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June 4, 2008 10:37 PM   Subscribe

Where are the transhumanists who will settle for current technology? Transhumanists seem to be waiting for some unspecified date when we will have jetpacks and nanobots and neural interfaces. Yet we can already improve our bodies somewhat. Consider hearing aids. Directional microphones let you focus on people around you and tune out background noise. Dentures are better than our teeth. So why do transhumanists use their own teeth and ears?

My first answer to my own question was cost. But false teeth have been available for centuries; their price has probably stabilized. Furthermore, nanobots and their ilk won't be cheap either. My next idea was that they feared invasive surgery. But the best implants will always require surgery, so transhumanists are putting off the inevitable.

There are several trade-offs with current technology, and it would be foolish to think there won't be in the future. So why aren't transhumanists lining up to get prothstetics?
posted by Monochrome to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't really know what you're talking about for the most part, but I will say that dentures and hearing aids (as replacements for the parts we come with) aren't an improvement. Dentures especially are a significant detriment to many people's quality of life, and possible life expectancy.
posted by crabintheocean at 10:45 PM on June 4, 2008

What do you mean by "settle for current technology?" I thought transhumanism was a fluid thing, meaning that people who define themselves as transhumanists will welcome whatever technology is available in their own lifetime to improve their lives.
posted by amyms at 10:53 PM on June 4, 2008

I don't think there is really any implant that can be considered a net improvement from the factory installed wetware. That's reason enough why there is no wide-scale adoption yet.
posted by Aquaman at 10:59 PM on June 4, 2008

I would agree with crabintheocean in that I'm not sure what you're after, but dentures and hearing aids are just stopgaps for (generally) geriatric ailments. Those longing for a "singularity" where tech melds seamlessly with human biology are, in my opinion, the modern day equivalent of the people who are asking where their jetpacks and flying cars are.

The devices you cite are not glamorous high-tech add-ons. They are (at best) substitutes for normal human functions. These days it usually takes some kind of deficiency, e.g. having no lower legs like Oscar Pistorius, to make a bionic prosthesis in any way desirable.
posted by kurtroehl at 11:03 PM on June 4, 2008

Transhumanism also includes cryonics, interacting with virtual worlds, gene altering (cell generation and cloning), nanotechnology and other biotech. You seem to only be concentrating on cybernetics. Besides the fact that all of these transhuman technologes are in their infancy, There is also a lack of provision for their safe integration into social life. It is difficult to legislate for the safe and moral usage of said technology since it's hard to guage how it will change the social fabric that grounds us. That's my take anyway.
posted by Student of Man at 11:03 PM on June 4, 2008

That seems to be the idea, but if you read transhumanist blogs or essays, they talk about possible future technologies. There aren't reports of "how I like my hearing aid and how I think it could be improved", but there are dozens of authors pontificating on "how I will use nanotechnology in my Adrienne Barbeau-bot".
posted by Monochrome at 11:04 PM on June 4, 2008

I'm not sure what the hell a transhumanist is, but if they are the usual suspects (futurists, techno-geeks, sci-fi writers, speculators, magazine editors) then they are probably somewhat myopic toward the technology available to them off the shelf right now, today.

The articles I've read have always talked about far off technology, computers implanted into your brain and stuff like that. William Gibson has made a career out of writing about this stuff. Meaningfully useful nanotechnology is decades, perhaps centuries away. Perhaps the technology will never emerge...

The examples you mention are quite bizarre. That said, these people aren't irrational. They do a cost-benefit analysis. The benefit of replacing your teeth with dentures isn't even on the scale because it's debatable whether dentures are a real improvement. I suppose before toothpaste was invented they made sense.

People are improving their bodies somewhat through technology: Athletes in particular have several options to improve their bodies. Tommy John surgery, etc. Wired had an article up about it a while ago.

I think what you'll see is an increasing confluence of technology and elective surgery. Blind people may opt for electronic eyes. Maybe someday these man-made eyes will be so good, and the surgery so routine, that people with perfectly good eyes will opt for it. Gibson wrote about designer, brand-name, corneas in one of his books. Personally I don't think this is very likely in the short term and perhaps not even in the long run. The market for such goods is likely to be small. Such small market incentives stifle innovation, etc.
posted by wfrgms at 11:06 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Our medical establishment is focused on treating conditions that can be defined as disorders, not on improving the "normal" condition. (Probably why what defines a disorder is becoming more and more broad in some ways.) You'd need the support of doctors for the kind of transhumanist projects you're talking about, which may be hard to find.

But I think this kind of thing is happening anyway, it's just that the ways in which it's already happening seem obvious and so are not noticed. e.g. consider a person with laser-corrected vision, a bunch of cosmetic surgery, a personally-tailored psychopharmacological cocktail, wearing one of those Bluetooth headsets every waking hour, etc. All that is pretty transhumanist in a way, but technology that already exists quickly becomes mundane and unremarkable.
posted by dixie flatline at 11:13 PM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

"dozens of authors pontificating on "how I will use nanotechnology in my Adrienne Barbeau-bot".

It's "Sparkamus Prime," please (Sealab 2021 reference for the uninitiated). But anyhoo the tech just isn't there and as dixie flatline says it may never become the kind of boutique cybernetic bonanza that sci-fi authors dream of because the r&d on designer corneas is not what you might call a good investment.

At best these kind of enhancements will be available to the super or super-duper rich. Some guy will drive by in his hover-Ferrari and flick his cigar butt out the window with a bionic middle finger.
posted by kurtroehl at 11:29 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've used hearing aids or a cochlear implant all my life, and the reason they haven't been adopted willy-nilly is that they're not equivalent to standard biological hearing. The sound quality is inferior, for instance; they are failure-prone (not hugely so, but moreso than a healthy ear); and amplification really isn't all that useful in the grand scheme of things. That sounds silly, but think about it - right now, HAs and CIs amplify *everything* along a certain frequency band - the hardest part of wearing one, for a lot of people, is learning to extract useful information (speech, useful environmental cues , music) from noise (HVAC, electronic hums, traffic, random chatter), and that's significantly harder with a hearing aid or CI.

I like my CI a lot; I'm aware that there are a number of capabilities it gives me that hearing people don't have. I can turn it off when I want silence, I can choose where my audio comes from (e.g., I can suppress all input from the microphone in favor of an audio cable or a phone), I can filter out some frequencies. Whether these capabilities outweigh the downside - poor signal quality, equipment expense and failure, surgery, overstimulation - is something that I personally think is debatable, but people are very tied to a certain idea of what hearing is, and a cochlear implant is just an imitation of that, so most people would describe a CI as a pale imitation of "normal" hearing.

More generally: people with disabilities have to a large degree embraced transhumanism, even if most of us haven't made the connection that what we're doing is transhumanism. We're more likely than most to use technology in a way that we conceptualize as an extension or augmentation of our bodies - I certainly think of my CI and HA that way, and crutches and wheelchairs are often spoken of in similar terms. But thus far, the technology is not able to perfectly mimic and then exceed the capabilities of the stock organic system, and people generally aren't willing to sacrifice one set of capabilities in favor of another.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:42 PM on June 4, 2008 [8 favorites]

That seems to be the idea, but if you read transhumanist blogs or essays, they talk about possible future technologies. There aren't reports of "how I like my hearing aid and how I think it could be improved", but there are dozens of authors pontificating on "how I will use nanotechnology in my Adrienne Barbeau-bot".

I think there is a tendency in this sort of technophilia to think of how ZOMG 100% AWESOME AND COMPLETELY PERFECT life will be when things are all transhuman, though of course in fact that's not what's going to happen. We'll still have problems in the Matrioshka brains.

But, given that sense, consider spiff's excellent post:

I'm aware that there are a number of capabilities it gives me that hearing people don't have. I can turn it off when I want silence, I can choose where my audio comes from (e.g., I can suppress all input from the microphone in favor of an audio cable or a phone), I can filter out some frequencies.

That's some transhuman shit right there, and the disadvantages aside, these are cool capabilities, but they're not AMAZINGLY AWESOME. So, focusing on things that are happening right now as transhumanism from someone who's invested themselves in HOW AWESOME TRANSHUMANISM WILL BE is, more or less, an unwelcome intrusion of reality into a fantasy.

(spiff, how much configuration can you do on that thing? If I was deaf and had one put in I would definitely be interested in tinkering with the programming.)
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:06 AM on June 5, 2008

I think this question is poorly phrased. X seems this way, why is X this way?

People that I know in real life that are into transhumanist books and ideas (yes, in real life, not from reading essays online and making assumptions with snark mode on) are very aware of the current state of the art w.r.t. body enhancement. They often point to wearable computing in the form of blackberries and iphones as a first step - the human always plugged into the internet is always tapping the brainpower of many others (and kind of annoying sometimes).

To answer what I understand to be the thrust of your question, the reason transhumanists aren't lining up for prosthetics is because rather than being the religious loons that so many folks on metafilter wish they were, they are rational and are aware that there aren't body modifications that match all these criteria: 1) readily available, 2) have safety records supported by wide userbase or extensive testing, and most importantly 3) beat natural human senses.

I know people that refuse to buy 1.0 products from Apple Computer because the risk of defects that will affect their quality of life and work is high - will someone of that mindset find it wise to buy 1.0 neural implants?

tl;dr - don't confuse science fiction writers' blue-sky exercises with advice for modern living.
posted by thedaniel at 1:28 AM on June 5, 2008

TheOnlyCoolTim: quite a bit. A good portion of my control is because I can route audio in from a number of different sources as described above. As far as the device itself ... it depends. Bare minimum with a cochlear implant or hearing aid, you can adjust the weight given to a number of different frequency bands. So if I have a loss in one frequency band but not another, a hearing aid can be adjusted to amplify just the relevant band. (This is not the case with a CI, because the surgery usually destroys any non-implant hearing in that ear; but there's still a lot of balancing done to ensure that sounds of similar intensities are perceived similarly - so sounds of the same intensities at 1000 Hz and 500 Hz may cause different currents to be applied through the electrodes.) This also is used to compensate for the noise problem I described briefly above; my implant can carry 3 programs, so I could theoretically adapt one for listening to music (and have it send along relatively unfiltered sound), and one for speech (emphasizing frequencies that are useful for speech perception, and deemphasizing others) and so on. In my case, the programs only differ in their inputs - one takes auxiliary input only, one takes auxiliary and microphone input, and one picks up the induction field from a phone.

The other nifty thing is live adaptivity - I'm not sure, but I believe this has mostly hit hearing aids, and not yet implants. The idea is that speech has certain characteristics that can be detected on the fly, and some devices can use these characteristics to alter settings appropriately. So, for example, a periodic signal is more likely to be noise than speech (think fans and equipment noise); a hearing aid with this setting may reduce the weight given to a set of frequencies if it detects a highly periodic signal in those frequencies.

The final "choice" is what's called a processing strategy, and this applies only to implants. I don't know all the details, but it has to do with the way the electrodes in the cochlea fire. These are somewhat preference-specific, but to a large degree they can be objectively ranked in a way that is common across users. When an Advanced Bionics implant is first activated, for example, it does sequential firing; one electrode fires at a time. Simultaneous firing of multiple electrodes usually (though not always) is preferred, but that is usually changed after a few weeks; overstimulus is very common in recently-implanted people, and using sequential firing in the beginning makes the transition from deafness to (artificial) hearing, or limited hearing to more hearing, easier. The three companies on the market each have their own philosophies regarding processing strategies, and each company has 2-3 current strategies that users can choose to load (as well as the legacy ones).

Unfortunately, none of this can be done at home. I have three programs loaded in my CI (and four in the hearing aid on the opposite ear), and I can switch between them at will, but in order to add or change a program, I have to visit my audiologist. There is some talk among researchers and users that this may change in the next 5-10 years; certainly, many of us have the experience needed to do our own tweaks. The initial programming is complicated enough to require an audiologist, though, and other factors - liability, equipment expense, and the stupidity of your average human being - have kept this capability out of the hands of users. Still, before insulin pumps hit the market, a lot of people said it'd never happen, that the industry would never allow patients that much autonomy and control (for much the same reasons). And yet ... here we are.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 2:55 AM on June 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

on the specific topic of dentures, my granddad was given dentures for his 21st(?) birthday... off to the dentist, pulled out an entire perfectly good mouth full of teeth, and wore dentures for the rest of his life... at the time it was apparently not a bad move if you (or your parents) could afford it, since the expectation was you'd have a non-negligible proportion of your teeth replaced throughout your life anyway... but I have access to modern dentistry, toothpaste, and fluoridated water...
posted by russm at 3:24 AM on June 5, 2008

I think the basic fact is that transhumanism is predicated on augmenting our bodies with technology that makes us "post-human", and there is very little in the way of technology that actually improves on anything built into humans. Not only that, any sensible transhumanist will have some sense of the dangers of augmentation technology and early adoption, and will wait accordingly. Trans-humanist does not really mean technology-worshipping. Though judging from the way you describe the blogs (I have never looked at a trans-humanist blog), many people who'd like to worship technology are into trans-humanism.

But if what you are wondering is "where are the people working towards some practical vision of transhumanism?" then the answer is probably that they are all around, just not calling themselves that, or having any particular philosophical intent. Our interaction with computers and computing devices (e.g. the iphone) has changed radically over the past 20 years or so, and the way we interact with information, and communicate with others, has changed correspondingly. Anyone checking their email on their iphone on the train is a de facto trans-humanist. As time progresses, I expect this will subtly become more and more integrated with our person, though perhaps not in ways that will really match sci-fi predictions.
posted by advil at 3:49 AM on June 5, 2008

Thad Starner wears a heads-up display and a wearable computer all the time, everyday. He's been doing so for about 10-12 years. All of his students at GT do as well. And, I'm not pointing any fun when I say that it's a lot harder to ask a good question in a class or some guest lecture when there is a 100% cyborg in the next row who can ask a question like "When I compare your 1994 paper on [blah] and a 1996 Wired Article that claims [foo], I wonder if ... [insert awesome question stuff here] ?" All I have is my shitty memory. Now, it's true that *anyone* with an internet connection could have looked up the same stuff, it seems a lot more disconcerting because they (Thad's students) have perfected the a kinda-reading-kinda-just-talking mode of speech. It's uncanny. But awesome.

And Thad's lab is *intimately* aware of the limitations of current tech. They are working to improve technologies but also studying the limitations, sometimes on themselves.
posted by zpousman at 4:45 AM on June 5, 2008

You mean like this guy?
posted by miniape at 4:49 AM on June 5, 2008

You might want to dig up a copy of Ed Regis' book "Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition," which is non-fiction.

The ultimate agenda of the transhumanists is completely audacious: to turn every molecule in the universe into part of a giant computer that can, through some miracle, stave off the heat-death of the universe.

In the meantime, I think less ambitious transhumanists would settle for nano-assemblers that could build custom-designed superhuman bodies on demand, into which they could download their intellects/spirits/souls/personas/whatever. I'd be willing to settle for that.

Current implant and transplant technology is in no way as good as your original equipment, but it's conceivable that some implants/transplants will be superior within the next ~20 years. Whether those will be available electively, not just therapeutically, is going to be an interesting issue.
posted by adamrice at 7:02 AM on June 5, 2008

Where are the transhumanists who will settle for current technology?

As pointed out above, it depends on what you mean by "settle". I'm a transhumanist who uses the hell out of the technology readily available, while always being ready to accept something better. My laptop and various gadgets, online and off, are extensions of my brain — my "exocortex", if you will; my eyes and fingers prove a less invasive conduit than yet-unavailable and yet-unproven implants. My car becomes a temporary exoskeleton I can don and shed at will. I research whatever health issues I have and try to come up with solutions — and if those involve medication and/or surgery, that's fine as long as the cost/benefit tradeoff makes sense. And so on. Sure, I'll be in line for the neural jacks, eventual uploads, or what-have-you ... but living long enough to get there is important today. ^_^

The ultimate agenda of the transhumanists is completely audacious: to turn every molecule in the universe into part of a giant computer that can, through some miracle, stave off the heat-death of the universe.

::sigh:: This is like claiming "the" atheists have an "ultimate agenda", when really all they have in common is a particular personality trait (for atheists, a lack of belief regarding "supernatural" entities; for transhumanists, a desire to use technology to its fullest extent in improving the human condition). Atheists come in all stripes and sizes, and so do transhumanists; while some transhumanists may desire a solar system comprised of nothing but computronium, it isn't exactly a litmus test. :p That there are, say, Buddhist transhumanists and conservative atheists out there should come as a shock to no one who understands the definitions of the terms in question.
posted by korpios at 10:01 AM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

And oh yes: birth control.

I love my vasectomy, even if it doesn't help drown out the noise of other people's kids. ;-)
posted by korpios at 10:12 AM on June 5, 2008

As many others have pointed out, at present for the human body stock equipment is far superior to anything available on the aftermarket, unless it is defective or damaged. There are always tweaks, though: pharmaceuticals come to mind. Use of so-called 'nootropic' drugs- typically stimulants or pseudostimulants like Adderall or Provigil- to enhance cognitive function has attracted a lot of attention lately. You could probably classify any recreational drug as an improvement as well.
posted by monocyte at 2:16 PM on June 5, 2008

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