Implanted obsolescence

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2010

We privileged early-adopter types are increasingly accustomed to our technology becoming obsolete… but what happens when the technology in question is actually a physically-embedded part of you? Suddenly your upgrade path is a little trickier than hopping on a Boris-Bike and going to your nearest Apple store. Tim Maly points out the risky side of early-adopter human augmentation tech:

On the ground, the realities of the only brain-mounted interface I know of – cochlear implants – are brutal. Here’s a taste: You can’t hear music. For a sense of what that’s like, try these demos. The terrifying truth is that once you’ve signed up for one kind of enhancement (say, the 16 electrode surgery) it’s very hard to upgrade, even if Moore’s law ends up applying to electrode counts and the fidelity of hearing tech.

If you are an early adopter for this kind of thing, the only thing we can say for sure about it is that it’ll be slow and out of date very soon. Unless they find a way to make easily-reversible surgery, your best strategy is to wait for the interface that’s whatever the brain-linkage equivalent is to 300dpi, full colour, high refresh screens.


Medical advancements demand sacrifices. Someone needs to wear the interim devices. Desperation is one avenue for adoption. Artificial hearts are still incomplete and dicey-half measures, keeping people alive while they wait for a transplant or their heart heals. This is where advances in transplants and prosthetics find their volunteers and their motivation for progress. It’s difficult to envision a therapeutic brain implant – they are almost by definition augmentations.

An avenue to irreversible early adoption is arenas where short term enhancement is all that’s required. The military leaps to mind. With enlistment times measured in a few short years, rapid obsolescence of implants doesn’t matter as much; they can just pull virgin recruits and give them the newest, latest. If this seems unlikely, consider that with the right mix of rhetoric about duty and financial incentives, you can get people to do almost anything including join an organization where they will be professionally shot at.

Picture burnt-out veterans of the Af-Pak drone wars haunting the shells of long-deserted strip-malls, sporting rusty cranial jacks for which no one makes the proprietary plugs or software any longer… you can probably torrent some cracked warez that’ll run on your ageing wetware, but who knows what else is gonna be zipped into that self-installing .deb?

Meanwhile, Adam Rothstein brings a bit of Marxist critique to the same issue, and points out that the same problems apply to external augmentations:

It is easy to envision these uncanny lapses between classes occurring when we start fusing bodies with machines, because to imply that our bodies can easily be obsolete machines threatens a certain humanist concept of our bodies as a unifying quality to our species. But we don’t have to start invading the body to find differences that affect our ability to stratify ourselves into classes. If the equilibriums of the relations of production can develop a rift between first and third world without personal technology, between upper class and lower class both before, and as we start to use computers to identify ourselves as class member, why would one not also occur between “cutting-edge” and “deprecated” classes as technology becomes more “personal”–magnetizing that one kernel social structure not yet susceptible to fracture and evolution? At what point will our devices themselves reinforce the equilibriums of choice they themselves provide, by being the motive force for separating individuals into groups? If not by lasting only as long as their minimal service contracts in a planned obsolesce that intensifies the slope of device turnover, then by active means? An app only for the iPhone 8, that can detect models of the iPhone 5 and below–letting you know that you’ve wandered into an area with a “less than savory technological element?” When will emergency services only guarantee that they can respond to data transponder calls, and not voice requests? The local watchman has been phased out, in favor of centrally dispatched patrols that require phones to access. Isn’t it only a matter of time before central dispatch is phased out for distributed drone network policing? The ability to use a computer is a requirement for many jobs. When will the ability to data uplink hands-free be a requirement?

Insert unevenly-distributed-future aphorism here.

The left-wing genes

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

Which genes are left-wing? All of them! At least that’s the interpretation Oliver James puts forward in this piece at The Guardian, as he points out that the mapping of the human genome hasn’t delivered evidence for the genetic determinism of mental health and social status that conservative politics – not to mention the pharmacology industries – hoped it would:

This result had been predicted by Craig Venter, one of the key researchers on the project. When the map was published, he said that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them. “Our environments are critical,” he concluded. And, after only a few years of extensive genome searching, even the most convinced geneticists began to publicly admit that there are no individual genes for the vast majority of mental health problems. In 2009 Professor Robert Plomin, a leading behavioural geneticist, wrote that the evidence had proved that “genetic effects are much smaller than previously considered: the largest effects account for only 1% of quantitative traits”. However, he believed that all was not lost. Complex combinations of genes might hold the key. So far, this has not been shown, nor is it likely to be.


Another theory was that genes create vulnerabilities. For example, it was thought that people with a particular gene variant were more likely to become depressed if they were maltreated as children. This also now looks unlikely. An analysis of 14,250 people showed that those with the variant were not at greater risk of depression. Nor were they more likely to be depressed when the variant was combined with childhood maltreatment.

In developed nations, women and those on a low income are twice as likely to be depressed as men and the wealthy. When DNA is tested in large samples, neither women nor the poor are more likely to have the variant. Worldwide, depression is least common in south-east Asia. Yet a study of 29 nations found the variant to be commonest there – the degree to which a society is collectivist rather than individualistic partly explains depression rates, not genes.

Politics may be the reason why the media has so far failed to report the small role of genes. The political right believes that genes largely explain why the poor are poor, as well as twice as likely as the rich to be mentally ill. To them, the poor are genetic mud, sinking to the bottom of the genetic pool.

It’s a rather generalised and sweeping statement, but I think there’s a core of truth to it. Is this why there’s been such a right-wing push-back against genetic science in recent years, perhaps?

[ That said, James is narrativising genetic science in a very similar way, albeit on behalf of the other side of the debating chamber. The political polarisation of science worries me regardless of who’s doing it, because it puts the primacy onto agenda-driven interpretation rather than evidence; nowhere is this more clear than in climate science, where progressive/left-wing attempts to counter the right’s conspiracy theories with their own rhetoric have obscured the facts of the matter even further. ]

Arguments against life extension

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2010

Via Michael Anissimov, here’s a spectacularly empty diatribe against “deathhackers” by TechCrunch‘s Paul Carr. Carr objects to the idea of radical life extension as advocated by transhumanists, which is fair enough, but as written here most of his objections seem to boil down to personal distate toward those advocates. Ad hominem ahoy!

… go to any Silicon Valley party right now and you’ll find a scrawny huddle in the corner discussing the science of living forever…


Apart from rabid over-achieving, there’s another thing that unites all life-extension obsessives: they look like death. “Medievally thin and pale,” is how the Times (quoting Weiner’s book) describes [Aubrey] de Grey.

This just in: unattractive and/or geeky people interested in living longer. Film at eleven!

Amongst the ire and jealousy of “rabid over-achievers” (and a little bit of self-promotion, natch), Carr does have a point to make, namely that death is our greatest motivator:

What if the real reason these entrepreneurs have achieved so much is precisely because – more so than other mortals – they were born with a keen understanding they are working to a fixed (if unknown) deadline? It’s that fear of death that makes them succeed, not the other way around.

Regular readers will remember that this is an idea I have a great deal of personal sympathy with, though I’ve never suggested anyone else should be prevented from chasing immortality just because I’m not sure I’d want it for myself.

Anissimov also links to a rebuttal of Carr by Greg Fish, usually more of a gadfly against transhumanist tropes than a defender thereof:

Instead of telling entrepreneurs and angel investors who have a very real passion for science and technology to embrace their mortality, Carr should be encouraging them to pursue their lofty goals. Yes, ask them pointed questions, ask them to show you their thought process, and try to steer them from fantastic, pseudoscientific, or wishful thinking, but encourage their ideas because these people can take us to new places with the right support, motivation and a guiding hand from biologists, chemists, physicists, and hands-on researchers. No one has ever made a breakthrough by refusing to aim above mediocrity, and that’s why we shouldn’t be trying to promote the gospel of “eh, it’s good enough,” among those who love to think outside the box.

Let the dreamers dream, in other words; I’m down with that, pretty much.

But there’s a bit of serendipity here, as life extension is very much on my mind at the moment. I’ve been reading Getting To Know You, David Marusek’s first short story collection; if you’ve read Marusek in the short or long form, you’ll be aware of his imagined future where radical life extension is ubiquitous among the privileged, and where a servitor underclass of clones and artificial intelligences works for them to prop up the “boutique economies” that make such a world possible. The story “Cabbages and Kale, or: How We Downsized North America” neatly captures my own personal concern about life extension technology, namely that – like almost all technologies, at least at first – it will be the exclusive province of those who are already rich, politically powerful and long-lived.

By the by, this also dovetails with the Matt Ridley essay I linked to earlier today, in that Marusek’s answer to the economic problems of a functionally immortal power class is to have them restrict reproduction in order to keep the population at a level where the system still works: a voluntary stagnation, a rigged equilibrium. But the point I’m making here is this: technologies are never inherently bad, but the way the world works tends to gift their benefits to those who have the least need of them. We shouldn’t fear life extension, but fearing life extension held exclusively in the hands of the political classes is a very wise move indeed.

[ I very heartily recommend Marusek’s short stories and novels to Futurismic readers; not only is he a writer of great craft and skill, but he deals with the complex sociopolitical outcomes of technological ideas like life extension and nanotechnology which are, at present, little more than attractive possibilities lurking beyond the horizon. ]

Re-skinning the city – the dark side of augmented reality

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2010

As augmented reality becomes the latest tech buzz-phrase to excite the more mainstream media outlets, it’s interesting to watch people coming to similar conclusions by very different routes.

For instance, here’s nigh-legendary grumpy Brit television critic Charlie Brooker riffing on the not-so-egalitarian potential of augmented reality technologies:

Years ago, I had an idea for a futuristic pair of goggles that visually transformed homeless people into lovable animated cartoon characters. Instead of being confronted by the conscience-pricking sight of an abandoned heroin addict shivering themselves to sleep in a shop doorway, the rich city-dweller wearing the goggles would see Daffy Duck snoozing dreamily in a hammock. London would be transformed into something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

What’s more, the goggles could be adapted to suit whichever level of poverty you wanted to ignore: by simply twisting a dial, you could replace not just the homeless but anyone who receives benefits, or wears cheap clothes, or has a regional accent, or watches ITV, and so on, right up the scale until it had obliterated all but the most grandiose royals.

At the time this seemed like a sick, far-off fantasy. By 2013, it’ll be just another customisable application you can download to your iBlinkers for 49p, alongside one that turns your friends into supermodels and your enemies into dormice.

Beneath the snark, Brooker is pointing out that we already have a tendency to filter reality so that we only see the bits we want to – confirmation bias at work, in other words. Once the hardware is cheap and powerful enough to achieve iPhone-ish levels of market penetration, software that works in the way he’s describing above is not just possible but plausible. And as nice as it is to think that you’d not be tempted yourself, I suspect we all would be to some degree… try inverting the class dynamic of Brooker’s prediction, for instance. [image by gwdexter]

So, reality filters are inevitable… but experience dictates that where commerce, culture and technology meet up, things rarely remain in stasis. Enter new Futurismic columnist Tim Maly, who opines that the perpetually escalating arms race between spammers and filter-builders may be the one thing that fends off the hyper-Balkanised culture that so terrifies commentators like Brooker:

The trajectory assumed is of increasingly powerful and impregnable filters. If that trajectory holds, then one expects an increasingly balkanized culture, full of isolated groups that think they have nothing in common. But there’s a second set of actors in play, the ones being filtered out.

As the first group works harder to filter out unwanted messages, the second works harder to break through. We see it in the arms race around advertising. We see it in politicians struggling to find new ways of reaching their audience. We see it in Google’s need to constantly change and update their pagerank algorithms as black hat SEOs learn to game the system.

So long as the arms race continues, the filters will get better without becoming perfect. And in those cracks, reality (or at least an alternate viewpoint) can intrude. Insofar as we believe that people can’t know in advance what is best for them or what information they should receive, we should celebrate inefficiencies in filters.

In every successfully delivered spam message, there is a ray of hope.

Spam as a ray of hope… who knew? There’ll be more from Tim in his first proper column tomorrow, by the way. 🙂