Monthly Archives: December 2012


Still have Deus Ex on the brain, along with most of the other people who have been spending time in the Fourth High lounge lately. We’ve been talking quite a bit about how we’d fare in a world full of augmentation technology, and figured we might as well get a little writing out of the deal.

Here’s the idea:

Fifteen years in the future, human augmentation a la Deus Ex is available to the general public. Where will you be in fifteen years? Will you be augmented? (If so, you get to choose up to five of the ones in-game.) Most importantly, in what ways will augmentation change your life?

It’s three in the morning in the rainforests of northeastern Madagascar, and I’m the only human around for miles. With no light pollution to speak of and a new moon hanging over the dense canopy, the forest floor should be ink-black and impossible to navigate. Fifteen years ago it would have been madness to do a late-night transect without so much as a flashlight, but my augmentations mean I’m practically a living research station. Instead of relying on camera traps to gather information about threatened species in remote parts of this island, I can just go for a walk and collect it myself.

Through my mechanical eyes, the world is bright as day. The tangled maze of trees and vines are outlined in pale yellow, and any animals I pass are surrounded by a halo of gold. I’ve got my retinal implants calibrated to look for the endangered creatures I’m studying, keyed in to heat signatures, movement, and pattern recognition. My HUD displays a small map in the corner of my vision, showing my location relative to the camp my team and I are working from. As somebody who’s specializing in the behavior patterns of nocturnal mammals, the ability to see in the dark is a pretty convenient thing.

Mosquitoes buzz around my ears, and I find myself wishing that my dermal armor protected against them a little better. The armor’s designed to shield me from punctures and blows — any sort of injury that would break the skin and damage tissue beneath — but does next to nothing against insects’ tiny pincers and proboscises. It’s really nice to not have to worry about infections from cuts out here, but even the small things in the jungle still like to bite. A lot.

Not that the armor doesn’t come in handy: an angry fossa tried to take a chunk out of my forearm the other day when I was adjusting its radio collar. The matrix of carbon nanotubes under my skin instantly went rigid, and the animal recoiled, confused as to why it suddenly seemed to be biting something closer to the consistency of ceramic than muscle. “No hard feelings,” I told it, buckling its collar back into place before letting it loose. “It takes some getting used to on my end, too.”

The bite didn’t hurt. Didn’t even leave a mark. Few things do anymore, and to be honest I’m not sure how I feel about that. Scars are sort of a badge of honor in outdoor research, and the only ones I’ve got left are from my pre-aug years. Before I replaced my legs, I still had silvery-pink patches on my heels from my very first fieldwork assignment in my freshman year of college. Those are gone now, along with the bad knee and the deep gouge in my shin from a childhood bike wreck and the countless small marks from a lifetime of socializing with overenthusiastic, long-nailed dogs. My legs are mostly metal now, black-lacquered augmentations that start just above the knee and end in feet that aren’t quite human-shaped. They’re closer to digitigrade in form, and make me look like I’m wearing a pair of seriously badass boots at all times. These aren’t for style, though. Fieldwork involves an awful lot of hiking, and as somebody with bad joints, it sort of made sense to replace them instead of waiting for high-impact activities to wear down my cartilage or knock my kneecap out of place again. These, along with the Icarus system in case I lose my footing in a tree or near the edge of a cliff, make me faster, help me keep my balance over rough ground, and reduce my chance of injury in treacherous terrain. And I don’t have to worry about the nightmarish consequences of soggy socks, which is a definite plus.

There are a lot of advantages to being augmented in the field, but not everyone, including some members of my research team, feel that way. Some of the non-augs think that people like me are “cheating” by enhancing our physical abilities far beyond their natural range. They’ve got a point, but I try to look at it this way: I want to be the best scientist I can possibly be. Not for personal gain, necessarily, but because good science is always going to be needed. And if there’s a way to make that process safer, easier, and more efficient, why not take advantage of it? I’m stronger and more physically resilient now than I could have ever been in a world without augmentations, and it’s made me a lot better at my job. Aside from the fact that I’ve now got to take doses of Neuropozyne along with my anti-malarials, there don’t seem to be many drawbacks in my book.

But not everybody thinks that way. As long as they’re not dicks about it, I’m perfectly fine with that. If really I wanted to, I could probably change their minds with my social enhancements, but that gets into some pretty sticky moral ground. You can’t run around wafting pheromones at random bystanders just because they disagree with you. The CASIE system comes in handy during policy debates, allowing me to analyze the personalities of committee members and tailor my arguments to appeal to them accordingly. I keep it turned off most of the time, though. I much prefer to get to know people for real, rather than try to judge them via a personality matrix. All the details and idiosyncrasies and quirks — all the things that make people interesting — aren’t things you can learn though a HUD.

I’m hit by a sudden wave of nostalgia. I remember late night college conversations back when all this technology was theoretical, and how my friends and I used to talk about how we’d modify ourselves once the future rolled around. I’m not sure we ever expected it would actually come to pass. Some of us adopted it wholeheartedly — last I heard, Devon had gotten a set of protective lenses that dramatically reduced glare from welding and molten metal,  and was suitably enthused by the whole affair. Some of us stayed a bit more ambivalent. I make a mental note to put a call in to Emily and see how Chicago’s treating her.

Something rustles in the underbrush a dozen meters to my right, and I turn on my smart vision very briefly to make out the outline of a mongoose climbing up a fallen log. My HUD by itself can’t tell me what species it is, but I watch its glowing golden outline for a moment, noting the general silhouette and the way the animal carries its bottlebrush tail, and conclude that it’s a broad-stripe. It’s my own experience, not the technology itself, that lets me identify the creature before it disappears again. Nobody’s written specific algorithms to conclusively ID these rare animals quite yet, so people still have to rely on their own skilled observations for much of this job whether they’re augmented or not. I kind of like that. Makes me feel…better, somehow, to know that some things haven’t changed.


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How I feel about the number of assignments I’ve got due this week.

It’s gonna be stuck in your head now too. I am not sorry.

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Wildlife trivia > homework, obviously.

Here is a gel pen doodle of a lammergeier, or bearded vulture, that I drew instead of drafting a bunch of my final essays.

Did you know that bearded vultures live almost entirely on bone marrow? Long after other scavengers and microorganisms have eaten most of the meat on a dead animal, bearded vultures will still be able to gather nutrition from the bones. They will pick up large bones and drop them from great heights to crack them open, and will simply swallow smaller bones whole. Their beaks are strong enough to shatter the femurs of animals as large as lambs. Their stomach acid has a pH of 1 and can dissolve almost anything the bird consumes within 24 hours. Native to mountainous regions of Eurasia and Africa, bearded vultures have a wingspan of roughly nine feet and are mostly silent aside from the occasional shrill whistle. Scientists worldwide have concluded that bearded vultures are one of the most striking examples of badassery in the animal kingdom.

There. Now you know about bearded vultures and I have successfully avoided homework for just a little while longer.

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Living in the Future

I wasn’t expecting one of my great educational experiences this semester to come from a video game. Recently I’ve been playing through Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that deals with the science of human augmentation. Below the shiny graphics and kickass action sequences lie some pretty profound questions: how would society react to people with superhuman abilities? What are the moral implications of using physical or mental enhancements to give you a competitive edge? In a world where cybernetic implants are becoming the norm, what exactly does it mean to be human?

The game, so far, has been brilliant, but here’s what’s really got me intrigued. The technologies in Deus Ex aren’t as far-fetched as they seem, and I’ve got the Youtube clip to prove it.

There’s a lot that scares me about a future like the one in Deus Ex, but there’s a lot that amazes me as well. It seems to me that we’re starting to catch up to our own stories, and I’m not at all surprised. As Ray Bradbury said, “If anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction.”

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