2014 / 13 June

From Man to Deity: Today’s “Augmentation” is Nothing


1) Augmentation is nothing new

Until recently, “augmented reality” seemed to only have a place in video games and science fiction movies. Though at the time of this writing, “AR” has yet to permeate our day-to-day experiences, the number of burgeoning technologies in this field is staggering. With simulated “sampling” of everything from couches to watches in retail (www.trylive.com), with augmented reality advertising on its way to going mainstream, and with Google Glass now available to the public, there’s plenty of opportunity for augmentation to become as much a part of work and home life as the internet, or electricity itself. Augmented reality technologies like ‘Glass’ are admittedly novel, but the transition that they represent is anything but.

Since before the dawn of language, humans have aimed to “augment” their experience to be closer to what they believe to be good, or conducive to fulfillment. Adding to their physical capacities with tools, pre-human species maintained an edge over predators and competing mammals. Adding to their mental capacities with language and symbols, early humans distilled and passed down knowledge. This same primitive push to overcome our limitations and extend our capacities has simply snowballed for millennia to produce our present world of iPhones, Bitcoin, and space exploration.

A modern thought process underlying Google Glass might be something like: “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to overlay restaurant reviews over the restaurants I’m seeing on the street?” or “Wouldn’t it be great to see emails arriving in real time and determine their importance quickly?” The thought process used by the human ancestor Australopithecus afarensis (though they certainly didn’t have such ornate language for their own internal dialogue) when developing the proper knife was something like: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could cut up these animal parts and eat them more efficiently?” 

We have always augmented our present condition in ways correlated to our capacities and technology: early hunter gatherers would have had no notions of email and so would not (indeed could not) have dreamed of a more efficient way to check them. What makes this connection between human desires and human capabilities so important is the fact that what we augment will soon include not only our tools, conveniences, and outside worlds – it will also impact our consciousness and our humanity at the very deepest levels.

2) Augmentation Act I: Molding our experience to fit our desires

The term “augmentation” means “to add something to (something) in order to improve or complete it” (Merriam-Webster). Though innovations like running water and written language might be seen to “augment” our comfort or capacities, they do not represent the extensions of human potential that this essay intends to cover.

Though it certainly doesn’t represent the furthest reaches of augmented experience, Google Glass is an innovation that fits the bill of potentially “extending human potential.” Receiving directions, checking emails, getting reminders, and communicating with friends and co-workers through an augmented display will potentially become as necessary to modern life as are the cell phone and internet connection today (does anyone read an encyclopedia anymore?).

Augmenting the body’s appearance has been a theme for ages, with the first actual breast augmentation surgery occurring in 1895. Today, regular procedures not only reconstruct or beautify the body, but also increase it’s function – as does the RFID personal identification chip, surgically implanted in the flesh of the arm. RFID evangelists aim to see a world where paying for a restaurant tab, starting your car, and unlocking your smartphone can all be done by the wave of a hand and a simple identification number that responds to a low frequency radio wave hitting the implant. Augmenting and enhancing the human senses is nothing new either, with the first pair of eyeglasses probably having its origins in the middle of the 13th century, and cochlear implants to help the hard of hearing flourishing since the 1980s. Augmenting our looks, our function, and our senses are nothing new, and the trend isn’t one that we should expect to slow down any time soon.

Expanding our further sensory experience could be best exemplified by the technologies of virtual reality, where – even today – entirely new sensory environments hint at the potential for an “immersive” virtual reality that people might not want to leave.

Radically extending our functional is perhaps best exemplified by the experiments of Braingate, where scientists are directly “plugging” paralyzed individuals into an apparatus that allows them to move a robotic limb, move a mouse on a screen, and more. 

The augmentations listed here adjust our condition to be “better” by human terms today (IE: checking email more efficiently, “upgrading” our body parts to look better, exploring more interesting worlds than we have access to in “real life”, etc…). Even more “far out” technologies like BrainGate seem merely to permit “normal” human activity, and appeal to current homo sapiens’ desires. All of these enhancements function to amplify what human beings find useful, interesting, or ultimately enjoyable. Through this “improvement” or “betterment,” I would pose, humans strive to become happier. By aiming to become “happier” I not only imply that we push towards simple comforts or pleasures, but also towards meaning, engagement, and all of the other rich constituents of fulfillment.

In this way, becoming more efficient, connecting with loved ones, experiencing fun virtual games, or regaining lost function of limbs all serve to bring us closer to our own notions of fulfillment. Enhancement, however, will not stop at the mere attempted perfection of the present human condition.

3) Augmentation Act II: Molding consciousness to fit our ideals

Our technologies that strive at bringing us happiness, however, face the same problem that all of man’s efforts have come up against: fulfillment is fickle. 

We as humans are difficult to satisfy, and despite massive increases in our physical comforts, lifespan, and capacities in the last hundred years (from penicillin to electricity to the cell phone to the internet and beyond), there is evidence that these improvements may not have been followed by a similar improvements in well-being in first world nations, and that indeed, well-being may be at a relative standstill. The relative nature of our sense of “satisfaction” levels off the benefits of running water, of internet searches, of video games, of motorcars – leaving us no happier after all – despite these “improvements.” 

Even drastic events like winning the lottery or being paralyzed in a terrible accident don’t seem to have lasting impacts on one’s baseline level of day-to-day happiness. Are we to believe that Google Glass, virtual reality, or telepathic control of electronic devices would give any more of a “jump” to our aggregate level of human well-being than all of the innovations up until now? I would posit that this is unlikely.

This is not to say that humanity ought not pursue “betterment” or “augmentation” (I’m certainly grateful for the internet, running water, etc…), but that a more fundamental kind of enhancement would have to take place in order to move the needle on aggregate human happiness as a whole. 

It seems inevitable, then, that we will tinker with our consciousness and emotional experience directly. As soon as technology allows, I would posit that the question of “how can I make this more enjoyable?” makes a swift transition to “how can I enjoy at all times?” The question of “how might this experience be more fulfilling?” quickly moves to “how can I always be fulfilled?” As soon as technologies make it viable to shape emotions and consciousness, much of humanity will be eager to directly sustain positive emotion, pleasure, engagement, and all the rich potential facets of fulfillment and happiness at last. 

Already today we have scientists controlling the memories of rats with a cybernetic cerebellum, hinting that we can develop the ability to create or delete what we can recall about our waking experience (have anything you’d like to forget?). 

We have paralyzed individuals checking their email by moving a mouse on a screen with their thoughts, potentially making way for a future where we can “think” ourselves into virtual worlds – in addition to manipulating the electronics in our environment.

We have depression itself being treated with deep brain stimulation – running wires into the skull to directly influence the pleasure centers, possibly paving the way to a world where we can modulate our own emotions at will (“Do I want to be a 6.5 on the happiness scale today, or a 9?” “Do I want to feel enthusiastic right now, or contemplative?”). 

No one is supposing that the technologies involved in modulating memory, telepathically controlling technology, or volitionally changing our emotions are going to slow down anytime soon – and one can only imagine what twenty more years of development will allow for (especially considering the pace of improvement in so many industries). We cannot possibly suppose this wave of augmentation to be hindered by any agreed-upon definition of  “human” that cannot be violated. Our ideals, it seems –  extend so far beyond such boundaries.

4) Augmenting sentience is the only augmentation there is

I would argue that as human beings, we do not care about augmenting things, and we do not care about augmenting reality, and we do not care about augmenting our appearance or senses either – we only care about augmenting the one  “thing” we truly have access to – our conscious experience, our sentience. 

From running water to Angry Birds, “improvements” and “innovation” only matter because we believe that they do – and because they impact our conscious experience. We don’t want more accessible drinking water or bathrooms for their own sake, and we don’t want smartphone games for their own sake either, but only because they bring our present experience closer to one that seems more conducive to fulfillment.

I believe that a shift from using external gadgets and gizmos to tinkering with the “gadgetry” in our minds will occur for two reasons:

The first is the simple fact that humans do not seem to be capable of continued experiences of fulfillment or pleasure (see “Act I”). Though reasons are speculative, one of the more common theories is that a hunter-gatherer world required consistent vigilance in finding food, gaining a mate, and staying safe from predators, which made it advantageous to continually aim for more – and to experience limited satiety and complacency (http://faculty.som.yale.edu/ShaneFrederick/HedonicTreadmill.pdf?subject=Please+mail+a+hard+copy+of). Attainment of some ideal, continued state of fulfillment might have held prehistoric man back from learning, expanding his capacities, or productively working (assuming he could be just as happy without any of those activities).

However, it can reasonably be said that literally all human actions originate from a desire for positive emotions and fulfillment (see “psychological egotism”). What technological innovation has not been created to “make the world a better place” or to bring profit or accolades to the inventor? Some might argue that an inventor enjoys creating in and of itself (which is still motivated by his own self-interest), but it could also be argued that some of his fulfillment would or could be derived from the recognition and perceived usefulness of his creation. Would the smart phone that you own have ever been created if someone didn’t think it would make people happier or improve their efficiency? Would anyone aim to improve the efficiency of checking email and looking up maps on a smart phone if they believed that it would have an insignificant or negative impact on aggregate human happiness? 

Would anyone undergo dangerous cosmetic surgery, or embed a RFID device under their skin, or allow researchers to cut open their skull and stick a microchip with hundreds of tiny spikes into their cerebral cortex… if none of these “augmentations” would make a direct and positive impact on quality of life? Will our desire for “more” and “better” stop short at the gates of the human mind itself – when we are finally able to directly impact happiness? When such a device could exist, would anyone who was hooked up to a “2x happiness multiplier” ever aim to go back to “normal” human experience?

Some might say that people wouldn’t be willing to alter their conscious states with some kind of futuristic treatment. If that were so, we wouldn’t expect to have seen antidepressant sales soar at nearly 400% between 1988 and 1994, and between 2005 and 2008. With all the undeniable and potentially dangerous side effects of antidepressant treatments, we wouldn’t expect to see that three of the top four prescription drugs sold in America are antidepressants. It seems that Americans (and citizens of Iceland, Canada, Australia, etc…) are perfectly comfortable bathing their brains in chemical combinations in order to feel better – side effects or not. Should deep brain stimulation (or some other future treatment) prove to be even more effective in altering mood directly, would we expect a less frequent adoption rate? 

It could be argued that we do everything to arrive at some kind of fulfillment or happiness – but our happiness (or what composes our happiness) is never completely under our volitional control – and this we are bound to change. I would posit that if people could pay for feelings directly, the merchants of emotion would have few troubles making sales.

The second reason that we may indeed tinker with consciousness itself is the continual pull towards our own ideals – and our desire for more and better (see “Act II”). It is not just that we do not remain satisfied and are therefore restless, it is that we yearn for experiences and capacities beyond our present condition, and can envision futures better aligned with our desires and values. Ford envisioned a world where people had the autonomy that came along with their own motorcars. Edison saw a world that didn’t depend on candles for light. Kennedy marshaled the will and resources of America to place a man on the moon. Looking to history – or even to religion, mythology, stories, art, and film – it’s clear that our visions extend well beyond the boundaries of “human,” even if culture and mythology ardently warn us against becoming more than human (from Icarus to Frankenstein and beyond).

If we could be drawn to reach the moon and to map the human genome, is it beyond reason that we would aim to erase horrific memories, or eliminate the need to eat food to survive, or drastically extend human vision or hearing, or aim to live forever, or any other fantastic ideal? Whether we like it or not (and I’m not making a value judgement myself), it seems that we’ve sailed past Francis Bacon’s proverbial pillars of Hercules on so many occasions that it would seem ridiculous for humanity to stop now – or that nearly any policy could prevent it.

If it’s true that sustaining consistent fulfillment is essentially impossible in our present state, then it would seem that humanity will aim to overcome this limitation. Also, if it is true that we pull ourselves towards inventions and ways of living that align with a higher vision of what life might be like, then it seems that our restless yearning and improvement won’t stop any time soon.

It is these factors which seem to inevitably take us beyond augmenting our present experience, and into designing our conscious experience itself.

5) Maybe this isn’t so implausible…

Inevitably there will be resistance to direct changes in our human condition, and we can’t expect that each human will unconditionally agree to change themselves. It may be possible that this kind of augmentation will only be available to the wealthiest citizens first, creating a number of unforeseen social and political concerns (on top of those posed already by a trans-human transition). 

Also – there will invariably be a number of social and cultural arguments as to why people ought not to take the “push-button” approach to getting smarter or feeling happier. Indeed, the very notion of “wire-heading” (embedding electrodes into the brain to induce a continued state of fulfillment or bliss: http://www.wireheading.com/) might appear to be a short-cut to the type of fulfillment which some people feel we should have to earn, not simply plug into.

One argument against volitionally improving our happiness or well-being (or indefinitely prolonging it) is that without pain or struggle we might never know a real fulfillment, or that without challenge there is no richness and meaning in life. 

It’s important for us to bear in mind that the entire dynamic of “the bad” making “the good” more meaningful or enjoyable is merely a constituent of our current criterion for happiness. In other words, we (as human beings) cannot possibly imagine any kind of unbroken fulfilling experience, because we’re incapable of imagining – experiencing it. This is not due to the fact that positive emotions are inherently fleeting – or inherently “better” when we have suffered more before or after – but is merely a side effect of how we are naturally “wired.” 

In other words, if our “hardware” were different, we might be capable of knowing deeper, more intense kinds of happiness and fulfillment without the dimensions of negativity that inevitably accompany them now. To posit that our cerebral cortexes can know all possible emotional and intellectual experiences would seem preposterous (see Oxford’s Nick Bostrom explain the further experiences humanity might attain in his famous 2005 TED talk).

Apes don’t seem remotely capable of grasping human poetry, humor, politics, or morality – what are the future possibilities of intelligent sentience that we cannot presently imagine? It seems plausible that there are thousands of senses outside the petty five that humans now have access to (io9 – limitations of human sensory perception), and an “enhanced” entity might experience them all. It seems likely that a sentience (either man-made or built from an enhanced human mind) a thousand times more powerful than that of humans would conceive of moral dictates and understand the world in ways far beyond anything that present mortals could imagine. Such an entity would grasp meagre notions of “beauty” or “relationship” or “happiness” at such different and potentially deeper levels than  we can presently fathom that it is hardly worth prognosticating.

A second argument against such augmentation of sentience might be that we could not possibly experience any kind of worthwhile happiness if we were hooked up to some kind of “happy machine.” In other words, expression, challenge, learning, and purpose would seem to be totally void in a bland world of hardware-induced bliss.

Though again we could argue that this element of “richness” and “challenge” are merely constituents of happiness that we believe are necessary given how our brains are “wired,” this argument might be refuted in other ways. Technology – and even technology that directly influences our consciousness and emotions – would not inherently bring about a slothful and placid state. I’m nearly certain that our ancestors of 200 (or 2,000) years ago would have expected to see a much lazier breed of human being walking the earth with the advent of the motorcar, the internet, the cell phone, running water, and the like (external augmentations of our condition). They might not have foreseen the added richness of learning, connectedness, and new, more refined degrees of work that would accompany these technologies. 

Despite our complaints of environmental damage and the annoyances of modernity, few of us would willingly live as our predecessors did even fifty (never mind 500) years ago. Of those who would claim to prefer such conditions, few seem to have the courage to leave their iPad or Volkswagen behind.

One might posit that -in such futures no challenge could exist, and so no meaning could exist. It raises the question of , how anything might be worthwhile, motivating, or stimulating if the experiences of “struggle” and “challenge” were wholly foreign to us? 

First, augmentation or enhancement – either of our emotional condition or of our mental / physical capacities – would not inherently yield sloth or listlessness. If most of society wore augmented reality contact lenses and were capable of overlaying and interacting with computer screens anywhere and any time, there’s reason to believe we’d work more, not less (cell phones don’t seem to have eased the work-burden much…).

Second, as mentioned, the constituent of “challenge” as a necessary component of happiness is only the case with our current “wiring.” It seems reasonable that if chips with tiny metal spikes stuck into the cerebral cortex can allow a paralyzed person to move a cursor and check their email (again, see Braingate), it might be possible for us to re-wire what constitutes “happiness” in the human mind as well. After all, it is our conscious sense of well-being that we want “enhanced” when we enhance anything else. 

6) Becoming gods: The massive responsibilities of a world in transition

Most of us can imagine what life behind Google Glass might be like. We could take photos of places we’ve been, receive notifications of messages and email, or even look up restaurant reviews or interesting facts with voice commands. A step beyond this might imply an embedded, cerebral chip that allows for literally photographic memory – and access to all of today’s gadgetry via telepathic commands. One might imagine playing music, watching a movie, accessing websites and software – all within the built-in “screen” of your own existing visual field (see the short film Sight for explorations of the pros and cons of this kind of enhancement).

The leaps in human potential that I predict  will go much farther than  merely epitomizing   today’s conveniences. We might imagine a future with a virtual world that is as – if not more – real than “real life” is today. This cyber world might be equipped with digital “people” who are calibrated to your needs and likings, capable of being deeper and truer friends than “real” friends – with their own needs and agendas – ever could (like a better version of Samantha in Her). This virtual experience might operate in a completely different time paradigm, capable of stretching a real “day” into a hundred or a hundred thousand years. 

Though I see this transition as nearly inevitable, I don’t necessarily believe all aspects of the alteration of human potential will be inherently beneficial, and I don’t think they will be inherently evil, either. It seems more rational to view all technological development – particularly that which involves altering consciousness – to be a potentially double-edged sword, with myriad ethical consequences and ramifications.

The reason that so much of this trans-human experience is difficult to imagine is that we’re probably incapable of imagining much of it – as chimpanzees are unlikely to comprehend the rules of chess or the writings of Emerson. At a certain level of higher intelligence and awareness, we’d almost certainly transcend human communication as we know it – becoming capable of exploring thoughts without the hinderances of today’s primitive representations. Our fulfillment might then not be derived from a mindless bliss (as mentioned before), but be a rich exploration of the world around us at a million times today’s depth, or be the God-like creation of countless virtual worlds. 

Our consciousness might be split a thousand ways so as to experience a thousand “lives” and countless experiences – yet still have a wholeness and continuity in a kind of “personhood” that we can’t possibly understand today. In the future, we may very well attain “divine” powers and experience that go unhindered in a cybernetic eternity. Futurist and entrepreneur Peter Diamindis believes that an increasingly interconnected global society might eventually merge into one aggregate consciousness, becoming “God-like.”

Google Glass, then, is nothing – neither is any of today’s “augmentation.” That is, except as stepping stones.

Google itself is preparing for the next wave of technological enhancement: embedding silicon chips into human brains.

Right now people use Google’s search engine because it provides them with what they want quickly and conveniently. Google Glass can only hope to catch on by permitting even more efficient and effective ways to provide users with the ends or experiences they want. 

When people can type in (or “think up,” as the case might be) what they want and have it BE their experience – no waiting, no finding, no treatments… it seems likely that they will do that instead. 

The momentum of these developments, I posit, would quickly take us beyond the satisfaction of human desires or enhanced human desires to a re-defining of fulfillment, of ethics, of relationships, of consciousness itself… and these are transitions worth considering here and now.

– Daniel Faggella

Image credit: The Conversation

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