2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

[ print ]

Independent Researcher; Author, The Princeton Field Guide of Dinosaurs
THE FIRST MAJOR UPGRADE OF THE HUMAN BRAIN AND THE MIND IT GENERATES SINCE THE PLEISTOCENE

Predicting what has the potential to change everything — really change everything — in this century is not difficult. What I cannot know is whether I will live to see it, the data needed to reliably calculate the span of my mind's existence being insufficient.

According to the current norm I can expect to last another third of century. Perhaps more if I match my grandmother's life span — born in a Mormon frontier town the same year Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Etta Place sailed for Argentina, she happily celebrated her 100th birthday in 2001. But my existence may exceed the natural ceiling. Modern medicine has maximized life spans by merely inhibiting premature death. Sooner or later that will become passé as advancing technology renders death optional.

Evolution whether biological or technological has been speeding up over time as the ability to acquire, process and exploit information builds upon itself. Human minds adapted to comprehend arithmetic growth tend to underestimate exponential future progress. Born two years before the Wright's first flight, my young grandmother never imagined she would cross continents and oceans in near sonic flying machines. Even out of the box thinkers did not predict the hyperexpansion of computing power over the last half century. It looks like medicine is about to undergo a similar explosion. Extracellular matrix powder derived from pig bladders can regrow a chopped off finger with a brand new tip complete with nail. Why not regenerate entire human arms and legs, and organs?

DARPA funded researchers predict that we may soon be "replacing damaged and diseased body parts at will, perhaps indefinitely." Medical corporations foresee a gold mine in repairing and replacing defective organs using the cells from the victims' own body (avoiding the whole rejection problem). If assorted body parts ravaged by age can be reconstructed with tissues biologically as young and healthy as those of children, then those with the will and resources will reconstruct their entire bodies.

Even better is stopping and then reversing the very process of aging. Humans, like parrots, live exceptionally long lives because we are genetically endowed with unusually good cellular repair mechanisms for correcting the damage created by free radicals. Lured by the enormous market potential, drugs are being developed to tweak genes to further upgrade the human repair system. Other pharmaceuticals are expected to mimic the life extension that appears to stem from the body's protective reaction to suppressed caloric intake. It's quite possible, albeit not certain, that middle-aged humans will be able to utilize the above methods to extend their lives indefinitely. But keeping our obsolescing primate bodies and brains up and running for centuries and millennia will not be the Big Show.

The human brain and the mind it generates have not undergone a major upgrade since the Pleistocene. And they violate the basic safety rule of information processing — that it is necessary to back up the data. Something more sophisticated and redundant is required. With computing power doubling every year or two cheap personal computers should match the raw processing power of the human brain in a couple of decades, and then leave it in the dust.

If so, it should be possible to use alternative, technological means to produce conscious thought. Efforts are already underway to replace damaged brain parts such as the hippocampus with hypercomputer implants. If and when the initial medical imperative is met, elective implants will undoubtedly be used to upgrade normal brain operations. As the fast evolving devices improve they will begin to outperform the original brain, it will make less and less sense to continue to do one's thinking in the old biological clunker, and formerly human minds will become entirely artificial as they move into ultra sophisticated, dispersed robot systems.

Assuming that the above developments are practical, technological progress will not merely improve the human condition, it should replace it. The conceit that humans in anything like their present form will be able to compete in a world of immortal superminds with unlimited intellectual capacity is naïve; there simply will not be much for people to do. Do not for a minute imagine a society of crude Terminators, or Datas that crave to be as human as possible. Future robots will be devices of subtle sophistication and sensitivity that will expose humans as the big brained apes we truly are. The logic predicts that most humans will choose to become robotic.

Stopping the CyberRevolution is probably not possible, the growing knowledge base should make the production of superintelligent minds less difficult and much faster than is replicating, growing and educating human beings. Trying to ban the technology will work as well as the war on drugs. The replacement of humanity with a more advanced system will be yet another evolutionary event on the scale of the Cambrian revolution, the Permian and K/C extinctions that produced and killed off the nonavian dinosaurs, and the advent of humans and the industrial age.

The scenario herein is not radical or particularly speculative, it seems so only because it has not happened yet. If the robotic civilization comes to pass it will quickly become mundane to us. The ability of cognitive minds to adjust is endless.

Here's a pleasant secondary effect — supernaturalistic religion will evaporate as ordinary minds become as powerful as gods. What will the cybersociety be like? Hardly have a clue. How much of this will I live to see? I'll find out.