The following article is part of a six-part Transhumanity.net series, comprising a single, previously unpublished paper delivered at the 2010 Humanity+ UK conference in London.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”.
In the previous sections, we considered the possibility that perceptual technologies intended for helping people with disabilities, and those originally designed for military or industrial applications, might converge and lead to a general augmentation of perceptual capabilities beyond human limitations. The perceptuo-centrist position is that such a technological development might eventually allow us to demonstrate the existence of a threshold between qualitatively different modes of human and posthuman perception. The identification of such a threshold, based as it would be on differences been unmodified and technologically enhanced persons, would arguably be as valid or real as any distinction between humans and posthumans.
Any such perceptual threshold would be epistemological in nature, because it would demarcate the division between those aspects of physical existence which can be known (i.e. perceived directly) by unmodified human beings, and those which cannot. The equation of direct (personal) perception with knowledge is in this case justified, on the grounds that any unmodified human with true information about the nature of existence beyond the perceptual threshold would have to be inferring it in some way, or simply trusting in the truth of information supplied by others. Although these indirect forms may be considered knowledge with validity, they are qualitatively different to the experiential knowledge held by those able to cross the perceptual threshold themselves.
The idea of an epistemological threshold, beyond which lies a form of knowledge unaccessible to humans, is one with precedent in transhumanist thought. I refer to Vernor Vinge’s (1993) description of the “event horizon” associated with his concept of a technological Singularity, which drew upon earlier forms of the idea considered by Stanislaw Ulam in 1958 (unpublished) and I.J. Good (1965). Although the concept of a technological Singularity (henceforth simply “Singularity”) has since been broadened by thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil (2005), Vinge’s version was intended as a specific illustration of the accelerating availability of computational power, and its implications for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Intelligence Amplification or Augmentation (IA) technologies. Vinge suggested that once such accelerating technological development were to reach a critical pace, it would lead to an event (the Singularity) which is best described by an analogy with the gravitational singularities known to physicists.
Gravitational singularities each have associated event horizons, popularly known as “black holes”. A black hole is caused by the inability of light to escape from the gravitational attraction caused by the tiny (and yet effectively infinitely dense) singularity. Vinge’s technological Singularity is, in this analogy, the point at which rates of technological development are expected to reach incalculable levels (by human standards), and the associated “event horizon” represents a profound human inability to predict what is going to happen after the Singularity occurs. The breakdown of reliable forecasting represented by the event horizon is said to be caused by human inability to cope with an extraordinary and accelerating pace of change, in the face of which “old models must be discarded” (Vinge, 1993).
Although agreement with such “Singularitarian” (Kurzweil, 2005) expectations is not required by the arguments being made here, the idea of an epistemological “event horizon” may provide an extant transhumanist terminology for thinking about perceptuo-centrism. An attempt to relate the perceptuo-centrist conception of a posthuman perceptual threshold to Singularitarian ideas may be made possible by using the language of Future Shock.
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