The following article is part of a six-part Transhumanity.net series, comprising a single, previously unpublished paper delivered at the 2010 Humanity+ UK conference in London. The presentation was originally titled “Shock Level Five: Augmented Perception, Perceptuo-Centrism, and Reality”.
Perceptual augmentation is unlikely to be limited to improving the acuity of sensations presently familiar to humans. Enhanced hearing and visual aids, which can interpret signals outside the human perceptual range, are a development we might reasonably expect in the near future. A perceptuo-centric interpretation of the anthropic principle suggests that we find ourselves in a reality with particular characteristics because they are the characteristics we are equipped to perceive. Perceptually augmented posthumans may therefore find that some of the apparently immutable aspects of physical reality are in fact merely markers of the perimeter of human perceptual capability. The concept of a threshold between human and posthuman perceptual modes is considered in relation to related ideas, such as epistemological limits imposed by accelerating technological development, and the system of Future Shock Levels proposed by Yudkowsky (1999).
A central tenet of transhumanism is that augmentation of human capabilities is desirable. In the Transhumanist FAQ (Bostrom, 2003), Transhumanism is defined as follows:
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
Augmented perception is arguably a particularly tractable aspect of the kind of enhancements usually considered by transhumanists. Such tractability is evidenced by the relatively rapid progress in mapping brain regions dedicated to processing sensory information, and by recent advances in the development of prosthetic hearing and visual aids (e.g. Loizou, 2006). Despite such advances, however, most discussion of perceptual augmentation is still presented in terms of the five senses familiar to us as human beings. Moreover, the limitations of our normal sensory range are necessarily invisible to us, and therefore do not often become the focus of transhumanist thinking.
It is unlikely, however, that advances in perceptual capability will be limited to improving the acuity of sensations presently familiar to humans. We already have machines which can, like certain animals, interpret signals outside the range of normal human perception. Application of such technologies to perceptual aids is a development we might reasonably expect in the near future (Kurzweil, 2005).
In order to ground further discussion with specifics, let us take a moment to review some recent, relevant technological developments. The developments described below fall broadly into the areas of perceptual aids for people with disabilities, and interpreting signals which are beyond the limits of human perception. For the moment these are independent fields of technological development, but there is no reason to believe that they will necessarily remain so.
Cochlear implants, sometimes referred to as “bionic ears”, are composed of a small microphone, programmed speech processor, and a transmitter which sends signals to a subdermal receiver and stimulator. An array of electrodes attached to the cochlea sends the resultant impulses directly to the brain through the auditory nerve system. This arrangement allows the natural apparatus of hearing to be completely bypassed (residual natural hearing is in fact sometimes destroyed by nerve damage during the implantation process). Cochlear implants, which are currently used by nearly two hundred thousand people worldwide (Davis, 2009), are not yet as effective as natural human hearing, but are a significant improvement upon traditional hearing aids which can only amplify audio signals for natural hearing, rather than providing an entirely artificial alternative.
The artificial retina is a conceptually similar device, which bypasses retinal photoreceptors, sending pre-processed images from a camera directly to visual brain regions. Artificial retina projects are currently in progress at the California Institute of Technology, U.S. Department of Energy, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Southern California, not to mention similar research in the private sector (e.g. Hans Moravec and Scott Friedman’s SEEGRID Corporation). Although currently far less effective than natural human sight, the efficacy of such artificial solutions is improving, from arrays of only a few electrodes (each roughly corresponding to one pixel in the visual field) around the turn of the century to sixty or more in 2009 (U.S. Department of Energy, 2010).
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