The SXSW festival in Austin has always contained strands of futurism. Beyond the brands and the barbecue and the parties, it’s a place where people come and prognosticate about technology and what it’ll look like years from now. But in recent years, attendees of SXSW festival have taken on the bolder, longer-term and weirder mission of trying to imagine what the world will look like when we have science fiction-grade human augmentation and human-level artificial intelligence.
The audience polling service Slido, which is used to crowdsource questions for panelists, is being used to ask futurists whether they think humans would be one day able to swim as fast as sharks. The question was seemingly first posed to the director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, Will Roper, in a conversation about supersoldiers and advanced weaponry. It was then posed again, perhaps even by the same person, in a different panel discussion with Ray Kurzweil, author of the book The Singularity is Near and one of the best-known futurists.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with what this question is actually asking. A common theme in the transhumanism and futurist movements is that humanity is destined to one day augment and improve itself. In other words, we just might one day have genetically engineered superhumans, brain-computer interfaces that make us smarter, merged AI-human consciousness, and the ability to live forever you know, that kind of thing.
While the simulation hypothesis is all good fun, the shark question is a bit more stupid, if that wasn’t plentifully clear. Humans at their peak athleticism can swim at best around 6 mph Michael Phelps topped out around there in 2010, and that’s still about three times faster than the average human swimmer. On the other hand, a shortfin mako shark can hit top speeds of about 60 mph. Besides being nightmare fuel, that a mako shark can swim 10 times faster than Phelps likely means it’s probably not worth the resources it would take to reach out-swim a fish at the top of the food chain. Still, both Kurzweil and Roper were good sports about it. Roper said that he wasn’t aware of any active Pentagon research trying to augment humans with gills or fins, but said he would happily sign up to be made a faster swimmer if the chance arose. Kurzweil was a little more confused, choosing to comment about medical devices that help people restore lost limb functions and whatnot.