Extreme Futurist Festival – Grinders, the Practical Transhumanists

I attended Rachel Haywire‘s Extreme Futurist Festival this past weekend and as I mentioned before, I found it to be much more artistic and counter-cultural than the Singularity Summit or Humanity+.  I like the empathetic side of the LA futurist scene.  Take Megan May Daalder‘s mirrorbox for instance.  She built a device as an art installation that shows two people half of their own face overlaid with half of their partner’s face.  This device supposedly builds empathy and is actually being studied by cognitive scientists.  It sprung from an artist’s urge to explore empathy.  I sometimes feel that us NorCal futurists do a poor job of exploring empathy.  We tend to be cold rationalists.

Several speakers at XFF were grinders, into present day augmentation and biohacking. Rich Lee made the case that we are too risk averse in America these days.  We lack the guts we used to have when we undertook the risky Apollo missions.  It seems fairly obvious that the more you have to lose, the more cautious you become, but I am pretty risk averse myself, so this may just be my cowardice talking.  Maybe our testicles are literally shrinking from all the endocrine disruptors in the environment. Though my girlfriend helpfully points out that testicles are not a prerequisite for bravery or for Apollo missions for that matter.

Lee went on to complain that excessive regulations and the risk of lawsuits were preventing us from getting jet packs into the hands of consumers where they belong.  I’m not generally sympathetic to this point of view since the most innovation seems to happen in the most heavily regulated states.   Also, a DOE scientist recently told me about the advances in energy efficiency brought about by government regulation.  Of course, the efficiency standards are controversial, and I understand Thiel’s argument that bits are relatively less regulated than atoms.  But I will say that lawsuits seem essential for the protection of the public from big corporations.  Even when regulations are needed they are often not properly enforced, so the public requires some recourse.  Part of me feels that if Lee is really interested in living in a gutsy place when men can be men and regulation is minimal, he might want to check out Somalia.

But I don’t want to bust on the grinders too hard.  The next speaker was Tim Cannon from Grindhouse Wetware and he talked about embedding magnets into fingertips which I guess is a grinder rite of passage.  It’s really the side of the ring finger of your non-dominant hand.  This adds a sixth sense where one can detect electromagnetic fields via the vibration of the magnet in their finger.  I had heard about this before and it seemed pretty cool, but not really that useful.  It sort of reminded of those Brainport sensory substitution devices where a vibrating matrix of pixels is placed on the tongue and represents images from a camera worn on the head.  I guess you can start to “see” the “image” of vibrations on your tongue after a while.  But then, this is not quite like that.  This is a totally new sense.  A sense of EM fields.  Meh.  Who cares?  I can always pull out my trusty gaussmeter for that.

But my ears perked up when Cannon noted that these magnets could really serve as a sort of an input port.  Any sensor data could be converted to EM vibrations.  He went on to describe a range finder glove called Bottlenose that basically gives the wearer who has embedded magnets a sonar sense.  Now that’s starting to get interesting.  I am still too cowardly to do it myself.  But when I said that I would wait until version 3.0, I was assured by a biohacker from Phoenix that they are already at version 3.0 and have worked out excellent bio-proofing to prevent toxicity, along with the optimal size, shape, and placement of the magnets.  Hmmm.  Let me think about it.

I could go on a long phenomenological rant here, but I will try to keep it short.  It’s really exciting to think about adding all of these extra senses.  I subscribe to the embodiment idea that our cognition is deeply shaped by our body and our senses.   Thus our cognition may be expanded by adding these senses.  At what cost? That’s less clear.  Will neurons be recruited away from the other senses?  But it will definitely change our experience of reality.  Consider the North Paw, a device that gives you a sense of north.  You could become like one of the aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr speakers who always know which way is north.  Which thought triggers an urge to go on a “how-language-shapes-cognition” rant, but I will refrain from that as well.  For now, I will only say that I find Boroditsky’s arguments compelling.

Anyway, Cannon also presented some other cool projects such as the HELEDD which is a tool to capture biodata and relay it via bluetooth.  This is one all the QS’ers are going to want.  They also have a transcranial Direct Current Stimulation device where you run electrical current directly into your brain called the Thinking Cap.  Dave Asprey has presented this sort of thing before.  The Grindhouse version comes with a library to operate an arduino controller so that you can tweak your brain electrocution, err stimulation.  Supposedly you can increase your working memory and concentration if you do it correctly.  I would definitely need to read up on this one more before giving it a shot.  It’s one thing to test this on stroke survivors without much to lose.  I feel like I have a higher level of cognition than your average stroke survivor.  (Most of the time.)  What are the long term consequences of shocking your brain incorrectly?

At the end of the day though, I was won over by Lee and Cannon’s bold and practical transhumanism.  I admire the grinder way of iterative biohacking to achieve affordable, open, and flexible hacks that anyone can access.  That stuff is really cool, even if I don’t have the guts to try it myself.

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