Emlyn on the teev - help!

From: Emlyn (emlyn@one.net.au)
Date: Thu May 17 2001 - 06:40:58 MDT

Hi there all,

Through some strange confluence of events, it seems that I am to appear on
my current favourite tv program, Aftershock (Australia, ABC, Thursdays
8:30pm). I'm on relatively late in the series (episode 6, the next episode
is episode 3), so all I can imagine is that they used up all their quality
guests (like Damien "btw have you heard about The Spike?" Broderick) early
on :-). The filming is on 22 May.

The episode is entitled "Superhumanity 2.0 - Cyborgs" (it follows
"Superhumanity 1.0 - Biotech"). I can talk about that in a pretty general
sense (I could probably talk all day about it, in fact, family members will
corroborate this). However, as I've been picked on as Aussie Extropian
Exhibit A, I'd be happy to represent a more rounded view, informed by others

So, I'm throwing it open to the peanut gallery. If you were to talk publicly
about cyborged humans in the nearish future, what would you say?

I've got a random assortment of ideas...
- Wearables... it might be a bit daggy to mention them, but wearable
computing will be big way before cyborg stuff comes into it's own. It'll be
a proof of concept in many cases... will people take up the closer
relationship with their machines, or is the idea of the cyborg flawed in the
same way as a the video phone or the flying car?

- Killer app 1: Life extension... This application will really pull "cyborg
technology" into mainstream culture. Already, there are artificial limbs and
joints, pacemakers, cochlear implants... I think there are even implanted
insulin feeds for diabetics (better check that one). People seem happy with
the deathist meme in a general sense, but often tend to speak differently
when things start looking grim on a personal scale. Contrary to the normal
pattern of social change, I would expect strong cyborg uptake to begin in
the older generations, as it becomes available and shows itself to be
superior to what these people possess naturally. Younger people, on the
other hand, will likely resist implants/modifications related to life
You see this uptake already. I have relatives who shall remain anonymous,
who delve into these areas... HRT is a great example. These people will not
label themselves Transhumanists (despite my taunting to come out of the
closet), they will continue to raise the deathist business about death being
part of life and all that great stuff. They also will continue to seek
treatment for things which might kill them, and which are only newly coming
to be regarded as pathologies. Such as menopause.
An interesting factor here is that there is, implicit in much modern,
mainstream medicine, and in it's life extension techniques, the ideal human
state of "wellness" (similar and related to the beauty industry's ideal
form, discussed below). The ultimately healthy body is not only free of
disease, mobile and resilient, it is youthful. Life extension in this
context is about maintaining this idealised state indefinitely.
Incidentally, I feel that transhumanism would not take such a simplistic
stance on life extension... to us, it is all about freedom of choice, not
pursuit of a mass marketted ideal.
But I have digressed. The point of the above is that there is an abstract
ideal state which informs the search for extended life and youth in
mainstream culture, and that model will continue to dominate, rather than
our prefered "freedom of choice" model. The ramifications of this in the
context of improving technologies will be a shifting of the ideal,
eventually into territory that only a cyborg can enter. At some point in the
future, I have no doubt that normal, unaugmented humans will be seen as
physically ill/disabled individuals, in need of special help and in need of
treatment. I don't think it's a particularly good thing, but it is likely.

- Killer app 2: Net connection... In the world of today and tomorrow, the
greatest change from the past is the existence, and increasing dependency
upon, interconnection with the rest of the world. Our wearables now (mobile
phones, pdas. etc etc) are a testament to this... I don't think it's a trend
which is about to falter any time soon. True wearable computing will take
off, and the push after that will be to get "cyborg" enhancements to make
communication even easier... headup displays directly on the retina,
microphones implants (in/near the jawbone?) to pickup speech, speakers
inside the ear. Before VR environments (or perhaps in parallel with them) we
will introduce a whole noisy world of input as close to our external senses
as possible, and we will simplify output to the maximum extent possible,
even without direct neural interface. I would then predict that we'd try to
move directly to neural interfacing, although I'll temper that by saying
that this will not be the be-all and end-all. I think we'll continue to use
our external language abilities for a good while yet, basically because any
kind of direct mind-to-mind interfacing would be incredibly intimate, and
not the kind of thing you'd want to use to communicate with anyone with whom
you would not freely make love. Oddly enough, it might also be acceptable to
communicate with external machines that way too.
This type of enhancement is one that I would expect younger people to adopt
first. It will be driven primary by social and economic competitive
advantage... to have access to these technologies will give you an edge
those who don't have them. More correctly, as is the case with commercial
information technology adoption now, using these technologies will be like a
pre-requisite... you wont gain much by using them (because most others will
have access to the same stuff), but you will be at a serious disadvantage if
you do not.
A strong implication of the drivers of this branch of cyborg tech, is that
it may well be at odds with the life-extension application. In some cases,
undoubtedly people will be faced with the choice of enhancements which give
them short term advantage, but cause them longer term trouble. Some people
will choose these enhancements. The bar will be raised higher...
Another implication is related to that of life extension... that it will
become non-competitive to remain an unaltered human. From the angle of the
competitive edge in a fast moving society, there is no ideal to be reached;
it's more like trying to be out the front of the pack in a marathon, or at
least not falling behind. Very interesting things should come from
competition driven cyborg technologies, because diversity will be important;
you never know where the next edge will come from. But, it will be a lot
more difficult to maintain even the illusion of control over where these
technologies go. We probably need to get past the desire to control them
pretty soon, or learn to live with dissapointment.

Killer app 3: Eternal youth and the beauty industry... Somewhat related to
life extension, the quest for physical youth and beauty will be a very
strong driver of cyborg type technologies. It is easy to dismiss this area,
because it seems somewhat superficial, but when you look at the amount of
money that flows through the (well manicured) hands of the beauty industry,
a different picture emerges. Our cultures pathologise aging, and they
pathologise the marks of aging. Implicit in all this is a model of
"perfection" which we should all be trying to reach. I am not sure exactly
what form it takes... Brad Pitt/Nicole Kidman? Whatever the exact form is,
it apparently doesn't have wrinkles, cellulite or body hair. It can, on the
other hand, have breast implants, a face lift or a nose job.
There will be a strong overlap between life extension technologies and
beauty related technologies. One way to look physically young and fit is to
stay physically young and fit, after all. Who knows... in the far flung
future, those anti-wrinkle creams might actually work! They might even work
by keeping you physically young enough to not have wrinkles. Of course, acne
could be a problem.
On the other hand, beauty related technologies have more in common with the
"competitive edge" camp... they have much to do with gaining ground in one's
dealings with others, rather than the more internally motivated goal of a
prolonged life. Techniques down the ages (lead face powder, corsets, stomach
stapling, modern dieting) show pretty clearly that beauty and health can run
sharply at odds with one another.
Another point about the beauty industry is that its ideals are, for all
intents and purposes, unobtainable. Do what you will, you wont look like
Elle McPherson with today's technology and treatments, unless you are Elle
McPherson. However, the beauty industry will have a good go at telling you
that it can get you close. The unobtainable ideal means endless consumption
of products.
So, as our technology for self modification improves, and we can more easily
hit the mark, the beauty industry will move the target. There are some great
stats out there (The Beauty Myth contains some decent research) to show that
the "ideal woman", for example, is a physically impossible being already.
When we add cyborg technology to the mix, where will the collective ideal of
the perfect form move to? Somewhere as odd as it is extreme, and it will
motivate ever larger uptake of the sillier forms of cyborg technology.

- Physical enhancements... In the cyberpunk literature, people tend to make
very silly modifications, so that they can look freaky, or have some
enhanced physical trait. Steve Austin, eat your heart out. However, I
believe that these will be the very last types of enhancements that are
made, and the least frequent. In the world of today, and certainly in that
of tomorrow, physical enhancements are and become less useful than one might
suppose. Leap tall buildings in a single bound? Sure... but why not just
take the lift? It might not turn out to be very important to a modern
westerner to be able to lift a small truck; it might be far more useful to
merely look as though you could.
Eventually physical enhancements will become more important, as our biology
begins to really let us down... we may need to change form to cope with
overcrowding of earth, we'll definitely need to change form to explore
space. That, however, is some way off.

- Part robot... intertwined with our cyborg advances, will come advances in
biotech, nanotech, AI (in the loosest sense), and information and
communication technologies. So, it is likely that we will have some pretty
smart computers kicking around, grown out of the needs of the biotech
revolution first, then whatever follows. These will use sophisticated models
born of that revolution's discoveries. Evolved software, which adapts to a
changing enironment in real time, will be the bedrock of such systems. We'll
be pushing close, perhaps, to machines that do something vaguely resembling
thought. Certainly, they'll make this look like the stone age.
So, in terms of human enhancement, we are likely to see some very smart
control systems finding their way into, or close to, people. Tasks which
take manual dexterity, such as driving a car, should move to become a
partnership between human and machine, with the machine taking over the
simpler tasks which require instaneous reaction based on multiple inputs,
and the humans keeping a high level control. It's human as captain, computer
as first mate, robots for crew.
And what is the ship? It could be a car, which can virtually, if not
absolutely, drive itself. It might be a factory, which just requires a few
humans to make directorial pronouncements (more blue in the blue m&ms
please), and can otherwise manage on it's own (hmm, I think this might
alread be happening). It might be a spacecraft whose sensory abilities are
translated into human equivalent sensory signals, and whose directions come
directly from a that human controller's nervous control signals (my fuel
intake valve feels a bit sticky, I'll wiggle it a bit).

- Part virtual robot... And some of us will end up descending (ascending?)
entirely into the virtual realm, with the software equivalents of cyborg
enhancements... intelligent agents scooting around doing our bidding (most
likely communicating with even more intelligent server based systems),
alerting systems and autonomous systems for acting on our behalf, giving the
as yet nu-enhanced human mind a function performance boost, and the ability
to move freely in a new environment for which it has not been evolved.

- Security... People often raise the spectre of personal vulnerability in an
interconnected world. No one wants to find their robot arm suddenly writing
"0wned by Kr4XX0r 133t", or that, after installing some IBM human memory
expansion, they inexpicably foul themselves whenever they think about
Microsoft products. In response to this, I would say that we have already
begun on the path to extreme global interconnectedness, and are painfully
aware of these issues because of problems we've already experienced.
However, we must not forget that the world has gone on. Most of us choose to
remain connected despite the risk, because we perceive it to be far smaller
that the gain. Yes, we'll continue to have mellissa and I love you viruses
and internet worms. We'll continue to have script kiddies and black hat
hackers and international bad guys and, sometimes, catastrophes based on
pure incompetence. Slowly we get better at coping with these problems. We
will, through a combination of local intelligent design and global natural
selection, come to be more and more skilled at keeping the computer network
a safe enough place, such that, by the time people are putting their bowels
online, it'll be safe enough to do so.

- Lastly, I think this discussion can get a bit silly, and will look
hopelessly naive from the perspective of the people of 50 years from now,
let alone 100. It'll look something like predicting steam-powered zeppelins
as the next big thing. There are so many different technological avenue down
which to progress, and the interaction between these, combined with a few
completely-out-of-left-field surprises, will take us somewhere mostly
obscured from here. Personally, I suspect that the mainstream culture's
"cyborg" is probably another flying car/videophone, and whilst it embodies
more useful concepts perhaps than those two others, in itself it will go
obsolete and embarrassing before it becomes reality.
However, I think that the cyborg memeset is useful at least for a while, and
I agree with Anders that the tendency to throw our hands up and say "We
can't know" is counterproductive. Babbage could see the computer, daVinci
could see human flight, Jules Verne could see space travel. We can see

This whole discussion of mine probably looks hopelessly ill-informed to many
of you... so tell me why. What's important that I've missed? Where am I
wrong? Where is my presentation flawed? Don't quietly grumble about it to
yourself... if you can correct my misinformation, then I'm less likely to
say something problematic on the box.

Thanks in advance,

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