Volume 2, Issue 1 
1st Quarter, 2007

The Ethics of Imagination:
The Space Between Your Ears

Wrye Sententia, Ph.D.

Page 2 of 6

Virgil Ulam

Some of you may be familiar with what happened to Virgil Ulam.  He was a genetics researcher in the 1980s in California, and he was working about the time that Eric Drexler’s, Engines of Creation, came out.[1]

Ulam was fired from his company because on the side, outside of his legitimate company-sponsored research, he was experimenting with engineering cells.  Just before he was fired, rather than lose his job, he decided to inject one of his last samples into his body in order to save the work.

Image 1

Now this may seem like a stupid thing to do and certainly Ulam’s experience witnesses that effect, however, I think we can learn, again, something from his experience which points to the value of an empathic imagination. 

Of course, Ulam expected to extract these cells from his body later, after he had left the secured company lab, but as it turns out, he wasn’t able to, and the cells began to replicate. Except, rather that getting sick, Ulam actually found that his physical and mental properties -- his experience was improving, he was undergoing unexpected health benefits.

Image 2: Phase 1

I called this phase one, he felt a better agility, increased processing power, and improved mood and outlook, as well as improved memory recall, and other intellectual and physical capabilities.

A few weeks later, after he realized he couldn’t extract the cells from his body, he began to report that he felt benefits well beyond his abilities and functions that might be considered normal.  The engineered cells began to initiate life enhancing changes from correcting his twisted spinal column, to actually even improving his vision and his mental capabilities.

Image 3: Phase 2

But, after a few more weeks, Ulam documented shifts in his metabolism.  He was becoming irritable and he was starting to undergo negative consequences from his experiment.

Not long thereafter, Ulam found that the engineered cells, which had been previously kept out of his brain because of the blood brain barrier, had crossed into Ulam’s brain where they began circulating and communicating electronically and synaptically with Ulam’s neurons.

At this point, the cells began to convince Ulam of their superior world view.  They did this through a series of different things:  polite behavior, gentle reasoning, plus a dash of highly disruptive synaptic electrochemical behavior.

From this point on, things started to go badly for Ulam as a human.  Now you are either saying, "Who the hell is Ulam?  Wasn't he a mathematician?  Ulam’s crazy and so is Wrye," or you have recognized this for what it is, a science fiction plot. 

“It is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored.”
J.G. Ballard (1962)

This story is from a book by Greg Bear called Blood Music, published in 1985, a year before Drexler’s, Engines of CreationBlood Music is a science fiction novel about engineered neuronanotechnology, or "smart cells," that eventually develop into an ever-expanding, conscious membrane. 

Why am I sharing this with you?  A few months ago, at the recent Singularity Summit at Stanford University, Chris Peterson, who's the Vice President of Public Policy at the Foresight Institute [2], said, "If you're trying to project the long-term future, and what you get sounds like science fiction, you might be wrong.  But if it doesn't sound like science fiction, it's definitely wrong."

This calls attention to an unresolved conflict, and a complaint about discussions of nanoscale science and technology.  Many critics complain that it is not so much science as science fiction that they're hearing in the place of science.

For instance, a Stanford University biophysicist, Steven Block, had criticized many nanoscientists, including Eric Drexler and the Foresight crowd, claiming that they have been influenced by, "laughable science fiction expectations." 

Block complains that in order for real science to proceed, nanotechnologists ought to distance themselves from what he calls “the giggle factor.”  Certainly most university professors, industry researchers, government officials, have a strong insecurity to being taken for quacks.

Understandably, they try to distance themselves from such science fiction-esque scenarios.  Or to put it more generously, they are concerned that by embracing some of the more visionary aspects of science, the more radical conjectures and hypotheses for nanotechnology, that they will encourage a hysteria or mania in the larger population.

Yet, I would say that it is just such speculative visions of future technology, in both its good and bad forms, in pursuit of innovative science or of a good story, that offer, through their ability to spark the imagination in positive ways, a way to catalyze a more comprehensive understanding of possibility and a more ethical future.

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1. Engines of Creation (The Coming Era of Nanotechnology) – (Marvin Minsky) “[A]n enormously original book about the consequences of new technologies. It is ambitious and imaginative and, best of all, the thinking is technically sound.” Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of Creation. New York: Anchor Books, 1986.

2. Foresight Institute - “[A] leading think tank and public interest institute on nanotechnology. Founded in 1986, Foresight was the first organization to educate society about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. At that time, nanotechnology was a little-known concept.” Foresight.org February 12, 2007 12:56 pm EST



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