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Selling (And Exploiting) Human Enhancement: An Ominous Lesson From “Superior Iron Man”

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How much would you be willing to pay for perfect health, perfect beauty, and a greater capacity to enjoy life as you see fit? This is not a rhetorical question. I would even argue that it’s an increasingly relevant question. In the coming years, answering it might even become more urgent.

I’ve talked about the prospects of human enhancement through emerging technology before. From its impact on our concept of beauty to how our society will function, there are many impacts to consider. Some of those impacts are already manifesting before our eyes. Just last year, the first genetically modified babies were born in China. Like it or not, this is happening.

It’s impossible to overstate the benefits, risks, and upheavals that human enhancement will have on our species and our world. Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen as this technology matures or how societies, economies, and governments will react to it. Even so, it’s worth contemplating. It’s even worth imagining elaborate scenarios in fictional worlds.

While plenty of noteworthy stories have imagined such scenarios, some more dystopian than others, there’s one in particular I’d like to single out. It’s not entirely dystopian, but it does offer some distressing lessons about the larger economics of human enhancement. It also helps that those lessons come through a forgotten, but criminally underrated Iron Man comic.

Given the rapid rise of Iron Man’s star power over the past decade, his character is uniquely qualified to explore these difficult questions surrounding technology and how we use it. He is, at his core, a visionary who uses technology to solve problems, save lives, and occasionally fight invading aliens. In the series, “Superior Iron Man,” he takes that vision several steps further and cross many lines along the way.

While there are some convoluted circumstances surrounding this series, the ideas it explores are profound, even by the standards of superhero comics. You don’t need to know the specifics of those circumstances. They involve forces like magic and inversion spells, which are far too complicated to explain to those who haven’t followed Marvel comics for more than two decades.

The only detail anyone needs to know about “Superior Iron Man” is that the Tony Stark in this story is not the same lovable character that helped make Robert Downy Jr. one of the most lovable stars in Hollywood. This version of Tony is less bound by concepts of heroism, selflessness, and sobriety. That’s not to say he’s evil, but he’s definitely no hero.

Within this ethically bankrupt state, Tony embarks on a new initiative that’s as selfish as it is lucrative. It revolves around Extremis, an exotic cocktail of nanotechnology and biotechnology that effectively rewrites the blueprint of the entire human body into something better, stronger, and more robust. In essence, it is the ultimate tool for human enhancement.

While the initial version of Extremis was lethal to most people who used it, Tony creates a more commercialized version in “Superior Iron Man” that gives everyone a chance to enjoy its benefits. He calls it Extremis 3.0 and people can access it through a simple smartphone app. With it, people can achieve what Tony describes as physical perfection.

Everyone can be perfectly healthy.

Everyone can be young and beautiful.

Everyone can be functionally immortal.

It sounds like a miracle drug and by every measure, it is. This isn’t some Dr. Oz wannabe pitching vitamins that do nothing other than give you false hope. This technology actually works. With it, Tony gives the entire city of San Francisco a chance to experience the fruits of human enhancement.

Understandably, once people get a taste of what Extremis 3.0 has to offer, they love it. They also take full advantage of it. At one point in the story, Pepper Potts says it’s turning the streets of San Francisco into a non-stop parade of debauchery and self-indulgence. Tony does not see this as a bad thing. If anything, it perfectly complements his plans and his renewed appetite for self-indulgence.

This is where “Superior Iron Man” attempts to answer that question about putting a price on physical perfection. Writer Tom Taylor, alongside artist Yildiray Çinar, doesn’t hide from the disturbing parts of that answer. By the end of the first issue, Tony puts a literal price on that perfection. Needless to say, it causes plenty of conflict and it escalates quickly.

When he initially released Extremis 3.0 onto San Francisco, he gives ordinary people a taste of what it’s like to be as fit as Captain America, as beautiful as Emma Frost, and as physically endowed as Thor. It’s not a drug that just attempts to match that feeling. It physically changes their bodies and their capacity for using them. That taste, however, was just a free sample. To keep enjoying it, they must pay $99 a day.

It’s crude trick right out of the playbook of subscription apps. People get a free trial period that’s just long enough to get them hooked. Then, before they even realize they have to pay anything, they get hit with a paywall. It’s a cruel bait-and-switch, but this isn’t just another streaming video service. This is physical perfection and unlimited self-indulgence. Is $99 a day really that unreasonable?

It certainly rubs plenty of people the wrong way, including many of Tony’s long-time friends and allies. Both Daredevil and Pepper Potts turn against him for such devious tactic. It also has some noticeable effects on the people who use it. By the end of the first issue, a stark class divide emerges between those who can afford Extremis 3.0 and those who can’t.

Naturally, it causes crime and conflict among the residents of San Francisco. Tony, now both feared and beloved by these people, takes it upon himself to manage it. He gains power, wealth, status, and an endless supply of eager party guests for whenever he seeks to indulge. It’s a perfect cocktail of recklessness and irresponsibility.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, which ended too soon, I think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture that “Superior Iron Man” presented. If you take away the iconic characters and the superhero themes, you get a story about a selfish business tycoon who has sole possession of the ultimate biotech product.

The goal isn’t to heal the sick, ease suffering, or evolve the human species. The goal is simply to make a lot of money, feed an inflated ego, and indulge in every conceivable vice without consequences. It’s a worst-case scenario for liberals and conservatives, alike. At the same time, it makes a compelling case that our current system can’t handle the impacts of large-scale human enhancement.

That doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in our current system. The size of the current biotech industry is already measured in the hundreds of billions. Overpriced drugs are nothing new, either. Just this past year, the FDA approved a drug called Zolgensma, which costs $425,000 a year for five years to treat a rare genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.

By comparison, Extremis 3.0 is a bargain with far greater value. Even at $99 a day, the yearly cost of enjoying that physical perfection amounts to around $36,500 a year. That still takes up a good chunk of the average income for most Americans, but considering all the benefits of having a perfect body, is it still a bargain?

For anyone who has overpaid for inflated medical expenses, I suspect they would gladly pay that high price for Extremis 3.0. Tony Stark banked on that in “Superior Iron Man” and he was right. People did pay and it was very lucrative for him. The population of the San Francisco Bay Area in which he unleashed Extremis 3.0 is around 4.6 million. At $99 a day, that’s a potential annual revenue of $167 billion.

In terms of business ranking, that would put Tony’s venture in the top 20 in terms of largest companies by revenue. If he were to unleash Extremis on the entire United States, the potential annual revenue would be near $11.8 trillion. That’s a little more than half of the entire US economy.

Imagine one company, let alone one person, having that much money and influence over a population. Tony was already a billionaire before “Superior Iron Man,” but Extremis 3.0 rewarded him with more than just money. Tony, being the sole provider, held a great deal of power and influence over San Francisco. As is often the case in superhero stories, that power goes to his head.

That story plays out in the real world just as often. In some cases, it brings out the worst in people. For a product like Extremis 3.0, which provides human enhancement into a simple commercial package that anyone can access through an app, the potential for abuse is much worse.

Beyond the greed it would inspire and the recklessness it fosters, it would also widen and solidify a gap in society that might be impossible to close. The wealth gap is in the non-superhero world is already egregious. Adding something like Extremis 3.0 to the mix would only make it immeasurably worse.

More than a few people has expressed concern about the prospects of such an enormous societal divide. “Superior Iron Man” showed just how bad it could get and how quickly it could escalate. While the series only managed to explore this conflict to a point before it got canceled, Tom Taylor did enough to get a powerful point across.

In a world where human enhancement is real and commercially available, how do we go about distributing it among a population? Should we put a price on it? How high should that price be? Who should be in control of it?

Worst case scenario.

Superior Iron Man” never got a chance to explore the answers, but these are questions that will become increasingly relevant as advances in biotechnology accelerate. We may not be close to having a product like Extremis 3.0 and it’s uncertain whether we’ll even develop something like it in the next few decades.

Even if we do, “Superior Iron Man” made one thing clear. We, as a species and a society, are not ready for it.

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Filed under biotechnology, futurism, health, human nature, Neuralink, Sexy Future, superhero comics

Why We Should Stop Bleeping, Blurring, And Censoring

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Over the course of history, certain tools, traditions, and words have become obsolete. It’s just part of the ever-changing nature of society. It’s why we don’t use VCRs or cassette tapes anymore. It’s also why we don’t use words like jargogle, corrade, and kench. Those are all real words that used to be common in the English language. Now, they’re relics of history.

Given the chaotic, yet evolving nature of language, why do we still censor certain words in the media? I don’t ask that question as someone who thinks Big Bird should start dropping F-bombs on Sesame Street. I’m genuinely curious as to how we can still justify bleeping certain words when they’re said on TV or over the radio.

I know the history of censorship in mass media in the United States. I know there are laws like the Communications Decency Act and famous Supreme Court cases like FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. Many of these laws have a basis in protecting the eyes and ears of children from hearing or seeing something objectionable.

At a time when the media had only a handful of accessible channels, the might have made sense to some extent. I say might because I certainly don’t agree with bleeping or blurring anything. Hiding something, be it profanity or female nipples, doesn’t make it less real. If anything, it gives it a greater allure, but that’s beside the point.

We live in different times now. That FCC v. Pacifica Foundation decision was rendered in 1978, a time before the internet, smartphones, and comments sections. Today, anyone with a cell phone and an internet connection can look up any amount of obscene, indecent, profane content, plenty of which is accessible to children for free and without a credit card number.

Kids know what these words are. Chances are, they know what female nipples look like too. However, TV shows and radio stations still blur and bleep these things as though they’re as damaging as a pack of cigarettes. I know the law is often slow to catch up to trends in technology, but at this point, bleeping or blurring anything is more a joke than a legal mandate.

That’s easy for me to say as a legal adult with no kids, but I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be a kid. I remember hearing these dirty words and seeing these dirty images. I knew what they meant. My parents didn’t hide that from me. They didn’t like me saying those words or talking about those topics all the time, but they told me the truth and I understood it.

Kids may be impressionable, but they’re not stupid. Most kids are smart enough to understand that words carry certain meaning and the human body is composed of many parts, some more visually appealing than others. Censoring it doesn’t change that. If anything, it sends the message that everyone thinks they’re too stupid or weak to handle these concepts.

Aside from insulting kids as a whole, it also operates under the assumption that just hearing certain words or seeing certain images somehow damage them, as though human beings are ever that simplistic. While there is some research on this topic, the conclusions are fairly limited. The only common thread seems to be that, when it comes to dirty words, context matters.

There are times when we, as human beings, need to verbalize our emotions. When we’re angry, in pain, or upset, we’re going to want to communicate that. Profanity is just a byproduct of that. I know that when I stub my toe, I don’t stop to censor myself. I drop as much F-bombs as I have to and the world remains intact, even when there are children nearby.

That doesn’t mean I want kids to cuss like me all the time. Again, there is a context. There’s a time and a place for that sort of language. That’s an important lesson to teach someone at any age. That way, they’ll know not to sound like an asshole at a job interview or while on a date. Bleeping words doesn’t teach that lesson. It just gives these words more power than they deserve.

Standards are always changing. There was a time when Clark Gable saying “damn” in “Gone With The Wind” was considered shocking. When I was a kid, I certainly got plenty of scorn when I said words like that, even while not in public. However, hearing them on TV and movies didn’t change my understanding of these words. It just sounded stupid.

This used to be considered mature.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say “damn” in a TV show or song. It doesn’t get bleeped or censored. More and more, words like “shit” aren’t being bleeped either. Rick Sanchez says it at least once an episode on “Rick and Morty.” There was even an episode of “South Park” that made saying “shit” on a TV show a big deal.

In terms of knowing when something has become obsolete to the point of absurdity, that’s as clear a sign as any. The same goes for blurring certain body parts. The widespread availability and accessibility of internet porn has removed all sense of mystery from the imagery of breasts, butts, and genitalia. Kids today no longer need to find someone’s porn stash to see these parts in all their glory. They just need an internet connection.

Now, that’s not to say I’m okay with every prime-time network show depicting the same level of profanity, sex, and violence as an episode of “Game of Thrones.” Like anything, there can be too much of it and if overdone, even the most obscene or indecent concepts lose all meaning and are devoid of impact.

There are also some people who are genuinely uncomfortable using certain words and seeing certain images. That’s perfectly fine. That’s their choice. Since there are plenty of options in terms of channels, websites, and radio stations, they don’t have to listen to or see this kind of content. Even if they do, the world doesn’t end because they’re temporarily distressed.

When the late, great George Carlin famously listed the infamous seven dirty words that became the basis of a Supreme Court case, there was a context and a situation at the time that made this kind of censorship seem reasonable. That context and those times are long gone. Carlin himself understood that. When it came to deconstructing the absurdities of language, he said it best when he made this observation.

These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power. It’s the thrust of the sentence that makes them either good or bad.

 

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Filed under censorship, Current Events, media issues, political correctness, sex in media, sex in society, technology, television

How The Internet Has Weakened (But Not Destroyed) Organized Religion

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The current state of organized religion is ripe with conflict and mixed messages. On one hand, religious affiliation has significantly declined over the past 30 years. According to a 2018 survey from Eastern Illinois University, around 23 percent of the US population identifies as having “no religion.” For comparison, that number was only 5 percent in 1972.

In other industrialized countries, the decline is even more pronounced. Throughout Europe, more and more people are drifting away from organized religion. That’s especially true of young people, who are one of the least religious demographics in modern history. In terms of the bigger picture, organized religion is facing a generational time bomb that’s just starting to go off.

At the same time, however, religion still exercises an absurd amount of political power. Religious groups, particularly those who align themselves with conservative politics, have enormous influence. Its platform is tightly woven with that of a major political party. Many people in positions of power identify as religious. Many more rely on a religious base to get elected.

It’s a strange trend that seems counter-intuitive. How can something be weakening due to declining adherents, but still wield so much power? In an age where the egregious crimes of religious institutions have been exposed and more people are educated on the many absurdities of various holy texts, it feels as though organized religion should be on its death bed.

While there are many factors behind this situation, I believe that one particular factor is more influential than most. It also happens to be the same factor that has done the most to weaken religion while helping to sustain its political and social influence. It’s a force that has already radically changed everyone’s life, regardless of their affiliation.

That force is the internet and its impact on religion cannot be overstated.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like to talk about religion in the pre-internet days. You listened to your parents, relatives, priests, mullahs, rabbis, and monks. They told you the history and tenants of their religion. You might ask questions. You might not understand the philosophy behind it. No matter how curious or skeptical you were, you could only do so much to question it.

Most of the time, you just had to trust your elders that they knew what they were talking about. You also had to trust that they wouldn’t lie to you, which is often a risky bet. If you were really motivated, you might go to a library and do some research. Even then, you’d have an uphill battle a head of you, given the many complexities behind religion and why people believe in it.

These days, it’s exceedingly simple to fact check an absurd religious claim. If someone were to claim that a 900-year-old man built a 300-foot wooden boat that housed two of every kind of animal for 40 days during a global flood, you wouldn’t have to spend years in college to learn why that’s absurd. You could just pull out your phone, do a few simple searches, and find out why this claim is completely wrong.

Even a kid who has only taken a basic science class can look up any of the stories their priest, mullah, rabbi, or monk tell them to find out whether they’re based on real history or embellished folklore. Religious institutions, parents, and schools can fight to control the information their young people receive. Many organizations do engage in activities that are outright indoctrination.

However, as demographic trends show, the effectiveness of those efforts only go so far. The information about the absurdities, inconsistencies, lies, and agendas is still out there. It’s widely available to anyone who can access a smartphone or a computer. There’s only so much anyone can do to prevent someone from accessing that information.

As a result, organized religion will never have the same sway it once did in centuries past. No matter how much conservative reactionaries complain, it’s impossible to go back. The combination of modern education and accessible information ensures that major religious institutions will never wield the power they once did.

Given the complexities of modern societies and the geopolitics surrounding it, it’s just not practical for a centralized religious institution to exist. The Vatican can still make statements about morality, ethics, and spiritual matters. It just has no means of enforcing them, as evidenced by how little typical Catholics follow their edicts.

Even without this power, the same internet that has permanently weakened religion is also the same thing that sustains some of its considerable influence. In fact, the internet might act as a catalyst that can turn certain individuals from nominal adherents to ardent zealots.

Think back to the young people sitting in churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples. While some might casually look up the religious claims out of curiosities, others might go out of their way to find information that confirms these claims. Even if they’re factually wrong, they’ll look for any bit of information that they can twist to make it seem true and cling to it.

This is why creationism still persists, despite extensive resources that thoroughly debunk it. If someone is really determined to find information that affirms their beliefs, they’ll find it on the internet the same way people find cat videos and knife-wielding crabs. There will even be unscrupulous people to exploit them, including those who are convicted felons.

Like it or not, there are people who sincerely want to believe their preferred religion and will cling to anything that strengthens that belief. Given the open nature of the internet, shaped by the whims of users rather than objective truth, it’s distressingly easy for someone to customize what kind of information they receive.

If someone only wants news and memes about how their religion is true while everyone else is doomed to eternal torture in Hell, then that’s what they’ll get. They can get their news and information from exceedingly bias sources while brushing off others as fake news. There’s nothing from stopping anyone from using the internet in such a manner.

We already see how this has divided people along political lines in recent years. I would argue that this has been going on with religion for even longer. The rise of the religious right and the prevalence of religious media has done plenty to tighten their grasp on ardent believers. While less people may identify as religious, those who do tend to be more dogmatic about it.

Since those kinds of believers can be mobilized and pandered to, they’re a more unified political force. As such, appealing to them means gaining power. That power may be tenuous and limited, but it’s still viable power that plenty of politicians exploit, sometimes to an egregious extent.

In a sense, the internet has made it easy for both the extreme zealots and the inherently skeptical. Those who might have identified as religious out of tradition in the past are more comfortable identifying themselves as non-religious today. It also helps there’s not as much stigma to being a non-believer as there used to be.

At the same time, those who were devout before can become outright zealots if they consume enough extreme content. In fact, their declining numbers in the general population might give them more reasons to become zealous. History has shown that small bands of religious zealots can do a lot of damage. The internet might hinder their ability to gain adherents, but it might also make them more desperate.

It’s a scary possibility, but one I tend to believe is remote. While I might not be a fan of organized religion, I still have many friends and family members who are religious and wonderful human beings. The internet hasn’t changed that. In the long run, I believe that basic humanity that binds us all will win out in the long run. The internet won’t always help, but it’s certainly a valuable tool.

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Filed under extremism, human nature, philosophy, politics, religion

Texting, Sharing Feelings, And How Neuralink Could Revolutionize Both

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A while back, I speculated that memory enhancement might be the first “killer app” for brain implants. At the time, I thought my logic was solid. Every emerging technology needs that one lucrative use that makes it more than just a gimmick. Killer apps are what helped make smartphones more prevalent than toilets in some parts of the world. I believe brain implants will follow a similar path through companies like Neuralink.

I still believe that memory enhancement will be one of those functions that helps turn brain implants into a multi-billion-dollar industry and Elon Musk is likely to secure a share of those billions. However, after listening to the announcement that Musk gave earlier this year about the future of Neuralink, I’d like to revise my speculation a bit.

What Musk presented was plenty intriguing. Neuralink isn’t some wide-eyed fantasy endeavor conjured by an eccentric billionaire. It’s a real company seeking to develop real products that’ll create a whole new market. Some of those early products are already taking shape.

Right now, the goal is simple. Before humans can link their brains to a simulated world on par with “The Matrix,” they first have to develop a means of interfacing with a basic computer. That kind of technology is not fanciful science fiction. We’ve already successfully inserted brain implants into monkeys, which they’ve used to interface with computers.

At this point, linking a brain to a computer isn’t that great a feat, which is why Musk noted that the first prototypes were being developed to assist quadriplegics. They have much more to gain by being able to interact with a computer. The same can’t be said for most people. Why would they undergo invasive brain surgery just so they could send text messages without typing them?

This is where I believe there’s some untapped potential that Neuralink is in a perfect position to realize. It might even be more feasible in the near-term than memory enhancement, as both a product and a killer app. It’s the kind of function that wouldn’t just convince people to let someone stick electrodes into their brains. It could revolutionize how people communicate with one another.

To understand the extent of that potential, take a moment to look at the last five text messages you sent through your smartphone. It doesn’t matter who you sent them to or why. Just take a step back and consider the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of communication.

In terms of strengths, it’s simple and consistent. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poor speaker or have anxiety issues. As long as you can type out the words and the receiver can read them, you can convey a message that instantly travels from one side of the planet to another. As a communications tool, it’s quite revolutionary, especially when you consider how difficult it was to send messages in the past.

At the same time, it has some major limitations. Texting is so impersonal. Even with the benefit of emojis, it’s still just text on a screen. It can’t convey a sense of nuance or subtext. There’s no undertone to decipher or facial cues to note. While this can make the message more objective, it also makes it feel cold and unemotional. It’s part of why breaking up with someone via text is so taboo.

With those limitations in mind, imagine having the ability to convey a feeling to go along with a text message. Instead of an emoji, you included the emotional context of that message. Maybe you were angry, upset, offended, or elated. It doesn’t have to be too complex. It just has to give a dramatic weight to the emotion.

You send that message knowing the person on the other end could experience it too. They don’t have to read the words and surmise your feelings. They know because they get to experience them too. They feel what you felt when you sent that message. They feel it in a way that no amount of facial cues or subtext can adequately convey.

When you text someone you love them, they can feel your love.

When you text someone you’re angry, they can feel the extent of your anger.

When you text someone you’re seriously depressed, they know it’s not a joke.

This sort of insight is unprecedented. It’s also a function that companies like Neuralink can make a reality and market it as a revolutionary form of communication. It wouldn’t require that we completely abandon our current methods of communication. People would still need their smartphones and computers. This would just be a way of augmenting those tools.

Once a brain implant can link up to a smartphone, then there’s suddenly a new communications channel the likes of which we’ve never had. That channel need not be restricted to moving a cursor or typing out letters on a screen. These commands are simply brain signals coded by implants and transmitted to a device that can make sense of them. Our feelings are just a different kind of signal.

Modern neuroscience already has a comprehensive understanding of where emotions come from. A brain implant could simply take signals from those parts of our brain, code them in a way our smartphone can interpret, and package them in a way that can be transmitted and received by another user.

It’s not telepathy. It’s not complex thought or ideas, either. These are the kinds of feelings and emotions that almost everyone experiences in some form or another. Our natural empathy may allow us to relate to one another as a social species, but we’ve never been able to truly share our feelings in a way that others can experience.

I know the idea of sharing feelings has gained a corny connotation, but I think a part of that has to do with how inefficient our current system is. Even before smartphones and texting, our age-old traditions of talking to one another, deciphering tone, and reading body language has left us with plenty of room for improvement.

It doesn’t matter how empathetic or understanding you are. At the end of the day, when someone shares their feelings, you’re still guessing the details and trying to mirror them within your brain. While that has taken us far as a species, in terms of forming social bonds and coordinating as a group, brain implants could take it to another level.

Once we can transmit our feelings with the same ease we do with a text message, then that takes us into uncharted territory. Armed with this tool, we wouldn’t just be able to communicate over vast distances. We’d be able to convey genuine, intimate feelings. Our brains are already wired to form strong social bonds with others. This technology would effectively supercharge it.

It certainly wouldn’t stop with just two people sending a text message with a happiness emotion attached to it. Once emotions can be transmitted like a text message, then there’s no reason they can’t be shared the same way we share everything else on social media. While some may recoil at the idea of sharing something so intimate, trend is already ongoing. Sharing feelings on a mass scale would just accelerate that trend.

The impact this will have on people is difficult to determine. Like I said before, this is uncharted territory. We’ve never had the ability to both know and share the intimate feelings of other people. Would that make us more empathetic? Would that make us more loving? I’ve argued before that it likely will, but I also don’t deny that some may handle it worse than others.

Whatever form Neuralink’s products take, there’s no denying the potential of this technology. There are still technical and engineering challenges, but that has never scared off Elon Musk or ambiguous billionaires like him. Human beings already have an innate need to connect with one another. Smartphones, texting, and every other communications tool we’ve ever created reflect that desire.

The market for those tools is already strong. The market for something that can communicate on a more intimate level will likely be even stronger. Even if the ultimate goal of Neuralink is to help humanity interact with an advanced artificial Intelligence, a good first step would be to help improve our ability to interact with one another.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, Neuralink, psychology, technology

How Jar Jar Binks Exposed The Flaws (And Dangers) Of Social Media

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Every now and then, something extraordinary happens that reveals how flawed our current system is and how far behind we are in terms of fixing it. Sometimes, it’s tragic. Sometimes, it’s frustrating. In rare cases, it’s hilarious, albeit in a distressing way. Personally, I find those cases most revealing.

Recently, there was one notable instance that included one of the most reviled fictional characters of the past 20 years. No, I’m not talking about King Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton. I’m talking about Jar Jar Binks. If you’re a “Star Wars” fan, then that name likely inspires all sorts of anger, dread, and distress.

Jar Jar is both a joke and a cautionary tale. Aside from proving that George Lucas has no business directing another “Star Wars,” he demonstrates just how wrong an attempt at comedic relief can go. While he wasn’t the only problem with the prequels, he augmented the flaws. On top of being annoying, incoherent, and incompetent most of the time, he was a major symptom of a much larger disease.

Once again, everything that makes Jar Jar such a pariah in the cultural landscape has exposed another disease in a place that’s not far, far away. For reasons that many found confusing and confounding, Jar Jar started trending on Twitter. While there was a someone legitimate reason for this, it was indirect and unintentional. There was no concerted effort to get him trending. It wasn’t even part of any elaborate trolling.

The fact that it took a while to explain why this infamous character was trending says more about social media than it does about Jar Jar. There’s no question that social media has changed the media landscape in ways that cannot be overstated. We current live in a world where companies invest a great deal of time and resources into making their presence on social media unique. Some definitely do it better than others.

At the same time, social media has not always had a positive effect on the world and its users. There have been plenty of cases where social media has been used to brutally harass people and spread blatant lies. There are even some cases in which social media played a role in directing real harm to innocent people. The dangers are there and well-documented.

Most people with an internet connection know those dangers are there. Many see it as the cost of doing business for a technology that has an uncanny ability to connect people. I certainly pay that cost, given my own presence on social media. However, what just happened with Jar Jar on Twitter demonstrated that the cost might have hidden fees in the fine print.

Remember, there was no concerted effort to get Jar Jar trending. Even after he did, nobody could figure out why he was trending. On top of that, the fact that nobody could figure it out only got people more curious, which made him trend even more. It was a self-reinforcing cycle that was funny in some respects, but distressing in many others.

It’s somewhat similar to what happens with people who are famous just for being famous and little more. This unfortunate, but inescapable aspect of celebrity culture rarely creates people who garner respect or admiration. If anything, they foster cynicism and disconnection from the culture. That kind of fame just feels so random, unearned, and empty. Thanks to Jar Jar, we now know social media trends can do the same.

Things can trend for no discernible reason. Matters that nobody even wants to get trending can garner unexpected and often unwanted attention. Thanks to the mechanisms of social media, the mystery behind why something trends can make it trend even more. While that’s going on, legitimate issues that warrant attention can slip under the radar.

Human beings only have so much attention to give. When something like Jar Jar trends for no discernible reason, a non-significant chunk of our collective attention is redirected. It would be one thing if it were just some masterfully act of trolling, but this is something we do to ourselves collective. That means we have no one to blame but ourselves when something like Jar Jar trends.

We’re the ones who make and share these hashtags. The social media companies are just tools and businesses. Like many companies, they’ll engage in plenty of shady activities. They’ll do whatever they think will make them more money. At the end of the day, though, we’re still the consumers who shape social media.

That should be cause for concern because this isn’t vapid celebrity culture we’re dealing with. The things that trend on social media have real-world consequences. Companies have suffered significant harm. Lives of non-celebrity people have been ruined. A random person who becomes famous for no reason rarely causes actual harm to anyone. Social media trends can do so much more.

In some cases, it can cause a great deal of good. If the right thing gets trending, it can rally people to a worthy cause. It can also inform the public of a serious issue. It can even turn real-world tragedies into a powerful force for good. Personally, I think this good overshadows the bad, but when I see Jar Jar trending, I can’t deny that there’s a flaw in this system.

Is there a fix? I believe there is, but I don’t believe it’s as simple as companies tweaking their rules or insulting people who share hash tags. Jar Jar may have been a source of frustration in the early 2000s, but he’s only relevant in 2019 because we make him relevant. It’s not him. It’s not George Lucas. This is all us.

I believe we’re better than that. Despite all the awful things I’ve seen trending on Twitter and Facebook, I see far more positives that warrant far greater attention. Jar Jar might be a symptom, but I take comfort in the fact that he’s a symptom that often burns out quickly. When something is empty, people get bored of it much easier and nobody should ever underestimate the power of boredom.

In the grand scheme of things, Jar Jar trending for no reason isn’t necessarily a setback. It’s just a sign that we, as a tech-savvy society, have a long way to go with respect to managing social media. In an imperfect world, dumb things will trend for dumb reasons. However, when something like Jar Jar starts trending, that’s a sign that we have plenty of room for improvement.

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Filed under human nature, media issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, Star Wars, technology, War on Boredom

Kids, Technology, And The Growing Bond Between Them

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Last year, I explored the idea of children being raised by intelligent robots. For the most part, it was a thought experiment. I approached it in the context of a technology that won’t be implemented anytime soon. Robotics technology hasn’t advanced to the point where it can properly mimic human-like behaviors, although Boston Dynamics is getting pretty damn close.

We also don’t have an artificial intelligence that could properly mirror human levels of intelligence, let alone basic parenting skills. Even when our technology gets to that level, it’ll probably still be a while before people start trusting it with children. Most people today probably recoil at the idea of a robot raising their kids, even if it were programmed with all the best parenting skills.

I tend to share that sentiment. While I’m generally of the opinion that technology will be a net positive, even for something as potentially dangerous as artificial intelligence, the idea of any non-human system raising kids just doesn’t seem workable. Recently, I’ve had to reassess that notion.

Over the past couple years, some close friends and relatives of mine welcomed their first children into the world. I’ve been lucky enough to share in some of these monumental moments. I’ve watched these kids grow from newborn infants into adorable toddlers. Some already know me as their awesome uncle.

While I could spend all day describing how adorable they are, I’ve noticed something remarkable in their growth that no generation before them has experienced before. It has to do with the way in which they interact with technology. I would even argue it’s gone a step further than basic interaction. It’s almost a bond at this point.

I first noticed when I saw a kid who wasn’t even two-years-old use his mother’s smartphone. Granted, he didn’t use it to do anything too fancy, but he was able to open apps, interact with icons, and do more than just put it in his mouth, which counted as a major feat for him.

He wasn’t the only one, either. You don’t have to look far to see videos of infants using tablets. Some use it better than others. I’ve met some who use it better than many adults. If you need further proof, check out this video of a two-year-old operating an iPad back in 2010.

Not surprisingly, this has already caused concerns among parents, teachers, and doctors. There is genuine, legitimate concern about what these devices are doing to the minds of young children. While the research on this impact is still ongoing and inconclusive, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. These devices exist, kids are using them, and they’re using them quite well.

I believe this has implications beyond causing yet another moral panic about how strange new technology affects children. Make no mistake. There will be a moral panic. I know because I lived through something similar when I was a kid.

Back then, the big fear was about television. Parents, teachers, and doctors were genuinely concerned about all the time kids were spending watching TV. Some went so far as to claim that they were letting TV raise their kids. I question whether these people understood how a TV worked.

Television is an entirely passive technology. You turn it on, pick a channel, and that’s all you can control. Until recently, it wasn’t very interactive. As a kid, I just saw it as another form of entertainment, like comic books, video games, and sports. These tablets that kids are using now are considerably different.

These aren’t devices that just flash colorful images in front of a kid to entertain them. Kids actually interact with these things. They can guide and manipulate what happens on the screen. Many tablets offer applications specifically tailored for children and can be valuable learning tools. A TV show can only do so much to teach a kid skills. An interactive application can do so much more.

At the moment, most of these applications are basically interactive games. Once artificial intelligence enters the equation, the potential changes considerably. Robot pets are becoming more sophisticated, operating on a level that makes it easier to establish a genuine bond with them. The same goes for virtual assistants. They were once a novelty. Now, they’re a mundane feature of most gadgets.

The kids being born today are entering a world where these same assistants are growing alongside them. They’re getting smarter with each passing day. At some point, they may become a more trustworthy source of information for kids than parents. Given the tendency of parents to lie to their kids, even if it’s for their own good, this could be a game-changer for kids and parents alike.

Going back to some of the kids in my own family, I’ve seen signs of this change. Some kids get genuinely upset when you take a tablet or smartphone away from them. They’ll react stronger than they would if someone took a treat or toy away from them. It gives the impression that these devices aren’t just toys to them. They’re something so much greater.

That has potential benefits and drawbacks. In terms of benefits, these devices and the applications they utilize could help children learn faster and more effectively at young ages. Just being able to effectively utilize a smartphone or tablet is a useful skill in almost any profession. A kid who literally grew up with this technology is going to have an edge over their elders in that respect.

There will still be costs. Kids who grow up around these devices and the connected world they link to could be prone to less-than-positive influences. They’ll be surrounded by the forces of outrage culture, online harassment, fake news, and professional trolls. It’s hard enough for adults to deal with these kinds of issues. For young kids who grew up in this system, it could be even harder.

At the moment, there are too many unknowns. One way or another, this technology exists and kids as young as one are capable of using it. They’re growing up with it. They’re bonding with it. The same goes for the technology itself. As it evolves and advances, it may get to a point where it’s a greater authority figure than any parent. At that point, robots raising kids might seem entirely natural.

I don’t claim to know how it will play out. At times, I do worry about the kids in my family or the kids I may have at some point in my life. However, I still tend to be optimistic about how this technology will impact kids. As scary as it may be to think about technology raising kids, let’s not forget that there are still plenty of dumb parents out there whose kids can only benefit from this.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, futurism, psychology, technology

Why Biological Weapons Will Be A (MUCH) Bigger Threat In The Future

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It wasn’t too long ago that the biggest existential threat facing humanity was nuclear war. I’ve noted before how distressingly close we’ve come to a nuclear disaster and how the threat of a nuclear holocaust is still present. However, that threat has abated in recent decades, especially as nuclear weapons have gotten so destructive that their use is somewhat redundant.

More recently, people have become more concerned about the threat posed by advanced artificial intelligence. The idea is that at some point, an AI will become so intelligent and capable that we won’t be able to stop it in the event it decides that humanity must go extinct. It’s the basis of every Terminator movie, as well as an Avengers movie.

While I certainly have my concerns about the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, it’s not the threat that worries me most these days. We still have some measure of control over the development of AI and we’re in a good position to guide that technology down a path that won’t destroy the human race. The same cannot be said for biological weapons.

If there’s one true threat that worries me more with each passing day, it’s that. Biological weapons are one of those major threats that does not slip under the radar, as evidenced by plenty of movies, books, and TV shows. However, the extent of that threat has become more understated in recent years and has the potential to be something more powerful than nuclear weapons.

By powerful, I don’t necessarily mean deadlier. At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are still more capable of rendering the human race extinct and turning the whole planet into a radioactive wasteland. The true power of biological weapons less about how deadly they can be and more about how useful they could be to potential governments, tyrants, or extremists.

For most of human history, that power has been limited. There’s no question that disease has shaped the course of human history. Some plagues are so influential that they mark major turning points for entire continents. The same can be said for our ability to treat such diseases. However, all these diseases had one fatal flaw that kept them from wiping out the human race.

Thanks to the fundamental forces of evolution, a deadly pathogen can only be so deadly and still survive. After all, an organism’s ultimate goal isn’t to kill everything it encounters. It’s to survive and reproduce. It can’t do that if it kills a carrier too quickly. If it’s too benign, however, then the carrier’s immune system will wipe it out.

That’s why even diseases as deadly as Ebola and Influenza can only be so infectious. If they kill all their hosts, then they die with them. That’s why, much to the chagrin of creationists, evolution doesn’t favor the natural emergence of apocalyptic diseases. They can still devastate the human race, but they can’t necessarily wipe it out. It would only wipe itself out in the process and most lifeforms avoid that.

It’s also why the large-scale biological weapons programs of the 20th century could only be so effective. Even if a country manufactured enough doses of an existing disease to infect every person on the planet, it won’t necessarily be deadly enough to kill everyone. Even at its worst, smallpox and bubonic plague never killed more than two-thirds of those it infected.

That’s not even factoring in how difficult it is to distribute these pathogens to everyone without anyone noticing. It’s even harder today because powerful governments invest significant resources into preventing and containing an outbreak. If large numbers of people start getting sick and dropping dead at a rapid rate, then someone will notice and take action.

That’s why, for the most part, biological weapons are both ethically untenable and not very useful as weapons of mass destruction. They’re difficult to control, difficult to distribute, and have unpredictable effects. They also require immense resources, considerable technical know-how, and a keen understanding of science. Thankfully, these are all things that extreme religious zealots tend to lack.

For the most part, these powerful constraints have kept biological weapons from being too great a threat. However, recent advances in biotechnology could change that and it’s here where I really start to worry. With recent advances in gene-editing and the emergence of tools like CRISPR, those limitations that kept biological weapons in check may no longer be insurmountable.

While I’ve done plenty to highlight all the good that tools like CRISPR could do, I don’t deny that there are potential dangers. Like nuclear weapons, this technology is undeniably powerful and powerful technology always carries great risks. With CRISPR, the risks aren’t as overt as obvious as fiery mushroom clouds, but they can be every bit as deadly.

In theory, CRISPR makes it possible to cut and paste genetic material with the same ease as arranging scattered puzzle pieces. With right materials and tools, this technology could be used to create genetic combinations in organisms that could never occur naturally or even with artificial selection.

Imagine a strain of smallpox that was lethal 100 percent of the time and just as infectious.

Imagine a strain of the flu that was as easy to spread as the common cold, but as deadly as bubonic plague.

Imagine a strain of an entirely new pathogen that is extremely lethal and completely immune to all modern medicine.

These are all possible, albeit exceedingly difficult, with genetic editing. Unlike nuclear weapons, it doesn’t require the procurement of expensive and dangerous elements. It just needs DNA, RNA, and a lab with which to produce them. It’s a scary idea, but that’s actually not the worst of it, nor is it the one that worries me most.

A doomsday bioweapon like that might be appealing to generic super-villains, but like nuclear weapons, they’re not very strategic because they kill everyone and everything. For those with a more strategic form of blood-lust, advanced biological weapons offer advantages that sets them apart from any other weapon.

Instead of a pathogen infecting everyone it comes into contact with, what if it only infected a certain group of people that carry a specifics traits associated with a particular race or ethnic group? What if someone wanted to be even more strategic than that and craft a pathogen that attacked only one specific person?

In principle, this is possible if you can manipulate the genetics of a disease in just the right way. Granted, it’s extremely difficult, but the potential utility makes it more useful than a nuclear bomb will ever be.

Suddenly, a government or terrorist organization doesn’t need a skilled assassin on the level of James Bond to target a specific person or group. They just need the right genetic material and a working knowledge of how to program it into a synthetic pathogen. It could even be made to look like a completely different disease, which ensured it didn’t raise any red flags.

It’s not the ultimate weapon, but it’s pretty darn close. Biological weapons with this level of refinement could potentially target entire groups of people and never put the attackers at risk. As a strategy, it can effectively end an entire conflict without a shot being fired. Those infected wouldn’t even know it was fired if the pathogen were effectively distributed.

It’s one of those weapons that both terrorists and governments would be tempted to use. The most distressing part is they could use it in a way that’s difficult to detect, let alone counter. Even after all the death and destruction has been wrought, how do you even prove that it was a result of a bioweapon? Even if you could prove that, how would you know who made it?

These are the kinds of questions that only have disturbing answers. They’re also the reasons why I believe biological weapons are poised to become a far bigger issue in the coming years. Even if it’s unlikely they’ll wipe out the human race, they can still cause a special kind of destruction that’s almost impossible to counter.

Unlike any other weapon, though, the destruction could be targeted, undetectable, and unstoppable. Those who wield this technology would have the power to spread death with a level of precision and tact unprecedented in human history. While I believe that humanity will eventually be able to handle dangerous technology like artificial intelligence, I doubt it’ll ever be capable of handling a weapon like that.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, Current Events, futurism, technology