RE: Effects of Enhanced Senses for Designer Bodies

Billy Brown (
Wed, 19 May 1999 15:29:25 -0500

Natasha Vita-More wrote:
> I'd appreciate extropic comments from anyone interested in enhancing our
> senses, and what how this will affect our primal instincts, and, thus,
> advance our insight and intra/interpersonal communications,
> for example.

I think this is to complex an issue to be summed up in any broad generalization. The emotional impact of any given enhancement is going to depend on the intimate details of how it is implemented, and on the personality and social context of the recipient. If we want to predict the effect of any given enhancement, we need to think about exactly what it is going to feel like to use it.

Existing sensory enhancements are merely external tools, which give relatively modest abilities and require conscious consideration to use. As a result we rarely take the trouble to use them, and we are not much affected by their existence. Futuristic devices that are used the same way will likewise have little lasting emotional impact on their users.

The first threshold of personal impact is crossed when an enhancement becomes ubiquitous. If a sensory enhancement is convenient and useful enough to be used constantly, the user will eventually begin to think of it as part of himself. If something happens to make the enhancement stop working, the user feels as if part of himself has been lost. People who have used glasses, hearing aids, or (more recently) wearable computers sometimes exhibit this reaction.

Moving well past this threshold, I believe we will find that there is a point at which ubiquitous enhancements actually change the recipient's conception of himself. This could happen because of the practical implications of the enhancement (i.e. "I can see at night as well as in daylight, so why would I be afraid of the dark?"), or because of the direct emotional effects of its use (consider the psychological implications of advanced hedonic engineering, for instance). A person with enhancements at this level still has a relatively human psyche, but their personality will be noticeably affected by the enhancements that they have adopted.

Moving further into the future, moderately advanced nanotech would enable the creation of new senses that probably could not be successfully interfaced with a normal human mind. When you start talking about adding multiple new high-bandwidth senses, new modes of communication, and internal enhancements (like improved visualization, or the ability to follow multiple simultaneous conversations) you're going to have a significant effect on the psyche that receives all this augmentation. However, once again the nature of the effect is going to depend on exactly which enhancements you select, how they are used, and how the recipient feels about them.

> What types of brain enhancements might be designed to deal with the
> relaying of new information gained from enhancing the senses (especially
> smell and hearing). How will the brain's cognitive capabilities sift
> through the enhanced information and utilize expanded
> sensorial capabilities?

That looks like its going to be a very knotty question. Obviously the easy way to go with sensory augmentation is to simply layer the new data over an existing channel. For simple enhancements like low-light vision, and for VR and enhanced-reality environments, this approach should be sufficient. For anything more ambitious than that it will quickly reach the point where the channel is saturated - you may be able to use normal, low-light, IR or telescopic vision, but you won't be able to use them all at once.

Now, to some extent you can work around this problem with clever engineering. You can have a computer analyze a sensory channel for you, and only show you the details you might be interested in. You can map data from one sense to another (like Steve Mann's “vibravest”), and you can set up all kinds of fancy filters and co-processing schemes. Ultimately, however, such approaches are inferior to a truly integrated system, because they force you to rely on an external tool to decide what you do and don't want to perceive.

Breaking that barrier will be a very complex job. The simplest case would be something like increasing your range of hearing. To do that you essentially have to remove all of the brain mechanisms that handle sound processing, and replace them with an upgraded version that can handle a wider range of frequencies and a larger volume of data. That's a big job, but at least its confined to a single system.

The next step would be something like parabolic hearing (the ability to amplify sound from one direction but not others, so that you can listen to distant sounds as if they were nearby). To make this work like a truly inborn ability, you have to be able to aim your hearing the same way you move your eyes - so we'd have to be able to create new motor abilities, and all of the "wiring" necessary to make them accessible to the user's conscious mind.

For more advanced enhancements, even more radical changes will be needed. For example, if you are going to create a new sense (sonar vision, say, or radio-frequency perception) you really want to create the whole symphony of components needed to perceive, visualize, remember and create with the new sense. Doing this even once is likely to have a significant effect on a person (imagine how different life would be without speech, hearing, or anything connected with them). Doing it several times, for several new senses, is going to be a revolutionary change in the recipient's subjective experience of life.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I