Blind Upon the Eve of Apotheosis
Our present age of technology and accelerating progress is the first of its kind for our species. It commenced a few short centuries ago with subtle changes in wealth, agriculture, and life expectancy that compounded to form the foundations for the Industrial Revolution. It was a dramatic break with millennia in which stasis or the cyclic advance and retreat of applied knowledge - of civilization - were the norm. In our era, it is instead the case that progress today reliably creates the potential for greater and faster progress tomorrow. The most important consequence of this is arguably not that we now lead rich lives of greater wealth, capacity, and comfort, but that the technologies of tomorrow will radically transform our selves and our nature: these are the last decades of humanity as we know it. Human nature and the human condition as it has existed since the Great Leap Forward, some 50,000 years ago, will become malleable. We will be able to improve upon the human body and human mind. What comes next is something far greater than humanity, both for the billions of individuals who see the transformation from end to end and for our societies as a whole.
It has been argued that we have already changed ourselves greatly through technology. That the humans of Ur were far removed from the small and violently suspicious bands of humans who coexisted with their neanderthal near relatives. That today's humans of internet and mobile phones are far removed from the humans of Ur and earlier cities. That technologies such as writing and global telecommunications, or even simply the size and density of population, leads to very different minds grown from the same genetic basis. On the face of it, this seems unlikely, however. Upon the eve of apotheosis, in a world linked by networks of communication and rapidly advancing technology, a glance at the activities of humanity finds any given populace worshipping civic idols and chieftains, in ways that are in essence little different from those of the ancient world, or reencting the politics of the greens and the blues of the Byzantine empire. Further, the past century has seen any number of small bands of humans brought into the modern era by neighboring peoples, with no signs of any fundamental difference in their human nature as a result of comparative isolation and lack of technology.
Past technological progress has not changed what it is to be human, the shape of our minds. What comes next will be very, very different in scope and outcome. It will start with some combination of a progressive reverse engineering of the brain, advanced biotechnology capable of altering and improving upon existing organ function, the development of interfaces between neural architecture and computing hardware, and software emulation of functional neural tissue. All of these lines of research are well established today, albeit in comparative infancy. They will converge into the ability to run minds in hardware and software, to alter the way in which minds function, to extend biological minds, and to move them into hardware, piece by piece. We presently forget 98% of everything we experience. That will go away in favor of perfect, controllable, configurable memory. Skills and knowledge will become commodities that can be purchased and installed. We will be able to feel exactly as we wish to feel at any given time. How we perceive the world will be mutable and subject to choice. How we think, the very fundamental basis of the mind, will also be mutable and subject to choice. We will merge with our machines, as Kurzweil puts it. The boundary between mind and computing device, between the individual and his or her tools, will blur.
Over the course of the 21st century, people will have access to an increasing array of options when it comes to enhancing the function of the mind and the body. The young of today will live to see all of that span, and more. Aging will soon become a treatable medical condition, its causes addressed by therapies that repair the molecular damage that accumulates in old tissues. The human genome will become fluid, the subject of any number of treatments that alter genes or gene expression in adult tissues in order to achieve specific benefits such as greater muscle mass or increased resistance to disease. Somewhere down the line, biotechnology and nanotechnology will merge to produce technologies such as artificial cells and cell-like machines, vastly more efficient at specific tasks than their biological counterparts. Biology will become an option, rather than the present mandate. People will be able to move to a more resilient vehicle for the brain than the present human body, and even the brain may be swapped out for better hardware, through a slow process of replacement and integration, one neuron at a time exchanged for a nanomachine.
Piece by piece, we will be able to choose physical immortality. Choose our physical forms. Choose exactly how our minds function. Choose how we think and feel. Choose exactly what being human is for each of us. A great branching in the diversity of minds and appearances will spring forth from our present uniformity in a matter of decades. The population may well expand greatly as well; minds in hardware and software can be copied. There are no limitations on the pace of reproduction in such a world, nor would such minds necessarily need to consume anywhere near the same resources as present humans. If we choose to believe that acceleration in technological development is, at root, largely a function of total human population and the degree to which people communicate with one another, then departing from our biological roots will enable the acceleration to continue far past its present limits.
That isn't just a matter of population, however. The pace of progress today bumps up against the limits imposed by organization of efforts, in that it takes a few years for humans to digest new information, talk to one another about it, decide on a course of action, gather together a group, raise funds, and start working. There is no necessary reason for any of these parts of the process to take more than a few seconds, however: consider a world in which human minds run far faster, because they run on something other than biological neurons, because they run hundreds of distinct streams of consciousness simultaneously, and because they are augmented by forms of artificial intelligence that take on some of the cognitive load for task assignment and decision making.
It is, frankly, hard to even speculate about the potential forms taken by society in such an environment. Technology clearly drives human organizational strategies and struggles, for all that the minds of prehistory, of Ur, and of our modern times are all the same. In the past, evolution of society was largely shaped by the ability to communicate over distances and by the size of the population. In the future it will be shaped to a far greater extent by the way in which intelligences think and feel, and the way in which their minds depart from the present standard for human nature. We struggle to model human action in the broadest sense of economic studies, and I suspect that this will be true for any society of minds, no matter how capable they are. The complexity of the group always exceeds the capabilities of any individual or research effort within that group. We can do little more than point out incentives and suggest trends that are likely to emerge from those incentives.
Nonetheless, the transition to what comes after humanity will come to pass, at some pace. Not as rapidly as some would like, in part because organizational matters will continue to happen slowly until minds are enhanced. Yet those of us who are young enough or fortunate enough to see the transition from end to end, perhaps with the aid of the first functional anti-aging therapeutics, will have the opportunity to become entities so capable, different, and vast in comparison to present humans that our ancestors would have called them gods or spirits. It will happen gradually, step by step, each such step forward a sensible choice to participate in an enhancement that brings benefits or a desired change, but in the end the sum of it will indeed be an apotheosis. Humans will become what they desire to become, leaving humanity as we presently understand it far behind. The present human condition is a seed, a childhood, and it will just as inevitably come to an end as we grow to reach our true potential.
The eyes of the world are by no means as closed to this future as was the case even a few short decades ago, when transhumanism was a niche vision. Posthumanity has been explored in fiction, discussion, and research far more extensively. Yet most people live in the here and the now, and act as though next year will be same as this year. It is a strange way to live when we are so evidently alive in a time of rapid change. Most of us have passed through the development of personal computing, the internet, and pervasive telecommunications, and have personal points of comparison for the enormous changes to habit and capabilities that have taken place. Equally, most of us squabble over politics, the blues and the greens again, save for retirement, and otherwise in thought and deed anticipate a life that has the same trajectory and span as that of our grandparents. Becoming gods is not on the agenda, not in the plan. It is still inevitable, however. Few will turn down longer lives, perfect memory, immunity to disease, the ability to run multiple streams of consciousness, and much more, when those capabilities exist. Scientists will build the basis for each incremental advance, entrepreneurs will bring it to the masses, and people will choose to better themselves.
Perhaps it will come slowly, perhaps rapidly. But insofar as there is godhood ahead, most will stumble into it without that ever being the intended goal. It is a strange thing to consider, this future of accidental deities, spawned from our largely blind society of people near entirely focused on unrelated minutiae. Does it even make much difference, we might ask, to stand with eyes open and see what is coming?