A transhuman future?
When looking to the future, my focus has been on getting the ecological questions right. As a palaeontologist, I view the future as I view the past: over long time spans. And I read the narrative of the past as lessons for the present upon which our future will be determined.
For example, on the weekend I took my son to the Land Before Dinosaurs exhibition at the South Australian Museum. This is a wonderful display of a world that most people know little about – the world of the Permian Period some 250-300 million years ago. A world full of wondrous creatures that roamed the planet long before the rise of the dinosaurs; a world cruelly snuffed out by a radical shift in climate.
So what happened? We know that a massive area of volcanic eruptions, in what is now Siberia, had been spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere for, perhaps, 2 million years. This raised the global atmospheric temperature by a couple of degrees. Consequent warming of shallow seas around continental margins caused a buried form of ice, called clathrate, to release vast amounts of methane. In a relatively short period of time, perhaps less than a decade, but probably no more than a few hundred years, global temperatures rose by 10 degrees. Such a radical shift in climate wiped out most forms of life on the planet. It was the biggest mass extinction of all time.
With lessons like that from the past, you would think that we would be paying a lot more attention to a similar scenario as it unfolds before us. Forget the economy, culture and civilisation – if we don’t get this one right there will be no economy to worry about, because we will almost certainly watch the disintegration of our societies and, with their demise, culture beyond the most basic needs of existence will be all but impossible.
But recently a different future was put before us. A future where we won’t have to worry about climate change or any other collapse of the environment. A transhuman future where we will live forever as digitally encrypted entities inside mechanical bodies.
The logic is both impeccable and deeply flawed. Impeccable in that we are developing the technological prowess to actually transmit our thoughts into machines. Only last week came news from the USA of scientists having linked the nervous systems of two monkeys. Essentially they had tapped the brain of one monkey and gathered the impulses to move. Those impulses were taken into a computer, transmitted to a second computer and then fed to a second, sedated monkey who faithfully and slavishly carried out the movement instructions from the first animal.
This research could offer the promise of movement restored to quadriplegics or those with Locked-in Syndrome. But it also shows that we can capture some of the brain’s functions and transmit them around, to be enacted elsewhere. How long before that avatar is a machine instead of an animal? And how long before it is more than the locomotory impulses of the brain that we can capture? Will we be able to collect the thoughts of people and digitally encode them? That’s sounding like a distinct possibility in the not too distant future.
But what about the higher functions of the brain? Will we ever be able to capture our consciousness and write it to a hard disk? The trouble is that we still don’t know what consciousness is and, until we find out, it would seem impossible for that to exist outside of an organic, living brain. But who knows what the future holds?
The deeply flawed nature of this vision of a transhuman future lies in its roll out. I think that, at least initially, only the super-rich will be able to afford to convert their lives to an immortal coil. Over time, costs will come down, but it’s unlikely that it will ever be cheap enough to be accessible to every person on the planet. This future will always be the domain of a select few and the rest of us will be left to wallow in our own extinction, as the ecosystems of the planet collapse around us.
And, if you were ever offered this chance at immortality, would you take it? For me the greatest rewards of being alive stem from being in charge of a flesh-and-blood body. The sensation of a breath of fresh air, the touch of another person or the taste of chocolate cake – these may be mimicked by some robotic shell but would they ever really be the same? And who really wants to exist forever if you aren’t actually alive?
While apparently possible, the transhuman future is simply not pragmatic. It’s a distraction that will appeal to a few and divert our attention and efforts from dealing with life as a living organism on a planet as part of an inconceivably complex web of countless other living organisms. A transhuman future is a day-dream and we are rapidly running out of the luxury of being able to do nothing about the very real problems that face us now. A transhuman future is a nightmare of the electric sheep.
By Paul Willis (@fossilcrox)
Feature image “Robocop” sourced from Flickr and authored by Karl Palutke.
Body image 1 “Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) in Kinnarsani WS, AP W IMG 5792” sourced from Wikimedia Commons and authored by J. M. Garg.