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Filmed on Wednesday July 22, 02015

Ramez Naam

Enhancing Humans, Advancing Humanity

Ramez Naam holds a number of patents in technology and artificial intelligence and was involved in key product development at Microsoft. He was also CEO of Apex Nanotechnologies. His books include the Nexus trilogy of science fiction thrillers, and in non-fiction: The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet and More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement.

Techno thriller meets realistic optimism. Ramez Naam, a former Microsoft executive with 19 patents to his name, wrote a riveting just-completed science fiction trilogy (Nexus, Crux, and Apex) that plays out current trends in brain enhancement. As Naam reports in a recent blog, “Neural implants could accomplish things no external interface could: Virtual and augmented reality with all 5 senses (or more); augmentation of human memory, attention, and learning speed; even multi-sense telepathy — sharing what we see, hear, touch, and even perhaps what we think and feel with others.“

Naam is also the author of important nonfiction books on humanity’s prospects for this century and beyond: More Than Human: Embracing the promise of biological enhancement and The Infinite Resource: The power of ideas on a finite planet (that one has blurbs from four previous SALT speakers—Steven Pinker, Charles C. Mann, Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Diamandis.)

In this talk Naam explores the growing convergence of human enhancements at the molecular, neural, and social levels: “I think the multiple visions of human enhancement will all focus on our increased connectivity with each other – in sci-fi ways like Nexus and in prosaic ways like the spread of computing power in mobile devices to people around the world.

Enhancing humans and humanity

Beginning with the accelerating pace of biotech tools for human health and enhancement, Naam noted that health issues such as disease prevention will be drastically easier to implement than enhancement. Preventing some hereditary diseases can be done with a single gene adjustment, whereas enhancement of traits like intelligence or longevity entails the fine tuning of hundreds of genes. He favors moving ahead with human germline engineering to totally eliminate some of our most horrific diseases.

Over time he expects that human gene editing will lead in the opposite direction from the enforced conformity depicted in Brave New World and the film “Gattaca.” Instead people will relish exploring variety, and the plummeting costs of the technology will mean that the poor will benefit as well as the rich.

Naam’s brain discussion began with the Sergey Brin quote, “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.” Brain interface tools are proliferating. There are already 200,000 successful cochlear implants which feed sound directly into the nervous system. There is a digital eye that feeds pretty good visual data directly to the brain via a jack in the side of the user’s head. There is a hippocampus chip that can restore brain function in a rat.

Rat brains have been linked so that what one rat learns, the other rat knows. The paper on that work was titled “Meta-organism of Two Rats on the Internet.” Humans also have been linked brain to brain at a distance to share function. Zebrafish have been lit up to show all their neurons firing in real time. Coming soon is the deployment of “neural dust” that can provide ultrasonic communications with tens of thousands of neurons at a time.

How profound are the ethical issues? Naam observed that we already have many of the attributes of telepathy in our cell phones and smart phones. They came so rapidly and cheaply that they erased most of the concerns about a “digital divide.” Half of the world is now on the Internet, with the rest coming fast. And rather than a divider, the technology proved to be an equalizer and a connector, fostering economic growth and the rapid spread and sifting of ideas.

Digital connectivity, he argued, is widening everyone’s “circle of empathy.” A viral video started the Arab Spring. Viral videos are changing how everyone thinks about race in America. These technologies, he concluded, are making humans more humane.

One question from the audience inquired about the origin of so much reference in the Nexus series to group meditation as the epitome of mind sharing. Naam noted that Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, are highly interested in brain science, and his own experiences of the ecstacy of mind sharing were at a rave at Burning Man and a ten-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Thailand.

I asked if he agreed with the current round of panic about superintelligent artificial intelligence posing an existential threat to humanity. He said no. The dark scenarios imagine an AI so smart it implements new and grotesquely harmful pathways to solve a poorly contextualized problem. Naam pointed out that “Software almost never does anything well by accident.” (A flock of Tweets burst from the theater with that line.) And the dark scenarios imagine an isolated rogue super-capable AI. In reality nothing really capable is developed in isolation.

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