Exocortices: A definition of a technology.

Oct 12 2017

Originally published at Mondo 2000, 10 October 2017.

A common theme of science fiction in the transhumanist vein, and less commonly in applied (read: practical) transhumanist circles is the concept of having an exocortex either installed within oneself, or interfaced in some way with one's brain to augment one's intelligence.  To paint a picture with a fairly broad brush, an exocortex was a system postulated by JCR Licklider in the research paper Man-Computer Symbiosis which would implement a new lobe of the human brain which was situated outside of the organism (though some components of it might be internal).  An exocortex would be a symbiotic device that would provide additional cognitive capacity or new capabilities that the organism previously did not posses, such as:

  • Identifying and executing cognitively intensive tasks (such as searching for and mining data for a project) on behalf of the organic brain, in effect freeing up CPU time for the wetware.
  • Adding additional density to existing neuronal networks to more rapidly and efficiently process information.  Thinking harder as well as faster.
  • Providing databases of experiential knowledge (synthetic memories) for the being to "remember" and act upon.  Skillsofts, basically.
  • Adding additional "execution threads" to one's thinking processes.  Cognitive multitasking.
  • Modifying the parameters of one's consciousness, for example, modulating emotions to suppress anxiety and/or stimulate interest, stimulating a hyperfocus state to enhance concentration, or artificially inducing zen states of consciousness.
  • Expanding short-term memory beyond baseline parameters.  For example, mechanisms that translate short-term memory into long-term memory significantly more efficiently.
  • Adding I/O interfaces to the organic brain to facilitate connection to external networks, processing devices, and other tools.

Book review: To Be A Machine

Mar 24 2017

It seems like everybody is reviewing the book To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O'Connell, and most of the book reviews are, to be frank, kind of pants.  The mainstream book reviewers seem to have read only the first and last chapters and make light (at best) or a joke (at worst) of the life's work of people who are actually doing the work in some parts of the medical profession instead of just playing "Won't it be nice when..." on Slack channels and Facebook.  A lot of people in the transhumanist community seem to be panning it because it was written by an outsider who took the time to ask thoughtful, critical questions of people who don't seem used to being questioned.  If nothing else, being unused to being questioned poses a problem to the field as a whole because it means that mistakes are caught much later than they otherwise would be, plus it shows a blind spot of the existential risk research community.

Disclaimer: I'm briefly mentioned in the book near the end as some guy at a Transhuman Visions conference in 2014.  While yes, I have some skin in this game I completely forgot this guy was there, mostly because we spoke for maybe thirty seconds tops.  The pizza after the conference was pretty good, though.

Inflatable space station modules, successful gene therapy for aging, and neuromorphic computing.

May 29 2016

Now that I've got some spare time (read: Leandra's grinding up a few score gigabytes of data), I'd like to write up some stuff that's been floating around in my #blogfodder queue for a couple of weeks.

First up, private-sector aerospace engineering and orbital insertion contractor SpaceX announced not too long ago announced that one of their unmanned Dragon spacecraft delivered an inflatable habitat module to the International Space Station. Following liftoff from Cape Canaveral the craft executed a rendezvous with the ISS in low earth orbit, where the ISS' manipulator arm grappled the craft. In addition to supplies and freight necessary for crew and station one of Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable station modules. For a space station peripheral the deflated BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) is remarkably small (1,360 kilographs of mass, 1.7 meters long, 2.4 meters in diameter), but when completely filled with atmosphere it grew to a full size of 3.2 meters in length by 4 meters in diameter (I think I got those matched up). The current gameplan is to slowly but carefully inflate but not use the module to see how it acts in microgravity; remember that this has never been attempted before so science is being done at the same time that history is being made. While this seems overly cautious there are good (albeit not well advertised) reasons for this: The phenomenon of outgassing (note: SSL cert was issued by NASA's CA, so your browser probably doesn't trust it), or materials one would expect to be stable beause they're usually on Earth emitting gases that can leave films on surfaces (or are potentially toxic in vivo) was first observed in early photogrammetry satellites. Thus, the experimental module is instrumented, probably to determine whether or not (and if so, how much) the construction materials will outgas while installed; the results will be used to provide data when Bigelow Aerospace designs the next iteration of the BEAM. Outgassing aside (because that's the phenomenon I have the most experience with) NASA and Bigelow are also interested in tracking how the BEAM stands up overall (it's a semiflexible pressurized envelope in a vacuum so how well the seams and structural members hold up are a major concern), how well it withstands micrometeoroid impacts (impacts with space dust, basically), how much radiation makes it inside the module over time (pretty much the big issue if this style of module will ever be used for habitation, to say nothing of experiments being corrupted), and, of course, whether or not it leaks.

At the end of the twenty-four month experiment, the BEAM will be sealed up, detached from the ISS, and jettisoned with the assistance of the MSS, whereupon its orbit will decay and it will eventually burn up upon re-entry.