Archive for July, 2011

Human Revolution Asks The Tough Questions

July 31, 2011 2 comments

I’m a Deus Ex fanatic. Ever since the first game debuted in 2000 (well before I identified as a transhumanist), I’ve been hooked on the techno-futurist setting and the idea of body customization through implantation. Even though the games are heavy on the conspiracy angle, the designers do a great job of fleshing out the story and forcing the player to make tough ethical decisions given options that have no clear right answer.

Edios is back at it again with the newest installment: Human Revolution. The third game is a prequel, taking place after human augmentation is well established, but before the augmentation companies are able to create ‘nano-augmentation’ instead of bulky mechanical augmentation. Even before the game comes out, Edios has been hyping the release with very realistic ‘commercials’ and ‘messages’ from the games various factions. The first was put out by “Sarif Industries”, an in-game augmentation company promoting the benefits of enhancement.

Here’s that video:

The website mentioned at the end of the video actually works, and provides more realistic background information, including a timeline of augmentation from the 1960’s on. Just the other day, however, Edios put out a counter ad from ‘Purity First’, the in-game bioluddites. They ‘hacked’ the Sarif Industries website, so visiting the website now shows graphic overlays from Purity First (and some terrible audio). Here’s the Purity First retort:

Right off the bat, the commercial begins with emotion-laden sound and images not too far off from what we see currently. Compare, for instance, with this 2010 Citizens Against Government Waste ad:

Although much of the Purity First ‘ad’ plays to basic fear and emotions, it also does a good job of presenting ‘facts’ that, from our perspective in the real world, are still just issues.

At 0:44, for instance, the ‘ad’ questions the motivations behind augmentations. This is the basis for a debate I’ve had with people about the actual course of transhumanism. On one hand, I want to explain that augmentation is a choice, and that when it becomes available, people who object can simply choose not to get augmented (a stance that seems reasonable, but seems unpersuasive in gay marriage and marijuana legalization contexts.) They counter with worries like those exposed in the ‘ad’: Won’t people who choose to remain unaugmented get outpaced by the superior skills and abilities of the augmented? I’m not sure how to reply to that; yes, I suppose they will. After all, people wouldn’t get augmentations if those augmentations provided no benefit (note the lack of people with perfectly functional hands beating down the doors to get those hands replaced with even the newest model of bionic hands.) If the augmentations provide benefit, then by definition those with the augmented hands will have abilities that those without augmented hands don’t have. Those abilities might be worth a higher wage, depending on the field the augmented person is in. Unaugmented humans might get outpaced, but it remains their choice to stay in the past (although I’m not taking into account the financial aspects of augmentation; certainly some people will want to be augmented but be unable to afford it – I’ll address that in a bit.)

Around 0:56 – 1:07 the ‘ad’ plays on basic moral and ethical objections. The ‘playing God’ line has been trotted out many times over the years, and seems to take hold with at least some of the population. Consider this news report from British Sky News:

At around 1:15 the ‘ad’ broaches the topic of privacy; a debate that’s been ongoing not just between transhumanists and bioluddites, but also between transhumanists who differ on what level of intrusion is acceptable. On one hand, ideally we want the companies servicing our implants to be able to fix them and upgrade them with the same ease as our cell phones download service packs and our apps update from the Apple store or Droid marketplace. On the other hand, when one is considering implanting new eyes, augmenting our brains, and replacing our legs, do we really want someone else to have any measure of external control? Implants now are largely a one-and-done transaction; someone gets a new hip installed by a doctor and that’s it. But because augmentations are cutting edge technology, it seems like it would be beneficial to be able to upload software upgrades (like our computers and phones have) rather than get stuck with a sealed system that needs replacement entirely when it wears out. The question essentially boils down to whether we want implants that are more like a toaster (where the technology is unchangeable, and only entire replacement can offer additional functionality) or a cell phone (where software upgrades and occasionally firmware upgrades or even limited hardware upgrades [like a SD card] can extend the life of a device for some period of time.) Because implants are high-tech and presumably difficult to get to and expensive, I tend to think that some level of monitoring and upgradability is a reasonable tradeoff for increased intrusion. But the intrusion is there, and in a very private sense not yet seen.

Around 1:40 the ‘ad’ broaches militarization of augmentation. This, I think, is inevitable. Although a general anti-war (or even a more reasonable war-making) policy is fully consistent with the ‘ads’ message, I’m not sure that the militarization of augmentation is particularly objectionable when we’re upgrading the rest of our military equipment and spending fortunes on advanced new rifle systems today.

Around 1:55 the ‘ad’ argues that implants require continual doses of an anti-rejection drug; failure to take the drug causes the body to reject the implant. Because the drug companies have a captive audience, they can charge exorbitant prices for the drug. Because they chose to, people end up on the streets; unable to afford the ongoing costs of the anti-rejection treatments. The threshold question for real-world application seems to be whether implants like those in the game would require extensive doses of anti-rejection drugs. If so, then how might we prevent the drug companies from causing exactly the problems the ‘ad’ addresses? Aren’t drug companies already doing exactly what the ‘ad’ claims where anti-cancer treatments are concerned? Would the government be willing (or able) to either subsidize the cost of the drug or manufacture and distribute it outright to prevent pharmaceutical pricing abuse? If so, would the people feel better about government distributed drugs than corporate distributed drugs?

At 2:30 the ‘ad’ argues that the companies making the implants can shut them down at will; an issue wholly determined (as discussed above) by the level of control that they maintain over the augmentation once implanted. Certainly no company can shut off an artificial hip, but with more software based upgrades comes more external control. Gamers have dealt with companies that stop supporting their products, shut down servers, and otherwise make a purchased product worthless. Sony bans users from the Playstation Network regularly, making an expensive entertainment system much less valuable. The possibility exists that, given the right set of conditions, the same could be true of augmentations.

In all, for a three-and-a-half minute trailer, Eidos does a great job of highlighting the very real concerns some people have about transhumanism. Consider the IEET page on bio-luddites and compare it to the concerns in the trailer; they seem to match up almost word for word. I imagine the game will flesh out these concerns more fully, and maybe incorporate Repo Men like financial concerns and highlight the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots (even as the ‘haves’ are dragged down to ‘have-not’ status by the price of their anti-rejection drugs.)

I know that if the things transhumanists talk about come into being, they will change the nature of what it means to be human. I know that very advanced technology can do both great good and great evil. I know that some people will reject the idea of augmentation. Some argue that the issue will be so divisive that it will lead to civil war; others dismiss the claims as hyperbole and argue that the transition will go more or less smoothly. I’m not sure what to think just yet. Games, however, aren’t built on utopian scenarios; it’s no fun if there’s no conflict, and Deus Ex is giving us a look at something like a worst case scenario. Of course, the techno-utopian viewpoint will (presumably) also be explored in depth.

I, for one, can’t wait for the game.

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H+ Cameo

July 18, 2011 Leave a comment

I recently submitted an article to H+, which can be accessed through the link below.

Many thanks to Professor Stacey Tovino for double checking my submission, and to H+ Magazine editor Michael Anissimov for giving me a chance to contribute.

Memory Enhancing Technology and Witness Testimony

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Transhumanist Tech For The Public

July 15, 2011 Leave a comment

While I enjoy reading about all the cool new technology coming out of the labs, most people aren’t going to start seeing the real transformations coming down the line (the Singularity, if you like) until lab tech becomes consumer tech. It’s awesome that scientists are controlling rat brains with lights, making robotic lampreys, and that the lifespan of rats is extended in the lab, but until it affects people personally, until they can touch the tech and integrate it with their lives, most people won’t get too excited. Paradoxically, it also seems like tech that gets to the consumer loses some of its impressive nature – it’s already well established by the time we plebes get to play with it. In that vein, I want to highlight some impressive consumer technology that’s already available or well on its way to becoming available.

G-Tec, a medical engineering company out of Austria, has been testing a new brain-control interface, allowing severely disabled and paralyzed people to control their avatars in Second Life. Additionally, users will be able to control a wide variety of computer controlled appliances, including lights, TVs, the thermostat and the phone. The system works by monitoring wavelengths of brain signals, detecting when the user focuses on an icon and “selects” it with their thoughts. There do seem to be some problems still to work out: First, the device looks like a swim cap with a lot of wires attached, and it seems to plug into a computer hub, much like computer components now. Because the cap can only move as far as the wires from the hub, mobility is severely limited. Making the system wireless will fix that problem. Shrinking the device, perhaps even making it implantable, will bring the technology the rest of the way from consumer tech to (what used to seem like) sci-fi.

While brain-control interfaces have a ways to go before they’re fully developed, several diagnostic technologies are already close to ideal. MIT has developed a cell-phone and other smart device (like iPod) technology to detect cataracts in users. What used to require a visit to the ophthalmologist is now detectable through a clip on technology accessory and a downloadable app. While it doesn’t quite make a cell phone a tricorder, it does use existing consumer tech to deliver important health benefits, presumably fairly cheaply. There is an eyepiece attachment that is necessary, and the article didn’t mention anything about cost, but I can’t imagine that an attachment to an iPhone would run more than a couple hundred dollars at the top end. Ideally, it’ll be much cheaper than that. After all, how many people check their cataracts for fun? This seems like a useful mobile medical device, but not something suited particularly well to the home consumer, unless the price point is at the low end of the spectrum: If it’s accurate (and it seems to be) anything more than about $100 would put it firmly in the ‘may as well go to the doctor’ category.

At the extreme of consumer-simplicity technology, a new iOS app from the Health Discovery Corporation called MelApp allows consumers to take a picture of a mole or freckle, add in a few measurements, and it spits out a risk factor for one of the leading causes of cancer, melanoma. Although the app does not claim to be a replacement for diagnosis from a real doctor (almost certainly for legal liability reasons) I’m curious to see how accurate the diagnoses actually are. With most cell phone cameras on new models running in the 4 megapixel+ range, the resolution out to be pretty good, which means if the software itself can recognize the difference between a cancerous growth and a benign growth, many people could potentially be warned of a cancer risk well before they ever visit a doctor. The software seems to compare the user-taken picture to a catalog of images maintained by Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, one of the preeminent cancer institutes in the world. Even better, the technology is cheap: Just download a $1.99 app and use your current iPhone.

Transhumanism, for me, is often about the bleeding edge breakthroughs and the not-here-yet tech that’s coming down the pike. Implants, nanotech self-assemblers, DeGray’s anti-aging research, super-human A.I. – all of that technology is sexy, but still nowhere near widely available. This technology, on the other hand, is miraculous by 10-year-ago standards and still pretty impressive by today’s standards. More importantly, it is available to the public and ready to help people build better lives; and that, really, is what transhumanism is all about. I imagine all the “sexy” technology will be viewed the same way by the time it filters down to the public; after all, by the time memory upgrades are available for the human brain, we’ll be looking at scientists overclocking rat brains in the lab wishing for that. So goes technology.


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