Jim Karkanias and the Short Step to Human Augmentation

Jim Karkanias is a Partner in Applied Research at Microsoft. Starting in 2006, he joined Microsoft in a quest to apply his Information Theory background to a venture called “Health Solutions Group.” A firm believer in the transformative potential of emerging technologies – and an advocate for it’s progress – Jim is Advisor at Northwest Association for Biomedical Research, and a Board member at Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.

I caught up with Jim about his perspectives on the transition of emerging technologies into the mainstream, and his thoughts on the technologies and trends most likely to bring us beyond our present human potential and human experience (what we refer to here at Sentient Potential as the “ultimate ethical precipice”).

Jim was quick to lay out the trends and perspectives that he considers to be leading us in the direction of augmentation, and below I’ll cover each:

Positivism in the Domain of Technology and Medicine

Understanding my background in Positive Psychology, Jim begins by talking about how a “perspective towards growth over amelioration  is something that’s effecting the medical world as well. He sees a number of reasons as to why our present medical model has such a reactive approach today, but believes that the tides are turning in some small circles to get a philosophy of Positivism imbued into the world of medicine.

It may not be every average doctor with a practice to run who considers the further reaches and potential of the research and technology of the field, but folks like Jim (and teams like his – upwards of 400 people) who focus specifically on this subject are certainly furthering the field.

Biology (and Psychology) as a Black Box

Jim also talks about the topic of making the “Black Box” if Biology into a “White Box.” The “Black Box” implies that we don’t know exactly what’s happening in our bodies, or why, but we see correlations and effects and can “tinker” to find solutions that seem to work. Though certainly further along than we were 50 years ago, this experimental approach is still somewhat crude – and Jim believes that as we understand the true workings of  our bodies and minds (through discoveries in various fields that allow us to truly understand systems), we’ll have a greater ability to build off of our natural systems and augment ourselves.

This “Black Box” approach is also what Jim believes has contributed to our “reactive” model of medicine:

“We have to wait for stuff to break to fix it.”

Essentially, if you can’t fix something until it breaks, you probably don’t want to build off of that some “thing” that you don’t understand. That “thing” being health, and/or our physical and mental capacities.

Information Theory

In any given system, from the brain to the liver, the functions can be understood as bundles of information patterns (chemical and electric in the case of us humans). When we “see things happen” in a system, an information flow is being manipulated. It can be broken down to numbers, and numbers can be added mechanically and electronically – and it’s interesting to think about “health” as an information flow as well.

It Seems an Inevitable Transition…

When I spoke to Jim about his feelings towards the massive and drastic changes that emerging technologies seem to be presenting us with, he stated that overall he sees opportunity. “The old paradigm has to make way for the new one,” he says. All in all, I’d have to say that although I feel both the tremendous potential for “good” and “bad” yields of such technology, it’s seeming inevitability makes it ideal to think positively (while of course keeping our eyes on the risks as well). Jim resonated with my notion of the efficiency/efficacy-based model of technolog adoption by stating:

“People overclock their computers now, and they will overclock themselves if they can.”

True, and heck… I’ll probably be one of those people – though I’ll be darn vigilant about how I do it.

To learn more about what Jim is up to, check out Microsoft Health here.

Back to overclocking myself with a little Java and getting back to work, another big thanks to Jim for taking the time for today’s interview.

-Daniel Faggella