Enhanced Intelligence, VR Sex, and Our Cyborg Future

If you could press a button to merge your mind with an artificial intelligence computer—expanding your brain power, your memory, and your creative capacity—would you take the leap?

“I would press it in a microsecond,” says Sebastian Thrun, who previously led Stanford University’s AI Lab.

Turning yourself into a cyborg might sound like pure sci-fi, but recent progress in AI, neural implants, and wearable gadgets make it seem increasingly imaginable.

The weird and wonderful worlds of transhumanism and human enhancement are the subject of the 10th installment of the Sleepwalkers podcast. The final episode in the first season examines a subject that seems to resonate with techno-optimists in Silicon Valley but also raises some big questions: Where do we draw the line between humans and machines? Who should benefit from such technology? How do we retain control of our humanity?

Thrun, a prominent artificial intelligence expert who cofounded Google’s self-driving car project and helped develop the ill-fated wearable computer, Google Glass, argues that human beings are already a product of centuries of technological progress, so it would be foolish to forgo further enhancements. “The human I/O—the input/output, the ears and eyes and smell and so on, voice—are still very inefficient,” he says. “If I could accelerate the reading of all the books into my brain, oh my God, that would be so awesome.”

Yuval Noah Harari, a historian who speculates about humanity’s future, is a leading figure in the burgeoning transhumanist movement. In his recent book, Homo Deus, Harari suggests that our ability to enhance ourselves with computers and bioengineering has already opened up a new era in human history. But he also fears this era—perhaps accelerated by AI—could pose an existential threat to our species. “We are really deciphering the underlying rules of the game of life, and are acquiring the ability to change these rules,” Harari warns.

For now though, using technology to alter our intelligence remains a distant dream, says Andy Schwartz, a neurobiologist at the University of Pittsburgh who works on brain-controlled computer interfaces for patients with physical disabilities. Although the technology is advancing, Schwartz says, it is a mistake to think it will become a pervasive consumer technology within the foreseeable future. “That’s actually not true of a medically invasive procedure that involves putting implants on the surface of the brain,” he cautions.

As technology marches forward, there are many who stand to benefit from human enhancements. Noé Socha, an award-winning jazz guitarist with limited vision, is testing glasses that use video cameras and high-definition screens in front of the retina to restore some eyesight. Socha’s experience highlights the fact that simple enhancements could benefit those with disabilities most, potentially transforming their worlds.

Diversity and inclusivity are also crucial issues for the technology of transhumanism, says Bryony Cole of the Future of Sex podcast and an organizer of sex-tech hackathons. She advocates for sex-related tech—from VR porn to sex toys—to be available to everyone, regardless of their physical ability or gender identity. “The core of our humanity, we want to connect, we want to belong.” she says. “We want to feel like we’re part of something. That’s sort of the core part of that right down to our sexuality.”

According to Harari, the historian, it will be just as important to guard against the capacity for new technology to control us. The power of AI to discover our secrets, our hopes, and our fears has been a recurring theme through season one of Sleepwalkers.

Harari offers some surprisingly simple advice for outsmarting algorithmic manipulation. “Once there is somebody out there, a system out there, an algorithm out there, that knows you better than you know yourself, the game is up,” he says. “You can do something about it, not just by withholding data, but above all by improving your own understanding of yourself. The better you understand yourself, the more difficult it is to manipulate you.”

Wise words to remember as we navigate a new age of technology. And stay tuned to explore more amazing advances—and accompanying risks and conundrums—in the second season of the Sleepwalkers podcast, out in 2020.

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