The following article is part of a six-part Transhumanity.net series, comprising a single, previously unpublished paper delivered at the 2010 Humanity+ UK conference in London.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”.
Many animals have better night vision than humans do, due to differences in the morphology of their eyes. Such differences include having a larger eyeball, lens, and/or optical aperture, more rods than cones (or rods exclusively) in the retina, a tapetum lucidum (a layer of tissue in the back of the eye which reflects light back to the retina), and better adapted neurological processing. These adaptions allow enhanced vision of what is known as visible light (i.e. visible to humans), but we also know that butterflies have ‘spectral enhanced’ vision relative to humans, allowing them to perceive ultraviolet light (Stavenga & Arikawa, 2006). Low-light or “night vision” goggles are now a routinely used item of equipment within modern military settings. Such forms of enhanced vision work by either amplifying the amount of visible light available, or by using information from regions of the electromagnetic spectrum which do not correspond to visible light, such as infrared and ultraviolet.
We have already developed forms of artificial “vision” which are beyond the capabilities of any known organism. One such area of study is that of ‘thermal imaging’ (also known as thermography), which is a form of infrared imaging. Thermal imaging involves depiction of the radiation generated by any heat source, such as living beings, and allows us to visualize scenes where there are different levels of heat being generated, but little or no visible light available. Because the various gradations of thermal radiation do not have intrinsic counterparts in the shades and colours familiar from normal human experience of visible light, a technique known as ‘false-colour imaging’ must be applied in the interpretation of infrared signals for unmodified humans (usually with lighter colours denoting greater thermal radiation).
More generally, false-colour imaging involves the assignment of specific colours to particular visual features, in order to increase the salience of some aspect of the image. In the case of thermography, false-colour is used to create an analogue of the visible light spectrum. Alternatively, false colours may be assigned according to other criteria, such as maximizing the amount of useful information which can be extracted from an image or scene. This last criterion is commonly employed in astronomy, where false-colour images are used to reveal cosmological features invisible to the naked eye.
In recent decades, the idea of altering human phenomenological awareness has commonly been associated with drugs (either medicinal or recreational) and the presentation of imagery (from cinema to Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies). The brief review of perceptual augmentation technologies above suggests that we may be on the verge of a new era, in which control over one’s own phenomenology will become a more precise science, and one not necessarily restricted to a focus on unreal or constructed scenes. In other words, augmented perception should allow trans- and posthumans a great degree of flexibility in choosing the features of their subjective reality, even without taking Virtual Reality into consideration. The phrase “should allow”, as used above, may refer to both technological plausibility and a moral imperative. That imperative (to allow trans- and posthumans freedom of control over their own sensoria) was advocated by the psychologist Timothy Leary (Leary, 1983), and also appears to be a necessary corollary of the transhumanist argument for “morphological freedom” (More, 1993).
Commentators familiar with earlier, more primitive technologies may feel compelled to complain that manipulating one’s own subjective experience would necessarily (or at least probably) lead to a potentially dangerous divorce from reality. By “reality”, in this instance, such critics would be referring to objective physical characteristics of the universe – those features which continue to exist, regardless of whether we perceive them or not. Development of a mature phenomenological technology would be like any other scientific or industrial process, allowing ample opportunities for research and testing. This would ensure that such engineered forms of consciousness map at least as reliably, or adaptively, on to objective existence as does unmodified human sensation (when safeguards are in place). For example, if a trans- or posthuman with augmented perception were to personalize their sensorium settings in potentially dangerous ways, a warning message might persist until the settings again comply with appropriate guidelines.
We can see that convergence of plausible near-future technologies could thus give rise to people who are able to directly perceive a wide range of stimuli previously invisible or inaudible to humans (to focus on sight and hearing for the sake of simplicity). A modest interpretation of that situation would lead us to expect a world in which things seem much the same as before, perhaps with a little extra colour (quite literally, once you take false-colour imaging into account). A more radical consequence, however, is suggested by the concept known as the anthropic principle.
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