Progress is not guaranteed. Be it moral, technological, scientific, or social, there is no reason to assume human civilization marches forever forward in step with time. Understood this way, we can realize that progress is a choice and something we as a species will to happen through the concatenation of our decisions.
Or we can fail to choose, fail to act, and yet, that failure is itself a choice and an action from which consequences follow. There is a reason From Chance to Choice is one of the most essential texts on the bioethics of enhancement – it implies that our continued evolution will hinge upon our decision as to whether or not we want the ability to choose our evolutionary path. We must choose to have a choice.
To be specific, our current generation faces the very real possibility of being asked to decide if human enhancement via technological augmentation and genetic engineering is something we want to pursue. A question already moving beyond the abstract realm of bioethics and making its way into popular culture. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (hereafter DX:HR), prequel to the cyberpunk video game masterpiece Deus Ex, asks the player to take part in answering that question.
DX:HR is that rare video game that offers genuine choice. Some great games, like Mass Effect and Bioshock, allow (or famously disallow) certain choices that, in turn, reflect on the player’s moral compass. DX:HR gives the player the chance to fully explore his or her philosophy and guiding ethic regarding human enhancement and cybernetic augmentation. Choices in DX:HR don’t just ask, are you good or evil, but what do you believe?
Often, what makes a great piece of art is not the message it delivers, but the questions it demands we ask of ourselves. DX:HR, is not a great piece of art, but it aspires to be one. And in some places, it comes damn close by asking us: As humanity moves forward, what do we leave behind?
What follows is not a review but an exegesis of DX:HR and the trials of the main character, Adam Jensen. From behind his switch-blade sunglasses, we see that the future of the human race and of enhancement is not a yes or no question. Instead, we’re forced to face the bleak possibility that there is no right answer and no one to blame.
*Spoilers* from here on out. Read More
Among gamers, Deus Ex is something of a legendary fusion of disparate gaming styles. Among science fiction buffs, Deus Ex is lauded for managing to take two awesome genres, William Gibson-esque cyberpunk and Robert Anton Wilson-level conspiracy theories, and jam them together into an immanentizing of the eschaton unlike anything you’ve seen since Doktor Sleepless. And among transhumanists, Deus Ex brought up every issue of humanity’s fusion with technology one could imagine. It is a rich video game.
So when Square Enix decided to pick up the reins from Eidos and create a new installment in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR), I was quite excited. The first indication DX:HR was not going to be a crummy exploitation of the original’s success (see: Deus Ex 2: Invisible War), was the teaser trailer, shown above. Normally, a teaser trailer is just music and a slow build to a logo or single image that lets you know the game is coming out. Instead, the development team decided to demonstrate that it was taking the philosophy of the game seriously.
What philosophy? you might ask. Why transhumanism, of course. Nick Bostrom, chair of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, centers the birth of transhumanism in the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment in his article “A History of Transhumanist Thought” [pdf]. The visuals of the teaser harken to Renaissance imagery (such as the Da Vinci style drawings) and the teaser ends with a Nietzschean quote “Who we are is but a stepping stone to what we can become.” Later trailers would reference Icarus and Daedalus (who also happened to be the names of AI constructs in the original game), addressing the all-too-common fear that by pursuing technology, we are pursuing our own destruction. This narrative thread has become the central point of conflict in DX:HR. Even its viral ad campaign has been told through two lenses: that of Sarif Industries, maker of prosthetic bodies that change lives, and that of Purity First, a protest group that opposes human augmentation. The question is: upon which part of our shared humanity do we step as we climb to greater heights?
When was the last time a video game asked you an existential question about the nature of our species? The tension between the proponents and opponents of transhumanism in DX:HR is heightened by the ambiguous opinion towards enhancement of the main character, Adam Jensen. Jensen’s own enhancements are a result of the need to save his life after a traumatic attack. Unlike Tony Stark, Jensen does not craft his own mechanized additions, but must instead come to terms with the cybernetic hand he has been dealt. DX:HR is not interested in cybernetics as merely a fun backdrop for a video game, but instead treats enhancement as the serious ethical issue that it is. The world of the game is set in a “Neo-Renaissance” where even the characters’ clothing reminds us that transhumanism is born out of the Age of Enlightenment. As a prequel to the original Deus Ex, DX:HR takes us into a world where augmentation and cyberization are still new to humanity and shows us how painful the transition into a transhuman future might be.
To dive deeper into these issues, I had a chat with Mary DeMarle, the lead writer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, about how the ethics of enhancement and augmentation were considered when crafting the game’s story and characters.
The future is impossible to predict. But that’s not going to stop people from trying. We can at least pretend to know where it is we want humanity to go. We hope that laws we craft, the technologies we invent, our social habits and our ways of thinking are small forces that, when combined over time, move our species towards a better existence. The question is, How will we know if we are making progress?
As a movement philosophy, transhumanism and its proponents argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds. Not everyone supports every aspect of transhumanism, but you’d be amazed at how neatly current political struggles and technological progress point toward a transhuman future. Transhumanism isn’t just about cybernetics and robot bodies. Social and political progress must accompany the technological and biological advances for transhumanism to become a reality.
But how will we able to tell when the pieces finally do fall into place? I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution was asked a while back by his readers: What are the exact conditions for counting “transhumanism” as having been attained? In an attempt to answer, I responded with what I saw as the three key indicators:
As I groped through the intellectual dark for these three points, it became clear that the precise technology and how it worked was unimportant. Instead, we need to figure out how technology may change our lives and our ways of living. Unlike the infamous jetpack, which defined the failed futurama of the 20th century, the 21st needs broader progress markers. Here are seven things to look for in the coming centuries that will let us know if transhumanism is here. Read More
If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.
The reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech rule of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic? Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit:
Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not ourworld, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long.
In short, the Marvel universe is internally consistent, which makes me all the more excited for the Avengers film. Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters. It seems like anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damn quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense. So does Thor live up to Carroll’s hopes or abuse Clarke’s rule? Read More
Science fiction knows how to play around with sex and gender. The free-lovin’ of A Stranger in A Strange Land, Commander Shepard’s bisexual proclivities, and William T. Riker’s seemingly universal interspecies compatibility are constant sources of entertainment.
And the fun doesn’t stop with organic entities. Androids, cyborgs, and robots make gender all the stranger. Why is Data fully functional? Isn’t it curious that, of all the characters in Ghost in the Shell the two most heavily cyberized characters, Motoko and Batou, are hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine respectively? And, my favorite: as a robot Bender has no gender, so if Bender bends his gender, what gender does Bender bend?
Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us. Read More
In just a few days, the first decade of the 21st Century will be over. Can we finally admit we live in the future? Sure, we won’t be celebrating New Years by flying our jetpacks through the snow or watching the countdown from our colony on Mars, and so what if I can’t teleport to work? Thanks to a combination of 3G internet, a touch-screen interface, and Wikipedia, the smartphone in my front pocket is pretty much the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I can communicate with anyone anywhere at anytime. I can look up any fact I want, from which puppeteers played A.L.F. to how many flavors of quark are in the Standard Model, and then use the same touch-screen device to take a picture, deposit a check, and navigate the subway system. We live in the future, ladies and gentleman.
But you may still have your doubts. Allow me to put things in perspective. Imagine it’s 1995: almost no one but Gordon Gekko and Zack Morris have cellphones, pagers are the norm; dial-up modems screech and scream to connect you an internet without Google, Facebook, or YouTube; Dolly has not yet been cloned; the first Playstation is the cutting edge in gaming technology; the Human Genome Project is creeping along; Mir is still in space; MTV still plays music; Forrest Gump wins an academy award and Pixar releases their first feature film, Toy Story. Now take that mindset and pretend you’re reading the first page of a new sci-fi novel:
The year is 2010. America has been at war for the first decade of the 21st century and is recovering from the largest recession since the Great Depression. Air travel security uses full-body X-rays to detect weapons and bombs. The president, who is African-American, uses a wireless phone, which he keeps in his pocket, to communicate with his aides and cabinet members from anywhere in the world. This smart phone, called a “Blackberry,” allows him to access the world wide web at high speed, take pictures, and send emails.
It’s just after Christmas. The average family’s wish-list includes smart phones like the president’s “Blackberry” as well as other items like touch-screen tablet computers, robotic vacuums, and 3-D televisions. Video games can be controlled with nothing but gestures, voice commands and body movement. In the news, a rogue Australian cyberterrorist is wanted by world’s largest governments and corporations for leaking secret information over the world wide web; spaceflight has been privatized by two major companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX; and Time Magazine’s person of the year (and subject of an Oscar-worthy feature film) created a network, “Facebook,” which allows everyone (500 million people) to share their lives online.
Does that sound like the future? Granted, there’s a bit of literary flourish in some of my descriptions, but nothing I said is untrue. Yet we do not see these things incredible innovations, but just boring parts of everyday life. Louis C. K. famously lampooned this attitude with his “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” interview with Conan O’Brian. Why can’t we see the futuristic marvels in front of our noses and in our pockets for what they really are?
D. Boucher at The Economic Word generated the above chart with Google’s endlessly entertaining Ngram viewer. The Ngram viewer lets you search for the number of occurrences of a specific word in every book Google has indexed thus far. As you can see, “future” peaked in 2000, leading Boucher to wonder if we’re beyond the future. Yet, Boucher hedges:
Strangely, however, I look at the technological improvements over the past ten years and I see revolutionary ideas one on top of the other (for instance, the iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Google stuff, Social Networks…). My first reaction is to blindly hypothesize that our current technological prowess may distract us from the future. If it is the case, could it be that technology is a detriment to forward-looking thinkers?
I thought it might be fun to Ngram the Science Not Fiction topics of choice and see if we live up to our reputation as rogue scientists from the future. I figured if we’re all from the future, then our topics should either a) match the trend or b) buck the trend. I’m not sure which is right, but the results were quite interesting. Charts after the jump!
Yes. It’s true. After a little summer slow-down, it is time for the return of the Codex Futurius, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the big science of science fiction. This question on futuristic materials was fielded by Sidney Perkowitz, a physicist at Emory University. Thanks much to Dr. Perkowitz for the solid (ha) info and to Jennifer Ouellette, the director the NAS’ Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEEx) program, for connecting us with him.
Will we use metal in the future? What else would we build things out of? Might we use organic technology (machines and buildings made of or from biological organisms) instead?”
In The Graduate, that iconic film from 1967, bewildered 20-something Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) gets some career advice from a businessman who leans close and intones “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Benjamin didn’t follow that advice, but the rest of the world did, and in spades. By 1979, global production of plastic had exceeded that of steel and is still growing, reaching over 200 million tons this year. There’s no doubt that plastic will continue to play a major role in how we make things, but it won’t replace everything.
In some ways, plastic is the material of the future, the latest step in humanity’s long upward trek through the ages of stone, bronze, iron, and steel. The word “plastic” comes from Greek roots meaning “capable of being molded.” Compared to metals and other materials, plastic is infinitely versatile. With its ability to shape-shift and to take on different mechanical and optical properties, it shows up in a huge spectrum of applications from packaging and plumbing to toys, medical supplies, and computers. And unlike iron and steel, plastic doesn’t rust.
Today we present a very special installment of the Codex Futurius, Science Not Fiction’s look at the big scientific ideas in sci-fi: Kevin Grazier—JPL physicist and friend of SNF—gives an insider’s peek at the workings of and discussion around the Orion antimatter drive used to propel the Phaeton starship in Ron D. Moore’s recent TV movie, Virtuality. Grazier was a science adviser for the movie (which was intended to be the pilot for an ongoing show), so he was right in the middle of these discussions. The screenshot further down in this post shows the actual spreadsheet used in the production to see what stars would be reachable with the Orion drive. Without further ado, here’s some sci in your sci-fi:
DISCOVER: What kind of realistic technology could we use to get to nearby stars? Which stars would be feasibly reachable by such technologies?
Kevin Grazier: It’s a saying plastered on T-shirts and bumper stickers—the kind sold at both science-fiction conventions and physics departments nationwide:
186,000 miles per second:
It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.
The speed of light, of all electromagnetic energy, in a vacuum is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. Nothing that has mass or carries information can travel faster.
This universal speed limit is a direct fallout from Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Special relativity implies that the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant, but values that we tend to think of as constant in our daily experience—mass, length, and the rate of the passage of time—are not. Depending upon the relative velocity of two observers, these values will “adjust” so that both observers see the speed of light as a constant. Two observers travelling at high speeds relative to each other will find themselves in strong disagreement about measurements like the length of each other’s spacecraft and the rate of the passage of time.
Another consequence of special relativity is that, as an object travels increasingly faster, it behaves as if it has increasingly more mass. Therefore the amount of thrust it takes for an incremental change in velocity (known in the space program as a delta-V) is vastly greater at high speeds than at low. This effect is also highly nonlinear: It takes almost an order of magnitude more thrust to accelerate from .9c (nine-tenths of the speed of light) to .99c than it does to accelerate from .5c to .7c. An object travelling at the speed of light would act as if it had an infinite amount of mass and it would, therefore, require an infinite amount of energy (read: an infinite amount of thrust/fuel) to attain it.
This is, of course, a shame for civilizations (like ours) who want to explore planetary systems around other stars first hand. The distances involved are, well, astronomical. Just within the Solar System, it typically takes NASA probes 6 months to a year to reach Mars; it took Cassini 6 years, 9 months to reach Saturn. The (currently) fastest object created by humankind, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, will take 40,000 years, give or take a few thousand years, before it makes its closest encounter with its first star: AC+79 3888—currently located in the constellation Ursa Minor. At that speed few Time Lords, and even fewer humans, would survive the journey to even “nearby” star systems.
Stand back, humanoid! Here comes the next installment of the Codex Futurius project, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the ineffable scientific ideas raised by science fiction. This question on killer asteroids goes to Kevin Marvel, head of the American Astronomical Society. Thanks to Dr. Marvel for the scary info and to Jennifer Ouellette, the director the NAS’ Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEEx) program, for connecting us with him.
Question: How big an asteroid would be needed to completely destroy a planet?
That’s easy. It would have to be really, really big or moving very, very fast (or both for a real whopper of an impact), but there are some subtleties that are worth explaining.
First off, let’s admit that we’re really concerned with how big an asteroid would destroy planet Earth, especially life on Earth. I’m a bit more worried about my home planet than Mars, Jupiter, or even Pluto and even more worried about all the life we see around us (not to mention ourselves!). Earth is far more important from the human perspective, so let’s tackle that question.
Frighteningly, many large objects have hit Earth. Real whoppers. That’s a bit scary to think about. The good news is that the Earth is still here, so apparently large impacts of the planet-destruction kind rarely happen. We do know that smaller impacts have happened, such as the meteorite that hit the high Arizona desert just east of Flagstaff, at the site known as Meteor Crater. If we could count the impacts, we could gauge how frequently and when the impacts took place.