Articles

Superpowers

August 10, 2019


This episode is sponsored by Brilliant. Growing up, a lot of us dreamed of having
comic book superpowers. In the future, these dreams could come true. A pretty popular topic on this show and many
other speculations in futurism and science fiction is transhumanism and options like
heightened intelligence or super strength and speed. We’ve touched on such notions before, but
I thought today we’d spread our wings out a bit and look at some of the less down to
Earth superpowers, in our general discussion of Clarketech, technologies so advanced they
are indistinguishable from magic. At the same time, while many might seem like
the realm of the fantastic, possible only through entirely new science at odds with
our current understanding, many probably can be approximated with technologies not that
far off. In many ways they are in the realm of the
future and fantastic only because we don’t have them now, and many technologies we already
possess would have been magical and fantastic to our ancestors. Superpowers are hardly limited to comic books,
and are at least as old as mythology. Many a comic book hero is drawn in whole or
part from mythology. Flight is an obvious example. But, what is mundane to us now would be extraordinary
to our forebears, and I don’t doubt what is extraordinary to us will prove to be mundane
in the future too. We actually do sell jetpacks these days, and
though expensive, that’s mostly economy of scale, much as the ability to go SCUBA
diving and visit the world beneath the waves is still a wonder, but one experienced by
millions each year. Olympian deities living atop mountains or
up in the sky, and able to call down lightning or possessing the superhuman speed or the
strength of ten men are all entirely plausible options for us in the future. Arcane knowledge or healing powers possessed,
or allegedly possessed, by wizards are now commonplace, though seers able to predict
the weather remain elusive, at least here in my home in Ohio, where weather forecasts
for even the next day are often unreliable. But that might be a good place to start. The ability to predict the future, precognition,
is one we have too many examples of to count in Comic Books, with Dr. Manhattan of the
Watchmen series perhaps being the best known. Other fictional examples are also too numerous
to count, from the Jedi and Sith of Star Wars to classic science fiction such as the Navigators
of Frank Herbert’s Dune or Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. While that last one is an example of using
raw science and math of Psychohistory, rather than magic, to foresee the future, as we saw
in our episode on Psychohistory, even the most powerful computer we can imagine could
not accurately predict the future of human events. The Butterfly Effect and Quantum Mechanics
simply make long range prediction impossible in many areas. But it is worth remembering humans do have
precognition, albeit in most contexts only for maybe a second. Indeed, between all the travel time of information
to reach you, get sensed, get sent to the brain, processed, decided on, reacted to and
so on, we don’t really live in the present but have a sort of hazy blur of past and future
we exist in which only seems mundane rather than awesome because it is the textbook example
of the mundane – something we experience constantly and have our whole life. If you want to catch a ball, you have to anticipate
where it will be when your hand gets there while you are looking at a ‘present’ location
of that ball where it isn’t at anymore when you see it – considerably more time elapses
for the signals to move from your eyeballs to your brain than from the photons leaving
that ball and reaching your retinas. It is not the same as what passes for you
to hear an object either or feel the wind of its passage. Nor is the transmission time to your various
muscles or their own contraction time even vaguely uniform. We often talk of how brains are powerful supercomputers,
and that is an awful lot of what your brain is doing. Gathering data, ordering it in a proper sequence,
making predictions and assembling best-guess situation reports for your conscious mind. When we look at examples like Spiderman or
the Jedi, with their danger senses warning them of something about to happen, that’s
something we already have to a limited degree, and advancements in mind augmentation could
very easily increase the accuracy and range of those predictions. It’s quite probably the preferred path for
mind augmentation in the future. One legitimate concern about massively increasing
intelligence, should it be possible, is that it might so alter the person that they’re
not even human in their psychology anymore, let alone the same person, arguably making
such enhancements a type of suicide, or at least metamorphosis. Many might find that undesirable no matter
what the gain. If they’re being done to simply increase
the accuracy of what your conscious mind is perceiving, core personality might be maintained. And this isn’t simply stuff like catching
or throwing a ball better, you might glance up at the night sky and know what time it
is and exactly where you are simply by having subconsciously calculated all the star positions
and angles, or the day sky and know it will rain in 27 minutes. Or be able to drive through a downtown city
at Formula One race car speeds or dodge bullets because you and everyone else simply know
where everything is going with that same subconscious certainty you have when reaching out to clasp
and shake someone’s hand. In the same way that precognition is a valuable
ability, so is effective omniscience, and we already have gotten used to being able
to get data or answers from our networks very quickly, like navigating to a destination
using a GPS. This, like precognition is also not new. Human speech lets us lightly network to each
other when nearby to share information others have, the invention of writing let us access
that human network when the node with the information might be far away or even centuries
dead. Phones and the modern internet further extend
that, but a more direct linkage than speech or writing might allow you to simply wonder
what time it is and know, because you have an internal clock or subconsciously pinged
an atomic clock somewhere. Ditto weather forecasts. Ditto free seats at the local restaurants,
traffic jams, or how many leaves are on the tree you just walked by. But take this a bit farther, right now if
you want to know what’s in your food, you can look at the ingredients list and google
them up, something our ancestors couldn’t do, and save us a lot of pointless memorization. But that still requires a lot of active effort,
and in the future you might find yourself subconsciously aware of what all the ingredients
and health effects are of a piece of food simply by regarding it, in the same way you
don’t really have to think to recognize a pen from a pencil or a cupcake from a banana,
you just know. But of course you don’t, some huge search
was conducted in your brain to determine what that object was and call up relevant attributes
and concerns. Super-senses, possessed by characters like
Superman or Wolverine, are actually the easy part, even stuff like X-Ray vision, but integrating
that into someone’s head is harder. It’s not just passing the info in a way
the brain can process but also in guessing its implications. We see someone with heightened vision or hearing
being able to detect the bad guys nearby. We don’t see them cooking without measuring
cups because their senses and processing are so acute they can tilt a jug of milk with
a casual hand wave and pour out exactly 100 milliliters of milk, or 93.2 because they
want a slightly smaller serving exactly appropriate to their appetite and their senses, or linkage
to exterior sensors and reference, are so ramped up that they can see a cupcake and
just know, without needing to consciously think about it, exactly what the recipe was
and how to alter it to their needs. Of course we don’t picture superheroes doing
stuff like that because it is mundane, and part of the point of a superpower is that
it’s an extraordinary thing because other people can’t do that. I don’t know what our cats or dogs think
of our ability to summon light whenever and wherever we want it or open doors or cans
of food, nor our ability to use our opposable thumb to manipulate or move objects at a whim
or change the color of our fur. To us that is mundane while to them it is
extraordinary, assuming their minds can really encompass those actions in their entirety. Of course our furry friends often feature
in superpowers too. A few months back in our Future Pets episode
we noted that technology might allow us to talk with them or see through their eyes or
replicate any of the special nature powers we see in folks like Aquaman or Druids or
other nature-oriented characters. Though as mentioned there, unless you’re
building in some ability to compel them to act, talking to animals doesn’t guarantee
results, anymore than talking to a toddler as they don’t have some personal language
akin to a human one that includes deep abstraction of concepts. In general, even the smartest of our furry
friends make your average toddler look patient, attentive, and deep. What else is on the table? Of course we’ve got a lot of superheroes,
and villains, who possess no special powers – Batman, Iron Man, Lex Luthor, and my personal
favorite superhero, Dr. Doom – to name just a few, though they arguably possess the greatest
superpowers: vast intelligence and resources. We don’t normally think of Isaac Newton
or Albert Einstein as superheroes, but they were both capable of gravity manipulation,
from a certain point of view, and we saw a lot of awesome options for what you could
do with that or anti-gravity in our last Clarketech episode. Topping out the Marvel comic villains we have
Magneto, the aptly named master of magnetism, something we probably could give people, and
of course his frenemy Professor Xavier, who can read minds. Magneto often is shown to be so good with
his powers he can do things like lock people in place or throw them by exerting force on
the iron in their blood, and he could presumably do some mind reading by doing Magnetic Resonance
Imaging. Indeed I’d not be surprised if he has, I’ve
not read the comics since the 90s and MRIs weren’t as common then for someone to think
of having him do that. It’s one of those examples we often see
with fictional technologies and our examples in Clarketech of unexpected and potent uses
the writer didn’t initially think of. But telepathy, such as Professor Xavier has,
is a staple of even science fiction that often otherwise avoided the fantastic, like Isaac
Asimov’s Foundation or Robots series. Also, the Minds in Iain Bank’s Culture universe
can trivially read human thoughts and memories, although it was considered highly rude and
invasive to do so. Personally I always found it irritating how
many science fiction stories would throw in psychic powers like magic into settings that
were focused on science, but this may be an example where it will turn out justified. As mentioned earlier, we are essentially a
limited type of Hive Mind already, something we looked at in more detail in the Hive Minds
episode, and we seem to be heading down that path a bit more with modern technology. Speech is slow and low bandwidth, but is fundamentally
a type of wifi network. That’s the same as the early internet or
texting was mostly just text but has come to include image or audio and video clips. I would not be surprised if mind-machine interfaces
get developed and we started supplementing our normal language by casting images or memories
at each other rather than describing them. We used to invite people over to see our photos
after a trip… and before cameras just describe them… and we now just post the album to
our Facebook page. We’ve all been at a table with a friend
who was describing something and just stopped and grabbed their phone to show us that person,
place, or whichever instead, and should anyone invent contact lenses that can function as
a TV we’ll have an outbreak of apps designed to let us easily relay or manage sent images. Taking that to the next level would be straight
brain to brain transmission, though ‘brain’ might be a rather broad term at that point
as you might have chunks of your mind that were computers implanted into your skull,
carried in your pocket, or just on a cloud. Going beyond even that might be simply sending
entire thoughts and reasoned arguments to people, to the point of simply sharing with
someone your knowledge of martial arts, like in the Matrix, or calculus so you explain
some bit of science to them and the general life conclusions you derived from it, though
that edges very close to brainwashing or even worse, personality overwriting, and I’d
imagine there’d be just as much software for preventing unwanted intrusions and sharing
as for sharing. It’s not really the flashy mind-power like
bending a spoon but arguably even more handy and certainly more realistic. Of course telekinesis is another example of
a superpower we see in another X-man, or woman, Jean Grey, and with the Jedi of Star Wars. Though we never see them get smashed into
the floor by the counterforce of lifting heavy objects up. This is also another example where we need
to point out that we already have it. I can move things with my mind, like I’m
moving keys while typing this, and we need to keep trivial examples like that in mind
when considering technological approaches to these superpowers. It’s the same as we noted that mundane speech
is a type of telepathy. Partially that’s because it’s the basis
for how we can extend our abilities, but also to remind us of how progressive steps of development
will tend to be shaped by our current methods and impact our approach to life. So there’s a bunch of drones, or force beams,
like miniature star trek tractors beams, that you can control with hand gestures or direct
mind-machine interface. I don’t know if it really matters how my
coffee cup gets from my desk to my kitchen, refills itself with coffee, and returns to
my desk, so long as it’s not distracting me. When you think about it, having to think your
coffee cup to levitate across the room is a lot less advantageous than shooting a command
to a small drone that races over to grab the cup and bring it back full. As we mentioned in our look at power armor,
you might see someone dressed up like Iron Man with all sort of gadgets and weapons on
that suit, but you’re probably more likely to see those gadgets be focused on defense
and control, while some cadre of automatons does most of the real fighting. It’s the same idea: people might tend to
be so wired into their home that everything is responding to their conscious or even subconscious
commands, and might tend to walk around outside with a swarm of drones doing the same. Miniaturize that enough and you wouldn’t
be able to even see them doing stuff, which makes a nice alternative if you never invent
tractor beams or some magnetic or sonic equivalent. But that also raises the notion of Utility
Fog and Smart Matter. These are very tiny machines that can rapidly
form up into an object or more complex machines themselves. These might just be microscopic cells sized
things you could barely see or all the way down to near atomic scale where quantum mechanics
probably limits further miniaturization. The simple image of this are constructs like
the T-1000 from Terminator or probably more accurately the T-3000 version that Doctor
Who turns the franchise’s primary protagonist into, as I got the impression the ‘machine
phase matter’ the T-3000 was made out of was basically a limited Utility Fog or Fairly
Smart Matter. You might walk around with normal-looking
clothes composed of something like that and it just forms whatever you need. It could probably also do limited manufacturing
or imitations so you could conjure up an apple or glass of water, by imitating the apples
appearance and texture and triggering your taste and smell senses, or condensing water
right out of the air for that glass of water. Alternatively you might not wear it as clothes
or walk around with it like some mist or fog that accompanies you, but simply be that fog
yourself. While having an adamantium skeleton or power
armor or being cyborged or genetically engineered for super strength sounds neat, being composed
of a trillion little machines grants some huge advantages, and if the mind balks at
that notion, do keep in mind that is literally true of you right now. You are composed of a ton of little machines
already. I should note that they’d probably come
in a ton of different types and sizes too, much as our cells and symbiotic bacteria and
viruses do, rather than some universal tiny robot. Specialization is advantageous and when you’ve
got trillions of something, it kind of makes sense to instead have thousands of different
species and types each numbering in the billions too. Such an individual pretty much automatically
has all the abilities we’ve discussed so far and probably could curbstomp your typical
superhero, but they’d also have access to teleportation and telepresence. That latter, telepresence, which is projecting
your awareness or person somewhere else, is also one of those technologies we have creeping
quietly into mainstream use. Being able to look far away and remotely control
things, even android bodies that temporarily look like you and grant you the same feeling
of presence as if you were standing there, are probably not that far off. This is also an effective equivalent to teleportation,
and one of the options we discussed in that episode. In the end, mimicking a superpower first has
to focus on asking what that superpower is meant to achieve, because while being able
to throw balls of fire you’ve conjured with your mind sounds cooler, it’s functionally
no different than just having a tech-based solution like a wrist-mounted flamethrower. I feel that’s a bit of an important point,
because in that regard all technology is basically superpowers, and we’re getting more every
year. Of course if we really want specific superpowers,
there will always be virtual reality, and as noted in Virtual Worlds, that could be
where most folks spend most of their time in the future anyway, and at certain levels
of technology there’s really nothing virtual about them anymore. All these options might not be as cool as
getting your superpowers from Cosmic Radiation or standing next to an Atomic Bomb testing
site, but they do give you those superpowers for all practical purposes, whereas radiation
mostly just gives you cancer, so I know which one I’d prefer. It’s also important to realise that once
folks have a superhero ability, then it becomes mundane. The Dick Tracey comic strip of the 1930s had
the super hero making use of technology gizmos in much the same way we see Ironman using
technology in our generation. One prominent superhero tool he used was a
two-way radio mounted in his watch for communicating. If that sounds boringly familiar, it’s because
the smartwatch has now entered the mainstream. Back then, it was considered a superhero device. So, as we develop our technologies, they will
no doubt resemble the superhero abilities we currently consider fanciful. Future generations will shrug and say that
those abilities aren’t superhero abilities while to us they clearly are. A critical point today is that our real superpowers
are our minds, and our understanding of math and science, that lets us forge new technologies
and dream up new applications of them. If you’d like to learn more math and science,
try out Brilliant. Their online courses and daily challenges
let you enhance your knowledge of math and science with easy to learn interactive methods
from the comfort of your own home and at your own pace. To make it that even easier, Brilliant now
lets you download any of their dozens of interactive courses through the mobile app, and you’ll
be able to solve fascinating problems in math, science, and computer science no matter where
you are, or how spotty your internet connection. If you’d like to learn more science, math,
and computer science, go to brilliant.org/IsaacArthur and sign up for free. And also, the first 200 people that go to
that link will get 20% off the annual Premium subscription, so you can solve all the daily
challenges in the archives and access dozens of problem solving courses. Next week we’ll be looking at ways to launch
spaceships into orbit by beaming in energy to the spaceship, which would also be a handy
approach for a personal jetpack, and the week after that will be the Fourth of July, when
everyone in the US light’s up their grills, and we’ll look at some options for artificial
synthetic meat as well as some other tasty technologies that might lead to culinary options
like Mammoth Steaks and Dino-Burgers. For alerts when those and other episodes come
out, make sure to subscribe to the channel, and you can join in the discussion on superpowers
in the comments below or at any of our forums on Facebook, Reddit, Patreon, or our website,
IsaacArthur.net, all linked in the video description. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *