Imagine in a Million Years: Cyborgs vs. “Surviving Humans”

Most species are short-lived. They die out, split into new species, or change over time due to random mutations and environmental changes. A typical species of mammal can be expected to exist for a million years. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, have been around for about 300,000 years. So what will happen if we reach a million years?

Science fiction author HG Wells was the first to realize that humans could evolve into something very alien. In his 1883 essay “Man in the year million,” he imagined what has become a cliché: creatures with huge brains and tiny bodies. Later, he hypothesized that humans could also split into two or more new species.

While Wells’ models of evolution have not stood the test of time, the three basic options he considered are still valid. We could become extinct, transform into several species or change.

An additional ingredient is that we have the biotechnology that could significantly increase the likelihood of each of them. Technologies of the foreseeable future, such as human enhancement (making us smarter, stronger, or otherwise better using drugs, microchips, genetics, or other technologies ), brain emulation (uploading our brains to computers) or artificial intelligence (AI) can produce technological forms of new species that do not exist in biology.

Software intelligence and AI

It is impossible to predict the future perfectly. It depends on fundamentally random factors: ideas and actions, as well as currently unknown technological and biological limits. But it’s my job to explore the possibilities, and I think the most likely case is vast ‘speciation’ – when one species splits into several others.

There are many of us who wish to improve the human condition – by slowing and abolishing aging, improving intelligence and mood, and modifying bodies – which could lead to new species.

These visions, however, leave many people cold. It is plausible that even if these technologies become as cheap and ubiquitous as cell phones, some people will reject them on principle and build their image as “normal” humans. In the long term, we should expect the most improved people, generation after generation (or upgrade after upgrade), to become one or more fundamentally different “posthuman” species – and a species of resisters declaring themselves the “real humans”.

With brain emulation, a speculative technology that involves scanning a brain at the cellular level and then reconstructing an equivalent neural network in a computer to create “software intelligence,” we could go even further. It’s not a simple speciation, it’s leaving the animal kingdom for the mineral kingdom, or rather software.

There are many reasons one might want to do this, such as increasing the chances of immortality (by creating copies and backups) or facilitating internet or radio travel in space.

Software intelligence also has other advantages. It can be very resource-efficient: a virtual being only needs energy from the sun and some rocky materials to make microchips. She can also think and change on the time scale set by the calculation, probably millions of times faster than biological minds. It can evolve in new ways – all it needs is a software update.

Still, humanity may be unlikely to remain the only intelligent species on the planet. Artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly at the moment. Although there are deep uncertainties and disagreements as to when or if it will become conscious, general artificial intelligence (meaning it can understand or learn any intellectual problem like a human, rather than specialize in niche tasks) will happen, a sizable fraction of experts believe it is possible in this century or earlier.

If it can happen, it probably will. At some point, we’re likely to have a planet where humans have been largely replaced by software intelligence or AI – or a combination of both.

Utopia or dystopia?

Eventually, it seems plausible that most minds will turn into software. Research suggests that computers will soon become much more energy efficient than they are now. Software spirits won’t need to eat or drink, which are inefficient ways to get energy, and they can save energy by running slower during the day.

This means that we should be able to get many more artificial minds per kilogram of matter and per watt of solar energy than human minds in the distant future. And since they can change quickly, we should expect them to change a lot over time from our current mindset.

Physical beings have a distinct disadvantage to software beings, moving through the slow and picturesque world of matter. Nevertheless, they are self-contained, unlike flying software which evaporates if their data center is disrupted.

“Natural” humans may remain in traditional societies very different from those of software people. This is not unlike the Amish of today, whose modest way of life is still enabled (and protected) by the surrounding United States. It is not a given that surrounding societies should crush small and primitive societies: we have established human rights and legal protections and something similar could continue for normal humans.

Is this a good future? It depends a lot on your values. A good life can involve having meaningful relationships with other people and living sustainably in a peaceful and prosperous environment. From this point of view, bizarre post-humans are not necessary; we just have to make sure that the quiet little village can function (perhaps protected by invisible automatisms).

Some may value “the human project”, an unbroken chain from our Paleolithic ancestors to our future selves, but be open to progress. They would probably consider software and AI going too far, but would be fine with humans evolving into weird new forms.

Others would say that what matters is freedom of expression and achieving one’s life goals. They may think we should explore the posthuman world widely and see what it has to offer.

Still others value happiness, thought, or other qualities possessed by different entities and desire a future that maximizes them. Some may be uncertain and argue that we should hedge our bets by going all the way to some degree.

Dyson Sphere?

Here is a prediction for the year 1,000,000. Some humans look more or less like us, but there are fewer of them than today. Much of the surface is wild and has turned into a rewilding area, as agriculture and cities are much less needed there.

Here and there, cultural sites with very different ecosystems appear, carefully preserved by robots for historical or aesthetic reasons.

Beneath the silicon vaults of the Sahara, trillions of artificial spirits swarm. The vast, hot data centers that power these minds once threatened to overheat the planet. Today, most orbit around the Sun, forming a growing structure – a Dyson sphere – where every watt of energy powers thought, consciousness, complexity and other weird stuff we don’t yet have. of words.

If biological humans are going extinct, the most likely reason (apart from the obvious and immediate current threats) is lack of respect, tolerance, and binding contracts with other post-human species. Maybe a reason for us to start treating our own minorities as superior beings.

Anders Sandberg, James Martin Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute & Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford.

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