Designing Post-Humanity: Everyware in the Far Future

By Joe Lamantia

Published: May 25, 2009

“Everyware’s core principle is that computing will escape the tight confines of dedicated machines to permeate the wider world.”

Everyware’s core principle is that computing will escape the tight confines of dedicated machines to permeate the wider world. Mark Weiser described what we now call everyware as “machines that fit the human environment….” [1] In his view of the future, computing is fully integrated into the environment surrounding humanity, but remains essentially separate from and external to human beings in body, mind, and spirit. Weiser used this implied boundary between human and computer—and the ubiquitous computing scenarios he and John Seely Brown wrote were careful never to cross it—to maintain a distinction between the research and development efforts taking place in business and academic contexts and the speculative realm of science fiction.

However, the goal of this column is to explore and understand the evolving relationship between design and everyware, so it is useful to cross Weiser's boundary and look further ahead, at what may happen when meaningful distinctions between humans, technology, and the environment dissolve and all of these elements become fully integrated into a truly ubiquitous experience. In his novels Ilium and Olympos, author Dan Simmons creates just such a lifeware scenario, in which humanity itself is consciously and deliberately designed in all of its emotional, ethical, moral, political, social, cognitive, and cultural aspects. In the future Simmons envisioned in Ilium and Olympos, humanity is inseparable and indistinguishable from computing technology in all three aspects: mind, body, and spirit.

For designers at the forefront of user experience, it is easy to see the value of exploring fictions like Synthetic Serendipity. They are tantalizingly close at hand, and every passing day brings the vision closer through a new technology, service, or tangible experience that design touches in some concrete way.

“Our reactions to more speculative and exploratory fictions affect our decisions about the appropriate reach and scope of design in the future.”

Looking further afield is also important. Our reactions to more speculative and exploratory fictions affect our decisions about the appropriate reach and scope of design in the future. The conversations designers have about such fictions help us solidify both what and how we will design for the coming world of everyware. As designers, the decisions we make today will help decide what humanity is to be tomorrow.

This is not just the view of designers. Many futurist organizations recognize the central role of design—as an approach, method, practice, and community—in shaping the future nature of human experience and humanity. One of the more visible groups that is dedicated to influencing the future is the World Transhumanist Association, recently renamed Humanity+. “The Transhumanist Declaration,” the group’s manifesto, begins:

“Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet Earth.” [2]

It’s a nuanced declaration. “We foresee the feasibility of…” is hardly definitive, but the central role of design as a leading agent of the transhumanist agenda of technologically driven human improvement is clear. (As with any good manifesto, it is difficult to ignore the ambitious nature of their goals. Speaking for myself, I am not ready to agree humanity should eliminate aging. And I feel even more strongly that it’s not the proper role of design to focus on this aim.)

In their Declaration of Values, the World Transhumanist Association goes even further and sets the creation of evolved “post-humans” as their goal:

“Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.” [3]

As a description—and thus, a design vision to be realized—“vastly greater capacities” leaves much to the imagination. What would post-humans look like? How would they differ from humans today, and what greater capacities would they have? The most important question for designers interested in everyware is this: “What is the experience of being post-human?”

In reference to the ordinary human experience, as illustrated in Figure 1, transhumanism asserts the following:

“Our own current mode of being, therefore, spans but a minute subspace of what is possible or permitted by the physical constraints of the universe. It is not farfetched to suppose that there are parts of this larger space that represent extremely valuable ways of living, relating, feeling, and thinking.” [3]

Figure 1—The space of possible modes of being

Possibility spaces
“In its aim to explore a realm of possibilities that are defined by constraints, the transhuman project is akin to design. One might even say that it depends on design for its successful realization.”

What do we gain from making the leap to post-human? According to the World Transhumanist Association’s Declaration of Values, “Transhumanism promotes the quest to develop further so that we can explore hitherto inaccessible realms of value.” [3] In its aim to explore a realm of possibilities that are defined by constraints, the transhuman project is akin to design. One might even say that it depends on design for its successful realization.

Assuming design is central to this quest for enhanced value, we must ask, “What is a post-human?” According to the World Transhumanist Association’s FAQ:

“Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads, or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.” [4]

This description brings us squarely back to the future Dan Simmons envisions in the paired novels Ilium and Olympos. In these novels, Simmons explores the space of post-human possibility by depicting several versions of evolved humanity that neatly parallel the speculations of the World Transhumanist Association. He describes “old-style,” ordinary humans, augmented trans-humans, and true post-humans, who are essentially unrecognizable from our current viewpoint. The novels also feature a race of primarily robotic cyborgs that are endowed with human intelligence and are called moravecs, which the author named after scientist Hans Moravec. [5] Altogether, these humans and cyborgs present degrees of human integration with computing and the larger environment that span a continuum ranging from an emphasis on the human to an emphasis on the machine.

The “Old-Style” Humans

“From the perspective of design and everyware, Simmons’s old-style humans … are interesting primarily for what they cannot do. They cannot interact with the ubiquitous technology and information resources that are deeply integrated into the future environment.”

From the perspective of design and everyware, Simmons’s old-style humans, or ordinary people, are interesting primarily for what they cannot do. They cannot interact with the ubiquitous technology and information resources that are deeply integrated into the future environment. In essence, normal people find themselves disenfranchised and passive in the face of advanced technologies that have effectively disappeared from their environments and of which they are largely ignorant.

As a result, the post-humans who create and control these technologies can reduce ordinary people to information and manipulate them as such. At two points in the story, large groups of people suffer involuntary “dematerialization,” being turned into archived data for easy storage and transport. According to transhumanist thinking, “uploading,” in this manner, is one of the common paths for human enhancement using technology. They see uploading as a voluntary way of escaping or exceeding the physical constraints of human life. In Simmons’s fictions, however, uploading happens without the full consent of the people who are affected.

When reversed, this dematerialization does not appear to affect ordinary people in any way. They have no recollection or experience of time while dematerialized. The implications are rather unsettling—that the entire essence of the human experience is information we can easily manipulate using technology, that we can activate and deactivate people at will, and that time itself does not pass while they are deactivated.

The Moravecs

“Though varying greatly in their physical structure and size—depending on their different operating environments—all moravecs deliberately include human personality, emotions, and appreciation for aesthetics.”

The moravecs are cyborgs with human intelligence and consciousness that post-humans designed to explore the further reaches of the solar system. In terms of the space of post-human possibility, these cyborgs emphasize a machine-like direction in human development. Though varying greatly in their physical structure and size—depending on their different operating environments—all moravecs deliberately include human personality, emotions, and appreciation for aesthetics. By design, the moravecs can interpret and understand human culture, science, engineering, history, art, literature, poetry, and film. They have chosen to retain these human characteristics throughout their self-evolved history.

Among the range of modified or post-human forms Simmons depicts, the artificial and mostly mechanical moravecs, ironically, remain the most recognizably human in terms of their emotion and intellect, by virtue of their ability to appreciate art. Again, the implication—that human personality, emotion, and meaning are fully computable and transferable to non-human forms—is unsettling.

The Post-Humans

“Nearly inconceivable knowledge and technology allow post-humans to assume physical forms as they wish, teleport directly from one place to another, and alter the speed and flow of time in some circumstances.”

The post-humans Simmons describes are the least human-like of the various evolved humans in Ilium and Olympos. As the World Transhumanist Association FAQ suggests, their appearance and behavior are “no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.” [4] Post-human biology and physiology are so different from human norms that they have few recognizable anatomical structures such as organs and bones, though they often manifest human form. Nearly inconceivable knowledge and technology allow post-humans to assume physical forms as they wish, teleport directly from one place to another, and alter the speed and flow of time in some circumstances.

Simmons does not describe post-humans in great detail in Ilium and Olympos, saying they are more like quantum probability phenomena than humans—merely wavefront-based consciousnesses who can manifest and alter the fabric of space and time essentially at will. In his presentation of the post-humans, Simmons parallels the transhumanist perspective, which asserts, “Posthumans might shape themselves and their environment in so many new and profound ways that speculations about the detailed features of posthumans and the posthuman world are likely to fail.” [4]

The Trans-Humans

“Simmons uses trans-humans as a foil for exploring the possibilities of designing an improved humanity that is fully integrated into the larger computing-permeated environment.”

Simmons uses trans-humans as a foil for exploring the possibilities of designing an improved humanity that is fully integrated into the larger computing-permeated environment. The more advanced post-humans created trans-humans from scratch, augmenting them by designing extensive genetic and other technologies into their essential physical, chemical, biological, neurological, and genetic structures.

They’ve embedded many augmented abilities directly into trans-humans, and these abilities require no separate hardware or external computing devices. Trans-humans invoke and direct their everyware functions through some combination of gestures, voice commands, mental interactions, and visualizations. For example, here is Simmons’s description of a location-awareness tool trans-humans use for finding people—presumably anywhere on the Earth’s surface. No independent power supplies or transmission or reception facilities appear necessary. Simmons does not define the mechanisms supporting such shared visualizations, but all aspects of these functions are visible to both individuals and nearby group members.

“‘You activate proxnet by thinking one yellow circle with a green triangle in it,’ said Savi. She looked at her own palm and a bright rectangle appeared above it.

“Daeman did the same.

“‘Think of Hannah,’ said Savi.

“He did so. Both of their palms showed a continent—North America, but Daeman could not identify it—then a zoom to the south-central section, zoom north of the coastline, zoom to a series of complex words and topographic maps, zoom below trees to a stylized female form with Hannah’s head walking on a cartoon body, walking alone—no not alone, Daeman realized, for there was a question mark walking next to her.” [6]

In addition to location and the presence of other people, this function seems to provide real-time awareness of what the found person is doing or saying.

“‘How do we know it’s Hannah?’ asked Daeman, although he’d glimpsed the top of her head.

“‘Think close-up,’ said Savi. She showed him her palm cloud, which had zoomed lower, leveled out, and was watching the stylized Hannah with the real Hannah’s face, walk between stylized trees, along a stylized stream.

“He thought close-up and marveled at the clarity of the image. He could see the tree shadows on her features. She was speaking animatedly to the symbol—Savi had called it a question mark—floating next to her.” [6]

In a lengthy sequence later in the second novel, Simmons narrates the self-discovery and learning efforts of one character, who explores his cumulative trans-human abilities in detail.

“For instance, Harman clearly saw how he could trigger access to the logosphere to acquire information or to communicate with anyone anywhere, but these functions had been interrupted by whoever or whatever was running the rings these days.” [7]

Here we can see that, in addition to their embedded capabilities, the trans-humans are fully integrated into a series of globally accessible, environmentally delivered services that include

  • the logosphere—a complete and always accessible repository of all human information and knowledge—and experience, possibly
  • a transportation network that lets people move from one location to another by dematerializing and rematerializing in another place
  • healing and regeneration facilities that automatically repair injury or damage and even resurrect the dead

Integration with the global network lets trans-humans locate and navigate to any destination, with other people:

“Harman trolled through the other functions. Proxnet, farnet, and allnet were all down with the fax and logosphere functions—evidently everything internal worked; anything demanding use of the planetary system of satellites, orbital mass accumulators, fax and data transmitters, and so forth did not work.” [7]

In addition to environmental integration, trans-humans possess tools for biomedical self-awareness and health status monitoring:

“There was a medical monitor function that, when queried, told and showed Harman that his diet of food bars would lead to certain vitamin deficiencies if he continued it for more than three months. It also informed him that calcium was building up in his left kidney—resulting in a kidney stone in one year or less—that there were two polyps in his colon since his last Firmary visit, that his muscles were deteriorating with age—it had, after all, been ten years since his last Firmary tune-up, that a strep virus was failing to set up a colony in his throat because of his genetic-cued defenses, that his blood pressure was too high, and that there was the slightest of shadows on his left lung that should demand immediate attention by Firmary sensors.” [7]

Simmons’s trans-humans also have enhanced memory and experience recall capabilities that are based on bio-chemical information storage:

“Other functions served more immediate purposes. In the last few days he’d discovered he had a replay function through which he could relive with amazing clarity—more like experiencing something in reality than through memory—any point or event in his life, pinpointing the memory in a protein memory bundle rather than in his brain, uploading it, and timing the replay to the second.” [7]

“Simmons’s trans-humans have recording and transmitting capabilities that let them broadcast or share what is happening around them, effectively letting people act as nodes in a real-time experience-sharing network.”

Going beyond their own memory and recall for themselves, Simmons’s trans-humans have recording and transmitting capabilities that let them broadcast or share what is happening around them, effectively letting people act as nodes in a real-time experience-sharing network.

“Harman had discovered complex nanocameras and audioreceivers built into his skin cells. Some DNA-bound protein bundles could store this visual and auditory data. Other cells had been altered into bioelectronic transmitters—good for only short range because they were powered just by his own cellular energy, but easily strong enough to be picked up and boosted and retransmitted.” [7]

Simmons makes this point explicitly a bit later:

“Between logosphere voice-over protocols and this multimedia connection he could share both voice and full sensory data with any other human being who volunteered to uplink the input stream.” [7]

In a nod to the proliferating channels for sharing in new media, trans-humans have a “genetic touch-sharing” capability that lets them transfer large packets of data, knowledge, memories, or other information simply by touching one another.

“I don’t recall the design parameters right now, and I haven’t ever touch shared…. I do remember though that there were safety nets installed in the genetic touch-share function. You can’t pour harmful information to a fetus or a young child—replaying her own moment of conception, for instance.” [7]

The full range of trans-human abilities that Simmons envisions is extensive, covering emotions and basic metabolism:

“Other functions floated onto his mental checklist: figure-ground enhancement, enhanced empathy, another that he thought of as a berserker function…. There was a function that allowed him to put his body into a sort of hibernation, a temporary slowing of everything to the point of stasis.” [7]

Trans-human human integration with the larger computing-permeated environment is a constant in Simmons’s future, but the full extent of this integration and the experience it offers is surprising. “Besides the logosphere function, there was another function he could trigger that offered a complicated sensory interface with the biosphere.” [7]

Another character is the first to experience this extreme form of human, computing, and environmental integration, which conveys complete awareness of the biosphere. The interaction mechanisms that invoke this function are similar to those I’ve described previously, but the experience of the interface is quite different.

“There was no palm cloud. Instead, everything within his sight had been transformed. The nearby tress he had been ignoring except to borrow their shade were now towering complexities—transparent layer upon layer of pulsing, living tissue, dead bark, vesicles, veins, dead inner material showing structural vectors and rings with columns of flowing data, the moving green and red of life—needles, xylem, phloem, water, sugar, energy, sunlight. He knew if he could read the flowing data, he would understand exactly the hydrology of the living miracle that was that tree, know exactly how many foot pounds of pressure it was taking to osmotically raise all that water from the roots—Daeman could look down and see the roots under the soil, see the energy exchange of water from the soil into those roots and the long voyage, hundreds of feet, from roots to the vertical tubules raising that water—and then the lateral motion of the water, molecules of water in pipelines only molecules wide out along branches fifty, sixty, seventy feet wide.” [6]

This biosphere awareness function includes all aspects of the local ecosystem, as a true example of lifeware, in which computing fades into the background as “processing power so distributed throughout the environment that computers per se effectively disappear.” [8]

“Daeman looked up and saw sunlight for the discrete rain of energy it was—sunlight striking pine needles and being absorbed, sunlight striking the humus beneath his feet and warming the bacteria there. He could count the busy bacteria! The world around him was a torrent of information, a tidal wave of data, a million micro-ecologies interacting all at once, energy to energy.” [6]

This level of awareness and connection to the environment is, naturally, overwhelming for the unprepared:

“Gasping, almost gagging, Daeman whirled away, trying to shut off this vision, but everywhere was the complexity—the tagged and streaming ebb and flow of energy being passed, nutrients being absorbed, cells being fed, molecules dancing in the transparent trees, and breathing soil and sky ablaze with its rain and surge of sunlight and radio messages from the stars.” [6]

And the results of turning this intense lens on other people and on oneself can be debilitating:

“Daeman clasped his hands over his eyes, but too late; he’d looked at Savi—the old woman, but also a galaxy of life. Life nested in the flashing neurons of her brain behind that grinning skull and firing like lightning on the string of shocks along her retinal nerve and in the billions upon billions of living forms in her gut, busy, indifferent all, and—trying to look away, Daeman made the mistake of looking down at himself, into himself, past himself at his connection to the air and ground and sky….” [6]

Given all of these examples of embedded technologies that rely on environmental components to function, the trans-human experience Simmons creates in the Ilium and Olympos novels is truly, as van Kranenberg described, “an environment—where the computer has disappeared as a visible technology…human beings have become designable and designerly information spaces.” [9]

As we can see from his extensive reliance on gestural commands and human-projected visualizations, Simmons envisions very few dedicated computing devices. Indeed, in Ilium and Olympos, the primary interface for using computing functions is the human body. His vision is fully in line with von Kranenberg’s view: “When computational processes disappear, the environment becomes the interface.” [9]

The Palace

Let’s return for a moment to the artistic prefiguration of ubiquitous computing we saw in Borges’s “Parable of the Palace,” in which he wrote:

“What we do know—however incredible it may be—is that within the poem lay the entire enormous palace, whole and to the least detail, with every venerable porcelain it contained and every scene on every porcelain, all the lights and shadows of its twilights, and every forlorn or happy moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods, and dragons that had lived within it through all its endless past.”—Jorge Louis Borges [10]

“The trans-human experience Simmons envisions…, with complete biosphere integration and awareness, simultaneous recording and sharing of all human experience, and god-like, post-human designers, or creators, closely parallels Borges’s all-containing world-replica….”

Revisiting this parable, it is clear that the trans-human experience Simmons envisions in Ilium and Olympos, with complete biosphere integration and awareness, simultaneous recording and sharing of all human experience, and god-like, post-human designers, or creators, closely parallels Borges’s all-containing world-replica—the palace and its ruler, an all-powerful emperor.

Though the reality of everyware has not fully arrived, making its final form unknown, many of its fictional prefigurations, from literature to science fiction, are strongly consistent. What impact are these fictions having on the design and development of everyware? And what impact is design having on the shape of everyware itself?

Now that we’ve looked both backward to the origins of everyware and forward to its possible manifestations in the near and far futures, the next installment of my column will explore contemporary examples that show how lifeware and the ubiquitous experience are taking shape in the here and now through the integration of humans and computing.

References

[1] Weiser, Mark. “The Computer for the 21st Century.” Palo Alto Research Center, 1991. Retrieved October 15, 2008.

[2] Humanity+ (World Transhumanist Association). “The Transhumanist Declaration.” Humanity+. Retrieved March 1, 2009.

[3] Bostrom, Nick. “Transhumanist Values.” Humanity+. Retrieved March 1, 2009.

[4] Humanity+ (World Transhumanist Association). “Transhumanist FAQ.” Humanity+. Retrieved March 1, 2009.

[5] Wikipedia contributors. “Ilium (novel).” Wikipedia. Retrieved May 20, 2009.

[6] Simmons, Dan. Ilium. New York: HarperTorch, 2003.

[7] Simmons, Dan. Olympos. New York: EOS, 2005.

[8] Greenfield, Adam. Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2006.

[9] van Kranenberg, Rob. The Internet of Things: A Critique of Ambient Technology and the All-Seeing Network of RFID. Amsterdam: Institute Of Network Cultures, 2008.

[10] Borges, Jorge Louis. Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. 1998.

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