The SXSW festival here in Austin has always contained strands of futurism. Beyond the brands and the parties and the barbecue, 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 have taken on the bolder, weirder, and longer-term mission of trying to imagine what the world will look like when we have human-level artificial intelligence and science fiction-grade human augmentation. Because when there’s no new apps to talk about, the thing only left is mining The Matrix, apparently.
Case in point: the audience polling service Slido, which is used to crowdsource questions for panelists, is being used to ask futurists whether they think humans will one day swim as fast as sharks.
Best ever audience q – To director of pentagon “if you could make soldiers who can swim as fast as sharks, would you” ♀️#sxsw
— Jack @ SxSW (@Jack_Kirby) March 13, 2017
The question was seemingly first posed to Will Roper, the director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, in a conversation about advanced weaponry and supersoldiers. It was then posed again, perhaps even by the same person, in a different panel discussion with Ray Kurzweil, one of the best known futurists and author of the book The Singularity is Near.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with what this question is actually asking. A common theme in the futurist and transhumanism 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 sort of thing.
In this case, we have people wondering about a very specific and very peculiar use case of human augmentation to create very fast swimmers, as if humanity’s gravest threat right now is not being to outrun an amphibian apex predator. Think of it a bit like the “are we living in a simulation?” debate that was all the rage in Silicon Valley last summer.
While the simulation hypothesis is all good fun, the shark question is bit more stupid, if that wasn’t abundantly clear. Humans at their peak athleticism can swim at best around 6 mph — Michael Phelps topped out around there in 2010, according to ESPN, and that’s still about three times faster than the average human swimmer. A shortfin mako shark, on other hand, 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 Roper and Kurzweil were good sports about it. Roper said that he wasn’t aware of any active Pentagon research trying to augment humans with fins or gills, but said he would happily sign up to be made a faster swimmer if the opportunity arose. Kurzweil was a little more confused, choosing to comment about medical devices that help people restore lost limb functions and whatnot.
“I don’t know about the shark application,” he added. Neither we do, Ray, neither do we.