with your son over a game of chess.

.

Consider also, a necessary component of compassion is empathy. Capacity for empathy, whether cognitive or affective, is likely improved by greater access to information about other people's perspective.

Cognitive empathy is likely to improve when more information is available concerning what others are experiencing, as well as information on subtle indicators of another persons state of mind.

Just as a lack of understanding can increase potential for fear and hate, Affective empathy generally improves with with greater knowledge of others.....familiarity breeds comfort.

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Another aspect to consider is that many disputes and negative interactions are the result of miscommunications. There is the possibility that brain augmentation could serve to minimize misunderstandings between people.

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I'm not saying no chance for downside exists. I'm suggesting that it is very early to be so discouraged about the net effects of such innovations.

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/17/2013 12:05 PM

A parallel autonomic nervous system? I already do some of my best thinking while doing yard work. I wonder if I would have better ideas if I weren't distracted by things like the filament on the weed eater not feeding correctly.

Also, I spend a lot of time practising my musical instruments to keep my kinesthetic systems tuned up. Perhaps I could assign that series of rote exercises to a sub-conscious sub-system.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

01/19/2013 6:03 AM

You might even assign things like CR4 commentary...

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I suppose in this hypo-hypothetical situation, everyone will have to decide for themselves what tasks with which they want to be either more directly or more remotely involved.

...or maybe that is the mundane type of thing best left to the autonomous sub-conscious sub-system.

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It does offer the hope that if someone is interacting abrasively, the right calls might get their subroutines upgraded.

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#9
In reply to #6

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

03/13/2013 1:32 AM

I'm not so sanguine about understanding of that sort enhancing compassion or empathy. "Understanding" is an ambiguous expression. In a fairly strict sense, it means having the ability to explain, being able to manipulate the relevant concepts, and so on. But in a more vulgar sense, it can be be nearly synonymous with empathy or shared feeling.

Empathy is not only a function of one's ability to understand or explain another's motives and feelings. That technical kind of understanding is what the social sciences try to accomplish, and there are plenty of people who use that kind of understanding to manipulate and dominate-- Nurse Ratchets, advertisers, marketers, spin-doctors, and acquaintances eager to tell you what your childhood issues were in order to win arguments.

Empirical knowledge is power, and it empowers us to predict and manipulate the world. This is less of a moral issue when dealing with rocks, trees, and molecules than it is with other people. We usually shy away from others who seek to predict and manipulate us.

Empirical knowledge necessarily objectifies, and the subjectivity of ego depends on our ability to "stand back" from experience and from our primitive immersion in the world and treat it as "other," "external," and "object." When you're driving on autopilot or spacing out or in many of the states of mind that don't employ conscious, objectifying attention, you're not interacting with the world as an ego, but as an animal, employing conditioned, practiced, habitual routines in a passive, automatic way. The background of conscious awareness, that is, peripheral vision or peripheral sensation more broadly, is passive, unobjectified experience, not of objects, but of an integrated tapestry of color, tone, texture, and so on. But human adults pay attention only to what they're attending to, remember it better, and think that the narrow scope of what we objectify and get a conscious grasp of IS our experience, though the bulk of our experience is subconscious and relatively passive.

A big chunk of what human experience is passivity and vulnerability, and THAT's a large part of empathy-- sharing the vulnerability. The empirical approach of the social scientist enable the social scientist to "understand," predict, and manipulate the vulnerabilities of the other guy, the objectified guy, but empathy isn't "understanding" the other guy's vulnerability, but being there with him in a shared moment of vunlerability. It's a lot like "I feel your pain," but it's more actually feeling it than talking about it. Psychologists can be empathetic, but the empathy isn't a consequence of their understanding psychology, but is more of an ability to set aside the empirical, empowering approach to another human being.

Empirical understanding can enhance that shared vulnerability in that it can make the other guy's problems make sense, when unfamiliar problems might just seem insane or unjustified or alien. But without the capacity to set aside the power of "understanding" how the other guy works, and to just be present with him in his suffering, there's no real empathy. One direction "understanding" the other guy can take is this:

"I've got your number."

"I know what you're up to."

"You know what your problem is?"

"Don't get defensive."

And so on. This is not empathy. But it is the kind of "understanding" that would be enhanced with cognitive-power enhancements.

Humility, empathy, and shared vulnerability are not empowerments. They're precisely voluntary disempowerments.

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#10
In reply to #9

Re: Transhumanism--Improving the Human Condition

03/13/2013 12:00 PM

'....I'm not so sanguine about understanding of that sort enhancing compassion or empathy.....'

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'Understanding of that sort'???

You are reading things in that aren't there.

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I think your 'that sort' categorization probably originated from your ideas about what type of cognitive enhancement might be possible in the future, or actually, your belief that certain types of enhancement will never being feasible.

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For me, the term 'understanding' is broad, but isn't really ambiguous. I chose 'understanding' because it is broad, not wanting to artificially constrict the realm of possibilities when it comes to future cognitive enhancement.

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You seem dead certain of the types of enhancements that will be available,

'...This is not empathy. But it is the kind of "understanding" that would be enhanced with cognitive-power enhancements....'

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That is a pretty big assumption. Doesn't arbitrarily assigning that level of confidence in something so utterly unknowable make you feel weird a little, or perhaps go flush a little when you write it?

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The mere fact that you took the time to create your passionate response in this electronic blog, suggests you do have some faith that even current technology has the potential to enhance cognition in ways beyond just lists of empirical observation.

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Another point, you misrepresent my point when you suggest I claimed that cognitive enhancement would enhance empathy.

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My point is that cognitive enhancement holds promise for potentiating compassion.

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It seems funny to have to support the idea that people are generally more wary about things which they do not understand and less wary around things with which they are familiar. This is just basic human nature...

..

At the exrtreem, it should be clearly evident that compassion or empathy in an absence of knowledge about the other.

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