Human X Design: The Conference To Remember

Aj KellerConferences, Events, Featured, News1 Comment

Within 20 minutes of arriving I conversed with a US presidential candidate, leaders of Refugee OpenWear, and the CEO of Emotiv!

Human X Design was a lavish conference; staff dressed in little black dresses and matching suits, Deus Ex advertisements wrapped the walls from floor to ceiling as all who entered were transported into a world were human augmentation was a highly sought after upgrade on life. A place where the idea of mortal life is soon to be a thing of the past. Hard to believe this all was paid for by a video game.


Erica Orange, a futurist, stands front and center.

Erica Orange delivering the keynote speech.

Erica Orange, a futurist by her own firm claims, stood tall, proud and center to deliver a keynote that laid out the definition for the word of the day: Transhumanist, or all augmentation that causes a change in the human condition. She foundationalizes her argument with an assertion that glasses and contacts are but simple ways we have been augmenting the world around us for decades. However she quickly stacks on a twisted proverb of caution; Namely, that technology’s exponential rate of increase will hurdle human augmentation towards the sky. She ends by explaining that our very existence in a room full of people, who all know the futurist word well, brought together by a video game, is proof that the world of human augmentation is soon about to change, drastically.

Are we, the general population, ready? What about the haves vs. have-nots? Will human augmentation continue to drive the gap between the poor and rich? Life extension, if we can should we? Considering malicious purposes, what happens when these devices get hacked? These are the questions we will strive to answer through out the day, it’s important that all of us in this new field keep these questions on our mind.



Asem Hasna on Skype video messaging

Asem Hasna is a man living a life of purpose.

Asem Hasna was a paramedic supporting the Syrian war. While retrieving two injured people from the battle field his ambulance was bombed. He lost his leg that day. Although he lost a leg on that fateful day he gained a life of great meaning and purpose. He was taught by Refuge Openwear how to use a 3D printer and now can print prosthetics and help those in similar situations. What an amazing idea! Asam wants to help all those who cannot afford normal expensive prosthetic. His attitude, beaming smile, and rosy red cheeks are infectiously encouraging that a bright future is upon us.


Is Augmentation A Human Right?

A panel discusses if human augmentation is a right.

Is human augmentation a right panel.

Arthur Caplan was the moderator for this first panel, and before diving in to the panel itself, I must say, he was bar none the best moderator I have ever seen. He is an NYU philosopher with a fantastic sense of humor and an even better sense of self. These qualities allow him to transcend his own ego and bring the best out of his panelists. 

Dr. Steve Mann was the first person to introduce himself. He is the inventor of HDR (high dynamic range) which every smartphone uses (seriously take a picture on your phone). He is constantly looking for ways to change the way we see the world, including a device that lets him see radio waves. He says that happiness comes from integrity and that there are three types of augmentation: sensor (seeing), cognitive (thinking), effectory (exoskeletons). He credits his son with a great line: “Why are buildings and cameras always allowed to wear cameras, but humans are not able to always wear cameras.”

Natasha Vita-More was the second person to speak and wants to be a pioneer in the field of transhumanist movement. She has written several books, so I feel confident saying that she is a pioneer in the transhumanist movement. A simple idea that Natasha said was “I think people should be able to live as long as they want to.” I instantly jumped to the contrary and thought well if people have that right, then shouldn’t they be allowed to end their life by their own free will? The supposition is there, I just don’t accept that conclusion yet. She also said “if I had a disease that would be passed onto my children and we have the ability to edit their genes to not pass on the disease, it’s immoral to not do the gene editing.” Yeah, she’s a pioneer. 

“I think people should be able to live as long as they want to.” -Natasha Vita-more

Adam Arabian is i’d go as far to say the most “normal” of the panelists. He asks an important question of “how do we as a global society, handle the outcome of the democratization of human augmented devices.” Moreover he entertained the question proposed by Caplan of whether or not there should be a tax on augmented devices so we can disseminate the devices to those who cannot afford them. He wants to answer the question of how we close the gap in dispersity before we talk about life extension.

Christian Brugger, the fourth panelist, is an academic who has written several papers and given lectures about this subject. He is the opposite of Ray Kurzweil. Christian says because we live in populations of other people, our decision impacts those around us. If we’re parents they impact our children. The limitations in nature are obstacles to overcome. We’re talking about life extension while there are still 33 million people without access to basic health care.


Jonathan Jacques-Belletlete art director for Deus Ex

Jonathan Jacques-Belletlete art director for Deus Ex

Jonathan Jacques-Belletlete is a creative designing the world of tomorrow through his work at Eidos Montreal. I can say that because I saw it, and seeing is believing. By 9-5 standards he is and has been the art director for Deus Ex, a widely popular major video game, for nine years. All those years ago his team set off to create a world “where healthy people want prosthetics to become better than human.”

“In video games, we design without limits.” -Jonathan Jacques-Belletlete

Deus Ex’s protagonist Adam Jensen has powerful prosthetics that Jonathan says were designed without physical or technological limits. He proudly reiterates that as a video game designer he is only limited by his imagination. He also cautiously states in front of a room of academics and innovators that it’s ironic for him to even be speaking. That he and his team had no intention of designing desirable prosthetics.


Open Bionics X Deus Ex speak at Human X Design

Open Bionics X Deus Ex.

Joel Gibbered is one of the founders of Open Bionics, a game changing prosthetics company. They interviewed hundreds of people with prosthetics and discovered this group of people wanted to pick out their prosthetics like a pair of shoes. They want freedom. Cue in Cathrine Disney. She was born without a left forearm. At a young age, her parents took her to the hospital for a classical prosthetics fitting. Her proud voice weakens momentarily as she describes the event as “something out of a horror movie.” A warm, sticky, casting is taken and a closet full of imitation body parts is combed through.  Most of the prosthetics available mimic human parts but do a very poor job in doing so.

“Children can now go to school and show off their awesome prosthetics.” -Cathrine Disney

Eventually fans of Open Bionics and Deus Ex become one and repeatedly suggested a partnership. Gibbered says the two companies were a natural partnership because both companies were designing a future where prosthetics are highly coveted. Open Bionics has invented and open sourced a process to quickly 3D scan and 3D print perfect fit prosthetics controlled by muscle movements, brainwaves, eye blinks, jaw grits, facial expressions, etc… Open Bionics gave Disney the ability to pick the color, shape, texture, what-ever she wants prosthetics. The two companies worked collaboratively to make the prosthetics seen in Deus Ex freely distributed and downloadable to be worn by anyone in the world. Disney is wearing one or the two models that has emerged from this partnership. 


A panel discusses selective vs. therapeutic augmentation

The panel for Selective vs. Therapeutic Augmentation

Moderating the third panel was Anna Wexler, a PhD candidate at MIT studying DIY neuro-stimulation. I have read several of her NYTimes articles and have enjoyed them all. Although her panel moved slower than Caplan’s, her panel was packed with a wide range of cohorts. Neil Harbission is a cyborg, cyborg advocate and artist. He is best known for having an antenna sticking out of his head; an additional organ he claims.  Per the human condition, Harbission can only visually see in gray scale, he’s color blind. Harbission electively underwent surgery to implant an antenna in his skull which essentially converts ambient energy into audible sound vibrations. This allows him to perceive images, videos, even phone calls as different vibrations. How Wifi enabled antenna allows five select people to transmit images to him remotely which resulted in him being physically hacked which he happily looks back on and says: 

“I was physically hacked, and I liked it” -Neil Harbission

Harbission has a simple idea that exhaust our energy into adapting humans to the world rather then adapting the world to humans; i.e. “we [humans] should try to make night vision for people instead of spending so much energy on lights” 

Michael Chorost had hearing aids his whole life. However one day he completely went deaf and was left with no other choice but to get a cochlear implant. The very emotional experience led to him writing a book on the ordeal. One of the most profound conflicts he had to deal with was the idea of having a computer inside his body when computers to the healthy population remain comfortably outside of our skin. Chorost says that “when you use the term brain chip, you deface the entire technology and remove the positive social aspects.” 

Samantha Payne is one of the founders of Open Bionics and she believes the line between selective and therapeutic is very blurred. Payne was the first of the panelists to bring up that the psychological benefits to elective surgeries can be their justification. Payne also brings up the idea that religion plays a role in human enhancement; that religion can create a barrier to a human wanting to augment their body.

Homayoon Kazerooni was the most reserved of the panelists, holding a firm position on his ideals. Kazerooni founded SuitX; a company that builds exoskeletons that provide a level of assistance to those unable to walk. His view on human augmentation is to create “a basic tool so people can be independent and do what healthy individuals do.”

“We create a better quality of life” -Homayoon Kazerooni

Kazerooni is focused on delivering value today for those who need it today. He went as far to say that  “when it comes to making a product, we have to climb down the Ivory tower and make a product… shoot the designer and ship the product.” 


Exoskeleton spinal injury pilot standing with several suitX team members

Exoskeleton pilot Steven Sanchez and several suitX team members

After a brief intermission, the conference files back into a dimly lit room, causing the members to use memory and night vision to find their seats. Several moments after the room finds their seats, a movie begins to play. The room is transported into the life of Steven Sanchez, a spinal injury patient living with another wheel chair bound girlfriend. The video conveys that Sanchez is a fighter who refuses to sail the course the winds of destiny set for him. Sanchez was paralyzed at the age of 17 in 2004 in a bike accident due to a spinal cord injury. In 2005, he tried stem cell injection to restore his ability to walk. Everyday he pushed himself well beyond comfort just to try and regain walking. Eventually he was walking, but to what end he asked. The cost and energy was too much. He was able to walk from leg braces but it was so painful that he even considered killing his palm cells so he could stand up for longer. Eventually he gave into his paralysis and tried to the live he had to the fullest.

His dream of walking again never subsided and eventually he linked up with SuitX to become an exoskeleton pilot. He suits up and with the push of a button, he’s standing, walking around, delivering a speech. It was inspiring to see Sanchez stand, a moment I will never forget. The most touching moment was when Sanchez asked for a hug from one of the SuitX team members; Sanchez explained that you can’t really get a good hug in a wheel chair. His well delivered story explains Kazerooni’s demand to “shoot the designer, ship the product.”

The Future of the Far, Far Next

Erica Orange was the moderator for the last panel of the day. She called Generation Z cybrids, the first generation to fully be one with technology.

Lucy Mcrae was one of the most interesting panelists of the day. Her interesting hair style, proud smile, and sheer brilliance was admirable and awesome. Mcrae came “from a background of architecture, 100 meter hurdles and graphic design.” She’s most interested in designing experiments that determine where we are heading with technology. i.e. “what is coming post wearables?” Sci-fi has been a major inspiration for Mcrae. Her inventions are unique and I recommend you Google her and then watch her TED talks. One of her most memorable augmentation inventions was a swallowable perfume that when emitted a pleasant odor when the user was perspiring. She’s very interested in how technology will change education.

A well known leader in the community and is the presidential candidate for the transhumanist party, Zoltan Istvan was the only male on the panel. He begins by addressing the fact that all members of congress and most leaders in US politics are Christian. Istvan says “if you are more secular minded then you will be more open to human augmentation.” Further he asks “why do we [the US] spend so much money on defense and nothing on life expectancy?”

“Getting rid of death is the thing i am most excited about” -Zoltan Istvan

When asked who should be liable, Istvan quickly said “you should be able to do whatever you want to do” and changed the topic to bringing to attention that “we as a society have to consider what will happen with artificial intelligence.” Wildlife replenishment will be done by growing animals a lab and releasing them back into the wild. Uber drivers will be out of work in two years because there will be autonomous ubers. In 15 years a lot of journalists will be out of work because AI will aggregate news faster and cheaper than journalists.


Tan Le was the third and final panelist and as the CEO of Emotiv, brought a very interesting perspective to the panel. She explained to the conference that “most of our conversation is about extending life and physical body, but the brain defines who we are… any sort of change to our brain, can alienate us from our friends and family” The brain is the most adaptive organ in the body. Moving an object with your mind gives you a sense of living in a fantasy. When asked who should be liable for augmentation she said: “Liability is responsibility. Product liability is very important because inventors don’t want to hurt users. At a regulator level, what kind of exploration do we want to allow. The third layer is at the individual level, how is it used when placed in the hands of the end user. If you have superhuman powers, how are you using those powers? Do we have the police force to combat super humans that we create?”

“The brain is nature’s way of allowing us to adapt to the rapidly changing world.” -Tan Le

Nadja Oertel presenting an ethical framework for human augmentation.

Nadja Oertelt presenting an ethical framework for human augmentation.

Ethical Framework for Human Augmentation

Nadja Oertelt was the last speaker of the conference and is a neuroscientist and in general she creates neuroscience stories. She, along with a board of five others, worked together to create an Ethical Framework for Human Augmentation that would be presented at this conference. 

Nadja Asked three questions:

  1. Why does human augmentation need ethics?
  2. What is out shared definition of human augmentation?
  3. Who cares?

These questions are not new, however we are approaching a time where these sci-fi stories are becoming a reality.

Democratic deliberation is key.

The 4 guiding principles are:

  1. To promote freedom and responsibility
    1. Recommendations:
      1. Develop fair policies and intelligent regulation of augmentation technologies.
    2. You should be able to do what you want to.
  2. Promote public beneficence
    1. Recommendations:
      1. Recognize complexity of augmentation and integrate complexity into deliberation of ethical decisions.
      2. Minimise social disruption.
    2. A moral obligation we have to act in a responsible way
  3. Promote responsible stewardship
    1. Recommendations:

      1. Create educational resources for the public and those interested in deliberating human augmentation.
      2. Understand the rights and obligations of the augmentation community.
      3. Adopt ethical principles for behavior and research.
    2. A shared responsibility of stakeholders to recognize the power of making decisions. We must recognize that there are stakeholders that do not have a voice.
  4. Promote justice
    1. The welfare of one group should never be put over another.

I highly recommend checking out this framework!

Overall this conference was an incredible, educational experience. I hope to see more like it as the future of neurotechnology unfolds.