May 18, 2011

Humanity+ @ Parsons recap: Beyond enhancement

Just got back from New York City where I attended the Humanity+ @ Parsons conference on May 14th and 15th. I always have a great time at these events, and this conference was no exception.

I'll be writing about the conference over the coming days and weeks, but I will say that it was interesting to see all the emphasis paid not to enhancement per se, but to alternative forms of human re-design and modification. Kinda makes sense if you think about it: it was a design-meets-transhumanism conference after all. But that said, I'm left wondering if it's part of a broader trend.

Transhumanists, it would seem, are not as purely fixated on augmentation as they used to be; it’s becoming more than just about being smarter, faster, or stronger. It’s also about acquiring novel capacities and being able to experience different things.

One thing I did observe, however, was that it was the transhumanists and not the designers who emphasized these points. I am surprised at how little consideration designers, architects and artists still give to the idea of human re-engineering. They're still largely fixated on externalities—things interface design, user experience, and environmental factors.

Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with these things, but we need to also consider making meaningful alterations to the human body and mind as well. As I said during my talk on designer psychologies, it's time to start changing our minds and bodies to suit our environment and technologies rather than the other way around.

Fundamentally, a lot of this reluctance (or just sheer ignorance) has to do with the design community's adoption of an academic posthumanism that's rooted in postmodernist thinking (I will elaborate on this in a future post). This is contrasted with the transhumanist take on posthumanism which is driven by secular Humanist and Enlightenment ideals.

So, as noted, a number of transhumanists addressed the issue of human modification and re-design outside the context of mere enhancement.

Artificial intelligence theorist Ben Goertzel argued that, as we work to create AGI (artificial general intelligence), we'll have to create minds that can interpret and navigate through specific modal environments. Goertzel was addressing synthetic minds, but his point could be applied to humans as well. It made me wonder if we will someday be able to significantly modify human experience as it relates to environmental context.

Neuroscientist Anders Sandberg talked about the advent of novel capacities (such as new senses) that have no objective or easily distinguishable purpose. He gave the example of Todd Huffman's magnetic fingers which allow him to sense magnetic fields. Sandberg likened this to the body modification community. Modification can be done strictly for the sake of it, or just for personal experimentation. Sometimes it’s worth trying something weird or different just to see what happens; there isn't necessarily a problem to be solved. And at the very least it provides a fascinating outlet for human creativity and expression.

Similarly, bio-artist Adam Zaretsky made the claim that we should be more adventurous and imaginative when it comes to augmentation. While his ethics were at times suspicious (he seemed to believe that we can modify and hybridize nonhuman animals indiscriminately), his argument that we should think of biology as both our medium and canvas struck a few chords with conference attendees. Zaretsky's flesh fetish and resultant shock art showed that the potential for out-of-the-box modifications is significant and bizarre, but that it can only be explored given more daring (and an apparent love of icky things). He put it aptly when he said, "Humanity is nature in drag."

Bioethicist James Hughes had a unique take on things with his talk on building resilient minds. While I would agree that this could be classified as a kind of enhancement, the types of cognitive changes that he talked about were fairly fungible and context specific. It seemed more alt-transhumanism to me when compared to traditional discussions about increased memories, enhanced intelligence, and so on. Perhaps Hughes's most interesting suggestion was that we should be able to alter our brain state to match our situation or predicament; we would essentially be changing our natures on the fly in order to cope and adapt. Very post 9/11 transhumanism.

And as for my talk on designer psychologies, I basically argued in favour of creating alternative minds. By using autism as an example, I demonstrated that there is tremendous value and potential through increased neurodiversity, and that we, as neurotypicals, need to be careful about labeling these different kinds of thinking as being pathological. While I agree that some conditions are worthy of such distinctions, we need to be open minded to the possibility that alternative psychologies have an intrinsic value that can yield novel experiences and, as a result, create entirely new expressions, insights and experience (I'll publish my entire talk a bit later).

Now, as the transhumanist diehards are inclined to remind me, much of this isn’t really anything new. Transhumanists have been talking about body modification, alternative minds and novel capacities since day one. But it was nice to see such consensus at the same conference—a strong indication that these ideas are gaining currency and becoming a larger part of the conversation. It’s good to see more lateral thinking when it comes to considering new capacities and the motives behind our desires to reshape the human condition.

No comments: