The University’s futurist club, Envision, hosted the annual Envision Conference from Dec. 1 to 3. The conference centered around the development of future technologies, such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, and the implications of such endeavors.

More than 200 undergraduates and graduate students, from both the University and other schools, attended the conference, which featured over a dozen Ivy League professors, entrepreneurs, and government officials as speakers. Over the course of the conference, participants attended lectures, technology expos, and networking sessions with fellow students.

“Envision’s mission is to empower future leaders to pioneer a brighter future through the prudent advancement of technology,” Envision president Andrew Spencer ’20 said. “The conference’s theme this year was action: it challenged participants to integrate this mission into their projects and careers.” 

Vincent Meijer ’19, a Dutch exchange student from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, served as conference director. Meijer was pleased with the conference, and expressed his gratitude to Envision in a message.

“The conference attendants were simply amazing. A successful Russian cryptocurrency investor, the first ever cyborg (yes!) and an artist with a pegleg were all there,” said Meijer. “It warms my heart that I was able to help in bringing these people together and help impact their lives for the better.”

Futurist researcher Anders Sandberg delivered the lecture at the conference’s closing ceremony. Sandberg’s talk focused on the current state of body modification technologies and the different categories of such modifications, with enhancement versus extension as the main theme in his discussions.

Sandberg’s first example of body modification involved a colleague of his who had inserted a magnet into his hand, thereby allowing him to manipulate metal objects to some degree and to detect currents flowing through wires via interaction with the magnet. 

“That’s instrumental use, even though the value might be quite small,” Sandberg noted. “But of course, there’s a completely different reason, which is the actual reason of this. We wanted to experience something, we wanted to actually try out, ‘What is it like to sense new things?’” 

In terms of new senses, Sandberg drew upon various potential optical modifications as evidence. He cited the possibility of enhancing one’s visual senses to be able to see types of light outside of the visible spectrum, such as gamma rays or infrared radiation. He identified these types of modifications as extensions of one’s senses, as opposed to simple enhancements of extant senses. 

“I think to myself, ‘What do I want to see?’ I want to see the whole electromagnetic spectrum,” added Sandberg. “I want to see gamma rays so I can stay away from them, and I want to see the color difference between sugar and salt, which is both practical but, of course, also maybe beautiful. Extensions are the things that add a new dimension to our world.” 

Sandberg also discussed modifications that have existential implications for those who undergo them. These types of modifications are the more common ones in everyday society, such as stretching out one’s earlobes or large volumes of tattoos. 

“Some people who tend to modify themselves go for the more existential aspects. It’s a change of the self,” said Sandberg. “If you look at the body modification movement, many of their changes are not useful, and many of them are not terribly aesthetic in the normal sense. But they’re about shaping your body, even undergoing pain because you want to be somebody or something different.” 

Sandberg’s final category of modifications focused on what most would consider the popular science-fiction version of modifications and enhancements: the enhancement of cognitive functioning. 

“Most of the work in cognitive enhancement is all about taking mental faculties we already have and supercharging them in some useful way,” Sandberg explained. “What if we could stay awake longer? What if we could remember much better? What if we were much smarter?” 

Sandberg currently serves as a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, where he examines human enhancement technologies and their implications. The closing ceremony took place in Taylor Auditorium in Frick Chemistry Laboratory, and was attended by several dozen conference attendees.

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