Category Archives: Thought Experiment

The Distressing (But Relevant) Questions Raised In Uncanny X-men #1

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The most relevant stories are often the ones that ask the most difficult questions. The nature of those questions vary among places, people, cultures, and whatever happens to be pissing off a significant chunk of the population. Regardless of the circumstances, those questions are important and sometimes they come from unexpected places.

I wasn’t expecting such questions when I picked up “Uncanny X-men #1,” the latest relaunch in the most iconic X-men brand of all time. I was just glad to see Uncanny X-men return to prominence after an extended absence dating back to 2016. This first issue was over-sized and priced at $7.99, which is a lot for a single comic. I still feel like I got my money’s worth.

In addition to telling a great story that brought many prominent X-men characters to the forefront, “Uncanny X-men #1” did something unique in terms of how it established a conflict. For once, it didn’t involve killer robots, preventing a genocide, mutant terrorist, or alien space gods. Instead, it asked one profound question.

What if there was a way to preventing people from becoming mutants in the first place?

That may sound like a question that has come up in other X-men stories, but that’s only partially correct. This isn’t about curing mutants, a story that Joss Whedon brilliantly told during his run on Astonishing X-men and that “ X-men: The Last Stand” botched horribly. This is about inoculating children the same way we do for polio.

Specifically, a lab develops a vaccine that prevents the X-gene from expressing. Technically, they would still be mutants in that they would still have this gene. It just wouldn’t express itself. It would be akin to turning off the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. It essentially treats mutation the same way we would treat any other genetic-based disease.

Naturally, the X-men and many other mutants don’t like this idea and not just because it’s akin to treating homosexuality as a mental illness. It reeks too much of genocide, something they’ve faced on more than one occasion. It would’ve been easy for “Uncanny X-men #1” to present it in that way, but that’s not how it plays out.

The all-star creative team of Ed Brisson, Kelly Thompson, Matthew Rosenberg, and Mahmud Asrar frame the issue in a very different way. Instead of some anti-mutant racist like Graydon Creed or William Stryker calling for mutant extermination, we get Senator Ashton Allen. He’s as generic a politician as can be in a superhero comic, but what he says and how he says is revealing.

Amidst a crowd of humans, mutants, and X-men, he talks about this mutant vaccine as a tool to alleviate suffering. He doesn’t rant about the dangers of evil mutants like Magneto or Apocalypse. He talks only about mutant children developing powers that could be dangerous to themselves or others. In that context, a vaccine might actually help them.

When you consider the mutant powers of characters like Rogue and Cyclops, who have mutant abilities that do real damage when uncontrolled, it seems entirely reasonable to make this vaccine available. Senator Allen never says anything about forcing it on kids or on mutants that already exist. He only ever emphasizes making it an option for concerned parents.

That’s distressing for the X-men because they don’t need to be omega-level psychics to imagine the implications. They can easily envision a concerned parent who doesn’t want their child to deal with the possibility that they may shoot lasers out of their eye one day. Any parent who cares for their child will want to mitigate the chances of them enduring such hardships.

In a world populated by mutant-hunting robots, parents already have plenty of incentive to use this vaccine. Given the damage that mutant-led conflicts often incur, the government has just as much incentive to make that vaccine available to everyone, free of charge and tax deductible. Governments less concerned with things like human rights could force it on children and that has some real-world parallels.

For mutants and the X-men, though, that means a permanent loss of their identity. Considering how mutants act as a metaphor for other oppressed minorities, this has implications for the real world, as well. I would even argue that the question will become increasingly relevant in the coming decades.

To appreciate just how relevant it could be, you need only look up the heartbreaking stories of parents who have disowned their children because they’re gay or transgender. In tragic some cases, people are driven to suicide. Even for those who aren’t parents, anything that might avert this kind of hardship is worth considering.

Given the complex causes of homosexuality, as well as the many factors behind transsexuality, it’s unlikely that there could ever be a vaccine to prevent it. The same can be said for conditions like Dwarfism. It’s not just genes, hormones, or radioactive spider bites that shape an individual’s persona. It’s a complex confluence of many things.

However, we are getting very close to a point where it’s possible to design children at the genetic level. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, it might even be possible one day to cut out entire traits from the human genome. That could, in theory, eradicate both cystic fibrosis and Dwarfism. More than a few people have expressed concern about that possibility.

Homosexuality and transsexuality are a bit different since there is no one gene or hormone that causes it, but most contemporary research suggests that genetics do play at least some role. Using similar technology, it might be possible for parents in the future to minimize or eliminate the chances of their children being homosexual or transsexual.

I imagine many in the LGBT community feel the same way about those efforts that the X-men felt about Senator Allen’s efforts in “Uncanny X-men #1.” Even if it only extends to giving parents this option for children and provides strict protections for those already born with these traits, it still treats who and what they are as a disease.

It’s dehumanizing and demeaning. More than one X-men in “Uncanny X-men #1” makes that abundantly clear. They don’t see being a mutant as a disease any more than homosexuality, transsexuality, or dwarfism. The fact that there’s now a way to prevent this makes for an existential crisis with some pretty heavy implications for the real and fictional world.

In the world of Marvel comics, a world without mutants has its own set of issues, the least of which would be the loss of a top-selling comic series. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. What would we, as a society, do if we suddenly had the tools to prevent homosexuality, transsexuality, and dwarfism in children before they’re even born?

I’ll even ask a more controversial question that’s sure to draw plenty of ire. What if those same tools could be used to modify the skin color, facial features, and overall appearance of our children? We already understand how genetics affects our appearance to some extent. What happens when we’re able to determine that for someone before they’re ever born?

These are objectively distressing questions. I’m glad “Uncanny X-men #1” dared to ask them. I doubt they’ll get debated or resolved completely in the proceeding issues, mostly because such resolutions are impossible in superhero comics. It still presents the X-men with a unique issue to confront and one that we will likely have to confront in the real world.

As is often the case with difficult questions, the answers are likely to anger some and distress many. Most people genuinely and sincerely want what’s best for their children. In the world of Marvel Comics, that could mean preventing them from gaining the kind of superpowers that makes them targets for Sentinels. In the real world, that could mean removing an entire class of people from the gene pool.

In issues like this, there are no heroes or villains. There are just difficult choices that we must make before someone else makes them for us.

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Filed under comic book reviews, futurism, gender issues, human nature, sexuality, superhero comics, Thought Experiment, X-men

Aging In A Society Where Nobody Ages

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We’ve all known someone who perfectly fits the profile of a grumpy old coot. Whether they’re a family member or a stranger, we can readily identify the associated traits. They’re bitter, angry, cynical, and exceedingly nostalgic for an era that has long since passed. Having to live in a frail, failing body certainly doesn’t help.

As annoying as their attitudes can be, it does raise a relevant question. Are they grumpy because they genuinely feel that everything in their world is awful or are they grumpy because their youth has become a distant memory? It’s a question that doesn’t apply to every old person, but it’s relevant to more than few.

Being old is not a pleasant experience for a lot of people. There are a lot of undesirable symptoms associated with it. Your skin gets wrinkled, your organs start to fail, your mind starts to slip, and you just don’t have the energy you used to have. On top of that, your sex life really suffers, regardless of your gender.

In that context, it’s not hard to understand why people get grumpier as they get older. They have plenty of reasons and plenty more excuses. It has always been a part of society. Like rebellious teenagers, their existence is an accepted part of life, so much so that it’s hard to imagine society without it.

This is where I take the same twisted mind that helps me write sexy stories and use it to propose a thought experiment. It’s also where I explore exciting new technology that will change the way society functions. It’s true that aging is part of our world. However, small pox, polio, and ridiculously flawed assumptions about the female body were once part of our world as well. That didn’t stop us from changing it.

In recalling the grumpy old coots I’ve known in my life, I often wonder whether they would act and feel the same way if they suddenly woke up in the body of their 25-year-old self. How much or how little would that change their attitudes? Would they be as jaded about the world if they were suddenly able to think, move, and hump like their younger selves?

Some might still be grumpy.

I even wonder this when recalling the elder individuals I know who aren’t grumpy and cantankerous. Those people do exist. Some of the happiest people I know are old, gray, and have a long list of health issues. They’ve lived good lives, have few regrets, and are content with their current state. Would that change for better or for worse if they were young again?

These are questions that will become increasingly relevant in the coming decades. While it’s currently impossible to just wake up in a new body like in “Altered Carbon,” the anti-aging industry is a burgeoning multi-billion dollar market. With demographics in the western world shifting rapidly, this market is poised to grow even more.

As it stands, there’s no comprehensive treatment that reverses aging for everyone. There are things people can do to improve longevity, but more often than not, someone’s ability to live comfortably into old age depends on factors they cannot control. The fact that Keith Richards lived beyond 1989 is proof enough of that.

That’s not to say we all just have to hope we have the same genetic fortitude as someone like Keith Richards. The current research into anti-aging is making significant strides. We understand aging a lot more than we did 20 years ago. In essence, it’s largely a matter of cells not being able to repair themselves as well as they used to. If we can fix that, then we fix aging.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. However, unlike some of the other advanced technologies I’ve discussed, there’s no need to prove the concept in the real world. We know it’s possible for organisms to live significantly longer than humans. Lobsters, turtles, and even whales have been documented to live centuries and function on the same level as their younger counterparts.

How they do this and whether it can be applied to humans is still uncertain, but there’s a great deal of research into this field. There’s also a huge incentive to perfect anti-aging treatments on a large scale. The first company that does that will likely be a trillion-dollar company. Whether or not it happens in my lifetime is difficult to surmise, but given the pace of technology, I believe it will happen eventually.

When it does, that raises a whole host of questions that are difficult to answer. What does a society where people don’t age even look like? How does it even function? I doubt our current system could support it. Countries like Japan are already dealing with significant problems associated with their rapidly-aging population. That issue will likely get more complicated as anti-aging technology improves.

What will it mean to retire in a world where people live for centuries rather than decades?

What will it mean to have a career?

What will it mean to have a family?

What will it mean for rearing and caring for children?

Think of how multiple generations function together at the moment. For a while, my family had four generations living at once. I had my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents alive at one point. That made for a robust, but sometimes convoluted family structure. Just keeping up with family affairs could be tricky since my family moves around a lot.

Now, imagine having even more generations alive at once. Imagine dealing with parents, grandparents, and great-great-great-great-grandparents. As individuals and as a society, we’ve never dealt with that kind of dynamic. What would the roles be for that many living descendants? What would that do to custody, inheritance, and just basic overall functioning?

It’s difficult to imagine, but it gets even more complicated than that. Another major aspect of anti-aging research doesn’t just involve extending the human lifespan. It also involves reversing aging and preserving youth. Animals like turtles already do it. They get to a certain age and basically stay that way. Ideally, we want to provide something similar in humans.

That means our parents, grandparents, and great-great-great grandparents wouldn’t just live longer. They wouldn’t look a day over 30. On top of that, they would still be perfectly capable of having more children. People could have siblings who are decades younger than them. They could also end up with uncles and aunts of all ages.

Imagine some of these people being older than your grandmother.

Then, there are the nearly limitless number of half-siblings they could have. Even in our current state of aging, a good chunk of the population lives within a step-family where they’re only related to one parent biologically. In a world where people never age out of their sexual prime, it’s more than likely this will increase.

It may get to a point where age really is just a number. That won’t just be a cute euphemism or a creepy R. Kelly song. If we’re able to effectively rewire and repair our biology, then it would be nothing more than a legal designation on our birth certificate. It would have no further bearing on our lives.

That could cause all sorts of issues for our love lives. Imagine walking down a busy street and not seeing anyone who looks older than 30 years old. It would be like walking through a college town everywhere you went. You wouldn’t know if that cute girl at the bar or that handsome guy on the bus is just out of college or of they’ve got five living grandchildren. How would flirting even work?

Guy: Hey there, cutie. You want to go get some coffee?

Girl: I’d love to, but I’m picking my granddaughter up from her retirement party. Maybe tomorrow?

That could really affect how we see romance, sex, and relationships. The whole concept of “Till death do you part” could suddenly become a major complication. Sure, there may be couples who manage to stay married for centuries. They’ll make for great stories, as many long-time spouses do today. Chances are they’ll be the exceedingly-rare exception and not the norm.

It may be the case that marriages and family bonds become subject to time-frames. People may just get together to raise a family, but once those kids reach a certain age, they go their separate ways, possibly to do it all over again with someone else. If their bodies don’t age and they remain healthy, what would stop them?

That assumes a lot about what people will even want if they live indefinitely and maintain their youth. Again, we have no precedent for this. We’ve never lived in a society where everyone is young, healthy, and immune to the rigors of time.

There may very well be effects that go beyond our personal lives. Even if our bodies never age beyond 30, our minds certainly will. Aging does have an impact on the human brain and I’m not just referring to the effects of dementia. Just living longer affects how we perceive the world. It even affects how we perceive time. A year to a 10-year-old means something very different to someone who is 95-years-old.

Even if we could maintain a high level of brain function for centuries, there’s still the possibility that we’ll struggle to function as a whole. Many major social movements throughout history occur because older generations that retained entrenched prejudices died off. How will we advance civil rights in a society where the old traditionalists never died off?

Still not over the Civil War.

Then, there’s the boredom issue. I’ve mentioned before how powerful boredom can be, even without living forever. What do we do with ourselves if we can live for centuries and never lose our youth? How would we keep ourselves occupied and entertained? Would the boredom drive us mad? Would it turn us into sociopath super-villains like Vandal Savage?

It’s impossible to know for now, but it’s a possibility that we should take seriously. We’re already dealing with the serious effects of overpopulation. How will our civilization and our planet cope if people stop aging?

Future currency could be the ability to stretch your arms.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t pursue this technology. I’ve seen what aging does to people. I’ve seen how it effects people very close to me. We all probably know someone who endures endless hardship and discomfort because of their age. We should help them and the burgeoning anti-aging industry is poised to do just that.

We should also seriously contemplate what kind of society we’ll be creating if and when we cure aging. It will require a complete re-imagining of what it means to live, love, and be part of a family. Chances are people today will think it’s crazy. In a world where everyone stays young and sexy, it’ll just be life.

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Prison Or Brain Hacking? A Choice That May Shape Our Future

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How does a civilized society deal with its least civilized individuals? This is a question that every society has had to answer, going back to the hunter/gatherer era. We live in an imperfect world full of imperfect individuals. Some are more imperfect than others, so much so that it’s not always possible to reform them into functional members of society.

Most people who commit crimes are not monsters, nor are they sadists who get their joy by torturing the innocent. A vast majority are just people who find themselves in bad situations where they make wrong decisions, exercise poor judgment, or lack impulse control. For these people, fines and brief imprisonment are usually sufficient.

For those who become career criminals, neither respecting the law nor seeking to abide by it, the current system is woefully inadequate. It’s part of the reason why criminal justice reform has become a hot topic. We’re finally learning that throwing people into prisons where they’re dehumanized, degraded, and tortured doesn’t help them become productive members of society. Go figure.

There’s plenty of room for improvement. Some countries have demonstrated that there are more effective, more humane ways to treat criminals. However, even those systems have their limits. As long as human beings remain an imperfect species, we’ll still have to deal with these deviant, violent, and inherently dangerous individuals.

For the moment, our options for dealing with these people are few. It primarily involves incarceration or intense therapy, often coupled with drug therapy. While this can be helpful to some, there are severe limitations. Some individuals don’t even want treatment and even those who are caught don’t always respond.

With that in mind, allow me to present a not-quite-hypothetical scenario. What if, instead of prison or therapy, we gave offending criminals an option to undergo an invasive treatment that affects the primary source of their deviant behavior in the brain? Jail is still an option for those who aren’t keen on messing with their brain wiring, but for certain people, an alternative is an alternative.

What I just described is one of those concepts in which the science is there, but the technology and the courts haven’t caught up to it. I know whenever I talk about emerging technology, be it sex robots or artificial wombs, I venture pretty far into speculation territory. Some of these advances rely on science and tools that don’t yet exist. This isn’t one of those cases.

In July 2018, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study revealing that targeted stimulation of the prefrontal cortex reduced aggressive tendencies in test subjects. Before you start getting fever dreams of mad scientists strapping people to gurneys and sticking wires in their ears, you can rest easy. This isn’t the kind of electroshock treatment that find their way into one too many horror movies.

These treatments have ground-breaking implications. They prove that it’s possible to temper or mitigate certain behaviors in people. The study doesn’t specify the limits of the effects or if it can be applied to something other than aggressive behaviors. It’s still a proof of concept and one that could compound the impact of other emerging technologies.

We already have tools like CRISPR that allow us to tweak our genes. We also have companies like Neuralink that are actively working on implants that could fix, augment, or expand our brain capacity. While men like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil often discuss these advances within the context of keeping humanity on pace with artificial intelligence, there will likely be some interim uses for these technologies.

Tempering violent behavior in people with significant cognitive impairments is just one possible use, but one that has the potential to change how we think about crime and punishment. Think back to those people I mentioned earlier who just inherently violent. They can’t manage their emotions or control their anger. They don’t think before they act and some don’t even feel guilty about what they do.

Like it or not, these people exist. I’ve known people in my life who have terrible impulse control and fly into a rage over the smallest things. Some of those people have had issues with the law and I often see in them a sense of never-ending frustration. Many don’t like that they have these issues. A few have tried to get help, but it doesn’t always work.

I suspect that if some of those people were given a chance to treat their tendencies with targeted shock therapy or a brain implant, they would jump at the chance. Deviant tendencies aside, they seek some level of function in their lives. If tweaking their brain is the difference between prison and freedom, then they’ll take that risk.

Turning people who might have been unrepentant psychopaths into productive, non-violent members of society is an objective good. The technology to do just that is not that far off and more study could help us refine the process, so much so that prison might be less necessary in certain cases. Given how expensive it is to imprison people, it’s an alternative worth pursuing.

Along with that undeniable good, however, there are plenty of potential dangers. Anyone who has ever seen one too many psychological thrillers or just read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” can easily imagine how this kind of technology could be abused.

Tempering someone’s violent behaviors is all well and good, but why would it stop there? The brain is capable of all sorts of behaviors, deviant and otherwise. Say a society determines that other non-violent behaviors, be it sexual promiscuity or binge-watching Netflix for too many hours, are not socially desirable. What’s to stop them from imposing this on their citizens?

Some countries probably already fantasize about technologies that enable them to directly pacify their citizens, rendering them weak, passive, and easily manipulated. In his famous novel, “1984,” George Orwell called these people proles. However, in the book, the deviants had to be tortured and re-educated. If Big Brother had access to this technology, it would be a simple medical procedure.

That has plenty of terrifying possibilities for abuse. What if someone uses brain stimulation to prevent people from having homosexual urges? What if someone uses it to treat those who identify as transgender? There’s no evidence that the techniques in the study would work on that, but there’s no evidence to say it’s impossible.

Its use will definitely be controversial. That much, I’m certain of. It’s not advanced enough to become a legitimate treatment for anything. At the moment, direct brain stimulation is utilized for a specified set of conditions and it’s often a last resort. Using it on healthy people who just want to cull their violent urges is uncharted territory.

Whether it enters the picture for criminal justice reform is anyone’s guess, but if the process works, someone who has dealt with one too many repeat offenders will try to use it. From there, the precedent will be set. It’s hard to say what form it’ll take, but it’ll take society into uncharted territory with respect to controlling our minds.

Perhaps, at first, the process would be voluntary and only be presented in conjunction with jail or some other treatment. It’s also possible that the courts will determine a strict set of criteria for when the state could force this treatment onto someone. There are probably a few repressive governments who would try to use this on an industrial scale. I won’t say they’re names, but most people know who they are.

Like any emerging technology, there are risks and rewards worth considering. We stand to benefit greatly by having a society with as few violent individuals as possible. We also stand to lose a great deal if we allow misguided authority figures to determine how we use this technology.

I’m not qualified to determine whether or not someone should have their brain hacked. I don’t know that anyone is. However, I also don’t deny that the human brain, as magnificent as it is, has plenty of flaws. We should go about fixing those flaws, especially in people who are disproportionately impacted by them. We just have to be very careful about how we manage it.

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How Artificial Intelligence Will Destroy Democracy (In A Good Way)

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Picture the perfect candidate for an election. I know the bar for politicians these days is laughably low, but try to stretch your imagination a bit. Try to envision the kind of candidate that embodies the best collection of values, abilities, and charisma for a civilized society.

Everybody looks for something different in a candidate, but a truly perfect candidate would appeal to everyone in a democratic system. This person would embody the highest values, championing human rights to the utmost and justice for everyone. Every decision they make is with the safety, sanctity, and rights of other people as their top priority. There’s no compromise. They do right by the people every time and all the time.

This person would also be the ultimate leader, capable of getting anyone to go along with them without fear or coercion. There wouldn’t need to be corruption of any kind. This person would be perfectly capable of navigating every level of government and making it work to the utmost. The people would trust in that government, believe in it, and even celebrate it.

Keep that perfect candidate in the forefront of your mind because when it comes to discussing politics, cynicism tends to rule the day. I don’t think I need to cite too many recent events to show how imperfect democracy is these days. I don’t even need to cite famous historical events that show just how bad government can be in this convoluted world.

It’s because of that cynicism, though, that the perfect candidate you’re thinking of could never win a democratic election in the real world. Even if they existed, the inherent flaws of the electorate and those of less perfect candidates would keep them from winning. It’s one of democracy’s greatest flaws. It’s not about who the best candidate is. It’s just about who can convince enough people that they’re worth voting for.

On the subject of democracy, Winston Churchill once said the following:

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Time, politics, and the proliferation of has only proven Mr. Churchill right. I would even amend that quote to say just 30 seconds on 4chan will make anyone lose faith in the promise of democracy. That’s not to say democracy is all bad, though. Mr. Churchill also once famously said this about the alternatives:

“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

It’s distressing, but frustrating fact of civilization, one that fuels mass protests, fake news, and lurid scandals. Go back to any point in history and scrutinize any government, be it a king or some quasi-democracy, and chances are you’ll find serious flaws in the system. I don’t just mean long lines at the post office, either. There have been times when democracy has not furthered the protection of human rights.

It’s not necessarily a flawed principle as it is a concept with flawed ingredients. While I tend to place a great deal of faith in the goodness of human nature, I don’t deny that people can be arrogant, irrational, and downright callous. We’re prone to overreacting and not thinking things through. We’re hard-wired to go with intuition over logic.

Even when we’re proven wrong, we stubbornly cling to our assertions. The prevalence of creationism is proof enough of that. Every election cycle is prone to bold promises, bloated melodrama, and major goals that rarely ever become actual policy. Some become full-fledged revolutions with Utopian visions. The fact that none of those utopias ever manifested is proof of how unsuccessful they were.

We are not a species built for democracy on a large scale. We evolved to function in close-knit tribes, hunting and gathering for food while fighting for survival. That kind of evolution doesn’t really lend itself to a functioning democracy. It doesn’t lend itself to a total autocracy, either. Whether it’s a free republic or a fascist state, humans cannot govern other humans without their flaws plaguing them in both directions.

It’s for this reason that I often lean libertarian in political debates, but given the complexities and challenges of modern society, even that only goes so far. Like it or not, large-scale civilizations populated a species not evolved to manage it requires some measure of authority. More importantly, it requires competent, incorruptible, compassionate authority.

It needs to be able to defend a population of people within a particular border. It needs fair and just laws that can be equally enforced. It also needs the confidence and trust of the people being governed. Sometimes, it’s done out of fear. Sometimes, it’s done out of free will. Both can work, provided the system has robust capabilities that aren’t prone to human error.

Unless a government is populated by a democratic council consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Doom, that kind of functional democracy is physically impossible. Even though democracy is still the best we have from an exceedingly limited list of options, that may change in a big way thanks to artificial intelligence.

I know it seems like I attribute many superhuman capabilities to this emerging field, it’s hard to overstate its potential. Unlike every other tool humanity has created, artificial intelligence promises to rewrite the rules at every level of society. That includes government and it’s here where AI’s capabilities could go beyond superhuman.

Think back to that perfect candidate I mentioned earlier and all the traits that made them perfect. By and large, an advanced artificial intelligence shares many of those traits and then some. A sufficiently powerful AI would be beyond politics, pettiness, or demagoguery. In principle, it could embody everything people would want in a strong leader and a capable government.

For one, it would be smarter than any human. Beyond knowing more about every subject than any human ever could, it would be smart in a way that would allow it to persuade people to trust it. That’s often a skill that even smart politicians fail to refine. It certainly doesn’t help that many voters attribute intelligence with smugness. That’s a big reason why populist candidates of questionable merit gain so much support.

An advanced artificial intelligence, provided it has an in depth understanding of human psychology and how to persuade people, would be able to gain support from everyone. It wouldn’t be bound by the limits that keep most human candidates from appealing to everyone. With enough intelligence and capabilities, it would surmise a way to appeal to everybody.

Beyond just persuading the voters, an AI of that level could be just as effective at actual governance. There are plenty of candidates who are very adept at winning elections, but terrible when it comes to actually governing. A capable AI would be able to do both. If anything, one function would complement the other.

With enough emotional, logistical, and pragmatic intelligence, this AI would be capable of crafting and passing laws without the need for debate or controversy. The laws it crafts are already so refined and so well thought out that to do so would be redundant. In the same time it takes your phone to send a text, this AI could pass sweeping legislation that protects human rights, ensures justice for all, and promotes economic growth.

It’s hard to imagine because the only laws and government we’ve ever known have come from flawed humans. It’s just as hard to imagine how those laws would be enforced. Perhaps this advanced AI has nodes all throughout society that allow it to gather data, know where enforcement is needed, and determine the appropriate recourse. If it’s capable enough, people won’t even know it’s there.

Perhaps that same AI uses a mix of human enforcers and intelligent robots to maintain order. If the AI is sufficiently capable, every enforcer at every level would be equipped with perfect knowledge and a clear understanding of how to carry out the orders of the government. Since an AI wouldn’t be prone to corruption or prejudice, instances of injustices would be few and far between.

It wouldn’t be a totalitarian state of Orwellian proportions. It would be more of a “Star Trek” style, post-scarcity society where we wouldn’t have to be cynical about government authority. We would inherently trust it because it’s just that effective. We wouldn’t feel like we’re being run by a robot dictator. We would feel like we’re being run by the greatest ruler outside of a “Black Panther” movie.

To some extent, though, an advanced artificial intelligence of this nature would render democracy obsolete. If we created an AI that could effectively govern society at every level, then what’s the purpose of having elections in the first place? Why bother when there’s an intelligence that’s literally more capable than any ordinary human could possibly be?

History has shown that democracy and government can only do so much when flawed humans are in charge. Once advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the logistics of governance changes entirely.

Perhaps there will be a period in our history where instead of running human candidates, we start creating AI systems that compete with one another in a pseudo-democratic process. That would go a long way towards improving overall governance.

Unlike humans, though, technology evolves much faster than humans ever will and it wouldn’t take long for those systems to improve to a point where they’re just too good an option to overlook. Human-led governments, even in humans who are enhanced to some degree, will still have flaws. In a future where technology, society, and individuals keep creating new challenges, we’ll need a capable government to manage it all.

In the end, that government probably won’t be a democracy. It won’t be a dictatorship, either. It’ll be something that we can’t yet conceptualize. That’s the biggest challenge when contemplating something like an advanced artificial intelligence, though. It operates on a level that ordinary humans literally cannot comprehend. That’s why it’s our best option for governing our future.

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The Appeal And (Major) Implications Of “Westworld”

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When most people think about the future, they imagine all the ways that technology and progress will solve problems and make our lives better. I’ve certainly imagined that. I’ve even written about it, with respect to how future advances will make us smarter, protect us from disease, and even help us love each other better.

As intriguing as those possibilities may be, it’s also worth taking a moment to contemplate the implications. I’m not talking about the potential existential crisis we may face with advancing technology either. I’m referring more to the practical aspects of a future where disease, suffering, and toil are largely mitigated by technology.

Beyond just living in a world with less suffering and less struggle, how exactly would we entertain ourselves? That may seem like a mundane question, given the more serious implications of advances like genetic engineering and advanced robotics, but it’s one of those issues that effects individuals on a personal level.

If we’re always health, physically strong, and have our basic needs met through some universal basic income, then what exactly are we going to do with all that free time? I’ve expressed concern that this may create an epidemic of boredom that’s every bit as serious as any major pandemic. No matter how strong, healthy, or affluent you are, boredom can have some pretty debilitating effects.

Enter the fanciful world of “Westworld” and all its implications, sexy and otherwise. For those of you who don’t get HBO, it’s a TV show inspired from an old movie produced by Michael Crichton, also known as the guy who wrote “Jurassic Park.” It’s no “Game of Thrones,” but it has a fair amount of gratuitous violence, nudity, and sex, albeit with much less incest.

Graphic content aside, it’s the underlying concept behind “Westworld” that makes it such an intriguing show. That same concept also has even greater implications for what the future may hold in terms of immersive entertainment, managing artificial intelligence, and how we treat sex robots. For once, I’m not going to focus entirely on the sex robots, since I give that subject plenty of attention.

The appeal of “Westworld,” as both a concept and a show, is built around a company called Delos Inc., which offers its high-paying customers a chance to immerse themselves in a unique experience. For a while, they get to leave civilization, modernity, and all its associated infrastructure behind and live in rugged, lawless world of the old west.

It’s not some movie where they just get to see images of scenery. It’s not some virtual reality that just makes them feel like they’re there, either. It’s a fully realized artificial world, complete with intelligent androids that have the look, feel, and presence of real people. Sure, some still act as sex robots, but that appeal goes far beyond that.

This is a world where you can live a different life, experience in a different time, and explore a world that no longer exists. You don’t watch it. You don’t listen to it. You don’t follow along through the eyes of a protagonist. You are the protagonist. You actually get to live out a real fantasy where the participants aren’t just role playing. They’re sophisticated androids that really believe they are what they are.

Now, the operation and function of those androids has been a major source of conflict within the show. As the show has progressed, controlling these androids and seeing them develop a sense of self has made for great drama. I would argue it’s one of the most engaging aspects of the show. It creates powerful moments that reflect real existential issues with respect to artificial intelligence, some of which I’ve contemplated.

While those issues are profound, in and of themselves, I find myself more interested in how “Westworld” may reflect the evolution of entertainment itself. Look past the issue with managing intelligent androids for a moment and think about the business Delos Inc. is employing here.

On paper, it’s not just brilliant in terms of potential profitability. It may very well embody the future of entertainment. Take a moment to contemplate how the entertainment industry has evolved over the past 30 years. We’ve gone from analog to digital, standard definition to high definition, and now high definition to 4k.

I’m still old enough to remember the lousy picture quality of TV shows, the pre-IMAX movie theater experience, and theme parks with less-than-polished exhibits. I still vividly remember going to see “Men in Black” in a theater that was crowded, dirty, and cramped. It was fun, but not that immersive.

Over time, the general trend of entertainment, both with movies and with TV shows, has been to make it more interactive. Movies have done that with the rise of 3D movies. TV shows have done that through things like live-tweeting. Video games, especially, have become much more immersive, both through virtual reality and through online interaction.

This trend reflects the understanding from producers and consumers alike that the most powerful form of entertainment is the kind that offers the most immersion. A game on your smartphone is fun and all, but it’s just data on a screen. It’s not going to engage too many senses.

The same goes for virtual reality, which is basically just putting that same screen over your eyes and bombarding you with sound to make you feel like you’re somewhere you’re not. It also doesn’t change the fact that you don’t have to move your body, exert yourself, or engage in the kind of activity that would lead you to believe that the experience is real. Granted, the brain can be fooled, but only to a point.

What “Westworld” does is logical in terms of crafting an experience that makes people feel like it’s truly real. The customers of Delos Inc. aren’t just observing or following along. They’re actually engaging with this fantasy world. It’s not on a screen. It’s not being projected into their brains. It’s real and they get to be part of it.

That world can literally be anything they Delos Inc. wants it to be. With their resources and their army of life-like androids, they can create all kinds of worlds for customers to explore. These worlds don’t have to be confined by the laws of modern civilization, current social norms, or even notions of reality.

Perhaps they can create an apocalyptic world where participants can kill zombies and live the lives of rag-tag survivors, like those of “The Walking Dead.”

Perhaps they can create a medieval world in the mold of “Game of Thrones” where participants can live the lives of brave knights, lecherous kings, or privileged queens.

Perhaps, if the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to grow, there can be a world where people either get to interact with the Avengers or even get to be the Avengers. As a comic fan, I would definitely pay for that experience. I would be shocked if Disney isn’t working on something like this now, as we speak.

It doesn’t even have to involve an elaborate fantasy world either. Perhaps there’s a world where participants can live the lives of rock stars in 70s and 80s, complete with cocaine, groupies, and massive concerts where they’re the stars.

In theory, there’s no limit to the kinds of worlds a company like Delos Inc. can create. The old wast in “Westworld” is just one of them. The key is making the world perfectly immersive, but still safe to the point where the costumers aren’t ever hurt and face no repercussions for what happens during the experience.

However, it’s in that key safeguard in which the implications of “Westworld” get more distressing. It even plays out a few times in the show. In this immersive world of the old west, participants can carry out acts that would be wrong, immoral, or downright abhorrent in the real world.

The androids in “Westworld” may be more intelligent than the average exhibit at Disney World, but they’re still just robots playing a role. If a participant kills, rapes, or tortures one of them, there’s no repercussion. The android can just be cleaned up, fixed, and reloaded with a new program like it never happened.

It’s that kind of moral void, so to speak, that may make this brand of entertainment questionable. Say there’s someone willing to pay a lot of money to a company like Delos Inc. to create a world where they could go on a killing spree, murdering and raping as much as they want. This person is a law-biding citizen who has never acted on any violent impulses. Would the company be unethical in accommodating that fantasy?

There may be plenty of other distressing requests. Maybe someone wants a world where they can live the life of an 19th century slave-owner because they want to abuse slaves. Maybe someone wants a world where they’re the Nazis and they get to commit any number of unspeakable atrocities.

Remember, what they do in this world isn’t done to real people. They’re just paying for an experience. It’s not like the kind they would get in “Total Recall” where they only get memories of an experience. In a world like that of “Westworld,” they actually interact with that world. They make choices and do things, but no matter what they do, there’s no consequence or repercussion.

It raises many disturbing questions that are impossible to answer now. “Westworld” attempts to answer some of them, but there are plenty more that are simply beyond the scope of the show. It may do a commendable job focusing on what happens when intelligent robots start to get a will of their own, but it doesn’t do much to explore the implications that this form of entertainment inspires.

It’s going to be quite a while before we have the technology that we see in “Westworld,” but even if the human race progresses to a point where people and society are free from most conflict, there will be a need for entertainment. The form that entertainment takes may just reveal more about us than we care to know.

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Contemplating The Perfect Drug (And Whether We Could Handle It)

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Imagine, for a moment, you took the perfect drug. By that, I don’t mean the kind of drug that alleviates a headache, settles an upset stomach, or just makes it so you can function normally. I’m not talking about the kinds of drugs that gives us Captain America level superpowers either. I’m talking about the kind of drug that alters, enhances, or somehow changes the way you experience the world, physically and mentally.

It is a very subjective thought experiment, especially compared to some of the others I’ve explored. It might even be somewhat inappropriate to contemplate as parts of this world are dealing with a serious prescription drug problem and violence generated by the illegal drug trade. However, with the War on Drugs that Richard Nixon first declared being almost 50 years old, I think a little nuance on the issue is warranted.

In the same way we’ll never have a society of perfect monogamy, despite the best efforts of religion and government, we’ll never have a completely drug-free society. Human beings have been experimenting with drugs since ancient times in some form or another. Some major historical figures are known to have done drugs that would’ve gotten them thrown in jail today.

The choice of drug may vary, but so too does their reason for taking it. Some seek to alleviate pain. Some seek to enhance pleasure. Some are just bored and want to experience something new and profound. Whatever the reasons, the fact that so many different people from so many different eras, cultures, and situations seek drugs is revealing in and of itself.

In some respects, it reflects our inherent dissatisfaction with our current limits. We are, at the end of the day, at the mercy of our bodies, our brains, and the evolutionary mechanisms behind them. We get tired too easily. We can’t run as hard or as fast as we want. We can’t remember things that well or learn new things that efficiently. That doesn’t even begin to the limitations that effect our sex lives.

If anything, our own evolution gives us a powerful imperative to seek out powerful drugs. Our bodies and brains are programmed with two imperatives, survival and reproduction. If we can find a drug that enhances both, then we’re just improving our evolutionary standing in the world.

While I wouldn’t make that argument to a DEA agent, I think it’s worth contemplating the kind of drug that would do more to help us transcend our limitations than what we have now. Modern drugs, legal and illegal alike, do some amazing things. However, as anyone who has dealt with the side-effects of pain killers knows, there’s room for improvement.

Ignoring side-effects for a moment, think of the effects and benefits of the familiar drugs in existence right now. Look at what they do, how they do it, and why people pursue those effects in the first place. Then, imagine which of those effects you would want to include with the perfect drug.

Would it make you really astute and focused like Adderall or Ritalin?

Would it make you really relaxed and mellow like Xanex or Marijuana?

Would it make you really energized like cocaine or amphetamines?

Would it give you better stamina and endurance like anabolic steroids?

Would it give you mind-altering perceptions like LSD and DMT?

Would it make you extremely happy and empathetic like MDMA?

Chances are, you might want a little of everything. What you want might also depend on your situation. If you want a drug that’ll help you lose weight, you’ll probably want the effects of steroids and amphetamines. If you want to sleep better, you’ll want the effects of Xanex or weed. If you just want to be happy, sometimes all you need is a cigarette or a beer.

The perfect drug, by definition, would be able to grant you all or at least part of these experiences. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to a new prescription or a new dealer. The same drug would be capable of evoking those effects. It may require some tweaking of the dosage, mechanisms, or chemical processes, but it’s still capable of delivering.

It may sound like an impossible substance and to some extent, it is. However, it’s still only as impossible as our limitations and there are plenty of ongoing efforts to transcend those limitations through biotechnology, nanotechnology, and human/machine interface. I’ve mentioned a few of those efforts, including smart blood and neural implants. With future refinements, they’ll provide the catalyst for the perfect drug.

It may take the form of a special pill full of programmable biomatter. Maybe you want it to help you sleep. Maybe you want it to help you focus. Maybe you want it to help you make love to your spouse for five hours straight. With the right programming and the right application of biology, it can do that.

For some effects, maybe a pill isn’t enough. To have the kinds of effects that would give someone the kind of physical or mental enhancement they seek, it may be necessary to inject this programmable matter directly into the body via an IV drip. That might be cumbersome, but it allows for more direct delivery than a pill.

Even if it’s more effective, it still might not be ideal. Some of the most addictive drugs, like tobacco and alcohol, have a social element to them. People bond when they do them together and since humans are such a social species, that might be a necessary component of the perfect drug.

Perhaps instead of an injection or a pill, it can be ingested as a drink like tea and coffee. That will allow people to congregate and make it a social event at a bar or club. It can be part of a greater bonding experience, a group of people all sharing in the benefits of the perfect drug. It effectively complements every component of the human condition.

On the issue of side-effects, this is where the perfect drug would have to clash with flawed biology. On paper, a perfect drug would have no adverse side-effects. It wouldn’t have withdrawal symptoms, damage organs, or turn your urine blue, which does happen.

In the real, less-than-perfect world, every drug will have side-effects. Even if biotechnology and neural implants gives people superhuman durability on par with Wolverine from the X-men, it’s likely that such powerful experiences will result in equally powerful impacts, both mental and physical.

One of the most likely effects, which might still be the most damaging, involves what happens to people when they’re not on the perfect drug. Even if the drug causes no withdrawal symptoms and generally leaves the body intact, it still creates a discrepancy in experience.

There’s the state the person was in without the perfect drug. There’s the state the person was in when they took it. If the gap between the two is big enough, as would likely be the case for the perfect drug, then even an enhanced mind within an enhanced body would struggle to some extent.

It would be like going from taking a private jet across the ocean to riding a mule. One is just going to be so much richer and more intense than the other that it doesn’t matter how enhanced you or your brain are. You’re going to want that drug and you’re going to do whatever it takes to get it.

In a future where people can enhance their bodies, augment their brains, and rid themselves of disease, what else will drive them other than the inherent human desire to transcend more limitations? Those experiences and the methods to get them, either by a drug or some other means, might end up being the most valuable currency in the future.

For now, we’re stuck with a diverse array of drugs with a wide variety of effects. They all come with their own unique risks and their own blend of side-effects. With more and more drugs being developed, as well as refinements to existing drugs, people will continue using drugs and seeking them, even if it means clashing with the law.

We’re still a long way from a perfect drug like the one I just described, but it’s an idea with contemplating. It reveals why we seek drugs in the first place and what we’re looking for in using them, despite all the risks and side-effects.

We don’t just seek health, strength, or new experiences. We seek to improve and enhance our own condition. How we go about it and how well we handle it depends on a lot of factors. We might never create a truly perfect drug, but as medical science and human enhancement continue to evolve, we may still achieve its effects.

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Is Democracy The Best Way To Ensure Basic Rights?

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When it comes to ensuring the happiness, advancement, and general prosperity of humanity, it’s not unreasonable to say that basic human rights are a core ingredient. Most know the basics of these rights as life, liberty, and property. Some even throw in the pursuit of happiness, which denotes all kinds of freedom, including the sexy kinds.

Beyond just sounding great on paper, human rights are a major guiding force. History has shown, time and again, that societies that value these rights tend to prosper more that only exist to glorify a despot. The contrast between the two Koreas is proof enough of that.

However, the preservation and promotion of basic human rights is no easy task. The world is full of corrupt, cruel, and power-hungry people who would scoff at the very concept the same way they would anyone who claims trees have souls. The fact that some of them manage to get elected in countries with democratic institutions says a lot about just how hard it can be to protect human rights.

It’s that vulnerability in one the most cherished modern institutions, which some claim took a major hit in 2016, that leads me to ask a question that I’m sure is going to draw me some level of ire. However, in wake of recent news and a particular Hollywood movie that indirectly touches on this concept, I think it’s worth asking.

Is democracy the best way of preserving basic human rights in a society?

I ask that question as someone who loves and celebrates the freedoms that being an American has given me. I feel lucky and honored to live in a country where I get to participate in the democratic process. I make it a point to vote in every election, be it mid-term or a presidential election.

That said, I’m not among those hyper-patriot, Ron Swanson wannabes who willfully ignores the flaws of the democratic systems around me. Between the limited choices offered by a two-party system, the non-democratic nature of the electoral college, and misguided ballot initiatives, I see these flaws as much as anyone else with an internet connection.

To some extent, I recognize that not all of these flaws are fixable within a democracy. The essence of democracy is people electing their government. Unfortunately, people aren’t always rational and anyone who has read headlines from Florida knows that. People can also be whipped up into a hateful, mob-like frenzy. It’s one of the side-effects of being such a social species. We’ll often go with the crowd before we go with reason.

In a perfect democracy, every voter would be completely independent, completely informed, and only vote to elect the person they believe will best preserve basic human rights. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy any more than there’s such a thing as a perfect autocracy, there are bound to be flaws in the system.

Some of those flaws can be mitigated with things like voter education. Others involve mixing democratic systems with that of a republic. That’s primarily what the founding fathers attempted to establish with the United States, a republic being the fixed body of laws to preserve our rights and using democratic systems to protect those rights.

Other western democracies utilize various methods to address these issues, but so long as people are involved, there will be human flaws in any system. The key is making sure that those flaws don’t end up undermining human rights. The results haven’t been perfect. Ask any number of minority communities for proof of that.

With these flaws in mind, I believe it’s worth thinking beyond democracy to imagine other ways of preserving and promoting human rights. Some of those concepts manifest in movies, comics, and TV shows. The “Black Panther” movie presented an enticing, albeit fanciful, idea of an all-around good king who believes in basic human rights and does what he can to promote it, at least for his own people.

I’ve also cited Dr. Doom in a previous article who, despite being the ultimate villain in the Marvel universe, is pretty much the perfect ruler for any system of government. Sure, people in his government fear his wrath, but that’s the only thing they fear. You could argue that such fear is inconsistent with basic human rights, but in terms of actually securing people, property, and what not, Doom has no equals.

Outside the world of superheroes, though, there are also instances where a great leader who deeply values human rights gets thrust into power. That’s the entire premise of “Designated Survivor,” a show where Kiefer Sutherland does more than just shoot and torture terrorists. The best possible leader for a government isn’t elected. They essentially find themselves in that position.

In a sense, that embodies the disconnect between the fictional world and the real world. The idea that a king with ultimate power in a secretive country or some low-level government appointee would turn out to be a perfect president assumes a lot of things that don’t play out in the real world. It essentially vindicates what Winston Churchill once said about democracy.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Those bolded parts are my doing because those are the parts that most people recall. Considering the context in which Churchill said those words, having just fought a massive war against two leaders who had been democratically elected, it’s hard to blame him.

Even today, extremists who do not hold certain human rights in high regard do get elected to positions of power. It’s not a matter of people just throwing the concept away. People are still very tribal, last I checked. They’re going to vote or protest in accord with their own interests, even if it means undermining the interests of others.

That situation leaves basic human rights vulnerable. There are, as I write this, people living in functioning democracies whose basic rights are being undermined. While we have made a great deal of progress over the past century as democracies have spread, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Going back to the original question I asked about democracy’s ability to preserve human rights, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. For now, I’m inclined to side with the wisdom of Winston Churchill. Democracy has it’s flaws, but it’s the best we’ve got thus far. We can definitely stand to do better and should work towards doing so.

Some of that may involve getting money out of politics to mitigate corruption. Some involve doing the opposite of what China just did and setting term limits for politicians. Some are taking an even more radical approach by integrating emerging technology into the democratic process.

These are all bold ideas, which are certainly worth pursuing in the future. Until we have a real life T’Challa to be king or a super-intelligent AI capable of running a government with perfect efficiency, democracy is our best bet for preserving human rights. We shouldn’t stop trying to improve, but we should still celebrate it’s merit.

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