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The transhumanist movement continues to gain momentum through recognition by mainstream media and a ever-burgeoning army of empricists, free thinkers and rationalists. Recently,  the Australian incarnation of 60 Minutes interviewed David Sinclair, a biologist whom has identified  the potentially life-extending properties of resveratrol. All this attention has sought to swell the awareness of transhumanism within the general community, most notably due to the inherently appealing nature of anti-senescent interventions. But what of the neurological side of transhumanism, specifically the artificial augmentation of our natural mental ability with implantable neurocircuitry? Does research in this area create moral questions regarding its implementation, or should we be embracing technological upgrades with open arms? Is it morally wrong to enhance the brain without effort on the individual level (IE: are such methods just plain lazy)? These are the questions I would like to investigate in this article.

An emerging transhumanist e-zine, H+ Magazine, outlines several avenues currently under exploration by researchers, who aim to improve the cognitive ability of the human brain through artificial enhancement. The primary area of focus at present (from an empirical point of view) lies in memory enhancement. The Innerspace Foundation (IF) is a not-for-profit organisation attempting to lead the charge in this area, with two main prizes offered to researchers whom can 1)  successfully create a device which can circumvent the traditional learning process and 2) create a device which facilitates the extension of natural memory.

Pete Estep, chairman of IF, was interviewed by H+ magazine in relation to the foundation’s vision as to what kind of device that satisfied their award criteria might look like. Pete believes the emergence of this industry involves ‘baby steps’ of achieving successful interfaces between biological and non-biological components. Electronic forms of learning, Pete believes, are certainly non-traditional, but still a valid possibility and stand to revolutionise the human intellect in terms of capacity and quality of retrieval.

Fortunately, we seem to already made progress on those ‘baby steps’ regarding the interface between brain and technology. Various neuroheadset products are poised to be released commercially in the coming months. For example, the EPOC headset utilises EEG technology to recognise brainwave activity that corresponds to various physical actions such as facial expression and intent to move a limb. With concentrated effort and training, the operator can reliably reproduce the necessary EEG pattern to activate individual commands within the headset. These commands can then be mapped to an external device and various tasks able to be performed remotely.

Having said this, such devices are still very much ‘baby’ in their steps. The actual stream of consciousness has not yet been decoded; the secrets of the brain are still very much a mystery. Recognisation of individual brain patterns is a superficial solution to a profound problem. Getting back to Searle’s almost cliched Chinese Room thought experiment, we seem to be merely reading the symbols and decoding them, there is no actual understanding  and comprehension going on here.

Even if such a solution is possible, and a direct mind/machine interface achieved, one small part of me wonders if it really is such a good thing. I imagine such a feeling is similar to the one felt by the quintessential school teacher when handheld calculators became the norm within the educational curriculum. By condoning such neuro-shortcuts, are we simply being lazy? Are the technological upgrades promised by transhumanism removing too much of the human element?

On a broader scale, I believe these concerns are elucidated by a societal shift towards passivity. Television is the numero-uno offender with a captive audience of billions. The invasion of neurological enhancements may seek to only increase the exploitation of our attention with television programs beamed directly into brains. Rain, hail or shine, passive reception of entertainment would be accessible 24 hours a day. Likewise, augmentation of memory and circumvention of traditional learning processes may forge a society of ultimate convenience – slaves to a ‘Matrix-style’ mainframe salivating over their next neural-upload ‘hit’.

But having said all this, by examining the previous example of the humble calculator it seems that if such technological breakthroughs are used as an extensor rather than a crutch, humanity may just benefit from the transhumanist revolution. I believe any technology aiming to enhance natural neurological processing power must only be used as such; a method to raise the bar of creativity and ingenuity, not simply a new avenue for bombarding the brain with more direct modes of passive entertainment. Availability must also be society-wide, in order to allow every human being to reach their true potential.

Of course, the flow-on effects of such technology on socio-economic status, intelligence, individuality, politics; practically every facet of human society, are certainly unknown and unpredictable. If used with extension and enhancement as a philosophy, transhumanism can usher in a new explosion of human ingenuity. If a more superficial ethos is adopted, it may only succeed in ushering a new dark ages. It’s the timeless battle between good (transcendence) and evil (exploitation, laziness). Perhaps a topic for a future article, but certainly food for thought.

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A recurring theme and technological prediction of futurists is one in which human intelligence supersedes that of the previous generation through artificial enhancement. This is a popular topic on the Positive Futurist website maintained by Dick Pelletier, and one which provides food for thought. Mr Pelletier outlines a near future (2030s) where a combination of nanotechnology and insight into the inner workings of the human brain facilitate an exponential growth of intelligence. While the accuracy of such a prediction is open to debate (specifically the technological possibilities of successful development within the given timeframe), if such a rosy future did come to fruition what would be the consequences on society? Specifically, would an increase of average intelligence necessarily result in an overall improvement to quality of life? If so, which areas would be mostly affected (eg morality, socio-economic status)? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

The main argument provided by futurists is that technological advances relating to nano-scale devices will soon be realised and implemented throughout society. By utilising these tiny automatons to the largest extent possible, it is thought that both disease and aging could be eradicated by the middle of this century. This is due to the utility of nanobots, specifically their ability to carry out pre-programmed tasks in a collective and automated fashion without any conscious awareness on behalf of the host. In essence, nano devices could act as a controllable extension of the human body, giving health professionals the power to monitor and treat throughout the organisms lifespan. But the controllers of these instruments need to know what to target and how to best direct their actions; a point of possible sabotage to the futurists’ plan. In all likelihood, however, such problems will only prove to serve as temporary hindrances and should be overcome through extensive testing and development phases.

Assuming that a) such technology is possible and b) it can be controlled to produce the desired results, the future looks bright for humanity. By further extending nanotechnology with cutting edge neurological insight, it is feasible that intelligence can be artificially increased. The possibility of artificial intelligence and the development of an interface with the human mind almost ensures a future filled with rapid growth. To this end, an event aptly named the ‘technological singularity’ has been proposed, which outlines the extension of human ability through aritificial means. The singularity allows for innovation to exceed the rate of development; in short, humankind could advance (technologically) faster than the rate of input. While the plausibility of such an event is open to debate, it does sound feasible that artificial intelligence could assist us to develop new and exciting breakthroughs in science. If conscious, self-directed intelligence were to be artificially created this may assist humanity even further; perhaps the design of specific minds would be possible (need a physical breakthrough – just create an artificial Einstein). Such an idea hinges totally on the ability of neuroscientists to unlock the secrets of the human brain and allow the manipulation or ‘tailoring’ of specific abilities.

While the jury is still out debating the details of how such a feat will be made technologically possible, a rough outline of the methodologies involved in artificial augmentation could be enlightening. Already we are seeing the effects of a society increasingly driven by information systems. People want to know more in a shorter time, in other words, increase efficiency and volume. To compensate for the already torrential hordes of information available on various mediums (the internet springs to mind) humanity relies increasingly on ways to filter, absorb and understand stimuli. We are seeing not only a trend in artificial aids (search engines, database software, larger networks) but also a changing pattern in the way we scan and retain information. Internet users are now forced to make quick decisions and scan superficially at high speed to obtain information that would otherwise be lost amidst the backlog of detail. Perhaps this is one way in which humanity is guiding the course of evolution and retraining the minds basic instincts away from more primitive methods of information gathering (perhaps it also explains our parents’ ineptitude for anything related to the IT world!) This could be one of the first targets for augmentation; increasing the speed of information transfer via programmed algorithms that fuse our natural biological mechanisms of searching with the power of logical, machine-coded functions. Imagine being able to combine the biological capacity to effortlessly scan and recognise facial features with the speed of computerised programming.

How would such technology influence the structure of society today? The first assumption that must be taken is the universal implementation/adoption of such technologies by society. Undoubtedly there will be certain populations whom refuse for whatever reason, most likely due to a perceived conflict with their belief system. It is important to preserve and respect such individuality, even if it means that these populations will be left behind in terms of intellectual enlightenment. Critics of future societies and futurists in general argue that a schism will develop, akin to the rising disparities in wealth distribution present within today’s society. In counter-argument, I would respond that an increase in intelligence would likewise cause a global rise in morality. While this relationship is entirely speculative, it is plausible to suggest that a person’s level of moral goodness is at least related (if not directly) to their intelligence.

Of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule whereby intelligent people have suffered from moral ineptitude, however an increased neurological understanding and a practical implementation of ‘designer’ augmentations (as it relates to improving morality) would negate the possibility of a majority ‘superclass’ whom persecutes groups of ‘naturals’. At the very worst, there may be a period of unrest at the implementation of such technology while the majority of the population catches up (in terms of perfecting the implantation/augmentation techniques and achieving the desired level of moral output). Such innovations may even act as a catalyst for developing a philosophically sound model of universal morality; something which would in turn, allow the next generation of neurological ‘upgrades’ to implement.

Perhaps we are already in the midst of our future society. Our planet’s declining environment may hasten the development of such augmentation to improve our chances of survival. Whether this process involves the discarding of our physical bodies for a more impervious, intangible machine-based life or otherwise remains to be seen. With the internet’s rising popularity and increasing complexity, a virtual ‘Matrix-esque’ world in which such programs could live might not be so far-fetched after all. Whatever the future holds, it is certainly an exciting time in which to live. Hopefully humanity can overcome the challenges of the future in a positive way and without too much disruption to our technological progress.