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The First Genetically Modified Humans Have Been Born: Now What?

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When the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, it didn’t just kick-start the space race. It marked a major technological paradigm shift. From that moment forward, venturing into space wasn’t just some futuristic fantasy. It was real and it had major implications for the future of our species.

On November 26, 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui announced that the first genetically modified humans had been born. Specifically, two twin girls actually had their genetic code modified at the embryonic stage to disable the CCR5 gene to make them highly resistant to HIV/AIDS. In the history of our species, this moment will likely exceed the importance of Sputnik.

This man may have just upstaged Neil Armstrong.

To appreciate why this is such a big deal, consider the full ramifications of what Mr. Jiankui achieved. The change he made to the genome of those girls was impossible for them to inherent. This particular allele is a result of a mutation within a small population of Northern Europeans and is present in no other ethnic group. It is best known for providing significant immunity to common strains of the HIV virus.

This is of significant interest to China because they’ve been dealing with a surge in HIV/AIDS rates in recent years. Even though AIDS isn’t a death sentence anymore, the medicine needed to manage it is costly and tedious. These two girls, who have not been publicly named thus far, may now have a level of resistance that they never would’ve had without genetic modification.

On paper, that’s an objective good. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 35 million people have died because of AIDS since it was first discovered and approximately 36.9 million people are living with the disease today. It’s in the best interest of society to take steps towards preventing the spread of such a terrible disease, especially in a country as large as China.

However, Mr. Jiankui has caused more consternation than celebration. Shortly after he announced the birth of the two unnamed children, China suspended his research activities. Their reasoning is he crossed ethical boundaries by subjecting humans to an untested and potentially dangerous treatment that could have unforeseen consequences down the line.

Those concerns have been echoed by many others in the scientific community. Even the co-inventor of CRISPR, the technology used to implement this treatment and one I’ve cited before as a game-changer for biotechnology, condemned Mr. Jiankui’s work. It’s one thing to treat adults with this emerging technology. Treating children in the womb carries a whole host of risks.

That’s why there are multiple laws in multiple countries regulating the use of this technology on top of a mountain of ethical concerns. This isn’t about inventing new ways to make your smartphone faster. This involves tweaking the fundamental code of life. The potential for good is immense, but so is the potential for harm.

Whether or not Mr. Jiankui violated the law depends heavily on what lawyers and politicians decide. Even as the man defends his work, though, there’s one important takeaway that closely parallels the launch of Sputnik. The genie is out of the bottle. There’s no going back. This technology doesn’t just exist on paper and in the mind of science fiction writers anymore. It’s here and it’s not going away.

Like the space race before it, the push to realize the potential of genetic modification is officially on. Even as the scientific and legal world reacts strongly to Mr. Jiankui’s work, business interests are already investing in the future of this technology. The fact this investment has produced tangible results is only going to attract more.

It’s impossible to overstate the incentives at work here. Biotechnology is already a $139 billion industry. There is definitely a market for a prenatal treatment that makes children immune to deadly diseases. Both loving parents and greedy insurance companies have many reasons to see this process refined to a point where it’s as easy as getting a flu shot.

Even politicians, who have historically had a poor understanding of science, have a great many reasons to see this technology improve. A society full of healthy, disease-free citizens is more likely to be prosperous and productive. From working class people to the richest one percent, there are just too many benefits to having a healthy genome.

The current climate of apprehension surrounding Mr. Jiankui’s work may obscure that potential, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. During the cold war, there was a similar climate of fear, albeit for different reasons. People back then were more afraid that the space race would lead to nuclear war and, given how close we came a few times, they weren’t completely unfounded.

There are reasons to fear the dangers and misuse of this technology. For all we know, the treatment to those two girls could have serious side-effects that don’t come to light until years later. However, it’s just as easy to argue that contracting HIV and having to treat it comes with side-effect that are every bit as serious.

As for what will come after Mr. Jiankui’s research remains unclear. I imagine there will be controversy, lawsuits, and plenty of inquiries full of people eager to give their opinion. As a result, he may not have much of a career when all is said and done. He won’t go down in history as the Neil Armstong of biotechnology, but he will still have taken a small step that preceded a giant leap.

Even if Mr. Jiankui’s name fades from the headlines, the breakthrough he made will continue to have an impact. It will likely generate a new range of controversy on the future of biotechnology and how to best manage it in an ethical, beneficial manner. It may even get nasty at times with protests on par or greater than the opposition to genetically modified foods.

Regardless of how passionate those protests are, the ball is already rolling on this technology. There’s money to be made for big business. There’s power and prosperity to be gained by government. If you think other countries will be too scared to do what a science team in China did, then you don’t know much about geopolitics.

Before November 26, 2018, there were probably many other research teams like Mr. Jiankui who were ready and eager to do something similar. The only thing that stopped them was reservation about being the first to announce that they’d done something controversial with a technology that has been prone to plenty of hype.

Now, that barrier is gone. Today, we live in a world where someone actually used this powerful tool to change the genome of two living individuals. It may not seem different now, but technology tends to sneak up on people while still advancing rapidly. That huge network of satellites that now orbit our planet didn’t go up weeks after Sputnik 1, but they are up there now because someone took that first step.

There are still so many unknowns surrounding biotechnology and the future of medicine, but the possibilities just become more real. Most people alive today probably won’t appreciate just how important November 26, 2018 is in the history of humanity, but future generations probably will, including two remarkable children in China.

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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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Filed under futurism, gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, psychology, romance, sex in society, sexuality, Sexy Future, Thought Experiment

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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Why Capitalism Will Survive Technological Progress (To A Point)

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There’s a popular perception among those who speculate about the future. It has less to do with the technology and progress that we’ll make, as a society, and more to do with what will be rendered obsolete. Like dial-up internet or VHS tapes, there will be many artifacts of our current society that are destined to become relics of a bygone era.

Near the top of the list of those things people can’t wait to get rid of is capitalism. When I say “capitalism,” though, I don’t necessarily mean everything from the concept of money to big corporations to having 500 different kinds of covers for your cell phone. I’m more referring to the kind of economic system that creates extreme income inequality, mass exploitation of workers, and price gouging.

While I can appreciate sentiments of people who feel that way about a system where the inequalities are well-documented, I have some good news and some bad news for those looking forward to that post-capitalist utopia.

Capitalism is NOT going to become obsolete, but it will take on a radically different form.

I say that as someone who has written plenty about the upheavals our society will face when technologies like artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and advanced robotics become more refined. The economic, social, and political system, as we know it today, will not be able to function in that environment.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear like VHS tapes. That’s especially true of our current form of capitalism. It’s already changing before our eyes, but it’s set to change even more in the coming decades. It may get to a point where it’s hard to call it “capitalism” by our current definition, but it will still exist to a certain extent.

Whether you’re a hardcore libertarian or a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s hard to overlook the flaws in capitalism. This is a system that is prone to corruption, negatively impacts the environment, and will gladly eschew health concerns in the interests of profits. Basically, if you’ve ever dealt with a cable company, the tobacco lobby, or the banking industry, you’ve experienced those flaws first-hand.

Many of the flaws, however, are a byproduct of logistical limitations. Human beings are not wired to make sense of the plethora of economic forces that govern the cost, production, distribution, and marketing of goods. We’re barely wired to assemble IKEA furniture. The human race evolved to survive in the plains of the African Savanna, not the bustling streets of New York City.

Even with these limitations, humanity has managed to achieve a lot from this flawed system. Despite its shortcomings, it has been the catalyst for modern society. The cities, industries, and technological advancement that we’ve undergone over the past 200 years would not have been possible without capitalism. Say what you will about the profit motive. Apple would not be a trillion-dollar company without it.

It’s for that reason, along with the knowledge of capitalism’s many documented failures, that emerging trends in technology is more likely to smooth out the edges of the system rather than render it obsolete entirely. As someone who groans every time he sees his cable bill, I admit I’m eager for those refinements.

I still don’t blame others for hoping that the entire system is scraped. The thinking is that increasing efficiencies in automation, improvements in manufacturing at the nano-scale, and advances in artificial intelligence will undercut the key foundations of capitalism. Why would corporations, marketing gimmicks, or brand restrictions even exist in a world run by intelligent machines, enhanced humans, and 3D printers?

It’s not an entirely flawed notion. We’re already seeing plenty of disruptions in established systems due to technology. Landlines are disappearing, streaming media has destroyed brick-and-mortar rental stores like Blockbuster, and self-driving cars will likely end the taxi and trucking industry as we know it.

Further down the line, even more industries will break down when you scale up and expand these same technologies. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could manage the banking and financial industry without any middle men, who are going to be prone to corruption. That same intelligence won’t be prone to the same panics that have plagued capitalism for centuries.

Other technologies will render distressing institutions like sweatshops obsolete, thanks to advances in robotics and 3D printing. A lot of the exploitations surrounding capitalism, both in terms of people and the environment, come from labor and production costs. Mitigating or ending that exploitation can and likely will be done without undercutting capitalism, if only because it’s more efficient in the long run.

Then, there’s the prospect of human enhancement. That, more than anything, will change the nature of society and economics in ways nobody alive today can predict. Beyond undermining the multi-trillion dollar health care industry that exists today, changes to the human condition could fundamentally change the way the economy functions.

Even with all those changes, though, I believe a certain facet capitalism will survive. Even in a society full of enhanced humans equipped with brain implants, perfectly refined genes, and molecular assemblers that can build anything imaginable, there will be a market. There will be a form of currency. There will even be institutions, human and robotic, to manage it all.

That’s because, even in a society where hunger, disease, and poverty of all kinds has been eliminated, there’s still one market that will always exist. That market is escaping boredom. It doesn’t matter how healthy, content, or advanced you are. You’ll still want to avoid getting bored and this is where the future of capitalism truly lies.

I believe that boredom will be the only remaining plague in the future. I also believe that technology can only do so much manage our wants and needs. At some point, we’re still going to seek novel experiences. We’re still going to want to explore new feelings, whether that involves studying science or visiting a futuristic theme park like “Westworld.” The demand will be there and that’s where capitalism comes in.

It may end up being the case that those experiences will be the closest thing we have to a tangible currency. In a society where technology has made so many other resources accessible and abundant, it’s the only currency that has tangible and perceived value. There may still be other forms of money built around it, such as new crypto-currencies, but there will still be real market forces at work.

Some of those forces will have the same flaws we see now. Much of the current system depends on people working to produce goods and services, using the money they make to buy those goods and services, and participating in a vast network of investment, marketing, and distribution of resources. It’s a complex, chaotic, and inherently unmanageable system.

There will probably be failures, missteps, and conflicts in managing this new marketplace of experiences. Entire companies may emerge, possibly from some that exist today, that compete over who crafts those experiences and provides them to customers, either over the internet or directly into someone’s brain. That competition is likely to produce corruption and scandal, albeit in a very different form.

Having advanced artificial intelligence and humans that aren’t at the mercy of their caveman brains will help, but only to a point. As long as society is full of individuals seeking different wants and needs, there will be some form of capitalism necessary to meet them both. Trying to avoid or subvert that probably won’t lead to a better system, as the many failures of alternative systems have proven.

Like our current system of capitalism, there will be flaws. Even enhanced humans and artificial intelligence will have limits that need refinement over time. It’s those very shortcomings, though, that will help forge a better system overall. Again, it’s impossible to tell what forms they’ll take, but so long as there are markets, there will be capitalists seeking to profit from them.

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Technology, Slavery, And The (Distressing) Future Of Both

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Picture, for a moment, the perfect slave. Try to do it without making it a commentary on the current state of gender inequality, racial politics, or working at a fast food restaurant. Treat it like the other serious thought experiments I’ve proposed. What kind of traits would such a slave have?

Naturally, the perfect slave would have to be obedient. He, she, or it wouldn’t just obey an order without question. The idea of not obeying an order never even crosses their mind. In addition to obedience, the slave would have to be robust, durable, and capable. That may require some level of cognitive ability, but only to the extent that it can serve a master.

I bring this issue up knowing that slavery is an emotionally-charged topic with a bloody history. While we, as a society, have made strides in confronting the ethical issues surrounding it, including wars and social movements, slavery is still relevant today. At this very moment, millions of people are living as slaves.

The fact that many people find slavery morally reprehensible says a lot about humanity’s capacity for justice. The fact slavery exists despite that aversion says just as much about the economics behind it. Producing anything requires labor. Cheap labor ensures more profit. It sounds simple, but it understates the massive financial incentives at work.

It’s because of those incentives that slavery, as abhorrent as it is, will likely have a place in our future. Ideally, the rapid growth of technology and automation will eliminate the need for human slavery. Advanced machines that have no sense of self basically circumvents the moral problem entirely.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We also don’t live in a world where everyone exercises similar moral standards. Some are perfectly okay with utilizing slaves. Some of those people, sadly, are rulers of entire countries.

As such, it’s distressingly possible that emerging technology could be utilized to expand slavery rather than reduce it. I think it’s an unlikely scenario, given current social and technological trends. However, I worry it’s a road our society could go down if our choices are wrong and the incentives are strong.

To contemplate how, it’s important to note the limitations of slavery. While it does provide the cheapest possible labor, its inherent flaws tend to work against any society that relies on it and not just because of moral condemnation.

In any system that uses slavery, there are hidden costs that go beyond human suffering. Slaves require significant maintenance if you want them to produce. A master, no matter how ruthless, needs to care for their slaves so that they’re healthy enough to work. The logistics of that, especially in a world without modern medicine, made slavery a risky investment.

You could say the same about feudal societies that relied on serfs. While it wouldn’t be accurate to classify them as slaves, they still survived by providing slave-like labor to landlords. That may be a good deal for the landlords, but the system has a lot of vulnerabilities.

Historically, waves of death caused by disease, famine, and war hit these lower-class people first. When so much of the society relies on their cheap labor, it tends to collapse or stagnate. It happened after the Black Death and it happened in the American south.

It’s another byproduct of incentives. When you have cheap labor, there just isn’t much incentive to innovate. A lack of innovation over the long haul tends to doom empires and economies alike. In a modern context, that’s a good thing because it ensures slave-based economies can’t function over the long haul. However, emerging technology is in a position to change that.

Think back to the perfect slave I mentioned earlier. Those traits are currently unattainable for a human or a machine. On top of that, human beings are stubborn in their desire to not be enslaved. Refinements in biotechnology, genetic engineering, and cloning could change that, though.

This is where the dystopian potential of technology reveals itself. Even if robotics continues to advance, there’s a chance that the labor they provide isn’t adequate or the maintenance involved is too costly. In that scenario, those with the exceedingly flexible moral standards could resort to tapping genetic engineering to fill the gap.

It’s already possible to edit a genome, thanks to tools like CRISPR. It’s also possible to partially hack an existing genome, although that process is still in its infancy. In theory, there’s no reason why someone with the right tools couldn’t re-engineer a human being into a perfect slave.

That being may or may not look human. They may have a body, a similar muscle structure, and a series of specified cognitive abilities. However, every trait they have, biological or otherwise, would have the sole purpose of obeying and serving a master.

That means editing out the parts of the brain that give someone a sense of self or suppressing it with a brain implant. That also means limiting the slave’s capacity for thoughts and desires beyond serving their master.

Their bodies, as a whole, could also be engineered to minimize maintenance. Their digestive system could be made to require only an intake of cheap gruel. Their genetics and immune system could be structured in a way to resist disease. They could even be made sterile through gene editing or implants.

This is where the influence of cloning technology and artificial wombs enter the picture. One of the costliest parts of the old slave trade was traveling to remote areas, buying or subduing people into bondage, and then transporting them to areas where their labor could be exploited. Once you’ve engineered the perfect slave, though, biotechnology could effectively create a copy-and-paste process.

It goes beyond labor, as well. I’ve mentioned before how advances in sex robots could allow people to create customized lovers. Well, if it’s possible to engineer the perfect slave for labor, then it’s just as possible to engineer the perfect sex slave. The implications of that raise a whole host of disturbing possibilities.

Whether for sex or for labor, crating such slaves would be an incredibly tedious, incredibly risky feat. However, given the economics of slavery I mentioned earlier, the incentives are already there. With these advances, coupled with cybernetic augmentations, and the potential payoff is even greater.

Suddenly, there’s an endless pool of labor to work in factories, fields, and homes. There’s no need to worry about labor unions, minimum wage, or slave revolts. When slaves are engineered at the cellular level to be a slave, then it makes too much financial sense to use their labor.

As a result, future societies will find some excuse to justify this kind of slavery. The precedent is already there. It wasn’t that long ago that people found excuses to justify enslaving an entire race. In this case, though, it would be even easier.

If these slaves don’t come from existing populations and aren’t even genetically “human,” then it’s easy for someone to see this brand of slavery as something different from the kind we’ve utilized throughout history. If these slaves are engineered not to suffer or feel any discomfort, then that makes it even more tenable.

The end result could be something similar to what George Orwell envisioned with the proles in “1984.” There would be this massive underclass population that exists solely to work, serve, and obey. To some extent, it would go even further than Orwell did.

This population of slaves wouldn’t need to be placated with meaningless entertainment, indulgence, or distractions. Their default condition would be to serve their masters in every way necessary. Anything beyond that is never even a thought.

I don’t deny that the scenario I just described sounds bleak. If you have even a moderate sense of decency, you would be aghast at any society structured in such a way. Even if the slaves seemed happy and the people who served as their masters had no moral qualms with it, chances are it would still bother you and that’s a good thing.

I think it’s because of that inherent revulsion to slavery that this dystopian path is not likely. I believe advances in robotics technology is already outpacing the rate of biotechnology. By the time we have the tools to create the perfect slave biologically, we’ll probably already have the tools to make machines that can function just as well.

That’s still not a guarantee. Nobody can predict the future, especially not an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It’s still a potential path, though, and a very dark path at that. As a society and a civilization, we’re still recovering from the scars of slavery. Those are wounds we should avoid opening for the society we’re hoping to build.

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Is The Human Race Ready For Contact With Alien Life?

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In general, I tend to have a high opinion of the human race. I believe that, in general, people are inherently good and will do the right thing in the long run, even if it requires mistakes and missteps along the way. Some of my personal experiences have fed this belief, as well as stories of incredible acts of compassion.

I say that as a preface because my faith in humanity does have limits. There are certain issues where those limits become a critical factor in answering major questions about where we are, as a species, and where we’re heading. I’ve tried answering some of those questions before, such as humanity’s readiness for advanced artificial intelligence. Now, I want to try to answer another where I feel humanity’s limits are a real issue.

It has to do with whether or not humans are alone in the universe. It’s probably one of the most fundamental questions our species has ever asked, inspiring heated debates, famous equations, and Hollywood blockbusters. I’ve certainly asked that question a time or two when looking up at the stars. I imagine there are few people who haven’t.

At the moment, the sheer size of the universe and the ever-growing number of planets we keep finding, the raw numbers make it almost certain that there’s other life outside our planet. It may even be within our own solar system. Just finding some microbes on one of Jupiter’s moons would be pretty profound, but I doubt it would bring that much change to the human race. Some might just brush it off or call it fake news.

It’s the act of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life that has far greater implications for humanity. I would even argue that those implications could determine whether the human race will survive beyond the destruction of Earth, which is inevitable. Even advanced artificial intelligence wouldn’t compare because at least humans would create that. An intelligent alien civilization would be much less predictable.

In confronting this existential issue, I don’t believe movies or TV shows have come close to getting it right. “Contact” made a commendable effort, but never gave more than a half-answer. Movies like “Independence Day” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” were overly simplistic in their approach. That’s to be expected because, logistically speaking, there’s no way to fit all the implications into a single two-hour movie.

I believe that to answer the question of humanity’s readiness to confront an extraterrestrial species is multi-faceted. There are plenty of factors to consider, but before I get too bogged down by the particulars, I want to offer my personal opinion on the issue. Then, I hope to demonstrate why I have this opinion.

No, the human race is NOT ready for contact with intelligent extraterrestrial aliens, but we’re getting there.

I know that isn’t a straightforward answer. It may sound like I’m trying to stand on both sides of the fence, but like I said, the question is inherently complex. As such, it’s hard to offer a simple answer.

Part of the complexity comes from circumstances. In an instance where scientists on Earth identify an advanced alien species, possibly by detecting an alien mega structure like a Dyson Sphere around a distant star, I think the human race could handle that, for the most part.

Such a discovery would be, by far, the greatest ever made in the history of humanity. It would be the story of the millennium and confirm, once and for all, the answer to one of the most fundamental questions our species has ever asked. Getting an answer to that question would change how we see ourselves in the universe, but the extent of the impact would be limited.

Sure, it might cause some disruptions with respect to major religions, although some denominations already preparing for that. It might also cause some ripples in the social fabric of society. If we know there are alien civilizations in the universe that are more advanced than us, then suddenly we have fewer excuses to impose petty divisions within our own species.

There would be upheaval. There would be tension, as well. I still believe that society would adapt in that scenario. Once the shock wears off, we may very well go back to how we were before. Future generations would just shrug off the notion that advanced aliens exist and focus primarily on the issues directly affecting them on Earth.

There’s another instance, however, that has far more profound implications, as well as greater danger. In that scenario, the advanced alien civilization contacts us directly. Moreover, it effectively announces that it’s coming to meet us and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

In that scenario, I don’t think the current order will remain intact. If we found out tomorrow that intelligent aliens exist and they’re on their way to greet us, I believe that society, as we know it, will fall apart under the weight of fear, uncertainty, and outright dread.

My reasons for believing this have less to do with my faith in humanity and more to do with my understanding of basic human psychology. It’s proven science that the human psyche is adverse to uncertainty. From a purely survival standpoint, that makes sense. Not knowing whether there’s a hungry lion hiding in the bushes is detrimental to our survival. We have a legitimate evolutionary reason for avoiding such situations.

An advanced alien civilization isn’t just a possible threat. It’s the ultimate uncertainty. Even if those aliens are peace-loving hippies who want nothing more than to create a utopian world for every species they encounter, we won’t know for certain. Even if they try to articulate their peaceful intentions, we may not believe them because assuming wrong would be more dire than any hungry lion.

If an alien civilization is advanced enough to both contact us and traverse interstellar space, then it’s highly likely that we wouldn’t stand a chance at stopping them. Despite what “Independence Day” might have you believe, there’s just no way we would be able to counter technology that could carry another species across the stars.

On top of that, we wouldn’t even know if these aliens were biological creatures, like us. More than a few scientists have speculated that it’s the natural path of all advanced life that it transcend its biology to become machines in part or entirely, which makes sense for any species that wants to survive in the vacuum of space. I would agree that any initial encounter humans have with advanced aliens will come in the form of a probe.

Even if that probe is no bigger than a basketball, its arrival on Earth would trigger so much panic that our society, economy, and political institutions wouldn’t survive in their current form. That’s not to say civilization would completely collapse. Some areas might descend into anarchy, but most wealthy countries would remain intact.

However, I believe they’ll remain intact through strict martial law. I also believe that, in the face of incoming aliens, there would be a huge scramble among nations to put together some sort of defense plan. Anyone remotely experienced with science or engineering would suddenly become incredibly valuable for their skills and likely be required to work on this issue.

No matter what recourse humanity takes, though, I don’t think it’ll matter once intelligent aliens arrive. The worst case scenario is that people are so afraid that a few become too trigger happy and attempt to attack. In that case, if the advanced aliens are the vindictive type, they would probably wipe humanity out with the same ease that we would use to step on an ant.

While I don’t think that scenario is that likely, I can certainly see fear dominating the discourse. It would probably extend beyond the initial contact. Even if  the aliens present themselves as friendly visitors, I imagine there will still be plenty of paranoia that it could all be a trick. Given how eager some people are to embrace conspiracy theories, I think this will cause plenty of problem, even in the best case scenario.

There’s still a chance that the human race could adapt to this encounter and be stronger because of it. However, if I had to bet money on the ultimate outcome, I wouldn’t wager much on that outcome. I think, at the moment, it’s more likely that fear and uncertainty will lead to the kind of irrational behavior that would prevent humanity from benefiting from an encounter with intelligent aliens.

As it stands, humans can’t even prevent conflict when encountering one another, especially if they look and act differently. I can’t imagine it would be much better if we encountered a species that was so different that we just had no way of relating to them. At least with minorities here on Earth, we share the same basic human template. For all we know, aliens will look, think, and feel things that are beyond our abilities.

Now, I know that scenario sounds bleak, especially for someone who claims to have more faith in humanity than most. However, there’s one last caveat that further complicates the issue and it has to do with the last part of my answer.

When I stated that the human race is not ready to encounter an advanced alien species, I mean that within a specific context. In the same way I don’t believe humanity is ready for advanced AI at the moment, I don’t think the collective psyche of the human race is to a point where we can accept the idea of confronting an intelligent alien civilization.

That, I do think we’re more ready today than we were 30 years ago. Humanity has made remarkable progress with respect to technology, society, and general welfare. Being more connected through media, the internet, and globalization has helped us better see ourselves as one species, at least to the extent our inherent tribalism will allow.

I believe that in the coming decades, especially as we augment our brains and our bodies, we’ll be more prepared to encounter an extraterrestrial intelligence. I’m not sure we’ll ever be completely ready, but I do think we’ll get to a point where we, as a society, will be able to handle it.

Whether or not that point comes within my lifetime or that of the kids being born today is hard to say, but given enough time and continued progress, I believe we’ll get there. For now, though, the prospect of encountering an intelligent alien civilization would incur some pretty detrimental effects on our species and our world. Even if aliens come in peace, we just not be ready to accept it.

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The (Not So) Hidden Philosophical Insights In “Avengers: Infinity War”

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The past few weeks have been exciting, shocking, and downright cathartic for fans of superhero movies. The success of “Avengers: Infinity War” is beyond dispute. Between critical praise and a record-setting box office haul, it has entered uncharted territory in terms of success, both as a movie and as a cultural phenomenon.

As a lifelong comic book fan who hasn’t forgotten the dark days “X-men Origins: Wolverine” and “Batman and Robin,” the impact of this movie puts a big smile on my face. Even those who doubted a movie this ambitious could be made or keep hoping for superhero fatigue can’t deny the breadth of what “Avengers: Infinity War” has achieved.

Those achievements are worth celebrating, at least until the first trailer of “Avengers 4” comes out. As part of that celebration, I also think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger messages that “Avengers: Infinity War” conveys. To simply call it a big, flashy spectacle meant to milk movie fans of money would be a gross oversimplification.

Nothing becomes this successful without having meaning beyond the spectacle. No movie can appeal to such a wide audience or get them to pay grossly inflated ticket prices without having that meaning. Movies like “Avatar” and “The Godfather” have that kind of meaning that transcends the content of the movie. Even other superhero movies like “The Dark Knight” dare to explore deeper philosophical insights .

I believe those insights are present in “Avengers: Infinity War.” I also believe that those insights are unique because the entire setup for the movie is so unique. No movie in history has required a decade of build-up, multiple phases, and an over-arching narrative that spans movies that range from gods invading Earth to talking Raccoons teaming up with renegade space pirates .

That puts this movie in uncharted territory. The events of the movie can’t function in a vacuum without losing elements of that larger message. While the nature of that message is debatable, I’m going to make a case that the deeper meaning in “Avengers: Infinity War ” is one that complements those of the previous Avengers movies. I’ll even go so far as to claim it has implications for the real world.

The core of that message, I believe, has to do with a simple truth that probably seems inane, especially to those who read a lot of comics or consume a healthy dose of superhero-themed media. However, it’s a message worth belaboring and it can best be summed up like this.

A united team is stronger than a collection of powerful individuals.

I know that sounds like a snippet from one of Captain America’s inspiring speeches. It’s probably something teachers, coaches, and parents have conveyed to their kids, going all the way back to pre-school. However, I think “Avengers: Infinity War” conveys that message in a way that makes for a much greater spectacle with an equally great impact.

Even if you watch “Avengers: Infinity War” without seeing the last two Avengers movies, there’s one obvious obstacle that all the heroes face in the battle against Thanos. Before the first shot is fired, they’re all deeply divided. They’re not a team. They’re a mess.

Iron Man and Captain America aren’t on friendly terms. Tony Stark said as such at the beginning of the movie. It’s also established that Captain America and those loyal to him are fugitives, a direct result of the events in “Captain America: Civil War.” They are, to some extent, a metaphor for a divided team and a divided society.

That may not sound like a big deal, but to the extent it reflects a core strength of humanity, as both a species and a society, it couldn’t be more vital. I’ve mentioned before how tribal people can be. I’ve even framed it as a flaw, at times. While it certainly can work against us, it’s also one of our greatest strengths.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the human ability to form groups, work together, and coordinate in the name of a common goals is one of our greatest survival advantages. By forming teams and organizing societies, we’ve become the most dominant species on this planet. The Avengers are, from a philosophical standpoint, the embodiment of that team strength.

As individuals, we all have plenty of shortcomings. Not everyone knows how to fix a car, program a computer, or treat a staph infection. There are also too many of us who die from stupid accidents or treatable infections. As a team within a society, though, we’re able to thrive and overcome obstacles that no individual can overcome, even if they’re a super soldier or a billionaire inventor.

In “Avengers: Infinity War,” the team faces the ultimate obstacle in Thanos. He hits like an unpredictable force of nature. He brings callous, chaotic death and is willing to cross every conceivable line to achieve his goal. He’s not someone that can be dissuaded, talked down, or negotiated with. He must be opposed directly.

In other words, he’s the worst kind of threat the Avengers could’ve faced in their current condition. That’s critical because the first “Avengers” movie and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” do plenty to establish the value of having a unified team against such threats. In both those movies, the Avengers bicker and clash. However, they stay united and eventually defeat the threat.

You don’t need to look that deep into history to see parallels that reflect the strength of unified alliances. The unity of the allied powers in World War II proved overwhelming to the Axis. Contrary to popular belief and even a few popular alternate history stories , the Axis powers were never that close to winning the war. In fact, they were a very poor allegiance and hurt each other much more than they helped.

Even in recent times, greater unity in the form of globalization, free trade, and mass communication has helped unite the world on an unprecedented scale. While globalization gets a bad rap these days, it has helped create one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in human history. Like the Avengers, disparate societies are working together to achieve things they couldn’t achieve on their own.

In “Avengers: Infinity War,” and I know this is somewhat of a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie, the divisions within the team kept them from uniting against Thanos. They couldn’t be as effective as they were in “Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

You could also make the argument that the Avengers weren’t willing to sacrifice as much as him. There were, indeed, opportunities to stop Thanos in his tracks. However, those opportunities required someone to die. The logic was that sacrificing one life would save many, trillions in this case.

That may seem like a failure on the part of the Avengers, but I would argue those difficult decisions are a direct byproduct of disunity. When a team is divided and not coordinating with one another, they have to make these kinds of sacrifices. Even if they did, though, it still doesn’t guarantee that they would beat Thanos.

It’s another consequence of disunity, division, and not coordinating with one another. Everything becomes a reaction. There’s little room to plan or prepare. That worked against the Avengers in a big way because they did have some warning surrounding Thanos. The visions Tony had in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” at the very least, offered hints as to what might be coming.

Rather than use that opportunity to unite, they ended up divided. In the end, the outcome of “Captain America: Civil War” ensured that “Avengers: Infinity War” was going to end badly for the Avengers. It’s part of what helped give “Avengers: Infinity War” such an enormous impact. It takes those over-arching narratives from other movies and gives them greater weight.

Now, none of this is to say that the Avengers would’ve defeated Thanos easily had they been united from the beginning. Even if every one of them had been present and on the same page, there are no guarantees against a threat like Thanos. Like a supervolcano eruption or a gamma ray burst, it’s impossible to know whether we can survive a powerful threat we’ve never faced before.

Even so, history and nature are ripe with examples that demonstrate how united, cohesive teams are better able to survive major threats than powerful individuals. One human versus one hungry grizzly bear is not a fair fight. An entire team of humans, armed with a desire to survive and the collective know-how of multiple individuals, makes it exceedingly unfair for the grizzly.

Like the Avengers, the best teams are those that maximize an individual’s unique talents while empowering them with a collective drive. In those same teams, the conflict between individualism and collectivism strikes a critical balance. They aren’t so unified that they become prone to drone-like behavior. They also aren’t so divided that they’re too weak to coordinate.

We see that balance in teams that win championships. We also see it in organizations that accomplish great things, from building the pyramids to landing a man on the moon . A lot of what humanity has achieved, as a species, has been done through a collection of brilliant individuals who are able to work within a society to make their ideas happen.

The same effect applies to superheroes, who embody ideals of individual powers and abilities. On their own, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and even Ant Man can do great things. As a team, though, they can do much better.

It’s both a lesson and a powerful message, laced within a cinematic marvel. It shows just how weak and vulnerable we are when we’re divided, petty, and disorganized. Hopefully, “Avengers 4” can complete the story by showing just how strong we can be when we’re united, motivated, and driven. It may be an old, overplayed message, but it’s one worth belaboring in a world that’s still very divided.

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