I attended a conference in Southern California last December featuring current developments in human enhancement and life extension. Not sure it was worth the flight from San Francisco, I checked out the speakers, most whom I didn't know. A few had presented at the TED conference, which was a plus, and the program was compelling, so I went.
I told one friend what the conference was about. He just looked at me, unsure where my head had gone for vacation. Then I joked to another friend I was curious if I could pick out the Cyborgs in the audience. This resulted in "Wow, I want to know all the details when you get back!"
I guess our relationship with science hasn't changed much. What we don't think is possible either makes us edgy or gets us all excited.
My preconceptions however, were completely reversed. For three days, my reality was transformed by an incredible and fascinating world of probability and possibility. "Hive mind" took over as a sizable collection of real human conferees began to think and feel alike. If there were any Cyborgs, they were excellent proof transhumanist technology has been perfected.
I thought about a video circulated on the web recently of a guy who married the virtual one he created, and realized our New Century just might become a Brave New World.
For me, The Humanity Plus conference was an over-the-top hit. I had a long list on my laptop of words to search after I left. One out of four failed spell-check. This is how rapidly our language is changing to suit our desires, inventions, and curiosity.
I'm amazed at the thousands of scientific choices available for altering, enhancing, repairing, healing, and extending the lifespan of the human body. And more choices on how we can enhance our experience of what we currently call reality. Science fiction, digital animation, cinema, religion, spirituality, and altered states of consciousness are tools we use to experience what doesn't exist. One by one however, we're chipping away at the short list and transforming our visions into scientific fact.
"Imagineering" is a buzzword now. We've been ramping up for centuries to manifest our wildest dreams. If you "imagine" something, is it "real", and will it "happen"? Can you "create" it? Does it "exist", and if so, to "whom"? Is it "true"? Do we need "science" to "prove" it?
Wow. Check out all those quotation marks! These are familiar words we use every day, but is there scientific proof behind them? And if there is, for how long? If I say it's true and you say it isn't, who wins until next week?
This could be the biggest transition in the history of technology and dictionaries. Add the power of Wikipedia (this failed spell-check too), and it's a world on a power drink.
Instead of "no, it isn't," I've traded that one in for "that's interesting." It keeps the sign in front of my head flipped to "open." It also provides safe haven so I don't offend anyone until there's "proof," including myself. This conference provided so much to think about, all the heads attending were flipped open.
Since the turn of the century we've come mind-blowingly close to solving some of our toughest challenges for quality of life and the nature of our universe. A modest awareness of quantum physics can provide the realization this is not the only dimension we may occupy. The film "Back to the Future" was a prequel to this possibility, and now it's a probability.
Plenty has been written about the integrity of accepting the experiences of others as real to them, even if it isn't to us. This extends to the body as well. If you physically alter your DNA, your body, or use it as a canvas for art, or lose an arm and go get another one, does it change your experience or who you are to others? Or maybe change your brain?
Psychologists and behaviorists specialize in counseling those who alter their body, and even their gender. We now have technology that can replace an arm with a robotic prosthesis and a small computer attached to the body that transmits the brain's neuron conversation to the replaced arm, telling it what to do. It literally "reads your mind."
Dean Kamen, a robotics developer, has interfaced the latest technology, making this a reality. A robotic arm can now pick up a grape and not crush it. Captain Crunch can reach the mouth with all the milk in the spoon. Kamen's current goal is to refine the brain sensors so amputees can perform their next chess move, based on the decision made in their brain. He's also working with DARPA to make this existing technology affordable and available to anyone that needs a limb replaced. They're starting with victims of warfare, some who need four replacements. One recipient of a robotic arm has been without a real one for almost two decades.
So what about technology that enhances human experience? Well, that exists too. One of the hot topics in the conference break room was the impending release of the film Avatar, produced with unique advances in 3D digital media. The film is as close to an immersive holographic environment I've seen so far, but I was amazed during one presentation to discover one actually exists, constructed inside a building.
Dr. JoAnn Kuchera Morin, the ingenious mind behind the AlloSphere at UC Santa Barbara, explained how participants are surrounded with "true 3D" in a thirty-foot diameter dome laboratory, the largest in the world. This "scientific instrument" inputs the ingenuity of musicians, composers, artists, physicists, biologists, geneticists, psychologists, and astronomers into a computer software program and outputs sensory data that can simulate reality. Images are exploded to a thousand times their actual size and are in the face of participants inside the dome, whom transmit sensory feedback to the computer, altering the experience and creating the ideal feedback loop.
So if the AlloSphere is also a tool for developing interactive and bodily intuition, can we think ourselves into a reality we choose?
An interesting non-event at this conference was the still-present hush-ness about "digital sex." It was mentioned in the audience, maybe twice, and fast. Just a quickie.
The powerful presence of this digital media in our world is still too powerful for most of us, even though the biological imperative to replicate ourselves wins out over all other senses.
The United States is one of the few cultures with an expectation of monogamy, but humans can demand more input from their partner than is deliverable within the limits of human expression.
This dilemma is rarely expressed openly, and is often tethered to endless forms of psychoanalytic, therapeutic, and spiritual discipline in order to maintain it.
We like the term "chemistry" though, to describe that rare event with another human where bliss is experienced in sex, and we want it forever. But chemistry can also make us complete idiots. Even killers. Or forget to pay the bills, and if sex isn't consummated with a significant other, leave crumbs all over the place so we can be "found out", a rather subliminal tactic to confront cultural shame and guilt.
It's obvious from recent world events we just can't make sex go away. We continue to engage humans, and some engagements reward the participant's lack of due-diligence with a world stage at the grocery check-out stand. Many of us feed on infractions of monogamy or celibacy, and then humans become the celebrity status casualties of their biological surges.
Proliferation of human sexual expression through emotion, ritual, love, mind altered states, or chemicals has been the norm. We have control of our free will as to how often, with what, and with whom we enhance our experience. We can choose to immerse ourselves in human interaction, or join a virtual community that could take our current norm to the next level.
Full immersive virtual technology with sensory input/output offers boundless opportunity for this option to exist within the next five years, outside the box we call a computer.
Not much practice or commitment involved here. Just an admission ticket. Humans can maintain monogamy, control population, and avoid societal shame with a new twist. . .
"It's not what you think, Dear. All I did Friday night was hang out at the Full Dome 4D Digital
Immersion Multiplex. Look at our kids. They live in that computer with their games day and night. No big deal."
The Ultimate Safe Sex.
There are "private clubs" providing a choice in humans, but what might happen if we choose sensory input that goes straight to the brain without the middleperson? If we allow admittance into our head instead, what may come or go with it? This brand of enhancement might lease our free will with an open contract. We may turn ourselves over so our thoughts can be manipulated, our senses altered, and then just go along for the ride, getting off any time we want. Or so it seems.
A long time friend of mine is the first woman physician in her Native American Tribe. She's traveled all over the world representing the health and well-being of her People. She always waits in our conversations until she can deliver a profound observation about anything. I spoke to her recently about this topic. We tossed around a lot of ideas, and then she made a statement I knew would be questioned by the entertainment industry.
"Bollywood will surpass Hollywood here in a few years."
Silence. No way, I thought. Not in the US.
We exchanged our experiences in India and the movies we saw. After debating this for a while, I realized she was on to something. Traditional India pre-arranges marriages which make courtship obsolete, and even falling in love. We agreed the majority of movies made in Bollywood, even today, are about romance. Lots of singing, dancing, courting, fabulous costuming, opulent sets, camels racing, and The Big Kiss at the end when the audience goes wild. Every movie house in India is packed, and this now extends into the Mid East and Europe,
where Bollywood is wildly popular.
The emotional cravings for humans may not go away either. We agreed the day might come when popularity of this plot will surge back into cinema and video right here in the US, produced by Bollywood.
It's obvious within the last few weeks the Internet may be controlled more than the inventors intended it to be. If open platforms via electronic data are regulated further based on market share, bandwidth, and predetermined cultural morality, to what extent will humans go to surmount deprivation of their free will in the virtual world? Enhancement through immersive digital media in a pay-per-experience theater environment could be one potential option to the powerful urges that still bother us. And for many, a "second life" to enjoy.
What I'm curious about regarding all this emerging technology in human enhancement and sensory augmentation is the pay-off and potential sacrifice in our complex human arena with each other. It might also bring front and center some surprising attention to the existence of a human soul. More inventive science will be needed to prove this one, if only to restore "con-science" and fulfilling interactions with "humans".
Until then, it's your call. Go to a nice romantic musical with camel races, or go to the Multiplex.
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