The BBC Reith Lectures in 1967 were given by Edmund Leach, a Cambridge social anthropologist. “Men have become like gods,” Leach began. “Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid.”
That was nearly half a century ago, and yet Leach’s opening lines could easily apply to today. He was speaking before the internet had been built and long before the human genome had been decoded, and so his claim about men becoming “like gods” seems relatively modest compared with the capabilities that molecular biology and computing have subsequently bestowed upon us. Our science-based culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, exploring, developing and growing. But in recent times it seems to have also become plagued with existential angst as the implications of human ingenuity begin to be (dimly) glimpsed.
At Recode’s annual Code Conference in June, venture capitalist Elon Musk made the provocative argument that reality is not reality at all, but a massive simulation built on top of some other reality.
“There’s a billion-to-one chance we’re living in base reality,” he said.
“Forty years ago we had Pong,” he said. “Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year.”
Musk also cited advancements in virtual reality, noting that with any rate of improvement, games and reality will eventually be indistinguishable. It could take 10,000 years, he cautioned, but that’s “nothing on the evolutionary scale.”
Wouldn’t it be cool to upload information directly into our minds, instead of wasting time and energy in trying to memorize stuff? Imagine what that could mean for education, or any profession where quick and timely access to specific sets of data is crucial. A doctor could take just milliseconds to “remember” a complex procedure during an emergency operation; a lawyer could have immediate access to an entire library of cases and precedents simply by thinking about them.
Our brains would probably change, and in a fundamental way. Instead of wasting our brain power on remembering things, we’d use it to process the data we could acquire so easily. Although most of our brain matter would be more occupied with processing the raw data than with storing it, we would still have access to more information than ever before.
If there were an interface that could serve as a mediator between digital data sources and our brains, it could also take our existing memories and digitize them. In other words, we would be able to share memories!
Recently the New York Post put up a remarkable video, of a man whose Parkinsonian tremors in his arms and legs were controlled by electrical current sent to electrodes in his brain, from a unit in his chest. There is currently a huge amount of research being done not just in medicine but in the area of medically beneficial devices that can be worn, or inserted into the body.
The well-known Fitbit wristband, that helps people track things like steps walked and energy used, and the wonderful Parkinson’s treatment in the video, are merely the tip of the iceberg. These devices are the first steps toward the Singularity.
The most common story about how people will grow into the Singularity goes something like this: People will have chips implanted in their brains that will expand their mental capabilities. These chips will allow people to access the Internet and download whole books directly into their brains, store appointments on the chip instead of trying to remember them and do calculations so quickly and easily, they will never need a calculator again. This story is badly misguided, presuming that a chip that can do things that we already have in our phones constitutes a breakthrough “enhancement” that will change the world.
Andy Warhol once said that he wanted to be a machine, and that it would be a lot easier to be a machine — if something broke, you could just replace it.
Even though small wounds and injuries heal, this has not been the case for humans. If something were inherently broken, it would stay broken therest of our lives. Which relates to another common saying: The only two things in this world that are certain are death and taxes.
For the transhumanist movement, this is not thecase. Transhumanists believe that humankind can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations to become “superhuman” and, eventually, immortal. One of the most prominent members of the movement is Zoltan Istvan, founder of the Transhumanist Party and 2016 third-party presidential candidate.
For Istvan, aging and death are the biggest plague of our time. The party is proposing a transhumanist bill of rights that states that it should be illegal to stop research on longevity and eternal rights based on religious and ethical reasons.