Big news from our correspondent in the Transhuman underground: basement biohackers, attempting near-infrared vision experiments, want us to see the world very differently.
I hate rainbows.
Sure, they symbolize many positive things to different cultures: peace, sexual identity, a bridge to heaven. But I hate real rainbows. Every time I see one of those clown-colored frowns in the sky, I’m reminded of the limitations of human perception. Of the vast wavelengths that span the electromagnetic spectrum, humans can see a mere 2.3%. Those mocking slivers of light we call rainbows? They’re just a fraction of the real picture.
It’s a thing to wonder at—that mankind has managed to create the advanced technologies we enjoy today while only observing 2.3% of reality. Occasionally we glimpse shadows cast by unseen forces; working in our allegorical caves, we’ve crafted abstract theories to understand x-rays, radio, microwaves, and gamma rays. But how much more advanced would humanity be if we could perceive the other 97.7% of reality? What heights could we reach if we were born with the ability to see it all?
In transhumanist circles, and even in popular discourse, strong arguments have been made in favor of boosting our brains through genetic or cybernetic means. But what about our range of perception? It seems to be a neglected narrative. Some of us are hoping that widening the human sensory experience via biological or cybernetic augmentations will lead to new revelations about the way the universe around us works.
The World in Near Infrared
The project being done by Science for the Masses, if it works, will actually allow human guinea pigs to see a brand new color never before experienced by humans. This is certain to be a difficult experience to describe.
A team of “Grinders,” or self-experimenting biohackers, calling themselves Science for the Masses (SFM) has already embarked on this quest for enhanced visual perception. They have started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $4,000 necessary to procure the equipment and chemicals for the execution of their plan. As of this writing, they are halfway to their goal.
If Science for the Masses is successful—not just with their crowdfunding campaign but with their medically unsanctioned experiment—their work will enable humans to see the near-infrared (NIR) spectrum with their naked eyes. As the project overview explains, Science for the Masses hope to augment sight through “human formation of porphyropsin, the protein complex which grants infrared vision to freshwater fish.” They go on to explain:
Retinal, or Vitamin A (A1), which is found bound to opsin proteins is a keystone of the visual pathway. The cone cells are granted sharp color vision by the complex photopsin. The rod cells which provide us with night vision and recognition of movement do so utilizing rhodopsin. Both of the complexes consist of a type of protein bound to retinal. Porphyropsin differs from this in that it doesn’t use retinal, but rather a derivation called 3,4-dehydroretinol, or Vitamin A2 (A2).
The human body is fully capable of metabolizing and using A2; unfortunately the proteins which allow for transport through cell membranes have nearly 4 times the affinity for A1 compared to A2. We theorize that this can be overcome through a stringent Vitamin A1 restricted diet, supplemented with Vitamin A2.
The term “infrared” is used to describe the wavelengths sandwiched between visible light and microwaves. It can be subdivided into smaller ranges, such as near, mid, and far infrared (NIR, MWIR, and FIR respectively). NIR is just barely on the edge of our perception, but it doesn’t quite extend into the thermal infrared band.
The project being done by SFM, if it works, will actually allow human guinea pigs to see a brand new color never before experienced by humans. This is certain to be a difficult experience to describe. And, while an infrared-sighted human may not be able to verbally explain the properties of their new color to others, we do have an idea of what impact such an ability would have on everyday vision. The project’s originator paints a vivid picture for us in his blog post:
A person would be enabled to see through darkly tinted car windows or sunglasses with ease. Although investigators generally use ultraviolet light to pick up body fluid stains, infrared works just as well. Even old faded papyrus manuscripts and otherwise illegible faded books would be an easy feat for our augmented friend….Infrared light cuts through fog, haze, and dust to a degree that would enable this person to have much sharper vision at a distance than a non-augmented human. One could effortlessly see through makeup and disguises, and perhaps even have an entirely new view of artwork by being able to see the underlying brushstrokes that were later covered. Even more useful would be this person’s ability to see in environments too dark for others. The possibilities are intriguing.
There are other, more salacious side-effects as well. Seeing NIR means being able to see through clothing, especially thin synthetic fabrics. Sony learned about this aspect of NIR by accident in the 1990s, when it was widely reported by customers that the “nightshot” mode on their camcorders was rendering friends and family nude. Sony disabled the function and discontinued the device, but it wasn’t long before infrared pass-through lenses were found to produce the same results.
Shifting the Narrative
Until recently, most of the discussion about human augmentation has revolved around hypothetical and distant technologies: mind uploading, full body prosthetics, or nanobots, to name a few. While these technologies may be feasible someday, they will undoubtedly take billions of dollars to develop, leaving many to speculate that such enhancement would be reserved for the extremely rich and the military elite.
But augmentations being developed by Grinders and biohackers, such as the infrared-boosting project, are cheap and dirty—and can potentially deliver real and dramatic results. Science for the Masses has a four-figure budget slotted for its R&D; the final result, if it works, will likely be a technology even people in the third world can afford.
The Grinder community has over one hundred such projects in varying stages of development, but the lack of resources has historically limited progress. To boot, most of these projects will never become commercially viable because of the extreme legal liability they tend to come with. Science for the Masses is the first team in the community to turn to crowdfunding. This project is a crack in the dam. You can count on the dam bursting as other micro-budget human enhancement projects follow suit. The result: the future is about to get weird much faster than you anticipated.
The Crisis and Opportunity of Mass Adoption
When determining the potential impact a technology could have on society, we must consider the most extreme outcomes. Even if such outcomes aren’t probable, exploring them fully helps us weigh their potential impact. This is, among other things, the benefit of science fictional thinking. So let’s consider a world of infrared-perceiving humans. What does it look like?
For one, if near-infrared vision goes mainstream, the retail sector might see a temporary boost in sales as billions of people throw out their now-transparent clothing and rush to buy clothing that provides more privacy. Chemical and textiles companies producing nylon, polyester, and other synthetic materials might suffer before scrambling to capitalize on dyes and materials that reflect infrared light.
Meanwhile, hotels and restaurants would see a sharp decline as previously unseen fluids on bedsheets and tablecloths would become visible to horrified patrons. Strip clubs would be vacated as the world transforms into a gigantic free peep show. Public speakers would find that imagining their audience naked is no longer necessary—the orators would appear just as naked behind the podium as their audience.
Fates in politics and entertainment are bound to swing wildly overnight. Many political careers would be ruined, even if protective clothing was worn, because NIR imaging is a great method for truth detection. NIR imaging is currently being used to develop truth- detecting cameras which notice subtle shifts in facial blood flow. Blushing and flushing are reactions that even practiced liars have a hard time disguising. How can anyone campaign under those conditions?
Can you maintain a sense of social dignity when you are forced to speculate who is staring at you normally—and who is a human body scanner?
Art critics and artists would find some classic paintings unbearable to look at. The new color would need to be incorporated into everything from art to fashion to film. Car accidents would be reduced due to improved visibility in fog and nighttime conditions. And, although some relationships would suffer from the influx of visual distractions, the Science for the Masses biohacker proposes an intriguing possibility: “large regional fluctuations in body temperature occur during different phases of the sexual response cycle, but imagine being able to see these changes as they occur in your lover. “
If you’re skeptical about the mass adoption of NIR vision, that’s understandable. The picture painted above is, admittedly, extreme—but it illustrates what could happen when the world’s eyes are opened to see even just a little more clearly.
In doing this thought experiment, it’s dawned on me how our notions of privacy are constructed around the anticipated limitations of other humans. We feel comfortable in clothes and sheltered behind limo tint because we take for granted that other people have the same visual abilities as we do. Does it change anything, knowing that at least a few of us will be walking around with NIR vision? Can you maintain a sense of social dignity when you are forced to speculate who is staring at you normally—and who is a human body scanner?
Reading this article, you may have momentarily longed for NIR vision—while hoping nobody else would ever be privy to this biotechnology. You are likely to feel just as conflicted about the other one hundred-plus human enhancement projects being discussed in the transhuman underground, each with their own potentially disruptive, disturbing, amazing, or obnoxious outcomes.
In the distant future, defining “human” may become difficult as our biologies diverge in a thousand different directions. But right now, the way I see it, there are only two distinctions: naked people, and people who hate rainbows.