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Melanie Swan on Nanomedicine and Cognitive Enhancement

Here is a great slide presentation from futurist Melanie Swan on the topic of Nanomedicine and Cognitive Enhancement. Melanie recently presented this content at The Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics in Los Angeles.

To quote from Melanie’s abstract, “this presentation considers the philosophical implications of current neuroscience advance. The brain is the final frontier, and thinking, cognition, emotion, and consciousness remain some of the most important unsolved mysteries. It is still unknown how ideas are actually represented in the brain. The fast pace of scientific advance in neuroscience is prompting the consideration of these kinds of questions involving personal identity, human potential, and societal coordination, and how we might eventually transition to a future of radically augmented post-biological entities and multi-species intelligence.”

The prospect of being able to chemically self-manage creativity, memory, sociality, attention and more is ultimately exciting, but nanomedicine promises more than dial-a-mood pharmacology; the possibility of overcoming serious biological or psychological impediments to one’s self-actualization could make a difference in millions of lives. It will be fascinating to see how these technologies develop.

Melanie Swan is a science and technology innovator and philosopher at the MS Futures Group. She is the founder of the Institute for Blockchain Studies. She founded the participatory medicine research organization DIYgenomics in 2010. Ms. Swan’s educational background includes an MBA in Finance and Accounting from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a BA in French and Economics from Georgetown University, and recent coursework in philosophy in the Contemporary Continental Philosophy MA Program at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Université Paris 8, and in biology, nanotechnology, physics, and computer science. She is a faculty member at Singularity University and the University of the Commons, an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a contributor to the Edge’s Annual Essay Question.

For more on Melanie, visit her web site.

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Night-Thoughts on The Singularity: A Dark Arrival in a Dark World

Author’s Note: I am generally very optimistic about technology, but this is a pessimistic piece. Like most everyone else these past few years, I have been reading (too much) about what seems to be the consensus telos of technology: The Singularity, or machine super-intelligence. Though I’ve posted optimistically about it here before, something about it has been bugging me of late, so I’m posting my “night-thoughts” now, however pessimistic and long-winded they may be.

In 2015, the world finds itself under increasing pressure from a converging set of global tangents that temper my optimism regarding the future forms and applications of super-intelligent machine technologies. These tangents are the well-known, global-scale, too-big-to-fully-comprehend factors about which concerned parties annually publish detailed cautions. There are seven primary factors, so let’s call them the seven deadly factors shaping the future.

The seven deadly factors are as follows: 1) unprecedented population growth that strains resources, threatens demographic balances, and fuels conflict; 2) environmental degradation that drives extreme climate events, global warming, drought, and species extinction; 3) an imbalanced and fragile global economic system whose volatilities continually threaten to produce collapses that destroy individual livelihoods and international stability and whose increasing inequities marginalize the majority of the global population; 4) a fragmented and increasingly antagonistic international political climate marked by terrorism, failed states, nationalism, and multi-dimensional conflict; 5) a global digital computer and telecommunications network that facilitates fraud, cyber-warfare, and invasive spying; 6) the pervasive spread of mass-destruction-scale military technologies, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, as well as, eventually, more cutting-edge laser, sonic, and particle weapons; and 7) the rapid automation of the world’s productive work, which threatens to render redundant (and poor) millions of human beings in the near future.

These seven deadly global factors, each on its own trajectory toward potential disaster, exacerbate one another because they are intimately connected. Overpopulation, our first example, does not improve the environment, stabilize the global economy, lessen political instability in the Somalias and Syrias of the world, enhance digital privacy, stop the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, or create jobs and guaranteed livelihoods. In fact, overpopulation makes everything else worse, as does environmental degradation, economic volatility, and so on. Each of these seven monsters feeds the growth of the others, in a seeming death spiral to some dismal end.

On some level, many people are aware of at least some of the dangers, yet all of these trajectories and their potential outcomes are challenging to contemplate in totality, perhaps because everything is so big and interconnected, unpredictable, and out of the control of any one person or group. Or perhaps our difficulty lies in our perspective. In a very important sense, our perceptions depend upon scale and point of view. If we are scavenging for food in the dumps of Jakarta, sheltering from gunfire in Damascus, or escaping murderous warlords in Nigeria, it is difficult to contemplate the impacts of quantitative easing on the markets in the Eurozone or the privacy implications of the US Patriot Act. Conversely, it is difficult to appreciate the local livelihood impact of desertification in North Africa or the local security impact of a militant coup in Yemen if we are strolling off the Google campus to discuss a startup with a college friend over sushi in Palo Alto, or getting away from Tokyo for a weekend of golf and leisure in Honolulu, or driving a van full of eight-year-old kids to a soccer game, then pizza, in the suburbs of Chicago.

In complex systems, in other words, scale and perspective matter — and our seven deadly factors are a complex system. In it, there are points of view, geographically and economically, from which it may be difficult to see the interconnectedness of the seven trends, or even see them at all. We are biased by our local experience of the world. The Syrian refugee has his experience and may interpret it in terms of specific local factors, oblivious that the waves of a large, complex maelstrom have broken on his shores. For the Googler, the storm may not even be on the horizon, though she’s seen a few Ted Talks about some of the world’s big issues and there are corporate narratives around improving the world in the abstract, and yet, it seems so far away from the valley. It’s only by seeing the bigger picture — quantitatively and qualitatively — that one begins to see the totality of these interconnected dark forces. If they have not impacted your life, you are fortunate (and/or very wealthy), but the trends indicate that it’s only a matter of time for you. Incidentally, as the seven deadly forces gather strength, more and more of us will lose sight of the big picture; whether we’re homeless in Mosra or jobless in Memphis, we will be compelled to focus on our local situation.

So, yes, the world is spinning toward dangerous space, and there seems to be no superhero available to correct our course. It’s a world of struggle and gathering darkness for many of Earth’s inhabitants, and if/when a super-intelligent machine, or “The Singularity,” arrives, it will arrive into this dark world.

And, for the record, I think it will arrive.

The question for me, then, is not whether machine super-intelligence will arrive at all, or whether it will arrive in a bright or dark future. I believe it will arrive, and unless a lot of change happens, again, it will arrive in a dark and dangerous world. The recent AI-will-destroy-us, existential threat admonitions from various scientists and tech leaders seem mostly centered on the inherent danger of the technology, the fear that it will be smarter than us and thus beyond our control, but that is not my specific concern here at all. My concern is more about the dangers of context because the specific context into which machine super-intelligence arrives will impact what it will do and what part it will play in the developing narrative of our collective challenges in the face of the seven deadly global forces outlined here.

In my opinion, the first thing we can really predict about the arrival of machine super-intelligence is that it will arrive in a context sufficiently wealthy and technologically advanced to produce it. From there, prediction gets dicey, but you can extrapolate from possibilities. The military and intelligence industries of any number of advanced nation-states are potentially capable of producing the singularity, and of confiscating it. Also, there are advanced academic and private industrial contexts in which machine super-intelligence could be produced, but I would argue that such a genesis would be no different than it being produced by the military-intelligence agencies. If it were produced at Google, for instance, it could quickly be co-opted by the Pentagon. If a Chinese academic produced it, similarly, it would surely be conscripted by the Chinese state.

My assumption then is that, given the way the parties work today, and given all the implications of the factors of spying and nation-state competition/warfare, machine super-intelligence would end up in the hands of governments as a military and/or intelligence tool. Furthermore, if one government possessed the technology, it is safe to assume that all other sufficiently advanced competitive governments would get it eventually too, by hook or crook, as happened with nuclear weaponry.

So in our world of the seven deadly forces, it is likely that machine super-intelligence would emerge within the context of wealthy nation-state competition and/or warfare. If so, it’s safe to assume that the technology would simply accelerate the relevant deadly forces to new pitches of danger. The surveillance of populations would increase; states would further undermine and destabilize each other through cyber-warfare and economic warfare; and the new tech would be leveraged to develop even more new technology, most likely in a competitive or militaristic vein (i.e., weapons), and automate more work.

Now, the more prominent traditional proponents of machine super-intelligence have argued that machine super-intelligence would actually solve many of our problems, notably medical problems, and that it is the superman we’ve all been waiting for, but I find that perspective difficult to accept fully. To imagine that the likely use of machine super-intelligence is the prolonging of human life seems to be more the aspiration of aging wealthy technophiles than anything likely to happen in our dark world. Sure, if it arrives, there may be pockets of such benefits among those wealthy transhumanists, but to think that it would be a global offering flies in the face of everything else that is going on. Who would support prolonging the life of an increasingly unemployable, impoverished, displaced, and socio-politically fragmented (perhaps even radicalized) 90% of the overpopulated world?

So my conclusion is that, unless it were monopolized by some perfectly altruistic enclave of infinitely wise human beings, machine super-intelligence will likely, again, be a weapon in the hands of a fractured, clannish global power elite who are constantly at war with each other. At least, it will be at first, and that’s probably enough to do us in. If it turns out that machine super-intelligence is or becomes too powerful for anyone to control, its impact would vary; if moral or friendly, machine super-intelligence might think little of any of the dark uses humans may make of it and persist as nothing more than a curiosity, while the seven deadly forces continue to gather momentum and governments attempt to corrupt it; if amoral, it may think nothing of us and become the eighth and final deadly force of the future.

Our only hope, really, goes beyond ensuring that the AI we create is “friendly.” Rather, we have to make sure that machine super-intelligence does not arrive before we change the context of our world. We have to fix everything, in other words: control our population, save our natural environment, build a stable and equitable economy, achieve world peace, safeguard privacy, bury our guns, and figure out how to guarantee human livelihoods. Whether or not we can delay the arrival of machine super-intelligence is up for debate, but I think we should assume we can’t. The question for us now is how quickly can we fix it all. Can we clean everything up before AI arrives at our door? The odds are super-long, perhaps impossible, but only if we can change the direction of the seven deadly forces will machine super-intelligence be anything but a dark arrival in a dark world.


You Have Been Inventoried: A Visitation from the Future at ASU Emerge, March 6, 2015

On Friday, March 6, I participated in ASU’s Emerge 2015: Artists and Scientists Redesign the Future in Scottsdale, Arizona, by developing and deploying a “visitation from the future” titled You Have Been Inventoried. The experience of engaging approximately 1,000 people in the implications that arise when, in the (near) future, human beings will be fully tracked and profiled in the offline world was fascinating and enlightening.

The following interview I did with radio station KJZZ provides some insight on the point of the visitation:

However, it’s worth documenting it more fully.

You Have Been Inventoried was an interactive visitation that explored various new offline, real-world surveillance, tracking, and identification technologies and what these technologies might mean in terms of the future of human identity, privacy, choices, and values. In order to explore these issues, the visitation had four components: Taking Inventory, The Identity Theatre, The Larger Tracked Space, and Privacy Concerns.

Component 1: Taking Inventory

Willing visitors to the visitation were inventoried: a unique number and barcode was applied/assigned to their physical person by way of label. The labels were scanned, the people photographed, and the images added to the digital inventory database of the visitation. The photograph of each individual inventoried was run through a custom facial recognition application (built with EyeFace SDK from EyeDea Recognition, Inc.). The application tagged facial characteristics and generated an overlaid profile of estimated age, ethnicity, or other information. These profiled images were added to the multimedia display in The Identity Theatre over the course of the Emerge event.

Here is an example from the event (note her “I Have Been Inventoried” sticker):


We even inventoried a robot, a Baxter from the neighboring Ars Robotica visitation (note the barcode sticker on his torso):


The reaction of visitors to the inventorying process was fascinating. An unscientific estimate is that 2-3% refused or actively resisted the barcode label, asking about where the data would be stored, what would happen to it, etc. The vast majority of people, however, wanted to go through the process, and enjoyed it. Several noted that, in effect, “Hey, it’s true, we’re all inventory.”

Component 2: The Identity Theatre

In the Identity Theatre, which was a 10 x 10 x 10 foot cubic space, we presented a non-linear multimedia exploration of our current technologically enhanced environment in which digital surveillance, identification, and tracking systems intersect with human concerns for privacy, subjectivity/identity, and freedom of choice. Visitors were encouraged to enter the theatre, experience immersion in the multimedia, explore the idea of masks as identity expression/resistance by actually trying on various masks, reflecting upon their masked images in the mirrors, and enjoying the frisson of being recorded by security cameras all the while.


In the Identity Theatre, visual montages were developed by Eric Kingsbury and Tery Spataro. Here is Tery’s great montage:

Also in the Identity Theatre, we played original music composed and recorded by MiKroNaught (courtesy of AtmoWorks Music). The music incorporates the primary narrative of the installation, along with audio clips from Melanie Swan on the topic of the future of identity. The soundtrack to “You Have Been Inventoried” is available free for download from Click the image below to get the download:


In the Identity Theatre, visitors played (and walked away) with over 300 masks. The masks, incidentally, were a hit with children who took instantly to the idea of playing with their own image in the mirrors in the space. Generally, adults seemed to get the idea that, as they played, they were in a camera’s eyes:


Component 3: The Larger Tracked Space

After leaving the main area of the visitation, visitors to Emerge continued to participate in the visitation by virtue of being tracked by a network of Bluetooth Low-Energy beacons (from Gimbal/Qualcomm) placed throughout the larger event space, as well as a series of discretely placed cameras which captured the movement of inventoried humans through the event. In some instances, in camera footage, we were able to connect previously captured inventory data and facial recognition data to beacon and video capture data.

For the most part, all that we did was track movement of anyone with a bluetooth enabled cell phone, through six beacon zones in a geofence in the space. The data was only statistical numbers on people moving through zones, and this data was visualized in charts and added to the multimedia presentation in the Identity Theatre portion of the visitation toward the end of the event.

Component 4: Privacy Concerns

The point of the visitation was to raise awareness of key issues related to technology, identity, and privacy. In order to do so, we simulated in microcosm much of what is happening in our real world. For poignancy and verisimilitude, we were capturing data. However, throughout the course of the event, the data we captured did not contain any personally identifiable information, nor was it shared with any third parties, beyond the local visitation system itself. All visitor data captured was permanently destroyed at the conclusion of the event (March 7, 2015). Visitors could opt out of the data-capture component of the visitation by declining to be inventoried, which several did. The only images that were retained were images from the installation and ASU Emerge teams, such as the facial recognition image used in this post.

The privacy component of the installation was a big discussion point with people at the visitation, and it illustrated an open question for many of us at large: since we are generating data, and others are capturing it, what happens to it? How will it be used? How much control do we have?

As a final note, I would like to warmly thank my conceptual and executional collaborators for all their assistance and support. Thanks to AC, MiKroNaught, Dylan Kingsbury, Tery Spataro, and Melanie Swan. Awesome team. I would also like to thank Joel Garreau, Cyndi Coon, and everyone else at ASU Emerge for letting me play with them. 

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Emerge 2015: Artists and Scientists Redesign the Future at ASU’s SkySong Center

Here’s a great event I’m participating in on March 6, 2015, at Arizona State University’s SkySong Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. If you’re in Phoenix this Friday, don’t miss it:

Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad joins a host of artists, engineers, designers, scientists, storytellers, technologists and other creatives on Friday, March 6, to build the future of choices and values

Arizona State University’s Emerge 2015 will showcase its radically new visions of the future on Friday, March 6, at the university’s SkySong Innovation Center in Scottsdale. The featured visionary – Radiolab host, creator and MacArthur “genius” Jad Abumrad – will join ten spellbinding “visitations from the future,” including theatrical performances, improvisation, games, dance and hands-on opportunities to design and build the future.

The event from 3:00 pm to midnight is free and open to the public, with registration requested through

The theme of Emerge 2015 ( is The Future of Choices and Values. “Humans today have unprecedented power to harness and reshape matter, energy and even life itself. Emerge asks what kinds of futures we should build together, at a moment in history when what we can do is almost unlimited,” says Joel Garreau, founding co-director of Emerge and Professor of Law, Culture and Values at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Emerge dares brilliant creative and technical minds to bring these questions to life through performance, technology and storytelling. The event gathers artists, designers, scientists, engineers and audiences to imagine optimistic, thoughtful futures. Part performance, part hands-on interactive experience, Emerge explores the ways we are already creating the future, and asks us to think about how we ensure it is the future we hope for – rather than one we dread. Each of the ten “visitations from the future,” as well as the performance by Abumrad, are different ways of responding to the open question about what kind of futures we can envision, and what kind of futures we want. Because the teams behind each of the visitations are drawn from such diverse backgrounds, their answers could not be more different.

“There’s a really wide range of experiences at Emerge this year. I’m especially excited to see how seriously Emerge takes the idea of play, and how the teams are incorporating opportunities for the audience to express their ideas creatively,” says Megan Halpern, director of collaboration and research for Emerge 2015.

Jad Abumrad, the headliner for this year’s event, is the creator and host of Radiolab, the popular public radio show about “curiosity” broadcast on over 500 stations across the nation and downloaded more than 9 million times a month as a podcast. In his Peabody Award-winning program, Abumrad combines journalism, storytelling, dialogue and music to craft compositions of exploration and discovery. At Emerge, his exciting performance called “Gut Churn” – which includes video and live sound manipulation – begins with a simple question: what does it mean to “innovate?” How does it feel to make something new in the world? On one level, this is a personal story of how Jad invented a new aesthetic. On another, it is a clinic in the art of storytelling. On a third and more profound level, the lecture is the result of a three-year investigation into the science, philosophy and art of uncertainty, which all began with the two words in his title – gut churn. What use do negative feelings have during the creative process? Do those feelings get in the way, or do they propel us forward?

Abumrad will be joined at Emerge 2015 by a host of talented artists, thinkers and creators, including Jonathon Keats, conceptual artist, Forbes art critic, and novelist; Don Marinelli, co-founder of the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center (ETC); Rachel Bowditch, theatre director and associate professor at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre; Toby Fraley, Pittsburgh-based artist and creator of the exhibition The Secret Life of Robots; Megan Halpern, co-founder of Redshift Productions, an arts-science performance and outreach company and postdoctoral researcher at ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society; and many others.

Emerge 2015’s ASU sponsors and partners include the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, the Center for Science and the Imagination, the SkySong Innovation Center, the Office of the President, the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, LightWorks and the ASU Art Museum. Additional sponsors and partners include KJZZ 91.5, Scottsdale Public Art, Whole Foods Market and the Arizona SciTech Festival.

The ten “visitations from the future” featured at Emerge 2015 are (see for full descriptions of each visitation):

The Deep Time Photo Lab, created by Jonathon Keats

Build a pinhole camera with a 100-year exposure time to hide somewhere in the Phoenix area, invisibly monitoring changes in the urban landscape between now and 2115.

You Have Been Inventoried, created by Eric Kingsbury

An interactive exploration of RFID and data visualization technology explores a future where the smallest elements of your behavior can be digitally tracked, stored and shared with people around you.

Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA, created by Donald Marinelli

A one-man show about government surveillance, swarms of DIY drones and an alternative Internet, inspired by a story of the same name from ASU’s science fiction anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (HarperCollins, 2014), written by Lee Konstantinou.

Lego Future Fairy Tales, created by Marcus Snell and Tamara Christiansen

Create your own fairy tale from the future in an epic Lego build led by experts in the art and science of Lego Serious Play.

Abraxa, created by Rachel Bowditch

A roaming atmospheric performance exploring utopian experiments, dreams and the concept of the ideal city, created by Rachel Bowditch of ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

The Happiness Project, created by Scott Cloutier

Sustainability researchers and community members explore how we can work together to build happier neighborhoods through sustainability interventions.

Bodies for a Global Brain, created by Eben Portnoy, Zoe Sandoval and Jeff Burke

A performative vision of a future in which humans connect their consciousness to global cloud computing networks, seeking connectedness and enlightenment. Originally funded by Google and presented by students from UCLA, the performance integrates Google Glass wearable devices with live theatre.

Ars Robotica, created by Lance Gharavi, Sai Vemprala, Matt Ragan and Stephen Christensen

What if we could teach robots to dance? How would it change the relationship between humans and machines? ASU roboticists and performance artists are taking on that challenge using the Baxter industrial robot.

Future Design Studio, created by Megan Halpern

Create your own prototypes of artifacts from the future. From parking tickets to coffins, the Future Design Studio asks you to imagine what everyday objects will look like in the future, and then invites you to watch as improv performers from The Torch Theatre create the world in which your objects exist.

The Artwork Forge, created by Toby Fraley

A coin-operated robotic art-dispensing machine that scans the Internet for inspiration and creates customized paintings on 4” x 6” blocks of wood.


Arizona State University’s SkySong Innovation Center is located at 1475 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale, just south of the intersection of North Scottsdale Road and East McDowell Road. Free valet parking will be available on site.