Future Tense

Amped: A Sci-Fi Novel Asks Whether “Transhumans” Would Still Be Human

Oscar Pistorius.

Oscar Pistorius.

Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

After years of fighting claims that his artificial limbs grant him an unfair advantage over other runners, South African Oscar Pistorius has a chance to become the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games.

What if the debate over enhancement technology that made some people “better than human” went from just one man to a whole population? That’s the premise of the latest sci-fi novel from roboticist (and Future Tense contributor) Daniel H. Wilson.

Amped depicts a near-future United States struggling with discrimination and social unrest—caused not by racism or economic injustice, but by transhumanism.

Transhumanism is the concept of integrating technology with one’s body in order to improve the human condition—from prosthetic limbs to or imbuing brains with zettabytes of storage space.

Wilson’s novel focuses on the political and social disruption caused by the advent of the “amp,” a tiny device of the placed in one’s prefrontal cortex. It sends electrical impulses to specific parts of a user’s brain, resulting in a wide range of miraculous benefits—like the elimination of all disability, both mental and physical, and seamless synchronization with prosthetic limbs. The amp also dramatically improves one’s mental capacities, allowing those of once below-average intellect to perform machine-fast probability computations.

Observers of transformative technologies often worry that they will promote further disparity between the rich and poor, as the wealthy can afford the new enhancements and the poor remain old-fashioned humans. But Wilson’s novel flips this. “Many people believe that implantable technology will be something rich people use to oppress poor people. But Tony Stark isn’t going to be the first person to get this stuff,” he told me in an email. He argues that “super-enabling” technology such as this would first be adopted by the desperate. “Nobody else will be willing to take the risks inherent in having a nascent technology put into your skull,” he said.

In Amped, the transhumant revolution begins as a governmental welfare program, directed at America’s poorest. The device heals kids suffering from once-incurable mental diseases; it mobilizes the broken bodies of elderly veterans. Rather than creating a more just society, however, the technology unleashes many problems—all relating to the definition of “human.” What erupts is a violent cycle of oppression and class warfare reminiscent of the X-Men series, pitting oppressed “Amps” against the majority of “pure humans.”

The novel opens with the Supreme Court declaring that amplified individuals are no longer protected by the 14th Amendment, as they “wield an unfair intellectual advantage” over those without implants. Amps are soon stripped of their businesses, properties, and contracts by the Pure Human Citizen’s Council, led a right-wing senator. As the novel progresses and the chaos escalates, tens of thousands of “amps” are forcibly moved into camps.

The “amp” technology will be science fiction for some time. But, Wilson says, “Human beings have been co-evolving with technology for thousands of years, and now, today, that technology is starting to migrate under our skin,” said Wilson. Meanwhile, governments are still struggling with how best to deal with the Internet.

“Change creates fear, and technology creates change,” says Wilson. ”Sadly, most people don’t behave very well when they are afraid.”